Who is YOUR Teacher?

Tim StephensonBlog, Connect Better, Lead Better, Reflect Better


  • Teachers need teachers too! It is important to reflect on who YOUR teacher is and how they have shaped and influenced you.
  • Consider all of the different people in your life who have shaped who you are today.

Last month I reflected on how teachers can influence students by making our classrooms a place they want to be.  But who is influencing the teacher?  I have always believed that there have to be influencers in the lives of the teachers too.  So who are your influencers?  Who are the great speakers that you regularly listen to and pick up “tricks of the trade”?  You have to be able to answer that question.

My Early Influencers

I’ll offer myself up as an example.  I listen to speakers and have done so most of my life.  Some of my earliest influencers came from a place that unfortunately doesn’t hold the same importance in society today as it may have at one time…church.

In our western culture, there was a time when church was a weekly tradition and we would sit quietly in a pew for an hour. We’d fidget and squirm until mom brought out the Life Savers, and we would listen or at least sit still.  And it was good for us on so many levels.  Weekly family traditions are always a good thing.  It’s like sitting at the kitchen table together for dinner.  How can you go wrong?  These things develop discipline, community, relationships, and conversation.

But in church, there would be a preacher who would speak to us and we would listen.

I think a large part of the problem that we see in classrooms today is that students don’t believe that listening is part of the tradition anymore, mostly because they don’t practice it.

I’ve heard many preachers over the years.  My own local pastor at my family church growing up, the Reverend Jim Campbell, was a great storyteller.  He wrote a series of stories about a character he called Angel Zeb, a somewhat mischievous angel who would take on tasks in the hopes of earning favour with the “boss”.  Not necessarily Biblically accurate and perhaps a bit of poetic license, but these stories would be rolled out every few months and told in such a way that only a good storyteller could do.  And I listened…and enjoyed it every time.  This influenced me—it must have, because these stories came to me in the 70s, almost 50 years ago, and I still remember them.  What does that tell you?

Teachers can influence students by making our classrooms a place they want to be. But who is influencing the teacher? I have always believed that there have to be influencers in the lives of the teachers too. Click To Tweet

My Other Early Influencers

Television personalities influenced me too. The delivery of some of the TV characters has stuck with me for years.  I think of Ted Baxter from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, played by Ted Knight.  That man had a great delivery.  Alan Alda who played Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H was a comedic genius with a keen sense of timing and delivery.  There was the sublime such as Linus on the Peanuts comic specials at Christmas or Hallowe’en. And there was the ridiculous like Jim Carrey who, although he resides somewhere out in the universe now, had the skill of delivery like no one else.

With such an eclectic list of characters, please don’t overlook the fact that I have made it a point my whole life to observe and assimilate the delivery skills of some of the greats.  One of my favourite speeches was the “We choose to go to the Moon” speech by John F. Kennedy—such a powerful delivery that motivated a nation to achieve the seemingly impossible.

Actors, cartoon characters, preachers, politicians, motivational speakers…I listened to them all.

I was influenced by these people and they taught me to speak in public. They taught me to teach well and to use my voice in a way that would influence others.  Don’t ever overlook the obvious.  Sometimes the things that can have a powerful influence on you is something right under your nose.  Don’t write these things off, but learn to pay attention to what you are hearing and listen, observe, learn, and grow as a speaker.

I gave a presentation recently and afterward, someone who attended came up to me and said, “hey your science is good, but your storytelling is amazing! When you switch from facts to the story behind the facts, I’m just drawn in.”

Now, why is that?  I’m told all the time that I am a good storyteller and people enjoy that about me as a teacher.   Why do people enjoy a good story?  Without a doubt, it is a tradition of the First Nations people, passing knowledge and wisdom from generation to generation through recounting the experiences of the elders.  The tradition of storytelling goes back time immemorial, so why would we try to phase it out of a classroom?  That just makes no sense.

Along with that is the need to find your influencers.

At the start of my career, I wrote this:

I’m talking about using the people around you and benefitting from their experience. Corporate piggy-backing is the norm now because in big business, it’s been recognized that going it alone may not suffice in a highly competitive market. Let’s make our children and students aware of this fact.  It’s not a sign of weakness or inadequacy to team up with people to ask them how they did what they did…emulating the qualities of people you respect and amalgamating these characteristics in your own personality opens the door to success. 

If certain qualities worked for one person, then they may work for you.  But only if you seek out as many people as you can who share a common ground of accomplishment….Assimilate your character and enhance the person you want to be by becoming a melting pot of qualities possessed by many gifted people.  Take from every brush with excellence and become better at being you.  This is not to say that you are trying to be something that you are not.  In fact, it is one of the most individual things you can do for yourself, since only you will know the formula for your successful character.”

Look, I made a career out of doing this.  I was and continue to be heavily influenced by great speakers.  I believe that the greatest teachers, those that want to extend the most influence, will also be a great speaker.  Let yourself be influenced, seek out your influencers, and trust in the collective sum of all the greats that have come before you.  Be molded so that you can mold the future.

As you continue to develop yourself as a teacher of young minds, I have to ask, who is YOUR teacher?

It applies to people like me more than most.  Why?  Because I’ve been out of school for over 30 years!  If I haven’t learned anything new in over 30 years, I really don’t deserve to be in the classroom as an educational leader.

Years ago, I attended a daylong event when a speaker from the U.S. came and spoke about a program she had developed.  I don’t really remember that much other than she had written and recorded songs that her students would sing to help them learn and remember math concepts.  At first, it seemed corny, but the more I listened to her enthusiasm and creativity, the more I was impressed and appreciated the extent she went to get through to her students.  I ended up buying the audio cassettes of her songs and we used them at home for my own kids to learn math.

At one point in the day—and I wish I could remember this woman’s name—she told the story how at her school there was a crew of unruly students that other teachers wanted to avoid.  Apparently, at her school, these kids went through several teachers, each saying they were giving up and wanted out.  I still remember her pausing for a moment, looking really serious and then exclaiming, “Give them to me! I’ll take them.”

It is interesting that the name escapes me, but the effect is still there.  Don’t ignore that!

I remember the feeling I had at that moment.

But I have no idea the details of who delivered the message, other than it was a very passionate educator from the U.S.  After that, whenever I heard a teacher complain about the lousy class they had or if I thought about the rough group that I had, I would return to that moment when that lady yelled out, “Give them to me!” And I would forge ahead and do my best to motivate, educate, inspire, and simply be there for those students, who perhaps were at a time in their lives when they needed me to do those things the most.

This major point of view is an early indication that we can’t do it alone.

That is why I keep asking you: “who is your teacher?”  You can’t know everything, but one thing I have learned is that somebody somewhere knows the things that you need to know to make your lessons come alive.

I am not ignorant of the fact that I have been truly blessed to have been able to make a career out of teaching astronomy.  It is so easy to bring something interesting to class every day, so most of my battle is won just by my subject area.  So I am in no position to speak to other subject areas.

But that is the beauty of our jobs as teachers!  It is the ability to truly use our creativity to develop a slant on our subject areas that leaves our students with an experience that can change their lives.  It is not up to me, or any other book on the market, to do that for you.  I cannot be your creative spirit, just as others have not been my creative spirit.

This is why the very art of teaching needs to be the most important thing discussed at teacher gatherings.  I want to hear others talk about how they weave their courses with the intricate threads of wisdom, knowledge, experience, expression, and activity with feeling, emotion, enthusiasm, and joy.  I can’t tell you the “what” because I don’t teach all subject areas.  But I can tell you the “how” and the “why.”  You fill in the gaps…that’s YOUR job as the teacher.

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You see, the reason why you want to teach something better than it has ever been taught is because you love to learn about it yourself.

What is that thing for you?  Who can you learn from?  Who knows the things that you want to know, or who has a perspective on this that is unique and inspiring?  Find these people and study under them constantly. And you will find that when you are in your class, you are imitating their knowledge. You will be more engaging. Students will notice your enthusiasm and will want to be there with you.

Adding to this from a younger me:

“If you do this, soon you will start to see the difference between people who are the experts in life and people who are not, people who are striving to be better than they were last month and people who are stagnant.  In time, you will also be recognized as an expert and you will be looked upon as an example to be emulated.  People are drawn to the dynamic and vibrant traits of a passionate person and opportunities for these people abound.”

I’ve learned from some great “teachers” since I’ve been a teacher.  Some have been colleagues, some have been public figures, politicians, actors, pastors, or friends. And from each one, I bring with me to the classroom a piece of each of them.  I am keenly aware of the examples that have come before me.   As in the words of Isaac Newton, if I have seen further than others it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.

About Tim Stephenson

Tim has been teaching in Langley British Columbia for over 25 years. He is a science teacher, particularly astronomy, which is a course he has developed into a full credit senior science course. In his school, he is known as AstroStephenson. Way back at the beginning of his teaching career, he wrote a book, really to himself, that contained his teaching philosophy. It was a project that would define his career. He is a possibility thinker, a dreamer and a doer, an innovator.

From the very beginning, he knew that he wanted to teach by putting students and relationships ahead of content, and putting experiences and emotions ahead of curriculum. The result has been a long career of rich and rewarding experiences for both himself and his students, the pinnacle being in 2018 when he was the recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence.

Now Tim would like to share with you his thoughts and experiences on teaching with the hope that by reflecting better, you will feel empowered to try new things, teach in new ways and see the possibilities that are there for all of us in the teaching profession.