Joe Bower leaves legacy of courageous advocacy

January 12, 2016
Cory Hare, ATA News Managing Editor

Heart attack claims influential Red Deer teacher at 37

The sudden death of outspoken Red Deer teacher and blogger Joe Bower leaves a legacy of courage and a void that others must work to fill, his supporters say.

Bower died Jan. 3 after suffering a heart attack on New Year’s Eve. He was 37.

A Red Deer middle school teacher throughout most of his 15-year career, Bower also spent some years teaching at a children’s psychiatric assessment unit.

During the last six or seven years, Bower developed a global influence by sharing his teaching philosophies and practices via social media. He was best known for his desire to dispense with traditional student grading, and he was also an advocate for a more personalized, experiential approach to learning.

While Bower’s Twitter feed amassed more than 17,000 followers and his blog For the Love of Learning attracted page views numbering in the tens of thousands, his uncompromising expression of opinions often rankled those he worked with.

“Leadership was not always accepting of his ideas. Some people would have seen him as being insubordinate, so it was not always an easy ride for him and that hurt him,” said Kelly Aleman, Bower’s best friend and teaching colleague.

“For a lesser person, they would have said, ‘Whatever, I guess I’ll just shut my mouth and roll on,’ but he wasn’t made of that stuff.”

As chronicled on his blog, Bower began his career as a traditional teacher who assigned a lot of homework, imposed harsh penalties for late assignments and diligently issued student grades. But he wasn’t happy with teaching, and wanted to quit when literature such as Alfie Kohn’s article “The Costs of Overemphasizing Achievement” inspired him to change his approach.

“It was like a switch went off. He was bound and determined, because of his personality, to change things,” Aleman said.

Always comfortable with technology, Bower discovered blogging and Twitter earlier than most, and took full advantage.

“He started writing and it just resonated with tons of people,” Aleman said. “He spoke to the hypocrisy of some of the weird things we do in education.”

The global reputation that Bower developed brought invitations to speak at conferences and he spent a lot of time giving advice over the phone or online, Aleman said.

“He was just unapologetic in his approach to what he thought was best for children and at the heart of this, always, was what he thought was best for children.”

Shaking it up

Bower’s “big personality” and uncompromising nature may have gotten him into hot water at times, but he was the kind of person who is sometimes needed in education to shake up the status quo, said former colleague Colin Sterling.

“He was a pretty extraordinary individual who was able to follow his passion and question established ways of doing things. He opened up a dialogue through social media that hopefully will continue after his death,” Sterling said.

Bower’s views didn’t always align with the policies of the Alberta Teachers’ Association and were a bit “out there” for some in the education world, but he did his homework and spoke his mind from a position of knowledge rather than just opinion — an example that all teachers can follow, said Alberta Teachers’ Association president Mark Ramsankar.

“He had such a passion for public education and what is best for children. I wish so many more teachers would strive for that,” Ramsankar said.

Edmonton’s Dan Scratch was a relatively new teacher when he latched onto Bower’s blog, finding it to be a source of classroom inspiration and answers about practice that weren’t always forthcoming within the school system.

Scratch feels that Bower’s most powerful legacy is his courage to speak out, something Scratch hopes others will take up now that Bower is gone.

“I know I’ll do my best to play my part but it’s going to take more than one person. It’s going to take perhaps the thousands of us [who are] on his blog reading all the articles to continue that dialogue within our profession,” Scratch said.

“I think we’d be letting him down in a huge way if we didn’t carry on his message and carry on his — to use his blog title — his love of learning.” ❚

Joe Bower’s global influence

“His was the first blog I started following and I changed a lot because of him. His vision will be missed but his lessons live on.”

Twitter post by North Carolina high school teacher Neil Schledorn

“@joe_bower inspired me to give up grading and his blog has been a go-to for me! So sad.“

Twitter post by teacher Jay ­Trevaskis of Sydney, Australia