From Classroom to the Global Stage: A Journey of Impact by an Education Alumnus

November 20, 2023

In a significant achievement for educators, Annie Ohana, an SFU Education alumnus, social justice teacher and head of the Indigenous studies department at L.A. Matheson Secondary School, was recently recognized as a finalist of the Global Teacher Prize. The ceremony took place at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, France on November 8, 2023, where Ohana, the sole nominee from Canada, emerged from a pool of over 7,000 nominees to secure her place among the top 10. 

The Global Teacher Prize, known for honoring educators making a profound impact on students and communities, has shone a spotlight on Ohana’s remarkable contributions. Ohana attributes her transformative journey not only to her over 12 years of dedicated service but also to the enriching experiences she gained through the Professional Development Program (PDP) and the MEd in Curriculum and Instruction: Equity Studies in Education.

In a recent conversation, Ohana shared insights into her achievement, reflecting on her extensive tenure at L.A. Matheson and the genesis of the Mustang Justice Program. Launched in 2013, this student-led social justice initiative has been instrumental in fostering conversations about equity and justice among grade 8-12 students.

Q: What does being a finalist mean to you and your work at L.A. Matheson? 

A: The public may not realize the difficult conditions teachers work under, or the derision we receive when we fight for human rights when teaching critical thinking and bringing forward marginalized experiences.

The importance of this recognition is in the elevation of our experiences as teachers, a global platform that acknowledges that despite all the challenges, amazing and transformative work is happening. From mentoring through identity, moving away from charity work towards collaborative solidarity-based justice and operationalizing education to elevate their own lived experience, this is part of what I do at L.A. Matheson.

Q: Could you recount a key moment that strengthened your dedication to liberator pedagogy and inclusivity for marginalized communities?

A: Due to my heritage and background, I have experienced systemic oppression since the earliest days of my life. Witnessing injustice within my own family, my parents, myself, and my community has been a constant backdrop. Many who have known me for a long time are aware that I have always been committed to addressing and resolving these injustices on a broader scale.

A pivotal moment occurred in my first year of teaching, a stroke of luck in a year with scarce job opportunities. My francophone roots and birth in Montreal, to a Moroccan immigrant family, allowed me to start teaching in 2011 in a temporary French position. In that initial year, I observed significant instances of queerphobia and other forms of discrimination at my school.

During this time, a Ministry course on social justice, though three years old, had not gained much traction in B.C. Recognizing the need for change, I decided that our school, and anyone else willing to join me, should adopt a more activist stance, emphasizing grassroots education, community building and empowering students to see themselves as potent agents of change.

The Beginning of Mustang Justice

In 2013, Mustang Justice officially began, and as we celebrate our 10th year, I vividly recall the catalyst for its creation. Witnessing students perpetuating harm through anti-queer and anti-2SLGBTQIA+ bullying, I knew change was imperative. Despite being a new, contract-less teacher, I sought to build the program. While not universally embraced, I believe that anti-oppression work cannot be delayed by bureaucratic processes or career positioning. The work is for all of us to undertake.

To encapsulate this transformation, I often turn to a Mexican proverb that resonates with me: "They tried to bury us not realizing we were seeds." In the face of negativity, I recognized enormous potential. The false narratives created by cis heteronormativity, patriarchal systems, and colonial structures were the true culprits in shaping dangerous spaces. Viewing students, the community, and fellow teachers as seeds, we embarked on a journey to overcome, grow, and effect positive change. Out of that adversity has emerged a beautiful tree, even a flourishing little forest, continuing to thrive and expand.

Q: How have your experiences at SFU influenced your teaching philosophy and practices? 

A: I navigated the PDP, and then, five years later, in my master's program in equity studies. It was not always an easy or smooth journey, but despite the challenges, the Faculty of Education, especially Kau’i Keliipio, Christine Stewart, Kumari Beck and Özlem Sensoy, truly provided me with a model of what an educator can do and be. They showed how educators can guide and facilitate, remain critical, raise their voices against injustice, and teach in ways that promote identity, equity, and inclusion.

The seeds planted in those five years shape my practice today. While I have grown and evolved, the seeds planted during that time continue to flourish.

Impact on Future Educators and Ongoing Growth

It has been fulfilling and rewarding seeing my students and volunteers enter the PDP program, and I have been invited back to speak to PDP students on multiple occasions. I am thrilled when teachers on call and new teachers from SFU programs cover for me or share experiences about my lectures. Many have also applied to the MEd program. I believe in that program immensely and its potential to amplify and uplift educators like me, fostering transformative perspectives.

My experience in the PDP program, through the good, the bad, and the ugly, was always one of support. I was consistently challenged to think further and differently, to view education in a new light. I hope I have made them proud, continuing to push my practice forward. 

Q: What are your aspirations for the future of education and your role in advancing equity and social justice, especially considering your recent recognition as a finalist for the Global Teacher Prize?

A: I hope for a future where advancing equity and social justice no longer means emergency commemorations or acts of charity, where it goes beyond saving individuals harmed by injustice. Backward design it to a fundamental question: where does it begin? The answer is education. We need education to further advance liberation for all, to learn different stories, and challenge ourselves to use school-acquired skill sets dedicated to justice.

It is about undoing systems like patriarchy, capitalism, imperialism, and colonization—disrupting rather than perpetuating. Working with colleagues, fellow educators, and especially with the community, we follow Indigenous ways of knowing, emphasizing relational learning and our role as stewards of the land. Educators can do these things through pedagogy, curriculum, and by building merit in our systems. Why can't a more natural order be put in place, rather than fitting into denigrating systems?

My aspirations are for education to celebrate and learn about difference and diversity, guiding students in upstream thinking to build a better future, instead of spending endless time fighting. It wears people down, creating depression and anxiety—broken individuals pushing a broken system erroneously celebrated for resilience in trauma. I dream of a future where we do not have to teach or enforce that, where we learn to help those dealing with injustices through unity. Education, for a long time, tried to separate people from themselves and their cultures, making them part of an unnatural system.

It is cliché but tearing down and rebuilding the system, within every lesson plan, every day, and in our initiatives, we move forward in liberation. We joyfully deconstruct and reclaim, freeing ourselves from the long-standing systems of harm.

Applications are now being accepted for the 2024 Professional Development Program and the 2024 MEd in Curriculum and Instruction: Equity Studies in Education. Learn more and apply below.