After 34 years with the Alberta Teachers’ Association, executive secretary Gordon Thomas will be officially retired as of Feb. 1.
After following in his father’s footsteps with his choice of careers, Gordon Thomas may just do so again when he transitions into retirement.
Thomas’s father was a well-respected high school teacher in Lethbridge for more than 40 years. On the morning of his first day of retirement, he got out his phone list and started calling colleagues.
“With each one he said ... ‘I just wanted you to know, I’m going back to bed now!’” Thomas recalls. “I’ve contemplated doing that. Some of my colleagues may get a call on February the first.”
Thomas is set to retire after 41 years in the teaching profession. For the last 34 of those years he’s been employed as an executive at the Alberta Teachers’ Association, including the last 15 years as the executive secretary.
“I will miss the people here enormously,” Thomas said of his impending departure from Barnett House. “I think it’s also fair to say that I’ll miss being at the centre of things because I’ve been at the centre of things for a very long time.”
A natural teacher
Given his father’s reputation at the local high school, it was natural for Thomas to enter the profession. He also had an innate interest in teaching from a young age.
With a keen interest in history, politics and current events, Thomas gravitated to social studies as his area of specialty when he was earning his bachelor of education degree at the University of Lethbridge. After graduating, Thomas landed a job at a brand new high school: Sturgeon Composite in Namao, just north of Edmonton.
Over the following years, Thomas taught mainly social studies and drama. While the former was his primary area of interest, he was more known for the strength of the drama program and its annual musical, which was renowned throughout the school and surrounding community.
“It certainly caught fire and it was something that contributed to the school in my time there, and it defined me,” Thomas said. “I enjoyed it. It was a great way to work with students and a good experience.”
While he loved being in a classroom and “seeing the light bulb come on” for students, Thomas was also driven to pursue graduate work in secondary education. By the time he was seven years into his teaching career, he had completed a masters and a PhD and thought he was headed for academia or a central office job.
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However, other ideas were afoot at the ATA. Like his father, Thomas had been involved with the Association since beginning his career. People at the ATA recognized his potential and recruited him to be an executive staff officer in the Professional Development program area.
“My career path had not included the ATA,” Thomas says. “I thought I would end up in a university and yet the ATA, I think, was a very good fit because I could still do research, I could still do teaching and I could represent the profession.”
A quick study
One of Thomas’s first assigned tasks at the Association also became one of his proudest achievements. Shortly after joining the staff at Barnett House, Thomas was called into the office of executive secretary Bernie Keeler, who informed him that the education minister had announced that all school boards were to have teacher evaluation policies. Given this news, the ATA needed to have a well-researched and reasoned position on the issue. Keeler informed Thomas that he was now the ATA’s expert on teacher evaluation and was in charge of formulating this position.
“I said to Dr. Keeler, ‘I don’t know anything about teacher evaluation,’ and he said to me, ‘I don’t know how that could be true Gordon because you are the ATA’s expert on teacher evaluation and the ATA’s expert would know everything there is to know on teacher evaluation, so, the library is there.’”
Thomas went on to lead the creation of an Association policy model on teacher evaluation that helped to shape the longstanding government policy known as the Teacher Growth, Supervision, Evaluation and Practice Review. Now, 20 years later, the policy is still in place and is meeting the needs of the profession and school boards.
“I am proud of it but I’m also not the only one that helped create it,” Thomas says. “There were lots of other important fingers in that.”
As a staff officer, Thomas proved to be intelligent, literate and a quick study, said
Charles Hyman, who preceded Thomas as executive secretary. Thomas was also well-spoken, friendly and took a deep interest in his work.
As Hyman’s associate executive secretary, Thomas demonstrated an ability to forge productive working relationships with his counterparts in academia and Alberta Education, Hyman said. This was at a time when the Association was under tremendous pressure due to a labour confrontation with government.
“Almost all my time was taken up with it; almost everything else was his,” Hyman said. “Those things did not come back to haunt us … that’s important.”
As executive secretary, Thomas was instrumental in working behind the scenes to negotiate the 2007 agreement that saw the government assume responsibility for teachers’ $2.1 billion unfunded pension plan liability, said Frank Bruseker, who was president at the time.
“This was a big achievement and Gordon’s role working with Keray Henke, the deputy minister of education, I think was very, very key in finally hammering out the final details,” Bruseker said.
Former president Carol Henderson described Thomas as someone who was never in a rush and always willing to listen.
And he was instrumental when a very serious cancer diagnosis had her talking about resigning her position.
“He said ‘you’ll do no such thing … we’ll work through this,’” she said.
“I was able to come back to work and finish my term and that was because Gordon refused to accept my resignation. That meant a lot to me at the time and it still does.”
On the subject of leadership, Thomas believes in collegiality, trusting others and facilitating their work, a style he formed due to the influence of a few key leaders he encountered early in his career.
“I won’t purport to be 100 per cent successful, but I have tried to have a very collegial operation,” Thomas said. “I’ve certainly relied on my colleagues. It’s always helpful when you’re surrounded by some of the very best people in the province in education.”
He said he was lucky to come into the role of executive secretary when he did, as growth in the profession helped bring progress on some of teachers’ most
pressing issues, which he also credits to strong leadership from elected members.
“I’ve had inspired and able political leadership. You don’t have that, not much is going to happen. You have to have the right president for the time; you have to have a council that’s prepared to act.”
As his last day as executive secretary approaches, Thomas is looking forward to travelling and resuming some hobbies — playing the piano, woodworking, reading for pleasure — that have lain dormant due to the demands of his position. On the second day of his retirement he’s got some baking lessons scheduled — during the day.
No stranger to long hours and late nights, Thomas says he’s looking forward to stepping away from the heavy workload that comes with the executive secretary position.
“There is a burden of office and sometimes you just have to commit the energy that’s needed to deal with the issue or to resolve the matter, and if that means you’re up half the night to do it, well, that’s the way it is,” he said.
“I’m looking forward to the burden being lifted.”
Gordon’s many years of experience shaped him into a tremendous source of sound advice and guidance. His focus was always on improving the lot of teachers, the teaching profession and the Association. It has been a pleasure to work with Gordon over the years.
—Frank Bruseker, former ATA president
For many years Dr. Gordon Thomas dedicated himself to the betterment of public education in our province. He had a deep commitment to the profession and to teachers in our province. I will miss his humour, his drive and our chats. Gordon has the innate ability to listen, analyze and advise. He always supported the direction I chose ... a perfect match for a random abstract president!
—Mark Ramsankar, former ATA president
It will be hard for me to imagine the Association without Gordon Thomas. His leadership and dedication to the teachers of this province has been exemplary and some of the milestone achievements during his tenure will be felt by our members for generations. I will miss his sage guidance and wish him the best that retirement has to offer.
—Greg Jeffery, ATA president
During his time at Sturgeon Composite High School Dr. Thomas was one of the most popular teachers in the building. This was a direct result of his quick wit and easygoing rapport with students. It was also due to the fact that Dr. Thomas was the active coach of the drama club at the high school.
Dr. Thomas always said that the final performance is not as important as the lessons learned while preparing for the big night. Those words have been a constant comfort to the many now successful people from that class.
—Paul Froese, former student,
current teacher and PEC member
Sometimes it can be years later when we truly see and appreciate the impact a teacher has on us. Even though I was never in one of Gordon’s high school classes, I was fortunate to be a part of the major drama productions his teaching team lead out at Sturgeon Composite High School. I can see these experiences were the best examples of every new idea and instructional practice we have worked to articulate over the last 30 years. Gordon’s deep passion and commitment to fostering, creating and highlighting opportunities for every student to shine has always made him a leader in education.
—Sandra Brenneis, former student,
current director of learning support,
Sturgeon Public School Division