Community, People

Former educator encourages teachers to give back

June 08, 2021

Learn. Earn. Return. For retired educator, Sylvia McPhee, these three words are her life’s philosopy; and education is her passion. 

The 89-year old McPhee always wanted to help others. After working at a cancer clinic in London one summer, she found it difficult to escape the upsetting situations she witnessed. As a result, she volunteered at local schools. 

She loved it. 

During her career, McPhee did it all – she was a classroom teacher, consultant, principal at Trafalgar Heights public school and a school superintendent. She also taught students ranging from toddlers to post-graduate students. Overall, she enjoyed introducing reading to students because it opened the world to them. 

“I loved classroom work and I realized the minute you moved out of the classroom, you are distancing yourself from ‘the real McCoy,’” she said. “When you see that light go on in a kid’s eyes and they go, ‘now I get it,’ that’s a wonderful feeling.” 

While McPhee can’t pick her favourite grade to teach because it would be “like picking your favourite child,” she felt young students and postgraduates were the most interesting students. She said youngsters were excited to learn and absorbed information like sponges while postgraduate students know what they want and they push the instructor to help them achieve their goals. 

McPhee trained to be a teacher at the London Normal School. Her instructors taught her the importance of being silent. 

“Silence is never silence. All kinds of things are going on internally with people,” said McPhee. She added it’s important to sit quietly and watch children and engage them when they see something happening. 

Another lesson McPhee learned was how teachers influence students’ lives. Students learn from their teachers’ actions and what they say. In particular, students can learn how to say ‘sorry’ from educators. When a teacher wrongs a student, and they have the courage to apologize, the student learns a valuable lesson from their teacher. 

“You’re not the big boss; you’re a friend, the person helping them,” she said. 

A teacher’s influence can also extend outside the classroom and lead to lifelong friendships. For example, McPhee has been in contact with a former grade 1 student who has become a dear friend, even grocery shopping for  McPhee since the pandemic began last year. 

She also believes educators have a responsibility to give back because they’ve learned about the world and how to teach. Also, educators have earned financial success, and because of it, they have a responsibility to become a steward of their faculty by donating money or volunteering their time or talent. McPhee has been a generous donor to the Faculty of Education for over forty years. She believes that by investing in teachers, you are investing in children and in our future as a society. 

“Teaching gives you the ability to do things that earns you good money, gives you wonderful experiences because you were with children and parents,” said McPhee. “As people who teach, it’s a pretty great world. We’re so privileged to have this opportunity to lead young people to understanding and give them the skills so they can build their own life."

As second-year teacher candidates prepare to graduate and enter the profession, McPhee encourages them to understand what they do well. Since there’s only so much time in a teaching day, teachers focusing on what they do well – and avoid things they don’t do well – will benefit students. 

While students have been going to school online during the pandemic, McPhee isn’t convinced digital learning is the future because it’s not appropriate for all learners. 

“Facts are important but facts you can look up,” she said. “It’s the attitude to learning; the excitement you have and the curiosity and creativity. These are the things we need to release and you need a teacher to have that happen,” she said. 

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