November 25, 2016 - Alisha Hill’s initial apprehensions disappeared a year ago when she met her Kindergarten class. Like most teachers heading to Northern Ontario to teach for the first time in a First Nations community, she had read the tragic stories and was painfully aware of the troubles affecting reserve life.
“Twenty-five little Kindergarteners welcomed me. It was a little chaotic at first, learning their names,” the 31-year-old teacher recalls. “It’s turned out to be the most rewarding teaching experience of my life.” That’s why she’s returned for a second year at Waninitawingaang Memorial School in Lac Seul First Nation, an hour’s drive northwest of Sioux Lookout.
Alisha not only survived, but thrived as one of the 31 initial teachers recruited, and trained by the Toronto-based educational venture Teach for Canada, to serve during 2015-16 in six different First Nations communities scattered throughout northwestern Ontario.
While looking for teaching opportunities in early 2015, Hill spotted Teach for Canada on social media and the whole venture piqued her interest. “I had always wanted to teach in First Nations communities, and Teach for Canada provided the support and professional development to help make it possible.”
Like many Teach for Canada recruits, Alisha was not a raw, untested rookie teacher. After graduating in May 2007 from Dalhousie University, she had taught for two years in Japan, moved to Ontario, completed her B.Ed. at Trent University, and held a few posts in the Ottawa and Western Quebec school systems.
“You have to be a little adventuresome,” Hill notes, but Teach for Canada provides the support to ease the transition. “Once that was clear, what got me excited was the need for teachers and the unlimited opportunities up North. I was mobile and free to explore, so it made perfect sense for me.”
As one of five brand-new teachers at her Kejick Bay school in 2015-16, Hill benefitted greatly from the mutual support of other Teach for Canada participants. “Having the introductory Teach for Canada 4-week summer training last July really helped forge a bond amongst all of us. Then, within our little school team, we’ve built strong connections and friendships.”
Teaching in Kejick Bay on the Lac Seul First Nation was not as much of a culture shock as she first imagined. She was better prepared than most new teachers for life in a tiny, remote reserve community housing some 400 of the total 2011 population of 870 Anishinaawbe people, of whom 39.7 per cent are under 19 years of age.
“The biggest adjustment for me,” Hill reports, “was getting used to living in a very small place where everyone knows you. It’s up close and personal when you live right in centre of the village. In my first year, I felt nothing but acceptance and warmth in the close-knit community.”
What was the secret of teaching success? “Being ready for new experiences, flexible, and ready to roll with whatever arises,” she replies, after pondering the question. “You cannot let it throw you off when a child shows up at night asking you to read her a bedtime story, or a parent shows up at your door with moose meat for tomorrow’s feast.”
Having a teacher-mentor like Eric Bortlis, her Acting Principal last year, was also critical to Alisha’s success. After three years of teaching at Cat Lake School in a more remote fly-in First Nations community, Eric knew the ropes.
Although raised in Milton, Ontario, her principal was of Mohawk ancestry and totally committed to First Nations education. “I told Alisha and the other incoming teachers that going to the North was not about teaching for five days and then watching Netflix on weekends.”
Bortlis’ personal credo was deceptively simple: “You need to get out and join in with the community. I can pay you to teach, but not to care.” Perhaps that’s why he is returning this coming year as the new Education Director for the three schools in Lac Seul First Nation.
Teachers posing as “saviours,” according to Bortlis, do not usually fare very well in First Nations schools. “I’m not here to save the North. I love the whole experience because I can give the kids a pat on the back without fear of repercussions. It’s far more personable here, and far more than a job.”
Teachers like Alisha Hill, Lac Seul’s Bortlis fervently believes, have the staying power to begin making a difference in the lives of First Nations children and families. “The communities are exceptionally welcoming places, if you give them a chance,” he maintains. “You certainly build lifelong relations."
Alisha Hill and her Class at Kejick Bay School, 2015
Dr. Paul W. Bennett is a Fellow in Education Policy at the Northern Policy Institute and Rick Garrick is a Thunder Bay-based news reporter.
This featured article is part of a four part series celebrating innovative and resilient success stories of First Nations Education in Northern Ontario communities. This series can be found within the commentary After the Healing: Safeguarding Northern Nishnawbe First Nations High School Education by Paul W. Bennett.
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