Meet 2015 Teacher Awards Winner Heather Hughes-Leck

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We know teachers experience countless gratifying moments in their careers. But how many experience those moments thousands of kilometres away from their schools? And how many get to not only help students make a difference but witness the positive change that comes as a result of what they’re doing?

For Heather Hughes-Leck, those opportunities have come as the result of heather-1week-long school trips to sugar cane villages in the Dominican Republic. Next March will mark the third trip for the school, and before the final bell had rung this past June, 32 students had signed up.

With an already full plate (she teaches English in Grades 10, 11 and 12 and Grade 12 sociology), when another teacher first approached Hughes-Leck about the trips she didn’t hesitate. “I’m the teacher facilitator for the Human Rights Club and the Eco Club at the school and I strongly believe in human rights and social justice.”

Hughes-Leck has no doubt they’re helping people in the villages where labourers can work up to 12 hours a day seven days a week for next to no pay. West Jet, the airline they travel with, allows each student to bring two pieces of luggage free of charge. “One is your luggage and the other is supplies,” explains Hughes-Leck. “So this year we’ll be able to bring 32 50-pound bags of donations.”

It’s a big impact, for sure, but it’s the effect that the trips have on heather-2the students that gives her goosebumps. “The kids come back profoundly changed,” she says, adding that many struggle with reverse culture shock upon return. For some, the trips awaken an interest in a career in international development. For others, the effects are more subtle but equally profound—greater appreciation for friends and family or reduced consumerism, for example.

For her part, Hughes-Leck says her actions are inspired by her two children. “I need to believe the world is going to be a better place for when they grow up,” she says, adding that the current generation of students has a big role to play. “People grumble about teenagers today but I see a lot of great teenagers. I really do.”

Q&A WITH HEATHER HUGHES-LECK »

  • Q: What do you love the most about your job?
    A: I love seeing students grow, change and discover who they are. I love helping students uncover their own abilities to affect positive and lasting change in the world.
  • Q: What is your teaching philosophy/creed?
    A: I believe a teacher should create an atmosphere in the classroom where students can be comfortable taking risks and expressing themselves. I believe that every student can learn, grow and improve themselves. I hope that when students leave my classroom, they believe in themselves and can recognize their personal strengths.
  • Q: What is the biggest lesson you have learned from your students?
    A: I have learned that all students come from different places and have had a variety of experiences and do not necessarily view the world as I do. My students remind me every day that everyone has a unique and personal world view.
  • Q: What was your proudest teaching moment?
    A: It is a collection of moments. All of them involve students discovering something about themselves—whether it is through classroom work and discussion or through club activities. One example is a student who was having a great deal of difficulty in her life; she was feeling lost and lacked a sense of purpose. This student stood out to me and I wanted to help her find herself and to find her passion. I encouraged her to participate in an initiative to stand up against bullying that the students wanted to organize. Through her involvement in this project, she discovered that she is a true leader, and she began to find her strength.
  • Q: If you could have any person, dead or alive, fictional or real, come in and speak with your class, who would that be? Why?
    A: I would love to have Ellen DeGeneres speak to my class. She is an amazingly strong woman who understands what it is like to be marginalized. She is an advocate for social change and is a strong voice for those that do not have a voice. Plus, she is extremely funny.
  • Q: What tips do you have for parents on how they can help prepare their kids to get the most out of the school day?
    A: The best advice I can give parents is to stop hovering over their children. Children learn from taking risks, failing and suffering the natural consequences of their actions. We need to let children know that it is okay to fail and give them the tools to deal with this failure. I see students in high school who have no resiliency and fall apart when they are challenged or when things do not go their way. Take off the bubble wrap—kids don’t break!
  • Q: Favourite pastime?
    A: Laughing! There is nothing better than a good belly laugh and a belly laugh with my children and husband is the best!
  • Q: Favourite after-school snack?
    A: Salsa and corn chips or anything involving chocolate.
  • Q: If you win, how will you allocate the Teacher Awards prize money?A: I have so many ideas! My priority will be the projects that the DHS Human Rights Interact Club and Eco Club undertake. This would include donations and support to Pasos de Esperanza Dominican Republic, which is the group we have had the pleasure of working with in the Dominican Republic for the last two years. I also want to invest in some environmental projects at DHS.
  • Q: Something you may not know about me?
    A: I love the movie Ever After with Drew Barrymore.One of my favourite places is Kejimkujik National Park.

    I love to dance, despite not being very good at it.

    I am horrible at all video games.

    I have a loud face; I would be horrible at poker.

  • Q: Who was your most memorable teacher when you were a student, and why?
    A: Mr. Rollie Herritt was the best teacher ever! I had Mr. Herritt in Grades 7 and 9, and then had the pleasure of working with him when I was a student teacher. He was caring, kind and funny. He challenged his students to think on their own. However, what I remember most is that it was very obvious that he loved being a teacher, and it was very clear that he liked junior high students—which is not an easy thing to do!

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