People

Educator focused on women’s leadership, discipline reform

January 07, 2022
BY GERRY RUCCHIN

Jean Hewitt has been an activist throughout her education career.

She’s been a champion of promoting women in education leadership and she had been a vocal opponent of corporal punishment in Ontario.

It was her early life and education experiences in England that shaped many of her beliefs.

Her opposition to corporal punishment started as a young secondary school teacher in England when she witnessed her headmistress use a cane to hit a fifteen-year-old girl so hard that it broke two fingers.

“Later, my introduction to elementary school in Ontario was quite uncomfortable because quite young children were strapped,” Hewitt said. “It wasn’t at all a pedagogy that I believed to be right.”

Hewitt’s first principal in London, Ontario issued a quota for teachers – three strappings per month. She never used any.

Educational change regarding corporal punishment in Ontario began with the Hall-Dennis Report in 1968. Hewitt became a leader of a large study on corporal punishment, which led to the elimination of the strap in the early seventies. She wrote a handbook for teachers on classroom management and completed her doctoral thesis on this topic.

In addition, Hewitt has been a champion for women in leadership positions. Since the 1960s, Hewitt advocated for women in principalships in elementary and secondary schools. She said women were locked out of these leadership positions as men were seen as the ‘natural’ leaders. Quotas also kept women out of Principals’ Courses and the Provincial examinations for Supervisory Officers.

However, there’s good news. Barriers were eventually broken. For example, in London all the Year 2000 targets for women in leadership positions set by her Status of Women Committee were surpassed in the 1990s.

“Women have come a long way but we’re not there yet within the larger society,” Hewitt said.

Hewitt’s journey to the classroom and to Canada began during World War Two. She was born in a bomb shelter in London and raised by her mother when her father left at war’s end. She won a scholarship to a good school, but since her Mother didn’t have money for her to pursue a career in medicine, she opted for teaching.

She attended the University of Leeds in Yorkshire, training as a teacher at Beckett Park. She described Leeds as an industrial town. All her teaching practice assignments were in rough, working class, inner-city schools.

“I took to teaching and I loved it,” she said.

Training as a teacher then was difficult. Because of a shortage of teachers at that time, regular teachers were re-assigned when trainees came to the school.

“I was on my own in large classes from the beginning,” Hewitt said.

In fact, during Hewitt’s first practicum, two male teacher candidates left the profession due to their unpleasant experiences.

“It was ordeal by fire. You learned quickly,” she said.

After graduation, she started her career in a secondary school in her own neighbourhood of inner-city London, England. Her home-room classroom had 48 pupils and there were bullet holes in the ceiling.

Determined to leave England’s class system, Hewitt wanted to work in the developing world. She was hired to teach at a teacher’s college in Nairobi, Kenya, but terrorism forced the school to close temporarily in 1961.

Intending to head to Kenya when the political situation improved, Hewitt applied to Bishop Strachan School, a private girls’ school in Toronto as a science teacher and specialist in physical education. After two years, when the college in Africa re-opened, she had fallen in love with Canada and decided to stay.

Bishop Strachan school was a different world from Hewitt’s upbringing and teaching experience. Parents paid tuition, students were boarders, and she remembers that her first grade 11 class curtseyed when she introduced herself. Also, every morning teachers wore gowns while attending chapel and were served by maids at recess.

“It was such a different atmosphere,” Hewitt said. “It was a fascinating world to me.”

She came to London, Ontario when her husband attended Western University. She had always wanted to study psychology and decided to switch to teaching elementary school, thinking it would be less preparation. Hewitt would study at night and take summer courses.

“I look back on that with amusement because of course, it wasn’t less work to teach elementary school,” Hewitt said.

Her first teaching assignment in London, Ontario was Grade 6 at Wortley Road School.

“I found that I enjoyed teaching the younger children because I liked teaching a variety of subjects,” she said.

Hewitt ‘s beliefs about education grew stronger throughout her career and one of those beliefs is that the teaching profession needs to keep up with research.

“Unlike surgery, we don’t have dead patients in front of us to remind us we have to continually update and improve our strategies based on new knowledge,” she said.

She also believes – and encourages the next generation of teachers to believe – that one of the primary functions of teaching is to ‘grow brain’ in the classroom. It’s not simply sorting and grading students. Helping every student to be successful is much harder work, but teachers need to use every strategy to make this happen.

“That’s the most rewarding thing in our profession,” she said.

Finally, she believes that teachers need to follow their principles and leave the profession when it is no longer joyful.

“The worst influence on children is a negative, frustrated or angry teacher. Ours should be a joyful job.”


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