Joanna Thompson-Anselm

Subject Head of Geography, Milliken Mills High School, Markham, Ontario; Course Writer for Senior Geography, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario

Education: Honours B.A. in Geography and Urban Studies (York University), Bachelor of Education (York University)

Describe your job. What are some of the most important tasks or duties for which you are responsible?
My job as subject head is to ensure quality geography programming for all students in our building and to mentor staff to develop their own professional geography knowledge to stay current with pedagogical demands and content.  I work with staff and students to determine what current geographic issues are of interest and important to them and then help develop a program that is responsive to those interests.  It is really important that we are continually reviewing geotechnology’s part in helping us inquire more deeply about geographic issues, but also transferrable and other geography-specific skills that are needed for students to be employable in the 21st century.  To create a robust program that serves the whole student, this requires ongoing professional development both in teaching and learning strategies as well as current trends in geography.

What attracted you to this career path?
I have always known that I wanted to be a teacher, but I didn’t know that I wanted to be a geography teacher until I met my high school geography teacher, Mr. Meikle.  The way that he engaged us in anecdotes, case studies and simulations that made me realize that my passion was really about understanding why people and things are different in different parts of the world.  I am inspired daily to work with staff to come up with engaging ways to have students learn important skills, but at the same time have fun and be excited to ask more questions about the world they live in.  As value in our subject area has been dwindling in my community over the past few years, I’m more impassioned than ever to work on creating relevant and meaningful geography tasks for the students I work with.  Students and parents need to understand that geography brings together all other disciplines and includes very employable skills in a globalized world.   As Michael Palin, past president of the Royal Geographical Society, has remarked: “Geography explains the past, illuminates the present, and prepares us for the future.  What could be more important than that?”

With regards to working as a course writer for Queen’s University, this is the newest chapter of my life. I’ve chosen to explore this in order to help people find their own passion to develop quality geography programming in our schools.  I believe that in order for geography to be more recognized as a valuable subject area, it should be taught by teachers who are inspired to look at it in new and different ways. My goal is to develop a culture of creative and critical educators who will engage their students in meaningful work that will make an impact on their communities.  I want to encourage teachers to try something new that will allow their students to explore and be challenged by geography content and skills.

How has your education/background in geography prepared you for this position?
My degrees in geography and education have given me the credentials to teach geography in Ontario, but most of my education has been on the job and through professional development offered through the York Region District School Board or OAGEE (Ontario Association of Geographic and Environmental Educators) and through the networks I have created for myself.  In our discipline, content is changing daily and approaches to teaching are changing equally rapidly in response to technological development, student engagement and workforce demands.  Continually trying to find ways to showcase that geography teachers are relevant is an ongoing educational and marketing experience!  I have recently presented on gamification in the classroom to a group of educators at the IDEAS Conference at the University of Calgary, but the learning of gamification came from professional reading and collaborating with colleagues.  The learning and education of a geography teacher never ends!

What geographic skills and information do you use most often in your work? What general skills and information do you use most often?
These days I find myself using a lot of spatial analysis skills to come up with my tasks and hooks for students and to help them dig more deeply into their own geographic inquiries.  For example, the ability to use spatial skills to interpret a thematic map or analyze an aerial photo to see if a location contains the features I am looking for to develop a task to engage my students is critical.  The geography teachers in our department often look at spatial data to ask or answer questions about content we are working on, and sometimes we look at it together and are excited by the information we have found that we can now share with students!  We often use our geographic thinking concepts of interrelationships, spatial significance, pattern and trend and geographic perspective to help students see the complexity of geographic problems and how they are interconnected with other subjects like science, business and urban planning.

One important general skill I use on a daily basis is communication, which I use in a variety of contexts from discussing programming needs with our administrators, to teaching students about the applications of geotechnology, to speaking with parents about student progress and needs.  Data management and critical thinking skills are also essential when organizing groups of students, plotting curriculum standards into themes for student learning and scaffolding that learning for best success.  Lastly, I routinely use the skill of time management – forgotten by many of us!  With all the responsibilities that come along with my job, it’s important that I make agendas, checklists and review my goals for work, home and recreation to keep a balanced life.

Are there any skills or information you need for your work that you did not obtain through your academic training? If so, how/where did you obtain them?
My geography/urban studies degree mainly focused around human geography, urban dynamics and some physical geography foundations.  Cartography was not a mandatory course, so I left university without much learning about GIS.  Now I feel that it is my duty to be informed about various geotechnologies, specifically public domain ones, so that I can build a more relevant and accessible program that develops employable skills in my students.  Google Tourbuilder, Timelapse, Earth, and Maps have all been useful platforms for which I’ve had to learn the capabilities to be able to instruct my students directly or pair them with a problem solving task.

Do you participate in hiring, screening, or training of new employees? If so, what qualities and/or skills do you look for?
In the public education system, subject heads are not allowed to be involved in the hiring process.  However, once teachers have been hired and assigned to our department, it is then my job to mentor them and offer professional development opportunities.  I really value teachers who have a sense of excitement about geography and a drive to be creative in their activity planning, assessments and lesson delivery.  It is always exciting to work with someone who is equally invested and interested in taking risks in the classroom with their program delivery.  They don’t even have to be geography teachers, just people who are willing to learn, refine, collaborate and take risks to improve student learning experiences in geography.  I also value working with teachers who have strengths that complement my own.  For example, it is a huge asset to have someone who is more proficient than I am in geotechnology and Google Apps so that I can learn from them in building my own competencies.

What advice would you give to someone interested in a job like yours?
I would highly suggest seeking mentorship from an in-service geography teacher who knows how to network, find resources, is well connected with outside organizations and loves their job.  These are the qualities of a person who will be able to give you sound advice and encourage you to become the teacher you want to be.  I would also suggest taking pedagogical risks in the classroom and exercising your creativity.  Work ethic and creativity are also things that can really set people apart.

What is the occupational outlook for career opportunities in your field/organization, esp. for geographers?
It is difficult to say what the career opportunities look like for geographers in terms of being a geography teacher or instructional leader, as so much of it has to do with the particular school board.  In the Toronto District School Board they have subscribed to the model of “super heads” in which an instructional leader is responsible for supporting curricula from multiple subject areas.  In my school board, geography subject heads are still distinctive, but there is growing concern about how long we can stay that way without being amalgamated into a “social studies” subject head that would include other departments.

As for being a geography teacher, I believe that the future is bright.  The headlines everyday speak to global issues such as those associated with climate change, genocide, globalization, and geopolitics.  People are beginning to recognize the importance of geographers in helping to bring together all of the pieces from different disciplines in order to help solve these complex problems.  I hope I can play an important role in that!