Exemplary OCT

Claudine Tyrell, OCT

Pushing her students and herself to improve

by Leanne Miller, OCT

“Always start with a positive comment, and then show them how they can do better.”

A practice Claudine Tyrell first used when marking English assignments encapsulates her approach to being a classroom teacher, guidance counsellor and athletic coach.

“I always encourage my students to keep improving, both academically and on the sports field, and I keep working to improve my own professional practice as well. There’s so much to learn to be a good teacher.”

In her third year of teaching, Tyrell’s success with students in the classroom, through the guidance office and on the sports field led parents on the Home and School Council at Malvern Collegiate Institute in the Toronto DSB to nominate her for a Premier’s Award for Teaching Excellence in the New Teacher of the Year category.

The nominating parents wrote: “Tyrell facilitates student success both in and out of the classroom. She takes a personal interest in making each student’s high school experience meaningful, often encouraging participation in team sports and student groups. She is an advocate for all types of learners, particularly those who are struggling or disengaged.”

Malvern principal Line Pinard, OCT, explains why she heartily supported Tyrell’s nomination. “Claudine has a passion for teaching and for kids. She sees extracurricular activities as an important vehicle for teenagers who haven’t found their way yet.

“She reaches the whole child, not just the academic child,” continues Pinard. “She has a diverse range of qualifications – Special Education, English, French, guidance and career education – and a broad background that combine to make her an effective teacher.

“She thinks about each child individually and is aware that each needs something different to succeed. For some it’s extra help on an English assignment and for others it’s feeling valued and part of a team. We know that extracurricular involvement correlates to academic success, and Claudine builds on that.”

Tyrell worked for 10 years in business before deciding to become a teacher. And she played rugby herself as a student – at Agincourt Collegiate Institute in the Toronto DSB, at university and on the provincial women’s team.

She credits her family for instilling her beliefs in continual improvement and striving for success. “Hard work, doing your best, that’s what we were brought up to do.”

Tyrell, unlike many new teachers, has never been afraid to ask questions of her more experienced colleagues. Nor does she consider asking for help to be a sign of weakness.

“I ask because I want to get better,” she says. “I want to be more like my experienced colleagues. They may not offer their help or feedback, but they sure are willing to share and make suggestions when I ask them.”

And she never comes to a colleague empty-handed. She prepares something first and then asks for specific feedback on what she has done.

“I bring something to the discussion. I demonstrate my understanding and preparation and ask for structured feedback. What do you think of this rubric? Do you think this cross-country training schedule will have them peak at OFSAA?”

It’s important to support all children so they feel safe and comfortable and happy at school. That’s another way we can help give them success.

Tyrell reflects on the outstanding peer feedback that has become part of her own professional practice. For example, Malvern phys ed head Doug Underwood, OCT, taught her how to handle the mountains of paperwork required to run a sports team. And English colleague Ray Fallis, OCT, taught her how to organize and structure every element of parent interviews.

“I was nervous on my first parent/teacher night,” Tyrell remembers. “Ray explained how and where I should sit, where parents should sit, and what I should and should not say and show. It was empowering information, and it made me more effective and professional than I would have been without his help.”

Although she no longer plays elite-level rugby, Tyrell continues to challenge herself by running half-marathons. Her eye is always on improving her times.

It’s the same with her teaching. When she first taught Macbeth, her goal was to connect the language and story to her students’ interests and life experiences. She soon had senior English students out of their seats, acting out the plays.

“It was great fun seeing boys stirring the witches’ cauldron and reading ‘Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and caldron bubble,’ ” she recalls. “The kids really got into it.”

Knowing the students

Whenever she starts with a new class of students, Tyrell has learned to take the time to get to know them – as people first and learners second. It helps enforce classroom rules and procedures that make everyone successful, she says. “I let them know that I’m always willing to listen and not be judgmental.”
“I’m not their friend, but I hope they see me as a helpful, open and trustworthy adult who values and likes them and is interested in what is best for each one of them.”

As well, she finds that coaching helps her build relationships with teenagers outside the classroom. “I aim to be firm but fair. The key for me is respect. That’s critical for everyone’s success.”

When students are late, for example, she makes them understand that it’s disrespectful. “I worked hard to prepare this lesson for you,” she’ll say, “and you can’t be here on time but you can stop for a coffee on your way? I take that personally; that really hurts me.”

Lateness is rarely an issue after a comment like that.

Another technique Tyrell learned from a colleague is to start every year by giving each student an index card. Like many teachers, she asks them to write down standard information. And then she has them turn the card over. “On the back, I ask them to write something they want me to know about them but do not want to say in front of their classmates.”

Students often write that they’re nervous about making presentations. Tyrell works with that. She allows them to present with a partner, perhaps in front of a small group instead of the whole class. She uses what she calls a Toastmasters approach: Start small, allow students to stay within their comfort zones and let them experience success before moving up to longer and more formal presentations.

“I need to show that I respect what they tell me,” she says, “I need to honour their fears yet push them gently to improve.”

She applies that same respectful, success-based and continual-improvement attitude to written assignments, often asking students to resubmit something when she knows they can do better. And yes, no matter how poor a paper is, she always writes a positive comment first.

The success culture culminates in Miss Tyrell’s English Awards. At the start of each semester, she tells her students there will be awards – not for the highest mark but for most improved, best effort and so on.

“The kids always know who is going to win which award,” she says, laughing. “They saw who started out being nervous making presentations and who was so much more confident by the end of the semester. They applauded each other’s success and improvement.”

When Tyrell first began teaching at Malvern, she knew she wanted to coach rugby and cross-country. In fact, she completed her practise-teaching internship at the school and kept working with the rugby team after her practicum ended. That’s one of the many things that impressed Pinard, the school principal.

“Claudine demonstrated a commitment to the kids and to our school,” says Pinard. “Equally important, the discipline and organization she used in her coaching work reflected the qualities and skills that good teachers need inside the classroom. She used those qualities and skills. She modelled them, and she expected them from her students, both in the classroom and on the field.”

Asking for feedback

Tyrell remembers feeling nervous when she started coaching cross-country. “It was intimidating because the coaches, mainly males, were very professional and very good.”

They tracked times, developed complex training schedules and followed protocols that Tyrell didn’t have a clue about. She worked hard, read everything she could find, watched what her peers were doing and kept her head down. She also looked for mentors – in this case Al Baigent, OCT, and Stephen Masterson, OCT, the track coaches at Neil McNeil Catholic Secondary School in the Toronto Catholic DSB.

Again, she asked for structured feedback: “Here’s what I’m thinking of doing; what do you think?” And it worked. At the conclusion of last year’s city championships, Dave Christiani, now retired from teaching but still coaching at Leaside High School, came up to her and said, “Congratulations. I’m very proud of you.” That meant the world to Tyrell, and it has encouraged her to do even better this year.

 Tyrell doesn’t restrict her professional learning to coaching. In the past four years, she says, she has probably attended every PD workshop available to her. She has already earned her Guidance and Career Education, Specialist AQ and will take Special Education, Part 2 this summer.

Tyrell’s focus this year has fallen on guidance, where she worked part-time last year and is working full-time this year. Malvern is a heavily academic school, and the majority of students choose college or university. Tyrell wants to help them and their parents make informed choices. She created a Grade 12 forum last year and will run it again this December. The idea is to bring back Malvern grads who are attending postsecondary institutions as part of a panel discussion for current Grade 12 students.

It’s not about promoting their college or university, Tyrell explains, but about sharing their experiences around budgeting, time management and academics. Tyrell believes the forum gives students realistic and useful information that they wouldn’t get from visiting campuses or hearing presentations from visiting schools.


Claudine Tyrell coaches the Malvern rugby team.

On this day, Tyrell is meeting with Grade 12 students in the library. “How many of you have a spare this year?” she asks.

Every hand goes up.

“Good. That’s your time to prepare for next year. You need to research programs and schools and think about what you want to do after high school and why.”

Something else new that Tyrell is managing this year is a caring adult program. Last year, members of Malvern’s professional learning community explored the concept of providing a caring adult for students identified as being at risk or for those who just need a trusted adult proactively involved in their school life.

“It’s important to support all children so they feel safe and comfortable and happy at school,” she says.

“That’s another way we can help give them success.”

Tyrell is willing to share and support students and colleagues alike. “I have been and continue to be very fortunate in being exposed to some fantastic mentors in my career, and I want to give back and help other teachers in any way I can."


For more information on the Premier’s Awards for Teaching Excellence, visit