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Solving teacher shortages depends on coming together around shared aspirations for children

May 7, 2024
By Kathy Hibbert, Western University

Photo: Getty Images

It’s impossible to ignore headlines announcing the predicted shortage of teachers both across Canada and globally.

In British Columbia, there has been an almost triple increase in uncertified adults covering classrooms. In Ontario, the not-for-profit organization People for Education reports being surprised at how “extreme” the shortage is. Nova Scotia recently averted a teacher strike after the province and the Nova Scotia Teachers Union reached an agreement in principle that the province was ignoring the root causes of the shortage crisis.

As boards scramble to respond, classrooms are combined and preparation time is forfeited. Specialists are brought in to cover basic curriculum, abandoning other areas of education like music, health or math coaching. Some parents of children living with disabilities are asked to keep their children home.

When other efforts are exhausted, uncertified adults are hired.


How did we get here? Although teachers are still entering the profession in Canada, fewer and fewer are staying. The current crisis has been decades in the making. Reasons for leaving are numerous: a decline in professional autonomy, unrealistic workloads given the high needs of students, health and safety concerns and an overall decline in the status of the profession.

Multiple crises, including a health-care professional shortage and the climate crisis, are competing for our attention at the moment.

Solving the teacher shortage will take all of us — educational experts, government, school boards, parents, educators and all voters — coming together around a shared desire to create an educational future that reflects genuine aspirations for our children and future generations.

Long-term visioning

Economists have long understood that well-educated, healthy constituents contribute to a healthy economy, a thriving community, and a good life.

Achieving this “good life” requires an inspired long-term vision; one that exceeds any particular government’s term. As a society, we can no longer afford to ignore a problem until we are in a crisis. Doing so narrows available options to reactive, quick fixes that often ignore the broader systemic infrastructure needed to sustain them.

Broad systemic change is difficult and can be costly both financially and politically. Short-term reactive measures may appear easier than the thoughtful, sustained leadership, planning and investment required to build the positive and trusting relationships necessary to make meaningful change across systems.

Teachers seen as glorified babysitters

We need to reckon with how we think and speak about education’s most valuable resource: its teachers.

Many Canadians have been shocked to learn that the shortage of health-care professionals has closed down some emergency rooms, a situation prompting profound public concern and calls for action from municipal leaders.

The shortage of teachers yields a markedly different response. Schools remain open, scrambling in some areas to fill the classroom with, well, almost anyone.

The decision to fill the vacancy with uncertified adults in a school setting reveals a persistent, yet misguided legacy in the profession — that teachers, in a female-dominated profession — are merely glorified babysitters of the nations’ children.

Such a narrow perspective casts teachers simply in terms of the economic capital they afford parents in the workforce. But it is quality education that yields the socio-economic benefits and the innovation desperately needed to face society’s known and future challenges.

Quality education needs to be acknowledged

Researchers have long acknowledged the increasing complexity of knowledge and skills required to teach in today’s classrooms and Faculties of Education have redesigned teacher education programs in response.

The lack of an aspirational vision ignores decades of research about the growing demands of a difficult profession that looks easy. It ignores any understanding of what it means to be a professional, and the reality that educators are on the front lines with students, engaged in the fallout from all of the big issues that have been marginalized or collectively ignored.

Too many students, already suffering from the pandemic upheaval, are now subjected to a series of unqualified adults in charge of their learning.

Virtually all parents want the very best for their children. But there is little acknowledgement of what it means for our children when our teachers are under-resourced, disparaged and demoralized.

We can’t have it both ways.

Bring teachers to education policy table

Canada is internationally renowned for its K-12 education system. As professionals, educators are held to increasingly high standards through their regulatory bodies. Canada supports inclusive governance as a means of engaging all citizens in decision making. Yet teachers are largely excluded from reform and policy decisions in any meaningful way.

Influential international organizations (like UNESCO, the World Bank and the World Economic Forum) emphasize two important points: First, that healthy and well-supported educators are critical to the success and achievement of students.

Second, just as policies designing roles for women required women to be at the policy table in the 1960s, policies designed to create sustainable, innovative programs for our children and youth require educators — experts in the field — to be at the policy table.

Must invest in long term planning and resources

The International Task Force on Teachers for Education 2030 assembled in 2008 to address the anticipated shortage concluded: “teaching should be a valued profession and every learner should be taught by qualified, motivated and empowered teachers within well-resourced, efficient and effectively governed systems to foster learning and achieve inclusive and equitable quality education for all.”

We have so far failed to invest in ways that make quality education a priority.

There is still time to act.

Respect for educators = student achievement

Researchers track the relationship between respect for educators and student achievement. Respect is signalled in part through financial compensation, and whether parents encourage their own children to enter the profession. Teacher bashing carries consequences we cannot afford.

It is time for Canada to mature in our thinking about our teachers — for our children’s sake and for future generations.The Conversation

Kathy Hibbert, Distinguished University Professor and Associate Dean Teacher Education, Western University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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