Teaching the teachers

Photo: Leah-Anne Thompson
Photo: Leah-Anne Thompson
Published November 1, 2011

Think back to your own public school days. Your primary-grade teachers were most likely female-maybe even proverbial spinsters-and the principals male. In high school, the vast majority of instructors were male, and in both milieus, teachers were apt to be Caucasians whose first and only language was English.

But that is decidedly changing. “In our master’s child study and education program, we have considerably more men than we used to,” says Dr. Janette Pelletier, director of the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). “The early/primary years are considered critical in setting the path for later development, and thus worth the investment. And there are changing attitudes about both men and women in the workforce.”

Prof. Rita Irwin, associate dean of the faculty of education at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, agrees. “There’s been a demographic shift in our student population. Now roughly 15 to 20 per cent of candidates for elementary teaching are male. And about 40 per cent of candidates for high school are female.”
And that monolithic, monolingual Anglo-Celtic phalanx wields the chalk no more. “Faculties of education are aware of the need to match teachers to the profiles of children being taught in schools,” says Pelletier, “so admission criteria include the need for visible minorities.”

At UBC, says Irwin, the biggest shift in the demographics at faculties of education has been to visible minori-ties, which is representative of the Vancouver population. “A survey done two years ago found that 75 to 80 per cent [of the population] had at least a second language, and about half had three or four-an enormous change from 30 or 40 years ago,” says Pelletier. “This affects how we prepare teachers-for instance, with English taught as an additional language and respect for other languages, ethnicities, religions and cultures in the classroom.”

Today, teachers have to deal with different levels of socioeconomic status, parental support and a range of behavioural and mental health issues, from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to self-cutting. In addition, says Irwin, faculty of education students are encouraged to take courses in aboriginal perspectives. “It’s surprising how many 22-year-olds have not heard about the residential schools,” she says. Sensitivity to aboriginal issues has become a mandatory part of UBC teacher training because of the high dropout rate among indigenous students.

Traditionally, teachers have upgraded their pay by getting specialty certificates in subjects such as art, music and special ed. In future, teachers may be required to continue their professional development throughout their careers-just as physicians must engage in continuing medical education to maintain their licences. “Now, they can do a master’s in their first few years, increase their pay grade and then sit back and do nothing,” says Irwin.

What about ethical issues? Both professors point to new problems emerging from communications and social networking. “There will likely be professional and ethical issues that neither you nor I have yet imagined due to the rapidly changing role of technology in our society,” says Pelletier. For Irwin, those issues have already surfaced. “We’ve had criminal charges laid against a couple of our student teachers who befriended people on Facebook, and things have been misconstrued.”

From Irwin’s perspective of 35 years in education, teachers face much higher performance expectations today, greater classroom diversity and more challenging roles as facilitators of social change rather than enforcers of the status quo. “About half the students recognize right away that they are part of change, that they can change dispositions and attitudes. Others may come into their own,” Irwin says. “But there’s always a group you can’t reach, for whom education is a safe job that they already know.”


  • Diana Swift

    Diana Swift is an award-winning writer and editor with 30 years’ experience in newspaper and magazine editing and production. In January 2011, she joined the Anglican Journal as a contributing editor.

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