A New Generation of Native Language Instructors

WHITEHORSE - "It's like opening up a window or a door, or looking in a bright room."

The words are those of Linda Harvey, one of three new recruits to the Yukon Native Language Centre's native language teaching program, describing her classroom teaching experiences.

After initial training at YNLC last September, she has been helping to teach Southern Tutchone in Grades 1 to 7 at Takhini Elementary under the watchful eye of teacher Bertha Moose.

"I've been interested in this job for a few years," she says. "I was really happy to be in it, and now after a few months it's even better."

At age 40, Harvey is part of an emerging group of native language teacher trainees who are preparing to take over from the generation that pioneered language teaching in the schools.

Along with Dorothy Bellerose of the Champagne-Aishihik First Nation and Anne-Marie Miller of the Ta'an Kwach'an First Nation, Harvey -- also a member of Ta'an Kwach'an -- was one of three applicants who entered YNLC's Certificate Training Program last fall.

The three-year program includes teaching practicums, training sessions at YNLC each fall and spring, and literacy workshops.

Miller is now continuing her training at Elijah Smith Elementary, while Bellerose is training in the secondary program at both F.H. Collins and Porter Creek.

Harvey, previously the executive secretary to former CYFN Grand Chief Shirley Adamson, had been wanting to teach her own language for a long time. 

Her mother, Irene Smith, taught at Whitehorse Elementary for 10 years in the 1970s, and together with Harvey's aunt, Florence McIntosh, was one of the first native language teachers in the Yukon.

Harvey's stepfather, Elijah Smith, was an enthusiastic advocate of language learning among the younger generation. 

So when Harvey saw the ad for native language teachers in the paper, she didn't hesitate.

"I didn't think I was good enough to teach, but the ad said basic Southern Tutchone, and I said that's me, so I went and applied for it."

Ironically, Harvey is back in the school she attended from Grades 4 to 6, where hers was the only First Nations family in the school.

"I remember standing against the wall with no one to play with," she says.

Now, as trainee instructor, she is helping to develop lesson plans, observing, and assisting with a variety of teaching activities, as well as learning her language.

"If it's new to me then Bertha will do it for the first day and I'll just sit and listen, and then the next day she'll ask me, do you want to try it? And I'll say okay, I want to try it, and then I go up there."

With seven classes, she explains, she is hearing a new word or sentence seven times a day and is "just picking up words like you wouldn't believe."

"Teaching is where you really learn your language," she adds. "It's the fastest I've ever picked anything up."

When she first started at the school, however, she wasn't sure what to expect.

"I told the kids right at the beginning, I'm here training and I'm learning along with you and with Bertha, so if I don't know something you can also help me."

Harvey is reaping the benefits of an established tradition of native language teacher training in the Yukon. 

Her instructor, Bertha Moose, trained with Lorraine Allen, who has since moved on to teach at F.H. Collins and Porter Creek Secondary.

Allen herself trained with founding instructor Margaret Workman, who began the native language program at F.H. Collins and is now the Southern Tutchone language specialist at YNLC.

Harvey is now busy gathering her own collection of teaching materials in preparation for being assigned to a school of her own next year.

She has made laminated posters of insects and fishes with the Southern Tutchone names underneath, and is also making posters of elders to put up in the classroom. 

"The kids recognize their grandpa or grandma, aunty or uncle, and it kind of makes them feel at home," she says.

Is she nervous about teaching on her own?

"I'm getting a little antsy, but Bertha says don't worry about it, you'll get used to it, it's not that hard," she says. 

"I'm kind of looking forward to it. I'm a little scared but I can do it, I know I can."

She also plans to attend the University of Alaska Fairbanks this summer to begin working towards the Associate of Applied Science degree offered jointly by YNLC, Yukon College, and UAF.

Like Harvey, Dorothy Bellerose is enthusiastic about her new role as a teacher trainee.

"I just love it," she says. "I look forward to it every day. I like the interactions with kids. Every day is different."

"I'm also getting more confident," she adds. "Any difficulty I have, I ask Lorraine" -- veteran instructor Lorraine Allen. "She's really good."

Bellerose also has another experienced teacher to turn to -- her older sister Vera Brown, who teaches at Elijah Smith Elementary and encouraged Bellerose to apply to the YNLC program.

"I used to visit my sister while she was teaching and I thought to myself, I wonder if I could do it. And she said, why don't you just try?"

"Never in my wildest dreams," says Bellerose, did she think that one day she would be teaching her own language.

She was five when her parents were told to speak only English to her because she would be going to school.

"I couldn't figure that out," says Bellerose. "In my mind I think I just blocked my language off."

Now she is regaining that language and sharing her knowledge with her students.

"They ask me, where did this word come from? Or they say, 'My grandma doesn't say it like that!' Then you explain that it's a dialect difference. It's surprising the way they pick up things like that. They point that out right away."

She's surprised, too, at how fast the students learn. "There's a Grade 11 student who speaks to me in Southern Tutchone on the street now, and it's just her first year."

In fact, two of her Grade 11 students at Porter Creek are themselves becoming teachers, offering drop-in language classes at Kwanlin Dun.

Perhaps, in another few years, they'll be joining a future generation of native language teachers in Yukon schools.