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Educational Activism
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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 We challenged the contentious issue of high stakes, standardized teacher testing (the [since rescinded] Ontario Teachers’ Qualifying Test).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 firm 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.

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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