A Western graduate was honoured with the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence to recognize the enriching experiences she creates to connect students to their Indigenous practices and culture.
Paige Driscoll, MPEd‘23, teaches in Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, near the Mackenzie River delta on Canada’s northernmost road.
She’s been at Mangilaluk School – which spans junior kindergarten to high school – in the Western Arctic for six years. Driscoll was stunned when she got the call about the award, which recognizes teachers for “remarkable achievements in education and for their commitment to preparing youth for a digital and innovation-based economy.”
“I was just so shocked. I never get calls here at the office – they normally call my cell phone,” she said with a chuckle.
Nine others across the country will be recognized for their teaching excellence in the Dec. 7 ceremony, and Driscoll is looking forward to learning from the other recipients.
“We’ll be getting to learn a lot from all the other educators that won. I’ve read all their profiles and I’m so excited to hear from them.”
She started at Mangilaluk School as a Grade 3 and 4 teacher before becoming a teaching vice-principal. This year she’s also splitting her time with duties as an instructional coach for the entire school, popping into various classrooms to help support other teachers.
Driscoll is focused on bringing schoolwork – especially STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) – alive for young learners based on their traditions and personal interests.
“There’s so many rich learning opportunities in the community. If you can find a way to meet the curriculum outcomes through content that’s place-based, content that is local and relevant and meaningful, it’s just a better experience for them. They can see themselves in it,” she said.
“We work with local fishermen, hunters, trappers, inviting Elders into the classroom and taking kids out on the land with local knowledge keepers. As the teacher, it’s about creating space and not always taking space. That means a lot of facilitating, not just teaching.” – Paige Driscoll, MPEd’23
Teaching for Truth and Reconciliation
The majority of the 230-student school is Inuvialuit, or Inuit of the Western Arctic.
Driscoll’s family – originally from a small town in Quebec – has lived in Tuktoyaktuk for 16 years since moving there for work.
“It is the responsibility of all Canadian educators to put the work into decolonizing and Indigenizing their teaching practices,” Driscoll writes on her website.
She collaborates with locals, Elders and Indigenous colleagues to ensure students are engaged in their education and connected to their culture in the process. There’s a constant process of learning and unlearning, Driscoll said.
Kids learn math, English, art and other subjects through ice fishing, dog sledding, building igloos and other traditional activities.
That means weighing, estimating and measuring out on the land.
They write poems and create artwork.
They learn fractions, collect data and make graphs.
But in addition to the curriculum concepts, students at Mangilaluk School are educated on key skills and knowledge from their ancestors, such as catching, cleaning and cooking fish or the impacts of climate change on water flow and caribou populations.
“Indigenous youth need to know their ancestors always engaged in critical thinking and STEM. It may not have been called science back then, but it is,” Driscoll said.
“There is so much science and math in monitoring animal populations or monitoring the land, the snow, the ice, the moon, seasonal patterns.”
The same goes for sewing traditional clothing or making dishes passed down through generations.
As an instructional coach, she helps support teachers all over the school implement Indigenized “inquiry-based” learning, which refers to inspiring creativity and independent learning among students who investigate their own interests or questions. Assessments can be conducted in a variety of ways, so children have multiple avenues to show their understanding of a concept in the curriculum.
For Driscoll, that includes prioritizing student voice, choice and agency. For instance, during one outdoor activity, kids were excited to discover a series of fox prints in the snow. The interest was so high that she added a few extra lessons on animal tracks.
Developing lessons or units often starts with the traditional knowledge or cultural activity, with the learning goals and curriculum elements planned from there.
“The reason I like to do STEM is because it just really shows the kids knowledge doesn’t exist in silos, everything is connected, and there are so many skills to be learned,” Driscoll said.
Math wasn’t always one of her strong suits.
Master of professional education in mathematics
Driscoll graduated from Western with a Master of Professional Education in the field of mathematics education in June.
“My first two years as a teacher I was much more comfortable teaching literacy. Math was always a bit daunting for me. I was looking for a program where I could learn more about math and STEM and coding. I had a friend who went to Western and she really loved it.”
The program is conducted completely online, which allowed Driscoll to continue teaching in Tuktoyaktuk. One of Driscoll’s former professors said her dedication to her work and the young people she teaches was always evident.
“Paige was unrelenting in her commitment to her students, to creating learning experiences for them that were not only mathematically powerful and engaging, but also connected to their personal lives and communities,” said Western education professor George Gadanidis, who taught Driscoll in a course called Mathematics Education Through the Arts in 2022.
“Her culminating project, on the theme of light and darkness, is an inspired work, bringing together the knowledge of four Indigenous Elders, Paige’s energy and creativity, and her love of mathematics,” Gadanidis said of a math unit Driscoll designed around Indigenous artwork to teach concepts such as fractions, geometry, patterns and how to analyze and share data.
The following year, her capstone project led to the creation of a website to support others in her school board with Indigenizing inquiry-based learning. She recently presented it to colleagues across the school district, glad to have her capstone project used as a tool to help others.
“I really love that I got to make a practical, relevant resource that’s being used.”
Throughout her program, Driscoll implemented concepts into her Grade 4 class as she learned them.
“It was really cool merging what I learned in my master’s, making those models and practices work for our kids and teaching it through more Indigenous pedagogy,” she said.