Challenge accepted: Academic coordinator strives for personal bests — in the classroom and beyond

Michael Whalen, Red River CollegeBe it academic or athletic, Michael Whalen is always up for a challenge.

Whalen is the academic coordinator of the Related Math and Science department, teaching into the various trades at Red River College. He’s also an avid cyclist and cross-country skier, going to great lengths to put himself to the test.

The 57-year-old says sport has had an influence on his scholastic style.

“I expect that everyone is in class to do well and work together, and has that common goal of performing to their best,” he explains.

“One of my mottoes is that ‘Every student deserves to be challenged.’ Whether it’s the weakest in the class who is challenged just to meet the standard, or someone who is more gifted and could easily meet the standard. I try to push them too, by giving them more advanced problems.”

Originally from Montreal, Whalen started teaching at RRC in 1996, after earning a B.P.E. in Physical Education from the University of New Brunswick and a M.Sc. in Biomechanics from the University of Manitoba.

For about a decade, he taught a health and wellness course to students in the College’s Community Services programs, while also running Recreation Services programs. Facing a reduced role due to restructuring of the Community Services programs, Whalen applied for an instructor position in the Related Math and Science department, and landed it.

He admits he was a bit hesitant to apply to the Related Math and Science department, as the trades was new terrain for him.

“The first three years here were the busiest I’ve ever been in my life because I wasn’t a tradesperson. In my second or third year, I had something like 26 different courses that I was teaching,” Whalen says.

“It was a steep learning curve for everything. But people in this department were super helpful. They gave me materials. My desk was filled with binders from other people when I first started here — also, the different instructors in the trades areas, themselves. I taught steamfitters right off the bat, and the instructors would teach me about their trade and what the students needed to know. They were always open and willing to explain things to me.”

Whalen had a little help from his friends but he has no problem pushing himself. At the University of New Brunswick, he tried his hand at field hockey, having no previous experience in the sport. He went on to coach provincial men’s and women’s field hockey teams and finished his 12-year coaching career as an assistant coach with the Canadian Men’s National Team.

Last year, Whalen set personal bests on his bike, including cycling 600 kilometres in under 30 hours, and achieving a top speed of 88.4 kilometres per hour riding from Riding Mountain National Park to Dauphin.

Oh, and he’s a regular participant in the American Birkebeiner in Wisconsin, which at over 50 kilometres, is the biggest cross-country skiing race in North America.

“The second time doing it was one of the slowest Birkies ever due to a huge snowstorm the day before the race. The average times were 40 to 50 minutes slower than normal. The uphills were brutally hard and slow.”

“Of course, I picked that day to have a spectacular high-speed crash between kilometre nine and 10. I got up, only with the help of the spectators watching, and managed to finish the race. I couldn’t move my arm at all by the time I reached the finish line.”

“Later I found out that I had broken my shoulder. That was a long day!” adds Whalen, who brings the same level of perseverance to his job at RRC — continually striving to become a better teacher.

Profile by Jared Story (Creative Communications, 2006)