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Margie Willers photo

A Teacher’s Legacy—
Margie Willers’ Scholarship

An excellent teacher, loved and appreciated by students and colleagues, Margie Willers has always recognized the strong link between the classroom, the profession, and her union. It was this strong commitment that led Margie to decide to create her education scholarship fund.

A dedicated union activist

At the local level, Margie served in many leadership positions in the Surrey Teachers' Association, including as local president, local representative, and grievance officer. Friend Karen Kilbride recalls “Margie was a great president for the STA; she taught me bargaining. I loved the Roberta's Rules of Order workshops she used to teach with the stacked boxes.” Margie concurs, “I especially loved doing workshops, empowering women teachers and enabling them to stand up for themselves and speak out, confident in knowing how things worked.” Margie has seen many changes over her years of union work, likening them to a spiral going in a tilt around a core, moving up and down, at times flattening out. She used this image when things were tough, knowing that despite losses, perseverance does pay off. She was pleased to learn of the latest Women in Negotiations (WIN) initiative by the BCTF to involve more women in bargaining.

At the BCTF level, Margie served on the Ad Hoc Committee on Bargaining Structures, Finance Committee, Policy and Procedures Committee (precursor to the RA Agenda and AGM Resolutions committees), and the Status of Women Committee. Teachers from across BC, attending the many RAs and AGMs she chaired, will remember Margie for her rich southern drawl, quick wit, and expertise in parliamentary procedure.

Early years in the deep south

Growing up in a Florida home where every available surface was stacked high with her teacher mother's marking, Margie played teacher to her younger siblings, choosing to play school instead of house. By 15 she'd decided teaching would be her career, and was honing her skills teaching Sunday school and at summer day camps for preschoolers.

Margie won a Florida state scholarship to study education after Grade 12, based on test results and her GPA. She wouldn't have become a teacher without this assistance. Her scholarship required she pay it back by teaching in the state, year for year and, if she left, she had to return the money. After only a year teaching Grades 3 and 4 in Florida, she had to move to Alabama to help her parents, both facing serious health challenges. She ended up teaching two years at Fort Binning while paying back the Florida scholarship money.

Margie's father had been a nurse who went into hospital administration. She remembers him asking her advice about staffing; a less qualified and capable man was squeezing out a woman for an administrative position. Margie encouraged him to support hiring the woman, saying it was only fair. And she still smarts when recalling a woman professor taking her aside while she was studying for her Master's degree at Livingston University in 1971, suggesting she speak less in class because “you're answering too many of the questions and it's embarrassing for the men principals.”

Asked about classroom memories, Margie remembered Clay, a boy with learning disabilities in her Grade 4 class, who always wrote his name with the C backwards. His Dad, a pediatrician, wouldn't accept his son's learning challenges. One day after school, when Margie was patiently coaching him, Clay's father came by and said “Keep him as long as you want until he gets it right.” Clay refused to pick up his pencil. Frustrated, Dad invited her to their home for dinner where Clay happily showed Margie his impressive library and toy train collection. She concluded he was very bright and very stubborn. Clay never corrected his name that year. On the last day of school, he handed her a note “You were the best teacher I ever had,” signing it Clay with the C facing forward!

Move to Canada

In the early seventies, Margie was friends with a Canadian woman working at Alabama Mental Health who was moving home to Canada. She decided to come along and ended up in Surrey, teaching special education in a re-entry program for eight years at Princess Margaret Secondary. Her introduction to the BCTF was almost immediate, through the 1974 Surrey strike. Coming from the United States she was initially suspicious of the union, “In the agrarian south, we didn't believe in unions.” All she recalls of the American National Education Association (NEA) was that it was a professional organization and she got a magazine a few times a year. “You were pretty much on your own, with no support.” When she was invited to the Surrey new teachers' induction, she read the history of the BCTF in the Members' Guide thoroughly to find out what she was getting into. Soon after, she found herself on her school's staff committee, being “radicalized” at what was known then as “Ho Chi Min High.” Despite this radical reputation, she noted how the five men on the staff committee often adjourned to the washroom and, upon return, informed the two women on the committee of their decisions.

Her next school was Senator Reid where she taught Grade 6 for eight years and continued with her union volunteer work, eventually leaving the school to work in the Surrey Teachers' Association (STA) office for four years.

Margie then moved to Brookside Elementary, teaching Grade 6 and at times split 5/6 or 6/7 classes. A voracious reader, Margie joined the Brookside Book Club 25 years ago and she remains active to this day, attending club brunches to swap murder mystery novels and keep up with former colleagues. The final year of her career, Margie returned to the STA office as the grievance officer. Post retirement, in 2005, she became a TTOC for library and resource room, exclaiming, “It took me 35 years to find the job I loved the most!”

The scholarship

Asked why she decided to turn her estate into a scholarship, Margie says she wanted to pay it forward. Her vision is to provide undergraduate scholarships for several of the best and brightest BC education students. The scholarships, meant to cover tuition and anything else needed for their studies, will be awarded by the BCTF, with the Vancouver Foundation managing the finances. She wants her scholarship to be as flexible as possible, so gaps for good reasons would be acceptable. Paid in yearly installments until graduation, the scholarship is intended to enable students to graduate as free from debt as possible. Like her own scholarship, she expects graduates would have to pay it back if they didn't go into teaching.

Hopes for scholarship winners

Asked what she wishes for her future scholarship winners she says, “I hope they will make a long-term commitment to education and teaching and do all they can to raise the profile of teaching as a worthy career, to increase the esteem of teachers in society, and to contribute to excellence in education. And I hope they get involved in their local and provincial unions.”

Margie hesitated when recalling her proudest moment, unable to narrow things down, finally concluding, “Teaching itself. I really believe I did a good job and made a difference.” 

By Marian Dodds, 2017 Editor, Teacher
Reprinted from Teacher magazine, Volume 29, Number 2, May/June 2017