In Education, Too Much Focus on Seniority Hurts Students

March 2, 2020 Updated: March 2, 2020
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Commentary

Suppose you have been diagnosed with a serious heart disease and you need open-heart surgery. Two surgeons are available to perform the procedure. The first surgeon was hired because of her skills and qualifications while the second was hired solely on the basis of his seniority. Which surgeon would you choose to perform the procedure?

If you have a healthy sense of self-preservation, you would certainly pick the first surgeon. That’s because heart surgery is serious business and you want the most skillful surgeon in the operating room. Years of surgical experience is good, but a proven skill and success is much better.

The same holds true in other professions such as law, pharmacy, dentistry, or education. Expertise depends more on skill than on seniority. Unfortunately, the Ontario teachers’ unions don’t share this common-sense perspective. These unions support a provincial regulation that prevents principals from hiring the best teachers for teaching positions.

Regulation 274 was put in place by the previous Ontario Liberal government. It set up a byzantine system of hiring requirements that makes it virtually impossible for principals to hire new teacher graduates for permanent positions, regardless of how skillful and qualified the candidate might be.

In short, Regulation 274 requires school boards to create and regularly update two lists—one roster of “occasional teachers” and another of “long-term occasional teachers.” The roster of occasional teachers lists, in order of seniority, all substitute teachers currently working for the school board. The roster of long-term occasional teachers consists of substitute teachers with at least 10 months seniority and, at minimum, 20 days of teaching experience with the same school board.

When a permanent teaching position becomes available, only teachers on the long-term occasional teachers’ list are eligible to apply. By law, the school board must interview the five applicants with the most seniority who meet the minimum qualifications and then hire one of these five applicants.

Confused? You should be. It’s a complicated system that forces new teacher graduates to spend years on substitute teaching lists before even getting a shot at a permanent job, no matter how skilled they are as teachers.

This regulation prevents principals from selecting the best teacher for the job, even when that teacher happens to already be in the classroom. Under Regulation 274, when a permanent teacher resigns, an occasional teacher who filled in for, say, the past three months for that teacher is ineligible to be considered the permanent teaching position because he or she doesn’t have at least a four-month teaching assignment with the board.

Unfortunately, the teachers’ unions in Ontario strongly oppose any attempt to revoke or change Regulation 274. In fact, this regulation is a key sticking point in the current labour dispute between the province and the teachers’ unions, particularly the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO). ETFO president Sam Hammond has made it clear that the ongoing job action is largely because the union opposes any attempt to abolish Regulation 274.

The ETFO argues that Regulation 274 helps prevent unfair hiring practices such as nepotism. It’s sad that teachers’ unions have such a low regard for the profession. While nepotism is obviously a problem in some situations, the reality is that the vast majority of principals and superintendents are fully capable of setting their personal feelings aside and hiring the best teacher for a specific job. Regulation 274 makes it impossible for them to do that.

In addition, there is a difference between being minimally qualified for a position (having a valid teaching certificate) and being the most skillful teacher for a position. An average teacher who spent five years on the long-term occasional teachers’ list working primarily in suburban schools obviously meets the minimum qualifications to teach a Grade 5 homeroom in an inner-city school. However, a recent teacher graduate who has extensive prior career experience, a long history of volunteering with disadvantaged youth, and stellar recommendations from her practicum advisers who saw her work with such students is likely a better fit. Unfortunately, she can’t even be considered for the position.

Regulation 274 also makes it harder for a school board to diversify its teaching staff. A principal cannot hire a newly graduated Indigenous teacher for a classroom of primarily Indigenous students if the top people on the seniority list happen to be white males. Rigid seniority hiring requirements make it difficult for newly graduated minority candidates to break in.

Obviously, for the sake of children and their parents, this regulation has to change.

At this point, Ontario is the only province with such severely restrictive hiring requirements. Other provinces would do well to stay away from Ontario’s disastrous experiment with seniority-based hiring. Few things undermine teacher professionalism more than prioritizing seniority above skill. All students deserve the best teachers available.

Teachers are professionals, not interchangeable factory widgets. In all professions, skill matters much more than seniority.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.