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Beloved Johnston Heights teacher goes viral in feel-good birthday video on social media

mrfiliscreens.jpgJohnston Heights Secondary physical education and English teacher Joshua Filiatrault wasn't expecting a surprise birthday party from his students -- nor was he expecting video of it to go viral on TikTok! The students staged a fake fight for their favourite teacher to intervene, then surprised him with a birthday cake, confetti and rendition of "Happy Birthday." (screenshots and video from @prlsgrad2024)

It wasn’t the birthday celebration Joshua Filiatrault expected, but it’s absolutely the one the Johnston Heights Secondary physical education and English teacher deserved.

Filiatrault recently went viral on TikTok in a video posted by PRLS (@prlsgrad2024), the physical education and recreational leadership group that he runs at Johnston Heights. The video shows him running into a classroom to break up an apparent fight between two students, only to realize there was no fight – the seniors lured him there to surprise him with a birthday cake, showering him with confetti while singing “Happy Birthday” to their favourite teacher.

“I really just didn’t want them to get in trouble for being in a fight, so my thinking was to stop it as early as possible so they wouldn’t do something they would regret,” said Filiatrault, affectionately called Mr. Fili by his students. “My feeling originally was relief, then maybe mild irritation that they got me.”

The heartwarming prank happened in the last block of the day: the two fighting students had set the stage by nipping at each other in an earlier class, and to set up the birthday party, two other students distracted Filiatrault by asking for university advice until he was alerted to the “fight.”

“I was really impressed with how well they planned it, it was pretty much like a three-act play,” he recalled. “I think I just said to them, ‘I’m so happy this wasn’t a real fight.’”

“He knows us pretty well so the most unexpected thing would be if two of us got in a fight, and we picked the two most believable people to get into a fight,” said Grade 12 student Ivan Japow, one of the 200 PRLS students who kept the surprise a secret from Filiatrault. “Luckily it worked out, he was pretty surprised by it.”

The original video has been liked more than 8.8 million times on TikTok and has been picked up by media outlets online and around the world. For Grade 11 student Bonnie Luo, the virality is unexpected but the leadership students are excited to share their appreciation for Mr. Fili as widely as possible.

“We were just trying to show our love and appreciation for how he’s treated us over the years and we’re very grateful that he’s getting the recognition that he deserves,” said Luo.

“We said Mr. Fili is our favourite teacher because of the way he puts passion into everything he does,” said Grade 12 classmate Maxine Nguyen. “And when we see what that passion does for the many activities in our school – it could just be like dancing in the hall or going crazy on the bleachers at games – all those things give an experience to every person who visits our school, and we wanted to share that experience and the impact he’s had on us.”

But for the humble Filiatrault, the video isn’t so much a testament to his teaching as it is a reflection of how amazing his students are, to have an idea, see it through, and watch it take off, all on their own.

“They just work so hard, and for them to see themselves have any cultural impact, things I tell them that I know they can do, it’s nice that they get that reinforced, and I think that’s what this really is,” he said. “It shows who they are more than it does who I am.

“People will say I inspired them but I think many of my students have had these ideas within them, I’ve just helped them come to be.”

“It’s teachers like Mr. Fili who make school such a special place for so many students,” said Supt. Mark Pearmain. “Teachers have the power to leave an amazingly positive impact on learners that extends far beyond the classroom, and he has clearly done just that. We are incredibly proud of Mr. Filiatrault and the creative students he has inspired!

“Thank you to all of our teachers – the bonds you create with students are meaningful and benefit the lives of students more than you may know.”

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