Saturday, July 31, 2010

I'm a Canadian (and why that matters)

I had a fantastic discussion today on Twitter about teaching, teacher training and certification. One of the large concerns is how to improve the teachers teaching in the inner-cities who are often minorities and living in poverty (although not always). How can you really prepare a teacher (who is typically white, middle-class, and female) for the demands of a "failing" inner-city school?

I've taught at a HBCU and a state university where the majority of the students are non-traditional/Hispanic/First-Generation students. I never set out to teach this particular population, at least not at the beginning; I just needed a job. And, as it turned out, I am good at it. Part of the reason for that is because I am a Canadian. Not through any sort of inherent Canadian superiority, but because the stereotypes the students typically have about Canadians and because I was seen as a "foreigner."

Now, of course, none of this foreignness is obvious. I look like an all-American girl: blond hair; blue eyes; casual, yet clean, stylish, and appropriate wardrobe; and a nice purse, for good measure. But as soon as I say that I am Canadian, my students suddenly become a lot more curious and comfortable with me. As a Canadian, I am assumed to be a product of a more racially and socially equitable society: we're the cultural mosaic, we have socialized healthcare, we were where slaves came to be free. This is, of course, both true and a carefully constructed image of the True North Strong and Free. But it also means that the students assume I know nothing, and have no reason to know anything, beyond the stereotypical images shown to me through the media. And they are willing to explain it to me.

I am able to pair that willingness the students show to teach me by showing how genuinely interested I am in learning. I want to know about them and use it to help me be a better teacher for them. I realize that there is a sort-of tourist/visiting colonialist air to that, but when you stand in front of the classroom and give back as much as they give to you, it works, at least for me. Plus, I know that what I immediately see in front of me in no way tells a fraction of the story behind the eyes.

When I decided to go off and start my new life in college, because of financial considerations, I went to a French university (I grew up in the English part of Montreal). The year before leaving for college, we had a very contentious and controversial referendum on Quebec possibly separating from Canada and becoming a sovereign nation.  It was my very first opportunity to vote. The "No" side narrowly won, and the then-Premiere (Governor) of Quebec famously said that it was the fault of the immigrants and money (code for English) that Quebec was denied her right to be independent. My friends and family worried about my safety (and my sanity) when I decided to go to the heart of separatist country (the university I attended once boasted in its promotional materials that it was the most Quebec university, ie white, French, working class, etc. Ah, the days before internationalization was king).  I was told I wouldn't have any friends, that everyone would be a closed-minded bigot, that it would all be folk music and separatist bitterness, that I would be miserable.

How wrong they were. I went in and made some of the best friends of my life. How could I live in a place and not know the majority of the people, know their culture, but also know actual individuals within that culture? Everyone was burned out on politics, so we did what all undergrads tend to do: drank, studied, gossiped, took road trips, took terribly care of ourselves and spent a lot of time trying to figure out who we were. They learned that not all English girls were icy-cold bitches and I learned that, well, while some of the stereotypes fit, it was never a good fit; it was only one part of the people I met.

Yes, I'm from Quebec. No, I don't have an accent. Now, tell me a little about yourself. Because I have no idea and I want to learn. Let's learn together.

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