The following is a copy of WTA President Michelle Wolfe’s presentation to the Board of Trustees.
WTA President Presentation to the Board of Trustees
November 4, 2019
Topic: Unfilled Substitute Teacher Positions
Good evening Trustees,
My name is Michelle Wolfe and I am the President of the Winnipeg Teachers’ Association. I am here tonight to speak to you about an issue of particular relevance to teachers and students in the Winnipeg School Division.
As you know, from time to time, teachers need to be absent from school for a variety of reasons including mandatory WSD or teacher-selected professional development, illness, bereavement, to name a few. Ideally, when a teacher needs to be away from work, they enter their absence into the WSD Absence Management System online and can either select a substitute teacher that has already been arranged or the system can begin the work of identifying and assigning a substitute.
In the first scenario, when the job is pre-arranged, the teacher leaves a plan, and students are taught by the substitute for that period of time. In the second scenario, either the Absence Management System starts to contact substitutes, or substitute teachers can accept jobs online. This scenario would play out in the same way as the first. The teacher has a person who accepted the job through the system, is away from work, leaves a plan for the substitute and then returns to work following the absence.
We are hearing more and more from our members that these positions are being unfilled and school staffs going to great lengths to figure out what to do with the students when substitutes are not assigned. Teachers and administrators are creative problem solvers, and by all accounts, it sounds like school staffs are working very hard to figure this out on a day to day basis. But at what cost?
One of the options to address not having a substitute assigned is to pull teachers from specialized programming. When a support teacher, SERT, Guidance Counsellor, or other teachers are asked to cover the class that is without a substitute teacher what happens to the student learning that should have taken place that day? In these situations, it is the students most at risk and who most require specialized instruction who go without as their teacher covers a class when a substitute is not assigned.
Another option for coverage when a substitute is not provided is placing students in other classrooms. For example, a class of twenty students can be split into groups of five and sent to four other teachers who also have 20 students each for the day. The impacts directly on the programming the receiving teacher is to deliver to their students and grade levels. In this situation, the absence of one substitute teacher impacts the teaching and learning of those students who are “farmed out” and also those 80 students in the receiving rooms.
A unique twist to the issue of substitutes takes place when specialist teachers are absent and no substitute teacher is assigned, often those programs are cancelled for the day. This means that students are not receiving programming for Physical Education, Music and the Arts. In many cases, when those teachers have students, the classroom teacher is having preparation time. So, when specialists do not have a substitute to replace them, prep time is lost which needs to be made up in order to comply with the collective agreement. Every time this happens, Principals and staffs are presented with another problem to solve. How does the lost preparation time get returned?
The problem of no substitutes is compounded dramatically by the reality that in many schools, it a regular weekly occurrence. Schools can have substitutes not appear on a weekly basis and some schools experience several unfilled substitute positions on the same day. This seems to be especially problematic in French Immersion schools.
We have heard from teachers that this issue is causing such a strain, that they decide to go to work sick rather than force their colleagues to deal with what may happen if no substitute teacher is assigned. Or they do stay home, and struggle in the knowledge that a sub may not be assigned and wonder what will happen with their students.
The big question here is, when substitute positions go unfilled, what happens to teaching and learning?
We are aware that this is not a new problem. We know that there are times, particularly in the dead of winter that the Division experiences difficulty filling substitute positions. Last year however, the trend of unfilled substitute positions at a higher rate continued well into May and June.
We know that when unfilled positions were high, Principals received emails from the Sub Clerk and it is interesting the note how the content of those emails changed over the year. In late February, the email read “Absences are extremely high today. Please ensure you have coverage at your school location for those absences that are not fulfilled this am”. In June, the email read “Absences are high today.” Could it be that it became such a common occurrence that more words and instruction were unnecessary?
We have spoken to the Human Resources department on this matter several times, stemming from several scenarios and on June 6, 2019 we provided some recommendations in writing. We have discussed the decision made by HR to not hire retired teachers as substitutes unless they meet certain specialty criteria. In some cases, those retired teachers who do meet specialty criteria are limited in which buildings and in which programs/ classes they are allowed to sub.
This means that there are cases where the principals get the email that I described a moment ago indicating high absences, but qualified teachers are sitting at home and not asked to sub because they only meet certain criteria and qualifications and the WSD does not allow them to sub in anything but those specialty programs. I ask you; wouldn’t it be better for students to have a qualified experienced teacher for the day rather than no teacher at all?
We have suggested adding more substitute teachers to the sub list, and the response we have received is that that does not work, and that there is a cost implication to putting teachers on the list. The nature of that cost implication was not made clear to us. In fact, we have heard from our membership that there are those who are suspicious that leaving sub positions unfilled might actually be a deliberate cost-saving measure. When there is no sub to be paid, less money is spent on payroll.
We have recommended reconsidering the decision to not hire retired teachers who have asked to be placed on the sub list. We were told that their experience while they were active was valuable, it is time to give new teachers a chance. I do not disagree with the idea of giving newer teachers opportunities, and it seems as though the division is trying to do that through recruitment events, but those efforts do not appear to be solving the problem of unfilled substitute positions.
We have heard that half day positions are harder to fill. But regularly there is mandatory professional development for teachers that take place in half day sessions. We have therefor recommended that the Division stop hosting PD sessions in half day increments. Further related to the issue of Professional Development, we have heard that the January to April period is particularly impacted in terms of unfilled substitute positions, so we recommended reducing the WSD PD offered during that time frame.
We have already received calls this school year about substitute positions going unfilled. It concerns me that this early in the school year, schools are already trying to figure out how to deal with this problem.
This is an issue of particular importance to teachers because it has a direct impact on teachers’ teaching and students’ learning. I hope that by bringing this matter to your attention, we may be able to work together to find some solutions.
Thank you for your kind attention.