Educators eager to give back to their community after devasting wildfires

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The road to recovery for Fort McMurray students and teachers will be a long one, but the community is looking forward to rebuilding, says an Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) representative from the city.

Nancy Ball has been the local ATA president for six years, and a Teacher Capacity Leader since February, but she started her career as a teacher in Fort McMurray 35 years ago.

On May 3, before the city faced a mandatory evacuation notice, Ball and associate superintendent Dr. Brenda Saunter were arriving for a school visit when they realized the fire was across the highway from the school.

“We have to get the kids evacuated,” Ball recalls saying to her colleague. 

By the time parents had come to pick up their children, Ball was no longer allowed to travel north to meet her husband, who was able to pack a few things from their house before evacuating the city himself.

Instead, Ball was notified of two busloads of students from the Islamic school whose parents couldn’t pick them up. The students come from every quadrant of the city to attend the school, and with traffic at a standstill as residents fled, Ball and her colleagues were suddenly responsible for getting these students to safety.

According to Ball, the students were bused to Chateau Nova, a hotel by the airport, after being turned around on the highway trying to reach Anzac. Though Chateau Nova provided the students with pillows and a safe place to stay, it wasn’t long before the evacuation notice reached the hotel too, and the children were put back onto the bus, bound for Anzac.

Ball — who represents 785 teachers in the local ATA — wasn’t the only teacher who sacrificed her evacuation plans in order to ensure Fort McMurray students were safe. But, she said, this is the nature of teachers.

City FortMacTeacher 2EDITSA building is engulfed in flames as fire crews work to contain the spread of the fire. Such a scene was not uncommon in the early days of May 2016 up in Fort McMurray; the resulting devastation left both teachers and students without homes, and without many of their schools. In the confusion of the aftermath, educators have been doing all that they can to bring some sense of normalcy back to their charges and coworkers. Photo courtesy of Trey HaleInstead of dwelling on teachers’ heroics, Ball is quick to thank first responders for their efforts.

“We’re so thankful for all the work that the first responders are doing to protect our community, our schools, our homes,” she said.

David Eggen, the education minister, said May 9 that some 12,000 students had been displaced by the wildfires.

Since the wildfires, Ball said some teachers are staying in Calgary and Edmonton, though others have gone as far as Newfoundland or Nova Scotia to be with family.

“Those that have children have registered them into schools just so they have a degree of normalcy,” she said.

“Now, what does normalcy mean for teachers though?” Ball asked. 

Teaching is a profession based on the foundation of relationships. The chaotic and sudden loss of those relationships has taken their toll on some teachers.

“For some, they’re just lost,” Ball said. “They feel lost.”

For teachers who needed to find a sense of normalcy, volunteering in schools has been a source of comfort. Ball said teachers have been welcomed by schools across the province to help in classrooms.

“That still gives them that ability to work with students,” Ball said.

Ball also credits social media for playing a large role in connecting colleagues after having to leave Fort McMurray in such a rush.

“Social media has been a godsend,” Ball said. “It has been a real support system because for some of those teachers, they have lost their houses.”

Teachers from Timberlea Public School, a kindergarten to Grade 6 school which was not destroyed by the wildfires, created a Facebook chat group to connect displaced teachers with their colleagues. Some teachers in the group shared that they learned their home had been burned courtesy of aerial views available online. Others shared support for each other, and some even tried to lighten the mood with stories of the silly things they packed.

“I think that part of processing what has happened is sharing stories with those who have gone through it. Because, they understand,” said Ball, adding not having to explain everything because colleagues went through the same experience has been a tremendous help.

City FortMacTeacher 1Fort McMurray teachers have a chance to connect at the Annual Representative Assembly (ARA) at the end of May. From left to right: Karie Evans, Shannon Dube, Lana Pelletier, Kathy Vladicka, Minister Eggen, Nancy Ball, Deborah Nicholson, Sheldon Dahl, District Representative Quintin Yardley. Photo courtesy of Nancy Ball“Sometimes you feel guilty in laughing,” she said. She believes laughter can provide relief in dark times, although the best medicine is seeing each other again.

Ball joined more than 400 teachers, including a handful of teachers from Fort McMurray, for the 99th Annual Representative Assembly (ARA) May 21-23 in Calgary.

“When staff saw each other, whatever bags were in their hands, they just dropped them. The hugs, the smiles, and even the laughter — there was laughter — it was like a first step in the process of dealing with this horrific event.”

Ball said it’s important to remember that teachers are dealing with their own personal experience from the wildfires.

“What you see on videos, in pictures, on TV and YouTube clips, teachers have experienced that.”

Not only are teachers working through their own stories, they are going to need support in knowing how to help their students, including addressing their mental health.

“We’re going to need support in helping our students go forward. It’s going to be a long process,” Ball said. Having the support of Alberta health, education, and the federal government will be paramount, along with professional development aid for teachers.

Fort McMurray Today reported June 3 that four schools may not be ready to open in September due to fire damage, but the hardship Fort McMurray has faced won’t hold teachers back from returning to their city.

“I know of teachers who have lost their houses, who are already looking for where they will live when they come back,” Ball said.

The support Ball has received from teacher associations across the country — from the president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Federation to the British Columbia Teachers Association — has been yet another reminder that Fort McMurray will only come out of this experience stronger.

“There are going to be rough times. It is going to be hard to go back and see the devastation first-hand, but we know we are not alone.”

The first group of Fort McMurray residents were able to return home June 1 as a part of a voluntary re-entry plan.

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