(Note: What follows is a letter I wrote to Laura Tait, District Principal for Aboriginal Education in Nanaimo School District, BC, after meeting with her the other day.)
This morning I came to you with some questions – questions that have paralyzed me for the past five years.
About seven years ago, during my first year of teaching, I had a conversation with a colleague while carpooling home one day. Tom asked me what was my big goal – my big motivation for teaching.
“To make things better,” I said.
“What does that mean for you?” Tom asked.
“Well, for one thing, I think it’s crazy that we teach an African Lit unit in English 10. Why are we teaching African Lit when we don’t even teach a First Nations’ unit? Why are we doing fancy ski trips but not cultural exchanges with some Aboriginal kids up North?” At the time, at my school, I couldn’t identify any Aboriginal students in my school. The next year administration told me I had one student who self-identified as one-quarter Aboriginal.
I grew up in Squamish and, while my formal Aboriginal education has some gaping holes, I had learned enough to know that just because we didn’t have many Aboriginal kids in our school didn’t mean we should ignore the fact that there are Aboriginal kids in our province and that we share a history with Aboriginal peoples (except that my understanding of it being a “shared” history is a result of my learning from you – I wouldn’t have framed it that way before).
On a personal level, I also felt compelled to educate my students about Aboriginal history. Before I was born my aunt was adopted into her best friend Rose’s Haida family – so Rose became my Haida auntie. Having a relationship with Rose both directly and indirectly through my blood-aunt made Aboriginal education a personal and deep moral imperative for me. I saw how my race, my colonizer race, affected Rose’s daily life. During her cancer treatment she endured the most abject racism from our medical community, our political system, and some of the business community.
So it was with my good intentions and naivety that in my second year of teaching I jumped into a lesson on residential schools with my grade 10 English class. My students reacted with horror, sympathy (not empathy) and, most unfortunately, an anger and resentment at the “white guilt” this history brought up for them. I found myself back-peddling, scrambling to salvage the situation. That was the last time I attempted any formal Aboriginal education. The fear of doing it wrong again, as I clearly did that time, paralyzed me.
Then I saw you speak at the NOII seminar last year and I felt, once again, that urgency I had shared with Tom.
A year later and here I am. Heading home on the ferry after spending time in conversation with you in Nanaimo.
I am a changed person. Having moved forward with my own learning today, I am ready to move forward with my students.
Today you gave me a safe place to ask my questions. Questions like,
- How can I talk with any authority about Aboriginal issues and history when I am not Aboriginal myself – and, maybe even worse, when I am a member of the colonizing race?
- What do I do when/if my students respond with anger and blame?
- How do I do Aboriginal education right?
Even now, only hours later, I can see the bias in my questions. When I asked you these questions, you didn’t point this bias out. Instead, you validated my curiousity and honoured that my questions came from a good place. You also asked me questions in return and pushed me to make my own meaning from your ideas and experience.
Here is my learning from today:
- I can’t speak “for” anyone but myself – nor does anyone want me to. I don’t need to be an authority on Aboriginal education – I can learn alongside my students.
- It isn’t my job to teach students what to think – nor do I want to – but it is my job to teach students how to think for themselves, how to critically engage with Aboriginal texts and ways of understanding the world.
- It isn’t Aboriginal history that I should teach – it’s our shared history as British Columbians and Canadians that I need to make students aware of and help them engage with.
- When students respond emotionally to Aboriginal themes, I should deal with their reactions in the same way I do when students respond emotionally to any subject in my class including sexuality, sexism, violence, injustice, etc.: I should help them understand their responses by teaching them how to be reflective.
- I am doing Aboriginal education “right” if I am reflective and doing it with moral purpose and to the best of my capacity – which is as “right” as I can teach anything, ever.
- That I don’t need to go immediately for the jugular (i.e. introduce students to the horrors and tragedies of residential school), but that I can introduce students to Aboriginal writing and texts and help them develop their own inquiry around those texts. Inevitably, some students will investigate themes of suffering and healing and in this way the class will learn about residential schools and colonization. However, other students might investigate themes of resilience and hope – also important themes. To do what I did – which was hammer them with what I thought was most important – totally missed the point because in so doing I ignored the multitude of other aspects to Aboriginal education.
Today you walked beside me in my learning; this is what I want to do for my students. I couldn’t walk beside them when I felt paralyzed… but now I’m moving. After a long hiatus, this journey will continue.