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After 4 teachers in 1 year, parents say staffing issues hurting students at Etobicoke school

Parents of school children enrolled in a French immersion class at a Toronto public school say staffing issues are leaving their kids behind, with three substitute teachers — including a non-French speaker — leading the class this school year already, and one new unnamed teacher still to come.

Christine Cowern’s four-year-old started school last fall at John English Junior Middle School, entering a junior kindergarten French immersion program. Cowern said she liked the small class size of 15, hoping he would get more one-on-one time with the teacher. But that class, and teacher, didn’t last long.

“Three weeks in, we got a message saying that his class was actually going to be absorbed into one of the existing French classes,” Cowern said.

The existing class, she says, was initially taught by a substitute teacher whom Cowern said was “a fantastic teacher,” with one major flaw. 

“She just didn’t speak French. And that was the program that kids were in.”

Cowern says the fill-in teacher, who has since been succeeded by a bilingual educator, did her best to teach the material, but couldn’t provide the immersive experience the program promises.

Multiple TDSB positions need filling

As Toronto’s school board struggles to fill positions, French immersion classes have occasionally been taught by short-term fill-ins and some parents say a lack of stability is hurting their children’s education. Public schools across Ontario began relying on supply teachers to cover staffing shortages during the pandemic, but the problem persists, with educators complaining about a slow certification process for new teachers.

In January, a Toronto District School Board spokesperson told CBC the board is experiencing shortages in teaching and support staff, and is actively recruiting new staff while also trying to fill those positions with “occasional staff.”

In an email this week, TDSB spokesperson Emma Moynihan said the board has a number of unfilled French immersion positions and that sometimes English-speaking teachers are placed in them when teachers qualified to teach French as a second language don’t apply. 

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) building at 5050 Yonge Street is pictured on Feb. 1, 2023.
A spokesperson for Toronto District School Board says some French immersion classes have had to be filled by non-French-speaking teachers due to a number of unfilled positions. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

Moynihan said the class at John English has had a French-speaking designated early childhood educator on hand all year, and the English-speaking substitute has since been replaced by a French-speaking “long-term occasional teacher” leading the class.

Yet another replacement teacher on the way

But parents who spoke to CBC Toronto said they received a letter late last month saying that teacher is now moving on to a full-time position in the Yukon and will be replaced after March Break. Parents say they haven’t been told who the new teacher will be.

“This would be the fourth teacher that the kids have had in the school year, one that they may or may not even have in September,” Cowern said. “[It] adds a layer of instability to their lives that I don’t think most parents are super happy about.”

Nikki Bergen, whose five-year-old daughter is in the same class, says the class had a full-time teacher last year, something she says made a big difference for her child. But this year’s “revolving door” of substitutes is failing to deliver a true French immersion program, she says. 

A young, blonde woman is shown from the waist up on a couch holding a mug. She is looking at the camera
Nikki Bergen says the lack of a consistent teacher in her daughter’s French immersion class has led her to pay for tutoring to make sure her child isn’t missing out on her education. (Submitted by Nikki Bergen)

Partway through this year, Bergen says, she started paying for a private tutoring program to make sure her daughter gets the education Bergen hoped she’d get from TDSB. 

“It’s just not cutting it,” Bergen said. “I’m saving for private school.”

She says the teachers who’ve filled in this year have been great, but the board needs to do better.

“In terms of staffing, I’m not sure what the issue is,” she said. “But it’s concerning that the kids are the ones that suffer and the teachers are burnt out too.”

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