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Wabanaki bachelor of education program provides culturally grounded approach, flexibility to aspiring teachers

Author: Alex Graham

Posted on Jan 31, 2024

Category: UNB Fredericton , UNB Saint John

Shelley Solomon of Neqotkuk (Tobique First Nation) was not expecting to be among the first graduates from the University of New Brunswick (UNB) Wabanaki bachelor of education program alongside her two daughters, Dorian and Heaven.

But now she hopes their story can encourage other Indigenous women to take a look at the innovative program.

“It was awesome to be able to do it together,” she said. “We want to inspire more Aboriginal teachers to go, to come back and to teach their children.”

The WBEd degree takes a unique approach, offering flexibility and hands on teaching experience all through the lens of Mi’kmaw and Wolastoqey languages and culture.

The four-year program places a strong emphasis on learning, and teaching, Wabanaki languages. Students earn Mi’kmaw and Wolastoqey language certificates as part of the program and the practicum involves teaching language in provincial or community schools.

For Heaven, the program was the answer to the type of educational experience she had been looking for.

“I tried to go the traditional route for my teaching certificate, because I always knew that was what I wanted to do,” she said of her experience in 2019 as an undergraduate student pursuing a bachelor of arts degree, to be followed by a bachelor of education.

She said the experience was isolating and the BA too broad to address what she was really interested in.

“I always knew I wanted to be involved in either Indigenous studies or teaching the loss of language,” she said. “Taking all these courses with an ‘ology’ at the end, and one Native studies course, it wasn’t what I wanted to learn, it wasn’t my interest. But it was what I had to do to get a teaching degree.”

“Due to the culture shock and living on my own for the first time, and not really being prepared for that, I didn’t make it past Thanksgiving weekend. I came home and said, ‘this isn’t for me’.”

She began working in the community school doing janitorial and educational assistant work, knowing that this was where she wanted to be – but not knowing how to take the next step to make it to the front of the classroom.

Meanwhile Shelley, then the executive assistant to the director of education on Neqotkuk (Tobique First Nation), was busy recruiting educational assistants to take the next step and get the certification to become teachers.

Many of the teachers in the community schools were not from the communities they were teaching in, and more enticing job offers elsewhere in the province were constantly luring them away.

“The majority are non-Native,” Shelley said of the community schoolteachers. “It takes a while for them to connect with the kids there.”

That’s when she discovered the newly revamped Wabanaki bachelor of education program and recognized how its unique structure and focus could help bridge that gap, helping EAs with roots in the community get that certification to stay and teach.

First and foremost was the perspective the program brings to the students.

“I’ve never seen a program that was so infused with our perspectives and our worldview,” Shelley said.

Wabanaki Elders and Knowledge Keepers are among the instructors for the program and bring a deep knowledge of the culture to the participants. Although most of the program is online, students spend four days in person, on the land, meeting and participating in ceremony, and engaging in coursework at the start of the program and another four days at the end to complete coursework and celebrate through a traditional graduation ceremony.

“We all had this fire inside of us” Shelley said of the ceremony aspect of the course. “We wanted to learn it so we can teach the children.”

Shelley, Heaven and Dorian agree that the innovative way the course delivery is set up gives participants the flexibility they need to complete their education.

“The classes are in the evening, so I was able to work and have an income, instead of having to be in class and surviving off a little part-time job,” Heaven said. “I have peers who have requirements in their family; they have to help out with their siblings, or they have things that keep them there … with [the program] being mainly online, you don’t have to travel and go to Fredericton.”

“I taught in the language room. And I was able to take what I was learning in class and the next day, apply it. See how it worked,” she said. “To see the success of it all helped me with my own schoolwork”.

Another bonus of the program is in what it has already given back to the province in terms of improving the relevance and authenticity of its own curriculum.

Dorian mentions the “bundles” — culturally-based lesson plans for provincial elementary teachers — the students created as part of the program. One of the Wabanaki WBEd courses had students develop bundles that focus on Mi’kmaw and Wolastoqey culture as an alternative to existing New Brunswick bundles that focus on First Nations from outside of the region.

The language aspect of the program provided a creative opportunity for Shelley to promote Wabanaki awareness across cultures.

“One of our professors asked us to do a project in language, it was really hard to get anything together because of Covid,” she said. “So, I made t-shirts.”

The professor said if Shelley could get 100 shirts in the public promoting the language, she would ace the project. Challenge accepted!

“I created a Neqotkuk shirt, claiming back our original name,” she said. “No one really knows that Tobique First Nations’ traditional name was Neqotkuk. Now 5,000 people know because they wear the t-shirts.”

One of those people is Johnny Depp, star of blockbuster movies like Pirates of the Caribbean and Edward Scissorhands. He was gifted a Wolastoq River shirt, boosting the recognition of the project to a world-wide scale.

Graduates of the Wabanaki Education program are qualified for the New Brunswick teacher certification level IV at the end of their four years. If they want to add an additional year, students can go for a level V upgrade.

For Shelley and Heaven, the program has set their sights on attaining even higher levels of education. Both are planning on pursuing their master’s degrees.

Heaven said the program has done more than just teach them how to be teachers.

“We’ve got those stories and those moments that are so unique, but that are so beneficial as a teacher because it’s those lessons that we can share with our students, and also with our peers,” she said of her experience over the four years.

“It’s just those full circle moments where we’re able to connect. It was like nation building, in a sense, because as Indigenous people in New Brunswick, we were able to create that community.”

The University of New Brunswick (UNB) is home to transformative teaching in more than 100 innovative and interdisciplinary programs. Over the next four weeks, we will share stories that showcase how some of these programs help students define their purpose and shape their future by gaining the skills the world needs now.

Other stories in the series:
Legal Innovation Lab leading digital transformation of N.B.’s justice system
How virtual reality can help address the nursing shortage in N.B.