Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Twenty-Six Years

Teachers of Aboriginal ancestry.

Leave out your parents for now. Their teachings begin very early, before you even remember and always continue. They always teach and will always have that role in your life.  This isn't about parents today.

Teachers of Aboriginal ancestry.

You had to wait until you were twenty-six years of age before you met your first teacher of Aboriginal ancestry.  Even the Native History course you took in undergrad was taught by a non-Aboriginal instructor.  You were one of five hundred or so student teachers in the Bachelor of Education program. You had lived in Camrose, Alberta, of course, but now you were living in the big city and you were terrified and lonely and not having a good time. In fact, you had had encounters with an administrator which you perceived as racist, you had dealt with hostile advisors and a practicum school that had twenty times more students than you had people living on your reserve. The stress had made you so ill you ended up in the hospital and your practicum was over prematurely. In fact, you moved home for the remainder of the term, and seriously considered not returning to finish the program.

Her name was Seepeetza. She taught a course you took called First Nations Schooling. She brought forth a gentleness and understanding of the lived experience of First Nations people that you had never encountered in all your years in the education system. In a tumultuous and unpleasant Bachelor of Education program, Seepeetza provided a calm way of learning that you had never experienced before. She taught in a different way, one that was both familiar and alien, and one that you had never encountered in the education system. It reminds you of home.

Seepeetza took the time to know you and to share. Of the five hundred student teachers, there were three of you whom were Aboriginal, and while you had met one of the others, you had never seen the third, but you knew that Seepeetza knew all three of you. You know that Seepeetza took the time, after one of her classes to take you and that other one in the class out for tea. She would talk and let you find some sort of peace as well as ensure that you and the other student teacher were bonding a little bit so that you weren’t so alone.

After you graduated, completing another tumultuous practicum, you were humbled and tossed into the real world. The real world where your credentials as a teacher turned out to be pretty meaningless and you found your first contract as a teacher was not as a teacher at all, but as a support worker. It was during this time that Seepeetza lost her battle with cancer.

Your first teaching position was in that small K-12 school with the 60+ % Aboriginal population.  The students, and many of their parents said they were happy to have you there, in fact one of the parents wanted to write a letter of protest when you were laid off a couple of years later (you shouldn't have talked her out of it!).  You hope that it is because you are a good teacher, but you know that a big part of the reason is the same one that so attached Seepeetza in your heart: you are Aboriginal.  You are one of them and you are teaching them.  The parents like you because you have been where they have been and where their children are.  They like you because they perceive that you understand in a way that even the most thoughtful, respectful and open non-Aboriginal teacher could never understand.  To the students, you are a reflection of them that they are desperately trying to find in the world outside their reserve.  Even more, you are a reflection, you hope, of what they could be. 

And they didn't have to wait twenty-six years.

Seepeetza left behind an extraordinary legacy, including the incredible novel, My Name is Seepeetza. I have mentioned a lot of impressive gains in Aboriginal education in previous posts, but there are also many challenges that look insurmountable, partly because I perceive strong resistance to what we are trying to accomplish. Seepeetza faced the world with a quiet strength and dignity; she was an advocate for Aboriginal education.

I hope that we aren’t letting her down.

PS: The NITEP program at UBC is accepting applications until April 30 for their next intake of Native student teachers.  We need teachers of Aboriginal ancestry teaching in the public school system.  They are teachers and role models for our Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students alike.  SFU also has an excellent program, as do many of the other universities in the province.  Having said that, there is no need to confine yourself to an Indigenous teacher education program, I didn't go through an Indigenous-focussed program.  We need teachers of Aboriginal ancestry.  Something to consider.


  1. Thank you for sharing this - a powerful, moving and personal story. It is also hopeful and persuasive. Inspiring read.