Aboriginal Inquiry: Lifting All Learners

An Impact Assessment of the Aboriginal Enhancement Schools Network (AESN)

7.2 Leadership

In earlier discussions, the notion of leadership was introduced; we noted how Aboriginal teachers in particular, have used the AESN structure as a tool for enabling their own efforts to lead within the field of Aboriginal education and in creating an enhanced focus on effecting change to better support Aboriginal learners. The focus on Aboriginal student success and inquiry as a means of effecting change both locally and provincially has created an important new space through which Network members—both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal—have had their work and leadership recognized and valued. Certainly the mandate to create, adopt and implement Aboriginal Enhancement Agreements in each school district has been an important lever through which both the AESN and other Aboriginal education initiatives have been given priority attention. However, the Network structure itself also encourages and nurtures leadership among its members. Identifying innovation and creative, impactful AESN inquiries and members who have led or supported these inquiries has been a deliberate activity of the Network principals, Drs. Halbert and Kaser. Using Network structures and mechanisms—such as its website and its annual provincial networking event—the work of different teacher leaders have been profiled. Specific cases are highlighted on the website; regional leaders are encouraged to highlight these in their local and/or regional meetings with other teachers. In other words, promising practices are shared and individuals who have developed personal and professional knowledge related to their inquiries are invited to share these in public forums with other members of the Network.

In many cases, these individuals have been promoted into district leadership positions; for example, during our focus group on Vancouver Island we saw evidence of the career progression of some AESN members who had been teachers within the Network and who are now serving as formal district support leaders. In their new roles as district leaders they have been able to use their inquiry-based mindset to extend inquiry approaches into district initiatives in Aboriginal Education more seamlessly, while broadening their capacity to effect change and influence among an even larger pool of educational personnel. We will share two specific examples to illustrate how this growth has been afforded by focusing on two AESN leaders: Debbie Leighton-Stephens and Laura Tait.

I have been working at a Vancouver Island high school since 2001 and at an elementary school for the same amount of years too. I have worked as an Aboriginal support worker with my name changing but the same problems continue to exist mostly. My main goal over the years was to help Aboriginal students achieve cultural, academic , and personal achievements. Also to help increase the self-esteem of vulnerable Aboriginal students.

I have always asked myself how can I help students to connect to themselves and feel proud of their Aboriginal ancestry when society has mostly looked down on Aboriginals. Lots of youth want to be anything but Aboriginal and avoid anything that looks like Aboriginal culture at school. I know when things are working by how many Aboriginal youth say where they are from and the ancestry they are. I try to do things that help all students feel proud of who they all are and where they all are from.

By me talking about who I am and the Elders that have given me teachings I try to teach all students that we all have important teachings passed down to us. Every year for the last 7 years I have a celebration of who you are at the elementary school with Aboriginal cultural games with 100 students. Every student brings one small favourite family dish of their favourite food each student likes the most. Every student feels like they have contributed to that day and has helped make the celebration successful. Students ask me all year “are we going to have our celebration this year?” and “what day are we going to have it on?” I try to help all students I work with to become a leader. I play a lot of leadership games with all students.

I have a leadership group of secondary students that I bring to the elementary school every week to work with all the grade 7 students. This is my older students helping with grade 7 transition to grade 8. Older students model how to be successful using their life experiences how to work with teachers they do not like, how to navigate the hallways respectfully and how to be successful with older students’ own codes of conduct at school and how to behave with older students respectfully. This will help grade 7 students have a better experience here at the high school by not getting older students angry about their behavior. I try to teach them the importance of being a life long learner and always asking yourself “what can I learn from others at school?”

Students that are spoiled come to school thinking they already know everything and are entitled to do what they want to do with no respect for the teacher. Students that think they are entitled disregard the things teachers and staff try to teach students about. Students that think they are entitled are not open to any new learning because they know everything. A lot of the time students that act like they are entitled to do what they want look a lot like defiant disrespectful students only doing what they want to do.

I try to help address entitled students by learning about how to be respectful and the importance of learning to respect the position adults represent in their professional roles in the community. I talk about how life can get harder on them when they do not show respect to people they do not like that are teachers, R.C.M.P or any other professional adult they may come across in their life. I work a lot on helping students make better choices for themselves. I teach students to look at where they are now, where do they want to be and what things do they need to do to get to where they want to be. Set goals for themselves they can do.

The earlier case study of Prince Rupert provided substantial evidence of how Debbie Leighton-Stephens has taken on a role of leading with Aboriginal communities to enhance opportunities for Aboriginal student success. In the case we describe how she is using the inquiry-based model with all district support staff, including work with teachers (both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal) as well as non-teaching support staff. We described her work as essential to the learning centered culture that is strongly evident in the district. We also referenced how her work has been profiled at Network seminar events: her thoughtful and respectful modeling of Aboriginal principles of learning including how to “walk slowly” has become an important touchstone for the BC educational community as they learn how to enact inclusive and engaging practices which give Aboriginal students a way to connect to their schooling experiences.

We also want to profile the work of Laura Tait, District Principal of Aboriginal Learning in Nanaimo. She is taking a strong leadership role in her district’s efforts to negotiate a third Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement in her district; she is modeling it following the inquiry cycle she learned as a member of the AESN . She described for us, during her interview, the importance of this shift in thinking about how one could develop a more effective and inclusive and respectful agreement between Aboriginal community members and the district. She stated:

“We want to frame the big ideas [about Aboriginal student success] into rich inquiry questions that have some depth, rigour, and with no easy answers…[In taking this approach] I hope our intention is communicated thusly: No, we don’t know the answers for you, but we are hoping that this approach will invite you to consider these questions in your context… A big piece of the intention is to grow healthy inquiry work and to approach these big ideas in Aboriginal education and society in a way that is more curious, respectful, and less judgmental. Inquiry by nature is curiosity and opening ourselves up to vulnerability… it’s a more respectful and curious approach.”

In other words, the AEA won’t necessarily list or name the ways in which outcomes will be achieved for students or communities; nor will it state the problem in terms that construct Aboriginal students, their families or communities as deficit, or needing to be ‘supported’ or ‘helped’. Instead it will emphasize the ways in which the educational partners can inquire together in order to learn and implement new, locally situated approaches and methods that work with and for Aboriginal students.

We saw this approach to the negotiation of a renewed Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement as an exciting impact of the AES Network : it has pushed the model of inquiry well beyond that of the classroom to a place that shifts the approach of the entire community towards one of problem solving and shared, collaborative knowledge building. We believe that this approach is one that will be modeled in other districts as this particular agreement will lay out a constructive and inclusive approach that others will want to follow. In the same way as the Network itself operates to connect innovators with like minded leaders and innovators in other jurisdictions, this leader and the broader Aboriginal community with whom she works will influence and shift the focus of policy makers, school districts and provincial authorities alike. Again, returning to the thoughts and expressions of Laura Tait:

“If [inquiry mindedness] doesn’t impact leaders, it won’t have staying power. You can look at this both horizontally and vertically. Horizontal growth is important, but it has to reach up to those in formal leadership roles.”

She also expresses why this work is a moral imperative for her and for educational leaders across Canada:

“If you look at the pain and anguish Aboriginal people have experienced in this country, and what [the Network] is doing to change those conditions, this [inquiry model] should be valued for its contribution and the model it provides. A lot of this comes down to the work of Judy and Linda, they are all about truth and reconciliation.”

We find these words incredibly profound; it captures the essential work of the AESN and its participants as a decolonizing event. By decolonizing we mean that it seeks to reveal the truths about the experiences of Aboriginal learners in schools while it dismantles old belief systems about the deficits or deficiencies of Aboriginal communities and makes visible their strengths. It gives voice to Aboriginal teachers—both traditional community teachers and teachers within the formal school system—both of whom are legitimate knowledge holders and have important perspectives that will enrich approaches to working with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students. It recognizes their contribution to the work and places their expertise at the center of how we approach what needs to be shared work. It also emphasizes the relational nature of such work: again, referring to Laura’s characterization of how this work needs to be done, she emphasizes a “side by side approach” in which learning together is invitational, respectful, and always supportive. It also echoes Debbie Leighton-Stephens call to “walk slowly” together to construct shared pathways through which all learners can be supported and who can walk the stage with “dignity, purpose and options” (Halbert & Kaser, 2013).