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Class dismissed: B.C. communities feel the pinch of teacher shortages

Below-average salaries and high cost of living are driving teachers out of the province

When it comes to paying bills and providing for their students, teachers in B.C. are expected to do more with less.

“The teacher burnout rate is really high,” said Megan Tolliday, an IB social studies and history teacher in North Vancouver.

Tolliday noted that several of her colleagues left their jobs after a single year. Being underpaid and overworked in an increasingly expensive city has pushed many to seek teaching positions elsewhere.

This story isn’t unique to Tolliday’s school district. Below-average wages, a lack of resources and the rising cost of living make it difficult for the province’s schools to attract and retain teachers.

The result is a shortage of teachers in communities around the province, including larger cities like Vancouver and Kamloops — and both students and teachers are feeling the pinch. Rural communities have been hit especially hard by recruitment challenges, with some areas even using non-certified or unlicensed teachers (with permission from the Teachers Regulation Branch in B.C.) to fill in the gaps.  

The British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) reports that 1,500 more teachers are needed in the province in 2019 alone, and they expect this demand to increase over time.

In terms of starting salaries for teachers, B.C. is ninth of the 10 provinces and the lowest west of Quebec, making it a less desirable place to teach.

Twenty-five years ago, Robyn Ladner moved to the Okanagan from Alberta to teach special education students. In those days, she said, “We had good language in our collective agreements that supported reasonable class sizes and students with special needs.”

Ladner recalled the years of austerity under the last provincial government. “That language, and more, was stripped by the Liberal government in 2002. And even before that, we took zero percent wage increases in order to secure better classroom conditions.”

Since then, Ladner said, “Most of my career has been spent fighting for better conditions for my students.”

In 2016, a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada restored much of the BCTF’s collective agreement language around class size and composition, including balanced numbers of specialists like special needs and ESL teachers. The cuts made between 2000 and 2015 meant a loss of 3,700 teaching positions, over 1,500 of which were for specialist teachers.

Despite this legal win, many schools are still lacking the teachers necessary to meet the diverse needs of all students. Some don’t have the staff to comply with the restored class size and teacher-to-student ratio provisions. Additionally, many don’t have enough substitute or on-call teachers to stand in for classroom teachers for sick days. In many cases, this means specialist teachers, like librarians and counselors, are pulled away to teach classes. As a result, students with special needs are left without the support they require.

A history of defunding resources and a shortage of teachers combine to put more pressure on current teaching staff, but Tolliday worries that it’s the students who are being left behind. “I have one class of 32 kids, and there's five kids in it with individualized education plans [who] I very rarely get a chance to sit down one-on-one with."

She emphasized the importance of individual attention for students with special needs, as well as those struggling with learning challenges due to conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). “When there are 31 other kids demanding your attention, it gets really hard,” she said.

The BCTF and the 43,000 teachers it represents hope that in the future, more funding will be put towards classroom resources that allow teachers like Tolliday to give their students the attention they deserve.