Thursday, April 9, 2009

Imagine a Hundred Altafs

A little while ago I came across an article in the Toronto Star, by a columnist I like to read, Joe Fioroto. While there is not much about The Star that I generally like, you still have to respect a newspaper that brings in those sorts of numbers, especially in this day and age. But regardless of my views about the paper, Fioroto consistently writes engaging articles about people, hard working ordinary people, who are forever overlooked and unmentioned. In this one article Fioroto happened to be writing about someone I had worked with in the past, and I thought I'd share a few thoughts on this remarkable individual.

About eight years ago, when I was a student in the Faculty of Education at York University, I worked with a man named Altaf Qadeer at Brookview Middle School in the Jane/Finch area for several months during a teaching practicum. Although I later pulled out out the Ed program for financial reasons, I still ended up working as a teacher, and to my great surprise I found I faced many of the same problems Altaf introduced to me back then in Canada.

You see, Altaf was and is a very effective teacher, and his effectiveness with students from so many disparate communities is a testament to the kind of resource Canada currently has so much of, but utilizes so poorly. His class included students from fifteen to twenty nationalities, each and every one having only an elementary grasp of English at most. But through the use of evocative activities, and a finely honed pedagogical approach, these students regularly went from strangers overwhelmed by an alien tongue to everyday neighbourhood kids, ready to talk your ear off if you gave them half a chance.

Back when I was studying to become a teacher, I specifically requested the Urban Education program. This sort of program is supposed to embrace visible minorities and students from urban environments. In short, students who knew what it was like to be poor, underprivileged, or new to the country. The sad irony is that the cost of becoming a teacher is so high, in both time and money, that these same students cannot afford to go through the program, since it is a strict requirement of the program that students not work, even at a part-time job. Those who need to work to pay the rent often end up with no recourse other than to withdraw. It happened to me, and so I ended up taking myself abroad, to teach elsewhere. Though I have spent the last several years teaching intensive ESL to high school students, and will soon complete an MFA in Creative Writing through UBC, were I to go back to Toronto today, I would be ineligible to teach at a place like Brookview.

While I could rectify that by going back to school to acquire the necessary credential, I would not have enough money to support my family in the interm period. And that is the real problem, because for many, many educators like Altaf, who immigrate to Canada, who have a vast array of expertise dealing with students in far more challenging environments than even the most downtrodden parts of Toronto could produce, the situation is the same. In them there is experience and ability, but no viable option to exercise either, which is to the detriment of everybody.

Can you imagine being able to take a hundred Altaf Qadeers and sending them into the schools today? Altaf has been at Brookview for years. In the few months I was there, they had three principals come and go, and eight other teachers quit. So, so many middle class new teachers arrive at a place like that, take one look at the challenges they face, and make a beeline for Orangeville or Newmarket, or anywhere but there. But a guy like Altaf, though, he doesn't hop on the next bus down the road. He puts down roots, and goes about giving a hand up to those sitting there at the very bottom.

Can you imagine what might happen if we found a way to let a hundred more Altafs in?

1 comment:

  1. VERY interesting comment, James. I enjoyed both your deep insights and the surface story that you've presented here. But, because I knew you and also worked with you during this period of your life, it also conjured up a lot of fond memories and nostalgia which do love to savour. You've also opened my eyes to the struggle of others and enlightened me to more of your own personal struggle which I was previously only aware of to a small degree.

    Thanks for the great read!