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Rights + Justice

Winning the Right to Teach in BC Meant Battling Racism, Say Two Candidates

They arrived in Canada with years of experience. But race-based criticism in a UBC program almost sabotaged their efforts, teachers say.

Katie Hyslop 2 Sep

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach her here.

Bereniece was excited about restarting her teaching career in British Columbia. But the persistent, systemic racism she experienced as a student teacher at a Lower Mainland high school almost derailed her plans, she says.

Bereniece was in the University of British Columbia’s teacher education program, a necessary step despite her master’s degree and years of teaching in South America. The program included a mandatory in-school practicum where she would observe a teacher or teachers for 10 weeks and teach classes under their supervision. (The Tyee has changed her name for this report.)

Those teachers are known as school advisors — every student teacher has at least one. Bereniece also had a faculty advisor, in her case a faculty member in the UBC program. Those advisors, sometimes retired teachers, supervise and advise the student teachers.

While she has criticisms of the UBC teacher education program overall, Bereniece said she didn’t experience direct discrimination until her practicum. Her school advisors picked on her accent and prior teaching experience in South America, she said.

“One of my advisors, she always talked about my accent and she always talked about my English, she always talked about my question technique,” said Bereniece, an Indigenous South American woman who immigrated to Canada in 2014.

She wasn’t prepared to accept the discrimination.

“I think when something unjust happens to you, it’s really difficult to get over. And as a social studies teacher who has experience, who has a master’s degree, I think I could not live with myself if I was not pursuing this.”

Bereniece’s experience is not unique. Michael Musherure, who taught for 10 years in Uganda before immigrating to Canada, also retrained as a teacher at UBC in 2006 in order to get his provincial teaching certification.

Musherure says his faculty advisor made frequent comments about his accent. (The Tyee made extensive efforts to locate the advisor for comment, without success.)

“Because she picked on my accent for a long time, by the time I finished my practicum, I was even afraid of reading before the students,” Musherure said. At least three years passed before he stopped opening every class with an apology for his accent.

The stress caused Musherure’s childhood stutter to return. “And up to now, I’m not yet very articulate. I’m not to where I was before.”

These aren’t isolated cases, said Lilach Marom, an educational studies professor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University whose 2016 PhD thesis focused on barriers for internationally educated teachers going through the Teacher Updating Program at UBC.

Criticisms about accents and countries of origin during teacher practicums are not unusual, she said.

The Teacher Updating Program is similar to the one-year bachelor of education and provides internationally educated teachers with a 30-credit education diploma instead of a 60-credit degree.

Bachelor and diploma students attend the same classes and both programs include a 10-week practicum.

Marom said the focus on accents can’t be separated from questions of racism.

“Some would argue that people coming from England or New Zealand can have pretty unique accents, but those are the people that usually don’t get any pushback. So there is some kind of overlap of race and language,” she said.

“People that come from countries that usually are also racialized, they are the ones that their accents seem to be flagged.” Indigenous people in Canada are also frequently criticized for their accents, she added.

Unlike Musherure, who didn’t go public with his racism experience until this June, Bereniece lodged complaints about her advisors with the province’s Teacher Regulation Branch in 2019. She filed complaints about UBC and the Vancouver School Board with the BC Human Rights Tribunal, alleging discrimination based on place of origin.

There are no disciplinary actions recorded in the Teacher Regulation Branch database for either of Bereniece’s teacher advisors. That could mean an investigation is continuing, or no wrongdoing was found. The Education Ministry said the average investigation takes 11 months, and results are only made public if wrongdoing is confirmed.

The rights tribunal agreed to hear her case, but Bereniece said she settled with both institutions during pre-hearing mediation earlier this year. The details of the settlement remain confidential due to a non-disclosure agreement, and the tribunal will not release info on a case that does not have a hearing. (To respect the confidentiality agreement, we have changed Bereniece’s name and are not providing details that could confirm the identity of people involved.)

‘Your previous experience is an obstacle’

Bereniece had multiple degrees, including an education degree, and seven years teaching experience before she enrolled in the UBC program in 2018.

Like most professionals educated outside Canada, Bereniece’s credentials were not enough to be certified to work in her field. The Teacher Regulation Branch said she would need additional credits in English and Canada’s history and geography.

But neither Simon Fraser University nor UBC were offering individual courses to teachers, so Bereniece enrolled in UBC’s one-year teacher education program.

Bereniece said the direct racism she experienced happened off campus at a Vancouver public secondary school. She said she was subjected to multiple complaints from her advisors about her accent and teaching experience in her home country.

“‘Out here is not South America.’ ‘Your previous experiences is an obstacle.’ ‘Your previous experience is what’s holding you back,’” said Bereniece, repeating the advisors’ criticisms.

“This feedback doesn’t help me in any way, because it’s something that I cannot change. I cannot change my previous experience. I cannot erase that.”

The stress Bereniece experienced from the constant critiques over those 10 weeks took a toll. Her hair fell out. She began grinding her teeth and eventually broke a tooth.

The stress was understandable. The reports of the school and faculty advisors can determine whether students are able to teach in B.C. schools.

School advisors are kindergarten to Grade 12 teachers who volunteer to take on a student teacher. There is no training other than online resources that outline general expectations. There is no evaluation system for student or faculty advisors.

School advisers aren’t paid. They have the option of receiving a tuition fee certificate, a gift certificate for an annual adult membership to the Vancouver Aquarium or a gift, which for this most recent school year was an Arc’teryx vest.

Faculty advisors are typically faculty in the teacher education program or recently retired classroom teachers. They are paid, though one source who spoke with The Tyee on condition of anonymity said that working in a school district for 10 weeks pays more than advising students during their practicum.

Each advisor prepares weekly reports on the student teacher’s progress and a final report recommending that the student either pass or fail their practicum and explain why. Students who fail are able to take supplemental practicums.

In order to get teaching certification from the Teacher Regulation Branch, a candidate must have a set amount of teaching experience in Canadian classrooms or have completed a practicum as part of a recognized teacher education program.

Conformity expected, says prof

Kwantlen professor Marom said it’s not uncommon for student teachers from diverse backgrounds, whether based on ethnicity, language, sexuality, gender or physical ability, to run into additional barriers during their teacher practicums.

“There usually is more acceptance” at the university level, she said. But schools are more conservative environments and conformity is expected.

Given the history of the teaching profession in North America, the image in most of our minds of a “good teacher” is a straight white woman, Marom said.

“Then people that don’t fit within it, they face covert pushback. And it’s the assumption that they need to fit in, they need to adjust how they dress, because there’s a certain kind of dress code that is deemed professional, so it shouldn’t be too ethnic, for example. Or that accent,” she said.

A stereotypical “good teacher” is Canadian-educated too, Marom added, another barrier for teachers who were educated outside the country.

“What I found is that many of them are seen as new teachers. So their experiences and knowledge are devalued; they’re kind of becoming new teachers again. And the assumption is that they need to learn the Canadian way, but they don’t have anything to contribute,” she said.

Bereniece said that when she reached out to the administration of the teacher education program for help, word got back to her advisors, who admonished her for going above their heads.

“They said like, ‘We don’t want to hear you. We don’t want to hear your excuse, you have to learn how to listen,’ because sometimes I would raise my hand to interact and to respond.”

Marom said based on her research, Bereniece’s experience of being dismissed by her assessors is not uncommon — and wrong.

“It’s impossible to think that as educators they have nothing to give, that they have no knowledge, no experience, nothing that would be relevant for educators in Canada to learn from,” she said.

“But many times, they don’t get the chance to say or to show any of these, and then they just are constructed as deficient from this westernized Canadian way.”

Marom’s observations echoed Bereniece’s impression that any teacher who stands out is going to have a difficult practicum.

Bereniece said her faculty advisor told her and other students he was supervising that during their practicums they should keep their sexuality and gender under wraps. This was contrary to the positive messaging they received during their classes about inclusion in schools.

“He said, ‘If you want to come out, this is not the time to come out,’” Bereniece said, adding his comment seemed to come out of nowhere.

“If someone who wants to come out here, now, tomorrow, it’s not his place to say how you are going to do that, and where and when,” she said.

Silent no more

Michael Musherure was silent for years about his practicum experiences. But then Black people and their allies took to the streets of North America in June in protest over police killings, and it seemed everyone was talking about racism.

But at the time Musherure heard nothing but silence from his Surrey school district colleagues.

“I decided to speak out, because watching this George Floyd dying under the knee of a white police officer and nobody says anything, to me — of course to everybody — it was appalling. It was a trigger: I remembered all incidences of racism,” said Musherure.

“I was so angry that I could not even breathe, and nobody paid attention.”

So he took his feelings to Twitter, where Musherure broke the BC Teachers’ Federation Code of Ethics by criticizing his colleagues and employer in public. He said his district superintendent reached out after that, and they had a constructive conversation.

In one tweet, Musherure said he had been called the n-word, egged, and threatened while on the job.

He used social media to tell stories of racism he had experienced from students, including a death threat against him that led to a school-wide lockdown. But the majority of trouble Musherure has experienced — from being mistaken for the school custodian to receiving a best accent award from his colleagues to administrators neglecting to tell him about staff meetings — came from adults.

“The beautiful thing about it is, I know it’s made some people uncomfortable,” Musherure said of his tweets, “but the public has received it well.”

His experiences of racism in B.C. schools started, however, with his experience as a student teacher in the Lower Mainland.

Musherure arrived in Canada with 10 years of teaching experience and multiple degrees. But he was forced to get another teaching diploma in the province in order to become a certified teacher. Musherure enrolled in UBC’s Teacher Updating Program in 2006.

“At UBC, I really loved the classes there. It was wonderful. But during my practicum, that’s when it changed,” he said. The faculty advisor picked on his accent and was unsupportive, he said

His first practicum that spring was at North Delta Secondary, but it only lasted two weeks. Musherure alleges his faculty advisor made repeated remarks about his accent and how he pronounced words.

And Musherure said his school advisor criticized his work constantly, to the point of correcting punctuation in the lesson plans he gave her and told him he would never be a teacher in B.C.

“Honestly, I did not understand the meaning of systemic racism: I was very naive, I blamed myself. So I worked very hard, but everything I did, my sponsor teacher said, ‘No, this is substandard,’” he said .

“It became a hostile environment, and I couldn’t continue with my practicum, because either she wasn’t going to give me a good report or I was going to fail my practicum.”

Michael Brown, a former North Delta Secondary English teacher who was present during Musherure’s practicum, has a different recollection of the student teacher’s first practicum.

Brown says it wasn’t Musherure’s accent that was at issue, but his failure to produce lesson plans for the classes he was teaching and an attempt to mislead them about his lack of preparation.

He claimed to have done the plans in a meeting, but hadn’t, Brown said.

It was then that the principal asked Musherure to end his practicum at the school.

Musherure calls their account “absolutely inaccurate.” He said he had already asked UBC to transfer him to another school before this meeting, which he says he asked for to tell his practicum supervisors, Brown and the school administration he would be leaving North Delta Secondary because of his negative experience.

“Probably to them, they perceived it as a meeting asking me to leave,” he said, “but we had a meeting to do it formally, and I ended my practicum there and transferred to Semiamhoo.”*

Musherure took a supplemental practicum with a different school advisor at Semiahmoo Secondary School in Surrey, although he remained with the same faculty advisor.

The difference between the two experiences was almost like night and day, he said.

“I was timid, I was afraid, but the moment I met my sponsor teacher — and he’s a white man — I felt that instant connection, and I felt confident that I was going to succeed,” Musherure said.

851px version of MichaelMusherureProfile.jpg
Michael Musherure: ‘By the time you go through that rigorous recertification, you have lost all your confidence.... And it’s sad, because again the system doesn’t get the good person that you are, they get a frightened person who just works to survive.’ Photo by Katie Hyslop.

“I struggled the first week because my confidence was shattered completely, but by the end of the second week I was like, ‘Bring it on!’ And I had the most fun practicum.”

Mike Sapic was Musherure’s second school advisor, and he still teaches English at Semiahmoo Secondary today. Sapic and Musherure would go on to become friends and later colleagues at Semiahmoo.

Sapic remembers that his first impression of Musherure was that the seasoned teacher didn’t need to be there.

“He had taught for 10 years; he had his master’s. In Uganda, they use the British system — they were a colony like we were,” he said. “He’s already a teacher.”

Sapic also recalled his interactions with the UBC faculty advisor and how Musherure went pale and became nervous when she was in the room. That advisor also raised her concerns about Musherure’s accent with Sapic, he said.

“At one point she said something to me like, ‘Did you find that the accent was a problem?’” Sapic said. “I can’t ascribe anyone’s motives when they ask a question like that. And I just kind of noted it, because to my way of thinking, I didn’t know how appropriate that was.”

Musherure agrees with Marom’s assessment that practicums can have detrimental effects on teachers who were originally trained outside the country.

“The effect it had on me, and even speaking to other immigrants who have come here when they are professional, we come in, as a whole, very strong, determined to contribute to the society,” he said.

“But by the time you go through that rigorous recertification, you have lost all your confidence. We are just a shell of what we were before, and it is very, very difficult.... And it’s sad, because again the system doesn’t get the good person that you are, they get a frightened person who just works to survive.”

Suggestions for change

After her first practicum experience went south, Bereniece had two supplemental practicums under different school and faculty advisors. The second practicum, which was also a poor fit in terms of advisors, only lasted two weeks.

But her third and final practicum, which she passed, was a much better experience. In part Bereniece says, because she was working with racialized and white advisors who understood systemic racism.

But also because of the students she taught in all three practicums.

“They need to see people who are different, because they think, ‘I have a chance to be in a position of power, like her.’ And a lot of my students who don’t feel good or didn’t feel good with my advisors, they shifted when I was in class: they were more talkative, they were participating more, they felt more motivated,” she said.

“After everything I’ve been through, and how much they helped me to heal from these wounds, these aggressions that I received, I really sense that I have a purpose teaching them.”

Last summer Bereniece and two fellow students brought a petition to Marianne McTavish, associate dean of teacher education at UBC, and education dean Blye Frank calling on the faculty to overhaul its teacher practicum program in light of “several cases of discrimination and racism that teacher candidates have experienced.”

The letter included requests for changes to improve the teacher practicum as it currently exists, including:

They collected more than 180 signatures from the roughly 750-person 2018-19 graduating class.

The changes would require a lot of work and cost money, Bereniece said. But it would be worth it. “If you asked me, ‘Would you pay $10,000 more for you to have a chance for not living this experience?’ I would have paid $10,000 more. Because yeah, of course, it was very traumatic. And I don’t wish this for anyone.”

Marom’s study captured similar recommendations from other internationally educated teachers. These included making the program mainly about the practicum experience vs. the classroom learning, and allowing students to do coursework on weekends and evenings so they can work while studying; allowing students to take individual courses to upgrade, instead of forcing students into 30-60 credit programs; and incorporating internationally educated teachers’ knowledge and experiences into the teacher education program design for reciprocal learning between students and faculty.

‘Zero tolerance,’ says UBC

What does UBC say about the allegations?

The Tyee reached out with interview requests to associate dean McTavish; education dean Frank; Bereniece’s first faculty advisor; John Yamamoto, current director of UBC’s Teacher Education Office, who assigned practicum placements to both Bereniece and Musherure; and Roshni Narain, director of Human Rights in the UBC Equity and Inclusion Office, who Bereniece also contacted with complaints about her practicum.

No one would be interviewed to respond to the students’ concerns.

A UBC communications spokesperson responded with an emailed statement signed by McTavish and Frank, who wrote the faculty has “zero tolerance” for racism and bias.

“Several months ago, we formed a dean’s task force on race, Indigeneity and social justice that will drive our commitment and urgency in this area,” it said. “We are offering a workshop series that explores specific topics relating to social justice and anti-racism, in addition to creating opportunities and safe spaces for our students to discuss current events that may be impacting them.”

“We recognize more needs to be done and we are committed to listening, learning and taking action.”

The Tyee also reached out to the Vancouver School Board with an interview request regarding Bereniece’s allegations against her school advisors, who are district employees.

The district also responded with an emailed statement that said no changes have been made to how the district handles practicums.

“The district is fully committed to safe and welcoming learning and work environments where everyone feels respected, valued and included. Racist or discriminatory behaviour is not tolerated,” the statement reads.

Musherure, like Bereniece, said the students make teaching a worthwhile experience despite the racism they have faced.

Over two weeks after Musherure initially tweeted about his experiences with racism, there was a knock at his door.

“There are like six kids, with a massive cake and balloons, because it was going to be my birthday on Wednesday, but they won’t be in school, so they wanted me to experience that and then wish me a happy Father’s Day,” said Musherure. There’s competition among students to get into his classes, he said.

“My students are incredible, and it keeps me going, it keeps me enjoying my job, and I really love it.”

*Story updated on Sept. 30 at 2:14 p.m. to add additional information on Michael Musherure's initial school placement.  [Tyee]

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