As an adult, I find it’s pretty easy to know what the right thing to do is. I’ve got a firm grasp on the things that I feel strongly about, the things I believe in. Age and experiences have shaped my worldview and my personal views. I know my “why” and generally feel confident in the decisions and actions I take.
Except in one area, especially as an educator, where I am constantly questioning and second-guessing myself. An area that I am very self-conscious about, particularly about doing something incorrectly. An area that makes me feel compelled to speak out, yet fearful of speaking out of turn. That area for me is indigenous issues.
This weekend, I finally had a chance to watch the three-part series “First Contact” online at APTN (Aboriginal People’s Television Network.) I had followed the reaction to the series on Twitter for over a week and a half, as it had aired on TV earlier in the month. Reading about it, at first I was excited at the premise: ‘average’ Canadians with very stereotypical (aka racist) beliefs toward First Nations people, spending a month sharing and learning about indigenous culture, as well as the historical injustices they have faced, and coming out of the experience with changed views.
Disney couldn’t have made a better feel-good idea for me as a Canadian.
Looking at the trailer, I knew these white Canadians. I’d heard every single one of their comments in real life before. Every. Single. One. The fact that any of them reversed course? What a feat!
Then I started to read Twitter threads, recognized I’d been viewing it through maple-leaf-red-colored glasses, and I realized, again, that perspective is a hard thing to set aside.
It was also a good reminder that even though it was produced by APTN, not all indigenous people agreed with the basis of the show. One thread in particular was very critical of the way that “you cart them around to communities and in front of Indigenous Peoples, and you make the Indigenous Peoples and communities prove their worth. That they aren’t the stereotype. That they are human beings who have been impacted by the historical trauma this country has levelled on them…we never did anything wrong, so why do we have to prove our worth to you? And why on a nationally televised reality program?” And because I had done reading before I watched the series, I could totally see it. At one point, one of the women makes a comment about wanting to get back to civilization - and isn’t that the crux of it right there.
So I alternated nodding with the honest and patient indigenous participants as they detailed their personal, and often traumatic, experiences, and wanting to punch the old racist guy in his glasses. (He did NOT change his views despite wanting ‘evidence’ and being provided with it in spades.) In fact, I wish that I could have watched it with a director’s commentary like some movies have, because I know that I would have learned even more. I could see the problems inherent in this reality-tv approach, but couldn’t quite articulate why. As someone much smarter than me explained, “because it’s still a Eurocentric exercise. Part of reconciliation needs to be about combatting those attitudes, but if we’re not also making space for Indigenous perspectives, then it’s not really changing anything.”
But there’s also the starfish effect: like the story, getting tossed back into the ocean made a difference for that one. I’d like to think that for every person who watches this show, and struggles with a little cognitive dissonance, that it might make a difference. I also think back to many First Nation presenters over the years who encourage us (as educators, in particular) to start. Just start. Wherever you may be in your own personal understanding, we can’t wait anymore. And so even if we make mistakes (I’ll never forget one presenter’s story about kids making tortilla tipis…yikes) we need to work toward education, truth, and reconciliation.
So although I am sometimes almost incapacitated with fear of screwing up, I will keep learning and keep trying. I agree with the Twitter commenter that “there are better, and more productive ways. For me, I will concentrate on the youth. These attitudes will age out. The youth will change this country.” And he is right. Even in our rural setting, in the last week, I read a student’s writing about dancing in pow wow; I heard music from A Tribe Called Red played at a volleyball practice; I had a student ask questions about the Metis flag hanging in my classroom; I heard grade 8 students insightfully discuss effects of colonization; and I know that student planning has started to recognize Orange Shirt Day next Monday.
Just like we are all Treaty People, we all need to be involved in Reconciliation. For our students, knowledge is the best way forward, toward a day of mutual respect when a reality tv show isn’t needed to educate Canadians.
Tawâw. Tervetuloa. Everyone is welcome.
p.s. the Twitter thread was by @DaveAlexRoberts or lots of discussion on @FirstContactTV
It was grade eight, tryouts for a SaskFirst volleyball team. My memory is notoriously fickle with what it files away, but the stories it decides to keep, I’ll remember vividly. This is one. A warm fuzzy story of overcoming obstacles and making the team? Nope.
Because I didn’t.
I was a decent volleyball player, considering I was 5’3” then, and haven’t grown since lol. Gary and Lois Dodds were our teachers and coaches all the way through junior and senior. A lot of you will know who they are, so really, with instructors like that, how could I not have learned some solid skills? Like I said, I wasn’t terrible.
No, the reason these tryouts are stuck in my brain is because of something they told us just before announcing the cuts: “We can make taller players better, but we can’t make better players taller.”
I had two thoughts. The first wasn’t very nice. The second? I knew I didn’t have a chance.
I get that I probably sucked more than I’d like to think, but they told the truth, and it hurt when the tallest girl in our school, but not the strongest player by a mile, made it through that round. It’s not that I was defeated and never played the sport again. Not at all. But it was an awakening for me, an epiphany in how the world worked. Coming from a family where working hard always translated into results, whether in grades or music or sports, this just didn’t correlate for me. In hindsight, had they just made the cuts without the disclaimer, I probably would have struggled with my classmate making it, but knowing there was a hidden criteria made it worse somehow.
Weston Dressler, I feel ya.
Dressler’s one of those success stories that you want kids to learn about: to not let someone else determine how far your dream goes. This past week we watched the new Nike ad, featuring Colin Kaepernick. There’s so many great lines in those two minutes and twenty seconds, but we chose this one: don’t ask if your dreams are crazy, ask it they are crazy enough. Then a student volunteered to share his quickwrite, about how every single person has laughed at his dream to become (coincidentally) an Olympic volleyball player. And no one laughed. Sometimes I love kids so much.
As a teacher, I don’t ever want to be someone, even inadvertently, who limits what a kid thinks that they can do. What they will become. What they dream.
But it happens, and as an educational collective, there are still prevailing philosophies that are dream-squashers (especially in sports but that’s another rant for another time.) That was the only part in the Nike ad that I struggled a bit with: being the best. “Don’t try to be the fastest runner in your school or in the world. Be the fastest ever.” The flip side is that it’s important for kids to be okay with who they are too…and for almost every one of them, it’s not going to be a world champion. In fact, most kids will never be “the best” at anything. Not at a national level, or provincial level, or division level. Maybe not at a school level. Maybe not even at a classroom level. (That’s a paralyzing thought for a teacher, and one that reaffirms to me the importance of creating an environment with learning for learning’s sake, not for a number.)
You don’t need to be the best to try. Or to have fun. Or to learn skills that will stay with you for a lifetime. (Or love to play volleyball even if you are short enough to walk under the net without ducking!) I think it’s important for us to model that lifelong learning too - for kids to realize that we dream throughout our lives, even as grownups. I still have dreams. Lots of them. Some get said out loud, some shared with only a few trusted people, some whispered quietly to myself, and some just reside in my head until I’m brave enough to give them breath.
I had a mom moment this week that made me think about all of this. It’s not something I’ll share, but I can tell you that I felt like I was back in grade eight myself. And I had two thoughts. The first wasn’t very nice. The second? I want him to follow his dreams and on his terms. Period. The third? We can all be better, and be 'our best' even if we will never be ‘the best.’
Tawâw. Tervetuloa. Everyone is definitely welcome.
p.s. “The woods would be silent if no birds sang except the best.” And that would suck.
On Saturday morning, I woke up thinking about this blog. Not in a panicked or guilty way, which would be valid since I walked away from it in June and didn’t look back, but in a ‘what am I going to write about after the first week of school?’ way. The first thought that popped into my mind? “I wonder if anyone has quantitatively researched whether the end of June teacher-tired is greater than the beginning of September teacher-tired?”
Yep. Important stuff.
But in a way, it’s an interesting question. At the end of June, you are just holding on through progress reports, field trips, final assessments, checked-out students, and grad. I am usually so tired, that the first week of July is literally just sleeping. At the beginning of September, despite having stored up a little energy and rest, it’s instantly depleted from the long days and late nights of planning, PD and meetings, the beginnings of soooo many school activities, and student energy. It really is a toss up!
And although I do use the summer to recharge and rest, like many colleagues, there is a lot of work to be done too. I was fortunate enough to take the Principal’s short course at the U of S, and it was a fantastic learning experience. I can’t say enough amazing things about the week! I also had quite a pile of books that I had borrowed, a mix of professional and personal reading. My favorites are still: 180 Days by Gallagher/Kittle, Culturize by Casas, and Innovator’s Mindset by Couros. And my favorite personal read is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I loved the main character’s voice and it had some plot twists that I just didn’t see coming (and I'm a good inferencer lol.) I read a lot of curricula too, as I have some new classes this fall, plus we have a split class for the first time that anyone can recall in our building. Lots to get ready for.
So I am working through unchartered territory in many ways, and it is TOTALLY AND COMPLETELY GOOD FOR ME! At our opening institute, our Director of Education, Lori Jeschke said, “We need to get comfortable being uncomfortable.” I could have despaired over teaching a split, but tried to see it as an opportunity to rethink how my classes are usually structured. I’m hoping that inquiry is going to be the modis operandi, and after a Social class last week, where the students took the outcome/topic, generated burning questions to answer, and then broke into partners to research them, I was totally blown away by the really deep ideas that they came up with. I’m equally excited to see how they choose to present their findings too, and hope to line up an authentic audience from the larger community for them to share it.
Besides teaching a split class, I have a few other new experiences this fall too. I have an intern (only my second one ever) and it’s a needed reminder of how much planning new teachers have to do with no experience and a full slate of classes. It’s also good to remember how students feel when they are put in uncomfortable situations each day with seating arrangements, group work, talking to the class, etc. I put a lot of thought into the mixers and icebreakers we do in those first days, knowing that not everyone is comfortable in sharing or being in close quarters with other people. (Okay that’s just me lol.)
Plus I teach grade seven, and they are brand new to the ‘big school’ with lots of anxiety and fears to allay. We invited them to move in a day early, on Friday before school started, and over half of them came. It was a small gesture with a big impact. I think I felt most uncomfortable on a personal level when I volunteered to lead a session in front of fellow teachers at our PSTA convention. That was intimidating! But it went well – considering it was on technology, none of the technology failed - and I gained the confidence in knowing I could do it if the opportunity arose again.
Of course, if all of these things had failed abysmally, there still would have been lessons to learn from them. In fact, on the first day I tell students: if you don’t make any mistakes this year, you haven’t learned anything. (And I've failed in my role!) And then I showed them a video of me learning how to wakeboard. It isn't pretty. Falling, and falling, and falling, and almost drowning, and falling again. And then finally being able to stay up! And this summer, even being able to cross the wake. It’s how we get better, and it’s how we learn. I know I’m going to make a lot of mistakes this year, but I'll also become a better teacher in the process.
One last note: on the Monday night before school started, I was at work getting things ready. Another teacher came. Then another. Then another. Altogether, there was likely 90+ years of teaching experience there that night. I took a picture of us for Twitter and joked that we were either super-keen or super-disorganized. I think it speaks to the life-long learners in all of us, always trying to improve, and wanting to create the best possible learning experiences for our students. I am so excited for the year ahead, the challenges that inevitably come with learning, but the successes that happen too.
P.S. Last year I chose to learn a word in Finnish and Cree, and to close out each blog post with it. This year I decided on welcome: in Cree ‘welcome, there is room’ Tawâw (Ta-wow), and in Finnish, Tervetuloa. There is always room here for anyone who wants to share in my thoughts, and a literal welcome for you in our classroom! Come say hi!
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