Coquitlam’s travelling teacher makes the world her classroom

Daun Yorke is content living live on the edge. photos supplied

Daun Yorke has travelled east and travelled west but her preferred direction is forward.

In a 30-year career as an educator she has never stayed in one place, school or job for long, moving from the Tri-Cities to Vietnam and making a handful of stops between.

This is a story about Yorke’s journey, which is not the same as travels or trips, but involves both.

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This is a story about a wandering spirit, a desire to learn and share what she’s learned. It’s about someone who, as a young woman, never wanted to teach but has now spent more than half her life in the classroom.

Two years here, six years there, four somewhere else. Art, photography, Japanese and Theory of Knowledge teacher; curriculum director and International Baccalaureate co-ordinator; principal and head of school.

From Centennial Secondary in Coquitlam to Simon Fraser University; from Burnaby Mountain to Yew Chung Educational Foundation in Shanghai, China; to the Canadian International School of Hong Kong; to Busan International Foreign School in Korea; to Xi’an Liangjiatan International School back in China; and, now, to Hanoi International School in Vietnam, where she is head of school.

‘I want to keep it fresh’

It’s Saturday morning and Daun Yorke is in her apartment in Hanoi. After finishing an online yoga session with a teacher in Busan, Korea, where she worked from 2014 to 2016, she’ll call her parents in Coquitlam, where it’s already 8 p.m.

Yorke’s home in Busan.

Asked about wanderlust, the single mother of an adult daughter says, “I guess I desired what I didn’t have. I guess my childhood was pretty staid and pretty dull. I was always interested in finding out about the world.”

When she was a kid growing up in North Vancouver, she says she would sometimes use a professional development day off from her school to visit her mother’s classroom in east Vancouver. “I was excited about different cultures. I think I was kind of bored in that really suburban, white, middle-class environment.”

As much as she loved teaching especially the high school kids, Yorke says she was determined to not let boredom take root. She recalls one colleague who was four years from retirement and kept a countdown calendar on the wall near his desk.

“I remember thinking, ‘I never want to be that guy,’” she says. “‘I want to keep it fresh and I want to love coming to work, I don’t want it to dry up.’”

In the hopes of getting a bit more spice in her professional life, she took a secondment from School District 43 and began teaching teachers at SFU. When that two-year leave ended in 2004, she and her daughter, Naomi Yorke, then 14, left their home in Port Coquitlam and moved 9,000 km to Shanghai, where she began a six-year stint at an international school teaching art and photography, among other subjects.

‘Home is people and a feeling and a choice’

“It was the best kind of experience I could’ve given my kid,” Yorke says. “I think that was a great lifestyle and a great opening of the world for my daughter.”

“It was amazing,” Naomi Yorke says. “I don’t think I was as well-adjusted in PoCo as I was there. Shanghai felt like home.”

Yorke with her parents in Shanghai in 2017.

The biracial daughter of a Caucasian mother and a Black, Ghanaian father, Naomi says: “It was also very multiracial, multinational, so everybody was ‘other.’ Being the only non-white kid in the class was no longer a thing. All of the foreign kids were in the minority together.”

In addition, Naomi, who later attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and now lives in Los Angeles with her partner, says living in China gave her: “a non-American-centric perspective, which is rare here.”

“I think I’ve learned how interconnected this world is,” she explains. “It really does impact everything you see, do, buy, hear — all of it.”

Her travels with her mom revealed a world of choices that could sometimes be overwhelming, she admits, but she notes, “I think I learned and was forced to choose my life really intentionally. I learned how to make choices about what I want to do.”

She also learned her definition of home isn’t the same as other people’s. “It’s really corny, but home isn’t necessarily locational — it’s more people and a feeling and a choice.

“My home base,” she adds, “is wherever my mom is.”

‘I don’t know how she does it’

Naomi Yorke is in her apartment in downtown L.A. It’s a Friday and, the next day, she and partner Travis Fish, a painter, will fly to Miami for Art Basel, an international art fair. The couple visits Yorke wherever she lands. She is asked what she thinks of her mom and her journey.

“It’s just been really great to watch and inspiring to watch, and watch how much she can do and how adaptable she is to different cultures… She’s a very fluid, comfortable person,” she says.

“She is a badass business lady, for sure. She’s a workhorse. She’s so in charge. Going up and up and up, from art teacher to headmaster — and killing it. I don’t know how she does it.”

Yorke poses with Terracotta Warriors.

The question for Yorke, however, is not so much how she has done it but why.

Why did a young woman who said she never wanted to teach make teaching her life?

Why did a teacher who loved art and photography and even the darkroom start training teachers and take on administration roles?

To the first, Yorke says a trip to Japan to teach English to adults in corporations such as Sony prompted her to fall in love with the profession.

The second is a tougher to dissect.

Just as teaching wasn’t her early life goal, neither was education leadership. But one job led to another, one opportunity to another, one passion to another.

“I hated letting go of teaching art,” she says, but the leadership roles allowed her to work with both adults and with kids. “Also, it was a new adventure to keep it fresh.”

With each stop on her adventure come new lessons, including one lesson that harkens back to her days as a Centennial photography teacher encouraging her students to express themselves through their art.
“The power of giving students voice… I believe in the classroom, in the importance of supporting students and allowing them to have voice and choice.”

‘She was curious about what you cared about’

While that lesson reflects her long educational journey, it also resonates for at least one of her former Coquitlam students from more than 20 years ago.

Saskia Morgan, a Vancouver resident who studied photography and worked on the Centennial secondary yearbook under Yorke at the turn of the millennium, says, “She was really good about platforming our voices and what was meaningful to us, what our perspectives were as people… And I think she instilled a confidence in students about their voices and [showed us] that there are a lot of ways to speak and be heard.

“She was one of those teachers whose classroom was always the safest space for any kid in the school,” Morgan adds. “No matter what you had going on, it was a place you could be yourself, it was a place you could express yourself.

Yorke in Miyajima, Japan in 2011.

“She was curious about what you cared about and wanted, I think, to help all the students grow. And I think that’s why she made her classroom such a meaningful place to be for teenagers, because high school doesn’t always feel that way.”

Morgan notes that when she gets together with old high school friends who were also students of Yorke — some who went on to art school, one who became, like their teacher, a photographer — they still talk about her with affection.

‘I don’t know what the future looks like’

Many former students keep in touch, both from SD43 and abroad. Many of the teachers with whom she has worked remain friends — people she has left behind as she moved around Asia.

“There’s kind of a core group of people who are important in your life,” Yorke says, noting they meet up in different locales and, between trips, connect via Zoom. She adds: “Sometimes moving can be really, really sad, and you’re leaving people. So it has its challenges, but it’s OK.”

Although she only started in Hanoi this past summer, has she thought about what’s next or, at 59, the longer term?

“I don’t know what the future looks like, honestly,” she says. “And I’m getting to that age where I should be more concerned… I’m a little bit immature in that way, I guess. I’m just living each day at a time and I’ll figure it out when it comes to it.

“I don’t really have a plan for the future. I don’t really have a place.”

Yorke doesn’t spend a lot of time looking back, either, though each time she packs and unpacks for a move, or when a slideshow pops up on her phone, she’s prompted to remember and ruminate — three decades of teaching, thousands of kids and colleagues, more than 18 years bouncing around Asia.

“I think I should write things down more,” she says. “We’re always telling kids to do reflections. We talk about the power of reflection and insist they reflect. But then, oh, when am I doing that?”

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