During my 10-plus years of working at the Alberta Teachers’ Association, I knew that if I ever wanted to hear a good story, I could just pop into Gordon Thomas’s office. As a storyteller, as with many things, Gordon was quite simply “one of the finest” — (this is a phrase that Gordon often included in his stories).
Be it a humorous teaching anecdote, a characterization of a business meeting or the retelling of an ATA triumph, Gordon’s stories always feature a compelling narrative. A Gordon Thomas story always starts with a detailed description of the setting, an overview of important background information, a thorough analysis of the problem and an exciting recounting of the conflict and its resolution. And no Gordon Thomas story is complete without a generous helping of humour.
If you have a question about the history of the ATA or of education in Alberta, you take it to Gordon — no one knows this stuff better. Not only do you get the right answer to your question, but you get the best story of what happened and why. Not only are the stories fun to hear, they illustrate the important necessary learnings.
I will not be able to tell the best or most complete story here, but let me tell you my story of Dr. Gordon Thomas.
Gordon Thomas began his teaching career in 1977 at the newly opened Sturgeon Composite High School, where he made his mark as a social studies and drama teacher. Notably, Gordon taught with a colleague, Helen Morgan, who ended her career teaching with me. She spoke highly of Gordon and since she was a tough marker whom I respected, I started with a good first impression of him.
While employed with Sturgeon, Gordon started his PhD, taught at the University of Alberta and served his profession as local treasurer and negotiating subcommittee chair.
In 1984, Gordon was one of the youngest staff officers ever hired to the ATA when he joined the Professional Development program area. For many years, he led Association work in teacher education and certification. At the last meeting of Provincial Executive Council, when asked to recall his proudest accomplishments, he cited his work to help develop government policy on teacher growth, supervision and evaluation — policy that continues to serve public education and teachers very well.
During the turbulent 1990s, Gordon was appointed associate executive secretary (our number two) and played a key role on the ATA team that often went toe to toe with a hostile government.
By 2002, the Association was preparing for a co-ordinated provincial strike that would result in about two-thirds of teachers being off the job. Gordon was there, and amidst the turmoil, council named him to become the Association’s seventh executive secretary.
Right away, he would need to lead Association work in responding to the risky Alberta Commission on Learning. My first opportunity to hear Gordon was while attending a member information meeting called by the Association to respond to some of the commission’s problematic recommendations. Gordon ably and succinctly explained the complex and somewhat esoteric issues related to Association structure, membership and teacher employment — like the Board of Reference — contained in the report. Not only did I leave with a clear understanding of the issues, but also with the passion to go forward and act.
Later he would lead the ATA as it achieved a settlement for the multibillion-dollar unfunded pension liability and fought off the dismantling recommendations of the Task Force for Teaching Excellence.
I first met Gordon when I, just 28, was being interviewed for an ATA staff job. I was shocked when he called just a few days later to offer me the job. Gordon,
I think, was later shocked to learn that I was even younger than he was when he was hired.
In the years that we have worked together, Gordon has sometimes reminded me that, like him, I was hired young and hired for my potential. I take this as a big motivator, and I aspire to live up to that potential. He also reminds me that one day, like him, I will hold much of the memory of the Association. And so I listen intently to his stories.
I do not know if Gordon sees himself in me, but I see myself in him, and that I think is a key part of his great leadership. He models the best and inspires others to be like him.
I will miss having Gordon around the office to talk to and seek advice from, and I will miss having ready access to his excellent stories, but I know he will be near and only a quick call away.
Gordon Thomas has served public education and the teaching profession well. Now I hope that retirement treats him well. All the best, Gordon. ❚
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