The Toronto District School Board Should Focus on Learning, Not Activism

September 29, 2021 Updated: October 4, 2021

Commentary

It looks like the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) still hasn’t learned a very important life lesson.

Earlier this year, one of TDSB’s “social equity program advisors” was caught distributing blatantly anti-Israel propaganda to its teachers. This educator’s material falsely accused Israel of apartheid and promoted the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

At first, TDSB appeared to take this incident seriously and suspended the educator. Sadly, it didn’t take long for the school board to restore this educator to his position without so much as a reprimand. So much for taking a stand against anti-Israel propaganda.

Now TDSB is at it again. On Sept. 24, the school board hired a keynote speaker for a gathering of more than 600 teachers. The ostensible topic of this presentation was anti-black racism. Unfortunately, the speaker veered away from his prepared talk and launched into a passionate attack against Israel.

Among other things, the speaker accused Israel of engaging in “settler colonialism” and repeated the anti-Israel slogan “Free Palestine.” To be clear, the Free Palestine Movement is opposed to the very existence of Israel, and if this movement had its way, the nation of Israel would not even exist.

It should go without saying that public school teachers should not be forced to listen to a presenter who spews anti-Israel propaganda. One can only imagine how uncomfortable this presentation must have been for the Jewish teachers who were in the audience. They should never have been subjected to this rhetoric.

In fact, the speaker’s presentation caught the attention of several Jewish organizations. For example, the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center issued an official statement denouncing the speaker’s anti-Israel statements, and raised concerns about implications to the TDSB’s efforts to confront antisemitism and discrimination.

If TDSB truly believes in fighting racism, it needs to stamp out any antisemitism that rears its ugly head. This means preventing its educators from disseminating anti-Israel propaganda and it also means making better choices when bringing in guest speakers. TDSB staff and students from all backgrounds deserve a safe and inclusive learning environment.

Fortunately, there is a way for TDSB to make this happen. Instead of making social justice activism the focus of professional development for teachers, the school board should focus on helping all students gain the fundamental knowledge and skills they need to be successful in life.

For example, the science of learning is clear that background knowledge is key to reading comprehension. Immerse all students in a content-rich learning environment and they are far more likely to become fluent readers. Combine this with a solid phonics approach to reading instruction in the early grades and TDSB students would reap the benefits. Why not have an in-service on this non-controversial topic?

Now, consider the advantages of providing teachers with professional development that actually helps students become effective readers. Not only would students find it much easier to learn new things, but teachers would have a greatly improved sense of accomplishment. After all, there is no higher reward for teachers than to see their students succeed.

This type of professional development would have the added advantage of keeping TDSB out of unnecessary controversies. TDSB administrators should focus on the thing that matters most—student achievement and how teachers can achieve that worthwhile goal.

The reality is that students are most likely to feel a sense of acceptance and belonging when they are in classrooms where genuine learning is taking place. When problems with student behaviour arise, teachers can deal with them on a case-by-case basis. This is far better than trying to implement a prepackaged anti-racism program that might not be relevant to every situation.

This doesn’t mean that controversial issues shouldn’t be discussed in class. Far from it. Rather, when students are in the process of becoming well-educated, they are better equipped to tackle challenging and controversial topics. The time for discussing the Middle East conflict is after students have acquired sufficient background knowledge, not before. Knowledge is the key to dispelling ignorance.

The TDSB needs to focus on learning, not on activism. Good educational practices should have a much higher place in the system.

Editor’s note: This article was updated on the evening of Sept. 29, 2021. 

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of “A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.”