Becoming the Teacher He Needed: Eric Dann’s Lessons in Indigenous Education
“We need Indigenous teachers because they know that some of these kids are working 10 times harder to get out of bed than other kids are even just to complete their work at school,” explains Eric Dann, a high school teacher who lives in East Vancouver but grew up in Victoria BC. Dann works in the Indigenous education department with the Vancouver school board.
His mom’s family is Mohawk from Six Nations and his dad’s family immigrated from England. Dann’s mother moved to BC to become a social worker at the age of 18, wanting a break from the challenges of her reserve and hoping for a change. Growing up, his mother taught him core values but he’s now in the process of learning about his own culture. After spending so long on the West Coast, he’s learned a lot about local First Nation traditions and he’s looking to expand his knowledge and find out more about his Mohawk roots.
At first, he thought he would study communications and he didn’t actually start his undergraduate degree until his thirties. After working with kids in the foster system and being raised with a teacher for a father, he decided to become a teacher, too. He did his bachelor’s degree in visual arts, one of his passions he figured he could turn into a teaching degree.
Dann wanted to spend time with young people, finding adults to be boring. Now he appreciates adults a bit more but his days go quickly and are never boring when he works with hilarious high school students. He’s working his dream job doing work he finds rewarding, having spent a lot of time teaching in alternative schools before finding a role in Indigenous education.
Nearly half of the students in his current school are Indigenous and the administration is open to change and ideas. The inner city school has its challenges and many of his students have families touched by the murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls epidemic. There’s a renaissance of change in the school community so near the Downtown Eastside, an area with great need.
Thinking back to his own experiences, Dann had some awful teachers in elementary school. Many teachers were great but the others left a lasting impression. In high school, he was disengaged. His time in undergraduate studies was much better.
Attending the teacher training program at University of Victoria was disillusioning and Dann saw a gap between progressive words and regressive action, finding racism and barriers. He wanted to give up but he pushed forward despite personal tragedies. He was able to reach his goal of becoming a teacher.
In his own teaching practice, Dann looks to make his lessons interesting and relevant to the students, thinking outside the box. He knows his perspective is vital in the school system. “Some of these kids just getting to school is an amazing feat and understanding how trauma or colonization or understanding the way that they see the world as Indigenous kids, that helps me help them. It makes everything that I've gone through in my life, the traumas that I've experienced, it makes them all make sense, because now I can walk the walk, I don't just talk the talk,” Dann continues.
To take care of his mental health, Dann exercises and tends to his spirituality, an introspective reflection of self, rather than religion. That inward-looking focus is something he tries to bring to the classroom, too. “We teach kids how to do calculus, we teach them science, we teach them PE, whatever, but we don't teach them how to know themselves and that's not something that is always taught at home… I'm just trying to teach the kids what keeps me healthy as an Indigenous person,” he reflects. With the challenges his students’ families face in just trying to survive or where guardians may not have learned those skills themselves, he hopes to lend a hand in sharing his experiences.
His inspiration as a teacher is the kids and the community he and his colleague have built in their room where kids can have snacks, enjoy a safe, fun place where they can speak their mind and be themselves and still have boundaries. They have created a space with rules that make sense instead of the ones that have been set out for so long that don’t always feel like they fit. He’s driven by the change he witnesses and the people working through adversity together, supporting each other through challenging times. The things the kids say linger in his thoughts when he goes home and give him the fuel to keep going.
If he could give his younger self a message it would be “don’t worry about it,” a message his mom gave him in a dream recently. What he would want his younger self to know is that worrying is not the part that is going to get you through hard times, and it’s okay to be aware of challenges and to be concerned but he warns against getting lost in worry without surfacing from it in good time.
To inspire youth, he would like to say, “Do what you love. If there's something that you love, even if you can't do it as work, just do it. Do it after work, do it before work or find a way to find a way to do that. Don't do it tomorrow, because you never know what's going to happen.”
He also wants to share that when he gets down, he thinks about a Robin Williams quote that said “Life is about other people.” He takes that energy and thinks about what he can do for someone else. Acts of service help pull him out of feeling down in the dumps and depressed.
As an Indigenous teacher in an inner city school, Eric Dann knows his voice and perspective are needed. Knowing intimately the barriers his students face helps him be the kind of teacher he needed growing up. Thinking outside the box in an inner city school with a school half full of Indigenous students, he leaves his dream job each day with a full heart.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
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Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.