Robert Hillmer Award 2012: Al Samsa

Al Samsa Hillmer 2012

Al Samsa with colleague Lynda Anstett

Al’s Speech
Thank you OBEA executive, corporate sponsors, vendors and members. I am deeply honoured to accept this award.

Years ago when I started on the teaching journey I remember watching highly respected teachers walk up to the stage to accept this award, thinking that’s something that is beyond my reach. In fact it may have been at my first conference that I listened to a Hillmer winner saying the best definition of education was two words: shared experience.

That resonated with me as I began in 1985 at Thornlea Secondary in York Region. I was fresh out of FEUT and an MBA and the economy was just getting out of a recession. I got to teach a wide variety of courses at Thornlea and volunteered to do some things, like write a course of study for Entrepreneurship, teach a course in International Business and, of course, Accounting. I also started my coaching career as I love basketball. I had roles models such as Roy Nettleton my department head and our business consultant, Brian Childs. Brian could promote anything and make it sound good. I also remember him being mad at me as he picked my name out of the big OBEA drum they used to use for prizes. I skipped breakfast and didn’t get the prize.

York Region was booming and building a school a year. I was encouraged to apply for department headships even though I’d only taught two years. The experience would be good for me I was told. I had four interviews and didn’t get any positions. That was enough said my ego. Then up came little Woodbridge High School. I decided against applying but was again strongly encouraged to. I reluctantly did and amazingly became a very young department head. And it was closer to home.

I arrived at Woodbridge in 1987 as the head of a booming department of six sections. Department meetings were short but disciplinary measures with my staff were a regular occurrence. 🙂 Despite having as many preps as courses, I found a tiny school of 400 students to be a treat to work in. We introduced the Icon computer and an accounting program called CASI. I did fundraising by giving parents workshops at night and with board help we managed to buy a lab of IBM 386 computers. Then came Bedford Accounting, WordPerfect 5.0, spreadsheets and more.

It was an exciting time. I do remember getting humbled. On one parents’ night I had a dad and his poorly behaving grade 9 son. I told the student if he didn’t change his act he would end up cleaning toilets for a living. Right then the dad looked me in the eyes and said “I clean toilets for a living”. I was stunned and just before anything else dumb came out of my mouth the dad looked at his son and said “Your teacher is absolutely right. You don’t want to do what I do. Smarten up”. He did. So did I.

My wife Maria and I also dove into parenthood with a girl and a boy, both now in university. One in accounting and one in IT. Go figure. I continued to coach and although a small school we were very successful.

But given two large separate schools in Woodbridge we continued to suffer declining enrollment. Our principal at the time suggested we have a remake. Uniforms, contracts, mandatory courses and a name change to Woodbridge College. The trustees liked it and in 1991 we opened and soon grew to 600 students and more. A success.

Also in the early 90s I gave my first OBEA workshop on Simply Accounting, version 2! Despite all of our successes the 90s were also a difficult time. Rae Days and the Harris years meant being stalled on the grid for us and very few pay raises. Sound familiar?

The OBEA continued to be a wonderful source of resources including that great resource booklet that I couldn’t wait to open. Great lessons from master teachers I thought. I also remember contributing and seeing my name in print. More coaching and parenting made the decade an eventful one. I also dove into the world of online learning with an organization called EDEN, now defunct. Grade 13 became OAC. I miss the fifth year.

But the drive from Mississauga was becoming an onerous one and the opportunity to move to the west GTA was alluring. Leaving a now busy department of 27 sections, I applied for and got a job as a teacher in nearby Oakville’s Iroquois Ridge High School. A new challenge, a short drive, and no more headship.

OBEA came calling for a greater commitment and it was hard to say no to Linda Brown. PD would lead to Treasurer and eventually President. Linda did say there were only two ways to get out of OBEA, become President or die. I didn’t like #2.

At Iroquois I enjoyed two years of teaching without being a leader. The kids were growing up, OBEA was fun, giving workshops a ritual and coaching was back in the mix. But then the headship reared its ugly head again.
The wonderful Lynda Anstett said I had to apply. We might lose the talented Jeff Boulton if someone from the outside got in. Welcome to leadership, again.

I can’t complain, the next few years would see many opportunities arise. All the volunteering to do things even led to paying jobs.

I started a website to house my activities and have a place to easily update lessons for BTT. I never imagined would become so popular.

All the time I remembered that teacher using those two words, shared experience. What the hell, you can’t take it with you. If we don’t share, who does? I noticed how teachers loved taking resources from conferences. I love the workshop hoppers, having been one. I created the bring a resources take all away in a disk activity.

Websites turned into wikis, blogs, and the rest is a blur. All captured in a workshop somewhere I’m sure. On GoogleDocs no doubt.

The library was a chance to share resources with a bigger community. But my principal said I had to keep the headship. So I’ve managed to be part of a wonderfully talented and giving group of teachers both in business and family studies. To Maria’s dismay, I still can’t cook.

It isn’t about me but rather having a chance to learn from so many of you. Every time you say thanks that light inside stays burning for a chance to share that much more. In concluding I’d like to again thank those who thought I was worthy of this award, Linda and Lynda, Don, Natalie and the rest of the OBEA gang, my colleagues and some very supportive admin who know how important shared experience is.

Thank you and keep sharing.