Allison Hanes: Is education really Quebec’s top priority?

If it was, as Premier François Legault so often says, the government would be doing a lot more to support, retain, recruit and show how much it values teachers.

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The countdown is on to the last day of school and it’s hard to tell who is more excited about the upcoming summer break: students or teachers.

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Personally, I would bet on teachers, given the challenging and important work they do educating the next generation of Quebecers under often trying conditions.

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Even under the best of circumstances, teaching is a labour of love that takes tremendous patience to keep kids focused and immeasurable energy to command the attention of the class. It also requires great reserves of compassion to help every child reach their full potential.

But all of this becomes that much more difficult when the climate is suboptimal. And in Quebec, unfortunately, the school system faces so many obstacles that teaching has become arduous. As a result, many are sadly leaving the profession when they are most needed.

To rhyme off some of the obstacles: crumbling schools; more students with special needs; more newcomers who don’t speak French; not enough support for the challenges pupils face; a risk of violence; high expectations from parents that can verge on the unreasonable; long (and unpaid) hours outside the classroom planning lessons, sitting on committees and organizing extracurricular activities.

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Add to this the politicization of Quebec’s school system with Bill 23, a proposed reform of governance that would centralize decision-making in the Education Ministry, seize the power to appoint the directors-general of service centres and English school boards, and allow local decisions to be overturned if they don’t mesh with the government’s orientations.

And to top it all off, the education minister has expressed contempt for the work of teachers. When asked in a recent interview with Le Devoir why Quebec doesn’t make teachers the highest paid in Canada, as it has now done with members of the National Assembly, Bernard Drainville scoffed: “Are you really comparing the job of a teacher with the job of an MNA?”

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It’s no wonder teachers feel underappreciated. It’s no wonder there is a shortage of about 2,600 professionals across Quebec, including 1,000 teachers.

Every fall, when it’s time for back to school, there is a mad scramble to fill vacant positions. This has resulted in a lamentable revolving door in many classrooms that’s destabilizing for students, and a lowering of the bar on qualifications.

Quebec’s auditor general recently flagged the fact that a quarter of teachers in our schools are not legally certified. That’s 30,000 teachers! In response, Drainville basically said that a high school diploma is sufficient to be a teacher in the context of the current shortage — or at least better than no instructor at all.

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Maybe some of these unqualified teachers are wonderful people who are great with kids and would be well suited to the profession. But without the proper education themselves, how can they be up on the latest pedagogy, child psychology and measures to help kids learn? The school system needs to be more than just glorified child care.

Meanwhile, Quebec is turning away newly certified teachers who wear the hijab, turban or kippah because under Bill 21, the secularism law, religious symbols are prohibited for public employees in positions of authority.

This is the sorry state of education in Quebec — and under a government that considers it a top priority, no less. Premier François Legault has stated this repeatedly — and has repeatedly failed to do anything to back up this vigorous assertion.

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Education should be the No. 1 priority on the Quebec government’s agenda. Not only is it crucial to make sure the next generation has the knowledge and critical thinking skills to secure a prosperous future, education is also the answer to so many of Quebec’s present-day woes.

It should be the key to the labour shortage, closing the wage gap with Ontario and dealing with staffing shortages in health care.

If the Legault government is alarmed about the decline of French in the sea of North American English, Quebec needs more teachers to help boost the literacy rate, especially among francophones. According to the Fondation pour l’alphabétisation, 46 per cent of the population does not read at a high enough level to understand complex texts. In some high schools, nearly half of graduating students failed the French exam in 2022.

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Likewise, if the government is so worried that accepting too many immigrants would be “suicidal” for social and linguistic integration, more teachers are needed for the language training programs it plans to bolster.

A government truly putting education first would be rolling out the red carpet for teachers, trying to recruit the best and brightest to the profession, finding a fast track to certification for those who have already raised their hands to work in schools, providing more support for instructors and students in classrooms, improving working conditions and, yes, perhaps even offering the best pay in the country.

For now, though, teachers should go enjoy a well-deserved vacation.

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