Last week, Sharon Alefounder-Wait finished packing up her classroom at George Greenaway Elementary in Cloverdale, closing a much-beloved chapter in her life.
After a teaching career that spanned half a century, she had retired.
When the Reporter stopped by Alefounder-Wait’s classroom last Tuesday afternoon (June 26), she said she was emotional as she took down posters from bulletin boards and gave away teaching material she had been using during her 52 years of teaching — 31 of which were spent at George Greenaway. The decision to retire did not come easy for her.
“It’s hard. It’s hard,” she said.
“Basically, my knees started to give way a couple months ago. I looked at the X-ray for it, and it’s a lot of wear and tear.”
“I’m on my feet [all day]. And I can’t teach sitting down. I like to move around and walk and do all that. I’m a very active teacher.”
Activity is core to Alefounder-Wait’s teaching philosophy. Her students begin each morning with four laps around the school — which is a distance of around one kilometre — and time on the playground. Throughout the school day, they practice brain exercises, which also incorporate movement, to integrate thinking and refocus attentions on tasks.
When she got the news, “I thought, well, I am 72. And so I guess it’s time for me to say goodbye to this part.”
“I have always been a teacher,” she said. “So it will be interesting to see what my identity is when I’m not ‘The Teacher.’”
Alefounder-Wait grew up in a teacherage in Markinch, Saskatchewan, where her father taught grades 1 to 10. She remembers sneaking into the back of the classroom to “just watch and listen.”
“I didn’t know then that I was going to be a teacher, too,” she said.
Her own teaching career began at Newton Elementary in 1965 and ended at George Greenaway in 2018, but along the way she also taught in Prince Rupert, Coquitlam and Prince George.
She became a reading teacher at George Greenaway in 1987 and has been there ever since, working as a learning support teacher and a challenge teacher before returning to the classroom.
“Everyone said, ‘You’re crazy going back to the classroom at your late stage.’ I thought, ‘But here’s where the action is.’”
Alefounder-Wait has kept mementos from all her years as an educator. The photo of her first classroom in 1965 is not so different from the photo of her 2018 classroom. Fashion and hairstyles have changed, but the wide grins of her students are the same.
Alefounder-Wait points out children in both. She lights up when she talks about former students.
“It’s neat to influence lives,” she said.
She is looking forward to taking some time off, and having more time for personal projects. Alefounder-Wait, who lives in White Rock, said that for the first while after retirement, she plans to just relax at the beach.
She doesn’t think she’ll stop teaching, however. She may teach privately or consult, she may return to teaching workshops on critical thinking, or she may work as a counsellor for a single parent group at her church, Peace Portal Alliance.
The secret to her long career in teaching isn’t complicated. It’s all about balance.
“You’ll hear me say that word so often,” Alefounder-Wait said, laughing.
One of lessons she taught her students is the “seven dimensions of health and wellness.” The same lesson can be applied to anyone’s life, Alefounder-Wait said. “A teacher’s life, like anybody’s, needs to be balanced with all of these parts: physical, emotional, social, spiritual, occupational, environmental and intellectual.”
She was able to have such a long career because she didn’t devote all of her energy into her career — she dedicated time to the people around her as well. It gave her the strength to seek out other ways to balance her classroom.
In recent years, the balancing act has been with new technology and what Alefounder-Wait affectionately refers to as “old-fashioned ideas.”
Her students use electronics, such as iPads or computers, to research or assist in presentations. She also teaches them other ways to find and evaluate information, outside an online resource.
“I still have dictionaries.” She pointed to a set of well-worn dictionaries on a nearby shelf. “We don’t have a class set of iPads or computers. So if you want to look up a word, what do you do?”
Finding her balance, both inside and outside of the classroom, has allowed her to nurture her love of her work. Her advice to the many graduates just beginning their careers is to find their passion, which may or may not be teaching.
“I’ve watched teachers that have that passion. They come in here and it’s not a job. I think that’s the difference. This has never been a job for me.”
“If [your passion] is teaching, do it, and you’ll love it, and you can do it as long as I’ve been doing it,” she said.