Lindsay Cavanaugh is a member of Teach For Canada’s 2016 cohort. She teaches grade 12 English and grade 9 Family Studies for Keewaytinook Internet High School in North Spirit Lake First Nation. Lindsay holds a bachelor’s degree from Queen’s University and a Bachelor of Education from University of Victoria. Linsday is originally from London, Ontario.
I think most people who teach, and who love teaching, know that it is a difficult profession. It is especially difficult as a new teacher. Difficult because there are seemingly never enough minutes in the day to let every single student know that you care, to plan lessons, to mark, to communicate with parents, to keep up-to-date with professional jargon, to maintain a smile on your face, and to have a personal life. This balance is even more important when it comes to teaching at risk youth. This is because their needs are often more momentous and their resources, more limited. Here’s a snapshot of my class and the internet high school where I teach in North Spirit Lake, a remote First Nations community in Northern Ontario.
I have approximately 25 students registered. Of those students, three are regular attendees. They come to school, do a daily check-in where they let me know what class and activities they are going to focus on for the day. On a good day I have about six students in attendance. On a bad day I might have one. As many people do not have phones up here, I use Facebook — armed with a spiffy professional profile — to message students and their guardians on a daily basis. I register all my students. I help track down their transcripts. I help them select what classes to be in. I keep track of the assignments they’ve handed in each week. I mark assignments each week. I make my students tea and treats. Drawing on my nutrition budget, I buy them food for the week. I make them a fancy breakfast meal at least once a week. I run a weekly baking club for the whole school. I am always keeping my eye open for community members or activities that will help engage my students more. I am the only high school teacher in the community I teach.
There is a lot of “I” in that last paragraph. I suppose that is because it’s easy to feel isolated and overworked up here. To feel the weight of “I” sink in. Also the weight that it is never enough. But that is not a fair picture. What I do, and the tiredness I feel from bribing my students to come to school with bacon and eggs, or moose hunting, or baking club, or photography time, is nothing compared to the tiredness that I imagine my students feel on a daily basis. The tiredness from trauma, from neglect, from racism — systemic disadvantage that permeates all arenas of their lives. That makes bedbugs and lice commonplace. That means many do not have running water. That makes education seem like an elite, useless pursuit. That means many have experienced sexual abuse. That many have witnessed or succumb to alcoholism or various other addictions. That I fear some of my students could take their lives. That I almost witnessed that happen.
I have learned more in my short 3 months up here from my students about the resilience of the human spirit than I could have learned teaching in a public high school. So here are some tips for any teachers considering teaching up north, or Indigenous students, or at risk youth. Here’s my emotional survival guide 101.
1. Be kind to every single person you meet. You do not know their story until they share it with you. Also be kind to yourself. Even though you know your story, it’s easy to forget self-compassion.
2. Boundaries matter. Always care, but learn when to disengage. You cannot fix the problem. You are not a counsellor. You are not a parent. You are not a social worker. The problem is bigger than you. It’s bigger than them too.
3. Get involved in the school and the community but learn when and how to say no. Learn and fine-tune your listening and social-awareness skills. Really listen to what other people want and need and put your energy towards that. It will be noticed and appreciated even if it’s never openly expressed to you. You will also be able to conserve energy.
4. Live for the little successes. Save every smile or laugh in a mental bank. Jump up for joy every time you see a student you haven’t seen for a few weeks. Sometimes showing up is the biggest success. Know your students so you can know what success means to them depending on where they are.
5. Hold onto when students soften and let it carry you through. There is nothing as sweet as watching students open up to you. To begin trusting you and feeling safe in your class.
6. Be sad and angry about the injustice. Carry that. Spread it around. Get more people angry about it. It’s not right. We, as a society, need to change it and the only way we will be able to is if, we, as a people, start to own it. To take responsibility. Once we have witnessed it, once we have internalized it, once we have processed it, we cannot deny it’s wrong. That is what is going to move us forward towards making it better. It will take time though, and that is okay. Learn patience in the process.
7. Make sure you have really strong support systems and keep developing them. Lean on those support systems. Learn how to lean on yourself if you don’t already. Taking care of yourself matters most. Think airplanes. You always put your mask on first before the child’s.
8. Do it. Go teach up north. If you are teacher and you want a rich, challenging, life-altering experience, do it. Know that it will be hard. You will have days when you feel inexperienced. There will be many days when you are inexperienced, but do it. Just learn how to be okay with imperfection, with messiness, with uncertainty, unfixable problems, and continuously changes circumstances. It will make you a better person and a better teacher.