Seana Schonfeldt-Taylor is getting a jumpstart on her teaching career before she’s even finished her bachelor of education program. The undergraduate at Laurentian University is in her final year of a concurrent education degree that she has combined with a bachelor’s in sociology.
Since the start of September, Ms. Schonfeldt-Taylor has been called at least once a week, sometimes twice, to do back-up supply teaching at a local elementary school due to a growing shortage of teachers that is quickly spreading across the country. What’s more, she didn’t even apply to be put on the call-up list – the school approached her to go on the list after she’d worked in their daycare last summer.
“It’s awesome,” said Ms. Schonfeldt-Taylor, 24, who is due to graduate this spring and is also a certified early childhood educator. “I hate when they call and I know I can’t go because of classes. They kind of know what my schedule is, but if they really need me they’ll call to see if I can come in.”
It’s a situation that was rarely seen in Ontario only a few years ago, due to a glut of teacher education graduates that also existed to varying degrees elsewhere in Canada. That trend has quickly reversed. First-year teacher unemployment in Ontario dropped from 38 percent in 2013 to 14 percent by 2017 and is “well into the single digits” this year, says Frank McIntyre, a research consultant to the Ontario College of Teachers.
The mounting teacher shortage is impacting faculties of education country-wide, with especially strong demand for teachers specialized in French, French as a second language, math and science. Substitute teacher lists are also drying up as new teachers find more opportunities for permanent work.
Among the contributing factors, say observers, is the slowly rising number of teacher retirements coupled with increasing school enrolments in parts of the country, cuts to teacher education programs, patchy applicant interest after years of hearing there were no jobs, and region-specific circumstances that have impacted supply and demand.
Applications to Université de Sherbrooke’s primary grades education program have dropped more than 20 percent in the last three years, a common situation at other Quebec education faculties, said the university’s dean of education, Serge Striganuk, who is also president of Quebec’s Association of Deans and Directors for Study and Research in Education (Association des doyens, doyennes et directeurs, directrices pour l’étude et la recherche en éducation au Québec, or ADEREQ). The Quebec deans of education are working with the provincial government and school boards to improve the public profile and conditions of teaching so that prospective students will see it as a valued and worthwhile profession. In Montreal, some schools were still looking for teachers at the start of the school year in September.
“In the first five years, new teachers face working conditions that are not so great,” including low salaries and a lack of permanency, said Dr. Striganuk. A campaign promise by the recently elected provincial government under François Legault to increase the starting teaching salary from $45,000 to $53,000 could help, but more will need to be done, Dr. Striganuk said.
British Columbia’s government, meanwhile, has had to quickly add 3,700 extra teachers in response to a 2016 Supreme Court of Canada ruling requiring it to restore public school staffing to 2002 levels. Following the ruling, provincial education faculties received an extra $1.2 million to create new teacher education places. As a result, the University of British Columbia’s faculty of education was able to add 60 new spaces this year and next, 40 of them for students specializing in French immersion. The faculty also doubled its rural education program from 30 to 60 seats separate from the government’s initiative.
The sudden expansion “is a good problem to have,” said Marianne McTavish, the faculty of education’s associate dean of teacher education. “It means that our new graduates have many more opportunities than they’ve had in some time.”
In Ontario, the number of newly certified teachers in 2018, about 5,100, now “barely equals” the number of forecasted annual retirements, said Mr. McIntyre. In 2015, the provincial government halved the number of students who could enrol each year in teacher education programs – from 9,000 to 4,500 – and doubled the length of teacher training to four semesters.
Such a drastic cut was not an easy transition, said George Sheppard, director of Laurentian’s English-language education program (the university also has a French-language program). Dr. Sheppard said education programs should have greater flexibility to respond to sporadic labour gluts so that areas in higher demand, like French or technological education, are better protected.
Many education faculties are “re-aligning” their recruitment efforts so that gaps in such speciality areas can be quickly filled, said Kirk Anderson, dean of Memorial University’s education faculty and president of the Association of Canadian Deans of Education. At the same time, though, faculties “are going to have to get some better data about what the needs actually are out there” so that they can make a strong case for where faculties should expand.
Ontario and B.C. are already working on compiling improved supply and demand data. Dr. Anderson said his association would like to put together a “pan-Canadian” dataset to give a more complete picture of the needs across the country.
“We need better awareness on the part of government and our own university communities that there actually is demand out there, because we’re suffering from cuts to resources from governments across the board that’s undermining our capacity to train teachers,” said Dr. Anderson.