Language of Learning: Jaymyn La Vallee Finds Her Place in Education
“We all stumble and fall sometimes. It's just about keeping on going or needing to take a break, and that's okay, too,” advises Jaymyn La Vallee. She is of Squamish and Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw ancestry and grew up in North Vancouver. She has also lived in Bella Bella and was adopted by the Heiltsuk people. Her journey has not been without bumps or pauses but now she works as a language teacher with the Gwa'sala-'Nakwaxda'xw language department. With a team of language teachers, she’s creating a curriculum for a language immersion program much like the program her brother created for the Squamish Nation.
La Vallee got into teaching after graduating from the NITEP (Indigenous Teacher Education Program) program in 2020. She taught third grade and also worked as an Indigenous support teacher but what she found was that she was most interested in pedagogy and incorporating ways of knowing and being into her teaching practice. That’s why curriculum development aligned better with her interests than the regular provincial public school system.
She initially enrolled in NITEP at the recommendation of a friend who took the program and really enjoyed it. Hearing that the program was community-based and supportive made the program attractive and Lavellee wanted to contribute to there being more Indigenous teachers in schools. Language, culture and plant medicines interested her and she found even when she was in NITEP that the core courses incorporated her values.
Making the move to the language program was a natural fit as she had often been a guinea pig for her brother’s language instruction programs. She took part in the Where Are Your Keys? training as a teenager and it helped her learn the Squamish language. Receiving the offer to come do language work was a great transition for her given her interests.
While she’s a gifted teacher, she wasn’t always a star student. When she was in elementary school, she excelled academically and really enjoyed reading. Over time, her performance declined until she dropped out in tenth grade. She worked in a coffee shop, then moved to Bella Bella where she was a camp leader for a land-based learning program and then their executive assistant.
One of her mentors inspired her to go back to school and she did grade 11 and 12 in one year when she was 19. She completed her adult Dogwood with honours, taking challenging science courses with a dream of becoming an engineer. Unfortunately, when she went to Capilano University for an environmental engineering certificate transfer program, she failed her first semester. She took time off, then applied to and got into SFU, which she also failed.
Failure was only temporary. She did a back-on-track program and then applied to teacher training where she did a lot better. In the first and second year she had some courses where she didn’t do very well but after dealing with some of her trauma, she was able to focus better and her academic performance improved.
After her educational experiences, her advice for Indigenous students thinking about leaving their home community is about finding connection. “Having that community is so important. I know it's kind of hard to create when you're entering a new space,” she acknowledges. At UBC she loved to go to the longhouse and she suggests Indigenous students find out what Indigenous supports are available at their school and attend Indigenous-focused events to make friends.
Without community, La Vallee found university isolating. She had a lot of shame around failing classes and she wishes people talked more about the experience of failing in education because there’s so much stigma. She was able to overcome those obstacles and now she’s working on her Master’s degree and almost done.
Another obstacle she faced in school was financial. While she had band funding for some years, she didn’t always and her debt load forced her to declare bankruptcy during her teacher education program. Between school and travel, she incurred a lot of credit card debt but she’s since got a handle on her financial situation. Otherwise, La Vallee had a hard time deciding what to do professionally because there were so many options and he just wanted to be a part of everything.
Looking back on all the struggles she overcame, if she could tell her younger self anything it would be to be gentle with herself, because she was so hard on herself and it’s something she’s still working on. “The way you talk to yourself should be almost how you talk to your best friend. I think that's just such an important part, just to love yourself,” La Vallee shares, thinking about how she wishes there was more social-emotional learning in school. She wishes she had more perspective about how difficult moments are temporary and they pass quickly even though they are hard.
To balance her mental health and well-being, she does yoga and walks with friends. To help manage her ADHD, she finds exercise helps her focus, mental clarity and reduces her brain fog. She sees a naturopath regularly and the vitamins and treatments help a lot with her fatigue and stress levels. Taking care of her body helps her manage the stress of grad school, full-time work and a new puppy.
When she needs the inspiration to keep going, La Vallee looks to her communities and to the people doing community work. She’s amazed by the initiatives coming out of Squamish and the hard work is benignly done in her Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw community. “What we're doing is for future generations,” she tells herself when she needs to remember her purpose.
She remembers how we all stumble and fall sometimes and how it's just about keeping on going or needing to take a break. She knows firsthand that taking a break is okay, too. Despite academic difficulties and financial challenges, Jaymyn Vallee is doing work she loves in community, pursuing her passions of language and culture. She’s helping others find their words and she’s found a place she belongs.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
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.