The award of honorary membership is reserved for members of the Association or other persons who have given meritorious service to the teaching profession or to the advancement of education. At the 99th Annual Representative Assembly it was presented to Sharon Armstrong, a long-time teacher with Grande Yellowhead Public School Division and former Association vice-president. It also was awarded, posthumously, to Joe Bower, a teacher with Red Deer Public School District. Bower died in January 2016 at the age of 37.
During his introduction of Sharon Armstrong, Association vice-president Robert Twerdoclib read numerous quotes about her, all of which originated from an impressive array of her colleagues. Their words were heartfelt and indicative of Armstrong’s many accomplishments, but many focused on her ability to impact others.
“Sharon Armstrong has demonstrated to me that leadership and educational improvement can come from a small woman with a gentle voice.”
In her acceptance speech, Armstrong acknowledged the daily efforts of all teachers, thanked family, friends and colleagues for their support, offered thoughts and prayers for those affected by the fires in Fort McMurray, and shared what she picked out as the highlights of her 43-year teaching career. She also expressed disbelief at being selected to receive the Association’s highest honour.
“It was just a journey, another opportunity or challenge that I needed to tackle,” she said of her career and her numerous accomplishments. “I never dreamed I would be accepting honorary membership in the Alberta Teachers’ Association this morning.”
Over the course of her journey, Armstrong was a teacher, coach, librarian, counsellor and school administrator. She was president of Evergreen Local No. 11, district representative for the Association’s Central North geographic district, and an Association vice-president. While in those various capacities, she served on more than 40 Association committees, specialist councils and convention boards.
Armstrong said her career highlights include helping establish the Association’s Diversity, Equity and Human Rights Committee, serving 14 years on the Special Education Council (now the Council for Inclusive Education) and being a member of the Provincial Executive Council that achieved resolution of the $2.1 billion unfunded pension liability issue in 2007.
She also spoke with pride about witnessing the evolution of the Association as a research organization and underscored the necessity of having data in order to effectively speak with educational and government partners. In the end, though, she made it clear it was teaching that was dearest to her heart, particularly the Grade 8 students to which she naturally gravitated.
“It seemed to me, students at that age were on the cusp of determining who they are and who they might become,” Armstrong said wistfully. “For me, it was always sad at the end of the year, to see them move on … just when they reached that sense of maturity you longed for.”
In his introduction of Joe Bower, president Mark Ramsankar recognized the former Red Deer educator as a passionate, caring, intelligent and action-oriented teacher who wanted the best for his students and his profession.
“’Slow’ was not in Joe’s vocabulary when it came to addressing educational issues,” said Ramsankar. “He would strike fast and strike often. His weapons of choice — razor sharp wit, intelligence and research.”
Ramsankar spoke to the global impact Bower cultivated through social media channels like Facebook, Twitter and his blog, For the Love of Learning, and how he attracted tens of thousands of followers ranging from fellow Alberta teachers to international education experts like Ken Robinson (UK), Dianne Ravitch (USA) and Pasi Sahlberg (Finland). Ramsankar explained Bower’s popularity by quoting Kelly Aleman, president of Red Deer Public Local No. 60 and Bower’s good friend.
“It didn’t matter if it was the education minister or some stranger, Joe was Joe. Honest, passionate and funny as hell. I believe it was his authenticity as much as his intellect that made him as popular as he was.”
Bower’s wife Tamara accepted the award on his behalf.
“Joe would be very proud to have his work recognized in this way … if he were standing here, not only would he thank you, he would take advantage of this opportunity to address the assembly at great lengths,” she said in a nod to Bower’s known penchant for instigating in-depth discussions.
“His main focus was to provide students with an inner desire to learn,” she said. “In his mind, seeing a child proud of their work was the greatest success of all.”
She summed up Bower when she stated, “By being loud, clear and vocal, he was able to connect with those who felt similarly. His approach was always ‘if not me, then who?”
Both Bower and Armstrong served on the Association’s Strategic Planning Committee, and for a period of time, did so together. Earlier in the day, during her acceptance speech, Armstrong recognized the loud and loveable Bower in her signature gentle voice.
“Joe was an educator whom I was proud to know and with whom I shared many invigorating educational conversations over the years. When Joe was in the room, he was a presence. He was engaging, passionate and knowledgeable about his educational philosophy,” said Armstrong. “Sharing the honour this morning will cement Joe’s memory … in my heart.” ❚