Nunatsiaq News
TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic September 05, 2014 - 5:14 pm

Taissumani, Sept. 5

What Makes a Good Teacher?


What makes a good teacher? This age-old question has never been satisfactorily answered, least of all by the meritless arguments advanced by those who tout “merit pay” for teachers as the panacea for everything that ails the education system.

When I was in Grade 8 (then the graduating year from elementary school in Ontario), my teacher, in a two-room country school, was Katie Beckett, addressed of course as “Mrs. Beckett.”

Amazingly, she had been my father’s teacher when he was in Grade 1. That is a long career, and she was a good, stern disciplinarian whose favourite admonition to students, as I remember it, was “First thoughts, best thoughts.”

I taught in the north from 1966 to 1974, in Qikiqtarjuaq, Padloping, Pangnirtung and Arctic Bay. Education here was more cross-cultural in nature.

We were given conflicting advice by our bosses. We were told to absolutely make no attempts to learn the Inuktitut language, but also that a good teacher would be one who fitted in to the local community and took part in local events – square dances, community feasts, hunting, and so on. Many teachers enjoyed these activities.

If you ask students from half a century ago who their favourite or best teacher was, you may get a variety of responses. But if you ask students from Pond Inlet or Pangnirtung or a few other places, you will generally get the same answer — Mrs. Davies.

Mr. and Mrs. Davies were an odd couple. She was a large and imperious-looking woman; he was a short squat man who smelled of pipe smoke. They made most people whom we might think of as “colonial” administrators seem down-right modern.

In Pond Inlet, the Davies’s lived in the administrator’s house, a two-storey modern building. Mrs. Davies rarely went to the Hudson’s Bay Co. store, but when she did it was to select food, but certainly not to carry it home.

Having decided on her choices, she would ask a Bay clerk to tally up the amount, add it to her account, and deliver it to her home — to the tradesman’s entrance in the rear.

David Davies always dressed impeccably for work, in a suit with vest and tie. When he came home from work, he changed into different clothes for dinner, but not something casual; no, he changed into another suit.

Dinner at the Davies home was a formal affair. In Pond Inlet, they employed a uniformed Inuit butler, who waited on their dinner table and served them with the proper manners that they had taught him.

Mrs. Davies lived for teaching. She had no interest in community affairs. It was not in her interest to attend a square dance. She would have found a community feast, with people eating off cardboard on the floor, distasteful.

A bingo anywhere in the world would be, in her opinion, for the lowest classes. Visiting an Inuit home would be unthinkable. When I moved to Pangnirtung, I met a few adults who had never even seen Mrs. Davies, despite her having been in the community for a couple of years.

In the classroom she could control an unruly student or a whole class with a withering gaze. No-one wore a baseball cap in her class. No-one slouched disrespectfully in a chair. And certainly no-one called her by her first name – it was Beryl. She was “Mrs. Davies.”

One might think that someone so divorced from the activities of the community would not have much success in teaching young Inuit children. Many of them spoke English poorly when they came to school, some for the first time at aged 10 or 11. She taught them English, and math and all the subjects of the core curriculum.

When I began teaching in Pangnirtung, after the Davies’s had left, I taught many of her former students. They came to me with a good grounding in English – vocabulary, reading and writing. Some spoke at the time with a slight British accent – Mrs. Davies was of course properly British.

The Davies’s lived in glorious isolation in the centre of their communities. Mrs. Davies generally only went to and from school. But her classroom results were phenomenal. Many of her students have gone on to great success – people like Joe Enook and Peter Kilabuk.

Those students from 50 years ago are getting a little long in the tooth now, as am I. But when I have asked them who their best teacher ever was, they did not say that it was me (not did I expect them to). They generally answered “Mrs. Davies,” adding that she was the teacher that they had learned the most from.

So what makes a good teacher? The jury, in the north, is still out.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to

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