Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.” That saying captures my story. Many teachers took the time to nurture my development. The schools I attended provided resources that supported them in that work.
As teachers, we try to plant numerous seeds in the hope that someday someone will be granted the opportunity to enjoy that shade. This requires a depth of emotional labour that is not always acknowledged. In inner city schools developing and sustaining relationships is one of the critical requirements for student success. For me, it began with the trusting relationship that developed between me and the teacher, and the teacher and my mother.
It was not easy to grow up in a single parent family in Canada’s oldest social housing community. My hard-working mother made many personal sacrifices, and my brother and I knew from a young age that we would often have to go without some of the things other children took for granted. This is not an uncommon reality in Regent Park, where
- over 70 per cent of families live below the poverty line1
- most families earn less than $18,000 per year (less than one-third of the national average)
- the number of single-parent families is twice as high as in the rest of Toronto
- the majority of residents are racialized persons (people of colour who are Canadian-born and newcomer communities of colour) and for many English is a second language.3
These factors make it harder for children in communities like Regent Park to succeed at school. In their fact sheet about education and learning, the Colour of Poverty campaign states that “racialized students face discrimination in schools. They are often streamed into lower level of non-academic programs, and unfairly targeted for expulsion. Children from families living in poverty are half as likely to attend university as those who are well-off, and some racialized groups have very low rates of high school completion.4”
My story was different
I was fortunate to have been surrounded by people who worked hard to lessen the burden of growing up poor. My grade 1 teacher, Lorna Stewart, took an interest in my life beyond the classroom and continued to watch over me even after I left her class. She tried to make sure that I grew up with more good stories than bad.
Ms. Stewart played the role of “Othermother,” defined by educator Karen Case as,“African American women’s maternal assistance offered to the children of blood mothers within the African American community. Originally traced to slavery, othermothering was a survival mechanism that served as a vehicle for educational and cultural transmission”.5
Ms. Stewart took the time to visit my home. She accepted my mother as an equal and asked her what she expected of her sons’ teacher and of her sons, and what strategies worked at home. This approach allowed for a balanced partnership. She became a trusted family friend, and continues to serve as an inspiration to me to this day. The fact that a white woman from Cambridge would have such an effect on a little black boy from Regent Park is a testament of her willingness to go beyond the classroom to establish a level of respect that allows for a supportive environment.
Pam McIntosh, my grade 4 teacher, was also an othermother. She was from Trinidad, of African descent, and the moment I met her I saw an immediate ally. I assumed that because she was “like me,” she would understand me, welcome me, and would not silence me. I was right. Like my Jamaican mother, she was a strict disciplinarian who took the “love comes later” approach to her teaching. Her classroom was an extension of my home, and she became an extension of my mother and provided the same comfort and safety. She realized that, to truly empower her students, academics could not be compromised. She knew first-hand the challenges that her students would face. The issues of race and gender, low expectations, and the stigma of poverty are challenges children living in areas like Regent Park still fight. Tough but always encouraging, Ms. McIntosh was the first to let you know how proud she was when you accomplished your goal.
Ms. Stewart, Ms. McIntosh, Ms. Wybrow, Mr. Young, Mr. Marshall, Mr. Chapman, Ms. Conetta, Mr. Fox, and Mr. Vernon were all instrumental in my life in the classroom and beyond, as teachers, coaches, and mentors. Without the caring and commitment of these teachers many of us probably would not have thrived to the extent that we did. These relationships were critical to my early development and played a large part in my decision to become a teacher.
The teacher as human being
Othermothering suggests that we go beyond the textbook and use a student’s lived experience as a valid foundation for learning. What better method of teaching students to recognize and claim their strengths than by making connections that allow them to see their teacher as a human being. Some of my most effective and memorable teaching moments have occurred walking with and talking to students and parents in their community after school hours.
In There Are No Shortcuts, Rafe Esquith writes, “As a teacher in inner city schools, I have chosen to accept the fact that not all the children will be easy to teach, especially children from inner city settings. I know that I will often be called on to stay after school to help a child in need. I know that large amounts of my personal time will be spent shopping for my class and planning for my lessons.” 6
This work is crucial for children from marginalized families and, I would argue that it is necessary for effective teaching and learning to occur. Building relationships goes beyond the classroom and into the community to reach students and families in need. This might be a call home to share good news about a student’s progress, attending community events, or being present at a child’s music recital or birthday party. It might be making extra time to connect a needy child to after-school supports or programs.
The importance of system supports
Without a supportive and academically challenging experience at school, inner city children can easily fall into a cycle of failure, which gives them the rationale to drop out. In too many cases, encounters with the wrong side of the law soon follow. Then supports are provided – lawyers, youth workers, and psychologists, social workers – that were needed long before a criminal record became part of the student’s identity. Giving students the tools for success is of paramount importance, and in some cases it can be the difference between life and death.
An African proverb advises: “Do not look where you fell, but where you slipped.” Two years ago, with the understanding that it needed to look back to where it had been, the Toronto District School Board launched the Models Schools for Inner Cities Initiative to provide some inner city schools with additional support and resources. (See p.26) This initiative is similar to a program that I benefited from as a student and that provided a wide range of supports for students and families in communities like Regent Park before the cuts to education in the 1990s. It recognized, as the Model Inner City Schools program does, that student success requires that the school community support students and their families, and that the most successful schools are those that become a hub offering the community access to an array of services.7
Giving students the tools to succeed requires that we build relationships but it also requires structured resources such as:
- Access to professional services like hearing and vision tests, speech pathology services, and psychological testing
- Access to computer training and technology
- Access to extra-curricular and recreational programs (e.g., swimming)
- Increased ESL, academic, and special education supports
- Access to culturally and linguistically appropriate and accessible information and resources (e.g., translated materials for parents) and programs (e.g., settlement programs)
- Most importantly, a return to antiracism and equity-based curriculum and education that encourage open discussion of racism and related discrimination.
The importance of teacher commitment
Along with othermothering and structured resources, teachers also need to have courage – courage to face our students with complex problems every day, knowing that we might not always get it right; courage to model commitment and determination in their lives and learning so that our students can become resilient and rise above their situations.
The emotional investment we make may often leave us feeling depleted and devoid of answers. Some days, it might feel easier if teaching were just a job. Sacrifice does not always guarantee success and admitting this is often quite painful. Adults need often to re-evaluate their preconceptions, assumptions and actions and be willing to re-evaluate themselves and what they are doing. Acknowledging one’s own pain and the pain of others is important – the process can be painful because you care.
To all the teachers who went beyond for me and for teachers everywhere who do, I say thank you.
1 Information about the low income cutoff (LICO) is available from Statistics Canada, statscan.ca
3 Karen Case, “African American Othermothering” in The Urban Review, 29: 1 March, 1997, p. 15.
4 Colour of Poverty Fact Sheet #3 available at colourofpoverty.ca
6 Rafe Esquith, There Are No Shortcuts, New York: Anchor Books, 2003, p. 163.
7 Toronto District School Board, Model Schools for Inner Cities Task Force Report,Toronto, 2005, p. 6. Available at tdsb.on.ca