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By Lena Palermo (she/her), teacher, Victoria; Annie Ohana (she/her), teacher, Surrey; Marilyn Ricketts-Lindsay (she/her), teacher, Surrey; Karen Andrews (she/her), teacher, Terrace; and Maria Teresa Foster Luengo (she/her), counsellor, Vancouver

The Tri-National Conference for the Defense of Public Education was created in 1993 in response to the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). With its focus on social, economic, and public policy, NAFTA opened the door for corporate enterprises to direct education reform, particularly by privatizing aspects of public education. At the Tri-National Conference, union activists from Canada, Mexico, and the United States meet in solidarity to discuss and exchange knowledge and ideas on how, together, we can rebuild community through public education. The largest delegations in attendance from outside of Mexico were the BCTF, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, and the Chicago Teachers Union.

This year’s conference took place in Oaxaca, Mexico, historically notable for being the birthplace of Benito Juárez, the first Indigenous president of Mexico. So many folks fall for the trope of Mexico as a nation in need of support. The BCTF’s international solidarity model moves away from problematic ideas of charity and, instead, engages in exchanges between colleagues and values the expertise and knowledge of all teachers. The Tri-National Conference reminds us that we have much to learn from our teacher colleagues in Mexico and across all of Turtle Island.

Oaxaca has a long-standing tradition of being a centre of resistance to government-imposed legislation, policies, and privatization. Within public education, teachers and unions are resisting neoliberal agendas that support privatization and erode social practices. Public schools are important social institutions that are essential in supporting the community. Teachers in Oaxaca are also fighting to safeguard their professional autonomy, resisting centralized power that excludes community consultation, and advocating for their communities on a variety of issues, including food insecurity, negative impacts of the mining industry, drug-trafficking disputes, and destruction of housing. It is important to acknowledge that these teachers risk their safety, and sometimes their lives, to take a stand for justice.

School visits
Prior to the start of the conference, we participated in school visits. The delegation was split up to visit several different schools from across the region. While each school was unique in its challenges, approaches, and demographics, the schools had a shared passion for community learning that was easy to see.

We noticed many similarities between Oaxaca schools and BC schools: teachers using innovative practices to deliver an inquiry-based curriculum through interdisciplinary projects. The teachers are personally and professionally invested in creating positive outcomes for students despite the limited resources they have access to. Student voice is largely considered when choosing topics and inquiry questions for the class to investigate.

Oaxaca teachers fought extensively to have autonomy over the curriculum, though this autonomy came with a cost. Teachers in Oaxaca are paid less than the national average because they teach their own student-centred curriculum, rather than the one approved by the Ministry of Education.

There is a focus on educating the whole child and building an understanding of community. Instead of “teaching for schooling,” they are “teaching for life.” To do this successfully, teachers draw on their strong relationships with community and understanding of the land and culture. The schools use pedagogy and curriculum that elevates their identities, emboldens their fight for justice, and empowers the teachers and schools to change education at a much larger scale.

Eldership plays a key role in much of the learning and across all subjects from English to science, languages to math, and more. Teachers actively work to bring community members, Indigenous businesses, and Elders into the schools for students to learn from.

A majority of the parents sold food in the nearby market during the day to support their families. Often, students help in the market during the afternoon. To accommodate students’ family obligations, some schools organize classes from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. In the afternoon, there are enrichment possibilities in music or athletics for students who are able to attend.

Parents are also involved in schools in a deep and connected way. Families provide support as needed throughout the school year. Parents and teachers also help to supply the school with resources. This is necessary because the government does not provide adequate funding. A highlight of our visit was when parents hosted a feast for us. The parents were extremely generous with their time and culinary skills and made an abundance of local dishes for the delegation, students, and teachers to share in true Oaxacan style.

Resisting transnational tech companies in public education
Many of the classrooms we visited were underresourced, especially when it comes to digital resources and computers. This highlights the inequitable access to technology that exists in our world. We also saw this happen in BC, when the pandemic forced us to transition to online teaching. Not all students had laptops or internet access to participate in online learning from home, drawing attention to inequities and barriers to public education that technology can produce.

With the expansion of technology in our classrooms, we saw a need for discourse on teachers’ duty to protect student privacy. This topic was highlighted at the conference as well.

Some apps allow large corporations unfettered access to student data and surveillance. For example, Google Classroom has over 120 million teachers’ data housed in their cloud. Corporate greed and power are driving new technology to be integrated into our schools and classrooms.

Rather than rejecting the use of technology outright in our classrooms, we need to be more aware of how it is being used to drive the homogenization of our pedagogy and create a global curriculum. As teachers, we need to defend our autonomy to use technology in our classrooms. Together, teachers’ unions can work in solidarity to push back against corporate infiltration of public education.

Supporting student teachers
The most poignant moment for many of us at the conference was when a student teacher from La Escuela Normal Rural Carmen Serdán, the Carmen Serdán Teacher College, spoke of the horrific state violence faced by student teachers as they resisted attempts to privatize their teacher college—a move that would make it exceedingly difficult for low-income students to participate in the teacher education program. Thirty-two students from Carmen Serdán, and some from other rural colleges were illegally arrested and experienced degrading and inhumane treatment, as documented in a report by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission. This student-activist network is a legacy of the Mexican revolution and, since 1910, has been a beacon of hope in liberation of people living in poverty, resisting privatization in education, and preserving Indigenous languages and cultures.

The BCTF delegation quickly put together a private collection of funds to support their fight. Within 24 hours, we had a plan for how to support the students’ fight at every level of our union. This wasn’t an act of charity, though the students did need basics like food; it was an act of solidarity, as our newest colleagues stand on the front lines to defend public education in the war against it.

Collective agreements as tools of social change
Teachers from across Canada, Mexico, and the United States spoke of collective agreements in a way that many may not have considered before: the collective agreement as a tool for social change and bargaining for the common good. So, what does this mean? Essentially, it entails using the bargaining process to demand more from governments than wages and benefits. From fighting for climate justice, food security, Indigenous sovereignty, and more, unions are using their collective voice to demand social change and transformation.

The Chicago Teachers Union suggested best practices for bargaining for the common good. This means including our students, families, and communities when we bargain our collective agreements. For this to be successful, we need to hire someone who has community organizing experience. We need to create focus groups to include and engage the broader community.

This idea is something we must apply here as well. We can stand with communities to fight for affordable housing, health care, migrant rights, and more. This is what is best for all of us. We need to make governments understand that we fight for all, and our bargaining priorities extend beyond the classroom.

While the conference covered many topics that intersect with public education, we believe the experience can be summed up with one chant: El maestro luchando también está enseñando! (The teacher fighting is also teaching!) This chant is popular in many parts of the world where the teacher collective is a prominent leader of social movements in defense of democratic values and human rights. Teachers can call out and act against oppression through curriculum, pedagogy, and activism. If we do not teach for liberation and transformation, what do we teach for? Just as there are no walls to our classrooms, there are no walls stopping us from liberating ourselves. Let us liberate ourselves and, in turn, empower the students we serve.

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Category/Topic: Teacher Magazine