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LU grads will 'Teach for Canada' in fly-in First Nations village

Program recruits and trains teachers to work in remote Northwestern Ontario aboriginal communities

A couple that recently graduated with teaching degrees from Laurentian University will be spending the next two years teaching in a fly-in First Nations community in Northwestern Ontario.

Jordan Walker-Martin and Carley Whittle have committed to work at a 70-student elementary school in North Spirit Lake First Nation, a community of 400 located a 40-minute plane ride from Red Lake. 

They were hired through Teach for Canada, a non-profit organization that works with First Nations to recruit, prepare and support teachers before they go to work in remote, Northern Ontario communities. 

It seeks to prevent what's become a common problem — young teachers arrive in First Nations communities without any preparation for what they'll be facing, and the support they need to stay in the classroom.

That leads to a high turnover in First Nations schools, resulting in an education gap for Aboriginal students.

In preparation for their new jobs, Walker-Martin and Whittle spent three weeks in July and early August attending workshops at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, along with 30 other Canadian teachers.

The workshops touch on topics such as First Nations history and culture, the legacy of residential schools, outdoor education and mental health.

The teachers were also given a chance to visit Aboriginal communities, receive mentorship, and meet in advance some of the people from the villages where they'll be working.

For Walker-Martin and Whittle, both originally from Barrie, Teach for Canada is an opportunity to right the wrongs of the residential school system and help to close the education gap for Aboriginal students. 

“I feel if there's anything I can do to use my strengths to reconcile any of that, it's something needed in our country,” Whittle said.

“It's also having an opportunity to teach full time, your first year out of university, in your own province, in a place that really needs outstanding teachers. It's really gratifying.”

The couple are also outdoors enthusiasts — Walker-Martin said he especially loves fishing — and hope to incorporate outdoor education into their lessons.

The preparation sessions, which even extended to traditional skills such as skinning a beaver, were invaluable, Whittle said. 

“How I've been describing it is there's this pillow or warm blanket or a little nest underneath you that's slowly bringing you down into the community, instead of just diving in,” she said.

Now in its second year, Teach for Canada has partnered with six more First Nations communities — all in Northwestern Ontario — for a total of 13. 

During the 2016-17 school year, nearly 60 Teach for Canada teachers will be teaching more than 1,000 children and youth.

The organization's executive director, Kyle Hill, said the program is loosely based on Teach for America, a program that brings teachers to inner-city communities in the United States.

He said he founded the program with Adam Goldberg after hearing about teacher recruitment and retention difficulties in First Nations communities. 

The men spent years consulting with these communities before launching the program, which, by all accounts, is a success.

“In one school, student attendance went up 35 per cent between the 2014 school year and the 2015 school year,” Hill said.

“In other schools, extracurricular programs were off the charts. The teachers were coaching hockey, running choirs, starting an after-school band with the students, and doing a lot of outdoor education activities.

“We've heard a lot of really incredible things about the power that one teacher can have on students, one student at a time, one classroom at a time. That's why we've grown from seven First Nations community partners to 13 this year. Word has spread of the impact that a great teacher who is well prepared and well supported can have.”