Laurel O’Sullivan, High School Social Studies Teacher

Laurel O’Sullivan teaches social studies and Aulajaaqtut for grades 9 – 12 and has been teaching for seven years.

She teaches at Kiilinik High School, a public school in the regional hub of Cambridge Bay. As Laurel explained, about 80% of the people in Cambridge Bay are Inuk, while 20% of the population is made up of people from other Canadian provinces and newcomers to Canada.

While most of her students speak English as their first language, many of their parents and grandparents speak Inuktitut in the home.

Laurel explained that while traditional culture is very important in Cambridge Bay, her students are also interested in mainstream pop culture and customs. In addition, intergenerational trauma affects many in the Cambridge Bay community, which plays a significant part in her students’ lives.

Kiilinik High School
Cambridge Bay, Nunavut

On Teacher Education

When Laurel came to Nunavut from Mississauga in 2017, she was afraid of failing her students.

“I was a total outsider,” she said. “It was a massive undertaking to try and educate myself so that I could be in a position to even be a teacher without feeling like a joke.”

Seven years into her career, Laurel said the fear has been replaced by a motivating anxiety fueled by a desire to best serve her students and the Cambridge Bay community.

“There’s always another book you can be reading, there’s always more you can be learning, there’s always another Elder that will tell you something that’s going to blow your mind,” she said.

Laurel emphasized the need for teachers coming from southern regions to commit to being lifelong learners. “I didn’t want to be the colonial white settler who’s failing these kids who deserve to know about their history and be proud of their traditions.”

On Teaching & Learning

Laurel has found that one of the best ways to teach history in Cambridge Bay is to draw on the local narrative tradition.

As she explained, ”I think because there’s such a strong oral storytelling tradition in Nunavut, and because the Inuit have a wonderful sense of humour, and a wonderful ability to tell a good story, I’ve found that the best way to teach history is by using similar storytelling techniques.”

Unlike many of her former students in southern provinces, Laurel’s Nunavut students don’t seem engaged by descriptions of military tactics, and don’t have much interest in watching movies in class. Instead, she said, they learn best through her animated retellings of the lives of people from the past, like Napoleon.

”I’ll say things like, ’Can you believe it? They put him on his own private island with his own chef, and any of his friends he wanted could come with him. But was he happy on his island? No! Because he’s obsessed with being in charge, right?’ And then they’ll say, “Oh Ms. O’Sullivan, what did he do? Did he try to escape?’ And it goes from there. They are completely wrapped up in the story, and they really retain information that way, because the oral tradition is such a big part of their culture.”