CALL OF THE NORTH

Teach­ers love lives, jobs in re­mote com­mu­ni­ties

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - FRONT PAGE - AN­DREA HILL ahill@post­media.com twit­ter.com/MsAn­dreaHill

Be­fore classes got un­der­way in north­ern Saskatchewan this fall, the re­gion’s school di­vi­sion was faced with a daunt­ing task: hir­ing 97 teach­ers — nearly a third of its teach­ing com­ple­ment.

Ja­son Young, di­rec­tor of ed­u­ca­tion for the provin­cially funded North­ern Lights School Di­vi­sion, said teacher turnover in north­ern Saskatchewan was “un­usu­ally high” this year.

The di­vi­sion, which planned to hire 331 teach­ers this school year, was able to hire 83 teach­ing staff over the sum­mer, but was still short 14 teach­ers when classes be­gan on Sept. 4.

Young is still try­ing to fill 10 spots as classes stretch into their third week.

Young said at­tract­ing teach­ers to north­ern Saskatchewan and keep­ing them there can be a chal­lenge. If peo­ple aren’t from the north, liv­ing in a small, iso­lated com­mu­nity can be dif­fi­cult. Some who accept con­tracts quit and take jobs closer to home be­fore even set­ting foot in a north­ern Saskatchewan class­room.

As the North­ern Lights School Di­vi­sion con­tin­ues to search for teach­ers to fill empty posts, some of the di­vi­sion’s long­est-serv­ing ed­u­ca­tors spoke about why they chose to spend their ca­reers in north­ern Saskatchewan.

DED­I­CATED TO NORTH

Medrick Thomas has been teach­ing in north­ern Saskatchewan for three decades.

The 63-year-old was born in the north­ern Saskatchewan com­mu­nity of Cum­ber­land House and worked in the Key Lake ura­nium mine as a young man, but he wasn’t en­joy­ing it and started think­ing about a ca­reer change.

A friend of his, a teacher at Cum­ber­land House, was pas­sion­ate and ex­cited to be teach­ing In­dige­nous stu­dents about their his­tory; Thomas de­cided he wanted to do the same. He was ac­cepted into the North­ern Teacher Ed­u­ca­tion Pro­gram (NORTEP) and moved to La Ronge to start work­ing to­ward his four-year bach­e­lor of ed­u­ca­tion de­gree.

Thomas grad­u­ated in 1988. There was never any ques­tion in his mind that he would re­turn to work in the north, he said.

“No. I’m born and bred in the north.”

Thomas spent a few years work­ing in the north­ern Saskatchewan com­mu­nity of Stan­ley Mis­sion, but moved af­ter his wife — who is also a teacher — got a job in her home com­mu­nity of Weyak­win, roughly an hour south of La Ronge. Thomas was later hired as the prin­ci­pal of Weyak­win’s Kiskahikan School in 2001.

He and his wife work along­side a sec­re­tary and ed­u­ca­tional as­sis­tant in the two-class­room school, which has 22 stu­dents this year. His wife teaches kids in kin­der­garten to Grade 5, while Thomas takes the stu­dents in grades 6 to 9. Stu­dents grad­u­at­ing from Kiskahikan have to go to high school in larger com­mu­ni­ties such as La Ronge or Prince Al­bert, where they ei­ther live with rel­a­tives or host fam­i­lies.

Thomas said he loves be­ing in a com­mu­nity where he knows all the chil­dren and can re­mind his stu­dents that he held them as ba­bies.

“I con­sider all of them my grand­chil­dren,” he said.

He was not sur­prised to hear of this year’s teacher shortage and he won­ders if the school shoot­ing in the north­ern com­mu­nity of La Loche in 2016, which left four peo­ple dead and seven in­jured, is a fac­tor.

“Since the La Loche shoot­ing, the idea that maybe they have less se­cu­rity in the north than they would any­where else, I think that has a lot to do with the drop in ap­pli­ca­tions, that there is that stigma at­tached to the north and north­ern com­mu­ni­ties,” he said.

“If I was a new stu­dent just grad­u­at­ing with my teach­ing de­gree and look­ing for a job, I’d se­ri­ously think about that as an is­sue.”

BUILD­ING SENSE OF HOPE

When Lily McKay Carriere grad­u­ated from the Univer­sity of Regina more than 30 years ago, the first thing she did was ap­ply for a job with the North­ern Lights School Di­vi­sion.

“I wanted to go to a small lit­tle vil­lage, a lit­tle school with a small stu­dent base, be­cause it was some­thing that would be par­al­lel to what I grew up in,” McKay Carriere said.

McKay Carriere, now 60, was born in Cum­ber­land House and moved to Ni­pawin when she was a teenager to live with a host fam­ily and at­tend high school, which wasn’t of­fered in her com­mu­nity at the time.

When she was in Grade 12, a coun­sel­lor pulled her into his of­fice and sug­gested she ap­ply for a teach­ing pro­gram at a univer­sity. She con­sented with­out know­ing what was in­volved.

“I didn’t know what a univer­sity was. I’d never been to one,” she said.

McKay Carriere be­came the first mem­ber of her fam­ily to at- tend post-se­condary ed­u­ca­tion. Al­though she en­joyed the years she spent in Ni­pawin and Regina, she was anx­ious to re­turn home.

She launched her ca­reer in Po­plar Point, a com­mu­nity out­side La Loche, and also worked fur­ther north, along the Athabasca Basin. She re­turned to Cum­ber­land House in 1982 to be close to her fam­ily and be­gan teach­ing at Charlebois Com­mu­nity School, where she had been a stu­dent her­self. To­day, the school has 230 stu­dents from kin­der­garten to Grade 12 and em­ploys 22 teach­ing staff, in­clud­ing McKay Carriere, who is now the prin­ci­pal.

McKay Carriere said it can be chal­leng­ing to work in the north, where un­em­ploy­ment and poverty are per­va­sive, but she be­lieves that makes her work as a teacher more es­sen­tial and she takes it upon her­self to build a sense of hope for her stu­dents ev­ery day.

Many of McKay Carriere’s staff are north­ern­ers who got their teach­ing de­grees at the North­ern Teacher Ed­u­ca­tion Pro­gram (NORTEP), which grad­u­ated its last class in the sum­mer of 2017. Bach­e­lor of ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams in the north are now taught through North­lands Col­lege, but crit­ics of the clo­sure of NORTEP say con­fu­sion over the shift has led to fewer peo­ple pur­su­ing teach­ing de­grees in north­ern Saskatchewan.

McKay Carriere said it’s im­per­a­tive that the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion work with North­lands to en­sure the new pro­gram con­tin­ues to grad­u­ate a steady stream of north­ern teach­ers be­cause they are a huge as­set to north­ern schools.

“You know they’ll be here longer than a year or two years,” she said. “When you have con­sis­tency and there’s lit­tle turnover, you can be guar­an­teed that you have a team that un­der­stands where these chil­dren are at from year to year.”

LOTS OF OP­POR­TU­NI­TIES

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from the Univer­sity of Saskatchewan’s ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram in 1988, Dawna Ol­son took a job with the North­ern Lights School Di­vi­sion.

She as­sumed she’d be in the north for a cou­ple of years and then move south, maybe to Prince Al­bert, where her fam­ily lived. But she fell in love with north­ern Saskatchewan and never left.

Ol­son spent her first two years as a teacher in Sandy Bay, roughly six hours north­east of Prince Al­bert, and then took a teach­ing po­si­tion at La Ronge’s Pre-Cam Com­mu­nity School to be closer to home. She be­came prin­ci­pal in 2000 and re­tired last year af­ter be­ing in the school of roughly 400 stu­dents in kin­der­garten to Grade 6 for nearly 30 years.

In small com­mu­ni­ties, “your friends be­come your fam­ily,” and a small school di­vi­sion with lots of turnover of­fers lots of op­por­tu­ni­ties to ad­vance your ca­reer, Ol­son said.

She moved from spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion teacher to Grade 4 teacher to vice-prin­ci­pal to prin­ci­pal through­out her ca­reer.

Ol­son said some stu­dents are used to teach­ers com­ing and go­ing from north­ern schools; she’s en­joyed be­com­ing “part of their world” by stay­ing put as long as she has.

She said she was sad to hear about this year’s teacher shortage and hopes it doesn’t have a snow­ball ef­fect.

“That puts a lot of strain on everybody else in those build­ings ... everybody else has to spread them­selves thin, and I would feel that if you’re a new teacher and you’re in that po­si­tion too and you’re be­ing asked to spread your­self thin to help take over the loss of the other teach­ers, that’s prob­a­bly very hard on you,” she said.

“Hope­fully it doesn’t cost them peo­ple that are there al­ready.”

When you have con­sis­tency and there’s lit­tle turnover, you can be guar­an­teed that you have a team that un­der­stands …

Linda Nel­son and Medrick Thomas have run Weyak­win’s Kiskahikan School for nearly two decades. Nel­son teaches kin­der­garten to Grade 5, and Thomas teaches grades 6 to 9 and is the prin­ci­pal.

Lily McKay Carriere was the first mem­ber of her fam­ily to at­tend post-se­condary ed­u­ca­tion. Now, she is prin­ci­pal at Charlebois Com­mu­nity School.

Dawna Ol­son

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