Finding teachers

Posted on April 20th, 2010 in: 1

Marilyn MacDonald, Grade 1 teacher at Kihew Waciston school.

Jean Okimasis, a curriculum developer who founded the aboriginal language teacher certificate program in Regina, says there is still much work to be done in terms of training teachers.

When she founded the certificate program in 1997, few Cree speakers could read or write Cree and Cree language instruction books were rare.

She says she overcame resistance in the Faculty of Linguistics at the Indian Federated College, which is now the First Nations University of Canada, and Cree programs are now part of a new Department of Indian Languages, Literatures and Linguistics. She says the summer program allows teachers who don’t have the grades to gain the necessary experience to teach on reserves. Getting the certificate also puts them in a position to ask for a raise.

But finding qualified teachers and support staff for the Cree bilingual classrooms continues to be dilemma, says Cort Dogniez, co-ordinator of First Nations and Métis Education for Saskatoon Public Schools.

He says it’s not ideal to hire a teacher who just speaks Cree. It’s better to have someone who has had the training in language instruction and in particular Cree language instruction.

“But finding people with that kind of instruction? That’s rare. There’s not much or very little opportunity.”

Last fall, 25 students were accepted into a bachelor of education degree as part of the the Indian Teacher Education Program (ITEP) program. The degree is for people fluent in Cree who want to teach in immersion.

Orest Murawsky, director of ITEP in the College of Education at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, says the main goal of the program is to prepare the B.Ed. students to work in an immersion program. The four-year degree still follows the regular B.Ed. requirements but also focusses on Cree language and culture.

“All the courses are geared toward the students taking courses in their language.”

“Wherever there’s an opportunity to fit it into the existing parameters of the B.Ed., they’ve done that.”

For example, the Cree language courses would be academic teaching areas. He says the big bonus for the Onion Lake program is that the First Nation already has facilities, elders and protocol. Onion Lake is supplying instructors for the program and producing much of the curriculum.

Murawsky says more programs should exist like the one at Onion Lake. The strategies and teaching methods of immersion education have to be taught, he says, and right now they’re not.

“Who’s going to produce the teachers for the so-called immersion programs that are there now? Those teachers who are teaching have no training in immersion in the city. They’re just Cree-language speakers, but they have no training in the area of immersion – and that’s totally different.”

Murawsky says ITEP has produced 80-90 per cent of Cree instructors in the province. ITEP and the First Nations University of Canada both offer Cree language programs for instructors.

The Northern Teacher Education Program offered by the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Regina is based in La Ronge and encourages northern students who are fluent in an aboriginal language to become certified teachers.

Jenise Vangool, principal of St. Frances Elementary School, says they request interns with aboriginal-language expertise. Interns often come from the Indian Teacher Education Program in Saskatoon or the Saskatchewan Urban Native Teacher Education Program in Regina.

Vangool says they have struggled some with a high staff turn-over. The key is finding a good teacher who has the Cree ‘y’ dialect and has grown up with the culture, she says.

Dogniez, with Saskatoon Public schools, stresses teachers must be fluent – in other words, they would be able to carry on a meaningful conversation, not only in their classroom but in their community with their family and also with elders.

“If you’re speaking Cree and it’s because you’ve taken some classes, to me that’s not good enough, you don’t have the community perspective that comes with the language.”

“There’s idiosyncracies that come with the language from your particular community and how you use words and what words you use.”

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