ATA Magazine

At a colony school

A winter scene. In the foreground are a line of frozen shrubery and two trees that are also frosted. In the background is a blue sky and two building of a farm
a black and white drawing of a woman wearing a flower print shirt. She is wearing glasses and the background is a lime green colour.
Jennifer Fredeen

Location– Castle School, Scotford Colony, Fort Saskatchewan
Teaching experience– 16 years
Time in current setting– 10 years

What do you teach?

I currently teach all elementary and junior high subjects to my 26 students from grades 1 to 9.

How many other teachers are there in your setting?

I am blessed this year to have another .5 FTE teacher. This is the first time I have ever had the pleasure of having another certificated staff member at my school. Usually, I have a full-time EA and I can count on some extra EA time at some point throughout the year, but it is not always for the entire year.

What is special/different/unique/ interesting about your teaching setting?

There are a lot of special things about my school. I teach all the grades in two classrooms. I divide them by division one, and then two and three together. Division 1 is grades 1 to 3, and 4 to 9 are the other group. When teaching, I am not allowed to use any more complicated technology than an overhead projector. No movies, no computers and no internet. It can make things challenging, but you have to think quickly on your feet.

My students are all siblings or cousins. I have a very close relationship with all of the parents, and I have a great amount of support when I need something done in the school. The colony has built me furniture and fixed things that I thought were headed to the trash. Just last week one of the dads welded a stool back together for me.

I also get to go on field trips around the colony to see some interesting farm activities. At least once a year, I get to carry chickens from one barn to another. Most of my former students have a good laugh, because I most definitely CANNOT carry as many as they can in one hand. I also get to have lunch, on occasion, and have been able to try some very interesting foods. My favourite meal is riced potato dumplings smothered in cream sauce and fresh crushed tomatoes alongside some excellently baked chicken hearts. Not a regular meal in my house at all.

What do you find rewarding about teaching in this environment?

I love teaching at a colony school because I have the unique experience of getting to see a student for their entire learning journey. Sometimes that seems daunting. I feel responsible if something didn’t stick. However, I’m also responsible for all the successes they achieve. A double-edged sword. It keeps you on your toes.

The students remember everything you did last year, so you can't recycle too much, or they get bored. They also want certain things to happen every single year, and they don’t let you forget it.

I have had the joy of teaching on the colony so long that I’m starting to teach students that I held as babies. I have also had the extreme pleasure of meeting the baby of a student I taught. That might just mean I’m getting old ….

I took a chance on a posting 12 years ago, and once I got to the colony, I haven't left.

What are the main challenges?

The main challenge is the lack of technology. I attend a lot of really interesting PD, but most new programs are moving almost exclusively to online sources. I cannot access these to teach. I also don’t have time to print all of them for my own use. It’s very frustrating to be forgotten about and not to have access to the best resources.

I sometimes run into differences of opinion with the colony leaders, but I find an open mind and respect helps to navigate those problems with ease. The Hutterite community has been thriving for more than 400 years. I have the mindset that I’m not going to change that in the time that I’m teaching. I do my best, have thoughtful conversations and explain my point of view. In the end, we always do what is best for the students.

What skills/traits/aptitudes does a teacher need to thrive in this environment?

You need to be your own actor, encyclopedia, principal and all-around magician. Being super organized is also a plus. My multi-binder, colour-coded book systems have been helping me succeed for years. You need to be able to adapt quickly, but also adhere to structure (the kids love structure). You need to be open minded and caring, but strict, probably stricter than you think you need to be.

I took a chance on a posting 12 years ago, and once I got to the colony, I haven't left. The students are fiercely loyal. You’re their teacher, and they’re my students. We work together to have a great school.

Can you relate a specific situation that illustrates the unique nature of your current teaching assignment?

We were having some slow flushing incidences for a couple of days, when, after lunch, I was informed that the toilets just wouldn’t flush anymore.

So I phoned the plumber, who also happened to be the dad of one of the students. In true Hutterite fashion, they showed up right when I was about to start my afternoon.

I waited about 15 minutes, and then brought the students in anyway. They were plenty delighted with the banging going on in the basement. I was just getting into my stride when the big girls in the back started shouting excitedly that the toilet was backing up all over the floor. The bathroom is just outside of the classroom door.

The junior high girls sprang into action and contained the flood. Next thing we heard was a very loud and very disgruntled yelling coming from the basement. One of my former students rushed up the stairs to tell me the main pipe had exploded all over the basement. I’m sure you can imagine the smell that followed. We had immediate early outdoor gym class while I called my principal to see what to do.

More former students arrived to help clean up the mess. I believe they emptied three, four-litre bottles of undiluted bleach onto that floor. All of the sports equipment was also similarly bleached.

When my principal arrived, we went inside and were assaulted by the smell of bleach. And with that, school was cancelled for the remainder of the day. The culprit was later found to be a banana peel that had been flushed along with some paper towels. Now we have a talk with all new Grade 1 students about acceptable things you can flush in the toilet. Banana peels are a definite NO.

A round desk with a stool in the middle. On the desk are 26 multicolour bowls, student pottery projects.
So you want to teach on a colony?

Teaching at a Hutterite colony school is unique and challenging. The teacher works in a culturally specific community with families and students who are English as a second language (ESL) speakers. The school is a one-room facility located on colony property, and the students range from kindergarten to Grade 10. The teacher must always be aware of the duality of the role: working within the parameters set by Alberta Education while being sensitive to the Hutterian culture. Moreover, although all the colonies are bound by similar religious beliefs, each colony has established its own identity.
Hutterite colony schools are public schools supported by public school districts.
As of 2017, Alberta had approximately 250 certificated teachers teaching at 182 colony schools.
-A Guide for Teachers New to Hutterian Colony Schools, Alberta Teachers’ Association, 2018