Ron Campbell bounces around the crowd of cupcake- and punch-fuelled students ensuring they have what they need. But time is running out. As he celebrates two decades of after-school learning successes, the founder and lead instructor of Kumon Math and Reading Centre is hours away from closing the doors of his beloved centre one final time.
It all started around 20 years ago, when the former middle school teacher’s school, Riverdale Junior Secondary, ceased to exist. Suddenly his bright-eyed and hormone-surged students, who he describes as “neither fish nor fowl,” would be slung directly from elementary to high school as the district made the switch to a two-tier system.
Rather than move to a new school, Campbell took the opportunity to exit the system he was disillusioned with. He was tired of being saddled with mandatory curricula that his large classroom of students had to complete no matter what in 10 months time. “Most kids nowadays in grades six to seven don’t know their times tables, so they get to high school and they are just punching calculators,” he says.
After leafing through his wife’s Alberta Teachers’ Association Magazine one day, Campbell landed his eyes on an ad for the Kumon learning program. Soon after, he took the leap of bringing the international after-school learning program to Whitehorse.
Now, the 71-year-old - who says he’s got “one foot in the grave” - is retiring yet again. He’s been working on closing the centre for two years, determined to find someone to take his place. But both he and Kumon’s recruitment office have had no such luck. Now Campbell’s students will have to rely on either correspondence or Whitehorse’s small pool of hourly rate tutors.
The challenge is that what used to be a straightforward training course in Vancouver now involves travelling at your own expense to the eastern state of New Jersey to take a multi-module course. That’s in addition to an investment of at least $70,000 and a secured location for the centre. Kumon’s British Columbia branch manager, Michael Lam - himself a “lifer” Kumon student - says they’ve tried hard to recruit a replacement, and chalks the challenges up to the lack of Kumon’s visibility in the North, with the large bulk of the branch’s 50 centres in the Vancouver area.
Kumon’s method, which now helps four million students in 49 countries, was founded by a Japanese father similarly determined to help fill the gaps in the public school system for his son. The program drills students level by level, six days per week, ensuring they get steady, repeated practice. “It’s the whole teaching someone to fish analogy,” Lam says.
“It lets you go at the pace where you actually learn something before you go to the next,” Campbell adds. This means Campbell may have a Grade 6 student doing basic numbers and a Grade 3 student working on fractions in the same classroom.
Campbell’s students stay with the program from one to seven years. With enrolment ranging from 60 to 100, Campbell has helped hundreds of students better flex their grey-matter over the years.
Now some of his long-time students are doctors and lawyers. Among his more “famous” students are the Rais: Shamir Rai is now doing medical research and Gurmaan Rai is a chartered accountant.
“I see them on the street, though many have left town for finer pastures,” he says. “It’s neat to think you’ve had a small part in their life.”
Johanna Ponsioen’s son Dylan was in Grade 5 when he was struggling with his multiplication tables. They attended Campbell’s closing day celebration last Monday to say their goodbyes and prepare for the future.
She says they started up at Campbell’s Kumon just over one year ago. “He needed that repetition. Now, he just got his report card and it’s an A. So it’s that confidence building,” Ponsioen said.
It turns out the Ponsioens have a long line of Campbell students.
“I kept looking at him going, ‘God, that guy looks familiar,’” Campbell says, referring to Ponsioen’s husband.
“And finally I said to him: ‘Did I teach you?’”
“He knew, but he was too chicken to say anything,” Campbell says, laughing, adding that it was a Grade 8 class back in the days of Riverdale.
Ponsioen says they hope they can continue on. Kumon is giving Yukoners an option to work though correspondence with a school in Burnaby, British Columbia. “We’re going to try to continue, it’s just a big commitment. And I feel that what he has really responded to is coming here and having the help,” she says.
For those still scratching their heads as to why kids really need to know calculus, Campbell maintains it’ll come up somewhere in life - for instance, if you can’t afford a carpenter, and need to figure out the angles to build something.
Though he’s never made anything close to a teachers’ salary, Campbell says the work has been satisfying. Parents are naturally supportive: the course itself requires that they are involved, though he acknowledges the parents may be more of that type to begin with.
Campbell says the whole family works harder in part because the parents are paying for it. But most importantly, Kumon gives him the freedom of time and energy to commit to working with wherever the students are at.
“I’ve learned that teaching is even more fun when you’re not in the system,” Campbell explains. “I’ve had a lot less paperwork and no confrontation with parents or students.
“You know, I haven’t had even a stick of gum under a table.”
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