New friends and early childhood education professional contacts Shelane Stuart and Brittany Plustwa are among the many teachers set to begin a new school year throughout the territory next week.
The two were among about 64 new teachers on route to their new communities and who attended the GNWT Department of Education, Culture and Employment (ECE)’s New to the North Educators’ Conference in the capital region, Aug. 20 to 22.
The annual conference, in Yellowknife, Ndilo and Dettah, aims to bring all new educators coming to work in NWT into one central spot and create an understanding of what they are getting into and who can help them before teaching in their respective communities.
Stuart, 35, from London, Ont. – heading to the Charter Community of Tsiigehtchic – is looking forward to teaching kindergarten at Chief Paul Niditchie School.
“I feel like I might be one of those people coming for a year and coming for the experience and end up not leaving,” she said, noting she is looking to connect with the traditions and culture of the area and help the community through education.
“I have heard amazing, wonderful things about (Tsiigehtchic), the size of the population of 170. I understand that the environment they live in allots for them being open, kind and connecting and that is mainly why I am coming.”
Plustwa, 27, from Sandford, Man., is heading to Behchoko with her new husband to help teach junior kindergarten and kindergarten class at Elizabeth Mackenzie Elementary School.
“We’re hoping to be in Behchoko quite a while, set some roots and get settled,” she said. “I hope to attend a lot of really rich cultural, community events that we have seen posted and a lot of things they do like Happy Daze this weekend.”
Colleen Eckert, a coordinator for professional development with ECE oversaw many of the workshops and events taking place over the three days. She said the New to the North conference, now five years old, brings a greeting, offers a connected foundation among early education professionals and provides support to newcomers who might not be aware of the realities of the North.
The conference, which includes workshops on everything from mapwork, to understanding outdoor education, to understanding local languages, works on the overall goal of improving teacher retention, she added.
“To be honest, this is one of our ways of hopefully improving retention,” said Eckert. “If you support someone where they are living and away from families, we think it can really make a difference.
“They have changed everything in their lives to take a great position in the Northwest Territories but we (as a department) need to support them through that transition.”
She noted having teachers can help build Indigenous identity and community because of the continuity and familiarity of teachers staying.
A big part of that effort is helping teachers be aware of where they are teaching, said Eckert.
On Aug. 21 and on day two of the conference, attendees were invited to the Chief Drygeese Conference Centre where there was a day-long event focusing on the history and legacy of residential schools.
“We take a whole day so that they have the beginning knowledge about that prior to going into the classroom in their brand new communities,” she said, noting it is important that teachers fully understand the impacts of residential school and colonialism, rather than pulling information from bachelor of education textbook in the south.
“We want them to be here, hear from survivors here, and the history of colonization,” she said.
The day had a long list of activities and dignitaries speaking, but included presentations from a number of Indigenous government officials, residential school survivors – such as Stephen Kakfwi, Paul Andrew, Beatrice Bernhardt, Karen Wright-Fraser, Ernie Bernhardt, Ernie Lennie and Snookie Catholique – a blanket exercise and a panel on inter-generational impact and the healing journey.
Both Stuart and Plustwa said the day had the intended affect and carried a lot of weight on them after participating.
“I’m definitely guilty of having a southern viewpoint on the (history and legacy of residential schools) and not being educated, Stuart said, noting that she was impacted by the local presentations and the blanket exercise.
“I didn’t learn about it in high school, but as they said it is not an Aboriginal problem but a Canadian problem. There is a need for educators in in southwestern Ontario to know about it.”