This week it became clear which side is winning in the debate about the purpose of public education. As far as our current Minister of Education is concerned, the main purpose of the education system in British Columbia is to provide human capital for corporations. Until and unless that reality changes, what recourse is left for those of us who believe that a well-funded public education system, fundamental to a functioning democracy, should not only support pipefitters but poets too?
I suggest that our response be two-fold. We should continue to support any collective actions that defend and fight for a fair education system but we should also employ in our classrooms the spirit of jugaad, a Hindi colloquial expression that roughly translates into “invention motivated by scarcity”. In this TEDx talk, Gautam Ramdurai explains how it is possible to not only “make do” with what you have in the face of scarcity, but that learning how to “make do” makes other things possible.
When I came to Canada over 20 years ago, my teacher qualifications from South Africa were deemed insufficient to teach in schools in B.C. and I had to complete a few education courses in order to be approved for teaching in B.C. I have a vivid memory of my first class at SFU. I was late and had entered the room when there was a full-blown discussion about the Year 2000 project. Teachers were outraged by the demands made of them in the document. I remember wondering what the fuss was about. I had recently come from a place where we had to hold fundraisers in order to buy paper to use in our hand-cranked mimeograph machine and where our entire school library could be stored on a few shelves in a Canadian classroom.
At that point I had seen what was available in schools in Vancouver – rooms filled with unlimited supplies of photocopying paper, libraries filled with new books, laboratories stocked with equipment and classrooms of ‘only’ 28 students. To my eyes, teachers were teaching under circumstances that teachers in South Africa would give anything for.
With the increasing cuts to our education system, my current teaching experience in Canada is slowly becoming as familiar as my past teaching experience in South Africa but that is precisely why I believe it’s important to consider the concept of jugaad.
What can be done with limited resources in our classrooms? Instead of continuing to fund our classrooms out of our own pockets, what can we learn from cultures and practices around the world where scarcity is the norm?
And while we create a new response to scarcity, a message from someone who has been here before. I can assure you that you will survive.
You will survive bureaucrats, who have no idea what happens in your classroom day by day, telling you what to teach.
You will survive administrators who have no idea who your students are, telling you how to teach.
You will survive people who have only a superficial understanding of who you are, telling you how you can and should and must develop your professional skills.
I know you will get used to this because those of us who have lived under oppressive and repressive political and social systems learned how to survive them.
You too will develop a double consciousness and a way of slipping easily between the face you put on for your ‘reviewers’ and the face you wear for your students. You too will have one way of being when your ‘performance’ is under ‘review’ and another when it is not, when you can just be the teacher you are.
You will learn to be subversive – to seek out ways to weasel between the cracks of a system designed to constrain and contain you and to form your students into clones. You will learn to be like the root hairs of trees that raise pavements.
You will find allies amongst the administration – principals who do not agree with the way you are being treated and who will try in some ways to support you.
You will learn what words and phrases and activities are considered ‘good’ to use in your ‘performance reviews’ and ‘professional development plans’. You will adopt those as necessary.
And you will do this all the while you continue to grapple with the challenges facing you each day: hungry students, broken technology, lack of resources, and the absence of any support for those students who desperately need it in your filled-to-capacity classroom.
And you will keep doing this while you work to remove from power the people who see education as a business and not as a social good.