Being a teacher means balancing flexible learning with Ministry expectations

By William McGinn

If kids become interested in something teachers must still tie it back to the curriculum.

Teachers play a big role in the development of children and adolescents. But how much flexibility is there in the job? Are they stuck following a playbook created by the Ministry of Education, or do they have freedom to explore issues outside of their core subject areas?

Jane and Matt Avery, of Lindsay, are a mother and son who have both been in the education system for years. Jane has served as a teacher and principal and his now retired. Matt has served as a teacher and his currently a vice principal at a school in Courtice.

Matt Avery and Jane Avery. Photo: William McGinn.

Matt and Jane explained if kids become interested in something teachers must still tie it back to the curriculum. “In learning, there are things you have to meet and be able to report on because those are the things deemed the fundamental skills the students need to be able to have,” said Matt. 

Speaking on the high-school level to this is Mark Cossarin, who has been “lucky enough” to be the principal at all three high schools in Kawartha Lakes through the Trillium Lakelands District School Board; LCVI, I.E. Weldon and Fenelon Falls Secondary.

“The curriculum document is very specific for each grade, each course code, so teachers have to align with that,” he said. “Having said that, you can deliver things in different ways depending on your area of interest and what kind of skillset you have.”

Jane with the current curricula, it is far from only being about teaching the material. Matt says “didactic” teaching (lecturing without any hands-on activities) is the least effective way to do it, “whereas if I gave you something to explore, discover and manipulate, it’s better.”

And so, what if a teacher wanted to talk about issues like racism or LGBTQ+ issues?

Mark Cossarin, principal, LCVI.

Cossarin said teachers can talk about these subjects when they align with certain curricula. “If I’m teaching courses like the Introduction to Anthropology, Psychology and Sociology or Challenge and Change in Society, conversations, assignments or projects can relate very well to current events. I could introduce a new novel if it aligns well with the curriculum. Conversely, if I’m teaching math or science, as a teacher you cannot get away from…teaching content and we can’t lose sight of that.”

The principal pointed to an LCVI Grade 9 English class as an example. Not only will students learn To Kill A Mockingbird, but in their locally developed Grade 9 English class, students are now reading the semi-autobiographical novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, a story of growing up living in a reserve in north-west U.S., and Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese, a novel about a child in 1960s Ontario using his talent for hockey as a way to try and escape the residential school experience.

“I think even today,” said Cossarin, “it’s important for all people to understand historically what it’s been like for visible minorities. And over the last couple years I think Canadians have started to get a much better idea of how we’ve treated our Indigenous communities based on the sad discovery of residential school graves.”

Lindsay resident Jamie Nagel, after getting her Bachelor of Arts with a Major in French and a Minor in English from the University of Ottawa, is now enrolled at Trent University as a first year Teacher Candidate in the Intermediate-Senior division.

“As these topics (BIPOC, LGBTQ+, classism) have come up during my first practicum placement,” said Nagel, “I expect to be supported in discussing them in my own classrooms.” She pointed to the equity statements of local schools and school boards, which support this.

Jamie Nagel is working on becoming a teacher. Photo: William McGinn.

“As someone with French and English teachables,” she said, “it is part of the curriculum and an integral part of my job to expose students to different voices and worldviews, including people from communities that have been historically disenfranchised.”

Not everything goes through different heads before reaching the classroom, however. Teachers are expected to also tie in discussions with what is happening outside the classroom, locally and internationally. If there is a current event that affects Kawartha Lakes, they should be prepared to acknowledge it in their lesson. To do that, Matt said if you are discussing something controversial, you must be cognizant of your own bias, especially at the elementary level because kids tend to be more influenced by the teachers than older ones.

To that point, Cossarin said if current news is brought up, the way to talk about it is to look at the story from different sources, sharing how one person views the news versus another and why certain things would be and not be mentioned.

Matt said a benefit to current event discussions in classrooms is it “gives kids the practical experiences they’re looking for” by relating it to their ongoing lives. He additionally mentioned teachers must look at the issues they may end up discussing in an empathetic way, because certain issues may seem trivial to the teacher but may be major for one reason or another to someone else.

So what happens if some parents do not like subject matter being discussed in the classroom, whether it was planned or improvised? Should today’s teachers be worried about the possibility of confrontation when they discuss subjects that some students or parents might find discomforting?

Jane said usually if a parent came in, the teacher would be called into the office to be asked about the complaint. If it were unable to be resolved, the parent would then be asked if there were witnesses.” It’s possible for a union to get involved as well, which helps the teacher navigate the issue.

Cossarin’s advice is teachers should chat with the individual student first, then depending on what’s happening, he asks the parents to come forward and talk with the vice principals, himself, or perhaps a guidance counsellor. He said teachers may sometimes reach out themselves to a department head, the vice principal or a child’s parent if they felt a discussion may have gone wrong to help resolve an issue.

He also said LCVI has a social worker who comes to the school three times a week. “Every situation is different but I’d say it’s always important to ask questions respectfully and privately and talk to all the stakeholders who might help make the situation better.”

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