Education professor encourages tomorrow’s teachers to reshape the system

With an approach rooted in her lived experience and scholarship, Giselle Thompson is striving for equitable education in both Canada and Jamaica.


In her teaching and research, education professor Giselle Thompson strives to disrupt academic notions of what it means to be a teacher — and encourages her students to do the same. (Photo: Ryan Parker)

Giselle Thompson is committed to disrupting classical academic ideas and, in the tradition of Black feminist writer bell hooks, does so by centring love and joy in the classroom. She puts care and concern for her students above all else, making sure they know they matter and are valued.

“Those things come first,” says Thompson, a Black-Caribbean feminist scholar and education professor at the University of Alberta. “Before assessments, before grades, before tests, before exams.

“That’s how I disrupt my classroom from the jump.”

Thompson joined the Faculty of Education last July as assistant professor of Black studies in education, specializing in social justice and international studies. She began teaching last semester, and some of her students will go on to become teachers themselves.

One of 12 new tenure-track Black scholars hired last year as part of the U of A’s Black Academic Excellence Cohort Hire, Thompson says her own encounters with anti-Black racism in K-12 and post-secondary schooling have shaped her research and her teaching.

“I’m following in the tradition of previous Black scholars who have studied their own lived experiences,” she says.

Encouraging future educators

Now that she’s educating teachers, she thinks back to some of the worst teachers she had — the ones who thought it was OK to touch her hair or made assumptions about her family — and teaches her students about microaggressions in hopes that they will make efforts to be better.

She also teaches future educators about the inherently racist and classist practice of streaming.

In Ontario, where Thompson is from, Black students are often placed on an "applied" track as opposed to an "academic" track when they begin high school. As a result, many are surprised when they find out they are not eligible to apply to university.

“I was almost streamed out of the opportunity to attend university,” says Thompson, who graduated with a PhD in sociology from York University in 2020.

Though Ontario has now banned the practice, teachers can still influence which courses students take and how they view their future opportunities.

Thompson also encourages her students to disrupt academic notions in their own classrooms. She invites them to rethink the idea that the teacher is the sole possessor of knowledge, to consider the knowledge each student brings with them to the classroom and to give them an opportunity to share it.

She centres the work of people of colour in her courses, “which for some is extremely disruptive.”

She also makes a point of sharing images of each of the people whose work is discussed, “so students know who is speaking,” Thompson says.

International impact

In addition to encouraging anti-racist practices in Canadian education, Thompson focuses on designing more equitable educational futures in Jamaica. For the past 10 years, she has been examining the politics of international debt and how Jamaica’s debt to international financial institutions affects its educational system.

“Jamaica has a huge sum of money owing to the International Monetary Fund and other international financial institutions, and as a result of that debt there have been significant cuts to social spending for years,” Thompson explains.

Through her research, Thompson has determined that alumni associations in the Jamaican Diaspora are actively responding to this challenge in their giving.

Thompson is a member of the advisory board of World Class Jamaica, a Toronto-based not-for-profit organization that supports underfunded schools in rural areas in Jamaica. The organization is also the largest supporter of the Jamaican Ministry of Education's “A Device for Every Child” initiative.

She is currently revising two manuscripts for publication based on her work in Jamaican schools.

The first is about encountering hope in what many people might consider hopeless circumstances.

“I worked and taught in a school where the water didn’t always work, the toilets didn’t always flush, the roof leaked, the power would cut out in the day, and when it rained we couldn’t hear each other because of the zinc roof,” Thompson explains.

“At the same time, somehow the school day continued in that environment,” she notes, adding that she feels it is necessary to tell a counter story.

The second manuscript addresses how children’s rights, as defined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, are sometimes violated in the schools Thompson has worked with in Jamaica. The country signed the convention in 1989, but Thompson points out that it’s very difficult for it to honour its commitment due to limited finances.

“It’s one thing to make a commitment to upholding rights, but in an environment where there’s no actual financial capacity to do that, I think we need to critique the notion of rights, and even critique the idea of these charters that the UN comes up with.”

Thompson points out that Canada too violates the convention concerning the educational rights of Black youth, a subject she touched on as co-author of a chapter in the book Youth, Education, and Wellbeing in the Americas.

Next, she plans to delve into the phenomenon of “othermothering” in Jamaican and Canadian school settings. During her time working in the Caribbean, Thompson noticed that teachers often take on additional responsibilities that are typically not considered to be part of their job. These extra responsibilities included making sure students have clothes and shoes, visiting them in hospitals and ensuring they’re fed before they go home because they may not be going back to a home where there is food for supper.

Thompson also determined, through her own childhood experiences and from reading the academic literature, that the phenomenon of othermothering is not unique to Jamaican schools. She found that it has been critical to the survival of Black people on the whole.

She points out that during the transatlantic slave trade it was not uncommon for families to be separated.

“As a result of this, children needed to be parented.”

Though Thompson has been unable to travel to the Caribbean since the start of the pandemic, she has remained in close contact with teachers and administrators there via Zoom, email and mobile phone.

“Through their stories I’ve learned much about the challenges and triumphs they have experienced while navigating the pandemic.”