School boards in Canada’s N.W.T. ‘concerned’ by shortage of substitute teachers

Main office of the Yellowknife Education District No. 1, also known as the YK1 school board, in downtown Yellowknife. (Donna Lee/CBC)

The Yellowknife public board’s list of supply teachers for this year is half its average number

School boards in the N.W.T. have staffed most of their permanent positions this year, but superintendents say the number of substitute teachers has declined dramatically.

“There is an ongoing shortage of substitute teachers in the Northwest Territories. This is a national issue and beyond,” wrote Simone Gessler, the superintendent of the Yellowknife Catholic School Board in an email.

Landon Kowalzik, interim assistant superintendent of the Yellowknife Education District No. 1, told CBC News the number of substitute teachers in his board has gone from between 100 to 120 people in previous years, to around 60 this year.

He added that many substitutes are often unavailable due to part-time jobs and other commitments.

“At any given day, there might only be 30 or 40 of that 60 available, depending on what day of the week it is,” said Kowalzik.

“It is something we’re concerned about and are actively trying to hire more and more subs.”

Cautious about putting ‘extra strain’ on exhausted teachers 

Kowalzik said that it has always been common for the school board to have to hire new substitutes every year, replacing those who accept full-time job offers. But it became harder to recruit and retain substitute teachers when the pandemic hit, as many decided to leave Yellowknife.

“Over the last couple of years dealing with COVID, a lot of people decided they wanted to live closer to home, and so they moved on and it’s been tough trying to replace them,” he said.

If the problem worsens, there will likely be “extra strain” put on the teachers, principals, and education assistants that help out in the classroom.

“If you can’t find a sub but a teacher is sick and can’t come in, somebody has to teach that class,” said Kowalzik.

He explained that could mean a teacher would have to give up their prep time, or an education assistant would need to replace a teacher in the classroom for the entire day.

“When we can’t find enough subs, the risk we run is that’s going to have a negative impact on the health and happiness of our staff, which then impacts our students,” said Kowalzik.

The Chief Jimmy Bruneau School in Behchokǫ̀, N.W.T. (Travis Burke/CBC)

Kowalzik described teachers and principals as “exhausted” after over two years of working in a pandemic.

“Everyone gets tired so much easier,” he said.

That’s part of why Kowalzik wants to make sure teachers “aren’t being overwhelmed.”

Smaller communities also struggling to find substitutes 

Linsey Hope, the director of education of the Tłı̨chǫ Community Services Agency, said that said that smaller communities are also struggling to find substitute teachers.

“Schools have to try to adjust in the moment when there are no substitutes. And I think that goes for both Yellowknife schools, as well as community schools,” said Hope.

According to Hope, schools in the Tłı̨cho region have always been short on substitute teachers.

Hope said that it has also become more difficult to fill their permanent teaching positions in recent years, as not as many people have been submitting applications.

Five out of 80 to 90 permanent positions in the Tłı̨cho are currently vacant. 

French school board’s supply list ‘very fragile’

Yvonne Careen, the superintendent of the Commission Scolaire francophone Territoires du Nord-Ouest, explained that finding French speaking supply teachers means that options are even further limited.

Careen said there are currently 26 teachers with the French school board — 16 in Yellowknife and 10 in Hay River. Their substitute teacher list currently has a total of seven people, with four in Yellowknife and three in Hay River.

École Allain St-Cyr is one of two French schools in the N.W.T. The other is École Boréale in Hay River. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Since those teachers are also actively on the lists of the Yellowknife Catholic and public schools, they are often unavailable.

Careen said that French schools have to make sure they are “proactive” about scheduling substitutes in advance.

“Things happen in the year where we need longer term subs and at this point in the year, it’s very fragile,” said Careen.

“We hope that not too many people are sick. We have to build up our supply list accordingly.”

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Post-secondary education offered in Nunavik, Quebec would be a game changer, says school board, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Sami education conference looks at how to better serve Indigenous children, Eye on the Arctic

Sweden: Can cross-border cooperation help decolonize Sami-language education, Eye on the Arctic

Emma Grunwald, CBC News

Emma Grunwald is a reporter with CBC News in Yellowknife.

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