JoAnne Formanek

The Art of Lifelong Learning: Joanne Formanek Gustafson Makes Art and a Difference in Education

“I'm 58 years old, and I'm still learning. I encourage people to really understand that it's not a one time deal. If you see an opportunity, and it interests you, give it serious thought. If there are barriers, there's probably ways around those, so look for help,” Joanne Formanek Gustafson advises. 

Her home community is Couchiching First Nation, near Fort Frances, where she lives now and has lived for all but a few years of her life. It’s where her mom is from. She started out as a bookkeeper but ended up becoming an educator. When volunteering at her child’s school, the principal asked if Gustafson would work with the school board on a casual basis, which led to her working as an EA and then into education. 

She decided she wanted to become a teacher and since then she’s spent time working with educators and helping people learn about treaties, reconciliation and the importance of culture. Gustafson uses expressive art therapy and similar practices in her work with children and adults. Working with adults, she enjoys their ability to get into their emotional state, the different challenges that can come up and the capacity that is more present in adults than kids in some ways. With kids, she loves the wonder and the magic they experience, the opportunity to help them connect to who they are becoming.

 “If I'm doing activities with kids, and I don't see the impact of that, it doesn't mean that there isn't one. We may plant seeds, even people who are working sort of on the fringes of education and not necessarily in the classroom, your work, in the relationship you have with students, I think you'll never understand how meaningful that can be,” Gustafson shares.

Illustration by Shaikara David

In terms of her own learning, Gustafson was recently diagnosed with ADHD after her children were and she’s always been interested in learning more things and taking more training. She saw an Indigenized Art Therapy program advertised on Facebook and it felt like a missing piece to help people make their lives better and figure out magic pieces for themselves. Her work is now focussed more on relationships and she gets to do a lot of work regular teachers are expected to do without the training they need to do so. 

The role she has is called an Occasional Teacher and she starts her day with a plan as to what she needs to do but over time she’s learned what really matters. “My first priority is to make sure these kids have a good day. We'll do the best we can on the day's plan. But if everybody's smiling at the end of the day, it’s a good day,” Gustafson beams. 

To educate herself, she got her undergraduate degree from Athabasca University by distance and did a college program in person in Fort Frances. Gustafson did her master’s degree at Lakehead, mostly by distance and her art therapy virtually. Distance education was hard to do on her own but she’s so glad it’s available so people can learn in their community. Being able to be home with her three kids was important and being an introvert, the learning experience was a bit more comfortable. 

Her advice about learning is, “Don't view it as a burden. Take joy in learning. It's not something you have to do.” Seeing it as a chore can decrease engagement, she’s found, and she likes to encourage people to understand that learning is key to life and something that you keep building on your whole life. In closing, Gustafson urges, “help each other out. We're all learning. Set aside some space to help people.” 

Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.

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Key Parts

  • Career
  • Identity
    First Nations
  • Province/Territory
  • Date
    September 29, 2023
  • Post Secondary Institutions
    No PSI found.
  • Discussion Guide
    create to learn discuss

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