Imagining a Future: Reaching At-Risk Students by Teaching the Whole Child

Robyn Michaud-Turgeon

For Aboriginal students, equity in education starts with recognizing the unique histories and traditions that characterize Canada’s First Nations peoples. The Seven Grandfather Teachings are like a code of conduct for the Anishinaabe people: they offer seven simple truths, keys to living a good life. As an Aboriginal education consultant, the teaching that most resonates with me is  humility; over the years I have come to realize just how little I know about the diversity of experiences represented by Aboriginal Canada. When working with Aboriginal students I cannot presume to know who they are, or how they “tick.” What I must do instead is reflect back on  humility and realize these students can be my greatest teachers.

Introducing andrew

When I worked with him, Andrew was a 13-year-old grade 8 student who had experienced much difficulty since transferring to our school. At best, he was disconnected from classroom life; at worst, he was belligerent and oppositional. Andrew self-identified as Aboriginal and was probably the most difficult behavioural challenge we had in our generally “rough” school. Andrew was not in any of my classes; however, several people on our staff had pointed out to me that he was Aboriginal, perhaps to encourage me to reach out to him.

An important aspect of most Native cultures is the unspoken understanding that it takes an entire community to raise a child.  All of the adults have the responsibility to teach and treat  all of the children in the community like their own. This was how my own father was raised, and perhaps this is why I became a teacher myself. We call this an “auntie” or “uncle” role. We don’t presume to take on the role of the parents, nor are we the child’s “friend.” We are there simply to teach children compassion, stewardship, optimism, tenacity, and commitment. I have always felt that the best way to do this is by standing by children  unconditionally as they learn from each mistake, no matter how big.

I met Andrew in late September 2004 as he sat outside the principal’s office. As I walked by, he used a variety of swear words to describe the teacher who had kicked him out of class. I decided to look past this rant and counter him with kindness, since I knew from experience that students with oppositional defiance tendencies often act out to get an angry reaction, which only serves to justify more belligerent behaviour on their part.
I smiled and asked if I could help him with the worksheet he had been given.

Andrew appeared completely floored by my non-reaction and refused my offer of help. When I saw him in the hall later, I asked about his cultural background. He replied that he was Native, possibly Ojibwe, but he didn’t know from which band or reserve. I told him that I was also Ojibwe. From that day on he always greeted me with a smile and a “Hi, Madame!” This pleasant rapport continued throughout the school year.

During that year I was told that Andrew likely suffered from attention deficit disorder and oppositional defiance disorder. My observations, however, told me that Andrew was fully capable of turning his bad behaviour on and off. This was something within his control.

Why did Andrew connect with me? Was it a cultural bond? Was it because he found someone willing to start with a clean slate? I had no guidebook to tell me how to work with an at-risk Aboriginal student. I realize now that I had the rapport I needed to be a listener. To understand why any at-risk learner experiences difficulty either academically or socially, we need to ask  these students themselves. I believe that for Native students in particular to engage in school, they must feel they have a voice.

Why we need to focus on aboriginal learners

As much  as  we  would  like  to  think  that  our education  system  is  “socially  just,”  Aboriginal students remain one  of  the  most  marginalized groups in our schools.1 The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1996 revealed that only 3 per cent of Aboriginal students receive university degrees.2 More disturbing, however, is that many Aboriginal youth never make it to the  end of high school.3 “Lack of engagement” with school puts them at higher risk for becoming involved in a wide variety of  antisocial activities, such as criminality and substance abuse.4

Curwen Doige states that a “significant aspect of this complex struggle is the fact that Aboriginal students are still marginalized in the public school and university systems through Westernized curricula and pedagogy.”5  She and others feel the  lack  of affirmation of Aboriginal perspectives in the current curriculum is the root  problem behind the lack of success experienced by Aboriginal students.6

As we got to know each over several months of informal chat, I asked Andrew if he ever felt that people treated him badly, or even differently, because he was Aboriginal. He said no. However, later when I discussed how I grew up not learning a lot  about Aboriginal culture from history class, he described an incident with a teacher in grade 3 who had asked a question about Aboriginal people and specifically selected him to respond. When Andrew couldn’t, the teacher replied, “Well, you of all people should know the answer!” Andrew didn’t tell this story with anger or resentment; he just said that “it felt weird.” Nonetheless, it was telling that this memory resonated with him.

Andrew’s family wanted him to go to an all-Native school in Thunder Bay. Instead, he opted to stay at our school. He confided that he was shocked that we were passing him on to grade 9, considering he had failed almost every subject. I then confided that at placement meetings everyone said the same thing: that he was more than capable of doing the work but was simply choosing not to. The overwhelming consensus was that holding him back in grade 8 for another year would be disastrous, a punitive measure and not one that reflected his true abilities and potential. This surprised him, given how many bridges he had burned with staff. He thought everyone hated him.

When I spoke on the phone with Andrew’s mom, Virginia, about race and Native identity, she said she felt guilty because  she hadn’t grown up in “the Native culture” and therefore could not teach Andrew much. But much of what Vigirnia deemed “normal” was really a part of Aboriginal culture. This emerged one day when I showed a group of students a braid of sweet  grass, and the cousin with whom Andrew lived talked excitedly about how they burned sweet grass at their house. He didn’t know it was particularly Native, or that there was a name for it –  smudging. It was simply something they did as a normal part of their family life.

Virginia often felt that she was criticized because Andrew did not live with her but with her twin sister. One school psychologist had said that she and Andrew needed counselling to resolve their “issues.” I explained to Virginia that this was a popular Eurocentric ideal: that the “norm” was having a mother and father under the same roof with their biological or adopted children. In the Native experience, it is totally acceptable and common for children to be raised by other relatives or people in the community.

This is only one example of why we should not dismiss culture, race, or religion as factors in how we approach individual students. These things do matter. Students of colour need to have their unique histories, cultures, and traditions recognized and understood. To not see culture, race, or religion is to not see the whole child.

Students like Andrew who are in the transition years are particularly vulnerable to struggles with identity, not only related to  culture, but also to the whole notion of “self as student.” Teachers in the Intermediate division are in an excellent position   to   help  students  find  the  relevancy of education in their lives, and this starts with making sure that the curriculum is reflective of every student, and that multiple perspectives are welcomed and valued.

Student success at the intermediate level

The next year I would find myself in the unique position of  being a secondary Student Success teacher who was also an  ETFO member. One of the aims of the Student Success initiative is to pair every at-risk student in each high school with an “adult advocate,” who can be any adult in the school willing to be an unwavering support for a student during the school day. This is exactly what I had been for Andrew and his family and, given the strong emphasis on personal relationships in Aboriginal culture, it is not surprising that this type of relationship was what he seemed to need.

After being in this SST role in a junior high setting, I couldn’t help but think that Student Success funding might be better spent in the transition years. By the time many students like Andrew get to high school, they have already decided, for whatever reason, that school just isn’t their place to be. As it happened, Andrew left our school to live with his mother, and she continued to contact me at the school for advice and for Aboriginal community contacts. His subsequent school experiences were not positive; he had already mentally and physically “checked out.” Although I was happy that I was able to make such a lasting impression on the family, and to find that really good and capable kid, having no real “success story” in the end was bittersweet.

Like Andrew, many Native learners need more time and opportunity to develop positive relationships with school staff, one person at a time. When this is possible, you will certainly discover the hidden gifts that lie beneath. I encourage all teachers of Aboriginal students to open themselves up to learning more about First Nations cultures and histories by reaching out to  our communities for support. More importantly, when working with First Nations students, there often is no better pedagogical resource than the students themselves. It may take some  humility, but taking on a learner role and allowing these students to teach you more about their realities may surprise and humble you.

1.  L. Curwen Doige (2003), “A missing link: Between traditional Aboriginal education and the Western system of education.”  Canadian Journal of Native Education, 27(2),  pp. 144-160.
2.  Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996),  Repor(5 vols.). Ottawa: RCAP, Volume 3, p. 9.
3.  Ibid.
4.  J.R Cummins, M. Ireland, M.D. Resnick & R.W. Blum (1999), “Correlates of physical and emotional health among Native American adolescents.”  Journal of Adolescent  Health, 24(1).  1999, pp. 38-44; K. Vander Woerd & D. Cox (2003), “Educational status and its association with risk and protective factors for First Nations youth.”  Canadian Journal of Native Education, 27(2),  pp. 208-222.
5.  Doige (2003), p. 145.
6.  L. Curwen Doige (2001), “Literacy in Aboriginal education: A historical perspective.”  Canadian Journal of Native Education,25(2),  pp. 117-128; S. Brooks (1991), “The persistence of Native education policy in Canada,” in J. Friesen (Ed.),  The CulturalMaze:  Complex questions on Native destiny in Western  Canada. Calgary: Detselig, pp. 103-180.


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