Project Description

My career in geography from university to retirement seems to have been underscored by good luck. On many different occasions, I was fortunate enough to be in the right spot at the right time, and consequently, met and worked with wonderful people.

My good luck started in my first week at university when I accidentally stumbled into geography. As a freshman at Mount Allison University, I had no idea what program I wanted to pursue. Fortunately, Dr. Eric Ross, the Chair of the brand new Geography Department found me examining the posters on the Department bulletin board one day and asked me if I was interested in geography. I quickly responded, “No, I just really like the landscape images that are on display.” Based upon my high school experiences, the only people who took geography were the non-academic students, and the course was little more than Capes and Bays Geography. Thankfully, Dr. Ross was not deterred by my answer. He put his arm around my shoulder and escorted me into his office saying that if I was impressed with the landscape images, I probably was interested in geography and just didn’t know it. Within two weeks of starting my first geography course, Economic Geography, I was hooked and knew that I wanted to major in the subject. The only problem was that the new Department only had two professors, and consequently offered so few courses that a major was not a possibility. I decided to assume that a major would be possible by the time I needed it, and so I started on my path to becoming a geographer. The next summer, a visiting geography professor offered a course not regularly available at the university, so I remained on campus, worked an evening shift at a local truck stop, and attended the course during the day.

By my 3rd year, two new, young, enthusiastic professors joined the Department. While it was the personal touch of Dr. Ross who got me into geography, it was Dr. Peter Ennals and Dr. Larry McCann who kept me there, and made me realize that I wanted to do more than just be a geography major. All three of these gentlemen took a personal interest in both my academic and personal life. Although I didn’t fully realize it at the time, their interest in me, their passion for the discipline, and their teaching styles all had a huge impact shaping my teaching style and my entire career.

During my final year, the University Senate approved a major in geography. They expected to start awarding the degree the following year, at the earliest, and likely, two years down the road. The university registrar was shocked when I showed up at his office and indicated that I hoped to walk across the stage and be granted an honors degree in Geography. He informed me that it wasn’t possible since the program had just been approved, and there was no way I could possibly have the number of courses required.  After I asked him to check my transcript and count my credits, he realized that I had everything I needed. The summer course from the visiting professor made it possible, and in 1975 I became the first honors geography graduate in the Maritimes provinces.

That summer, I landed a dream job and worked with another person who had a very significant influence on my career. I worked with Mr. George Maston creating a new type of canoeing maps for rivers in Nova Scotia. These orthophoto maps were produced on a waterproof /rip proof paper, and folded in an accordion style that resulted in very little map exposed to the wind at any time. Contour lines were superimposed on the orthophoto base, and as we canoed, we proceeded to mark in potential campsites, prevailing winds, points of historical or cultural interest, portage trails, obstacles in the water, and significant property boundaries, as well as rapids, rips, and riffs.

While crossing a lake on one trip, George offered me advice that I have never forgotten. He whispered to me to look at the pair of deer on the far shoreline. I was most embarrassed to admit that my young 21 year old eyes could not pick out the deer that the ‘old’ guy with glasses was seeing. He told me that my problem was that I was trying to zoom in before I found what I was zooming in to. He suggested that I zoom out and look at the entire section of shoreline searching for something that didn’t fit. Then zoom into whatever I had noticed didn’t fit. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to find the deer when I followed his advice. This advice has served both me and my students well over the past several decades. Think of all the situations we face as geographers when we are looking at a map or a landscape and seeking patterns. So often, it is what doesn’t fit the normal or expected pattern that is so interesting. When we zoom into the oddities, they provide us with the catalyst we need to explore and examine why these peculiarities exist in the spatial pattern. A huge amount of learning takes place based upon the students’ inherent interest in solving the ‘puzzle of the oddity(ies).’

Economic development was my primary interest when I attended graduate school at University of Waterloo, and becoming a teacher was the farthest thing from my mind. During my 2nd semester, I had the opportunity to work as a teaching assistant with Dr. Geoff Wall. He was a tremendous mentor and helped me discover that I really enjoyed the teaching experience. As a result, I decided to earn my Education degree and pursue a high school geography teaching career.

Shortly after starting my teaching career, I became aware of NCGE and became a member. After attending my first NCGE conference in Hershey, Pennsylvania in 1989, I was hooked; it was a wonderful experience! I had never attended a conference where there was no sense of segregation based upon academic background. University professors were mixing with elementary, junior high, and high school teachers, and the common love of geography education superseded people’s academic background. The field trips were outstanding, and the opportunity to share ideas and gain information from such a diverse group of geographers was fabulous.

In 1992, I attended NCGE’s Annual Conference in the Dominican Republic, where countless things went wrong on the pre-conference field trip. It was amazing to see the entire group of us laugh the problems off and ask the local tour guide to simply find another option for us to pursue. For example, when the manager of the rum factory where we were scheduled to stop suddenly cancelled our visit, we ended up at a cigar factory instead. At the end of the 3 days, the local guide said he had never worked with such an understanding group, one that was not only accepting, but excited by the dynamic nature of the schedule. Every day of the conference, he tracked down one of us from the field trip and told us about an opportunity he had just arranged for us that evening. The following year, I was the program chair when the Annual Conference was held in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Over the years, I have continued to be a huge fan of NCGE, and one of the first things I do with the pre-service teachers that I work with is encourage them to become NCGE members.

My membership in NCGE has allowed me to work with Dr. Stuart Semple, the Chair of the Halifax NCGE meeting. This has turned out to be a very fortunate relationship for me, as Stuart has been instrumental in helping and encouraging me throughout my teaching career. His passion for geography and education is contagious, and I feel extremely fortunate to have had Stuart as a mentor and a friend.

It was during the NCGE conference in Halifax that the formation of the Canadian Council for Geographic Education (CCGE) was announced. Once again, because of having met a number of key Canadian geographers at past NCGE conferences, and because of my involvement in the Halifax Conference, I was asked to become the Atlantic Canadian representative for the CCGE. The Chair of the CCGE was Professor Dick Mansfield of Queens University, and he and the other representatives on the Council were wonderful to work with. Dick asked me to accompany him to the NGS Geography Bee’s National Final in Washington the next year, and when we returned, along with several others, we started the Canadian version of the NGS Bee, known as the Great Canadian Geography Challenge. What a rewarding experience it was to be involved with this program and work so closely with Dick and others.

My luck and good fortune continued, and in the late 1990s, I became part of, undoubtedly, the most rewarding experience of my entire five decades in geography. I was invited to attend a meeting in New York City to discuss the possibility of creating an Advanced Placement Geography course. What a privilege it was to be involved with this group of 18 other Geographers (16 from the US, and 3 from Canada).  A few months later, I was invited to be part of the initial 9 person APHG Test Development Committee, where I remained as a member for 7 years. I believe the fact that a few key people on the Committee knew me because of my NCGE connection most likely helped secure my position on the TDC. Throughout those 7 years, I had the opportunity to meet and work with many fabulous geographers, and I know I learned more geography during our meetings than I did throughout my university career.

Because of my time with the TDC, I also had the opportunity to participate in one of my favorite activities, working with new APHG teachers at weekend workshops and summer institutes. As a College Board consultant, I get to travel extensively throughout the U.S. and Canada and work with hundreds of new APHG teachers. It has been a real treat to spend time with such a talented and enthusiastic group of teachers. The majority of the U.S. teachers I have worked with in this capacity arrive with very little or no university geography background. One of the most rewarding parts of this experience has been to see the excitement that these non-geographers experience as they start to see the great opportunities that this course provides for both the students and themselves.

The 3rd part of the APHG experience, which has also been a major highlight of my career, has been the AP Readings. It is the Reading where the tremendous growth of geography education has been most evident. Since the first Reading in Clemson in 2001, when 17 of us scored approximately 3300 exams, to last year when 600 of us scored approximately 170,000 exams in Cincinnati–has been a fantastic experience! As with the NCGE conferences, it is wonderful for teachers to work closely with the university professors in a very collegial environment.

It has truly been delightful to have had the opportunity to work with so many dedicated geography educators through my APHG experiences.  People such as Dave Lanegran and Barbara Hildebrant, and the many others I have worked so closely with, have had a major impact on my teaching career, and I’m pleased to say, have become very good friends.

During my teaching career I always wanted my students to enjoy geography and to see the practicality of the discipline. I also believed it was important to have my students thinking like geographers and learning to use spatial reasoning and logic. It is seeing the enthusiasm for geography from my students, whether they are high school students, pre-service teachers, or APHG teachers, that makes me so pleased I changed my plans and opted to become a geography educator.

Now that I have retired after 33 years as a high school geography teacher, I supposedly have some spare time. Much of that time is spent doing the things that I still enjoy. I continue to teach Introduction to Human Geography to pre-service teachers, act as a Question Leader at the APHG Reading, teach APHG summer institutes, act as the Vice –President of the Geomatics Association of N.S., and have returned to work with the Canadian Geography Challenge (formerly the Great Canadian Geography Challenge) and represent Atlantic Canada on Canadian Geographic Education (formerly CCGE).

As fortunate as I have been in my geography career, I have been even luckier with my personal life. I have a wonderfully supportive wife and four children that I am extremely proud of, two great sons-in-law, and a beautiful granddaughter.

John Trites

Every month NCGE elects a current member to spotlight.
If you would like to nominate someone worthy of being honored, please e-mail us at membership@ncge.org