Science Teacher and Outdoor Expeditions Coordinator
Island Pacific School | Tenure: 1999 to date
Pam Matthews and Island Pacific School have become synonymous over the decades, but it was a twist of fate that initially guided the veteran teacher to Bowen Island.
Matthews has plenty of B.C. roots – a sister on Denman Island, attending the University of British Columbia, and time spent living in Courtenay. But her teaching career began far from the west coast, in Toronto at the massive Central Technical School. Matthews says she never really felt at home among the sea of thousands of students.
“It just was not where I wanted to be at all. I didn’t want to live in the city and I didn’t feel like I was making any connections with the kids. It was just culturally so very different from what I wanted.”
Seeking more fulfillment at work, an opportunity presented itself in the form of a newspaper ad in the Globe and Mail. Both her brother and a colleague at her school, alerted her to the position at IPS, and shortly after Matthews was on a plane to B.C. A successful interview with Dr. Ted Spear, (founding Head of Island Pacific School) ensued, and Pam was hired to begin September 1999.
The school – then on the site of Municipal Hall – was not only Matthews’ work, it was home too. “Can I park my camper van for awhile?” she asked. The answer was yes, and Pam was soon in charge of teaching math, PE and running all of the school’s outdoor excursions, drawing on her background with a degree in Outdoor Experiential Education from Queen’s University. (She did eventually land a home not on wheels.)
These excursions were a mix between school bus trips to the city, and longer camping voyages with the kids. Trips were educational and informative, and always exciting. One venture, (before cell phones!) where Pam was responsible for leading a bike route around Vancouver, saw a few boys stray from the pack and end up at the Plaza of Nations. But, resourceful as they had become, the group managed to get in touch with a parent in town and reconnect with the group. “Now we all have these checklists. Extra parents and safety procedures. It was like the Wild West days back then,” jokes Pam.
Wild West was an appropriate descriptor of the ferry situation in those days too. The 10 minute cutoff wasn’t a thing back then, Pam explains. The ticket booth was where the current Bowen car lineup is today, and if you were there before the boat left you could get on. Pam knows from experience, roaring the school bus back to the boat many times after a day in town.
Matthews has always been a proponent of hands-on learning. There was no end to these trips around the province: the Helm Creek crossover hike, the West Coast Trail, winter camping in Whistler, surfing in Tofino, and more.
For Pam, and later her partner Doug, who volunteered with the outdoor programs (‘Pug and Dam’ as they were affectionately referred to by the students), these trips were as invaluable to their education and growth as anything they learned in the classroom.
“My heart was always in outdoor experiential education. And I had to convince Ted to support the programs equally, because he was all about liberal education and the big great conversations were a big thing for him… I was more about experiential hands on, getting your toes in the dirt,” she says.
There was even a year where Matthews took the experience to new heights through the ‘Odyssey’ program. Run during the 2001/02 school year, the goal was to “implement the idea of a whole year of kids being not just outside, but learning a lot more experientially.”
The program involved longer periods outdoors and more engaging and challenging tasks. Matthews says that Grade 10 year had an enthusiastic group of both students and parents that made the extra effort possible. But a combination of factors, including different priorities from the next year of Grade 10s, and the amount of work involved (Pam wanted to start a family) meant that experience, anyway, was a one-time shot.
The Odyssey year was just one of countless fulfilling moments for Matthews at IPS in the past 24 years. Of course, chief among these is the Rites of Passage ceremony. “That whole year is just such kooky whirlwind stuff, so much happening… and having that shared journey all the way through. “And the feeling for the kids of just knowing how much you’re going to miss them. You develop such powerful emotions with these kids.” “I still miss them years later. I think that’s the way the school is set up to make it really a conscious journey from Grade 6 to Grade 9 with the progression of not just leadership and responsibility, but experiences and the bonding that happens over time with those teachers. You get to know them so very well because of the small class size, and also the experiences that we have like going to SALTS (Sail and Life Training Society) and living on a boat for five days with those kooky kids you grow to love.”
Sometimes after more than two decades in one place, people can feel the travel itch, or want to take on a new challenge. While Matthews did take a semester leave of absence to go to Africa with her family, she is quite content with the many (positive) challenges her and her students take on every year. “I really like that it’s not just teaching. I’m the safety coordinator and the expedition coordinator and the science fair coordinator, and the homeroom teacher, and a Masterworks Advisor. That means that I’m not just grinding away at lesson preps and all that stuff. The job is richer for all those other things.”
Pam adds the flexibility of the job is also very valuable. If she works into the night or through weekends (a common occurrence given all IPS students do), she’ll take some time during the school day – when class isn’t in session – to go for a run or take some time to recharge. Strict working hours from first bell to dismissal have never been a staple of IPS.
Naturally there has been change over the years. Pam misses many of the teachers who have come and gone, along with a more casual approach to doing things. “Back then it was a lot more casual, a lot less structure,” she recalls of her early days at the school. “I let Ted do a trust fall off a picnic table into the arms of little Grade 6, 7, and 8s in Alice Lake, and I was like, don’t worry, you’re good… and it all worked and it was all okay.” Now, “it’s very important to mitigate against taking stupid risks, but at the same time, it pulls you back from the experience. So I’d say that’s something that has changed for sure. Having said this, she loves the fast paced dynamic and variety that her work lends itself to, as well as the wealth of talented teachers and students who come to experience the distinctly different school IPS is. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing… but back then we used to do things without worrying so much about the safety and risk,” says Matthews. “I’d love to see the same kind of, you know, spirit of the school of the teachers taking risks and doing crazy things and active, engaging learning, and more access to a better outdoor space… Like having grass or a play space they can play on that doesn’t turn into mud.” (The muddy space certainly helps for IPS’ big annual fundraiser, however, Monsoon Madness Mudder.)
Matthews is taking on some of these tasks herself, with greater emphasis in classwork on sustainability and environmental awareness, how to deal with garbage and waste, and having the kids plant their own gardens with native plants.
The efforts are all quintessentially Matthews. Since leaving the grind of big city life, she’s introduced a generation of Bowen kids to an alternative view of what school and education can be, and that not all learning takes place within four walls every Monday to Friday. Matthews says she loves the relationships she builds with the students, and has watched many of them grow up and start their own families right here on Bowen. She’s also happy to see them continue with the spirit of adventure and love for the Earth and other people that she helped foster, and especially when they pass those lessons on to their own kids.
“I can’t imagine myself living or working anywhere else because, as much as it’s crazy work, it’s so valuable. I love knowing that what I’m doing makes a difference.”
by Julia McCaig
Director of Community Engagement