Assignment Paper: Leaders Can Make Positive Changes Reducing Student Dropout in Canadian Inuit Schools

It became apparent in the 1970’s that Inuit children were not doing well in the formal education system. Most students who began school in kindergarten dropped out before they finished junior high school. Colbourne states that ‘the outcomes of schooling in terms of extremely high dropout rate and cultural erosion constituted a remarkable phenomenon in a system designed to prepare individuals for a modern northern lifestyle. (Tompkins, 1998, p. 27)

As a result of high dropout rates, low educational achievement and complex social problems, many of the youth in Canada’s Inuit communities are not making the grade. Despite the implementation of community high schools over the last decade, many students are still unable to complete their high school education. In the past, students would travel outside of the community to get their high school education. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, many would dropout only to return to low paying jobs or social assistance. Ninety percent of Inuit students in Canada left before high school graduation (Hagstrom, Kleinfeld & McDiarmid, 1989).

One of the many goals of Nunavut is to create positions for Inuit in jobs where normally non-Natives had been hired; unfortunately, poor skills are preventing Inuit from taking these positions. The pressure is high for Inuit students to graduate from courses, which will allow them fully realise Nunavut.

Former studies on Native dropout have resulted in lists of factors and contributions to dropout primarily dealing with elements beyond the doors of the school (pregnancy, substance abuse, family responsibilities, education of parents, social economic status, attitude toward education, attitude toward teachers, feelings of isolation, family mobility, tribal affiliation, gender, family constellation, student motivation, parental involvement or concern, innate ability, and language. These complex social issues leave teachers and administrators wondering how we can possibly reduce dropout within the power of the school. Instead of placing blame on the external factors, it is time to investigate the internal factors of schools and school leaders in the prevention of dropout. I believe that positive changes can be made once we consider the influence of leaders and the elements of the school in the discussion of Inuit dropout.

Through reading the enthographical research study entitled Teaching in a Cold and Windy Place by Joanne Tompkins (1998), I have come to believe that good leadership can make a difference with respect to decreasing the rates of Inuit dropout. Tompkins (1998) writes from her experiences as a principal in a small school in Anurapaktuq (1987 - 1992). During her time, many positive changes occurred in the school and community, which resulted in higher school attendance and increased school success. Tompkins (1998) could be considered an exemplary leader as she embodies many of the characteristics that are promoted in current leadership studies.

So much has been written on the ideals of leadership. Ross (1992) believes that successful schools practice transformative leadership where leaders work to encourage others in the school to take on leadership roles and become agents of change. Leithwood (1992) goes on to state that transformational leaders use strategies that "involve staff members in collaborative goal setting, reduce teachers’ isolation by creating time for joint planning" (p. 10) . By fostering teacher development, transformational leaders enhance teacher motivation through increased ownership in the school mission (Leithwood, 1992).

Costa (1992) emphasises the need for school leaders to create a learning community and climate for learning; teachers "will more likely teach for thinking if they are in an intellectually stimulating environment themselves" (p. 93) and these strategies will foster student motivation to learn. Deal & Peterson (1998) state that "school leaders - principals, teachers, and parents - are the key to eliminating toxic culture and building positive culture" (p. 28). All of these aspects of good leadership can work towards increasing student achievement and interest in school, thus reducing the dropout rate.

This paper intends to investigate five elements of leadership and their affect on the rate of Inuit student dropout. The five areas of focus are 1) the development of school as a learning community with a positive school climate, 2) the increase of student motivation to school learning , 3)listening for student voice in school reform 4) , the creation of opportunities for teacher learning and professional development, and 5) the aspects of leadership style. Through this investigation, recommendations for improved leadership can be made which may result in lower Inuit dropout rates in the future.

One of the most important roles of a leader in an Inuit school is to create a school environment that fosters learning and support. Both parents and students must enjoy coming to school because until recently "education was not compulsory in the NWT" (Tompkins, 1998, p. 38). Tompkins (1998) goes on to report that "those children attending school are doing so because they want to be there" and "social convention may mean that students will continue having to get up alone and come to school unfed or poorly fed" (p. 38). If leaders want to increase attendance we have to create an environment where students find school "rewarding, exciting and challenging enough to gladly attend" (Tompkins, 1998, p. 38). Parents also must view the school as a positive place, one where they will want to send their children.

It is interesting to read what Tompkins (1998) writes about the misconceptions between the southern (Qallunaaq) teachers and the Inuit community and how this filters down into the attitudes towards the school. High rates of teacher turnover (teachers leaving the community after two or three years) appears to impact greatly on the image of the school:

As the school grew larger and staff turnover increased . . . the community began to believe that Qallunaaq staff did not like the community or the children because they left the community after one or two years. Community members became less comfortable being in the school environment. The new Qallunaaq teachers who arrived in the community sensed the community’s standoffishness and interpreted it to mean that the community did not care about the education of he children. At this point there were few if any Inuit educators in the school to help Qallunaaq teachers with their perceptions of the community. Consequently, these teachers became frustrated with what they perceived to be the lack of community support and did not stay long. In a sense, both the Qallunaaq teachers’ and the community’s perceptions were true, and a vicious cycle began.(Tompkins, 1998, 23)

In this case, perhaps it is the job of administration to create programs where new teachers can be oriented in the community and these misconceptions can be dealt with.

One type of program could be an extension of the peer-coaching model designed by Costa (1992). Costa (1992) promotes collegiality when creating a learning community in the school where teachers meet regularly, visit each other’s classroom and frequently give feedback about the relationship between their instructional decisions and student behaviours. This model could be extended to deal with school-community relationships and differences in cultural backgrounds as well as best practices in teaching Native students. Once leaders promote this type of communication, misconceptions as described by Tompkins (1998) can be eliminated thus allowing teachers to energize their relationships with students and parents. This is especially important in the unique schools of the north where the idea of formal education is viewed as a somewhat questionable force from the outside world.

Sergiovanni (1992, 1994) writes extensively about the metaphor of school as community versus school as organization. Traditionally, Inuit education took place in the community and family circle. Children observed elders and followed by example the unwritten rules of their culture. Gradually children began to take on more responsibilities until they ‘graduated’ to form their own family group. The teachers were the elders and older members of the society. Survival determined success. One of the greatest changes to happen in Inuit communities was the transfer of education from the home to federal and later territorial schools (Condon,1988 ).

When formalized education came to the north, it was regarded very much like an organization: "Organization is an idea that is imposed from without. . . Organizations use rules and regulations, monitoring and supervising and evaluation system" (Sergiovanni, 1992, p. 41). Unlike the community learning environment of the past where the Inuit teachers (elders and parents) were motivated to teach for group survival, teachers in the formalized school system work under a hierarchy. This organizational structure separates teachers from student success. Today teachers are not deeply affected by whether or not their students pass or fail; they still have a job irrelevant to the number of students who succeed. In the Inuit world, the whole family clan would perish if the youth did not learn the skills needed for survival. Thus elders and parents were the driving force behind educating the youth and the need for education came from within the family rather than being forced on from above.

According to Sergiovanni (1992) the current attitude towards hierarchical power structure would all change if community became the metaphor for schools:

Communities are defined by their centres. Centres are repositories of values sentiments, and beliefs that provide the needed cement for uniting people in a common cause. Centres govern the school values and provide norms that guide behaviour and give meaning to school community life. (p. 41)

To create such a community, leadership must come from within teachers who are committed, self-managing and working towards common goals through true collegiality and intrinsic motivation (Sergiovanni, 1992). Like traditional Inuit teaching methods, the whole community of educators must believe in and care about the vision of student success. Teachers who begin to work better together reap the benefits of increased student learning.

The educational administration must begin to understand school as community. It needs to consider how to foster a professional community where everyone cares about each other and helps each other to learn and to lead (Sergiovanni, 1994). Sergiovanni (1994) states that the implication of this metaphor of school as community is not limited to issues of authority and leadership. With community as the theory, "we would have to restructure in such a way that the school itself is not defined by brick and mortar by ideas and relationships" (Sergiovanni, 1994, p.223). Creating communities by kinship and of places implies that a number of our current organizational structures must change also. Practices such as grade grouping, fragmented learning periods, extrinsic rewards systems and other notions must be abandoned because they longer make sense when the metaphor is changed to community (Sergiovanni, 1994, p.223-224).

Tompkins (1998) confirms the need to change grade groupings to family groupings because "in a real family, children are of varying ages, yet they all learn from one another as well as from their parents. So in family-grouped classrooms, students are expected to learn from those older and younger than themselves" (p. 68 - 69). The value of creating a caring community within the walls of the school is emphasised by Tompkins (1998):

Family groupings also helped reinforce the notion that school is more than just a place to learn. It is also a place to have fun with your friends and look after them. Caring became an important ingredient in these classes; students learned that relationship - how people treat each other - are just as important as scoring 100 on your math test. In a community struck tragically by eight suicides in eight years (1983 - 91) the value of taking care of others cannot be overestimated. (p.70)

Not only do students need to care for one other. Teachers must learn that to succeed they must work smarter together in a community that role models learning. I believe that when schools become communities of caring learners, Inuit students will feel comfortable coming to school to learn the skills that will help them succeed in the modern challenges that lay before them.

A second area of investigation is student motivation. There is an overwhelming amount of literature that indicates that minority students underachieve due to a lack of motivation. Despite this, a study by Rindone (1988) on Navajo Indians reveals that most Native students do want to do well in school. According to Rindone (1988), family and parents are able to encourage children to succeed. However, I believe that the job of motivating students to succeed must not be left solely to the family circle. Leaders can do a lot to help motivate students to complete their educational goals.

Levin (1994) writes that to improve educational productivity leaders must begin by putting students at the centre of creating educational outcomes. The factory analogy of education is not appropriate in the world of technology and advancements; schooling is not something that can done to students (Levin, 1994). I would like to go further to state that the factory analogy has never been appropriate for the Inuit youth because it is impossible to force education on students whose decision to attend school is almost entirely up to them . From my experience, once students feel treated like objects, they dropout out. Levin (1994) confirms this by stating:

Students must do the learning; there is no way around this fact. . . . Education is not something we do to people, but something that people do for themselves - assisted, we hope, by the efforts of teachers. (p.759).

The implication of this is clear; if students are responsible for their own learning than their motivation is absolutely critical (Levin, 1994).

Leaders can help increase motivation in a number of key ways. They can promote strategies that treat students as capable persons, capitalise on their previous knowledge and get students involved in setting personal goals and determining best methods of learning (Levin, 1994). Inuit students are used to a great deal of autonomy at home (Condon,1988) and for schools to be accepted Inuit students need to have a "significant influence (which is not to say total control) over what they study, how they study and when they study" (Levin, 1994, p. 760). It has been my experience that students will want to come to school if they feel that what they are learning relates to their personal needs and interests. These types of personal connections to learning is similar to the way Inuit youth were motivated to learn life skills by elders and family.

Many teachers try to motivate students to come to school by using external rewards: candy, pencils, stickers, skating parties, tokens etc. These types of rewards are commonly used in younger grades. However, even older students (those over 18 years of age) can claim social assistance by attending school. Nevertheless, many of these same students do not make it through the semester to gain credits. Monetary rewards do not appear to serve as a motivating tool.

From Kohn’s (1997) article on character education, educators can infer that using rewards to motivate students to do well and come to school is ineffective. Research shows that "extrinsic incentives can, by undermining self-perceived altruism, decrease intrinsic motivation. . . Researchers have found that children who are frequently rewarded . . .are less likely than other children to keep doing those things" (Kohn, 1997, p. 430). I believe that by using extrinsic motivation, especially in the younger grades, to keep students interested in school becomes a big problem once those students become of age to drop out. Successful Inuit students must have intrinsic motivation to finish school. As educators we must find ways to motivate students without using extrinsic rewards which works to erode intrinsic motivation (Kohn, 1994, p. 430).

Thirdly, educators must also become more aware of the student voice when designing reforms to schools. Lincoln (1995) states:

[Students] are, in a very real sense, the primary stakeholders in their own learning processes. Not only are students stakeholders in their learning but teachers can be too. Adults often underestimate the ability of children to be shrewd observers, to possess insight and wisdom about what they see and hear, and to possess internal resources we routinely underestimate. (p. 89)

Teachers and administrators must be willing to hear and honour student voices as well as know how to elicit these voices (Lincoln, 1995). Rarely does any reform work without the support of the whole network, including students; teachers must be willing to share power within the classroom (Lincoln, 1995). Inuit youth who see their opinions and thoughts respected will be more likely to participate in an educational program.

According to Astuto & Clark (1994), past reforms have failed because of basic assumptions about people in the school community including teachers and students. Two theories are at the bottom of these assumptions: Theory X asserts that people inherently dislike work and must be directed and coerced to put forth effort and Theory Y puts forth that people will work hard in the service of goals to which they feel committed (Astuto & Clark, 1994). Unfortunately, Theory X assumptions imply that students must be ordered, rewarded and coerced to come to school. Instead, students should be involved in goal setting and school reforms so that they will gain ownership to their educational path. Once this ownership and trust in the school system becomes ingrained, students will work harder to come to school and complete their goals.

Day, Rudduck & Wallace (1997) reiterate this point. The authors believe "if educators are ultimately concerned about our students’ achievements and opportunities, we must take at least part of agenda for school improvement from their accounts of their school experience" (Day, Rudduck & Wallace, 1997, p.73). According to Day, Rudduck & Wallace (1997) most schools wish to make improvements to raise student attainment, raise expectations and enhance students’ self-esteem and morale. Although these projects stress whole school planning, collegiality and working partnerships, rarely do they consider the opinions and experiences of the students (Day, Rudduck & Wallace, 1997).

Instead of planning programs to decrease the rate of student dropout for the Inuit youth from our places of hierarchy, we should be asking Inuit youth for their input and allowing them to express their learning needs. Leaders must begin working with Inuit youth to design programs that will make their learning more effective for them:

Young people are observant, are often capable of analytic and constructive comment, and usually responds well to the serious responsibility of helping identify aspects of schooling that strengthen or get in the way of their learning. (Day, Rudduck & Wallace, 1997, p. 76)

Astuto & Clark (1994) end their article by stating that the metaphor for schools of the future should be the successful home which is guided by caring and mature adults. With respect to student dropout, such a school must "believe in the efficacy of individuals during periods of failure as well as success [and]. . . make time every day for the personal, interactive relationships needed to support learning" (Astuto & Clark, 1994, p. 520). Making this paradigm shift to valuing student voices is important if educators are going to succeed in making reforms to decrease dropout.

In order to effectively make these changes happen, all leaders and teachers must be on board. This leads to the fourth area of investigation, teacher professional development. I believe that teachers need to feel that "they belong to a common community within which they have a sense of ownership, efficacy, and power leading to real commitment and responsibility" (Graves, 1992, p. 63). Teachers need to have a sense ownership in and commitment to resolving issues related to practices that effect student dropout.

In her study, Tompkins (1998) describes how her school was able to increase attendance of her students once those working in the school decided that it was both necessary and possible to tackle this problem. To build this type of community, leaders must provide opportunities for teachers to interact with others under circumstances that maximises enjoyment and allows for information exchange and joint problem solving (Grave, 1992).

Within learning communities, teachers can work together to find ways to decrease instances of dropout. Pierce (1994) writes that teachers can effectively decrease the risk factors involved in learning and increase students’ level of academic achievement by creating practices and structures in the classroom more conducive to success. According to Backes (1993) there is a mismatch between learning styles and teaching methods that may influence the dropout rate among American Indians; if this is the case, teachers of Inuit students should examine how their current teaching strategies and classroom structures are affecting dropout rates. Teachers need to be willing to work together to solve these difficult problems.

Teachers must learn to communicate effectively with one another: "Developing a staff’s capacities for talking together professionally is not magic bullet. But it may be the single most significant investment faculties can make for student learning" (Garmston & Wellman, 1998, p. 30). Garmston & Wellman (1998) state that teachers must learn and practice two different ways of talking, dialogue and discussion, to make critical decisions that affect student learning. Leaders can encourage positive communication providing opportunities for these skills to be learned and by allowing time for them to be practiced. Garmston & Wellman (1994) give suggestions for leaders on how to get this type of dialogue started in the schools.

Darling-Hammond (1998) echoes the importance of teacher learning that supports student learning. Her article suggests that students will benefit when teachers understand the material deeply and flexibly so that they can help students see connections across fields and into everyday life: "Teaching in ways that connect with students also requires an understanding of differences that may arise from culture, family experiences, developed intelligences and approaches to learning" (Darling-Hammond, 1998, p. 7). To motivate students to come to school and work hard when in school, requires that teachers know their students well. Teachers must have an understanding of what individual students think about themselves, what they care about and what activities and learning experiences will give them success to work hard to learn (Darling-Hammond, 1998). I believe that leaders can foster this understanding of Inuit students in remote communities by allowing teachers to learn from each other and discuss all influences on student development including cultural aspects and learning needs.

Tompkins (1998) talks about this need for teachers to understand culture and the unique learning styles of Inuit students. She states that:

Good teachers everywhere should have a strong understanding of how to individualise instruction for the wide range of students in a class. The wide ability level found in any regular southern class is perhaps further widened in the North by factors of second-language usage and varying attendance patterns on the part of the children. . . Teachers must have a good understanding of first - and second - language learning . . . Qallunaaq teachers should be able to work effectively in a cross-cultural situation - with children, with fellow workers, and with the large community.. . And it would help immensely if teachers had some first-hand understanding of poverty and isolation so that could start to understand some of the forces at work in the community. Ambitious challenges indeed! ( p. 28)

As a leader, Tompkins (1998) provided opportunities for dialogue by creating weekly in-service forum. These lunch meetings allowed the staff to keep updated on recent educational practices, share with one another and develop school wide themes to best involve all students in learning more about their culture and language: "These sessions created a sense that we were all still learning and still discovering new things in education" (Tompkins, 1998, p. 97).

When teachers initiate restructuring to make positive changes in school, it is important to realise the amount of time that is needed. Foster (1991) writes that "creating a climate for change takes as much time and effort as implementing change" (p. 242). Teachers must be given enough time to feel comfortable taking risks, building trust and reflecting throughout the process of creating a shared vision and implementing changes. I believe that leaders can nurture teacher involvement in making positive changes for the betterment of student success by: providing appropriate learning situations for teachers, allowing opportunities for teacher discussion and reflection, and giving long term support for changes over time.

Finally, the way a leader leads becomes a factor in student achievement (Brandt, 1987) and this can be extrapolated to student dropout. Brandt’s (1987) interview with Richard Andrews reveals that "where teachers have very positive perceptions of the quality of their workplace, they are more productive, so we see incremental growth in student achievement" (p. 10). Although the article by Brandt (1987) focuses primarily on the increase of student achievement, his suggestions for improved leadership can also be used to positively influence the rate of student dropout. He recommends that good leaders be a visible presence in the school, have a solid vision and get resources for teachers (Brandt, 1987). Leaders are those who empower others to take leadership roles and are there to work for their teachers rather than rule over them (Brandt, 1987). When principals support their teachers as instructional leaders, teachers are more able to build positive relationships with their students. This will result in students who find coming to school a valuable, worthwhile and meaningful experience.

Among other characteristics, Andrews & Smith ( 1989) believe that strong instructional leaders are those who demonstrate a commitment to academic goals. They create a climate of high expectations with a tone of respect for teachers, students, parents and community (Andrews & Smith, 1989). They also place a high priority on curriculum and instructional issues. Murphy (1998) states that the former image of leader as lion must be balanced with that of leader as lamb:

Perhaps it feels less than heroic to help develop a shared vision, to ask questions, to acknowledge weakness, to listen carefully, to depend on others, and to let go. Yet, where heroism is concerned, less can be more. To be a lamb is really to be a lion. (p. 659)

Especially in Inuit communities, a leader who is outside of the local culture must be willing to learn from those within. Acceptance is very important; if the community does not respect the teachers or the principal, parents will not support the school by sending their children to school.

Tompkins (1998) writes that it was important that she become a learner as well as a leader: "As a principal I think the fact that I was a learner along with the teachers helped to communicate the fact that I believed we were all in this together.. . Because I was in classes so much I could see the needs of the whole school" (p. 97). Not only do teachers notice this aspect of leadership; students notice leaders who are role modelling life-long learning. To decrease the rate of dropout, students must see learning as a valuable activity that occurs throughout their lives.

Principals in Inuit schools have to work hard to make appropriate decisions to support culture in the school. Students who feel that their background and culture are respected are more likely to attend school; curriculum and content needs to be connected to cultural background (Dehyle, 1992). As a principal, Tompkins (1998) was able to strengthen Inuit culture and language by making critical decisions concerning staffing and curriculum:

The more Inuit staff we had teaching in Inuktitut, the more real Inuktitut became and the more the Inuit perspective and belief system was present. We could move Qallunaaq teachers up in the school and make the primary end function totally in Inuktitut. We could bring Inuit staff up into the senior end and have them work with Qallunaaq teachers so that senior students could get more instruction in Inuktitut. We could move our good primary teachers (Inuit and Qallunaaq) into the junior-high area and make that more child-centred. The more Inuit were working in the school, the more that Inuit culture and beliefs would be present in the school. It is almost impossible to say you are running an Inuit school system when the majority of the teaching staff comes from elsewhere and does not speak the local language or understand its culture. ( Tompkins, 1998, p. 93 - 94)

By increasing the profile of Inuit culture and language in the school , Tompkins (1998) hopes to make real changes in attitude and achievement of students. Although there is no current data on the effects of the changes made by Tompkins (1998) on the dropout of rate, the decisions that are made to strengthen culture in schools are widely accepted as positive routes to improving schools by local and board administrators in the north.

Leaders can do a lot in the struggle to reduce dropout rates of Inuit youth in the north. The creation of community high schools is only one step in this fight. All leaders - principals, teachers, parents and community members - can help decrease the rate of drop out. School leaders need to be especially aware of how actions, attitudes and practices when dealing with Inuit youth. Although "many of the sources of advantage and disadvantage that lead to success or failure for students lie beyond the school’s reach . . . some things can be done to ensure that all students are well informed, understand what is at stake and have the best support that the school can reasonably offer" (Day, Rudduck & Wallace, 1997, p. 85).

According to Day, Rudduck & Wallace (1997) teachers who are most likely to increase commitment to learning are those who: enjoy teaching the subject and students; make connections between lesson and life outside school; are fair and have a sense of humour; and do not give up on students. Leaders can foster success by creating a school as a learning community with positive school climate. Leaders must provide opportunities for teacher learning and professional development. They must find ways to increase student intrinsic motivation for school learning and attendance. Leaders should listen and value student voices when considering school reform. Finally, leaders should reflect on the appropriateness of their leadership style in their practice. Despite all of the external factors to the dropout issue, schools need to investigate closely how they can be a positive force in keeping students in school.


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