There's a shortage of substitute teachers at Island schools

Some teachers are concerned that the drop in the number of available substitutes on P.E.I. is putting a strain on the whole school system.

'As a teacher, you want to have the best possible person in here when you're not here'

The uncertainty of getting a call for work each day has caused some substitute teachers to look for regular shifts in different lines of work. (Laura Meader/CBC)

Some Island teachers say a shortage of substitutes is putting a strain on staff.

Bethany MacLeod, president of the Prince Edward Island Teachers' Federation, says teachers are coming in sick and missing medical appointments because of the shortage.

"We are hearing cases where administrators are filling in for part of the day, or adjusting schedules to ensure that classes are covered," MacLeod said. "This puts great pressure on the administrators and teachers."

She said teachers are also missing out on professional development activities, because there aren't enough suitable replacements available to cover for them.  

"It means I have to figure it out on my own, or ask other teachers," said Colonel Gray High School teacher Greg Chandler.  

He was hoping to take advantage of a professional development session this week, but after more than a dozen phone calls to substitutes, couldn't find anyone to fill in for him.

"Not a terrible emergency but at the same time it would have been nice to get the professional advice."
Colonel Gray High School teacher Greg Chandler said when he started out as a substitute teacher in 2009, there wasn't always a lot of work. He said now it can be hard to find an available substitute. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC)

Chandler said when he started out as a substitute teacher in 2009, there wasn't always a lot of work. But with the growing population and the growing needs of students, more teachers have been hired, depleting the pool of substitute teachers, and that's not an ideal scenario for students or staff.

"As a teacher, you want to have the best possible person in here when you're not here," Chandler said.

As a teacher, you want to have the best possible person in here when you're not here— Greg Chandler

"If you don't know who is coming or you can't get a sub covered, it can really affect the learning of the students and the flow of the class and any sort of schedule you've set for yourself and your students."

For Island substitute teachers, the shortage represents consistency and job security that haven't always been a part of the role. Morgan Hennessey has been at it for several years, and says, these days, it's nice to know the work is there.

"Sometimes I have to tell them that I'm not available and I have to turn down some offers," he said of the calls for work he's been getting in the past year.
The recent hiring of more teachers for schools across the Island has added to the depletion of the substitute teachers pool. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC)

Hennessey believes that education graduates are increasingly choosing not to stay on the Island, and leaving in search of better opportunities elsewhere.

"I think, unfortunately, in the past few years job prospects for teachers have not looked the best, and so I think a lot are getting out of the game and I think a lot of substitute teachers are looking for other things," Hennessey said.  "Those of us who are staying in and staying committed, I guess now we are reaping the benefits."

Invest in the substitutes for the future

Hennessey believes the uncertainty of substitute teaching is part of the problem, and said establishing a minimum of weekly hours for substitute teachers could encourage more people, especially recent graduates, to stick around.

"They need to feel that any time they invest now, in the short-term, will turn into a job," he said. "They are willing to put in a year or two, doing the rounds, to get their name into places. They understand that a job is not going to be right out of the door, but they need to feel like it is in sight."
Substitute teacher Morgan Hennessey said he has to turn down backfill requests as he is often already working. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC)

Parker Grimmer, director of the Public Schools Branch, says the shortage isn't limited to substitute teachers — there's also an increased demand for administrators, bus drivers, custodians and others. He said the problem is complex.

We don't have all the answers but we know that by having conversations with people and discussing and listening that we may get some answers.— Parker Grimmer

"We don't have all the answers but we know that by having conversations with people and discussing and listening that we may get some answers and there may be ways that we partner further with universities, and with pre-service teachers, to co-operate in this way to solve this."

He said schools across Canada are facing similar shortages, and looking at new ways to retain substitute teachers, like the idea of hiring a specific sub for each school or a group of schools.

Grimmer said the province continues to create new positions for Island teachers, and every change has rippled effects that take time to identify and address.  

"Those new employees had to come from somewhere and in many cases they came from our substitute pool," he said.

Academic yearNumber of certified substitute teachers
2017-18410
2016-17521
2015-16548

The province currently has 410 certified substitute teachers, some of which are retired teachers, but not all of them are available all the time, or willing to travel to every school. An additional 60 individuals are not certified but are permitted to work in schools as substitute teachers.
There are nearly 140 fewer substitute teachers in the system since the 2015 -2016 school year. (Laura Meader/CBC)

Grimmer said a lot of effort it put into connecting with UPEI students in the education program, and he believes plenty is done to support recent graduates here on PEI.

"When we go out to talk to pre-service teachers our message is, we're excited they've made this choice, we look forward to working with them and we need them." 

Working conditions a shared responsibility

The teachers' federation says addressing the shortage is a shared responsibility.  

We need to better co-ordinate these events to reduce the stress on the supply of substitute teachers.— Bethany MacLeod

"All stakeholders — the department, the boards, and the union — would have reasons to have teachers out, whether it be for in-service, training, or meetings." MacLeod said.

"We need to better co-ordinate these events to reduce the stress on the supply of substitute teachers."

She said negotiations for a new collective agreement with the province and substitute teachers will soon be underway, and working conditions for all teachers will be among the topics of discussion.

MORE P.E.I. NEWS

With files from John Robertson

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