I walked into a school on an Indigenous reserve. A student cheerfully greeted me with a smile, extended out her hand, and said, “Hi, my name is Cindy. What’s your name?”

These were some of the happiest students I’d met on an Indigenous reserve school thus far.

I walked into the school classroom, and I saw: Couches, tables, and chairs spread across the room, not in rows to look at the front. Large windows allowed for rays of natural sunlight to shine on the students. A door led immediately to the outdoors. A class pet gecko sat comfortably in his home. Cubicles held computers, mics, and webcams for virtual classes, but the dividers were see-through, so it still felt like a part of the larger classroom. Arts and crafts were on one side, whereas the other side had a 3D printer, digital media instruments, and hydroponics.

Every classroom in the world usually looks the same. The front of the classroom is where the power is: the teacher and an information-sharing device whether it be a smartboard, projector, whiteboard, chalkboard, or flipchart. The teacher disseminates information and students faithfully accept it. They are right if they do as they’re told; they are wrong if they don’t. But this classroom had no centre of power.

A student cheerfully greeted me with a smile, extended out her hand, and said, “Hi, my name is Cindy. What’s your name?” I have never experienced anything remotely close to that, ever, at any school.

It was so unsettling to meet a student that was so joyful in a school. As if you’re not supposed to be joyful in school. If you’re joyful and carefree at school, it must be because you’re not learning with sufficient rigour. You’re supposed to be stressed, quiet, calm, and docile. As I write this, it sounds ridiculous. Why wouldn’t we want our children to be happy and joyful? Why are our students so unhappy in classrooms that a cheerful student with a smile unsettles me because I’ve just never seen one before?

She was happy, not because she was hanging out with friends during the break; she was happy because she was in class.

Every one of the ten students paid full attention throughout the entire presentation. The workshop happened with all the students since it was a small school. The students asked about the rise of populism, why some people deny climate change, what I consider to be the most important problem in the world, and how and why I got involved in all this. The workshop went normally as in most schools.

After school, I had a very moving conversation with the teacher. Appearing to be in her thirties, she said that she’d been teaching at the school since it opened five years ago. She was the principal in the early stages of the school and now, she just teaches. The school was built by the Skeetchestn Chief and Council.

I told the teacher, “This is the most positive school environment I’ve ever visited, especially on an Indigenous reserve. What are you doing differently?” 

Immediately, she teared up and said, “Thank you. This classroom is my dream come true. I had a rough childhood with a rough family and home. I was homeless for some time when I was 15 and my high school teacher got me through that time. He drove me to school every day, got me a hot meal every day, encouraged me to continue school, and go to university. This is my way of paying it forward.”

She told me, “A lot of these students have been expelled from the public school system in Kamloops and came here. But if you ask the students why they got kicked out, they respond, ‘I was treated like crap from the teachers.’ or ‘I was bullied because I was Indigenous or gay or…’ Our school is like an outreach youth centre, an alternative school, operating as a school. Half the time, we’re following the BC curriculum, and half the time, we’re doing youth outreach activities. I try to bring in a lot of outside programs, speakers, and opportunities. I personally invest a lot in the classroom. I bring a lot of technologies, media, filmmaking, 3D printing, photography, cooking, sewing, coding, robot-making. I try to expose them to as many things they want to do.”

She told me about how she holds fundraisers to get couches and computers for the school, and writes letters to get discounted items or experiences for the students to get out and see the world more. At the end of the school day, all the students get a goodie bag from a health clinic with soap, toothpaste, toothbrush, and other hygiene products.

I’ve never seen students so happy, open, and just being themselves. And this was a school of Indigenous reserve students who recently lost their homes to forest fires, and expelled students from the city, living away from their families. What a testament to the power of an educator who cares.

“I don’t even call them students, I consider them my kids. I don’t have children of my own – I can’t have children – so these are my children.”