Geoff Johnson: Seeking a solution to the teacher shortage

In 1969, some B.C. school districts set up booths at the Chevron Hotel in Sydney, Australia, to recruit qualified and experienced teachers. Such was the teacher shortage in B.C. at the time.

Now, here we go again; school districts across B.C. are short of fully qualified teachers, significantly in some cases.

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Why? A decision by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2016 resolved the ongoing dispute between the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation and the then provincial government about the size and composition of classes. The composition of classes refers to the inclusion of a specific number of children with special needs.

The dispute began in 2002, when the previous provincial government used legislation to strip teachers of their negotiated contractual right to bargain class size and composition.

The court, 14 years and hundreds of thousand of kids later, took no time at all to restore those rights. Clearly, the government, having caused the problem, had not anticipated this decision and suddenly found itself forced to provide resources, classrooms, teachers and support workers for the additional classes created by reduced class size and agreed-upon composition.

To make matters worse, the ten-year decline in student numbers across the province suddenly reversed with an increase of 3,155 students from 2018-19. That did not help the situation.

Who knew? Not the demographers who rely heavily on birth rates and postal addresses, not the provincial government, not even the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation itself.

B.C.’s teacher-education programs, themselves financially limited, are struggling to respond and expand their enrolments to meet the need, but a training program can take four years. Even at that, the demand for placements slowed with millennials experiencing second thoughts about going into teaching because of a history of strikes, lockouts and bad feelings between teacher organizations and the government.

One solution, rumoured to be floating around in the ever-creative minds of the higher echelons of government and the employers’ association, is the promotion of online teacher education.

Let’s hope that notion will be quickly dismissed as ridiculous.

Teaching is a complex process learned best, as with most professions, through practice, first guided, then independent and then, finally, actual experience only after extensive course work from a recognized teacher-education program.

As with other professions, effective teaching cannot be learned through an online program.

There are post-secondary schools offering a variety of teaching programs, but only five offer full education-degree programs.

The Teaching Profession Act has assigned authority to the Ministry of Education Teacher Regulation Branch to issue actual teaching certificates.

So far, so good, because most of us would prefer a doctor who had graduated from a legitimate medical school, not an online program or an institution offering only one or two medically related upgrading courses.

A medical degree from a recognized university requires applicants to have completed at least three years of courses at a post-secondary institution plus residency training varies from two years for family medicine to four to seven years for other specialties and sub-specialties.

What about other professions that demand specific expertise? Can a student become a lawyer online? UVic Law, which clearly does not suffer foolish questions gladly, responded with: “UVic Law does not offer a distance education program leading to a Juris Doctor degree, nor do we anticipate that there will be a distance education option at any time in the future.”

Students taking law know that their program will include, along with three years of classes and a great deal of practical experience, a final fourth year as an articled clerk.

So what is the solution to a teacher shortage now, and given that teachers are an aging demographic, for future years?

Even now, members of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation who have been without a contract since June have been bargaining with government for a new one since February, and will meet again to vote on a job-action plan that, if approved, would set the stage for yet another provincewide teacher strike.

Then you have provincial leaders such as Ontario’s Doug Ford pandering to the lowest common denominator of public prejudice about teachers. According to a report in the Toronto Star, Ford’s government wants to replace some human teachers with computers, suggesting Ontario will be “progressively increasing” e-learning enrolment targets that will result in “cost saving and revenue generation.”

Mmmm. Should I get in contact with the King’s Cross Chevron Hotel in Sydney and suggest they set up booths again?

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.


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