School principals across the Northwest Territories are calling for better housing, more access to substitute teachers and more trained educators after the results of a recent survey were made public this week.

The Northwest Territories Teachers’ Association (NWTTA) revealed the findings of its Hiring, Housing and Substitute Survey that was circulated among the territory’s 48 principals from 49 schools between Oct. 9 and Oct. 29.

Among some of the eye-catching results included that 21 out of 48 administrators didn’t fill all of their positions this year. Across the NWT, 36 positions remained vacant.

“In some of those schools, that’s three positions,” NWTTA president Matthew Miller pointed out. “People are still trying to fill those positions and you can’t just have a classroom open.”

Miller said not having a full complement of staff can have direct impacts on the school community. For example, he pointed out that in schools where there are “specialist teachers,” such as those who have a particular focus in music or art or program support, there’s often a need to fill gaps in general classroom teaching.

“Some of those teachers are now in as classroom teachers rather than providing those other specialty areas,” he said.

The survey also looked at the how the availability and affordability of accommodations impacted the education system. At least 11 of the 36 vacant positions were directly tied to a lack of housing in a community, although there could be a few more than that because some replies to the question indicated that respondents weren’t sure if housing was an issue, Miller said.

The union president added that it hasn’t been uncommon in the past where new teachers entering new communities have had to share accommodations with multiple roommates, which can provide an awkward and challenging circumstance.

“Sometimes people are forced to live with their administration, or administration is forced to be living with their staff, and that doesn’t always work out either,” he said. “I’m not sure if you’d like to live with your boss or not, but it’s not always a sustainable situation.”

More needs to be done to prepare for the intake of professionals in communities, he contended.

“There are community members, obviously, without housing as well but if we want professionals to go in then we need to address it because teachers need affordable, adequate and available housing,” he said. “We’re not looking for gold toilets. Teachers are looking for ones that flush.”

Substitutes

Miller said a major item that the survey addresses is the lack of access to substitute teachers when a teacher needs a day off — a phenomenon that has become especially apparent since the Covid-19 pandemic began.

“Forty-two out of 48 administrators said they don’t have enough substitute teachers, which is quite alarming,” he said. ”Subbing is a problem year to year, but I don’t think we have heard it being a problem to this extent.

“Teachers are feeling guilty if they have to take a day, and they’re starting to realize when there’s no subs that it’s their colleagues that are covering their class,” he said.

When teachers have to cover for one another, it cuts into the time they have to do their regular work, leading to longer days by working through lunch hours, evenings or weekends. Burnout can result.

“Workload is definitely one of those things that we’re focusing on and it’s really creating an issue with our teachers for their work/life balance,” said Miller.

Retention

Miller said the biggest overall objective in NWT education is not only attracting teachers to the North but also retaining them. Being able to create and maintain a teacher-student relationship where young people are excited to go to school and learn is of particular concern in Northern communities.

“Teachers are our number one asset to enhance education here in the Northwest Territories and we need people that are going to come here and make relationships in our communities, with our our students and our families,” he said. “By making those connections, I think we’re going to see the results that we all want to see.”

NNSL Media contacted school boards and the GNWT Department of Education, Culture and Employment for comment on the survey results, but was awaiting responses as of publication deadline.

Simon Whitehouse

Simon Whitehouse came to Yellowknife to work with Northern News Services in 2011. Simon obtained his journalism education at Algonquin College and the University of Ottawa.. Simon can be reached at (867)...

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