Toronto schools have always been at the forefront of celebrating Black History Month, often using the opportunity to honour black accomplishments: inventors, prize winners, justice activists, etc.
But while I’ve discovered in my years of teaching that African-Canadian students appreciate the rare focus on black achievers, I also notice that they tend to view the event as highly ceremonial, with little trickle-down meaning for themselves.
I have been asked so many times by black students, “Do you really care about this, sir?”
It’s not a surprising question, really, given that most black youth have a great deal of trouble seeing themselves reflected in the day-to-day power structure of our schools.
Their alienation has some statistical roots. When the Toronto District School Board published its employee and student surveys last year, we learned that while 15 per cent of Grade 7 and 8 and 12 per cent of Grade 9 to 12 students are black, only 5 per cent of their teachers are.
The fact is, although the board has had a progressive policy statement on equity and inclusiveness for decades, not much has changed on the ground.
Over the years, I’ve watched very progressive individuals come to occupy senior equity positions at the board. I’ve also seen most of them get disillusioned. Some of those who resigned or were laid off vented openly about how their efforts were resented and stonewalled by principals, superintendents and other senior officials.
It’s easy to question the board’s oft-stated commitment to employment equity. Yes, there is a growing consensus about a black-oriented curriculum across schools, but it seems to me there is a strong relationship between the diversity of our staff and the speed and efficiency with which a diverse curriculum comes into being in our system.
Sometimes well-intentioned folks think we’re being spoilers to focus on the ethnic origins of our staff; they like to think of the educational community as one big, happy family.
What is so wrong, they ask, with leaving the staff composition the way it is? Well, I do know that most teachers, white or not, are caring and work hard for all their students. In fact, my own hero and role model is a white teacher who retired over 10 years ago.
Not only did Bob Davis, one of the original founders of This Magazine Is About Schools (later This Magazine) teach a black history course to his mostly black Grade 12 students in the 1980s and 90s, but he also published their personal and family stories.
Davis showed us one way of diversifying the curriculum – through the unique efforts of enterprising individuals, white or black. But the faster way to ensure it happens across the system is to guarantee that there are enough black teachers and administrators – people with a vested interest – to see this transformation through.
And while they are making materials more black-sensitive, they will also be serving as role models. For black students to stay in school, they have to be optimistic about having a shot at the good jobs – like the ones they see around them in schools.
Anything less than balanced representation is a fundamental injustice bound to raise serious questions in the minds of youth.
How African-Canadians fare in the education hierarchy
Grade 7 and 8 students who are black 15 per cent
Grade 9 to 12 students who are black 12 per cent
Black teachers 5.2 per cent
Black principals or vice-principals 9.6 per cent
Black senior administrators 6 per cent
Demographic Composition of Toronto District School Board Employees, March 2007