EXTENDED INTERVIEW: Coquihalla’s longtime elementary school teacher retires

Peter Flynn sits at the piano at a Christmas concert. Flynn retired at the end of 2020 and sat down with The Standard to reflect on his long career in the Hope area. (Photo/Peter Flynn)Peter Flynn sits at the piano at a Christmas concert. Flynn retired at the end of 2020 and sat down with The Standard to reflect on his long career in the Hope area. (Photo/Peter Flynn)
John Corbett and Peter Flynn performed at the Hope Community Choir Spring Concert at Grace Baptist Church.John Corbett and Peter Flynn performed at the Hope Community Choir Spring Concert at Grace Baptist Church.
Retired Hope educator Peter Flynn climbs up the Pride of Emory staircase at Camp Squeah. Flynn organized an annual day trip to Camp Squeah for grade 4 students. (Photo/Barry Stewart)
Peter Flynn poses with his wife, Debbie, on a hike. Flynn recently retired after a long career in education in Hope, particularly at Coquihalla Elementary School. (Photo/Facebook)
Peter Flynn plays the piano, as he often did for many years during assemblies and concerts. He has been in education in the Hope area for decades before retiring at the end of 2020. (Photo/Barry Stewart)

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.

“For a first year teacher, he was a really great principal,” Flynn said. “He just got behind the first year teachers and just really helped them.” It was then on to a year as a music teacher at Coquihalla Elementary School before going up the Canyon to teach Boston Bar’s students for four years and later at Yale’s school for two years. By 1992, Flynn had landed back at Coquihalla, where he remained for the rest of his teaching career. Flynn taught mainly Grade 4, but also the 3s and 2s, by 2011 he became vice-principal.

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. If you feel like that job of serving people is important, then being in a school which you feel is somewhat an important part of the community, it’s really a nice feeling. 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 know the kids really, really well and for most parents their children are their most precious commodity and you do see them a lot, if they so choose And so I feel like, for a season, for a time, 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.

Sometimes a kid will be in a class and they can’t learn or they might not be able to catch on to one concept in a class setting, so they need to meet with the teacher afterwards or at recess. So There’s great dedication, I’m very impressed with the staff.

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, at that time the Ministry of Education was being really cut back by Bill Bennett, it was ‘the age of cutbacks.’… I thought “OK, maybe there’s jobs up north,” so I applied to every school district north of Kamloops. 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. You just want the best for them, and if their behavior is preventing them from being their best, you just want to work with them to figure things out. And usually you do…For most parents, their most precious commodity is their child, so there’s lots of emotion about your child when a child that messes up. 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.Being in a small town, too, I think word gets around. And if you deal with people as fairly and as kindly and as judiciously as you can, that word gets around.

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,probably the most important years of their lives, too, in a lot of ways. 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. All of the sudden you see hope come into their eyes. 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.” All the teachers at Coquihalla, I think that’s what keeps them going, is that sense of hope that you see imparted on kids.

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. I think that it’s through mistakes that you make, that’s when you learn the most. And if kids shy away from mistakes it’s because someone’s made fun of them for making mistakes. And so you just train your class not to do that.

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. When I walk into a new classroom it’s almost like I kind of physically put a ring around the kids. These are the things you can do, these are the things you can’t do. Then when it’s kind of black and white for kids like that, then there’s room for gray areas like kids behavior and there’s allowances for that. Not rigid, but just “This is what we do. We’re kind, we want people to feel safe here, we respect others, we speak respectfully with each other,” all those things that are really important.

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. They said they thought that it was safe to come back and guess what, they were right.

When the fall started, there were a lot of kids away. But then they slowly started trickling back, which also led to a whole host of problems. How do you teach a class if you’ve got a quarter of them away in September and then they start trickling back? We just had some kids return on Dec. 5, and they hadn’t been back in school since March, that’s a huge loss of learning. But I also believe the teachers will be able to, I don’t like using the word catch up, but that they’ll figure it out.

There’s also the worry about where are these kids who it’s really hard to get a hold of. And the big worry, and this is one I’m so worried about too, (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 just love it…I just used to find it a real chore to read kids’ writing, to mark sentences and all that sort of stuff. 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.” There was a kid in Grade 2 and she (wrote) “She went into a forest and then she found out she was a princess. And then she went home” and it looked like “She had a dowl of sop.” and it was a bowl of soup. She reversed the b and the d, and she didn’t know how to spell soup. And we always call soup a dowl of sop in our house, because of a Grade 2 (student)…Maybe that’s when it started turning around.

EP: When you were at school, do you remember what were the most fun times for you?

PF: I would routinely play tricks on classes, once I felt like I could control them if things got really out of hand. I had this one particular class where I loved playing tricks on them because they always overreacted and they’d just go crazy. Other times, a kid would go to the bathroom and I’d say “OK, let’s hide on the person.” And so I’d just take them outside and the kid would come back, the lights would be off and they’d go “Where is everyone?” We’d go hide on the stage, we’d hide outside. And kids really remember that stuff. It had to be a certain kid because if it was a kid who felt like they didn’t want to be the center of attention….And the kids just loved it. Then they’d go back to work and they were inspired to work because they’d had so much fun. 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. You had turn on a light first, and you had to go down this really short little ladder. I went down there and the Grade 6 put the trap down. And they laughed and 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. And it’s part of that safety thing we talked a little bit about, 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, she was a librarian in Boston Bar at that time…She was a secretary but she was really compassionate. 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.

EP: It’s so unique, you went to school at Coquihalla and you taught there for nearly your whole career. Were there moments throughout your career that showed you what that was like, to have that deep connection to the school and the community?

PF: Yes, I’ve used it a lot to my advantage. If there’s a kid that’s having trouble and I have to bring them into the office, it’s hugely helpful if I went to school with his grandparents. There’s an instant connection and they know that I know them as a family and they know that I’m not some random person who is mad at their kid and also it’s because at the end of the road, I want what’s best for this kid.

EP: How has the town changed since you started teaching?

PF: What I’ve really noticed is that there doesn’t seem to be a middle class anymore. I’ve always said that I feel like I teach Downtown Eastside and West Vancouver, because there just doesn’t seem to be a middle class anymore.

EP: How does that play out in the classroom?

PF: I don’t like to say it but if you’ve got poor kids, a lot of times the poor kids don’t have great nutrition, they’re not ready for school, but that doesn’t mean that wealthier kids don’t have needs, too. It goes to what I always say, you never have a straight Grade 4 class or a straight Grade 6 class. You always have split classes. I think you could have all the kids born one year, in the same month, and you’d still have a split class.

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.

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