Why do we become educators?

Written by: Jordan Tinney

Published On: May 26th 2013

At a recent workshop, George Couros (@gcouros) challenged participants to blog in response to the following questions:

  • why did you become an educator; and
  • what legacy do you wish to leave?

I have thought for a while about what to say in response as his questions and George inspired me to go back to my grandfather who was my first inspiration to teach. I reminisced about him and about days gone by. I also thought about how for many teachers, the roots of “why teach” run deep in the blood and in the generations who came before us in our families. I have decided to write a bit of a family story and so I hope not to bore people but it has a point. I am not sure of all the core facts, but what I write below is what I know of our family history. For me, what it is to be a teacher is deeply rooted in the social injustices of the past and in the hope for a better future. That is just one of the promises of public education that I believe we see unfold every day.

In his dying days, I visited my grandfather, William (Bill) Tinney in his care residence in Langley. Once, I asked him what it took to be a great teacher. I remember the morning well. He leaned toward me in the dim light. The cracks on his face and the lines on his hands holding the cane showed his age but the twinkle in his eye showed his unwavering energy to talk about schools and about being a teacher. “Just stay out of their light lad, just stay out of their light” was all he said.

When I probed more with my grandfather about being a teacher, he told me of his journey and what it meant to him and his family. He came from the prairies in the late 20’s and travelled to the Yukon to support the opening of a school. When he was ready to teach, Bill was offered a job at one of two new schools, St. Michael’s Residential School in Alert Bay, Northern Vancouver Island and Chooutla Residential School in Carcross, Yukon. Bill chose Carcross and began the journey to move his family of seven to be with him. What he discovered when he arrived and what he then did cast in stone the path for his children and ultimately, for his grandchildren to follow.

When Bill got to Carcross and began teaching in the school he quickly became very disillusioned with what he found in residential school. In one of the pictures we have, it shows his handwriting at the bottom stating his strong beliefs about the effects of residential schools, calling them ill equipped and a token effort. This undoubtedly was only part of his disillusionment that we have all come to understand as the legacy of residential schools.

Deeply troubled with what he saw, Bill left the residential school to begin a new school where he hoped to attract sufficient students to support a non-residential, publicly funded school. Our family story goes that the school was virtually in the home of my grandfather. The image here shows the school as a detached building but my father tells of lessons in the living room of the house. Perhaps the school and house were one and the same. Needless to say, the Tinney family of four boys and one girl had their lives consumed by the running of a school and attending to learning.



My grandfather was determined that education should be practical, relevant and to support the lives of students “where they were.” His pictures of classrooms showed his style of having students work on projects that not only taught them skills no doubt but also contributed to the construction of the school. In the image of the carpentry shop, he writes about making screens for the school and “more relevant” are the words he uses to describe this manual arts class.


Life in Carcross for the Tinney family must have been both inspiring and harsh. The cold winters merged with the unending sun of Yukon summers. My father, Art Tinney speaks so fondly of Carcross and the Yukon. His time there with his brothers Jim, Roy, Ron and sister Gwen was full of adventure and wonder. There is also no doubt that the entire time was an unending lesson in life, nature and practicality.

When time came to leave the Yukon, my dad’s family came to Vancouver. The walls of Kitsilano Secondary hold the graduating photos of my father’s family. Then for the boys, it was off to UBC for careers in, what else, teaching. My father’s early teaching career took him to Squamish near Pemberton. There his brother Jim was principal at a school my dad calls Moshiter Elementary although I don’t know if the school still exists. His other brother, Ron, went off to be a principal in Port Alberni. My father was offered a job as principal at the location of one of the first schools his father was offered, Alert Bay. After accepting the offer, my dad Art moved his wife and family to Alert Bay to work in the public school where his job, as he describes it, was to entice students out of St. Michael’s and into a public non-residential school. This is where my first memories as a child began, in Alert Bay with the specter of St. Michael’s always loomed in the far end of the island’s harbour.

My father’s education career was characterized by a deep and unyielding love of learning. His passion for knowledge was insatiable and he had a unique gift to pass it to students. Art, Music, Math, French, English, Carpentry, Science, whatever the subject, he seemed to be fluent in it all. I spent many years in his classes in a variety of settings and he was loved by students. He was a free spirit, challenged the “system” and did what he believed was right for students.

My dad’s brother, Ron, went on to work at UVic in teacher education. His passion was special education and he was a psychologist. Countless times I have met teachers who have been inspired by Ron and his work at UVic. They always shared that he made a difference for them.

Jim, unfortunately, died very young as did his brother Roy. Jim, as I said above was principal in Pemberton when he passed away and Roy went on to be a professor at Washington State University where he was head of the R. L. Albrooks Hydraulics laboratory among other major portfolios in his all too short career.

I began this post with George Couros’ question about why did we become a teacher. To me, I could not answer George’s question without explain that, to me, being a teacher is simply part of who I am. It is in the blood and my brother Paul and sister Leslie, both now retired, have continued the teaching legacy that my father and his father began. Their children also now are teachers in Kentucky and in Australia so the family trend seems to be continuing. I believe that our family story is not unique as I know many teachers today who come from families where careers in education run deep.

The thing that has also come along with our family legacy is the notion that teaching is about social justice and democracy. We believe that teaching strengthens the very roots of democracy and the fabric of society can only be healthy with a strong and vibrant public education system. Family debates were numerous and passionate about politics, democracy and fighting for those less fortunate. We believe education is the great equalizer.

I am a teacher because I believe I can make a difference. I believe that teachers everywhere make a difference. Schools are fundamentally built on the relationships between teachers and students and everything flows from there. I have often quoted Ursula Franklin that schools are organisms not mechanisms. For me, that points to George’s second question which was “what legacy do you wish to leave”?

I consider myself very fortunate to have worked in large and small systems. Surrey is huge by BC education standards hosting about 12.5% of the entire province’s student population. We are a large system and my hope is that we continue to respond to our community and the pubic in a way that shows we do indeed care about every child. Our district is an amazingly diverse place with so much incredible stuff happening. With well over 9000 employees and 70,000 students, I am sure that the “system” must seem daunting to any individual with a concern or question. My personal hope is to leave a legacy here that has the system seem small, human and responsive to any individual’s concern. I am but one person in a large system, but single steps forward together is the way we climb mountains. We are fortunate to have so many strong leaders in Surrey and I consider myself lucky to be part of the team.

My grandfather’s journey began with wanting to make a difference for children in a land and school that was so small. He had a belief that children were gifted and the role of the teacher was to give them guidance and to let them shine. These beliefs were at the heart of his early words to me. I became a teacher for similar reasons. I love working with children of all ages and I continue to marvel at their gifts, their contributions, and their future prospects.

I spent today in a workshop for secondary department heads. In a room of about 60 from one area of the district, what I see is caring teachers working together to support students. The vision that my grandfather held for public education is alive and well in Surrey. I feel fortunate to be along for the ride and I’m sure I share a similar family story to many other teachers whose parents and perhaps grandparents came before them on this journey that we all know so well.

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