Best Practices for Equity in the Classroom: Northern and Virtual Schools

The Educator’s Coaching Network held our very first Discussion Panel, “Equity at Work”, on Sunday April 10th, 2022 at 1pm. Thank you to everyone who joined us! Our next panel, Discussion Panel #2, will take place during the third week of August 2022. The topic is “The Culture of Martyrdom: caring without burning out”. It will be quite a discussion. Join our mailing list for updates. Exact time, date, and panelists to be announced shortly.

Recap of Discussion Panel #1

Equity at Work: Northern and Virtual Schools

It goes without saying that “equity” has become a buzzword that we all know must be applied to our practice as educators. Our students come from all walks of life, and they thrive best in a space where the adults responsible for their care are attuned to their needs.

It also goes without saying though that we are so overwhelmed and overworked in our professions that being able to provide equitable learning experiences for our students has become breathlessly challenging.

So what then?

The Educator’s Coaching Network sought to address this during our very first Discussion Panel on April 10th, 2022. You may have seen our poster floating around Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. We wanted to give educators the space to talk about all the obstacles within the education system that makes it so difficult for us to do our jobs. At the same time, we strived to have a helpful AND hopeful discussion about how we cope so that we can still do the good work for our students.

Our small and mighty crew of like-minded educators came to our virtual space to listen as our humble yet stellar panelists, Nelson Lew (he/him) and Karah Kushnir (they/them), spoke with me about all things equity. Nelson came from the perspective of having taught in one of Ontario’s Elementary Virtual Schools with me during the 2020-2021 school year, and then teaching hybrid music classes the following school year. Karah came from the perspective of having taught in Canada’s First Nations and Inuit schools for the last few years. We learned a lot from them in the time we spent together; and while one hour is never enough, there were some great nuggets from our conversation that are worth highlighting.

Those Wisdom Nuggets!

The virtual world of teaching is drastically different from teaching in First Nations and Inuit communities for obvious reasons. While things look different on the surface though, the common philosophy of equity for staff and students alike are ultimately the same.

  1. Show up for the kids.
  2. Show up for yourself.
  3. Be humble.
  4. Be adaptable.
  5. Build community.
  6. Find humour somehow everyday.

Easier said than done, of course. In fact, it feels utterly impossible some days.

Well, the good news is, students don’t really need us to be perfect (more on this in our next Discussion Panel, “The Culture of Martyrdom: how to care without burning out”). Karah and Nelson, like any good educator, both emphasize that we all have things to work on, and that’s okay. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re supporting each other.

First Nations and Inuit Schools with Karah

One of the biggest takeaways from our chat with Karah was that we must meet students where they are. This was especially true for Karah, who grew up in the suburbs of the Greater Toronto Area. Coming from a place where the norms are that school comes first, and then ending up where kids miss school because they are off on a hunting trip – it’s enough to set you back on your heels. It’s a real culture shock to witness an entirely different way of being; and yet, this is the norm in many parts of our country. It’s something we must come to realize, understand, and embrace.

I laughed with Karah that it was probably good that they didn’t teach “in the south” first like a sweet summer child before going up to Canada’s Great White North. They agreed; it was just easier for them to go to these rural communities up north with a ton of humility and a willingness to learn without an urban educator ego in the way. It worked in their favour.

Even so, Karah has told me how they witnessed colleagues who did the internal work and put aside their preconceived notions of what education “should” look like. It’s hard work, but necessary, in order to meet students where they are. Many kids in northern communities won’t read beyond a 4th grade reading level in English, simply because the focus in their communities are just not the same. For Karah, if all they accomplish in one year is to guide these kids up just one more reading level in English, then they’ve done their job. Sometimes that’s just all we can do. And that, my friends, is how we provide equitable learning experiences in impossible situations: validating student individual needs, shedding our own preconceived notions of “should”, and meeting them where they are. It’s hard work, but uncomplicated, if we are willing to put our egos aside.

Elementary Virtual Schools (EVS) with Nelson

For Nelson, building community with his virtual class of 10-year olds was his focus. As he prepared for pandemic teaching, he knew that having students learn while isolated in their own individual homes was a recipe for loneliness; so, he made sure to prioritize connection above all else.

When he applied this framework to his virtual class, Nelson found the students connected in a way that allowed them to support each other in their learning, even though they were physically apart from one another. They felt comfortable voicing their needs, they felt cared for by their teacher, and they flourished more than anyone could have hoped for. This is another form of equity too, and meeting students where they are: understanding the circumstances, shifting focus, and responding accordingly to ensure student engagement. I worked with Nelson prior to our virtual school experience, and building community was something he was always good at when we taught together in a brick and mortar school. It didn’t surprise me that he made this a priority for EVS too, with much success.

What’s Next?

Reading about what Karah and Nelson have done with their students in a blog post seems like a no-brainer; however, the path to equity, crafted as masterfully as they have given their circumstances, is actually quite exhausting. The current systems in place makes it incredibly challenging for educators to create truly equitable learning in our classrooms. It’s easier to do so when we are partnered with incredible Educational Assistants (EAs) and other support staff; however, given the constant defunding of education in North America and beyond, it’s near impossible to get sufficient support to do our jobs well. As a result, educators like Karah and Nelson are expected to martyr themselves for the cause of education. I fell down this rabbit hole for years, as have many of my colleagues. It’s not sustainable. Enough is enough.

Our next Discussion Panel #2 will address this very issue. How do we care without literally making ourselves sick? Come and join us for a discussion on The Culture of Martyrdom: caring without burning out. This is relevant not just in education, but across many other people-centered industries and non-profits… and quite frankly, across all aspects of life.

Date and time, along with our panelists, to be announced soon. Join our email list for monthly updates.

Humbly yours in Love, Peace, and Justice,

– Karen and the Educator’s Coaching Network

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Biographies

Karah Kushnir (they/them) has been teaching Indigenous students in Nunavut and Northern Ontario for the last few years. Karah truly enjoys facilitating learning, and is relentless in providing empowering educational opportunities for their students – even when it seems like the country has given up on these kids. They’re a gem of a human 💖

Nelson Lew (he/him) has been working for the YRDSB for 15+ years, one of which was fully virtual during the 2020-2021 school year. He is currently the Music teacher at John McCrae Public School. Nelson is also a father, husband, uncle, brother, son, and overall good dude 😁 He’s had to provide equitable learning for music in hybrid mode! Madness, and mad props.