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Staffing woes turning Ontario educators away from leadership roles, principals say

Constant staffing issues in Ontario’s schools are making the roles of principal and vice-principal less attractive, with more bogged down with administrative minutiae than focused on leadership, a major professional association says.

Peter LeBlanc, a retired principal who worked in three different schools for the Upper Grand District School Board in Guelph, Ont., says he often hears from colleagues struggling to fill administrative positions.

“I know that there are principals who, if they have the opportunity, are leaving the role,” said LeBlanc.

Despite being retired, he adds, he was recently asked if he wanted to interview for a job with a school board that had only received five applicants for eight available positions.

Staffing issues across the education system have weighted down the job of the principal in recent years, says Ralph Nigro, president of the Ontario Principals’ Council, which represents 5,400 principals and vice-principals in the province’s public elementary and secondary schools,

“Additional duties are being added to the role and the hours required to do the job have increased significantly,” he told CBC News in an emailed statement.

Staffing shortages a daily problem: principals

Nigro says that’s made it more difficult to recruit new educators into leadership roles across the province.

To deal with staff shortages, principals often have to cancel or combine classes, hire students who have not yet graduated from teachers’ college, use parent volunteers, impinge on teacher prep time or deploy educational assistants into classrooms, the council says.

Nigro says the OPC has raised staffing issues with the Ontario government and Minister of Education on many occasions.

George Vanier Secondary School in Toronto on 15 Jun 2023.
George Vanier Secondary School in Toronto on June 15, 2023. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

Justin Saunders, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Education, told CBC News it is working with the Ontario College of Teachers on reducing processing times for certifying teachers in order to access qualified educators from outside Ontario.

“In addition, the Ministry established a new transitional certificate that enables eligible students enrolled in regular (full-time) teacher education programs to work in schools while completing their studies,” Saunders said in an emailed statement.

Asked how many principal and vice-principal vacancies the province had, the ministry did not answer.

‘Not really an attractive position anymore’

Meanwhile, Jonelle St. Aubyn, a teacher-librarian at Louise Arbour Secondary School in Brampton, Ont., says as staffing issues persist, principals often have to step into roles they cannot find a teacher to fill, which distracts them from implementing broader strategic goals.

“For the amount of extra work that they have to do, it’s not really an attractive position anymore,” said St. Aubyn.

She said in one case, a principal who previously worked at Louise Arbour had to teach the school’s family studies class for weeks until they could find a replacement.

“I think that the only way a school can be successful is if the administration are successful,” she addsed, saying principals need proper mentorship, funding, support and time to learn to do their jobs effectively.

Keith Wainwright, who retired as a principal from the Durham District School Board this summer, said he hasn’t necessarily observed principal vacancies in the region, but has noticed an increasing focus on technical aspects of the job, often over leadership or guidance on curriculum. 

“There was a time when you could do more within the school,” said Wainwright, who adds he used to be a coach in addition to a principal.

Labour woes across all professions: professor

Sam Andrey, managing director of public policy and leadership institute The Dais at Toronto Metropolitan University, says a number of factors have contributed to staffing shortages, including a much tighter labour market across all professions resulting from the pandemic.

“That’s showing up in the school system,” said Andrey.

He also says the previous Liberal government’s 2015 decision to make teaching degrees in Ontario two years instead of one—in part to address an oversupply of teachers at the time—has slowed the number of new educators entering the system.

But Andrey also points to lagging teacher salaries, which he says have been below the rate of inflation for years.

“Addressing that could also help,” said Andrey.

Ontario’s four main teachers’ unions have been without a contract since last summer.

A man with brown hair and a brown beard wearing glasses and a light blue shirt standing in front of a tree
Sam Andrey is the managing director of The Dais at Toronto Metropolitan University (Toronto Metropolitan University)

He says until staffing issues are resolved, principals are often the “last person standing” and are called upon to wear many hats.

“It’s a really tough job,” said Andrey. “It wouldn’t surprise me if fewer teachers wanted to move into principal roles.”

Consider changes to teaching degrees: council

With the added pressure on school administrators, the OPC says there should be a focus on attracting and retaining permanent staff instead of trying to find supply, retired or occasional teachers.

The council also suggested changing teaching degrees back to one-year programs—or making the second year a paid internship during which students spend the entire year teaching.

Meanwhile, LeBlanc says the province should set up a mentoring network that uses former principals and administrators to help attract new teachers into leadership roles. 

“There’s a lot of institutional expertise that’s not being used,” said LeBlanc.

He says if school boards reached out to former educators like himself, it would provide support to new principals and vice-principals early in their careers.

“I do very little work as far as mentoring up-and-coming leaders unless I volunteer to do that.”

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