Academic Superheroes: Maintaining a posture of humility in places of authority

Every September the leaves fall and a new ream of babies become students. In this moment they go from being educated by parents and Sesame Street, and enter into the world of Academia. Their fresh little faces shine bright with little knowledge of the world at large, the entirety of their universe containing their parents, siblings, homes, and the ant they found while walking from the front door to the car.

Each child is unique. Some require more special attention than the average teacher can give. Since kindergarten classes show no slowing down in admission rate, class size has been on the rise for years, causing a strain on the efficacy of the education system.

The gradual process of moving through the education system — elementary school, middle school, high school, post secondary, and so on and so forth — if the student so desires, is a relatively long process that seems to take no time at all. Pretty soon those babies are young adults, and they themselves are raising the next generation.

Dr. Jessica Riddell does not stand very tall, nor is she very old. But her stature and age do not denote a lack of wisdom or presence. She is the inaugural Stephen A. Jarislowsky chair of undergraduate teaching excellence at Bishop’s University. She explores teaching methodologies in the area of higher education, seeks to create opportunities for mentoring, and initiates professional development for her colleagues.

Riddell, in watching a recent movie installation to the DC Universe, “Wonder Woman,” discovered a beautiful analogy of being a shield bearer. This analogy encapsulates what she seeks to do in her career, and what she desires to see done in all circles of life.

“We started to think about it as a concept, a guiding vision or philosophy, about the ways in which we can especially help our underrepresented or marginalized members of our communities. We really thought about this movie as a metaphor,” said Riddell.

This idea of being a shield bearer derives from the scene near the beginning of the movie where one Amazonian warrior holds her shield so that Antiope, Diana’s (Wonder Woman’s) aunt, can launch herself off it, propelling her forward, enabling her to take down the threat that the invading army of Germans posed to the island of Themyscira where the Amazonian women reside. This action is seen by two characters: Diana, and Steve Trevor, typical “good guy” and the male lead of the movie.

“The reason why I love the shield, is there’s a kind of humility in the shield bearer. The shield bearer doesn’t get any accolades, doesn’t get a gold star, doesn’t get the glory, doesn’t do the thing, but is the thing that makes it happen,” said Riddell.

To be a shield bearer is a humble placement of one’s self in order to help advance another individual in success, enabling them to fully reach their potential. In being a shield bearer, one not only enables the launched individual to achieve, but also enables them to carry the process forward, engaging and propelling others forward in turn.

This idea has been adopted by Riddell as a description for her aims as a teacher and an authority figure. She has also applied this metaphor in her personal life.

“My husband has two small humans that he is corralling. He’s my shield in that moment. He is giving me that ability to go and have a writing retreat,” said Riddell.

High school teacher Nikita Oster does this daily with her students as a learning support teacher, working with many who have specific behavioural and educational needs. Not only does she corral children, but she also epitomizes the idea of being a shield bearer. A UFV alumni, Oster teaches at Brookswood Secondary School in Langley, B.C. She has been there for two years, and has discovered her love of working with students that other teachers may deem too difficult.

“For these kids, they have challenges, physiologically within their brains, that are preventing them from learning at the same rate society has decided they should do it at. Why do they need to write a paragraph if they are going to be a plumber? I get to interact with them as people,” said Oster.

In the past 10 years, class composition in elementary and secondary schools has changed. The number of classes that contain four or more children with special needs has increased by 81 per cent. In 2006/07, the number of classes containing four or more special needs students was 15 per cent. So, while class sizes have been diminishing since the 2012 regulatory measures were enabled, this number is still staggering.

“The biggest thing I continue to struggle with is the system. I very much believe that all of these kids deserve the world, and that we should be able to give them everything that they are entitled to, and everything that will help them be successful. But we do work in a system, and at the end of the day it is still a business,” said Oster.

In March 2017, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation won a 15 year battle regarding class size and composition. In 2002, legislation was put in place that removed teachers’ rights to negotiate these numbers. Now, with the new ruling, numbers and support must harken back to 2002, in hope that this will enable students to receive the help and support they need to succeed.

With the new legislation in place, ideally in a class of 30 students, only 3 would have an IEP (individualized education program).

“At the school that I work at we have 10-15 per cent of our kids that access learning support with an individual education plan. That means that they have been formally assessed by a district psychologist, and have been found to have a learning disability in some area or behaviour designation,”said Oster.

“On top of that, we have kids that access learning support who don’t have a designation. They are just kids that we find do struggle greatly in particular areas and require extra support … 15-20 per cent of our kids access support in some way, I would say.”

The number of kids accessing support means that these teachers are still spread thin. When Oster started, she had 47 students on her caseload. With the new ruling, she is supposed to have 15, but in reality, due to the limited amount of learning support teachers certified in the district, she, as well as her learning support colleagues, are all over their caseload cap. This means that the time and energy she is able to devote to each kid in her care is nowhere near what she would like it to be. Thankfully, this doesn’t stop her from giving her all every day. She desires to see these kids succeed, and recognizes that it’s not about her, it’s about helping these kids to reach their desired goals.

“Not all teachers believe in the same things pedagogically … Some teachers teach subjects, and some teachers teach students,” she said.

“Being a teacher is a thankless job; you are working all the time, and you are giving a lot of your emotional energy, but it’s not about you, it’s not about how awesome I am in making these kids successful, it’s about me being able to help them find their own coping strategies, to find their own way to become successful in whatever it is they want to be successful in,” said Oster.

The shield bearing action is initiated later on in the “Wonder Woman” movie by Trevor, and he teaches his compatriots the action, holding a shield to propel Diana forward to defeat the threat to their motley crew of soldiers.

“This is the key about the shield … It’s really about having those models that we can see, that we know, who are taking those difficult and really underrepresented roles on,” said Riddell.

See one, do one, teach one. An old adage that still rings true.

Both women had experiences encountering their own shield bearers throughout their lives. People who have come alongside them and encouraged them in their dreams and goals. The impact their shield bearers have had seems to echo in the work both women have decided to pursue.

“[My teacher] allowed me to navigate my own path in a safe environment. I think that’s really cool, because it was very much my life and knowing I had a safety net. They were there to help me get where I needed to be, but I was never relying on them to catch me if everything fell through,” said Oster.

Riddell’s early experience with a shield bearer in her academic career also left an impression on her.

“As a very junior faculty member, I went to Bishop’s University,” Riddell said. “In my first year, I wanted to do an undergraduate conference in English. I had never done anything like that before, I had never organized a conference. I sat in my VP academic’s office and I said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this great idea, and I am going to try this.’ He said, ‘Have you ever done anything like this conference?’ I said no. … He said ‘Go and do it, you’re allowed to flop.’”

Both women agreed that having this safety net enabled them to feel safe to try new things, and pursue their goals and dreams.

Riddell spoke of Rebecca Solnit, an essayist who says, “Hope is the belief that what you do matters, even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact are not things we can know beforehand.”

Looking at the challenges that Oster and other teachers like her face every day, it is inspiring to note the dedication of these educators to pursue the best for the students they interact with daily, monthly, yearly, who face myriad of challenges, not always knowing the outcome of the student’s lives, or the impact they may have in the long run. It’s trusting the process, hoping that the small victories will translate to larger victories throughout life.

“It’s slow progress. But there is the little everyday wins, like they finally understand this math question, they finally brought a pencil. Man, that’s a win some days,” said Oster.

Riddell also introduces the idea of critical hope in her presentation on Wonder Woman. Critical hope is an idea originated from Paulo Freire in his book Pedagogy of Hope. Freire iterates that critical hope is “the need for truth as an ethical quality of the struggle.” That is, through navigating our complicated life situations, and using the tools of critical thinking, coupled with even a minute glimpse of hope, we persevere toward a properly attuned goal.

Jeffrey M.R. Duncan-Andrade is an associate professor at San Francisco State University. In addition, he is a high school teacher in East Oakland. In his paper “Note to Educators: Hope Required When Growing Roses in Concrete,” he expounds on the necessity of critical hope when teaching, especially students who come from urban schools. He states that critical hope can be broken down into three parts: material hope, Socratic hope, and audacious hope. Each element depends on one another for critical hope to be enacted.

“False hope would have us believe in individualized notions of success and suffering, but audacious hope demands that we reconnect to the collective by struggling alongside one another, sharing in the victories and the pain,” writes Duncan-Andrade.

He further states that effective teachers are indispensable material resources, capable of self-reflection regarding their place within the system and the lives of their students, teaching them not as other people’s children, but their own.

“Learning isn’t a linear path … you fail, and encounter things that you didn’t anticipate, and that you must deal with and integrate that into your understanding of self, and your place in the world,” said Riddell.

For Riddell, the idea of being a shield bearer carries on outside the classroom. It’s an adaptable idea that can be taken and applied to many environments and facets of life. It requires each individual to see the potential in those around us, and advocate on their behalf. She desires to find opportunities to take the humble stance as often as she can.

“It is my ethical responsibility to act as a shield now,”said Riddell. “If I can have moments where I intervene and deploy the shield, and help them reach their capacities, that is my ethical responsibility.”