Equity Work: Difficult and Transformative

I am currently taking a Mentoring AQ course that is really impacting my understanding of equity in education and how I can work with my colleagues to explore this topic in our teaching practice.  I truly believe that it is necessary for all of us to take a step back and explore equity as it pertains not only to our classrooms, but to our schools, communities, and personal lives as well.  I have decided to share some of my learning and wonderings as I take a closer look at the “Equity Continuum” from OISE’s Centre for Urban Schooling and the TDSB’s Equitable and Inclusive Schools site.

OISE Centre for Urban Schooling: http://cus.oise.utoronto.ca/

TDSB Equitable and Inclusive Schools: http://www.tdsb.on.ca/_site/ViewItem.asp?siteid=15&menuid=570&pageid=452

Just some food for thought…

Fairness does not mean everyone gets the same. Fairness means everyone gets what they   need.”-Rick Riordan, The Red Pyramid

This very simple and yet profound quote set off a critical unit of inquiry around equity in my Grade 6 classroom last year.  Over the span of a few weeks (and subsequently the school year), we explored, discussed, questioned, challenged, and brought to light this important understanding that, in order for everyone to experience success and a strong sense of self, they would not necessarily need to be treated exactly the same.  The best part of this experience was my own journey as I grappled with my previously constructed schema around equity and fairness in all aspects of my life.

I vividly remember coming back after a supply teacher had been in the classroom during this period of inquiry and having my students astonished and fuming at her reaction when a student asked for extra time and a quiet space to complete a task.  She said she had to be fair and that everyone would need to hand it in at the same time.  When the students let her know that fairness is when they have the right to learn the way that is best for them to be successful and in our classroom that means people may need different treatment, she completely disagreed in a manner that undermined what they had come to understand as being “fair.”  Our conversation was lively, to say the least, and their questions were ones I have come to ask many times since then: “How can we get people, especially in education, to think about fairness as a way of everyone getting what they need?” and, “How can we create a positive space where teachers, students, and parents question, challenge, voice their own opinions, and feel that they have the right to self-advocate?”  (Theirs were in kid-friendly language, of course).

After looking at the “Importance of Equity in Education” from the TDSB’s Equitable and Inclusive Schools page as well as the “Equity Continuum” from OISE’s Centre for Urban Schooling, I came to realize that, for me, the reasons that make equity work personally and professionally difficult are the same as those that make it transformative and fundamental if we are to move forward in education.

Whether it be with friends, colleagues, mentees, students, or parents, I find that when a conversation begins to challenge the status quo, challenge stereotypes, or involves having to critically look at ourselves, our beliefs, our expectations, or our practice, discomfort can quickly build up and the outcome takes the form of people shutting down, becoming outwardly upset, and unfortunately not evolving or learning from the experience.  I feel that at the core of this difficulty in equity work is the reality that all of us are complex beings having been influenced on so many levels in so many ways by so many people throughout our lives therefore often making us oblivious to how our own story is projected in what we think, say, and do both personally and professionally.  We seem to jump at the opportunity to try and convince others to take our viewpoint and find it easier to criticize those who do not share our beliefs.  However, looking at and inside ourselves is a whole other story.  Thus, the difficulty lies in welcoming discomfort as we tread the path of looking at equity not only by having others explore it but in also working through it ourselves.

The beauty and transformation in equity work comes about when we all courageously welcome the discomfort that arises in questioning our belief system as it pertains to our own culture and that of our school, classroom, and global community.  When we are willing to question the status quo, challenge stereotypes, critically think about how our experiences and schemas influence our pedagogical practice, hold all students (and anyone connected to education, for that matter) to the highest standards and expectations regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, linguistic competence, etc., we begin to pave a path toward open-mindedness, acceptance, respect, and transformation not only within our personal lives but in our professional practice as well.  When I began to take a deeper look at the Equity Continuum, I came to the realization that, even though I honestly believed I understood equity and had infused it in my teaching, there were so many other layers to it that I had not yet begun to peel back.  In the world we live in today, this may be one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves as educators, parents, leaders and global citizens, “How will we work to ensure that everyone gets what they need to live a dignified life?”

I now know where my focus on equity will take me: unlearning what I have over time come to believe as the truth when it does not support the idea that everyone can be held to the highest standards and expectations regardless of their cultural background, race, gender, socio-economic status, etc.  I’m willing to get my hands dirty as I explore the topics, ideas, beliefs, experiences, and realities that continue to shape my understanding and practice of equity within our education system.

As Will Durant commented, “Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.” I chose this quote because it can provoke discomfort by having us admit that we may be ignorant while also noting that the path to discovery is progressive which to me signifies that learning happens when we entertain that which may make us uncomfortable.  Learning is messy business.  That’s what makes it transformative.

 

 

Heart Picture

My Continuum of Professional Growth – An Attitude of Gratitude

Over the past couple of months, I have had the privilege of teaching in numerous schools and classrooms throughout the TDSB as a daily occasional teacher.  I have been the ‘new kid at school’ so to speak, meeting new principals, other teachers and more students than I can count.  The greatest benefit to meeting these new people and working in different classrooms has been being able to witness and learn from the great practices that are going on in the classrooms throughout the board, and taking these ideas with me as something that I might later implement in my own classroom.

In my conversations with other teachers, I am reminded of how lucky I am to be doing this.  Some teachers were hired straight from pre-service, and developed their programs using the knowledge that they gained in pre-service and through the support of the school and board. One thing that I (and many new teachers that are navigating daily occasional teaching and LTO’s) have, that many experienced teachers did not have, is the opportunity to see and practice the other great ideas, lessons and systems that are going on in other classrooms. Some of the teachers that I have met in my day-to-day encounters expressed that feel that they ‘missed out’ on daily occasional teaching and getting to see great ideas from other classrooms that they could later experiment and make it ‘their own’. I have been fortunate to learn from so many of the great teachers and classrooms that I have taught in as an occasional teacher.

Referring to the ‘Continuum of Professional Learning and Growth’ in Chapter 8 of The Heart and Art of Teaching and Learning (ETFO, 2011), I have reflected on how I have evolved through the stages of the Continuum of Professional Learning and Growth. The stages of Orientation and Beginning Practice in my first year of teaching as a full-year LTO were challenging and rich in new learning. Taking in a multitude of information and making sense of how it applied to myself as a teacher was an intense and rapid learning curve- one that has resulted in a steadfast commitment to my own learning and improvement as a teacher.

Over the last couple of years in my continued work as an LTO, I have journeyed through the examination of my own practice, working to find the right fit of strategies that can be used for planning, managing my time, establishing an organizational structure, developing lessons, developing community in my classroom, utilizing school and professional supports, and the list goes on. For me, the Examination of Practice is the ongoing reflection that I do to help me identify how I can best serve and lead my students, and improve my practice.  I feel that this is something I will never, and should never, stop doing for as long as I am an educator because it plays a large part in my commitment to being a better and more effective teacher. I have worked alongside great experienced teachers who make this a part of their daily and weekly practice, so that they can make improvements and adjustments daily and yearly. This is probably one of the things that contributes to how great they really are! I have taken note and learned so much from them.

Now, as a daily occasional teacher, teaching in other teacher’s classrooms, I get to observe, practice, and execute the great ideas that I haven’t yet learned or seen over the course of my teaching journey. It is inspiring to see the creative approaches to classroom management, community building, collaboration and so forth, seeing the things that I can later experiment with.   Having such exposure, and the opportunities to Experiment and Apply are helping to inform my teaching identity and style (on a course to establishing my Embedded Practice), and I am grateful for having these opportunities.

There are many ways in which a teacher can arrive at opportunities for new learning, experimentation and application.  We can collaborate with one another, attend workshops, take courses, read books, follow online blogs and we can also poke our heads into each other’s classrooms and find out what is going on ‘in there’. I have been fortunate that my teaching journey has led me to poking my head into many people’s classrooms, and learning from other teachers through my occasional teaching.

I am also thankful for the opportunity to write for this blog, where I can intentionally share my knowledge and practices with other beginning, experienced and occasional teachers. Intentional Sharing of Knowledge and Practice is located on the end of the Professional and Learning and Growth continuum (p. 122); I am able to do this now through this forum.  This is just the beginning for me in the early stages of my career, but sharing knowledge is embedded in my practices as a teacher and as a colleague and it will continue to be a large part my approach in wherever my teaching career takes me.  The other loggers have also broadened my perspectives, I have been mentored by their posts and they have helped me to identify other learning opportunities and priorities that will inform my embedded practices.  Thank you! This year has been another vast learning opportunity, and I feel it is only just the beginning as I continue to navigate the challenging, rich and rewarding path of teaching.

Relationships

Reading through the previous posts, I see a common thread; the value of relationships. Building relationships are an integral part of our success as teachers and require initiative, consistency, and care. I often feel drained at the end of a school day, and need a quiet space and time to recharge (usually this is limited to my car and the time it takes to drive home!). When you think of how many children, parents, teachers, and support staff that you engage with in a day, it is understandable that teaching can take a lot out of you. On the flip side, it is also stimulating and energizing. It is the rewarding relationships with students and colleagues that motivate us and support us as professionals to keep doing what we do.

A new teacher has many things to keep in mind, but building positive relationships with a network of people will have lasting effects. A mentor may be a teacher that you are paired with based on a commonality recognized by administration, or simply by the willingness of the mentor to take on the role. It is an excellent opportunity to have a “go-to” person for your questions throughout the year. Often, there are other teachers that you meet that become unofficial mentors or supporters. In my first year of teaching I got to know the teacher that was the closest in physical proximity (the classroom next to mine) and although she taught a different grade and left the school a year later, she continues today to be an unofficial mentor for me, always receptive as a sounding board for my concerns and offers thoughtful guidance. Exchanging ideas with a colleague is another way to support your practice in a less formal way. There is a teacher at the other end of the hall at my school that I have connected with and we often cover an array of topics from instructional practices to field trip ideas to incorporating technology, all within a five or 10 minute conversation. It has become a routine that we walk to the parking lot (it’s a long walk) together once or twice a week as an opportunity for exchanging ideas and sharing information.

Build relationships and build a network to sustain your growth as a teacher. Be willing to ask questions and be willing to share your knowledge and experiences with others.

Are We Open?

Reading Samantha’s post about interviews and Tina’s post about co-teaching brings to mind a recurring theme I feel I’m living: teaching is about being open to partnerships.

There are many different ways we can show we are open and they may be as simple as:

-keeping our classroom door open to welcome others

-walking our students outside at the end of the day and talking with parents

-trying a new idea that someone shares with us

-taking time to listen to stories from our students, their family members, or our colleagues

-letting our students take the lead by sharing their ideas and insights

-asking questions when we are unsure

Through these examples and more, we can gain so much information about our students, our school community and most of all, ourselves.

It may be that my perspective is different, given that I haven’t had my own class for the last 6 years, but I like to think that being “new” allows me to see things in another light and I, for one, am glad to be in this position!

 

Heart Picture

Using Release Time….

In my last blog post ‘ The Power of Partnership’, I discussed the powerful impact that partnering with a grade team member/mentor has had on my teaching.  I related that my mentor and I have been using common planning time and regular check-ins  to align what is going on in both our classrooms and share our resources and reflections.

Mentorship and co-planning  has been wonderful for me, however  for some teachers, establishing a common planning time with a colleague can be challenging for many reasons such as differences in scheduling or teachers’ responsibilities. There can also be school or board-wide initiatives that might require more of a teacher than time that they set aside for classroom planning.   Fortunately the New Teacher Induction Program enables Ontario school boards to provide beginning teachers (and their mentor teachers) release time that allows for such planning.   The school board that I teach in has a Job Embedded Learning Initiative that allows beginning teachers and newly hired Long Term Occasional teachers release time for activities such as attending workshops,  visiting  a model classroom or working with a mentor, and I have found it to be helpful in the past and intend to use it again this year.

In my case, our school is adopting some new initiatives that are intended to improve upon the  way we have been typically teaching in the past. My mentor and I feel that we could use some time for long-range planning and to effectively wrap our heads around what these initiatives look like in our classrooms ( with respect to the materials that we already have and the curriculum). We are going to utilize my board allocated release time for planning and we  plan to find ways to combine the resources and materials that we already have with the school’s learning goals.  We hope to try out our new ideas and then share our successes and strategies with the other teachers in our division.

For beginning  teachers that don’t have a close mentoring relationship or someone to take planning time with, there are options to visit other classrooms in the board or attend workshops.  In the past, I have found that using release time has really allowed me to spend a block of focused time on classroom planning. It has also been beneficial to visit other schools and look at the best practices of other teachers.    I am thankful that my school board recognizes the huge learning curve that beginning teachers face and provides opportunities and choice for how teachers can best use their time for learning.

So, if you haven’t thought of it already, mentors and beginning teachers, consider looking into what kind of support your board is able to provide you with, and consider the many options that will enhance your teaching!

Heart Picture

The Power of Partnership

Like Roz and Sangeeta, I too am figuring out ways to strike a balance between work and life amidst the organized chaos of teaching.  Teaching a different grade each year is a challenge.   Every day, the joy of teaching is a juggling act: IEP’s, managing behaviour, integrating lessons, preparing materials and assessments, chasing down assignments, reporting, communicating with parents…     It has been said that it takes a village to raise a child, and I believe  us teachers are doing our students and ourselves a disservice if we try to do it in the  isolation of a single classroom.

Being new to a school can be a little isolating at first because one hasn’t had the time to develop the strong collegial relations that an established staff already has.   Though every school I have  taught at has welcomed me warmly,  I have found that it takes some time to learn who your ‘go to people’ can be which can be complicated further if you’re using your lunch hour for work and others are busy making the most out of their time as well.  Over time, I have learned that to start building collegiality and partnership is to start by asking.  I ask questions.  I  ask if teachers are interested in collaborating.  I ask if they can share.  I ask if we can meet.  And I offer too. I offer what I have and the skills that I bring. After all, partnership is give and take. Through the power of collaboration I am learning that I  able to be more attuned to the things that need to be done,  while feeling less fragmented by all of the balls that are flying  in the air.

This year, I have been collaborating closely with one of my colleagues who has inadvertently become my mentor.  We meet on a common prep time once a week and map out what our week looks like, share materials and resources and brainstorm ideas together. We build on each other’s ideas, pull out books to read, make to do lists, refer each other to helpful information sites,  pull what needs to be photocopied, divide the labour and regroup halfway through the following week to reflect on how the students are doing, what we found challenging and share with each other what we would do differently.  It is a wonderful partnership.

I can’t even begin to share what a relief it is to be able to collaborate so closely with an experienced teacher on such a regular basis.  For one, my thoughts aren’t going into overdrive figuring out ways to organize the multitude of information that I come across daily. Because we approach the teaching of our respective classrooms as a shared responsibility, I can worry a little less that I may not have certain materials in the classroom to do an art lesson, or that I am missing information that needs to be communicated in a newsletter or calendar to parents (which is likely to happen if you’re new to a school or a newly hired LTO).  I have a ‘go-to-person’ that can come to my aid or fill in the blanks, and this has been so good for my peace of mind.  I am sleeping better and have the energy to accomplish all of the things that I set out to do with my students , and I think it is making me a better teacher.

Go-to-People

Thinking about Roz’s commitment to taking care of herself, I realize that one way I have been taking care of myself is by making a mental list of “go-to-people”.

In my classroom, my students have “go-to people” they can approach when they need some help: it may be someone who draws comics well or someone who likes to incorporate humour into their writing. But this concept isn’t limited to just kids…

There are a variety of colleagues I am learning from who I can go to when I need to talk about curriculum planning or when I have a student that I’m trying to reach. That’s the beauty of teaching: we are not alone working in our little cubicles, there are doors open to us and we need to take advantage of that, for our own peace of mind and wellness.

The relationships we nurture with our students is just as important as the relationships we nurture with our colleagues.

So, when you look around, who are your “go-to-people”???