York teacher education program focuses on diversity

Teacher candidates in the Urban Diversity Initiative at York University are learning how to look at education differently – from the point of view of students who feel marginalized in school.

Almost 1,000 teacher candidates have graduated from the unique program in York’s Faculty of Education since its inception in 1994 and are using what they have learned to engage and empower students in classrooms across Toronto and beyond. Student candidates currently in the program are not only teaching in some of Toronto’s most troubled neighbourhoods, but working with community groups in those same neighbourhoods to address the challenges many students face.

"One of the most important things that teacher candidates do in our program is to take a walk around the neighbourhoods of the schools where they will be practice teaching," says York education Professor Patrick Solomon (right). "They go out during Orientation to find out what the children need in the community where they’ll be doing their practice teaching and – just as important – what resources the community has to offer them as teachers. This ensures a more culturally relevant approach to the teaching-learning process."

Solomon was instrumental in developing the Urban Diversity Initiative 14 years ago in response to a call by the Ontario Ministry of Education for teacher education programs that were more responsive to the province’s growing diversity. The cornerstone values of the program – equity, diversity and social justice – are integrated into both theory and practicum for the teacher candidates, who take the one-year program after earning an undergraduate degree.

Teacher candidates are encouraged to challenge their own biases about different communities, explore the perspectives of marginalized students and develop strategies to include those students’ experiences in the curriculum – similar to many of the recommendations in the Falconer report on school safety recently released by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB).

The Falconer report recommends training teachers in classroom management skills suitable for schools in "at risk" communities. Student teachers in the Urban Diversity Initiative at York are learning how to do this by developing positive relationships with disengaged students, says Camille Taylor, a TDSB principal who was seconded to York as a course director for the program.

"That means learning the students’ language code, and engaging with it," says Taylor. "One of our teacher candidates was teaching a Grade 8 class and having trouble getting the students to quiet down until she remembered the call and response tradition of the black community. She called out ‘Be’ and the kids called back ‘Quiet’. And then they were!"

Teacher candidates in the Urban Diversity Initiative at York also learn how to expand implementation of the Ontario curriculum to include the perspectives of people from a variety of social realities, says Taylor, similar to a recommendation in the TDSB report on school safety.

One of the most important components of the Urban Diversity Initiative is requiring teacher candidates to appraise the needs in a community and collaborate with community members and social service agencies in developing projects that meet these needs.

"Our students work in the same school for the full year, so they have a long time to work on a project with the community, and they are really committed," says Gini Dickie, a TDSB teacher who was also seconded to act as a course director for the program.

Teacher candidates in the past have set up or assisted with after-school clubs for homework, recreation and the arts and drop-in programs for at-risk youth. One group discovered what the local community centre really needed was a library for both children and adults, Dickie says, and they collected more than 1,000 books. This year, one group of teacher candidates has created a computer training program for parents, so they can help their children with homework and understand how to monitor their computer use.

In keeping with the program’s focus on the importance of diversity and interdependent learning and teaching, teacher candidates go into the schools and communities in ethno-racially-mixed groups.

"They often learn as much by observing each other teach as they learn from the teacher whose classroom they have borrowed," says Solomon, "because they are from different backgrounds and they have different experiences and perspectives."