Cycling up the summit in Skagway can change someone’s life. Ask Greig Bell. He’s seen it happen, several times.
For over 10 years, Bell taught the ACES program at Whitehorse’s Wood Street Centre. He retired at the end of the last school year. During the summer, he learned he had won him a Prime Minister’s Award of Teaching Excellence. The award is given annually to 15 teachers across Canada. According to information on the government’s website, Sharon Davis was the last Yukon teacher to win the award. She won in 1999.
ACES stands for Achievement, Challenge, Environment and Service. The one-semester program combines the Grade 10 social studies and science curriculum with 30 days of wilderness trips. These include a three-day snowshoe trip, a five-day cross-country ski trip, a two-day trip down the Takhini River, a 13-day canoe trip down to Dawson, and Bell’s personal favourite: the eight-day bicycle trip from Haines Junction to Haines, Alaska, and then from Skagway back to Whitehorse.
Bell’s been bicycling for years, and has always been eager to teach others. He is, after all, the father of Olympic cyclist Zach Bell. He was actually at the Olympic Games in London when he found out he’d won the award.
Students apply to be part of the program, which runs each semester. There are always more than enough applicants to fill the 18 spots, said Bell. Students have to demonstrate they want to do it. And there is competition: students come from across the Yukon. Some classes have included students from British Columbia or California. Candidates aren’t eliminated on the basis of marks. But they could be disqualified if academic records show they were often late or absent.
“As soon as they want to do it, teaching becomes simple,” he said. For that one semester, he’s their only teacher. “Because the most difficult problem most teachers have is trying to engage kids. But these kids come self-engaged.”
But not all of them come confident, or even in good physical condition. Even thinking about making the bicycle trip intimidates some students.
“Day one, half the class is pretty sure that they’re never going to be able to make that hill. And they’re worried about it for four months until they actually do it,” said Bell. “And when they get to the top, it’s just remarkable.”
Bell remembers one young man who didn’t think he could make it at all. The student came up to Bell while they were in Haines, Alaska, and said he didn’t think he’d be able to bike up the summit, said Bell. The two went for a walk, and Bell encouraged him to keep trying.
He made it up the hill, slowly. The student moved so slow, it was hard for Bell, who was biking behind him, to keep his own bike balanced, Bell said. But they made it. Since then, that student has become much more physically fit, said Bell. He often stops by to tell his former teacher how he’s doing, and to say that that day in Alaska changed his life, said Bell.
“And it’s such a metaphor for life,” Bell says of the climb. “How did you do it? Well, you did it a piece at a time, you trained for it, you prepared for it, planned for it and then you did it.”
But no student does it alone. One year, the class let a student who had struggled on an earlier bike trip near Miles Canyon, set the pace for the rest of the class. He was slow, but steady. They made it. Another time, after reaching the top of the summit, some boys biked down to help a girl who had gotten a flat tire two kilometres from the top. The goal was always to get the team up the hill, not just individuals, said Bell.
It’s a lesson he knows well, and one the award shows.
School administration, parents and students nominate teachers for the award. These recommendations mean more to Bell than the $5,000 prize. Half of the money goes to the teacher, with the rest going to the teacher’s school.
While Bell’s name may be associated with the program now, he can’t take all the credit, he said.
Bob Sharp developed the program back in the 1990s, and Jim Boyd taught it for a number of years before Bell took over.
“All the legwork was done, I just had to come in, and pick up where those guys left off.”
His students’ average on their final exams consistently hovered around the 80 per cent mark, he said. But he won’t take credit for that either. The program lends itself so well to the curriculum, said Bell. Students learn geology a lot easier after they’ve seen limestone formations around Lake Laberge. And First Nations history comes alive on these trips. Sometimes, the class would travel past a cabin “in the middle of nowhere,” and a student would remark that it belonged to their family.
“When you’re trying to teach history, nothing makes history more real than realizing the history you’re teaching is part of your family.”
The students’ age helps, too. In Grade 10, a student’s body and brain is changing considerably, said Bell. “You’re poised at the door,” he said. If a student in Grade 10 can be taught to think differently, or to become more physically active, it can change them for the rest of their lives, he said.
“The development there is incredible. Makes you look like a genius,” said Bell. “It’s like being at the barbecue at the right time to flip the hamburger.”
So it’s no surprise that what Bell misses most about teaching are the students. He began his career in 1977, and spent most of it in the Yukon. He came to Whitehorse after 20 years in Watson Lake.
“When I started teaching 35 years ago, I went into a field that everybody said I wouldn’t be able to get a job in. I specialized in secondary physical education, and against all of the advice of everybody who’s supposed to know these things, that I would not be able to get a job. And I did,” he said.
There are a whole lot of young teachers who would do a great job teaching the ACES program, he said. There are three different ACES classes this year – two offered in English, and one offered in French, he said.
He’s working on getting on the list for substitute teachers, but for now he’s enjoying his retirement in typical Bell family fashion.
He spent his portion of the prize money on a new touring bike. He hopes to cycle across the country this summer.
Contact Meagan Gillmore at