Raymond and Paulette Blanchette-Dubé have been guiding students along various paths of learning for more than 20 years in Jasper. A few weeks before the couple’s retirement, the husband and wife sat down with The Jasper Local to talk about teaching—and being taught by—a generation of young people.
As a kid, Paulette Dubé never dreamed about being a teacher, let alone one who worked with junior high students. But a double major in French and English literature wasn’t going to pay the bills—at least not right away—and so she tacked on an education degree and got a job in Fort McMurray. What she discovered, she said, was that teaching was thrilling. “The last thing I ever wanted to be in my life was a teacher, but I liked these kids so much,” she said. “They could do anything.” It was 1986. Raymond Blanchette had arrived in Fort McMurray three years prior, straight out of university, which he had attended straight out of high school. One story has the couple meeting over the last tub of ice cream in the seldom-stocked grocery store. Another has Raymond mistaking Paulette for a student in the library before summer began. “He was trying to boss me around,” Paulette laughed. However it happened, they grew together as colleagues, and eventually, as partners. Back then, Fort McMurray’s teacher population was incredibly young, and its student population was extremely diverse. “Kids came from all over the world because of Suncore and Syncrude,” Raymond said. That divergent demographic taught the Blanchette-Dubés a lot. Raymond, the music specialist for the entire division, taught math to kids whose parents worked the traplines of Fort Chip and music to the children of engineers from Europe. “It was a great place to get a first taste of teaching,” he said. After they married, Raymond and Paulette spent three years in St. Albert. Eventually, in 1992, they had a chance to come to Jasper. Five years after travelling around the division in another music specialist position, Raymond shifted into a dual teacher-administrative role. As the Jasper Elementary School’s educational leader for the past 19 years, he has shown that a principal need not subscribe to the image of an intimidating, authoritative figure. Instead, he’s known for greeting the students by name every morning and inspiring an affinity for neck ties in Grade Ones. “My pride was walking into class and the students saying ‘yay, it’s math!’” he laughed. Paulette knows something about making connections with students. The social studies, English and French teacher is known for being able to create meaningful relationships with young people. Mme. Paulette (known affectionately as Madame by students) said part of forging those relationships is instinct—reading kids’ body language, being a good listener and otherwise anticipating communication cues. But another part is creating a welcoming environment in which kids feel safe, supported and curious. She’d regularly smudge her classroom with sage to cleanse the room for learning or have scented candles burning as a welcome for students. “Curriculum can change, vocabulary changes, some years there’s an emphasis on math or reading…but however it swings, to me it’s like ‘ what about the kid?’” High school student Reed Eady just finished his Grade 11 school year. He is excited for the freedom of the summer, where the avid outdoorsman will explore Jasper’s wilderness with nary a thought about homework or exams. However, while his studies will be far from his mind, his former teacher will be in his thoughts regularly. His connection to nature took on a a whole new dimension after it was nurtured by Mme Paulette in junior high, he said. “I can go outside for a walk and I’m always going to be thinking about Madame,” he said. “Madame teaches you to go out into nature and enjoy everything around you, whether it’s birds, trees, plants or rocks.” Yes, the rocks. To encourage that sense of mystery within the natural world—and to establish a connection with her students—Mme Paulette would regularly gift her pupils with a unique stone. She encouraged them to place the stones in moving water and make a wish; it was a gesture first taught to her by one of her heroes, Canadian novelist Timothy Findley. “[Findley] showed me the black rocks with a white crown are the ones you make a wish on,” she winked. Dubé, too, is an author, having penned five books and garnered several Canadian awards, but these days she doesn’t limit herself to the print medium—she has too much fun in the web-based, social space. Her musings from the trail—mini haikus or thoughtful observations on nature accompanied by straight forward yet powerful photos—create gratitude-filled antidotes to Facebook’s narcissistic news feed. And not only does the exercise help her document the small details which she can later recall for her next book project, it eliminates the need to bring those treasures home—something her husband appreciates. “All that stuff on the trail—dead birds, big pieces of wood—is much better photographed,” Raymond laughed. While Paulette’s penchant on the trail is to scan for details, Raymond’s more likely to have his eye on the horizon. A distance athlete, cyclist and occasional ultramarathon runner, his way of purging his mind of clutter typically means setting a fast pace up a steep hill. And now that retirement is no longer on the horizon, but right under their feet, there’s no place they’d rather retire than Jasper. “We’re staying here,” he said. “We love this place.” Like most teachers, the Blanchette-Dubés are looking forward to savouring the delicious sounds, smells and sights of summer. But come September, for the first time since they were in kindergarten, when that first bell rings, they won’t be due in class. “That’s going to be weird,” Paulette admits. “We’ll still get that feeling in our stomachs, we’ll still get that head jerk towards the school. “But after we get over that, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be fun.”