I was teaching an absolutely lovely grade 7 class at a school that I had never been to. Accepting a job with older kids can be challenging because there are times you have to deal with behavioural challenges and “attitude”. On this particular day I got really lucky. Many of the kids from this class recognized me from another school they had previously gone to. A bunch of them rushed over smiling to tell the student teacher they knew me from their old school. It was such a lovely reception to get!
I was a new teacher to the rest of the class so I introduced myself by sharing my usual info of who I am. I feel that it is crucial to connect with student, especially as a supply teacher. I let them know I am here to be present with them and have a great day together. I share about my passions in art, creative expression, dance, drama, and working with children. I then share my alternative teacher name, “Miss Rainbow Fairy” and my cat’s name “Luna Magic Trust Rainbow Sparkle Weinstock” which is always met with lots of cheering and giggles. I do this introduction with every class I work with to set the tone for the day. As I talked to this class and shared about myself I could feel they were captivated!
After I finished the attendance there was a girl that came in and handed me her “late slip”. The student teacher asked her if she was ok. She said yes but she hadn’t felt well that morning. Later on in the afternoon we were doing social studies and I was walking around the classroom to see if anyone needed help. I ended up chatting with this same girl. The class was studying about the “First Nations people” that lived on this land and she said everyone kept interrupting her work to ask questions about the project they were doing. She looked me in the eyes and I saw deep pride in her face as she told me that her background was Ojibway and she that knew a lot about her culture and traditions. I was immediately interested in knowing more about her. I have always had an interest in learning about the people of this land that came before us. Even though it is not my own bloodline, I believe that living on this land, there is an energy and connection to the people who first lived here. Learning about First Nation traditions have such an important value and healing that this world so deeply needs.
This student said she learned many things about her culture from her family. Tragically, her grandfather had been stolen and put in a residential school but they never talked about it because he did not want to make her sad. Her eyes welled up with tears as she spoke this to me. She said she learned about how to use smudge for spiritual purposes and for when you are feeling upset and need to help your mood. She confided in me how she had used smudge this morning when she felt sad and then she felt much better. I asked her if she had another name and she said yes and told me a beautiful name she was given by the elders. I said it was such a special and powerful name and I imagine she will do great work in this world with a name like that. She beamed!
Later, I looked over and immediately could sense something was troubling her. I asked her if she was ok and she said “no” because there were a few kids making jokes about First Nations people. I was so upset as the class was literally learning about this subject and it could not have been a more inappropriate thing to do. It is crucial for us to have a deep respect for this history and knowledge especially because of all the terrible trauma we, as a country, have inflicted on the First Nations people who inhabited this land! The “gem” in this experience was that I knew we could use this as a teaching moment to gain deeper respect and personal accountability.
I turned to the class and in a stern voice said “I’m very disappointed and need everyone to please look up at me and put down your pencils.” They all looked up and I went on to say that there have been many terrible crimes committed against so many First Nations people who are the first people on this land. It is so important not to cause any more harm in our actions and our words but rather to instill in our hearts a deep respect and honour for their history and culture.
I explained to them how I have a very strong intuition and immediately knew something in the classroom did not feel right. I said “I don’t know who was making jokes about the First Nations people but I am deeply disappointed. You have a choice. You can apologize and take accountability right now in front of the class which would be super courageous or after in private, but it must be an apology from the heart.” Then I held space in the room and we waited in silence. Time seemed to be suspended. I wasn’t actually sure if anyone would be brave enough to speak, but then a boy who was very strong-willed and one of the “cool” kids took a breath, turned to face this girl and genuinely said, “I’m sorry. I should not have made fun of First Nations people.” This girl looked at him and said, “I forgive you.”
I said, “That is wonderful and super courageous to take accountability for your wrong doing in front of the whole class and I am so proud of you. BUT it means absolute GARBAGE if you do it again! So from now on you have a responsibility to make sure you or no one around you makes fun of or puts down any cultures or people!” He nodded and seemed deeply reflective. The students in the class were totally silent and seemed shocked that he had taken such heartfelt responsibility!
My goal is to always create an environment where I hold students accountable for being the best humans they can be because this is what the world really needs. Then, another boy sitting beside him was inspired. He took a deep breath and said he too was sorry for making fun of First Nations people. I honoured his courage as well, and repeated how the apology was great, but that it would be his actions that spoke the real truth. He nodded.
The more we create safe spaces to be our true selves with pride, the more beautiful the world will be to live in. The more we hold children accountable for their actions as they grow up, the more they will learn that respect and kindness for one another, animals, and the environment are what is expected of them. We will be able to inspire one another to step more and more into our power individually and as a community. May these dreams continue to become a reality in more and more places in our classrooms and translate out into our world!
And so it is!