Tsuut’ina Nation and Mount Royal celebrate Education Assistant graduates

Program offered in partnership with the Faculty of Continuing Education

Stephanie Big Plume poses with her Education Assistant Certificate and a white eagle feather presented to her at a graduation event on the Tsuut'ina Nation.

Stephanie Big Plume, 23, poses with her Education Assistant Extension Certificate and a white eagle feather gifted to her at a graduation ceremony on the Tsuut’ina Nation.

Stephanie Big Plume tackled a formidable workload, a hectic schedule and a bit of self-doubt to earn her Education Assistant Extension Certificate . . . in the midst of a global pandemic. 

Big Plume is one of 15 students who graduated from the Education Assistant (EA) program in July 2021 after taking part in a unique partnership between the Tsuut’ina Nation’s Board of Education and Mount Royal University’s Faculty of Continuing Education

“It was challenging,” the 23-year-old said with a laugh shortly after taking part in a graduation ceremony held at the Tsuut'ina Nation Powwow and Rodeo Grounds. “I don’t think we were alone in experiencing that. It was challenging for the students, the teachers, and the parents at home. But it was a very collaborative experience. A lot of us grew in our capabilities through this. We didn’t know how much we could help people until we went through COVID.”

In 2019, Valerie McDougall, Director of Education, and Greg Roberts, Special Education Coordinator with the Tsuut’ina Nation’s Education Department, contacted the Faculty of Continuing Education. The Nation wanted to ensure that its EAs formalized their learning, had up-to-date qualifications and could effectively support its teachers and students. The two organizations partnered to offer the certificate program on the Nation to EA employees and a few community members. 

“This also gives the Nation the capacity to support more complex learners. The historical underfunding of the Indigenous education system has real effects. Creating competent citizens is what moves the Tsuut’ina Nation forward,” Roberts said. “The other goal is to continue to build the capacity of Tsuut’ina to staff its own system.”

Fall 2020 brings a change of plans

That fall, 22 students began the program. Students attended their first two courses on the Nation on Fridays, and during professional development days. The flexible scheduling was developed to support students as they continued working in the community while completing their studies. This aspect of the partnership became even more important once COVID-19 took hold. 

For fall 2020, all courses were offered through online delivery, incorporating Google Meet live sessions. This new format allowed the cohort to continue with their courses online with support from the Tsuut’ina Education Department and Mount Royal, McDougall said. 

“We are very proud of our education assistants and their accomplishments,” McDougall said during the graduation ceremony. “Their commitment, their dedication to coming to school through a pandemic and their resiliency shows how strong they are as individuals.” 

To the graduates, she extended thanks on behalf of the community that will benefit from their hard work. 

“You did it for the students, but you also did it for yourself, for personal growth, to become a better person for the children of Tsuut’ina,” she said. “It’s been said that education is what got us into this situation, and education is what is going to get us out of it.”

Chad McDougall is a counsellor at Chief Big Belly Middle School who also works with high school students. He often found himself supporting students with their school work, so taking the EA program through the partnership between the Tsuut’ina Nation and Mount Royal was a natural fit.

“When they get the ‘a-ha!’ moment, that is the reward. Now I have the training to help the students out,” he said. Although he grew up on the Piikani Reserve, the 31-year-old is a member of the Tsuut’ina Nation. “It’s very important to have Tsuut’ina in our educational system. When the students realize that I am here, it helps motivate them.”


"Coming to know them and them trusting me and learning from me is an honour in itself."

Stephanie Big Plume


Big Plume worked as an EA with adults for about a year before starting her studies through the partnership. In addition to learning practical skills that she can use to support her students in areas such as literacy and numeracy, she gained confidence through the program. 

“It was intimidating working alongside teachers. I felt I needed to explore the EA program for the betterment of myself and my career, but also for the students. At the end of the day, that’s who this is all for,” Big Plume said. “The relationship I get to have with students is special. Each one is an individual. A lot of adults on reserves didn’t fully complete high school or middle school. Coming to know them and them trusting me and learning from me is an honour in itself.”

Students, staff went above and beyond to meet challenges

Speaking at the graduation event held on Aug. 26, Brad Mahon, dean of the Faculty of Continuing Education, expressed his thanks to the Nation for the ongoing relationship and to the students for their commitment to their studies and their students.

“I am sure there were times that you thought, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ But you did it,” Mahon said. “Yes, you have the parchment and new knowledge and skills, but you also have these muscles that you used and developed over the past few years. They will serve you in other parts of your life as well.”

Mahon also recognized the dedication of the instructors in the program, as well as administrators at Mount Royal and on the Nation. The core course assignments and activities were designed to provide EA students with practical learning experiences which took into account their professional experience and offered opportunities to apply new theory into their current EA roles.

They all went above and beyond to ensure students were supported throughout their courses, he said, and without their commitment to the students and flexibility in delivering the curriculum, this successful partnership would not have been possible. Big Plume also wanted to extend her appreciation to the instructors who supported her and her cohort on their educational journey during such a challenging time. 

“Every teacher was so understanding and focused on us as individuals. They were also appreciative of our culture and language. It was such a positive experience,” she said. “Before this, I never had a teacher who would go out of their way to help me with an assignment. The education system was daunting before this, but now I feel like I have no problems navigating that.”

With that new-found confidence, Big Plume is starting a community-based program this fall in which she will continue working in the classroom during the day while studying for her teaching degree at night. Chad McDougall plans on studying for his ​​Bachelor of Education — Elementary at Mount Royal. Fifteen students completed the program in July 2021.

For those who were unable to finish all their courses in the two-year window of the partnership agreement, staff with the Tsuut’ina Nation Education Department and Mount Royal plan to support them in completing their studies in the next year.

Learn more about Mount Royal’s Education Assistant Extension Certificate program.

Sept. 9, 2021 — Ruth Myles

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