Teachers surprised by Kwadacha lifestyle

KWADACHA -- From Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia to Kwadacha in northern B.C, schoolteacher Crystal Gatza is far removed from the kind of school she grew up with.

Geographically and philosophically.

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Gatza was raised on the tradition that teachers ruled the roost and if you didn't behave there'd be trouble at home when mom and dad found out. But as she learned soon after she arrived in this remote First Nations community 570 kilometres north of Prince George, students don't treat their teachers at Aatse Davie school as authority figures. They think of them more as friends.

"In a regular public school there are a lot of boundaries and restrictions, but here there's a lot of affection and lots of bonding," said Gatza. "There are pros and cons to that in the sense there's no restrictions and you can be yourself with the children. But the respect a teacher would get in a public school is not the same because they look at you more like an equal.

"[When there is a discipline problem] there's a lack of real-life consequences and there's not a lot that can happen to a child here if it's not followed through at home or if things are not taken seriously in the school. It's more like a cultural thing here."

One of eight teachers at the federally-funded independent school, the 30-year-old Gatza taught kindergarten for the first three years she was in Kwadacha. She soon realized the positive effect she was having on the lives of her students and that made her want to stay.

"Some of them didn't know the alphabet or could barely speak a word and at the end of the year you had kids starting to read books on their own -- that's really rewarding for me," said Gatza, who now teaches the Grades 4-5 class.

"People try to scare you away from coming up north to an isolated reserve, and I can say this place was nothing like I thought it would be, it's 100 times better."

In Kwadacha, the school is the focal point for all community residents as a gathering place and is open to everybody. The free-flowing, laid-back atmosphere of the classrooms was one of the most striking differences for Mieszko Krol when he took on the job as special education teacher two years ago.

"The students here are really quite friendly, they're like siblings or nephews -- the younger students tend to call anyone older than them, aunt or uncle," said the 33-year-old Krol, a Vancouver native who earned his teaching degree at UNBC.

He heard about the job from a friend who had worked as a contractor in the village.

"I was blown away by the beauty when I flew in," said Krol.

Kwadacha has no high-speed internet, no cell phones and no Skype. Krol sometimes longs for the conveniences a city offers, and every six weeks or so he makes the eight- or 10-hour drive to Prince George for a Costco run.

"The isolation can be difficult," said Krol. "The job is unique in the way you work with people but you also socialize with them outside school. You gain a different understanding of people because you see them in so many different lights."

Krol was invited to to go snowmobiling on a hunting trip with some of his co-workers to Fox Pass, following a traditional trap line used by some of the Kwadacha families. During the hunt, he was given the chance to skin a caribou and helped cut up the meat for transport back to the village.

"I've been with people who hunted before, but to be able to see the locals do it, because they do so many animals a year, it was amazing," said Krol. "They could do it with their eyes closed. "Being able to participate has started to bring me into the community and helped me gain that trust. There's so much to experience from the students in their [outdoor] environment, and it really changes your relationship with them and their families."

After school, teachers get together amongst themselves for dinners, dance parties, game nights, or they take part in sports night activities with the kids on weekends. Gatza doesn't consider herself an outdoorsperson and because the village is so small, she says it can hard at times to find her own space.

"You become family with the people you work with, and so if you don't get along with someone you're pretty much forced to figure it out, which is good and bad," said Gatza. "You can't go somewhere for coffee or go to the mall or hang out with your other friends. In a way, it's the reason I stayed here, because I got so close to people."

Teachers get time off for summer, spring break and Christmas, and their flights are covered for conferences or if they need medical or dental appointments. Houses are set aside for teachers and rented to them for $300 per month. Heating is covered by the village, but each teacher pays for food, hydro, and satellite TV.

Last September Gatza got a new roommate when her twin brother Chris arrived from their hometown of New Waterford, N.S., as a teachers' aide. She wanted him to come to Kwadacha to experience the lifestyle that comes with living in such a remote community.

The median age of Kwadacha is about 27, and a quarter of the 320 people who live in the village are students at the school. When residents do travel off the reserve to visit a place like Prince George, many have a hard time relating to city life, where they don't know anybody.

"We always try to lecture them on why it is important to learn things they will need to get a job when they're older, but because they aren't exposed to outside opportunities they don't really see that for themselves, said Gatza. "They just see what's around them.

"Most times, the students who have graduated and leave have come back. They weren't taught life skills like money management, and it's a huge culture shock to them. But in the four years I've been here I see that changing as kids in all grades get more education."

In tomorrow's Citizen: the energy challenges in Kwadacha.

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