In recent years I have noticed a tendency for some educators to shy away from talking about the need to support the achievement of Indigenous learners.
A group of senior leaders in a school district were discussing what they could be doing differently to better meet the needs of indigenous learners in the district. At one point I asked what the available data was showing about the disparity in learner achievement between Indigenous and non-Indigenous learners. One of the senior leaders immediately indicated that they don’t talk about the success of Indigenous learners in terms of “achievement”. They looked at other things, such as a sense of belonging. In the same conversation, another educator indicated that “success” for Indigenous students also might not include the need to look at the 5- and 6-year graduation rates; success for Indigenous learners might “look different”.
An educational leader in another school district shared a story of a colleague who indicated that the definition of success for a specific Indigenous learner in her class was that the student was coming to school. Given that this child had numerous challenges in her life, just being in school was the achievement of a significant goal. However, the education leader rightfully challenged his colleague’s notion that coming to school was the final measure of success for this learner; instead, coming to school was a first (and vital) step in this learner’ formal education journey. Now that school was a place that this learner felt valued enough to be in, then what would the next steps be? How would the educators continue to ensure that the child’s learning environment reflects that she is valued? How would the school work to support her learning needs so she is able to grow and thrive in that environment and graduate with dignity, purpose, and the options to make her life what she wants of it.
The implications of thinking that success in K-12 education can look different for groups of learners based on whether or not they are Indigenous is an example of systemic racism.
I know that none of the educators who thought that avoiding talking about learners’ achievement and the graduation rates, or thought that coming to school was the measure of success believed that they were contributing to systemic racism. I know that they are all caring people who believe that they want what is best for all learners in their school districts. They had identified some necessary components of learners having successful experiences in school – a sense of belonging, and even just showing up.
The problem occurs when these become the desired end results, rather than understanding them as necessary parts of the larger picture. A sense of belonging is a vital part of a learner’s experience, but it is only a part. Coming to school is necessary, but it is not the end goal. Having a K-12 experiences that nurture and supports the holistic development and achievement of the learner (including mental/cognitive, social/emotional, physical and spiritual well-being) is the goal. This development will provide the basis for them to take their next steps in life.
In order to unpack the racism of low-expectations embedded in statements of those educators, we have to ask a few questions. Is the word “achievement” okay to use when looking at education outcomes for non-Indigenous learners? If so, then why? Think about what it means when educators do not think that academic achievement is important for First Nations, Inuit, or Métis learners. This reflects a perception that First Nations, Inuit, or Métis learners either do not have the ability to achieve academically, or a patriarchal assumption that it is not important to First Nations, Inuit, or Métis learners, families and communities. If we expect less from First Nations, Inuit, or Métis learners academically, we are negatively impacting their options in life once they leave the K-12 system.
If the problem is that some folks narrowly construe “achievement” to mean only academic success and not the development of personal and social well-being, and competencies in other areas of learning, then we needed to redefine achievement to ensure that it means the education of the whole learner, including, but not limited to, academic achievement.
If academic programs are not culturally inclusive, if they value only certain types of knowledge, identities and cultural experiences, if success in these programs does not take into account the healthy development of the learners social/emotional lives, or connect learning to communities and the land, then we make the changes in the academic programs so that they are better for all learners.
Achieving equity in a system that is not inclusive, does not support the whole learner, and values only certain ways of learning is not the goal. The goal is to create education systems that reflects “achievement” as the holistic balance of academic, personal and social accomplishment, where diversity is celebrated, and Indigenous peoples, cultures and knowledge systems are valued and reflected as an integral part of education for all.
I write the following for every Indigenous educator doing the work we do – and for anyone else for whom this resonates.
I live in places of tension
in the tension between the holistic and affirming educational experiences for all learners, and the continuing reality that this is not the experience for so many children and youth
in the tension between the desire to reveal my anger at so many people in the system who make excuses to keep the status-quo of inequity and racism, and the understanding that their learning needs to be supported with invitations into learning and creating space for people to be curious
in the tension between doing what I personally want to do without thinking about how it might impact others, and knowing that I need to walk carefully because what I do does affect others
in the tension between wanting to separate my professional life from my personal life but knowing that this is not a luxury afforded to people whose identity is integral to the work
in the tension between believing that we can change our world for the better through education, and the cynicism that we won’t
and I learn in tension
in the tension that comes in seeking to learn
in the tension that is created when we open ourselves up to possibility
in the tension between who I am and who I want to be
in the tension that is created when I challenge my own thinking
in the tension that is created when I challenge others’ ideas
in the tension that is exists between self-doubt and certainty
in the tension that comes from dwelling in not-knowing
in the tension that comes from taking steps forward with no clear path
We need tension to grow – tension between what is, and the idea that there could be something better that we can be a part of affecting, or creating. When we enter into that space, we create the possibility of other possibilities.
Today, I also live in another kind of tension – the tension that exists when we witness the harm that human beings can to do each other, regardless of intention, and the ache in the wish that this was not a part of our world.
There is a tension between the need to exist in that loss, and in that grief, and the desire to move past it. I understand that we have to be able to imagine a better future in order to create that future. But this week it has been hard to do that.
Canadians have spent too much time looking away. Looking away from overt and systemic racism, from pain or death caused by racist attitudes and actions in health care, in policing, in criminal justice, in child-welfare systems, in government policies and practices, and yes, in education.
A week from now or a month from now, will people turn away again? Or will Canadians stand up and use this time to create real, impactful, positive change? Could this be a legacy of these 215 children, and of the others yet to be found? Let’s see this as yet another call to action for all Canadians – not just to learn the full scope of the ugly past, but also to do the work of making change now beyond what is easy or convenient – the work of critically challenging on-going bias and racism in both ourselves and others.
The pain of the past is carried in the bones of the present. There is no moving past – only moving through, surfacing the dark into the light and air that comes with acknowledging, and with sitting in witness.
So yes, we sit in witness now. We acknowledge and we grieve. And we connect with the spark of anger at the on-going injustices and we act. We listen, we read, we learn, we talk, we stop accepting excuses and half-truths, we advocate.
We learn about the devastation of colonization, and we recognize the difference between knowing about, and understanding.
We learn about racism of the past and how it manifests itself in the present, and we enter that harder place of learning about our current complicity in perpetuating it. This is not about guilt or recrimination. This is about taking responsibility for what we do now.
It has been a week since the media shared information from the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation, that ground-penetrating radar had confirmed 215 bodies of children buried at the former Kamloops Indian Residential.
I write this now in the place between sadness and anger.
It is the sadness that existed as a layer over my soul for as long as I have been aware of the devastation felt by so many generations of First Nation, Inuit, and Metis people as the result not only of residential schools, but also as a result of other government policies deigned to assimilate or eliminate First Nations, Inuit, and Metis in Canada. It is the sadness that took up residency in my heart when I came to understand the impact that residential schools had on so many in my extended family. It is the sadness that weighs heavy as I think about the bodies of 215 children at the Kamloops Indian Residential school.
And I am angry. I want to soften that word, to replace it with “frustration”, or to remove it altogether because I know that some people are not comfortable with the feelings of discomfort that may arise. But I will not do that today. I will name the anger. It is the anger that clouds my soul at the fact that it has taken this revelation of these bodies to awaken so many people out of the slumber of ignorance. It is the anger that pricks my skin with the memories of times I have heard “Why don’t they just get over it?” in reference to the legacy of residential schools. It is the anger that is an ache in my heart every time I have seen or heard an educator turn away from engaging in their own work in reconciliation in education because they do not see it as important for their role in the system, or “it does not relate to the subject they teach”, or when their engagement cloaks epistemic and systemic racism in the pretense of “examining both sides”.
It is the anger that, despite the work of so many people since the findings of the TRC were made available, and since the Walks for Reconciliation across the country over half a decade ago, little seems to be understood by so many.
I do understand. I can repeat the litany of reasons that people give about why they or others did not know the extent or the scope of the damage done by these schools, and the relationship between that legacy and our education systems today. But at this point, reasons become excuses to actively avoid learning. There have been so many people and organizations in the last decade working across this country to support the learning of educators and others about residential schools, the legacies, and about how everyone plays a role in reconciliation. People have been invited into the learning in caring, supportive ways with everything from book clubs to focussed workshops, to the provision of resources to use in classrooms and schools. In BC a new professional standard for BC teaching certificate holders was developed, and required professional learning focussing on Indigenous education was mandated. And yet excuses continue.
I also know about the desire of some people to turn away to avoid the discomfort of facing ugliness and pain. I understand that. I have done that. But, the ability to turn away comes from a place of privilege that survivors, their families and communities have not had.
Instead of turning away, I ask people to enter into discomfort with the understanding that it will help in the learning that needs to happen. We can think about how the legacies of residential schools show up in more than the heart-wrenching knowledge of bodies of children buried in unmarked graves. We acknowledge that the experiences of the children who went to the different types of Indian Residential and day schools differed from school to school, but there are common legacies that affect so many. In making sense of the long-term effects of these schools, we can also understand that in addition to the individual trauma that many experiences there is a collective trauma created by the sum of all those experiences.
Think about how children tried to make sense of what they were taught those schools – that, at best, they could learn a serviceable skill, and that at worse, they should be ashamed of who they were, and where who they came from. Think about the strength it took for those who were abused to survive. Think about the pain that comes from feeling so much alienation and powerlessness. Think about how this affected entire lives.
Think about what it was like for parents who had little recourse when their children were taken away. While many resisted and took action (such as hiding their children for as long as they could), others felt powerless. Think about the impact of that sustained feeling over years.
Think about what it was like for a community when there were no children left. Some communities actively protested and resisted, but with little result. Think about the disruption to the continuation of cultural knowledge.
Think about what it was like for parents when their children returned as strangers years later without the ability to speak in their own language. And yes, think about the parents whose children never returned.
Think about the ways that many people try to erase the pain of those schools, and you may better understand some of the challenges that some people continue to face today. This is not “just history”. This is now.
I know that the current generations are not responsible for the actions of the past, but we ARE responsible for our actions now. Turning away, not engaging, contributes to the trauma. It implies that what happened, and what continues to happen, is not important enough for a collective response that begins with our personal actions. It diminishes us all.
And here is another whisper of anger. It is the expectation that the work of teaching about the full scope of residential schools and of responding to “I don’t know what I can do as a non-Indigenous person” is the responsibility of First Nations, Inuit or Metis people. It is not.
There is, has been, so much that people can undertake to initiate their own learning. Some of the suggestions that follow are general, others are more specific. All will provide more context about the histories and contemporary contexts of this country. Some support specific recommendations and changes. It is tempting to respond to proposed changes with a “Yes, but…”. Remember that changes required for social justice and equity can be inconvenient; they can be challenging, and people may resist with the “Yes, but…”. But changes are necessary if we are serious about meaningful response to what we collectively now know.
It is important to take responsibility for our own learning. By learning more and deepening understanding, we can increase our ability to understand what next steps we can take in moving from awareness to action.
Advocate for more First Nation, Inuit and Metis people in positions of decision-making in this country
Avoid usurping Indigenous voice. Create and hold space for it.
Avoid denying or minimalizing First Nation, Inuit and Metis peoples’ experiences of racism in this country. Pay attention when you see and hear it, whether it is overt as shown in the attacks on Mi’kmaq fishers in Nova Scotia, Joyce Echaquan’s death in Quebec, or the hand-cuffing of a grandfather and grand-daughter in British Columbia, or embedded in the daily experiences of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis peoples as we live daily in this country.
Commit to continual learning to widen the scope of what you know or to deepen your understanding. Learn something. Reflect on it. Share it. Ask yourself, “what can I learn next?”.
In all, avoid the “Yes, but’s…”. Read, listen, reflect, act – repeat.
Some recent work in helping educators move into anti-racist thinking and acting in K-12 education in BC, especially with regards to anti-Indigenous racism has me thinking about the progressions we move through (linear and cyclical) in our anti-racist understanding and doing. I have made some adaptations of the graphic borrowed and shared in my previous post. Below is an adaptation of the “Becoming Anti-Racist” graphic by Andrew M. Ibrahim MD, MSc (based on previous work Dr. Kendi). I have added ideas and extended the arrow to indicate continual learning and growth; it is still in draft (as I am always reflecting and refining) but wanted to share it.
Thinking that “I am not racist” is not enough. This is often because we create narrow definitions of racism that ignore the systemic structures and process that perpetuate entrenched racism. It exists in EVERY part of this country, in every sector (education, policing, health etc). When we make excuses, or try to justify any aspect of it, we are perpetuating it. We are supporting a systemically racist society.
If we are not willing to question ourselves, and our roles in it, then we are implying we have nothing left in our lives to learn. I hope people are better than that. I hope my colleagues in education are better than that, I hope people I love and care for in policing are better than that. I hope the people I trust in health care are better than that.
I acknowledge my privilege. It doesn’t matter how I identify myself as a person, I have been afforded privilege in my life because of my fairer skin and because a myriad of other things that I probably do not even think about because they have just made life easier for me. I have also been afforded privilege in my life because I have a university education, and because I do not live in poverty. It doesn’t matter that I worked hard for that; what matters is me recognizing that other people are discounted or devalued as human beings because they do not have the same.
This does not mean that I have not had significant challenges in life, but if we all really “want everyone to just get along” (a phrase usually uttered by non-BIPOC folks), then we need to have more self-awareness and understanding of how life is for those who are not afforded the same privilege we may have. And even if we do not really deeply understand what that looks like right now, then at least we can work on opening our minds to recognize that maybe there is something new we can learn.
Those who know me and the work I do might have a good idea of how often I am asked by teachers how/where they can find good resources to include First Peoples content/perspectives into their teaching. Since BC has revised its curriculum to include an increased focus on First Peoples’ content and perspectives, and the First Peoples Principles of Learning, and increasing number of educators are looking for support in this area.
Over the last few years, partly because of the job I currently have, and partly because I want to help make it easier for teachers to help their learners develop their understanding of First Peoples’ cultures, knowledge, and perspectives, I have been quick to try to provide ideas for resources. However, I have come to understand, that the resource hunt is not the first path a teacher might want to take; the real challenge in helping learners in BC come to understand First Peoples’ perspectives and knowledge is not first and foremost about the resources. It is about the lack of knowledge/understanding that many educators have in general about First Peoples. This is a very real concern in Canada, and it is often at the root of the challenge.
It is not the only concern of course. There are many educators who do have some knowledge (or are learning) but who do not want to make a mistake in their teaching (with content or process). However, the same principle applies; the more we know and the deeper our understanding, the better equipped we are to help others learn.
So what’s my point? The work we need to as teachers right now in BC, is less about looking for resources, than it is about focussing on our own learning first. We need recognize that if we work on developing our own knowledge and understanding, we will be better equipped to being to infuse what (and how) we teach with First Peoples’ knowledge and perspectives.
As we know, the BC education system is undergoing change. The process includes a move toward teaching and learning that is more responsive to the contexts and needs of the learners, and (finally) the explicit inclusion of “core competencies”. These are sets of intellectual, personal, and social and emotional proficiencies that all people need to develop in order to engage in deep learning and life-long learning. The broad categories includes more specific competencies: communication, critical thinking, creative thinking, personal awareness and responsibility, social awareness and responsibility, and positive personal and cultural identity. The illustrations (examples) of these competencies are worth checking out.
It is interesting to note though, that while the increased emphasis on personalization and the recognition of the importance of paying attention to more aspects of self may be new to being explicitly included in the provincial education discussion, these ideas are not new to indigenous peoples in Canada. These initiatives echo what has already been known by First Peoples – that education is a complex process that is personal, holistic, embedded in relationship, and is most effective when it is authentic and relevant. The more one examines the First Peoples Principles of Learning, the more one is able to see how these beliefs about teaching and learning have so much to offer our education system.
“The Nigerian storyteller Ben Okri says that ‘In a fractured age, when cynicism is god, here is a possible heresy: we live by stories, we also live in them. One way or another we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted — knowingly or unknowingly — in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives.’”
Thomas King, The Truth About Stories
So what are the stories we tell about our formal public education system in BC? This past year has been a challenging one, and stories abound. Most are not new; they are variations of the same themes that have been shared by the same groups of people over the last ten or more years. And (yes, I begin sentences with “and”) all the stories have truth to them, but does that mean we need to live in them, that we need to hold on to the same narratives we tell of each other just to keep trying to prove that we are “right” and that (given that so many of us seem to like to live in dichotomies) others are “wrong”? Does that help us to do our work with healthy spirits? I would suggest that if it doesn’t, then we might want to rethink those narratives. Doing our work (no matter what it is, and regardless of what out titles and positions are) with a healthy spirit is a necessity for both the children and youth we help and for ourselves. Think about it.
“what do you do?” is question often asked when meeting someone new, and lately i have found myself challenged with an answer when asked. i know what category i need to check on official forms when i have to specify my occupation, but “teacher” is not a word i would choose to use for myself. a person cannot teach in isolation – only a learner can define another person as a teacher, so should it not be left up to learners to actually define who their teachers are? instead i would describe myself as someone who tries to help people learn. not easily defined in a word perhaps, but true for me.
"The foundations of Indigeneity are these: values that privilege the interrelationships among the spiritual, the natural, and the self; a sacred orientation to place and space; a fluidity of knowledge exchange between past, present, and future; and an honouring of language and orality as an important means of knowledge transmission." (Greenwood and de Leeuw, 2007)