U of A program prepares teachers for unique role
Alicia Cardinal can remember playing “teacher” as early as age four.
With a sign for her desk reading “Mrs. Cardinal,” she handed out worksheets for her brothers to complete early in the morning, before their parents were out of bed. Her father was a teacher, and she yearned to follow his lead.
Now, the 20-year-old from the Buffalo Lake Métis Settlement is part of a new stream of the University of Alberta’s Aboriginal Teacher Education Program (ATEP).
“School is one of those places (children) go not just to learn, but they feel at home. I just want to be that place, where they just love to enjoy to come every single day,” Cardinal said.
Since 2002, professors at the helm of ATEP have been recruiting and training First Nations, Métis and Inuit teachers by offering courses and in-classroom training through colleges and schools close to First Nations communities. After two years of course work at one of four colleges, the future teachers do two years of professional training in schools close to home.
The university created the program to meet the demand for teachers who are already connected to Indigenous communities, said education professor Angela Wolfe, associate director of ATEP.
The program has graduated more than 200 elementary school teachers in the last 15 years, and about 90 per cent are working where they’d hoped, she said.
After several years trying to find the funds, ATEP added an urban program in Edmonton this fall, which will equip graduates to teach junior and senior high school. There are many Indigenous people living in the Edmonton area, and a growing demand for educators who can confidently teach First Nations history, the long-term effects of residential schools and how students can approach reconciliation.
Also, new professional standards under development for Alberta teachers will “call upon teachers and school leaders to demonstrate a high level of competency for supporting First Nations, Métis and Inuit student achievement,” Lindsay Harvey, press secretary for Education Minister David Eggen, said in an email.
Eggen has said lessons about the significance of residential schools and treaties will be a mandatory part of the new K-12 curriculum currently in development.
Starting last year, the government invested $5.4 million to train all 42,000 Alberta educators how to teach First Nations, Inuit and Métis history and perspectives.
Wolfe said putting more Indigenous teachers in front of all students is key to closing a substantial gap in achievement and graduation that dogs the province’s Indigenous students.
Those teachers haven’t just read about the residential school trauma that trickles down between generations — they’ve lived it, she said.
During the last school year, nearly 51,000 students, or about seven per cent of students enrolled in provincially run schools, self-identified as Indigenous, according to Alberta Education. The data does not include students who attend federally funded First Nations schools.
A 2016 survey of Alberta Teachers’ Association members found 3.1 per cent of respondents identified themselves as “Aboriginal.”
Indigenous teachers and principals need to be “normalized,” not perceived as an anomalous success story, Wolfe said.
“I know and I believe education is the path to change. It is the place of compassion. Our students are faltering in the school system,” she said.
“One way is to put teachers in the schools who have an understanding and a passion and the background of the world view and histories and perspectives.”
New ATEP student Sean Gray, 17, noticed the sparse number of Indigenous teachers growing up attending Kitaskinaw School on the Enoch Cree Nation west of Edmonton.
She clung to her Indigenous Grade 2 teacher, she says. She hopes her future students will cling to her, too.
At Edmonton’s Blessed Oscar Romero Catholic High School, Gray was involved with the Braided Journeys program, in which a graduation coach gives students advice and a sense of connection. The program, which has helped increase the graduation rate of Indigenous students at Edmonton Catholic Schools, has now been adopted by Edmonton Public Schools and some northern Ontario schools.
It was through Braided Journeys that Gray began volunteering with little kids.
She loved it.
When her graduation coach shared some depressing statistics about Indigenous students’ school success rates, and the likelihood of students with discipline problems to end up in prison, she was aghast.
“I wanted to prevent that from happening ... and help them find their path, and inspire them,” she said.
A PLACE TO BELONG
The new group of urban ATEP students, who have just begun their four-year training, must meet identical requirements as other bachelor of education students.
The difference is the extra support available, Wolfe said. They have access to a lounge where they can study and work on projects, and elders and mentors to turn to for advice, academic or otherwise. ATEP also offers extra professional development to expose the future teachers to Indigenous teaching resources.
A huge urban campus can be an intimidating place for people who have spent most of their lives in small communities, Wolfe said.
Those extra supports make all the difference, Gray and Cardinal said.
“It really brings our people together, and I think that’s such an important thing. It makes you realize that you’re not the only one going through this, and you’re not alone, and there’s someone there for you. It’s comforting,” Gray said.
Just as Cardinal was gearing up to leave home and begin her adult life, her father died.
Her inspiration, and the person she’d looked up to forever, was gone. She’s had some difficult days since then.
“I can’t even explain how good a support you have here,” Cardinal said.
“I honestly don’t know how to put into words how awesome it is.”
Sean Gray, 17, left, and Alicia Cardinal, 20, pictured at the University of Alberta are part of the first group of students to enrol in the university’s urban Aboriginal Teacher Education Program.