In June 2016, I was fortunate enough to participate in Drake University’s annual visit to schools in Toronto, Ontario. The tour was led by 2 professors in the Drake University School of Education‘s Education Leadership program: Dr. Tom Buckmiller and Dr. Doug Stilwell. Our tour group also included a superintendent, a building administrator, and several graduate students in the Educational Leadership Program at Drake University.
Our tour guide for much of the tour was Cloyce Weaver, Student Achievement Officer for the Ontario Ministry of Education.
On our first night in Toronto, Cloyce explained to us that Canada is organized as a centralized education system, whereby each province sets its own educational system that each province’s Ministry of Education oversees it.
Something rather unique about the system of education in Ontario is that it includes both public and private primary and secondary schools, as well as post-secondary institutions. By right of the constitution of Canada, Roman Catholics are entitled to their own separate school system that is publicly funded by taxpayers. This right is protected by constitutional status in three provinces (Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan) and statutory status in three territories (Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut). In these Canadian jurisdictions, a separate school is one operated by a civil authority, including a separate school board, with a mandate enshrined in the Canadian Constitution (for the three provinces) or in federal statutes (for the three territories).
- Achieving Excellence: Children and students of all ages will achieve high levels of academic performance, acquire valuable skills and demonstrate good citizenship. Educators will be supported in learning continuously and will be recognized as among the best in the world.
- Ensuring Equity: All children and students will be inspired to reach their full potential, with access to rich learning experiences that begin at birth and continue into adulthood.
- Promoting Well-Being: All children and students will develop enhanced mental and physical health, a positive sense of self and belonging, and the skills to make positive choices.
- Enhancing Public Confidence: Ontarians will continue to have confidence in a publicly funded education system that helps develop new generations of confident, capable and caring citizens.
The structure of the school system in Ontario varies in a few significant ways from school systems in the United States. First, the school system in Ontario consists of the entire province, whereas school systems in the USA are more regionally organized into city, community, or rural regional districts.
At first glance, the provincial system appeared to have several advantages. Primarily, the funding base consists of taxes collected from citizens across the entire province rather than local taxes specific communities. With such a system in place, it was much easier to ensure a more even and equitable distribution of resources and funding across every school in Ontario.
Cloyce further explained that the Ontario Ministry of Education had three main focus areas: language, mathematics, and well-being. The student well-being area really connected with me and was a very obvious and visible component in all the schools we visited. Cloyce explained that with so many students immigrating from areas of the world in conflict, as well as serving many native First Nations students, the primary need is to serve the basic needs of the child and infuse those experiences with academic learning to foster a sense of connection to the school and the community.
I believe this is an area for possible leverage and systemic improvement in our schools in the United States and a primary reason why students in Canada consistently scores well on international assessments, including the PISA. Students in Canada feel a strong sense of connection and belonging to their schools and country; therefore, they are driven to consistently perform at their peak levels out of a sense of pride and responsibility to their school, community, and country.
Beyond merely scoring well on international assessments, the more primary goals of the Ontario Ministry of Education involve students performing at established standards of proficiency, called levels. (Note: A more detailed description of the levels and the process used to establish and measure them can be found in the Ontario “Growing Success” document.)
Cloyce told us that the Ontario Ministry of Education has established a goal that 75% of all students score at Level 3 or higher across multiple measures of learning. A special note is that this goal is that it is inclusive of special education students with IEP accommodations in place.
Toronto District School Board:
Unfortunately, we did not have the time or resources to visit schools all across Canada or even Ontario. Instead, all the schools we visited were in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB).
Why TDSB? According to Dr. Buckmiller, “Along with Finland, Toronto is consistently recognized as one of the highest performing education systems in the world.”
In addition to being a high-performing district, the TDSB is also one of the largest and most ethnically diverse school districts in North America, serving approximately 245,000 students in 588 schools throughout the Toronto area. Here is a picture of a map of the various neighborhoods in Toronto that I took at one of the schools we visited.
Toronto DSB Educational Structure
Demographics of TDSB Students
- 170,000 elementary students
- 75,000 high school students
- 1,400 international students
- 27,150 students are enrolled in immersion and extended French programs
- 22% were born outside of Canada
- There are over 120 languages spoken by TDSB students and their families.
Cloyce explained that neighborhoods, and therefore schools, in Toronto are often very ethnically clustered. Many of the incoming students and families are displaced Muslims and Hindus from across the world. Many incoming students and families were not native English or French speakers.
Demographics of TDSB Staff
- 16,500 permanent teachers (11,100 Elementary, 5,400 Secondary)
- 6,400 occasional teachers (4,600 Elementary, 1,900 Secondary)
- 13,000 permanent support staff and 5,000 supply/casual employees (including Designated Early Childhood Educators, professional support workers, caretakers, maintenance staff, IT support, administrators, etc.).
The Federations (Associations or Unions in the USA) are very strong in Canada. The Ontario Teacher’s Federation (OTF) was established by the Teaching Profession Act of 1944, is the professional organization for Ontario’s teachers.
All teachers are required by law to belong to OTF as a condition of teaching in the publicly funded schools of Ontario.
At various times over the last few years, the OTF has launched a Work to Rule (strike) on behalf of its various employee groups. Last summer, the public schools were on Work to Rule so the Drake students visited the Catholic schools instead of the public schools. This summer, the Catholic Schools were on Work to Rule, so we visited the public schools instead.
Something else of note that I learned was that in Canada, coaches are volunteers and do not receive additional stipends for their work as coaches, unlike in the United States. Also, there are apparently no marching bands in Canada. I guess this makes sense, as American football isn’t really that big in Canada. This is a hockey country and I would imagine marching on ice while playing an instrument would be rather difficult.
Demographics of TDSB Schools
- 588 schools in total
- 472 Elementary Schools (including 7 Junior High Schools and 18 Elementary Alternative Schools)
- 116 Secondary Schools (including 1 Elementary/Secondary Alternative School, 20 Secondary Alternative Schools, 4 Caring and Safe Schools Programs and 5 EdVance Programs)
Becoming a principal in Canada
In Ontario, the a teacher must teach for 5 years, then apply to get on the list to become a vice-principal. No formal graduate-level education or Master’s Degree is required to become a school administrator. The hiring of new vice principals involves a formal interview process as well, but less emphasis is placed on the actual interview than on the body of work of the candidate prior to the interview. Cloyce summarized this philosophy succinctly by saying,
“Some people talk better in interviews. Some people just do the work.”
After a few years as a Vice-Principal in Ontario, one can then become a school Principal. The role of building Principal in Ontario is philosophically divergent from the often more managerial role common in the United States. In Ontario, the building principal is expected to serve as the primary instructional leader of the building. They are the curriculum leads and are pulled 4 days per year to lead staff in their buildings in curriculum work.
Another unique component in the Ontario system is the 5-year evaluation cycle for principals and vice-principals. Within this system, it appeared to be very common in the Toronto DSB for principals to be transferred to new schools every 5 years to ensure a continuous infusion of fresh ideas and new perspectives in all Toronto DSB schools.
School Visit Reflections
During our time in Toronto, we visited six different Toronto DSB schools. Below, I have posted my thoughts and reflections from each school visit. However, thinking systemically about my observations collectively, there were a couple of common themes I wanted to make special note of.
First, while the student population of Toronto DSB schools is very culturally, ethnically, linguistically, and socioeconomically diverse, I had little sense that any of the teachers or administrators viewed this as an excuse for underperformance. In fact, many of the schools we visited were Model Schools, meaning their student demographics included many students living in poverty and with language barriers. Yet, the performance of students in many of these schools on the Ontario EQAO Provincial Tests is consistently above the average, despite these barriers. It really spoke to the power of maintaining an unwavering culture of high expectations for all.
Second, each school appeared to have its own sense of identity and purpose that best served its student population. Within this system of high expectations, administrators were endowed with a great deal of autonomy for how to meet these expectations, taking into account the unique challenges and opportunities within each building. School improvement efforts and initiatives were targeted and strategic. This was visible at multiple levels of each building we visited, but most apparent in the physical environment of each classroom and hallway. In each building, there was a strong sense collective ownership of the building’s unique identity and approach and the sense of school pride among staff and students was palpable.
George B Little Public School (Grades JK-08)
The first school we visited was George B Little Public School (Grades JK-08), led by principal David Ragoonath and vice-principal Farzana Abdulla. We began our tour with a presentation from both of them.
The story of George B Little Public School was like so many others we visited. George B Little is a school composed primarily of first generation Canadians and 55% of students came from families where English was not the primary language spoken at their home; however, learning and instruction in the school occurred in English. This meant that the majority of the students were learning two different languages simultaneously.
George B Little was also a Model School, meaning the school had many students from lower socioeconomic families. The top 150 most needy schools receive additional funding from the Toronto DSB in order to “level the playing field” and make learning experiences more equitable for all students in the district. I found this to be a very powerful example of thinking systemically, as it brought a system that otherwise provides a lot of success to the successful and redistributed its financial resources to bring the entire system of instruction into closer alignment.
This focus on equity through redistribution of resources does not happen to the same to degree in the United States. Some many suggest it’s only possible within a socialist economy. Yet, it’s notable that in the United States, revenue sharing systems already exist among the athletic programs of many major college conferences, the National Football League, National Basketball Association, and Major League Baseball.
What if we extended the same courtesy of equity to our most needy students that we extend to our most needy billionaires? I mention this to demonstrate that we have found ways to ensure equity and a level playing field among the sports we are so passionate about in the United States. If only we were so passionate about establishing equity of educational opportunities and a level playing field for our nation’s youngest citizens.
That’s just some food for thought. I realize the idea presents many logistical and political challenges and constraints, not the least of which is sense of collective ownership for the success and opportunity of all students in our country, regardless of their zip code or circumstances they were born into.
What made George B Little unique, in my opinion, was their approach for their administrators to be true instructional leaders in the building. As part of our visit, vice-principal Farzana Abdulla took us on a tour of several classrooms in the building. In each classroom we visited, Farzana led the students in the classroom in a lesson. She explained that her role was to provide support for all teachers and help co-teach lessons with the teachers she led. The lessons were great, but what really struck me was how normal it appeared to be for the teachers and students to have her come in.
Sometimes we take normal for granted. Normal only comes from constant practice. Things appear seamless only because they are practiced constantly. At George B Little, there was a readily apparent culture where classrooms are not isolated, protected islands. Rather, they are open, inclusive, learning environments. Student, teachers, and administrators were comfortable and willing to learn from one another. This created a community of learners where the lines of distinction between leading, teaching, and learning were all intentionally blurred.
Hunter’s Glen Junior Public School (Grades JK-06)
Hunter’s Glen is led by Principal Aldo Petrucci and Vice-Principal Angela MacMillan-Suzuki.
We began our visit with a presentation from Principal Aldo Petrucci. Even though we only spent a short amount of time with him, his passion for his work was very apparent and he was a very inspiring and motivational leader. It was easy to understand how he was able to lead such transformational change at his building.
If there was ever school that was a model of being a turn-around school, it is Hunter’s Glen. Their EQAO scores speak volumes about what has happened here over the last few years.
A trajectory of learning growth such as this is not accidental and is a reflection on the strong leadership that Aldo has provided over the last several years. Aldo admitted that when he took over in 2011, “There was nowhere to go, but up.” To achieve such results, he first sought to understand the system that was creating such results. From this, he used data to inform and forge a path forward toward improved results.
Most importantly, the change didn’t happen to his staff, but with them. He realized that any changes in approach needed to first begin with establishing a collective commitment to those changes and with modeling the mindset needed to ensure any newly implemented changes led to meaningful results. To accomplish this, the building’s culture and approach needed to shift. They needed to create and build a new shared vision and establish a sense of collective ownership among all staff members to transform that vision into a reality.
This didn’t happen overnight. Aldo shared that often, an organization has to have the systemic discipline and patience to “stay the course” for many years in order to build and sustain a systemic vision. This is not easy in our short-term results-driven educational systems. There are many pressures and expectations that come from outside the system that impact the system in profound ways.
However, truly producing meaningful, long-term, sustainable growth in learning requires not just a temporary increase in achievement scores in isolated areas, but rather a fundamental understanding of the root causes for the current level of systemic performance, shared vision, and strategic plans to improve performance. This requires those in the system to identify areas of maximum leverage in order to ensure that all the hard work being done is the right work to be doing. Perhaps most importantly, the work of the system must be brought into alignment to ensure congruence and continuity.
Building and sustaining a culture of growth and continuous improvement is also largely about mindset. Aldo shared that, “What you permit is what you promote.” He believed that establishing a culture of high expectations was crucial to the success of Hunter’s Glen. He believed that past performance need not dictate future levels of success. Furthermore, while failure was previously tolerated and expected, Aldo believed that there was real leverage in changing the narrative about failure to one where “failure is not an option.”
Really, the turnaround appeared to largely be about changing the learning outcomes for students. This meant that instruction needed to change. Administrators needed to change and embrace their primary roles as leaders of learning. At Hunter’s Glen, the administrators are instructional leaders first and foremost. There is a real effort by Aldo and Angela to minimize the completion of managerial tasks during time when students are in the building.
Instead, they spend the majority of their time during the school day focused on learning. They do this by developing and leading professional learning opportunities for staff and working in classrooms directly with students. They focus on providing descriptive feedback and inviting staff to meetings to discuss learning. They facilitated a movement away from simply having demonstration classrooms to having a demonstration school. All teachers and all classrooms are expected to have an open door policy, creating a community of learning where teachers can visit one another’s classrooms and where learning can happen anywhere with anyone.
In addition, to gauge how well the system was performing, Aldo had his staff identify several “marker students.” These students were some of their average “C” students. The goal was for the principals and teachers to track the performance of these students in the system to maintain some sense about how the system as a whole was performing. They did this by checking in with the marker students frequently about how they were doing, identifying the areas where they were succeeding and develop better strategies to help them improve in the areas where they were struggling. The idea was that if they could fine tune the system to best meet the needs of these students, the effects would generalize across all students in the system, and the system as a whole would improve.
For all students, teachers and principals intentionally strived to cultivate a shift in mindset among students from being mere participants in the system to taking ownership to become more active, independent learners and leaders of the system. Doing this required the staff to create experiences and opportunities for the students to become more reflective about their own learning and engage more in metacognition. The desire is to create more learning experiences where students are forced to “comfortably struggle” in order to create a cognitive shift from learning outside their comfort zone. Staff take the time to debrief with students after tests. When students do not perform well, they comes to see their mistakes not as moments of failure, but rather necessary and valuable learning opportunities.
Creating the systemic conditions necessary to ensure such a shift in the students’ learning experiences and mindset did not happen spontaneously. Rather, it only happened as a direct corollary of strategic planning. Notably, the entire staff at Hunter’s Glen invests a great deal of time in proactively planing the next year’s learning for students and staff during much of the Spring of the previous year.
By taking such a proactive approach, more voices are able to participate in the process, shaping better ideas, as well as a stronger commitment and sense of ownership of those ideas. In addition, by engaging directly in the planning process, all staff at Hunter’s Glen have a deeper understanding about why various approaches or initiatives are being implemented. Aldo stressed that he wanted the change to happen with the staff, not to them. They also have a stronger sense of purpose and personal responsibility to ensure that what is planned aligns with what is implemented and that the next year’s implementation is ongoing and with great fidelity.
As part of this planning process, emphasis is placed on creating a focus on that which is within their realm of influence and locus of control, as these represent actual areas of possible leverage where the staff are able to exert positive influence on the system. One key area of leverage the staff have chosen to prioritize is in creating a more intentional focus on building positive relationships and cultivating a stronger sense of trust between students, staff, and administration.
Part of this focus has been to embrace the value of technology in the learning experience of the students at Hunter’s Glen. A century ago, a pencil was considered an innovative technology. A lot has changed in 100 years, yet our schools have struggled to keep pace with the rate of technological innovation happening all around us. Aldo, wanted the students’ learning in the classrooms to more closely align with their learning outside the classroom. Today’s students are digital natives and expect to be able to use technology to supplement their learning.
To this end, using what limited financial resources he had at his disposal, he worked to ensure that chalkboards in every room were replaced with Smart Board projectors. As finances were tight, Aldo personally worked with the maintenance and custodial staff to help install these in every room. They also purchased iPads that students are able to take home, called “traveling iPads.” Doing so builds a community of learning that extends beyond the classrooms and is more inclusive of the diverse cultures and ethnicities that comprise the student body at Hunter’s Glen.
Park Lawn Junior Middle School (Grades JK-08)
Park Lawn is led by Principal Erin Altosaar and Vice-Principal Heather Overland. As we didn’t have a formal presentation first, I didn’t have as many written notes from this visit; however, I did take several pictures that will help me tell the story of my experiences and learning from this school.
The first classroom visited was a kindergarten classroom that was engaged in a very engaging and hands-on project to try to learn and understand more about how to “Catch a Capybara.” As a person with a much stronger level of comfort and familiarity with learning in the secondary classroom, it was great for me to visit an early elementary classroom. Once there, I was very impressed by all the different types of learning happening simultaneously within one project. It occurred to me that many secondary teachers could learn a great deal from visiting the classrooms of our elementary colleagues more frequently.
In this one project, students were working in collaborative groups to learn more about the life of the capybara. In the context of doing so, they built skills creativity, problem solving, inquiry, critical thinking, reflection, collaboration, communication, and metacognition. In so doing, they also became stronger in mathematics, science, engineering,
We then visited a few other classrooms and it occurred to me that in every room, the evidence of learning was all around us. The walls of every room included artifacts of learning conversations, providing a constant reminder of where they had been, where they were, and where they were going. It also became clear that teachers were serving not as gatekeepers of learning, but active participators in and facilitators of the learning. Too often, teachers take the learning for granted. However, when teachers actively engage in and become passionate about the learning they are expecting from their students, it becomes contagious. The learning becomes less an exercise in compliance and more of a collective commitment with purpose.
As an example, here are some pictures of a third grade classroom we visited. These pictures demonstrated so many different levels of learning, collective commitments for how learning will occur, evidence of classroom conversations and shared decision-making involving students.
The last classroom we visited was an 8th grade classroom. Here we were able to talk with a teacher that was finishing up a seemingly powerful project that blended learning from literature, health, art, and media. The project explored the impact of relationships, dominant social norms, popularity, social privilege, identity, social barriers and how these coalesce to create pressure to conform to acceptable or idealized norms, behaviors, physical attributes, etc.. It appeared to be a powerful, relevant, interesting, and transformational learning for the students.
For their part, the students really embraced the ability to explore such relevant topics, sometimes ignored in more traditional classrooms due to their controversial nature. To facilitate such learning, the instructor did a masterful job of keeping the learning both relevant, interesting, and school appropriate, walking a delicate line masterfully. I believe the students understood the unique opportunity they had been given to express and explore their interests and questions related to topics often overlooked in the more traditional curriculum and did not want to waste or ruin such an opportunity or responsibility to move the learning of their peers and future peers forward.
Rose Avenue Junior Public School (Grades JK-06)
Rose Avenue Public School is and Art Magnet School led by Principal David Crichton and Vice Principal Sandra Li.
Rose Avenue is located in one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in all of North America. The community is often the first place new immigrant and refugee families will live upon immigrating to Toronto. According to their website,
“Our diverse student population is drawn from the 22 apartment towers, housing over 27,000 people in one of the most densely populated and multicultural communities in North America. The school has a student population of over 650. More than 85% of the students have English as their second language, representing about 50 language groups.”
With so many non-native English-speaking students and families served by Rose Avenue, developing English speaking and writing fluency is high priority at Rose Avenue. They employ three full-time ESL teachers. One of the primary student goals at Rose Avenue is for all students to read at grade level by the end of first grade and read above grade level by grade six.
Rose Avenue is another Model School enjoys a great deal of parental and community support for the school. The playground of the school is used frequently for various community events and functions. That said, it is not seen as a destination community for many new the area, but rather a first stop on the journey to a better life. Many successful families move out of the neighborhood and into better housing. Therefore, the student population is highly transient.
Even with such challenges, the mindset of the staff and leaders was largely about “teaching the students in front of you.” There was really a priority about making the most of the time the teachers have with the students and making every effort to ensure their future success. I found this very powerful. Rather than making excuses, they saw a small, but significant, window of opportunity to have a positive impact on their students. The goal was to use that limited time to forge positive relationships, as well as build trust, hope, and empowerment that would serve the students well for the rest of their life’s journey.
As a science teacher, a primary component that I observed in this school, as well as several others I visited, was a strong emphasis on environmental education, sustainability, and literacy across every grade level. Perhaps this focus is a natural extension of Canada’s much more explicit embrace and focus on preserving the culture and teachings of its indigenous First Nation citizens. (Note: “First Nation” is the Canadian term for the group of indigenous people called “Native Americans” the United States.) I will talk more about this in my discussion of the First Nations School we visited.
In Ontario, this program is called EcoSchools. Rose Avenue had achieved special designation of being classified as a Platinum Eco School for its strong emphasis and sustained commitment to environmental education. During our visit, we were able to tour a classroom where students groups were doing presentations of their engineering design ideas to reduce the size of the Pacific Garbage Patch, a collection of floating trash and marine debris (mostly plastic) that is about the size of the state of Texas, perhaps even larger, located in the Pacific Ocean.
I came away from this very impressed, as this is a topic many students in the United States only hear about as juniors and seniors in high school, and only if they elect to take environmental science. These students were in middle school and had already began collaborating and designing possible solutions to help alleviate the problem. Unfortunately, due to the optional nature of environmental science courses in many school districts in the United States, a great majority of students may go through high school and college and never hear about so many of the environmental challenges facing our world.
Another focus area of Rose Avenue is arts integration. The philosophy behind this was pretty clear. By promoting and exploring the diverse forms of art, music, dance, etc. of students represented in the school, the Rose can build a culturally inclusive community of learners and create a stronger sense of belonging and connection to Rose by students in the school.
The walls of the hallways provided a clear examples of this learning, as every wall in every hallway was decorated with some sort of mural or montage. It was really pretty amazing to see in person and I really came to appreciate how it could have a truly uplifting and inviting impact on students and families that were beginning a new life, full of uncertainty, in a new country, city, neighborhood. As I walked the halls of Rose Avenue, I began to really appreciate the transformative, anxiety-calming effect that art could have on visitors. A picture is worth a thousand words, and art speaks a language that everyone can understand.
Queen Alexandra Middle School (Grades 06-08)
Queen Alexandra Middle School is led by Principal Emma Nichols and Vice-Principal Kristin McDonald. It is another of Toronto’s Model Schools.
At Queen Alexandra, the focus is about creating student learning experiences that are engaging and sustainable. This is achieved largely through incorporating project-based learning (PBL) opportunities in which students are given a great deal of autonomy they elect to demonstrate mastery of established learning standards.
If we are honest, much of what we “learn” is ultimately forgotten. If you disagree, think back to your time in high school or college. What percentage of all that you were “taught” do you still remember? Why is this percentage so low? Perhaps it is because there is often little opportunity to create our own context, relevance, and purpose for the learning. Little interest can be drummed up from a test, quiz, or worksheet. These are so routine that they don’t stand out and much of the material is easily forgotten.
Furthermore, as students progress through middle and high school, as well as college, the learning becomes more and more compartmentalized and specialized. As they progress, students are less frequently asked or expected make connections between different courses they are taking. This has created a mindset among many students that the learning starts when they enter the classroom and stops when they leave it. The broader scope of why the learning is important or how it connects to other topics they are learning about or their life in general becomes less and less apparent over time.
Queen Alexandra’s approach is to tackle this reality directly. They starting by determining which learning outcomes were most important or universal to the future success of all students. From these conversations, they settled on what they call “The 6 C’s.” These are: citizenship, critical thinking, communication, character, creativity, and collaboration.
These are similar to Iowa’s Universal Constructs and I believe our students could really benefit from a stronger focus on developing these skills in our schools. It can be easy for educators to become so consumed with new curriculum adoptions, and content standards that they overlook how their students will unpack that learning or create meaning from the learning so that it is more likely to be retained.
Using their project-based approach, Queen Alexandra has created a learning process that expects students to apply their learning across multiple disciplines in order to create authentic learning artifacts that demonstrate evidence of learning that goes beyond course-specific standards. By giving the students a great deal of choice and voice in shaping how they create their projects, the learning is more engaging; therefore more likely to be retained. By clearly communicating the success criteria to students when the project is announced, students have clarity and trust in the system and work to hit the learning targets. By holding a public showcase at the end of the term, the learning has more authenticity and accountability, as students know the teacher will not be the only one evaluating them. This ensures all students perform to their maximum potential, often exceeding the expectations of the teachers.
First Nations Junior and Senior School of Toronto (Grades JK-06)
The First Nations Junior And Senior School of Toronto is led by Principal Lisa Zwicker. Of all the schools we visited, this one was the one that stood out the most for me, as it was the most uniquely different from any of the others we visited or of any other school I have ever experienced.
First, I believe it is appropriate to provide a little context on why this school stood out so much for me. In every school we visited in Toronto, there were examples of an embrace of First Nation people, their teachings, and their beliefs.
I believe one of the reasons that so many people choose to immigrate to Canada is that Canadians appear to have a much more welcoming mindset about immigration than we do in the United States. I believe this welcoming nature derives partially from that reality that Canadians are more honest about the fact that so many of them are descendants of immigrants as well.
What made this school so unique was that 100% of its student population were of First Nation Aboriginal ancestry. The school specializes in presenting the curriculum of Ontario from a First Nation perspective. The school was considered a Cultural Survival school, meaning it is inclusive of the culture of First Nations’ people.
The teachers and leaders of the school shared several lessons they have learned from working with First Nations students. First, the only real currency for so many of these students is respect. It means everything to them. Respect means viewing the students as people of value. For teachers to gain the students’ respect, they need to appear human, be willing to be open about who they are, make mistakes, and admit them.
Furthermore, the teachers need to invest and take an interest in the First Nations culture and teachings. They have to view the work as not just a job, but a community. They need to attend community events and be seen outside the school. They need to invest in the First Nation way of life, yet understand that they are still outsiders. Therefore, the need to show reverence for cultural traditions without expecting to directly participate (unless specifically requested to do so) in ceremonies or customs.
To be accepted by the students, you have to be accepted by the community. To accomplish this takes time and effort. People need to see that you genuinely care for and look out for them, respecting their way of life and system of beliefs. In addition, the teachers must learn that there are clear differences between different First Nations groups. They need to seek to learn about these differences and respect these differences. Just because 100% of the students are of Aboriginal heritage doesn’t mean it is a strict monolithic culture.
In the First Nations culture, well-being is often considered much more important than academics, so the school makes real efforts to ensure it is meeting the needs of whole child. Doing this takes a village, and healers and elders from the community are often brought in to help develop and support the well-being of the whole child.
Overall, it was a great trip, and one I would highly recommend for all educators and all current and aspiring administrators. I feel very fortunate that my first excursion outside the United States was such powerful and transformative learning experience, with lessons I will use and reflect upon for the rest of my career!