Learning from Japan to Nunavut

Nicole Wutke fishing with kids in Nunavut

At a very young age, alumna Nicole Wutke told her mother that when she grew up, she wanted to be a teacher. In 2008, she took the first step to fulfilling her childhood wish and graduated from UVic with her Bachelor in Elementary Education.

It wasn’t until a year and a half later that Wutke began her first teaching job overseas in Japan. She secured the job through the Japan Exchange and Teaching program (JET), which works directly with the Japanese board of education in securing a teaching position.

She worked at three different schools as a teaching assistant where the cultural differences became very evident. “I love playing games and having fun which is so different than what is typical in Japan,” says Wutke.

“Once I broke through their barrier it was amazing. It allowed them to express themselves rather than just reciting phrases from the textbook. It was a huge learning experience for me both personally and professionally. So many things I saw there I wanted to bring back to Canada.”

Wutke was present during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami with her house just 82 km from the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Although she completed her one-year contract with JET, the experience made her long to be back home in Canada.

Instead of returning to Victoria, Wutke and her husband went to Sanikiluaq, Nunavut, where she taught grades four to six. The small, remote community proved to be a whole new world. 

"The biggest challenge was earning respect. When you arrive you're seen as a 'southerner' and you have to earn respect not just as a teacher, but as a member of the community. Then, you are able to build relationships with your students and the teaching can begin."

It was Wutke’s first independent teaching job, but she adapted fast despite a heavy language barrier with her students.

“Once you’re in the classroom, you find it’s less about the theory; you’ve got to feel it. The evil eye only works so much and now you need to come up with something new. The longer I stayed, the fewer differences I saw compared to the south. There are the same struggles and issues in the north.”

Wutke has lived in Nunavut for eight years now and currently lives in Kugluktuk. “It’s a pretty amazing place to be. The people and the culture make it all worth it. You have to be willing to experience the culture to last and survive.”

She now works at the high school as a learning coach, a new position designed to support and collaborate with teachers.

“I want to help teachers as much as I can because they’re always so overwhelmed. Having the learning coach there, is someone you can go to for support and help.”

There is a current shortage of teacher’s in Nunavut. “I highly recommend people explore that option after graduating,” says Wutke. She encourages new graduates to think about the reach their teaching degree can go. “Take the chances and the risks, go to the small communities, go traveling to gain experience, follow your heart and your wants and needs. Every experience that you have in life will make you a better teacher. Go do something, get out of your box, and challenge yourself.”