The more things change, the more they stay the same

Geese on Lake at Kripalu

Maybe it’s because the season is changing or maybe it’s because the future became the past this week, but I’ve been thinking about 1985 a lot lately, trying to remember what my life was like back then. At the time I was a teacher in South Africa, teaching in an apartheid-era classroom that was overcrowded and underfunded.

Today I teach in a classroom in a rich province with the second-lowest per student funding in Canada. The biggest difference between my classroom in 1985 and my classroom in 2015 is that back then I used chalk, and now I don’t.

Back then, my government considered me a second-class citizen. Thanks to the Harper government’s C24 legislation, I am that, once again.

Back then, education in South Africa was one of the levers the government used to perpetuate Apartheid and was certainly not meant to open worlds of possibilities to students who were not White.

Today, in the guise of “reform” education is seen as a viable investment sector by multinational corporations at the same time that students are considered as nothing more than pre-workers through policies like the BC Skills for Jobs Blueprint.

It seems that it’s true that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

But there is something that is very different in my experiences as a teacher in 1985 and my experiences as a teacher today.

Back then, whenever I advocated for more hospitable classrooms and a more humane treatment of students, I was met with backlash and derision. The opposite happens today.

Thirty years after my principal, Mr Gulston, told me that my colleagues were “just not ready” for my ideas, I was invited to Italy this month to talk about those ideas. It was an experience that was manna for my teaching soul. I do not think I have enough words to fully express my gratitude, and how humbled I feel about it all.

One of the highlights of the trip was conducting a full-day workshop in Florence in a room at Ospedale degli Innocenti (Hospital of the Innocents), a place that first welcomed and accepted abandoned babies during the Renaissance.

florence 2

During the workshop I talked about and demonstrated how I try to make my classroom a welcoming space for my students. This includes the occasional dancing!  And so there we were,  Italian researchers and teachers, putting on our best grooves to UpTown Funk during one of our brain breaks. So much fun!

One of the biggest differences between talking about creating a welcoming space for students in 1985 and doing so in 2015 is that these days I can point to neuroscience for support.

I can refer to research when I talk about the connections between emotions and learning, that learning is primarily a social process, one based on relationship. I wish I had books like Brain Targeted Teaching back in 1985! And I really could have used easy access to organizations like CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning).

Back then all I had was blind intuition until, by some stroke of serendipity, an organization funded by international donors set up a library just a block down the road from the school where I taught.

The organization, SACHED, had a mandate to support in various ways, non-white students studying at universities.

The first time I borrowed a book from that library, it was like a whole new world opened up for me. There were ideas about teaching I had not seen anywhere in my teacher training or in any classroom I had attended as a student. I could not keep the books for long periods though and I could not buy them anywhere since the South African government censored or banned anything progressive in art or literature or academia.

Perhaps then you can understand my being dumbfounded by the fact that, despite the abundance of research on how critically important the creation of a socially and emotionally safe space is for learning, so much of what we do in schools completely ignores what we know.

We know that sitting for long hours is unhealthy for brains and bodies and yet students still sit for 6 hours a day, for 10 months a year, for 13 years of their lives.

We know that most teens are sleep deprived and that they are most alert and ready for learning at 10am in the morning and yet we continue to pile them with homework that keeps them working for hours each night and then insist that they show up to school early each morning.

We know that the next 30 years is going be unlike the last 30 and yet we continue to demand students regurgitate all that we already know instead of nurturing their creativity to explore the things we don’t.

It was a humbling experience to be in Italy, to be in buildings hundreds of years old, to see from hindsight, the unfolding of our civilization, our artistic and scientific knowledge.

I wonder what people in 2045 will think of us when they look back at this time.

Right now, education reform in both Canada and Italy is being driven by economic goals instead of educational ones. In both countries, teachers are under attack, their professionalism being questioned. And in both countries, education is a political football, with students losing the most.

Is it too much to hope that by 2045, teachers then will be able to point to a time now when there was a dramatic shift in public education, when neoliberal reform of schools was rejected and replaced by policies that truly have our children’s future in mind? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if teachers at the middle of the 21st century could point to the beginnings of a second Renaissance, one in education?

This week I watched as election results showed that Canadians had overwhelming rejected  the xenophobia of the Harper government. With a new government in place, I can look forward to being an ordinary citizen like everyone else, once again.

I hope that my students, and those I met in Italy, will not only witness in their lifetimes, a radical shift in the structure and functioning of the place we call school, but they will also see the success of social and political policies indicative of the better angels of our human nature.

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