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It’s not students’ job to make schools safe

Ontario educators on equity, diversity, and inclusivity shortcomings
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There is significantly more to what students learn in schools than what you see in curricula. In schools, they learn to socialize with peers in their own age groups and with adults in positions of authority. They learn how to conduct themselves in public. Parents hope that their children would learn social values of respect and compassion at school, just as much as they hope that children would learn about biology or history. Safe, inclusive educational spaces are required to foster such aspects of learning. 

But how do teachers contribute to these additional aspects of learning? And how does the manner in which students engage with the curriculum teach them social values and empathy, and shape their sense of belonging? 

This aspect of education is called secondary socialization: the part of social learning that familiarizes children with the scope of the world outside of their family unit. Secondary socialization helps children understand how to manage different levels of intimacy and how to achieve certain social goals to become accepted members of a social group. It relies heavily on a reinforcement system where positive social achievements are met with positive attention and attitudes from peers and teachers. 

There are three key dimensions to this secondary level of socialization: behavioural, moral, and cultural conformity. Students learn what behaviours, attitudes, and modes of expression are appropriate within their school environment and, more specifically, within their friend and peer circles. However, this type of learning is most often affected by a teacher’s attitudes toward different social and cultural classes — frequently, attitudes that privilege the dominant class. That’s why it’s so important for teachers to access equity and diversity training. 

Schools have certainly made great steps toward inclusivity over the past four decades. One of the first steps to make Ontario schools more accessible began in 1980 with the Education Amendment Act, which was intended to make public education in Ontario accessible to students with learning and physical disabilities. Today, Ontario has legal supports like these that are to be extended to students from a range of backgrounds, regardless of ability, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic status, religion, or first languages. 

However, The Varsity spoke to two Ontario teachers who revealed that, in practice, those supports aren’t always provided by school boards. As a result, the responsibility to make schools a safe environment often falls on teachers or students. This shortcoming can be traced back to the Ministry of Education, which fails to sufficiently outline what inclusivity training should tangibly look like and provide the resources to make it happen. 

Inclusivity on paper

Today, the public education system in Ontario is run by the Ministry of Education, which is composed of 72 school boards. These include 31 English, 29 English Catholic, four French, and eight French Catholic school boards. The Ministry establishes a set of policies and curriculum expectations for the province, and each respective school board develops their own expectations for their schools. The Ministry also provides a series of reflective tools for educators and administrators to ensure that they follow Ministry standards.

There are certain benefits to this framework. Ontario is the most diverse province in the country, meaning that a rigid, uniform approach to education would only be representative of Ontario on the macro scale. So, instead, individual boards are granted freedom to respond to their own communities’ needs, meaning that they can design reflexive educational environments that are better tailored to their students. For example, individual school boards can develop specific curricula to focus on and partner with Indigenous communities native to the land on which their board operates, rather than simply offering a broad survey of Indigenous cultures, heritages, histories, and studies in Ontario. 

But the broad and flexible approach of the Ministry’s policies also creates a few problems. Ministry-set standards are fairly general, so school boards have significant power and responsibility in developing the specifics of their policies and curricula. As a result, we see uneven implementation of equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives. 

Students are the ones who experience the fallout of these shortcomings. In Ontario’s Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy, former Minister of Education Kathleen Wynne recognizes that “students who feel welcome and accepted in their schools are more likely to succeed academically.” If all students manage to receive valuable and effective secondary socialization in schools, then they are more likely to facilitate a safer environment for their peers, which will enable all students to learn more effectively. It’s not hard to see, then, how unsafe environments can be detrimental to student success. 

Safe school environments 

The Ministry outlines its expectations for schools and school boards in the Ontario Schools Kindergarten to Grade 12 Policy and Program Requirements document, which is available as a PDF on its website. The document emphasizes the importance of safe learning environments in schools, noting that these are “essential to the positive cognitive, emotional, social, and physical development of learners.” 

This expectation that school environments will be safe spaces for all students and staff is an important part of the Ministry’s mandate. If schools are able to foster these environments, not only will they be in compliance with the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s (OHRC) expectations, but studies show that their students will perform better and are more likely to graduate.

More specifically, the Ministry has three goals to achieve inclusive education: shared committed leadership from and between the Ministry of Education, school boards, and schools; equitable and inclusive education policies and practices; and accountability and transparency within school boards. 

The Ministry also expects school boards to train teachers and other school staff on topics such as anti-racism, anti-discrimination, and gender-based violence. This might involve running a sensitivity training session about gender and sexual orientation or educating staff on necessary intervention and prevention strategies when facing instances of racism, homophobia, harassment, and gender-based violence. 

However, instead of offering an explicit or descriptive framework for what equity training and practices ought to look like, for the most part, the document simply outlines the fact that these programs should exist. At most, the OHRC provides school boards with case studies illustrating moments in which students claimed that the Ontario Human Rights Code was violated and explaining whether or not these violations were legitimate. These case studies are far from the proactive equity tools that schools require. 

Inclusivity in the classroom

The Varsity spoke to several Ontario teaching staff who expressed that they had not been offered adequate equity and diversity training. Robert Switzer, a current teacher at the Limestone District School Board (LDSB), told The Varsity that there are structural barriers to professional development, making it a complicated process. “It’s rarely funded… It is often self-driven. Teachers do it themselves on their own time.” 

Switzer acknowledges that school boards have always had an understanding of equity, but emphasizes that teachers need to be working individually to foster an inclusive environment where sensitive topics can be appropriately discussed. Still, he remains hopeful that it is possible: “I think it’s important to recognize that the will is there and there isn’t pushback against doing it. But trying to understand how to do it requires a lot of work from people, and it’s not easy.”

This difficulty is reflected in the Ministry’s policy documents. It is fortunate that the Ministry acknowledges the role that school and classroom environments play in a student’s well-being and ability to succeed. But the Ministry of Education does not offer descriptive support to educators or boards on how to best cultivate these environments, nor does it explicitly state which cultural values teachers should implement when adapting the curriculum to be more inclusive. 

In general, it fails to offer a comprehensive framework for how to teach equity and inclusivity strategies to staff. Instead, the Ministry states that “all schools and boards must support students who wish to establish and lead activities and organizations that promote a safe and inclusive learning environment.”

David Hannah, another teacher at the LDSB, also acknowledged that he’s noticed positive attitudes toward equity initiatives in an interview with The Varsity. He said that he does think he has seen a shift toward equity and inclusion since he first began to teach. “I think a lot of this is driven by community, driven by students, especially when I think about the work that’s happened really recently with students of colour [and] queer students. This is something that I think students are pushing forward. And [school staff are] responding because that’s what we should do,” he explained. 

Luckily, because Ministry policy mandates that schools support students who wish to create a more inclusive environment in their schools, there — in theory — should be no pushback to student advocacy. If a student body recognizes a need for social change, the Ministry of Education insists that they shall have it. However, if students are the ones facilitating their safe school environment, then, simply put, they are not in a safe environment to begin with. That kind of responsibility shouldn’t be falling on students’ shoulders; rather, school boards must ensure that staff and administration have ample resources to foster safe and equitable spaces for students to enjoy. 

Hope for the future

When asked whether they feel that they work in a safe environment for students, both Switzer and Hannah answered something along the lines of “not yet.”

“I would say that I feel that the intent of my colleagues to create an equitable, inclusive environment is absolutely explicit and overt. And that’s what we aspire to as a school. I do not believe that what we aspire to is aligned with what the students experience, yet,” said Switzer. 

Similarly, Hannah said, “I work in an environment that is safe for me, as every institution has ever been safe for people like me. But I don’t [feel that I work in a safe environment]. I know that I don’t because I listen to my students.”

The current frameworks and expectations set out by the Ministry of Education are performative at best. At worst, they villainize teachers. Schools remain unsafe environments for many students across the province, because teachers do not have the appropriate resources or training to learn how to best support their marginalized students. 

As a result, from a very young age, many students may not receive a version of secondary socialization that includes enough compassion or inclusivity. Because the Ministry of Education highlights in their policy that changes toward more inclusive curricula ought to happen, the blame falls on educators if schools are not at the level of inclusivity that they should be.

All students deserve to feel respected, valued, and included in their school communities. We’re beginning to move toward this, and Ministry policy has played an active role in that progress over the past four decades — but teachers and their boards need more support across the province. It is not fair to require educators to facilitate professional development out of their own pockets and on their own time. 

And as much as the status quo is unfair to educators, it is even more profoundly unfair for the students who do not have teachers readily supporting and acknowledging their worth. Everyone deserves to learn that they have value both implicitly and explicitly. 

Luckily, there is hope for the future. Hannah emphasized that he has “enormous, perhaps infinite, faith in the young people in our schools who will guide [educators] where [they] need to go, and in the teachers… listening to, hearing [what students say], and actioning it.”

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