The authors’ qualitative survey asked teachers to explore what supported their commitment to reconciliation education and what stood in their way. Here’s what they found out.
Inspired by our graduate work in the Call to Action Program at the University of Calgary, we set out to determine what factors either support or limit teachers from implementing reconciliatory practices in their classrooms.
Our research uncovered commitment, collaboration and self-reflection as key factors in supporting education through reconciliation.
“84 percent of these teachers believe Indigenous education should receive greater attention in schools.”
Recognizing that Canadian teachers are poised at the forefront of responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Action (2015) and encouraged by strategies mandated by their school boards, in 2018 we conducted a survey of 90 teachers in our urban area.
Our survey revealed that 66 percent of these teachers are aware of the TRC’s Calls to Action, and 84 percent believe Indigenous education should receive great er attention in schools.
Teacher respondents also reported that they regularly engage in learning opportunities surrounding reconciliatory practices and Indigenous perspectives; however, these preparatory activities have not yet led to considerable shifts in their everyday classroom practices.
We followed up by interviewing self-selected teachers in order to gain a more thorough understanding of the specific conditions that support their efforts in engaging in reconciliatory pedagogy, along with an identification of barriers to this work.
“One-half of interviewees also reported a fear of making mistakes and of culturally appropriating.”
The Challenge Teachers Face
During interviews, teacher participants shared the challenges that they face in this work. One challenge was not having enough time to digest complex ideas. “There are a lot of resources out there but it takes time to think about them,” reported one interview participant.
Approximately one-half of interviewees also reported a fear of making mistakes and of culturally appropriating.
Other challenges identified by our peers were recognition of the emotional labour associated with taking up this work, along with resistance from either administration, students, parents, or teachers.
Still, fueled by their own ethical positioning and sense of moral obligation, these teachers were able to find a way forward by focusing on supportive relationships and maintaining a self-reflective stance in their pedagogical decisions.
Personal Commitment to Reconciliation
Findings from our study signal that it is a sense of personal responsibility from individual teachers that indicate a greater likelihood of their future and ongoing engagement with reconciliatory practices.
Not too surprisingly, teachers who volunteered for the follow-up interview identified themselves as having a strong commitment to reconciliation; in all cases, they were actively engaged in reconciliatory pedagogy motivated and driven by their own initiative.
Being already strongly committed to reconciliation meant that they were in constant pursuit of deepening their personal knowledge of Indigenous topics and perspectives, as well as ways to infuse them within their own classrooms. For example, interviewees shared that they are now taking a far more critical look at Canadian history, and asking their students to do the same by questioning how Indigenous peoples are portrayed in the media. They are also checking themselves against any tokenistic approaches to teaching.
Self-Reflection as a Basis for Reconciliatory Pedagogy
Teachers in the survey who described themselves as self-reflective were far more likely to engage in reconciliatory pedagogy. This heightened sense of self-awareness forms a cornerstone of all good teaching, and is crucial to the ethical integration of Indigenous perspectives across the curriculum.
Teachers who described themselves as highly reflective were considerably more likely to reach out to Elders, and to incorporate Indigenous arts, literature, and cultural practices (such as sharing circles) into their classrooms.
Collaborative Relationships Help Spread Reconciliatory Aims
All interview participants relayed the importance of having supportive administration, colleagues, and parents as essential to the continuation of their efforts in incorporating reconciliatory practices into their teaching.
In fact, both the survey and interviews found a strong correlation between supportive personal relationships within the broader school community and individual teachers’ attempts to integrate reconciliation through education. Collaboration with colleagues was one of the primary factors that increased the likelihood of engagement in a wide variety of reconciliatory practices, such as incorporating Indigenous arts and literature in their classroom. So while teachers can start this type of work on their own, they require a community to sustain their efforts.
Teachers who indicated that they formed and nurtured relationships with Elders also reported that they engaged in all reconciliatory practices that we researched: incorporating Indigenous literature and arts, cultural practices (such as circle protocols), professional development related to reconciliation, and land-based learning.
Interestingly, the teachers who collaborated with Elders were the only participants in the study who engaged in land or place-based education. In these cases, learning from an Elder went hand-in-hand with learning from the land, which is central to understanding Indigneous perspectives as a connection to Mother Earth is often given a prominent place in Elder teachings.
Pre-Service Indigenous Education
Survey results indicate teachers are receiving pre-service teacher training in the area of Indigenous cultures and contemporary Indigenous issues.
The vast majority of teachers with less than five years of experience have had these learning opportunities incorporated into their teacher education training.
This demonstrates that some post-secondary institutions are making good on their calls to action and creating change within their institutions.
Through anecdotal evidence, we know that these teachers are moving into classrooms and schools armed with knowledge to further education for reconciliation. However, we found that even though seeds are being planted at the university level, it takes personal commitment, self-reflection, and collaboration to nurture and maintain the growth of these commitments in the face of challenges inherent in all complex school environments.
Pre-service teacher training and professional development learning opportunities need to focus on the development of a teacher’s own commitment to reconciliation, self-reflective practice, and a desire to collaborate with others in implementing reconciliatory practices in their classrooms.
Furthermore, these learning opportunities need to be followed up with a culture of collaboration and trust within school settings.
Implications for Classroom Practice
We encourage teachers to step onto the path of reconciliation by embarking on their own journey of self-reflection around their responsibility to this important work. Then, to transform their emerging beliefs into action, teachers can share ideas with their colleagues and administrators, support each other, and collaborate.
First steps to take include:
- creating space for Indigenous voices and experiences by incorporating Indigenous authors and media elements
- providing/considering contemporary and historical experiences from a local perspective
- leading discussions through circle protocols, where the source of the practice is acknowledged and taught
- inviting in Elders and local knowledge-keepers as part of the tapestry of learning experiences in the classroom.
There are many different points of entry into reconciliation, and there is no one way to work on it. What is important to remember is that it takes personal commitment, self-reflection, and collaboration to initiate and sustain reconciliatory efforts.
First published in Education Canada, March 2020