To be successful,
kids need "consistency and creativity," says Betsy Ramsay-Currie.
"And they need to believe in themselves. They need opportunities
to understand and showcase their abilities and work with peers who have
other abilities that they don't have so they can see the value of working
Ramsay-Currie's entire career has been devoted to creating learning environments
that allow students to be successful. She is one of 10 Ontario educators
to receive the 2001 Toronto Sun's Teachers of the Year Award. More
than 1,200 Ontario educators were nominated.
"We learned in a magical world, an avant-garde learning environment,
full of wonderment, discovery and a true quest for knowledge," wrote
a former student for Ramsay-Currie's nomination. "She created a classroom
that I'll never forget-full of colour, energy, discovery and exploration.
In fact, it's an approach and passion for life that I've carried with
me ever since."
Betsy Ramsay-Currie started teaching in Toronto area elementary schools
in 1960, moved to Orillia in 1991 and retired in 1996. She continues to
supply teach and volunteer in Simcoe County schools. She has taught all
grades from K to 8, as well as ESL, reading and Native Studies.
She was a demonstration teacher for the Principal's Qualification Program
at OISE/UT, she co-ordinated summer teacher enrichment programs, she taught
part of an Additional Qualification (AQ) course and she and her principal-husband
taught in Singapore for two years.
"I guess I've pretty much seen and done it all," she says with
has a fresh start and a fair chance to succeed."
Off the School Year Effectively
"I believe the best learning environment is one where students feel
safe, able to take chances and where they see the benefits in being part
of our classroom team."
Ramsay-Currie has always worked hard to create this environment wherever
she has taught. "I talk to kids about right and left brain theories,
explaining that they will have a classmate who is a great speller, even
though she or he doesn't seem to have to work at it. I have the kids quickly
test themselves to see which dominates their abilities and then I help
them identify their own strengths and weaknesses.
" We talk about what stresses them out about school and we talk about
strategies to overcome the stresses. I also invite parents to talk to
me about problems their children are having in school. Once I've got a
clear sense of my students' abilities, I modify the program where I can
to meet their needs."
Another strategy Ramsay-Currie uses at the start of the year involves
assessing mathematical abilities in an unconventional manner.
"Most teachers start by reviewing what was done last year. Those
kids who did well, or who have strong memories, do well and those who
struggled or have forgotten do poorly, and right away, we've created a
sense of failure and frustration. If they struggled last year, then why
bring it up at the start of a new year?"
Instead, she starts with a new math concept and everyone has a fresh start
and a fair chance to succeed. "This way, I can see how well they
can learn and apply a new concept, which is more important than testing
their memory in mathematics. Everyone has a chance to be successful and
the students' first encounter with math is a positive one.
" I want them to feel good about our class and our learning and this
strategy helps to do that. Later we'll review and I'll see their weaknesses,
but I don't ever want a negative start to a new teaching assignment."
Flexible Heterogeneous Groups
Because Ramsay-Currie is such a strong believer in teamwork, she monitors
and changes seating arrangements throughout the year. "I want everyone
to work with everyone in the class. It's an essential life skill to get
along with others and see the value that others can offer you."
One of the first projects her Grade 3 students were always assigned was
a project on the continents. "I randomly grouped kids and each group
was assigned a continent to study. They all worked together researching
and then they put together a project that reflected both what they learned
and their individual learning abilities. Often there were 3-D models,
maps, pictures, written reports and audio and visual components.
got a chance to showcase their strengths as well as work with others who
could complement a weakness they may have had. It was only by working
together that the whole group could successfully produce a complete project."
Ramsay-Currie mostly groups students heterogeneously, insisting that getting
along with others is more important than continually working with those
of similar academic abilities. She does encourage the use of homogeneous
groups for some reading and math activities.
Drama in the Classroom
One of the most useful teaching and learning strategies she employs is
drama. Ramsay-Currie says, "Kids need a chance to act and experience
emotions. It never ceases to amaze me that even Grade 7 and 8 students
will pull things out of the dress-up box and assume roles. It's escapism
for them, yes, but it affords them an opportunity to express emotions
and explore problems they may be experiencing in a safe and helpful environment."
Ramsay-Currie's experiences working with native children have opened her
eyes to special needs and encouraged her to work hard to reach all children.
She's seen too many native children turned off by an educational system
that doesn't engage them.
"It's heartbreaking to see these kids excluded in society, and so
often it starts in school." Ramsay-Currie has always made it a special
project to help native students in her classes.
"I start by empowering them. The natives were here in Orillia first
and so we focus on their history, culture and ways of life. We talk about
hunting, fishing and farming, the means they had to make a living, and
then we explore paddling, their crafts and folklore. All the students
find it fascinating, and when we integrate music, drama and costumes,
the kids really get into it.
" It's all about fostering a sense of pride in these children and
it works. Once they feel good about themselves and who they are, it spills
over into their daily lives and they do better at school."
Meeting Students' Needs
This is not to say that Ramsay-Currie focuses her efforts entirely on
native children. For many years, she's run Girls' Clubs. "All girls
want help with life and self-esteem issues and they don't always get what
they need," she says. Her clubs try to fill this void. "We meet
at lunch and I try to bring in professionals to talk to the girls and
act as role models for them. I've even brought in martial arts instructors
to teach them how to defend themselves.
"Once a month, we cook dinner together and watch a video and chat.
I pick issues movies like Pretty in Pink or Centre Stage or the CBC's
Degrassi shows. The girls love it and they really do benefit from the
opportunity to discuss troublesome issues like sexuality, parents and
Ramsay-Currie's approach to teaching has been consistent. "I look
for needs in my students and then create opportunities to meet those needs."
Another way she does this is through mini-trips.
"Small groups of students decide what they want to learn about in
the community, they find a parent willing to take them, they make the
arrangements and off they go. They take a Polaroid camera, and upon their
return, they teach the class about what they have learned. Give kids the
responsibility for their own learning and it's amazing what they will
do and how maturely they will act."
Making Learning Fun and Memorable
live what they're learning and they'll never forget it."
want my students to remember being happy in school and to remember loving
learning, so every
integrate some kind of extravaganza into my curriculum. Some of the most
important skills I teach are research and inquiry skills. These are life
skills they all need; they won't remember the names of people we studied,
but they will remember how to find the names again," she says. "So
the extravaganzas are fun and allow the kids to dress up and experience
life in another era, but they are research-based and teach the kids a
lot of valuable skills and knowledge. Over the years, we've made movies
and model rockets; one year we transformed our classroom into a native
longhouse and lived in it for a week. The CBC even came to cover the event.
The kids will never forget it, or what it was like to be a native Canadian
in the 1820s.
" We studied ghosts in Casa Loma, we made a pioneer dinner at Fort
York, carrying food and wearing costumes on the TTC. Let them live what
they're learning and they'll never forget it."
Additional Qualification Courses
There are more special needs students in classrooms today, and Ramsay-Currie
sees this as a challenge and an opportunity.
"Every special child is a challenge and that's one of the thrills
about teaching for me. My job is to investigate the problems and try to
solve them. Teachers who don't have counselling and special education
training are really working at a disadvantage, and I encourage them to
take AQ courses."
"What's more, the contacts we make in those AQ courses are invaluable.
I often learned more from my peers than I did from the readings and my
instructors. My peers became my resources and I often called them for
help to solve a problem with a child."
She encourages all teachers, especially new ones, to take summer AQ courses
to enhance their own professional toolboxes and enable them to better
help their students.
students feel safe."
being retired, Ramsay-Currie is still active in education. She reads to
children in a local
often dressing in costumes like the Easter bunny or a Halloween witch.
She helps develop curriculum and leads tours at a local art gallery and
she works with a Grade 6 teacher tutoring students to help prepare them
for provincial testing. Here, she takes six kids at a time and has them
create board games to strengthen their math skills.
tutors other students, often ones she previously taught. And, she keeps
a watchful eye on
students. Many of them struggle when they enter the local high school
and some drop out. She talks about a few special students she'll be watching
this year to see that they stay in school, if she can.
She and her husband are taking their teaching abilities on the road-actually
onto the high seas. They've been accepted as bridge instructors on a cruise
ship. She's also looking forward to supply teaching in local elementary
schools for years to come.
"Thank goodness they've changed the rules for occasional teaching.
I was devastated at only being able to teach 20 days this year, but I'm
thrilled that it's back up to 95."