What I learned about the impact of teachers on a flight to Montreal
Assistant Superintendent Allen Davidson shares insights he gained about teaching and learning after a chance encounter with a former Foothills School Division student on a plane to Montreal.
Recently, I was onboard a flight from Calgary to Montreal en route to attend Education recruitment fairs in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. As I worked on my laptop a young woman seated beside me was obviously engaged in some thoughtful paperwork of her own. About 2 hours into the flight, I put my computer away, and took opportunity to ask my seatmate where she was headed. She proceeded to explain that she was travelling to 12 University Hospitals across the country over the next two weeks to determine a placement match for her imminent post-graduate residency training program for the University of Calgary School of Medicine. It was obvious from the materials she had in her binder that the interviews would be demanding and intense.
She then shared that she was from Okotoks and a graduate of Foothills School Division and asked if I was ‘familiar’ with FSD?
Throughout the next hour and half, having established that I was indeed familiar with FSD, I learned about the rigours of her journey to medical school including the challenging coursework and pressure packed practical placements where she would be expected to perform a procedure or diagnosis in front of up to 15 students and Doctors. She offered one specific example of this where she was required to complete a successful intubation with 10 onlookers. She failed in each of the 3 attempts she was permitted. Her score was 0 out of 3. She had read, studied and practiced for this particular procedure. Still, the result was Zero % success. However, she expressed that this is the expected norm and that failure was critical to learning and eventual competent performance for Doctors.
She also held, that having resiliency for such scenarios was a critical competency in the selection and development of medical school students. She highlighted other areas where she had ‘failed’ and needed to improve to attain the desired success including improving her GPA after her first year as an undergraduate student. It was clear that repeated attempts to improve upon initial performances that did not meet either external requirements for success (entrance prerequisites, professional standards, etc.) or internal requirements for success (her own high standards) was just part of the learning process in her educational worldview.
My question, to her, was this… “How did you develop these skills and competencies?” That is when she told me about her time and experience as a student in Foothills School Division.
- I learned about her wonderful Grade 3 team teachers in a class of 54 students at Big Rock School where she was provided instructional strategies that supported her particular needs and gave her the initial belief and confidence that she could learn regardless of any setbacks and challenges.
- I learned of a Grade 7 Teacher at École Okotoks Junior High School who had regularly encouraged her to ‘redo’ and take second and third opportunities at assessments, projects and assignments until she was demonstrating exemplary achievement and in-depth understanding.
- I learned of the significance she saw in teachers who invested time with students outside of the classroom in clubs, arts, athletics and other extra-curricular endeavours.
- I learned of High School Science and Social Studies Teachers who made their classes and subject areas accessible and engaging for all learner and who respected the diversity of student’s in their care.
- I learned that she valued standardized testing (she initiated this thought unprompted) but recognized that success on such exams were not the only marker for success and achievement for all students.
- I learned of a Phys Ed teacher who realized she was purposefully skipping or coming without gym strip who then individualized her program and gave her opportunity to earn credit by engaging in fitness opportunities outside the regular school day and thus setting her up for her current fit, healthy and active lifestyle.
- I learned of the high value she placed on opportunities to engage in structured public speaking performances at various times in all the schools she attended.
- I learned of the high expectations she said teachers set for her as a learner and how they held her to that standard.
- I learned that she’d had some challenging times and that she not only sometimes ‘failed’ to grasp academic concepts the first time but also had social challenges and behaviours that, at times, required coaching and guidance from caring adults.
- I learned that she has connected and contacted some of these teachers and attended the funeral/life-celebration of another, in the years since she left their classrooms, to thank them and pay her respects for their role and efforts in supporting her journey.
Of course, she also told me about the significance of home and and family where education was highly valued and encouraged.
There is no question that many factors support individual achievement and success for students. Still, educational research has shown again and again that the quality of teachers has the greatest in-school impact on student learning. It was heartening to have this testimonial and living example seated beside me.
As we touched down in Montreal, going our separate ways, she wished me well in my search for prospective teacher candidates in Foothills School Division. Offering her my own well-wishes, I walked to my connecting flight grateful for this serendipitous encounter, clear in my understanding of the qualities I should be seeking in new teacher candidates, and thankful for the quality teaching that occurs in our schools each day.
 Delgado, R., Hightower, A., Lloyd, S., Sellers, K., Swanson, C., & Wittenstein, R. (2011, December 1). Improving Student Learning By Supporting Quality Teaching: Key Issues Effective Strategies. Education Week, pp. 1-51. Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/media/eperc_qualityteaching_12.11.pdf