Ontario is facing a teacher shortage. So why is it taking so long to certify new ones?

Ontario is facing a shortage of teachers as many retire or leave the profession. But for many new teachers, it's taking much longer to get certified, forcing them to take casual positions with no guarantee of benefits and much less pay.

Meanwhile, some boards are 'hiring unqualified people,' teachers' union says

Katherine McDonald, 23, is a recent graduate from York University. She says she's had to resort to messaging the Ontario College of Teachers on social media just to get an update on the application for certification she sent in September. (Submitted by Katherine McDonald)

Katherine McDonald thought she'd have no trouble finding a long-term teaching job after graduating with a bachelor of education degree last July.

She figured with French teachers like her in high demand, it wouldn't take long. But eight months later, she's still waiting for the Ontario College of Teachers to process her certification.

"I have emailed them several times. I've called them with no luck ... Essentially, there was nothing I could do about that except wait," said McDonald, who's now an emergency supply French teacher at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB).

She's one of many recent teaching graduates in Ontario who've taken casual positions as they wait for certification. Those positions often mean precarious employment with no guarantee of benefits and much less pay than certified teachers for similar work. And with the province facing a shortage of teachers, many are asking why the certification process is getting longer, not shorter.

"I'm planning lessons every day, I'm doing assessments, I'm writing report cards, but I'm getting paid as a supply teacher," said McDonald, 23. "I'm doing all of this for not even half the pay."

Only certified teachers can apply for long-term and permanent positions in publicly-funded schools, which McDonald says often start at $55,000 a year.

The average pre-pandemic wait time to process an application was 120 days, according to the college. Although some are still getting processed in that time, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF) says others, like McDonald's, are taking much longer.

Karen Littlewood is a special education teacher from Barrie, Ont. and is the president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation. (Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation)

Karen Littlewood, a special education teacher in Barrie and the president of the OSSTF, says the union has raised concerns about the process with both the college and the Ministry of Education since November, with no resolution yet. 

"It shouldn't be like that, especially when we have a shortage of teachers in the province of Ontario," Littlewood said.

Boards 'hiring unqualified people,' union says

According to a 2020 Ontario College of Teachers report, once plentiful job openings have been dwindling since 2015. Now, more teachers — especially those like McDonald who can teach French — are needed to combat shortages and fill in gaps as thousands of older teachers continue to retire, the report says.

The shortage has pushed some school boards, including the TDSB, into hiring people who are not certified teachers or who have certification pending to cover emergency vacancies.

According to a 2020 report from the Ontario College of Teachers, early-career teachers are needed now more than ever to replace those who are retiring. (Ontario College of Teachers, Transition to Teaching report)

"They are hiring unqualified people with a minimum of a high school diploma to come in and do basic coverage in a class, and that's not doing anything to provide education for the students," said Littlewood.

The Ministry of Education has told OSSTF that school boards who have hired a teacher waiting for certification can request an expedited processing time from the college. That's exactly how Elizabeth Herbert, an occasional teacher at two school boards in the London and Stratford area, got her application processed.

Elizabeth Herbert is an occasional teacher working for two school boards in the London and Stratford area. She waited over six months for her certification from the Ontario College of Teachers. (Submitted by Elizabeth Herbert)

But Herbert says not everyone gets the same treatment.

"Several people I know have gotten jobs in other sectors that they expect to keep at least for the rest of this year, if not longer. I also know peers that have gotten jobs teaching in other provinces," she said.

"That is a loss on Ontario's part."

In an email to CBC News, TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird says his board is aware of the college's offer of an expedited certification process, but doesn't need to use it.

"It's not a significant issue for the TDSB right now," Bird wrote.

All-time high in applications

In an email to CBC News, Olivia Yu, a spokesperson for the college, says the delays in certifying teachers started in 2021. She says not only was it a record-breaking year for client inquiries and applications, but changes in government regulations made things worse.

"We are continuing to review our processes and staffing levels and are making adjustments as quickly as we can."

Yu says the college doesn't have a current number on the amount of people waiting for certifications, but is making areas experiencing shortages a priority.

Littlewood says the Ministry of Education has acknowledged the problem to the OSSTF and has said it is in the process of implementing strategies to expedite applications. 

But in an email statement to CBC News, the ministry says the college is an "independent, statutory body that is responsible for all matters relating to registration, certification, and teachers' qualifications."

In that statement, however, the ministry does highlight an independent review in December that raised concerns about the college's operations, including a lack of coordination between departments and staff shortages amid an increasing workload. 

Meantime, McDonald warns things have to change to stop others from leaving the profession, although she'll continue on in spite of the long wait for her certification.

"I do it because I love my students and I do need the experience. But it definitely is discouraging," she said.

"I know that I have the same qualifications as my colleagues who have a certification, I just unfortunately have to wait in line to get that."

With files from Jasmin Seputis