Donation to boost teacher education in Alberta’s north

The question of how to serve Aboriginal students in educational institutions that have sometimes been seen as a source of harm is a potent one. And it’s one the Faculty of Education’s Aboriginal Teacher Education Program (ATEP) addresses head on.

A gift of $300,000 from two Calgary donors who wish to remain anonymous gets to the heart of the matter by increasing the number of ATEP teachers in northern Alberta. Their gift marks a pivotal point in Aboriginal education. The University of Alberta will match the gift and secure additional government funding.

ATEP is an off-campus collaborative degree program built on partnerships between UAlberta’s Faculty of Education and colleges in northern Alberta. Students do two years of college, and then apply for admission to ATEP, where they will do two more years to complete their degree.

In a sense, it’s the best of both worlds—ATEP students have the opportunity to receive a bachelor’s degree in elementary education (BEd) from UAlberta while remaining close to family and friends in their home communities. They have the same core requirements as BEd students on the UAlberta campus, but theirs is an enriched program teaching Aboriginal ways of being and learning.

Another step on the road to reconciliation

The donors want to make a difference in the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadian citizens. “We feel education is a way forward into the future—a way to resolve and reconcile between mainstream and Indigenous parts of Canadian society,” they say.

“Awareness through education is the first step in sharing values like respect and compassion that can help us move forward to a Canada where violence, poverty, exclusion, and assimilation are not tolerated, where we honour the spiritual traditions that heal and sustain our communities,” explain the donors. “We support Indigenous leaders who are creating a stronger future in their communities through education, people who are collaborative and constructive, people who build relationships. The ATEP team represents all of these qualities.”

ATEP Director Evelyn Steinhauer of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation and Associate Director Angela Wolfe of Maskwacis work like a family, hand-picking ATEP instructors and delivering Aboriginal content specific to each community where the program exists. “We know how to do this because we come from these communities,” says Steinhauer. “It’s important that ATEP is run by our own people—people from our communities.”

Pre-service teachers (both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal) in the program are nurtured in a personal way. “Our students are not a number,” says Wolfe. “Our students are whole people—they are moms, dads, and grandparents. We provide core instruction but are also teaching them how to teach with compassion, love, and their hearts.”

Addressing the need for more Aboriginal teachers

Steinhauer says it’s incredibly important, given the dark history of Indian Residential Schools in Canada, for Aboriginal children to see themselves reflected in their teachers—to have an “Auntie” at the front of the class so they know what they, too, can accomplish.

“Most Aboriginal students have endured racism in schools,” she says. “They have it in their heads that they aren’t as good. We’ve had youths as young as 10 years old commit suicide in our communities, and this has to stop. Racism, unfair treatment, and low teacher expectations are issues, and so are the intergenerational effects of residential schools.”

Countering this legacy has meant training teachers in their own communities. Many ATEP students are women with children. The cost of moving, childcare, and accommodation, and the emotional upheaval of leaving their support system to attend university in the city, is often too high a cost. Obtaining their degree on home turf makes it possible for those who wouldn’t normally even consider it.

Steinhauer and Wolfe have even supplemented the program’s limited resources, sometimes paying for students’ textbooks from their own pockets, preparing bannock and stew in their kitchens for celebrations, buying tobacco for Elders, and sharing their cell numbers with every ATEP student.

Fifteen years ago, Steinhauer’s home community of Saddle Lake Cree Nation had approximately 10 per cent Aboriginal teachers in local schools. That rate has climbed to 95 per cent.

“Thanks to ATEP, we have been able to change those numbers,” she says. And the public school that once told Steinhauer that she should become a secretary now has an exceptional ATEP teacher who is nurturing Aboriginal students, building their confidence, and serving as an example of what is possible.

ATEP’s academic partners include Blue Quills First Nations College, Northern Lakes College, Portage College, and Maskwacis Cultural College. The program has a 95 per cent retention rate, and 22 per cent of those who have graduated from the program did so with distinction.

Graduates of the Faculty of Education's ATEP program at Convocation 2013
Graduates of the Faculty of Education's ATEP program at Convocation 2013. From l. to r. Debra Anderson, Yvonne Hamelin, and Joline Pelletier.

A graduate’s perspective

Jackie Steinhauer graduated from ATEP at Blue Quills First Nations College in 2013. It was so important to her that she finished both years in one. “I ate, slept, and did homework,” she recalls.

Her motivation is personal — she’s related to about 70 per cent of her students. “Because I come from the same community, the kids have a teacher they’re familiar with.”

Now that she’s teaching Grade 1 at Vilna School, she incorporates Indigenous perspectives into everything she teaches. “We do lots of sharing circles. For example, we talk about changes that happen in fall. Students say things like, ‘In fall my mosom (Cree for grandfather) goes hunting,’ or ‘My kohkom (grandmother) finished picking all her berries.’ One child said, ‘Teacher, did you know that’s when moose and elk find girlfriends and boyfriends?’ I try to relate all teachings around their knowledge.”

Looking ahead

The gift from the Calgary donors aligns well with the Faculty of Education’s core priorities.

“This donation will assist the faculty as we pursue our goal of doubling the number of students from our Aboriginal Teacher Education Program by 2018,” says Randy Wimmer, interim dean of the Faculty of Education. “Having met with the donors, I know that they share our vision and commitment to help improve the education of Aboriginal students throughout Alberta. We have exciting plans for the growth of ATEP, and we are truly thankful for this thoughtful and generous gift.”

The gift will be used in three key ways: to hire a specialist in Aboriginal teacher education recruitment and advising, to develop a plan to support professional development activities for teachers, and to develop a research project to help measure ATEP’s successes and challenges, then share findings with the broader community.

Also in the works is a new “urban cohort” for ATEP, based on UAlberta’s North Campus.

“Ultimately, the ones who will benefit most from this gift are about five thousand kids in the school system because teachers will know how to teach to them as whole beings,” Wolfe says.

“The donors are going to change lives more than they’ll ever know. They’ll have a major impact on the community because we’ll be able to reach people we normally wouldn’t have been able to.”

Feature Image: Evelyn Steinhauer, Director of ATEP, and Randy Wimmer, interim Dean of Education.