A recent Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) survey suggests teachers are concerned about the impact the province’s ongoing teacher shortage is having on the most vulnerable students.

The poll was completed by 1,936 of the union’s 10,000 members between Oct. 21-31. In addition to a series of survey questions, teachers were asked to give examples of how the shortage is impacting their students. 

In a media release Thursday, the NSTU said teachers who responded were concerned that those specializing in providing support to vulnerable students “are often first to be pulled away from their normal duties to fill-in for a colleague.”

One teacher wrote that having resource teachers, early literacy support teachers, and school counsellors covering other classrooms while teachers are out results in “less intervention for those who need it most.”

A literacy support teacher shared that they were one of the first asked to cover for a teacher whenever substitutes were unavailable. 

“This leaves the students I am supposed to be working with without support,” the teacher wrote. “The students I support every day are vulnerable for a variety of reasons and should not be at a disadvantage because of these shortages.”

The union’s president Ryan Lutes said he wants the provincial government to actively address a worsening shortage he described as having a “profound impact” on students and school safety. In March, the union called for increased staffing and a provincial strategy to address increased school violence.

‘Our kids can’t wait’

The NSTU has been demanding the province develop a teacher recruitment and retention strategy, in addition to increasing pay for substitute teachers. The union said Nova Scotia’s substitute teachers are currently among the lowest paid in Canada. 

As reported here, Lutes told a provincial standing committee last November that schools are in crisis “every day” due to the lack of substitute teachers. That meeting focused on teacher workloads and the impact on student achievement, along with teacher recruitment and retention.  

“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,” Lutes told the committee last year. 

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

In Thursday’s media release, Lutes said the shortage is making it “increasingly difficult” for teachers to develop and prepare learning experiences that leave a lasting impression. 

“At the same time kids in crisis, or those who are the most vulnerable are not always able to get the enhanced one-on-one attention they require,” Lutes said in the release. “Our kids can’t wait, we need to address the shortage now, so every student can get the support they both need and deserve.”

Among respondents to the recent NSTU survey, 81% said they’ve felt pressure to attend school while feeling sick, or to cancel medical appointments due to the lack of teachers. In addition, 70% said that since 2022 they’ve lost marking and prep time to cover for a colleague who’s absent. Also, 29% indicated they’d been asked to supervise multiple classrooms simultaneously as a result of the teacher shortage.

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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  1. I received my NS teachers license in 2007. There were a million of me at the time (it felt like….but more like 4000, I think) desperate for any teaching work, student loans to pay. I worked hard for five years as a substitute and term contract teacher in HRCE and AVRCE. I served two years on the NSTU provincial substitute teacher committee. In 2012, I gave up on teaching. A permanent contract looked like it would never come. I was disillusioned and broke. Everyone looked at me in shock, it seemed, when I started a new career. How long exactly did people expect me to work for a shockingly low amount of pay, no promise of income whatsoever, no benefits and complete disrespect? A substitute teacher who works as much as they possibly can during a school year basically makes the same as a minimum wage employee working full time. Approximately $30-32k per year. After six years of university! No wonder there aren’t any substitute teachers! I have been saying this FOREVER but it doesn’t seem like anyone cares about the very, very obvious solution to this substitute shortage: Hire substitute teachers on a contract at each school and pay them a salary at around 65-70% of a regular teacher’s salary. The schools all have data on how many substitute days they generally need per year to assist in determining need. Put contract substitutes on a circuit (so if they aren’t needed at their assigned school on a particular day, they can be utilized by another area school that needs them). Show substitute teachers a shred of respect by providing a liveable wage, health plan and steady pay cheque. Substitute teachers thrive when they are a daily part of a school and establish connections with students and staff. It’s better for everyone involved!

  2. The biggest contributing factor to the teacher shortage is the ongoing COVID pandemic; a fact which is studiously avoided by governments, businesses, unions, and virtually every other institution. Yet SARS-CoV-2 is classified as a ‘high threat’ Biosafety Level 3 (BSL3) pathogen; this grouping includes tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and rabies. This is a workplace health and safety issue; the NSTU needs to demand that the government make schools safe work environments by mandating N95 masks, and ensuring proper HEPA air filtration and ventilation. These are simple, inexpensive safety measures already used by engineers in other environments. The levels of absenteeism and teachers leaving the profession caused by both acute COVID infection and long COVID are unsustainable; the teacher shortage can’t be resolved without bringing COVID under control.

  3. First, there are more than enough responses available to deal with violence in schools. What Mr. Lutes doesn’t mention is what IS being done that IS NOT working. Behind mis-behaving students there are reasons for why they act out as they do. Do administrators suss this out? Do they assess lagging skills? Do they sit with parents , students and staff and draft a “cooperative planning strategy”? Are “unsolved problems” identified? Adding more teachers and e.a.’s will not address the “violence” issue.Avis Glaze was aware of the disconnect (the silos) in education and she recommended that the Dept. of Ed. get people out of the offices and into the classrooms; that never happened. Teachers who are mandated to offer differentiated instruction could use the additional support, but the Dept.of Ed. did not respond as required. So, there is no help for the teacher whose RESPONSIBILITY IT IS to differentiate. The classroom teacher needs a co-teacher who will help with planning and offering of bespoke instruction. Because this is not happening, inclusion is not working either. You cannot be inclusive if you do not offer differentiated instruction. All three members of the Commission on Inclusion acknowledged this, so why hasn’t this gap been addressed by Dept. of Ed.? (Answer: it is too messy a problem.)Politicians have referred to this as “the elephant in the room”. Well, it’s still an elephant.
    Mr. Lutes and a teacher identified that resource staff are usually the first to be pulled away from their duties when teacher availability situations arise. This is a decision made by administration at school level. If the incidence of this is high, then how do administrators justify negation of the inclusion policy?
    As a retired teacher and a student advocate, I am pleased to see the Examiner delve into these matters in education. Here is an idea that could immediately help with ,(I hate to use this word that so frequently occurs in ed. dept. documents but I will) “ensuring” that students receive the educational program that the system has said they would? Suppose two full-time administrators in a school; assign each of them to two and one-half to three hrs. of teaching time four out of five days. This would be seasoned educators working with cl. teachers as co-teachers. Add one or two people from the Dept. of Ed. working 3 days a week in that school as a co-teacher. All would be certified teachers with B. Ed. minimum and administrators could be scheduled so that one would be ‘in the office’ while the other was in the classroom. I do not expect that this would be tried, but it is true that there are many non-teaching teachers who could help alleviate existing shortages in the classrooms.
    Parents ought to closely examine what their child’s educational program actually looks like. The results of the survey conducted by the NSTU indicates that educational programs are being compromised, and that means students are not getting what the EECD “ensures”.

  4. The pattern is facinating. 30 years ago we had way too many teachers. 20 years ago we had too few. 10 years ago – too many. And now – too few. They need to even out the ups and downs and everything will be fine. It’s not only in NS. Same thing was happening in Ontario when we were there.