Let's role-play: it's September and you're a second-year education student specializing in English at Mount Saint Vincent University. You've got to find a practice teaching placement in a few months.
But by the time you start your practicum, students from Presque Isle and Fort Kent in Maine have snatched up the positions you wanted—they grabbed prime spots in September.
According to Dr. Robert Berard, the director of teacher education at Mount Saint Vincent, it's because these universities are paying individual teachers to take on university students. Teachers in Halifax can get paid anywhere from $125 to $150 by American universities.
"The Maine universities do complicate matters somewhat—they pay teachers to take . That's never been a tradition in Nova Scotia," he says. "Our feeling is that we don't like the idea of paying teachers anyway."
Berard admits that for some teachers, the money doesn't matter.
"But there are some that say, "Well, if I can get paid to take a student from here—why wouldn't I?'"
Danielle McNeil-Hessian, the coordinator of school administration for the Halifax Regional School Board, says she can neither confirm nor deny this claim. But she is aware that the two universities from Maine have given honorariums to teachers.
"Our Board requires both of those universities to give the honorarium to the school," she says. "But it may have gone to teachers in the past."
The Mount is the only university in Halifax currently offering a Bachelor of Education program. Mount students are placed by the Halifax Regional School Board at a school within the city. All such placements are required to be made through the Board; the University contacts the Board, and its officials ask the principals of schools whether their teachers are willing to take in students. Karen (not her real name), a second-year Mount student specializing in French, set up her own practicum in the Annapolis Valley.
"My fiance's parents are retired teachers, and one of the administrators that they know needed a French teacher to replace a teacher who was leaving down there," she says. "I have a term starting in April once our practicum hours are over."
The Board doesn't allow students to set up their own practicum in Halifax. But some students do it anyway outside of the city because of the scarcity of placements—
so many other education students have a crack at getting their placements before the second-year Mount students.
This year, there were 529 placements made in HRM and 542 placement requests. Students from Maine started in September; but 127 first-year Mount students went out October 3, 32 from Saint FX on November 12, and 84 students from Acadia on November 19. This leaves the Mount second-years, who start on November 29.
Karen thinks it's bizarre that everyone isn't worked out at the same time.
"People have been driving out to Eastern Passage because of this late placement," she says. "Going into it so late makes it difficult to prepare any lessons for the grade level that you're going to be teaching."
McNeil-Hessian explains that the sheer number of students applying for placements presents a heavy workload.
"It's a tremendous strain on the school board," she says. "The difficulty is that we start asking our teachers around May to June if they will take student teachers. But over the last few years, we had many teachers retire replaced by new teachers who don't have experience."
Last year, the Mount sent out their students at the beginning of the year. And this made teachers cranky.
Berard says secondary teachers refused to take students as early as September because it disrupted their relationship development with their students.
According to Berard, the current system will soon be coming under review to resolve whether it is meeting the needs of school boards, teachers and school communities. A report is due later this month.
"I would hope," he says, "that we could eventually come to a system where we recognize that the local institution should at least have a chance to have its students placed, and then the other institutions thereafter."