Special to Peace Arch News
Long-retired Surrey teacher Kay Mitchell still has students who she taught in the 1940s and ’50s come up to her on the street and ask, “Are you, by any chance, Miss Crook?”
That was her name at the time. Many of them are now in their 80s and they thank her for making a difference in their lives.
With the Ocean Park resident’s 96th birthday just around the corner – on Jan. 12 – Mitchell’s memories of those early years remain sharp.
When the young teacher, only one year out of Normal School in Saskatchewan, arrived at Tynehead Elementary in January 1942, she found herself the principal of a two-room school with no electricity, no telephone, no indoor plumbing and the only heat coming from a large heater in the middle of the room that had to be fed wood throughout the day. Her charges, over 40 in number, were in the intermediate grades – four, five and six – while another teacher taught the early grades in the other classroom.
“It was quite a task to teach three grades and remember to stoke the fire,” Mitchell wrote in Tynehead Memories in 1982.
Large stove pipes hung over the children’s heads, and on one occasion, a pipe came crashing down, fortunately missing the children.
Today, Mitchell remembers she was paid $850 for the year, with no teachers’ association or union to help. (The pay was a step up from her first year of teaching, on a farm in Saskatchewan, where her wage was to be $40 per month. “They paid me one month and they still owe me the rest of it,” she laughed. “I was so glad to get out.”)
Those days at Tynehead were no picnic for the students either. Towards the end of a darkening afternoon in the winter months, it was hard for the children to see the blackboard or do their work. The lack of proper lighting also made it almost impossible for Mitchell to read to the children, something she liked to finish the day with and which she felt was so important for those children who had no books at home.
It was a part of the day the children looked forward to.
The bigger boys were tasked with carrying pails of water into the school from the well in front, and helped bring in the firewood. Some of the children – those who lived less than three miles from the school – had to walk to and from school in all kinds of weather. They were not eligible for the school bus.
Of course, in the early-1940s, the country was at war and the school was required to carry out air-raid drills. The children had to practise hiding in ditches along the route home. They were greatly upset by the sudden departure of a popular Japanese family, already relocated from Steveston, and forced to move again, into the Interior of the province.
“I had to explain to the class why this was happening to their newfound friends. It was difficult,” Mitchell remembers, “especially when I was uncertain myself.”
In the spring of 1943, Mitchell was asked if she would like to transfer to Cloverdale Elementary. But she was very fond of the children in her charge at Tynehead and turned down the offer. She was transferred anyway.
“During the summer, I learned from an item in the local newspaper that I was the principal of the Cloverdale school. And that was that!”
Conditions at Cloverdale were better than in Tynehead, although there still was no telephone in the school.
“In an emergency, I had to go to the janitor’s home nearby and use their phone,” she said.
On another occasion, a young girl fell on the school grounds and broke her arm. Having neither a phone nor a car, Mitchell had to walk her to the nearest doctor’s office.
When Mitchell started at Cloverdale Elementary, there were five teachers in all. Being the principal was only a part of the job. She continued teaching the intermediate grades, with classes of at least 40 children.
“I took my turn supervising the students at recess and lunchtimes, and I often had to take over a class at the last minute when a teacher didn’t show up,” she said.
Not too many substitute teachers were on call at that time. Mitchell remembers setting up a softball league for the children with other nearby Surrey schools, and supplying them herself with a ball and a bat.
She continued as principal and teacher at Cloverdale until June 1952, when she took on new teaching jobs, first in Victoria at Gordon Head School, and then in Prince George, where she substituted for a friend who was on maternity leave.
Mitchell took a hiatus from teaching for two years, feeling a burnout from having to contend with what she felt was administrative mismanagement.
“I was just so fed up with the administration and school board,” she said. “The boss man couldn’t make a decision and all he was doing was filling in his time.
“We (referring to herself and elementary supervisor Betty Huff) decided enough is enough. We two were paid much less than these men.”
But teaching was in Mitchell’s blood. In fact, it was a family tradition. Her mother, an aunt and grandfather were teachers, and a great aunt, although blind, had taught school in Chicago for 35 years.
“I don’t remember ever wanting to do anything but teach,” she said. “When I was a child I would line up my playmates with workbooks and act as the teacher.”
So when, in 1956, she was offered the position of intermediate grades supervisor for the Surrey School District, Mitchell decided to return to the profession. She supervised some 50 intermediate-grades teachers in Surrey schools over the next 10 years, before retiring in 1967, and marrying that December.
Asked what she considers the most important skills or traits a teacher should have, Mitchell said connecting with students is key.
“Getting to know and understand the children. You watch their eyes – that will tell you whether or not you have their interest, whether you are making contact.
“You must be willing to switch gears, constantly adjust your approach to find what will make the connection. Change the subject,” she added.
Mount Baker, she noted, “saved me many times when I had lost the children’s interest.”
Mitchell had a good view of the majestic mountain from her classroom in Cloverdale, and when she felt she was losing the students, she would gather them at the window to gaze on the mountain and share their ideas about what climbing that peak would feel like.
After all these years, Mitchell still misses the children and wonders what life has brought them. She remembers fondly the boy at Tynehead who offered to share his lunch with her when she admitted she didn’t care for the sardine sandwich her landlady had made for her; and the class mischief-maker that she managed to win over by tending to his scraped knee.
“So many children and so many stories,” she said. “And I learned so much from them.”
Sylvia Crooks is a Vancouver resident and author who met Kay Mitchell about 25 years ago, through Mitchell’s sister.
– with files from Tracy Holmes