It’s just past 8:30 am and the kids of Nelnah Bessie John School in Beaver Creek, Yukon are easing into the day. Principal and kindergarten to Grade 4 teacher Heidi Warren likes to start each morning with half an hour of self-regulated free time. Some students play games, some chat with friends, some need a little more rest before the day's lessons can begin.
“It’s about getting you into that window of tolerance and optimal zone for learning,” says Warren. “I also have a dog that comes in and hangs out with the kids.”
The westernmost community in Canada, Beaver Creek sits just at the border to Alaska. Fewer than 100 residents live here on the lands of the White River First Nation. The seven students at Nelnah Bessie John are the only kids in the community.
“That’s the friend group, and that’s it,” says Warren. “Our teenager is the only teenager in town, which is really, really hard.”
It’s been five years now since Warren arrived in Beaver Creek, but before she came she already knew just what it was like living in a small northern town. She spent her formative years, from kindergarten to Grade 5, in Fort McPherson, where her father was principal. Her family is still in touch with many from that community. Ten years ago, on a trip north driving through Fort McPherson, one woman came running after her father’s truck. “She had tears in her eyes, thanking my dad for how much he had done for her son.”
The lesson Warren learned watching her parents teach is one she took with her to Beaver Creek: A community can have just as much of an impact on a teacher as the teacher has on that community.
To be an educator in the North’s smallest and most-isolated places takes an open mind, an open heart, and most of all an eagerness to learn because these places have so much to teach you. If you’re willing to listen.
Sometimes, Elders will come into her class to share their wisdom. Recently, the grandfather of half the school’s students texted her to say he wanted to come by and talk about salmon. He ended up staying for two hours, says Warren, teaching the kids incredible lessons about fish, trails, and famine. It wasn’t on the day’s original lesson plan, but flexibility is important here.
The students of Beaver Creek don’t have the same easy access to museums as kids in bigger cities, but those city kids also don’t have the incredible wilderness of the North in their backyards. Nelnah Bessie John takes advantage of its geography by regularly heading out on the land with its students for experiences like nature walks, or traditional cooking and fishing camps. The school has also benefitted from the town’s close proximity to Alaska’s infrastructure—it’s one of two buildings, along with the Canada border station, to be hooked up to fibre internet. Warren hopes the high-speed connection will allow for more virtual visitors who can give talks to her students from all over the world.
“You want your students to have as many experiences as possible and exposure to things they can do and be in the world,” she says.
Over at Helen Kalvak School, Brett Lappin is helping some students with a math problem. The trick is to find something relatable to what life is like here in Ulukhaktok, a community of 400 in the Northwest Territories that's located in the High Arctic on Victoria Island.
“Instead of looking at an area on a whiteboard for a rectangular prism, you might be going out and measuring the dimensions of a sled,” says Lappin, math coach at Helen Kalvak.
He and his fiancé arrived in Ulukhaktok last year—him to teach math and science, her to teach social studies and English. Originally from Cochrane, Alberta, Lappin’s only been teaching for the last two years.
“It just seemed like an incredible opportunity,” he says of why the couple moved north. “Just the idea of being able to kind of immerse ourselves in a different culture.”
The majority of educators in remote communities come from away. Helen Kalvak, a K-12 school, has 10 teachers for its 120 students. All of them are from elsewhere, primarily Ontario. Many, like Lappin, come to the North eager to immerse themselves in a new culture and work hard to help their students. But for most it’s a transient career. Teachers arrive and two years later they’re gone again.
The turnover has a serious impact on learning. The connection made between students and teacher is often the motivation for students to come to school, to feel safe, and to try their best. But it’s hard to open up and trust a teacher if you know they’ll be leaving in a few months.
“For me and my partner, the biggest thing has been just each and every day making yourself vulnerable,” says Lappin. “Once the students see you opening up in class, and also participating in the community outside of school… Once they see you’re really making this your home, that really makes a difference in learning.”
Matthew Miller, president of the NWT Teachers’ Association, says many of those who apply to teach in remote communities often end up wanting to stay longer, but find it difficult to build a future. Housing is a big challenge, Miller says, as is licensed childcare for teachers looking to start their own families.
“We also need to focus on supporting our teachers through proper mentorship,” he says in an email. “I believe mentorship should start before the teacher ever reaches the community, so the expectation of their new homes is accurate.”
There are other challenges. A report from 2014 commissioned by the Northwest Territories Teachers’ Association, in collaboration with the Yukon and Nunavut Teachers’ Associations, found northern teachers in remote or rural schools worked five hours more per week than their urban counterparts. Many have little support for dealing with clerical or absentee issues, and often multiple education levels have to be taught in a single classroom.
“You need to be able to manage nine different students that could possibly have nine different learning disabilities, nine different traumas in their past,” says Nyree Biro, who teaches the Grades 1-3 class in Old Crow, Yukon.
Biro has been here, in the small fly-in community of roughly 200, for a couple of years now. Before she arrived she had spent over a decade teaching in Mexico. Driving back to Canada two years ago, she interviewed for the job at Chief Zzeh Gittlit School while stopped in Texas. Instead of continuing to her destination in Ontario she adjusted her route and drove as far north as she could. “My car is still parked in Whitehorse.”
She arrived in Old Crow, “at the top of my game and confident,” ready to teach the Grade 7-9 class. But that first year was very difficult, Biro says. “I told them the first day, I’m very real… but it took a little bit of time for them to actually see that.”
A spring camp out on the land helped a lot to gain the trust of her students, as did staying on to teach for another year.
“I’m starting to really make a difference in some of these kids I’ve had for two years in a row,” she says. “They don’t need to learn new rules or tricks… Also, these older kids come to my class and say [to the other students], ‘You should be good to Ms. Nyree.’”
Elsewhere at Chief Zzeh Gittlit, Selena Pye is watching over the afternoon gym class. After warmup there are laps, pushups, sit-ups, maybe some jumping jacks. The school has a stage that the younger kids try to climb up on. One eight-year-old made it up there just the day before. “He’s pretty proud,” says Pye, who teaches the school's K-4, 7-9, P.E., and Gwich’in culture classes.
Pye is Kaska Dena from the Wolf Clan. Her mother’s name is Emma Pye and her late grandmother’s name was Mida Donnessey. That introduction is important to her, as was her upbringing watching her grandmother teach at Watson Lake Secondary School.
“She really was an advocate for the land and to take students out on the land and observe the traditions. If you don’t teach it to them, it’s going to get lost,” Pye says. “I wanted to make sure I passed this knowledge on, not just to my own children, but to all the students I’ve taught.”
They’re able to pass on knowledge to her, as well. While Pye may know the Kaska way of doing things, she doesn’t always know the Gwich’in way. So she often turns that lack of cultural knowledge into a teachable moment. If her students are unsure of their traditions, she’ll ask them to go home and ask their families and Elders about it. The students become the teacher, and they have great pride sharing the skills and knowledge they’ve learned in their community to help others.
Recently, her kindergarten class was trying to skin two caribou heads. Pye wasn’t sure where to start. “I said, ‘I really don’t know how to do this. Can you help me?’ And bam, I had two high school students there helping.”
Having been a teacher for over two decades in communities large and small throughout the North, Pye arrived at Chief Zzeh Gittlit two years ago. In many ways, she says, it felt like her career coming full-circle. She had previously lived in Old Crow for a short time when she was 19. She even went to school in Whitehorse with some of her current students’ grandparents.
“A lot of the teaching I got as a young woman, now I’ve come back and am able to teach to their grandchildren.”
Being an educator in these small northern towns really is like being part of a circle, where students, teachers, and communities interweave and learn from each other. It’s not always easy. The distance from family can be large. The solitude is often vast. The pace of life, unhurried compared to busy cities.
To make a difference in the lives of the students here takes more than a lesson plan and some textbooks. It’s about listening every day to their stories, forging connections with them, and making sure they know they’re just as important as anyone else, from anywhere else—big or small.
“Just remembering that they’re humans and entitled to respect,” says Pye. “Just because I’m a teacher doesn’t mean I’m any better. I have a lot to learn from them, as much as I have to teach them.”