Quebec teacher shortage Bernard Drainville

Quebec teacher shortage: ‘One adult per classroom’ is a tragedy, not a game plan

“With only a week to go before school starts, Quebec currently has 8,558 teaching positions to fill — 1,859 full-time and 6,699 part-time. The teacher shortage has ‘gravely deteriorated’ and is three times worse than it was last year.”

With the new school year approaching, Quebec Education Minister Bernard Drainville’s “solutions” to the province’s dire teacher shortage appear to lower the bar so far down, it will soon be underground.

Asked about the government’s plan to tackle shortages, Drainville responded, “Our first priority is to have a legally qualified teacher in the class. If we can’t have a legally qualified teacher, then we have to accept an unqualified teacher. And in some cases, we hope to have one adult.” The minister added the teacher would ideally have a bachelor’s degree, but it wouldn’t be a requirement. 

If this downward trend continues, three poodles in a trench coat teaching algebra to your kids should suffice by next year.

A lack of respect for teachers

With only a week to go before school starts, Quebec currently has 8,558 teaching positions to fill (1,859 full-time and 6,699 part-time). The president of the Quebec Federation of Educational Institution Directors (FQDE) Nicolas Prevost recently revealed the situation has “gravely deteriorated” and is “three times worse than it was last year.” 

Accepting unqualified teachers as a solution speaks volumes — both about the magnitude of the problem, as well as the disrespect the profession faces. None of us would accept an unqualified pilot flying our plane, an unqualified doctor performing our surgery, an unqualified lawyer defending us in court, but somehow, parents should be okay with a random adult winging it while trying to teach their kids vital skills that will impact both their educational and career trajectory and potentially the rest of their lives. How is this ok? Where did we get the idea that highly skilled educators are easily replaceable and that just about anyone can teach? 

Liberal education critic Marwah Rizqy is not happy. She says she wants to hear the Education Minister say a high-school diploma is not sufficient to teach, and that the minimum requirement should be a bachelor’s degree. He “can’t just throw his hands up in the air and give up,” she stated during an appearance on Patrick Lagacé’s radio show. 

This past June, Rizqy was also quoted as saying that by lowering the bar, we’re “tolerating the unacceptable,” and that a teacher with a high-school diploma “hasn’t even passed their CEGEP French exam, which is mandatory!”

A teacher retention problem 

Pascal Berubé, PQ spokesperson for education pointed out that even though the CAQ have been in power since 2018, “we’re still waiting for real measures, not only to attract teachers but also to keep them in the profession.”

This point is crucial. It’s not enough to say you intend to train more teachers, it’s imperative the government also tackle the reasons why they’re leaving the profession. Educators have long been complaining about working conditions. Budget cuts and staff shortages have created overburdened teachers taking on far too many kids with little to no support. When you consider Quebec also has the lowest starting salary for educators across Canada then you have the makings of a retention problem. 

“Last year I had 47 students in two groups and 18 of them had individualized education plans for different reasons (autism, dyslexia, dysgraphia, behavioural issues, etc.),” a Grade 4 teacher who preferred to remain anonymous told me. 

“I received ONE-hour resource support for each group — not per student, per group,” she adds. “As well as a part-time childcare support worker in the class. The rest of the time I was alone. It was an impossible task even for someone like me who adores her career.”

The teacher, who tells me burnout is a bigger issue than she’s ever seen in her 31-year career, says there’s a real lack of respect for the profession. Big decisions are being made by people who are not on the ground, with some having no background in education and never having stepped into a classroom. 

“Teachers will continue to leave the profession in droves, and I understand them,” she adds.

Open mouth, insert foot 

Bernard Drainville

The Education Minister’s repeated blunders haven’t helped the situation much. 

Not content to have caused a major controversy last year when he compared teachers’ salaries with the salaries of MNAs, and implying the latter deserved theirs more, Drainville made another groan-worthy comment recently. During an appearance on Paul Arcand’s morning radio show, he said he’d like to see younger teachers with little to no seniority be given kindergarten and pre-k classes, which, he claimed, are, “less demanding.”

It’s a comment only someone who’s never had to wrangle 20 hyperactive kids and keep them both safe and stimulated would utter. Teaching preschool requires an incredible amount of patience, creativity, skills and empathy. It’s not for the faint of heart. 

Teachers immediately urged the minister to “stop making such demeaning comments,” and warned him that it’s not by insulting them that he’ll succeed in keeping them in the profession.

Unqualified teachers create problems

While Drainville insists that unqualified teachers are only a “temporary solution,” his promise contrasts sharply with realty. In 2020–2021, Quebec had almost 30,000 unqualified teachers, a quarter of the workforce. This not only impacts students but also current and prospective teachers who must certainly wonder why they’re wasting their time on a four-year degree.

“Last year, both of my children were missing teachers and had substitutes for more than three-quarters of the school year,” says Katherine Korakakis Peretz. “Having substitutes throughout the year impacts their educational success. Substitutes can’t grade, which is a problem because as a parent you don’t know how your kid is doing, you don’t have the grades or the ability to reach out to them since they’re also not allowed to talk to you during parent-teacher interviews.” 

The mom of two says she’s seen no catch-up plan implemented since COVID. In the meantime, it’s costing her approximately $400 a week in tutoring. “The impacts of the teacher shortage are very real,” she adds, “and they are very scary.” 

One in four Quebec students are currently failing math and one in five students are failing French. With a five-year high school graduation rate of 64% for the province’s public network (even lower, around 50% for boys) an Institut du Québec study in 2018 revealed the province had the worst performance in Canada. I can’t imagine the pandemic has improved those numbers

These results are doing nothing to solve the growing gap between public and private schools in Quebec, as parents with the financial means (and sometimes even without) will favour private schools, hoping the teacher-student ratio is more amenable to a good education. About one third of Montreal high-school students are currently enrolled in private schools.

Bill 21’s very real impacts

It’s impossible to discuss teacher shortages without pointing out that the Quebec government deliberately prevented qualified teachers from practising their professions because they wear a hijab or a turban. Many of these educators have since left the province and are now teaching in B.C. or Ontario.

Some might say the number is too negligible to matter. The truth is, we will never know the full impacts of Bill 21 on our educational system. A recent academic study looking into the impact of the legislation on Quebec students in law and education is quite revealing. 

Current students and recent graduates in education who wear a religious symbol were the most likely to consider leaving Quebec, with 73.8% of people in this category responding that they were likely to leave. A total of 56.4% of the respondents said that they were likely to seek employment outside of Quebec as a result of Bill 21, while 7.9% of the respondents in education said that they were likely to change careers as a result.

What’s more concerning is that Bill 21 also seems to have an impact on the residence choices of people who don’t wear a religious symbol. A total of 46% respondents who did not wear a religious symbol said they were likely or very likely to seek work outside Quebec due to the legislation. A number of respondents stated that, while they were not personally affected, they didn’t want to work in a system that they saw as discriminatory and were therefore planning to move.

“I don’t plan to change my career path but am looking at working in another province now,” responded one student in education, at Bishop’s University. “I don’t feel that I can be a teacher here in Quebec and have a clean conscience while doing so.”

With 8,558 teaching positions vacant, not only did Quebec lose out on current qualified teachers, but also potentially thousands of future teachers with the skills and the aptitude to teach because our government believes a qualified teacher wearing a hijab is far worse than no teacher or an adult with zero teaching skills. That, in my opinion, is what a self-inflicted wound looks like.

Teacher shortages impact educational success

I frankly don’t envy anyone entrusted with the education and healthcare portfolios, probably the most thankless of all political portfolios, as most issues stem from decades’ long governmental neglect. Regardless, solutions need to be found because the consequences will be dire for Quebec students. 

In response to the crisis, Premier Legault’s senior advisor tweeted that teacher shortages are not unique to Quebec. While true, the fact that similar headaches may also plague other provinces and countries is small comfort for Quebec parents currently agonizing over the quality of their kids’ education. They need solutions, not excuses. 

It’s not enough to throw out political slogans about how “This is how we live in Quebec” and implement language legislation that restricts the use of English and primarily penalizes new immigrants and refugees while simultaneously allowing our educational system to crash and burn. 

Quality education requires quality investments, a viable long-term game plan and real respect for the people on the ground. Right now, it feels like all three are severely lacking. ■

This article was originally published on Aug. 21 and updated on Aug. 23, 2023.

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.