Teachers and school leaders play a key role in reconciliation, but policy makers must resource schools for equity of opportunity and success

Equity, Indigenous Learning, Teaching

“First, We’re a School”

Teachers and school leaders play a key role in reconciliation, but policy makers must resource schools for equity of opportunity and success

The call to all Canadians to reconcile relationships with Indigenous peoples offers opportunity to heal old wounds and build a nation that aspires to equitable benefits of citizenship. The why of advancing reconciliation through schools is easy. We have the opportunity to shape the hearts and minds of the children and youth who will advance a vision of equity. The how is more difficult, as competing visions and interests precipitate countless priorities for educators to consider in fostering reconciliation.

I am convinced that as educators, our value proposition is captured in one of my principal’s frequent attestations that “first, we’re a school.” This principal leads a core neighbourhood community school in Saskatoon, serving 400 primarily First Nations students. She invokes this proclamation when considering priorities and initiatives, as the social and learning needs of students place a premium on instructional time.

This principal routinely defers to community to assist in the transmission of Indigenous knowledges, while ensuring that she maintains her commitment to instructional leadership. The “first we’re a school” disclaimer could just as easily be used to limit Indigenous influence, but when claimed by this principal, it is a commitment to ensuring that we assume our responsibility as educators. I, too, subscribe to the belief that when everyone with a role in the educational continuum does their part, then student success is attainable. We have a role that is unique and informed by our training and experience. No one else in the support network is as attuned to individual student learning needs by virtue of our assessment literacy and knowledge of diverse instructional practices.

As educators re-orient to the belief that they are potentially the greatest contributors to Indigenous student success, policymakers in Canada must confront the reality that learning is differentially resourced for on-reserve First Nations learners in Canada. First Nations communities have the desire and capacity to improve their schools, but professional educators – Indigenous and non-Indigenous, on and off-reserve – need to be resourced for success. Untying educators’ hands by appropriately resourcing the technical and relational work of teachers is paramount.

“First we’re a school” implores educators to maintain a laser focus on learning outcomes. Of course, if we recycle the same unwelcoming and unresponsive environments that alienated generations of Indigenous people from Western education, then we yield our potential to contribute to reconciliation through education. We need to integrate relational and Indigenous pedagogies to ensure that we are not perpetuating exclusion and stratification. Engagement, wellness, culture, and language are all vital aspects of a responsive and effective learning program.

The problem is that educators experience inertia by fixating on student deficits, their own knowledge gaps, or their belief that they have to be the expert. These distractions erode the primacy of responsive instruction. Teacher leaders must promote one year’s growth in one year’s time as the primary narrative associated with educating Indigenous students. The short-term actions of effective teachers accumulate to realize the long-term vision of equity of outcome for Indigenous students.

Through the many trends and innovations that punctuate the profession, the enduring truth is that, when students acquire core competencies, most notably literacy, then belonging and transitions are enhanced. Our commitment must be the provision of equity of opportunity to ensure equity of promise. Indigenous students come from resilient families with brilliant histories in intellectual traditions and complex languages. Their communities have contributed medicines, systems of governance, conservation practices and critical philosophies to the global context. Indigenous children will continue to advance and contribute Indigenous knowledges as they learn and grow. The question is whether Indigenous students will have to endure school and succeed in spite of it, or experience school as an endorsing part of their growth continuum?

In an era informed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action, school jurisdictions are increasingly stating their commitments. It is my hope that their first commitment is to equity of opportunity and outcome. The role of the professional educator is instrumental in reconciliation. We need to adopt an epistemology of promise: know your students, understand their learning needs, believe in their trajectory of greatness, and do your part to ensure growth. I encourage professional educators across the country take the advice of a principal of an innovative and effective school in Treaty Six territory and, when discerning how to contribute to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, consider that “first, we’re a school.”


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Photo: Courtesy Saskatchewan School Boards Association

First published in Education Canada, June 2018

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Dr. Gordon A. Martell

Superintendent of Education

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