Stephen Harper got a welcome surprise last month when he named Vernon Kee and Dr. Gabriel Ayyavoo two of the top 21 teachers in Canada.
When Kee told Harper about the engineering class he taught last year at Danforth Collegiate, the prime minister said, “Really, we have that? Great!”
Along with a trip to Ottawa and a reception at 24 Sussex Drive, winning a Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence means Kee and Ayyavoo now have $5,000 prizes to share with their schools.
Ayyavoo, a science teacher at Notre Dame High School, lit up when asked what he wants to do with his school’s prize.
“I’m going to channel it into biotech,” he said, standing in the middle of his Grade 11’s class science fair.
“DNA fingerprinting is what I’d like to get into, but it’s a little too far.”
Until then, students can learn to sever and study lengths of DNA, Ayyavoo said, noting that some already know how to extract it.
That may seem unusual, but not to Notre Dame secretary Sandy Douros, who has already seen students wait by the school doors for couriers to deliver their custom bacteria samples.
“In high school, our studies have now escalated to a level that you can actually publish some of these findings,” said Ayyavoo, who developed Dame Detectives, a student-run, online science journal.
“I think it’s the future of our school systems to get into technology and advanced science.”
Trained as an engineer, eight years ago Kee was designing $250,000 to $6-million robotic welding lines for a Barrie automation company.
He switched to teaching after a friend and fellow Bible camp counsellor suggested it, and in one sense, Kee has never looked back.
“I felt energized in what I did, and happy knowing that I could help change lives rather than make a bunch of car parts,” he said.
But Kee also found new ground for his hi-tech skills. This fall, he took over SMaR, a four-year science, math and robotics program at John Polanyi Collegiate in North York.
Kee previously taught at Danforth, where he started Cyberpals, a meet-up where seniors from nearby Greenwood Towers drop by the school and get free internet lessons from students.
“They master the internet, the students get volunteer hours and everybody was happy,” he said.
Danforth is also where Kee started Ask Kee Anything, an online forum where students can ask him questions anonymously.
“What was it like to get engaged?” was an intriguing one he got last year.
(As luck would have it, Kee and his wife got married two days before flying to Ottawa for the PM’s award, where they enjoyed a sort of pre-honeymoon in the capital’s many museums and parliamentary tours.)
Kee answered that question, then built a careers lesson around it, asking students to look at everything involved in saving for a wedding.
Like Ayyavoo, who has had many students go on to Toronto and to Canada-wide science fairs, Kee jumps at every chance to teach and coach outside the classroom.
From Zombie Survival Club to extra school help, KIVA micro-financing and Christian Fellowship, Kee is part of nine after-school clubs while also coaching volleyball and archery.
Even for regular classes, Kee has built supports outside school hours. Five years ago, he started a twice-a-week math clinic where Danforth grads are paid to help Grade 9 and 10 students who are struggling or just appreciate the help.
Asked how he thinks teaching will change in the next few years, Kee echoed Ayyavoo’s observation that it is likely to be more and more student-directed.
“The internet is exploding with tutorials and sites like Khan Academy,” he said, referring to a free website with video tutorials, a question forum and real-time exercises that cover Grade 1 to pre-college math.
Schools will not go obsolete, Kee said, but a lot of things now taught in class can be learned online, with classes reserved for discussion and extra help.
“I believe it will go more towards students learning on their own.”