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Teach For Canada Gets Schooled

New educational charity sparks concern among Indigenous and non-Indigenous educators

by Tim McSorley

Teach for Canada aims to supply more teachers to rural and First Nations schools, but many are asking whether the program will do more harm than good. Illustration by Stephanie Law
Teach for Canada aims to supply more teachers to rural and First Nations schools, but many are asking whether the program will do more harm than good. Illustration by Stephanie Law

MONTREAL—A controversial new Canadian educational charity promising to “make education more equal” has elicited strong debate in just the few months since it was announced in November 2013.

Teach For Canada (TFC) aims to send university graduates into rural and Indigenous communities that have difficulty recruiting and retaining teachers and have lower than average graduation rates. The hope is that young, energetic teachers who are specially trained in their field will inspire young students to greater levels of success.

Few dispute that the current kindergarten to grade 12 education system is not meeting its obligations to Aboriginal students. High school graduation rates are only 40 per cent on reserves, compared to a graduation rate of 72 per cent off-reserve, according to an Assembly of First Nations fact sheet issued during a 2011 summit on First Nations education.

Teachers are notoriously difficult to retain on reserves. In Quebec, for example, many Indigenous communities see a turnover of 30 per cent of teachers and 50 per cent of principals every year, according to testimony at the 2010 Senate hearings on Aboriginal education from Innu educator Denis Vollant, who works with educators across the province as the head of a non-profit promoting language education.

But with TFC offering only eight weeks of training to their recruits, and no details yet as to how this will prepare them to teach in communities to which they are outsiders, there are already growing questions as to the potential effectiveness—and even harmfulness—of such a program.

In Indigenous communities, educators and activists have raised concerns that the current Canadian educational system is failing the needs of youth by ignoring the traditional teachings and education systems that have developed among Indigenous communities for thousands of years.

“I think the potential for this effort reinforcing or imposing another level of colonialism is very real,” said Dr. Alexandria Wilson, director of the Aboriginal Education Research Centre (AERC) at the University of Saskatchewan. “The danger is if people go in because they've taken an undergrad in some topic that doesn't relate to teaching, they could do potentially more damage than good.”

The TFC recruits, whom they refer to as “fellows,” would gain from the experience, Wilson explained, but the community would not get much in terms of a lasting benefit from the program. “And potentially the community is harmed because they may just be reinforcing the mainstream colonial mindset,” she added.

A main focus of AERC's work has been to train teachers in anti-racism and anti-oppression practices, important tools for teaching in Aboriginal communities or within an Indigenous paradigm, said Wilson. While she sees TFC as well-intentioned, she said it is highly unlikely that the training received over the summer would make these students phenomenal teachers, let alone anti-racist educators.

The program being proposed by TFC is akin to New York-based Teach For America (TFA), though the two are not officially affiliated. TFA provides six weeks of training for young adults fresh out of undergraduate degrees—excluding those with teaching degrees—and then sends them to urban inner-city schools that suffer, or are perceived to suffer, from high teacher turnover, higher drop-out rates and low exam success rates.

The American program has met with controversy. Some former TFA recruits have started to speak out on what they call inadequate training, including a high-profile piece by a former TFA fellow in The Atlantic in September 2013.

Critics also say sending teachers in for two-year stints does little to provide a long-term solution to troubled parts of the education system. In 2013, a study from the US Department of Education concluded that math grades had generally increased under TFA teachers, but it has come under dispute. Many other studies have shown mixed results: In 2010 Larry Ferlazzo, a teacher and author in California, published a review of TFA studies to date and found that the success rates of students under TFA teachers were higher only when compared with students under teachers with less certification.

Programs like TFC may also play a role in de-professionalizing teaching. As several educators point out, education degrees are meant to prepare teachers to work with students from all kinds of socio-economic backgrounds—the exact tools needed when teaching in marginalized communities.

As Edmonton blogger and teacher Dan Scratch wrote in an open letter to TFC, “Remember, marginalized youth and communities are not petri dishes for experimentation. Long-term, sustainable, community based education is what's needed.”

Rob Green, a teacher at Montreal's Westmount High School, has also written on and researched both TFA and TFC. Like other critics of the program, he is concerned about how the program would be integrated into Canada, where teachers sent into Indigenous communities will most likely be urban, often white university graduates.

According to Green, more effort should be put toward expanding provincial programs that offer pay incentives and subsidies for trained teachers to go to remote communities. Even more important would be to close the funding gap in Indigenous schools, he said. A study by the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations released in March 2013 reported that First Nations schools in the province received 40 to 50 per cent less funding than non-First Nations schools.

Métis educator Chelsea Vowel sees similar problems. “It is an utterly ridiculous model...The last thing our communities need is another round of ‘saviours.’ If these people actually care about our education, they need to help remove the barriers that prevent us from getting the same resources as non-native schools. We already have the expertise,” she wrote in an email to The Dominion.

According to estimates discussed in the final report of a 2011 Queen's University conference on Indigenous Education, on-reserve schools face funding shortfalls of $2,000 to $7,000 per student compared with other Canadian schools. Increased funding to on-reserve schools might improve their retention rates and their development of facilities, potentially leading to higher achievement rates. But funding increases for on-reserve schools have been capped at two per cent since 1996, instead of the required 6.3 per cent per year, according to an Assembly of First Nations report issued in 2012 at the Chiefs Assembly on Education.

TFC declined an interview for this piece, saying the project is still in its developmental phase and that it would be too early to comment. However, glowing articles featuring interviews with TFC co-founder Kyle Hill appeared in November in both The Globe and Mail and Huffington Post Canada after the program was unveiled at a high-profile event featuring news anchor Peter Mansbridge and Indigo Books and Music CEO Heather Reisman.

In an email to The Dominion, TFC chair Mark Podlasly wrote that the organization has been working for the past year with Aboriginal and education leaders to “attract, prepare and place outstanding classroom leaders in schools that struggle to recruit and retain teaching talent.” Those early consultations are not public, he wrote, but he added that they plan to begin public conversations “in the coming months.”

While Wilson sees the program as problematic, she also emphasizes the need for new ideas in the field of education, saying that if people are willing to bring new energy to teaching in Aboriginal communities, there is room for collaboration—but Indigenous learning and culture needs to be at the forefront.

“First Nations communities need to decide what we need,” said Wilson, adding that communities might welcome the commitment and “youthful energy” of TFC candidates. “So I think there's an opportunity here, but we have to figure out how to make it so they are not reinforcing colonialism.”

That doesn't mean re-inventing education from scratch, though, said Wilson. “We know that we've had a successful, thriving First Nations education system, if you want to call it that, for over 50,000 years. And it's just very recently that it's been changed.” In her opinion, what's failing is the current “add and stir” Eurocentric approach to education, with some Indigenous approaches to education mixed in.

Instead, Wilson has been researching—and advocating for—a return to land-based education focused on an Indigenous paradigm that includes Indigenous languages and aspects of anti-racism, anti-sexism and anti-oppression.

For Wilson, TFC is an example of an energized, but possibly misplaced effort to, as she puts it, “help” Indigenous people. In the end, she says, proponents of the program need to re-examine Canada's—and Canadians'—approach to Aboriginal education.

“I think it's really important not to pathologize First Nations people...there is this pathologized vision of who we are as First Nations people, that we need help and we're asking you to come and help us.” In Wilson's view, those who are “really interested in making a change” need to heed the cultural and anti-oppressive component of education, and let go of a “paternalistic role.”

“Let's work together to try and find some solutions that work for First Nations communities.”

Tim McSorley is a freelance journalist and a Media Co-op editor. You can find him online at @timmcsorley.


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