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Looking for one more foray into the classroom

Heading into retirement this month, Prof. Colleen Willard-Holt is looking for something of a transition by teaching at least one course next year at Wilfrid Laurier University – full retirement doesn’t sit well given that her sabbatical was followed by a year of remote learning due to the pandemic.

She’s aiming to teach an international education studies program she helped launch as dean of Laurier’s faculty of education.

“I developed and taught this one course in that program, and I just don’t want to let my last teaching experience be remote – it just didn’t feel right. So I at least want to do it one more time so that I can have an actual classroom, in person. If I decide to hang it up after that, then I can feel a little bit more closure,” she said.

Willard-Holt joined Laurier in 2007 as the inaugural dean of the faculty of education, having come to the area after 14 years at Penn State University. The Wisconsin native now calls Elmira home, where she and her husband Dr. Dan Holt plan to remain in retirement.

Her work in helping to establish the education faculty at WLU – she arrived just as the program was set to begin its second year – is being recognized with the creation of the Dr. Colleen Willard-Holt Award to support future Laurier students. 

The award acknowledges the “significant leadership role” Willard-Holt played at the university, said her colleague Prof. Steve Sider.

An award that provides assistance to students, supporting diversity in the teaching field, is an appropriate honour for Willard-Holt, said Sider.

“How do you honour someone who’s had a long career? We talked about that, and asked ‘who do we know Colleen to be?’ I think that fit with what Colleen was and is,” he said of the award.

Her colleagues’ establishment of an award came as a surprise to Willard-Holt.

“I’m flabbergasted.  I had no idea that this was in the works, so I am very touched. This is really thoughtful, and I think it’s awesome because it will be an award for students, which is perfect.”

She was particularly encouraged by the idea of promoting diversity in the teaching field, particularly among Indigenous and racialized people, as well as those with disabilities.

“I’ve been really struck by the lack of diversity in the teaching force. It’s not only a problem here, but across Canada and across the U.S. – most of the teachers are European descended, female for most part, especially in the elementary panel. I’ve been doing some things to try to encourage some more diversity in that teaching pool,” she said, noting it’s a good way to cap her more than 40 years in the education field.

“Colleen embraces inclusivity, a sense of belonging. That’s where we started the conversation about this,” said Sider of the new award, which could be instituted as soon as the coming academic year.

The financial assistance will be helpful on expanding accessibility given the cost of higher education.

“Those barriers are very real barriers for lots of students,” he said.

Willard-Holt was the faculty’s dean for 10 years from 2008-2019, a time when the program was significantly expanded, including a doubling of the size of the Bachelor of Education program, development of a Master of Education and Minor in Education, and in collaboration with Global Studies, the development of the Bachelor of Arts in International Education Studies program.

“I’m really proud of how far the faculty has come since I started. I don’t take the credit – I think it’s the team of people that I had around me that was really phenomenal and just really hard-working. It just seemed like when none of us ever took a breath, we just kept on going and kept on creating new things. That was very rewarding and a lot of fun,” she said of her tenure.

Aside from looking to teach a course in the coming academic year, Willard-Holt has no plans for what retired life will look like.

“As far as anything else, I really don’t know, because my friends who have gone before me into retirement say ‘give it a year before you figure out what you really want.’ I think that’s good advice, because my identity has been so tied up in this for 40 years – 40 years, I’ve been a teacher. It’s a little bit weird not to think that that’s you anymore,” she said.

That said, she is looking forward to some travel, particularly to the U.S. to visit her family once the pandemic is under control and the border is reopened.

“We’re not moving back, but we do have kids and grandkids there, so we’re hoping to have the border be open soon enough that we can see them before they graduate from high school – the youngest one is three,” she joked.

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