Partnering for Black Student Well-Being: A Teacher’s Journey
On April 21, 1971, my mother left Jamaica as a teenager and reunited with my grandmother in Toronto. She remembers the screech of the subway, the bustle of shoppers at the Eaton Centre and wearing her winter coat to bed in a desperate attempt to keep warm. My mother also recalls being placed two grades behind at school and the grade 10 English teacher that falsely accused her of plagiarism. The teacher yelled, “How could you possibly do so well on a poetry assignment without cheating?”
In many ways, not much has changed since my mother was a high school student in the 1970s. Anti-Black racism continues today with disastrous consequences for students of African descent (James, 2010). School boards across Ontario affirm the importance of positive well-being to student achievement (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2016). Black-centric networks such as Black Lives Matter Toronto and the Ontario Alliance of Black School Educators understand the dismantling of anti-Black racism as integral to the mental health and wellbeing of African-Canadian students.
On May 1, 2017, Black Lives Matter Toronto staged a Freedom Day school walkout. Educators and students from across the Greater Toronto Area were urged to skip a day of school to protest anti-Black racism in the education system (Hong, 2017). The Toronto District School Board (TDSB)’s Director of Education, Dr. Malloy, attended. To the crowd, Malloy admitted, “We know that there are problems with some of [TDSB’s] processes and we know that we have issues of racism and we know that we have anti-Black racism that goes on” (Hong, 2017).
The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) is reeling from data that schools continue to fall short in creating inclusive learning environments for Black students. For years, TDSB has been at the forefront in Ontario for collecting and analyzing data tied to demographic factors. This intentional focus on collecting census data looks at students’ schooling experiences and provides insights into their well-being and achievement. According to TDSB’s 2006 Student Census and 2008 Parent Census (Yau, O’Reilly, Rosolen & Archer, 2011, p. 1-8), Black students are less likely to say that they:
- enjoy school,
- view school as a welcoming place, and
- feel safe inside school.
The 2006 Student Census and 2008 Parent Census (Yau, O’Reilly, Rosolen & Archer, 2011, p. 1-8) also point out that Black students are less likely to feel:
- supported by teachers,
- comfortable discussing problems with school adults, and
- respected by staff.
Increasingly, school boards are recognizing the link between achievement, inclusion, equity and well-being. To improve student well-being and learning, it is imperative that Ontario educators challenge systemic barriers that limit students attaining their full potential.
I began my career as a core French teacher eight years ago in a south-eastern Ontario middle school. I worked in a school where the student population reflected my own African-Caribbean cultural and racial identities. In my French classroom, students and I investigated inequities present in our local and global communities. We used visual arts and French literacy skills to examine issues of injustice and to communicate ideas.
Last year, I embarked on a new career as an elementary Learning Coach. I collaborate with educator teams, as well as individual teachers, early childhood educators and administrators. I work only in inner-city schools that have been identified through census reports as facing external challenges to student success. These challenges are linked to household income, level of parental/guardian education and family structure. My position in inner-city schools has led me on a journey to engage educators and students in work around achievement, equity and well-being.
Anti-Black Racism & the Social Determinants of Health
African Canadians have a long history in Canada, which stretches back to the earliest days of settlement by Europeans (James, 2010). Slavery of African and Indigenous peoples was practiced by both the French and British in Canada and lasted for more than two centuries. Currently, African-Canadians account for roughly 16 percent of the population in Ontario – comprising of immigrants, as well as those born in Canada (Ontario Ministry of Finance, 2016). Our history of colonialism has resulted in systemic barriers that prevent people from fully participating in all parts of society. This is especially true for Black Ontarians of all backgrounds. Whether recent immigrants or descendants of people who were enslaved, Black people in Ontario live a shared present-day experience of anti-Black racism.
Racism is wreaking havoc on our mental health-Uppala Chandrasekera, Director of Public Policy at the Canadian Mental Health Association Ontario
Just last year, Uppala Chandrasekera, Director of Public Policy at the Canadian Mental Health Association Ontario, proclaimed, “Racism is wreaking havoc on our mental health” (Yeung, 2017). Chandrasekera, who came to Canada as a refugee, has a direct message, “We need to start from the assumption that racism exists because it can damage the mental health of racialized people in insidious ways” (Yeung, 2017).
Our mental health is influenced by many factors including life experiences, environment and our social and economic conditions (Canadian Mental Health Association, 2018). These social and economic conditions are called the social determinants of health and are some of the most important factors that influence our mental and physical health. In Canada, the social determinants of health are not just about food security, housing and income. It also includes Indigenous status, gender identity, sexual orientation and race (amongst others). In fact, research maintains that freedom from discrimination and violence, social inclusion, and access to economic resources are the three social determinants of particular significance to positive mental health (Canadian Mental Health Association, 2018; Keleher & Armstrong, 2006).
Programming With Black Students’ Wellbeing in Mind
On October 27th, 2014, a Black male student, Jimmy, approached me during a grade 4 French class:
Jimmy: (lowering his head and voice) Miss, I can’t read too good.
Me: It takes time to understand French.
Jimmy: No, Miss. I can’t read too good. I can’t read too good in English or in French. It’s not just me. Lots of us can’t read good.
Jimmy reminded me of the inequities and emotional trauma that exist amongst racialized and marginalized students. Jimmy introduced me to five other grade 4 students who “can’t read too good.” They were all African-Canadian boys, bilingual in Créole, and affectionately referred to the Caribbean as “back home.” They were also the ones who experienced fits of anger.
In response to community concerns and TDSB student and parent census data around the schooling experiences of Black students, the school board introduced a Kindergarten to Grade 12 initiative called Improving Black Student Achievement. Spearheaded by Karen Murray and Dr. Nicole West-Burns, Improving Black Student Achievement was designed for educators to focus on data that spoke to achievement, well-being and sense of belonging amongst Black students in schools. This initiative involved professional learning modules that forced elementary educators to reflect on their own identities, interrogate classroom practices, and implement pedagogical approaches to support the achievement and well-being of Black students.
Armed with this support and leadership, I developed a reading program where I would work with the boys four times a week.
I, along with more than a hundred other educators, participated in this initiative. We engaged in what Cochran-Smith & Lytle (2009) call critical practitioner research. This research positioned me as a leader in my work with five grade 4 boys who maintained that they “can’t read too good.” Armed with this support and leadership, I developed a reading program where I would work with the boys four times a week.
At first, I solely relied on The Literacy Continuum by Guy Su Pinnell & Irene C. Fountas to design the reading program. We worked on decoding unfamiliar words, using details in illustrations to construct meaning and drawing on prior knowledge to support connections and new learning. Each week, I explicitly modeled an instructional strategy based on reading observations, student conferencing and guidance from the school’s reading specialist.
At some point in the program, I challenged each student to record their goal. Jimmy wrote in his paper, “I want people to see me. I want people to remember me.” At that moment, it became apparent that intentional reading instructional strategies in isolation would not be enough to support the students with improving their literacy levels and confidence. Through observations and informal conversations with the students and their other teachers, I realized that the students did not see themselves as integral parts of their learning environment.
In Alfred Tatum’s book, Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males: Closing the Achievement Gap, Tatum (2005, p. 24-25) states, “Effective teachers of Black males understand that they must go beyond reading instruction. They understand, that focusing only on skills and strategies does little to address the turmoil many Black youths experience and it may do little to improve their reading achievement.”
Jimmy helped me realize that a positive sense of self, spirit and belonging that we feel when our cognitive, emotional, social and physical needs are being met is an essential component to their learning experience. In fact, in Ontario’s Well-Being Strategy for Education (2016, p. 1) it states, “As our Indigenous partners have long affirmed, healthy development of the mind, body and spirit is contingent on balance and interconnectedness.”
Through stories, the students shared adventures of superheroes living in the neighbourhood.
The students and I engaged in storytelling. Through stories, the students shared adventures of superheroes living in the neighbourhood. The students used movement, humour and languages, such as English and Caribbean Créoles, to illustrate the journeys of superheroes as they navigated familiar landmarks and people in their community. The students used materials found within the classroom, throughout the school and at home to convert the classroom wall into a storyboard. Makeshift buildings, street signs and costumes built from discarded boxes and paper from the school adorned the storyboard. During program sessions, the boys used handmade finger puppets of their favourite superheroes and personalized costumes to recount narratives taking place in their community. The boys used their storyboard to explore themes being discussed within their community, such as anti-Black racism, empowerment, trauma, love and self-care.
To help nurture a positive sense of self, spirit and belonging, I had to honour the multiple facets that make up who they are. They were not just Black boys, they were also visual artists, dancers, poets, and singers. The students were funny, thoughtful, nurturing, creative and critical thinkers. We conducted our program outside the walls of the school. We had sessions at the local pizza shop, park and library. These experiences forced me to confront my biases, assumptions and definitions of well-being, literacy and community. The students and I were challenged to reimagine literacy as not only based on reading abilities but also as something that affirms the myriad of ways by which we express ourselves (emotionally and physically) within schooling and daily community life. We connected with librarians, caregivers, lunchroom supervisors, community members and organizations. We painted with community graffiti artists and spat lyrics alongside local spoken word performers. Working with “the village” supported these five Black boys’ positive sense of self, spirit and belonging.
Call to Action
Mental health promotion involves a shared responsibility (Canadian Mental Health Association, 2018). When students do not feel they belong socially their mental health is often the first to be affected. Accordingly, mental health promotion in schools must also promote equity and social justice, and be respectful of personal dignity and diversity (CAMH, 2007; Joubert & Raeburn, 1998). By working with students to acknowledge privilege, identify oppression and determine ways to resist injustice, educators help create engaging spaces for all students, especially for those that identify as Black, Indigenous or racialized. Classroom-based educators: How will you integrate social justice and equity into your programming to champion mental health and wellbeing?
Currently, Stephanie is a Learning Coach at the Toronto District School Board. She works closely with superintendents and school administrators in the areas of equity, well-being and achievement. She leads educator teams in implementing high-yield research informed strategies to close opportunity gaps and improve the schooling experiences of inner-city students.
Stephanie is also a doctoral candidate at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto. Her research explores the ways that families and schools partner to support student well-being. Her extensive academic and professional experiences have led her to work with system leaders, classroom educators and community organizations across the country and internationally.
Fountas, I. C., & Pinnell, G. S. (2016). The Fountas & Pinnell literacy continuum: A tool for assessment, planning, and teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Hong, J. (2017, May 1). TDSB director commits to anti-racism training at Black Lives Matter walkout – The Toronto Star.
James, C. (2010). Race & Well-Being: The Lives, Hopes, and Activism of African Canadians. Black Point, N.S: Fernwood Pub.
Joubert, N & Raeburn, J. (1998). Mental Health Promotion: People, Power and Passion. International Journal of Mental Health Promotion, inaugural issue: 3.
Keleher, H & Armstrong, R (2006). Evidence-based mental health promotion resource. Melbourne, Dept. of Human Services – Health Victoria.
Ontario Ministry of Education. (2016). Ontario’s Well-being Strategy for Education. Toronto, Ontario: Queen’s Printer for Ontario.
Ontario Ministry of Finance. (2016). 2016 Census Highlights: Ethnic origin and visible minorities. Toronto, Ontario: Queen’s Printer for Ontario.
Tatum, A. W. (2005). Teaching reading to black adolescent males: Closing the achievement gap. Portland, Me: Stenhouse Publishers.
Yau, O’Reilly, Rosolen & Archer (2011). Census portraits: Understanding our students’ ethno-racial backgrounds. Toronto, Ontario: Toronto District School Board.
Yeung, L. (2017, December 10). Racism is wreaking havoc on our mental health, says policy expert Uppala Chandrasekera. Huffington Post.