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Educational Activism
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

A committed group of activist educators thoughtfully answer fourteen questions ranging from “Does the curriculum support activism?” to “How do I sustain my commitment to activism?”

FAQs Index.

How do I find the time to be an educational activist?
How can I make connections with other educators?
Does the elementary curriculum support activism?
Does the secondary curriculum support activism?
Is activism possible during the B. Ed program?
Isn’t it a problem if I bring politics into the classroom?
How do I start and run a social justice club at my school?
How will the administration react?
How do I work with community members?
How do I get involved in my federation (e.g. Elementary Teachers of Toronto)?
How do I get involved in my federation (e.g. Ontario Secondary Teachers’ Federation)?
Am I an advocate or an activist?
How do I sustain my commitment to activism?


How do I find the time to be an educational activist?

David Montemurro, Lecturer, Dept. of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning, OISE

On one level, this question generates a wistful smile because it points to a certain irony – if I am honest about my frail failings – I don’t find the time!! The hurry-scurry of everyday demands can easily lead to those somewhat dismal moments at the end of the day where one finds oneself questioning their impact in acting for a more just world.

On another level, I am fond of the invitation because it invites me to consider and reconsider how I see ‘the work’ – how every step can and should be filled with the sense of purpose that it is about educational activism. In Everyday Anti-racism, Micah Pollack draws attention to the ordinary acts taken by educators on a daily basis that reproduce or challenge racism. Routine classroom interactions, contacts with parents and community, and passing conversations with fellow staff are filled with opportunities to think and act differently about difference and equality. Thus conceived, some acts explicitly surface as moments for teacher activism while other more mundane, seemingly innocuous exchanges are charged with possibility to promote a better world. Applying common critical questions (In whose interest is this so? Whose voices are included and/or excluded? How does this reproduce and/or challenge inequity?) to casual exchanges over the counter in the front office, catching up with staff in the lunch room or deliberating over the classroom seating plan promotes a sort of everyday teacher activism. Framing every moment as filled with possibility means you always have the time!

If explicit moments of teacher activism can inspire and invigorate (and chafe?), perhaps pursuing implicit moments of teacher activism can daily sustain and nourish the moments in between. Others have pointed to the distinctions between advocacy and activism. While this is helpful, it may also well be that we are simply speaking to two distinct points along the same continuum – that is, being a proponent of progressive education for change means we sometimes act as advocates for students and colleagues in day-to-day instructional exchanges and at other points, we line up together to push forward in program design or policy positions. Teaching for social change means we look through the lens of this work in all that we do – lessons, assignments, personal & professional relationships. Thus conceived, the question becomes less about “how do I find the time?” and simply how do you strategically embed it within your work the most meaningful actions for social change.

This is insider/outsider border work, fraught with many tricky steps. Sometimes I experience dismay when I fear both feet are planted in a role that reproduces the institution. On these days, I return to those sources that nourish me, that ground me in collective action for social change – colleagues, readings, students, schools, and/or frontline activists. On other days, I weigh the risk of reducing impact by being too forceful or oppositional. These “strategic decisions” call to mind dian marino’s call to locate the ‘cracks in constraint’ – requiring you to read the moment (the current context shaped by people, issues, events & resources) to locate the most likely levers of change. Sometimes you decide to run with the adage, ‘it is easier to ask forgiveness than it is permission’. Other times you listen carefully to how those with power define their vision and demonstrate to them how social change issue is, in fact, already part of their vision. In each instance, I find encouragement in insights as follows:

We cannot do everything

And there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something,

And to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way…

- from a poem by Archbishop Oscar Romero

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How can I make connections with other educators?

Jill Goodreau, Teacher, Upper Grand DSB

Collaborating, sharing, and discussing with others is an important part of being an activist educator. It can be very isolating if we feel we are doing it alone. Building community will not only keep us energized but may help create links and strengthen social justice initiatives in the communities in which we work. There are a number of ways to make connections with other educators. My advice is to start by connecting to what already exists, to be sure to maintain the connections you already have, and finally to develop your own initiatives that may bring you new connections.

See what already exists

An effective place to start is by checking out your school and board to see what activist connections exist. Does your school or workplace have an equity and/or safe and inclusive schools committee? Is there a student social justice club and staff advisor that you can connect with? Does your school or workplace have a board equity representative, or a union human rights/anti-racism/status of women representative? Connect with them or ask to become the school representative for various positions so you can build connections with other educators.

What will you be teaching? Make connections with others teaching the same course or program and see what activist elements are already present in course content. Discuss adding or adapting activities to make them more progressive. Whether an activist connection develops from the get-go, collegial collaboration can be an important starting place to engaging in critical dialogue about curriculum, teaching and learning.  

Make use of the intranet email conferences your board or workplace may have. Whether it is Human Rights, Global Education, or Equity, it allows you to learn about interesting initiatives, connect to others, or decrease your isolation and sustain your commitment by simply knowing that others share your passion.

Connect to activist educators through committees your federation or union has already set up. Whether it is the Human Rights, Status of Women, or Political Action committee, you are likely to make contacts and get further advice on how to make further productive connections.

Maintain connections you already have

Keep in touch with classmates/ colleagues from your faculty of education or other schools where you’ve worked to share resources, discuss successes, and challenges. Go to beginning teacher and other workshops put on by your school board or employer or federation/union. Attend equity meetings and workshops that might promote new connections.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions or for advice from others. Contact with that workshop presenter that inspired you, or the person who posted an interesting note on an email list. You are not bothering us!

Keep coming to OISE conferences. We hold the Educating for Peace and Justice conference at the end of each September. Get re-energized and take home new ideas!

Forge your own connections

If you find that your school or workplace is lacking in an area of social justice, then definitely forge your own connections. Maybe it’s as simple as sending out an email or announcement to any staff interested in meeting to develop a plan for an upcoming social justice day (e.g. International Women’s Day, Black History Month, Asian Heritage Month, etc.). Or maybe you would like to start an equity committee at your school.

If you are inspired, you may want to meet with other educators across your board and begin a network on equity, global education, etc. By putting out a call to interested people you may be surprised by the turnout you can generate. And remember to bring food treats to the first couple of meetings. Nourishment always helps!

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Does the elementary curriculum support activism?

Antonino Giambrone, Teacher, Toronto DSB

By its very nature, the elementary curriculum generally outlines what knowledge students must have, and not necessarily what they should do with the knowledge. Thus, the curriculum provides a set of topics and relevant expectations that students are be taught about in order to “participate and compete in a global economy” (p.2 of all curriculum documents).

This does not necessarily mean that the curriculum does not support activism. It does get mentioned as a goal in the Social Studies, History, and Geography curriculum: students should be able to “relate and apply knowledge acquired through social studies and the study of history and geography to the world outside the classroom” (p. 3). Does this imply activism? It is definitely not overt. Simply making connections to the outside world is not activism in and of itself. Activism is a way to make those connections, and those connections can lead to activism – the relationship is iterative.

According to the Language curriculum document, successful language learners “use language to interact and connect with individuals and communities for personal growth, and for active participation as world citizens” (p.4). This is a more outright support for activism (although “participation” is different from acting for change), and similar statements can be found in the recent Science and Technology curriculum with respect to the environment. Overall, the recently revised curriculum documents more overtly support activism than the earlier versions.

I strongly believe that educators have the power to implement activist approaches focused on justice, despite the relative silence of the mandated curriculum. Justice-based activism cannot solely take the form of teaching about bits of knowledge or topics, where issues are linearly examined and learned about, and then left for others to address. Justice-based activism must teach for justice – that is, with the explicit goal of action. This goal of action, beyond that of “competing in a global economy”, is what should be made much more explicit within the elementary curriculum.    

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Does the secondary curriculum support activism?

Moira Wong, Initial Teacher Education Instructor, York University

Without doubt classrooms, schools, school environments, and school systems each play major roles in developing, supporting, and fostering learners’ senses of advocacy, agency, and therefore activism. Moreover, the policy framework within which a school system[1]  contextualizes learners’ individual and group - based inquiry into power relationships can provide a very strong foundation the promotion of  ‘informed, purposeful, and active citizenship’ in both curricular and co/extra-curricular activities. We currently enjoy a teaching/ learning environment in this province that officially upholds this goal as seen in the course outlines offered by the Ontario Ministry of Education. The Toronto District School Board’s A Teaching Resource for Dealing with Controversial and Sensitive Issues in TDSB Classrooms offers a good example of a school board’s desire to acknowledge, value, and thereby provide a curricular process by which differing points of view stemming from conflicting value systems can be expressed for productive learning outcomes. Importantly, this teaching resource places the school system within a broader community of value systems in which our learners are situated.

All the people who create the school environment (inside the classroom, school, and beyond) influence learners’ endeavors to become self-directed ‘informed, purposeful, and active citizens’ through both the direct and indirect messages they send. These messages can be welcoming and supportive of student activism or cautioning and wary. Certainly school environments and climates that promote increasing knowledge exchange with community partners (including  parents/ guardians/ caregivers, and community support organizations), increase learning opportunities for its students, and thereby send strong messages that activism is a desired and inevitable outcome of its learners’ education process. In such schools and their respective webs of community linkages, the more active students become in creating and working for change for its communities, the more successful the school becomes.

It is relatively easy to set the above goals as system, school, and community objectives; it is much more difficult indeed to implement them in a sustained way. Too often, educators do not plan sufficiently to overcome the predictable challenges that some learners experience on the way to becoming the desired ‘self-directed, informed, purposeful, and active citizen’. Here again, modeling to all students that they are each expected to become involved participants in affecting social change is essential. The typical grounds for low expectations of individual students and student groups in classrooms/ schools/ school systems, i.e. sexual orientation, socio-economic status, proficiency (or lack of ) in the language of instruction, and indeed all the Prohibited Grounds of the Ontario Human Rights Code, provide a clear course for the efforts of  aware school teachers and administrators. Middling efforts to engage students in developing their own ideas of social change and their possible contributions to change yield middling results; for example, ELL or socioeconomically challenged learners are not encouraged to the same degree to participate and hone their social decision- making process skills as students who may be perceived by educators as possessing higher degrees of ‘readiness’.

The challenge to the creation of socially active students does not lie only within the formal curriculum or its content; but rather, whether we as teachers are able to spend our time wisely to see what each learner has to offer social activism now and over time with encouragement within a developmental approach.

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Is activism possible during the B. Ed program?

Amy Yeung, Teacher, Toronto DSB           Kristen Beach, Teacher, Toronto DSB

Co- Equity Coordinator                               Treasurer

STU OISE 2002-2003                                   STU OISE 2002-2003

Amy:  When I first entered the B.Ed program, I knew it would be hectic between the readings, papers, and practicum. However, I wanted more from my experience as a teacher candidate, so I took a chance and joined the Student Teachers’ Union (STU) – an experience I will not ever regret.  Yes, my schedule became busier and my workload increased with the duties in the STU. Nevertheless, I gained valuable experience that very much influenced my teaching philosophy. My STU colleagues and I worked as team to stand up for the beliefs of the collective student body. We challenged the contentious issue of high stakes, standardized teacher testing (the [since rescinded] Ontario Teachers’ Qualifying Test). In fact, we were so firmly in our resolve that we took the step of organizing a public forum that included the Dean of OISE, parent advocates, community activists, fellow teacher candidates, and politicians – we even had a seat available for the Minister of Education! It was an amazing experience to raise such awareness about an issue that we cared about so deeply. It certainly got people talking, and this was the first step to the eventual change.

Kristen: In my work with STU, I had the opportunity to participate in a range of activities that broadened my understanding of teaching, which allowed me to practice my leadership skills, provided me with invaluable networking connections, and developed friendships that last to this day.  To me, activism means that you feel strongly enough about a cause to explore it, to think about it, talk about it, and connect with other people who want to do something about it.  In fact, I would say that as teacher candidates who believe in the power of education to change, to empower, and to energize our communities, we are inherently activists for the cause of education in Canada. Being an activist at OISE during the B. Ed program can be as simple as standing up for your beliefs in class during a heated discussion, or as challenging as presenting constructive criticism to the Deans.  

Amy and Kristen:  We strongly urge you to get involved with the decision makers, planners, coordinators, and activists at OISE during your year at teacher’s college.  You’ll learn this year about experiential learning – about how doing something, not just talking about it, can radically change your perceptions, and broaden your thinking. Our involvement with the STU brought out our inner activists and shaped us as teachers. At OISE we learned about the importance of working with our colleagues to achieve positive change in our world—a lesson that we have carried throughout our teaching careers.

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Isn’t it a problem if I bring politics into the classroom?

John P. Portelli, Professor, Department of Theory and Policy Studies, OISE

My general and short reply is “no.” This is a frequently asked question by both beginning and more experienced teachers. In my view, the very raising of the question indicates some uneasiness about politics which, very frequently in North America, has been pushed to the private realm. It is almost a taboo to speak about one’s political views in public, let alone in schools. And yet, we complain about the lack of involvement of youth in politics.

The radical (i.e. root) meaning of the term ‘politics’ is derived from the Greek word ‘polis’ which refers to the life in the city state including all the decisions (policies) about how people ought to relate with each other as citizens. In this sense, politics is an intrinsic part of who we are as human beings. We cannot avoid being political since, as human beings, we are inevitably and continuously involved in power relations with others. It is impossible for us to live or exist in a neutral context.

All contexts are politically laden and hence we always carry with us our politics. It is part of the existential human predicament to make political decisions. Even if we decide not to make such decisions, that in itself, is a crucial political decision; we would be deciding that others ought to determine our lives.

From my perspective, the popularly conceived problem of bringing politics into the classroom is misconstrued. The problem is not whether or not to bring politics into the classroom – that is just inevitable. Our focus needs to be on how we bring it into the classroom and how we deal with political issues about which human beings are bound to disagree.

An education that values democratic beliefs in equity, fairness, social justice, diversity, and critical inquiry, demands that we take the political very seriously in our teaching. Political education is an intricate and substantive part of a good education. Of course, in political education, which takes place both through the formal and hidden curriculum, we are bound to encounter serious controversial issues which a genuine education would embrace and deal with accordingly rather than hide underneath the rug. Controversial issues arise in every subject. If we are truthful to the nature of what we teach, then we also have the educational and moral obligation to deal with the controversial. In this sense, all genuine teaching contains an element of politics and political education.

One of the fears of dealing with politics in the classroom is the concern with the imposition of teachers’ views on students. This is a fair concern. However, we need to remember that not bringing in and not dealing with politics in the classroom is itself a political view which we have no right to impose on our students. Moreover, there are practical strategies and dispositions teachers can adopt to avoid the risks of indoctrination.

It isn’t a problem to bring in politics in the classroom. On the contrary, a genuine education needs to embrace the political dimension of teaching.

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How do I start and run a social justice club at my school?

Michelle Forde, Teacher, Toronto DSB

Upon first consideration, the act of establishing a student social justice committee within a school setting may seem like a rather innocuous undertaking.  Comparatively, when decisions are made to form sports teams, chess clubs or musical ensembles, the coordinators and members of these groups are rarely (if ever) greeted with suspicion and unease.  Thus, as activists within the educational community, we may be tempted to believe that all of our colleagues will embrace our committee with levels of enthusiasm and energy that equals (or better yet, rivals) ours.  Once students begin to organize themselves and to challenge systems, however, they will soon come to appreciate the inherently political nature of their work.  With this cautionary note in mind, let us not begin the journey with an expectation of opposition.   Instead, let us begin the journey with a vision for change; let us equip ourselves with tools needed to dismantle any obstacle that obstructs the path of change.

There are a variety of approaches that can be effectively applied when attempting to start a Social Justice Committee.  Certainly, the ideas contained within this document should serve as a working template only, with the understanding that adaptations will be made to suit the given circumstances. And now, the practical concern: where to begin?  In our working model, there are two phases that are integral to the formation of a Student Social Justice Committee: design and delivery. Four sub-sections comprise each phase.   For navigational ease, a numbered system will be applied.

First Phase: Design

Phase Focus: Knowledge Building

1. Know Your Policy

The Toronto District School Board has carefully crafted an Equity Policy Document outlining the specific expectations that all TDSB schools are required to meet.  Similar documents exist within other school boards.  Set aside the necessary time to familiarize yourself with your board policy documents.  Keep multiple, tabbed copies readily available!  When faced with opposition, your board Equity Policy Document is your guide and (if necessary) your guard.  Knowledge is power!

2. Know Your Climate 

It is advisable that you meet with your Administration and inform them of your plans to start a Student Social Justice Committee.  Due to the (perceived) controversial nature of our work, certain stakeholders within your school community may attempt to mobilize against you.  Every now and again, rain will fall.   Prepare for the storms before they begin; attempt to bring your Administration on-side.  Share your vision with them.  Remember, you are not seeking 'permission' to engage in student activism, as board policy already endorses (and protects) this work.   Instead, you are notifying, informing and consulting.  Most importantly, this initial meeting will allow you to informally evaluate the degree of support (or opposition) that you will be dealing with, as far as your Administration is concerned.    

3.  Know Your Allies

As you already know, social justice activism is very demanding, both emotionally and physically.  You are not an island.  You cannot do this work alone.  Administer an Equity-focused survey to your staff, as a means of identifying your allies.  This tool will serve to illuminate a host of issues and concerns that your student committee can seek to address, once it is in place.   You may also use the survey to solicit staff input as to which students would benefit from membership in your committee.  Finally, consider forming a Staff Equity Committee to complement the student group, if one is not already in place.  As always, there is strength in numbers!

4.  Know Your Objectives

Once you have identified (and mobilized) your allies, gather together and identify your collective goals.  What are your personal objectives as staff advisors of a Student Social Justice Committee?  What are your professional objectives?  How can you best facilitate the growth and development of the students within your Social Justice Committee?   What initiatives do you seek to undertake, as a group?   Ensure that your goals are 'smart': specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely.


Second Phase: Delivery

Phase Focus: Moving From Theory to Action

1.  Build Your Space

In collaboration with your team of allies, designate a safe space where your student group will meet.  Ensure that the space is warm and welcoming.  Ideally, your location will be a permanent place (such as your classroom, or an area in the Guidance department) where your group can establish roots and take ownership of the space.  Avoid resorting to a roster of rotating locations, as this may lead to transience within your group.  Once your group is formed (see #6) set time aside to decorate the space together.

2.  Build Your Group

Turn to your team of allies to assist you in identifying students who would benefit from membership in your Social Justice Committee.  Additionally, review the suggestions submitted in your staff survey.   Consult with a diversity of stakeholders (Guidance Counselors, Hall Monitors, Teachers, Caretakers, Admin) when creating your initial membership list.  Be sure to widely advertise your first meeting, using a variety of mediums, in order to draw a diverse group.

3. Build Your (Democratic) System

Within the first five to eight meetings, set time aside to build a supportive environment within your group.  Engage in trust-building activities.  Work together to establish a common set of agreements that will be used to structure your group interactions.  Post these agreements in a place of prominence.  Gradually introduce your group to the fundamentals of the Equity Policy Document.  Use a variety of engaging activities (games, films, role-play) to make the policy information accessible for all members.  Although you will need to lead the initial sessions, take steps to ensure that a system is put in place whereby the group will (gradually) take ownership of their own process.  All members of the group must be given equal opportunities to lead and to learn.   

4. Build Community

Once trust (and policy knowledge) is established within your group, they will then be ready to tackle projects and issues within and beyond their school.  Take time to establish partnerships with other Equity related organizations in your community.   Consider collaborating with other Student Social Justice Committees in nearby schools.  Partner with local non-profit organizations as well as cultural centers.  Nearby independent bookstores, for example, are often staffed by activists who share your passion for social justice.  By extending your activities into the world beyond your school, students will soon begin to see themselves as authentic agents of social change!    

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How will the administration react?

Jenny Chen, Teacher, Toronto DSB

Whenever activist educators engage in dialogue and/or collaborative projects, it is responsible to consider the reaction of the administration. The bottom line is, you will have to work with the administration in order to eliminate the first of potential obstacles that you might have to contend with. The following are a few strategies that can be used.

Start small – build your reputation

Start with a project that is manageable – both in terms of your time and budget. You can start by planning around individual events such International Women’s Day, International AIDS day, International Day for the Elimination of Racism, and/or the White Ribbon Campaign. Being able to successfully organize and raise awareness on one social issue is a good way to build your reputation at your work place.

Do your research – know what you are talking about

Before you approach the administration with an idea, be sure to do your research: is there information that exists which will support your project? For example, look for board-wide and/or Ministry of Education equity/human rights documents (e.g. policies, guidelines, or best practices) that can help support your goal to raise awareness on a particular issue. You will also need to do extensive research on the specific issues in order to present your administrator with as full a picture as possible. An excellent way to gather information is through Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) such as UNICEF or War Child Canada, just to name a few.

Communicate - talk with other colleagues for perspective

Experience can be such a valuable resource to tap into. If you are a beginning activist, it would be helpful to dialogue and/or collaborate with other likeminded educators to help you “learn the ropes”. It is also helpful to approach your school/workplace union representatives (e.g. local branch President) for support as well.

Collaborate - get students involved with your project –Principals and Vice-Principals often respond well to motivated students

As an activist educator, you can often find yourself thinking of ways to mentor the students that you work with. Whenever there is a project worth pursuing, it is more rewarding if you can share the knowledge learned or the process of challenging systemic barriers with students. The reality is, when you are able to get students involved, the administration will respond better to a groups of motivated students.

Consider - understand where the administration is coming from

In your approach to create an open dialogue with your administration, it is a good strategy to see things from their point of view. Being able to understand the possible constraints they face will help you negotiate more effectively. For example, if there is concern that a policy on Student Activity Card fees creates a class bias, it is helpful to preface these comments by acknowledging the need for the school to collect funds to support all clubs. By giving you and your administration a non-combative avenue to dialogue your concerns, greater positive outcomes will likely result.

Negotiate – come up with a “best alternative” before you meet with your administration (i.e. what is the least you would like to walk away with)

When you are ready to present your ideas to your administration, be sure to go in with a plan. Since no one likes to be disappointed, it is helpful to offer your administration with practical ways you can get the work done. Having alternatives will allow your administration to navigate around their constraints more easily.

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Are there guest speakers who will come to my classroom?

David Ast, Instructional Leader [Equitable Schools], Toronto DSB

Yes, and depending on the community where one teaches, the variety of organizations and the issues they work on may vary greatly.  School-community partnerships are a valuable way to bring the knowledge, perspectives, and voices of diverse members of the community into the classroom.  They are also opportunities to make real-life connections to the lives of students and can promote student engagement on issues of relevance and concern to them.  So how does a teacher make this a reality?  A suggested first step is to look at the curriculum expectations and the grade or subject area that one teaches.  What are the big ideas and enduring understandings that the teacher wants their students to walk away with and how can a guest speaker further this work?  Are there particular career attributes or leadership qualities that you would like students to gain a practical understanding of?  In essence, teachers should be able to respond to the following question: what is the purpose of having a guest speaker come into my classroom? 

Once this first question has been answered, then the next step would be to research the community organizations and guest speakers available within the educator’s own community.  Many school boards have developed lists complete with contact information of organizations that have guest speakers available.  This information can be obtained by contacting your Board’s Equity, Guidance, Social Work and/or Business Partnerships departments and offices.  Once a teacher has found a lead on a guest speaker, then the next step is making the contact to work out the logistics and set up the actual date and time of the visit.  It is also a good idea to communicate the reasons behind asking the guest speaker to come in and relate the purpose and proposed outcomes as well!  Now that the teacher has all this together, the next step would be to plan both pre- and post-presentation activities that will provide opportunities for students to make the connections to the curriculum and to their own lives.  Once this is all in place, then the students, teacher, and guest speaker are ready to engage in a meaningful learning experience, one that can have a lasting impact on everyone involved.

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How do I work with community members?

jamie berrigan, Teacher, Toronto DSB

When posed with the question of “How can I work with community members?” I wanted to rephrase it to say “How should I work with community members?” as a classroom teacher. This is because the communities in which your school is located and its surrounding communities are essential parts of your students’ lives.  Working with community members can include not-for-profit organizations, NGO’s (non-governmental organizations), social service agencies, and activist organizations. It can also include one person who wishes to be a bigger part of your school community.  In all cases, respect and strong communication are essential; your community members and you need to know each other’s strengths and goals for involvement in the school community. 

Respect, for me, means that everyone knows each other’s limits.  In my over fifteen years working with and in not-for-profit organizations, I have seen staff and volunteers say “yes” too many times and I can say the same for teachers at the schools with whom I teach.  You need to respect the limits of what everyone can do and support each other in achieving the goal. For example, if you are having an organization come into your school to do a series of workshops, it is far easier for you to organize the rooms, timing, and teachers for the workshops. Also, it is likely far easier for the organization to provide a summary of the workshop that you can share with colleagues.  Making sure everyone knows what each party is doing and what the timeline is respects that everyone involved have other responsibilities that need to be addressed as well.  Along with this kind of respect, using your “expertise” to support each other is equally important because it aids in providing an important activist experience for your students and staff.  A community member may be an expert in supporting women who have experienced violence in their lives but may not be as certain how to communicate this information to young people.  That is your expertise.  You likely will not know everything your community member wishes to share but you can help this process by giving your students and staff prior background knowledge.  Finally, ask questions. Ask colleagues who have had experience working with community members and organizations. As well, ask students and staff what issues need to be addressed.  Ask your guidance counselors, social workers, child and youth workers, and settlement workers what resources students are seeking out.  Ask!

The complexity of working with community members goes far beyond this short introduction but hopefully it is a useful place for you to begin considering where you can start.

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How do I get involved in my Federation (e.g. Elementary Teachers of Toronto)?

Helen Victoros, Teacher, Toronto DSB

When I first became a teacher, I wanted to be able to continue my activism in my union but I had no idea what might be available.  I’d never been a member of a union before, but I had seen the power of unions as a force for social justice. This is especially true when they joined in solidarity with community groups, and I knew that I wanted to be a part of that. 

So, during my first week on the job, I found out who the union steward was in my school (every school has a steward) and talked to her about getting information on what our union did and how I could get involved.  She was very helpful.  She showed me the union bulletin board in the staff room where information flyers from our local (in my case, the Elementary Teachers of Toronto) were posted on a regular basis; and she also let me know about our local’s website.   This is how I discovered what was going on in my union.  The website listed regular social gatherings, workshops, all the committees that our local ran, and operated a forum for members to discuss issues. I was most interested in the committees, and there were many to choose from: Status of Women, Anti-Racism and Equity, Political Action, New Teachers, Collective Bargaining, Budget – to name a few.  I registered for the Political Action Committee (a committee that exists in pretty much every teacher local), found out when the first meeting date was - and that’s where I began. 

The Political Action Committee was a great experience in terms of being able to connect with other teachers who were interested in a wide range of activism; it was also an excellent source of information about what else was going on in our community and where we could link up with community-based organizing for social justice.   

The following year, I joined our local Anti-Racism and Equity Committee because I wanted to be in a space where I could meet, find support, and strategize with other teachers specifically around issues of equity.  I’ve been a member of this committee ever since.  We do a lot – organize conferences for students and teachers on a range of issues, deliver workshops, plan a big dinner and educational event every year for the International Day to Eliminate Racial Discrimination, set up a booth with information and giveaways and organize a contingent of educators in our local LGBT Pride …It’s a very busy committee! 

I also started attending our local’s general meetings – held a few times each year.  Any member can go – you don’t have to be on a committee or anything – and it's here that members can put forward and vote on their ideas about everything from creating a new committee to deciding on how the local budget gets spent. 

While I focused in my first few years of teaching on the local level, I also became more aware of what was happening, and the opportunities provided, at the provincial level.  All teacher and occasional teacher locals in the English public elementary system belong to the larger provincial body called the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario.  I went to their website the first time because I’d heard about a conference they were organizing that I wanted to register for and I found a wealth of information about all kinds of things: regular media releases and updates about what our union was doing, conferences, workshops, provincial Standing Committees I could apply to join, opportunities to apply to write curriculum, ETFO curriculum packages I could purchase – it was amazing.  I regularly check out the provincial website to find out what’s going on and what’s available! 

There are lots of ways to get involved, but if you’re a bit of a political animal like me, you really need to get yourself to your provincial organization’s annual meeting.  All provincial teacher federations have an annual meeting (ETFO’s is every August) and if you want to know anything about, and have a voice in, how your provincial body decides on its leadership, what it will spend money on, what it will lobby the government on, priorities, campaigns, issues of policy, etc., I highly recommend finding out how and when your local chooses its delegates and become a delegate to your Annual Meeting.  It’s exciting!  You’ll meet teachers from around the province and really get a sense of the direction of your union, and what it considers important; and if you feel really passionate about an issue – like that anti-discriminatory education expectations are included in the Ministry’s elementary curriculum (one of the resolutions to ETFO’s annual meeting) – you can work with your local to bring your issues forward to be debated and voted on!

Unions have a history of being in the vanguard of pushing the agenda for social justice – not just for their own members, but in their larger communities as well.  But – and this is a big BUT – unions are like any other organization in that they decide on their priorities and campaigns and agendas based on who they hear from and that means who is most actively involved and vocal among their membership.  If you see issues that need addressing and want to have an impact, find out what your union is doing, find the other members that might be allies – through committees or forum discussions, or by attending your local general meetings or provincial annual meeting – and get involved.  It’s fun too!

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How do I get involved in my federation (e.g. Ontario Secondary Teachers’ Federation)?

Angela Bosco, Facilitator for Aboriginal Education, Simcoe County DSB

“It is not the duty of the oppressed to educate the oppressor.” [2]

Research shows that teachers become teachers for very idealistic reasons. Some teachers want to make the world a better place to live in which might be accomplished through the education of our young people. Other teachers want to help young people be the best they can be and reach their full potential. I guess both of these reasons hold true in my case. I began my teaching career much later in life and so I was also able to bring a lot of life experience including previous union work with me when I came into teaching. 

I have always been a social justice activist, having started my career in the school yard at the age of six. I was the bully buster – I walked around the school yard befriending those who felt out of place and made sure they didn’t get picked on. As a young woman I became involved with the York University Students Federation and also became a member of the student’s NDP party at York. In my first real job, as a library worker with Toronto Public Libraries, I quickly became involved in CUPE attending conferences and receiving training in negotiations. I also served on the Status of Women committee and a member of Library Workers for Peace (those were the days of nuclear proliferation, Apartheid and Reagan politics). 

When I became a teacher in 2000, becoming involved with OSSTF (teaching being a third or fourth career if you count mothering), was a natural step for me for many reasons other than my past positive experiences with union work. One very important reason I became involved in my federation was that when I first came into teaching I realized very quickly that there wasn’t always the outlet within the school setting for political activism which for me was directly related to my goals and beliefs for becoming a teacher – to create a better world through education and empowering students to become critical thinkers. This is a personal philosophy which permeates my teaching, but I also needed to have a greater voice and impact in education and union work became this outlet for me. I became involved in union work, which would be a good first step for anyone, by volunteering, along with another colleague, to be on the Collective Bargaining Committee (CBC). I attended meetings and was able to find out a lot about what other teachers and schools were doing and about the overall workings of the school board which I worked for. I really felt that I better understood education and that I had some influence rather than sitting back and feeling like I did not have a say in education.

The following year I served on the Political Action Committee (PAC) and the district Human Rights Committee, of which I became chair for several years. This became my passion and wanted to do more and so in reading Update, the OSSTF Provincial Newsletter, found that there was a vacancy to serve on the Provincial Human Rights Committee. I sent in my application and with the support and glowing recommendation of my District president I was selected to sit on this committee for the next three years.

In 2006 I applied to be part of a writing team for two anti-bullying workshops. I was selected and became part of this wonderful writing team. I also received some facilitator training that allowed me the opportunity to present our workshop along with colleagues at the OSSTF Safe Schools Conference in November 2006. Many other such professional development opportunities presented themselves that were both relevant and valuable to my daily teaching and to my growth as an educator. I was provided with the mentorship of other more senior colleagues, in a safe environment. This training gave me a great deal of confidence not only in my daily teaching but it has also allowed me to take a leadership role in other aspects of the teaching profession including in my current job as Facilitator for Aboriginal Education for the Simcoe Board. Just this last fall I developed a workshop entitled “Teaching From A Place of Respect – Creating Respectful Relationships with First Nation, Métis and Inuit Youth in the Classroom.” I have delivered this workshop several times and owe a great deal of my confidence and skill in doing so to the mentorship and training I received through OSSTF.

Lastly, but very importantly, I became involved in my federation because I found that as an educator it gave me a direct venue to truly affect the world of teaching - I needed to talk about race, equity, diversity, poverty, human rights, and the environment and how these affected the lives of students and people around the world for that matter.  Working within the union and with my union colleagues became that venue for me. The federation became that critical and vital space where the real goals of education could be discussed and actualized through the more practical work of hosting student human rights events and/or teacher workshops on using human rights resources in the classroom. As a result of this valuable and fun work -- because teachers need to have fun, too  the union not only became a place that valued my voice as a teacher and education worker, but it also encouraged me to become a better teacher.

Just last night I was sitting in a coffee shop trying to organize a human rights event with a colleague after a full day at work and I could still feel excited. My colleague and I agreed that this work was a valuable part of education and being a teacher. The federation has been and still is a safe place where educators can find their voice and become part of professional development. You can become involved in your federation by speaking to your branch president, the district president, and by reading your local district and provincial newsletters which will list openings for certain positions and/or opportunities for valuable and useful training. If you feel inexperienced and/or maybe intimidated please don’t be, because the federation has been and still is a safe place where people’s voices are valued. The federation has been a place and space where I was able to express myself in a safe environment and a place where I have met many like-minded people who were interested in shaping education so that it could become a transformative force in our society –and in the world for that matter.

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Am I an advocate or an activist?

Jenny Chen, Teacher, Toronto DSB & Jill Goodreau, Teacher, Upper Grand DSB

In an attempt to define who we are as educators, we ask the question of whether we are advocates or activists. The reality is that both advocates and activists play a vital role in our educational system. As educational activists, we do shift our role from one to the other quite easily and comfortably to suit the circumstances.

In its most basic form, an advocate is someone who assists students in navigating within the existing structure. An advocate is someone who does the front line work. For example, if a student has a need to receive assistance to pay for “mandatory” field trips, it would be our job as advocates to seek the necessary channels to make sure the student does not miss the opportunity due to ‘financial hardship’. Another example of what an advocate might take on is to make sure that student awards and/or scholarships are considered in an equitable manner. This would mean that as advocates we would initiate a conversation with the awards/scholarship committee to see if we were able to participate in the process. Being an advocate means that you are making constructive contact with the different departments or people that deliver various student services in the school and community.

On the other hand, an activist is someone who works on challenging and changing the policies that are structural or systems-based. For example, instead of advocating for one specific student to receive financial support for “mandatory” field trips or student fees, an activist educator would seek to change the school rules or policies that are implicitly class biased. This systemic barrier does in fact prevent groups of students from fully participating in activities offered in their school.

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How do I sustain my commitment to activism?

Marian Shehata, Teacher, Toronto DSB

It’s quite a privilege and joy to be an activist educator.  We can all share in the exhilaration that comes when we see students taking action on issues of social justice.  We are excited when we feel that there is a growing movement within our school communities to embrace local and global initiatives. However, often the road to such victories can be marked with exhaustion, discouragement and/or isolation.  How we can “keep on keeping on” despite the feelings of burnout, isolation and apathy we may encounter?

reConnect: The Need for Community

The Community within Your School (Workplace)

It is crucial to build alliances with like-minded colleagues. I have had the pleasure of working at a school for years and seeing the number of equity minded educators grow until it becomes a normalized part of the school community. Building alliances helps in decreasing feelings of isolation because it allows a wider vehicle for change; as more teachers discuss these issues, more students are reached. It allows us to have someone to vent to and encourage us when we are frustrated. It also helps us figure out how to get the valuable resources we need to do our work more effectively (e.g., someone might know about a program with money that you don’t know about). Building alliances by building capacity in others is very important --for our own health and that of the schools. Often there are many teachers with willing hearts and minds but who don’t have the resources or the knowledge of how to begin. Mentoring these teachers is an important part of equity work and will help maintain your own commitment to activism.

The Community between Schools

I find it rejuvenating to dialogue with educators in different schools or boards. If possible, taking students on trips where they will interact with people their own ages from different arenas helps build momentum. It’s exciting to feel like we are part of a movement that is bigger than ourselves!

Your Community outside of Work

A community outside of work reminds us that we are not our work. This is our community where we can relax and gain perspective, remembering that the world is a much bigger place than we can imagine.

reJUVENATE: The Need for a Sabbatical

What comes to your mind when you hear the word “sabbatical?” Perhaps a prolonged period of time when you are set apart from the world?  Having recently completed a five month sabbatical, I have come to realize that our need for rest and renewal must be met frequently – daily, weekly, monthly, annually.  Some ideas are as follows:

Daily - Each day I give myself at least half an hour to do something I enjoy. That can be a TV show, reading a book, meditating or an artsy endeavour.  During the school day, I try to take at least half an hour for an uninterrupted lunch.

Weekly - One night a week leave when school ends and have an enjoyable evening!  Don’t bring any work home!  Go play that soccer game, take that dance class, or cook a gourmet dinner.  On the weekend, make sure to take off one full day so you are not doing work 7 days a week.

reDEFINE- The Need to Re-Envision Success

Perhaps this is the most difficult strategy of all, but I believe it is essential so that our actions are full of purpose, meaning and joy.  It really involves asking some key questions.

Why am I working so hard?

What would happen if you didn’t join that committee?  Are you working so hard out of guilt (i.e. “but no one else will be a staff advisor for that _____ group”)? 

Are you trying to impress others?

This might especially be the case when people are trying to secure their jobs or make a point to colleagues for any other reason. It’s important to pause and ask ourselves why we feel the need to prove ourselves.

Are you addicted to the adrenaline rush?

Are you only satisfied when you are engaged in big, school or board-wide equity initiatives? I have to confess I think I was; but I’ve learned to redefine success. Instead of planning a school wide assembly on violence against women, I might have an event in the library at lunch. Both types of events have value.


Until we redefine what it means to be successful we’ll continue running hard in a fast race, never knowing if or when we’ve arrived. I find it useful to take some time at the start of the year or semester to set goals and boundaries for myself. I think about what I want to accomplish both at school and in my personal life and try to make sure that the school endeavours do not overtake the personal goals I have set for myself.


It can often be hard to let go or scale back for many reasons.  Often we’re worried about what we’ll miss out on if we aren’t saving the world.  A challenging question becomes: What will I miss out on if I don’t take time to refocus?  If we’re not careful, we can get to the point where we feel tired, resentful and ready to give up. 

Consider the exchange….

  • Instead of being frazzledà a sense of peace, purpose and joy
  • Instead of living up to unreasonable expectations set by ourselves or othersà the freedom that comes by being directed by our own dreams and goals
  • Instead of feeling like we have no time to do important things that are for usàa well-rounded life with time for personal interests and loved ones

Instead of feeling like we are never doing enough, the knowledge that we are still making a difference and effecting change in ways that are manageable and renewing.


Sounds like a great exchange.

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[1] This includes board of education policies, trustees, superintendents, senior management, and so on.

[2] Judith Moschkovich in Haig-Brown, (1988) Surviving Residential Schools.



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