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How a B.C. program is challenging teacher 'Come and Go' syndrome in Indigenous communities

"It really is grassroots. Our communities are coming forward and saying, 'We have people in our community who want to be teachers. We have schools here that are understaffed.' So there's a need," says UBC's Johanna Sam.
"If you have an Indigenous teacher, they're more likely to be committed to the community or stay in that community. They're more likely to be invested," says UBC's Johanna Sam. 

One of the challenges of education for Indigenous communities in rural and remote areas is the high turnover rate of teachers. 

"So you might have a teacher that starts one or two years, and then decides to just use that as an experience, and then move on into more of an urban setting. That's something that communities discuss a lot of the time, is really that they need stability, and teachers to be there in a long time," says Johanna Sam, a  tenure-track assistant professor of human development, learning and culture in UBC's faculty of education. 

One Australian researcher calls this the "Come and Go" syndrome, where the average length of stay for a non-Indigenous teacher can be measured in months rather than years. In comparison, Indigenous teachers stay and provide stability for the children in the community.

This is a gap the Indigenous Teacher Education Program (NITEP) at the University of British Columbia works to address.

NITEP is an undergraduate program for Indigenous students who want to teach at an elementary, middle or high school level, with specialization in Indigenous education. The program also has partnerships with neighbouring universities or colleges like University of Northern British Columbia, Thompson Rivers University, and College of New Caledonia.

Sam first began as a program coordinator during her doctoral studies, and now she serves as an instructor. 

Depending on the partnership, NITEP sets up a field community centre that is central to the students' home communities, where they can take classes with NITEP instructors. This not only ensures that schooling is more accessible than travelling to an urban setting, but it also allows the students to be educators for their communities.

"What we're trying to do is teach more Indigenous teachers because if you have an Indigenous teacher, they're more likely to be committed to the community or stay in that community. They're more likely to be invested," says Sam. 

Access to education for remote Indigenous communities

In the past, NITEP allowed students to complete their first two years of study in their respective communities through field community centres, where most of the learning happened. Then, students would fly to Vancouver to complete their professional certification in their final year. But recently, the program has been working to remove barriers for students who can't travel.

For instance, Sam recalls how for the first time, the full NITEP program was offered to students at the Cariboo field centre where instructors flew out to the students and brought the education to them. 

"For so many students, that was such a barrier. They couldn't leave their families. It was a financial barrier, a housing barrier. And so we're trying to remove some of those barriers and have us as faculty go out to these these communities and work with them. They get to stay in their community, they have their housing, they have their family support," explains Sam. 

Another barrier for some students was internet access.

When Sam first started teaching NITEP courses, one of the conversations she had with her students was about infrastructure, Wi-Fi bandwidth, as some students struggled to upload files, watch recorded lessons, or access the lesson platform. 

After this chat, her students informed her that their community only had one cell tower, which most people were using during the day. So, Sam went with the flow.

"So I actually moved my class time to a time where they figured out nobody else on the [reservation] was really using internet, which was Sunday evening. So we moved class to Sunday evenings," recalls Sam.

An educational and 'Indigenity journey' 

Before enrolling in NITEP, Ashley Bueckert was an Indigenous education support worker with her school district. When she heard about the program, she was excited for the opportunity, especially because she could receive her education remotely and still take care of her son.

"I wouldn't have been able to fly to Vancouver, I wouldn't have been able to afford to do that. I was off for school, and I was off for maternity leave." 

Bueckert told her sister Alyssa Mortensen and the pair enrolled in the program together at the Cariboo field centre.

Bueckert joined the program to have her own classroom one day, and create diversity within classrooms. But it also helped her to reconnect with her roots.

"Throughout my educational journey, I ended up kind of going on my Indigeneity journey as well — just being away from my home community, and growing up, not immersed in my culture," says Bueckert. 

"It was like an overall whole experience and wanting to learn more, and how to advocate and not for only my past matrilineal line but for the future of my daughter and future generations to come for Indigenous people."

Mortensen also shared a similar reason for going through NITEP. 

"I think with everything coming up about truth and reconciliation, and also for me, I grew up away from my home reserve. So that was also a learning experience for me as well. And I knew that I wanted to do Indigenous-focused kind of lesson plans within my classroom," says Mortensen. 

"It was cool that there's this like going back to one's community to serve with the education that you have. I found that was really fulfilling and it was really exciting."

Indigenous ways of teaching and class management

During her studies, Bueckert recalls a lot of land-based learning in the NITEP curriculum. 

"We were able to go out on the land and create projects that were outside of like the linear, 'let's write a paper.' [It was] 'let's go find an Indigenous landmark and do some research on it and create a video that we could potentially share with people in other courses, or that we could add to our digital portfolio for future endeavours.'"

The students were also able to gain knowledge from experts in the community. 

"We also got to meet with healers and people who were very knowledgeable in medicine. It was interesting in the way that UBC and NITEP in particular were able to take their educator hat off and give it to a knowledge keeper from someone in that area, and to be able to say, 'I don't know a lot about this, but this traditional knowledge keeper from this area does, so I'm going to invite them in and they're going to teach,'" she tells Glacier Media.

The program, says Sam, strays away from Western-style teaching.

"I'm not one of those [lecturers] where I'm in front of the classroom with PowerPoints. I'm really, 'Let's sit in a sharing circle. Let's talk this out as a group. Let's plan this together.' And I think that teaching style really helps create that family feeling within the cohort," says Sam.

And sharing circles, she explains, are "Indigenous ways of practicing, and classroom management that we try to teach."

It's no surprise that NITEP students incorporate Indigenous ways of practicing and teaching when they graduate and have their own classrooms.

"I did a science unit this past year with my co-teacher. He was very focused on kind of just the basics: what animals would live here, that kind of stuff. But I was able to bring in a resource teacher from the Indigenous education department, and she talked more so about plants within each habitat and how those could be used for medicine, or just even for eating," says Mortensen.

"So looking at different ways that you were able to teach certain topics and how you can Indigenize them in certain ways. That was a really big difference that I kind of noticed. That's really cool."

Mortensen also says having Sam as their instructor for their Cariboo cohort allowed for a great experience.

"I think that she was a really great role model with us on how to put the social [and] emotional above the curriculum. There were times where some of us would attend our courses with her. And some of us were just not in a good mood or really stressed out. Sometimes she would just scrap half of her plan and say, 'OK, let's just have sharing circle,'" she says.

"And it made me realize like, not everything has to be so structured. And if I noticed that my students now are dysregulated, that I can do the same thing."