A GROUP OF ABOUT 30 scholars, school administrators, graduate students, and educators gathered for three days in St. John’s, N.L., in August 2022 to engage in conversations about what it means to “decolonize professional learning.” For many of us, this was the first in-person gathering since COVID-19 restrictions were lifted and it was food for the heart and soul.
What does it mean to decolonize education?
Decolonize-ing is an action verb that seeks to alter existing inequities and disparities in outcomes for equity-deserving groups. As a process, a pedagogy toward decoloniality works to change unequal relations of power and notions of “professionalism,” which are often taken for granted without examining who they privilege and exclude and in what ways. Decolonizing your mind, heart, and soul translates to identifying the roots of why things are the way they are and working toward transformative possibilities that centre the experiences, voices, and perspectives of historically minoritized peoples, particularly Indigeneity.
What can be a starting point for educators grappling with where to begin? It starts with investing in pedagogical approaches that support students who have in the past or currently are experiencing trauma, including intergenerational trauma such as the impact of residential schools. This involves creating spaces for healing where students have opportunities to share their lived experiences as embodied curriculum, including who they are and how they are impacted socially and emotionally by societal issues and systemic barriers in education. As a whole, this constitutes a trauma-informed approach to critical pedagogy where engaging with pain and suffering is encouraged, as it has the potential for empowerment and liberation (Eizadirad et al., 2022). We must operate from a harm reduction stance, aiming to reduce systemic barriers for equity-deserving groups while advocating for new policies, practices, and processes that are more equitable and just. This needs to be an all-hands-on deck effort involving ideas and voices of different students, parents, teachers, administrators, and other stakeholders, particularly minoritized groups.
Why we need to disrupt hegemonic notions of professionalism in education
Hegemony was coined by Antonio Gramsci as a theoretical concept describing how the ruling capitalist class – the bourgeoisie – established and maintained control of power through the combination of force and consent. Hegemony is socio-culturally constructed through a dynamic process that influences social relations through legitimization of a narrow set of ideologies as “commonsense,” often told and perpetuated by those in positions of power and authority. Through this process, ideas are taken for granted without questioning.
We can apply the concept of hegemony to the rhetoric of “professionalism” in education. Teacher “professionalism” has become a tool for exclusion and deficit thinking in such areas as how we are expected to dress, speak, and interact with others. This applies to students, educators, and administrators. As Weiner (2014) reminds us,
“The subtle cruelty of hegemony is that over time it becomes deeply embedded, part of the natural air we breathe. One cannot peel back the layers of oppression and identify a group or groups of people as the instigators of a conscious conspiracy to keep people silent and disenfranchised. Instead, the ideas and practices of hegemony become part and parcel of everyday life – the stock opinions, conventional wisdom, or commonsense ways of seeing and ordering the world that people take for granted.” (p. 40)
The central feature of Gramsci’s notion of hegemony is that it operates without force as “it becomes our worldview and through hegemony we are in complicity with our own subordination” (Madison, 2012, p. 65).
Part of decolonizing and unlearning is engaging with critical questions, rather than accepting simplified or distorted answers. For example, we must question processes or lack of them that contribute to the limited teacher diversity in the workforce. When it comes to the existing lack of teacher diversity from coast to coast to coast in Canada, which does not reflect the demographics of students and communities we serve, we must ask: What are the barriers for racialized and minoritized educators to secure permanent teaching positions? What has become hegemonic within educational policies and practices, functioning as gatekeeping mechanisms, and what needs disruption and dismantling? How can processes be improved to value diverse identities for who they are and their contributions and experiences, instead of pressuring them to fit the hegemonic notion of how they are supposed to look and how they are supposed to show up to do the job? What data is being collected (e.g. race-based data) and shared with the public to ensure transparency and accountability and to improve diversity over time? This is the struggle to decolonize education and to meet the needs of equity-deserving students and educators who face more systemic barriers in the education system.
Small fire circles
“Small fires” were used as the main pedagogical approach at the gathering to facilitate interactions amongst participants. Participants gathered in small groups based on a topic of interest where a leader facilitated a discussion. The intention was to encourage unlearning and challenge each other through a lens that valued each participant’s unique identities, lived and professional experiences, and complex intersections with privilege and oppression. The objective was to build relationships, value spirituality, and create networks across the country for those who advocate for and engage in decolonizing education at various levels from K to 12 and in higher education.
Below are reflections from three of the small fire leaders.
DR. Ardavan Eizadirad (Assistant Professor, Faculty of Education, Wilfrid Laurier University)
The theme for my small fire circle was “Resistance, Subversion, and Non-Hegemonic Approaches” in education. As a small group we engaged in discussions about what decolonization means and looks like in action in our various roles. I used an interactive activity with sticky notes to promote reflection. I proposed that participants reflect on four major questions:
- What is “professionalism”?
- How can we disrupt it to create more inclusive spaces for belonging?
- What is the purpose of research?
- What are participants working on, individually and as a collective, to advance equitable outcomes in education?
Discussing the purpose of research in response to the question posed, I shared my conviction that research should be a tool for advocacy and activism. As a collective, we agreed that research should not only critique but also facilitate ways of doing things differently to support the needs of all students. This prompt led to further discussions about how and in what ways we can disrupt “professionalism” in educational settings in our various roles and relative access to power. As part of their responses, participants emphasized the importance of “actions over appearance,” “seeing students of colour,” “different ways of knowing being valued,” and “rejecting the expectations of the status quo.” We all agreed that we must take risks, at times be subversive, and challenge the status quo internally and externally.
DR. Mélissa Villella (Assistant Professor, Education, Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue)
During my small fire session, I discussed the theme of “deconstructing systemic anti-Black racism within la francophonie.” I highlighted how the first step to combating systemic anti-Black racism is transformative leadership. In particular, I focused on the following questions:
- How does racism negatively affect the members of the race that is supposedly “superior”? The members of the race that is supposedly “inferior”? Society as a whole? (Hernandez & Khadem, 2017, p. 9).
- How might we call on each other to take up such questions with French-language administrators such as principals, who are mostly white and Canadian-born?
- As leaders in education, how might we embrace the continual re-examination of our attitudes, speech, policies, procedures and programs in terms of different societal, systemic, and/or individual racisms?
- How do we disrupt and dismantle racist ideologies associated with narrow notions of professionalism?
The discussions aligned with what I have learned from my research with educational system leaders in la francophonie (see my article in this issue: www.edcan.ca/articles/critical-incidents-in-educational-leadership/) about the importance of examining critical incidents (experiences that confirm, modify, or fragment leadership) that arise to identify areas for change (Sider et al., 2017). Principals and other system leaders are called upon to review critical incidents as valuable data. Examples of critical incidents that can be examined together include how a school board’s administration delayed removal of a white school principal after two interrelated situations involving anti-Black racism, and more specifically what it took for the Black student to finally be heard two years later via the Black Lives Matter London Twitter account (CBC News, 2021).
As a collective, we discussed how essential conversations that de-centre whiteness and traditional educational leadership discourse are central to transformative change to create more equitable spaces for belonging (Cranston & Jean-Michel, 2021). Participants felt it is necessary to couple prevention with concrete and continual interventions. The discussions within the group indicated that it is not about one-off activities, training sessions, or reacting in a way that reduces students, families, and community members from equity-deserving groups to anecdotal evidence or experiences. Rather, transformative leadership is about listening and creating conditions for inclusion. Instead of being fixated on what is impossible, we can continually explore how as educational leaders we can embrace diversity and work toward creating conditions, policies, and processes that advocate for equitable inclusion for all. This work has to be done at the individual and institutional levels for it to be sustainable in society.
DR. Jerome Cranston (Professor and Dean, Faculty of Education, University of Regina)
Borrowing from the title of Tuck and Yang’s (2012) much read and discussed provocation “decolonization is not a metaphor” and some of its underlying ideas, participants were invited to consider how they might shift from seeing themselves as “allies” to becoming engaged “co-conspirators” to dismantle the Eurocentric, white supremacist system of higher education, including the discourse and rhetoric associated with professionalism.
In offering my own experiences as a racialized, immigrant, first-generation university student who is also a cis-gendered, heterosexual male and holds a senior administrative role in a Canadian university, I framed the conversation to consider:
- the role that universities play in reproducing cultures and structures of privilege and power
- the dominance of white, heterosexual, male views of reality (ontology)
- the ways that scholars and senior leaders within the university reproduce and produce knowledge (epistemology) about the social world and its so-called ordering that maintain Eurocentric, white supremacy (Hayes et al., 2021).
The discussions in the group focused on key characteristics of decoloniality (Mignolo & Walsh, 2018), particularly how we can work together to uncover the social and ideological hierarchies embedded in the education system from kindergarten through post-secondary that are designed and sustained to disconnect, displace, and dispossess Indigenous and racialized peoples. As part of enacting decoloniality, participants identified the importance of creating learning opportunities for students to connect to traditional lands and their histories, various languages and cultures, and family ancestry. As a collective we agreed that we require decolonizing at the ideological and ontological level.
PART OF DECOLONIZING is asking critical questions – with consideration for where we raise such questions, how we raise them, with whom, and for what purposes. This is the spirituality of decolonizing work to undo and reduce the harm caused by the intersections of colonial logic, white supremacy, and imperialism. Decolonizing work can occur in different settings. At the micro level, it can involve creating mentorship opportunities and support networks to ensure minoritized identities do not leave educational spaces due to lack of inclusion, belonging, or being on the receiving end of constant microaggressions. At the institutional level, it translates into not only creating access to opportunities for equity-deserving groups but also ensuring they are supported and valued for who they are, how they show up, and what they contribute to the teaching and learning community once they arrive within educational spaces, even if that differs or goes against the status quo.
Photos: Nicholas Ng-A-Fook, Ardavan Eizadirad
First published in Education Canada, January 2023
CBC News, (2021, May 29). Ontario principal removed after twice wearing hair of Black student like a wig. CBC News.
Cranston, J., & Jean-Paul, M. (2021). Braiding Indigenous and racialized knowledges into an educational leadership for justice. In F. English (ed.), The Palgrave Handbook of Educational Leadership and Management Discourse, (pp. 1–27). Palgrave Macmillan.
Eizadirad, A., Campbell, A., & Sider, S. (2022). Counternarratives of pain and suffering as critical pedagogy: Disrupting oppression in educational contexts. Routledge.
Hayes, A., Luckett, K., & Misiaszek, G. (2021). Possibilities and complexities of decolonising higher education: Critical perspectives on praxis. Teaching in Higher Education, 26(7-8), 887–901.
Hernandez, J., & Khadem, M. (2017). Transformative leadership: Mastering the hidden dimension. Harmony Equity Press.
Madison, D. (2012). Critical ethnography: Methods, ethics, and performance. SAGE Publications, Inc.
Mignolo W., & Walsh C. E. (2018). On decoloniality: Concepts analytics praxis. Duke University Press.