At the end of March,
after six years with the College, the last two at the helm as Registrar
and Chief Executive Officer, Joe Atkinson will retire. The career he gave
his heart to is being cut short by heart disease.
Calling it "the hardest decision of my professional life," Atkinson
announced his retirement following a surprise hospitalization last summer
for what was diagnosed as a heart virus. He returned to work as soon as
possible in the fall, but while his focus was intact, he found his stamina
wasn't. Knowing he couldn't meet his own expectations, he refused to fail
to meet others'.
It's those same high standards - personal and professional - that have
become synonymous with the Atkinson name.
When he arrived at the College in 1997, hand-picked by the first Registrar
Margaret Wilson, Joe Atkinson had a reputation the size of the province
for promoting professional growth among teachers. Armed with school board
and federation experience, he was just the go-to guy needed to develop
standards of practice, ethical standards for teachers, and a framework
for professional learning. That and hitting the road to explainthe purpose
of the College itself. Consultation was his specialty; his trademark,
the personal touch.
"Joe was always
a teacher's teacher," says friend and former Waterloo District School
Board education director Patti Haskell. "He's made contributions
to many provincial organizations including OPSTF, OTF, the Leadership
Academy and the Ontario College of Teachers. Joe was everywhere; you just
felt his presence there all the time."
Having completed his teacher training at Lakeshore Teachers' College,
where he served as president of the student body, Atkinson was awarded
the Prince of Wales Prize as the top-graduating teacher of 1966. He began
teaching with the Toronto Board of Education in the same year, completing
his BA from York University and earning a MEd from the Ontario Institute
for Studies in Education/University of Toronto.
His early experience included teaching in inner city Junior and Intermediate
classrooms. He also worked in outdoor education, gifted education and
adult education programs as well as in the board's curriculum and program
In 1974, he joined the professional staff of the Ontario Public School
Teachers' Federation (OPSTF) and was named the first Director of the federation's
Professional Development Services Department in 1991. Under his leadership,
the OPSTF established an international reputation for excellence in the
development and delivery of quality professional growth programs.
Some believe it was
there that Atkinsoncreated a lasting legacy to teacher professionalism
in Ontario. Haskell says his commitment to professional growth and leadership
is unparalleled. Marg Couture, who followed Atkinson at OPSTF as Director
of Professional Development Services, agrees.
"Twenty-six years ago, he brought many of the credit courses to Ontario
that teachers could use to learn and upgrade their salary levels,"
Couture says. "Joe had the insight to bring those courses. His commitment
to the welfare of teachers' professional development can't be matched
by anyone else.
"He does what he does because he believes in it. He went to the College
because he believes in accountability," Couture says. "He is
admired and respected across Canada and internationally."
Noel Clark, former OPSTF deputy secretary, says Atkinson spent countless
hours creating "teacher friendly" courses for university credit,
packed with good material and methodology they could use immediately in
their classrooms. As a result, he helped to shape a generation of teachers.
"He is an open champion of the people who work with and for him,"
says Clark. "He believes not only in the mandate of the College but
in the people who work there."
The College's Deputy Registrar Doug Wilson concurs. Treating staff as
family has contributed significantly to the respect people have for Atkinsonas
a leader and as an educator, Wilson says.
"I've never met a person more admired and respected by his staff
than Joe Atkinson. Joe realized when he became Registrar that he had a
huge responsibility to maintain the high standards of leadership provided
by Margaret Wilson. And he's done a wonderful job. He's provided strong,
dynamic, visionary leadership in his roles as Co-ordinator, Deputy Registrar
and Registrar. We've come to count on his strength, his wisdom, his advice,
his honesty and his integrity."
Jack Martin, a former member of the OSSTF secretariat and the organizational
architect of the Ontario Principals' Council, says Atkinson is conscientious,
credible and courageous. He's always looking at what's in the best interest
of teachers, always conscious about doing the right thing and he always
takes the high road in difficult situations.
"He was the champion of a very challenging issue in the Professional
Learning Program," says Martin. "Joe recognized that the program
needed to be modified for it to work at all and it was his job to find
common ground between what the government wanted and what would work."
In 1992, in recognition of his contribution to the professional learning
of educators in Ontario, across Canada and throughout the U.S., the OTF
awarded Atkinson a fellowship.
In 1997, he brought his experience to the College as Co-ordinator of Professional
Affairs. He became Deputy Registrar in June 1999 and was appointed as
Registrar in November 2000.
"I didn't take the job because I saw it as a challenge," Atkinson
says. "I took it because I saw it as the next logical step for me
in my career and the next natural step for the profession, and I wanted
to be part of that. I still believe in it. Passionately."
College Registrar, Atkinson has become famous for his three-promise mantra
on behalf of the teaching profession. "We have promised members of
the public that when they send their children to our schools, they will
be taught and supervised by qualified and certified teachers, principals
and supervisory officers," he says. "We have promised that each
of these individuals will be competent, and we have said, send us your
children and we promise that they will be safe in our charge."
It's the College's work to live up to those promises that enables Atkinson
to retire satisfied.
For example, he says that the Standards of Practice for the Teaching Profession,
developed during his tenure and true to his own standards for consultation,
have become the "fire in the belly" statements for the profession.
"This is what we believe in as educators. This is what we stand for.
This is what we base our existence upon," Atkinson says. "The
standards are fundamental to all that's done at the faculties of education
right now. The work of students who graduate from the faculties now is
grounded in the standards of the teaching profession. The rest of us who
have been at teaching for a while are trying to define our work on the
basis of those standards.
"If I take any
satisfaction at all, it is that everything that will ever happen in education
in Ontario will reflect the Standards of Practice for the Teaching Profession.
They're dynamic. They will change. But, overall, they need to reflect
and direct the vision for our society."
The ethical standards, he says, became a partner to the standards of practice
because they established the ethics under which the profession operates.
"They reflect the morality of our profession.
"The professional learning framework defined for the first time how
we keep ourselves recent and relevant, what defines our basic practice
and how we review and reflect on it in order to improve it," Atkinson
says. "Whether you are a director of education or a supply teacher,
you now have a responsibility to be recent and relevant in your practice.
The framework acknowledges, recognizes and values ongoing professional
Atkinson calls himself "a womb to tomb learner. From the day you're
born to the day you die, you're learning something all the time, reflecting
on it, and moving it into your practice." You change, reinforce,
and eliminate what you need to based on information, research, experience,
and your own maturation, he says.
For Atkinson, being
a teacher was almost a birthright. His mother was a teacher. His wife
Judy just retired as a principal. And two of their three children have
chosen teaching as a profession. "We call it the family business,"
Since becoming Registrar, Atkinson has made it a priority to speak to
teacher graduates at every Ontario faculty "to talk about the profession
and why the College represents the future of the profession." He
wants newcomers to feel that they've made the right decision.
As a teacher himself, Atkinson liked to work with the kids who were different.
The ones in the margin. The ones that might have been written off by others.
The ones whom, he says, "if left unattended, would've been takers
instead of givers." One such lad, now grown, stopped Atkinson in
the mall one day some time ago to tell him he never forgot the difference
Atkinson made in his life. Then he introduced his son, Joe.
Atkinson trusts that someone else helped the students he may have missed.
Maybe, just maybe, another teacher on the team made the connection those
"I've always been proud to say at a family gathering or a cocktail
party that I'm a teacher. And even though I'm Registrar of the College,
I still see myself as a teacher and inculcating the values of the society
in which we find ourselves."
With his rapier wit and penchant for one-liners, he also could've been
a stand-up comedian, friends say.
Raymond Lemley, author and former director of training for the U.S.-based
National Association ofSecondary School Principals, goes back 25 years
with Atkinson. At Lemley's 60th birthday party, Atkinson seized the spotlight
and wouldn't give it up. "Once you give him a microphone, you pretty
much have to drive a stake through him to settle him down," says
Lemley, adding "As with other such occasions, it became Joe's party.
The only thing he didn't do was open my presents."
used that same passion, vitality, and commitment to purpose to better
his community as a volunteer.
He has served as President of the United Way of Ajax-Pickering, as Chairman
of the Board of Directors of the Ajax-Pickering General Hospital and was
a founding member of the Hospital Council of Durham Region. He was elected
to the Town of Ajax Council in 1985 and over eight years in public office
served in a number of positions including local councillor, Durham regional
councillor and deputy mayor. Atkinson has served as a board member of
the Central Lake Ontario Conservation Authority, as vice-chair of the
Ajax Hydro Electric Commission and as a member of the Rogers Cablesystems
Advisory Board. For his outstanding contribution to his community, he
was named the citizen of the year for 1995 and was the recipient of the
Ajax Civic Award.
Bruce Cliff, former President and CEO of the Ajax-Pickering General Hospital,
calls Atkinson a great guy, community-minded and progressive. The two
worked hand in hand, Joe as the chair of the hospital board between 1993
and 1995, to press for the expansion of the hospital to meet the needs
of the growing community. One of Cliff's fondest moments was the opening
of a new tower to the hospital with Atkinson presiding over the celebration.
"He's one of the finest board chairs I've ever worked with,"
He credits Atkinson's ability to get the support of the board and the
hospital and medical staff behind him to save time dealing with the government.
"He's politically astute. He sets goals and motivates people to achieve
Cliff also expresses admiration for Atkinson as a "solid family man,
a man of strong beliefs and ethics, and one who follows through on things."
"He's bigger than life," Cliff says. "He has a great sense
of humour, and is very positive and fair minded. He sees the other person's
point of view on an issue. I don't think I've met an individual who loves
his community more."
Pride and Frustration
As Registrar, Atkinson
says he's proudest of how the College has met its mandate in being able
to accredit pre- and in-service teacher education programs, and for issuing
the College's first professional advisory, advising members of the boundaries
of their responsibilities and their responsibility to the safety of children.
He says his greatest frustration has been "the inability of our profession
to deal with change constructively, creatively and positively," and
cites examples such as multiple grade classrooms, recommendations of the
Hall-Dennis Report, curriculum change, and the establishment of the College
of Teachers itself.
"Our education system is still set up for an agrarian society,"
Atkinson says. "The kids are off in the summer to work in the fields.
There aren't as many fields as there were. Today, we should be looking
at things such as year-round schools. It's more efficient, more effective,
better learning pedagogically, and it's cheaper."
He's also aggravated by the notion that anyone can teach. Not so, he says.
"Everybody who comes into a school, either as a student, a parent,
a grandparent, an aunt or an uncle, knows a better way to do it because,
after all, they were part of the process. Well, no. There's more to being
a good teacher, a good principal or a good superintendent than just having
been to school yourself."
What does he think about opposition to the College from within the profession
itself? A great deal of it is organized spin, he says.
"When you talk to individual teachers, they want to be recognized
as part of a profession. When I first came into teaching, I took a job.
When my youngsters come into teaching now, they enter a profession. That's
the difference. The reason is that we now have a self-regulatory responsibility.
We're responsible and accountable for our actions."
When asked what he'd like to see the College eventually achieve, his answer
is familiar and unwavering-delivering on the College mandate and the three
"My wish-and we are moving that way-is for the College to guarantee
to the public that there is a certified, qualified teacher in every classroom,
that they are competent, and that students are safe in the charge of those
people. I want the College to be respected for that. I have no question
that over time all our members will believe that."