How a solution becomes the problem

Teach for Canada and First Nations schools

You have those critical moments in teaching that define you. You know the ones I mean. They resonate within you. They leave a mark on you, sometimes positive, sometimes negative and most often somewhere in between. I had one of those defining moments about five years ago.

I decided to leave my position as a secondary school teacher in a remote First Nations community in northern Ontario.

It was a hard decision that I was never really sure of, but I knew somewhere deep down it was time to move on. The spring always brought about this decision-making process. The sun would come out and the snow would start to melt and as the school year drew to a close, I would start to think about the next fall. When I was a teacher in the north, I laboured over the decision to return every single year. I would contend with a lengthy list of pros and cons, reasons why I should and should not stay, and eventually came to a decision. After three years, I decided to leave the community and my position as a secondary school Math and Geography teacher. Once the decision was made, I had to figure out how to tell my students. It didn’t take long before I was asked in front of a class, “Are you coming back next year, Dawn?” Everyone was looking at me and I had a moment of panic. Perhaps I should stay for just one more year, I thought to myself. I quieted the doubts and held strong to my decision, letting my Grade 12 class know that it would be my final year. And as some of them moved on to post-secondary education, I did too.

I pursued a PhD in education and focused my research on the work of teachers in remote First Nations communities, specifically on the factors impacting teacher retention and attrition. Currently I am an assistant professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. I teach Aboriginal Education majors and supervise their practicum placements in both provincial and First Nations schools.

Recently, an organization was launched called Teach for Canada (TFC). This has necessitated the need to clarify some of the issues and dynamics around teaching in First Nations communities, specifically concerning teacher retention. TFC is a non-profit organization that “works with schools in remote communities to recruit, prepare, and retain committed teachers” (teachforcanada.ca). TFC seeks to recruit teachers, typically straight out of teacher-education programming, and prepare them for their positions as teachers. During an “intensive, community-focused, postgraduate preparation forum” (teachforcanada.ca) in the summer, teachers will take part in an orientation program.

TFC is beginning with a strong focus in Ontario. According to its website, many of the student ambassadors are from Ontario universities and Faculties of Education across the province. The demand for teachers in Ontario’s north is high, and with limited job opportunities in the south, TFC has received over 250 applications for 40 positions. The strategy is to start at the elementary level with goals of moving into the secondary division in the coming years. This is an issue on the horizon for secondary teachers because not only does this impact the practice of secondary school teachers in the province but at some point a TFC teacher may become your colleague. In addition, the urban population of First Nations people is rapidly increasing, so you may also teach a student who has experienced years of high teacher turnover through TFC.

The founders of TFC are Adam Goldenberg and Christine Kneteman. Adam has a BA from Harvard and a law degree from Yale and has extensive political and corporate involvement. Christine has a legal background and was once a volunteer teacher in Ghana. Although perhaps they are well-intentioned, I can’t avoid wondering what stake Adam and Christine have in First Nations education. Despite a significantly high teacher turnover rate in remote First Nations communities, I am concerned with not only how TFC will deal with attrition but, more so, why? Although TFC has some Aboriginal representation within its circle of advisors, I am left with grave concern about the agenda of TFC and those who developed the organization.

Much of the research about teacher retention in the north indicates it is a training ground for new, inexperienced teachers to gain years of experience, hone their skills and then enter southern school boards. The impact of this cycle on students becomes apparent as, year after year, they are taught by new teachers who are beginning their careers and developing their own practice. Teacher turnover is often high in remote First Nations communities because teachers work on one-year contracts that are renewed each spring. TFC plans to have its teachers sign two-year contracts to increase their retention, during which time they will “provide constant support—mentorship, peer support, personal support, and online resources” (teachforcanada.ca). Although it appears to be a retention plan for two years, I am still left with more questions than answers. What will happen after two years? What will happen if the teacher no longer wants to remain in the community or if the community no longer wants the teacher in the school?

The best-case scenario for TFC is that the retention issue will remain the same. At worst the implications of TFC could be profoundly damaging, both individually and systemically.

The implications of these questions are most pronounced for the students who spend countless hours with their teachers in the classroom every day. The students’ sense of trust, stability and school community are all compromised when a teacher either leaves the community or simply doesn’t want to be there and is merely fulfilling their contractual obligations. Trust, stability and school community also happen to be predictors of student success, along with teacher tenure. The Aboriginal achievement gap is often cited as an issue requiring much attention, and various policies and local initiatives have been developed to close the gap. The achievement gap refers to the notion that Aboriginal students are out-performed by their non-Aboriginal counterparts and have much lower graduation rates. The impact of the classroom teacher can have a significant effect on student success. With new TFC teachers in schools where stability and teacher tenure are needed to close the gap, TFC stands to widen the gap and seriously compromise student success and teacher retention. The best-case scenario for TFC is that the retention issue will remain the same. At worst the implications of TFC could be profoundly damaging, both individually and systemically.

TFC as an organization is problematic for a number of reasons. Not only is this a recolonization of an education system that has time and time again failed First Nations people across this country but it also introduces the neoliberal notion that a public issue can be mediated by private solutions. In 1972, a policy paper called Indian Control of Indian Education was affirmed by Indian Affairs Canada. The policy called for First Nations control of First Nations education, which puts the power and decision-making ability back into the hands of First Nations school authorities and communities. TFC blatantly undermines First Nations control of First Nations education and only serves to recolonize the education system on which it was imposed. The consequences of colonization in First Nations education are contemporary issues as the inter-generational impacts of residential schools are still evident and felt today. TFC and its agenda contribute to a potentially dangerous and harmful setback in First Nations education by recolonizing a system that is working hard to heal, rebuild and move forward. TFC wants to make “education more equal” but it is undermining the very policy that would bring equity to First Nations education.

One of the overriding questions in Aboriginal education is sustainability.It is important and necessary that programming and organizations that work with issues in Aboriginal education be sustainable in order to have lasting, long-term impacts. Recently, the government of Ontario has supported TFC to the tune of $70,000 through the Rural Economic Development Fund, with a mandate to increase student success and retain teachers. Not only is this not a sustainable funding source, it funnels public dollars to a private organization to address a public issue. Public funds to support increased teacher retention could better be allocated to community-based First Nations organizations, Faculties of Education or community research partnerships that focus on better understanding the complexities of teacher retention.

TFC is an organization that functions based on a problem it wants to solve.The problem is teacher attrition. The solution is to improve retention and have teachers stay longer. So if TFC is successful in addressing high attrition, it will no longer be needed. It seems unstable to found an organization based on an issue that, if resolved, would fold the organization. It seems then that it would benefit TFC to keep attrition rates high and retention low, which contradicts the overall goal of the organization and arguably the goal of many First Nations community schools. The only way TFC can have a sustainable approach is if it relies on perpetuating the very problem of teachers continually leaving their positions.

Despite the concerns and problems with TFC, teacher retention in First Nations communities remains an issue requiring attention. First Nations schools are federally funded and receive substantially less funding per student each year. This funding gap makes teacher retention a challenge. The teacher attrition rates are cited to be between 30 and 50 per cent each year with some schools experiencing complete staff turnover.Factors contributing to high rates of attrition include salary variability, isolation, lack of support and resources, and a strong draw to teach in urban centres. Although TFC will operate a summer orientation, it seems unfeasible to mediate some of these retention factors and combat systemic and structural inequalities. Rather, TFC is a façade operating under the guise of equity but in the end, those who benefit will remain the teachers who gain experience and TFC as an organization. Students, communities and First Nations education stakeholders will not benefit because the right to control and decision-making is being eroded, ultimately compromising true and just equity.

It was a hard decision to leave my position and the community but it was much harder to tell my students. When I responded to the question in class, “Are you coming back next year?” I explained I would not be returning and I was going to go back to university. Most of the students understood and asked more questions. One student was very upset with me. She stopped talking to me completely. It wasn’t until my last day that we talked again.

Clearly there was a desire for stability and consistency from year to year that high rates of teacher turnover simply cannot meet. TFC and its two-year contracts will not avoid scenarios such as this. In fact, TFC will create more.

She came to our classroom and said she was upset with me because I was leaving. She explained that it was OK for her because she was graduating and going away to college but she had hoped I would stay to teach her younger siblings as they came to high school in the coming years. Clearly there was a desire for stability and consistency from year to year that high rates of teacher turnover simply cannot meet. TFC and its two-year contracts will not avoid scenarios such as this. In fact, TFC will create more.

Teacher education and federally funded schools have a commonality. They are both public and both require public, not private, attention. We need to do better in Faculties of Education across the country to prepare teachers for teaching in First Nations contexts. Today, the First Nations context is not only in the north, it is also in cities and towns in every province. According to census data, the Aboriginal demographic is the fastest rising in Canada and more than half of Aboriginal people are residing in urban centres. This is not a northern issue alone. This is an issue for all teachers and Faculties of Education. This is an issue that needs immediate attention and action. Otherwise, organizations with corporate and private backing will start to infiltrate the public education system. We need to interrupt the agenda of TFC, defend our practice and profession, and critically examine the implications of TFC for the teaching profession in Ontario.

ILLUSTRATION: sous sous

About Dawn Burleigh
Dawn Burleigh is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta.

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