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Archive for the ‘Teach for Canada’ Category

Every September a fresh crop of hundreds of mostly novice teachers head North to teach in remote, mostly First Nations populated communities. Hired by northern public school districts or aboriginal education authorities, the recruits arrive flush with excitement and prepared to ‘sink or swim’ on a mostly unfamiliar educational terrain. This year is different for one reason: Teach for Canada (TFC) is a new ‘wild card’ on the educational scene and it’s an independent NGO committed to addressing the teacher shortage, filling vacant teaching posts, and ‘closing the education gap’ affecting Ontario’s northern First Nations communities.

RoxanneMartinTFC“By working with First Nations elders and educators and better preparing teachers, the program is filling a void,” says Cynthia Wesley-Esquimault, Lakehead University’s Director of Aboriginal Initiatives. “That’s why we hosted the four-week long Teach for Canada summer enrichment training session here at Lakehead.”

All eyes are on that one specially trained group of thirty-one teachers who have just taken up their posts in seven different communities in the Ontario North. They are, after all, the first cohort of emissaries recruited, selected and supported by Teach for Canada, co-founded by three energetic former Action Canada fellows, Kyle Hill, Mark Podlasly, and Adam Goldenberg

Although welcomed by most First Nations chiefs and lead educators, TFC has received an icy reception from the Canadian Teachers Federation (CTF) and vocal teacher union activists. When teacher unionists see the Teach for Canada logo with its quintessentially Canadian flying geese, they see its big bad American counterpart, Teach for America, and the thin edge of the wedge of creeping “privatization.” They are also leery of TFC recruits signing on with First Nations schools for salaries off the public school grid.

Since its inception, TFC has not only sparked a series of openly hostile teacher union blog posts, but prompted the CTF to issue a “Briefing Document” and greet the new TFC graduates in August 2015 with a condemnatory media release.

Close observers of First Nations communities are downright puzzled by the reaction of teacher unionists to the Teach for Canada pilot project in northern Ontario. “We currently do nothing to train and acclimatize new recruits entering First Nations communities,” notes Wesley-Esquimault, “and so it’s definitely an improvement.”

“Teach for Canada is filling a hole,” says Wawatay News reporter Rick Garrick, “so how can you complain?” In addition, he adds, “they are building a network of teaching colleagues to help with the feelings of isolation and provide ongoing support in the transition.” The highly acclaimed principal of Thunder Bay’s First Nations high school, Jonathan Kakegamic, winner of a 2013 Learning Partnership Outstanding Principal’s Award, is also supportive of the initiative. “I just found out about it this August,” he says, “but it looks like a step in the right direction. It’s hard to find qualified teachers, especially in high school, so it fills an immediate need.”

Northern Ontario public school boards have been slow to react to the TFC initiative. This is perhaps understandable because, right from the beginning, they too have been reluctant to embrace Teach for Canada. True to form, they have been disinclined to acknowledge, let alone respond to, this initiative from outside the system.

The initial Teach for Canada project only got off the ground in the Ontario North when the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) based in Thunder Bay, Ontario, jumped at the opportunity to secure motivated, committed and eager new teachers for their remote, far-flung elementary schools.

One of TRC’s most impressive recruits, Roxanne Martin, an Anishinaabe raised in Toronto, is effusive in her praise for the project. Growing up in Ontario’s teeming metropolis, she longed to know more about her cultural identity and is delighted to be a pioneer for Teach for Canada teaching this fall at the Lac Seul First Nation school. “Knowing that we have a great support system and being able to incorporating First Nations culture into our teaching is great,” she told CBC News. “I don’t think you could find it anywhere else.”

Fresh from a four-week training session, including a five-day stay at Lac Seul First Nation, Martin and the first cohort of Teach for Canada recruits are better prepared than any previous group of teachers destined for teaching in First Nations communities.

Sweeping condemnations of educational innovations originating outside the system are all too common. From the ground level, it looks like a positive development, if only as a transitional program.  The ultimate goal is, of course, to provide First Nations education by fully qualified indigenous teachers. It will not happen if we keep shooting down promising teacher recruitment and training projects.

Why have First Nations communities in the Ontario North embraced Teach for Canada?  What’s really driving the resistance mounted by the Canadian Teachers Federation and outspoken teacher union activists? Who can complain when previous teacher preparation for teaching on First Nations reserves was so limited?  Is it possible that Teach for Canada is what is needed to spark the transition to First Nations education delivered by indigenous teachers?

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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.”

RiseUpTeachersTeach 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?

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