A teacher shortage in Surrey school district has left classrooms struggling to meet the needs of students, especially students with learning disabilities. Surrey’s teacher union says the district is having trouble with retaining and bringing in new staff. (Unsplash photo)

A teacher shortage in Surrey school district has left classrooms struggling to meet the needs of students, especially students with learning disabilities. Surrey’s teacher union says the district is having trouble with retaining and bringing in new staff. (Unsplash photo)

Surrey’s schools experiencing teacher shortage due to low pay, burnout, says union

Surrey school district is the largest in the province and not exempt from the province-wide issue

A shortage of teachers is affecting much of the province, but Surrey, which is home to the largest school district in B.C., has been especially hard-hit, with one educator and the teachers’ union president pointing to burnout and a lack of necessary supports as the main reasons.

To help address these concerns, the teachers’ union in Surrey is calling on the district to find an appropriate replacement the first day a teacher is absent, by drawing from its pool of 1,500 on-call teachers, rather than continue with what they say is the current usual practice.

“If there’s a teacher who’s sick, then what happens is, if they can’t call in a teacher-on-call … they pull from non-enrolling, so those are the specialist teachers, like learner-support teachers or integration-support teachers,” explained Jatinder Bir, president of Surrey Teachers Association.

“If the district is priding themselves on having those 1,500 teachers on call, then let’s dispatch on Day 1 and then let’s see if that helps the overall education system in Surrey,” Bir said.

”Non-enrolling” also refers to members of the school’s administration, such as a principal or vice principal, who will also fill in for absent teachers when necessary.

Special education teachers being pulled away from their own roles can at times impact students with different abilities who may not then receive the support they need in classrooms. This can then lead to outbursts in classrooms that can become violent, Bir noted.

Sometimes, the teachers will experience kicking, biting or objects being thrown at or around them.

“It’s not that child’s fault it’s just that child’s needs haven’t been met,” Bir said, adding some students with sensory needs may need space, while others communicate a certain way.

Surrey school district states that since the beginning of the school year, seven incidents including violence in the district have been reported, which they recognize is higher than previous years. By this time last year, there were five reported incidents, compared to one incident in 2020 and four in 2019.

Filling the role of the integration-support teachers is a challenge for the district, as finding qualified individuals is not a simple matter, Ritinder Matthew, the district’s associate director of communications, told Peace Arch News.

The district is also in the process of filling 40 new positions of non-enrolling teachers, including special education resource teachers.

For full-time teacher positions, there are 15 vacancies across the district, with eight in elementary schools and seven in secondary, but the number of teachers needed changes daily, Matthew said.

Oftentimes, teacher vacancies get filled from the teachers-on-call pool, but teachers in that group do not have full-time availability, which is why the district interviewed 150 additional teachers last month.

One of the hurdles facing local districts, Bir noted, is the cost of living in this province, compared to teachers’ rate of pay.

“I’m not sure how recruitment will continue to bring in folks when you’re living in a province like B.C. to be paid second-to-lowest across Canada is not a really great recruitment feature to bring a person in,” Bir said, adding that retention for teachers is also an issue in the district.

Madiha Akbar, a 10-year educator who was a teacher in the Surrey school district for more than five years, cites burnout as one of the main reasons she is considering leaving the career.

According to the teachers’ union, teachers in the district tend to fall into three groups: ones who are just starting out and quickly become burnt-out and look for alternative career paths; some who have been in the profession for decades and are looking to retire and; teachers in the middle who have been operating with a lot on their plates for some years and, as a result, need supports for their mental health.

Akbar sees herself as one of those in the middle, nearing the end of her fuse.

Burnout for teachers happens quickly, Akbar believes. She has many friends in the field who are already exhausted after just a year or two of being educators, she said.

Bir says they are hearing about burnout “more and more.”

“We’ve received calls at the union office, they’re saying, ‘Jatinder, I can’t do this.’”

Signs came early to Akbar that her role as a teacher was not what she was expecting.

The lack of support as a teacher was evident to her before the pandemic was declared, but restrictions in schools only exacerbated the struggles she and her colleagues were having, she said, regarding heavy workloads, which continued and worsened once schools returned to in-person classes.

At her school, Akbar observed, most students returned to the classes, but about 20 per cent remained at home.

“The reality is that we were using different assessment techniques because there’s no way we can give a project to people in school and give the same project to people who are learning at home.

“We had to take into consideration that the people who are learning from home may not have access to everything that we have at school and so we were working double.

“That took burnout to a different degree.”

Like most, teachers were learning along the way on how to adjust their teaching and make sure that their students were successful.

For Akbar, going back to teaching is a difficult decision she’s grappling with because of what she’s been through already, she said.

“I was so drained, I was so stressed, I was completely emotionally unavailable for my own family when I got home and for me that was the icing on the cake… The negative for me really did outweigh the benefits overall,” Akbar said.

Nonetheless, being in front of her classrooms and having meaningful connections is hard to let go of. Even being on a leave is tough for Akbar, as she already misses being in her role.

“There were concerns, but that wasn’t listened to at all, and then our kids got sick and our teachers got sick. It’s really not good enough. Let’s listen to the experts who are in those buildings,” Bir said.

The teachers’ union is working on ensuring more accessible mental health support is available for teachers because often, teachers put their students’ needs ahead of their own, the union president said.

“We recognize the toll the past few years have taken on staff and we’re committed to supporting them and their physical, emotional and mental well-being,” Matthew said.

The district is running a survey until Dec. 2 for staff to share where gaps in support exist.

“We need access (to mental health support) now, it needs to be a wrap-around program now,” Bir said.

ALSO READ: B.C. teachers strongly approve three-year contract with pay boost, added benefits

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