Sheila Johnson teaches grade 7 in Deer Lake First Nation. Sheila went North with Teach For Canada in September 2017. Sheila completed a Bachelor of Arts in English and History at Simon Fraser University and a Bachelor of Education at the University of Victoria. Sheila is originally from Kamloops, BC.
Reflecting on this past year or so, I think I’ve had it pretty good. This is my first teaching job, so I was initially anxious about how I would do as a teacher: would I be any good? Would my students like me? Would I fit in? That it was on a northern reserve, and a fly-in community to boot was just an added complication. So I bought a down coat and dug out my Sorels and packed up a miscellany of things I feared would not be found in such a far flung place, you know, like laundry soap and pillows. It seems odd to think about it now, as life in Deer Lake seems pretty normal at this point. A small town life; the dirt roads without signs or streetlights, the bingo and karaoke at the TV station, some broken down cars and run down houses, stray dogs and gaggles of children, the great enthusiasm for hunting and fishing, signs of substance abuse and poverty, the sense of humor and joie de vivre of the people. It’s not a bad life, all things considered. I grew up in a town that’s half built on a reserve, so it turned out more familiar than not.
The Frustrations and Joys of Life in the North
That said, there are things that irk me occasionally. I like to cook, and sometimes resent the lack of variety at the Northern Store. My need for seafood goes unfulfilled. Or the uncertainty of waiting for packages in the mail, whose expected shipping date ought to read, “at some point in time.” Or the inconvenience of the power or water being shut off without warning, because who needs to shower? But, I have everything I need and live comfortably. I work in a well outfitted school, complete with Chromebooks, SMART boards, and the glories of the internet. I have a lovely class, who drive me crazy and steal my heart all at once. I have some friends at school and in the community. When mail does come it is like Christmas, with a surprise gift from my past self.
There is beauty to be found here too (even for one with BC prejudices.) The air is crisp and clear.
I love my morning walk to school, the snow crunching beneath my feet, loud in the silence around me.
The sun rising over the trees, the sky a cotton candy pink with a touch of gold. In the spring the air begins to smell of life, of earth and rot and evergreens. If you go out walking, there are marsh marigolds and gorgeous pink lady slippers stashed throughout the forest. Last year I found a patch of the smallest violets I have ever seen. I’m not much for fishing, but an evening boat ride or an afternoon at the beach is just the thing.
Growing as a Teacher
As a teacher, this year caught me pleasantly by surprise. I did not think it being my second year would make much difference, but it all seems so much more manageable. Truth be told, I’m not sure that it’s because I’m any better at teaching, or if it’s simply because I know what to expect, both in the rhythms of the school and of my students. Either way, it has been nice. Not that it’s a cake-walk or anything, but I feel slightly less like I’m flying by the seat of my pants, which must count for something. I’m more sure of myself as well. Last year, I took everything in stride, taking my cues from those around me, getting the lay of the land before I made any judgements. This year, I feel more comfortable opening up to people and asserting myself.
A Grateful Outlook
Most profound for me, I find myself overwhelmingly grateful for all I have, for all I have known. I feel blessed to have been so well cared for my whole life. To be able to follow my passions. To have options in my life I have the means and freedom to choose between, which so many people here don’t. I feel thankful for the connections in my life, for my family, my friends. I feel gratitude when my plane touches down safely. I feel it in the summer when I return home, hiking in up the hills, struck by the beauty of such places and the sense of belonging I feel in them. I feel it when I am treated like a guest of honour by my aunts and uncles. I feel it in my father’s mixed pride and misgivings over my choice to come here.
When I return to Deer Lake, I feel gratitude for the kindness of those around me, recognizing how here too I am well cared for.
And so, I hope to care likewise for those around me.
Going North: a Good Decision
With my relentless optimism I wish a good year for all. I have no regrets in coming to Deer Lake. I don’t know if it was the “right” decision, if one believes in that sort of thing, but it has been a good decision for me. I have learned a lot about teaching, about life in this corner of the world, and about what matters to me going forward. My little adventure here, if I can call it that, has made me braver, and more confident in myself. It has relaxed me some too. As you get accustomed to rolling with surprises, like your plane being canceled, or having a guest speaker come in the middle of your math lesson, or discovering one of your students has far more insect guests than is seemly, you begin to adopt a can-deal attitude.
I can’t always fix everything up to my satisfaction, and realize that’s okay. I do what I can, and expect the same of others.
I try to be generous of spirit, to give others the benefit of the doubt, and to go easy on myself.
I ask for help and advice; a problem that seems incredibly stressful and impossible might just be a problem too hefty for one person after all. It does not mean I or anyone else is a bad teacher or person. Life is a team sport. Someone will help me out. There will be days I’m that person for someone else. It all works out. The weather may be colder here, but the welcome has been warm.