Lessons Learned From a Northern Town

Sandra WeirBlog, Connect Better, Engage Better


  • Respect the history of your stakeholders by being curious about how to improve interactions.
  • There are many experiences, not things, to be grateful for.
  • When you know better, you do better. Be willing and open to learn.
  • The people you work with support you and are your family. Lean on each other.
  • As you move on to new opportunities, embrace your journey with contentment that it happened.

Lessons Learned From a Northern Town

I was laid off from my first teaching job two months before my wedding. My also-unemployed fiancé and I posted a map of Canada on our bulletin board and entered push pins in every town in which we applied for jobs. We made a pact to move wherever one of us found employment. Teaching jobs were scarce, and I was nervous. After weeks of sleepless nights and fingers crossed, I had a successful interview that sent us on a brand new adventure.

After the wedding, we drove over an hour northwest from the Trans-Canada Highway to a town which was designated the Gateway to the North, population 2,000. We drove into the small town in silence, our little car packed with wedding gifts and our hearts filled with doubt. As we pulled up to the house we had rented over the phone, we wondered just what we had done. These are the lessons I learned during the eight years we stayed.

I learned to treat my students and colleagues with respect because everyone has a story. Click To Tweet

Lessons Learned #1: Respect the history of your stakeholders.

Most of the students in our school were First Nations children. At first, I didn’t understand why their parents and grandparents often seemed hesitant, or even angry, when I called home. I was accused of racism more than once for addressing a child’s behaviour or academic struggles. I slowly became aware that many local First Nations families had been victims of the residential school system. It had finally been closed down for good the year before I arrived. I thought I was being a good communicator.  Understandably, my gentle comments were often felt as criticism. 

Families who lived in town their entire lives often distrusted teachers, particularly new arrivals like myself. Many parents never permanently left their small town. They were not keen on having yet another unfamiliar face influence their babies, possibly sparking in them ambitions to move away one day. Some children came from families transferred to this remote small town for a federal government job. Many of these parents were worried about their children’s education. They were concerned about the distance to the nearest big hospital and upset to be so far from extended family. I was verbally attacked frequently that first year, mostly due to parents’ frustration at feeling rather stuck.

My relationships with parents, students, and colleagues improved immensely after a sit-down with my administrator. She told me the history of most of our school’s families. Her information was free of gossip and filled with empathy and respect. It was then I learned to take parent comments less personally and to become curious about how to improve our interactions. This valuable skill has served me well ever since.

Lessons Learned #2: Be grateful for experiences, not things.

We gave out school supplies on the first day of school. For our students, this was an exciting occasion!  We got to see the northern lights more times in a year than most people do in a lifetime.

The temperature in the winter rarely rose above -20 Celsius for three full months, and it was too cold even to snow. But kids bundled up and headed out for recess, no matter what.  Even in the snowy months of November and March, there were no snow days. Families faithfully brought their kids to school by snowmobile.

I received quite a few fish, caught before school, as gifts. Our school witnessed the beauty of the First Nations culture at an annual pow-wow, held in our school gym.  I learned to cover exposed skin to protect myself and my kids from black flies in the summer and the cold in the winter, so we could enjoy the beauty of unspoiled nature all around us. When my third baby was born one February night, I walked down the street to the town hospital, under an inky black, starlit sky.

Lessons Learned #3: I can do anything…and when I know better, I do better.

I drove 45 minutes on a virtually deserted highway in the morning, and again at lunchtime, to work 50% at each of two schools when my daughter was six months old.  Dodging moose and deer was part of my morning commute.

My assignment usually involved teaching at least half the time in French. I didn’t have any resources, so I made them. All of them. I taught more than one sixth-grader to read, and learned not to waste time being shocked, but just to get down to business. We made math manipulatives out of everyday things if our fall order was late, and realized a certain tool wasn’t necessary for learning.

I messed up, made mistakes, and sought advice. When my experienced colleagues talked, I listened, and took away what would work for me. I learned to understand better, do better, and teach better.

Lessons Learned #4: A strong school is a family.

Our school staff was largely made up of a number of teachers a couple of decades older than myself. They didn’t always get along perfectly, but they had been together through all kinds of hard times. At one time, they had been far from home, learning the ropes without family support, so they became one another’s family. The growing pains I experienced as a newcomer, they had all experienced together.

What I noticed most was the way they rallied around each other in times of trouble. My colleagues took the “young ones” (myself and another new teacher) under their wings, in a gruff but caring way. I received largely unsolicited, but always well-meaning advice, every step of the way. My teacher BFF and I had our babies during the same five-year span. We did for each other all the freezer-stocking, shower hosting, and fussing over the newborns that our parents and siblings would have done if we hadn’t been so far away.

Many of our students’ parents had attended our school. They had been taught by those who now guided their children. All this lent a sense of family to our little school, a feeling I have tried to be part of in every school in which I have worked since.

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Lessons Learned #5: Embrace your journey.

My husband and I landed in a northern town because I found a coveted teaching job. We left because my husband found a job he was excited about, and it was my turn to follow him. With us, we brought our three small children, all born in the little hospital that sat at the end of our street. We became a family under the northern sky.

I learned to treat my students and colleagues with respect because everyone has a story. New-release movies and shopping malls—something I took for granted, were now considered luxuries. I learned to be creative, resourceful, and grateful. Treating my students and colleagues with kindness and respect, as though our time together wasn’t temporary, became a part of me. Because of all I learned on this leg of the trip, I learned to embrace the journey before me.

As we drove away from the town that had been our eight-year home, we knew exactly what we had done. I am still grateful that we did it.

About Sandra Weir

Sandra Weir lives in Québec, Canada. She taught every grade from Junior Kindergarten to Grade Eight. Sandra is currently a Grade Six English and Math teacher. She is a wife, mom to three wonderful adults, and a definite dog person.