Starting the fire: Festival of Teaching forum explores talent and passion in teaching

(Edmonton) Ask teachers what they’re passionate about and answers will be varied as the educators themselves.

Olenka Bilash finds passion in helping others explore and make sense of the world around them. And Andrea Menard embraced her Indigenous identity in order to reach—and teach—others.

Both women will be part of a five-member university community panel tomorrow in “Festival Talks: where talent meets passion,” the closing presentation of this year’s Festival of Teaching at the University of Alberta. Moderated by the Honourable James Edwards, the presentation follows the format of the popular TED talks, a 10-minute live presentation on their perspective of where talent meets passion. Joining Bilash and Menard will be Sara Houlihan, an undergraduate student in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry; Roy Coulthard, president of the Graduate Students’ Association at the U of A, and Aidan Rowe, an assistant professor in the Department of Art and Design.

Menard says that, in her role as director of Indigenous academic services in the Faculty of Law, her dreams of offering the Aboriginal perspective in the academic world have come true. Teaching Indigenous legal theory and working with Aboriginal and non-Aborignal students to help them understand Aboriginal laws is not something she ever expected to do, but is grateful that she has the chance to be able to walk “between the two worlds.”

She says compassionate and caring teachers are a large part of what helped her succeed in school. Their belief in her, coupled with connecting with her Aboriginal heritage, compelled her to be successful in school. Now, she says, her role allows her to help others make sense of the subjects as well as what they might see as conflicting values and cultures.

Bilash, an award-winning educator, sees the value of “being” and helping students to understand their world beyond the level of the content provided and how to individualize it as active, engaged and concerned citizens. Bilash’s definition of teaching also defines her outlook of her role and responsibility in helping shape their future and their passion.

“Some people say ‘teaching is teaching people,’ while others say ‘teaching is teaching content,’” she said. “I’d say teaching is conveying the content so that you can influence [students’] lives and the way they see the world.”

Teachers rarely know the full impact of their passion on their students, says Bilash. Most teachers go through careers with scant words of encouragement from their charges. Yet, she notes, when teachers get a glimpse of the effect that they have on their students, current or former, the reaction itself is enough to keep that passion burning brighter and longer.

Bilash remembers a meeting with a former student who produced a small sheet of paper carrying an inspirational message that Bilash had written to her, noting that she had written each of her students a note at the end of the course as they went into their practicum.

“She had been carrying it in her wallet for 12 years,” said Bilash. “Did I think that I would have ever written that would be that significant to someone? No.

“You never know; you cannot predict the impact that you will have. In a way teaching calls you, not to be perfect, but to be�just to be.”

Festival Talks will be held in the Telus Centre auditorium March 10 at 4:30 p.m.