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Teaching as an act of equity

As a next step on my academic journey, I was asked to compose a statement of my teaching philosophy. Here’s how I responded:

I’ve mellowed as a teacher over the years, and I remember exactly the moment it started to happen. Until that time, I’d taken the view that certain errors should result in an automatic grade of zero — errors such as spelling mistakes in proper names, for example. That belief, which I now recognize was misguided, was informed by my earlier career as a journalist, where such qualities are valued above all else.

While those same values also apply in education, the lens is different. I’d been teaching for many years in the graduate program in Public Administration at Humber College when a mature student approached me after receiving a low grade based on these criteria. She said, “I worked in healthcare for 10 years. In healthcare, mistakes can kill people. This isn’t healthcare.” I was struck. She was right.

The conversation also brought home to me that my practice as an educator was somewhat at odds with my values as a person. I try to be nurturing and supportive, and my approach felt punitive to students, with good reason. I re-evaluated both my assessment criteria and my belief system and became a better teacher as a result.

Today, I’m proud to say that my values and my practice are much more closely aligned. It’s a work in progress, and I’m conscious of where those discrepancies still lie. There are many academics whose work has informed my thought process, from Lev Vygotzky — who talked about “the space between what a learner can do without assistance and what a learner can do with adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” — to Paulo Freire, who argued that teaching and learning are reciprocal. One of the most influential thinkers in my life, though, is someone perhaps not best known as an educator — Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

When my students are in my classroom, and after they leave, I want them to feel safe — safe to explore, safe to question, safe to be who they are. That extends for me to an abiding passion for equity, diversity and inclusion. I want to create a learning environment where everyone has a voice, and all voices are heard and treated with dignity and respect. That can lead to some challenges; that level of and commitment to inclusion can get messy. I’m good with that.

To that end, I work to make my classroom as representative as it can be of my students’ lived realities. I also don’t shy away from creating teachable moments around difficult subjects, from mental health to Residential Schools to racism in Canadian society. When a student uses language, for example, that might be offensive to others, I will use it — if appropriate — as an opportunity to engage in a discussion and build some insights into the kind of empathy that Dr. Angelou cited in her brilliant quote.

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