In her life and in her death, Calgary teacher Catherine Mitchell inspired others.
Whether you knew her as a colleague, a neighbor, or perhaps your high school biology teacher, Catherine Mitchell left you with an impression.
When Jamie Whittaker remembers her friend, she thinks immediately of Mitchell’s authenticity and resolve. The Calgary native displayed an unflinching responsibility to truth, says Whittaker, who more than a year ago, with a small but dedicated group of Mitchell’s friends, rallied to raise money for the Catherine Mitchell Memorial Award at the Werklund School of Education. The group is hoping their crowd-sourced fund will soon reach endowment, allowing the award to support students on an annual basis.
“Catherine was completely sincere and operated from a place of convictions,” says Whittaker. “She exemplified what it is to be true to yourself and she was able to draw that out of others.”
Mitchell, who began her teaching career in 1957, and taught biology at St. Mary’s Girls’ High School and St. Francis High School, placed colossal importance on education. The night before her death in June 2018, friends recall Mitchell reiterating her love of teaching, referencing the many late nights spent preparing the perfect lesson plan.
“Catherine went far beyond what was expected in order to create engaging and meaningful content for her students,” Whittaker says. “She was genuinely invested in their success and cared deeply about them.” Mitchell maintained contact with many of her students long after they graduated, frequently offering them support and encouragement in their different life-journeys.
“When an education student receives a scholarship or bursary to support their goal of becoming a teacher, the assistance is not going to the student alone,” says Dr. Amy Burns, associate dean of Undergraduate Programs in Education at the Werklund School, where more than 1,500 students are preparing to teach our next generations. “There are hundreds of children and youth who will be impacted by that amazing teacher in the future. Through supporting our future teachers, we are strengthening our society at large and that has never been more important than right now.”
Teacher and advocate
Beyond her identity as teacher, Catherine Mitchell is also remembered by friends as a strong advocate, committed to advancing the conversation on multiple issues, be it city snow removal, a heartfelt commitment to the environment, or her very personal view and intimate experience of the right to medically-assisted death.
Catherine never did anything in half measures, says friend, Lee Hunt, who has worked to raise funds for the education scholarship. Whether she was buying a product or taking on a new endeavour, Mitchell would thoroughly research it. This was especially true of her death, explains Hunt. “She faced her death with tremendous courage,” Hunt adds, but only after attending discussions about mortality at local meet-ups, reading about it, and interviewing medical professionals.
When she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Mitchell asked close friend, Janine Violini, among others, to accompany her on her end-of-life journey.
“More than anything else, Catherine inspired me to face fear,” Violini says. “She never acted without good intention… She was fragile and fierce, and she let you see both. She was determined, outspoken, curious, generous, loving, loyal, devoted, compassionate, and concerned about everything and everyone. She was whole.”
The Catherine Mitchell Memorial Award is a scholarship offered annually to a continuing undergraduate student specializing in Secondary Science, who demonstrates academic merit, community service/volunteerism and leadership in the same spirit as Catherine. For those interested in donating to the fund in memory of Catherine, you may do so here.