One could fill volumes with the various theories that have been pontificated by those endeavouring to get to the root of the lagging academic achievements of First Nations and Métis students in Saskatchewan.
When the provincial government, and specifically the Ministry of Education, made it a priority to have graduation rates significantly improve by 2020, one of the primary ways was to develop positive student-teacher relationships by incorporating greater cultural sensitivity as one of the cornerstones. Entitled Following Their Voices, it is intended to dovetail with the extensive Student First consultations concluded earlier throughout the province.
Conversations have been often and wide-ranging as the program has now been rolled out to 12 provincial schools and another five band-operated schools, which brings federal funding into the equation as well.
If you should think this all sounds complicated, listen to Patrick, the director of education for Treaty 6 Education Council, who bases his optimism on the fundamental commitment to more fully involve students.
“By us listening to students and letting them have voice in the school, it means there’s more to the relationship piece and I’m expecting great things by us working together. When I started on this process I could see the possibilities because this is co-constructed, whereas before it wasn’t across the board. With teachers’ support and feedback I believe this gives us a consistent approach and even if it’s to be expected that it will look different in various settings, the goals and the delivery is consistent,” Bugler said, adding that it has to be at the grassroots level.
According to Randy Fox, director of education for Living Sky School Division, and another of those who has been integrally involved in the discussions, “this goes deeper and in my view it helps us get to the root of the teacher-student relationships that are so important.
“We need to do more in terms of making those connections with our First Nations and Métis students and if we establish that genuine respect, it’s my feeling that it is something that students will want to follow because they feel more part of their own education.”
Tim Caleval from the Ministry of Education reflected back on the series of meetings and how the focus throughout has been to fit the initiative within the overall Education Sector Strategic Plan. He recognized that there is always going to be funding challenges, but stressed that there has already been significant early success since its implementation, adding that “this is the most important work we are doing right now.”
Angie Caron, who has been seconded from her teaching duties to the Ministry as part of this initiative, said one of the aspects that can’t be overlooked is teacher reflection and how they can support kids in the classroom.
“This presents an opportunity for teachers to think deeply about their practice with their students and to collect evidence to support them. That’s really what is at the centre of this. One thing I’ve seen is a real agreement among all school divisions that improving the experience for our First Nations and Métis students is a shared priority.”
According to Caron, the timing of the Calls to Action by Justice Murray Sinclair at the culmination of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada only serves to make Following Their Voices that much more poignant given that education was highlighted as a key piece.
Bugler agreed, but cautioned that “it’s not something we can expect to just happen in a year or two. It will take at least a generation. It’s always been my hope that we would change the way we have done things at the division level and I’m very encouraged by this overall approach.”
Among those at this meeting there is a shared optimism as to what this program can lead to in the future.
“I’m very optimistic and I’ve seen a shift in the level of respect when addressing First Nations and Métis students. We are taking real steps to try to make this right and we’re at a critical time right now,” Bugler said.
“I would say this could be a turning point and when we look at this 60 years down the road I want this generation of teachers as grandparents to look back and see how they changed things for my people.”
Caleval added his own hopes, basing his optimism on the level of co-operation and mutual understanding he has witnessed since the early days of the program. “When you see how it has evolved, there’s a laser focus and I see it in schools too. This program is very closely aligned with Student First in terms of putting the student at the centre and that has a real chance for success.”
Fox said the fact that work is being done in a number of facets, including treaty education in all schools, is key to what gives him hope for what lies ahead.
Maureen Taylor, a provincial facilitator, said she too is optimistic, adding that “for too long our hope has been our plan, but I think now we have a real plan and it applies to every school division and to society in general. Teachers are at a place where they are more reflective than ever and that’s what is going to be the impact for the students and will provide a bright future for all kids.”
“This is one of the most exciting things that has happened in my career,” Caron enthused. “I view this is as a tremendous opportunity to work side by side with my colleagues for the benefit of kids and that’s what makes us do what it is we do when we started. This work can be foundational in building on Indigenous ways of knowing and that will be to the benefit of all our students.”