A Whangārei principal says the struggle to find cover for teachers will only get worse over winter after a survey showed 92 relievers could not be found for classes in Northland in one week.

After multiple calls from principals around the region who were looking for relievers, the Te Tai Tokerau Principals' Association executive conducted a survey during the week ending May 24 to discover how serious the issue was.

Manaia View School principal Leanne Otene said the survey asked how many vacancies schools had, how many teacher days absent there were within a week, and whether or not schools were able to find relievers.

Eighty schools responded and it was discovered there were 19 vacancies in schools, the total number of absences by teachers was 415, and of those absences 92.5 could not be covered by relievers.

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"I was shocked. I was absolutely blown away," Otene said.

Otene said several things could happen when relief teachers could not be found.

It means teachers who had a scheduled day off for professional development had to cancel it so the reliever who was meant to cover them could fill in for a teacher who had called in sick; it also meant classes had to be split across the school.

"That has difficulties in itself. It creates extra workload for those teachers. But what's the biggest concern for me is that the teaching and learning of those tamariki, of those children, is not quality for that day because they have been moved into rooms that are not necessarily at their level," she said.

Otene said on average she has to split classrooms at least once a fortnight.

"We know that the relationship between the classroom teacher and their class is absolutely critical to an conducive educational programme - we just know that. So when you're putting a child with another teacher who they don't know, their whole routine is thrown out of practice. So what happens normally in my school is teachers come to work sick."

Otene said she's worried it will only get worse.

"We're going into the winter season and I do put in my newsletter saying to parents we try very hard to get relievers in the school and you're going to hear that your children are being split across other classes and we're really sorry."

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Amber Fairweather, a Whangārei relief teacher, was offered three fulltime jobs in six weeks and turned them down. Photo / John Stone
Amber Fairweather, a Whangārei relief teacher, was offered three fulltime jobs in six weeks and turned them down. Photo / John Stone

Amber Fairweather relieves at Manaia View School and other schools in Whangārei.

She works four days a week on average and has been offered three different fulltime teaching positions in the past six weeks but has declined them all.

"Currently, financially we are worse off if I work fulltime having to juggle three children and childcare.

"Secondly, my children are young and I know how demanding teaching is. The hours roll into your evenings and your weekends and now while my children are young it's not fair on them."

Otene said the lack of relievers was the result of the teacher shortage.

She said when there was a surplus of teachers they would become relievers. But because there were so many vacancies, good relievers were being pulled into fulltime teaching positions.

"I think what we need to do is entice those who left the profession back," she said.

Ministry of Education early learning and student achievement associate deputy secretary John McKeefry, said principals who were struggling to fill temporary relieving roles should get in contact with the ministry's teacher supply team.

"We are aware that the supply of relieving teachers is a challenge in small rural communities, including te reo Māori as a subject and in Māori medium settings, like Tai Tokerau," he said.