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Mrs. Strong

Mrs. Strong: Born to teach


As a child, Wendy Strong dreamed of being a teacher.


"Basically, my teaching career began in the basement of my parents' house when I was 10," says Mrs. Strong, a teacher in Grades 7 and 8 English and the assistant vice-principal at K-W Bilingual School. "Anybody on my block who wanted to play school, I was keen."


"I think you're born to be a teacher, and my mom certainly had that inherent ability to teach. She was a stay-at-home mom but she taught Sunday school and she had a very calm nature. My mother was great with kids and easy to talk to, and she just had that way about her. Being a teacher, I think you just love to be with kids. It's part of the way you are."


Along with a career in teaching, Mrs. Strong also had aspirations to be a singer. "And you know, I think I could have been a singer had I known more about how to improve my craft," she says.


"I assumed that you either had a great voice or you didn't, but I've learned a lot about that since. And I think I would have been a classical singer. After all, my brother is a musician and has played music all his life, and lived in England playing in all kinds of bands. So I realized later, even for my family it wasn't an impossible dream."


Mrs. Strong lived in Montreal until she was 18, then moved to Toronto with her family when her father was transferred to the head office of Imperial Oil. "I went to Toronto's Teachers' College. It was the last year that institution was open and I think I was in that very last year of students who could go to teachers' college directly from high school," says Mrs. Strong.


As part of the requirements during teachers' college, Mrs. Strong had to find placement teaching in a rural community, anywhere in the Toronto area. 


"I wound up going to a little town, Orono, just outside Whitby and Ajax, on that side of Toronto, and it was a very quiet town," she says. "I met a girl there who had been hired as a teacher directly out of high school. Because she was such a great student, they didn't even want her to go to teachers' college. They wanted her in the classroom right away, because there was a dearth of teachers at that time, and it was just the back end of that time when they were desperate for teachers."


After garnering some teaching experience, Mrs. Strong attended the University of Guelph before moving to southern Ontario to find work teaching.  


"I lived in Simcoe and taught in Delhi, which is tobacco heaven," she says with a chuckle. “In those days tobacco was a booming business, so we had time off during planting season because the kids were all busy planting. I taught in a Special Education school which was a very different teaching experience for me. The youngest child in the class was five and the oldest was fourteen. I have strong memories of those children even after all these years."


After getting married, Mrs. Strong moved to Brantford, and then Napanee. "I taught French as a second language there, and then my husband and I moved to Waterloo. I started teaching at the K-W Bilingual School in January of 1981, because halfway through the year a teacher had left, and I came in and took over. I became a teacher in 1969 and had several years under my belt, but I remember how lucky I felt to receive that opportunity, to be in the right place at the right time when jobs had become few and far between."


At the time, Monsieur Poinot had just become the school principal. "I taught Grades 4 and 5 the first year, and then the next year I had Grades 5 and 6. I remember at the end of the first year I taught, K-W Bilingual had about 83 kids signed up for the next school year, and Monsieur Poinot said, 'This could be rough,'" she remembers with a laugh. "But we had far more than that when September rolled around."


Over the years, Mrs. Strong would see the school expand from the renovated historic 1867 fieldstone school house into the prominent, state-of-the-art building today, home to 400 students and their families.


"We were such a tight-knit family of children and parents and teachers, and we were all very close," she recalls. "As we grew, I was lucky because I did a co-ordinating job along with individual testing, so I got to know the kids even in the kindergarten classes. I would come in and do a little reading survey with them, so I got one-on-one time with all the kindergarten children and had the privilege of seeing them grow through the years."


Mrs. Strong remembers the early friendships she made before the school expanded. "Mary Asquith was still here when we moved to the new building, along with Linda Evers, Andree Tye, and Rachelle St. Pierre, who was my teaching partner for a long time in Grades 3 and 4, so we all moved to the new school together. I've made many great friendships over the years."


Teaching Grades 7 and 8, though, is where Mrs. Strong would hit her stride. "To have this opportunity to spend the last years of my teaching career teaching English has been terrific," she says. "I love to tell stories and I love to read stories and I love to hear stories. I listen to podcasts and I just love that sort of thing. I used to listen to a show on CBC where they would take a novel of interest, it could be any kind of novel, and read it to the public. I loved that. I love theatre, and all that experience of language, but I also loved teaching math and social studies, and I really loved history."


Grade 7 and 8 students can be complicated creatures, says Mrs. Strong. "I think they are completely confused about who they are, and it shows," she says with a laugh. "But then the little children can be like that too, because I can recall when I taught Grades 3 and 4, I'd have certain expectations of the students in my class, and they were independent beings. They looked after themselves, they got their lunches, and they behaved in a certain way because the expectation was there."


"Then I'd see them outside of the school, say at a dance competition with their mom, and they would need help tying their shoes and be far less independent. You could see they really depended on their folks. And it's the same in Grades 7 and 8, there are expectations there, but you have to always remember that they're still children."


Vegetarianism, ecology, and world politics are just some of the issues Grade 7 and 8 students become passionate about, says Mrs. Strong. 


"At this age, they are really becoming aware of the effect people have on the environment, " she says. “All through the years you can talk to them about littering and pollution and our environment, but it just doesn't seem to sink in the same way it does in Grades 6, 7 and 8. They're just starting to look away from their own individual concerns and realize the world is much bigger than they thought, and that they have an impact on that world."

"So they start hearing about and understanding these larger issues and how they can make a difference."

Seeing the Grade 8 students graduate in June is always an emotional yet rewarding experience for Mrs. Strong.


"We are so incredibly proud of those children, you can't imagine," she says, beaming. "It's very emotional, but I'm not sad that they're leaving, I'm happy for them. They're ready to go out there and most of them are really going to make an impact. There are some children, who are quieter, and they will make their impact maybe later on in their lives, but they are going to go forward and they are going to make their parents and their school and all of us proud of them. It's just an amazing thing to see them coming into that gym looking so confident and so happy, and so radiant. It's truly a wonderful, wonderful thing."


Graduation each year also brings a much-needed break for teachers, says Mrs. Strong. "We are so worn out by the end of the school year," she says. "I know many people say that teachers are so fortunate to have the summer off, but let me tell you, there wouldn't be teachers if they didn't have time to recover and rejuvenate."


"Taking courses during the summer months is a wonderful way to recover, and so is going away to the cottage with your family. It's a very tiring profession, but so rewarding."


Engaging the students is key to an attentive and productive classroom, Mrs. Strong states. "If the children aren't behaving it's because they're not on board," she says. "You have to engage them intellectually. Pounding on a desk, that's not engaging them intellectually. Getting them thinking about something, solving a problem, arriving at an opinion, that's what gets kids on your side, and that's what makes children behave."


"When they're thinking and creatively involved in something, man, you've got them right there. They'll do anything."


Years before her career at K-W Bilingual began, Mrs. Strong found a mentor while helping out a Grade 5 teacher in Napanee teaching core French.  


"She was finding it a bit overwhelming, but she was an incredible teacher," Mrs. Strong recalls. "I learned everything I know how to do in a classroom from her. Every single thing. She was an amazing woman and a wonderful, wonderful friend. Now, she and I were friends, but we always maintained a mentor and apprentice type relationship. She came into my life just after my mom had died, and it was easy for me to look on her with that type of respect, and also as a colleague of course. But I also looked at her as somebody I would emulate."


"She had a tremendous influence on me. She died last summer, age 95, and lived a long and very wonderful life. She was the person who showed me that children are always going to stay with you as long as you remember what they need. You have this curriculum that you have to teach, but the point is, what are they ready to learn, how can you show it them, explain it to them, and teach it to them so their heads are making the required connections? And these connections need to be there. She taught me everything I needed to know to be a successful teacher."


Monsieur Poinot is another mentor who made an indelible impact on Mrs. Strong, she says.


"I've had other principals, but none have had a vision such as his," she says. "He has a vision, and sometimes you don't always know the reasons he's doing something, but everything he does is for the betterment of the children and the school. This school would not exist if it weren't for him. It certainly would not."


"Believe me, if he could have been out there pouring the foundation and laying the bricks, he would have been out there physically building this school. Anyone will tell you, he would have done it."


Mrs. Strong describes Monsieur Poinot as "a fiery personality and a born leader," from the first time she met him.


Grades 7 and 8 school trips to Ottawa and Quebec City, along with Operetta are what will likely leave many vivid memories for Mrs. Strong, though, when she retires at the end of June after 34 years of teaching at K-W Bilingual.


"I always wanted Operetta to be good enough to go to Broadway," says Mrs. Strong, director of Operetta. "That is what I see in my head, and it never disappoints me. Never."


"The kids, they just surprise you every time. Every time I do this, there's somebody or several kids who really do things that I hadn't expected at all, or are capable of things that I hadn't expected at all. I've had many experiences where I've had students come and audition for me for Operetta, and when I hear them sing, I can't believe I didn't know what beautiful singers they were. And it's one after another, after another. Beautiful, beautiful singers. And they're just having a whale of a time."


Mrs. Strong began working on Operetta as part of a team, during her second year of teaching in Napanee. "I worked on it with another fellow who was about my age and had just started teaching, but it was his idea to do it and I was delighted to be involved," she remembers. "And then we just had an incredible time. No schools in that region were presenting Operettas then, so the second year that we did one, it ran every single day for one week, an evening and a matinee performance, and all the schools from the county came to see it. Well, you can imagine, those kids thought they were rock stars. And they were!"


The rewards of directing Operetta year after year are immeasurable, says Mrs. Strong. 
"It gives these students an opportunity to participate in something that they might otherwise never try, and why not?"


Along with Treasure Island this past May, Mrs. Strong has directed numerous Operettas over the past four decades including The Mikado, HMS Pinafore and Pirates of Penzance. "I've done some plays several times. Once the children move on through high school, and they're at university, the children in the school don't remember the Operettas of the past, so it's brand new for the children who are doing it. We've built up all kinds of costumes and all kinds of props, so over the years you really start to gather the things necessary to put on a great and memorable production."


At the end of the second night of the Treasure Island Operetta this year, Grade 8 student Rosi Samra, who played the role of Arrow, took the microphone and called out Mrs. Strong.  


"This absolutely amazing woman is retiring," said Rosi, "And I don't know how old she is, but she has been directing Operetta forever and we are so, so thankful to you." The packed gymnasium crowd roared with laughter and applause as Mrs. Strong was given a bouquet of roses and basked in the love, respect and appreciation of her students, fellow teachers, and families of K-W Bilingual.


As her career winds down, Mrs. Strong feels emotionally prepared for retirement. "I have done a lot of thinking about it because I've had to prepare myself to accept that this is the end of my teaching career," she says. "From my point of view, children need you to be energetic, and they need you to be on the money all the time. About 10 years ago, I just thought, ah I'm never going to retire, 'cause I still had tons of energy, and I loved my job. Of late, however, I have seen a difference in myself, and I know that it's time for me to let somebody who is full of energy and ready to be with the kids every minute and give them their best to take over. I just have to accept that it is going to happen, and that it is time."


So how is she going to adjust to retirement? 


"I'm not sure because for as long as I can remember, my life has been so full for 10 months of the year. My brother lives in England and he would like me to come and see him, my daughter lives in British Columbia and she wants me there, and I have family and many friends here, so I will find things to do. There are numerous crafts that I've enjoyed in my life, sewing and knitting for example, but I just haven't had enough time for them. And I'd like to paint. I love watercolour and impressionist painting and I love to experiment and be creative, so we'll see what happens."


One thing Mrs. Strong won't miss is getting up early in the morning in the middle of winter to drive to school. "Yes, that'll be a big plus for me," she says with a laugh and a twinkle in her eye. "I've been going to school nearly every day of my life for a very long time."


Of course, she knew that would be the case, even when she was a little girl. 



Marshall Ward is a freelance writer and parent at the K-W Bilingual School.