Left to right: Steve Davis

Home grown leadership

This year there are four people leading the district schools of Fort St. James, and all four were raised in Fort and attended school here.

This year there are four people leading the district schools of Fort St. James, and all four were raised in Fort and attended school here.

The phenomenon is pretty special according to Manu Madhok, director of instruction for School District 91.

“In Fort St. James in particular, it’s a pretty nice spot to be in when these are folks who were elementary kids in your own school system,” said Madhok.

He said the school district looks for people who are passionate about education, good communicators, good relationship builders and people who make things happen.

“There has to be a strong student focus,” said Madhok.

Craig Houghton

Principal of FSJSS

The son of two teachers, Houghton was born and raised in Fort St. James and attended David Hoy Elementary until Sowchea Elementary opened up. He attended Sowchea for grades five, six and seven and then went on to Fort St. James Secondary School (FSJSS).

“There’s not a time of my life when I can’t remember walking through the halls of this school,” he said. His father, Terry Houghton, was a teacher at FSJSS.

While having two parents as teachers probably helped, he said the thing which drew him to teaching was “liking people.”

In high school, he was inspired by teacher Larry Miller, through the athletics programs he was involved in.

Craig Houghton’s first teaching job was at Eugene Joseph in Tache in 1996.

He later taught at FSJSS, and then he became the vice principal.

“When I first went into administration there was a real need,” he said. Not many people seemed to want the difficult role of vice principal at the high school, but he had a passion for the school which had such a large role in his life.

He was particularly inspired by two administrators he had worked under: Lynn Maksymchak and Cam McCormick.

“Once I got into it, I realized it’s definitely my niche,” he said.

While it’s different than being in the classroom, he said his favourite thing is getting to know all the kids in the school.

His least favourite thing: the budget.



Judith Goertz

Vice principal of FSJSS


Goertz came to teaching later in life, and had originally resisted following in her mother Toni Friesen’s footsteps. Friesen was a teacher and then a principal in Takla Landing and Yekooche.

But after having children and having grown up in a house with teachers where there was always talk of education, “the call of education was too much,” she said.

“It’s kind of bred in the bone.”

She said she missed the passion people felt for education and having children changed her perspective on it.

“I wanted to be part of that whole system.”

She returned to get her post degree teacher certification in 1999, and then she began teaching at FSJSS in 2001. The first job she had was case management for severe behaviour students. While she went on from there to teach at Nechako Valley Secondary School and at the Adult Education Centre, she returned to FSJSS.

“This is my true home,” she said.

Craig Houghton was the vice principal during part of her time as a teacher at the school, and she said the changes he and the principal at the time brought in were so great, she wanted to be a part of it.

“I just wanted to try and make a difference,” said Goertz.

While she said she can find it challenging not to get caught up in the day to day but instead to keep the long term goal of graduation in mind, there are perks.

“I love being able to make a difference for them,” she said. “And I love graduation day – it’s an incredible day.”

Her biggest reward is just seeing the students every day and she said while she used to cite her grandmother Winifred Moran as a big inspiration for her, now she credits her staff.

“That’s what keep me moving forward.”

Born and raised her whole life in Fort St. James, having the history of the community helps her in her role, knowing where many of her students are coming from.

“It makes the relationship an entirely different thing.”




Margaret Mattess

Principal of Sowchea Elementary


Raised on Resort Hill in Fort St. James, Mattess has an interesting story of how she came to a career in education.

Originally a secretary at the Eugene Joseph school in Tache, Mattess became excited about learning through the teachers she met working there.

Kim Repko was a particular inspiration, and her passion drew Mattess into the classroom.

“Just seeing her excitement is what got me excited about kids learning,” said Mattess.

After 10 years at the school as a secretary, she took the step to return to pursue a bachelor’s degree at the College of New Caledonia and then UNBC, and eventually her teacher training at Simon Fraser University.

Mattess is now working on a master’s degree from Vancouver Island University.

With a passion for working to improve the education system, Mattess went from being a teacher to being the vice principal of education for the school district.

From there she moved to her role as principal at Sowchea.

“Right now I’m really excited to be working in the education system,” she said.

The new role has challenges, but she said she has learned to embrace them and she loves having the opportunity be moving around all the time and being with the students.

“Just having that connection with kids everyday,” she said.

Mattess said she has learned to ask questions and be curious and she feels lucky to be a part of the way education is going – towards a more student-focussed way of learning.

Mattess attended school at St. Marie Grottie (now Nak’albun) here in Fort St. James, then went to FSJSS until grade 10, when she moved to attend school in Vancouver, where she graduated.

While she may not have gone straight to training in education, Madhok said it makes sense Mattess came to it, because Mattess’ mother was the late Catherine Bird Coldwell, a natural-born teacher renowned for her work in teaching Carrier language and culture.



Suzanne Burck

Principal of David Hoy Elementary


Burck is the newest to Fort St. James of the four princiipals. Burck arrived with her family when she was only four years old, so she was still raised in the community.

Burck attended David Hoy Elementary and then graduated from FSJSS, and recalls David Hoy in the “open-concept”’ days, when teachers taught collectively and all the students were in one open area.

During her younger days as a student, she was particularly inspired by her Grade six teach Mr. MacIntosh.

“I always look back at all the fun that we had with him,” she said, recalling the elaborate ways he made learning enjoyable for the class.

“He created this really great atmosphere.”

Initially, Burck studied psychology and received a bachelor’s degree, planning on being a counsellor and working with high-school aged students.

But then she decided she wanted to spend more time with younger children and went back to get training in education.

“I always knew I wanted to be in a helping profession,” she said.

Teaching since finishing her bachelor’s of education when she was 24, she spent a year in Haida Gwaii before returning to Fort St. James to teach at David Hoy.

While she then went on to work in different roles, including working at EBUS, the online learning program the district operates.

While working as a teacher, Burck said she was inspired as well by administrators Manu Madhok and Harvey Goff in their roles as principals.

Many things came together to lead to the change for her to return to David Hoy as the principal, and she said she is excited to be back and working together with a group of teachers she respects and shares a vision with.

The highlight of the job so far? Spending time with the kids.


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