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Student Leadership

Reg Lavergne – Superintendent of Instruction, Innovation and Adolescent Learning and Student Success at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board

Reg Lavergne - Superintendent of Instruction, Innovation and Adolescent Learning and Student Success at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board
About Reg Lavergne

Reg Lavergne (@RegLavergne) is the Superintendent of Instruction for Southeast schools and for the Ottawa-Carleton Virtual Secondary School (OCVSS). Reg supports innovative and alternative approaches to Student Success and Adolescent Learning within this role.

For 23 years, Reg has served students in Kindergarten to Grade 12 in rural, urban, large, small, adaptive, and community schools as a teacher, department head, Vice-Principal and Principal. He has also served as the System Principal of Student Success and Innovation and Adolescent Learning.

Currently, Reg is working on an Educational Doctorate degree focused on increasing student voice and identity in student learning experiences. He is also designing and implementing the Authentic Student Learning Experience framework to embed student voice and is working with SSTs to build a model for Student Success for students in grades 7 and 8, and grades 9-12.

At the OCDSB, Reg has greatly enjoyed working with teachers to build and implement learning models and approaches that help students see their own genius.

Connect with Reg: Email | Instagram | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Ottawa-Carleton Virtual Secondary School (OCVSS)

OCDSB

Hero on a Mission by Donald Miller

Russ Interview by Jay Shetty

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


Sam Demma (01:00):
This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is Reg Lavergne. Reg Lavergne is the Superintendent of Instruction for Southeast schools and for the Ottawa-Carleton Virtual Secondary School (OCVSS). Reg supports innovative and alternative approaches to Student Success and Adolescent Learning within this role. For 23 years, Reg has served students in Kindergarten to Grade 12 in rural, urban, large, small, adaptive, and community schools as a teacher, department head, Vice-Principal and Principal. He has also served as the System Principal of Student Success and Innovation and Adolescent Learning. Currently, Reg is working on an Educational Doctorate degree focused on increasing student voice and identity in student learning experiences. He is also designing and implementing the Authentic Student Learning Experience framework to embed student voice and is working with SSTs to build a model for Student Success for students in grades 7 and 8, and grades 9-12. At the OCDSB, Reg has greatly enjoyed working with teachers to build and implement learning models and approaches that help students see their own genius. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Reg, and I will see you on the other side. Reg, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show this morning. Please start by introducing yourself.


Reg Lavergne (02:21):
It’s fantastic to be here and I really appreciate you reaching out to me. So my name is Reg Lavergne. I’m a superintendent of instruction with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board which is a public school board in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. I support a number of schools, but I also support the innovation and adolescent learning department and the student success programming across our district.


Sam Demma (02:44):
At what point in your own career journey did you determine that education was the field you wanted to pursue and work in?


Reg Lavergne (02:53):
Okay, so this might sound sad. I always wanted to be a teacher. My mother tell you if she was here right now, that when I was a very small boy and people said, what do you wanna do when you grow up? I said, I was gonna be a teacher. And I always did say that that I was gonna be a teacher. I, so that, that truly has been, was always, and still is my main goal. I like working in education. I like working with, with kids. I like helping and working with adults who are working with kids. And I have always naturally gravitated towards kids for whom the system didn’t necessarily work as well as we might like it to. So I’ve always gravitated towards, it’s not working. Why is that? What can we do differently?


Sam Demma (03:42):
That’s awesome. Tell me about the journey from five year old reg that always told his parents and everyone in his life that he wanted to be a teacher to reg today. Like what were the different positions and roles you worked in? Where did you start and what brought you to where you are today?


Reg Lavergne (04:01):
So I, I, I, I think I’d have to say that my, my journey hasn’t been exactly linear. Although I I’ve always been connected to education, so I was in school and then I’ve worked in, in schools and, and in education, my entire career. I actually when I was in school I was very fortunate. School worked for me. I really enjoyed school. I got a lot out of it. I actually went to university and I, my first degree was in music. So I was a music teacher first and I loved that. I got to work with kids in a very different environment to help them celebrate strengths that they didn’t know they had in a way that many people weren’t looking for and, and to help them see how they can contribute in ways that to be perfectly Frank society doesn’t always put on the forefront.


Reg Lavergne (05:00):
So when I was watching kids, we would often work with I, I was a high school teacher for the most part. I actually started working in a private elementary school. And then I got hired with public board, the secondary level, and I was working as a music teacher and we would go to the local elementary schools and I would watch kids who didn’t always have the easiest paths and had lots of different things. They were working through flourish when they were working with younger children and helping them, helping them grow and helping them overcome challenges that they were working with. And I really, really loved that. And from there I became a vice principal. I, I I worked actually, I should take a step back when I was in taking my my degree, my education degree. I sought where, where I, where I could sort of put my voice in what type of placement I, I was asking for.


Reg Lavergne (05:57):
I worked with children who were suspended or expelled from their schools or districts and, and helped their, their learning. I also volunteered in a program that was designed for kids who’d been suspended so that they didn’t stay at home all day. They came, we helped them with their schooling, but we also helped them with why they were suspended and how can we not get there again? I became a music teacher after that. When I became a vice principal, my first school was working with the student was in an adaptive school. So was working for students who had lots of different types of challenges social as well as cognitive, as well as physical and I, and I worked with with them. And then when I became a principal, I worked in an inner city and a rural school.


Reg Lavergne (06:43):
But I brought a, a very strong student success link to that, to those discussions, to those schools, those situations when a student was struggling, stopping and saying, why are they struggling? What can we do differently for them asking them to do the same thing multiple times when they’ve struggled on it on the first time, probably isn’t going to make them feel better about themselves. They may learn the skill, but they’re not going to feel better about themselves as they go through that. So how do we also take into account their thinking their their feelings about themselves? Do they think that they’re a capable learner? Do they think they’re smart? How can we make sure they do see that way? And how can we make sure that they do see that there are lots of options available to them and how can we help them get there?


Sam Demma (07:25):
Mm. I love that. And they’ve gone continue,


Reg Lavergne (07:31):
Sorry. No, I, I may have gone a little off topic there, but, but that was where sort of my thinking went. And actually one part I, I actually then started I moved out of working in a school and I was working centrally. I was assistant principal for four years of student success and adolescent learning. And I supported, I think it was 96 schools in our district on school student success programming and, and looking at, at options and opportunities for students outside of the, the, the norm outside of the traditional box that we might work in.


Sam Demma (08:04):
You mentioned that you had the opportunity to see students flourish in a different environment to uncover strengths, that they didn’t even know that sometimes they had. Can you share an example of what you mean by uncovering strengths? They didn’t even know they had, because I think that’s a beautiful thing to help a young person or a student realize,


Reg Lavergne (08:26):
Mm-Hmm, , there are so many I have a couple from my past, that’ll be more general. And then I can speak to one specifically that I’m thinking about from last year. Mm. So Stu students who that I was working with, who may not have had clarity on their strengths. I spoke very vaguely to say that they may not have thought they were very good at very much. And I remember, again, I was in a high school going to local elementary schools and intentionally partnering students up with, with younger children who needed help in different things. If it was music, they may have needed help playing their instrument or setting their instrument up or trying a new instrument or working through something that they were working on, but they were struggling and giving. I, I I’m, I’m seeing several in my mind right now, and I’m years giving, providing the opportunity for them to step up, to be a leader, to show their strengths to help someone else.


Reg Lavergne (09:36):
And I think that brought in the idea of contribution, right? As soon as you can bring in the idea where a person feels like they’re contributing in some way, they feel valued, they feel valuable, they feel important. They know that they have strengths that they can bring. And I would watch these teenagers working with these younger students and suddenly see them light up as the younger student achieved, what they were working on. And I could see that the, the older student realized, wait a second. I helped them do that. Right. I was able to, to share with them some of what I know, some of the skills I have, I was able to motivate them and make them feel that they can do this. They knew it was possible. And suddenly they did that. And I would watch the kids light up. And to me, I don’t think I have the words to describe how I felt on the inside, nor how the kids felt as they were going through that.


Reg Lavergne (10:32):
Because then all of a sudden, as we’re heading back to, to the main high school, I’m watching the excitement in this young person’s eyes, I’m hearing them talk about what they did and, and how they helped the other student. I’m hearing them talk about the other student’s achievement. Like it really wasn’t all about one person. It was about the different pieces. And I remember watching kids suddenly be willing to try more and to do more back in the classroom after that, because they sudden they saw that they had a strength that they, they could contribute. They could help someone else. And we’ve seen that in a program that we actually started last year in our district, it’s, it’s a, a ministry supported provincial program. So we did not design the entire program. We did design what it looks like for our district.


Reg Lavergne (11:25):
And we started a program with one teacher. And she started reaching out to students who had dropped out of high school without graduating and talked to them about a different approach and a different type of program. And it it’s called a SW program. So that school within a college, like I said, it’s a, it’s a provincial program in Ontario. It is situated to support students who are at risk of not graduating high school and connect them to pathway options. We took a, a slightly different approach to it. In terms of, of, again, reaching out to kids who were at risk of not graduating and finding out what are you doing right now? How can we connect that to your formal learning? So basically we were, we, we did. And when I say we, I mean, the lead teacher who is the most brilliant educator you have ever met she connected with kids who, who were not at school and started talking with them just to find out more about them.


Reg Lavergne (12:21):
What are your interests? What do you like to do? What do you do outside of school? You know, when you do that, that’s actually this part of the English curriculum. And it’s this part of that math curriculum. And at this part of the history curriculum, and she was able to, to show the students who, the structure that we developed together, that they were smart. They had talent, they had strengths. It may not manifest itself in a way that we would normally capture it in a school, but they were demonstrating learning in, in in, within their life. And she was, she was able to engage with them to, they came back to work with us. Now, this was in remote last year. So they actually did not return to a traditional school, but they did engage in some traditional school structures and different things.


Reg Lavergne (13:10):
They were engaged in outside the school. The teacher captured because they captured this demonstration of their learning. They had learned, they had developed a ton of skills, maybe not sitting in the classroom at 9:00 AM on Monday, but maybe at different times. And they were able to demonstrate that learning. And she worked with, with students capturing evidence of their learning. So she did not create lessons for them every day, the students from their interests and then where they wanted to go. So meeting their pathway goals developed learning experiences. And as they were doing that and demonstrating different learnings, the teacher was, was connecting that to different curricular expectations. And the students were accelerating the, the credits that they were earning. And at the end of June last year, 22 students graduated from high school. And I believe 18 of them are in college right now. These students had dropped outta previous.


Sam Demma (14:05):
Wow. That’s such a cool story.


Reg Lavergne (14:08):
Oh, get goosebumps. When I think of that story all the time, that teacher and that program approach changed those kids,


Sam Demma (14:20):
It’s a case study of how to deal with students of whom school is not working. Right. Like you mentioned earlier, sometimes school doesn’t work for everybody. Well, I think the question that came in my mind was like, how do we help those students who school is not working for? And it sounds like this program like fills that void. Is it continuing this year in person? Or like, tell, like, tell me a little bit more about it.


Reg Lavergne (14:45):
Yeah. We expanded it three teachers this year. And the program is full again. They’ve reached out to different groups of students and they’ve intentionally reached out to students that might not reach out to us to make sure that they are aware of those pieces and that, that, that there is an opportunity. And sometimes they situated from why not give a shot, try it out. If it doesn’t work, you don’t have to stay, right. We’re not, we’re not holding you here, but if it does work, this could be changing for you. And, and something, you said it, it made me, it made me think of something else that the, the teacher engaged with as well. In that program, we’re not saying that traditional learning structures are not engaged, right. They’re not out the door, they’re still there. Yeah. But they’re engaged differently as the student needs it.


Reg Lavergne (15:34):
And I remember talking with the teacher again, brilliant educator. And she was telling me this story about a student who had struggled in school for many, many years, obviously had dropped out of high school, was back into this program. And they needed a very solid, theoretical understanding of mathematics for the program they wanted to go into at the college the next year. And so the teacher engaged in some more traditional learning so that they could understand the theoretical underpinnings of the mathematical concept they needed to go in. The difference was the student knew why they needed it.


Sam Demma (16:11):
Mm.


Reg Lavergne (16:12):
And it was connected to their goal. It was connected to their pathway. It was connected to their passion. So they were, they were there, they were into it. They were working on it. I don’t believe six months earlier, the student would’ve engaged to the same degree, but because of the approach that that program provided and that educator provided for the student, they saw meaning and purpose for their learning as they had never seen it before. So that theoretical piece that possibly, and I, I, I can’t guarantee these pieces, but possibly before they may have thought, I don’t want that. I don’t care about that. Like, I’m not doing that. They knew it was important. It was important to them. It was part of their pathway goal. So they were totally engaged and worked very diligently with the teacher to learn in that way. So it is a balance of sort of a authentic in school and outta school experiences with some very traditional, theoretical learning opportunities as well.


Sam Demma (17:07):
There’s a really phenomenal new book called hero on a mission by an author named Donald Miller. And in the book, he talks about the importance of setting goals in the context of stories. Like he believes that the reason why most people don’t bring their goals to life is because the goal isn’t actually baked into a story about how their life could change or what it is they’re working on. And when you mentioned that student who didn’t understand why they needed this, all of a sudden realizing that it’s a key component of bringing their future goal to realization it just, it like compels you to, to do it and take action because no longer is it just a math class, it’s a stepping stone in your goal or your future, you know, story. Which I think is a really cool realization. And that’s what came to mind when you were explaining that, what do you do you, what’s the teacher’s name that runs this program? Does she also does she also teach like a grade or is she solely dedicated to running and organizing this, this program?


Reg Lavergne (18:10):
So she teaches she taught all the students last year. She teaches a third of the students this year, but she’s, she works with the other two teachers and they they’re very collaborative in their approach. Cool. In terms of bouncing off each other’s strengths so that the students can maximize they’re learning off of the, the strengths from the three teachers that are, that are involved. We have a fourth teacher that helps liaise with the college, the local college we have as well. Nice. because part of that program is the students. I call it tow dipping, but they, they engage in some college courses as well. And while they’re engaging in the college courses, they’re earning a college credit and a high school credit at the same time. Nice. to try to explore different options, they may not have considered the lead teacher in the program.


Reg Lavergne (18:57):
She is extremely humble and will not be happy that I have said her name. But her name is Donna. And and she was an exceptional educator. And she you know, she was the one working directly with the students last year. Helping them see their genius, which is a saying that I captured from another one of our, our educators to see their genius and to see the possibilities before them. And you know, she has, has dramatically changed and the colleagues she works with have dramatically changed the lives of children.


Sam Demma (19:31):
I’m getting goosebumps. It’s such a good feel. Good story. And it’s so cool to hear that the program is growing. I’m sure other boards might be reaching out to you after listening to this podcast, to ask some questions and connect with Donna too. about this, because I know it’s not an isolated problem or challenge. There are so many challenges in education, especially with the pandemic, but with challenges, come opportunities being on the cutting edge of innovation and student success, what do you foresee? Some of the opportunities being in education, things that are unfolding and the school board is working on that you think are really great opportunities for the future.


Reg Lavergne (20:11):
I will never say that COVID has been a great thing. It’s been a horrifying thing. It has caused so much harm. I will say that it created the opportunity to look at things outside the box. Mm that’s my very gentle way of saying sometimes we have to knock the lid off and push the wall over. Mm. And look outside the box. Traditional approaches to learning work for some and need to be available for some, they don’t work for everybody and we need to be more attentive to, and more responsive to and proactive to different ways of learning that engage people in different in, in different ways. I, I am very focused on who is the student? What are they doing? What do they want to do? What are their strengths? How is the learning environment set up to help them see meaning and purpose in their learning?


Reg Lavergne (21:18):
When we first went into shut down because of C learning, didn’t go into shut. Buildings did congregating together, did, but learning didn’t stop. And I was so privileged at the time. I was the principal of student success and innovation and adolescent learning at the time. And at first I remember thinking, what are we going to do? The way we’ve done everything. Our entire system can’t function right now, the way we’ve done it, what are we going to do? And I have to tell you how blown away I was with students, families, and educators, as everybody morphed into doing things in a very, very different way. I had the privilege of working with all of the student success teachers in our district. Every school that has grade seven and eight or grade nine to 12, has a student success teacher assigned a, a specific position for it.


Reg Lavergne (22:15):
And I was so privileged to get to work with all of them, incredible educators, incredible credible people. And we started doing a lot of brainstorming because those are the teachers that also support the students that are at greatest risk of leaving us, having not completed their courses and completed their diploma. And so we spent a lot of time talking back and forth. Well, what does this look like when you’re talking about students who don’t necessarily want to engage in learning every day, because they haven’t had success in it, or they haven’t felt good in it. Then when they’re sitting at home, it’s even more at risk that they’re not going to engage. So what are we going to do? And we built an approach, a philosophy, excuse me, and a framework to really take a look at all right, what are you doing right now at home?


Reg Lavergne (23:08):
You are learning. You are learning in very different ways, but you are learning. It just doesn’t look like it did the previous week when we were in a school building. So what are you doing? Talk to me about that. We had one student I’ve, I, I don’t think I’ll ever forget this. A teacher shared I’ll speak generally because yeah, I don’t, I have share name, but had contacted a student who had had a variety of different experiences in schools and not all of them. Good. And, and they were now at home as, as everybody was. And the, the teacher, the, the student success teacher asked the student what they were doing and the student was tearing apart a trailer and rebuilding it with his dad at home was just something they wanted to do at home by talking with the student and finding a little bit more about what they were doing.


Reg Lavergne (23:57):
And, and he engaged in regular conversations with the students. So to, to hear what they were learning, talked to me a little bit, suddenly we realized the student was actually doing two tech education courses with his dad at home by tearing it apart. And the teacher was able to capture evidence of learning through the conversation and the student would take pictures of what he was doing and share it with the, with the teacher to say, this is what we saw today. So we had to do this for X reason. That is not my area of strength. So I can’t give you the exact specifics on what they were say. But what I do know was that the student was engaged in activity. They really loved, they were working with their dad and they were able to explain why they were making the steps they were making.


Reg Lavergne (24:41):
And the teacher actually asked the student at point would write down the steps of what you were, why you were doing it. The student was like, sure, why? Well, there’s a grade 12 technical English course that would meet the criteria of, so by building a manual on how to tear apart and rebuild a trailer, the student was also working on a technical English course. This wasn’t a student who necessarily loved writing or loved literature, right? At that point in his life, he may at one point, but at that point he didn’t necessarily enjoy that, that approach, but he was totally on board with writing down what he was doing and why he was doing, we were capturing his thinking. It was important to him. It mattered to him. He was creating a technical manual. That for him was really, really important. And that connected some credits. So during the, the initial closures, and that’s what sort of inspired and led to the development of our approach with our program as well it was very much looking at well, what are they interested in? What are they good at? What do they wanna be working? That’s where we start. And that’s how they get that spark to continue pushing themselves even further.


Sam Demma (25:57):
It sounds like flexibility is such an important part of this process. Like the, the student being flexible, but also the, the teacher and maybe in the past flexibility has not been the most utilized idea when it comes to projects or completing assignments or the way that you complete the assignment. How did, like, how do you build a culture of flexibility where, where, like an educator is proactively looking for those ways to connect real world experience to specific students learning or is this like situation you’re explaining more used for the students who school is not working for?


Reg Lavergne (26:42):
That’s a great question. I think the flexibility piece is, is key. Yeah. How do we build the environment for it?


Sam Demma (26:51):
I’m putting you on the spot. not that you have to have the perfect answer.


Reg Lavergne (26:57):
No, it’s a great question. I think, I think it’s a, it’s a brilliant question. I I’m going share some of my initial thinking. And then this is the question I’m gonna walk away from thinking even more on, I’ll be honest with you. I think, I think part of it comes down to what’s the goal and who decides the goal and who’s decided how that goal is achieved. And we have we have a society, our, our, our society, and some may argue that it has to be this way for a society. As, as, as large as our planet is to function together that there are certain goals and there are certain ways that we’ve decided over a series of years or decades that work mm. I have to talk about that, that work to achieve those goals. And I think what we’re seeing, and I think COVID has helped illuminate this it’s, it’s put a spotlight on it.


Reg Lavergne (27:55):
That practices that work, we have to stop saying that we have to start saying they work for some and other practices work for others, and we needed to be more open to a diversity of practices that are going through. I think that certainly the approach we took in the district, I was working with student success teachers who I was very fortunate. We’re very engaged, very flexible, wanted to try different things to support student achievement in different ways and move that forward. What we’re seeing is that that thinking philosophy and the use of this framework is, is expanding in the district. As people are seeing that it’s working. Because I think something that just jumped into my head after what you said was the idea of permission.


Reg Lavergne (28:41):
Do we give educators permission to go outside the box to try things that are safe, appropriate, but that engage students in ways that engage them. So rather than it being an approach that I’m confident in, because I’ve seen it work a number of times, if I see it not working for a student, do I feel that I have the permission to try something different with them, especially depending on where they’re going with it. We all, depending on geographically where you lived, the people who were in the same area with you took the exact same courses through high school, had the exact same learning, delivering models in place. I’m guessing they didn’t all do exact, the exact same thing. So they took those learnings that they had and have tweaked them to has, and it tweaks them, adjusts them and applies them to where they went with it, what they wanted to do with their learning, what they wanted to do with their life.


Reg Lavergne (29:43):
So I think a part of it is giving that permission to, to, to dip into different ways of doing things, to saying for this student, that approach is appropriate and it supports where they want to go. It supports what they wanna do. So we don’t have to follow necessarily in, in sort of a, a, a very structured manner, traditional approaches, traditional approaches work in many cases. And so this isn’t a case of throw all of that out and try this instead, this is a case of, for this person who they are, their identity, their experiences, their goals, what about this? And I would even put on the table, imagine if we started saying to the student, well, what are you interested in? Well, what would you like to work on right now within the parameters of, of the, the the, the courses that we’re working on to say, how would you like to engage in that learning?


Reg Lavergne (30:42):
There are lots of different ways of engaging in learning that is embedded within English curriculum or science curriculum or math curriculum. I think we can give permission. And I’m, I’m in a, I, I’m very fortunate. I’m in a position where I can work with a number of schools and principals and vice principals and teachers, and, and I can establish the environment that provides for that position. I don’t mean for that to sound power trippy in any way. But when I, when I say it, I’m having a conversation with someone and, and I say, why not? That gives that permission to say, it’s, it’s okay to go outside of what you may have normally done, because you’re engaging with that student in a way that is going to be more effective for them and is ultimately going to enhance their wellbeing and their achievement. And I remember that when I was a teacher asking, you know, talking with my principal and when my principal said, why wouldn’t you try that? If you think that’s gonna work, knowing that my principal was supporting my thinking was very powerful for me. So that’s something that I try to do. And I’ve always tried to do in my roles as I’ve gone through. My career is, is to make sure that we’re engaging in those conversations and that we’re providing that permission because the permission is needed for us to change the way it was to the way it could be.


Sam Demma (32:06):
There is an American hip hop artist named Russ, and he was being interviewed by this guy named Jay Sheti one time. And Jay Sheti said, what is the best advice you’ve ever received? And he said, it was a question, what if it could turn out better than you ever expected? And when you approach situations with that mentality, what, like, what if it could turn out better than you ever expected or ever imagined, instead of what, if this goes wrong and terrible, you build some courage to try new things, to take new things on. And I think the, why not question becomes even more powerful. When you look at it from that perspective and back to your toe dipping analogy, you know, if you do try it and you dip your toe and the water’s really warm, and it’s working out, you dive in and, and, you know, you scale the program, get three teachers involved. And then, you know, five years from now, maybe the program is going throughout the whole board, and there’s like dozens of teachers organizing it and running it all because of a test, a pilot project which is really cool and exciting. This has been a really awesome conversation. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. If someone is listening to this Reg, wants to reach out, ask you a question, talk about this program or your experiences in education, what would be the best way for them to get in contact with you?


Reg Lavergne (33:27):
The easiest way would be to go to my board’s website ’cause you can find my email. I’ll spell my email over in a second, but you can find it there. My board’s website is ocdsb.ca and then you can do a search on me and you will find I’ll pop up. My my email is reg.lavergne@ocdsb.ca, and I’m more than happy for people to reach out and have conversations because as we look to what could be and what the possibilities are, that’s what I find is really, really exciting and and can truly change kids’, change kids’ lives.


Sam Demma (34:07):
Awesome. I agree. Thank you so much, Reg, for taking the time to come on the show. I really appreciate it. Keep up the amazing work and we’ll talk soon.


Reg Lavergne (34:15):
Thank you. Take care.


Sam Demma (34:18):
Hey, it’s Sam again. I hope you enjoyed that amazing conversation on the High Performing Educator podcast. If you, or you know, deserves some extra recognition and appreciation for the work they do in education, please consider applying or nominating them for the High Performing Educator awards, go to www.highperformingeducator.com/award. You can also find the link in the show notes. I’m super excited to spotlight and feature 20 people in 2022, and I’m hoping you or someone, you know, can be one of those educators. I’ll talk to you on the next episode, all the best.

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Laura Briscoe – Learning Coordinator of Innovation at the Thames Valley District School Board

Laura Briscoe - Learning Coordinator of Innovation at the Thames Valley District School Board
About Laura Briscoe

Innovation, experiential learning, and global citizenship are at the heart of Laura Briscoe’s teaching philosophy. Laura is a forward-thinking educator who collaborates with teachers and community to build learning environments that exude energy, ignite critical thinking, and embrace risk taking to create spaces that are inclusive, relevant, and innovative. Laura is currently the Coordinator of Innovation for Thames Valley District School Board.

Previously, Laura was a Global Competencies Facilitator for the board, and Visual Arts Department Head of Oakridge Secondary School in London, Ontario.  Laura has been recognized as a leader in education locally, provincially, and nationally. In 2015 Briscoe was awarded the Prime Minister Certificate of Achievement Award, 2016 the Leading Women, Leading Girls, Building Communities Government Award, the national Classroom of the Future Spirit Award, 2014 the Innovative Teacher of the Year Award by the Ontario Business Educators’ Association, and 2016 Bishop Townshend Thames Valley Award. 

Laura Briscoe stimulates imagination and empowers people to make relevant connections through building relationships, interdisciplinary approaches, and community partnerships.

Connect with Laura: Email | Instagram | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Thames Valley District School Board

Oakridge Secondary School

Prime Minister Certificate of Achievement Award

Ontario Business Educators’ Association

XR Studios

Art of Math Education by Laura Briscoe and Jeni Van Kesteren

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


Sam Demma (01:00):
This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is Laura Briscoe. Innovation, experiential learning, and global citizenship are at the heart of Laura Briscoe’s teaching philosophy. Laura is a forward thinking educator who collaborates with teachers and community to build learning environments that exude energy, ignite critical thinking, and embrace risk taking to create spaces that are inclusive, relevant, and innovative. Laura is currently the coordinator of innovation for Thanes Valley District School Board. Previously, Laura was a global competencies facilitator for the board and visual arts department head for Oak Ridge secondary school in London, Ontario. Laura has been recognized as a leader in education locally, provincially, and nationally. In 2015 Briscoe was awarded the Prime Minister Certificate of Achievement Award, 2016 the Leading Women, Leading Girls, Building Communities Government Award, the national Classroom of the Future Spirit Award, 2014 the Innovative Teacher of the Year Award by the Ontario Business Educators’ Association, and 2016 Bishop Townshend Thames Valley Award. Laura Briscoe stimulates imagination and empowers people to make relevant connections through building relationships, interdisciplinary approaches, and community partnerships. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Laura, and I will see you on the other side. Laura, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Pleasure to have you on the show this morning. Please start by introducing yourself.


Laura Briscoe (02:25):
Thank you for having me. I’m really excited for this conversation. Yes, so I’m Laura Briscoe. I’m currently working in Thames Valley District School Board as a innovation coordinator; Kindergarten-Grade 12. So it’s a big loaded title to me what innovation is, but yes, that is kind of who I am and the role I’m currently in.


Sam Demma (02:45):
What the heck is innovation?


Laura Briscoe (02:49):
So I’m, I’m starting to feel like it’s an incubator, cause I’m, I’m finding lots of connections with all different portfolios for innovation, but specifically interdisciplinary connections. So all subjects, all grades partnerships with community to encourage student engagement and, and make learning relevant and with big connections as the world that we’re living in to technology. And so there’s lots of those aspects of how we can support personalized learning with technology and experiences. So that’s kind of a description of, of what it is, but it changes to me every day, depending on the initiative I’m working with,


Sam Demma (03:25):
growing up in school were always asked, what do you wanna be when you grow up? Did, would you write down innovation coordinator or like when did you realize that working in education was for you and how did you also from that point forward end up in this role?


Laura Briscoe (03:43):
So my, my answer to the innovation question was, no, I wouldn’t know that I feel like we’re always creating in these roles opportunities for students to be prepared parent for jobs that don’t exist yet. And I, I don’t know if this job existed when I was in school. But I did know that I love, I love change and I love ex experimentation and new ideas. So I could see myself going in that direction. But when I was younger my mom was a teacher. And so I, I appreciated how she really connected with interest students. I like, I, I looked up to her as a role model. But for my own personal experience as a teacher, I was in high school and I was teaching gymnastics and I had a student who was deaf and, and trying to find ways to create an equitable approach in, in the gymnastics experience was so rewarding with where that relationship went.


Laura Briscoe (04:38):
And it, it really touched my heart and inspired me to wanna go into education. But then as many youth will say, you never really know what you wanna do when you grow up. I feel like that that’s a question that’s always changing because when I went to university, I did not go in for education. I was interested in experiential marketing and, and that had to do with creating memorable experiences. And, and that kind of led me into, if we can do this for marketing, what does this look like for school? And so it kind of, I went through this roller coaster of pathways before I got here, but I I’m so excited to be in the role that I am.


Sam Demma (05:17):
What does a, what does a project in experiential marketing look like? that sounds so cool.


Laura Briscoe (05:23):
Well, well, you know, when we think of our traditional, like marketing old I don’t wanna traditional marketing would be like a commercial or an ad, and it’s kind of like a sit and get experience where as, when you look at experiential you’re, you’re, you’re involved and you’re an active participant in engaging with something. And, and that experience triggers something that becomes memorable, that you associate it with maybe a product mm-hmm . And so if we look at something like that for education instead of our students sitting in classes and, and just being like offloaded information from their teacher is how do we get them to learn and, and retain that information because of the experience they associate with it. So that that’s kind of what, what it would be for marketing or in this role for education.


Sam Demma (06:13):
Is innovation coordinator your first role in education or


Laura Briscoe (06:18):
No. Okay. What did the


Sam Demma (06:19):
Journey


Laura Briscoe (06:19):
Look like? Oh my gosh, my journey, I was some teachers might call it a backpack teacher because when you, when I first started jobs were not necessarily readily available, so I was willing to teach anything. I’ve taught in seven different subject areas running from one class to the next and then moved into visual arts department head specifically with connections again, to technology and business as well. And then from that, I was a global competency facilitator. So I was teaching part-time and then going to different schools, supporting educators on how do we integrate the core global competencies? So these are like the skills we want kids to have in the real world beyond just curriculum specifics like critical thinking and problem solving and, and global awareness and creativity, all of those other skills. So I had that role prior to innovation as well.


Laura Briscoe (07:18):
And then the last piece that I just add to that my classroom teaching experience was in high school. So grade nine through 12 in art, as I mentioned, but I was noticing a lot of students with anxiety and struggling in math. And so the, I got to be part of this pilot project where we partnered art and math together. So, so team teaching and students were getting math credits and art to be responsive to that the need for us to kind of de silo and make connections to the real world and different subjects. So that kind of a as, from that own experience, it’s like, how can, we’re doing this at one school and how can we do this bigger and how can we connect more educators? And so this was kind of a system initiative and I’m very passionate about supporting that and the educators who are involved in, in that type of thinking,


Sam Demma (08:11):
When you talk about system level programs or board wide programs, I’m sure how many years have, well help. Let me ask, how many years have you worked in the innovation role?


Laura Briscoe (08:21):
So this is my third year in the innovation role. But it’s been very different because I transitioned into it during COVID in full remote. I had previously just been on Matt leave when the role first started. And then it’s been interesting to, to look at how we create these experiences and collaborative opportunities when many of us are in full remote situations and, and going back between school and it’s been, I know we hear all of the, the challenges and hardships that so many educators have overcome. It was, it’s been really exciting to be in this portfolio during that time for change in ways that we could bring in industry and community experts at the push of a button and everyone has access. So it, it was interesting to be in this role at the timing that I have been in opening, even more opportunities.


Sam Demma (09:16):
What are some of those opportunities? what are some of those programs that you are passionate about that you’ve worked on over the past three years?


Laura Briscoe (09:23):
So I can give you they’re, they’re very, there’s there there’s a lot of different ranges of experiences. One that I’m super pumped about where it’s going right now is aviation school. So students throughout our board can go for a semester and we have an air hanger where they’re getting five credits instead of four, the teachers are team teaching. So interdisciplinary learning, supported by our industry leaders in aviation. And so the, the subject areas have a focus on aviation and it’s out near the airport. So that’s one example of kind of like rethinking how we have a, how we’re doing education. So it’s like a bundled program with industry. And then there’s the ones where the students can’t just leave their homeschool and go to these types of experiences. So, most recently we’ve brought about 22 classes together in a virtual conversation with a panel of community partners.


Laura Briscoe (10:19):
And we talked about how can we form human connections and how do students wanna see themselves represented in the community directly sharing this? And, and we had grades seven to 12 from all different subjects, because what it looks like in construction class versus what it looks like in English or drama might be different. But the idea is that this community project is like the vehicle for connecting everyone together with different entry points. So my job would be to kind of connect with community, facilitate those conversations, and then the edge educators take it with whatever entry points that they each have. So that’s a, like two different examples. One we’re going to an actual changed environment. And the other is where we’re bringing people together towards a common goal. And often it’s a community impact project that I’m doing that with.


Sam Demma (11:14):
Very cool. The team. Yeah. That’s, that’s awesome. That program sounds amazing. Aviation one. when you think about the programs you’ve run, I know you mentioned the first two years, it looked a little different because things were, you know, COVID and pandemic times what did you try and pull together, or what was the focus during the first two years when leaving the classroom or even doing things together in public? Was it, was it challenge?


Laura Briscoe (11:42):
So the one that I just ex shared was an ex a recent example. But it was similar to what we were doing in full remote, because we could bring everybody together. We had classes that were talking about, you know, what is community when we’re all isolated. And we were working with professional artists, for example, and students wanted to have a more inclusive representation of themselves in, in a smaller town. And they weren’t seeing that diversity represented. So we talked about with several different classes, what a mural could look like, and because we couldn’t get together in person, the artists could go and create that mural. But the students from different subject areas were able to contribute and research and give ideas about what that could be. So there’s an example of, we can physically see it in action, but at that time, because we were virtual, we were able to do like digital collaborative boards and planning all online.


Laura Briscoe (12:42):
And then we had a community person that could bring it to life. And so that’s one example. We, we have some exciting events coming up may where schools that we’re doing things virtually were finally starting to open things up, which is amazing. So some stuff with augmented reality where the kids were working with industry virtually again, but now all of the city of London will be able to go to the coven garden market and see what these kids had created with, with our XR studios, industry partner, for example to create the augmented reality experiences. So a lot of it was virtual and we are trying to find ways to make it come to life. And oftentimes that was with community partnerships.


Sam Demma (13:26):
That’s awesome. Very cool. Throughout your journey in education, have you had mentors people who kind of tapped you on the shoulder and said, Hey, Laura, you should explore X or consider looking at this slightly differently. And if so, who are some of those individuals, if they come to mind and what are some of the things you kind of take away from them or learn from them?


Laura Briscoe (13:51):
Yes. So absolutely. I have mentors. I feel like every time you make a new connection, you learn something and take away from it. Like right now, I feel like I’m, I’m just so inspired by what you’re doing. And, and so I, I could speak about so many people because none of this work can happen on your own. Yeah. A first person that comes to mind was my principal, Tracy Langland when I was an art teacher, because she was somebody who was willing to challenge traditional structures in order to allow some exploration opportunities and risk taking to happen. And I feel like sometimes when we hear no, especially in education because of bureaucracy and, and, and just like the, the world that we’re trying to work within and be innovative, can be very challenging. And so when you find people who are willing to take that journey and, and challenge your thinking and help you break down some of the barriers to make it possible that is so that would be what makes me think of when I think of Tracy.


Laura Briscoe (15:04):
And also when I’m thinking of students students are often the ones that are bringing new ideas of what they’d like to see happen. And then all the educators who are wanting to be responsive to those ideas, that’s kind of who I try to align myself with, because I, I feel like when you work together on some of those the students bring the heart and the motivation to make something happen. And, and then the educators who are working with them can make it possible. So, yeah, I have, I have a lot of people I could list. I don’t know how much time we have or how specific you want me to get with name, name dropping, but one more person I’m gonna have to mention sure. Is cause I mentioned team teaching art of math, and that was as an educator when you’re used to kind of running your classroom and you know, how you, how you work basically to team teach was a very eye opening experience for me, especially as an art person teaching with math. And so when I started team teaching with Jenny van Kerin we didn’t really even know each other that well. And I feel like she’s become such a mentor and almost best friend to me for, through the journeys that we’ve taken and our abilities to challenge each other and learn from each other through that whole experience. So that’s another person. Yeah.


Sam Demma (16:31):
That’s amazing. You, you mentioned art a few times. You mentioned that you love change. No one can see this, but there’s like a picture of the globe behind you. are you someone that travels a lot or do you have an itch for travel?


Laura Briscoe (16:45):
I do have an itch for travel and, and you know, when I think of travel of education too, I I used to always take students on March break to, to different trips. So I’ve, I’ve done a bunch of those like Italy and Greece and England and and myself like backpacking type of travel and adventure is definitely my personality to immerse myself in different cultures in a different way. So yes, I would say travel is definitely a passion of mine.


Sam Demma (17:15):
The reason I bring it up is because like travel and even art or artistic expressions, whether it’s making music, art, all these things, some part of society still views it as a hobby and like not a, a, a field or a thing you can pursue. And I totally, this disagree strongly , I think there’s so many benefits to art and also travel and like exposing yourself to new perspectives and ideas. And I’m curious to know what your perspective is on the importance of artistic expression and travel when it comes to like educating a human being.


Laura Briscoe (17:54):
Wow. That’s a big question. OK. So I think, you know what, I, I, I, there’s so many, you’re gonna have to, like, if I miss anything in my answer here, you have to re repeat the question for me. But one thing I do know about like travel and experiences and the arts is there’s not one right answer mm-hmm . And when we look at things like we can go to the world economic forum of what do students need to be successful in the future. And we look at those skill and we think about how do you develop those skill? I would go back, okay. We have math that could have one right answer that you’re working toward. Yeah. Whereas art it’s, it’s very arts in general exploratory and, and, and you develop that innovative creative mindset and, and where we need those types of thinkers.


Laura Briscoe (18:45):
So I feel like when you’re, when you’re traveling or when you’re creating, you’re ending up in places that you don’t expect. Mm. And that is when true innovation can happen. When you, when you take all of these different experiences and come up with something to enhance them, or a new idea or approach to something. So I feel like that exposure is something that is very powerful and, and really important to education. I also think it, it puts people in like a little bit of discomfort, like to get you out of your comfort zone. It’s interesting because when you’re a personality that needs to work towards the right answer and there really isn’t one, it can create a different type of challenge for you. Yeah. And I, and I really do see that when the more we do things in an interdisciplinary way, specifically with the arts, you start to see that little bit of discomfort of uncertainty, but then the best results afterwards. Hmm. So that’s kind of where I would make those connections to education and how valuable it’s.


Sam Demma (19:52):
I love the perspective and I mean, I also love traveling, so


Laura Briscoe (19:57):
Okay. Well, where, where’s your favorite place that you’ve traveled?


Sam Demma (20:00):
Yeah. Good question. Probably Costa Rica. I have this music a few years ago, me and my family, we went this is before COVID and I fell in love with like BHA and salsa and the Latin culture. So yeah, that was a eye opening trip for me. I, I haven’t traveled too, too much outside of that and also just driving places, but I’m super excited to, to continue traveling once COVID is fully gone. I mean, it’s, we’re pretty much there now, but yeah. Yeah. That’s so cool.


Laura Briscoe (20:35):
My connection. Yes, I have spent some time in backpacking in Costa Rica. I, I did surfing lessons there actually. So I feel like trying to learn something new, but I also think when, like going back to travel experiences, what technology has allowed us to do the, the virtual experiences now an augmented reality. Yeah. So when we can’t physically get to certain places, it’s way better than a textbook to actually go through like a virtual guided tour with a real live person and, and looking at how we can create those travel experiences, obviously going to the place is the ideal. Yeah. But looking at different opportunities wherever they are. I think that, that is interesting too, to explore.


Sam Demma (21:21):
You mentioned that when you lean into arts and go on experiences where you’re not sure where they’ll bring you, it exposes you to new things and it, it, I would argue it like, it makes you curious because you come somewhere or you end up somewhere where you didn’t expect, and maybe now you have a new question or a new perspective. Which makes me wonder, like, is the beginning of innovation, like a question, like what starts an innovation cycle, or like, what, what starts changes in education,


Laura Briscoe (21:57):
Like the two things that really stood out to be in that question that you just asked isuriosity and fostering curiosity, and, and you also mentioned questions and asking questions, and there’s a technique called the question formulation technique. Cool. Where when you’re teaching something, you’re, you’re presenting an idea, a challenge or a problem, and just asking questions about it and where those questions might lead. You will be different for every person that might be introduced that problem or challenge. Hmm. And I think that that is really where you get that intrinsic motivation where you’re doing something because you’re you’re passionate and you’re working towards something that you’re curious about. So for innovation, that’s also why I have a really hard time describing what the portfolio is, because every time there’s a new connection, it’s different for each group of educators and students. Ah but one thing is often like a prompt of a community challenge or looking at the UN sustainable goals or looking at something, and then just asking questions about it and figuring out what, like really strikes you personally to pursue.


Sam Demma (23:13):
Yeah. Got it. Yeah. I love it. Cool. this has been an interesting conversation, travel innovation, art experiential marketing. yeah. If you could, actually, before I ask that over the past three years, you, you mentioned some of the programs you’ve run. I think one of the coolest things about education is you get to, you know, organize programs and facilitate learning for students that has an impact on the end user. And most of the time you can see the impact of a student or you, or at least you hear it. And I’m curious to know if any of the programs you’ve run, if there’s any stories of students. And I know you’re at the system level, so it might be harder to name like a specific individual, but if there is a story of a program that really transformed or changed the student’s life or experience, I would love for you to share it. I, I think an educator listening, considering getting into this field or one who’s already in education and burnt out those sorts of stories really reinforce the idea that this work is important. You know,


Laura Briscoe (24:14):
So this is a great question, and I think it’s so important. And I don’t know how well we are at like, tracking where student impacts have gone. And I personally have now so many former students on LinkedIn because I feel like they have lived experiences to advise us back in, in their own educational journeys and where they are now. So I can give you a story of student who wasn’t actually a student that I taught in my class. It, when we talk about like system initiatives. Yeah. So when I was teaching visual arts, we started a video pilot program where every student had a community client, it turned into a film festival. And then I was part of COFA, a co-founder for the forest city youth film festival that has now gone, is going all Ontario for, to basically empower student voices through film.


Laura Briscoe (25:09):
Wow. And, and that could be connected to any different subject area based on the type of film they’re creating, whether it’s documentary or experimental or, or like fiction or nonfiction. But there was a student who had had an interest in film and, but didn’t have experience in it and then ended up winning so many awards at our, our film festival, the, for Southwestern Ontario, and now he’s going off to make larger pictures. And I, I just think about in a very short amount of time from being exposed to industry supports and being part of something beyond the walls of the school, it kind of amplified his own experiences. So that example would be Ethan Hickey. And he was from a school in London. And I just am so excited to see where his career goes, because when, when we have these industry supports championing students early on, it really creates more pathway opportunities. And I find as educators, we can intentionally find out what kids love, connect them with the people that they need to know who are doing that in the real world and, and support them to build those connections. So that’s one example of kind of a huge long winded story of, of how I, I connected with that student, but it was through the film festival and I’m just excited to see his career take off,


Sam Demma (26:38):
Shout out Ethan Hickey


Laura Briscoe (26:40):
yeah. Shout out, Ethan HIE.


Sam Demma (26:42):
Are you still involved in the film festival?


Laura Briscoe (26:45):
I, I do support that, so yes, I am still involved. I’m not technically on the board or anything cuz of my role now. It started as a volunteer bunch of passionate educators, all working together as a committee and it’s because it’s grown so much. I now work with them in support and supporting educators and students to be involved, but I’m not an active director anymore because of too many balls in the air at once. But I, so yes. So yes, I’m still supportive and working with them, but not directly every day.


Sam Demma (27:22):
Awesome. when you’re not working and Mo probably spend like every second of the day thinking about work and innovation, cuz you’re passionate about it, but when you’re not physically working or answering emails or focused on school work, where do you get your own inspiration? What keeps you motivated and inspired to show up with a full cup and attack these challenges and opportunities?


Laura Briscoe (27:49):
Hmm. Friends and family. I love like for a passion. I love the outdoors and being active. But I also look at, you know, needs of friends and their children and, and family and being in this role when I hear of different needs or gaps in those experiences, it’s always like, well and what are we gonna do about it? Like, why don’t we try something if this is something that I’m hearing. So that’s kind of where some of that passion comes from is just in, in local networks and hearing different challenges and trying to be a solutions person of what we can do with that. But yes, like in my free time I have two young children. And just, you mentioned that word earlier. Curiosity. I feel like when you’re two and five years old, you’re asking a lot of questions. Yeah. And that definitely keeps me motivated and on my toes. And then that probably trickles into my role as well.


Sam Demma (28:51):
Cool. that’s awesome.


Laura Briscoe (28:54):
I can give you a question actually. I like my son asked me how come as we all get bigger? How come adults, when you’re big, you don’t get bigger every year. Cuz every time we have a birthday, we’re bigger. Why do we stop growing? And if we kept growing every year, would we be extinct like dinosaurs so there you go. When you ask about questions, like now we need to look up, why do we stop growing and what happens?


Sam Demma (29:21):
Yeah. That’s awesome. Well,


Laura Briscoe (29:23):
Yeah, things like that. How can we keep that and adults, how do we get better at that as adults to, to be asking questions?


Sam Demma (29:30):
It’s so funny. Not only asking questions, but using the imagination to full ability, right? Because he tied your, is it, was it your son or daughter or


Laura Briscoe (29:39):
Son? My son. Yeah,


Sam Demma (29:40):
He’s fine. Like he tied together like five different things. Like the fact that we stopped growing and if we did, we would turn into dinosaurs. Like, you know, there’s like things, so many different things tied together in that question. And it’s funny, I was talking recently with my own friends about this idea that when we were young, we would get back from school, go into our forest and pretend we were fighting some imaginary army and we’d be like kicking the air. And like, you know, there’s no one there and we were having the funnest experience ever. And then my dad would whistle really loud and we’d all know to run back for dinner. And that child like curiosity and imagination at some point, like gets buried. So I think it’s so cool to kind of even get inspiration from that, that experience and, and younger people, you


Laura Briscoe (30:27):
Know? And, and you know what I appreciate about that story too, like not just that you’re outside in nature. But I feel like with this constant over stimulation that we all experience, it’s really hard to be. I wanna, I don’t wanna say bored, but it’s really hard to just pause everything and turn off everything. And what I’ll realize that some of the best ideas happen when you do are able to do that and you need to do that for certain amounts of time for that to happen. Some people will say their best ideas come to them when they’re driving and that’s that, you know, your logic brain is turned on cause you’re focused on the rules of the road, but it allows your mind to get in your head if you turn off the radio and you’re just alone without your phone on or Bluetooth or whatever it is. So try to find moments to pause in order to use your imagination, whether it’s fighting an invisible person or thinking about missed my exit once on the 4 0 1 when I was driving, cuz I was so in my head D which is different. I think it’s really hard to, to force ourselves to do that because it seems like a never end of list of things that you have to do.


Sam Demma (31:41):
Yeah. So I agree. I couldn’t agree more and thanks for sharing that little story and the questions. What if you were just starting your first role in education again, with the experience you have now and the knowledge you have, not that you would change anything about your path, but what advice would you have given your younger self that you think another person getting into education could benefit from hearing?


Laura Briscoe (32:05):
Just because it’s always been done that way doesn’t need to doesn’t mean it needs to continue to be done that way. And I feel like that advice is so empowering because as a new teacher you want to be almost like a people pleaser, cuz you’re trying to prove yourself in a new role and keep up with what everyone else is doing. And, and there’s a lot to be learned from people with experience, but there’s also a lot to be learned from people who are, are new to the system because they’re coming from a whole different experience. So I would tell myself to not be intimidated to share ideas and explore ideas that I felt would have a positive student impact. And the best people to ask those questions to are often the students themselves, about what they’re interested in and then, and then connect with the educators who also are interested in that type of approach.


Sam Demma (33:02):
I love it. Cool. that’s not only great advice for education. I feel like anyone can take that advice, especially if you’re pursuing a path where the entire industry seems dominated by one demographic. , you know, film art. My sister works on film sets and it’s, it seems like, and it’s changing now and thank, thank goodness it’s changing. They seemed like it was a male dominated industry and it’s like, no, it shouldn’t be. And doesn’t, you know, just cuz it was like that in the past doesn’t mean that has to be like that now. So I feel like that advice can be so reassuring, no matter what path you’re choosing to take.


Laura Briscoe (33:43):
I, I, you know, it’s funny I didn’t today when we planned this meeting and I know, I don’t know, it’ll be shared later, but it’s international day of the women. And, and so I didn’t, I didn’t realize that, but I thought, oh, what a great day to, to do our, our podcast. When we talk about different careers and, and different experiences recently it’s funny that you mentioned that I was in a conference on stem and education and all the presenters were women and somebody commented on social media. I see a lot of gender inequity in here because it’s all women. And when we look at the need and the detriment in our society, not as many women in stem, of course we have a conference with women presenting stem because in everything that we do, we want everyone to see themselves in something, if they care about it and something else in innovation that I’ve really championed and worked and collaborated with is supporting newcomers. And when you mention travel, you don’t have to necessarily go somewhere when you have people with lived experiences right. In our own worlds that we have a lot to learn from and to support. So I know I’m going off onto another conversation. I feel like I can keep talking to you, but yeah. Yeah. So I, I just making that connection to looking at opportunities for all students specifically, for me, I’ve worked very closely with newcomers and indigenous students and, and creating opportunities that connect with them personally.


Sam Demma (35:17):
I promise you, this interview is gonna end at 1245 and we’re 10 minutes over


Laura Briscoe (35:21):
I know, sorry.


Sam Demma (35:23):
No, you don’t have to apologize. I’m asking the questions. You did ask a question though that we didn’t have the answer to, and the question is you know, why do we stop growing when we get older? If someone out, out there is listening to this and , they love the conversation and wanna provide you with a brilliant answer, what would be the best way for them to get in touch with you?


Laura Briscoe (35:43):
okay. So if they’re on, the easy way is how we found each other, on social media @Briscoeclass is my Twitter. If people follow me, I always follow them back ’cause I hope for those deeper conversations or my email’s l.briscoe@tvdsb.ca is another way to, to find me. And in my role @tvinnovates is a Twitter account that celebrates what all these amazing passionate educators throughout our system are doing.


Sam Demma (36:14):
Awesome. Laura, thank you so much for taking the time today. It’s been a pleasure. Keep up the amazing work and we’ll talk soon.


Laura Briscoe (36:21):
Thank you. Nice to, nice to meet you in real life.


Sam Demma (36:25):
Hey, it’s Sam again. I hope you enjoyed that amazing conversation on the High Performing Educator podcast. If you, or you know, deserves some extra recognition and appreciation for the work they do in education, please consider applying or nominating them for the High Performing Educator awards, go to www.highperformingeducator.com/award. You can also find the link in the show notes. I’m super excited to spotlight and feature 20 people in 2022, and I’m hoping you or someone, you know, can be one of those educators. I’ll talk to you on the next episode, all the best.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Laura Briscoe

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.

Shane Beckett – Principal at Donald Young School/Sturgeon Creek Alternative Program

Shane Beckett - Principal at Donald Young School/Sturgeon Creek Alternative Program
About Shane Beckett

Shane Beckett (@MrShaneBeckett), is the Principal at Donald Young School in Emo, ON. He started his career as a teacher at Onigaming School at Onigaming FN and then moved to Fort Frances High School where he was a Physical Education teacher and a Guidance Counsellor. Six years ago he became a Vice Principal at Robert Moore School before moving to Donald Young School where he has been the Principal for the past four years.

He enjoys working with students of all ages and has really learned to enjoy leading an elementary school. Shane still coaches high school athletics (football and soccer).

Connect with Shane: Email | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Donald Young School

Onigaming School

Fort Frances High School

Robert Moore School

Natural Helpers Program

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast.


Sam Demma (00:59):
This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is Shane Beckett. Shane is the Principal at Donald Young school in Emo, Ontario. He started his career as a teacher at, Onagaming school, in Onagaming FN, and then moved to Fort Francis high school where he was a physical education teacher and a guidance counselor. Six years ago, he became a Vice Principal at Robert Moore school before moving to Donald Young school where he has been the principal for the past four years. Shane enjoys working with students of all ages and has really learned to enjoy leading an elementary school. Shane still coaches high school athletics, along with his teaching career, coaching football and soccer. I hope you enjoyed this conversation with Shane, and I will see you on the other side, Shane, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show. Please start by introducing yourself.


Shane Beckett (01:54):
Yeah, sure. You bet. Thanks for having me on. My name’s Shane Beckett. I’m a Principal at Donald Young school in the small town of Emo Ontario, which is about halfway between Winnipeg and Thunder Bay. We’re a little rural school, K to 8 and I’m excited to be on the show.


Sam Demma (02:11):
When did you realize throughout your own journey as a student looking for careers, that education was the field for you?


Shane Beckett (02:19):
Well, I mean, for me, I guess it started, I had some you know, traumatic stuff happen as, as a kid and school was a safe place for me and teachers were kind of that inspiration. And so always growing up, those were the, those were the people I looked up to. Those were the people that made me feel safe. And so I guess it would, you know, in, in a, in a way when I was little thought about that, I wanted to aspire to be those people. And now it’s more me thinking about wanting to give that back to to kids and help motivate kids to move forward to


Sam Demma (02:48):
When you say it was your safe space, what do you think made it a safe space and those educators that contributed to you feeling that way? What did they do that helped you feel that way?


Shane Beckett (02:57):
Well, you know, what was interesting as a kid, I didn’t really know any better that things weren’t going well for me as a kid. Cause I just thought that all kids were going through the same thing as me, but now when I, when I look back at it, you know, these these teachers accepted me for who I was and for some of the behaviors I might have had at that time, didn’t single me out. Didn’t make me feel like I was any different than any of the other kids. And, you know, sometimes when I was getting into situations as a, as a young kid rebelling a bit, they you know, they’d sit and they’d listen to me. They’d they’d I guess, relate to where I was coming from. And sometimes, you know, maybe gimme the benefit of the doubt or gimme that motivational talk you know, some of that nice sports chatter. And I think some of those things really helped me to feel safe in that Mo in that moment. And then being able to have some of those teachers be involved in sports for me too, really was a, was a, was a key thing for me. I got to be around the right group of people and got to get some of that aggression and behavior out on the sports field rather than having it own in the playground.


Sam Demma (04:04):
I love it. We definitely need educators who accept human beings for who they are and hear them out and listen. And it sounds like the ones you had in your life did an amazing job at what point. So growing up, you know, you aspired to be like, like, like the educators you had, at what point did you formalize it and start making the decision to pursue the path. And from that moment forward, what did the journey look like?


Shane Beckett (04:29):
Well, so high school being an athlete and, and probably doing fairly well in, in athletics, the goal was to be a PHED teacher. That’s what I was gonna do to grow up nice. And a BU my buddy, and I mean, my best friend and I were both, that’s what we were gonna do. We were gonna grow up to be, you know, the, the high school PhysEd teachers in a way we go what was great was that we had an opportunity to do co-op placements when we were in grade 12 and I got to do the first semester and he hit the second semester doing the co-op placement in, at an elementary school with seven. And eights really helped me to realize, yeah, this is exactly what I want to do. And then my buddy, when he went into it, he’s like, man, I, I don’t like kids, like, and it was an opportunity for him to realize that rather than going through, you know, four or five years of university, and then realizing that he doesn’t like kids.


Shane Beckett (05:16):
So I’ve always kind of thought that I wanted to get into education in particular into the Fette into things and be able to coach and give back in that regards too. And co-op gave me that opportunity to really solidify. Yeah, that’s what I want to do. And then the process was really a roundabout way. I was a football player and had some looks in the states and blew up my knee and, and then bounced around a couple of schools in, in Canada and ended up at the university of Manitoba. And from there got some pretty cool exposure got to volunteer with a Paralympic sport called gold ball and took my coaching career kind of in that regards became the national coach of the, of the Paralympic team and got to travel the world. So I got some cool experiences there that helped me as a PHED teacher to learn how to adapt programs and specialized programs in that regards.


Shane Beckett (06:07):
And then PHED naturally leads it to guidance, I guess, is kind of a natural thing when you’re doing all of that coaching and you get those connections with kids and got into, got into guidance and really felt that I was making a difference in that regards, not just so much on the sports field, but now making those connections that educators had with me as a as a student. And so I never thought I’d get into being a principal. It was never something E ever, ever wanted to do. My wife gave me a little nudge and cause it was something she was aspiring to do and I thought, well, I’ll go for it and, and, and see what happens. And just as the wheels kind of kept moving it it seemed to work one of the real cool, cool moments.


Shane Beckett (06:52):
And as I said, we’re going through the show notes. I was kind of saving the story for later, but I’ll jump into it now. Yeah, please. Yeah. So I’m a, I’m a guidance counselor and I went into went to a workshop about some local resources and not resources. I’m looking you know different programs and you know, government programs, those types of things that can help kids. And I saw they did a presentation on a program called natural helpers and it’s a big program in the states and there’s some school in CA schools in Canada that run it. And this there, the mom was from thunder bay and she mentioned that there was a double suicide at the high school and this natural helpers program really helped to support the kids and get, and kind of keep school normal and, and, and rolling.


Shane Beckett (07:42):
And so I went back to my administration and said, so like, what would happen at our school if we had a double suicide? And, you know, we talked me through some of these processes. And so I started to think, you know, what would we do at the school? Then I got to go to a, an anti-bullying workshop. And it was really based on the attachment theory. And I started to see myself in a lot of the discussion that they were having, cuz as a young kid, I was I was a bully and I could see that, that connection between having a caring adult and you know, and, and that student that needs it. So I went to my vice principal at the time and I said, Hey, do I got a deal for you? You give me one section per semester and I’ll be a caring adult for for kids that are coming into the schools in particular, we were thinking grade nines at the time they’re transitioned from elementary and you know what, you go to your administrator, that’s never really gonna happen.


Shane Beckett (08:39):
And he came back to me a couple weeks later and he goes, you got it. And I said, what do you mean? I got it goes, you got it. I says, what do I do now? He goes, I don’t know, you’re the one who wanted the time . So from there we, so from there we developed, we developed this it was kind of like a, a coach for kids and then moved into natural helpers program. But as I got to talk to this vice principal a little bit more, who’s now a superintendent in our board. It, he said he never wanted to get into administration either and it, but he realized that the higher he went, the more impact he could have on kids, not necessarily that direct impact, but through programming through these types of opportunities. And I thought, you know what? I’d like to be that guy that provides that spark for a teacher who comes in and has a crazy idea and then try to fight to get that, that idea rolling. And the program, when I ran, I mean, we, we saved lives through, through those years 110%, and we can get into those stories too, if you want. But it was that, that idea of being able to give people that opportunity, like he gave to me that really did spark my move into administration.


Sam Demma (09:48):
I had a pass guest and I mentioned this a few times now who told me the best candidate for principals are teachers who don’t wanna leave the classroom. And the best candidate for superintendents are principals who don’t wanna leave administration. You know, when you love the work you’re doing so much it, it means you’re in a good position, but it, you know, if you love it and you truly enjoy it, you could probably make a bigger impact. Like you’re saying in a, in a, in a much larger way at a higher level where you’re seeing, you know, this Eagle view or bird’s eye view, as opposed to on the ground, which is still very important. They’re both extremely important jobs. You mentioned saving lives and I would love to hear maybe one of the stories that comes to mind. I think something that really inspires educators who are considering this vocation and people who are in it, who need a little reminder is a story about how a program changed the student’s life. And if it’s a serious one, absolutely changed their name just for the privacy.


Shane Beckett (10:46):
Oh yeah. I’ll leave I’ll I’ll yeah, I’ll definitely do that. So this natural helpers, program’s pretty, it is a pretty cool program because it, it basically takes kids who are naturally helping their, their peer group and it teaches them to be better helpers. So we would, we made a little tagline in our group, you helping helpers be better helpers. And so what we did is we used our school climate survey. And again, this administrator that I worked with, he moved into being the principal of the school and I said, Hey, can I get on the school climate survey? Like, I just want, I need names of kids. I, I need to know you know, it, you know, Johnny goes to Sally for all, for all of her his problems, right? Like that’s the go-to person in this group. And I need to find those 20 kids from all walks of life around the school so that we can pull them and help them be better at helping their friends, being able to see the red flags, know the resources and people to go to, and also having a contact point, like someone like myself, that they can come to and say, Hey, you know what, like this is what’s going on.


Shane Beckett (11:46):
And I need a hand on trying to fix it. So we, we got on the school climate survey and for we, we started this program where you do a, at the beginning of the school year, you do a retreat with these kids, no cell phones, no whatever. And we, we learn how to be better helpers. And some of the best moments in that retreat is around the campfire at night when these kids don’t really know each other, cuz they’re coming from all the different corners of the school, they start to share and start to become this cohesive group, which is a really cool thing. Like, you know, after two nights kids are crying cause they don’t wanna go back to school because it feels so safe to be in that group. And then we do monthly check-ins and, and training. And so one of the, one of the training pieces that we did was around teen suicide and we did kind of a modified version of safe talk and talked about the process that this is, you know, too much of a load for kids to carry.


Shane Beckett (12:44):
They need to be able to, you know be okay with their friend being upset with them, for going to an adult and saying, this is, this is too much for me. And then we worked on that process. And so where you see where it really worked was one night I got a I got a phone call from one of my students and he’s like Mr. Beckett, can I can I come see you in the morning? I said, sure. What’s going on? Oh, not, no, no big deal. We got this figured out. I, I just want to come and touch base with you. I said, sure. So the way the story went was we had two grade 12 students, overachieving kids. They weren’t necessarily friends, but they would Skype together and, and do homework together in like, you know, for you physics.


Shane Beckett (13:26):
And one of the big things we talked about with these kids is lots of times when you’re talking to your friend and they say, you know, something’s going hard. We like to come back to them with, oh yeah, we understand. Cause it’s hard for me too. And we don’t ask that, that why question. So this kid they were studying away and, and you know, one of the kids says, oh man, I’m so tired. And so rather than, you know, the student is part of my program saying, oh, I know me too. I was up late last night. He said, oh really? Why? And just like that, this kid said, well, last night I tried to end my own life. And so, wow. So now my students freaking out that he doesn’t know what to do for me. So he caught, he texts his buddy and says, Hey, what are we gonna do?


Shane Beckett (14:11):
He goes, we’re gonna go talk to Beckett in the morning. That’s what we’re gonna do. And we’ll get this all figured out. So they came in, they spoke to me, I spoke to the guidance department and the the school counselor. And without me ever talking to that student who said that they were talking about ending their own life. We got help for that student. And and got him the counseling that he needed and everything worked out a few weeks later, I ran into that student. I know he knew, I knew. And I knew that he knew that I knew and right. And so we were at I think it was an elementary Christmas concert or something. And I ran into him and I just said, Hey, you have a really good friend in Johnny. And he just smiled. And he said, yeah, I know.


Shane Beckett (14:53):
I said, are you doing okay? He goes, I’m doing great. And that’s it. I never had to talk to the student. I didn’t, but the process was in place. And we established that as part of this program. And we saved that kid’s life without me ever having to be directly involved in it. And so it just spoke so, so loudly about the importance of the program and what it was doing for kids and the awareness that these high school kids were having around those situations. So that’s the story. One, one particular story of saving a kid’s life without me directly doing it.


Sam Demma (15:22):
Tell me a little bit more about the program itself. It sounds really impactful. What does it look like? Is it something you still do in schools today? Like tell me more about


Shane Beckett (15:30):
It. Okay. Well, Matt, it’s, it’s a can program. Like I Googled it and it’s these two binders you buy for a thousand dollars, right? And then you kind of morph it into your own. It’s pretty big in the states. If you Google natural helpers, you’ll see that there’s a lot of school districts in the states that have these natural pro helpers, you know, websites and programs and whatever else, but we hadn’t seen it in our school district. Now the unfortunate part is I guess, twofold. About four years into the program, we had to work rural situation where we weren’t allowed to do extracurriculars. And so this was deemed an extracurricular. And so, because we went on retreats and we did those things. And so I wasn’t able to continue the program that one year. And the following year I switched positions and moved to as a technology coach out of the board office, cuz now I’m in the principal’s pool and all of these things and no one picked up the slack behind me.


Shane Beckett (16:26):
And so after that story, basically the program kind of died, but one of the cool things too, that it did for our high school getting on that school climate survey and let that administrator allowing me to get onto that survey. One of the questions was named two teachers that you go to. And at that point in time, I mean, sure, I had lots of hits. Okay. But that was my role. Our principal had more hits than our entire guidance department at that time. Wow. Cause our guidance department was really geared towards the academia, the post-secondary, the paperwork side of things, but not the, you know, heartfelt touchy, feely part of it. And that was an issue. But because we got that data, it, it started to morph how our guidance department looked. And so they brought in new counselors that did the academia part of it, but also then provided more of a counseling part of it on that end. And so now I feel even though at our local high school, we don’t have that program in place. We have changed the way that that pro the, the actual department runs. And so it is still a safe place and it’s a, and, and a secure place for kids to go a supportive place for kids to go. And maybe there’s not as much of a need for that natural helpers program anymore because we help change the face of that department in general. So if


Sam Demma (17:49):
That that’s awesome it makes total sense. What keeps you personally inspired and motivated with a full cup to show up and try and make a positive difference on so many young people’s lives?


Shane Beckett (18:01):
Well I have on my whiteboard at work there’s two, two quotes that, that I have on there. So that’s the first thing I see every time that I, that I walk in. And so the, the the first one is the good is the enemy of great and the sports kind of quotes that I’ve used when coaching, but it works for school as well. And it’s that idea of if things are going well and things are good, we’re afraid to make changes because we don’t wanna wreck good. Right. But we’ll never get to great unless we make those changes. So being able to just kind of see that and remember that when staff is coming in and saying, Hey, I’ve got this idea or when students are coming in and, and having ideas for clubs or those types of things, like being willing to be flexible enough to make some changes, because things are going well at our school, but we’ll never get to great unless we make some changes.


Shane Beckett (18:52):
And then the other quote that I have up there that we developed as part of my coaching is the ABCs of win. And so ABC is anything but chance and win is what’s important now. So what’s important now is anything but chance. So there was one thing that I used a lot in my counseling with kids too, is like, let’s not leave it to a coin flip and say like, am I gonna have a good day heads or tails? Let’s let’s do all we can right now, so that we’re not leaving it to chance that, you know, so it’s that kind of proactive approach and that, that empowering approach too, that I, it, it’s not just chance that life doesn’t happen to me. I happen to life. And so those are two things that every day I see up on my boards, that help to inspire me when working with kids or working with teachers.


Sam Demma (19:34):
I love that being a sport, having a sport background, my myself also blowing out my knees and my senior year of high school and having three surgeries losing out on a full ride scholarship to Memphis, Tennessee, like, oh, awesome. We have some similarities. That proactive mindset I think is so important. What resources have you found helpful in terms of your own professional development and learning? That’s helped you in education that you kind of proactively Seeked out and maybe it’s well, you shared one, which is a natural helpers course, which is amazing. Yeah. And people can definitely check that out, but I’m wondering if there’s any other philosophies, people, you follow books, courses, things that you’ve been exposed to throughout your career that you really resonated with or found helpful.


Shane Beckett (20:22):
Well, you know, it’s that’s a tough question as far as resources. Yeah. But not much of a reader. Like that’s just not my jam. And I think that if I was to write the literacy test right now that I’d have a difficult time passing a literacy test, just cuz it’s not, not my thing, but it, I mean, I’d use that as an inspiration too, because I have other skills that allow me to get to where I am. Like I don’t have to have that skill. I can use, you know, Grammarly to help me do my writing and, and that type of thing. So not much of a reader, but it’s I mean, learning from the kids really has been a big resource for me and actually sitting and, and listening to them. And then what’s been really empowering for me too, is when you’re in the high school and you’re teaching and now we’re in a small town and I see those kids that I didn’t know, I made an impact with that now, you know they’re running the local gym and my kid’s now going to that gym.


Shane Beckett (21:14):
I know you can sit back and say, Hey, you know, Mr. Beckett, like it was a really big deal when, when this happened and, and learning, learning in some of those decision points that, that I made, whether I went the right way or the wrong way, it’s been a real valuable, valuable lesson for me. So it’s that, that reflection part. And then my brother-in-law, who’s younger than me and wise, beyond his years has really got me thinking into those, you know, Shiism and some of those types of things and, and the, the power of being in the now, you know, and being the master of your own destiny. And those are some really big things for me. And then, geez, now you’re gonna put me on the spot. I don’t know the name of this newsletter. I, I, I subscribed to one newsletter, man. No worries, but it’s, but it’s a leadership, it’s a leadership newsletter that has a sports reflection on it. Nice. So it talks about, you know, bill Belichick and, and how he does this with his players to motivate them. And it’s a quick little snippet, you know, once a week kind of a hit. And so that resonates with me because it’s sports leaders and then being able to learn from their leader leadership abilities and bring that back into the school.


Sam Demma (22:21):
Love it. I love it. And it sounds like you’ve had some great experiences learning from the students themselves. I’m sure you’ve probably also had great experiences learning from colleagues, whether it’s other principals you’ve worked with even teachers you’ve worked with. I think if you approach every situation with an open mind, knowing that you can learn something from every person you meet, you grab a lesson from anything you experience, which is really empowering.


Shane Beckett (22:50):
Yeah, absolutely. Like, like talk about this superintendent that we have now. Like I’ve just learned so much from him in where he inspired me by giving me that opportunity to then talking to me about being able to be a, a bigger impact, the higher you go, the less direct and the less of those like interactions, but then at the same time, being able to provide those opportunities. It’s, it’s people like that. And it’s nice to be able to, again, in a small town, be able to have that opportunity to go back to him and say, Hey, I want you to know the impact that you had on me. And the reason I am where I am today is because of some of the things you did for me, whether you knew you were doing it for me or not.


Sam Demma (23:29):
I love it. What if you could go back to your first year in education, what advice or feedback would you have given to your younger self that you think would’ve been helpful to hear when you were just starting and not that you would tell yourself anything to change your path, but advice you think that would be helpful for someone who’s just considering getting into education or that you would’ve liked to have heard more of when you were just starting?


Shane Beckett (23:56):
Well, I mean, I think some of the, some of the mistakes I made in my first year was trying to be friends with the students rather than friendly with the students. Mm. And it, and it’s tricky when you’re, when you’re coaching and you’re teaching PHED it’s that different environment. Right. But I think sometimes being young and being new and teaching 18 year olds, it’s it, it’s hard to differentiate, differentiate that. And I made the mistake, I think a few times of thinking that you know, being friends and then we’d do the right thing and then it wouldn’t come back to bite me did come back to bite me. Like I had some early times in my career where I got written up by administration because of the decisions that I made that I, you know, and maybe being a little bit too open and honest with, with my students where, because I’m thinking more of the friend line than I am, you know, that, that separation between teacher and whatever.


Shane Beckett (24:52):
So learning some of those things. And the, the other thing too, was really that the face to face communication, some, you know, earlier in my career as a athletic director, you know, sending the email rather than talking to the person, you know, and the way that you text on a page can be misread or misunderstood or tone can be misunderstood. And not having that face to face or even the phone call where the tone of voice can, can come in. And one thing I learned from teaching career studies as part of my high school career was that seven per 7% of your message comes from the words that are said, and the other 93% comes from your tone of voice in your body language. And so the words on the page just don’t do enough. So that was one thing I really learned too, is sometimes you need to have that face to face, even if it’s not the diff the, you know, the challenging conversation, it may end up being a challenging conversation because of the way that people read, read the words on the screen.


Sam Demma (25:52):
Something one of my mentors always tells me is people will interpret your written words, whether email or text based on the emotional state that they’re currently in. Yeah. If someone is really upset and it has nothing to do with you, they’ll open your email and read it from a more upset lens or a frustrated lens. And yeah, you’re absolutely right. I even think about a recent situation where I had to break bad news to somebody in my life. And I was thinking about writing an email and then I thought to myself, no way, cuz this could be interpreted in so many different ways. And you know, you take that time and that at first, what feels like an uncomfortable situation to have the phone call and have the real time conversation. How did you get over those situations where you knew making the phone call was the right decision? Although it was uncomfortable, you know, you do it anyway.


Shane Beckett (26:43):
Well, I, one, there was something that I read somewhere. I think my quote unquote online boyfriend is Tim Ferris back in the day. And some of the things that he would talk about in his podcast or some of the readings that I would do was challenge himself to be an INCOM uncomfortable situations every day. You know, if it’s walking in the mall and making eye contacts with someone and playing chicken with eye contact, who’s the first person to look away. It’s not gonna be any sort of conflict with that person, but it’s challenging you to feel uncomfortable and be okay with that. And so having some of those moments where you it’s okay to feel uncomfortable, it helps you then to make that move. And then ultimately it’s experience like you, you just gotta bite the bullet and do the first one, then the second one’s easier.


Shane Beckett (27:29):
Right. And then the third one’s easier. And then I guess finally being prepared sometimes for those difficult and challenging conversations. The little piece of advice we, we did a, when I first got into the leadership pool, we did a a workshop on challenging conversations. And I can’t remember who the author was. I’ve got the book at the school, but I’ve opened it one time and it was for a challenging conversation and it was to look at it. But in there it really did lay out how to set up yourself for that challenging conversation. And then the piece of advice that she gave. And I’m a softie, I’m an emotional guy and very quick to like even move the tears when I’m feeling challenged. Her suggestion was to spin her up when you’re in that situation. And so what, and so we asked what that meant and she said like, if you literally, and like spanked her up, like puck her up the bottom end there it’ll actually make it biologically almost impossible to cry. And so by like squeezing your cheeks, like that’ll take that opportunity that, that, you know, it removes that from you. And so I’ve actually tried that a couple times and it works. So hopefully I don’t make a face when I do it so that the other person on the other end knows that I’m doing that. But some of the, you know, you need some little, little tips and tricks to be ready to have those things. And so being prepared for the challenging conversation is, is definitely a big one too.


Sam Demma (28:54):
I love that. That’s a cool, it sounds like an awesome book. I definitely want you to email it over when you go back to school. I’d love to include it in the show notes. This has been a, a great conversation. I appreciate you taking the time this evening to hop on here and chat. If someone wants to have a conversation with you, reach out, ask a question, bounce some ideas around, what would be the best way for them to get in touch.


Shane Beckett (29:14):
Well, I’m, I am on Twitter. So it’s @MrShaneBeckett, just as it is with two ts at the end. Sometimes people make that mistake and I mean, I’ll fire up my email. That’s fine too. So it’s basically my name, shane.beckett.rrdsb.com. Yeah. And I’m, I’m always available to chat, to try to figure things out to bounce ideas off one another. It only makes us better in the long run.


Sam Demma (29:42):
Awesome. Shane, thank you again for doing this. I appreciate you. Keep up the great work you’re doing in education and we’ll talk soon.


Shane Beckett (29:49):
Yeah, absolutely. Thanks so much, Sam. It’s been a, it’s been a lot of fun. Thanks.


Sam Demma (29:52):
Hey, it’s Sam again. I hope you enjoyed that amazing conversation on the High Performing Educator podcast. If you, or you know, deserves some extra recognition and appreciation for the work they do in education, please consider applying or nominating them for the High Performing Educator awards, go to www.highperformingeducator.com/award. You can also find the link in the show notes. I’m super excited to spotlight and feature 20 people in 2022, and I’m hoping you or someone, you know, can be one of those educators. I’ll talk to you on the next episode, all the best.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Shane Beckett

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.

Robyn Hollohan RMSS B.Sc, B.Ed, M.Ed – Junior High Science Teacher at Roland Michener Secondary School

Robyn Hollohan RMSS B.Sc, B.Ed, M.Ed – Junior High Science Teacher at Roland Michener Secondary School
About Robyn Hollohan

Robyn Hollohan (@kathholl99), is a junior high science teacher at Roland Michener Secondary School in Slave Lake, Alberta. She recently finished her masters of Education in Leadership and Inclusion. Her thesis on the “Impacts of Restorative Practices on a Northern Secondary School” is currently on the waitlist to be published by the Alberta Journal of Education.

While finishing her masters of Education she welcomed her son Bryce into the world during the chaotic pandemic of 2020. She has been teaching in Alberta for 9 years and has also taught in Nova Scotia and in Kenya. While in Kenya she worked under Canadian International Development Agency to work with students with disabilities in the low-income areas of Nairobi. She enjoys coaching basketball, volleyball and is the teacher liaison for her school’s student council.

This year her student council had the 2nd most money raised for the Terry Fox Foundation in Alberta (4,100$) and they have also raised over $5,000 for Movember, and other local charities this year.

Robyn’s focus on education has been from a restorative practice pedagogy where she believes that every student is a valued member of our community and we need to support their growth by providing safe, meaningful and impactful relationships in their learning journeys. She hopes to one day soon be a vice-principal in a school and build capacity within schools to increase student success. 

Connect with Robyn: Email | Instagram | Linkedin

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Roland Michener Secondary School

Alberta Journal of Education

Canadian International Development Agency

Terry Fox Foundation

Teachers These Days by Jody Clarington

Careers at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP)

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.


Sam Demma (00:59):
This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is Robin Hollohan. Robin is a junior high science teacher at Roland Missioner Secondary School in Slave Lake, Alberta. She recently finished her masters of education in leadership and inclusion. Her thesis on the impacts of restorative practices on a Northern secondary school is currently on the wait list to be published by the Alberta Journal of Education. While finishing her master’s of education, she welcomed her son Bryce into the world during the chaotic pandemic of 2020. She has been teaching in Alberta for nine years and has also taught in Nova Scotia, and in Kenya. While in Kenya, she worked under Canadian International Development Agency to work with students with disabilities in low income areas in Nairobi. She enjoys coaching basketball, volleyball, and is the teacher liaison for her school’s student council. This year, her student council had the second most money raised for the Terry Fox foundation in all of Alberta; $4,100.


Sam Demma (01:57):
And they have also raised over 5,000 for November and other local charities this year. Robyn’s focus on education has been from a restorative practice pedagogy, where she believes that every student is a valued member of our community, and we need to support their growth by providing safe, meaningful, and impactful relationships in their learning journeys. She hopes to one day soon, be a Vice Principal in a school and build capacity within schools to increase student success. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Robin, and I will see you on the other side. Robyn, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show this afternoon. Please start by introducing yourself.


Robyn Hollohan (02:38):
I’m Robyn Hollohan. I’m a junior high teacher in Slave Lake, Alberta. I teach science and I’ve just recently, I guess, finished my masters of leadership in inclusion education.


Sam Demma (02:50):
When did you realize throughout your own student journey and career journey that education was the calling and vocation for you?


Robyn Hollohan (02:59):
I think that was a tough one. Originally in school. I wanted to be a police officer and cause I always just valued how much they give back to the community. And then through my biology degree in university, it just struck me that kids were the way the future. And I think during that time I was reflecting back on the, the passing of an a relative and then how much they had changed everyone’s life. And I really wanted to do the same that she did.


Sam Demma (03:21):
Was she in education by any chance?


Robyn Hollohan (03:24):
Yeah, she was, she was my grade 8, 9, 10 teacher for home economics. And then when I was in grade 10, fortunately my auntie passed away very suddenly. And then at her funeral there was a lot of people there. So at the time I was just kind of like, wow, she had really, you know, made a difference, but now farther as an adult, it was like, yeah, she definitely made a difference. Cuz even when I’m now as a teacher in slave lake, I actually have a, a group of kids who I taught their parents and I’m not from Alberta. I’m actually from


Sam Demma (03:51):
That’s awesome. That’s so cool. And I mean, it sounds like your made a really significant impact among your own, amongst your own school journey as a student. Did you have any other teachers that had a significant impact on you personally? Yeah. That you could think of. Definitely.


Robyn Hollohan (04:09):
Yeah. I had this grade four teacher, Mrs. Weam. She was super, super stickler and she had helped me significantly. Remember my multiplication tables. I remember getting frustrated and not wanting to do it, but so many times she was like, Nope, Robin, you are going to do this, sit down and stop crying.

Robyn Hollohan (04:27):
She was just stern. And then I remember like hard work makes it, makes it happen and you know, yeah. At the time I definitely didn’t like her, but as an adult, I was very thankful.


Sam Demma (04:36):
So the, the sternness sounds like it helped, it sounds like sh as much as she was stern, she was probably also patient like willing to sit by you and help you kind of figure it out. Like, what are some of the things you think that she did and other educators you had that made an impact on you in terms of like the, I think it was


Robyn Hollohan (04:53):
The way that she cared about us and it wasn’t just that we were students in our class, but we were her own kids. Like she, I think had three or four kids of her own, her sons, but she also every day came in and just say, Hey, you know, Robin, I have a twin also, Rebecca, how are you doing guys? Like how’s everything at home. And she just genuinely cared, even though there was a lot of sternness and like I remembered the finger, she would point at you . But it was just that you tell, you could tell from her heart that she really wanted you to be successful.


Sam Demma (05:20):
Mm. So you got the glimpse in biology when you were going through your biology experience in university what did the journey look like once you kind of made the decision? I want to pursue this from that moment to where you are now?


Robyn Hollohan (05:36):
Well, the journey was a little different, cuz at first I was pursuing an RCMP occupation and I got all the way to the end of almost a depo posting. And I realized at that point it was just, my uncle had sat me down and said, well, Robin, I really don’t think this is for you. Are you sure you wanna go? I said, well, you know what? It’s, it’s a great career. They get back to the community. I said, yeah, but in the long run, do you ever wanna have to harm another human? If that’s what you have to do? And I just broke down and cried and I was like, no, I can’t do it. I honestly don’t think if I had to weight, raise my weapon, I’d be able to do it. He’s like, all right, you better call them back and figure out what you’re doing.


Robyn Hollohan (06:09):
And then I had more conversations with him and he was like, why did you never, ever want teaching? I said, well, I’ve always thought about it. I just didn’t think it was for me. I was like, yeah, well you’re patient, you care. You wanna give back? So why not teaching? So I had talked to some friends who were teachers and then I started to apply to a couple universities. And then I guess I just started to realize how much teachers make a difference and it’s not, you don’t have to be the author, you know, the, the dictator or the, the leader in every classroom. But it’s just how much that I remember teachers cared about me and it helped me be successful.


Sam Demma (06:42):
So you transitioned from the RCMP job. And did you have to go back to school to get more like education? Like what exactly was the path?


Robyn Hollohan (06:54):
Yeah, so I was in my last year of my biology degree. Would’ve been my fifth year and when I applied for all that stuff for the RCMP, and then during that time I had just had said, all right, I need to, I wanna be a teacher. I need to figure it out. So I had to go back to teaching school for two years and Halifax, Nova Scotia. And that was an interesting path. Cause I ended up playing university volleyball for the two years I was there just because I was tall and I could play. And the coach was like, you better be trying out girl


Sam Demma (07:22):
that’s. That’s amazing. And then, so you finished you finished school, you finished volleyball. Did you start applying and landed in the position you’re in now?


Robyn Hollohan (07:33):
It was an odd journey. So where I was in Halifax, they do like a teaching job fair from everywhere at west. Basically Northern communities come into Halifax and do a job fair for teachers. Okay. And I had done a couple interviews and then I got offered a position for a school division in here in Alberta, but in the Northern parts, it’s called the for Vermillion school division. Nice. It’s quite remote. It’s about an hour and a half from the Northwest territories. And within hours of doing the interview, they offered me a contract, asked when I could come. And I was like, well, September. And it was pretty exciting and that, I didn’t know where up there I was going, but ended up in a beautiful little town called high level Alberta and made some incredible, incredible context. And then two days later I actually was on a flight to Kenya where I didn’t the rest of my teacher practicum in Nairobi in Africa.


Sam Demma (08:24):
No way. Tell me about that experience. You, you kind of just, that was a, that’s a big, that’s a big journey. Tell me what brought you out there and what that experience was like. My, my sister in her fourth year of film and media production did a documentary just outside of Nairobi. I can’t remember the name of the city, but they were there for three weeks and she said that the interactions with the people and the, the kindness and the generosity and the humanity like changed her life and perspective. I’m curious to know what brought you out there to finish it and what the experience was like.


Robyn Hollohan (08:57):
Well, just before Christmas, that year I went, we applied for a grant with the Canadian international development agency and myself and three other, my colleagues my Stu I guess my classmates at the time had gotten the position to go. So we left, I think the beginning of February to go for eight weeks, no, nine weeks. And then we got over there and we were working with mostly with students with disabilities. So we started off, like, we lived on campus at university, which is quite different because it’s, it’s not like a campus life that everyone pictures everywhere else. Cause I I’ve lived on that. It’s, you know, it’s very rough and different environments. And then we had taken like little either motorbikes or taxis or these little tutus. They’re like little tiny minivans with like a driver to different schools, different like cuz they don’t have like inclusion there.


Robyn Hollohan (09:48):
Any of the kids with disabilities are either unfortunately not treated very well or if they are in education, they’re in a separate building in like a completely separate school than anyone else, which is quite different and it was quite shocking. And then we visit a lot of the slums and we did get to visit like a private school, but we didn’t stay there long. We really didn’t enjoy the atmosphere. It wasn’t what we were there for. And then we worked with a non-for-profit called start small and helped them with children who were victims of abuse.


Sam Demma (10:17):
Wow. what was the duration of your entire trip and how do you think those experiences kind of shaped and informed the way that you look at teaching and education to today?


Robyn Hollohan (10:27):
So I ended up staying there for almost 12 weeks. I stayed for a couple weeks after and traveled around. But it completely changed my outlook. I didn’t, you know, we didn’t have a lot when I was a kid, but I, we, we had enough and it, it was so different to see children, either being treated differently because they had disabilities or not having the things we’d had, you know, like we brought crayons and all the kids stood up and cried. They haven’t seen full crayons. Like just, I don’t know. We take for granted at the little things or even pencils. They were like writing with the tiniest little nub of a pencil and just tell the absolute end. And I remember kids in my first practicum in Halifax just snapping them. Wow. So that was super hard. But then the way students also responded to authority was much different.


Robyn Hollohan (11:09):
You know, they, they stood when you entered the room, they wouldn’t sit down until you said you could sit, which I found hard in one day. I actually didn’t believe it. So I just waited a second and I was like, oh, oh my God. They’ll stand until until I tell them to sit. I was like, okay, sit. And they’re like, thank you, miss. Yes, miss no miss. And it was just, it’s different, so different, but they love not that all kids don’t love school, but they genuinely loved being there cuz not everyone could get to go to school. A lot of the kids walk a really long distance or they’re at a boarding school and they don’t see their families for months on end.


Sam Demma (11:45):
Wow. Yeah. That’s a, a unique experience and I think a really helpful one before you get into education in north America, you know? And do you think traveling, if you can, when you’re just getting into education is a worthwhile thing to do or an opportunity to take for someone who’s just considering getting into teaching.


Robyn Hollohan (12:06):
Yeah. And even just get outside of where you’re from and where you would wanna teach, you see different parts of our country. Like I grew up in Newfoundland, so I was fortunate to be in their school system. And then I did my teaching degree training in Nova Scotia and then my then Africa and Kenya. Yeah. And then I taught in high level in Northern Alberta. So seeing the other settings kind of made me understand that not every system is the same, but all of our kids really in some way are the same. They wanna learn. You just have to find someone who cares about them.


Sam Demma (12:33):
I love it. So you, so you went to Nairobi and you spent 12 weeks there, you came back, you applied you got a fulltime position. Not in the school board journey now. So what was the journey from that to today?


Robyn Hollohan (12:49):
I actually met my spouse when I was in high level. Nice. we’ve been together nine years now. So then his son actually lived here enslaved lake Alberta with his mom. Okay. So after we were up north for a couple years, we wanted to be closer down here to him. So we moved down to slave lake, which was also hard. Cause you go from like, there was nothing in high level. They got a Tim Hortons my second year there. And that was huge because there’s no Walmart, there’s no Costco. There’s nothing like it’s dark by two o’clock in the afternoon. The sun might come up at 10 in the morning for some days in the winter. So it was really isolating. And then coming here, we have Walmart, the school is massive. The school is 700 kids from seven to 12, which I was used to maybe 300. So it like doubled.


Sam Demma (13:33):
Wow. Wow. Cool. And have you been in different roles in the different schools you’ve worked in or what is your yeah. What is the role you’re in now and what various roles have you been in? Pretty easily.


Robyn Hollohan (13:46):
Okay. So when I was up north, I was still like, it’s hard up there cuz a lot of the younger teachers tend to take on leadership very fast because the turnover’s really high. Not a lot of people stay in Northern communities very long and even my four years there I think most years on staff, we had at least six or seven brand new teachers, like just out of university where that’s quite rare in most teaching practices. So even in my second year I was mentoring a first year teacher. Wow. And which was different. Cause I still felt, I wasn’t really, you know, I didn’t have the ground underneath me yet. But then since I moved here, I have been mentoring other teachers. I was active administrator before I went on maternity leave last year. I’m a 20, 20 pandemic mom.


Sam Demma (14:27):
Woohoo. yeah.


Robyn Hollohan (14:29):
That’s and then now being back this year, I have a student teacher she’s actually in my class today. I’m off for some medical appointments. So I’m mentoring a student teacher.


Sam Demma (14:37):
That’s awesome. Very cool. This, yeah, that’s great. It’s cool that you hear that you’ve done some different positions and also mentored some educators. I know mentorship is a huge part in no matter what career you choose to get into, but especially in education, it’s a big part of the journey. Do you have some people that have mentored you? I know we talked about teachers earlier that have had an impact. I’m curious when you started going down this path what other educators have been impactful on your professional development or mentorship?


Robyn Hollohan (15:08):
I guess like when I was up north, one of the vice principals, her name was Anna, she just had a harder gold. And I remember telling her, I don’t know how long I could live in the darkness. And it was just hard. Like, you know, the, the cold it’s minus 40, most of the winter, your eyelashes freeze, the kids and the culture was so different. There’d be times where like most the class would be absent because they’re gone hunting wow. A large indigenous population or some kids just hated school and they just didn’t come. And so she just said, talk to me and asked me what were my long term goals? And I said, well, my spouse and I, we do wanna be near his son eventually. And I do wanna be a leader eventually. So she had like gave me the ins and outs of leadership and evenness like just a person and just, you know, she was always there to listen to. And when you had a bad day, she’d, you know, pull up a chair, get a coffee and like cry, which is great. And sometimes people to do that for you and helps you just see it’s okay to be upset. And that we’re human too.


Sam Demma (16:02):
Yeah. A hundred percent. I love that. When you think about that, that idea of it’s okay to not know the answers and it’s, it’s also okay to, to be human. What other pieces of advice kind of come to mind that you have? Cause that’s obviously a great learning. What other things kind of come to mind that you think have been helpful for yourself throughout your journey in education and maybe the way you can think about this is if you could speak to yourself when you were just starting knowing what you know now with the experience you have, like what would you have told your younger self or someone else who’s just getting into this work


Robyn Hollohan (16:39):
Say no more often.


Sam Demma (16:41):
I love it.


Robyn Hollohan (16:43):
I think a lot of new teachers like are always looking to impress and they’re always looking to take on, you know, how many teams can I coach? How many clubs can I run? Yeah. And it’s great to like give back, but you also to take care of yourself and that like statistically one in five teachers in their first five years burnout and stop teaching. So there’s a reason, right? And the system is hard to get in to get your permanent certification. So I mean, it’s pick a couple good things and stay good at them. Don’t overwhelm yourself and take the time for yourself. Like your mental health is so important. It is so tough now, especially with, you know, the pandemic slowly, slowly trickling away. But a lot of teachers and staff are just exhausted and you’re taking care of your mental health and yourself is the best thing you can do.


Sam Demma (17:26):
Such a good piece of advice, just don’t say no to Sam demo’s podcast interviews. That’s the only thing


Robyn Hollohan (17:31):
Yes. Do those


Sam Demma (17:34):
But I love that advice. I think I struggle with that. Some part of us feels guilty when we, you know, turn someone else down or turn down an opportunity for our own mental health reasons. We might feel like we’re letting somebody down, but really I think it’s beneficial for everyone involved you benefit because your mental health is, is better and you’re not biting off too much than you can chew. And there’s probably someone else who has the capacity to fill the role. If you say no, that could even potentially give it more energy time and do a better job. So I think no is important for everyone. Not just not just the person saying it or the person receiving it.


Robyn Hollohan (18:11):
Yeah. And it’s, I’m not perfect at it yet. It’s still hard, but like my, my sons will be two in July, but I start to think about, you know, like there’s only so much of me I can give and I wanna make sure my son gets enough. My spouse gets enough and my students and you know, you only have so much on your plate and that you gotta take care of yourself is really important


Sam Demma (18:29):
And you get enough of yourself. yes.


Robyn Hollohan (18:31):
And yes. And you know, and you gotta your own, your own self, your own body and your mind and your soul.


Sam Demma (18:36):
Yeah. Speaking of taking care of yourself what keeps you motivated and inspired and you know, showing up with a full cup when you’re not working or in school virtually or in person, what do you spend time doing to kind of refuel and take care of yourself?


Robyn Hollohan (18:51):
I read a lot, like I’ve been reading a lot of Dr. Jody Carrington. She’s like a psychologist who tells like teachers basically to like with a lot of cost words, to relax and to think about why they become teaching. She’s great. I won’t mention any of the things she talks about, but


Sam Demma (19:05):
What are some of the books? Do you remember any of the titles of the books or


Robyn Hollohan (19:07):
One of them is called teachers these days. I just


Sam Demma (19:12):
Read after Jody Carrington. Cool teachers.


Robyn Hollohan (19:14):
Yeah. Kids. It keeps Kesy stays and teachers, these days is the new one and it’s great. Cuz it just, it kind of make, have you have, have a good laugh about your job, cuz sometimes even in the hardest moment you do need to unwind and relax and think about everything and I don’t know what else do I do? I love craft beer. We have a local brewery here in slave like dog island brewer is really good. So we go there and just try to relax. Try not to think about life too much and prepare for our next travel or my next goal on my massive checklist, whatever it may be.


Sam Demma (19:44):
That’s awesome. Very cool. And if someone is listening to this right now, thinking to themselves, they would love to chat with you, ask a question, have a conversation. What would be the best way for them to reach out and, and get in touch?


Robyn Hollohan (19:59):
I’m on Facebook, Robin Hallahan they can message me Instagram. I think it’s @kathholl99. I tried to avoid students searching me and just email on my emails too; RobynKHollohan@gmail.com. Cool. But I’m always easy to chat. I always like to talk to other educators just to see what they’re doing and to, you know, figure out the balance. And that’s the most important thing, you know, like I think I mentioned to you before my interview, I also finished my masters during the pandemic when my baby was at home. So trying not to overwhelm yourself, but you know, pick the goals that are achievable, but you know, within a certain, you know, stretch, you don’t wanna make yourself too burnt out.


Sam Demma (20:35):
Yeah. How, you know, before we wrap up here, how do you balance all the different, you know, containers you’re juggling master mom, teacher, like what has been helpful in managing time and energy organization?


Robyn Hollohan (20:49):
I have like a massive checklist in our kitchen of like things that are coming up and then sticky notes. I think I need to invest in the sticking out stocks I just honest to God use probably hundreds a day and my students think it’s hilarious, but that’s you just, you know, you think of something that you’re not sure when you’re gonna remember it. So it’s a sticky note and it’s bad. Cause it’s, I don’t even go into the note section on my phone. I put the sticky note on my phone or it goes on my computer screen or it goes on my mousepad or wherever it may end up there’s it’s just reminders and organization. And then I think the biggest thing is to just make sure whatever you choose to do is making you happy. And at the end of the day, you’re not like, why did I decide to do this? Why what’s the reason so that you’re not completely upset with your choices.


Sam Demma (21:36):
I love it. One final question before we wrap up here. You mentioned reading a lot, you mentioned Dr. Jody Carrington. Have you found any other resources helpful among your, your journey in education, whether it’s courses, books, people, things you’ve watched, things you’ve read, that you think would be worthwhile to share?


Robyn Hollohan (21:56):
I guess it’s a lot of stuff. Depends on where you are in your life and stuff. I’ve been doing some like just self searching to try to figure out I have like a, really A type personality overachieving. So I try to find some stuff to dial that back. I’ve always been a fan of Bill Nye the science guy. I don’t know why. I just find no matter how old or young you are, you can listen to him and have a laugh so any podcast that he’s been posting out oh my goodness. My brain’s not quite sure.


Sam Demma (22:23):
No, those are good.


Robyn Hollohan (22:23):
There’s a lot out there. Or even just like, not necessarily the stuff online, but your colleagues or people around you. Sometimes they have the wealth of information and the capacity building that you may never ever ask any. They can be there one day for you that you might, you know, they take the chance to take the offer or be there for them.


Sam Demma (22:40):
Love it. Love it. If anyone has any questions, I’m sure they’ll reach out. I’ll include your email in the show notes of this episode and also on the article we post on the High Performing Educator website. Robyn, thank you so much for taking the time to do this. I appreciate you. Good luck with the rest of your endeavors in education and the family. Keep up the great work and we’ll talk soon.


Robyn Hollohan (23:00):
Thank you.


Sam Demma (23:02):
Hey, it’s Sam again. I hope you enjoyed that amazing conversation on the High Performing Educator podcast. If you, or you know, deserves some extra recognition and appreciation for the work they do in education, please consider applying or nominating them for the High Performing Educator awards, go to www.highperformingeducator.com/award. You can also find the link in the show notes. I’m super excited to spotlight and feature 20 people in 2022, and I’m hoping you or someone, you know, can be one of those educators. I’ll talk to you on the next episode, all the best.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Robyn Hollohan

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.

Julie Mathé – Principal at St. Mother Teresa High School

Julie Mathé - Principal at St. Mother Teresa High School
About Julie Mathé

Julie Mathé (@JulieMathe66) has been an educator with the Ottawa Catholic School Board for over 25 years. She began her career teaching multiple subjects in the intermediate panel and honed her craft in the secondary panel teaching French Immersion and Religion Immersion. She moved into administration where she began her role of vice-principal at Immaculata High School.

Julie was then assigned to St. Patrick Catholic Intermediate School, followed by St. Francis Xavier High School and finally St. Joseph Catholic High School. With 11 years as vice-principal, Julie was appointed Principal of Frank Ryan Catholic Intermediate School and then St. Mother Teresa High School, where she currently works.

Julie loves what she does and has a passion for uplifting staff and students. She is currently also teaching PQP II for CPCO. Julie is wife to James Paterson and proud mother of two daughters, Anjelia (22 yrs) and Sabrina (20 yrs). She also has two cats and a dog. She loves spending time with her family.

She is grateful that her daughters still like to plan activities with her on a daily basis knowing that this could change at the drop of a hat. Julie also loves music and playing pool. Once retired, Julie hopes to travel with her family.

Connect with Julie: Email | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

St. Mother Teresa High School

The Ottawa Catholic School Board

Principal’s Qualification Program PQP

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):
Julie, welcome to the high-performing educator. Huge pleasure to have you on the show this morning; please start by introducing yourself.


Julie Mathé (00:08):
Oh, my name is Julie, Mathé and I am the proud principal of St. Mother Theresa high school in Neapan, Ontario. And we work under the Ottawa Catholic school board.


Sam Demma (00:17):
Beautiful. first of all, I apologize. I love the way you pronounce your name way more than the way I did.


Julie Mathé (00:24):
It’s all good.


Sam Demma (00:25):
When did you realize growing up that education was the calling for you or the career you would get into?


Julie Mathé (00:34):
Well, like many other educators, I was inspired by teacher at a very young age. I grew up in a French Canadian home and attended a French Catholic school. I only spoke French and when an English Catholic school was built much closer to home, my parents enrolled me in that new school. So entering grade five with all new students, the new French to make, not speaking a word of English was pretty scary to say the least. I was really an English language learner when programming for students like that didn’t exist. Mm. My teacher at the time took the time to get to know me, my interests, my strengths and weaknesses. He made appropriate accommodations for me to reach my personal goals and then got me involved in school activities. He did everything he could to help me succeed. And that’s when I knew I wanted to do the same thing and I wanted to have that positive impact on youth. And as I ruined my career as a classroom teacher in the auto Catholic school board had leadership opportunities and experience working with great administrators. I discovered my passion and vocation for leading.


Sam Demma (01:45):
I love that you mentioned you were really young and that teacher made an impact. Bring me back into that situation for a sec second, and kind of shed some light on the things that that teacher did for you that you think looking back made a really big difference.


Julie Mathé (02:00):
Just really getting the time taking the time to get to know me more on a personal level. And he found out very quickly that I was quite athletic mm-hmm. And so he was one of those teachers that coached a lot of things at the school and just got me out on those teams and participated and helped me make friends. And he, his wife at the time was also French speaking. And so there are times even during the weekends that with my parents’ permission, I would go over with some other students and spend time at their pool. And just, just taking, just really spending quality time with me. And even those accommodations in the classroom were as simple as you know spelling didn’t count as much when I wrote things out. As long as the content was clear he gave me extra practice to do at he worked with my parents to help me get some extra supports and, and some extra learning as an English language learner. Like he was like phenomenal. And, and just to add, he actually, we became very close and he followed me throughout my schooling career as well. Oh, wow. And he actually named his daughter he gave her my name as a middle name, so, oh,


Sam Demma (03:24):
Wow.


Julie Mathé (03:24):
Wow. yeah. Very special relationship.


Sam Demma (03:27):
It sounds like he just really cared about you as a person and went above and beyond to help you.


Julie Mathé (03:35):
Oh, completely, completely.


Sam Demma (03:38):
So tell me more about the moment you got into education. What the journey looked like that brought you to where you are today, like the different schools you worked in and yeah, the different roles.


Julie Mathé (03:50):
So I, I was very fortunate that I worked in a number of schools and one of my goals when I became a teacher was not to stay at the same school for a very long period of time. So I could experience working with different people, different demographics of population working with different administrators. And so I’ve been in above five or six different schools. And I first started as a teacher of many different subjects between grade seven and grade 10. And I actually traveled from classroom to classroom and between school and portable my first couple of years and finally settled down in teaching at the grade seven, eight level for about four years. And I taught all French courses. Nice. So whether it was religion and French, the language itself history, geography and so did that for a few years and then moved into teaching high school and basically taught in grades nine to 12, almost every subject you could teach in French. And then really honed in, in my last few years in the classroom as a grade 11 and 12 French and religion teacher. And I was a department head at the time and I worked with great administrators who maybe saw some potential there and got some practice work in the office as an acting vice principal and decided to do the journey, taking the courses required to become an administrator. And then the rest was history. I became an administrator and I’ve been an administrator for about 16 years. Now.


Sam Demma (05:34):
You mentioned getting into administration helped you realize how much you love leading. What about leadership and leading do you love, what are the things that you think make it such a meaningful role and opportunity?


Julie Mathé (05:51):
I think the great thing about leading is once you’ve gained a lot of experience and had experience in many different schools you’re able to bring things to the table that we call best practices. And so I was able to bring best practices to schools that I’ve that I’ve worked at. And also in being in different schools, every time I joined a school, I learned their best practices as well, and just marrying those together and being able to move a staff along in their journey of lifelong learning in their journey of what it means to teach now in the way we’re teaching. It’s very different from even when I started teaching leading has become more of bringing people along and not shutting people out. And there’s nothing I love more than to see people come together and collaborate and work for the same goal.


Sam Demma (06:51):
I love it. What are some of the challenges that come along with leadership, but also some of the pros or opportunities?


Julie Mathé (07:01):
I guess some of the challenges are when there’s resistance to it and you know, that what you’re trying to do is needed work and good work. And I always say you know, doing God’s work is, has never been easy. And being a leader is very similar. You do come across those challenges and those you know could be difficult parents. It could be difficult students, it could be difficult staff but it’s too hone your skills on having those courageous conversations and still move the, that middle crowd along and hopefully get those that are questioning to start seeing the good that’s being done. So that’s I guess, kind of a, a pro and con in one. Yeah. I have to say that the most recent challenges really have been around this pandemic and how to support students and staff with their morale.


Sam Demma (08:00):
Hmm. With challenges come opportunities, or at least I believe that to be true. yes. What do you think some of the opportunities that are presenting themselves in education are right now?


Julie Mathé (08:14):
Well I think the greatest opportunity we have right now is is this, I call it an awakening that our world is finally having around equity. And I have to say that, you know, aside from youth and, and faith, my faith, this awakening has given me hope, and this is an opportunity for us to work even harder than ever to end racism and promote equity. With the most recent wrongful deaths and accompanying discoveries we’ve been awakened, shaken and forced to take action, and we’re doing just that in our school and, and in all our schools in this board.


Sam Demma (09:00):
I couldn’t agree more, I think being stuck at home and also being confronted with all of these challenges has given us all, hopefully the time to reflect as well on our own actions and our collective actions that have an impact on the people around us. And yeah, diversity and inclusion has always been important, but I’m so glad that a spotlight has been placed on it and actions are being taken to change things and actively work towards improving situations for many different groups of students and learners and human beings.


Julie Mathé (09:33):
Abso absolutely. And, and we have to be intentional about the work that we’re doing. We have to say it out loud. We have to show it in our buildings, in our classrooms. We have to walk the talk. These kids have been marginalized for their entire lives. Yeah. And unfortunately it’s taken, you know, these horrible acts in the world to bring it to light and for us to really take a good look at it and look at, take a good look at ourselves. And yeah. And there there’s, there’s no more excuses for us.


Sam Demma (10:11):
What are some of the things that have gone on in the school or in the classrooms that you’ve witnessed or other teachers in your school have witnessed that give you the hope that things are moving forward?


Julie Mathé (10:24):
Well as I mentioned, we are all doing work in our schools and, and St Mary therea high school is no different. We’ve done a lot of work around equity. And so we’ve taken the time and continue to take the time to educate and inform both staff and students. Nice. We wanna create a better understanding of our student population, which in turn further promotes, respect and kindness. We’ve made our support very visible whether it’s pride posters or symbols in every room, we have a gay straight Alliance. And we, they have a very strong student voice that we support. We have a black student association and they have a very strong voice. We’ve just finished a full month celebration of black history month. We have a, a wall in our atrium called the unlearn wall. Ah, and it’s pictures of different skin tones to show that we are more alike than we are different regardless of our skin color. We have a lot of indigenous art in the atrium. We have a new Muslim student committee nice that just wanna share their culture with everyone and educate everyone. We’re making sure now that our curriculum reflects every student, including their culture and we just, at the end of the day, Sam, we want this to be a safe place for students and families. So everyone needs to see themselves in our school and feel safe.


Sam Demma (11:51):
I love it. I absolutely love it. I it’s funny when you talk about the atrium, I was thinking about like the, the a, I think there’s like a piece in your heart called the atrium. That’s like a valve and it’s like the heart of your school has all this important stuff in it. And that’s what kind of came to mind visually, like you’re working on the heart of the school with these topics and, and projects, which is amazing. What do you.


Julie Mathé (12:15):
Absolutely.


Sam Demma (12:18):
What, what are some of the things you’re excited about in education over the next couple of years that you think will continue to change or grow or evolve?


Julie Mathé (12:28):
I, I think one thing I’m obviously passionate about equity and I think that’s gonna continue to evolve. Yeah. And I’m so excited to see where it takes us. I, I’m excited as an administrator, but I’m excited as a mom. Yeah. You know, just to see where where we go with this. And and I hope we go all the way yeah. The other thing I’m excited about is just the idea of having now our school board has two schools that are virtual schools, one for elementary, and one for seven to 12. And that was formalized last year during the pandemic. And I’m excited to see where that goes because it has certainly helped a lot of our students, especially those that had a very difficult time being in a bricks and mortar type of school.


Julie Mathé (13:18):
Think of kids that have, you know, anxieties or depression or students that have needs at home that is really hard to leave the home. I think this is doing a lot of good for them and giving them every opportunity to succeed. Like every other student in a bricks and mortar type is school. So I’m really excited about that. I’m also excited about where we’re going with the grade nine program being a D streamed coming September, see what that looks like and see what assessment around those courses look like. If that changes at all, just to help improve a student confidence and self worth.


Sam Demma (13:59):
You mentioned earlier, morale has been a challenge. How have you noticed that and its effect on the school community?


Julie Mathé (14:10):
Well it, during the time that we were I’m gonna call it basically in lockdown, even though we had students in the building, but we didn’t have all students in the building at the same time. You could tell students, even walking through the building, we’re happy to be in the building, but just didn’t have that extra hop in their step. You know, their, their movement in the school was so limited because of C and we didn’t have opportu opportunities like sports or committees. And so it, it was challenging for them. And even though they, they did really wanna be here at the school, most of them anyhow. And so we had to do some work around how do we uplift their morale and, and same with staff, you know, a lot of what was missing for staff was that social aspect, because they were in the classroom for long hours with the students as well, without much movement. So we had some work to do around that.


Sam Demma (15:08):
Got you. Awesome. when you think about, you mentioned the one educator who had a big impact on you as a student point, you think about your journey into administration, your journey into education. Do you have any other mentors or resources? Sometimes people are a resource, but also maybe some courses or books or things that you found helpful that you learned from along the way?


Julie Mathé (15:32):
Well, I I’ll say two things for sure. I definitely had like I said, I mentioned before I worked with some great administrators and nice, and you take the best from the best and, and things that you don’t like or things that don’t suit who you are, you don’t take with you. So I got to take a lot of things of how, how they, how they look at the process of, of running through scenarios, how they work with staff little things that they do to uplift staff things like that. Definitely took a lot of that with me. A sec, the second thing is the courses that we take to become an administrator are phenomenal professional development. Even if you’re not going into administration, you learn so much from those courses that you get a better understanding why administrators made certain decisions in a school, and it’s kind of an aha moment that I had in taking those courses and kind of come full circle where I’m now one of the co-instructors for the principal’s qualification course.


Sam Demma (16:40):
Nice. That’s amazing. It’s PQP right?


Julie Mathé (16:45):
It is PQP

Sam Demma (16:49):
I’ve had other guests tell me about it. I did a little bit of research on it just to familiarize myself with it. What does the process look like for an educator who loves their work in the classroom, but would like to maybe one day get into administration?


Julie Mathé (17:04):
Well aside from taking the necessary courses, it’s is taking every opportunity to get some leadership experience and that could be in a variety of ways. It doesn’t actually have to be as an acting vice principal the way I did, but I could certainly look as if you’re leading a large committee on the school. You’re part of a committee at the school board level. You’re, you’re coming in and, and asking questions. You could spend half a day with an administrator to see what it looks like. There’s just different ways of, of learning about the role rather than assuming what it looks like because of what you think you see, cuz there’s so much more that goes on behind closed doors. And, and what I often say to teachers going into administration is first of all, they will love it.


Julie Mathé (17:58):
Mm. Secondly your relationship with students does change. You’re not the quick go- person that you are in the classroom, especially, especially if you were a successful teacher where you were popular and you knew kids wanted to take your courses that relationship changes, but it changes in the way that you’re helping the student as a whole now, and you’re also helping their family. And that’s a different relationship relationship that you start building. And the rewards for that are tremendous. You just feel so good when, you know, you’re making right or better decisions for students and their families. And you’re able to support them in ways that you wouldn’t do as a classroom teacher, you know, whereas you’re connecting them with resources in the community or you’re connecting them with a social worker or you’re providing support financially. It’s it’s, it’s different and it’s really good.


Sam Demma (18:58):
I’m curious to know if you could bundle up all your experiences in education teaching and learning from others and go back in time, tap your younger self on the shoulder and say, this is what this is something that I would’ve liked for you to have heard when you just got into this work, like knowing what you know now, what advice would you share with your younger self? Not, not because you wanna change something about your path, but for another educator who’s listening to this. Who’s just starting in this vocation. What would some words of advice be?


Julie Mathé (19:35):
The vocation of administration?


Sam Demma (19:37):
Mean just education as a whole, like teaching and getting involved.


Julie Mathé (19:42):
As a classroom teacher, it would be to observe other teachers learn about the school culture come in with ideas, but be open to what you’re hearing and try things before you suggest new ideas.


Sam Demma (19:59):
I love that. And it sounds like you may have even had some other pieces of advice for administration if someone was just getting into an admin role, would the feedback be similar or


Julie Mathé (20:12):
It, it would well, they, the listening piece and, and the watching for the first year. Absolutely. Yeah. But the most important piece is to learn to live in the gray. There’s no black and white in administration. And although we do have rules and policies and guidelines, there is a gray area for for extenuating circumstances. So you do treat every student and every family different because they are different, but that’s your work around equity. That’s how it becomes an equity piece. And so you have to be able to work in the gray and you have to be able to listen with empathy at all times,


Sam Demma (20:53):
You exude enthusiasm and positive energy and hope. What, what, what inspires you and motivates you to show up every single day and continue doing this amazing work?


Julie Mathé (21:06):
I absolutely, as you can tell, I love what I do. Mm. I, I say probably weekly to someone who asks me or someone who doesn’t even ask me. I love what I do. I have hope because I have my faith. I have hope because I have a family that supports me. I have hope because I see change in our world for the better. And and I get to work with young people and may keep me vibrant and hopeful.


Sam Demma (21:38):
I love it. if someone would like to reach out and borrow some of your positive energy by ranging a phone call or asking you a question, what would be the best way for a fellow educator to get in touch with you?


Julie Mathé (21:51):
They can certainly access our school website, our St. Mother Theresa high school website. And my email address is right there.


Sam Demma (21:59):
Awesome. All right, Julie, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. It is a pleasure to have you keep up with the great work and we’ll talk soon.


Julie Mathé (22:07):
Thanks so much, Sam. I, it was my pleasure and it was nice meeting you.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Julie Mathé

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

Chris St. Amand – Leader of Experiential Learning at the St. Clair Catholic District School Board

Chris St. Amand - Leader of Experiential Learning at the St. Clair Catholic District School Board
About Chris St. Amand

Chris (@MrStAmand) was born and raised in beautiful Sarnia, Ontario. He left to attend University in London. He enjoyed four great years at King’s University College and completed his Teacher’s College at Western’s Faculty of Education. When he finished, he took the opportunity to travel to South Korea to teach English to Kindergarten students for a year and a half before taking time to backpack through Southeast Asia. 

When Chris returned in 2009, he began teaching with the St. Clair Catholic District School Board, first as an Occasional Teacher before being hired as a Grade 6/7 teacher. About 5 years into his career, an opportunity arose for him to work in curriculum, and he has enjoyed working as a Student Work Study Teacher (a classroom-based instructional research position), Intermediate Numeracy Lead, and now as Leader of Experiential Learning, a position he’s held since 2018 (with a brief detour teaching Grade 6 in his Virtual Elementary School this past year). Chris is very passionate about education and is so fortunate that he’s been afforded so many different opportunities throughout his career.

Chris is married to a wonderful partner who is better than him in almost every way, and together they have been blessed with two beautiful children who are his what, how, and why every day. Coffee keeps him going, reading keeps him learning, and people keep him happy!

Connect with Chris: Email | Twitter | Instagram | Linkedin

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

St. Clair Catholic District School Board

The suite of Reflection Strategies (Free resource)

Matt Sanders – Experiential Lead Learner at the Lambton Kent District School Board

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):
Chris, welcome to the high performing educator podcast. A pleasure to have you on the show here today. Please start by introducing yourself.


Chris St. Amand (00:08):
Thanks Sam. Glad to be here. My name is Chris St. Amand. I am the leader of experiential learning at the St. Clair Catholic district school board, which encompasses the beautiful Chatham Kent area.


Sam Demma (00:22):
When did you realize in your own career journey and growing up as a student, that education was the field for you?


Chris St. Amand (00:30):
Well, I kind of, I kind of came into it pretty naturally to be honest. My parents were both retired educators and they truly loved their jobs. Now. They, they were terrific educators as well. Mm I know this because I still have, when people hear my last name, I live in the same town still that I grew up in. Oh, was your, was your mom or your dad teacher? They taught me. Oh, it was great. You know, I, I know they were good. They were good teachers and it, it, it showed through at home how much they enjoyed it. So that’s not a reason why you go into something, but it’s a good reason not to rule something out. We’ll put it that way. Yep. And I, I have always been a people person. I enjoy working with people talking with people.


Chris St. Amand (01:11):
So it’s a good fit there. But honestly it just, it, it just sort of happened. I, I became a lifeguard when I was 16 years old and I worked at a, a pool where part of the time was instruction. Part of the time was doing the lifeguarding pool stuff. And I loved it. I loved, I loved teaching. I got the same opportunity university to teach again at a higher level there students thoroughly enjoyed it, connecting with people. And then I thought, well, this, you know, why not teachers college? And every everything I’ve done since I taught for a year and a half in South Korea internationally, I’ve been an occasional teacher, a classroom teacher, summer learning teacher, a virtual teacher, a curriculum leader. And I’ve, I’ve, co-taught with some incredible colleagues and everything I do kind of reaffirms that this is the right profession for me. So I guess, I guess what I said is, is all the reasons I’ll stay in the job as, as much as why I got into it. It really is. It really is the right career for me.


Sam Demma (02:16):
You said something so quickly that it’s such a significant experience that I want to jump back and touch on for a second. And that’s teaching in South Korea. What brought you out there? And what was that experience like for you?


Chris St. Amand (02:31):
Yeah, so I, I finished teachers college in spring of 2007. So a while ago now , so the world was a little bit of a different place but there was just sort of a burgeoning overseas sort of teaching presence, you know, go teach in Japan, go teach in South Korea, go teach in India. There were a lot of opportunities and there have to be a lot of recruiters that are teachers college. And it wasn’t something I initially was drawn to. But a we sort of finished up and my roommate, one of my best friends and I, we finished each calls together, driving back. We kind of looked at each other and said, okay, you know what, we maybe need to do something before we started our career. So I ended up going to South Korea. He ended up teaching in Sweden.


Chris St. Amand (03:15):
But that, that’s how I got there. And it was uhcredible. I was teaching, I was high school qualified originally. I ended up teaching up a kindergarten immersion. Why not? seems like the next natural thing to do. But it was, it was great. It was the first time I got to live alone to understand myself. It was the first time. I really had sort of a program of my own and I’m grateful for that. And to be able to South Korea is a beautiful country and, and be able to explore that and use it as a travel point for all of Asia was just an, an incredible year and a half that I, I wouldn’t wouldn’t trade for anything.


Sam Demma (03:59):
And you’ve, you’ve, it sounds like you’ve done so many different roles in education now, you know, you can add to the list international teaching and yeah. Experiential learning. And you know, you said virtual teacher and kindergarten teacher and high school teacher and support teacher, and the list goes on and on out of all of the roles you’ve done, there’s no better roles in education, but for you personally, what has enabled you from your perspective to one have the most fulfillment and two feel the most meaningful meaning you’re making the biggest contribution or difference?


Chris St. Amand (04:36):
I, I like how you gave a preamble to that question, because I feel like every role I’ve had the opportunity to do that. Yeah. So I’m a little cautious to elevate one over the other. Yep. Although I will say the work I’m doing right now is experiential learning lead is affording me a lot of opportunities to reach a lot of students and and educators and, and sort of bring, bring programming to schools in a ways that you can’t do as a classroom teacher. You get your, your own kids and you control that ship. Yeah. But I get to work K to 12 I’ve got outdoor education in my portfolio. I’ve got all sorts of connecting with community partners. And, and I, I connect with a tremendous team of colleagues where we get to work on secondary and elementary programming, where I get to work on indigenous programming, ready to work on pathways programming for seven to 12, where I get to you know sit down with senior admin and think about what do we want to do for system level pieces. It it’s really, and, and then get a chance to connect with the community partners who I can help bring to schools. Yeah. Virtually in person, whatever that looks like. It’s, it’s, it’s sort of and I I’m sure we’ll talk about this later, but this year, especially has been challenging, but also has been full of opportunities in a way I wasn’t expecting when I return to the role. Yeah. And it’s been, it’s been pretty wild. Yeah.


Sam Demma (06:18):
Well, let’s jump right in. What, what are some of the challenges that you think I’m sure there’s some obvious ones that all schools are facing, but what are some of the challenges you think the school and yourself have been facing and to dovetail with that, some of the opportunities that have come along or come to life because of the challenges?


Chris St. Amand (06:35):
Yeah. I mean, I’m not unique in this and yeah. And I know this cause I talked to, to my colleagues who do the same job I do in other boards and it’s no secret you know, COVID is the elephant in every room. Whether, whether you’re saying it or not, it’s there. But other things are exhaust. That’s sort of exacerbating some other things like you know, a shortage of occasional teachers. So it’s difficult to release people sometimes. Or if people are sick and jobs, can’t be filled, that’s a challenge too, right. That’s structurally that needs to be addressed. There’s difficulty running extracurricular programming right now, be that club sports or things with community partners where we want to get an awesome learning engagement, but we can’t get a bus there or they won’t let us in because of their policies.


Chris St. Amand (07:19):
And of course, family like educators, student staff, and family wellbeing has been stretched really thin for a lot of people. So everyone’s kind of in a different place with that. And I mean, all those challenges, I’m, I’m certainly not immune to, and, you know, been, been in different places in the last couple years as we all I, I guess, but to tie that all together in a bow, the biggest challenge I think that that sort of pulls all that together is we can’t as an education system, I think eventually. And certainly I’ll speak for our board. Yeah. We can’t do things the way we did them before. We can’t, the, the mechanisms may not work or other doors have been opened that are leading some really interesting ways of doing things. And, and for some, for some stuff, the, you know, the genie out of the bottle or the toothpaste is out of the tube, or, you know, you can choose whatever you you’re a metaphor is. We just can’t necessarily go back to the way we did things pre C for, for all those reasons. So that, that I guess is probably the biggest challenge is trying to figure out what is, what does it look like? What does good quality education look like with all these challenges and a new changing landscape?


Sam Demma (08:40):
And that question sounds like it’s the opportunity as well. And I’m, I’m curious to know what you think some of the opportunities have been along with those challenges and why it’s also been exciting in this role during this time.


Chris St. Amand (08:53):
Yeah. well, I mean, there are some, there are some serious opportunities right now and I’ve been able to kind of get creative with, with what I do. So I’ll, for example, outdoor education, I’ll put it this way. Traditionally our outdoor ed model was we would carve up our budget equitably among our schools by size population, socioeconomic needs, et cetera, and say, here’s your budget, go ahead and, and do something with it. And, you know, book, book, and trip, bring your kids to conservation area or you know except something like that, right? Yeah. Your classic like field trip. Right. but now I have this budget this year that I’m, I’m helping to kind of try and bring opportunities to teachers, but we haven’t really been able to leave schools and a lot of vendors won’t let us go there if we can.


Chris St. Amand (09:57):
So what we’ve tried to do is flip it and identify ways, opportunities to bring things to schools. And what we’ve found is that systemically people are loving it because there’s no travel, the costs are less and we can engage a number of classes in good experiential, outdoor education opportunities, whether that’s you know, someone from and it could be virtual as well. We’ve done a lot of virtual outdoor ed programming, like a local conservation area does a great live streaming where you connect to the class for an hour and they take you through the pond or biodiversity or something like that. Right. Yeah. It’s, it’s really cool. But they’ll also come and do nature in your backyard. Lots of sports opportunities under the outdoor ed piece, lots of lots of stuff like that. It’s been, it’s been pretty neat to, to do that.


Chris St. Amand (10:57):
So you know, another challenge too, is that people returning this year after last year, which was so disruptive, a lot of virtual or, or whatever trying to create opportunities that are seen as just that an opportunity, not an imposition. Mm. So here’s this opportunity, give it a, give it a try. And we’ve done with my colleague at, at our co-term board, Matt Sanders, we’ve done a lot of virtual programming. That’s been very successful where we put up a calendar for February most recently, and booked a lot of community partners. Some we paid for some were free and said, it’s free to schools drop in. If you can make it, if it works for you, that’s great. And they were live and interactive. And the feedback was tremendous between our two boards, we reached, we figure about 14,000 students over the course of the month.


Chris St. Amand (11:56):
Wow. which we would’ve had a fraction of. We were trying to bring those in person. Yep. You know, we just, first time we’ve done this too, we’re we hired a dance, a dance instructor, professional dance instructor. Oh, cool. To bring virtual dance instruction to our K eight schools. And we just wrapped up today with our 5, 6, 7, 8 classes. And over the course of the week, we had 7,000 students doing dance instruction. Wow. which again is just so, like she said, that’s how many, I, I wouldn’t see that many in a year and I saw that in a week. So when I say there’s opportunities, you know, if it can be a good quality thing that teachers can then take and supplement support or bring these opportunities to people again, as an opportunity, not an imposition, you don’t have to do this. No one said that it was free for them. Cuz you know, we, we paid for it centrally. Yeah. It seems to be what’s working for the class and you know, it, it, it’s an interesting model. We wouldn’t have been able to do pre pandemic cuz people weren’t there, the technology wasn’t there, the virtual comfort level, wasn’t there. That’s now there cuz it had to be


Sam Demma (13:05):
Talk about an opportunity for impact with mm-hmm such large groups. You’re right. If you brought a dance instructor into the school, max, they’re gonna be able to do two or three classrooms max 80, 90 students, not 7,000. Yeah. Which is amazing. I’m curious out of the programs, the school board has been running and you’ve, you know, you’ve been in so many various roles. You’ve definitely been a part of programs in many capacities. Do you have any stories of how a program has impacted a student that kind of come to mind? Then? The reason I ask is because I think one of the and it’s hard to quantify of course, like or, you know, narrow it down to one story. But one of the things that I think is really helpful in education is reminding educators that the work they’re doing is changing lives and like everyone plays a role and sometimes hearing about how a young person was changed or transformed is a reminder as to why they’re doing the work they’re doing.


Chris St. Amand (14:01):
Yeah. And I, I appreciate the question. And every time I get an email from a former student saying, how you doing, thank you for this. You know, it, it makes my, it makes my day, if not my week. Yeah. Cause it’s not prompted and it’s especially the farther way I am from teaching them. Yeah. It’s, it’s even nicer. Right. but yeah, I’ll share, I’ll share two stories if that’s okay. Sure. one is, one is sort of more technical and one’s, one’s more personal. Yeah. So, but, and both involved summer learning. So I was with the team that was able in a, in a previous role, I was a numeracy support teacher and I worked with my superintendent and some other, other people on our secondary team to bring in some summer learning to support grade nine, applied math, which spoiler is no longer a thing in 2022 that we’ve de streamed it.


Chris St. Amand (15:04):
But back in 2017/2018, it was, it was a big deal. And there were some serious equity pieces we were worried about with graduation rates with pass rates for grade nine applied. It was, you know, it was, it was considerable. So we built a program which we called head start and we, we put the mascot of our, our school in front of it. So St Sarnia high school St. Pat’s fighting Irish. So the Irish head start program and we invited grade eight students who had chosen grade nine, applied math to join us for a three day camp. And it was three half days. And part of it was not an oxymoron, fun math, where you get to meet your teacher. We had the grade nine applied teachers there just do some get used to the school.


Chris St. Amand (16:00):
And then we had some of the elective teachers tech, they made bottle rockets, music. They did some drum circles and some percussion stuff. Art, they did a project like that, you know, drama stuff, you know, those, those elective courses to Z, they got a chance to show off to the students like, Hey, maybe you didn’t take it for grade nine, but we’re here. And I’m a friendly face. Yeah. Well, we got guidance to meet them principals to meet them secretary staff, anyone who they’d be potentially chaplaincy, anyone who they’d be interacting with in grade nine. And the feedback was good. The, you know, the couple years we did it and I mean, the kind of stuff you’d expect, oh, this was great. I feel much more comfortable coming to school. And oh, you know, I liked, I liked, I like Jim and you know, like, you know, Mr.


Chris St. Amand (16:49):
San, get us better snacks, please. That sort of stuff was, was a food comment. Yeah. But here’s, here’s why I tell this story. It’s not something anyone said to me, but every single student, except for one past grade nine applied math. Wow. Compared to 70% of the rest of the population who passed. So it could be, you know, you could say, oh, causation is not correlation. I, I, I know that, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we had that first year was 65 kids between our two high schools, all but one, and that was an attendance shift you passed, like that tells me we were on the right track. And even if it gets them in the right head space to do well and connects them with their teachers ahead gives them that head. Start. That to me is, is something that I’m really proud of the impact we had.


Chris St. Amand (17:41):
The other one is I had the opportunity to teach summer learning to elementary age students. So students who were going to grade three who were, who were needing a, maybe a bit of a bit extra math and literacy. So again, it was a, it was a whole day camp. The morning was math and literacy, the afternoon, some sort of experiential learning offsite or on we, we had fun with it. And the first time I did it was with a great great teacher, Erin leach, she and I kind of co-taught it nice compliment each other very well. And the kids went off and honestly, I didn’t, I didn’t see them again until this past fall. When I walked into a classroom at a high school, I was dropping something off for the Cosmo teacher. And I heard, Hey, and I’m wearing a mask too.


Chris St. Amand (18:28):
Keep in mind, I’m wearing a mask. I turned around and saying, hi, they’re like you taught a summer learning. Or a couple of ’em there said I did. They’re like, we loved that. We were so sad when it was over. We wanted to go back and like, again, I’m getting, you know, kind of chills just saying it again. It was just so unexpected. And I mean, you know, when you’re seven or eight years old to then be 14 years old to then number one, say that to a teacher, most, most kids don’t wanna talk to people they who previously taught them. But then to, to go out of their way to say that, cause I wouldn’t have, I wouldn’t have said anything. They were just kind of sitting in the back of the class. Right. It was, it was awesome. So, you know, those, those two stories about our extra summer programming are two I’m really proud of and had a, you know, a hand in, in planning and implementing.


Sam Demma (19:18):
It says a lot about the, the way you made them feel like sometimes some something that a lot of educators always tell me when I ask them some of their advice and we’ll get there soon for younger educators is, you know, sometimes students will forget what you said, but they’ll remember how you made them feel like the whole Maya Angelou idea and quote. Yes. And you know, they might not have remembered all of the content. You taught them in summer school, but they obviously remembered the environment and how it made them feel. And so, yeah, it’s really, it’s really cool to hear and reflect on that. And it, it goes to show you listening, you know, as a potential future educator that that’s the impact that you can kind of have on kids, hopefully one that lasts a lifetime. It, I’m curious to know some of the resources that you found helpful throughout your journey and all the various roles you’ve been in. Have you, have you created a dashboard of resources? and have you also, what have you also found helpful just personally for your own development?


Chris St. Amand (20:23):
Yeah. well, I’ll answer that backwards. The, the most helpful resource I found bar none is, is people fellow educators. And if I could say nothing else, it’s that it can be difficult, especially in your career to figure out, you know, what’s what, but if you can, if you can find one or two people who you click with and, and you agree with, and, and can have been doing it longer than you, and can maybe show you, show you some stuff or tell you some stuff or, or give you advice or point you in the right direction, it, it goes, it goes farther than any blog or book you could read. It goes farther than any, any lesson you could possibly teach in a classroom by itself is a one off it’s it’s integrated those, those friendships and partnerships are, are invaluable.


Chris St. Amand (21:22):
And teaching teaching, even though, you know, you think of the teacher teacher, class’s their own thing. It is a very collaborative profession. Mm we’re. Often we’re often collaborating with each other, sharing ideas, sharing resources, professional development is that collaboration model and teaching itself is moving more collaboratively teacher and student in a lot of, in a lot of circumstances where it’s appropriate kindergarten, right through grade 12. So I would say that is that, is it but I mean, there are some go-tos that said depending on, depending on the role. Yeah. So I’ll maybe it’s best to speak to the role I’m in now. I, again, working with Matt Sanders and this is why I say again, people is your resource, cuz they can push you and, and, and bring you places you didn’t, you couldn’t get by yourself.


Chris St. Amand (22:22):
We’ve, we’ve created a number of pieces to support ourselves as well as support educators. Not to get too into the weed, Sam, but when you think experiential learning there’s three pieces participate, reflect, apply, that’s sort of the cycle and it doesn’t have to go in that order, but you know, you do something reflect on it to, to learn something, to glean something from it and then apply it in some new context or to your life or whatever that is. Right. as, as educators, we’re really good to participate, pretty good at apply. The reflect is where it’s tough and what makes it even more tough is that if you look in any curriculum document or anything supported by the ministry of education there, it says dozens of times you need to reflect it. Doesn’t say how to reflect. Ah, that’s, that’s the challenge.


Chris St. Amand (23:17):
So, and that’s when I started in this role found very challenging. People would say like, what do you mean by reflect and be like, oh, I don’t know. So , that’s a great question. Let me, let me get back to you. So I said, I thought I need to have something to give people or have myself if they’re saying, what do you think I should do here? So I built with Matt, a database of reflection strategies pulled from tons of sources, nothing particularly original. It just sort of, it was a, it was just a Google sheet. It still exists. It’s a library and we use it regularly. It’s a library that is sorted by grade time resources needed. When, you know, when you do, before you do something during, after, or all three and it’s ways just to pull some of that reflection out it’s not exhaustive, but it it’s something that teachers have appreciated and we’ve been we use again quite, quite regularly. So, you know, again, nothing, nothing particularly original, but yeah. Yeah.


Sam Demma (24:22):
Well, the


Chris St. Amand (24:23):
It’s


Sam Demma (24:23):
Accessible, I guess that’s, what’s more important is that it’s accessible. Right? mm-hmm, , I mean, there’s ideas everywhere, but some people that don’t have access to them or know where to find them, you guys have created this super rich database. Where can someone go check that out if they’re interested in, in looking at it?


Chris St. Amand (24:40):
Yeah. It’s the it’s just, it’s free. It’s open access. It’s just bit.ly/reflectionstrategies. And that will take you right there. And yeah, you can, you can check it out. It’s open to everyone in the world. Anyone who wants to kind of check it out that it’s, you know, again, it’s not, not exhaustive and it’s grown since we we’ve, we, it started as reflection strategies, then we said, okay, how do you reflect using the curriculum? How do you reflect? You have to do something to reflect. So if you’re interested in a strategy, here’s some, you know, activities that you can do that are team building with your, your class.


Chris St. Amand (25:33):
Not put together a really nice piece about reflection question a day that gets your class talking. I used a lot of ’em when I was teaching last year, it was nice to have that resource. You know, if you could if you could, you know, not be one thing when you grow up, what would it be? Why like flip that question, stuff like that, right? Yeah. And it, that often leads to a very rich pathways discussion too. So, you know, it’s something that people can explore if they’re interested, but it’s, you know, it, it does, it does, it is aimed at that experiential learning and good activity beyond the four walls of your classroom.


Sam Demma (26:10):
Very cool. You mentioned human resources, people Bitly strategies or Bitly forward slash reflection strategies.


Chris St. Amand (26:20):
Yep.


Sam Demma (26:21):
If you could take your experiences in education, bundle them all up, travel back in time, top yourself on the shoulder when you were just starting your first job in education. What advice would you have given yourself, knowing what, you know now and gone through all these various experiences? Or what, what do you think you would’ve have liked to have heard at the start of your career or understood more at the start of your career?


Chris St. Amand (26:47):
Mm-Hmm yeah. I mean, God knows I’ve, I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way.


Sam Demma (26:59):
You’re human congrats.


Chris St. Amand (27:00):
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it’s, it’s an interesting question because it, it is one, it’s one. I have trouble answering Sam because it, what I’ve done has gotten me to this place. And I feel like if I could tell myself any differently, it might be would


Sam Demma (27:22):
Change.


Chris St. Amand (27:23):
Let, let me rephrase. I’m so sorry. I’m gonna be that guy. Who’s gonna pick up our question. So like, I can’t think it through.


Sam Demma (27:30):
No that’s okay. Well, what if we looked at it from the aspect of there’s someone listening, who is just about to get into this profession yeah. And is super excited about it, but also extremely nervous. Like what, what, what would you tell someone who’s just getting into education? Who might need a little bit of encouragement or some insight?


Chris St. Amand (27:52):
Yeah. I’d, I’d say don’t fool yourself. It’s hard. Like it is, it is a it’s hard work and maybe something I wasn’t prepared for and nothing can really prepare you for it is that when you go out a classroom, your own and you don’t really you’re new, like, like anything, you don’t really know what you’re doing. I mean, you’ve been prepared in some ways, but nothing really prepares you for that. For that first class you have that first day you have, when you’ve got people looking at you expecting you to, to be there, to, to steer the ship. Right. Yeah. So I think, I think what I would say is connect with, connect with kids and make sure they’re taken care of and show them that you care, you know, and, and take the time to listen. And if you do that, it goes farther than anything.


Chris St. Amand (28:46):
The some of the best, best advice I ever, ever heard was five words. Tell me your future story. Mm. And I learned this at a bridges outta poverty workshop, which I had the privilege of attending twice. And a former principal of mine actually. He’s, he’s now the director when I worked for him had Scott Johnson. He had those words on his door and everyone, you know, has a future, but not everyone has a future story. And what does that mean? Some people can’t see themselves in the future. Some people are beholden to their circumstances or whatever. So having those conversations, showing that you, you care asking them, well, what, you know, what’s your, what are you gonna do? Like who, who are you? Who do you wanna be? What are your opportunities? Let’s help. Let’s find those out together. Whether that’s little, little, three year old kindergarteners who just starting, or, or a 17 or 18 year old, who’s just graduating.


Chris St. Amand (29:49):
It’s it doesn’t, it doesn’t change. I, I think, I think that’s it. And, and truly, I mean, it’s so cliche, but showing that you care, if, if you, you can’t fake that you have to actually care. And if you do you will have fewer, fewer issues across the board in terms of planning, in terms of student relationships and student of parent relationships and all that one other thing I’ll, I’ll say, and it kind of fits with it is don’t be, don’t be shy contacting parents, especially in the first week of school. Hmm. And don’t, don’t be shy to contact them for good things as well, share the successes that they don’t get to see let them know how, how beautiful their child is and, and what they’re doing so well, not just the bad news, because if you get ahead of it with the good news, it makes those, those more challenging phone calls or, or, you know, communications much, much smoother. And I, I don’t always practice when I preach. Cause cause life gets busy, but that’s something I kind of always, always strive for. And have, when I’ve been teaching,


Sam Demma (31:06):
I love it. Those are great pieces of advice and I appreciate you, you, you sharing, if someone wanted to reach out, ask you a question, bounce an idea off you what would be the best way for them to get in touch?


Chris St. Amand (31:21):
Yeah. So, I mean email, email is always good. I, I live on email, chris.stamand@sccdsb.net Also on Twitter at @MrStAmand. Good to connect there as well. And yeah, I I’m always open to an email and if someone wants to collaborate or ask questions, I, I love it. I think it’s, I think it’s how you get better.


Sam Demma (31:55):
Awesome. Chris, thank you so much for taking the time to come on the show. Keep up the great work and we’ll talk soon.


Chris St. Amand (32:01):
Thanks for the opportunity, Sam. Cheers.

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

Peter Bowman – Principal of Orillia Secondary School

Peter Bowman - Principal of Orillia Secondary School
About Peter Bowman

Peter Bowman is the Principal of Orillia Secondary School in Orillia, Ontario. He began his career working with young people as a soccer coach at the age of 12. It wasn’t until 1991 that he began getting paid to work with teens as a computer science and mathematics teacher at Hodan Nalayeh Secondary School in Vaughan, Ontario.

He then moved north to Barrie where he taught science and math at Barrie Central Collegiate and Barrie North Collegiate. In 2007, he had the co-privilege of launching the North Barrie Alternative School program. From there he moved into administration as a Vice Principal of both Bear Creek S.S. and Barrie North Collegiate before being placed as Principal in Orillia. Over the course of his thirty-plus years, he has remained active in the sports community. He has served as Honorary President of the GBSSA, member association of OFSAA.

He has championed the development of Ultimate as a sanctioned school sport since he started playing and coaching it in 1995. He is thrilled that he is still able to help coach the school team today. Additionally he has been active backcountry camping, cycling, coaching soccer and playing drums whenever and wherever.

He is driven to see others reach their potential by providing leadership opportunities as much as possible. He is energized by others but also likes quiet times away – and there’s nothing wrong with that!

Connect with Peter: Email

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Orillia Secondary School

Simcoe County District School Board

Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations

Georgian Bay Secondary Association (GBSSA)

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 (00:02):
Peter, welcome to the high performing educator. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here today. Please start by introducing yourself.


Peter Bowman (00:09):
Well, thanks for having me. My name’s Peter Bowman, principal at Orillia Secondary School currently and in my 30 year career as an educator, I’ve been in a couple of different school boards. Started in York region and then moved to Simcoe county and have been a classroom teacher, a variety of things. I’ve done some computer science, some math, chemistry. At one point I was in alternative education. So for five years, I was tasked with opening the Barrie North Alternative school program. Nice. And that was an awesome adventure. And then shortly after that got into administration and I’ve been vice principal at Bear Creek secondary school in Barrie and Barrie north collegiate and presently find myself principal in Orillia.


Sam Demma (00:55):
When did you realize growing up that education was the career you wanted to pursue?


Peter Bowman (01:00):
Well, I’m not actually convinced that it is yet. I’ll wait and see how things go. fascinatingly, when I graduated high school and I had a great high school career but I walked outta that high school and I said, I’m done with high school forever. And I have been there ever since it seems.


Peter Bowman (01:21):
So, so I, I was graduating from university almost on a whim or a dare from my roommate at the time I applied to teacher’s college. I’m thoroughly convinced that I was part of what was communicated as a glitch in the acceptance software and got in to teachers college at Lakehead. I was intrigued at the prospect of going to thunder bay for a year. I loved the outdoors. And so that was an interesting prospect. So I took off did teachers college wasn’t convinced I knew what I was gonna do, whether I would teach or not. But then landed a job at one secondary school sort of north end Toronto, and initially said, I’d stay for as long as I thought it was good. And I’m still, still going.


Sam Demma (02:08):
Did, did you have any educators in your life think and encourage you to think you were gonna get into this work and encourage you to do so or more so founded?


Peter Bowman (02:20):
I mean, my high school days were great. I was in a, a relatively new high school and a lot of the teachers were young-ish and a lot of opportunities, a lot of clubs and teams and activities and stuff. It’s interesting. I was talking with a colleague the other day and, and a name popped in Mar Ross was my grade nine fied teacher. Hmm. A very unique individual and he just had this way of lighting a fire under everybody. And for whatever reason, he, he maybe noticed something in me, but he kind of took me under his wing a bit, I guess got me doing some time keeping for the football team and involved in some other things. And, and, and in time gave me those opportunities for leadership, but also facilitated sending me to bark lake leadership camp. Mm. And so as a youngster, I think I would’ve been 14 or 15, went to bark lake and they taught you explicit leadership concepts mm.


Peter Bowman (03:21):
And gave you opportunities to demonstrate leading. And from that, I then got a job working in summer camps. I spent a number of years working at the Ontario camp for the death. Nice. And learned all kinds of things there and, and had opportunities to to lead, but also to, to struggle through challenges and, and work with teams of young people, as well as campers and, and other other staff. So I, I think it was not explicitly Mar Ross kind of lighting that fire under my butt to do more than just B. But I certainly identify him as one of the players. That was pretty key. And, and what I really like is in our school district, there’s, there’s a Mar Mar Ross Memorial award. Oh, wow. Given to excellent coaches. Mm. And through every year we have, you know, three really, really cool honors that are given out in athletics. And, and it’s really important for me to be in attendance at that annual meeting to, to just see who’s receiving the award and hear the awesome things that they’re doing. And, and I draw that connection to Mar and the impact that he had.


Sam Demma (04:35):
You mentioned Mar had this way of lighting a fire under people. What did that, obviously, not literally, but what did


Peter Bowman (04:46):
That, but I bet you, he would, he’s the kind of guy that I bet you, he would. So the, the one story I tell he, he was a, a unique character. So like literally if there were three guys walking down the hall and you looked up, your eyes would naturally go to him. Hmm. For no really solid reason. I mean, yes. He had really bushy eyebrows and that might have been it, but so one day back in that day, they had what was called level six. It was like an enriched fied class. And so this was all of the top athletes from all the feeder schools. All the elementary schools came in and they chose this level six fied in grade nine. So he had us, and I don’t know what we were doing. We were probably supposed to be lined up in our squads, ready to start the day.


Peter Bowman (05:32):
Obviously we were not performing to standards that he said, and he came in for whatever reason. He had a set of Kodiak boots on what PHED teacher has, Kodiak boots. He was probably outlining, lining the field. And, and so we had these boots on and he was not pleased. And he launched the, the boot across the, the gym. like, I can still tell you from what entrance to what corner that boot the blue. And he immediately had her attention for the rest of the day. Cuz you just, you, you loved what he wanted you to do because you loved him as a, as a leader. He was comfortable with who he was and and was open to, to banter with kids and stuff. So it was just, it was really an authentic, good vibe in that classroom, but he, again, just unique. Right? So he, that character draws you in


Sam Demma (06:26):
A hundred percent. How do you think that those experiences, as well as the other teachers and educators and coaches you’ve had, has informed the way that, you know, you lead today or you try to leave that same impact on other students?


Peter Bowman (06:42):
I don’t think it’s explicitly Mar that did, did this kind of teaching. There’s a lot of influence that I’ve had. But certainly servant leadership is one of the things that I, I cling to. So it’s not a lording over somebody else, an authority position. That’s, that’s gonna backfire way more than it’s gonna work in your favor. And I don’t care if you’re talking, working with adults or kids. Yep. So that servant leadership. So if I’m the classroom teacher trying to teach you how to, you know, expand, binomials I’m there to help you. I’m not there to dictate what your life is gonna look like. So that’s, that’s a big part. And then the other part is authenticity. Mm-Hmm . If I run into a kid at the grocery store, I’m the same guy that was in the math class.


Peter Bowman (07:30):
I’m not, I’m not different in, in one position or place than another, I don’t think. And I’d like to, you know, assume that that’s the way others will perceive me as well. Cuz I think if you try to be somebody you’re not most people see through that very quickly. And, and I mean, it’s not easy to say, but if, if you have insecurities and you try to cover that that’s a formula for disaster. So I think it’s, it’s valid to have your insecurities and, and to be open about where that may play out in your relationship with kids in a classroom or wherever. And so it’s, I dunno, that authenticity is, is so critical because that, that gives people the opportunity to see you wart and all.


Sam Demma (08:19):
I couldn’t agree more. Take me back to for a minute bark lake. Why, why do you think it’s so important? Students have opportunities like that to be exposed to different ideas, perspectives and leadership. I leadership concepts.


Peter Bowman (08:36):
So it’s not even just that bark lake had that program. That was so critical. Mm-Hmm it was also the age. They, they were very uniform that you were, and I can’t remember if it was 14 or 15, you had to be that age. I think it was 15. Yeah. So there was nobody that was 14. There was nobody that was 16. You had to be 15. And that that’s, I think more impactful than people realized, cuz was timing is critical. Mm-Hmm I don’t have my driver’s license yet. I, I may not have had much in the way of part-time job experience. So you’re at a critical agent stage. And so I look at grade nine and 10 in my school and I’m like, you kids have got to jump into something. I don’t care if you end up being a regular attendee at our Dungeons and dragons club or, or if you’re the, you know, the point guard for our basketball team, I want you to be doing something.


Peter Bowman (09:31):
I walked into a drama class the other day and we’re putting on a musical this year. And so it was amazing. I walk in the teachers, the it’s a team teach scenario are kind of at opposite corners in the, in the theater. There’s a student front front row center, you know, elbows on the stage in charge of choreography. Obviously there’s a student that’s sort of center of the audience location. Flipping through pages. That’s kids are reading their lines. Obviously the student director, I, I couldn’t be happier. Like I don’t wanna walk into a class and see that the teacher has to do everything. So in that moment, those kids are being given those leadership opportunities. It, it ties into personal confidence. I, I don’t care if that choreographer student ends up being a choreographer. Mm you’re. You’re comfortable with who you are.


Peter Bowman (10:27):
You’re confident to speak out when, when someone’s not where they need to be. You learn to collaborate cuz you’re not yelling it out. You are, you are trying to coax them into being in the right spot at the right times so that it ends up being a great product. So those, those things I, I value so much. I, I remember when I got the outdoors club going at Vaughn secondary and I was a young pimple faced teacher with a ponytail . And I would wear a dress shirt just so that kids knew that I was a staff member right. Like it was one of those early days. And, and I thought at first I needed to get the canoe trip information and get all the material ready and do all the teaching and instructing and very quickly realized that’s so not what I should be doing.


Peter Bowman (11:14):
Mm. So I, I identified kids that had a little bit of experience or had a little bit of time and, and passion. And we would meet for hours before our, our canoe trip club meeting so that they were prepared to lead them through the sessions on how to pack, how to prep a menu. And what I loved is I, I hear from those kids now, you know, decades later telling me about the canoe trips that they’ve been on. And I want that for my own children. Right. I want them to have done enough on our family to do trips that, you know, they’re now at a age and stage where they’re going off on their own. And I’m not quite at a point where I trust my son to read a map on Georgia bay, but on smaller inland lakes, he’s good to go.


Sam Demma (11:58):
That’s awesome. That’s amazing. It sounds like community is a through line theme through all of this. Like you, you know, students helping each other, everyone getting involved in playing a role. It sounds like the, the school you were at and probably the one you’re at right now, like one of the emphasis is building strong community. What are some of the things you focus on in the school culture?


Peter Bowman (12:23):
So right now I’m trying to push we’re we’re appropriate project based learning and, and again, where possible. Multidisciplines so nice. I met with, with a colleague the other day. We’ve got this beautiful blank brick wall on our third floor that has sunshine almost all day. So I’m talking with, with Philly and I’m saying, is there a way that we can maybe get a living while going?


Sam Demma (12:51):
Mm.


Peter Bowman (12:52):
And so she’s jumped right on board, and that’s the thing like, she, like, we’ve got great people. So she jumps right on board, and she’s already talked to the environ person at the board office. But I love that she and I are on the same page and that we’re thinking, well, we’ve got a Makerspace club and a guy who loves computer programs. So maybe we can get in our Arduino or a raspberry pie to, to program the, the cycling of water for, for hydration. And, and we’ve got a fantastic machine shop here, right? So guys can, can weld up frames and brackets and and build the structure. So that’s where I want to go with that. I’ve got a I’ll call it an art installation in the main entrance way of our school. Hmm. That’s got six old random computer monitors.


Peter Bowman (13:40):
Again, the, the tech guys built the frame to, to Mount all these monitors. And then the computer guys programmed these little raspberry pies to take a kid’s image from our digital media art class and break it up into six quadrants of, of the, of the screen. Yeah. Cool. So that you now have these funky little, so your, your image that you created is then exploded into these six pieces. And that’s three different disciplines that have a project, right. When you walk in the front door. Cool. so that kind of thinking it doesn’t always pan out. Like I have more failures than I have successes, but I like that because then that’s a student that says I did that.


Sam Demma (14:25):
Mm.


Peter Bowman (14:26):
What is, or new kids coming in that can say, I can do that.


Sam Demma (14:31):
Hmm. What is your perspective on failure? Like, I I’ve listened to some people that I respect and they say things like failures or stepping stones to future learnings, you know, and as much as that’s a positive thing, obviously in the moment, it kind of sucks. but how do you perceive failure and, and approach the those actions?


Peter Bowman (14:54):
I’m certainly not, I’m not gonna drop a t-shirt phrase, but yeah, it’s critical. Yeah. I, my alternative school days as you can imagine, these are kids that struggled and maybe didn’t have a lot of encouragement. Maybe didn’t have a lot of success in their time, in and around school. We often referred to ourselves as the land and misfit toys, which I thought was kind of appropriate. But in that we banded together and, and had a lot of fun. But again, it’s the math teacher. You’re almost the, the worst guy in the planet, right? Yeah. Cause I’m taking kids that have very likely had horrific math experiences. And the big thing I always said is if, if you know, we, we look at homework or 15 minutes after class work time if I went around and I saw that the page was blank. And if a student said, well, I tried, I said, no, if you tried, there’d be all over that page.


Sam Demma (15:51):
Mm.


Peter Bowman (15:53):
And so we got into this sort of mindset that you know, and this was before the modern version of the vertical classroom, which is all the rage, but it was every kid at a marker. And every kid who’s up with a whiteboard and you throw something out there and I don’t care if it’s right or wrong, you are going to write something. And, and eventually, cuz it certainly doesn’t happen right away. Eventually every kid is, is willing to take a shot. Hmm. And I think that’s that to me is victory. Again, most of those kids that I, that I taught how to graph a linear relationship are probably not doing that for a living right now. Yeah. but the boldness to make that first step to try and come up with a table of values that I think is something that they’re probably tapping into as a as a skill set or as a, as a willingness to trust themselves to try.


Sam Demma (16:54):
Mm yeah. It’s like a character trait you build through different activities, which is why, when you mentioned earlier saying leadership camp, wasn’t only about learning a leadership concept. It was about being a part of something. It was about getting involved, building confidence in an activity. I think school as a whole does that in so many different subjects. And if we find something that we love doing as well, while we’re there, it’s like added bonus. But the, yeah, I think the skills last a lifetime well,


Peter Bowman (17:26):
And, and the shared experiences. Yeah. Right. Like it is, it’s one of the things I absolutely love is when I, when I chat with former students. And, and sometimes like I’ll still run into kids in Barry cause that’s where I live. And I’ve taught in a couple of schools in Barry. And so you’ll run into kids periodically. And they vividly remember scenarios and situations as, as do educators. But the problem is, yeah, you, you end up with so many kids and so many experiences you, yeah. That those moments may not make your top 10 for, but for that particular student, it, it was and like with the old school man, we did some stuff that was crazy. Awesome. And again, it wasn’t that they’re gonna learn how to parse out the subject and predicate in a sentence. It’s it’s that they know that if you relax and try and enjoy life or we bit sometimes good things can happen.


Peter Bowman (18:24):
We, I think it was at it wasn’t all school. It was at a regular school. We had a field trip. This math class had done way beyond what I’d ever imagined. Hmm. They were just so willing to go on the journey of trying stuff. So I, I asked if we could go on a field trip and the vice principal at the time said help me understand, do you wanna take a math class on a field trip? Where are you gonna go? That is math . So I was able to document it, letting us go to Toronto. So from Barry to Toronto, and this is back in the day when you were allowed to rent passenger van. So we rented the passenger van cause it was a very small class. We drove to Toronto and we were gonna go down to the lake shore and we were gonna figure out how far away center island was from lake Ontario using trigonometry.


Peter Bowman (19:10):
And we were gonna measure certain Heights of buildings using trigonometry trigonometry. So we did a bit of that. Oh. And by the way, it was around Christmas and we were gonna stop at Yorkdale and, you know, wander around a little bit. And that was okay too. So for whatever crazy reason, wherever we parked in Yorkdale, again, we’re all traveling together like who in the right mind wants to hang out with a math teacher, but we all walk in, whatever door happened to be open from where we parked and we follow this long corridor and then we go up these stairs and not this, we ended up on the roof of Yorkdale, you know.

Peter Bowman (19:44):
Well, I’m standing on the roof with, and, and as we, as we come out and we’re realizing we’re on the roof, you know, the, the immediate don’t let that door close. So, you know, we laughed about it and, and then left. I don’t remember what else we did on the trip, but I’m sure those guys remember that experience. Right.


Sam Demma (20:01):
Yeah.


Peter Bowman (20:02):
So I don’t know. I really think those opportunities are so vital. And that’s why when I walk around the school as principal and I see coaches here to the wee hours working on stuff and, you know, teachers lining up trips to Europe and stuff like that. That’s, that’s awesome. I absolutely love that extra effort that goes into things.


Sam Demma (20:23):
Hmm. Shared experiences is a big one. I was, I was listening to a podcast recently and they were talking about building relationships with other people and shared experiences is one of the top ways to do that because you have this memory and moment in time, that’s linked with that other individual. And they were talking about it in a, you know, a relationship like an intimate relationship way and you know, like going on dates and why it’s important to spend with your significant other. But yeah, just as much applies, I think, to just building friendships and lifelong friends. Speaking of like lifelong friends and friendships the educators that had a big impact on you, do you still stay in touch with some of those, those individuals and also do you have any mentors that helped you along the journey that you wanna give a quick shout out to besides Mar?


Peter Bowman (21:15):
That’s a good question. I don’t off the top of my head. I don’t think I have any that I, I seek out. It’s kind of funny because right now as principal there are some supply teachers that are retired, teachers that come in that used to work in the school I was in. So it is kind of funny to run into some of those folks. Mentorship’s an interesting thing, cuz we, we love to formalize everything. Yeah, right. We love to turn everything into a numbered memo and a, and a program and a structured something or other. And I, I don’t see, I don’t see that happening very well as a formalized process in education. Mm. My, my mentorship is, is all over the map. You know, getting into administration is a really significant shift from, from classroom teaching. And so to find people, I, I mean, we always use the phrase, phone, a friend to find people who you resonate with as a, as an approach, cuz not everyone’s the same.


Peter Bowman (22:23):
There are certainly colleagues that I have great deal of respect for, but if the two of us had to run a school together, I think it would be a disaster. Because our, our approach is just so different. There’d be conflict and style and, and, and in some case decision making, mm. So the mentors are, are those phone of friends. That I guess if I checked my phone to see, you know, frequency of text messaging there’s lots. And I think it’s important also to recognize that the formalized mentorship, they always talk about find somebody that is in the position you want to be in and, and aspire to. And then, and then work there. I actually have some mentors that, that are not in that sort of next step mm-hmm they’re, they’re either at the same step or they’re maybe a step behind or two steps behind. And it’s really just somebody that, that similar passion and in a lot of cases that similar lens. And so if your, if your lens is, how can I best help kids? You got a good shot at being on my mentor list.


Sam Demma (23:33):
I love it. I think you, you just got me thinking about a thought I’ve had for a while and couldn’t, couldn’t bring to words and it’s this idea that yeah, mentors don’t always have to be someone in the exact position you wanna be in in the future. It could also be somebody who I think it could also be someone who’s in a totally different field who can bring a unique perspective into the thing you’re hoping to do.


Peter Bowman (24:01):
And I’ve, I’ve read various books on, on mentoring, like iron sharp iron and all these other, there’s a lot of writing that goes into it. And they, they do say sometimes it’s not within your industry. But I, like, I also say in some respects, the kids that I’ve worked with yeah. Have mentored me as well. Like I think of my early days as a vice principal, that’s a, that’s a really tricky role to play at school. Yep. And, and there are some kids that I would say you might call high flyers regular yeah. Interactions and those kids as a new vice principal certainly helped me figure out what would and wouldn’t work. Mm. And so in that case, the iron sharpening iron yeah. That happened.


Sam Demma (24:48):
Mm. Yeah. I love that.


Peter Bowman (24:49):
But only because you’re authentic. Yeah. Right. If I, if I tried to have that, that, you know, rock solid authority position, I don’t think you would ever get to that mentoring sort of relationship with somebody. Or, and again, it, I don’t know if I’m doing proper justice to that concept. I’m sure there are folks out there that have studied mentoring that are freaking out when I say this, but mentoring is really about learning. Yeah. And, and where do you find that learning opportunity? And I, I don’t think we should ever limit where that learning can come from.


Sam Demma (25:19):
Great perspective. Speaking of learning, you mentioned iron sharpens, iron, any other resources that you have read or courses you’ve been through or yeah, just resources in general, they’ve been helpful for you throughout your, your career. I’m just curious. And yeah. If another educators listening, maybe they could look into it.


Peter Bowman (25:39):
So like honestly, the, the biggest resource I have are my ears.


Sam Demma (25:45):
Mm.


Peter Bowman (25:46):
They’re not particularly large. They’re getting a little hairier, but it’s, it’s listening and, and allowing yourself to listen more. The recently the one book I read was white fragility challenging read as a, as a white male and coming from that place of privilege again, I didn’t necessarily follow everything that was being described in the book, but it really forced me to, to not pay lip service, to trying to understand white privilege. Yeah. And, and that, that hit me last year. And I shared with my staff actually, I, I shot a little video and I know you’re not supposed to operate your cell phone when driving a car, but I did shoot a little video while driving. I was, I was going to pick up my, my one kid and I was a little bit late. So I might have been going a little beyond what the speed limit was telling me I was supposed to do. And I actually had this, this thought in my head, ah, what’s the worst that could happen. I’ll get a ticket. And then it hit me that’s cuz I’m, I’m white. Mm. That is not the worst that can happen for a lot of people.


Peter Bowman (27:05):
And, and I was, I was messed up. Like, I was even late because I had to pull over. And even now actually saying this Sam, like it, it Wells me up a little bit because that’s, that’s a horrible thing to have thought. But thankfully as I’m trying to read and trying to understand and try and do better, I’m, I’m getting caught in some of that stuff. Right. And I recognize that other other experiences are, are very complex and, and I need to try and do a little better. So weight privilege was a tough read. It it, it got through to me in, in ways that a lot of other PD and workshops and stuff hadn’t, and again, it, it may not be the, the magic ticket for others, but I, I certainly found it a very challenging read as a white male.


Sam Demma (27:53):
I appreciate you sharing that and I’m sure other people will be encouraged to check it out after hearing this. If someone, you know, listens to this conversation wants to ask you a question, connect or reach out what would be the best way for them to get in touch with you?


Peter Bowman (28:08):
I’m happy to chat. Like I, I very much wear my heart on my sleeve and and I’m certainly open to things. Welcome to send an email to me or call the school Orillia Secondary School and askto speak to the principal. We’re crazy busy with all that is school, but I’m, I’m certainly open to, to phone calls and whatever. I do social media, but increasingly I find there’s so much negativity and so much challenge with that, that I’m, I’m trying to back off. I never did get into Facebook. I created an account one year and, and friended my wife. That was what I gave her for her birthday or something. Because she knew how anti-Facebook I was and, and Twitter and, and Instagram I do. But it just, I find that people are just looking for opportunity to make that a, a negative space and that frustrates me because I can’t control it as well. And I, I also feel I do a bad enough job with the friends. I actually see, I don’t need to feel like I’m doing a bad job with the people I don’t necessarily run into.


Sam Demma (29:17):
Yeah, no, I agree. I, I took a year off social media about a year and a half ago now and it changed my perspective a lot.


Peter Bowman (29:27):
Is tricky because there’s, but there’s so much good that can come up. And, and if, if you could be part of a social media platform that forbid darkness and evil and then I’m in cuz there are a lot of great kitten photos and there’s a lot of great sayings and there’s a lot of deep insights that can occur. And these are wonderful platforms to, to challenge your brain and challenge your heart. But man, there’s so much poison it’s it’s really just worth it at times.


Sam Demma (30:02):
I appreciate Peter you taking the time to come on here and chat share some of your own insights and journeys and funny stories. and I, I hope to stay in touch in the future and continue to watch the great things that happen once the living wall comes to life. You’re gonna have to send me a picture of it.


Peter Bowman (30:20):
Knowing, knowing school board protocols and procedures, this could be years.


Sam Demma (30:24):
Yeah. but anyway, keep up the great work.


Peter Bowman (30:29):
I appreciate you doing this and highlighting some of the good things that are going on, because they’re certainly way more good than bad.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Peter Bowman

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.

Derek Hill – New York FFA State Director

Derek Hill - New York FFA State Director
About Derek Hill

Derek Hill is the Director of New York FFA and a staff member of the Agricultural Education and Outreach program at Cornell University.

Derek specializes in youth leadership development and is responsible for the oversight and management of the New York Association of FFA. Derek is an award-winning educator with over 15 years of experience working with students and educators at varying levels.

Connect with Derek: Email | Linkedin

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

New York FFA (Future Farmers of America)

NY FFA Events

SUNY Morrisville – Associates in Applied Science – Natural Resources Conservation

Cornell University – Bachelors of Science – Agricultural Sciences

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 guest. His name is Derek hill and he is the director of New York FFA and a staff member of the agricultural education and outreach program at Cornell university. Derek specializes in youth leadership development, and is responsible for the oversight and management of the New York association of FFA.


Sam Demma (01:00):
Derek is an award-winning educator with over 15 years of experience, working with students and educators at varying levels. You will feel Derek’s passion in this interview, and it was a pleasure working with him and his state conference with all the students from his organization and association in New York city. I hope you enjoy this, and I will see you on the other side. Eric, thank you so much for coming on the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show today. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit behind the journey that brought you to where you are today working with young people?


Derek Hill (01:36):
Sure. Thanks a lot Sam for having me today. I’m Derek hill, I’m the New York FFA director and I’ve been in this position for about six years now. My background is I grew up on my grandparents’ dairy farm here in New York and always had a passion for agriculture and thought that I would, that’s what I would do someday is I would take over their farm and and be a dairy farmer. But that, that didn’t work out that way. So you know, and I, I, after that point I thought I was gonna be I wanted to be a natural resources conservation officer. So I went to SUNY Morrisville and got my natural resources degree and while I was there, professor, my advisor had told me that they were look that he thought I would be a good ag teacher and he suggested that I go to Cornell and get my teaching degree.


Derek Hill (02:27):
And at that point I thought he was crazy, cuz all growing up in high school, you know, school, wasn’t my, my favorite thing. I never could have picture pictured myself being a teacher and you know, here’s this guy telling me, he thought I would be you know, a good teacher. I thought about it for a while and I decided to apply and, and go into the teacher education program. And that’s what I did. And I ended up getting a te a teaching position at Tali which is just south of Syracuse. So I was an ag teacher and FFA advisor there for over eight years. And then my current role opened up and I decided to apply for this job thinking that you know, if I could have that much impact on students in the Tali community, you know, this would give me a chance to have an even bigger impact on, on more students. And so that’s why it was a very difficult decision at that time. And cuz I loved being at Telli. But I made that jump over. So here I am today


Sam Demma (03:44):
And for all our Canadian friends that are thinking what the heck is FFA . Can you tell me a little bit more about the acronym what the organization stands for, what it hopes to achieve and accomplish and what compelled you to get involved?


Derek Hill (03:58):
Yeah, so FFAs used to stand for future farmers of America in the 1980s. They voted to just make it the national FFA organization. And the reason for that is, is we do a lot more than talk about production agriculture there. You know, everybody knows the agriculture industry is much broader and wider than the, you know, the farmer that’s on, on the farm. It’s you know, it’s getting the food there, it’s getting the food processed, it’s getting it to the stores, it’s all the financing behind it, all those things. So FFA recognized that and we wanted to be more inclusive of everybody. So that’s where the name kind of changed. It’s the largest youth organization in the country. We have over 700,000 members in all 50 states and and Puerto Rico, Virgin islands as well.


Derek Hill (05:03):
And the, the idea behind it is to help those students that are interested in agriculture to develop leadership skills and get recognized for the skills that they’re developing in their programs. And you know, a comp in, in the United States, a comprehensive agriculture program at the middle and high school level includes the classroom laboratory piece of it, but it also includes work-based learning which is what we call an SAE supervised agricultural experience. And then that third circle third component is FFA and they get to develop their leadership skills and compete in competitions from anything from public speaking to demonstrating their mechanical skills that they’ve picked up in their ag mechanics class. So huge opportunity. And we’re trying to grow it further here in New York so that more schools offer this opportunity to students.


Sam Demma (06:08):
That’s it’s awesome. I wish I had something like that here in Toronto, Canada. Growing up, that’s so cool. And I know leadership skills and giving students experiential opportunities is a huge thing that the organization does, especially with the, you know, huge conferences and everything that happens outside of the agricultural education. What are some of those experiences that they go through and have you seen the impact that it can have on a young person? Like maybe you can think of, you probably have hundreds of stories, maybe think of one or two and you can change the student’s name if it’s a crazy story, just to keep them private, but I’d love to hear how the impact change a young person’s life or change a perspective or something. And also some of the events that you guys hold and host every year.


Derek Hill (06:55):
Yeah. So what’s really awesome about FFA and I’ve always admired is the fact that you can have students that are in sixth grade all the way until, you know, they can be freshman, sophomore in college, even, but those high school students and those middle school students, you know, if you, you were to ride the bus with them to school each day, some of ’em would be sitting in the front and some would be in the back and they wouldn’t interact with each other at all. And FFA for whatever reason, it doesn’t matter what, how old you are, where you come from your background. Cuz we have students that live in the inner city all the way to students that live in the rural as part of the state. And they just are able to connect because they have a commonality and that they wanna grow as leaders and they, they wanna learn more about agriculture and all that other stuff gets pushed aside.


Derek Hill (07:54):
And the older students wanna help the younger students. We have a lot of mentor programs with the high school and middle school. So you know, the, the best thing that I can tell you that students have told me is a lot of times we, we have students that are lost and they don’t fit into sports. And Sam, I know your, your background is in sports and you know what it’s like to feel like to be on a team, right. And build that family well for these kids, you know, sports really doesn’t do that for ’em. And not to say we don’t have any athletes, we have a lot of athletes too, but the stories that stick in my mind are those that can’t find a place that they feel like they fit. And because we’re, I feel that we’re very accepting of just about anybody.


Derek Hill (08:45):
They they find that family and that’s what sticks out to me. And I’ve had students that could not for whatever reason do well in their other classes. But because, you know, as their ag teacher and FFA advisor, we spend so much extra time together. We build that bond and, and they can you know, kind of see the, the forest through the trees. They, they start to do better academically. And that’s what, that’s why I keep doing this is when they come back and tell me, you know, thanks for, for everything you do. Because it didn’t make a difference. And that’s what I’m here to do.


Sam Demma (09:33):
It’s, it’s cool too, because you know, agriculture planting, you know, reaping sewing, you know, as a, as someone who works with young people, you’re planting seeds in them as well, you know, and absolutely, you know, you’re watering it over time by giving them experiences and mentoring in them. And sometimes plant shoots to the ground and grows super fast. Others take some time. Sometimes you don’t even see it, you know, you don’t even see it happen. And it might be five years down the road that someone comes back and tells you about the impact that you made. I was gonna ask you, you know, what keeps you motivated to get up every day and do this work? Is it the students like tell me more about personally, what keeps you going?


Derek Hill (10:12):
Yeah, it’s, it’s definitely the, the students you know, there’s a lot of aspects to my position cuz part of it is being that administrative piece. And I’m not saying that that piece isn’t important or I don’t enjoy certain aspects, but that’s certainly not what keeps me going every day. Got it. It’s working in my position. I get to work with our, our state officers and district presidents. And then I also plan a lot of the events that all of our or a lot of our members come to and to work with them and see the difference that they’re, that they’re having to go to an event and see the new friendships that are being made. The networking that’s happening. You know, I, I can’t stress that enough. These students now know people from all across the country because they attended national convention and met somebody from a state that they would’ve never met before.


Derek Hill (11:09):
And it, you know, working with the state officers and, and you know, this intensive year that we have with them and seeing the growth from the beginning to the end and it, it always, it always is difficult at the end because we’ve put so much time and effort and they’re, they’re at a point where they’re performing and I can just send them out to schools and chapters and they’re good to go. And then I gotta start that process all over again each year, which is a challenge, but it’s also exciting, you know kind of hard to let go sometimes too.


Sam Demma (11:42):
Yeah, no, I hear you. And you know, just to give people an idea of the intensive experience, what does that look like? Is it you guys meet on a weekly basis? I know you obviously plan events together, but what does that commitment look like from a state officer’s perspective? And those are what age students as well?


Derek Hill (12:00):
Yeah, so they’re typically either a senior or a freshman in college. This year we have all college students they’re freshman and sophomores. Nice. it just happened to work out that way. And this is the first year that we’ve had all female state officers and female district presidents in our 96 year history. So, wow. it’s pretty exciting. Nice. in terms of the intensity in a normal year we’re going there’s something every week whether it’s going to a conference for another organization that wants us to come and speak or you know, they go through hundreds of hours of training. So as soon as they’re elected about a week or two later, they go into their first multi-day training learning about themselves. We start by focusing on themselves and helping them figure out who they are and what their strengths and weaknesses are.


Derek Hill (13:02):
And and then we start to build that team once they know who they are and try to get them to gel. And sometimes that, that happens quickly and sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes they learn to respect each other and they ne you know, they never necessarily become the best of friends, but that’s okay too. You know, that’s, that’s the way the world is. And then after that you know, we focus on their ability to facilitate workshops and give presentations. And throughout the year we offer all kinds of different leadership conferences. So one of our biggest ones is called 2 12, 3 16 in January. And we bring in some national trainers and we have about 800 students that’ll attend that. And they’re learning to grow themselves as leaders. Our state officers will do a tour in the fall around the state visiting different chapters and businesses.


Derek Hill (14:14):
So we’re on the road for about seven days, traveling, 15, 1600 miles meeting members and industry partners. We go to national convention, which is a week long process where our state officers become our delegates there. And you know, they work on committees and, and vote on different issues during the Del the business session. We have our own state convention that’s hopefully gonna be in person in 2022 . And that’s a three day event that our state officers we have six general sessions and, and they do all those sessions. They write the whole script, they write the retirement addresses. We help them work on presenting those. And so it’s, it’s a year round job, and, you know, I’m, I’m, I’m their advisor, but most of the time I end up being a coach and their, their life coach. And I’m available to them almost twenty four seven. When they call me at one o’clock in the morning, then my wife gets a little upset, but you know, so I try to keep it during working hours, but it, it, it’s it’s a lot of one on one time and helping them develop and not only their skills, cuz if they’re elected as a state officer, that’s a very competitive process. They already have those, some of those natural skills. But it’s, it’s about developing who they wanna become.


Sam Demma (15:57):
Mm. And what’s with the corduroy jackets, , you know, tell like where, where did this hype come from? And, and tell me more about that.


Derek Hill (16:08):
So that’s part of our official dress. And that’s been around pretty much the entirety of the organization. And what’s funny is throughout the years, the, the emblems changed even depending on when they could, what type of fabric they could get to make that quarter Ray sometime there was a point where it was almost like a purple color instead of blue, just because of the fabric that they could get at that time. But it, it’s, it’s a tradition for us. You know, it’s important to evolve as an organization and, and we certainly have tried to do that over time, but I think it’s also important to keep and maintain some of those traditions. And when you walk into national convention, downtown Indianapolis, and there’s 70,000 students, we’re in that blue corduroy and we’re all walking down the street together that makes an impression and everybody knows that they’re part of that organization. And the same thing at our own state convention, you know, it doesn’t matter where you’re coming from. We’re all wearing that. And, and the, the students feel unified. So it’s a, it’s a point of pride for us. And you know, sometimes it’s fashionable. Yeah. And sometimes it’s not, and right now it seems like it’s coming back around to being a little more fashionable.


Sam Demma (17:29):
, it’s funny. I tried getting one on eBay before the state convention and it wasn’t gonna ship in time, so I had to pass up on it. But I, I spoke to Ryan Porter, a guy who probably spoke for you guys, you know, a couple years ago or a long time ago. And he was like, yeah, man, the corridor jackets, you know, they, they love their jackets. And I was like, what is it? What is it about the jackets? But that’s awesome. Thanks for, thanks for sharing. And the emblem has changed lots. Like the logo now is pretty fascinating. Is there like meaning behind it or anything or


Derek Hill (17:59):
Yeah, yeah. Yeah. There’s it has changed a little bit over time. It used to say vocational education instead of agricultural education. And that really had to do with the change of terminology over the years. You know the symbols all mean something you know, the owl is there for wisdom and represents the, you know, the advisor piece the rising sun is kind of emblematic of looking towards the future. So each piece of that, you know, the cross section of the corn, you know, that’s kind of unity is behind that because corn’s grown in all 50 states. So yeah, we, we, we actually, as an ag teacher, a lot of, a lot of teachers will break that emblem down and, and get students to realize what that, what that all means and why it’s there.


Sam Demma (18:53):
Got it. Cool. That’s awesome. And when you talk about being an ag teacher how did that differ from the role you’re in today? Are you still doing that as well?


Derek Hill (19:04):
Yeah. I still consider myself a teacher. I’m just different role just doing it a little differently. I’m not in the classroom having to worry about six different preps each day. instead I’m worried about six different students, but yeah, it’s certainly as an ag teacher you know, you plan events and do things at the local level and you, you host competitions and things like that. But at this level I’m planning events for 2000 people where as an ag teacher, I might have been planning events for 150 people. So there’s a lot of similarities, but there’s some differences. You know, as, as, as the chapter leader, you’re thinking about your students, your chapter as the, the director for the state organization, I have to think about the entire state and, and what’s in the best interest for that. And you know, sometimes that’s, that’s easy to do and sometimes it’s not.


Sam Demma (20:10):
Yeah. And I have to ask, cause you mentioned it earlier that you thought you were gonna take over your parents’ dairy farm do you have a farm of your own? Do you grow vegetables?


Derek Hill (20:20):
yeah, we, we typically have a garden and we’ve raised pigs and cows in the past. We just moved. So you know, my two boys and, and I are working on building the fence and hoping to get them involved with some showing of animals and things here soon.


Sam Demma (20:42):
Nice. Oh, that’s awesome. And if you could go back in time and give yourself advice, knowing what you know now, and though all the experiences you had, if you went back to your first year, working with youth in any capacity, what advice would you give your younger self that to help equip you and prepare you for the journey


Derek Hill (21:01):
Yeah. I think I would give myself two pieces of advice. One would be to, to keep an open mind because I never would’ve imagined that I would be where I am today. This was not where I started out thinking I was gonna be. And here I am. And, and number two would be, you know, for all, all the teachers out there, you know, there are a lot of rough days but there’s also those good days too. And we have to, we have to remember those good days too, and not, not just the bad ones. You know, and I, I know that’s what kept me going is, you know, even through those bad days when a, a student or a teacher comes to me and you know, they’re, they’re happy and going in the right direction. That’s, that’s what keeps me going,


Sam Demma (21:58):
Love that. Awesome. Well, if someone is listening to this right now, Derek, and they wanna reach out, maybe just have a conversation, what would be the best way for them to, you know, find your info or even get in touch with you?


Derek Hill (22:10):
Yeah, probably the, the easiest way would be to send me an email and my emails pretty straightforward. It’s just dhill@cornell.edu. So feel free to reach out anytime.


Sam Demma (22:23):
Awesome. Derek, thank you so much for coming on the show. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you a little bit about your journey, the corduroy jacket, the logo, what the organization stands for and the part, the role that you play in, in the whole process. This has been awesome. Keep up the great work and we’ll talk soon.


Derek Hill (22:39):
Thanks a lot, Sam.


Sam Demma (22:41):
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 Derek Hill

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.

Terresa Amidei – Activities Director for Desert Ridge Academy

Terresa Amidei - Activities Director for Desert Ridge Academy
About Terresa Amidei

Terresa Amidei (@DRAsb2) has been an educator for 23 years.  She grew up in North Pole, Alaska and is currently the Activities Director for Desert Ridge Academy, a public middle school in Southern California. 

She cares about student voice and advocacy and works to be sure every student on campus is seen, heard, loved, and valued.  She says teaching is exhausting, but so, so worth it.  The work all educators do is vital!

Connect with Terresa: Email | Instagram | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Desert Ridge Academy

California Activities Directors Association (CADA)

What is American Sign Language (ASL)

SAVE Promise Club

PickWaste

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 special guest is Terresa Amidei. She has been an educator for 23 years. She grew up in North Pole, Alaska, and is currently the activity director for Desert Ridge academy, a public middle school in Southern California. She deeply cares about student voice and advocacy and works to make sure every student on campus is seen, heard, loved, and valued.


Sam Demma (01:04):
She says teaching is exhausting, but so, so worth it. The work all educators do is vital. You can reach her at her email, which she’ll share at the end of this interview or through her Instagram @draleadership. I cannot wait to share this, this conversation with you because it was so inspiring, and so filled with amazing ideas that you can implement into your schools and with your students. I will see you on the other side, talk soon. Teresa, 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 where you are in education today?


Terresa Amidei (01:41):
Oh, sure thing. Thanks for having me, Sam. This is fantastic. So I am Mrs.Amidei. I am the activity director at Desert Ridge Academy. We are in the Coachella valley and it is hot, it is so hot. Fun fact, summer school last week; 122 degrees. Swear, the actual temperature. So, the next part of your question was for what brought me here? Well, a fantastic thing. Funny story. I went to CADA, which is the California Activities Directors Association, and I happened to hear Sam talk about his amazing PickWaste thing, which is recycling and how he was student voice, student advocacy, making a change for the better. And that’s how I met Sam and how I got into education was this, I thought like this, hmm, what really matters? Hmm, what, what matters? What will make a difference? Where, what should I spend all my energy and talent on? And it was education and then not only being an educator, but then I was middle school because middle school, there’s no one who gets to be an adult that says, you know what, if I could just go back to middle school, bless you. If I could go back to middle school, my life would be so amazing. Middle school is the best years. That’s only true for kids that come here because we really do try to make middle school, not so middle schooly. Do you know what I’m talking about?


Sam Demma (03:02):
yeah, I absolutely. I absolutely love that. And you know, before we even started the interview, I saw this little, what I thought was a tattoo on your wrist. And for those of you that are listening and don’t see the video, there’s this little butterfly on her wrist. And I thought it was a tattoo. And so I asked Theresa what it was. And can you explain a little bit about that, how it originated and how it’s being used within the school?


Terresa Amidei (03:20):
Okay. Well fun. Another fun fact, our school is situated. We’re in Southern California. So we’re in the migratory path of the Monarch butterfly between here and Mexico. So a few years ago we got a grant and we actually had some butterflies. And now I wish I would’ve put that picture up that were painted as a mural on our building. And so the kids were like, wait a minute. I thought we were Diamondbacks. Like, why are we getting butterflies? So my student leaders came up with this way to make our, our butterflies make sense for them. They use this initiative, it’s called the D butterfly project. And it’s like this, you know, there’s a lot of kids, especially post pandemic. And during the pandemic and this year and a half of lockdown, they were struggling, right? Their mental health was suffering. Their emotional health was bad.


Terresa Amidei (04:03):
Their physical health was maybe they, you know, they were stuck middle schoolers. It’s the hardest part because like they don’t have jobs and they can’t drive. So they can’t leave their house. Right. Unless someone’s picking them up or we have zooms like this, where I’m like, come on, we have this activity just come on down. We’ll have a quick dance party. Woo, woo. So my kids noticed the mental health was not so great. Right. But kids, it’s such a hard thing. Like, they’re not gonna say, Hey, hold a little sign. I’m suffering. Like I’m having, I’m struggling. I’m having a hard time. I’m thinking of hurting myself. But what they will do is take Sharpie and make a little butterfly, which is what I do every day. Now, when we see that as a trusted adult, what we do is I look and if, if you were holding it up, I would say, oh, Sam, I see that you have a butterfly.


Terresa Amidei (04:50):
I’m a trusted adult at desert Ridge. Can I help you? I, I can get you any kinda help and I can listen to anything that you need. Right. and I’m happy to say that I, I was in that situation and I was able to get a kid help so that, you know, it just takes one to make it worth the effort. Right. And even if you say, no this is just a support butterfly, cuz you can put one on to say you’re supporting other people. So it’s not so stigmatizing to be like, Hey, I need help. I’m you know, if everyone’s like, oh no, we’re all rocking this. Like we’re all here to support each other. Then I would say, oh thank you so much, Sam, for your support. That means a world to, to someone who’s really struggling. And then I’d also go like this check on Sam next week in case it was a legit butterfly.


Terresa Amidei (05:33):
And it’s just been a really great, great project. It’s so simple. It costs nothing. In fact, some of my students in leadership last year, we presented virtually of course at the national youth violence prevention summit. And we shared this idea and there was a kid in Georgia who was like, miss a, I love that butterfly project. I mean, that’s not exactly how I sounded, but to me that’s how I sounded. And he go and it’s, I mean, everyone has a pin. If there’s kids who are also on distance learning, we also had a thing where if your parents were like, don’t write on yourself, you know, that’s a thing. We just added the butterflies onto our name. So where I have mine with my pronouns, my she and her we would just add a little butterfly fun fact, if you go eight, I eight kinda makes a butterfly. So that was my butterfly when, when we were on distance.


Sam Demma (06:23):
Wow. That’s awesome. That’s so cool. Does that idea or project relate to the hashtag save promise? I saw that in your, your email and I was wondering what that was all about as well.


Terresa Amidei (06:32):
Yeah. Okay. So save promise is another organization that we are a part of and we have a club I’m the advisor for that club as well. Nice. So the safe promise is stands for students against violence everywhere. Mm. It actually came out of the Sandy hook promise group and save promise club was another one. And so they kind of merged and they had this fantastic organization where they’re just saying, Hey, we gotta minimize our gun violence. And to do that, to do that, it starts with eliminating isolation, social I isolation. Like if you, I mean, it makes sense. You’re like, yes, that makes sense. If you feel like you don’t have a place in the world, if you feel like you can’t get any help, if you feel like no one notices, if you’re there or not, then of course you might be, you know, drawn into violence because nothing matters.


Terresa Amidei (07:23):
So for us, we, we were really happy to be a part of that club. In fact we got oh, what was, I, I wanna say it was a relationship. And like like what do you call it when you get like a little award? And we were like, oh, you guys are doing such a great job of like, you know, being innovative and connecting students. And I was like, yes. Because we only just started it last year. We just saw this is a serious need. I mean, not to get all serious on a, on a upbeat podcast. But when we, when the whole nation was closed down, you know, due to COVID wow. The school shootings were dramatically dropped because there were, there were no kids to be engaged in violence. When we started opening up, it was, it was heartbreaking to hear like, oh, there was another case and then another case and then something else.


Terresa Amidei (08:09):
And it’s like, guys, we can’t go back to the same way of operating. We, we have to be there for each other. We have to rise up by lifting others. If you see somebody who’s sitting by themselves, don’t let the sit by themselves. You know, like you can say, like, if I saw you by yourself, Sam, I would say, Hey Sam, do you, do you need someone to stay with you? I mean, some people are introverts, you know? And they’re like, no, I’m really good by myself. That’s great. But I need to ask to be sure, because if you’re like, no, I really just really want, I just feel terrible. Like I’m, I’m by myself, you know, mm-hmm so part, part of that initiative is we, we participated in a start with hello campaign, which is simply like, hi, hello, Hey. Yeah. How you doing?


Terresa Amidei (08:55):
You know, like acknowledging you exist, that’s where it starts. So you don’t feel so isolated. And then later in the year we had a whole districtwide where say something campaign. So it’s like, when you see something, most people who are gonna be drawn into any kind of violence, whether it’s like, oh, I’m gonna, I got some beef. I’m gonna have to fight with that person at the bus stop. You know, they say something, someone hears it before it actually happens almost every time. So part of that campaign is like, Hey, let us know. Like our number one thing is keeping kids safe. Yeah. We wanna educate you. But we I’m, I’m also trying to make fully formed functioning, loving adults, you know? Yeah. So I don’t want you to get a black eye. Like, how are you gonna you’re you’re like all scared of the bus stop cuz you think someone’s gonna try to get you like that.


Terresa Amidei (09:43):
That’s no way to live. So that’s kind of the things we’re trying to be ahead of the game and be like, no, no, no, no, we, we don’t play that game. Like no, no, no, no, no. You don’t have to sit by yourself. Like no, no, no, no, no, no. You need a friend come on over. And the other cool thing we’ve done Sam, like I’m just on a roll I better, I better have some wine keep no, no, no. I’m good. I’m good. Another thing we started is we noticed you know, there was a lot of turmoil in the country. I don’t know if you noticed, have you noticed? Yeah. A lot of divide, a lot of people, like not talking to each other, a lot of people, like, I don’t believe you or you no, you’re this. So you must not be that.


Terresa Amidei (10:20):
Or if you’re this, then you’re all these other things. People are very complex. And I think we don’t, you know, take that time to get to know each other when we realize, oh my gosh, we’re really the same. We’re really the same. Like you care about the environment. I know that from the work that you did. Right. And so I care about the environment. Like I turn on my water, I get wet. I turn off my water. Yeah. I get some soap. I turn it on. I turn it off. Yeah. That’s that’s me. You might, you didn’t know that till now. But we had that love of, of the world and the environment in common. And if we don’t have a chance to ever talk about it, we will never know that we’re really the same. Mm. You know? And, and it’s like, when you know somebody and you care about someone, it’s like, you know, I’m not gonna hurt you or I, I’m not gonna want to hurt you or I’m gonna understand you better.


Terresa Amidei (11:07):
Or I’m gonna be more willing to listen to what you have to say, because we’re the same. Yeah. We have the same things in mind. So one of the clubs that we started when we were noticing all this, you know, national turmoil, people, adults being mean at each other, adults yelling at each other adults like, Ooh, I hate you because we, we just started a club called the rise above club. And it’s a spot where, I mean, I hope I can launch it with like, you know, and make it something great. But it’s the idea that we gotta be better than that. You know? And like kids, adults always think, oh, kids like, you know, kids, they’re little, I’m telling you kid, you’re a kid Sam. Well, okay. You’re probably really an adult, but I’m like, oh, you’re much younger than me. So to me, they’re kids. Right? Yeah. Kids have great ideas. Yep. Kids can change the world. They’re not the future leaders. They’re the leaders now. Yeah. They’re the leaders now. And they need a space to like, figure this all out. Like how are they gonna be able to talk about things if they don’t understand it? How are they gonna change something? If they can’t have a voice, how are they gonna be able to navigate the world when it’s all confusing and scary and make them have anxiety?


Sam Demma (12:18):
Yeah.


Terresa Amidei (12:19):
So for me, the club is it’s about student engagement, student advocacy, speaking up how to have a voice. Like there’s so many kids who don’t even know like, oh, that’s the process of speaking to the school board and getting policy change. Oh, I could write an email to every Senator which I did on my veteran’s day. Cuz I thought, well, this is an important day. I’m gonna use my day to make sure everyone knows what I’m thinking. Sam. It took all day. But you know what? I did it. Why? Because I thought it mattered. I thought it mattered. And, and even, even if no one reads it, I know I have spoke my truth to people who have are in a position to make a change, make some kind of change. So I’ve done what I can do from my little space.


Sam Demma (13:06):
Yeah. No it’s so true. Just so much, so much good stuff. So many cool ideas. Thank you so much for sharing. What led you in education towards the extra mile mentality? It sounds like you’re involved in so many things in the school. You know, you’re making an impact on so many levels as opposed to just being a teacher. No, there’s nothing wrong with just being the teacher and teaching the class and going home. quote unquote, but there’s so much more to it than that, but it’s like, you know, you, you get involved in so many different things. Where did that drive come from? And do you think that’s been a very self-fulfilling experience as well because you probably get more out of being a teacher and an educator as well by getting involved in so many different things.


Terresa Amidei (13:51):
Yeah. That’s excellent question. And here here’s the thing. First of all, I do have a, a wonderfully supportive family, my children and my my, my husband, you know, they, they know that this work is important. Because I always tell ’em this work is so important. Yeah. Like, like I I’m thinking about the work that I could do. I mean, I, I could do so many things. Right. Like I could have any kind of job, but I always say when it comes to education you know, I’m exhausted like on the daily, you know, like when they always do the COVID screening and they’re like, do you have a headache? Do you have muscle fatigue? And I’m like oh shoot. I do. because I’ve been here for like 15 hours. Yeah. And I’m like, wait, is it because I’ve been typing and is this why I have a headache?


Terresa Amidei (14:36):
Oh, is it because I was outside and I was 122. We were doing a tour of the campus. Yes. That is why I have a wait, can I wait? I’m like, okay. I can still taste. We’re good. We’re all good. We’re all good. It it’s I always say this, like, it’s just it’s not supposed to be an easy job. Mm-Hmm like some people think, oh, teachers it’s so easy. You’ve got the summers off fun fact. I worked three sessions of summer school this summer. I, I didn’t have any time off. That was self-imposed because I wanted to help the kids. I wanted to make a difference. Ooh. I wanted, I, I, I, I’m not, I always say this shouldn’t be an easy job. It should be a job. That’s worth it. Yeah. The job is really difficult if you’re doing it, if you’re doing it well, that’s how I see it.


Terresa Amidei (15:22):
If you’re doing it well, you should be tired because you’ve put everything into it. Yep. Like imagine whatever sport that you wanna play. You know, and it’s the, like, we just had the Olympics you know, you have an excellent, like the goat Simone. Right. And she’s doing it even. She’s like, wait, you know, like, wait you know, I gotta watch out for myself. Right. That’s one little side lesson, but, but she’s gonna be tired. She’s gonna be sweaty. Right. Because she’s giving it at all. She’s not coming in. And she’s like you know, she’s, she’s doing like amazing, innovative things that have never been done. Right. So I’m thinking, yeah, I’m in a classroom. But the work that we do, what most people don’t know, unless you’ve been an educator is how many decisions that you’re doing and how many things that you’re man, like my mind is always firing.


Terresa Amidei (16:12):
Like, like this is every, like the Sies right now. It looks like this in my brain. Right. because I’m like, okay, I gotta watch out for this kid. I know that kid’s dog just died. I know this mom is in COVID this one’s battling cancer. Like I’m managing all that stuff and trying to be like, you need to help others because you’re gonna feel better if you help others, if you serve other people. So for me, this job is like, it’s mission critical. It’s mission critical because whatever I do here, if I’m doing a good job, I’m gonna create happy, fully functioning, nonviolent, helpful humans. Mm. And that’s what I wanna see. You know, that thing, like be the change you wanna see. That’s the change I wanna see. I wanna see people who care, but also like have fun. Like I I’m, I work with children, you know, elementary kids, middle school kids, high school kids, even high school kids.


Terresa Amidei (17:06):
Right. Okay. Maybe they turn 18 when they’re in high school. Right. senior year. But are they really adults? Like, do they really understand all this stuff? And like have a driver’s license and know how to vote and pay a mortgage? Like, you know what I mean? How to get a rental application? Wait, the answer’s no, they don’t know any of those things. So it’s like, you still gotta remember they’re still children. Right. They’re still navigating what it’s gonna be to be like, oh, this is the life that I wanna have for myself. Mm-Hmm and this is the things that are important to me. I mean, there’s so many advocates out there, like thank goodness that are young people. Right. even like, I look at Amanda Gorman and I’m like, oh my gosh, that poem was just gives me the chills. Right.


Terresa Amidei (17:46):
But she’s in her twenties. Mm-Hmm , you know, this is a world that belongs to everyone who’s here. So for me, I, I just want, I just want kids to come in and be able to make mistakes, but like, you know, turn it into things that are gonna work for other people. Like, you know, we create the welcome messages and we don’t just make posters and we’re trying to lift people up. Like, we’ve got little secret, you know, like, oh, we’re gonna leave the, okay, I’ll tell you secretly okay. Like Friday, we’re having this welcome back dance. Of course, with the whole COVID like, you know, we’re very mindful of all those rules. And we’re like, okay, 10 of you here and 10 there. And we’re playing the games because they’re just so craving interaction. They they’re just craving this interaction. Right. So, you know, it wouldn’t be a time like, Hey, I’m gonna invite you to dance and we’re gonna do, we’re gonna learn times tables.


Terresa Amidei (18:35):
Cause I’m gonna get you caught up. Like that would not be an event that would go over while. Right. So safely giving them this interaction. But then here’s the secret. We already made these little love notes for every single person at the school and every single adult at the school. And while the dance is going on, we have a secret, you know, happiness ninja team where we’re gonna tape them on every single desk so that when they come in on Monday, they’re gonna go what now? I mean, I hope they do that. Some will be like, what, what is this? Like, you know, and whatever. Yeah. Because they’re kids, but some it’s gonna matter to some kid and some kid is gonna keep this little note and some kid is gonna tape it onto their little Chromebook or stick it in their backpack. And you know what and will probably, and this is the hardest part of leadership. We will probably never know that it made an impact on that. Yeah. We might never know, you know, like in a school, we we’ve got like a thousand kids and, and adults here. Right. And so in that, in that huge number, you know, you, you will not get any kind of feedback. That’s like, I love that. Keep that more of that, you know, they’re, they’re not gonna say anything. Yeah. But I just have to believe like it matters.


Sam Demma (19:50):
Yeah.


Terresa Amidei (19:50):
Being welcome social, you know what I mean?


Sam Demma (19:52):
Yeah. It’s like, you know, a tree falls into forest just cause you don’t hear it doesn’t mean it doesn’t fall. Right. It’s the same thing with student impact like it. Right. Right. You know, just cuz you don’t see the positive mental changes in physical changes that a kid might be undergoing due to something at school they’re still happening. Right. And that’s such a good reminder. You know, I like to think of educators, people like yourself as gardeners, you guys are planting seeds and watering them every day and sometimes you don’t see them grow. Sometimes you do, but they all grow, you know?


Terresa Amidei (20:21):
Well, and here’s the other thing, like what you put into it. So what if I’m, what if I’m like super critical, you know? And I’m like super short with you and I’m like, just sit down, Sam. That’s growing too. Yeah. You know what I mean? Yeah. That grows too. So I mean, and we’re all, we’re all human and it’s hot and there’s lots, lots of moving pieces. So, you know, I, I try to be mindful. I don’t always, you know, hit the mark, but I also try if I realize I’m like, Ooh, I was kind of harsh to Sam. I, I always try to be like, Sam, come on. I gotta make, I gotta make amends on that one. Cuz that I didn’t, I, I need you to understand, like even if you’re correcting a kid, like, I still love you. This is fine, but you can’t do these two things like stop doing this and then I still love you. You’re good. And now it’s over for me. If you stop doing that. right. Yeah. we just gotta have a way that we are like, oh, okay. Communicate, communicating what I need so that you can be successful. I’m just, I, I feel like I’m like the German guard, like help me help you. Yeah. That’s what I’m trying to do.


Sam Demma (21:23):
That’s awesome. Love it. Cool. And what are you most looking forward to this year? I know it’s gonna be maybe looking a little different than the past couple years. but, or maybe not, but what are you looking most forward to?


Terresa Amidei (21:36):
It’s okay. I mean, you know, not to sound so cliche, but it’s, it’s like that it is the little time when you catch a, well, you know what? I’m not gonna say miss a, I love that activity. I love getting my note. Oh miss a. I love that poster was so cute, but what they, what will they will do is they’ll come in and they’ll go like this, miss am. Hi. That tells me I’m doing the right thing. Or I’ll see a kid and they’ll be like, I’ll catch ’em and I’ll see ’em I’m like, I’m like, they’re getting their note and they’re like


Sam Demma (22:06):
Quick little smile.


Terresa Amidei (22:07):
yeah. And then I’m like, yes. When here’s something to happen on Monday. Okay. You ready for this one? Sam? It is. So this is so important because here’s the other thing with leadership. You don’t have to like, I mean, I’m trying to get all kids. I mean all like all of them, I’m trying to get all of them right. To where they need to go successfully, but you gotta do it. It’s like you gotta make those special moments. Like one kid at a time, one kid at a time, like this is, this is how here for me. Like the amount of reinforcement. If I can get one kid that’s enough to get me another week. You know what I’m saying? Mm. So this happened on Monday. My kids were, it was our last week of summer school, right. Of the last session.


Terresa Amidei (22:49):
And we were giving tours to the new kids who were coming in. So sixth graders who had never been here from seventh graders who had never been here because of COVID. Okay. And I was already like, you know, we had practiced in that super hot, hot heat. And I had like Otter pops for after, when it was done, then I’m not being paid by that. They’re just the cheapest Popsicle. I’m just saying Hey. So we were practicing, we’re doing all this stuff. And I had told my kids, look, I, some parents are gonna try to sneak in and I’m gonna be like, no, no, no parents, because I can’t have you lead a tour. I don’t know who those parents are. Right. I gotta keep you safe. That’s my number one job. Yeah. So there was this kid that came in, I’ll have to demonstrate the kid comes in and they’re with a parent and I’m like, wow, like getting ready.


Terresa Amidei (23:31):
Like I’m getting ready. I’m not in my pose, but I’m getting ready. Like, you gotta go, you can’t be here. Right. And the mom says, I’m an interpreter for my daughter. And I was like, whoa. And I’m like, what, what are you interpreting? And she says we’re doing, I need to do sign language for her. Okay. Now this is where it gets really good. Don’t make me cry, Sam don’t do it. I won’t okay. This is where it gets really good. Okay. So everybody’s messed up and you can’t really, you know, you can’t really see how anywhere they’re like this. Right. And so this mom says I’m doing a you know, ASL. And I said, oh my gosh. And so then we’re like my name. And we started doing, and then the girl, okay, you gotta imagine it. Okay. So with her mouth, she goes like this, she goes,


Sam Demma (24:13):
Mm.


Terresa Amidei (24:14):
Like this and it gets better because one of the clubs we have is ASL. So I, I bring over the little QR code where, you know, we have this for all the kids and I find the ASL club and I hold it up for her and her mom. Ooh. Yeah. I’m getting goosebumps. That’s how, you know, it’s the right thing. I pull up this card and I say, Hey, we have an ASL club. And she just went while she’s still like, and she just leans into her mom and her mom and her are like that. Okay. That, that alone will get me two more weeds of effort, because think about it. Are there a lot of kids who are gonna come to our school and need ASL interpretation? No, but this girl came now think about it. She came, it’s a new school. It’s already scary.


Terresa Amidei (25:00):
Anyway, she hasn’t been to campus forever and she now she’s here and, and she’s probably worried, oh my gosh, I’m not gonna be able to talk to anybody. Like no one will understand what I’m doing. Like everyone’s gonna think. I mean, well, plus I just watched Coda last night. It’s so good. Anyway. So I’m, I’m thinking about that. And then, and I didn’t know she was coming, no one told me like, oh, Hey, you’re gonna need to have a, you know, services for this kid. No one. I didn’t know. So the fact that we are like able to accommodate it and I’m like, I have a, we already have a spot for you. We have a spot for you already. You didn’t even have to say anything. We have a club that’s already everything that you like, it’s your field. Like, it’s like, if I was a kid and I was coming to school and I’m like, what?


Terresa Amidei (25:43):
You have a sticker and hot latte club. What, it’s exactly my people with exactly the things that I like and need that I identify with. You already have a space for me. Like, just think about how I mean, and it wasn’t, I mean, just think about how she was like that information to know there would be people and clubs hearing and, and not who could, she could already communicate. Like she wouldn’t already have to advocate for herself because it was already there. Mm we’re already ready for her. What, what do you think? What do you suppose a difference that would make for that family? And, and for that kid, now that she’s coming to our school


Sam Demma (26:26):
Safety, you know, they know there’s a family away from the family, right. It’s like, right. Every student might not need ASL, but every student needs a community where they feel welcomed and involved and loved and you know, included. And I think that’s exactly what that does.


Terresa Amidei (26:42):
right. And I mean, and to me, her face was like, you get me. Yeah. You get me and you have a space already ready for me. You saved me a, a space on the bus. Yeah. That’s what it says to me. So that like, I, it wasn’t, I, I keep a little sticking out. Like I keep all my little inspirational things. Mine is like, okay. It, it didn’t have to be a big thing. It just had to be the right thing. Like nothing heroic, just the right thing. That was, it was the right thing to have that club.


Sam Demma (27:09):
Yeah. I love that.


Terresa Amidei (27:10):
And, and you never know, you just never know when you’re gonna need it. You know? Like I said, I didn’t know she was coming and I’m like, boom, I got you. You know, some other kid came out like, boom, I got you too. Yeah. Oh, we don’t. Oh, we don’t have a club. You know what? Come sit down. We’ll find you advisor. We’ll make it right now.


Sam Demma (27:26):
That’s awesome. that’s so cool. Yeah. So how long have you been working in education?


Terresa Amidei (27:33):
Ooh this is my 23rd year.


Sam Demma (27:36):
Let’s go. Thank you for your service.


Terresa Amidei (27:42):
you’re welcome. That was easy. Yeah.


Sam Demma (27:45):
that was the first time anyone’s ever pushed that button. I love it.


Terresa Amidei (27:50):
It wasn’t, it wasn’t easy. It was hard, but, but worth it, like I said, it was hard but worth it.


Sam Demma (27:55):
Yeah. I hear you. So knowing what you know now and what the experiences you’ve had and the things you’ve learned, if you could go back and speak to Tonya year one, what advice would you give me to yourself?


Terresa Amidei (28:08):
Sam? Why’d you have to go there. Why’d you have to go there, Sam . Okay. Well, so many things have changed right, since that time, but there, if there’s anyone out there who’s listening, who’s an aspiring educator. I say, jump, jump all in and be all in from the very beginning. The, I mean, I see kids all the time, like in this community, cuz I, I live where I work and you know, my, my own children are like, oh mom, we don’t wanna go to the store with you. Cuz people are always like, miss, is that you? Or they’ll be like, oh, was Ms. Like what she got in her cart? I’m like, what? Nothing, nothing gonna see here. Just all vegetables and fruits but what I would, what I, I, when I have seen kids that are now like, oh my gosh it’s so my first job I was doing eighth grade. And so that was 23 years ago. So they were 14. So 14 to 23? Yeah. 37.


Sam Demma (29:01):
Oh


Terresa Amidei (29:02):
Yeah. I, I haven’t had the thing where those kids, kids are in my class yet. That hasn’t happened yet. I’m waiting for that. But, but I see him and like I saw one guy at Costco and like, he was, I’m like, you have a Costco card and I’m like, wait, you’re married, wait, you can drive like, wait, I’m like you. And he had like a toddler. And I was like, oh my gosh, why? And I say then like, I’m like, wow sorry about anything that I might have messed up you know? Cause I just was trying so hard, you know, trying so hard back then, but you don’t have, you really don’t have the skills for several years, like a, a full on, you know, repertoire of like everything, you know, plus I’ve taught like every subject before I got into leadership.


Terresa Amidei (29:46):
So math, science, English, social studies, intervention, computer Jo geography and, and now leadership. Right? So I’m like, oh no, I know. So I would say when I got to year 15, I was like, yeah, I think I’m pretty good. you know, like I’m like, I think I’m, you know what, I think I’m not being doing an right job. Yeah. I mean, yeah, yeah. I think I’m getting this right. And then I would say maybe like by year 18, 19, it was like, I know, I know what I know. You know, I know what I know. I know my value. I know that I understand this I’ve I’ve been around this block. Like, you know, kids are always like, oh, how’d you hear me? And I’m like, oh bro, I’m a mom. I’m a wife and I’ve taught middle school for 23 years. You really think I’m missing any of that. That’s going on in the corner. Cause I’m not, you know like I already know, I already know what you’re gonna do, you know? And so you can plan for it. So my, my only advice for my young self would be like, you’re gonna get there, you’re on the right path. Your, your ideas are golden. You just need to just firm it up a little bit. Right. And then, and then you’ll be here. Woo. With


Sam Demma (30:56):
Sam


Terresa Amidei (30:57):
I’ll be like, know, I’ll be like this one day. You’ll be with Sam, the recycling guy that you met at cat . You’ll never believe it


Sam Demma (31:05):
In 122 degree weather.


Terresa Amidei (31:07):
I know that. Awesome. Doesn’t global warming. Let’s seriously get on board.


Sam Demma (31:12):
Terresa, this has been so, so fun. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat about your experiences, what’s going on in your school. Everything that you’ve gone through and your journey into education, this has been so, so cool. If someone is listening and wants to reach out and just have a conversation, what would be the best way for them to get in touch with you?


Terresa Amidei (31:31):
Yeah. I would say email. I can, do you want me to drop that to you? And then you can,


Sam Demma (31:36):
I’ll put in the show notes, I’ll put it in the show notes as well, but if you want, you can even say it now or spell it out for


Terresa Amidei (31:42):
All right. Well, do you see my name right on the little thing? So put a . in between there. So terresa.amidei@desertsands.us.


Sam Demma (31:52):
Cool. Easy, simple. Thank you so much again. This is awesome, Keep up the great work.


Terresa Amidei (31:57):
Sam. You’re doing such great work yourself. I just wanna say thanks for reaching out. Like anytime, anytime you need some filler, just call me.


Sam Demma (32:04):
I will, appreciate it.


Terresa Amidei (32:05):
I love it. I love it.


Sam Demma (32:07):
All right. Well talk soon.


Terresa Amidei (32:09):
Okay. Bye Sam.


Sam Demma (32:10):
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 Terresa Amidei

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.

Debbie Hawkins – Campus Culture Director at Sunnyside High School in Fresno Unified

Debbie Hawkins - Campus Culture Director at Sunnyside High School in Fresno Unified
About Debbie Hawkins

Debbie Hawkins (@SHS_Leaders) is the Campus Culture Director at Sunnyside High School in Fresno Unified, but grew up in the south valley and is a first-generation college graduate who after attending Fresno State made her home in the greater Fresno Area.  Debbie is the wife to Jimmy and the mother to Jonah and Noah. Family is a defining factor in Debbie’s life and thus she reduced her teaching load to part-time status in order be home with her young boys while they were young.

Having raised her boys, she finds herself immersed in the work of student activities. This work has become her passion and her home.  Sunnyside is a school committed to the work of developing student relationships, establishing a college-going culture, and being a healthy student-centred environment.

Connect with Debbie: Email | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Sunnyside High School

Fresno Unified School District

CAA Speakers

Capturing Kids’ Hears Program

Phil Boyte’s Podcast

School Culture by Design – Phil Boyte

The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom – Miguel Ruiz

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 on the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s guest is Debbie Hawkins, who is the campus culture director at Sunnyside High School in Fresno Unified, but grew up on the south valley and is a first generation college graduate who after attending Fresno state, made her home in the greater Fresno area. Debbie is the wife to Jimmy and the mother of Jonah and Noah. Family is a defining factor in Debbie’s life and


Sam Demma (01:02):
thus, she reduced her teaching load to part-time status in order to be home with her young boys while they were young. Having raised her boys, she finds herself immersed back into the world of student activities. This work has become her passion and her home. Sunnyside is a school committed to the work of developing student relationships, establishing a college going culture, and being a healthy student centered environment. I know you’ll enjoy this interview with Debbie because I enjoyed chatting with her and I will see you on the other side. Debbie, 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 about what brought you to where you are in education today?


Debbie Hawkins (01:40):
My name is Debbie Hawkins. I have a very fancy title called Campus Culture director at Fresno Unified’s largest high school in where I’m located, obviously in Fresno. Our, our student population pushes 3000 so we are the biggest. What brings me to the moment of campus culture or what other people would call student activities is when I first got into education I was a coach, but really everything I’ve ever done in education’s really about mentorship and mentoring kids and investing in kids like you know, who they would become as an adult. So I find myself in this world of student leadership, because that’s always kind of been my passion and it just, that trail led me here.


Sam Demma (02:24):
Did you have educators that kind of pushed you in this direction? Cause caring for kids could have brought you into different roles. I’m I’m wondering why it specifically brought you into a school


Debbie Hawkins (02:34):
I guess complicated childhood, but easiest to say that school was always safe for me. Mm. And I had hero teachers who very, I’m a, I’m a first generation college student. I’ll and if you knew my whole story and we had like a lot of time maybe perhaps some wouldn’t see me in the seat I’m in today because I probably never would’ve got go to college. So those teachers, those heroes of my childhood passed very much pushed me eventually into the classroom once in the classroom and coaching. I don’t know. I always found myself when the crowd of kids having a good time. And there was a point at which I was at a site and I was a little burned out with being an English teacher. If I’m being honest. And the principal flat out, looked in the eye and said, what, what, what can I do to keep you? And I said, I need to do something where I’m investing in kids as people where I care more about their story than whether or not they know a list of conjunctions. And she approached me with student activities and, and that’s where it started 16 years ago. It was just a principal trying to keep me on campus.


Sam Demma (03:48):
That’s amazing. And tell me more about how do you define a hero teacher? What does that teacher do for you that has such a big difference and impact on you?


Debbie Hawkins (03:58):
I think as much as you can, like strips down everything, I came from a really small town. Yeah. So like when you’re from a small town, everybody knows the legends of your family and your cousins and you know, all that stuff. But, so I think my hero teacher saw me individually as a person and, and none of the backstory. Mm. And like, let me start from that point on. And in a lot of ways, never saw me as broken, but saw me as having potential. Mm. So to me, a hero teacher, as somebody who gives you a clean slate from day one, and it it’s, it’s harder to do than it sounds like it really is because Def kids definitely come with stories and brothers and sisters and cousins. And you, you know, things about kids before you ever meet them. I mean, I can log into student profiles and read all sorts of things, which by the way, I don’t do intentionally and never did, even when I taught English. But I always appreciated those teachers who, who just gave me a chance to be me.


Sam Demma (05:02):
Yeah. That’s such a cool perspective. And if a teacher is listening to this in the classroom and you know, they wanna make, they wanna make their students feel the same way you felt in those classes, like what would you kind of advise or tell them that they could try and do you know, is it to make sure you set aside time to get to know each student make time to hear, hear their stories and share their experiences and upbringing or, well, how do you think that looks in the classroom or school?


Debbie Hawkins (05:30):
What I think it looks like in a classroom at a school in general is you have to be very people first. You have to be very relationships oriented first. My son’s high school English teacher, her name’s SCR and officially, and, and I will love her forever because she changed my son’s life. And what she did is in Fresno unified, we’re a restorative practices school, which has all sorts of things that go with it. But one of the things that happens within restorative practices is that the idea of circle time, which I use in my classroom every week, we call it family Fridays. But it really is, is a restorative circle where kids get an opportunity to have a voice. Well, miss officially at Bullard high school does that every week in her English class. So she pauses her curriculum to put kids in circle and, you know, really dive deep into who each other are as people and what they think and, and what I think miss officially does.


Debbie Hawkins (06:23):
And what I I do in my own leadership class too, is, you know, that whole idea of start slow to go fast. You, you gotta like slow down and let kids know you as they need to know us as people too, like as an instructor, they need to know things about me because that’s what builds trust. And you do, you have to slow down. And I think when you’re a core content teacher, it’s scary because you don’t have many instructional minutes and you have a lot of expectations of you. But I have found that in education that once a kid trusts me and they have put me in their corner as somebody who’s gonna defend them I can get 80% more out of them academically, cuz they follow me off a cliff. If I told ’em to go, you know, I guess a bad analogy, but it’s true. They’d follow me anywhere. And once you’ve built those relationships, where are kid gonna follow you anywhere? Because you’ve slowed down, you slowed down and you took that time. You actually get more done academically.


Sam Demma (07:21):
I love that. That’s such a unique way to look at it. And I think it’s so true. I had one educator come on here one time and tell me that there was one student in his class that he was struggling with and the way that he won the heart and mind of this student over was by giving the student responsibility that this student thought he would never give him. And the situation was the keys to his car to go grab his lunchbox in the front seat and you know, and it, the story just hit me in my core. I was like, wow, that’s such a cool example of building a human to human relationship, not a teacher to student one. I think that’s amazing. Where do you think these philosophies and ideas came from? Was it just from your personal experience from other teachers? Like how did you come up with these ideas and these teaching philosophies?


Debbie Hawkins (08:08):
Well, everything’s, I, I guess seated in personal experience to some extent, I mean, there’s great educators in my past when I was a student and then you get involved and you start listening. You know, you it’s, the organization, CAA is an amazing one. So many speakers there. I, I would say that on my personal journey for development as a, as a leadership teacher there’s a program called capturing kids’ hearts, which was an early program in my career that really drew me in. And then fast forward, I, I meet a guy named Phil Boyt who is Phil, boy’s amazing. He has his own podcast. Everyone should be listening to Phil Boyt, read his books. And then you, you know, there, there’s just speakers and that come into your life. And I have the privilege at working at Sunnyside. And when I was hired here, there was a man named Tim Lyles, who he lost this year.


Debbie Hawkins (09:03):
And men talk about just an amazing person to learn from what you find out in education, which I’m going to assume applies to any profession out there is that once you have an ideology of who you want to be and what you want within this setting, you surround yourself with people whose core values begin to align with yours, right? So like you go find your tribe. So I found my tribe, you know, I listen to T street speak at kata and, and now, now that I heard her at kata, I’m gonna follow every talk. I find of hers on YouTube, you know deep kindness by Houston craft my class, read that together last year. Nice. You just, you began to, you know, you hear of this person who tells you about this person who tells you about this book and you begin to seek it out. It’s personal work though. If, if you wanna be that kind of educator, it’s personal work, which I think it’s personal work, no matter where you are in life.


Sam Demma (10:01):
Yeah. I love it. And people leave behind such amazing principles and values. I think more than everything else, when someone, you know, passes on, we can look at the things that they left behind and something that sticks out for me, even, you know, you talk about service a little bit and great people to learn from like, after my grandfather passed away, I was 13 years old. And the thing that sticks out in my mind are the values that he passed on to me as a young child. And it, it sounds the same with your colleague who passed away. Sorry to hear about that. And yeah, I’m sure your school is doing a great job of celebrating his, his life and his legacy. That’s amazing though. And did you ever have any doubts growing up as a, as a young educator and what were some of the things that went through your mind? Because I think it’s a very common experience for all educators to go through.


Debbie Hawkins (10:47):
Well, I have an atypical educator story. I mean, I failed the third grade and I’m I’m dyslexic. Oh, so yeah, I I had some challenges and in, in high school I remember my very favorite high school, creative writing teacher, like on my college application to the educational opportunity program at Fresno state saying student has unlimited potential. If she can get some support with her writing. And interestingly enough, as soon as he said it, it became this quest to be good at it. And like academically after my freshman year in college writing became my strongest thing. Wow. So, you know, it’s, it’s almost like when someone shines a light on it in a way that is soft and trying to guide you rather than like light you up and blow you up, but rather a guiding light. Yeah. It inspires you to kind of go on that path and take that journey because ultimately as a, you know, a 16 year old kid, I, I wanted to be successful and change my family’s narrative. Yeah. You know, I, I wanted it badly. So this man whom I trusted his name was Greg Simpson from ex or high school, amazing educator just gently said unlimited potential with a little support in writing. So I joined writing lab. Like I went and found some people to help me and ended up being a game changer for me.


Sam Demma (12:10):
I find that. So fascinating how someone that you trust, very few words have such a powerful impact on your mindset of how you view yourself and also the actions you took in your future. And it goes to show us how important it is that we choose our words and our actions both extremely wisely when working with any human being, doesn’t matter if it’s a student in your class or a stranger on the street. Do you think that the words of educators and students have such a massive impact on each other? And have you seen in, in reverse scenario where your words or your colleagues’ words have had a huge impact on students in your school and do any stories stick out in your mind?


Debbie Hawkins (12:51):
Well, since you wanna call me on the carpet on that one today, yeah. Honestly I’ve only been at Sunnyside for four years and cool. My first year here, I, I received an email during homecoming because I did something a little different that how don’t know maybe it was because I was new or, you know, and when you’re new, you’re a little unsure and you know, I’d never been at a high school. It came from a middle school and man, that email shock me to the core. Like I never had anyone talk to me like that. So I became like this head trip thing I had to come over and I overcome like it taught me a lot though, like in reflection. Mm. I am extremely cautious about what I say to people via written communication. Mm. I try to not be short and if, if I’m gonna be short, I try and go walk over and speak to them face to face. Yeah. Like lesson learned. And then, so this week we actually had two rallies before we had a rally on day one and day two of the school year.


Sam Demma (13:51):
Nice.


Debbie Hawkins (13:51):
So day one of the school year, I told my, my little commissioner, Hey, you know, don’t play YouTube videos because the signal’s gonna drop when everybody comes into the gym. Yeah. And the hustle and bustle of it, I didn’t check in with him and he didn’t convert the file cuz he ran out of time. So sure enough, we get to this part where these very adorable little mom, girls are supposed to go dance to promote our diversity assembly. Mm. And the video wouldn’t play. so, yeah, I mean day one and I didn’t snap at him in the moment, but I also didn’t build him up. What I should have said was him and let it go. There’s always something that fails. This is our thing today. Of course. Yeah. And helped him like move through it. And I, you know, we haven’t been here for almost two years. Yeah. I didn’t coach him well enough. Like, so I’ve been spending the last I’ve spent the last week and a half now trying to build him back up, you know? Yeah. Cause it’s gonna take 20 or 30 interactions for him to be brave again.


Sam Demma (14:53):
Well, I applaud first of all, your responsibility. Thanks for sharing. I was also curious about the positive side of how words have affected students or


Debbie Hawkins (15:00):
Wouldn’t oh, positive. Okay. Positive side. Positive. Side’s easy. Yeah. I, I don’t know how I’ve become the, the teacher who, who attracts a lot of our foster and homeless youth kids. Mm. I don’t know how, but one, one philosophy I say leadership’s about what you do, not what class you have. Yeah. So a few years ago I had this one kid just show up in my room every day and just make artwork. And I just looked at him and I said, Hey, you, you have the ability to show up and be positive. You know, you should join my class. Mm. I don’t remember saying it to him, by the way. I just said it one day while they, I don’t know, coloring with markers. And anyway, Damien did join my class. The following year. He became my spirit commissioner. I didn’t know his whole story until almost the year was over. But wow. His words back to me were really powerful. He’s like, he, he basically said, your first impression of me is you should be a leader. Like you belong here. And for him, it, it made a difference cuz it came at a real critical time when he was doubting where he was. Mm. So I, I there’s, there’s a million instances where I could say I’ve said something to a kid, but here’s the funny thing. I very rarely remember the words I used.


Sam Demma (16:11):
Yeah.


Debbie Hawkins (16:12):
So you just always guard them and keep ’em positive. And, and the one thing I will say, and that I, I need to get back to doing, I used to keep a class list and I would mark down like an X mark, like, so for an for that week I had to give one overtly positive statement to each kid on my roster. Mm. And I made it like anecdotal where I would check it off.


Sam Demma (16:34):
Nice.


Debbie Hawkins (16:34):
Because you know, life’s busy. Yeah. So that’s one way that I I’m gonna get back to that this year, but that is huge. And I’ll tell you another huge one that we all overlook. I also try and call three parents a week just to tell ’em their kid’s amazing.


Sam Demma (16:48):
Ah I love that. That. And what is the, what is the, what is the usual parent response to those phone calls? how does the phone call start? I’m sure it starts with oh is everything okay?


Debbie Hawkins (17:00):
50% of the time. It’s what do you do?


Sam Demma (17:02):
yep.


Debbie Hawkins (17:04):
What’d she do now? What’s going on? It’s always guarded at first and it’s really funny that if I don’t use my personal cell phone, 50% of them don’t pick up. And then, and I give ’em my cell phone number and tell ’em, if you have any questions, feel free to call me. And it’s odd because I will get random sets of parents who will text me and ask me a general school question because I just called them to tell ’em, Hey, your kid’s amazing.


Sam Demma (17:28):
That’s awesome. That is so good. I,


Debbie Hawkins (17:29):
I, I try and I’ve, I try and do at least three kids a week for the first month of school till I get through everybody.


Sam Demma (17:35):
There’s a, there’s such a cool story behind the idea of appreciating other people that I heard on a recent podcast as well. There’s a, there’s a gentleman named Jay Sheti. Maybe you’ve actually heard of him. Heard the name. Okay. So he has a podcast. He was a monk. He went to the mountains for like three years, came back and now he makes what he says is it makes wisdom go viral. And he has all these like cool videos and that’s awesome. He has a podcast and he interviewed this guy named scooter bran and scooter, scooter bran is the music manager of Justin Bieber and Demi Lavato and all these like huge music artists. And he was on the podcast and he was saying that his grandma did something for him and his family that changed the trajectory of all the kids’ lives. He said there was four grandchildren.


Sam Demma (18:16):
And on separate occasion, she pulled each grandchild, each grandchild aside and said, I have to tell you something very important and very special. And you can’t tell any of your siblings about this. And she said, you’re the special one. and she did it to all four of them on separate occasions and scooter didn’t find out till the day of her funeral while the grandchildren were around. He said, guys, you know, grandma pulled me aside and told me when I was a young kid, that I was a special one. And then his brother said, no, me too. And me too. And, and all four of them went their whole life believing that they had this special ability that they were an amazing young person. And I thought, what a powerful way to plant a positive belief in the mind of a young person. And it sounds like you’re doing the same thing, not only with the students, but also with the parents.


Debbie Hawkins (19:01):
I’m trying. And that’s, that’s the whole thing that I will all educators like, it’s, it’s an awkward time. Yeah. Alls you can do is try and over the summer I read this book called the four agreements and, you know to Miguel


Debbie Hawkins (19:14):
. Yeah. So like, you know, in the four agreements where it says, take nothing personally. Yep. You know, that’s my challenge, this year’s cuz in this crazy world where everything’s, everything’s uneven right now, still, you know, like everything’s still uneven and people react daily at us, around us, within this organization out of a sense of fear and self protection. Yeah. So really take nothing personally. And I’m really talking to my leadership class about that. We’re actually gonna read the four agreements at the end of the year when we do our book study as a class. But Tim Wild’s favorite book, by the way. I, I just, that, that whole that’s resonating with me this year is don’t take things personally because I think when we take things personally, it, it, it holds us back. Right.


Sam Demma (20:01):
It’s true. So true. And I think that sometimes the words of other people are based on one, their past experiences and two, the current things they’re going through, you know, you, you mentioned about the email and writing a short email. It’s it’s funny because whenever we write an email communication, the other person reads it based off the current mental state that they are in. So if they’re extremely happy, they’re gonna assume that your email was, was a pretty happy one, but if they’re struggling and, and then they read a short email, that’s just to the point, they’re gonna think that you’re upset or something and you know, 90 something percent of communication is nonverbal. And so I think, you know, some of the times too, when people attack us or put us down or attack a student or an educator and put them down, it’s, it’s asking ourselves, you know, what do they have to be going through to be expressing this situation like this? And I think that’s where empathy wins, you know, but it’s tough when you’re in the experience. It’s like, it’s a tough one. So if you could travel back in time and speak to your younger self, when you were just getting into education, knowing what you know now based on the experiences that you’ve had, what would you tell your younger self? What couple pieces of advice would you give?


Debbie Hawkins (21:10):
Number one, I’d say quit keeping score. I came in as a coach. Like I was so competitive and not just about like when we were on a basketball court. Mm. You know, I wanted to be the teacher with the highest reading scores. I wanted to be the teacher with the most kids coming to, you know, this or I, I was so worried about being perceived as having value that I think it held me back. I would’ve been much better off to have been more concerned about if I was valuable to at least one kid, you know, let go of those public perceptions a little bit when you’re young and invest in people individually, like deeply in one person at a time, one staff member, one kid my younger self and I would say not to take things so personal. Yeah.


Debbie Hawkins (22:04):
I, I, I don’t know when I was young, I had a lot of pride and, and things would hurt. And, and when you let things hurt, like where they wound you, it literally prevents you from having relationships with kids and being available to kids who need you, because you’ve spent too much time in your own self hurt. Like it was a waste of my energy as a young educator, you know, I, I needed a, I, I, I would encourage every young educator to find a group of two or three teacher, friends who are safe. And when something hurts, you can tell them so you can let it go. Cause you know, there’s something about that whole, like, you know, the truth will set you free. We’ll find people to go tell your truth to yeah. So that you can be free of its damage and move on. Yeah. Sometimes I think your, our pride like makes us put in the negative stuff, cuz we don’t want other people to see it. Like go get that ne get a trusted crowd, share with them, all those, those like doubtful things so that, that you can just be set free from it and move on. Don’t let it hold you back.


Sam Demma (23:06):
I love that.


Debbie Hawkins (23:07):
Trust me. Nobody’s good at this job. I’m 26 years in every year. There’s 10 things I need to be better at.


Sam Demma (23:14):
Yeah.


Debbie Hawkins (23:15):
It, it, it, this job never, it’s a big beast. You will never be perfect. Hey, it’s messy.


Sam Demma (23:21):
Every job. That’s the mindset to have. I mean, the day you think you arrive is the day you shouldn’t ever do it again, you know?


Debbie Hawkins (23:28):
Amen.


Sam Demma (23:28):
We never arrive, you know, like we’re all human beings. We’re all messy individuals going through this experience called life and balancing everything, you know? That’s a cool mindset to have. I call what you just mentioned “Emptying my backpack.” When I feel like I’m holding onto too many thoughts and opinions of others or opinions and, and experiences and situations in my head, I call it emptying my backpack. I’m actually writing a poem about it for kids Yeah, that’s such a cool piece of advice to give yourself and I appreciate you being so honest, vulnerable, and open about this whole conversation. I think a lot of educators will listen to this and will really enjoy it and see a lot of their own experiences in what you’ve just shared. So thank you so much for coming on the show. Debbie, it’s been awesome. If someone wants to reach out, send you an email, bounce some ideas around or chat with you, what would be the best way for them to get in touch?


Debbie Hawkins (24:21):
Just use my staff email it’s debra.hawkins2@fresnounified.org. You could Google Fresno Unified in my name and find me honestly.


Sam Demma (24:41):
Cool. All right, Deb. Debbie, thank you so much. This was great, keep up the great work and we’ll talk soon.


Debbie Hawkins (24:47):
Thank you very much for having me.


Sam Demma (24:50):
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.

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