Every spring brings the predictable spate of stories about the shortage of teaching jobs for new teachers. Declining student numbers mean the problem is particularly pronounced in Nova Scotia. As a result, many graduates languish for years on oversubscribed substitute lists.

Then in the fall comes a series of stories about how new teachers aren’t getting enough substitute days. Invariably, the blame is placed on retired teachers who continue to work as substitutes. According to the Nova Scotia Pension Agency, retired teachers can substitute up to 69.5 days in a school year without any reduction to their pensions.

Because of their proven experience, many principals prefer to bring in retired teachers rather than untested new teachers.

This doesn’t sit well with a considerable number of new teachers. They argue that retired teachers have already had their chance to teach and are being selfish by taking positions that could be filled by new teachers. Some school administrators in neighbouring provinces agree with this concern.

For example, the Anglophone East school district in New Brunswick officially excludes retired teachers from its substitute list. During a CBC interview last December, superintendent Gregg Ingersoll defended his district’s policy. “They (retired teachers) have already done their career, whereas these new people, this is their only income,” explained Ingersoll.

On the other side of this issue, retired teachers claim that banning them from substitute lists amounts to age discrimination. This was the argument put forward by Fred Hall, a 67-year-old retired teacher, who recently launched a human rights complaint against the Anglophone East school district. The New Brunswick Human Rights Commission has yet to rule on his case.

Thus, the issue is often presented as a choice between the interests of new teachers versus those of retired teachers. Lost in the shuffle is the one group whose interests should receive the most weight: students.

Substitutes are called in to fill in for regular teachers for reasons ranging from professional development sessions to illness to personal leave days. This means students can expect to see substitute teachers many times throughout a year. When calling in a substitute, the first thing school administrators should consider is the impact on student learning.

For example, a retired math teacher with 30 years of successful teaching experience will often be the right person to step into a high school teacher’s math class. On the other hand, a newly minted teacher who shows initiative and enthusiasm may be the right choice to take over a group of rambunctious Grade 8 students for the day. In all cases, the interests of students must be paramount.

As a result, substitute lists should be open to all qualified teachers, whether retired or not. Substitute teachers who know their subjects and can effectively manage classrooms should be called in as frequently as possible. Ineffective substitutes should be removed from the list entirely. The age of substitute teachers should be irrelevant; their ability to teach the students should be the only criterion.

Furthermore, school districts should avoid policies that unreasonably restrict the ability of administrators to hire the best substitute teachers. Forcing school principals to give an equal number of substitute opportunities to all teachers on an official list may benefit newly minted teachers, but isn’t in the best interests of students. When the regular teacher is absent, students deserve the substitute teacher who best provides a quality learning environment.

As for the plight of newly minted teachers unable to find a job, there is no easy solution to this problem. Education faculties continue to graduate far more teachers than needed in Nova Scotia schools. The ongoing decline in student numbers makes this problem even worse. Until things change, new graduates can expect to enter a difficult job market.

However, we cannot allow our sympathy for these new teachers to override the needs of students. Banning retired teachers from substitute lists may help some new teachers get a few extra days of work each year, but at the cost of depriving schools of many of the best available substitute teachers. This is not an acceptable tradeoff.

When this year’s news cycle brings with it the predictable stories about the plight of new teachers getting too little work, let’s remember whose interests matter the most. Principals should always put students first when hiring substitute teachers.

Michael Zwaagstra is the AIMS Fellow in Common Sense Education, a high school teacher, and co-author of the book, What’s Wrong with our Schools and How We Can Fix Them

*This piece appeared in the 3 March 2014 opinion section of the Chronicle Herald