Building resilience in Inuit schools: community-centred research
By Heather Desserud
How can you build pathways for resilience, professional development and traditional knowledge in Inuit education? That’s what the project “Effective teachers for successful students: An investigation of the preparation and resiliency of Northern educators” co-led by Dr. Ruth Kane and Kathy Snow, is working to find out.
Following her Fulbright panel presentation in June, I interviewed Kathy and her panel/team members Jodie Lane, Director of Education for the Nunatsiavut Government Department of Education and Economic Development; and Diane Obed, an Inuk researcher originally from Hopedale, Nunatsiavut, studying and lecturing on Indigenous education in Halifax. All three share a passion for collaborative research and intertwining qallunaat and Inuit ways of knowing within formal education and research.
Dr. Kathy Snow is an associate professor at the University of Prince Edward Island and the 2019-20 Fulbright Research Chair in Arctic Studies at the University of Washington. A former educator and administrator, her collaborative ArcticNet project studies the role of teacher training and professional development in building capacity and resilience in Inuit teachers. This project builds directly from her past ArcticNet work, which examined Inuit students’ persistence or withdrawal from schools, and the ways in which learning and achievements were assessed (Foundations for Student Persistence and Success in Inuit Nunangat, led by Dr. Melanie O’Gorman).
The need for resilience in Inuit teachers is urgent: there are not enough Inuit educators and those who do enter the profession often leave the classroom for other careers. Student persistence in formal education has long been a concern for governments, but the history of education in Northern Canada is fraught with colonial structures that impact both youth and their teachers ability to navigate; the team pointed to the devaluation of the Inuktitut language in education, culturally biased assessment, and an education system that is still trying to balance the tensions between traditional knowledge and academic learning in Inuit education.
The team spoke about the roles schools play in communities, and the need for greater Inuit input into the education system. A key aspect was the need to deinstitutionalize schools, turning them into cultural and community centres where students—and teachers—feel welcome and valued. “Kids like going to school in Hopedale,” said Ms. Lane, “because there they put the kids first and make them comfortable. It’s cultural, inclusive, and proud of Inuit culture—and it’s that mentality that needs to feature more in northern education.” The community centre model attaches services and recreation to the school environment, turning it into a place of fun and celebration instead of a place of restriction.
The team’s research seeks to understand the roles and responsibilities of teachers in schools, in relation to the community and their students. A critical aspect arising from previous work, was the redefinition of student-teacher relationships, one that Dr. Snow compared more to aunt-niece or nephew than teacher-student, operates in education. Some of the questions they are pursuing include how to bridge more Inuit teachers into the profession, how professional development can help reduce and prevent burnout, and how to remove the barriers from Inuit teachers advancing into administrative roles like principals.
The ArcticNet project is community-led, seeking to research questions the communities want rather than driven solely by researcher interest with research questions predetermined. Ms. Obed highlighted the collaborative and community-centred approach in her reasons for joining the project team: “When you have privileged settler researchers coming to work with Inuit, we must go beyond proclaiming support and solidarity. The team is actually producing tangible results for communities, funnelling funds into communities and leveraging their positions and voices to bring awareness.”
Ms. Lane agreed: “Before we decide to participate in a project, we must ask what the project is going to give back to the community. In my recent experiences with researchers like [Dr. Snow], you don’t even have to ask: they come to us and say ‘What do you need and want as a community?’ We don’t have to try to use bits and pieces of the research, because they take our questions and find out what we want to know.”
When asked how organizations such as ArcticNet support research, the team identified a number of ways a networked approach strengthens work with northern communities. Building the necessary relationships takes time, and northern travel logistics can delay or rearrange fieldwork schedules. All suggested that training opportunities offered to new—and experienced—researchers can make a difference, particularly cross-cultural communication and anti-racism training. ArcticNet’s funding for collaborative research has enabled the team to include different voices with important things to say, coming from backgrounds that Western academia may not always include.
It’s a true collaboration, with a team that cares passionately about the role of community in schools, and in research itself.