Public schools in Nova Scotia are in crisis.

That was the message delivered to the province’s standing committee on human resources Tuesday afternoon by the president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) and teachers representing Educators for Social Justice.

“Our schools are in crisis every day because we do not have the right number of substitute teachers. They (teachers) are being pulled from our most vulnerable kids,” NSTU president Ryan Lutes told the committee. 

“Our teachers are overworked because of it. It is a crisis. It’s a crisis that requires government action, in my view, today.”

Lutes said it’s no secret the past months and years have been challenging for schools. 

“A perfect storm of population growth coupled with a COVID pandemic and now the current respiratory illness increase has only served to exacerbate a teaching shortage that has been building for nearly a decade,” he said.

The focus of Tuesday’s meeting was teacher workloads and impact on student achievement, and teacher recruitment and retention.

“A true recruitment and retention plan must place a significant focus on improving teachers’ working conditions, decreasing class sizes, increasing prep time, and increasing supports to our most vulnerable students,” Lutes said.

‘Not a return to normal’

Although NSTU’s teachers, guidance counsellors, and specialists are grateful to be back in classrooms, Lutes said “this is not a return to normal.”

Due to a chronic shortage of qualified substitute teachers, Lutes said teachers are having to give up already inadequate prep time. They’re finding it increasingly difficult to develop the kinds of “rich learning experiences” that leave a lasting impact on students. 

“Without this (prep) time, teachers are struggling to make connections with home, provide timely feedback to students, and connect with other teaching colleagues to discuss how to best support our kids,” Lutes said.

Lutes said guidance counsellors, learning centre, and resource teachers and others who work with the most vulnerable students are often the ones filling in for absent colleagues at the expense of students who need extra support. 

“Ultimately it’s student learning and student support and teacher workload that is the casualty of our teacher shortage,” Lutes said. 

Teacher Megan Neaves addressed the committee on behalf of Educators for Social Justice and began by acknowledging that teachers aren’t the only ones struggling. She pointed to health care workers, childcare workers, long term care workers, people facing housing issues, and others who are all in crisis. 

“But that does not take away from the fact that the problems that we are seeing in Primary to 12 education are real,” Neaves said.

Neaves said the substitute teacher shortage results in children losing access to the resources created to help them succeed

‘A continuing cycle’

She also told the committee that in her years of teaching, she’s never seen such a high level of absenteeism impacting both teacher and student attendance.

“I can only speak to my experience but…there was one day we were down 20% of our school due to sickness and illness this year. Just a couple of weeks ago I had eight kids missing from one class. I don’t know the exact numbers for the other ones, but very high numbers,” Neaves said.

“It’s a continuing cycle because then when we’re getting better and returning to school, we now don’t have the prep time because we’re covering for the teachers that are now out and this has literally been happening all year long and it’s hard to get our prep time back because of the sub shortage.”

Neaves said she frequently hears from other teachers frustrated about constantly having things added to their plates while “nothing is ever taken off.” She described teachers as “burnt out” from trying to fulfill all their required duties, a task she described as “impossible” without extra time.

“Today, in addition to delivering quality lessons, we are planning for the success of students living with autism, Down syndrome, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, ADHD, behavioural issues, etc. while communicating with parents, assessing and reporting along the way,” Neaves said. 

“When we improve learning conditions for these students, we improve learning conditions for all of our students.”

Continuing to work on teacher recruitment and retention

Department of Education and Early Childhood Development Associate Deputy Minister Elwin LeRoux told the committee that this year, 129,121 students were registered in the province’s public schools. That represents a year over year increase of almost 4,000 students.

LeRoux said there are currently about 10,000 teachers in the province and 2,600 substitute teachers, including 400 new teachers hired for this school year. 

He added that while the department has been successful in hiring more teachers, they’re continuing to work on recruiting and retaining teachers. He pointed to the establishment of a teacher recruitment and retention working group and the addition of 1,000 inclusive education supports, programs and positions to the public school system over the last five years.

LeRoux highlighted an initiative that saw the number of days retired teachers can substitute increase from 69.5 to 99.5 days, and pointed to the issuing of close to 450 permits last year to allow qualifying people with university degrees (but not a Bachelor of Education degree) to substitute teach in public schools. 

So far this school year they’ve issued 230 such permits. 

“I also want to let you know that one of the recruiting strategies includes permanent positions for substitute teachers. They do exist. Several regions have determined that is part of our solution forward,” LeRoux said. 

“So, they have permanent substitutes who for all intents and purposes, you can think of them as a teacher hired for the year. Itinerant in a family (of schools), itinerant in a geographical area or in some other designated area of need.”

Lowest paid in the Atlantic provinces

Teacher Paul Lenarczyk with Educators for Social Justice told the committee that increased teacher burnout means higher costs for the province and its centres for education, lower achievement for students, and a struggle to meet the high standards set by the department.

He said the workload also discourages many from joining the profession.

Among the issues Lenarczyk said need to be addressed is the fact that Nova Scotia substitute teachers are the lowest paid in the Atlantic provinces. 

“And yet they are being relied on more heavily, more and more heavily, to prop up the system, which is suffering because teachers are suffering from burnout,” he said.

“But a bigger issue is benefits and job security for the subs. Fewer people choose this career because they see what the realities are while they’re doing their subbing or their teaching internships.”

Lenarczyk said improved hiring practices, better compensation for substitute teachers, and providing teachers with more prep time so they can better understand the needs of their classrooms are all necessary to turn things around. 

“Proper care for the education system needs to be part of the path to solving Nova Scotia’s societal and systemic problems, from the acknowledgement of historic wrongs to segments of our population through culturally relevant pedagogy and providing quality, equitable education to all of our students,” he said.

“Improving education is a clear way forward and can help resolve numerous systemic problems in our province, and I believe we all need to work together to make this happen.”

‘Broken under the weight of an untenable workload’

Speaking again on behalf of the NSTU, Lutes said looking at recruitment and retention of teachers without looking at classroom conditions is “failing before it even gets out of the gate.” 

He said while there are teachers in every classroom and people who hold permits to teach, he doubts there are qualified teachers in every classroom in the province.

“As a parent, when I send my kids to school, I expect them to be taught by a certified teacher with a Bachelor of Education degree,” Lutes said.

“And if we’ve gotten to a place in our system where I can’t as a parent expect that, then I think that that is a description of a system that isn’t keeping its bargain with parents and kids.”

Lutes appeared emotional as he ended his remarks to the committee by reading a letter he received that he said highlighted the extent to which the crisis is impacting teachers:

I’ve been sick with the flu for nearly two weeks. In a working system, one consistent sub would be available to take over my class with minimal disruption in the day to day flow for the students. 

But in our broken system, teachers are being pulled from their precious prep time to cover for me and the many others who are currently sick at home. There is zero consistency in the classroom and my colleagues are stretched past their breaking point. 

As soon as I get back the same will go for me. I’m planning already to not have any prep time, which means that all the work that has piled up in my absence will sit on my desk unmarked for however long, and the kids will be stocked with half baked lessons from a teacher trying to hold it together. 

We’re sick with viruses and we’re broken under the weight of an untenable workload. I can’t wait to see my students when I get back. They’re wonderful and hilarious and unique and full of so much potential. But no matter how much skill, effort and love I put into my work, they’re getting nowhere near the attention they deserve. 

“I hope that you’re able to hear the hope that teachers have, the love that they have for their kids and the admiration that they have for the system,” Lutes said in conclusion.

“They are here because they want to make a difference, but they’re not superheroes and they are begging for your help.”

A smiling white woman with long straight dark blonde hair and bangs, with half her face in dramatic shadow

Yvette d'Entremont

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor, covering the COVID-19 pandemic and health issues. Twitter @ydentremont

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  1. Bravo to Megan, Paul and Ryan for so vividly describing the situation in Nova Scotia schools today! Interesting that the department spokesperson, Elwin LeRoux painted a completely different picture…particularly when he seems to expect kudos for their hiring of teachers without training to do substitute work. This highlights the crux of the problem – the belief of some government folk that the 2 years of training that teachers go through to get a BEd. is worth basically nothing – that anyone can walk into a class of 30 kids and actually teach effectively. Anyone who has ever substitute taught knows that it’s not that easy! So, when I hear two opposing viewpoints, I tend to give more credence to the one presented by those actually on the ground – in this case those actually working in the schools. The letter from the sick teacher is not an aberration.

    1. I agree that teachers are overworked, and underpaid.
      However, I actually do not think that those with a BEd are the only ones qualified to teach our children. There are many support staff in schools teaching special needs children without a degree and doing a fine job of it. There are also parents who homeschool, and teachers in private schools without a BEd but have another degree and more practical experience. There is more than one way to teach and saying there is not, is saying every other way except the one used by public schools is wrong. Perhaps it’s time the public school system starts thinking outside the box and is revamped entirely, instead of being stuck in the dark ages while the world around it is constantly changing and evolving.