Leaning

I sense a leaning towards the break in these final few days of December. Teachers feel it. In the department office, a colleague comments on the irony of a constructed time of joy and the lived burden of struggle. I silently vow to keep the classroom elevated, to lift the discussion in a high school course which is often focused on the struggles, the inequitable treatement of the marginalized, and to lean towards the joyful before the holidays

I sit with unresolved classroom conflicts feeling catatonic, listening for an absent inner voice, the silence deafening my thoughts of action. I stutter my way through, seeking support and leaning on others to help me confront these lingering tensions.

Consciously, I try to use my white privilege and lean towards the selection of texts with diversity in occupation, in way of life, in race, in gender, in age. But this leaning is fraught with fear and the sense of being a fraud.

Tomorrow, a male colleague will spend time sitting in a discussion circle with the males in my classroom. He will feel his way through beliefs on cultural appropriation, through the existence of white privilege, through rape jokes, through masculinity. I will sit in a discussion circle with the females in my classroom in another space. And we will feel our way through the discomfort which has rumbled beneath the surface and sometimes erupted.

I often feel my way through teaching, and chuckle at the irony given the freuqent and sometimes intensive study of pedagogy which occupies much of my world. I decide not to let up in these descending days of December; in fact, perhaps this is precisely the time to model the way through the struggle, lean in to learn. Maybe we can collectively feel that the joy and the struggle are bound in the moments of leaning in to the feelings and moving through them together.

Moving

As a teacher of English, I spend a great deal of my time thinking about words and meaning. Words, though inert, can move the heart and prompt the mind to create and to destroy. I think about the power of my words. I think about the power of the words I choose and the ones that I centre in my classroom and in my life.

She is moving homes. She is packing up a life after a split and having to go back to her parents’ home, only temporarily, but it is a pause, a stepping back to regroup before moving on. There are two stories of two different women here and both of them are moving, literally and figuratively. I think about their need to just move without words in order to get to another part of life less painful. They have moving stories.

And now, I am thinking about the ways in which we move and the ways in which others move us. Do our physical movements in space map out the emotional and spiritual movements of our lives? Do my physical steps symbolically represent the emotional or psychological steps I hope I am making? These questions vibrate inside me like a persistent hum of a power station and I decide to move to think.

This morning, I remembered a day long ago when a former student told me that my ability to care for my students was my greatest strength and how nearly simultaneously I said, “And my greatest weakness.” Moving is hard. Being moved is hard, but worth it.

 

Hard Conversations 2.0 – unpacking my colonized mind

It’s ironic that teachers in Ontario are in the midst of some hard conversations with the province and Ministry of Education around factors that influence our work, while many of us are spending an entire Saturday having hard conversations about equity in education; we are working on ourselves and finding ways to create equity for our BIPOC students. But, putting Provincial politics aside, I want to share what I learned from Hard Conversations 2.0 held at the University of Ottawa on Saturday, November 30, 2019.

I listened and participated in several discussions in a room of nearly 80 people, but the real lessons came from the unexpected. The real lessons came from the young voices. Students from our Board working on a Black Youth initiative gathered around a centre table, glancing briefly out to an adult audience of mostly White people, and they openly shared their lived experiences in classrooms, in Ottawa.  One metaphor lodged itself painfully in my heart.

A young Black girl was asked to describe her best and her worst experience in education. She shared the joy of finding herself through class dicussions, in literature and poetry that came from the voices of Black writers. And then she spoke softly of a White teacher reading aloud from a book by a White author. The book is well known and the book uses the “n” word. She said that he read the word out loud, to the whole class, without hesitation. She said, “He tossed the word in the wind as if no one died for that word.” That metaphor made a home in my heart.

The room was silent and I’m sure that her words struck all of the White-teacher’s hearts in the room collectively and in shared shame we all acknowledged a moment of complicitness, a recollection of reading the same book, using the same word.

No teacher enters the profession to harm. We do this work because we care, because we want to inspire, but without the knowledge of the injuries we inadvertently inflict using a colonized mind, using a colonized currciulum, using a colonized bookshelf, how can we teach with equity? How can we avoid the harm?

Dr Carl James from York University in Toronto reminded us that the written material in our classrooms has an authority. The written material that we choose matters. If we truly believe that our students matter, then we must work on ourselves and deconolonize the material and the authority in classroom.

At the end of the workshop, we were called to the centre of the room, called to share our committments to this work. My colleague, Michelle, stepped bravely forward and, despite being the youngest in the room, declared that she will continue to “call in” her colleagues and address systemic racism within the system. Our principal then takes the microphone and commits publically to supporting us. We are deeply moved.

In fact, the many voices at Hard Conversations stayed with me. The conversations were meaningful and important, but what happens afterwards is what matters, so I am stepping up with as much courage as I can. I am turning inward to unpack my colonized mind and redress the systems created by colonization which have created inequity then turning outward to take action against this system of whiteness.