An education degree from the University of British Columbia prepares a teacher for many different scenarios in their careers after graduation.
Being the only teacher at an elementary school for a community of around 250 people wasn't really one of them.
That was the exact situation Maymie Tegart found herself in a few years ago, landing her first full-time teaching gig at Blue River Elementary School in 2016.
"I don't think there's really any training you can get to be in a one-room school," she says. "For my first year, I was the only adult in the building 90 per cent of the time. There wasn't exactly a how-to course."
Yet in just a few years after starting in Blue River, her work has already been noticed by the community, the school board and now the province, resulting in her winning the Outstanding New Teacher Award this past weekend at the inaugural Premier’s Awards for Excellence in Education. She was the only teacher in the Kamloops/Thompson School District (SD 73) to be named one of the 27 finalists at the end of August.
Tegart says Blue River Elementary used to have a much larger student population, upward of 90 students when the logging and railroad industry in the area was thriving. But now, the K-7 school only has a handful of students each year, with 12 currently enrolled this fall. Realistically, all the students are Grade 5 or under, as local families opt to bus their kids to Clearwater when they get older.
When Tegart left university, she initially had no plans on applying for the opening at the school. Then, once she heard that the school was desperate and every applicant was getting an interview, it seemed worthwhile to at least sit down with the principal for a chat. Once she heard about the amazing skiing and snowboarding in the area, she decided to give it a whirl.
"I'll be honest. I came for the mountains and ended up staying because I found a really awesome community here," she tells KamloopsMatters.
Half of Blue River Elementary School is closed at this point. There's still an office for a principal, but it's always unoccupied since the position is also in charge of schools in Raft River and Vavenby. There's a gym, a computer lab and a few classrooms, but only one of them was being used consistently. Having the run of the building, Tegart decided to turn a spare classroom into a greenhouse where students could raise plants and learn about life-cycles and pollinators through hands-on learning.
The small class size also offered immediate advantages, Tegart notes. She's able to get to know each of her students on an individual level and can instruct each of them one-on-one if needed. This also allows the students to learn independence because when she is not working with them, they are responsible for managing their own time and getting the day's task done.
While courses like reading, writing and math have to be tailored to each student's grade, things like science and social studies provide an opportunity to combine lessons for the entire class. Getting the kids outside on field trips is also easier to organize in such a small group, and Tegart says it's surprising how much of the older kids' material the kindergartners absorb.
The job comes with challenges as well. With 10 of 12 students having a sibling in the class, there's sometimes squabbles to break up. The school is also eligible for a full-time student aide this year, but once again, they're having trouble finding someone to fill the position.
“The district is extremely proud of the work Ms. Tegart has been doing in Blue River,” said Alison Sidow, superintendent of SD 73, in a press release. “Her passion for teaching and community involvement is inspirational and it’s wonderful to see the community come forward to nominate her. It’s clear she is making an incredible difference.”
Tegart received three different nomination letters for the award and each praised her work in different areas. One was penned by parent Laura Lee Onslow, who appreciated her personality; one was from principal Lori Bradstock, who focused on her work organizing an event for the school's 100th anniversary; and the last was Greg Harnett, the substitute for Tegart's class, who notices the students growth every time he comes in.
"I was able to read the nomination letters and I was really just blown away by the detail of them," says Tegart. "They were just really nice to read and it was amazing to know that people were taking the time to notice my hard work. I didn't really think anything of it; I was just satisfied with reading the letters."
Of course, she ended up getting more than just a nomination. She won the award, which comes with a $3,000 personal bursary for professional learning and a $2,000 contribution for their school community.
Tegart says she has thought about getting her master's degree, but she's still undecided on what kind she would pursue.
For now, she's still learning lessons in teaching thanks to her unique setting.
"The biggest thing I've learned is to be flexible," she says. "I find that when I'm myself and I'm teaching things that I'm passionate about, the day goes very smooth and the kids are engaged. With the multi-grade stuff, it can get stressful with all the different curriculums that I'm teaching, but I always just need to remember to take a step back and teach what's important for my students. It's not just about ticking off a list of what's on the curriculum, it's about making it exciting for them and adapting my style of teaching to best fit their needs."