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A Firsthand Account of Teaching Indigenous Content in Schools

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,

This week, we’ve been focusing on Indigenous educational content in schools. For today’s post, I interviewed my sister-in-law, who teaches in northern Alberta, for a firsthand take on the experience of teaching and learning about Indigenous content in Alberta schools.

I know my sister-in-law to be quite an observant person, and one who is compassionate, accepting, and very thoughtful of what other people may be going through. She cares deeply about Indigenous issues, and makes a difference in the lives of the children she teaches. She recognizes that many Indigenous children are still dealing with hurt and trauma, and that the school environment is not always an easy place in which to learn. Existing trauma means that the way students are educated about Indigenous content in schools is even more important.

She finds that the school system right now is set up to continually produce barriers to education and success. That many teachers lump together First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples. They refuse to acknowledge distinct groups, because they don’t understand, haven’t learned enough, have their own prejudice, or don’t care about teaching things accurately. She knows that kids can tell when a teacher isn’t taking these matters seriously or being authentic, and students are influenced by the way their teachers interact with the material.

Another issue she shared was that Indigenous content that’s taught in schools is often repeated, so the kids feel like they’re just going in circles with the information. What’s being taught doesn’t build from year to year, or deepen their understanding. Having to learn the same few things over and over could lead kids to be bored, apathetic, or even resentful of the topic.

She expressed that there is a lot of racism in rural communities, including where she teaches, and that even when the kids are willing to learn and easy to teach, their parents can be very detrimental to progress. Often when she starts making steps in class to break down biases and prejudice, the progress is undone when the kids go home, because their parents are racist, uneducated, and unwilling to learn.

My sister-in-law brings guest speakers and Elders into the classroom as often as possible, and tries to teach a variety of perspectives to the kids that will help with understanding and acceptance of others. However, she has noticed that, because the education system is predominantly individualistic, the kids have a hard time understanding collectivism, and how collectivism and communism are separate concepts.

Coming back to the Calls to Action about education reconciliation, there is more work to be done. This is not surprising, as reconciliation is a continuous process, and not something that will happen overnight. But it’s important to keep checking in, and to assess what we need.

We need more teacher-training, as stated in Call to Action 63, about how best to teach Indigenous-related curriculum and build “intercultural understanding, empathy, and mutual respect.”[1] We need teachers to be knowledgeable, so they can teach students in a way that’s accurate, engaging, and compassionate. We need ways to reach parents, not just students, and foster understanding and acceptance. To meet these goals, we need continuous collaboration and consultation with Indigenous peoples, and we need to recognize the value of Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods.[2]

At this point in history, there’s no end in sight to all of the education we need, and all of the improvements that can be made to our school systems. But children are our responsibility, and we owe it to them to make their future world a better place than it is now: a place where we treat each other with respect and understanding, even through our differences. One step towards this future is to continue working to fulfill the Calls to Action about education.

Until next time,

Team Reconcili-ACTION YEG

[1] Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (Ottawa: Public Works and Government Services Canada, 2015) at 331. [2] Ibid.

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