Teaching Under the Northern Lights

Victoria Regier (B.Ed [2013]; M.Ed [2014]) - Occasional Teacher for St. Clair Catholic District School Board

Victoria Regier gradated her B.Ed (J/I) in 2013 and then completed her M.Ed in Curriculum Studies in 2014. She was fortunate to be hired with the St. Clair Catholic District School Board as an occasional teacher soon after graduation. While working, Victoria wanted to continue to learn about the educational profession and pursed her M.Ed. Victoria would commute between the faculty in Windsor and her supply calls for the SCCDSB. Victoria’s peers and professors supported her and she was able to complete a busy year, and her M.Ed, in July 2014. In September 2014, Victoria was supplying whenever possible and volunteering in classrooms on her days off. In November 2014, a friend of Victoria’s who taught in a small Aboriginal community in the Northwest Territories called, Behchoko told her about a position available at a K-12 school as a Grade 4/5/6 teacher. Eager to have her own classroom, Victoria considered this position a great opportunity to "get her feet wet.” Victoria contacted the school principal and sent a cover letter and resume and soon after had a phone interview with the principal and three elders from the community. Victoria would be covering a maternity leave. Even though she had gone through the interview process before with the SCCDSB, she knew she had to prepare for this one differently. The principal and the elders took turns asking her questions regarding her teaching pedagogy/ philosophy; classroom management strategies as well as her willingness to be an active role model in a new community and culture. Victoria was a successful candidate and two weeks later, moved into a Yellowknife apartment and every school day would commute an hour each way to the school in Behchoko. Victoria has since returned to Ontario and continues to work for the SCCDSB.

Victoria, what has your experience been like thus far? Is it what you expected?

My experience teaching in the north is something I will always cherish and appreciate. I went out of my comfort zone when I moved out of Ontario into a small, remote community with a different culture, language, and way of life...not to mention a climate that averages -40 temperatures! In many ways, my education and previous teaching experiences prepared me for this new adventure and provided me with the necessary tools to successfully navigate my new role and its responsibilities. However, no book or number of supply calls could prepare me for how much I would care about my students, their families, and the new community I was now part of. Because it was my first full-time teaching contract, I tried to anticipate what was to come and my attitude was "Apply what you know, and try your very best." I tried my best and I had realistic expectations, after all I have been in classrooms the majority of my life, both as a student and as a teacher. I expected it to be challenging to take over a 4/5/6 class mid-year, and I expected it to be challenging to not only learn about this new culture and its traditions but to appropriately infuse then into lessons - all the while adjusting to "normal" teacher duties. However, I did not prepare myself for the emotional attachment I would have and how quickly "my students" turned into "my kids". It started as a short-term contract and by the end, it was much much more than a job. It was an experience of a lifetime.

What are the similarities or differences between the Windsor/Ontario context and the Northwest Territories?

Although I was still living and working within Canada, many times I felt like I was in a different country because the climate and way of life was very different from what I was used to. Temperatures averaged -40 degrees, cars had to be plugged in at night, some homes didn't have running water or electricity, and there was only a few hours of daylight each day during the winter months. Needless to say, the area in which I worked was very different from Ontario and therefore came with different challenges. The school is a central unit in the community and is depended on for things outside of education. For example, down the hall from my classroom were a Dental Therapist to look after the children's oral hygiene; a free, full-time daycare for parents and teachers at the school to utilize; a foster-care residence, and a residence for teachers to live in.

One unique challenge I had teaching in this isolated area was getting accustomed to its routines and customs. Many parents have to leave their community to find work and often work in mines hours away from home. Their routine involved being away for work for weeks at a time and then come home for a little bit. It was custom for relatives and friends to take care of these children in addition to their own after all; soon they will need someone watching their children while they work. It was difficult to keep track of each child and to learn their parents’ work schedule. Oftentimes students got into trouble or made bad choices due to the lack of supervision and/or routine. Those issues would affect my classroom and my student's ability to learn. I then had to adapt and find ways to better support my students and communicate with parents.

In the early stages of your job, what did you learn at the faculty of education that helped you to succeed? Was there any specific experience you relied on from your time in the B.ed program?

In the Faculty of Education we are taught to continually reflect on our lessons, relationships with students and colleagues, and the overall effort we are putting forth into our career. This really helped during the early stages of my job when I was trying to get a classroom routine going and building relationships with my new students and colleagues. After particularly challenging days, I would sit in my classroom after my students had left, and reflect on the day. I had 21 students with varying ability levels and behavioural exceptionalities that proved to be difficult when planning and managing my classroom. I had to continually revise units and assessments to better meet the diverse needs of my students. Reflecting allowed me to identify strategies that were working and one's that weren't, and gave me the opportunity to think about more beneficial ways I could respond when there was a disruption or outburst.

A specific experience from the B.Ed program that has helped me in this new position was what I learned in my Special Education class with Dr. Cam Cobb. My experiences in this class were very useful since many of my students had behavioural exceptionalities that affected their learning and that of their peers. Dr. Cobb would share his own previous teaching experiences as a Spec. Ed teacher within the TDSB. He emphasized that when working on improving classroom behaviour, students have to clearly know what is expected of them and the consequences of not following classroom rules. At the same time, the consequences have to be fair and "fit the crime." He taught us that there has to be a progression of steps before a child is removed from the classroom or sent to the office. You cannot just "freak out" and go to the extremes in disciplining. There needs to be clear classroom expectations in place, verbal and non-verbal warnings and next steps. It's simple and effective, but sometimes the hardest to implement when you are at your wits end. This advice really helped me to gain the respect and trust from my students and helped establish a cohesive classroom environment.

What do you wish you had known going into this position?

Going into my current position, I wish I had a better understanding of the emotional and mental demands that would be a part of my new position. I quickly took on the roles of a parent, a therapist, a coach, a doctor, a role model- all rolled into one and I had 21 students and their families depending on me. My students became "my kids" and I was constantly worried about them and questioned whether I was doing my best and what more could I do or try. At times I was overwhelmed and it became even more important to take care of my own emotional and mental well-being and thankfully, I had amazing colleagues and friends that supported me. Teaching is a wonderful gift but it comes with its own unique challenges and I have learned the importance and necessity of sharing experiences and strategies/resources with other teachers and supporting one another along the way.

Do you have any interesting anecdotes to share about what the students or schools are like and if they are different from those in Windsor/Ontario?

Dene Kede is the dominant culture and Tlicho (pronounced as Clee-cho) is the name that people in this community mostly identified with and spoke.  Dene Kede culture was taught, celebrated, and infused into the curriculum and everyday activities. The school staff comprised of locals as well as teachers who have relocated from all over Canada. Students have Tlicho class everyday for a half hour instead of learning French and Friday there was drumming and hand games for students to attend. Traditionally, drumming is used during war and special ceremonies such as weddings and funerals. Today, drumming is still a large part of Dene culture and I had the wonderful opportunity of attending a local Tlicho wedding where I got to witness and participate in a traditional drum dance. Hand games is an activity the kids loved doing. There are two teams and members take turns drumming and singing. Each team has small objects in their hands hidden and the opposing team has to guess which hand the object is in. Traditionally, tribes would have large hand games tournaments and teams could win cattle, land, food, money and tobacco. Now it is a recreational game but there are still region wide hand game tournaments. Also, the school offers what is called "Culture Camp." There is a cabin located near the school and classes would take turns going. Once there, elders from the community would come and tell the kids traditional stories and legends and prepare traditional food for them to eat. When my class went, elders were skinning and preparing caribou meat to dry and store for the winter. This is one experience that I know is unique to the north and I am so appreciative to have been a part of a cultural activity that is celebrated and part of the people's daily lives.

What types of opportunities have you had outside of work as a result of this position?

I have been blessed with wonderful opportunities while working in NWT that I know most Canadians will never experience. I have stood on the frozen Great Slave Lake and watched the Northern Lights dance above me. I went dog-sledding with friends and colleagues which was an unbelievable experience. I was able to take my students "into the bush" which involved driving on an ice road to an isolated lake and forest where we went snow-mobilling, sledding, ice-fishing and checked snare traps. I sat in a 100-year old cabin with my students and heard Dene legends while drinking hot chocolate. I have learned and embraced a new culture and grew to appreciate and respect this way of life. I feel connected to "my northern family" because the people there are so welcoming and if you are willing to open yourself to new experiences, they are more than willing to have you.

After returning "home,” how are you a different professional after this experience?

I have returned back to my home in Ontario and have continued supplying and volunteering within the SCCDSB. I am a different teacher after my teaching experience in the Northwest Territories. I am more patient and compassionate as I have learned firsthand that every student has unique experiences that affect who they are and what kind of student they are. However, when given the chance and appropriate support, can thrive. I have learned to dig deeper and get to the root of an issue or problem instead of making assumptions. This requires trust, mutual respect and open dialogue between you and your students. The students who are the most challenging are the ones that need your love and trust the most, and I learned one of the most important things I would do would be to work for that trust and respect. Once I achieved that, my students were happier and did better academically and behaviourally and I was happier too.

Do you have any advice for students entering the Faculty of Education and Academic Development?

My advice to students entering the Faculty of Education and Academic Development would be to get involved in your schools and communities as much as you can because those experiences and relationships will be the most rewarding and beneficial as you embark on your educational journey. Ask questions, make mistakes, and keep that keenness and thirst for knowledge and experience- all these will make you a more successful educational professional.