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Gulf Islands local profile: Nature, community, and the arts

Photography by Sunjum Jhaj unless noted.

The Gulf Islands make up a small corner of British Columbia’s undeniably beautiful coastline. With approximately 175 teachers working across five islands, this little local is filled with heart, camaraderie, and innovation.

Like any rural local, there are challenges with community access to services and resources. However, teachers in this local are focused on all the good that comes from living on a small island: easy access to nature, a tight-knit community, and a thriving arts scene.

“I wake up and see the ocean, orcas, seals, herons, and eagles every day. I don’t have to try to find ways to incorporate nature into my teaching because it’s already such a big part of everything we do on the island. It’s interwoven into everything,” said Sara Bowles, one of only two teachers at a K–7 school on Mayne Island.

Bowles teaches K–2, and her colleague Jessica Willows teaches Grades 3–7 at Mayne Island Elementary School.

A Gulf Islands water taxi. Nia Williams photo.

Mayne Island currently has no teacher teaching on call (TTOC) on the island itself. So, if Bowles or Willows are away, a TTOC would need to take a water taxi to get to the island to report for work. Water taxis are a common experience for students across the Gulf Islands. Many of the smaller islands don’t have secondary schools, so students are shuttled to a larger island by water taxi for Grades 8 to 12—a truly unique Gulf Islands experience.

The water taxi was one key factor in switching to a four-day school week in the Gulf Islands. Four longer days allows the district to save on high costs associated with operating the water taxi. It also reduces the carbon footprint. “We’re switching over to electric school buses, which the local is very happy about, but the carbon footprint of a diesel water taxi is undeniable,” said Ian Mitchell, Local President.

Ian Mitchell
"The people who were leaders in our local before me are still supporting the local and supporting me." – Ian Mitchell

For TTOCs, the water taxi commute to Mayne Island can make for a long day. They need to arrive at the water taxi dock by 6:30 a.m. to catch the boat and don’t return until 6:30 p.m. As for TTOCs on outer islands, they have to take a combination of ferries and water taxis. Since water taxis are only for foot passengers, TTOCs also need to find a way to get to the school from the dock. Sometimes they will walk. “I remember knocking on car doors of people waiting to offload to ask if they were headed past the school. Or people driving by would offer me a ride. It’s part of the community feel,” said Bowles.

The close-knit community is one of the biggest reasons teachers say they love working in this local. Schools are the heart of any community, so in a rural area like the Gulf Islands, the community often rallies together to support the school however they can.

The larger community frequently participates within the school in different ways. One example is a program called Gen Pals, where students and seniors within the community write letters to each other as pen pals. Students also have an opportunity to work with the local conservancy group to learn about and help conserve the ecology of the island. Local artists living on the island also come into the school for various arts projects; the most recent artist-guided project at Mayne Island Elementary was a quilting project where students first learned how to make pillows and then full quilts.

Sarah Kerrigan
" feels like a family in here." – Sarah Kerrigan

At Fulford Elementary School on Salt Spring Island, Sarah Kerrigan brings parents and community members into her class for a weekly nature walk. Every Wednesday afternoon, Kerrigan takes students out into nature for environmental learning, mindfulness, and opportunities for connection.

Much of the outdoor education Kerrigan weaves into her practice requires a lot of scaffolding with students to learn skills and responsibilities to be out in nature. One of the activities her students frequently participate in is nature journalling. Students find a sit-spot of their choice and pay attention to their senses. They then draw or write about their experience. Through this activity, they practise mindfulness and apply a science lens to label their illustrations and use descriptive language. “We had to start by learning expected behaviours to be safe and respectful outside, to be able to listen, and be able to gather at a meeting spot,” said Kerrigan.

Kerrigan started out as a Grades 1 and 2 teacher, but this year moved to Grade 3 with her students. “I wanted more depth. Keeping the students for three years means it feels like a family in here,” said Kerrigan.

Knowing students throughout their entire school experience is common across the Gulf Islands. For Nia Williams, a school counsellor at Gulf Islands Secondary on Salt Spring Island, some of the students who passed through her doors have stayed in touch years later. “One of the joys of counselling here is that you really get to know students and walk with them. Some connections start before they enter high school because I know them from the community, and some connections last long after graduation. It’s lovely to walk a lifetime with someone and know their journey,” said Williams.

The sense of community also exists among staff. “I have a great appreciation for finding camaraderie in my professional circle, not just within the counselling department, but the whole school,” said Williams.

Nia Williams
" really get to know students...some connections last long after graduation. It’s lovely to walk a lifetime with someone and know their journey." – Nia Williams

Teaching can be an isolating profession without feeling connected to colleagues. In such a small local, professional development (PD) opportunities and union engagement are important pieces in fostering professional relationships. “The connection you find with colleagues through PD or your union is important to combat isolation,” said Willows, who is also the local PD chair. “I always encourage new teachers to get involved in the union. It can feel like you’re too busy in your classroom to volunteer for the union, but ultimately, you find connection and you learn about the structures you’re working in. This helps you grow as a professional.”

For Ian Mitchell, his role as local president has been supported by the strong community that surrounds him. “The people who were leaders in our local before me are still supporting the local and supporting me. They’re all incredible people. Even now, I can reach out to them anytime I have a question,” said Mitchell.

You feel looked after in this community and the kids feel it too,” said Willows.

A Gulf Islands Secondary culinary arts student prepares lunch.

Spotlight on Gulf Islands Secondary’s culinary arts program

The cafeteria at Gulf Islands Secondary School has a $6 lunch on offer every day for students and staff. What does $6 get you for lunch? On an ordinary Thursday, lunch-goers could choose one of three options: a roasted root vegetable shawarma in a homemade pita with a side of couscous salad, lamb loin with pumpkin gnocchi and roasted brussels sprouts, or wild pacific salmon with cauliflower couscous and mango chutney. There’s also a very popular daily salad bar. Each menu item is a nutritious meal made with locally sourced ingredients.

The food is prepared fresh by the culinary arts students under the guidance of Mark Kilner, the head chef and teacher. The kitchen is a fully functioning professional kitchen, with students rotating through various jobs to learn all aspects of cooking, serving, and clean-up.

“The first thing I did when I started here was get rid of the deep fryer,” said Kilner. “I wanted to focus on teaching about nutrition through cooking, and making sure students can access nutritious lunches at school.”

The program is intended for students planning to study in post-secondary culinary arts programs. As such, classes before lunch prepare, cook, and serve lunch to other students and staff. The block after lunch is responsible for clean-up, and the final block of the day is a demonstration block. During this block, Kilner offers students an opportunity to learn a new skill. On the day of our visit, the demo was ice-cream making.

Mark Kilner
“They’re going to eat for the rest of their lives; I want to teach the skills they need for that, and I want to make it safe and fun.” – Mark Kilner

Over time, as interest and participation in the program grew, more and more students were enrolling who had no intention of pursuing culinary arts professionally. Instead, the class is well-attended because of the hands-on learning, inclusive atmosphere, and team approach to growing, cooking, and learning about food.

“I don’t want to go into the culinary arts after I graduate, but Chef is a lot of fun to cook with and I’ve learned life skills like being able to cook for myself,” said Lexi, a Grade 11 student in the culinary arts program.

Kilner has adapted the program through the years to focus on healthy meals that can be cooked at home and don’t require any special equipment, so all students can find value in the learning.

“They’re going to eat for the rest of their lives; I want to teach the skills they need for that, and I want to make it safe and fun,” said Kilner.

Through fundraising and catering, the students raised over $200,000 for a greenhouse at the school to expand their already existing garden. In the greenhouse and garden, they grow as many fresh veggies as they can to be used in the cafeteria lunches. The ingredients they can’t grow are sourced locally when possible.

A culinary arts student in the school's greenhouse.

The program is also a no-waste kitchen, meaning they find a way to incorporate all edible pieces of the ingredients they use. When Kilner showed students how to butcher a lamb for the school lunch menu, they made a point to use as much as they could with as little waste as possible.

Fiona McCamley, the certified education assistant in the culinary arts program, was a former student who graduated in 2019. “I loved the program as a student and now as part of the educational team. It gives kids a chance to learn in a different way. They learn fractions, ratios, reactions, measuring, and all these skills that are academic, but they do it in a setting focused on community, friendship, and food,” said McCamley.

“There’s no right answer in this class,” said Tia, a Grade 10 student. “You use the skills you learn every day. I learn a new recipe and then I get to try it out at home.”

It’s easy to see that students feel comfortable in the kitchen and want to be there. “Chef has created a cafeteria where students go to feel seen and be encouraged,” said Nia Williams, school counsellor at Gulf Islands Secondary.

“The program nourishes kids in so many ways,” said McCamley.

Three culinary arts students prepare herbs.


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