Instant messaging between historic figures, interviewing Veterans and rewriting songs from an Aboriginal perspective, beloved Chemainus Secondary School teacher Janet Ruest is being recognized with an award from the Prime Minister’s Office for her innovative approach to education.
The Grade 9-12 social studies, history and law teacher is among twenty educators from across Canada who are receiving a Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence.
Specifically, Ruest is being honoured with a Certificate of Excellence – a lifetime achievement award which carries a $1,000 prize.
She received news of the announcement while in France for the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge last month with fellow SD79 teacher Jennifer Bailey but had to keep it secret until only recently.
“It’s humbling and a huge honour,” she told the Chronicle. “There are teachers in my district and in our province who are doing fabulous things that don’t get any recognition and that’s the sad part….that would be my message, we are doing great things and let’s put ourselves out there there to get this recognition to show some of things that we’re doing in our classrooms are pretty spectacular.”
Ruest is adamant about bringing the community into her classroom and making the teaching environment feel less isolated.
In the past students have interviewed and researched the experiences of Veterans, and met with Aboriginal elders, members of parliament, biologists, North Cowichan Mayor Jon Lefebure and the Chemainus Residents Association among others.
“We really are bringing in the community so the kids get the sense that we are really part of the community,” she said.
Her students have also participated in mock parliaments, built Habitat for Humanity homes and done rain forest reforestation in Costa Rica. This July she is leading a 10-day tour in Italy that will visit major historical sites including Venice and Pompeii.
“My core philosophy is that the students should never look at the world the same way after being in my class,” she said. “I try and really get them to really smell it, and hear it, and feel it and see it.”
In 2015, Ruest was selected along with 35 others from a applicant pool of 2,700 to travel to the Galapagos Islands aboard Lindblad Endeavour for 10 days and write a daily travel blog published by National Geographic.
The same year she also won an Innovation in Geography Teaching Award from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society as well as a Government of Canada History Award for a lesson plan called ‘Historical Dilemma: Who was the greatest Canadian Prime Minister?’
Chemainus Secondary School Principal Sian Peterson said she sees Ruest having an “incredible impact” on all of her students.
“She is a very gifted educator with exceptional abilities and skills,” she said. “The idea is, we want you to grow up to be a proud Canadian and she just wants to bring history and the global issues to life and make them real and not stick within the walls of the classroom.”
For Ruest it was her social studies teacher Thelma Brooks at Parkland Secondary who sparked her own interest in travel and teaching.
“She had travelled and she brought those experiences back to the classroom and I thought oh my gosh there is so much more out there than these four walls – that inspired me,” she said. “I went into teaching to try and make a different for kids.”
A proud moment for Ruest came a few years back when students interviewed Veterans belonging to Chemainus Legion Branch 191 and compiled their memories, research as well as a current photo and one from the war into a booklet, paid for by the local parents association.
“The kids really liked that and again it’s making that connection with the community and our students and the curriculum,” she said.
She also encouraged her students to fundraise for the Juno Beach Centre prior to it opening in 2003 and even ran into two former students while on her most recent trip to France.
“I have sand from Juno Beach that after we talk about the importance of the D-Day invasion, and what Canadians accomplished and how the Belgians and the Dutch and French still feel toward Canadians, then I say ‘hold your hands out, you can hold in your hand where heroes walked’ and I tap a bit of Juno Beach sand on their hand.”
Outside of Chemainus Secondary, Ruest is an avid traveller and has attended the Teacher’s Institute on Parliamentary Democracy, was a member of a pilot preparatory program for Chinese students considering education in Canada and keeps a regular blog of all her adventures.
“If the kids see that you’re excited about something most of them will come along with you for the ride and if you stop, they’ll keep going,” Ruest said.