Calgary

Substitute teachers call out CBE for emails 'threatening' termination if they don't take on more work

Substitute teachers for the Calgary Board of Education say they feel letters sent home telling them how much they'd worked this school year served only to intimidate them. Some subs say they were even threatened with termination if they didn't meet the district's expectations when it comes to the number of shifts they accept.

'I'll be resigning. That's how much this has affected me,' says one teacher

The Calgary Board of Education sent letters to substitute teachers on Thursday that are causing many questions and concerns. (Halfpoint/Shutterstock)

Substitute teachers for the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) say they feel letters sent home telling them how much they'd worked this school year served only to intimidate them.

Some subs said they were even threatened with termination if they didn't meet the CBE's expectations when it came to the number of shifts they would accept.

Daylan Miller said that like many substitute teachers this year, he's been pickier than usual about accepting jobs.

Miller said he did not want to expose himself to too many people, and has taken a few days off when experiencing illness or COVID-19 symptoms, as per provincial requirements.

He said it felt like a punch in the gut when he opened an email from the school board on Thursday.

"They basically said, if you don't work more, we're firing you. And it doesn't matter if it's an unsafe work position, it doesn't matter what Alberta Health has said, if you don't work more for us, we're doing an internal review in March and you probably won't be here," he said. "That's gross."

The letter to Miller from CBE said the system needs substitute teachers who are willing and able to accept assignments.

"Your contract with the Calgary Board of Education as a substitute teacher will be reviewed in the spring of 2021 and may be terminated if you are unwilling to accept jobs, and you have not provided medical documentation," it reads.

"If we determine that you have failed to fulfil our minimum expectations for substitute teachers, you will not be rehired."

No one from the CBE was made available for an interview, but in an emailed statement to the CBC News, the school district said it recognizes that the letters have prompted questions and concerns.

"It has been particularly important this school year that our substitutes are available and willing to accept assignments, and these letters were emailed to help identify their current work patterns and provide feedback," reads the statement.

"This was not intended as a warning to people of impending termination. These were mid-year statistics of employment. We deeply value our substitute teachers, and they are a crucial part of maintaining safe and healthy schools."

Substitute teacher Daylan Miller said it felt like the CBE was threatening termination, without considering the circumstances of working during a pandemic. (Contributed by Daylan Miller)

On Nov. 17, the CBE told CBC News that it had filled 94 per cent of substitute jobs this year, but that in the 10 preceding days that number had dropped to approximately 89 per cent.

Substitutes under stress

Another CBE substitute, who CBC News has agreed not to name as she fears retribution for speaking publicly, said she's been subbing for the district for nearly a decade.

She said this is the first time substitutes have ever received this type of communication.

"Never, not once," she said. "The amount of stress that this letter caused myself last night, as well as numerous other teachers, numerous other subs, it's ridiculous."

Substitutes said the CBE letters provided them with a percentage of the days they accepted a teaching job in relation to the days they had indicated they were available to sub — and by their calculations, the numbers are off. 

"I was really angry because I work a lot and I put in a lot of time subbing, and then they sent me this letter saying that I've worked 55 per cent of the time, which is absolutely ridiculous. I've definitely worked way more than that," said the teacher.

"I don't know how they're calculating any of the information. When there's a professional day, subs are not required to be in schools, because it's just for staff, but we're [being] penalized for not being in schools."

The teacher said that she had to take two weeks off because she was sick — and that when subs are sick, they're penalized.

"There was no way I could work, because we're not supposed to work when we're sick with COVID and penalized for that," she said. "So it doesn't matter really what anybody is doing. The subs are getting the short end of the stick."

The subs are getting the short end of the stick,- CBE substitute teacher

The CBE said it recognizes that these percentages caused confusion.

"Each letter included a percentage instead of days worked and there has been confusion regarding the accuracy. Some have asked us to reconsider these percentages due to personal circumstances, and we are working through these requests," it said.

"Factors such as being unavailable due to illness, displaying COVID-19 symptoms or being quarantined will be taken into account during our reviews in March. Substitutes have been reminded of the need to advise us if these or other valid circumstances occur."

A third teacher, who CBC News also agreed not to name as she fears impacts to her employment, said the CBE is a very "arrogant employer."

"They're kind of like, the only game in town. If you want to be a teacher and you're not Catholic, there's very few other options," she said. "So whether you're a teacher, whether you're a sub pre-COVID or during COVID, they tend to be very much our way or the highway."

'I'll be resigning'

This teacher said she's just spent two full months in a single school, and felt the letter from the CBE was out of line.

She said the messaging went from an open-ended "monitor yourself and do what's right for you and your family" to "if you don't do it our way, you're going to lose your job."

"That happened almost overnight, or so it seemed," she said. "It's very preachy at the start, telling you what your responsibilities are, as if you didn't already know that, and then basically threatening you that if you don't fall into line, then the odds of you being employed past the spring is pretty low."

She said after what she's seen from administration this year, she's had enough.

"Once I sort out my pay issues with the CBE, I'll be resigning. That's how much this has affected me. I'm not prepared to keep working for them," she said.

Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teacher's Association, said unlike the administrators who sent these letters, substitute teachers don't have the job security of sick days.

"I'm disappointed by that tone. I think that we need to show more grace to people who are working [during] a pandemic," he said. 

"Substitute teachers are vital to the system, and we need to be able to find ways to work with them to ensure that their safety is taken care of, that their income and their benefit security is taken care of."

Alberta Teachers Association president Jason Schilling says the tone of the emails from the CBE was disappointing. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Miller said it's frustrating to receive these letters, especially when those sending them can likely work from home.

"The irony is, is that this email that got sent to the substitutes may very well have been sent from home by somebody asking substitutes to not only go out into this world, but to do it different schools day after day," he said. 

Experiences at other districts

Miller, who also substitutes for two other districts including the Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD), said the substitute teachers at other boards are being treated better.

"Their expectations are realistic and they're happy to have you. And it sounds kind of cheesy, but they'll send you emails saying, 'Great job, everybody, we appreciate you,'" he said.

"I'm not the only one who feels that way, right. There's a ton of people who just are not impressed with the CBE and how they've dealt with all of this. It just seems like we're a scapegoat for all of it."

Schilling said instead of sending this kind of letter, which in his view causes conflict, the CBE could have sent substitute teachers something more proactive.

"How can we work with you to get you to take more jobs? How can we work with you to ensure that we are able to supply the support that we need for our schools? Instead of something that seems to be [like] a punishment," he said.

He said substitutes shouldn't be blamed for being more cautious this year, especially since many — like the third teacher — have had their ability to teach hampered because they were exposed to COVID-19 at a CBE school.

"I was under quarantine for two weeks because of a COVID contact with a student, and then the day after my term ended, I was put on quarantine again because of contact with a student," the teacher said.

The CBE said its substitute teacher handbook guidelines state that the board expects substitute teachers to be available and working for a minimum of three full days on average, but there are exceptions for those with medical documentation.

"If this condition is not met, it could lead to removal from the substitute teacher roster later in the school year. This was communicated to all substitutes in October after initially indicating we would waive this requirement," said the board.

"[These] statements were sent to ensure our roster is aware of the total percent worked of the days they have been available so far this year."

The CBE said that in situations where substitutes have not been available to work, contracts can be ended if they fail to meet minimum requirements for days worked.

"In situations where substitutes have met expectations, it offered commendation," the CBE said.

The CBE has roughly 1,740 teachers on their substitute teacher roster.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lucie Edwardson

Journalist

Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary, currently focused on bringing you stories related to education in Alberta. In 2018 she headed a pop-up bureau in Lethbridge, Alta. Her experience includes newspaper, online, TV and radio. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson

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