School’s back – and so are the teachers

“We have had minimal teacher turnover”

By JANE GEORGE

As Nunavut students head back to school this week and next, many will see familiar faces welcoming them back to class, because teacher turnover is down everywhere in Nunavut.

“Every year it seems to be less,” said Keith Wilson, a former principal of Cape Dorset’s Peter Pitseolak school who is now a school superintendent for the Qikiqtani region.

More money, in the form of increased northern allowance payments, can’t explain this low turnover, says the Kivalliq’s executive director of school operations, Bonnie Spence-Vinge.

“I don’t think a few dollars is going to make a big difference either way,” she said. “I don’t think most people are going to stay for the extra dollars.”

But better orientation and preparation for imported teachers, in the form of a new and expanded information kit, as well as most new teachers’ keen interest in the North, may be contributing to a stock of happier, more stable teachers and principals.

Among those back for another year is Hughie Butt, the principal at Quluaq School in Clyde River. Butt, who logged nearly 30 years as a teacher and principal in western Newfoundland communities before coming to Nunavut last year, was keen to return to Clyde River.

“I’m back, and I’ve seen something today that I’ve never seen before — bowhead whales just offshore,” Butt said in a telephone interview on Monday morning. “It’s amazing. They’re rolling, sticking up their fins and blowing, putting their tails right out of the water and jumping out of the water 30 or 40 feet, right in front of the community.”

Last week Butt saw a polar bear running alongside the road to the airport.

“This year I’ve seen six or seven,” he said. “They’re paying you to have an adventure, and the work is good as well. [These are] memories for a lifetime.”

Butt’s first year was a challenge, but he says he enjoyed even the tougher, “unique” challenges.

“I think we made some progress last year. Probably the progress is slower than you would like it to be and that can be frustrating, but, at the same time, you’re making some kind of a difference and the staff feels good about that,” he said. “We have had minimal teacher turnover, with 24 on staff. None of our southern hires left.”

Job applicants for the limited number of teaching positions available in Nunavut communities were also up this year.

The national reach of Web-based advertising, internships from southern education schools and a growing number of local graduates from the Nunavut Teacher Education Program are making it easier to recruit new teachers to Nunavut.

In the Kitikmeot, only special-needs assistants still remain to be hired, but that will wait until after school starts in all communities.

The only teaching vacancies left in the Qikiqtani and Kivalliq are due to changes in family circumstances or, in one instance, a teacher’s death.

In Iqaluit – with the exception of the Ecole des Trois Soleils — all vacancies were handled by transfers or term teachers who wanted to be hired, so no new teachers from the South were hired.

Some feel this stability in the schools is also encouraging more students to continue into the higher grades. In Cape Dorset, this year, for the first time, there are two smaller Grade 10 classes.

That’s not to say all problems in the schools have been resolved. The high level of student absenteeism is still a “struggle,” according to one principal.

Some schools are also crowded, at or above capacity, such as Sanikiluaq’s school, where space previously occupied by the Nunavut teachers’ education program will now be used as a classroom.

The cost and availability of housing for teachers and staff is still a universal problem.

“We’ve managed to get all our teachers housed, but it was a challenge,” said George Illaszewicz, the Kitikmeot school superintendent. “Housing is getting tighter and tighter.”

The chronic lack of adequate housing, which is “front and centre,” one regional educational director says, means some teachers have to double-up and share quarters.

In one community, a teaching couple is sharing with another single teacher. Teachers are sometimes even housed in hotels — an expensive solution.

What rental housing exists for teachers in Arctic Bay is inadequate, still in bad condition and old, according to Morty Alooloo, the co-principal of Inuujaq School.

Despite the cramped and limited housing, Nunavut’s regional school operations can still pick the teachers they want because of the high numbers of willing job applicants.

But a family with several children might not be hired unless they are local hires, with their own housing, or a teaching couple.

The regional school operations are now looking for longer-term solutions, and this may see the Government of Nunavut start to buy staff housing units again.

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