Teachers or Learning Experiences that made a Difference

With all the hurricanes, wildfires and political uncertainties we have been experiencing I thought we could all benefit by reflecting on teachers who made a difference in our lives and then remembering that what we do is important!

Three colleagues on the FKA team wanted to share their memorable learning experiences:

Mrs. Smith

Without giving away my specific age, suffice it to say that I had Mrs. Smith for Biology a very long time ago and I still think of her regularly. I was in my final year in high school – think back to your high school days and I’m sure you will agree there are few audiences harder to impress than teenagers! But Mrs. Smith knew exactly how to do it.

In the service of full disclosure, I was a bit of a science geek and Biology was my favourite area but I believe Mrs. Smith’s abilities convinced even the skeptics that Biology was not only interesting, it was important!

Here are a few examples to demonstrate why I still admire Mrs. Smith:

  • Mrs. Smith brought in experts throughout the year to speak about specific topics. These speakers were all passionate about their areas. I can’t remember if they spoke well, I just remember that their enthusiasm was genuine and their information was important. She invited a gynecologist to speak with us about birth control (I told you this was a long time ago) and she probably put her job on the line by doing this. He spoke frankly, brought samples, put everyone at ease, and answered all questions. Mrs. Smith taught us that you don’t need to be an expert in everything, you just need to know who to bring in when you need help or to add weight to the message.
  • Mrs. Smith would come back from a lecture she had been to and tell us with great passion what she had learned. (She once spoke for a double period about one particularly interesting lecture she had been to the night before…and we all listened!) Mrs. Smith taught us that she loved what she did and even adults get excited about learning.
  • Mrs. Smith wanted to take her classes to the local university for free lunchtime lectures. When the school board told her that while there were school buses available there was no budget for bus drivers, Mrs. Smith got her bus drivers license and drove her classes to the lectures herself. Mrs. Smith taught us that barriers can be overcome when the end goal is worthwhile, so don’t give up!
  • Mrs. Smith cared about her students even beyond the classroom. For example, she gave us great advice about surviving first year university. “Get enough sleep and be sure to take vitamin B6 when you know your projects, midterms and exam schedules will make it very hard to do so!” Even after we left high school she invited all her graduates back to her home at Christmas break to find up what we were up to. Mrs. Smith taught us that we mattered.

Mr. Jones

Here is an example of how a teacher and his use of media changed the learning experience.

Mr. Jones, one of my high school mathematics teachers, introduced me to value of using media to support learning. (This is another story that will date the story teller but that just shows once again how significant the learning was – it has stayed with me this long.) Prior to Mr. Jones’ class the only “media” in use in our high school was a blackboard. A typical classroom had blackboards across the front of the room and down one side and the teacher would start filling the boards working across the front of the room and down the side, if necessary.

I remember clearly the day I went into Mr. Jones class and there was a new machine at the front of the room – an overhead projector with a scrolling roll of acetate film.

This “innovation” had two significant impacts on my learning:

  • The first was the realization Mr. Jones was facing us (he could see what we were doing) as he wrote the formulas and expressions on the acetate. The frequency of interactions between Mr. Jones and the students immediately increased because he could see when someone wanted to ask a question. As a student, I felt much more engaged with him and asked more questions. As an instructor, I always remember how much I had appreciated that level of interaction and strive to maintain visual contact with the learners. Mr. Jones taught me the use of media has a major impact on teacher-learner engagement.
  • The second impact was that all the content he presented was retained on the roll of acetate not erased at the end of class. If you had a question about your homework he could scroll back and review what he did in the previous class. When we were preparing for a test Mr. Jones would use the projector and acetate roll to review the key points he had covered. Mr. Jones taught me that reusable media is very beneficial for both the teacher and the learners.*
    *One cautionary note – the use of media can have a positive impact but it doesn’t always. Mr. Jones used the media to improve the learning interaction but that is not always the case. Some of you may have been thinking scrolling acetate was the precursor to the dreaded “Death by PowerPoint” classes. Media is an effective tool that should only be used when it supports learning.


When my husband and I were first married we decided that we would like to learn to play tennis together – neither of us had ever played before so we would be starting out together. We asked around about the best facilities and joined an indoor tennis club that offered excellent classes. We arrived at our first class anxious to start playing. We were told that our regular coach had an emergency so one of their junior champions would teach the first session. (See where this is headed?) He said we would start by learning to serve and demonstrated how good he was. Then he lined us up facing the wall, gave us several balls and told us to practice. He came around and showed us again his excellent serve if we didn’t seem to be getting it. My husband and I left knowing we would have to practice before the next class so we practiced a couple evenings by serving balls against our house.

Second week we arrived for class and the club’s regular coach was back. He asked us about our first class and we told him we learned to serve! He lined us up and asked us each to serve a ball. He didn’t say much but when the last person finished he said, “Grab a ball and put your rackets down. We are going to start by learning how to throw the ball in the air correctly.” And that’s when I learned the value of “chunking” complex tasks into manageable steps. Throughout the class we progressed through steps until we were able to approximate a reasonable serve.

Not only did I learn about “chunking” but I also realized that experts don’t necessarily make the best teachers. People, for whom something has come very easily, sometimes have no idea how to break it down for beginners. If you have ever struggled to learn something, you realize that you may need to step back and break it down into manageable bits and that experience might just make you a better teacher.

We have all heard the really annoying expression, “Those who can’t, teach.” I would like to counter with, “Those who can teach, must.”

Do you have a favorite teacher or learning “aha” experience? Please e-mail in your stories and we’ll compile and share them in upcoming blogs.

Geoff Nolan
Director of Marketing and Public Workshops