School Politics

Participation Inequality 90 9 1

Image courtesy of Christopher Allen on Flickr.

It is a common sentiment that schools ought be apolitical spaces, despite the fact that in policy, curriculum, and objectives they cannot help but exist in political reality. In the resultant power dynamic that confronts us as professionals, even reluctant teachers engage in a struggle for agency and voice in working for what we believe are the best interests of our students. As union members and public employees, our contract negotiations, and evolving role in society is regularly part of the broader political dialogue that surrounds schools, whether in our neighbourhoods, newspapers, broadcast media or holiday dinners.

Our efforts to work alongside our colleagues and cultivate the spaces of public education take on political dimensions in other ways beyond the classroom, as well. As the Canadian Multicultural Act puts forth, our pluralist democracy is only realized through “the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society.”

However, even while we are each ensured this right as citizens of Canada (a right reinforced by the collective bargaining power to resist provided with our union membership), the structural inequalities present in society manifest themselves in our classrooms, and are similarly recreated among school and district staffs.  Intersectional privileges and marginalization lead to working environments which have largely been established (and continue to be maintained and administrated) by those who have been the beneficiaries of the system as it exists.

Administrators and trustees, board office employees and superintendents, department heads, increasingly essential Parent Advisory Council leadership, union representatives and other decision-making committees in a school or district tend to skew toward those who share a collection of unearned privileges: they are disproportionally male, often white, and possess a particular confidence and conversational / social capital. Among those who are not male, or caucasian, there is often a shared economic class (even among teachers, who share a pay scale but emerge from relatively diverse economic backgrounds), or level of education. Recent immigrants are at a disadvantage in acquiring these attributes (which can be acquired), and can be delayed in attaining positions of influence or power; as in all aspects of social life, those who are not comfortable or confident vocal participants in larger groups are underrepresented in the collected culture.

At this disempowered end of this spectrum of influence we generally see an over-representation of the young, new Canadians, visible minorities, members of the LGBTQ community, people with more challenging social-economic backgrounds, and women.

And yet, the Multicultural Act promises not only a national aspiration toward “the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society,” but demands that Canada “assist them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation.” We are not merely assured this right as citizens and educators in Canada, but also challenged to continually strive to expand the circle of participants in our emergent national narrative.

It may be easy to see that this ought be our intention as teachers orienting our schools and classrooms toward citizenship, and providing a democratic education; however it is important to consider the role we each play in cultivating the public school space as one which seeks to eradicate the inequalities which prevent “all participants” from contributing to “all aspects” of community life and identity.

Fortunately, there are many avenues and opportunities for these inclusive dialogues to take place, and which ought be embraced by those looking to work toward social justice in our schools, for our colleagues as much as our students: professional development, collaborative decision making, departmental, committees, union volunteerism, and social planning groups offer official channels for discussion and dialogue that includes the possibility of all voices. Beyond these our hallways and staff rooms, intramural pitches of competition and picket lines offer an informal space of interaction that can foster collegiality and consensus that enables our capacity to collaborate as professionals.

Across these settings there are inevitably those whose voices are heard above the rest, and we needn’t take anything away from those possessing the ability to influence; but we are not practicing democracy if we do not work to correct a system of interaction in which many are disproportionally voiceless.