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Élise Duval, a Grade 2 French-immersion teacher in White Rock, B.C., was one of the nine French-language teachers who responded to the Facebook message from Surrey. (Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail)
Élise Duval, a Grade 2 French-immersion teacher in White Rock, B.C., was one of the nine French-language teachers who responded to the Facebook message from Surrey. (Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail)

Quality of French-immersion teachers questioned as demand soars in Canada Add to ...

When the Surrey, B.C., school district realized it was short nine French-immersion teachers this school year, a principal called her niece in Quebec and asked her to put out a plea on Facebook.

The weekend before school started, some of those nine teachers landed at the Vancouver airport. One of them moved into the principal’s basement and stayed there for three weeks.

“That’s as close as you ever want to be,” said Kevin Fadum, district principal of human resources in Surrey.

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With interest in French immersion increasing – enrolment climbed about 41 per cent between 2004-05 and 2014-15, according to Statistics Canada – the competition among school boards for qualified second-language teachers is fierce, and at times desperate. A teaching position in English attracts hundreds of applicants. In French, a school district is lucky if it receives a handful of applications.

But the mismatch in supply and demand has led to concerns about the qualifications of second-language teachers and also about burnout among new teachers who leave for the English program because of intense parent scrutiny.

The teacher shortage problem has grown so acute that trustees at the Waterloo Region District School Board, in Southwestern Ontario, are formally asking the province to intervene.

Mitzie Hunter, Ontario’s Education Minister, said in a statement that she’s working on addressing the challenges with teacher supply, but she did not provide any specifics.

As it stands now, one in three French-language teachers in Ontario said they secured permanent teaching contracts a year after they graduated in publicly funded and private schools, while it took one in three English-language teachers as many as four years to be fully employed, according to the Ontario College of Teachers. The shortage of qualified French-immersion teachers has meant that second-language teachers, in some cases, divide their time between two classrooms, or that when a teacher is sick, a principal has no choice but to put an English-language substitute in front of students.

“If we were in manufacturing I would tell our salespeople to stop selling immersion. We are running very low on inventory,” said John Cuddie, manager in human resources at the Thames Valley School District Board in London, Ont.

Mr. Cuddie, like others in his field, travels to universities in an attempt to lure would-be teachers to his district.

“If you’re fluent in French and can teach French immersion, you can pick where you want to work,” he said.

Mr. Fadum recently visited teacher fairs in Edmonton, Ottawa and Montreal in the hope of recruiting educators. The school district has even hired headhunters to look for French-language teachers, he said.

“If we get a French-immersion application, it goes directly into my hands within minutes of receiving it,” he said. “There’s no waiting around on that.”

Wendy Carr, associate dean of the University of British Columbia’s teacher education program, said the more “aggressive boards” are contingently hiring teachers-in-training. Prof. Carr said that she, along with ministry officials and school district personnel, have struggled to address the French-language teacher shortage. She described it as “chronic.”

Prof. Carr said one of the issues she has found is that some new French-language teachers leave for the English program because they are uncomfortable with the level of parental scrutiny.

“All parents care about their child’s education. However, I think there’s a particular additional attention paid to French immersion,” she said.

Some school boards have also pointed to concerns around teacher qualifications. They say the demand has resulted in teachers picking up online courses in French, but who may not have the ability to converse in the second language during the interview.

Glyn Lewis, executive director for the Canadian Parents for French for B.C. and Yukon, said that while there’s a shortage of French-language educators, universities are graduating a surplus of teachers with backgrounds in subjects such as English, history and geography. He said that the problem is not being adequately addressed by the province or the universities.

“That disconnect between supply and demand is hugely problematic and nobody seems to be taking responsibility for it,” Mr. Lewis said.

For Élise Duval, the shortage meant a job opportunity she wouldn’t necessarily have had in her home province of Quebec.

Ms. Duval graduated from the University of Sherbrooke in the spring, and was one of the nine French-language teachers who responded to the Facebook message from Surrey.

If she stayed in Quebec, she would most likely be supply teaching. Instead, she has a full-time job for the school year, filling in for a teacher on maternity leave.

“I thought it was nice that my native language gave me the opportunity to travel,” said Ms. Duval, a Grade 2 French immersion teacher at Peace Arch Elementary. “I do not know what the future holds for me. However, if there is a position available at the school, I would consider staying.”

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