Learning with and for Leaders Webinar Recap

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On August 11th, 2022, Ophea hosted an hour-long webinar discussing how members within school communities can work collaboratively to build inclusive and equitable learning experiences for all students. Recognizing that biases and perspectives are inherent in any topic leads to understanding the values, assumptions, possible motives, and underlying messages in what educators and students do and say in the school environment.    

This session was funded by Novo Nordisk, whom we would like to thank alongside our panel of educators, experts, and students of lived experience, who shared ideas and strategies on integrating culturally responsive and relevant pedagogy in H&PE: 

  • Andrea Barrow is the Equity and Inclusion Consultant with the Limestone District School Board, an Ophea Ambassador, and part of the Ophea Safety Committee.   
  • Dr. Debbie Donsky is a Superintendent of Education in the Toronto District School Board. Debbie has worked in several boards and at the Ministry of Education.  
  • Benjamin McDonald is a student, an athlete, and an advocate for equity in education. After overcoming harmful experiences in the education system, Ben became committed to bridging the gap between socioeconomic status and quality of education for students and their families across Ontario.  
  • Dr. Vidya Shah is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education at York University, and her research explores anti-racist and decolonizing approaches to leadership in schools, communities, and school districts.  

Access the full webinar on our YouTube channel

We reached out to Dr. Debbie Donsky for support in helping to capture the key themes, discussions, and questions that came out of our webinar. You can follow her on Twitter @DebbieDonsky and learn more from her website: https://debbiedonsky.com/   


What does it mean to thrive?  

And what does Health and Physical Education have to do with it? 

Ophea's Andrea Haefele begins the webinar with a quote from the Ontario elementary Health and Physical Education (H&PE) Curriculum (2019):

"The health and physical education curriculum is based on the vision that the knowledge and skills students acquire throughout the program will benefit them throughout their lives and enable them to thrive in an ever-changing world by helping them develop mental health and well-being, physical and health literacy, and the comprehension, capacity, and commitment they will need to lead healthy, active lives and promote healthy, active living."1

This vision is beyond curriculum expectations and grades achieved. This vision states that through H&PE classes, each student has the opportunity to develop essential skills that will help them to be healthy, active, and contributing members to a quickly changing world. In this webinar, we name, challenge, and provide context to the many barriers students experience in these spaces. We must commit to disrupting these barriers and offer solutions to ensure the vision is reality for each and every student we serve.  

Although we have been witness to great change in education - through explicit commitment for anti-oppressive practices - we cannot just focus on philosophy and hypothetical case studies. We must, as educators, be committed to shifting practice.  

We hear repeatedly that there is no neutral, drawing from Desmond Tutu’s statement, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” We say these words and quote the quotes, but do we actually hold ourselves accountable as educators when a student isn’t thriving? What are the implications of stating, “there is no neutral” in H&PE class?  

Who defines what thriving means? Who defines success?  

Assumptions of students’ ability to thrive cannot be based on skills not taught, accommodations not made, or programming that lacks diversity in sport, knowledge, skill, body difference, or experience–and yet we know that this happens (and not just in H&PE).  

When we, as educators, set lower expectations for individuals without creating conditions that support each student with the opportunity to thrive, we not only limit that student's ability to experience success in the classroom, we have implications for their health and well-being throughout their lives.  

When I became an educator, having experienced shame and humiliation in H&PE class as a student, I became very sensitive to how I could avoid those moments in my own classroom and even more so, how I could create a classroom community where all children could thrive. As I have moved through my career working more with adults than children, I hold the same mindset: What power do I hold to support each person, team, community I serve, to thrive? 

In her book, Decolonizing Education – Nourishing the Learning Spirit, Marie Battiste writes, “The ‘learning spirit’ then, is the entity within each of us that guides our search for purpose and vision. Our gifts unfold in a learning environment that sustains and challenges us as learners.” (p 18). This should be the goal in every classroom, every school. To serve students, to care for students is to create a learning environment that provides both sustenance and challenge to move towards that purpose by developing the gifts each student holds.  

Additionally, Andrea H prompts us to think about how our assumptions can lead to very narrow definitions of success: Who defines success? Has there been consultation with other staff who support this student? Their families? The students themselves? Is success based on needs, strengths and interests or do we stop at what we, as the educator, believe is their need?  

In Bettina Love’s book, We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom, she writes, “Mattering has always been the job of Black, Brown, and Indigenous folx since the ‘human hierarchy’ was invented to benefit Whites by rationalizing racist ideas of biological inferiority to ‘those Americans who believe that they are White.’ Being a person of color is a civic project because your relationship to America, sadly, is a fight in order to matter, to survive, and one day thrive.” (pp 7-8).

Ben McDonald enters the conversation as a student who identifies as a Black man. He shares that while in public school he was often in survival mode, but when he attended private school he had more opportunity to thrive. In grade five while at public school, Ben was told by his teacher, “Your kind does not belong in university”. He was 10 years old. When his parents heard what the teacher said, they addressed it with the teacher, the principal, and their son. Throughout his time at public school, Ben was told or was witness to comments of this nature. Though overt in this example, there are many insidious ways that these messages, which are themselves explicitly anti-Black and the products of white supremacy, are felt and experienced in our schools. Ben asks, “What are you gaining by holding students back?”

What do we gain? Is it a sense of self as an educator that if we cannot reach that student, support that student, that it does not reflect on us personally but is their doing? Is that ethical? Are we honest with ourselves? 

Years ago I had a staff member, a teacher notorious for creating "high school-like" exams in order to ostensibly "prepare" the students, tell me about a student who would be winning the science award. The teacher simply said, “She gets me.” Many students struggled to achieve in his class and the student who, in his mind, was most deserving of the award also happened to be the one who most validated him as an educator. Needless to say, this is problematic and indicative of systemic and structural practices that continue to elevate some while causing harm and trauma to others.  

Andrea H refers to the “What if…the #Ophea100 Learning Series” blog when she reflects on the question, “What would H&PE class look like if we shifted the narrative so that it comes from and authentically represents the needs and interests of our learners?”  

Andrea Barrow, who identifies as a Black woman, speaks to these patterns of discrimination and what Bettina Love refers to as “spirit murdering” in education. We collect data, look at numbers, and depending on our own lived experiences, we can nod in recognition and frustration, gasp at the shock (please understand that this is indicative of privilege), or have any number of responses. She draws us back to Ben’s story, calling on us to leave space for this “face to the numbers” as an essential process of humanizing the impact of our assumptions that cause harm.  

Andrea B goes on to share her own story of attending schools in predominantly white communities, and how this proximity to whiteness led her down a very particular path. Like Ben, Andrea B speaks to the influence and impact her parents had on her success. She shares how her life experiences, identities, and roles have allowed her to support Black and Brown students to be successful, including her own children. We can no longer be complacent in our practices by doing what has always been done: Andrea says, “As educators, we have what we like to teach and who we like to teach and how we like to teach it, and we don’t adapt and open up to other ways of doing things and embracing things, and that contributes to some of the racism we will see in H&PE classes”.  

Educators must understand that maintaining the status quo – “it has worked for years” or “it worked for me” or “it has always been done this way” – attitude causes harm. We must always ask: who isn’t represented? Who isn’t being served? Who is not thriving, growing, learning, engaging?  

Vidya joins by first naming her identities and how her positionality has influenced her as an educator. She speaks to how not only students, but educators as well, are excluded from these spaces, and reminds us that racism, patriarchy, cis/hetero privilege, and other systems of oppression continue to operate at multiple levels, affecting students, educators, families, and communities. She stresses the importance of connecting theory and practice and although we may learn the theory, if we don’t impact practice, it is for naught; this is not only about learning, but equally about unlearning. In her podcast series, UnLeading, Vidya, along with her guests, disrupt the oppressive messages that we have internalized and then believe to be neutral. It is only through the unlearning, unthinking, unleading that we can move towards relationships that are founded in liberation.  

Andrea H frames the conversation through her experience as a parent of a child with disability and reminds us that people can experience oppression in various ways. She asks, “How do we create the emotionally and physically safe environment for all of our learners so they can be who they are unapologetically, in our classrooms?” We know that “physical and emotional safety are a precondition for effective learning in Health and Physical Education” (Ontario Curriculum, Health and Physical Education, 2019, p 9).  

Vidya refers to the work of Gloria Ladson-Billings and Culturally Relevant Teaching in particular, which teaches that we have to problematize the very notion of student success. Although you can read further in the monograph, Culturally Responsive Pedagogy (2013), Ladson-Billings’ original work (1994) outlines three particular areas of culturally relevant teaching:  

  1. Holding high expectations for all students; 

  2. Ensuring all students develop cultural competence and understanding of their identities; and,  

  3. Supporting students in developing critical consciousness related to the impact of intersecting and systemic oppressions.

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    A stylized graphic featuring the Albert Einsten quote: "Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid." A line-art fish gazes wistfully at an owl sitting atop a tree.

Who does not belong in our H&PE classrooms?

Who does not feel that they are represented in the teaching, sports, activities, experiences, and learning that all take place in the H&PE classroom? How do you know? How do students show you they do not belong?

We often all hold a picture of what success looks like, feels like, and who is most likely to experience success in the context of an H&PE class.  How we define success limits who can experience it. And even for those who we may default into the assumption of success in the H&PE class, how might that narrow view of who they are and what they are capable of limit them as they grow and develop?  

How does access to wealth provide opportunities for some students while creating barriers for others? What other programs, training, coaching, and teams do your students access (or find themselves unable to access) due to their financial realities?  

What are the expectations around clothing and uniforms in H&PE class that create barriers due to faith practices, gender identity, changerooms, and privacy needs? 

What has been normalized in the H&PE classroom? How do we decentre these norms to ensure that our classrooms have multiple entry points? 

In what ways have you altered your instruction, assessment, resources to be responsive to the students you serve?  

How have your engaged with and learned from the families and communities of your students to better serve them? 

It is damaging for all of us to exist in narrow definitions and binaries that only serve to limit possibility and make space for very few. We are asking students to fit in, rather than creating and fostering spaces of belonging. When we uphold narrow definitions of success and who can access it, we are simultaneously asking students to compromise, limit, hide, and dim their light. 

“Racism, sexism, ableism, homo- and transphobia, ageism, fatphobia are algorithms created by humans’ struggle to make peace with the body. A radical self-love world is a world free from the systems of oppression that make it difficult and sometimes deadly to live in our bodies.” ― Sonya Renee Taylor, The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love 

In closing, Vidya asks, “What might it look like for all students to know and be in awe of their physical selves? For all students to have beautiful relationships with their bodies? And to reclaim and re-engage the deep connections between their bodies, their minds, their spirits and between themselves and all of life that surrounds them?” 

This is the possibility in H&PE classrooms.  


Ophea thanks Debbie for sharing her voice and experience with our audience, and for supporting our Learning with and for Leaders panel. We’d also like to thank our other guest panelists: Andrea, Ben, and Vidya for their time, expertise and energy! Ophea values your ongoing commitment to equity and inclusive education where student voice, partnering with communities and empowering teachers leads to the best outcomes for all learners by building learning communities where all voices are valued.  

Let’s keep the conversation going! Share with us how you support the development of safer, more equitable, and more inclusive learning environments in your class and school community by tagging @OpheaCanada on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram

To stay up-to-date on Ophea professional learning offerings, resources, and supports sign up for Ophea’s e-newsletter, eConnection

1. Ontario Ministry of Education. (2019). The Ontario Curriculum Grades 1-8: Health and Physical Education (pg. 8). Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/curriculum/elementary/2019-health-physical-education-grades-1to8.pdf