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Above & Beyond

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In a way, very similar to how firefighters have a natural aversion to being described as heroes, teachers, and school administrators bristle at the suggestion that they go above and beyond.  The six individuals that I interviewed were very uncomfortable with shining any light on their extraordinary efforts and abilities.  However, when you stop and think about it, this makes perfect sense.  These education professionals have devoted their lives to shining light on others.  I found their reticence to accept the “above and beyond” description rather endearing, and their answers to my questions inspiring.

Lisa Hilsenteger

Principal, Holy Trinity High School

Lisa Hilsenteger’s story began in Grade 2.  She had just completed a math workbook and the teacher had all the students line up in front of her desk so that she could correct their assignments.  One by one, the students got to the front of the line and she got to use a red pen to make large check marks on their papers.

“I knew then that I wanted to be a teacher,” she said.

Into her second principalship at Holy Trinity High School, Lisa’s Fort McMurray story began in 1978 when she moved to the community from northern Quebec.  She graduated from Composite High School, enrolled in the University Transfer program at Keyano College en route to achieving her Education degree.  Lisa started her teaching career when she was hired by the Fort McMurray Catholic School District as a Grade 5 teacher at St. Gabriel.  After five years she moved into junior high where she taught Grades 7 and 8 for the next 14 years.

“When my own children moved on to high school, I realized that it was time for me to take on a new challenge,” she recalled.  “I worked as a vice principal for five years and finally accepted a principal’s position at Father Turcotte School in the fall of 2012.”

As she approaches 30 years in the profession, Lisa Hilsenteger has a deep sense of both purpose and passion.  She loves doing what she gets to do every day and articulates why in a beautiful way.

“Teaching can be the most frustrating, chaotic, and wonderfully fulfilling profession one can have,” she said. “ Where else can you go to work and have no two days ever be the same? Where can you work where your job is so multi-faceted that you’re often unclear about what your job description truly is, often being required to blend multiple professions together. You could be a teacher, a parent, a counselor, a coach, a mentor, or even a referee. It is a profession where your decisions, advice, or words of encouragement can affect the future of a young mind.  It is a profession where you can watch a light turn on when someone suddenly ‘gets it’.   It is a profession where life-long relationships are formed and your days are filled with laughter, excitement, and a love of learning.” 



Assistant Superintendent of Inclusive Education, Fort McMurray Public School District

Shannon Noble graduated from University with her BEd in 1986 and kicked off her career in a very interesting way.  She travelled to northern Alberta where she taught Grade 2 in a Mennonite colony.  That alone would have qualified as unique, but the fact that the students only spoke low German, an unwritten language, made her first posting extra unique. 

“By Christmas, I had a great grasp of German,” she shared.  “Then the work began.  I dove into English as a second language and embedded the strategies into my daily teaching.  Right from my first year of teaching, I understood the importance of knowing the students and adjusting the teaching style to match.”

Shannon came to Fort McMurray in 1988 where she and her husband Ross raised three children. She was quickly hired as an elementary teacher and has worked in a variety of positions over the past 29 years, from Kindergarten to Grade 8 and many years as a Special Education and Early Learning Coordinator. 

“It was very evident that my love and passion was for students with special needs and always looking at each student with their own special need,” she said.

Last summer she was appointed Assistant Superintendent of Inclusive Education with FMPSD, with portfolios that include mental health, early learning, supporting special education or inclusive learning for all students.

“One of the greatest opportunities of my career has been leading the FMPSD mental health portfolio for re-entry after the wildfire,” she said. “ After May 3rd I knew that our families, students, and staff would need a lot of support.  Soon after the fire, I reached out to other school districts and communities that had experienced similar situations.  It was evident that the community was there to support our children and youth and collaborating on a daily basis with our community agencies was needed.”

From the development of the ARC Framework (Attachment, Self-Regulation, and Competency) which will target the needs of children and families who have experienced complex trauma to Journey of Hope, a program that brings together groups of students who are showing higher levels of anxiety, Shannon is doing what’s best for kids.

“I am inspired by wanting to make a difference in the lives of students and families,” she said.  “I’m blessed to have the opportunity to support, and alleviate challenges for our students who have struggles.”



Principal, Saint Martha Elementary School

Lisa Millar landed her first teaching gig just days after receiving her degree from the U of A in Edmonton. I’m sure she, like all teachers starting out in their careers, was pretty excited.  However, Lisa’s first assignment was at her old high school in Provost, Alberta.  She began the Fort McMurray leg of her career at St. Johns Junior High School in the spot where Superstore sits today.

“This is where I met some of the greatest staff and most exciting students that one could ever encounter,” she said. “Many of these individuals are currently very good friends and some of the students have now become my colleagues.”

She eventually moved on to Father Mercredi High School where she spent 16 years as a teacher and Vice-Principal.  Eight years ago she accepted an assignment as Principal at Saint Martha Elementary where she still leads as a very proud EAGLE.

“Educating a child is an honour and a privilege,” she shared. “We have been blessed to be a part of something that changes our world for the better.  I believe all educators do everything in their power to move individual students toward success. Teachers strive to have students achieve what is their very best.”

Like many great leaders, Lisa Miller shines the light on those around her for going the extra mile.

“I work in a building filled with teachers, EA’s, librarians, custodians, office administrators and parent council members that all go above and beyond every single day to ensure an exceptional learning environment,” she said. “That commitment, coupled with the students’ desire to learn, is a winning recipe for success.”

I asked Lisa why she loves working in education.  She listed off six very specific reasons, but it was the sixth that gets to the heart of it.

“Teaching changes you,” she said. “You learn so much from the students and their circumstances.  They teach you about their culture, their thoughts, their fears, their hopes, and their dreams. Each child leaves an imprint on your heart and you become a better human being for it.”



Vice Principal, Father Mercredi Community High School

Brendan Toner has had the vision of being a physical education teacher for quite a long time.  In fact, in Grade 11 he knew that’s what he wanted to do.  So, shortly after graduating from the University of Alberta with his BEd and BPE, he was hired on at St. Gabriel School.  He got involved in coaching football in 2001 and moved to Father Mercredi High School where he eventually became Vice Principal.  After 15 years at the Catholic District high school in Thickwood, Brendan is preparing to move over to Fort McMurray Public in the fall as a VP at Westwood. 

His love of teaching and leading is probably rooted in this lifelong love of the educational environment. 

“I think I love it because I was really good at school,” he said.  “I never really left.  I have been constantly surrounded by great, caring people, and kids, who want to learn and improve.”

Brendan’s effective approach to teaching has been influenced and informed by his role as a parent.

“I typically see kids at their very best, and at their very worst moments,” he said.  “You have to learn quickly to not overpraise too soon, but also not to discipline too harshly.  My approach really changed after my own kids were born.”

Grateful for the opportunities he has had in his career, Brendan knows that he had lots of help along the way.

“I have had many people in my life, my parents, coaches, and friends who have shaped who I became,” he said.  “I enjoy being that kind of person for others.  I feel lucky for the opportunity and that I have a couple of talents to reach people and to inspire and motivate them.”



Principal, Beacon Hill Public School

Inspired to pursue a music career by two former music teachers, Mike Eddy and Karen Rees, Garette Tebay also embraced her parents’ request and went after a combined degree in music and music education at the University of Saskatchewan.  That decision proved to be prescient.

“After my first practicum in a band classroom, I was hooked,” she said. “My music career became a teaching career.”

She started out as the music director at Composite High School where she taught band, jazz band, choral music, guitar and social studies.  She went on to various schools and teaching assignments before stepping into her role as Principal of Beacon Hill Public School.

“I love what I do because, as the principal of a small school, I get to be a part of shaping so many children’s images of themselves,” she said. “I get the opportunity to help articulate the greatness in each and every one of them.  Being at a small school,  I also get to be really hands on and have daily interactions with them all. Not many principals have this luxury, it is not something I take for granted.”

Why did she step into the administrative ranks?  While her career path might have looked quite different from the vantage point of finishing up her university degree, she feels like she is exactly where she is meant to be.

“I have a pretty intense curiosity for how we can make our classrooms places that will foster a kinder, more compassionate world, which is what led me to step out of the classroom into an administrative role,” she said. “The idea that I could create conditions for compassion in a whole school and wider community outside of my classroom became too compelling.  I feel that I have been placed in the perfect position to realize this, as the Beacon Hill Bears are exactly this type of community, and the neighborhood of Beacon Hill has such strong roots in caring for each other.”



Director, Fort McMurray Public School District Technology

Ali Syed always had the dream of going into teaching.  And even though he went to the University of Toronto with that intention, he ended up going down a different path.

“Being from a South Asian family, the choice was clear in my family: doctor, lawyer, or engineer,” he said.  “I, needless to say, went into computer engineering and furthered my education.  After a successful and rewarding career in the field, I chose to give it up and return to the dream of teaching.”

After furthering his education, he landed in the classroom in Toronto and spearheaded a literacy initiative for grade 3 and 6 boys, and also did outreach in the inner city.  Eventually, he moved into a District ICT (Information and Computer Technology) role.  One night, he started chatting with recruiters from Fort McMurray Public School District.  They had some technical issues before their presentation and the rest is history.  He moved west and has been the Educational Technology Coordinator for 10 years and started the FMPSD Technology Department.

Two of Ali’s programs that have gained traction are Robotics and the Tech-Trade Academy.

“We started the Robotics program with the belief that students wanted to have access to some fun and engaged learning in regards to problem-solving, team building and collaboration,” he said.  “The first tournament had just under 30 students participating, but we had more than 320 people show up to see the robots.  The program has grown into a program that is at every school in FMPSD with more than 550 students participating in the local grade 4 to 9 tournament.”

The Tech-Trade Academy - covering computer programming, photography, movie making, sound editing, digital electrical prototyping and 3D printing - has also seen massive growth. 

“The academy started with two schools and an enrollment of 120 students,” he said.  “Today we are in five schools with more than 400 students.  It’s simply fantastic to think about many doors open for these kids as they progress in the academies.”

Inspired by his mother who was a teacher in the UK, Syed also is motivated by the wisdom of Albert Cullum, an American elementary school teacher in the 1960s. 

“Cullum stated that every student deserved a chance to shine,” he said.  “This belief has become a core philosophy for me in regards to how I do my job.  I am a firm believer that all students have the ability to excel and that we are simply stewards of their learning with the chief responsibility to remove obstacles and barriers.”


While each of these educational leaders has a unique story, there is a theme that runs through each of their journeys: a desire to serve.  None of them were totally comfortable with talking about the ways that they go above and beyond, though it is clear that they do.  Without exception, they get up every morning and make a difference in the lives of their students, colleagues, and community.


Photos by Greg Halinda Photography


Russell is a 19 year resident of Wood Buffalo, a community builder, facilitator, social media practitioner, actor, director and artist. He began his Middle Age Bulge blog as a way of capturing his journey to wellness. It has morphed into a daily journal about all aspects of life in the north. Russell works with The United Way of Fort McMurray and co-owns Birdsong Connections with his wife Heather.