A Fertile Learning Culture - Hank Petersen

I had been ready to 'dump' teaching as a career after only three years, when Hank Petersen took me on in a Grade 4 classroom - in Oliver, British Columbia, Canada. Looking back now at those seven years (1980 to 1988) - back across experiences in many others schools, in numerous other countries - I have come to realize what a uniquely empowering learning and teaching culture he fostered there. And (perhaps belatedly) I'm very grateful.

Hank Petersen had been in the community for decades.

He knew each student by name, and - in many cases - had taught their parents years earlier. He was in and out of our classrooms constantly. I remember looking up from working with one group of students to see Hank (my principal) quietly assisting one of the weaker students in her Math. His presence was no threat at all. He showed genuine interest and delight when things were going well. He was supportive when learning attempts went awry: "What were you trying to do?" "What could we change to make something similar work next time?"

This freedom carried over to relations between teachers. Free to wander in and out of each other's lessons, in the staffroom you might later hear one colleague ask another, "What were you doing in Creative Writing? It looked great!"

We Grade 4 teachers decided to use excellent new materials on Canada's First Nations - the native people of Canada's west coast - as the basis for cross-curricular work. We 'ditched' many of the regular textbooks for a while. Reading, writing, history, geography - even science and mathematics - were all integrated into a four-week theme. We finished off with a party - role-playing elements of a day in the lives of the west coast First Nations people ... in the 'Big House' we'd transformed the classroom into.

Under Hank Petersen's leadership we learned:
- to really know our students
- to really nurture learners, instead of teaching 'subjects'
- to be free to try - and free to 'fail'
- to 'live' "Pro D" daily as an expression of ongoing, invigorated, creative professionalism

Thanks, Hank. It's really only looking back that I realise how much I learned under your watch.

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