Viewpoints: The right teacher at the right time

April 25, 2017

When I started school, books scared me. I would get butterflies before reading class and sink low in my desk to avoid getting called on by the teacher. But Ms. Jacobs, my Grade 3 teacher, changed all that. She found books about things I was interested in (elementary-school me loved airplanes, hot air balloons and birds) and suggested I take them home. But first she would offer a teaser.

“Timmy, do you know what red-tailed hawks eat?”

I vowed not to fall for her lame tactics, which were ridiculously transparent, even to a nine-year old. I ignored the books. But slowly she wore me down. I wanted to know, what did red-tailed hawks eat? As a result of Ms. Jacobs’ gentle coaxing, I went from hating all written forms of communication that didn’t involve a comic book to bugging my mom to buy me more books.

I’ve been lucky. So many great teachers. But if forced to pick one that shaped my life the most, it would be Mr. Richardson … 1980 … Salisbury Composite High School.

At the beginning of Grade 10 I was not a great student. I got solid marks, but I was much more interested in searching the city’s record shops for rare albums than doing a bang-up job on my homework. School felt like a side project that often interfered with more important pursuits.

Like Ms. Jacobs, my Grade 10 social studies teacher changed my perspective, but not just about one subject. He changed how I thought about knowledge. He made me want to learn. He made me curious.

Perhaps I’m giving Mr. Richardson too much credit. When you are a 16-year-old punk, you are primed to hear about politics, war and revolution. Learning about the rebels in history is fuel for the fight-the-power fire. But so much in life is about timing. And Mr. Richardson was exactly the right teacher at the right time. He seemed so genuinely interested in what he was teaching. This stuff mattered, or so it seemed to me after hearing Mr. Richardson talk about it.

He also gave his students the impression that he really cared about what we thought about political systems, political philosophies and world events. This made me want to have an informed opinion. I started reading the newspaper, looking for the evidence behind the headlines and searching for alternative perspectives. And I kind of never stopped. In some ways, my entire career has been one long after-school, no-credit extension of Mr. Richardson’s class.

I don’t remember what mark he gave me. I suspect it was just OK.

These teachers, and many more, changed my life. Yes, I had a few teachers that were duds. But the bad ones somehow fade to become amusing anecdotes, while the good ones remain signposts in my personal history. I can still see their faces, hear their voices, and when needed, I can reflect on their advice and encouragement.

A few years ago I was in Toronto and about to appear on a TV show to talk about one of my books. (Thank you, Ms. Jacobs; books are still a big part of my life.) As the makeup artist worked on my old face, I asked her where she was from.

“I grew up in a Beaumont, Alberta,” she said.

“Oh, my good friend, Chris Peacocke, is a teacher there,” I casually responded.

The woman instantly froze. I thought I had done something wrong. Then her eyes lit up and she exclaimed: “Mr. Peacocke? Mr. Peacocke? He changed my life. He saved me!”

I get that. Right teacher, right time. Life changing.

Timothy Caulfield is a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta, a Trudeau Fellow and author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?: When Celebrity Culture And Science Clash.

This opinion column represents the views of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

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