University can be a big adjustment for many students, but Monique Makokis-Lee admits she wasn’t quite ready for all the challenges awaiting her when she enrolled in the U of A’s bachelor of education program in 2017. A member of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation who was raised in Wetaskiwin, Makokis-Lee says she found the transition from a small reserve school to the U of A and the distance from her family and community overwhelming. Reluctantly, she withdrew from the BEd program.
This year, Makokis-Lee says, she was ready to give university another try, and was excited to discover that the Aboriginal Teacher Education Program (ATEP) had introduced an on-campus cohort that would support her need for cultural connection while allowing her to pursue her BEd in a setting grounded in Indigenous ways of knowing and being.
And though the pandemic has necessitated taking the first year of the program online, Makokis-Lee says she already feels encouraged and supported in reaching for her educational goals.
“It’s been really great seeing the difference between how I feel now compared to when I was here in 2017,” said Makokis-Lee, who is attending remotely from Maskwacis, where she lives with her three-year-old son and grandparents.
“We’re going to be side by side for the next four years, and I’ve built great relationships in the last month and a half. It’s such a great feeling having an Education course set up like a sharing circle. It’s home-like. You’re not just here to study, you’re building relationships and learning more about yourself.”
Most importantly, Makokis-Lee says, she finds herself in the sort of educational setting she wants to create for her future students.
“I do see myself working in an Indigenous school, trying to implement a lot of support whether it’s mental health or land-based learning, and connecting those things with the school because I strongly believe Indigenous students need that guidance,” she said.
‘A sense of kinship, a sense of home’
In addition to the on-campus cohort that started in September, ATEP also welcomed an online cohort that will enable participants all over the province and beyond to take all four years of their BEd program remotely as U of A students. From initial contact through enrolment, through attendance of Education courses and non-Education electives, the ATEP team ensures students have access to the cultural and academic supports they need to succeed.
“One thing we know is that Indigenous students don’t necessarily feel like they belong in the Faculty or at the University, so we try to create a different environment for them where they feel they belong,” said Evelyn Steinhauer, director of ATEP and professor of Educational Policy Studies.
“We need to take into consideration the Indigenous worldview, the way we communicate, the way we do assessment, the importance of relationship building and everything that goes into our philosophy at ATEP. The reason ATEP has been so successful is because of the student support we provide. This support is difficult to articulate because ATEP is a process; it is not just a program —it extends into a spiritual place. Students feel a sense of kinship, a sense of home.”
Assistant Professor Dr. Patsy Steinhauer, who teaches and supports the design and delivery of ATEP, says the program provides a rigour that meets the mainstream BEd program but is enhanced to ensure that students and instructors—both Indigenous and non-Indigenous—are supported in creating the best possible learning environment.
“We’ve been meeting with faculties and departments in various areas to customize courses as much as possible to be responsive to the needs of learners and to prepare a strong teacher for meaningful elementary delivery in every community,” she said. “The content does create important learning, but the processes that support that learning are fundamental.”
Cohort model key to student success
As a mother of two young children and primary caregiver to a parent, Kari Hergott says she didn’t think post-secondary education was an option for her. She definitely wasn’t prepared to leave Yellowknife, where she’d enjoyed a decade-long career as an educational assistant in a community school with 110 Indigenous pupils. But after seeing an ad for ATEP’s online cohort on social media, Hergott says she started thinking about her own personal and professional development. An exchange of emails with ATEP staff confirmed the online program was the opportunity she’d been looking for, and within 48 hours, she’d submitted her application.
“I applied because of the cohort model, knowing there’s a group of us working through these courses at the same pace, and often we have the same challenges, so we can come together and find solutions,” she said.
Hergott, who is Métis, says adjusting to life as a student while balancing responsibilities at home has been challenging but, half a semester in, the program is surpassing her expectations.
“I feel like they know me, they know my story, my background, so I don’t have to spend time elaborating on that. They can just support me in the here and now, and as things get busier, I feel confident I have the right support systems in place to help me move forward,” Hergott said. “I can’t thank ATEP enough for the support they’ve given me and my family.”
Hergott says she would love to work in a small, Indigenous-focused community school like the one she attended, but believes that ATEP will prepare her for innovative opportunities in Indigenous education.
“I don’t know if I’ll be specifically in a classroom teaching curriculum, but I do know I want to be immersed with culture in the community and working with children in some capacity.”
Preparing to make a difference
Other ATEP students hope to have a systemic impact on how Indigenous content is presented to all students. Ashley Reinhardt, whose children have Indigenous heritage, says the online ATEP cohort will enable her to be at home for her kids, continue her work operating an early childhood education program, and prepare her for the next phase of her career.
“I did an interview [with ATEP] and found the program suited my learning style, values and goals, and it fit with my goal of bridging Indigenous education into the public school system,” Reinhardt said.
“I’ll have a strong foundation for getting into the early childhood consulting side of the public school system and curriculum development. Through having all this education and experience — you don’t often get to learn from Elders at university — having that in my back pocket will be beneficial as I go in and try to make that difference in the public system.”
Now accepting applications
ATEP is currently accepting applications to collaborative cohorts (ATEP BEd Elementary) at Lakeland College (Lloydminster) and Portage College (Lac La Biche and Cold Lake). New students with transfer credit are welcome to apply.
ATEP is also launching a part-time online program intake, which will allow participants to complete their bachelor of education degree over six years. For more information on all of ATEP’s programs, visit the ATEP website or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Feature image: Evelyn Steinhauer, director of ATEP and professor of Educational Policy Studies.