“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” With these words spoken, Alana Charlton can’t help but cry in front of a gymnasium full of people. And she’s not alone in shedding tears.
A career in education spanning 45 years comes to an end – more or less – on this bittersweet moment.
For eight years, Reynolds secondary has been Charlton’s second home. That’s why when she shares the accomplishments of her students and her colleagues, she refers to them as her Reynolds family.
“She just loves her school. She is the school. She is the epitome of Reynolds,” says Evan Fryer, a 2010 graduate.
To say the ethos of Reynolds is a reflection of Charlton’s essence is utterly exact.
As principal since 2005, she’s played the integral role of inspiring the Reynolds family – a mass of students, staff and alumni thousands strong – to live and breathe the “3 Rs” mantra: respect, responsibility and relationships.
And on a January afternoon in the school gym, the family gathered one last time to show Charlton that the 3 Rs she’s so strongly exemplified as a proud “mama bear” are part and parcel to being a member of this unique community.
“She’s done so much for the school and for so many individuals here. We wanted to take that opportunity to make sure she felt appreciated and valued, and that she knows we’ll miss her,” says Carrie Schlappner, an English and social studies teacher at Reynolds. “She’s such an inspirational person because she really practises what she preaches. At the forefront of her vision is improving student learning.
“She understands the importance of teacher learning, and how it’s one of the highest, if not the highest, factors in student success. She’s someone who has always made sure her teachers are well-supported, and that translates to success for students – both the teacher and students follow their passions. She knows success is about many people doing what they believe in and what they feel strongly about.”
Charlton, who began her career in West Vancouver in 1968, says since Day 1 working in public education she’s sought ways to collaborate with staff and students to affect positive change.
“When you enable and empower teachers to bring out the best in themselves as leaders and mentors of kids, then they, in turn, do that with kids,” she says. “And what I know about kids is that you empower them, enable them to be leaders, you give them some skills and opportunity, and they just soar with it. That’s what’s happened at Reynolds.”
And Reynolds has truly soared on Charlton’s watch. From its burgeoning athletics and arts programs to the school’s monumentally successful fundraising endeavours as a Cops for Cancer Tour de Rock supporter, Charlton’s method of leadership has been instrumental in guiding those triumphs.
“She’s enabled our school to have a sense of community. We see the school in the community and we see it in the global sense. Our kids become more complete students (when they leave Reynolds),” said teacher Dean Norris-Jones, who’s been at Reynolds for 25 years. “Alana is the best of the best.
“She is, at her core, a profound proponent of public education. If you want to live in a safe, healthy and knowledgeable community, nothing builds the foundation of that like a strong public school system with a clear vision that’s run to the highest of standards. That’s what Alana has done.”
Prior to her arrival at Reynolds, Charlton spent 17 years at Oak Bay High, in teaching, counselling and administrative roles. Before that, she worked as a substitute teacher, full time at South Park Family and Rockheights middle schools, and full time as a district dance teacher
“I’ve had a really diverse teaching experience,” says Charlton, who originally went into university at Simon Fraser with no plans to teach. “I took some education courses and I was learning from professors who were pretty exemplary. I was provoked into thinking that learning could be done differently in a structured school system.”
By making student learning the focus of everything she did, Charlton moved up through the ranks in the school district, intent on changing how kids and teachers see their time in class.
“We’ve created this system that everything is based on age and a moment in time of testing. And I think it’s hard to get out of assessing knowledge and information, rather than assessing learning,” she says. “We have a model that six year olds start in Grade 1 and that you should have this body of knowledge that you’re tested on in Grade 10 and 11 and 12. What we’ve learned about adolescents, and about the brain and how the brain works provokes us to ask ‘Is this the best job that we can do for kids?’
“Being a principal allows you to get to that bigger place of answering: How can you affect the most change in your school?”
“She’s very much a new thinker, educationally. She wants to stretch the boundaries,” says Dave Thomson, principal of Oak Bay High, and who Charlton cites as one of her administrative mentors. “She believes that there’s much more that can happen in education. She’s a bit of an educational futurist, she’s forward-looking.”
But while publicly Charlton’s relentless focus has been on her passion for schools, she says motherhood was her No. 1 job. That experience also provided her with her proudest moments, she says.
Her two sons, Kevin and Ben, are now adults. They’ve both left Victoria, and moved their lives to the Lower Mainland and Seattle, respectively, but they both say something fascinating happens whenever they return to Victoria to visit mom and dad.
“When I’m back in Victoria now, people see the name on my credit card and ask, ‘Are you Mrs. Charlton’s son?’ Then they will go off about how much they love my mom and how great she is,” says Kevin, the youngest.
“It’s a testament to how many people she’s touched in her life. And it’s always about how she went the extra mile on something for them,” adds Ben. “Through Reynolds she’s garnered so much attention and respect for her passion for what she was doing. … She’s a role model to me, 100 per cent. I think a lot of the qualities I take to my own life I’ve learned from her or seen from her interactions with people.”
John Gaiptman, superintendent of the Greater Victoria School District, says filling the vacancy Charlton leaves behind will genuinely be one of toughest challenges of his career.
“Reynolds has become what most of us dream about when we dream about what a school should be,” he says. “And Alana’s the driving force. Make no mistake, she doesn’t do it by herself; there are amazing educators there. But she is the catalyst, she makes wonderful things happen.”
Current Reynolds vice-principal Harold Caldwell will move up to acting principal until July. Norris-Jones will share vice-principal duties with Dwayne Doyle and Jeff Loukes.
“Her retirement is a huge loss. Alana raised the bar,” adds Gaiptman. “It is going to be an incredibly difficult job for the person who walks into her office. The expectations are so high. This is not a school filled with staff or students that want to remain static; the whole concept of Reynolds is that you keep pushing to make sure you get better. The person who comes in has to bring everything they have to the job because that’s where the bar is.”
As for her replacement – albeit temporarily – Caldwell knows he has big shoes to fill. He takes on the role, however, motivated to make Charlton proud, having been mentored by “the best.”
“It’s important that she knows she has truly touched people – from students to parents to staff members. She has made that impact that will always be remembered as making Reynolds a very, very personal experience,” Caldwell said. “That’s all Alana.”
Charlton’s two sons both say they’re happy to see their mom retire, and finally have some time to herself.
“She’s put 100 per cent of her energy into her schools. I’m glad she’s going to finally be able to do things she’s put on the back-burner for (the benefit of) her schools or for us as kids,” Ben says.
Charlton’s first priority in retirement: travelling. While she and her husband, Art, are set to travel to France in the summer, Charlton will also chaperone the Reynolds band students to Austria in the spring.
Apart from those solidified plans, Charlton, 66, says she’s looking forward to gardening, reading, taking in arts and culture events in Victoria, continuing to learn and spending time with her two granddaughters in retirement.
“It’ll be a real shift for me, for sure” she said. “I have always poured myself into whatever job I have or whatever my career is at the time; I fully commit to that.”
And that, her colleagues say, is what sets Charlton apart from the pack.
“Alana works hard. She doesn’t rely on being charismatic or she doesn’t rely on her title. Hard work means something, and Alana works incredibly hard for Reynolds,” Gaiptman says. “The students at Reynolds understand that there are two parts of their education: to do well academically, and to do good for the community. That’s because Alana’s worked so hard to get that message across.”
Respect, responsibility and relationships – that’s the steadfast message that, throughout her career, Charlton passionately shared with her family: her sons, students and staff.
And that’s the message her Reynolds family gave her in return – in the form of a teary, heartfelt thank you that made their goodbye to a well-respected principal so hard to say.