Story by George Stephenson, Photos by Lindsey Enns
Jane Male recalls the day a few winters ago, trudging through the snow and frigid air on the way to her volunteer job at Governor Semple School in Winnipeg.
Pregnant and cold, she had almost reached her limit in the seemingly endless quest to get a full-time teaching job. Since arriving in Manitoba from the Philippines with two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s degree the summit seemed as distant as ever.
Her sobs merged with the squeak of her boots on the snow.
“Tears were streaming down my face and I just thought I want to go home, I want to go home. There was a lot of self-pity.”
When she arrived at the school, the elementary students spotted her at the door.
“When I see the kids running up to me, saying Miss Jane, Miss Jane, I knew then I was in the right place.”
Male’s experience isn’t unique. Internationally-trained teachers face a succession of Olympic-sized hurdles and hoops to clear and go through before they can even apply for teaching jobs in Manitoba. It often takes years.
James Nisbet Community School Principal Michelle Jean Paul, founder of the Educators of Colour Network and whose father was an internationally-trained teacher, says the process is arduous.
Immigrant teachers must have their credentials evaluated and sometimes it is difficult to get documents from the countries of origin. The applicants often need more credentials and there is a fee to have them reviewed. After all that’s done, most need further education, such as courses in Indigenous issues.
“For the most part, everyone needs to provide something more,” says Jean Paul. “It’s complicated. There are lots of variables.”
And while applications work their way through the system, the international teachers and their families have to survive, often without easily-available transportation or extended family support.
Jane’s husband, a teacher in the Philippines, for a time worked at a Winnipeg Burger King while his wife got her permanent certificate here.
Ripudaman Sidhu, born and educated in India, didn’t work at Burger King while trying to get her teaching certificate. With her two master’s degrees, she worked at a Quiznos. A single mother of two, she would leave her volunteer work at a school each day and go to her job at the submarine sandwich shop.
Sidhu is now in her first year of full-time teaching, eight years after arriving in Canada.
Throughout she’s worked at the sandwich shop, as an educational assistant, as a day care worker, as a substitute teacher and volunteer at a number of schools.
“I was running from one job to another job and the things I didn’t know I read over and over to get familiar with education here and took many workshops and all those things went on and on and on and on. There was no rest in between.”
There is no single comprehensive program in Manitoba to aid international teachers in getting certification to teach in the province.
Yet, the No. 1 career of immigrants to the province is secondary or elementary school teacher, according to Manitoba Start, which provides services for newcomers and potential employers.
Brahim Ould Baba, The Manitoba Teachers’ Society staff officer responsible for working with internationally-trained teachers, says the issue is becoming more and more urgent.
MTS is working on a number of initiatives – from web resources to workshops — aimed at helping those teachers, who become MTS members when they get a provisional certificate and start subbing in a school.
“Our members still face challenges,” says Ould Baba, citing one case where a member has worked 14 years as a substitute and on temporary terms, but can’t land a full-time job. “For many it’s tough to get a full-time job. It’s a systemic thing. They work as EAs to get experience in the system.
“The main thing that they hear is that they are lacking is experience in the Canadian context with the Manitoba education system.”
From student slang to social niceties to how to handle a job interview, there can be vast cultural differences.
Praveen Alahakoon, academic advisor for the Immigrant Teacher Education Program (ITEP) at the University of Winnipeg, says differences can arise simply over the understanding of a single word.
For example, an international teacher asked about inclusion would know the meaning of the word, but perhaps not as it relates to Manitoba classrooms, he says. They have the academic experience, but need to add to that knowledge.
ITEP tries to provide international teachers with that knowledge. It is the program most often mentioned in discussions with educators involved in the issue.
It tries to arrange partnerships with school divisions to hire international teachers at a lower wage rate to work with full-time teachers to get classroom experience. However, the number of placements depends on the divisions and currently there are only seven in the program. Its most successful partnership has been with the Seven Oaks School Division. It has hired more than two dozen teachers from ITEP.
Superintendent Brian O’Leary says the program, a two-year placement in that division, better prepares the teachers for life in a Manitoba school.
“It’s been hugely enriching to our school division and staff,” he says. “The benefit goes beyond just the candidates that we hire and they bring their expertise into the schools and to teachers. Students need to see themselves reflected back in the classrooms.”
That’s one of the critical reasons many in the field are urging the hiring of more international teachers. Manitoba classrooms are becoming more and more diverse, while the teaching staff is not keeping pace.
Ould Baba says in some schools in Manitoba the number of minority students can be well over 50 per cent with minority teaching staff as low as five per cent.
“Research shows that we should have teaching staff that represent the students.”
Both Male and Sidhu praise the ITEP for helping them reach the end of their quests along with colleagues, some of whom became close mentors.
“All the four mentors they gave me, I have a very special place in my heart for them,” says Sidhu.
Ould Baba says there is progress being made to add to that help with courses being developed, in conjunction with the universities, to specifically help internationally-trained teachers. Even offering courses at night or online is a major benefit for those who have to work during the day.
“They are small steps, but we are moving forward on many fronts,” he says.