BACK TO THE FEATURE INDEX

Canada, like much of the rest of the world, is suffering from a shortage of teachers, particularly in secondary level science, math, and technology education. Indeed the job market for teachers in Canada is so active it convinced a recent recruit, researcher James Oak, that it was a good time to consider teaching as a "solid profession".

Trading a Pipette for Chalk

After completing his MSc (pharmacology) at the University of Toronto in 1999, Oak continued in the same lab working as a research technician, all the while considering alternative career paths. The field of secondary science education appealed to Oak because he felt it would offer an opportunity to have more interaction with people and because he envisioned it would be, in general, less frustrating than carrying out research. "I view teaching as a rewarding profession, which really gives me the chance to make a difference."

Supply and Demand

Oak didn?t have to look far for further incentive to change careers: Teaching has become one of the few fields in which new Canadian graduates can expect multiple job offers, including from schools in the United States. As a result, school boards across Canada have had to become very competitive in their recruitment processes, and some are reportedly offering jobs on the spot at job fairs.

The current upsurge in the job market for new teachers follows years of education cutbacks by provincial governments, particularly in the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia. The lack of new recruits over the years has changed the teacher demographics in Canada, to the point that it is currently estimated that over 25% of the national teacher workforce will retire in the next 5 to 10 years [Canadian Teachers? Federation (CTF) report: Demographics of the Teaching Profession ].

New measures are needed to fix the problem at the source--teacher training colleges--or replacing those retirees will continue to pose a significant problem for Canadian schools. Remarkably, in spite of the promising job statistics, the Ontario College of Teachers (OCT) reports that applications to teacher education programs dropped by 26% last year in that province. Applicants in 2001 were also less likely than in previous years to choose physics, math, computer science, biology, or chemistry as their first choice teaching subject. And in a recent study on supply and demand issues, CTF found that 58% of Canadian school boards surveyed are concerned that an ongoing shortage of new graduates from teacher education programs will exacerbate recruitment problems.

Most of the work to redress the problem is being done by at the university level in some provinces. In an effort to increase its enrolments, the University of Saskatchewan?s College of Education actively encourages people with math and science degrees to enter teacher training by lowering the admission standards for this group of applicants (which are ordinarily very stringent--see below) and by giving applicants who choose math, physics, or chemistry as their main subject first preference for program openings. Regardless of provincial efforts to boost enrolments, the consensus among those in education is that the public school system will invariably have trouble competing with the more attractive salaries and better opportunities offered in the private sector, particularly in high shortage areas such as computer science, science, and mathematics.

Having entered the 1-year, full-time bachelor of education program at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT), Oak found that less than 10% of students actually had a science background, and their qualifications ranged from bachelor degrees to PhDs. He chose to specialise in chemistry rather than the most popular science stream--biology--believing that there would be even less competition for teaching positions in that area.

Gaining Admission

The basic requirements to enter the teaching profession differ slightly between provinces, but in general include a Grade 12 high school education, plus 4 years of postsecondary schooling, and another 1 to 2 years of teacher education. More details on the minimum entry requirements in each province can be found through the CTF or through certification agencies (see box below). All teacher education in Canada takes place in universities, and entry into the teaching programs is based on a combination of your grade point average (GPA), essays, and interviews.

Moreover, Oak strongly recommends that applicants have some teaching experience behind them, as well as references, and suggests that any graduate students that are even contemplating a career in teaching acquire some experience by being a teaching assistant in graduate school.

At OISE and some other institutions, experience through volunteering is also looked upon favourably. When preparing his application, Oak found that "it definitely pays to gain experience in the area that you eventually want to teach."

Volunteering

Want to get some teaching experience AND have volunteering go on your record at the same time? Try getting involved with national and provincial outreach organizations, such as Aventis Biotech Challenge, Let?s Talk Science, Science East, and Science North, or volunteer at local or national science fairs.

Besides making Oak more competitive in the application process, volunteer teaching also increased his motivation. In addition to working as a teaching assistant during his graduate degree, Oak volunteered to design and teach chemistry and lab science to a class of 30 Grade 6 and 7 students at a private school in Malton, Ontario. It was "a rewarding experience", he says, and "the enthusiasm [the students] showed was encouraging" and ultimately strengthened his desire to teach.

With a lot of legwork, it is possible to find a public school board that is willing to take you on without an education diploma or certification, says Oak. Furthermore, teachers in private elementary and secondary schools in some provinces are not required by law to hold teaching certificates. This presents an opportunity for anyone curious about a career in teaching to ?test the waters? so to speak, and at the same time fill any urgent demand the board has for teachers (similar to emergency certification in the United States). The practice is generally discouraged, however, because temporary teachers are not permitted to join a union (and hence are not eligible for scheduled salary increases or benefits), and are paid lower salaries. They also lack job protection, which means that as soon as a certified teacher comes along and wants the same position, they?re out of a job.

Try these organisations for more information on:

Training

University of British Columbia Educational Studies

University of Saskatchewan College of Education

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education

Ministère de l'Éducation du Québec

Information regarding training in other provinces can be found at Canadian Education on the Web.

Certification

Ontario College of Teachers

British Columbia College of Teachers

Nova Scotia Department of Education

Alberta Learning

Saskatchewan Learning

Manitoba Education, Training and Youth

Autorisation d'enseigner, Ministère de l'Éducation du Québec

Information regarding certification in other provinces can be found at education@canada and Canadian Education on the Web.

Discipline-Specific Associations

The Science Teachers? Association of Ontario

Ontario Association of Physics Teachers

Science Teachers? Association of Manitoba

Saskatchewan Maths Teachers? Society

Locating K-12 Schools

University of Alberta, K-12 Canadian Schools Online

The CTF also has details on finding a position.

Salaries

Salary schedules and benefits are regulated by provincial governments and vary accordingly. Starting salaries for a full-time teacher with 5 years of university preparation (a 4-year undergraduate degree plus a 1-year diploma of education) range from $28,000 to $50,000 annually, depending on experience, location (for example, urban/suburban/rural), and province. Salaries in the Yukon and Northwest Territories are highest, owing to the difficulty in recruiting qualified teachers in northern regions. New teachers with advanced graduate training and teacher certification can start on a higher grid and are likely to earn between $36,000 and $50,000. It is usually only after about 10 years of teaching and, in some provinces, further professional development, that you?ll be making the maximum salary, which is in the order of $70,000. Again, check with your provincial teachers? association for more details.

And now we begin ...

Oak completed his education training in June 2002 and is now shopping around for work. Unlike trying to find a job in research, he was never concerned about the prospect of finding a job as a teacher. "Before I had even completed my program I had a school principal call me out of the blue to offer me a job," says Oak.

So far, he has no regrets about leaving science. "I don?t consider my master?s degree a waste of time now that I am going to teach", he says. "I think it makes me better prepared to give the students guidance about what science is really like. Senior high school students, especially the gifted ones, prefer teachers who have had some bench experience and they seem more open to learn from you." But he doesn?t expect the transition to the classroom to be easy. "There?ll be a lot of evenings and weekends preparing class material in the first few years."