Fiona Walton isn’t afraid to shake things up.
And this professor of education at UPEI has been doing just that for much of her decades-long career in Canada as a visionary educator who has brought forth change in her tireless effort to promote and create a lasting legacy in Aboriginal education both for students and educators.
“I like igniting fires, if you want to call it that, and I often talk about the slow burn. It’s not about the flame, you’ve got to have that enduring heart to (fan) the fire,” smiles Walton, who is all fired up about being recently awarded a 2012 3M National Teaching Fellowship.
The Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and 3M Canada annually join together to reward exceptional teaching and learning at Canadian universities.
This year Walton was among 10 teaching fellows chosen.
“Her work has expanded the notion of what, and where, a university can be in the Canadian context,” Shannon Murray, professor of English at UPEI and 2001 3M Teaching Fellow, said in a news release.
Born in East Africa, Walton’s family moved to England and then Ireland when she was a child.
In 1972 after earning her bachelor of education degree, she moved to Canada and earned her masters at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., while she was an elementary school teacher.
She went north to the Baffin region in 1982 and began a whole new path in life, starting as a special education consultant. She was the first to hold such a position in what was then still part of the Northwest Territories but is now Nunavut.
As part of that work she set up services for children with special needs in the region.
“It was a very interesting job. Many of the children had no services,” says Walton, who was primarily based in Iqaluit but travelled extensively to remote areas.
“(I looked at) everything because there were students who were still at home because their needs were so great and tried to get services in schools for them. Hearing impairment was a very big deal at the time, so I rapidly gained some expertise in that area.”
One issue that arose was that a lot of the students were being declared as having special needs when, in fact, they were simply struggling with English, which was a second language to their mother tongue of Inuktitut.
“So that took some working around as well,” she remembers.
Because she worked in various education capacities in the region for 15 years and a further two years in Yellowknife, Walton developed keen insights into the challenges facing educators in the north.
While earning her doctoral degree in 1998 she undertook the largest survey of educator needs ever conducted in Nunavut; her dissertation was called The Hunger for Professional Learning in Nunavut Schools.
One of the things she identified was that Inuit teachers were particularly in need of their graduate degrees.
“They wanted a masters, but to leave the north and to leave their families when you’re the major wage earner and you’re supporting an extended family was hard. They wanted a masters (program) which would come north to them,” says Walton, who arrived to teach at UPEI in 1999 where she co-created courses to help southern teachers to prepare for working in Aboriginal communities.
For the Inuit educators in Nunavut, the lack of a masters affected them in a variety of ways.
“My research discovered that because Inuit were not getting masters degrees they were not accessing the scale at a higher level. Because when you get a masters degree the teacher salary scale enables you to move up. And so as a result of it, Inuit were being ghettoized on a socio-economic level because of not being able to access,” Walton says.
“Not merely that, many people who get masters move on to become principals or superintendents and so on, but that was (also) cut off in a way.”
The specialized masters program in Nunavut started in 2006 as a partnership between UPEI, St. Francis Xavier in Nova Scotia and two Inuit women who had already earned their masters degrees at UPEI, Jukeepa Hainnu and Naullaq Arnaquq, who were able to act as co-instructors in the program.
“So we were able to offer the courses in Inuktitut and English, they were bicultural and had elders involved . . . ,” Walton says.
“And we brought (the masters program) to them. We had three face-to-face courses a year and we had a winter course that was by distance.”
Twenty-one Inuit women graduated with their masters in 2009.
They are now 19 Inuit women in the middle of the second round of the MEd degree.
“I was recently at a teachers’ conference for the whole of Nunavut (recently) and some of our graduates were . . . saying that the MEd program had changed their lives. They felt much more confident. Their writing had improved. They felt ready to speak more openly. They felt they had qualifications equivalent to anyone else’s,” Walton says.
“And that’s wonderful.”