September 28, 2005

A good substitute is hard to find (from the September 28 edition of the Yukon News)

Substitute teachers are becoming a permanent fixture in Yukon classrooms, but finding qualified ones is a frustrating task, say educators.

“Getting somebody with a degree is pretty difficult — a degree of any kind, even a science or arts degree,” said Kerry Huff, principal of Porter Creek Secondary School in Whitehorse.

“If we run out of qualified teachers we can take almost any high school graduate.”

On a given day, Huff has between three to 15 substitute teachers at Porter Creek Secondary, which has about 50 full-time teachers and 800 students.

“I’ve been as high as 17 — that’s as many teachers as some small schools,” he said. “We have a fairly active group — outdoor ed, extracurricular sports. Those sorts of things all require a lot of them.

“It would be an odd day that I didn’t need a couple.”

And the demand for substitute teachers is increasing, as professional development pulls full-time teachers out of Yukon classrooms more often, and as requirements for child supervision on field trips and extra-curricular activities grows, say educators.

The trends have created a need for a flexible teaching workforce, but it has also exposed a lack of qualified subs in the Yukon, they say.

Some feel the situation hurts student performance.

As of early September, the Yukon had 79 substitute teachers on the on-call list, said Val Stehelin, director of human resources with the Education department.

Of those, 39 have a teaching certificate.

It’s unknown how many of the remaining 40 hold a bachelor degree and how many have a high school education, she said.

Unlike many Canadian jurisdictions, a Yukon substitute teacher only has to pass a criminal background check and hold a high school diploma.

Regulations for on-call teachers were changed in September 2004 to pay them based on education levels and classroom experience.

The Yukon spends about $50.7 million a year on teacher salaries, and $1.06 million on substitute teacher pay, said Stehelin.

That pegs the substitute budget at about 2.08 per cent of what the territory pays full-time teachers.

In British Columbia, which shares its curriculum with the Yukon, the situation is similar, with the provincial average at 2.6 per cent.

High demand and small supply is forcing school principals to cast a wider net to find teachers with qualifications, said Huff.

He knows a handful of people who didn’t land full-time classroom jobs he can rely on when he’s short on teachers.

“I can count on five or six,” he said. “When you are drawing it to every school in the territory, it’s pretty difficult, so if there are five or six left for me, that would be a good day.”

The demand for subs this year is similar to previous years, said Darren Hays, principal of Whitehorse’s F.H. Collins Secondary.

“I guess if we say in the past four or five years, I don’t believe it’s in any greater demand,” he said. “But the supply of teachers may be less, and, therefore, it may be more challenging in having supply teachers available, particularly with a professional degree.”

There are many more teachers available to him with a bachelor degree than ones with a teaching degree, said Hays.

“The biggest challenge is getting certified teachers as teachers on-call, versus getting people who are not carrying a professional certification, but can meet the need.”

As well, the number of teachers per student and the number of sick days those teachers can take are stable, said Hays.
However, what is changing is the demand for extra help on special days, he said.

“If we do a field trip, we might need four people for one day. That creates a challenge and one person is not going to meet that,” he said.

“The policies have made it the requirements to have higher supervision ratios than there were historically, therefore there’s greater demand.”

A recent canoe trip illustrates the shift, he said.

“In the good old days, you could put 15 kids in one vehicle and pull all the canoes. Now you would have to have three vans, plus one or two tow vehicles,” he said.

Professional training is also placing greater demands on the system, he added.

Mirroring Porter Creek, F.H. Collins pulls in one to five subs on any given day.

When flu bugs hit and when field trips happen, the school has used up to a dozen subs on one day, said Hays.

But not all subs are used in the classroom, he added.

While most people in the education system agree the lack of qualified substitute teachers is a problem, few have solutions.

Sandra Henderson, president of the Yukon Teachers Association, is the exception.

“If we’re really interested in the delivery of curriculum and the delivery of substance to the kids, then we need to look at perhaps having a pool of certificated teachers,” said Henderson.

Her proposed solution — to hire a group of qualified teachers who would be called upon first whenever a sub is needed — would also require a more centralized approach to dispatching subs.

At the moment, individual schools find their own substitute teachers.

It’s not an ideal situation, said Henderson.

“I have reason to believe that some principals don’t even know who comes in to their schools,” she said. “And I have reason to believe that there are some teachers who prefer to call their friends for subbing.”

And it’s the students who suffer when a sub isn’t qualified, she said.

Recently, the Fraser Institute, a Vancouver-based, right wing think-tank, gave Yukon secondary schools low marks in academic performance.

Peter Cowley, the study’s author, didn’t focus on the impact a system’s reliance on substitute teachers has on student scholarship.

But the effectiveness of a substitute is dependant on the regular teacher preparing a lesson plan for them to follow, he suggested.

“If the teacher on call comes in and there’s nothing prepared for them, then maybe it will have some effect,” he said.

Asked whether hiring unqualified substitutes will have a lasting effect on the students, Henderson, who has been teaching since the 1950s, is emphatic.

“Of course it does,” she said bluntly.

The situation is exacerbated by special events cutting into already scarce classroom time, she added.

But Henderson concedes the small population and isolated geography of the Yukon means substitute teachers without full qualifications are a necessity.

“In the provinces, frequently you must have a teaching certificate just to get on the sub list, but that’s not the case here,” she said.

“Many people do their best.”

Her idea of a sub pool would also make sure at least one qualified sub teacher was available in rural communities, she said.

It’s a far cry from the realities taking place in the education system today.

“Very frequently, we are so short on substitute teachers that we are hiring high school students who happen to remain in town the next year,” said Henderson.

“To me, it would make more sense to have a certificated teacher in the classroom, filling in for a teacher that is absent for whatever reason, than to have someone who has very little or no training.”

Henderson is taking her ideas to the department of education today.

“We need to have people in classrooms who can deliver the program,” she said.

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