John F. Ross teacher recognized as ‘Greatest High School Teacher’

GUELPH – Tamara Graham makes a lasting impact on her students by creating a safe, inviting classroom and teaching in an innovative and immersive way. 

That’s according to recent John F. Ross Collegiate Vocational Institute graduate Samantha Hilson, who nominated Graham for Humber College’s Greatest High School Teacher award.  

“Her imprint on my journey through high  school was unforgettable,” Hilson writes in a nomination essay. 

“She played a pivotal role in shaping my high school experience into a memorable and enriching period.” 

Graham was chosen as one of three “greatest” high school teachers in Ontario. The other winners were Gordon Geier from Banting Memorial High School in Simcoe County and Lisa Pomeroy from E. L. Crossley Secondary School in Niagara Region. 

When Hilson found out Graham was chosen she felt “ecstatic.

“I could not think of anyone else more deserving.” 

Winning the award comes with a plaque, an invitation to a special awards reception on May 21, and a full Humber College tuition scholarship for a student of Graham’s choice. 

When Graham found out she won, she felt amazed, motivated and excited – particularly about the scholarship. 

“That could really change the direction of [a student’s] life,” she said. 

It’s open for any Humber program – two, three, or four years, and covers 100% of tuition throughout. 

“It’s incredible that a college would do that,” Graham said.

She’s working with the John F. Ross guidance counsellor to choose a committed and hardworking student for the scholarship. 

Hilson will receive a $500 book store gift card for her successful essay, but that’s not why she nominated Graham.

“I honestly didn’t know about the gift card until after I submitted it,” she told the Advertiser. She just felt strongly about Graham deserving the recognition. 

“She goes above and beyond,” Hilson said. “I know everybody else in my classes adored her.”

When Graham read Hilson’s essay, she felt “extremely” flattered and honoured that a student felt so highly of her. 

“Hearing I had that kind of support and seeing it in words was humbling,” Graham told the Advertiser. 

Hilson first met Graham in Grade 9 geography, and then went out of her way to choose as many of her elective classes as possible. 

Graham teaches geography, travel and tourism, environment and resource management, world issues, and Earth and space. 

“Her classes were a source of anticipation and enjoyment in an otherwise indifferent high school experience,” Hilson wrote in the essay.  

“With an enrolment of around 2,000 students and a multitude of faculty members, the sheer scale of John F. Ross High School was intimidating. Despite this, Mrs. Graham possessed the remarkable ability to make each student feel uniquely valued,” she wrote. 

Graham has been teaching for 29 years, 18 at John F. Ross. And she’s a year and a half away from retirement, so the recognition came at a good time. 

Innovative and immersive

Hilson describes Graham’s “commitment to practical, immersive learning.

“Mrs. Graham’s teaching style transformed mundane projects into interesting tasks,” and she presented students with “well-crafted assignments and innovative teaching methods,” Hilson wrote.  

Graham said she incorporates tactical learning into her lessons because science supports it – students learn more from hands-on experiences than just lectures and textbooks. 

Students get their hands dirty taking soil samples from the school garden, and Graham facilitates discussions that connect the course content to students’ lives. 

She asks what they think and how they feel about challenging topics such as environmental issues, and encourages them to put themselves in the shoes of people most impacted by environmental disasters.  

Her Earth and space class kicks off with students designing “spaceships” with a few simple supplies – then competing to see which one can fly the farthest. 

This lesson stands out to Hilson. “My group and I made the world’s worst ship, but Mrs. Graham’s encouragement and great sense of humour helped make our silly ship feel special. 

“Despite the fact that it barely flew a metre I still felt successful as it was such a valuable learning experience.” 

The lesson teaches students thrust and aerodynamics, but more importantly it “gets them feeling good about class,” Graham said. 

It helps establish her classroom as a safe place where they can have fun while they learn. 

A ‘sanctuary’

Graham said fostering a safe environment is key to teaching well. 

Some students may live in unsafe environments, she said, so it’s important that at school they feel comfortable and free from physical and emotional harm. 

“Safety will open up brains to learning,” she said, and when students don’t feel safe, they won’t learn. 

“Mrs. Graham fostered a safe and inviting environment,” Hilson wrote. “Struggling with mental health challenges, I found peace in her class. Her classroom became a sanctuary.

“During difficult moments, she navigated the delicate balance between academic support and personal well being, ensuring I felt understood and supported.”

Graham said she understands students face significant struggles she isn’t privy to, and offers them flexibility. 

Creating a classroom where students feel safe encourages them to ask for support – and when a due date extension is supportive, Graham is likely to accommodate that.   

‘Life lessons’

Hilson wrote about the “comforting positivity [Graham] brought to each student’s life,” making a positive impact and leaving them with “enduring life lessons.” 

These life lessons are important to Graham, who hopes students leave John F. Ross with empathy and the motivation and ability to help people around them feel safe. 

She said she has two main goals in teaching:  ensure students have someone to go to for support; and guide them towards growing up to be good people after graduation.  

And in Graham’s eyes, Hilson’s is a success story.

She describes Hilson as a happy, bubbly, “lovely young person” who is willing to try anything – and Graham hopes more of her students turn out like Hilson.