Canada’s education system is in crisis, says an education expert, and as a result teachers may be quitting the profession at an alarming rate.
Although exact figures are not available, Jon Bradley, an associate professor at McGill University’s Faculty of Education, estimates at least 30 percent of Canadian teachers are leaving the profession within their first five years on the job, in line with similar stats reported in countries such as the United States, U.K. and Australia. One University of Alberta study pegged the number of the province’s teachers leaving at 40 percent, though this number may include transfers to other jurisdictions.
Bullying from parents, false accusations from students, a lack of merit-based pay, few support resources, stifling curriculum requirements, and overwhelming workloads are just some of the reasons teachers are leaving, says Bradley.
“Why are so many leaving? That whole area needs to be addressed,” Bradley says, adding that given the myriad issues involved, the education system is in crisis.
“I believe it is in a crisis. I believe it’s being held together, you know, by a string and a prayer. But it’s in crisis, and we ignore the crisis at our peril.”
Bradley notes that the high turnover of new teachers is not only costly, it takes away from the learning experience of students who benefit most from teachers who “hit their stride” after 7-10 years on the job.
According to a 2006–2008 study on Ontario teachers leaving the profession, leading factors cited from those dissatisfied with their job were as follows: Workload and stress issues, class sizes, issues with school administrators or local school board policies, and government educational policies.
“The politics, paperwork, meaningless “training,” waste of time and resources, and over/under-involved parents are wearing teachers out,” wrote one survey respondent.
“The workload on teachers continues to increase every year,” wrote another. “There is always extra administrative work that takes away from teaching time. There is also extra testing and reporting… on and on it goes every year.”
Extra Work, But No Extra Pay
Bradley says teachers are increasingly faced with large class sizes that often include children with special needs or learning disabilities.
On top of the day-to-day challenges of meeting basic curriculum requirements, they must also spend endless after-hours marking, preparing lessons, leading and supervising extra-curricular activities and sports teams, and attending meetings or training—all without receiving extra pay.
“Can you imagine telling a nurse or a doctor, ‘Your day is from 9–4, and, oh, by the way, we expect you to do a clinic at night for free,'” says Bradley. “Because that’s what teachers do.”
In response to a recent Montreal Gazette article on teacher workload and high resignation rates, former teacher Debra Barry noted in a letter to the editor that it is not just new, young teachers who are quitting.
“I left at 55, with 32 years of teaching high school, the last 6 with horrific, inhumane workloads. I taught 14 groups of students, 400 teenagers, twice a week in what felt like a factory assembly line. As a teacher who ran multiple student activities and sports teams over the years, I was exhausted. The success of my students sat squarely on my shoulders with little or no support from a board obsessed with the budget over students’ needs, and an administration with so much paperwork they never came out of their offices.
“Many of my colleagues are leaving for the same reasons, most before full pension. I am so glad I got out, but my daughter, after three years of teaching, is exhausted by her workload of four different elementary school levels, many special-needs children not properly supported, and hours of unpaid and unrecognized preparation time.”
Role of Schools has Changed
A fundamental problem, says Bradley, is that teachers and schools are being forced to deal with areas that were traditionally the domain of other facets of society such as the family and community, but are now being offloaded onto schools.
“Society has changed in the last 20-25 years. I believe the schools have taken on functions for which they are not equipped, for which teachers are not trained, and which more properly rest in the home or other areas of the community,” he says.
“Nowhere in that curriculum does it say that I am to feed students, or I am to nurse students, or I am to friend students, or I am to parent students. Those are not functions of a teacher. And I think we have to raise an issue: at what point does poor parenting become an issue?”
Bradley adds that the advancement of technology has also allowed parents to bypass teachers and go directly to school administrators with their complaints, missing the opportunity to work out the fundamental issues face-to-face with teachers.
“Parents are using the Internet to complain about teachers. They’re writing e-mails to directors of personnel and they’re bypassing teachers. And they’re making accusatory statements. In effect that kind of harassment, bullying—call it what you want—makes it very difficult for any kind of cooperative movement between teacher and parent.
Introducing merit-based pay for extra hours and exceptional work, as well as allowing teachers more flexibility and creativity within the curriculum, and cutting back on work that is not teaching-related would do much to reduce teacher burnout, says Bradley.
Although the issue of early teacher resignation is complicated and multi-faceted, he adds, it is critical that the area receives more in-depth research, with a commitment to resolving the reasons that teachers are leaving in such high numbers.
“I don’t think we’ll like some of the answers we’ll get. [But] we cannot allow the complicatedness of it to stop us or make us afraid to begin to investigate. We need to chip away at this.”