Aboriginal Teacher Education Program welcomes first urban cohort

For Stephanie Angus, moving to a big city was easier than staying close to home to finish her education degree.

It may sound counterintuitive, but for the mother of three from Frog Lake First Nation, it made more sense to have her classes and family all in one place—in Edmonton—than to stay home and travel an hour by car for classes in St. Paul.

What she also found as a member of the inaugural urban cohort for the Aboriginal Teacher Education Program (ATEP) at the University of Alberta, is a community and support system that has flourished for students who are far from home.

“We have a sharing circle so we can discuss how we feel, what we’re going through, and what supports we need—and they address what we need help with,” said Angus, 33.

“We all consider each other’s feelings and we can say, ‘You feel like that, too?’ In my first degree (at Concordia University), I never had anybody to be able to speak to like that.”

An opportunity for community

ATEP has been teaching Indigenous educators and increasing understanding of Aboriginal perspectives in education since 2003. Initially, the program was offered off-campus, with instruction based at four partner colleges in northern Alberta. The idea was to educate teachers in their home communities—where 90 per cent of graduates have stayed after completing the program.

But some said they wanted to come to the U of A’s sprawling main campus. ATEP’s urban cohort allows students to be based in Edmonton and ensures they have a space they can call their own within the Faculty of Education.

“The program is making a space for Aboriginal students in the faculty,” said Angela Wolfe, ATEP’s associate director.

The student lounge is cozy, with couches and, in each of the four corners of the room, branches with Cree colours representing Cree teachings about the four directions. It is a place for students to study, rest, socialize and support each other.

“Aboriginal students in this faculty have never had that kind of space where they can gather as a community. And when you give that opportunity and space for students, they support each other. They love each other. They take care of each other,” said Wolfe.

Poised to grow

ATEP launched its urban cohort this fall with 11 students, a relatively small number that is expected to grow. The students come from communities such as Saddle Lake Cree Nation, Ermineskin Cree Nation and Enoch Cree Nation, among others.

Though some students such as Angus have previously completed an undergraduate degree, other students have come straight from high school. Once they complete the ATEP program, the students will have a bachelor of education degree. The urban cohort’s focus is on secondary-school education.

While ATEP graduates have often stayed in their home communities to teach, the opportunity to reach Indigenous students exists across the province. The graduates of the urban cohort won’t necessarily stay in Edmonton.

“Nine times out of ten, our graduates are going to work with an Aboriginal community, whether it’s their home community, or this community here where schools have high Aboriginal populations,” said Wolfe.

“Every student in our urban cohort has expressed deep desire and passion to be teaching Aboriginal kids and making an impact.”

Many Indigenous students have never seen an Indigenous teacher standing in front of them in class.

“So they could never totally relate,” said Evelyn Steinhauer, director of ATEP and a professor of educational policy studies.

“Just having an Aboriginal teacher in front of them might help them say, ‘I might be able to be a teacher one day.’ And it’s very, very important that non-Aboriginal students see Aboriginal teachers in front of them, too.”

Good for Aboriginal students, good for all students

Some non-Indigenous parents or students still hold prejudices against Indigenous educators, not trusting them as capable to do the job, said Steinhauer.

The ripple effects of educating more Indigenous teachers will also affect the people who make the schools run—other teachers. Wolfe said the ATEP program is rooted in seeing students as whole beings, not just a “brains on feet.” By supporting ATEP students in any way they can, the program shows participants how that model can be applied to the students that will eventually sit in their classrooms.

“You have that kind of reminder of what could and should be done in the classroom. Our teachers will show others what could and should be done,” said Wolfe.

“What’s good for an Aboriginal student is good for all students. But what’s good for a non-Aboriginal student is not necessarily good for an Aboriginal student.”

Part of that support has come from Misty Underwood, ATEP’s first program support coordinator. She helps students, especially on-campus students, with whatever they might be struggling with—from dealing with the registrar’s office to developing multiple choice test-taking skills.

And she also offers emotional support.

“Any time there’s any kind of crisis or concern, I can sit with students and talk through the situation and come up with solutions and resources, and reach out to members across campus.”

With students in the urban cohort enrolled in some of the university’s biggest first-year lectures, Underwood has worked to ensure every ATEP student will have someone else from the program in that 200-person lecture hall.

She has also been developing relationships with instructors across the university.

“Students take History 260: Pre-Confederation History. When we build relationships we can have opportunities to have our stories in it,” Underwood said. “It’s a story about us from the western perspective. But we can influence that in a different way. And just having students in it and writing papers, they can influence it too.”

Steinhauer added, “ATEP is having a major impact on other faculties. As soon as you have our students in your class, you have a different perspective.”

The ATEP urban cohort currently has funding for four years. The challenge, said Steinhauer, will be finding funding to continue the program in the fifth year.

“I personally have faith it will all work out.”

ATEP has educated more than 200 teachers so far. Staff are now trying to ensure that students in both the urban and non-urban cohorts meet throughout their degrees, through lectures or meetings that all ATEP students attend. The connections and the community created are expected to last beyond their degree programs.

“We know the teaching community is very small,” said Wolfe. “Quite often, these students who are studying together will be colleagues for the next 20 to 25 years.”

Feature image: ATEP director Evelyn Steinhauer (left) and associate director Angela Wolfe say the program is making space for Indigenous students in the Faculty of Education.