By Lois Browne
"Margaret is one of those people who can disagree with you, but not be personal about it. It's a valuable characteristic, but not one that many people have," says Dave Cooke, a former minister of education and the man who first suggested Margaret Wilson for the job from which she has retired after a 40-year career in education.
In 1995, the NDP government gave Wilson the job of setting up the Ontario College of Teachers. In July 1996, her task completed, Wilson assumed the duties of Registrar. During her tenure, the College has become an internationally known and respected example of how the teaching profession should govern itself.
To Wilson, her proudest legacy is her 23-year-old daughter Anne, currently studying to be a teacher. Anne is also following in the footsteps of her father Roger, a retired teacher and secondary school vice-principal. But from a professional viewpoint, Wilson acknowledges, the establishment of the College ranks as her greatest achievement.
"I had a wonderful chair of the implementation team in Frank Clifford. We worked as right and left hand. And I had an excellent staff too, people who would question ideas, throw ideas on the table and argue things through. And at the end of the process, we still liked and respected each other."
COMMITTED TO CONSULTATION
Under Wilson's leadership, the College has consulted widely with teachers and the public to develop standards of practice, ethical standards and a professional learning framework, it has set up a disciplinary process that is open and accountable, and established itself as a leading authority on education and on professional issues relating to education.
"If you want to know anything about the teaching profession, not just from a policy point of view but from a research base, you go to the College and talk to the professionals," says Michael Fullan, dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. "It's an amazing resource for Ontario."
Wilson and her team had to establish the College from scratch, fulfilling a multitude of tasks from the most mundane - choosing office furniture - to the most complex - writing legislation, setting College priorities, hiring staff. And all of it to meet the needs of a membership which, on the day the College came into being, numbered more than 165,000.
"It's been a fantastic accomplishment," says Fullan, "and I think it's because of Margaret WilsonÕs skills and her ideas. It could easily have gone off the rails or got bogged down in just deciding what to do, without being able to move forward. But I think the College has been able to get its house in order because of the way sheÕs worked with the different groups on the board and the other constituencies."
"She is very strong on the fundamentals - I don't mean details - but whatever the underlying principles are, she's very clear about those. Which means she almost always has good judgement because she's got a set of principles she works from."
Wilson's colleagues at the College speak highly of the friendship and leadership she offered during the exacting early years of the College. Deputy Registrar Joe Atkinson, who was chosen by the Council to take over from Wilson in November, joined the College at her behest during its formation. "She's been a delight to work with. She has high expectations, but no higher than she has for herself. She is the ultimate teacher. A great teacher provides opportunities for people to learn, and she has given us those opportunities."
Wilson was born in Scotland but was raised and educated in Ontario. She trained in Ontario at London Teachers' College and then spent more than 15 years in the classroom. For two years, Wilson taught elementary students at Clarkson Public School in Clarkson. Her decision to go back to university seems almost casual: "I'd saved some money and decided I wanted to teach a subject," she says. At the University of Windsor she won the Governor General's Gold Medal and was a Canada Council Scholar at the University of Toronto where she earned her master's degree in English.
For the next 13 years she taught English at secondary schools in Ontario - H. E. Guppy High School of Commerce in Windsor, and in Toronto's Parkdale Collegiate and North Toronto Collegiate -amongst which she sandwiched a year in London, England where she taught at Holloway Secondary Boys' School.
After four years at North Toronto Collegiate where she was now head of the English department, Wilson decided to get more heavily involved with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF). It was never her plan to move out of the schools. "When I ran for election in the OSSTF, I had already taken Part I of the Principal's Qualification course. I thought I would probably end up as a school administrator."
It was sheer chance that her professional life took another direction, Wilson recalls today. "After I had been involved in OSSTF for awhile, people asked me to run for district president and I did. Things weren't very good within the local organization. The district executive at that time was barely talking to the school board. I ran on the assumption I would lose, and I won. Literally, I had to call my parents at midnight and say, 'I'm going to be in the Globe and Mail tomorrow.'"
Wilson had developed a strong interest by this stage in how the federations represented teachers. "My interest was really sharpened when I ended up on the provincial OSSTF research committee and we produced a study of the role of the secondary school. My interest was as much in the professional services they provided to teachers as it was in the collective bargaining services, and I've been involved in both."
Wilson spent seven years with OSSTF, three as provincial president, and served as president of the Ontario Teachers' Federation (OTF). Although she returned to teaching for short periods of time on a couple of occasions, when the position of secretary-treasurer opened up with OTF, she applied and got the job. "That's when I realized I probably wouldn't teach again, and that I had become a bureaucrat."
That self-effacing description doesn't do justice to her success and effectiveness as an advocate for teachers and the teaching profession. People who first met and worked with her during this period remember how much they were impressed with her abilities as a speaker, an analyst and an organizer.
Ruth Baumann, a colleague at OTF who became a good friend, first met her in 1974 when Wilson was challenging the OSSTF incumbent district president. "Of the candidates, she was the most impressive. She was very articulate, very pragmatic and very clear ... things that don't surprise me now that I've known her for such a long time."
"She has the ability to see the big picture all the time, to see where the issue she is considering fits with other issues, that nothing sits by itself. So there is always the sense of the larger context." And Wilson looked for solutions wherever she had to, says Baumann. "I remember that on a number of occasions, during the time we were both with OTF, we had meetings with senior officials in the Ministry of Health because the answers to the issues we were dealing with could not lie in the education ministry alone."
Dave Cooke's link to Wilson's family goes back to his childhood when he remembers canvassing with his father on behalf of Wilson's father, Hugh McConville, who ran as a NDP candidate against Paul Martin, Sr. in a Windsor federal riding. But their real professional relationship began when he took on the education portfolio and Margaret came calling on behalf of the Ontario Teachers' Federation.
"She had the ability to give advice that was not predictable," he says. "She spoke from her perspective as a union leader, but as well from the perspective of a top-notch educator. And that was something I very much appreciated... She had a very pragmatic side to her that I think benefitted her members as well as the students."
Wilson's description of the approach that wins her such praise is "listen first; talk later."
"I certainly have beliefs, but I don't think anyone would say I have fixed opinions. I can go into a situation thinking that we should be heading in a particular direction and then you listen to other people and it becomes obvious that the direction should at least shift, if not change. And I respect other people's ability to from time to time persuade me."
And Wilson has a pretty good idea how other people see her. "Most people would say that I can be quite forceful in trying to be persuasive. I'm not denying that I can be. But I think I'm effective in persuasion because I have been listening and sense where people are troubled and try to meet their concerns."
Wilson's experience dealing with education ministers goes back to the days of Tom Wells and the first teacher collective bargaining legislation, when she was president of OSSTF and Bette Stephenson was Minister of Education in the Bill Davis Conservative government. At that time, education issues were as volatile as they are today. Stephenson remembers when Wilson represented secondary school teachers during the long strike of Sudbury teachers in 1975. After nearly seven weeks, the government was threatening to legislate the teachers back to work.
"I called the school board to Toronto and sat them down with the OSSTF's negotiators," remembers Stephenson. "Margaret and I sat on the stairs in the Mowat Block waiting - we still smoked in those days - smoking and talking and letting the two groups fight it out. They finally did come to an agreement about five in the morning, and we were able to go to the legislature the next day and say weÕd got it settled."
"I'm sure the others had a miserable night, but Margaret and I had a very good night. We talked about absolutely everything - the strike a great deal, but also the life of a working mother and all sorts of other topics as well."
The two had a more serious disagreement over the establishment of the College of Teachers, an institution that has been recommended by royal commissions since the 1950s. Stephenson tried to set up a College in 1983 during her tenure as education minister. One of her main opponents was Margaret Wilson, then president of the OTF.
Today people still debate what the central difference was in the position each side took - over how much of a role teaching professionals would play or how much control the teachers' federations would have. But although both fought hard for their views, when it was over and Stephenson's hope of a College had to be set aside for many years, their relationship continued to be affable, says Stephenson. Both Wilson and Stephenson were present at the official launch of the College - with stronger teacher involvement - in 1997.
In the same year, the two were recognized when they each received an honorary doctorate from Nipissing University for the contributions that they had both made to education over the years.
Joe Atkinson knows the kind of qualities that made Margaret Wilson an ideal Registrar. "If it happened in education in Ontario during the past 25 years, Margaret was involved with it somehow. She has worked with governments of all stripes and with a dozen or so education ministers and their deputies. And as they have come and gone, Margaret has been there through it all."
As the first Registrar of the Ontario College of Teachers, Margaret Wilson committed the profession's self-regulating body to a high standard of public accountability and integrity.
Margaret Wilson has won many awards and honours for her lifelong commitment to teachers, students and the education system - an honorary doctorate from Nipissing University in 1997, the Distinguished Educators Award from OISE/UT in 1998. But it is the College of Teachers and its contributions to the stature of the profession she championed all her life that are Margaret Wilson's legacy.