No place for negativity in this classroom

  • August 28, 2020

For 24 years Antonio Gambale’s classroom has been a place where all have been welcomed and accepted, and for that, the Niagara Region teacher has been recognized with the Rick Hansen Foundation’s Difference Maker Award.

The chair of Canadian and World Studies and Social Sciences at Blessed Trinity Catholic Secondary School in Grimsby, Ont., was one of five Canadian teachers honoured with the award recognizing everyday Canadians for “doing amazing things.”

The foundation, formed in 1988, was spawned by Rick Hansen whose 26-month, 40,000 km “Man in Motion” tour through 34 countries in 1986-87 to make the world inclusive for people with disabilities and find a cure for paralysis captured hearts and imaginations worldwide.

Gambale was nominated in the education category by former student Chelsea Weir, who was inspired to follow in his footsteps as a teacher. Weir described Gambale as a person guided by two principles — accessibility and inclusivity — who encourages students to embrace academic excellence, their identity and to become the best versions of themselves.

“I was flabbergasted, and I just started crying,” said Gambale on receiving the honour. “My parents, God bless them, they’re older now and they’ve given up a lot for me. I called my mother and father and Chelsea and we were all just crying over the phone.”

Gambale has earned a strong reputation among students and fellow educators in the Niagara Catholic District School Board for his ability to create and maintain a positive learning space, rooted in the principles of openness, inclusivity and mutual respect.

“I always tell my kids that the minute you cross the platform into my classroom, all the negativity in the hallway disappears,” said the husband and father of three.

With more than 20 years at Blessed Trinity, Gambale has taught everything from French and civics to law and history. He says he is able to accomplish the Catholic teaching objectives in part through Indigenous teaching tools and methods including the sharing circle, where in addition to discussing First Nations, Metis and Inuit histories, students are invited to bring their own identity to the table.

Gambale credits his humble and diverse upbringing with teaching him the value and importance of feeling accepted and supported, something his mother and father were able to give him despite modest means. Born in Canada to immigrant parents from Libya and Italy, he says sharing personal stories where appropriate and showing vulnerability in the classroom while discussing relevant world news helps foster a sense of empathy and social responsibility while empowering students to use their own voices. 

“With the background that I have, I’m able to let the kids know that I’m human first,” said Gambale. “I think that’s where my teaching really resonates with them. If I get emotional, I will shed a tear and to me, it’s human to cry and kids need to know that.”

Gambale connected with students in a way that captivated Weir and is something she tries to model with her own students.

“I remember my first experience going to Blessed Trinity, I was placed in Mr. Gambale’s class for my Grade 8 transition day,” recalled Weir, a high school teacher with the Niagara Catholic board. “He opened up about his family, his experiences in high school and made everything so relatable.

“That’s what I try to do as an educator myself. I’m able to open up in an appropriate manner about my life and my experiences. I try to do that whenever possible, as a result of what I learned from (Gambale).”

During a classroom placement while earning her Bachelor of Education at Brock University, Weir asked to go back to Blessed Trinity where she was reconnected with Gambale. She saw the meaningful connections between Gambale and students which transcended their school experience.

“Alumni were coming back to visit on a weekly basis,” said Weir. “You could see the impact he was making on his students. After my teaching block was done, we continued to stay in touch and have continued that professional relationship.”

Connected through their passion for youth and alignment in teaching philosophy, the two continue their friendship which appears to be an extension of Gambale’s classroom model centred around support and mutual respect. They took an Indigenous studies course together at the University of Toronto in recent years and Gambale looks forward to attending Weir’s wedding, which was slated for this summer but postponed due to COVID-19.

As the pair gear up to return to the classroom during these unprecedented times, they look forward to integrating life experiences to encourage empathy and social responsibility in students.

“In the classroom, we talk about issues in the media which is something I don’t think all students receive in all their courses,” said Weir.  “I believe it’s really important to pride ourselves on being social justice educators. That I completely learned from Mr. Gambale.”

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