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A pat on the back

Christine Kay
Northern News Services

Lake Harbour (May 26/03) - Pascale Baillargeon, originally from Quebec City, has been a teacher in Kimmirut for the last 10 years.

She started the high school program at Qaqqalik School and continues to work at involving teenagers in the community. On May 13, she was one of 16 teachers from across Canada to receive the Prime Minister's Award for Excellence in Teaching.

NNSL Photo

Pascale Baillargeon said teaching at Qaqqalik school in Kimmirut has been an experience of a lifetime. - NNSL photo

News/North: When did you arrive in Kimmirut?

Pascale Baillargeon: I arrived in 1993. It was my first teaching job out of university. I had done work in outdoor centres and supply teaching before. I'd also worked in camps with students for about 15 years prior to that.

N/N: What did the position involve?

PB: They were going through a grade extension in Kimmirut. I was hired to start the Grade 10 program. I had to teach Grade 10 across the board - the English, the social studies, the math, the science, physical education and the arts.

N/N: So, they had no high school classes in Kimmirut before you arrived?

PB: They started Grade 10 in 1993 when I arrived. The following year, they extended to Grade 11 and the year after they added Grade 12.

N/N: What kind of resources did you have to get things going?

PB: Because of the set up, it wasn't like they could say here's how you do it. There was a lot of figuring out how we could implement a high school program with what we've got. When I first came in, it was a brand new school. It had been built the year before. My Grade 10 class was a room with four walls. Desks and chairs had not arrived on the sealift yet. It was an empty room. Trying to get a hold of curriculum materials was hard. It was brand new.

N/N: What do you think was the biggest challenge in implementing a high school program?

PB: When I came here, mostly because I got such a variety students, I was not expecting to teach Grade 10 by the letter. We had some students who hadn't been in school for five or six years, others were right out of Grade 9. We had some students coming right off the land who had never been in school. We had a little bit of a revolving door because it was a brand new program. The numbers actually varied quite a bit at first. We also had an age range from 16 years old to let's say 27 years old. We had to adjust to that. The curriculum was sort of a guideline and the students were the guiding force of the overall direction.

N/N: Were there any other challenges that the high school had to overcome?

PB: It was finding out what a high school was. What does it mean having teenagers in the community now when they used to be gone for years at a time? We realized quickly it was not just teaching math or teaching science. The focus was on getting the students involved in life in Kimmirut.

N/N: So how did you do all of this?

PB: We do a lot of open door events. We get the community involved so they can see what's happening in the high school. We have community feasts, breakfasts and that kind of thing. We try to do projects that will take the students and do something useful in the community. This year, I have a shop class and we built sheds that people could buy. Some years, we build kamutiks. I also run an income tax workshop. We had somebody from Revenue Canada come and train the students. Then people can bring in their income tax forms and we fill it in for them. It's helpful for unilingual people. It was very productive. One year, we did something like 40 income tax returns. It's useful plus it's math. We run programs based on the interests of the students and the needs of the community.

N/N: What kind of things did you do to fulfill the students' needs?

PB: These kids live in the community now. They are present. We looked at how you support them in the school and community. We wanted to build bridges that offered them opportunities. I remember my first year, we were talking about resumes but there was no summer jobs for these students.

There were no part-time positions available. Now, we've developed partnerships with the stores and businesses to make them aware that they can hire summer students. It's obvious in a community that has always had a high school but it's not that straight-forward in a community that did not have its teenagers around for about 20 years or so. We had to work through these issues.

N/N: Did you find it easy to find your place in Kimmirut?

PB: It was an adaptation. I'm from a French background and lived in Ontario. I was aware of the issues of struggling with language and struggling to get your point across. When I came up here, I knew that was coming. I knew it would be part of the package. But people were very welcoming. They were very helpful and willing to give you a break. As the years have gone by, there have been tough moments. I'm still here after 10 years and if the community wasn't welcoming or supportive, I don't think I could have lasted that long.

N/N: How have you found the support you need?

PB: I've always been interested in the cultural aspect and the land. I go out with families and hunters. I go out fishing and hunting. I got myself a snowmobile and everything. The students see me outside the classroom and see that I'm interested. I've learned to prepare skins and eat the traditional foods, which I like too much maybe. I participate in the community activities and that helped a lot. It's also a great bonus. It's a great opportunity to learn so much. I still feel that I'll always be a student as well as an educator here. The students couldn't say that I try to teach them everything and that I don't care about them.

N/N: What is the highlight of your experience in Kimmirut so far?

PB: I think it's the exchange. The learning back and work. It's being given the opportunity to be involved in so many programs. The high school is almost seamless, it's being involved in the community. It's not my shop class or science class it's the whole picture. It's a life experience. You live with the students in the community. They see you as a whole person and I see them as whole people. There's a connection that, when you live down South, is maybe a little tougher to create. It's a web of connections with everyone. It's whole.

N/N: What are your plans for next year?

PB: My partner is from Kimmirut. He is Inuk. We have a daughter and we're expecting another in July. It's very soon.

I'm going to take next year off but I'll be in the community. I have a few projects I'm still involved with and I'll be a volunteering parent. I want to take some of the high school students out with the dog team but it's all up in the air at this point.

N/N: So you are not going to be leaving Kimmirut any time soon?

PB: No, we bought a house and we're pretty much settled here. It's wonderful. This is the place we want to be right now. For some reason, I found my sense of place teaching here.

N/N: What do you think is the secret to being a successful teacher in Nunavut?

PB: When people say what's your program, I say it's an evolving one. It all depends on what we do and the students we get. We can allow flexibility because we're not dealing with 30 or 40 students in a class. We're dealing with between 10 and 15.

We can really look at the students' needs and adapt the program to where they're at. It's a challenge but it's also a great bonus as far as teaching goes. Keep questioning and being open. Never take anything for granted. One thing may work one day and may not work the next day. You always turn around and there's a surprise. I would say that I probably learned more than I'm ever going to teach anyone while living here.

N/N: How did you feel when you were told that you would receive the Prime Minister's Award for Excellence in teaching?

PB: I got a call a few weeks back saying that my nomination package had been held and that I would become one of the recipients. I was a little surprised. I kept waiting for them to call back to say they had made a mistake. When I received the award, I was kind of overwhelmed at first. I was thankful that I'm doing something I like and getting a pat on the back for it. It's nice to get that kind of feedback.