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Opinion: Teacher shortage decades in the making

Who would want to pay for six years of university education to get into a profession that is very demanding, undervalued, and grossly under-compensated?

Canada has one of the finest education systems in the world. It provides the backbone of our well-trained workforce and our strong economy. In addition, our schools have been a great equalizer, providing the children of immigrants to our country with the opportunity to thrive and thus further enrich Canada.

Our education system today is struggling to keep up with the demands of the 21st century. One of the major factors impacting this has been the failure of the system to attract and retain teachers.  The shortage of teachers across the country has been featured in news reports recently, but the crisis has been decades in the making.

Since the late 1970s, a myth was perpetuated that public spending was a bad thing. Government workers, including teachers, were characterized as sloths milking the system, and tough neo-liberal politicians told voters that they would set things straight.

The impact has been catastrophic. 

When I was an idealistic university student in the 1980s, looking at the world and trying to find ways to make it better, I was drawn to teaching. Teachers in Canada were highly regarded and well-compensated. Teacher education programs, especially those that were the most reputable, had many applicants and thus were able to select the cream of the crop. Despite this, on my graduation day in 1985, I was one of the few who already had a teaching position and several of my classmates had to seek employment outside of education.

There were normal ups and downs in the supply and demand of teachers through the first 15 to 20 years of my career, but there was also a changing public sentiment. The neo-liberal myth was eating away at Canadian schools.

Added to this was the self-sacrificing nature of teachers, generally not noticed in the public eye.  We sincerely wanted what was best for our students, thus our contract negotiations focused on class size reduction more than wage increases. Yet even that was too much for the neo-liberal spin-doctors. 

The impact has been a significant decrease in the number of young people interested in education. Can we blame them? Who would want to pay for six years of university education to get into a profession that is very demanding, undervalued, and grossly under-compensated? Yes, we want intrinsically motivated teachers, but they also deserve a middle-class lifestyle.

Neo-liberalism is an unfortunate global phenomenon, and the teacher shortage is a worldwide crisis that can be solved by better government policies. Because of the way education is structured in Canada, this needs to be addressed on a provincial level. 

So, where do we begin? First, we need to deal with the most pressing short-term issue. We need to retain the teachers we have. Despite good physical health, many in my age bracket are retiring because there is little incentive to keep teaching. A teacher with 30 years of experience is paid the same as one with 10 years in the field. Incentives could include signing bonuses, expanded pay scales, and paid opportunities to mentor those who are new to teaching.

Paid mentorships will also help solve the issue of supporting and retaining those who more recently joined the ranks of teaching. The attrition rate for those in the first five years in the profession is disturbingly high, perhaps as much as one-third. Of course, reduced workload, higher wages, signing bonuses, and forgiveness of student loans will also improve the quality of life for these people and attract more university students into the field.

Finally, there needs to be a change in the public perception of teachers. We are hard-working, dedicated professionals who often use our summer holidays to attend school ourselves.

These changes will cost money, but let’s be honest, Canadian taxpayers have gotten a bargain on the backs of teachers for the last several decades. What goes around comes around, it’s just the way life works. 

Gerry Chidiac is a Prince George teacher.