Schools superintendent Michael Sereda is in a position that might be considered enviable. But he doesn’t think so. Since at least 2005, Mr. Sereda has faced the annual task of filling a modest number of teaching jobs at his southwestern Ontario school board, choosing from a landslide of applications from certified teachers eager to fill those posts.
“It would not be an exaggeration to say the applications we receive are in the thousands every year,” says Mr. Sereda, executive superintendent of human resources services for the Thames Valley District School Board in London, Ontario.
For the current school year, he had 161 positions to fill, and many of those were only part-time teaching contracts. Even for teachers trying to get on the board’s supply teaching list, competition is stiff. The supply list is considered a stepping stone, after a minimum of three years, to a permanent position.
“It’s nuts,” says a frustrated Mr. Sereda. “You get these poor kids [applying] who are absolutely fabulous and I can’t offer them anything. Even suggesting hope is tough.”
The situation he describes is but one symptom of the worst teacher oversupply situation in the country. A few other provinces, such as British Columbia and Nova Scotia, also have been coping with oversupply. But by sheer numbers, Ontario tops them all.
Over the last five years, Ontario has seen an average of 4,500 teachers retiring annually – but another 12,000 new people are getting certified to teach. About 9,000 of the new teachers are graduates of education faculties at Ontario universities. Besides retirements, other circumstances also cause jobs to open up, but taking everything into account, each year at least 4,000 more new teachers are entering Ontario’s system looking for work than there are positions for them.
The effect of an ever-growing pool of job seekers is reflected in a 2010 survey by the Ontario College of Teachers (PDF), the provincial body that licenses teachers. Most neophyte teachers aren’t getting full-time jobs, or anything close. In 2006, 30 percent of teachers in their first year after graduation were either unemployed or underemployed. By 2010, that proportion had more than doubled, to 68 percent. Nearly one in four new teachers got no work at all, up from just three percent in 2006.
“It’s like your life is on hold,” says Yvonne Ringler. Since graduating in 2005 from Lakehead University’s one-year bachelor of education program, the 30-year-old has worked a variety of daily supply and long-term supply jobs in a school board east of Toronto and even taught overseas. But she has been unable to secure a full-time teaching position. Two of her friends are in exactly the same boat.
The irony is that barely 14 years ago Ontario was bracing itself for the mother of all teacher shortages. “It is kind of a roller-coaster story,” says Frank McIntyre, manager of human resources for the Ontario College of Teachers, who has been tracking teacher numbers for well over a decade.
In 1998 Ontario was expecting to lose, by 2008, as many as 78,000 teachers through retirement, out of a total teaching corps of 171,500. And teachers did retire – but with 62,000 leaving over the decade, it was not as many as the experts had predicted.
Meanwhile, things were opening up dramatically on the supply side. Lobbying by universities’ education faculties and the Ontario College of Teachers pushed the provincial government to fund an extra 1,500 one-year teacher education spots, bringing the total number of those spaces – which make up the bulk of teacher education spaces – to 6,500 in 2003. That doesn’t include additional places contributed by the four- or five-year teacher-education programs or by three wholly new teacher-ed programs that were approved and opened at Ontario universities during the decade. When all was said and done, Ontario ended up with more than 9,000 spots for teacher-ed students in its education faculties in a given year.
Demand for those spots shot up, too, from fewer than 8,000 applicants in 1998 to about 15,000 by 2005. Those who didn’t make it into Ontario education faculties could turn to foreign universities and to the U.S. “border colleges,” which quickly developed or expanded their teacher training programs to fill the demand. Those colleges more than tripled their teacher-ed contingent to 1,700 graduates a year by 2006 (dropping since then to about 1,000). The Ontario government also allowed Australia’s Charles Sturt University to offer teacher education programs directly in Ontario, joining New York’s Niagara University, which already had been permitted to do so for many years.
Just as the province’s capacity to train more teachers reached full throttle, the Ontario College of Teachers declared the shortage over in 2005, although it was already winding down for a few years before that, save for modest demands in a few areas such as French, science, math and technology. These subject areas have since tightened up. Overall, a decline in the number of school-aged children in Canada, a petering out of teacher retirements, and a larger pool of retired teachers returning to do supply work all made jobs tighter for new graduates.
Despite that, the Ontario government didn’t actually cut the number of funded teacher-education places until 2011, rolling out a reduction of 885 spots that would take full effect by 2012. That will still leave Ontario with 9,058 teacher education spots.
John Milloy, Ontario’s minister of training, colleges and universities before the election, noted that there are “simply too many people” going through Ontario education faculties compared with the demand for teachers. He described the cut negotiated with universities as “a fairly significant hit to the budget of these institutions,” and one his government wanted to do “in a way that lessened the fiscal impact.”
Even if the negotiated cut seems modest, faculties of education say they’ve been caught in the middle of demands, first to expand and then to contract. While administrators acknowledge that a surplus exists and they bear some responsibility to help address it, they say the way the cut is being distributed creates challenges, especially when it means curtailing relatively new programs that were planned in the midst of the shortage.
George Sheppard, director of Laurentian University’s English school of education, says, “It’s kind of a drop in the bucket for them,” referring to the impact of the cutback on government. “But for me it’s a big deal.”
Laurentian already had a French-language teacher education program in place, but in 2003 it added a four-year and a five-year program with an aboriginal focus in the English stream, to address regional needs. An $18-million building opened in 2008. The school had just been accredited by the Ontario College of Teachers to start a one-year intermediate and senior teacher-ed program when it was informed in 2010 to expect funding cutbacks for spaces. So now, a program that was expected to enrol 200 students at full capacity is being capped at 65 students for 2012.
“We have a building the university is still paying off,” says Dr. Sheppard. “People were hired on the expectation there would be a student body to teach. But that doesn’t appear to be the case. So it’s awkward.”
Alice Pitt, dean of York University’s faculty of education, says that fewer spaces may hamper an education faculty’s ability to support graduate programs – typically attended by working teachers or those with an interest in education but not planning to teach – or its ability to offer a BEd to people who want to teach internationally or use what they’ve learned outside of the formal Kindergarten to Grade 12 school system.
Dr. Pitt describes education as a faculty that has been treated “more like medicine, less like law” in the way government has periodically stepped in to control enrolment to reflect public education’s labour needs. What gets overlooked, she suggests, is that education faculties have more capacity – and could have even more in the future – to serve education needs beyond supplying teachers to the K-12 school system.
Education deans say that the Ontario government doesn’t control the number of spaces offered by U.S. border colleges, so Ontario-funded universities are unfairly bearing the brunt of the remedy. If Ontario universities are forced to cut back too much, they say, students who want to be teachers will turn to border colleges, and that won’t do anything to fix the supply problem.
“We feel it’s important for everybody to feel the pain equally,” says Jim Greenlaw, dean of education with the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. “We don’t want to graduate students who can’t get jobs.”
The former minister, Mr. Milloy, said he moved to limit any expansion, turning down a bid by Australia’s Charles Sturt to add a high school teacher-ed program. U.S. border colleges, however, are beyond the government’s reach. Meanwhile, their enrolment numbers have fallen, too.
“It has dropped significantly, all around the border [college] towns that I can see around here, because there are no jobs,” says Ron Dannecker, director of international admissions and marketing at D’Youville College in Buffalo, New York, whose teacher-ed program is popular with Canadian students.
In Ontario, too, applications have dropped to 11,500, and confirmed acceptances for this academic year were 7,668, the lowest level since 2005. While the job picture for teachers is better in Ontario’s most northerly regions than the rest of the province, the job situation still “obviously discourages people,” says Sharon Rich, dean of the Schulich School of Education at Nipissing University in North Bay. “Students aren’t taking up the [acceptance] offers the way they have in the past,” she says.
As for Mr. Sereda at the Thames Valley school board, he doesn’t expect the provincial cuts to the education faculties to make much difference to the glut of new teachers that he faces every spring. “Too little, too late,” he says. Even if education faculties stopped training teachers entirely, he says he’d have enough applicants to fill his job needs for the next five years.
But those at education faculties say it’s tricky to correctly predict what future needs will be. They suggest that Ontario may need to take a different perspective on the role of education faculties, and even to start discussions about a longer time to earn a BEd, upping it from one to two years, like Alberta has. During the election campaign, Premier Dalton McGuinty promised to increase the BEd from one to two years for people who hold a bachelor’s degree, if his party was elected.
As for right-sizing the job expectations of teacher education students, both deans and would-be teachers say that education students are more aware than ever of the real job picture. But there will always be those who will work hard to become teachers no matter what.
“The ones who still apply have a passion,” says Dr. Pitt. “They aren’t going to give it up easily.” Ms. Ringler, the underemployed 2005 graduate, agrees: “I am a teacher. I have to be a teacher, regardless.”