Martens Palliser's nominee for Edwin Parr award

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BJ Martens from Jennie Emery Elementary School is the 2020 Edwin Parr Teacher Award nominee for Palliser Regional Schools.

Even though she wowed him in her job interview, Curtis Uyesugi admits he struggled initially when it came to hiring BJ Martens. The principal at Jennie Emery Elementary School showed no hesitancy, however, in nominating her for the Edwin Parr Teacher Award.

“I don’t know that I have ever put a first-year teacher in a tougher position. A Learning Support Teacher (LST) is critical to a school team, and it is not a role that I’ve ever seen be successful with somebody who is new to the profession,” says Uyesugi, who calls Martens’ success “mind-blowing” under the circumstances.

Martens says she was “honoured and surprised” when informed she is Palliser Regional Schools’ nominee for the top first-year teacher in Zone 6. Each zone within the Alberta School Boards Association can submit a nominee, with zone winners announced later this spring and then recognized again at the ASBA Fall General Meeting.

Surprised would also describe her reaction when offered the position at the Coaldale elementary school, one she had no designs on.

“I think I said to Curtis on the phone, ‘I don’t feel qualified and don’t know if I should,’ ” Martens recounts of the follow-up call to her interview. “I decided I would just come in and learn. Learn and support, so I guess that fits the title.”

Jennie Emery was interviewing for a different teaching position when administrators learned they also had to hire a new LST sooner than anticipated. Uyesugi was so impressed with Martens’ interview for the other job, he decided to talk with Vice-Principal Amy Kerr about the “crazy” prospect of a rookie teacher filling the LST role.

“Before I could do that, Amy said ‘this is going to sound really weird, but I think she needs to be our Learning Support Teacher,’ ” he recalls.

As the LST at Jennie Emery, Martens is part of the leadership group which makes decisions about school procedures. She does a lot of the paperwork dealing with the special needs of students, works with Educational Assistants on programs to meet those needs, and deals one-on-one with students with the highest needs.

The University of Lethbridge graduate also provides professional development opportunities for her colleagues. While some might assume veteran staff members would be less than enthusiastic about advice from a first-year co-worker, Uyesugi says it didn’t take them long to trust her opinions.

He credits the fact Martens is very approachable, and benefits from a “big-picture vision” not normally seen in someone new to the profession.

“She has an understanding of how schools work as a whole, rather than having that stress of just worrying about her class or what is going on in her building,” says Uyesugi.

The journey that led Martens to this point may have helped provide her with a broader perspective. The native of Carstairs first earned a business diploma and then later a degree in management. Office stints in the oil and gas sector and the insurance field failed to capture her imagination, however. 

Although Martens doesn’t look back fondly on her own childhood education, she enjoyed interactions with children while doing office work at summer camp.  Four years working as an Educational Assistant cemented her career decision.

“It was the one-on-one relationships and the daily involvement in students’ lives,” says Martens of what sold her. “At camp it was high impact for a short amount of time and then they were gone.  As an EA, I watched the kids grow up and just last year I went to a Grade 12 grad for students from my first Grade 5 class.”

Working with a number of teachers over those years allowed her to pick from the best traits of each and use those to try and provide the students with a better school experience than she had. Working at a library while getting her education degree bolstered her love of reading even more.

Martens began the school year in a temporary teaching position at Champion School. As that term was running out, the principal there recommended her to Uyesugi. She’s grateful for the help the staff in Champion provided her, and for the ongoing support of her co-workers at Jennie Emery.

“I think it’s been a great fit because of the staff I work with. They have been very gracious and helped me figure out things I didn’t know, and showed patience as I searched out answers to things they didn’t know either,” says Martens, who counts husband Joe and two dogs as part of her home support system.