Engaging families by Confronting Stereotypes

by Michelle Sanderson -First Nations Me’tis Achievement Consultant

STARS Student Teachers Against Racism

What is it that engages families? Especially, in regards to my position, for First Nation families?  I think about this question as I prepare for a PD drop-in for the early learning consultant’s workshop. She’s working with 21 new teachers and EA’s and has asked me to speak on one of the four pillars of early learning, engaging FNM families. There’s no easy answer, as the causes of disengagement are complex and multi-faceted. (She’s alloted me 15 minutes)

Through my research and experience as an anti-racist educator, I realize that because there has been a lack of deep and meaningful education regarding First Nations people, that, many teachers and school staff are coming into the position not having a critical analysis of some of the symptoms of colonialism that we see in some of our families. This is a critical problem of course, but can be minimized by stating that we teach to all children. Whether the achievement gap, or as some call it the education dept, agrees, is quite different. Of course, there are the exceptions, and no group of people have homogeneous qualities. But, what I do know, is that at some point, someone deliberately made a decision to not cover First Nation history in Canada’s education. I’ve heard stories of history majors working in our school division, who knew nothing of the Indian Act or residential school! -(until they took our treaty catalyst teacher training).  On a more upbeat path, I’m not the only one to notice this, and actions have been taken provincially to address this problem.  Amid the changes recently, is the inclusion of First Nation and Me’tis specific outcomes and indicators Saskatchewan has made mandatory to teach, in all grades from pre-kindergarten to grade 12. As well, the province has made teaching treaty outcomes and indicators mandatory. Since the mid 1990’s, recent graduates from teacher’s colleges, have been compelled by the University of Saskatchewan’s college of education to take anti-racist or Native Studies classes. I’m not sure if these classes are mandatory across Canada, or Saskatchewan for that matter. However I do applaud the University of Saskatchewan’s efforts to treat the roots of this problem and hopefully, we will continue to see growth in this area. On a side note,The University of Manitoba, has made Indigenous Studies classes mandatory in every college. Locally, within our own school division, we have had many events, including, but not all are listed, such as treaty catalyst teacher training and anti-racist/anti-oppressive education to address this education void. These are small efforts, but that’s how change happens.  I applaud those teachers for taking the time to get this training in our school division.  Along with the many benefits to having this training, is that it can only serve to create more skilled teachers in meeting the province’s outcomes and indicators and to create good relations amongst all people. (ie. interrupt racism) Another initiative from the province in pilot project form, is the “Following their Voices” project. In short, it’s a project, which starts with research by asking teachers and community members, students, parents what they think about education, and where they are, and where they wish it would go. Problems are identified, and actions are taken to address the problems. Again, small pockets of change to address the First Nations Metis achievement gap, or the First Nations Metis education debt, whatever you want to call it. Basically, these trainings are giving educators a much needed critical analysis that is needed to connect in meaningful and humanizing ways with First Nations and Metis students and families.

At one point, I myself, lacked the analysis that was needed to understand the effects of colonialism. A lot of the racism, and stereotypes that were out there, floating in space without a deeper analysis, caused me to internalize the racism at a very young age. One need only turn on the news, or drive down the street to see the effects of colonialism. Sadly,and it’s the negative images that makes the news more often than naught. Stories of strength and resilience, plentiful though they are, are often left to more spectacular negative news items. That in itself is a future project to address. Back to the subject at hand. Because of these internalized racial images I had been exposed to,  I had to have my eyes focused another way, from someone else.  I had to be shown that I was not a bad person, or that I wasn’t worthy, or that something wasn’t wrong with me, or that my genes weren’t faulty. It’s a process, that as a racialized being, I must continually visit and interrupt within myself each and every day. Being someone who has experienced much trauma due to my race and racism, due to being a child raised in a community of first and second generation residential school survivors, who were themselves, victims of abuse and trauma, guilt and shame, I had to analyze why I had these negative thoughts about myself and my people, the way I did. My healing journey is ongoing.

One of the tools which helped me to understand the effects of colonialism, racism and stereotyping, was passed to me by an anti-racist friend and colleague of mine, by the name of Sheelah Mclean. She shared an illustration with me, to help me to understand within minutes of why there were such negative perceptions of First Nations people, and impressed upon me the importance to teach the First Nation Me’tis history education void. This illustration helped me to depersonalize racial stereotypes about myself and my people and to make sense of them.  This illustration can also be used to understand multiple types of oppression. The illustration is quite simple. It is in the shape of a triangle. Starting from bottom right, we move clockwise. The first point in the bottom right corner of the triangle represents the policies, procedures and strategies which were put in place to oppress Indian people. The second point of the triangle, bottom left, includes the material consequences of the oppression. We can use this illustration to take apart the stereotypes and the myths and to challenge ourselves as to how we came to conclusions, based on the partial picture we are presented when we process a large group of First Nations people through our education system without knowing our own shared history. At the top of the triangle is the thoughts, inferences, or the conclusions that people come to without understanding that these are the results of the policies and procedures.   We can clearly see that the direct result of oppression when we look at this triangle, travelling clockwise. So, if we just see the bottom left, (3.) the results of policy directed at First Nation people,  is obscured (2), then we can see how stereotypes are made, and generalizations like, (1.)“Indians are inferior” are created. (Of course, this is just a brief snapshot of some of the strategies/policies unleashed upon Indian people.) Which, is what makes treaty catalyst teacher training and teaching our shared history about residential school, treaties that much more effective in interrupting racism and the creation of stereotypes.

Triangle of Misunderstanding


As an educator, I feel that there is an urgency to breaking the stereotypes and myths around First Nations people. It is these negative ideas, about First Nations people which are interrupting good relations across the spectrum. If First Nations are to fully participate in the economy, we need to confront the stereotypes.The full participation of First Nation people in the economy was the intention and was embedded in the spirit of our treaties.  It’s important to understand that the First Nations experience as Canadians, as “Indians” as defined by Canada has been disastrous to First Nations people. I think the future will brighten, and the possibilities will expand, when we as Canadians can together come to an understanding, of our shared history. When that happens, we can begin to humanize each other in meaningful ways and engage families and communities who have long been divorced from trusting education.  As First Nation families realize that teachers and schools are beginning to come in as allies, engagement will rise. But as well, it will begin a process where non-Native teachers will also be questioning and redefining within themselves, what it means to be white.

Further Reading:
Non Native teachers in Native Communities by John Taylor



September 15, 2015Permalink

Professional Judgement?

It’s a term that often makes me cringe when I hear it: professional judgement. This is not to say that I disagree with it. To the contrary, I believe that it is at the core of what we do as teachers, as professionals. My issue with the term is that it tends to be misused and overused, misunderstood and underappreciated.

First, to pin it down. Damian Cooper in his 2011 book Redefining Fair describes professional judgement as “decisions made by educators, in light of experience, and with reference to shared public standards and established policies and guidelines.” I like this definition, but I also have two problems with it. Firstly, professional judgement in this sense has the potential to be a catch-all for any decision a teacher makes, especially since public standards and established guidelines are often as broad as a barn door.   At times, I’ve seen colleagues invoke professional judgement as a defense for a decision or policy that has been challenged by students, parents, or other teachers.

Professional judgement cannot be any decision by a teacher, lest they become decrees from on high. We cannot as professionals, expect our decisions to be automatically correct ‘because I said so!’ What happens when two colleagues disagree? Is one more professional, so their judgement stands?  Is neither wrong, meaning that every teacher is right but only in their own classrooms?  No, to accept such a broad definition undermines the very nature of a profession.

My second issue with Cooper’s definition is that it frames professional judgement as an event, a moment in time. One could say, “I made a professional judgement,” in this context. I don’t like this because it feels again like professional judgement is invoked, or like it’s a tool brought out of storage to be used and then returned when you’re done making the decision. Should there be times when we aren’t making professional judgments? What kind of judgments are they?  Unprofessional judgments just isn’t that appealing. No, we as teachers ought to always be professionals, meaning that professional judgement must be more than simply a decision.

Quebec’s Ministry of Education in 2006 produced a document on assessment, Value Assigned to the Professional Judgement of Teachers, that I feels better points to professional judgment.  It states: “Judgement consists of analyzing and summarizing information that has been collected about student learning…. Making a judgment is not the result of compiling data. It cannot be reduced to adding up the different marks a student has obtained…”

By the way, this is a great document, and I recommend others read it. It’s in a Q&A format and really speaks to the sometimes uncomfortably subjective aspect of our profession. I also like this definition because it better embraces professional judgment as a process and not an event.  Between formative and summative assessments in the classroom, professional judgement is always taking place.  But I don’t like the focus on assessment only, which is where most writers on professional judgement like to sit. Teachers don’t only professionally judge when they grade. What are we doing when supervising the playground?

The Ontario Ministry of Education’s Growing Success: Assessment, Evaluation, and Reporting in Ontario Schools (2010) has a more detailed definition that I prefer. Professional judgement is:

 informed by professional knowledge of curriculum expectations, context, evidence of learning, methods of instruction and assessment, and the criteria and standards that indicate success in student learning. In professional practice, judgement involves a purposeful and systematic thinking process that evolves in terms of accuracy and insight with ongoing reflection and self-correction.

I really like this definition because it encompasses the breadth of judgments we make in a day and places it as a process rather than an event. It also point towards the early days of the term ‘professional judgement’ in the 1980s and 1990s when standard thinking of instruction was questioned by critical thinking proponents, and the validity of psychometrically based assessment tools were being challenged in favour of performance tasks.

At the time, many professions struggled to define the concept. In 1990, Peter Facione offered a definition in his highly influential report to the APA, Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for the Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction, that encompasses the spirit of what it means, not only to have professional judgment, but to be a professional altogether.  He defines professional judgment broadly, as:

 a goal-oriented decision-making process carried out in the interest of one’s client wherein one gives reasoned consideration to relevant information, criteria, methods, context, principles, policies, and resources.

Professional judgment is rooted in experience, continuous training, and evidence. It is also testable through the litmus of “in the interest of one’s clients”, which for teachers, often means our students. We can ask our colleagues why they have made a particular choice, and should expect an answer that reflects the core of professional practice.  Has it worked in the past?  Is it founded on principals or teachings learned in PD?  Did it actually have a positive impact?

We as professionals cannot always be right, nor should we ever expect to be. But, we should be always improving, refining, and growing.  Professional judgment should reflect this process.  Professionals should embrace it.

When It’s Really NOT Good to Know

No Good to KnowIn my current position as someone who handles data for the school division, I often get asked to create tools, run analyses, develop theories, or present recommendations on matters concerning student performance. The thrust of my work is to help decision makers (teachers, administrators, etc.) make better decisions in their practice through reflection on evidence.  At the end of the day, it’s about improving student learning.

Usually, requests for help appear to link quite strongly to students’ wellbeing in school, such as their academic achievement, behaviour, attendance, or self-efficacy. Sometimes, requests are a little further removed, but still have tangible links, such as an HR project on a representative workforce.

I typically ask the purpose of the project. Sometime, colleagues want to see how well their students are reading.  Other times, an administrator wants to know if resources are being allocated appropriately.  Maybe a school team is trying to see if a targeted intervention is having the desired effect.  All these are great things to know.

I’ve also started asking why we want to collect this data. Occasionally, the answer I get is that “it would be good to know.”  As much as I am dedicated to helping colleagues (in fact, that is my primary role), I feel that this is the absolute worst reason to collect and analyze data.  In the immortal words of that great philosopher G.I. Joe, “Knowing is half the battle.”  I should say, knowing is only half the battle, and it’s also the most dangerous.

Why? Let’s take the example of students reading.  What happens when we put in the time to assess, graph, statistically analyze, and interpret the data on student reading levels in a classroom, and it turns out that most students are struggling?  It is not merely ‘good to know’ that students are struggling; knowing that students are struggling is only half the battle.  We are now obligated to do something about it.

I use the word obligation here very deliberately. As teachers, we are expected to help our students improve, and more than just a little bit (since small performance improvements over the course of one school year are more likely associated with normal effects of aging).  So if we know that our students are struggling, then we must be prepared to support, to intervene, to adjust, to strategize, to seek additional help.  On the flip side, what does it say if you know you students are struggling and aren’t prepared to do make any changes?

Herein lies the danger of knowing. Either you must be prepared to change something that you thought was working well, or you must be prepared to say that you refuse to help.  Knowing is only half the battle.  It’s not just good to know unless you are ready to do as well.

So to that end, I’ve decided to return to why I’m here in this role.  When a colleague asks me for data, I’ll first do them a favour: I’ll ask them how it will be used to help improve student learning.  After all, I want to help them, not expose them to danger for which they are unprepared.  That, I think, is good to know.


Flexibility has different meanings in different contexts. As an adjective, flexible means that something is capable of bending easily without breaking (for example, a flexible hose) or something easily modified in response to circumstances or conditions (for example, a flexible timetable) or a person who is ready to change and adapt as necessary. Think about the flexibility of the muscles in your body and as people age, flexibility decreases but can be improved with exercise. When people do not increase flexibility through exercise, muscles can become rigid and inflexible.   Flexibility is also used as a term in Math in that we want students to develop flexibility in their thinking so that they can use a variety of strategies and choose the best strategy from a repertoire to solve any given problem. Students who are only taught one way to solve a problem have a rigid way of thinking and are limited in their ability to solve problems. Although I am aware of a need for improvement, it has come to my attention that I need to develop more flexibility in my delivery of professional development as a facilitator/leader/presenter.

On November 24, 2014 we had an STF teacher-directed PD day. Our group of consultants invited Wendy James from Saskatoon Public to guide us through investigating our roles as consultants and how to implement change in the somewhat rigid area of education. She led us through a number of exercises in a thoughtful, intentional manner. At the end of the day we were to make a commitment to change something in our practice to improve our abilities to facilitate professional development and we agreed to report our experiences during upcoming PLC times. I have made a commitment to be more aware of being flexible and ironically, planning to be more flexible.

During my student teaching experience in a grade 2 classroom many years ago, I recall taking the spelling words (yes, grade 2 spelling words!) and lesson with me to the front of the class and I referred to the words and my notes frequently throughout the lesson. I did not/could not stray from the planned lesson or respond to the students if their questions or responses did not follow the lesson plan. I am pleased to report that my following lessons throughout my career were not so rigid but while I am learning and practicing, I don’t have the flexibility to “wing it”. Anytime I implement a new strategy or resource, I rely on that information in a physical form and I have to follow the plan as it is laid out. I now feel this way as a presenter /facilitator. I do not yet feel comfortable or competent to let the group lead the session and go with the flow. I feel like I need to have every minute planned to avoid those uncomfortable moments of “what am I going to do with these people for the next two hours?” – which is a regular nightmare the night before a presentation!

I decided to do some digging into flexible thinking to wrap my head around this commitment. In the December, 2008 issue of Educational Leadership there is an article called “Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind: 16 Essential Characteristics for Success”. I gleaned onto “Flexible people have the most control” and having control issues, this relaxed me a bit to recognize that in order to be flexible, I do have control. The article goes on to describe characteristics of flexible people in that they are able “to predict how others are thinking and anticipate potential misunderstanding”. When I plan my PD sessions, there is always a topic or a focus and I do anticipate where people are at as they enter the room (figuratively, of course). However, sometimes as we go through content, although I may recognize that we need to head in a different direction, the plan is in place, the powerpoint slides are prepared, and I plough through the plan whether I respond to the needs of the group or not.

As I consider the implications of being flexible, I realize that although planning is an important aspect to delivering PD, being flexible in the delivery is important too. But, I like to be in control. I realized this a number of years ago as I began to investigate differentiated instruction in response to student needs in the classroom. Many of the strategies presented scared me because I thought I would lose control of my students. And to be honest, as a teacher, it is necessary to be planned, prepared, and in control of all situations! Yet, when we take control away from our students, they are losing out in not being given an opportunity to struggle and/or to fail in a caring safe environment. Heaven forbid they won’t do things the way we want them to! But I learned through experience that learning is more authentic and meaningful when led by the learner and facilitated by the teacher in response to student needs. For some reason, though, things seem a little different for me when working with adults.

Wendy gave some good advice – she said have a plan A and a plan B which I think I can handle because I can anticipate a couple of scenarios and plan for each – still maintaining my need for control. Also, I need to take time to practice and improve. It is challenging for me to present in front of adults – kids seem to be more forgiving when you make mistakes and from day to day, I have more opportunity for do-overs which I don’t have when presenting to a unique group for one day.   Pat Renihan was invited by the Administrators Council to facilitate the group through Change Leadership. He presented the process of Change, Competence and Development and at the moment I think I am Conciously Incompetent. I think my PD commitment is a do-able commitment for myself at this time and it is necessary to allow myself the opportunity to fail, make mistakes and feel uncomfortable while gaining experience and exercising my flexibility.

December 3, 2014Permalink