By Nick Newbery
When people speak of their school days they often do so fondly, with the affection seeming to increase in direct proportion to the length of time passed since they were actually in school! Nowadays, however, the reality of the student experience is usually less than idyllic for many Inuit teenagers who often face struggles on several fronts: finding their way between two cultures, personal relationships, literacy and numeracy or simply feeling disconnected from the southernized education system in the North.
For Inuit students, junior and senior high classes are almost entirely offered in English (a foreign language), are usually taught by non-Inuit (who do not always stay long in the smaller communities) and at the high school level follow an Alberta curriculum which, despite some northern adjustments, often seems to bear little relevance to the world that aboriginal youth are growing up in. For Inuktitut-speaking teenagers coming from a different cultural perspective, who have had relatively little contact with southern Canada and whose parents often did not go to high school, the adjustment to this learning scenario can be difficult.
Nonetheless, northern youth are becoming increasingly aware that completing grade 12 is their best ticket to a job and to the chance of an interesting life. There are a growing number of young people who, having left school for a variety of reasons, are now returning to try and complete their education. Grades 10 and 11, the first two years in high school, are often the make-or-break period, particularly for the ‘average’ student who may have struggled in elementary school, so there is a need to provide encouragement to help this type of young person to complete their formal education.
In an effort to improve student retention, the first Perseverance Award was instituted at Inuksuk High School in Iqaluit about a decade ago. It was designed to recognize a grade 10 or 11 student who, despite difficulties or perhaps having dropped out for a while, has provided a good example of the determination required to continue their formal studies while recognizing the importance of their own culture through learning the principles of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit. The award has four criteria:
- To recognize a person who has tried, who has struggled in some way but has started to turn their life around and whose attitude and attendance has improved noticeably.
- To take note of an individual’s improvement in areas such as personal change, attendance, co-operation and attitude towards study (rather than mere academic success).
- To give encouragement to a person who has not received much public recognition before.
- To provide support to a grade 10 or 11 student since the emphasis of the award is to encourage younger students to continue on to graduation.
In 2014 the award was extended to high schools in four other Nunavut communities where each Perseverance Award was named after a respected local person or couple (see below) to provide a visible role model for the students.
Peter Pitseolak School Annie Manning
Inuksuk High School Annie Nauyaq
Attagoyuk School Noah Metuq
Inuksuit School Markoosie Audlakiak
Netsilik School Tony and Mary Ittunga
Each year, each of these schools’ grade 10 and 11 teachers now select the local award recipient, who is then publicly recognized at a spring assembly, with the principal inviting the person who the award is named after (or their family) to make the presentation. In this way the school and community are linked to the same goals.
Working to Improve Student Retention
Clearly the Government of Nunavut is aware of the issues that confront its schools but from a teacher perspective, four key changes would go a long way to improving the chances of retention of more young Nunavummiut:
- The creation of a truly bilingual K-9 culturally relevant school program, with ready-to-deliver classroom teaching materials.
- The establishment of remedial literacy and numeracy support at every level from K-9 to prevent students from falling behind. (In Finland, considered by many to be a leading educational success story, one in three students receive some form of remedial support in those grades.)
- The involvement of mining companies and Inuit organizations to help fund badly needed programs in land skills, life skills and pre-trades in every school.
- The re-instatement of cultural orientation for new southern hires and on-going workshops to help all teachers deliver more culturally suitable programs to strengthen the link between schools and the communities they serve.
This spring five assemblies in five schools recognized the efforts of five students who, despite difficulties in their lives, have made a conscious decision to take their education and their lives seriously. This year’s recipients of the current five Perseverance Awards are:
The Annie Manning Perseverance Award,
Peter Pitseolak School
The Annie Nauyaq Perseverance Award,
Inuksuk High School
The Noah Metuq Perseverance Award,
The Markosie Audlakiak Perseverance Award,
The Ittunga Perseverance Award,
It is hoped to expand this program to more high schools in Nunavut in the future so that greater numbers of young people will be encouraged to continue their education and will be recognized for their efforts.
Nick Newbery was a teacher in Nunavut from 1976-2005. He currently teaches courses on Nunavut at Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax where he also runs an annual Nunavut practicum with Qikiqtani School Operations for some of his students. He initiated the Perseverance Award and hopes to expand its presence in Nunavut.