It’s Time to Celebrate The Great Teachers Who Help Mold Our Future Leaders

by Sarah McVanel, Chief Recognition Officer, Greatness Magnified

image of a teacher giving a high five to a student with other students sitting with them at the tableHere’s the thing about great teachers. They know that if kids want to be at school, then there’s a good chance they will learn.

Not every kid (child or teen) has a positive association with learning, school, or educators. Many, sadly, have heard why they are not smart enough, have been bullied, don’t fit in, are dealing with struggles at home, don’t speak the language, have debilitating anxiety, and hundreds of other reasons why just getting to school, let alone performing at their best, is challenging.

So what if the goal were to get them to want to be there?

Shout Out to Wonderful Educators

Can you think back to the teachers you’ve had, the ones who are ridiculously smart yet never made you feel silly for asking “dumb questions”?

Do you recall the educators who were so happy to see you, even if you were one of those “tough” kids (too high energy, nervous, distractible)? Teachers who saw your strengths and always found a place for them to shine?

What about teachers who simply love being with kids? I see this in childcare educators all the time. Doing the work is so rewarding they cannot imagine another thing they’d rather do.

Kids are smart. They can feel it when their educators want to be with them.

To all of these educators, we cheer for you!

A Note to Mr. Zito

an image of thank you written in different languages in the shape of a heartThe teacher that comes to mind for me is Mr. Zito. I tried to write him a thank you note a few years ago when I learned they were closing down my high school, but sadly it was returned as he was no longer there. I could never tell him how wonderful he was, so let me tell you. And I invite you to channel your own Mr. Zito as I share my experience (and write them a note if you agree).

Mr. Zito was my English teacher from my awkward first semester of high school to my “get me out of this place” grade 13 advanced English. He was kind, supportive, generous and brilliant in every single one of the six classes I took with him. I literally rearranged my entire schedule, year after year, to have him. I wanted to be assured that I would have a trusted adult who saw the absolute best in me for at least one class. Maybe I should credit his kindness for why I am an author today. I never thought I was a great writer, but he believed I was. As he said to me once, “Sarah, I just feel like you have something to say. I hope you write it on paper one day.” He said it with a smile on his kind face and then walked to his desk. He never pushed me, but he planted a seed that has grown into 400+ blogs, LinkedIn articles, and five books.

That’s the magic of a great teacher; they have faith in you and see your potential before you believe in yourself. And what a gift to an insecure hormonal teenager.

Tuning In To Students

Can you think back to teachers who just “got” you? The ones who could tell something was wrong even before you told your bestie? They were the non-judgemental listening ear when you needed it most. They could see if you were not acting at your best but would give you the benefit of the doubt, knowing you were a good human going through something not so great (and refrained from scolding your behaviour because they understood there was a deeper reason for it).

Children and teens don’t always have the words, self-awareness or foresight to put what they need or are experiencing into words. Nor are some of the battles they’re waging (including things no child should ever have to deal with at such a young age). So shout out to all the educators who lead with empathy over authority. That kindness will never be forgotten (nor would harshness and cruelty). Sometimes your attention is one of the biggest gifts you can give a child.

A Note to Mr. Science Teacher

The opposite of the kind and compassionate teacher was my science teacher. He wasn’t mean. He was apathetic, inattentive, and uninvolved. His mission was to be the “cool” teacher. He would leave the classroom unattended (“You guys are mature adults, right?” Ah, no!) He blared the ghetto-blaster loud enough that he couldn’t hear what was happening at the back of the classroom, and because he also didn’t look up from his lesson plans, he didn’t clock that the guys at the back spent more time hurling hateful words, spreading rumours, launching spitballs, and tearing my and my friends’ confidence to shreds than they did doing their lab work. It only worsened when I started getting top marks in the class, which, you guessed it, he publicized. “You guys at the back should ask Sarah for help with your science.” (My inside voice: OMG, he did not just say that?!”) Insert 5x bullying here.

I know this is the exception rather than the rule. Therefore, I want to send a note of enormous love to every teacher who makes eye contact, reads students’ body language, sets clear expectations for classroom respectful behaviour, and keeps a close eye on the more vulnerable students. You are a bigger saviour than you realize.

Creating Spaces of Belonging

Let’s also not underestimate the power of creating engaging physical spaces for learning too. Childhood educators and elementary teachers do this so well. From colourful posters to art on the walls to cozy chairs to places for play and other spaces for quiet, everyone has a “feeling” when they arrive in the classroom. However, by the time you get to high school, the spaces can feel very “clinical” with cinderblock walls, grey paint, and the same standard-issue chalkboards (or, if the district is wealthy enough, smartboards). Where is the personality? Where is the “welcome to learning!” If there is anything on the walls, it’s usually subject-related (e.g., the French alphabet on the walls) rather than something that students can connect with. Something the students would value.

image of a diorama of a Metallica concertMy husband is a high school business teacher. When he was young, he didn’t find school particularly easy or enjoyable. Likely for this reason, and because he’s a fun human, he constantly asks himself, “Hum, what would make this place more fun? What would spark students’ curiosity? What might help kids forget the heavy stuff in their lives?” Every time he reflects on this, he adds something to his classroom.

Mark’s classroom has becomes a beacon for both his current students, as well as his past students. Daily, students he no longer teaches come by in groups to get stickers, grab a gumball, or tour the other students through the wacky swag. He’s even started creating “scenes”

(Click on the pic to view a video on the unveiling of this masterpiece!)

If you went to his classroom, you would be able to:

  • Grab some gumballs for free
  • Listen to a mini Metallica concert
  • Check out some silly “warning” pictures
  • Grab some stickers
  • Pick a temporary tattoo
  • Play with some vintage toys
  • image of a classroom with a stop light, Metallica poster and dioramaGet a selfie with a flip phone (do those exist anymore?!) or rotary dial phone
  • Fight the Mr. McVanel bobblehead
  • Walk by the BillyBass singing fish
  • Put a pin on the world map of where your family is from
  • Turn on the (real-size) stoplight
  • Listen to a tape on a Walkman
  • Walk down 80’s movies/music memory lane on the poster wall
  • Explore some “failed” marketing products

Imagine knowing you’d be going to school to a friendly teacher to learn something, and the classroom would be inviting.

Taking a Pause to Appreciate Our Teachers

image of a black female teacher at a whiteboard teaching a classI grew up in a household where I heard over and over again at the dinner table that it “must be nice” anytime teachers came up. “Must be nice to have summers off.” “Must be nice to have such a big pension.” “Must be nice to….” It didn’t put us in a headspace of seeing the extra gestures that our very special teachers gave us. I’m not saying my sis and I weren’t good students. We were actually (we come from a long line of people pleasers, after all). However, I know I didn’t look around in awe and wonder at the little things teachers did for us.


Looking back, I think I missed out on hundreds of opportunities to thank them in special moments:

  • For not making me feel stupid when I asked a question
  • For greeting me in the hall and acknowledging my name
  • For remembering something about me
  • For showing up to my drama and dance performances in their off time
  • For coaching me (and believe me, I needed a LOT of coaching!)
  • For writing letters of recommendation for uni or being a reference for jobs
  • For noticing something was wrong (even when I didn’t tell them what)

image of Thank You Teacher written on a white paper sitting on a yellow background with different coloured pencils surrounding the noteBecause I can’t go back in time, what I can do is say thank you to the teachers that we are lucky enough to have in the profession. Let’s channel some love to those that make students feel important, create safe spaces, and make school fun.

Will you help me for Teacher Appreciation Week from May 8-12 to thank at least one educator – early childhood educator, elementary school teacher, high school teacher, college instructor or even university professor – to feel valued for the impact they make? Remind them of what a difference they make. They, like all of us, need sometimes reminding that their work matters and it’s noticed.

This isn’t our first blog that included teachers or learning…here are a few more to check out:

“There is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread.”

– Mother Teresa

Deb Rakonjac

Organizational Development, Purolator Inc.

"Sarah nailed it!  She worked with the planning group to learn about the organization, the audience, the desired key messages and integrated it seamlessly into her keynote. Her energy was contagious! We received rave reviews of this portion of our event and Sarah was able to speak to all members of our organization in a way that motivated them to recognize others everyday. Our executives were extraordinarily pleased and integrated FROGging into their recent board meeting. Purolator is grateful to Sarah for dropping the pebble and we continue to see the ripples from this session across the organization. Working with Tami was phenomenal and the supports were easy to integrate to ensure the session went well. Thanks to you both!!"
Douglas D Swift

President & CEO, Swiftco Inc.

"I have had the Sarah experience in numerous settings: As a keynote, around a table with several other business owners, one on one over coffee, chatting with others at a conference reception, dining with a small group of colleagues. No matter the setting you always get the same Sarah: engaging, attentive, interested, inspiring, motivational, genuine. And always with an infectious smile. Do yourself, your company, your association a favour. Get the Greatness Magnified (Sarah) experience. The payback is priceless."
Judy Kucharuk

Director, Marketing and Special Events, Encana Events Centre

"Funny, full of energy and incredibly motivating – all words to use when describing Sarah and her passionate stage presence. We were fortunate to have Sarah join us as a speaker for Spark Women’s Leadership Conferences and her presentations about leveraging greatness hit the core of our objective at SPARK: “A rising tide lifts all boats”. I would not hesitate to recommend Sarah to other organizations that are searching for a well-prepared, well-organized, thoughtful and passionate storyteller."
Shelley VanVeen

Learning & Development Manager, Libro Credit Union

"Sarah brought so much energy and enthusiasm to our International Women’s Day event at Libro! Her message was uplifting, thought-provoking and truly appreciated by our team. Dealing with Sarah was wonderful – she was open, professional and willing to work with us to customize her message to incorporate our culture and connect to our topic and participants. During the session, she was a pro with a powerful message and a fantastic delivery. We had wonderful feedback from all that attended and can’t wait to have Sarah back for another session in the future!"
Sylvia D’Intino

Executive Director, Community Living Hamilton

"THANK YOU so very much for leading the engagement activities today! You’re a constant professional, with an amazing attitude and always seeing the great in everyone. I am grateful for how you have helped us this year to transform our in-person staff recognition events into virtual and on-location events. Our staff feel more inspired, appreciated and motivated after they hear you speak, and I know our amazing in-house team here looks forward to designing engaging appreciation events with your support."
Melissa Chaulk

Manager of Professional Development

Canadian Dental Hygienists Association

"We work hard at CDHA to give our members a wonderful conference experience, so we were thrilled to have received resoundingly positive feedback on Sarah's opening plenary keynote. It was the highest attended of the entire conference for both dates!"
Jamie Campbell

Director, The Center for People in Organizational Development, Sheridan College

"Smart, challenging, innovative, committed, dependable, and reliable, I highly recommend her for all your recognition needs. I have brought Sarah into my last two organizations to help build a culture of recognition and celebration. The focus on appreciation is more important now than ever."

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