So I finally reached my summit. After 35 years of teaching, I’m hanging up my teacher gear- bag, tools and first aid kit. I write perhaps with with far too much sentimentality but with sincerity. Most of you know I hold little back.
I use the my beloved mountain climbing hobby as a metaphor. it seems an appropriate device but I am a reader not a writer. Like climbing rock, a gradual and arduous task, despite the glory of reaching various summits, has crux and crag. As a teacher, we experience some heavy lifting. Being a professional is never easy but the current generation of colleagues embrace a task more complicated than my own. I write to my predecessors but mostly my junior colleagues. Teaching need not be just one trek but a series of climbs and opportunities. You have to work at something. Try to love what you do. Forget ‘missionary zeal’ just have fun whenever you can. Your authenticity is what makes you unique and worthy of guiding our grandkids.
I notate ‘opportunities’ because I’ve been a lucky teacher to have dabbled for 35 years in a variety of professional assignments. SD23, despite my frequent rants of impatience, has offered me transitions and opportunities that met my diverse yearnings. From teaching high school PE to eventually landing my dream job as teacher-librarian at Kelowna Secondary, I respect the flexibility our District accommodated my professional growth. I never dreamt or planned on a library career but maybe that’s why it’s worked out so well for me- I had passion and insight when the door opened. I have taught something to ever grade K to 12. It’s been a trek not a stroll in the park but I only wish the same to the talented hard working educators behind me.
In 1981, I took an temporary assignment as a PE teacher at KLO Secondary, as this was my major and obsession at the time, I was naturally delighted. Jobs were tough to acquire in 1980, so it was a timely opportunity. I was soon pulled out and asked to teach a Grade 7 class at Raymer Elementary because of an urgent vacancy. Having completed half my SFU practicum in elementary school in Vernon, it was fortuitous. I loved my novice years at Raymer but mostly it affirmed my career choice as an educator. I have now taught these students’ children- a surreal but rewarding experience. Many of my predessors have commented on the same truth. Kids, and teachers come and go.
I moved schools initially because an admin/mentor Al Stonehouse argued that 5-7 years at a school is the most impactful. Off to Hudson and Pearson Elementary, where I learned the art and science of teaching and had many terrific experiences and relationships. I explored other curricula and the burgeoning education technology field, including post-graduate studies at SFU. The experience was a trek that almost broke me but I acquired new insights and many skills. This phase was a series of small delightful hikes as opposed to an ‘Everest’ expedition. I was taxed but now I knew I wanted to try other destinations. I had the encouragement of District staff to attempt a revisit to high school. They had an opening at Mount Boucherie Secondary School in the Ed-Tech field so as the manic risk-taker I can be, I gave my k-7 binders away and brought my Apple Mac Plus to high school- 20mb drive and all!
Although I had the chance to venture out and explore interests like fine arts, outdoor education, and even some special education, my focus was on an information technology program. At the time, it was an alien notion. It wasn’t business or computer science but a new field trying to react to the new internet world. What I didn’t comprehend was that my trek through elementary instruction and technology, not PE, would lead me to a career as a teacher-librarian. A novel ascent I never even considered, never mind aspired to. I spent hundreds of self-taught hours and grabbed many courses and workshops along the way but I would soon be transformed as a librarian.
By the opportunity of solving the dreaded timetables and the foresight of my colleague, Sharon Bede, I found myself hiking into the library one September day. I am a man for challenges, fed by, as I know now, my bipolar disorder; so I naturally headed up the trail without much planning or awareness. There would be nasty MBSS Bears on the trip but I wasn’t afraid- I was young and stupid. Sharon asked the administration to fill the 0.3 TL with me rather than search outside. In my naive- and yes, manic, compulsive manner, I said yes.
I loved the interaction with staff and the diverse curricula. I was a voracious reader, so it seemed prudent to build on the opportunity to stretch myself. I went back to school and lifted my professional development up this unique unpredictable climb as a librarian. I had Bede as a guide, so I wasn’t going to fall in a crevasse! I was delighted with the burgeoning new role of school libraries and could see that my resume would equip me well. I had so many rewarding and fascinating years at Mt. Boo. I worked with so many master teachers, like Bede, Colin Castle, Rob Eikenaar, Lois Flavelle, Bob Dickeson, Catherine Heymen, Barry Kingsley and Don Treadgold to name a few. People like Hugh Gloster, Dave Swanzey and Terry Bush, who showed confidence in me to lead students into the alpine, emboldened my sense of value as a teacher. I had opportunities like travelling to Europe with Rob Eikenaar, other chaperones and senior students, including a trip with my son to Italy. I have so many fond memories of our adventures but it was librarianship that had become my new obsession. The Library at MBSS was so valued by the school it felt like an honourable vocational to aspire to. I was an impatient man who needed change but the librarian role felt appropriate and enduring.
I hated to leave my dear friend and supporter, Sharon, but the door opened up for a transfer to Kelowna Secondary School as a 0.5 part-time librarian. The timing was perfect for another new trip. My children were going to enter KSS and as a lifelong coach, participating with my children in their sporting life was ideal. Having my children at my alma mater seemed a sentimental but practical option. I knew Kay Treadgold, the award winning TL at KSS, and was assured the Owls were a good choice. knew I was fortunate to find another expert guide, not just for librarianship but my life.
I have playfully called myself, a ‘Sherpa-librarian’ because I realized I too had become a library guide. My expeditions were scary, venturing into the Internet with students. There was resistance. Not everyone was a willing member of the digital reality but Kay kept me motivated and resilient, especially when we both planned and moved to a new library at the newly built KSS at Raymer Ave. Leaders like Rick Shave, Craig McLeish and Bill Lang invited me into the process. I could contribute to the building of a new Everest expedition. Kay and I could design and plan a newer vision of school libraries by constructing a facility that would take us out a dark old library into a large bright centre that could provide teaching opportunities we only dreamt about. The training and new gear set us up to deliver services to a school that we knew would be embraced by fellow trekkers.
We soon found ourselves putting the expedition into high gear when Principal, Susannah Brown, encouraged our vision. Our energetic, passionate staff soon joined us in a progressive approach to a school library program. Unlike the old stereotype, our library was not wear old teachers go to pasture. We were not your ‘grandmothers library’. I think our friend Sharin Bede, at MBSS, was now envious but always a cheerleader, along with our friends at the Central Okanagan LSA. It was a heady time with many new potential methods, resources and curricula to explore. Wow! I had found myself on a trek into the high alpine. I was on an ascent of Everest of soon I would be rejoined by Sherpa Bede- the Hungarian guide extraordinaire.
With some trepidation, knowing Kay was retiring soon, we found ourselves in a crux. Finding a top notch TL to replace Kay was a daunting ascent. This time, Susannah Brown was the guide who had a map. We would recruit, steal, bribe Bede to cross the bridge to the dark side. Now how could I not be happy? Luck, Grace or Brown’s divine intervention, I had my partner back. Kay could not be happier. Win. Win.
Now I’m saying that my journey wasn’t without blisters, scrapes and fatigue. I battled personal issues for years. I had spells of bad health and personal challenges but my fellow professionals helped pick me up- literally. We sadly have just witnessed Sharon’s health ordeal. Colleagues get sick, transfer, retire- whatever. It’s life. Life intervenes, like the weather, and one can’t direct every course but only dress for the cold and wet, hoping for sunshine. My vocation had intimately become part of my life over the years. Colleagues, and even students have guided me to safety. KSS rescued me from the abyss many times. I could not have climbed my mountains without the help of fellow hikers. I like to think I grabbed a hand or two over the years. Like my friend and hiking mate, Roger Kirk, says, “not arriving home safe isn’t an option. Safety first.” Look after yourself. Put the safety of your family first. JSS thrives as a team effort.
Last year, with fellow teacher Sherpas, Kirk, Moisan, and Pendray, I fell short of summiting Mount Rainier, but succeeded nonetheless. I reached new high ground. Teaching has been like mountaineering, you aspire to some insane, lofty goal but enjoy the trip regardless of what altitude or landmark you accomplish. You ascent as a team but not every person summits. That is the way. The school library program at KSS became my Rainier and I climbed it.
Teaching is a very intense demanding human service. It’s a very honourable profession with very little respect and a modest renumiration but the rewards can be a personal and social journey. We occasionally can find solace, if not glory; like when we see girls grow into women and boys into men. I’m always humbled by the huge transformation we can see in our teens. We sometimes cannot believe our eyes. Periodically, like sunshine after a storm, they even seek you out and thank you for being there- as a cherished guide- a compass. During my career, I have had alumni connect and share their gratitude. Although rare, even parents write letters of gratitude. Our career is a sacred one. Cherish it. Defend it. Our efforts are respected, even admired, by the coalition of the willing.
Those moments of dignity, help heal the frustration and isolation that many of our fellow Sherpas periodically feel. When the cycle of despair occasionally hits you- and it will- lean on your fellow climbers and focus on your own family. If you stumble or find yourself exhausted from the trek, remember that any hike is a reward in itself and ultimately, you grunt your way uphill for them.
With love, devotion, and fond memories,
– Al Smith, KSS 1999-2015
A few images to reflect my journey…
Nancy and I trekking skis up Kokanee Glacier- on a weekend! Really? Youthful indiscretion
It takes all kinds of Sherpas. These ladies can carry a heavy pack.
excellent service, including access, welcoming scholarship and things like free books…
Despite hazards like Sharon’s absence, 2015 was a special year. Thank you
COTLA. Fellow Sherpa-librarians
Remember, witnessing students apply your guidance and strategies, large or small, is a landmark event.
Celebrate every hill. You earned it.
Integrate your personal experiences into your classroom world.
Find gratifying ways to convert one success into new endeavours
Experiment – take chances with things that you love. [ like trying to paint the ones you love😉 ]
Grad ‘speed dating’ – we host WWII & WWIII
Gotta love teens make themselves at home
Even big kids can read little kids big books. These 2 read aloud Henry Climbs a Mountain, ” you mean you guys have that book?!” Cute.
Some students learn to own it.
Access and opportunity- the rest is up to them
Thanks Pierre, for being my Sherpa!