The NWT is expected to lose at least 137 teachers this year according to Matthew Miller, president of NWT Teachers’ Association (NWTTA).
Miller said that’s an increase on the typical loss of approximately 100 teachers each year. Even that number, he said, was “definitely too high.” This year’s figure was first reported by the CBC.
This year’s higher turnover is likely “a bit of an anomaly” driven by the pandemic, Miller said, adding: “It’s been very unique where teachers have not been able to travel to be with their loved ones.”
The teachers’ association conducts a survey of outgoing teachers to understand their reasons for leaving. The top three reported reasons this year, according to Miller, are the length of isolation time for returning travellers, the cost of isolation, and a desire to take a position closer to family and friends.
In Yellowknife alone, Miller said, 47 teachers told the association they plan to leave the territory this summer for positions elsewhere.
Nor is the total of 137 outgoing teachers final. Of 56 worksites and schools, 15 are still to report their numbers.
“I would be shocked if that number does not go up. I wouldn’t say that 15 worksites are going to have 100-percent retention,” said Miller.
With 90 teachers leaving schools in communities outside Yellowknife, Miller said some of the smallest communities “will see a complete or near-complete turnover, including the administration.”
Although the NWTTA couldn’t provide community-specific numbers, Miller said the Beaufort Delta region is one of the hardest-hit – as it is annually.
“Great, great communities, but they are the most northern places, hardest to access, the cost goes up – things like that,” he said. “You know the teachers that are there love it and then sometimes they just… they transfer out.”
‘We won’t have teachers’
Lesa Semmler, the MLA for Inuvik Twin Lakes, said the loss of teachers this year is “alarming.”
“It’s concerning. We already have a hard time getting teachers here. The Beaufort Delta is a very different place than the southern territory. Most of the communities are isolated, fly-in communities,” Semmler told Cabin Radio.
She said Covid-19 travel restrictions are playing a role in the loss of teachers.
“We don’t have a lot of local teachers. So, in the territory and in the region – and I’ve been saying this – with all these restrictions … we’re going to suffer,” she said.
“A lot of these teachers are great teachers and they want to be here for our students, but at what cost to them?
“The Covid pandemic has already impacted our kids’ education, and this will impact it even more because we won’t have the teachers to teach when the kids can get back into school.”
Semmler said her concern extends more broadly to the impact of pandemic restrictions on the wellbeing of residents.
“We’ve got people in crisis, mental health crisis. We’re losing way more than we are from Covid,” she said.
Prioritizing mental health
Miller said a focus on mental health supports had been requested by some outgoing teachers when asked, in an exit survey, what could have been done differently to get them to stay. Others wished for more support from colleagues and their employer.
“This has been a very unique and challenging year for mental health and that, definitely, is a highlight,” said Miller.
“We can definitely do better to support teachers and get them to stay. We did have – in our last agreement with the GNWT group – a committee looking at teacher recruitment and retention, and those conversations are still ongoing. Both the association and the government are well aware that this is a concern and we’re both trying to address it together.”
In a statement, the NWT’s Department of Education, Culture and Employment (ECE) said it was “committed to working with education bodies and the NWT Teachers’ Association to identify and address issues that result in high turnover rates among NWT teachers. Students and educators make meaningful connections and ECE is aware that a high turnover impacts these relationships.
“ECE is optimistic that the relaxing of isolation requirements based on vaccination status will help support teacher recruitment and retention.”
News of the uptick in teachers leaving the NWT comes as the NWTTA and GNWT continue collective bargaining negotiations for all teachers outside Yellowknife.
Those negotiations affect approximately 450 members who work for the South Slave, Dehcho, Beaufort Delta, and Sahtu Divisional Education Councils, as well as for the NWT’s Commission scolaire francophone and Tłı̨chǫ Community Services Agency.
The last collective agreement, set to expire on July 31, included a 2.5-percent wage increase according to an October joint news release from the GNWT and NWTTA.