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Idea #4: Teach Teachers How to Be Advocates

Done delicately, it's critical for students needs, says UBC's dean of education. Fourth in a series.

Katie Hyslop 24 Dec

Katie Hyslop writes about education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter.

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Illustration by Jessie Donaldson.

[Editor's note: This is the fourth of The Tyee's Inspiring Ideas for 2013 series, running weekdays through Jan. 1 and collected here.]

When asked if teachers in training, facing increasing student needs in an under-resourced education system, should learn to be fundraisers in school, University of British Columbia Education Dean Blye Frank told the audience of a UBC alumni event in September that there was a better way to prepare teachers.

"We need to educate our teachers so that they're knowledgeable about going into those situations that are under-resourced and disadvantaged," he said.

"If they're surprised about the linguistic (or) cultural diversity -- what we might call the exceptionalities -- if they're surprised by the level of poverty and disadvantage, I would say as a dean 'We're not doing a very good job.'"

With an extensive background in both medicine and education, Frank sees similarities between the competencies of both doctors and teachers. He told The Tyee in November that while pedagogy and specialization in certain subject areas are important, they aren't enough to make a good teacher.

"All residents within medicine are required to meet seven competencies," said Frank. "One of the competencies is advocate, and it would seem to me that's not about necessarily marching in the streets and being an advocate -- one could do that if one chose to. But it might be advocating for better healthcare policies and procedures."

Frank isn't dismissing the importance of teachers' unions' advocacy with regards to teacher contracts. But to him, advocacy can be as little as pushing for more supplies in the classroom or better learning resources for one special needs child.

Frank's vision for teachers is part of the faculty of education's new teacher education curriculum, which emphasizes social justice and sustainability as being on par with excellence in pedagogy.

But the sound of "teacher advocacy" leaves a bad taste in some people's mouths. After last year's job action that saw field trips, sports tournaments, and even graduation ceremonies cancelled because of stalemated teacher contract negotiations, many people are unsure teachers' interests always mesh with those of students.

So while Frank argues teachers need to be advocates, how that advocacy takes shape requires some delicacy.

Teachers integral to kids' success

Carrie Gelson was an advocate before she even became a teacher. Older than many of her peers in UBC's teacher education program in the early 1990s, Gelson had already finished several sociology courses and volunteered at the Vancouver Crisis Centre and at local high schools as a crisis counsellor.

Gelson said professors didn't adequately prepare her and her classmates for the number of English Language Learners and special needs children they would teach.

"Did I expect that things were not going to be picture perfect and fit in a little box? I didn't, because I was aware of the diversity in the city," she told The Tyee.

As a Grade 1 and 2 teacher at Seymour Elementary, an inner city Vancouver school, the majority of Gelson's students come from generational poverty and to a lesser degree addiction, neglect, and abuse. An outspoken anti-poverty advocate, she has been a voice for schools like hers since she wrote a letter to the Vancouver Sun in 2011, which described the overwhelming needs of her students.

For Donna Beegle, teachers are in the prime position to advocate for children in need. Beegle, who comes from generational poverty, is an anti-poverty advocate working with organizations to help them "fight poverty, not the people who live in it." She's given workshops to BC Teachers' Federation (BCTF) locals in Prince George, Surrey, and Vancouver, and is often quoted by educators advocating against poverty in B.C.

"If I see injustice in any area -- poverty, or if a child with autism isn't getting their needs met -- I should be speaking up. That's what creates democracy," said Beegle.

Beegle says teachers are integral to poor children's success because the requirements for getting out of poverty include having someone who believes in them, believes they are smart and capable, doesn't judge them for being poor, and can connect them to other mentors or opportunities -- all qualities that may be found in a teacher.

"People who face poverty rarely have meaningful interaction with people who are using education to earn a living, so a lot of them don't even know why they're in school," she told The Tyee.

"I teach teachers that you've got to teach the purpose of an education.'"

Political but non-partisan

Advocacy doesn't have to be just about children's immediate needs. UBC's new program emphasizes not only social justice values, but sustainability as well. For Frank, that can be as local as the classroom environment and the human sustainability of teaching social-emotional learning, to as far-reaching as the importance of recycling and green technology.

The BCTF recently found itself in hot water over its advocacy regarding the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline proposal, specifically advertising a lesson plan that highlighted the risks of an oil pipeline through the Great Bear Rainforest and tanker traffic on B.C.'s coastline. While the teachers' union says it's meant to inspire critical thinking, many parents and pundits saw it as partisan politics.

Former deputy minister of education Charles Ungerleider says teacher advocacy has always been integral to the job. But he says teachers have to be transparent and non-partisan in the way they do advocacy.

"Teachers have an ethical obligation to be intellectually honest in their presentation of ideas and values, so that they are not propagandizing but educating, allowing for dissenting points of view, allowing for competing interpretations of evidence," he told The Tyee, not referring to the BCTF's lesson plan in particular.

"If you want to have critical thinkers in the long run, you have to allow people to exercise their critical faculties, and they have to have the opportunity to explore ideas, question underlying assumptions, question the evidence presented in support of things, etc."

But while parents may take issue or even offense with what their children learn at school, Ungerleider says it shouldn't be left up to parents what their children are exposed to through teacher advocacy or the education system at large. He cites one father in Hamilton, Ontario, who demanded a warning from the school whenever the class would discuss something he took issue with, so he could remove his children beforehand.

"I suspect (he) doesn't really want his kids to be critical thinkers, because he doesn't want them to be exposed to ideas different from their own -- from his own, in other words. And that's one of the strengths of public education, to expose our kids to values that are different than ours, so that they can be critical adults, think things through, make their own decisions," said Ungerleider, who is currently a professor of the sociology of education at UBC.

It's a sentiment the current Ministry of Education echoes. In an emailed statement to The Tyee, a ministry spokesperson expressed support for teachers' advocacy on the behalf of children, but with some footnotes.

"Teachers enjoy a unique position of trust. As a result, their advocacy must rise above partisan political views held by groups and individuals."

Everyone's responsible for children

Although Gelson had plenty of social justice experience before starting as a teacher at Seymour in 1994, she says her advocacy for children had to be put on the backburner for her first six to seven years of teaching. With teacher education programs running just one to two years, classroom teaching is such a steep learning curve that advocacy can be the last thing on a new teacher's mind.

"I think in some senses it's kind of a scary pressure, depending how it's done," she said.

Experience is a great teacher for teachers, too. Gelson says if she began speaking out about child poverty before she knew how social safety nets are supposed to work, or how to contact a social worker, her advocacy could have backfired. She says what teachers need to know is so different in every school -- not to mention community and province -- that expecting advocacy right out of the gate is unreasonable.

Whether teacher advocacy is always in the best interest of students is also a matter of some debate. BCTF President Susan Lambert believes everything teachers advocate for is in the best interests of students. Although many parents and politicians took issue with last year's teacher job actions, she says teachers' demands for strict classroom size and composition rules were in the best interests of the students.

"It's a different perspective when you choose the profession of teaching -- you don't go into it with the self-interest of making money," she told The Tyee. "If you accept that, and I think that's pretty self-evident, then you have to understand that part of the role is creating classroom conditions that nurture student learning. That's what the advocacy is all about: creating in classrooms the conditions that nurture student learning. It is far more effective for a teacher to have a small class size and to be able to have one-on-one time with every student."

But Dawn Steele, a special needs advocate whose son graduated from the K-12 system last June, believes the needs of students and teachers can diverge, and what's good for one isn't always good for the other.

"We had that situation last year with the teachers asking for a pay increase. If you're doing that in a context where the province is not able or willing to provide more money," she said, "those improved conditions for teachers are going to come at the expense of reduced services for students, and we've seen that repeatedly over the last decade, where there's been a lot of noise and battle but at the end of the day the province has given in and provided steady salary increases for teachers, which had to be paid at the cost of reducing services for kids."

Steele isn't against teacher advocacy, and believes much good work has come from teachers voicing their concerns for children and the education system overall. But she says it can't just be teachers speaking out. Parents and students have to have a voice, too, and for that she would like to see someone like B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth speaking out on behalf of the rights of children in the education system.

"That's a way that we've been able to provide a stronger voice for children of families who wouldn't typically have had a stronger voice," she said, adding past advice from the representative has contradicted teacher advocacy, such as recommending the province keep the Foundation Skills Assessment tests because of the data it provides on vulnerable groups such as special needs and Aboriginal children.

Everyone The Tyee spoke to believes advocacy for children and education shouldn't be left just to teachers. Whether it's administrators, superintendents, trustees, parents, or just concerned citizens, everyone should lend their voice to improving education and children's lives.

In Gelson's letter to the Vancouver Sun, she asked if people would advocate for a child that was not their own. She says the silence from others in the education system has a weight that counteracts the advocacy of teachers, and if teacher advocacy is to make a difference, others need to speak up too.

"Everybody is collectively responsible for kids and their welfare, and that includes parents being outspoken not only about their own children's needs, but realizing that the quality and level of service for any individual child is the quality and level of service for education in general, and that we need to be outspoken for everybody's kids," she said.

"That's my philosophy at this point -- not everybody shares it, but it's what I believe."

Dear readers and commenters, you may notice that comments are not enabled for this story. In what has become a Tyee holiday tradition, we're closing the commenting system for the holidays to allow our hardworking team a brief respite and chance to recharge. Thanks for all the insightful, informative comments in 2012. We look forward with happy anticipation to more of the same in 2013.  [Tyee]

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