Building Community From the Classroom Up

    High school teacher Tom Yonge, ’04 BEd, ’04 BPE, challenges his students to improve themselves and the world.

    By Carissa Halton on July 12, 2013

    The sounds of cheering, chants and pumped-up music spill from the gym at Strathcona High School in Edmonton.

    It isn’t a rousing game of basketball. Today, the gym is crammed not with sports teams but with 1,200 leadership students from 70 schools across Alberta and as far away as Nunavut. They’re here for the Alberta Student Leadership Conference, organized by students in a leadership program run by Strathcona High teacher Tom Yonge, ’04 BEd, ’04 BPE.

    It’s the conference finale. All eyes focus on two compelling MCs — Yonge’s students — who invite other students to share what they will take away with them from the conference. More than 100 teens head to the front carrying candles. The MCs light their candles as they share.

    “I will never let someone eat alone.”

    “I will stop the cutting and start the caring.”

    “I will break out of my shell.”

    As the speakers return to their seats, they light other candles in the crowd. Soon, the sauna-hot gym is filled with the glow of a thousand candles — and the occasional whiff of singed hair.

    Music begins to play. The crowd sings along to Coldplay: “And I will try to fix you ….” It’s inspiring — hundreds of teenagers singing about changing their world.

    A team of 350

    Yonge once played volleyball for Strathcona High in this gym as a Scona Lord. Five years ago, he was hired to build the school’s leadership program. In his first year, 36 teens enrolled. The program now has 350 students and a second teacher.

    “It’s like I have a team of 350 kids, and our sport is building relationships and community.”

    For his dedication to the leadership program and his positive impact on his students, Yonge has been awarded an Alumni Horizon Award from the Alumni Association.

    Yonge, who did a combined degree in phys-ed and education at the U of A, went into teaching because he loved coaching.

    “I love the team part of sports, and that is really what I’m doing in this leadership program. It’s like I have a team of 350 kids, and our sport is building relationships and community. I believe that we can have all the anti-bullying programs in the world, but change is only going to happen because students are engaging in inclusive, authentic acts of kindness.”

    While he teaches in the traditional classroom setting, he also emphasizes experiential learning. Students learn by leading local and global initiatives that raise money, awareness and volunteers. Since their first fundraising campaign five years ago, which generated a disappointing $8.36, Yonge’s students have raised $265,000 for initiatives supporting access to clean water, microfinance and awareness of human trafficking.

    For Yonge, the fundraising is just a conduit for something bigger. “I see the leadership course as a microcosm of what we should be doing in our society — we’re bringing the students together and helping them connect.”

    Yonge’s energy is palpable. Tall and lean, with eyes that make solid contact, his stories are dramatized with hands wide enough to adeptly serve a volleyball and strong enough to daily high-five multiple classes of teens.

    To sustain this incredible energy, he jogs, plays “campfire-level” guitar and spends time with his wife, Tonya, ’01 BEd, ’01 BPE, ’04 Dip(Ed), head of the phys-ed department at Queen Elizabeth High School. He also has a not-so-secret recipe for a “green shake” energy drink that he shares with anyone who will listen. (See sidebar)

    His energy also may be genetic. “My parents realized early on that I had a tremendous amount of energy and if I didn’t spend it all, I would wind up doing something bad.”

    Fortunately, his mother, Olive, BScN ’74, MEd ’78, PhD ’89, former vice-provost at the U of A, and his father, Martin, BA ’71, LLB ’74, a stay-at-home father and writer who has since passed away, kept him busy enough that he focused on positive things. In Grade 6, he became president of his student council by acclamation. “Suddenly, I had responsibility, and it gave me a sense of ownership.”  

    A chance meeting at his sister’s Grade 9 graduation sealed his fate. “There was this guy there, and he was so cool but he was nice. He made people feel good about themselves because he knew everyone’s name. I looked at him and I thought, ‘That’s who I want to be.’ ”

    Teens challenged to grow

    In the Strathcona High School leadership room, there are no desks. It’s an open space with air hockey and foosball tables. Next year, it will have a renovated kitchen and modular walls for a “pay as you will” café, run entirely by leadership students.  

    It is here that Yonge spends most of his time with students. “As a teacher, I prepare students academically, but many people don’t realize how much hidden curriculum there is. I teach and evaluate, but I’m also here to build relationships, offer emotional support, help build character and make decisions. The most challenging thing to learn is how to ask students really good questions.”

    He once asked a student, “What could make your leadership experience better?” She replied, “I should speak up more.” He encouraged her, “It’s like riding a bike … you keep trying and soon you’ve figured it out.”

    She replied, “But I never learned to ride a bike.”

    Fast forward to the finale of the Alberta Student Leadership Conference. Yonge takes the stage and asks this girl to join him. As she — and many in the crowd — tries not to cry, he presents her with a new bike from United Cycle. And he commits to helping her ride that bike.

    High school is a critical season of life. It’s hard, funny, filled with ennui and other unnamed, uncomfortable emotions. For Tom Yonge, these critical three years represent an opportunity to expand kids’ sense of possibility. For his leadership students, he is working to build a community that will be a model of what can be.

    The 2013 Alumni Recognition Awards ceremony takes place Sept. 25 at the Winspear Centre. The event is open to the public and tickets are complimentary. Read more about Tom Yonge and the other Alumni Award winners in the Autumn issue of New Trail magazine.