What it’s like to teach at Kayas

Learning on the Job

By Hayley Williams

I started my job teaching at Kayas College a little over a year ago. I arrived at the Kayas campus in John D’or Prairie late on a January evening, after driving for hours down a road so long and so dark I thought it would never end. I’d been driving for days, straight from my parent’s Christmas celebration in Minnesota, and I had no idea what to expect from this job or this community. As I drove, the knots in my stomach tightened as I watched the numbers on my dashboard thermometer creep lower and lower and I realized the remoteness of this place I’d signed on to live. I had first heard of Kayas that November, bored in a dead-end job and living in the tiniest apartment the city of Toronto had to offer. I had answered an ad posted on a job search website for a teaching position in Northern Alberta. One phone call and a skype interview later, and here I was, driving across Canada with a map printed off google, a brand-new winter parka, and a Subaru crammed with hastily purchased sweaters, wool socks and dry goods. As I drove, I obsessively turned this sequence of events over in my mind, fretting over my impulsivity and hoping that I was prepared for the job that lay ahead of me.

For a few weeks after I arrived, buried in the cold, dark, world of January in Alberta, I questioned whether I’d made a terrible mistake. I spent my evenings hiding from the cold in my apartment, longing equally for sunshine and app-based food delivery services. I mourned the loss of the countless conveniences I’d taken for granted living in the city and I struggled to adjust to the forced self-sufficiency that living in an isolated community can require. After a month in John D’or I moved to the even more remote community of Garden River. For the first months I made the three-hour drive to the nearby town of High Level nearly every weekend. Each weekend I would buy food and supplies in quantities that I was sure would last me months, if not years, only to face a bare refrigerator by the end of the week. The weather was its own challenge. I grew up in the northern United States and while I’d never loved the cold, I’d never seen it as a particular fear. The first few days of temperatures below negative forty knocked me to my knees. One cold Saturday the heat stopped working in my house and I called my mother in tears only to find out that the problem was a broken thermostat, easily fixable and certainly nothing to weep over.
In time, the intense beauty and the incredible community spirit of this place I’d stumbled into began to warm me over. I adjusted to the pace of life in Garden River and learned how to plan and organize my life around its obstacles.

Life got better for me quickly. I met people willing to show me around, to invite me into their homes and to help me navigate the nearby communities. As people continuously went out of their way to give me a hand when I needed one and to make me feel welcome in their community, I felt myself begin to adjust and change. Within my first few weeks, and almost accidently, I adopted a dog from a neighbor. My new dog and I spent hours walking along the banks of the frozen Peace River as I worked up the courage to finally cross over the ice to the beaches on the other side. I began to explore the areas around the community and was endlessly blown away by the breathtaking night skies and incredible, vastly beautiful forests. I saw buffalos, cranes, and foxes that crept out of forests so still and so quiet and cold it was hard to believe they could sustain life at all.

Watching me struggle through this adjustment period, the students and staff at Kayas never failed to offer me kindness and welcome. I stumbled through my first classes and wrestled with basic technologies, but the support and encouragement of the people at Kayas never flagged. My early classes were a mess. As I explored the Social Studies curriculum, I quickly realized that one of my biggest challenges would be overcoming the inherited, flawed worldview and knowledge base that I carry with me as a settler in Canada. As I worked through Alberta High School textbooks and listened to my students give me their perspectives on Canadian and world history, politics, and culture I quickly came to realize that the narratives I had learned as a student and had only cursorily questioned were greatly lacking in voices that reflected the lived experiences and history of the students in front of me. It became increasingly obvious that my own education and training were flawed and lacking, and that in order to teach history effectively I would need to relearn everything that I had been taught. As I floundered for resources and information my greatest source of learning became the students in my class. Students forgave my confusion, my missteps, and my ignorance and helped me find ways to improve my teaching and adjust my worldview at the same time. It’s a cliché to say that I’ve learned more from my students than they have from me, but it’s difficult not to acknowledge how profoundly educational living and working here has been for me. I’ve learned to question my beliefs, both deeply held and barely considered, and I’ve learned the value of a lifestyle that relies on community rather than convenience.

It’s now been a little more than a year since that cold night in January and I continue to find new learning experiences and new sources of knowledge every day. I’ve learned to question beliefs held since childhood and to think and listen carefully before I assert my knowledge or opinions. I’ve learned to live with fewer belongings and to rely on my own cooking for delicious food and my own strength to solve problems. I’ve learned that what may seem like a crisis to me, (a frozen car battery, a frozen propane tank, an empty cupboard) is really only an obstacle that can be easily overcome if I can swallow my pride and ask for help. I’ve discovered strengths and abilities I never knew I had and I was excited to learn that I too, can be a resource for those needing help. I’m constantly impressed and awed by the students I have the privilege of working with and their persistence and determination to earn themselves an education despite the hurdles they face. They are a constant inspiration and I feel so privileged to learn from them every day. Working at Kayas has been one of the great learning experiences of my life, and I’m so excited to see what the next year brings me!