It’s time to support a Canada-wide network – for education and research
by Bridget Stirling
At this year’s People for Education conference in November 2019, I started simply introducing myself as “Edmonton.”
When I submitted a proposal to speak about my work on how childhood is used in political discourses and what that means for the meaningful participation of youth, I didn’t realize how unusual it might be for a pracademic (a practitioner who is also an academic – in my case, a trustee who is also a researcher) from Alberta to want to be a part of a public education conference in Ontario. I wrote up a proposal, sent it off, got accepted, and booked my flight. The next thing I knew, Annie Kidder was listing off all the places people were from, including how someone had come “all the way from Edmonton!” to be there.
I’ve followed People for Education’s work for a while. Although the newsletter focuses primarily on Ontario, there are a lot of commonalities between our systems and the current challenges we face.
Like Ontario, Alberta has a complex education landscape that includes public and separate English school districts, Francophone boards, and private schools. We have some additional complexities – charter schools, for one, and the partial public funding of private schools – but I find it’s helpful to look to what’s happening in Ontario as a comparator for debates we’re having in Alberta about what a robust public education system should look like.
We also share similar challenges: needs for student mental health supports and other wraparound services, curriculum controversies, provincial budget cuts that affect our classrooms, and proposals to restructure education funding that undermine the stability of an inclusive and universal public education system.
A Canada-wide research network
That’s why I believe it is vital to build a Canada-wide network of voices for public education. While many of us participate in a range of national bodies in our particular areas – the Canadian School Boards’ Association, the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, the Canadian Society for the Study of Education, and many others – these bodies are focused on particular areas of work. We need more spaces in which we speak to and learn from each other about what we do and what matters in public education.
At the conference, I saw what this could look like in action when participants were asked to stand up when their particular role in education was called. In the room were teachers, parents, students, policy makers, district leaders, trustees, and researchers. Like me, some of those people stood up more than once. Like me, every one of them was committed to the work of building a stronger public education system that serves every child.
Meaningful student participation
One of the most significant aspects for me was the full participation of students. Often, events that include youth voice do so by creating a kind of conference kids’ table – a separate stream of activities where adults and children may meet only briefly. I believe that young people’s present voices and present lives need to be at the centre of our work in schools, and I was glad to see young people presenting, chairing panels, and being a meaningful part of every aspect of the conference.
Connecting research and practice
The other aspect of the conference that excited me was the bridging of researcher and practitioner worlds. While there are many opportunities to share my research in academic contexts, I believe strongly that publicly funded research needs to serve the public good. As such, I seek out accessible places in which I can share my work on childhood, whether that is writing about it for the Star or speaking about it in non-traditional spaces. While People for Education is not alone in hosting a conference that bridges these worlds, it is unusual in being focused specifically on education topics. Something like that was worth flying across the country to be a part of the conversation.
As I flew home, I found myself reflecting on how what I had seen could translate into our work back in Alberta. I hope that the next time I come back to Ontario for the conference I am not the lone western voice in the room. We can and must build a national conversation about public education – every Canadian child deserves a high quality, inclusive public education system, and we all need to be in this together.
Bridget Stirling is an Edmonton Public school board trustee and PhD student in education bringing together theory and practice for children’s rights.