While Canada is a welcoming place for many newcomers, some encounter roadblocks when it comes to having their foreign academic credentials and professional experience recognized by Canadian employers and professional organizations. As a result, many are forced to switch career paths. Some of these immigrants turn toward teaching, enrolling in faculties of education at Canadian universities to earn the credentials they need to practise this profession. However, their professional integration into Canadian schools is fraught with challenges related to their own socio-professional backgrounds as well as to their personal beliefs about teaching and learning. This paper will address the challenges encountered by twelve new immigrant teachers, as well as the induction strategies they employed to ease their transition to teaching.
Professional integration of new immigrants is a relatively recent phenomenon in Canada that is increasingly becoming an object of study. Teachers starting work in Canadian schools may face a number of obstacles, such as: needing to adopt the educational culture; dealing with a lack of openness or tolerance from certain colleagues due to their linguistic, cultural or racial differences; and receiving little credit for their teaching experience outside the country3. Indeed, immigrant teachers have reported feeling like foreigners in Canadian schools due to the sound of their name and accent, clothing, demonstration of religious affiliation, or skin colour4. Some even perceived displays of racism directed toward them5.
Many immigrants to Canada come from cultures where students are taught through a traditional lecturing approach, and learning essentially constitutes memorizing concepts studied in class6. Current norms for teaching youth in Canada are inspired by constructivist learning theory. This can come as quite a shock to immigrant teachers carrying out teaching internships and experiencing for the first time a learner-centred educational practice and the related learning processes. Some studies1,7 suggest that newly immigrated teachers perceive a gap between their “inherited” professional identity, rooted in their own student experience in their home country, and the “target” professional identity, embodied by the Canadian teacher who is the cultural transmitter. When an immigrant teacher perceives this gap between the two identities as conflict, a crack in his/her identity can emerge, demonstrated, by varying degrees, in critical events.
Such experiences prompt newly immigrated teachers to marginalize themselves by uniting to create a sense of safety that comes with having contact with other people who have faced similar challenges. The social-political context in which immigrant teachers seek employment can also create new obstacles, such as the application of prevailing educational policies on equity within the province and discriminatory practices against visible minority teachers based on dress, accent, visibly belonging to a perceived “foreigner” group, immigration status and age.
Very few studies have been carried out on the experience of French-speaking immigrant teachers undergoing job transition1,2,8. Our research, therefore, looks at the strategies used by new immigrant teachers to overcome the challenges of professional integration into a French-language school board in Ontario. Our twelve participants hailed from Sub-Saharan Africa (6), North Africa (4) and Europe (2). At the time of the interview, participant ages were between 28 and 57 (M = 41 years). They had an average of two years’ experience teaching in Ontario, and ten held regular positions. In addition, these new teachers had been living in Canada for an average of eight years and had spent two to fourteen years looking for a regular job after immigrating. Seven participants were teaching in primary schools and five in secondary schools, all for the same French-language school board in the Ottawa area.
INDUCTION STRATEGIES OF IMMIGRANT TEACHERS
The new immigrant teachers we met talked about their preferred induction strategies for successful professional integration. Several of the discussed methods are common among all new teachers at the start of their careers, whether or not they were born in Canada. For example, they spoke of taking initiatives to demonstrate a certain professional autonomy, asking colleagues multiple questions, using available resources, developing good time management methods for planning and correction, not being afraid to get involved, and using humour with kids to relax the atmosphere during times of stress. Participants nevertheless highlighted induction strategies that were specific to being newcomers to Canada. These strategies can be grouped into two major categories: strategies that helped them adopt a positive attitude about their experiences and those that involved day-to-day actions. Note that participants’ names have been changed to ensure anonymity.
Several study participants spoke of the importance of analyzing, meaning taking the time to observe their surroundings, understand them, compare them to previous experiences and try, to the best of their ability, to explain them in a way that allowed them to accept, or at least adapt to, new situations they faced. Jessica and Paul, for example, taught in a school that was relatively far from an urban centre and in an area with few immigrants; they were two of the very limited number of Black people in this community. They said they understood the hesitation of certain parents vis-à-vis the new African teacher. They are aware that they must prove to the parents, and also to their colleagues and the school administration, that they are capable of teaching just as well as their Canada-born counterparts. They added that if they were in the position of parents worried about their children’s well-being, they would surely react in the same way. Suzy believes it is important to question the teaching philosophies and practices of her home country, Algeria, in order to gain perspective on and better understand the recommended practices in Canada. She admits, for example, that the relationship of authority between the teacher and the student, as well as the school’s expected role of parents, are not the same in Canada as they are in Algeria; however, understanding the educational values at the root of these practices helps her better understand and accept them.
In addition, affirming one’s identity and demonstrating self-confidence are also counted among participants’ attitude strategies. Charlotte has lived in Ontario for more than ten years and has integrated an “adopted” identity into her pre-existing identity. She now proudly calls herself a Franco-Ontarian and speaks using certain turns of phrase typical of that community. Patricia emphasized the importance of not limiting oneself to immigrant status or skin colour in order to get ahead. Carl had similar ideas, stating that it is crucial to have self-confidence and to trust one’s personal resources, an idea also shared by Karen when, during the interview, she stated, “I just tell myself, I’m going to make it! I’m going to make it! I’m going to make it!”
The new immigrant teachers we met provided several examples of concrete behaviours or actions that they prioritize in order to overcome the cultural obstacles they face. Chris explained that when he was teaching in Cameroon, he did not have to worry about the state in which he left the classroom after a lesson. He was thus surprised when, during his first contract in an Ontario secondary school, a colleague with whom he shared a classroom criticized him for allowing his students to leave the classroom in a mess. Chris, who cared about maintaining good working relationships with his colleagues, chose to adopt the practices of other teachers at the school by informing his students of the situation and by taking the time, himself, to check the state of the classroom. Like other study participants, Chris developed a habit of observing Canadian colleagues to align his teaching practices and professional conduct with those valued in the workplace. According to Suzy, it is important to adopt the values of the host society, but without losing one’s identity:
“You have to agree to mould yourself.” She added that newcomers should not take offence to being asked sometimes awkward questions that demonstrate lack of knowledge of their culture, such as “Do you eat like we do?” New teacher Jessica believes it is important to be flexible; she said that sometimes it was hard to understand the rationale behind certain school practices or rules, but that she willingly complied with them so that she could later express her ideas to her colleagues.
Talking with colleagues is another strategy that participants used. For Patricia, that meant “talking to those who know,” which is why she made sure to arrive at school early in the morning so that she would have time to consult with the principal. As for Suzy, she does not hesitate to ask questions about how to use science class materials that are not common in her home country. Camil and Karen sought advice from other colleagues from the Maghreb region. Karen reported starting to feel secure when she allowed herself to speak or make a few jokes in Arabic in moments of high-stress and that this made things easier for her when she first began teaching.
Lastly, Paul stated that he was open to sharing about his culture and the way things work in schools in his country in order to make himself better understood by his colleagues. Carl recalled that it was important to make sure he was respected for who he is, yet also spoke of the importance of showing interest in discovering the culture of the host country, for example, by appreciating the food and trying out recreational activities prized by the locals. Patricia also applied this practice before immigrating by reading about the history of Canada and its linguistic challenges.
The growth of Canada is closely tied to the contributions of newcomers. It is important for immigrant students who attend Canadian schools to be exposed to diverse teacher models with whom they can identify. In addition, a professional body that is more representative of Canadian demographics would help demarginalize minority groups. Of the twelve teachers who contributed to our research, a few felt marginalized in a particular school or in the Ontario educational system in general. Most participants, however, have used attitude- or action-based induction strategies that have helped them build a sense of inclusion at their schools as well as in their field. Professional induction in itself is a complex step in the lives of teachers. When immigration-related obstacles are added to the mix, it is clear that the challenge of integrating newcomers involves specific issues that should be considered by education authorities.
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 Duchesne, C., Gravelle, F. et Gagnon, N. (2019). Des nouveaux enseignants issus de l’immigration négocient leur place dans la culture enseignante de leur école. Revue des sciences de l’éducation, 45(1), 187-214.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Claire Duchesne is a Full Professor in the Faculty of Education at University of Ottawa. Her research focuses on adult training, learning, and development, as well as on the professional induction of teachers from immigrant backgrounds in French Ontario.
France Gravelle is a professor in the Department of Education and Pedagogy at the Université du Québec à Montréal. A specialist in education management and new governance, she is also interested in issues related to digital management, e-learning and hybrid education, higher education management and the well-being of students.
Nathalie Gagnon is a professor in the Department of Educational Sciences at Université du Québec à Rimouski. Mainly interested in early career teachers, her research focuses on induction and mentoring programs. She is also interested in issues related to accompaniment practices and coaching skills, teachers’ self-efficacy and professional development.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Winter 2020 issue.