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Merah Gasmo is finding purpose in education

January 10, 2024

Undergraduate student Merah Gasmo is pictured outside the Maclaurin Building. Merah Gasmo is in her fourth year of the Elementary Teacher Education Program at UVic and is set to graduate in June 2024. She grew up in Regina, Saskatchewan on Treaty 4 territory. In high school, Merah was inspired and mentored by a teacher with a passion for social justice and reconciliation. Together, over four years, the two created a reconciliation committee and worked to bring Indigenous culture, truths and traditions to their predominantly white school.

In 2020, Merah received the TD Scholarship for Community Leadership, which allowed her to attend university anywhere in Canada. She was originally drawn to UVic because of the Indigenous Law program offering and planned to continue her studies in law after completing an undergraduate degree in education. Now, with graduation on the horizon, she says things have changed and she plans to stay in the field of education.

What made you want to pursue an undergraduate degree in education?

Growing up, my parents separated, which caused a lot of challenges in my life outside of school. So, school very much became my safe place. Teachers became my safe people. I decided I wanted to be able to be part of education so I could create that same space, support and caring network for students who might be in a similar position.

For me, the primary appeal of teaching is the relational focus. What if we could just be there to support the unmet needs of children? That is my vision and purpose for being part of education. The Indigenous Education (IED) courses I have taken helped instill that idea in me more than any others because relationships, storytelling and building community are at the heart of each one.

What made you shift your academic focus from law to education?

In both fields, you are bound to systems. With a law degree, I thought maybe I could influence policy development and work to change systems through legislation. But the more I thought about it, I realized I'd be constantly fighting while trying to make change – which would be on such a small scale that I could easily become discouraged. Whereas in education, the impact and the changes that you can make in someone's life are so intimate and meaningful that I think I'll continue to feel that throughout my career. 

Can you tell us about your experiences in Indigenous Education courses?

Yes! One of the key takeaways from the IED courses that have directly influenced my teaching pedagogy is cultivating felt understanding. As a student, when I'm emotionally engaged in a topic or a subject, those are the things that stick with me 5 or 10 years down the road. So as a teacher, I will always try to ensure that my students come away from each lesson with a feeling. Another thing would be positionality and self-awareness. As someone from European heritage, that's been very important for me to learn how to position myself with awareness of the privileges I hold. I try to be aware of how my voice may carry more weight and when I can make room for other voices.

There is a time I remember sitting at home in Regina at the dinner table watching the five o'clock news. I noticed a disproportionate number of stories negatively talking about First Nations people. Crimestoppers ads, boil water advisories, food insecurity – I felt like none of these stories showed Indigenous people or culture in a positive light. I remember wondering why or how that could be acceptable. That was what sparked my journey into learning about the history of Canada. I started to connect the dots about historical impacts that still exist today. As an educator, I want to look at what we can do to flip that script and make it be less negative.

What do you hope to do with your education?

My first goal is to have my own classroom. I want to create relationships with students and make a positive space where they can experience academic and personal growth. Being part of the community is also important to me, for example being part of extracurricular groups, boards or committees. I think that's where we can start to influence some of those systemic changes that need to happen.

In high school, I was always the one leading and talking. In university, I have become more comfortable with listening. I still see myself as a leader, but I've unlocked a new aspect of leadership through listening and just slowing down. They talk about the first five years of your career being a transformational time as you learn to build your classroom and your teacher identity. I imagine there will be another unlocking of my leadership personality as I take on my first five years of teaching.

Do you have any advice for people who might be nervous about teaching?

I think it’s important to acknowledge if teaching is a path you want to take and is important to you. Harvest that motivation and use it to light your fire throughout the program and as comfort for when things get hard. You should also bring some self-awareness to teaching because it's important to stay true to who you are and understand your values, so you don't get caught up in things like appropriation or just checking boxes.

There have been times in IED classes where I say something I believe is a valuable point. Then our instructor, Lauren (Jerke), will add one thing that shifts it, and then suddenly there’s another perspective presented that I hadn’t considered. When that happens, the important thing is to not get bogged down or deflated, but to get excited when those challenges are presented. Because again, that discomfort is growth.

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