A new educational venture, Teach for Canada (TFA), is certainly stirring up a fuss in the normally predictable, politically-correct world of Canadian K-12 public education. It’s the brainchild of two hyper-kinetic high achievers, Kyle Hill and Adam Goldenberg, and initially modeled after the Teach for America (TFA) organization, founded in 1989 by Princeton University grad Wendy Kopp. The Canadian offshoot was hatched by Hill and Goldenberg while they were Action Canada fellows during 2010-11, but it did draw its inspiration from TFA, a ground-breaking American school reform initiative that has recruited 30,000 top college graduates and professionals to teach in the nation’s “most high-needs classrooms” and to “work throughout their lives to increase opportunity for kids.”
Teach for Canada is still in its infancy and, so far, looks much like a paper tiger. Unlike Teach for America’s founders , its principal initiators are both small-l liberals rather than neo-conservative education reformers. Both TFA and TFC focus on bridging educational inequities, improving disadvantaged schools, and promoting a culture of teaching excellence. Under Kopp’s visionary leadership, TFA was also a serious attempt to challenge the status quo by recruiting higher calibre teacher candidates and promoting an alternative to traditional and restrictive teacher education programs. The Canadian variation, in fact, has much more in common with Teach for All, a recent spinoff now headed by TFA founder Kopp and active in 32 countries around the world.
Given its stated and laudable liberal reform objectives, why has Teach for Canada stirred up such a hornet’s nest? While it comes from centre-left field, it still represents one of the first attempts to seed the “New Progressivism” here in Canada. On top of that, TFA does challenge the current teacher certification regime and a licensing system that has survived, virtually unchanged, for much of the past century. Judging from the sharpness and ferocity of recent attacks on TFC, attempting to take direct action to allieviate stark inequalities faced in high-needs communities is threatening. Opening the doors to preparing teachers in a different fashion, such as the popular six-week Teach Like a Champion program, is heresy.
Painting Teach for Canada black sounds like the first step in the direction of black-balling. It’s not a surprise that faculty of education professors and B.Ed. certified teachers would feel threatened. Teacher education proponents in Canada, cheered on by Dr. Michael Fullan and other deans, have been campaigning since 1993 to stamp out one year B.Ed. programs. Clinical teacher education training appeals to them and moving to two -year programs is good for job security.
Regular teachers currently in the schools tend to get defensive. As for current certified teachers with a B.Ed. (like me), it’s hard to accept the mere idea that extraordinarily talented recent university grads and young professionals might make better teachers. Heaven help us if more academic and professional specialists (MAs, LLBs, and MBAs) are ever allowed in those classrooms. Don’t even bother to suggest that remote communities facing teacher shortages or high-turnover schools might benefit from an infusion of high energy, idealistic young recruits. After all, a Mathematics or Science class taught by a certified teacher teaching “out of field” is accepted as good enough in far too many school boards.
If Canadian education needs Teach for Canada, it’s regrettably not where the organizers have focused their project – on rescuing First Nations and Metis children and youth. Buying into the Stephen Harper Government’s agenda, embodied in the proposed First Nations Education Act, is ill-considered because it assumes that talented white teachers from largely urban lives can save students on the reserves. It runs counter to the fundamental principle of “Aboriginal Self-Government” in education and flies in the face of promising initiatives, like the N.S. Mi’kmaw Education Authority (MK), based upon preparing First Nations teachers for their own schools.
Teach for Canada may yet live up to its promise. It’s probably too late to establish a clearer differentiation between TFA and the Canadian project. The co-founders, and particularly CBC-TV’s Three to Watch panelist, Adam Goldenberg, a former Michael Ignatieff Liberal aide, should know better than to try to transplant an American initiative without anchoring it in the Canadian youth service tradition.
Perhaps it’s too obvious or just too archaic for bright-eyed millennials. Choosing the right cultural reference points is critical to the success of any school reform initiative. Bridging socio-economic gaps, engaging recent grads in youth service, and embracing community activism actually have more in common with the Pierre Elliott Trudeau tradition of Liberalism than with Wendy Kopp’s American educational “peace corps.”
What started out as a clone of Teach for America is beginning to resemble, in its mission, Canadian youth advocacy and education programs from the 1960s until the 1990s. Why not build upon Canadian foundations in youth service? Look to the Company of Young Canadians (1966-1977) to recapture that idealistic “fire in the belly,” to Katimavik (Inuktituk for “meeting place”) (1977-2012), for a passionate social service ethic, and to Youth Service Canada (1994-1997) for painful lessons about institutional resistance to youth employment ventures.
What’s causing all the commotion over Teach for Canada, especially among certified teachers and tenured faculty? Why did the co-founders start by attempting to import Teach for America into Canada? What’s wrong with building a “New Progressivism” in education upon clearly-stated reform objectives? Is it too late to reclaim the Canadian ‘small-l and Big L’ liberal tradition to clear away the structural barriers standing in the way of real educational change? And most importantly, does the provincial ‘certification regime’ represent a barrier to engaging more young teachers and reducing educational inequities in our schools?