Burnaby teacher Kristina Carley was one of the BC teachers who received the Premier’s Award for Teaching Excellence, according to an official statement on Friday Oct. 27. Carley, who teaches second-grade students at University Highlands Elementary, was recognized by the province for her work in social equity and diversity.
In addition to her Grade 2 class, Carley founded the first diversity club in a Burnaby school and B-Outside, a teacher’s group dedicated to place-based learning. She also founded the Green Team at University Highlands Elementary where she has been teaching for the past seven years.
“I stay busy, that’s for sure,” Carley told the Beacon.
When her students heard about the award, “They were so excited and proud, they were thrilled,” Carley said. “I’ve had so much love and support from all my students. I told them this is as much about them taking action and participating,” she added.
Carley has been teaching elementary school students for 11 years, and social justice issues are one of her main concerns. While her main class comprises second-graders, she also works with a diverse group of students from Grades 2 to 7. Seven years ago, Carley founded the Green Team as part of an effort to teach students environmental stewardship and encourage them to take environmental action. Since then, the Green Team has taken action at the school and in the wider community with projects like better waste management systems, planting native species around the school to support biodiversity and climate resilience, and recycling.
Carley did not stop there; she continued her social justice, equity and diversity work by starting the first diversity club at an elementary school in Burnaby six years ago. While working with younger children, Carley noticed an urgent need for safe spaces for children of all identities. Creating a diversity club was born of the realization that safe spaces have not always been available to young people of diverse identities and backgrounds. According to Carley, many people have not been able to find such safe spaces when they were growing up, and this is something that needs to change. “It’s important to advocate for that safety for everyone,” she said.
While high schools now emphasize the importance of celebrating different identities and diversity, it is not always the case for elementary schools. Carley saw the need for supportive spaces where elementary school students can feel seen, loved and celebrated, and where they can learn about each other and themselves and their various identities. The main purpose is to allow all students to feel a sense of belonging in their school community. Since Carley started the club, it has grown to include an average of 25 students per year, but the number fluctuates annually. Overall, the goal is to create a welcoming space and engage in community outreach. As an example, the students wrote letters to the school district and succeeded in getting the first rainbow walkway in their elementary school. They have created posters and signage with inclusive and welcoming language. At present, they are working on creating new welcome books in multiple languages, conveying the message, “we see you for who you are and we love and appreciate that you’re here,” Carley said.
As part of her social justice work, Carley also founded B-Outside, a group of teachers and educators focused on place-based learning, where students learn about the land they live on, the Indigenous history of that land and to find a connection to place. “Learning about place, for place, with place and in place,” Carley told the Beacon. The group provides workshops, book clubs and professional development opportunities for teachers. “It is also a place to share everyone’s stories across the district and connect people so that they can be inspired and know who they can reach out to if they want to collaborate or get some more information or see what other people have done and be inspired. How can we teach that through a lens of place and connection to the land and connection to each other,” she added. Carley finds that her work with B-Outside intersects with her work in environmental issues with the Green Team.
As for what she hopes to do in the future, Carley wants to expand her work, connect with more students and teachers, and encourage them to take action in their communities on social justice issues. “I love continuing with this work, I love being connected to other Burnaby teachers and other teachers around the district and province, and beyond. I think it’s important to support each other in our work and to support the students. My hope is to continue on in perhaps a leadership role, whatever that looks like, helping continue to connect with educators and support educators and students,” she said.
Lubna El Elaimy, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Burnaby Beacon