Sarah Inukpaujaq Ayaruak, who retired this month from a lengthy teaching career, was only 18 when the late Simon Ford asked her to help a deaf student at Maani Ulujuk Ilinniarvik in 1987.
She had no training, but she carried an American Sign Language book.
“It came out of nowhere,” said Ayaruak of Ford’s request.
From there, Ford went on to encourage her to take teacher education training, which she pursued in the early ‘90s while transitioning from a student support assistant to teacher.
While teaching kindergarten at Leo Ussak Elementary School, Ayaruak fondly remembers how students often thought she lived at the school.
“One of my former students saw me at the grocery store and asked if that (bag) was for the school, and I said no it’s for my home, and he said, ‘You have a house?’” Ayaruak laughed.
She worked as co-principal of Leo Ussak Elementary School in the early 2000s, eventually becoming the sole principal in 2010 after completing her bachelor of education.
In 2014, she was named one of Canada’s Outstanding Principals.
“Sarah Ayaruak is a strong leader who has shared her vision with her staff, students and community in order to provide her students with learning opportunities that always support Inuit language, culture and academic excellence,” said former education minister Paul Quassa at the time.
Ayaruak credits former principals Bev Hill and Jesse Payne for supporting her to take the principal role in Rankin Inlet.
“Being a local person, I find that we get things harder than southern people, because we’re local people and we know everyone,” said Ayaruak. “If I didn’t get the support from them, I don’t think I would have lasted 19 years as principal.”
Other highlights of her career include supervising a teacher who taught her in Grade 3, as well as supervising teachers she taught in kindergarten.
She said she will miss the students, whose smiles brighten her day, as well as the long-term teaching staff.
Ayaruak always put a focus on language in education. She found it beneficial to be able to communicate with family members of students in Inuktitut rather than English.
“Inuktitut is our first language as an Inuk,” she said. “My parents taught me it should always be priority.”
Going forward, Ayaruak hopes to see more community members become educators and school supervisors.
“We need more local educators,” she said. “We understand where the students come from, and I think that connection is better for students with their own people.”
She hopes the government can create an Inuktitut-only school to bolster the language.
For now, Ayaruak plans to stay in Rankin Inlet and take some time to travel. She has three provinces left to visit in Canada, all in the Atlantic.