By Candide Uyanze
On July 14, 2017, at the Canadian Teachers’ Federation’s (CTF) Annual General Meeting (AGM) in Ottawa, Heather Smith signed the documents which officially declared the changeover from her role as President of the CTF onto H. Mark Ramsankar. Smith, a former New Brunswick principal and elementary teacher of 35 years, served her term as President from 2015 to 2017.
A week before the end of her term, Smith agreed to an interview reflecting upon her presidency, career, and life.
Uyanze: Tell us about your upbringing.
Smith: I am the youngest of three children born to two parents who were inspiring role models of community service. My father and brother are both inductees into sports halls of fame, my father at the provincial level and my brother at the municipal, for their years of work in organization of various sports. My parents were volunteers on school boards, municipal councils, our church and a myriad of volunteer boards. It only seemed natural that I would also get involved in volunteering and in my case it was, for the large part, within my profession.
Almost 40 years ago, I was diagnosed with Stage 4 Lymphoma and underwent a year of both chemotherapy and radiation treatments. At 18 years old, it had a profound impact on my university career and on my outlook on life. I am fortunate that my family had the means for monthly travel from New Brunswick to Toronto for treatment and that my mother was able to put her life on hold to be with me on the vast majority of these trips. As a result of this experience, I really don’t ‘sweat the small stuff’! I appreciate the time I have been given to live my life and that has had impact on the choices I have made.
My mother has been a great role model for my sister and me. My sister was President of the Canadian Physiotherapy Association and we both give credit to our mother for having the confidence to take on any challenge with which she was presented. My mother was a journalist for the two provincial papers in New Brunswick in a time when most news reporters were male, but that did not deter her from pursuing the career she had chosen. My sister and I never felt we were less capable than our brother and we were inspired by the role model that our mother was and still is, actually. My mother is 87 and she still golfs, plays badminton and writes the odd news story for her church or the Bathurst Branch of the New Brunswick Scottish Cultural Association.
Uyanze: Describe your professional path.
Smith: I returned to Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax once I was in remission and completed my Bachelor of Child Study in 1982 with majors in Elementary and Special Education. I accepted a Grade 4 teaching position in the small village of McAdam where I met my husband and had the first two of our three children. Interestingly, I was told by doctors at the Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto that, due to the location of my radiation treatments, I would not be able to have children! I taught in McAdam for seven years before moving to my hometown of Bathurst in northeast NB.
I was a substitute teacher for two years before being hired to teach Kindergarten in the first year this grade was introduced to the NB education system. I taught Kindergarten as a solo teacher with a class of 27 children and as a team of two teachers with 52 five-year-olds. I loved team teaching and continued to seek other such opportunities.
My Principal suggested that I apply for the Leadership training offered by my School District and little did I know the impact this choice would have on my professional trajectory. This training boosted my confidence in my abilities as a teacher leader and provided me great opportunities.
I completed two years of distance education, studying and completing assignments while still teaching full time, and in 2006, was presented with a Master of Education in Literacy from Mount Saint Vincent University.
While working towards my Master degree, I was offered an eight-week Acting Principal position for a Principal on medical leave and found that I loved the balance of teaching and leading a team of educators. Over the next 13 years, I held Acting Vice-Principal and Principal positions and was Principal of a small rural school where I was able to teach and be administrator. After 35 years of teaching, I am retiring with no regrets.
Uyanze: What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
Smith: I enjoy reading, playing cards, being near the ocean and really spending as much time with family as I can.
Uyanze: How did you get involved with CTF?
Smith: As President of NBTA from 2011-13, I was a member of the CTF Board of Directors. My interest in and awareness of the work of CTF went back to the six years before 2011, when I was a member of the NBTA Board of Directors, and the two years I was NBTA Vice-President.
I never had any intention of running for office in either NBTA or CTF but was encouraged by colleagues to do so. When we are presented with opportunities, the choices we make determine our career path. I was offered the possibility of running for the opportunity to represent fellow teachers because others saw leadership potential in me. I have never seen myself as a politician but, because others had confidence in my abilities, I put myself forward. I haven’t always won but it was never about me winning: it was about me putting myself forward as a choice for those voting. I still had a job that I loved, teaching and administrating at my school.
Uyanze: When you first started your term, what was your objective, what were your goals?
Smith: I have to honestly say that I didn’t have any goals other than to represent the high ideals of CTF on both a national and international stage. I wanted to develop a greater awareness in Canadian teachers of what CTF does on their behalf and what CTF has to offer to them as an individual teacher. I attempted to present myself as a classroom teacher with no greater abilities or skills than they each had and to encourage them to consider representing their colleagues as well.
Uyanze: Do you feel like you’ve accomplished that?
Smith: I’d like to think I have. In every speech I delivered I tried to be down to earth and to be down to earth to the listeners. I presented myself as a teacher first whether speaking within Canada or internationally because that is how I think of myself. I believe that the position of CTF President is less about me and more about how I can leverage my position to improve the daily lives of teachers and children in Canada.
Uyanze: How has the move from New Brunswick affected your family?
Smith: Two of my children had already begun their careers, as an Optometrist and a Museum Curator and my youngest was already away from home working towards her degree in Youth and Child Studies. My husband was able to work from home in Ottawa so there was not a huge impact on our family. However, our son left home for university after graduating from high school in 2001 and over the next 12 years he only spent a week in the summer and one at Christmas with us. He lives here in Ottawa so my involvement in CTF both as a Board member and as President has allowed us to spend more time with him and get to know him as an adult and not just as our son.
Uyanze: What are your fondest memories as President of the CTF?
Smith: I loved working at CTF as the organization undertakes somewhat of a transformation under the capable leadership of Cassie Hallett, Secretary General. The CTF staff is committed and a real pleasure to work with. I have enjoyed meeting all the teachers in the Member organizations of CTF on their ‘home turf’. I loved being immersed in the culture of each organization and listening to the debate on the issues that are important to them. It is the people that I have met that I enjoyed most.
I have also enjoyed representing Canadian teachers internationally. Again, it is the people you meet and get to work with that invoke the fondest memories.
Uyanze: How did you find this experience?
Smith: I thoroughly enjoy learning. It is a huge step to move from talking about what you know—the education system in my own province of New Brunswick— to learning the files that CTF works on at the national and international level. I liked having to learn more about how the federal government operates and how best to strategize to achieve our goals.
Uyanze: If you could go back in time and talk to yourself at the beginning of your term, what would you say?
Smith: Strive to be more organized! Keep more lists! Be more aggressive with follow-up after initial meetings with federal politicians, civil servants and other national organizations.
Uyanze: Do you feel like you’ve changed since the beginning of your term? If so, how?
Smith: I don’t really feel like I’ve changed… at least I hope I haven’t. I think of myself as a very down to earth person and I hope that being in this position has not changed that. Personally I feel more confident talking with those I do not know but that is not a change, really.
Uyanze: Is there anything you would do differently?
Smith: I don’t think I would change anything except that I would love to be in this position at CTF for a little bit longer. I am sure that every person in this position would say the same thing but I really feel that in my second year as President, I have developed some relationships that I would love to have the opportunity to deepen for the benefit of CTF. I also feel that CTF is entering a time of great opportunity in relation to its relationship with the federal government and I would love to be part of that.
Uyanze: Do you have any words of advice for the next President?
Smith: Be organized and keep lists. Follow up on meetings. Put CTF first for the two years you are in this position. Always take the high road. Remember that this is not about you as President but is about advocating for what is best for the Canadian teachers we represent and for the children they teach. For the two years you are President, you have no personal public opinions; your public views are those of the organization and you need to listen to the advice of the CTF staff.
Uyanze: What will you miss the most?
Smith: I will miss the people, those I have met through my time as President and those with whom I have worked closely with here at CTF. I will miss the fast pace of the position and the opportunity to have a positive impact for Canadian teachers, students and education.
Uyanze: What is next for you?
Smith: I will retire as of July 31st and move back to the Maritimes. I have lived most of my life in New Brunswick but we just bought a condo this spring in Nova Scotia, on the Northumberland Strait, and I look forward to seeing many sunsets over the ocean. I also look forward to seeing many fewer sunrises! My husband is a teacher as well and we have always said how we would look to teach overseas when we retire, so who knows? That just might be in our future too! We love to travel, so I’m sure we will visit many new countries in the coming years. I know I will look for volunteer opportunities in my new community because that is what I was brought up doing and what I have always done.
Editor’s note: Interview responses have been edited for length and clarity.
(Candide Uyanze worked as a communications assistant during the summer of 2017)