Oliver's unexpected turn a fortunate one

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Mike Oliver is retiring after 35 years of teaching in Palliser Regional Schools or its predecessor.

PICTURE BUTTE – Mike Oliver’s life took an unexpected turn almost four decades ago. When you look at the number of young lives he has touched since, it was certainly a fortunate one.

Fresh out of university with a science degree, the Picture Butte native had designs on a career in research until he found out further education was required.

“At that time they were looking for science teachers and I thought, ‘that’s a sure thing, whereas going to get a Masters is not a sure thing,’ ” says Oliver, who is the longest-serving teacher retiring this year.

He taught for 35 years at Palliser Regional Schools or those under its predecessor, the County of Lethbridge. Also retiring from Palliser teaching ranks is: Lazhar Abida, Hank Beeksma, Bill Brandley, Jill McIntyre, Dianne Ross, and Nadya Zacharczuk. Retiring administrators include: Janice Loitz, and Peter Muller. Retiring support staff are Wayne Braun, Robert Ellis, Barbara Feist, April Groenenboom, Marjo Marse, Chuck Middleton, Tanya Montague, Brian Norlin, Robin Soenen, and Grant Stauth.

Oliver’s first full-time teaching job was split between R.I. Baker School and Kate Andrews High (KAHS) School, both in Coaldale. He not only taught a variety of core subjects for hearing impaired students, but also English as a Second Language for Low-German speaking Mennonite students.

A year later he was teaching biology and science as part of an eight-year run at KAHS. Oliver would move over to Picture Butte High School, where he had graduated, and taught primarily science with a smattering of everything else.

While he benefitted from a number of good teachers while going to school, Oliver didn’t pattern himself after anyone in particular.

“One of the things I decided early in my career was I’m not going to be someone else – I’m going to be me,” he says. “So my teaching style and philosophy was my own. I didn’t want to emulate or be someone else, because that might not fit me.”

He tried to treat all his students equally, and push them to do their best through setting high expectations for them. Oliver heard more than once – especially in his years of teaching Career Technology Studies – students tell him the quality of their project was “good enough” for them.

“I would reply, ‘you can do this better. (Good enough) is not why we are here. We are trying to do the best we can do,’ ” he recalls of his years spent teaching mechanics, construction, fabrication and woodworking.

That same philosophy carried over to 25 years of coaching school sports, including football, basketball and volleyball. Oliver would point out a play or formation that needed adjustment. If a student-athlete replied ‘I know,’ they would soon hear a common refrain from their coach.

“And I would say, then if you ‘know,’ let’s ‘do.’ That was kind of a running thing with the kids. I would start to say something, and they would say, ‘I know, we’re going to do it,’ ” he recalls.

Oliver saw coaching as an opportunity to get to know the students on a different level. Driving school bus for the past decade provided a similar benefit.

Already driving student-athletes to games, he took on a regular school bus route after more drivers were needed. Oliver would pick up students on his way into work, park the bus there, and then drop those students off at the end of the day before he headed home himself.

Oliver thanks his many colleagues for their support over the years, and the understanding of his wife Sandra and their five children. It wasn’t uncommon for him to leave early in the morning and then not return home until 7 or 8 p.m. due to prep time and coaching duties. When they were younger, his bride of 36 years would bundle up their children and bring them to football games so they could be closer together.

What will he miss most in his retirement?

“It’s the interaction with kids that are excited about learning something new,” Oliver says. “Those ‘aha!’ moments when they finally put it all together.”

He decided to retire in order to spend more time with family, including three grandchildren. His wife also has some travel plans for them, and a recent health concern reaffirmed his decision.

Since he’s not very good at sitting at home “doing nothing,” he and Sandra decided it might be best if he transitioned into retirement by teaching CTS half time next year at PBHS.

“I don’t know that my wife wants me home full time yet,” says Oliver with a chuckle, adding he’s not sure when he’ll give up teaching entirely. “Right now it’s still fun and I enjoy the kids.”