Peter Flynn not only remembers the many students he has taught during his over three decades as a teacher in Hope, he remembers where on the class list these students’ names appeared. Flynn started as a substitute teacher in the Fraser Cascade School District in 1984. He got his first break when he was asked to sub a class as teachers were taking the day off to see Pope John Paul II during his September 1984 visit to B.C.
After that September day, Flynn went on to teach at Silver Creek Elementary until the end of 1985 with Marv Cope as principal at the time.
The Hope Standard sat down with Flynn to speak about his decades teaching Hope’s young students in the place where he himself went to elementary school. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Emelie Peacock (EP): What’s it like working at a school, in many ways the centre of the community, for so many years?
Peter Flynn (PF): Well, if you feel like you’re supposed to be in Hope, it’s a great feeling. I really like it. I grew up in Hope and when I came back to Hope to teach, I thought that I knew the community really well because I’d grown up here. But there was an aspect of Hope that I didn’t know, the people with kids between Kindergarten and Grade 6. You get to know some people really, really well. And then all of the sudden, they move on to the high school and then you don’t see them again. That’s just the way it is.
EP: As a longtime teacher at Coquihalla, vice-principal and most recently acting principal, you must work with some pretty dedicated staff.
PF: Coquihalla has a lot of really strong-willed teachers…but also really compassionate. I think among the staff, generally, there’s an understanding that for a kid to be successful, all you need is one or two people in the building to think that they will be successful. And they will be.
EP: So you grew up in Hope, then after studying teaching at SFU decided to return home with your new skills. Tell me about that decision.
PF: I came here because there were no teaching jobs, and I came back to Hope kind of with my tail between my legs…At that time there were just no jobs. The only response I got was from Fort Nelson. They said “Well, if you move here, we might put you on the sub list.” It was a really bad time to finish schooling.
EP: Eventually you became vice-principal at Coquihalla, what was that change like?
PF: Actually, I’ve really enjoyed it. Those parents who come in, you have to bring them in because there’s been some problem with their kids, those are the parents that you really bond with. Because they see that you don’t want to thumb down their kid or anything like that. I know that as a parent, but I just found that the parents were really, really great if they understood that you just want the best for their kid.
EP: Asking you to talk about specific students would be unfair after 36 years as an educator, but I imagine through your teaching and also through your problem solving as an administrator you’ve seen a lot of growth.
PF: You see a kid come in, in Kindergarten, and then you can view them for seven years. And you see the kid leave in Grade 6 and you go “that kid’s a different kid than he was when he started.”
You see kids who come in from other schools and they’ve got a file that’s really, really big which means they’ve been in trouble, and then you just see them relax in our school and they change. They know that school’s been difficult for them or they know that maybe their life has been difficult, but then also when you see hope, it’s kind of like “OK maybe I can do this, maybe I can be successful at something.”
EP: I wanted to ask about your teaching philosophy, or your philosophy towards the classroom.
PF: You try to make the school or your classroom a place where it’s OK to make mistakes.
It’s something that all teachers, if they’re going to survive in the classroom, that’s what they have to do. My philosophy from the very beginning was, you make very definite rules in a classroom, and when you put up those rules it’s kind of like you corral the kids. Not to trap them, but so they know what the limits are and they know what the borders are. I think kids feel safe when they know what they can do and what they can’t do, especially what they can’t do.
EP: You became acting principal this past school year. Did you ever think you were going to be leading a school through a pandemic? And what kind of learning has come out of this time?
PF: I became acting principal in January (2020), and that lasted 10 weeks and then schools shut down. So no, that was a big surprise.
Follow the science, like trust Dr. Bonnie Henry.A lot of people talk when they’re faced with fear and crisis like this. And when schools were going to open again in June, there was a huge pushback. And after the schools shut down, we did still have to educate those kids who were children of essential service workers like doctors’ kids, ambulance drivers and fire department. Those kids were still coming to school, and there were people who said…“What are these kids doing back in school? We’re going to have an escalation of this disease.” And then when school was going to go back in June everyone said “It’s going to skyrocket.” Well, neither case happened, and so it made me trust even more.
There’s also the worry about where are these kids who it’s really hard to get a hold of. And (the teachers) worry that they’re going to get COVID and they’re going to give it to someone, a kid. That’s a huge worry. And you could do it unconsciously, but apparently the rates of infection between adults and kids is very low.
(EP): You said that you prefer being in the classroom, what were your favourite subjects to teach?
(PF): I really, really like teaching math because I was a terrible mathematician as a kid. I remember the only time I ever cried in school,I got 19 wrong on a test of 20 in multiplication in Grade 4. And I remember my teacher, Mrs. Kawaguchi, she took me out to the hallway and she did not tear a strip off me, she was really nice about it. She said “You need to study your multiplication tables,” and I remember just really thinking she’s telling me the truth. And I think she was as upset as I was that I got such a bad mark. But that was a huge turnaround. When I first started teaching, I did not like reading kids’ writing, I hated it. But now I really, really like it and I don’t know what changed. I think maybe I just saw the value in how kids can express what they’re feeling through writing and also I’ve become very, very good at reading kids writing when other people say, “I don’t have a clue what this kid is saying.”
EP: When you were at school, do you remember what were the most fun times for you?
PF: There was a time when I was in Boston Bar, I was teaching Grade 5-6, and those kids were a lot of fun and they were smart, too. But because it was only my fourth year I didn’t realize how smart they were. We had to get something out of storage and the storeroom there was a latch in the floor and you had go down a really short little ladder. I went down there and the Grade 6 put the trap down. And they laughed and laughed, and they did it because they knew I would think it was funny. I thought it was hilarious. They didn’t lock me down there, they let me out right away. But it was really, really funny.
EP: So you’ve had a career where you get to play?
PF: Yeah, I feel very blessed in that way. And the educational literature, it seems to bear it out that kids having fun in the classroom is really important and important to their learning. if they feel secure and safe and loved in the classroom, then they will learn.
EP: I imagine also you’ve been in the school or led the school during some really difficult times in the school community.
PF: Last year, we lost our secretary, she died very suddenly. Her name was Sandra Loring, she was secretary of the school since 1991…She was the center of the school, like she was the boss. Everything revolved around her.
It threw me for a loop because I’ve known her ever since I was in Boston Bar. I learned a lot from her about compassion for kids. Anything that happened that was good for kids, like a kid got new winter boots or the school was able to supply a lunch or a jacket or something like that, it made her really happy, she felt like her life’s purpose was fulfilled. And that was just taken away very suddenly. And then Mr. Koopman’s death in May, that was pretty hard.
Since his retirement, Flynn has been going through the ‘acres’ of lesson plans, files, thank you notes and some odd leftover student assignments he amassed during his teaching years, now housed in his basement. On his first week of retirement, he was called back to teach a Grade 7 class at Hope Secondary.
“My heart really is in the classroom, I love teaching kids,” Flynn said. “I was really surprised I got that call my second day (on the sub list),” Flynn said. “It was so funny.”
Read Peter Flynn’s unabridged interview online at www.hopestandard.com.