By Earl J Woods
Ottilia Baier—affectionately called Tilly by her friends and colleagues—concluded 52 years of science and mathematics teaching this summer. Of those years, 45 were spent at Altario School in east-central Alberta, just this side of the border with her native Saskatchewan.
Born in Macklin, Saskatchewan, in the late 1930s, Baier has had first-hand experience of decades of evolution in education. But it didn’t always come easy. She attended a one-room school for her first nine grades and found the transition to high school difficult. She was failing Grade 10 until the principal took her under his wing. He even personally registered Baier at the University of Saskatchewan, where she earned her education degree.
According to Baier, “His encouragement placed an onus on me to do everything I can for any student who will accept assistance.”
Since the dawn of her teaching career in 1958, Baier has done exactly that—in many cases, mentoring three generations of Altario families. And she’s seen profound changes during her five decades of teaching—from advancing technology to shifting cultural attitudes.
“I just entered the teaching profession around the time that more and more students began to complete high school in rural areas instead of quitting in Grade 11 or 12,” Baier explains. “Lots of kids left school before graduating because they could get a good job at the bank, for example, with just their Grade 11.”
Now even a high school diploma isn’t enough, Baier says. These days a postsecondary education is almost essential for most students—a phenomenon that has led, in her mind, to greater social equality.
“When I started, teachers were looked on with more respect and esteem; I might have been the second or third person in town with a degree. Nowadays you’re just another human being as far as people are concerned, and I think that’s change for the better. No matter where you are these days, there are a lot of well-educated people, and teachers are just regular folks like anyone else.”
Classroom tools have also changed. The blackboard and chalk, potent symbols of public education, have given way to Smart Boards, interactive whiteboards that would have seemed like something out of a science fiction novel earlier in Baier’s career.
Perhaps the biggest change has been the ease with which teachers and students can access information. Baier remembers how she and her fellow teachers agonized over whether the school’s budget had room for encyclopedias; now, she says, everything is at your fingertips.
“Of course, you want to make sure that all that information on the Web is correct, and it’s just as important not to overburden students with too much information,” she notes.
Though she has retired to her ranch near Altario, Baier still stands ready to mentor students and young teachers (as long as doing so won’t take work from substitute teachers). She says, “There are so many things to be grateful for. I think of the parents and students who supported me unconditionally and gave me their respect, [and] my coworkers, administrators and board members who treated me kindly and with encouragement. I had the best students in the world and very good parents. I owe a tremendous debt to all who allowed me to touch their lives.”
The thousands of math and science students who benefited from Tilly Baier’s mentorship surely consider that debt paid in full, with interest. May she enjoy a long, happy and rewarding retirement.