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2011 Exemplary Practices

What Some of Canada's Best Teachers Recommend

Insights from the recipients of the 2010-11 Prime Minister's Awards for Teaching Excellence

For more than fifteen years, innovative and inspiring teachers from across Canada have been honoured with the Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence. Highly effective educators from every province and territory are nominated based on their achievements in a broad array of subjects and grade levels. The awards recognize and applaud the efforts of outstanding teachers who find new ways to instill a love of learning in their students while helping them build foundational skills of research, experimentation, study, performance and teamwork that will allow them to meet the challenges of a 21st-century society with confidence and enthusiasm.

The Prime Minister's Awards for Excellence in Early Childhood Education were launched in 2002—for information about these recipients, see

Last year, 19 nominees, including two teaching teams, ranging from kindergarten to grade 12 teachers were acknowledged for their unwavering commitment and creative approaches to education. From a leather-jacketed iconoclast to an Aboriginal mother of ten, from a techno-geek who uses digital-click technology to overcome student apprehension to a counter-cultural chef whose charges learn to cook for 300 people each day, these are some of Canada's most fascinating mentors. Read about each winner here.

The teachers came to Ottawa in October in honour of World Teachers' Day (October 5th) for four days of whirlwind activity, including a private meeting with the Prime Minister, a visit to the Ottawa Inuit Children's Centre, a trip to the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum, and a special reception at 24 Sussex hosted by Mrs. Laureen Harper. The pinnacle event was the national awards ceremony. Teaching and Early Childhood Education recipients gathered at the Canadian Museum of Nature with The Honorable Peter Van Loan, Master of Ceremonies Catherine Clarke, and a host of other dignitaries, including members of Parliament who had come specifically to honour the award recipients from their own ridings. A highlight of the ceremony was a speech given by Canadian astronaut Dr. Robert Thirsk, who warmly acknowledged that it was the early influence of his own teachers that set him on a path to success. During his talk, Dr. Thirsk presented a new Space Educator Award to Sean Clark, an earth and space sciences teacher for grades 9 to 12 from Stittsville, Ontario. The initiatives and achievements of all the recipients are extraordinary. Each biography is well worth the read.

During their stay in Ottawa, the teachers also had the opportunity to meet Governor General David Johnston, at Rideau Hall. This visit was particularly relevant as His Excellency is himself a seasoned teacher with a reputation for inspiring students. The Governor General invited the PMA recipients to share with him their thoughts and ideas on teaching excellence. The timing of that exchange was ideal as these award-winning teachers had just spent a day and a half identifying the strengths and best practices of great teachers, the risks teachers must take, issues facing the 21st-century classroom and the lessons that learners teach their teachers. The 19 recipients elected to offer their insights to their fellow teachers across Canada in four distinct categories as follows. To find out how some of Canada's best teachers teach, read on.

About the Recipients

Todd Ablett—Get involved in the learning cycle

Todd Ablett

Todd Ablett teaches in one of the most diverse areas in Canada. The social statuses and cultural backgrounds of his students are vastly wide-ranging, which provides Ablett with a classroom that is nicely primed for chaos—luckily for this resourceful engineering and electronics teacher, it is where he flourishes. With the goal of entering international competitions every year, Ablett works industriously with his students to build and engineer highly advanced machines to earn them prestige and recognition in the world of robotics—but more importantly to give them the chance to accomplish something unique and revamp the way they use their traditional learning skills.

"Kids come into my classroom knowing how to study and write tests. But here they also need to learn how to compete. I teach them how to work proficiently and react quickly," says Ablett.

Ablett's classroom is many things, but uninspired is not one of them. "Every day I challenge my students to think, design, build, test, discover, discuss, celebrate and reflect," he says. "The learning that happens is a result of all of that."

Building a team environment and developing trusting relationships are the guiding principles in everything Ablett's does. "Every student is important. Everything they offer to the group is valuable. Like any machine, if a single cog were missing the entire structure wouldn't work," says Ablett, who stresses to his students the value of working together and making use of everyone's unique strengths."

Along with working towards creating a sense of unity among his students, Ablett teaches them about the design process, which he refers to as the "design-loop" concept. This involves three steps:

  1. Make attempts
  2. Assess outcomes
  3. Try again

"I tell my students that they often have to go around the design-loop many times before they can get the results they want to achieve," explains Ablett. "I discuss aspects of winning and losing with my students, so whatever the outcome is of a project or competition they have an opportunity to learn and keep moving forward."

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Arlene Anderson—Encouraging student's comfort with the research process is just as important as accomplishing the final project

Arlene Anderson

"An educator should have a clear vision of what it is they set out to accomplish," according to Arlene Anderson. "I always try to begin with the end in mind and set my goals high." To begin this mighty under taking, Anderson conducts an inventory that involves the school staff outlining the essential curriculum concepts the students need to understand and communicate by the end of the year.

"I talk with the teachers because I want to identify their goals. That way I can ensure that we align the way we teach kids the skills and subject matter, as well as how to fully exploit the learning opportunities new technologies can provide. Ultimately, I want the students to be able to be independent and analytical."

Today's 21st-century education models are changing dramatically. Anderson says that many teacher-librarians are responding to the alterations by helping students develop key literacy skills they need to navigate through today's information landscape. "Educators understand that the research that once went on in the library is conducted in classrooms now that many kids have portable devices and Wi-Fi access," explains Anderson. "I have worked to establish common practices among staff that reflect an understanding of how to engage students in meaningful inquiry while they conduct their online searches. It's important for me to make sure that students are developing their critical thinking and research skills."

For over two years Anderson has led professional development sessions with teachers tackling issues such as how to engage students in meaningful inquiry and how to develop key information literacy skills. She developed her sessions by using a document produced by her professional association, The Points of Inquiry: a Framework for Information Literacy and the 21st Century Learner. The document was large with an abundant amount of information. Anderson and two of her colleagues distilled it to a single, comprehensible page that detailed the aptitudes they felt were essential for all students to have. "We identified skills that students were taught and areas that were lacking," explains Anderson. "We are currently in the process of curriculum mapping so that we can be certain that students are taught these skills across all disciplines and are given opportunities to exercise them."

Anderson says she was able to engage in meaningful collaboration with her colleagues during the process of adapting the document. Teaming up and working together, according to Anderson, is a practice she believes is vital in forming cross-curricular learning tools. "The role of the teacher librarian is by nature a collaborative one. We work with classroom teachers and rely on them to ensure that the information literacy curriculum is delivered." By combining the experience and expertise of her colleagues she was able to create a valuable document that truly helped teachers and their students.

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Nathan Beeler—High expectations can drive student achievement

Nathan Beeler

Nathan Beeler expects, and teaches for, success in his classroom. "It seems like more teachers and students are accepting average performances," explains Beeler. "I don't want to get used to the idea that my student's are only capable of producing something ordinary. I encourage kids to be their best in my class because I know that a successful attitude in the classroom extends to everything else they do."

Raising students' expectations of themselves requires a lot of work, motivation and dedication. Beeler says that the learning process he goes through to get the job done involves four fundamental ideas:

  1. Provide the students with a way to expect more from themselves,
  2. Do not allow them to accept mediocrity,
  3. Help them figure out what they are capable of, and
  4. Inspire them to continue progressing.

"I want my students to be part of something exceptional so I encourage them to take part in lofty projects," explains Beeler.

But he doesn't just encourage his students achieve greatness; he actually provides them with opportunities. Over the last 10 years, Beeler has travelled four times with youth musicians to participate in performance tours of Cuba, including Havana and several other cities. These tours focus on the chance for Canadian students to meet and perform with students from Cuba who are studying music, and to see and appreciate a system so different from the one in which they live and grow.

"In order to inspire my kids to want to work for greatness I try to put them in places they may not have been able to go to otherwise," he says.

Beeler realizes that the trip is an incredible experience for the students who attend, but he also tries to make his everyday lessons a valuable learning experience for kids as well. With every note the students learn to play or piece of music they master, Beeler always tries to connect his daily teachings to the bigger picture of his students' education. "Kids like to be part of the bigger picture," he explains. "They like to know the reasons that they are being taught certain concepts and how those concepts are linked to the curriculum and the larger world. It's important to teach how the small lessons are connected to the bigger ideas. I make sure to explain the curriculum objectives to students in simple language so they can see what they should learn and why they should learn it."

Forming a clear vision of the process and path it will take to reach his objectives and achieve goals is another important step in Beeler's teaching approach. "I always try to begin with the end in mind and instill in my students a sense of what it will feel like to reach their goals if they keep working."

Although Beeler helps his students design steps to reach their goals, he knows that setbacks are bound to occur. "When you set your standards high you set yourself up for all kinds of mistakes," explains Beeler. "If teachers don't invest in teaching and addressing failure in every one of their lessons they will lose their students' trust." Beeler believes that teachers need to be willing to teach out of a "collapsed space" and be prepared to explain why things didn't work out. "By teaching failure you can use those moments as catalysts into a different kind of lesson—one that can be meaningful and relevant to the students—something grand!"

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Laurie Cassie and Rebecca Robins—Teachers who have remained abreast of technology trends

Laurie Cassie

With two minds thinking about what is best for students, the highly collaborative and techno-savvy teaching team, Laurie Cassie and Rebecca Robins, are able to create a shared teaching and learning experience for everyone. In their class, the ideas and voices of the students lead the direction of the lessons, when appropriate, to best maximize the learning opportunities. Students are involved in preparing practice questions for their classmates based on teachings from previous lessons, creating guided lecture points to accompany in-class videos and using digital media in presentation projects.

"No longer is it solely the teacher's responsibility to instruct the students," explains Robins. "Instead we look for opportunities where students can assume the teaching role and connect the concepts they learn in one subject to the concepts they learn in other subjects."

One of the ways to let students teach one another is through the use of technology. They often refer to resources like the Khan Academy website which engages students in self-paced learning through interactive exercises and activities. While Cassie and Robins are proficient with digital teaching tools like SMART Boards, they know that many of their students are also incredibly skillful with technology and want to show off what they know. Robins came up with the idea for a student-to-student technology conference where kids deliver workshops to kids from other schools. Cassie worked with current and former students to develop the workshops, and together they were able to turn an idea into a real event that was relevant and educational for students.

Cassie and Robbins are also deeply involved in providing professional development opportunities about technology in education, particularly SMART Boards, to teachers throughout British Columbia.

Rebecca Robbins

"We provide bi-monthly after-school workshops, a bi-annual full-day conference and summer courses in association with the University of British Colombia," explained Robins. "We believe that teachers must understand the power that digital and current technologies can have on their presentations to students. We help teachers learn how to create digital templates considerate of differentiated learning preferences and encourage critical thinking in their students."

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Sean Clark—Link lessons so they are meaningful, purposeful and relevant

Sean Clark

"When students see one of their high school teachers take part in aspects of the education system that are beyond the classroom it gives them motivation to pursue their own ambitions and take on challenges," explains Sean Clark, whose expertise in the topic of earth and space sciences has granted him the opportunity to collaborate with and educate alongside many distinguished partners.

Clark—who has worked in partnership with organizations like the NECTAR Foundation on behalf of the Canadian Space Agency to develop math programs for senior-level geometry lessons—has taught kids about the concept of space in a myriad of ways and in different contexts. His passion for the subject matter has inspired both his students and his colleagues to develop a strong sense of dedication to the subjects they feel strongly about.

Meaningful lessons and purposeful activities help students relate to concepts as vast as space, according to Clarke, who often focuses on linking the learning children are doing in his class to the learning they are doing elsewhere. Collaboration is key when teachers begin to teach cross-curricular lesson plans; to carry out special projects and initiate unique projects in and out of school, the partnerships teachers form with people from the community.

Another noteworthy practice that is paramount in Clarke's teaching approach is his professional development involvement. Clark—who took part in an exclusive workshop in Nunavut to study planetary geology—explains that he's attended and presented at a variety of conferences in the past six years, as well as participated in some interesting projects for teacher resource development session at both the provincial and national levels.

"All of the learning experiences I've been involved in have kept me on top of new teaching methods and pedagogy which results in my teaching methods being more engaging and relative to my students," explains Clark. "Being part of the foundational development of the curriculum gives a classroom teacher a clear sense of the intent behind what is being taught and how that translates from less abstract concepts into more meaningful lessons and activities."

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Shirley Dalrymple—Teach with the goal of inspiring every student

Shirley Dalrymple

There are three foundational goals in Shirley Dalrymple's classroom–make mathematics fun, keep expectations high and teach big.

Dalrymple regularly makes teaching and learning math enjoyable by creating a classroom environment that is well-organized and allows students to feel engaged. She uses technologies such as SMART Boards and i-clickers, manipulatives such as graphic calculators and motion detectors, and social media resources such as YouTube videos to punctuate the topics. Dalrymple says that she works diligently to build positive relationships with her students, encourages them to take responsibility for their own learning and gives them the authority to take responsibility for their own education. She says that it is important for students to learn how to solve math problems in her classroom, but it's equally as important that they learn how to motivate themselves in the classroom and beyond.

Assessment is another very important aspect in Dalrymple's teaching process. Applying different and varied assessments are a practical way to achieve her goals and to evaluate if she is teaching with purpose. Dalrymple always provides a lot of opportunities for students to show her what they know, and opportunities for the students to self-assess so they can understand what they need to work on. According to Dalrymple, she uses strategically planned assessment techniques for, of, and as learning. These techniques are comprised of three steps:

  • Mind's On. A preparation activity that gets the students ready for the upcoming lesson by determining their prior knowledge and establishing a foundation for new concepts.
  • Action! A mathematic activity that prompts students to act. The activity's main focus can range from reflection, discussion, observation, investigation, exploration, creation, connection, or demonstration.
  • Consolidate Debrief. Using the revelation or information from the previous activity, we pull out the math in the activities for conceptual understanding and to prepare students to further enhance their understanding.
  • Based on the students' responses to her well-executed assessments she can alter and adjust her lessons in order to best suit the needs of her students.

"By making math fun, integrating assessment into every lesson and maintaining high expectations, my students—even those who were previously poor at math—have made great achievements in my classroom."

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Catherine Downey, Corey Morgan and David Gill—Combine technology in unexpected ways

Catherine Downey

Teaching team Catherine Downey, Corey Morgan and David Gill have been part of many ambitious projects in their school throughout the eight years they have been working together. One of the most creative and comprehensive projects is the Amalgamated Media Production Company, which is a student-run initiative that connects the kids to the school's activities and events in an interactive way. The kids are responsible for storyboarding ideas, developing concepts and themes, using equipment and managing behind-the-scenes action. With guidance from Downey, Morgan and Gill students operate and direct the news programs and special events that are run for everyone in the school to watch.

"We write the grants and find the resources and then hand them over to the students," described Morgan. "Giving kids ownership over an expansive project like this makes them feel like they are really connected to the school and working towards something great."

David Gill

"Many students who don't identify with the kind of learning that takes place in the classroom feel at ease in environments like these—ones that are more open to expression and collaboration," explains Morgan. Downey went on to say that the kids involved in this project really feel like they are learning something useful, are gaining experience and valuable skills, and are part of a team that produces an interesting and influential service for the school environment."

The teaching trio has also initiated the Moodle Course Management in their school. According to them, this tool is similar to WebCT in that it can allow teachers to create an online mirror of what they go teaching in their classrooms. Downey, Morgan and Gill explain that Moodle is used in three main ways: to organize the daily inputs of information, to interpret the broader curriculum, and to maintain communication. "Moodle is a great tool to use in a blended learning environment," explains Downey. "It provides kids with another way to stay connected, be engaged and access information."

Corey Morgan

The success they've experienced in all of their endeavors has been a result of collaboration, according to the trio. "As a team we all bring our own areas of expertise to a project and together we can accomplish more this way," explains Gill. "We actively seek out opportunities to collaborate on new and interesting projects and these collaborations usually combine in unexpected ways to present other opportunities that otherwise wouldn't have been evident." By supporting one another Downey, Morgan and Gill have been able to change the way school communicates with, understands the capabilities of and encourages greatness in the students.

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William Eaton—Show faith in your students and encourage them to be leaders

William Eaton

William Eaton has created a distinct classroom dynamic. Eaton and his students have agreed on and operated from one common value–teaching and learning must be reciprocal. "The way I viewed the learning that happens in my classroom changed when I began to view my students as resources," explains Eaton. "Students can be resources to themselves, their peers, their classroom, their community, and ultimately the world." Kids have a lot to offer and according to Eaton once they understand how they can use their acquired knowledge they will start to become more responsible for what they learn, and often, help others reach a point of understanding as well.

Identifying with the term learning facilitator instead of teacher, Eaton believes that all of his students must develop leadership of their accord. To achieve this, he applies a systems-theory approach. "The expectation was put on each student, not by me, but by the entire group to contribute something to the class," explained Eaton. "Everyone was required to add value to any system they were part of. Some of the students wanted to advance means of communication so they put their homework online daily to help keep their parents informed. Others created podcasts with the intention of helping other students overcome a fear of public speaking, and some connected online math games to a learning outcomes-based math website they created as a fun resource for their peers."

When students decided how they were going to show leadership in Eaton's class he put their name on a scroll with an official title of their leadership role and posted it in the classroom. Throughout the school year the titles on scrolls increased until eventually everyone had contributed–in fact, many students contributed to more than one leadership activity inspired by the act of giving back, contributing to and leading their peers.

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Paul Finklestein—Encourage continuous improvement

Paul Finkelstein

The learning that happens in Paul Finklestein's classroom is unique–food is his medium to teaching and his tool for change. Students engage in activities that are completely hands-on and experimental–from planting and tending a garden, following the steps in a recipe, preparing a meal for others, and cooking with challenging ingredients.

Making and serving a healthy meal is the goal, explains Finklestein, but the real success is achieved in the process of preparation. While cooking, each of his students typically experiences a moment that is meaningful to them; a moment in which they become a respected leader within the group or have the opportunity to share some of their own life experiences with classmates. These moments, according to Finklestein, are the true lessons he is trying to teach.

"Every student comes from a different food background and with an individual set of tastes and culinary skills," says Finklestein. "Teaching with and about food provides instant gratification for others and their cultural background while building self-confidence in a collaborative and delicious way."

Some of the lessons may seem simple but this culinary teacher knows that his lessons have a much deeper impact –students learn to appreciate what they eat by managing the Seeds of Change garden, taking part in ambitious projects like running The Screaming Avocado Café, and starting proactive initiatives like the Three Sisters Elementary School Garden Project. By challenging the status quo of teaching methods, Finklestein is able to motivate his students to want more than just a perfect report card—he can inspire them to make a difference. "Food is a great medium to challenge students to try something different, refine skills and complete a task," explains Finklestein. "Everyone learns something from the shared experience, whether it's a specific skill or a thoughtful insight."

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Dan Grassick—Connect with students in and out of the classroom

Dan Grassick

Dan Grassick believes that kids are always in need of role models—and often the people they look up to are the people they relate to. "In the ten years I've been teaching I've come to realize that when you teach you are really revealing a part of yourself to your students," explains Grassick. "Sharing who you really are helps to establish trust between teachers and their students, so show off your inner geek!"

Along with understanding the importance of establishing a friendly and approachable relationship, Grassick knows that kids are veracious learners—they need opportunities to share their knowledge and people to listen to what they say. "Children need to continually grow, learn and share, while taking risks and getting dirty sometimes," says Grassick. "Sometimes educators need to slow down as they move through the curriculum and notice when kids need to be heard."

By listening to students, teachers will develop a solid understanding of how kids learn best. In Grassick's class, he knows that kids need to connect their education to the real world. One of the ways he has connected with students outside the classroom and encouraged continual education is by developing a Leadership and Outdoor Education class for grade nine students. The kids have the opportunity to take on many roles acting as organized counselors at summer camps, inspiring mentors for younger kids and enthusiastic participants at the Terry Fox Run, all while being in an environment that promotes learning.

"When I teach I always try to stress the importance of learning versus schooling," explains Grassick. He does this by applying a four-point approach to his projects and activities, which include:

  1. Love learning and show it,
  2. Celebrate growth,
  3. Share how learning is difficult, and
  4. Affirm that it is never too late to learn.

By building his teaching approach around these points Grassick says he can turn the vague concepts into meaningful, active and challenging information that the kids connect with and become inspired by to seek out new learning opportunities on their own.

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Sandra Ipana—Commend students' efforts every day

Sandra Ipana

Sandra Ipana loves her native language of Inuvialuktun. Her eloquence and expertise are so well known in her community and surrounding areas that parents enroll their children in her class specifically to be reconnected with their cultural language and history.

"There was so much heritage lost during the residential school era," says Ipana. "I'm very aware of the big gap in communication and knowledge of Inuvialuktun between elders and the younger generation."

"Through my own experience of being restricted to speak my first language in school, I have developed a strong sense of sympathy and empathy for students who are struggling to connect with their heritage," explains Ipana, who has developed a spirited passion for and deeply committed sense for teaching.

Ipana is enormously involved in her community and she feels that her relationship with people is her biggest strength as a teacher. "Because of my connection to my community, I have formed a strong relationship with many of the parents and school board members," explains Ipana. Many of them are concerned about the education children are receiving about our culture and they really want to see a change in the system," says Ipana. She goes to explain how parents, elders and other teachers depend on her to inspire and instill in the young students desire to want to learn about their roots. "I respect my students' eagerness to want to learn and I commend them every day for even just being present in class."

Connecting the community to the classroom, forming strong connections between learning and culture, and celebrating small accomplishments are key elements in Ipana's style of teaching. "I know that it's more important for the children to develop fluency in and appreciation for their language instead of mastering it right away," explains Ipana. "It's important for me to help them make connections from the real world to the new language they are becoming versed in."

Through storytelling, hands-on activities, and visits from elders Ipana creates an environment that kids want to be in—one filled with laughter, excitement, shared wisdom and love.

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Louis Laroche—Trust that you know what you're doing

Louis Laroche

Projects and programs that promote big-picture thinking are often double-edged—they sharpen the teacher's professional skills and instill the creative and critical thinking skills that children will need to be 21st-century leaders. "When I start to conceptualize projects for my class, I engage in a lot of exploration and investigation," explains Louis Laroche. "I learn new skills, take notice of fresh ideas and refine my current practices just by planning ambitious projects for my students."

He teaches big and works resourcefully on all sorts of projects—big and small, in and outside of the classroom. "All of the initiatives I've been involved in such as developing a teaching approach using Mexican jumping beans, assigning wood-working projects and even fundraising efforts have been designed around some essential teaching outcomes: innovation, perception, communication and problem-solving," explains Laroche. "These outcomes are critical aspects across grade levels, subject areas, content and skills."

Fully aware that any big adventure will surely meet its fair share of adversity, Laroche admits that he has to invest a lot of time and make many mistakes before he can succeed. "I feel confident as a teacher when I'm challenged. I want to be involved in the learn process with my students and the only way to do that is by setting my standards high and continuing to evolve my teaching approach."

While impressing upon his students to have common sense and develop a strong work ethic, Laroche encourages them to hold their head in the clouds while keeping their feet moving on the ground. "Thinking big is one thing," explains Laroche, "but kids have to learn how to motivate themselves, take calculated risks and adapt their approaches in order to achieve their goals. That's what I teach."

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Christine Marin—Get motivated to work for excellence

Christine Marin

Christine Marin believes that education has the power to change the world—and most importantly, that teachers can instill in their students the idea that they are capable of making positive changes. When Marin thinks about the type of teacher she is and the type of teacher she wants to be, she thinks about how she can shape her students and help them discover who they are. "I want the students that graduate from my class to be knowledgeable and aware of the important issues. I want them to be creative, critical and compassionate."

To excel in this teaching approach Marin teaches under three basic principles. The first is to have a vision, then to embrace, and follow it. "With vision in my head I can make the right decisions," explains Marin. "It's important in my teaching plan to know where I'm going, how I'm going to get there and why I want to go there."

The second principle is not to tell students what they should be learning. According to Marin, teachers and adults can tell students information, yet they still may not understand what is actually being said. To contrast this, Marin creates situations in her classroom or makes connections to the real world, that require learning and reflection. For example, her students create math portfolios wherein they solve problems that arise throughout the school year, and link the learned math concepts to other disciplines that interest them, such as fundraising, Pizza Day or track and field. "Teachers shouldn't rob students of opportunities to learn by giving too much information," says Marin. "Rather they should provide them with situations that require learning."

The third principle that guides Marin's teaching is to help students build connections. "Our students are drowning in facts," she explains. "By providing a framework for all the concepts and connecting them to relatable experiences, teachers can help students understand the facts in context." To build connections from concepts to the bigger picture, Marin asks motivating, real-life, essential questions. For example, during the 2010 Winter Olympics, when British Columbia self-proclaimed to be the best place on Earth, she prompted her students to think critically about this. She asked them if they thought B.C. was the best place on Earth, what qualities they thought make a place "the best," and to explain why. The Socials Studies and Science curricula were addressed as students learned all about B.C., in order to answer the essential question.

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Scott Masters—Create a connection from the classroom to the community

Scott Masters

Scott Masters found a way to honour history and promote change in his classroom through the development of an influential venture—The Oral History Project. This acclaimed project is a digital archive of the real life experiences and first-hand stories of some of the survivors of the Second World War and the Holocaust, interviewed by Masters' students.

"My initial goal for this project was to turn my students into historians," explained Masters. "I wanted them to understand the realities of war beyond reading textbook facts and dates—I wanted them to see how war affects people. By encouraging them to have face-to-face interactions with individuals who actually lived through the Second World War, I knew the students would personally connect to, and form, a more intimate level of understanding with the subject matter."

Masters' students interviewed members of their family as well as people in the community, encouraged by Masters to discuss specific issues, such as when and where they were deployed to, ask personal questions, such as why their interviewee enrolled in the army, and even spark light-hearted conversation, such what their taste in music was at the time or if their uniform earned them admirers.

According to Masters, one of the main reasons to study history is to see how people adapt to changing times. With this in mind, Masters chose to present his students' findings in a modern way—a website linked directly from the school's main page. By juxtaposing past stories with new presentation methods, Masters was able to bring forth important lessons from history to the forefront of contemporary learning. Masters' choice of mediums also made it possible for the project to act as a living legacy: the site can easily be updated with new stories and interviews making the school a place where people throughout the community can connect, be inspired or learn from memories from the past.

Connecting to the community is one of the major themes that guides Masters in his teaching. By bridging the gap between the learning kids are doing in the classroom to the learning they are doing on their own is critical in order to make information relevant and meaningful. To do this, he invites people from the community into his class to share their stories or enlighten the kids with their expertise on a subject. By creating possibilities for interaction he promotes a regular exchange of ideas, which can reinforce meaning and deepen understanding. "The most defining moment in learning for students is when they create their own memories and connect with the information in a personal way."

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Joanna Sanders Bobiash—Teachers must respond to student diversity to meet all needs

Joanna Sanders Bobiash

Discovering passion is the theme of Joanna Sanders Bobiash's class. She champions her students to discover who they are by thinking critically and acting creatively. Good educators have always been able to ignite a spirited energy in their students and encourage them to dream. In Sanders Bobiash's classroom she connects students' aspirations to education by getting to know them on a personal level, giving them the opportunity to get to know themselves and letting them solve real life problems.

"I encourage my students find out and explore the different elements of their personalities and interests," Sanders Bobiash explains. "I let them socialize with one another and encourage the class to have open dialogues. By giving them the freedom to express themselves they have the chance to figure out who they are and build their confidence."

Sanders Bobiash has created a studio approach in her classroom—one that is dynamic, inclusive and divergent. "I developed and initiated the studio approach to help kids gain an understanding of how to learn," she explains. "Learning is different for everyone so I wanted to create space in which this is possible."

In her "studio" the kids practice learning by experimenting, making mistakes, and launching new initiatives. "Teaching for multiple intelligences by offering a variety of modern, thoughtful and original options is critical when trying to teach a single concept to a diverse group of learners," she explains. Sanders Bobiash punctuates the concepts she teaches in class by assigning tasks that can be freely interpreted by kids—including personal journaling, blogging, goal setting and solving real-life problems.

"It's important to teach kids twenty first century skills—how to think and learn for the future," says Sanders Bobiash. Aptitudes such as digital citizenship, online writing and personal development, and how to distill information or cite internet sources properly are things that Sanders Bobiash wants to impress upon her students while they are learning new information or abstract concepts.

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Harold Wardrop—Respond to students' diversity and try to meet everyone's needs

Harold Wardrop

Many kids are reluctant to voice their ideas or experiment with solutions; they don't know their own strengths.

To alleviate the fearfulness students' experience, Harold Wardrop tries to make learning math fun and his classroom relaxed. "I'm as much myself in class as I am in the real world," Wardrop explains. "By sharing my personality, it makes the students feel at ease and the learning environment more comfortable."

Wardrop has also adopted i-clickers as savvy-communication tools while he teaches. By using the simple hand-held device, kids can anonymously and instantly provide information, answer questions and actively participate in class without the risk of public embarrassment.

"The i-clickers have reinforced to my students that we are all in this together," explains Wardrop. "They can see firsthand by the instant results that they are not the only ones thinking in a particular way. These tools enabled the kids to take part freely in the conversation without fear or hesitation, and by doing so, take on a more active role during the lesson." He goes on to explain that i-clickers have also provided him instant feedback about his teaching approaches. "I can get an immediate response from the kids about my lessons," he describes. "If the majority of the class answers the questions incorrectly then I know I have to reevaluate the way I'm teaching. I can quickly change directions or try a new approach that best suits the students' needs."

While incorporating the i-clicker technology has helped Wardrop deal with math anxiety, he has made other creative efforts to offer differentiated instruction and assessment. For example, knowing that kids hate pressure, especially when it comes to solving math problems, Wardrop removed time constraints during quizzes. He also switched from giving grades to offering specific feedback and suggestions for improvement. "Grading with feedback as opposed to letter or number grades takes more time," admits Wardrop. "But if the student pays attention to my advice and feels comfortable communicating their concerns to me, they will turn my feedback into success."

Wardrop also believes that students learn best when they work together so he creates opportunities for them to collaborate when exploring new concepts, investigating techniques and taking part in group projects. "When students have control over the things they learn and the way they learn them, they become much more engaged. They are relaxed, comfortable and the dialogue they initiate with one another is remarkably insightful."

The Top Ten Traits of a Great Teacher

For some, the secrets of an inspiring teacher may seem more like alchemy than science—a mix of motivating stories and tales of perseverance. However, we know it takes more than mere magic to truly inspire and empower today's students. Children want to witness action. They need to be part of the experience. This past October, the recipients of the 2010-11 Prime Minister's Awards for Teaching Excellence met in Ottawa to discuss what it takes for a teacher to make this happen. The group shared their personal stories, both challenging and triumphant, exchanged favoured techniques and approaches, and agreed on the 10 essential characteristics that define the ideal teacher in the contemporary Canadian classroom.

  1. Share your passion

    Beyond displaying an in-depth subject knowledge and a cheerful disposition, educators should be bold and inspirational. One of the best ways to do this is to be passionate about your subject material. This year's award recipients make learning captivating by tapping into their own interests. With imagination, any teacher can find ways to apply his or her own love of learning to a topic. Share with students your enthusiasm about a particular subject and encourage kids to follow individual pursuits that excite them as well. Be open to adjusting the ways you teach to best suit students' interests and keep them engaged. Instruct your students to listen to lectures actively, read on their own, tackle hands-on projects and create role-play adventures. Be lavish in your praise: compliment ideas, commend attempts, and applaud out loud. Joanna Sanders Bobiash, a French immersion science and social studies teacher from Regina, Saskatchewan, regularly connects her students' passions to their education. Read about how she believes teachers must respond to student diversity to meet all needs.

  2. Unite and collaborate

    Information is taken in and becomes meaningful when it is relevant so the context of a lesson is more important than ever. Today's kids are exposed to numerous facts and dissected shreds of data so the concepts they learn in school must have purpose in order for them to stick in their minds. Help students make connections between the concepts you teach by preparing cross-curricular lesson plans to show how particular subject matter is related. Team up with your colleagues to create multiple opportunities for students to engage with a topic. You have a tremendous amount of experience and expertise available among your colleagues so use your school's collective knowledge to help develop the topics you cover in your own classroom. One way to do this is to assign large-scale projects that span subjects. Sean Clark, a high school Earth and Space Sciences teacher form Stittsville, Ontario, did this by linking a lesson on astronomy to the history of the telescope. Another suggestion to span subject matter is to show how math is used to determine the perspective in a landscape photo, or you can explain the chemical reactions that take place while preparing a meal. Students must be able to relate what they learn to what they already know. You can read how Sean Clark links lessons so they are meaningful, purposeful and relevant.

  3. Take risks

    Teachers just like these award recipients understand the value of taking a risk; they know that gambles must be taken on the journey to success. Teach your students how to take calculated risks. Help them make the distinction between recklessness and risk-taking, by showing them that in the right place taking a chance means imagining a possibility. In your classroom try to adopt the spirit of a community leader or even a great entrepreneur and let that state of mind regulate the decisions you make. View every obstacle as an opportunity and don't give up when faced with a setback. There are many ways to be a risk-taker. Start by asking your students the essential questions and encouraging them to raise important issues. Try to diversify the way you prepare your lessons. Rather than standing at the front of the class lecturing at the students, let them teach each other. Or change the location of where lessons take place by organizing an adventure or outing away from the classroom. As a risk-taker, grant yourself permission to dream and tune out the fear of failure. Don't be afraid to cover topics that are not your specialty—show kids by example that trying is more important than being perfect.

    Louis Laroche, a grade five and six teacher, takes risks in his teaching techniques every day. Read about the importance of trusting that you know what you're doing.

  4. Build relationships

    The bond between teachers and students is unique. Mutual rapport and respect must be balanced delicately between those who teach and those who are taught. Teachers work tirelessly to establish a safe environment for and supportive connection to their students by always showing courtesy, enthusiasm and concern. Teachers like these award winners agree that a great way to maintain a deep-rooted relationship with students is to share who you really are. By being yourself in and out of the classroom you help to put your students at ease. Show off your "inner geek" and reveal your creative side like Dan Grassick, a teacher from Calgary, Alberta, did. Read about how he connects with students in and out of the classroom

    Talk about your interests and ask kids about theirs. Treat your classroom like a community by urging your students to become involved. Be attentive, stay positive, and establish trust. Communicate with students on a casual level and approach them in a way they are already familiar with—socially. You can create possibilities for interaction by going beyond the classroom and noticing where kids are and what they are doing. Find them rehearsing for plays or perfecting their volleys and show them the same support as you do in the classroom.

  5. Attract a crowd

    Many teachers agree that it is important for kids to understand the purpose of their education and look beyond just achieving perfect test scores and straight A report cards. Enhance what you teach by connecting the community to your classroom. Introduce students to real-life examples by inviting people in from the community to tell stories and recount personal experiences. Reach out to leaders, experts or professionals in different fields who can add insights to different subjects. It can be challenging to appeal to students' varying levels of understanding, but you can overcome this by thinking collaboratively. Draw on community resources to create a shared memory for everyone. This way, students' experiences become part of the class common knowledge and are foundational when building upon other topics. By assigning projects that require kids to go out into the community and engage in face-to-face interaction with people, you have the opportunity to empower your students to become part of the bigger picture. Scott Masters, a history and politics teacher for grades nine to 12, created a project that required his students go out into the community. Read about how he creates a connection from the classroom to the community.

  6. Teach big

    To teach big you must think big. Develop big picture thinking by asking yourself what you can do to exceed your own expectations as a teacher. From there, consider what you would like your students to know. Think about how you can help them get there and how you will evaluate their comprehension. When you prepare lectures, assign projects and organize activities, do so with the intention of making a profound impact on your class. Turn big-picture thinking into a major classroom theme. Get students to write down their aspirations and as they do so, help them transition from thinking about what they want to do, to taking action. Initiate a conversation about setting objectives. Ask why they want to achieve their goals. Encourage them to figure out the steps needed to reach them. By teaching big you inspire kids to think logically while following their hearts. Shirley Dalrymple, a grade nine math and grade twelve data management teacher from Thornhill, Ontario, inspired her kids to think big. Read how she teaches with the goal of inspiring every student.

  7. Be confident

    The 21st-century classroom can be complex. There are many methods to teach concepts, investigate issues, challenge perspectives and test knowledge. As a contemporary teacher, you understand the importance of embracing the diverse ways students learn and absorb knowledge but you're also aware that the dynamics of your classroom are unlike anything the school system has seen before. Continue to be part of the generation of teachers who are reconfiguring the foundation upon which education is built by teaching with conviction and leading with confidence. You can achieve this by designing your lessons to be a template for continuous thinking and by believing in your work. Demonstrate that you are confident in your students' commitment to learning by giving them ownership over their education and share the control in the classroom. Trust your students and trust yourself! Louis Laroche, a grade five and six teacher from Montréal, Quebec, trusts his teaching methods. Read about the importance of trusting that you know what you're doing.

  8. Master your technology

    Today's classroom is highly techno-centric, with each individual possessing a different level of familiarity and skill. Often children are more digitally savvy than the adults around them, but it is important for teachers to stay in touch with trends in communicating information and presenting data. Using various forms of technology in your classroom can make learning feel more relevant and students more connected to the world beyond school. There are many ways to bring technologically advanced thinking into your classroom. Design some assignments as you would a computer game; making them participatory, immersive and fun. Open up the lines of communication in a new way by initiating a classroom blog. Modernize the materials from your lessons by digitizing your notes or recording and posting podcasts of your lectures. Don't fret if you are not an expert in all areas of technology. Ask your students to teach you how to use a program or download a file. Demonstrate to your class that you are willing to try new methods of teaching. Show them you are teaching for the future. Laurie Cassie and Rebecca Robins proved to their students that they are teaching for the future. Read about how they have remained abreast of technology trends.

  9. Get involved in the learning cycle

    Classroom dynamics have changed. At one time, educators would stand in front of neatly aligned rows of students talking at them. Now, as the classroom becomes more democratic, students are moving to the head of the class while teachers settle in the back. Kids are taking more responsibility for the things they know and need to learn. Instead of telling students what they should learn, many teachers are letting students figure it out for themselves while steering them in the right direction. Many contemporary teachers think of themselves more as facilitators in their classrooms like one of this year's recipients William Eaton, a grade six and seven teacher from Keremeos, British Colombia. Read more about how he shows faith in his students and encourage them to be leaders.

    Progressive-thinking teachers encourage their students to collaborate and tackle broad, open-ended problems as they provide insightful guidance and instruction. Offer your students leadership while you demonstrate your involvement in the learning cycle. Demonstrate that together you make up the classroom culture. Collectively try out new techniques and show your support for one another. Launch the "design-loop" concept in your class, which involves three steps—advise your students to make attempts, assess the outcome and try again. Explain that it often takes many attempts before a task or skill is perfected. Use the design-loop concept as a framework for your own approach to teaching by refining your methods and continuing to make fresh attempts. By introducing and embracing this concept you can exemplify to your students the value of perseverance and teach them how to build capacity. Todd Ablett, an electronics and engineering teacher from Vancouver, British Columbia, uses the "design-loop" concept in his class. Read about how he gets involved in the learning cycle.

  10. Initiate conversation

    Every day teachers spend hours instructing their classes, communicating new ideas and talking through problems as their students listen and take in the information. Fostering students' ability to listen actively is one of the key skills that educators aim to develop. While it is essential that teachers keep conversations going in order to establish relationships with students, many teachers agree that it is just as important to know when it's time to stop talking and start listening. As you move swiftly through the curriculum, try to slow down when possible to notice your students. Encourage them to take time to reflect on the concepts you teach. Kids may not always speak up and say they need you to listen so be sure to watch for the signs. Try to notice when your students need you to be attentive as they think out loud. Detect when they are fishing for conversation and take the bait! Connect with students in and out of the classroom!

The Top Ten Issues Teachers Face

The 21st-century classroom is a veritable cauldron of learning. Teacher and student roles have to be adaptable, differentiated learning styles must be acknowledged, and curriculum goals must be rigorously re-evaluated to ensure that learning is relevant and engaging. In today's classrooms, technology is critically important. A wealth of information is now a mere click away and, as a result, teachers must be more attuned to classroom needs, and particularly their students' needs, than ever before. Teachers today contend with many wide-ranging issues because they are more aware of what happens in the close confines of their school and the larger world around them. Just as there is no single problem, there is no single solution. As a cohesive think tank, this year's Prime Minister's Award recipients outlined the challenges they face in the classroom and in the educational system overall.

  1. Technology is everywhere

    Now that just about everything is downloadable, kids are often more technologically confident than adults. Advances in technology have created a fundamental change in the way we do things, from delivering a message to accessing information. In order for the material you teach to be relevant to students it should be progressive. Try experimenting with different multi-media tools, such as the Moodle Course Management System or i-clickers which can enhance the way you teach. Establish online forums for students to communicate with you and with one another. It can be challenging to integrate technology into the classroom, especially if an educator feels untrained or unsupported, but it's important to remember that you don't have to be an expert. It's not the gadgets you have or how savvy you seem, it's the effort you make to reach your students that counts. Try to experiment with tools on your own or welcome a technology specialist from the community into your classroom to give you and your students a first-hand lesson. Transform your classroom into the dynamic and captivating environment that students desire and expect. Harold Wardrop, a math teacher from Mill Bay, British Columbia, did. Learn how he responds to students' diversity and tries to meet everyone's needs.

  2. Teaching research is critical

    Skills such as spelling, composition and mathematics will always be key, but 21st-century skills, like critical thought, collaboration, communication and media literacy are also important to impress upon students. Make the research process a foundational lesson in your curriculum like Arlene Anderson, a teacher-librarian, did in her school. You can read about how she believes that encouraging student's comfort with the research process is just as important as accomplishing the final project. Teach students how to search for data and provide them with instructional guidance on how to manage their time. Encourage kids to become familiar with the school library and regard to it as a place for discovery and growth. Ask your school's librarian for guidance and advice on how to discern information, both on and off-line. Try to re-think the way you evaluate by shifting from results-based reviews to performance-based reviews. Applaud the critical thought that students apply to their projects at every stage and commend them for learning through investigation.

  3. Learning is different for everyone

    No two classrooms are alike: each is special and dynamic thanks to the students' personalities, various styles of thinking and multiple intelligences. Some educators who are attentive to the different needs of students, offer choices and differentiated instruction. This requires flexibility, resourcefulness and adaptability. In your own classroom try to strike a balance when helping an individual student and the entire group make meaningful connections with the material. The challenge to differentiate may seem daunting at first—creating and offering variety will take extra effort—but you can begin by conducting a learning inventory. First try to figure out who your students are, what they know and how they learn. Let your students tell you how they acquire knowledge. Assign a learning-style profile activity. You can do this by asking kids how they would represent their own learning preferences and activities, encourage them to think about their career goals and prompt them to consider how their academic and activity choices reflect their future careers. Challenge kids to give many different answers. Variety will help ensure that mandated curricula are relevant to all your students. If you pay attention to what your students tell you about themselves you can use that information to help design your lesson plans and tailor assessments to better suit their different learning styles. Joanna Sanders Bobiash, a French immersion social studies and science teacher from Regina, Saskatchewan, teaches with a variety of approaches. Read about how she believes that teachers must respond to student diversity to meet all needs.

  4. Mentoring new teachers can be demanding

    Every year, teachers welcome other aspiring educators into their classrooms for hands-on experience and on-site training. Teaching is one of few professions that offers new graduates the opportunity for immediate, skillful mentorship by seasoned instructors at a minimal cost. This year's award winners compared this aspect of their job to that of a gatekeeper—essentially, they can help decide who advances quickly in their profession and who does not. If you have similar reservations or feel unprepared to make a critical decision like this, ask yourself, who better to decide what the future of teaching should be than you? Remind yourself that you are in the classroom every day establishing educational methods that you would like to see continue. When you are mentoring a new graduate make sure to share your passion for improving the classroom and exemplify what it means to be progressive. Encourage your student-teachers to be self-starters. Be direct and honest and with your feedback—by doing so you can improve the status of teacher training by enriching the rigor and relevance of your mentorships. Teaching is difficult, intellectual work. Both educators and school administrators must be ready to offer comprehensive instruction and make hard decisions about the future generation of teachers.

  5. The curriculum can be vague

    The way to make stars out of teachers is to let them be stars. Teachers flourish in freedom. They think innovatively and act resourcefully to discover the path that works best. Following the curriculum while moving in the directions students wish to go can be challenging. Few teachers actually have the kind of freedom to work in this manner however, if there is one thing that great teachers make clear is that they're always ready for a challenge. Like many creative ventures, adding constraints to freedom can actually be motivational when coming up with original solutions to problems. If your curriculum is vague and lacks direction, speak up and voice your concerns to your school's administration. Work with your peers to clarify nebulous learning outcomes and approach them for advice when you are unsure what direction to take. Seize every opportunity to search for the best approach by drawing on the people and resources you have immediate access to. The curriculum is essentially a static document. Although it cuts deep into your pedagogy and the decisions you make daily, it only begins to come alive once you apply your own methods. Interpret the learning outcomes from it the best way you can. Arlene Anderson, a teacher-librarian from West Vancouver, British Columbia, did it. Read how Arlene Anderson is encouraging student's comfort with the research process is just as important as accomplishing the final project.

  6. The context of a lesson is most important.

    The right framework can turn a scattered cluster of theories, facts and rules into a meaningful lesson. When students connect with learning material on a contextual level, ideas transform from stiff concepts to active elements of the many complex systems in our world. Instead of over-relying on procedure, establish an understanding of where the procedure occurs. Make context-based teaching approaches resemble an inquiry tool—ask 'why' more often than 'how.' Organize the topics from your curriculum into concepts with activities, projects or problems that involve telling a story or examining a real life situation. Respect the importance of the information you teach and your students will too. Teachers must reach beyond perfection, and aim to establish fluency in children.

  7. Today's kids are unlike any other generation

    The classroom is more flexible, creative and challenging than ever before. In this complex environment, teachers must pass along knowledge while simultaneously priming students to absorb a vast amount of information, adapt to new situations and think on their feet. As the world in and out of the classroom continues to change rapidly, children are presented with an abundance of possibilities and a set of new challenges every day. They can try almost everything once. Limitless options, however, result in kids having minor interest in many things. Some teachers feel that today's students are involved in so many different activities that they neglect refining their talent in any single area. Teachers should inspire students to reject mediocrity and expect excellence. Show kids how to find balance in their activities and encourage them to set their standards high in everything they do. Point out the dedication required to achieve greatness and talk candidly about how struggle and sacrifice are part of the process. Today's "renaissance kids" are already curious and open-minded. Once you inspire them to pursue excellence you will teach them to overcome adversity. Christine Marin, a grade four and five teacher from Richmond, British Columbia and teaching trio Catherine Downey, Corey Morgan and David Gill from Bay Roberts, Newfoundland teach their students how to pursue excellence in everything they do.

  8. Educators need more opportunities to learn

    Most teachers want to be in environments that allow them to develop themselves and their craft continually. Time and place for professional development is essential in order for all teachers to be engaged, challenged and motivated. It is important for a teacher's schedule to include time to observe and learn from talented peers in other classrooms. Schools should also have dedicated time and space for teachers to reflect on their teaching practices, individually and collaboratively, and on their students' work. Most teachers are particularly eager to receive meaningful feedback about their practices and should have regular and specific comments from their peers and from their schools' instructional leaders. If opportunities aren't there, consider taking professional development into your own hands. Initiate networking nights with teachers from schools in your community or launch an online forum to collaborate, share resources and offer insights. Seek out new places to find and share information relating to the teaching profession. For example, set up scheduled Twitter chats around a specific subject area or type of student. Use hashtags to organize, search and find messages on a particular topic all in one place. Encourage community participation. Sean Clark, an Earth and Science Teacher from Stittsville, Ontario, pursues professional development in an inspiring way. Read how he links lessons so they are meaningful, purposeful and relevant.

  9. Overly protective parents pose a unique challenge

    Parents want their children to succeed in school. Yet without realizing it, over-protective parents can curb their children's educational progress. As protectors and advocates, parents tend to defend or justify their kids' adverse behaviours and actions in the classroom. By accepting an average performance in school, parents can inadvertently endorse mediocrity and restrict advancement. If students never accept responsibility or admit their faults, they can never improve. It's imperative that teachers keep communication with students' parents open. Urge them to think critically before they excuse a second-rate performance from their children. Tell parents about the good AND the bad. Report on kids' achievements and setbacks. Adults should seize every opportunity to let children know that they have high expectations for education. Encourage parents to talk with their kids regularly about their educational goals, and help them create a plan of action to meet those goals—whether it's getting up on time in the morning, establishing a perfect attendance record or mastering a new computer program. In this way, you can help parents make a more effective contribution by evaluating their kids' educational development realistically.

  10. The daily achievement must be celebrated

    The small steps students take toward academic success need to be celebrated. It's the little things you notice about your students' progress that will make their educational experience more rewarding and will encourage them to continue to learn. It may seem like an onerous task to find flexible ways to engage students and keep them connected, but as it is with just about everything involved with teaching and learning, there are no quick-fix solutions. Prove to your kids that you care about their educational development. You can do this by creating and experimenting with new teaching models that suit your unique classroom. For example, establish a problem-based educational method in which students work together to tackle extensive, open-ended questions. Connect the learning kids are doing outside the classroom with your lesson plan by applying real-life situations. Recognize the things kids are already involved in—social networking, testing digital media, playing games—and try to help them do those activities with more thought and purpose so that they recognize their part, and their influence, inside a larger system. Sandra Ipana, a kindergarten teacher form Inuvik, celebrates the learning her students do daily. Read how she commends students' efforts every day.

The Top Ten Risks Teachers Must Take

Learning in its truest form is a great leap into the unknown. As a 21st-century teacher, you must be the first one to risk jumping in feet-first. Teachers understand that they work in a complex system. Sometimes the system itself can seem like an obstacle; you have to find ways to work within boundaries or move beyond limits—whether they are yours, the students' or the schools. Not everything needs to be detailed in advance; you can sometimes teach brilliantly by simply letting go and taking a chance. Together, our teachers named the 10 most courageous steps you can take to make your classroom a vivid and stimulating environment where students can think, experiment and debate. Here are some risks you can take to reach a student and make a real difference.

  1. Trust kids

    When you give kids the authority to set their own standards and rules, they are more likely to follow them. Share the classroom power with your students by lecturing less and offering more opportunities for student-directed learning. You may be surrendering some of the control but that does not mean you're losing it. Maintain your role as a guide and show your students new ideas, and avoid imposing a single path on them. Give them more ownership over their education. Most kids are voracious learners. By giving them the chance to absorb information on their own terms they will better connect with the ideas that educators are trying to teach. Shirley Dalrymple, a math teacher from Thornhill, Ontario, trusts her kids to let them learn on their own terms. Read how she teaches with the goal of inspiring every student.

  2. Set lofty goals

    Students will progress swiftly when teachers have a clear definition of success from the beginning. Ambitious teachers know where they want their students to be by the end of the year, and they set lofty goals that are measurable and meaningful. Drive student achievement by considering four principles in goal setting – 1) the interest that could shape the goal, 2) the skills that will best serve the students, 3) the pathways to opportunities for student success, and 4) the measurable progress students should achieve. When you assign big projects in your class, begin with the end in mind and establish a clear idea of the process it will take to reach your goal. Voice your intentions and encourage kids to, as well. By making your goals clear to your peers, you will surround yourself with people who can help and encourage you to reach them. Todd Ablett, an electronics and engineering teacher from Vancouver, British Columbia sets his standards high. Read how he gets involved in the learning cycle.

  3. Challenge the status quo

    Influential teachers know that passing along information from the curriculum is only the beginning of a great education. Learning needs to be meaningful, challenging, active and transformative. If components of the traditional school structure don't work for you or your students, get creative in the way you deal with them. You can try to remove time constraints from some of your exams or offer comprehensive feedback instead of grades. Students will likely pay more attention to your comments and turn them into directions for how to improve. Inspire your students to do more than get straight As—teach them how to learn and value their education. Harold Wardrop, a math teacher from Mill Bay, British Columbia, altered the way he graded his students and you can too. Read how he responds to students' diversity and try to meet everyone's needs.

  4. Find balance

    Finding the balance between personal life and work life can be tough for teachers. As most educators will point out, teaching is an all consuming job that does not stop when the kids leave the classroom. After spending a full day face-to-face with students, teachers must then spend time initiating new programs, organizing paperwork and grading assignments. While many may have trouble taking a step back from these commitments, teachers need time to rest and reflect to avoid burnout. They need time to develop stimulating lessons and to plan. This year's award recipients suggest planning it in advance. Try to decide how much time you will commit to the job, inside and outside of the classroom, and how much time you must commit to yourself. You may be more realistic with your time once you see it written down. Of course, teachers work in a profession where things often go in unplanned directions. Try to stay on schedule and adapt as you see fit. Keep in mind, you are the students' most important resource and an exhausted resource is limiting.

  5. Admit shortfalls

    You don't have to be an expert at everything. It's okay to be uncertain of which path to take. It's wrong to think that by admitting your shortfalls, you give students reason to doubt you. On the contrary, by making kids aware that failure is a possible part of the learning process, you will likely earn their trust. Spend time teaching about failure and talk to kids about how to handle adversity. Explain that in any new venture, mistakes are bound to happen. Acknowledge that there are all kinds of ways of tripping up and some of them are because of your own limitations. It never hurts to be humble. Nathan Beeler, a music teacher from Bedford, Nova Scotia, invests time in his class to teach about failure. Read about how he believes high expectations can drive student achievement.

  6. Be a radical

    The best teachers know that sometimes systems need change. Take the first step in improving the education system by revolutionizing your own classroom. Think innovatively. Be a rebel with a cause. Show no fear! Welcome, entertain and explore seemingly crazy ideas and stay rooted in your convictions. If you try to find out where your courage can take you in your class, your spirit will inspire kids to be free thinkers as well. Trust your instincts and give children the chance to act on theirs. Decide with your students the course you want classroom lessons to take, keeping in mind that it's fine if you stray from the curriculum. Being off-course for a time doesn't mean you'll end up off-target. Don't worry when situations go in unanticipated directions. If things collapse, prepare to teach from a collapsed space. Use the experience as a starting point for a new lesson. Work through the reasons why your attempts didn't work out and get ready to start the really exciting projects that will take off from there.

  7. Want more

    If you won't risk falling short of your dreams, you will never come close to reaching them. As teachers, it is in your nature to think idealistically, believing that you can improve the world through education. Get yourself motivated by teaching for excellence and teaching to instigate change. Never stop pushing the limits in your classroom by encouraging students to ask questions and bring up important issues. Take students to places, physically and mentally, they may have not visited otherwise. Instill a sense of hope in your students and use classroom topics to convey overall social-justice themes, so when they leave the classroom they carry on your vision. Anticipate success, never settle for mediocrity and teach kids to do the same. Nathan Beeler, a music teacher from Bedford, Nova Scotia, always motivates his students to be the best. Read about how he believes high expectations can drive student achievement.

  8. Notice students outside the classroom

    There are times teachers can get completely wrapped up in their classroom dynamics. It can be challenging to engage students with meaningful material that inspires them to think critically and simultaneously motivates them to continue learning. Good teachers connect with students in the classroom, but great teachers connect with students inside and out of the classroom. It's important to try to acknowledge your students at all times and develop appropriate student-teacher relationships that bridge the homerooms and hallways. Being overlooked is agonizing for children, so a single observation from you that is unrelated to your lessons can change the relationship with your students. Notice the things kids are involved in outside of school and try to link those activities with what they are doing in the classroom. Dan Grassick from Calgary, Alberta, links the learning his students are doing out of school into his lessons. Read how he connects with students in and out of the classroom.

  9. Go beyond expectations

    You are not an average teacher, so don't expect to fit the mold. Be the type of teacher you want to be by thinking big and acting big. Remember that school is not the only place where children are learning. Bridge what you teach kids with what they are doing when they are away from school and try to dismantle the walls between the classroom and the community. Shake up the traditional educational structure and foster a permanent love for learning in students by teaching to inspire. You can do this by using video games to punctuate the concept of a lesson or assigning big projects that make kids go out into the community. Scott Masters, a high school history and politics teacher from Toronto, Ontario, did. Read how he creates a connection from the classroom to the community. Make learning fun and empower students to establish their own educational goals. Go beyond your school's and your school board's expectations by radiating passion. If you can show your students the personal connections you have to the curriculum, you may inspire them to relate to the material on a more intimate level as well. Paul Finkelstein, a culinary arts, hospitality and tourism teacher in Stratford, Ontario, is known for his passionate approach to teaching by his students and colleagues. Read how he encourages continuous improvement.

  10. Create programs that last

    Progressive-minded educators often wonder if the changes they make will continue once they leave the system. It is difficult to determine where your influence starts and where it stops. Look to your students as a means to measure your effectiveness. Are they knowledgeable about things that are important to the curriculum? Do they see the interconnectedness of what you have taught and the world outside of school? Evaluate your learning plan, determine if you reached your goals and assess if you can refine your lessons. Let your legacy be the result of the things you do on a daily basis.

The Top Ten Lessons Students Teach

Good ideas don't have limitations, at least not for kids. Kids dream big. They are daring and imaginative, which helps them push the boundaries of possibility and sustain hopeful thinking. There is much they can teach us as well. This year's award winners were adamant that good teachers pay close attention to what their students think and feel about their own learning, the role of the educator, and the evolution of the classroom itself. Here are the top 10 lessons they learned from their own students this past year.

  1. You don't need to know everything

    It's alright to not be an expert on everything. When kids don't know something, they are unapologetically inquisitive. Be curious and ask honest questions if a topic is unknown or unfamiliar to you. Stay open to learning even if you are the teacher.

  2. Act spontaneously

    Every day you present students with problems and expect them to think on their feet and react. They rise to the challenge and so should you. Put the lesson plan aside sometimes and let lectures develop naturally. Give kids the authority to lead the class, and direct their learning. Keep them on their toes. Sometimes, the best learning takes place when things go in unanticipated directions.

  3. Stay young

    Kids remind us to appreciate the small stuff. Every day they find a reason to laugh. It's okay to seem silly sometimes. Make your classroom a cheerful place where kids want to be. Remember teaching doesn't always have to be serious business. Be playful, make a joke and laugh at yourself.

  4. Connect with the group

    You are part of something bigger than the classroom and you play an important role in the educational system. You help develop the minds and skill sets of the next generation. Kids know the importance of being part of a group and they know what it means to work in a team. Embrace your community and appreciate your role within it.

  5. Live in the moment

    Life unfolds in the present. But so often, we let the present slip away. Kids, on the other hand, are in a perpetual state of mindfulness. They are active, open and pay special attention to what is happening now. To live in the moment, know that any minute you spend doing something is a choice—so choose wisely. Think about the moments you cherish most and use them as a template for your life. Become mindful and accept your thoughts as they come, without grasping for more or pushing away.

  6. Failure is part of the process

    Kids continuously try new things and stumble along the way. Imperfect lessons are the ones that teach you how to be resilient and persevere. If you recognize that failure is merely one step on the road to success, then you will embrace it. Try not to shy away from trial and error. Accept failure as feedback and view it as an indicator of your progress. Keep in mind that setbacks provide an opportunity to reevaluate and build confidence.

  7. Intelligence is expressed in many ways

    Perfect test scores and consistent report cards do not always equal intelligence in every person. Respect that people have different ways of processing information and get creative in the way you teach. Try to stimulate all the senses. Design different entry points to a subject to appeal to all learning styles, and provide assessment options. Give kids enough opportunities to prove what they know.

  8. Change directions when necessary

    Kids are great at changing their minds. They know when their method isn't working and they are ready to do things differently in order to get the outcome they want. Be prepared to make necessary changes when things are not heading the way you originally intended, and prepare to start a totally new course if that's what it takes. Accepting that an approach doesn't work and correcting it is commendable and courageous.

  9. Perspectives are important

    Kids show who they are in their words and actions. Some fearlessly reveal their worlds to their teachers and peers while others only gradually open up about who they are and where they are from. Encourage children to share their experiences and let them teach you about their culture and traditions. Appreciate their personalities for what they are. Learn about what they value and why it is important. In addition, allow kids to teach you about yourself and recognize the feedback they provide about who you are as a teacher.

  10. Students know what's relevant

    The key part of student-curriculum engagement is choice and relevance. Only kids can decide what they want to remember and what they will inevitably forget. It's misguided for teachers to think that delivering information to students through a uniform approach will allow all of them to connect with the material in the same way. Students will tell you how they will learn best if you ask, so be open to novel approaches and radical ideas. Ultimately, kids really do know what they're talking about.

About Us

Group photo of the recipients of the 2011 Prime Minister's Awards for Teaching Excellence and for Excellence in Early Childhood Education

Launched in 1993, the Prime Minister's Awards (PMA) for Teaching Excellence have been honouring outstanding elementary and secondary school teachers for almost 20 years. The PMA is administered by Industry Canada on behalf of the Prime Minister and with the financial support of corporate partners: the RBC Foundation and Research in Motion Limited.

Teachers in all disciplines are recognised for their leadership, exemplary teaching practices and success in helping students acquire the knowledge and skills they need for our changing society and knowledge-based economy. The innovative use of information and communications technology in the classroom and the development of digital literacy among students is a key focus of this program. Designated awards are provided for outstanding Aboriginal teachers in partnership with Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. New for 2010-11 a special award was offered to an outstanding space educator in partnership with the Canadian Space Agency.

Up to 65 teaching awards are available: 15 National and 50 Regional. Certificates of Excellence (national level awards) are worth $5,000 and cash awards are shared between the recipient and their school. Certificates of Achievement (regional level awards) are worth $1,000 and cash awards go directly to the recipient. Certificate of Excellence recipients travel to Ottawa where they participate in best practice sessions and receive their certificates at a national event hosted by the Prime Minister or his designate. Certificate of Achievement recipients are honoured at school or community events involving local Members of Parliament. All recipients receive a PMA pin and certificate signed by the Prime Minister. In addition, each recipient's school receives a certificate recognizing its support of teaching excellence and its contribution to the recipient's achievement.

Considered Canada's top honour for K-12 teachers, the PMA is not an easy award to win a PMA. The selection process is rigorous with each nomination package reviewed by up to five members of the program's regional and national selection committees comprised of education experts from across Canada. Committee members look for evidence that teachers have achieved outstanding results with students, have inspired them to learn and continue learning and equipped them with the knowledge, skills, attitudes and abilities to build a successful future. For more information, please contact the program office.

Sharing and promoting the exemplary practices of PMA recipients is a major focus of this program. We are committed to sharing the innovative ideas and teaching practices of our award winners with other educators across Canada. We welcome your feedback [at pma te mailbox]. If you would like to receive regular updates on the PMA program, please sign up for our email distribution list or contact the program office. You can also contact the program office at 613-946-0651.