Part 1: Cotton Wool? Teacher Expectations of Indigenous and Racialized Learners

This post is Part 1 of a series of posts related to the investigation of teacher expectations and perceptions of Indigenous learners in Winnipeg. Much research has been conducted throughout the Commonwealth countries, most notably in Australia and New Zealand (Riley & Pidgeon, 2019; Hynds, Averill, Hindle, & Meyer, 2016), regarding teacher expectations, as well as studies conducted in Canada by Riley & Ungerleider (2008 & 2012) which have highlighted expectations from a Canadian perspective. Extensive research has been conducted in the United States as to white teacher expectations of Black learners (Gershenson, Holt, & Papageorge, 2016; Pringle, Lyons, & Booker, 2010; Tenenbaum & Ruck, 2007). 

Despite these studies, however, very little is known as to how educators and schools in Winnipeg perceive Indigenous learners, what expectations they generally have, and what the ramifications are of holding low expectations for racialized learners, save for a groundbreaking study in 2002 by the CCPA entitled Aboriginal Education in Inner City High Schools. (Silver, Mallett, Greene, & Simard, 2002).

This is particularly pertinent as Winnipeg has the largest urban population of Indigenous peoples in Canada, accounting for 12% of the general population (CBC, 2019), or almost 100 000 people strong. Historically speaking, Winnipeg also presents a critical lens of investigation given its relatively recent and abrupt transition from Indigenous lands to an industrial and capitalist-based western city centre that is predicated on racial and social divides. As Owen Toews  argues, “Winnipeg’s urban history has been intimately caught up in the history of colonialism.” (2018, p. 61).

This series is by no means a condemnation of teachers in Winnipeg or in general. Rather, it seeks to have all educators think about our practice and how we engage with Indigenous and racialized learners, their experience, external and internal forces, and how we design for equity so that all learners have the means for a decent life. As the author, I acknowledge my positionality: that is of a settler who carries with him a significant amount of privilege, hegemony, and attitudes that constantly need to be checked. This author habitually makes mistakes, both in the classroom and the boardroom, and perpetually falls into the trap of what Roberts (2012) suggests as a grave danger. Roberts argues that there is a danger in the desire of teachers to emancipate their learners. That “experience as praxis, done poorly, can be more damaging than maintaining more ‘traditional’ curriculum orientations.” (p. 82). According to Paulo Freire (as cited in Roberts, 2012), a “dialogical experience which is not based in seriousness, in competency, is much worse than a banking experience where the teacher merely transfers knowledge.” The danger is situated in the educator seeking to emancipate or save the learner.

There is equally a danger in watering down a learning experience or aggregated experiences when teachers have lower expectations for learners based on arbitrary or assumed characteristics, experiences, or factors. (Riley & Ungerleider, 2008, p. 380).  Do we have a tendency to stream learners into different maths currents, to create centres for certain learners, or to push learners to athletic or vocational programmes versus arts programming? Are we happy enough as teachers simply to focus on the well-being of the learner while ignoring the critical nature of cognitive engagement? Do we silence and ignore the voices of Indigenous learners simply because of assumptions about who they are?

In a recent article in the Atlantic, Columbia University Education professor Christopher Edmin (2020) argues that “the best teachers don’t just keep teaching. Instead, they use their pedagogy as protest: They disrupt teaching norms that harm vulnerable students.” That is they co-construct experiences and enter into dialogue with their learners with vigour and rigour. In his 2016 New York Times best seller, Edmin surfaces a dilemma not only in Winnipeg schools, but throughout the world where colonization, slavery, genocide and oppression have (and do) occur(ed): “As long as white middle-class teachers are recruited to schools occupied by urban youth of color, without any consideration of how they affirm and reestablish power dynamics that silence students, issues that plague urban education (like achievement gaps, suspensions rates, and high teacher turnover) will persist.” (p. 9).

Toews (2018) further argues that an apartheid system has been systematically and deliberately created since Canada’s seizure of Red River in 1869-70. Through political, economic, and militaristic means, white settlers created structures, institutions, and a culture that violently dispossessed Indigenous peoples from their land and way of life in Red River. Given the abhorrent injustice that rendered Indigenous peoples as targets of white elites and that then created a dynamic between settlers and Indigenous peoples, education has been weaponized to perpetuate this state of oppression and patriarchy.

This oppression has manifested itself in the genocidal Indian Residential School system and currently in the disproportionate low achievement and graduation results of Indigenous and Indigenous learners within the child welfare system. As a colleague of mine has argued, we will be judged by history for our complicitness in the apprehension of children. We will be the nuns in pictures who conspired to have children taken away from their families.

And the current data raises critical questions about the education of Indigenous children who live under the thumb of systemic poverty, racism, and dislocation from their families. According to a 2016 Manitoba auditor general’s report, only 55% of Manitoba’s Indigenous learners were graduating. (Hatherly, 2018). Nearly half of Indigenous learners are not graduating. This should be alarming and on the front page of the major papers on any given day. Equally appalling is the fact that only 33% of children in care, 90% of whom are Indigenous (Government of Manitoba, 2018).

And these statistics can often put the blame on the learner: pathologizing the experience of the learner and assuming that some learners simply cannot learn to the degree that other learners can.  And this surfaces the notion of the achievement gap. That there is a naturally and culturally derived gap in the abilities of certain learners. That somehow Indigenous learners are less capable. This is a huge danger and one that may be prevalent in many teaching contexts. Lisa Delpit, in her work Multiplication is for White People: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children, dispels this myth within the context of Black children. She argues powerfully that “African American children do not come into this world at a deficit. There is no ‘achievement gap’ at birth,” and that “When we educators look out at a classroom of black faces, we must understand that we are looking at children at least as brilliant as those from any well-to-do white community.” (p. 5). 

As an educator in Winnipeg, do I look at the Indigenous and racialized faces in my classroom and understand and acknowledge their brilliance?

By holding lower expectations of Indigenous learners, “schools and teachers may be inclined to perceive Aboriginal students as the problem: failing to identify attitudes, expectations and behaviours which may have contributed towards issues of absenteeism and underachievement.” (Riley & Pigeon, 2019, p. 127). According to Riley and Ungerleider (2012), “while teachers do think about how a student is being assessed, they way they think about their students reveals more about their expectations and biases than it does about student potential as represented by the grades expressed on the record cards.” (p. 310) It is also perhaps important to provide some context to the notion of low expectations and what Rose (2012) refers to as “racism by cotton wool.” Rose describes this phenomena in relation to his framing of  “Silent Apartheid”:

 In the classroom this can be exhibited by execution of codes of discipline, standards of work, grading and acceptable boundaries of school culture by ‘going soft’ on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Professionally the very same phenomenon is evident in the range and allocation of tasks all the way through to issues of performance management and professional feedback. The ramification of both dimensions of this is that for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders we receive less than the highest quality service delivery or feedback and may be lured into accepting exiguous and mediocre standards. 

Teaching with cotton wool refers to the notion that we collude with low expectations; that we do not offer deep learning experience for racialized learners in the name of being culturally responsive. This might look like less challenging work, less formative feedback, or simply when we normalize absenteeism and qualify it as a cultural practice. The antidote, according to the Stronger Smarter (2014) position paper of Australia is what it deems High Expectations Relationships, as opposed to rhetoric. More on this later in the coming weeks.

Janet Forsyth (2020), in her latest work investigating Indigenous self-determination in sport, posits that the expectations for Indigenous learners has changed in the last 100 years. Through the crushing impact of Indian Residential Schools, expectations were enormous and successes in sport, namely male-dominated ones like hockey, were revered as European traits. But as Indigenous learners have slowly emerged into the white-dominated public school system with changes to the Indian Act in 1951, “the soft racism of low expectations is becoming familiar….” (p.14). (The notion of racism is certainly fraught, as a very good friend of mine taught me that racism is simply racism. I take her point to heart.)

And despite the uniqueness of Winnipeg’s colonial context, there are tremendous parallels with other experiences. From the research from Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, there is evidence that suggests that European educators tend to have lower expectations of Indigenous learners. (Riley & Pigeon, 2019; Hynds, Averill, Hindle, & Meyere, 2017; Gershenson, Holt, & Papageorge, 2016). Given these results, do and have Winnipeg teachers have different expectations of Indigenous learners than non-Indigenous learners, and if so, what have been and what are the implications? 

And as there is a dearth of research in this area, the preliminary intent of this series is to take a look at one primary and critical source to help inform this initial conversation. The Manitoba Teacher, the journal of the Manitoba Teachers Society, will be used as a means to analyse the continuity and change of teacher perceptions and expectations of Indiegnos learners in Manitoba and more precisely in Winnipeg. As MTS does represent teachers throughout the province of Manitoba, it is impossible to ignore an overall provincial scope, but digging deeper Winnipeg offers an opportunity to analyse the historical changes in attitudes amidst the backdrop of industrialization, dispossession, urbanization, apartheid, and racism.

Manitoba Teacher from June 1991

To begin, it is important to pick up on my last series, which looked at a cursory history of public schools in Canada. To analyze teacher expectations in a vacuum would be bizarre and miseducative, so it is paramount to acknowledge how we have historically purposed education for Indigenous learners in Canada. As Forsyth (2020) suggests, schools were designed to “help Indigenous students rise above their race and assume positions in the labour force, as well as entice them to give up their Indian Status, thus whittling away the Indigenous population in Canada by instilling a deep appreciation for dominant mainstream cultural practices and values.” (p. 54). From the onset of Industrial and Indian Residential Schools to now a more acceptable “Silent Apartheid” (Rose, 2012) and covert racism, are will still intent as a society on marginalizing indigenous peoples? Perhaps history can help us untangle this question.

Again, the primary function of this series is not to cast judgement unnecessarily or in a haphazard manner on teachers.  As Edmin (2016) posits, “The work for white folks who teach in urban schools, then is to unpack their privilege and excavate the instructional, societal, and personal histories they bring with them when they come to the hood.” (p. 15). Bringing this sentiment back into Red River, Indigenous scholar Marie Battiste argues that “The challenge also continues for educators to be able to reflect critically on the current educational system in terms of whose knowledge is offered, who decides what is offered, what outcomes are rewarded, and who benefits….” (2013, p. 28).  This perhaps is our work in Winnipeg. So let’s begin.

In next week’s Blog Post 2, we will dive deep into the archives of the Manitoba Teacher, specifically looking at the 1970s and 1980s, to see how if there is any evidence to suggest that soft racism, or cotton wool, existed within a larger and broader discussion amongst educators in Manitoba and specifically Winnipeg.

In Week 3, we will see how Indigenous educators, learners, and scholars have challenged western perspectives of progressive and what it means to be an educated person. Through Verna Kirkness, Leanne Simpson, Sandy Grande, and Marie Bertistse, notions of decolonization and reclamation will be put to the forefront as a means to further challenge our expectations and our cotton wool.


Battiste, M. (2013). Decolonizing education: Nourishing the learning spirit. Purich.

Delpit, L. (2012). Multiplication is for white people : raising expectations for other people’s children. New Press.

Edmin, C. (2020). Teaching isn’t about managing behaviour: It’s about reaching students where they really are. The Atlantic, retrieved on July 26th, 2020

Forsyth, J. (2020). Reclaiming Tom Longboat: Indigenous self-determination in Canadian sport. University of Regina Press.

Gershenson, S., Holt, S., & Papageorge, N. (2016). Who believes in me? The effect of student–teacher demographic match on teacher expectations. Economics of Education Review, 52, 209–224.

Government of Manitoba. (2018). Transforming child welfare legislation in Manitoba: Opportunities to improve outcomes for children and youth. Retrieved on July 24th, 2020 from:

Hatherly, D. (2018, June 13). Auditor general says province misses the mark in Indigenous education | CBC News. Retrieved July 27, 2020, from

Hynds, A., Averill, R., Hindle, R., & Meyer, L. (2017). School expectations and student aspirations: The influence of schools and teachers on Indigenous secondary students. Ethnicities, 17(4), 546–573.

Manitoba Education (2016). Manitoba task force on educational outcomes of children in care: Report for the Minister of Education and Advanced Learning and the Minister of Family Services. Retrieved July 24, 2020 from

Pringle, B., Lyons, J., & Booker, K. (2010). Perceptions of teacher expectations by African American High School students. The Journal of Negro Education, 79(1), 33–40.

Riley, T., & Pidgeon, M. (2019). Australian teachers voice their perceptions of the influences of stereotypes, mindsets and school structure on teachers’ expectations of Indigenous students. Teaching Education, 30(2), 123–144.

Riley, T., & Ungerleider, C. (2012). Self-fulfilling prophecy: How teachers’ attributions, expectations, and stereotypes influence the learning opportunities afforded aboriginal students. Canadian Journal of Education, 35(2), 303–333.

Riley, T., & Ungerleider, C. (2008). Preservice teachers’ discriminatory judgments. Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 54(4), 378–.

Roberts, J. (2012). Beyond learning by doing: Theoretical currents in experiential education. Routledge.

Rose, M. (2012). The Great silent apartheid.

Silver, J., Mallett, K., Greene, J., & Simard, F. (2002, December 11). Aboriginal education in Winnipeg inner city High Schools. Retrieved July 27, 2020, from

Stronger Smarter Institute. (2014). High expectations relationships: A foundation for quality learning environments in all Australian schools. Retrieved July 29th, 2020 from

Tenenbaum, H., & Ruck, M. (2007). Are teachers’ expectations different for racial minority than for European American students? A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(2), 253–273.

Toews, O. (2018). Stolen city: Racial capitalism and the making of Winnipeg. ARP.

Winnipeg’s Indigenous population less segregated but still in poor housing: Statistics Canada | CBC News. (2019, December 10). Retrieved July 27, 2020, from

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