SPRINGDALE, NL - Don O'Rourke has spent the better part of 60 years in school, so he earned a much-needed break when he officially retired last week.
Primarily a math teacher, the Springdale native retired after spending the past 12 years in his home town at Indian River High.
He spent all but about five years of his life in the school system since his kindergarten days in Springdale.
He started out teaching in Cartwright in 1980, but stayed only two years. He went on to live and work in a different field in Ontario for a while in the mid-to late-1980s, but the lure of teaching and desire to come home brought him back.
He began substitute teaching in the Springdale area upon his return in 1989, and had a stint working for the College of the North Atlantic in Springdale and Baie Verte. He taught in Little Bay Islands at HL Strong Academy for three years, and spent three more at Valmont Academy in King's Point before moving on to Indian River High.
Teaching in the town where he grew up was special to O'Rourke. In some cases, he taught children and grandchildren of friends he grew up with - which came with its advantages and disadvantages as a teacher, he admitted.
"There were some benefits, you knew most people's backgrounds and their families," he said. "In some cases, depending on how well you knew them, it may have created some difficulties - some of those guys being too familiar with me, being friends of the family kind of thing."
That didn't matter too much in the grand scheme of things, he said. He describes his teaching approach as typically laid back, especially at the high school level.
"You are not going to scare them or anything like that," he said with a laugh.
As a math teacher - an ever-evolving subject over the years - he had a big challenge. He tried his best to help the many students who struggled with the course as well as those who excelled, he said.
"With math, I tried to ingrain in them to practice, practice, practice," he said. "It sounds boring, but that was about it."
As courses changed to focus more on problem solving, O'Rourke felt he adapted with the curriculum and maintained his approach to teaching.
"Some of the things the kids do in Grade 12 nowadays, I didn't see until university," he said. "Sometimes I think they try and stick too much in there. Instead of having a smaller curriculum and trying to get kids really good at math, they try and pack it right full and have kids know a little bit about a lot of things."
As technology changed, so has the education environment. Computers, smart boards, cell phones and tablets were all introduced, but the teacherremained the head of the class. He acknowledged the world changed and students today are much different than years ago. Society has changed in its tolerance and acceptance, creating a different teaching environment, he said. O'Rourke spoke of the difference in use of homophobic slurs as an example, noting today's greater acceptance of people for who they are.
Sometimes though, the more things changed, the more they stayed the same.
"There were the same kinds of problems and the same kinds of things going on back then as there is now in a lot of cases," he said.
Time at HL Strong
O'Rourke remembers his time in Little Bay Islands fondly. He taught at HL Strong Academy for three years with only three teachers and 12 students. He had the unique perspective of teaching wide-spread curriculum to students from kindergarten to junior high, and even returned to see one of those students graduate - the lone graduate that year.
He said it was sad to hear of the school's closure.
O'Rourke grew up playing soccer in Springdale, a star performer for Grant Collegiate prior to his graduation in 1975. When he returned there to teach, he found himself at the helm of the school's soccer team, and also coached the high school hockey team.
He cherished his coaching opportunities and hopes he was able to pass along something to the student athletes, both about the sport and life.
"I enjoyed going on the trips with the boys," he said. "In most cases, eight or 10 years after, the kids don't even remember what happened during the games or whether they won or lost. They remember some silliness somebody did on the bus."
O'Rourke has no definite plans for retirement, but said Springdale will always be home. His wife is becoming a United Church minister in Elliston, where he expects to spend some time in the immediate future. He will definitely spend more time fishing, he said, but nothing more concrete than that.
"I told one of the kids I have been in school since the 1960s, so it is time for me to graduate," he said.
Will be missed
Indian River High principal Brian Hancock said the school is losing one of its best teachers. O'Rourke is well respected by his colleagues and students, and will be missed in and out of the classroom.
Hancock - also a Springdale native who remembers O'Rourke as a student coach during his youth sports days - said the math teacher's best assets were his patience and work ethic, especially with challenging students.
"He was a good teacher, a team player for sure," the principal said. "He had patience galore, to work with the students he worked with, and he certainly had a good demeanor around the school. He was a well-liked gentleman."