In a Middle School Class of His Own: Ahousaht Teacher James Swan Makes Art and Lesson Plans
Making lesson plans and works of art, he creates an impact in so many ways. James Swan is from Ahousaht First Nation and has a Bachelor of Fine Arts and a degree in education, preparing him to be a high school teacher. As a substitute teacher, he ended up going to middle schools to teach and found that he loved it. He felt so at home teaching middle schoolers that he now teaches grade eight.
After school, Swan makes art on the side including drawings, paintings, and silkscreen prints. He’s been making totem poles for Parks Canada and has started getting into silverwork. His wife gets all the first prints of his work and they are hung on his walls. Swan sells his work online on Facebook and in some local shops.
He doesn’t have a website, Swan just makes what he wants to make and posts it on social media. People buy what he posts and he’s able to maintain the pace he wants without rushing and without having to make things he doesn’t want to create to satisfy demand. When he’s not working he likes to ride his bike, go fishing and camping. He also likes to ride his motorcycle, work on his boat or sit outside and have a cup of tea. As a teacher, he enjoys spring and Christmas breaks and being off in the summer.
As a student, he attended a public elementary and French immersion school before moving back to his home community and attending Indian Day School. He later went to residential school where he was inspired to become an art teacher. His art teacher taught him silkscreen and was kind to him, allowing students to hang out in the art room. His father and grandfather were also artists and inspired him in his work.
He went to Malasapina College but wasn’t ready to attend post-secondary yet. Swan shares how he was insecure and got himself into some trouble. He later joined the military, something that helped him mature. Some of his military training gets used in the classroom and he finds it helps a lot. He got his degrees from the University of Victoria.
Being away from home at university was hard for Swan, but he found his school welcomed him with open arms and open minds. He made friends that would last a lifetime and he loved being a part of a community so full of ideas, suggestions, questions and answers. His cohort was really great and now he feels anchored in Victoria. In his lifetime, he’s also had the opportunity to travel to Belgium, England, France and Mexico as well as the United States.
When he needs inspiration, he loves the challenge of making something better and trying new things. He’s been designing a tattoo for a customer, he’s done sandblasting piece for the school board, as well as murals around town. He’s also been painting on drums and making regalia. As an artist, he loves getting to choose when and what he works on and saying no when it doesn’t make sense for him.
In looking to share inspiration with others, Swan says, “Don't wait for the last minute to complete your dreams… and don't give up your dreams. Go for them right now. Don't wait till you're old like me. It’s comforting to know that there are people out there that will believe in you, that you believe in. You really have to believe in yourself first and carry on with what you want to do in your life.”
“I really encourage people to become teachers, because there's not enough of us, especially in greater Victoria. There’s not enough First Nations teachers and people that are in positions any places, whether it's waiting tables. We need to get out there and show our faces,” he continues.
Making lesson plans and works of art, James Swan creates an impact in so many ways. He fell in love with creating art in residential school and now he teaches in a local middle school. As a learner who was far from home, he’s making a space where youth feel like they belong.
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.