Mike McDowall took his students to the Cow Bay Marina for World Oceans Day to learn about the work being done to keep the ocean safe on the North Coast. The french immersion teacher at Roosevelt Elementary School is also a volunteer firefighter and he helps keep the local hatchery running.

STORY AND VIDEO: Heart of our City, Le professeur extraordinaire

Mike McDowall took a chance on a job he found in the North Coast, a plane trip or a ferry ride away from his family in Port Alberni




Teachers in this country often travel far and wide to find sustainable placement, and in many cases they go north, or to Prince Rupert.

Mike McDowall took a chance on a job he found in the North Coast, a plane trip or a ferry ride away from his family in Port Alberni. While schools were closing down on Vancouver Island he saw a full-time placement opportunity in Prince Rupert and applied.

“I heard back the next day. Got an interview the day after that, and a job offer the day after that. I jumped on it and came up a week later and haven’t really regretted it since,” McDowall said.

He has only been in the city for two years but he’s dug himself deep into the community as a volunteer with the Port Edward fire department, a volunteer at the Oldfield Creek Fish Hatchery, as an avid curler, and being the teacher who goes well beyond his duties.

While growing up in Port Alberni, McDowall went to French immersion. Then after university, he worked in the financial sector for four years where he gained some real life perspective outside of the education bubble.

Knowing that having French would be beneficial, he joined the Explore program and spent five weeks in Central Quebec where there is zero English. Week one, he stumbled over his words but then it all came back to him, and he realized that living on the West Coast of Canada, if you don’t use the language, you lose it.

As a French immersion teacher at Roosevelt Park Elementary School McDowall gets plenty of time to make use of his second language. He’s also teaching the students the language of the future – coding, the basics of computer programming.

“He’s the resident techie at the school that helps anybody who needs it — on top of all his teaching duties in French immersion,” said principal Andrée Michaud. “He took on the coding initiative last year where he actually went and did a workshop in various classes.”

Three to four times a week, McDowall brings out iPads for students to use and get comfortable with technology. But the screen time is balanced by his enthusiasm for the outdoors.

When he first moved to Rupert, he was reeled in by a newspaper article about the hatchery looking for volunteers. He had a bunch of free time after making the move north without his wife and daughter for the first year. He saw it as an opportunity, in an ocean based community, to introduce his students to salmon habitat. McDowall  is currently the hatchery’s treasurer.

He’s organized field trips to Oldfield Creek and the fish hatchery, including one coming up mid-October when the salmon make their return. It was also another way to ensure that he could get some salmon in the school. There are now two tanks at the school for the students to observe.

The new B.C. curriculum requires teachers to involve the students in more hands-on activities and getting outside in the community, and McDowall is ahead of the game. “Those types of things I think is what every kid needs.”

Another volunteer opportunity crossed his path while at the grocery store. McDowall was wearing an old volunteer fire coat from his work in the south, and the Port Edward fire chief Shawn Pettitt recognized the coat and welcomed him to join his crew.

Although McDowall doesn’t live in Port Edward, Pettitt told him that many of the members don’t live in the district either. Two years later, McDowall is still an active member.

He enjoys “driving trucks, using big tools, opening up cars, fighting fires. It’s kind of neat. Again, it’s giving back to the community.” He added that they get approximately 35 calls a year, and the fire department is always looking for new members.

A year after moving to Prince Rupert, his wife, Alicia, and his daughter, Mya, joined him in the north. Being without his family was tough, but he said it made him appreciate what the guys in the oil patch do.

Now that McDowall’s family has joined him, his six-year-old daughter comes to school with him where she has classes down the hallway from his own. Mya is also starting to learn French, which her dad said is their secret language.

French, was also the “secret language” he used during curling matches. In Port Alberni, he used to use his French so that his opponents didn’t know what they were talking about.

When he first moved to Prince Rupert, he picked up curling again to be social. In his short time in Prince Rupert, McDowall has weaved himself into the fabric of the community, and he plans to stay.

“It’s not necessarily what you put in but it’s also what you get out,” he said.

 

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