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5 Famous Canadians Talk About the Teacher Who Changed Their Lives

Behind every successful person is a great teacher. These five famous Canadians learned a thing or two from their favourite teachers along the way.

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Russell Peters remembers his favourite teacherPhoto: Helga Esteb/Shutterstock

Comedian Russell Peters Remember His Favourite Teacher

“I hated going to school. I had ADHD, and it seemed like teachers were talking to everyone else. When my “regular” high school in Brampton, Ont., grew tired of me, the guidance counsellor suggested I switch to a trade school. That’s when I met a teacher who made me feel like I could actually do something good.

Mr. Fred Kolar taught chef training at North Peel Secondary School, and he was the first teacher I heard curse in class. He didn’t swear because he was frustrated with us-he swore at us because he cared. I had never felt that from an educator before. Beyond chef training, Mr. Kolar taught me to think of other people and put myself in their shoes before acting out or judging. That was an incredible lesson.”

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Activist Rick HansenPhoto: Reader's Digest Canada

Activist and Paralympian Rick Hansen Remembers His Favourite Teacher

“Growing up, I played every sport I could and dreamed of competing in the Olympics. In 1973, when I was 15 years old, everything changed. I went on a fishing trip with some of my friends and decided to hitchhike home to Williams Lake, B.C. The driver of the pickup truck we were in lost control and I was thrown from the back. I sustained a spinal cord injury, and doctors said I would never walk again. I was told not to expect much of a life with my disability-and I believed it. I could no longer imagine myself as an athlete.

Thankfully, Bob Redford, my volleyball coach and phys. ed. teacher at Columneetza Secondary School, taught me something valuable. He said, “It isn’t about what you can’t imagine but what you can. You are still Rick the athlete and Rick the adventurer.” He explained that nowhere in the definition of an athlete does it say you have to use your legs.

Bob encouraged me to adapt. I went on to compete in track and marathons and won gold, silver and bronze medals in the Paralympic Games. By changing attitudes, I achieved my biggest goal- and went on to push my wheelchair through 34 countries to raise money and awareness for an accessible world.”

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Rocket scientist Natalie PanekPhoto: National Speakers Bureau

Rocket Scientist Natalie Panek Remembers Her Favourite Teacher


“My lifelong dream is to travel to space and see earth from a different perspective. It was my physics teacher, Janet Herrem, at St. Mary’s High School in Calgary, who encouraged me to push my limits and dream big. I am so grateful: she challenged me to think deeply about the subject matter and to always attempt more difficult work, and she instilled a confidence that made me believe I could solve any problem. She made physics exciting, opening my eyes to the possibilities of a life built around engineering and science.”

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David Saint-Jacques at Canada Aviation and Space MuseumPhoto: Jana Chytilova/CNW

Astronaut David Saint-Jacques Remembers His Favourite Teacher


“I’ve had hundreds of teachers in my life, but one man had a particularly strong impact: the late professor John Baldwin, my Ph.D. supervisor at Cambridge University in the U.K. John cared about more than his students’ academic careers. In my first year, I went on a motorcycle holiday and wound up being away longer than anticipated. It didn’t occur to me to let John know that my return had been delayed. He soon became worried, as a father might, thinking maybe I’d had an accident, and called my parents to share his concerns.

When I learned how anxious he’d been, I realized I’d been self-centred. John saw his students as complete individuals, not just as pupils. That stuck with me: today, I don’t separate my work from my life. Relating to co-workers on a personal level is important, especially for astronauts. Our colleagues become brothers- and sisters in-arms. John taught me that a good leader takes responsibility for others.”

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Canadian novelist and short story writer Joseph BoydenPhoto: Penguin Random House Canada

Novelist James Boyden Remembers His Favourie Teacher


“An educator who helped shape me? My memory immediately takes me back to the mid-1970s in North York, Ont., and my Grade 5 and 6 teacher at Blessed Trinity, Mrs. O’Donnell. She was a tough bird, her Irish lilt at times lulling, at times a roar. These were the days when a little corporal punishment wasn’t frowned upon, and Mrs. O’Donnell knew how to cuff an ear when an ear cuffing was called for.

Far more important than her pugilistic abilities was her skill at bringing out the best in us. Mrs. O’Donnell had that rare ability to recognize strengths while at the same time nurturing the areas that needed it most. My language skills were strong, so she had me give speeches in schools; I ended up winning a number of public-speaking awards. But she also gently led me through math exercises after class, spending hours not just with me but with any kid who needed help. I eventually became an educator, in part because of Mrs. O’Donnell. While I don’t cuff anyone’s ears, I do practise patience when teaching, and pay careful attention to students’ successes- and struggles.”