A decade of Work with Aboriginal Education: Research about, and Reflections on, Implications for Educational Leadership

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A Decade of Work with Aboriginal Education: Research about, and Reflections on, Implications for Educational Leadership

Randolph (Randy) Wimmer

University of Alberta

Presented to the Commonwealth Council of Educational Administration and Management and

The Canadian Association for the Study of Educational Administration

June 2014

University of New Brunswick, Canada

The draft version of this paper was presented to the British Educational Leadership, Management, and Administration Society (BELMAS) at their annual conference held in Edinburgh, Scotland in July, 2013. That paper was published by BELMAS in the fall, 2013.

I acknowledge the research funding support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada and the Government of Alberta (Department of Advanced Education) for financial support of the research projects that partly inform this paper.


Purpose of this Paper

This paper attempts to bring together the past 10 years of work in Aboriginal education in higher education from experiences during my roles as a non-Aboriginal teacher educator, researcher, and educational leader. The content of this paper comes not from one single source but more wholistically (an approach that is consistent with how I understand the world around me and one that is aligned with Indigenous epistemology) from a set of experiences over a decade of work. This paper is informed by two extensive sets of research data that involved beginning First Nations Teachers, students in and graduates from Aboriginal teacher education programs; scholarship; and my own reflections and experiences. The purpose of this paper is to share some of what I have learned about Aboriginal teacher education, to discuss what I view to be implications for educational leadership in both teacher education and higher education more generally, and to share experiences about how Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal researchers can work effectively together on research projects and in teacher education.

When we first wrote a grant application to the Social Sciences Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada, we described that compelling evidence points to the need for higher education and especially teacher education, to become better informed about the concerns of Aboriginal peoples and to be more responsive to their needs (Wimmer, Legare, Arcand, & Cottrell, 2009). At that time, there was what I would call an awakening of the Canadian academy and teacher education more specifically to this need evidenced by policy directions such as those set out by the Association of Canadian Deans of Education (2005).

Today, most places of teacher education are in the midst of implementing new programs or significantly changed programs to better prepare beginning teachers to meet the diverse needs of children and youth in schools. This rethinking and reforming has become one of the greatest challenges to teacher education. In Canada’s prairie provinces Aboriginal people represent the fastest growing population in K-12 schools. The inclusion and integration of Aboriginal history, knowledge, and content in Canadian teacher education is widely recognized but is of a serious challenge to leadership in teacher education and educational leadership more generally. Yet despite this recognition, as Marker (2004) points out, Aboriginal students frequently face hostile environments in their classes. Norwegian scholar Rauna Kuokkanen (2007) says that the academy supports and reproduces certain systems of thought and knowledge that rarely reflect or represent Indigenous worldviews. With this in mind, this paper fits most appropriately within this conference’s theme of leadership at a time of demographic change.

Researcher Positionality and Frameworks

As a scholar I use interpretive and experiential methods (Clandinin & Connelly, 1998; Clandinin & Connelly, 2000; van Manen, 1997); as a way to teach and learn. Beginning with my doctoral research, I have consistently been drawn methodologically to the use of life history accounts (Goodson & Sikes, 2001) as data in my research. “William Pinar, Madeline Grumet, Richard Butt, and others advocate that biographies of educators are the best sources for understanding education” (Schubeter & Ayers, 1992, preface). In all of my work, I’ve made an upfront explicit statement about who I am (positionality) as a part of my teaching, writing, and in academic presentations. Over the years, I have always observed that Aboriginal people make similar explicit statements about themselves when they meet people for the first time and as a part of public addresses such as conference presentations. Hence, I’ve learned from Aboriginal scholars about the significance of stating who we are in relation to place and people. Wilson (2001) describes “the identity of Indigenous peoples’ self is rooted in the context of community and place” (p. 91). Tuhiwai Smith (1999) and Battiste (2000) both tell us that Indigenous Peoples identify themselves in relation to their ancestors and situate themselves in relationships to their relatives or even the geography of their traditional lands. LaDuke (2005) goes on to say that we are nothing on our own. From these lessons I now offer a statement about my positionality not as a comfortable “ice breaker” but as a central feature of my teaching and research.

I’ve been a teacher educator for 22 years in two different western Canadian universities. For the past four years, I’ve held leadership positions in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta. Prior to coming to the academy, I was a very satisfied and one would say successful classroom teacher in a small, rural agriculturally based community in Northern Alberta where I taught all levels of school and mostly junior and senior high school. I was raised on a farm where I had a happy childhood and adolescence. While the move to “the city” to attend university was initially a challenge, I soon adapted well to city living and to the university. After just one term, I deeply immersed myself in the university experience and enjoyed it immensely. While I looked forward to beginning my career as a teacher, as I left the university I knew that one day I wanted to return. I am a second generation Canadian and am of German and English ancestry. For all of my life, I have lived and worked alongside Aboriginal people from childhood times spent with our farm neighbours (I didn’t know the family was Aboriginal until I was well into adulthood) where we played and who looked after us when my parents were away, to romantic relationships in adulthood, and to years of incredibly satisfying work with Aboriginal colleagues in education; many have become good friends. While I do not know what it is like to be an Aboriginal person, I personally have experienced hatred and fear from others as a person who lives as a minority and have been the victim of prejudice and social injustice. I know first-hand what it feels like to not fit in!

Despite my claims for the need to recognize story, experience, and their interpretations in my scholarly work, I also admit to needing to know and use what is written about Aboriginal knowledge in my research work. While, as an academy, we have made significant advances in using different forms of knowledge, I know fully well that applications for research funding and peer reviewed research still holds textual forms of knowledge as privileged and therefore required. A very prominent lesson Louise taught me when we wrote our first SSHRC application 10 years ago was when I longed for wanting to read the books and journal articles, her response was I’ll take you to the bush. I tell this story later in this paper. Today, Evelyn tells me that I work on the ground. Here, Marker (2004) teaches me that “Indigenous-placed based knowledge requires an understanding of the moral proportions of oral traditions and long sustained relationships with the land” (p. 172). He goes on to say “an Indigenous perspective asserts – insists – that knowledge from the community is as valuable as the knowledge contained in the academy” (p. 182).

Years after our first successful research grant and research with Aboriginal teacher education graduates, I came across the article written by Michael Marker from the University of British Columbia entitled “The Four Rs Revisited: Some Reflections on First Nations and Higher Education. While finding this work was a part of my quest to update material I used in a graduate seminar on higher education, it has become a key work for me as a non-Aboriginal person working alongside of Aboriginal people in research and teacher education. I use this work, and the seminal work it draws on, as both a conceptual and organizational framework for this paper. Specifically, I act on Marker’s invitation to “continue to revisit the four Rs and raise questions about the relevance, reciprocity, respect, and responsibility of the academy in establishing relationships with Indigenous people” (2004, p. 186). In my academic development over the past 10 years, I have discovered a plethora of academically rigorous works of Aboriginal scholars, many have been included in this paper. Not only do these works serve to underpin and legitimate my research work, they help me make sense of my work as an educational leader and help to provide a foundation for the way I work alongside Aboriginal education and in decisions I am asked to make. I urge all of us who are in some way involved in educational leadership in teacher education, educational administration, and higher education to read these works and to consider making meaningful use of them in educational administrational practice, policy making, teaching, and research.

“’The 4 Rs’ Revisted, Again

The organization of the following section of this paper follows the framework conceptualized by Verna Kirkness and Ray Barnhart in 1991. The “four Rs provide an important template for discussing the general themes of what universities can do to become more culturally responsive to First Nations” (Marker, 2004. P. 175). He goes on to say:

Kirkness’ and Barnhart’s article has become one of the most frequently cited works on First Nations

participation in higher education. The four principles of “respect, relevance, reciprocity, and responsibility” that they

outlined have become reference points for graduate student papers and journal articles discussing a wide range of cross-

cultural education contexts. Kirkness and Barnhardt’s article continues to draw attention a decade after its publication

because it frames the discussion around what the academy can do to transform itself rather than how Aboriginal people

should adapt and assimilate to the needs of the university culture. (p. 171)

Again, Marker invites us to revisit the 4 Rs as we think about our work in higher education and our relationships with Aboriginal people. I act on his invitation in reflecting on my work with Aboriginal people in teacher education. Though I use this specific work in developing this discussion, I also acknowledge several excellent more recent works including those of Jo-ann Archibald (2010) and Rauna Kuokkanen (2007). Again, I encourage educational leaders in teacher education and higher education to read works such as these and consider them in our teaching and administrative roles.

Reciprocity and Respect

Lessons and gifts from Louise

A package of tobacco sits proudly on my shelf above my work area in the Dean’s Office. It has travelled with me for the last 10 years from the University of Saskatchewan to the University of Alberta and to four different offices. It continues to catch my attention and serves as a warm reminder of my work with Louise and the many things I have learned from Aboriginal people in higher education. It also catches the attention of others, some knowing what it means, others somewhat bewildered I suppose. My nephews who are bright, well educated, young people, were very puzzled and concerned that Uncle Randy had a package of tobacco. I remember vividly the day Louise came to my office holding that same package of tobacco. We talked about how her Ph D classes were going. A few years later she confessed to me that she found the readings in our doctoral classes to be difficult to relate to. Eventually she came to describe a research project that she had been thinking about for a long time and with her invitation for me to join the project she offered the gift of tobacco. We further talked about the need to apply for some research funding and while the newly announced SSHRC development grant in Aboriginal education would be an appropriate fund, we learned that the principal investigator on the application needed, at that time, to be a faculty member. While Louise had worked for many years as an instructor in the Indian Teacher Education Program (ITEP) like all staff in ITEP, she was not employed as a permanent member of the university’s academic staff. Louise and I both understood that my name had be go forward as the principal investigator for this research project but it was at that time that I consciously started saying that our roles were reciprocal and that we had much to learn from each other. It was also at that time that I began to say that I was working alongside Aboriginal people. With these things in mind, I began my journey as a non-Aboriginal person doing research in Aboriginal education.

We had no trouble getting 30 recent ITEP graduates who were beginning teachers in band-controlled schools to work with us. When I asked the teachers about why they offered to be a part of our research, all teachers talked about how it was their way of giving back to their own teachers in ITEP. They further felt they had a responsibility to give back to their communities, the people that supported them in pursuing their teacher education. The notions of reciprocity, relevance, and responsibility were particular evident in how these teachers felt about their former ITEP classmates. “Many identified the cohort dimension as the most important component because it provided a critical mass of Aboriginal students to create a degree of safety and security, akin to a sense of family in learning with your own people” (Wimmer, Legare, Arcand, & Cottrell, 2009, p. 829). Throughout hours of conversations with the 30 beginning teachers, we were left knowing “their peer relationships and the friendships that developed were an important legacy for their beginning teaching careers” (p. 830). The research of Verna St. Denis et al. (1998) affirms the notion of reciprocity where “the academic and social support provided by the TEPs was instrumental in many teachers deciding to become a teacher as well as ensuring their completion of the program” (p. 42).

Louise, Yvette, Mike and I (we are the research team for the SSHRC research project) talked a great deal about our relationships with former ITEP students. Moreover what stands out in my experience is how we think about our relationships with each other. We write,

A unique feature of ITEP is the possibility of cross-cultural learning and relationship-building afforded by the presence of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people working together. Randy and Mike, established scholars, continue to learn about, and understand, appropriate relationships with, and research practices of, Aboriginal communities through their extensive work with Louise and Yvette, two beginning Aboriginal scholars. Mike and Randy consider it a privilege, to mentor Louse and Yvette in the ways of the academy and in supporting the pursuit of their graduate education. (Wimmer, Legare, Arcand, & Cottrell, 2009, p. 820)

How I think about research relations is supported by Marker (2004) who says “this practice is consistent with both the ‘respect’ and ‘reciprocity’ components of the four Rs, especially if researchers are also willing to learn from rather than simply about Aboriginal people” (p. 182).

Building on our work with ITEP at the University of Saskatchewan, the current project at the University of Alberta involves a research partnership with Saddle Lake First Nations and beginning teachers who are Aboriginal Teacher Education Program (ATEP) graduates. A second component of the current research began two years ago working with an ATEP cohort of 50 teacher education students in collaboration with Northland School Division in Alberta, other northern Alberta schools, and Northern Lake College in Slave Lake, Alberta. As a part of a two day professional development activity with the cohort, we asked them to talk about their experiences in the teacher education program. A third component of the current research project involved ATEP teachers presenting their teaching practices at a research conference held at the University of Alberta in the Fall, 2013. What made this event unique was that the bulk of the programme was presented by teachers, not university researchers. Again Marker’s point about “respect and reciprocity” -- learning from Aboriginal people and not about Aboriginal people -- as stated above applies here. While we refer to our findings from the current research project as preliminary, our research to date stresses “one of the goals of our research is for it have timely impact on the participants and communities with which we are working. Bringing together new graduates, experienced teachers, academic researchers, and community members committed to improving education for Aboriginal people in Alberta is one way that we can address the needs of teachers identified by the research” (Martineau, Wimmer, Steinhauer, Wolfe, 2013).

Relevance and Responsibility

Another lesson from Louise – “I need to take you to the bush”

While my epistemological underpinnings have remained consistent throughout my research work, I could not have written this paper, with its many references to what is known in the literature, when I began this work. While 10 years ago I longed to know this literature, the lessons about learning from experience taught to me by Aboriginal people are clearly the most profound learning experiences I have had in higher education. When Louise said “I need to take you to the bush” I did not realize that this was her way of teaching me about how to work in Aboriginal communities. It was also an explicit invitation to work with her and other Aboriginal people. What I wanted to know was what was written about non-Aboriginal people doing research about Aboriginal education yet Louise’s gentle insistence on learning from being present in Aboriginal communities and having an open mind about how Aboriginal people think about knowledge was the starting point to my own awakening. Indeed the learning was profound for me but it was not easy. It came with my own fears of the unknown knowledge about ceremony and spirituality. The learning was intense intellectually but also in terms of time, largely unacknowledged in the work we have produced and formally by the still tradition bound ways the academy recognizes experiential and community based work. Marker (2004) supports these points I raise about deep and authentic learning from community based experience and the need for the academy to shift, markedly, how it values such work.

University researchers can become too attached to the artificially created academic “community” and too alienated from the community of real people who, in Aboriginal communities, are the recipients of the legacy of colonialism. University faculty and graduate students have much to gain by spending time in an Aboriginal community listening to elders and traditional knowledge specialists. If universities are sincere in their efforts to create a space for Aboriginal students, then they must also create a space that welcomes the participation of Aboriginal communities in the knowledge-exchange relationship. (pp. 181-182)

From our work with students and teachers of Aboriginal teacher education programs, the significance of “hands on” learning is just as apparent as my own learning and what the literature says about experiential learning. In all of our research conversations, “all participants commented extensively on their field experiences. All the teachers recognized the valuable experience of student teaching and most indicated that there should be more opportunities for ‘hands on’ learning” (Wimmer, Legare, Arcand, & Cottrell, 2009, p. 834).

Canada has an egregious past with Aboriginal people of Canada, its First Nations Peoples. While the scope of this paper is beyond what needs to be an awakening of teacher education and higher education to the history and impact of residential schools and racism, educational leadership has a responsibility to account for this past and set as a priority how this dark history impacts the lives and school experiences of Aboriginal children, youth, and students in postsecondary education. My own awakening over the past 10 years leaves me angry with the academy that prepared me to be a teacher in rural, northern Alberta. While there was there required course work in educational foundations, and specifically the history of education, I left my preservice teacher education knowing nothing about residential schools in Canada. More troubling is that the social studies minor in teacher education gave me no knowledge of this history. In that route, I specialized in Canadian history where the content made some mention of Louis Reil but stopped there. I get more angry when today I hear people say that it’s time for Aboriginal people to move on, to put aside the effects that Residential schools have on the lives of children and youth in our classrooms today. Went need to understand and confront our pasts including the actions of those who came before us. We cannot erase histories, either as Aboriginal people or those of us whose families are from colonizing countries. We need to take responsibility for what wrongs our pasts have done. Early in this paper I positioned myself as one who is marginalized. I also acknowledge my privilege as a white male. I argue that the majority of leadership in higher education is also privileged as white and many of us are male. I urge as to use our privilege in ways that support our Aboriginal colleagues and in ways that ally and advocate for the advancement of Aboriginal people and their education in higher education.

As stated earlier in this paper, while I am encouraged with the current moves in Canadian teacher education to incorporate the study of Aboriginal history and knowledge, as it applies to pedagogy, in our teacher education programs, changing programs in this regard presents particular challenges to educational leadership. In the case of the University of Alberta, there seemed to be general acknowledgement to include such content but when it came to implementation we struggled with how much content should be required and how it should be delivered. These debates were stressful and divisive; questions of necessity still linger. I’ve given much thought to these challenges recalling the largely non-debate over the inclusion of newly required courses in technology in teacher education that took place about 15 years ago. Teacher education and curriculum theorist William Pinar (2009) helps me makes sense of these struggles in his thought provoking discussion about the devaluation of academic knowledge by programmatic preoccupations of teacher education and what knowledge gets valued and privileged in teacher education and what knowledge remains contested in teacher education.


A couple of months ago we hosted the second annual Symposium on Indigenous Teacher Education. The event built on the success of the first Symposium and vision of Dr. Jo-ann Archibald at the University of British Columbia. Here I experienced an encouraging energy and robust appetite for many if not most places of teacher education in Canada to do something by way of incorporating Aboriginal history and knowledge within teacher education. Nearly every province was represented at the recent Symposium and another university robustly volunteered to host next year’s event. With somewhat less momentum, in my view, are the moves forward in higher education more generally to understand and embrace Aboriginal people’s value for community and cultural forms of knowledge. Marker (2004) observes “in many ways there has been a general and significant advancement in the level of cultural responsiveness to the Indigenous perspective” (p. 172). While I am encouraged by such advancements both in teacher education and higher education more generally, our work in the academy in this regard has just begun. I remain steadfast in declaring we have a lot of work ahead of us.

While this paper is written for an audience of scholars and practitioners of educational administration, I have not used what discourse in educational administration considers seminal or current mainstream works in this area. This exclusion is intentional in that throughout this paper I urge those who study and teach in educational administration and leadership to read widely and deeply the many excellent works by Aboriginal scholars. While these works may not appear to be a part of educational administration discourse, I beg us to look deeper. My own learning from these works has revealed many intersections and has truly enabled me to think in different and better ways about my work in educational leadership. Moreover, for those of us who authentically want to become more responsive to the learning needs of Aboriginal people, we need to continue to follow Louise’s teaching by “going to the bush”.

The purpose of this paper was to bring together some of what I have learned from research in Aboriginal education and moreover what I have learned from spending the past 10 years working alongside of Aboriginal people. The paper is informed by findings from two major research projects and from my experiences as a researcher, ally and friend of Aboriginal people, teacher, and educational leader in teacher education. Kirkness and Barnhart’s (1991) 4 Rs (Respect, Reciprocity, Relevance, Responsibility) provides me with a useful conceptual and organizational framework for bringing together 10 years of experience in Aboriginal teacher education. Throughout the paper, I have both implicitly and explicitly discussed implications for educational administration. Along the way, I’ve attempted to illustrate how Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal scholars can work together in today’s academy. Like Marker, I encourage researchers and practitioners of education administration and leadership to read and hopefully make use of this framework in our work in both teacher education and higher education more generally.


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