After years of political involvement, Mark Smith finally answers the call to run for office
Like most social studies teachers, Mark Smith has always been interested in politics.
Elected for the first time in May 2015, the MLA for Drayton Valley-Devon first got involved in politics with the creation of the Reform Party of Canada in 1987. After 16 or 17 years with the party, he had an opportunity to run for federal office but decided against it, as his children were still in school. Realizing he couldn’t be both a politician and a father, Smith set politics aside for a while, a decision that enabled him to teach his children in high school and coach them in basketball.
“It was a good choice,” he says in retrospect.
By 2014, when Smith was presented with another opportunity to run for office, his youngest child had just graduated from high school. He went for it.
Smith earned the Wildrose Party nomination in his constituency, knocked off former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister Diana McQueen by more than 1,100 votes and now serves as shadow minister of education for the official opposition.
“I still loved teaching, but I wanted to know if there were other things that I could do in this life, if there were other choices, other challenges,” he says.
Born in Moose Jaw, Smith went to school in Edmonton, where he attended Jasper Place High School. He then attended Concordia College for two years before transferring to the University of Alberta, from which he earned a bachelor of education degree.
Teaching positions were in short supply when Smith graduated from university in 1982 in the midst of the National Energy Program and an economic recession. Searching for work, he secured an interview with Leroy Sloan, who was then working with Parkland School Division but who would go on to become a deputy minister of education in the Klein administration.
At the end of the interview, knowing he would not receive a job offer, Smith asked Sloan whether he should return to university to pursue a master of education degree or get teaching experience as a substitute. Sloan recommended the latter and Smith spent almost three years subbing in and around Edmonton. He also volunteered at his former high school as a football coach.
One day as Smith was heading out to a football practice, his phone rang. It was Sloan requesting another interview. As a result of that interview, which Smith says lasted no more than five minutes, Sloan recommended Smith to the principal of Frank Maddock High School in Drayton Valley. Smith went on to teach social studies at the school for 30 years before running for provincial office.
Now that he’s an elected politician, Smith is noticing parallels between teaching and politics.
“Teaching is always about relationships. It’s always about relationships with your students, with your parents, with fellow colleagues. You’re only going to be as effective in the classroom as you are in establishing positive relationships,” he says.
“Early in this career as an MLA, I’m realizing that again it’s about relationships, whether it’s representing your constituents, whether it’s developing relationships with your caucus colleagues and even opposition, the other members of the legislative assembly. Again, I think government will only be as effective as the positive relationships that are established in the house.”
He identifies teachers as the number one strength of the province’s education system.
“We obviously are a profession, and I know that we send teachers all over the world to try to help other teachers reach that standard of education and standard of professionalism in their teaching practice,” he says.
Another strength of the education system, he says, is the balance it has struck between freedom and accountability.
“Personally, I believe that we have found a reasonable balance between freedom for teachers to pursue pedagogy that will allow them to meet the needs of their students while also holding and having a sense of accountability through standardized testing to even allowing ourselves to be able to do that in a way that allows teachers to review their practice without being threatened by that accountability,” he says.
He adds that Alberta has excellent school administrators who encourage their staffs to pursue good practice.
One of Smith’s roles as shadow minister of education is to hold the government to account — not for the sake of holding it to account but for the sake of improving education. To that end, he wants to ensure that the government is adequately funding education, supporting teachers as they attempt to engage students and fostering inclusion.
“We’re funding to ensure that students of all abilities and disabilities are capable of growing and maturing and becoming productive citizens of this society,” he says.
With Alberta’s debt expected to increase to almost $50 billion by 2019/20, Smith says he’s concerned about the potential impact on education areas like transportation, inclusion and class size reduction.
“Funding education is challenging now,” he says. “How much more difficult are those decisions going to be when around two billion dollars are going into interest rather than into education or into health care? You can have the conversation about wanting to ensure that education is being funded appropriately, but if you’re doing it by spending your inheritance into the future, you’re just creating more problems for kids down the road.”
Smith is also concerned about Inspiring Education and its implications for professional practice. He suggests that, with the initiative, government has moved from determining what teachers should teach to mandating how they should teach. In contrast, Smith believes that teachers should have the freedom to assess their students and employ a wide range of methodologies to meet their needs.
“That’s not necessarily always going to be some of the lockstep inquiry processes that we’re hearing a lot about,” he says. “There is a place for direct instruction in the classroom, but the teachers need to be the ones to decide where that balance is.”
Smith wants his students and colleagues to know that he misses them and would like to hear from them.
“I get the rare privilege of asking questions of the minister of education, so I would encourage my colleagues in the profession to send me an email.”
Smith can be reached at email@example.com. ❚