When I was a young learner there was a clearly defined understanding of the role of teachers in schooling and in their interactions with students and families. Teachers were “academic” instructors who stood or sat at a distance from us, the students. On most occasions they asked us to refer to instructions written on the board or to listen carefully to what they said. Lucky students had one of those rare teachers that conversed with them about current events. And in the rarest of moments, we were engaged in learning that was interactive and enjoyable with a teacher whose class we looked forward to attending.
Growing up in the Jane and Finch community of Toronto in the mid 1980s, I felt quite fortunate to meet friends and families from so many different countries. Their stories taught me a lot about their diverse cultural and religious beliefs, and this in turn broadened my own understanding of the world. However, I did not sense that this linguistic and cultural knowledge had any currency at school. We were always focused on “learning” that included mastering the English language and not speaking our first language.
Thankfully many scholars and educators are now urging that such cultural knowledge be recognized as assets in students and families, and this perception has changed teaching practice to some degree. Pedro Noguera and many other scholars have long called for close partnerships and collaboration between schools and communities. 2
What defines the roles, responsibilities, and boundaries of an educator in supporting students? From teaching curriculum to engaging students in extracurricular activities, there are a variety of ways teachers connect and work with students that can be rewarding for both them and their students.
In my career, however, I have found that there is no better way to connect with and truly understand the diverse experiences and talents of students and their families than to be a visible member in the community where I am teaching. Interactions with students, families, and various community stakeholders can have a profound impact on the cultural sensitivity and awareness of school staff, establish trust and partnerships between the school and its community, and ultimately enhance the possibilities of student success regardless of the barriers that may exist. This is particularly important in urban or inner-city schools, which are often located in neighbourhoods that are highly diverse in their ethnocultural makeup.
THE MODEL SCHOOLS INITIATIVE
Schools must see well beyond their walls to better understand the complexities of their communities and the diverse teaching practices needed to educate our children. In 2005, the Toronto District School Board launched Model Schools for Inner Cities, an initiative built on a vision of equity and inclusiveness that specifically supports schools in high-needs neighbourhoods in Toronto.