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Narrowing the gap between teacher and student diversity was the idea behind a one-week summer camp, ‘Aspiring Teachers’, at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo that was held earlier this month.

“The idea is that diversity of the teaching voice is not keeping up with the student population, says camp creator and organizer, Colleen Willard-Holt. “It’s important that kids see themselves represented in their role modeling. Teachers bring so much to the lives of children.”

Students in Grades 7 and 8 from the Waterloo Region District School Board, interested in a career in teaching, were invited to participate.

A group of 12 students were eager to attend and they all shared one thing in common – a love of teaching. They were all from different backgrounds and cultures, all unique but all together, eager to share their differences.

Willard-Holt is no stranger when it comes to teaching. She recently completed her last term as Dean of Education at Wilfrid Laurier University (since 2008) and is also a professor of Education.

“I’m very fortunate to have the support of the school board, to be able to bring the cultural aspect to this camp” Willard-Holt said. “This has been a passion of mine. I tried to find people to help culturally and here we are.”

Among the fellow teachers adding their experience, expertise and insight to the camp are: Carol Pinnock, Sharon Verley-Entz, Pauline Janke, Raena Worrell and Amanpreet Dhaul.

(left to right) Carol Pinnock, Nima Hasai, Pauline Janke, Sharon Verley-Entz, Colleen Willard-Holt, Photo: Barbara Geernaert

A recent university graduate in Education, Nima Hasai and a current student, Madeline Walker -acting as research assistant – were also available to lend a hand.

“They are an amazing group of kids from different schools and different backgrounds,” Willard-Holt says. We planned this for over a year, hoping to get this going. The people here are busy people. We are so grateful for the time and effort they have given these students.”

Each teacher had a different cultural perspective to offer as well as their own experiences to share. For them, it was about instilling a love of teaching and hope for the students; to let them know that their perspective matters and their culture matters – that their dreams can be achieved.

“I’ve been involved with equity and inclusion work since working with the school board,” Janke said. “The Equity Office sent us a message because they knew that this was part of our plan. The idea was floating around for years. So, I responded. We want to move these initiatives forward. This was a lovely idea that came along and we couldn’t wait to get involved.”

Janke says the impact of having a role model that students can relate to is so important in creating learning that is culturally relevant. It impacts students and their views and helps them to engage.

For fellow teacher, Sharon Verley-Entz, helping kids see their value makes it all worthwhile. “Kids want to see themselves reflected in some way. It helps when someone is racialized in front of the classroom,” she says.

It hasn’t been an easy road for Verley-Entz growing up with an aspiration to teach. “I had some awful experiences,” she said. “My Grade 6 teacher thought that blacks can’t learn. I was continually showing her I could. My mom and the teacher were always at odds until I left that school. And until then, that teacher just could not believe that I was an A student.”

Nima Hasai receiving a thank you card from the students, Photo: Barbara Geernaert

Verley-Entz also shared an experience with a chemistry teacher during her studies. “The teacher kept encouraging me to drop the course. And here I am today, a science teacher. It’s that lived experience that pushes you,” she said. “Even though I experienced a setback like this, it made me want it even more, and I love what I do. Our school board is working hard to make sure these types of incidents never happen again.

The teachers also shared their many volunteering efforts involving equity and inclusion including membership in the Indigenous and Racialized Mentorship Program and the Anti-Racist Committee which provides awareness to other teachers.

“It’s so important to represent as a teacher, to be visible in your roles,” Verley-Entz said. “We are trying to make change and we want to gear you to be teachers,” she tells the students.

The students were eager to share, engage and to learn. But one week was not long enough they told Willard-Holt.

During the week, a number of guest speakers made an appearance, including: speakers from Crossing Borders, Waterloo Collegiate Institute, a Spoken Word poet, representatives from the Career Centre and Financial Aid from Wilfrid Laurier University and a panel of racialized teachers.

Janke says, it’s about building resilience.

“Racializing individuals is important as well as breaking down barriers so you can pursue your goal. And that’s what you can do for your students too one day. That’s what will make you unique teachers in the end,” she said.

Willard-Holt would like to see the camp continue next summer and beyond. “The students already want to come back next year,” she said. “I just hope they realize this is a career path that is open to them. This group is so strong and so determined. I know they will make excellent teachers one day and they deserve to get there.”

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