Gurpreet Flora started teaching grade 6 in Deer Lake First Nation in September 2018. She completed a Bachelors of Arts and a Bachelors of Education at York University. Gurpreet is originally from Toronto, ON.
When I applied to get my Bachelor of Education at York University I had no idea the type of impact I would be making in two years time. I always knew I wanted to do something big, make a difference in a child’s life but I wasn’t too sure how I would accomplish that. Being a teacher is more than just teaching students out of a textbook. Instead it’s about the experience and the growth. It’s about the connection and the impact you make on a child. These are the reasons why I became a teacher.
An Unexpected Career Path
Believe it or not, I hated school. I hated every second of being in a building that was so structured. And then, ironically, I became a teacher. I wanted to break the rigid school mold. I wanted kids to never feel trapped at school but rather enjoy every moment of learning. I also wanted there to be one less teacher overly-focused on lesson delivery, forgetting how to have fun and enjoy time spent with students.
A Journey that Started with Teach For Canada
So, my journey began. It started off with my partner (who is also a teacher) and I holding a Teach For Canada flyer. We didn’t know what it meant for our future, but we had heard about their work and the impact the organisation was having in the First Nations schools where teachers were working. We had to jump in. There was no way we could ignore this opportunity to grow and learn. We both knew that this would be a big leap for us and we were all in!
A Start that Was Full of Surprises
When we arrived in Deer Lake First Nation, we didn’t know what to expect. Apart from seeing some pictures of the community, we had few details about Deer Lake. I was assigned to teach grade 6. Despite having no previous teaching experience apart from my practicum, I was ready to take this challenge head on. Little did I know, I was in for a surprise. You can read all you want about schools on reserves, but you can’t fully understand the impact of colonization on people and the land until you experience it firsthand, and even then it is hard to fully grasp.
One experience that was different than teaching in the South is that parents or guardians might not come into the school for parent-teacher interviews or at any other time you ask them to visit you in the school. The idea of being in a school setting after the trauma experienced during residential schools is too much for some to handle. So, you learn to be very creative in how and where to approach parents or guardians.
I have also found that attendance can be a huge issue. Students often miss weeks of school. This is linked to various challenges. One of them is that the community where I work is a fly-in, so there is no road. That means access to goods and services can be tough around here. If you need medical attention you must fly in and out of Deer Lake. Many of my students fly to Winnipeg for medical treatment which means a solid 3 or 4 days of missed school. This can be very tough on teachers! Students miss chunks of important lessons and it is the teacher’s job to find creative ways to catch them up. This is the one thing that I struggled with the most. I would get overwhelmed by trying to catch up students that at times I would be delivering two lessons in one period. It can be hard and overwhelming but I learned very quickly to never be afraid to ask for help.
The impact of colonization and a lack of services have also had a direct impact on mental health. For different reasons, students here carry a lot of stress, which affects their mental well-being. This can be more apparent in older grades but teachers in younger grades may also have to learn to identify and address mental health issues. This can be tough on teachers as well as the students.
Within a few weeks of the school year starting, I found myself feeling burnt out and angry.
I realised it was because I was trying to accomplish anything and everything to support students’ well-being. But you can’t do everything. What you can do is be the best possible teacher, making sure your students feel safe and welcomed in your classroom.
Building Relationships with Students
The thing that gets me going are my students. They are so full of joy and excitement. They are the reason I get up everyday and put in my 110%. These first few months have been exciting for us. We have bonded through a number of activities. We went on a camping trip where we had to survive the cold fall weather. Well more like I had to survive the cold fall weather. For my kids it was just normal weather. We also baked tacos together as a reward for good classroom behaviour. During that cooking lesson we learned about kitchen safety and healthy eating. We also went out on a community walk and explored their neighbourhood. During our walk, we discussed the land and road development in the community.
Teaching here for the past few months has been a great learning experience. Some days are better then others, like any school or any job. But the biggest lesson that I have learned is the importance of building relationships with my students.
I focus on day-to-day check-ins with them, because if they know you care they will try their best.
They will not be afraid of failing and you will see their growth. With time, you can learn how to meet your students needs in unique ways; ways that allow you to be creative and think outside of the box. I am grateful for this journey and I cannot wait to see what else it has in store for me.