Local Hero: History teacher Neil Orford creates magic in the classroom.
Neil Orford: One of our 2012 Local Heroes
Magic in the Classroom
History teacher Neil Orford blushes a little when asked about the glowing reviews his students have posted on the website ratemyteachers.com, especially at the repeated use of the term “awe-inspiring.” It’s not because he’s a pushover. While those ratings may be effusive, many still gripe that his classes are tough. No, it’s because of his passion for both his subject and the young people he’s teaching it to.
Neil credits Dufferin’s education community with much of his success. He has taught at Centre Dufferin District High School in Shelburne for 15 years, and was at Orangeville District Secondary School for 11 years before that. He puts it this way, “I don’t want to say ‘on the shoulders of giants,’ but there has been a deep culture in the schools here going way back. It’s a tried and true tradition, with strong core values.”
To extend learning beyond the classroom walls, Neil approached Dufferin County Museum and Archives in 2006 and established a formal partnership to research 20th-century war veterans from Dufferin. In turn, this ongoing research is used by the museum to develop a virtual War Memorial database. It began with the stories of 40 veterans, but now has entries for some 6,500.
The research is part of a four-year educational journey. It culminates when Neil leads students on a ten-day tour of historic battlefield sites in Europe. Students commemorate the veterans they have researched at the Juno Beach Centre in Normandy, France. The trip has taken place annually since 2008 and this year 36 pupils will participate. Several student spots are fully sponsored, and Neil says participants are “fundraising their brains out. So a lot of kids can come who are not from the highest income brackets.”
In 2007, with Neil’s help, four students took on another project, fundraising $5,000 to develop a new CDDHS memorial veterans’ scroll. Student research had uncovered new names and these were added before the scroll was rededicated on Remembrance Day, 2010 – a ceremony attended by more than 700 people. The students who led the initiative were honoured with the Lieutenant Governor’s Ontario Heritage Award for Youth Achievement, presented at Queen’s Park in February 2012.
Neil’s passion for teaching was recognized by the premier this past June when he was named one of just five Ontario Teacher of the Year Award recipients for 2011–2012. The honour was the latest in a series he has stacked up, including a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, the Alan Skeoch History Teachers Award, and a Teachers’ Federation Excellence in Teaching Award.
His nomination for Teacher of the Year was spearheaded by student Corah Lynn Hodgson, who gathered letters of support. Neil says that made the honour particularly sweet. “If it had been colleague driven, I might have said no, but student driven was different.”
After more than a quarter century, the front of a classroom is still where Neil feels most alive. “I start thinking about it as soon as I get in the truck in the morning. As soon as the period starts, if I’m lucky, something magic happens in the class.”