The number of school-age children in Quebec has been rising steadily in recent years, yet enrolments in teacher education programs in the province has declined. This lack of interest in the teaching profession, combined with the growing demand for French-speaking teachers for immersion programs in the rest of Canada, is leading to worries of a significant teacher shortage.
The Institut de la statistique du Québec forecasts a 22-percent increase in student enrolments in French-language secondary schools between 2015-16 and 2029-30, and a 14-percent increase in elementary schools. “We will need to find more teachers to meet the demand,” said Martin Maltais, a professor who specializes in education policy at Université du Québec à Rimouski.
But enrolment in education programs at most of the province’s francophone universities has been declining over the past five years. This past April, the Journal de Montréal reported that, in 2017, there were 373 fewer student enrolments in education programs at Université du Québec à Chicoutimi compared to 2012. Université Laval had 190 fewer enrolments and Université du Québec à Montréal, 179. This will translate into fewer teaching graduates by as soon as 2020.
A critical shortage
This year, Montreal’s Marguerite-Bourgeoys school board – Quebec’s second-largest – took in approximately 3,000 more students than last year. Ordinarily, enrolment growth is somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 per year.
“More than 80 percent of our young pupils are immigrant children and 63 percent do not speak French as their first language,” noted director general Dominic Bertrand. “Eighteen months ago, we received 500 Syrian refugees, then another 700-plus young asylum seekers since September.”
Young students with weak French-language skills are placed in introductory classes where the ratio (at the high school level) is a maximum of 17 students per teacher, compared to 32 in a regular class. This year, the number of introductory classes has jumped from 175 to 255 across elementary and secondary schools within the school board, increasing the staff ’s workload. “Our reserve of teachers was depleted months ago,” said the director.
Quebec’s schools must also contend with competition from other provinces looking to attract francophone teachers, especially British Columbia and Alberta. According to Statistics Canada, there were 428,625 students enrolled in French immersion programs at elementary and secondary schools outside Quebec in 2015-16. That’s up by more than 20 percent from 2011-12.
“We are not training enough teachers who can teach in French” in British Columbia, confirmed Wendy Carr, associate dean of teacher education at the University of British Columbia. “The same goes for several other provinces.”
Quebec teachers can easily find work in the rest of Canada, as their teaching degrees are recognized nationwide. But most teachers who come to B.C. usually end up staying only a few years, said Dr. Carr. Homesickness and the high cost of living in some areas eventually compel them to return home. “Universities need to attract young candidates who are able and eager to teach in French, and soon,” she said.
Quebec is not the only province offering French-language education degree programs. Laurentian University, York University and University of Ottawa in Ontario all offer such programs, as well as Université de Moncton in New Brunswick and Université Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia. Out West, University of Regina, University of Alberta and Simon Fraser University also offer French-language teaching programs.
An image problem
Why are young Quebecers avoiding education programs? Josée Scalabrini, president of the Fédération des syndicats de l’enseignement, which has a membership of more than 65,000 teachers in Quebec, believes the answer lies in the profession’s poor image and the less-than ideal working conditions. “What has the government done in the past 20 years to promote the profession?” she said. “Teaching has become a lot more complex and demanding, but the government refuses to acknowledge this or to adapt the working conditions accordingly.”
Quebec teachers are among the lowest paid in Canada, despite the fact that they are required to complete a four-year degree program to enter the profession. “We need to reinvest massively in the education sector, but we also need to pause and discuss the profession and the working conditions,” said Ms. Scalabrini.
“We have to work together to find viable solutions for the medium- and long-term,” agreed Monique Brodeur, dean of UQAM’s faculty of education. Discussions to this end will soon get under way between Quebec’s association of deans of education, the association of Quebec school board directors, Quebec’s ministry of education and higher education, teachers’ unions and representatives from the college sector. Students will also have their say.
Dr. Brodeur also acknowledged that the profession’s profile in the media has taken a hit in recent years. News stories tend to focus on the roughly 15 percent of teachers who leave the profession within the first five years of their career and the lack of job security for new recruits, rather than on the more positive aspects of teaching. “We need to be careful not to turn young people off,” said the dean. “Teaching has its challenges, but it is still a wonderful profession.”