Teacher shortages are leaving educators with no ‘good options’ — and they say students are paying the price

Amid a worsening teacher shortage, filling staffing holes is a daily balancing act for many school administrators — with consequences that are felt in the classrooms. 

An elementary principal, for instance, might have to decide “whether they cancel subjects like music or phys ed; whether they combine a Grade 3 class with a Grade 4 class,” says longtime Toronto principal Ralph Nigro. Or they may have to cancel teachers’ prep time, which is when they communicate with parents, mark assignments, prepare material for lessons, and carry out many more duties that support their work in the classroom. 

“None of these are good options, but they’re all options that have to be considered on a daily basis,” said Nigro, who is president of the Ontario Principals’ Council.

Canada’s teacher shortage isn’t a new phenomenon, but educators say it’s now hitting a crisis level across the country. Certain stopgap measures employed in the first few years of the pandemic — for instance, hiring staffers without formal education training, or leaning more heavily on retired teachers — are popping up again, but experts say this is a multi-faceted problem that requires more sustainable solutions.

COVID-19 worsened shortages

Canada has suffered for years from shortages of teachers and other educational staffers, such as educational assistants and resource teachers, but the impact has varied across the country. Rural and remote areas, for instance, have long struggled with the problem. 

WATCH | Principals’ daily struggles with educator shortages: 

How principals grapple with educator shortages daily

Ralph Nigro, a longtime Toronto principal and current head of the Ontario Principals’ Council, details the difficult balancing act school administrators face daily as they grapple with the staff shortage crisis.

The precarious employment of many newly graduated teachers — leading them to string together daily supply-teaching gigs or short-term contracts for years at a time — has also contributed to a high rate of teacher attrition: more than 30 per cent in the first five years in the profession, said Nathalie Reid, an education researcher at the University of Regina. 

However, COVID-19 made everything even worse.

The pandemic drove myriad senior classroom teachers to leave the profession early, and kept others home sick. Their retired colleagues, “who in the past might have come back to substitute teach two or three times a week,” made different choices, Reid said.

“They weren’t putting themselves at risk and coming into classrooms where COVID had been present, which is why the classroom teacher was out.”

The pandemic forced education systems into less-than-ideal options to mitigate staff shortages, from shuttering special education offerings to hiring adults without educator training to monitor classrooms. Some of these measures are short-term fixes that might at least get an adult into the room to mind students on a daily basis, but they aren’t real, sustainable solutions, Nigro said.

Instead, he says longer-term efforts are needed to attract new, trained teachers and keep them in the profession. Without them, ongoing staff shortages will continue to chip away at school routines, negatively impacting students and leading to further issues in classrooms, Nigro said.

“Young people need routine,” he said. “They need adults — the same adults in front of them on a daily basis — to build those trusting relationships. 

“We [are seeing] changes in behaviour in some cases. Our school leaders across the province are complaining that they’re seeing some gaps in learning … because of ongoing shortages. And what we are noticing in particular that is very concerning is that the staff shortages are having a disproportionate impact on students with special needs.”

WATCH | How can we tackle school staff shortages? Ask educators themselves, says researcher:

How can we tackle school staff shortages? Ask educators themselves, says researcher

University of Regina professor and education researcher Nathalie Reid says finding solutions to the Canada-wide shortage of teachers and education staffers must take both a bottom up and a national approach.

Seeking solutions 

When it comes to educating new teachers, Nigro suggests Ontario’s two-year teacher training could again be done in a single year. He’d also like to see flexibility in how that education happens, noting that part-time, evening, weekend and online studies would better accommodate potential new teachers working in other sectors.

He’d also like to see improvements for educational assistants, including better pay and financial incentives to attract more of these key, sorely needed school staffers.

The University of Regina’s Reid, who has taught high school in three different provinces, says recognizing certification across jurisdictions could potentially keep more teachers in the profession, because they could find work in new locations more easily.

Provincial and territorial ministries of education also “need to focus on the well-being of the practitioners, the educators in classrooms.” She adds that solutions should be sought from front-line educators, who are trained to deal with a myriad of classroom challenges. 

“[Teachers] think about this on the daily and they have ideas and answers and thoughts and potential solutions that would work for them,” she said. “I would very much encourage a more bottom-up approach.”

In Newfoundland and Labrador, a recent “Teacher Think Tank” hosted by the province’s Department of Education and the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association (NLTA) recently attempted just that. Teachers opened up about their daily experiences at the event in late February, with more than a third of the NLTA’s membership sharing their concerns and struggles in a questionnaire. The revelations resonated, according to the province’s education minister, Krista Lynn Howell. 

“We got to hear their accounts first hand and some of that was very emotional, very frank discussions,” she said. “There are simply not enough new teachers entering the profession to fill the gaps of those who are retiring.” 

One measure being explored is a housing stipend for teachers who work in remote communities, she said.

A woman in a black top and pink blazer smiles at the camera while standing in an indoor room, with the flags of Canada and of Newfoundland and Labrador behind her.
Newfoundland and Labrador Education Minister Krista Lynn Howell said the province is working to boost teacher numbers, and earmarked extra funding for student assistants in its 2024 budget. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Other important takeaways for Howell included the need for more consideration for teachers’ mental health, and for more student assistants to support complex needs in inclusive classrooms. Shortly after the event, the province announced $3 million to bolster student-assistant staffing in the provincial budget.

Still, the NLTA chided the government for failing to address other major issues raised, such as growing violence in schools and jam-packed classrooms.

“While the announcement of some additional supports immediately following the think tank gave us reason to hope that decision makers were listening, Budget 2024 has demonstrated the opposite,” the union said in a statement.

“You cannot expect to improve system outcomes by under-resourcing the very processes and structures that are meant to support student learning.”

Howell characterized the efforts as a work in progress. “We want to continue working on measures that came out of our think tank to improve the classroom environments,” she said.

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