Looking back can’t help but provide hope for the future with teachers we have

Sask Bulletin
June 27, 2020
By Jens Nielsen Senior Communications Officer, Editor of the Saskatchewan Bulletin

It’s a refrain you hear often these days–who knows how the future will unfold given the fact you’re almost led to wonder if the world really is round like they have been telling us all these years.

So if we can agree that there are precious few guarantees when it comes to gazing into the crystal ball, suppose I dedicate this space to something that I do know about. Take a journey with me, if you will, retracing some of the amazing folks I have met during the past school year–and yes that includes the last few months when visits to actual schools have been few and far between.

I can tell you that as different as many of the situations I have experienced in various parts of this vast province are on the surface, there are undeniably a few traits that teachers share. Let’s be up front about this–it is a truism that it is not my practice to seek out mediocrity when it comes to trying to fill the pages or the screens of the Saskatchewan Bulletin. Be that as it may, it is not hyperbole to suggest that there are some truly remarkable teachers among the 13,500 who share this profession in Saskatchewan.

If you were to keep score of some of the more memorable stories and the folks therein, there are some noticeable similarities that you simply can’t miss, even if you’re only afforded a short window into their lives.

A reverse of the usual as I was on the other side the camera on this occasion, flanked by Joelle Krysak and Rick Bowes, two teachers at Aden Bowman Collegiate who lent their support to students looking at mental health issues from a variety of perspectives.

Front and centre, teachers care about their students and the whole social justice piece, with all that entails.

Encouraging student voice can manifest itself in a number of interesting ways–even when you might have two quite different approaches or philosophies that somehow seamlessly intersect.

For example, we have Saskatoon elementary school teacher Jennifer Herrod who considers her Grade 3 students as her own children at this young stage of her career. She stresses the importance of such seemingly “grown up” traits as democracy and citizenship, to say nothing of empathy, all with the help of Calvin the corn snake who resides in the classroom (or at least did before schools were closed). Watch her for just a quick vignette in the hallway greeting her students. Words are superfluous.

At the high school level I think of Andrea Regier and the yeoman work she and colleagues have done in establishing the highly successful Health & Sciences Academy at Bishop James Mahoney High School. You don’t have to spend long talking to her students to realize the influence.

Lest you should think the program might be considered somewhat elitist, I’ll share this with you folks. A great passion of mine over the years is coaching soccer. I happened to mention to one of the players in passing that I had been to her alma mater (she wasn’t in the aforementioned academy). Her unsolicited response when she asked if I had talked to Regier was “she’s awesome.”

You want to think about caring for students–here’s a situation I had frankly not even considered. Marty Hoehn might be a foot or so taller than his colleague Andra Thorstad, but when you see the dedication and support they provide for students at the Jim Pattison Children’s Hospital it’s another example of inspiring work being done by teachers at a time of considerable stress for students and their families.

It is a similar scenario when you contemplate how numerous schools have combined efforts with community associations to provide much-needed nutrition and activities for families in need in our communities during this pandemic.

Or, as Samantha Becotte tellingly shared how being away from school has tormented her because of how high school students have developed such a sense of trust that they frequently come by for a coffee and share their stories. They are often gut-wrenching stories but it is commonplace that the trusted teacher is a critical lifeline.

If you don’t think this resonates with students, I vividly recall the eloquent voice of Grade 12 student Merah Gasmo who spoke in front of the Saskatchewan Legislature during World Teachers’ Day. As one who wants to be a teacher herself, she spoke of how teachers “light a fire within their students”, describing them as super heroes.

The whole truth and reconciliation process has been embraced in a number of poignant ways by teachers. It can be like Regina teacher Denee Repski taking her students through areas of the city they had never been to before as a way to more fully understand the realities some of the province’s First Nations citizens live in. As she readily acknowledged, it was a highly emotional experience for both the students and herself.

That bond between school and community is also readily evident when you see the young students at St. Michael Community School enthusiastically honing their skills in the fiddling program. It brings not only extra meaning and pride to their Métis ancestry but imbues them with such confidence, as acting principal Cristin Dorgan Lee said with bursting pride in her voice.

Maybe the finest example of what can be accomplished through education was on one bitterly cold day at Turtle Lake where Delane Graham, of nearby Thunderchild First Nation, managed to just fit in a fishing derby days before the pandemic pretty much shut everything down. There were children from both First Nations schools and the provincial system enjoying a day not to be forgotten.

This is an example of why Manitoba professor Kevin Lamoureux told teachers at the Saskatoon Teachers’ Association Annual Convention that “when I see things that are happening in our schools it fills me with joy, optimism and hope.”

As well as programs like Following Their Voices, I also found considerable reason for optimism after having spoken to some of the folks who had been at the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation building when larger crowds were the norm. They were attending the Leading to Learn conference, and in looking forward to his first year as principal in Cumberland House, First Nations educator Aaron Fosseneuve, in his soft-spoken way, shared how he had come to more fully understand the importance of community engagement. Talking to colleagues, it also confirmed the importance of his people’s culture and reminding students as a way to foster a stronger sense of pride and seeing where they fit in to the overall picture.

Land-based learning has taken on a much more significant role in recent years and for those who might shrug and suggest it’s just the latest fad, drop by Gronlid Central School. You will be lucky if you can find any of the students in a classroom because, in the company of their teachers, they are in all likelihood out in the community and surrounding area receiving invaluable hands-on education under the tutelage of principal Cassandra Neufeld and her staff.

Diversity is also a mantra of teachers, as you can witness via the groundbreaking work being done by Lori Meyer and the folks at Prairie South School Division and Moose Jaw Pride in offering a course on gender and sexual diversity for students.

Student mental health issues have also become more a part of the conversation and you could readily tell how Aden Bowman colleagues Joelle Krysak and Rick Bowes were prepared to invest in helping the school set aside a day for kids to talk about a host of important issues.

Please don’t think the intention here is to single out but a few of the inspiring people I have met this past year because I know there are scores more that I will hopefully have the chance to interact with in the future. Besides, even the award winners, nationally and internationally, like Karen Kennedy-Allin and Nat Banting, for example, tend to defer the accolades as a way to pay tribute to those who have been mentors along the way.

Most recently, I was struck by a comment submitted by Shayna Zubko of Esterhazy when she summed up that even in these uncertain times teachers “try to do what we have learned to do–teach.”

That is certainly true, but teaching without the heart and soul I have been privileged to see is only part of the story. I always chuckle to myself when arranging for these interviews when teachers say “I don’t know if I have much to say.” An hour or so later, and a sore finger from writing down the salient comments from these “quote machines,” and people wonder why I haven’t retired yet.

Now you know! BTW did I just write a blog?