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Teacher of teachers addresses teaching in polarized times

Ivon Prefontaine teaches Canadian teachers to dispel hate. Photo courtesy of Ivon Prefontaine

By Mary Stamp

At The King's University in Edmonton, Alberta, Gonzaga graduate Ivon Prefontaine teaches students to be effective teachers in today's climate of polarization, where just a few parents with extremist views may influence what is or is not taught.

He invites his students to adopt the approach he used in 15 years teaching seventh, eighth and ninth graders at Stony Creek, a small school in Stony Plain, a town of 700 near Edmonton, where he built trusted relationships with parents and fostered a sense of hope for students.

During the April International Conference on Hate Studies, co-sponsored by Gonzaga University at Spokane Community College, Ivon shared insights from a book chapter he co-authored called "A Futures Perspective for an Andragogy of Hope."

Ivon, who earned a doctoral degree in leadership studies at Gonzaga University in 2017, believes teachers can play a role in opening hopeful learning spaces for K-12 students.

He encourages teachers to adopt a pedagogical—teaching children—and andragogical—teaching adults—creed suggested by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire: "I am a teacher full of the spirit of hope in spite of all that stands to the contrary. I am a teacher who refuses the disillusionment that consumes and immobilizes."

Ivon grew up in Rycroft, a town of 550, a one-day drive from Edmonton. His K-12 school had 150 students.

Later his family moved to Prince George, B.C., where he graduated in 1972 in a class of 900 and then met his wife, Kathy.

He studied education for a year at the University of Notre Dame in Nelson, B.C., but decided to leave to play hockey. After leaving the university, he worked in banking for 15 years. Then he realized that even though he could make more money in banking, he was called to teach.

As a 33-year-old father of three boys, Ivon began at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. On the first day of an introduction to education class, the professor said that by October, 40 percent of 320 students would be gone, but he was one who stayed.

Ivon planned to teach physical education. As a third-generation francophone in Alberta with family roots in 17th-century Quebec, he also studied French.

After graduating in 1993, he taught core subjects—junior high social studies, science, math, English and physical education—at schools in Stony Plain.

"I realized teaching was not about teaching a subject but about teaching human beings," said Ivon, whose teaching philosophy is influenced by Parker Palmer, 84, a U.S. writer, speaker and activist at the Center for Courage and Renewal in Seattle. Parker emphasizes community, leadership, spirituality and social change in education.

After his first year at Stony Creek school, Ivon knew he needed to learn more, so he joined a cohort program at the University of Portland, Oregon. He earned a master's in 2004.

"I did projects on active learning and teaching strategies to engage students to think, write, care about their neighbors and share with the community," he said.

He started a doctorate in leadership studies at Gonzaga, traveling to Spokane during the summers of 2006 to 2013, taking online courses and attending full time from 2013 to 2017.

"I realized K-12 teachers were losing agency in teaching, as administrators were deciding what was relevant for students to learn. There should be give and take," he said. "Having valued taking time to know the students' parents and visiting them in their homes at Stony Creek, I decided to teach teachers, using techniques I used there."

At Gonzaga, he was exposed to a Jesuit faith perspective, which differed from the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who served most parishes in Alberta.

As one example, it was the first time he heard in the parable of the Good Samaritan the difference between the first two, who were constrained by religious dogma, and the Samaritan, who had no bounds and made himself vulnerable to be a neighbor.

"Since 2017, I have taught at The King's University, a small, private Christian College in Edmonton with 1,100 to 1,200 students. Classes I taught included first-year and second-year education students in their practicum," he said, explaining that "The King" refers to God as King.

The college has Dutch Reformed roots and identifies as a Christian university but its students are Catholic, Calvinist, Muslim, Sikh, atheist, agnostic and more.

Nearly 30 percent are non-traditional students who have families and are going to the university after being in the workforce, as he did.

Teaching there, he faced a dilemma teachers face today, when a student teacher suggested an activity, and the teacher said no, because a few parents might be opposed.

"I believe that a small percent of parents should not stop conversations on criminal justice, gun violence, global warming, border issues or other topics," Ivon said. "It's like holding the whole group hostage. Teachers should help children form sound, just opinions.

"Teachers see a lack of social skills in students since COVID. Many have fed on false narratives and are unable to deal with disagreements," Ivon said. "It's important to set boundaries so we can discuss issues." 

Ivon reminds his students that there are extremists in every religion.

"As a francophone in Alberta I know what it means not to belong to the larger community," he said. "We need to 'un-other' others, to look at our common ground. If we want to solve the environmental crisis, we need to help people see that political talking points are about winning elections, not solving problems."

He advocates looking at what brings people together rather than what divides them, which is what he did when he knew the students' families.

"We need to be open to listen to each others' stories and ideas," Ivon said.

He said the word, "diverse," can be a problem, because it focuses on differences, but the word, "pluralism," recognizes that people have differences but also have commonalities.

Students go from The King's University to rural Alberta, so he prepares them to have hard conversations.

One dynamic affecting Alberta schools is that money goes with a student, not to a school. It creates tension for teachers, who try to please students and families, resulting in more politically-motivated teaching in the last 10 years.

He likened white Christian nationalist control of political parties in Alberta to the American right wing seeking to gain local control in elections where few vote, such as school board elections.

"That creates tension about what we are or are not allowed to teach in schools to avoid ruffling feathers," Ivon said.

Students leave The King's University with a sense of purpose, but schools and communities can beat their faith out of them, he said.

To counter polarizing and hateful rhetoric, he calls for those who educate teachers to re-imagine how this is done.

"It is essential to come together, draw on one another and find common ground to offset the vitriol of a minority, understanding there will be differences and disagreements, but despite differences people need to listen, argue, disagree and make peace for there to be education," he said.

Ivon believes hope is essential to counter hate.

"When done with compassion, care, and love, teaching is forward looking, imagining new, hopeful futures, seeking a more just future for all," he asserted.

Ivon is aware that teachers may feel oppressed, afraid because of tenure issues, overwhelming teaching assignments, political machinations, bureaucratic directives and the inability to effectively address the hate, indifference and oppression they meet. 

"If hatred is learned, it can be unlearned," he said. "A teacher can intervene to dispel hateful rhetoric cloaked in the guise of free speech."

Ivon believes pluralism is a commitment to communicate with and relate to different neighbors to find what is common to bring people together without denying difference.

He believes hope is what it means "to be human," and thus it counters hate. Because it is fragile, he said hope depends on nurturing a sense of community among teachers so they can be in solidarity with one another.

"Hope is essential to teaching, so children can dream of and live more hopeful futures with clean air, less violence and more equity," he said.

"Hopeful adults—teachers—are needed to offer students hope," Ivon affirmed.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, October 2023