Saturday, November 19, 2011

Bullying in schools

I was trying to make a new page labeled "Parenting" and was hoping to post this under that title but I have not figured out how to do that yet. So everyone is treated to the same post.

I wanted to talk about the bullying I refered to before. Partially because someone commented on it on Google + and because it deserves closer examination.

I mentioned in a previous post that I ultimately left the Arctic because my daughter had been bullied in the small village we lived in for two years. It's true and it was one of the worst things I have had to experience. The feeling of helplessness that a parent experiences when her child is bullied is profound.  As a result of that experience one of the first things I do as a teacher now is make clear that bullying will not be acceptable in my classroom in any form. I outline what bullying looks like in a classroom and what the consequences will be if it occurs in my own class.  Every year. With every student. Because I believe talking about it will help. I even go into why it is so important to me and why it can never be 'okay' to bully.  So now I will tell you:

I do not think there is a great deal of difference between bullying in a regular mainstream class and bullying for racial reasons in a Northern classroom against a 'quallunaat' child.  Both are done to children who are a minority in some way and both are done to children who cannot change the 'way they are' in order to suit some vague ideal of normal that the children have decided is acceptable. That being said, I am trying to say that racism and cultural misunderstandings were the reason my daughter was bullied but she could not change being a Quallunaat any more than a child can change being overweight, weird,  different, an outsider, or the other million justifications that people use to feel better about what they are doing/allowing. The end result is the same: feelings of helplessness and worthlessness on the part of the bullied child. Feelings of power over the bullied by the bullies and the bystanders. And a feeling of helplessness by absolutely everyone else who is involved; including administrators who rarely know what to do, teachers who feel powerless to stop it and parents who are heartbroken over it when their child is the one that is being victimized.

I know what happens at this point in the conversation. Since we all don't quite know what to do about bullying in the classroom and at school, we start to shut it out and say 'Well she turned out alright in the end' and "things turned around eventually so it's alright."  It is NOT alright. My daughter was suicidal when she left that small village. I had to fly her out in an emergency flight in order to save her life because the kids up there had managed to erode her self worth so much that she didnt think she deserved to live anymore. She was nine years old. She was still in counselling and therapy at 13 years old for depression caused by low self worth issues.  It is NEVER alright to allow children to bully one another!

When it was happening, one of the teachers who had been on supervision told me that my daughter should 'get tougher if she wants to stay in the north'.  The principal told me that it was her own fault because she 'refused' to change. (Being a Quallunaat child, she should have changed her own cultural glasses in order to fit in, I suppose)  I only share this with you because it's what parents come up against sometimes when their child is being bullied. Denial and pointing blame at the victim. My daughter was afraid to tell me for months while it was happening because she thought it would get worse if she told. And she was right, it did get worse.

My daughter left to live with her father from November to June while I stayed in the Arctic to finish out my contract with the school board.  In that 6 heart-breaking months without her, I decided to make good use of my time. I quit smoking (a personal goal I had not been able to reach before this time) and I started a committee to inform and educate everyone on what to DO when a child is being bullied. I got federal funding for the committee, filled out a million papers, got teachers, the principal, th e youth center, social workers, and police involved and we talked about how to build a more positive atmosphere in the school and community. We created a 'bully court' where the kids were the judges and juries and bullies were brought before the court to defend themselves. We talked about creating projects where people had to work together in order to learn to get along.  I really hope my work there on the Aragutaq (meaning Rainbow) Committee did some good. I know it helped me understand what to do when the bully was in my classroom.

Share your thoughts on bullying if you wish.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The future, a career, and another adventure

So what brings me back to my much-neglected blog and back to the subject of the north? I am not just waxing poetic about my past adventures but planning the next one!
I have been debating both with myself and others for some time now, what the next move in my life should be. I have a great job right now, it's at a fantastic school here in BC. I teach science at an aboriginal school on a very successful Sto:lo Nation band reserve.  I live in 'beautiful BC' and I know that some people would give anything to live here.  However, despite all this awesomeness, I have been unhappy since I arrived.

I feel as if I am in a rat race. I do not want to stay here and it has, most times, felt like a gilded cage.  It has been time to move on for some time and what? Do I go overseas? Go back to Northern Ontario where my daughter now resides with her father ( I DO miss her so much!) or do I go back to the place where my heart has called me since the first time I learned about it?

I won't keep you in suspense for too long. It has been a long debate and at times I was absolutely certain that the best move would be to go overseas and have another new and amazing cultural experience.  It seemed that going north would just be repeating an experience I already had and what would I learn from that? I was afraid that going north would be too hard for my little son, as it had been for my daughter. She was bullied so much that we had to leave the north for her safety.  Then there was the time that I was absolutely sure that going back to Ontario was the right move. I miss my daughter horribly and I miss the people and the weather of the north. I own a house there and have been unsuccessfully trying to sell it. When I got an offer on it I thought I would finally have enough money to move back.  However, the house deal fell through and I can not afford to go there with so much debt.  There were other moments/days/weeks where I thought it would be best to stay here.  I have an already established job here, teaching science in a great school. I have all my 'stuff' here and my son has a great daycare and it is very pretty here.  Why leave?  Oh the agony of too many choices!

So the reason I restarted this blog was to hash through all this stuff since the people in my life are probably completely sick of hearing about it.  Also, I have decided to go back north next year despite all the challenges (or perhaps BECAUSE of all the challenges) that this presents.

My biggest worry was my son. He will be 3 when we go there this coming August.  I was worried about how the daycare would treat him since I am aware that there are some prejudices and racism against us Quallunaat up there with some people.  I have since been assured that that will not likely be a problem, especially if I truly commit to being there with all my heart and embrace the community and get involved. Quallunaat that get involved in the community and take part in things are seen differently.  One of the mistakes I made last time was to isolate myself when things got difficult. I tend to curl up in a ball when I face difficulties, a tendancy that made it difficult to overcome them more quickly.

I also worried about missing my daughter. I miss her horribly now but I think going there will afford me more opportunities to see her, not less. Since I will be making more money (and trips out are paid for by the board), I may be able to see her more often instead of less despite geography.  Also, going overseas would have made it far less likely I would see her more than once a year so that was an option that probably wouldn't have worked out anyway. To see her more often I would have to move back to Ontario and as I have mentioned, that is not fiscally possible.

I still worry about how I will be able to face the challenges of teaching in the north again. It was very difficult and I don't know if I can do it.  I'm afriad that I may have become 'soft' after working in the south for so long. Either that or I have gained more skills in dealing with student-teacher conflicts. I guess I will be finding out the hard way.

I have decided to blog about all of this, including the doubts and fears I have in the next few months, in order to either help myself or maybe even other people when they are making their own big life decisions.  Mostly I need to figure it out for myself and just thinking things in my head has proven to be a less-than-ideal way to figure out the best path to take. Talking to other people about it is fraught with problems too, most people have an agenda and/or opinions. They try to advise the best way to go but it's hard to know what's truly best for someone else. Especially since you don't know how it's going to be for the other person.

Well...that's enough blogging for today. Until next time

Going to Umiujaq

To continue with my story:

After a lot of packing and moving things (and getting married), I headed up to Nunavik in the northern part of Quebec.  The school board I had chosen operated 14 communities up on the Arctic tundra and all of them were fly-in only.  The village I had been assigned to was Umiujaq, a village of about 350 people.  Before I went there, I was sent to an orientation in Inukjuaq, a village just north of Umiujaq.

When I arrived, all the teachers were picked up from the airport in a bus and our luggage was picked up by a pick up truck. From there we were all driven to our homes for the week. Some got to stay in a hotel and others were placed with Inuit families for a week so that we could fully understand how the Inuit lived before we arrived at our home communities. I was placed with a lovely Inuit couple who were the Christian ministers for the Hudson Bay communities.  They were very nice to us (there were two teachers assigned to the same house) and let us ask them a million questions, shared their food and home with us. They also took us on several excursions around Inukjuaq where we could appreciate how beautiful it was up there.

The orientation was interesting although incredibly long.  We learned about the Inuttitut alphabet, the Inuit culture, some of the challenges we may face as new teachers and we were given lessons about the KSB curriculum.  Back at the home I was staying in, they were eating raw meat, skinning seal skins, going out to the camping tent and doing other cultural stuff with us.  Unfortunately, the other teacher who was with me in that house was quite horrified by a lot of what we saw and decided to return to the south to get a different teaching job. That happens a lot up there and after some perspective, I suppose it is better that she left then instead of after beginning her teaching position when it would just make the students more cynical about the weak character of "Qualunaat" (that's what they call us, it means "outsiders"). At the time I was very surprised and felt a jolt of superiority that I was tougher.

After arrival in Umiujaq, we were shown our new homes (which were very nice) and escorted to the two stores in the village where we could purchase food. The first thing one notices is how very FEW items there are to purchase. There is no fresh milk, only the packaged kind that does not go bad outside of the fridge (which I had never even HEARD of before). Items are very expensive, a jug of water was $7 and there are few fresh veggies and no fresh meat. I felt a sense of adventure from all of these things but a few people felt that these were intense challenges to over come.

An interesting thing happens when you are in the north: in the first year you start to long intensely for the things you cannot get that you were used to buying in the south. Mine was a particular type of coffee cream, the wine that I used to enjoy, and Tim Hortons coffee.  You can start to obsess about how to get these things and spend tons of money trying to replace them. However, if you stay long enough (the second year for me), you start to let go of those things you thought were so important and start to  'make do' with what is available.   You start to wonder why they were so important. After years of perspective I have discovered that it was probably part of culture shock and that over time, it passes. You even laugh about how silly it was and some of the most interesting conversations are started on the planes down to the south where you talk to strangers about the 'one thing' they missed the most. It's fun!  :)  We talk about how we are going to have a 'double double' as soon as the plane lands. Or McDonald's, or a beer.  It's one of the things you miss when you leave, a feeling of belonging to something bigger, a team of people who are working toward the same goal who have the same type of adventurous character as yourself.  It is an amazing thing, to belong to such a great community of teachers. police, nurses and social workers who are there to learn from the same amazing culture and people.
This is the school yard, picture taken from my window, in about Dec, 2005

Northern Teaching

I feel like such a flake, writing this after all the hype I wrote 4 months ago about teaching overseas.  The truth is, I have been searching for my path for a long time now and sometimes things seem like a good fit and then aren't.  I hope this isn't one of those times. 

I have decided to go back north next teaching year. In order to explain, let me tell you a story:

 I remember the first time I met the representatives from the Kativik School Board (KSB) in Nunavik.  I was wandering around a teaching job fair, being wooed by countries that wanted me to teach there because I had a physics teachable. I wasn't quite finished my education degree and I was all excited about the many opportunities and possibilities that seemed to lay before me. Then I got to the KSB table.  I was drawn in right away by Morgan Douglas and Natasha MacDonald, both of whom were fielding questions about teaching in the far north.  I was captivated. I asked some of my own questions and then just listened to all the other questions from other interested teachers. I was hooked! I walked away from there knowing it was the right place for me. In order to make sure, I walked around again, talking to other school boards, but the glitter was off the rose, I no longer saw those as exciting possibilities. I knew that the only one for me was that northern school board.

I was not able to get an interview right away since the interest was so high in the board (they pay a LOT) so I had to walk away not knowing if they would even hire me.  Later that week I wrote to the board asking for a phone interview and got a nice letter explaining that they were no longer hiring.  I was disheartened but still determined to get a job there.  I wrote several more letters and eventually got a phone interview and was put on a list to go up north.  I got my letter in June, offering me a position in Umiujaq as a secondary 1,2 teacher.  I was ecstatic!