Controversial ACC rally fires up teachers. Was it worth it?

September 2, 2010

Louise Brown


They mugged for the Jumbotron, checked their BlackBerrys and skipped class before the last singer hit the stage — behaviour they won’t put up with from students next week.

Yet many of the 19,000 teachers summoned Wednesday to the Air Canada Centre said Toronto’s largest “PD” day actually ended up scoring the big morale points it intended, despite the controversial $125,000 price tag.

“I almost didn’t come because I had so many doubts about this event, but I have to say it built a real sense of community with us all together under one roof, especially because teachers are used to working in separate little boxes,” said teacher-librarian Laura Parsonson of Martingrove Collegiate.

Part rock concert, part revival meeting, the thundering three-hour program of speakers and song, from Olympic songbird Nikki Yanofsky to the heartthrob Canadian Tenors, brought the entire staff of Canada’s largest school board together under one cavernous roof for the first time since the board was formed in 1998.

Slammed by some as a glorified pep rally, the teacher conference dubbed “Believe It! Our Time is Now” was designed by new education director Chris Spence as a way to meet the vast Toronto District School Board staff face-to-face and thank them for their work.

“To look out on a sea of our staff was absolutely inspirational,” he reflected moments after the finale by rapper Kardinal Offishall, who performed before the small number of teachers who stayed to the end after the program ran almost an hour late.

With all the Air Canada Centre bells and whistles on full-tilt — sound system, pulsing lights, big screens that panned the audience as well as the stage — Spence gave a 20-minute speech that drew repeated bursts of applause for acknowledging some of the challenges teachers face.

“Our job is to teach the kids we have, not the kids we used to have, or the kids we wish we had, or the kids who exist in our dreams only,” said the former football player, pacing the stage in open-neck shirt and head-set microphone, delivering educational nuggets.

“You can’t teach creativity but you can kill it.”

“Poverty does not equal failure.”

“An effective teacher can trump everything (that blocks learning): race, gender, poverty.”

“You can’t motivate a student you don’t know.”

However the slogan “Believe it!” on every swag bag, the Canadian Tenors’ choice of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and Davis Foster’s “The Prayer,” Nikki Yanofsky’s Olympic anthem “I Believe” and Spence citing his “Vision of Hope” prompted one Grade 12 teacher to compare the gathering to a church meeting.

“This isn’t the Catholic board; why the religious tone?” fumed Joseph, who asked his last name not be used. “The whole afternoon was a degrading bunch of edu-babble.”

While trustees originally approved a $345,000 budget for a full-day event, criticism from teachers’ unions and some trustees prompted Spence to scale back to half a day, scrap the plan to hand out hard copies of the speeches and to find sponsors to cover all but $125,000.

Yet some glitches he could never have anticipated.

The board’s two student trustees delivered a tribute to teachers that was interrupted over and over by laughs from the audience, much to the amusement of the teen speakers.

It seemed whenever the Jumbotron camera panned the audience, teachers could not resist waving at the camera, holding their fingers in peace signs, rubbing a colleague’s bald pate or even flexing their bicep for the room.

Class clowns come in all ages.