by Kate Hammer and Caroline Alphonso - The Globe and Mail

A Toronto District School Board memo to staff that included gender and race among qualifications that could win a candidate an interview for a teaching position has outraged some female teachers.

The memo, which was received by principals and teachers and obtained by The Globe and Mail, says that the qualities that could get a candidate an interview include being male or from a racial minority.

“The first round of TDSB interviews will be granted to teachers candidates that meet one or more of the following criteria in addition to being an outstanding teacher: Male, racial minority, French, Music, Aboriginal,” the memo reads.

Competition for teaching jobs at Canada’s largest school board is stiff.

Many teachers college graduates spend years competing just to get onto the call list for substitute teachers.

Educators who mentor teachers-college students for the school board were surprised when they received an e-mail earlier this month, laying out race and gender-specific criteria for interview candidates.

“We were shocked,” said one TDSB teacher, who requested anonymity. “They’re not willing to look at anyone who is white and female, but it should go to the person who is best for the job.”

TDSB spokesman Ryan Bird said that more than half of the board’s teachers are female, and there is a need in many parts of the province, not just the TDSB, for more male teachers or aboriginal teachers, for example, to better represent the school community. Mr. Bird said the first consideration when hiring an educator is competency. He stressed that the memo does not mean other groups would be excluded from the interviewing process.

“Through our employment equity policy, there are designated group that we’re looking for. But it’s absolutely not to the exclusion of other groups,” Mr. Bird said.

It is unclear how widely the memo was distributed, Mr. Bird said.

The board’s teaching staff does not match the diversity of its student body, raising concerns over whether students are being introduced to relatable role models. About 22 per cent of elementary and 23 per cent of high-school teachers at the board are visible minorities, according to the latest staff census published by the TDSB in 2007, while 72 per cent of students are visible minorities.

About 77 per cent of elementary teachers and 59 per cent of high-school teachers are female. Many experts blame a shortage of role models for the fact that boys and some minority groups lag behind girls on standardized tests and postsecondary achievement.

The board has been working to build a staff that more accurately reflects its students’ diversity. Its employment equity policy states that, “Outreach activities and affirmative action strategies (e.g., encouragement, mentoring, training and staff development) shall focus on designated groups in order to ensure that all levels of occupations groups with the board achieve equitable representation.”

Experts on discrimination reached by The Globe said the memo met proper hiring practices.

“Giving preference to designated groups who are underrepresented in the TDSB teacher complement could not only be non-discriminatory and legal but could also be part of an effort to stay within the law in terms of their staffing and hiring,” said Sonia Lawrence, an associate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School. “If groups – those named in the Federal Employment Equity Act, and those protected by the Ontario Human Rights Code – are underrepresented, the TDSB could be called to account for that, and to rebut the possibility of systemic or direct discrimination.”

But Brett Cumberbatch, an education consultant who has worked closely with disadvantaged youth, called the memo ineffective and clumsy. He believes that the TDSB badly needs to build a more diverse teaching force. The memo, he said, represents the kind of “shotgun” strategies that fail to recruit top candidates and create resentment toward minority groups.

“You do a disservice to minority groups when you take an approach like this instead of a long-term one,” he said.

Mr. Cumberbatch believes that teachers colleges and school boards are equally to blame for the lack of diversity in the teaching force, and that better recruitment and alternative licensing strategies are needed.