Chairs and desks are noticeably absent in Marie Bélanger’s Grade 5 classroom at École Émilie-Tremblay in Whitehorse.
Instead there are workstations with tables where students can stand or kneel, and comfy spots scattered around the classroom to sit and read.
Comparing the classroom to home, the teacher said most people don’t sit at a typical school-style desk to read and take in information. Rather they’re on a couch or in whatever spot they’re most comfortable learning.
At school, this is called a flexible classroom.
And it’s just one example of Bélanger’s ongoing efforts to create the best learning environment for each of her students.
Bélanger was the only Yukoner among 10 educators across the country to be honoured with a Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence on May 28. Certificates of Achievement in Teaching Excellence as well as Awards and Certificates of Achievement in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) were also awarded to a number of teachers from across the country.
The award for teaching excellence is a huge honour and something Bélanger says will motivate her to continue doing the work she’s been doing since her days teaching in Ross River.
Before she started working at École Émilie-Tremblay three years ago, Bélanger taught in a Grade 3 to 6 classroom for three years in Ross River. It was that multi-grade classroom that changed the way she taught as she looked for ways to reach such a wide range of students.
“I loved it,” she said. “I had to think outside the box.”
She has continued to look for new, creative ways to engage students — efforts that brought about a cartoon featuring her students as part of a lesson on guidelines for using technology, along with a number of STEM initiatives in the classroom.
She also uses a portfolio platform which allows her post and share students’ work with their families.
As Bélanger pointed out, it’s important students have the skills in technology necessary for the realities of the world and learn to use that technology properly.
“Since she joined our team, Marie has never ceased to surprise us with her limitless ideas for engaging students in learning,” École Émilie-Tremblay principal Manon Carrière said, adding Bélanger’s teaching style allows students to develop to “their full potential and shine in our school and community.”
Bélanger said she’s been pleased with the response of parents to her somewhat unconventional teaching style.
Many parents who visit her classroom are initially surprised by the lack of typical classroom furniture, but soon come on board to the idea once she explains the benefits of a flexible classroom.
The only major area of concern for families has been what impacts the seating arrangement — or lack thereof — could have on the students’ posture. To address that, Bélanger had an assessment done by an occupational therapist, who confirmed the flexible classroom would not have a negative impact on students’ posture.
A background in psychology has helped Bélanger throughout her teaching career in understanding her students, she said.
Prior to going into education, she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology at McGill University. As she was working on that degree she came to realize a career in psychology wasn’t for her, though she decided to finish the degree anyway.
It was the part-time work she was doing in teaching rock climbing when she was taking psychology that helped her realize she wanted to a career in teaching.
“I liked it a lot better,” she said.
From there Bélanger pursued her Education degree. She taught for a year in Ontario before coming to the Yukon to teach in Ross River.
She also holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Outdoor Intervention from Université du Québec à Chicoutimi.
Looking at what’s ahead in her career, Bélanger said she plans to continue looking for a variety of ways to reach her students.
And that’s something she was especially looking forward to as part of the awards events in Ottawa. Along with the formal ceremony where she and others received their awards, there were a number of sessions scheduled in the days leading up to it where the award-winners were set to make presentations about their own classroom initiatives.
Bélanger said she was excited to get some new ideas she may be able to incorporate into her class as well as sharing her experience with others.
The awards are handed out annually.
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