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Graduating with her students

Squamish Waldorf teacher and school co-founder Christine Martin reflects as the class she has been with for eight years graduates.

After sending off the latest crop of graduates, Christine Martin, teacher, interim principal and co-founder of Squamish Waldorf School, is taking a year-long break from the school that has been her second home for more than 20 years.

Martin will be back, but is taking a sabbatical to travel and spend time with her family.

As is the Waldorf teaching model, Martin has been with her current Grade 7/8 split class from the start of their elementary education, so about eight years.

A bit of history

Martin's journey with the school began as one of a small group of parents in about 2000 who wanted to bring the Waldorf philosophy to Squamish.

With a background in business, Martin decided to get her teacher-training certification to help get the school off the ground.

"What I didn't realize was that my whole career would change," she said, with a laugh, from a cozy office in the Valleycliffe school on Friday.

The school began with six children in kindergarten, but the parents didn't have enough resources to hire a teacher, so Martin decided to take on the role that year.

Soon they had 16 kids. The student population has grown from there to about 100 in 2021.

"We added a preschool and then we added a grade each year," Martin said.

Asked what inspires her, Martin said helping children meet life "with courage and fortitude and practicality."

"In this day and age, it is difficult. I see this education needed more than ever before, and that is what inspires me," she said, adding that the relationships she has with the other faculty and staff is another inspiration.

Her current class of graduates

Reflecting on the current class she has been with since they were about six years old, Martin's eyes crinkle as she beams behind her COVID-19 mask.

In Grade 1, they came to her hips, she laughs, and now most are taller than her.

"They were so cute and so bright-eyed and so excited about the journey of learning and so open," she recalled.

She said what is most interesting about being with a class for their whole elementary education is how she had to adapt as a teacher.

"I cannot teach them like I taught them in Grade 1, they would eat me alive," she said, with a chuckle.

"You use a little more humour as they get older. You have to have a thicker skin... you have to be really honest and open up the world to them in a very non-judgemental, safe way, but so that it keeps opening."

Until students are in about Grade 4, Martin also does home visits, so becomes a big part of their lives and knows them well.

As she says goodbye to this class, she said she is excited for them, but it is also a bittersweet time.

"It is like a parent sending their child off to post-secondary or off to a big job... pride, excitement, joy, sadness — and a sense of the unknown for them and me," she said. "I hope they meet life with love and courage and joy and reach their full potential. They are a group that has so much to give to the world."

Mikayla is always present

The idea for Martin's year off came before her daughter Mikayla died in 2019 in a biking accident.

The plan was to travel with the star ski-cross racer through the world racing circuit and hopefully to the Olympics, which was the athlete's dream.

"That is not the case now because life has changed," Martin said. The plan now is to travel — as restrictions allow — with husband James and their adult daughter Shondra. Martin also wants time while off for meditation, art, and music.

"So when I come back, with those three things — art, meditation and music — I will be a better teacher to meet the next class coming in."

She only took a week off when Mikayla died and then was right back in the classroom, she said, noting she needed the school and her students needed her.

"Seeing them so full of life was actually quite beautiful," she recalled.

Mikayla had spoken to the kids at the school a few weeks before her death, Martin noted, and was beloved by the kids and faculty alike.

Martin said what she has learned about grief through it all is that each person does it their own way.

"There's so many different ways to meet this," she said. "The greatest gift for me is connection and gratitude. I am so grateful that Mikayla was in my life for 22 years and if I was to do this all again and I was standing at the threshold going, 'She is going to die in 22 years. Are you going to be OK? Do you still want to do this?' The answer is 'Yes!'" she said. "I would do this wholeheartedly again, again and again until I am out of tears."

Martin still feels Mikayla and her no-nonsense attitude with her, she said.

"I also feel that part of the strength of her being has entered who I am. I am a stronger person. Part of her is in me and will always be connected to me, and that is a better part of me," she said.  

"What this experience with Mikayla has helped me learn is that you can hold dichotomies. You can hold so much pain and so much healing at the same time."

Being a Waldorf teacher going through the ups and downs of life has let her students see her vulnerability while letting her see theirs.

"Vulnerability is important," she said. "That journey of eight years allows you — because it is so safe and because you get to see everybody warts and all — that is OK. You can be vulnerable. People love you with all your challenges and all who you are. We are all a mix, whether it is a mother or a teacher — we are not perfect, but we are who we are and we stand before you as simply as we are."

What her students say

Finn Miller has been with Martin since Kindergarten.

"I like how she helps me," said Finn, simply. "She cares about everyone, and I really appreciate that a lot... and I like when she takes us on field trips," Miller continued.

He recalled a kayaking trip to Bowen Island that he really enjoyed.

Miller is skipping Grade 9 and will be entering Grade 10 Howe Sound Secondary in the fall.

Miller's classmate Izzy Jost, who has also been with Martin since kindergarten, describes Martin as "amazing."

She, too, recalled a favourite field trip, hers being to Garibaldi Lake in September.

She says she will miss her teacher "but will have all the memories."

Jost is headed to Rockridge Secondary School in West Vancouver next year.

Student Koyuki Belostotsky has known Martin since preschool.

"There is no way to describe Miss. Christine. I am forever grateful to her... All the hard times that we went through and all the happy times, I will never forget them because they were so impactful to me. She really touched many people in the school, Squamish and the class."

Belostotsky is also headed to Rockridge in the fall.

What a parent and colleague says

"Often when parents talk about Miss Christine, and members of the faculty, one of the things we say is, 'You know, Miss Christine is kind of not quite human,'" said Elise Perreault-LaRiviere, a primary teacher at the school.

Perreault-LaRiviere was an educational assistant in Martin's class for four years and is the parent of a child in her current graduating class.

"There must be something about her that is part angel because it is really in her whole being that there is so much dedication and strength and in her belief in what she does for the children and the parents and the community. In such a really beautiful and holistic way, she really sees the best in people, she sees through and has the patience and the compassion that is rare to find... which really allows people — gives them the space and the opportunity — to meet their full potential, to go into their best selves."