Speech by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at Elementary Teachers of Toronto Federation Day 2016
December 2, 2016
Thanks to all of you for being here today, and thanks for inviting me to join you.
It’s a real pleasure to be part of such a special day. Every time I have a chance to share with teachers, it’s a good day for me.
Actually, I just visited a classroom last week during a trip to Liberia and while there were some pretty interesting takeaways, I’m hoping maybe we can dig in to those during the Q&A, although I’ll say there was not a lot of ‘guide on the side’ in the teaching in a Liberian elementary school. But speaking of ‘sage on the stage,’ I won’t talk for too long at this podium because I want to make sure that we have plenty of time for questions. You know, that’s what it’s all about. (Applause) Yes, including questions about pipelines, I’m sure. After all, having a conversation is a much better way for us to learn about each other. (Cheers) But first, I’d like to say a few words about the influence that teaching has had on my life and about how that experience allowed me to become the person I am today.
You know, one thing I was asked to talk about today was why I stopped being a teacher. And to be honest with you, I had a hard time coming up with the answer, because in my mind, I haven’t stopped being a teacher. I think… (Applause) I think that, like most of you, I’ll identify as a teacher for the rest of my life. It’s an essential part of who I am and how I engage with the world every single day. So with that, I thought I’d tell you a little bit about my own journey. When I was a kid, I felt a tremendous amount of pressure to follow in my dad’s footsteps, which, you know, you might imagine, except what was interesting about it as I look back is the pressure didn’t come from my dad or from anyone around me, it really came from me. I just assumed that I’d get top marks in class, I’d go into law school, I’d, you know, work for a while and then I’d end up going into politics just like him.
But then, I reached my late teens and I had to face the fact – and it was fairly difficult – that his path just wasn’t mine. It was a tough time because I had to realign my own sense of self and try and figure out if that wasn’t my path, well, what was my path? And that’s when I began to realize that my path was going to be through teaching. I mean, I had loved being a camp counsellor and a peer tutor in school. I’d had some great teachers who deeply inspired me and of course, some lousy teachers that I kept wanting to jump up and do a better job, in front of the class then. Plus I just couldn’t imagine myself in any office job stuck from nine to five. I needed diverse intellectual challenges. I needed to interact and connect with people in different ways and in different settings.
And one other thing. I was the eldest child and I later learned that most teachers apparently are first-borns, which certainly fit within my family experience. But I was never actually sure it was true. So we’ve got about 5,000 teachers here. Can all the first-borns put up their hands? Okay. Hang on. Hang on. Let’s check. Can all the non-first-borns teachers put up their hands? You know what? I think the first-borns have it by a smidgen, but that’s totally non-scientific.
See, what was most exciting about it for me was that my decision to become a teacher was mine. It was uniquely my path, not my dad’s, not my mom’s or anyone else’s. Or so I thought, because as it turned out, I told my Aunt Heather, who was a teacher… and a first-born. She said, “Oh, Justin, that’s wonderful. You know, you come from a long line of teachers all the way back to Scotland.” So, it wasn’t unique necessarily, but it wasn’t my dad, which was the important thing for me.
So I started my B. Ed at McGill and I finished it at UBC and I ended up teaching in British Columbia for about five years. I trained in the middle years’ math program. I ended up teaching everything from kindergarten French to grade 12 law in private schools, in public schools, wherever I could find a job. You guys know how it is. And I actually – and this will be a surprise to some and not at all a surprise to others – I actually loved my years as a substitute teacher. (Cheers) Yeah. I mean, think about it. You get new challenges every day, not so much in the way of having to plan lessons, no report cards, no parents to deal with, you know, fun for a while, but then you know, you really wanted to sink your teeth into a particular class.
I was glad the way it worked out. But the one thing that I learned, and one of my keys to success as classroom management as a sub, was something that, yes, serves me extremely well even to this day, an ability to learn names quickly and smoothly. You know, sneaking into the classroom early, watching the kids how they file in and realize, oh, there’s a sub. You watch them use their names with each other and you surprise them in the first five minutes by saying, Johnny, would you please sit down. How did they know my name?
It freaks them out for the rest of the morning and you got them. But, the real way that being a teacher helps me every day as a politician is more than just party tricks. It’s deeper than that. A good teacher fundamentally is not someone who has all the answers and doles them out to the kids from the front of a class. A good teacher is someone who gets their kids to figure out the answers for themselves, who empowers them, who recognizes their individual challenges and strengths and brings out the best in them. (Applause)
So as a PM, I’m always asking how I can help create the conditions for Canadians to succeed. How can I empower citizens to overcome challenges and obstacles? How do I give the necessary boost to those who need a little more help and appropriately challenge our best to be even better? So, you know, because I have to say it, the next time a rival politician decides it’s a good idea to run an attack ad against me, saying that I’m just a teacher, damn right I’m just a teacher, so you watch out! (Cheers & applause)
See, teaching for me has always been a process of interaction, of engagement, of constant learning and challenging myself and others, which is why I’m looking forward to stepping away from the podium very shortly and getting into what I know will be a great conversation. But I want to leave you with a few parting thoughts.
When I was a kid, I asked my dad if being prime minister made him the boss of all Canadians. (Laughter) He smiled and told me that I had it backwards and that instead, all Canadians were his boss. Well, I didn’t quite get that at the time, but I started to understand it when I became a teacher. You see, for all that we teachers get to be the authority in our classrooms, teachers have many bosses, administrators, the school board, the community, parents, the kids themselves. But ultimately, when you think about it, a teacher’s responsibility is to something much more intangible – much more noble. Teachers are ultimately accountable to the future that our students will inhabit, to the world they will create through what they learned from all of you.
See, great teachers always remember that they are ultimately accountable to the society that will be shaped by the students they teach. So... (Cheers & applause) ...of course, making sure that your students walk away understanding how to add fractions or make a presentation on a book they read, of course, that stuff is important. But just as important or even more important is making sure that those same students can walk away with respect for their peers and for themselves, can emphasize… (Applause)… can empathize with those who are different, to have a desire to contribute to their communities with bold ambitions for their future. Now, to be a teacher is a privilege of course, but it’s also a huge responsibility. The weight of your task isn’t light, but I think you all know that. From your first day as an eager young substitute to your last day as a familiar face within familiar walls, you know that what you choose to do in this job can and will change lives, whether you’re putting in extra time at lunch to help a struggling student with math, or hanging out with a shy kid at recess, or pushing a promising young athlete to aim higher, jump farther or throw faster. Your words and your actions will last a lifetime.
Thank you for your commitment, your passion and your vision of a better world. You give not only of your time, you give your compassion, you give your service and you give the very best of yourselves. So, from one teacher to many, many others, thank you. Remember that we’re all in this together. So stay hopeful, stay inspired and keep working hard, not only for the good of our students, but for the good of our country.
Thanks very much, my friends. (Cheers & applause)