When Jean Gittins announced her retirement in 1988, TFS students voiced their disapproval. “Who’s going to tell us funny stories?” they complained. Indeed, only a few moments of conversation with the teacher who made history come alive for her pupils reveal her to be a born raconteuse with a keen sense of humour.
Yet on Jean’s first day of what would become a 23-year career at TFS she was panic-stricken. “Take me home,” she exclaimed to her husband, John, “I can’t do this!” You see, the British-born high school teacher and mother of three had been absent from teaching for 8 years when she was asked to step in as a primary school teacher. Daughter Catherine was already enrolled at TFS at the time and Jean agreed because she was so impressed with the calibre of the school.
After 20 minutes in the classroom, however, Jean relaxed. She realized that children essentially had not changed. “They were charming, intelligent … I never had a discipline problem.” Chuckling, she recalls how one day, just as she was closing her classroom door, she heard feet running down the hall and a shrill, panicky little voice cry out: “You can’t be late for Mrs. Gittins. Five minutes late and you’ve lost a hundred years!”
After retirement, Jean filled three volumes of memoirs with amusing stories, many of which connect us to the very beginnings of TFS, when Anna and Harry Giles founded the school. Those were the heady days of the sixties. “There was a great deal of freedom then. I designed my own syllabus — we all did. My colleagues were wonderful teachers. We loved our pupils and we loved our subjects.”
All three of Jean’s daughters attended TFS. Catherine during her elementary years and, Susan and Jennifer, graduated from TFS in 1982 and 1986, respectively. No doubt they cherish their mother’s wit and wisdom and as much as her many students did. In fact, such was Mrs. Gittins’ reputation as a teacher that students whom she had never taught implored her to speak at their graduation.
Jean fondly recalls the graduation speech she gave to the class she never taught. It was a history lesson, about Thomas Jefferson and his views on the importance of education. There wasn’t a dry eye in the auditorium. Today, to new generations of TFS graduates, she has this to say: “You will be inundated with advice. Ignore it all — look into your own heart and ask yourself, ‘What do I want to do?’ That’s the light at the end of your road.”
For Jean Gittins that light was, and still is, teaching. “Teaching is the most important work anyone can do.”