Pre-service teachers engaging in critical Indigenous service-learning

Teachers, like the general public, often do not understand Indigenous issues. While education plays a pivotal role in reconciliation, teachers can perpetuate misinformation and stereotypes of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit (FNMI) communities when they do not understand Canada’s colonial past, or the unique history and contemporary cultures of the Aboriginal learners in their classrooms. This limits their ability to disrupt cycles of discrimination within and beyond the classroom.

Drs. Yvonne Poitras Pratt and Patricia Danyluk recognized the possibility of addressing this knowledge gap through a service-learning placement for pre-service teachers in Indigenous communities. Critical service-learning allows participants to develop reciprocal relationships with different populations. In the context of education, these community placements can help students make meaningful contributions by deepening their awareness of Indigenous issues firsthand. Importantly, in these exchanges, both the pre-service teacher and the participating community grow and benefit from the learning opportunities and social action.

By taking up critical service-learning in First Nations, Métis, and Inuit (FNMI) communities, pre-service teachers are able to able to deepen their effectiveness and competency as future teachers. Gaining some practical experience in Indigenous education before they enter the profession can increase their empathy, confidence, leadership, and pedagogical knowledge. Through questioning assumptions and revisiting perspectives, they are also better able to develop authentic relationships, critical awareness, and a sense of their own responsibilities in this work; these are essential in helping address social inequities and meeting the needs of Aboriginal students. Just as importantly, they are learning to teach the truths required for reconciliation.

“I am now aware”

As part of their placement, 13 non-Indigenous students travelled to one of three community-based First Nations schools on a weekly basis, working in classrooms at least once per week for three months. The students also participated in monthly learning circles and submitted weekly reflections.

The majority of the students had little or no former experience with Indigenous peoples, though several had grown up near First Nations communities.

The students’ experiences shaped new understandings as they spent more time in the community. Initially, the students reported feelings of fears about not being welcomed or accepted. Their early writing reflected an “us versus them” mindset, seeing themselves as distant and not connected to Indigenous issues. They also reported low expectations about the quality of schools, teaching, and students’ abilities.

Midway through the placements, students began to express satisfaction and surprise at their welcome and involvement in the schools. The students noted a number of strengths and positive aspects of the school environment, such as the ways in which local culture is embraced. Their comfort and growing awareness supported early learnings, and the deconstruction of previously held ideas.

However, with more experience, the students began to express doubts or frustrations as they became more aware of the complexities and challenges of FNMI schooling. Some participants began to look deeper at certain school norms, and noted the effects of deeper societal issues that affect the community and the school. While these moments reflected the lack of awareness these students had regarding the ongoing repercussions of colonialism, they also prompted transformative learning moments.

In seeing the reality in the schools, students developed a strong appreciation for the commitment of the teachers. They also recognized a need for greater societal understanding and investment from all Canadians, seeing Aboriginal education from a new perspective. The students also suggested ways to promote discussion and better integration of Indigenous knowledges into the classroom, supporting their development as educators.

“I feel responsible”

The pre-service teachers who were able to spend time regularly in Indigenous communities experienced a clear shift in their thinking and practice regarding Indigenous education. While many were initially apprehensive about their work, many reported surprising and insightful learning experiences during their time. The students experienced both modern and vibrant cultures, and the destructive legacy of a colonial past.

Those students who attended more frequently noted events that effectively challenged their prior assumptions and beliefs, though the situations may have been uncomfortable or frustrating. This critical reflection helped increase the students’ awareness of the complexities of Indigenous schools, and prompted deeper reflection and examination of their own positioning in relation to systemic inequities.

Drs. Poitras Pratt and Danyluk contend that the greatest learning and potential of service-learning occurs within the service provider, not in the service itself. By placing education students in FNMI communities, where educators’ existing beliefs and stereotypes are troubled, there is hope for shifting understandings to support reconciliation and improved educational outcomes.

See more from Dr. Yvonne Poitras Pratt on her profile

See more from Dr. Patricia Danyluk on her profile

Connected Citations

Poitras Pratt, Y., & Danyluk, P. J. (2017). Learning what schooling left out: Making an Indigenous case for critical service-learning and reconciliatory pedagogy within teacher education. Canadian Journal of Education, 40(1), 1-24.