Brian Hilary Fells began teaching grade four at the school this year – the same school where he himself studied while growing up in Digby.
Now, 25 years after starting his own journey there, he’s teaching students whose parents he went to school with.
“When I walk down to the gym and see my name on the walls, on some awards I got during school, I’m just like, ‘wow. It’s good to be back,’” he says.
It runs in the family
Fells hails from Digby and is part of a family that’s all about education. His parents and several siblings have all worked in education.
While it would seem it was a natural move for him, Fells didn’t decide to teach until later in life. Growing up, he aspired to practice law.
“It wasn’t until I worked at camps and started building great relationships with kids that I noticed this was something I’m good at,” he says.
“It was never my plan, but it felt right so I went with it.”
While studying in the Bachelor of Education program at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, Fells was contacted by Martin Morrison, Coordinator of Race Relations, Cross Cultural Understanding and Human Rights for the Tri-County Regional School Board.
“He wanted me to come home, and my dad also asked me to come home. I thought about it, and here I am,” says Fells.
Breaking barriers and breaking ground
Fells feels at home in his classroom. He has a unique way of teaching, asking for his students’ opinions to ensure they get what is being taught, and why they’re learning it, a teaching technique he calls ‘Mr. Fells style.’
“When I get good reports from the parents, that really lifts me up, because it’s them saying they see social and academic improvements in their kids,” he says.
He also feels comfortable breaking ground as the first African Nova Scotian elementary teacher in Digby.
Fells has been approached by members of both African Nova Scotian and Caucasian communities who’ve offered their congratulations on the job, and says this makes him very hopeful.
His students have also taken notice, telling him he’s the first black teacher they’ve seen, and how awesome they think it is.
“It shows it’s beneficial for every student because it shows black students there are people who can be teachers that look like and reflect them. It also shows white students not every teacher will look like you,” he says.
“All groups, including Mi’kmaq and Acadian students, benefit from this.”
We’ve come far, but have ways to go
Fells' road to teaching was not easy, and involved working 60-hour weeks at a call centre on top of his undergraduate studies.
He's proud of the success he’s achieved, having earned it through perseverance and hard work.
Fells never had a black teacher when he went to school in Digby. He credits his success to his family, who encouraged him to push on with his education.
“Now these kids, if I ever share my story with them, will feel they can succeed because I did,” he says.
Digby’s African Nova Scotian community fought the education system for years, beginning in the 1970’s, to eliminate racism in schools and for the creation of a representative curriculum their kids could identify with.
A settlement offering programs and content relating to African Nova Scotian students was reached in 2014. Fells says these and other strides have been made within Digby, but that there are still barriers to break.
“There has to be more of a representation, for the psyche of our African Nova Scotian youth,” he says.
“One day, there will be more teachers that look like me, and more kids will be able to see that it’s possible.”