Remarkable Teachers

George Stroumboulopoulos

hasn’t forgotten his Remarkable Teacher, Rob Ciccotelli, OCT

by Bill Harris

As host of CBC television’s The Hour, George Stroumboulopoulos conducts poised and entertaining interviews with everyone from prime ministers and presidents to hot actors and raging rock stars. Essentially, Stroumboulopoulos is a performer and public speaker, and he credits a high school teacher at Ascension of Our Lord Catholic SS in Malton for much of his success.

“In terms of what I do today, I don’t think there’s any chance that I’m doing this without Rob Ciccotelli,” he says.

Ciccotelli, who now teaches dramatic arts and photography at Robert F. Hall Catholic SS in Caledon East, is in his 24th year of teaching. He spent eight years at Ascension before moving to Robert F. Hall, where he has taught for the past 16 years.

“George was always a really nice guy,” recalls Ciccotelli. “He had an edge to him, though, so I can see how some teachers may have had a hard time with him.

“I’ve learned not to be judgmental. Punk-rock kids with spiky hair are sometimes the best kids, the smartest kids. George was really great with me. He even helped me move into my house when he graduated – George and two other kids, without me paying them or anything.”

Stroumboulopoulos, perhaps, could have used the money. Explaining why he attended a Catholic school as a non-Catholic, he says: “The fundamental reason to go to a Catholic school when you’re poor is that you don’t have to buy clothes. You wear a uniform. All you needed was two pairs of grey slacks, two white shirts and a cardigan.

“How you dress is often how you’re defined as a kid. So my mother thought the way to level the playing field, at least in terms of clothes, was that everybody was the same.”

Difficult connection

Despite his positive relationship with Ciccotelli, Stroumboulopoulos didn’t enjoy school. “I hated school. I was a terrible student,” he says. “I liked hanging out with people but the actual school part of it, let’s just say I’m not the guy who wishes he could go back to high school.

“I was bored. I didn’t feel like, for my mind, it was working for me. Now, looking back, it’s not the school’s fault. It’s my fault, right? But I was just a young boy who didn’t care. I don’t think the school could have done anything differently. There are always going to be kids who never feel like they connect or they’re a part of it.”

Stroumboulopoulos adds that even though he wasn’t a fan of school, he liked Ascension.

“I’m glad you’re writing this piece because it’s important for good teachers to be talked about, and there were a group of teachers in that school who were good to me,” he says. “Not like they were buddies, but they were instrumental.

“Ascension was a really cool school and Rob Ciccotelli wasn’t the only good teacher. It was just that, as I got older, Rob was the guy who really took me under his wing and taught me a lot.”

As a youth, Stroumboulopoulos was no fan of drama, so the fact that he and Ciccotelli – the drama teacher and head of the drama club – crossed paths was somewhat by default.

“If you had given me the course calendar in Grade 10 and I’d picked all the classes that I wanted to attend, the last one would have been drama,” he says.

Stroumboulopoulos wanted to be a graphic designer and an architect, but the art teacher wouldn’t let him in her class. Recalls Stroumboulopoulos: “She said, ‘No, you can’t take this class. I don’t think you could do this.’ But I needed an arts credit to graduate, so I had to take drama. I got lucky. I stumbled into the world of Mr. Ciccotelli.”

Ciccotelli chuckles when he hears the story. “I didn’t know that,” he says.

So Ciccotelli taught Stroum-boulopoulos English and dramatic arts, and after that …

“I would just take courses that he taught,” Stroumboulopoulos says. “I took writer’s craft because he taught it.”

So what was it about Rob Ciccotelli that spoke to the youthful George?

“First, he was young,” Stroum-boulopoulos says. “Much is made about how you teach kids, but I think high school boys, to understand what goes on inside their heads, it’s not easy. And I think the further removed from that reality teachers get, the harder it is for some of them to relate. But Rob seemed to understand.

“He was also fun. For example, he would use music – the Doors and Jefferson Airplane – to make his point.”

“I’m one of probably a thousand students who feel this way about him, because he’s a good teacher.”

Ciccotelli says he’s always made a point of looking for ways to keep students engaged.

“I’m not the type to stand there and talk about – information,” he says. “I’m more the kind of teacher who wants you to keep doing things, and I try to help you get better at it.

“I do have a sense of humour. I think a lot of the kids like that I’m laid-back and can make them laugh sometimes.

“And I’m very involved in the two crafts that I do. I’m a playwright, so I’m always writing. And I’m a professional photographer, so I’m always shooting. The kids see me as not just a teacher. They see me actually doing the arts that I’m teaching – actively doing them outside of school.”

Ciccotelli proved to be an invaluable conduit for Stroumboulopoulos, not only in relation to his eventual profession, but also in terms of personal growth.

Finding direction

“I was shy,” Stroumboulopoulos says. “And when you’re shy, you can overcompensate and just kind of put yourself out there. Rob taught me how to harness that.

“He taught me how to analyze a script. He helped me direct a play. He cast me as an actor and worked with me as a performer. I got a performance award for one thing I was in, and that was because of him.”

Stroumboulopoulos, 37, hasn’t gone on to be a stage actor, of course, but performing is performing, and certain skills are required.

“I’ll put it this way: To work in this job (in both radio and TV) for as long as I have, you need a bunch of people in your journey who help you. You need a bunch of people who coach you and guide you, and I’ve been lucky enough to have that.

“Rob was the first one who took an interest in what I was doing. He was the first person who worked with me and coached me in how to perform. You know, ‘Try this. Why don’t you say it this way?’ Things like that.

“So, in a sense, my first performance coach was Rob. And the fact that I perform for a living, I’m definitely influenced by what he taught me.”

About a year after Stroum-boulopoulos graduated, Ciccotelli started a theatre company.

“George was the star of my first show outside of school,” Ciccotelli recalls. “A group of alumni was involved but George had the lead. He was awesome. He was fantastic.”

Rob Ciccotelli visited George Stroumboulopoulos  on the set of The Hour with students in October 2008.

Did Ciccotelli foresee the successful career in broadcasting?

“George was a mildly rebellious but very bright student with loads of potential,” Ciccotelli says. “He was obviously a very talented performer with his deep voice and magnetic stage presence.

“He said he was going to go off to study radio broadcasting in college, which I thought was great. I encouraged him because it was something I could see him doing.”

In  2005 – after stints in radio and with MuchMusic – Stroumboulopoulos began hosting CBC’s The Hour, where he has established himself as one of Canada’s leading interviewers.

“There’s no question I would not be here without Rob, because I wouldn’t have taken an interest in it,” Stroumboulopoulos says. “Drama taught me how to express myself, how to dig deeper, how to handle pressure, how to handle it backstage waiting to go on when you have 2,000 kids out there, your peers, who might laugh at you. All the little life lessons that I get to apply in my show, I learned the first versions of those from Rob.”

Stroumboulopoulos and Ciccotelli have kept in touch.

“When he was at MuchMusic, I got him up to our school for career day,” Ciccotelli recalls. “The kids just flocked to him – he drew such a crowd – because he had these great stories about all the bands he had interviewed.

“Last year, I brought some kids to the set of The Hour and George was great. After the show he spent an hour and a half talking to them. He took pictures with them on the couch. They were in heaven afterward. The only reason it ended was because the crew members told George they were tired and wanted to go home.”

So has Stroumboulopoulos ever told Ciccotelli how much he has meant?

“He knows he’s a big deal to me,” Stroumboulopoulos says. “But I also know I’m not the only one. I’m one of probably a thousand students who feel this way about him, because he’s a good teacher. He’s a great teacher.

“The right teacher is good for everybody. But the right teacher is really good for guys like me, who were just not into school, who have all this energy and misplaced whatever. You know, just young dumb boys filled with a bit of rage, a little lost.

“When you’re that kid, it’s important for people to be able to reach you. And not everybody will. But lots of teachers try. For whatever reason, Rob just sort of got it, and he got to me. When he spoke, I listened to what he had to say.

“Rob Ciccotelli was a big player in my life. I’ve told him, yes. But this is why I’m talking to you. I want everyone to know.”

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