Anti-racist approach to education essential to address experience of Indigenous teachers and students

Learning can be a transformative experience — whether at the elementary school, or university level. But what is often overlooked is how our education system doesn't account for the unique experiences of Indigenous students and teachers.
Elizabeth Gouthro, right, of the Calgary Board of Education was recognized by Indspire for her commitment to Indigenous students. (courtesy Calgary Board of Education)

Learning can be a transformative experience, whether it's at the elementary school or university level. But what is often overlooked is how our education system doesn't account for the unique experiences of Indigenous students and teachers.

Elizabeth Gouthro, the director of learning with the Calgary Board of Education, has become an ally to that city's Indigenous community by making sure Indigenous youth receive the best education possible.

Last year, she received an award for her efforts — a Partner in Indigenous Education award from Indspire, a non-profit organization that invests in the education of Indigenous people.

"There's a gap, a definite gap. Our public school system has not been a place where our Aboriginal students have been successful," Gouthro explained.

She added that in order for young students to succeed, needs must be addressed early.

"When we give them that early intervention and that time early on, we have been able to close the gap between our aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students," she said.

One of the ways Calgary's school board is improving the learning experience for Indigenous students is by incorporating culturally sensitive learning practices — making sure Indigenous content is in the curriculum, but also ensuring the way it is taught is considerate of cultural differences.

"Aboriginal students, I would say generally, their culture really impacts how they learn," Gouthro said.

"I think Aboriginal people look at a very holistic way of learning," she explained. "Looking at taking care of the mind, the body, the spirit and the heart all at once. And so as we work with Aboriginal children, we have to consider that."

Who teaches our teachers?

Our teachers can having a lasting impact on how our youth perceive the world, but how a teacher teaches can impact whether or not a student develops a love of learning.

Verna St. Denis, a professor from the Department of Educational Foundations at the University of Saskatchewan, believes tackling the attitudes and misconceptions teachers might have about Indigenous people is key to ensure a positive learning environment for Indigenous students.

"I spend a lot of my time in my teaching disrupting white supremacy," St. Denis said.

"My hope is that when we get to the end of the class, the [teachers] will be open to learning and appreciating Indigenous knowledge."

She teaches anti-racist approaches to education to the next generation of teachers.

St. Denis said while she would love to see more Indigenous teachers working in schools, she recognizes that they are still a minority. Because of this, fostering ally relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous teachers is essential.

"We need that coalition from our non-indigenous colleagues to advance changes within education that would encourage the success of [indigenous] children," she said.

After years of working with other teachers, St. Denis knows that the attitudes of non-Indigenous teachers can really sour the experiences of their Indigenous colleagues.

"I think for me in my own experience, it's the paternalism, it's that real deep belief that they know best," St. Denis offered.

"It's really good when our allies are willing to acknowledge that they don't quite understand the direction that we want to go but are willing to take our leadership."