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Making schools safe and equitable still a challenge conference finds


By Fred Michah Rynor

September 29, 2012

Canada may have some of the world's most socially progressive school systems but problems of racism, ableism, sexism, homophobia and classroom aggression continue to plague the classroom. This reality was one of the recurring themes during OISE's annual Educating for Peace & Justice: Action for Safe & Equitable Classrooms, Schools & Communities Conference on September 29. 
Each student amongst the 450 who registered were asked to choose three interactive workshops out of dozens offered which were presented by some of Toronto's most cutting-edge educational experts. Topics included gender-based violence, Aboriginal issues of race, conflict resolution in schools, classroom bullying and aggression, peer mediation practices, religious diversity and class bias, institutional homophobia and harassment and school discipline along with a keynote speech by social activist Judy Rebick.

David Ast, an instructor in the Initial Teacher Education Program and the Intermediate/Senior Politics Curriculum and Instruction Course, says there are many benefits for teacher trainees who take part in these timely seminars.

"OISE students get exposed to a variety of social justice and equity related issues that deepen their thinking about the connections around theory and practice and how they can take these ideas and transfer them to future classrooms. As well, it lets all educators reflect on their own biases and internalized prejudices and think about the impact of these for their practice."

Ast believes both subtle and overt discrimination play out on a daily basis in Ontario schools despite the fact there is Ministry and Board policy around equity and inclusive education.

"Because of these continuing problems in our schools it's necessary to reach out to teacher candidates so they can begin the process of challenging the systems that marginalize certain students based on their social identities," says Ast. "Once they're aware of how oppression works and manifests itself they can make a positive difference by effecting change in the classroom. It's our moral imperative as educators to do this work because we need to keep challenging systems that are often resistant to change."

Ast maintains that glaring examples of injustice and inequities still exist even in multicultural cities such as Toronto, "and therefore we require a continual influx of new teachers to break this cycle of oppression."

The fact that the conference happens is a tribute to OISE's teacher education programs says Jeff Kugler, Executive Director of the Centre for Urban Schooling at OISE.

"This clearly demonstrates to people moving into a teaching career that there are many issues that haven't been dealt with in our schools and they become more aware of this when they attend these seminars. We're not anywhere near where we should be when it comes to progress regarding social injustice in classrooms."

Kugler, who has taught at OISE for seven years after spending 25 years in Toronto schools, says the reason this conference is so popular is because teacher candidates are aware of bullying, racism, sexism and other social problems but don't have the skills needed to deal with them.

"It isn't always a focus of the school boards to acknowledge the identities of children currently enrolled in today's classrooms. I truly believe that serious achievement gaps exist within our schools and current statistics reflect this fact."

Both Ast and Kugler say the conference allows for a tremendous amount of networking to take place which gives future teachers a feeling of empowerment and hope.

"Even in the Toronto District School Board there is resistance to change and these workshops create an environment where people can find allies so that they don't feel alone when confronting these struggles," says Kugler.