Pining for fewer teachers? Be careful what you wish for.

Over the past year, much has been written about the labour shortage in Canada, with many sectors facing difficulties finding skilled people to fill positions. One area that certainly has no workforce shortage is education, where it seems that systems across the country are producing more teachers than they can use. This trend has brought about decisive action by at least one provincial government. Ontario recently announced that it was planning on moving forward on a promise to double the time needed to acquire a teaching degree and to halve the number of graduates. They have produced numbers which state that although approximately 11000 new teachers are certified each year in that province, about one-third  are unable to find work. Here at home the situation is no better.  It is reported that Nova Scotia only needs one out of every three teachers it  graduates.

However, reducing the number of teachers who graduate from colleges is not, in and of itself, going to do a great deal to curb this trend. Nova Scotia, in fact,  tried this exact approach in the mid nineties, when several education programs were cut including, among others, programs at Dalhousie, CBU (then UCCB) and at the Nova Scotia’s Teacher’s College. When that happened, students who could not find room in programs here at home simply traveled, often to programs that required less time and, not inconsequentially, less money to complete. If young people can not get a seat in Ontario, then they will simply go elsewhere.

The second action, moving to increase training for teachers, holds more promise. This is, however, not a particularly popular policy among some commentators. Consider Margaret Wendt, who weighed in on the issue with a piece in the Globe and Mail on June 6th. Writing on what she called “the teachers college mess”, Wendt opined that “…jacking up academic requirements is a time-honoured way of jacking up pay”. In support of this vein of thinking, she offered up a quote from a book entitled Campus Confidential whose authors question the wisdom  of requiring a grade two teacher to have training equal to a physician.

I have always been puzzled by this stance. Teachers should have less training? Tough to imagine someone saying that about any other profession. Do you want your plumber to have less training? Your lawyer? Your dentist? I would also argue that we want the highest trained educators in the youngest grades, when children’s minds are developing and learning differences are being identified. If it is my child in a grade two classroom of thirty children,  I want that teacher to know every trick, every strategy and every theory in the book.

As it stands today, only the most dedicated and persistent teachers will find full-time work. Many exceptional educators will be forced to grind away part-time for years and for very little pay before finally landing a permanent contract. Even then, they may bounce around from school to school, with little to no job security, as enrollment numbers ebb and flow.  However, teaching continues to draw a well-educated and creative cadre of young people to its ranks each year.

For the time being.

Canadians should take note. As the goal of landing that elusive permanent contract becomes less attainable, more and more young people will shy away from the profession. Let’s not forget, education has  been attacked by governments right across this country in the name of “fiscal responsibility” (a major contributing factor  to fewer jobs in the first place). It also serves as a convenient target for commentators who, like Wendt, are more than happy to attack the profession on a very personal basis.

Can it be long before young teachers begin to decide that it simply is not worth the grind?

Perhaps cutting seats will make getting into Ontario’s institutions more competitive. Certainly, adding an extra year to programs will do young teachers more good than harm. However, we must be very, very aware that other sectors are crying for young, vibrant and engaged young people to fill their ranks.

If would-be teachers start to answer that call, this country may find itself in a very sorry state indeed.

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Filed under Educational Change, Funding cuts, Public education, Quality education

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