The Wounds of Our Students

“As educators, we cannot understand the troubles of our students without understanding the deep politico-economic grammar that is underwriting their lives, and our own as teachers.” (Smith, 2009)

In the middle of the first month of the new semester, a trusted and respected colleague and 17-year veteran of working with at-risk and high needs learners was called out of her classroom by two homicide detectives; the latest murder victim discovered in Edmonton had been her student, and she had been the last person known to have seen him alive. Two days later, another colleague was interrupted during his class by the police; a young man in his class was arrested for a separate, albeit related, murder. The following month, two highly distinctive racial groups met in front of the school and a fight broke out. During the altercation, a young man produced a knife and in attempting to stab his antagonizer, missed, and stabbed his best friend.

Every year, local school districts close a number of schools in Edmonton’s older, more central neighbourhoods. Despite study after study that supports the need for neighbourhood schools as integral to community renewal, safety and coherence—particularly in poorer wards comprising high refugee, immigrant, single mother and FNMI populations—these schools are closed. With their closures go havens of hope that exist in programming for small, but needy populations. We are pressured to provide new, technologically advanced schools for the ever-increasing urban sprawl (and those wealthy families who inhabit that sprawl). The result? We find ourselves making polarizing and “bottom-line” decisions that affect students, families, communities, teachers and businesses alike.

Last year, I taught a wonderful young woman from Pakistan who was too afraid to tell her friends or family the truth; she’d missed acceptance into Engineering by 2%. Unwilling to impact “the dignity” of her family and the pride they took in their child’s academic success, she told them she was attending university when in fact she was still attending high school. The “recognition, and affection” of acceptance David Purpel (2004) observes in the “worth/achievement” paradox were “basic conditions” she was unwilling to risk. She went to great lengths to maintain an illusion upon which her own and her family’s “happiness” was constructed, even though it came with an accompanying ulcer, frequent waves of shame for lying to everyone, and incredible stress.

In September, The LA Times rated the effectiveness of city teachers; in their attempts to improve education, they posted the names of teachers with low math and reading results in grade three and grade five. Canadian education critic, Peter Cowley, at The Fraser Institute, applauded the move: “As a result of the study, the school district can see which teachers are actually earning their keep” (“Let’s rank our teachers,” 2010). One of those teachers was Rigoberto Ruelas, “a dedicated teacher in South LA for the past 14 years, with a perfect attendance record, his family said he had been upset and depressed since the LA Times listed him as being ineffective” (Cody, “The Media’s War on Teachers,” EdWeek Online, 2010). His body was discovered a few days after he failed to show up to work; he committed suicide.

I cannot help but see these separate stories as metaphors for how many North Americans live. The ideologies of a few men have created a global world that has scapegoated the poor and demonized social-infrastructures, cordoned us off from each other through fear of not getting our piece or place at the table, pitted equally deserving groups against each other, convinced so many of us that the only measure of success is materialistic. What feels worse, though, is the sense of powerlessness I feel deeply. It seems that our antecedents (Tawney, 1938) set this course centuries ago, and despite the mountains of evidence that prove time and again that this ideology of consumerism and the “free” pursuit of wealth is destructive and causes suffering, no one seems able to set us free from these “generic presuppositions” (McMurtry, 2002, p. 89).

The worshippers of “market logic” have done such a thorough job of brainwashing this culture, and the truth is so painful and massive, many people cannot conceive of where they can make a change without risking their own annihilation. The media’s broadcasts of protestors focuses on the few hooligans in the crowd, instead of explaining the issues to the viewers. Images of unarmed citizens being pepper-sprayed, dragged, beaten and arrested (because their consciences have compelled them to speak out against the WTO, IMF or World Bank) cause many similar-minded individuals to stay home.

Such scenes put tremendous burden on educators to first see and recognize the “invisible prison” we’re in, and then educate each other and our students to also recognize the “big lie.” Significant issues are facing young people and the teachers who work with them. This is a crazy world, and we find ourselves fully within it. It is a world that rewards wealth, status, individuality, freedom and independence; and it is a world educators don’t “buy.” As educators, we know the necessity for collaboration, friendship, community, respect and acceptance. The level of anxiety and stress created by these paradoxes creates many cynical and unhappy young people—students and teachers alike.

New teachers, entering the complicated immediacy of school demands, entrenched in this culture’s obsession with “the self” and “the standards” are not certain what they can or cannot say. They are unsure how to separate the “teacher-self” from the “public-self.” The highly alienating aspect of state-mandated curriculum and standardized achievement exams leave little room for criticism of society, school boards or government, inquiry/enquiry, and the collaborative ideals they studied in their teacher-training. I suspect that, once in classrooms, the anxiety and wounds they recognize in their students, mirror similar suffering in themselves. Aware of the danger in appearing vulnerable, and all too aware of our culture’s esteem of “survivor of the fittest” many young teachers barricade themselves from their students’ struggles. To deal with the cognitive dissonance that ensues, young teachers either submerge their authentic selves, or withdraw from teaching.

McMurtry, J. (2002), Value Wars: The Global Market versus the Life Economy. London: Pluto Press.

Purpel, D., & McLaurin, W. (2004). Reflections on the Moral & Spiritual Crisis in Education. New York: Peter Lang.

Smith, D. (2009). Critical notice: Engaging Peter McLaren and the New Marxism in education. Interchange, 40(1), pp. 93-117.

Tawney, R. H. (1938 [1926]) Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, West Drayton, Penguin.


Kelly Harding
Kelly Harding is a teacher, currently on leave and completing her EdD at the University of Alberta.

This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Jan/Feb 2011 issue.

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