by Ryan King
PORT AUX BASQUES – St. James Regional High School‘s Principal and Town councilman, Justin Blackler is relocating to his hometown, the beautiful outport community of Twillingate. What he remembers most from growing up there is the freedom of just being a kid.
“We lived a life where stress didn’t exist. It was school, homework, play, repeat! I was lucky to have parents that dedicated their lives to ensuring their kids had an exceptional childhood. Possessions and riches were not the focus. Memories over monetary items! Would not have changed a thing,” says Blackler.
He remembers his own time in high school fondly – school sports, friendships, and many great teachers.
“School was not a place we wanted to avoid. We enjoyed being there and even learned a thing or two,” says Blackler.
Leaving Twillingate to attend Memorial University, he chose to study Physical Education and become a teacher.
“It was a common job and I knew the ins and outs of the career. My mother was a very respected teacher in the community for 30 years. It was a family-based career that allowed me to be home with my kids every night. I always loved coaching and Physical Education seemed to be the natural progression. I can recall some of my old teachers and credit them with the decision as well.”
Blackler says he enjoyed working with the staff and students, which felt like being part of a huge family.
“There are ups and downs, successes and failures, but ultimately there is always growth. You get to be a part of something that prepares children for the rest of their lives. It’s a good feeling,” he says.
It’s hard to pinpoint any one particular highlight from his teaching career, says Blackler, because there are too many.
“Every school brings new rewards. The moments that hit home the most are the letters and messages you get from graduating students or when you leave a school. They hit you in the heart and help you focus on why we do the job. They can help you focus on the positives.”
Blackler is not the only member of the family to have made an impact on this community. His wife, Krystal, was recently recognized for her hockey coaching as BLF Female Coach of the Year.
“She pours her heart and many hours into Minor Hockey. She has a philosophy of what Minor Hockey should look like and she’s willing to accept the opposition and blow back that comes with it. She has a strong support system with the others in the organization and that helps. She believes that every player should be treated fairly and the players are the focus,” notes Blackler.
Krystal is also from Twillingate, and the couple have been together since junior high school. They have three children, Gracie, Grady, and Gabe.
It was Justin’s teaching career that brought the family to Port aux Basques. He had started teaching in Main Brook on the northern peninsula in 2006 and spent a few years there, before deciding to move down the coast. He secured a position teaching in Isle aux Morts first, then moved to Port aux Basques. Eventually he moved up the ranks to become a principal in Burnt Islands, and eventually at St. James. Blackler has enjoyed his time in Port aux Basques.
“This place has one of the best recreational facilities in the province. We are very lucky to have it. It has given my family lots of opportunities to stay active in the community. The access to the outdoors is also a nice bonus. Hunting is not far from the doorstep, even if many trips prove to be unsuccessful,” observes Blackler.
“We dedicate most of our time to the sports and groups that our children are a part of. The kids are in hockey, bowling, swimming, curling, and any school sport they can get involved with.”
While his specialty is physical education and biology, he’s also taught other subjects like sciences, technology, ethics, social justice and social studies. Being a jack of all trades is not uncommon in smaller community schools, and like most educators he’s developed his own teaching strategy.
“The hard part is remembering to stick to it. It’s quite easy to get caught up into the chaos of the day and forget your true focus. My philosophy is that we have to use our time in school to help students grow into knowledgeable, caring, and creative citizens. It’s much more than teaching the outcomes of the course. We need to focus more on the people, not the content of the course. Easily said, harder to truly follow!”
Focusing on people and a love to be involved in the things that surround him also sparked Blackler’s interest in Town Council.
“I always want to be someone involved in making change rather than on the sideline complaining about what I think should happen. I like meetings, planning, organizing, etc. Local Council seemed like a new learning experience and it has proven to be that. With almost eight years complete on this council, even with all the arguments, I can say it was a great experience.”
That’s not to say that being a councillor didn’t present challenges.
“Council and any other political forum often tend to be a slow-moving beast. Many, who have never been a part of any organization, often criticize the work being done. The strongest opinions come from those who know the least about the process of local politics or any other organization. That was the hardest part of the job. Reading and listening to thoughts and opinions that were not based on any real knowledge of the issues or solutions. The town staff works very hard. They deserve a lot of respect and I don’t always know if they get it. It would be nice to see the town rally together to continue to move Port aux Basques forward.”
Blackler’s dedication and involvement means he will leave some projects behind when he moves.
“I don’t think the work is ever done. That’s the problem and yet the interest in these types of jobs – everything about them continues to change day to day and from one year to the next. The dream is to have a school where every student feels safe and welcomed, where we have enough teachers to serve the needs of each individual student, where the community supports the school as we help them raise their children. No small feat and one that will never truly finish. We always move forward.”
Blackler says the decision to move back to Twillingate was one of the hardest decisions of his life.
“I have been in this town for 13 years and have been an active member of it since the beginning. Many friendships and memories are made. This is my children’s home. The decision to move came down to family. The bulk of our family still lives in Twillingate. We have always wanted our children to grow up surrounded by family,” shares Blackler.
He offers a bit of advice for the new principal, who will follow at St. James Regional High.
“Realize that you are not the one who has to always hold the wheel. Help the school focus in on the main goal for the school community. Once you have a destination, help the school focus their path and support them where you can. Get into the classrooms as much as you can. You will get caught up into the clerical duties but you should always break free from that and spend time with the students and staff.”