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School Counsellor

Terry Jordens, Brooklyn Lund and Jasmine Lund – Three Passionate Educators in the Holy Family Catholic School Division

Terry Jordens, Brooklyn Lund and Jasmine Lund - Three Passionate Educators in the Holy Family Catholic School Division
About Terry Jordens, Brooklyn Lund and Jasmine Lund

Terry Jordens (@Holyfamilyrcssd) is the Superintendent of Student Services & Assessment for Holy Family RCSSD #140. Terry Jordens grew up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and became a teacher, following in a long line of family footsteps in the field. Helping children is her passion. She took that passion on a trek and has taught in Canada, the United States and South Korea. Once she completed her Masters in Educational Administration, Terry took on the role where she currently operates as Superintendent for Holy Family RCSSD.

From her experience working abroad and locally, Terry knows that every mother considers their child their most precious commodity and that sometimes things get messy when you are working with people. Terry works hard to support families and children to get what they need by working through or around barriers and getting access to the right supports. Terry’s main goal is to create effective collaboration between the school and family by building trust and relationship – because the way she sees it, both sides are cheering for the same team.

Outside of the office Terry runs a mom-taxi service for her own personal children that takes regular routes to the hockey rink, soccer pitch, volleyball court and CrossFit gym. Terry and her family love to travel and hop on a plane whenever they can.

Connect with Terry: Email | Instagram | Linkedin | Twitter | Facebook

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Brooklyn Lund is a School Social Worker for Holy Family Roman Catholic Separate School Division. Brooklyn obtained her Bachelor of Social Work degree in April 2020, and had a couple temporary jobs before gaining employment as a School Counsellor. Brooklyn has been working for Holy Family since September 2021 and has enjoyed every minute of it. The thing she loves most about her job is supporting student’s and seeing them improve! it makes her smile when children are able to confide and trust in her. She couldn’t imagine a more perfect job!

Connect with Brooklyn: Email | Instagram | Facebook

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Jasmine Lund is a School Counsellor with the Holy Family School Division. Jasmine obtained her Social Work Degree with the University of Regina – Saskatoon Campus in April 2020. In January, 2022 Jasmine became apart of the Holy Family School Division and has truly found her passion working with kids. Jasmine is apart of 4 elementary schools this year and although it is busy, she enjoys every minute! She loves supporting the students and staff in the best way she can!

Connect with Jasmine: Email | Instagram | Facebook

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Holy Family RCSSD #140

Masters of Education (M.Ed), Educational Administration – University of Saskatchewan

Faculty of Social Work – University of Regina

CrossFit Gym

SOS Signs of Suicide Prevention Programs

Not Myself Today – Canadian Mental Health Association

Allan Kehler – Mental Health Advocate

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 is a very special interview, because we don’t often do group settings. We have three guests joining us on the show today, all from the Holy Family School Board. Terry Jordens is the Superintendent of Student Services and Assessment at Holy Family. Terry grew up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and became a teacher following in a long line of family footsteps in the field. Outside of the office, Terry runs a mom taxi service for her own personal children that take regular routes to the hockey rink, soccer pitch, volleyball court, and CrossFit gym. She loves to travel and hop on a plane whenever she can. Guest number two from the Holy Family Roman Catholic Separate school division is Brooklyn Lund. Brooklyn obtained her Bachelor of Social Work degree in April, 2020, and today is a school counselor. She has been with Holy Family since 2021 and has enjoyed every minute of it.

Sam Demma (01:58):

She could not imagine a more perfect job. Our third guest from the Holy Family School division is Jasmine. Jasmine obtained her social work degree with the University of Regina Saskatoon campus in April, 2020. In 2022, she became a part of the Holy Family School division and has truly found her passion for working with kids. This year, she is a part of four elementary schools, and although it is busy, she enjoys it so, so much. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Terry, Brooklyn, and Jasmine, and I look forward to seeing you on the other side. Today we are joined by three guests, three guests at once. This is like a world record for the High Performing Educator podcast for number of guests altogether on the show at the same time. Instead of introducing them, I’m gonna allow them to each introduce themselves very quickly so over to you. Terry, maybe you can go first, <laugh>.

Terry Jordens (02:51):

Sure. So, hello, my name is Terry Jordans. I am the Superintendent of Student Services and Assessment here at Holy Family School Division. Holy Family, just for reference, is in the southeast corner of Saskatchewan, or a rural school division that runs schools in four different communities here.

Brooklyn Lund (03:12):

Hello, my name is Brooklyn Lund and I’m a school counselor for the Holy Family School Division. Hello, my name is Jasmine Lund, and I’m also a school counselor for the Holy Family School division.

Sam Demma (03:23):

And you’re twins?

Brooklyn Lund (03:25):

We are.

Sam Demma (03:26):

<laugh>. You can’t see them right now because you’re listening to this, but they look pretty similar. It’s pretty crazy. <laugh>, this is a very personal question. Everyone has a slightly different journey, but what got you into education? Like when did you realize growing up that education was the industry you wanted to work in, the vocation you wanted to pursue? Tell me a little bit about your journey and Brooklyn, maybe you could jump in and start.

Brooklyn Lund (03:54):

Sure. So what got me into the school is that I’ve always wanted to work with kids. I’ve always wanted to help people. Our helping profession is something that I knew from a young age that I would want to be involved with. So once a school counselor position had came up after I had convocated some social work, I had thought that yes, I should try and apply for that. So that’s kind of where it started, and then it just kind of blossomed from there. Fun fact, I always said I would never be a school counselor, and here I am. So I love it. So that’s that’s great.

Sam Demma (04:29):

That’s awesome. I love that. I think sometimes the things we least expect bring us the most joy, excitement, you know?

Brooklyn Lund (04:37):

Yeah, for sure.

Sam Demma (04:38):

Jasmine, what about, what about yourself? Did you follow in your sister’s footsteps or <laugh>?

Brooklyn Lund (04:42):

Yeah, sort of actually a position before I did. But then when another temporary position came up, I decided that I mean, Brooklyn loved it and we’re pretty similar in the fact that we both loved working with kids. so I decided that I’d apply as well. and yeah, I love the job and I think I found my passion.

Sam Demma (05:06):

Awesome. Thanks for sharing. Terry, what about you? What, what was your journey into education?

Terry Jordens (05:10):

Sure. Got you bet. So I, I’m a teacher by trade, so have my degree in teaching and educating and started off in working in early years education, moved into middle years. Thought that was completely terrifying until you get there and just realize they’re just little kids still. But for me, it’s all about it being hope filled. Like working with adults is messy. Sometimes they’re grumpy, they’re <laugh>, you know, there’s a lot going on with adults, but kids, like, there’s always that hope, there’s so excited about learning still they like their teachers, you know, it’s just that energy and there’s never a dull moment and it’s super cliche to say, but you know, kids are our future. So I’m really excited about working in this area and helping develop that.

Sam Demma (05:58):

I think the work you do is so important. All three of you. one of the past guests explained to me that he believed people that work with youth educators, people that work in schools they’re almost like superheroes who can look at a child and see 15, 20 years in that child’s future. Teach them skills now that are gonna like, impact them down the road. And I think back to the teachers I had in my life, they made such a significant impact on me. And whether you’re working directly in the classroom or just making decisions at a higher level that are gonna impact the classrooms, it’s so important. The work is so, so important. So thank you all three of you for doing what you’re doing. being that you work in the same division, I’m, I’m sure some of the challenges you face are similar, but I’m curious to know, like what are some of the challenges each of you face on a day to day basis or that are currently, you know, challenging you right now?

Brooklyn Lund (06:58):

Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I think I can speak for that. one challenge that we kind of are struggling with are just behaviors. in general. lots of the kids that we do help about our experiencing those high, maybe aggressive or violent behaviors. so that’s always something that we’re striving to work on. another one that kind of goes in town with behaviors is like attendance. so we’re kind of faced with like a lot of kids that show up to school, not as often as we would like I should say. and then another one that we kind of thought of was struggles within families, not just kids. So I know that we do work primarily, primarily with kids, but that often like stems back to parents and families and things that they’ve been going through as well.

Sam Demma (07:57):

Hmm. Terry, Brooklyn, anything to add or does that do a great job of something you’d of <laugh>?

Brooklyn Lund (08:02):

I would say that’s like the top three kinda mm-hmm. <affirmative> struggles that we face or face with every day at the school. Definitely attendance, behavior kind of go hand in hand sometimes, but yeah, just some of those struggles that we have throughout the school. Mm-hmm.

Terry Jordens (08:17):

<affirmative>. And I think getting, you know, we’re always in schools, we’re always so worried, Oh, is the student doing their homework? Oh, did they get, you know, 90% on their math test? Like, we’re so focused on that as an education division of delivering that curriculum. But then you gotta think on the flip side, what are they experiencing at home? Did they just come from a traumatic night at their house? Did they eat breakfast this morning? Like, figuring out and working with those family dynamics I think is yeah, for sure. A lot of pressure and really tricky sometimes to support students in the right way when you’re not dealing with family units that are well either. Mm-hmm.

Brooklyn Lund (08:55):

<affirmative>. Yeah. And I think that’s why it’s super cool to have our positions in the things that we do because yeah, it’s an education division, but we get to come from a different perspective and kind get to learn about the kids in a different light than sometimes maybe the teachers mm-hmm. <affirmative> or other professionals would be. So that’s kind of why I like coming in from a different lens. So

Sam Demma (09:16):

Being that you work in different positions how do each of you in your own respective roles try and tackle some of these challenges?

Brooklyn Lund (09:24):

Mm-hmm. <affirmative> I can speak on that. So I guess with the tenants and behavior we do try to build relationships with the kids quite often, especially if they are having some of those challenging dynamics at home. there’s like things like attendance plans, behavior plans, support plans, safety plans. I’m implementing a couple of reward programs right now for kids that trying to get some incentive to come to school or to behave appropriately at school. and we would be doing some lots of communication with parents or supportive adults that they have in their home, trying to kind of keep that communication going through all different avenues to kind of have that big supportive team for that student instead of just one adult.

Sam Demma (10:10):

Nice. Love that. Terry, what about yourself?

Terry Jordens (10:13):

Yeah, so from the division level one of the important things we do is connections to community. So that school team, super important, but then also, you know, they’re only in school for six hours a day from September to June, right there, there’s a lot of life outside of that <laugh>. So making it more of a community support plan. Right. So at my level, we, we go to like interagency meetings with our local mental health and our psychologists in the area to make sure that we have a network and we know how to support in that way and have the right connections in that way, you know. And we also have things like an Envision counseling, which is like a private sort of counseling service in our community. So we make connections with them too. So making sure that it’s not just a school thing, that we’re supporting the kids and the families and with whatever means we can in our communities, which is sometimes challenging cause we’re rural, right? So a lot of times those things are in the big city. So we, we do our best to make those relationships.

Sam Demma (11:15):

Awesome. speaking about relationships, how do you think you build a solid relationship? Like a trusting relationship with a young person? Like in your experiences, how, like how does that happen? What does that look like?

Brooklyn Lund (11:31):

I would say consistency is big. word that I like to use someone or for kid to have a trusting adult, but who’s there for them all the time consistently. yeah, they can have some trusted adults that come in and outta their lives, but someone who’s consistent and reliable would definitely be a huge factor in building that trusted relationship with them.

Sam Demma (11:55):

Hmm. Consistency being like showing up every day, even when, you know, you don’t feel like it, they’re counting on you to be there kind of thing.

Brooklyn Lund (12:03):

Correct, Yeah. And even the minor things, getting to know their birthday, wishing them a happy birthday, getting to know what they’re doing on the weekend, asking how their week went, like all those little consistency things that you can do to build that relationship to get to know them even better so they can start to have that relationship and trust in you mm-hmm.

Terry Jordens (12:22):

<affirmative> and stopping and taking that time, right? Like for so busy throughout the day and you’ve got an 8 million things to do, but like stopping when the kid’s like, Hey, look at this’s cool thing that I did last night. You know? Yeah. Like stopping, pausing, taking the time to do that. Mm-hmm.

Brooklyn Lund (12:36):

<affirmative>. Yeah, I think that often shows too that, that you actually do genuinely care about the child and they’re not just a part of your caseload or just another student on the team or on the school board. but yeah, just like them getting to know that you actually do wanna know and show that effort is there

Terry Jordens (12:59):

Yeah. Cause they can tell like if you

Brooklyn Lund (13:01):

Really, like, they

Terry Jordens (13:02):

Know

Brooklyn Lund (13:04):

For sure. Yeah. And I think sometimes people like try, it’s almost like over the top to like be almost not as genuine as as what, just kind of having, treating them as a regular kid and showing up for them when they need you.

Sam Demma (13:18):

Yeah. I I, I, I think when I think back to what I was always looking for as a student as well, it was like I just wanted the teacher’s time. I was like, you know, when I have a, when I have a question or I come to your desk, I just wanna feel like you’re present with me and you’re, you know, you’re, you’re hearing me and you’re seeing me. And I think so often, like, you know, you hit it all in the nail. It’s like you need to be consistent, you need to be curious about the person, you know, behind the student. Some of the teachers who had the biggest impact on me would teach a lesson and then look at me and say, Sam, because you wanna be a pro soccer player, for you this lesson means X and kaon because you wanna be a fashion designer for you this means X and Olivia, because you’re passionate about movies, for you, this means x and Brooklyn because you have no interest in becoming a school counselor.

Sam Demma (14:08):

For you this means x <laugh>. It’s like, once you get to know the person you’re curious about them, you can really make the learning applicable to them. And that is just so much easier for them to buy in and actually want to be there. those are the types of teachers that give me hope. You know, the teachers that really care about what they’re doing, the educators that care and that are curious and, and that are consistent. I’m curious personally what gives each of you hope and inspires you to keep moving forward when things are a little bit difficult, when the caseload feels overwhelming and, and it seems like the weight of the world is resting on your shoulders.

Brooklyn Lund (14:48):

I would say first maybe the first thing I think about is a student that I had supported in my first couple of months of being a school counselor. he was, come, came from a, a troubled home and he didn’t have the best supports in place, but he showed up to school every day. And when I, it was a transition between two different months. I had, was there the last couple days of the month and then I hadn’t had a chance to put my new calendar on for the next month yet. And he had come to school that day and realized it had been a new month and I had not my calendar up there. And he was not happy that, that my cal my calendar wasn’t updated cuz he didn’t know that week of when I was gonna be at his school. So I think I often think about that kid. he had a huge impact on me. He made sure, even though I wasn’t gonna see him some days, he’d still come in and check in and say hi. and we still have had some communication since when I see him out in the community and things like that, just that special bond that we’ve had and he continues to grow and it’s, it’s super awesome. So I think that’s kind of my motivator that I was blessed with very early on.

Sam Demma (16:07):

Mm. Those, those stories of impacting a young person, I think are consistent among every person who works in education. Like that’s why you do what you do, you wanna make a difference, right? So what a good story to remind you to stay hopeful. Terry, Jasmine, what about you guys?

Terry Jordens (16:28):

Do you wanna go? Sure.

Brooklyn Lund (16:29):

Okay. I think one thing that gives me hope is just knowing that we have such an awesome team among all of us. that includes like Brooklyn, Becky, Terry and then even with like our principals and other professionals that are in the building I think we work really well together with our close little knit counseling team. and yeah, it just gives us hope to keep going since we do all get along so well. And being the newest one part of the team I think they’ve also taught me a lot and it makes my journey something that I even look forward to more in the future. So yeah,

Sam Demma (17:10):

Be because you got a twin too, when you’re not feeling up for it, you just, you know, you just send 10 your sister and tell her to change her hair just a little bit.

Brooklyn Lund (17:18):

<laugh>

Sam Demma (17:21):

Terry, what keeps you, what keeps you

Terry Jordens (17:23):

Hopeful? for me, hope really is the attitude that I’m seeing in our students at school around the areas of like diversity and inclusion. Like it really is different now. You know, like kids are accepting, they, you know, have open minds. Like when I hear my own, I have a teenage daughter when I hear her and I’m not gonna say what grandpa said at the table, but I’m saying, Grandpa, you can’t say that anymore. Like, this is how we talk now. Like, that’s the part I love. Like that is hopeful and that keeps me going knowing that we’re doing the right things and we’re teaching our kids in the right way to be more inclusive, to be positive, to be accepting of everybody. So that’s really positive.

Sam Demma (18:07):

Brooklyn started answering this question by sharing a story about how a student was impacted by the work in a school. can you maybe share a story that comes to mind for you Jasmine and Terry about how you saw the work in education impact a young mind who maybe was really struggling and then had a transformation or had a realization or really grew because of the support of staff and teachers and the school environment?

Brooklyn Lund (18:39):

Yeah, I can speak on that. so one program that we did last year throughout the schools was sos So it’s like signs of suicide. we went into every school and presented a presentation on the signs of suicide. And it was about a couple days after we were done presenting at one of the schools and a girl who was in grade eight came into my office and really explained why she thought her friend was suicidal. And I was just, after that conversation I realized that, that that program really did have an impact in her class because she was really scared for her friend’s life. And I think just realizing that even though it may take us a long time to prepare or things like that, that it was really worth it to do it in those classrooms because even if it was with one, only one kid that did mention her friend’s life, then it was a win in our books because that is also something that we yeah, we’re happy with that we were able to help that student. So

Sam Demma (19:49):

Program could literally save a life, you know, that’s

Brooklyn Lund (19:53):

Exactly more awareness I think. And students had age too. I mean some of them are more aware than others, but I think just bringing that program to all the classes was a really good idea for us. So.

Sam Demma (20:10):

Awesome. Terry, what about yourself?

Terry Jordens (20:12):

Yeah so another program that we did implement last year was not myself today, so it’s the through the Canadian Mental Health Association. Nice. So that’s like a workplace wellbeing for staff. So we sort of implemented that all the way from like our board level all the way down through the schools. All our teachers, ea, janitors, bus drivers, we all kind of took part in it. And the really cool thing that I liked when I did it with like our senior administration here and our board was actually stopping and taking the time to talk about mental health and wellbeing with the adults here. Like we’re always so busy, you know, the kids programs and putting budget in for the kids, for us to stop and like check our own wellbeing and, and spend, It was honestly like maybe half an hour every month, but whatever time we could carve out and just sit together and actually make it like, not cliche to talk about it and bring up topics that were hard and some of the stresses and stuff that we were experiencing here. Cause it was, it’s been it’s been years, you know, a couple years of tough work in education and all over the world with the pandemic, but just dealing with all the change and things that we had to go through, it was hard. So it was a really nice program to allow that opportunity for us. So we sell lots of benefits with that.

Sam Demma (21:31):

Can you share the, the name one more time?

Terry Jordens (21:33):

Sure. It’s called Not Myself Today.

Sam Demma (21:35):

Not Myself Today. Cool.

Terry Jordens (21:37):

Yeah. Yeah.

Brooklyn Lund (21:38):

I would say too, the one other thing that I think about is Alan Keller, but we had him a mental health advocate and speaker very engaging, a very cool approach to how he presents to his students in his audiences. we had him present to our students and our parents and the teachers got part of it too. So that was super cool. I think he had a very positive impact on our students. days later we were seeing him or students wear his bracelet that he sent out to students. We’ve heard students talk about it quite often after that presentation was done. So that was a cool impact that he had on our students too. I think too, the parents were mm-hmm <affirmative> really supportive of that. The ones that did come to his video call were shocked by him. Like they, they really loved him. So I think that was a, a lot of good feedback for

Sam Demma (22:31):

Us. I love my born resilient t-shirt, <laugh> <laugh>, Shout out to Alan. Allen’s phenomenal at what he does and he has some great resources and books. you know, one of the mistakes that I make as a working professional, it doesn’t matter if you’re an education or whatever career path you choose something that I do when I see often is burn myself out. Like I work so hard and I put other people at the center of my focus instead of my wellbeing and next thing you know, I’m getting blisters in my mouth cause I’m not sleeping and I forgot to drink water for eight hours and I didn’t eat enough food. And, and it just becomes this cycle and you’re all smiling cuz you’re like, damn, this sounds like me sometimes <laugh>. I’m curious through your journey in education, it could be related to your own wellbeing, it could also be related to your work. what are some mistakes you made that you think are worth sharing? And the reason I ask is because I think if we spend time analyzing some of the mistakes we made, they’re actually learnings not only for ourselves but also for anyone else.

Terry Jordens (23:36):

Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Well, one of the things that I learned probably the hard way in taking this kind of leadership role is top down decision making does not work. <laugh>, you know, you think it’s a great idea and you, you know, you try to put it out there and some things just, they just don’t fly that way if people don’t buy into it, but it doesn’t mean anything to them. If they’ve got no skin in the game, it falls flat. So really having relationship based leadership, making collaborative decisions is all something that we really focus on here. I mean, we’re a small, like we’re a small school division mm-hmm. <affirmative>, so as many brains as we can get into the decisions and directions is always a more positive approach. So definitely mistakes in that kind of thinking.

Sam Demma (24:25):

Yeah. Collaboration’s key. I love it. Yeah, Good learning. Good learning.

Terry Jordens (24:29):

Yeah.

Brooklyn Lund (24:30):

What I would say is probably sometimes I get too invested into the families or to how to support them. sometimes I’m feel, or looking back now I realize that I’m putting almost too much effort into, into a family that I wanna help so much. And sometimes I have to realize that we are there to support in a certain way and, and that’s as far as we can go. some things are out of our control, so just trying to minimize that as much as possible to kind of save that burnout too.

Sam Demma (25:01):

Awesome. Thanks for sharing.

Brooklyn Lund (25:03):

I think just being a new school counselor, I thought coming into this job I would have everything scheduled, organized things like that. But you realize real fast that each day is different and just because one thing worked one day doesn’t mean it’s gonna work for you the next day. So I think just realizing that the best practice would just be like a flexible thinker and yeah, roll with the punches, roll the punches. Especially with

Terry Jordens (25:33):

This <laugh>,

Sam Demma (25:34):

My, one of my mentors would always quote Mike Tyson and Mike used to say everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. <laugh>. It’s like, that’s

Brooklyn Lund (25:46):

Very true.

Sam Demma (25:46):

It’s so true. Like, I’m gonna go in there, I would do xyz and then you hop in the ring and it’s like B and you’re like, now what? You know, <laugh> like plan goes out the window and you definitely gotta roll with the punches. yeah, that’s great advice. On the topic of advice if you could take your experience working in education and as a new counselor, I know this is like, you know, it might be a shorter period of time for two of you and Terry might have more of a breath of experience. <laugh>, I’m not saying she’s old, I’m saying she’s alive. I’m saying she’s a veteran in the game. if you could travel back in time but retain the experiences and knowledge you’ve gained what would you tell yourself on the first day on the job as advice? Not because you wanna change your path, but because you thought it would be helpful to have heard this advice the day you started this work.

Terry Jordens (26:41):

Wow, okay. Well first of all, all sign me up for that person. I wanna go back to

Sam Demma (26:46):

<laugh>.

Brooklyn Lund (26:47):

I know now.

Terry Jordens (26:49):

I would definitely tell myself one day at a time. That’s it. That’s all you need to think about right now is what you’re going through today, what you need to work on today, and do not spend time worrying about tomorrow, next week. Other things you have to do. Yeah, definitely compartmentalize and just focus on the now.

Sam Demma (27:10):

I love that. Cool.

Brooklyn Lund (27:12):

I would probably say it’s okay to say no <laugh>, I’ve learned that the hard way right now, but we are trying to be super eager and supportive and for the staff and students, but sometimes we have lots of things going on, so it is okay to say no or even I’ll get it to it in a couple days. It doesn’t need to be done right now.

Sam Demma (27:32):

Yeah, not right now.

Brooklyn Lund (27:34):

There we go.

Sam Demma (27:35):

Set boundaries. Love it.

Brooklyn Lund (27:37):

I think too, just telling myself that we will get through it because just like this week we’ve had a hard week one of us being out right now too, so, but I feel like with our small supportive team, we always do get through it, so and there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel, so Yeah.

Sam Demma (27:56):

Becky, we miss you, Becky.

Sam Demma (28:02):

That’s awesome. okay. Thank you all so much for taking the time to hop on the podcast. 30 minutes has already flown by. I feel like we’ve had a great conversation and I really appreciate each of your time and energy. But more importantly, your enthusiasm for the work that you’re doing to try and make a difference in the lives of kids. if someone wants to reach out to you what would be the best way for them to get in touch and maybe instead of all sharing individual emails, we could just share one and then like disperse the information if someone does reach out, <laugh>.

Terry Jordens (28:32):

Sure, you bet. So our probably email is the best. We do have a, a small amount of social media goes on, probably email, but our school division is a Holy family, Roman Catholic School division. Honestly, if you google that, my email address is on the website. Cool. And they’re all on there, so that’s the best way. Yeah.

Sam Demma (28:50):

Awesome. Perfect. Any final words for the educators who are listening to this right now before we hop off? these are obviously people that, well, maybe you’ve met some of them but most of them are total strangers right now. Might be a difficult time. Maybe they’re ending a difficult week. and you just want to give them like a couple words of wisdom or advice, <laugh>

Brooklyn Lund (29:12):

Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I guess I would say roll the punches and then hey, light at the end of the tunnel. So those would be my advice and each week is a new week, so I think that even though you have a difficult week this week, that next week’s completely different. So I’m sure it’ll be positive next week too. So yeah.

Terry Jordens (29:30):

Nice. And we got this. Everything is solvable. Everything we can move on from, we got this, we’re in this together, is really how we see things here.

Brooklyn Lund (29:39):

For sure.

Sam Demma (29:40):

Awesome. Terry, Jasmine, Brooklyn and Becky and Spirit, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. I appreciate all of you so much and I hope you continue to do amazing work and enjoy every moment of it.

Speaker 5 (29:52):

Perfect. Thanks Sam.

Sam Demma (29:56):

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 Terry Jordens, Brooklyn Lund and Jasmine Lund

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.

Arielle Ben-Zaken – Clinical Social Worker at CIUSSS

Arielle Ben-Zaken - Clinical Social Worker at CIUSSS
About Arielle Ben-Zaken

Arielle has worked with youth her entire professional career.  Whether in summer camps, high schools, and hospitals, Arielle has committed her life to becoming a source of hope and support for young people.  

Connect with Arielle: Email | Linkedin

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

CIUSSS du Centre-Ouest-de-l’Île-de-Montréal (CIUSSS)

BBYO Passport Summer Programs

West Island Therapy and Wellness Centre

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. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s guest is Arielle Ben-Zaken. She is a clinical social worker. She has worked in summer camps with students. She has worked as a school counselor in a high school. A lot of her work stems around the idea of helping young people. I mean, she’s been surrounded by youth in all of her different roles and responsibilities, and she also works with an amazing organization called Cell 360 to promote social, emotional learning in high schools and across North America. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Arielle. It was very insightful and enjoyable, and I will see you on the other side. Arielle, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here this morning. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit of your journey that brought you to where you are today working with young people?


Arielle Ben-Zaken (01:31):
Totally. Firstly, Sam, super, super excited to be here. I’ve always wanted to be on a podcast, so this is great. So I am a social worker here in Montreal. I’ve been a social worker for the last five years and I’ve been working with teens from, since I can remember. I did a lot of summer camp work where I was staffed with teens and my most amazing job that I loved so much other than the one I do currently was a, like I took kids on trips around the world. So I was like a teen tour guide, but I wasn’t actually a tour guide. I just took kids really you know, en engaged with them; I was their counselor kind of like overseas, and it was such an amazing experience. I think that for me was the eye opening experience that made me wanna come into social work.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (02:16):
I had had a kid on the trip. This was before I wasn’t even considering social work who opened up to me about struggles that she had gone through. And I thought to myself like, this is the type of population I wanna work with. They are malleable, impressionable. They’re a really wonderful population to work with. I have a lot to learn from them. They have a lot to learn from me. And so that really opened up my eyes to kind of how this whole thing started. So now I’m a social worker here. I work for the government, so I work like I do public job and then I also work for found medicine clinic. And then I also do some part-time therapy through a therapy clinic called the west island therapy center.


Sam Demma (02:54):
Oh, that’s awesome. And let’s go back to the beginning. Yeah. So the, the first way that you started teaching and engaging with youth was through summer camps.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (03:04):
Yeah, exactly.


Sam Demma (03:05):
So what got you into that and what was that experience like?


Arielle Ben-Zaken (03:08):
So it, first of all, it was amazing. I reminisce about that every day. It was like my favorite times of my life. I started going to summer camp at a young age. So at the age of eight I was at sleepaway camp from eight till 22. And so for me being a camper, there was really like a, a wonderful experience where I met a lot of staff that really had an impact on me. And then when it was my turn to become a staff, I was not gonna pass up the chance cuz I wanted to be the person who can have an impact on someone else as well. So I started there and that was my journey at summer camp.


Sam Demma (03:40):
Oh, that’s awesome. Yeah. And then the next role was in a school.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (03:45):
Yeah. So exactly. So, well actually not, no. So the next role after that I went on to get my master’s, my master’s in social work. Nice. Then I worked in youth protection, so child protective services. Okay. For a couple years. Yeah. Which was also a really interesting experience, both personal and professional. I learned a ton about myself difficult job obviously. You know, seeing kids going through situations of abuse and neglect is really tough. Yeah. But rewarding because of the role that I had, which was really working with the families to to, to, to help them out and really bring them back together. And then after that I went to the school, which was also super cool because it was a different way of working with teens. So again, I did like some of the counseling, so they came into my office and we had some conversation and I helped them with things they were struggling with, but I also just got to interact with the kids in a different way. You know, taught them I did like the drug and alcohol program where I went into the classes and I with, with the other social worker and we taught them about drugs and alcohol and healthy use and did some sex ed stuff too. Like it was just a really interesting way of, of engaging them. And it was so much fun.


Sam Demma (04:51):
What brought you into the classroom? Like the, the work that you do could take you in so many directions and it, it seems like you so many tried a bunch of different avenues, which is awesome. It gives you a diverse perspective, but what brought you into a school setting as opposed to just going to like working at a hospital or at a social work clinic, you know?


Arielle Ben-Zaken (05:08):
Yeah, yeah, totally. I think for me it was really engaging one on one with the teens. Whereas like in a hospital setting, you’re kind of you’re you, there’s not necessarily one specific role. Sometimes you could switch around departments. You’re not necessarily only working with teens. Like I knew if I got myself into a high school, I’d be working specifically with teens and youth. And that for me was, was important. Because like I said, they’re, they’re really fun, fun crowd to work with at the same time. They’re also struggling a lot. There’s a lot of issues there with like mental health. Especially now with the pandemic, things are like on, on a rise. And I really felt like it was, you know, again, like I’m not a superwoman or a superhuman and I can’t just like help everybody, like I want to, but I felt like I could at least have an impact on them and really create relationships with the students that I worked with and have them sort of like, like look up to me in a way and really be able to impart knowledge on them, which was important to me.


Sam Demma (06:00):
And have you, have you heard different things due to the pandemic this year from the students you interact with and engage with and what is like the number one thing students you think, and everyone has a diverse challenge and they might all be, not all be the same, but what is something that you hear coming up very often among lots of different teens?


Arielle Ben-Zaken (06:19):
Yeah, so I no longer, I no longer work at the school, but I do do like private clinical work with teens. Got it. But we’re seeing a lot of issues with body image self-esteem eating disorders. I was actually just part of a really amazing sort of work workshop with an NEB, which is like a, an organization that works with eating disorders. And I had it last night and they’re, I mean, the numbers are on a rise, like really, really completely on a rise. Kids are at home doing nothing but scrolling through social media. And you know, I I’ve, I’ve said this before that they’re they’re positives and negatives to social media and the positives are that there’s a lot of kids that are having kids, teens, whatever it is, adults that are having a voice now and, and a platform to use their voice, but on the other end there’s a lot of comparison and, and, and this is what my life looks like and all these, like what I eat in a day videos that are coming up now that kids are watching, teens are watching.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (07:15):
So lots of body image issues. Like I, I just read yesterday in the, in the top that we had, they spoke about I actually wrote it down if you don’t mind me reading it. Cause I thought it was, it was a oh yeah, 80. It was a statistic that 80% of Canadian girls ages, 10 to 17 downloaded a filter or used an application to change the way they look in pictures by the age of 13. Wow. Like it’s. Yeah. Yeah. So for me, like in what I do right now is I work a lot with body image and self-esteem, and it’s sort of like where I wanna continue going. Because as a woman who lives in society where these like there’s these beauty standards and all these things, it’s so important for me to help girls understand that it’s, this is not the only way to be the only way to go. Yeah. So, yeah.


Sam Demma (08:01):
Yeah. It’s so true. I’m actually working on a spoken word album called dear high school. Me and one of the poems is all about the pressure that society puts on us and how it can make life feel like an uphill battle. And it’s like, it’s crazy companies, large companies, and, you know, big corporations don’t sell us clothes and, you know, filters, they sell us the fact that we’re flawed quote unquote, and that we need these things to be perfect. And it’s so false, but it’s like, I deal with it. Everyone deals with it and it’s yeah, it gets exhausting, you know?


Arielle Ben-Zaken (08:31):
Yeah, totally. And it’s almost, it’s, it’s, it’s all we know, right? Yeah. Like it’s all we, we have grown up in this society where it’s, it’s really, we’re, we’re someone once said this it’s like we’re coming into a disordered society. Like society itself is really messed up. And so how can we be okay. Coming into a society? That’s not okay.


Sam Demma (08:48):
Yeah. I, I feel that a hundred percent I want to go back for a second. See your trips. Yeah. Around the world. Yeah. Where did this come from? What are these, can you tell, tell me more about it and an impact it had on you and also the students.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (09:01):
Totally. again, like I said earlier, like one of the best jobs I’ve ever had and I’m so grateful to have done it. It was with the company called B B Y O passport. I literally, it was like, I don’t know, six years ago I had no summer job didn’t know what to do. So my mom, and she’ll be very happy that, you know, she’ll hear me say this looked upon the internet for me to see like what, you know, I don’t know, like summer jobs and this popped up. And it was really, it’s a Jewish organization. B B Y O is an, is a, like a youth group, like a teen youth group. And so this is like their passport division. And really like, I started, I think the first trip I ever did, they got trips that go like all over the world.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (09:38):
They go to Eastern Europe, they go to the UK, they go a lot to Israel because of the, there’s a Jewish component to it. And I did my first trip to the west coast of the us, which was a three week trip. And I saw the entire west coast of the us. And then every other year after that, I went to Israel. A bunch of times I went to Italy, I went to Eastern Europe. Am I missing anywhere? I went, yeah, no. And that’s where I went. And it was just such an amazing opportunity. Like, firstly for me, it was a very different job compared to being a camp counselor because now you’re a counselor overseas. So at camp you’re their, you’re their parents, sister, brother, whatever it is, 24 7 here. You’re that also, but you’re really their only connection because they can’t turn around and go home as easily as they could up north here in Montreal.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (10:24):
So that was, that was a really interesting added experience of, or added part to the whole thing as well. And really like, again, there was like that Jewish component too. And I really like, I, I did not go to like Jewish, private school when I was growing up. I went to public school, so I didn’t really have a lot of Jewish knowledge. So I learned it a lot at camp. And then on these trips too, I was learning while also trying to help the kids learn as well. And I think for me, like you know, I love Israel. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. I’m, I’m part, I’m half Israeli, so it makes sense. Nice. And so for me, watching them fall in love with Israel was also amazing cuz I remember the time that I fell in love with it.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (11:00):
So there was like all those kind of added components. And then as I got older, right, as, as I sort of became more, I guess you can say like, like a senior staff in these trips there was a lot more of a mental health component that became obvious. Like when I started there was no mental health issue. I mean there were kids had mental health issues. Don’t get me wrong, but my last time working with the voo passport, my role was very different. So I went to Israel for six weeks. I was sort of like the mental health professional that ran around from trip to trip to deal with these issues. When I started, we didn’t have that, that wasn’t known to us as staff. And it just goes to show that mental health issues are increasing amongst teens like exponentially. So yeah.


Sam Demma (11:43):
And what do you think is the big life learnings that students took away from those experiences? I think that travel is such a transformative experience and curious to know what the students were saying after those or what you think they took away from that experience.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (11:59):
Yeah. I think, I think travel was obviously, you know, a big, a big part of it because that’s the reason they came on the trip. I think also though there was a sense of community that we created. We really worked hard to create. I think it’s easy for kids to be at school be impacted by those around them and then come on these trips and meet people. They may not necessarily be friends with at school and get to know people in a different way. It was a really intimate setting, right. I think like the biggest trip I was on at 40 fourteens, but I remember one year when I went, I had like 20 cuz I was the first trip going out. Wow. And so we’re like a little family and you could really get to know each other as you, as you go on these trips.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (12:34):
And there’s a lot of like personal learning, right? Like traveling for the first time away from mom and dad you know, seeing certain sites and learning history about, about wherever it was that we were that was also really, really big for the teens. And just a lot of fun, you know, like I think, I think for me the biggest thing when I worked on these trips was that I wanted to make sure that they walked away saying that was an amazing summer. I had such a great time. Can’t wait to do it again. Or now, nowadays when I see like on Facebook, my kids hanging out with each other from like previous trips years ago, I feel, I feel so. So like my, my heart is so warm because I see that they’re still connected. So it’s that sense of connection and community that was created that lasts quite a, quite a long time


Sam Demma (13:13):
And on the topic of mental health being on the rise and students, you know, it’s always been there, but students openly talking about it more and reducing the stigma, you know, you’re a board director, I believe of SEL 360. Can you tell us more about that initiative, why it started and you know, what you’re hoping to accomplish with it


Arielle Ben-Zaken (13:31):
Of of course. So cell 360 is an in initiative that was created to work on reducing the stigma, mental health in teens in the youth population. I jumped on board about a year ago now. We’re really like, everything’s starting to kind of get going now, which is super, super exciting. We’ve done a lot of Facebook live events to really get topics out there that are not discussed normally. Like, like normally I guess you know, in like that are not really discussed, I guess is what I’m trying to say. And, and just really getting people awareness, really creating awareness around, like we just had a, a few videos go out about ed disorders and exercise addiction. Things like that that are sort of, we, we hear the term, but nobody maybe sits down to have these types of conversations, at least not the way we do.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (14:17):
You know, we interview professionals, we interview people that are struggling’re in their own way. And I think that, I think ending the stigma for mental health for, for teens is so important. Because you’re right. Like you said, things are, you know, people are talking about it more now, so it’s really, they’re lucky to be part of a generation or, or of a generation where these conversations are happening. But I remember when I, when I was growing up, like I never had these, these conversations didn’t happen. People were really hush hush about them. It was embarrassing. You know, a lot of people didn’t even know what anxiety was or what depression was, but they knew they felt something different, but we didn’t talk about it. Right. so that’s really what, what cell 360 does and really tries to work on, on ending that stigma. We’re a board of wonderful people and I’m so honored to be a part of it, like really, really it’s super cool. And, and we’re just, we’re just growing and we’re, we’re starting to kind of really things are taking off right now, which is really exciting.


Sam Demma (15:12):
Where do you and the team see the organization or the work in like five years?


Arielle Ben-Zaken (15:18):
Yeah. Ooh, that’s a good question. I guess for, for me I’d really love to get into schools and start like a type of a workshop, like a cell 360 workshop program where we’re really getting into schools and really working with the, with teens and with youth on, on mental health. And yeah, like that’s where I see it going. I’ve always said this though. Like I think it’s super important that kids in high school, somewhere along the line have a class on psychology, have a class on mental health. Because if we can start it young, it will only get better as we get older. People will feel more comfortable talking about it as they get older. And I think that that is so, so, so important, like on, on top of math and English and French and Quebec and all those kinds of things that are super important. So is mental health and really getting teen to understand what they’re feeling, you know there’s nothing worse than feeling something different and not knowing what it is and kind of walking around feeling that whatever let’s say, depressive symptoms or anxiety symptoms and having no label or nothing to connect it with. Yeah. So I think that would be really important.


Sam Demma (16:19):
Yeah. As a student myself, I always found it weird that we learned so much about other things except for ourselves, you know, like totally the one thing that is that is with us our entire life we don’t learn much about. And you know, even now as I’ve grown up and I’m grown up, I’m 21, you still pretty young. But even now I’ve started to realize like your mind is the most powerful thing that you have that anyone has, right. Like everything that’s around us in our reality was once started and crafted in someone’s mind before they brought it to life. And we learned nothing about it and it’s like, we need to know more about this and feelings and emotional intelligence and there’s so many awesome topics. So I can’t wait to see that come to life because it surely will in the next couple years. So, oh, that’s amazing. And when a student approaches you as a social worker or somebody approaches you as a social worker, mm-hmm what do those initial reactions look like? Or sorry, interactions look like, is it a very open conversation? Do you encourage sharing? Like what does that look like? Yeah,


Arielle Ben-Zaken (17:19):
Yeah, yeah, yeah, no. So totally encouraged sharing. Something I think that’s really important about my job is that we, you know, I have to respect confidentiality. So yeah, I really let them know that everything that, that this person and I speak about is kept confidential. I can’t tell anyone about it. I think that initial understanding creates comfort already by just knowing that no one else will know about this kind of thing. And, and that I have no, I’m like legally bound. And can’t talk about these things openly. Yeah. I know for me, like my, my most important thing when I work with a client is I really work to create a safe space. It’s been a little awkward on zoom because I’ve do been doing a lot of my work on zoom, but I’ve been successful. And I feel like I’ve really created a safe space and, and really provided this, the, the support for the client to be able to share.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (18:03):
And yeah, I encourage sharing. I always say, like, I tell clients, you wanna cry, cry, don’t stop yourself from crying. Crying’s an emotion you need to let it out. I really try and make them feel comfortable. For some it’s really awkward and, and, and, you know, I’ve had clients say to me, like, this is really uncomfortable. And so take the first couple of sessions, just get to know them. Yeah. Like let’s chit chat about what music you listen to and what shows you watch and really try and get to know them that way. Because at the end of the day, I’m human too. And so if I can, if I can show them that I’m human and they can understand that about me as well, that I’m not just like this robotic, like social worker they may open up a little bit more to me.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (18:39):
So it’s, it’s, it’s a really interesting experience too. Like I’ve, I’ve been lucky in my jobs to be able to watch people progress from the moment I meet them to sort of like when our work ends together. And I find that the most rewarding and I tell clients all the time, like sitting from where I am, and I only see these people on our sessions, let’s say I’ve been able to see their progress. And they’re always like super they’re really, you, you really think that about me. It’s like, I’ve seen it. I don’t need to think about it. I’ve been able to watch that progress. And I think, yeah, it’s, it’s a lot of sharing. I, I really encourage that, cuz there’s no other way to know about someone than if they don’t share.


Sam Demma (19:14):
And some schools are blessed to have a social worker mm-hmm , but a lot of them don’t, you know, and a lot of local high schools that might not have the budgets or might not have the resource available. They don’t have a social worker in place. Yeah. In those situations, typically a student might actually go to their teacher and a teacher might be unsure how to handle the situation. You know, if you have to give some advice to a teacher, you know, they realize that a student in their class is struggling, don’t know how to approach the student. Like how would you advise them to go about starting that conversation or doing that?


Arielle Ben-Zaken (19:49):
Yeah. I think the, the biggest thing for a teacher let’s say is just to listen. I think that we forget that listening is one of our greatest skills. And that sometimes for someone listening is really all that they need. Mm-Hmm, a lot of people don’t listen to teens. And so it’s like, you know I’ve, I’ve read articles and read things and have conversations about when teens say to their parents, like you know I need to talk or something or they kind of give them an in about a conversation. Sometimes parents don’t listen. Sometimes parents are really easy to say, yeah, I’m busy. I can’t talk right now. But when the kid comes to you, that’s like a very important thing that they’re doing, cuz they’re ready to talk about something. Yeah. I think the same goes with teachers. Like just be, just listen, be open-minded.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (20:28):
There is obviously an, you know, sometimes situations where the teacher like is their hands are tied. Like they really can’t help. So I would always, you know, suggest to seek additional support either from the principal of the school or, you know, maybe look on the internet. There’s tons of really amazing. Especially here in Quebec, I’m only familiar with the resources here, lots of really awesome hotlines and you know, like team texting, they can text numbers now that they’ve opened up so that it’s not just on the phone cause some feel uncomfortable. So maybe even like reaching out to those to those types of, of help lines would be really helpful for teachers too. And yeah, I really think like I’m repeating myself like a broken record, but listening is so important, like such an important tool. Because when, when a Tina’s given time to talk and someone’s listening, let me tell you, they will, if they’re comfortable, they will talk. So it’s, it’s good to sort of make that connection.


Sam Demma (21:23):
Oh, I love that. I, yeah, it’s so funny. I once had a mentor tell me, you know, listening super important and you know, it’s, it’s the most underrated skill. And I didn’t know at the time that he was gonna test me on my own listening skills, but he’s like, Sam, I’m gonna read out some information for you. And he just told me this out of the blue and he’s a lot older and it was his, it was his professional bio and it had a set number of pieces of information in it. And after he finished reading, he just asked me, he’s like, Hey, can you recite however many pieces of information you can remember? And there was like 60 or 80 something pieces. And I, I recited like eight or nine. Yeah. And, and he was like, you failed miserably. And I was like, well, you didn’t, you know, you didn’t tell me it was a test. Yeah. And he said this sentence, I’ll never forget. He said, every time someone else opens their mouth, it is a test. Wow. And it was just like, I was like, whoa, like listening so important. And I can’t think that I’m listening. Good enough. I need to always try and be more present and turn off my phone and make sure I’m fully engaged in the conversation and not thinking about something else while the person’s speaking. So yeah. I just wanted to share that as well. I think you’re absolutely listening is like such a important thing to do. Not only in, you know, scenarios where you’re with a student, but overall just in life in general


Arielle Ben-Zaken (22:40):
Overall. Yeah. Like you just said, the thing to me that, that that is so important is that listening makes you be in the present. I think we live a lot of our lives in the past, in the future. And we rarely, rarely remember that the present is the most important. We’re never gonna get these moments back. So if we’re always living, trying to do something or, or wishing we did something different, we forget about what’s going on in, in, in, in this moment right now. And when you listen, you’re like you said, you’re off your phone, you’re connected, you’re engaged. You’re there. You’re like, it’s such an important thing. And we are like, I feel like sometimes we live life on autopilot, so we’re always going, going, going, going. And we rarely remember, like you said, listening will make you be in the present moment, just, you know, sit down and, and, and use your ears and hear what someone’s saying is so, so, so important.


Sam Demma (23:25):
I hear you there you go. I love that. No pun intended. Speaking about important things, if you could give your younger self advice, like if you could go back in time to the first year you got into social work and working with young people, knowing what you know now and having the experiences you’ve had, what advice would you give your younger self?


Arielle Ben-Zaken (23:45):
I love this question cuz I think about it a lot. I think I would tell my younger self that it’s gonna be okay, don’t worry. You’re gonna get this done. Or things are gonna pan out the way you want them to, but like, don’t rush anything. I was a very rushy like student. I remember I just wanted to get good grades, get outta school. And now I look back and it’s like, I wish I would’ve known that. And really to don’t sweat the small stuff, like a lot of stuff that I worried about back then, didn’t matter. Like I got to where I am now just because life happened and opportunities are arose and I was able to take them. Yeah. And just like go with the flow.


Sam Demma (24:19):
Love it. And if someone’s listening to this and they enjoyed the conversation and wanna reach out to you, what would be the best way for them to get in touch?


Arielle Ben-Zaken (24:28):
That’s a great question. I’d be more than happy to connect with anyone that wants to reach out. If people are on LinkedIn, you can find me on LinkedIn as well. Yeah. Anyway.


Sam Demma (24:39):
Awesome. Ariel, thank you so much again for coming on the podcast. This has been awesome.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (24:43):
Thank you so much.


Sam Demma (24:45):
You’re welcome. And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the High Performing Educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review so other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show; if you want meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network, you’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Arielle Ben-Zaken

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.

Karen O’Brien – Re-Engagement Counsellor

Karen O'Brien - Re-Engagement Counsellor
About Karen O’Brien

Karen has worked in the education system for over 30 years. She began her career as a secondary school classroom teacher teaching multiple subjects. She continued her teaching career with the added responsibility of being a department head. With each new role and school, she developed a passion for helping students who face barriers to success. Her passion led her to the headship at an alternative high school site for students who struggle in mainstream schools.

Today, she is the Re-Engagement Counsellor at Halton District School Board where she helps youth aged 14 to 21 from all high schools in the board stay in school or return to school. Karen works with community agencies and schools to create a plan for each student, ensuring they’re able to finish their high school education and take the next step towards achieving their goals – whatever those may be.

In her personal life, Karen spends time with her family, friends, and at the cottage where she loves to be by the water. She is also a member of a book club that has been ongoing for over 10 years. Her group discusses books, cooks together, and shares many laughs and a few trips. As a mother of two, Karen also gets a great deal of joy watching her children develop their own career paths and passions.

Whether in her professional life or her personal life, Karen loves to learn, take on new challenges and support others as they pursue their goals.

Connect with Karen: Email | Linkedin

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Halton District School Board

Western University – Bachelors of Education

Book Clubs in Ontario

Google Hangouts Guide for Teachers

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. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. I’m super excited to bring you today’s interview with Karen O’Brien. She has worked in the education system for over 30 years. She began her career as a secondary school classroom teacher teaching multiple subjects, and then continued her teaching career with the added responsibility of being a department head.


Sam Demma (01:00):
With each new role in school. She developed a passion for helping students who face barriers to success. Her passion led her to the headship of an alternative high school site for students who struggle in mainstream schools. Today, she is the re-engagement counselor at the Halton District School Board, where she helps youth age 14 to 21 from all high schools in the board, stay in school or return to school. And let me tell you Karen does an amazing job. I was fortunate enough to work with her on a project with some of those students, and it was a, a very in enjoyable experience working with her. Karen works with community agencies and schools to create a plan for each student, ensuring they’re able to finish their high school education and take the next step towards achieving their goals, whatever they might be. In her personal life, Karen spends time with her family, friends and at the cottage where she loves to be by the water.


Sam Demma (01:49):
She’s also a member of a book club that has been ongoing for over 10 years and her group discusses books, cooks together, and shares many laughs and a few trips. As a mother of two, Karen also gets a great deal of joy of watching her children develop their own career paths and passions. Whether in her professional life or her personal life, Karen loves to learn, take on new challenges, and support others as they pursue their goals. I hope you enjoy this interview with Karen O’Brien, and I will see you on the other side. Karen, thank you so much for coming on the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show this morning. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit behind the journey that led you into education?


Karen O’Brien (02:31):
Absolutely. So my name’s Karen O’Brien. I work for Halton District School Board; I’m the re-engagement counselor. So I work with youth 14-21 who have left school or are in, at risk of leaving school, and the 17 high schools board call me in to work with those youth one on one or in small groups to try and keep them in school and motivate them to not only finish high school, but to plan for their future and go beyond that. So I’ve been doing this particular job for 7 years. Before that I have been in seven different schools; a classroom teacher for the most part. Always looking for a new challenge, hence the move between schools and, and a variety of programs. I’ve taught alternative-ed, regular classroom, gifted, all sorts of different classrooms.


Karen O’Brien (03:26):
What, what got me here teaching? I, I always have sort of been looking to teach or did when I was younger. I thought teaching could, was a possibility and so definitely loved it when I got into the classroom, loved it, but what I really truly loved were those watching those kids who were struggling you know, had barriers to success, watching those kids succeed. Mm. And so tho those are the kids. I kept thinking, oh, those are the kids. Those are the kids I want, wanna work with. So so that’s probably what led me, led me first of all, into alternative education and then led me into this job when this job was advertised. I, I thought this is my dream job and talked to a couple people and they said, yes, yes, you’d be perfect. So I, I thought, oh, my worlds are coming together. This is exactly the work I wanna do.


Sam Demma (04:22):
Well, tell me more about the work itself with reengagement, you know, being a reengagement officer. I, I don’t know that many teachers and even principals are even aware of what it is that might be tuning in. So I would love for them to learn a little more about it.


Karen O’Brien (04:35):
No, yeah. So what I do, so there’s two parts of my job. So if kids have left school and disengaged completely been removed from the register, so 14 and up I contact them at least once a semester to try and talk to them about why they left school. I often look at what’s beyond school because often why they left school. It has nothing or very little to do with school has a lot more to do with what’s occurring in their lives. So I work with all sorts of community agencies whether it’s housing agencies or employment agencies or addiction agencies, I work with all sorts. So I’m work regionally with all of those. I’m on a couple of regional committees. So I have lots of connections. Mental health supports are huge. So I work with all of those agencies.


Karen O’Brien (05:27):
So if I have a youth and I think, okay, these are the barriers, these are the struggles we address those. I get them connected to those type of agencies if they’re not already connected and work hard for that, because that’s the first thing, that’s always the first thing, once they’re connected and on sort of a road to wellness and doing, starting to do better. And, and they start to also trust me and, and have a relationship with me within start to talk about school and what those school goals might be and how school can look for them. That school, isn’t always about sitting in a room of 30 kids in a classroom that school can be done very differently than what perhaps they had experienced. So we talk about how they can do school without that model, that they don’t feel they fit into.


Karen O’Brien (06:15):
And also after they’ve addressed some of their concerns. So a lot of the youth when I meet with them are not, they don’t really see themselves as students has, has potential graduates. So I try to reframe that and help the see themselves. Yes, you could absolutely be a student, maybe not the picture or you have in your head, but, but you can learn and you can be a student and you can go on. And the goal is to go on after high school. So you know, I also read a lot of data and studies, so I know that they’ll do better in life if they go beyond high school and, and post secondary. And that’s pretty, pretty critical for a lot of, of students is to find their passion and whatever that is. So to have either is certainly traditional post-secondary college or university, but there’s also apprentice.


Karen O’Brien (07:09):
There’s also work. There’s also like a dream, a passion. So, so having a plan beyond high school, getting the diplomas a huge win, but it’s, what’s the next step. So I always say, I don’t wanna just get you out of high school. I want to get you into something yeah. Beyond high school. And that’s my goal with them. So I work with them and then, yeah. And work with them, just one one-on-one for the most part, some small group stuff. But most part I do one on one because they’re all unique and need those, those supports. So those are the youth. So those of youth have left school. The other part of my job is I built a relationship with all the schools and the board. So they call me in when they have a kid who’s flounder ring, cuz I always say, please, please call me before they’ve left.


Karen O’Brien (07:56):
Oh, I have a much better chance of helping them. If you know, you introduce me because they know you and, and we meet and I start to work with them when they’re still in school has, you know, when they’re hanging by a thread I want in so the schools bring me in a lot for that too. And that’s that’s, to me, my has evolved so seven years ago, it was mostly kids who have left. Now it’s mostly kids who are disengaging, who are, and, and that’s the bulk of my days and most of my days, which, which I’m very happy for that shift.


Sam Demma (08:33):
Wow. I love that. And you mentioned trust no. Yes. The beginning, initially it might be a generic conversation about their life and what’s going on and listening to them until they trust you. How do you build that trust with a student who might be disengaging?


Karen O’Brien (08:48):
Well, a lot of it is just meeting them. So pre pandemic, I’d meet them near their house, whether that was, you know, at Tim Horton McDonald’s or in a park or the library, wherever, I’d say like, what’s easy for you, where can you walk to, can we just meet and, and either walk and talk or sit and talk. And, and just, and I build the trust, not by saying, tell me about your life as much as I tell them about my job and that I have the ability to help them, not just with school, but with other things, I, I can connect them with other things. So I start to talk about that. For the most part in that first conversation, we don’t talk as much about school we do about their lives and, and sort of what, they’re, what they’re looking for in this moment.


Karen O’Brien (09:41):
I need, you know, I have precarious housing in this moment. I need, I really wanna work in this moment. So I, whatever that one thing is, I work really hard off the initial meeting to make that connection and get them support in that, because then they trust me and then they go the next time. Okay, here’s this, here’s this, here’s this, we do get to the point where we talk about school. I talk about you know, I ask them about when they liked school, like, what do they remember? Even if they have to reach really far back, what is it that they remember to do they remember a class or a project or something? What do they remember? And, and every single time they end up talking about the teacher. So not, well, you know, they may say grade, whatever nine I did this, or with this, they’ll start with, but they talk about the teacher and I think, okay, this is, this is what teaching is.


Karen O’Brien (10:39):
This is relationships. So, and, and they inevitably, that’s the discussion that comes out, that they like that class because they like the teacher because the teacher respected and valued them. Mm-Hmm so that’s really inevitably where it comes from. So I try then to a nice soft place, I call it for them to land in the education system where they have that caring adult. So I don’t just say, go register. I take them, I work with the school, like who’s gonna work with them. Who’s the first teacher they’re gonna encounter. Who’s going to work with them. And let’s pick carefully so, so there’s a good connection or the, the chance of the good connection.


Sam Demma (11:22):
That’s awesome. I love that. And where did your passion come from to work with these, you know, these specific type of students, like, you know, did you have a teacher that impacted you as a student? Did you have a unique own, your own unique journey through school?


Karen O’Brien (11:37):
Definitely. I, well, I moved five times growing up, my father kept getting transferred, so that’s, that’s, you know, it creates a little little, now I look back, I think. Okay. You know, you had to make it the transition. It creates a little chaos in your life. Every time you move. The most difficult move for me was probably the middle grade 12. And so you know, that, that was a tough transition for me. I had an economics teacher who was awesome and really sort of looked out for me. I must say he, so I actually enrolled in economics initially when I went, you know, nice went to university ended up getting an English and economics degree. But, but I, I think that, that was because, and he was like, you know, just one of those teachers who was like, Hey, in the hallway and, you know, built the, like totally made me feel like, okay, I’m part of this.


Karen O’Brien (12:37):
Mm. Even though I don’t feel part of this school, I, I know in this class, I feel like I’m definitely part of this. So so I do think that I also think when I started out in teaching, I was really, really so super curriculum focused. Mm. Like, like that was my, like I knew the curriculum and I was like, you know, had my lesson plans and I was like, I was on it. And I had a, a great 10 class who was gifted in rich class and they were challenging. And so I stopped trying to make them fit my curriculum, that they taught me that that’s not gonna work. and started talking to them about what they want to do. So I’d say, okay though, this is what the curriculum says you have to do.


Karen O’Brien (13:32):
How do you wanna show me that you do that? And, and this was many, many years ago. So it was so my classroom probably appeared a bit chaotic in those days compared to other classrooms. But but like, I love that class. And I, and so that’s what started me on this journey thinking, okay, you know, this, this is yeah, this is, this is how, how you teach you. Don’t, you don’t teach curriculum, you teach kids, you teach students. And, and if you’re always focused on I’m teaching the student, whatever the curriculum is, we can bring in.


Sam Demma (14:10):
Hmm. I love that. You know, you mentioned your economics teacher as well. Sounds like they, they played a huge role. Can you PI point what they did specifically that made you feel like a part of the class? Like, I, I’m curious because I, I know I’ve had teachers like that in my own high school journey. And if you asked me my favorite class, I would tell you world issues, class with, you know, Michael loud foot . So what are some of those things that you think he did or they did for you?


Karen O’Brien (14:35):
Well, part of, so part is there’s twofolds. So the one is a passion for his subject. You know, he loved it. He loved, and he loved the world. So economics, I suspect like world issues. We didn’t have world issues, but economics gave us the opportunity to look at what was happening in the world and then interpret it through the economic lens, through what’s happening. And, and, and so everything seemed like you were getting this, this passionate person about his subject, but getting an understanding of the world and what’s going on in the, in the world that, you know, you’re about to enter as an adult. So though that combination of his passion for the subject and his understanding that students wanna see the relevance, right. We want like, like make this relevant for me, make me understand why this is important. So and he did the curriculum became very relevant to me.


Karen O’Brien (15:29):
The other piece was the, the constant one on one talks. When I look back, he was, he was, you know, he kind of would do a lesson at the front, but he was always, you know, beside me, or, you know, or checking or sitting or pulling a chair or grabbing two desks and putting two, like help this person with, like, he was constantly like, you know, his classroom evolved with relationships as well as with the curriculum. So it wasn’t like we weren’t all just getting the curriculum, getting information from her, from him. We were, we were you know, part of the learning journey as he circulated through and went. And I think that that’s the teachers who, who are on the learning journey with the students and, and meet the students at whatever step they’re at to get them to the next step or help get another student to help them get to the next step.


Karen O’Brien (16:25):
Like, that’s, that’s the learning journey. So if they’re part of it, rather than the, you know, purveyor of knowledge, it’s, to me, to me, that’s, that’s the key to, to really being excellent at your job and for students to then trust you. Because if you are the expert students, I don’t know. I just get the sense that students just sit and passively take it, and then they watch for, oh, did you make a mistake? I’m gonna watch for it kind of thing. Yeah. Like it becomes a little, little bit of a us, us versus him or her or them. But if you’re, if the teacher’s on the learning journey with the student, then I think, you know, everybody leaves.


Sam Demma (17:07):
Yeah. Cause they feel just like them. It’s like, we’re both learning, you know? Yeah.


Karen O’Brien (17:12):
Yeah. Yeah. My students taught me something every year. Like I, I was teaching English and I just still remember this one young person was so funny cuz I was, he was really struggling with the poetry unit and that day we divided everything. Anyway, he was struggling with the poetry unit. So I was explaining it and I was, you know, going, oh, this is so cool. And this is what the poetry’s doing. And he said, okay, I understand. He goes, you understand that? I’m never gonna love this stuff. Right. And I go, okay, hear you. I will, I will back. Like, like I thought, okay, I’m a little Mure. So I I’m, I’m okay with you not loving it. Let’s get down to what you need to know. Yeah. And move on. And he was like, okay, good. So we


Sam Demma (17:55):
Were good from


Karen O’Brien (17:56):
Then on like I thought, okay. Learning again. Right. I get that.


Sam Demma (18:01):
That is so funny. that’s awesome.


Karen O’Brien (18:04):
It was so funny.


Sam Demma (18:05):
Yeah. And so no thinking about your role again, as a, you know, the re-engagement officer in the past couple of years versus this year, how has it changed? Like has there been a huge need for it during like, you know, COVID and what are some of the challenges you’ve been faced with and how have you tried to overcome them?


Karen O’Brien (18:24):
So huge challenges cuz I’m used to going and meeting with the student face to face. So arranging a phone call or a Google hangout as, you know, students don’t turn on their cameras and you know, there’s, there’s, they don’t always attend. Not that they always attend it in person, but so huge struggle. So I have so what I’ve done is I’ve primary to use the staff in the school. So is there someone in the school they were connected to? And I talked to the school and so then I try a three-way Google hangout or a three-way phone conversation because if they had a student success teacher or a guidance counselor or somebody or a math teacher, whomever that they really connected with and that teacher feels they can help. Then, then we were on setting up the Google meet with them, with them to sort of introduce me.


Karen O’Brien (19:19):
So we work a lot of the administrators do that. A lot of the vice principals know these kids really well. So they, we did a lot of three-way Google meets initially. So we worked with that. I got a cell phone numbers whenever I could for kids and would start texting because I can get a response, even if it’s short initially from texting. So just lots of texting check-ins really looking again for that agent, like what, what can I get to help them not necessarily school, but what can I get to help them? So I’ve used, yeah. The Google meet with, with a, a caring adult who introduces us texting some kids I’ve just driven to and said, will you just meet me outside? And we can talk. So some kids I’ve just said, you know, are you willing to do this?


Karen O’Brien (20:10):
So if they are, yeah, we just, we, you know, safety protocols stay distant and stuff, but we’d you know, go walk in a park or, you know, whatever, or just stand outside their house and they’d stand in the doorway and I’d stand back and talk to them. So I did a number of those too, just to try, I you know, used whatever I could, we have Halton learning foundation here. There’s a barriers account. So if a student is struggling, their family’s struggling financially, you can we can give them grocery gift cards. So in some, sometimes I deliberate those and that was my way so, so that was my way in with some of the kids to, to try and engage them in that conversation. I definitely used that a lot. Because a lot of these kids yeah, don’t don’t have much, so that was my way in. So rather than yeah, so I just, yeah, showing up, I mean, I really just have to show up where whatever way they’re willing to show up, if it’s a Google meet or texting or a phone call or on their front porch or, you know, at the door of their building, whatever. Yeah. I just try to show up and be there.


Sam Demma (21:27):
That’s awesome. And did you find that this year there was more support, but you were able to still, you know, do the same type of work, but it was just more difficult and more work or did you find that it was a lot, like it was a lot harder and maybe more students might have slipped through the cracks as a result of the challenges that


Karen O’Brien (21:50):
I felt that more students were slipping through the cracks this year. Although I I’ve been doing my tracking this week and, and summarizing, so we, I feel as a board, we have a good handle on our students. So I, I worried that they were flipping a slipping through the cracks, but that’s partly because I wasn’t seeing them. Oh, picture man. I’m so, so accustomed to seeing them and doing the check-ins that way. But, but I feel we have a good handle on them. There are definitely more suffering from mental health challenges all sorts of other challenges. So we have social worker workers working through the summer mental health, there’s all those things. So I’m feeling like the kids are, they struggle more. Yeah, definitely struggle more, but I’m feeling like they’re connected. You know, we see how, how well they stay connected throughout the summer, but I’m, I’m hoping that we have enough connections that we’re hanging on to them and, and we’ll get them back in September. I’m so looking forward to face to face in September, I’m feeling like we just need to hang onto them and get them back and then support them once they’re back.


Sam Demma (23:06):
Yeah. Couldn’t agree more. It’s it’s so different. I even think about the work that I do speaking this students and doing it virtual is one thing doing it in person is a totally different thing, you know? Totally. So, yeah, I couldn’t agree more. And if you could go back seven years and speak to Karen when she was just getting into this role, what, like what advice would you give your younger self and knowing what you know now?


Karen O’Brien (23:31):
When I I think knowing what I know now, when I first got into this role, I tried to cover everything like do it all, but that brought no depth to my work. Right. So, so, so cover every possible thing. And what I learned is I personally don’t need to cover every PO. I need to make sure everyone’s covered all the kids are covered, but I don’t personally, like I’m not the only person, I’m the only person in my role. And there’s no other role this in the board, but that doesn’t mean there. Aren’t a lot of other people out there who I can tap on and say, Hey, can you connect with these kids? Or even people in the community you know, informal, informal mentors in the community. Like there’s so many people. So I think, I think what I’ve learned is to build that network over the years.


Karen O’Brien (24:22):
So even if I’m not the person you know, diving deep with that kid and helping them every step of the way, I’ve got them connected to somebody who can help them navigate that. And, and they may cycle back in and ask me questions the odd time. But I, I think, I think that I would tell myself to just like focus on not focus on the kids, but focus on your network and who can help and, and who you need to tap on because the, the faster you do that, the more help you’re gonna get for these kids.


Sam Demma (24:55):
Yeah, love that. Such a good piece of advice. Well, Karen, thank you so much for coming on the show. Really appreciate it. If someone’s been listening and they’re interested in the conversation, or just wants to chat with you, what would be the best way for them to reach out?


Karen O’Brien (25:09):
They’re welcome to email me. So obrienk@hdsb.ca.


Sam Demma (25:18):
Cool, awesome. Karen again, thank you so much. Enjoy the rest of your summer. This is probably coming out in September so if you’re listening now, you’re probably wondering what the heck, but , we filmed it in the beginning of July, so enjoy your summer and I’ll talk to you soon.


Karen O’Brien (25:33):
Okay. Thank you so much, Sam.


Sam Demma (25:35):
And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the High Performing Educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review so other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show; if you want meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network, you’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Karen O’Brien

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.

Katie Lewis-Prieur & Sarah Abrams – Consultants at the Ottawa Catholic School Board

Katie Lewis-Prieur & Sarah Abrams - Consultants at the Ottawa Catholic School Board
About Katie Lewis-Prieur & Sarah Abrams

Katie Lewis-Prieur (@klewis_prieur) has been in education for more than 25 years, many of it in the classroom teaching English and Drama before working in system-level positions at the Ottawa Catholic School Board.  She is blessed to be part of the Specialized Pathways team as the Experiential Learning consultant for K-12.

Sarah Abrams(@SarahMAbrams) has been with the Ottawa Catholic School Board for the past 22 years.  She spent the first 20 years of her career as a high school teacher and Guidance Counsellor and is currently the Guidance and Pathways Consultant for the board.  Sarah is passionate about helping students discover their pathway and supporting guidance teams in breaking down barriers for students to access whatever post-secondary path they wish to take.   

Connect with Katie: Email | Instagram | Linkedin | Twitter

Connect with Sarah: Email | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Ottawa Catholic School Board (OCSB)

Specialized Programs – OCSB

New Teacher Induction Program (NTIP)

Carleton University – BA in Journalism

Brock University – BA in English Language and Literature

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. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today we have on a pair of guests, not just one person, but two people, two very incredible influential people that I’ve done a ton of work with, but are also just phenomenal human beings that I call two of my friends now. We have on Katie and Sarah.


Sam Demma (00:59):
Katie has been in education for more than 25 years. Many of it in the classroom, teaching English and drama before working in system level positions with the Ottawa Catholic School Board. She is blessed to be part of the specialized pathways program team as an experiential learning consultant through K-12. But the reality is she’s actually moving on to a new position. So stay tuned because maybe we’ll do a follow up episode with her next year and her partner in crime Sarah is also on the show today who has been with the Ottawa Catholic School Board for the past 22 years. She spent the first 20 years of her career as a high school teacher and guidance counselor, and is currently the guidance and pathways consultant for the school board. She is passionate about helping students discover their pathway and supporting guidance teams in breaking down barriers for students to access whatever post-secondary path they wish to take.


Sam Demma (01:49):
The two of them bring together a wealth of knowledge. I was a part of one of their career fairs about six months ago now, or maybe four, three months ago and they do such amazing work. So I hope you enjoy this episode as much as I enjoy chatting with them, and I will see you on the other side. Katie, Sarah, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you both together on the show. This is the second time only that we’ve had a group of three on the show. So I’m, I’m super excited about it. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit about why you’re so passionate about the work you do in education today. And Sarah, feel free to kick this one off.


Sarah Abrams (02:29):
Well, hi Sam. I’m Sarah Abrams. I work at the Ottawa Catholic School Board and I am the guidance and pathways consultant. So I work with the guidance departments across our school board. And I’ve always loved teaching. I love working in a dynamic environment like a school where every day is different. You never know what, what is gonna come at you that day. There’s not too many jobs where you can participate in dressup days and spirit weeks and, you know, take kids on field trips and watch watch them learn new things and get excited about things they didn’t know. And so, and also building the relationships with those young people and with my colleagues has inspired me. So, you know, for me, education has always been my passion and I love everything about it.


Sam Demma (03:15):
Love that. Awesome, Katie what about yourself?


Katie Lewis-Prieu (03:19):
Well, thanks for having us on today. I’m Katie Lewis-Prieu and I’m the experiential learning consultant for K-12 for the Ottawa Catholic School Board, and I get to work every day with people like Sarah. The reason I’m doing this job is because I think kids getting their hands in and doing practical work and exploring careers is something that’s gonna change their life, and I’m just privileged to be a part of it.


Sam Demma (03:44):
Mm love that. And when you guys both come together, you create a power house of a team and I I’ve seen the impact firsthand. What are some of the projects that you’ve run this year? Things you’ve put on and worked together and, and created that been really passionate about, or, or that went well, I know this year has been challenging. We’ve, we’ve been limited in many ways, but I feel like there was also some opportunities and you’ve taken advantage of those. And Katie, maybe you can answer this question first.


Katie Lewis-Prieu (04:12):
I think this has been an incredible year for us in spite of the pandemic. It’s my first year working as a team mate with and so it’s been incredible just to build that relationship and to see what we can do. And we usually start with what we’re trying to accomplish before we set out what our goals are. And so this year we had a nice kickoff at the beginning of the year with OCSP career week. And it was one of those weeks that had been doing well and things were happening in schools, but when the pandemic hit a huge challenge, right, because you can’t have all these presenters coming into your school to talk about their post-secondary programs or entry into the world of work. And so that was our, our first major challenge that we hit this year because we knew it was still really important for students to be able to explore these careers. So we decided to, to tackle it head on and to create a really dynamic week where teachers and students could access all sorts of activities career panels really great resources for them to leverage. And so that was, I think, our first success.


Sam Demma (05:25):
Awesome. Yeah. That’s great. And Sarah, maybe you can touch on some of the other things that have happened this year. I’m sure there’s a bunch of other things happening behind the scenes every day, each and every day


Sarah Abrams (05:35):
There absolutely was. And, and a big part of what we wanted to do was figure out how we could bring this rich experience, financial learning, and, and also one of our goals is to, to bust pathway myths. So we also, we want students to know that college and university, aren’t the only options for them that some students will go directly to the world of work. And some students will go into apprenticeship program. Some will take a gap year and, and that’s one of our big missions is to bust those pathway myths. So one of the things we did was we have created with a community partner on fee career panels. And we’ve had several of those throughout the year, this year. And the pandemic has actually opened our eyes to the possibilities with this. So in prior years you would have this career panel at one school, you’d only be able to reach a few students, but because we were in the pandemic, we had to reach rethink things. And we were able to do them virtually and bring in hundreds of students. So hundreds of students have been able to learn about careers in manufacturing and the arts in English in all kinds of areas that maybe they wouldn’t have done before. So that’s been an excellent opportunity for us.


Katie Lewis-Prieu (06:49):
And if I can just add on if, if you are not aware of the careers that are out there, how can you possibly know that this is something that you want to explore? And I know your messaging, Sam has always been go out there and taste things like it’s a, a banquet or a buffet. And that’s definitely our message as well.


Sam Demma (07:07):
I love that. And I was gonna say, you know, Sarah, you mentioned fifth years and, you know, MIS myth busting, well, if your name’s Sam DEMA, you would take a fifth year of high school, a gap year after the a fifth year go to college for two years, drop outta college and then get into the world of work after, you know, three years of trying to find things and, and figure things out. So it’s, the work you’re doing is so important and I think it needs to happen in, in every board and hopefully it is happening in every board and keep doing it because we need it. I’m curious though, we start this conversation and asking both of you, you know, why are you passionate about this work? What led you down the path of education? Like, did you have teachers in your life who deeply inspired you to, you know, take on this path or did you just stumble into it by a mistake and have been here since, like, I’m curious to know why you’re working in education today and, and Katie, maybe you can kick this one off.


Katie Lewis-Prieu (07:59):
Well, when I was little, I used to parade around in my backyard pretending I was ginger from Gillin island. So I knew that I wanted something that was engaging. I thought I was gonna be an actress when I was really little and there just weren’t the, the career classes to support that there was no ran a class in my high school when I went to school. So I had to look for something else. And being an actress just didn’t seem reasonable at the time. So I thought I want to work with people. It was just a part of who I was that I, I definitely not a solitary person. I, I like to collaborate. And so teaching in journalism were the, the two things that really grabbed me with the limited, you know, exposure to career exploration that we had at the time.


Katie Lewis-Prieu (08:48):
So I ended up actually doing a journalism degree at Carleton university. And then just as I was about to graduate from that, we were in the middle of a recession and I thought, well, I’m just not the type of person to sit back and do nothing. And I thought, well, I’m gonna go in and I’m gonna finish my English degree. And while I was doing that, I thought, you know what? I actually really like how much more collaborative being a teacher was. Cause there were a lot of people trying to scoop each other in the journalism program. And I thought I’d rather work with people as opposed to trying to top them. So that’s definitely how I started heading into teaching and was a high school teacher and taught English and civics and drama for many years before I started working at the school board. And did two terms as the arts and indigenous studies consultant. And last year had the great opportunity to sit in a leadership role for a year while my colleague was on leave. And then this opportunity opened up for experiential learning and I jumped right at it, cuz I thought this is exciting.


Sam Demma (09:54):
Cool, awesome. That, that, you know, I was gonna ask you, but I didn’t want to age you there. Let’s What’s Gilligan’s island ,


Katie Lewis-Prieu (10:03):
You’ve got to be kidding me. Gilligan’s island was the bomb. When I was a little kid, it was a little show and Gilligan was stranded on an island with six castaways. And one of them was bombshell actress who walked around everywhere in an evening gown on this deserted island. And so she was just it for me when I was a little


Sam Demma (10:25):
Kid, I love that. I’m gonna, I’m gonna go earn some brownie points with my parents with that one later


Sarah Abrams (10:30):
And


Sarah Abrams (10:32):
Sometimes we still have to tell Katie not to wear her ball gowns to work, but


Katie Lewis-Prieu (10:38):
You can’t see what I’m wearing down below. It could be, you know, heels in a full skirt.


Sam Demma (10:43):
I don’t know if you can hear it, but the whole crowd’s laughing. it’s awesome. Sarah, you know, what did your journey into education look like?


Sarah Abrams (10:55):
Mine was similar in some ways to Katie, but, but also a little bit different. I always have wanted to be a teacher, so I did follow a very linear pathway, which is something I’ve, I’m trying to bust for a lot of students. But I think part of that was because I was number one, a bossy older sister, and I had a much younger brother and he was my first student. So when I, I was about 10 and he was four, I was making him sit down and listen to me and I was teaching him to read and teaching him everything I wanted to teach him. And then the other thing was that I had a lot of family members who were in education, so that influenced me greatly. And, and I probably can remember every teacher I’ve ever had. So I really, for some, and it just, it just called to me from a young age.


Sarah Abrams (11:42):
But throughout my career, I’ve really realized that within teaching you can do so many different things. So I have, have not been static. I started out teaching history and English in high school and, and I was very much a yes person. So I was tapped on the shoulder and they’d say, we need someone to teach parenting. And I would say, okay, we need someone to teach hair styling. Okay. and so I’ve done a lot of different things within my school which culminated in a position as a guidance counselor, which I absolutely loved. I would, I could do that forever. I loved working with kids in student services, but that also then led me to this position at the board, working with the guidance teams from all of the schools. So I think education is a nice career because there are so many different things you can do. You don’t have to just stay in one path. There are a lot, there’s lots of opportunity for growth and for learning. And that’s been great for me.


Sam Demma (12:38):
I love that. And one of the most pivotal people in my high school career was my guidance counselor. She had countless conversations with me and my parents miss Diana. Yeah, Diane, her last name’s escaping me right now, but she, she would help me because my pathway was, I was trying to go to the us for soccer. And like, I can’t remember. I had probably, probably at least two dozen meetings with her in my last year of high school to try and figure things out for NCAA. So it just goes to show that every role in a school, whether it’s in the physical school or as a consultant, plays a huge role on impacting young people. And I’m curious to know, because I know you’ve, you’re not directly in touch with students, but you probably hear a lot from the schools and the principals. What do you think some of the challenges that schools and students are facing right now? And we won’t stick on this question too long because I don’t wanna get negative, but what are some of the challenges you think we’re facing and maybe Sarah, you can kick it off and then I’ll pass it back on to Katie.


Sarah Abrams (13:40):
Well, for me, and I think this would be similar for guidance folks. I can speak sort of for them a little bit. It’s the building relationships piece. I’m all about building relationships. I like building relationships with the counselors that I work with and the teachers that I work with. And as a counselor, I L loved being able to call a student into my office and have a chat and, and you build relationships with those students and that’s what, where you build the trust as well. And so with COVID and having to shut down and then start and shut down, and then we have some students going completely virtual. It is very, very hard to kind of keep those relat ships going and build new ones. So for me, that’s probably the biggest challenge, I think right now, due to COVID. I mean, lots of people are, are facing lots of personal challenges in lots of different ways, but in terms of my career, I think that has been something that I’ve really had to be conscious of and figure out how to build relationships in different ways. And I think teachers and counselors, schools are doing the same thing.


Sam Demma (14:38):
Yeah, no, I agree. Yeah. Katie, what, what do you think?


Katie Lewis-Prieu (14:42):
Well, my job is experiential learning consultant and challenge. It’s pretty hard when you’re on lockdown to, you know, when you, you start thinking about, well, what can I do? So for sure, there’s been a lot of pivoting and it’s hard. I think of just our, our theater students alone, because it’s something I’m very passionate about. And those students aren’t in most cases, not getting the opportunity to have that full theat or experience where you’re under the spotlights you’re you know, in scenes with other people, even just the, the, the acting piece where you can’t even make physical contact with someone to, you know, if you’re seen as telling, you’re trying to get somebody to snap out of it and the scene, you would normally be shaking them. You can’t do anything like that. So that was a huge challenge coming in. And I do worry about the mental health of our students as well, cause we’re social beings. But I think what Sarah was describing with those relationships is just the, the key to everything and, and still trying to give students opportunities to connect with the outside work world through things like learning partnerships has become crucial this year.


Sam Demma (15:58):
Hmm. And along with each challenge comes some form of an opportunity. I would, I would suppose that one of them is technology. You’ve probably learned a dozen new skills and tools. I mean, you’re wearing, very, no one can see it, but yeah, it looks like a pair of gaming headphones and I wouldn’t say you’re a huge gamer or who knows, you know,


Katie Lewis-Prieu (16:22):
You’d be right Sam when I play Mario Cartt my children laugh at me.


Sam Demma (16:28):
Yeah. So what are some of the opportunities you think have arise from the situation this year are some of the things you’ve learned that have been really helpful and we’ll start with Katie.


Katie Lewis-Prieu (16:41):
Well, I think Sarah alluded it to it earlier. Just the opportunity for the reach, like, you know, whereas you might have had an individual teacher setting up a session in their class where they had a guest speaker coming in, we’ve had these opportunities to do things like career panels where, you know, if we had I think one of the ones we ran for one of our other initiatives OCS B steam week, I think one of our career panels, we had over a hundred classes that’s classes wow. On the call. So in that one, I think we had three different panelists. So students were hearing from three people quick, 45 minute meet where the teacher is, you know, getting a chance to engage in that career exploration with their students. And then all sorts of crazy fun stuff have, has come out of those calls as well.


Katie Lewis-Prieu (17:37):
And I think it’s opened up our students and teachers to further inquiry. Us doing OCSP steam week actually came from the challenges that we faced with OCSP career week. And it grew into something huge. And there were a lot of teachers, I think, who, because they had opened themselves up to technology, also opened themselves up to new things like learning about stem or steam subjects. And so I think there’s just been enormous growth for everyone throughout the process and technology is allowed it, I mean, it can be so frustrating at times when things aren’t working out, but what an opportunity to reach so many more people. And also to have fun, we set up all these challenges as well. For OCS B steam weeks is stem challenges where students were doing these rub Goldberg machines. And I don’t know if you know what they are, but they’re like a chain reaction thing where they’re, you know, setting up slides, like, you know, maybe a ruler in a marbles going down there and it’s gonna hit something else and pop into something else. And we just loved seeing these students with that whole perseverance piece where they were setting up their systems and it didn’t work the first time, but they kept going. And then when you see those videos and you see their face and they are so proud of themselves, that they got it to work. That’s a huge thing.


Sam Demma (19:09):
Yeah. Oh, I, I agree. I totally agree. It’s funny, those, those contraptions, I think they happen in physics class. I might be wrong, but


Katie Lewis-Prieu (19:19):
, we had kindergartners doing it as well. Wow.


Sam Demma (19:22):
yeah. That’s, that’s awesome. So cool. Yeah, I remember it feels like yesterday I was in grade 12 and my buddy was making one for his grade physics assignment. Sarah, what do you think? Like what, what are some of the opportunities that you’ve seen arise outta this crazy situation?


Sarah Abrams (19:38):
I think I, I think Katie’s answer was bang on, but, and just to add, you know, or to, to echo what she’s saying. I think the challenge of as a history teacher, too, I think of challenges in the past, the great, the world wars with any big challenge that a society faces comes the opportunity for growth and creativity and some of our, our most amazing achievements and accomplishments come out of those tough times that we face as a, as a, as humanity. And like the, the growth in technology, especially among educate, I think is something that I have never seen before in my whole career. It’s and it’s because it was necessary, right. It was something that teachers had to do and, and we had to do as well. I’ve never learned so much about technology as I have in the last year.


Sarah Abrams (20:26):
And so I think that’s just opened up the doors to so many different things. One of the things Katie and I are involved in right now is providing, working with our partner, Algonquin college, providing our students with different virtual workshops on coding and using laser cutters and a 3d printing. And it’s all virtual, but the kids are able to learn how to do this stuff on their computers. And then at Algonquin, something will actually be 3d printed or laser cut or, or whatever. And the teachers are learning this too, and it’s making teachers more comfortable with all of the new technology that is up and coming. So I think if you look at it with a positive spin, there are a lot of challenges, but a lot of growth has come out of it.


Sam Demma (21:13):
Yeah, no, I couldn’t agree more. I think it’s, it’s great growth. Like it forced, it’s forced growth almost like you grow up as a kid and you hit your growth spurt and then you stop growing. It’s almost like we’ve been to grow more at past that point. And it’s painful. You have aching pains from the new growth spur. And not to say that the challenges aren’t there, cuz they are like, it’s a crazy time and people are struggling, but it’s cool to focus on the positives for a second. You know,


Katie Lewis-Prieu (21:42):
And neuroscience tells us that we need to be lifelong learners. We need to keep bill holding those neuro connectors. So as, as tough as it has been, and it has been tough for some people like just the new skills that we are picking up this year are definitely something to be applauded.


Sam Demma (22:02):
Yeah. No, I agree. Totally agree. And you know, I’m curious to know when you were both students, so think back what are some things that educators in your life did for you that had a huge impact? And I’m, I’m curious to know, maybe you can pinpoint one teacher in something they shared or did. Because I think educators sometimes underplay the impact they have because they don’t see it sometimes. And with this story you can share about how they’ve impacted you it’ll remind educators that they’re having an impact on their own students and also give them some ideas on what’s important in the classroom. And Katie, you seem like you had an aha moment. So oh,


Katie Lewis-Prieu (22:43):
A hundred, a hundred percent. I had an incredible English teacher when I was at St. Joseph’s high school called Mary Lynn Oche. And I had her for a bunch of years at a time cuz it was when Catholic education was just starting to get the funding. And I remember we were studying Hamlet and she would not give us her opinion on whether Hamlet was mad or whether he was putting it on. And I remember being so upset at the time that she wouldn’t tell us her opinion, cause I really did value her opinion, but it was so smart of her because it forced us to use our own critical thinking skills and to make our own mind. And that has stuck with me. And she’s also one of the people who let me teach a class about journal is one of my independent study projects. And that certainly was one of those key things that made me think, okay, do I wanna go into journalism or teaching and gave me a sense of confidence that you know, I could be engaging in front of a class and, and it was just a little thing that she did by letting me try something out that had a major impact on me.


Sam Demma (23:55):
Wow. Love that. I love that it’s like giving you a responsibility almost absolutely. To succeed or fail and either, or it would’ve been a success,


Katie Lewis-Prieu (24:03):
But with support, with support, you know, we talked about what it would look like and it wasn’t something so hugely overwhelming that I couldn’t be successful at it, but I also got good feedback. And to me, that’s, that’s an enriching, deep learning opportunity.


Sam Demma (24:19):
Love that. Love that. Sarah, how about yourself?


Sarah Abrams (24:23):
When I think back, I, like I said earlier, I can remember every teacher I had and I think each of those people had an impact on me at some point, but I do remember in particular, a grade eight math teacher and I, I wasn’t the best math student. But she always took the time with students at lunch or after school. And she was very friendly and really encouraging. And her name was Phyllis Perry. And I still think about her sometimes. And I think I wrote her a letter actually, when I became a teacher thanking her for what she did. But one of the things I think back at is I don’t remember the lessons I learned. I don’t remember the curriculum from each of those teachers that I had. I remember other things remember, you know, what they talked about or how they made me feel mm-hmm or you know, those kinds of things. And I think sometimes as teachers, we forget that it’s not all about the curriculum. It’s about that relationship building and it’s about the impact of caring adult can have on a student. And for me, those are the, when I think about the teachers I had, it was it’s really the ones who were the most caring adults in my life that, that really stick out.


Sam Demma (25:31):
Yeah. So true. So, so true. And it’s funny cuz I’m reflecting now asking this question on my own experience and teachers who change my life, did the same thing that you’re sharing now. Like they, they took the content and personalized it for every student in the class. They knew what we liked. They knew our hobbies. They, they took the time to get to know us. So I think it’s great. Yeah. It’s such a, those are all great examples. And if you could go back in time and speak to your younger self, you know, the first year you got into education, what advice would you give your younger self, knowing what you know now and yeah, Katie, you can,


Katie Lewis-Prieu (26:08):
You can


Sam Demma (26:08):
Go first.


Katie Lewis-Prieu (26:10):
Well, I remember being terrified, absolutely terrified when I, I started teaching, I didn’t have the educators in my family like Sarah did. So I really leaned on the colleagues who were at school with me. One practical piece would be not to pick up every single thing I assigned because I remember hitting Christmas and just being in tears because I had a stack of paper this high that I had to get through. And mark and I, I had gotten so busy that I wasn’t keeping up with it and it was overwhelming at the time. And I remember just being in the laundry room and crying. Aw. But it was, you know I look back and I got through it and you, you really do lean on people to give advice to you. And we’re a learning community mean if you know, a school is working well and functioning well, you’re not teaching in isolation, you’re teaching as part of a team and that collaborative piece.


Sam Demma (27:11):
Yeah. Love that. Love that great advice. Sarah, how about yourself?


Sarah Abrams (27:18):
I think for me too, it’s, it’s probably a little bit about, you know, do don’t, don’t worry as much about the curriculum. The curriculum is super important, but be yourself. I, I remember when I first started teaching, I thought, okay, I’m, I’m young. I need to go in and I need to be, you know, a mean teacher. I need to lay down the law and I need these kids to know that, I mean business and, you know, that’s the only way that they’re gonna pay attention and learn. And, and I learned very quickly that if you try to be something you’re not, students will pick up on that very quickly. And when I actually was comfortable enough just to be myself and to, you know, I’m, I’m naturally sort of a caring, motherly kind of a teacher and, and every teacher has their own style and, and every style is good. But that was my style. My style was not to be the hard nose, you know, strict disciplinarian and it worked better for me. I found my students responded better to me when I was authentic. And and when I just, just went in there as, as myself and that has worked really well for me.


Sam Demma (28:23):
Hmm. Love that, love that. Those are, I get a different answer every time I ask an educator so thank you for sharing. It is cool to see the different, you know, the different answers and examples and I appreciate you sharing. This has been a great conversation. It’s already been almost 40 minutes, so thank you both for being here and sharing in this conversation. If a teacher or an educator wants to connect with you, like what would be the best way to reach out and Sarah, maybe you can share first, you can share maybe a Twitter or an email address, whatever you prefer.


Sarah Abrams (28:52):
Well on Twitter, I’m @SarahMAbrams. So that’s definitely a way that people can connect with me, Sarah with an H and Abrams with no H and we can, we can share that with you later. And my email, absolutely. I’m happy to answer emails and it’s sarah.abrams@ocsb.ca.


Sam Demma (29:13):
Awesome. Katie, how about you?


Katie Lewis-Prieu (29:15):
And it would be the same two ways for me also on Twitter. I’m @klewis_prieur. And my school board email is katie.lewis-prieur@ocsb.ca.


Sam Demma (29:41):
Awesome, love it. Well, Katie, Sarah, thank you both for coming on the show. It’s been a great conversation. Keep up the amazing work and I will talk to you soon.


Katie Lewis-Prieu (29:50):
Thanks so much for having us; this is an honor.


Sam Demma (29:53):
And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the High Performing Educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review so other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show; if you want meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network, you’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Katie Lewis-Prieur & Sarah Abrams

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.

Liat Benzacar – Student Wellness Officer at St. Michael’s College School

Liat Benzacar – Student Wellness Officer at St. Michael’s College School
About Liat Benzacar

In line with the Basilian model of educating the whole person in mind, body, and soul, the Wellness Programme at St. Michael’s College School (SMCS) plays an important role by supporting students’ social and emotional needs inside and outside the classroom.

The dedicated, full-time Student Wellness Officer, Liat Benzacar, holds a master’s degree in social work and is registered with the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers. Benzacar collaborates with parents, teachers, and other academic support staff to provide student support services such as individual counselling, crisis and safety planning, referrals, specialized classroom programmes, and more.

Connect with Liat: Email | Linkedin

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

St. Michael’s College School

Wellness Programme at St. Michael’s College School (SMCS)

Psychology at York University

Masters of Social Work (MSW) at University of Toronto

Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers

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. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. I’m so excited to bring you today’s interview with our special guest, Liat Benzacar. Liat is the student wellness officer at St. Michael’s College School. You may have never heard that title before (student wellness officer), and if you haven’t, you’ll learn more about it on today’s interview and why it’s such an important role that she fulfills in her school community.


Sam Demma (01:03):
And hopefully more schools in every school will have at some point in our future, she did her honors or bachelors of arts from York University, and then her masters of social work at the University of Toronto. She overlooks the wellness of the entire school community. And her journey to get into this role and position is a very unique one and very inspiring. And we talk about so many different amazing concepts on today’s podcast, so not only will you feel inspired from her own personal stories and experiences, but also from the concepts that we discuss and talk about. I hope you enjoy this interview, I will see you on the other side; talk soon. Liat, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast, huge pleasure to have you on the show here today. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit, a little bit behind the reason why you’re passionate about the work you do today?


Liat Benzacar (01:54):
Sure. Sam, thank you for having me. It’s so nice to be here. So I’m Liat Benzacar. I am a school social worker at St. Michael’s college, and have been so for the last two years. This is probably close to my eighth year in school social work and it’s where I started my career in schools, and it’s been really a wonderful journey. And I think some of the things that brought me here, it’s an interesting question. I think it probably started at summer camp. I went to a summer camp that sort of intentionally focused on issues of social justice and relationship building and so while I was a camper, I had the opportunity to be influenced very much by the, that sort of educational, informal, educational lens as a camper and then also transition into being a leader in the camp and eventually a camp counselor who was, you know, offering those opportunities to campers coming in.


Liat Benzacar (03:07):
And then as I finished my very many years as a camper, as a counselor, excuse me at camp, I thought to myself like, how do I keep doing this work, where I’m able to have an influence on young people still at the time, a young person myself where I can still have this impact in an informal educational setting you know, and continue this work outside of a summer camp bubble. So I did that in, in a variety of forms. I was, you know, three university. I was teaching informal education classes through youth groups and other movements through, you know, Sunday schools and things of that nature. And then came time to decide like what I wanted to be when I grew up. And social work sort of fit Ellen to my lab as an option because in the midst of, you know, working in this informal educational setting, as I had been through university, I also found that I was able to impact more you know, people, I guess, young people on an individual basis and, and found that I is opening up space to have discussions around mental health and other things to support, you know, friends or, you know, former campers of mine.


Liat Benzacar (04:29):
And anyway, to make a whole long story short, I, you know, I, I sat with an application of, you know, a teacher’s school application and a social work school application. And I, I, I went ahead and, and did my master of social work. And as soon as I graduated this wonderful career of school, social work that I had no idea existed, fell into my lap, which was sort of like the perfect marriage of all of these wonderful experiences I had had to that moment that informal education, that impact on individual young people’s lives in a school setting. So I, I, I really fell in love. I was so fortunate to start basically right away. And I haven’t looked back since


Sam Demma (05:18):
That’s such an awesome story. And I know there are, is an educator, you know, listening right now, who is wondering what is a school social worker. Cause I know every school doesn’t have one. And I’m curious, I’m curious if I, I I’d love for you to actually just shut some light on it for the people who are curious of, you know, what it is and, and what they do and why you are passionate specifically about that role.


Liat Benzacar (05:41):
Yeah, I, that’s a great question. And, and, and the schools who have social workers in them are really so fortunate and I don’t mean that to tube my own horn. And I, of course, I see, I see that in a variety of ways and I think schools more and more now are carving up the space for mental health and community support. So the role of a social worker really when I, when I meet with students for the first time is I, I say to them, my, my role in school is to make sure that you’re functioning at your very best. And so I think we all can that if a student is not taking care of their wellbeing, if their mental health is not being considered if they’re struggling in their relationships, if they’re grieving, if they’re, you know, having questions of identity if they’re moving through a breakup and they don’t have supports it’s really difficult for us to expect them as an academic institution to be focused on the things that we want them to be, the curriculum, their assignments, their tests, their exams, their performance, so that they can get into University.


Liat Benzacar (06:53):
So, you know, spaces who have carved out a social work role really acknowledge that without, you know, focusing on student wellbeing, we can’t expect them to function academically at their best.


Sam Demma (07:07):
I love that. That’s such a good perspective. And I would imagine you have so many impactful conversations as a social worker. And I’m curious to know if there are any stories that can ’em to mind that you think I’m so glad this position exists. So these students could share these things. And if it’s a serious story, you know, maybe you could change their name or just call them Bob,


Liat Benzacar (07:30):
You know, I, I can use an experience of my own. So I was so fortunate to be able to work at the high school that I went to and for a number of years, and I remember sitting, I was on a social work team at that time of different social workers, and we were contracted out to different schools. And I remember turn, there’s two campuses of the school. And I remember turning to the other social worker who was at the other campus and saying, I am beyond thrilled to hear that we finally have a social worker in this school. And she said to me, Leah, we’ve always had a social worker in this school. I said, I went to this school, I didn’t know about a social worker. And their response was, if you didn’t know you need it. Mm. And, and there’s a lot of reasons for that response.


Liat Benzacar (08:26):
I think funding is a big thing. So oftentimes in, in the board schools, a social worker is overseeing quite a number of different schools, and they’re only actually contracted to be in the physical for half a day. And therefore they’re not able to have the same impact perhaps as a social worker like myself, who’s in the school five days a week and really becomes part of the programming and the curriculum and, you know, the, the student body and their families, et cetera. But I thought what an interesting approach, right. And, and that informed so much for me at the next sort of years of carving out space in the schools that I worked in and making sure that even if I was there for half a day, that at the very least people knew that I was there. So I, I would say, you know, that, that was my, my personal experience that, that sort of pushed that forward for me.


Sam Demma (09:26):
I love that. And it’s funny on our first conversation, I asked you, you know, if a student comes into the offices and, and is like, ah, I don’t know what I want. I want what I wanna do with my life, or I’m having this challenge. I asked you, you know, like, what’s the first thing you usually do and you, without a doubt said, listen, you know, I let them speak. And I listen. And I was curious to know more about your perspective on listening and why you think that’s so impactful or important to do before speaking.


Liat Benzacar (09:54):
I mean, I act actually a colleague of mine said, you know, one of the first meetings we had with a student together, there was this like air of silence. And they said they felt so uncomfortable. Like they wanted to fill the space. And, and we had a, we sort of debriefed about silence in a moment. And I said, well, did you notice that the was actually able to come and bring their own response, not influenced by anything that we were maybe interested in knowing about particularly. But in that silence, actually, we were allowing a student to think about what they wanted to bring to the table. Now, what that does, I think you know, is, is shares to the student in silence. Number one, that I feel comfortable in that. And number two, I’m ready to listen when you’re ready to talk. Mm. And so I think listening is really important, particularly for young people because they spend so, so much time listening to other people, right? Especially these last two years, listen up, you gotta wash your hands. You gotta keep six feet distance. You gotta sit in this way and you can’t turn that way. And you have to eat your food facing this Plexiglas, and you have to wear your mask in this fashion and it better not be off your nose. So they spend a lot of time listening.


Liat Benzacar (11:16):
That’s great. Right. And, you know, in, in that process, when we’re trying to move them along, you know, you might ask yourself like, how often are they being listened to in, in all of that, and how are all of these moments when they’re constantly listened and filtering and taking information are they even able to, or allow space to listen to their own sort of inner dialogue and what’s going on for them? So listening is a really important, I, I, I wanna say skilled, but I almost also just wanna say opportunity for, for people to have so that they know that they’re valued, that they’re important and that when things are difficult, they can express that. And when things are wonderful, they can express that. And, and we know, you know, from a social work lens, like if I feel something and I name it, I actually take the power out of that feeling.


Liat Benzacar (12:22):
I met with a student recently, like close to the end of the school year, who I was connected with them through their mom. And they said to me, you know, it feels like my kid really needs to talk to someone. Is it possible that they can speak with you? I said, yeah, that’s what, that’s what I’m here for. And so when I met with the student, they said to me, I have never in my life, listened to how I was feeling, let alone actually say it out loud. And I had this sort of argument with my parents, and I was so frustrated about how much COVID has impacted my life, that I finally just said out loud, this has been really hard for me.


Liat Benzacar (13:11):
And I felt instantly better. Right. And so really can disarm a feeling. We can really take the away its power as soon as we name it. And I, in that moment, I think that student felt listened to by their parents. Right. Like, and maybe it took sort of a blow up conversation for it to get there. But finally there was a moment like, oh, they’re listening to, to me and it’s bubbling out and it came out and then we spent the last, maybe three weeks of school talking to one another creating space for them to be able to just be listened to. And what was so nice actually at the end of it, all saying, you know, like I’m, I’m willing for anyone to look a sin so that I can actually impact their own ability to be able to share how they’re thinking or that, that they’re feeling and to create space where they feel like they’re being listened to. And this all happened in three weeks. It was like this big sort of like moment and push forward. So I love that, how that answers that for you.


Sam Demma (14:17):
It does. And you gave a killer story, which is awesome. I have a colleague and a mentor who tells me, let like the importance of listening and that when other people are talking, you know, it’s a test, like, you know, test yourself because we, we like to think we’re better listeners most of the time than we actually are. And he, he challenged us very easily, you know, at the big beginning of a call that we had, there was a group of us, he said, I’m gonna share with you like a bio, my professional bio, just, just listen to it. And he went through the whole thing and he’s like, okay, there was 86 points of information inside this long bio that I just presented to you write down as many as you can remember at max, like, you know, without telling us that we had to do it beforehand at max, we got like five or six of the pieces of information.


Sam Demma (15:04):
And he was like, okay, now I want you to know that this is a test and I want you to try again. And of course, the second time you remembered like way more things. And, you know, I’m like, I didn’t know, the, I didn’t know, the first time was a test and it was his lesson of saying like, well, every time someone else speaks, it’s a test. And that just like, kind of hit me. And I was like, oh, I need to be a more attentive listener. And I just, I love how much of an impact listening had on that student and, or, or, or how much being heard or listen too had on that student. I think it’s just a really good thing to remember that, you know, young people don’t always want us to talk to them or give them advice. Sometimes they just wanna be able to speak and be heard and understood. That makes me like wonder when you were a student, did you have teachers in your life who had a big impact on you growing up that listened to you or made you feel heard? Or what are some things that educators did in your life that inspired you to go down the similar path?


Liat Benzacar (15:57):
Before, before I answer that, I did also wanna say just, you know, on the coattails of what you just shared that in addition to being listened to, I think what’s interesting is sometimes I will spend time with a student just sitting in, in quiet space together. And then eventually, perhaps it does open up space for them to feel listened to. But I think that’s another part, right? Like often when they’re, they’re sort of pensive or thinking about what they would want to share that space can be difficult for, for people to hold. Mm. So, you know, there have been times it doesn’t happen frequently, but there have been times where I will just sit in, in, in silence with a student to show that that’s okay. Right. Like it’s okay. Actually, just to sit here and be quiet for something time to collect your thoughts or to sort through them, or just to know that somebody’s here, as you’re thinking about them to yourself.


Liat Benzacar (17:05):
But to your point, did I ever have a, a teacher or mentor who made an impact in my life? And yeah. I mean, there’s a few, you there’s a few. And what’s funny is actually the one that is standing out in this moment right now is the one in grade 10 who told me I was gonna fail math. And they said to Melia, you’re just not gonna make it through the, this course. Like you, you you’re gonna fail. And I remember being so like emotionally impacted by that, like the, the teacher was sort of implying what they thought about me overall as a person. And on the one hand, I appreciate that. I think they recognize that it was gonna be an immense amount of work for me to put in, to catch up in, in my understanding at that point. And also I think it’s sort of like affirmed all of the self talk I had over the years of like, I’m bad at this. I’m no good at this. Why bother? And then looking back I have a close friend who, I think I said that to one time. I said, you know, I’m bad at math. I’m no good at math. It’s, you know, I don’t even bother. And they said to me, who told you that?


Liat Benzacar (18:40):
I said, well, interesting, you should ask. In addition to myself, sort of figuring that out on my own, I had a teacher who said that to me. And they said, that makes all the difference because I actually, and, and this particular friend happens to be quite gifted in math and said, you know, it’s about time sometimes and time, and how you think you can approach something. So the impact that teacher had on me, I guess you could say was an interesting impact. I wouldn’t say negative or positive. I just would think, you know, looking back, it was a moment for me to consider what the words of a mentor how the words of a mentor can impact you and, and your thinking of yourself. And this friend of mine said, you know, you could be good in math, if you decided it was something that you wanted to focus on.


Liat Benzacar (19:36):
And also it’s important to recognize there are some things that we’re really great at and, and lean, you have things that you’re great at. And some things that we’re not great at. You know, Sam, I’m sure you can relate to that from, from an athlete’s perspective, right. Like I know I’m good in my sport. Perhaps I’m not good in every sport. Yeah. But I Excel particularly in my sport. And so I think, you know, twofold, like it’s important to acknowledge how, what we say to ourself can impact the way we approach things. And also it’s important to acknowledge things that we’re great at and, and, and be okay that we can’t be great at everything.


Sam Demma (20:19):
I love that. I think it’s such a good piece of advice. I love that you brought the idea of like our limiting beliefs or just our self-talk. I think that all the negative and positive things that passed through our mind, a lot of them are attached past experiences. Like if I was to write down all of my limiting beliefs, like if I was to like yourself, I was to sit down and think, where did these come from? You know, if I had the perfect memory, I’m sure I could like pinpoint them to certain things I’ve watched or heard or seen, or people directly told me. Right. Even it kind of fascinates me, even if like you had someone in your life that tried to do something that you’re trying to do and failed at it, how their own past experience they’ll, they’ll kind of like, pour it onto you.


Sam Demma (21:02):
Like if I had an uncle who, you know, started a restaurant and his restaurant failed, I went to him and said, Hey, should I start a restaurant? His first answer is gonna be absolutely not. You know? And that’s just based on his unique past experience. So I think the whole idea of like beliefs and limiting beliefs and the power of words is such a interesting thing to talk about. I love that you brought it up. I also think it’s a common problem amongst adolescents and high school kids. You know, that’s when we’re still building our identities and figuring out who we are, and I don’t think self-talk positive or negative ever goes away. I think it’s something that happens your entire life. But I mean, I’m glad to hear you had a, a positive friend that challenged you a little bit to to figure out where that belief came from.


Liat Benzacar (21:48):
And I’m inspired by that friend. Oftentimes I’ll ask a student who will say, well, I, I’m not gonna submit that project because if it’s not perfect, why bother? And I use that language. I said, you know, where is that voice coming from? Whose voice are you hearing say that to you? And oftentimes not always, you’ll get sort of like an eyebrow and a giggle. Like how did you know somebody said that to me. Yeah. Right. And that sort of internalization of, you know, a, a constant reminder of some kind, if you’re not gonna do it perfectly, don’t bother. And you ask that student, well, where did you hear that they know exactly where they heard it or who they it from and how often they’re hearing it, and now it’s become their own voice. Mm


Sam Demma (22:33):
It’s funny, I’m working on a poem right now called empty backpack. And the premise is that throughout our high school experience and life, we start to carry around the thoughts and opinions of everyone else. And it like weighs our backpack down. The whole idea of the song is like, our poem is like, you have to let those things go and empty out your empty out your backpack.


Liat Benzacar (22:53):
And also it’s so important for us to acknowledge that the people we interact with daily have a backpack of things. Yeah. Right. And I say that to, to, to, to the, my colleagues, to the teachers I work with to the students I interact with and everyone carries a backpack and it’s filled with stuff you will never know. Yeah. and so that joke you make or that comment you say actually can impact somebody in a way that you could never understand because that backpack is zipped real tight. Yeah. Right.


Sam Demma (23:29):
Yeah. It’s so true. I, I love that. It’s, it’s, it’s two perspectives, you know, people should be mindful what they say to you and you should be mindful what you say to others. Right. It goes both ways. I love that. This is just an inspiring conversation. Went down a couple of different rabbit holes, but you know, back to the topic of education this year has been different. I don’t wanna say it’s been terrible or bad or anything that a lot of people are saying that we have to pivot. I know we have to pivot a little bit, but it’s been different. It’s been a little bit challenging. What are some of the challenges that you faced and how have you worked to slowly overcome them?


Liat Benzacar (24:03):
Yeah. where to begin there. I mean, aside from the sort of obvious challenges of like shifting to an online world and setting up space and being comfortable and considering what it means for me now to meet with students in their home space rather than their school space and it not being as private as I sort of am aware of in a moment when we’re sitting in my office, I know it’s just me and one other student. I would say that COVID in general sort of like significantly altered our sense of time. Right. and so I I’ve often said, and I’ve heard, I’ve heard many people say like this, this, this sense of repetition, this repetitive nature, this feeling like it’s groundhogs day really impacts the way we think the way we feel and the way we behave. You know, I think pre pandemic for the most part, most of us could structure our days to like a, a, a beginning, a middle and an end.


Liat Benzacar (25:04):
Yeah. And, and, and that, that sort of linear process helps us process what’s going on in the world, how we can fit, you know, what’s going on for us into those moments. And then when it blends into one and there’s no beginning and no end, and we really are having difficulty setting up boundaries it, it impacts our well be. And like I said, at the beginning, if it’s impacting your wellbeing, it’s impacting your ability to be successful academically. Now what, what that does additionally, is it, it, it sort of puts us in a state of chronic stress. Right. and, and I know, and I’m sure, you know, in your experiences, a student, like stress can be helpful in a lot of ways. But then when it moves into a space where it’s chronic, where it’s happening all the time, I’m not producing my best work.


Liat Benzacar (25:54):
I’m not functioning at my best. And so teenagers to begin with, and that’s the, primarily the, the population that I work with their prefrontal cortex has not yet developed, which means that the filter part of our brain is not yet developed. And also now, because of the pandemic, this fear of what’s going on outside puts us in a state of fight or flight. And so we’re not able to process information well. So we’re exhausted all, all the time. We are, are scared in some ways all the time. And the example I use is it, you know, our, our, our prehistoric brains, haven’t, you know, they’re not that much different than our brains are now. And so if I believe that there’s danger outside, right. And the danger at this moment is this pandemic. And, you know, early days is how’s it gonna impact me and my life and my family and every step I do, I have to consider.


Liat Benzacar (26:57):
So if you hear a bear wrestling outside your cabin in the, at all of the night I’m probably not gonna get restful sleep. And if I don’t get restful sleep, how does that impact my ability to interact with my friends? How does that impact my ability to interact with my teachers? How does that impact my ability to store and remember information? And so we saw, you know, a lot of shift in relationships, a lot of shift in engagement, a lot of shift in academic success. And then of course this big shift and conversation around mental health. So, you know, I, I, I think, you know, in all of that, we wanna try and find some strategies. Now, I think early days there was this strategy of like, let’s practice gratitude. Let’s think of all of the things that, you know, we’re really grateful to have.


Liat Benzacar (27:57):
And I think that worked for a while. But I think we also know that focusing on the positive doesn’t always make us happy and when it’s chronic and happening for 18 months over time, and I’m practicing gratitude and I’m practicing gratitude and I’m practicing gratitude you eventually start to ask yourself well, but now what and so there was this shift, I think, in our thinking in our school, like allowing students space to go grieve, right? Yes. You’re grieving a year. You, you know, for our grade 12 students, for example, you’re grieving a lost year in a lot of ways and a lost opportunities, and yes, there’s so much that we can look at that you benefit from. And also there was a big loss. And so I think acknowledging that again, listening, using that sort of like lens where you’re able to actually just like sit in the mud with people was so important.


Liat Benzacar (28:52):
Right. And, and also on top of it, all, all of us, you know, me as the school social worker, but all the, the faculty, all the staff in our school, we could speak from a place of understanding where they were coming from, because in some sense, we were experiencing it together now, all in our own different ways. Yeah. So, you know, we’ve, we’ve heard a lot like, oh, we’re all on the same boat. And, and I really liked sort of a, a challenge to that, which was, we all are in a boat of some kind and some of us have more resources than others. And so it’s easy to say we’re all in the same boat and we’re, we’re, we’re, we’re sitting in this discomfort together, which in a lot of the senses we were, and I think that’s what connected us well with students in those moments. But also acknowledging that, you know, each person’s boat might, may, may look a little bit, each person’s backpack might look a little bit different. Right.


Sam Demma (29:48):
Yeah. Right. I heard a similar analogy, like the, though the reverse we’re all on the same ocean, but yeah. We all have different boats, some have inflatable boat and some have a yacht, you know, and that could be related to resources or supports, you know, systems. And I thought, I was like, wow, what a good way to look at it, because it’s true. We’re not, we’re all facing this very differently. So, and we’re all, we’re all going through this very differently. And I think it’s important to acknowledge it. Yeah, this is, this has been a great conversation. Yeah. Thank you so much for taking the time to come on the show. If you could go back and give your younger self, I think you said you’ve been in education for eight years now. Yeah. If you could go back to your first year and give your yourself advice, what would that advice be?


Liat Benzacar (30:36):
What would that advice be? That’s a great question. What advice would I give my younger self stop and smell the roses, you know, like I, and, and you know what, actually, I, I think I did an okay job doing that, but I think we were oftentimes were so focused on the pace at which the people around us are moving. And so we move at that pace rather than stopping and asking ourselves, like, is this the pace I wanna be working at? Like, you know, and, and I was fortunate enough to have parents who encouraged me to take a gap year after high school. And again, you know, after I went back and finished a, a degree, an undergraduate degree, like in like, there’s no a rush, like, you know, in 10 or 15 years from now, you’ll be pretty much in the same space as you imagine yourself.


Liat Benzacar (31:33):
And as you see your friends sort of pursuing. But I, I probably would’ve said just to, to really stop and take opportunity to take those experiences in, rather than focusing on the pace that everyone else was moving at. And in that I learned to shed the feeling of, of regret, I, I have done a lot of hard work to shift regret into the opportunity to learn. And so people say like, is there anything that you regret and your life? And I say, you know, honestly, no. Because I work to, I, I acknowledge that feeling of regret if I feel it. And then I say, okay, like, I didn’t have the opportunity to make a decision. And perhaps I made one that looking back, I would change. But what now can I learn moving forward? So I would also maybe ask myself to, to shed those feelings a little bit earlier, but yeah, I guess, you know, for, and, and maybe my younger self also just, you know, because I’ve found so much passion working in supporting students in their academic endeavors by elevating access to mental health support and wellbeing, you know, just to practice that a little bit more myself in those early years.


Sam Demma (32:58):
Cool. Love it. Thank you again so much for, for coming on the show.


Liat Benzacar (33:03):
Yeah, of course.


Sam Demma (33:05):
Love the advice to your younger self. If another educator is listening and just wants to reach out, you know, send you an email or get in touch, what would be the best way for them to, you know, reach out to you?


Liat Benzacar (33:14):
Great question. Probably, you know, by emailing me. So they can email me at benzacar@smcsmail.com. So that’s my direct work email. I’d be more than happy to connect and collaborate and work on ideas which I’m very fortunate to be able to do with a lot of other social workers, but I’d be more than happy to connect with educators or anyone who’s just interested in, in finding out more about what I do. So, yeah, that’s my email.


Sam Demma (33:47):
Cool, awesome. Leo, thank you so much again for coming on the show. Keep up the awesome work and we’ll see you soon.


Liat Benzacar (33:52):
See you soon.


Sam Demma (33:53):
And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the High Performing Educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review so other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show; f you want meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network, you’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Liat Benzacar

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.

Lori Wagner – Coordinator of Student Support at Myrnam Outreach and Homeschool Centre

Lori Wagner – Coordinator of Student Supports
About Lori Wagner

Lori Wagner is the Myrnam Outreach and Homeschool Centre (MOHC) Coordinator. She was born feeling the need to make connections and to help others. The passion to teach was in her blood.  She has always looked at learners from an individualized lens; a perspective that was different from how others looked at the teaching profession over twenty years ago.

Her path through life has been filled with twists and turns, which has deepened her compassion for others, and has allowed her to approach times of change and struggle with a perspective that has helped her live every day to the fullest. 

Connect with Lori: Email

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Myrnam Outreach and Homeschool Centre (MOHC)

Camp Widow

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. This is your host and youth speaker Sam Demma. Today’s guest is Lori Wagner. Lori actually saw me speak at a teacher convention about two and a half months ago, and we connected right afterwards and it was obvious that she would be a great fit for a podcast interview; so we brought her on. Lori was born with the feeling that she needed to make connections and to help others.


Sam Demma (01:03):
The passion to teach was in her blood. She always looked at learners from the individualized lenses; a perspective that was different from how others looked at the teaching profession over 20 years ago. Her path through life has been filled with twist and turns, which has deepened her compassion for others and allowed her to approach times of change and struggle with the perspective which has helped her live every day to the fullest. And she vulnerably shares some of those challenges during this interview today and it’s actually an anniversary of a huge challenge that she went through years ago. But that’s what really has boughten out her light and her compassion and I think you’ll get so much out of today’s interview. So I’ll hear you. I’ll hear from you on the other side; enjoy today’s episode. Lori, thank you so much for coming on the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show after meeting at the teachers convention briefly. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit about what led you to working with young people?


Lori Wagner (02:02):
Well, it was, well only the thing that I ever wanted to do. My dad was a teacher for 40 years, probably at the same school. He was a junior high science, which did not interest me at all. I, no offense to those teenagers. I love coaching them. I love teasing them, in the hallways and walking down, getting like blown away by their acts, the body after street. But I do not like teaching them and the reason is I am kind of a five year old at heart. So where can you be goofy and like sing in front of a class and do weird accents and just make kids like super engaged? Elementary! So that was my route. And then I chose special ed because I just have a passion for finding the, like that student who is struggling. You see them so frustrated and when you get to that point that you can see you’ve like figured out how they learn and that spark goes in their eye,


Lori Wagner (02:56):
It’s like the best thing ever. Mm. So that’s why I went this special ed route. And it’s still a passion of mine to figure out kids with learning disabilities, ’cause you really see them kind of get lost in the regular classroom. And if you don’t have that sped eye that I feel like I do have and really know how to get to them and do those diagnostic testings and make a difference, like in my first practicum there was a boy and he was like a non-reader non-writer by the end of my practicum, he wrote a creative writing story that was two pages long. ‘Cause I made this cool project. It was like create a creature and the news came and it was just like that. So that was not even teaching. That was my practicum. It impacted me to then carry that on to the next years ahead.


Sam Demma (03:40):
I love that something interesting is you mentioned, you know, when you, you really feel for them when you see the struggle and you know, you’ve been through an instrumentable amount of struggle and I’m curious to know what your perspective on struggle is. Like how do you view struggle?


Lori Wagner (03:57):
Sometimes you have to view a sense of humor. Yep. Sometimes you have, you have to view it with the silver lining. Sometimes you have to view it that we are all struggling in some way. So it was really interesting to me. So the backstory about what Sam is talking about, the struggle is today it’s a 12th anniversary. My husband’s death. It was a sudden death in the avalanche. I was, was pregnant at the time, six months pregnant with my second child. And that was really one of the, well, that was the hardest thing that I had to do in the months ahead and deliver by myself and crazy two little babies, but the connections and the compassion that I felt from the people of BC and also of Alberta who supported me, like it filled my heart. It made me feel like I wanted to do that for other people in any way. So on this day, like if my voice shakes a little bit, you’re just gonna have to ignore it.


Sam Demma (04:54):
But no it’s just feels


Lori Wagner (04:55):
Passionate about it. Like it’s my, it makes me smile. When I think back to that feeling because he had died on a, in a mountain called McBride in the Rocky mountains, which funny and left, I ended up moving there and changing my life and new perspectives were, were changed there. But I just remember going to view his body, which my parents thought I was pretty. He is either like, you’re gonna you’re pregnant. This is gonna be bad for the baby. And I was like, no, this is what I have to do. And the whole town of 500 people just rallied around us, the victim service worker, which is now one of my best friends. She stayed us with us the whole time. The corner was like, if you need to see him at two in the morning, again, you just call me, I’ll come pick you up.


Lori Wagner (05:41):
We’ll take you to the hospital. The hotel put us up, everyone at the, the hospital and restaurants were just feeding us and taking care of us. And I was just like, wow, these people don’t even know me or my family. And they’re crying for me. Like this is made me feel like this connection to strangers that I now like, especially on this day, I love connecting to people. I don’t know because everyone has a story. And if I can make them smile sometimes like that taxi driver that I’m like reaching out, not treating ’em my keys, a second class per, or that Pelman that I’m like, how’s your day going? And like, what’s new with you. And those people that don’t get talked to in my travels, which I usually somewhere amazing on March 24th. Cause I’m determined to make this day the complete opposite of what it was.


Lori Wagner (06:33):
So I’ve always like gotta go to Vancouver. We’ve gone to the states a couple times last year, we’re supposed to go to Texas. And so the pandemic hit last year and it, it gutted me because March back to the perspective of how people are feeling right now, I really feel like now people all understand what March brings me because there is, we’ve been getting emails about that unresolved trauma that many people feel from last year that their world was falling apart. And how now they’re reacting, not by like a cognitive way, but it’s hitting them like with anxiety or just this feeling of unsettling and, or just they’re crying for no reason, nobody because of what happened last year. So every month I go through this process and I never know when it’s gonna hit me. I’m usually a little bit anxious, but last year it felt like our world was falling apart.


Lori Wagner (07:28):
So that’s how it brought me back to a PTSD feeling of 11 years ago from last year, my world fell apart. So it tanked and it put a, and not a great place, which I’m now with the help of some therapists and getting back on meds and being pro mental health, no stigma talking about it. But people now understand that that is not something you think about the whole world feels this trauma right now. And so it was hard for me to talk about this to other people. Well, cuz they would say, oh, March 24th is, that’s gotta be such a hard day. I’ve got all these text that are saying big hugs to you. And, but they don’t know that I actually broke down last weekend for no reason. I don’t know because I just felt like I got hit with a truck. Mm.


Lori Wagner (08:14):
I dug my husband’s ashes out and like feeling them. I don’t know if you know anything about ashes, but there’s bone bin in there. There’s teeth and crying. And my present partner who he’s been with me for six years is super supportive about me crying over my dead husband, which is like not really that common. So I’ve gone on now, a mini tangent from the con connecting with compassion and then kind of back how trauma has made me feel. But I’ve had hard days, but I’ve also had a lot of times that I really just had to laugh at what was going on. So I can give you an example of that time


Sam Demma (08:53):
Please. And before you continue, before you continue, I just wanna say thank you so much for being so vulnerable and sharing this part of yourself. It will relate to some people listening and, and they’ll find some strength in your sharing. So thank you so much.


Lori Wagner (09:08):
Yeah, no, Sam, I really think that being young widow, I was 32 at the time. So I went out to, because I, I don’t know how to be a widow. I’ve got two little kids and a section on grief in chapters had like seven books in it. And the one that I picked up and looked at was about finding a new golf partner one year 65. And it was so unrelatable that I’ve like since reached out, there’s a camp down the states called camp widow, which now they operate them Ontario. There’s an amazing camp called camp care, which is a grief family trauma camp. Oh wow.


Sam Demma (09:40):
It’s,


Lori Wagner (09:41):
It’s just that connecting with other widows that know what’s happening and how it feels to have two little kids that feel like you wanna crawl up in or how many kids crawl up in a corner and cry, but you can’t because you have to keep goings. So anyhow, there was one time, couple, it was probably, I don’t know, six years in and I kind gone through some ups and downs with my in-law family because death brings out hard feelings in people. And sometimes there’s times that we weren’t talking and we got back on track and my mother-in-law and father-in-law were always amazing. So I decided to do something important for them and take some, I’ve always offered the ashes to them and they said, no, no, no, that’s fine. You don’t have to. So I looked into it and there was this place in the states that you could get ashes like blown, like glass into this orb.


Lori Wagner (10:33):
And then it made like a beautiful little ornament. So I contacted them down there and they said, this is what you have to do. You need so much ashes and we’re gonna, you can ship it down and then we’ll send you the ornaments back. So I’m at the kitchen table having a beer with my, my dead husband’s ashes and kind of looking at it like, this is the most ridiculous thing. Like this is ridiculous. So I’m, I’m scooping it out and I’m like, I wonder what, part’s going down the state SCO be your arm, proving your, I don’t know, but you’re going, this is a man who never went on a flight to the states. I was like your first vacation. Hey congratulations. So I go to the post office and funny enough, the lady at the counter was also a bit of, and she was, but she not a looking at the dark side of humor kind of person than I am, like kind of laughing about the crazy stuff.


Lori Wagner (11:25):
So yeah, she goes, what’s in the package. And I said, and I was like, it’s ashes, my, my dead husband’s ashes. She was like, well, how much would you think this, this would be worth? Cuz you have to put that a on there when you have the item that you’re shipping down. And I was like, what do I say? Priceless? Like nothing like it’s ashes in the metal container. Like I don’t know what to tell you. And my friend was there and she kind of understands my sense of humor and we’re trying not to laugh because this is so crazy. I’m shipping my husband off and trying to put a price tag on his, his, his worth. But that there’s no sense in that to me. So anyhow, it was just one of the stories I had shared with my widow group because they got it and thought it was very humorous and yeah, it was just one of times, like my kids had asked many times actually when they’re little, can we pull out daddy? And I was like, okay, here we go. Like bring up, open the box up. And I have to remind my two year old, like daddy’s not a sandbox. Let’s get the cars out of there and yeah, shut ’em up and put them to bed. And then I have a little moment of like, wow, that was hard, but also crazy. And this life is so weird, but also amazing.


Sam Demma (12:41):
Hmm. And you said when you, you moved to where the accident happened in your life, you know, changed, like what changed for you? How did you approach life differently? Like, I’m curious to know what minds said shifts happened after the experience


Lori Wagner (12:56):
That life is too short and we can, and there’s really bad things that happen that we shouldn’t worry about the little things. So especially during this pandemic time in teaching, there’s been a lot of people worrying about what I call the small stuff like and worrying about. I’m not talking about getting sick, but just worry about those little details. And my perspective now is like, whoa, I don’t care. Like pretty pandemic or whatever about chewing gumming class. Or if you have a hat on let’s, I’m not arguing about those details. I cannot do it or worrying about. So my social online kids that I have in grade eight that are also struggling with theirs, some health problems going on, there’s some family stuff, Hey, guess what? Grade eight, you’re gonna still be a good person. If you don’t remember 18, whatever, whatever. So what we’re gonna do is just do the review. I’ll help you through the test and we’re getting you through grade eight social cause this will not matter in five years. Like I cannot deal with the silly details when there’s bigger things in life. So what had happened was I was starting to go visit my, the victim service lady that we got to be connected with. She was about my age and I would use it kind of as mistakes. So my perspective also was I’m just a swearing podcast or not,


Sam Demma (14:14):
It’s just fellow educators. So it’s okay.


Lori Wagner (14:17):
I’m gonna make this life the same way I would’ve done with my husband. So that means I’m gonna learn how to drive a fifth wheel. I’m gonna get myself a big one ton to pull it around. And I’m fricking doing it with a eight month old and a two almost three year old and it’s happening. So I learned how to pull a fifth wheel all that thing to through the mountain passes all the way up. It’s like, I don’t know if you know where prince George is, but anyhow, you go through Jasper and then you go, instead of going down Camelot and Vancouver, you take it up to like halfway to it’s 45 minutes from Mount Watson. Okay. If that gives you some sort perspective on perspective again, on where I’m at. So I’m parked in our backyard and I’m thinking, okay, instead of parking in our backyard, maybe I should look for some investment land.


Lori Wagner (15:02):
There’s another backstory about why I had some money for investment land because I had these bring me back to this, but I had some thoughts three months before he died about him dying. And I kept, it was a gut intuition that I could not fight and we just had sign life insurance. So, oh wow. Bring me that if you’d like. Okay. So anyhow, I’m connected with this real estate lady who we had got to be good friends, cause everyone in this town is like a personal connection. It’s such a cute little small town. And she said to me, so too bad, you weren’t like looking at buying a business because you’d be so good. You’re really sociable. And I, and I said, what kind of business? She said, it’s a trading company, kind of those like small town, bulk health food jars on the wall, little cafe that, that, so I said, well, I love baking that that would be like, take me to see it.


Lori Wagner (15:52):
And it was just this place. You ever walk into a place and you feel like it’s home. Like, wow, this feels amazing. So I said, well, what’s the catch on this? She goes, well, there’s a couple there that would like to go in with a partner. They don’t wanna do it on their own. So I asked my friend if she knew them. And of course she does cuz you know, everyone in this town. And so I cold called this guy. He was a retired banker and just had a conversation. We went to go see the building again. And he goes, okay, well think about it. I’m in, if you’re in. And I was sitting outside, looking at the mountains and put my kids to bed in the trailer and I thought, this is crazy if I walked away for like, I was on math leave.


Lori Wagner (16:33):
But if I left my teaching career, which I do love, but would I regret not trying when I’m 85? And my answer in my heart was like, this would be something I would regret, not throwing all, just all caution to the wind and taking this huge leap by myself and just doing it. And my thought was always like, what’s the worst that could happen. Mm. The worst that could happen, it would go south. And I could move back to Alberta. What’s the best that could happen. I can change up my life a little bit. Get myself out of that. Like whenever I’d go to the local grocery store or see someone in town, I’d get that pity widow look like, how’s it going? Worry. Yeah. And then you’d have to kind of like console other people, even though they’re trying to be very compassionate, but it was a hard space to be.


Lori Wagner (17:23):
And it was also a small town that people knew me. I’d taught in for 10 years. So I made the decision like within minutes, I’m gonna buy this business and we’re moving. I had three apartments above this to go building. Like we can live up there. So I call my parents from, from the backyard. I was like, so, and they were worried about me living on an acreage Alberta by myself. Mm. Like they were that concerned like Lori, you’re gonna have to sell your house just after Luke was born. That’s my son. You can’t handle it all acreage by yourself. You’re a single mom. Now you’ve got two little kids and they made me move into town to be closer to them right after he died. So anyway, I called about, I was like, mom, dad, I have something to tell you. He might wanna sit down.


Lori Wagner (18:04):
I bought a business to McBride and I’m moving there next month. And what are you like, are you actually insane? And I was like, it’s happening? So anyhow, I move up there. We had a couple years we lived in and then I ended up finding the most amazing soul healing place up on the mountain road, just by chance through my friend up there. That was in the same en road that my husband died at the top of that mountain. And that house was, I’ll send you pictures after like you, people from out where you live will not believe that some people are that lucky to live in such a magical mountainous valley. Like it was just gorgeous. And I lived there for about eight years and then circumstances kind of, I don’t know if you believe in the universe and like putting things out there, but I always wanted to live in the mountain.


Lori Wagner (18:55):
I always wanted to own a bakery. And this is like, when I’m a teenager, I did that. I did that. I wanted to get back to teaching and I kind of felt a little bit stuck in that mountain town. The schools, people were moving out, the schools were like 50 kids. There was a, and any opportunity for me after I’d worked in a few different places. So I thought I love this place, but I’ve also dated the men in this town. So I’m not gonna find any new ones. I also do want a partner that is going to be like my chapter two partner, which I did meet up there who coincidentally his birthday’s today. So now always celebrate.


Sam Demma (19:31):
Wow.


Lori Wagner (19:32):
Yeah, it was the universe saying to me, here you go, Laurie, like my, my best friend. And I looked at each other when we were talking about this and I met him up on a, a Memorial ride for their friend. And I said, so how old are you? And he said, 40. And last month, when’s your birthday? March 24th. And my girlfriend and I looked at each other like, is this, is this a screen Still around years later? And, and it’s brought me back to, Alberta’s the most amazing school my kids are doing well, and we’re all doing well. And we just appreciate what we have.


Sam Demma (20:08):
Wow. It’s such a good reminder to cherish the small and big things in life, you know? Your story’s amazing. And if you had advice for young teachers or, you know, teachers that are just getting into the profession, what would you share with them?


Lori Wagner (20:23):
Well, I do have a new teacher in here that I apparently I’m mentoring. Nice. So I, yeah, I, I did see her come in and get, she kinda get overwhelmed, which is normal. But I, so the new position I came into was a position that kind of fell into my lap last year. And it was the facilitator of the home learning outreach program. And it had no structure. It was like a, just a program. They thought they would get up and running to increase enrollment. And when I got hired or offered the position, they said, I said to them, so what does this look like? And they said, whatever, you’d like it to be. So every day was a learning process last year. And every day was scary until I learned something and could apply it the next time. And so I, in that, by from it, and then by the end of the year, I could see how far I’d come.


Lori Wagner (21:12):
So this new teacher came in and then also we revamped the program twice this year and the other teacher’s like, oh my goodness, what are we doing? I’m like, everyone just stop. Let’s take it day by day. This will all work out. I’ve been through this before we will learn. We will grow. We will tweak. And that’s part of even teaching, right. Or being a human, like we’re supposed to make mistakes. We’re supposed to be scared. We’re supposed to be uncomfortable or else we wouldn’t be growing. So when I was, had no idea what I was doing last year, I learned even more like when I moved to BC, scary, uncomfortable, but worth all those magical years I had with the people that lived in that town and what memories we collected. So we’ll, we’ll collect memories by being stressed out and anxious and taking that step.


Lori Wagner (22:01):
I know, I feel like a lot of the teaching community, I’m not type a, but I feel like there’s a lot of type a out there and that’s hard to deal with change, but I think we need to force ourselves to deal with change. And I could not live with not changing because I would get more quickly. Yeah. Frankly. And before, before Cory died, I was thinking, oh, this life’s kind of boring. And then it got really boring, but you know what? My daughter, when she was eight said to me, dad didn’t die. We would never have met all these people and had these experiences. She’s kind of an old soul. And I was like, you’re right. Like, good for you seeing this over lining in this. Cuz we, we lived in an amazing life in the mountains. Like we quad to the top of the mountains and a, you go up for snowmobile to the cabin to have a hot dog grow river boating on the river.


Lori Wagner (22:53):
Whenever we’d want to like doing all these crazy things that people who live in Alberta or who live in the city. My kids experience so much because of the steps that we went through. And so now, okay. Back to the teacher, the first year teacher thing. Yeah. Change and being scared is good. I just do just do it. Put, take your steps forward, build the plane as you’re flying it. And that’s fine because that’s how even I’m 44, this little young thing is 22 coming in and I can tell her it’s okay. I still sometimes don’t know what I’m doing, which is what I tell of kids. Cause kids, since we’ve got like, oh, you’re an adult, you’ve got it all together. I’m like, guess what? No, we don’t. And that’s okay. Cause we’re, if we figured it all out, we might as well be dead, be honest.


Lori Wagner (23:43):
So I also look at kids and young people that are just coming into their own well, I’m thinking like teenagers and kids too. I think we have too much, too many high expectations for kids and how they behave in their emotions and what they’re dealing with because I kids live in like the red or green zone and we kind of operate the yellow zone. And when we like, we can be okay, but when we get mad, we’re mad or sad. We get sad where kids just go from one extreme to the other and I can have a crying fit, but it could be in my own space cause I can regulate myself. But when kids are overwhelmed or their parents are overwhelmed because of what’s going, how they’re feeling. I really think that we need to take the behaviors as something behind it and recognize that adults have temper tantrums. So how can we expect our kids to walk into the door? Having good days all the time. Yeah. So I guess that comes like from a first year teacher, how we’re feel about things to how you’re recognizing the emotions in our fellow staff members and just trying to be compassionate about where everyone’s at and sharing that with them. Cause then you don’t feel like you’re alone. Same with like the sharing with the widows. You don’t feel like you’re alone anymore.


Sam Demma (25:01):
I love it and thank you so much for taking the time again today to chat about all this. I really appreciate it. If another educator is, is tuning in right now and wants to reach out to you and have a conversation about anything we just shared, like what would be the best way for them to reach out to you and have a conversation?


Lori Wagner (25:22):
My email would be fine. I would, could would share out to them if anyone reached out to you. I don’t know any other technology.


Sam Demma (25:30):
Email is perfect. Yeah. Just spell it out.


Lori Wagner (25:36):
Oh, it’s loriwagner44@gmail.com. Perfect.


Lori Wagner (25:45):
So what was I to say with oh, sharing with people? I, yeah, I’ve also like cold reached out. Like when people, the avalanche victims really get me those news stories. If you Google my name, Lori Wagner, avalanche McBride, that story went national because it was at the end of the very bad avalanche here. Wow. So now when I hear about these like credit mess, I will reach out to those widows or widowers, or whether I know them or not. And just say, Hey, I’ve been through what you’ve been through. If you’d like to reach out, I totally help walk you through how you’re feeling and it’s okay to feel that and validate that for you because, and some of them have come back to me and we’ve had that kind of conversation. And on those that also were a little bit lost, like I was lost. So I’ve often thought about a podcast about widows ’cause I don’t know if there’s a lot out there, but it might be an interesting topic.


Sam Demma (26:40):
I think that’s a great idea. An amazing idea. And if you do start it, let me know. But again, thank you so much for taking the time to chat today and honoring the, you know, the Memorial, today’s 12 years. I really appreciate it. Keep doing awesome work and stay in touch. I would love to stay in touch, whether it’s over email or whatever and keep doing great stuff and, and I’ll talk to you soon.


Lori Wagner (27:07):
Okay. Thanks a lot, Sam.


Sam Demma (27:09):
And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the High Performing Educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review so other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show; f you want meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network, you’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise, I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Lori Wagner

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.

Lara Spiers – Secondary Vice-Principal at Durham Catholic District School Board

Lara Spiers – Secondary Vice-Principal at Durham Catholic District School Board
About Lara Spiers

Lara (@MrsLSpiers) is a secondary school educator and administrator. She is the secondary vice-principal at Durham Catholic District School Board. She taught me (Sam) when I was in high school! She has her Master of Education – MEd focused in Educational Leadership and Policy Development from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto.

Her passions include Analytical Skills, E-Learning, Student Counseling, Critical Thinking, and Social Justice Pedagogy.

Connect with Lara: Email | Instagram | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Durham Catholic District School Board

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto

George Couros’ “Innovator’s Mindest”

Kristin Souers and Pete Hall’s “Fostering Resilient Learners”

Tony Robbins

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):
Do you want access to all the past guests on this show? Do you want a network with like-minded individuals and meet other high performing educators from around the world? If so, go to www.highperformingeducator.com. Sign up to join the exclusive network and you’ll get access to live virtual networking events and other special opportunities that will come out throughout 2021. I promise you I will not fill your inbox. You might get one email a month. If that sounds interesting, go to www.highperformingeducator.com. Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. I’m super excited to bring you today’s interview Lara Spiers. Our guest today was one of my high school teachers. We haven’t stayed in touch as much, although it was a breath of fresh air to have a conversation with her on the podcast. She is now a vice principal at a Secondary School Catholic school out in Whitby, Ontario.


Sam Demma (01:04):

And she’s in the midst of completing her masters of education, which is focused in educational leadership and policy development from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. She is super passionate about e-learning student counseling, critical thinking, social justice and philosophy slash religion. And I’m super excited to dive into a bunch of different topics on today’s conversation. I hope you enjoy this as much as I enjoyed the conversation and I will see you on the other side, Lara, thank you so much for coming on the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show. You know, it started from sitting in your religion class or English class religion, religion.


Lara Spiers (01:48):

It was religion. I’ll never forget it.


Sam Demma (01:50):

I’m already outdating myself already forgetting about high school.


Lara Spiers (01:53):

I’ll ever forget you. No, not really. I, I remember that you had brought in cake, I think your mom had made banana bread or, or something along those lines for my birthday. No. And I just thought that that was so classy and delicious. So that’s my favorite things.


Sam Demma (02:06):

No, I love that. Well, why don’t you start by introducing yourself, just sharing a little bit about, you know, how you got into the role you’re in education right now. And where that, where that spark or desire came from to be a teacher?


Lara Spiers (02:19):

It’s a loaded question, but I’ll try. So this I’ve been in education for about 15 years or 16 years and it wasn’t really something that I always wanted to do to, you know, to be Frank. I always saw myself in law, I really enjoyed thinking about, you know, ethics and morality and right and wrong. And I thought that I would be kind of one of those crusaders always in defense. Right. Never impressed. But as I got closer to the actual, I even applied to, I took the LSATs and I applied to law schools. And, and as I was going through the application process is when I actually started thinking about the type of life that I wanted to lead. So Le less about the ideas and more about the actual results, right? The fruit of the labor.


Lara Spiers (03:06):

And I realized, and I was holding both acceptances in my hand, right? One for Osgood, one for U of T or OISE. And I realized that the one path was, you know, what I had always wanted, but it wasn’t the actual life that I wanted to lead. It was what I wanted as a child. And I realized as I was aging, that, you know, it wouldn’t be as meaningful as a life dedicated to the service of others. So that’s why I chose teaching cuz that’s exactly what I consider teaching to be. You know, I’m not strong enough to to start a nonprofit. I’m not going to green peace or I’m probably not saving any whales, you know, or, or golfing. I won’t intentionally hurt them, but I, this is, this is my contribution to the world. I, I firmly believe it right through education.


Lara Spiers (03:52):

So that, that is what drives me. And and now this year I’m in a different role, I’m vice principal at a, a high school. And I see that as an extension, that’s the reason I wanted to move out of the classroom and into, you know, this sphere was really to exert that influence whatever positive kind of change or that I could possibly bring to as many kids as possible. Right. So onwards and upwards. I mean to, if you’ve got it, you gotta give it. Yeah, no it’s talent, everyone. It’s so true. That’s, that’s the name of the game?


Sam Demma (04:27):

What, what sparked the desire to teach though when you were in that moment, holding both acceptance letters, bring back, you know, if it wasn’t, if it wasn’t law, how come it wasn’t something totally outside of teaching? Like why a teacher specifically?


Lara Spiers (04:43):

Well, because that’s the best way to change the world. Mm. The best way to change the world is to, is to educate the youth. And the best way to enact positive social change is to make sure that those values are transmitted through the next generation. So parenting is one of the most important jobs that they is one of the hardest and one of the most important. Yeah. And and you’ll know that one day, you know, I hope and and then teaching teaching is the next year in local parentis. You’re, you’re the parent substitute for those children. And even if you’re a teenager, you’re still a child, right. Sorry, sorry. I left true. And you know, it’s a huge responsibility, but with great, you know, work with great effort comes great reward. And the reward for me is like, even the fact that I’m sitting here today, having this chat with you, right. I didn’t I’m not taking, you know, credit for your goodness and your, you know, greatness, but I was a part of your story. And I think that that’s quite something, you know.


Sam Demma (05:44):

True story. Yeah. It’s and, and you’re a part of student stories who you might even never hear from again. And they could have had a hu you know, you could have had a huge impact on them. I find it really funny, but I find it makes sense that when I reach out to educators and I ask them to come on the show, I always get a couple of responses, you know, first being, no, why do you wanna talk to me? And, and second, usually being, I don’t wanna talk about myself. And, and I realize that like every educator says it, but it’s because the work that they do day in and day out to them becomes so natural, so normal. And they almost get this curse of knowledge where the things that they might have and possess that might be beneficial to others. They just think are normal things that everyone knows.


Lara Spiers (06:30):

That’s very astute, you know, that’s, that’s a, I, I think you’re absolutely right. The curse of knowledge well is being for sure. I mean, as Socrates said, right, the, the truly educated man knows that he knows nothing, nothing. Right? Like it, the more, you know, the more you become aware of how little, you know, right. And that’s also true that that comes from lifelong learning. That’s not, I don’t think that’s just for educators, but I personally am a strong advocate for you know, self improvement and betterment and learning and knowledge and all that good stuff. Right. Because that’s how that shapes your perspective of the world and other people. And that lets you kind of see the path that lays before you. Right. I think that’s the only way. Also why history is so important too, because you have to check out the trails that other people have left before you.


Lara Spiers (07:16):

Right. I think all, it all comes down to really humility. If you have the virtue of humility, then you have a sense that you’re just like a little bit, like you’re a piece you’re a grain of sand and it’s really mind blowing to think about it that way. Like, if you think about your experience in your life as being just a, you know, a, like such a small part of, of kind of the universe and you know, that’s the sort of thing I think about all the time. It’s like, and that’s probably why for me anyway, I don’t wanna talk about myself and well, I’m so great. You know, I’m a great teacher because you know, again, who that question, who am I right? Who am I? And I struggled with that a lot, actually the first few years of teaching, especially you know, this impart of knowledge, decider of grades, you know, like you’re, you know, you pass, you fail, you know, it’s like a gladiator, you know, like yeah.


Lara Spiers (08:11):

Thumbs up, thumbs down. But I’ve come to terms with that. Like I got the more you become familiar or accustomed to kind of being that helper. You stop seeing yourself as less of like a Sage, you know, Sage on the Sage and then your guide on the side. Yeah. That we can all be that we can all be a guide on the side. Right. And I’m not gonna have all the answers for you, certainly not today and not in the classroom either. Right. But that’s because the answers are all always, there are always more questions than answers and that’s part of the fun.


Sam Demma (08:44):

Tell me more about what helped you shift your mindset. Now I can tell you a crazy story right now. Like when I first started speaking in schools, I used to post a picture at every school saying, look at me how great I am speaking at a school. And you know, I turned 21 and I sat myself down and had like an honest reflection on my social, social media usage and the way I was putting myself out there. And I just decided, like, I don’t think this is helpful to the young people that I’m speaking to. Like they’re looking at these pictures, probably thinking, I don’t know if I can ever speak on a stage in front of 500 people that makes to me nervous. And, and so I stopped posting all that stuff. And in fact, I’ve been taking a social media break aside from Twitter, which a girl named Rachel helps me manage. And I haven’t posted anything in the past like five months. And I’m trying to make that shift from Sage on a stage to a guide. Right. The helpful guide. And I’m curious to know kind of what helped you make that shift when you were of starting your teaching journey?


Lara Spiers (09:37):

Well, it wasn’t, I think a lot of, a lot of it really came down to this board I had from other teachers, like the teachers have been there longer than me. I know you’ve spoken about Mr. Loud foot quite a lot in the past, right? Yeah. He was, I worked with him at St. Mary. He, we were in the same department, Mr. Eck. Miss Menardi, who’s still there Mr. Val Aaron shadow. Mr. V shadow. Mr. V. Well, these are the people that you know, I maybe it’s like this for other careers. I don’t know, but certainly in education it can be a lonely job, you know, you think you’re always kind of surrounded by by people or by kids, but it’s isolating, it’s very isolating. And I think a lot of people are struggling with that very much so now. But if you’re lucky, like I was you’ll have, excuse me, you’ll have the support of people that not only maybe have a lot more wisdom than you do, but are willing to share it. So that was what got me through definitely those first few years, like, you know, I’m thinking back now and it feels a lifetime ago to be honest, but I, I am constantly every step I take. I, I know that I’m doing so because of the support I had of those colleagues of mine.


Sam Demma (10:47):

Oh, that’s awesome. And for an educator who might be just starting to teach now, it might be a little, it’s scary. It might be a little different, but do you have any P of wisdom that you could share with someone who’s just starting now?


Lara Spiers (11:01):

No. No. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Like, it’s, it’s the ones that it’s those individuals and I think this is translatable across profession. If you act like, you know, everything or you’re, you’re kind of in that frame of mind where you have perfected your in ever you know, it’s, you’re the furthest thing from it. Yeah. It’s, it’s, it’s like an oxymoron right. Of sorts. It’s a, it’s that humility piece, but it’s also just reality that, you know, we are not going to be able to you know, invent fire alone. Right? Yeah. We’re not going to be able to move mountains alone. They can be moved even though it’s these tasks seem Herculean and impossible, but but they’re not in community, in you know, a consortium of individuals working together, figuring out best practices. Like the only thing I actually just wrote for our yearbook, I don’t wanna give too much away cuz you know, the kids are gonna read it in the fall. But I, I had to write like a message of support and kind of words of wisdom. And I, they probably were only asking for like a line.


Lara Spiers (12:10):

Yeah. I did actually wrote an essay about how the heck I’m gonna tell you about how you want to embrace failure, how to, you know, lower your expectations because the root of all disappointment in life comes from high expectations. And if you are constantly expecting perfection of yourself, of others, of the world, then you are inevitably invariably disappointed. And sometimes that disappointment is like a, a small word. Like sometimes you are traumatized, you’re, you’re torn, you’re you’re done. Right. Because you think, oh my gosh, things are not the way I thought they would be. My life is over my life is ruined. I stink, you know, I’ll never get it. Yeah. And it’s, it’s Ugh, awful. Like it’s a very normal human feeling it’s natural and it takes effort to really get yourself out of that mindset. But that’s something that I’ve been, I’ve strive driven to do you know, over the years.


Lara Spiers (13:05):

And I think when you teach religion and you know, I have a background in philosophy that helps, right. And a lot philosophy, you know, some people are, you’re feel philosophical or you’re not right. So I guess I am. But it, it really is about kind of reframing your expectations of, of who you are and what you want and how you’re gonna get there. And it doesn’t mean settling for less. It, it doesn’t mean like accepting that you’ll, you’ll be a failure. It means seeing that failure as actually just in the road. Right. And I, and I think, you know what I mean? Right. In terms of having a path and then the path changes. And does that mean because I’ve taken a different road, does that mean I’m never gonna get to my destination? Well, maybe you’ll get to a different destination, but I mean the car doesn’t stop moving. Yep. We don’t stop living and we don’t stop growing if we, if we choose to keep our mind open and we choose to keep learning.


Sam Demma (13:58):

No, it’s so true. And I think you’re right. Our, our expectations either make us happy or disappointed dependent on the result that occurs. I think what’s really cool. Is that in any specific scenario or situation, we get to choose what we perceive as real. Like we get to, we get to choose our perception, which, you know, Mike, Latford always used to say your perception is your reality. And we would, we all, didn’t get it back when we were in high school. And that can be dangerous though.


Lara Spiers (14:24):

Yeah. You have to, you have to watch with that. Right. Because what you’re talking about.


Sam Demma (14:28):

Oh, I totally, I totally agree.


Lara Spiers (14:31):

Right. Right. Cause certain, sometimes that can be used to twist in bad ways.


Sam Demma (14:34):

Yeah.


Lara Spiers (14:36):

Right. Just look to our neighbors in the south. Yep. And you know, we’ll say no more, cuz this is not a political podcast. Yeah. We’ll talk about another time. Very true perception, reality. Right. I can choose to see this 75 as, you know, a great mark or I can choose to see it as a disaster. Yeah. And I mean, there are students I talk to and, you know, always have as a teacher, but maybe even more so now as an admin students and parents who are devastated by receiving like an eight, like an 80, 85, you know, this is this won’t do, you know, and, and looking outward, looking like who to blame, what, what, how can I fix this? And that’s the sort of thing that you can’t really fix. Like, well, you can’t fix it. I can’t fix it for you them because it requires that shift from within.


Sam Demma (15:26):

Yeah. They have to change what they believe is success or yeah. You mean, yeah. So it’s so, so true. How do you manage to differentiate between expecting a lot out of a student that, you know, has a ton of potential and not being disappointed if they don’t fulfill it or if they, you know, over exceed? Like I know that there’s a difference there talking?


Lara Spiers (15:46):

About like my own children now at home, because I totally could translate there and even of ourselves, yeah. Right. That’s, that’s towing the line. It’s it’s a daily adjustment. It’s a minute by minute adjustment, to be honest, it’s not like you can find the formula of expectation versus reality and say, oh, there it is. I’m done. You know, I will live in bliss forever more. Days I think anyone, one who’s trying to do anything. Like I’ve never really been into sports, let’s say, but I, but I played the piano for many years. Like I took lessons for about 15 years and the musical, like I’ve never been as nervous as I had to be when I had to play the piano. Like if I had a concert or I had a competition, oh my goodness. Like still to this day, like that was just the, the height of nerves.


Lara Spiers (16:34):

And I imagine that that’s the case even for the most seasoned of professionals. Right. And and athletes and what have you, because those performances, you can practice a million times, right? Yeah. And you get better of course. Right. And you do become more seasoned, however, game time, never know, right. Like that it’s you win or you lose or you fall or you make it like it’s it’s not in our control. So I don’t think I have, I don’t think I, I manage my expectations perfectly all the time. Right. I think I’m constantly reevaluating. Like I tend to spend a lot of time reflecting and I think most teachers good teachers, they do are, they’re constantly reflecting on their practice, on their lessons. How did that go? The way I expected it to go, what will I adjust for next time?


Lara Spiers (17:24):

And the good thing about teaching is that you do to like, in a way you do kind of get to relive the experiences, right? Like yeah. Each master each year, you, you get kind of fresh starts, you know? And, and we get used to a new new school year and new classes, new kids. Right. And the good teachers, I think there are not just living the same year over and over and over. Like, I read a good quote one time and don’t ask me who it was. I don’t remember. But it was like, you could have 20 years of experience, but you could be reliving the same year, 20 times. Right. Are you really improving or are you recycling? Mm. Recycling is good, but not in this case. Right. Like, you know it’s important. It’s important to be reflective. And I tend to do that every single day. Whether I’m conscious of it or not, you know, I don’t necessarily journal. I know people journal and they love it. I think I would love it. But even if you just do it informally with yourself, right. How did that work out? Was that what I expected to happen? What could I change for next time and just honing your, your practice, right. Teaching practice, but like life practice, so true. And that’s, you know, that’s what we’re all doing. We’re all figuring it out. We’ve never lived this day before.


Sam Demma (18:42):

Yeah, no, it’s, it’s so true. When I first started speaking one of the, one of the first mentors I made his name’s Chris and he’s in his fifties and he’s been for 20 years, he told me, get yourself a notebook. And after every presentation you give, make three columns, the first one says add, if you, if you said something that you didn’t expect, you were gonna say, and the students loved it. And it was a really great point. You write it down to make sure you include it next time. Third second column said change. Maybe you worded something really poorly. And it was taken outta context. You have to, you know, readjust what you’re gonna say next time. And then the third column is remove if you, you know, crack a terrible joke and nobody laughs and you’re gonna take that out of the presentation. Yeah. And after doing the work a hundred times to a hundred different schools, by being proactive in reflecting and giving all feedback, the presentation looks totally different. And I would say it’s probably the same with, with teaching. I’m missing like every year or after each lesson, a teacher would sit down and kind of go through a similar exercise again.


Lara Spiers (19:41):

I would hope like this is what a good teacher would do. This is what a good practitioner would do. Just like a doctor, like the things, think of things that they call practice. Like that’s why I mentioned like earlier, right. Cuz you’re practicing and performing teachers are performing right. And practicing medicine. You’re practicing medicine. Yeah. Because there is no definitive static answer that will be a one size fits all or one, one cure. All right. It’s a constant re reimagining reinvigoration. You’re constantly learning. You’re going to seminars. You’re adapting based on demographics. You’re adapting based on economics. You’re adapting based on COVID. Yeah. You know, and who knew who thought we would have to adapt in the way that we have, like we’re all Gumby. Right. We’re all in.


Lara Spiers (20:30):

And that’s and that’s what we do. Like that’s called survival of the fittest, so to speak, it’s very Darwinian. Yeah. You know, but it’s, it’s, we’re evolving as we speak. I honestly do feel that way. Like it’s, it’s imperceptible of course. Right. But, but we have evolved as a society. And we only track that, you know, by looking back of course. Right. But I think in the last year we’ve had a huge leap in our advancement, in our evolution, in our technological advancement because of our our situation and our challenges. So that’s, that’s the bright side of of having, for having yourself kind of be in a situation that you didn’t really want. You know, like the like COVID and et cetera, but also working together with the people around you and, and finding your way through and seeing the, seeing the silver lining and the, the hope and the love of others. Yeah. And really the rise in solidarity.


Sam Demma (21:27):

Yeah. I think honestly there was a couple months where I felt super isolated and alone when COVID first hit, but I have to agree with you as it progressed, things have like totally changed. And again, if I was always looking at the negative sides of the, the issue, I would’ve always felt those emotions, but I started looking at the great things that were happening because of it. And I, I changed how I felt about it as well. Don’t get me wrong. It’s still crazy. And there’s so many, yeah. There’s so many struggles, you know.


Lara Spiers (21:57):

But just from, from a teacher’s perspective, like, you know, we we’ve advanced cuz cuz people are generally slow to change. Right. Institutions especially are slow to change. Right. Like look at the churches for instance. Right. And that’s what we like about them. Right. If institutions change too rapidly, then we would lose our grounding you know, in society. Right. We’d kind of fly off the, the planet. But this has forced, like I said, you know, that that evolution in thinking we’ve, we’ve been forced to reimagine our practices and it’s been like, like PD, do you know what PD like professional development? Yeah. It’s been like a year of PD for every day. All day. Everyone. Yeah. Like even those. So like I’m a nerd, right. I always like to learn and read and yeah. You know, kind of, oh, look what they’re doing over here, you know?


Lara Spiers (22:42):

But not everybody is, is that way. And I understand, but this has kind of thrusted upon us where I think across the board we’ve seen the, the highest kind of rates of, I, I don’t wanna, I’m hesitant to use the word improvement, but of change we’ll say change. Right. Innovation, innovation. Yeah, that’s right. That’s one of my favorite books for teachers is called the innovators mindset and it’s and it’s great. It’s by George Couros. Oh cool. And he’s got he’s got wonderful ideas about how to change cultures in the school and, and how to like adopt best practices and, and use the word out there. And that’s probably one of my greatest sources of inspiration of inspiration for my current job. Yeah.


Sam Demma (23:27):

Oh, that’s awesome. Yeah. Shout out. Maybe we get, we post the episode and maybe he’ll he’ll listen to it.


Lara Spiers (23:34):

Go. He has a podcast as well.


Sam Demma (23:36):

Oh, very cool. That’s awesome. On the topic of books and being a nerd, what are some other books or resources that you’ve read that have reshaped some of your thinking about how you’ve done your work or that you’ve pulled inspiration from?


Lara Spiers (23:50):

Okay, well just recently, I mean, I’ve read a few books over the summer. I read a book called fostering resilient learners, which was very inspiring in the sense of, you know, kind of seeing seeing people through the lens of trauma informed approach. And and that’s something I don’t think we all always think about as teachers, we tend to kind of, some of us can focus too much maybe on the curriculum itself, which is very important, however, not as important as the per the human being in front of you. So that’s my own, that’s my personal philosophy, which is backed up by, you know, science and and definitely, you know, from a mental wellness perspective. So trauma informed thinking I, I was reading a lot of information about culturally relevant pedo pedagogy. Geez, I’m getting tongue tied here.


Lara Spiers (24:38):

There’s a lot of words. Yes. Culturally relevant pedagogy, which is a relatively new field with critical race theory. And it’s again, reframing the narrative that we have been telling ourselves as, you know, me a, a white individual for, you know, an entire lifetime. Right. And it’s again, perspective taking right. It’s one of the, one of the most difficult things to do is to not have sympathy for others, but yet to actually have true empathy. And we use that word, like it gets used so much, right. Empathy empathize, but what it really means is, is quite difficult. Right. It’s quite difficult to actually see, you know, a scenario from another person’s perspective. And even when we try, we’re not actually going to do it, like there’s no way we will never match or mirror another person’s experience and history and feelings and sentiments. Right.


Lara Spiers (25:30):

Doesn’t mean that we don’t, that the endeavor is not necessary. Right. So the last book, the book that I read most recently over the summer that was along those lines was called white fragility. And it was like, it was so good. It was, have you read that book? I just started it. Oh, wonderful. Yeah. Well, there is a part cuz Sam, you know, we share the the Italian background, right? Yeah. There was one part there, especially that I found so actually practically useful because I’ve had you know, I grew up kind of sharing my my learning with my parents and I’m an only child. So, you know, I had nobody, I told my friend and what have you, but my parents were the prime depots for whatever I was learning in school that week. And so, you know, in university it’s like, don’t stop talking about philosophy all the time.


Lara Spiers (26:19):

We think you’re a psychologist, you know, because I would take psychology. Yeah. And then I became a teacher stop talking to me like, I’m one of your students you know, over the years and older Italian people, you know, generally have particular particular ideas and I don’t wanna stereotype them all. But you know, the older generation in general is, is not as attuned to 21st century social politics, right. Like, you know, as we are, that’s just the fact. So I’ve been, it’s been my mission to kind of move them along in the spectrum. Right. And yeah. Even use words like spectrum with, with regarding like, you know, sexuality and human experience and yeah. And racism. And my mother for years has insisted that you know, Italians faced a lot of racism, a lot of discrimination in the fifties and which they did. Right. But there’s a, there’s a part in the book that really frames that experience in the, in the, and compares it to anti-black racism of today in such a where it’s like, you know what guys? No, it’s not the same.


Sam Demma (27:26):

Yeah. It’s not, it’s not the same apples and oranges.


Lara Spiers (27:29):

Exactly. I mean, they’re both fruits, you know, let’s steal from my big fat Greek wedding now. Right. We’re both, but which I showed you in grade 10 religion, by the way. Yeah. I remember. But yeah, it’s not the same, so it’s, that’s okay. And it’s okay. Not to be sure. And it’s okay not to understand and it’s okay to ask for help and it’s okay to say, you know, I’m learning and it’s okay to make mistakes and it’s okay to, you know, move on from them. So yeah.


Sam Demma (27:55):

All those so good. So such a good, such a good lessons to take home.


Lara Spiers (28:01):

I’m cooling you. No, no, it’s, it’s not, not like that. It’s just it’s I think we should be always helping each other. Like, it doesn’t matter that, you know, the fact that I’m a teacher or the fact that I’m, whoever, you know, is, is helpful, I guess. Right. Because at least you can, you know, you know, to trust what the person is saying, right. If it’s like, they’re a P they have a PhD and, or they’re an expert in their field, but they don’t have all the answers.


Sam Demma (28:24):

No one does. No one does. I think it’s just important. I think it’s important that we all be like aunt. And this is an interesting analogy I heard, but there’s you probably know him, Jim Rowan. He’s like a he’s passed away now. He was one of the early mentors of like Tony Robbins. Who’s like all into like self-help and personal development. And he said, this analogy, Jen, one of his tapes, you know, he had tapes back in the day. This just outdates me a lot. But one of his young, I dunno.


Lara Spiers (28:54):

What are these tapes you speak of?


Sam Demma (28:55):

Yeah. In one of, in one of his tapes, he was talking about being like an aunt and he said, you know, and when an aunt is carrying a piece of food or doing a job, it doesn’t it. And stop. If you step in its way, it’ll just go around your shoe or it’ll find a new path. And I think like that’s important for anyone, whether you’re a teacher or any, any person working any job, it’s like, you know, you might, you might hit a brick wall and then you’re gonna have to find a different way around it, but don’t drop the food and just call it a day, you know, figure it out, find, find a different answer, ask somebody or help read another book, gain a different perspective.


Lara Spiers (29:30):

That’s one of the single most important pieces of advice. I think you can give people, read a book. Mm. Read, read, read, and make sure that you read a variety of sources. Yeah. Right. If you don’t wanna read a physical book, get a knee reader, I don’t care, but I need a book. You need, you need that knowledge. Right. That that’s the only way that’s literally the only way it’s like expecting to be a chef, but you don’t wanna touch food. Mm it’s not gonna happen. Yeah. Right. You need, you need the raw dough to make the pizza pie. You know, you, you need the information so that you know how to feel about certain things, what, what to adopt, what practices to adopt, what, what ideas to dismiss. Right. And we, we’re so quick, you know, ideas to teach world religions for a long time.


Lara Spiers (30:12):

And and also just, you know ethics, but we’re so quick to rely on our gut feeling and, and our gut can be useful, especially in an ethical sense. It can alert us if we have had the right experiences. And if we have had you know, the proper socialization, we’ll say it can alert us to dangerous situations and, you know, maybe wrong situations, but the only way to really know why or how, or to even sometimes know if what you’re feeling is correct, is, is that knowledge yes. You know? And I think it’s, I think we’re to, of like, we’re too quick to judge a lot of times, like that sounds trite, but, you know, and I don’t wanna start saying I blame social media, you know, but I kinda do. I, I blame, I blame a lot of our conveniences. I blame my cell phone for the reason why I don’t seem to be able to remember anyone’s phone number anymore. Right. My AI is getting a lot smarter than me and and then the robots are gonna win Sammy. And then what are you gonna do? Like we have to hold on to our humanness. Yeah. As long as, you know, as long as we can. And ultimately that just comes down to relationships and taking care of others and learning for of mothers.


Sam Demma (31:24):

I love it. If you could, if you could create a time that’s, if you could create a time machine, you know, using AI and travel back in time and speak to yourself the first year you started teaching, what would you say? Like, what would you tell your younger self based on what you know now? And I, you know, I know you have the mindset of you. I know, I know very little, but with.


Lara Spiers (31:46):

Or something, you know, why do I have to go back to Jesus? Right after I met with Jesus and said, what’s up, I would I’d go back to myself. And I would, I would warn myself that I was gonna get sick a lot cuz you know, jurors. But also I think just to trust myself and trust trust people and, and just really reiterate the, the fact that, you know, just because we don’t have the answers now doesn’t mean we’re not on the right path. And even if I didn’t know what the path was gonna be just to kind of follow, follow what I know is right. Make sure to treat other people well and and cultivate those relationships with the, with those that I had around me, you know, it took me a long time actually. Like when I, when I started, I was very hesitant, like I said to, to reach out right away.


Lara Spiers (32:34):

And I remember, you know, I, I was so focused on work, work work, and I had a VI, there was a vice principal at the time and his name is and he still is, he was a principal in our board. He is retired. His name is mark Lacey. And he conducted one of my first inter evaluations. Right. My teacher evaluation. And he was, he was impressed by my plan and he was impressed by what I did. And you know, here, I’m in my first year thinking that it’s garbage, you know, like, I don’t know, you know, I wasn’t always fold itself down and, and he said to me, he said, well, you know, you’re gonna be a, a leader in a school one day. And I think I giggled, you know, nervously like, oh, what do you mean? You know, I thought he was kind of putting up airs and but he was dead serious.


Lara Spiers (33:16):

And, and, and then I don’t remember the rest, but that line and his feedback that day has always stuck with me. And he’s also the one that when I the next year had to come and talk to me because I had been spending too much time in my portable, I had a portable. Right. And I would like have lunch in the portable and teach in the portable. And I was getting notes, like tunnel vision, right. About like, oh, I gotta do at the work time, et cetera, et cetera. And he said, you know, there’s more to teaching than teaching. I’m like, I don’t understand what do you mean? And I’m like, I’m just trying to do a good job. He’s like, no, no, that’s right. You are. But you have to also remember to, to step outta here, step out of this, like little Shelly and and head into this school and look around.


Lara Spiers (34:01):

Right. And to have a conversation with with other people and, and you know, get involved. And cause at that point, I don’t think I had even been involved in extracurriculars. And what have you, cause I’m naturally, I’m quite introverted, you know, as a general rule. And it was that conversation that really at first, like, no, no, no, I’m just, I’m gonna focus. I, you know, he doesn’t, I dunno, he’s got me mistaken with someone else, you know, and years later, oh my gosh, was he right? Like totally right. Yeah. Cause he knew he had the wisdom. Right. And he dropped it on me and it took me a bit to really appreciate it. And then it took Mr. Val, Karen, you know, to, to tap me and say, Hey, you know, there’s the group here that could use some help. You know, would you like to help?


Lara Spiers (34:46):

And you know, of course me saying, yes, cuz I was so flattered that he asked me, you know, and, and that group was the Alliance for compassion at St. Mary and and the rest was history. Right. And then it, it just became naturally it became my favorite part of work. That’s part of also the reason why I’m, I’m not in the classroom and why I’m here because that’s all I get to do that all the time. Now I get to work with, you know, other teachers and student groups and board level initiatives and like the equity steering committee and, you know, during the parent involvement committee and, and just trying to get our community as a whole to feel United, to feel connected and especially now, right. Have a little bit of grounding right. In, in some semblance of hope and love and you know, just spread the word.


Sam Demma (35:34):

Yeah. That that’s awesome. I love it. I love it. And if someone’s listening to this and at all inspired by the conversation or thought something, one of us said was interesting or something that you said was intriguing and they wanna learn more, what would be the best way for a fellow educator to reach out to you and maybe just have a conversation?


Lara Spiers (35:54):

That would be great. I personally, I love everything that you said Sammy. So why wouldn’t someone reach out? It’s lara.spiers@dcdsb.ca and that’s my email.


Sam Demma (36:11):

Lara, thank you so much for taking the time to come on the show. I appreciate it.


Lara Spiers (36:17):

It’s cool to see you again. Thanks for asking.


Sam Demma (36:17):

Yeah, I know this has been awesome. I’ll stay in touch and keep up with the great work.


Lara Spiers (36:21):

For sure. Good luck to you. You too. We’re very proud.


Sam Demma (36:23):

Thank you. And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the High Performing Educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review. So other educators like your self can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show. If you wanna meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network, you’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Lara Spiers

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 Lemieux – Teacher, Guidance Counselor and Student Leadership Advisor

Jennifer Lemieux - Teacher, Guidance Counselor and Student Leadership Advisor
About Jennifer Lemieux

Jenn Lemieux (@misslemieux) feels blessed to serve the staff and students at St. Peter’s Catholic Secondary School in Barrie, Ontario (SMCDSB). She has been a teacher, guidance counselor, and a student leadership advisor. As an educator for the past 22 years she continues to be inspired by the students and staff she works with.  

Her favourite quote is by John Quincy Adams, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.”  The actions of educators have a large impact on the lives of students, families, colleagues, and the community.  As educators, we are gifted with many opportunities to be able to inspire others to dream, learn, and become more. It is one of the most amazing jobs in the world!

Connect with Jennifer: Email | Instagram | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

St. Peter’s Catholic Secondary School

Ontario Student Leadership Conference (OSLC)

Youth Leadership Camps Canada (YLCC)

Canadian Student Leadership Association (CSLA)

Canadian Student Leadership Conference (CSLC)

Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques

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. This is your host and youth speaker Sam Demma. Today’s guest is Jennifer Lemieux . I met her a couple years ago, presenting at a conference in Ontario, known as the Ontario student leadership conference. She was one of the teachers that were in my breakout room and we stayed connected and I thought it’d be really awesome to have her on the show.


Sam Demma (01:00):
She has such a diverse experience in teaching. She’s a teacher, a guidance counselor, and a student leadership advisor, and also an Ontario director of the Canadian student leadership association. Her teaching roles occur at St. Peter’s Catholic secondary. She lives out in Barrie and she’s a part of the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board. I have an awesome conversation with Jennifer on today’s episode about so many different topics and her philosophies about teaching and education. And I hope you truly get a lot out of this interview and reach out to her towards the end when I, when I give you her email address. So without further ado, enjoy this interview with Jen and I will see you on the other side. Jenn, thank you so much for coming on the high performing educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing the reason behind why you got on why you got into education?


Jennifer Lemieux (01:56):
Well, thanks for having me. It’s an honour to be here. You’re doing amazing things, so that’s pretty awesome. I just got noticed that my internet actually is unstable so that’s how this goes. Why I got into education? Well, when I was young, my mom was a teacher, so that’s sort of where some of it, I guess would’ve begun. She taught elementary school. So we’ve had our share of being in classrooms; helping mom out. In high school of my history teacher, Mr. Adia, he was one of my inspirations in becoming a teacher. He was just an amazing individual who could inspire us to do awesome things with history and I actually majored in history and then ended up, it was either law school or education. Those were my two sort of goals. And after three years of school I was liked, I really wanted more and education was calling my name and so that’s where I begun. And I’ve been at the same school, this is going on 22 years. I haven’t had to leave and so it’s been a pretty awesome experience.


Sam Demma (03:06):
That’s awesome. And at what point in your own career journey, did you know that you were gonna be a teacher? Like, was there like people who pushed you in this direction? Did you know it since you were a little kid or how, how did you make the decision that it was gonna be education?


Jennifer Lemieux (03:25):
I don’t think, I mean, I just loved always. I mean, coaching when I was young doing thing with youth and, you know, it was just part of a natural habit to, to want, to help people. And though I think, you know, having the inspiration of, of course my mom and Mr. OIA was, was lovely to have and just wanting to be able to make a difference in the lives of people. So that was that I think was my go to.


Sam Demma (03:53):
I love that. And if you could pinpoint what the things were that Mr. O did that had a huge insignificant impact on you? Like, what would you say was it that he tried to get to know his students and build relationships? Or what was the main thing he did that made you feel? So, you know, stern, a scene heard and appreciated and inspired you so much so that you wanted to get into education yourself.


Jennifer Lemieux (04:20):
He was definitely human first teacher second. Right. So, so you could see those connections. He tried to make, I’m also from a fairly small town in Northwestern, Ontario, and he was also my driving instructor. nice. And he taught me how to drive . So he just, you know, sometimes people, he didn’t coach me he did coach golf where we were from. But he was just, just authentic and human and he cared and he challenged our thinking. And so it just was a great relationship we had.


Sam Demma (04:54):
Hmm. That’s amazing. And funny enough. He was also your, your driver’s teacher, you were saying, it sounds like he was a teacher in all aspects of life.


Jennifer Lemieux (05:03):
You betcha.


Sam Demma (05:04):
That’s awesome. Very cool. And so then you grew up do you still stay in touch with him today? Do you still talk to him?


Jennifer Lemieux (05:13):
I’ve seen him because I still have family in the small town we were from actually just saw him. Last time I was home in the grocery store and just had a little convers and with him, you know, in the aisles of the grocery store, I mean, that’s not a, a constant communication, but he knows he was pivotal.


Sam Demma (05:30):
Yeah, no, that’s cool. I was gonna say sometimes teachers see the impact that they, that they’ve created. Sometimes they, they don’t see it. Sometimes it takes 25 years for a student to turn around and, and let the teacher know. And I’m sure you of that, I’m sure you’ve, you know, had stories of transformation and maybe some that are, you know, 10, 15 years out of school and then they come back and they, they speak to you and tell you about the impact you had. I’m curious though out of all the students that you’ve seen transform due to education, maybe not directly in your class, maybe in your class or on your sporting teams do you have any stories that really stick out that were really inspiring? And the reason I ask is because another educator might be listening, being a little burnt out for getting why they got into education in the first place. And I think at the heart of most educators it’s students, right. They really care about young people and the youth. And so do you have any of those stories of transformation that you’ve seen that really inspired you? And if it’s a, if it’s a very personal story or serious story, you can, you know, give the student a fake name. just to keep it private.


Jennifer Lemieux (06:35):
Well, I mean, there’s, there’s many in instances. I mean, I wear two hats right now. I still teach classes, but I’m also a guidance counselor. Nice. so you have, you have two sort of different things to look at. I mean, as a teacher, you work with your students and, and I just love to see them gain their confidence and grow. I mean, I taught history. Then I went in and taught psychology G and so I say, I teach the life courses. My husband says I don’t teach the real courses of math and science. So I like to think leadership is life and psychology is life. Yeah. And just watching some of the students, especially in the leadership classes that they come in and they’re not really there. Some are make it, and they don’t know why they’re there and just a watch their confidence grow throughout the time you have with them.


Jennifer Lemieux (07:22):
I mean, we’re in the business of human connections. Yeah. I struggle sometimes to really think about, you know, I’m a, a task person and I like to do my tasks. And, and so I really have to consciously think sometimes people first tasks later same with, I think all teachers, we need to think students first curriculum later, mm-hmm . And I know a lot of my colleagues probably agree with that as well. But it’s really hard to do that sometimes. And so, I mean, I’ve watched students who have passions in their high school career go in, I mean, I’ve got one student working at Google in Cal now. Wow. So he’s working, he’s working there in high school. He was that kid who created websites, created videos for the school. Nice. So, you know, you have these kids who have their passions and to foster them and provide those opportunities and let them grow.


Jennifer Lemieux (08:14):
Those are some big transformations you see in kids. And then you also have the kids that, you know, have no family support and no, you know, they rely on the caring adults in the school to be their family to speak and to help push them to grow. Right. And you have those kids too, that have a lack of confidence or are the introverts who join your classes and you give them opportunity to try to shine, even though they don’t wanna do those presentations, you know, you provide some safe parameters and boom, off they go. So, you know, to say that there’s one specific, there’s a lot in the very many categories, if that makes sense. Yeah. That we can, you know, providing, I like to think we provide opportunities for students to grow. Yeah. In the very different capacities that we have. Right. And I, you know, kids come back and say, thank you so much, like you did this. And I’m like, all I did was provide the opportunity. You took it. Yeah. And you lost them. Right. So that’s sort of where I like to think we have the huge responsibility and opportunity for, to provide opportunities for our students to, to flourish and blossom.


Sam Demma (09:28):
What does and support them. Yeah. No, I agree. What, what does providing the opportunities look like? Is it a, to cap on the shoulder? Is it an encouraging, you know, word? Like what does that actually look like from a teacher’s perspective?


Jennifer Lemieux (09:42):
Well, it varies from giving them opportunities to attend conferences, right. To actually plan and execute and deliver a full event from start to finish, to provide them your full trust that you believe in them that they’re going to be able to do. Right. I mean, I had one student, we have a massive event in our school called clash of the colors and it’s a big, loud, crazy event. That’s four extroverts. And this one student had entered my grade 11 class and was like, but I’ve her bin. And I’m like, that’s okay. Right. Mm-hmm so how do we make you go? And so she was like, well, I don’t know, like maybe a board game room. And so we were like, okay, let’s create a board game room. And so we created this board game room and, you know, we ended up having kids that we never had and she then felt included.


Jennifer Lemieux (10:37):
Right. So she, she spoke up, had the courage to say, yeah, well, you know, I’m in this class and here we’re planning this thing I’ve never attended. Right. And I also had the flip where I had a brand new student come in last year or two years ago cuz COVID he came in and has no idea what our school culture is about and he’s lumped into a leadership class. Right. And he’s just like, yeah. Okay. And he ends up leading an entire assembly when he really knew nothing that was going on. Wow. You know, and I’ve had an ESL kid come in who couldn’t speak English. So basically they were put in my class for socialization and just to watch the, the student engagement and the support and students helping each other. I mean, those are the opportunities we get to provide for them to build confidence.


Sam Demma (11:28):
If that makes sense. Yeah. No, a hundred percent. You’re you are the person that provides the opportunity for growth, whether it’s the planning of an event, whether it creating inclusive opportunities where everyone, whether introvert or extrovert feels included and can use their specific gifts to make a difference in the school. That makes a lot of sense. And I, I appreciate hearing a little bit more about your philosophies. I, if we wanna call them that, you know, I think that everyone builds their own personal philosophies based off their experiences. And it sounds like one of the philosophies you have around education is that, you know, humans first curriculum, second, like you were saying, and I’m curious to know, what other philosophies do you have around education? Or what other things do you believe, you know, over the last 22 years of, of teaching that you think might be beneficial to reflect on personally, but also to impart upon another educator listening right now?


Jennifer Lemieux (12:23):
Well, one of my biggest flus, I have a few that are speakers. So Mark Sharon Brock, he used a quote that I order forget to leave things better than you found them. Mm. Right. So he uses it cuz that’s apparently how we use leave camp sites is better than how you found them. Nice. Right. So I heard him say that in a speech one time and I was so excited to actually see him at an Ontario student leadership. One like conference one year I was as like a kid, like meeting their idol anyway, nice. I use that now even with, with the kids at school and and just as a philosophy in general, to always try to get them to leave our school better than they fit as well as people. Right. So to just try to leave the people and places better than you found them. And that is something we, I do try to impart when I meet people is to try to do that. Right. So that’s, I mean, not a huge philosophy per se, but it, it was a line from him that I won’t ever forget that has stuck with me and is now in my day to day living.


Sam Demma (13:38):
Yeah. I love that. I it’s so funny. You mentioned Mark Sharon Brock a few months ago. I just picked up my phone and called him and his wife. Wow. Yeah. His wife answered the phone and she’s like, hi, and I can’t her name now, but it was on his website on the contact page. She was holding up a Phish on the contact page and we had a beautiful conversation. And I, I said, you know, you know, would it be crazy to think that mark might talk to a young guy who’s 21 years old who just has some questions? And she’s like, let me check. And she put me on hold and she called his office and he answered the phone and, and gave me his time. He gave me 30 minutes of his time, answered a bunch of questions. And I just remember thinking to myself like, wow, this is someone who owes me, nothing who doesn’t know who I am, who just took 30 minutes out of their very busy day to just share some wisdom. And I, I, I sent them a handwritten thank you note for, for, for giving me some time. But I think that that relates also to education that when we give students time to, to make them feel seen, heard, and appreciated when we go out of our way to show them that we care. Despite the fact that we all have our own busy lives, it, it makes a huge difference and a huge impact. I’m curious though, it’s


Jennifer Lemieux (14:55):
A nice bike story right there.


Sam Demma (14:57):
So for everyone who doesn’t know what that is, you wanna summarize it?


Jennifer Lemieux (15:03):
Oh, mark. always talks about nice bike. How he was at a big bike, I guess, convention, I guess. Yeah. And all you have to do is, you know, come up to big Burley guys who drive bikes and say nice bike and they kind of don’t seem so intimidating anymore. Yeah. it was a nice bike story.


Sam Demma (15:23):
That’s awesome. I like it. it’s so true. Right? A little, a little compliment, a little, a little appreciation, I think goes a, a really long way for an educator who’s listening right now and might be in their first year of teaching. right. During this crazy time, knowing what you know about education and about teaching and the wisdom you’ve gained over the past 22 years, like, what would you tell, like, imagine it was your yourself. Imagine if you just started teaching now, but you knew everything, you know, what would you tell your younger self as some advice?


Jennifer Lemieux (16:01):
Well, it’s interesting. Cause I remember being in teachers college and they like to tell you, you know, to set that stage when you enter that room and don’t smile until Christmas and all of those sort of things. And I would yes. Agree that there needs to be structure and parameter in a classroom and boundaries. But I also think it’s okay to be you and be your authentic self. I remember teaching an ancient history course and I never studied ancient history. I mean, I had, you know, American history, Canadian history and they plunked me into one of those and I was struggling in this grade 11 course knowing nothing. And I had to not lie to them. Right. Like it was like, okay, we’re gonna learn this together. We’re going to be okay. You know, because they’re going to see through you. So if you, you can be your authentic self.


Jennifer Lemieux (16:57):
I think sometimes we’re scared to let students see we’re human. And one of the first things I always try to remind them on the first day of school is yes, I’m your teacher, but I’m a human being. Right. And I have two rules in my classroom about respect and honesty and just, just be you because we just need to be us and be our authentic selves as scary as that is. Right. Yes. Again, we have boundaries. Like we don’t talk about what we do outside of school and you know, our lives to an extent, but for your, your personality and what you’re comfortable with. I think it’s fair to, to share some of those things with students and be okay doing that. It’s not about don’t smile until Christmas, at least in my world now. Right. When it, you know, when I first started, I think I was a bit scared and to lean on lean on your peers, like lean on people that have been there a while that are willing to help. Because it’s a pretty, pretty powerful thing. If, if you can be mentored, had huge mentorship in my career. I look at like St. Saunders, Phil Boyt one of my old athletic director partners I mean, they’ve all mentored me, right? Dave troupe was a huge mentor of mine, Dave Conlan. So they’re, they’ve all gotten me to be a better person and a better educator. And you want to be able to rely on those things and not be afraid to be you.


Sam Demma (18:30):
Hmm. That’s awesome advice. That’s such, such great advice. You mentioned that you created two rules in your classroom. Can you share exactly what they are and when you, when did you create those? Was that something that you started right when you first started teaching or did that, was that created some years in?


Jennifer Lemieux (18:46):
Oh, when I first started teaching, I of course had every rule they tell you to do. Right? Yeah. And like, and sign this contract. And then later as I developed, it was, I mean, honesty that was rule number one, be honest to yourself, me and everybody else. And if you know, your homework’s not done because you were too tired to do it, or you just didn’t get it done. Or it was a bad night. Don’t lie to me. I don’t wanna be lied to. Mm. Just tell me life is happening or something’s going on, you know, don’t have your parents write me a note. That’s not telling the truth, you know, try to just be, be real. And of course, to me, respect encompasses everything being prepared as a student. So again, I’ve remind them to respect themselves, to respect others. And of course it’s a mutual respect between all of us and, and we’ll get along.


Jennifer Lemieux (19:40):
Right. And sometimes you have to have those tough conversations with kids. I remember where a uniform school and I remember one student didn’t really love wearing her uniform. And so we butted heads a lot. Mm. Right. Because I was following the rules and that was not, that happens sometimes. And so often when that happens, students think you’re targeting them or you’re after them. And I always try to remind them, it’s the behavior. I’m not impressed with. It’s not their personality. It’s not them. Right. It’s their behavior. That’s not driving with me. And so I ended up having a tough conversation with that kid and we ended up figuring out a way to, to exist and coexist and be okay. Right. Because it’s not the behavior. It’s, I mean, it’s not the person, it’s always the behavior. I usually, you know, don’t, don’t like, so if you can separate that with students too, I find that’s helpful.


Sam Demma (20:33):
Right now there’s a ton of challenges. But in the spirit of leadership, we always try and focus on the opportunities. And I’m curious to know, from your opinion and perspective, what do you think some of the biggest opportunities are right now in education?


Jennifer Lemieux (20:51):
Well, in trying to stay positive, I think some of the biggest opportunities we have right now is challenging our creativity. We are being forced to, to change the, the things that we know to be right. So our course is how we deliver them. When I speak to many staff, they’re, they’re a bit challenged and discouraged that they’re having to destroy their big, awesome courses because they just can’t do the same in person activities and things just aren’t the same. And so we have an opportunity as educators to use different tools jam boards Google interactive, Google slides with para deck. So we’re using a lot more technology and having to force ourselves to be a bit more creative than we’ve ever been when it comes to teaching the things we love to teach. And of course, we’re, you know, challenged to keep our, our person surveillance up and just to keep plugging away. But I think we have to look at, you know, while we’re facing all of these challenges, now we are still growing. And we have the opportunity to become better differently. Yeah. If that makes sense?


Sam Demma (22:04):
It does. It makes a lot of sense. And I love that. And the piece about creativity D is so true. I actually, right now I’m reading a book, it’s a handbook that helps you become more creative. It’s called thinker toys. And the whole book is about different strategies and techniques to bring creativity out of you. The author believes that creativity isn’t something that you, you are born with, but it’s something you can create within yourself. So it’s an interesting book and I think it’s so true. Everything’s changing. The world is changing, which is bringing out so many different ideas and so many different innovations and I think education is at the forefront of a lot of it. Awesome. This has been a phenomenal conversation. If someone wants to read out to you, ask you a question, have a phone call, bounce, some ideas around what would be the best way for somebody to get in touch with you?


Jennifer Lemieux (22:59):
Well, I’m not really active on Twitter, but I have a Twitter @misslemieux but my school email is probably the most frequently thing I access. So that’s jlemieux@smcdsb.on.ca, it’s for the SIM Muskoka Catholic district school board. That’s what the SMCDSB stands for. Yeah, I don’t know if it’s been helpful, but that’s, that’s who I am and how I roll.


Sam Demma (23:32):
Thanks, Jen. Really appreciate it, you did a phenomenal job.


Jennifer Lemieux (23:35):
Thank you for the opportunity.


Sam Demma (23:37):
And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the High Performing Educator Podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review so other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show. If you wanna meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network, you’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Jennifer Lemieux

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.

Tali Aziza M.S.W., R.S.W. – School Counsellor at Netivot HaTorah Day School

Tali Aziza M.S.W., R.S.W. - School Counsellor at Netivot HaTorah Day School
About Tali Aziza

Tali is a Registered Social Worker who works at a Modern Orthodox Jewish Day School in Thornhill Ontario. She works specifically with students in Pre-Nursery through to Grade Three providing one on one counselling, consultative services and social-emotional learning program development and implementation.

Tali earned her Bachelor of Arts Degree at IDC in Herzliya, Israel. She then completed her certification in holistic nutrition through The Institute of Holistic Nutrition in Toronto and then her Master of Social Work at Wurzweiler School of Social Work in New York.   

Connect with Tali: Email | Linkedin

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

The Zones of Regulation (SEL resource)

Netivot Hatorah Day School

The Ruler Program (SEL resource)

YALE Center for Emotional Intelligence

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 (00:01):
Tali welcome to the high-performing educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here today. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit about what brought you to the work you’re doing today with young people?


Tali Aziza (00:13):
First of all, thank you so much for having me on I’m so excited to be talking to you today. So I am a registered social worker. I sort of came to my work now in schools through it, wasn’t always my, my path to end up in the school system. Really, I started, I did my undergraduate degree in psychology. I always knew I wanted to work with children. But more specifically at the time I wanted to work with children with eating disorders. So after my undergrad degree I went and did my degree in holistic nutrition. So I became a certified holistic nutritionist with the goal of combining the two together and working in eating disorders. I started my masters of social work and did my placements my first one in the school system and my second one really specializing in eating disorders.


Tali Aziza (01:07):
And then after graduating, I really, I tried out a little bit of different things, but I really found that I loved working in schools. And the reason being is that you get the opportunity to work with such a wide variety of different presentations and, and different kids dealing with different things. And what’s really neat about being in the school system is you really get to be on the front lines and really have a very strong impact. I find on the kids that you’re working with. So I didn’t land working specialized with eating disorders. I sort of work from a more holistic perspective. But I do feel that the work ties in because we get to work from a preventative model. And, and even in the work that I do, I try and interweave making sure that we’re doing all the protective factors to ensure that people have healthy, strong relationships with food moving forward, but also are, you know, protective from anxiety and things like, like that as they grow older.


Sam Demma (02:06):
Can you take us back to your first experience working in a school setting and explain kind of how you fell in love with working in a school?


Tali Aziza (02:17):
So what’s interesting about my, my position in the work that I do is I work really with very young kids. And so from a social work perspective, it, it almost seems like a little counterintuitive. The youngest age group I work with are kids who are, you know, 18 months almost. And I work with the kids up until grade three. So when I started, I, I, in hindsight, like I was completely sort of out of my comfort zone working with kids who are so young is not really something that you get a lot of experience with in, in social work school. But immediately I saw how we had the opportunity or I had the, to become part of the framework of the school. So right immediately, like first day you’re, you’re not locked up in your office as this like very fancy formal school social worker. You’re really in the hallways, in the classrooms out on recess duty, welcoming the kids as they come into will. And so you get the ability to like sort of infuse some of this social and emotional support into the school day in so many different ways. And then the added bonus is it’s, it’s wonderful working with kids who are, who are younger, you get to it’s so gratifying and it’s, so they’re so sweet and, and welcoming of any sort of interventions or anything like that. So that’s been really positive too.


Sam Demma (03:44):
And tell me more about your journey into social work as a profession. Did you know, growing up that you wanted to be a social worker or what led you down that path?


Tali Aziza (03:54):
So it’s an interesting question. I always knew I wanted to work with children. I, and after finishing my degree in psychology, I was looking into a master’s in psychology, but really with a master’s in psychology, you almost sort of need to go down the road of a PhD to be able to really do the work that I wanted to do. And then my dad actually said to me, one day, he said, like, I think you’re over complicating things here. What’s the end goal. And let’s think about up the most direct route you can take to get there. And so my end goal was I wanna work with children. I wanna support children, social and emotional wellbeing. And the most direct route was through a master’s in social work. Because that really allows you to be on the ground, working with kids, doing the work. And you know, maybe some of the other things are, you know, come into play later down the road, but that was like the most direct route to get me to my end goal. So it really, it really never had to do with social work per se. It was always more about working with children.


Sam Demma (04:53):
Cool. And what do you find are some of the challenges that students are faced with? I mean, you probably see them before most people do. You might even be the first adult in a young child’s life to hear a challenge before they even tell a parent or a family member, what are some of the common challenges that you’re seeing in young kids and how do you as a caring adult support those challenges and those young, those young learners and human beings?


Tali Aziza (05:20):
So it differs, I mean, you, you see different things at different age groups. So really when you’re talking about really, really young kids a lot of the times you’ll see more of the behavioral or the social side of things. So you’ll be, might, you might be seeing more tangible, like outbursts tantrum, like behavior some social, some signs like that. But as you work with children and as they get older, you start to see different things coming out. So I work with up to grade three. So as you approach the grades you start, you do start to see a lot more of the anxiety, be it social anxiety generalized anxiety things like that. More, more social issues coming out. Self-Esteem issues, things like that. And this has all been of course, really complicated by the pandemic also.


Tali Aziza (06:14):
And one of the things that I spent a lot out of time worrying about when we first transitioned to being in lockdown and being online is that for a lot of these kids, these are really pivotal years and nobody has eyes on these children. So be it from, you know, whatever perspective, but sometimes when you’re living with your kid day in and day out, you don’t know necessarily notice some of the things that might be going on for them. It’s important for them to be in a school setting, to have different people with different perspectives, looking out for your kids. So that’s, that’s a big thing. And, and now we are seeing, I mean, I do, I do find that we do see more anxiety kids struggling more socially, definitely struggling more academically, which plays into all of the social and emotional stuff as well.


Tali Aziza (07:01):
So where I come in and you ask, like, what do we do about it? It of course differs from kid to kid, but really I think that the most powerful work that, that I do in that the department does is really being an advocate and a cheerleader for these kids. I think going into school every, every day. And knowing that you have someone in the building who is on your team, no matter what they want you to do. Well, you know, I, I have kids come in and they’ll sit in my office for a few minutes and even just color and talk. There’s not any huge social work intervention happening, but just knowing that there’s somebody there who cares about you, you have a space to go. If you, you know, if you’re feeling really overwhelmed or you have a fight with a friend, or you’re just not feeling great that day I think really makes a huge difference. And I don’t think it needs to be big or fancy or, you know, super well researched interventions, I think. And even, you know, for, for you and I like growing up in a different time, we didn’t necessarily have that. And so having someone that, you know, is there for you in the building, like just that in and of itself, I think is really impactful.


Sam Demma (08:11):
It’s not like you have some grade one walking into your office and you hand them this white sheet of paper with check boxes on it. And you’re like, put you diagnose yourself and that’s correct. Check off your problem, or right. It sounds like you’re more focused on building relationships. Mm-Hmm and really showing that these students, that you care about them as human beings. Mm-Hmm how do you think you build that relationship? Obviously, accessibility is a big thing, like being accessible and having this space open, but once they enter the space, how do you go about building their relationships and ensuring these young kids know you are on their team?


Tali Aziza (08:47):
Right. So it really starts so much even before they come into the office. Mm-Hmm , and what’s really neat about being able to be in a school system. And, and the school that I work in is that there really is no stigma around going to see the social worker. We call, call ourselves the school counselor to make it a little bit more friendly. But like I mentioned before, you know, I’m outside on the playground every day, when the kids come in, I agree, read them outside. I’m outside on recess duty. I’m very visible within built into the framework of the school. So they don’t see me as like someone you go to when you have a quote unquote problem or something like that. And, and we often joke that we sometimes have the opposite issue that like, after recess, everyone wants to come speak to the school counselor cuz you know, someone took my ball or this or that.


Tali Aziza (09:38):
Which is amazing because there’s really no stigma around it. So it starts in the hallways. It starts in creating that rapport in, in the safe spaces that the kids are comfortable in. And then the other important piece of it, which can get sometimes a little tricky in a school based setting is I’m really careful to really distinguish between discipline and social work. Mm. Which can be tricky because sometimes the kids that you’re dealing with, you know, can struggle from both angles. Right. And so they, there might be a discipline component and there’s a social and emotional component, but it’s really important that I’m not the, the discipline in person. Because then the kids will shut down and won’t wanna relate or talk to me. So it’s really important that I stay neutral from that perspective. And then once the kid comes in the room and, and you know, you don’t have any negative association from anything else beyond that point.


Tali Aziza (10:36):
It really, at first from kid to kid, I like to find out what the kids like to do. And, and you know, the first few sessions, I really just focus on building a relationship because if there’s no relationship there, then the rest of the work won’t land, it won’t work. So depending on the kid and what their interests are, we do different sort of things to ensure that we’re building that relationship. And from there that like sort of lays the foundation for all the other things, to be able to permeate so much better.


Sam Demma (11:04):
I love that. And there’s definitely an educator listening right now who loves the ideas you’re sharing, but does not have a social worker in their school currently. Mm-Hmm how would you apply these same mindsets for an educator or a classroom teacher? Or do you have any tips for like a, just a classroom teacher on how they could use some of these same ideas to help their own students if they don’t have a social worker in their school and not, not that they can be the teacher and the social worker that’s not possible, but maybe there’s some mindsets or some ideas that they could use in their, in their classrooms when situ arise.


Tali Aziza (11:40):
Oh, sorry. I just cut out for a second. That’s okay. Absolutely. I think first of all, it doesn’t need to be a social worker. I think the biggest gift that the students have coming into the building is the teachers themselves. They have the most impact on the children. And the biggest thing the teachers can do is ensure that each and every child feels seen and recognized by the teachers. So something that I know that within my school, but in general teachers have been more cognizant of in recent years is, is how we greet students. Ah so for example, instead of the kids rushing into the classroom and the teacher standing at the front of the room and saying, okay, things away, take out your books. You know, we have the teachers, a lot of teachers standing outside the classroom and looking at each kid as they come in and saying their name and saying, hi, how are you or giving them a smile or even giving the kids the opportunity to do that to each other, just creating that like one small moment in a day where the kid is looked at and feels seen and recognized and genuinely cared about.


Tali Aziza (12:42):
We never know what’s going on for these kids at home. And so that one small moment could be huge. That could be all they’re getting in their day. So not to underestimate the power that you have. And, and I know that isn’t time, there, there is no time as a teacher it’s, you can’t make it appear from nowhere, but in those transitions, in those moments and then something that we’ve created that, that my school has taken on is something where we carve out time every day to address the social and emotional needs of our student. So there’s 15 minutes, there’s supposed to be 15 minutes with each teacher we’re dual curriculum school. So in the morning and in the afternoon where they take time to check in and find out how the kids are doing either, or they, you know, something as simple as talking about recessing kids, giving a thumbs up or thumbs down some sort of a reflect or carving out time just to do some sort of social and emotional learning anything like that, but even in just creating that space and opening that door to talking about feelings and things like that for some kid that could signal to them, okay, this is someone that I can open up to.


Tali Aziza (13:53):
And it doesn’t need to be big ways or in, you know, in fancy ways or in taking time to meet with every student, you can’t do that as a teacher. But there all are small things. Something else that I’ve done in the past that I think is, is really amazing to do if you have the time or the resources is journaling with students. So it it’s amazing because it gets students also working on their writing working on their thought and idea formation. But it is also a really nice way to build relationships with students. So you can give a prompt, give a question and then have students write their response and you don’t need to answer every single student every single time, but each time you can go through and write a response to some of the students and, you know, maybe ask them a little bit more. And then through this journaling exercise, which can become part of the framework and the structure of your class you’re, you’re first of all, tackling so many things you’re tackling, you know, you’re giving space to gratitude. You’re giving space to mindfulness, you’re giving space to relationship formation, but through all of those things, you can also be opening the door for kids to be able to confide in you or share with you if they need to.


Sam Demma (15:06):
It sounds like all these activities lend themselves like creating a safe space or a space where there’s more communication mm-hmm . Do you have any tools, resources, fun games that you’ve leveraged or used when it comes to mindfulness, social, emotional learning or even things that have helped you learn more about the topic that you think teachers or other social workers might find helpful?


Tali Aziza (15:30):
Mm-Hmm yeah, so there’s, so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There’s really great, well research programs out there for all of these things. So for example, the zones of regulation program is a great program. It was developed by an OT and it’s a great program that’s aimed at teaching children, how to identify their feelings, label their feelings and what to do to maneuver through their feelings in a comfortable and expected, appropriate way. So there’s a whole program that exists around that it’s very well researched, very well founded, and the, it, it’s not complicated or hugely costly. You buy the book, it comes with the CD and there’s a lot of information about it widely available online as well. Another program similar to that is the social thinking program that has books and, and all sorts of follow up activities that can really guide you in, in relating this conversation and bringing it in there’s something similar called the ruler program.


Tali Aziza (16:29):
Some of these are more expensive and, and more complicated to, to take off than others. But the zones is a really easy one to start with. The other thing is, is that there’s a lot of really great literature out there. And by literature, I mean like books for the kids themselves. Cool. So, and, and what’s really great now is you don’t need to go out and necessarily buy all of these books. They have so many read alouds on YouTube. So just even knowing some of the books that are really great for bringing up that conversation, teaching kids about their emotions. And, and that’s the important piece is we have to teach them. We can’t just assume that they know, right. So a lot of kids feel anger, but they don’t know that that’s to anger. They just know it’s a really uncomfortable feeling in their body.


Tali Aziza (17:17):
Mm-Hmm so there’s an education piece that has to come into play here too. And there’s a lot of great books that do just that. So for example, the color monster is an amazing book that can be adopted to different ages and teaches about that. And there’s for sure many read, read aloud for that on the you to yeah. So that’s the great, those are great things to do. The other thing that I like to tell teachers to do is we like to, we like to tell students that, you know, at times they need to be calm or they need to, they need a break or to calm down, but we can’t just assume that kids know what it looks like and what it feels like to calm down. We have to practice that with them. Mm. So even just taking five minutes in a day and having like five minutes of mindfulness time, you can put on some relaxing music, you can have some mindfulness come coloring sheets. You can have time to take a book. You can have time to write in a journal, but all of these things, they need practice with getting into that state to be able to then access it when they need it. We can’t just go about the hustle and bust of our day all the time, and then expect that kids know how to calm down when they’re told to calm down.


Sam Demma (18:27):
Yeah. That’s such a good, that’s such a good piece of advice, even for parents. Like, because I know that like teachers, a parent often tells their child calm down or stop doing this or do that. And like, yeah, a kid might be totally confused as to what that looks like. And you know, they’re not gonna sometimes listen to your words, but they’re gonna follow what you are doing. And if you’re screaming at them to calm down, kinda goes against the whole thing you’re asking them to do.


Tali Aziza (18:55):
Right. And then if they don’t know what to do, then that’s frustrating and that can further contribute to whatever behavior you’re already seeing. So I like to tell parents very often I tell parents to like model calm and to practice calm. So take five minute. It and, and sometimes even just as you come in the door after school is a great time and it’s important for whatever their calming activity is to be something they can access independently. Mm-Hmm , if it’s something that they need a lot of support with, it’s less likely that that’s gonna be effective in the moment that it’s needed. But if you have a space that’s, and it doesn’t need to be, be designated to calm as in nothing else happens there, that’s not feasible for most people, but a space that’s associated with a calming activity. You practice that calming activity, they get comfortable with accessing it independently. It’s gonna be much more effective in the moment.


Sam Demma (19:45):
That’s awesome. And examples, you mentioned, if you journaling mind for, with some music, there’s also so many great apps. There’s an app literally called calm mm-hmm, , there’s an app called the Headspace or insight timer. If you wanted to introduce your students to meditation or some form of mindfulness, mm-hmm, , the list just goes on and on. I’m sure you could find videos and even guided meditations or guided mindfulness act activities on YouTube. Mm-hmm . Uthese are all very cool things to implement. What do you think is one or a few of the opportunities that exist in education today, or, I, I know there’s a bunch of challenges that have come along with COVID that’s very clear and obvious, but on the other side, what do you think some of the opportunities are?


Tali Aziza (20:30):
Hmm. I think that’s a, that’s an interesting question. I think we spend so much time talking about yeah. What, you know, how it set us back in so many ways. I think in, in some ways, access to resources is, is changing. And for some people it’s, it’s easier. And for some people it’s harder. So for example, you know, there’s therapists now who are meeting with kids online, so that might make therapy more accessible to some kids OT, more accessible to some kids. It also hinders the process in a lot of ways too. So that’s a whole, whole Def different conversation. I think that the time at home has really allowed parents to get to know their children. Mm-Hmm . And so I think that as educators and I’m sure a lot of educators would feel this way. A lot of times we’re trying to help parents see some of the things that we’re seeing at school and what’s come as a result of the time at home is that a lot of parents, you know, are really seeing it.


Tali Aziza (21:28):
And I know specifically that year where we transitioned from being totally in school to being fully blindsided by all of this and then being at home, I, I know, and I suspect that globally, a lot of parents were calling teachers and saying, oh my goodness, I, I see it now. Like I get what you were telling me. I didn’t know it before. So I think there is this awareness and there’s partnership that comes from parents re really being part of the classroom, you know, be really being the ones who are, are spearheading it in a lot of ways. So there’s, first of all, an added appreciate that I think always needed to be there for the incredible work that teachers are doing. And that with that has come greater partnership and greater awareness from the parent perspective. So I think that that allows us to go so much further in how we can support and help children,


Sam Demma (22:24):
Speaking of gratitude and appreciation, not only educators, but everyone that works with young people, including yourself and other social workers. If you haven’t heard it recently, thank you so much for the work that you have done and continue to do. If parents aren’t telling you our students it’s making a massive impact. And I appreciate it. Because I know when I was in school, I could have definitely used a teacher that I could celebrate my wins with. Also share my challenges in a very safe environment. Thank you so much. This has been an awesome conversation. If someone is listening and wants to reach out, ask a question or share some feedback, what would be the best way for them to reach out and get in touch with you?


Tali Aziza (23:05):
Yeah, absolutely. And I’m always happy if anyone sort of wants to come up with some ideas or is maybe struggling with something please feel free to reach out. I’m happy to brainstorm together. I can be reached by email and it is taliazizacnp@gmail.com


Sam Demma (23:25):
Awesome. Tally, thank you so much. Keep up the great work and we’ll talk soon.


Tali Aziza (23:30):
Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

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