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Ms. Whitehouse: ‘Teachers Need to Recognize and Overcome Implicit Bias’

Apr 5, 2018

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This month, we caught up with Jeannine Whitehouse, one of our Saskatchewan Urban Native Teacher Education Program (SUNTEP) alumni, to hear about what she has been up to since graduating.

Jeannine Whitehouse (or Jeannine Pelletier before she got married) graduated from SUNTEP Regina in 2001. Jeannine was raised by her grandmother, Jeanne Pelletier who for most of Jeannine’s life was a single mother. Her Grandparents, Jeanne and George Pelletier, come from the Crooked Lake / Marival area in the southeastern region of Saskatchewan. Jeannine is the youngest of eight in the family.

Proud of her Métis heritage, Jeannine noted that “I was very fortunate as a baby to stay with my grandmother whom I call Mother. I can trace my genealogy back to the Red River Settlement. Mother was a strong Métis woman that came from a time when being Métis was not necessarily a good thing. Something she always reminded me of was that I needed to be able to walk in two worlds.”

With pride in her eyes, Jeannine recalled how her Mother spent many years “using Métis dance as a teaching tool and cultural connection for myself and others in the community. I began dancing when I was five and retired my dancing shoes at 30. I had no idea that being present with her for all the practices and performances the amount of traditional knowledge she was transferring to me.” Jeannine continued, “My Mother taught me my first fancy Red River Jig step sitting on a kitchen chair because it was too fast for my little feet. Once I mastered it sitting, I was able to stand and perform it with ease. This lesson has helped me through much of my life, practicing the motions to gain confidence before moving forward.”

Jeannine made the decision to enroll in the bachelor of education program at SUNTEP Regina at a crucial point in her life. As she puts it, “I began SUNTEP as a young mother. I knew I needed to further my education to provide for my daughter.” She decided that having a university degree would give her more opportunities in the labour market. “Initially, for me, SUNTEP was a door into university, not necessarily teaching.” Jeannine’s two older siblings had completed their undergraduate degrees through SUNTEP.

Today, Jeannine is happy with her decision to join SUNTEP. “I was attracted to the low student to teacher ratio and the opportunity to be educated with other Indigenous students who shared my culture. Plus, the support I received at SUNTEP as a mother who was trying to advance my education was very important to me.” Jeannine talked about how, “during my third year, I gave birth to my son. This was a critical point in my education. I was able to return to school with my son because of the support of my peers and staff at SUNTEP. Without the support and encouragement, I think I may have quit and the outcome for my life and my family might have looked a little different.”

In 2001, Jeannine graduated with a bachelor of education degree from SUNTEP Regina, becoming the third of the Pelletier children to earn a university degree. A few years later, in 2015, she completed a Master of Education degree in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Regina. She is the first in her family to graduate with a master’s degree.

After her studies at SUNTEP, Jeannine worked in the public service with the Government of Saskatchewan. It was then that she received a call about a Community School Coordinator Position with the Regina Catholic School Division. “I accepted the position as it allowed me to work with building the bridge between Indigenous families and the school system.” Jeannine is currently the First Nations, Métis and Inuit Education and Social Studies Coordinator for the Regina Catholic School Division.

Jeannine asserts that “SUNTEP prepared me for my current role by strengthening my identity as a Métis woman. It allowed me to begin exploring cross cultural and anti-oppressive education and implement it into my teaching and daily life.”

Noting that “I have spent my career in schools with a high Indigenous student enrollment,” Jeannine reminisces about how “Growing up, I had just one Indigenous staff member at my school. I was in grade 2 and she was Métis. I remember feeling particularly connected to her and the extra care and attention, I received. I certainly did not realize at that time it was because I was the only Indigenous student in my class. But thinking back to those memories, I now appreciate that it was with her support that I found my confidence and comfort with looking different from the non-Indigenous students. Having this personal experience made me realize how important it is to have more Indigenous people in our schools. It is absolutely important that our children can see themselves in the people that are in the school in all roles, but it is especially critical that they see Indigenous teachers and administrators.”

“I find it interesting” Jeannine said, “that my strongest connection is grade 2 and for over 10 years of my career I taught grade 2. I think that it is a pivotal stage (being 8) in children’s lives. At that time I was trying to make sense of my own identity and beginning to understand things in the world. I think many of our Indigenous children are on this same journey. They are trying to figure out who they are and feel connected to someone or something. Sometimes educators get caught up in making sure they get through curricular content that they forget that these are little humans that still need nurturing.”

Jeannine discussed her beliefs about teaching and learning. “My philosophy on education is not about curriculum and instruction, but that teaching and learning comes down to authentic relationships. An institution can teach you how to be a teacher but it is another thing to teach someone how to be empathetic and compassionate.” She continued, “Parents entrust us with the most precious gift they have, namely, their child and it is our responsibility to treat that child with the same love and guidance as their parents would. I have spent most of my career teaching seven and eight year olds, and I think as adults we underestimate the ability of these young ones to have conversations about injustice and equality. An Elder once shared with me that I was blessed to be able to spend my time with these little ones because they are still so connected to Creator.”

Jeannine suggested that “Educators need to make themselves aware of the history of Indigenous peoples, including how intergenerational trauma continues to impact families. They need to recognize that the values that they may have might not be the same for our Indigenous families. It is critical for educators to be aware of the biases that they may bring into the classroom.”

She concluded that, “I always have this advice for high school students. Post-secondary education is important, and if you have the opportunity to go through the SUNTEP program you will not regret it. The support and reinforcement of identity as well as the connections to a close-knit community will help you throughout your journey toward your degree.”

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