Winnipeg has seven public school divisions that enable the learning and growth of some of the city’s 125,000 children under the age of 14. With Winnipeg having the largest Indigenous population of any major Canadian city, and non-Indigenous visible minorities rising to 23.5% of the city’s population in 2016 from 16.3% ten years earlier – due to Winnipeg absorbing 80% of international migration to Manitoba – the composition of Winnipeg’s schools is rapidly changing.
Mohammad Rezai is the principal at Isaac Newton School, a junior high located in Winnipeg’s north end. This is his story.
Originally a student at Isaac Newton School when he arrived in Canada, Mohammed Rezai is now the principal of one of the city’s most diverse schools.
I was born in the north west of Iran. I left home in mid-1980s at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war when I was about 16, lived a transient life in the mountains for about two years, and then left Iran and went to Turkey. I lived in a refugee centre there for about a year and a half, going through the immigration process as an asylum seeker, and then came to Winnipeg 31 years ago. I still remember the day – October 3, 1988.
Back then I was considered a ‘landed immigrant’ when I arrived and started going through school to learn the language, right here at Isaac Newton School. I still remember being in the classrooms as a student and now I’m the principal.
After 30 years, last summer I had the opportunity to meet my old teacher who taught me English. I told her that she played an important role in my life. She believed in me. It’s so important to have people in your life that give you that support, give you that pep talk, give you that tap on the shoulder and say you know what, you’re going to be okay – the future is bright and you’re going to be okay. Now I want to instill that in everything I do with the students and communities that I serve.
I have a lot of good memories from coming to Canada. It was a country that took me in. And you know, I encountered many things within the system, like all newcomers do, because of your cultural background, the colour of your skin, or the way you say certain things – it’s a system. But I don’t regret going through that system, because it really has made me who I am, these experiences.
I left Iran by myself, so my entire family is back home. Because I went through Turkey and was there for a year and a half, I also met many Iranian people there that have moved on to go elsewhere in the world, so I keep in touch with them through social media.
For us to go back and think about how just a single event changed our entire lives is incredible. It’s amazing to have those connections and those conversations about how we have followed in the footsteps of the people that came as newcomers before us, making sure that the communities that we’ve now adopted and serve are looked after. I am in such an amazing position. I love what I do.
For the longest time as a newcomer you struggle because you are trying to define your identity. And one of the things that I’ve tried to come to understand is that my identity is rooted in where I am now and the people that I’m serving and those I work with. So that’s what I share with them. Having said that, I firmly believe – and believe the same thing for our students as well – that your background and your identity, and the hard things that you’ve gone through in life are just going to make you that much more of a resilient person. I always look at going through difficult times as a strength more than a deficit. It’s fantastic.
A photo of Mohammad Rezai (bottom row, second from right) as a student at Isaac Newton School in the 1980s.
I have been very fortunate to have the experience within the Winnipeg School Division of working with a number of different schools and different demographics. Overall, this school, we have about 30% Indigenous students, 30% Filipino, and 40% a mixture of students from a diverse group of backgrounds. Diversity within schools has changed in the last 30 years – especially this school since I first came here.
As a visual minority myself, I’ve been able to relate to some of the students’ experiences and what they carry with them in their lives. I always say: it’s very important for us to hear their stories and try to contextualize that within our education system. Just as any other system, there are many different barriers for students to be able to engage and have entry points. So for us to find those barriers, identify those barriers, and provide opportunities for people to tell their stories and be engaged in the whole decision-making process in the system itself is a great opportunity. I always look at myself as someone that is going to be the voice or the vessel through which some of these things are going to happen.
What I always look at is that, as educators, our approach has also changed. I’ve been working with the Indigenous community for over a decade now and that has been a huge asset in terms of shaping my philosophy of how do we make education and the system accessible for those who have traditionally found the system difficult to navigate.
The stuff that I enjoy in the school is having conversations and planning, problem solving. It’s interesting because I just walked out of a meeting with a family where the child is not engaged in school, in learning. For us to have the opportunity to sit down and plan a program – we are so fortunate to have a number of programs within this school that we can accommodate students like that. Right after the meeting, the student’s grandma couldn’t stop thanking me, and I said: you know what, if this was my child, I would want no different. I would want the same process for my child. I had three of those types of meetings today. Things like that are probably one of the best parts of my day.
It is so refreshing to see that, whether it’s Winnipeg School Division, or the province, or nation-wide, organizations are looking to see how they can change the lens through which they view things. For the longest time, through many, many generations – and education being just one part of this – we have looked at things through a deficit-based lens instead of a strength-based lens. You know, one of the things we used to always talk about would be: is your child ready for education? I say we need to turn that question around: Is the system ready for your child? Diversity within our system, diversity within our planning has changed that for the better.
For example, when we have students that are going to certain events, I always think back to a fantastic woman that I used to work with a long time ago. Whenever we would have school activities or a list of kids to go to an event, the question that she would always ask is who is not represented in this? Who is missing from this story – and why?
People bring a lot of gifts and strength, and if we just take the time to have those conversations – sure everybody has things they have to work on – but if we start from a strength-based approach, we will only gain.
A sign at the entrance of Isaac Newton School greets visitors in some of the native languages of its students.
As a principal, I have a great opportunity to have those conversations with staff about that. Not only for our staff, but also for our students. It’s so important to explore why we need gender balance in things, why we need to have cultural diversity, why we need to have learning diversity, why we need to have socioeconomic diversity – in everything we do. Because the payoff is going to be fantastic.
You know, I’ve been shot twice in my life. One time I was talking to a group of university students and they asked me what I would do if I could go back and confront the person that shot me. My response was that I would go shake their hands, and I’ll say that because that experience has played an important role in who I am now. I don’t regret any of those experiences that I’ve had because they make me who I am and have put me where I am. Because I have been to Canada it has made me aware of that, and how to be aware of situations where we have the chance to do better.
Being here has also enabled me to be an educator. I always say it’s one of the best careers that one can have. Being an educator, I think it has made me a better father to my kids, a better husband to my wife, and a better friend to my family, and their extended friends, and so forth. It’s given me the chance to get a balcony-level view into how people are shaped by the things in their lives. As a principal, every conversation I have with staff or students is about how to preserve the dignity of the person that they are, by having their voice valued and having their story valued.
Inner city schools are a wonderful place. The connections, the reality of things, the reality of people’s lives and experiences – the bonds that people form in those schools. I’ve worked in more suburban parts of the school division and I’ve had wonderful experiences there too. But for me, it’s interesting how the stories and the experiences of inner city schools stick with you. It creates for you almost a type of comfort zone. It’s a way to gain a deeper understanding of things. It shapes you into a wiser person and helps you navigate the maze of confusion that is the rest of life.
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