Yukon principal wins national prize

Gloria Coxford has been named one of Canada's Outstanding Principals. The born-and-raised Yukoner is principal of Grey Mountain Primary School in Riverdale.

Gloria Coxford has been named one of Canada’s Outstanding Principals.

The born-and-raised Yukoner is principal of Grey Mountain Primary School in Riverdale. She, along with 31 other award recipients across Canada, will spend a week in Toronto to attend a gala ceremony and five days of management workshops.

“I’ve never been further east than Edmonton,” she says. “Now I’m going to Toronto for a week. It’s almost scary.

“I’ve been to Mexico and Hawaii, but never past Edmonton. That’s what happens when you grow up here and all your family’s here.”

The award is put on by the Learning Partnership, a charitable organization that champions Canada’s public school system. Grey Mountain’s staff nominated Coxford because she “works hard to ensure the success of each student. Her underlying goal is to achieve what’s best for her students.”

It’s Coxford’s sixth year as principal of Yukon’s only primary school. Some parents worry the school’s small size – it has about 60 students, from Kindergarten to Grade 3 – is a weakness. But Coxford usually persuades them to see the school’s smallness as a strength.

The building, painted in pale yellow and pink, resembles six portables stacked together for good reason. “That’s exactly what it is,” says Coxford.

Yet the school manages to feel cozy inside. It’s not drafty or dim, as portables tend to be. There’s a new computer lab and a library full of colourful kids books.

The small gym, once dirty and dull, has been spruced up by a mural painted along the upper inside wall, in Ted Harrison’s style, with a blazing sun on one wall, and shimmering northern lights on the other.

It’s remarkably quiet while class is in session. Coxford gives partial credit to the building design. Each classroom has its own washroom and entrance, so there’s little reason for kids to roam the halls.

It also helps that the school has no buzzers. The school’s only bell must be rung by hand to call in kids after recess and lunch.

But the silence also says something about the expectations that Coxford helps set. Young kids need consistency, she says.

To that end, she ensures all teachers use the same vocabulary when dealing with classroom quarrels. Inevitably, it ties back to the school’s motto: “Respect, responsibility and reaching for our best.”

The lessons learned here are some of life’s simplest. And most important.

“What happens in the first four years of school sets the tone for the rest of the school years,” says Coxford.”

Children first enter the school, as early as age four, not much more than toddlers. By the time they leave, Coxford aims to have them reading, writing and equipped with some of the more important social skills to be had.

Rather than hit and scream, “they know how to sit down with somebody and talk,” says Coxford.

“They know they can walk away from things, talk to a teacher, talk to each other and compromise.

“There’s a lot of adults who don’t know how to do that,” she says with a chuckle.

Once these rules are laid down, kids begin to enforce them by themselves. “They just get swallowed into the culture,” said Coxford. “Otherwise they stand out like a sore thumb. It’s easier to conform.”

With most behavioural problems out of the way, teachers can focus on teaching. Coxford helps, too.

Coxford spends half her day as principal. The other half she helps teachers work with struggling students. Her specialty is helping kids to read – she’s taken a number of early literacy courses.

Coxford has taught for 26 years—long enough that she’s taught some of the parents whose children are now enrolled in her school.

One of her brothers is Doug Graham, a long-serving city councillor.

There’s a joke in the lunchroom, says Coxford: “Don’t say anything about anyone until you find out whether Gloria is related to them.”

“I think I’m related to half of Whitehorse.”

Her big challenge? “Time.” There’s never enough of it.

It’s not uncommon for Coxford to work 12-hour days. Her open-door policy is partly to blame. But she prefers to chat with parents as they come, rather than let issues pile up.

Throughout the school year, students get chances to snowshoe, ride a dog team, listen to traditional First Nation stories, visit the Yukon Arts Centre and try gymnastics. But, for now, a main form of entertainment are the crazy carpets that dangle off hooks in the front hall.

“That hill is just worth its weight in gold on the playground,” says Coxford.

Young kids have a way of confounding expectations. Take hugging. It’s become something of an epidemic at Grey Mountain. It started with last year’s Kindergarten class.

“They started hugging and all the rest of the grades have sort of morphed into this hugging school.”

Coxford was unsure how to deal with it. In schools today, there’s much emphasis on appropriate touching. What was once commonplace – such as a teacher sitting a young child on her lap – is now strictly forbidden.

But the hugging proved benign. Coxford sees it as an expression of safety and trust.

“Every time I walk down the hallway I’m hugged to death,” she says.

As far as occupational hazards go, that’s not too bad.

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