Charlene Bearhead isn’t one who is in the least reluctant to speak her mind, but that doesn’t imply for a minute that the education lead at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation doesn’t have a cerebral side as well.
As those attending the 25th anniversary version of the Learning From Practice conference, the two facets were visibly in tandem as Bearhead naturally referenced the now well-documented residential school experience, while also outlining how she envisions a potentially better future for the education system in this country.
Bearhead commenced her presentation by reminding educators in the room that reconciliation and education are in fact one and the same if done well. She maintains that one of the most important roles of educators in the future is to genuinely listen to the students.
“If we can humble ourselves to listen, that’s what grounds us–the people and the language and to have those important relationships. We need to recognize that there’s not one way to educate. Education needs to put the child first and maybe we should be embracing this instead of assessing. Why ask the questions of students if you’re not ready to give validity to the answers?”
Bearhead insisted it’s not an option to merely keep doing things the same way, adding that everyone needs to think about where they live–whether that’s the students, teachers or administrators.
“When you look at the western style of education, it’s important that we also validate and incorporate Indigenous ways of education. Sometimes it’s a matter of people just needing to get over themselves, or the future we hope for isn’t going to happen. There’s a sense of responsibility that goes with that,” Bearhead said.
“We’re all given a path and a role and as educators we need to recognize kids and not just focus on their shortcomings but rather embrace what they are good at–maybe that’s reconciliation. I think we’re probably on the right track, but there’s still a long way to go and we need to remember it’s not about us.”
According to Bearhead it’s important in striving for the holistic model that is desired by many in education to eschew such initiatives as standardized testing. She said, “if that’s not assimilation, I’m not sure what is. I have big issues with how we define quality and success. Everyone loves to talk about graduation rates and closing the achievement gap, but who defines it? There’s a gap there and how do you separate learning from life.”
Bearhead acknowledges that the best way to ensure success is to have the engagement of not only students, but also their families. However, she noted that the primary aim of parents above all else is to keep their children safe. Against that backdrop, she said “if your experience in school was so bad yourself, it can be pretty difficult to have the trust factor.”
Alluding to the residential school experience, Bearhead said for many living in Canada there was a sense of blissful ignorance as to their existence. She said when people think of the unspeakable harm done to Aboriginal families and their children, often overlooked is the effect on a generation of non-Indigenous children and families.
“If we think of the outcomes of that experience, it’s violence, and what the non-Indigenous children were being taught was also about hatred and intolerance, and that is at the heart of the lack of trust that exists,” she pointed out.
Since the closure of residential schools, Bearhead suggested there have been no shortage of false dawns from respective governments, in particular, citing the pilot projects that all too often end without an end product due to funding cuts. She said it would be more humane to do nothing instead of embarking on projects that are never completed.
She said collaboration is critical in moving forward, and that applies to governments, in particular, who often seem paralyzed by the inability of ministries to work together, including on funding.
“Too often we find ministries are pulling in different directions and so very little happens. It’s about power and control, not what’s best for the child. If we had done what was right, we wouldn’t be in this situation. There is no defence for how we have done this. Until we truly put the child first, it’s not going to work. It’s about having the will and courage to change.”
Bearhead reminded those in the audience that we’re in this together and challenged them to contemplate what we have learned along the way, and whether we are paying attention.
“You are going to be the ones moving this along. There’s no such thing as the right time but it will take will and courage and we need to be prepared to do something differently. It’s about building true relationships instead of programming. As educators we need to inspire first and require next. You can be gatekeepers or champions, so you need to ask: how courageous am I and what is my part in this?”
Additional McDowell and Learning From Practice coverage will appear in the March 15 edition of the Saskatchewan Bulletin.