Empowering the People: The Aboriginal Teacher Education Program

Most school mornings for Melanie Quinn, '09 BEd, and her students at Saddle Lake Cree Nation’s Kihew Asiniy Education Centre begin with a ceremony of traditional Cree songs and prayer.

“The morning ceremony is a way for us to honour our rich heritage and share our passion for our culture,” says Quinn, who teaches language arts at the Nehiyaw (Cree) high school.

“Indigenous education is a way of life that includes raising the consciousness of the people. I’m trying to ensure my students come to know their own voices and that it’s okay to speak their truths,” explains Quinn, whose classes regularly include visits by community elders, cultural activities such as smudging, and discussions about topics like the history of residential schools and the Idle No More movement.

 Melanie Quinn (second from left) graduating from ATEP in 2009, alongside her husband Sean Quinn (L), and Sean’s siblings Pamela Quinn and Vance Quinn
A family affair: Melanie Quinn (second from left) graduating from ATEP in 2009, alongside her husband Sean Quinn (L), and Sean’s siblings Pamela Quinn and Vance Quinn

“There’s a long history of colonization of the Indigenous peoples of Canada and I believe education should be used as a tool to empower and liberate students,” Quinn says. “Awareness is key to healing and transformative processes so I take my students on a journey within.”

“I want to create a deep awareness that the stories we tell contain our histories and futures, and the words we speak have power. This deep awareness will empower the people.”

Inspired by her own teachers growing up in Saddle Lake, Quinn’s lifelong dream was to become a teacher. Her dream came true in 2009 when she, her husband Sean Quinn, and two of Sean’s siblings each graduated from the Aboriginal Teacher Education Program (ATEP).

ATEP helps future teachers develop a greater understanding of Indigenous history, culture, and perspectives on teaching and learning, with the goal of improving the educational success of Indigenous children.

Through a unique collaboration between the U of A and various tribal and community colleges, ATEP students complete their degree in or near their home communities, allowing them to maintain community, family, and cultural connections. Collaborating colleges offer the first two years of an elementary education program, and ATEP the final two years.

“ATEP was an incredibly valuable experience that prepared me well for my teaching work,” says Quinn, who attended at Blue Quills First Nations College. “It offered opportunities to include Indigenous ways of knowing, being, and doing infused with philosophies of education inherent to Indigenous peoples.”

“It was extremely meaningful to take the program with three family members,” she adds.

“Meeting the educational needs of Aboriginal students requires a deep understanding of their culture, worldview, and historical experience. In order to adequately address the needs of Aboriginal children, teachers must be aware of the historical educational experience of Aboriginal people,” says ATEP’s Director, Dr. Evelyn Steinhauer.

ATEP’s Co-Director, Angela Wolfe (L) and Director Dr. Evelyn Steinhauer
ATEP’s Co-Director, Angela Wolfe (L) and Director Dr. Evelyn Steinhauer

“In ATEP we teach about the historical experiences of Aboriginal people, racism, and the Aboriginal worldview. Pre-service teachers come to understand their own biases and prejudices. They not only become better teachers for Aboriginal children, but better teachers for all children.”

“Aboriginal children benefit immensely when they know their teacher understands them. They are more likely to come to school and complete their education, and they have a better chance of academic success and excellence,” she says.

Steinhauer explains enhanced student learning outcomes ultimately lead to improved economic opportunities, both for students and the province as a whole. “All this positively impacts Alberta’s labour market,” she says.

She adds the labour market also benefits from ATEP’s high rate of employment for its graduates. “Ninety-seven percent of our graduates secure employment immediately, and because ATEP is community based,  most teach in their communities. This not only makes them community role models, but benefits the labour market, both in Indigenous communities and all of Alberta.”

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with my students,” reflects Quinn who in addition to her teaching position is studying in the U of A’s Master of Education in Educational Policy Studies program, with a focus on Indigenous Peoples Education.

“I remember how it feels to be Indigenous and a teenager and so I’m passionate about empowering my students and helping them develop a strong and positive identity,” she says. “Our identities are not government given; we belong to this land.”

For more information about the application process, please visit: http://educprospective.ualberta.ca/admissions#aboriginal-teacher-education-program-atep