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Teaching career prepares minister for intensity of public office

September 8, 2015 Cory Hare, ATA News Managing Editor

David Eggen shares a celebratory moment with a well wisher shortly after being sworn in as education minister at the Alberta legislature on May 24, 2015.

David Eggen relishes new role overseeing public education

Editor’s note: The ATA News traditionally tries to profile new education ministers sometime in the first weeks or months after they are sworn in. Here is what we learned from a half-hour chat with David Eggen.

Life has come full circle for David Eggen.

He’s fully engaged in a role that is placing high-intensity demands on his time, but he says his chosen profession has prepared him for this.

“It’s interesting how you learn the skills to make fast decisions, to be confident in the execution of your decisions, to be organized and to be able to communicate your intentions,” he says. “All of those skills I learned as a classroom teacher.”

For Eggen, a three-term MLA and Alberta’s newest education minister, becoming a teacher was simply an extension of his interest in English literature and social studies.

“It seemed like the most natural thing in the world, and I fully intend to be, at some point, a teacher again,” he says.

A graduate of Salisbury Composite High School in Sherwood Park, where he played football and rugby, Eggen earned his bachelor of education from the University of Alberta in 1984. Jobs were scarce for teachers in Alberta at the time, so he took an assignment in Zimbabwe, where he taught for three years before spending another year teaching in Thailand.

“It was a very rich and rewarding experience,” Eggen says, one that showed him how transformative education could be for students from impoverished homes.

“Students that managed to graduate and go on to higher education, they almost invariably transformed their lives and the lives of their families too.”

Eggen says he’d not only like to return to being a classroom teacher someday, but also return to the continent where his teaching career began.

“That’s been a dream of mine I keep in the back of my mind, that I would like to go back to Africa or to do some development work at some point in my life, but I’ve got my work cut out for me here now.”

Authentic experience

Upon returning to his home turf, ­Eggen got a job with Edmonton Public Schools, where he spent the next 15 years teaching English and social studies at various junior and senior high schools, as well as coaching many different sports, including football, soccer, volleyball and basketball.

He says he liked being around young people and seeing them develop as well as the daily variety of school life.

“The best thing about teaching really is just having that authentic experience with students, learning along with them and watching for those moments when you know that you have inspired someone to pursue education for its own sake.”

The teaching role that Eggen most cherishes was a course combining English and social studies that he helped create while teaching at W.P. Wagner High School. His goal in combining the two subjects was to improve literacy and communication skills and give students a sense of history and an appreciation for literature.

“It allowed us to look for the historical context by which the literature was developed,” he says. “If you had students that were maybe more inclined toward one area or another, they could pursue humanities in either way.”

Getting political

Ironically, it was around this time of working in this near-ideal situation that Eggen began to experience a political awakening that would eventually take him out of the classroom and into the Alberta legislature.

“It definitely came from a spark from concerns I had in the classroom around education and realizing that a lot of the problems were stemming from [the legislature],” he says.

In 2001 he ran for the NDP against Liberal mainstay Laurie Blakeman. He lost handily but was not done. He campaigned for two years leading up to the 2004 election — in a different riding — and won.

Eggen lost his seat to the PCs in 2008. He became the executive director of the advocacy group Friends of Medicare and resumed teaching once a week.

He won back his seat in 2012 and expanded his margin of victory in the 2015 election that saw the Rachel Notley-led NDP topple the PC party’s 44-year dynasty. Notley subsequently named Eggen the education minister.

After he was sworn in, Eggen said it was “like a dream come true.” That feeling hasn’t changed much in the three months that have since passed.

“It’s a very humbling and extraordinary feeling that I still experience almost every day when I wake up,” he says.

Eggen says he sometimes feels the gravity of his current role but that the intensity of work is what he’s used to as an opposition member and classroom teacher. He also feels that his time as a teacher, parent and education critic have provided him with a deep understanding of the education sector.

“I certainly feel confident in my capacity to execute this position, but I don’t think I will ever get over the deep honour I feel for having been chosen.” ❚

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