Time for a closer look at the plight of substitute teachers in public schools

Into the new school year, in the throes of challenges to survival of English school boards, hidden monsters rear their ugly heads.

Québec’s costly Education Budget obliges greater understanding of the substitute-teacher phenomenon. The acknowledged substitute-teacher-shortage reflects low-numbers working countless-days. In the interest of Quebec’s 1.25 million students and 30,000 non-certified teachers, an unprecedented deep-dive into defining/describing the substitute-teacher-community and its dynamics is warranted.

The Education Ministry and unions, agreeing on shortages of teachers and teachers-on-call – supply – in education-system-jargon, disagree on the problem’s gravity, its causes, and how it affects student-learning. Surprisingly, unions offer scant data on the issue.

Substitute-teachers are integral. Teachers get sick, take leaves for maternity/ bereavement/sabbaticals/other reasons, replaced by substitute/supply teachers from school-board on-call lists. Boards insisted on certified teachers. Not anymore. There’s no rhyme-or-reason on how substitutes are integrated into schools, provoking many questions.

Mid-August 2023, Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board declared 450 open-teacher-positions, five days later only 25. How did 425 teachers materialize-in-a-flash, with what qualifications? Sébastien Joly, executive director of the Québec Provincial Association of Teachers answered with, “Erroneous information. Since the recall hadn’t occurred, positions were filled by teachers-on-recall.”

The unions and Education Ministry agree it’s difficult, sometimes impossible, to fill every teacher-opening, but the current crisis is the worst ever. Most openings are specialist positions that have had hiring stress for years, particularly French-Immersion and Special-Education. Getting accurate information on teacher-shortages is difficult, but one would think the contrary, since human resources are-at-play and should-be-at-work.

Québec school regions and union locals struggle for data on open-teaching-positions, uncertified teachers, out-of-province recruitment and teachers-on-call. Semi-official explanations are plagued by conflicting information from school boards and unions. Some boards don’t track, thus leaving statistical voids.

In response to questions regarding substitutes, the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board’s Frédérique Gascon, Interim Coordinator of Legal, Corporate and Communications, stated: “In conformity with section 47 of the “Act respecting Access to documents held by public bodies and the Protection of personal information”, a response will be sent to you by October 23, 2023.” Stay tuned for an October follow-up editorial.

President Stéphan Ethier of the Laurier Teachers’ Union, representing Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board teachers conceded by phone that substitutes have no obligation to the Board or to accept calls-for-vacancies. “They’re union members when working, paying dues, protected for that day should incidents occur. Substitution isn’t a local decision, it’s provincial.” Shortages differ area-to-area, school-to-school. Laval openings have placed more uncertified teachers in permanent and/or contract positions, as well as teacher-on-call lists.

Legislation requires certification for public-and-private school-teachers, exceptions/exemptions made through Letters of Tolerance, one-yearpasses for university-graduates waiting for certification or relocating from other provinces.

The Ministry of Education must certify more teachers by offering abridged-teacher-education-programs combining online and in-person-classes. Teachers with letters-of-tolerance could earn degrees without leaving their communities for a year, having no income. These pathways would certify many very talented individuals who just don’t have formal teaching credentials. Presently, only a Master’s program exists, the one-year-program aborted in the 1990s.

In Québec, uncertified teachers aren’t rare, many have Bachelor’s degrees, having worked for school boards 10-15-20 years, without protection, often treated unfairly, quickly discarded for friends, sons, daughters, nieces and nephews of teachers – in unacknowledged nepotism. No protection for individuals rendering loyal/ professional services.

Why do substitute-teachers pay union dues, without protection, except on working days, deprived of pecking/seniority rights? Unions must do more for these replacement teachers. Common sense questions treatment of these teachers who suffer chronic frustration from non-recognition. Just because no system exists, doesn’t mean that one can’t be implemented.

Several individuals, speaking anonymously, fearing reprisals, stated that substitute teachers must have a say in a union, or at least be recognized within present unions as real entities entitled to rights/benefits of certified/ tenured teachers. “We want our degrees and years-of-service within Boards recognized, and be called upon in that order, same as permanent staff.”

Stop who knows who/warm bodies that exclude people with degrees and long service as replacement/contract teachers. “We’re educated. We just don’t have brevets. It’s not about money, same rate-per-day, degreeor-not, changing only on contract,” stated the substitute teacher under cover-of-anonymity.

Substitutes need community support. The plight of substitute teachers excluded from school-board human-resources-deployment must be addressed. They’re not taken seriously enough but labour-negotiating-power of unions can change things.

Questions require answers. What’s regular pay/benefits? Were these unique needs addressed? Not in current negotiations, said Sébastien Joly, executive-director of QPAT, representing Québec public Anglophone teachers. “The subject never came up,” he summed up.

Some bureaucratic top-down-military strategies ignore individuals perceived as emotionless robots devoid-of-human needs. Public education demanded that orders be given and obeyed, structures that persist today, sadly devouring defenseless substitute teachers.

In public schools, 2023, principals/vice-principals reign, omitting supportstaff from conversations/equations. Too many administrators and students see substitutes as sub-human, constantly ignored and disrespected, as part-timers.

To move forward, change the title. Substitute Teacher stigmatizes. Substituting isn’t easy, try it for a week-or-two. Everyone is an expert on public education but which adults are in classrooms day-in-day-out? Teachers and substitute-teachers. Everyone must be empowered. For public education to improve – start with recognizing substitute- teachers who mitigate difficult scenarios with commitment and grit.

Ultimately, substitute-teachers will need their own provincial union. It would be sinful to write-and-not-be-read, for individuals’ names and independence to get lost. Advocating for Individual rights that must-applyto-all, not just the few, is right. Substitutes are crucial throughout public education, yet are treated like migrant workers, invisible, dispensable.

Correction is imperative. Enhancement of public education demands empowerment of all. Substitute teachers deserve appreciation of their worth and value. Ultimately, if unions don’t step up, substitute teachers will have to form their own provincial union, as suggested by several anonymous callers.

To shake things, current substitute teachers discarded or wronged by administration, for benefit of favourites, must file union-grievances, best justice until legitimate pecking orders/seniority lists are created and enforced by school boards and unions.

Renata Isopo