I recently returned from a family vacation that included my 80-year-old sister-in-law Evelyn. I was deeply moved by her stories of attending a one-room school in rural Alberta in the 1940s. Unfortunately for Evelyn, her nine years at that school were horrific, due to the treatment she received from her teacher, who it seems did not like Evelyn and took pleasure in singling her out for ridicule.
“Don’t pick Evelyn, she’ll never catch the ball,” the teacher would say on the softball field.
“Well Evelyn, what are you going to cry about today?” the teacher often said in class.
And on more than one occasion, the teacher made Evelyn wear a dunce hat and sit on a chair facing the entire class.
“I was afraid to learn. She sucked out all my self-esteem,” Evelyn told me during our trip, some 70 years after her terrible school experience.
Now I want to share a different set of memories about another teacher.
In 1977, I was blessed to be hired as a first-year teacher on the staff that opened the new Sturgeon Composite High School in Namao. The school had such excellent learning opportunities, a vibrant atmosphere and a rich, collaborative culture. Every day was rewarding and fun, largely due to the wonderful relationships we had with all the students.
A key figure in creating that culture was another first-year teacher, Gordon Thomas, who taught social studies and drama and supervised the drama club.
During his second year in that role, Gordon had the vision that students throughout the school should be involved in staging the annual musical production — building construction students would build the set; industrial arts students would provide the technical lighting and sound; beauty culture the hair and makeup; graphics the publicity and program; clothing and textiles the costuming; and music students would form the orchestra.
As a member of the teaching profession, I am thankful for colleagues like Gordon, who inspire us to be the best teachers possible for all our students.
Under Gordon’s directing and management, these musical productions instantly became the highlight of the school year, involving close to 200 students and staff and playing to sellout audiences for an entire week each spring.
“Mr. Thomas had a huge impact on my student life at SCHS and the career path I have chosen,” says Annette Loiselle, an Edmonton-based actor, writer, producer and theatre instructor.
Loiselle was one of several former students who emailed me with glowing reflections of their former
teacher. Loiselle said that Gordon was able to share his passion for theatre — and musicals in particular — by creating a welcoming place where students could drop their inhibitions and sing, dance, perform and lose themselves in stories and characters.
“We made friends, we felt important, we were inspired and he gave us a place to feel safe, talented, motivated and so happy,” Annette says.
As teachers, we all know that we are influencing our students’ lives every day — it’s the reason we became teachers — but the memories shared by Annette and Evelyn illustrate just how profound and lasting these influences can be.
I had the pleasure of teaching with Gordon for seven amazing years, until he was hired as a staff officer at the Alberta Teachers’ Association. I later worked with him for another 17 years after I joined the ATA staff. Despite the weighty issues we tackled and the important work we did in our ATA roles, Gordon and I often talk about those wonderful years at Sturgeon Composite as being the best of our careers.
As a member of the teaching profession, I am thankful for colleagues like Gordon, who inspire us to be the best teachers possible for all our students. As he gets set to retire after 34 years with the Association (including 15 years as its executive secretary), there’s no doubt that he has forged a profound legacy as a provincial education leader, but first and foremost he will be remembered as a teacher who was a positive influence in his students’ lives. ❚
Jacqueline Skytt retired as the Association’s assistant executive secretary in 2013.