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What does History have to do with ‘Teach For Canada’? Sustainable Improvement in Rural and Northern Teaching

Posted by Heather E. McGregor
9 February 2014 - 4:58pm

In thinking about teaching ‘the past’ something that I find interesting is the issue of who is doing the teaching. How well are they prepared and supported to teach histories (perhaps) they themselves didn’t learn? This is an important question in parts of Canada where teachers are frequently itinerant – living in a community specifically to take up the job of teaching, often temporarily (2 years or less). These folks are usually not teaching in their home region or even a place they intend to make their home, they did not grow up learning the history of that place, and may not identify with the people of that place. While schools of education advertise a teaching degree as a ‘ticket to travel’ in the globalized marketplace, in practice teachers often need substantial supports to meet expectations of programs that value cultural- and local-responsiveness. This is certainly true in many schools north of 60°.

That brings me to the recently launched initiative Teach For Canada. For those of you familiar with the Teach For America program, the Canadian version is said to be separate, and adapted to address “teacher supply in rural, remote, and Aboriginal schools”. I am not sure whether Teach for Canada intends to place participants in Nunavut or the other Inuit Nunangat (homelands), but for now I am imagining they might, hence my focus here.

Ok, you may be thinking this doesn’t sound like it has a lot to do with history education – ostensibly the focus of this blog – but stay with me, it is all deeply intertwined. Then again, if you don’t want to read this whole blog (because I admit it is longer than acceptable blog lenth), I will jump to the punch line. I think the goal of improving education in territorial schools should be: To staff schools with teachers who care about the students’ wellbeing and future like they care about their family, who try to know and understand students, who teach in the community long enough to know several siblings or – better yet – several generations of students from one family, who deliver the best quality programs available (according to local criteria), and who are willing to change or improve their practice on an ongoing basis. I have met teachers like this, they are real! I think – and hope – the teachers I am describing will come from much close to home than Teach For Canada proposes.

Let me clarify that I am not for or against Teach For Canada. My opinion is not what matters. What matters is that educational leaders or school system decision-makers (who answer to parents and students about their school experiences and outcomes) are judging how well this program will work according to their – hopefully specific – criteria. Teach For Canada says they will be conducting such consultations and welcoming such collaboration.

Beyond Teach For Canada itself, I hope in general school systems will think more carefully about the implication of programs that bring ‘helping hands’ in – and outof communities that ‘need help’. In my view a more sustainable and, importantly, ethical approach would be to ask communities with a genuinely open mind about how to support them to be self-sufficient, self-caring, and self-determining. Yes, in some cases this will mean that people who come from other places may not be of help.

On a technical level, there is legislation that governs who can teach in public school systems in Canada. Not everything that goes on in schools is consistently and strictly to the letter of the law, but let us recognize that it is unlikely that individuals without the certifications endorsed by each jurisdiction will be solely responsible for classroom instruction. That being said, there are all kinds of reasons and ways other adults might be involved in school instruction. For example, it is certainly worth inviting non-certified co-instructors into school programs when they bring specialized skills in Aboriginal languages, local knowledges or environmental/outdoor education. Evidently, this is not the same as importing young, enthusiastic adventurers from other places to fill teaching positions.

Nunavut/Northern schools are already often being staffed by young, enthusiastic adventurers from other places (and some older ones too) and many of them are doing a good job, or a great job, but many of them don’t stay long enough. In a few case studies I conducted in Nunavut schools an average of 72% of staff would stay from one year to the next, but in some years half the staff are changing over (McGregor, 2013b). This varies from community to community so statistics are hardly meaningful, but suffice it to say teacher turnover is already a well-known, and draining, problem. Is the solution to this problem to bring in more folks on two-year contracts, but maybe with a little bit more orientation, though they don’t require a teaching degree?

Teachers who already work, or have worked, in these locations express the need for significant orientation and ongoing in-service, in areas such as teaching English to second-language learners, cultural practices, appropriate pedagogies, and local curriculum content (see for example Berger, 2007). Teachers who have been in Nunavut for years still say they could use more support in these areas. I am putting emphasis on the ongoing because one person’s brain, heart and body cannot learn or retain everything they need to know about an entirely different teaching environment in one week, one month, or one year. The North needs need sustainable, long-term teacher support, development and upgrading initiatives.

Being a good teacher in most communities – let alone rural ones – is not necessarily a transferable set of skills arrived at through ‘training’ (Harper, 2000). Every rural community is not the same, or does not have the same view of the purpose or value of schooling. Employment opportunities for which a grade 12 diploma would be relevant vary considerably. Language, culture, cross-cultural relations, social, political and economic conditions, the impact of the weather, the leadership at the school – and the history of that place – all differ substantially. When you are in a rural, remote and Aboriginal community these things really matter. Can Teach For Canada provide the sensitivity, complexity and flexibility required to prepare people for such variation? Is promising that they can do so simply leading people down the garden path and setting them up for frustration? It would be valuable to teach teachers (better) how to learn, so that they enter communities without thinking they know what needs to be done, but rather thinking the will learn what needs to be done.

Students are already exhausted by their ‘come as you like’ teachers. Here’s a quote from a student (Sandiford, 2013):

“There’s a lot of coming and going of teachers. And when you’re a teenager you meet maybe 15 teachers every year. […] Me, I wanted to learn, I wanted my classmates to learn too, I wanted them to listen. But that was what frustrated me the most, because there’s not a lot of respect for new teachers. But some teachers stay for maybe 3 years, and that’s mostly when everyone’s starting to get used to you. And they’re like ‘Oh, yeah you’re actually here for more than a year! Good for you!’ And then they leave, so….”

And another telling quote from the same student:

“We gotta get Inuit teachers. ‘Cause that’s like a bonus because it’s someone you know, and they’re not gonna leave in 2 years… unless they want to. And then, it’s cool because your teacher is Inuk and has a degree in this or that!”

Lastly, the unemployment rate in rural, remote and Aboriginal communities is high. People need jobs and people need childcare options to take up those jobs… schools need teachers… teacher education programs are often hard to access for people in these areas. How does Teach For Canada justify enabling people to travel around the country to fill them, when people living a stone’s throw away from the school could be benefitting from that work, especially with a few more socio-economic supports made available to them?

So what does history have to do with Teach for Canada?

  • People invited to work as teachers (or program developers) should make efforts to learn about, and demonstrate sensitivity to, the general and specific histories of education/schooling in their respective regions, including histories of harms done in the name of ‘helping’ and ‘educating’ and creating ‘equalities’. You cannot claim to be different if you do not know what you need to be different from.
  • Histories of education are almost always connected to a history of other movements, including attempts at colonization and resistances to colonization. Good teachers - good community members – would benefit from hearing more about these histories, as Indigenous scholars and community members have been calling for over many years.
  • Learning how to be a good teacher in any context necessitates learning about that place, specifically so that an awareness of that place will show up in the content of your teaching – certainly in a history class but outside of the subject as well.
  • Any programs that go on in schools – history, math, science – would be strengthened by those who bring deeper relationships with students into the coursework. This can be done by people from other parts of the world, but it means they have to be ready to learn.
  • History tells us that the most sustainable and ethical social development strategies come from within communities, and are sustainable within those communities.

Mary Simon, former president of Canada’s Inuit representative organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, has said: “…if we are to restore the trust of parents who have been deeply hurt by their own educational experiences, we must build an education system grounded in the Inuit culture, history and worldview, and with respect for the role of parents” (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, 2011, p. 4). I wonder how Teach For Canada can participate in this vision. 

What do you think?

Photo: Author's photo of Aqsarniit Middle School, Iqaluit, Nunavut.

References and Further Reading:

Aylward, M. L. (2009). Culturally relevant schooling in Nunavut: Views of secondary school educators. Études Inuit Studies, 33(1-2), 77-94.

Berger, P. (2009). Inuit language, culture, and parental engagement in schooling in one Nunavut community. Canadian Journal of Native Education, 32(1), 73-92.

Berger, P., Epp, J. R., & Møller, H. (2006). The predictable influences of culture clash, current practice, and colonialism on punctuality, attendance, and achievement in Nunavut schools. Canadian Journal of Native Education, 29(2), 182.

Berger, P., & Epp, J. R. (2007). "There's no book and there's no guide": The expressed needs of qallunaat educators in Nunavut. Brock Education, 16(2), 44-56.

Daitch, S. (2013). An ethical space for dialogue about difficult history: Program evaluation of a residential school evaluation pilot in Canada’s Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Masters thesis. Dispute Resolution, Public Administration. Victoria: University of Victoria.

Harper, H. (2000). “There is No Way to Prepare for This”: Teaching in First Nations Schools in Northern Ontario-Issues and Concerns. Canadian Journal of Native Education. 24 (2), 144-157.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. (2011). First Canadians, Canadians first: National strategy on Inuit education 2011. Ottawa: Published for the National Committee on Inuit Education by Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.

Lewthwaite, B. & McMillan, B. (2010). “She can bother me and that’s because she cares”: what Inuit students say about teaching and their learning. Canadian Journal of Education, 33(1), 140-175.

McGregor, H. E. (2013a). Teacher Engagement with Histories of Education: Supporting Educational Change in Nunavut. Canadian Issues/Themes Canadiens, Winter Issue: 29-35.

McGregor, H. E. (2013b). “Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit and the transformation of high school education in Nunavut: History, Context and Statistical Profiles” ArcticNet (Network of Centres of Excellence of Canada), under supervision of Fiona Walton (principal investigator).

Sandiford, M. (Filmaker & Producer). (2011). Going places: Preparing Inuit High School Students for a Changing Wider World. Project Leader Fiona Walton, Charlottetown: University of Prince Edward Island.

Sandiford, M. (Director). (2013). Alluriarniq Stepping forward: Youth perspectives on high school education in Nunavut. Project Leader Fiona Walton, Coordinated by Kerri Wheatley, Charlottetown: University of Prince Edward Island. 


Excellent post!

I agree with you completely, Heather. As someone who has worked in schools in First Nations communities (but not as a teacher), I know that for an outsider it is difficult and takes time to establish trust in the community. I too feel that more should be done to improve the teaching and learning experience of both local teachers and students in rural communities, rather than flying in "highly qualified" teachers from outside the community. And how would this make the local teachers feel, anyways? That they are not good enough? Along with suspicion and wariness about the new arrivals, there will also be resentment. As others have noted elsewhere, this is just another form of  paternalistic colonialism - that I thought we were trying to get away from in Canada. I guess some people still don't get it.