Aboriginal Inquiry: Lifting All Learners

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

7.7.2 Aboriginal teacher leadership

We also saw evidence during our study that the process of decolonizing the thinking of non-Aboriginal educators is being sparked by many of the Aboriginal educators who are involved in the Network. Earlier in this report we discussed how Aboriginal teachers have found the Network to be particularly helpful because it gave legitimacy to the work they were doing as educators working with Aboriginal learners and as advocates for effecting changes in schools so that Aboriginal learners could experience greater success. It also however, has provided a venue through which their inclusive approaches to teaching and learning can be more frequently and effectively profiled. And as we have described in this report, in some school districts powerful Aboriginal leaders have emerged, such as Debbie Leighton-Stephens in Prince Rupert and Laura Tait in Nanaimo.

The focus we’ve placed on the positive leadership these women provide might suggest that the climate in school districts is incredibly transparent and that all districts and non-Aboriginal educators are fully open to engaging in and learning from their Aboriginal colleagues. But this leadership, even when formally recognized by some, isn’t always recognized or valued in every district.

For example, we interviewed one teacher who spoke at some length about her work in building bridges between her school and the broader Aboriginal community in which it was located. Her inquiry, while profoundly deep and transformative in scope – earning her recognition from Network leaders and from leading instructors at a BC University because of how it models giving voice to Aboriginal learners, has failed to capture even the slightest interest from principals, vice principals or district leaders within her own school district. She also described how the local teachers involved in NOII and AESN have largely ignored her successful work with Aboriginal students. She tried to explain in her interview why this happens:

“I have a large voice, I’m Aboriginal and I stand with my community. A lot of people find this very intimidating. So [when these Network members exclude me] it’s not deliberate, it’s culturally engrained in their place in the community. It’s a tough position to walk in. I need to speak louder than most, and be knowledgeable; I needed to prove my credentials by getting a degree. I have to do a dog and pony show everywhere because I am Aboriginal. I am used to that; and I will always do it because it’s for the benefit of children, to benefit their learning. All student learning, of course, but I have been working with Aboriginal students. It is time that their learning be just as important as all the other students. And that’s what I am here to do. If I use a big voice, it’s their voice. It has to be that way. And if that means I’m still excluded, I’m OK with that… now I am working on provincial projects and now I am moving to a district where I can effect learning.”

We understand that it took considerable courage for this individual to name her colleagues as essentially practicing their white privilege in ways that excluded her and other culturally identifiable peoples from their deliberations and ongoing work. We cannot say that this feeling is widespread, but it reminds us that the work of decolonizing the education system is emotionally charged and will have bumps along the way. Such work is difficult but necessary, and it will require powerful Aboriginal voices and non-Aboriginal allies—leaders who can and will draw attention to the truths of our settler histories, including our colonial and racist mindsets—to continue to push and challenge educators, leaders and Network members alike to make a spaces for the learning of Aboriginal students, their families and communities.