Preparing to teach in Nunavut

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The Need for Teacher Orientation

When the Government of Nunavut (GN) advertises every year for teachers to come North, it is looking for people who are flexible, who can handle a different teaching environment and who plan to stay around for a while. Southern teachers constitute about two-thirds of the Nunavut teaching population and all would benefit from an orientation program prior to moving North. Since the student drop-out rate and the turn-over of teachers in Nunavut are both high, the GN is trying to address this issue, one example of which is the partnership between Qikiqtani School Operations (QSO) and Mount St. Vincent University (MSVU) in Halifax, Nova Scotia, called the MSVU Nunavut Teacher Practicum Program. For nine years the university has offered both a credit course on Nunavut as well as bursaries for five students interested in teaching in Nunavut to do a one month teaching practicum there. QSO is the program’s northern partner and provides access to its schools.

The Joint Cultural and Educational Experience

The MSVU students are encouraged to see the northern practicum as much a cultural experience as an educational opportunity. From the educational perspective, it provides them with the chance to see what life is like in a cross-cultural, English-as-a-Second-Language, often multi-grade northern classroom, one demanding initiative, flexibility and self-reliance. From the cultural perspective, the students get the opportunity to meet Inuit, get the feel of a Nunavut school, take part in community events and get out on the land so they then know exactly what they will face if they decide to apply for a Northern teaching position.

Since the start of the program, approximately 30 MSVU graduates have gone on to teach in the northern parts of Canada, primarily Nunavut, so an MSVU network is beginning to form in Nunavut, with some MSVU students now being mentored and hosted by former participants in the MSVU northern practicum program. The MSVU program has relied for the past nine years on the generosity of four key sponsors: the TD Bank Group, Dr. Hans and Mrs. Annegret Uhthoff, First Air and Qikiqtani School Operations, as well as the help of Nunavut teachers and principals who host and mentor the students.

Angela Hosking tries some seaweed with her grade 6 students, Sam Pudlat School, Cape Dorset. © Angela Hosking

The Double Program Objective

The goal of the MSVU Nunavut Teacher Practicum Program is to provide northern schools with teachers who have some prior understanding of the people they are going to serve, who know what they are getting into and who will be happier and will stay longer in the North. At the same time, they will therefore be more likely to form more than just passing relationships with their students, thus helping the young people in turn to want to stay longer in school and complete their grade 12. By providing an orientation experience for southern student teachers, it will hopefully be easier for them to transition into a northern teaching position as well as to enjoy life in an Inuit community.

Student Impressions

Here, the 2017 bursary winners give their own impressions of various aspects of their Nunavut practicums.

Proud students and their print display

It took a few hours on Sunday but I completed the display that my class had worked on so hard last week. When they came in the morning, they were in awe! They said it was the nicest display in the school, so I reminded them that it was they who had created the artwork. When other students walked by, my students were quick to make sure that everyone knew that it was they who had created the prints. They were so proud of their work and it made me proud that they could explain to others how they had created it. They were especially proud that something they saw as being very unique about Cape Dorset was something that they too had created on a smaller scale.

— Angela Hosking,  Sam Pudlat School, Cape Dorset

Today was another good day in the North

One evening three of us went to meet Annie Lampron-Manning, a local elder and seamstress in Cape Dorset who is a retired school teacher and the first female Justice of the Peace in Nunavut. Annie, like so many Inuit seamstresses, is an artist and creates beautiful stitching and beadwork on the kamiit, mitts and parkas that she makes. After our visit with Annie we heard that someone had killed a polar bear down on the ice. We headed down just as the bear was being skinned. It was about 10 feet long and had massive feet. The young man who shot it was about 25 and it was his first bear kill. The town will have plenty of meat from this bear and I’m hoping to get a piece to try.

— Lynann Rhodenizer,  Sam Pudlat School, Cape Dorset

Parachutes

Outdoors, the weather is getting warmer here, and the community is coming alive.  Some of the kids in class have been dreaming about upcoming trips on the land with their families. Although spring in Pond Inlet is void of rain showers and the smell of fresh soil, the end of the long, dark winter season is reason enough to celebrate. In class, we are slowly working through our flight unit in the classroom, which has involved more experiments. Today I used balloons to demonstrate air pressure and we capped off the afternoon with our parachute drop. I was amazed at how quickly the kids constructed their parachutes. They can be quite industrious when interested!

— Chris Hunt,  Ulaajuk School, Pond Inlet

There are ups and there are downs

I’m starting to understand how some think that teaching in the North is a lot harder than in the South. I’m starting to realize why they have such a high teacher turn-over rate. But I’m also remembering why I came up here and why I want to come back in August even more. I was the kid who hated high school, I was the kid who missed over a hundred days of school. Maybe I’m the person that can change these kids’ perceptions of school like a teacher once did for me. I came up here because I want to make a difference and that’s exactly what I am hoping to do.  If I should be so lucky as to start my career in the North and change the perception of at least one student then it will all be worth it.

— John Mackenzie,  Nasivvik School, Pond Inlet

The group, parka clad, ready for the North! L to R: (Front) Lynann Rhodenizer, (Back) John MacKenzie, Chris Hunt, Angela Hosking and Alex Pipes. © Chris Hunt

The Uqqurmiut Centre

The artists here are internationally celebrated for their embroidery, tapestry and print-making. I was amazed at the carvings, jewellery and hundreds of prints that were for sale at the Uqqurmiut Centre. But it was the embroidery pieces that caught my eye, some strung on miniature sealskin racks, others free-hanging. One small wall-hanging stood out, of a woman wearing an amoutik, with ‘Welcome’ underneath, embroidered with flowers. It said exactly how I felt when my plane landed here. This place is exactly where I am supposed to be, so after school the next day I bought it, along with a Pang hat, to remind myself of this adventure.

— Alex Pipes, Attagoyuk School, Pangnirtung

Becoming Effective Teachers

The MSVU course on Nunavut not only teaches about northern Canada, it encourages young would-be teachers to think outside the box, to step outside their comfort zone and to draw on their creativity to ‘sell’ education to a set of younger people who are often not particularly impressed by it. Too many indigenous students do not finish school and are thus deprived of the chance of good jobs, including the many in the Government of Nunavut. Providing southern teachers with orientation prior to going North through the Nunavut Teacher Practicum Program is just one of the ways of helping Inuit children to be more successful in school. For the teachers themselves, the chance to spend time in Nunavut, teaching in a cross-cultural setting, is an opportunity to experience a different way of being in a part of the world whose secrets are still overlooked by many. As Francis Thompson put it over a century ago:

The angels keep their ancient places-
Turn but a stone and start a wing!
‘Tis ye, ‘tis your estranged faces
That miss the many-splendoured thing.

Nick Newbery
Nick Newbery teaches a course on Nunavut at Mount St. Vincent University in Nova Scotia and is the coordinator of the Nunavut Teacher Practicum Program.