Community, People

Sylvia McPhee encourages teachers to give back

June 08, 2021

Learn. Earn. Return. For retired educator, Sylvia McPhee, these three words are her life’s philosophy; 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, Sylvia McPhee did it all – she was a classroom teacher, consultant, principal and then went on to the Ministry of Education where the province was her classroom. She taught students ranging from toddlers to post-graduate. Overall, she enjoyed introducing reading to the children 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 Sylvia 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. 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. 

Sylvia 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 Sylvia learned was how teachers influence students’ lives. Students learn from their teachers’ actions and what they say. In particular, children and youth can learn how to say ‘sorry’ from educators. When a teacher makes a mistake, and they have the courage to apologize, children and youth learn a valuable lesson. 

“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, Sylvia has been friends with a former grade 1 student who has become a dear friend, even grocery shopping for Sylvia since the pandemic began last year. 

She also believes teachers have a responsibility to give back. Most teachers have earned success, and because of it, they have a responsibility to become a champion of their faculty by sharing their money, their time or their talent. Sylvia 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 wonderful experiences because you are with children and parents,” said McPhee. “For 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 lives."

As second-year teacher candidates prepare to graduate and enter the profession, Sylvia 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 will benefit students. 

While students have been attending school online during the pandemic, Sylvia 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.