He was denied a teaching certificate, but principal says he's 'overqualified' for the job

A decision by the Ontario College of Teachers to deny a Scarborough man a teaching certificate shows how the system is stacked against applicants educated overseas, advocates say.

Despite a teacher shortage, advocates say competent graduates are falling through the cracks

Thirugnanasambanthar 'Thiru' Thirukkumaran was denied a licence to teach by the Ontario College of Teachers on March 31. It said his chemistry degree from Sri Lanka was considered an 'alternative qualification to a Bachelor degree,' despite it being used as a basis for his bachelor of education in Ontario. (Submitted by Trevor Bullen)

For the past two months, Thirugnanasambanthar Thirukkumaran has been working as a volunteer teacher full time at West Hill Collegiate Institute, waiting for his teacher's certificate to arrive.

If not for him, his Grade 11 and 12 students wouldn't have a regular chemistry teacher. Despite this, he was denied a certificate to teach by the Ontario College of Teachers (OCT) last month for not having recognized academic credentials.

"It's kind of discrimination, for me," said Thirukkumaran, who's been tutoring students for the past two decades. It's currently his main source of income. 

Thirukkumaran says he went back to school at the age of 43 to get his bachelor of education.

"[The OCT] should appreciate that and give support — instead, they push me back."

Advocates say situations like Thirukkumaran's highlight a problem in Ontario's education system that allows teacher candidates with international education to slip through the cracks, despite a teacher shortage driven by retirements and COVID-19. 

Fewer than 400 early-career graduates across Ontario were out of work and available for teaching jobs in 2021, compared with the peak of the teacher surplus in 2014, when more than 7,700 were unemployed, according to OCT estimates.

According to documents from World Education Services, a non-profit that evaluates international credentials for students and immigrants in the United States and Canada, Thirukkumaran has two chemistry accreditations from Sri Lanka and Australia, equivalent to a bachelor's degree and a post-graduate diploma in Canada.

Thirukkumaran, who came to Canada in 2012 and is now a permanent resident, says both were accepted by Ontario Tech University— where he graduated with a bachelor of education in 2020— and by York University, where he is working toward a master of science degree.

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It's been demoralizing to know a passionate and "overqualified" educator like Thirukkumaran can't get financially compensated for his hard work, said West Hill principal Trevor Bullen.

"It seems to be that there's decisions [made] about certain countries and the validity of their degrees," Bullen said.

"We've got to talk about allowing not just him— but any other person who comes to this country, does everything possible and wants the opportunity to give back in the job of their chosen field."

At a disadvantage

A statement from OCT spokesperson Andrew Fifield said privacy laws prevent the college from sharing any information regarding specific applicants.

However, he said completing a professional teacher education program in Ontario doesn't guarantee an applicant will get certified. Denials are given if an applicant doesn't meet the bar for criteria such as academic credentials, teacher's education and language proficiency requirements.

"By law, these requirements must be met by all applicants, regardless of labour market trends," Fifield said.

"We cannot assess applications based on teaching experience alone."

In practice, it's not uncommon for internationally educated applicants to be disadvantaged when applying for their licence to teach, said Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation.

It's getting the applicants to come forward with it that's the hardest part.

"They are very reluctant to say anything or do anything for fear of being locked out of the system," Littlewood said.

"There are many qualified people across the world who would be assets in our buildings. When it looks like the discrimination is there, it quite often is."

The disadvantage often shows up in the job-hunting process, too. In 2021, teachers new to Canada who were educated elsewhere and then licensed in Ontario reported the highest rate of unemployment among the province's teacher graduates at 37 per cent, according to the OCT.

But in spite of these numbers, uncertified teachers with only high school diplomas have been filling in as supply teachers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

"They are either volunteering or they're working as unqualified and getting paid significantly less with absolutely no job security, no health or dental benefits," Littlewood said.

"Qualified people being turned away from work doesn't make sense."

Pushing ahead

Thirukkumaran says while he's disappointed with the OCT's decision, he intends to appeal through a litigation lawyer and with support from Ontario Tech University. His goal is to prevent others from being caught in a similar situation.

For now, he's determined to continue teaching his 73 students until the end of the semester, to avoid disrupting their education on top of the damage from the pandemic.

"I cannot say I can't come. Their grades, studies and their future will be destroyed," Thirukkumaran said.

"It's not just the student. It's their family, their future, and it's my satisfaction, too."