Manitoba·Opinion

Joanne Seiff: Why Manitoba needs a more diverse teaching force

The University of Manitoba's Faculty of Education recently changed its admissions policy as it aims to create a more diverse teaching force. That may be something our province needs, writes Joanne Seiff.

U of M's diversity admissions policy may offer an option that Manitoba needs, writes Joanne Seiff

'Good teaching helps all students, but attracting and maintaining excellent teachers require more than one approach,' writes Joanne Seiff. (iStock)

The Faculty of Education at University of Manitoba recently changed its admissions policy. They aim to create a more diverse teaching force. They want Manitoba's teachers to look like Manitoba's population.

News flash: We don't all look like Caucasian females.

Most classroom teachers are white women. While some women are in positions of authority, historically, school administrators were white men. This isn't the face of our population, especially as we welcome newcomers through international immigration.

Recently, a professor told me about how intimidated he was when he entered university as a first-year undergraduate.  Despite a shy and reserved nature, he excelled at his small high school. There were approachable teachers who reflected his ethnic and religious background.

When he got to a big university's science courses, there were hundreds of students. In one, his professor was a Nobel Prize recipient. This fame made him seem unapproachable, but … this student was from the same ethnic group as the famous professor. That made asking questions in class seem possible. It made a difference.

It's true that a good educator can reach anyone. Professor emeritus Rodney Clifton mentions that an educator's race or sexual orientation doesn't, on its own, affect student performance. Clifton also points that "all students deserve the best possible teachers that they can get," which is also true. 

However, recent research indicates that in 2014, Manitoba's students scored worst in the country in math, science, and reading.

It's safe to say that whatever Manitoba's teacher training has done so far hasn't produced the best results.

Good teaching helps all students, but attracting and maintaining excellent teachers require more than one approach. The diversity admissions policy may offer one option that our province needs.

Role models and diplomats

Why? Even outstanding students can struggle when it comes to approaching a teacher. Finding a teacher with attributes like one's own can make asking a question easier.

It also provides students from traditionally low-performing categories with strong role models. For example, indigenous families, with negative residential school experiences in their past, may not always express uniformly positive messages about school at home. However, a First Nations teacher that models academic success and a positive experience may make a big difference. Both student achievement and greater community and school support may result.

Promoting diverse teacher backgrounds may also teach an entire generation of educators about tolerance. Teachers gather information from each other. Teachers who are "different" often provide their colleagues with vital information. 

For instance, that professor, mentioned above, comes from a religious minority. His colleagues approach him to ask if a student's request for a make-up exam due to a religious holiday is legitimate. In essence, this professor acts as a diplomat for his background. He explains to other teachers, who may come from a Christian majority culture, about his religious customs and obligations. An educator might grant a make-up exam request based on that conversation, thus offering a student a greater level of religious tolerance as a result.

Students know the obvious. Currently their school teachers don't often look like they do. Historically, students born in Canada, from the majority culture, have an advantage wherever they apply for jobs or for higher education. The system as it stands favours those who were raised here. If the test scores are right, this bias doesn't achieve the student educational outcomes which every parent and educator hopes to achieve.

Plus, the best and the brightest, from any background, might not pursue careers in teaching. The Faculty of Education may not attract these superstars, even with a diverse admissions policy. The most successful university applicants can be reminded that our communities need smart people in these service roles. The province offers a good salary, as well as a work schedule that enables them to spend time with their families. Those who felt marginalized in the past may feel teaching is now a potential opportunity with a new diversity admissions policy.

Remove barriers for internationally trained educators

Manitoba can't afford to allow the low graduation rates and poor test scores to continue. Melanie Janzen, associate dean of undergraduate programs in the Faculty of Education at the U of M, suggested that we do even better in a recent Winnipeg Free Press op-ed.

My heart is "in it" when it comes to education … but not when it comes to bureaucracy.- Joanne Seiff

"Internationally educated teachers — those with teaching certificates from countries other than Canada" also need to have the many barriers to teaching in Manitoba removed. Admitting these already qualified teachers to the educators' pool would drastically increase diversity. It might also promote a greater competence among immigrant students.

I'm not a disinterested bystander. When I came to Canada from the United States in 2009, I contacted a program that helped teachers trained abroad to qualify to teach here. Despite my two graduate degrees, which include an M. Ed in English from a U.S. university, I'd need to complete an 18-month full-time certification program to be qualified to teach here.

My follow-up question was that I had heard that teaching jobs in Winnipeg might be hard to come by. I moved to Winnipeg as the result of my spouse's new job. I didn't want to undertake this program only to find I'd need to move away to find employment.

The woman on the phone told me that if my heart were really in it, I'd do the teacher training anyway and take the risk.

My heart is "in it" when it comes to education … but not when it comes to bureaucracy.

Since then, I've taught graduate-level seminars and adult education workshops in Manitoba, all on a part-time basis in places that didn't require this re-certification.

Imagine what might transpire if we lassoed the power of all the teachers who've moved here, as well as those in our diverse population who were not welcomed into the Faculty of Education before.

True, educators might not look like the white male professors and principals of years past, nor would they all be Caucasian women, asked to leave their posts when they got married or had children.

Times have changed. Let's help our province's teachers and students excel by supporting and reflecting that change.


Joanne Seiff is the author of two books. She writes, designs and teaches in Winnipeg.

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