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Creating an AQ Through Stories and Narratives

College unveils new Additional Qualification (AQ) guideline on anti-Black racism.

By Olivia Yu
Photo: istock

Teacher in classroom with students wearing masks.

People of colour experience acceptance, discrimination and race differently. Each community — each person — has a different narrative and different experiences, different careers, and that difference and diversity were what Karen Murray, OCT, was looking for when she assembled the development team for the College's new Anti-Black Racism AQ.

Murray is the centrally assigned principal for the Centre of Excellence for Black Student Achievement at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). She has supported the AQ policy development and implementation work of the College for many years and has been an instructor for the Teacher Leadership AQ highlighting equity leadership.

"It's about stories and narratives and creating space for stories to live," she says. Instead of using only established methods to develop the AQ, Murray set out on her own path.

Murray commenced the development process by directly reaching out to the Black community with phone calls. "If we're doing anti-Black racism work, we need to start with a pedagogy that supports that."

"We recognize that diversity is not one size fits all," says the College's Deputy Registrar Chantal Bélisle, OCT. "Our long-standing commitment to diversity and inclusion means looking at existing processes and adjusting as necessary. Real and positive changes can and will happen if we are open to adapting the way we work."

In addition to the AQ, work on a professional advisory focused on anti-racism is underway. And late last year, the College worked closely with the government to implement regulatory changes that consider hatred a form of professional misconduct. Internally, the College provided Council, committee members and staff with training on bias and anti-racism.

"Ongoing education, dialogue and introspection are critical in protecting the public interest," says Bélisle. "As a profession we must listen, reflect and learn, so that we can help dismantle systemic racism within education."

Diversity with a purpose

The AQ leadership team, compiled by Murray, is comprised of 15 individuals from different academic, teaching, language and professional backgrounds.

"We have those who are are strong in academics and have a strong local practice. We have those who understand human rights and those whose work is based in the community. We also have people who have the bigger provincial picture," says Murray.

Ideally, the AQ will provide one of many opportunities for educators to deepen their awareness of the individual and collective biases that are inherent within education practices, policies, systems and cultures.

One such bias is presuming that everyone who looks Black identifies as such and has the same lived experience. "Not everyone on the advisory team self-identifies as Black," says Murray. "We are not all the same and never will be. But we all have a commitment to dismantling anti-Black racism in the educational system."

Natasha Henry, OCT, a teacher with 21 years of teaching experience with the Peel District School Board and other boards, provides insight from an English public school perspective, and as a Black educator and historian of Black Canadian history. She is also the president of the Ontario Black History Society and specializes in the development of learning materials focusing on the African diasporic experience.

"There needs to be a deep understanding of what anti-Black really is, specific to education, in Ontario and Canada, extending learning and understanding to how that is connected to the perpetuation of anti-Black racism systemically in society."

The AQ aims to provide educators with a better understanding of how the education system has been perpetuating anti-Black racism for students and educators from the past through the present.

Henry sees different benefits for those who hold different roles within education. For educators in administrative roles, she hopes the AQ will help them identify systemic barriers for Black educators and Black students. For educators in the classroom, it is meant to be a starting point to help them reflect on their own beliefs to grow their daily practice as anti-racist educators.

"It starts with mandating and integrating deeper meaningful learning of Black experiences through all subject areas, not just in February (Black History Month)," says Henry. "One important pedagogical frame for learners in this course is that they be expected to apply the lessons developed using critical frameworks to the school environment, to reflect, continue to grow and institute change."

"What's our philosophical belief in education? What do we actually believe and understand about anti-opression?"

Henry hopes that the course will inspire leaders and teachers to understand what needs to be addressed in the system, to grow "a deeper understanding of who their students are."

"It's a lifetime of learning and a lifetime of reflection," says Jenelle Rouse, OCT. A recent PhD in the applied linguistics field of education, Rouse is a Black, Deaf woman. She is also an independent researcher and an assistant professor teaching first-year teacher candidates at Western University.

To her, language, in the words we use, in art and in dance, is crucial. The goal is to help educators become more unbiased, empathetic and aware of the use of language when working with their students. "It's not only about understanding the definitions," says Rouse. "It's about people making links and connections to personal lives and experience."

This new AQ offers many potential benefits for the educators who will take it.

"A person of colour, who doesn't have white privilege, is strongly encouraged to become a leader," says Rouse. "For those who are white, we want them to become more aware and become the right kind of ally that makes changes to uplift the community."

The main thing for learners is to keep an open mind. She emphasizes how important it is for teachers to be comfortable with unlearning to decolonize some of their thinking. "That part is the hardest," says Rouse. "You need to be openly aware, but not be defensive."

Understanding and being aware of the roots of racism is what Jacqueline Jean-Baptiste, OCT, feels will propel positive change. As a retired teacher with nearly 40 years of teaching experience, Jean-Baptiste experienced systemic racism first-hand.

"I was hired in the '90s by a school board," says Jean-Baptiste, "and experienced so much racism, I had to take a year of absence from teaching. It was so direct. They had no problems letting you know they didn't want you."

And that's when Jean-Baptiste began researching and writing about the roots of racism. "Black people didn't choose to come here. We were forced into slavery and colonization." She believes that racism started when slaves stopped accepting the status quo and colonizers had to justify Black people as property and not people. "The history of racism is so deep and rationalized that it becomes a part of the language, a part of the life. It becomes easy to prejudge people because of those justifications from so long ago."

An independent equity consultant with experience as a researcher and facilitator at both the provincial and board levels, Nicole West-Burns is focused on Black student achievement initiatives and equity. She wants the AQ to help teachers "think about what they think they know and what voices, narratives and perspectives have shaped them."

West-Burns's work focuses heavily on systemic racism. She hopes the AQ will help educators self-reflect, including how their own individual experiences and learnings have shaped them — and then figure out how to undo some assumptions. "We have to unpack ourselves and often relearn," says West-Burns. "We also have to find collaborators and be willing to stand against oppression with students, families and communities."

As the project lead, Murray herself has engaged in anti-Black racism work for more than 20 years. Student achievement, well-being and a sense of belonging for Black students is what drives her. Like Henry, Murray believes Black culture needs to extend beyond both slavery and Black History Month.

Murray firmly believes that students respond better to those with whom they can identify. She recalls when the movie Black Panther came out. At the time, Murray was a vice-principal with the TDSB. She took her entire school to see the movie because it empowered the staff and students. "The kids are talking to the screen, cheering, responding, angry when something bad happens. Every emotion is alive."

This is the type of student enthusiasm that Murray hopes the AQ will help educators find in their classrooms. "There are Black scientists and Black mathematicians, and ancient civilizations where there are Black kings and queens, but that isn't something that's discussed," says Murray. She hopes educators will find "a different way of navigating and engaging with historical and current day examples of the Black experience."

Murray feels classrooms "have to be the first point of entry, because they directly influence students' lives."

Principals, vice-principals and supervisory officers support the work of classroom teachers, and to Murray there's a need for them to "understand the rationale and importance of this work." And finally, those in leadership can influence "a change in the way we engage in teaching and learning."

"Fostering inclusivity is intentional," says Alison Gaymes San Vicente, OCT, a centrally assigned principal of Virtual School who works with Murray at the TDSB. "It doesn't just happen naturally." She says the process is multi-layered and includes self-reflection, professional learning, and a decision to operate in an anti-oppressive way.

"What's our philosophical belief in education? What do we actually believe and understand about anti-oppression?"

Gaymes San Vicente feels education leaders need to ensure teachers know what is expected, including culturally sensitive spaces, and be prepared to both support and monitor.

"During COVID-19, diversity is a lot harder because a lot of what we describe as diversity no longer applies."

With virtual school, students may not see physical posters reflecting diversity, so educators must be creative to ensure diversity still exists. For example, finding resources and reading culturally appropriate text.

It is this type of critical thinking the AQ development team wants educators to take away.

Michael Naicker, OCT, a vice-principal at Catholic Central High School with the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board, also stresses the importance of integrating understanding into the day-to-day.

"It's more than just a [cultural diversity] day. It has to be part of the school, part of the ethos, part of the everyday. He also says it's crucial to be empathetic, to listen, and to try and understand things from a place of cultural sensitivity. "Let's look at things from their lens."

The majority of discrimination and oppressive practices are based in centuries of history and legacy, not something that can be easily undone. This is why Murray decided to develop the AQ differently.

"It can't be just a reaction to George Floyd's death. It has to be done well and exist beyond what's happening on Twitter. These experiences of anti-Black racism existed before and continue to exist today."

In the short-term, the AQ leadership team hopes educators will become more aware of their daily practice. In the long-term, the team hopes to see system-wide changes, including enhanced academic achievement from Black students, a deeper integration of Black history into curriculum, and a teaching population that is more reflective of students.

Murray hopes the AQ on anti-Black racism is the first of many professional development opportunities for Ontario's teaching profession focused on anti-racism. "Every issue has its own space."