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An ECS alumna who found her place in Ontario's North
Photo courtesy of Danni Vella
When Danni Vella was beginning her fourth year of study in the University of Guelph-Humber’s Early Childhood Studies program, she sought help selecting her Electives from ECS Program Head Dr. Nikki Martyn.
“Nikki took the time to sit down with me to explore different areas that might interest me and mentioned a new Elective called Introduction to Indigenous Studies – it caught my attention right away, as this was something I had not previously learned a lot about,” Vella recalled.
“Through hands-on assignments in the course and a presentation I completed on language revitalization, I learned a lot about life in remote Northern communities and the challenges people still face on a daily basis.”
Through her research, Vella came across Moosonee, a town in northern Ontario roughly 20 kilometres south of James Bay that is considered a “gateway to the Arctic.”
“Little did I know, two years later I would be living there,” Vella said.
The path to the North
Vella, who graduated from UofGH in June 2016, began teaching at Moosonee Public School in September 2018, beginning on a six-month contract. Having grown up in Caledon, Ont., Vella had never been to Moosonee, and could not have been sure what to expect.
It did not take long for the community – as well as the children in her classrooms – to win her over.
“My time here so far as an educator with each new group of students that I have taught has in turn taught me something new. I can see how much I’ve grown, both as a teacher and as a person,” Vella reflected.
“I have gained amazing friendships, both with teachers and with local community members. In the North I have learned that teaching is only part of the equation and the other half is becoming a part of the community.
“Teaching kindergarten in Moosonee has been a very unique experience I have had the opportunity to be immersed in a new culture and language,” added Vella of Moosonee, where roughly 85 percent of the population is Cree.
For Vella, highlights of her teaching experience have included gathering with her students to watch geese being cooked over an open fire and enjoying Bannock while listening to traditional storytelling from an elder in the community, as well as taking her students snowshoeing.
“One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is the importance of pairing with each and every single one of my students. Every child has a story to tell and listening to every one – and knowing who they are as people – has allowed me to gain their trust and respect,” she said.
“Never underestimate the importance of showing students that you care. You have the opportunity to become part of your students’ lives,” she added. “One of the highlights in my role is the warm greetings, smiling faces, and hugs I get each day whether it’s in the morning at school or when my students see me shopping at the Northern store.”
Certainly, Vella notes that life in northern Ontario does come with challenges, including extreme cold, the high price of food, and the isolation that comes with living in a community that is accessible only via a plane from Timmins, Ont., or a five-hour train ride from Cochrane, Ont.
“Teaching in any context presents challenges, teaching in remote northern Ontario comes with different sets of challenges such as housing insecurities, intergenerational trauma, addiction, mental health and low income,” she said. “These challenges play out in the classroom in different ways. After a challenging day at school I ask myself not only what I can do differently to support my students better tomorrow, but what can I do in this moment to support myself.”
Still, Vella has not been daunted by those challenges.
At the end of her six-month contract, she decided she “was not ready to leave Moosonee” and accepted a permanent position as a kindergarten teacher.
An educator’s education
For her entire life, Vella knew what she wanted to do.
“From a young age my dream was to become a kindergarten teacher. I loved working with kids and I was passionate about child development,” she remembered. “When it came time to apply for a post-secondary program, I didn’t know where to begin. I felt overwhelmed when looking at universities because I felt I wouldn’t be successful in large class sizes with marks coming only from exams.
“Then my guidance counsellor told me about the University of Guelph-Humber and said there was an upcoming open house,” she added. “I realized right away this was where I wanted to call my home for the next four years. Everyone was so welcoming and friendly.”
Vella was encouraged by UofGH’s small class sizes and the extensive work experience offered in the ECS program through field placements. She realizes now that the coursework in her program was directly relevant to her day-to-day duties as a teacher. Especially helpful were courses on play and programming and a course on children with diverse needs in families, which taught Vella how to develop the skills necessary to support children with exceptionalities in the classroom.
“I wasn’t just a number at UofGH and all of my professors actually cared and knew my name,” she said. “My four years at UofGH were some of the best years of my life.”