Tanja Ingram-Paquette

For The Community Press

Emilie Piché Swain and Emma Dagenais may have only met a decade ago, but the two teachers are like two peas in a pod. The both played teacher a lot when they were younger and knew they would grow up to be a part of the profession; they both met their future husbands in Kapuskasing; they both live and teach in Kapuskasing and now the two are working together to help “high support” students integrate into the community and live independent lives.

It is for this work that the two are now feeling humbled and honoured that they have been nominated together for a Prime Minister’s Awards for Teaching Excellence and for Teaching Excellence in STEM. Teaching Excellence Awards recipients are honoured for their remarkable achievements in education and for their commitment to preparing their students for a digital and innovation-based economy. The Teaching Excellence in STEM Awards honour outstanding Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics teachers that help develop the culture of innovation Canada needs today, and in the future.

“I got the call from someone that had been asked to write a letter of support for the nomination and wanted to let us know,” said Mrs. Piché Swain. “I was humbled and surprised because it is such a huge award. It is an honour to be nominated and I couldn’t think of anyone I would rather be nominated with than Emma. We balance each other out and I have followed in her footsteps and had great roots to follow when setting up the STARS class.”

Mrs. Dagenais said she was shocked because they are like so many other teachers who come to work every day with a job to do and they do it. Adding that to be recognized and appreciated is an honour and especially alongside Mrs. Piche Swain who is not only a friend but just as passionate about teaching as she is.

Mrs. Piché Swain is the teacher in the STARS (Students Taking Action and Responsibility for Success) classroom at Kapuskasing District High School, a new program that began this year since the original high support classroom STEP had an increase in demand. Mrs. Dagenais was the original teacher of STEP (Specialized Transitions and Educational Program) that began at KDHS three years ago.

“In 2015 the STEP class was created at KDHS with seven students to start,” explained Mrs. Dagenais. “It was the first high support program at KDHS so I essentially had to start from scratch. I had great advice from my husband Chad, who was previously a special needs teacher at the elementary level and now has a new role as District SERT (Special Education Resource Teacher) for District School Board Ontario North East, so he knew what worked at other schools; and I contacted other community agencies to see what I could do to help prepare the students for life after school.”

Since students in a high support program can attend school until the age of 21, Mrs. Dagenais said the main goal is to do what they can to get the students ready to live a confident, independent life when they leave the school.

At the beginning of this school year in September, with the number of students increasing to 13, it was decided to operate two separate classes. The STEP class now has six students that all have been diagnosed with autism and Mrs. Piché Swain has a class of seven students. Although the two classes are separate (literally next door to each other however and with an adjoining door), both Mrs. Dagenais and Mrs. Piche Swain bounce ideas off each other and do many activities together.

“We both work on math and social skills and our goal is to work on a variety of life skills to get the students ready for the future,” said Mrs. Piché Swain. “My math is not typical, since I am trying to prepare them for real life outside of school. We have a class economy, so the students are paid every day for various things they do. They have to pay rent for lockers and iPads and they were taught how to sign a contract for these things and how to manage a budget. As well, I encourage a healthy active lifestyle, so we do a lot of cooking.”

The two classes are working together on a new project this year called the Coffee Club. Teachers and staff at all three schools located in the Kapuskasing Education Centre (DJPS, KDHS and Echo du Nord) can order coffee, tea or hot chocolate on certain days each week and have it delivered to their classroom.

“This project allows them to learn the principles of business since they had to have a business plan and take out a business loan to start it all,” explained Mrs. Piché Swain. “Once the business was started, they had to learn how to read the orders they were given, give change and collect the money, read and understand instructions on how to make the drinks (milk, sugar etc), be social when delivering and what to do with the profits they earn. All of this is done as a team as well, so they learn to work together.”

Mrs. Dagenais also teaches functional literacy and numeracy, teaching students how to buy and pay for things; having a healthy lifestyle and doing activities in the community that will help them have a positive mental health and build self confidence and make connections that can be used once they are living an independent life.

“We go bowling, swimming, do groceries, visit gyms and community organizations to help them feel comfortable and confident to be able to enjoy the services themselves when they are living alone,” stated Mrs. Dagenais. “The overall goal is to build a repertoire of skills to prepare them for the next step in life for living independently such as laundry, paying bills, having a budget and cooking.”

Other programs that the teachers have incorporated include making snacks for the school so that students that are hungry can stop by the classroom between classes for a quick snack; making a hot lunch every Friday for students to enjoy; the recent Rudolph Run; and the Coffee Klatch which allows time for students throughout the school to drop by for activities and mingling to help all students to be part of the bigger school community.

“I have been teaching at KDHS for 13 years and when the opportunity came a few years ago to work part-time in Emma’s STEP class, I realized how much I loved working in a high support program,” Mrs. Piché Swain said. “When the new class, STARS, was being created I was excited to be assigned the position. I love teaching but in this program is different. We are teaching real life skills, things they require to move forward. With such a small group you also create a special bond, not only with the students and parents, but with all of the support staff. The connections you make with the students being with them every day is memorable.”

Mrs. Dagenais began her career eight years ago supply teaching and getting part time or long-term positions at both DJPS and KDHS. Her first full time teaching position was three years ago when the STEP program began.

“Emilie and I work well together, we challenge each other and bounce ideas off each other,” said Mrs. Dagenais. “As educators I feel you need to have passionate peers you can collaborate with. We both feel good enough is never enough and we strive to make the classroom a beautiful environment. I feel like I am where I am supposed to be right now, and it has also helped me grow as a person.”

As for Mrs. Piché Swain, when she talks about Mrs. Dagenais, she said that it is like the mentor now becoming the mentee. This is because when Mrs. Dagenais began at the school, each new teacher is given a mentor teacher to help them through the first year and Mrs. Piché Swain was her mentor.

“It is funny that I was her mentor when she began and now, I find that she is the lead that I follow,” added Piché Swain. “She began the STEP class and now she is guiding me and gave me a great plan to follow for the STARS class. Emma is very supportive, and we help each other with ideas and feedback.”

Both teachers stated that without the support of the parents and the educational assistants they work with daily: Kurtis Edwards, Sarah Burt, Samantha Larabie, and the fellow teachers (this year Yvonne Odai and Devin Raby) that work with their students, the classroom may not run as smoothly. As for the future, the two agreed that they want their students to remember the experiences they had in the classroom; that they are capable of anything and to take those lessons and memories and use them to become great members of the community.

Emilie was born and raised in Kapuskasing and is married to her high school sweetheart, also a teacher at KDHS. They have four children. Emma was born and raised in Bradford and when her parents moved to Kapuskasing when she started University, she decided to do her placements and try to find a job here. During one of her stays here she met her husband Chad at a softball tournament. They have three children.

Applications for the Prime Minister’s Awards for Teaching Excellence and for Teaching Excellence in STEM are judged on the same selection criteria and the deadline to nominate is Jan. 14 with winners usually announced in the spring.

After being reviewed by the committee, a final list of the top-ranked candidates is provided to the Prime Minister. Up to 35 awards (10 Excellence, 25 Achievement) are offered for Teaching Excellence and up to 17 awards (two Excellence, 15 Achievement) for Teaching Excellence in STEM.