At the beginning of the school year, parents hope their children will have good teachers. Youth hope for the same but neither parents nor youth will find it easy to outline what qualities are essential in an effective teacher. I am going to do this by telling you about one of my son’s best teachers.

When he was about 8 years old, my youngest son had a project about the solar system. Unbeknownst to me, he prepared his topic and headed off to school on the day of his presentation with four rolls of toilet paper in his backpack. He was in Grade 3 and his assignment was to demonstrate facts about the universe to his classmates that were difficult for most people to understand. Nathan had decided to demonstrate that the distance from each planet to the sun was so far that it was difficult to imagine.

Let me explain how he presented the conclusion of his project. Mercury is approximately 57.9 million kilometres from the sun. Nathan represented this distance with 1 square of toilet paper, which is about 10 centimetres long. Venus is 108 million kilometres from the sun. That’s almost 2 squares of toilet paper. At about 150 kilometres from the sun, earth’s distance from the sun could be represented by 3 squares of toilet paper. Nathan proceeded to unroll squares of toilet paper to demonstrate these relative distances.

By the time you get to Saturn, it’s 28 squares of toilet paper from the point where you’ve placed the sun – which is 280 centimetres or almost 3 metres, still inside your classroom with all your classmates very interested – and volunteering to unroll toilet paper. You have now rolled out toilet paper strips for Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and, now having rolled out to Saturn, you need more space. Neptune is about 100 squares of toilet paper – that’s 1,000 centimetres or 10 metres and you’ve now used more than 2 rolls of toilet paper for all the planets so far. You have also moved out into the corridor. Uranus is even farther and, since Pluto was considered a planet until 2005, you needed enough paper for both of those – four rolls of toilet paper was enough, double-ply.

Nathan had effectively demonstrated that the distances of the furthest planets from the sun are very large – and difficult to imagine without an exceptional visual aid. Nathan’s teacher at the time sent him home with a bag full of unrolled toilet paper and a lovely note. She described in detail that my son had been creative as well as scientific. He had used his math skills and research skills and she was proud of how he had undertaken this assignment with enthusiasm. His friends in class were totally engaged.

It turns out that she meant all of this entirely without irony or sarcasm. For this, she exemplifies the three qualities that the best teachers share and that every teacher needs.

First, a good teacher needs to be able to face learning situations with curiosity and an open mind. This allows them to be able to understand how a child learns. If you can understand this, that child will learn anything from you.

Secondly, the capacity to remain calm is another quality – staying calm no matter what helps a person working with children and youth to be able to show them that the great distance from a planet to the sun can be just as exciting as rolling toilet paper out the door of your classroom and down the hall. Excitement about learning promotes learning!

Finally, it’s important to be able to instill in each person a sense of the mystery of learning – to be able to cultivate curiosity and wonder about the new things you’re learning. Nathan’s Grade 3 teacher did that for him, but she did that for me too.

I still wonder how she didn’t laugh out loud, or express even a bit of horror, at Nathan’s unconventional demonstration – everybody at home still does!

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