teacher with young children in classroom

Precarity in Occasional Teaching

Amanda Anderson

The term “precarious work” has become established terminology over the last decade or so as workers are confronted with fewer opportunities for full-time work that comes with benefits and relative job security. Precarious work is increasingly a characteristic of Ontario’s economy and of the job market across the country. It is becoming a global phenomenon.

For more than a decade, being an occasional teacher in Ontario has meant being part of the province’s precarious workforce. An oversupply of teachers and a failure to increase teaching positions to address the need for smaller classes has meant that new teachers seeking full-time work have had to wait about seven years, on average, to secure a contract position. Being part of that precarious workforce makes it difficult to make ends meet, manage one’s life and plan for the future.

Welcome to My World

Waiting for assignment offers to fill your calendar is a reality for a daily occasional teacher and means leading a fragmented life. Though being an occasional teacher at various schools is rewarding and interesting, not being able to plan your work schedule can take a toll on your well-being. The only thing you can be certain of is a start date in September and an end date in June. There may not be much to live on in between.

The majority of public school boards in Ontario use an automated dispatch system to offer daily teaching assignments to occasional teachers. You look forward to the calls and being in the classroom. When you notice a missed call on your phone, it can be devastating. Personally, during the evening I make sure to charge my phone and hold it near me during the set call-out time for jobs. I don’t remember a time when I have eaten supper or walked my dog without my phone.

After you become familiar with the dips and spikes in job offer calls, you might become more strategic in which assignments you accept. Do you decline that part-day assignment in hopes that a full-day assignment will become available? If you do take that gamble, you may risk not working at all on a particular day. Will you accept an assignment an hour drive away or 10 minutes away? If you decline or miss too many calls, are you temporarily blocked from the automated system? It will depend on which board you work for.

Even when you do have a job booked there is still an element of uncertainty as jobs can be cancelled for various reasons. A good blast of snowy weather can wipe out a paycheque for some OTs. Or, if you get the sniffles, and must call in sick – the daily OT will never recoup that day. This is your life as an OT for the three to ten years it takes you to obtain a permanent contract, depending where you live.

Many school boards enable their software system with an online available jobs search. Depending on the parameter settings – there are hundreds – this may mean that the occasional teacher who can log onto the system more frequently and search more often is rewarded with the assignment. Will it be you or your colleague working? Whoever is the fastest to click “accept” gets to work! It can come to feel like the ultimate online job auction.

Supplementing your occasional teaching income with other part-time work creates its own set of problems. You may need the second income, but, depending on your employment, you may miss out on accepting teaching assignment offers. The irony of juggling multiple jobs to make a living is that you can end up working and earning even less. It’s a “catch 22” situation. And, achieving a healthy work-life balance – spending time with your family and friends, instead of being attached to your phone or refreshing your web browser to look for new job offerings – can be a challenge.

What is the Role for Job Search Apps?

For most OTs, maximizing the number of days worked is the fundamental issue. The more frequently you work, the more likely you are to strengthen connections in schools with students and gain teaching experience, get requested to a particular school if your collective agreement allows for this, obtain references for LTO positions, increase your income, increase your contributions to your pension, ensure enough hours for employment insurance, pay back student loans and ensure enough days taught to be able apply to the LTO list. If you cannot secure adequate work in daily occasional teaching, the challenges of these issues become a vicious cycle.

Many OTs are resorting to new tactics to secure work. Most notably, some are using an app that does the job search for them. If you work for a school board that enables online job shopping, an app can free up a lot of time. Many of the OTs I have talked to feel the apps are worth the cost. They constantly search the system so there are fewer missed opportunities and potentially more assignments. And those missed opportunities can be hundreds of online assignment notifications a month compared to just waiting for calls. If you learn of an assignment available to pick up online at the precise moment it was posted, the app has already paid for itself.

Using an app is controversial because it gives an advantage to those who use it. Some school boards are warning various degrees of discipline if teachers are caught using an app while others have blocked specific ones. But the thing about apps is there are many other competitors around the corner and new ones are popping up all the time.

A Fairer Alternative for Job Assignment

Some boards’ automated systems are set strictly to a rotational or random call out. The feature to search for jobs online is deactivated to align with their occasional teachers’ collective agreement requirement for fair access to work. No online job shopping means no use for apps. The debate to pay for an app or not use one is eliminated. Competition with your colleagues is also eliminated.

Mix this in with a capped list of OTs on the roster and you find that sweet spot of supply and demand to fill vacant jobs. Now you are even closer to employment you can count on. Let’s continue to have an open conversation around the mechanics of filling an occasional teacher job. For an occasional teacher, everything starts with access to work. Is the way a job is offered to daily OTs acceptable to all the members on the roster and does the technology used to put this in place match? The default setting of a board’s automated dispatch system may not be the “best match” for occasional teachers’ livelihood. OTs have to live and breathe its configured parameters, so let’s make sure all the options are explored and transparent.

The way jobs are allocated, the size of the roster and the system call out are all subject to collective bargaining. Contact your local union president, share your experience and ask questions. Fill out your local’s surveys on working conditions and attend general meetings. With a new round of collective bargaining around the corner and many software systems on the verge of upgrading with even more features to choose from, let’s not miss the opportunity to find a balance between our working lives and the technology that dictates our schedules.

Let’s also support ETFO’s Building Better Schools plan, which includes a call for smaller classes and more professional resources for children with special needs and English-language learners. If the government adopts these policies, not only will our schools be better places to learn, there will be more fulltime teaching positions and the opportunity for many OTs to leave the world of precarious work behind them.

Amanda Anderson is a member of The Bluewater Occasional Teacher Local.