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Indigenous study finds common challenges

May 10, 2022 Cory Hare, ATA News Managing Editor


Isolation and lack of support among the difficulties faced by Indigenous teachers in Alberta

While Indigenous teachers and leaders in Alberta share a love for teaching, they also report experiencing several common challenges, such as feeling pressure to “toe the line,” getting stuck in limiting, predefined roles and feeling a lack of support from leaders.

These are the findings of a new study by the Alberta Teachers’ Association and University of Alberta researcher Dr. Dwayne Donald. As outlined in a report released May 10, the study found that the following common experiences are shared by many Indigenous teachers and leaders who participated in the study:

  • A love for teaching
  • Feeling pressure to “toe the line,” (i.e., not be too vocal or stand out too much as an Indigenous person)
  • Getting stuck in predefined roles
  • Experiencing vicarious trauma
  • Feeling isolated, vulnerable and unsupported by leaders
  • Facing challenges with respect to new career opportunities, recruitment and retention

The study involved an online survey of 96 Indigenous teachers, school leaders and central office leaders followed by focus groups involving a total of 13 Indigenous participants.

Toeing the line

Many focus group participants expressed frustration with systemic structures and practices that position Indigenous education initiatives as second-rate in comparison to other educational concerns. Participants reported that they regularly feel marginalized, disregarded and dismissed by supervisors and colleagues in the work that they do. They feel the need to “toe the line,” or conform to problematic expectations in order to maintain their positions and continue their work.

“I’ve always felt — since I have been in the education field, no matter where I am at — I’ve always had to accommodate. I’ve always had to toe the line. I had to learn how to play the game. I had to learn when to put my mask on,” said one participant. “It’s so subtle sometimes; it’s not overt. But it’s these little pins and needles that get thrown at you. I’ve always felt that I’m not worthy enough because I am who I am, because of my skin colour … because I am visibly Aboriginal. I’ve always felt that it’s a barrier, a wall.”

Getting stuck in roles

Participants described being “pigeonholed” by being assigned “all the Indigenous stuff” once their identity was known. The participants stated that this experience seems to be connected to the desire of school or division leaders to have Indigenous matters covered so that they can check boxes and give the impression that Indigenous programming needs are being effectively met. Some participants expressed the view that their own career opportunities are being negatively affected by such systemic practices.

Vicarious trauma

Vicarious trauma refers to the harmful effects of consistent exposure to the traumatic experiences of others. In the context of this research initiative, some focus group participants reported that they suffer the effects of vicarious trauma when witnessing systemic racism experienced by Indigenous students, their parents and even their Indigenous colleagues.

Feeling isolated, vulnerable and unsupported by leaders

The focus group participants reported that they sometimes feel as though their educational roles place them at the centre of contentious Indigenous-Canadian relations that still exist in many Alberta communities. Such positioning can sometimes result in feelings of isolation, marginalization and vulnerability when teachers don’t feel supported by their leaders.

“It seems like I am always being alienated, isolated from the rest of the teachers because I am the Cree teacher … I would really like those things to change. To be recognized as a teacher is what I really need,” reported one focus group participant.

Career opportunities, recruitment and retention

Focus group participants stated that they were not aware of any formal efforts to recruit or retain Indigenous teachers to join their school divisions. They seemed to share the view that their own opportunities to serve in Indigenous education leadership roles came mostly as a result of the support of an individual colleague who advocated on their behalf rather than any systemwide commitment to retain and promote Indigenous educators.

One participant outlined how important it is for students to see Indigenous leaders who are doing well in the school system.

“They need to see the people that come from their community, having gone through the very same issues in their community, having had the very same background, leading in their schools and being successful in their lives,” the participant said. “Yet our division has no Indigenous leaders. The number of Indigenous teachers in our division is very small.”

Moving forward

The report states that Alberta’s public education system needs to do more than simply increase the number of Indigenous staff within classrooms and school communities. Instead, more comprehensive system change is needed. The report identifies the following three elements as key to moving forward effectively:

  1. A shared vision that unifies all involved
  2. Creating sustainable cultural changes in the daily workings of schools
  3. Mentorship program that provides a network of support for Indigenous educators

“There will be no cultural change without system change,” Donald said.

While some non-Indigenous people may feel that reconciliation has already taken place, since the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was released in 2015, the experiences of Indigenous people suggest that much more work remains to be done to ensure that Indigenous teachers, school leaders and central office leaders feel wholeheartedly valued and respected physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

The report states, “We have a collective responsibility to do better within Alberta’s public education system as part of our individual and collective efforts to advance reconciliation.” ❚


Broader partnership

This ATA research activity was part of a broader partnership with the College of Alberta School Superintendents that further gathered superintendents’ perspectives and expanded the perspectives beyond the Association’s members, who are all Alberta certificated teachers, school leaders and central office staff.





The Report on Honouring the Voices of Indigenous Teachers, School, Leaders and Central Office Leaders in Alberta School Communities, 2022 is available at > My ATA > Professional Development > Indigenous Education and Walking Together > Research.


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