'Teachers’ Teacher' Joe Atkinson Retires as College Registrar
February 07 2003
Registrar, teacher, husband, father, volunteer, community activist, teacher
developer and advocate extraordinaire, whatever the mantle, Joe Atkinson has
put his heart fully into everything he's done.
At the end of March, after six years with the College, the last two at the
helm as Registrar and Chief Executive Officer, Joe Atkinson will retire. The
career he gave his heart to is being cut short by heart disease.
Calling it "the hardest decision of my professional life," Atkinson
announced his retirement following a surprise hospitalization last summer for
what was diagnosed as a heart virus.
He returned to work as soon as possible in the fall, but while his focus was
intact, he found his stamina wasn’t. Knowing he couldn’t meet his
own expectations, he refused to fail to meet others’.
It's those same high standards - personal and professional - that have become
synonymous with the Atkinson name.
When he arrived at the College in 1997, hand-picked by the first Registrar
Margaret Wilson, Joe Atkinson had a reputation the size of the province for
promoting professional growth among teachers.
Armed with school board and federation experience, he was just the go-to guy
needed to develop standards of practice, ethical standards for teachers, and
a framework for professional learning. That and hitting the road to explain
the purpose of the College itself. Consultation was his specialty; his trademark,
the personal touch.
"Joe was always a teacher's teacher," says friend and former Waterloo
District School Board education director Patti Haskell. "He's made contributions
to many provincial organizations including OPSTF, OTF, the Leadership Academy
and the Ontario College of Teachers. Joe was everywhere; you just felt his
presence there all the time. "
Having completed his teacher training at Lakeshore Teachers’ College
where he served as president of the student body, Atkinson was awarded the
Prince of Wales Prize as the top-graduating teacher of 1966.
He began teaching with the Toronto Board of Education in 1966, completing
his BA from York University and earning a M.Ed. from the Ontario Institute
for Studies in Education/University of Toronto.
His early experience included teaching in inner city Junior and Intermediate
classrooms. He also worked in outdoor education, gifted education and adult
education programs as well as in the board’s curriculum and program department.
In 1974, he joined the professional staff of the Ontario Public School Teachers’ Federation
(OPSTF) and was named the first Director of the federation’s Professional
Development Services Department in 1991.
Under his leadership, the OPSTF established an international reputation for
excellence in the development and delivery of quality professional growth programs.
Some believe it was there that Atkinson created a lasting legacy to teacher
professionalism in Ontario. Haskell says his commitment to professional growth
and leadership is unparalleled. Marg Couture, who followed Atkinson at OPSTF
as Director of Professional Development Services, agrees.
"Twenty-six years ago, he brought many of the credit courses to Ontario
that teachers could use to learn and upgrade their salary levels," Couture
says. "Joe had the insight to bring those courses. His commitment to the
welfare of teachers’ professional development can’t be matched
by anyone else.
"He does what he does because he believes in it. He went to the College
because he believes in accountability," Couture says. "He is admired
and respected across Canada and internationally."
Noel Clark, former OPSTF deputy secretary, says Atkinson spent countless hours
creating "teacher friendly" courses for university credit, packed
with good material and methodology they could use immediately in their classrooms.
As result, he helped to shape a generation of teachers.
"He is an open champion of the people who work with and for him," says
Clark. "He believes not only in the mandate of the College but in the
people who work there."
The College's Deputy Registrar Doug Wilson concurs. Treating staff as family
has contributed significantly to the respect people have for Atkinson as a
leader and as an educator, Wilson says.
"I've never met a person more admired and respected by his staff than
Joe Atkinson. Joe realized when he became registrar that he had a huge responsibility
to maintain the high standards of leadership provided by Margaret Wilson.
And he's done a wonderful job. He's provided strong, dynamic, visionary leadership
in his roles as Co-ordinator, Deputy Registrar and Registrar. We've come to
count on his strength, his wisdom, his advice, his honesty and his integrity."
Jack Martin, a former member of the OSSTF secretariat and the organizational
architect of the Ontario Principals’ Council, says Atkinson is conscientious,
credible and courageous.
He's always looking at what's in the best interest of teachers, always conscious
about doing the right thing and he always takes the high road in difficult
"He was the champion of a very challenging issue in the Professional
Learning Program," says Martin. "Joe recognized that the program
needed to be modified for it to work at all and it was his job to find common
ground between what the government wanted and what would work."
In 1992, in recognition of his contribution to the professional learning of
educators in Ontario, across Canada and throughout the U.S., the OTF awarded
Atkinson a fellowship.
In 1997, he brought his experience and to the College as Co-ordinator of Professional
Affairs. He became Deputy Registrar in June 1999 and was appointed as Registrar
in November 2000.
"I didn’t take the job because I saw it as a challenge," Atkinson
says. " I took it because I saw it as the next logical step for me in
my career and the next natural step for the profession and I wanted to be part
of that. I still believe in it. Passionately."
As College Registrar, Atkinson has become famous for his three-promise mantra
on behalf of the teaching profession.
"We have promised members of the public that when they send their children
to our schools, they will be taught and supervised by qualified and certified
teachers, principals and supervisory officers," he says. "We have
promised that each of these individuals will be competent, and we have said,
send us your children and we promise that they will be safe in our charge."
It's the College's work to live up to those promises that enables Atkinson
to retire satisfied.
For example, he says that the Standards of Practice for the Teaching Profession,
developed during his tenure and true to his own standards for consultation,
have become the "fire in the belly" statements for the profession.
"This is what we believe in as a educators. This is what we stand for.
This is what we base our existence upon," Atkinson says. "The standards
are fundamental to all that's done at the faculties of education right now.
The work of students who graduate from the faculties now is grounded in the
standards of the teaching profession. The rest of us who have been at teaching
for a while are trying to define our work on the basis of those standards.
"If I take any satisfaction at all, it is that everything that will ever
happen in education in Ontario will reflect the standards of practice for the
teaching profession. They're dynamic. They will change. But, overall, they
need to reflect and direct the vision for our society."
The ethical standards, he says, became a partner to the standards because
they established the ethics under which the profession operates. "They
reflect the morality of our profession.
"The professional learning framework defined for the first time how we
keep ourselves recent and relevant, what defines our basic practice and how
we review and reflect on it in order to improve it," Atkinson says. "Whether
you are a director of education or a supply teacher, you now have a responsibility
to be recent and relevant in your practice. The framework acknowledges, recognizes
and values ongoing professional learning."
Atkinson calls himself "a womb to tomb learner. From the day you're born
to the day you die, you're learning something all the time, reflecting on it,
and moving it into your practice." You change, reinforce, and eliminate
what you need to based on information, research, experience, and your own maturation,
For Atkinson, being a teacher was almost a birthright. His mother was a teacher.
His wife Judy just retired as a principal. And two of their three children
have chosen teaching as a profession. "We call it the family business," he
Since becoming Registrar, Atkinson has made it a priority to speak to teacher
graduates at every Ontario faculty "to talk about the profession and why
the College represents the future of the profession." He wants newcomers
to feel that they've made the right decision.
As a teacher himself, Atkinson liked to work with the kids who were different.
The ones in the margin. The ones that might have been written off by others.
The ones whom, he says, "if left unattended, would’ve been takers
instead of givers."
One such lad, now grown, stopped Atkinson in the mall one day some time ago
to tell him he never forgot the difference Atkinson made in his life. Then
he introduced his son, Joe.
Atkinson trusts that someone else helped the students he may have missed.
Maybe, just maybe, another teacher on the team made the connection those students
"I've always been proud to say at a family gathering or a cocktail party
that I'm a teacher. And even though I'm Registrar of the College, I still see
myself as a teacher and inculcating the values of the society in which we find
With his rapier wit and penchant for one-liners, he also could’ve been
a stand-up comedian, friends say.
Raymond Lemley, author and former director of training for the U.S.-based
National Association of Secondary School Principals, goes back 25 years with
Atkinson. At Lemley's 60th birthday party, Atkinson seized the spotlight and
wouldn’t give it up.
"Once you give him a microphone, you pretty much have to drive a stake
through him to settle him down," says Lemley, adding "As with other
such occasions, it became Joe's party. The only thing he didn’t do was
open my presents."
He's used that same passion, vitality, and commitment to purpose to better
his community as a volunteer.
He has served as President of the United Way of Ajax-Pickering, as Chairman
of the Board of Directors of the Ajax and Pickering General Hospital and was
a founding member of the Hospital Council of Durham Region.
He was elected to the Town of Ajax Council in 1985 and over eight years in
public office served in a number of positions including local Councillor, Durham
Regional Councillor and Deputy Mayor.
Atkinson has served as a board member of the Central Lake Ontario Conservation
Authority, as Vice-Chair of the Ajax Hydro Electric Commission and as a member
of the Rogers Cablesystems Advisory Board.
For his outstanding contribution to his community, he was named the citizen
of the year for 1995 and was the recipient of the Ajax Civic Award.
Bruce Cliff, former President and CEO of the Ajax-Pickering General Hospital,
calls Atkinson a great guy, community-minded, and progressive. The two worked
hand-in-hand, Joe as the Chair of the Hospital Board between 1993 and 1995,
to press for the expansion of the hospital to meet the needs of the growing
One of Cliff's fondest moments was the opening of a new tower to the hospital
with Atkinson presiding over the celebration. "He's one of the finest
board chairs I've ever worked with," Cliff says.
He credits Atkinson’s ability to get the support of the board and the
hospital and medical staff behind him to save time dealing with the government. "He's
politically astute. He sets goals and motivates people to achieve those goals."
Cliff also expresses admiration for Atkinson as a "solid family man,
a man of strong beliefs and ethics, and one who follows through on things."
"He's bigger than life," Cliff says. "He has a great sense
of humour, and is very positive and fair minded. He sees the other person’s
point of view on an issue. I don’t think I've met an individual who loves
his community more."
Pride and Frustration
As Registrar, Atkinson says he's proudest of how the College has met its
mandate in being able to accredit pre- and in-service teacher education programs,
and for issuing the College's first professional advisory, advising members
of the boundaries of their responsibilities and their responsibility to the
safety of children.
He says his greatest frustration has been "the inability of our profession
to deal with change constructively, creatively and positively", and cites
examples such as multiple grade classrooms, recommendations of the Hall-Dennis
Report, curriculum change, and the establishment of the College of Teachers
"Our education system is still set up for an agrarian society," Atkinson
says. "The kids are off in the summer to work in the fields. There aren’t
as many fields as there were. Today, we should be looking at things such as
year-round schools. It's more efficient, more effective, better learning pedagogically,
and it's cheaper."
He's also aggravated by the notion that anyone can teach. Not so, he says.
"Everybody who comes into a school, either as a student, a parent, a
grandparent, an aunt or an uncle, knows a better way to do it because, after
all, they were part of the process. Well, no. There's more to being a good
teacher, a good principal, or a good superintendent than just having been to
What does he think about opposition to the College from within the profession
itself? A great deal of it is organized spin, he says.
"When you talk to individual teachers, they want to be recognized as
part of a profession. When I first came into teaching, I took a job. When my
youngsters come into teaching now, they enter a profession. That's the difference.
The reason is that we now have a self-regulatory responsibility. We're responsible
and accountable for our actions."
When asked what he'd like to see the College eventually achieve, his answer
is familiar and unwavering - delivering on the College mandate and the three
"My wish - and we are moving that way - is for the College to guarantee
to the public that there is a certified, qualified teacher in every classroom,
that they are competent, and that students are safe in the charge of those
people. I want the College to be respected for that. I have no question that
over time all our members will believe that."