Enlarging Your Trunk Space: Reflections on Teaching and Learning

The following is a transcript of the address given by Terry Schellenberg, Vice President External of CMU at our Bursary Banquet held on May 1, 2012. 

My experience teaching special education in Calgary changed me in profound ways and informed my understanding of the critical importance of schools like Westgate.

First of all, this experience opened me to the so-called ‘small things’.  My students in Calgary taught me that graveyards are full of important, indispensable people – and they helped me redefine the ways in which I could – and sometimes did – begin to matter.  But my “mattering” had nothing to do with degrees or qualifications, with my position – not even with the content of my lessons.  Instead I mattered because of small things – a welcome offered even when rebuffed; a listening ear – when in small moments defenses dropped and they became vulnerable kids; throwing a football with them at lunch; encouraging a heart-broken dad; breaking up a fight with perceived fairness – that is how I mattered – so insignificant in the grand scheme – but so important that without these things everything else ‘big’ was meaningless.

If these small things are not remembered and recreated daily -the so-called “big things” – the academics, the accomplishments, the recognition – really don’t matter.  My sense is that Westgate is fortunate to have people within its walls who attend with such joy to the small things.   I heard that clearly from the four students who took their lunch hour to talk with me about Westgate a month ago.  Mother Teresa once responded to a question about her work by saying “I don’t do great things; I do small things with great love.”   My students in Calgary taught me the same lesson – one that I have sought to build into my teaching experience elsewhere. They enlarged my space for compassion and helped me understand how critical this is to teaching and learning.  I know that gift is alive here.  Treasure it.

Secondly, my special education students taught me that while academics have to be taught with excellence – they never exist as ends in themselves.  When we isolate our teaching from the bigger picture of what we’re really about – it’s hollow.   I learned soon enough in Calgary that I was not really there to teach Social Studies – I was there to teach them.

It’s no different at Westgate.  There are many great schools in this province – public and private – offering really good academics.  What makes you different is that your teaching is connected to a big, rich vision and a story that defines your life together.  When teaching builds that connection – then maybe the world’s problems can be worked at by people who recall the details of their high school courses – but who certainly remember and learned much more than course content in those classes.   In short, the courses we teach are about far more – than the courses we teach.  They’re about students, about enlarging the world, grounding convictions, about building compassion and responsibility and about celebrating community.

Finally, my teaching in Calgary taught me the truth of how thirsty we all are for a people and a story.  It’s hard for many of us present to imagine life apart from family, community, opportunity, the church – these can be as natural to us as breathing – and we forget so easily – in our sometimes entitled worlds – how blessed we are.  What struck me so clearly with my special education students was how impoverished these kids were in those terms.  For most of them, the reality of a supportive family was a dream.  Underneath the many labels of “angry, lazy, delinquent, stupid” – they basically cried for home – for a story – a sense of belonging and a sense of identity.

Westgate students are so blessed by the reality that they are in a school that exists precisely because of a people and a story – because of families and a rich faith community that have said with mouth, and energy, and money – that our future is grounded in children with these roots.  I learned much earlier that we ought never to take that for granted – not to forget how incredibly significant a vision for a school like this can be.

My experience in Calgary showed me the difference when small gestures of kindness are woven into a school’s culture; when teaching is not an end in itself – but rather a window into a bigger vision; when learning grows out of and within a community and a people of faith.

So, my message to you is simple.  As important as Bob is as an excellent principal and as committed and gifted as the teachers and staff are – Westgate exists and has a future because of who you are.  Don’t take the gift of this school – or your role within it – for granted.  Don’t doubt for a moment how necessary this school experience can be in the lives of your children and grandchildren, for the life of the church and ultimately our world.

I encourage you to maximize your own trunk space – your shared vision and commitment for a school like this.

  • Strengthen its capacity to teach within a big vision
  •  Encourage a culture of kindness woven through its life
  • Open its embrace and welcome of diverse students and families
  • and help students grow into and out of a story and a people that nurtures the faith and the character for which our world hungers.

And along the way, treasure just how blessed you are to have this school to call ‘ours’.  What a gift!