Teaching in a remote northern community: A conversation with 2018 Teacher Education graduate Ryan Chickite


Ryan Chickite graduated from UVic with a Bachelor of Education in 2018. He has since relocated to the remote northern community of Arviat, Nunavut, where he currently lives and works as a high school teacher. He will be there for six years to gain the necessary experience to teach at the high school level as well as to take advantage of the opportunity to be re-located back home at no cost.

Arviat is located on the western shores of Hudson Bay, surrounded by lively, rolling tundra, an intriguing land rich in wildlife, a gently rolling landscape dotted with lakes and ponds, and steeped in Inuit culture. The second-largest community in Nunavut, Arviat remains closely tied to its traditional Inuit roots, and in addition to having a vibrant arts and crafts industry is also becoming a centre of mine training and employment for the Kivalliq Region.

We recently caught up with Ryan to learn more about his life up north. 

Faculty of Education: How did your journey of becoming a teacher in Arviat, Nunavut take shape?

Ryan Chickite: After graduating with my Bachelor of Education in 2018, I worked as a substitute teacher for about a year in southern Canada. I still had a lot of debt, and I wasn't making a lot of money, so I ended up switching from substitute teaching to first aid. I had a supervisor at that job who encouraged me to continue teaching and use my degree.

I took the advice and went to speak to the principal at my old high school. I wanted to work with the teachers who taught me, and I thought that would be a very cool experience. But I only have my Bachelor of Education. I spoke to the principal, and I said, “I'm going to go back to university. What courses should I be taking so that you will hire me? What do you need in the school?”

He said “Honestly, if I were you, I’d go up north and get experience as a high school teacher. That way, you don’t have to pay for more schooling, and you’ll get the experience you need. When you get back, we’ll hire you.” So, I started looking into it.

What was the initial transition like when you first moved to Nunavut?

RC: It was very, very tough when I first moved up here. There wasn't much of a foundation. I didn't know how to teach very well. Nobody left me any resources. No one was really helping me with anything. There were a few moments when I considered going home.

Obviously, I stayed. I think there's something fun about figuring things out along your journey.

Let’s talk about the teaching experience. How have you approached it?

RC: The academic range of ability in all my classes are extremely wide. I have some students who can barely read and write, and other students who are academically inclined. So, I had to create a system that works for everyone. There are a bunch of different ways that I can go about it.

For example, let’s say I am teaching a unit in science. The first thing I do is I find articles - maybe five articles. I’ll underline all the key important information before I read it to the class. When I go to the front of the room and read it out loud to them, we'll take some notes. I'll have them underline the important information with me. And then I just want them to copy that information onto a separate piece of paper.

After we do the notes, we do a quiz based on the notes. Every grade level has made progress at different rates. If they can handle a project, we’ll do it before the quiz. That way students can become even more familiar with the content prior to the quiz. The only things I mark are their projects and their quizzes. My grade twelves can handle pretty much anything I throw at them such as research projects, PowerPoint projects, good copy work on Word Documents, class discussions and group work.

Here’s how I feel about marking. If you’re doing worksheets with a class and mark every page, two things happen. You’re busy until 11:30 pm every night, and a lot of people are going to fail. What I do instead is have the students self-assess once we’ve finished a section of notes or every few weeks. We’ll ask: How much work did you do? Did you finish all your work? Give yourself a five. If you finished most or some of it, three. Not a lot or nothing, one. After that, my work for the day is done. Their work for the day is done. It’s a very simple way to mark students’ daily work, and the expectations are fairly low. I’m very efficient. It takes the stress out of being a teacher. And, that way everyone is capable of passing.

What is something that surprised you about the teaching experience in Arviat?

RC: The textbooks that you are given here are way too advanced for the students! And they don’t have answer keys. This can be a challenge for new teachers. In the North, you must meet the students where they are academically.

For my math classes, for example, I have spent quite a bit of money on Teachers Pay Teachers for beautiful, well-done unit plans, and they have video instruction so that if a student misses class, I can put the lessons on a computer, and they can catch up. Students can also self-mark their daily work. They can just grab one of my answer key booklets and use it to find out: How am I doing? Am I on the right track? I have students fill out their self-assessments prior to the quiz, that way the only thing I have mark are their quizzes. I have uploaded my resources to the school’s shared file for the next teacher to use. There is now a solid foundation for new math teachers that come up here. But something I was not incredibly prepared for was having to find/build my own classroom resources.

You’ve mentioned that there is a requirement to help with after-school clubs and activities.

RC: Yes. The clubs can be as basic as you want, even if you just want to host a cards game once a week. I already had students showing up to my classroom playing cards anyways. They would just come by on, like, a Thursday afternoon, and they would just play cards with each other. I didn't ask them to come, but my door is always open and when they come visit it’s totally okay with me. If you want a more intense club, you can ask for funding and most likely you will get it. Some other examples could be rock climbing, soap carving or even sports.

You’re on the Crisis Response Team at your school. Can you tell us more about that?

RC: I’m on the Crisis Response Team partially because I have a first aid background. One thing that’s common up north is that there's no ambulance. So, for example, if you have a broken bone and are getting someone ready for transportation, I can stabilize the person and write down their vital information for the hospital. That way the doctor can hit the ground running. Something happening lately in the school is that a few students are having seizures. It can happen for multiple different reasons. If there is a serious event, anyone can call me on my classroom phone, and I’ll respond right away.

We meet once a month to discuss all the different things happening in the school, why they're happening, and to learn how to operate as a team. We figure out our individual roles. The other day, we had a meeting and went through all our first aid kits, made sure everything was updated, and that we know where all the equipment is. We’re starting to order up all the things we are missing. Now, we're working on recruiting young people that are team players. It’s a very good atmosphere to be in. We're working as a team, figuring things out.

Are there cultural dimensions of living and teaching in Nunavut that you’ve had to adapt to?

RC: Part of the problem up here is attendance. A lot of the time you'll see students showing up for the first time halfway through the semester. You'll have students missing class because they're hunters, their parents are hunters, and their families need them. It’s not very fair to give them a failing mark if they're missing some work. That's probably the hardest part is accommodating the culture up here, which is that school just isn't as important as survival. A lot of people up here are just trying to survive.

The other thing that’s very challenging is that students are learning in a second language. Their first language is Inuktitut.

What advice would you give to teachers who are considering moving up north to teach?

RC: To be successful here, you must be the kind of person who is adaptable. I am a visitor here. I am not trying to change the current system in place. But you can come up here as somebody that doesn't know anything and learn along the way, and then instruct that way. That's honestly the best way to do things in life anyway. Because if you don't know something, when you figure it out, you can now tell the next person how to figure it out, too.

How to get involved

If you’re curious about teaching in Nunavut, here are some YouTube videos that share a glimpse of life up north:

The Nunavut school district has many teaching opportunities perfect for career building and advancement.  Check out Educationcanada.com and select “Arviat” to peruse local teaching opportunities. Ryan has also provided his email address (rchickite@gov.nu.ca) for anyone who would like to ask further questions.