July 15th, 2019
Two Waterloo Region District School Board teachers received Prime Minister’s Awards for Teaching Excellence and Teaching Excellence in STEM. Aleda Klassen of Waterloo Collegiate Institute and Calvin Van Eek of Waterloo-Oxford District Secondary School were recognized by the Prime Minister for their dedication and commitment to teaching and their students.
The Prime Minister’s Awards for Teaching Excellence have honoured exceptional elementary and secondary school teachers in all disciplines since 1994, with over 1,600 teachers recognized to date. Teaching Excellence Awards recipients are honoured for their remarkable achievements in education and for their commitment to preparing their students for a digital and innovation-based economy. The Teaching Excellence in STEM Awards honour outstanding Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics teachers that help develop the culture of innovation Canada needs today, and in the future.
Aleda Klassen – Award for Teaching Excellence in STEM
Waterloo Collegiate Institute (WCI)
Winning an award was never Aleda Klassen’s goal, but for the WCI math teacher, it’s a sign she’s on the right track. “I felt flattered and humbled,” said Klassen when asked how winning the award made her feel. “I have a lot to live up to now because it’s in print.”
Klassen, who began her teaching career nearly a decade ago in Attawapiskat, sees this award as the product of all the exceptional educators she has taught and learned alongside. “The award is a testament to what I have learned from others,” said Klassen. She credits her colleagues who nominated her for the award, Kyle Bishop, Ashley McCarl Palmer, Cameron Elsdon, Emily Ritz and Sara Milks, for inspiring and pushing her to achieve more every day.
For Klassen, a pivotal moment in her teaching career was when WCI moved from a non-semestered to a semestered format, requiring some creative problem solving to ensure the yearbook would be able to cover events from the whole year, with the class only taking place in the final semester. Together, she and Bishop created a proposal for an interdisciplinary journalism class that combined elements of English, communications, technology and design.
Driven by ideas from the students themselves, the class went on to create Fjord, a news website covering everything that happens at WCI which launched in Fall of 2015. While Klassen provided guidance and helped to shape the role each student played, the class took on a life of its own. She began to understand this was a formative moment in her teaching career. “I could see the kind of teacher I wanted to be, no matter the subject,” said Klassen. “The students were the experts in the room.”
Klassen’s experience led her to take on a new role as a central learning support teacher at the Education Centre focusing on math. She eventually led the math LST program, supporting teachers from each of the 16 secondary schools in the WRDSB, before she returned to WCI, eager to put what she had learned into action in the classroom.
Looking at Klassen’s classroom, it’s clear to see that this isn’t your typical math class. The desks, which are also topped with dry-erase whiteboards, are usually arranged in groups to promote collaboration between students. Each day, students sit in random groups, and are tasked with solving a problem together. Klassen explained that students learn to lean on each other and share ideas, enhancing their learning. “The more students work together, the harder it is to get them to stop,” said Klassen. “It’s really cool to watch.”
The ultimate goal of this approach is to help build students’ confidence in their math abilities.
The whiteboard desks play an important part in this, Klassen explained, as it allows the impermanent nature of the surface allows students to work without worrying about getting it wrong. “They have no fear, to start a problem on these surfaces,” said Klassen. “My motivation is to try and build self-confidence in students.”
For Klassen, winning this award is a sign she’s on the right path in her teaching career, but she’s not done innovating. “I don’t ever think I am going to settle for what I have done,” said Klassen. “I want to be the kind of teacher who doesn’t settle, and always strives to be better, regardless of any award.”
Calvin Van Eek – Award for Teaching Excellence
Waterloo-Oxford District Secondary School (WODSS)
Family, friends and colleagues gathered to celebrate Van Eek’s accomplishment in the school’s library on Monday, June 24, along with a number of local dignitaries looking to share their congratulations. Principal Carolyn Salonen kicked off the event, expressing how proud she and the entire school community were of Van Eek’s recognition from the Prime Minister.
Harold Albrecht, member of parliament for Kitchener–Conestoga, was on hand to present the official certificate of achievement to Van Eek, and was delighted to be at Waterloo-Oxford. “I have a fond affection for W-O,” said Albrecht, adding that he has been to many schools across Canada, but “without question, this one is my very favourite.”
Albrecht highlighted the importance for teachers to understand that school is more than merely a building with classrooms, but a second home for all those who work and learn there. “Great teachers and leaders know that school is family,” said Albrecht. “I want to thank you for being a great mentor, coach, educator, listener and counsellor.”
Van Eek is described as a “gentle giant,” on the award website, and it was clear to see as he spoke in front of his colleagues, family and friends. “I didn’t ask for this,” said Van Eek with a smile. “Right now I am so far out of my comfort zone, this isn’t funny.” The experience, he explained, has only increased his empathy for students who are asked to give presentations in class.
For Van Eek, the true credit for this award does not lie with him, but rather his colleagues and students at Waterloo-Oxford. “It takes a village to raise a child,” said Van Eek. “I would like to modify that to say ‘it takes a village to be a teacher.’” He especially credited the work of the office and custodial staff for their efforts to support his work every day. To Van Eek, the students play a central role in his success every day in the classroom and he credits them with keeping his passion for teaching alive throughout his career. “The most important part of all of this is my students,” said Van Eek. “Their appreciation keeps me going.”
Van Eek’s prioritization of student mental health was highlighted on the award website, and considering his careers before teaching with the WRDSB, this comes as no surprise. Prior to teaching, Van Eek worked for what is now the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, subsequently moving on to teach at the Grand Valley Institution for Women. His approach to teaching and guidance is shaped by this experience. “They’re dealing with a lot of stuff,” said Van Eek of his students, adding that taking this into consideration is important to build the conditions for success.
As luck would have it, this award coincided with Van Eek’s penultimate year of teaching, as he is planning on retiring after the 2019-2020 school year. “It’s always nice to go out on a strong note,” said Van Eek.