The Urban Communities Cohort
A partnership in professional unlearning and relearning
OVER TEN YEARS AGO, the Urban Communities Cohort (UCC) was established at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Education to ensure teacher candidates were better prepared to work within urban priority schools (UPS’s). We (a group of professors, school administrators, and educators in the field) saw the need for teacher candidates to be ready to challenge inequities that were pervasive across priority schools. In many ways, the initiative grew out of our collective frustration at the resistance to change throughout the system that is linked to institutional and systemic racism. For example, we observed:
- school board policies that reinforced structural inequities, rather than paying attention to diverse students’ lived experiences
- a teacher education framework that failed to acknowledge the urgency of unpacking subjectivities and positionalities in order to change education
- refusal of many Ontario teachers to use the 2010 Growing Success document, which set out assessment, evaluation, and reporting policies and procedures to enable all students to succeed and reach their full potential
- the pathologizing of parents and students from predominantly lower socioeconomic communities.
The UCC was originally framed as a way of supporting teacher candidates to engage with students and teachers in UPS’s and to advance their own understanding of equity and social justice. In this article, we trace the evolution of this school/university partnership that began with the UCC and a focus on teacher candidates, and led to further spaces for critical conversations that continue to provoke and support our unlearning and learning. What has emerged over the past decade is more multifaceted than we could have first imagined.
Let’s step back and consider the beginning. Linda, a university researcher and lead author of this article, spent three months immersed in one UPS where she spoke with everyone – students, custodial staff, teachers, and administrators – to gain a critical understanding of the culture of the school (Ibrahim et al., 2012). This school, like the other 32 designated as urban priority schools across Ontario, had very low scores on Grade 9 and 10 literacy and mathematics standardized tests, a history of comparatively high suspensions and expulsions, and a public perception of being a “difficult school,” perhaps even a “failing school.”
The in-depth ethnography revealed what the administrators and educators within the building already knew – that the profile failed to capture the calibre of the educators and students; it missed “who and what we were in the school,” as one staff member put it. The EQAO scores measured where the students were at a point in time, taking no account of where they had come from or their future promise and potential. The school population included newcomers to Canada, along with youth displaced by conflict, who may have spent recent years in refugee camps and who might not have had consistent schooling even in their own language, let alone in English or French. For these students the school was a safe haven, a building with walls as opposed to a tent. Yet if the school was to support all of these students in their learning journeys, there was a critical need for a teaching staff who were better equipped to do this work.
So began the partnership through which teacher candidates and university professors became part of the school community. The UCC supported teacher candidates to develop culturally sustaining, relevant, and responsive pedagogy, and immersed them in urban school communities from day one of their teacher education program. University classes were taught within the building and the school administrators were integral to the teacher candidate’s professional learning – speaking to teacher candidates on the first day of school, walking them through the corridors, welcoming them for their required school-based practicum, inviting them to experience and feel what it takes to become a teacher committed to social change.
Hard Conversations was started by Kristin Kopra, Sherwyn Solomon, and Geordie Walker, who are lead partners in the UCC. This initiative brings together school administrators and university researchers to engage in challenging conversations about what is happening in their schools. Over the past four years, this group has worked outside the school board, gathering in their own time to examine the relevant research, understand their own positionality and roles, grapple with systemic biases within their schools, and most importantly commit to actionable strategies they can take back into their daily practice. Their goal is to first understand and then dismantle systemic barriers so they, as school leaders, can better serve Indigenous, Black, and racialized students, families, and communities. Put simply, group members consider their role in perpetuating inequities and what each individual can do to change practices in their own schools. Kristin, a UPS principal who began as a program lead for Indigenous education, explains why the group was started: “We didn’t do it for any other reason than we need things to change for kids in schools.” Many of the topics taken up in this group focus on the power of administrators and teachers and the damaging choices that the Education Act legitimizes.
Now in its fifth year, the group has grown to well over 70 colleagues engaged in these critical conversations. Membership is open to all and includes school and central administrators, senior staff, managers, University of Ottawa professors, and sometimes teacher candidates. Meetings have varied in frequency and in format, ranging from small group pods to larger university-based weekend-long conferences (including guests such as leading researchers in equity and racism and Indigenous leaders).
An example of the work of the Hard Conversations group is challenging the disproportionate numbers of suspensions for Black, racialized, and Indigenous students. Kristin recalls from her own school’s statistics in her first year that “if we were not the highest, we were the second-highest in the district; ridiculous!” This reflects what Sherwyn refers to as “hard-baked” structural obstacles, where our ignorance gets perpetuated as law. In Ontario’s Education Act the suspension of a student is at the discretion of the principal. While administrators might be well-meaning, Sherwyn underlines, “A principal’s perspective on what is acceptable school conduct and what is not is often colonial in nature, as these emerge from the imperialism that has had an impact on what schools look like across the globe.” There is no learning in a suspension, which reaffirms the exclusion of the student and causes harm that may reverberate for generations. The data speaks for itself in Ottawa schools: if you are Black or Middle Eastern, you are two and a half times more likely to be suspended. Hard Conversations provides a forum where administrators can examine critical questions around the discretionary suspensions for which they have authority, such as: How does removing students from what might be one of their few safe spaces serve already vulnerable students? How might race be playing into our suspension decisions? What will you do differently rather than suspend Black youth? The conversations, critical reflection, and transformations in principal practices emerging from Hard Conversations should be celebrated. But we are mindful that they represent a small initial step within some schools, and that colonialism pervades our education systems and guides decisions and practices that retraumatize those who have already been traumatized. As educators we ask the question, how can we avoid the re-traumatization of marginalized individuals and groups?
Challenging social inequities
In our ongoing university/school partnerships to support teacher education, in-service educators, and youth, we are repeatedly made aware of how each of us is unlearning and re-learning in our work with students, student teachers, and in relations with each other (Donald, D. 2022). We recognize that we are all, regardless of ethnicity and positionality, impacted in our work and relations by colonial structures.
Our conversations bring to the surface what we have been taught and raised to believe – certain narratives about society, about other people, about positionality – and the structures that support these narratives. These histories and understandings have been passed from parents and grandparents and transmitted to us in institutions such as schools and universities. They become what we know to be true. But what happens when we start examining these past truths in light of other realities we see around us, and question if our long-held narratives are true? Geordie, former principal and now part of the UCC teaching team, asks, “Why is it so hard for me as a white person who is a dad to believe it is necessary for my Black friend or Indigenous friend to teach their kids to proceed with extreme caution in police interactions and how to survive an arrest, when that was never part my children’s education or learning?” With this question, he underlines that it starts with the individual journey. He shares that his own decolonization process is about “becoming as educated as you can about the past.” Understanding the past and the present context as educators and as teacher educators requires an openness to examine history, to recognize or acknowledge what culture is, whose it is, the backgrounds of the people in our schools, and how they see their own history from different perspectives.
At Le Phare Elementary School, Sherwyn has established an Equity Advisory Committee, a parent group that names and challenges social injustices and advises on things they would like to see going on at the school. As part of the district and school learning plan, Sherwyn encourages his school community to incorporate more Algonquin teaching, learning, and understanding, as well as more knowledge of the school experience of Black and other marginalized groups. Sherwyn argues that such initiatives go part way to addressing racism like that he experienced in his own childhood as a Black newcomer to Canada – such as having to learn to speak without his Caribbean accent, and the colonial violence he and his family faced as immigrants. Across the school district, student groups, such as the LGBTQ2+, Indigenous, and Muslim student groups among others, are being led by people with that lived experience. This school-based change has not come without resistance, and equity coordinators have had to work tirelessly to demand that, after years of being pushed to the margins as “urban problems,” these groups are placed at the centre stage of education.
Since the beginning of the UCC, decisions made at faculty and program levels have presented structural and other challenges. For example, from the start of UCC, cohort leads worked with school principals to create UPS practicum placements for UCC teacher candidates. Recently this has been discontinued by the Faculty, and UCC teacher candidates find themselves with placements across the spectrum of local schools, while other teacher candidates unaccustomed to urban priority schools are posted in the UCC partner schools. Additionally, we have now seen the community service learning component, where all UCC teacher candidates would become part of the school community at the start of the school year, come to an end. Despite these ongoing challenges, we continued to invest in the UCC by gaining research funds to support critical learning possibilities for educators (pre-service and in-service). In particular, we worked with civics teachers in UPS’s to open up spaces for students to find different points of entry into that course. This was done by inviting students to share their lived experiences – either as newcomers to Canada, as long-time settlers, or as First Nation, Métis and Inuit peoples – first and foremost in this course. Working within these diverse contexts, we have attempted to contribute to a decolonizing process by breaking down subject silos and enabling interdisciplinary learning through a pedagogy of relationship building within and beyond the classroom.
Relationships over curriculum
After 30 years in education, Geordie perhaps conveys best what education and teacher education might look like in practice: “It is about prioritizing relationships over curriculum, being humble, and learning from kids.” When we think about our own work of unlearning through UCC and Hard Conversations, we envision educators (ourselves, teacher candidates, teachers, and school administrators) coming to education not because we are specialists in a subject, but because first and foremost we want to serve students and build relationships. As educators, we need to be able to put aside our biases and prejudice and embrace whoever comes through our door and provide a sense of belonging for every student in the classroom regardless of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, language, or any other false barriers. In the UCC, we are supporting teacher candidates and teacher educators (ourselves) to engage deeply with teacher identities and lived histories, and to examine the truths and untruths we hold on to. Decolonizing teacher education requires providing opportunities for teacher candidates to build relationships based on care and compassion that prioritize students’ potentials and possibilities and reject deficit thinking.
THE UCC PARTNERSHIP has provided a space for multiple and ongoing hard conversations and professional un/learning across university and school contexts. A decade of critical conversations, research, and collaborative action in the service of students in urban priority schools has transformed our own practices in university and school classrooms. In our shared quest to unlearn taken-for-granted assumptions and “truths,” we continue to challenge ourselves and each other with the responsibilities we have in relations to each other and with students, families, and communities.
First published in Education Canada, January 2023
Ibrahim, A., Radford, L. et al. (2012). Urban priority program: Challenges, priorities and hope. Ottawa-Carleton District School Board.
Donald, D. (2022, September 19) A curriculum for educating differently: Unlearning colonialism and renewing kinship relations. Educating Canada, 62(2). https://www.edcan.ca/articles/a-curriculum-for-educating-differently/