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When personal and professional values clash, these strategies can help teachers reflect on and move past their biases, beliefs and understanding.
By: Jennifer Lewington
Illustration: Nicolas Ogonosky/Anna Goodson
As professionals, teachers commit themselves to high standards of practice to promote student success. But like the rest of society, they also draw on personal experiences, cultural traditions and, sometimes, religion to define their identity.
A collision between personal values and professional obligations poses special challenges for teachers when their personal views don't align with how they are expected to handle sensitive topics such as teaching sex-ed, managing the classroom, fostering gender and racial diversity and promoting inclusion of learners with special needs. Learning to recognize — and resolve — inner conflicts is key to professional satisfaction, say education leaders.
"It is so important for teachers to be true to themselves, to be genuine and human," says Cathy Bruce, OCT, president of the Association of Canadian Deans of Education and dean of Trent University's School of Education and Professional Learning. "When we are not true to ourselves, we don't last in the profession."
Equally important, she adds, is for a teacher "to be a professional and to be ethical in the care of all students .... The job is to allow the student to flourish in their own way."
Sometimes teachers find themselves at odds with contentious school board policies. At Avon Maitland District School Board, recognized for its pioneering efforts to end segregation of those with physical and intellectual disabilities, veteran elementary teacher Amy Kipfer, OCT, previously worked as board coach for full inclusion, advising teachers on how to manage this new challenge.
Her first step was to listen. "You have to be open to a conversation, one-on- one with a colleague, to hear them and their concerns," she says. As a coach, she looked to a teacher's past experiences with special-needs students to identify effective pedagogical strategies. "Ultimately the teacher wants to see that the student has success in the class," she says.
That same goal motivates Christopher Alexander, OCT, a high school teacher for 11 years, conflicted over what he views as a well-intended policy that he feels sometimes misses the mark for some of his students. "Most teachers are in it to get the best for the students and the best out of students," he says. "The full-inclusion policy didn't necessarily seem, all the time, to be doing that and, in fact, often was running contrary to that."
Alexander, who teaches computer science, robotics and business at a high school in St. Marys, Ont., cites some success stories from collaborations with education assistants assigned by the board to work with students with learning disabilities in his classroom. Still, he questions the value of full inclusion when high-needs students attend a regular class at the expense of participating in potentially beneficial physical therapy or life skill sessions outside the classroom.
Alexander and his board start in the same place — what's best for the child? — but may not always agree on the answer. In supporting all his students, Alexander adopts two strategies to ease his inner conflict. One is his willingness to experiment.
In the classroom he hangs a sign that reads "This could fail" — a motto to encourage students to try their best even when not all works out as planned. He applies that same approach to teaching all students, including those with special needs. "I still have the ability to try and give it my darndest."
The other is a commitment to transparent conversations. In job applications, he says, "I have been candid in saying "I understand what you are doing, I understand the intent, but hire me knowing I don't think it is perfect yet."
A different inner conflict plays out when teachers, thrust into unfamiliar settings, struggle to recalibrate their practice. The "biggest clash" occurs when French-language teachers from big-city schools with 20 or so children in the same grade move to small-town northern Ontario, where low-enrolment schools combine students from multiple grades in the same room, says Mireille Major-Levesque, OCT, superintendent of education at Conseil scolaire de district catholique des Aurores boréales.
"It's a completely different way of functioning," she says, with teachers expected to rethink programs for "busy bees in one classroom all doing different things."
Discipline issues also generate inner angst when experienced teachers find themselves out of step with shifting social norms.
"Sometimes teachers have varied expectations of what students need to do and how kids should be behaving," says Amine Aïdouni, a superintendent of schools with Conseil des écoles publiques de I'Est de l'Ontario. The issue "becomes tricky," when rigid discipline produces unintended consequences, such as penalizing young Black men more than white students for the same infraction.
Africa-born Aidouni, a former elementary and high school principal in Ottawa, recalls one incident in which some Black students engaged in a boisterous conversation in a school hallway.
"I could see some teachers looking at them uneasily as if they were doing something wrong and needed to be watched more closely," he says. Instead, he encouraged the teachers to "laugh and joke with them, share stories and break the ice rather than adopting a suspicious attitude about what is going on."
Such overtures, he says, build trust between teachers and students instead of stoking suspicion based on fear or misconceptions.
The Ontario College of Teachers is currently working on a new resource on anti-oppressive practices, developed by and for designers and instructors of Additional Qualification courses, with teachers invited to critically explore their beliefs and biases.
A recent peer-reviewed study by education researchers in the United States found teachers as likely as non-teachers to have racial bias, underscoring the need for teacher training and supports.
"We found, perhaps not surprisingly, that teachers have similar levels of bias [as] non-teachers," says Natasha Warikoo, a sociologist at Tufts University and a co-researcher on the study. "We have this idea that schools can be the place where teachers are miraculously going to guide kids and create an unbiased racial democracy," she adds. "That's unrealistic because teachers are part of society. Why would you expect them to be different?"
She says effective teachers reflect on their grading and discipline practices — and invite colleagues into the classroom as observers — to guard against unconscious race or gender discrimination. High-performing teachers, she adds, ask: "What do I need to do as an educator to support the students in front of me?"
The answer is not always obvious.
Several years ago, Alana Butler, OCT, was an occasional teacher of social studies who worked with at-risk students at a Toronto high school. When a student rushed up to embrace her in the school hallway to celebrate an achievement, Butler was chastised by a fellow teacher for ignoring the school's "no hugging" policy.
Butler, now an assistant professor of at-risk learners and student success at Queen's University faculty of education, never initiated hugs but also felt it was wrong to push away a student.
"It was a dilemma for me," says Butler, who counsels teacher candidates to follow school policy while recognizing that research finds value in "therapeutic hugs" for at-risk students.
When teachers are uneasy about meeting their obligations to teach sensitive topics, such as sex-ed and gender identity, one solution lies in tapping pedagogical resources.
Amid the 2018-19 controversy over a revised Ontario sex education curriculum, Trent University School of Education assistant professor Denise Handlarski designed six short video tutorials with matter-of-fact tips for teachers to ease their anxiety.
But she is emphatic that, as professionals, teachers are obligated to explain uncomfortable topics. "If you are teaching Grades 1 to 6 or 7/8, you could be expected to teach sex-ed," says Handlarski. "If that is a hard "no" for you, then this isn't the right job for you."
That same clear-eyed commitment applies to a teacher's professional obligations to transgender or gender non-conforming students in the classroom.
"Under the law, any person regardless of their gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation is entitled to experience our public [education] system without discrimination," says Lee Airton, assistant professor of gender and sexuality studies in education at Queen's University faculty of education and author of Gender: Your Guide, a primer on navigating gender diversity and related issues in everyday life.
A teacher with personal views on gender-neutral pronouns is also a professional required to respect a student's wish to be addressed as he, she or they. "You as a professional teacher must do your very best to not misgender people," says Airton.
In meeting the Ontario College of Teachers' Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession, practitioners have a responsibility to demonstrate care, respect, trust and integrity. If asked by a student about gender identity, a teacher uncomfortable about the discussion must demonstrate "warmth and compassion" and take action, such as directing the student to school or community resources, to be of meaningful assistance. "That is the minimum you must do," says Airton.
Struggling teachers need not feel alone, especially when part of a positive school culture, says education researcher Andy Hargreaves, a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa and research professor in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College.
"Some of the subterranean dilemmas are there and the only way to get around that is with a very strong culture of collegiality," he says. "Effective collaboration needs a moral purpose and usually a clear focus and structure, but it also needs solidarity. Solidarity does not mean compliance; it means high trust with high openness."
That approach underpins the culture of Resurrection Catholic Secondary School in Kitchener, Ont., which serves students from 100 countries. Last year, Ophea (Ontario Physical and Health Education Association) recognized Resurrection for its efforts to promote student health and well-being.
Then school principal Chris Woodcroft, OCT, (recently promoted to superintendent of education with the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board) credits Resurrection's teacher-leaders for creating "a trusting environment where we can have that open dialogue with regards to what our expectations are." The school abides by Catholic teachings while promoting gender-neutral pronouns, encouraging classroom strategies that recognize immigrant children as "we" not "them," and fostering respect for Indigenous culture.
"We have a great staff in Kitchener, but everyone has those individual and collective moral blind spots, including unconscious personal and cultural bias" says Lisa Hodgkinson, OCT, program lead for religion and family life at Resurrection for the past nine years and its lead teacher on Indigenous studies.
Several years ago, in a truth and reconciliation exercise for school staff, she worked with local Indigenous elders and students to present information about Indigenous culture. The initial response, a mix of interest, indifference and hostility, set the stage for uncomfortable conversations that led to a better understanding of the Indigenous world view and Canada's legacy of colonialism.
For Hodgkinson, the experience reinforced the power of self-reflection in reconciling one's personal beliefs, views and professional duties. "It is very important to step back, honestly assess, and not dismiss the voice you don't want to hear," she says. "Spend time to reflect on what your purpose is [as a teacher]."