I write this letter for the teachers of my two boys, Nico and Ronan, and for teachers past, present, and future.

I first want to situate myself in the context of this letter: I am your colleague, of sorts. As a former teacher who can sympathize with the work of educating future generations, I can see your efforts that often go unnoticed. I can empathize with returning home to your own children with little to no energy left because of all the love you poured into other peoples’ children all day. I can empathize with sitting in your living room at the end of the school day, still thinking about the students in your classroom — wondering if they are okay, if they are fed, and if they are loved. 

I have an incredible amount of respect for anyone who enters the profession of teaching. This letter comes from a place of love and care, not only for the field of teaching itself but also for yourselves, as my colleagues.

I am a Mohawk and Anishinaabe mother and doctoral student in the Social Justice Education department at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at U of T. I am a student-parent, and passionate about building bridges through the work and opportunity of Reconciliation. My experiences with the education system may not have been the same as yours, so I write to you in the spirit of reconciliation so we may work together to foster a learning environment that values my children’s creativity, inherent gifts, and interests.

Dear Teacher, 

Please be wary of making my children spokespeople. My children cannot possibly speak for over 630 First Nations communities in Canada, the Métis, and Inuit. Asking them to be the ‘Indigenous voice’ is asking them to pan-Indigenize — to view all Indigenous peoples as the same. It is my hope that, as teachers, you will take the time to learn about the diversity across Indigenous nations and communities and localize your learning as well. As a child, I felt the responsibility and weight of representation placed upon me, and I carry it to this day. This is not a weight I wish my children to have, and I look to you to support me in this.

Dear Teacher, 

Our people exist outside of the construct of colonialism. Our people exist outside of trauma. Our people exist outside of displacement and dispossession. I beg of you, as much as you may teach about atrocities, colonial disruption, and ongoing violence, please teach my children and their peers the beauty of our people, so they may develop strength-based narratives of their ancestors and see the strength they also possess. 

I think about my ancestors taking steps on the same soil as me, and young children playing in the same grasses as my son. I think about the genius of our people. Our ways of knowing. Our systems of education. Our forms of government. Our medicines. Most importantly, I think about the fact that we are still here. Please support them in remembering the teachers that sit outside the walls of institutions: our Elders, our knowledge keepers. While it is not recorded in a textbook, their knowledge is valuable and sacred, and our time with them is sacred as well.

Dear Teacher,

I ask that you see competence in my children. Their ways of knowing may look different from your own and may look different from a majority of their classmates. But they are not broken, and they are not in need of saving. Far too often in education, certain ways of knowing are privileged while others are rendered inferior. 

What happens to those whose traditions, customs, and ways of knowing do not align with ‘dominant’ knowledge? What happens when one’s learning style is not recognized, included, or spoken to, and you are expected to conform to the norm? Then, students are labelled as ‘at-risk.’ 

At-risk of what exactly? What is the standard by which we are comparing a child’s quality of life? Which standard are we comparing their understanding to? When using the label of ‘at-risk,’ we suggest that the error lies in the student — in their upbringing, in their home life — while ignoring various other factors, including those that are historical, social, economic, and political. My children are whole beings. 

Lastly, I am here. I am here, and I have a deep longing to partner with you. I am my children’s first teacher, but you are also their teacher, I value your knowledge as a professional, and I appeal to your humanity. A quote that has stuck with me from my days at teachers’ college is that, as teachers, “People are entrusting you with their kids. There is no higher honour.” Nia:wen (Thank you) for the work you do. I see you. I appreciate you. I value you.

With a good mind,

Heather Watts

Mother of Nico and Ronan