Making a difference, one student at a time

Retired teacher Margaret Epoch (‘77 BPE, ‘97 BEd, ‘02 MEd) picks up a binder and leafs through it, stopping several times to point to news articles that detail global projects her former students took part in. They did everything from random acts of kindness—driving into a town and sweeping the walk or handing out flowers—to fundraising for students in other parts of the world.

It all started in 2005, when Epoch was teaching Grade 2 at Niton Central School, in the west-central Alberta hamlet of Niton Junction. Epoch was also on the Diversity, Equity & Human Rights Committee of the Alberta Teachers’ Association at the time, and they were looking for schools to become part of the UNESCO Associated Schools Project Network (ASPNet), involving more than 8,000 schools in 177 countries.

Epoch knew right away it was something she wanted for her students and the students of other teachers at her school.

Small school, big ambitions

The many binders lining Epoch’s coffee table and filling the space beside her on the couch attest to Niton Central School’s success. They contain newspaper clippings and details of projects done by the school in the ASPNet’s four main study areas: education for sustainable development, peace and human rights, intercultural learning, and priorities of UNESCO and the United Nations.

“It happened pretty fast that students and teachers started proposing we take part in many projects, because it’s a pretty amazing school,” says Epoch, who retired in 2015.

Now she is being honoured for her work at Niton with an Alumni Honour Award from the University of Alberta. When asked how she feels about it, she stops flipping through a binder for a minute and laughs. “I feel really grateful. It’s been such an honour,” she says.

Growing up, Epoch’s mom worked in a daycare for many years, and witnessing that passion made Epoch want to “follow in her footsteps.” She received a bachelor of physical education in 1977, a bachelor of education 20 years later and a master of education in 2002.

Throughout 38 years of teaching, Epoch maintained a dedication and enthusiasm that’s obvious even today. Her voice rises as she speaks of the many projects that led to Niton being recognized first as a national and then as an international UNESCO Associated School. “There are just probably hundreds of projects in these,” she says, pointing at the binders. “Pick one, they all mean something.”

Acting locally and globally

Being part of ASPNet was truly a community-wide endeavour for Niton Central School. All 150 students in the K-9 school, along with 25 staff members and several community members, eagerly participated every year.

One grade raised money through a bottle drive and raffle and used the money to adopt a school in India, paying for its students’ uniforms and supplies. Other students built a park at the back of Niton with a bridge, shaded area, herb garden and indigenous plants.

Junior high students learned about the Holocaust from a survivor, while Grades 4 to 9 were taught Cree by an Aboriginal teacher. Students also collected plastic containers and bags for TerraCycle, an organization that makes purses and pencil cases from recycled materials.

Epoch says it was amazing to see the students become invested in making a difference. They soon started coming to school with their own ideas. Epoch remembers one little girl coming to school with freshly cut locks, stating she had donated her hair to Kids with Cancer Society. Niton is a tiny place, with fewer than 30 residents, according to the 2011 Canadian census, but Epoch says the students became global citizens, caring about cultural, environmental and social issues on an international scale.

Nowadays, Epoch is enjoying her retirement, pursuing her own interests, including tending to her lush garden in the summer and working in the Fort Edmonton Heritage Gardens. Meanwhile, the work she started at Niton Central School continues in the form of countless student projects, and the school proudly flies the United Nations flag.

This month we are profiling outstanding alumni from the Faculty of Education who will be honoured at the University of Alberta’s 2016 Alumni Awards ceremony on September 22, 2016. The Alumni Awards are a free, public event. For more information, visit the Alumni Association website.

Feature image: retired teacher and avid volunteer Margaret Epoch (‘77 BPE, ‘97 BEd, ‘02 MEd) poses for her official Alumni Honour Award portrait. Photo credit: Akemi Matsubuchi.