Supply on Demand: Working in the Ontario Education System

We’ve all heard horror stories about how hard it is to find a steady job as a teacher in Ontario, and the statistics back it up. In 2010, a survey by the Ontario College of Teachers showed that as many as 68 per cent of teachers in their first year after graduation were unemployed or underemployed. Things haven’t changed much since then. Below, Will Crawford, a recent OISE graduate, shares his thoughts on working – and organising – as a supply teacher in Toronto, Ontario


ClassRoom: Can you introduce yourself? Why did you become a teacher?

Will Crawford: I’m a 25-year-old supply teacher that is trying to get a full-time position as soon as possible. I did an undergraduate in African Studies and Political Science and a teaching degree at OISE in 2015.

My teachable subjects are History, Politics and ESL. I’m also working toward an English qualification.

I got into teaching because I thought it was the best way to interact with a broad section of the population and to teach ideas that are often exclusive to those that can afford university. I thought about being a professor at one point. But I decided that it would be more impactful to teach a much more diverse group of students about the political system and such ideas as solidarity and empathy. The students I teach are not necessarily going into the liberal arts or social sciences, but they are learning ideas and mechanisms to cope in this world and succeed, especially for students that are from marginalized groups. Learning about capitalism or racism, and how these things dominate the world, are much more immediate issues for some students than others. And for those these ideas aren’t immediate to, like students from more privileged backgrounds, I feel it’s more effective to instill in them an understanding of oppression at a younger age, in the hope that they’ll change their point of view and behaviour. As a university professor, you’d have less of an opportunity to engage with students that aren’t already somewhat interested in your subject and ideas.

CR: How hard was it do get into a teaching job? What kind of work did you do between Teachers College and your first supply gig?

WC: As I noted, I finished my teaching degree at OISE in 2015. I was hired as a “short term occasional teacher” (a teacher that gets jobs that are only one-day long) in November 2015. But I didn’t start work until February, 2016.

In the meantime, I worked as a caterer and then as a mailroom clerk for a temp agency. I also worked part time moving furniture, which was a job that I had already had for a few years.

I was told it would be nearly impossible to find a teaching job in Ontario, and it wasn’t the easiest. I applied to many boards and only heard back from one. Although, I’m relatively lucky because I received a job offer within six months of graduating. I’ve heard stories of people looking for a supply job for years after graduation.

Even though I’m in a school board now, it will still be a long road to getting a full-time contract position. I first have to stay on the “Short Time Occasional” list for 10 school months. This means that I will have to continue working jobs that change day-to-day. In this situation, I often don’t know what work I will have beyond the day I am working.

After ten months, I am eligible to apply to the “Long Term Occasional” (LTO) list. The jobs on this list are ten days or longer. If you are working in one of these jobs, you are given the benefits and the pay of an entry level teacher. However, you have to apply to new LTOs when the job ends or when the semester ends. So your job security is only as long as a semester or a year.

People end up working LTOs for years back to back before they are given a contract position. This is particularly true for liberal arts and social science teachers. With the push for the back-to-basics reading, writing and arithmetic model, large amounts of funding have been removed from these subjects and allocated to math and science.

CR: Can you give us a run-down of a normal day or week? Do you get enough hours? How much notice do you get?

WC: The way your week pans out depends on the time of year. September is particularly slow, while, April to June is a busy time. A normal week for me so far usually entails 4 to 5 supply calls, which is enough. The days are about 6 hours long and the pay is good. It’s a relatively good job in terms of pay and work conditions.

However, the number of days can vary at any time. Often, I only get notified of a job the day before or the day of the job at around 6 am. I don’t know if I will have any work beyond that day. I did have a couple of weeks where I only had 2 or 3 calls, which is hard to live on.

As a result of this lack of job security, I have little choice but to work other jobs. Right now, I still move furniture part-time and tutor. Balancing these schedules has proven to be difficult. About 4 days a week or more I am working one of these jobs in the evening or on the weekend.  This has become increasingly difficult because my moving job has become less flexible and is demanding more availability without the guarantee of a set schedule or number of hours. I’ve had to do some serious maneuvering and back and forth with my boss at that job to hold on to my position there.

CR: How many schools have you worked at?

WC: So far I have worked at three schools. There is a preferred supply list at each school. If the administrators like you, calls from that school will go to you first. Between these three schools I get a lot of work. Some people in the Union [the Ontario Secondary School Teacher’s Federation – ed.] take issue with this list because they feel that the allocation of jobs should be done through seniority. I think there is a point there, but I also think that that it gives new people a chance to go to the schools and start to make contacts for more work. During your probationary period you are assigned four schools to start and they give you your first jobs. If getting a call from these schools was based solely on seniority no new supply teachers would get any work. Also, if you go to fewer schools you’re better able to get to know the students, which is a major requirement for successful teaching.

CR: What are the conditions like? What are the students like?

WC: Conditions vary with the schools. Some administrators are more cooperative than others, and some have more progressive philosophies in terms of management and teaching than others. Some administrators I have dealt with have been very pro-hard discipline and police, resulting in large amounts of suspensions and police involvement. This disciplinarian attitude often guides their management style as well.

Sometimes administrators are also dismissive and uncooperative. I had a difficult time getting my assigned vice principals to complete my evaluations, which allow me to teach at more schools when completed. The Board and the Union are often little help, so you are really left to fend for yourself navigating the job and the school board, even when it comes to getting required evaluations.

Conditions also vary when it comes to students’ experiences at schools. Two of the schools I go to have fairly good conditions. One has a large IB program, which is a type of advanced placement. It also has a large Special Ed program that seems to be fairly well staffed. Another school I go to has many Academic courses and also seems to be fairly well funded.

On the other hand, the school I go to that is considered the “bad school,” in terms of students, seems to be underfunded. It is in what is considered to be a marginalized neighbourhood and offers mostly Applied courses. In some classes I have taught, students are not allowed to take textbooks home because there are not enough for both classes taking the subject.

Overall, the kids are generally cooperative. Sometimes it’s hard to get them to focus, especially with phones in the class, but most of the kids are good kids. In some schools, often in Basic and Special Ed courses, there a few kids that have no investment in school and do not want to learn. These students often idolize criminal culture and drug dealing. A lot of the time they are labelled as bad kids and are constantly suspended. In some cases, they are referred to the police. I find that these students can be cooperative if you talk to them and try not to get upset by the things they say to you. It’s best to play any insults or things they say off as a joke, or if they are of a more serious nature, ask if anything is wrong and ask if they need help. The less you yell or get mad at these students the more responsive they become. The only time I get mad at them is if they threaten other students. In other cases, I find getting them into trouble does little to help and further marginalizes them. A common practice in the education system.

CR: Have you had much opportunity to build relationships with students and coworkers? What does that mean for you as an educator?

WC: In terms of building relationships, at times it can be difficult to get to know your co-workers. You are often in different departments and different schools so you never really stay in one department long enough to get to know co-workers. Also, supply teachers are not trusted by some teachers due to previous bad experiences. There are many nice teachers that want to be helpful, but you are generally awkwardly on the outside in every department due to the fact that you are not regularly there.

Also, as supply teachers we are often isolated from each other because we are usually in different departments from our supply colleagues. This has an effect on our ability to develop collective action strategies.

Overall, a lack of relationships with co-workers affects how well you can navigate the industry and improve your teaching.

Building relationships with students has been easier because I have only gone to three schools. I have gotten to know students in the Special Ed department in one school the best, because I have taught their classes quite a bit. They often say hi to me in the hallways and I am better able to teach them because of this relationship.

However, you may go to one school for a long period of time and start to develop relationships and then you are not sent to that school for weeks. This happened to me once. I was going to one school and getting to know the students and I have not been back there for almost a month. I don’t know how well the students will remember me when I do go back.

Your ability to build relationships in the classroom effects how well you can teach them and support their specific needs and learning styles, as well as your ability to assist them with social and emotional issues. This is why moving around schools can make it difficult to effectively support students.

CR: What are the major issues or complaints that you or your coworkers who do supply teaching face?

WC: The major complaints of supply teachers generally revolve around job insecurity, lack of benefits and issues around summer pay.

First, you have no guarantee of hours, which prevents you from planning ahead. Without a guaranteed income, it is difficult to do things like move into better housing or travel because you never know how much you will make on your next paycheck. It is also a way for administration to keep supply teachers in line. If you make a mistake or do anything that the administrators do not like your hours dry up and you stop getting calls.

Another complaint is lack of benefits. While most other teachers have great benefit packages, we have no coverage whatsoever.

Finally, the summer presents every supply teacher with an issue. We do not get any work in the summer, and unlike other teachers we are not paid through those two months. This presents us with an issue because we need to find summer jobs, which can be difficult because few jobs are only two months long. Even seasonal jobs are usually a minimum of four months.

CR: How plugged in are supply teachers to the teachers union? How are your interests represented?

WC: Supply teachers are not very plugged into the Union. In fact, the Union is probably the most disappointing aspect of the teaching profession. In the OSSTF, supply teachers have our own district unit. As far as I can tell from talking to the President of the Occasional Teachers Bargaining Unit the only way for rank and file members to get involved with the Union is at the Annual General Meeting (AGM). At this meeting, members are really only able to vote for the executive or run for election.

At the AGM, there is also a question period, where members can ask questions of the President, while being directed by the meeting’s Chair. However, the Chair effectively muzzles anyone that questions the president too hard. Also at this meeting, we were addressed by representatives of the provincial office, who were condescending throughout the meeting and fairly uninterested in what was being discussed. It seemed that they were simply there to tell us that we would never understand what they won for us when bargaining with the government.

In terms of union outreach, they are very aloof and do not do much to promote their meetings or to attempt to get you involved. I heard nothing from the Union, until I called them about six weeks into my employment and then they still did not give me any information or a union card. I still have no card and the only information that I was given about the Union was a letter that had the date of the AGM on it.

Finally, participation in this Unit is abysmal. Out of over 1,000 members, maybe 150 people came to the AGM. There is also very little participation in the Executive. Out of maybe ten positions up for election, only one position had two candidates running. All other candidates ran unopposed for their positions. At the meeting, the President noted that over the last 7 years only three elections had more than one candidate in the race. That is included the elections for President.

Overall, I do not think that supply teachers’ interests are well represented based on the dismissiveness of the Chair during the questioning period and the lack of interest in the rank and file from the provincial office. Also, the lack of opportunity to participate and voice our interests shakes my confidence in the Union’s ability to adequately represent us. Based on these issues, it is clear why people do not get involved with the Union.

CR: Teachers have been a powerful force within public sector unionism, and there have recently been some very inspiring examples of reinvigorated teacher unionism, such as the success of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) within the Chicago Teachers Union and the recent Detroit teacher sick outs. What kind of potential exists for supply teachers to contribute to teachers struggles? What are the barriers?

WC: At the moment, my outlook on the ability of supply teachers to get involved with the struggle is somewhat bleak.

First, the OSSTF is so distant that I think most supply teachers do not see any of the effects it has on their life. The Union does not advertise their wins or make an effort to engage new members. Due to the lack of information from the Union, most supply teachers do not know where to get involved. And even if they did know where to get involved, the opportunity for direct involvement is so limited that there is no real way for a new member to make an impact. This lack of opportunity for participation is made even more evident by the disrespect of the executive and reactionary behaviour of the Chair I witnessed at the Annual General Meeting.

Also, supply teachers are scattered throughout the board, limiting our ability to get to know each other and organize any sort of collective action. While the Union could be a good place for supply teachers to meet, they do not offer space or time for this other than the Annual General Meeting, unless you are in the executive.

Finally, the insecurity and irregularity of a supply teacher’s job prevents supply teachers from taking any action. If we are involved in any action that challenges the administration, administrators can stop calling us, eliminating our hours and essentially our jobs.

That being said, there are a few possible steps to take to gather Occasional Teachers together through the OSSTF. Right now there is a major focus on gathering new teachers and attempting to educate them about the Union and its workings. The Executive is fairly desperate at this point to gain more participation in activities, despite the fact that there are few places for these teachers to plug themselves into. Because this is such a high priority for them they are looking for small number of rank and file teachers to assist in organizing intake events for new members. If someone is able to get involved in these activities, they could use this as an opportunity to gain the contact info of some supply teachers.

From there, events could be organized outside of the Union structure to get people involved in establishing more active and independent committees to develop strategies for dealing with employers and the Union.

Another option for a more active and progressive segment of the OSSTF’s Occasional Teacher’s Bargaining Unit is to run for election and attempt to take control of the Executive. Hopefully from this position they will be able to make it a more participatory and representative organization. This would allow more teachers to get involved and affect they types of actions the Union will take. However, at the moment we are not there and this is a bit of a gamble, because it is still a very executive-centered strategy. This is something that would have to wait until the next AGM.