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“The teacher shortage is ruining Ontario’s education system—and our kids are paying the price”

Jason Bradshaw, a teacher at Castlebrooke Secondary School in Brampton, says cancelled classes, field trips, counselling sessions and library hours are becoming the norm. He blames Doug Ford’s government for neglecting to adequately fund education

By Jason Bradshaw, as told to Ali Amad| Photography by Shlomi Amiga
"The teacher shortage is ruining Ontario's education system—and our kids are paying the price"

Unlike many teachers, my first love wasn’t education—it was science. Growing up in Brampton, it was my favourite subject. I was particularly obsessed with learning everything I could about space: the nature of stars and planets, the Big Bang, the movement of light. After high school, I decided to pursue a degree in biochemistry at University of Toronto Mississauga.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted my career to be. I enjoyed studying science, but I wasn’t interested in going to medical school or working in a laboratory. When I was about to graduate, in the mid-2000s, Ontario was starting to enter a teacher surplus, but universities were still recruiting people to go into science and math education. I’d always enjoyed helping other people understand the things I was passionate about, so I enrolled in teacher’s college.

Like many other new teachers, I started off as a long-term occasional teacher, covering for regular teachers on long leaves of absence, like maternity leave. I spent seven years in schools throughout Brampton and Mississauga. Managing an entire class wasn’t easy, especially at first. I quickly learned that children demand a lot of attention and patience. But it was incredibly rewarding to introduce students to the wonders of science. I loved seeing that spark of curiosity in their eyes.

In 2016, I was hired at Castlebrooke Secondary School in Brampton as a full-time science teacher. For the first 13 years of my career, there was no shortage of new teachers. Open positions would rapidly be filled by someone qualified, and if a teacher had a sick day or needed to take personal leave, there would often be several supply teachers applying to cover for them. This reliable backup pool of qualified teachers was crucial—it helped prevent interruptions to classes, which are incredibly disruptive to students’ learning.

Everything changed after the pandemic hit. Educators were on the front lines. We had to constantly pivot—usually without much notice or adequate time to prepare. We were on board with whatever was safest for us and our students, but we didn’t get training on how to teach virtually. We had to learn on the fly. Unsurprisingly, this led to a lot of stress and burnout. Many veteran teachers retired early, and others left the field to pursue different careers. It was a challenge for me too, but I persevered with the hope that the situation was only a temporary one.

Now, even though Covid-19 has subsided, many of those vacant teaching positions haven’t been filled. Educators are still leaving the profession, and enrolment at teacher’s colleges isn’t keeping up with the demand. It’s causing a teacher shortage that’s affecting every government-funded school, public or Catholic, in all of Ontario’s school districts. And it’s not just teachers leaving the field in droves: we have shortages across the board, including educational assistants, supply teachers, counsellors and social workers.

In this climate, even just one sick teacher creates a ripple effect. Often, there are no supply teachers available to cover for them, so we have to pull someone like a librarian or a counsellor away from their regular job to teach. That means the library has to close, or the counsellor won’t be available to support students. Either way, the kids suffer. At our school, this scenario plays out multiple times a week, sometimes even on a daily basis. Of course, everything non-essential falls by the wayside: field trips, sports and parties get cancelled because there’s no one available to supervise them.

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When we do manage to find replacement teachers, they aren’t always qualified to teach the subject at hand. I really started noticing this when I became head of the science department at Castlebrooke in 2022. There is a complete dearth of qualified supply teachers, so we have to use teachers who have no experience teaching science. This is a subject where you need engaging, hands-on learning—but the students can’t do lab work if the replacement educator doesn’t know how to perform the experiment. It’s possible that a child could develop a lifelong antipathy toward something like chemistry because of an unqualified teacher who’s just trying to do their best in an impossible position.

Jason standing in front of a portable classroom at his school

In other cases, there isn’t a single substitute educator available, so the class just gets cancelled. A colleague of mine told me recently that their own child took the bus to their GTA school one day only to find that all their classes had been cancelled. Forced to wait for the afternoon bus, the kid studied alone in the cafeteria all day. This is happening more frequently than people realize, because students don’t always tell their parents. Schools are often scrambling to find substitutes until the last minute, so they may not get around to notifying families. That’s what’s so scary: as long as their kids go to school in the morning and come back in the afternoon, many parents assume that everything is normal.

My fellow teachers and I are aware of these realities, and we feel a lot of pressure to work while we’re sick or in need of leave. Recently, a colleague of mine suffered an injury and desperately needed to take an extra day off to recover. But they worried that they’d be perceived as milking it, so they went to work. If you take too many sick days, you’re liable to get a passive-aggressive letter from human resources asking, disingenuously, whether everything is okay. During the pandemic, I made a vow to myself that I would never work sick, but I’ve since broken that promise on numerous occasions. It’s not ideal, but it feels better than the alternative: a new reality where kids are accustomed to cancelled classes and sports seasons, limited field trips and a lack of access to critical resources like counselling.

It’s been frustrating to see the provincial government’s stance on the issue, because it doesn’t reflect the realities we’re witnessing. Minister of Education Stephen Lecce has repeatedly boasted that education spending is higher now than it’s ever been—$29 billion for the 2024/25 school year alone. That’s true, but this record high doesn’t factor in inflation. In terms of real dollars, we’re spending less and less on education with each passing year. I believe our government sees education as an area where it can make cuts without the public noticing. It’s frustrating that decisions about public education are being made by people who are entirely removed from the system. I doubt Lecce often visits public schools, and he himself is a product of a private education.

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This disconnect is even clearer when you look at how the province is trying to address the shortage. For example, the government has been pushing for retired teachers to work 95 days a year to help fill some of the vacancies caused by the pandemic, but this isn’t a long-term solution. These veteran teachers want to enjoy their retirements, not wade back into the mess of our public education system. The province also relies on rushing student teachers into classrooms before they’ve even graduated. We want the most qualified people teaching our kids—there’s a reason student teachers need to go through college first.

In the absence of adequate investment from the province, class sizes at my school and many others are slowly creeping up. In the past, there would be 27 or 28 students in one of my department’s classes, but now every class is filled to the maximum number allowed, which is 31. After all, the easiest way for the province to save money on education is by increasing the number of children per classroom and then hiring fewer teachers. But that means educators have less time to spend with each student, and limited resources—computers, lab equipment, art supplies—are spread thin.

When teachers or teachers’ unions draw attention to the drop in provincial funding, people like to point out that some teachers are on the Sunshine List, meaning they make over $100,000 a year. But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what teachers want. We’re advocating not only for higher salaries; we’re pushing for funding to hire more teachers. And this idea that teaching is a cushy job couldn’t be more wrong. There’s a very high burnout rate, and many new teachers quit within the first five years. In Peel District, we are continuing to hemorrhage staff with each passing month. In the past year, we had more secondary-school teacher resignations than retirements, with 50 and 48, respectively, which is unheard of.

If we continue to lose teachers, class sizes will continue rising, and the quality of education our children receive will inevitably plummet. Without enough full-time and supply teachers, class cancellations will likely become the norm. Earlier this year, students at a Catholic school in York Region were given full marks on their midterms in three different subjects because they’d had no permanent teachers for most of the semester. Those of us teachers who are left will be burdened with more and more work, which makes the job even more daunting and hurts our ability to attract the new educators we desperately need. The only thing that will prevent all of this from getting worse is funding that matches, or exceeds, inflation.

Despite all the challenges, I still love teaching. I carry my responsibility as an educator with a lot of pride. I haven’t considered a new career because I have hope that these hardships will pass. The most valuable asset in a classroom isn’t the seats, tables, computers or iPads; it’s the people—teachers, educational assistants, librarians, counsellors. That’s who we’re losing when the funding is insufficient. The investments we make in education will reap countless dividends in our economy. These kids are our future. That’s why it’s so short-sighted for our province to not invest in them and instead prioritize saving money and “finding efficiencies” ahead of the next election.

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