Friday, October 5, 2012

Why geography students should think twice about teacher’s college

Note: I wrote this post over four years ago, and little has changed. If anything, the situation for would-be teachers is worse in Ontario than it has ever been: long waits to get on a supply teacher list, even longer waits to get on the list of teachers eligible for 'LTO' positions ('long-term occasional' jobs, but in reality just short-term contracts), and then still more waiting to get a permanent position in a board. My advice remains the same: unless you have a burning passion to become a school teacher, consider doing  soothing else with your geography degree. RM 10AUG16

It's been longer than usual since my last post, for a couple reasons. One is that my transition to Wilfrid Laurier University, while going as smoothly as can be expected, has nonetheless taken away time for other activities, like blogging. The other reason is that I've wanted to comment on the current situation here in Ontario, where the government and teachers' unions are in conflict over wages (with the government planning to freeze them); however, I've wanted to bring a particular geography education angle to the discussion, and I've been debating with myself how to word it. Some people might take some offence at what I'm about to write. What follows may not apply to jurisdictions other than Ontario (though I suyspect it may well do so elsewhere in Canada, at least), and does not describe all would-be teachers presently pursuing undergraduate degrees in geography. Just the same, it's a phenomenon I've seen often enough over the last several years to cause me sufficient misgiving to finally write it down.

Right now, we have a lot of people with Bachelor of Education (B. Ed) degrees looking for work as elementary and secondary school teachers in Ontario. It wasn't always so, or at least, so we were told. Ten years ago I read an advertisement above a urinal at the University of Guelph encouraging undergraduate students to think about becoming a  teacher. I can’t recall who sponsored the ad; I think it may have been the Ontario teachers’ professional association, but I could be wrong. I do recall it wasn’t any particular university teacher’s college, and it wasn’t paid for by the University of Guelph itself, which has no teacher training program. Whoever sponsored it, the prevailing logic of the day was that a large number of teachers who had been hired in the late 1960s and early 1970s were nearing retirement age, and that there’d soon be a significant need for new teachers. Ontario universities added 5,000 spots to teachers colleges in response to the impending shortage.

The shortage never really materialized. Today, only ten years later, there are long lines of qualified teachers who can't get hired by one of Ontario’s school boards. Competition even to get on supply teaching lists can be fierce. Whatever short-term need there may have been for replacements for retiring baby boomers has long been met, but each year over 7,000 new students enter Ontario’s teachers colleges. On top of this, several US universities close to the Canadian border, like Canisius College and the New York State University at Potsdam, also offer teacher certification programs aimed at Ontario students.

It used to be that a B. Ed degree holder could be fairly confident of getting a job in teaching, so long as she or he was patient, willing to put in a few years on the supply teacher list. And it was worth the wait. An experienced full-time teacher in Ontario can eventually earn over $90,000 annually in salary, and become member of a very strong pension plan. Now, I don't begrudge teachers their salaries one penny. A good schoolteacher is worth her or his salary many times over, and being a good schoolteacher takes a considerable range of skills and temperament not all of us possess (I certainly don't). A dedicated, hardworking teacher is a cornerstone of the community.

The glut of qualified teachers means that a B. Ed. is becoming more and more like a BA in psychology or economics: degrees that provide you training in a particular field, but offer no promise of employment in it. Worse, a B Ed is usually completed in addition to another undergraduate degree, meaning extra years of tuition expenses, plus the opportunity cost of what else might have been done with the time spent in teacher's college. Unless a student has a missionary-like zeal to become a teacher, I would discourage them from going to teacher's college.

Which brings me to my main concern - that many students seeking to enter teacher's college aren't necessarily doing it out of a zeal for teaching but for lack of another plan for what to do after their BA or BSc. I have often seen undergraduate students switch their major to geography from another discipline or add a minor in geography late in the day. When I get the chance to ask them why, which is far from always, it’s usually not because they’ve suddenly developed a burning interest in geography. Rather, they typically say they've decided to apply for teachers college, and they need to have a teachable subject as part of their first degree (i.e. one that is also commonly taught in primary or secondary schools, which would include geography but not include, for example, philosophy or psychology). And when I ask why they want to go to teacher's college, it's less likely they're a Dean's Honour List students with a passion for pedagogy than someone with OK grades who thinks being a teacher would be a good job.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying this is always the case, or that there’s anything wrong with changing your major mid-stream. What I am saying is that I too often get the impression that teachers college is seen as a fallback option for students who have no particular career plans, and a geography degree is seen as a means to that end. I hope I’m wrong, and that what I’ve described applies to only a handful of students. But i should also note that, as a parent, I hope that people whose hearts aren't in it don't make it to teachers college or, if they do, that they don't get jobs as teachers. I want my kid's teachers to be A students who've long wanted to teach, and who do so with enthusiasm and a good store of knowledge to share. I don't want my kid's teacher (or anyone else's) to be someone who at age 22 couldn't think of anything else to do.

These days, I think a bright student in Ontario has better long term career propspects relying on the skills they learn in a geography degree than joining the herds at teachers college and hoping for a lucky break upon graduation. I recognize that unlike, say, an accounting degree or a nursing degree, a geography degree doesn’t lead to a self-determining career path. However, a geography student does have the opportunity of developing a much broader range of practical skills than do students in many other disciplines. Beyond the obvious GIS and spatial data manipulation techniques, which have strong employer demand, undergraduate geography students can develop impressive expertise using scientific equipment, writing technical reports, regulatory analysis… the list goes on, depending on the types of courses the student takes.

So if you're already in a geography program, good for you - keep your nose down, work hard, and load up on courses that provide useful technical skills. In this job market, it is tough to break in with an employer, but once you do - and you eventually will - you'll have skills that will help you distinguish yourself from other people in entry-level positions. Go to teacher's college if you truly in your heart and guts have always wanted to be a schoolteacher; you'll do well because of that passion. But if you don't have that passion, stick with geography. And if you're not currently a geography student, give it some thought - it's an interesting field and you may find you love it for being something more than simply an afterthought 'teachable" to put on your teachers college application.


Anonymous said...

Congrats for you, where i live in Portugal i would just tell people that they should not even go to Geography college, there are NO JOBS whatsoever, in 60 people only 2 or 3 will get a job in the field.

Kyle Gruber said...

I am a history major in California. Currently, I am enrolled in a geography class and I am rather enjoying it over my history classes. The reason being because geography covers a more scientific basis than history can. I have already decided to be a teacher, and of course I wanted to be a history teacher. However, now I am thinking I might switch my major and strive to teach geography instead.