Finding connections is just part of what Walton does with help of colleagues, students
When it was belatedly announced in the fall that Christa Walton was one of two Saskatchewan residents to receive the Prime Minister’s Awards for Teaching Excellence Certificate of Achievement, the Estevan educator said that “absolutely it was a nice shock and it was a good pick-me-up” in the midst of the COVID-19 maelstrom.
In her humble, team-first approach to things, Walton added that “the people nominating me [principal Amber Hilstrom], I hold in high esteem and they could probably be sitting in the seat right now too.”
Suffice to say Walton is true to her word when she divulged that she is always up for one crazy new endeavour every year because they are fun. Her commitment to combining literacy to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) via the STEM literacy boxes she has devised is just an example of her ingenuity.
“The more I thought about it that just seemed like a natural fit. It was project-based learning and so it helps students think through a problem. There were lots of ways we were able to use technology in the process and it just made it more engaging for the students.”
This was when Walton was teaching Grade 8 at Sacred Heart School/École Sacré Coeur (previously, in her 15-year teaching career, she had taught at the elementary level with Grade 2 students).
These days she is no longer in the classroom as she has taken on the role of a learning facilitator and a technology coach for teachers in the Holy Family Roman Catholic Separate School Division.
Typically, it’s a new adventure she has embraced, referring to the opportunity as “special.”
It would seemingly be a tailor-made role for Walton, who is a strong proponent of 21st century learning. She has attended national conferences in this field and subsequently has related lessons from teachers around the world to help students and inspire her colleagues.
“I couldn’t have done any of this on my own. I often wonder if I’m going down the right path, but it’s about having the right people around me. To be honest there are pieces about technology that I don’t especially like and I remember the first time using Google Classroom I found it painful, but then you learn and grow,” she said, while conceding that coding is not a favourite, so she lets the kids show her.
She has also found time to coach sports teams like volleyball, basketball and, more recently, her young daughter Olivia’s baseball team.
Asked if she is competitive, her perhaps predictable response is “I’m not hard core, but I really like to be involved. Whether it’s being a coach in the school setting or in sports, it’s about coming up with the right answer and working together. To be a leader means finding the answer together,” she maintained.
Among other innovative projects that she has spearheaded was the Legacy Project, whereby students visited nursing home residents to learn their life stories and gain insight into not only history, but also compassion and building community spirit.
There was also the Youth Biz initiative, a Dragon’s Den format, where students researched business ideas and pitched them to local professionals.
She has also managed to find time to organize STEAM fairs and coordinates an annual Christmas gift drive in the community.
When she reflected on her still relatively young teaching career, Walton noted that her transition from elementary to middle years (Grade 8) was like finding her niche.
“Once you built those relationships where students felt safe and comfortable, you could use humour or sarcasm even. But it was about finding their interests and you could be like a friend even though for sure I had high expectations and we set goals. I was looking more to be a learner alongside them. Mutual respect and relationships were always number one,” Walton said.
“Using STEM really gave things an easier flow and kids wound up leading. That meant I had to let go of some of the control, but you could see the benefits in terms of engagement.
“I think of myself as a fairly creative person who likes to do fun stuff, and I was lucky that when I went to teach the Grade 8 class I just knew how to spice things up a bit and put my own spin on things. But I had full support from administration to help along the way and that’s all part of us having a very robust staff with a lot of different passions.”
Then, in a moment of brief introspection, she said there have been quite a few of those students who come back to chat, which is surely an indication of the rapport that had been established.
Unabashedly she recalls in some cases when it came to the classroom and looking for new ideas, “I stole sometimes,” she giggled.
Ever one to praise her colleagues, Walton recalled how her biggest mentor was former principal Mary Ellen Barreth, whom Walton has nominated to be an Arbos award recipient whenever that event can take place due to the whole pandemic situation.
Yet if there was any apprehension when Barreth retired, that soon vanished when Hilstrom assumed the role. It was with her encouragement that Walton “jumped on it right away” in alluding to a carbon-capture research project where students tested materials to see how well they filtered carbon dioxide. The results were shared with local government and a tangible reward for the work was a $12,000 donation worth of technology from Samsung as part of the company’s Solve for Tomorrow Challenge in which the project reached the second round.
Ironically, her husband Scott is the production manager at the SaskPower Boundary Dam Power Station, which is the world’s first operating coalfield power plant to implement a full-scale post-combustion carbon capture and storage system.
The facility has frequently been the centre of attention in Estevan as its future is often a topic of discussion with the community looking to rebound from the slump in the once vibrant energy sector.
“People’s emotions are all over the place, but we’re trying to find ideas to give the community a new lease on life,” Walton said. “We are looking at how we can do things in a different way.”
When you add it all up, it’s hard to imagine finding a balance and Walton acknowledged that “I am involved to a fault sometimes,” in terms of her own high standards and a tendency to go all-in.
“I remember when I went to do my master’s I would have 100 hours in on papers and some others maybe would do 20 hours. But that’s just not in me.
“There’s not a lot of school I carry home. When I pick Olivia up at daycare and we’re at home, that’s our time. It comes down to working smarter rather than harder,” she shared.