Edge walker – Dr. Wendy Crocker balances between Mennonite and non-Mennonite cultures

By: Gerry Rucchin
January 15, 2018

They’re around us but we don’t see them. The Old Colony Mennonites (OCM) are an important part of Southwestern Ontario but they’re often overlooked. However, one member of Western University’s Faculty of Education has been dedicated to giving them a voice in education.

For the past 15 years, Dr. Wendy Crocker has been an edge walker – straddling the world of Old Colony Mennonites and the dominant culture that makes up Southwestern Ontario. Recently, Dr. Crocker published “Schooling across Contexts: The Educational Realities of Old Colony Mennonite Students,” which is a study chronicling her observations of OCM children who attend schools in Mexico and in Ontario during the same school year.

Wendy Crocker

Dr. Wendy Crocker

Dr. Crocker became interested in the OCM after interacting with families when she was a principal at a Southwestern Ontario elementary school. The different cultures – and the different ideas concerning education that each culture had – caused Dr. Crocker to ask, “what is education; what is school?”

While Mennonites are considered a minority in the region, their population in Southwestern Ontario is larger than most people think. Dr. Crocker said their numbers are underrepresented because they aren’t counted in the census since families split their time between Mexico and Ontario.

“The number of Mennonites in the region is staggering,” said Dr. Crocker. “The population flies under the radar.”

The transnational nature of the OCM began when families left Russia for Manitoba in 1874. However, the OCM emigrated to Mexico in 1922 due to religious and education reasons. After their arrival, families integrated into their new homeland by owning property. It was tough economic conditions, such as drought, that forced the Mennonites to travel to Ontario for a part of the year. Currently, the OCM arrive in Ontario for asparagus and strawberry season and head back to Mexico after the apples have been picked in the fall. The money they earn in Ontario lasts them the entire year until they return to the province the following spring, said Dr. Crocker.

Spending significant time in two countries not only affects the economic situation of these families but it also impacts the children’s education because the children participate in two education systems that are vastly different, said Dr. Crocker.

Language and what it means to be literate is the first challenge OCM children face in the Ontario education system. While children speak and understand Low German, understand and communicate in High German and have knowledge of English and Spanish, they aren’t considered literate by the Ministry of Education because children often don’t meet the Ministry’s English reading and writing standards.

The second challenge OCM families face is they have a different definition of learning when compared to the Ministry of Education. For example, each group views homework differently. In the Ontario school system, assigned homework from the teacher is expected to be completed. However, in Mennonite culture, assigned homework from the teacher isn’t completed because it’s not considered an essential task. Instead, in OCM culture, homework is literally what it means – home and work. Children further their education by learning skills around the home. Girls learn child care skills while boys learn agrarian skills so they can be a provider, said Dr. Crocker.

Dr. Crocker’s goal is to increase awareness for educators about the OCM community so that appropriate support in the education system can be provided for them. Through her research, Dr. Crocker believes the education system can implement a number of ideas that will support OCM children in Ontario’s classrooms. First, cultural sensitivity must be included when addressing the educational needs of Mennonite children. For example, OCM families don’t believe in dancing and they don’t discuss procreation. These different points of view are a challenge to school administrators as they grapple with the meaning of equity and diversity, said Dr. Crocker.

Educators also need to think beyond “best practices” to develop and adopt “promising practices” when dealing with the OCM. However, Dr. Crocker said the concept of “best practices” must be used with caution because Mennonites are not a monolithic community. Their communities are diverse that range from conservative to liberal, which mean school administrators must be flexible when implementing policies to address OCM needs. Policies will also be different from school to school.

Finally, when schools are culturally sensitive and “promising practices” are used, curriculum must be updated to address OCM culture, said Dr. Crocker.

As an outsider, Dr. Crocker has a unique perspective in observing OCM culture. However, to be an observer, she had to develop trust with OCM leaders and families, which made them comfortable when she asked questions and watched their lives unfold. While she was – and continues to be – immersed in the OCM world, she has to remind herself that she isn’t a Mennonite and she can’t speak for them. But, she can observe, learn and educate Ontario school administrators about their way of life.

“I constantly walk that line as an edge walker.” ~ Dr. Wendy Crocker

Dr. Crocker’s research paper.

Visit Dr. Crocker’s website.