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Dedication of teaching staff and students inspires David E. Hunt award recipient


By Fred Michah Rynor


John Portelli

John Portelli isn’t the kind of educator who strives for recognition but a major OISE teaching award has found him anyway.

This year’s recipient of the David E. Hunt Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching, he’s being honoured for his “many significant contributions to OISE teaching, supervision and scholarship” along with his “ability to relate to students and colleagues and his commitment to critical dialogue,” noted the awards panel.

His contributions were also found to have “a lasting impact on OISE’s community of scholars.”

“I was very humbled but happy that my teaching was being recognized but I don’t feel entirely comfortable winning because there are so many other people here at OISE who do such good work,” says Portelli, a professor in the Department of Humanities, Social Sciences and Social Justice Education, the co-director of  the Centre for Leadership and Diversity and cross-appointed with the Educational Administration Program.

“Such awards are always a collective matter in the sense that I would not have been able to win unless supported so strongly by my colleagues and students in the way I teach. As well, I’ve been blessed by the kindness of my students since I came here in 1999.”

Since he began his university teaching career in 1982, Portelli has taught at such diverse universities as McGill, Dalhousie, Mount St.Vincent, British Columbia, Acadia and College Marie Victorin but it’s his years at OISE that he cherishes the most. “I like it here very much,” he admits, adding that it’s the dedication of both the teaching staff and the students that constantly impresses him.

Now 59, he began his teaching journey when he was 21 in his homeland of Malta where his education almost came to a sudden halt.

“Malta was a British colony at the time and in the secondary school I went to we were not allowed to speak Maltese,” he recalls. “Therefore my schooling suffered and I failed every subject so I was pushed out when I was 15.”

However, through the kindness and support of villagers who did not believe in his "deficit mentality", he ended up getting an education after all without ever going back to school.

“They believed in me and so I was freely tutored by the pastor, a retired chemistry teacher and the daughter of the principal of the elementary school. This dedication on their part prepared me, after three years, for university entrance exams. They really enacted the African saying that you need a village to raise a child.”

Years later he would find himself teaching, in Quebec (his first Canadian home), both a retirement preparedness course for students ranging in age from 55 to 86 as well as immigrants mostly from the Caribbean who were in their twenties (the same age as Portelli) and  who had also been pushed out of school.  

“I learned so much from both of these student groups,” he recalls, grateful that he forsook his original career choice in dentistry.

A lifelong researcher in the field of philosophy and educational policy and leadership, Portelli came to Canada in 1977 and has recently published a book, with former OISE doctoral student Brenda McMahon, ‘Student Engagement in Urban Schools: Beyond Neoliberal Discourses' and just finished a six-year appointment with the Maltese National Commission for Further and Higher Education – the only participant from outside Malta.

“Throughout my life and my career I have never forgotten my privilege and, in a sense my complicity, as a white, Christian, heterosexual, middleclass male,” states this author of eight books and two collections of poetry. "It is the diversity of the students that enroll in my classes that has been an education in itself for me. This typifies an aspect of the 'curriculum of life' which in my view should be central in education."