Katie Cole, OCT
Remaining relevant in a critical world
by Kim Pallozzi, OCT
You gotta stay fresh to death...
Pauly D, reality show Jersey Shore
Not exactly the personal goal you'd expect from Katie Cole, OCT, one of the five 2010–11 Premier's Awards for Teaching Excellence Teachers of the Year. Then again, maybe we could all learn something from the ever-eloquent Pauly D.
As head of English at Medway HS in Arva, in the Thames Valley DSB, Cole is determined to remain current.
"I don't want to become stagnant in one age group or level," she says. "I never want to expire as a teacher."
Cole takes this philosophy a step further with her infectious enthusiasm and dedication to the often daunting realm of media and technology.
"I can talk about media all day," says Cole, which makes her the perfect mentor for her tech-savvy students. She's also the fun one, with many of her lesson plans deriving from pop culture.
"Most of the time students don't think their media through, and they'll just consume a whole bunch of it."
Cole helps them become more aware and critical of what they digest.
"I don't want them to be passive passengers anymore. I want them to be active audiences. It's nice to have these media-aware students become activists once they leave my class."
Cole's mission to spread the word on critical issues in media is evident in her work on a CD titled Critical Media Literacy: Addressing Violence in the Media, developed for the Ontario Public School Boards' Association. Cole helped write the English and media curriculum materials for Junior Kindergarten to Grade 12.
The CD was designed to support teachers and parents dealing with the negative influences of violence in the media. The resource can be found at www.crvawc.ca ➔ Curriculum ➔ Media Literacy.
"With all the technology in place today, we have to keep our kids safe. That's really important to me," says Cole.
Cole walks the talk as a frequent presenter on the topic at professional development events, conferences and school visits throughout Ontario and Québec. She also conducts workshops on Facebook and other social networking sites. She believes that with the sudden explosion of social media,
Katie Cole shares a laugh with a 1L/2L English student while they work on a fun thank you card assignment and get creative with their iris folding technique.
Cole – who uses technology in the classroom almost daily – still finds it fascinating to see students flipping through their iPads or iPhones instead of turning the pages of a book. "I like the digital shift, but we have to stay ahead of it or at least up-to-date. I preach that they use it responsibly."
She keeps it fresh not only by being a consummate techie but by helping her students develop a wide range of skills and passions outside the classroom. A University of Western Ontario volleyball champ, Cole not only coaches senior volleyball but runs the school play and a Fearless Fitness program for girls that includes yoga, dance and the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation's CIBC Run for the Cure.
When Cole was a student at A.B. Lucas SS in London, she wrote a paper for her OAC (Grade 13) Writer's Craft course about how much she loved to dance. Her teacher at the time, Inge Evans, took notice of her work and decided to teach her and another student a number of partner dances – including the West and East Coast Swing – during the lunch hour.
Cole quickly learned that school is not only about what happens during class hours but also what happens afterwards and says that her fond memories of Evans sparked her interest in teaching English. The profound connection she made between English and dance stayed with her and still fuels her desire to participate in many extracurricular activities.
"It's nice to be able to carry on somebody else's teachings," says Cole. She also believes in contributing more than you consume in order to be a good citizen of the world.
Evans is not the only influence in Cole's nine-year teaching career. Cole has seven teachers in her family – three uncles, two aunts, a cousin and a retired elementary teacher for a mother.
"I feel like I've been teaching for 20 years because every family get-together was all teacher talk. I've been with them through it all," says Cole with a laugh.
I try to make sunshine phone calls rather than just phoning when there's an issue or a problem. If they have one really great day, I'll let their parents know about it.
She describes her family as instrumental to her career, and she's always appreciated their words of wisdom along the way. They'd joke, "You're not a real teacher until you wear running shoes with a skirt. You're not a real teacher until your car is the last one in the parking lot. That's what I've grown up with, and it's so true." But perhaps the most important lesson from her family is "to find something in teaching, on which your heart can fasten."
This is yet another goal that Cole has happily achieved. "I can go downstairs and do a Fearless Fitness yoga class and then I can come upstairs and teach Hamlet. There are so many things that can satisfy your interests."
Cole's teaching subjects reflect her hobbies – this past year she taught English, media studies and physical education – and she abides by three simple guidelines in the classroom.
The first is to laugh.
"I want to make it fun, enjoyable and engaging. Making a subject like English tolerable for my students – in a good and comfortable atmosphere – is really important to me."
Secondly, she wants students to learn.
"I try to make them lifelong learners." She hopes that they grasp at least "one thing that they might really enjoy and extend on."
Lastly, she asks her students to lend.
"That's my big one," says Cole, who thinks it's imperative to share ideas and to "extend beyond themselves and the classroom and be involved in the community."
Lending and sharing are also part of Cole's mandate for the English Department. With 13 teachers on her team, she says, they commonly call themselves a family.
She also talks about how sharing keeps everything interesting and fresh. One of her favourite things is to exchange ideas and resources with colleagues, even if it's for a subject that she doesn't teach.
"For me, sharing is what our department is all about."
Sharing the passion
Although Cole is the head of English and the winner of a prestigious Premier's Award, her teaching aspirations remain modest.
"I'm happiest in my classroom," she says, which is certainly clear when you see her in action. In her 1L/2L English course – a locally developed English Grade 9 and 10 split class – students are making informal thank you cards using the iris folding technique. Cole loves to craft and shares this passion with her students. The kids are joking, singing and quoting lines from movies – all the while staying on task and enjoying the assignment. As Cole walks around offering help, she is patient, encouraging and approachable.
"Can we do this again tomorrow?" asks Austin.
She later says that her biggest sense of victory comes from a comment like that.
"It's the little moments, the little things – that's all I can ask for." The daily collections of small successes have created a lasting impression on students and colleagues alike.
Todd Woollings, OCT – the vice-principal of Ingersoll District CI and former head of English at Medway HS – boasts of Cole's innate ability as a teacher and mentor.
"She has a warm, creative, progressive and extremely dedicated approach, which she brings to the job every day. I once introduced her to a group of colleagues as The Franchise. She is the MVP, the person you want most on your team because of what she contributes as a player and a leader. She works extremely hard to make herself and others better," says Woollings.
Jacob, a student in her 1L/2L English course comments, "She's always nice, she always smiles and she's always helpful."
What else could a student ask for?
The feeling of classroom contentment goes deeper than Cole's smile. "I'm a big advocate for equality. We talk about labels and anything that can be derogatory, and we eliminate them immediately to make it more comfortable," says Cole.
Another way to make her students feel at ease is by reaching out to their parents.
"I try to make sunshine phone calls rather than just phoning when there's an issue or a problem. If they have one really great day, I'll let their parents know about it," says Cole.
Showing students that she's proud of them and their work is key.
"We post things on our board all the time."
And since the assignments on the walls are plentiful, it seems there's a lot to be proud of.
When it comes to her experience as a teacher at Medway HS, Cole has many words of thanks and praise for her former principal, Murray Macdonald, OCT.
"He was the vice-principal who hired me, so we've worked together for nine years. I can't thank him enough for allowing me to do all these crazy things. I don't know who else would be that patient."
Apparently the admiration is mutual.
"Her work is certainly exemplary. It is incredible what she's accomplished for someone who is still in the first half of her career," says Macdonald, now principal of Strathroy District CI. "I've had the opportunity to watch her grow and develop as a teacher and certainly at a quick pace. At this point there's a lot more that she could teach me than I could ever hope to teach her.
"This is a person who has unlimited potential. I look forward to seeing what she will be involved in next and where the rest of her career will take her. I know that many outstanding things will come of it."
So, what's in store for Katie Cole?
"My whole life has been inextricably tied up with teaching and kids. I can't imagine not being a part of education."