Mining for Gems

“You don’t know the answer”

Twice in my teaching career, I have confronted with this statement by a student. In once case, at Napanee District Secondary School, I was teaching Design and Technology in a shop. Not only did I know very little about the basics of carpentry, but I barely knew how to work the various saws and machines that I was entrusted to help my students to use. At least once per day, I would have to call on an available teacher to come in to rescue me from their questions. God bless today’s young teachers who willingly teach outside of their area of expertise!

The second time was at Lower Canada College where my grade ten students studied Macbeth.

This time I knew the content inside out and there was no dangerous machinery.  But I wanted the class to really examine big questions, and I was interested in the best approach to critical thinking and creativity.  So the IT department and I collaborated on a Multimedia Macbeth project, and the students made a website that included videos.  One day, pretty early on, the kids caught on to the fact that I was not an expert at making videos or websites.  But this time, I suggested they turn to one another for help.  Although there were often two adults in our classroom, we started using the “Ask three before me” rule for questions, and the room became a buzz of learning.  I witnessed the truth in the statement that students learn mostly from one another.

So both times I was unsure of myself – what was I doing in front of the class when I didn’t know the answers?  Should I admit to not knowing?  Was I expected to know everything?  Was I really getting paid to let students teach each other?  What were the implications of sticking to only those lessons where I did know everything (other than those days were short in number….)   I remember feeling a mixture of exhilaration at being in the midst of creation and yet total fear of not wanting to let my students down.

In both cases, I swallowed any sense of pride left in me and together we eventually found answers to questions.  I got pretty good at that, actually, and soon I enjoyed the process of asking and answering questions with my students.  Together we created their projects, and, dare the teacher say, together we learned.

Good teaching involves taking these kinds risks in classrooms.  But great teaching – and here is where I stop using my situation as an example – goes above and beyond.  In addition to knowing your students well, it involves determining essential questions, planning thoughtful lessons and assessments in advance, and most importantly, reflecting afterwards.

The reflection part is essential.  Great teachers spend a great deal of time debating how to help students learn as effectively as possible – how to teach students both in and out of the classroom.  With all of the changes to students’ lives and research on learning, one constant remains:  teaching is not easy.  And so when you find great teaching, you’ve found gold.

When the idea to reflect on exceptional practices in teaching and learning was first introduced, many people were eager to explore this project.  What can we learn from the best independent schools in Canada that might influence teaching and learning?

For over 20 years, school accreditation included an Internal Evaluation Report prepared by the school, a Visiting Committee review, and a Visiting Committee Report validating what the team read, saw and heard at the school.  Two reports per school were housed in the national office in big steel cabinets that remained locked at all times.  What could be learned by opening these cabinets and mining this data?

Jackie Copp and Barb Smith, two academic leaders and passionate educators, had both recently retired when I met them to discuss the possibilities of researching the reports and sharing the results.  They had both participated on a number of accreditation reviews and had been recognized for their passion for teaching, learning and research.  But they had never met.  Over the next two years, they worked based in Winnipeg and Toronto with occasional face-to-face meetings.  They read reports, researched, surveyed our member schools, sought agreement from all participants, summarized what was important to them, and went back and forth sharing their ideas and reflections.

This book focuses on the themes that emerged from their readings of accreditation reports from the past three years.  The beauty is that teachers wrote about their work, and then a group of teachers observed classes and confirmed the findings.  Therefore, this is a collection of exceptional practices of our great teachers as described and confirmed by our great teachers.

Our hope is that educators will read and and reflect and share with other teachers, so that we are all engaged in a national collaboration to enhance excellence in teaching and learning across Canada.

PS – Order your copies now at