Erica O’Reilly has been teaching grade 6 in Sandy Lake First Nation since September 2016. Originally from Ottawa, Erica completed a Bachelor of Arts at York University and a Bachelor of Education at Queen’s University.
In Grade 3, I was part of a class re-enactment of The Cremation of Sam McGee. The elegantly crafted words of Robert W. Service and the vibrant paintings of Ted Harrison made it seem as though working and living in the North was a kaleidoscope experience – with the Northern Lights constantly on repeat. While seeing the Northern Lights in person is enchanting, the reality is, you probably won’t see them every day. Robert Service also didn’t write about some of the challenges of working in a Northern community, such as the issues around accessible drinking water or the isolating effects of loneliness, which I have discovered since moving to Sandy Lake First Nation to teach last August. However, what this experience has taught me so far is to treasure the moments.
Every day I am grateful for my walk to work.
With every inhalation, my lungs fill with beautiful, crisp, fresh air. The crunching of the snow beneath my winter boots and the close quarters of the trees almost feel like Mother Earth is hugging me and sending me off to school. Teaching in the north has taught me the importance of gratitude and truly savouring the moments of peace, solitude, and serenity that comes with working so close to nature.
Before arriving in Sandy Lake, I had the opportunity to briefly work in Nunavut. On the last day of our stay in a fly-in community, my coworkers and I were anxiously awaiting to board our flight home, which had been delayed by four days (this is a reality for fly-in communities, so for those of you considering teaching in the North, make sure you are comfortable with being flexible and at the mercy of the weather). As I picked up my backpack to board the plane a small girl, who knew me by name, though I didn’t know hers, smiled and tightly hugged my knees. In this moment, I knew I needed to follow my desire to work in the North because I realised that I had the opportunity to leave a positive impact on children.
The reality of being a homeroom teacher, of course, is not a series of endless hugs. There are days filled with chaos, frustration, and doubt. I’ve had days where I’ve questioned my teaching abilities, my patience, the strength of my character, and thought: “Am I really cut out for this?” Then one morning a student brings me a cup of tea, just because. Or as a class, you laugh together at the antics of the wisecracking but loveable class clown(s).
Or, if you’re lucky, students begin to trust you, open up, and share a part of their life experience.
Please, treat this with love and respect. While the hugs might not always be there, I have learned to relish, enjoy, and be gracious during the hardest moments because this is when the students are truly watching. They are waiting to see if you will see things through – for them. And when they feel that you are, words cannot truly capture the joy and gratitude that can fill your heart.
My passion to connect with others has always been a part of who I am. I am someone who lives life with an open heart and I thought this was who I was going to be as a teacher. I anticipated being the same fun-loving, free-spirited, goofy individual in the classroom. What this experience has taught me, however, is that I must be the teacher my students need me to be. This year, I’ve had to learned how to enforce routine and structure, how to manage a classroom, and how to find the delicate balance that is tough love, because that is what my students needed from me. While my passion to connect with people hasn’t changed, and I’m still as goofy, free-spirited, and fun-loving as ever, I have learned how to adjust my physical and emotional output to suit the needs of those I am working with.
Whatever may inspire you to work in the North, I say follow it. That being said, be aware that working in the North isn’t for the faint of heart, nor should it be done on a whim. First, you will be forced to face the good, the bad, and the not so pretty about yourself. Second, these children deserve teachers who are committed to seeing this experience through, who will be dedicated to them, who have love to share and are willing to support them in whatever they need.
These children are our country’s future parents, aunties, uncles, KooKums (grandmothers), councillors, band members, teachers, chiefs, politicians, doctors, lawyers, artists, storytellers and athletes, to name just a few.
They are our future. In this time when our country is slowly moving towards necessary change, these children deserve teachers who are dedicated to ensuring they know that they are loved and valued. It is truly a gift to be working in Sandy Lake and it’s a responsibility I do not take lightly. On a daily basis, I say a grateful prayer for my students, 26 beautiful teachers who have taught me more over the last 8 months than I could’ve ever imagined. Miigwetch.