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West Vancouver physics teacher wins prime minister's teaching award

The key to teaching is keeping students engaged, says Rockridge Secondary’s Matt Trask

Growing up as the child of two educators, Matt Trask was certain of one thing – he wasn’t going to follow in his parents’ footsteps.

However, crossing paths with an extraordinary physics teacher showed him the potential joy that teaching could bring.

“My physics teacher, Brent Crich, made learning incredibly fun and hands-on,” Trask said. “We weren’t just sitting in class taking notes; we were actively engaged in his class, experiencing physics firsthand. This approach inspired me to adopt a similar method in my teaching career. I’ve focused on getting students to experience learning by building, doing, and moving, allowing them to fully engage with the material.”

That inspiration helped lead Trask on the path that took him to where he is today, a teacher at West Vancouver’s Rockridge Secondary who was recently awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence. Trask and 16 other teachers from across Canada were in Ottawa on Monday, June 17, to accept the award.

The award is the latest step in Trask’s journey as an educator. After completing his undergraduate degree in chemistry at the University of British Columbia, Trask travelled for a year, taking the time to reflect and discover his true calling.

“I loved science but didn’t want to work in the lab,” he said. “I wanted to work with people. I knew that I would only be happy if I was working with people, so teaching just seemed like the perfect job.”

He began teaching in 2003, initially working as a teacher on call for a few years. After gaining some experience teaching overseas, he secured his first job in Abbotsford as a physics teacher despite his background being in chemistry. After two years in Abbotsford, he and his wife moved to the North Shore, where he secured a position at Rockridge.

Trask said his teaching philosophy has always been focussed on keeping students captivated by what’s going on in the classroom.

“People, especially kids, won’t learn unless they’re engaged,” he said. “It might sound simple, but unless they’re mentally and physically present in the classroom, understanding why they’re there and what their goals are, learning just won’t happen.”

As a physics teacher, Trask often assigns design challenges to his students, which require them to complete tasks using limited resources. These challenges range in complexity, from constructing a machine that navigates a zip line and releases a package at a specific time to creating 3D-printed, rocket-powered cars for maximum distance. In another assignment, students even develop their own projects using Arduino, a microcontroller. This requires them to delve into circuitry, soldering, programming, and ultimately integrating these skills to create impressive final products.

“What I hope my students take away from the class is that learning is hard work, but it can also be fun,” he said. “Putting those two things together is the secret to success. Nothing comes easy. Physics isn’t easy, but if you’re enjoying it and you’re enjoying the fact that you’re learning and growing, then it makes it a lot easier for sure.”

Underlying the importance of exploring new teaching methods and continuing to grow, Trask warns new teachers against settling into a routine.

“Over the years, I’ve really tried to maintain my excitement about teaching,” he said. “So, when there’s new technology to try, different ways to assess students, or fresh projects to engage in, I make sure to incorporate them. Teaching is about continual learning, and when educators are learning, their students are likely learning too.”

The celebrated teacher expressed his love for playing various sports, such as volleyball and hockey. With two young daughters, he stays busy coaching their sports teams, going for hikes, biking, and engaging in outdoor activities, all of which bring him happiness.

“I was teaching long before I had my own children, and I would like to think that teaching has taught me patience and empathy,” he said. “As a teacher, you learn early on that every single student in your class is their own person with their own challenges, desires, and backgrounds. If you’re not meeting people where they are at, then it’s really hard to get any movement going.”

Trask believes that public education on the North Shore is exemplary. From his perspective, the public schools in the area provide unmatched teaching and care for children.

As his parting thought, Trask said the credit he is getting now should be shared with the many teachers and staff members he has worked with over the years.

“I’m obviously very proud of the work that I do and have done, but everything I accomplish is a result of teamwork,” he said. “Throughout my career, I’ve had the privilege of collaborating with incredible educators whom I’ve learned from, and supportive administrators who have encouraged my innovative ideas. Winning this award is an honour, but I see it as recognition for Rockridge and for West Vancouver as a whole.”

This year’s Prime Minister’s Awards for top teachers holds special significance as it marks the 30th anniversary of the awards, which carry on the tradition of honouring educators who inspire Canada’s next generation to reflect, ask questions, and challenge themselves.

Since their creation in 1994, the Prime Minister’s Awards have honoured more than 2,200 outstanding Canadian educators. Award recipients are determined based on a rigorous two-tier selection process undertaken by more than 180 volunteers from Canada’s education and early childhood education communities.

This year’s award recipients were chosen from among 115 nominations across the country.

Fatemeh Falah is an intern reporter with the North Shore News. She can be contacted at [email protected].