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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, Number 6, May/June 2004

SFU’s new dean will shake up the education scene

by Nancy Knickerbocker

Students and faculty alike are welcoming Dr. Paul Shaker to the post of dean of education at Simon Fraser University. With a reputation as a fearless public intellectual, an eloquent spokesperson for teachers, and a strong advocate for public schools, Shaker is expected to play a leading role on the education scene in B.C.

Shaker says among his priorities will be First Nations education, francophone issues, and technology in education. "But I think the key reason the faculty chose me to be their dean was they wanted a particular initiative into connecting with K–12 education. They knew that’s what I’m particularly interested in, both in an applied way of delivering courses and working in schools, but also having a voice in politics and policy."

Shaker clearly intends to raise his own voice, but also to encourage faculty members and classroom teachers to speak out, to write for the mass media, and to bring their research and experience into the public dialogue. "I’ll encourage my faculty to the extent I can. Often teachers do a beautiful job of communicating to a non-specialized audience, better than professors," he said.

It has been a long road from student to teacher to professor to dean. Of Lebanese heritage, Shaker majored in the history of Western Asia. He later took the opportunity to explore the Middle East firsthand, working in Saudi Arabia for two years and later studying in Kuwait.

His career began in 1970 at a South Dakota middle school teaching six classes a day, each with over 40 students, many of whom were living in poverty. From there he moved on to a high school in Ohio, where he taught English and history, and was elected president of the local teachers’ union.

"Talk to people who were in the profession in the U.S. in the 1950s. People would lose their jobs arbitrarily. Teaching did not pay a living wage, and benefits and pensions were inadequate. There is no question it wasn’t until teachers organized that the profession was treated equitably," Shaker says, adding that teachers "can’t depend on the largesse of the institution in a free market setting."

After earning his doctorate, he taught for 12 years at a liberal arts college in Northeastern Ohio, where he eventually became the chair of education responsible for training 100 teachers a year. In 1990, Shaker was appointed to the position of dean for the first time. His post at Simon Fraser is his fourth deanship. He was appointed for a five-year term, once renewable.

Shaker has been enthusiastic about Simon Fraser since 1971, when he first visited the campus. "I was dazzled by the beauty and the setting, and I like the West Coast lifestyle, so SFU was always a place that really attracted me."

So far, what’s the main difference between the systems in Canada and the United States? "It’s the limited federal role in public education here, and you do feel that’s a good thing," he says. "As the failure of [President George Bush’s education law] No Child Left Behind reflects, these top-down initiatives on a massive scale don’t make a lot of sense given that there are so many different contexts that end up in the classroom with the teacher."

But north or south of the 49th parallel, the central challenge remains how effectively the professionals can express their points of view to influence policy decisions on standardized testing, curriculum, value orientation in schools, and much more.

"Somehow we need for people to understand that standardized tests cannot comprehensively measure what we do in schools. It’s so simple and obvious to us, and yet the public wants to believe, at least in the U.S. they want to believe, that we can have simple answers to these complex questions," he said. "I would hope that up here [in Canada] people won’t be seduced by that."

And, if Paul Shaker were minister, instead of dean, of education, what would he change?

"I would like to see a redesign of middle years in ways that are so radical that some people wouldn’t even take them seriously," he said. "I’d like to see a lot of paper and pencils set aside at that point, and an emphasis on concrete experience. I am a very pragmatic person, and I appreciate the utility of knowledge as well as the spiritual dimension of it. So knowing how your car runs, how the furnace in your house functions, the nutritional constituents of food, and how pharmaceuticals affect your system, all these are fascinating and important."

Another change he would make would be full implementation of Reading Recovery along with universal Head Start programs. Everything in school is so dependent on basic literacy, and from what I have seen of Reading Recovery, it is a truly remarkable program."

Nancy Knickerbocker is the BCTF’s media relations officer.

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