Picco fires back: 'Why water it down?'

NTI urges short cuts for Inuit teachers


If the bar is too high, lower it.

That's the solution to Nunavut's shortage of Inuit teachers offered by Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.

Nunavut needs at least 200 more Inuit teachers to offer bilingual education from kindergarten to Grade 12 by 2020, as the territorial government has promised.

But NTI wants bilingual education "immediately." And the Inuit teacher shortage is no excuse for the government, NTI says in its annual report on the state of Inuit culture and society, released Feb. 13.

Instruction in the Inuit language is "an inherent right that is not limited by the ability of the GN to train sufficient teachers and acquire sufficient resources," the report states.

NTI's solution? Spend less time training teachers.

NTI acknowledges this may degrade the quality of education in Nunavut, to a point where high school diplomas may not be recognized outside the territory.

But the report suggests this may be a good thing.

It cites the part of the Nunavut land claims agreement that says governments must take special measures to employ Inuit. So, the report say, it follows that "Nunavut should have no interest in enabling the emigration of its educated people."

Ed Picco, Nunavut's education minister, disagrees. "We want teachers to be as qualified as possible," Picco said. "Why water it down?"

Only a few of Nunavut's 246 Inuit teachers are currently qualified to teach high school, Picco said.

That's because the Nunavut Teachers Education Program, or NTEP, which offers a five-year Bachelor of Education degree, focuses on training elementary teachers.

These teachers need more training to work in high schools, Picco said, because there's a big difference between teaching young children Inuktitut and teaching algebra to unruly teenagers.

There's also another problem: curriculum to teach the higher grades in the Inuit language currently doesn't exist.

But Picco says his department has been working on these problems, and much will improve if Bill 21, the new Education Act, becomes law. The act, for example, would expand NTEP to train prospective high school teachers.

The bill has been given second reading and is currently before a standing committee. More public consultation will likely take place before the bill receives final reading. Picco hopes the bill receives assent by May.

NTI's report also complains that Nunavut's education system doesn't reflect Inuit values.

An Inuit-based education system, NTI says, would teach subjects such as hunting, survival skills, food preparation, the evolution of Inuit society, and "traditional belief systems, including Christianity."

NTI's report doesn't say much about teaching kids how to read, write or work with numbers. Apparently math, science and other academic subjects would be taught, but the curricula must first be redesigned, and "be taught from an Inuit world-view and philosophy."

Picco says his department is designing such curricula. And he said the new Education Act better accommodates Inuit culture. It has, for example, provisions for elders to work in schools, recognizing what Picco calls their "masters degree in lifelong learning."

Three in four children in Nunavut drop out of school. It's the worst dropout rate in the country, and the inverse of the national dropout rate of about 25 per cent.

Thomas Berger, a retired British Columbia judge, said in his conciliator's report on the Nunavut land claims agreement that a bilingual education system is the key to improving graduation rates.

Most Nunavut children study in their second language, English, which puts them at a significant disadvantage. More troubling, Berger found many Nunavut kids today are neither mastering the Inuit language nor English.

Until that happens, Berger said graduation rates aren't likely to improve, and there simply won't be enough educated Inuit to staff government at representative levels, of about 85 per cent. Half of the Government of Nunavut's employees are currently Inuit.

But Picco says the territory's dropout rate can't be blamed solely on schools. Kids drop out for a lot of reasons. Some face trouble at home. Some have parents who distrust schools.

Others become pregnant. Picco points to a survey that found pregnancy is a bigger reason for dropping out of school in Nunavut than dissatisfaction with teachers.

And many students simply fall behind in their studies, year after year, until they reach Grade 10, when the Alberta curriculum is enforced, and many students drop out.

Keeping Inuit teachers in school is another challenge. Many leave the classroom to take better paying, less stressful jobs elsewhere in government.

Teachers say they need better pay and benefits, but NTI says it's actually a problem in how teachers are trained.

NTI says prospective teachers should spend their first year of school working in a school as an assistant to a teacher, as is done in Nunavik, so they can decide early if teaching is right for them.

Picco says that's a good idea. And, again, he says the Education Act includes a provision for mentors to work in school with teachers in training.

A public campaign launched by Nunavut's political leaders that calls on Inuit to become teachers would also help, NTI says.

Picco says this is in the works, and that a "be a teacher" campaign should start this spring.

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