Early in my career, I witnessed the transformative power good teaching has on student learning. These experiences led me to advocate for teaching for nearly 30 years. Teaching is undervalued in universities and advocating for it can be an isolating experience. I have stood by my position even in the face of significant hostility about the time I devote to teaching and the importance I ascribe to it. A colleague once said to me, “Everyone knows that teaching doesn’t matter.” I have shown that it does, by inspiring others to pursue this calling, and by redefining the boundaries and the nature of what we teach and how we teach it.
Advocating on behalf of teaching is tough work: commitment, passion and energy are needed. It is a lifetime commitment as resistance to change can be impervious. Many times I have looked over my shoulder to see no one behind me. Over time, I have persuaded others to share my vision and our collective efforts have made an impact. I am a self-made teacher and my story creates excitement in, and commitment to, the possibility and power of teaching.
I am a teacher to make a meaningful contribution to social justice in Canadian society. Law teachers are entrusted with the task of “making” lawyers. Lawyers assist real people solve real legal problems. As law teachers, we aim to cultivate the potential for our students to: exhibit excellence in professional competence and commitment to social and ethical responsibility; and distinguish themselves as justice seekers for all Canadians, especially for equality-seeking groups.
Inspiring law students to become justice seekers is not as tough as advocating for teaching, yet it is no easy road either. Teachers facilitate this mesmerizing transformation by providing each student with the opportunity to develop academically and personally.
Providing our students with the opportunity to develop personally consists of two components. The first is to make health and wellbeing a priority for students no matter their desire to conquer academic horizons. Many students have fears, anxieties and insecurities. Like all of us, they face personal challenges. To succeed academically, students often need personal support to cope with the physical and emotional demands their studies might generate. As teachers, we need to have a listening ear and be on the lookout for signs of struggle. And we need to refer students to appropriate health care professionals when our experience and counsel are not enough.
The development of each student’s social consciousness and social responsibility is the second component of personal growth. No matter the discipline, our job as teachers is to ensure they understand the scope of this commitment and equip them with the skills to distinguish themselves as individuals who respect and value the diverse views of all Canadians.
In the classroom, student development begins with the creation of a supportive learning environment. Students succeed when they are respected and comfortable. As teachers we lead by example and treat them with respect. We expect the same in return and demand all students treat their peers with respect too. Students learn how they should treat one another whether the environment is the classroom or Canadian society.
Comfortable students have a desire to learn. Safe and secure environments allow students to take risks and engage in dialogue. It is our job to engender feelings of security and to motivate students to teach themselves.
The law is not always just and I challenge my students with those that fall short of delivering justice to Canadians on relevant legal issues students like homelessness in Canada, and recent Supreme Court of Canada decisions like R. v. S. (Niqab case) and Canada v. Bedford (sex workers). As a teacher, my biggest challenge is persuading students to inquire about what the law ought to be. This inquiry is as important as discovering what the law actually is. On our “ought to be” journey we determine what parts of a law we should “hang onto” and what parts we should “shed,” in the words of feminist theorist and writer Shiela Rowbotham, quoted in J. McCalla Vickers’ 1989 book Memoirs of an Ontological Exile. We also discuss what a just law might look like.
Transforming ourselves into justice seekers is an exciting and exhilarating journey. And, if we can make the journey every day of our lives, questioning “what to hang onto and what to shed”, we experience deep learning and the opportunity to imagine how we should be in this world.
On our “ought to be” journey we determine what parts of a law we should hang on to and what parts we should shed. We also discuss what a just law might look like.
Transforming ourselves into justice seekers is an exciting and exhilarating journey. And, if we can make the journey every day of our lives, questioning what to hang on to and what to shed, we experience deep learning and the opportunity to imagine how we should be in this world.
Good teaching ignites students’ sensitivity and capacity for seeking justice. As teachers, we lead students and they in turn learn to lead others. We begin to see beyond what we can do as individuals to what we can do for students, or for society. We teach and learn from each other about justice, fairness and equality.
Does teaching really matter? Absolutely. It matters as much as justice, fairness and equality do. Our collective commitment to teaching, to our students, and to learning situates a just Canadian society within our collective reach.
Donna Marie Eansor is a law professor at the University of Windsor