Metro Talks: Education minister on substitute shortage, inclusion changes, rebuilding trust with teachers
Minister Zach Churchill stopped by the Metro office Wednesday to chat about the state of education in Nova Scotia. Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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Metro: What would you say to address the exhaustion and dispiritedness that is happening right now amongst teachers in Nova Scotia?
Zach Churchill: That will only change when we make the system changes that will impact their working conditions and will make it easier for them to teach. We have very complex classrooms – there are major behavioral issues, mental health and otherwise, that the system is now expecting teachers to manage in their classroom. That is the fundamental issue that most teachers have expressed is creating the greatest stress on them.
M: Wouldn’t the obvious solution be more teacher assistants (TAs)?
ZC: We have, every year, hired more TAs into the system and we’re still hearing from some parents and teachers that the supports are not adequate. That tells me that the model is not going to be sustainable, because we won’t be able to afford to hire enough TAs to provide that individual support to every single kid that needs it. The model and the way we are delivering an inclusive education fundamentally needs to change.
M: Three years ago there were hundreds of substitute teachers; today there is a shortage and we’re hearing stories about teachers leaving because their labour market has degraded to the point that they don’t want to work here. Could you speak to that?
ZC: We do have a substitute pressure right now – it’s because we’ve hired over 1,300 full time teachers in the system over the course of the last five years, and that has created pressure on the substitute side of things. This is manageable. And I think we can work with our post-secondary institutions to make sure we have a long-term solution to this to make sure the grads we’re producing are going to meet the needs of the system.
M: How comfortable do you feel in hiring substitutes that don’t have education degrees?
ZC: It’s a stop-gap measure. We’ve worked this out with the union. We’ve worked this out with the board. We don’t want our kids to go without that education, so what’s the next best thing? Subject matter experts that can come in and teach people competently about the topics that they do have a specialty in.
M: What about hiring full-time subs for groups of schools?
ZC: They are doing that in some boards already. I do think it is a good idea, and if all boards are not engaged in that I think it is something they should give full consideration to. But the sub pressure is also about managing the vacancies, and not just saying ‘yes’ to every single request that comes in.
M: And there is the (system-wide) review by Dr. Avis Glaze. What do you hope that they come up with?
ZC: We’re looking at the administrative model of education that we have – from the department all the way to the classroom – to see if the way we’re making decisions is the best way to make decisions; if there are savings to be found in the administrative model.
M: Would you look at amalgamating school boards?
ZC: Everything is on the table right now for Dr. Glaze to consider in her recommendations. She’s looking at school boards, she’s looking at the department itself … and how our system of administration is functioning to see if it is the best model.
M: With Bill 75 under an official court challenge right now, this is probably going to be very costly for the department and for the province. What would you say to people who are wondering if that is an appropriate use of funds?
ZC: We’re not the ones who issued the court challenge. I’d prefer not to see this issue played out in the courts, but I also see a positive as well from a department perspective, because there are outstanding questions around Bill 75. Having this thing now go through the courts and have the lawyers do their job, answer those questions for people, actually frees us up in the department to focus on what is most critical, where our collective responsibility lies - and that is one the success and achievement and support of our kids.
M: Standardized testing – you didn’t do that this year. Does that signal a change for the future?
ZC: I have not formulated a formal position on that as of yet, but I do think it is worth contemplation and changes are worth considering.
M: What exactly happened with the pre-primary rollout, with parents not really knowing if it was going to happen or where to send their kids just a couple days beforehand. Could you elaborate on that?
ZC: There is the perception of what happened with the pre-primary rollout, and there is the reality of what happened on the ground. It was a very ambitious agenda that we set. We had staff working around the clock ensuring that we had hires done, the materials ordered and ready to go, but in terms of the rollout it has actually been very smooth. You know, we only planned on having 30 sites but because of demand from communities which were expressed to boards, and requests that came into boards, we now actually have 54. So people are voting with their feet on this program.