Layoff follows Olympic-sized learning experience for Vancouver teacher

Olympic rings as elementary school artwork

Vancouver elementary school teacher Myriam Dumont described in two previous blog postings how she tried to bring critical thinking about the Olympics into her classroom. In this final posting of this 3-part series, she points out the disconnect between Olympic teaching in schools and the reality of daily life in the DTES. 

The Athlete: A “Symbol of Meritocracy”

Schools, as they are currently set up, are based on a supposed system of meritocracy. There is no analysis of class, race, gender or any other category that might be a major factor in determining whether or not you succeed in school. The Olympics fit in perfectly with this idea that you can achieve anything if you just put your mind to it.

Athletes visiting our school always sent the message to the kids that, “as long as you work hard, you, too, could be an Olympic athlete.” There was no mention, of course, that it takes money to be an Olympic athlete: economic privilege and commitment on the parents’ part. In reality, not every family has the money to hire a coach and buy expensive equipment, and most parents do not have the time and the ability to dedicate their lives to making their child’s dream come true.

Critical Thinking in Schools

I draw upon Paulo Freire’s education philosphy known as Critical Pedagogy. This pedagogy is different from the current discourse around critical thinking in schools. The mainstream notion of critical thinking is that kids need to learn to think about various issues from different points of view.

The Critical Pedagogy philosophy, on the other hand, sees children as participants who can analyze unequal power structures that exist in our society and the groups that are most affected by them. Students draw from their own experiences and their life experience is seen as valuable to the learning process. By looking at the world critically, and questioning and challenging it, children are able to transform their world.

As a critical pedagogue, I am used to hearing repeated arguments about how kids are not capable of thinking critically at such a young age. One teacher suggested that perhaps in high school we should talk about these larger issues of gentrification, human rights violations, corporatization, environmental degradation, etc., but in Grade 1, children would not be able to understand such complex issues. One study showed that even though teachers claimed that age was not a barrier in teaching about social justice issues, teachers for the most part felt that young children were not developmentally ready to learn about social justice issues.

Another recurring theme is that of childhood innocence: the idea that it is better for children to be oblivious to the inequities that take place in the world and “enjoy their childhood”. I have seen in my own classroom how this is truly possible, especially with inner-city children. Oppression is part of my students’ everyday lives, so how can someone say that they can’t understand it?

My students who are students of color know what it is like to be made fun of because of your race. My students who are poor know what it is like not to have rights and privileges because of your economic class. The families of the students at our school were the ones directly being affected by the gentrification, the cost we paid to host the Olympics. Despite that, some parents were strongly opposed to their children hearing arguments against the Olympics.

The Fallout

It cost the Canadian and BC taxpayers billions of dollars ($6 billion, by some estimates) to host the Olympic games. A few weeks ago, I received a layoff notice. Due to the budget cuts, teachers with low seniority are getting laid off. Teachers across the province are outraged, and parents are furious. There is no doubt that it will dramatically affect our classrooms. While the Vancouver School Board has to cut programs and lay off teachers and support staff because of a multi-million-dollar budget shortfall, the cost of the Olympic opening ceremonies alone was $38 million.

Now that the Olympics are over, I hope other cities will learn from the resistance movement that took place here in Vancouver. We need to work together with other cities and educate people so that they are aware of what could happen if the IOC uses their city to host the Olympic games. Teachers here in Vancouver need to help teachers in other cities around the world to cope with the challenges that their schools will face leading up to, and during, The Games.

An Olympic Learning Experience

As a beginning teacher, I learned a lot from this experience. I felt disillusioned and isolated on too many occasions and I came to realize the importance of allies. I found one experienced teacher at my school who was very supportive and encouraged me to keep on fighting for what I believed in, even when I felt like I could not do it any more. I realized the importance of knowing school policies and what my rights were as a teacher. I learned that I should always ask questions and always demand answers. For months, I had feelings of disillusionment, hopelessness, and isolation, but  I survived it.

It was all worth it, just listening to my 6-year-old students discuss their feelings around the Olympics amongst themselves in the lunchroom or during class. “I wish we could give all that money and instead make sure everyone has a place to live and can eat lots of food,” one student said.

“Yeah, not everyone LOVES the Olympics,” another one added.

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