Teacher hiring crisis looms: Who will teach Nunavut’s young?
Nunavut’s best and brightest teachers are leaving in droves, as school boards ponder the difficult task of replacing them.
IQALUIT – High travel costs, substandard housing and the erosion of pay and benefits in their latest contract are taking a toll on northern teachers.
Although Nunavut’s regional school boards won’t know for several weeks exactly how many teachers plan to resign at the end of the current academic year, some educators are already braced for a long and difficult recruiting season.
Among the many teachers rumored to be calling it quits this year are several experienced long-time northerners as well as trained aboriginal teachers, lured from the profession by better-paying jobs with Inuit birthright corporations and land claim organizations.
“There’s no doubt it, the compensation packages have been significantly reduced, enough to make you start to question whether you can remain up here,” Pat Thomas, president of the Northwest Territories Teachers’ Association (NWTTA) said in an interview with Nunatsiaq News this week.
The labor contract that the NWTTA signed with the GNWT last October included a wage rollback, the loss of vacation travel assistance (VTAs) and a cap on moving expenses paid for by the employer.
Thomas said the union calculated that the three-year contract cost members a combined total of $18 million worth of lost benefits.
That has translated into less take-home pay at a time when many teachers – especially those working in smaller, remote communites – also face a sharp increase in living expenses triggered by the privatization of former GNWT staff housing.
“There’s no doubt about it, we took significant hits in our compensation package,” said Thomas, who fears the ability of schools to attract and retain teachers may yet have to suffer the full consequences of last year’s contract.
A survey of teachers who quit jobs in northern schools last year showed that the loss of benefits such as VTAs and the dearth of affordable housing ranked high on the teachers’ list of reasons for leaving.
“If you ask me what the number one issue is, I would say in a small community, without a doubt, it’s housing,” Thomas said, “because they’re paying horrendous rents for substandard housing.”
In Pond Inlet, for instance, where the local co-op is in the process of buying former GNWT staff houses, teachers who don’t own their own homes anticipate rent increases this spring on the order of 60 to 80 per cent.
Of the 30 elementary and high school teachers currently on staff in Pond Inlet, nine are said to be leaving. At least two have indicated they are leaving for positions in northern Ontario.
“I’ve been involved in recruitment for a long time and I remember the days when people from Northern Ontario and Quebec were falling over themselves, trying to get into the Territories,” Ulaajuk school principal Mel Pardy said.
“Now we’re seeing the reverse.”
Figures for the Baffin region show that annual teacher resignations have risen steadily since 1994-95, as have the number of teachers taking leaves of absence.
Lorne Levy, assistant director at the Baffin Divisional Board of Education, acknowledged that changes to the teachers’ collective agreement have placed great stress on the board’s employees.
“It is apparent to me that the details of contract, the remuneration, housing costs – just the availablility of housing – have all had an impact on more teachers leaving,” Levy said. “I’m convinced of that.”
At schools in the Baffin, the number of resignations alone went from 21 in 1994-95 to 34, heading into the 1997-98 academic year.
While staff resignations rise, the school board also notes an increase in the number of teachers seeking temporary leaves of absence, a situation which has made the already challenging task of recruitment more difficult.
In 1994, just four of the Baffin board’s 204 teachers took leaves of absence; last year the board approved 20.
There is some speculation as to which teachers are planning to leave this year, with some educators forecasting the departure of many experienced colleagues, including Inuit graduates of Nunavut Arctic College’s successful teacher training program.
Pardy said teachers – especially junior teachers on the low-end of the pay scale – find it difficult to make ends meet in Pond Inlet with rising airfare and housing costs.
Just last week, Pardy compared the earnings and expenses of a second-year aboriginal teacher with benefits she would recieve in Pond Inlet as a welfare recipient.
“Right now she is better off teaching than on social assistance, to the tune of fifty bucks a month,” Pardy said.
“This is another person who’s really looking at whether she can afford to stay in Pond Inlet.”
Airfare is also frequently cited as a major factor in teachers’ decision to leave, Pardy said. A full-fare return ticket to Montreal from Pond Inlet costs $3,500; even the excursion-fare rate comes in at about $2,500.
“One mentioned to me the other day, ‘It looks like once the VTA is removed, we’re finished.’
“She said she couldn’t even get to visit relatives in Igloolik anymore. It’s over $2,000 to get to Igloolik for one person, from Pond Inlet.”
Over at Iqaluit’s Inuksuk High School, four of 15 teachers have resigned already, and the deadline for submitting resignations to the school board is not until mid-April.
“For the high school, that’s consistent with what it’s been over the past number of years. People are citing economic reasons more than ever before, though,” Takijualuk School principal Steve Prest said.
Continued uncertainty about housing costs will further complicate the recruitment process in the spring, educators predict.
Pardy, for one, does not relish the task of attracting candidates to fill positions at his school without knowing what the real cost of living in Pond Inlet will be next September.
“We joke about it, but probably the first thing we’re going to do is to see, number one, whether they can afford to come here when they know what the economic factors are.
“And if they want to go ahead with that, then we go ahead with the interview. Otherwise it’s just a waste of everybody’s time.”