“The hardest thing for me to do was to write the letter to the community to tell them I was leaving and how to sum up what they've allowed me to be a part of out there.”
Those are the words of Tammy Riel, who is leaving her principalship at Cando School for a new chapter in her life in a new position. Riel first began teaching at Cando 14 years ago and became its head administrator in 2005. She will open the next school year as the principal of a K-12, 225-student school in Naicam.
“I'm excited to go to Naicam, but I know that group of children will need different things from me as there won't be that same need that I was able to fill at Cando.”
The need she filled at Cando was that of dedicated innovator pledged to making a positive difference in the lives of her students, residents primarily of two nearby First Nations. With the support of the Living Sky School Division, Riel and her staff have implemented programs unique to the division. Their school was also asked to take part in a provincial pilot program she hopes will impact more schools eventually.
Living Sky School Division board members have looked upon Cando as a school that has seen success, and its innovations have spilled over into the division as a whole. Riel has been recognized as a catalyst of that process, but she defers, crediting the support of the division, the dedication of the school staff and, most importantly, the support of the students’ communities.
Riel’s time at Cando has been a life-changer for her and for her students and one might think she and the school cannot be separated. But, sometimes, when an innovator finds her work has seen success and the strategies are entrenched and sustainable, she can look for other life changes.
One of the changes on Riel’s horizon is a new relationship.
“As my students joke, I'm moving for a boy,” laughs Riel.
While she is leaving the school, she will be taking relationships she’s formed with students over the years with her. There are many she will continue to be in touch with, people who have been inspired by her and people she herself finds inspiring in turn. She says she’s honoured they continued to allow her to be a part of the lives.
At the end of each school year, Riel gives a speech expressing her pride in being part of the Cando School community.
"I just love the thought that these children that I’ve known forever are populating our community and they are changing it, and they are creating opportunities for themselves and for others, and they are raising their children, I'm just so proud of them."
She will miss Cando, a Pre-K school with daycare, but she’s decided it’s time for something new. If she wasn’t leaving the area, she says she wouldn’t even consider leaving her position at Cando.
"When I think about [leaving], I get really weepy and very emotional, so I try to just think about what I have to do versus not being here in the fall. I am really excited about being in Naicam and all the different things I'll be able to be involved with, but it’s overwhelming on the other end because I'm not here to be doing things going on this fall.”
Becoming a teacher was not always on Riel’s radar. Oh, like most Grade 6 kids, she thought about it.
She was born in Spiritwood. Her family was from Leoville, but her father, working in the oil patch, was killed when she was 14. Her dad’s parents had retired to North Battleford, and her mom wanted her kids to be close to their father’s parents, so they moved to North Battleford.
“So I spent my teenage years here and graduated from John Paul II, moved to Alberta, started working and going to school over there, them I came back when I had my business course.”
Her mom had married Jim Whiteside, who owned Mifab Manufacturing, so the family was involved with Mifab, she says.
“I worked there for a while, realized I couldn’t work with my family,” she laughs, so went to work for Saskatchewan government in the agriculture sector.”
It wasn’t what she hoped it would be, so she looked to the University of Regina, thinking of taking some computer courses.
There, she found out about, was intrigued by and enrolled in the Saskatchewan Urban Native Teacher Education Program.
SUNTEP is a four-year, fully accredited Bachelor of Education program offered by the Gabriel Dumont Institute in co-operation with the Ministry of Advanced Education, the University of Regina and the University of Saskatchewan.
“The write up about SUNTEP was really interesting, the way they worded it was interesting so I put my application in to do an interview.”
She found herelf, “intrigued by the faculty and what they were talking about,” and was pleased that she was accepted.
“They accepted me and I moved down there with two young children, one age one and one turning four. It was a great experience.”
Students of SUNTEP study: Native studies; cross-cultural education, Métis and First Nations history and culture; theories and skills of teachings; and issues facing students in today's society.
"Four years at SUNTEP was some of the best learning professionally and personally I've ever been through ... but at the end of the four years I was ready to come home.”
She applied for a position at Connaught School and was interviewed by the now late Anne-Marie Merle, after whom a special education award has been named. Riel didn't get the job, but Merle recommended her for a position at Phoenix School, a program for at-risk students. She worked there for two and a half years.
On one occasion, she attended a school dance at Connaught School supervised by then principal Amy Williams, who has since become one of Riel's mentors. Also at the dance was the principal of Cando School, Robert Clipperton. He suggested she apply for a temporary position at Cando.
"I thought, I don't actually know where Cando is, never been there, but sure," she laughs.
Her first visit to Cando was when she went for her interview with Clipperton, a number of board members from the Biggar School Division and Randy Fox, who was director of education for that division at the time. (Fox has since become director of education for Living Sky School Division and is retiring at the end of the summer.)
"I thought my interview was horrible," she says. "I felt there's no way this is going well – and they offered me the job the next day."
She was teaching a split Grade 6 class and "absolutely fell in love with those children."
When Clipperton said she could consider applying for a permanent position in which she would be with the same kids the next year, it was a "no brainer."
She says, "I've been there ever since, never looked back."
She says people have asked her why she didn't try to get a position in North Battleford, where she lives, but she says, "If I wasn't moving away, I would have gladly and happily stayed at Cando. It is such an amazing, unique place."
She and Fox established a working relationship that fostered innovation at Cando.
"When we were in the Biggar School Division, Randy was really supportive of Cando," says Riel. "We were always somewhat the abnormality within the division for the amount of First Nations students attending our school. Our numbers were always higher – which is a really good thing and it strengthens us – but it looks different. Randy was always very supportive of looking at ways for supporting First Nation students and make sure they had the ability to be successful in whatever they endeavoured."
It began with training in reclaiming youth at risk with the Response Ability Pathways (RAP) program developed by Dr. Martin Brokenleg, a Lakota Elder and psychologist.
The division, she said, was "really big on helping us develop our professional learning communities and looking at ways to have our teachers be collaborative."
It paid off.
"One of the strengths at Cando is the feeling within the staff of being in it together, creating change and being allowed to be innovative," says Riel.
When a provincial amalgamation of school boards took place, Cando became part of the Living Sky School Division. Riel was happy that Fox made the move as well, becoming assistant director of education of the larger district.
"Randy always has that extra little focus with us, not in a bad way, not that he ever didn't focus on all the schools, but I think Cando, because it was his to begin with, there was an extra connection and he was always supportive of our ideas and what we thought would work," says Riel.
"We had such a great relationship with him. He would stop by the school … and he knew our kids and he knew their names … and the staff knew that he was supportive and we were able to trust that our thoughts about what would help these students would really be valued and supported."
An indication of the lengths to which the division goes to support Cando School is in the fact that the division funds a justice liaison worker position.
"We are the only school in the province even to this day that has a justice liaison worker and that would be an example of support by Randy and Lonny [Darroch, CFO] and the division," says Riel. "They understood our students had a need that might not be similar to what was in the Battlefords or elsewhere."
The worker helps students in trouble with the law understand the significance of their charges, seeing that they connect with their layers and make it to their court appearances so further charges don't add up. The program has helped keep students in school, or at least have access to education, as they deal with their legal issues.
"Over the past 10 years that program has helped so many students, and it's fully funded by the division," says Riel. "It's something they fund because they understand the need for our students."
Riel also talks about the implementation of self-regulation at Cando School.
It came out of a trip to Regina to meet with colleagues about forming an elders council, that Riel and her staff walked into a "weird" classroom and met Brenda Whittam-Neary, an occupational therapist who had been seconded by the government ministry as an expert in self-regulation.
How self-regulation – the ability of individuals to monitor and control our their behaviour, emotions or thoughts – could benefit Cando seemed immediately clear to Riel.
"We started with the environment, de-cluttering, organizing, neutralizing. In lots of schools, it's all about print and bright colours to attract kids, but it can be overwhelming, so that's where we started."
It also involved new furniture, such as chairs that rock, adding an exercise room and a change in school structure, allowing students time to "check in" on how they were feeling and do what was needed to get themselves ready to learn. It meant using some curriculum time, but in the long run increased the amount of time students were able to work on curriculum.
"The division had to really trust us in taking away some of that curricular time," says Riel.
Cando has been implementing the self-regulation concept for seven years.
"It's that foundation piece to everything we do, because if our kids come in hungry or tired or anxious or traumatized, all the things that our kids might be walking in the door with, no matter how great your lesson is or how wonderful a teacher you are, if they are not ready, they are not retaining it. So we trained everybody from our bus drivers to our superintendents to our teachers."
She expects the support of the division to continue as a result of the success they've had, and also because the new director of education, David Hutchinson, whom she met as a result of getting involved in the self-regulation concept, is also a "believer," as she says.
"Cando has had great success with that program," says Riel. "Everything that's built up from that has come from the ability to get kids to regulate and understand how they're feeling."
She adds, "We've done a lot of work and training around the traumatized brain and traumatized youth, and having that foundation gives us the ability to do things like Following Their Voices, land-based-learning and more of those curricular involvement items we've been able to add."
The land-based learning program is near and dear to her heart, says Riel.
"Cando used to have a travel club that would travel internationally one year and the next year try to have some type of Canadian experience," says Riel.
One year, a new teacher from the Yukon suggested going to Old Crow in her home territory, for a land-based learning program that would address curriculum outcomes.
"It absolutely changed me for the rest of my life, and all the students who participated," says Riel. "I can't even begin the describe the difference immediately we saw with them, but over time continued to see with them … their confidence, their connectedness to the world and the community, their ability to see themselves as a part of a world, not isolated."
The next year, a land-based learning program was established by the Living Sky School Division, in which Cando and Leoville took part. This year, Spiritwood High School was added.
"My vision for LBL would be that it should be seasonal," says Riel. "We should honour the seasonal learning and teaching of our aboriginal partners … I just challenge Living Sky to do it, I wish I could stay to do it.
Another innovation close to Riel's heart is the establishment of an elders council, which started with Cando School and became a division-wide council.
Most recently, Cando School became a pilot school in the Following Their Voices initiative, an initiative that is designed to improve First Nation, Métis and Inuit student outcomes by engaging and supporting students, firstly through the student-teacher relationship.
"LBL and self-regulation are universal," says Riel, and what she has learned she will take to Naicam.
"Naicam's needs are going to be different. When I first went to Cando, I'm not First Nation and I didn't know what Cando needed, but I had the opportunity to stay and learn and try to figure out what they needed, so my skills and my understanding developed with them. I know that will happen at Naicam."
She adds, "I think self-regulation is a universal thing and the ability to have experiential learning that is connected to authentic real world skills that hopefully is outside of the four walls of the classroom … I think those are things that I can bring to Naicam and look for opportunities to support what they are already doing and maybe fill some needs that are there."