In last week’s edition, The Mail published part 1 of an interview with Anne Morgan, principal of Greentree School, principal Tom Zariski, and associate principal Don Ewing from Drumheller Composite High School. As all three are retiring this year, The Mail looks back on their 99 years cumulative education experience and asked...
How did you feel on your first day at school?
AM: At the Junior High? I looked like a Junior High student!
I had a Grade 7 home room, I was very excited, I just loved that group, I cried when they left at the end of the year.
A bit nervous, but very excited!
TZ: I don’t remember particularly, you know.
AM: You tend to forget a lot of your first year of school, because it’s very hectic and you’ve got to learn so many things that are now automatic as a teacher, like classroom management and the way to teach a class, how you line up kids, how you arrange your room so that there is good flow. You have to think about everything!
TZ: I guess I would suggest the same kind of things.
I remember working late into the night, on many nights so that would be one impression.
DE: I can remember one of the boys at the back of the room dropping his pen on the floor and one of the boys beside him squashing it with his boot and the ink spread all over the floor, I thought “oh no!”
How would you describe your teaching style?
DE: I like to engage my students actively in the process of me teaching, I am very much one to question the students and try and draw information out them and make them think when I am going through the math processes, because in most cases they do have the information there, you just have to help them make the connections.
TZ: My teaching style revolves around creating a bridge or a bond with each and every student – you have to reach them before you can teach them, said Garry McKinnon all the time – that to me would be my first evaluation as myself as a teacher, that I try to connect with every single one of my students in any of my classes. That, to me I think, would be very basic with most teachers.
AM: To me relationship is the fundamental and then of course, respect within the classroom, their respect for me, my respect for them. Learning has to involve risk taking and you are not going to do that if you don’t feel safe within the classroom environment.
I try to have fun, not in a silly way, but learning should be a positive experience for people so I think you have to have some humour in there, it makes people feel safer.
How would you compare schools then with schooling now?
TZ: I would say one impression would be that teachers today are better prepared.
I look at the young teachers we get out of the universities now, I think they are better prepared to teach than teachers were when I came out of university.
The programs are better, the teachers are better able to hit the road running, so they are not thrown in a total vacuum. They have lots of experience, there are lots more practicums, a lot more evaluation of them, a lot more feedback.
I look at some wonderful master teachers that we have on our staff, who have been here for a lot of years, but they are very, very capable teachers who have learnt how to teach very, very well.
One of the best teachers on my staff, Lynn Hemming, she will tell you right flat to your face that she didn’t know anything when she started teaching, while she is one of the absolute best teachers that I know of.
So I think teachers are better prepared now.
AM: I think that’s true. There is a greater body of knowledge.
I think we had, as Tom says, less knowledge, we certainly came out with methods, but less knowledge.
DE: It is hard to say. I don’t think the level of effort from the students has changed at all over the years, they are still as concerned about their education as they ever were.
Teachers now are so much more trained.
My first year of teaching and coming into the classroom was just basically learning how to do things on my own in a sense.
Although I had some real strong mentorship then with the likes of Bill Eno and Tom Hanson who are terrific administrators, Tom was also a math teacher so he mentored me on how to be a teacher but also a math teacher so I had that, that truly helped me out.
But nowadays, the kids coming out of university have close to four months internship, actual work in the classroom. I only did a total of seven weeks.
They certainly train them a whole lot better nowadays.
How has discipline changed?
AM: When I went to school, boy if I got in trouble at school, I’d pray they didn’t phone my parents as it would be double trouble when I got home!
I find that sometimes parents will, in wanting to be supportive of their children, come to the school and almost question what you are doing, rather than say this is what my child said, what really happened here? Which I think is fine, you should support your children, but I think sometimes parents become a little overzealous.
They think supporting your children means taking their sides rather than looking at the whole picture and then how do I best support you in a way that will help you learn what is appropriate behaviour.
I think there is more questioning, in society as a whole. When I grew up you did not question figures of authority, they were to be respected, when I think now you have to earn respect as a teacher and people question more than they did.
TZ: I agree with everything Anne said there.
I also think there has been a bit of a breakdown in the family.
It’s one thing I have noticed over the years. Families now are totally different compared to what they were over 30 years ago, so I think that has huge implications on the schools.
Schools don’t create problems, 95 per cent of the problems that we have at school with the students has some external implication, the kids bring problems to school and then we have to work with that.
So I have noticed a real breakdown of the family and that has really severe implications on students’ behaviour, attitude and performance. A high percentage of our difficult students have every right to be dysfunctional because it is the background they are coming from.
We have wonderful parents and wonderful kids too but there has been in my impression a bit of a breakdown in the family units.
AM: I agree I think there has been a real change in the family system and families are less influential in their children’s lives in many ways. Now people often expect the school to teach social skills.
DE: The parenting styles have certainly changed.
When I started teaching, there was still the philosophy amongst many parents that the teacher was basically absolute and if you did something wrong at school, you got what was coming to you at home as well.
Nowadays, there’s I guess a lot more enabling of the students from their parents.
When I phone a parent to say there is a particular problem with your child, sometimes they will say ‘well what about the other kids in the room?’ so I have to answer back ‘well we are not concerned about the other kids right now, we are talking about your child’ so some parents want to kind of deflect.
We are talking about a very very small proportion though of the parents I deal with.
Particularly touched lives of any students?
DE: [Pointing to the bulletin board in his office] you will see a letter to the editor out of an old Drumheller Mail, and it’s from a student by the name of Jason Robertson, actually I recently just had lunch with him.
He came in to my classroom in pure math 10 when he was nine years old. He was so far ahead of everyone else in Grade 5 that he was basically just wasted there so the guidance councillor at Greentree School asked if I’d be willing to take him in my math 10 class. So Jason stayed in Greentree in the morning and came to us in the afternoon. And as it turned out, he was my top student that year.
He graduated high school when he was 13 years old. He is currently taking Kinesiology at the University of Calgary. So that letter is him thanking me for basically changing his life. He told me that when we met up for lunch again, he told me ‘I don’t know how my life would have changed had you not accepted me in your class.’
I have another letter there from a former student, when she was going to be a teacher herself. She starts it up by saying ‘Dear Mr. Ewing (I am not ready to call you Don yet!)’. She is now in the teaching profession and the letter tells how I had affected her. I have a box somewhere with all the thank you cards too. So you say to yourself, ‘I did pick the right profession.’
TZ: One of our international students many years ago, from New Zealand, came back and looked up the family she had stayed with, now living in Calgary about five years ago. They drove her out to Drumheller and she wanted to meet me - after 25 years! - and came over to our house. She said I was the reason why she was doing what she was doing. Among other things, she does official manuscript and proclamation in New Zealand for the government in calligraphy on parchment paper!
So she credited me with having such a wonderful art class when she was here in Canada that it had changed her life and guided her in that direction.
I felt at that time I didn’t know what I was doing, I had a free spirited kind of a class so it was certainly not a conscious effort on my part, but that’s kind of an interesting thing - that you create atmospheres and situations where people can achieve greatness. And that to me has always been my motto as a principal, that I facilitate excellence.
AM: I did have a student that I taught in kindergarten who specifically sought me out when he was about 20 to tell me that his kindergarten year had touched him.
He said ‘do you know I think people often don’t go back to their kindergarten teachers because it was so long ago, but I had such a wonderful kindergarten year that I think it set me up for having success in school and persevering with education’, despite the challenges he had come across. That was really nice, he was a really nice kid, shy little guy, I made him feel comfortable and cared for so he could persevere.
What were your major accomplishments?
AM: I think when I look at Greentree School over the years, I see us as becoming every year more wholistic, really focused on the whole student, which I think is very key, I see us very much as being a learning community.
I think that is very important that if we expect our kids to be learners then that the whole community has to be a learning one.
I hope my leadership has helped us move in that direction as it is a key belief of mine and a real value.
That’s what I would feel would be my accomplishment and that is something I am very proud of.
TZ: First thing for me would be the success of our students, we have doctors and lawyers, politicians, artists and teachers, that to me is the first significant accomplishment that I think I had some hand in that.
Individual accomplishments would be seniors dinner, that has been very successful in the community for years, and the international program, which is very interesting, our new school, which we lobbied long and hard for, our football program, that was a lot of time and energy and work and has really impacted a lot of kids.
To see some of your ideas come to fruition and be successful and impact kids in a positive way.
AM: That is the ultimate goal, to impact children’s lives in a positive way, I think it is the greatest joy and reward.
DE: Just the fact that I have dealt with thousands of students I guess over the years, and the positive feedback that I get from a lot of former students, especially some of the parents who have expressed to me in the last few weeks since they have found out I am retiring ‘no you can’t retire, you have to stay another seven years until my kids finish school’ so that makes you feel good.
The best moments?
DE: There has been so many of them.
I guess seeing the first class that I dealt with as Grade 8-9, graduating.
This last graduation was certainly memorable, me trying to keep a straight face and not cry, because ‘real men don’t cry’!
TZ: To me it’s always graduation. I look back at our graduation and I look at some of these kids that are graduating and three or four years ago, I didn’t think they had a hope of graduating.
To me it’s always a highlight, that I had some kind of an impact to get there where they are.
AM: There are always these little moments with kids that just touch you, just beautiful little moments.
I guess the big thing for an elementary school are the Christmas concerts, and seeing them performing, or the remembrance ceremonies, those kind of moments within the school.
These make me feel so proud of our kids.
What will you miss most about working at a school?
AM: All the people there, the kids, every morning seeing those faces and having conversations with them.
The staff too.
TZ: I guess the satisfaction of a job well done.
I guess I am substituting that, I will doing a lot with golfing and the Alberta Golf Association, working with junior players, officiating at events and actually teaching.
DE: For sure it’s going to be the classroom teaching that I’ll miss the most. Dealing with the kids in the positive sense of teaching, the imparting of knowledge.
How will you remember your years working at school?
DE: That they went really really fast, absolutely whizzing by.
It just seems like just a short while ago that I was watching the kid smash the other kid’s pen and now, it’s 37 years later!
As an associate principal, it certainly had its positive moments as well, certainly dealing with the different administrators in Golden Hills, there’s a terrific group of administrators out there. We have a pretty strong association there.
AM: Great pleasure, great satisfaction!
TZ: The great kids and great staff that I have worked with.