Opening the Doors of Teacher Education – Learning in the Global South

I really enjoy working with the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa. They are open to all sorts of new ideas and are always looking for opportunities to deepen the learning experience of their students.

This year, we are going to offer a unique volunteer opportunity for teacher candidates who will be completing their second year at the Faculty of Education.

All students have to complete a three-week volunteer placement before they finish their program. It is up to them to decide what they will do for their placement and students are offered a variety of opportunities to consider at the beginning of their second year.

This year we are offering students a placement in El Salvador where they will be able to learn something about what it is like to work as an educator  in the Global South. We have done these kinds of trips in the past for teachers, but what a wonderful opportunity to take part in a trip like this as part of the formative teacher education experience.

We can learn a great deal by talking to teachers in other countries. While the circumstances of teachers in El Salvador can be drastically different from what teachers experience in Canada, there are remarkable similarities as well. Teachers in both countries have to surmount the challenges of working in low-income areas and we all aspire to offer a holistic education for our students to prepare them for the world they will live in.

Having an opportunity to talk with teachers and students from the Global South can add a rich element to the teacher training we provide our teacher candidates with. Learning what it is like to live and struggle in a poor Southern country can add valuable life experience for teacher candidates preparing for a very challenging career.

We will be working with CIS –  Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (Center for Exchange and Solidarity) in El Salvador.

CIS aims to strengthen people-to-people solidarity and contribute to the construction of a new El Salvador. They have a great deal of experience working with delegations from the United States and Canada. They have put together a program that will be presented to students in September. Here are some of the highlights:

Proposed Objectives:

  •    Learn about the history of the El Salvador, and the root causes of war, migration and violence.
  •    Exchange ideas about the educational system and teaching methodology in El Salvador and Canada with Salvadoran teachers and students of education.
  •    Promote a culture of solidarity, of mutual support and global connections for social and economic justice.

Possible activities:

  •    Testimony – History of the War and El Salvador.
  •    Hike ecological forest which was a guerrilla encampment during the war in Cinquera Cabañas.  Learn about History and the Environment.
Church in Cinquera, El Salvador
  •    Visit site of Guadalupe and Tenango massacre in the Department of Cuscatlán-Cabañas and learn how survivors have overcome
  •    Visit public school and exchange with students and teachers
  •    Exchange with CIS scholarship students studying education
  •    Visit historical sites in San Salvador:  The home of  Oscar Romero’s home and the chapel where he gave his life
view of the chapel where Oscar Romero was killed

 

  •    Visit the Jesuit University and site where 6 Priests and 2 women workers were massacred in 1989.
  •    Stay in a rural community:   visit homes, visit a school, do some exchanges with the community and /or school teachers; meet with women’s businesses, make tortillas.
  •    Stay in Urban Community:   Meet with teachers about special challenges of gangs in schools; understand the displacement of communities during the war and earthquakes and shanty town settlements; exchange with CIS art therapy course, and human rights committee.
  •    Workshops:  Participants will be asked to develop a workshop  or a series of workshops on one theme to share in the community depending on their skill set and interest – Some examples, that the community request  include education methodology,  different arts, marketing, computers, English,  gender, human rights, environment, culture of peace, communication, environment.
  •    Indigo – history, culture, cultivation and processing of dye and dying clothes by women’s groups.
Salvadorian Enterprises for Women collective in Suchitoto (an hour from San Salvador) where they raise, dye and make clothes from indigo.
  •    Exchange with CIS English and Spanish Teachers and popular education and language instruction.
  •    Spanish classes are available online or at CIS in El Salvador. www.cis-elsalvador.org.

For the sake of brevity, I have only included some of the objectives and activities that could be included as part of the three-week program.

This is a very rich and varied schedule and I know that teacher candidates taking part in this trip will learn lots.

Now it is really up to the students to decide if they will make this their volunteer option for 2018. I hope some of them do, it promises to be a rich learning experience.

with students from the school in San Jose las Flores

 

 

The Principal as Activist

A few days ago, I was part of a presentation in front of the Ottawa Community Housing Foundation. We were talking about the work that we had done to raise money for a community organization called Rec Link by climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. We talked about the importance of developing community assets to assist schools in high poverty areas. Rec-LINK was one of these important community assets that continue to be a great help at my last school.

One board member asked if it was normal for principals to develop strong links with community agencies that make the lives of families in the community richer. I had to say that, no this is not common. I do know some great principals who have linked their school to community agencies, but unfortunately, in my opinion, this is rare.

We are not trained to develop our community assets and this made me reflect on why I had taken this approach at my last school.

I think a great deal has to do with what I have learned from a visionary principal, Nelson Rutilio Cartagena Orellana who administers an elementary school in San Jose las Flores in El Salvador.

Nelson has been principal and a prominent member of the community of San Jose las Flores for many years. Nelson is everywhere in the community. He sits on local and regional anti-mining committees, he is always looking for ways enrich his school community through the development of projects that include an extensive garden and livestock growing project, a breakfast program for all students and a new computer lab for the school. He does much of this through the partnerships he has encouraged with schools and communities in Canada, Spain and I am sure many other countries.

Nelson was actually voted principal by the teachers of his school – can you imagine if we did the same thing here?

Nelson grew up in and around San Jose las Flores and was a young victim of the Sumpul River Massacre.  His brother died trying to cross the river and Nelson still wonders what he would be like if he was alive today.

A depiction of the Sumpul River Massacre. It is estimated that over 600 people, mainly women, and children were killed trying to cross the river from El Salvador to Honduras.

Nelson’s commitment to his school and community is very special. He knows that the children at the school have the potential to prosper in the future – one no longer clouded by war and oppression.

To be an educator in San Jose las Flores means that you are committed to bringing about social change for the children of the community and that you must use every asset you can find to make sure they have a bright future.

Children getting a mid-morning meal at the school – this program is funded by one of the many school partners.

While our challenges in Canada are nothing like those in El Salvador, there is an important message to be learned here. It is simply not enough to administer your own school and shut the community out. The problems that exist in disadvantaged communities in Canadian cities are too great to be managed by the school alone. Schools must develop stronger ties to local community agencies like Rec-LINK in order to provide the well-rounded education our children need to prosper.

This may be done at some schools, but if it does it is because of one or two inspired leaders like Nelson – it certainly is not common. The need for better integration between school and community seems to be poorly understood here and this needs to change.

A principal needs to be an activist. If they are not comfortable with that role, probably best to move on to a less challenging school.

The elementary school in San Jose las Flores

 

Big News – Growing gap in fundraising between affluent and needy schools

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Today the Globe and Mail’s great education reporter Caroline Alphonso put out an important article about the dreadful disparity that continues to exist between Ontario’s rich and poor schools.

Schools in affluent neighbourhoods are fundraising almost $50 for every dollar raised by a needier school, new data show, raising concerns about a growing inequity in public education.

If you don’t know this already, you should. Growing up in Kanata or Manotick is not the same as going to school in Caldwell, Russel Heights or Dalhousie. When you administer a school in the richer parts of Ottawa, you have access to thousands of dollars that you can spend almost any way that you want. As the article states, provincial regulations disallow you from building a new school addition, but after that obvious limitation, the sky is the limit.

When I worked in Manotick, the school council briefly debated, then purchased a new school mascot – big enough for a good-sized grade six student to inhabit for school rallies and events. This cost thousands of dollars. At my last school, we had a slightly oversized teddy-bear as our mascot. The Manotick school had three – count them – three good sized play structures, the last one costing over $80,000.00

When the topic came up at school council that as Catholics, we should share some of our cash surplus with poorer schools, the motion was quickly defeated – this money was for our kids.

So why don’t we share our revenue? No idea –  you would think that in a Catholic Board this would at least be debated.

Next question – why don’t we help the poorer schools? Oh, we do! The poor schools in Ottawa usually get a one-time grant of around $3000.00 to make up the difference. These special grants are not enough, they usually go to pay for food and clothing for our kids. As Alphonso writes:

The Toronto District School Board, Canada’s largest school district, provides special grants to schools in high-needs communities to help compensate for the fundraising differences. It can’t compete, though, with the hundreds of dollars raised by schools in the city’s richest neighbourhoods.

The disparity problem doesn’t seem to be understood by school officials. Years ago, we were told that a special emphasis on the poor was going to be the mandate of the newest director of our board.

I wonder how that was to be acted out? Was it a matter of highlighting how certain students had made it out of poverty because of an excellent education? Is that really enough?  Is that more than simple charity?

If we truly want to redistribute income throughout the schools in Ottawa there is so much that we could be doing. It is simply unfair that some schools have more of everything than others, especially in one of the richest cities in North America.

Don’t be shocked by headlines that write about the growing gap – don’t look to poor countries in the South – look to schools in your own city.

 

The Importance of the Community School

a mural painted at St. Anthony School to celebrate the Italian heritage that shaped the early history of the school

 

Community schools that are truly integrated as a partner into the wider neighbourhood are rare. However, they are increasingly important as more community agencies try to work together to solve complex social problems.
Education institutions stand apart from these cooperative efforts mainly because they still see themselves as silos or islands of instruction not to be sullied by outside influences.
It does not have to be this way, and it would be heartening to see a shift away from the silo approach to education in our society.
There is no question that the connection between a school and its surrounding community is vital. Really, the two should be inseparable, both working together to make a stronger union and a better community.
As a principal, I have always tried to do this, especially in the last school I worked in.
St. Anthony School in Little Italy serves a diverse population of new Canadians from countries around the world.
Our staff believes strongly that we need to reach out to our community so that we can do a better job of serving our families. Over time, we established strong ties with organizations like Somerset West Community Health Center,  Rec LINK, a wonderful small organization that links families up to recreation opportunities for their kids, and the Dalhousie Parents Day Care – a community organization that resides in the basement of the school and until recently, had office space in the school.
Dalhousie Parent Day Care
We also had strong ties with the local Italian community who raised thousands of dollars for playground renewal and other projects. We even had a great partnership with a local store called The Bike Dump. Dave, the owner of this store supplied cheap or free bikes to our kids every year and last year even found us a mechanic to fix all the bikes before we handed them out to our kids.
These are just a few of the many partnerships we worked on over the past years. We also tried to make the school as open as possible to all parents. This was really important as many parents come from countries where positive relationships between families and institutions were not encouraged.
Unfortunately, this can all change very quickly. In the past few months, community agencies have lost office space in the school. There is little communication between Somerset West Community Health Centre and the school. The doors of the school are locked, keeping the parents away from the building. The social media accounts – Twitter and Facebook have fallen silent. The school, in essence, is retreating in upon itself.
This is not what should be happening. Community schools should encourage partnerships with the agencies that support their families. Surplus space should be used to offer additional services to the community. There is space in the school for adult literacy classes, even space for a computer room for parents who do not have access to computers or wifi. These ideas have been discussed but were never implemented.
It is important to remember that all schools are ultimately the property of the Province of Ontario and they all need to be utilized to serve the community in the best way possible.
The current trend away from the community is distressing and it shows a complete misunderstanding of the role a school should play within its community.
This situation does not have to continue. Ultimately, the Ottawa Catholic School Board can push back against this trend and become more involved in making the local community its top priority. To ignore the importance of St. Anthony School to the surrounding community risks losing an important community asset.
Schools should be the heart of the community. It is sad when people ignore or just don’t understand the importance of this relationship. I hope this will change in the future and that new principals will be better trained to understand that schools do not and cannot exist in isolation.
To offer an excellent education for our students, we need to learn to be a part of the community. Are there ways that the community could reach out to bridge the current gap? Can the Catholic School Board begin to see itself as a vital partner in Dalhousie? Only time will tell.

Globalizing Teacher Education

working with Salvadoran teachers on Scratch

Educating the next generation of teachers is very serious business.

Teacher candidates now spend two years to get their degree, during that time, they are spending more hours in the classroom and more time volunteering – this is wonderful, anything that gets teacher candidates into the classroom should be encouraged.

I think there is another step that we have not yet taken that needs to be considered. Is there a place for students to spend time learning first hand about education in other countries? Do our students need to develop a global perspective as they prepare for a career in our schools?

Students at an elementary school – San Jose las Flores, El Salvador

I would argue that this is really important and we should look for ways to make this happen.  A bit biased, I have been bringing students and teachers to different Latin American countries for over 20 years.

I have learned a great deal on these trips. I think the one thing that really sticks with me is that for students in Latin America, education is the way out of a cycle of poverty that in some cases stretches back centuries.

Popular education tradition in El Salvador – teaching children during the civil war

It is also really instructive to speak with the students in the countries we visit. We have done this on many trips and we find that many have the same goals as our own students with the caveat that they are very committed to bringing about positive change for their families and their country.

walking home for lunch

I think it is really important for educators just starting out to get this perspective. Societies can move out of poverty and the catalyst for this transformation is education.

There are parallels in our own schools. The last school that I worked at was in a poor section of Ottawa. Most of these families are trying to do the same thing as people in Latin America – improve their lives by taking advantage of what the education system offers.

There is so much more to learn, but this is a central point that can influence a career for a lifetime. Education is the key for so many people and teachers can change lives, here and in places we can’t even imagine.

Let’s find a way to open the world up to our future educators.

 

Do we see poverty in our schools?

For many years, I took groups of teachers and students down to the Dominican Republic, Mexico and El Salvador.  There is no question that the poverty down there is grinding and the injustice is at times overwhelming.

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Kindergarten class in El Salvador

These trips were very meaningful and I was fully committed to sustaining partnerships with the communities we came into contact with, especially in El Salvador.

Many of you may already see where this is going.  What about the poverty in your own backyard? What about the terrible poverty in Canadian indigenous communities?

I never really had a good answer to these questions.  I guess I thought that I was doing my part.

Now, I don’t see this as good enough.  I have been very fortunate to work in a high poverty section of our city – for me this is a first.  I am ashamed to say that I really didn’t know the extent of the poverty in these communities in our own very wealthy city.

We routinely buy boots for our kids.  We support children through breakfast and lunch programs, we subsidize a whole variety of lunchtime programs so that our kids get the same educational opportunities as others in better off neighbourhoods.  We are constantly applying for grants for recreational equipment, technology and improvements to our yard.

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Where do we get help? From wonderful community orientated businesses like Starr Gymnastics

I am not writing this to make us look virtuous, this is simply some of the things you need to do when you live in a poor neighbourhood.  Even in a rich city.

Sometimes you have to go cap in hand to well off schools to get help, especially at Christmas.  I don’t like doing this, but it is important to help families especially at Christmas.

This year, we were turned down by one of the well off schools in our board.  This same school routinely raises thousands of dollars for schools in Southern countries.

Of course, this is their choice, but what has happened to our priorities?  How have we lost sight of the poverty of our neighbours?

I have no answers, only to say we still have a long way to go in the journey from charity to true social justice, especially in our own backyard.

As for our school community, we will do just fine.

 

 

Poverty in the schools – we are not all created equal

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Today was a good day.  We connected two of our community partners together and maybe now we will have a cooking class for our students after school – great!

 

I am a principal at a wonderful inner-city school in Ottawa, Canada.  We have a high immigrant population and many of our families live in poverty.  On our own, we don’t have much.

 

I am not complaining – it’s just that life in a poor school is so incredibly different from other schools, schools that are not much more than 20 minutes away.

 

Most people don’t see Ottawa as a city that has lots of poverty, and to be very honest, I didn’t really understand the level of poverty that exists in our city until I became principal of this school two years ago.

 

So, what does this mean?  First, there is no equity.  Some schools in our city can raise as much as $30,000.00 a year by fundraising projects and student fees.  We get a stipend at the beginning of the year that represents about 20% of our overall budget and of course, we can’t fundraise.

 

To be successful in a school like this, you need to become a community activist.  You attend brown bag lunch sessions with community service providers, you reach out to every community agency in the area, you never turn down something that is offered to your school for free.

 

You also become an expert fundraiser.  Over the past two years, we have raised over $150,000.00 through fundraisers run by our community and by winning one very generous national fundraising competition.

 

All this takes a tremendous amount of work.  The results are very gratifying, but even with grants there are strings attached.  Well over 90% of the money we have raised goes to environmental projects.  Again,  this is not a complaint, that money is enough to rebuild our dilapidated schoolyard.

 

However, we need money for sports equipment, software licenses, computers, recreational and arts programming and good winter clothing.  There are very few grants for items like these and that’s a problem.

 

What do we do?  We keep looking for opportunities.  Every child in our school from grade 3-6 has their own laptop – this is essential as many families do not have a computer so these machines go home every night and help families stay connected.

 

We get free swimming lessons and even free music lessons from the Orkidstra program.  We have a great program called Rec Link that works to link families up to free or inexpensive recreation programs in our community.  We even have a wonderful summer camp that takes at least ten to fifteen of our students for overnights throughout the year.

 

What does this all mean?  To work in a poor school, you have to be an advocate, you have to reach out to everyone, you sometimes have to be a bulldog.  But if you don’t do this, who will?

 

Is there equity in education?  Not a chance.  Whose fault is this – I leave that for you to decide. Am I complaining?  No, just acting and connecting every day.