This page provides a brief history of the founding and development of TESL Saskatchewan.
TESL Saskatchewan first saw the light of day on April 17, 2010, at the AGM of its parent organization: the Saskatchewan Council for Educators of Non-English Speakers. The SCENES acronym had long been considered second only to Quebec’s SPEAQ as the catchiest among the affiliates of TESL Canada, but it had required much explanation over the years, and the “non-English speakers” part had grated more and more. What follows is an attempt to connect who we are now with who we have been.
The history of our province (like Canada as a whole) is largely a history of immigration. For most of the last century, the two most significant immigrant groups beyond the British and French had come from Germany and Ukraine, while in the early 1980s a large influx of refugees from Vietnam made Saskatchewan educators re-evaluate the who, what and why of their classrooms.
Prior to the birth of SCENES, the language education framework centred on what was then called Basic Education. Until the 1970s or even later, the teaching of English was mostly a one-size-fits-all approach, with few modifications made to the model of teaching the language to first-language learners. As the clientele was perceived mostly as adults – children, of course, would easily pick up the language by osmosis – SCENES members began their professional lives as members of organizations such as SALL (Saskatchewan Association of Lifelong Learning) or SABEA (Saskatchewan Adult Basic Education Association.)
It must be difficult for those teaching English as an Additional Language (EAL) today to imagine the sense of professional isolation which most educators in the field (then called English as a Second Language) experienced in the early 1980s; often working alone in an institution or region, unhelpfully (sometimes unrealistically) considered an “expert” by administration, those pioneers were desperate for specialist upgrading and for colleagues with whom to discuss their classroom lives. Resources were few – specialist resources fewer still – support often symbolic only, and working conditions variable.
SCENES began officially in 1981 (though the seeds were planted in earlier conversations) as a networking organization for ESL teachers and their concerns, most specifically professional development and multicultural education. TESL Canada had just been founded, in 1978, with a Saskatchewan representative, Penthes Rubrecht, on its advisory committee. Others who were instrumental in creating the organization are those such as Donna Woloshyn, in Regina with Penthes, and Ruth Epstein, Shirley Fredeen and Heather Blair of Saskatoon. The first events were article discussions and workshops for sharing techniques and approaches.
For those working with adult learners outside the universities, the main network of classes was provided by SIAST and the regional colleges, often with a focus on citizenship, and employment training. After the Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) program started in 1992, this network had a clearer and more appropriate focus, especially when the Canadian Language Benchmarks were added in 1996 – both initiatives of the federal government through CIC (Citizenship and Immigration Canada.) In the early days, ad hoc language classes were offered by churches and settlement organizations, the strongest of the latter still playing a vital role today – and also offering LINC classes – in the form of groups like the Open Door Societies of Regina and Saskatoon, and the Multicultural Councils of Moose Jaw and Prince Albert. This tradition continues to the present with the work of organizations such as the Regina Public Library – who have long offered training for volunteer EAL tutors – and International Women of Saskatoon.
In the provincial school system since the 1980s, the numbers of students needing EAL instruction have continued to rise. There had always been the likelihood that such students had suffered from interrupted schooling, trauma, and long-term stays in refugee camps, but, particularly in the major centres since the turn of the century, increasing numbers arrived – particularly true of girls – with no literacy in their first language, or any experience at all of formal education. Gradually, the two universities, and school boards throughout the province, have responded to the needs of immigrant and refugee families by developing more appropriate programming for educators and learners alike.
As described above, SCENES began as an umbrella organization for those who needed more than SALL or SABEA could offer; for example, those working in the K-12 system with children of refugee or immigrant families had few places to turn for training or informed advice. Such organic outgrowth is quite natural: just as some members of SABEA created the Saskatchewan Literacy Network (SLN), the K-12 members of SCENES grew to the point that they were ready to form, in April 2008, Saskatchewan Teachers of English as an Additional Language (SK TEAL). Our two organizations co-exist very happily – many educators belong to both organizations – and we host joint annual conferences.
Beyond K-12 and literacy, two other focal points emerged from SCENES’ early days in the 1980s. Growing out of bilingualism and biculturalism (federally mandated in 1969), an interest developed in some SCENES members in heritage languages and multiculturalism, resulting in many also holding memberships in SOHL (Saskatchewan Organization of Heritage Languages), SAME (Saskatchewan Association for Multicultural Education), or MCoS (Multicultural Council of Saskatchewan.)
More recently, members of our organization have been active in areas such as the language needs of rural, Hutterian, and First Nations and Metis learners. We are proud to have in our ranks members like Bula Ghosh, a tireless advocate for resources for rural centres, and Harlan Weidenhammer, whose long and principled career saw him undertake, when teaching in northern communities, a continuing campaign to provide TEAL policies and practices for aboriginal learners failed by current approaches and strategies. There is, of course, a clear political dimension to such issues, and we have always worked with governments to bring about appropriate responses as immigrant/refugee patterns and other factors change. We are grateful for the interest and assistance of those in government who have given us more advice and support than their job descriptions may have warranted: federally, we think of people like Armand Martin, and provincially, Joan Boyer and, of course, Jake Kutarna. Past and present members have found many positions of influence – Shannon Storey, for example, has made invaluable contributions in areas such as Prior Learning Assessment Recognition (PLAR) and accreditation, as well as to organizations such as the Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks (CCLB), shaping the development of tools which are very influential in current language teaching.
From our early days when the President and Board had to take care of day-to-day communication and administrative functions themselves, we grew steadily to the era of Jake Kutarna, who brought his government/education background and connections to act as our executive assistant, becoming the rock of the organization from 1994 to 2007. As TESL Saskatchewan has continued to grow since its refocus in 2010, examples of new areas of interest include the rise in economic migration to the province, balanced with the constant demands of newly arriving refugees, and providing a mechanism for TEAL tutors to achieve accreditation, in a process parallel to that offered to teachers since 1998.
We have always valued the concept of constantly renewing and upgrading ourselves professionally. Our organization took shape from a group of like-minded educators meeting at a conference at the U of R in 1981, and our own provincial conferences since then have been designed to address topics of the day in all parts of the province. Our annual conferences (with current presenters and the latest materials in the publishers’ displays) have been held very successfully in places like Prince Albert and Moose Jaw, Caronport and Yorkton, Swift Current and North Battleford. Another debt to Harlan Weidenhammer is the introduction in 1991 of a parallel annual conference for EAL learners, held in the same facility, with many of the same presenters.
Local groups will often arrange appropriate and relevant learning events for members and others in a particular region, but, at the opposite geographical extreme, we are proud to have hosted TESL Canada conferences for the whole nation and beyond. At the U of S in 1991, we played on our original name to offer “Part of the Picture”, with keynotes Diane Larsen-Freeman and Mary Ashworth. In 2002, the U of R held “Catch the Dream”, with keynote speakers David Nunan and Virginia Sauve. That same institution will be the site of the 2014 TESL Canada conference – check for details soon! Our involvement with TESL Canada predates our official birth, as noted above, and has continued to remain strong. A tradition has evolved whereby our past president serves on the TESL Canada board, informing discussion and decisions on matters such as program certification, teacher accreditation, and the work of the TESL Canada Journal review board.
Incidentally, our conferences of all types have provided not only new ideas and reflective practice but also the much-needed funding to allow the organization to offer annual scholarships for learners and financial support for its members to attend PD opportunities. In addition to membership dues, such revenue has been vital to our growth, as has the funding received over the years from governments – even the British Council in the early days – both federally, through CIC, and provincially, through MCoS originally, and more recently mostly through Sask Culture.
Beyond the PD offerings detailed above, our commitment to constant renewal can also be seen in the way our constitution has been updated several times, to address concerns such as the need to maintain the accreditation status we offer. It is our hope that, if you are reading this as someone who is not a member of TESL Saskatchewan, you will explore the idea of joining us. It is quite normal to begin a career in TEAL with some reservations about your skills and abilities, and while we are not promising that we have all the answers, we are an open-minded, welcoming group, thriving on collaboration and collegiality, always looking for new faces on our board. As we endeavour to teach those struggling to adapt to a new language and a new culture, we often find that those who learn the most are ourselves.
[Note: As soon as one name or organization is mentioned, a dozen more come to mind. For reasons of space alone, this document has had to omit many names important to our history. In a small attempt to rectify such omissions, all readers are invited to send us their memories of people and institutions instrumental and motivating in their EAL journeys. We will try to include as many of these as possible in future newsletters.]
If you have any questions, comments or memories, please contact us at email@example.com