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Wenting Li

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One of my students hurries over and holds up a cup: Seal blood – full of iron and good for you.

“Try it,” he says with a grin on his face.

A wave of students faces me. Down it goes. It tastes … well … like blood.

“Like it?” they ask.

“Absolutely,” I reply.

“Now try the meat!”

The seal meat is a refreshing changeup. Northern cuisine at its finest. I go for a second piece and my students are ecstatic that my enjoyment is genuine.

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“I shot a seal this summer,” one of my students proudly boasts.

“I’m going hunting tomorrow!,” another adds.

A flood of voices surrounds me and excited students begin sharing their experiences on the land. Finally we’re connecting. But it took a long time to get here.

How did a jaded teacher become a happy camper? He opened his heart

Several months ago, I took what I’d learned at teacher’s college and set off to Kangiqsualujjuaq, a village on the shores of Ungava Bay in Nunavik, Que. From my first day there, I was welcomed. Locals greeted me and thanked me for coming to teach their children. Their kind words lifted my spirits, but also introduced some anxiety. They were also a reminder that I share a responsibility shaping their community’s future minds.

“He who can, does; he who cannot, teaches.” Thank you, George Bernard Shaw, for penning one of life’s most inaccurate statements. In reality, teachers are expected to master their subjects and follow the ever-expanding material. Knowledge is not enough; they must also accommodate every learning style by devising multiple strategies to teach a concept.

Rule No. 1: If you don’t know what you’re talking about, students will pick up on it right away.

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My year at teacher’s college prepared me for some of these challenges, but behind every lesson was an unsettling fact: There’s no perfect way to teach teaching. Managing a classroom is a never-ending process always evolving to meet society’s needs. Techniques that worked decades ago now have no place in the classroom. There are so many tangibles that go into the art of teaching that no amount of textbooks will ever adequately cover the subject.

Within my first month, I crashed right into Rule No. 2: A teacher does not just teach curriculum. Yet, in the opening weeks of teaching a class of eight Grade 7 boys at Ulluriaq School, I did my best to defy the rule. Relentlessly, I drove my students to meet the curriculum tasks, not realizing there are forces beyond math equations and journal writing at work.

My students are survivors, burdened by a legacy of colonialism still echoing in the present day. I taught in their second language and although I wished I could instruct them in Inuktitut, I never learned more than a handful of words.

My anxiety grew and was brimming by November. Nothing seemed quite right, even when I added culturally relevant material to my lessons. Only with the help of two elders did I finally find what I was missing during a cultural event held at the school.

A seal was brought in by two elders who would demonstrate how to clean it. When I brought my students down to the agora, they were ripe with anticipation. The elders began their presentation.

Speaking in Inuktitut, the women raised their ulus and described the tool to the students. Then, in perfect unison, they began cleaning the animal. The ulus slid effortlessly along the body and their hands moved with a surgical precision; all the while, the elders continued speaking. Precious knowledge was being transferred between generations: Skills that at one time were threatened, thrived once more.

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With the fur gone, it was time to divide up the meat. As it was passed out, the elders explained the importance of hunting to the Inuit culture. Crucial to survival in the past, it remains an intricate part to this day. As a hunter, I, too, know the activity’s value in tying one to the land and providing quality meat in a processed food-driven world.

When I saw my students were so thrilled that I was interested in their culture, everything finally made sense. I came north to learn a new culture, but I had failed to see that in order to do that, my students had to be part of my learning. This was what had been missing in my lesson plans and now I could finally address it.

Rule No. 3: Successful teaching involves a two-way conversation. Students have much to teach teachers, but I didn’t appreciate this fact until that day. Making culturally relevant lesson plans had started as a means to support my students and while that aspect remained, I found that every time I made one of these lesson plans I was also teeming with excitement. I really wanted to know my students’ answers and learn more about life from their perspective. The classroom no longer felt as constrained as before and I began relishing every opportunity to learn from my students.

I want to write that for the rest of the year my students and I never struggled through another class and every assignment I crafted sparked their minds and drove them to new heights. While that didn’t happen, my students did open up more as the year progressed. A bond had formed that day and it strengthened as I continued exploring Inuit culture with my students.

Some of the cultural barriers came down and two-way conversations formed more often during classes. My students may not have memorized every mathematical equation and scientific formula or completely mastered grammar, but what they did demonstrate was more important: Their awareness of their culture and what it can offer this country deepened as they patiently answered all the questions their teacher had on life in Nunavik.

When my first year of teaching finished, I walked along the beach on my last night in town. I couldn’t go far, there was a bear nearby, but I admired the mountains in the distance and the waves grazing imposing towers of ice that spring was finally starting to melt. But the tranquility failed to calm me; my impending departure consumed my thoughts. As with any adventure in life, I’m trying to figure out where all the time went.

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Joe Bodley lives in North Bay, Ont.

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