Teachers tight with students in reserve

By Jeff Labine
The Chronicle-Journal

Lisa Alaimo has found new family in Fort Hope First Nation.

The elementary school teacher, who is originally from Hamilton, Ont., lived in Thunder Bay for six years while attending Lakehead University. She made her way farther north and spent last year teaching a Grade 5 class at Fort Hope. She’ll be teaching the same class of 28 when they return for Grade 6.

Alaimo said she was lucky as she was able to get familiar with the remote community by doing her practical training there.

“We’re very much a family,” she said.

“I feel like the kids were incredibly welcoming. I wasn’t expecting it. The very first question was, ‘Do you have parents, are your parents alive?’ That was the very first question because the Grade 4 teacher had all the kids write down questions before I came in.

“Then they would read them aloud and ask me. That happened to be the first one. For me, my mother is alive but I did lose my dad when I was 19. So I was honest when I said that and that connection was almost immediate with that student who asked the question because she lost her father as well. It was hard to just open up about that right away but I did and I was surprised by it. It was very deep.”

Many First Nation communities face a number of challenges, including substance abuse and problems relating to isolation. Alaimo said she has dealt with these serious issues with the children but they are the ones that tend to bring them up. She mentioned that they have done a lot of group talks to share among one another.

She remembered a particularly tough day that at first involved a dog on campus. The students were at first scared and upset about the dog but Alaimo soon realized that the dog wasn’t the real reason. She said there was a series of crises in the community, including losing the community hall, and deaths.

“The relationship I have with my kids is different than it is down south simply because I’m not just with them in the classroom – I’m out there in the community with them,” she said. “Sure we spend 8:30 to 3:30 together but there’s after-school programs, girls groups. If I’m running in the community, they are running beside me. We spent a lot more time together and there’s a lot more closeness because of that.”

Alaimo was back in Thunder Bay for the three-week program hosted by Teach for Canada, a non-profit organization that looks to recruit teachers to work in remote communities. Having attended the program before, this time Alaimo was able to share her experiences in Fort Hope with other potential teachers.

Among them was Leslie Campbell, from Whitby, Ont., who will be heading to the First Nation community to teach for the first time this school year. She said she’s expecting there will be some anxiety in the community as she attempts to settle in.

“There’s an, unfortunately, a revolving door of teachers,” she said. “I think that makes the job of a newcomer quite a bit more difficult because they are used to people coming and leaving at Christmas or leaving at Thanksgiving. I expect there to be some nervousness and some anxiety towards me in my role in the beginning. My job will be to just show that I care and that I will be there and I will be committing to a minimum of two years.”

She added that since the community doesn’t have Internet good enough to stream, she has already loaded up a couple of hard drives with her favourite movies and television shows.

Kyle Hill, executive director of Teach for Canada, said they work with 13 First Nation communities in Northern Ontario. He said they address colonization and Canadian history through an indigenous lens while doing activities like the blanket exercise, which is an allegory for the country’s colonial history.

“It is tough for a non-indigenous teacher to reconcile their power and privilege and history with how that has played out,” he added. “In the first week, it is all about history and culture and teachers come face-to-face with colonial legacy with power and privilege and reconcile their place in it. For a lot of people, after that first week, there’s feelings of guilt, shame, confusion but then there are two more weeks to spend as a group, as team, as an organization, working to find each person’s place.”

The program, which is being run out of Lakehead University, wraps up in August.

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