About Brent McDonald
Brent McDonald (@Brent4ED) is currently a Superintendent of Education with the Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB). For the past 10 years his portfolios in this role have included; Safe, Equitable and Inclusive Schools, Information and Technology, Parent Engagement, Leadership Development and Succession Planning and working with his Family of Schools within the district. He’s also the President of Educating Computer Network of Ontario (ECNO).
Brent is passionate about student success and ensuring that all students have the resources and supports needed to be their best. He is also passionate about learning in the classroom, educational technology, and school leadership.
**Please note that all of our transcriptions come from rev.com and are 80% accurate. We’re grateful for the robots that make this possible and realize that it’s not a perfect process.
Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker Sam Demma. Today’s guest has now become a good friend of mine. His name is Brent McDonald. He’s the superintendent of education and it at the UGDSB the Upper Grand District School Board. He’s also the President of ECNO. They have a strong role in providing leadership and direction to school boards in regards to it, he’s also been a classroom teacher, a vice principal, a principal he’s done every single job you could imagine in a school maybe next to being a custodian. And he has so many valuable insights and ideas to share on the podcast today. I’m super excited because you’re going to learn so much from this interview. There are so many nuggets and so many insights. I’ll see you on the other side. Talk soon. Brent, thank you so much for coming on the High Performing Educators podcast. It’s a pleasure to have you take maybe, you know, one to two minutes to share with the audience who you are and why you initially got into the work you do with young people today.
Brent McDonald (01:03):
Yeah. Great, Sam, thanks so much for having me today to start with it’s a real pleasure and really appreciate the opportunity to do some reflection too, for for the podcast today and, and really pleased that you’ve got this series going, but I’ll, I’ll share a little bit about myself. First and foremost I’m a father to two youth as well. One is in second year, a university, and one just about to head into a post secondary experiences at a grade 12. So very interested in the work that you’re doing and I know we’ve we’ve spoken a past too about connecting with the youth in our school board and hope we get to continue that when we get on the other side of things here too. For me currently, I’m an educator by trade I guess.
Brent McDonald (01:48):
And I, my role right now is as a Superintendent of Education with the Upper Grand District School Board. So for those that aren’t sure where that is. That’s a Guelf and Orangeville area. And then kinda out to the four one, and then north up into some beautiful country around Mount forest and Harrison, just about an hour and a half hour west of Toronto. I’m so close to the city, but also some, some beautiful landscape that’s there. And what’s awesome is we’ve got a school board that is an incredible mix of diverse of students and families and a geography. So some very rural country areas, which are just beautiful and then some really vibrant more cities type centers, wealth in Orangeville, for example. So lots of, a lot of the challenges that we see around the province are replicated within the walls of our board and right now as a Superintendent of Education I get to get out into our schools and, and follow up with students and staff and our principals and vice principals that run our buildings.
Brent McDonald (02:49):
And that’s fantastic for me. I love that opportunity to get out and get into our schools. Previously I was for about 10 years of principal, myself to at about four different schools in our area. And just loved that opportunity to to lead and be part of incredible staff and student bodies that that were just full of motivation and energy to, to do things. And and I think part and parcel what I look back on the work that I’ve done. Those experiences as, as a teacher previous to that, it was a core French teacher and a science teacher, or an a grade one teacher. All of those experiences when I look back at what I like about my work, the most it’s the, the motivation and the, and the power and influence that we get from, from students and the communities who are charged up about doing incredible things.
Brent McDonald (03:40):
And I know we started just before the interview, talking about your project that you were working on around picking up garbage and, and making your communities better. And when you can harness sort of that spirit and that energy that people want to, to do better and to improve and be a part of that, it’s energizing. So for me I think back when I was more your age and kind of looking at where I wanted to go in life, I had, I had multiple jobs. I had all sorts of jobs and that was, I loved working and had a lot of different experiences to try and see where I wanted to land and what I wanted to be in. And I think when I started, started to reflect on where I wanted to land in terms of a career. I look back at the work that I had done and all the opportunities that I’d ever had to work with youth and students and to be inspired and humbled by their creativity and their hope and their optimism that they had.
Brent McDonald (04:38):
That’s what did it for me? And I said, no, I, I need to be involved in this. This is a very fulfilling for me personally and professionally but also what an opportunity to lead and to guide. And I think that was the second reason that I landed into the work that I did as a student, as a teacher and then a administrator. And now into the role that I’m in is that I had the great fortune to have some incredible role models as teachers, myself and not just around the content of the curriculum that we were being taught. And when I look back at what they taught me, yes, the curriculum was, was very important, but it was more those life lessons and the work that they taught me about the attitudes that are important to have going into life and the opportunities and the belief that they had. And I thought, you know, if I can turn around and rec replicate even a part of that for students in the work that I would do, what a great what a great opportunity to have and one that shouldn’t be squandered. So, so that’s probably where I got the idea and where I got the energy and sort of the push is, or, or influences or motivators that guided me down to the work that I get to do today.
Sam Demma (05:48):
I love that. And you mentioned the work you do today. A lot of it surrounds staying in touch with staff members, touring schools every 10 days or so to check in and see how everyone’s doing. What are you hearing from those teachers in those students, in those schools? What challenges are they currently being pressed with and faced with?
Brent McDonald (06:08):
Well, very similar to to the challenges that most industries are facing right now and, and your you’re right. Sam. So the work that we do it is I don’t work in a school. I worked out of an office right now. But I do have responsibilities for, for a group of schools, but I also lead our information technology department as well. And I’ve got a fantastic group of, of managers and staff and teams that help support that work. And so for me, it’s, it’s twofold. It’s I get to, I get to see what’s happening in our classrooms, and I get to have a hand and work with incredible people to help support students in schools and our staff that are trying to teach remotely and, and work remotely and, and get involved. So that’s pretty exciting work that we get to do.
Brent McDonald (06:57):
The other work I get to do is around leadership development and succession planning for the board. So working with with new teachers, young teachers, to encourage them into leadership pathways in whatever way they want to get involved in. And we talk a lot about reaching down to students and doing the same thing for them too. So we do try and get into our schools as, as often as I can. We, we dedicate usually one day a week to getting into our school buildings. We’ve pulled back on that a lot to this September and October, just out of respect for not getting too many people into our schools. But we reach out virtually. So it’s noon today, and I’ve probably talked to about five different schools already this morning about what’s happening and there’s ways that we can do that too.
Brent McDonald (07:40):
But the challenges I’d say that they are facing are very, very similar to to what other other industries and other sectors are. And for us, and, and Sam, you look back at your school career, I’d say the one thing about our profession and our sector is that it’s typically as predictable as anything it’s by clockwork. We’ve got school year calendars or regular year calendars that we fall on. And we have the school year calendar where sometimes looks the exact same year over year, over year for decades after decades. So, you know, the first week of school programs and initiatives that happen the, the fall activities that happen that Terry Fox runs that happen every September, the sports teams that always start in the same schedule, the graduation, the proms it’s as predictable as clockwork forever, and ever, and ever. And and kids, I think students look, look forward to that.
Brent McDonald (08:36):
I remember a student, myself being in grade five, thinking I get to have that grade six teacher next year, that everybody’s been talking about it’s finally my turn or it’s graduation. Next year, we get to go on the grade eight trip, or we get to do these milestones that that people look forward to. And all of a sudden that’s turned upside down and gone. And the predictability and the consistency that’s been involved in people’s lives forever. All of a sudden gets, it gets to be a very uncertain environment. And and that causes a lot of challenges for staff and students who built careers and, and expectations around what’s coming next and plans. Particularly for students who thrive on routines or who need routines and structure to be successful and to show their best their best efforts every single day for them not knowing is, is, is an incredible part of our incredible challenge them to overcome.
Brent McDonald (09:34):
So that I would say from a student’s point of view and staff, to some extent the, the uncertainty and the constant change throwing at a system that’s typically very traditional has been very, very difficult for folks. I’d say from a, from a system perspective too, and the work that I get to do, we’re typically a very, very collaborative organization. So before we launch an, a, an idea or an implementation, or, or think about how we’re going to implement a new idea or, or, or, or any type of new project there’s a lot of time that goes into the planning, the bringing different voices around the table to get input running it by students and staff and all of our different stakeholders that we have. And I’d say we have not had that luxury in the last four to five months to be able to do that.
Brent McDonald (10:31):
So for us, our, the way that we work has been changed an awful lot, and we’ve had to become, you know, I’ll use those words like nimble and agile that, that everybody talks about. And the, the dreaded pivot word that we’ve had to do so much more than than we ever have before. And for for our sector and our educators and students too. But at a system level, that’s probably been the most difficult pieces that are traditional consultative processes that we put in place in our collaborative efforts that we rely on have had to be speeded up in such greater fashion than we’re typically used to. And we’re doing a good job of it, but it is a change, right? It’s, it’s been a big change. So those would be some of the big the two big changes that I’d see from a student perspective. And then from a systemic perspective.
Sam Demma (11:22):
That’s awesome. Yeah, someone mentioned to me the other day, the state of education could be compared to throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks. And I’m curious to know if there’s anything that has stuck so far for you, if you have any unique ideas that are working, or if teachers have reported back to you or any principals saying, you know, Brent, this has really worked or on the other side, you know, this was a total flop and we learned something from it. Either of those things are extremely valuable. And if you have any to share, that’d be awesome.
Brent McDonald (11:53):
Yeah, Sam, I’d say for us, the one thing that we have learned the most, or that’s been most apparent, and I’d say up until, you know, September or even October, we haven’t had a lot of time to be able to pause and reflect on what’s happened because it’s been so busy, we’ve been busy throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what happens. So we, we haven’t had a ton of time to reflect, but the reflections that we’ve done and when, and we’re starting to do them more and more now, which I’m pleased about. But what we, what I’d say we’ve learned a lot that we have seen is for the first time ever in, in my career in the spring everybody stopped doing everything and focused on one thing, and that was getting getting us to work remotely and to have teachers and students learn remotely when we in the spring, when everything was shut down.
Brent McDonald (12:47):
So all of a sudden 5,000 staff members and 34,000 students in our board had one goal that we had to do really quickly and had to make sure it happened. And we don’t do that very often. Usually we are juggling, you know, curriculum expectations, we’re judging or juggling technology expectations were juggling. A lot of the work that we’re doing around social justice and whether it’s our anti-oppression work that we’re doing, or anti-black racism, all of a sudden everything funneled into one, one project as an entire group. And and we had to be conscious of all those other things that we did, but really it was one, one goal. And we did it. And if someone had asked me back in January, you know, do you think everybody in this board could, could just walk out of the buildings and work remotely and live remotely in the next two months?
Brent McDonald (13:37):
I’d say, no, that’ll take us years to years to really pull off in any cohesive way, given what everything else is is on everyone’s plates. But all of a sudden we didn’t have anything else on our plates. We had one thing and watching everyone come together and work together and have that spirit of cooperation and collaboration was, was fantastic. So when I say what stuck and what, what worked back to your question? I’d say we learned a lot about what we can do if we really focus and have clear, consistent goals and and keep it simple and small we can move fast and as a big system. So that was exciting for me to see I think mistake wise, the, you asked that as well mistake wise. Yes, absolutely. It’s not perfect. What we’re working on and that’s okay.
Brent McDonald (14:29):
We talk a lot about failure in our system and that failure is, is is a really good thing because you learn from it and if you’re failing and learning, that’s okay. That’s how you get better at it. And we have to be able to do that. And there, there’s a whole show that you could probably do on, on failure or a whole talk we can do on, on how you manage that. But I think we’ve created a culture of of safety for, for staff and students as best we can and by safety, I mean not necessarily physically safe, but really being able to say, Hey, you know what, we can try some things and if they don’t work, it’s okay, nobody’s going to get too upset. We’re going to fix it and move forward and learn from it.
Brent McDonald (15:10):
And I think that’s what we’ve done the last little bit. So from all of the granular mistakes that we make every day, and, you know, it’s seven months later and people are still not unmuting their mics on zoom calls, right. Those really small things that come to the, to the much bigger mistakes that we’re making. And for us, some of those have been trying to solve problems that really don’t exist. And and under estimating people in some respects too. So the example I use is we spent, we spent weeks worried about students three and four year olds having to wear masks all day and that, how can that possibly happen? Well, it did. We asked them and we provided resources and, and teaching to them. And I can go into a school at the end of the day on a Friday.
Brent McDonald (16:00):
And there’s a three-year-old has been there all week, all day, still wearing their mask and completely fine with that. So something that was a big worry for us in our planning turned out to not be a problem at all, and for most people but certainly not to the extent that we thought it was going to be as an example some of the other underestimations that we’ve made. And it’s just because it’s our first time through a lot of it, I’d say we planned. And we, we underestimated the amount of people that would take up remote learning, for example, through COVID. So, you know, our schools are open and we have options around remote, and we might’ve fought somewhere under 10%, five to 10% might pick that up and so we planned appropriately for that. And our board, we’re sitting more around 17% now, but there’s many boards that are sitting around 40 to 50% of their population that have opted for remote.
Brent McDonald (16:50):
Those numbers are staggeringly more than what we thought they would have been to start with. And we didn’t know. And again, didn’t have that time through the consultation to really find out. So it was best guesses. And so I’ve seen some areas where we have underestimated either whether it’s at the student level or systemically some of those pieces. And we’ll learn from that. And now, you know, the next time that we venture down this road we’ll know what’s a problem. What’s a real problem. And what’s not a real problem. So that’s been, that’s been interesting to watch, and I’d say we’ve learned from that.
Sam Demma (17:23):
There’s a gentleman named Ray Dalio wrote a book titled “Principles,” and we’re the most successful hedge fund managers in the world. And he has a concept known as the error log. And it’s a document shared by his entire company where every time a mistake is made instead of a manager, figuring it out, you personally log the mistake yourself, explain what happened and what you learned from it. And he says like every week, his old team reviews, this error discusses it publicly so that every single person in the company learns from one person’s mistake. And I thought it was a brilliant, brilliant concept. And you had so many other pieces of wisdom in this book. And you also mentioned, you know, the importance of resilience, which comes from overcoming challenges or going through failures and seeing the resilience of a three-year-old or a four-year-old must be a motivating site for you, especially for anybody. I’m curious to know, you know, those sites motivates you. What else keeps you motivated? What drives you to keep doing this work, even when times are really difficult and tough?
Brent McDonald (18:28):
Well, you, you, you nailed it right. There really is the youth that we have and their voices, and and seeing the hope that they have. So I’d say also the lessons that we learned from them and started the questions today, you know, why did I get into this work? And, and the other reason which lends into this motivator is, is that desire to keep learning. And we learn as much today from our youth, as I do from, from any professional development series or, or workshop. And, you know, when we look at the great work that’s happening around our environmental work that we’re doing, or around our anti-oppression anti black racism, anti-oppression work that we’re doing, our students are often the ones leading the charge and teaching us about about how things need to be. And, and sometimes we needed to take a step back and really look at at, at what they’re doing and what they’re asking and what they’re saying.
Brent McDonald (19:27):
And so those lessons that we learned from our, our youth and the questions that they put on the table holding us as the adults and the, the, the leaders and systems accountable for what we’re doing. That’s, that’s incredible. That’s a, that’s, that’s motivating for me and helps move us forward and think, yeah, these are the, these are the leaders of our future. So it’s up to us to get barriers out of the way so they can do the work that they want to see as they go forward. And, you know, I don’t know if it’s always been that way, but I’d say the student voice is, is, is alive and, and more present now than, than I’ve seen in years past. And there’s venues for it. And, you know, your, your show’s very much like that too. It’s bringing student voices and ideas for students forward. But we’re also seeing it in so many other places. So I think having that energy behind you, when you know that you’re in a school system that has 34,000 voices and opportunities ahead of them, that’s, that’s motivating you. Can’t not be motivated by that, that gets you out of bed in the morning.
Sam Demma (20:32):
I love that. That’s awesome. And for the educators who might be listening, hopefully they’re not struggling with motivation issues, but in the, in the case that they might be, and they’re struggling to get out of bed. Maybe in fact, it’s their first year in education. If I could take you back to your first year in education, and, you know, you, you started, you were a little bit uncertain, maybe really passionate to get going, but confused and overwhelmed with all the different systems and terminology. And there’s the, just, just the change of starting something new. What pieces of advice would you share with your past self and with other educators who are just starting to get into this role, especially during a year like like 2020 with the global pandemic.
Brent McDonald (21:16):
That’s a great question, Sam, in one night, we got to remind ourselves all the time and I alluded to it earlier, but I think if I went back to my first-year teaching self probably a lot of fear around failure and not doing things right. And I’d say I probably spent way too much energy worrying about that. Then just trying some things and seeing how it goes and being okay if it didn’t and moving forward. So I learned those lessons along the way, but I, I probably wish I learned those more quickly probably would have had a lot less sleepless nights as a, as a brand new teacher. I’d also say reaching out to, to colleagues and you know, when I first started, I think I remember my first email that I ever wrote as a teacher it’s we email was just coming on.
Brent McDonald (22:04):
And when that happened, which is a very sad thing to say, but I remember the first time that we got to do that as a teacher, and now the ability for teachers to connect and collaborate be outside the walls of their classroom is phenomenal. The, the PD that’s available on on social media, on Twitter feeds on, on that you can access at the, you know, whether it’s through podcasts, whatever it might be, you can get ideas and collaborate and make connections with people more than we ever could when I first started. So my advice would be not to encourage youth youth and new teachers to the profession, especially when you’re feeling up against the wall on something or worried about something, reach out and put the question out there. And I see it every day when I’m looking through feeds in the comments, the, the support that’s out there in the broader educational community for, for staff is fantastic and feels really supportive when you read it. And and there’s a, a great venue there for, for people, as opposed to just walking down the hall. There’s nothing wrong with walking down the hall and texting with your teaching partner down the way, but you have access to so much more than you ever did before. So use it would be my advice.
Sam Demma (23:16):
That’s awesome. And if someone wanted to get in touch with you, I know you’re busy and I have so much going on, but maybe there’s a fellow educator somewhere in the world who has ideas to share or wants to just bounce ideas around what would be the best way for them to reach out to you?
Brent McDonald (23:32):
Probably probably on Twitter. It would be the best way if if they’re looking for that. So my Twitter handles is @Brent4ED. So absolutely would be one of the best ways to reach out. You could do that or go into the Upper Grand District School Board website, and they can find me on there and make a connection. I just told people they should do it, just connect them and share ideas. And I think that’s what we have to keep on doing in this profession, especially as we’re all facing new challenges and new problems that we’ve never had before. We don’t need to solve it by ourselves. So it’s great to be able to bounce ideas off of each other and and see where we can go.
Sam Demma (24:14):
Right? That’s a great way to end this episode. Thank you so much for coming on here. I hope people reach out. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you, and I look forward to seeing you again in person when all of this passes or starts to change and adjust.
Brent McDonald (24:26):
We’ll definitely make that happen. Sam, I was talking to folks today who we’re hoping that we can continue down that thread too. So we’ll look forward to having you back and a huge thanks again for allowing me to be on your show today.
Sam Demma (24:38):
Thanks a lot. You bet. And there you have it. Another amazing interview on the High Performing Educator podcast. If you enjoyed this episode and liked it, consider reaching out to Brent, he would love to hear from you. And if you have your own ideas and insights that you’d like to share, please shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. So we can also get you on the podcast. And as always, if you’re benefiting from this content and you’re enjoying it, consider leaving a rating and review. So more people just like yourself can find it and also consume it and learn new things for their own students in schools. Anyways, I’ll see you on the next episode. Talk soon.
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