Lynda Silvester - Helping Kids Get a Strong, Smart Start

“Embrace the change and enjoy the learning.”

Those are words that Lynda Silvester has lived by throughout her career. As an educator, she has been active for decades helping children to learn, through many changes in school systems, curriculum, resource levels, parental expectations and societal demands. There’s one constant among all that change, though: Kids want to learn, and with the right help, they can.

As the Guest of Honour at the 23rd Annual Mayors’ Dinner, Lynda is being celebrated for her contributions to education, in her many roles that include teacher, special education consultant, teacher education instructor, vice-principal, principal and founder of Strong Start, an organization that helps young children with literacy basics. It is a mission to which Lynda has devoted her professional life for more than 40 years.

To understand why Lynda is so committed to helping kids learn, you have to consider her early life, growing up in a happy family in North York. In those days, it was not in the middle of the sprawling GTA. She grew up in the area of Keele Street and the 401, before the 401 was even there. (“For many years there were only a few houses within sight of ours” she recalls.) The daughter of an airplane mechanic and a homemaker, Lynda was the second of four children, growing up in a loving and supportive environment that nourished her own love of learning. She completed grades 4, 5 and 6 in two years, and in high school she was enrolled in an enrichment program. It was a natural choice to go into teaching, which at that time did not require a degree before a year of teachers college. So, at the young age of 18, Lynda became a teacher.

In the fall of 1965, Lynda began teaching with the North York school board. When she married Ken Silvester, the young couple moved to Stroud, a small community just south of Barrie. At first, Lynda commuted to North York to her job. In the rapidly growing city, there were a lot of resources available through the school board. It was a very different situation in 1969 when she accepted a teaching position closer to home in Stroud, with the newly amalgamated Simcoe County school board. She fearlessly accepted the challenge of teaching a 1-2 split class in which the children had not had kindergarten. It was a two-room school, with one additional portable, and the principal located at a different school, five miles away.

“I had the tolerance and personality to deal with the challenges,” Lynda says. “I could tell that a few of the kids were really struggling. But there was only one special education consultant for the whole board” - a very different situation from the urban environment she’d been working in while in the city. So in those early days Lynda had to strive extra hard. This effort was soon recognized when in 1970 she was offered the opportunity to establish the first learning disabilities class. She was honoured to be asked, not knowing that special ed teachers in Simcoe County did not always get a lot of respect in the profession. Nonetheless she accepted the new position enthusiastically.

In those days there was no legislation requiring special education or mandating much in the way of resources. So Lynda had to create a lot of the materials and programs herself and hone her skills of persuasion in order to advocate for her students. As a result, by the age of 26, she was teaching Ministry of Education courses to other teachers to train them in special ed. She also learned the importance of involving parents in their children’s education. “Parents really had to push, to be advocates for their children,” she notes. (She also points out that this is still very much the case now.)

In the years that followed Lynda and Ken both earned degrees from Wilfrid Laurier University, going to distance education classes in Orillia on weekends; and they had two kids, Kevin and Karen, who are a great source of joy and have given deep meaning to their lives.

Eventually the family moved to Waterloo Region, and Lynda began working with the public board here. Over the following years, she got a master’s degree from University of Toronto and Supervisory Officers certification, and worked in many roles, on the front lines as a teacher, leading as a principal or Assistant to the Superintendent, and providing specialized assistance as a special education consultant and teacher education instructor for the University of Western Ontario. She valued the opportunity to see education from so many different perspectives, because it has supported her own learning, and increased her understanding of the different situations that families have.

“It’s about the kids you help. That’s the most important part,” Lynda says. “The power of family and parents in the education of the child is crucial. To parents, she says: “You will be the common thread. Teachers will come and go; principals and consultants will come and go. You’ll be there throughout your child’s life.” To new teachers, she says, “the most important thing to learn is to recognize parents as partners” in the education of the child. “When helping children with special needs, fifty percent of the job of the teacher is working with the child; the other fifty percent is working with the family.”

Since retiring, Lynda has continued to work to involve everyone in the community in the education of its children. Her own family was enriched by Kevin’s wife Alissa and a granddaughter Katelyn. Not content to be idle after stepping down in 2000, Lynda was looking for special projects to develop when, as fate or chance would have it, she got a call from KW philanthropist Lyle Hallman. He wanted to establish a program to help young children to learn to read. So Lynda designed a pilot program, Lyle provided the resources it needed, and Strong Start was born.

Initially piloted at two schools in 2001, the first Strong Start program, Letters, Sounds and Words, was an immediate success. Harnessing the power of volunteers, with straight-forward elements that can be taught to volunteers in a matter of hours, the program helps young children get extra helping learning some basic reading skills through three sessions a week for ten weeks. Since those initial pilot demonstrations of the program, it is now used in several school boards, in more than 150 schools, helping 1,900 students per year, through the efforts of over 1,800 volunteers.

Lyle Hallman died in a car accident in 2003, so he was unable to see the full results of his generosity, but the continued support of the Lyle S. Hallman Foundation and many other generous donors has allowed Strong Start to expand its programming to help many more kids, even infants, with learning during that crucial period of early brain development. There are now programs being developed to help 3 ½ year olds get ready for school, help parents provide literacy experiences for their babies and help older immigrant children faced with learning to speak and read English at the same time.

Lynda is proud of all the efforts that schools, donors, staff and volunteers have contributed to Strong Start, and she is reluctant to take too much of the credit. She says her main contribution has been to be an example, to be open to the new challenges that come, and to welcome the learning that comes with that.

Recently, Lynda has been showing courage and resolve in another type of challenge: dealing with cancer. So far she has not let it stop her. “Every day Ken and I have occasion to think how blessed we are,” she says. “If you live your life thinking the cup is half full, rather than half empty, that can carry you a long way.” She is amazed at how kind and supportive people have been. “We’re grateful for all the positive energy.”

“I have had lots of experience pioneering things, so I can live with the unknown. Whatever I need, I’ll find it. It will come.”

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