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Teacher faces terminal illness amid national award win

December 10, 2020 Cory Hare, ATA News Managing Editor


Sundre physics teacher Ryan Beck holds the award of excellence he received from the Canadian Association of  Physicists. He’s one of four recipients from across Canada.

Back in September, on the very same day, Sundre teacher Ryan Beck received two bits of news. One was the best of his career and the other was the most devastating of his life.

As he was driving to an appointment with his oncologist, Beck received a phone call informing him that he’d won Canada’s most prestigious award for physics teachers. Moments later, during the ensuing oncologist appointment, he learned that he had terminal cancer and only months to live.

“It was more emotions than you can process in one day, for sure,” he said.

Beck teaches physics and chemistry at Sundre High School. The award, from the Canadian Association of Physicists (CAP), is one he’s been striving for since 2012. The award recognizes teachers who excel at making physics relevant and accessible to students and who provide a wide range of opportunities for students to apply physics in the wider world.

Over the years, Beck has secured $54,000 in grants for his school’s science programs. His initial goal was to bring the school’s equipment up to the standard seen in larger urban schools, but he’s been able to surpass that benchmark, with the school now boasting some university-level equipment.

Overall, his aim has been to create a lab-based environment so students can “learn from the data rather than chalk and talk,” he says.

Among the numerous hands-on experiences he’s co-ordinated was a project that enabled students to develop a proposal that secured beam time at the CLS Synchrotron at the University of Saskatchewan.

All this and more earned him the prestigious and elusive CAP award that includes a $1,000 grant and a trip to the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland. The trip is scheduled for July.

“I’m just hoping that I live long enough with the cancer and that the vaccines are in time that I can go,” Beck said.

Pretty unfair

Beck’s diagnosis came in the second week of September. Prior to that, he had noticed no symptoms except for a little tiredness before the end of summer. Then, during the first week back at school, he was so tired that, by the time Friday arrived, he could barely make it through the day.

Tests revealed that he had stage four esophageal cancer. The cancer was spreading aggressively, metastasizing to his liver, and by the end of the month he was hospitalized.

Fortunately, chemotherapy was effective and Beck was able to return home and return to teaching. He’s now on a three-week cycle — one week of chemo treatments that make for “a really rough week” then two weeks of teaching.

“It’s wonderful,” he says of his return to teaching. “It’s such an important goal in my life right now to work towards that and to achieve that — I wasn’t sure if I’d get there.”

With chemotherapy, Beck says he has a 50 per cent chance of living eight months and a 20 per cent chance of living 18 months. He’s set a personal goal of 18 months … with an option to extend.

Despite his enduring sense of humour, Beck is not completely accepting of his illness, especially coming in conjunction with his greatest professional achievement.

“They’re so intertwined right now that each day is an emotional roller coaster. To have reached that level now then to be faced with dying soon feels pretty unfair.”

Science guy

Beck traces his interest in science back to when he was six years old and received a science book from his mom. He told her right then that he was going to be a scientist.

A high academic achiever, he entered pre-med and caught on quickly to everything, so much so that he often found himself tutoring his friends. 

He switched to education but wasn’t exactly a natural.

“I wasn’t born to be a teacher … it took a lot of work,” Beck says. “I think because I caught on to stuff so easily I didn’t know how to explain it to somebody who didn’t.”

The most challenging part was building relationships with students, something that took a lot of time and help for him to achieve.

“I spent lot of years struggling and I got help from other colleagues. I found some good mentors and got the help that I needed to learn how to build those relationships with students so that I could then focus on the curriculum and the teaching,” he said.

Comments on Beck’s Go Fund Me page suggest that building relationships became one of his strengths as a teacher.

“Mr. Beck was the teacher that inspired all his students to love chemistry and physics,” wrote one former student.

Active in the community

Beck has been heavily involved in other aspects of school life as well as the broader community. He’s the director and producer of the high school’s drama productions, has volunteered for the local karate and astronomy clubs, and is also a certified pyrotechnician.

“I’ve really poured myself into the community over the years,” he said, “and it’s amazing to see it all reflected back as my family deals with the cancer.”

Ryan has a wife and two sons, one who just graduated high school and another in Grade 11. His Go Fund Me page originally had a goal of $7,500 but has raised nearly $22,000 to date.

His message is one of making the most of the time he has left.

“I will be fighting to live, and fighting to have many great days at home with my family, and to have many great days in my classroom,” he wrote. “My spirit is strong, my sense of humour is relentlessly terrible and my passion for life, learning and teaching will continue to drive me.” ❚


Student comments … from Ryan Beck’s Go Fund Me page

“Mr. Beck was everyone’s favourite physics and chemistry teacher in high school. He worked hard to motivate us students to get good grades and he always has a positive attitude towards teaching, placing the quality of students’ learning as a priority. I am now doing well in a university engineering program, much thanks to the effort Mr. Beck placed into teaching my peers and I in high school.” 

“Mr. Beck was the teacher that inspired all his students to love chemistry and physics. His chemistry and physics courses were exceptional, with exciting labs and tons of hands-on experiences. Because of his amazing teaching, I decided to go into chemistry to become a chemistry teacher like him.

He was also the one who gave me the confidence to use my strengths to help those around me through leadership classes. Without his support, all the things I have accomplished during high school and the university years would have been impossible.” 

More information

Visit Ryan Beck’s Go Fund Me page.

A video of Beck’s award presentation can be found on the “Sundre High Shared” YouTube channel


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