Desperate rural school divisions hiring uncertified substitute ‘teachers’ Adults who pass criminal record check, have interest in kids courted to deal with shortage of qualified educators
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A nationwide shortage of teachers is forcing Manitoba’s rural school divisions to hire figure skating coaches, Girl Guides leaders and other adults without certification to fill in for absent classroom educators.
Sunrise, Western and Brandon are among the divisions turning to substitutes who have few qualifications aside from a personal interest in working with children and satisfactory criminal record checks.
“It’s not as good as having a qualified, trained teacher in front of kids — but it’s way better than having no teacher… cancelling classes, or combining or having really huge classes,” said Sunrise superintendent Cathy Tymko, who oversees operations across 19 schools in communities including Anola, Beausejour and Oakbank.
“It’s not as good as having a qualified, trained teacher in front of kids — but it’s way better than having no teacher… cancelling classes, or combining or having really huge classes.”–Sunrise superintendent Cathy Tymko
The division has added more than 50 uncertified individuals to its ranks since November, which is when hiring managers opened applications and started actively advertising them to people without a teaching degree or formal post-secondary education.
The division’s posting states interested candidates need to demonstrate kindness, patience and respect for all students; follow a plan left by a classroom teacher; and maintain strict confidentiality.
A similar advertisement from Western, based in Morden, encourages people with experience coaching, providing child care or serving in youth leadership positions, as well as university students, to apply for substitute personnel roles.
Education stakeholders attribute a worsening shortage of qualified substitutes available for hire in rural regions to urbanization, an aging population and increasingly complex student needs and classroom compositions.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a surge in sick days and made typical substitutes — including retired teachers, who have historically accounted for a significant portion of the workforce — prioritize health concerns over employment opportunities.
“It keeps me active and, basically, I take gigs that I enjoy. I take jobs that make me smile,” said David Harkness, a retired teacher who often picks up substitute opportunities at Winnipeg’s Nelson McIntyre Collegiate.
“It keeps me active and, basically, I take gigs that I enjoy. I take jobs that make me smile.”–David Harkness
“The staff and administration there appreciate me and support me when I’m there. For me, it’s a very friendly, positive environment. That’s not the case for everyone, but if it were that way in every case, I don’t think (divisions) would be advertising for uncertified people as much.”
The Retired Teachers’ Association of Manitoba has been surveying members on their substituting habits in recent months in an effort to better understand their experiences and advocate for improved working conditions. Data shows nearly double the number of retiree members who do substitute work in urban divisions, including Winnipeg, Portage la Prairie, Brandon, Selkirk and Thompson, compared to rural areas.
The cost of frequent criminal record checks, unsupportive work environments, inaccessible parking, limited pay and job unpredictability — for instance, when a substitute shows up prepared for one posting and is redirected to another role with no advance notice — all dissuade people from picking up casual work, said Harkness, acting chairman of the RTAM’s substitute committee.
The career educator noted concerns about personal health have skyrocketed throughout the pandemic. Seniors felt they could at least make informed decisions about risk levels when the province was regularly updating information about COVID-19 cases on a public dashboard, he added.
One school staff member in Sunrise, who agreed to an interview on the condition of anonymity, said they recently worked with an uncertified substitute who is “fresh from high school” and witnessed the freshly minted employee grapple with managing a classroom.
“You’re not a babysitter. This is a serious position,” said the veteran staffer, adding they do not understand why the division is not tapping educational assistants to provide coverage because they at least have some formal educational training in comparison to many of the newest recruits.
“I think you need a little bit more (training) than, ‘I like kids.’ It’s sad it’s gotten to this point.”
“I think you need a little bit more (training) than, ‘I like kids.’ It’s sad it’s gotten to this point.”–Veteran staff member in Sunrise
Every school day counts and the problem with relying on unqualified substitutes is that they are both unfamiliar with school culture and effective methods and practices, the president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society said.
“Do you want an untrained individual in a hospital acting as a nurse? We absolutely don’t. Well, the same thing is true about our school system. We don’t want an individual who hasn’t been properly educated and trained in that classroom because what potentially suffers then is the education of our young people,” said union leader James Bedford.
Bedford said the teaching profession needs to look more attractive to young people. That requires a well-funded public education system, so enough young educators are added to the K-12 system and permanent postings do not become the next ones to go unfilled.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.
Updated on Monday, January 23, 2023 9:49 PM CST: Fixes typo
Updated on Tuesday, January 24, 2023 1:39 PM CST: Updates bg image