Former B.C. Lions running back Chris Spence jokes that when friends heard he'd been signed up by Hamilton, they asked if it was with the Tiger-Cats.
Spence is about to become a key player in the city, but in the education system, not on the football field. He will be director of education for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board this September, replacing retiring director Merv Matier.
Spence, 42, is currently a superintendent for the Toronto public school board. He's also an author, filmmaker and married father of two who enjoys squash and basketball in his spare time.
Born in England, he's lived in Canada since he was three years old, and received most of his early schooling in Windsor.
Spence was drafted by the B.C. Lions after graduating from Simon Fraser University with a degree in criminology in 1985.
He once hoped to join the Ticats, but it didn't happen. An Achilles tendon injury ended his football career in 1988.
His interest in education grew out of his experience as a youth worker in detention and treatment centres for young offenders in Burnaby, B.C.
He was moved by the plight of youth who had exhausted almost every avenue and in whom society seemed to have lost hope.
"I wanted to make a difference with the kids before they ended up in facilities and treatment centres. I was more into ... being proactive and trying to get to some of those kids at an early age."
Spence was a race relations co-ordinator for the City of York, now part of Toronto, before starting his teaching career in 1991. He has an extensive background in community development and promoting equity.
"A lot of the initiatives I was involved with were driven by concerns about youth and how marginalized some of them were. It became natural for me to go into education. Education really became my new 'football' -- I have an absolute passion for it."
Spence got his bachelor of education degree from York University. He also has a master's degree from the University of Toronto and a doctorate from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. He taught at the elementary level for the former North York Board of Education before becoming a vice-principal, principal and superintendent.
Although he smilingly describes himself as "a wannabe filmmaker," he's hardly a wannabe. He wrote and produced an AIDS education film, Teammates, which premiered on CBC in April, 1996. He also wrote, produced and co-directed a stay-in-school video.
Other projects Spence has championed include Boys to Men, a mentoring program for at-risk males. Another is Project GO, which stands for girls only. It was designed to help girls overcome problems such as low self-esteem.
"I'm a really strong believer in developing the whole student ... kids need to feel good about who they are," Spence says.
Research has convinced him that students who are successful, regardless of background, always have two elements in their life: a significant relationship and an area of expertise.
Spence, who is black, wrote a book called The Skin I'm In: Racism, Sport and Education. His goal is to give all a fair opportunity to reach full potential.
"Sometimes when there are barriers out there in society that we can hopefully break down and remove, I think that that serves everyone really well," Spence says. "I don't think it's a revelation to anybody that racism exists. I just feel that as a key change agent, our schools can really make a positive impact on the way we treat one another with respect and dignity. I think everybody deserves that."
More recently, he authored On Time! On Task! On a Mission. It's a diary of a year in the life of a middle school principal, documenting Spence's time at a challenging school that turned itself around.
About a dozen candidates applied for the director's job, which will pay $165,000 a year. Board chair Ray Mulholland said Spence had "that little extra passion for public education and developing the whole child." Mulholland added that Spence's experience working with diverse communities will help him in his new role.
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