Aboriginal Teacher Education Program: Nourishing the Learning Spirit

Assistant Professor Jonathan Anuik believes the most important thing he can do for his students is nourish their learning spirits, and that didn’t change when he taught his first course via distance learning last fall.

“I aimed to build an environment that stimulated reflection and animated my students’ hearts and minds,” says Anuik who taught EDPS 341 (Concepts of Childhood in History) online for the Aboriginal Teacher Education Program (ATEP).

“Nourishing the learning spirit means believing in the potential of all humans to learn in multiple contexts. Like raindrops, really great teachers nurture the roots of learners, enabling them to grow as people wherever they are,” explains Anuik, whose research focuses on the transformation of the nourishing spirit in the postsecondary classroom.

The concept stems from his prior work under Dr. Marie Battiste at the University of Saskatchewan’s Aboriginal Education Research Centre.

“When educators build spaces that encourage students to ask not only what but why questions while honing critical thinking skills, there is nourishment of spirit,” Anuik says.

ATEP is a community based Bachelor of Education in Elementary Education collaborative cohort program emphasizing Indigenous history, culture, and educational perspectives. A partnership with several northern community colleges allows students to study in their own communities, retaining invaluable family and community support. Courses are offered through distance, in person, or blended delivery learning methods depending on each cohort’s situation.

“It’s a rich program that uses very innovative ways to teach teachers how to teach,” says ATEP’s Director Dr. Evelyn Steinhauer.

Distance courses are offered through eClass, with students and professors using tools such as webcams to enhance learning.

“My students and I moved with ease into online learning,” says Anuik. “I’d post readings and lectures on Vimeo and we’d meet weekly online for lively two hour discussions.”

Steinhauer says ATEP aims to improve education in Alberta’s northern Indigenous communities by increasing the number of Aboriginal teachers and those with Aboriginal knowledge and understanding. “A lot of new teachers go north for just a couple of years to get their certification. We wanted to train local teachers who would teach in their communities for many years to come.”

“ATEP has taken a leadership role in pioneering this new method of educating teachers within their own communities using distance learning. It’s the first time the U of A has ever delivered a program this way and it’s been a total success.”

She adds ATEP not only has a near hundred percent completion rate, but most graduates find employment after graduation. They are now making a difference in communities throughout Alberta’s north.

“Say a small community has only two grade 12 students. To receive their education, these children might have had to move to another town. However, ATEP graduates’ experiences with distance learning may lead them to create innovative online teaching methods, allowing children to remain with their families,” she says. “ATEP is changing the face of Indigenous education in many ways.”

According to Steinhauer the flexibility of ATEP’s community based learning has been ideal for many students who wouldn’t be able to move to Edmonton for education. “We’ve trained many teachers who would never otherwise have had the opportunity to become teachers.”

“These are northern students with extremely close ties to their families and small rural communities. They’re in a different context than an urban student who has easy access to education,” she explains.

“The majority of our students are young mothers. Not only would the cost to move be prohibitively expensive, they wouldn't dream about uprooting their families away from their community support systems.”

She cites one student, a mother of six. “Had she moved with her children to Edmonton, she would have lost so much of her support. Instead she completed her degree while maintaining community, family, and cultural connections. She had a whole village helping her through the program.”