Four More Weeks

Wow. I only have four weeks left of my first school year in Mistissini. A lot has happened since my last update at Christmas. Let me fill you in on a few things:

I had a really nice Christmas and New Year back in Toronto with friends and family before returning to Mistissini to resume teaching on January 8th. Unlike most school boards, we don’t have March Break, instead we have ‘Goose Break’. This is a two week period in which many families go into their camps in the bush to hunt for geese. Because goose hunting season isn’t until the weather warms up, this two week break occurs later in the year than many teachers would like. This means that from January 8th to April 27th, we didn’t have any breaks, which made for a very long stretch of teaching. By the beginning of April, both students and teachers were getting restless and anxious for some time off.

To be honest, that sixteen week period was pretty draining. It was a very cold and long winter, but we all endured it together, and tried to make the best of it. I found that after Christmas, things began improving a lot more with my students. I think their trust in me slowly grew each month and so did their respect for me. I began fostering closer relationships with some of the girls, inviting two of them over at a time for dinner at my place (something that would seem strange in Toronto but is common in this culture). I really enjoyed these times, because we were able to enjoy each other’s company and bond in a way that wasn’t possible at school.

We had a three day weekend for Easter and I spontaneously decided to make the (very long) journey home to Toronto to surprise my family! Even though I knew that I’d be home four weeks later for Goose Break, I really felt like I needed the time at home. Though very short, it was incredibly refreshing for me. In total, I traveled for over 32 hours to get to Toronto and back by car, but it was well worth it! Four weeks later, I was back in Toronto for Goose Break. Those two weeks were such a nice time for me to catch up with family and friends in Toronto. The 14 days flew by but I savoured every single moment and it gave me the energy I needed for the last stretch of the school year!

Now, there are only four weeks left of the school year! I can barely believe that I’ve made it this far. There were a few times, that I really questioned if I could do it. But with a lot of prayer (thank you!) and determination, I pushed through those hard days, and am in the final stretch, as they say. I have mixed feelings to be honest. Part of me is very excited for six weeks off this summer and to be back in ‘civilization’ again. But, another part of me truly is sad. My students are heading off to ‘high school’ next year (7th grade in Quebec), so I won’t see them nearly as often. I will definitely miss them, (yes, even the ones that drove me crazy), because I invested so much into their lives.

I think when you give your all to something or someone, they become more than just a job or a duty, they become a part of your heart. I have literally given my students my blood, sweat and tears and they have grown to mean a lot to me. In all honesty, I feel as though I need a little more time. Just a few more weeks, months, years, to convince them that they are smart and beautiful and worthy. But I know that I did what I could in the time I was given with them. I did my best to show them God’s love and I will continue to pray for them as the move on to the next step in their lives. As for right now, I am committed to finishing this year well, and continuing to give them my best until the end of June when our time together comes to an end.

PS. In February, I had to make the decision of whether or not I would be returning here for the next school year. After much prayer and careful consideration, I decided that I will be coming back in August for another year. Despite its many challenges, I strongly feel that my time in Mistissini is not done yet. It took me two months to even begin to adapt to life here and then another three months to feel like I was actually becoming part of the community. I believe there is more here that God wants to do in and through me and I am excited for what is next. I am not sure what grade I will be teaching yet, it will either be 3rd, 4th, 5th or 6th and I feel open to whatever adventure God has for me.

I would greatly appreciate your prayers in these last four weeks:

  1. That I would have the energy to finish the year well.
  2. That I would continue to bond with my students and show them God’s Love.
  3. That I would be able to find a new apartment in a good location.

Thank you again, friends! You are loved and appreciated!

xo Tasha

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Eight Weeks Later

It’s officially been eight weeks since I became a sixth grade teacher at Voyageur Elementary School in Mistissini, Quebec! I am currently flying on a private charter plane with six other passengers from Chibougamau to Montreal where I’ll catch my connecting flight to Toronto. I’m so glad that I get two weeks off for Christmas and New Years, I really need the time to relax, rest and rejuvenate. The past eight weeks have been a furious whirlwind of learning, growing and being stretched mentally, physically and emotionally.

Thankfully, by my seventh week working with my class, I had made some definite breakthroughs. The learning curve is finally straightening out and the students are calming down a little bit. The last week of school was a nice change from the regular academic-heavy day to day schedule. We were able to make Christmas cards and decorations together, bake and ice Christmas cookies, and have a class party with a fun gift exchange. It was really enjoyable to be able to just have fun with the students and bond on a more playful, relaxed level.

I even unexpectedly received a few Christmas gifts from my class. One of my most challenging students gave me a lovely ornament and some hot chocolate. When I opened it, she pointed to the ornament and asked me, ‘Did you read what it says?’ The sparkly white ornament read: Best Teacher. My heart melted. It was a touching reminder that even though most of them have a very hard time showing it, these students do appreciate and care about us as their teachers.

Noteworthy news:

1. My cooking skills have improved since moving here! I used to go out to eat almost every day in Korea and a few times a week in Toronto. But in Mistissini, there aren’t many culinary options (one restaurant, a Timmie’s and a Subway). I thought it would be fun to challenge myself to cook ‘restaurant quality dishes’ from scratch. So far, I’ve made Chinese Firecracker Chicken and Beef and Broccoli and they both turned out better than I had expected. It’s fun experimenting with new recipes and I feel healthier overall since I’m not eating as much processed food.

2. I think I’ve actually acclimatized to the northern weather a little bit. Now, if it’s -22 or warmer, I don’t feel too cold. When it gets to -27 and colder, though, I can really feel it in the air and all of my exposed skin takes a proverbial beating.

3. I have tried three new foods since moving here: beaver, moose and goose. The beaver was a little bit gamey for my taste. The moose was tender and delicious and the goose traumatized me because I chipped my tooth on a stray bullet. I hear that a lot of the taste depends on how you cook the meat, so I’ll probably try beaver again to give it another chance. I also want to try bear. I have always loved trying new and ‘exotic’ foods and I enjoy expanding my culinary repertoire.

4. The darkness, though stunningly beautiful, has also proven to be quite challenging for me. Because the sun sets before 4pm, I have been feeling pretty isolated and antsy in my small apartment for the long, cold winter evenings. I don’t go out after dark because it’s too cold and too dark to really do much. Even though I do enjoy my alone time, I’ve been feeling kind of lonely and cooped up.

To try and offset this, I’ve decided to take up a new hobby in 2018: crocheting! I’m excited for something new to do and a creative challenge to try my hand at (pun intended). I am also looking into taking an online Additional Qualifications course from January to March through OISE which will keep me busy.

5. Through visiting the Lodge and reading numerous Cree legends to the kids and have learned a lot about the history of this Nation. It’s filled with many time-honoured, beautiful traditions, and the more I learn and experience, the more I’m falling in love with the Cree culture and its people.

Prayer Requests:

1. Christmas can be a difficult time for some families on the reservation for a variety of reasons. Please pray for my students, that they would have happy, healthy, safe Christmas breaks and that they would feel loved and valued this holiday season.

2. Please pray that I would have a restful and rejuvenating two weeks at home for Christmas and New year. Pray also for travel mercies as I am doing some traveling during my time off! I am really looking forward to just spending quality time with my family and friends. Boardgames, chilling by the fireplace, going to the movies, eating sushi, trying a new escape room… these are all things that I’m really looking forward to and haven’t been able to do for the past few months.

3. When I go back to school on January 8th, it will be a long stretch of teaching. We won’t have a break again until the first two weeks of May when we are off for Goose Break (when the families go into the bush and hunt goose.) I am a little worried about this longer stretch here but I know that as long as I keep integrating myself into the community and intentionally making time to spend with my friends, it won’t be too difficult. Please pray for the upcoming season of my time in Mistissini during the months of January through April.

Thank you so much for your prayers and your love! If you’d like to write me a letter, me address is:

Natasha Spiers
368 Mistissini Blvd. Apartment B
Mistissini, Quebec, G0W 1C0

The Beauty of Mistissini

I’ve been sharing a lot about the daily struggles of teaching, but I haven’t mentioned some of the more beautiful aspects of life in this small community. Here are a few things that have made me pause to thank God over the past five weeks.



The night:

I remember, as a kid, I would visit my grandfather who lived in the country and I’d be able to see the stars. They were so magical. Living in Toronto and Seoul for the majority of my life, I’ve never really experienced darkness. From street lights, to headlights, to Christmas lights, there was always something preventing me from fully appreciating the night sky. Well, for the first time in probably ten years, I was able to see the stars here in Mistissini, and they literally took my breath away. I had forgotten how incredible and majestic the sky was without all the lights to detract from its beauty. I had forgotten how peaceful and serene the darkness of night could be.

The quiet:

While walking home from school the other day, I realized that something was different. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until it hit me. It was completely quiet. The only thing I heard was the electric buzz of the street light. No chatter, no traffic, no noise. Just tranquility. At night, I sleep so well because of the peacefulness. I had grown accustomed to the constant buzz of city life, but here, that doesn’t exist. There’s something so calming about and the quietness and I realize that I appreciate it more than I thought I would.

The dogs:

If you follow me in Instagram or facebook, you will have seen the many pictures of dogs that I’ve been posting lately. It seems like most families own a dog in this community. But, unlike in the city, the dogs here are allowed to roam free during the days and evenings. They all have collars for identification purposes, but they prance around without a care in the world in -22 degree weather. Total freedom. And they are very friendly! The dogs are honestly one of my favourite things about living here! I owned a dog from the age of 6-20 and I am totally a dog person (even though I love my cats!) There is something so comforting and endearing about their presence. They’re always happy to see me and I really enjoy my new canine friendships.

The snow:

I spent five winters in Seoul and during the relatively mild winter months, it would snow maybe 3-4 times a year. When it did, the snow rarely stuck around for more than a few hours. The most you would ever see would be 2 inches of snow on the ground. People don’t even own shovels in Seoul because of the rarity of snow, instead using brooms to clear their driveways. Brooms! It’s a different world here in Mistissini. The snow is thigh deep in some areas and it snows almost every day. In fact, most families own a skidoo or a four wheeler for getting around as cars don’t fair as well in the snow. It took some getting used to, seeing a skidoo drive past me on my morning walk. Thankfully, the snow here is different than it is in Toronto, it’s dry, not wet. You know the kind of snow we all hate that turns into grey slush almost immediately? Not here! Here, the snow is fluffy and pretty and pure. It’s the stuff snow angel dreams are made of.

The air:

Of the many things I’m learning to love about life up north, the air is at the top of my list. It is SO clean. So fresh. So crisp. Living in Seoul, my lungs suffered a lot. The pollution, the smog, the yellow dust from China. One year, I had bronchitis for six weeks because of my mild asthma and the air quality. Here, it feels like the air is healing for my lungs. It truly is invigorating. I’m so used to being able to smell something in the air. Car exhaust, friend chicken, coffee, perfumes. Here, there’s nothing. While walking to work in the morning, I literally smelled the snow. It’s heavenly.

The pace:

Living in two major cities, it was always about the hustle. From one place the the next, and back again, it was a constant rush. Here in Mistissini, the pace of life is much slower. It’s leisurely. There’s no hurrying. People take their time and the overall vibe of this place is very peaceful. The beautiful landscape of Lake Mistassini definitely helps with the serene atmosphere, as do the snow capped evergreens as far as the eye can see. People care about each other and it’s evident in how they interact and support one another. Life here is a stark contrast to life in Toronto or Seoul, it’s slow and it’s authentic and it’s beautiful. I have a feeling that I am going to learn a lot from this place and these people, and I’m so glad you’re along for the journey.


Thanks so much for keeping up with my adventures here in the north! If you want to write me a letter my address is:

Natasha Spiers
368 Mistissini Blvd. Apartment B
Mistissini, Quebec, G0W 1C0

 

One Month in Mistissini

It’s hard to believe that I’ve already been living in Mistissini for one month. The time has simultaneously flown by and dragged on as I’ve laboriously navigated the past four weeks of teaching in this remote community.

For those of you who have been praying for me, I am incredibly grateful and I sincerely thank you; I have felt your prayers. They have given me the patience, strength and wisdom to get back in the fight every time I’ve been emotionally and mentally knocked down, and honestly, that has happened nearly every single day.

The first week here was definitely the most challenging week of my five years of teaching. Thankfully, things have been slowly improving with each passing week, only marginally, but it’s progress and I’m very thankful for every small victory. Here are some updates for those who wish to join me for this ambitious adventure.


The class:

In my last update, I shared that my co-teacher, Dom and I were cracking down on discipline in the classroom and asked for your prayers. As we expected, this has been a minute by minute struggle since many of the students don’t experience discipline or face consequences of any kind in their daily lives.

With much painstaking consistency, they are slowly coming to realize that we mean business and that their disruption, defiance, and disrespect will not be tolerated in our classroom. Sadly, this has meant that we have already put one student in the alternate suspension program and we are currently working on doing the same for two to three others. Our goal is always inclusion, but when their behaviour is preventing other students from learning and preventing us from teaching, placing them in an alternate program for a period of time ends up being best option for all involved.

Aside from the eight to ten students who are consistently wreaking havoc in class, I have seen a improvement overall. Dom and I been able to establish a clear routine and consistent expectations and it seems to be helping a lot. We are also meeting with our students one on one to build rapport and get to know them better. There is much work yet to be done in order to foster a safe learning environment for these students, but the wheels are slowly turning and we are committed to seeing this through.

The hardships:

I have been experiencing a lot of stress due to the chaos that surrounds me every day. The behaviour of the students is absolutely appalling at best and violently abusive at worst. I have been struggling to prevent this stress from manifesting itself physically.

Here are a few things I’ve dealt with over the past three weeks.

  • One of my students  didn’t want to be in detention so she screamed at me, flipped her desk over, and left the class, slamming the door very loudly behind her.
  • I tried to break up a bullying incident between two 11 year olds at recess. One girl had the other pinned up against a brick and was yelling at her within an inch of her face. I had to think fast and tried to de-escalate the situation as best I could but the girl wasn’t responsive, blinded by her anger. Thankfully another teacher saw what was happening and came to help me. Sadly, even with the two of us intervening, the aggressor was able to violently punch the other girl in the face. I couldn’t help but feel responsible; I wasn’t able to save the girl from her assailant’s rage.
  • Several boys from my sixth grade class were involved in beating up another boy in fifth grade. The boy who was injured was lured behind the grocery store by a girl and was bullied and attacked by 7-10 other students. We are starting a school-wide anti-bullying campaign because things are getting increasingly violent at our school and students are getting hurt.

On top of these larger incidents, I am disrespected, degraded and defied every single day by the students at the school. Whether it is students talking back, making snide remarks in Cree, teaming up against me, pushing chairs and desks aggressively in frustration, or simply refusing to do what is being asked of them, each day is a struggle. It is no wonder that several teachers from this community have had to take mental health leave. As you can imagine, these incidents are very emotionally draining and I am completely exhausted at the end of the day.

The Highlights:

Thankfully, it’s not all bad! There were a few noteworthy silver linings from the last three weeks.

  • I got an unexpected hug from a girl who has been quite defiant since I first got here.
  • We had a long, positive talk with one of our boys about his choices and his future. He is facing a lot of peer pressure to be ‘cool’ and part of a local gang and we hope that every ounce of truth we speak into his life will help him avoid choosing the wrong path.
  • I had a productive conversation with a difficult student’s mother and it was so encouraging to ascertain that we are on the same page in wanting her daughter to succeed at this school.
  • I attended the Anglican church last Sunday (one of two English speaking churches here) and it was a lovely service.
  • I’m slowly but surely getting into a routine with my teaching  and moving beyond the most challenging part of what has proven to be a steep learning curve.

I’ve also been able to explore the community and the culture a little bit more. The local lodge is hosting a free dinner from Monday – Wednesday for the next few weeks. I was able to attend last Wednesday and it was such an enriching experience. It was my first time eating moose stew and it was delicious!

I was also able to do some craft sewing and even tried my hand at wood carving (it wasn’t for me as the carving tools were very sharp and difficult to use properly, my wrist was cramping!) Hearing one of the elders bless the food in Cree before we ate brought tears to my eyes. There is something so innately serene and profoundly beautiful about this culture; I am so honoured to be able to experience it first-hand living in this community.

Prayer requests: 

  1. Please pray for my health as I have been experiencing migraines and stomach issues from the stress that I have been facing on a daily basis.
  2. Please pray for Dominique and myself as we strive to find the right balance of love and firmness for our students. Pray also for unity as we get to know each other better and create a thriving teaching partnership.
  3. Please pray for my students that God would soften their hearts and allow them to see us as allies and confidants who love them.
  4. Please pray for the families in this community. I sense that there are many strongholds here including addictions, neglect, and a poverty mentality. Please pray that these strongholds would be broken in Jesus’ name and that this community would be transformed for His Glory!

Thank you so much, friends! ❤ Your prayers and support mean more to me than you know. If you want to write me a letter, here’s my mailing address:

Natasha Spiers
368 Mistissini Blvd., Apartment B,
Mistissini, Quebec, G0W 1C0

First Week of Teaching

I survived my first week teaching in the Cree Nation of Mistissini.

To sum it up: It felt like I was starring in a hidden camera documentary entitled: Sixth Grade Psychological Warfare.

Context:

Let me give you a few details so you’ll better understand the structure of my new role. I am team teaching with another sixth grade teacher who has been at the school since last January. Her name is Dominique and she’s a great.

There are four sixth grade English classes at the elementary school (there are also two sixth grade French classes as the students have a choice to pursue their education in English or in French). Two of the English classes are team taught by Elaine an Laura who have been at the school for over five years and the other two are taught by Dom and me.

Team teaching:

Team teaching means that both Dom and I are the teachers of two 15-student classes that were joined together to make one 30-student class. The students are taught some subjects as one large class (science, art and social studies) and they are separated into two classes for math and English according to their comprehension levels.

Team teaching is unconventional and it has its pros and cons but Dom had been wanting to give it a try for a while and I thought it was a great idea, so we are going to test it out until Christmas break to see if it works for us. I think we make an awesome team.

A challenging week:

Here are just a few of the things that took place during my first week of teaching, many of them occurring simultaneously:

  1. I was sworn at and mocked in the Cree language.
  2. The students defied 90% of the instructions I gave them.
  3. They constantly and loudly complained about what they were asked to do.
  4. Students threw things at each other during class.
  5. They pushed, shoved an hit each other in the classroom.
  6. They constantly argued with and antagonized one another.
  7. A student kicked the door in anger.
  8. Several of them threw objects against the wall in defiance and frustration.
  9. They refused to stop talking when I was giving directions.
  10. They walked out and slammed the door when they got upset.

As you can imagine, it has been a very challenging week, physically, mentally and emotionally draining. But at the same time, it’s been invigorating because this week has  given me confirmation of why I’m here.

My purpose:

I firmly believe that God called me here to show His consistency, acceptance and love to these students, many of whom have had childhoods wrought with abandonment, rejection, and sometimes abuse. There has been a lack of consistency, consequences and structure in their lives and their tough exteriors are carefully constructed facades meant to protect vulnerable, wounded and hurting 11 year-old hearts.

The students are accustomed to seeing teachers come and go on a regular basis. Many teachers can’t handle the stress of this environment and the dejection of a seemingly hopeless situation, and I can completely understand why. But because of this lack of consistency, the students have learned to not trust authority figures, leading to an outright lack of respect for their teachers.

Love and devotion:

I was talking to one of the women in the community who works as a doctor at the clinic here and she gave me a poignant analogy of the situation. She told me that the students don protective shells because it’s how they’ve learned to survive. They’ve been so hurt and disappointed that they’ve adopted these tough exteriors as defense mechanisms. These shells, equipped with sharp thorns, will pierce anybody who dares to get close enough.

She went on to share that genuine compassion and true devotion is not giving up on them even though it means that I’ll get pricked endlessly. It’s not retracting my affection even though loving them is painful; it is exhausting and overwhelming and thankless in many ways. Their constant anger, frustration, aggression and disrespect is difficult to endure. But, I do love them and I am devoted to them. Because God loves them and I have committed to loving these kids as He does.

Speaking truth:

I was able to have a meaningful conversation with one of my more defiant female students this week. With all sincerity, she asked me, “Am I always bad?” My heart broke. I responded emphatically, “No! You are not bad, you are good. You are smart, capable and good. But sometimes, you make bad choices.” I went on to talk to her about how all of our choices, good and bad, have consequences that affect us, others and our futures.

She listened intently and I could tell she was absorbing the truth that I was sharing: her behaviour is separate from her identity. Many of these kids have been taught either implicitly or explicitly that they are bad and cannot change. It will take a considerable amount of time and effort to help them unlearn the lies that have been spoken over them and replace those lies with God’s truths regarding their identity. They are not bad, they can change, there is hope.

This small victory made the entire arduous week worth it. It strengthened my commitment, bolstered my courage and ignited my conviction. I will withstand the insults to show them God’s consistency. I will endure the hostility to show them God’s acceptance. I will suffer the thorns to show them God’s love.

Jesus did.

Prayer requests:

  1. We have cracked down on discipline to bring structure, accountability and logical consequences to the classroom, please pray that we are able to uphold these rules and procedures fairly and consistently.
  2. Please pray that I would have the patience, compassion and firmness to love and teach the students well.
  3. Dom and I spend a lot of time together, planning, preparing and teaching the class. Please pray that we would continue to build a strong and effective partnership.
  4. Please pray that I would have an overflow of God’s strength because there is no way that I can do this in my own strength.

Thank you so much, friends. I love and appreciate you! If you want to write to me, I’d love to get your letters! My address is:

368 Mistissini Blvd, Apt. B, Mistissini, QB, G0W 1C0.

xo Tasha

 

Moving to Mistissini

If you had told me one year ago that I would be moving to a small reservation in the remote terrain of northern Quebec to teach 6th grade in the Cree community, I definitely would have given you an ‘you’re joking right?’ look and walked away swiftly. But, as is often the case, God’s plans are very different from my own and well, here I am, all moved in and ready to meet my new class of Cree pre-teens tomorrow morning.

I want to keep my blog updated to give you a first timer’s perspective of life up north. Here are a few things that you might find interesting about the adventure so far.

The journey here:

In order to get to Mistissini (which means Big Rock in Cree… possibly a foreshadowing of my future engagement ring? Hehe.) I had to travel first from Toronto to Montreal and then from Montreal to Chibougamau (the city with the nearest airport.) From there, I had to get a taxi for the hour and twenty minute drive to my new community.

The community: 

Mistissini is technically a reservation and a dry community, which means they don’t sell alcohol anywhere on the reserve. The community size is around 5000, a huge change from the hustle and bustle of life in Toronto and Seoul. The community includes a grocery store, a community center, a post office, three schools (pre-school, elementary and high), four small churches, a health clinic, a hair salon and two gas stations. They even have a Timmy’s and a Subway!

The apartment:

I have my own one bedroom apartment that is small but starting to feel cozier every day. I am in a fourplex so I have three neighbours who all seem quite friendly. The apartment is only a ten minute walk from the school, which is great since I don’t have a car. We even have a fenced off backyard with a shed and a deck for enjoying those warm-ish summer nights.

The landscape:

Mistissini is located on Quebec’s biggest lake named Mistassini, which makes for many a beautiful and tranquil view. People here live in small houses and trailers, and the ‘town’ isn’t very spread out so you can walk from one end to the next without much difficulty. There are many trees and the air is beautifully fresh. The average winter temperatures drop to -25 degrees C with several feet of snow from December – March!

The school: 

There are two main schools in Mistissini, Voyageur Memorial Elementary School and Voyageur Memorial High School. There are two streams in the Elementary School, so students can choose to pursue their education in French or English. There is also a pre-school that is taught in Cree. All students take classes to learn the Cree language and Cree culture which is very important to the community as it should be. High school students even learn how to hunt and prepare animals such as moose for food!

The Cree Nation:

The Cree are the largest First Nations group in Canada. Most Cree people live in the plains and the subarctic regions of the provinces spanning from Alberta to Quebec. Cree is also the name of the spoken language which belongs to the Algonquin language family. Maintaining their language and their cultural traditions is very important to the Cree people and many time-honoured ceremonies and rituals are still practiced today.

Please pray that:

  • My transition to living here would go smoothly
  • I would be able to connect well with my students
  • I would be able to make friends with others in the community
  • I would find a church family to be part of
  • This unfamiliar place would begin to feel like home

Thank you friends, I really appreciate your prayers and support! If you want to write to me, I’d love to get your letters! My address is:

368 Mistissini Blvd, Apt. B, Mistissini, QB, G0W 1C0.

xo Tasha