Monday, July 9, 2012

Innovative teacher leaves lasting impression on kids

From  Innovative teacher leaves lasting impression on kids

As a high school student it was not uncommon, on the occasions I would be sent out of class for being disruptive, that while wandering the halls of Woodlands Secondary School I would come across Aleta Crawford's geography class, which was easily located by the hoots of laughter emanating from inside.

I'd peer in, if lucky enough to catch an open door, and see her squatting on the desk, telling a feverish story involving monsters and Australian tree frogs to the enraptured students. Or perhaps she would be illustrating how the flow of glaciers functioned by climbing onto a table and slithering off nose-first.

I had only a passing interest in geography, but at the first available opportunity I signed up for her class. I still have a near-photographic recollection of what she taught, thanks to the little word games and jokes associated with the various lessons.

Early on in her career, Crawford made her mark on the school with the innovative implementation of a homework room: a quiet study space for students where they could work and enjoy coffee, tea and snacks and it was all paid for out of her own pocket.

"I don't believe in failure," says Crawford, who in 26 years of teaching doesn't remember ever having a student fail one of her courses. "I believe if someone's struggling, you find out what the heck's going on. If they're not doing homework, why?"

Growing up with a violent and alcoholic father, Crawford says the impetus to provide the space came from the understanding that, like her, some students didn't complete their homework simply because they had no safe place at home in which to do it.

"A lot of people are unaware of how prevalent that kind of a situation is. And kids aren't going to tell you that they didn't do their homework because their dad's a drunk and they're frightened to be beaten."

Following the death of her mother from cancer when she was 10, Crawford and her five siblings were sent off to live with relatives or taken to orphanages. She grew up in a series of foster homes in Victoria and eventually ended up in a group home, spending her final year of high school as a Rotary Club exchange student in Australia.

Upon returning to Victoria, Crawford was informed her group home had been closed down. Holding down a job at the Royal Jubilee Hospital morgue and supporting two younger brothers who had come to live with her, she managed to complete her high school through Camosun College and went on to get a bachelor's degree in geography with distinction from the University of Alberta.

Teaching wasn't necessarily a calling at first, but she says from the first day of her first class, there was no doubt: she loved it immediately. She chalks part of the "psychological buzz" of teaching up to having a great sense of humour, which is something she says is central to learning and remembering and an essential quality for anyone wanting to go into teaching.

It is this sense of humour, as well as a belief that first-hand experience of a subject is also crucial to learning, that is integral to Crawford's remarkable success. She has been the recipient of multiple awards for her efforts, including CHUB Radio's Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award in 1994, the Rotary Club's Vocational Service award in 1996 and their Paul Harris Fellow award in 1997.
Kenn Joubert, a retired Nanaimo-based psychologist who put Crawford's name forward for the awards, says he first learned about her from a patient who told him a story about his high school graduation.
"As the kids were going through and getting their certificates they were each given a rose," says Joubert. "And as they came off the stage, without warning, some of the kids came to (Mrs. Crawford) and laid their rose in her lap until at the end she was in tears. No one knew they were going to do it, the kids had just planned it themselves," he says.

"You can make or break a person if you're a teacher," says Crawford, likening each student to an egg that needs to be treated with care, love and humour.

"If you have that same student for a number of years, you can either really help them to become a big, fluffy, healthy chicken, or you can create one big scrambled mess of an egg."


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