French-English bilingualism is a star act on the stage of Canadian multiculturalism. French language programs in Canadian schools — which consist of core French, extended French and French immersion — are renowned throughout the world.
And yet the top performers are fleeing the circus. French as a Second Language (FSL) teachers are losing their classrooms to budget cuts. Many express feelings of disconnection, isolation and exclusion in the workplace. It is common to hear stories of teachers who speak French but adamantly refuse to teach French in their schools.
The show-stopping question is: can innovative professional learning communities reverse this trend?
As a doctoral student in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto, I know that professional learning communities (PLCs) show a lot of promise in Canada. They help promote leadership, support and community among teaching professionals. A French and English language teacher myself, I have developed curriculum for new language programs and trained teachers to implement these programs in their classrooms. Now, I am investigating how PLCs can help mitigate what I call “FSL teacher flight.”
In the first study of its kind to explore the evolving professional practice of Canadian French teachers, I am analysing the participation of two FSL teachers in the innovative Virtual PLC project. I am working with data collected over four years by Dr. Mary Kooy from a group of 17 teachers working across different subject matters. This study captures the complexities of teachers’ daily life in hundreds of hours of recordings, blog posts, pictures, teacher resources, school visits and surveys.
The Virtual PLC project community was geared towards helping dissatisfied teachers. What is most interesting about it is that, over time, teachers who were thinking of leaving the profession have stayed — and many have become leaders in their schools. In my own study, I am interested in finding out how this played out for the teachers themselves and then applying these findings to FSL teacher professional learning in Canada.
Teaching a la cart
Up to 63 per cent of French as a Second Language teachers are teaching “a la cart.” This term, coined by the teachers themselves, refers to the experience of running harried from classroom to classroom pushing a cart full of teaching materials (#FSLNoMoreCarts).
Things are so bad for FSL teachers that large numbers have considered or actually left the profession. Many of them move out of teaching French and into English language classrooms as soon as possible.
This has become a real problem for schools in Canada desperate to find French teachers to teach a subject that 85 per cent of Canadian children study. This year, one school board considered the situation so dire in Ontario, that it made a formal request to the Ministry of Education to look into this matter.
I’ve found that parents and children alike are keen to learn French. The story we share across the world of “Canada the Bilingual” has touched many of the new families who come to settle here and want to be a part of Canadian multiculturalism.
Learning French is a way to assume that Canadian identity and legitimize any additional languages they bring with them. After all, if we accept French, we can surely accept Chinese, Italian, Urdu and other languages. Families who have been established in Canada for longer also feel that learning French can help their children have a competitive edge in the global market.
Professional learning communities
Teachers come together in professional learning communities to develop their practice with the aim of improving student learning. They meet and discuss issues that matter to them and their students and they develop solutions to try out in their classrooms.
PLCs are an important form of professional development because learning with peers is engaging. It stimulates creativity and camaraderie. Supportive learning networks also bring out the unique skills of everyone in the group and let them shine.
Teachers who feel good about themselves have less feelings of stress and alienation. Imagine a room full of teachers honing their skills, sharing their knowledge and pushing each other to do their best. Not only does this make for happier teachers, but better schools and better learning for the students as well.
Collaborative and continued professional development for FSL teachers are the tent poles of successful bilingual schools in an education system where schools receive provincial and federal funding for French-language programs.
But so far, there is little research about how FSL teachers fare in these kinds of networks. Findings from the Virtual PLC project suggest that opportunity, time, distributed membership, active learning, relationship development, trust, shared motivations and mutual decision-making are all essential to cultivating a successful teacher learning community.
Perhaps this approach to professional development could improve the outlook, performance and retention rate of FSL teachers across Canada?
A new learning landscape for French teachers in Canada
I hope to continue working with French as a Second Language teachers to develop a professional learning model in schools across Canada to help them take ownership of their learning and their status as bilinguals. I want to help them explore what it means to be bilingual representatives and advocates of French and English in Canadian schools by using the findings to create a musical podcast.
Using art and music to share the findings from the research would offer a way to (re)imagine the narrative about FSL teachers and transform the learning landscape in schools to include collaborative learning networks. I also want to think about the way we understand learning, to include collaborative and social aspects, and how to bring that to FSL teachers’ colleagues, administrators, parents and students.
My study challenges current French teacher professional learning models and working conditions by repositioning teachers as active, self-directed learners in their own professional learning. It offers potential to contribute to the advancement of the field of FSL teacher professional learning.
This article is also available in French: “Quand les enseignants canadiens de français langue seconde innovent pour résister”.