Knowing how to spell Northwest Territories as a young woman is what led Quaraq Pitseolak to a life-long career in education – and now she’s a key advocate for the Department of Education’s literacy initiative Inuktut Titiqqiriniq, developed with Inhabit Education.
Pitseolak helped deliver the new resources, which she says are very useful, in February at a Qikiqtaaluk educators’ conference in Iqaluit.
“We have it a lot easier than before because Inhabit has been helping us a lot with materials and resources. I really like their printing books, the one with symbols and the one with words. Kids really learn to do their printing properly. Even the teacher resources are easy to follow. And they have videos of how you can go about it,” said Pitseolak, who was part of the working group to help develop the materials.
“Having concrete materials helps a lot when you’re teaching. And the leveled reading – even non-Inuktitut speakers can read some of them.”
Originally from the outpost camp at Markham Bay between Kimmirut and Cape Dorset, she held a summer job at the Hudson’s Bay Company while still in school.
“This principal came to the office one day and told me to make a cheque to the Government of the Northwest Territories. I did. He looked at the cheque and says, ‘Oh, you’re the first Inuk I’ve ever known who knows how to spell Northwest Territories without asking how do you spell it,'” said Pitseolak.
“He really got interested because they were short of Inuit teachers.”
The principal returned a week later and suggested Pitseolak apply at the school.
“I did and right away they interviewed me and I got the job as a classroom assistant. I believe I went to Fort Smith the following year for five months, then I went back to Dorset and started working at the school here and there,” she said.
Pitseolak also worked in Pangnirtung and Clyde River, where she also taught as a substitute teacher.
Since 2004, after she received her bachelor’s degree, she’s been working at Joamie School in Iqaluit.
Pitseolak teaches in Inuktitut to a morning kindergarten class, Grades 3 and 4 in the afternoon, as well as half an hour of Inuktitut as a second language. She explains the Grade 4s are in transition, so they take English instruction in the morning. Pitseolak also does lunch-time beading with all grade levels in Inuktitut.
Her kindergarten class of eight students includes three very good Inuktitut speakers, with five English speakers who don’t understand Inuktitut.
“I speak to them in Inuktitut first and then I interpret what I’m teaching in English otherwise they’ll just sit there and not know what to do, and the behavioural problems arise,” said Pitseolak.
By the end of the year, those English-only children do pick up Inuktitut, but she says she encourages the parents a lot.
“I say, ‘If you don’t speak Inuktitut at home they’re going to be slower to pick up Inuktitut in school because just one teacher cannot do it,” she said, adding, “They have to hear Inuktitut at home.”
As for the Grade 3 and 4 students, who Pitseolak has been teaching since kindergarten, some of them do really well but others are starting to lose the language.
“If there’s a lot of strong English at home, their English will be stronger. Not so much spelling-wise, but speaking-wise. English is so dominant, they tend to pick it up really, really quick.”
She says her own daughter, when the family moved from Cape Dorset to Iqaluit, did not speak English.
“As soon as we got here, two or three weeks later she was yakety-yakking in English.”
Pitseolak says she’s been wishing for Inuktitut-only schools. She says it hurts when students don’t understand Inuktitut.
She adds the situation is worse in the capital.
“Every child that comes from the communities, they’re strong in their own language. We’ve got a new student from Dorset, he’s fluent in Inuktitut.”
But the students are eager to learn and speak it.
“Even English speakers are very keen,” said Pitseolak. “But they tend to speak English with their peers. I say, ‘Inuktitut, Inuktitut,’ a hundred times a day.”
She says she hopes it will get stronger in the schools.
“If it’s stressed more. If we have more Inuktitut teachers. Even if they teach in the English stream, that would be very helpful. If you’re bilingual, you can teach both ways,” Pitseolak says.
“I encourage kids to be bilingual, so that they can have good jobs. I always tell kids that learning never stops. And when you’re a teacher you even learn more. It’s very special.”
But, bottom line, said Pitseolak, the territory needs more Inuktitut-speaking teachers and parents need to speak it at home.