Let’s talk about Teach for Canada

According to the ambitious folks at Teach for Canada, “we can make Canadian education more equal” in “rural, remote, and Aboriginal communities.”

In order to do so, they plan to “recruit and train outstanding young leaders and place them as teachers in Canada’s most challenging schools” for two year stints. One source suggests Teach for Canada will begin recruiting at Canadian universities next fall (September 2014), with an aim to place the first batch of recruits in communities by September 2015.

Yet, at least as is it currently presented, the Teach for Canada plan fails to address the underlying impact of Canada’s settler colonial structure on the educational outcomes of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities. This suggests that TCA’s good intentions may be at best misguided, and may at worst perpetuate many of the problems that it purports to address.

The dubious merits of Teach for America (TFA), a similar program in the US which appears to be the primary inspiration for Teach for Canada, also underscores need to be cautious about the Teach for Canada plan.

On First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Education

Few would dispute that the basic educational issues identified by the Teach for Canada team –“funding gaps, infrastructure deficiencies, and rapid teacher turnover”– are real for many First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities. Many such communities face chronic underfunding and resultant budget shortfalls.


Source of image: Chiefs Assembly on Education

However, the solution proposed by Teach for Canada fails to address the problems they themselves identify. This is related to its more fundamental failure to address how past and present realities of Canadian colonialism shape these problems and affect indigenous peoples’ educational outcomes.

The effects of Canada’s settler colonial project are evident in classrooms and curricula of indigenous and provincial schools alike, and are documented in countless articles, books, blogs, statements, and oral histories. These effects are not currently addressed in Teach for Canada’s proposed plan, just as they are not adequately addressed in the proposed First Nations Education Act released recently by the Harper government.

None of the materials released thus far from Teach for Canada acknowledges the trauma of over 100 years of Canada’s residential school system (the last school was not shuttered until 1996), or the fact that school curricula consistently disrespect or erase First Nations, Métis, and Inuit students’ histories, epistemologies, ontologies, and cosmologies.

Further, the Teach for Canada plan would not address other basic material conditions on many reserves that contribute to poor educational outcomes, including unemployment, substandard housing, ill health, and the environmental effects of resource extraction.

To suggest, as Teach for Canada does, that the educational issues of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit are merely questions of ‘equity’ not only elides the Canadian colonial project, it also further normalizes the notion that these students merely require better integration into Canada’s liberal multicultural project, and its values.

This stance ignores centuries of indigenous peoples’ calls for respect of their sovereignty and self-determination, rather than greater incorporation into the Canadian state. According to Chelsea Vowel, who runs the popular blog âpihtawikosisân, “Canada needs to finally listen to what indigenous peoples have been demanding for years: that our cultures and languages be given more importance in our systems of education” – and that indigenous peoples themselves should drive this. It should not be dictated from above by federal or provincial governments, nor implemented by even the most well-intentioned private settlers, like the founders and would-be teachers of Teach for Canada.

More on TCA’s Stated Intentions

Co-founder Adam Goldenberg believes that serving as a teacher for Teach for Canada would be akin to ‘development work’: “In our own country, in our own backyard, there are third-world conditions, and you don’t have to go to sub-Saharan Africa.”

Yet, as Vowel suggests, the needs and demands of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities should be determined by those communities – they should not be considered ‘development work’ for enthusiastic young college graduates to cut their teeth on.

Comments by Teach for Canada’s other founder, Kyle Hill, also indicate Teach for Canada is meant to serve as a training ground for Canada’s future elite: “The long-term dream is that we will have Teach for Canada fellows sitting at a Cabinet table, sitting in newsrooms, sitting in boardrooms on Bay Street, where they can have an impact on educational inequalities from those vantage points.”

And what of the work done during their teaching stint?

Says Hill, “The advice we’ve gotten from Canadian leaders who have a lot of interaction on the ground is you need to be part of that community.” However, is not clear whether or what kind of consultation Hill and his partners have done with the indigenous leaders from communities they plan to serve; nor is it clear how two-year teaching stints with only the briefest of preparation would allow Teach for Canada teachers to ‘be part of’ those communities.

According to a piece cited by the founders themselves on their website:

A foundational element of a high quality First Nations education system is the presence of teachers and educators who understand First Nations history, culture, intellectual traditions, and language. They must also comprehend First Nations relationships with the land and creation. Teachers in a First Nations education system will be required to deliver a curriculum that honours the gifts of each First Nations student. They will facilitate in each student the knowledge, the wisdom and the longing for learning, thereby taking them on the “road to knowledge – which is eternal‟. It is understood that the teaching staff of First Nations schools may include both First Nations and non-First Nations teachers. A relevant First Nations education system has the mandate and personnel to provide the curriculum, resources and professional development opportunities for all teachers of First Nations students. This system will maintain and support current teachers and educate and recruit new teachers that are committed to Indigenous communities.

It is highly unlikely that the plan proposed by Teach for Canada could accomplish these objectives.

Critics of the US version of Teach for Canada, Teach for America, argue that a mere five weeks of preparation is insufficient for learning the basics of pedagogy prior to teacher placement. In the case of Teach for Canada, there is an added challenge to prepare settler teachers during this time to also develop the capacity to meet the needs of indigenous students, something that even those settlers who train for years to become teachers often fail to do adequately.

And, Teach for Canada’s relatively brief (i.e. two year) teaching assignment hardly signals a long term “committ[ment] to Indigenous communities,” and therefore fails to address one of the primary issues identified by TCA itself: rapid teacher turnover.

Teach for America (TFA): A Model Worth Emulating?

Teach for Canada appears to be modeled off of the US’s Teach for America (TFA) program, which trains recent college grads for five-weeks before they are assigned to low-income, largely urban, public schools, and put to work. The results are mixed, at best.

Although TFA remains a much sought-after organization for the graduates of some of the US’s most elite colleges and universities, it is viewed with increasing skepticism by the US public. TFA does not address racial segregation in schools, which persists sixty years after the Brown v Board of Education ruling and is strongly related to discriminatory housing policies and practices both past and present. It also does not alter public school funding patterns according to property taxes, which ensure that rich neighborhoods have rich schools, and poor neighborhoods have poor ones, and does not combat the closure of public schools in poor communities of colour.

TFA therefore fails to disrupt the systems of capital accumulation, extreme racial wealth inequity (which worsened after the 2008 financial crisis), and other aspects of white supremacy that largely determine the poor educational outcomes of many urban schools that TFA supplies with teachers. To be fair, neither does TFA purport to do this. But without addressing the structures of violence that deem the lives of people of colour – in particular the lives of Black people, including Black children – to be dispensable, it hard to see how TFA can affect any significant changes to the educational system of the US.

But not only does TFA not address many of the underlying issues that create poor educational outcomes for under-resourced communities. It also creates competition (and the possibility for union busting) between those who would pursue teaching as a vocation and those who are only interested in a two- (or more commonly, one-) year stint; it undermines/distracts from the need to address poorly funded public education systems; and its list of supporters and donors is comprised of an unsavory corporate set, including the Walton Foundation (of Walmart fame), and Goldman Sachs.

Admittedly, while analogies with TFA are instructive they can only go so far, as plans put forth publicly thus far by TCA remain vague, and are thus difficult to thoroughly assess. Furthermore, the educational concerns of poor, largely Black and Latino urban communities in the US are distinct from the educational concerns of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities in Canada.

Querying TCA

As a white settler on Turtle Island, one who is only a novice in my understanding of both primary and secondary education in general, and in the educational experiences of Canada’s indigenous peoples in particular, I make no claim of authority to know or dictate what is best for their educational futures.

At the same time, given the history and present of colonial education in Canada, as well as the controversies surrounding Teach for America in the United States, I am highly skeptical that Teach for Canada does either.

Because of this, I urge all of us in Canada to learn as much as we can about the intentions of Teach for Canada, and to carefully consider whether this is an organization that will benefit those it purports to serve.


One response to “Let’s talk about Teach for Canada

  1. Pingback: Teach for Canada: Noble vision or Trojan Horse? » Remapping Education·

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