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Toronto Politics

Finding work a struggle for new teachers in Toronto

Flickr image by spDuchamp.

Flickr image by spDuchamp.

*** Note: this piece was originally published with OpenFile Toronto on Feb. 10, 2012, but is no longer available online since their website shut down. ***

When Deirdre Dimitroff started teachers college at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in September 2011, she knew the odds of finding work in the Toronto District School Board were slim. But Dimitroff, like other trained teachers I spoke with, is rather stoic about the difficult job prospects she is facing.

“This is how the field works now,” she told me. “There are too many qualified candidates in Ontario for the available positions,” and new schools are not opening quickly enough to absorb the deluge of eager new teachers.

It wasn’t always this way, but competition for increasingly scarce teaching jobs in the province has been building for the past seven years.  Tallulah Hershorn, a graduate of the York University Faculty of Education who is no longer looking for teaching work, described the shift that occurred as she was completing her degree.

“There were rumblings that year amongst our professors that something was different [in the job market] from previous years,” she told me. “Thirty-five people out of 40 from the previous year were selected for an interview with the TDSB to get on the Eligible to Hire list—in my year, three were selected for interviews, largely on the basis of French as a teachable.

“We felt like the first cohort [in 2009] to not be guaranteed work after graduation.”

A March 2011 feature in Professionally Speaking, the magazine of the Ontario College of Teachers, confirmed the suspicions that Hershorn and her cohort had about the job market. “Teachers need determination to succeed in the classroom,” the article notes: but “increasingly, new Ontario teachers need even greater determination just to get into a classroom as the search for jobs—even part-time supply teaching—grows longer.”

The numbers are grim. In the four years from 2006 to 2010, first-year “involuntary unemployment” has grown from 3 per cent to 24 per cent for graduates of Ontario universities and U.S. border colleges; the underemployment rate over the same period jumped from 27 to 43 per cent, according to Professionally Speaking.

“This is the new reality of teaching in Ontario,” Hershorn told me.

Upon applying to the TDSB for the Eligible to Hire list—a pre-screening process used to whittle down potential employees—odds are slim one will be selected for an interview. Even with high-demand teachables such as French, biology, and special education, every teacher I spoke with applied to the TDSB at least twice, and none were selected for an interview.

The sheer volume of applications begins to shed light on this. According to the TDSB, they received over 11,600 applications from prospective teachers for the 2011-2012 school year alone, and hired 5% of those applicants.

Teachers determined enough to apply again will typically have bolstered their application through Additional Qualification courses that build on specific skill-sets. But the notion that teachers must strengthen their resumes on their own time through AQ courses and volunteer work while supporting themselves financially troubles Hershorn. She feels this contradicts the TDSB’s equity hiring policy.

“If you must acquire extra credits to get an interview with the TDSB, the assumption is you can support yourself financially while you gain these Additional Qualifications,” she told me. “But not everyone can afford this if they have dependants.”

And this unstated expectation is fast becoming a new standard. That same feature in Professionally Speaking noted a significant rise in 2010 in first-year teachers depending on AQ courses and volunteering in schools as necessary resources for “making connections” that may lead to work.

There is also a general understanding that one must accept occasional (supply teaching) or long-term occasional (maternity or sick leave) work in the first years after graduation. In fact, the Ontario College of Teachers writes that survival through piecemeal teaching jobs immediately after graduation is becoming standard, indicated by the rise in part-time, daily supply work with multiple school boards since 2008.

Kasia Niewiadomski, a graduate of OISE, is currently teaching in a long-term occasional position with the York Region District School Board. She accepted her current job after unsuccessfully applying to the Peel Region and Halton District School Boards, as well as the TDSB. YRDSB was the only board to offer an interview, let alone work.

Niewiadomski lives in downtown Toronto. She created an elaborate spreadsheet outlining various schools she could apply to around the GTA.  Her current school is two hours away via public transit—one way. As such, Niewiadomski had to acquire her G2 license and a vehicle. A substantial portion of her income is now spent on transportation to guarantee that she can make the connections with principals so vital to moving up the teaching ladder towards full-time employment.

A strong relationship with school principals was a recurring theme. Even if a young teacher can get on the TDSB’s Eligible to Hire list, the final decision of which occasional (supply) teacher to bring in rests with individual principals. Because while approximately 600 full-time teachers are retiring each year from the TDSB, many are permitted to remain on the substitute teacher while receiving their full pension, squeezing out young teachers desperate for a chance to start their career.

For young teachers to succeed, therefore, the onus is on principals to hire beyond the familiar names at the top of the occasional teacher list.

The TDSB has erected a formidable application process designed to strengthen the overall quality of candidates available to them: but the board needs to be more forthcoming and honest with prospective teachers about the actual likelihood of finding work in the TDSB. They are currently interviewing for the Eligible to Hire list for jobs that do not yet exist, and may never exist in the numbers necessary to meet demand.

While the process is not nearly as open or supportive as many of the applicants I spoke with would like, it is ensuring that the next generation of teachers in Ontario will be exceptionally dedicated and passionate.

“I’m cautiously optimistic about the next wave of teachers,” Hershorn told me. “They’ll have to be the best of the best—even just to get an interview!”

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