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Selkirk College Distinguished Educator Changes Lives Through Upgrading

Bob Hall
By Bob Hall
April 23rd, 2018

You don’t have to scratch too deep to figure out what fueled Wendy Tagami’s energy to teach Adult Basic Education (ABE) during a stellar 36-year career at Selkirk College.

“It wasn’t a job to me, it was a passion and chance to help people,” says Tagami, who retired from teaching in 2016. “I loved the students, they are the ones who made the job so easy. There were frustrating days and not every day was perfect, but every time a student came in to say thank-you or passed a test and gave me a hug… that was the reward.”

In recognition of a career that had an impact on the lives of thousands of learners through the ABE Program (now known as Upgrading), Tagami will be presented with the honour of Distinguished Educator at the Selkirk College Grad 2018 Ceremony being held at the Castlegar Campus on April 27.

When Selkirk College President Angus Graeme called Tagami earlier this month to inform her of the successful nomination, she was flabbergasted.

“I was in such shock, I could barely talk,” she says with a chuckle. “It’s such an honour because I know you are nominated by your peers which is very endearing to me.”

Tagami was born-and-raised in Nelson and attended Notre Dame University in her hometown right after graduation from L.V. Rogers Secondary. She completed the last year of her Bachelor of Education at the University of Victoria and then returned to the West Kootenay.

While searching for her first teaching job, Tagami saw an advertisement in the local paper about a position with Selkirk College in the Adult Basic Education Program. It was the late-1970s and still early days for the program that provided learners a second chance. She was hired as an administrative assistant for the classroom that was being run out of a building in Nelson’s downtown.

The idea of adults returning to school to get basic education or work towards a high school diploma so they could further explore educational options, quickly grew in popularity. Tagami was soon offered a job to teach and though she still had her eye on teaching elementary school, jumped at the chance. She thought she would try it and at the very least bolster her resume.

“Once you get started in ABE, it’s difficult to leave,” she says. “It’s the people that you work with and the whole philosophy about why you are doing it. Getting to help the people who didn’t get an education in the regular school system is important work.”

By 1979, ABE programming became so popular that Selkirk College opened the Crescent Valley Campus where many students who attended came from the local Doukhobor community. Primarily women who wanted to get the basic skills to write letters to their children and manage the household budget, some of the students were reluctant to learn from a teacher who looked so young.

“It took a while for some people to trust that I knew what I was doing,” she says. “But once they got to know me and understood that I could help them, the students were always so grateful.”

The Doukhobor women would often show their gratitude by leaving loaves of fresh bread and jars of borscht on her car roof after a day of class. She would leave for home and find wonderful proof of lives changed.

In the early years of ABE, teachers all over the province were forced to create their own materials that were appropriate for educating adults. Tagami poured many hours into making worksheets, study guides and materials that connected with those who did not have a positive outcome the first time they attended school. It was a skill she refined throughout her career and led her to developing fundamental math courses for the provincial system.

A well known community volunteer outside the classroom, Tagami also worked tirelessly to help efforts like the West Kootenay Project Literacy (now the Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy), the Ernie Gare Scholarship Society and the Air Canada Pacific Cup hockey tournament that Nelson hosted in 1996.

When the Crescent Valley Campus burned down in the summer of 2001, Tagami was devastated. But instead of letting the setback dullen her enthusiasm, she continued to pour energy into teaching ABE in other locations. During the second half of her career she became a vital part of provincial articulation committees, the college’s curriculum committee and other efforts that have enabled the program to continue to thrive in the region.

“This honour means that I did my job well and it means that I had some affect on the people around me,” says the 61-year-old. “It’s important to mentor the ones that come after you so that the philosophy on how to treat students and colleagues is carried forward. I had some great mentors over my career and that is what allowed me to enjoy my job.”

Reflecting on her career, Tagami says it’s hard to pick just one story that illustrates the importance of her work. She was proud when one of her former ABE students became the Selkirk College valedictorian in the mid-1980s after he used the love of learning she instilled to complete his diploma in the Forest Technology Program. There are the nurses she sees from time to time that work in local hospitals who started in her classroom before heading off to complete their university degree. The lives changed are many and she admits it’s a bit of a blur.

“It’s a people career and a helping career, so you need to be dedicated to it,” she says. “You really need to listen and help people work through all the other problems that surround their education. People are smart, they just didn’t have the opportunities the first time for whatever reason. That helping end of it was way more important than the academics.”

Tagami will be joined on stage at the Grad 2018 ceremony by this year’s Distinguished Alumna Sharon McNeill and Honourary Diploma in Human Services recipient Cathy Lafortune.

Categories: Education

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