Betty Barnaby, already an NWT Education Hall of Fame inductee, has taught in Fort Good Hope so long that she’s teaching the children of some of her former students.
Despite that, she has no intentions of retiring anytime soon.
“I absolutely cannot even think of it,” she said. “This is so much a part of my life. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.”
Barnaby got her start at Chief T’Selehye School when she was accepted as a classroom assistant in October 1977. She had no background in education at the time, but she learned plenty in that position over eight years.
“I enjoyed it so much that I decided to go out and get my teacher certification,” she recalled of her two years at Aurora College in Fort Smith.
After many subsequent years of teaching, she decided to once again become a student herself as she pursued her bachelor of education in 2011.
“I was always very curious. I really enjoy learning. I never wanted to get stuck in a rut,” Barnaby said of her motivation to upgrade her credentials. “I like learning from new teachers, new people on staff. I like trying new things.”
In particular, the Indigenous history and psychology courses intrigued her over the two years she devoted to attaining her bachelor degree through Aurora College, in partnership with the University of Saskatchewan.
There’s been tremendous progress in strengthening Indigenous studies in the school system over the past couple of decades, Barnaby acknowledged.
“When I first started, we didn’t even have an aboriginal language program,” she said. “Through the years I’ve noticed there’s so much regard given to our Indigenous knowledge and there’s a lot more community involvement.
“In our school here, for a number of years now, we gather in the gym and we do morning greetings… and review the Dene laws, which is basically our school rules. You’d never have seen that 20 years ago.”
The growing number of Indigenous staff members and the prominent role of district education authorities are among the factors that Barnaby credits for helping to boost Indigenous culture and traditions in schools.
Yet Barnaby feels that the Dene language should remain a high priority.
“My fear is that we’re losing a lot of people that can speak or teach the language,” she said. “The language instructors are getting up there in age. They should be scouting to make sure they’re training people so they don’t lose that opportunity to keep teaching the language.”
Not only is teaching Barnaby’s profession, it has, at times, been her salvation, she said.
“There’s a lot of time that there’s a lot of laughter with children,” she said, adding that your young pupils in grades 4-6 have helped her cope with the most difficult periods of her life. “They give me a reason to live. That’s how deep that relationship gets.
“It sure is a rewarding profession.”
Barnaby was enshrined in the NWT Education Hall of Fame in 2012. With members of her family in attendance, she had prepared a speech but, prior to being called up on stage, she got choked up while listening to a fellow award winner give extremely poignant speech.
“She started crying and then I couldn’t stop crying. This was my opportunity to thank a lot of people who helped me through the years and I couldn’t speak,” she recalled, now able to chuckle over the situation.