(COURTESY SONDRA CROSS)
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After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from Emily Carr University of Art and Design in B.C. almost twenty years ago, Sondra Cross recently graduated from McGill University with a certificate in education for First Nations and Inuit to continue in her parents’ legacy.
Cross said that when she was growing up, she had no interest in education, since her parents, Edward Cross and Tekahentahkhwa Geraldine Cross, had dedicated their lives to it.
Her father was a principal at Kateri School and started inclusion in Kahnawake, leaving a huge impact on Kahnawake’s education system, moving on to become director of education before he retired.
Her mother was a teacher until her retirement. They both had a master’s in education.
She did a four-year program and majored in ceramics with a minor in visual arts. After graduating in 2000, she eventually moved to New York City, where she worked at an art gallery for a few months, before moving back to Kahnawake to start a family with her partner Hunter Lahache.
“Then I went back to school to do Kanien’kéha Ratiwennahní:rats, the adult immersion one-year program (now it’s a twoyear program),” said Cross.
After graduating from Ratiwennahní:rats, she started working at the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) as a graphic designer in the communications department.
“I was a graphic designer at MCK for a good nine years. While I was a graphic designer, I decided to open my own art studio to teach kids (under 12) visual arts as an extracurricular program because of my degree and art background. I wanted to share my knowledge with my community,” she said.
After about five years of teaching young kids visual arts, Cross realized she lacked the necessary skills to teach kids with divergent learning capabilities.
She decided to close her studio and went back to school again, but this time to become a teacher.
She enrolled in McGill’s certificate in education for First Nations and Inuit; a three-year program offered on-reserve.
“It’s very accessible to us because it is right here in the community. It covers everything you need to know about teaching aside from the actual experience of teaching,” said Cross.
Students must also complete three in-field experiences in a classroom. The third one requires at least 35 days of teaching at a school.
Cross said that overall the biggest challenge was finding the time to do in-field experiences because she already had a full-time job and a family with kids.
“Most of the people in the program are already teachers or TAs (teacher’s assistant). There were only a few of us that were actually working in another field and doing the program,” she said.
Ultimately, Cross quit her job. But fortuitously, Karonhianónhnha School was looking to hire a second-grade teacher.
“I had to quit my job and become a teacher to finish my teaching training program. They really needed a teacher, and because I was in the program, they had called me and asked me if I wanted to take it in August 2017. Switching careers and going allin was the challenge,” said Cross.
Cross is now about to begin her fourth year of teaching elementary school at Karonhianónhnha. This will be her second year teaching third grade.
“We need more teachers in our communities. Teachers are in high demand in First Nations communities and what better than to have our own teachers as opposed to having teachers from the outside coming in,” she said.
Cross officially graduated this summer. She ended all of her schooling before COVID-19, so the pandemic didn’t really impact her education, except, of course, her graduation ceremony.
“I graduated in the paper,” said Cross, who appeared along with other graduates from the community in The Eastern Door (Vol. 29 No. 32). The Kahnawake Education Center (KEC) took out a full-page ad as a way to recognize local achievements.
For now, Cross said that she will continue teaching but eventually would like to get her master’s degree.
“My supporters throughout this process and journey have definitely been my family at home – my partner and my mother. My inspiration throughout has been my father and mother,” she said.