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30 Nov 2017

Recollections from the 2017 Teacher Education Symposium- Reconceptualizing Teacher Education Worldwide: A Canadian Contribution to a Global Challenge

It was a great privilege to be invited to the 2017 Teacher Education Symposium: A SSHRC Connections Event held on October 27-28 at the University of British Columbia.  As a graduate student, it was a thrill to join leaders in Canadian Teacher Education as they took up the conference themes of academic erudition, civic particularity and ethical engagement through paper presentations and more in-depth roundtable discussions. The rich dialogue often continued beyond the conference hours and I returned to the University of Ottawa with new connections and a greater understanding of some of the current issues and challenges facing Canadian teacher education.

My final post-conference task was to write this brief blog post around on one (or more) of the conference themes that would consolidate some of this key learning.  Usually this would have been a simple task, so I am quite surprised by how much I have struggled to complete it.  Reconceptualizing teacher education in the Canadian context is a complicated matter.  I seem to have left B.C. with more questions than answers, which leaves me rumbling with those moments and themes I want to explore in more depth.  There is no doubt that the conversations we were having at the symposium around ‘remembrance, reconstruction and reconciliation’ are important and the responsibility of our time.  Changes must be made to how we understand teaching and learning and it is clear that teacher education institutes play a critical role.  We know teachers influence what knowledge is deemed ‘the most important’ or ‘having the most worth’ and that the stories told are often the ones teachers are most passionate about.  I’m not sure what exactly I was expecting from this symposium, but as someone who is fortunate enough to straddle the role of academic and practitioner working with teacher candidates, beginning teachers and veteran teachers, I left with a renewed commitment to move my thinking and talk into something more actionable.

The problem is, I just don’t know where to start. I have experienced firsthand the challenges (time, money, power/competing agendas, resistance) in trying to find ways and opportunities for teachers in my school district to engage in these important conversations.  I am also always worried about the ineffectiveness and possibly even tokenism (the danger of turning TRC recommendations into a checklist) of the one-off workshop approach.   As such, I truly see Canadian teacher education programs as critical sites for inquiry into issues around identity, historical thinking, agency, engaged citizenship, ethical responsibility, and what it means to be a Canadian teacher living in the world today. So where and how do we start? What quickly became clear throughout the symposium was that there is no singular or simple way to do this, yet it is also no longer possible to opt-out. But we have to do more than talk.  The questions that were consistently raised in my roundtables always came back to the ‘how’: How can we commit time and space in teacher education for teacher candidates to reckon with their/our past, explore underlying assumptions, and grapple with the question of ‘who am I in this place’ in a meaningful way?

I suppose the best answer is that we just have to start.  I know some institutes have developed mandatory courses with varying success.  Although I like how mandatory courses can shape ‘knowledge’, important concerns were raised about how these courses could be seen as an add-on (and further ‘othering’ to the ‘mainstream’ approach), and I also worry about how these course instructors often have to bear the load that comes with having challenging conversations, such as student resistance, backlash and/or negative evaluations.  Ultimately, meaningful dialogue around what it means to be an educator in Canada needs sufficient time to be unpacked and should be embedded in all classes.  But it is important to acknowledge that not all teacher educators are part of this conversation or want to be.  This is a very real challenge in moving the dialogue forward and we also need to be wary of the reality that scaling up could actually result in a dumbing down (something those of us working in school districts have likely experienced!)   We also need to consider that if it will take time and space for meaningful exploration and inquiry into these issues for teacher candidates, then won’t we also need the same opportunities for the teachers of teachers?  Are there places where this is working well and not just gatherings for the already ‘converted’?  Speaking from my own experience, I am grateful to my peers and professors for regularly pushing my thinking and challenging me to understand and accept my settler story, something I really didn’t explore before graduate studies and something that was never addressed in my earlier schooling. I recognize that many of my colleagues in the schools and university have not had this opportunity, yet we all work with the same students. In spite of having many rich learning experiences, I am still unsure of how to introduce and facilitate conversations around reconciliation, moving the discussion beyond a surface level and mere repetition of what has been explored in other classes, the latter of which I have seen unfortunately lead from engagement to topic fatigue in students.  I can’t even imagine what I would feel if I hadn’t done so much work drilling into my own conceptual confusion.

So, if this is how we want to move forward, how will we prepare teacher educators and teacher candidates for these challenging conversations?  How much time in teacher education do we really devote to relationship building and fostering community within our classes?  As someone who plays with circling pedagogy at the university and in my district, I know it takes me a great deal of time, support and training to effectively build community within classrooms and that I need to do this work well before we can have difficult and uncomfortable discussions that won’t lead to resistance, moral apathy or even moral paralysis.  And to use one of my favourite coaching questions on myself, I have to consider if I am saying yes to this, then what am I saying no to?  If energy is put into fostering relationships, then something else will have to go.  I don’t know if I am only speaking for myself, but I’m guilty of continually adding to my syllabus because I feel there is so much I want pre-service teachers to learn and if I’m honest, I feel an obligation to meet (said and unsaid) criteria of a professional program offered at a university level (i.e. having a sufficient number of readings, assignments, and using particular ways of knowledge delivery).  If we are serious about making time and space for inquiry, reflection and synthesis, we are going to have to adjust our syllabi, accept that sometimes essential learning can’t always be evaluated, and ultimately embrace a loss of certainty.  Instructors (especially those of us who are not tenured) will need to feel supported by leadership in order to take these important risks.  I certainly did feel that level of support from those gathered at the symposium, but I can’t help but wonder if this is true at all levels of the University.

So what else was my big take-away from the symposium?   I guess I am most encouraged and intrigued by the power of using rich texts and allegory as a place of entry into the questions of: “Who are you in this place?” and “who am I in this place?”  I have had the lucky opportunity to work with Dr. Linda Radford in the Urban Communities Cohort at the University of Ottawa and we are also seeing how using an anchor text in the first weeks of the program, such as Cynthia Chambers’ (2006) “Where do I belong?” Canadian curriculum as passport home paired with structured reflective writing, has really helped us enter into rich discussions and exploration of the life-long process of what it means to be a ‘teacher.’  I think we still need to find a better way to circle back to these discussions throughout the two-year program, and jettison some of the extraneous readings and tasks in order to really make time for disruptions and reflection.  But I am inspired by the symposium presentations to look at this area more deeply, perhaps even using our practice as a site of research.

So here I am at the end of this post and still as unsure as when I started.  I know that as teacher educators we will have to work through the messiness and uncertainty.  Yet, I am very hopeful that this symposium was as much of a springboard for others as it was for me to move my thinking into action.   As was stated in the symposium, “the best sign the world can change is that it has changed.”  Until we meet again…

References

Chambers, C. (2006). “Where do I belong?” Canadian curriculum as passport home. JAAACS2.

**A sincere thank you to the symposium presenters listed below.  This blog post references your work, but I have not made specific citations.  I am looking forward to your publication.

  1. George Grant’s Critique of Education: Civic Particularity, Academic Erudition, Ethical EngagementWilliam F. Pinar, UBC.
  2. Knowing, Thinking, Doing: Teacher Education in the Most Enlightened Age- Theodore Christou, Queen’s University
  3. Using Methods of Juxtaposition to Jolt Understanding: Exploring Ethical Forms of Pedagogical PracticeTeresa Strong-Wilson, McGill University
  4. Working Outside the Boundaries in Teacher EducationAnthony Clarke, UBC
  5. Learning to Teach in Inhospitable Times: A Dialogue with Aristotle and ConfuciusYing Ma, UBC
  6. Reconceptualizing Teacher Education in Ontario: Civic Particularity, Ethical Engagement, and ReconciliationNicolas Ng-A-Fook, Ruth Kane, & Kiera Brant, University of Ottawa.
  7. Reconciliation in Teacher Education: Hope or Hype? – Jan Hare, UBC
  8. Reconciliation and Responsibility: The Challenge of Difficult InheritancesAnn Chinnery, Simon Fraser University
  9. Accounting for the self: Reconciliation as professionalismAvril Aiken, Bishops’ University
  10. Formulating an understanding of teachers’ ethical engagement with youth/childrenMelanie Janzen, University of Manitoba
  11. From Africa to Ontario with CarePhyllis Dalley, University of Ottawa
  12. Tenants of Time and Place: Beyond the Generic Teacher Educator- Anne Phelan, UBC

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