Heisler doesn’t have off button, which helps in always looking for new challenges
LITTLE RED RIVER SCHOOL – If you were ever going to start a school and only had the resources to hire one teacher, you couldn’t go wrong if Kalyn Heisler was your choice.
By her own admission, the ubiquitous Heisler does not have an “off button,” recalling how even when she was eight months pregnant it was still go-go all the time.
It is that kind of enthusiasm, to say nothing of her incredible versatility in terms of subjects she teaches, that garnered her national attention as the recent recipient of the Prime Minister’s Awards for Teaching Excellence Certificate of Achievement.
Sitting in her purposely created cozy-type classroom, it’s as if this is precisely where Heisler should be. “This” being in the rather remote community of Little Red River, located 20 kilometres on a grid road from the village of Northside, north of Prince Albert.
The band school has an enrolment of 283 students from nursery to Grade 12 with a total staff of 51, including 19 teachers.
How do I know this, you might ask? Larry Wilke, the director of the little Red River School Education Authority, happens to work out of the same school and explained the highly unique situation of how this school functions. Located right on the border between Montreal Lake Cree Nation and the Lac La Ronge Indian Band means that Little Red River receives 100 percent of its funding directly from the Department of Indian Affairs. Governance-wise there is a local board of directors, whom both Heisler and Wilke praised for their support.
Heisler can speak from her experience since she has been here for a decade, and it is the first teaching position the native of Prince Albert has had.
“Although Kalyn has high expectations of students, her expectations are realistic. Students within the school have genuine respect for her belief in them,” Wilke offered.
Ironically, Heisler does not specifically remember her first impression of the school, but she vividly recalls when the interview was completed. “I remember on the drive back just how badly I wanted this job,” she said after having first seen the posting advertised while she was a substitute teacher in Saskatoon for a short time following her graduation.
Once she was hired, the original intent was for her to teach high school, only to wind up teaching Grades 6 to 9. Now, however, she is back teaching such widely diverse subject areas as English language arts, photography, science, psychology, financial literacy and native studies in Grades 10 and 11. Let’s not forget that she’s pumped about the upcoming communication media course she has in the works.
Furthermore, with the aid of her husband Evan Ducharme, a mechanic by profession, she also had her students work on vehicles and complete procedures such as oil changes and the like.
“I’m not scared of new challenges and I have had really good support from administration. I just want the kids to learn, and it’s so important that they learn things they can use in real life,” Heisler said.
Always prepared to tweak things to best serve her students' needs, Heisler has eschewed creative writing once she didn’t see it as a current fit in favour of the financial literacy component.
It’s a similar scenario with the communication media course because Heisler sees a real need for students to think critically about the news content they see–both online and in traditional form. “I want them to be able to investigate and think critically and to know what to believe by doing the research.”
Making those real-life connections have also meant introducing students to issues such as climate change and gender equity via hands-on experience.
A recurring theme in the conversation is the importance Heisler places on establishing and maintaining a strong rapport with her students, or as she emphasizes “my kids.”
“For some of our students, school is their escape because they don’t have the support they need. They see how hard I work and they do too,” she said, while mentioning that it’s not uncommon for her “kids” to call her Kalyn (or worse, she joked).
“They need to know that you care about them and that they can come for help,” she said, while readily acknowledging that the COVID-19 pandemic has meant a significant reduction in class size. Under normal circumstances, her biggest class was with 24 students.
“I miss that so much for the discussions we have and the way they learn from each other. The more the merrier, that’s where I excel,” she stated.
Another strong connection between teacher and students is Heisler’s self-confessed interest in technology and how she can use it in the classroom. She has created no less than nine websites. She agreed that “being technologically inclined works in my favour.”
While aware that cellphones can be distracting, it is Heisler’s view that if done properly and within certain boundaries, “we can use phones for good and the kids get that. It’s never been a big issue.”
It’s also not uncommon for colleagues to ask for Heisler’s expertise when it comes to technology. “I’m happy to help and share advice, but there are certainly times where I also need help in other areas. I’m not scared to ask for help. I know my strengths and weaknesses,” Heisler said candidly.
Her approach with students and staff is mirrored in her relationship with the community as well, including having students learn the Indigenous cultural components by interviewing Elders as one of the ways of working with the community.
Heisler clearly misses the traditional feasts in the community that are not allowed during the pandemic.
“When I step back and look at how many parents want to be involved, it feels like we’re one big family. It makes me feel good to be able to provide a real positive experience for these kids and their families and help bridge the gap. I’m proud of this little place,” she said, speaking from the heart.
Like many of her colleagues, Heisler makes the twice-daily 60-kilometre commute from Prince Albert in her trusty Honda Civic. There are also locals on staff, including Jordan Triskle, who graduated from the school and is now in his first year as a teacher.
According to Heisler, there’s a great vibe among staff. “We can communicate and support each other. Nobody is scared to speak their mind and we all know we’re here for the kids and that’s our first job.”
She is also quick to praise the support she receives from her husband, including his calm demeanour when it comes to her rants or fresh ideas that she might be tempted to share in the middle of the night.
“He’s for sure a big part of how I stay sane and maintain a good outlook on things. There’s also the couple’s daughter AnnaJ, who attends pre-kindergarten at the school and accompanies her mom on the daily drive, albeit she is usually fast asleep on the way home. Heisler said the commute is her time to reflect and come up with a myriad of new ideas.
“I think each year I’ve grown more into the role and my goal was always to be that teacher students would look up to,” she said, recalling how ever since she was six years old, she knew teaching was what her future held in store, laughing at how she used to be her grandpa’s teacher as a young child.
Like many teachers, Heisler said a good day for her is when her students have that aha moment and she can see that it has clicked for them.
Reflecting for a moment, Heisler said her passion for teaching is undiminished. “I just hope I don’t get burnt-out,” she laughed.
Then she reverted to the oft-repeated phrase from the Chinese philosopher Confucius, who said, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
He must have had Heisler in mind when he penned that memorable dispatch.