Sunday, February 24, 2008

Teacher Retention in Nunavut Schools

I'm not sure why but I've found that I've been quite pensive and reflective as of late. True, I'm a fairly introspective fellow but I find myself in rather deep thought even more than the usual. True, some things probably aren't meant for me to blog about but as for the rest, I just can't seem to sit down and work them out coherently enough. The cloud has lifted a little however. My thoughts were jarred earlier this evening when I got popping around on-line following a few links. I came across a list of MA theses and PhD dissertations dealing with a whole slew of northern issues. One in particular caught my eye and got me thinking: an 2002 MA thesis from Concordia University dealing with the high rate of teacher turnover in the North. The abstract noted that the thesis doesn't provide a "how-to" set of solutions but rather identifies some of the broader issues involved.

When I accepted my first teaching position in the Northwest Territories in 2000 I remember being given an orientation package which I found quite useful as an introduction to the community I would be living and working in. To my knowledge there is nothing formally in place here in Nunavut. I'm sure there must be some schools that send out information to prospective hires but just not from my own personal experience. Most of what I learned about the two Nunavut communities I have lived in came from the scant information I was able to glean of the internet. Certainly the active community of Nunavut bloggers is a useful tool. I was asked last June if I wanted to pass my blog along to the new hires heading up. In a fit of shameless self-promotion I agreed to it.

This has me thinking about putting something together for new hires for the 2008/2009 school year. As far as I can tell, our school won't be faced with the same monster turnover we saw the previous year. This of course brings up the whole issue of why the big staff turnovers to begin with. I've discussed this issue in fits and starts in the past so I don't want to bore you by rehashing it all year. However, I've been in the game long enough by now to make a few observations.

1. Teachers arrive with little or no appreciation for the history and culture of the community.
2. New hires often have difficulty with the demands of teaching on top of the challenges of living in a small, isolated environment and all the adjustments that this entails.
3. There is a disconnect between students and teachers. It takes awhile for a new teacher to earn his or her stripes. The reality is that the teacher (myself included) is just one more face that has come and gone over the years.
4. There is a gulf between expectation and reality.
5. Teaching styles as taught at Southern institutions often do not mesh well, and at times may even conflict with, the learning styles of the students.

Southern universities do seem to be catching on. Although much of teacher training did little to prepare me for the northern classroom, there are some schools that offer courses on teaching certain minority groups (along with their cultures and learning styles). These are helpful and welcome of course but can tend toward lumping all minorities into the same pot and treating them like some amorphous mass. Perhaps this is understandable to some extent. I imagine it would be quite difficult to offer a course or set of teaching methodologies for dealing with each specific group.

There are also a number of things that we as teachers do (or don't do) which help or hurt the transition from a southern urban lifestyle to a rural isolated setting. A few of these I have also mentioned in past posts and I know other bloggers have touched on them as well. I'll just give you a short list.

1. Find out as much as you can about your community before you arrive. Ask questions.
2. Get involved in your community. Meet the neighbours. Sharing a talent or skill (like dragging out an old trumpet from time to time) is a good start.
3. Learn a few words of the language if you can.
4. Appreciate that change will not happen overnight.
5. Know why you are here.

1. Stay in your house all weekend.
2. Complain about how everything is so expensive, slow, or different from the South. (This is not to say that constructive suggestions are not needed but, overly stating your displeasures is a sure way to turn people off.)
3. Count down the days until your next vacation (or at least don't go around advertising it)
4. Patronize
5. Think you have all the answers. (ie. Some federal government genius had the idea of enclosing Iqaluit in a giant plastic bubble (seriously), other government genuises had the notion that Inuit would be better off if they would only stop be so stubborn and totally adopt Southern ways.) I continue to deal with the fallout from this last "solution" on a daily basis. But that is fodder for another posting.

Anyhow, I won't pretend I have all the answers here. (What a scarey world this would be if I did!) This is an issue though that continues to be a thorn in the side of northern education. I'd love to see the day when it is not.

Any suggestions or insights?


Rob, Tina and the boys said...

I think it's a great idea to put together a package. A link to your blog would also be beneficial. I know when we accepted the job with the Northwest Company to work at the Northern we were in the same position. Although the company does a great orientation package, you don't really know what you are getting into until you are here. I would have loved to have had something geared towards this community. As it was, we lucked out by finding 2 teachers who were in this community who were very helpful when we moved here. Not everyone is so lucky or patient on the internet to find links that are not so easily found. :)

Way Way Up said...

Its something I've been giving some serious thought to lately. Every little bit helps.

Nancy said...

What about this site:

It's not bad at all as a start, I found it a few days ago while browsing the 'net for info on my next destination. Wikipedia has at least basics on most of the communities too.

Do teachers really not research their community before heading there? That's incredible! I've always researched my next destination, and it's so relatively easy these days with the internet, back in the old days you'd arrive somewhere with little info just because there wasn't much to find out written anywhere (I always looked though, and always found something). But these days there is no excuse. It's hard to believe that a teacher especially wouldn't have the curiosity to dig up some info. It doesn't even take long.

Way Way Up said...

Thanks for that web site Nancy. I checked it out and it looks like a good start. I had heard rumblings that something like this was going to be put together but nothing more. I suspect this page is fairly new as I don't recall hearing any mention of it when hiring was done last summer. Thanks for this.

Kennie said...


I'm not going to say that teachers don't where they are heading, but for some communities finding information past this is the community's name and here it is on a map is difficult.

Luckily for me I had Darcy's brain to pick as much as I could while he was on vacation and a couple of a co-workers children who have been living in the North forever, before I made the big move up here.

Are there things I wish I would have known more about, sure - but somethings you just have to discover when you arrive at your location.

And now, with our ever growing Nunavut blogging community, I have to say that researching my next destination has become easy as there is always one blogger out there who knows a teacher in the community to put me in contact with.

Hudson Strait said...

Way, way up,

Do you remember the name of the woman who wrote that MA thesis on teacher turnover? I remember loitering in the stacks at Concordia and stumbling upon it. I read it and it planted the idea of teaching in Nunavik in my head.

I am trying to decide whether or not to return to Kangirsujuaq, QC for a third year, and am writing a post about teacher turnover to help me sort it out in my head.

In my first year, I made some mistakes (I still do), as I'm sure everyone does. I would add one more don't to your list.

Don't take anything personally. No matter how crazy it is.

In Nunavik, our union has put together an information package (which needs to be updated) which is handed out at orientation (which otherwise was useless).

Way Way Up said...

Hudson Strait,
Unfortunately, I don't recall the author's name since I was just randomly following links through cyberspace. A good suggestion to my list though. I"ve bumped into quite a few in my line of work who should heed it.

Tammy said...

Way, way up

I am a new Teacher graduate from Ottawa U. We just had a transition to practice week for our last week at the University (a week of some useful workshops and keynotes and some not so much!). My reason for writing is that one of our Keynotes speakers was from Nunavut. She is Inuk herself and has lived and taught in Nunavut although she is currently at Algonquin College with a group of students from Nunavut. The speaker, Jackie Price gave a great overview of the history, the issues and difficulites while at the same time speaking about the positives of teaching and living in the north. I know her perspective is a bit different than that of a Southerner but very informative. I have a classmate that is very interested in finding out more about teaching in the Nunavut. I think my point is that besides Teacher packages like you have mentioned, Universities need to make the connection between those living this life and those considering it by bringing in more speakers and offering courses and workshops. I think that any of this may be things that would help. There are more courses being offered regarding First Peoples, but I believe The Bachelor of Ed programs have a long way to go. I admire everyone who does go north to teach and a bit envious. I would welcome it if this were a posibility for me.

Way Way Up said...

Thanks for your comment Tammy.

The idea with the new Education Act is that instruction from K to 12 will be a 50-50 split between Inuktitut and English. Needless to say, it will take some time before this goal becomes a reality. I feel that Southern teachers will still have a very important role to play once this happens. The trick is to attract the right teacher and get them to stay for more than just a year or two.

I won't flatter myself by saying that I'm the "right kind of teacher". I still make my share of mistakes. But I've learned enough tricks of the trade over the past 5 years to keep me going. You just approach each day fresh and try to make a positive impact as much as you can.

It's heartening to know teachers colleges are sitting up and taking notice. One of the first things I was told when I first came up here was to forget everything I had been taught in teachers college.

Good luck in you embark on your career!

Jennith Peart said...

Thanks for sharing your hard earned wisdom. I'm heading up north this August and I'm trying hard to find as much information as I can. I've taught in an isolated community in Ontario and I actually did a teaching practicum in Nunavut. (Lakehead University has some pretty cool moments) So, some things I at least have an idea what to expect, and other things I'm probably needlessly worrying about.I'd love to learn how to link into the "Nunavut Blogging Community" Since I figure its a realatively uncensored mass of trivia and opinion that no one trying to sell things would say. Kudos for your committment.

mrk said...

Hi there!

I found your blog while searching for info about teaching in the north. I really enjoyed this post and it makes me question how serious I am about my own plans of trying to teach up north. It is always something I wanted to try, but your post shows that it takes a true engagement and commitment, and I really have to make sure I am doing this for the right reasons. Also those tips will probably come in very handy:)

That being said I have a question you might be able to help me with. This summer my wife and I would like to work in a northern community over the, she as a doctor in training (first year med student) and me as a teacher (jr. int. sr. Math, Eng., and Special Ed.). The problem is I don't know where to begin my search to find such a community, especially one with teaching work over the summer. I've sent out a tonne of emails with little to no helpful feedback. any ideas?

Thanks for your help and I look forward to reading more of your blog!

Way Way Up said...

mrk - Feel free to contact me if you wish.

darcysteele at yahoo dot ca

Anonymous said...

Hi Folks:

There is a higher power!!! My partner and I are in the process of making the big move to the North. We will be leaving Southern NB sometime in early August.

This is the first amazing BLOG we have located about teaching and living in Canada's northern communities and we are thrilled to finally find you!!

Although we have asked all kinds of questions regarding our new employment, there are some things we still would like from the proverbial "horse's mouth"...if you pardon the turn of phrase.

We will certainly be back to send some inquiries your way.

Have an awesome day!!

Marg & Eric

Way Way Up said...

Marg & Eric

Thanks for the kind words. I try to keep things interesting if I can. Glad you found me. If you have any questions I will certainly do my best to answer them. Feel free to email me -

darcysteele AT yahoo DOT ca

There are a few other teacher blogs on my sidebar you might want to check out.

Tales From The Arctic - Arctic Bay as well

Arctic Dispatches - Clyde River

Treena's Travels - Baker Lake

The Blog Bog Of The Tundra - Baker Lake

Nunablog - Igloolik - no longer active but it ran for about 3 years