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OPINION: Here’s to all our favourite teachers who made a difference

Human connection and inspiration common threads among influential educators
What’s the difference a teacher can make? Think back in your own life to your favourite teacher, and
What’s the difference a teacher can make? Think back in your own life to your favourite teacher, and you’ll instantly know, says columnist Tracy Sherlock. File photo Dan Toulgoet

Sometimes, news about teachers seems all negative. You’ve heard it before: they get too many holidays, there’s never enough support in the classroom, labour negotiations are difficult.  

But we’ve all had teachers who have transformed us, changing our lives forever.

What’s the difference a teacher can make? Think back in your own life to your favourite teacher, and you’ll instantly know.

That difference usually has nothing to do with the curriculum and everything to do with the connection made with students. Long before it was a buzzword, the most powerful teachers made a point of “personalizing” their classrooms.

The results of a recent Twitter poll I conducted, though certainly not scientific, instantly show the importance of that human connection. I asked people to remember their favourite teachers and share what made them influential.

“The authenticity of their relationship with me as an awkward kid. Just two people connecting about everything, not just the learning piece,” said Twitter user Shelley Sullivan. “Without them, don't know how I would have survived. Literally.”

For Twitter user Leann Buteau, it was “their ability to make you feel that you and your voice matters. They made you feel safe when you are struggling as a learner.”

And from Twitter user David Weibe, “A personal connection. They knew you, understood you, and cared about your success.”

There was something relatable about them, says Twitter user Mark Reid.

“You learned both with and from them.”

Clearly, it’s not what they taught, it’s how they made you feel.

But it’s not only the human connection that makes a teacher stand out, it’s also that they see their students’ potential and challenge them to reach it. They’re caring, but they don’t let you get away with being less than your best self.

“They introduced me to ideas and perspectives I’d never even considered before,” said Twitter user Ken Bisset.

Twitter user Christa Barberis put it this way: “They were passionate about their courses. You could tell that they enjoyed teaching.”

And Twitter user Madeleine Sauve said: “The best teachers recognized my strengths, set an example for what is possible and made me believe in the power of knowing and doing!”  

Others talked about teachers who pushed them beyond their comfort zones, into places they found success. I remember most of my teachers fondly, but those who stand out challenged me with high expectations. Being a people pleaser, I didn’t want to disappoint.

Full disclosure — I teach journalism at Kwantlen Polytechnic University — and I often think of those who inspired me with their own teaching.

I remember Mrs. Kaser, who taught Grade 4 at Trafalgar elementary. Long before it was part of reconciliation — we’re talking the 1970s — Mrs. Kaser shaped her entire classroom around Indigenous knowledge, sharing with her students the names, cultures and traditions of B.C. First Nations. Clearly, it was a passion for her, and she made it come alive for her students. I was lucky to have her.

In Grade 8 at Prince of Wales secondary, I had a science teacher named Mr. Maynard, who I will never forget. He made science interesting and accessible, but didn’t put up with slacking. Maybe if I had been lucky enough to have more science and math teachers like him, fun, but rigorous, I’d be a scientist today. He left teaching to become a lawyer, which I’m sure was a gain for the law, but a big loss for education.

And then there was Ed Hundert, who I studied with in Arts One at the University of British Columbia, an experience I consider to be the absolute finest of all of my education. He taught me to question everything and helped me discover both classic literature and the constant struggle that is being a writer. Many, many years after I graduated from UBC, I went to an event specifically to hear him speak, simply to get back the feeling of deep learning and inquisitiveness he provoked in me.

In my experience, great teachers encourage conversations, even if they’re difficult, but also make sure the classroom is a safe space. They teach much more than the curriculum — they teach you how to organize yourself, how to be a decent person and, ultimately, how to live a good life by following your values. Sometimes they teach by example.

On that note, here’s one last Twitter share from Lori Paley: “Both of my high school chemistry teachers were inspiring. One for practical tips and the other for blowing things up in class. Now I teach chemistry.”


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