I had an e-mail just the other day from one of the women who has always been a mentor to me in education. She was one of a number of women I was fortunate enough to work with who inspired people to do more, to do better; a group of women who, through their incredibly hard work and remarkable talents were able to open doors for all women in education. There were six of them that I’d particularly like to mention because the things they taught me have “stuck” and I need to pause and think about them every so often as I make my way into this new part of life.
Why am I writing about this? Having an impact, making a difference; these continue to be very important to me. When I retired and ERGO (ESL/ELD Resource Group of Ontario) honoured me at a luncheon and had people talking about how my being there had made a difference …. well, that was incredible for me to hear. I worry that now that I’m retired I’ll soon become irrelevant somehow. So I want to pause here and think about women who’ve made a difference to me. They’re all amazing and they’ve taught me a lot; I share that with you.
Madeline Hardy was my first Superintendent. Interviews for the school board in London, Ontario took place – cattle-call style – on a Saturday each spring. Being an “observant” Jew at the time I didn’t drive or do any work on Shabbat (Saturday) and so I’d had to arrange a “special” interview time with Dr. Hardy. Nervously I entered her office, still not sure how she felt about having to set aside an hour to meet with me when all other interviewing had been done “en masse” a few days earlier. She immediately put me at ease, and we spent the next forty minutes talking about what we believed about public education. She had me sign a contract that very day before I left her office. She came and visited me in September in my first classroom and told me how wonderful the wall displays were. She inspired me to follow my heart in teaching. I thank her for that.
I met Joan Green (here she is with Harold Brathwaite, another remarkable educator) at a meeting at the Toronto School Board in the 1980s. We had just started experiencing “swarming” (groups – sometimes gangs – of youth threatening others) and my students had been talking to me about how restricted they were because their parents felt they were in danger. They were. I’d written a letter to the board recommending they do something about this (given the huge number of hours students are with us) and that morphed into a presentation to “the board” and being asked to sit on the Director’s Reference Group on Aliented Youth and then to chair the Elementary Section of this reference group. I think it was our second meeting; there had been about 30 people at the first meeting (everyone wanted to help: social service agencies, the police, religion organizations, community groups) and there were almost double that at the second meeting. We weren’t sure what was going on, but there was a delay in starting the meeting. Our chair – Joan Green the Superintendent – had just been made the Director of the Board. We found out about the announcement and cheered when she entered the room. I think she was the first woman Director of Education in such a large, complex school board that I ever knew. She inspired me to challenge the glass ceilings – and other invisible barriers. I thank her for that.
The day that Pauline Laing became Director of the Curriculum Branch at the Ministry was a fabulous day for me. Pauline had retired as a school board director after winning a prestigious award as best school board director in the world. She was somebody who knew how to turn a dream into a reality, was gifted enough to see what the dream should include, and wise enough to choose the people she thought could best do the job and let them do it. We weathered some difficult times together, and always there was laughter along with the incredibly hard work. To this day I call on her when I need the best advice about ideas in education. She inspired me to believe in myself and hold on to the vision of what could be better even if I found myself surrounded by others who struggled to even realize that there needs to be a vision first. I thank her for that.
Pauline invited me to join her and some of her friends for dinner one evening and that’s when I first got to know Bev Freedman. People have always commented on how much I can accomplish in any given hour; well, compared to Bev Freedman I barely trudge along. She’s incredible. I’ve known her as a Superintendent of Education, a professor in a faculty of education, and a Ministry colleague; and now I am very happy to call her a friend. Bev has inspired me to not let constraints like time stop me from doing the things I know need to be done, and she’s always been my champion in opening new opportunities. I thank her for that.
Veronica Lacey was another woman I met when I worked for Pauline Laing. Veronica had been a legend for many years; she was another of the very early women directors of major school boards and had led the North York School Board through some difficult times. When she agreed to an appointment as Deputy Minister of Education under a government that was clearly bent on “breaking” the public education system … well, how could I do anything but admire that spunk. I remember sitting in her office – with Pauline – and just talking about the pros and cons of various ways of moving something forward. Veronica taught me that deep, complex thinking about education was valued. In her current role as President and CEO of The Learning Partnership she continues to show her leadership. I thank her for that.
Gerry Connelly was another Director of the Curriculum Branch who brought with her both previous experience at the Ministry as an Education Officer but also experience as a Superintendent of the Toronto School Board. She arrived just as we were finishing a very high-productivity, high-stress, endless hours and countless weekends time of work. It was 1999. Our government had just begun bringing refugees from the war in Kosova to Canada. I wanted to volunteer 3 times a week where they were being housed – Base Borden … about an hour’s drive from Toronto – and Gerry allowed me to have flexible enough hours to make that possible. Then when I was asked to go to Kosova and work with the schools in Prishtina on a psychological first-aid program for children who have experienced war she also made it possible for me to do that. Even in the midst of an environment that didn’t so much support global connectedness or kindness or concern … she found a way to let me do this. She taught me that you can give by rolling up your sleeves and you can give by making it possible for others to roll up their sleeves. I thank her for that.
Follow your heart.
Believe in yourself.
Hold on to your dreams and visions.
Don’t let constraints – like time – get in the way of getting things done.
Value deep thinking.
Roll up your sleeves and make it happen.
All things worth remembering don’t you think?