It was a special teacher named Ray Baillie – and a memorable moment in his World History class – that helped inspire Francine Perkal-Scott to become an educator.
Everyone was working on a term paper about the Industrial Revolution and Perkal-Scott told her teacher she would prefer to have a debate on the subject. He was not only accepting of the idea; he did everything he could to encourage her.
“He set a date for it, had all of my classmates listen and got many of his colleagues to be the judges. He created a live challenge for me and I learned more about the Industrial Revolution by engaging in that debate than I ever would have by writing a paper on it,” she said.
That project demonstrated to Perkal-Scott that when you allow students to connect to the material using their individual strengths and skills, there’s no limit to their learning potential.
“That’s always in my mind; it’s what I try to do with my students to engage their interests and strengths. Like Mr. Baillie, I believe that in a classroom environment, every child can achieve in their own way,” she said. “He was brilliant; he was the epitome of kindness.”
By all accounts, Perkal-Scott has become a brilliant teacher in her own right. In October, the Grade 3 English and Math teacher at St. Paul Elementary in Beaconsfield received a Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence.
“The award was a huge honour,” she said. “I’m so grateful, but I must share this with my colleagues because I appreciate and respect them so much.” Perkal-Scott worked at Dorset School in Baie d’Urfé for 15 years until her transfer in September.
One person who wasn’t at all surprised about the award was that former World History teacher himself! “She was one of the most interesting types of student you could ever meet,” Baillie said. “She was very curious and intelligent, a great debater and had a huge appetite for learning.”
And he says her strong work ethic and dedication to learning continued into high school. “It’s not everyday that you come to class and a student asks: ‘So, what are we learning today Mr. Baillie?’ ” he recounted. “She was very special, and I was happy to hear about her receiving this honour.”
Perkal-Scott says her teaching philosophy goes beyond mastering the subject matter.
“When I receive a child in my classroom, I receive the whole child, not just the part of them that’s learning to read or do math,” she said. “I really need to connect with them and make them feel good, safe and happy; when a child feels safe, there’s no question that they’ll grow. I learned all of that from Mr. Baillie and I apply it every day in my teaching.”
Perkal-Scott said she had another influential figure in her life: her father.
“My father was the kindest, gentlest and wisest human being that I ever had the privilege to meet and he believed in education and reading so strongly, that even as a very young child that message was fundamental to me,” she said. “He instilled in me that a person has to be educated and informed in order to live up to their potential and give back to society.”
That’s one of the reasons Perkal-Scott believes strongly in teaching children about social justice issues.
“There’s a very strong desire in me to help children become active humanitarians, I want them to know that even at a very young age they can start shaping the world and making positive changes,” she said. “I want to make sure that they feel connected to society; this helps them blossom as human beings.”
Perkal-Scott will be the first to admit that a lot of trial and error goes into learning to manage a classroom. And the nature of the profession allows for some comedic and memorable moments.
The funniest moment of her career came, she said, during a demonstration in a sex education class for Grade 5 and 6 students at Edgewater Elementary in Pincourt.
“I wanted to show the class feminine hygiene products and that involved demonstrating how tampons work,” she said. “So I took a vase and filled it with some water to show how they expand and absorb liquid.”
The experiment worked perfectly – until she tried to remove the tampon from the vase. “It was completely stuck! The neck on the vase was too thin,” said Perkal-Scott, laughing. “I was trying not to show them how much I was struggling because I didn’t want the girls to get the wrong impression about how difficult they are to remove.”
The first lesson she learned that day? Never try anything for the first time in front of the students.
“My students thought it was hilarious,” she said. “In the Grade 6 graduation ceremony the valedictorian even named it as the funniest moment of the year.”
The second lesson from that day? “There are so many emotions involved in teaching and working with children,” she said. “So the funny moments should always be enjoyed.”