By MICHAEL ZWAAGSTRA (AIMS Research Fellow)
Nova Scotia doesn’t have enough substitute teachers right now. In fact, the shortage is so severe that school boards are hiring people without teacher’s certificates to fill some substitute positions. In many cases, regular teachers are being forced to use their prep time to cover for their absent colleagues.
To make things worse, there is an ongoing shortage of specialty teachers, particularly in French immersion. In fact, school divisions across the country are having difficulty finding qualified French teachers. This is a problem because French immersion programs continue to increase in popularity with students and their parents. Without qualified teachers, French immersion cannot continue and that would result in many upset parents.
There are no simple solutions to Nova Scotia’s teacher shortage. Hiring uncertified substitute teachers is a stopgap measure. Increasing the number of teacher training spots in education faculties might help alleviate the problem, or it might simply produce an oversupply of teachers who end up going to other provinces for work. As for French immersion, there just aren’t enough teachers who choose to specialize in French language instruction.
One of the best ways to increase the number of job applicants for any position is to make the job more desirable. Higher salaries is one way to do this. The more a position pays, the more likely it is that people will take an interest in applying for the job.
Now, it is no secret that substitute teaching is not a particularly desirable job. The pay is low, the hours are unpredictable, and substitute teachers receive little respect from students or other teachers. Add to this the challenge of finding substitute teachers to fill in-demand positions such as French immersion and it isn’t hard to see why there aren’t many substitutes available right now.
Currently, Nova Scotia teachers, including substitute teachers, are bound by a provincial collective agreement that stipulates the pay for teachers be based on years of education and years of experience. No distinction is made between different grade levels or subject areas. Substitute teachers receive about two-thirds of the daily salary of a regular teacher, which works out to approximately $180 per day.
Unfortunately, the collective agreement between the teachers and the province makes it impossible for school boards to be flexible. Instead of setting the pay for all substitute teachers at $180, why not allow school boards to pay substitutes based on market demand? If there is a shortage of substitute teachers, increase their pay to $300 per day, which is approximately what substitute teachers in Saskatchewan receive. That might be enough to coax some additional teachers out of retirement to help meet the demand.
Thus, when there is an abundant supply of substitute teachers, pay them $180 per day. When there is a greater demand, increase their pay. Substitute teachers who are able to teach in a specialty area should receive even more money. This solution should help with the recruitment process.
Even better, school boards should be able to increase the pay for substitute teachers who are qualified for specialty areas. There is no doubt that a substitute teacher who can teach a variety of grade levels and subject areas, including French, is considerably more valuable than a teacher who can handle only one subject area or one grade level. It makes no sense to pay both of these teachers the same amount.
The same applies to regular teachers in hard-to-staff positions such as French immersion. Considering how difficult it is for school boards to find French immersion teachers, it seems reasonable for school boards to pay these teachers more than the amount currently listed in the collective agreement.
While some of these changes could be implemented without dismantling the current collective agreement, it is fair to ask whether market-based principles could apply more widely to other areas of the education system. After all, many factors other than years of experience and years of education influence teacher effectiveness. Perhaps such things should be taken into consideration in future pay scales for all teachers.
When facing a teacher shortage, school boards need to start thinking outside the box. Paying higher salaries to the teachers who are needed the most would be a good first step.
Michael Zwaagstra is a research fellow with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies and a public high school teacher.