Teachers are often unsung heroes. And kids being stuck at home during the pandemic has shed light on the important role teachers play in the personal development of students.
Sacred Heart teacher Erika Rath has been exemplifying this role for over a decade, and she was recently awarded with the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence. The award has been given out since 1994 and is the country’s highest teaching accolade. Teachers are nominated and must meet five criteria.
Rath, who was one of five Quebec educators honoured this year, was nominated by Katlyn Grasso, CEO of the award-winning digital platform, GenHERation, after the two connected when Grasso was a guest speaker at the school.
Head of School Shawn O’Donnell says the award was well deserved. “Ms. Rath is innovative, creative and a visionary,” he said. “She strives to create opportunities to empower young women while living the mission of our all-girls Catholic school. Ms. Rath epitomizes what it means to be a Sacred Heart educator, dedicated to the development of the whole student.”
Rath says she recalls it was on a whim that she dropped off her CV at the private school, never imagining she would get the job. Now, a decade later, her Personal Development class for students in Grades 7-11 is an integral part of helping prepare them for their future. There are no grades and no tests for her class, and she adjusts her teaching based on the needs of her students. She says it’s important to pick up on and respond to cues about what students need. At times that might be organizing a homework session or giving them the space to talk about the things that they find important.
In addition to the hard skills that students learn from subjects like math and science, Rath says cultivating soft skills such as being able to look someone in the eye, shake their hand and make a good first impression are essential. And she provides a safe space for her students to share and feel empowered.
It was a Grade 9 math teacher who made a big impact on Rath. “She pushed me to do my best. I remember being successful for the first time in her class. And I thought, ‘maybe I still don’t love math. But I can do it.’”
It is that self confidence that Rath says she aspires to instill in her students as well as a general sense of feeling good about themselves. “It’s more than a job or a career to me,” she said. “I am invested in these girls.”
Last year, at the height of the pandemic, she went above and beyond to ensure that all Grade 11 students had two guests attending their graduation ceremony. She says with some help, she was able to transform the school gym, complete with labelled chairs placed six feet apart. This gesture did not go unnoticed as she received expressions of gratitude from students who acknowledged that the ceremony would not have happened without her.
Rath says her wish for all her students is that they go out into the world as confident young women ready to make a difference. Sacred Heart is Montreal’s only all-girls English Catholic School.
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The other Quebec teachers who were given the Prime Minister’s award were:
Doreen Hogue (Garderie éducative La Rose des vents), whose speciality is helping children make a smooth transition into kindergarten and ensuring they have every opportunity for the best possible start in life.
Joseph Romano (John Caboto Academy), Grades 1-6, who uses sports to help students reach their potential and for advocates for students with special needs.
Jennifer Cyr, (École François-La Bernarde), preschool, whose teaching methods focus on inclusion and attention to each child’s needs.
Rachel Primeau, (École des Saints-Martyrs-Canadiens) Grade 2, who focuses on multiple ways of learning, including programming robots, cooking, gardening and more.