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New British prime minister's old Burnaby school thrust into media spotlight

Retired teacher Bill Chambers says having his former Grade 7 student Liz Truss go on to become British Prime Minister this week is a 'neat story,' but not his proudest achievement as an educator.
Liz Truss Parkcrest
A class photo posted on Instagram shows Britain's new prime minister, Liz Truss, during her Grade 7 year at Burnaby's Parkcrest Elementary School. She is second from the left in the second-highest row, wearing a pink sweater.

A Burnaby elementary school has gotten a flurry of media attention in the last few days – all thanks to Britain’s new prime minister.

Liz Truss took office Tuesday afternoon after winning a Conservative Party leadership race to replace outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

When it became clear she was about to assume the United Kingdom’s top post, an Instagram post she put out four years ago drew reporters’ attention to Parkcrest Elementary School, where Truss spent a year as a Grade 7 student in 1987/88 while her father was working as a visiting associate professor of mathematics at SFU.

“I spent a year in Canada that changed my outlook on life,” stated the post, which was accompanied by a class photo.

Brenda Montagano, who is also in that photo as a freckle-faced 12-year-old, now teaches at Parkcrest.

When she was first asked about Liz Truss, she wasn’t even sure she remembered anyone by that name in her Grade 7 class.

“I pretty much remember everyone in my class because we had a small Grade 7 class; there were only 13. The class photo that she posted on her Instagram, there’s probably 30 of us in there, but it was a split, a 6/7.”

It turned out Montagano had known Truss as “Elizabeth” – and she definitely remembered the new girl with the English accent.

“We had a very small cohort all through elementary school for whatever reason, so we were a pretty tight-knit group, and any time that somebody new came in it was exciting because there were so few of us,” Montagano said. “Yay, a new girl, and then she had this accent.”

Looking back, Montagano said it can’t have been easy for Truss to start at a new school in a foreign country, especially in Grade 7.

“It’s no small feat to do that,” Montagano said. “She did it with grace and with confidence, and I’m sure these are skills that have helped her in her journey to where she is now.”

Montagano has already worked Truss into a goal-setting activity for her new intermediate class to kick off the new school year.

“I always start September with goals and dreams and heroes and qualities of people you admire, so this fits in perfectly,” she said.  “Any time there’s a real current event or real life situation, the kids connect so much more.”

As for why a year at a Burnaby school might have changed Truss’s “outlook on life,” Montagano points to her teacher that year, Mr. Bill Chambers.

“He just connected with everybody. Whether you were the athlete or you were strong academically or you struggled, he just connected with you as a person. You felt heard, and he kind of found your strengths and your passions and helped you develop and build them,” Montagano said.

For her, a skipping club Chambers started at Parkcrest had a big impact. 

“Turns out I was pretty good at it, and I ended up competing at the Canadian nationals one year,” she said.

Chambers also created an advanced math program he thinks worked for Truss.

“I loved finding new curriculum,” he told the NOW. “I was never a good student myself. I was not the brightest kid in the classroom, so, when I started teaching, I wanted to make sure every kid in my classroom was successful. Anything I could do to challenge the kids as far as academics, physically, whatever, I was continually challenging and supporting kids.”

While Chambers didn’t initially remember Truss, the class photo she posted on Instagram reminded him that her Grade 7 class had been an exceptional one.

Chambers, who retired in 2007 after 33 years as a teacher and school administrator, is only willing to take a tiny part of the credit if Truss’s year in Burnaby ended up being a transformational one.

He believes her father’s decision to expose her to new experiences abroad, the middle-class neighbourhood they lived in while they were in Burnaby and her exceptional classmates might also have played a part. 

That being said, he said he “damn-near” dropped his phone when he Googled his former student and found out she was to become the new prime minister of the United Kingdom.

It's a "neat story," according to Chambers, but he said having taught a prime minister will not go down as his proudest achievement as an educator.

“My biggest accomplishment would be all of the kids that I taught in different schools who ended up going into education,” he said.

That includes Montagano, who lives six blocks from the house she grew up in and now teaches at the school where she and Britain’s new prime minister finished elementary school together.

“I’ve tried to make a difference that way,” Montagano said of her 25 years teaching at Burnaby schools. 

Follow Cornelia Naylor on Twitter @CorNaylor