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Teacher supply goes from glut to scarcity in a few short years

The mounting teacher shortages in parts of Canada have several sources, including working conditions, cuts to teacher education programs and a lack of specialty instructors.

By MOIRA MACDONALD | JAN 09 2019

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.

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  1. Jay / January 11, 2019 at 10:46

    I would like to see the research behind this. I have friends who are still looking for full time employment. Is this article written by an independent source? It looks like it’s being put out by the universities which is a little biased to get more applicants into undergrads and ultimately to teacher’s college.

  2. Jake / January 11, 2019 at 19:25

    Jay, if you’re in the teaching profession you’ll have seen that it’s getting much more difficult to find supplies (the lists are nearly exhausted), that and the LTO lists have almost been cleared out since they have all moved on to contract positions. Or at least that’s how it is in my board… (TVDSB)

  3. Nic / January 12, 2019 at 15:59

    This article is forgetting the drop out rate of teachers in the profession. So many teacher only teacher for several years before moving on to a different job. Because teaching is tough. Tons of work and such high expectations from parents with little support from those parents to reach those expectations.

  4. Cay / January 25, 2019 at 11:28

    It is my observation that many who start out teaching in the classroom quickly undertake a graduate degree and seek admin jobs to get out of the classrooms . The work is hard. Beaurcratic hoops to jump through, admin evaluating you ever second of the work day. You are expected to volunteer your time whenever a parent or administrator asks.

    The public wrongfully believe that teachers are overpaid and that government money goes directly into their pockets. I would argue that the school money goes straight to admin salaries. The ratio of teachers to administration is near equal.

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