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Principals

Tracy Beaulieu – Administrative Support Leader

Tracy Beaulieu - Administrative Support Leader
About Tracy Beaulieu

Tracy Beaulieu is an Administrative Support Leader for the Public Schools Branch in Prince Edward Island. She has a passion for teaching and learning and brings 19 years of experience as a school administrator to her current role. This background has allowed her to render advice, guidance, and professional training to help administrators succeed in their complex roles – as instructional leaders and operational managers.

In addition to working with those directly in the role, she teaches the province preparatory course for aspiring leaders. Providing a safe, welcoming, and caring learning environment has always been a priority for Tracy. In 2012, her school received national recognition for welcoming new students and families to kindergarten.

Two years later, she received Canada’s Outstanding Principal’s Award after being nominated by the staff for her commitment and focus on character education. She believes neither of these would have been possible without an amazing staff who believed in students.

Connect with Tracy: Email | Instagram | Facebook

Listen Now

Listen to the episode now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or on your favourite podcast platform.

Resources Mentioned

Public Schools Branch – Prince Edward Island

Canada’s Outstanding Principal’s Award

Dr. Seuss Books

Who was Terry Fox?

Empty Your Backpack by Sam Demma

The Transcript

**Please note that all of our transcriptions come from rev.com and are 80% accurate. We’re grateful for the robots that make this possible and realize that it’s not a perfect process.

Sam Demma (00:54):

Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator Podcast.

Sam Demma (00:58):

Today’s special guest is Tracy Beaulieu. Tracy Beaulieu is an Administrative Support Leader for the Public Schools Branch in Prince Edward Island. She has a passion for teaching and learning and brings 19 years of experience as a school administrator to her current role. This background has allowed her to render advice, guidance, and professional training to help administrators succeed in their complex roles – as instructional leaders and operational managers.In addition to working with those directly in the role, she teaches the province preparatory course for aspiring leaders. Providing a safe, welcoming, and caring learning environment has always been a priority for Tracy. In 2012, her school received national recognition for welcoming new students and families to kindergarten.Two years later, she received Canada’s Outstanding Principal’s Award after being nominated by the staff for her commitment and focus on character education. She truly believes neither of these would have been possible without an amazing staff who believed in students. I hope you enjoy this insightful conversation with Tracy and I will see you on the other side.

Sam Demma (02:01):

Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator Podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. I’m here with a very special guest today. She was introduced to me by a past guest. Her name is Tracy Beaulieu. I’m gonna give her an opportunity to introduce herself as well. Tracy, welcome to the show. Please, share a little bit about your yourself.

Tracy Beaulieu (02:23):

Hi. Thank you Sam. I appreciate you having me. As you said, my name is Tracy Beaulieu and my role is an admin support leader on Prince Edward Island. So basically what I do is I’m the contact for a number of schools. I have 20 of them. Typically the elementary schools. The contact for any of the administrators if they have any questions or need support helping their teachers or helping students, I’m kind of their go-to person.

Tracy Beaulieu (02:55):

That is a very special role. <laugh>.

Tracy Beaulieu (03:00):

Interesting.

Tracy Beaulieu (03:01):

It’s a lot of support. What got you into education? Did you know growing up that you wanted to work in this industry?

Tracy Beaulieu (03:09):

Absolutely. I actually knew since I was a little kid, that was kind of the same, the thing that was in the books that your parents keep that say, What do you wanna be when you’re in grade one and two? And teacher was always it for me. Ironically, I never wanted to be an administrator and I found myself in that role at a fairly young age. I was only 27 when I became a vice principal. And really only then did I become a vice principal because I had the administrator’s course as part of my upgrading my education. And I was in a small rural school and they needed help and I was asked, I didn’t want to take it on because that would mean that I would be the vice principal of some of the teachers who had actually taught me when I was in school.

Tracy Beaulieu (04:03):

So it was a little awkward, but they were fantastic and gave me a lot of support. So then I never wanted to be a principal. And ironically people then started reaching out and encouraging me to take on the role, but it was actually a student that made me finally make the decision to become a principal. It’s a neat little story. I was just driving down the road, I was going to pick up a sub for my kids and I saw a sign and it basically had said, the signs are there, you just need to listen. And I was like, Oh yeah, sure. And then I get to the place where the sub is and it’s a student and he came over and was happy to see me and said, Are you gonna be the new principal? And I said, No, I don’t think so. I love teaching kids too much. And he said, But you still teach me. You teach me when I’m in the office to make better choices. And I thought, Wow, okay, there’s a bit of a sign. So that’s how I got into administration. But basically my journey has been because other people were tapping me on the shoulder and saw something in me that I may not have seen in myself. And I’m grateful for them for doing that and I hope that I can do that for others as well.

Sam Demma (05:28):

Did you say your first role in admin was at 27?

Tracy Beaulieu (05:31):

Yes.

Sam Demma (05:32):

What was that experience like? Did you ever find it as a young person? I’m 23 and sometimes I have these situations where I’m dealing with individuals who are older than me twice my age. <laugh>, yes, have. How was that experience? Did you ever have any weird situations being so young in that role or what was it like for you?

Tracy Beaulieu (05:54):

Do you know? I anticipated that it would be really awkward for me. I honestly did the first staff meeting where I knew it was gonna be announced that I was the vice principal. I was quite nervous because as I said, I had a couple of people on staff. It wasn’t a very big staff either who had taught me, but they were actually quite remarkable. They were happy for me and I was very lucky because as awkward as it was for me, they made it easy, impossible for me. They were my support and they all shaped me into who I was as an administrator and I was very grateful. The biggest challenge I think for me sometimes would’ve been with the parents, if there was an issue with that, with a student, they would look at me and think, Well, I’m older than her and what does she know?

Tracy Beaulieu (06:55):

Kind of thing. But I’ve always been about making connections with kids. I preached from that time on that it’s okay to make mistakes. That’s part of our learning. And just because you’ve made a mistake doesn’t mean you’re a bad kid. And that’s what some of them would take it as. So I was lucky that I had a lot of the parent support with that as well. But I think it’s a lot because you start off telling them that their kid’s a good kid and that you actually really like their kid. We’re just gonna work together to help them make better choices next time.

Tracy Beaulieu (07:32):

Let’s talk about making connections with kids. When you were in the classroom and even in the administration roles and even in the roles you’re in today, how do you make and build a connection with a young person? How do you think that actually happens?

Tracy Beaulieu (07:48):

Well, first off, I think they have to know that you like them and it has to be genuine. Kids are very good at a very young age at picking up if you don’t really mean it. And kids are really good at knowing how they can control you if you let them <laugh>, ask a two year old as well. So it’s about giving them some of those boundaries that they do need, but having fun with them, it’s about being interested in them beyond the classroom as well. So I would go to some of their sporting events and watch them there and they would be excited to see you at their sporting events. I would go to their music festivals when I was able to and just being part of their life beyond the school. And then to laugh and joke with them as well and to have fun, then they want to do good for you.

Tracy Beaulieu (08:50):

And that’s the biggest thing. Kids, I guess I’ll say that I was at a conference and it was out at B and Chief Cadmus had actually made this comment and it resonated me because I believe it so heartedly it’s show people your heart before you expect their hand. And that really resonated with me and it’s about the connection piece. Kids won’t learn unless they know you like them. So making those relationships is so, so important and letting them know that they are valued and they mean something and they have all kinds of potential. And part of that learning is it’s about making mistakes because you want them to know that they can trust you and they can be safe to make some mistakes with you and you’ll guide them through.

Tracy Beaulieu (09:47):

I think in education, our mistakes are amazing learning opportunities and in life in general, if we choose to reflect on them and learn from them, they can be these amazing professional development moments in our professional journeys and also in our personal lives. And I’m wondering, in your journey throughout education, if there are any mistakes, but we’ll call them learning lessons that you found really impactful personally that you think other educators could benefit from hearing cuz they might be going through something similar.

Tracy Beaulieu (10:22):

I think one of the ones that kinda stands out for me, as I mentioned, I was in a small rural school when I first started and the school was actually in the community I grew up in. So that was my kind of discourse. And then I went to another school eventually that was a larger school and it had more complex needs in that school and those students and that environment actually kind of awakened me to a mistake that I was holding in my head and that’s that everybody kind of had a similar background and experience to myself. We talk a lot about diversity, but I think to that point, my mind on diversity was more about okay, if it’s a different culture, a different language or that type of thing. But they taught me that we are diverse even with the same socioeconomic background, even the same gender and race.

Tracy Beaulieu (11:28):

So that was a big learning for me and it was kind of an eye opening thing. So I learned that I had to talk to even my whole staff about the fact that we have these invisible backpacks that we carry and we don’t hang those up on a hook when we get into this school. They stay with us all day long and it’s not to make assumptions that people’s stories and what they’ve been through based on what you have experienced and been through. So that was a big kind of mistake or learning for me is and making assumptions that really weren’t accurate.

Tracy Beaulieu (12:08):

I often tell people just because you can’t see someone’s backpack doesn’t mean they’re not carrying something that nothing about.

Sam Demma (12:16):

Absolutely.

Sam Demma (12:17):

It’s funny, I actually, I just wrote a book called Your Backpack <laugh>.

Tracy Beaulieu (12:23):

That is so cool.

Sam Demma (12:25):

So the connection is so immediate and visceral for me with that in mind that every student and every human being walks through life with these invisible backpacks. How do we get to know what’s in a student’s backpack? Is it by asking them questions or how have you got to know what your students were carrying when you were in their classrooms?

Tracy Beaulieu (12:51):

Yeah, it was about asking questions. I was usually at the elementary level, so sometimes it was making connections actually with their parents as well. So many people find it difficult to come into a school environment if they didn’t have a positive experience growing up. So it it’s about making your building a welcoming and safe place for parents as well as students and really listening to their story. So we can always ask questions, but if we’re not genuinely listening, it’s not going to amount to any sort of understanding of what they’re bringing with them. And it’s about building that trust and letting them know that they can come and talk to you and share things with you. It’s the basis of everything. And then it’s starting to really understand for me, if kids were making choices that weren’t the right choices, it was really staying in tune to the fact that there’s an underlying reason why this is happening right now and they deserve to have me help them get through that in any way that I can.

Tracy Beaulieu (14:11):

So it is about building the trust and making connections and making a safe environment and then truly listening to what their story is because those little ones may not even know what is beneath that emotion that they’re feeling. And it’s our job to help them support that growth in learning because they’re not gonna learn, they won’t learn the ABC’s if they can’t control those emotions that they have. If they’re worried about what’s happening at home, if they’re coming to school with some sort of trauma that’s going to trump all of their ability to learn. So we are educators, It’s our job to unpack that backpack with them and with their families the best that we can so that we can help them become the best that they can be because that’s the end goal, making them be the best version of themselves.

Tracy Beaulieu (15:09):

It sounds like listening has been a really impactful aspect of your journey as an educator, but I would assume that it’s just a big part of living life. It becomes more interesting when we listen genuinely and be curious about other people’s journeys. When you transition from teaching to administration, who are you listening to or who was in your life in your corner helping you and showing you the ropes and mentoring you? Did you have some other educators who played a big role and if so, who were they and what did they teach you or do for you?

Tracy Beaulieu (15:42):

Yes, I always had, I was very fortunate to have the support, not just in the school but in my family as well. So I was lucky there, but in school I would’ve had different teachers and on my staff as I mentioned, who were kind of aware that they saw something in me, they saw the potential and they were willing to help nurture that potential as I was learning, which I think makes great teachers in general. And then as I got going through, actually there was one gentleman who probably had the biggest impact for me and his name was Doug McDougal. And Doug had this ability to make everybody feel that they were valued and that they were worth something. And Doug would take the time to write little cards and send them to people telling them what he thought was great about either their style or about themselves.

Tracy Beaulieu (16:47):

So it could be the educational style or them personally. And he had that ability to laugh and have fun with you as well. Oh wow. So he was probably my biggest inspiration. He was the person that I thought, if I can be like you, I want to be like you. And he set the bar high for a lot of us and I actually, unfortunately a year ago, a little over a year ago, he passed suddenly. And to see the impact he had on so many people was so heartwarming and I felt I needed to keep his memory alive. So I created the Doug McDougal Inspire Award and just presented that to administrators last weekend, I believe it was, or two weeks ago. And it’s my way of keeping his legacy alive. And we’re going to have that award be presented to anybody in the education system that is making school better for staff and students. So it could be a custodian, it could be the bus driver, it could be a teacher, it could be anybody that is making life better for kids. And that award will travel from school to school just like Doug did. So he was probably my biggest inspiration and motivator.

Sam Demma (18:22):

That’s awesome. I love that you pinpointed some of the actions he took that made a big difference, like the writing of cards, I think that’s sometimes a lost art. I’m 23. I learned how to send a handwritten note in the mail at 18 <laugh> because there was no real reason to send a handwritten note at growing up cuz we had emails and all these. That’s right. Donald mentioned Doug as well on the island. Is Doug very well known as a impactful educator?

Tracy Beaulieu (18:58):

Yes, yes. Impactful educator and impactful community member as well. Interesting story that someone had shared because with his passing you got to hear stories, but he was the type of person that they needed a hockey coach in his community and nobody was able or volunteered to do it and Doug did and Doug couldn’t even skate, but he knew those kids needed somebody and he didn’t look at his inability to skate as a barrier. He still took the opportunity because he wanted those kids to have something and he continued to demonstrate that a lot. He didn’t let his quote limitations that some people would say prevent him from doing something that would help others. So he was quite a remarkable person.

Sam Demma (19:57):

Yeah, that’s so cool. I think what’s also amazing about the story is that you mentioned how after his passing you heard about all these stories of impact and sometimes in education we don’t know the impact that our actions are having. Sometimes we have to wait, sometimes we never know and other people get to see it, which is really, really cool. In terms of impact, are there any stories that come to mind for you of students who you’ve seen transformed due to education? And it could be as a direct result of your activities or someone in your school or the community as a whole helping a young person. And the reason I ask is because I think the reason most people get into education is because they wanna make a positive difference in the lives of young people. And when they get burnt out or overwhelmed, I think it’s these stories of impact that really remind them why the work they’re doing is so important. So do any of those stories come to mind? And if it’s a serious one, you could definitely change the name of the student if you’d like <laugh>.

Tracy Beaulieu (21:05):

A couple of things come to mind. One is when I did first start in my administrative role, there was a student and it was, as I said, a small rural school. So there was one grade per grade level and there was one particular student who his choices weren’t always seen as very positive and made other staff members sometimes struggle when this child would be exhibiting some of the behaviors I guess. And I believed in him and I started listening again when he was acting out he would be getting into other people’s business so to speak. But I started realizing, wow, this boy is actually being an advocate for other people, other students, but he’s just not doing it appropriately. His way of doing it is very disrespectful and kind of clouding people’s opinions. So I started working with him a lot and letting him know that, you know, are a good kid, you are making a good choice.

Tracy Beaulieu (22:23):

Even when he was up in junior high, I would take him to work with some of my grade three students and he was quite remarkable at that. And he was a student who we all worried about would he get through school. And he did. He graduated and he actually became a bodybuilder and was on the cover of one of the, I don’t know if it’s a Canadian magazine or whatever, but he made the cover of a magazine and this is a kid that even in high school we stayed connected and I got an invitation to his wedding this summer and he’s a dad, he has two kids, he’s successful and he actually found his way. And I think that just comes from people believing in him. So he actually had a big impact on me because he showed me that it is true that if we just work, if you get past those challenging behaviors and try to see the person within, they can teach us a lot.

Tracy Beaulieu (23:32):

And so he shaped me to always let kids know that again, it’s okay to make mistakes. So I started a program when I was at the other school that I went to and it was really around Carol Wes work with growth Mindset. Nice. And I had a book and it was called Not Yet. And I went to each class and I read it and it was talking about the fact that Terry Fox may not have actually finished his journey. He would’ve had a difficult time even when he was doing his run. He saw challenges, but he didn’t give up and he just kept saying, I’m not done, not yet. And share with them of all the successful people who tried to do things and failed but didn’t give up and they looked at the mistakes that they had and they turned them into opportunities to dig deeper and find more.

Tracy Beaulieu (24:31):

Dr. Suess was always a big person that I would have his quotes around. Kids knew that I loved him, but I shared that he was rejected 27 times before he got to actually write his book. So it was sharing that those mistakes are part of it. And with the not yet I started, I had little neck laces and bracelets that teachers would be able to give to kids whenever they saw them trying things, but not yet succeeding, but given them praise and highlighting the power of them trying to persevere and get through. So that was a way that we were trying to motivate kids. But when I knew it was working is when I was in walking in the hallways or on the playground and I would hear kids talking to each other and saying, No, you don’t have that yet, but you will <affirmative>. And I thought that’s that seemingly small action of repeating with kids that it’s okay to make mistakes, you just don’t have it yet to keep trying. It will sink in. And that’s what I want for all students is to have that ability to believe in themselves that even when you try and you don’t succeed, there’s still opportunities there for success if you just keep trying.

Tracy Beaulieu (25:56):

I love the idea of not yet, I think so often we hit barriers and it ultimately is up to us to decide when we continue pushing forward or when we stop. There’s no such thing as a failure if you don’t quit <laugh>. Exactly. You never reach that point. So that’s such a powerful thing to remind young people, and again, not just students but human beings, we all face challenges, not just the kids. So I love that analogy and I appreciate you sharing it. When you field phone calls from the principals and the administration of the 20 different elementary schools in PEI that you help and support, what is the most common thing they’re reaching out about? I’m sure every school is very different and unique, but are there any commonalities or things that you think a lot of them need support with right now?

Tracy Beaulieu (26:47):

Right now, I believe the biggest commonality that comes from schools is the kind of challenges that kids are experiencing right now with regulating their emotions, <affirmative>, and also some of them just not having the skills that they may have had in the past coming into school. So we’re already starting behind that benchmark and trying to meet their needs. One of the things, and the other layer is those high conflict personalities of people calling and trying to figure out how do we navigate through this kind of tumultuous time where people are wanting things and they’re wanting it now and they don’t see the challenges beyond their own challenges and it is their story and that’s all they know. So you don’t expect them to always understand that there’s a whole lot of other things that are limiting. I think that’s the biggest challenge and the biggest underlying common theme that is coming with all of the phone calls is how can I help this student? My teachers are burning out because of the needs and this parent is upset and I don’t know how to calm them and help them understand. And yeah, those would be the two main things. Right now

Tracy Beaulieu (28:28):

It sounds like the students are at the forefront of some of the best things that happen in the school and then some of the learning moments. <laugh>. Yes. So true. The center of education. And what do you think for those educators that are burning out, because I think it’s a common theme, especially before the pandemic, it was starting a little bit and then the pandemic just exasperated it and it became a real big challenge. What do you think the teachers who are a little bit burnt out need to hear right now? If you could say something out of your window and it would just reach the ear of every educator across pei, what would you tell <laugh>

Tracy Beaulieu (29:11):

That they are making a difference <affirmative>. And they may not always feel it. They see sometimes the challenges that they’re ahead of them and they feel like they’re not meeting the needs of the kids, but they absolutely are. And really trying to help them understand that it may be five to 10% of your class or of the school community that are struggling and don’t lose sight of the 90 to 95% of the amazing things that are done all the time. And it’s really, again, trying to shift our mindset to acknowledging the positives. If we only talk about the challenges and if we only look at the challenges, that’s all we are going to see. And that begins to shape what we believe the reality is in our building where when I get to go to schools, I get to see all of the amazing things that are happening. So it’s to try to always take time to focus on what went well, what is going well, what are the successes and what are we accomplishing to make these kids be the best that they can be and not only talk about what I can’t do and what I can’t get at. So I think that would be my biggest message. You’re doing a great job. Just try to remember to think of the positives.

Tracy Beaulieu (30:47):

We gotta empty our backpacks of those negative beliefs.

Tracy Beaulieu (30:50):

<laugh>. Yes. Yes. They’re there. If you wanna look for them, they’re there, but so are the positives, so

Tracy Beaulieu (30:56):

That’s awesome. Tracy, if someone wants to have a conversation with you or reach out, what would be the most efficient way for them to get in touch with you?

Tracy Beaulieu (31:06):

Probably email would be the easiest way for them to connect with me and you have my email address. Do you want me to say it?

Tracy Beaulieu (31:18):

Yeah, you can say it out loud right now and I’ll also put it in the show notes of the episode so people can find it.

Tracy Beaulieu (31:23):

Okay. So it’s txbeaulieu@edu.pe.ca.

Tracy Beaulieu (31:33):

Awesome. Tracy, this has been such an insightful conversation. Thank you so much for taking some time out of your morning to come on the podcast and share some of your insights and experiences in education. I really appreciate your efforts and if anyone hasn’t told you recently, just know that you’re making a massive difference as well in so many educators lives and which are ultimately affecting the lives of so many families and students. So keep up the great work and I look forward to seeing you soon.

Tracy Beaulieu (32:02):

Thank you so much Sam for having me, and thank you for all you’re doing as well. That’s pretty remarkable what you’re taking on and it’s very appreciated. So thank you.

Tracy Beaulieu (32:11):

You’re welcome.

Sam Demma (32:13):

I believe that educators deserve way more recognition, which is why I’ve created the High Performing Educator Awards. In 2022, 20 educator recipients will be shortlisted, each of whom will be featured in local press. invited to record an episode on the podcast, and spotlighted on our platform. In addition, the one handpicked winner will be presented with an engraved plaque by myself. I will fly to the winner’s city to present this to them and ask that they participate in a quick photo shoot and interview on location. The coolest part, nominations are open right now, and they close October 1st, 2022. So please take a moment to apply or nominate someone you know or work with that deserves this recognition. You can do so by going to www.highperformingeducator.com/award. We can never recognize educators enough.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Tracy Beaulieu

The High Performing Educator Podcast was brought to life during the outbreak of COVID-19 to provide you with inspirational stories and practical advice from your colleagues in education.  By tuning in, you will hear the stories and ideas of the world’s brightest and most ambitious educators.  You can expect interviews with Principals, Teachers, Guidance Counsellors, National Student Association, Directors and anybody that works with youth. You can find and listen to all the episodes for free here.

Chris Andrew – Teacher, Administrator and Coach with the Red Deer Catholic Regional School Division for Over 30 years

Chris Andrew - Teacher, Administrator and Coach with the Red Deer Catholic Regional School Division for Over 30 years
About Chris Andrew

Chris has been a teacher/administrator/coach with the Red Deer Catholic Regional School Division for over 30 years. He began his career as an High School English teacher in 1988. Since then, he went on to teach at middle school and elementary. In his teaching career he has taught every grade from Pre-KIndergarten to Grade 12. He began his administrative career as a Curriculum Coordinator in the areas of Language Arts, Social Studies, and Early Education. He has been Vice Principal at the Middle and High School level and a Principal at the Elementary, Middle and High School levels.

Chris obtained his Bachelor of Education degree from the University of Saskatchewan majoring in HIstory and English and received a Master of Arts Degree Majoring in Special Education from San Diego State University. He is a proud parent of three children Jack (15), Geordan (24), and Amy (27) and is happily married to his wife, Charlene for over 30 years.

Connect with Chris: Email | Instagram | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

Listen to the episode now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or on your favourite podcast platform.

Resources Mentioned

Red Deer Catholic Regional School Division

Bachelor of Education – University of Saskatchewan

Master of Arts Degree Majoring in Special Education – San Diego State University

Understanding Response to Intervention

The Transcript

**Please note that all of our transcriptions come from rev.com and are 80% accurate. We’re grateful for the robots that make this possible and realize that it’s not a perfect process.

Sam Demma (00:55):

Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator Podcast.

Sam Demma (00:59):

This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is a good friend of mine named Chris Andrew. Chris has been a teacher, administrator, and coach with the Red Deer Catholic Regional School Division for over 30 years. He began his career as a high school English teacher in 1988. Since then, he went on to teach at middle school and elementary. In his teaching career, he has taught every grade from pre-kindergarten to grade 12. He began his administrative career as a curriculum coordinator in the areas of language arts, social studies, and early education. He has been vice principal at the middle and high school level, and a principal at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. Chris obtained his Bachelor of education degree from the University of Saskatchewan, majoring in history and English, and received a masters of Arts degree majoring in special education from San Diego State University. He is a proud parent of three children, Jack 15, Jordan 34, and Amy 27, and is happily married to his wife, Charlene for over 30 years. I hope you enjoy this conversation and I will see you on the other side. Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator Podcast. Today we have a very special guest. His name is Chris Andrew. Chris, please start by introducing yourself.

Chris Andrew (02:20):

Well, hi Sam. Thanks very much for having me on the show. I am a administrator in the Red Year Catholic School Division. I’ve been teaching and administration for 34 years. This is my 35th year, and I’ve been in every level of school from pre-kindergarten to grade 12. So both as an administrator, and as a teacher.

Sam Demma (02:45):

Did as a student growing up that you wanted to work in education, did anyone in your family work in education? What directed you down this path?

Chris Andrew (02:54):

No, no one worked in education. My family, I grew up on a small family farm but I had a pretty great educational experience In grade 10, I left home to attend a boarding school and met some incredible teachers there that were big influences in my life. They had fun every day. They joked around and had fun every day and they made the learning fun for us. And so we’d come to tests and I’m having a test on what and all the information there and just going like, Man, I know all this stuff. And it was hard to like we were learning. So a lot of great mentors at that school.

Sam Demma (03:36):

You mentioned you had a lot of great teachers. What is it, I guess having fun was one aspect of it, but what is it that they did in your life as a teacher and you being a student that really inspired you and uplifted you?

Chris Andrew (03:52):

The relationship that they had with the students, they knew us well actually one of the tricks that they used or that they did to learn about us, I used in my classes, and that was because I became a high school English teacher to start with. One of my favorite teachers was a as English teacher, and they gave us these autobiographies to write every year. Well, because kids at a boarding school come from a lot of different communities, a lot of different places. In order to connect your lessons to them, they had to find out where people were from. And I took that lesson from them so that I knew what my students were about. And when they taught their lessons, just like I taught mine, it was all about relationships. Who had pats? What was their biggest life experience so far? What kinds of things did they enjoy? And so when they thought about structuring the lessons that they had, they keyed in on the things that would make people excuse the

Chris Andrew (04:56):

Interruption.

Sam Demma (04:59):

It’s part of the everyday life of an educator. It makes it more real <laugh>.

Chris Andrew (05:05):

They connected things in their lessons to the things that were important to the people in their class. And I did exactly the same thing in mind.

Sam Demma (05:15):

Would you finish the day of school, go home and work on the farm?

Chris Andrew (05:20):

If you can come to you said to

Chris Andrew (05:23):

The office When I was living at home, for sure. Yeah, we had chores every night. The boarding school that I went to though I actually stayed over. We went on that Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, so we became super independent and then also to our teachers were our dorm teachers, so they would actually supervise us at night too. So we got to see all sides of them. We got to see them in their classroom and we got to see them personally as well.

Sam Demma (05:52):

Oh, that’s amazing. Did you finish your high school experience in the boarding school or was it just for one or two years?

Chris Andrew (06:00):

No, I went from grade 10 to grade 12, so I had all kinds of rules. I was a senior student my second year, meaning that I had new students to the school, kind of guiding them through the different things of would happen, answering questions as roommates. And then in my senior year, I was a house leader, so I was in charge of an entire floor with another teacher, which meant we made schedules for jobs and supervised, making sure that everybody was in bed at night and those kinds of things, making sure that students were in bed and lights out at a certain time. So it was kind of a military style school at night, so it was kind of fun.

Sam Demma (06:42):

When you finished high school what did the rest of your journey look like and was there a defining moment as a high school student where you decided, Wow, this teacher had such an impact on me, I want to do this when I grow up, or did you still go to university or college and we’re still exploring your options at that point?

Chris Andrew (07:00):

Yeah, yeah, for sure. My high school teachers that I was speaking about earlier really set a great example for me. I came from a small community school. Teachers changed every year, so bar as far as teachers and their experience was pretty low before I went to this school. Then I saw these outstanding high connection teachers and I said, Man, that’s what I want to be. And so when I went to university, I went to the University of Saskatchewan and combined my education degree with three years of cis or university level football at the same time. So they were all super athletic. It was an athletic school that I went to. So it was a natural transition both to go into education and also to continue as a student athlete at university.

Sam Demma (07:56):

Do you think you pulled any principles from athletics or just disciplines from sport that have really helped you as a teacher and generally in life?

Chris Andrew (08:08):

Yeah, for sure. Always taking a look at your class as your team. These are the people on my team and looking at their skills. I taught with another teacher by the name of Lee Kane when I was at school and we had a cooperative learning class and we would divide the students into groupings for a unit and we would divide them based on different skills that they had so that each person relied on the other for their skills, just kind of like a team. And then taking it into about year 2000 or so, I started to get into administration. I started looking at the teachers in my school as my team and then looking at their individual skills and how they could help one another grow it to be effective teachers in their classroom.

Sam Demma (08:59):

That’s awesome. I think sport teaches so much and especially when you have a coach that unifies the team, aka a really great teacher in a classroom, <laugh> some of my coaches had really big impacts on my development as a young person and taught me principals as well. That stuck with me for a long time. So you finish high school. Tell me about the next steps in your journey that brought you to your first role in education. As I think you said, an English teacher.

Chris Andrew (09:27):

That’s right. If I first job interview with Red Deer Catholic they were actually looking for a high school football coach. Oh wow. They could teach. So I remember sitting in the interview room beforehand and the guy before me or a guy after me was an offensive lineman. I could tell for sure <laugh> and the guy coming out he definitely was something to do with defense cause guy too. And I went in, I remembered that the interview they asked me to, What was wrong with this sentence and a tragedy is when the character falls down. And I said, Well, there’s two things wrong with that sentence. First of all, that’s not the definition of a tragedy. And the one guy set up really quickly and he’s said, Okay, well is there anything else Ronen? I said, That’s not proper English. Should never have his. And when in a sentence together, <laugh> said, ok, we’re gonna go on question number two now. And they started looking at other characteristics, more traditional interview, but it was pretty fun to send in that interview and go, Oh my gosh, I definitely, they’re looking for an offense line coach. I’m definitely out.

Sam Demma (10:38):

That’s awesome. <laugh>. So you became an English teacher. How many years did you stay in that role and what were the different roles in education you worked until you moved into administration and even into the role you’re in today?

Chris Andrew (10:54):

For sure. It was probably about my first five years I was in that role. I went from a high school English teacher to an elementary generalist for a year. And it was at that time I said, Wow, you know what? I can see the impact I have in a class. If I could possibly get into administration or somebody felt I had the skills to be a decent administrator, I wonder what kind of impact I could have on a school community. So at that point I kind of started to look at different opportunities that would help me grow my experience. So I spent a year in elementary as an elementary general teacher at grade five level then transferred back to high school. I spent two years as a special education teacher in a program called Integration Occupation program for students that weren’t able to get a high school diploma through kind of traditional routes but needed some academic support and as well as some job experience.

Chris Andrew (11:56):

And that’s how they got their certificate of completion. From there, I went to a junior high At the time, we now have middle schools, but it was a junior high to try all those things out. And it was at that point I started to go into my master’s work. So I studied at San Diego State University, a cohort that was centered out of Central Alberta, and we did summer classes in different places. One summer it was in ASFA with a whole group from across the province. Our second year was actually down at San Diego State where we spent a month with classes down there and we graduated in 2001 with my master’s from San Diego State University.

Sam Demma (12:38):

I’m sure you didn’t mind the warm weather down there, did you? <laugh>

Chris Andrew (12:41):

Beautiful weather, same weather every day. Crazy how great it is there.

Sam Demma (12:46):

That’s awesome. Well, did you have some mentors or administrators in your life to tap you on the shoulder and said, Hey Chris, you should consider administration or what did your journey into administration look like?

Chris Andrew (12:58):

Yeah, yeah, for sure. There were some key people. My first principal was really a very organized guy and I learned a lot about organization from that particular person. Our superintendent at the time I made that transition from high school to junior high was a guy by the name of Don Dolan and he was super influential in saying what, you’ve got a lot of different experience, you’ve got lots to offer our school division, we like how you are so student centered in your classes and if you could convert that into being teacher centered as administrator we would really like to see you grow in that direction. So those were two big influences for

Sam Demma (13:53):

At what point in your educational career did you start getting involved in helping out with extracurricular activities?

Chris Andrew (14:02):

From the very beginning, Sam I remember in my first year of teaching, I was as a first year teacher, head coach of a football team. And my roommate at the time became the head coach of the senior basketball team. So I went from being really involved in the football program to going to every basketball game. And then in the spring one of the teachers at the school convinced me to be his assistant rugby coach. So I enjoyed it so much that watching basketball and I had some back background in basketball the next year I coached football in the fall and then as soon as that was over, he had about two weeks off and then the basketball program started and then about three weeks off and then it was right into rugby. So the relationships we formed with kids in the classroom were great but the ones we formed with them after school as school, at school coaches, and in school sports really carried us. I think that young teacher, when we started out, it really carried us in the classroom because kids just had us so much respect for us and they also were so gracious to us when we made mistakes too. They just said, It’s okay, just like we did in practice, they just do better tomorrow Mr. Andrew. It’s okay.

Chris Andrew (15:32):

It was fantastic. Sports are a big part of our teaching.

Sam Demma (15:38):

How do you think it allows you to build such a deep relationship? Is it the extended amount of time spent with the young person or what do you think about sports and those extra cookers? What is it about them that allows you to build these super deep relationships with the students?

Chris Andrew (15:56):

They get a chance to see a different side of you. You’re spend that extra time with them. It gives them that opportunity to ask you those one-on-one questions, whether they be school related or not school related. If they guide and make sure that they go in the right direction, that they’re not going too far into your personal life <laugh>. But also too, if you just take that opportunity to listen to what’s going on in their lives and ask them questions back. Or even better yet when you’re driving home from a late night game, just listen to the conversations. You really get an idea what’s topical with the kids and what’s important in their life. And I love the relationships that I made with all my students in the class. Any of the conversations that you had but you just got on such a deeper level with the kids that you worked with from four o’clock to six o’clock or four o’clock to 11 o’clock when you’re on a road trip with them or on a weekend with them. It’s a special relationship you have as a coach and it’s truly one of the benefits of being a teacher.

Sam Demma (17:10):

You also volunteer and help out with the Middle Years Council conference. Was that an event that you also began attending almost the moment you started teaching or when did you start attending conferences for your own professional development and relationship building amongst other colleagues?

Chris Andrew (17:27):

Yeah, that that’s been all along. That’s attending conferences. It’s really a matter of good, better, best, never let it rest until your good becomes better and your better becomes best. And conferences, those sessions are great and you get some great ideas and definitely help you grow. But even more so after the session or the person that you’re sitting beside at the session saying, How do you do this? And what are some great ideas that you have? I’ve learned a ton from conferences and other professionals. The milli years conference that you’re talking about, that’s an interesting one. <laugh> I was actually, a couple of my friends are high up in the leadership of that and convinced me to join it. And really we organize a great conference, but it’s a great group of people to organize a conference with. So we have a lot of fun doing it. And as a result, the conference is a lot of fun and we advanced the education of the middle years teachers in the prophets of Alberta through the Middle Years conference.

Sam Demma (18:34):

Word on the street is that you had a different name at that conference. Is that true?

Chris Andrew (18:39):

There is a rumor going around that I might have a name when I go in I I’m thinking of we get special clothing each year with our names on the back that signify that we’re helpers at the conference and if you have any questions. So they always put our names on the back so people can feel like they can connect with us. And my name will be Jamar next year. We’ll see how that goes.

Sam Demma (19:05):

That’s awesome, man. What resources, if any, in specific or particular have you found really helpful in developing your mindset around education and the importance of relationships? It could be specific individuals, it could be books, courses you mentioned a conference already, but maybe there’s some other ones that you’ve attended that you found really helpful. It could be certain people you follow. Yeah. Is there anything in specific that has been foundational in your creation around your educational beliefs?

Chris Andrew (19:38):

Yeah, probably one of the most fundamental experiences I had as a leader in a school was to take a group of teachers to a solution tree conference around response to intervention and just the Cole’s notes on response to intervention it. It’s the ability to have either a group of teachers through several grades concentrating on the same outcomes so that students are, if we concentrate on all the outcomes in our curriculum with the same amount, everything if everything gets the same amount of emphasis, nothing’s important. So I took this group of teachers to this conference. They weren’t very sure about what their goal or their role was but when we listened to it, it made so much sense to where our school was at. It was about teaching a small number of outcomes so that every kid could do the most important outcomes. Teachers were still responsible for the entire curriculum, but emphasizing that the same time.

Chris Andrew (20:50):

And when students didn’t get the material, that opportunity for a individual teacher to go back and reteach it to a group of students that didn’t get that content because this is fundamental for a student to be successful in high school and beyond. So we were super successful. I took this group and they weren’t sure and by the end of the first morning they were saying, How do we do this in our school? And I said, Chris, you have to bring this back and you have to do this in our school. And I said it, it’s not the power of me, it’s the power of, I said, I can’t introduce this as a school leader. You’re the authentic people. And they brought it back and did all the in servicing at teachers and sold the teachers on our staff. And I said, The only thing I wanna do is I want to be able to, they just do the question session at the end.

Chris Andrew (21:47):

And they did such a great job of selling it and I rolling it out so teachers could understand it and believe it and our school went to it. But we got to the question session and one teacher asked, they said, Yeah, that’s great. This is your new idea. You’re gonna break it to school. What’s gonna say as soon as you leave, this doesn’t die. And I said to them, I just said like, You know what you guys, I’ll tell you from my aspect as a leader, if I came to a school and I saw something that’s as good as what this could be and how passionate you guys are about it my job as a leader is to be able to fuel that fire in the people that are running it. It’s not the power of me, it’s the power of we will do a great job on this.

Chris Andrew (22:37):

And if I came in and you guys were doing a great job on something, all I tried to do is just get outta your way so you could do a great job and learn as much as I could so that I could help support you with whatever challenges came in year two, year three, year four, whatever year you are in with this. So if I’m thinking of one conference that changed my career, it would absolutely be that. It would because I learned a lot about teaching and instruction. Nice. But I learned an awful lot about leadership and it’s about what make it the teacher’s decision to do something, point them in the right direction, make it their decision, help them support them, and you have a much stronger product when you’re done and when people believe in it it will happen.

Sam Demma (23:22):

What was the resulting impact on the school community? It sounds like the teachers really bought into this, which probably had a big impact on all the classrooms and the students, but what did you see going on in the school?

Chris Andrew (23:35):

We created this program, it was called deal. It was called Drop Everything and Learn. And two time we changed our schedules on Tuesdays and Thursdays so that we had a 25 minute block of time where students could be assigned to a reteach, which would be, here’s a concept that we’re not sure you’ve got, but it’s an opportunity for you to go to. Again, they could either be assigned to it or students could sign them up themselves up for it. I’d just some more practice at it. They could go to an enrichment session, which would be taking that concept a little higher. And we would challenge students to be involved in that. If they got that information, they could sign up for a homework working session. So basically it would just be an opportunity where they could do homework. We created a lunchroom will hour. It was something that I ran and basically it was a homework room where kids could come and do homework.

Chris Andrew (24:30):

They had a practice, they had a game they wouldn’t have time to do their homework at night. They could get their morning homework done or we said, We gave you time to do it in class. You chose to do it at home so you didn’t get it done at home. You will get it done and you’ll get it done with Mr. Andrew at will hour. So we’d give ’em time to eat and then they would have time so they could get assignments done, change. It changed the mentality of the school kids at first thought it was punitive. Then kids were starting to go like, No, I need extra time to work on this. So I’m gonna go into Mr. Andrew’s Willow and do, I’d have 50 kids in a classroom working. I go, You guys, it’s gotta be quiet. If you’re working with a group, it’s gotta be quiet.

Chris Andrew (25:12):

If it’s not what we’ll find a spot for you outside to work. And assignments were coming in, teachers were like, they were getting to teach the stuff they had to teach or was most important. They recognized the next year that the skills that the students brought forward to the next class, they were so much better prepared for their next year of what they were supposed to learn. Teachers were on board teaching the same thing at the same time. So if we go back to that conference conversation we had, they were talking about the same topics at the same time and they were using the energy of the ideas that we’re getting to really build great and engaging lessons. Kids were comfortable going to other teachers and saying, You know what? I like the way you taught this. Could you please reteach it to me? Because I heard from my friend who’s learning at the same time as me that you did a really great job.

Chris Andrew (26:09):

I’d like to hear how it was everybody learning together and moving together. And teachers went. They couldn’t believe the difference. Not only in the student’s attitude towards learning, but also towards their knowledge that they brought forward the hooks that they could, if they said certain words, kids would go, I remember this from last year. And they were ready to learn. And other students would say, Remember when we did this in Mr. So-and-so’s class? And then automatically everybody was ready to learn and then they could put that new information on top and we could struggle with it for a while. We could get some help with it. And then we moved on and it was truly amazing to watch teachers say, I can’t believe how good these students are at these particular skills. This is the best group of students I’ve ever had. And the best thing I could say as administrator was, this is now the worst group that you’re gonna have because the other group’s gonna have this for two years. This other group gonna have it for three years. And it was unbelievable. I mean it’s one tool for measuring it but our provincial achievement test scores went crazy. They were the best they ever were under this. That was the third reason for doing it. <affirmative>, the first reason for doing it was kids were so much more confident. And the second reason was teachers were just so much more enthusiastic about the topics they were teaching because the students were so much ready, more ready and engaged to learn.

Sam Demma (27:41):

That sounds amazing. It sounds like it had a significant impact and the students and staff loved it. And it sounds like you were passionate about it. So the whole school sounds like metaphorically it was on fire, everyone wanted to be there, everyone is super excited. Can you think of a story maybe even during that time or any time throughout your educational journey where an individual student was really struggling and was supported by an adult and even just through education and had a serious transformation? And the reason I ask is because I think most adults and most people get into education because they wanna help and impact young minds and help change their lives or help them make better decisions. And sometimes when things get difficult, educators might forget their personal reason why they started or why they even got into education in the first place. And I think it’s stories of transformation and change in young people that remind them that the work they’re doing matters and is really important. So do you have any stories that come to mind of students who you’ve seen transform

Chris Andrew (28:52):

<laugh>? Yeah, yeah, for sure. I had this student, I learned a little bit more about his story by being his coach. He came from a small northern community to move to Red Deer, which is a little bit larger community. It was a big change for him. He moved from a farm into the city and he had, basketball was his big hook and he made a lot of friends through basketball and that certainly helped in his transition. It was pretty difficult though because one of his parents that was a teacher in our school division and really had high expectations. So he was trying his hardest and doing his best and he was one of my basketball players and he was gaining in confidence and his mom came in for parent-teacher interviews and I just finished marking one of his assignments and I brought it out and I showed it to to her and I just said, You gotta know that he is really working hard and he’s had all this growth.

Chris Andrew (29:55):

And it was a great interview. The mom was really super happy and I remember this student’s name, his name, staff staff He comes in the next day and he just gives me high five. He goes, You know what? Thank you Mr. Andrew. He goes, That helped a ton. My mom, mom’s been on my case and saying, Basketball’s taking too much of my time and thanks for acknowledging the hard work I did on this. And while what I’m totally your fan, whatever you ask, I’m gonna totally do. Steph went in to become a teacher. Steph taught in the same integrated occupation program that I had once taught in. So he really worked with some challenging learners. Went on to get his doctorate. He studied at Goza and finished his doctorate. And last year Steph got his first principalship.

Sam Demma (30:54):

Wow. A cool full, Are you still in touch with Steph?

Chris Andrew (30:59):

Steph? Yeah. Steph’s principal in my school division. So really, really excited. I sent him an email right away. I said, Welcome to a place at the table, brother. Great job, great journey. He’s in his home community now. It’s a smaller community outside of ours, but I just can’t wait to watch that school explode cuz it’s just gonna be an awesome experience having him as their school leader.

Sam Demma (31:21):

That’s an amazing story. What a cool full circle moment. If you could take your experiences in education, travel back in time to your first teaching role in that English class knowing what now, what advice would you have given your younger self or any other people who are just starting their first year as an educator?

Chris Andrew (31:45):

You know what I mean? I really think it’s important that you take that time regardless of what role you’re in, education to listen. You listen to what your, learn as much as you can about your students so that you can relate the content back to them in a form that means something to them. And I think that they really appreciate it. And I would go back and say, Just learn even more than you already are trying to learn about your kids because they are not only going to be the best way that you can teach them, but they will help you become the best teacher you can be.

Sam Demma (32:29):

That’s awesome. I love it. Chris, thank you so much for taking the time to come on the show, man. I really appreciate you and your insights and ideas. If an educator or anyone’s listening to this interview wants to reach out to you, ask a question, send you an email, what would be the most efficient way for them to reach out?

Chris Andrew (32:47):

What, if any educator has any in any way I could help ’em out, please don’t hesitate to send me an email. You can send it to my school email address. I check that one every day. It’s chris.andrew@rdcrs.ca.

Sam Demma (33:14):

Awesome. Chris, thank you so much. Keep up the great work and we’ll talk soon.

Chris Andrew (33:19):

Same to you, Sam. Take care.

Sam Demma (33:21):

I believe that educators deserve way more recognition, which is why I’ve created the High Performing Educator Awards. In 2022, 20 educator recipients will be shortlisted, each of whom will be featured in local press. invited to record an episode on the podcast, and spotlighted on our platform. In addition, the one handpicked winner will be presented with an engraved plaque by myself. I will fly to the winner’s city to present this to them and ask that they participate in a quick photo shoot and interview on location. The coolest part, nominations are open right now, and they close October 1st, 2022. So please take a moment to apply or nominate someone you know or work with that deserves this recognition. You can do so by going to www.highperformingeducator.com/award. We can never recognize educators enough.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Chris Andrew

The High Performing Educator Podcast was brought to life during the outbreak of COVID-19 to provide you with inspirational stories and practical advice from your colleagues in education.  By tuning in, you will hear the stories and ideas of the world’s brightest and most ambitious educators.  You can expect interviews with Principals, Teachers, Guidance Counsellors, National Student Association, Directors and anybody that works with youth. You can find and listen to all the episodes for free here.

Donald Mulligan – Principal at Kensington Intermediate Senior High School and President of the Prince Edward Island Association of School Administrators

About Donald Mulligan

Donald Mulligan (@donaldmulligan2) is principal at Kensington Intermediate Senior High School. He previously work as Principal at Kinkora Regional High School and Amherst Cove Consolidated School. Donald is currently the President of the Prince Edward Island Association of School Administrators and Vice-President of the Canadian Association of Principals. He also serves as the Chair of PEI  Teachers’ Federation Group Insurance Committee.

Donald believes in making K.I.S.H. a safe and welcoming school for all students and staff. He coaches the senior women’s soccer team and enjoys supervising school activities. Donald has been part of the creating and instructing the PEI Administrative Leadership Program. This program is required for teachers who are interested in becoming administrators here on P.E.I. He is proud watching his students grow and mature to become productive members of society.

Donald realizes that it is only through the efforts of great teachers and a strong administrative team can schools become successful.

Connect with Donald: Email | Instagram | Twitter

Listen Now

Listen to the episode now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or on your favourite podcast platform.

Resources Mentioned

Kensington Intermediate Senior High School

Kinkora Regional High School

Amherst Cove Consolidated School

Prince Edward Island Association of School Administrators

Canadian Association of Principals

PEI Administrative Leadership Program

Prince Edward Island Teachers’ Federation Special Associations

Leadership Through the Ages: A Collection of Favorite Quotations by Rudy Giuliani

The Transcript

**Please note that all of our transcriptions come from rev.com and are 80% accurate. We’re grateful for the robots that make this possible and realize that it’s not a perfect process.

Sam Demma (00:55):

Hey, welcome back to the show.

Sam Demma (00:56):

Today’s special guest is Donald Mulligan. Donald is Principal at Kensington Intermediate Senior High School. He previously worked as Principal at Kenkora Regional High School and Amherst Cove Consolidated School. Donald is currently the President of the Prince Edward Island Association of School Administrators and Vice President of the Canadian Association of Principals. He also serves as the chair of the PEI Teachers Federation Group Insurance Committee. Donald believes in making KISH safe and welcoming school for all students and staff. He coaches the senior woman’s soccer team and enjoys supervising school activities. Donald has been part of the creating and instructing of the PEI Administrative Leadership Program. This program is required for teachers who are interested in becoming administrators on the island of PEI. Donald is proud watching his students grow and mature to become productive members of society and he realizes that it is only through the efforts of great teachers and a strong administrative team that schools can become successful. I hope you enjoyed this conversation with Donald and I will see you on the other side. Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today we have a very special guest. His name is Donald Milligan. Donald, please start by introducing yourself.

Donald Mulligan (02:20):

Well, I’m Donald Mulligan and I’m Principal right now Kensington and Intermediate Senior High here in Prince Edward Island. This is my 10th year here and I’ve previously been at four other schools. Three as Principal over my career. So I still coach, still coach, a girl’s soccer team. I’ve coached many of the sports and enjoy being involved with student life. So yeah, that’s it in a nutshell.

Sam Demma (02:45):

When did you realize growing up as a young person, that one day you wanted to work in education?

Donald Mulligan (02:52):

It took me a while. I grew up on a family firm potato firm and as years went along I realized I was really much better dealing with the staff and the employees than I was actually fixing the equipment and operating the equipment. So probably when I was in university, because I went to agriculture college for a bit and then I came back, took a bachelor of Arts, realized I enjoyed writing and took, got my ba, b e d decided to become a teacher. And in hindsight, I shouldn’t been shocked because my mom was a teacher for 35 years and I have an aunt that was a teacher for 35 years. So that’s in the family genes for sure. My sister’s a teacher but it wasn’t something I planned to do my whole life. And even at that point I was taking courses after university and I was amazed when I would take courses with a couple of guys or friends of mine from the first year teacher. They wanted to become an administrator and that was not something I had planned on either. It just sort of evolved as time went on.

Sam Demma (04:01):

Oh, that’s awesome. Did you realize when you were going through university okay, this is the path I’m pursuing was there a defining moment? Did your parents sit you down and Donald, you should be a teacher <laugh>?

Donald Mulligan (04:17):

No. Well, as I mentioned, I went to agriculture college, but I get there for two weeks. I was taking chemistry and biology and calculus and physics and I realized pretty early on that two weeks that I don’t think I’m gonna be overly successful in these courses. So I get out when I could still get my money back. So what happened was though I went home and I firmed that fall. And so it was interesting because I enjoyed working on the firm, but we got to operate the tractors. The harvest is sort of a fun time when you’re harvesting the potatoes cuz you’re in tractors and trucks and it’s good. But after that it was into a warehouse. So I worked at the neighbors from 8:00 AM to five at PM every day. And then many days our own family farm wheat graded in the evenings from six 30 to nine 30.

Donald Mulligan (05:10):

So I went days without seeing the sun. So it was like, I don’t see this being a career for me right now. So that few months when I took a semester off at that point in those few months, it’s like, okay, I think I need to go in a different direction. And then the next semester I took an education 1 0 1 or something along those lines and we had to do a little practicum. So an hour in the classroom a week and when I still remember some of the kids that I was in with that. So that one course was the one that really hooked me. It’s like, okay, I enjoy the kids and I sort of feel I’m good at it.

Sam Demma (05:46):

That’s awesome. You mentioned you still coach. Is coaching a big part of your life? When did you start coaching athletics?

Donald Mulligan (05:55):

When I started my career, well, I couldn’t get a job, ironically, yeah, head of university, I had a job, I worked as an employment counselor with Canadian Mental Health Association. Oh cool. And I really enjoyed that, helping individuals mental illness get back into the workforce. But it was a tough time to get a teaching job in our province. So I had many interviews and the first position that I could get was at the alternative education program. So I worked there for four years and I really enjoyed it. But to answer your question my first year in the regular system when I got the school called Somerset Elementary in my community, I helped coach the soccer team. So I helped coach that for a couple years with a friend who grew up my commu in our community. He was a volunteer, I learned some tricks from him. And then I started coaching on my own. So that was probably 1999. And I’d been coaching guys soccer and then girls soccer. Once my daughter started coming through the system, I switched over and coached the girls. And I, I’m still doing it to this day, but I’m lucky because I’ve always had great people with me that can look after the practices when I can’t get outta the school to go to practice after school during the day. But I’m more of a game coach now. The teachers here to tease me kinda

Sam Demma (07:15):

Shows up when it matters

Donald Mulligan (07:16):

<laugh>. Exactly. But when my kids were growing up, same as many adults. I coached them in soccer, I coached them in baseball. I’ve coached hockey. So just whoever needed to coach, I enjoy doing that and I feel that keeps me young.

Sam Demma (07:33):

That’s awesome. You mentioned that some of your buddies who were also in education at the time wanted and had this ambition and goal to become administrators right away and you know, weren’t dead set on that you just wanted to enjoy the journey and see where it takes you. What did your journey actually look like? What was your first role in education outside of the mental health job that you just mentioned to me in a formal school setting? What was your first role and take me through the journey that brought you to where you are right now.

Donald Mulligan (08:04):

Well, we did alternative education and it was only with junior high students and we were an off campus, an offsite building. And our classroom was in part of an old hanger at the CFB summer side where we were housed. And so doing that, there was 24 kids and two teachers. And so we essentially were our own administrators as well. We had to decide what the discipline was going to be. We had decide the rules or regulations, how to get kids to buy in. So right from my first year, there was a lot of administrivia that we had to do and we also had to learn that you need a backbone if you’re gonna survive doing that particular job. And then when I moved to my first school, I was only there a year when our vice principal left and I applied, ended up getting that job and been in administration ever since. I think I was a VP for five years at that particular school with a colleague who’s still a principal in the system now. She’s still someone that I work with. We’re on committees together still. And our neighboring school down the road, Amherst Cove Consolidated, had an opening as a principal and I decided I’m ready to take the leap. And so that was 18 years ago I think now. So took the leap down the road and it worked out pretty well.

Sam Demma (09:36):

That’s awesome. You mentioned that you’re on some committees. What does your involvement look like when you’re not in the principal’s office? <laugh>?

Donald Mulligan (09:47):

Well one of my mom, as I said, was a teacher and her best friend growing up became the, as a teacher as well. And Joyce Mcar, she taught me and she’s a great teacher, great person. She became the president of the P E I Teachers Federation just in my first couple of years. So I had a bit of an at the Teacher’s Federation, so she nominated me for took one, the pension committee, which is a little ironic when you’re in your first year or two of schooling, they’d be on the pension committee. But it was a foot in the door and I really learned the value of meeting people and from different parts of the island on these committees. I also you know, learn a great deal about our pension. And then eventually that led to being involved in other committees negotiating committee with the government doing that, you need to memorize basically the memorandum of agreement that we have and that helps you immensely as an administrator if you know all of the memorandum of agreement, what we can all do and what we should not be doing.

Donald Mulligan (10:56):

So that helped. And presently I’m president of the group Insurance trustees, so we look after our group insurance for all the teachers from Prince Edward Island. So I have that. And so that’s through our union. But then as part of the administrator’s association, I’ve been on the Canadian Association of Principals for the last four years. My term’s just about up here in a couple weeks time. So I’ve been vice president of the Canadian Association Principal. So I look after the CAP Journal. It’s lots of articles mid three times a year in that. And so my term is President’s, p e i, School of Association of School Administrators. And as part of that we’re hosting the Canadian Association of Principals Conference. Nice. So we have a big conference coming down the road here in May of 2023. So I’m with KJ White, so we’re actually looking for some keynote speakers for that right now and some speakers for the conference. So I’ve been pretty involved, but it’s been a great learning experience and it’s a great way to meet people throughout your province.

Sam Demma (12:10):

That’s awesome. It sounds like you’ve been very involved <laugh> in many different ways, which is great. You mentioned your mom’s best friend was a great teacher who also taught you, I’m curious to know, what do you think makes a great teacher? What is it that a great teacher does in the life of a young person that from your perspective growing up, your mom’s friend obviously had an impact on you. What do you think that she did that made you believe she made a big impact?

Donald Mulligan (12:39):

For me, I think the biggest thing is they have to show that they care In education, we have to show the students that we care about them and that we want to help them. We want to teach them, but we want them to be good down good people as well. And as an administrator, I think it’s exactly same with the staff that I’m dealing with. I have to show them that I care and follow through ’em in those steps that I do care and support them. So in my role now, I support teachers, support students, and I feel the way we show them that we care is doing the extra things. Because I personally, I can’t remember too many life changing moments in the classroom. I hate to say that, but I do remember lots of memories of extracurricular activities and sports teams and groups that I’ve been on over the years that have made a change in my life. So I think if we show we care, kids are gonna learn.

Sam Demma (13:37):

How do you show that you care? Is it through listening, getting to know the students on a personal level? Yeah, I’m just curious.

Donald Mulligan (13:47):

Well, for me, throughout my career, I’ve always tried to do outdoor duty in the morning. So I greet kids coming in off of the bus. I’m a pretty laid back guy though, so I’m not high fiving and fist pumping everybody. But I make my point of saying hello, trying to say their name, everybody coming in, ask them how the sport event went the night before. Or try and make some connection with kids every day in the morning before 8 25. Our school starts early, so they get off the bus between 8 25, 8 0 5, and 8 25. So touch base with the kids. And I touch base with teachers too, cuz you see many of them walking in at that during that time. So that’s one way and another way, as any administrator I’m in and of the classes trying to ask them how they’re getting along, what do they need help with?

Donald Mulligan (14:40):

But the student council, I’m meeting with them saying, How can we be better? What can the school do to make things better? What are some of your opinions? And we’ve had students on representatives of our district advisory councils that we’ve had in PEI the last few years. So they’re offering information that hopefully make positive changes in the school as well. But as we already talked about, you really make connections when you either teach them A or B, you’re volunteering and you’re working with them after school. So when you’re giving up your own time, you show them that you really do care. And so I find that’s the key as well. I still teach 25% of the day, so those kids that I teach, I really get to know those kids on a personal level. So by the time they get through grade 10, I’ve pretty much had half of the school pretty much that I’ve taught. So that makes an enormous difference I feel, for me anyway.

Sam Demma (15:36):

So you teach right now? Actually

Donald Mulligan (15:38):

At one 15 here I’m gonna be going, I’m teaching for the first time, math four two K. So this has been a learning curve this semester for me as well. But it’s been great. I mean, I’ve been learning, September was a learning curve for me for sure, but I feel I’m fine in my groove and I think the students that I have are starting to enjoy it as well. I’ve always been an English guy, but the last year I hired a teacher from the Department of Education who is an all star. She’s a superstar. Nice. She created the program that I was teaching, so it was pretty hard for me to continue teaching it when she created it. So she requested, can I take this course style? And I said, certainly you can have it because she’s a rockstar and we’re lucky to have her.

Sam Demma (16:24):

That’s awesome. I haven’t met many administrators that also teach. Is that something that’s common in PEI or is it something that you are trying to do because it’s something that you love?

Donald Mulligan (16:38):

Well, I’ve always been in midsize schools. We have today 357 kids in our school, so it’s not a huge school. So we we’re given an allocation to make our schedule work nice. And I find it certainly for some years it’s only manageable if I’m teaching and some years depending on how it looks like it’s a benefit if I’m teaching. But I’ve always taught, so I’m gonna keep on teaching because it’s usually the best 75 minutes of my day because I get to interact with the kids and the only thing I have to do is teach for that 75 minutes. So it’s awesome.

Sam Demma (17:14):

That’s amazing. I heard one time someone told me the best administrators are the ones that don’t wanna leave the classroom and the best superintendents are those that don’t wanna leave the school building. And it’s really cool that you’ve taught every single year, even though you’re in administration. I think that’s really unique and yeah, it’s really cool. I would’ve loved to have my principal teach me a class <laugh>.

Donald Mulligan (17:39):

Well Sam, it’s difficult to go and have a meeting and go over learning strategies or talking. I mean, we had the big three for a few years learning strategy. So if I can’t tell ’em and share what I’m doing in my classroom, it’s hard for them to take me seriously when I’m standing in front of the school or the staff, I feel personally and I’m able to do that because I’m not a huge school so I can do that. So I feel like it gives me a little more street cred that they know I’m in it with them. The same last year, my geography 4 21 class, we had 32 kids. So nobody was claim complaining about having too many kids in their classroom when they knew I had more than they had. So in some ways it makes it easier.

Sam Demma (18:23):

Your boots are on the ground, you’re planting the seeds with them in the farm <laugh>. So when you think about all the different transformations that you’ve seen happen in the lives of students, and one of the reasons educators get into education is because they wanna make a positive difference. And I feel like if you’ve been in the industry or the industry’s wrong word about the, you’ve been in the vocation long enough, you’ve seen certain students come through it, maybe struggling and then had some sort of personal transformation because of a caring adult or because of the way their teacher taught them. I’m curious if there are any stories that come to mind of students that you’ve worked with who were really struggling and had a breakthrough or a transformation.

Donald Mulligan (19:12):

Well, we have lots of students probably over the years that have had that.

Donald Mulligan (19:21):

I think probably there’s one kid in particular that I was thinking about and I taught him in our Bridging English program, which you may call a general English program. We have a bridging program that allows them to go to a academic if they’re, they’re successful student in there who he was with us for the full six years, we’re seven to 12 schools. So again, we’re unique and we’re the only one in the province that’s just seven to 12. He struggled in junior high. We actually referred him to the alternative education program in junior high and he come back and I taught him each year of high school and school really wasn’t for him, but through many of our programs like the English program. But the co-op program especially helped him so much cuz he got to a business in our community and the employer really took him under his wing.

Donald Mulligan (20:17):

And so he offered him, he was successful, the kid was a great worker, great worker, and he was a great kid. He just needed someone to give him a little bit of a chance. And then this employer did, and he hired him for the summer that particular summer. And he came back to school and got his grade 12. But he is more engaged because he could see he had a goal in mind then. And now he graduated from us still working with the same company. And he would be a real success story I think for all of us in the school that were involved while working with him.

Sam Demma (20:51):

That sounds like a phenomenal story. And is he working now? Is he graduating? He’s moved on.

Donald Mulligan (20:58):

He graduated probably three years ago now. And yeah, he’s been working full time with this company now. They put steel roofs on, so after the hurricane he’s working video. He’ll be working time solid for the next couple years

Sam Demma (21:09):

<laugh>. Awesome. Very cool. When you think about your experiences in education, all the different places, yeah, you’ve worked to the different roles. If you could travel back in time, tap Donald on the shoulder in his first year of teaching, not because you would change anything about your path, but if you could go back in time, tap yourself on the shoulder and give yourself some advice, what would you say to your younger self?

Donald Mulligan (21:37):

Yeah, that’s a difficult question. I guess when I think about that, I think about my first year that I was here at Kensington. So I was pretty well into my career when I came here nine years ago. And I already had eight years experience as a principal. But when I came here, what maybe took me back a little bit is that the first couple schools I went to, I felt the teachers appreciated just my leadership style. They appreciated that I supported them, but at the same time also made people accountable because we all have to teach to the outcomes, we have to follow the pacing guides. And I did that in my class and I expected others to do that. And when I came here this school’s in a little, I dunno if disarray would be the right thing, but the principal here got dismissed, which has never really happened that I can remember.

Donald Mulligan (22:34):

And so there was some controversy before I came and I came in assuming that everyone would appreciate having my form of leadership. And I learned over time that I really had to work. It took me a couple years to really get people to buy in because what I learned is some people, I guess all of us enjoy doing what you wanna do and instead of what you’re supposed to do. And when I started putting pressure on that, we all had to follow the curriculum, follow the outcomes, we all had to row in the same direction and it didn’t take quite as easily as I thought it would. And I think I probably could did a better job relating to the folks that weren’t on board at that particular time. And it was probably just more listening, maybe a little more talk. I felt that time I was doing enough, but you can really never communicate enough. And I think I learned that I needed to listen to their side and I probably needed to do a little more homework on what went on before I stepped in the door here because there was a lot of, well, I don’t know what the best word, but there was still some controversy and some friction among staff at that time. So there’s a lot of healing that had to go on and probably more communication should’ve happened. So that’s probably what I would say

Sam Demma (23:59):

To communicate more, to do a little bit more research before entering a new space. Listen, I think listening’s a big one. Sometimes we listen in an effort to respond right away instead of trying to understand <laugh> what the person’s saying. Right,

Donald Mulligan (24:18):

Exactly. It’s difficult to, because as an administrator, we all have so many things to do each and every day, but we have to remember that the teacher comes through our door. They probably worked up the courage for probably days. For some of them, it’d be days and maybe more that they came to us with a problem and they wanna be heard and usually they have the correct answer. They just need someone to listen to them, encouraging them, encourag them and reinforcing them that they’re doing the right thing.

Sam Demma (24:50):

Yeah. Oh, that’s so great. Well, throughout your whole journey have there been any resources groups committees, books, courses, anything at all that you found really helpful in your own professional development as a teacher? And that again, could also be conferences and things of this nature, but is there anything that you’ve returned to that’s given you a lot of insight into how to teach or just building your own professional practice?

Donald Mulligan (25:20):

Well, I think the same with any administrator. We all have mentors, we all have role models. And I have a couple that a lot of their courses, a lot of their leadership style I tried to take a little bit from, and in our system, we were very lucky. We had the gentleman by the name of Doug McDougal and Doug was just so positive. He was positive with all of us, but he all always made us accountable. So I remember my very first year as principal before I started, after I got hired, he said, We’re gonna talk in September and I wanna know, we’re gonna talk about the leadership books that you’ve read over the summer. And it was like, Oh, okay. Leadership books over the summer. So he gave me my homework assignment in a gentle way. And for that first year we talked about how the school was going, but b, more importantly what I was learning from the readings that I did.

Donald Mulligan (26:17):

And so one of the books that I read was from Rudy Juliana. He was mayor of New York at the time. Nice. And when he became mayor, New York was not a safe city to be in. And so one of the things that sort stuck with me was they started cleaning up graffiti as soon as it happened. And over time, graffiti stopped being a thing. But more importantly, or just as importantly, they started enforcing all of the laws. So jaywalking, which is a pretty minuscule offense I guess. But they really cracked down on that. And what they learned was many of the people at Jaywalk and they started to ticket them, also had many other offenses they were, and they were wanted some of them. So just by following through on all of the little tiny things, they were able to manage the get a hold of quite a few of the people that were causing the city to not be safe and make it a better city and cleaner city and a safe city.

Donald Mulligan (27:25):

And it, New York City’s amazing. We were down five years ago and my wife and I got off the subway and people could tell we weren’t sure we were going and we had four or five people offer to help us and put us in the right direction. We couldn’t have felt any safer or welcome than we were. So he did a good job. And so from that, I took, okay, in school I’m gonna focus on the little things as well. And we did, we started doing a discipline system back and we enforced the rules that we had set each and every day. And by doing that, we really didn’t have too many of the big issues. Very rarely, if ever, would you have a fight in the schools because we enforce the little things. So that stuck with me for sure. And one of the other things like that, Doug McDougal, Doug always was writing a positive note, thank you. Note he was giving a teachers giving it to administrators. So that’s something that not just me, but my whole peer group that grew up together, we all do that because we know it made us feel good. So we wanna make our staff feel appreciated as well. So we write little notes, put our teacher’s mailbox or give them them personally, and it makes you feel good when you win the classroom and see them up on a bulletin board on the wall so they feel appreciated as well.

Sam Demma (28:48):

That’s awesome. It sounds like Doug’s made an impact on you. Do you stay in touch? Is he still someone that you chat with?

Donald Mulligan (28:56):

Well he made an impact on a lot of us. And actually we just said an administrator’s retreat this past Thursday and Friday, and they unveiled a memorial award because unfortunately a couple years ago during Covid Doug had a sudden heart attack and passed away. So yeah, it was a tragedy for all of us, but now we still remembering I am and there’s going to be an award in his memory. But even when he did retire, I’d call him, I’d text him and get some advice from him or give him a hard time and go to Toronto Maple Leafs because he’s a huge Leaf fan.

Sam Demma (29:35):

<laugh>. Hey, me too. <laugh>.

Donald Mulligan (29:38):

Sorry to hear

Sam Demma (29:38):

That. Does that mean we’re not friends? No more <laugh>.

Donald Mulligan (29:41):

We can be good. That’s awesome. I’m a Montreal Canadians fan. I don’t know if you can see, I got some paraphernalia behind me here a little bit, but it’s gonna be a couple painful years for us, so I can’t really say too much right now, but I like the journey we’re on anyway.

Sam Demma (29:56):

It can’t be any worse than the Toronto Maple Leafs, so enjoy <laugh>. That’s awesome. Well, thanks for sharing that story about Doug. I love the analogy with the graffiti. That’s a great way to position the importance of the little things, not only in school but also in life. I think once you let one thing slip, it’s a lot easier for 10 other things to slip. But if you crack down on all the small things, you can manage the big things as well. If someone wants to reach out to you, ask you a question, send you an email about this conversation, what would be the best way for them to get in touch?

Donald Mulligan (30:31):

Well, my email address is damulligan@edu.pe.ca. Or you can just go to our school website and our email contact lists are there as well at Kensington intermediate Senior High.

Sam Demma (30:47):

Awesome. Donald, thank you so much for taking the time to call on the podcast. I really appreciate it. Keep up the amazing work and I’ll see you in a few weeks.

Donald Mulligan (30:54):

Thanks, Sam. Can’t wait to see you. Take care. Best of luck.

Sam Demma (30:59):

I believe that educators deserve way more recognition, which is why I’ve created the High Performing Educator Awards. In 2022, 20 educator recipients will be shortlisted, each of whom will be featured in local press. invited to record an episode on the podcast, and spotlighted on our platform. In addition, the one handpicked winner will be presented with an engraved plaque by myself. I will fly to the winner’s city to present this to them and ask that they participate in a quick photo shoot and interview on location. The coolest part, nominations are open right now, and they close October 1st, 2022. So please take a moment to apply or nominate someone you know or work with that deserves this recognition. You can do so by going to www.highperformingeducator.com/award. We can never recognize educators enough.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Donald Mulligan

The High Performing Educator Podcast was brought to life during the outbreak of COVID-19 to provide you with inspirational stories and practical advice from your colleagues in education.  By tuning in, you will hear the stories and ideas of the world’s brightest and most ambitious educators.  You can expect interviews with Principals, Teachers, Guidance Counsellors, National Student Association, Directors and anybody that works with youth. You can find and listen to all the episodes for free here.

Don Middleton – Assistant Principal at Lester B. Pearson High School in Calgary

Don Middleton - Assistant Principal at Lester B. Pearson High School in Calgary
About Don Middleton

Don Middleton (@DonMiddleton1) is an Assistant Principal at Lester B. Pearson High School in Calgary. Don has been an educator for 30 years. During his career, Don has been an Athletic Director, Learning Leader, and System Learning Specialist in Off-campus and Dual Credit.

Don believes that every student has the ability to succeed and strives to create those conditions for success in his school. Don is active in the community outside of school as a volleyball official and volunteers as a Vice-Chair for Calgary Elements Mental Health Centre.

Connect with Don: Email | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

Listen to the episode now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or on your favourite podcast platform.

Resources Mentioned

Lester B. Pearson High School

Calgary Elements Mental Health Centre

Masters of Education – MEd, Curriculum & Instruction Trauma and Resilience at Concordia University, Nebraska

Bachelor of Education (B.Ed.), Physical Education Teaching and Coaching at the University of Alberta

Mount Royal University

Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT)

Ironworking at SAIT

The Transcript

**Please note that all of our transcriptions come from rev.com and are 80% accurate. We’re grateful for the robots that make this possible and realize that it’s not a perfect process.

Sam Demma (00:56):

Hey, it’s Sam. Welcome back to the podcast. Today’s special guest is a good friend of mine named Don Middleton. Don is an Assistant Principal at Lester B. Pearson High School in Calgary. Don has been an educator for 30 years. During his career, Don has been an athletic director, learning leader, and a system learning specialist in off campus and dual credit. He believes that every student has the ability to succeed and strives to create the conditions for success in his school. Don is active in the community outside of school as a volleyball official, and he volunteers as a Vice Chair for Calgary Elements Mental Health Center. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Don, and I will see you on the other side. Don, welcome to the High Performing Educator Podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here today. Please start by introducing yourself.

Don Middleton (01:44):

Hi, I’m Don Middleton. I’m an Assistant principal at Lester b Pearson High School in Calgary.

Sam Demma (01:50):

Why, tell me a little bit about how you got into education.

Don Middleton (01:54):

Oh, how I got into education. Well the reality is that when I finished high school, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do university. And after six months of working night crew at Safeway, my manager said, I’m only coming off of night crew from working midnight till 8:00 AM if I was in school. So I applied for University of Alberta. And there’s only two faculties that were accepting students at that time, and it was education and arts and nothing against arts degrees, I think they can be very valuable. But at that time, my dad said, Friends, don’t let friends take Arts <laugh>. So I, I applied for education, but my brother was in physiotherapy and my plan was to take one semester of education and then transfer into the faculty of kinesiology, get an athletic therapist degree. And we were gonna open up a clinic together, him the physio, and meet the athletic therapist.

Don Middleton (02:49):

 my first month in education, they put me into a a student teaching role. It was supposed to be an observation, and my cooperating teacher handed me some tests and said, I’ll be back in an hour. And I was supposed to go over these tests with the kids and there was a young man that was it was a grade six class, and there was a young man that was quite upset with his test score. I sat down with him, tried to go over it with him, turned out that he got a zero and the reason he got a zero was cuz he didn’t show any work. So I started making up some math questions and he was answering everything out of his head just like that. And I realized that this kid was brilliant and the zero wasn’t indicative of what he really was capable of.

Don Middleton (03:32):

And so when the teacher came back to the classroom, I asked if, you know, we could adjust as mark. And he said, Well what’s your professional judgment? And I said, I’m 18, I don’t have any professional judgment <laugh>. And he said, What’s your gut tell you? And he said, My gut tells me that this kid understands he needs to show process going forward, but penalizing him by giving him a zero isn’t going to have a positive impact on him. And the teacher said, That sounds like a great professional judgment. He said, You tell him he got a hundred percent, but next time if he doesn’t show his work, he gets a zero. And the kid lit up like a Christmas tree when I told him the outcome. And I went home that night and I told my parents, I’m gonna be a teacher.

Sam Demma (04:13):

That’s such a cool story. What a, what a unique intro to education. I’ve asked over 200 educators about what got them into education. This is a very unique first answer, so I appreciate you sharing that backstory. you mentioned you had no interest in post-secondary education as a student yourself when you initially finished high school. I get direct messages all the time from students who, and it’s not a majority, but there’s a portion who reach out and say, Sam, I hate, like, I hate school. I I don’t, I don’t enjoy it. I don’t think it’s right for me, and I’m not sure what I wanna do after high school. When you have students who walk into your office and say things like that or express that being that, you know, you might have had a similar experience growing up as a student, what advice do you share or what do you tell them to help them along that journey?

Don Middleton (05:07):

You know, I think that’s a really great question. And I would say that my answer to that has evolved throughout my career. I used to say early on in my career, if you don’t know what you want to do, go to university. Go to college, take some general studies, find out what your interests are, and then check out what career pathways align with those courses that you enjoy and take it from there. now that’s become cost-prohibitive. It’s not, it’s not economical for a student to go to university if they know, don’t know that that’s what they want to do. And my my advice now is, do you like to work hands on? if you’re a problem solver, if you’re creative, get into a trade, go pick up a trade, go become a mechanic, go become a, a an, a carpenter, a cook, a plumber, pipe fitter iron worker, doesn’t matter.

Don Middleton (05:59):

 but go and get a trade. It takes you four years to get a journey person ticket in Alberta and a four year journey, person ticket in Alberta will earn you more money than a four year bachelor degree as an average income. And you will be paid from day one. And you’re not shelling out money towards courses that you may not ever use or need. And in Alberta, the average age of a first year apprentice is 26. And a lot of those people have university degrees and a, a pile of student debt. So go out, pick up a trade and, and get certified. And it makes you more valuable as a student later on if that’s what you wanna do. Plus students are always looking for summer jobs, and if you’ve got four months off to work in a trade and you’ve got a journey person ticket, you’re going to be paid far more than those people that are working in the service industry or in retail.

Sam Demma (06:53):

Not to mention, I like to go over in my head, best case scenario, worst case scenario when I’m making a decision. Worst case scenario, if you go down this path of becoming an apprenticeship, you get paid from day one. If you decide two years later, you know what, I don’t wanna do this. You’ve built some amazing skills. You might know how to fix your own car now because you went down the mechanic path and you wanna adjust at least the entire time you were being compensated. And you can now, you know, try something else if it’s still not the right fit. my my com I come from a family filled with trades. My dad’s a licensed plumber, my uncle Sal’s hvac, my uncle Peter’s electrician, like my cousin Joseph Mechanic, like the list. I don’t need to go outside of my family to fix anything <laugh>. and they love their jobs. So I think that’s such a great piece of advice. You mentioned, you know, are you hands on, try something in the trades. You also mentioned maybe even a cook and mm-hmm. <affirmative>, it dawns upon me that your cooking program at school at Pearson is phenomenal. Tell me a little bit about it and why it’s so special.

Don Middleton (07:55):

So we’re very fortunate that in our school we have a culinary and a personal foods program. So both of those instructors or teachers in those programs are Red seal chefs. So the students are getting a first class experience being trained by people that have worked in industry and are experts in their, in their field. personal foods is learning how to cook for yourself. and then culinary is cooking for a large group. But in addition to our two Red Seal teachers in those trades, we also have a Red Seal baker and then a Red Seal instructor. So we’ve got people that have a huge wealth of experience in those fields, and it gives students an opportunity to really find out if that’s what they want. And the great thing is, is that not only would do they get the high school credits, but our students, because our, our our teachers are Red Seal chefs already, they can also start getting them the apprentice credits while they’re still in high school. So they’re basically double dipping, getting high school credits, and they can get post-secondary credits if that’s a field that they wanna pursue.

Sam Demma (09:01):

And it keeps staff’s, bellies full

Don Middleton (09:04):

<laugh>. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we have some incredible, incredible meals here. And as I said, our our our FACAs bread that our baker makes is second to none. Her habanero cheddar PCA bread. I’ve got a standing order that every time it makes, I get a nice fresh loaf on my desk.

Sam Demma (09:24):

<laugh>. That’s awesome, man. Let’s go back for a second. You said the day you came back from school in the student teacher position that you told your parents, I’m becoming a teacher, obviously because of the emotional experience you had with that young man who was brilliant and you change his mark to a hundred on the test. what did the journey look like after that decision that brought you to where you are now? Have you worked in different schools? Tell me a little bit about the process.

Don Middleton (09:50):

Sure. I’ve worked in a number of different schools. I’ve been, this is actually my 30th year teaching. I I started in a small rural community in southern Alberta. it was a K to 12 school that had 84 students in it. Wow. So we had a graduating class, I think of oh, was it 12 students that year? And it was the biggest graduating class they had had in a, in a while. yeah, 12 students. That was a big <laugh>. But I realized that that day when I had had that experience in student teaching, that making a difference for kids and seeing them succeed, that’s what, that’s what turned my crank. That was something that I found so rewarding and it was something that I was, I felt I can make a career out of this and make a life out of this.

Don Middleton (10:36):

And and so that’s what I did. and I spent about 20 years teaching PhysEd coaching various sports. I I coached them all predominantly football and volleyball. And then I transitioned into what’s called off campus and Dual Credit world. And so students were getting work experience or registered apprenticeship program. I would supervise them. I had a great deal of success in one of the schools that I was working with. And I was asked to take a position with the with the board downtown overseeing rap and, and work experience for all of the Calgary high schools. I turned it down three times, and then the fourth time they said, Come downtown, meet with us, see what it’s like. And so I interviewed for it, fully intending to turn them down a fourth time. And then the the gentleman who became one of the most influential mentors in my life said to me, You’re going to have an impact on about 2000 students at your school. If you come downtown, you’re going to have an impact on 25,000 students. And that he sold me right then and there because that’s my goal is to have a positive impact on students. And if I can broaden that, then, then that’s a huge part of, you know, why I do what I do. my apologies,

Sam Demma (11:57):

<laugh>. That’s okay.

Don Middleton (11:59):

So in terms of different schools, I, I try to change up about every three to five years. I find that I never want to become stagnant. And so my goal is to change schools, like I said, about every three to five. and I’ve spent time as a phys ed teacher, as a phys ed learning leader, off campus coordinator, off campus, dual credit specialist. And then the past four years as an assistant principal.

Sam Demma (12:25):

I believe one of the most important things to measure when we start a new pursuit is our attendance. You know, are we just showing up and putting our foot forward? And I think once you get over that hurdle and you continuously show up, one of the shortcuts or fast tracks is finding a mentor. And it sounds like you found one in that individual who convinced you on coming to the board wide position to have an impact on more students. Who is that individual and how has he or she or them been instrumental in your own personal development in the education world?

Don Middleton (12:58):

Sure. so I’d actually like to mention two mentors. One was when I was a phed learning leader at Forest Lawn High School in Calgary. And the mentor was a gentleman by the name of Tim Maine. And Tim Maine was my principal at the time. And Tim had been a former phys ed teacher and university varsity volleyball athlete. And Tim and I had a lot of discussions about what’s best for kids. And, and I remember sitting in his office and asking him, Should I do this? Shouldn’t I do this? And he said, Well, what’s your filter? And I said, What do you mean? He said, What’s your filter? And I said, Still don’t know what you mean, <laugh>. And he said, Is it good for kids? And I said, Yes. And he said, Is it illegal, immoral? No, of course not. And he said, If it’s good for kids, it’s not illegal and it’s not immoral.

Don Middleton (13:43):

He said, Then we’ll make it happen. Mm. And I said, What about the funding? He said, We’ll find the funding. And that was, that has shaped the way that I look at anything that I do, You know, is it good for kids? Is it going to help them? And if so, we’ll find a way to make it happen. And quite honestly, that was one of the reasons why we brought Sam Dema in to talk to our kids. It was good for our kids. we needed to find the money to make it happen. And you have had a lasting influence on our kids here, because I still hear them talking about it. And it’s been several weeks after the fact. Thanks. The second mentor I had was Jerry Fiddle, and he was the education director for for me, when I went downtown. And Jerry was the role that I stepped into, I was the first person in that role.

Don Middleton (14:31):

 there had been nobody else that had done that before. So I got to define what that role looked like. And, and that’s quite an intimidating thing when I’d been in education for over 20 years and now all of a sudden I’m the first person doing something. So I’m not reinventing the wheel, I’m actually inventing it. And there was nobody else that I could draw upon. And, and so I, I went to Jerry and he said, You’re doubting yourself. And so he encouraged me to take risks, which in education, usually the vanilla plane, you know, stay the course, stay between the lines, That’s the advice that you get. And Jerry was like, No, go outside the lines. Let’s expand this. Let’s grow and let’s do what we can. And we grew a program that saw students earning high school credits and university credits at the same time.

Don Middleton (15:19):

We had students going to UFC and Mount Royal, and we had multiple programs with the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology for now state polytechnic it’s called. And to see students be able to start seeing themselves in a post-secondary setting after high school was amazing. And then on top of that, we set up a number of trades training programs where students would go out of school to, to learn a particular trade. And that was, again, we saw students’ lives changed because they were learning in an out of school setting. And not every kid is wired to be sitting in a chair for seven hours a day getting lectured at sometimes learning. And the best learning happens outside of a school setting. And, and Jerry taught me that, and Jar Jerry encouraged me to go down that path.

Sam Demma (16:08):

Thanks for sharing those two names. I appreciate it. And hopefully we can send this to them as a o of appreciation after this is aired and released. You mentioned the importance of students seeing themselves in post-secondary. I think that you and the entire staff and the entire community at LB Pearson does a phenomenal job of enabling that your students feel welcomed and included and at home at your school. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you have over 70 languages. Is it 70 languages spoken at the school?

Don Middleton (16:41):

61 61 is is the last count. Yeah. 61 languages for the students. In, in our school, we have an incredible amount of diversity. 77% of the students in our school, their first language is something other than English. And that’s what makes our school so special is, is that diversity and the way that everybody comes together. we have these these days where, where students get to celebrate their heritage and students will, will dress in traditional wear and they will bring traditional food. And it’s absolutely amazing to see the different things that are going on in the building at that time when those things happen.

Sam Demma (17:18):

One of the things that you shared with me when I came to the school was that sometimes the area in which the school is positioned gets a little bit of a, a bad rep, but I’ll be completely transparent, my experience with the school was, to be completely honest, one of the best schools that I visited in the past while and had the most, some of the most respectful and kind students that I’ve come across. how do you think as a school community, we work towards changing the narrative that’s been placed on us when it’s not one that we any longer deserve? <laugh>,

Don Middleton (17:49):

Thank you for the, those really kind comments, Sam, because that means a lot to me. I grew up in Northeast Calgary, and Northeast Calgary does get a bad rap. And the reality is, is that if you look at the newspapers you know, if there’s been a violent event or something that’s happened, it’s usually happened in northeast Calgary, and we get labeled with that because our school is in that, in that setting. Are we a perfect school? No, but the reality is, is that it doesn’t matter what highest school you go to, if your intent is to do something bad, you’re going to find like-minded people that are going to encourage or participate in those bad things. It doesn’t matter what school you attend or what area it’s, but unfortunately, when once a reputation is earned, whether it’s deserved or not, it sticks with you.

Don Middleton (18:37):

And I like to think of us as being a diamond in the rough. the people that come into the building, the people that experience Lester b Pearson, they know what it has to offer. Those people that prefer to, you know, be arm’s length and just point fingers and say, That’s not a good school. I would encourage them to come in, experience it for themselves, and then then pass judgment. I know that in the past, you know, we’ve had fewer violent incidents in our school than many, but we get the the notoriety. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>,

Sam Demma (19:10):

The phone ringing is a good thing. It means that things are happening within the school building and it makes it more real <laugh>. So I, I appreciate the humor. you’ve been in education for such a long period of time. You shared some of the mentors that have helped you along the way. If you could travel back in time and speak to Don in his first day of teaching, but maintain the experiences and knowledge you have now due to all of your different unique experiences, what advice would you give your younger self or that to other educators who are just starting this profession?

Don Middleton (19:47):

I think the, for me intuitively I’ve always known that relationship is a key to a student’s success. And building those relationships I’ve always had them happen organically because again, being involved in PhysEd and having multiple coaching seasons, you develop those relationships outside of a classroom setting. I would tell myself or any beginning teacher, be intentional. You know, don’t wait for them to happen organically. Seek out those kids and, and ask them, Hey, what are the things that you like to do? Oh, do you have any siblings? Hey, do you have a dog? I see, you know, whatever. make that connection because I, I finished a master’s of count, or not a masters of counseling, a master’s of education with a focus on trauma-informed learning. And really, it solidified that a relationship between adult and students is an absolute critical part of that student success, especially if they’re coming from a traumatic background and having one positive relationship for that student coming from a traumatic background can change their entire trajectory.

Don Middleton (20:50):

And I got to see that several times throughout my career, but it became more prominent when I would help students connect with trades and seeing kids that were not traditionally successful in a school setting all of a sudden thrive outside of a school setting. And the way that then that would carry over and they would, you know, went from having poor attendance to having over 90% attendance. They went from not being on track to graduating, to graduating in with their classmates in, in a two and a half, three year program. pursue those relationships, make them happen and, and be authentic and be yourself. kids have a great BS meter and I respect that, you know, those kids that call you on it. And if they do, and that’s what I love about Pearson is that if they think you’re, you’re giving them a pile of bs, they’ll tell you and if they do, you gotta look in the mirror and say, Hmm, are they being honest? Or, or, you know, Am I, am I doing the best that I can?

Sam Demma (21:52):

It sounds like genuine curiosity is the key to building relationships. Like is it all about kind of getting to know the student and being genuinely curious about them and their life?

Don Middleton (22:04):

Oh, without a doubt. When you, you have to show interest in who they are as a person. No kid wants to just be, Oh, okay, this is your ID number. And, you know, you sit in that back corner mm-hmm. <affirmative> getting to know that kid’s name and going down the hall and being able to say, Hey, you know, Antoine or Mohammed or whomever, right? When you know their name, then, then you’ve already started down the road to a relationship. And so that’s a critical part, is getting to know who they are, getting to know what their interests are, what is it that makes them tick. And then you try to, to work on those and build on those things to help them to be successful.

Sam Demma (22:43):

 such a good piece of advice. Thanks for sharing that. I think that’s how you also build relationships with anybody, whether it’s a student or a staff member, a colleague, whoever it might be. have you found any resources throughout your journey to be extremely helpful? That could be people, that could be books, that could be courses, that could be your peers, it could also be resources like other humans. I’m just curious if there’s anything that you’ve returned to a few times because you thought it really informed your beliefs around education or some of your ideas

Don Middleton (23:17):

I’ve had. Yeah, there’s several resources. I, I, I believe that learning is an ongoing process and, and the more you learn, the less you know, or the less the you, more you realize, the less you know. Yep. And, and so there’s various things that I’ve done throughout my career. As I said, I’ve, I just recently finished in the last few years, a masters of education. I did a, I never completed it, but I started a master’s of counseling because I thought if I did that I could have a better impact on my students. I, I always am searching out different types of professional reading I’m looking up here cuz I’ve got a list of books in front of me that that I try to work with. And it, it really is also having those mentors and somebody that has been down the road and can offer you that advice and, and going to your peers and saying, what’s worked for you?

Don Middleton (24:12):

 we don’t know it all and we’re better collaboratively and more effective as a group than we ever are individually. And, and schools should never be silos, You know, yes, you’ve got your science department, your math department, phyt, et cetera, but all of those people that are in there are expert teachers and they know how to work with kids. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re having success in phys ed, that success can be duplicated or replicated somewhere else. But if teachers don’t talk and they don’t collaborate and they don’t have the time to do that, then they’re not going to be successful or you’re going to be more challenging to reach the, the success that they want.

Sam Demma (24:50):

You mentioned that you did a master’s in trauma informed learning and started the one in counseling. I would assume that both of those would help you in some degree navigate difficult conversations with kids. and I’m, I’m sure that there’s moments where students, even with their parents sometimes might walk through the doors of your office, sit down, and you have to prepare for what could be a very difficult conversation about something that happened or about certain performance. How do you navigate and approach those really challenging conversations?

Don Middleton (25:23):

Number one is, is being authentic. I, I truly care about every single student that I work with and I wanna see them succeed. So if I approach my conversation from that perspective, then that gives me a sense of legitimacy and integrity in that conversation with a student and with the parent. And so that’s the number one thing. Number two is that I don’t beat around the bush. I’m very straightforward. This is what I want. This is what I would like to see for your child. This is what’s happening and this is what’s the barrier is how do we get from here to here and overcome those barriers. And sometimes there are things that are external, often they’re internal, usually they’re their issues within that student that is keeping them from being successful. I see my job as trying to help students be most successful and remove barriers for their success.

Don Middleton (26:18):

I also see my job as helping teachers jobs be easier. So if I can do those things, then I feel like I’m being effective as an administrator. And again, when it comes back to those conversations, it’s being truthful. And sometimes those conversations are hard and making the students understand that your choices are yours. You know, if I, and and I use this as a, as a common example, if I point out to you that you, that there’s a rake on the ground and you proceed to step on that rake and it hits you in the face, is it my fault? Is it the rake’s fault? No, you stepped on that rake. So the natural consequence is that it’s going to hit you in the face.

Sam Demma (26:56):

I love that analogy. <laugh>,

Don Middleton (26:58):

That’s,

Sam Demma (26:58):

I I might steal that one. Thanks for sharing. Absolutely. One of the reasons I believe most people get into education is they, like you mentioned, wanna have a positive impact on young people. They want to make a difference in the lives of kids. do you have any stories that come to mind when you think about a student who came across your desk and was really struggling and within a certain timeframe really switched around their situation, blossomed, if we use the gardening analogy and had a really big transformation. and the reason I ask is because I think other educators who might be listening will be reminded of their personal why when they hear stories of students making positive life changes.

Don Middleton (27:43):

You know, it’s, it’s funny because there are times when you’re in education and you don’t feel like you’re making a difference and you think, you know, is this it? Is it, is it time to pack it in? have I stopped being effective? And then you, you all of a sudden get an email or a note or you know, somebody reaches out on social media and they say, You know, I haven’t seen you in X number long, you know, number of years coach, but I want you to know that you made a difference in my life. And it, it’s funny, the universe, it seems to happen when you’re feeling at your lowest. having been in education for so long, I’m very fortunate to, to have a number of stories that where students have completely changed and, and have had very, very positive outcomes from maybe some pretty humble beginnings.

Don Middleton (28:34):

And, and if I have the time, I’ll share one with you. a young man came to me and he was in grade 10 and it was just before Christmas and he was 15 years old in, in Alberta. You can legally drop out of school at 16. And this young man hated school, absolutely hated school. And his mom was a young mom and she brought the, the student to see me. And he said, As soon as I turned 16, I’m done. You’re not gonna see me in the school again. And we talked about why and he just said, I cannot stand being in a desk for six hours a day. And so we, we talked about registered apprenticeship program and what that would mean. And I said, We can set up your timetable so that you have academic courses in the morning.

Don Middleton (29:18):

You’d have two academic courses in the morning. You can leave at lunchtime, you can go work all afternoon. the mom had a connection in a particular trade and for second semester the deal was that he was going to do that. And I said, I will support this and we will make this happen as long as you’re attending your classes in the morning. So fast forward kids doing great part way through grade 11, I’m going to visit him at the summer job. So we’re already about a year in and pardon me, it was only a few months in cuz it was grade 10. And he was working constructing a music conservatory on the university campus and he wanted to know who the trades were that put up the big iron girders and stuff. And I said, Well, that’s iron work. And he said, I’m doing this.

Don Middleton (30:04):

And he was kinda doing some, it’s called Interior Systems Mechanic, which is drywall type work and dealing with non combustible carpentry materials, so metal studs, et cetera. And he said, I would like to do iron working. And I said, I tell you what, you finish off this summer next year, I can get you into an iron working program because we had set one up with the with the Iron Workers Union here in Calgary. So the next year we put him into the Iron Working Program, he continued having his half day academic mornings working in the afternoon. He was thriving, he was doing great in his academics, he was attending classes very well. He went out, did the iron working program, got hired between grade 11 and 12 as an iron worker. The kid made $20,000 between grade 11 and 12 because he was p picking up a ton of overtime.

Don Middleton (30:51):

He, he made way more money than I did. And then part way into his grade 12 year, his mom called me and she said that her son was going to finish school at Christmas. And I said, What do you mean? She said, Well, he, he said that he’s, you know, not coming back in January. And she said, Is that okay? And, and so then after some further conversation, I realized that what she meant is that he was going to take one class on his own in the evening online, have his full academic course load first semester so that he can finish high school early and then go back to work full time as an iron worker come February. And so mom wanted to know, is this a good thing? And I said, You realize that two years ago, almost to the day your son was sitting in this chair saying he was dropping out of school and now he’s going to finish his high school diploma a full semester early. I said, That’s a huge win. And the young man is now in his early twenties, he’s a journey person, iron worker, he owns his own house. He’s actually come out to talk to students in school about his experience and why getting into a trade was the best thing that he could have done for himself.

Sam Demma (32:03):

What an amazing story. And I think it’s so important that when we have students in situations like that, that cross our, our desk, we begin with questions, Why is it, why is it that you wanna drop outta school? Because if you didn’t probe and ask questions, you wouldn’t have discovered that he didn’t enjoy sitting in class all day. And it would’ve been a lot more difficult to find a proper solution. Maybe the end result would’ve been totally different, right?

Don Middleton (32:32):

Oh, absolutely. And, and I think that that’s, again, getting to know the kids that are in front of you. if your goals and aspirations are going to university, then I think that’s very different than if your goals and aspirations are to go and work in the family’s restaurant or to take up a trade. and that’s not to say that university is a bad thing. I mean, clearly, you know, it’s done well for me. but the reality is, is that less than 50% of all students ever attend a university and even those that do the attrition rate is extremely high. So we need to do a better job as an education system and as teachers to make sure that we are meeting the needs of the students that are in front of us, find out what it is that makes them tick, find out what they want to do, and not every kid is going to figure that out in high school. But then let’s open up doors and expose ’em to as many different opportunities as we can so that they are developing those skills and they’re not afraid to step outside the, the norm and take risks and do different things.

Sam Demma (33:30):

Don, this has been a super refreshing conversation. The half hour flew by. If an educator is listening, wants to reach out to you, ask a question, have a conversation, what would be the most efficient way for them to get in touch with you?

Don Middleton (33:44):

My email address is dtmiddleton@cbe.ab.ca. I can’t promise I’ll get back to you right away, but I will respond at some point.

Sam Demma (33:54):

Awesome. Don, thank you so much for your time, your expertise, your ideas. I appreciate it. Keep up the great work and we’ll talk soon.

Don Middleton (34:02):

Thank you, Sam. I appreciate it. Take care.

Sam Demma (34:05):

I believe that educators deserve way more recognition, which is why I’ve created the High Performing Educator Awards. In 2022, 20 educator recipients will be shortlisted, each of whom will be featured in local press. invited to record an episode on the podcast, and spotlighted on our platform. In addition, the one handpicked winner will be presented with an engraved plaque by myself. I will fly to the winner’s city to present this to them and ask that they participate in a quick photo shoot and interview on location. The coolest part, nominations are open right now, and they close October 1st, 2022. So please take a moment to apply or nominate someone you know or work with that deserves this recognition. You can do so by going to www.highperformingeducator.com/award. We can never recognize educators enough.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Don Middleton

The High Performing Educator Podcast was brought to life during the outbreak of COVID-19 to provide you with inspirational stories and practical advice from your colleagues in education.  By tuning in, you will hear the stories and ideas of the world’s brightest and most ambitious educators.  You can expect interviews with Principals, Teachers, Guidance Counsellors, National Student Association, Directors and anybody that works with youth. You can find and listen to all the episodes for free here.

John (João) Linhares – Vice Principal at St.André Bessette Catholic School in Ajax, Ontario

John (João) Linhares - Vice Principal at St.André Bessette Catholic School in Ajax, Ontario
About John Linhares

John Linhares (@MrJLinhares), is the Vice Principal at St André Bessette Catholic School in Ajax, Ontario. John started his journey in Education in the year 2000 after graduating from York University’s Concurrent Education Program and has been privileged to work with the Toronto Catholic District School Board as well as in the Durham Catholic District School Board over the last 22 years. His journey as a Vice Principal came during the pandemic, as he felt the need to support the DCDSB’s virtual school which was home to over 3600 students.

John truly believes in an inclusive model for education, and strives to get to know each one of his students’ and their God-given special gifts and talents. He is passionate about effective use of technology and 21st Century learning in the classroom to help engage students today and prepare them for their future. He also is passionate about the arts as a vehicle to help students reach their full potential in the learning process and to express themselves to help define their individuality through creativity. He is a life-long learner who is always willing to listen and explore obstacles from an out-of-the-box perspective.

Connect with John: Email | Instagram | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

Listen to the episode now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or on your favourite podcast platform.

Resources Mentioned

St André Bessette Catholic School

York University – Concurrent Education Program

Toronto Catholic District School Board – TCDSB

Durham Catholic District School Board – DCDSB

DCDSB virtual school

The Transcript

**Please note that all of our transcriptions come from rev.com and are 80% accurate. We’re grateful for the robots that make this possible and realize that it’s not a perfect process.

Sam Demma (00:57):

Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator Podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is someone that I see walking around my block almost every single week. His name is John Linhares. John is the vice principal at John (João) Linhares – Vice Principal at St.André Bessette Catholic School in Ajax, Ontario. John started his journey in education the year 2000 after graduating from York University’s Concurrent Education program and has been privileged to work with the Toronto Catholic District School Board, as well as the Durham Catholic District School Board over the last 22 years. His journey as a Vice Principal came during the pandemic, as he felt the need to support the Durham Catholic District School Board’s Virtual school, which was home to over 3,600 students. John truly believes in an inclusive model for education and strives to get to know each one of his students and their God-given special gifts and talents.

Sam Demma (01:50):

He is passionate about effective use of technology and 21st century learning in the classroom to help engage students today, and prepare them for their future. He also is passionate about the arts as a vehicle to help students reach their full potential in the learning process and to express themselves to help define their individuality through creativity. He is a lifelong learner who is always willing to listen and explore obstacles from an out of the box perspective. I hope you enjoy this conversation with John, and I will see you on the other side. Today, we have a very special guest. I actually see him a couple times a week while walking around the block. <laugh>. His name is John Linhares. John, please feel free to introduce yourself.

John Linhares (02:33):

Hey Sam. Thanks so much. Yeah, I feel like we should be walking right now, actually. Cause Yeah, we’re always like crossing past, like crossing ships here. I’m John Linhares and I’m super excited to, to be here with you. I’ve seen you in person in your inspirational conversations and your inspirational presentations with our schools. You know, I’ve been following you as well the last couple of years, and I just was very happy to take on this, this little invite to come in on your show for a bit.

Sam Demma (03:00):

So you’re in education, what do you do? How did you get into it?

John Linhares (03:05):

So, yeah, so it’s it’s been a pretty long, like I’m not kind of, I was that kid who grew up basically knowing that I wanted be a teacher okay. And I would wind up my toys and all that. I pretend, and I was an only child, so the creativity had to come out. And yeah, so I know I, so from a young age I wanted to do that and started teaching in 2000. So it’s been essentially 22 years. And I love it. Obviously I do love it. The pandemic kicked in and another passion, the minus technology. So when the pandemic kicked in, we were all went virtual Yeah. Class. When virtual, I just felt this urge to be like, Listen, I need to help out more. At the time I was kind of in a small bubble of classes and could only help out a few people, I guess.

John Linhares (03:49):

And were reaching out to a few people to help them out. So that kind of inspired me to wanna help more people. And so I reached out to some people at the boards, listened, You guys need help with, with, you know, getting people on board with their classes and helping out. Like, what are we gonna do in the situation? you know, let me know. So that’s how I, I got on board with that. And as luck would take it, you know, the next step into my career was becoming a vice principal. And just led me to this path to being a vice principal. And the first school that I was a vice principal at was the German Catholic virtual elementary school. First of its kind created or we were announced of it, ironically, the morning of my interview come vice principal <laugh>.

John Linhares (04:33):

So I’m like listening to this like broadcast by the director and a few principals and superintendents and you know, I’m like waiting. Cause they, they, you know, I had my interview, let’s say at 10 30 and they said, Listen, your might be late. They’ve got this, you know, this big ment they’re making out to the whole board. So I’m like, Gary, no worries, I’ll just listen in. And then once that’s done, then I’ll pop on the zoom. It’s all good. And I remember hearing about this virtual school, I’m like, That’s it. That’s where I, to me, and went into my interview and saying, You know what, at the end of it, I just made a pitch for it. And yeah, I have to say three years later I’m still with the virtual program here with German Catholic. And it’s been quite the journey for sure.

Sam Demma (05:13):

What are some of the things about working with the virtual school that you absolutely love? I think over the past couple of years people have realized how important technology is, but before that may have resented it a little bit and always, or, you know, preferred the in person learning, which has both have pros and cons, but what are some of the things that you love about the virtual school?

John Linhares (05:35):

A hundred percent. Like I think that you’ve nailed it there. That there are, again, I think for me, I’ve always loved technology and I’ve always embraced it and I’ve always helped a lot my colleagues who don’t feel comfortable with it. Right? Like there’s a bit of a fear out there when it comes to it. And so just helping out my colleagues in that sense and new my students to move through those things is really key. Yeah. but with the ver the thing that, that I love the most is that when I get passionate about is when I hear kind of people kind of dismiss it and that it is not a viable option. And I have to disagree with that wholeheartedly, especially after seeing some of our kids. Listen, it’s not for everybody, a hundred percent. It is not for everyone. you know, we know that being in person with people and all that is definitely a great place to be.

John Linhares (06:19):

However, for some of our students, they do struggle in person. Like they have a hard time going to class every day. They have to put on a big front to be there for whatever reason, be on anxiety, be it social anxiety, be it just having a hard time reading people sometimes. Yeah. So just the overall, like too much noise going on or just too much business going on, you know what I mean? So for them, they’re succeeding in virtual and that in that reason alone I feel very passionate about it, that it does work for a lot of a few of our kids. not for everyone. Definitely for those kids that they do well and they succeed in, Yeah, I think we have to provide the best that we can for them. A hundred percent.

Sam Demma (07:02):

Where did your passion or love for technology come from? Did you grow up playing Atari in nta? I did. I

John Linhares (07:10):

<laugh> I saw it all summer actually. That little like little joy signal that Yeah, a hundred percent. No, I, I’m actually not a massive gamer, to be honest with you. Yeah. but I think just the creative side, I am very creative. I, I’m a bit of an artist and I think just dabbling into that creative side of things. sorry, my email will probably continue dinging as we do this. Okay. All good. It’s it’s it’s just something that I always kind of tapped into enjoyed. I just like the creative process of the technology side of it. And then I remember years ago, God, it’s really 2004 I got involved in this program in schools and it was about differentiating. So that is that, you know, we don’t, when we teach, we look at the kid and like what their talents are and what they’re about.

John Linhares (07:51):

And it’s, think of the same assignment to everybody. For an example, you may have a choice of assignments so that, you know, if you are artistic, you can tap into this assignment. If you’re more of a writing type person, you can tap into that. If you’re more of an oral person, you can go and tap into that and create a presentation on this, Right? There’s no need to have everybody doing the exact same thing. So from that project that I did there was some ministry funding for smart boards, which I’m sure you probably noticed Smart board is, but for South <inaudible>. And that is basically something that, gosh, that was like what almost 20 years ago wasn’t very heard of, but something that started coming out because it was helping, again, a few students in the classroom to engage in their classroom, Right? Get to a little more shy kid who may have you know, some issues with their writing.

John Linhares (08:36):

They were actually able to communicate their learning through the smart board in the classroom. So it became a little bit of a project. And I remember the school I was at, nobody had a smart board at the time. We were one of the first primary, or the first elementary classes to try and out. And by the time I left that school, three years later, every single classroom had a smart board. Yeah. So all these kids were engaging and just like, excited about it and just really, again, igniting, reignited about their learning, which was awesome. And then I went from another school and the same process happened. I got there no smart boards. I’m like, that’s not happening. I, I’m by my own or you guys are, find the funding for it. And sure enough, they’re like, Oh, no, we’ll support you. Right. And so, yeah, so I got a smart board and then again, five years later, every classroom had one in that school. So it’s, it, it’s your motto, Basical, that you bring on your mantra, right? Like it’s small things. Yeah. Small. Its in actions, it’s small, consistent even like little projects, little things that carry on. Right. So

Sam Demma (09:34):

Yeah, big time. You peak my interest when you mentioned you’re a little bit of an artist, you can take out the little bit of a part and tell me a little bit about the artist side of John <laugh>.

John Linhares (09:43):

Oh gosh. Yeah. So the artist side of John is like, I know I totally self-taught. I just always loved drawing, you know, doodling, that kind of stuff. Yeah. And, and then just explored it more as I grew, grew older and had my own time to explore different genres and that kind of stuff. I love going to art galleries and, and going to like installations. Like we’ve launched all that Toronto and all that kind of stuff. I see. and then that, that actually led me to working at All Saints Catholic school, which about five years ago now, six years ago opened up our first arts and media program which was very exciting. Cuz again, there are other boards that have art specific schools and our board did not. It was a lot, It was an air that was lacking and I was super excited to get on board with that. And was the grades the grade eight teacher there, one of the grade eight teachers there, but also teaching the visual arts to our grades seven and eight students. So that year, the few years that I was there, definitely a highlight in my career because it was you know, marrying my two passions of, well, three passions of teaching technology and also art. So was great.

Sam Demma (10:49):

It’s, it’s such a unique perspective and story because I think sometimes certain people veer students away from artistic pursuits because they might not be quote, realistic. and I’m curious to know your perspective, like when you see that in a student that they have a passion for an artistic field and you know, one day I wanna work full, you know, full time in, in an artistic industry. How do you kind of guide them or what, what do you share with them when they tell you that?

John Linhares (11:20):

Yeah, for sure. That’s like, I think compared to like several things, I think for myself, like I always wanted to be a teacher. Yeah. But I also thought, okay, I don’t wanna have just one path, right? You don’t wanna down any doors like that. So I always say like, try to keep as, as many doors open as possible and I’m, and I’m listening with kids, right? I’m not gonna be like, Yeah, no, you can be the best artist, you can be the next van goal. Like, listen man famous after they were dead, that’s not gonna help goal <laugh>. So that’s just the truth, right? So like, yeah, I do tell them absolutely keep going at it. And, and for some of these kids might get here some great programs that you should look into, be it the arts that we have, be it, you know, going to OK ad looking at term whatever, right?

John Linhares (11:58):

There’s ways that you can pursue that. But I always say there’s almost like a plan A and plan B, right? The arts are something that you can do that fuel your soul and you know, you can do it on the side or you can do it in conjunction with another job or another passion of yours, right? So just dealing with both of those, I think it’s the same about kind of conversation. We’re talking about an athlete, right? Like you have a kid, fantastic athlete in school and absolutely don wanna crush everybody’s dream, right? Like, yes, you can do this, absolutely, but at the end of the day, don’t close any doors. So what else you have? And you can try and aim for both or keep both going concurrently. Absolutely. Yeah.

Sam Demma (12:33):

Yeah. No, that’s great advice. what keeps you motivated personally to get up out bed every single day and keep doing the work you’re doing?

John Linhares (12:42):

Yeah, I think I honestly today’s rule teachers day, so I’m gonna say again big shout out to all the teachers out there. They I’m back in there. Yeah. You know, it’s, and I know that, you know, there’s a lot of a lot of stuff going on in education as always, but the impact and when any of us look back to our lives and how we raised and and our lives, there’s always the one or two teachers that really impact us. And they’re the ones that guide us along our path and, and help us along. And cuz we we’re parents, like for the most part of the day when we’re with these people more than we are with our families on home, right? So and sometimes you click really well with, with people with a teacher and sometimes it does work, right?

John Linhares (13:26):

But at the end of the day, there’s always that one or two that you’re going to make that connection with. And so that to me is honestly what keeps me going. It’s those connections with the students. and the beauty of it now, like now that I’ve been in it, is now my 22nd, 23rd year in education, you know, this, looking back, some of these kids that I had when I first started teaching we’re still in contact with each other. They’ve now got families, they’re now grown up. They pursued their dreams and, and their goals and I know they’ll come over for dinner, we’ll meet up somewhere for, for coffee. And it’s, it’s just neat to see these adults now, right? Like they’re not kids forever. They grow up and they, they become these amazing human beings who are doing good in our planet. That’s the most rewarding part. Like, that’s the thing. Like who am I gonna go out today and perhaps put a smile on their face that I’m gonna make their day go a little better today? Mm. That’s what motivat Yeah, for sure.

Sam Demma (14:18):

You mentioned because of World Teachers Day, how important the role of educators are and how most people have those one or two educators that make a really big difference on their development as a child, as a young person. When you think back to when you were in school, can you identify any of those teachers that had a big impact on you? and if so, like what did they do for you that you think made such a big impact?

John Linhares (14:46):

I was asked to reflect on this this morning cause I was watching a TV show in the morning, my morning TV show. I got night to get about five o’clock. Five o’clock is my time to get up, have my quiet time with a family at home. You know, it’s just nice to have that time to not be talking to anyone and not be stopping problem. Just sit there with my coffee and leave me alone with nothing <laugh>. Right. And so the TV show was watch this morning though, my morning TV show. They, they were talking about this, reflecting on that as well. And I couldn’t pitch for it. One or two people, to be honest with you. I had a series of tea of teachers that I, I think I can go back and I can name all of them and I can name probably one way that they did impact me, Right?

John Linhares (15:19):

Or they helped me along or somehow saw in me something that they felt they needed to be bring to bring out. So that I can’t say, but I can. So the one conversation that stood out to it was actually a teacher, a young teacher my first or second year. And I was chatting with an older teacher who was near retirement and she nailed it. And she said to me, and she’s like, Listen, the main thing about our profession or anything in life is that you just have to remember this. And I said, Okay, I’m listening all yours. She said, It doesn’t matter what you do for me, it’s how you make me feel. Mm.

John Linhares (15:55):

How you make me feel. I go with that statement and, and my, that statement is in the back of my mind, I have to say every hour of my day. Mm. And it was like a three second conversation that we had outside one day and it was after school. And that just stuck with me. And I’m like, you’re so ranked, it doesn’t matter. Like I can do whatever actions that I want to right. Or whatever. But at the end of the day, it’s that feeling like how when I meet someone, when I’m leaving someone, how am I letting them feel about themselves at that moment, right? Like, how leaving them, are they feeling better about themselves? Are they feeling like that they have a smile on their face? Do they feel better than they were five minutes ago? That’s what I’m going towards to be honest with you. And I mean, sometimes I fail and sometimes I, I do okay. But that statement just stuck in me, Sam. Like that’s just something that I totally hold near and near to my heart and, and as a human being, I feel it’s very important to totally describe to you.

Sam Demma (16:46):

Yeah, the educator who changed my life made me feel like there was hope when I felt like there was none, not, it wasn’t even about his curriculum <laugh>, although his, his teachings were great, but it was how I left his semester feeling about myself and what was possible for me that I really remember and sticks with me to this day. So I think that is so true and you’re absolutely right. Not only in education, but regarding whatever you choose to do. All of our interactions hopefully leave other people feeling better about themselves and feeling hopeful and all that, all that good fuzzy feelings in the chest, <laugh>

John Linhares (17:25):

People, right? Just that, that validating of people, like just with the pandemic there seemed like those walks, right? Like people were walking around street before that it’s rare that somebody would just sit and talk Right. Or even make contact with each other. Now when people walk by each other, they actually make icon and say hey, or a hi or how’s it going? Right? Like it’s something that I feel I think is interesting and it’s changed with the pandemic. I think people have gotten more that human side actually has come out a lot more, whereas before the people were getting a little too cold and just not validating each other. Right. So, and that teacher that you’re taught, speaking of, I’m pretty sure the same one that you referred to in your story. Yeah. married there. I, I unfortunately did not have the privilege of having that teacher struggle. He was around when I was there. but I remember my friends who did have him. Nice. Same thing. So yeah, definitely again, those teachers had that impact, right? Like how you making me feel? Yeah,

Sam Demma (18:17):

Yeah, yeah. So your first job in education, take me back, like give us a little bit of the snapshot of where you started to where you are now.

John Linhares (18:27):

Oh wow. So I started teaching, gosh, it was funny. My buddy and I had decided at that time back in 2019 99, 2000, there was a ton of teaching jobs like time. Okay. Like there wasn’t like the winter period here, there was not a lot of teaching jobs for the longest time. and now we’re back into, there are a few, there’s a lot of jobs out there, but at the time there was lots of jobs. So my buddy and I were like, listen, we’re listening to like, we wanna enjoy life. We wanna take the first couple years, let’s just supply teach cuz supply teaching, we’re gonna get some income but we’re gonna be able to travel. Yeah. So we travel more, right? Because then teach is a great gig going wrong, but if you’re a traveler, you’re kind of stuck cuz you can only go March break when they jack up the prices or summer when they jack up the prices not, but it’s a reality, right?

John Linhares (19:13):

Yeah. So my buddy traveling like know in February or whatever, Oh that’s a great deal. Like great have fun, right? <laugh> so we’re supply change so that we can rack and limit of money. Yeah. Pay the s right. And then we have no warnings like pay the Cardinals and then Jet just go right. And both of us got calls from principles that we respected a lot and just before the long weekend Ashley Ladale on weekend and they were like, yeah, offering us both jobs and unbeknowns to each other. We both accepting and then we were kind like, shoot, how are you supposed to tell me? You know, tell my buddy now I’m totally bail on him. And then like, yeah, I was like, like that man, I had to take this job. I was like, got me too. Like what <laugh> job?

John Linhares(19:55):

And I was great, well here we go. So took on these jobs. My first job was JK in the morning and grade five in the afternoon. Okay. Why accepted it? I still at this day was like, I don’t know who, who would take that. Like it’s just crazy. but it gave me a great perspective in the sense of like just, just kids in general. Like yeah. You know, these three and four year olds coming into the room screaming and crying first in the morning cuz they were new to school. And then I go upstairs and there was these grade fives to, I was told the year before had sent off several teachers <laugh> on leaves cuz they they were not the easiest class to deal with. So I had to go up there and be like, you know, a little more a little different than it was downstairs, the jks.

John Linhares (20:35):

Anyway, so that was a great four years that I did that actually. But I still look back to look back like, man, we should have done the supply teaching. We just should have traveled like crazy cuz we couldn’t have done it, but we didn’t. but I have to say I still have kids from that kindergarten class and that great flag class that I still talk to today. And again, they’re grown up and, and doing some great things in this world. So, so that was pretty cool. And yes, I was in Toronto Catholic and then taught that for a few years and then I moved on to getting closer to home and then I moved to Ger Ger Catholic in 2005. So that was a good job. Yeah.

Sam Demma (21:10):

When you think about student impact and stories of students who’ve been transformed or have built new skills as a result of education, maybe there’s a student you can think of who was really struggling and then had a breakthrough and made a very positive turn. Are there any stories that come to mind that you’d be willing to share? And I, I ask it because I think that’s one of the cornerstone reasons why people get into education for the impact you can have on young people. And sometimes when an educator’s feeling burnt out, they forget about those stories. They forget about that side of the job. so I’m hoping you can maybe share one if, if if you have one that comes to mind.

John Linhares (21:54):

Yeah, I got you’re saying this like, I’ve got a few that are running through my mind. Cause like I I’m for the underdog. Like I, I have to say that, you know, as a teacher looking out for that kid, there’s you know, we only sound like in the summer where about to start, it was last week of August. People are kind of in buzzing around getting their rooms ready for September and there’s an energy in the school. Everyone’s excited for the new year and oftentimes the teacher, you know, and and with the greatest of place days will come, Hey, I hear you got so and so, you know, just, you know, last year they were struggling with this and I stopped them and I’m like, listen, I appreciate it. we’re gonna just, this a new chapter, I’m gonna see how things vote and then if I need to like consult with you about maybe some strategies that worked for you last year, I know who to come talk to.

John Linhares (22:38):

But ultimately I don’t, I’m in my head like I don’t want to hear what happened last year. Yeah. Because it’s a new chapter, man, it’s a new year. We don’t know who this kid is right now. so I had several of those like I can think of off the top of my head you know, kids who were probably struggling with let’s say like maybe it’s ADHD and just could not fit into the mold of school, Right. Could not sit still at school because you know, that teacher wants them to be sitting in their desk. And I’m like, that you wanna stand, stand, go ahead <laugh> you. Yeah, I see your moving around a lot and you’re at the front of the class, let’s move here to the back. Yeah. You’re more comfortable back there if you need to get up, buddy, go, go nuts.

John Linhares (23:15):

Right? Yeah. Like your college not bothering other people around you. Just do what you gotta do. Right. And that I think again is that valuing where people are coming from and making them feel validated, right? So that, you know, I think some, for some people just they have a harder time just fitting into the mold of what school system is, right? So like why do we break those molds? And that’s what I try and do. so yeah, a couple of the kids who, those kids who yeah, every year was the same kind of thing where, oh, you know, they’re struggling, they’re having a hard time, they’re having a hard time, they’re having a hard time. And then you see them grow up and now yeah, they’re, they’ve got a great family. They actually owned three properties, they’re in real estate they’ve done quite well for themselves.

John Linhares (23:55):

And all these concerns, all of these, you know, little things that were happening back in grade three, you know, on a kid, you, they can’t sit still, they can’t sit still on that desk. I dunno what they can’t, they’re not gonna learn. We’re fine. You’re doing awesome actually. But again, it’s, it’s because this whole journey of education, I think everyone’s supporting and I mean, again, like in every stage of your life there are certain things that we all look out for and and, and are trying to to help out with. Right. But the beauty of this job too is that you see that it is, it’s making Jake k to like end of college, university, you’re in your twenties, that’s a big journey, right? And if we’re all doing our part to help out this kid, there you go. Right? I, and one kid I’ll never forget was I came in, it was actually when I came to Durham Durham Catholic, I started midyear.

John Linhares (24:42):

 I actually had a rough year the year before. and mother had passed away and instead of being there for my kids, I thought, you know what? I need to go half time so I can, you know, take care of myself in the mornings, basically. Like do what I gotta do, get in the right head space, go in for a couple hours the afternoon for those students, but be the best person. At least I can be. During that time, Yeah, that year I decided to switch boards and I decided, okay, I’m a supply teach for supply teaching. You have less, you know, there are, there’re less concerns that you have, right? You don’t have to work about planning and marketing and all other stuff. So it’s a pretty sweet gig. So I’m go, I’ll do it for a few months just to kinda get in the right head space again.

John Linhares (25:17):

So that’s split in. So it was February this job came along in, in at St. John, the evangelist at Wink. And so I took on this job and I remember taking that job on and the teacher was taking over for Matt. They loved her. She, they, she was their favorite teacher, you know, like she was the best. Like they just loved her and then she got this other job, so she was leaving and then here was this, who’s this coming into our room now, right? Like I had big shoes to fill it. So I tried my best to just continue on. She did things, but I’m me. Like I’m not somebody else. Right? Right. But yeah, they were not happy with me at all. And there’s one little character in particular was not happy with Mr. O at all. So anyway, so every day, let’s call it, he was just acting up a lot.

John Linhares (26:00):

Like he was getting into a lot of trouble going on. Yeah. And end of the year comes and then we get our class list for the following year and buddies in my class again. So I’m like, great. So end of the day, last day of school, he was about to take off and I’m like, Hold on, come back here, let’s have a chat before Eagle. And I remember pulling him aside, he was grade five <laugh>. And I’m like, Listen, just so you know, get back in my class next year. The waitings last few months have gone, you could have the worst year of your life next year or you can make the best of your life. And you started answering, No, no, I don’t want you to answer right now. I need you to go, go into, go the summer, have fun, you know, have a great summer, come back in September and think about what I told you. Cause Basical, this is in your court. So it went, it’s back in September, comes to find me, I’ll smiles will happen. It’s like, Mr, I’m ready for a new change. I’m like, Right. Cool, I’m glad you’re saying that, but let’s see what happens. Let’s

Sam Demma (27:05):

Do it. <laugh>.

John Linhares (27:06):

Exactly right. Yeah, fair enough. That’s exactly what it did. He, he became such a great leader that year at the school, helped out was just wanting to volunteer and help out with like, with other staff and other kids and, and with know afterschool activities and that kind stuff. And he just grew up through such a great leader for the, for the years that left here to the point where the lasting school grade eight graduation officer post all go. He kept coming back. I’m like, Buddy, you guys are done. Go <laugh>, you’re done school. Like, no, no, I’m hang out whenever. So he, yeah. So he is suck around helping me out. I was actually packing my class over the time whenever Nice. Again, continu on in contact ever since. And he was actually perusing the, the arts department here. Ah. So he still looking into it now, so

Sam Demma (27:50):

That’s awesome, man. You know what, I think it’s so important that we have big expectations for who our students can become. And it sounds like you had a vision for what this young man could be that maybe he didn’t have himself. And when you present that in a very kind way in front of a student someone that you care about you know, it forces them to actually think maybe I can be that student leader. Maybe I can change my behavior. Maybe there is a something that they see in me that I don’t see myself. So I think that’s a really cool little story. So thanks for thanks for sharing that one. if, if you could travel back in time and speak to John when he was in his first or second year teaching but with the experience you had now, what would you like tell your younger self when you were just getting into this profession? Maybe there’s a, a very fresh new educator listening to this right now and they’re looking for some words of wisdom as they journey down this education path.

John Linhares (28:51):

I think the main thing was to basically again, get to know your students. Like we get caught up in like these checklists of what have to get done, like wanting to get this, get that does this deadline. There’s that deadline I got report cards are coming soon. there’s just checklists coming out of the yin yang to be honest with you. The things that we have to do. Yeah. But we don’t, we cannot lose sight of why we’re there and that’s the most important thing. And so making those connections with those kids on a daily basis, I didn’t care what was going on. Trying to literally build in time, you know, like we talk about our families now, like, you know, talking about like traveling life, right? But it’s like, make time to meet your family, make make time to meet with your friends, make time to meet up with whatever, like work people, it was the same thing like in, in the classroom, you can easily get caught up in your checklist, make time to get to know those kids and talk to them, not about school stuff, right?

John Linhares (29:41):

Like getting to know them on that social level that human side. And that’s really key, right? And just build your success up for the whole year. Like no matter what, you know, issues are in the classroom or or behavior issues, they’re in the classroom. You put the time into really getting to know and acknowledge those kids and let them see that side of you as well. Like that you are human. You’re not this like, you know, robotic teacher creature that’s Yeah. human being, right, like with interest and whatever. And that, that really wins them over. Like, it makes a big deal. Like when you talk to a kid about just random stuff, other weekend wins, whatever for a minute or two each day. It makes a massive difference.

Sam Demma (30:23):

Small, consistent actions.

John Linhares (30:25):

<laugh> that again, back to that. Yep. If,

Sam Demma (30:28):

If someone wants to reach out to you and ask a question, bounce some ideas around, share some of their own art <laugh>, what would be the best way for another educator to get in touch with you?

John Linhares (30:39):

Yeah, so based on, on Twitter I’m @mrjlinhares, I think you’ve got that on the, on my bio. so that’s one way. And on LinkedIn as well. I’m kind of new to LinkedIn, so I’m not not on there as much as I am on Twitter. Twitter, I find a little bit easier to keep track of stuff and, and joke. But yeah, I am on those two platforms for sure and definitely would be more than happy to have conversations with you. I love conversations. I just love sitting down and chatting like we are now and, and sharing stories and all that.

Sam Demma (31:10):

Yeah man. Well I enjoyed this, a lot big time. So thank you so much for making the time to come on the podcast, share a little bit about your experiences and your journey, and I hope you have an amazing rest of your school year, and I’ll see you walking around the block sometime soon.

John Linhares (31:26):

<laugh> Sam, we’re looking forward to your, your book launch as well, so that’s coming up, so that’s amazing. Again, kids like yourself who we know are doing some great things out there, that’s what makes our jobs worthwhile. So thank you for all that you’ve done.

Sam Demma (31:39):

Thanks John, Appreciate it. Let’s talk soon.

John Linhares (31:41):

All right, take care.

Sam Demma (31:43):

Hey, it’s Sam again. I hope you enjoyed that amazing conversation on the High Performing Educator podcast. If you or someone, you know, deserves some extra recognition and appreciation for the work they do in education, please consider applying or nominating them for the high performing educator awards. Go to www.highperformingeducator.com/award. You can also find the link in the show notes. I’m super excited to spotlight and feature 20 people in 2022. And I’m hoping you, or someone you know, can be one of those educators. I’ll talk to you on the next episode, all the best.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with John Linhares

The High Performing Educator Podcast was brought to life during the outbreak of COVID-19 to provide you with inspirational stories and practical advice from your colleagues in education.  By tuning in, you will hear the stories and ideas of the world’s brightest and most ambitious educators.  You can expect interviews with Principals, Teachers, Guidance Counsellors, National Student Association, Directors and anybody that works with youth. You can find and listen to all the episodes for free here.

Dan Wolfe – Assistant Principal at Sunray Elementary School in Pasco County, Florida

Dan Wolfe – Assistant Principal at at Sunray Elementary School in Pasco County, Florida
About Dan Wolfe

Dan Wolfe has served in Pasco County, Florida for more than 20 years. During this time, he has held roles as a teacher, instructional coach and administrator. He is currently an Assistant Principal at Sunray Elementary. He was selected as Pasco County’s District Teacher of the Year in 2011-2012 school year. He is a part of the district’s Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Committee that recently established Pre-K through Grade 12 SEL standards.

For the past two years Dan has written a blog and recorded a podcast called Becoming The Change (formerly Our Moral Compass) which focuses on a different quote each day and how we can best apply it towards becoming the change through our own moral compass and the five areas in SEL. 

Connect with Dan: Email | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

Listen to the episode now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or on your favourite podcast platform.

Resources Mentioned

Sunray Elementary Elementary School

Pasco County Schools

Pasco County Schools Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Committee

Becoming The Change Podcast

The Transcript

**Please note that all of our transcriptions come from rev.com and are 80% accurate. We’re grateful for the robots that make this possible and realize that it’s not a perfect process.

Sam Demma (00:00):

Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast.

Sam Demma (00:59):

This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest on the podcast is Dan Wolfe. Dan has served in Pasco County, Florida for more than 20 years. During this time, he has held roles as a teacher, instructional coach, and administrator. He is currently an assistant principal at Sunray elementary. He was selected as Pasco County’s district teacher of the year in the 2011/2012 school year. He is a part of the district’s Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Committee that recently established Pre-K through Grade 12 SEL standards. For the past two years, Dan has written a blog and recorded a podcast called becoming the change, which focuses on a different quote each day, and how we can best apply it towards becoming the change through our own moral compass in the five areas in social/emotional learning. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Dan Wolfe and I will see you on the other side. Dan, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here today. Please start by introducing yourself.

Dan Wolfe (02:00):

All right. Thank you so much for having me on Sam. I really appreciate it. My name is Dan Wolfe and I’m assistant principal at Sunray elementary in Pasco County, Florida. I just completed my 25th year in education where I have held multiple roles as a classroom teacher, instructional math coach, district math specialist, where I supported 18 title one schools kindergarten through 12th grade, and then also as an administrator. And my next step after assistant principal is hopefully to be a principal within the next year or so.

Sam Demma (02:32):

That’s awesome, man. When did you realize growing up that you wanted to work in education?

Dan Wolfe (02:38):

Well it started actually in high school, we actually, in my, in my high school, we had a child development course where three days a week we had pre-K students that would come visit and we got to teach lessons and things that we had planned out for learning how to do all that from, from our teachers and interact with the kids and work with them. And it just, it was just kind of like a bug that just kind of bit me and just that it was something I knew I wanted to do. And then in the summers I would go ahead and be a camp counselor, like a sports camp counselor and just enjoyed educating the kids, even in sports. And I said, this is, this is definitely my calling. So

Sam Demma (03:14):

That’s awesome. From, from the moments you realize it was your calling, what did the journey look like that brought you to where you are today?

Dan Wolfe (03:23):

Well, at the time it was kind of unclear. I, I, you know, I just took, you know, one step at a time. I mean, once I, I was blessed enough once I, I interned in a kindergarten classroom, which is, is kind of weird having a male and a kindergarten class, cuz a lot of the kids didn’t speak to me for the first couple weeks. They’re like, what’s this guy doing in here, but then they really warmed up towards the end of my, you know, middle and end of my internship and just really enjoyed it. And I was blessed to actually be hired at that school too. Mid-Year so I got a, a mini contract to finish out the year and then was able to be a part of the staff for the the next few years. And then that’s when I, I kind of got was interested in the leadership aspect.

Dan Wolfe (04:06):

I had been team leader, things like that. So that’s where you know, the, the administrative act aspect really came into focus. And one of the you know, after I had become a coach for a while and things like that, what I always wanted to promise myself was never to forget what it was like to be in the classroom. So when I became an administrator, cuz I feel like sometimes not, not all administrators, but there’s some that do forget and they don’t look at it through that lens anymore of what it’s like to be in the classroom. And I always had told my staff and I tell my staff to this day, if I ever forget or anything like that, please remind me because that’s, I, I wanna keep myself in check too, because it it’s very important for me to have that.

Dan Wolfe (04:49):

We ask the teachers to have that vividness in the classroom. I think as an administrator, you’ve gotta have that vividness with your staff and your students as well. So but yeah, so it just, you know, and it’s just as, you know, leaving no stone unturned I think is, is just very important in the field of education is just finding out cuz you, you only go through this life once mm-hmm <affirmative> and you don’t wanna have any regrets. And you just wanna it’s kind of like the saying go big or go home and that’s what you wanna do in, in this life and in this field of education, cuz there’s so many opportunities out there,

Sam Demma (05:24):

Most people on their 25th anniversary of anything probably cut a cake and have a party. And maybe you did that, but you’re you also wrote a book <laugh> so can we talk about it for a second? What inspired you to write the book and, and what is it all about?

Dan Wolfe (05:42):

Sure. so yes. Yeah. So I just recently had a book called becoming the change five essential elements for being your best self. And it’s it came out June 1st and it’s it’s available on Amazon and how it all came to be was our, our county was really big into social, emotional learning otherwise known as SEL since we have a million different acronyms, but just in case for listeners that did know what SEL was, that’s what it stands for. And what we decided to do as a district was develop pre-K through 12 SDL standards. So we could have that continuum just like we do for the academics. We wanna do it for the social emotional part because it’s like that Maslow before bloom philosophy, you can’t get to that bloom part. And so you have the Maslow mm.

Dan Wolfe (06:31):

You have to Maslow before you bloom is what they say. So so what we did is we developed standards in the there’s five elements or areas there’s self-awareness self-management social awareness relationship skills and responsible decision making. And while I was interacting with the group and everything, I I’m a big fan of quotes. And I came across a quote by Michelle Obama. And she referred to things as you know always reflecting on your own moral compass. And I just had this visual of that, those five elements are like our, our own moral compass within each of us. You might not even even know you’ve had it, you’ve always had it within you. They’ve kind of guided you through life cert during certain things, you know, whether it’s making responsible decisions or enhancing those relationships or, you know, or, or just knowing where you stand in the world, that self-awareness piece.

Dan Wolfe (07:26):

So what I decided to do is I decided to write a daily blog. I originally titled it, our moral compass, which eventually got changed to becoming the change just cuz it just, it kind of fit better into, you know, we were talking about that trajectory in life and things. So that was kind of like one of these things, you start off one thing, but that’s, you’re always open the change. So so I, I, what I did with the blog is I went ahead and took different quotes by different famous people. And then I would analyze them how it, how what it meant to me. Mm. And then I would go ahead and write about it and then ask the, the the reader, what it meant to them. Because when you look at a quote that you might have read 10 years ago, and then you read it again today, I’m sure it probably means something different, entirely different than it did back then because of your experiences, you know, and whatever you do, not just education, but just in life in general, you you’ve grown that much more.

Dan Wolfe (08:19):

So it’s gonna mean something different to you. So that’s what I started with and then decided, you know, why don’t I turn that into a podcast? So all was all I did was just re you know, record previous readings that I had done. And then just put it out there for the, you know, social media for the listeners, just, just for fun, just, you know, people listen to it. Great. If they didn’t that’s okay, too, if it, if it had some kind of impact on somebody that’s all that mattered. Hmm. And then all of a sudden the pandemic hit as it did for everybody <laugh>. And, and so I wanted to do something, you know, once I was done with my school day, I said, you know, know, I feel like I need to do something more, a way to kind of give back.

Dan Wolfe (08:58):

So I decided then to go ahead and write this book called becoming the change. And what it essentially has is it has a self-assessment within there where you go ahead and a, it has questions that, or statements that you go ahead and answer based on the five elements of where you are currently. And you’ve gotta be, this is where you have to be vulnerable. You know, we ask our students in education to be vulnerable. We, as educators are just, as people have to be vulnerable too. And the only way it change is ever gonna happen is if we’re honest with ourselves. So you have to be honest when you answer these questions within there. And then it’s gonna show you your strengths and it’s gonna show you your limitations. I don’t like to use the word weaknesses because I feel like it has a negative connotation where limit limitations, you know, you still have that area for, for, for growth.

Dan Wolfe (09:49):

And sometimes the limits we have are the ones that we put on ourselves. So you know, so within that what you’re able to go ahead and do is you go ahead and read it. Each chapter is broken down for each of the different elements. And what I have at the end of each chapter is if there, if your listeners remember in the seventies, eighties and nineties, there was a choose your own adventure book where you’d get to certain pages in the book. And then you, if you flip to this page, you know, there could have been a fire breathing dragon, or you, you know, went to another page. It was like treasure. Well, I don’t have any of that in my book, but what, what you’re able to go ahead and do is it’s your life, it’s your own adventure.

Dan Wolfe (10:30):

You get to choose a pathway. So if you’re strong and let’s say self-management, and you want to deepen, you know yourself in that area, you would read that chapter and then you get to choose what next, you can choose another strength, or you could choose a limitation and then eventually be able to read the whole book, but again, in the order that you want and I’ve throughout the book, I’ve got a lot of I have what are called compass checks along the way. And they’re basically things I, I pulled some of my blogs that I’d written from a couple years ago and put those throughout for each of the different areas. You know, so, so it’s got different facets, and then I have an image of that compass, just like you have a compass when you if you get lost in the woods, you, you look at that compass, it’s got the north south, east and west.

Dan Wolfe (11:17):

Well, that’s how the moral compass is set up with the five elements in the center at, at the epicenter is self-awareness. And then at each of the other four Cardinal directions are the other four elements. Mm. So it all comes back to self-awareness and some, and some days you lean on other elements more than than others. And but it, the one thing that’s good about the self-assessment is you can take it multiple times after you’ve, you know, focused on some different strategies that are within the book and everything, and then see if you’ve grown in those areas and, you know so it’s, it, it’s something you can use time and time again.

Sam Demma (11:54):

That’s awesome, man. How long did it take you to pull this resource together? Was it something you worked on throughout the entire pandemic? I’m just curious to hear a little bit about the process.

Dan Wolfe (12:03):

Yeah. Yeah. So it it went ahead and since, like I said, I had a lot of time on my hands when I wasn’t, you know, at school, I, I was just, I, I just had something, you know, just it’s, it’s just like anything else when you get really passionate about something and you just can’t stop, you know, there were times that kind of felt like I was back in college, again, pulling all nighters or whatever, trying to, because I just had to get these thoughts out. Yeah. And then probably, you know it I’d say it took a good, you know, five or six months to go ahead and, and write it and, you know, edit, and, and then it was just trying to learn the process. I mean, I had no idea once I thought that part was hard, just writing the book itself, which it was don’t don’t don’t get me wrong.

Dan Wolfe (12:44):

It definitely was. But then trying to have someone take a chance on you and wanna publish it cuz you know, you know, if you don’t have a lot big social media following or, you know, whatever it is, you’re just not that famous person. You know, they’re not always apt to go ahead and, you know, take a chance on you. I had over 40 rejections it wasn’t until ID finished the book probably in, you know, close to the summer of 2020. And I didn’t get have an interest in it until probably the fall of 2021. And that is when rode awesome, who I’m forever grateful and blessed to, to have taken a chance on me went ahead and showed some interest and we met and everything and you know I got to learn so much within the process.

Dan Wolfe (13:36):

Just even self-promoting and doing, which is not something I normally do. I’m very, I like to keep to myself and everything, but I said, you only go, this might be my only time I ever get the chance to go through something like this. So just pull out all the stops. But this, this was just important to me also to also not only prove to myself, but prove to my students and to prove to my daughter too, you know, about never giving up perseverance and just being able to overcome. And though though, I wasn’t, you know, I was confident that it was, it was gonna happen one day. I just didn’t know when, but I’m just glad I I’m glad I didn’t give up. And yeah,

Sam Demma (14:14):

That’s awesome, man. I love it. When you’re not working on the book or working at school, how do you fill up your own cup? What are some of the things that you do to ensure that you’re showing up to the best of your abilities at work?

Dan Wolfe (14:29):

Well, I think first and foremost, I, I wouldn’t be here without my family love and support of my wife and, and my daughter. And just having that time with them being able to, you know we live down here in Florida, so we’ve got the advantage of going to Disney world or, or things like that, cuz we’re pretty close to it. So that’s kind of like our vice as a family and we’ve done that, that always since she was little. So it’s just, it’s, that’s just, that’s just our thing and being able to do that. And I think it’s just important to always stay grounded to, they talk about work life balance, which is it’s very hard to do. And I don’t know if you can ever really, truly find that balance, but you can definitely put in the effort to make sure.

Dan Wolfe (15:10):

I, I, I think that that’s very important and also just the self care. I, I think, you know taking time, whether it’s, you know, you know, going to the gym, exercising, listening, the podcasts, reading just some of meditating, whatever else, you know, just some of those kinds of things, because if you’re not taking care of yourself, you can’t take care of others in the field of education. And that, that’s a, that’s a huge thing. Otherwise, cuz if you’re burning the bridge at both ends you’re not, you’re not being a benefit to anybody. So that, that’s huge.

Sam Demma (15:42):

When you think about the field of education, who are some individuals in your life personally, who have had a significant impact on you? Obviously your family you’ve mentioned them, but when you think about work, have you had, you know, mentors or people who have changed your beliefs helped you identified your blind spots and limiting beliefs and helped you grow into the school leader you are today?

Dan Wolfe (16:04):

Yeah. So one of ’em was definitely one of my college professors actually in graduate school Dr. Clint Wright he just, he just said it like it was and just told the importance of it. Wasn’t all just about what was in the textbook or anything else like that. He just, he just spoke to you as you would hope an administrator would and you could kind of look at it through the lens of what he was talking about. There are two quotes. Actually, yeah, there’s two quotes that he, that really stood out to me from him. One of ’em was if it’s to be it’s up to me that anything you want in life you’ve gotta go out and get it life. Isn’t gonna give you, gonna put it out on, on a silver platter for you.

Dan Wolfe (16:47):

You need to go out and get it. In my 25 years most of my time has been spent at title one schools, which are the lower socioeconomic status. And I, I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. Because just being able to tell the students there, the potentials that they have, that their, their life script has not been written yet. They get to write it themselves and being able to tell them if it’s to be it’s up to them, I’ll be there as that guide on the side, but in kind of giving them that push, but they’re the ones that can really make it to that next level. And then he said another quote as an administrator that I ha I try to always remember it’s a poor frog that doesn’t praise its own pond and it’s always letting others know how grateful you are for them.

Dan Wolfe (17:36):

And again, showing ’em, you know, telling ’em specifically, not just saying thank you, but thank you for what, what is it that, you know, to let them know that they matter? And again, it, it doesn’t matter what the position teacher, custodian, food and nutrition, office staff, whoever they’re everybody’s of value and they’re of equal value. And I always look at titles as just titles. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s what you do behind the title. That is what that is, what truly means something so that Dr. Clint Wright was for one thing a big mentor in my life. And then another one is Todd Cluff. He just recently retired from our county. He’s still doing consulting for leadership and everything else like that. But he really showed me what it’s all about to be that servant leader.

Dan Wolfe (18:25):

I had mentioned earlier in, in the podcast that I was part of like I did, I was a curriculum specialist where I supported 18 different schools, kindergarten through 12th grade that we had at one time in our county, what were called regional teams. We were the Northwest regional team and we all 18 schools were title one. And what we were able to do is kind of flip the script as far as showing schools that we were supporting them, that we were all family, that it wasn’t like uhoh, district’s coming out, cuz we’re all part of the same district. It was never, and he led the charge and all of that, just to show that grace that compassion it just, it, it was all about those relationships because that’s, what’s really gonna push you through any any challenges or obstacles that are in the way it’s the, it’s the trust and everything.

Dan Wolfe (19:15):

And, and he was able to show that and serve first and lead second and just, just his teachings and just watching him do what he, what he did just always amazed me and I did. And he was always still positive. And just try to it, it was, it went beyond data scores and things like that. It was about the people, it was about the kids. It was about the culture E each school. There’s no title one school, just like there’s no, non-Title one school, that’s the same. You can cross the street and you’re gonna have a different kind of culture, a different dynamic, a different need. And we were able to differentiate between those 18 schools over, you know, the, the time that we were a regional team and it’s definitely memories. I’d never, you know, trade for the world and it just, it made he made me a better leader because of it. So I’m a forever grateful to him.

Sam Demma (20:09):

Hmm. It sounds like they both had a significant impact on you. And I think having a significant impact on others is really one of the main reasons why people get into education. Everyone hopes they can help inspire young minds and guide them on their path and be a resource. I’m curious if there are any stories that come to mind of students who have been impacted by, you know, your leadership or the leadership of the staff around you that you have watched kind of soar. And the reason I ask is because sometimes educators forget why they started teaching, especially during very difficult moments. And I think at the heart of it sometimes the heart of the reason why they get into education is because they wanna make a positive change. So these stories of transformation in the student might help rekindle that fire in their, in their heart to keep going. Do you have any stories that come to mind of, of students or

Dan Wolfe (21:06):

Yes, I actually have. I have two, one as a teacher and then one as an administrator. Cool. And what’s interesting is, you know, both had a significant impact, but it’s from a different lens. And I think that that’s the and with the teacher one, it was early on in my educational career. It was a a girl in my class that could not read. Her mom had said her last couple of teachers that she’s had told her, told her already your, your daughter’s probably never going to read. So basically, you know, kind of like, I mean, again, I wasn’t there to hear it, but she basically told me it was like, kind of like the throw in towel. And she was like third grade. And that wasn’t, you know, again, I was in my second or third year.

Dan Wolfe (21:49):

I mean, something like that, throwing in the towel was not in my vocabulary to go ahead and do that. And I said, we’re, I’m gonna do all that I can. So what I even did is I went ahead and tutored her after school as well. And we continued to work on, we did site words. We did a lot with phonics and things like that, all those things to go ahead and build up her confidence within there. And I just told her I would be there every step of the way. And long story short, she was able to read. And she even, we had, we had a state test that year, where in Florida, if they don’t pass the state test and reading they’re automatically retained in third grade. So, but she passed. Mm. So she was able to, and the mom just was so thrilled, not because of the passing part, but the fact that her child could sit with her now and read and everything.

Dan Wolfe (22:40):

And I mean, I, and again, I don’t, I don’t ever take the credit for those kinds of things. I, I, that’s just, cuz it’s a team effort and you know, she put as much work into it as well. But it was just showing her that never quit attitude. And you know, I, I’m not sure what ha you know, it is been quite some time now, so I’m hoping she’s doing quite well, but I mean, just that, that right there, that that’s your why to be able to do that. Now from an administrator lens, it was a little bit different. Of course, fast forward, you know, quite a few years and a lot of things that as you know, across across the world, the nation, everything like that is a lot with mental health and the importance behind that. And we have within our district like threat assessments and things like that that we have to do, whether it’s threat to others or threat to themselves.

Dan Wolfe (23:31):

I had a student that was in fourth grade just a few years ago. He just had a lot of just threats to self and I mean, it never only, you know, once or twice did they have to, you know, you know be baker acted or things like that to be able to get the help, but there was a program called safe and home that, that is within our county and within our state where they have intensive services, where they even the counselors push into the home, help with coping skills and strategies. And you have to put in a lot of, you know, it’s not, you have to put in a lot of paperwork and requests to kind of get to that point and be able to, but I, I just knew that we needed to do all we could as a school to get him on cuz he had, so he had so much potential and, you know, just, just because of whether it was home life or whatever else or just his own self-esteem was suffering because of all this.

Dan Wolfe (24:29):

And you know, like I said, counselors would push in, they would go ahead and show skills self coping skills for the students they’d even work with the, the family as well of how the, you know, best help, you know, parenting strategies, cuz again, they don’t have those handbooks or things just to hand to the parents to say, here he goes, this is how you raise your child or anything like that. But fast forward a year later in fifth grade we have turnaround student awards and he was a turnaround student in his class and just the confidence in things like that. And you know, he was very closed off and everything. And one of the things that he even did when he, when he saw me recently is even just, he gave me a hug, he just came right up and I mean, I never would’ve expected that or anything else like that, but it’s just, I saw such a side to him that I always knew was there, but I was just, I would just hope that I just was able to help be that glimmer, that flicker of hope in his life to, you know, to, to show him that that, that things are possible.

Dan Wolfe (25:32):

You know, so those are two examples, you know, you know, of the kind of impact and it just kind of always rekindles that why, and, you know, just, just to be there and just just one of the sayings that we have at our school is my job is to keep you safe and your job is to help keep it safe and that’s not just physically safe, but that’s socially and emotionally safe. And I think one of the biggest things is educators out of the five elements is that social awareness piece where you try to look at it through the lens of others and it’s not just for the kids, but for your staff or whatever. It’s more about empathizing more than sympathizing within there. And it’s just, I, I think that’s just an attribute or an element that I think needs to be more pervasive as a society now more than ever with all that’s going on in the world right now is that social awareness piece. But yeah, so,

Sam Demma (26:26):

Ah, I love it, man. Thank you for sharing those stories. I know that whoever is listening is definitely feeling inspired or reminded about the impact education can have when you lead with self-awareness and as a servant leader, like your mentor, would’ve taught you and, and you know Clint yeah, your professor. When you think about your experiences in education, if you could bundle them all up, travel back in time to the first year, you stepped into a classroom to teach knowing what you know now, what advice would you have, you know, shared with you younger self, not because you wanted to change something about your path or journey, but because you thought it might have been helpful to hear at the start of your career

Dan Wolfe (27:10):

Perfectionism is a myth and it it’s important to be vulnerable. I think those are, I mean, it it’s something that you, you think that everything has, has to go a certain way. And you you’ve got your, your, your script or whatever your lesson plans in front of you, but they never go according to plan. And if they, you know, and you know, sometimes they go better than expected and then other times you think it was gonna be an awesome lesson and then it crashes and burns and that’s okay. The way that I look at it is in, in our county, we are, you know, in our state we have 180 school days. So I look at it and I tell a lot of today’s younger teachers too. It’s weird to me to say younger teachers now because I used to be one of ’em and <laugh>, I remember I had veteran teachers saying, Dan, you’ll be there one day soon.

Dan Wolfe (28:01):

And they were right. But I look at it there’s 180 or like 180 performances kind of like on stage, you know, not, you, you think of it as actors and actresses, not every play or performance goes well, but if one doesn’t go, well, you got 179 more to, to do better and you always try to, you know, you’re never gonna have that perfect one and that’s okay, but that’s what strives you to try to get to that. But when I, and that vulnerability that’s something not only as a beginning teacher, but even as a veteran teacher, it’s okay to have that. I, I even have it as an administrator, if I don’t know the answer to something or I make a mistake in something I’ll either, you know, I’m definitely gonna own up to it. If it’s a mistake or whatever, and say, I’ll fix that.

Dan Wolfe (28:48):

And I’m sorry that, you know, whatever it was, didn’t turn out the way that, whether it was a decision I made or, or anything else like that, that I thought would’ve turned out better. And it didn’t, or if I didn’t know the answer to something, I will go ahead and ask somebody that does, cuz I won’t have all the answers and I’m not gonna pretend like I do because you give the wrong answer, you get into a, a deeper hole than you started and, and you might as well just come out and say, okay, I don’t really know, but let me find out. I, I think as, as my advice to, you know my younger self would just be, you know trust the process and just be vulnerable.

Sam Demma (29:23):

Love that. It’s awesome. Thank you so much Dan for taking the time to come on the show and share a little bit about your book and your beliefs around education. If someone’s listening, wants to reach out, get in touch, what would be the best way for them to send you a message?

Dan Wolfe (29:39):

So probably the best way, I’m definitely Twitter is definitely my social media jam or whatever in regards to it. So my Twitter handle is @servleadinspire. So it doesn’t have the “e” on “serve” and it’s not that I can’t spell. It’s just that it won’t allow that many characters within the handle. So I said, so I do know how to spell serve. I just can’t spell it the way I want to on Twitter, but anyways <laugh>, but that’s, that’s probably the best way to definitely feel free to follow you know, or, you know, send me a DM, whatever, you know, anything I can do to help, you know we’re all, we’re all in this together.

Sam Demma (30:23):

Awesome. Dan, thank you again. Keep up with the great work and we’ll talk soon my friend.

Dan Wolfe (30:28):

All right, thanks so much, Sam.

Sam Demma (30:29):

Hey, it’s Sam again. I hope you enjoyed that amazing conversation on the High Performing Educator podcast. If you or someone, you know, deserves some extra recognition and appreciation for the work they do in education, please consider applying or nominating them for the high performing educator awards. Go to www.highperformingeducator.com/award. You can also find the link in the show notes. I’m super excited to spotlight and feature 20 people in 2022. And I’m hoping you, or someone you know, can be one of those educators. I’ll talk to you on the next episode, all the best.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Dan Wolfe

The High Performing Educator Podcast was brought to life during the outbreak of COVID-19 to provide you with inspirational stories and practical advice from your colleagues in education.  By tuning in, you will hear the stories and ideas of the world’s brightest and most ambitious educators.  You can expect interviews with Principals, Teachers, Guidance Counsellors, National Student Association, Directors and anybody that works with youth. You can find and listen to all the episodes for free here.

Scott Johnson – Principal at Bowmanville High School

Scott Johnson – Principal at Bowmanville High School
About Scott Johnson

Scott Johnson (@ScottJohnsonP) is the principal at Bowmanville High School. He started his career as a high school physical education teacher in Ontario and after a 2 year move to Alberta, returned home to a variety of teaching roles.

He has taught every grade other than Kindergarten and Grade 5 and has been fortunate to work in several different school communities. After working in Special Education, Scott became a vice principal and is thrilled to be back at BHS as principal. 

Scott is known for his innovative approach to teaching and for his work in integrating technology and pedagogy. Scott is passionate about equity and student success and works to ensure that all students are supported throughout the school.

Connect with Scott: Email | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

Listen to the episode now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or on your favourite podcast platform.

Resources Mentioned

Bowmanville High School

Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE)

Cult of Pedagogy

Revisionist History with Malcolm Gladwell

Wikis, Blogs, and Podcasts: A New Generation of Web-based Tools for Virtual Collaborative Clinical Practice and Education by Applied Research Press

The Transcript

**Please note that all of our transcriptions come from rev.com and are 80% accurate. We’re grateful for the robots that make this possible and realize that it’s not a perfect process.

Sam Demma (00:00):

Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast.

Sam Demma (01:00):

This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is Scott Johnson. Scott Johnson is the principal at Bowmanville high school. He started his career as a high school physical education teacher in Ontario, and after a two year move to Alberta returned home to a variety of teaching roles. He has taught every grade other than kindergarten and grade five and has been fortunate to work in several different school communities. After working in special education, Scott became a vice principal and is thrilled to be back at Bowmanville high school as the principal. Scott is known for his innovative approach to teaching, and for his work in integrating technology and pedagogy. Scott is passionate about equity and student success, and works to ensure that all students are supported throughout the school. I hope you enjoy this interview and I will see you on the other side. Scott, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. It’s a pleasure to have you on the show here today. Please start by introducing yourself.

Scott Johnson (01:58):

Thanks Sam, and, and thank you very much for for having me on the podcast. My name is Scott Johnson. I am currently the principal of Bowmanville high school in Bowmanville, Ontario. We are a 9-12 school with approximately a thousand students located right in central Bowmanville.

Sam Demma (02:18):

When did you realize in your career journey growing up that education was the field you wanted to pursue and work in?

Scott Johnson (02:26):

Well, to be honest with you, I, I would be, I, I think I’m fairly late to the game in terms of determining what I I wanted to do. I was a PHS ed student at the university of Toronto and had the opportunity towards the end of my degree to do some work in some local high schools in downtown Toronto. And really, really enjoyed the experience I got to work with. I actually played hockey at the university of Toronto and I got to work with a, a former teammate of mine who had moved on to become a teacher. And I just really enjoyed the experience and thought to myself, this might be a, a, a good career move for me. I, I really enjoyed Fette as a, as a student and played all kinds of sports growing up and thought, you know, maybe I could join the ranks of the PHED teachers of the world.

Scott Johnson (03:19):

And so that’s sort of what got me into education and lots happened between then and now sort of over the last 17 years to get me you know, into the role of principal. And I, I, I’ll be honest, I’ve, I’ve enjoyed every, every step along the way. So I think the goal was to be a PhysEd teacher. I’m not sure if I ever actually realized that because I, I was his ed teacher for a very brief period of time, but I’ve got to do a lot of interesting things in a lot of interesting places and yeah, I’ve really enjoyed all, all the steps along the way.

Sam Demma (03:52):

Let’s unpack some of that journey, the 17 year journey from the start to where you are now, what was the start? What role were you in? What school take us through the journey from then to where you are today?

Scott Johnson (04:06):

Well, it was an interesting journey. I actually went to teachers college directly after university and then took a year off after university to go play hockey over in Germany for a year. Wow. Which was a great experience. It was tons of fun. But probably three quarters of the way through that hockey season. I, I kind of got the itch to, you know, I wanted to get started on this career in teaching. And so made the decision, you know, towards the end of the hockey season that I was gonna try and pursue this, this teaching career more seriously and ended up <laugh> I ended up actually accepting, I was so excited to be a full-time PHED teacher that I applied for and took a job at a school that I, I didn’t know really what the school was. And it turned out that it was a PHED teacher job in a youth correctional facility where I worked for a year.

Scott Johnson (05:03):

And, and I, I, I, it was a, a very bizarre way to start my career in terms of just not being something that I would’ve expected, but it, it couldn’t have been a better start to my career. I learned a ton working in that setting and working with those students and that I, you know, can say quite clearly, that, that had a significant impact on helping me get to where I I am today. You know, just, just dealing with students who had obviously been in conflict with the law and, and had lots going on in all assets or all aspects of their lives and, and seeing how school could, could be a, a positive influence on their life, really, you know, set me on a, a, a, I think a good track teacher wise after that. My, my now wife and I decided to move out to Alberta for a couple of years.

Scott Johnson (05:56):

And so we moved to a very, very rural community in, in Alberta. And I actually ended up teaching at a, at a incredibly small school, K to nine 160 students in a town that didn’t have a single stoplight. And it was just another great experience, just great kids, great families got the opportunity to teach a whole bunch of different grades. And again, really enjoyed the experience after a couple years, my wife and I decided to come back and I ended up teaching grade seven, and then I taught a little bit of special education in high school. And then I taught at an alternative education school. Then I moved to a, a lead teacher of special education role, and then moved into being a vice principal at an ed school, and then vice principal at a large rural school. And then at a small rural school. And now principal here at, at one of the larger urban schools and in our school board. So it kind of bounced around a lot, a lot of it by choice, but I, I think having that varied experience has been very helpful in the role that I’m in today.

Sam Demma (07:08):

What do you think you took away from your time working at the correctional facility with students who might have been in trouble with the law? What are some of the things you learned from those experiences that maybe informed the way that you show up today and in, in the high school you work in now

Scott Johnson (07:26):

To put it in its simplest terms? I learned very clearly that every student has a story, and I can’t tell you how much that has impacted me in my teaching career. It, it, it, I just working with those students, learning, you know, you work very closely with them, you work with them every single day. And you just, you learn so much about their story and you start to understand that there’s so much more to a student than what you, you may see, or what they may present, you know, in, in a 75 minute class. And, you know, now in my role as a principal, every single student, or every single issue that that comes across my desk, I, I get, get taken right back to that sort of touch point. That is, what’s the story here there, you know, you talk about, you know, you might hear things that for every misbehavior, there’s a reason, or, or, you know, if a student’s not being successful, as we think they could be there’s, you know, peeling back the layers of the onion kind of thing, to, to try and sort out why.

Scott Johnson (08:39):

And I go back to that very first year, really starting to recognize there is a story here for every student and it’s our job to try and work with them on, on all levels to try and help them be as successful as they can. And, and that, that lesson, like I said, you know, for, for, to get that as a first year teacher, I think was, it was difficult in the moment but has served me well over the last 17 years and, and will continue to serve me well for the rest of my career.

Sam Demma (09:09):

What resources, including people have been very instrumental or helpful in your own development, professional development in this career and job, maybe it’s some people you can think of who have mentored you along the way, some books you’ve read or courses you’ve been a part of, like, what has helped you show up at your best every day at work. And obviously you’re a human being. So there’s days where you don’t feel your best, but what do you think helps you show up to the best of your ability every day?

Scott Johnson (09:39):

Well, I, I think there’s a lot of things. And, and you mentioned, you know, the human aspect of it. The one great part about teaching is that you get to see a lot of people every day. And I mean, you know, we’ve dealt with this, the COVID pandemic over the last couple of years. And I think if you talk to, to any student, any educator, anybody involved in education, or even outside of it, the thing that they miss is that human interaction. Mm. So, you know, as a principal, I love being out in the halls. I love chatting with kids. I love chatting with teachers. I love you know, having conversations with parents, sometimes those conversations with any of those groups are not the easiest conversations, but they’re, you know, we’re all working in the best interest of students. And that’s, that’s kind of what gets me to work with a smile on my face every day.

Scott Johnson (10:31):

In terms of, of long term impact. I mean, I’ll go right back. They, they, they make you do a cheesy kind of assignment back when you were in teacher’s college, talking about your, you know, the favorite teacher or the teacher that, that inspired you. And I, I can think of a couple of teachers that I had along the way, you know, my grade two teacher, Mr. Jameson, my grade six teacher, Mr. Black, just people that had significant impacts on me growing up and, and, you know, having the hope that maybe I could replicate that experience for, you know, a young person growing up was certainly part of my motivation in terms of getting to where I am today, I’ve had all kinds of people who have been incredibly helpful. I, I, from principals to teachers just people and, and I think this goes back to you, you really can’t underestimate the impact that your words can have on another person.

Scott Johnson (11:29):

You know, I can think back to one of my principals who encouraged me to be a vice principal back when I had never really thought about being a vice principal. And, and she put that in my head and I was just like, oh, and I, I just got a sense of her belief in me and, you know, the, a small conversation on her part at a, you know, a lasting and, and significant impact on my life. So those are things that, that I try and pay it forward for lack of a better term, but there’s definitely been, been tons of people along the way, who, who just through their, their words and conversations have a, have had a big impact.

Sam Demma (12:04):

You’re one of the only guests we’ve had on who pulled out a blue ye USB microphone, and sounds like a radio host. <Laugh> gonna,

Scott Johnson (12:13):

I have been told that I have a face and a voice for radio. So I’m I’m good with that.

Sam Demma (12:18):

It leads me to believe that you might listen to a few other podcasts. Is there any educational podcasts that you’ve tuned into, or people that you’ve listened to that have helped as well as a resource?

Scott Johnson (12:30):

Well, to be honest, Sam, if, if you knew me as an educator one of the things that I like to draw upon is other other areas and bring those into education. Mm-Hmm <affirmative>, I like that you know, I’ve listened to lots of, of great educational podcasts. I mean, I started, I think my first educational podcast was the cults of pedagogy which is a, you know, a wonderful series, but what I’ve really, what I’ve really tried to bring in is some more, some different parts of, of the world and how they relate to education. So you talk about a guy like Simon Sinek you know, and, and his start with why book and, and, you know, he has a podcast. Seth golden, I think has a, a lot to say about leadership that is applicable across disciplines. I mean, a lot of it’s into business and marketing, but you take that and apply some of it to a school setting.

Scott Johnson (13:34):

Those are a couple of the podcasts. I’m sure you’ve heard of revisionist history with Malcolm Gladwell in the way that he, he can look at a seemingly straightforward issue and sort of flip it on its ear and, and you kind of, wow, I never looked at it from that perspective. And those are the kinds of things that I think are important in education. I mean, we’re faced with some fairly unique problems in this day and age. And if you’ve just, you know, that old saying, if you always do what you always done, you’ll always get what you always got, sort of thing. And, and, you know, trying to do things differently, cuz these kids are growing up in a different world in a, in a world that we really haven’t seen before. And I like to, to bring those other discipline in, in just to, to try and get a fresh perspective on some of the issues that we’re facing. And, and I find those people have, have some really quality ideas that can be translated directly to the work we do each day.

Sam Demma (14:36):

I love that if you could travel back in time to your first instance of teaching in a classroom, in a school setting and tap yourself on the shoulder and say, Hey Scott, not that you need any advice right now. Not that you wanna change anything about what’s gonna happen in your future, but this is what I think would’ve been helpful for you to hear when you were just beginning your career in teaching, what advice would you have given to your younger self or another educator listening who might be just starting this work?

Scott Johnson (15:09):

Well, I’ll tell you, I, I, I don’t have to necessarily go back in time because I got that, that the piece of advice that was critical to me. Mm. I got that from another person. And the lady’s name is Dr. Kathy Bruce. And she is I don’t know her exact role at Trent university right now, but she was the Dean of education. And I had the very fortunate opportunity at my old grade eight school to be her final teacher’s college associate teacher before she ended her teaching career and moved on to the world of teacher’s college at university. And I remember Kathy is a bit of a math guru, not a bit. She is a, a definitely a math guru and, and has done lots in the, the world of mathematics. But she had tasked me with teaching a math lesson to her grade seven class.

Scott Johnson (16:03):

And the question I asked her was, okay, where’s the textbook that you use? And she said, we don’t use a textbook. And that to me, that moment, and I’ve used that moment over and over again, over, over the last couple of decades was the, the first, the, the seed that was planted that said the education for these students does not have to look the same as your education. And I think that is the piece of advice. We, most people that go into teaching go into it because they love school and they had a, a great positive experience at school. And so oftentimes we will default to the experience that we had at school and that moment, which terrified me and sent waves of anxiety through my body saying, how am I ever going to teach math to grade sevens without a textbook? Because that’s what I was used to.

Scott Johnson (17:00):

And that’s what I was comfortable with. That is the piece of advice that I needed to say. We can do things differently. And I remember, you know, I use that again, when, when will Richardson I don’t know if you know, will Richardson, but he wrote a book in the mid two thousands called Wiki’s blogs and podcasts. You know, you, you, you mentioned the microphone. And I was, I was presented that by a teacher here at the school and I immediately was like, I’m gonna do a podcast. And I, I look back to that, you know, with my students and we’re gonna start a podcast and we’re going to do those things. And we’re talking, this is back in, you know, 2008, 2009. But it was that moment with Kathy Bruce that said do things differently. It’s okay to do things differently.

Scott Johnson (17:52):

So not only did she challenge me, but it was almost like she gave me permission. It was like, oh, okay. We can bring some of these innovative ideas, you know, into the classroom. And so, you know, I don’t know, going back to my former self, listen to your elders, listen to those people who have experience. I mean, you know, they’re the people who are doing it. And there’s lots of great stuff out there. And, and I, you know, I think of if I was a new teacher starting in 2022, you know, between Twitter accounts and podcasts and you know, other social media groups and websites, there’s tons of great resources to draw on. It’s just trying to find your niche in finding those people that that can help you. And, and I was fortunate to have a couple of those people really early on in my career.

Sam Demma (18:36):

One of the things that I believe is attractive about education is impact on young minds, shaping future change makers and seeing a student progress from potentially struggling to success or some form of clarity where they have this aha moment and a breakthrough because of years of help and support from caring adults in their lives. Could you think of a moment in one of your schools that you’ve worked in, or maybe even when you were teaching where you saw a student go from serious struggle to some clarity and some success that really brought a smile to your face, and if it’s a serious story you can change their name just for the sake of privacy. And the reason I ask you to share is because I think it will remind other educators listening, why this work is so important and inspire those who haven’t got into this work yet to seriously consider it as a pot, a potential career path in the future.

Scott Johnson (19:33):

Yeah, well, I can, I can, I can share an example of one that just happened recently. And as I, I think I started off saying that my dream was to, to be a, a PhysEd teacher and, and, you know, I, I didn’t really elaborate, but I, I, I never really made it as a PhysEd teacher because I think that first experience in the, in the correctional facility led me down a path towards special education which turned into student success, where you’re often dealing with students who have stories and those stories are often, you know, incredibly challenging. They have led incredibly difficult lives and, and have overcome so much just to even be with you in front of you know, in the classroom with you each day. And so I can think of a student and I won’t mention their name, but very difficult life history.

Scott Johnson (20:36):

Very challenging. I met this student back in, I believe their grade nine year obviously had difficulties in school, but again, having that ability to recognize the story there is more to this than what you are seeing each day, and just working with that student day by day getting to know them, working with some community agencies, just reaching out and trying to be that person. And it wasn’t certainly just me. There was a whole team of people that, that got to impact this student over the course of their high school career. And I, I ended up switching schools and, and we ended up reconnecting at, at the, the new school. And again, just continuing to be patient and working with that person. And I, I actually got news just a little while ago that they had graduated high school and were starting college in January.

Scott Johnson (21:40):

And, you know, if you, that, would’ve been a tough picture to imagine way back when we met in grade nine. And I think that’s the power of education. It’s the power of you know, in, in, in my context high school is we, we get four years to work with someone and we can do a lot in those four years. It doesn’t have to all be accomplished right away. But if you look at the, the growth that all students experience, you know, coming in at grade nine at 13, 14 years old and, and leaving high school at, at 1718 we, we have the opportunity to make a significant impact and, and in a lot of cases you know, I, I think we’re able to really help students get on the trajectory that they want to get on. And, and hopefully we, we do our best to, to bring the best out of them. And again, that’s, that’s kind of why we’re here and if you’re interested in helping people out with that, then education is definitely a career that will, you’ll find very fulfilling.

Sam Demma (22:46):

If someone is listening to this inspired, wants to reach out, ask you a question, or get in touch, what would be the best way for them to get in contact with you?

Scott Johnson (22:58):

Just send me an email. I’m on Twitter @ScottJohnsonP, not as active as I once was as, as other things have, have caught up and we’ll see where things go with Twitter, given the, the recent, the news of recently, but yeah. You, you know, my email address is, is checkout Bowmanville high school. My email address is, is there along with my picture and I’d be happy to chat. You know, one of the things that got me involved in education was some chats with some people who were in the business. At the time I was fortunate to go to the University of Toronto and be close to OISE and, and know lots of people that were in education so if anyone’s interested, I’d be, be, I’d be happy to chat. It’s a, it’s a great career. It’s got its ups and downs as all careers do, but at the end of the day, I’m, I, I, couldn’t be more happy with the decision that I made way back when

Sam Demma (23:55):

Scott, it’s a pleasure to bring you on the show here today, to talk about the journey, some of the ups and downs, some of the learnings and philosophies you hold about teaching. I cannot wait to see where the next five years of your career take you and, and what you’ll be working on and doing. Keep up the great work and don’t ever hesitate to reach out again in the future and thanks again for coming on, coming on the show.

Scott Johnson (24:19):

No problem Sam. Thanks for having me and thanks for doing what you’re doing. It’s, it’s a pleasure listening to your show and, and I appreciate the opportunity.

Sam Demma (24:27):

Hey, it’s Sam again. I hope you enjoyed that amazing conversation on the High Performing Educator podcast. If you or someone, you know, deserves some extra recognition and appreciation for the work they do in education, please consider applying or nominating them for the high performing educator awards. Go to www.highperformingeducator.com/award. You can also find the link in the show notes. I’m super excited to spotlight and feature 20 people in 2022. And I’m hoping you, or someone you know, can be one of those educators. I’ll talk to you on the next episode, all the best.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Scott Johnson

The High Performing Educator Podcast was brought to life during the outbreak of COVID-19 to provide you with inspirational stories and practical advice from your colleagues in education.  By tuning in, you will hear the stories and ideas of the world’s brightest and most ambitious educators.  You can expect interviews with Principals, Teachers, Guidance Counsellors, National Student Association, Directors and anybody that works with youth. You can find and listen to all the episodes for free here.

Jennifer Meeker – Principal of Special Education K-12 at the Upper Grand District School Board

Jennifer Meeker – Principal of Special Education K-12 at the Upper Grand District School Board
About Jennifer Meeker

Jennifer Meeker (@jennmeeker), is the Principal of Special Education K-12 at the Upper Grand District School Board. Starting as an elementary teacher turned secondary Administrator she has embraced the power of Ross Greene’s mantra, “Kids do well if they can”. She believes it is the adults job to figure out the barriers and to work alongside the student to dismantle those barriers. She has been an Administrator for 13 years and has learned a lot from the youth and families she has served.

In her new role as a system Principal she is supporting students with special education needs from a system perspective. She tries to understand the many reasons why students might be challenging. She works with specialized teams within the UGDSB to make sure that supports are in place so that schools can help students reach their true potential. In the role of highschool Principal she supported having all voices at the table when decisions were being made or programming considered for a student(s). She would tell you that her best learning came from the challenging students who became her teachers.

Connect with Jennifer: Email | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

Listen to the episode now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or on your favourite podcast platform.

Resources Mentioned

Upper Grand District School Board

Who is Ross Greene?

Grading for Equity by Joe Feldman

The Transcript

**Please note that all of our transcriptions come from rev.com and are 80% accurate. We’re grateful for the robots that make this possible and realize that it’s not a perfect process.

Sam Demma (00:00):

Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast.

Sam Demma (00:59):

This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest on the show is Jennifer Meeker. Jennifer is the Principal of special education, K through 12 at the Upper Grand District School board. Starting as an elementary teacher, turned secondary administrator, she has embraced the power of Ross Greene’s mantra. Kids do well if they can. She believes it is the adults’ job to figure out the barriers and to work alongside the student to dismantle those barriers. She has been an administrator for 13 years and has learned a lot from the youth and families she has served. In her new role as a system principal, she is supporting students with special education needs from a system perspective. She tries to understand the many reasons why students might be challenging. She works with specialized teams within the Upper Grand District School Board to make sure that supports are in place so that schools can help students reach their true potential. In the role of high school Principal, she supported having all voices at the table when decisions were being made on programming considered for students. She would tell you that her best learning came from the challenging students who became her teachers. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Jenn, and I will see you on the other side, Jen, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here today. Please start by introducing yourself.

Jennifer Meeker (02:20):

Great. Thanks Sam. I really appreciate being here. My name is Jen Meeker. I’m the Principal of special education, K to 12 for the Upper Grand District School board.

Sam Demma (02:28):

If you traveled back in time to when you were just a student yourself, at what moment, if you can recall, do you remember making the decision and knowing that you were gonna pursue education in your future

Jennifer Meeker (02:43):

Education as teaching, as in, yeah, my teacher two years, three years out of university.

Sam Demma (02:52):

Mm. So what was your path?

Jennifer Meeker (02:54):

<Laugh>? my path was actually polys, sci and economics. Okay. Wanting to be in I don’t know, in training, definitely doing training of some sort. I was always coaching. I was always involved in, in athletics and working with people and I really enjoyed that part. But I always enjoyed the coaching aspect of everything that I ever did. So all through my life, whether it was riding, skiing, rowing, whatever, it was always something, there was always a coaching element to it.

Jennifer Meeker (03:28):

Hmm. I think that’s where it took me, but definitely it was someone that I worked with. I wasn’t in education, but I was working alongside educa education in a nonprofit role. And the person that I worked with was in education. And at one, one day she just said, when are you gonna become a teacher? And I was like, really thrown back and you talking about, she goes, you need to be a teacher. And so it was a time of my life where there was probably some need to be changed, things needed to change. And I was like, Hmm. So I applied to one school U of T at the time to OISE and thought if it was meant to be, it’ll be. And I guess it was <laugh> so, and I went and haven’t looked back. I’ve left once. I should say I have left teaching once.

Sam Demma (04:16):

Okay. Well talk about that in just a second. Tell me a little bit more about this nonprofit. So you graduate and start working in the nonprofit sector.

Jennifer Meeker (04:24):

Yes. well, no, I, I <laugh>. I started with an airline first. I worked for Alaska airlines. Nice. then I was working for an entertainment insurance broker. Okay. And circumstances ended up that I didn’t have a job and I ended up on unemployment actually at one point. And I should never have received unemployment, but when they called my boss, who, the company that I had left for good reasons she, the woman from unemployment called me and said, oh my God, we’re starting your unemployment today. You could never, I would never wanna work for that, man.

Sam Demma (04:59):

Mm.

Jennifer Meeker (04:59):

So it was it was actually a great opportunity for me. And then she gave me some, there was a couple programs where you worked for a nonprofit who received funds to be able to employ you on a sort of a contract basis. And this one just happened to be, it was the career education council at a Guelph and the person in charge that hired me was awesome. She was a great, a great mentor in the beginning in terms of developing the program. And it was a real, it was a, a, something that was very much in its infancy at the time. So I developed partnerships between businesses and schools to offer opportunities of, you know, realistic experiences for students around what was, what careers could be in the future. What was going on? You gotta take this back.

Jennifer Meeker (05:47):

This was 19 90, 2 93 91, something like that. And so things were very different then. But we, we had these great partnerships between, I, I remember Linemar was partnered with, I believe it was gateway, like drive public school in Guelph. And some of the things that they did was just, was just incredible. We had, I developed a teacher internship program where teachers went out into businesses in the summer and learned skills to see what pathways career pathways were out there. And I remember a tech teacher who wanted to go in and see what it would be like to be a first year apprentice. So we set that up. And within, I think it was day three, maybe he called and said, this is garbage. I know I don’t wanna do this anymore. You know, all they’ve got me doing is sweeping floors. And so we sat down and met with the, the plant manager and talked about it. And he said, you wanted to see what a, an apprentice might start at. Mm. And this might be something until I know who you are and your responsibilities, ability to do skills and things like that. Then I have to make that decision as to when you’re ready. And so once the teacher had learned that it was like, okay, I’m gonna ride this out. And he did. So I gave him full credit.

Sam Demma (07:00):

Wow. You’ve had such a diverse experience. What, what drew you towards entertainment when you were working in that position as well?

Jennifer Meeker (07:11):

Sadly, that was just a job. <Laugh> it was an opportunity. I needed to pay bills and I, I took it not an interest at all. I don’t think at the time because it was inter insurance, it was a lot of paper, paper pushing a lot of reading of contracts and things like that. Not, not what I wanted to do for sure. Not, not really working with people. And that’s always been my I would say that’s always where I’ve been drawn to is working with people working on teams.

Sam Demma (07:41):

Hmm. You mentioned that there was one occasion where you did step away from education before obviously returning, cuz you’re here again now. <Laugh> yeah. Bring me back to that moment. What, what was going on in your life during that period of time and what prompted you to step away?

Jennifer Meeker (07:58):

So it was probably the birth of my second son. And you know, I took the maternity leave, which had just become the year long maternity leave. Nice. And my husband is self-employed so we were, you know, the company was doing well and we as a family, it was a good decision. I, I still, I shouldn’t say that I totally took leave because I left education, but probably month eight of my maturity leave. I started working for a friend nice some basically being a, was an accounts manager for a company. And I was enjoying that because again, it was that working with people and got me out, but it was part-time and I could, you know, make, sort of make my own hours, which was great for my family. And then we had some life circumstances that, that said, you know what?

Jennifer Meeker (08:51):

You need a job that’s stable because you never know what’s gonna come down down the pipe. And, and I had never left touch with teaching for sure. I was still coaching different things. So I was always still doing that role and said, you know, it was time to go back. So I took a three year hiatus but I went back and went into a role. I had been teaching mostly grade 8, 7, 8 for the most part and really, really enjoyed that age level and really got along with with those students. And then when I went back, cause I’ve been gone so long, new principal, new school, well school wasn’t new, but a lot of staff had changed. Yep. And no one thought I was coming back. So they shoved me in a portable teaching grade, two, three split. And I took all the kids and nobody else wanted to teach, I guess, because my class list was quite quite an interesting group. But you know what, probably one of my best years of teaching, mm. I went back in going home, you know, oh my God, <laugh> what do I do? And partnered up with my ESL teacher at the time. And he and I had a great year. And in fact the following year we took that group forward and taught them again and took in another group as well. So we actually, he and I became team teachers. It was a something the principal decided she let us try. And it worked really, really well and definitely a highlight of my career for sure.

Sam Demma (10:18):

Tell me more about that. You said it was one of your best years in teaching from your perspective. Why is that?

Jennifer Meeker (10:26):

I think because it wasn’t easy. I think that I, I had to struggle. I had to figure it out. I felt that those students probably taught me more than I taught them in that year, for sure. Just about being, you know, I hadn’t taught that age group. I hadn’t taught students how to read before I hadn’t worked with ESL students before. And I had parent volunteers coming into my classroom, which didn’t happen in grade seven and eight <laugh>. I had an amazing apparent volunteer who came into my classroom and she was just amazing with the kids. And it just, I don’t know, I think, and I was out in a portable, so I was kind of out on my own. But I was, I was left be to, it was the, I think it was the only two, three split as well. So I was sort of on my own for everything. And that really just really have to struggle. And I, I spent a lot of hours doing that, but I actually would tell you that I grew a lot as a, as a teacher. I grew a lot as a human, but I definitely grew a lot as a teacher, too.

Sam Demma (11:31):

Most people would say it was their best experience because it was fun, enjoyable, and easy. And you’re telling me it was your best year because you struggled. Where does that mindset of yours come from? That struggle is something that, you know, leads to growth. And although difficult is a necessary step in the process of life. Is that from sports or like, like where do you think that comes from?

Jennifer Meeker (11:55):

Yeah, I think that’s, I, I think it’s from sports. I also think it’s how I was, you know, how my parents raised me too and everything. I mean, I never wanted for anything necessarily. I, I definitely lived a white privilege life. There’s no question about that. And I acknowledged that, but I also know that my parents didn’t hand me things. And I started working, you know I grew up in the country, so I started working very early on. We had a farm. I worked for a couple of big horse farms and so I was always pushed to work. So I, I have a, I think I have a strong work ethic. I, when I look back and it’s just, I’m just, that’s just daunting to on me, as you asked the question, when I look back over my life so far, all of my experiences that have been the best experience in my life have been because of challenge.

Jennifer Meeker (12:44):

Mm. So maybe I seek that out. I don’t know. You know, these sports that I chose to be involved in are not typical sports that everybody gets involved in. They’re, they’re tough. They’re, you know there’s always a challenge there and always an element of danger, well, not danger, but Del element of pushing yourself beyond your, your limits for sure. I would say that this, my jobs as I’ve chosen, you know, I never wanted to be a teacher thought got in, did it, whatever it was a challenge. Definitely. It challenged me for sure in the beginning. And then when I became a principal or when I became a vice principal, first of all, I mean, I had no intentions of going that route either. And it was someone who tapped me on the shoulder and said, it’s time you need to do this.

Jennifer Meeker (13:32):

And so I did it and you know, those are, those are life experiences where you’re not sure what it’s gonna be like on the other side. Exactly. Mm-hmm, <affirmative>, you’re comfortable where you are and comfort is a nice place sometimes. And then someone taps you on that shoulder and says, you should, you need to do this and including this most recent job. So I’m, I’m close to my retirement time. And I’ve taken on a whole new role, which again, first three weeks, first month and a half of the job, I was like, why did I do this? <Laugh> you know, I had to, but I love it. I love my job now. Yeah. And you know, I learning every day, I think learning for me is always, my, my husband would tell you I could be a professional student. I’m always wanting to learn more. So

Sam Demma (14:20):

Let’s talk about your current role right now. What are you doing day to day? What were those first two months like, and what do you love so much about it now?

Jennifer Meeker (14:31):

Again, I think it’s challenge for sure. There’s there’s new challenges every day is something new coming at me. Yeah. Because of the job. So I work with as the principal of special education, I work with teams, multidisciplinary teams across our board to support students in need. So whether it be students who are in a life skills program to students who are in a regular class placement, but have large learning challenges ahead of them. I work with families. I work with an amazing team of special education consultants including we call them team. Awesome. And I work with mental health with our psychologists and that department and our speech and language department. So we work as a team again. So I’m, I’m always attracted to teamwork for sure. And we try to, to support schools in providing the supports that students need in their building.

Jennifer Meeker (15:30):

So it’s a lot of it’s a lot of meetings. That’s, that’s one of the downfalls for me. I’d rather be on the, on the ground, but it is a lot of meetings, but I do get to work with some amazing people. And I, I don’t necessarily always see the successes at the end, but I hear about them. And I hear from the schools when you know, when the student is really, really struggling and we have some really high need struggling students and families. And I hear that, you know, something was got a little bit better. That’s, that’s just makes my day,

Sam Demma (16:07):

Let’s bring your brain back to one of those moments. When you think about certain emails like that of school or calls of schools reaching out and telling you, Jen, we had this student that was really struggling and we had this little win today. Are there any of those examples that come to mind that you’d like to share? I think stories of, of growth in young people is one of the main reasons why adults work in education. It’s like we wanna, you know, provide a positive impact on the lives of a young person. So if someone’s burnt out right now, it’s stories like that, that I think will really reunite their fire if teaching is what they should be doing.

Jennifer Meeker (16:46):

Yeah. And not in this, I mean, I have had current role too, but I’ll take back to when I was a vice principal I had a student who wasn’t on the radar at all completely not on the radar in in terms of the office was a, you know, a, B plus student never missed a day of classes, never missed a class, was easy to get along with you know, like not a, not an issue at all. That student had some struggles in her own life. And the student checked herself into care, basically put, he put her herself to the family children’s services who then placed her in foster care. And that was a sadness story. And I met with her and her worker and we talked about you know, her strengths and her needs.

Jennifer Meeker (17:40):

And, you know, we got to know her. She happened to have a love of courses as do I. So the two of us bonded in that moment. And and then I sort of became that her person for a while. And she struggled and it, what really, what she taught me was that even when we give students everything or when we give people everything that they, we think they need or we think is going to make their life better, it doesn’t always work that way. Mm. So I couldn’t understand why all of a sudden she became a behavior issue in class. She wasn’t attending school on, you know, regularly. She wasn’t getting the work done. And she was in on the radar of the office all the time. And I said to her, her worker, one day, I said, I don’t understand she has safety. She has a roof over her head. She has food on the table. She doesn’t have to worry about those things anymore. So while all of a sudden is she not succeeding. And she said, because now she’s being a teenager.

Sam Demma (18:45):

Mm.

Jennifer Meeker (18:46):

And she has the ability to do that. And that really, that really shot a light for me on on taking each case differently that each student that I, that I met and that I dealt with and understanding what their real needs are before I assume what their real needs are, I guess. So we then backtracked and then she had a job later on, this is, so this is a couple of years later, she had a job first job, you know, and the, I happened to know the employer and she wasn’t showing up for work regularly. And they were about to fire her. And I said to the employer, you can’t, here’s why you can’t because she needs you, you can’t because she doesn’t have someone there who is saying, you know, what, if you don’t show up to work today, you might get fired.

Jennifer Meeker (19:43):

Cuz she’s on her own. She’s making these decisions for herself. There’s nobody telling her that on a regular basis that really, really cares about her. And I said, so you need to be that person. So they didn’t fire her. And eventually she left on her own. But in a good way. And yeah, so, and she, and I had many, many conversations about that, but she’s remained in contact. I’ve lost track of her in the last year or so, but she had remained in contact up till then has a family of her own and ah, yeah. And, you know, and is in a good place from what I, from what I know. So yeah.

Sam Demma (20:20):

That’s awesome. I, I think it’s

Jennifer Meeker (20:22):

On this shoulder all the time, just telling me

Sam Demma (20:24):

<Laugh> yeah. What I need to do. It’s just a really cool reminder to realize you can have such a massive impact working in education, whether you’re on the front line or not like every single person plays a significant role in making sure a student feels safe and has an opportunity to learn and grow. How do, do you think we ask students what their needs are? Is it as simple as asking them, like how did you uncover her needs when you realized that what you wanted for her, maybe wasn’t what she thought she needed.

Jennifer Meeker (21:01):

That’s a good, that’s a good question. I mean, I think that I’ve always Ross green who wrote a book called kids do well, if they can is probably one of my biggest mentors in terms of thinking about students. And so I always look at, and, and this is one of the things she taught me, you know, she could do well when she could. And when there was a barrier that she couldn’t get through, that’s when things fell apart. And so as the adult, I needed to, to be able to be alongside her in that journey. And when she came up against a barrier that she couldn’t remove, I need to figure out how to help remove that if I could so that we could learn from it and then move forward until she hit the next barrier. And I think, I mean, I think that’s how we, we all do life. We just don’t realize it. But when we’re watching, as adults, as parents, we, you know, we look at our children and we try to remove all of those barriers for them. We never wanna see our children hit barriers, right. Because that’s, that, that means that they would experience hurt and they would experience failure or whatever. But in my life, failure has taught me probably more than success.

Sam Demma (22:11):

Mm.

Jennifer Meeker (22:12):

And again, I go back to those challenges. Right. I think I have to fail before I, before I succeed often.

Sam Demma (22:20):

Yeah. And you could even just swap the word failure with learn because every, you know, failure is just feedback from whatever event you were trying to accomplish or, you know, achieve. Yeah. So I think that’s a really great perspective. You mentioned this book. Are there any other books or resources that you found really helpful that have informed the way that you teach your professional development? It could even be courses or people I’m just curious to know. Yeah. Some of the things that kind of shaped your belief system.

Jennifer Meeker (22:53):

Well, definitely the work that I did with Ross green and I’m still following has been really important for me to take a look at, especially in special education, because we, we label students with a, with a disability, a learning disability or an intellectual disability and sometimes people get stuck on those labels. And he and another Dr. Mel Levine, who’s no longer around. They didn’t, they don’t look at students that way. They look at students from a whole, the whole student perspective. They get to know the student. And one of the, the questions I always say when there’s challenge, when a student, when I was a principal and a student was having difficulty and they’d come into my office rather than I may know a whole bunch already, but rather than assuming that I know what’s going on and what the issue is, I would ask I hear you having some difficulty what’s up with that. Mm.

Jennifer Meeker (23:54):

And they might not go right to it immediately, but we would dance around that for a long time if we had to. But I would just keep coming back and say, tell me more about that. What’s up with that. You know, and I’m not gonna say that I was, I’m always perfect in the moment because sometimes you get caught emotion. We gotta, yeah, we got the motion or we gotta get this done. Or, you know, I’ve got four other people waiting outside there to talk to me, whatever. But I try to stay present in that moment with whomever. It is that I’m, that I’m working with, whether it’s a staff member, another colleague, or with a student or a family or with my own family to say, what’s up, what’s up with that? How can I help? And they may not want my help. So just, you know, sort of getting the idea of that. So that came a lot from, from raw screen, I would say. I’ve done a lot of work with oh, I’m having a, a brain pause here.

Sam Demma (24:57):

I like that you used the word pause. <Laugh> strategic. I like it. <Laugh>

Jennifer Meeker (25:03):

You can give another one, but <laugh> yeah, I guess I’ll leave it at Ross because he is the, so, oh, the other, I guess the other book that I’ve been reading most recently is grading for equity. And it’s a resource that has really had me look, I, I never, I was always the teacher that thought that report cards were, were ridiculous that we should be having conversations cuz I’m more of a talker probably than a writer. Mm. And to have conversations with people about where they are with my students, I used to do that, to talk with them about know where you’re at, here’s where we need to go next. What do you think? What do you, how are you how are you gonna achieve this? How, how am I gonna help you achieve this? And when I look at the book grading for equity, you know, marks are often subjective. I can’t tell you that we all grade the same. So when I look at that and I look at you know, people coming from diverse backgrounds and who cultural upbringings, that, that don’t value, the same things that I might it’s, it’s a problem. So I’m just, I’m partway through that book and I’m really learning a lot again about, and I think about <laugh>, oh boy, 20 years ago, I wish I could go back and teach differently and great differently. And but you know,

Sam Demma (26:30):

Everything happens for a reason, you know, and at the time it’s supposed to happen. But speaking about traveling back in time, if you could take like the wisdom and experience that you have now, you know, close to the end of your career and go back in time and tap young, you know, younger Jen, you’re still very young, but younger Jen on the shoulder. <Laugh> and you know, you say, Jen, this is what you needed to hear when you were just getting started. Not that you would share any advice to change your path or the way you’ve taught, but what advice would you have given yourself that you thought would’ve been helpful to hear when you were just getting into this vocation?

Jennifer Meeker (27:07):

So it’s interesting that say that because I just I had a teacher that I hired at the beginning of the pandemic and she’s just starting her career. Got to know her, got to be in her class and see what she was doing. And I was so impressed with how her maturity for the beginning of her career come from. And I think that a lot of our new graduates are coming out with a different outlook than I had when I graduated. Right. and so I find, I found that she seemed to be so much further ahead than I was in my first year, my career. And so I actually gave her the two books that I just talked to you about and said, if I knew this, when I started my career, I think my career would’ve been different in many ways.

Jennifer Meeker (27:55):

I think I would’ve been a more effective teacher. I think I would’ve been a more effective administrator along the way. So if this helps you, if you can connect with it in any way, you know, this is what I leave you with. And so she’s, I’ve given her both those books and we’ll we’ll chat cuz I’m not going away and she goes and you know, she could, I think she’s got a great career ahead of her. So I think that’s what I would, I, and, and people did. I, I shouldn’t say that people didn’t do that cause I definitely, I mean the whole reason I’m in teaching is because of one, one woman who Deb McGaha, I’ll never forget her who did tap me on the shoulder and who did give me that sort of advice here and there.

Jennifer Meeker (28:38):

And there were other people along the way that that did in moments, you know? But that would be someone who definitely got me into the area of teaching. And then it’s the people that I work with now that, you know, keep me asking those questions and keep me you know, looking for, for differences, for different ways to support family, different ways to converse with kids, different ways to make things, programs better for students who struggle. And I think I, I, I look to those people all the time, cause I certainly don’t have all the answers.

Sam Demma (29:12):

It sounds like a through line of your advice would be building strong relationships with others, right? Like reading books written by other people, like learning from others. You know, you mentioned how much you look forward to working on teams a few times throughout this interview, and then again, referencing the people around you and how they question you and challenge you. So it sounds like, you know, making sure you’re not working in a silo is something that’s really important in education.

Jennifer Meeker (29:40):

Absolutely. We learn so much from each other. And why would you, why would you reinvent the wheel when you can take the wheel and just make it smoother?

Sam Demma (29:49):

Mm smart. I like it. Jen. Thank you so much for coming on the show today. If someone’s listening right now, inspired by it, wants to bounce some ideas around or have a conversation, what would be the best way for them to get in touch with you?

Jennifer Meeker (30:02):

They can reach out to me via email at jennifer.meeker@ugdsb.on.ca.

Sam Demma (30:08):

Awesome. Jenn, thank you so much. This was phenomenal. I appreciate you making the time, enjoy the rest of the year and we’ll talk soon.

Jennifer Meeker (30:15):

Thanks Sam. Take care. Thanks for having me.

Sam Demma (30:19):

Hey, it’s Sam again. I hope you enjoyed that amazing conversation on the High Performing Educator podcast. If you or someone, you know, deserves some extra recognition and appreciation for the work they do in education, please consider applying or nominating them for the high performing educator awards. Go to www.highperformingeducator.com/award. You can also find the link in the show notes. I’m super excited to spotlight and feature 20 people in 2022. And I’m hoping you, or someone you know, can be one of those educators. I’ll talk to you on the next episode, all the best.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Jennifer Meeker

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Peter Sovran – Director of Education at the Upper Grand District School Board

Peter Sovran – Director of Education at the Upper Grand District School Board
About Peter Sovran

Peter Sovran’s career portfolio over the past twenty-seven years has included a variety of high profile, extensive and demanding senior leadership positions with the Hamilton-Wentworth, York Region and Toronto District School Boards and the Ontario Ministry of Education.

He has a proven track record of strategic, transformative leadership that has resulted in impactful changes to public education in Ontario, with a particular focus on improving
student achievement, well-being and equity of outcomes. His commitment to addressing the gaps in student learning that exist due to systemic and historic barriers was further cemented during his two years working with the Anishinaabeg of Kabapikotawangag Resource Council First Nations School in north-western Ontario.

Peter is currently one of the longest serving Associate Directors of Education in the province. Prior to this role Peter was an Executive Superintendent and a Superintendent of Student Achievement. He has served as a Senior Manager and Senior Policy Advisor with the Ministry of Education, leading the provincial eLearning program and Early Reading/Early Math initiatives.

Peter has been an elementary school principal and vice-principal and has taught in all grade divisions, elementary and secondary, including adult education. A lifelong learner, Peter is pursuing his doctorate in educational leadership and policy at OISE/UofT. He holds a Master of Science in Behavioural Neuroscience from McGill University, a Bachelor of Education (Science and Math) and Bachelor of Science in Psychology and Biomedical Ethics from the University of Toronto.

An avid runner and cyclist, Peter has completed several races including seven marathons. He and his wife carve out time from their busy schedules to enjoy tennis, hikes and finding new local artisan shops. They have two adult children.

“I am very humbled and excited about the opportunity to work with the dedicated trustees, staff, and community partners that serve the students of the Upper Grand District School Board. Together, we will ensure that UGDSB continues its well-established position as a leader in learning, service excellence, and environmental literacy and is proudly reflective of the distinct communities within its boundaries.”

Peter officially commences in the role of Director of Education and Secretary-Treasurer on September 1, 2021. He will begin his transition process over the coming months.

Connect with Peter: Email | Twitter

Listen Now

Listen to the episode now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or on your favourite podcast platform.

Resources Mentioned

Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB)

Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB)

York Region District School Board (YRDSB)

Toronto District School Board (TDSB)

Ontario Ministry of Education

Anishinaabeg of Kabapikotawangag Resource Council First Nations School (AKRC)

Ontario Provincial eLearning program

Doctorate in educational leadership and policy at OISE/UofT

Behavioural Neuroscience at McGill University

Bachelor of Education at University of Toronto

Bachelor of Science in Psychology at University of Toronto

Biomedical Ethics at the University of Toronto

The Transcript

**Please note that all of our transcriptions come from rev.com and are 80% accurate. We’re grateful for the robots that make this possible and realize that it’s not a perfect process.

Sam Demma (00:00):

Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast.

Sam Demma (00:59):

This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is Peter Sovran. Peter Sovran’s career portfolio over the past 27 years has included a variety of high profile, extensive, and demanding senior leadership positions with the Hamilton Wentworth York region and Toronto district school boards, and the Ontario ministry of education. He has a proven track record of strategic transformative leadership that has resulted in impactful changes to public education in Ontario, with a particular focus on improving student achievement, wellbeing and equity of outcomes. His commitment to addressing the gaps in student learning that exist due to systemic and historic barriers was further cemented during his two years, working with the Anishinaabeg of Kabapikotawangag Resource Council First Nations School in north-western Ontario. Peter is currently one of the longest serving associate directors of education in the province. Prior to his role, Peter was an executive superintendent and a superintendent of student achievement.

Sam Demma (01:58):

He has served as a senior manager and senior policy advisor with the ministry of education, leading the provincial eLearning program in early reading, early math initiatives. Peter has been an elementary school principal and vice principal, and is taught in all grade divisions,; elementary and secondary, including adult education. A lifelong learner. Peter is pursuing his doctorate in educational leadership and policy at OISE, University of Toronto. He holds a master of science and behavioral neuroscience from McGill University, a bachelor of education, science and math, and a bachelor of science in psychology and biomedical ethics from the University of Toronto. An avid runner and cyclist, Peter has completed several races, including seven marathons. He and his wife carve out time for their busy schedule to enjoy tennis, hikes, and finding new local artesian shops. They also have two adult children. I hope you enjoyed this conversation with Peter. It was a pleasure to speak with him and I will see you on the other side. Peter, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show. Please start by introducing yourself.

Peter Sovran (03:01):

Well, hi Sam. So pleased to be here. So I’m Peter Sovran. I’m the director of education for the Upper Grand District School Board.

Sam Demma (03:10):

When did you realize as a young professional, or even as a student that you wanted to work in education when you grew up?

Peter Sovran (03:19):

Huh? That’s right. That is a great question. My my career and and career aspirations have taken many, many turns. I think I started off wanted to be a professional baseball player. So that was that didn’t happen. And so then I then I pursued you know my postsecondary education and thought I’d be a, a neuroscientist. Wow. Went, went off to to do my graduate work. And and then I, I realized a couple of things. One was sort of a force of nature and that is that I’m severely, severely allergic to the particular animals that I was working with when I was doing experiments. Wow. <laugh> and so I got to thinking, do I wanna do this for the rest of my life? And while I was in graduate school, I really enjoyed you know, the teaching side of things. And so I started looking into that and talked to a bunch of people and started doing some some volunteering in schools. And, you know, as they say, kind of the rest is history,

Sam Demma (04:39):

Take me back for a moment to the baseball days. When did that dream become something you chased and at what time in your life did you put it on the shelf in terms of the aspiration to one day play professionally?

Peter Sovran (04:55):

Oh, I think pretty quickly. I think I was you know, sort of a young teenager and realized that while I was a pretty good pitcher I was a pretty good pitcher for, you know, my local league had a tryout with the under 18 team Canada. Didn’t make it. And I thought, well, if I didn’t make it past the preliminary stages of that triad camp, then I’m not sure I wanted to spend my entire early twenties traveling in minor league ballparks.

Sam Demma (05:32):

Nice. I love it. You mentioned severe allergies as well to the animals. Was this a physical response that you would experience or what was the paint, the picture? What did it look like?

Peter Sovran (05:43):

<Laugh> it, it was, yeah, I I had packed my bags. I had moved to, to Montreal to attend McGill university deliberately picked it because, you know, it’s one of our great Canadian postsecondary institutions, particularly in the area of neuroscience. And as I began working with the rats that I was gonna be doing experiments with, cuz they’re great at running around mazes and you know as you’re studying learning and memory systems, which is what I was really interested in in, in looking at I had a severe allergic reaction and so had a hard time breathing and spent the next couple of years running the experiments with you know, seems like people would be so used to it today, but I had to wear an industrial mask. And and so it wasn’t, it wasn’t all that pleasant. And as I said, it was probably a sign that I wasn’t meant to do this.

Sam Demma (06:49):

So you made the decision to get the teaching degree because you enjoyed the teaching aspect of the job. What did the journey look like from that moment forward that brought you to where you are today?

Peter Sovran (07:01):

Yeah, so began my teaching career and I began in high schools and I was math science teacher, which sort of goes hand in hand with studying neuroscience. Weren’t too many jobs at that time. So my first job I took was actually in an elementary school, my former elementary school to be precise. And I started working alongside some teachers who had taught me. So that was that was pretty interesting. <Laugh> and and back then whenever you had the lowest seniority in a school, you were let go from that school and you were let go from the school board. And so that happened year after year. And even though that seems like a horrible way to start off your career, it provided opportunities, provided opportunities to go to different schools and teach in different grades, meet different people.

Peter Sovran (08:02):

And I think that that also helped you know, develop my my real interest for not only teaching in high schools and in elementary schools, but all grades. So by the time I moved in to becoming a principal, I had pretty well taught every grade or experienced every grade. And as I look back now, that was just a, a great opportunity. So I did that. And and then I had this unique opportunity to go work on a project with the ministry of education. And that connected me back to, you know, my science roots. I went there and I stayed for about six and a half years. Wow. Took on a whole bunch of different jobs there became a senior policy advisor. So I learned that side of things as well as education, I learned all of the, the policy side of the work.

Peter Sovran (09:01):

And then became a principal went back to the ministry of education and ran e-learning Ontario, which is sort of the online learning for the for the province. That was really cool. And and then I became a superintendent of education. Did that for a number of years became an associate director. And and then this past September became the director here on the upper grant district school board. So as I said, lots of twists and turns, but each one of them was a learning opportunity. And at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about is continuously learning.

Sam Demma (09:40):

What, first of all, remarkable pathway, everyone I ask has a totally different journey to where they are today. It sounds like you’ve had your interests and curiosity pull you in so many different directions, which gives you such a broad perspective and diverse set of skills. What though keeps you curious and motivated to get up every day and continuously pursue new knowledge and do this work?

Peter Sovran (10:07):

Yeah, it’s that’s a great question. And it’s you know, that’ss, that’s the key, right? Is why, why do we get up each day and wanna keep doing what we’re doing? And so you’ll see from from my background, this is my office. You know, my office has a nice a chalkboard. If you were to see my desk, it’s it’s an old wooden teacher’s desk and I’ve got all the modern features there as well, but the reason why I’ve, I’ve, I’ve always wanted to set up my office in this way, is that each and every day, I need to be reminded the reason I come to work, the reason why the so-called corner office exists is to make sure that the decisions that we make help students with their pathways. Mm-Hmm, <affirmative>, that’s the passion, that’s the drive and sort of the blend of the, the modern and, you know, some of the traditional is also one of those things that drives me.

Peter Sovran (11:07):

What, what else can we do? That’s, that’s different, that’s new, that’s exciting, like doing a podcast with you you know, over zoom, right. We wouldn’t have done this a couple of years ago. Yeah. But you know, so that to me is still super exciting. Until every student can fulfill their own pathway, their own desires, then there’s work to do mm-hmm, <affirmative>, there’s something interesting to pursue, and it doesn’t have to be, you know, graduating from, from high school. But you know I had, I had a group of students a couple weekends ago, I went out to a performance that three of our high school bands had gone together and, and were doing this charity event. And so I had the opportunity to to speak with them as they were rehearsing in the afternoon.

Peter Sovran (12:01):

And you know, one of them asked me a question and they said, if you had a magic button, you could press and change things, you know, for the better what would you do? And I thought that was a great question. And, you know, my answer was I would press that button and enable every student to pursue what they wanted to learn and how they wanted to learn it. Mm. That would be one magic button. So that, but that, that’s what keeps it coming every day to to the job, because it’s the pursuit of that magic button. Really.

Sam Demma (12:39):

I love that perspective as someone who spent most of their life, chasing a dream that other people happen to deem as unrealistic. I, I will, I grew up on to play professional soccer. And by the age of 17, after three career ending, knee injuries realized it wasn’t gonna happen. Found myself lost. And I valued school very high up until that point, because it was a means to me getting a better soccer scholarship. If I had higher grades and the athletics, I could get a full ride scholarship to a school in the states. And after it fell apart, I felt a little lost and didn’t know what I wanted to pursue and ended up taking a fifth year of high school and then a gap year both of which made me feel like maybe I was following behind or making the wrong choice. And I think it was so important that I had people in my life who during those moments reminded me that every pathway is a valid option, you know, in every learner, it takes a slightly different path. And if every student could be encouraged to pursue their path and help help to realize that there is no correct or right or wrong choice, I think that would take a lot of weight off their shoulders.

Peter Sovran (13:52):

Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, that, that’s that’s, the goal is you know, find what your passion is, what your interest is, and that can change, you know, you don’t have to set your course and, and have your learning driven that way. And through that passion and that interest, as opposed to it’s Tuesday, you know, so we have to learn this.

Sam Demma (14:15):

Mm, got it. When you think about educators who have been impactful in your life, who comes to mind and maybe it’s, it could be a formal classroom teacher, but it could also be anyone you’ve crossed path with who has had a significant impact on who you are and the way you see the world today.

Peter Sovran (14:34):

Yeah. It’s I, I think about that a lot. I had I had a great teacher grade seven and eight. Mm. And music teacher. And and while I don’t consider myself a musician that was a turning point in my life. It was an opportunity to be part of something bigger, which was a band and to, to play in a band. And and this teacher, you know saw something in me that suggested that I had some leadership qualities. And so I became the band leader in, in grade eight after spending grade seven, you know, really studying and learning the instrument for the very first time. And you know, I look back and that was one of those turning points. You know, this this belief that you could be a leader and someone who not only said it, but then, you know, work to develop some of those leadership skills.

Peter Sovran (15:34):

So I think of I think of that teacher, I think of you know, some some principles who I had both as a student but then also as a, as a teacher and then as a principal, myself, you know, colleagues who were just great listeners. Mm. And and you know, when I look back, I always think of the people who made the most impact on me were the ones who you know, let me take a chance, let me, they, they actually allowed me to, to fail, but with kinda a safety net. Hmm. And you know, and that’s something I, I always wanna carry with me and, and hope to, you know, inspire others with as well that you learn, you learn so much from taking a risk and taking a chance and sometimes yeah. Making mistakes.

Sam Demma (16:37):

You mentioned listening as one of the qualities of a leader, you know, people in your life that listened really intently, left an impact on you. What are some of the other qualities you think make up a great school leader, whether it be a principal or a superintendent or a teacher. Cause I think everyone in the school is a leader in some way, shape or form whether it’s leading colleagues or leading students. Yeah. I’m curious to know your thoughts on, on some of the qualities.

Peter Sovran (17:08):

Yeah. and again, your, your point around everyone’s a leader in, in one way or another. And so leadership qualities aren’t reserved just for those formal leadership positions. Yep. And so definitely listening is a real key. But also, you know making sure that as you listen, and as you, as you gather, people’s voice that your decisions are informed decisions that people are involved in decisions that you make together. Mm. And I think that that is such an important quality for, for anyone in a leadership position is that you know, you involve people not, not at the end, but at the beginning. And then, you know, I, I would say strong leaders also need to be decisive. Strong leaders need to be accountable. And you know, in, in a lot of the reading that I, I do about leadership some of the the things that would always stand out would be that you know, great leaders are the ones who take the responsibility when things don’t go well, always, always, and they always keep the praise on everyone else when things go well, because inevitably it’s the team effort that gets you, you know your results.

Peter Sovran (18:37):

So take the responsibility when it doesn’t go well and give credit when it does to the others.

Sam Demma (18:44):

Ah, I love that. You mentioned reading when in your life did reading nonfiction books become, and maybe it’s your whole life, but what, was there a tipping point where you fell in love with books on a continuous pursuit of knowledge? And if, if there was, I’m curious to know along the journey, what, what are some books that have stood out to you if you can recall some of them?

Peter Sovran (19:05):

Yeah, absolutely. So the one that I would just referenced would be Jim Collins. Good to great. You would come into my office, you would see it prominently displayed in my office. I refer back to it a whole lot. And I’m

Sam Demma (19:20):

Surprised you don’t have some fly wheels on your board back there. <Laugh> yeah,

Peter Sovran (19:26):

I I’ve always preferred nonfiction. I’ve really thoroughly enjoy reading biographies. Yes. About about politicians, about athletes, about, you know, inspirational leaders about people in general you know, people’s lives are fascinating. And I think as you, as you dig in whether it’s an autobiography or a biography and, and you learn about you know, people’s journeys there’s so much to glean from that. And for me, it, it’s just a reminder that nobody does anything on their own. It’s all in a context, it’s a context of, you know, whether it’s your family, whether it’s your friends, whether it’s your colleagues, whether it’s your, you know people that surround you, then nobody, nobody ever does anything on their own. And and so as I read these nonfiction and particularly these biographies, I’m always intrigued by, you know, what people have had to overcome and how they’ve you know, relied on others or as you described, you know, some of these important people in your life that you just go to and you think, wow, see, I always thought that person just was completely self made and became this instant, you know, in inspirational leader and successful person.

Peter Sovran (20:52):

And yet even they had that turning point or they had that person that they lean on.

Sam Demma (20:58):

Hmm. Yeah. I, I think you’re absolutely correct. Every, even the ones that appear like an overnight success often have so many things to share in interviews and that can disprove those assumptions about the people that helped them, how long it took for them to build what they did build. There’s a book called principles by Ray Dalio. And he has this one, maybe have you read it.

Peter Sovran (21:23):

I know it. Yep.

Sam Demma (21:24):

Yeah. So there’s one chapter and the title is, you know, you can have anything, but you can’t have everything. And I think this same applies to whatever you choose to pursue in life, but there should be an ad that you can have anything but not alone. <Laugh> yeah. Good point. Yeah. Because I think you’re absolutely right in saying it’s always the result of a collective effort or in some way, the influence of other people that you’ve met along your own journey. When you think about the people that impacted you you know, your grade seven teacher the colleagues and principals you have ha have had along the way, are there any that you still stay in touch with closely to this day?

Peter Sovran (22:09):

Well, that, that great seven teacher, I still stay connected with him. Nice. And still have a friendship after all of these years. And it’s been many, many years. Wow. I would say pretty well, everyone who I would describe as having had an impact if they’re if they’re still with us I make an effort to to stay connected with them. And and, and also, you know whether it’s this new role that I took on last September. And perhaps I had, you know, connected with someone for a little while I’d reach out and say you know, I’m doing what I’m doing right now, largely because of the impact you had on my life. And I think it’s so important to remind people of that.

Sam Demma (22:58):

I, I love it. I try and stay in touch with my grade 12 world issues teacher who had a big impact on me. And I can tell that every time I reach out to him, he has this sense of gratitude because maybe sometimes educators don’t hear it often enough from their students or their colleagues, the difference that their actions and choices make in the lives of others. Books have been a big part of your life. How else do you fill your own cup when you’re not working in the office?

Peter Sovran (23:27):

Hmm. So a couple of things. I for my own self care, I I run and I try and run usually four or five times a week with that comes the other setbacks with injuries which I’m dealing with right now. Oh, no. And you know, and so, and, and I run both for my mental wellbeing and for my physical wellbeing. But when it comes to the work I deliberately don’t spend a whole lot of time in my physical office. I spend time in different places within our school board. And I make a point there’s one day a week that I spend in schools and in classrooms. And sometimes it’s two days a week. And I always say the reason I have to be in schools and in classrooms to interact with students and with teachers and, you know, office administrators and caretakers is that that’s where the rubber hits the road. That’s where the action happens. That’s where the impact is. And as the leader of the organization, I need to be right there and see it and, and hear it. And so that absolutely fills my cup. I will say to people best part of my week is always when I’m in schools.

Sam Demma (24:58):

Hmm. There’s so many amazing things happening in schools. I’m sure you’re quite inspired by walking through the hallways, stopping in classrooms, hearing the discussions, but over the past two years, there’s also been an equal affair of challenges with shifts. And, you know, I shouldn’t say the word cuz they’re moving out of it now, but COVID, <laugh> I’m sure there’s been moments where teachers have maybe even reached out to you burnt out people that you’ve inspired looking for some advice or insights. If you were to paint a hypothetical situation of a teacher walking into your, your office, which you’re very rarely in any ways, which makes us more hypothetical and they sat down and tears in their eyes telling you, you know, this has been one of the hardest years of my life. I’m feeling burnt out. I’m not feeling inspired. You know, do you have any words of advice for me, if you could kind of share a quick little blurb for teachers who might be feeling this way right now, what would you share or tell them?

Peter Sovran (25:59):

Yeah. so it, it’s not even a hypothetical Sam it’s it’s, it’s the reality that you know, going back to, you know, the context everybody’s lived in the context of of COVID and the global pandemic for you know, since March of 2020, I remember that day leaving March 20, 20 thinking okay. A couple of weeks we’ll, we’ll be back, we’ll be back. And we’ll just pick things up. And here we are June of two and you know, the, as difficult as it’s been for students the absolute champions of education have been all of the educators, you know, the teachers, the educational assistants, everybody that works in the system they managed to leave in March of 2020, and within two weeks went from, you know, a physical classroom to, to this, to, you know, a laptop, maybe a camera and all of a sudden they had to take their craft and completely reinvent how they engage with students.

Peter Sovran (27:19):

So I’d say, you know, what you’ve done over the last two years has made a difference. It’s made a huge difference, you know? Yeah. I, when I was a principal, I used to always end my, the, the staff meetings with this one slide, what you do matters. And it’s so true what you do in a school, connecting with a student, listening, teaching it matters and it’s mattered more so in the last two years than probably ever before, because teachers and everyone that works with students, they’ve not only been able to connect with them, but they’ve also shown them that despite a global pandemic, despite the biggest curve ball, if I could use a, a baseball analogy that was that was thrown at you you know, we persevere, we, we pick ourselves up, we dust ourselves off and we focus on what matters the most, which is that human connection.

Peter Sovran (28:33):

And so, yeah, it’s been incredibly tough. There is no question about it. And you know, the other reminder is that, you know, our, our leaders in our schools, our teachers or principals, and, you know, again, our caretakers are off staff. They also have lives outside of school. Yeah. That have been, that have been impacted, you know, they’re caring for other people. They’re worried about other people they’re, they’re worried about themselves. And so, yeah, it’s, it’s been so incredibly difficult, but I would say that, you know our sector in education, I mean, you know, our, our healthcare workers have been heroes through this, but I would put our educators, you know, right up there. You’ve made the difference. You’ve been the ones who have been on the other side of the screen for your students who have otherwise felt, you know, disconnected and lost. So I’m just like everyone, you know, planning for a return in September that will not go back to the way things work. Cause I think we shouldn’t do that. We should never try and go back. We should always, you know, learn from the situations that we’re in take, what’s worked and, and keep moving forward. But I really do hope that September and the fall looks different than it has these last two falls.

Sam Demma (30:08):

You positioned it perfectly. <Laugh> different is a good, good way to put it. I know it’s been a challenge, not only for staff in schools, but for superintendents like yourself, anyone who worked in education. And in fact, I would say humanity as a whole has had a challenge, no matter what industry or, you know, vocation, you worked in. The challenge that I sometimes think about often is those educators that just began teaching and their first year was in the middle of the pandemic who didn’t have, you know, 10 years of previous teaching experience to compare it to, and maybe had been thinking to themselves, what the heck did I sign up for? I, I’m curious to know if you could go back in time to your first few years working in education with the experience you have now, what advice would you have given to your younger self when you were just starting that you think may have been helpful to hear, and maybe it’s something we’ve already chatted about that you can reiterate or some new thoughts?

Peter Sovran (31:14):

Hmm. Yeah. I I would definitely say to myself, you don’t have all the answers, so look to others <laugh> mm. Number one, number two it, it’s okay to, to make a mistake and to take a risk and you know, within, within reason. Right. and and if it’s because you’re, you’re trying to do something to, you know, I improve the lives of others then you’re always on the right side of that. And and so I, I would, I would definitely say that, you know, those who have come into the profession during the pandemic or into a new position and, you know, I include myself as one of those people. You know, I became the director of education here in the upper grand district school board on September, the first of, in the midst of a pandemic.

Peter Sovran (32:19):

You realized though that even though you were teaching or leading, you know, with a mask on perhaps and sanitizing your hands more than you’ve probably ever done in your life <laugh> and that you were, you know, shifting from being in person to then being back in lockdown to doing things virtually that fundamentally one thing has not changed. And that connecting with people has always number one, the number was that teacher that I was, you know, almost 30 years ago to someone who’s just now started just remember that whether you’re connecting through zoom or teams or in person always keep those connections open, build those networks you know talk to talk to others who, you know, have, have walked in your path before I’ll share this story. When I first started this job you know, I I, I took over for Dr.

Peter Sovran (33:30):

Martha Rogers, who had been the director of education, the only director of education that the upper district school board had ever had. Wow. She had been, she had been in the role for 26 and a years. She was the founding director of education, you know, the, the first and only ever CEO that the organization had. And you know, sadly we lost DRS in December. So I had a really short period of time where I had that opportunity to connect with her. And every two weeks we would have coffee together and and conversation and lots of conversation. And it was my chance to, you know, pick her brain about you know, her 26 and a half years of, of running the organization. And it was also her opportunity to pick my brain about what’s this guy gonna be doing now that I’ve handed over this organization after 26 and a half years.

Peter Sovran (34:33):

And what it speaks to is, you know, that human connection and realizing that we can all learn from each other all the time. And as long as you’re open to that, you have to be open to that. You’ll keep moving forward. Once you start thinking you have all the answers that nobody can tell you how might be able so or different then it’s, then it’s time to take a really hard look at am I, am I really coming into the job each and every day, because I love doing it still or is it time to do something else? And it doesn’t matter what profession or what job you’re in. Everybody gets to that point

Sam Demma (35:18):

What a great piece of advice, especially towards the start or end of a new academic year to reflect on, I think to set our sales in the correct direction and be honest, if it’s not something that lights your soul then it’s okay to shift your sail as well. We need people who really want to be in education to be in education and it sounds like your conversations with Martha had a significant impact on you and testament to her and the human connection that I hope everyone strives to have with their colleagues and their students. This has been an awesome conversation Peter. Thank you so much for taking the time to call on the podcast. If someone wants to reach out to you, ask a question pick your brain, <laugh> absorb some of your genius, what would be the best way for them to reach out or get in touch?

Peter Sovran (36:11):

You know we’re always available at the Upper Grand District School Board. You just drop a line to our general inquiry. Give us a phone call you know, we’re, we’re on the web at ugdsb.on.ca. You’ll able to find you know, our contact information. And I love working with people who who are interested in, in leadership in, in any capacity and it doesn’t have to be just in education. And of course I will shamelessly say, I’m always, always looking for people who are, are passionate about working with students. And you know, this school board is an amazing place to work. So if you want reach out and you know, share your, share your passion for for working with students and making their lives better because that’s what it’s all about.

Sam Demma (37:13):

Awesome. Peter, thanks again for doing this. It was a pleasure chatting with you. Keep up the amazing work and I look forward to chatting with you soon.

Peter Sovran (37:21):

My pleasure.

Sam Demma (37:23):

Hey, it’s Sam again. I hope you enjoyed that amazing conversation on the High Performing Educator podcast. If you or someone, you know, deserves some extra recognition and appreciation for the work they do in education, please consider applying or nominating them for the high performing educator awards. Go to www.highperformingeducator.com/award. You can also find the link in the show notes. I’m super excited to spotlight and feature 20 people in 2022. And I’m hoping you, or someone you know, can be one of those educators. I’ll talk to you on the next episode, all the best.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Peter Sovran

The High Performing Educator Podcast was brought to life during the outbreak of COVID-19 to provide you with inspirational stories and practical advice from your colleagues in education.  By tuning in, you will hear the stories and ideas of the world’s brightest and most ambitious educators.  You can expect interviews with Principals, Teachers, Guidance Counsellors, National Student Association, Directors and anybody that works with youth. You can find and listen to all the episodes for free here.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd – Superintendent of the Victoria Independent School District and Adjunct Faculty at the University of Houston, Victoria

Dr. Quintin Shepherd - Superintendent of the Victoria Independent School District and Adjunct Faculty at the University of Houston, Victoria
About Dr. Quintin Shepherd

Dr. Shepherd (@QShepherd) is in his fourth year as Superintendent for the Victoria Independent School District. When he came to Victoria, his first priority was to listen to the voice of the community, parents, staff, and students.

From that, he invited those stakeholders to be a part of shaping the future of the District. Members of those groups have been, and continue to, work collaboratively with District leadership to make recommendations as we build that future to meet the current and future needs of Victoria students and the community.

Dr. Shepherd also serves as Adjunct Faculty at the University of Houston, Victoria. Recently, Dr. Shepherd published the popular “The Secret to Transformational Leadership.”

Connect with Quintin: Email | LinkedIn | Twitter

Listen Now

Listen to the episode now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or on your favourite podcast platform.

Resources Mentioned

Victoria Independent School District

University of Houston

The Secret to Transformational Leadership Book

P-Tech Schools

Advanced Placement

The Transcript

**Please note that all of our transcriptions come from rev.com and are 80% accurate. We’re grateful for the robots that make this possible and realize that it’s not a perfect process.

Sam Demma (00:00):

Welcome back to the high performing educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. The High Performing Educator was created to provide you with opportunities for personal development directly from your colleagues and peers. Each episode is like sitting face to face with a colleague in education at an amazing conference and chatting about their best practices, their learnings, their philosophies, and the mindset shifts that allow them to be successful in education today. If you enjoy these episodes that air Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, each week, please consider leaving a rating on the show on iTunes, so more educators can find it. And if you would like to receive emails that include inspiring videos for your students and actionable ideas for yourself and your staff, please visit www.highperformingeducator.com. Sign up, join the network, and I will see you on the other side of this conversation. Welcome back to the High Performing Educator podcast.

Sam Demma (00:59):

This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is Dr. Quintin Shepherd.. Dr. Shepherd is in his fourth year as superintendent for the Victoria Independent School District. When he came to Victoria, his first priority was to listen to the voice of the community, parents, staff, and students. From that, he invited those stakeholders to be part of shaping the future of the district, which you’ll hear all about in today’s interview. Members of those groups have been and continue to work collaboratively with district leadership to make recommendations as we begin building that future to meet the current and future needs of Victoria students and the community. Dr. Shepherd also serves as adjunct faculty at University of Houston, Victoria. And recently, Dr. Shepherd published the popular book, the secret to transformational leadership, which we will talk a lot about today. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Dr. Shepherd and I will see you on the other side. Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today we are joined by Dr. Quintin Shepherd from San Antonio, Texas,. Quintin, please start by introducing yourself.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (02:12):

<Laugh> my name is Quintin Shepherd. I’m currently in San Antonio by I, I, I reside in Victoria, which is a few hours east of here, southeast of here. I’ve been a superintendent for 18 years in three different states. Prior to that, I was a high school principal. Before that I was an elementary principal and, and what seems like almost a lifetime ago, I got to teach pre-K through 12th grade music every day, and it was awesome. Seeing the three year olds all the way up through the 18 year olds. I guess the other thing that’s that’s relevant is in my spare time, I, I teach at the University and I get to teach ed leadership for folks who are aspiring to be principals or, or superintendents and I also get to teach school law.

Sam Demma (02:53):

When did you realize growing up as a youngster, that education was gonna be the pathway you would take in the future?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (03:01):

One of my, one of my favorite sayings of all time is that little boys grow up to do what their mothers want them to do, but they do it in a way that their fathers would’ve done it <laugh>, which I think is like appropriate for a lot of men that I know. My mom was a school teacher. My grandfather actually her, her, her dad, he had an eighth grade education and lived on a farm, a working farm, and he was a school custodian. So he would get up at four o’clock in the morning and do chores, and then he’d go off and be a school custodian all day and then come home in the evening and do chores. And so I guess education is sort of in my blood. And like I said, my mom was a teacher taught kindergarten for a number of years, almost her entire career.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (03:42):

And I sort of resisted the call into education, but I think it was a foregone conclusion that I was gonna get into education. And shortly after I started as a teacher, I came to realize that there’s really only two groups of people who work in schools. There are those who teach, and there are those who support teachers. And I was a pretty good teacher. I think I was a pretty good teacher, but I wasn’t my mom, like my mom was an amazing teacher. She was one of these walk on water teachers. And I recognized that my calling and education was to be the number one chief supporter of teachers, and to try to make their job as easy as possible, try to keep the, you know, the, the politics away from the classroom and the, and, you know, do what I could to support, support what needs to happen in the classroom. And that’s where I found my calling.

Sam Demma (04:29):

You realize education is gonna be your pathway. What did the journey look like from that moment forward?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (04:37):

It was when you’re first outta college, it’s you know, you, you’re, you’re trying to sort out what direction is, is, is your life gonna take? And at the time applied for just about every job you could, you could imagine. And I landed in a small country school in rural Illinois, and it was, it was from there it’s, it’s a matter of one foot in front of the other, every step along the way. It’s, it’s recognizing that, you know, you, you have this dream and you have this vision and you want things to go a certain way, but sometimes life doesn’t see it that way. And sometimes life throws the opportunities that you didn’t see coming curve balls, for instance. And so you, you take a swing at every one of those and you miss some, you miss a lot of them, but then some of them you hit and it’s, it’s things like that.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (05:19):

That’s, that’s how I ended up at Victoria, Texas. Quite frankly, I was a superintendent in Illinois for a number of years. And then I moved to Iowa and, you know, things were going along splendidly and, and this opportunity came up to come down and meet the school board in Victoria, Texas. And you swing it, you swing at the pictures that are thrown at you. And it, it was the best move I could have possibly made. I’m doing some of the best work of my life and, and, and really feeling great about, you know, the work that’s happening.

Sam Demma (05:47):

Tell, tell us a little bit about why you’re in San Antonio, Texas right now. I know we talked about it before the podcast started, but what’s going on?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (05:55):

Yeah, so summer for for school administrators, a and for school board members, we try to focus on some pretty deep learning. So right now what’s going on in San Antonio is a statewide Texas conference for school board members. It’s designed for school board members, TAs V, Texas association of school boards. And it’s called the summer summer leadership Institute. And so school board members from all over the state of Texas come together for this conference and do some pretty intense learning for, for three days, which seems kind of unremarkable because educators do it all the time. Right. But you have to remember, these are volunteers. Yeah. These are people who have real jobs that pay real money, that they need to support their families. And they choose to come here for three days during the summer to keep up their learning. And that’s just a Testament to, you know, how, how committed they are to making sure that we have great public schools. And I just, so, so for a superintendent to be here and support their board, it’s just, it’s, it’s an awesome experience.

Sam Demma (06:49):

You mentioned that you realized shortly into your journey in education, that leadership was going to be your calling, or should I say supporting teachers and being the chief supporting officer <laugh>. I love that phrase. Yeah. When you realized that, what transition did you make and what started your deep interest and passion for leadership itself?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (07:13):

So my passion for leadership was, was really just this recognition that pretty, pretty soon after I started as a principal. I mean, when you’re doing the job as a principal, essentially, there’s a couple of things I’m gonna say. The first part is it’s a performance, just like when you first started as a teacher, like the first day in the classroom in front of kids, <laugh>, you’re performing a role in your mind, you know, what a teacher should be doing and what they should look like and how they should dress and so on and so forth. And you’re performing and you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re just doing the best you can. And and I recognize that the same is true for principles that when you start as a principal, there’s no, you’re, you’re playing by the rules as they’re handed to you.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (07:54):

Right. And so you do what your principal did or what the principal before you did. And that’s how a lot of leadership training takes place is by mimicry. Frankly. And then I, I became a superintendent and same thing, same exact thing. And after a year or two of figuring out how to play the game by the rules, as they’re handed to you, then you come to realize this, the same thing as a teacher, it’s true for a superintendent that maybe these rules aren’t right for me. Mm. Like they’re not the way that I’m supposed to be doing it. And the best way to describe it is, is it was like a suit that didn’t fit. Mm. And so start to change rules a little bit and say, look, we can do this thing differently. And when I started to do that, I, I came up on this, this recognition that I think a lot of how we’re doing public school leadership were just doing it wrong, quite frankly, mm-hmm <affirmative>.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (08:46):

And I couldn’t articulate it any better than that at the time. But I just felt like when I was reaching out to my community or when I was reaching out to my teachers, it just wasn’t working. I didn’t feel like I was connected to them because we’re gonna adopt a new curriculum here. We went out and did all this research. Here’s a curriculum, and we need you to do the summer professional development or training or whatever. And it’s like, it falls flat on its face. And you start to hear that the, you know, district office is disconnected from what’s happening in the classroom. And like all these things that, you know, it’s, it’s happens everywhere in education, and this is fairly, fairly commonplace. And so I started to flip the paradigm on its head as far as how I do leadership. And when I, when I came to recognize that is as a superintendent, there’s only two types of decisions that ever come to my desk. They’re either complicated or they’re complex. Now, if they’re complicated, there’s just one right. Answer. There’s one way to do it. So like a math problem, they’re complicated, right? Disassembling an aircraft engine and putting it back together. That’s complicated. Like, I’m not gonna ask you do that. Right. I’m guessing you, you’re not an aerospace engineer.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (09:53):

Complex is inherently unknowable complex. Doesn’t have one right answer. Mm. So what’s the best way to educate kids during a pandemic? Well, that’s a complex question. So what I committed to in my leadership is that anytime I’m faced with a complex issue, I will go to the people who are gonna be most impacted by that decision and give them the greatest voice. Mm. So for instance, with the pandemic, for a pandemic response plan, we went to the teachers first and we said, what would you do? How would you address this problem? And so we had about 700 teachers help us write our pandemic response plan had about 500 kids had over a thousand community members. So imagine this over 2000 people, co-authored this document. And we literally took their language and put it into the document. And then when we represented it to the community, the community’s response isn’t to judge the superintendent on his ability to write a pandemic response plan. Cause I didn’t write it. Yeah. The community says, we wrote this and this is pretty freaking awesome. Let’s get the work. And so really the, the leadership journey for me has been around. That’s how you support teachers, you support teachers by giving ’em a bigger voice in the complex issues that are facing education.

Sam Demma (11:03):

What an awesome way to craft a response plan. I would assume other districts heard about the success and maybe ask, how the heck did you facilitate this? Like, can you give me an, an idea of how long it took to craft that or how quick the turnaround was? And were there any challenges through the process?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (11:23):

It was couple, two or three weeks, at least from start to finish, which seems remarkably fast, but essentially, and we were doing it during the pandemic, which remember that meant that we were having these mega zoom meetings of 5, 6, 700 people at a time. Wow. And when we went to the students, that was crazy. I mean, imagine putting 500 middle school students in one zoom <laugh> and we did crazy, right. I mean, but we, we did it. And part of what we, part of what we did was not just let somebody come off mute that wouldn’t make any sense at all. What we wanted to do was crowdsource good ideas. So we’re, we worked with a company called thought exchange and we pitched the question to our kids and to our teachers. And, and there were lots of different questions, but as an example, what things should we focus on?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (12:06):

So that students have access to technology or what are biggest barriers to technology. And then every single teacher of the 700 who logged on, had a chance to respond. And then they had a chance to read the other 699 teachers. Wow. And what they said, and they could give them stars. So they were like, oh, that’s really, really smart. I didn’t think about that. Or no, that’s kind of dumb. We don’t need you to think about that. And it doesn’t matter because the whole thing’s anonymous. But by doing that then of 700 people who shared over a thousand thoughts, the, the smartest in the room go to the top, the stuff we should most focus on because they got the most stars. So that’s literally crowdsourcing great ideas. And so that was the language say top 15, 20%. That was the language that we then put in the pandemic response plan.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (12:51):

And then when we went to their students, we started with that and said, okay, students, this is what the teachers have said, what are your thoughts and questions about that? And then we crowdsourced that, right. And made the document that much more robust. So it took on like almost this three dimensional that shape. And then when we had done that, since we knew the kids were gonna be probably second most impacted by its decisions, parents would be third, most impacted. So then we went to the parents’ third and said, okay, now we’ve had teachers and students, what are your thoughts and questions? Mm, well then it turned into a whole other conversation about what needs to happen at home to support learning. So Sam, it was just this really interesting, fast and iterative process where we were constantly adapting and evolving in a, in a really rapid cycle. And we do that for any, anything that’s complex, which could be bonds or redistricting or closing schools. I mean, we’ve tackled some things that typically get lots of people fired and communities in an uproar and in our community largely says, Hey, thanks for giving me a voice in the process. This has been awesome.

Sam Demma (13:52):

I’m thinking it would’ve been really nice if I interviewed you two years ago. <Laugh> <laugh> because this, I mean, the cool thing is that this process is something that could be repeated with tons of complex issues. But I know being in Canada, there were so many school districts and superintendents struggling to find a way to create a really great response to the COVID pandemic. And in Canada, it was really bad. Like we, you know, everything shut down and stayed, shut down for a very long time. Students fell behind on learning. You know,

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (14:27):

Well, but even, even now though, I mean, we’re, as we’re coming out of the pandemic, this is still like, we’re doing the exact same thing now. But the new question is what things should we do to post the learning gap for those students who are behind more importantly, like there’s, there’s so many iterations on this. We’re also talking about what sorts of things should we focus on when it comes to student wellbeing and mental health and we were, we’re going directly to the kids. Nice. And so, so I’m, we’re actually kicking off. I’ve been told that we’re kicking off the largest participatory budgeting experiment in the history of the United States. Wow. We set aside 5 million of our Sr funding and we’re, we’re literally gonna go to each of our high schools and say here’s $500,000. And we want it to focus on student mental wellness and mental health.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (15:12):

And 250,000 is carved out for the kids themselves. So we’re basically gonna take this pile of cash to our high school students and say, how would you spend this money in a way that helps us solve the mental health crisis? So like the timing couldn’t even be better to share ideas like this, because I think this idea about mental health or closing achievement gaps or learning gaps, or what students are worried about as they transition into college or on and on and on the number of questions out there is endless. And what, what better time to just tackle them

Sam Demma (15:42):

Tackling tough questions over the past two years sounds like something you’ve done a lot of, and I’m sure it consumes a ton of your time. You also found the time to write a book <laugh> like, tell me, tell me about it, what inspired it? And what’s it all about?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (15:57):

I think the, the book had been on my mind for about a decade, as I said previously, I I’ve just, you know, been doing D leadership differently and, and seeing others, I’m not the only one doing it this way. Yeah. But seeing others do leadership differently, but that we lack maybe a common language around what it is that we’re doing and how we’re doing it. And so I’d been kicking around this idea of, of writing a book for several years, the pandemic just presented itself as a great opportunity to sit down and actually get my thoughts down on paper and or digitally, I guess <laugh> dating myself a bit. But, but essentially I wanted to make it very approachable. Like I tried to make this because if, if you’re steeped in leadership theory, then you can, you can, you know, see transactional versus transformational leadership in this book.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (16:42):

Or you can see technical versus adaptive, the work of Hz and Linsky, or you can see elements of power. I talk about power and Ross’s notion of power and so on, so forth, but that’s all the theory. That’s all the stuff that leaders learn, you know, as they go through university, I wanted to just make this approachable by saying, well, what’s common language. That’s that differentiates complicated versus complex. And it’s interesting because they’re almost two completely different. They’re two completely different languages. And the one that I like to use to explain it is so applicable at the classroom level, but it’s also about the leadership level. Is that a complicated way to look at your classroom is to tell the students, this is what I want from you because it assumes there’s one right answer, right? Mm. Or there’s a way to do this, and this is what I want from you.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (17:27):

And so we tell them, and when you’re in complicated, it’s all about judgment. So this is what I want from you. And if you don’t deliver it for me, I’m gonna judge you and you’re gonna be strong, or you’re gonna be weak, but either way, you’re fragile because it’s always complicated. And that’s how this works. And that’s what I, if a stands up in front of group of students and resists the urge to say, this is what I want want from you. And then they can focus on this is what I want for you. Mm

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (17:54):

Oh. Now that’s a conversation. What I want for you is to have a sense of autonomy. I want for you to have a sense that you’ve mastered the content I want for you, the opportunity to have worked in the best team that you’ve ever worked on to create this project. Well, that’s complex. There’s not one right answer. There’s not one way to do it. And the nice part about that is it resists judgment. I want these things for you. How can we make that happen? And so what I’m asking you to do is to suffer. I’m asking you to share your suffering. Like, I don’t know how to approach this project. I don’t know if I can work with this team. Awesome. So now what we’re doing is we’re in compassionate versus competent, right? And the, and that’s the juxtaposition because compassion, if you break that word down, passion is to suffer.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (18:37):

Compassion is to suffer with mm it’s. Empathy plus action. And so I, I try to create the language that says, look, you get whatever you’re asking for. Based on the language you use and too many leaders stand up and they use complicated language when they’re actually trying to do transformative and complex work. And as a result of that, the community has been trained to recognize complicated language to mean, oh, you want us to judge you <laugh> oh, so you wrote your pandemic response plan. Well, I think it sucks. I went to Google and this is like some other school district that did something. And so I’m like, well, use the right language, use the right language.

Sam Demma (19:10):

How long did it take to crystallize the ideas and get the book on paper? What was the start to finish process like?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (19:18):

It was just about a year start to finish. It was, I had taken a couple of false starts before, and then I met Sarah who helped me with the book, pulling it together and doing some of the vignettes. And what have you, Sarah Williamson. And she just helped me put together a structure. What I really needed is as I, as I shared sort of my background as a superintendent and I’m teaching university and so on and so forth, I, I, I stay sort of busy, I think is the word for it. And she, she helped me set up a timeline to say, no, you’re gonna sit down. You’re gonna, you’re gonna write, and you’re gonna turn these in. And these you deadlines and so and so forth. And so having an accountability partner really helped me. And I think the other thing that helped me, and this was a, this was a light bulb moment for me, I’ve, you know, over 40 years old and have had a pretty successful life, but just had this amazing light, light bulb moment that will transform every decision in every goal that I make for the rest of my life, which is the recognition that all of us have been taught to set goals.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (20:12):

Right. And so we try to create these goal habits, but the truth is that most of us truthfully fail at most of our goals. Like I would say the failure rate is probably close to 90, 95%. And it makes sense because we’ve designed our entire lives around the life that we’re living right now this very second. And if you set a goal that’s outside of that life, that you’re living a hundred percent of your life is working against that goal. Right? And so you’re, you’re destined to fail when you have goal based habits. And if on my goal based habit was to write, I was probably gonna fail. And then if you flip that goal based habit with something that’s completely different. So I’m gonna take a quick aside to prove a point here. Mm-Hmm, <affirmative>, I’m guessing that every day when you wake up, you brush your teeth.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (20:59):

I do. It doesn’t matter if you’re on the road. It doesn’t matter if you go visit your parents’ house, it doesn’t matter if you’re visiting a friend. It doesn’t matter if you’re home, you brush your teeth every day, right? You take a shower every day. Mm. And this is not a goal based habit. This is an identity based habit. Like, I don’t wanna have the identity of someone who has a bad breath or who stinks, right? Yeah. So I have an identity based habit. And the aha for me was, oh, no, no, no. I want to set my identity as someone who is a writer. So what does a writer do? Oh, well, a writer would get up every morning and they would write because they’re a writer and they would set aside a place in their house where they’re gonna do their writing and they’re gonna do this.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (21:38):

And all of a sudden these identity based habits. And then I never had to create a goal. I never had to carve out space. I never had to make the effort because I was living the identity of being a writer. And it, it kind of just took care of itself. And so like now I’m like, why have we not talked about this for fitness or health or nutrition or yeah. Getting a doctorate or just about anything goal or even teaching. If we try to have students have goal based behaviors to study versus identity based behaviors of, I am a scholar and a learner,

Sam Demma (22:07):

It sounds like you identify as a reader as well. I first learned about identity based goal setting in James Clear’s book, atomic habits. Yeah. It really resonated with me and changed the way that I think about things. I actually use a similar analogy. When I talk about brushing your teeth as a way to prove that we are never too busy when someone gives me the objection that I’m sorry, I can’t take this or do this. It’s because I’m too busy. What I actually start to understand is that even if I have the most busy day of my life, I still brush my teeth before I go to bed one, because it’s a part of my identity, but two, because it’s something that I prioritize right. It’s a priority. So if someone tells me they’re too busy, it just means that the thing that I’m asking them for is not of the similar priority as a task they’re already doing, or even more priority that they would switch their schedule for it.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (22:58):

That’s, that’s a very polite way of saying it. I think a little bit more harshly, they would say it is when somebody says I don’t have time valuable is I don’t care <laugh>

Sam Demma (23:09):

Yeah. Just of no value to me. <Laugh> that’s right.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (23:12):

That’s

Sam Demma (23:12):

Right. So am I correct in assuming that you like reading and like constant learning?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (23:20):

Yeah. I’m a, I’m a fairly voracious reader. I work with an executive coach and I, I didn’t realize this, but she had been in our conversations over the course of this past year. Just every time I referenced the book, kinda kicking it off or so, and I I’ve come to the I’ve come to the assumption that I read between 40 and 60 books a year on average. So yeah, pretty, pretty avid reader.

Sam Demma (23:39):

What are some of the resources that, of course your own book is gonna be a, an amazing one and teachers should consider picking it up, which books have you consumed or resources in general that have helped you develop yourself, turn into the leader you are today that you think other educators would benefit from consuming.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (23:57):

So for me on my leadership journey, lots of leadership biography, I take, I take great inspiration from leadership biography. So I read a lot of leadership biography. I also read a great deal of innovation work on innovation, anybody who’s writing about adaptive innovation and creativity, but specifically I stay away from education. Believe it or not, because I think that we, I think we understand creativity or entrepreneurship or innovation, but we have a, a somewhat slanted view of it. I think there’s a much better view view of innovation and creativity that comes from the business world. So I’m always kind of scouring for what’s out there in the business world, in that area. And I’ve learned a ton and I brought to, to education specifically in our space as we, when I got to Victoria, we didn’t have a department of innovation. We now have a department of innovation with the whole we’ve written, you know, approximately 15 million in grant funding every year. Wow. Just from the department of innovation alone. And it’s transformed the way we, you know, work with some of our schools, but virtually everything I learned about innovation, I learned outside of education and just applied to education.

Sam Demma (25:02):

Very cool. Speaking of innovation, creativity moving forward, what are some of the things you are working on right now with your school board school districts, superintendents that you’re excited about in the coming years or next next fall?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (25:20):

So, so I think that some of the stuff that I’m working on is obviously getting the message of this book out. Like, and that’s actually, I’m focused on that and getting this message out there because I think I have something that people can understand and I love to do it in medium size groups or even large group formats. Where, where we create, I create this space called house of genius. And I just, it rather than tell people about it, we actually do it like whatever group I happen to be in front of. We just solve a massively complex issue for that group right there in the room, and then we solve it and we go through it and it only takes, you know, 40, 45 minutes, depending on what we’re talking about. And then I back away from that and I talk through, well, this is how we did it.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (25:58):

This was the language. And this was the framework, and this is all the stuff from the book, but you just experienced it. You just lived it and you can live it, you know, any way you want to. So that’s, that’s kind of fun. And I’m excited about doing that in, in our district. We’ve launched a number of pathways. So for instance, our kids essentially we’re transforming the, the simple way of talking about it is that we’re trying to walk away from this notion of elementary, middle, and high school. Now let’s still have elementary schools, middle schools and high schools. Everybody’s gonna have elementary, middle, and high school. That’s not gonna change because that’s the way education works. But let’s just talk about what elementary school really should be right now. Elementary school. If you think about it is all about exposure. Mm.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (26:38):

Exposing kids to different learning pathways, different learning styles, different interests, trying to find their genius all about exposing, exposing, exposing, and then middle school. Once kids start to figure out what they’re good at and what they like and how they like to learn you move from exposure to experience that’s middle school. So how do you experience things like internships or job shadows, or how do you experience a, a profession or a unique way of learning? We, we just launched one of our stem middle schools just this last year. So we have a stem based middle school. That’s open enrollment for any kid that wants to go there. We have a project based learning school as well, but it’s all about exposure experience and then rethinking high school as pursuit. So pursuit means like I know I’m college or university bound, so this is the courses I need to take and so on and so forth.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (27:23):

So for our district, but that means more kids taking AP than ever in the history of the district. And the scores are higher, more kids taking dual credit than ever in the history of the district than their scores are higher. But we also have more kids doing CTE coursework, cuz they want to go right into the world of work. Nice. And so we’re trying to create pursuit opportunities and we’ve launched several Ptech high schools so that kids can their associates degree as, as they, as they move forward on their launch, which is pretty cool. And we’re all about this one simple, simple, simple concept, and that’s the concept of the, and the Amper sign, right? And so when you think about the Amper sand and it’s become a sign for our district, we even have it on shirts and stuff, all kinds of stuff. But essentially our goal is that every student finds their and which is a way of saying, we want you to find your genius, right? And we also want to guarantee that every single student who walks across the graduation stage has a high school diploma and university acceptance letter, military recruitment letter, or industry certification. So that on Monday morning they have work, they have work waiting for him. And we’re just over 92% right now of our high school, graduating seniors who graduate with their aunt. I’m not gonna quit until a hundred percent. I’m not gonna quit until I can guarantee parents a hundred percent successful launch rate.

Sam Demma (28:36):

Wow. That’s awesome. How many students are there in the district or the, I guess the area in total?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (28:41):

Just under 14,000.

Sam Demma (28:43):

Wow. That’s a, that’s a success story in itself. Yeah, on a large scale, it seems like the programs, ideas that are being implemented are having massive success. I want to talk about for just a moment a story of how something someone did in a school, maybe yourself or someone, you know, had a serious impact on one individual. And the reason I know sometimes it’s hard to remember these stories, but there’s probably hundreds on them. Oh, I’ve got one. Yeah. the reason I ask you to share it is because when teachers are feeling burnt out, sometimes it’s because they’ve forgotten why they even started this work in the first place. And I think stories of genuine impact relight that fire and helped them remember why they got into this profession anyway. So please feel free to share. You can change your name if it’s a serious story. Just for privacy.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (29:31):

I love, I love the story. It gives me cause sometimes when I tell it I get goosebumps and sometimes when I tell I can’t help, but cry. So in the, in the, at the start of this last school year, one of our middle schools was invested with mold and we didn’t have an extra facility. So we had to pull every one of our middle schools out of this kids out of this campus. And we needed to put ’em somewhere. And the only facility that we had available was all our alternative high school, which is a smaller, much smaller campus, but we just had to have a place to put the kids, but that displaced the alternative high school. So alternative high school, these are kids who are in credit recovery. These are kids who are disciplined placement. So they’re, they’re essentially on the dropout track.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (30:10):

Mm. These are students who failed out of traditional high school. They have very little credits or no credits and they’re in a dropout track and we’re just trying to get ’em to the graduation stage. And so we, we went to our, some of our community partners and we said, look, what if we could give these kids the golden ticket of a lifetime and a fresh start? Hmm. And if we can help these kids in a way that we’ve never helped them before, by giving them unprecedented levels of support, giving every one of them, an academic and life success coach. And could we put 120 of these students on the community college campus? Can we rent rooms from you? And so the community college president said, sure, this is interesting. I’m, I’m, I’m up for this so that they’re going to community college. Now these are kids on the dropout track.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (30:56):

These are, these are kids who failed out of traditional high school with zero credits. And so then our next wonder question, cuz I love wonder questions is I wonder what would happen if we help these kids apply for college? And I wonder what would happen if we gave ’em a success coach and you know what, I wonder what would happen if we we went ahead and enrolled them in a class just to see what happens. And so we we were very slow and deliberate and thoughtful and all the great things to happen. But outta the hundred 20 students who were on that dropout track 120 of them, a hundred percent successfully enrolled in college and passed their first collegiate course. Wow. And they’re all gonna graduate high school and they’re all college bound, 100% of kids who were on the dropout track.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (31:40):

And so we got to take them to a school board thing in February, which for the entire state of Texas. And so we took seven of the kids from that group to give a presentation. And there was one gal who stood up in front of that group. And she said, when I was a sophomore, I had a baby out of wedlock. So I was a single mother and I had approximately zero credits in high school. And she said, and I am now a college student. Wow. That’s amazing. Our success rate with our kids is so great. This is a, a great statistic. I’ll leave you with a statistic and it’s connected to dropouts, but it’s with homeless students. So we have hundreds of homeless students in Victoria Texas. And if you happen to be a homeless student and unhoused student in Victoria and you go to our schools, your chances of graduating high school are actually better than if you went to any school, anywhere else in the entire state of Texas, our homeless, our homeless student graduation rate is higher than the average for the state of Texas.

Sam Demma (32:42):

Wow. I I’m wondering, you mentioned success. Coaches who are the people that would be paired up with a student in that program to help them apply for college and you know, pass.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (32:54):

So we actually went to the community college counselor structure. So they, they already have academic coaches and support and so on and so forth. You know how community college works. Like there’s all this support structure in place. Yeah. Yeah. We’re like, let’s fold that over to the high school and pull kids up rather than push them.

Sam Demma (33:10):

Cool.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (33:12):

It worked like, who knew, we didn’t know it was gonna work, but that’s what innovation’s all about. Like try crazy stuff. And so we tried it and it worked,

Sam Demma (33:20):

It sounds like innovations in your experience. Start with the, I wonder questions. Is that something you explore a lot?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (33:27):

Yeah. We talk about it all the time. It’s either I wonder. Or what if those are the two best sentence starters.

Sam Demma (33:32):

Lovely, cool, cool. Well, we’re getting close to the end of the podcast here. This has been a phenomenal conversation because we’re close to game seven and the NBA finals. I wanted to play some throwback music. <Laugh> what we’re about to do is do a quick five rapid questions. Are you ready?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (33:56):

I’m ready?

Sam Demma (33:58):

Question number one. <Laugh> question number one is what is the best advice you’ve ever personally received?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (34:07):

Oh, wow. Best advice. Yeah. It’s it’s so cliche never give up,

Sam Demma (34:12):

Love it. What is the I’m putting you on the spot here? What is the worst advice you’ve ever received?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (34:20):

Worst. <Laugh> the worst advice I forgot was go to medical school. <Laugh>

Sam Demma (34:25):

<Laugh> Hey, you have to, you have to know your path, right?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (34:28):

That’s right.

Sam Demma (34:29):

<Laugh> I like that. If you could have everyone on the planet have to follow this one rule the way they live their life, what would the one rule be that everyone would have to follow? Non-Negotiable

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (34:45):

Start with vulnerability.

Sam Demma (34:47):

Mm, love it. If you could travel back in time and speak to Quentin, when he was just starting in education, what would you have told your younger self that you thought would’ve been helpful?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (35:01):

Don’t don’t lose hope.

Sam Demma (35:04):

Final question. If someone wants to buy your book, reach out and ask you a question, what would be the best way for them to get in touch with you?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (35:11):

So they can buy the book through amazon. Easily found, it’s the secret for secret to transformational leadership, or they can go to our website; compassionate leadership. And I’m sure you can put that in the, in the talking notes for sure. Yep. That’s and that’s the best way to reach out to us.

Sam Demma (35:27):

Awesome. Thank you so much for taking the time to come on the podcast today. It’s been a pleasure to chat with you and meet you. I don’t think this will be our last conversation. Keep doing amazing work and have an amazing summer.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (35:40):

Thank you, sir. Great to talk with you. Thanks Sam.

Sam Demma (35:43):

Hey, it’s Sam again. I hope you enjoyed that amazing conversation on the high performing educator podcast. If you or someone, you know, deserves some extra recognition and appreciation for the work they do in education, please consider applying or nominating them for the high performing educator awards, go to www.highperformingeducator.com/award. You can also find the link in the show notes. I’m super excited to spotlight and feature 20 people in 2022. And I’m hoping you or someone, you know, can be one of those educators. I’ll talk to you on the next episode, all the best.

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The High Performing Educator Podcast was brought to life during the outbreak of COVID-19 to provide you with inspirational stories and practical advice from your colleagues in education.  By tuning in, you will hear the stories and ideas of the world’s brightest and most ambitious educators.  You can expect interviews with Principals, Teachers, Guidance Counsellors, National Student Association, Directors and anybody that works with youth. You can find and listen to all the episodes for free here.