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OSS teacher Peter Gajda wins prestigious teaching award
Teacher Peter Gajda enjoys his students and it shows.
The Osoyoos Secondary School (OSS) math and science teacher recently was named the 2014 winner of the McEwen Family Teacher Recognition Award.
The University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Faculty of Applied Science presents the award annually. Recipients are high school teachers who go above and beyond the teaching curriculum to help students succeed academically and personally.
Former students nominate the teachers.
In Gajda’s case, the nomination came from third-year UBC engineering student Tyson Costa of Osoyoos. Three other former students also contributed letters of support.
“I was really honoured that former students would do that, but it was also very humbling,” said Gajda. “There’s a lot of times when kids move on from the high school and you don’t know if you’ve really made an impact on them.”
The support letters, however, were clear that Gajda had made a difference.
“As our grad sponsor, he was constantly involved in our lives,” wrote former student Colten Wimmer. “He was constantly an encouragement and a source of motivation, especially for struggling students. He was willing to go above and beyond for students who needed help or who had a keen interest.”
“Mr. Gajda has always been a selfless, optimistic person and is the first person that I talk to whenever I am in need of personal advice,” wrote Dylan Holz.
Gajda often volunteers as a chaperone for students and he is licensed to drive a bus, which he often does for extracurricular events.
“If ever a chaperone was needed, he would volunteer,” wrote Costa. “Not only that, but he would be having fun and dancing along. All of these things he did made me realize that teachers not only had to be someone to assign you homework, but that they could have fun and be a friend.”
Former student Miranda Pendergraft wrote that Gajda is active in coaching and refereeing in sports both at OSS and outside the school.
“He is not just a teacher that follows the curriculum,” she wrote. “He goes above and beyond by setting time aside and volunteering to coach school sports. Not only did he involve himself in activities, he also watched and cheered on school sports teams. He came to several of my hockey games to watch and support me. I would speak to him after a game and he would always have positive feedback and advice to improve my play.”
Gajda is also musical as he was seen playing guitar and singing with student and singer-songwriter Kayla Turnbull last year at Market on Main.
“Kayla and I have played a lot together and I think it’s been good for both of us,” Gajda said. “Kayla certainly has come a long way with her music, being in the CBC Searchlight program.”
Gajda, 48, grew up in Windsor, Ontario, where he obtained a science degree. He also attended University of Guelph and eventually completed a teaching degree at the University of Regina.
He started his working life as a scientist before he even considered going into teaching.
“I was a freshwater biologist, so I would do water samples and animal samples from freshwater ponds and things and we would look at genetic relationships,” said Gajda. “I worked for a professor [in Windsor] and he sent me up to the Arctic to do some fieldwork for him and then he sent me all over North America.”
Gajda carried out his fieldwork in such places as the Oregon coast, the redwoods of California, New Orleans and Jamaica.
His first experience with teaching was unexpected. Gajda was working in the Arctic and he was asked to fill in for five days when a high school science teacher was delayed in getting there.
“I really enjoyed it,” Gajda recalls. “It was a lot of fun and I realized that I could have science and do teaching.”
After getting his teaching degree, Gajda headed off to do a 12-year teaching stint on Haida Gwaii, then known as the Queen Charlotte Islands.
Nine years ago, he moved to the South Okanagan, working in Oliver for two years before coming to Osoyoos.
Working in a small school, Gajda often teaches the same students at different times and in different subjects over the course of their high school education.
“If you’re interested in science and math, you’re probably going to be in my room at least three or four times over the course of your high school career, so that’s kind of nice,” said Gajda.
The recent award is not Gajda’s first.
In 1997, he received the Prime Minister’s Award for teaching excellence. Five years later he won the Youth Science Foundation Canada Distinguished Service Award for his involvement with science fairs.
The McEwen Family Teacher Recognition award comes with $5,000 for enrichment activities, programs or development at OSS.
Gajda will also be asked to nominate a current high school student to receive a $5,000 scholarship to attend UBC.
Costa will receive $250 for nominating the winner.
Gajda is grateful to his wife, Robin Stille, for putting up with the time he spends away from home.
“I really want to thank my wife who puts up with me giving up a lot of my time to take care of other people’s children when she takes care of the home without me,” Gajda said.
The teacher and his wife have no children of their own.
“No. I live vicariously through the kids at high school,” he joked.
Passionate about his work and his students, Gajda believes that with teaching he has found his calling.
“My father always joked that you should find what you have to do and find the things you like to do,” Gajda said. “If you’re really lucky, they’re both the same thing. I think I found that. I really think that I can make a difference. It’s nice to know with an award like this that I have made a difference with kids.
“Something like this validates the fact that I think I really do have a good rapport with kids and make a difference in their lives.”