Every year, we are honoured to recognize members of the SMUS community as they retire and take on new adventures. Read the 2021 Retirees series to learn more about their outstanding contributions to the school. In this story, we recognize Junior School teacher Nina Duffus.
Flaming candles, raw eggs, permanent dye, and energetic Grade 2 children. What could go wrong?
Nina Duffus laughs as she describes decorating Ukrainian Easter eggs, a staple project in her class each spring during her 22 years at the Junior School. There were no disasters, and it was a memorable activity that also gave children the opportunity to teach their parents a new skill.
Victoria-born and raised, Nina was first drawn to social work, but after her first year at the University of Victoria she switched to a Bachelor of Education majoring in Language Arts and Remediation. Focused on building resilience, Nina believed that working with children would yield earlier impact for children and their families. While studying, she worked with Victoria READ, an organization that assists with literacy skill development in children and adults.
After graduation, she moved to the Okanagan, where she married, raised two children, and taught Learning Resource and Kindergarten to Grade 5. After nine years, Nina secured a three-year teaching post in Lahr, Germany, where she taught Junior Kindergarten for the Department of National Defence. Living in the Black Forest, a half-hour from the French border and an hour from Switzerland, during an historic time when the Berlin Wall came down, was and extraordinary personal and professional experience, she says. As Canada prepared to close its military bases in Germany, the family returned to the Okanagan where Nina continued her teaching career and completed a Master of Arts in Leadership and Training at Royal Roads University.
Nina joined SMUS in 1999 as the Hinton Chair, a one-year position established to bring in fresh ideas and innovative professional development. During that year she worked on revamping student leadership at the Junior School, introduced the Destination Imagination creative problem-solving program, and coordinated the Junior School information for the first CESI evaluation. After her year as Hinton Chair, Nina continued to teach Grade 1 for seven years before shifting to Grade 2 for the rest of her career.
Every year, Nina’s class raised chicks, ducklings, and butterflies. When COVID-19 hit during the 2019-20 school year, Nina was determined her students would still have that experience, so she set up video cameras in her home. With 24-hour access, students kept an eye on the birds as they hatched and grew, and they watched as the butterflies took flight.
Nina also enjoyed helping young students understand the value of hands-on service work. She believes you have to “get down and get dirty.” That service work included an annual fundraising project for which her primary students made hundreds of gingerbread cookies to sell to the school community. The project encompassed many learning opportunities: science, math, reading, and kitchen skills. “Students worked beyond the point where it was fun, and it became real, meaningful work. Kids measured supplies, baked, decorated, bagged, and delivered cookies to the classes, then tallied receipts and justified the spreadsheets. They used their proceeds to buy groceries to create food hampers to support needy families in Victoria.”
Nina believes in cultivating curiosity and an appetite for learning to develop healthy lifelong habits. Using food was just one way to allow children to try new experiences and take risks. Many children turn their noses up at Brussels sprouts, but in Nina’s class students were encouraged to say, “I haven’t learned to like it yet.” This opened the door to liking a food in the future. And the mini-surveys and graphs compiled by the students show that most kids did learn to like Brussels sprouts once they were peeled, spread with butter, sprinkled with sugar, salt and nutmeg, and roasted. Brussels sprouts are now a popular addition at many SMUS festive family dinners!
“I love watching young students open their minds and question everything, not taking everything at face value,” Nina says. “With so much information available today, it is increasingly important to have critical thinking skills. That’s why I will sometimes tell them something outrageous just to encourage them think about it and assess whether it’s true.”
Nina has seen a lot of change at the Junior School during her time at SMUS, including growth in the counselling and learning resource departments, enhanced opportunities for professional development, which allow teachers to effectively meet individual needs, and greater extracurricular and outdoor education opportunities for students.
In retirement, Nina is looking forward to being an on-call teacher and remaining part of the vibrant SMUS community. She is excited to have more time to spend with her husband Rob, adult children Elizabeth and Gavin ’05, and grandchild Nora. Nina is savouring the free time, enjoying her paddleboard, and perfecting her pies.