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Fort Mac’s teachers remind us that heroes are found in the classroom

Catherine Little is a Toronto-based writer and teacher

There is a reason television dramas are not usually about the daily lives of schoolteachers. Doctors, firefighters and police officers are well represented in the genre, but even 21 Jump Street, the late 1980s series set in various schools and starring a young Johnny Depp, was really about the youthful-looking undercover police officers that were sent to infiltrate the student body. Schools have been the setting for some notable comedies, but teachers are not usually depicted as intelligent, resourceful heroes. The inherent responsibilities of caring for a large group of students are often overlooked.

However, the ongoing emergency in Fort McMurray has already produced some teacher-hero stories that illustrate what in loco parentis means in a time of crisis. Every day, educators across the country act in the place of a parent for day-to-day issues, but in the past week, many educators in Alberta felt the full weight of this responsibility and bore it admirably.

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In an article for The Edmonton Journal, Janet French wrote: "In her 28 years of teaching, Lisa Hilsenteger dutifully practised fire drills and mock school lockdowns. But there was no rehearsal for commandeering a bus full of her young students through a burning city." On Tuesday, May 3, Ms. Hilsenteger, who is the principal of Father Turcotte School, and driver Wendy Johnson loaded the 15 children who had not been picked up when the evacuation order was issued onto the school bus and drove for hours, making detours through the fire-ravaged city and eventually delivered all of the students to their worried families.

As reported by Michelle McQuigge of The Canadian Press, another principal, Laura Dennis of Good Shepherd School, summed up her situation this way: "The first inclination you want to do is go and get your family safe, right? But if we hadn't had the teachers stay, and we didn't have that many cars, we probably would not have gotten those children out safely." She was describing the actions that allowed her staff to transport 70 students through the rapidly spreading fire before attending to their own families on Tuesday afternoon.

It was obvious the adults in these situations acted selflessly to ensure the safety of the students in their charge. They had to remain calm and exercise good judgment in the face of exhaustion. They also knew that their own children, families and property were in danger, but they could not leave their students.

Near the beginning of my teaching career, I was talking with my husband's colleague when he interrupted our conversation by declaring, "I don't want to be rude, but you strike me as too smart to be a teacher." Notwithstanding the fact that starting a sentence with "I don't want to be rude…" generally means one is about to say something rude, I was not entirely surprised by his statement. I had encountered disrespect for the abilities of teachers on many other occasions, but this was the first time I was insulted in my own home.

Another typical conversation happened when we were eating dinner with a group of my husband's classmates. On discovering that I was a teacher, one soon-to-be doctor told me her sister was considering a career in education – if she could not get into medical school.

When the general public thinks about teachers, they do not usually think beyond the curriculum, co-curricular activities and holidays. Compensation for teachers becomes a controversial issue when contract negotiations do not go well. But many still do not consider teaching a top-tier profession worthy of our best and brightest. Emergency situations such as armed intruders and natural disasters – although rare, and on the scale of Fort McMurray probably unprecedented – highlight teachers' in loco parentis responsibilities. This past March, a group of Canadian students travelling with their teachers were stranded in Brussels after the terrorist attack on the airport.

We entrust teachers with our precious children and expect them to care for them like they were their own for the majority of the waking ours of each school day. We send our children on field trips and overseas in their care. A lot can happen in those hours, so my question to you is the same one I asked my husband's colleague many years ago: "Don't you want the smartest people we can get?"

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