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John Robinson feels that special exhilaration every time he enters the classroom. "It's so enjoyable!" says the debating teacher at St. John's-Ravenscourt School in Winnipeg. The feeling is mutual. This past year, when John was selected as one of six Manitoba teachers to win the Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence, students told the Winnipeg Free Press: "He's a great guy...he's smart and interesting," said Grade 11 student David Kalinowsky. He respects everyone, said Bridget Sigurdson of John. "He's gentle and thoughtful and witty and knowledgeable about a vast variety of topics."

It's all about teachers. Countless young lives have been changed through encounters with great teachers. Teachers who connect with their students; teachers who inspire.

Like French teacher Catherine Davesne, who uses the AIM method of hand movements, plays and dancing to make French a real living language at High Park Centennial Montessori School in Toronto, Ontario. "I want the kids to learn in a fun way and not realize they're learning," says Catherine, who grew up in France. The result, says her principal, Rosie Cardarelli, "is that by graduation at Grade 6, for the most part, our children are reading, writing and speaking French fluently."

What makes an exceptional teacher? "Passion, commitment, understanding the child," says Nancy Coyle at the Toronto Montessori Institute.

Hiring those committed teachers, says Bob Snowden, headmaster of St. Michaels University School, in Victoria, "is the most important thing we do." Some of the best, he says, come from the public system. But it takes a special sort to make the jump. "In a private school," says Bob, "it's expected that teachers are going to be involved in the extracurricular life of the school."

"In most independent schools today," says Paul O'Leary, head of the senior school at Royal St. George's School, in Toronto, "pay is equal or better (than in the public system) and most have the ability to offer good pensions." He is proud that, "we draw a lot of great candidates, many from the faculty of education at the University of Toronto. We tend to attract good people, and we tend to keep them," he says.

What it comes down to is the simple pleasure the best teachers derive from interacting with their students. "It's exhilarating and challenging," says John Robinson. His subject, debating, he believes is "crucial." There's not enough emphasis these days on "being able to speak and listen well," and his students have taken many top debating awards. He never knows, he says, what direction the lesson will take as the kids respond. "The fun is reacting to the situation as it evolves," he says.

Of his career, John says, "I am always surprised when I realize I have been teaching for 25 years. It seems like six or seven."

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