'We're doing the best we can': French immersion teacher shortage in Canada a chronic and stressful problem

The demand for French immersion programs in Canada continues to grow but finding enough qualified teachers is a constant headache for school boards across the country. They say they have to get creative to recruit and retain teachers and that provinces compete for the limited supply.

School boards struggle to meet growing demand for French immersion

The shortage of French immersion teachers in Canada is a chronic problem that school boards and governments are constantly trying to address. (Canadian Parents for French)

The supply of French immersion teachers in Canada is not meeting a growing demand, educators and advocates say, and it's a "chronic" problem that school boards and governments are struggling to manage.

The persistent challenge was highlighted recently in the Toronto area when parents pleaded with their school board to save their French immersion program. Staff had recommended it be phased out because of a "French teacher staffing crisis" across Ontario.

In the end trustees didn't accept the recommendation and voted to maintain the program, to the great relief of parents who wanted it.

The debate that played out at the Halton Catholic District School Board is one experienced by many others across the country as they try to meet an increasing interest in French immersion in recent years.

Wendy Carr, associate dean of teacher education at the University of British Columbia and a researcher on French education, said the shortage of French teachers is becoming "more and more pressing."

"That shortage of fully prepared French immersion teachers is chronic in Canada," said Carr, who is also a board member of Canadian Parents for French, an organization that promotes French education.

Carr said the high demand is a "good problem" to have, despite the "headache" it causes for school leaders.

"I know it's creating havoc for administrators, but the fact that Canadian families are so interested in having their children speak both official languages is a good news story and we never want to lose sight of that," she said.

Google Translate is not OK

Nick Manning, chief communications officer for Waterloo Region District School Board in southwestern Ontario, said meeting the demand is "stretching us."

They get hundreds of applications for openings in English classrooms but for French positions, only a handful, he said.

"We're seeing lots of competition between boards for the same people," Manning said.

School boards across Canada have had to get creative to recruit teachers to fill spots in French immersion programs. (CBC)

His board is having trouble finding teachers whose skills are high enough for immersion programs. It doesn't want to compromise on the quality of education, Manning said.

"We can't afford to have people who are not fluent in French," he said. "It's not OK to be referring to Google Translate."

On the other side of the country in Surrey, B.C., Doug Strachan said it's a "chronic struggle to recruit French teachers."

"We're able to get there but it's very stressful at times to get the positions filled," said Strachan, communications manager for the Surrey Board of Education.

It's not just boards competing with each other for French immersion teachers, it's provinces, he said. His board recruits all over Canada, often targeting universities for graduating teachers, but they also use other creative means.

Ahead of this school year board staff asked friends in Quebec to advertise positions on Facebook — and it worked.

One Quebec teacher moved to Surrey and lived in her principal's basement until she could find her own place.

"We're doing the best we can," Strachan said with a laugh about the idea of stealing teachers from Quebec.

Cross-country recruitment

Cross-country recruitment and offering incentives to attract teachers are among the strategies school boards are using to help manage the supply and demand problem.

Otherwise, some boards are capping enrolment in classes, helping their existing teachers improve their French so they can teach in it, some are encouraged to take French immersion courses in the summers, and recruiting people with teaching degrees but who were working outside of education in other sectors.

Provincial governments are also taking steps to address the shortage.
The demand for French immersion classrooms in Canada is outstripping the supply of teachers to teach in them. (CBC)

Ontario Education Minister Mitzie Hunter told CBC News the government is funding professional development initiatives to help qualify more French teachers and helping new immigrants who can teach and speak French find jobs.

Her ministry also set up a working group to advise it on how to increase the supply of French immersion teachers.

Michael Tryon, executive director of the Alberta branch of Canadian Parents for French, said education ministries and school boards have also been working on making French immersion more accessible for students from all backgrounds.

Tryon said he's heard of some parents putting their children in French immersion as a way of streaming them into certain schools, smaller class sizes and classrooms with fewer students with learning or other challenges.

"A few years ago it may have been that," he said.

And now?

"We're seeing a shift."

French immersion more inclusive

"We're seeing more and more inclusion," said Tryon, whose own son has learning challenges and is in French immersion.

Tryon said there are still "gatekeepers" in the system who promote the idea that French immersion is for the best and brightest or for students from certain socioeconomic backgrounds, but that younger teachers are coming into the profession with a more inclusive mindset.

About 44,500 Alberta students are enrolled in French immersion, said Tryon, who added people are often surprised to learn about the "healthy French-speaking population" in his province.

"Redneck Alberta? What do they want French for? We get it all the time," Tryon said.

The teacher supply continues to be a threat to the growth of French immersion and even actually the sustainability.- Gail Lecky, head of P.E.I. chapter of Canadian Parents for French

Smaller provinces, such as Prince Edward Island, have an added challenge in attracting teachers, said Gail Lecky, head of that province's chapter of Canadian Parents for French.

"P.E.I. is almost all rural," she said. "It's harder to find French teachers to go to rural areas."

There are 5,000 students in French immersion and it goes up every year, she said.

"The teacher supply continues to be a threat to the growth of French immersion and even actually the sustainability," Lecky said.

Parents are demanding the programs, she and the other advocates say, because they recognize the advantages being bilingual can mean for their child later in life, particularly in the labour market.

Manning, from the Waterloo school board, agreed with Tryon that some parents have used French immersion to stream their children into the "right" school but he also said there is something uniquely Canadian about the opportunity for English speakers to learn the country's other official language.

"It's something incredibly Canadian," said Manning, a British immigrant. "This whole notion of learning in two languages. I think that's really the appeal."


Meagan Fitzpatrick is a multiplatform reporter with CBC News in Toronto. She joined the CBC in 2011 and previously worked in the Parliament Hill and Washington bureaus. She has also reported for the CBC from Hong Kong. Meagan started her career as a print reporter in Ottawa.