Derek Harrison, Q&A
1) Tell us about your first kiss.
Shelli Geary … in the reading corner. Grade 1. I remember because cooties were a big concern back then.
2) How did you propose to your wife?
Plan A was to propose after a day of surfing. I was going to bring her out into the water, propose and let the surroundings make it special. That didn't happen, so Plan B took hold. My wife was grumpy after being on the water all day and asked, or maybe demanded, to go home. We bickered all the way because my plan was ruined, then we made dinner and I got down on one knee and made it as close to a fairy tale for her as I could.
3) What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
Alberta Rapattack. It was difficult to get in, but completely worth it. It provided me with incredible experiences every day and I met a lot of people I'll never forget.
4) If you could change one thing in your life, what would it be?
Nothing! I've had it pretty good. Awesome childhood, great parents, an amazing and hilarious wife and a healthy baby boy. Actually, if I could change one thing, perhaps a blast from the past with the hair situation. I'd be pretty happy to have my 20-year-old hair back.
5) If you had total power, what would you change?
Disease. I'd like to not hear another word about cancer.
6) What's your favourite classroom activity with your kids?
I have a ton of fun completing spelling and grapheme reviews with the kids. We play the 'Grapheme Gameshow' and 'Spelling Gameshow' every week as a way of reviewing our weekly spelling words. The kids seem to enjoy it and I get to goof around a lot.
7) What would you like written on your tombstone?
"This guy treated others the way he wanted to be treated."
Ask Elmer S. Gish kindergarten teacher Derek Harrison which was more terrifying — rappelling out of a helicopter to battle his first forest fire, or his first day as a kindergarten teacher — and the answer might surprise you.
"My first day as a kindergarten teacher was and is one of the most terrifying things I've done in my working life," the 31-year-old says. "Twenty-six buzzing five-year-olds with a one-minute attention span was enough to have me shaking in my teacher loafers.
"The first forest fire was a walk in the park compared to the kindergarten."
But both pursuits require leadership, fairness and the ability to make decisions and while most kindergarten teachers don't start their careers as elite Rapattack forest firefighters, he found his previous experience has helped him in his teaching life.
"The classroom is a team and we're working together and trying to get something done," Harrison said. "I think some of the skills I learned have helped me out in being far more open-minded and lot more well-rounded."
Born and raised in Edmonton where he was active in sports, it was Harrison's father who suggested Harrison pay his way through university by roping out of helicopters to fight fires. The Rapattack teams are one of many weapons the province employs to fight fires. Rapattack crews are typically dispatched by helicopter with their equipment to newly spotted fires to try and quickly get them under control before they grow.
Harrison had been going to university pursuing a degree in recreation administration when his father suggested a Rapattack summer job. In the summer of 2000, Harrison's dad dropped him off in Hinton for a four-week training course where he either had to prove himself or be sent home.
"We thought he would make it because he'd gone and really worked out and took it very seriously before it started," said father Glenn Harrison. "But he was pretty nervous about it."
"What I remember other than being completely terrified when my old man dropped me off, was feeling every day like it might be the last one there," Harrison said. While it's a civilian service, it was run in military fashion. Days started at 5:30 and involved not just learning to fast-rope, but orienteering, teamwork, physical training and some classroom time learning about fires. The recruits were constantly being evaluated and even sent home — some might be asked to leave after a week while others made it the month and were still sent home.
"There were a few times when he wondered if he could do it," said his mother Sherrill. "He would call and say he wasn't sure he could do this but we would just say stick with it, give it all you have and then you know you'll never have any regrets."
After passing the course, Harrison spent four summers on call 21 days at a time, ready to hop aboard a helicopter whenever a fire sprung up. He was trained to evaluate fires based on smoke columns, fast-rope into an area near the developing blaze and then direct attacks, even guiding the helicopter in on water-bomb runs.
But the job was only available during the summer. And while Harrison had been trying to avoid it, he felt a pull towards teaching. After completing his education degree – his parents had both been teachers – he ended up with an unexpected option — teaching kindergarten.
"I never thought I would teach kindergarten in my life. But I was keen on getting into the classroom and taking on challenges and I knew it would be a really big challenge for me and I felt really at ease with the kids."
Elmer S. Gish principal Duncan Knoll said it was obvious at the time of Harrison's interview that he was destined for kindergarten.
"I had some teachers who came to me — some very good teachers — and say, 'Duncan, you have to hire him because he's a better teacher than I am,'" Knoll said. "There was an urgency in their voice. I knew if he came to our school, he would make it a better place."
He is the only male kindergarten teacher in St. Albert — he knows that from professional development sessions. And he has thrived. Last year a group of parents nominated him as one of the top teachers in Canada in a contest in Canadian Family Magazine. Harrison finished in the top three.
Harrison has a special knack with both kids and parents, Knoll said, and has immersed himself in the entire K-9 community at Gish.
"I just think it takes a special talent to work with students at all age groups and he has that. We could see that in his interview. He brings a lot of energy to the school and, similar to his helicopter experience, every day with Derek is an adventure," Knoll said.
From juggling to talking in a cowboy twang to keeping a constantly updated website for parents, Harrison has thrown himself into his new career.
"[The award] spurred me on to realize that my parents telling me to always do your best means something and I think it means something to these people to see a teacher busting his butt to help kids learn."