Teach for Canada: A word to the wise from someone who has been there

I was recently sitting in a meeting when a colleague of mine asked if I was aware of a post to the VoicEd.ca blog site by a fellow educator, Ben Sichel. The blog had been posted in early January, and was about a program called “Teach for Canada”. I had not seen the piece, although I have visited VoicEd fairly often, nor had I heard anything about “Teach for Canada”. When I read what the organization was all about, and what it’s founders were up to, I felt, as is often the case, that I simply could not keep my own two cents in my pocket.

The basic premise behind “Teach for Canada” is that the organization believes they can take recent graduates of University, give them a summer’s worth of training, and then send them off to “hard to staff” rural schools or into Aboriginal communities to work as “teachers”. The premise is that these young, enthusiastic, highly educated individuals (who are not teachers) will be able to help these communities reach their full educational potential.

Well, I’d like to share a little story on that topic, if I may.

A few years back I was a young, enthusiastic, highly educated individual who had just entered his B.Ed at Dalhousie University. I had become passionate about First Nations Education after reading “Out of the Depths” by Isabelle Knockwood, and had chosen to take, as one of my electives, a course that was essentially set up on the exact same premise as “Teach for Canada”. The idea was that this small group of young, enthusiastic, highly educated individuals would bring all this passion and drive together to go into a local First Nations community and help out. Not as teachers, but simply by way of the fact that we were young, energetic and educated. We could do great things, we thought. We did our prep work, got our plans together, and on the appointed day, met our prof and made the hour trip to a local reservation.

When we got there, we were given a tour of the reserve, and the Band Office. We were treated to bannock and moose stew. We had a chance to meet with an elder, and partake of the sweet grass ceremony. Then, finally, came the moment we had all been waiting for. We had an opportunity to sit and present our intentions to the lovely lady who had served as our guide. “What” we asked, with our bright eyes shining and our young enthusiasm brimming, “Can we do for your community?”

The very politely worded response was basically that the best thing we could do for that community was to go home.

Now, we are talking twenty years ago, and some of my details might be out of place, but the point was that the community did not want, nor need a group of well meaning “kids from away” running around trying to “fix” the problems on the reserve. To suggest, even remotely, that we were somehow more qualified to do so than the actual people in the community was, to put it mildly, an insult of epic proportion.

Fast forward a year and I would find myself in my first teaching job in a small Aboriginal community, seventy five miles north of Flin Flon. I was again, the keen eyed, bright new recruit, with a passion for education and children, and a desire to right all the wrongs visited upon the First Nations people of this country by the white majority. I volunteered. I went ice fishing. I conducted a school choir. I even wrote curriculum. And, at every turn, I tried to become part of the community. As did the rest of the teachers who were there, many of whom were young, energetic, recent graduates from University, still wet behind the ears as teachers, who were trying to make a difference.

The people I worked with in the North did some amazing things with those kids. I like to think that I did some small bit of good for the three years I was there as well.  But nothing in my experience had prepared me to face the reality of life on the reserve for many of my students. The horrific poverty. The substance abuse. The gas sniffing. The Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. And the massive impact of culture shock upon me as a non-First Nations educator in a First Nations classroom.

But at least I had my B.Ed. At least I could teach. I could prepare a lesson. I could support students with sound pedagogy. Yes I was new. But I had the training I needed to at least offer the best education I could to those kids.

Does Teach for Canada seriously expect that sending untrained University Graduates into First Nations classrooms is going to result in anything other than a complete trainwreck?

The schools of Canada’s Aboriginal communities are often staffed with young, energetic, recent graduates who are actually trained teachers. Although each may tell stories of small individual differences made in the lives of individual children, the collective gains of the non-First Nations system in improving the overall well being of First Nations students in this country remains a National shame. But suggesting that placing less qualified and more poorly trained people in classrooms will help the issue could be considered a laughable suggestion.

Except that no one should be laughing.

What arrogance on the part of TFC assumes, for some reason, that yet another well meaning group of Southerners is going to be the saviour of Canada’s Aboriginal people? What possible rationale can they be using to justify their notion that they can prepare people in one summer to understand the complexities of First Nations life? On what planet does living in a community for two years (TFC’s suggested contract length for it’s recruits) make them become “part of the community”, one of the “different ways” the TFC’s graduates will improve education? Finally, what possible insight into First Nations education could be offered by two business consultants, a speech writer, and a lawyer, the current vocations of TFC’s board of directors?

In their monumental White Paper on Aboriginal Control of Aboriginal education in the 1970s, the National Indian Brotherhood called upon the majority population to serve as partners and advocates to get control of education into the hands of the First Nations people themselves. I was lucky enough, upon my return from the North, to secure a job at the largest First Nations High School in Nova Scotia; Eskasoni. There, I saw first hand the potential that Aboriginal communities have to educate their own students when this model is followed. Yes, Canada has a long road  to travel in ensuring quality education for all its citizens, but this road for the First Nations People of this country must paved by the First Nations communities themselves. It can not be paved by the (hopefully) good intentions of groups like Teach for Canada.

Because when it comes to Canada’s Aboriginal population, the history books are rife with examples that show exactly where the road paved by well intended outsiders has led.

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4 Comments

Filed under Aboriginal Education, Education Policy, Educational Change, Public education, Quality education

4 responses to “Teach for Canada: A word to the wise from someone who has been there

  1. Pingback: Who’s reviewing Nova Scotia’s education system? | no need to raise your hand

  2. Pingback: Who’s reviewing Nova Scotia’s education system? | Solidarity Halifax

  3. Hi Grant,

    As per your invite, I thought I’d follow-up with you re. more successful and/or legitimate attempts to provide public education for First Nations in Canada.

    Teach For Canada, if one is to buy the hype, has been in dialogue with First Nations groups across Canada for the last year or so. Do you know of any statements from any of these groups that might be worth quoting?

    Tobey Steeves
    @symphily

    • Hi Tobey,
      I have been unable, as well, to find any trace in the media of any conversations between TFC and First Nations communities. Now, that is something that could easily be done out of the public eye, as First Nations are not, as far as I know, bound to report to anyone about who they might be speaking to.
      As I said, I have been out of that particular field for a few years, but I do have some contacts. I will put out some feelers and see what I can come up with. Drop me an e-mail at frostededucation@gmail.com in, say, a week?

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