||Volume 20, Number 4, January/February 2008
The teacher shortage: Myth or reality?
By Patrik Parkes
There are so many critical and urgent education issues facing the K–12 system these days—class size, class composition, standardized testing—that there seems little energy left over for other questions. But they are out there, and I have one: Why, when the annual demand has been for only 600 to 1,200 new teachers across British Columbia, have the province’s teacher-training programs been producing, each year, between 1,800 and 2,000 new graduates?
The above figures, derived from statistics published in the Nov./Dec. 2006 issue of the Teacher, seem to confirm something I have long suspected—there are far too many certified teachers for the jobs actually available. Furthermore, as indicated by Ministry of Education teacher statistics, there is no danger of a sudden mass retirement, and therefore no need to oversupply teaching certificates. In 2006–07, BC public school teachers’ average years of experience was 13.4, and in all five-year groupings between the ages of 35 and 59, the teacher population is stable at about 6,000 (give or take a thousand). In other words, through retirement, teachers will be leaving the system at the rate of about 1,200 teachers a year—far less than the 1,800 to 2,000 education graduates currently being supplied to the system each year. Add to this declining student enrolment, and the demand for new teachers is even less.
Supply-and-demand issues concern me because, since being certified as a teacher, I have been an itinerant worker, much of the time overseas as an economic "refugee." To be honest, I didn’t mind working overseas, but much of the reason I did so was that I could not find full-time, continuing employment as a teacher in BC. And I know I’m not alone. Nevertheless, despite obvious factors such as teacher oversupply and declining student enrolment, I keep hearing that a teacher shortage is just around the corner. Is there some information I am missing?
Thinking that the BC College of Teachers, which accredits provincial training programs, might have some insight into this matter, I spoke with Laura Bickerton, the college’s director of Professional Education. I asked her if the college has any plans to solve the apparent problem of teacher oversupply. Bickerton replied that, through the Teaching Profession Act, the college has no authority over the number of seats that are granted in teacher-training programs. She indicated that funding for university seats is done through the Ministry of Advanced Education and Training, and suggested I contact them. The ministry, however, also denied any responsibility. Their response was that "institutions themselves are best able to determine the programs and enrolment levels that will... address labour market needs."
Wondering if BC’s teacher-training programs give any thought to supply-and-demand issues, I decided to ask Meguido Zola, director of Professional Programs at SFU’s Faculty of Education. In a rather terse e-mail message he responded that "there is an inter-university committee on teacher supply and demand...I don’t know how to access it but ask around" [sic]. Fortunately, UBC’s Faculty of Educational Studies was more helpful. Frank Echols, associate professor and associate dean, went so far as to forward an e-mail containing meeting minutes of the Teacher Supply & Demand Consortium (which, interestingly, were also addressed to Laura Bickerton and other representatives of the BC College of Teachers). The minutes, however, contained no mention of teacher oversupply, and Echols failed to respond to my follow-up questions. And when I addressed my concerns to David Blades, associate dean of Teacher Education at UVic, he responded with a non sequitur: "very few of our students leave the program...the rest are all successful and graduates that I’m proud to welcome to the profession."
While I don’t doubt the warmth and sincerity of Blade’s feelings toward his charges, the statistical reality is that—try as they might—many of them will never work in their intended profession, in their own province. Blades, like the other figures of authority I contacted, is seemingly oblivious to the ethics of taking education students’ time and money for certification that may, in the end, be worthless.
In my attempt to question or to find some rationale for teacher oversupply, my concerns were not taken seriously by any of the above actors I talked to. And, unfortunately, I believe that teachers have been complacent on the issue of teacher oversupply—a situation that devalues our certification, and creates injustice for new teachers.
Neither the BC College of Teachers, nor the Ministry of Advanced Education, nor the universities seem willing to acknowledge or accept responsibility for teacher oversupply. It is time to start asking serious questions, and to put this issue on the radar.
Patrik Parkes is a teacher on call, Burnaby School District.