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Teachers who inspire

Students in B.C. schools amazed by mentors

Nobody knew exactly what Mr. Ravensbergen, the chemistry teacher, was going to talk about. But the senior boys and girls at West Vancouver's Collingwood School filed dutifully into their weekly seminar to hear him.

"How many of you have families that have been affected by cancer?" he asked. About a quarter of the students put up their hands. What about close friends? Three quarters.

Then James Ravensbergen launched into a talk about his search for a cancer cure. He had spent two years in the early '90s at the University of British Columbia and the B.C. Cancer Research Centre trying to come up with a compound that would help radiation tell the difference between malignant and healthy cells. He didn't find one, but his work wasn't for nothing - others have since picked up his master's thesis and are improving on his research.

Since that spring lecture, students have looked at Ravensbergen differently. He is no longer simply Mr. Ravensbergen, the chemistry teacher, but a flesh-and-blood example of how chemistry class can lead to something much more meaningful.

"It seemed to me he was speaking from the heart," says head boy Christian Hordo, who is at university this year in a castle in East Sussex, England, as part of the study-abroad program at Montreal's McGill University. "I know that if I wanted to get into that specific field, I know I could turn to Mr. Ravensbergen for help."

You don't have to look hard in B.C.'s private schools to find people like Ravensbergen - teachers whose unique accomplishments in other fields give their teaching a "real-world" legitimacy in the eyes of students. Whether they've searched for a cancer cure, represented Canada on the playing field or published award-winning poetry, these teachers have the capacity to inspire young minds. Of course, you can find such role models in public schools, too, but their prevalence in even the smallest private schools is striking enough to make you wonder if they are being actively recruited.

Ravensbergen was offered his job at Collingwood a mere five days after seeing a posting for it in a newspaper. Would the public school system have been so quick to hire him? His master's degree would have put him in a higher salary bracket than a teacher without one, so a school district facing budget pressures would have had reason to favour a less well-educated candidate - teaching ability and all other things being equal, of course.

Most private schools, however, would welcome the higher degree. A candidate with such credentials might cost a little more, but the investment is worthwhile when you're competing with other schools for students. An interested family on a one-day visit might like to meet a biology teacher with world-renowned expertise on the Galapagos Islands, or a business teacher who made millions in the private sector before "retiring" to teach.

"I still think it's most important that, besides the depth of their subject knowledge, teachers really have a good pedagogical background, which means they have to have a real understanding of child development and how people learn," says Gail Ruddy, Head of School at Vancouver's York House School.

"Even if you've been an expert in an area, that doesn't necessarily mean you can give that back to kids. If (an applicant) has both, then you sure would want the person that has that kind of cachet for the kids, because they do look up to people. They like people who have accomplished things."

Over at Vancouver's St. George's School, math teacher Pat Palmer presides over silence as a dozen students sit hunched over their textbooks preparing for final exams. Palmer is a quiet, bespectacled man of about 40, who speaks in the soft, measured tones of a librarian. Gavin Berman and Michael Landels might be the only students in the room who know that he could once elicit roars from a stadium full of 50,000 rugby fans.

Berman and Landels play for the St. George's rugby team, which Palmer has coached since about the time he made his debut on the wing for Canada's national team in 1983. Palmer retired from international play 11 years later, having scored more tries than any national team member in history.

He doesn't advertise his accomplishments, but the boys have heard the whispers.

"I heard he ran the 100 in 10.6," says Landels, his voice low enough to avoid embarrassing the teacher.

Palmer, a St. George's grad, coached at the school for several years before he was hired as a teacher following the 1987 World Cup. His rugby accomplishments and "old-boy" status helped him get his foot in the door, but his way with the kids kept him there.

"Everyone on the team has so much respect for the guy. There's almost a feeling that we want to win for him more than for us," says Berman. "And it carries over to the classroom. You look at the guy and how modest he is and all he's done, and there's just so much respect."

The new creative writing teacher at St. Michaels University School in Victoria gets similar respect from his students. Terence Young is a published poet who moved to SMUS from a nearby public school, Claremont Secondary, two years ago. His first collection, The Island In Winter, was nominated for a Governor General's Award in 1999. His first book of short fiction, Rhymes With Useless, was published by Raincoast Books in August.

"I think it's important that you model in your own life the things that you are preaching," says Young. So it's not that the subject is just something you get paid to teach, but something that you believe in, that you are engaged in and take seriously."

His reasons for switching schools were simple: Claremont's program had become so strong and well-supported that it would survive and thrive without him, and he wanted a new constituency in which to spread his enthusiasm for writing.

Ruddy has some accomplished teachers on her staff at York House, an all-girls school not far from St. George's. Thelma Wright, for example, is a two-time track-and-field Olympian and a member of the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame. But York House's most significant role model might be Ruddy herself.

rom her office window, Ruddy can watch girls from the junior school swarm the playground equipment during their breaks. She remembers when the equipment was being installed, and the contractor asked her if she wanted him to modify the original design - you know, to accommodate girls.

Ruddy would have none of it. Little girls can do anything little boys can, she reasoned. And York House students don't have to look any further than their administration for proof. Five of the school's six senior administrators are women, which means no student at York House grows up thinking it's unusual for women to be in charge.

"The nice thing is we don't even have conversations about it, like, 'Oh, those are women up there,'" says Carol Thompson, a graduating student who is taking arts at Columbia University in New York City this fall. "We just know. It's just part of our mindset, and it's part of how we look at ourselves."

Stephanie Tait, also a Grade 12 student at York House, says a big reason Ruddy's leadership has such an impact is because she doesn't do it from a distance.

"She gets very involved in students' lives," says Tait. "I went through some really difficult times, and she was really interested on a personal level, like 'Stephanie, how are you?' She approaches you in the hall, puts her hand on your shoulder, really looks you in the eye and wants to know how you are. And that's really what counts. When they reach you on a personal level, that's what helps you grow into who you really are, which is kind of what York House is all about."

And that's what bringing role models into schools is all about. It's more than an opportunity for students to be taught by people in the know - it's a chance to make human connections that remain in their memories and inspire them throughout a life of learning.

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