W.R.D. Coffey: teacher, mentor, friend

The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.
– William Arthur Ward

I’m heading to a funeral today. My grades 10-12 history teacher died last week after a long and, hopefully, happy life. If the latter is measured in the contribution one makes to the lives of those who knew him, then William R. D. (“Uncle Willy”, “Bill”) Coffey’s life was a happy one indeed. At least for me – but I am confident that I am speaking on behalf of a great many who knew him – his was an influence that continues to shape my thinking, my interests, my attitudes and so many small elements of my life, probably ones that I wouldn’t immediately recognize. For me, for always, he was a great teacher, one of the best.

That I am writing this almost 42 years after I last had him for a class (Canadian History in Grade 12) stands, perhaps, as the most telling testament of his influence. When I began my own teaching career, I had the good fortune to meet Bill as a colleague and a friend. I used to lunch with him and a few others on Fridays although that practice faded as more and more of the “old guard” retired and moved on to other pursuits.

If I happened to be wandering by, at times I would see Bill ensconced at Beatty and the Bistro on the ground floor of the Admiral Beatty complex. On occasion I would drop in to see him and say hello. Always the gentleman, he would take time and inquire regarding the details of my life and career. I honour him today. I will miss him.

When I think back to my time as a student in his class, by the standards of today’s educational theories, he probably wouldn’t have fit the mold of the “good teacher”. His classroom lacked extensive decorations, he wasn’t one to wander around observing students’ work; in fact, he spent most of his time behind his desk, if my memory serves me.

And yet, his “method” (hardly seems an appropriate term really) was enough to cause me, as a Grade 10 student, to read Thucydides “History of the Peloponnesian War” just for the fun of it. His gift was as a storyteller and what is history if not a panoramic unfolding story of humanity’s time on the planet?

He had traveled and frequently incorporated anecdotes of his visits to Greece and other parts of Europe and the world. He spoke of such things with a fervor that was infectious, at least for me, although, as I said earlier, I am confident that I am speaking on behalf of a large contingent of those who had him as a teacher over the years. All those who entered his classroom were treated with respect. To put it another way, he made you believe that you mattered.

Bill Coffey cared about his subject and his students. His caring was evident to all who knew him and St. Malachy’s Memorial High School, where he taught for most of his career, established, some years back, a WRD Coffey Award given to students who best exemplify the spirit that Mr. Coffey lived every day.

In sum, Mr William R. D. Coffey embodied, for me, the core of what teaching has always been about – and will continue to be about – however much university faculties and educational theorists try to convince us that it can be broken down to strategies to be implemented and technologies to be applied, regardless of who is doing the “teaching”. He cared deeply about learning, about young people and about the world. He wore his caring on his sleeve every day and he was quick to reach out to those in need of help and mentoring. My teacher, my mentor, my friend, Bill Coffey, can rest easy: his was a life well-lived.

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