Lifejacket or Paddle? Teaching the teachers in tertiary institutions

In the work that I do and in my daily life I have exchanges with people where at times it feels more like a dance where both of us are fighting to lead. I work at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada as the Strategist for Aboriginal Initiatives. My work aims to support Indigenous initiatives in teaching and learning at the university and has a strong focus on professional development for teaching assistants (TA’s) and faculty. When I was asked to write a piece for this blog I was really anxious. I am not an academic and writing has not always been something that I gravitate towards. After some encouragement from a good friend I thought about my responsibility to contribute to this community regardless of my anxiety. I also have come to realize that we need to shift how we think about this work—the ways that we navigate discussions in the classroom that focus on power, identity, Indigeneity, social and physical location, and give it a value that goes beyond seeing it as simply a soft skill. This work emerges from my own experiences as an undergraduate student at UBC that evolved into a project co-led by me and Karrmen Crey, called “What I Learned in Class Today: Aboriginal Issues in the Classroom”. You can visit the website for the project and watch the videotaped interviews with students that make these situations visible. We created teaching materials to help identify the dynamics underpinning them and my work now involves implementing these materials across the university.

I am contributing my thoughts here not as an expert but simply as someone who would like to carve out a space for this dialogue in the research-intensive domain that I operate within.

I remember a conversation with a colleague of mine about ways that we approach our work. I was trying to make the point that opportunities to engage with Indigenous perspectives, world views and contemporary issues would be good for all UBC faculty and TA’s to have, and not just those of us who are teaching Indigenous-focused courses, or those of us who are Indigenous. Looking at the thin-lipped expression mirrored back at me, I could tell that this was a losing battle. My colleague expressed that what people who are new to teaching need is a life jacket because they are in survival mode. My response to him was, “Why not a paddle?” Then, at least they would be able to navigate the terrain and in the process, keep moving forward. I don’t think that conversation went much further and we respectfully agreed to disagree.

I admit my approach to this sentiment has not always been the best and sometimes seems more of a reaction rather than a well thought out response. In some ways when you are in it, when you are doing this work, day in and day out you can’t fathom that there is not value in it for everyone. Very nostalgic and naïve, I know. Over the past few years I have become more attuned to responding to this kind of resistance not as a reaction or a personal attack on me; rather, where I can see that the person I am speaking with is on their own learning path.  I remember when I first started my position I was really struggling to find space to invite people into this conversation, but challenge their comfort levels at the same time. At this angrier and more charged moment of my life I was not concerned about the comfort of those who I felt had the whole world as their recliner and changed the channel when they came across a program that they didn’t like. As I have grown and developed as an individual and professionally, I have started to think that approaching this by prioritising how people learn helps to frame some new entry points into the conversation.

The sentiment of my colleague’s comment sticks with me as I see resistance by faculty and TA’s to engage with Indigenous issues in the classroom. If we are always searching for the life-jacket or the tips and tricks to ensure “safety” for ourselves as teachers, how and when will we learn to navigate situations or comments that challenge us and make us uncomfortable? Especially because this is how the students feel, as our video demonstrates. Having thought about this, and reflecting on some of the ways that I have seen peoples ideas and perceptions shift over the years, however slowly, perhaps I can see the value of water-wings as a transition mechanism where we use them to get into the water, but recognize that someday we will need to swim on our own.


Amy Perreault comes from Métis heritage on her Father’s side and mixed European ancestry on her Mother’s side. She was born in Thompson Manitoba but like many of her relatives migrated towards kinder winters and mountains in British Columbia. Amy has been an un-invited guest on the unceded and ancestral territories of the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ speaking Musqueam peoples and is thankful to continue to call this her home. Amy completed her Bachelors Degree at UBC in the First Nation’s and Indigenous Studies Program and is happily plugging away part-time at her Masters degree in the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies in the First Nations concentration.


Image credit

Photographer: thebees accessed June 29, 2016 from (


  1. Nimbus A. Staniland

    Really enjoyed this piece! I can really relate to this idea about concern for personal safety (lifejacket) vs having the ability to develop the skills necessary to navigate (paddle😁) the uncomfortable situation, which will inevitably surface when attempting to contribute indigenous perspectives into predominantly Western forms of education. Teaching in itself can be uncertain and scary, let alone trying to grapple with new and different perspectives in front of an audience, when you are not confident that you can fully comprehend or articulate them on your own! Food for thought. Thanks Amy 😀😊☺


  2. onehappybae

    Thanks for your comment and reflection Nimbus. I know that different environments make a difference and hope that you are supported in the good work that you are pushing forward. I know it is not easy work but can make such a difference for students and others who can see themselves represented in spaces that seem isolating at times.


  3. Manuhiri

    I loved your post, especially as I recognise many of the behaviours you describe in myself – reactionary, challenging, and ultimately conciliatory. And as a librarian and graduate of a Library Masters degree, I want to wish you all the very best with your library studies.


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