Originally from the Metis settlement of Cormorant Lake in northern Manitoba, Kevin Nabess has been involved in education for almost as long as he can remember. He spent 10 years teaching in the Frontier School Division, and has been living in Brandon for the past 12 years while working for Sioux Valley Education. Eight years ago, he moved from teaching to administration and became the principal of Sioux Valley High School. (BRUCE BUMSTEAD/BRANDON SUN)
What made you decide to be an educator?
I’m a middle child of seven children, so I recall being very young and making up games to for my younger siblings, and keeping them occupied, and even at that age, teaching different things and learning together as we grew up. So at 16 years of age, I knew I wanted to be a teacher — that was my goal. So I geared my life to that. I went to high school, university, and right into the workforce. I’ve been going to school all my life!
I love what I do, every morning when I wake up. Leaving my children every day would be difficult if I was going somewhere I didn’t like to go. And I love coming to work every day.
But I’m a family man. Without support from my family, I could not do what I do on a daily basis. I have six daughters. I raised three step-daughters to adulthood and they are on their own now. I’m raising a 10-year-old stepdaughter, and I have two biological daughters that are four and six. My 10-year-old daughter is physically challenged. That is a unique path in itself, and a challenging path. But I give all the credit to my wife, Robyn. She’s so strong and wants the best opportunities for our daughters.
It’s often said that the best teachers go into administration, which in one way is great, but which also means that there’s one less fabulous teacher working directly with students. Why did you move from the classroom to the front office?
This is my 12th year working for Sioux Valley Education, and my eighth year in administration. It was the staff back eight years ago — some of the teachers back then approached me and wanted me to be the administrator of the high school, because we did not have one assigned to us at that point. We were opened up as a very small high school and we were running SDL courses — Student-Directed Learning courses. And after I became the administrator, they gave me a little bit more responsibility within the high school to start streaming toward a more regular-programmed school. So now all our courses are regular-programmed — we do not run SDL courses any longer. We phased it out about five years ago.
Did you find that SDL was less effective in terms of having kids move on to further education? Or did you just want to align more with the provincial curriculum?
We were following the provincial curriculum back in those days, but we didn’t have as strong an attendance policy. It would almost have been considered a centre for students who were having trouble with the high school programming, some of them being parents and young adults — the attendance rate in the division was not allowing them to have any flexibility. So we were kind of teaching them at their own pace — even rearranging our scheduling where we ran 10 to 5.
But when I became the administrator, we started to evolve into what we are today — we run provincially recognized courses in all of our courses at the high school level. And we do the provincial math assessments in Grade 12 and the ELA (English Language Arts) in Grade 12. We issue Manitoba-recognized diplomas for reaching the 30 credits any other high school is mandated to do.
How many students do you have at Sioux Valley High School? And are they bused in every day?
We have approximately 130 students. And yes, they’re bused in every day from Sioux Valley. Our numbers are too high for the school out there — the small school we have. So now that Sioux Valley owns this property and this school, we’re utilizing it to the maximum. We upgraded a few of the classrooms this summer, and we have an upgraded student lounge — these projects were proposal-driven with us trying to find funds where we can. And the kids are loving it.
Was the school, which used to be Fleming, in a really bad state of disrepair when you came in?
Yes and no. The boiler system needed a lot of work. And now we have a new boiler system in place. And a lot of just minor repairs to the classrooms, like the tiling, and this and that — paint jobs. So there was some work to be done here, even to meet code for the fire inspector. So we had to do some work to it. But ultimately, we had no other option.
Has this been a good location for you, for the students of Sioux Valley?
When we were sending our students to the provincial systems, they weren’t having the success they’re having here. Being a small school — I guess you would consider it a private school for Sioux Valley — we individualize programming.
What I mean by that is we ‘indigenize’ our curriculum, for lack of a better term. For instance, we follow the provincial guidelines with English Language Arts courses from (Grades) 9 to 12. We take the outcomes — we use their curriculum guidelines — and we take some of the resources and change them to resources about Aboriginals, or written from Aboriginal perspectives, or written by Aboriginal authors, and then we base our lessons around them. That gives the students more ownership of their learning. And it gives them insight to their own culture while they’re achieving the same type of outcomes that are required by the Manitoba Department of Education.
You mentioned the success rate. I take it the students are really responding well to this type of learning?
Yes. We’re on par, percentage-wise, with the School Division. We’re graduating like eight out of nine of our potential grads. Whenever we have a potential graduate rate, we’re hitting the very high nineties pushing them through Grade 12.
The only concern I have with that — and I think this is a concern of many educators at First Nations schools — is are their graduate diplomas being recognized by the greater society? When we send our students out of our school, often we send them to post-secondary facilities such as Brandon University or ACC. But the ones who choose not to go to post-secondary — those who join the workforce — my question would be are they being seen as equal? Yet we follow the same provincial guidelines.
There are a lot of misconceptions out there about First Nations schools — that there’s maybe a lower standard. I don’t see that at all.
I’m from Cormorant Lake, Manitoba, a Metis settlement, and they run Frontier School Division, which is a provincial system. So I’m very familiar with the provincial guidelines and what the outcomes are. The same outcomes are used in Sioux Valley. And now, since we’re indigenizing our curriculum, in ELA, we use teaching tools that are a little bit different. But the outcomes are the same, just like they teach in other Grades 7 to 12 schools — all the curriculum is the same.
What makes us unique in a lot of ways is some of the school-initiated courses we offer. One of the courses is called The History of Sioux Valley. It’s a provincially recognized course where our teacher teaches the actual history of Sioux Valley from the beginning to the present, as well as the Dakotas in general, and their complete history. However, we still do Canadian history — the Grade 11 Canadian History course is still a requirement. The History of Sioux Valley is an optional course.
What is it that makes you passionate about education?
That’s one thing I’ve never lost as an educator — I was very passionate 21 years ago as a teacher, passionate through my teaching career, and I look for that in other staff members now that I’m sitting as a principal — as part of the administrative team. I look for passionate teachers, passionate educational assistants, passionate maintenance workers, passionate bus drivers — who love to do what they do for a living. When you have someone who’s very passionate about what they do, it has positive ripple effects throughout a school system. I’m very passionate about my educational career. I WANT to be here. This is where I want to be.
And I’m only as good as the staff members I work with. So part of my job is gelling a good team. We have an awesome team at Sioux Valley High School. I have nothing but good things to say. And together as one unit, which we are — we don’t have cliques in this school — we can have more success on a daily basis with all of our students.
A lot of students want different things from life. What is your hope for your students? That they get what they want? That they go on to post-secondary? That they just feel secure within themselves and proud of their identity?
I think having a school like this fosters self-identity and self-esteem. My goal for the students walking out of this door with a diploma is for them to have full acceptance as an equal in any field, or any area they choose, whether it’s the workforce, post-secondary, or otherwise, whether it’s in Sioux Valley or in the greater society outside of the reserve. Because reserve life only offers so many positions employment-wise. We like to kind of broaden that.
We’ve followed the Manitoba curriculum. We’ve fostered their self-identity and their self-esteem. We’ve provided many opportunities for career paths and career choices. They choose these paths through informed decisions. So they become informed decision-makers for themselves.
And what I would like to see happen for my students as they walk out that door is to have that equal opportunity that every Canadian has the right to have — and deserves.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 22, 2012