Interview with Emma Russell


We would like to thank Emma for giving us a picture of teaching Special Needs students in Alberta and Manitoba before coming to Prince George.

Special thanks also to Amy Dawley for the transcript of the taped interview and to Clare Willis for the final revision.

Thanks also to Ernie Kaesmodel of the Prince George Oral History Group for his help in producing this transcript. He has provided many instructional courses and samples of the requirements for producing an oral history.

The Heritage Committee of the Prince George Branch of the British Columbia Retired Teachers Association will be holding a copy of the original tape of this interview and a copy of the transcript. The Prince George Library and the library of the University of Northern British Columbia will also have copies.

I am Jeanne Anderson of the Prince George Oral History Group and the BC Retired Teachers' Association, Prince George Branch, Heritage group doing oral history. This morning, May the 2 7th, 2002, l am interviewing Emma Russell, who was one of our original founding members in 1986 and also became our first active life member in 1998. Emma has had a lot of experience. I call her the Traveler of the Western Provinces. She's done education, her own education, and teaching education in Manitoba, Alberta, and British Columbia. She came to British Columbia in 1967, so I guess perhaps a lot other work was in British Columbia and she is a member of our Retired Teachers' Association.

Good morning Emma. Would you like to tell us a little bit about your early life; I believe you were born in Alberta?

I was born in Calgary, Alberta on October 29fl, 1912. My mother was an American from Chicago, where my father went to law school. I began school in High River living with my grandparents because Didsbury, where we lived, had a rule you must be six by September opening. By November I transferred back to Didsbury where my family was. I was the third in a family of six. After grade three, the top three students were moved to grade five. The grade four had forty-three seats and forty-six students. It was not a good move. Many after school sessions when I was kept in while the teacher gave me special lessons in math. I did make it to grade six with the class, but barely managed to pass. The next year the whole class missed grade six, no, we missed grade seven. Same problem, seating. It was not uncommon then as many students quit before grade eight. Departmental exams weeded the class, who moved to grade nine.

A twelve-year-old student in a class of fourteen-year-olds was a social disaster. Then in May we moved to Innisfail and Departmental exams for me were a disaster. I wrote four and passed two.

High School always two subjects behind until grade eleven when I took two subjects by correspondence and despite having a bad case of quinsy, wrote and passed all eleven subjects. The principal who had a car, a rarity, drove me to school for each exam and when I was done took me home. My parents decided at seventeen I'd be too young to go away for further education. So grade twelve subjects plus French two and three and Geography and History of English Literature were added to my courses. I started Normal, in a IA class.

In 1929 the stock market crash changed our family's plans. We had hoped my two older brothers and I would join my father in his law practice. Instead one went to Normal on a government grant of $300. Next brother elected to go to business college to become a secretary and I went to Camrose Normal helped by the government grant. I started in class IA, which was the senior class, and there were four B classes, all of whom had grade eleven standing while I had grade twelve.

In 1931 it was not a good year to be looking for a school. Every school was swamped with applications. The wage of $840 a year looked good but in farm communities where teachers "boarded around" as farmers paid their taxes by having teachers stay in their homes, and often it meant sharing a room and bed with a son or daughter. Frequently the wage wasn't fully paid. After a year some districts owed two or three hundred dollars in wages. One teacher I know, who graduated the year after I did, never got her final $250 until she went to university after serving in the Wrens during the war.

>My school was ten miles from town. My boarding place was one mile along a line fence from the school. A grade eight student was janitor and frequently we both arrived at the same time to an icy classroom. The big barrel heater took at least two hours to heat the school, but by four o'clock in the afternoon the heat was often unbearable.

The children took turns bringing milk to school and water was boiled on a plate over the barrel stove. All winter long there was hot cocoa to go with their lunches.

My teaching experience began with nineteen students in grade one to eight but no grade six students. Never having been in a country school until Practice Teaching at Easter the previous year, I felt at a loss on how to draw up a daily plan. In a fairly short time I felt reasonably sure I had things under control.

Up to that time I had never seen a retarded child. That year one of the cleanest, neatest families I ever taught had four children in school in September. The eldest was in grade four. She listened carefully as I explained long division and seemed satisfied when I left her an assignment and went on to the other students. Next day not one answer was correct and she had no clue as to what we had done the day before. This went on for a month. I'd teach her one day and reteach the next. At that point I thought it was my fault for not explaining it correctly. I went to visit the parents at their home. A beautifully clean home and farm. After a tea, the father and I went to see his stock. I asked how many horses he had and he told me he had four and showed me his two teams. He also took me to see his cows which he said were "two sixes of cows". His pigs were "four sixes" of pigs and his chickens were "six sixes of six" of chickens. The man could not comprehend numbers beyond six, but he was a successful farmer.

That took away my feelings of guilt about my grade four girl. Her three sisters were somewhat more able to cope with grades one, two, and three. The District had a policy of no child starting school till age six. Therefore I had two beginners in September, one in January, and two at Easter. The Easter ones were one extremely bright little boy, and the brother of my grade four problem child who had problems.

That must have been a very great experience for a beginning teacher to wind up. They could have families who all have numerical problems. How was their reading? Were they able to read?

Yes, everything was slow, you know what I mean. You had to re-reteach.

Where was this school Emma?

It was in Buffalo Creek, seven miles from--ten miles from Innisfail, where we lived.

All in all it was an interesting year. Not too successful according to the inspector, who recommended that I not be rehired, as my grade eight student would be taking grade nine and he felt I was not capable of teaching him as well as the other grades.

Next fall I had no school, but for six weeks I was hired in Innisfail to be assistant for a very well-qualified grade one teacher who had forty beginners to cope with.

In November, on the strength of my teaching certificate, I was hired by the Alberta Department of Health as Playground Supervisor and craft teacher. It meant working split hours. Eight to twelve in the morning in the playground, one to three in the playground, three to four on crafts, and seven to eight in the evening in the gym.

I took mental courses in mental nursing seven days a week from eight to ten pm. There at the Provincial Training School in Red Deer, Alberta, I learned first hand of the problems faced both by retarded children and those who tried to teach them something, which stood me in good stead in later years.

In 1935 1 married and moved to Flin Flon, Manitoba, where my husband worked. Two years later we were back in Red Deer where Don's father wanted to retire from his candy business. He had been one of Canada's first candy makers. We bought him out and spent long hours making and selling candy until the war in 1939 forced us to close up shop because we could no longer buy sugar or peanuts.

What was your married name then Emma?

I had been Emma Freeman, but I married Don Russell, and his father has been a candy-maker in St. John, New Brunswick and at one point was in partnership with what he called "Old Man Ganong". Mr. Ganong made the coatings, Mr. Russell made the fillings, and then he moved to Red Deer in 1913.

Don had to search for jobs and found one in Sheridan, Manitoba, which was considerably further north than Flin Flon and east of it. Don worked in the mine there and I stayed home with our children. It was a good move; most of the miners had young families and everyone enjoyed reasonable prosperity.

It is doubtful if I'd ever have gone back to teaching, but in 1946 with my daughter in grade two there was no teacher for her classroom. The war had taken a lot of them. The official trustee and inspector both came to the house to persuade me to go to work. They promised to accept my Alberta Interim Certificate and get Manitoba to honor it and issue a certificate for me. So I accepted.

It was a three-room school. I had grades one and two with fifty-two pupils, eighteen grade two, thirty-four grade one. It made for a crowded room. When winter came, frequently there was one-half inch of frost four feet up on the wall despite the furnace going full blast. Lots of work was done with boots, gloves, and parkas on. The children were a diverse group: Metis, farm children who only came until spring work could be done on the farm and then left, some very bright youngsters and some badly retarded. For two years I taught there, then quit to have a baby and work on our mink ranch because Don had been found with silicosis and had to get out from underground.

During the war the teacher shortage became even more acute. In 1952 and '54 1 was back in the classroom, as principal this time. Salary $110 a month. Grades one, two, and three, thirty pupils, one half the subjects in grade seven, eight, and nine..eleven students. The other teacher had grades four, five, and six and the other subjects in grade seven, eight, and nine.

Between us we had seventy-nine pupils most of the year. We needed eighty to have a third teacher. At one point there were eighty-four students, but before a teacher could be found, a farm family with six children moved back to Saskatchewan. I worked from six am to six pm because I refused to take work home.

A complete change of teaching began in 1954. Sherritt Gordon moved the town, houses, banks, and other assorted buildings, to Lynn Lake, a distance of over a hundred miles during the winter over frozen lakes with "cat" swings.

Would you like to tell me what a "cat" swing is?

A "cat" swing consisted of one or two large caterpillar tractors with a bank, a house, whatever they were moving, a school moving to Lynn Lake. And they went over the ice after it was solid enough for them to go. Don cooked on one of the "cat" swings.

With my older children in grades nine and eleven I had to make a move. The inspector gave me a choice of Churchill, Manitoba or The Pas, Manitoba. I chose The Pas because it was further south and I started there in the Mary Duncan School with a class of twenty slow-learners. My inspector felt that was the best choice for both students and I.

Five years later the School Division decided to have an experimental class of culturally deprived children. With eighteen children, Metis, children from immigrant families, and children who dropped behind their classes due to illness, it was a real challenge and very interesting. All were tested from three different school areas. Their ages were from six to ten, one was a native boy who had never attended school.

The time the children stayed in the class varied from two weeks to the whole year and as one child was ready for placement back in his regular class, another would come to mine. One incident I remember well as it shows clearly you can't fool even small children about class placements.

In Sheridan I had taught a girl in grade eight. She married a railway man in The Pas. One day her six-year-old son burst in after school with papers in his hand and in tears shouted, "Teach me this damned stuff or I'll be sent to that Russell's class." The mother could hardly wait till I was home to phone me.

In 1967, when my husband had been working in Prince George for two years as a carpenter, I'd had enough of people not believing I was married and applied for a job at Winton School. I had spent the summer here in 1965 and liked what I heard and saw of the approach to helping slow learners.

As a result I was hired to work under Dale Fiddick, the principal of the school in a class of grades one and two retarded to slow learners. There was little difference to what I had been doing, but much more school district support.

When circumstances changed and the school was moved to where Duchess Park High School had been, and an open area for teaching was put in place. In theory it was a good idea, but easily distracted slow learners it was far from ideal. It was frustrating to be working with a group only to find one half of the children were watching another class. All the teachers there had the same problem and we always tried to do the same type of activity at the same time. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't.

After four years, Mr. Lunn, the supervisor, asked if I would move to Aurora School as they were having a problem getting staff there. The children there were generally much more handicapped mentally, and in many ways easier to teach as they tried very hard to please. Occasional disruptive behavior was both expected and coped with when it happened.

Two years later the problem was to get qualified staff for remedial teaching at Central Fort George. Once more, Mr. Lunn approached me and promised there would be support given tome until I was comfortable giving and assessing tests. Two psychologists, Verne Brown and Clint Buhr, did the teaching of the teacher, so I could handle this.

The work was different and more challenging. Some youngsters, through illness or other reasons, had been away from school when basic concepts of math, reading, or phonics were taught. These children came to my room four to five times a week for intensive work in their weak areas. Some were ready to stay full time in their regular classroom in two weeks. Others took much longer. There was never a time when some children didn't need help. The principal, Clint Buhr, helped when testing and teaching produced an overload.

My formal teaching training was not just Normal School and the help I had from Mr. Buhr and Verne Brown. All through the years when I was teaching I took extra summer courses dealing with slow learners. Example, the Marianne Frostig Program, which taught children the different parts of their own bodies and how to cope with the world around them. In The Pas I took university correspondence courses until I had second year standing.

Not ready yet. Now, okay.

In 1978 it was time to retire. With regret I left the job I had learned to love.

I had no personal honors or awards given me, but felt rewarded when my son received his Bachelor of Pedagogy from the University of Manitoba and my daughter placed in the top quarter in her class when she qualified for her R.N. in Winnipeg.

The closest I came to being recognized for my teaching was when Mary Bletcher, a reporter from the Winnipeg Tribune singled me out at the Provincial Executive meeting for an interview and wrote my story as the 'Ungraded' teacher for ungraded is Manitoba's 'Vanier of the North'.

I have always belonged to a professional organization since I first taught. In The Pas I served as president, secretary, and pensions representative.

In 1964 The Pas branch of Manitoba Teachers' Society elected me to be on the Provincial Executive. There for three years, I held the title of Chairman of the Leadership Committee. ‘Was always amused at that because though the work of the committee dealt with educational issues, I had the least training of anyone on the Executive. Most of the rest were university grads and principals. In 1959 the Canadian College of Teachers was getting organized. Though I had no university degree, I was allowed to join that prestigious organization and remained a member until I retired.

Because I had a daughter, whom I felt deserved the knowledge of club activities in Sheridan and The Pas, I led C.G.I.T. groups and Girl Guides. I taught and supervised Sunday Schools in both towns and belonged to women's groups in the United Church.

One thing I am always glad I had the opportunity to do was work with immigrants under the Department of Citizenship and Immigration. For two years twice a week a group of Chinese, Ukrainian, Serbians, and other nationalities met in The Pas schools in the evenings.

Then for two years the nuns in St. Anthony's Hospital, who were mainly French, had me go to the hospital at nights to help them with their English, and they were a varied group. The head seamstress, probably seventy-five years old, the chief operating nurse in her forties, and the dietician, their “baby”, at twenty years. The others were nursing staff. It was a very satisfying experience as they were so grateful to have me there for them.

When I started teaching it was with regret that I learned I couldn't go into law with my father. As the years passed I became absorbed with the problems faced by learning-handicapped children and those who helped them. Prince George offered much support to these children and it was a privilege to be allowed to teach in their school.

From my own experience in school and my observations of children in the classroom I have two thoughts. One, it is not wise to push a child above their peer group, skipping a grade for example. The social loss cannot be repaired for years. Better to hold back a child than pass them if they are not ready. Two, most children respond as you expect them to. Boundaries must be set early in the school year and adhered to all year.

Anyone who wants to teach must expect unexpected long hours of work, reasonable but not large salaries. If they can't accept those conditions it would be better then to look for another job. I prefer teaching primary children because when they understood a concept, you could see a light come into their faces, as surely as turning on a light switch brings light into a room.

Thank you very much, Emma. That was a very interesting experience. I'm glad that you found Prince George to be up and coming with the rest of the western provinces and perhaps a little bit ahead.

One of the most interesting experiences in teaching came when I was in Rochester, Minnesota, at the Mayo Clinic. I had read an article in Reader's Digest about a summer program for their school. Dr. Moon, the superintendent, agreed to let me observe their classes if I would teach if needed. All teachers were hired on a twelve month basis. During the summer, all teachers either were sent for specialized training at school district expense, worked in classrooms, or worked on curriculum revision. All got three weeks vacation, which was staggered.

The students were behind their classes, bright or just students whose parents were upgrading their doctor qualifications. No teaching materials that were used in yearly classes were available. It was the challenge for the teachers to find relevant books and teaching aids to help the students. I found this experience both informative and interesting, as the teachers shared their problems and supplies with me.

I didn’t want to leave that out because I thought that ... That was in 1960 that Rochester was doing that.