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

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

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

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

Connect with Jennifer: Email | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Upper Grand District School Board

Who is Ross Greene?

Grading for Equity by Joe Feldman

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):

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

Sam Demma (00:59):

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

Jennifer Meeker (02:20):

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

Sam Demma (02:28):

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

Jennifer Meeker (02:43):

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

Sam Demma (02:52):

Mm. So what was your path?

Jennifer Meeker (02:54):

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

Jennifer Meeker (03:28):

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

Sam Demma (04:16):

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

Jennifer Meeker (04:24):

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

Sam Demma (04:59):

Mm.

Jennifer Meeker (04:59):

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

Jennifer Meeker (05:47):

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

Sam Demma (07:00):

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

Jennifer Meeker (07:11):

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

Sam Demma (07:41):

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

Jennifer Meeker (07:58):

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

Jennifer Meeker (08:51):

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

Sam Demma (10:18):

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

Jennifer Meeker (10:26):

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

Sam Demma (11:31):

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

Jennifer Meeker (11:55):

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

Jennifer Meeker (12:44):

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

Jennifer Meeker (13:32):

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

Sam Demma (14:20):

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

Jennifer Meeker (14:31):

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

Jennifer Meeker (15:30):

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

Sam Demma (16:07):

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

Jennifer Meeker (16:46):

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

Jennifer Meeker (17:40):

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

Sam Demma (18:45):

Mm.

Jennifer Meeker (18:46):

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

Jennifer Meeker (19:43):

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

Sam Demma (20:20):

That’s awesome. I, I think it’s

Jennifer Meeker (20:22):

On this shoulder all the time, just telling me

Sam Demma (20:24):

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

Jennifer Meeker (21:01):

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

Sam Demma (22:11):

Mm.

Jennifer Meeker (22:12):

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

Sam Demma (22:20):

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

Jennifer Meeker (22:53):

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

Jennifer Meeker (23:54):

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

Sam Demma (24:57):

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

Jennifer Meeker (25:03):

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

Sam Demma (26:30):

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

Jennifer Meeker (27:07):

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

Jennifer Meeker (27:55):

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

Jennifer Meeker (28:38):

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

Sam Demma (29:12):

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

Jennifer Meeker (29:40):

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

Sam Demma (29:49):

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

Jennifer Meeker (30:02):

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

Sam Demma (30:08):

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

Jennifer Meeker (30:15):

Thanks Sam. Take care. Thanks for having me.

Sam Demma (30:19):

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

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Jennifer Meeker

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.

Dawn Thompson – Strait Area Regional Advisor of the Nova Scotia Secondary School Students’ Association (NSSSA)

Dawn Thompson - Strait Area Regional Advisor of the Nova Scotia Secondary School Students' Association (NSSSA)
About Dawn Thompson

Dawn (@miztee7) grew up in Scarborough, Ontario and was educated at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. She is an educator with over 25 years of varied teaching experience: from Grade 4 to adults, in public and private schools, day school and summer school, in Ontario, Alberta, Nova Scotia and abroad, and in English and French. Currently, she works in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, for the Strait Regional Centre for Education.

While the subject areas of her classes have varied widely over her career, the one constant has been her involvement with student leadership. Dawn has many years of experience as a school Student Council advisor but has spent the last 11 years working with student leadership outside of school in the NSSSA (Nova Scotia Secondary Schools Students’ Association). She has been the Regional Advisor for the Strait Region and the Sou’West/Valley Region, as well as the Advisor Co-ordinator for the Provincial Conference. This year, she is proud to be transitioning to the position of Provincial Advisor for the organization.

She is a mom to 3 amazing teenage boys who make her laugh every day (and sometimes make her scream in frustration). She is a reader and a writer. She sews and gardens. But her true talent lies in the kitchen . . . and not just because of the food she makes.

Connect with Dawn: Email | Twitter | Instagram

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Lakehead University

Strait Regional Centre for Education

NSSSA (Nova Scotia Secondary Schools Students’ Association)

NSSSA – Conferences and Events

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.

Sam Demma (01:00):

This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest, I had the privilege of meeting this past year in Nova Scotia. Her name is Don Thompson. Don grew up in Scarborough, Ontario and was educated at Lakehead University in thunder bay. She is an educator with over 25 years of varied teaching experience from grade four to adults in public and private schools, day school, and summer school in Ontario, Alberta, Nova Scotia, and abroad, and in both English and French languages. Currently, she works in Antigonish, Nova Scotia for the straight regional center for education. While the subject areas of her classes have varied widely over her career, the one constant has been her involvement with student leadership. Dawn has many years of experience as a school student council advisor, but has spent the last 11 years working with student leadership outside of school in the NSSSA (Nova Scotia Secondary School Students Association)

Sam Demma (01:57):

She has been the regional advisor for the Strait Region and the Sou’West/Valley Region, as well as the advisor coordinator for the provincial conference. This year, she is proud to be transitioning to the position of provincial advisor for the entire organization. She is a mom to three amazing teenage boys who make her laugh every day and sometimes make her scream in frustration. <Laugh> She is a reader and a writer. She sews and gardens, but her true talent lies in the kitchen, and not just because of the food she makes. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Don Thompson. She is filled with positivity and so much high energy, and I know you’ll enjoy it. I will see you on the other side. Don, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here today. Please start by introducing yourself.

Dawn Thompson (02:46):

Okay. I’m Don Thompson. I am a high school English and French teacher in Antigonish, Nova Scotia at Dr. John Hugh Gillis Regional Sigh school. But more significantly, the reason you asked me to be here is because I am the regional advisor for a student leadership organization in Nova Scotia called the NSSSA.

Sam Demma (03:09):

Your heart has been tied to the NS a for many years. Please tell us why it is such a meaningful organization for you and what inspired you to get involved.

Dawn Thompson (03:22):

So when I moved here about 13 years ago, I didn’t know anything about the Ente. It’s a Nova Scotia thing. I’m an Ontario girl. And I had a couple of students in an English class who said to me, miss, we’re going to this leadership conference and we need an advisor. Do you think you’d wanna go with us? And I thought, well, that’s kind of up my alley. I’ve done student council in the past. And I was sort of looking for my thing outside of the classroom. So I agreed to go. And afterwards I found out that it was over the long weekend in may and it was a three hour drive away. And I was gonna have to take some time off of school. And I thought, holy cow, what did I just get roped into? But my principal assured me that it was an amazing organization and that the girls who wanted to go were really great young people.

Dawn Thompson (04:17):

And so he said, just do it. And I got there and about five hours in, I called home and said, I wanna go to this every year. Mm. I have never experienced anything like this in my career, the enthusiasm, the positive energy and just the astounding quality of an event organized and run entirely by students, which was so well done. I thought I have to be a part of this. And then the two girls who asked me to go ran for co premier of our region, they won the election and they said, would you be our regional advisor? And I said, okay, <laugh> what do I have to do? <Laugh> and, and, and then it’s history from there

Sam Demma (05:15):

And N S a stands, can you share what the abbreviation stands for in case someone’s outside of Nova Scotia?

Dawn Thompson (05:23):

Of course it’s the Nova Scotia, secondary school students association

Sam Demma (05:29):

Love it. I, I loved the conference. I think I had similar feelings that you had being there over the summer. I second, everything you say about it. And if someone is in Nova Scotia listening to this and it’s not involved, what are you doing? What are you waiting for? You know, get involved right now. So when did you realize as a student yourself that you wanted to pursue a career and a future in education?

Dawn Thompson (05:58):

In high school, I thought I wanted to be a psychologist and my father kept trying to talk me out of it. He kept saying, oh, Don, you’d be a really great teacher. I didn’t know if that was really what I wanted. I, you know, like I’d done babysitting and I taught swimming lessons and I’ve done summer camps and things like that. So I guess I’d kind of always been involved in teaching, but I didn’t really know if that’s what I wanted as a career. And then in my last year of high school, I had a momentous conversation with somebody who I guess was kind of a mentor. And he said, Don psychologists build hospitals at the bottoms of cliffs and teachers build fences at the top. Which one do you wanna build? And I thought, I wanna build the fence. I wanna catch them before they fall. I don’t wanna fix them once they’re broken. So I became a teacher.

Sam Demma (06:54):

And when you made that decision after these meaningful conversations with people in your life, what did the journey look like from the moment the decision was made in your mind to where you are today?

Dawn Thompson (07:06):

I remember at university preparing for my very first student teaching lesson and I was terrified. I thought, what if I’m terrible? What if I suck? How am I gonna call my parents and say, I know we’ve spent thousands of dollars in a few years of my life, but I, I think I made a mistake. And then that first lesson was incredible. And like, in that moment, I knew that I belonged at the front of a classroom that like I was born to be there. It was the right fit. So I taught in a bunch of different places. I taught in Toronto for 10 years. I taught outside of Ottawa for the upper Canada school board for a couple of years. And then we moved to Nova Scotia. And in the time that I’ve been here I’ve taught at, I think, six different schools. I’ve taught every grade level from grade four to grade 12. I’ve taught English, French history, social studies, art drama. <Laugh> you name it? It’s pretty much been on my plate at some point in my career.

Sam Demma (08:13):

That’s so awesome. And in your role today, what are some of the aspects of the job that bring you the most fulfillment and joy and just fill your heart?

Dawn Thompson (08:27):

Truly my job with the NS a absolutely does every second. A lot of the time I get asked what do you do in, in your role as regional advisor? And I often answer, well, I don’t do much. I go to meetings, I listen to these kids talk and plan. They do all the work. I’m just the backup plan. And the reality is I do the job because I get, get so much out of it. Mm-Hmm, <affirmative>, it is so inspiring to watch young people be so capable to watch them plan and run incredible events and to do it all with no payback for themselves. This is not a job that they’re getting paid to do. They’re doing the work at the conference. It’s not like they even get to go there and just enjoy it. Yeah. It it’s a significant amount of work.

Dawn Thompson (09:24):

And one of the things that I love about it is that as a teacher, I have always wanted, I’ve always felt that it was my job to prepare students for the world outside of my classroom. Yes, I’m an English teacher, but who cares? If you can write a great essay, that’s not gonna do you a lot of good in your life. I would much rather know that I’m teaching you real life skills. And the N essay is a great way for kids to actually get those skills. They learn how to write appropriate emails. They learn how to read a contract and sign it, how to negotiate, how to create a budget how to problem solve, how to hire people and how to fire people. Yeah. So the skills that they get there are always so impressive. And in my career, I hear a lot about what kids can’t do. Mm. And the NS a always shows me what they can do when you give them expectations, they rise up and they meet them.

Sam Demma (10:29):

Yeah.

Dawn Thompson (10:30):

And give me hope for the future. Truly, you know, I think someday I’ll be in a care facility and it’ll be okay. <Laugh> because they’ll be BSA kids there looking out for me. The future of the world is in good hands.

Sam Demma (10:45):

Mm. So the, the students themselves sound like give you a ton of hope. I would assume they’re also the reason you’re fired up every day to get out of bed and pursue this work. What, what, what else keeps you motivated?

Dawn Thompson (11:01):

There’s a lot of joy in a classroom, right? When you can create a really great safe environment where kids come every day and they know that it’s okay to be who they are. And and that I’m interested in knowing them and learning from them as much as they learn from me, then you often get really, really great classroom conversations that go on which, which are so inspirational. And truly, there’s a really, really wonderful sense of comradery that comes with working with amazing colleagues, too. You know, those connections you make with other educators where you can think outside the box and solve a problem for a kid that nobody was expecting that like, that’s a really rewarding experience too, at the end of the day, if I go home and say, well, you know, maybe they didn’t learn how to write a really great introduction today, but I know that this kid felt loved in my classroom. This kid got some support for making a hard decision. You know, I connected with a colleague and we found a solution for a kid who’s gonna be away for three weeks or something like that. It just, those are the little things that really make every day matter.

Sam Demma (12:21):

I’ve spoken to many people in education over the past two years, and something many of them have had in common is there’s been moments of challenge, especially throughout the past two years personally, with the pandemic. And, you know, thankfully things are changing hopefully for the better for the rest of our lives. <Laugh> school will never go back to the way it was before, which I believe is a really good thing. You know, it’s challenge us to think outside the box and maybe change some of our focuses and practices, but I’m curious to know what you think some of the opportunities are that are coming outta this interesting time.

Dawn Thompson (12:55):

Hmm. Opportunities. I worry that we are not taking advantage of the opportunities that are coming here. We’ve got kids who are really, really connected to technology, and I hope that we find a way to use those opportunities the right way, because I’m a little concerned that right now we’re not preparing kids for how to handle the technology that they’re suddenly so well versed in. They don’t have some of the skills. I think that they really need to navigate that in a healthy way, but a lot of them have become in some ways independent learners. They’ve had to be if they’re doing online learning, if they’re missing classes, because they’re homesick, there’s a lot of independence there that I think we can really cultivate in them and that we need to cultivate in them a sense of personal responsibility for their achievements and their success. And more importantly, a hope that we find a way for them to recognize that what they do at school is really about preparing them for the real world, that there shouldn’t be that disconnect between your classroom and the job you might have someday. Mm

Sam Demma (14:09):

That’s a really great point. I think there are so many pathway opportunities that exist that even when I was a student, maybe we weren’t talking about as much in school and the whole pandemic has really shined a light on the, the flexibility of education or the ways it can exist. And I think it’s given students a chance to, you know, explore the world for maybe a year. Some, some schools in Ontario didn’t even actually go into a classroom for like eight months. And so, yeah, I think you’re absolutely right, like shortening that gap or that leg between what’s getting taught and what’s happening in the world. It sounds like more real world conversations are getting pulled into classrooms, even when we were at N say, the conversations that are happening are so forward thinking and based on current events. So I, yeah, those are, those are great opportunities for learning. What, what, yes, go ahead.

Dawn Thompson (15:05):

I would love to see a four day school week

Dawn Thompson (15:11):

Where kids are in classes four days a week, and there’s one day where they do all the other stuff. They do the extracurriculars, they don’t miss any class time. They get extra support. So they’re not being pulled out of a class to get support in another subject area. I would love to see education seen in a different light. We’ve been doing education the same way for hundreds of years, but the world we’re looking at today is not the same as a hundred years ago. And so I think hopefully the major changes, the, the spotlight that has been Sean on the current challenges in our whole society will allow us to be able to say, okay, we need to really make some bold moves here. If we can survive a couple of years of major changes with no preparation, you know, no, no reports written and no experts hired and no warning. And none of that stuff, if we can manage, then we can do a lot more and we should do a lot more to actually tackle the major challenges that we’re facing in our education system. For sure.

Sam Demma (16:25):

Time to push the limits. That’s the thing that comes to mind, you know be, yeah. What, what do you do to fill up your cup when you’re not at work or in the classroom to help you show up at the best of your abilities?

Dawn Thompson (16:43):

I read I’m an English teacher, so I have a real passion for literature to start with. But to me that’s a really, really great way to decompress get lost in a book, get lost in the life of somebody else, forget your own troubles for a little while and, you know, worry about how they’re gonna manage theirs, which are so much worse than yours. And <laugh> enjoy like I have a passion for language. So I love to see how a writer creates language and controls it and shapes the world, using words. That’s exciting to me. And I make sure that I try to balance that with physical activity and with time in my kitchen, I cook, I bake, I dance at the same time sometimes <laugh> and you know, I try to make sure that I spend time with my kids and I laugh and, and hang out with my friends and just, it it’s, it really is that balance in life, all the things in moderation.

Sam Demma (17:44):

Mm. I, I support the dancing and cooking at the same time. Sounds like a party. <Laugh>

Dawn Thompson (17:51):

You have to be careful though, and you should definitely wear an apron.

Sam Demma (17:54):

Yeah. <laugh> I should get food everywhere. That’s awesome. Well, when you think about people who have had a significant impact on you as a person and your professional development as a teacher who are some of the individuals that come to mind and what do you think those individuals did for you that had a significant impact?

Dawn Thompson (18:17):

There was a teacher in high school. I took political science in grade 12, and I remember walking in to his classroom every day, thinking I know nothing <laugh> and then I would leave going. I only know what I learned today in this class from him, but he never ever made me feel like, I didn’t know anything. In fact, he was the one who started calling me a political animal, somebody who was really passionate about that. And he made me actually want to live up to that. He got me interested in politics, and so I know that a lot of what I do in my classroom, I have shaped around trying to give kids that same feeling, trying to get them to see themselves in a way that maybe they have not in the past, trying to get them to say, well, it’s okay if I’m not an expert or I’m not perfect as long as I’m always trying to grow and, and learn and be better.

Dawn Thompson (19:14):

So I definitely would consider him to be a, a role model for the kind of teacher I became and have a very long relationship with the woman who was my cooperating teacher when I was a student teacher, ah her name is gay Thompson, no relation to me. Oh, wow. <Laugh> but I actually kind of think of her as a second mom, you know, we’ve known each other for 25, some odd years now, and it was amazing to be in her classroom and see what she did and then to work with her again, later on in my career and to watch the environment she created for teachers in her presence and to call her up during the course of my career, when I was facing a job crisis, should I take this job? Should I take that job? What am I doing in my classroom?

Dawn Thompson (20:11):

That’s not working anymore. And to be able to call her up and, and talk to her, not just as somebody who understood my profession, but also who understood me as a, a friend has been really, really extraordinary. And I hope that I pay that forward to young teachers who come into my space as well. And into my teaching world, I, I hope that I give them what she gave me. And then, and then someday when I am retired, I hope that they also call me up and say, Hey, I have this really great thing that happened. And, and, and I can celebrate it with them.

Sam Demma (20:52):

Ah, I love that. Are these individuals that you stay in? I mean, it sounds like you and gay Thompson stay in touch with, do you stay in touch with these individuals often?

Dawn Thompson (21:02):

Well, I don’t talk to her as often as I probably should. That’s okay. But I, we do, we, we call at least two or three times a year, major life moments. You know, she sends my kids birthday cards, which is so lovely. And, you know, just the, the little things that make sure that you stay in touch so that we know what’s going on in each other’s lives.

Sam Demma (21:22):

Nice. Well, this interview gives you another reason to reach out to her <laugh> so hopefully it facilitates a connection. So

Dawn Thompson (21:30):

When tell her, she will be,

Sam Demma (21:32):

So it’s obvious people have played an impact. Are there any resources that you think have also played an impact, maybe that’s books you’ve read that really provided unique perspectives or courses you’ve been a part of, you know, you mentioned the conference NS a, so that’s a big resource. What else?

Dawn Thompson (21:54):

Well, the N plus a I, I know it’s a student leadership organization and it really is designed run planned. The whole thing is for students, but teachers get a lot out of it too. When we go there as advisors, if, I mean, you did a session with advisors, you spent time with advisors over the weekend. You know, how important that time is for them. There are advisors who have been going to conferences for years, and it might be the only time that we see each other, but there’s such a really great sense of family that comes with that. We’re teaching in different places in the province, we’re teaching different levels, different subjects. And yet there’s a connection that we make that is really rejuvenating for a lot of us. And having that provincial conference, especially in may leading into that really rough part of the year, which is June there’s something that really fills up your tank to help you get through the month of June.

Dawn Thompson (23:00):

So it is definitely a huge resource for me, especially because I get energy from that. But I also have an opportunity to dialogue with colleagues, which is not something that happens on an everyday basis, often in a school, you know, you’re locked in your own classroom, doing your thing, that there is not a lot of opportunity to meet with other teachers and say, Hey, what are you doing in your space? Or I’m trying this, and I don’t know if it’s working out. What do you think have you had had experience with this? So certainly the S a has given me that the other thing that I would say really, really shaped my career in terms of a resource many years ago, when I taught in Toronto at Asian court collegiate, we had a principal who was kind of visionary, and he decided that he wanted to train everybody on staff.

Dawn Thompson (23:53):

And I’m not just talking about teachers, I’m talking about TAs caretakers in the building, secretaries administration, everyone who worked in that building was trained on a program, which was called tribes. It’s no longer called that now. It’s peace learning groups. I think I’m not sure that’s okay. Because I think that they’ve recognized that perhaps the name while it was well-intentioned was not necessarily a good choice, but really it’s about cooperative learning in your classroom. It’s about creating a community of learners who support each other for their success. And it’s about the teacher as much being a part of that community of learners as the students are. And so I took the training, but I was initially very skeptical because it was really designed for elementary students and they were trying to run this program with high school teachers. And I thought, oh, really, you think I can play that game with my grade twelves, are you crazy?

Dawn Thompson (24:57):

They’re not gonna wanna do that. And I asked a lot of questions and, and I was probably a little bit difficult. But at the end of the training, I committed to giving it a shot the next year in my classes. And so in September I started it up and I’ve never looked back. Mm-Hmm, <affirmative> the difference that it made in my classroom. Every single time has been tangible. It makes kids comfortable with each other. It makes them feel safe. It creates a relationship between me and them that is so necessary if you want real quality learning to happen. So during the pandemic, it was more challenging to do that because a lot of the activities required contact and they’re supposed to be sitting in groups and working in groups and they weren’t allowed to, and they had to wear their masks and they couldn’t see each other’s faces and they couldn’t touch the same ball.

Dawn Thompson (25:57):

So you can’t play the game where you throw the ball back and forth. Like it was just, there was so much about it. That was so hard. And I felt it because the environment that I created in my space was not the same. Mm-Hmm <affirmative> it was missing something. So getting back to it this year, just renewed how much that had such a gigantic impact on me as an educator. I would love to become a trainer and train other people to do that someday. But in the meantime, I make sure that I use it in all my classes, and I talk about it with my colleagues. I have the book that has the whole program laid out. I bought it, I consulted on a regular basis. I check out new activities that I might try from it. And I think that that was a really huge component for developing me into the educator that I am.

Sam Demma (26:49):

Isn’t the book, the same title of the program? Like what would the title of the book be if someone wanted to try and find it, or

Dawn Thompson (26:55):

The, the, I don’t, I’m hoping that they’re manufacturing a new version of it. Okay. But the old version was tribes, TLC the tribes learning community and it’s I think if you go online, they have a website, but I’m pretty sure exchange if you search up tribes, it’ll take you to peace learning groups now. And I think that they’re revamping a lot of stuff, so I don’t know how many of their resources their books are available anymore.

Sam Demma (27:26):

Okay. When you say using it, is it more so a collection of exercises and activities that you could implement in your classroom or what exactly is the program?

Dawn Thompson (27:37):

Well, the program has, it’s an approach really cool to how you run everything in your classroom. Okay. So I spend a lot of time at the beginning of a course, really making sure that I’m creating that space for students, getting them comfortable. They’re sharing information about themselves. I’m learning about them as individuals, as learners. They’re learning about me. We’re developing our four agreements, which basically set the rules for the classroom. You know, it’s about being an attentive listener. It’s about being mutually respectful to each other. It’s about the right to pass or participate, meaning that there are some times where if you don’t wanna talk today, you don’t have to. But recognizing that the more you don’t participate, the less other people get to know you. And then that’s not such a comfortable space for you. So understanding that you have to make choices and really building this sense of community in the classroom respect and celebrating the differences in our space and amongst our people, but also looking for the connections that draw us together and, and help us make a community.

Dawn Thompson (28:50):

So it’s a bunch of different activities that you can do. And then it’s sort of an approach to even how you run the lessons. If I really wanted to, I could structure all my lessons that way I don’t. But often I do have activities that we do on a regular basis that build that sense of community. And then eventually, probably about six weeks in when I feel like kids know me and I know them I ask them to give me a collection of probably about five names of people who they would like to have in what I’m now calling guilds instead of tribes. Nice. because it, I think a Guild is a really great name for what they’re doing. It’s a group of people who are not related by blood, but who have a common goal, their own success. Yep. And who have things in common.

Dawn Thompson (29:41):

So I’m calling them guilds now. So they tell me five people they’d like to have in their Guild. I put those guilds together and I promise them that at least one person that they have asked for will be in their Guild. So everybody has a safe person in their Guild. But I put those guilds together thinking about genders. I think about strengths and weaknesses. I think about personalities. I think about learning styles. I think about all of the things that contribute to how they might successfully work together. And then they sit with that group. They often work with that group. They don’t do everything with their group, but many things. And what I hear usually at the end of the year is how much they loved their group, how tight they became. You don’t have to think of a name for their group and they’d come up with crazy stuff all the time. And <laugh>, it’s, it’s just, there’s so much positive about it that I think if I create that in my space, then all the learning that happens in the room afterwards comes out of the fact that this is a good place to be.

Sam Demma (30:45):

Mm. Sounds like a conference in a classroom. That’s what came to mind. <Laugh>

Dawn Thompson (30:49):

I hope

Sam Demma (30:50):

<Laugh>. Yeah. It’s so that’s so cool. It sounds like it’s had a really big impact on your beliefs and philosophy and approaching education, which is awesome. I’ll definitely hyperlink it down below so people can check it out. If you could take all of your experience in education, all the wisdom you’ve gained and all of your years teaching go back in time and like tap down on the shoulder. When, when you were just starting to work in a school, knowing what you know now, not that you would change anything about your path, but what advice do you think it would’ve been helpful to hear when you were just starting?

Dawn Thompson (31:25):

You don’t have to mark everything.

Sam Demma (31:29):

Hmm.

Dawn Thompson (31:31):

As a beginning teacher, there’s this sense that you have to be on top of everything students are doing and everything they do matters, and you have to have marks for everything and you have to be accountable and guess what you don’t, mm-hmm <affirmative> sometimes you just have to relax and let the learning take place that there are other ways to assess the learning that’s happening and to check in with kids that has nothing to do with marking the work.

Sam Demma (31:59):

That’s a great piece of advice and I’m sure people who just started teaching over the past few years could have used that maybe two years ago before they jumped in so thanks for sharing. If someone is listening to this conversation, has been inspired by it, wants to connect with you, join your personal Guild, or ask you a question, what would be the best way for someone listening to get in touch?

Dawn Thompson (32:25):

Well, I I’ve got my social media, so I am on Instagram. I think I’m @miztee77. You’d have to request to follow me because I do keep it private, teachers have to do that. I’m on Twitter, so you can find me there too. I’m pretty sure I’m @miztee7 there, and obviously I’m happy to get emails too. So you know, if you wanna talk about teaching, you wanna talk about the NSSSA? My email address is kuzykmommy@gmail.com.

Sam Demma (33:10):

Awesome. Don, thank you so much for taking some of your time to stop marking some exams and you know, join me on the podcast to share some of your experiences and beliefs around education. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you and I can’t wait until our next conversation,

Dawn Thompson (33:27):

Sam, it was a real pleasure for me too. It was so nice to reconnect with you. I, I had a great time.

Sam Demma (33:35):

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

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Dawn Thompson

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.

Melanie Randall – Dance, English, Canadian & World Studies Teacher at Chatham Kent Secondary School

Melanie Randall - Dance, English, Canadian & World Studies Teacher at Chatham Kent Secondary School
About Melanie Randall

Melanie Randall has been teaching and coaching dance at the LKDSB for over 20 years. Her lifelong passion for dance began at the age of two, continued as she attended Canada’s National Ballet School at age 9, and inspired her to earn teaching certification in Ballet with the Royal Academy of Dancing and National Dance with the British Association of Teachers of Dance.

She has also studied and performed jazz, tap, and Modern dance and choreographed and produced numerous musical theatre and dance productions. Randall started teaching dance professionally in grade 10, completed her Honours Bachelor of Arts in Dance at the University of Waterloo, her Bachelor of Education at the University of Windsor, and her Honours Specialist in Dance at York University. She is a founding member and current vice-president of the provincial dance education organization: Ontario Secondary School Dancefest.

Randall founded the CKSS Dance Program in 2001, and the Dance Team in 2002, and she has been the head coach of the team ever since. Under her guidance, this student-led team has won dozens of awards, including a provincial championship in 2007. Randall has a passion for helping students improve their technique as well as providing opportunities for student dancers to become confident, creative leaders through choreography and teaching. In addition to dance education, Randall is passionate about literacy, employability, social justice, and supporting student mental well-being.

She is a member of her school’s literacy and antiracism committees and advises the GSA and student well-being council. She incorporates literacy, career studies, social justice, and well-being in the dance classroom as well as when she teaches English, Civics, and Careers.

On a personal note, Randall is a partner, mom, stepmom, sister, daughter, and grandmother. She loves reading, listening to podcasts, travelling, visiting galleries and museums, camping, hiking, and canoeing.

Connect with Melanie: Email | Instagram | LinkedIn

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Lambton Kent District School Board (LKDSB)

Canada’s National Ballet School

Royal Academy of Dancing

British Association of Teachers of Dance

Honours Bachelor of Arts in Dance at the University of Waterloo

Bachelor of Education at York University

Ontario Secondary School Dancefest

CKSS Dance 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 the High Performing Educator podcast.

Sam Demma (00:59):

This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is a good friend of mine. Her name is Melanie Randall. Melanie Randall has been teaching and coaching dance at the Lampton Kent district school board for over 20 years. Her lifelong passion for dance began at the age of two, continued as she attended Canada’s national ballet school at age nine, and inspired her to earn her teaching certificate in ballet with the Royal academy of dancing and national dance. With the British association of teachers of dance, she has also studied and performed jazz tap, modern dance, choreographed, and produced numerous musical theater and dance productions. Randall started teaching dance professionally in grade tent completed her honors, bachelors of arts and dance at the University of Waterloo, her bachelor of education at the University of Windsor and her honours specialist in dance at York University.

Sam Demma (01:52):

She is a founding member and current vice president of the provincial dance education organization, Ontario secondary school dance Fest. Randall founded the (CKSS) Craig Keilberg Secondary School dance program in 2001, the dance team in 2002, and has been the head coach of the team ever since. Under her guidance, the student led team has won dozens of awards, including a provincial championship. In 2007, Randall has a passion for helping students improve their technique as well as providing opportunities for student dancers to become confident and creative leaders through choreography and teaching. In addition to dance education, Randall is passionate about literacy, employability, social justice, and supporting her student’s mental wellbeing. She’s a member of her school’s literacy and anti-racism committees and advises the GSA and student wellbeing council. She incorporates literacy, career studies, social justice, and wellbeing into the dance classroom, as well as when she teaches english, civics, and careers. On a more personal note. Randall is a partner, mom, stepmom, sister, daughter, and grandmother. She loves reading, listening to podcasts, traveling, visiting galleries and museums, camping, hiking, and canoeing. I hope you enjoy this interview with Melanie and I will see you on the other side. Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today we are joined by a special guest and a good friend who rocks the be someone’s taco merch. Her name is Melanie Randall. Melanie, please start by introducing yourself.

Melanie Randall (03:31):

So my name is Melanie Randall, as Sam said, and I am a 21 year high school educator. Although my education career started way before then, about the age of 12. And let’s see, I have three kids and I coach the dance team at the school and life is busy and wonderful.

Sam Demma (04:01):

When you say your educational career started much longer ago, in fact, when you were 12 years old, what do you mean by that? Tell me how it started when you were 12.

Melanie Randall (04:11):

So my mom thought I would be really bored at home all summer. Okay. So she signed me up for the summer that I was 12 and 13 as a counselor in training a volunteer. So I didn’t get paid. Okay. But a counselor in training for a camp for kids from age two and a half to five. So I really feel like I started back then. And then when I turned about 14 is when I started teaching dance to young children. And eventually I was students just as a high school student, middle school student.

Sam Demma (04:56):

Awesome. Yeah. That’s so cool. So it went from volunteering at a camp to teaching dance, to transitioning. At what point did you realize? One day I see myself working in an actual school setting. And once you made that decision, what did your educational pathway look like?

Melanie Randall (05:18):

So I didn’t make that decision until later I kind of have an unconventional pathway to my career. So I started out I, I, wasn’t a very good high school student myself and I was pulled aside by my guidance counselor who had caught me skipping again,

Sam Demma (05:43):

Skipping rope. You mean? Right. Skipping rope. <Laugh>

Melanie Randall (05:46):

Right. I shouldn’t admit that, I guess.

Sam Demma (05:48):

No, it sounds man,

Melanie Randall (05:49):

But it’s going somewhere. It’s going somewhere. So he pulled me aside and he said, I’ve looked at your file. What are you doing with your life? You know, you’re in grade 11, you’re in grade 12, like, this is ridiculous. What’s going on with you? What do you wanna do? And I said, I have no idea. So he haul me down to his office and he said, what do you like doing? And I said, the only thing that I like doing is dance. And he showed me brochures from post-secondary schools that offer dance programs. So I thought, wow, that’s interesting. I better get my marks up. Mm. So that really all of a sudden engaged me. And I just that’s when I set the goal just for postsecondary. And yet, while I was at postsecondary school, majoring in dance at the university of Waterloo, I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my dance degree when I was done. Had originally thought that I wanted to start my own studio, open my own studio, but then I realized that people who run their own studios work evenings and weekends, and I wanted to have a family. I was pretty traditional. I’d always wanted kids. So I thought that schedule probably isn’t going to work out.

Melanie Randall (07:24):

So, and, you know, went from job to job like retail, restaurant services hospitality, things like that just while I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. And then I ended up getting married and having two kids and staying home with them for a couple of years. And then my sister was graduating from her undergrad at Brock. And my dad was picking up back in the day they were paper applications. Nice. So my dad was picking up a paper application for my sister to apply to teacher’s college. And he brought one to me too. And he said, you know, I think this would be a really good fit for you. And so I basically applied for fun. My dad said if I applied, he’d pay the 75 bucks or whatever, it was nice to apply to teachers college back in the day. And yeah, I got in, so it was kind a, I took the long way, but I got there and yep. Been doing that and loving it ever since

Sam Demma (08:39):

Every pathway is a valid option. So there was no right or wrong choice, just how it unfolded for you, which is awesome. And thank you for sharing. It sounds like one of the key aspects of your story was that one individual who made education personal to you by asking you, what are you passionate about? Mm-Hmm <affirmative> and when you said dance, you kind of connected the dots to, you know, there’s a future and a career doing that in this system, if you would like to tell me about how some of your educators or teachers you had growing up made an impact on you. It sounds like that individual did, is there anyone else that you can think of when you think back to your own educational journey that stood out? And if so, like what did those people do for you that made a big difference?

Melanie Randall (09:26):

So it’s been a really long time and I don’t remember any specific teachers remember that there was a Fette teacher at one of my high schools cuz they went to three different high schools. Oh wow. Yeah, dad was opp, so we got transferred a bunch. Got it. And and there was this P teacher and it was like a leadership course that we were taking and he really helped me to see leadership potential in me where I had never seen that in myself before. I also had a couple of English teachers who really had an impact on me. The, my favorite course I probably ever took was an, it was an O cause I’m really dating myself. Nice. <Laugh> so back, back in the day, O just in Shakespeare and yeah, I just, I, the teacher let us pick what we wanted to learn and she took us on field trips and you know, she appreciated my writing once she copied my essay onto transparency paper and put it up on the overhead projector <laugh> oh,

Sam Demma (11:06):

Wow.

Melanie Randall (11:07):

<Laugh> to show that rest without my name on it or anything. Yeah. So no one knew that it was mine, but you did, but but yeah, to show the other students what the expectations were. So that was pretty exciting. I really felt like someone believed in me.

Sam Demma (11:24):

That’s awesome. And

Melanie Randall (11:25):

That, yeah, it’s really important.

Sam Demma (11:27):

I think one of the most important things we can do working with youth is put the battery in their back, not just teach them curriculum, but help them realize that they can do the things they envision themselves doing, no matter how difficult it might be or how long a road it might take to get there. Because even if they don’t accomplish the big dream or goal, they tell you about just pouring self-belief in their brain will help them accomplish. So other tasks and activities in their life that just require that extra ounce of self-belief. And self-confidence mm-hmm <affirmative> when you think about your journey in education, you know, once you started, what are all the different roles you’ve worked in? Like tell me like kind of chronologically where you started, what you’ve done and where you are now.

Melanie Randall (12:15):

Okay. So when I originally went to teachers college, it was at a satellite campus of the university of Windsor. And there were only about 20 of us in the class. And it was teaching primary junior, which is BA basically JK to grade six. And I found out pretty quickly that I did not want to do that. <Laugh> it was, it was, that was not my path. Yep. But I still worked really hard and I did my best for the children and did my best for other professors and you know, all of those things. And the summer that I graduated, I headed to Western university to upgrade, to teach high school right away that first summer. And I got hired right away as a supply teacher. This is another neat story in my pathway. So I was supply teaching different courses, kind of all over the county and nice, you know, going to different schools. Everyone knows how supply teaching works. And I had a couple of long term supply gigs and that was cool. And then one of the high schools here in town the parent, the president of the parent council said, you know, she was saying to the

Melanie Randall (13:48):

Princip Thursday could be offering that here. And the principal said, well, yeah, but who’s gonna teach it. And my sister who had been hired full time, right out of teachers college with her high school qualifications happened to be walking by when they were having this conversation. Whoa. And she said, she said, my sister has a dance degree and she’s a qualified teacher. Wow. And I got her phone call that afternoon for an interview. Right. <laugh> and the interview was like very informal. It was, we hear you have a dance degree and teachers college, would you like a job? <Laugh>

Sam Demma (14:27):

Wow.

Melanie Randall (14:28):

<Laugh> yeah. So I started teaching it actually after school and in the evenings at two different high schools in town. Okay. And then they were kind of test driving it to see if there would be any interest. And there was a lot of interest. I think I had 60 students. Wow. sign up from both schools total. And yeah, I was still supply teaching during the day. And then I was teaching those courses at night and you know, it was a lot but really worthwhile because both schools ended up offering the program full-time during the day. Nice. So then though,

Sam Demma (15:15):

Yeah. A mom teacher

Melanie Randall (15:16):

<Laugh> right. So for two years I drove back and forth and taught at both the schools. And at the end of, I guess my third year of teaching, I wrote a letter to a superintendent and said, you know, I’m exhausted. I’ve been through three sets of breaks. <Laugh> wow. I didn’t tell ’em that, but you know I said, you know, I don’t mind which school you assign me to here are the pros of working at both schools. And I don’t mind which school, but please just assign me to one. Mm. And the one school had built a brand new state of the art dance studio. And at the other school, the principal was retiring. So the principal with the dance studio went to the staffing meeting and said, we want her. And we’re gonna take her at our school. And the principal who was retiring said, eh, do what you want <laugh> <laugh> cause he was retiring.

Melanie Randall (16:28):

He didn’t care as much, no longer invested in it. Yeah. So he yeah, he didn’t fight for me. And the other principal did, so I’ve been there full-time for 17 years and part-time, well, I guess, 18 years and part-time for three. So yeah. And then it wasn’t full-time dance. So my other qualification is English. So I was teaching English and dance at the same time and yeah, it was wonderful. And then about eight years ago, I was assigned civics and careers, which a lot of teachers don’t enjoy teaching or don’t want. And I was really nervous at first, but I love it. I absolutely love teaching those courses, especially the careers. I, I like civics because I really get the kids engaged in social justice and you know, their role in society as an active citizen of the world and the O you know, I can them to so many diverse topics and they get to choose what they explore.

Melanie Randall (17:54):

And, and that tells me so much about them. And you really get to know your students and these classes and the careers I love for the reasons you already said, you know, you get to know the students really well. You know what great things they’re, they’re going to accomplish, and you can fill them with so much confidence to follow their goals. And yeah, it’s great. Having them come back. A lot of them will come back at the end of grade 12 and they’ll say, guess what, miss I got into that program that I always wanted to get into. And I’m like, I teach 75 of you a semester. And I don’t remember what college program you wanted to be in, but that’s awesome.

Sam Demma (18:44):

That’s, that’s, that’s phenomenal. Taught dance, still teaching dance, also teaching English. How do you fill your cup outside of work? So when you’re not dancing, teaching dance or teaching English, what does Melanie do to make sure that she can show up at the best of her ability?

Melanie Randall (19:05):

So lifelong learning is really important. And so I like to take courses I’m actually in the middle of one right now, or actually I’m in the last week of one right now taking courses through the faculty of education, nice at various universities, just to, you know, either upgrade or know something new, or be able to teach something new.

Sam Demma (19:31):

What course, what course are you taking now or working through

Melanie Randall (19:35):

Senior social science. Cool. So it would qualify me to teach like sociology, psychology, anthropology, nice challenge and change in society, social justice and equity studies, gender studies. I, I’m kind of, there are so many I’m listing the ones that are world religions, things like that. Nice. We don’t offer all of those courses at my school, but you know, the, those are all part of the curriculum. So that’s the one that I’m working through right now. And then in the fall, I’m going to take a course called teacher leadership, part three, and I’ve already obviously taken one and two did really well. And I’m considering potentially taking principal course in January. Now I’ve put it out there.

Sam Demma (20:34):

TP some P QP

Melanie Randall (20:35):

P QP. Yeah. Yeah. it’s offered by our board in January 20, 23. Nice. So yeah, I think I might try it. I, I work really well with my administration and I have, you know, all these connections with students and, you know, I don’t, I don’t see the, the students as, you know, bad kids who need discipline in the office. I see troubled kids who need help from the office. Mm. You know, and I really think that I can help them. Not everyone, you can’t help everyone, not everyone wants your help, but if you can reach some or most yeah. Of the students, then, you know, that’s, that’s where you can, and you can do that in the classroom. Absolutely. But you know, next year I’ll be in year 22 and of teaching. And I just think maybe it’s time to try something a little bit different. Sure. And, and I feel that I have the skill for that position and it’s just a matter, sorry. Someone just started their lawnmower.

Sam Demma (21:53):

Can’t even hear it. Don’t worry.

Melanie Randall (21:54):

Okay, good. Yeah. It’s gonna get louder though. I think it’s okay. Yeah. So I forget where I was. You

Sam Demma (22:05):

Have the skillset for the job and yeah. Something that you,

Melanie Randall (22:09):

Yeah. So the course, because it’s offered by our board, I feel will give me a lot of opportunity to network and for the superintendents to get to know me and see my potential. And then I can decide after that, whether or not I want to actually interview to go on the list.

Sam Demma (22:33):

Nice. So, so many different roles, different opportunities. You, you, you said lifelong learning is one of the ways you fill your cup. Is there anything else you do, like aside from books and learning? Cause I feel like you can only do so much reading before. You’re like, I need a break, you know, <laugh> right.

Melanie Randall (22:52):

Well, you know, I love my Netflix. <Laugh> nice.

Sam Demma (22:55):

Hey, that’s, that’s valid. That’s, that’s valid. <Laugh> I do too.

Melanie Randall (23:05):

But not too much. We don’t watch too much TV. And because my partner is a teacher also, we talk a lot about work.

Sam Demma (23:16):

Yes <laugh>

Melanie Randall (23:16):

And you know, we count on each other for that support too. I love to travel and I like to do more of that now that my kids are much older and more independent, two of them are completely independent, but nice. The one, you know, and yeah, just traveling, camping, getting outside, going for walks, hikes in the woods are the best going to the beach with a book. Nice. I love that just by myself. I’ll do that quite a few times in the, in the summer. Oh, nice. And yeah, think that’s,

Sam Demma (24:04):

Those are great. Those are great outlets. Thanks. Thanks for sharing and digging deep <laugh>. When you think about your journey in education, if you could wrap up your 21 years of experience travel back in time, tap Melanie on the shoulder when she was just starting. Not that you would change anything about your path, but if you could take all the wisdom and go back, what would you have told your younger self in the form of some advice that you think would’ve been helpful to hear when you were just starting

Melanie Randall (24:36):

Not kind of to follow up with what you said, not to stress so much over the curriculum and you know, the curriculum, it all comes. It all happens anyway. But to really focus on not so much teaching curriculum, but teaching human beings. Mm. And really making that effort to connect with students as you deliver curriculum and, and allow them to explore the curriculum as well. And yes, just take advantage of all the professional development opportunities that are presented to you. And it’s all so useful and yeah, just don’t stress as much. I used, I used to be super uptight and now I’m chill.

Sam Demma (25:33):

<Laugh>, <laugh> love

Melanie Randall (25:35):

It. That’s what my students, well, that’s what my students say that I am, they say MROs so chill <laugh>. But you know, I have high expectations for my students because I believe that they all can reach those expectations, but I’m not an intense teacher. I’m not in their face about it. Cool. Just provide the opportunities. But I used, I used to stress out about every lesson and every every over schedule every second and make sure that I was doing everything by the book and I still do everything by the book, but I realize that it’s not as hard it’s, it’s easier than I thought.

Sam Demma (26:24):

Mm.

Melanie Randall (26:24):

You know, and I think you just get better at it. So it comes more naturally and that’s experience.

Sam Demma (26:32):

Yeah. Right. Less, I guess, I

Melanie Randall (26:34):

Think, yeah. We all need experience to get to the point where everything’s kind of second nature. But that’s what I would tell younger me is just connect with students and relax a little bit, just enjoy it

Sam Demma (26:49):

And empty your backpacks and eat some tacos. <Laugh> <laugh>.

Sam Demma (26:53):

Yeah. That’s awesome. Yeah.

Sam Demma (26:57):

Mel, thank you so much for coming on the show. This is a great conversation about your journey in education. Some of your beliefs around education, some of the things you’re working on or resources. If someone’s listening, wants to reach out or ask a question, what would be the best way for them to get in touch with you?

Melanie Randall (27:13):

I would say Instagram probably. And that is @_melrandall.

Sam Demma (27:25):

Awesome. @_melrandall, hit her up. She’s super chill. <Laugh> ask the questions. Connect. if you are a teacher who also teaches dance, you know, reach out or you’re looking for dance ideas, reach out. Mel’s an awesome person and a friend, and I know she’d be more than happy to chat with you. Mel, thank you so much for coming on the show. It’s been a pleasure to have you keep up the great work and we’ll talk soon.

Melanie Randall (27:52):

Thank you. It’s been great talking to you as well.

Sam Demma (27:56):

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

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Melanie Randall

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.

Larry Paquette – Principal at Northern Secondary School in Sturgeon Falls

Larry Paquette - Principal at Northern Secondary School in Sturgeon Falls
About Larry Paquette

Laurent (Larry) Paquette is the Principal at Northern Secondary School in Sturgeon Falls. He started his career at L’école secondaire catholique l’Horizon in Val Caron in 1992. Since then, Larry was a Physics, Math, Computer Science and Communications Technology teacher at Saint Charles Garnier in Whitby and then Northern Secondary School.

Upon moving to administration, he was a vice principal at Northern Secondary School and then Widdifield Secondary School in North Bay. For the past 10 years Laurent was principal at Northern Secondary School, the school at which he graduated from as a student. While at Northern Larry brought in two High Skills Specialist Majors (SHSM) into his school; one in Hospitality and Tourism and the another in Mining.

He also brought in Lego Robotics and Vex Robotics into Design Technology courses at the school. The favourite part of his job as a principal was the mentoring that he got to experience with his various vice-principals.

He is looking forward to retiring at the end of the August after a long successful career. What he will miss the most about his profession is the time that he spends with countless number of students. In retirement he plans to focus on his firewood business, travel and spend more time with his family.

Connect with Larry: Email

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Northern Secondary School

L’école secondaire catholique l’Horizon in Val Caron

Saint Charles Garnier

Widdifield Secondary School

High Skills Specialist Major Program (SHSM)

Lego Robotics

Vex Robotics

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):

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

Sam Demma (00:58):

This is the first episode of season number three, with your host Sam Demma. Today our special guest is Larry Paquette. Larry Paquette is the Principal at Northern Secondary School in Sturgeon Falls. He started his career at L’école secondaire catholique l’Horizon in Val Caron in 1992. Since then, Larry was a physics, Math, Computer Science and Communications Technology teacher at Saint Charles Garnier in Whitby and then Northern Secondary School. Upon moving to administration, he was a vice principal at Northern Secondary School and then Widdifield Secondary School in North Bay. For the past 10 years Laurent was principal at Northern Secondary School, the school at which he graduated from as a student. While at Northern, Larry brought in two High Skills Specialist Majors (SHSM programs) into his school; one in Hospitality and Tourism and the other in mining. He also brought in Lego Robotics and Vex Robotics into Design Technology courses at the school. The favourite part of his job as a principal was the mentoring that he got to experience with his various vice-principals. The favorite part of his job as a principal was the mentoring that he got to experience with his various vice principles. He’s looking forward to retiring at the end of August after a long successful career. What he will miss the most about his profession is the time that he spends with countless numbers of students. In retirement, he plans to focus on his firewood business, travel, and spend more time with his family. I hope you enjoy this reflective episode with Larry as he is now retired, focused on his business, and I will see you on the other side. Larry, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here today. Please start by introducing yourself.

Larry Paquette (02:39):

So I’m Larry Paquette. I’m a principal at Northern secondary school in sturgeon falls. I’ve been here as a principal for 10 years and this is my last year before I move on to retirement. So it’s, it’s been a great journey for me and I’ve, I’ve spent most of my career in this school. And actually I was a not only a principal here. I was also a vice- principal for four years, a teacher for twelve years and, and a student for for five years. So this has been my home for, for, for a long while.

Sam Demma (03:16):

That’s, that’s amazing. Thank you for your service. <Laugh>.

Larry Paquette (03:20):

You’re welcome.

Sam Demma (03:21):

When did you realize growing up that you wanted to work in education? Was there a special moment? Was it gradual? Tell me more about that.

Larry Paquette (03:31):

Yeah, so, so that’s a, that’s a great question. And, and for me, it’s going way back, right? So I can attest this to to probably some teachers of mine who were awesome and there’s a number of them along the way. And I struggled when I was in elementary school, but flourished in secondary school. And for me English is my second language. So I, I learned English in high school and I went to a French elementary school and then came to Northern to learn English that that was, you know, back in that day, we didn’t, we didn’t have the internet, we didn’t have that, that many opportunities to learn a language. And, and I came to Northern and I, and I had many great teachers here. That’s not, when I decided though I kind of, you know, went off to university studied engineering for a bit and then went into computer science and, and that’s my background, computer programming and software engineering.

Larry Paquette (04:31):

And I graduated in 91 and back then we were kind of in a recession and, and a bunch of us all French speaking. I went to a French speaking university in Subbury loon university, a bunch of us decided, Hey, let’s go to teachers college for a year. It’ll give us an extra year, something else in our backpack. Maybe a little more employable and ended up doing teachers college for a year and ended up in teaching. So there was no aha moment. It’s just, I gradually stepped into that role and, you know, enjoyed working with with students. That’s always been my passion.

Sam Demma (05:09):

Where did your interest for computer programming and computer science come from <laugh>?

Larry Paquette (05:13):

Oh my God. That, that, that also goes back to the mid eighties. It started here at Northern actually we had we had Vic twenties back then with a, a tape recorder and I had this awesome teacher, Mr. B Brenner was my teacher. And we learned about programming in basic. And actually I didn’t do well. I, I, I, I almost flunked the class, took it again in grade 12, my dad had encouraged me to keep at it for some reason. He kinda felt that computers would be the wave of the future. And my dad had a great eight worked in the mines and said, Ray, I’m not sure what he saw in computers, but he said, you know, you should keep at it because that’s gonna be, that’s gonna be taking over the world one day. And, and if you zoom back to 1985 not many computers around, I kinda lucked out. My mom bought me a, a Commodore 64. And that’s how it started for me. It’s just that passion of coding and, and getting a computer do to do things for me. And it went from there and, you know, I studied computers in university and I, I even had my my business at one point when I first started teaching and wrote some software for the ministry and wow. It was awesome.

Sam Demma (06:31):

What a awesome transition and initial starting point in education. Well, what are the different roles you’ve worked in since you started what schools, like, tell me a little bit about your journey chronologically.

Larry Paquette (06:44):

Yeah, so, so I first started teaching adults at night back then we were teaching word. Perfect.

Sam Demma (06:50):

Okay.

Larry Paquette (06:51):

And, and the funny thing about that story is that my girlfriend at the time took the course with me and we ended up getting married <laugh> so she’s, we’ve been 20, well, we’ve been married for 29 years this year. And, and I always joke about it. Like, I must have done a half decent job cuz she’s still around <laugh>. So that’s how I started teaching adults at night. They were mainly secretaries from the Subbury board. Okay. and then moved into a long term occasional position teaching computers and Ft. Even though I’m French teaching FCE was very challenging for me, but you know, it was a job. It gave me a couple months experience and moved into an LTO, a long term, occasional position in computer science. I think I was teaching some physics in, in a school in Whitby.

Larry Paquette (07:48):

Nice. So I spent a year there and then, you know, I was desperately trying to get back to to Northern and I knew the principal at the time. He was one of my teachers and I actually, I called him every two weeks on a Friday at two, just to connect with, ’em asked about the school and back then, like there were so few jobs. They hired three people that year. It was our board hired three people and I was one of the three and you know, more or less like the HES, the rest is pretty much, much history, but I, I moved into admin early on into my career just because of the opportunities. Right. So I, I ended up being a teacher in charge. I think I was about maybe 32 years old. Ah and then went and got qualified as, as an administrator and became principal here at Northern. And I was principal, I mean, vice principal here at Northern for, for four years. Then I was moved to north bay in a big school and worked there for two years. And actually I was fortunate because the principal who I worked with here at Northern as a vice principal, moved to Whitfield in, in north bay and I, I moved and worked with him there. So, and then came back here and then became principal. And, and I’ve been principal in this building for, for 10 years now.

Sam Demma (09:10):

What are some of the most rewarding aspects of the role you’re working in right now? And soon to be retired from <laugh>,

Larry Paquette (09:20):

It’s such a rewarding career overall and, you know, people will ask me, what did you like the most? Actually, I love being a vice principal the most, that was my favorite part of the job, because I got to work with kids on a one to one basis. As the principal though, you, you, you even have a bigger effect because you’re working with teachers also. Mm. and the community. So everything’s a a reward, right. Just, you know, knowing that you’re making a difference in your, your community. And, and this is my community. I grew up here and I’ve spent most of my life in this community and, you know, everybody knows you <laugh>, you know? Yeah. I’m the principal in my, in my community. There’s not 10 of us. Right. Yeah. So it’s and people reach out to you and, and, you know, I bump into people that I taught back in the day and they remember things and it’s, it’s, it’s such a, a rewarding, but challenging profession.

Sam Demma (10:21):

You mentioned your first role was teaching adults. How did that come about? Is that like typically a way that teachers usually start or tell me more about that experience?

Larry Paquette (10:35):

Not, not necessarily. I was kinda I kinda got into that by luck. I had a friend who was teaching adults who said, Hey, Larry, you wanna, you know, they’re looking for people who have that computer science background to teach to teach secretaries. Cool. And, and, you know, there were not that many of us in that, you know, in that, having that knowledge and I was still in university, I was like a computer science student when I first started teaching. Right. So it kinda gave me a taste of what teaching was all about. So, and also I ended up paying into my pension early on, so I kind young, still to retire, which is a real bonus. Right.

Sam Demma (11:15):

That’s awesome. Very cool. Along the journey, you mentioned you had some teachers that inspired you, impacted you along the way. I’m wondering if you can recall who some of those people are, and I’m sure there’s way too many to name, but maybe one or two that had a significant impact on you and what they did for you.

Larry Paquette (11:34):

Well, yeah, for sure. So, so the first one ISPR new, my grade eight teacher, and he probably doesn’t even know that he still lives in our community, but he kind of, you know, it’s just that patience, right. Cause I was a bit of a squiggly kid grew up on a farm. So, you know, sitting in a classroom was not my big thing, but I, I, I understood the importance of school. But, but that grade eight teacher was probably the first person that kind of made me realize, you know, I could do it. And then, you know, zoom forward to to high school. I, I had a couple the principal that hired me his name was Don Cole and, and Don taught me drafting in grade nine. And you can imagine moving from a small com small, small, rural school community into a bigger school.

Larry Paquette (12:27):

And I call this a bigger school, but it’s not a big school. We, we were maybe 400. Okay. and I took drafting with Mr. Cole. And, and I remember that first assignment, I got a hundred percent came back home and told my parents, man, I’m good at something I’m good at drafting, not knowing that every kid in the class got a hundred percent on his first assignment, that was kind of his shtick of okay. Of getting us to believe that we could do it. Ah, I shared that story with my staff. And, and I had a, a math teacher. His name was Ken Brener and I kinda replaced him here when I, when, when I got first hired, Ken was so patient and spent so much time, you know, he was always available at lunch before school, after school.

Larry Paquette (13:13):

Wow. if you wanted to learn more about Matt, Ken was your guy. And then I had a couple of university professors. One was his name was Dave Goforth was one of my computer science professors, just a, a all round nice guy. And then one of my faculty teachers who, cuz I was about to quit in November, in October and November, I just said, I’m done I’m I’m gonna go start my business, do my own thing. And he kind of took me a aside and said, Larry you know, you’re, you’re two months in. I think you’re gonna be a great teacher, just stick with it. And I did, which thank God he had that conversation with me.

Sam Demma (13:52):

Wow. And I love that story of giving every student a hundred percent on their first test quiz. When you realize that everyone got that, what was the Le like what lesson kind of came to mind or how did you perceive it?

Larry Paquette (14:07):

I, I was a little young to understand why that had happened. Really. Yeah. I understood that actually it took a while. I was probably well into my teaching career before I really realized, Hey, that’s like, that’s a nice little trick. Right? Yeah. Doesn’t cost you anything. And why be stingy with marks they’re just marks. Right. So yeah.

Sam Demma (14:28):

I love that. That’s such a great way to put the battery in the kids’ back and help them believe in themselves. You know,

Larry Paquette (14:35):

That’s, that’s, that’s exactly it.

Sam Demma (14:38):

Cool. thinking about your journey through education if you could take the wisdom and experiences you’ve had and bundle them up into a piece of advice for your younger self travel back in time and tap Larry on the shoulder in his first year and say, Hey Larry, this is the advice that would’ve been helpful for you to hear when you were just starting this career. Not that you would change anything about your path, but what advice would you give to your younger self?

Larry Paquette (15:08):

Forgive yourself for making mistakes. Don’t focus on those mistakes run with your horses. You’ll always have people who will challenge you, but they keep you honest. Mm. and, and, and zoom out. And, and actually for me, that just came about in the last month, <laugh> where I’m zooming out and, and saying, Hey, I’ve got, I’ve had an awesome career. And, and actually I’ll, I’ll give credit where credit is due on this one. They’ve parachuted in a vice principal into our school at the start of may. And she’s the one, you know, she’s, she’s, she’s younger than I am. And she just said, you know what, Larry, you’ve had a great career focus on that, going out and, and keep your head high because we tend to be critical. Right. We tend to focus on the negative instead of celebrating all the great things that we do. And when we do zoom out, all those little things that happened along the way, they made us better people and they’ve kept kept us honest. So that, that’s what I would say. Just be forgiving of your, your, your challenges, your mistakes especially if you have like, you know, if you, if you have noble intentions.

Sam Demma (16:18):

Yeah. I think we spend so much time focused on all the things we have yet to accomplish yet to do. Whereas there’s so many things we have accomplished and achieved and we forget to give ourselves the flowers for those things, or don’t reflect on them enough and celebrate them for a small moment in time and then never revisit them again. Right. speaking of some ch I mean, we didn’t really get on the topic, but along with successes and accomplishing things, I know the past two years have been a little bit difficult with the global pandemic that no one knew was gonna come. What are some of the challenges your school community was faced with over the past few years? And along with the challenges, what are some of the opportunities that you think came out of the situation?

Larry Paquette (17:08):

Well, so, so many challenges, it’s hard to zoom in on, on the one thing, cuz we’re kind of in the middle of it still. Yeah. And I kind of feel someone said at one point, like, we feel like we’re building a plane at the same time as we’re trying to fly it. Mm. so you know, the mental health issues are, are certainly coming to, to, to the forefront. And the importance of supporting kids, mental health is more important than actually the curriculum that we’re trying to teach. So yeah. So that’s a huge shift for us, for us as, as principals, but also for our teachers especially the ones that are, are kind of stuck, like in a bit of a rut in the classroom where they’re not seeing the bigger picture. Mm. so that’s been a, certainly a challenge and we’re really filling it with, you know, there’s about 12 days left before the end of the, the school year.

Larry Paquette (17:59):

Nice. You know, the wheels are coming off, right. The kids are really struggling right now. And, and so are the staff and everybody’s so tired, we’re just trying to get to the end of the year. You know, and part of my job is, is, is to to keep the focus right. To stay calm if, if I lose my wheels, then for sure things are gonna go south. Yeah. and staff look up to their principal to get us a pulse of how they should feel. So it’s, it’s been it’s been interesting and how I go about trying to keep that, that even keel is I, I I, I do I produce firewood <laugh> of all those things. And I think Sean might have mentioned it in his podcast. So I go out there and I, I work in the backlog, I cut wood, I split wood. I sell with customers. Nice. And I, you know, it, it keeps me active, keeps me in shape and clears my mind. Right. So I, I think that’s, that’s pretty much I, and I’m, I’m fortunate. I, I have I have an awesome family. I have five children wonderful wife. I, I rely on my faith to, to get me through the, the, the stormy waters

Sam Demma (19:16):

Love that. I, I love chopping wood. We, we have a little cottage about an hour and a half from our house. And from a young age, my grandfather had taught me how to, you know, safely swing the ax and we would chop up logs and, you know, use ’em for the bonfire pit. And it’s such a therapeutic activity. <Laugh> so you don’t do that a part as a part of school though. You do that outside when you’re not working outside of the classroom, like outside of the office.

Larry Paquette (19:49):

Yeah. I’m just gonna check. Can you still hear me?

Sam Demma (19:52):

Yep.

Larry Paquette (19:53):

You can hear me. Yeah. It was telling me that the microphone disconnected. Okay. We’ll back up a story about that. That’s okay. Yeah. No, this is totally separate. It’s it’s a separate business. There’s a bit of story behind that is just, it’s just like, instead of seeing a therapist, I go chop some wood and actually like I’ve got machinery. I’m not doing everything by hand. Yep. Yeah. I’ve got tractors and the processors and all this nice jazz, so yeah.

Sam Demma (20:17):

Oh, it’s cool. When did that begin and why what’s the, what’s the story behind it? <Laugh>,

Larry Paquette (20:24):

It’s a long story. As I told you, I grew up on a farm. Yep. and I have four brothers and, and we always worked so back in the eighties times were really different. We, we work together regularly and at one point my dad told me, like, he, he noticed I was struggling in, in, in being a principal. It was, it was a grinding job, not much. I, I wasn’t feeling like I was successful. And you said to me, you need to go back to your roots. You love producing wood. Maybe you should start producing wood, like just even for yourself. And that’s how it kind of started one little chainsaw with one ax and slowly built, you know, started selling a bit of wood, bought a wood splitter, bigger chainsaw tractor. And it just mushroom. So in retirement, I’m, I’m, I’m gonna be doing that full time.

Sam Demma (21:15):

Why do you think it’s important people working in education also have something like that. It doesn’t have to be wood cutting, but a hobby where they can forget about their work during the day, let their mind run loose. Like, how has that been helpful for you?

Larry Paquette (21:33):

Well, you need to recharge. And that was one of my biggest mistakes. When I started as a principal here, I was working 70, 80 hours a week. I was in six days a week and I was frustrated because nobody else was doing that. I, it was a choice that I had had made. Mm. And it came to the cost of my, you know, my family, my personal relationships. And I don’t think I was a good principal because, you know, I, I, I never took that time to rest and recharge and, and come back on a, on a different angle almost. Right. So, and I was fortunate, my, my superintendent took me aside and said, you know, Larry, I don’t even work 70 hours a week. So why, why are you working so hard? And I kinda learned to work smarter, right? Yeah. To delegate, to get people, to to, to take on some of those some of those pieces and let them run with with it.

Sam Demma (22:28):

One of the most rewarding aspects of a career in education is the impact you get to make on the lives of thousands of young students and young minds. And for those people who are listening, and obviously can’t see this, cuz there is no video <laugh> big smile across Larry’s face. When I said that, I’m curious to know over the years, if there are any stories of students who you can recall that were seriously transformed due to education. And if it’s a serious story, you know, you can change their name and explain it with a totally different name just to keep their privacy respected.

Larry Paquette (23:04):

Yeah, no, absolutely. So couple weeks ago I bumped into a parent and we are a small community. So, you know, I, she said, Hey Larry, how’s it going? Remember my son? And of course I did remember her son. And, and she had come to a parent teacher interview night and she said, you remember that parent teacher interview night? I said, no, I don’t. I remember your son, but don’t remember that teacher interview night. And she said, you know, you had told me that my son was great in math and her son, like not, not the type who would sit down in the desk. He was really active, a sports kind of guy like football, hockey, but in the classroom, not so much, didn’t do that well on tests, but I knew he was smart. I, I knew it because he would choose the toughest question on the test.

Larry Paquette (23:56):

And he’d answer that question. And not just the one question and hand in his test. Now, if I would’ve marked him, you know, usually traditional ways of marking, he, he would’ve failed because he would’ve only gotten that, that one question. But I knew he knew all the question. He knew all the answers. Anyway, she, she kind of, you know, she, she, she’s kind of beaming with pride when she was sharing that, that, that that experience and so fast forward about 30 years now I won’t, this kid now owns a, a company in our community, a big mining company and wow. You know, he, he runs that. I’m not surprised. I, I knew this guy was going places. You know, if I would’ve judged him on, on traditional ways of, of evaluation, you know, he, he, he wouldn’t have done well. And there’s so many stories like that.

Larry Paquette (24:49):

<Laugh> like, yeah. And that that’s, that’s the piece. And, and, and I’m sure I will be bumping into people for the rest of my life. People that I’ve taught. I’ve had one kid come back and said, remember that game doom. We used to play back in the nineties. Yeah. Yeah. Well, you know, we had used that game to learn about 3d modeling in my class. And he said like, that’s the one thing I remember from high school. I is learning how to use doom to like, we created like the school, we built the school.

Sam Demma (25:19):

Oh, wow.

Larry Paquette (25:20):

As a 3d model.

Sam Demma (25:21):

Okay. So

Larry Paquette (25:22):

It was outside the box thinking, but I have to give credit to my principal Don Cole, who I was talking about to gimme that, that leeway, that permission to trust me, to try something different. And I’ve tried to emulate that as, as a principal. If I have a, a teacher who comes in here with an outside the box idea, I run with it. I let them run with it. I encourage them to try it. The worst thing that could happen is we fail big deal.

Sam Demma (25:50):

Yeah. I, I love that. And I think it’s so important that we actually give ourselves the opportunity to fail. Because most of the time, before we try something, our brain actually stops us and we hypothetically fail. We don’t even actually know what the result’s gonna be, cuz we don’t even do it. <Laugh> I think. Well,

Larry Paquette (26:09):

Yeah. And I’d even add to that Sam, like if you’ve never failed, you probably haven’t tried hard enough. Right? Yeah. You’re always down that safe road where there’s, no’s no, I’m success meed many times and I’m okay with that.

Sam Demma (26:28):

Yeah. Because you keep picking up the acts and trying again, it’s like exactly, you’re gonna keep chopping away until we figure it out. Right. Yeah. That’s awesome. I’m excited to see your transition after you, you know, retire and it’s not, I don’t think retire is the right word. Just it’s a transition of your time and, and your efforts, right.

Larry Paquette (26:46):

It’s a change, right. It’s part of like being a principal is, is very demanding, very rewarding. But you know, you get to a point where, okay, I, I I’m, I’m getting there. I’m I wanna leave on my, my terms on high. I feel really good that Sean is gonna be taking the school over. Nice. and Sean’s excited too. And I I’m gonna be in the wings. Right. I, I told him if you need help, I’ll, I’ll, I’ll be happy to help out, but there’s, he’s coming to an awesome school. There’s a lot of great things happening. And, and I, I know I’ll hear about it and, and I’m glad for for him.

Sam Demma (27:22):

Awesome. Ah, I’d love to hear it. Thank you so much for taking some time to share some of your stories and wisdom today on the podcast. Thank you for your 29 years of service. I wish you the best in your transition. If there’s an educator who’s listening to this right now, wants to reach out, have a conversation or ask you a question, what would be the best way for them to get in touch with you?

Larry Paquette (27:42):

So there’s two spots, I’m at on Gmail. So it’s laurent.paquette@gmail.com.

Sam Demma (27:51):

Sure.

Larry Paquette (27:52):

If you look me up on Facebook, you’ll, you’ll, you’ll find me, you’ll see my picture there. I usually have drone pictures up on my Facebook page and I, my business is on there too. So if you want to chat, I’m we didn’t talk about this, but my favorite part of being a principal is also mentoring VPs and moving them into into the leadership position of the principal. So I would love to help out in any way

Sam Demma (28:28):

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

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Larry Paquette

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.

Tara Connor, Ed.D. – Principal, Abbey Park High School in the Halton District School Board

Tara-Connor-Ed.D.-Principal-Abbey-Park-High-school
About Tara Conner

Tara Connor is the Principal of Abbey Park High School in the Halton District School Board. She spent her upbringing following her passions of music, but her love for teaching and youth guided her toward a journey working in education. She spends her time thinking about how we can improve, not just as individuals but as schools and a system. 

Tara holds both a master’s and doctorate, has lectured in Universities and has an obsession with helping youth. She believes students don’t have to have it all figured out and advocates that students/educators follow their nudges and passions. 

Connect with Tara: Email

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Abbey Park High School

Halton District School Board

What are Advanced Placement Classes?

International Baccalaureate Program (IB)

Certified Practicing Principal Certification (CPP)

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 on the High Performing Educator podcast.


Sam Demma (01:00):
This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is Tara Connor. Tara Connor is the Principal of Abbey Park High School in the Halton District School Board. She spent her upbringing following her passions of music, but her love for teaching and youth guided her toward a journey working in education. She spends her time thinking about how we can improve, not just as individuals but as schools and a system. Tara holds both a master’s and doctorate, has lectured in Universities and has an obsession with helping youth. She believes students don’t have to have it all figured out and advocates that students/educators follow their nudges and their passions. I hope you enjoy this conversation with her, and I will see you on the other side. Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. I’m so excited to chat with today’s guest, Tara Connor. Tara, please start by introducing yourself.


Tara Connor (02:01):
Oh, thanks so much. Sam, I’m delighted to be here. So again, my name’s Tara Connor. I am a Principal with the Halton District School Board. Currently, I’m the principal of Abbey Park High School, which is a wonderful high school in Oakville, Ontario.


Sam Demma (02:13):
When did you realize growing up that you wanted to be in education, work in education, become a teacher and a principal


Tara Connor (02:23):
so I, I would say that wasn’t in my growing up years likely I didn’t I didn’t kind of have it marked and planned at eight or nine or 10 years of age, which I know some people do if they project their plans for the future. You know, to me, quite honestly, actually I spoke to one of our great 10 careers classes, not too long ago, but a similar type of question. It was very evolutionary for me. I moved into a, a undergrad program that was music program, so classical music and I also loved science. So I was going kind of where passions were and not really a, a deep sense of where I might wanna land. Interestingly I have an older sister that moved into education. I think almost as an antithesis to that, I thought, well, I’ll never do education.


Tara Connor (03:09):
That’s kinda her thing. And, and then of course, as I, as I went through it and started consider where I wanted to be and what I’d love to do, I, I reflected on the fact that I spent lots of years as a lifeguard and a swim instructor and a piano teacher and a babysitter. And I love young people. I love children and I love teenagers. And and so for me, that just that kind of moved into a launch of what made lots of sense in terms of where I was at the time as I was considering career paths. I never went in if you’d asked me second year in my, in my world of being a teacher, if I would ever be a principal, I wouldn’t have even had it on my radar, quite frankly. But what I did find as I moved into my career is that I, I really loved thinking about how we could be better as not only as a classroom teacher, but as a school and as a system.


Tara Connor (04:00):
Mm. And so quite naturally, I just started to wanna be part of bigger and broader conversations because to me that really resonated in terms of what scope and sphere of impact I may have in terms of service in the work that I do as I move through my professional life. So you know, through that, I, I navigated a masters of education, a doctors of a doctorate of education, and have taught at a number of universities and graduate level and, and always with the drive to know, and understand better how we can best serve and support our students. So as I said, at every juncture, I remember sitting in my master’s and folks talked about a doctorate, and I thought like, who who’s thinking about a doctorate? And I just, I think I just wanna do my master’s. And then two or three years later, I was enrolling in an international doctoral program, completely engulfed and excited about being able to do that launch. So I, I I’ve said to my grade 10 class and my own children, I have four you don’t have to have it figured out that life unfold, you follow your passion, you follow what you what you love doing. And at each juncture, you’ll figure that out in terms of what your next stage is.


Sam Demma (05:07):
I couldn’t agree more. I definitely am someone who followed my passion and didn’t really have a perfect understanding of where it was gonna take me. Yeah. so it’s so it’s so, so true. Tell me more about where your passion took you. So what were the different roles, the different steps the different schools you’ve taught in positions? Like take us along the entire journey.


Tara Connor (05:32):
Wow. This will be a long journey. I, I will start by saying just just to your last point. I, I still don’t think my journey’s over, so I don’t, I still am excited about what that, the future and what may lie ahead, what opportunities I’m able to be able to connect with and expand and learn and grow from. So, yeah, if it’s a value I can tell you, I grew up kind of in a typical public school situation, not lots of role in terms of professional women, at least in my life in higher education was not kind of a lived experience in my family or, or really community that I was connected to. So as I moved through undergrad, and then eventually pursuing a, a degree in education my first position actually was in a private all girls school.


Tara Connor (06:19):
And I oversaw a program from grade seven to grade 13. And for me, it was in it, it was an entirely different juncture and experience that I had in my own education. And it really started me to think about some of the challenges, barriers complexities of what schooling is and ensuring all students have an equal and opportunity to Excel and to succeed. I, I moved from within that period of time, I was fortunate to have a number of great professional leadership experiences. I also was able to travel on some professional exchanges, quite extensively, internationally to places like Japan and Australia to Germany and, and trips around north Africa and Spain, Turkey, Italy. And so it really broadened my scale and scope in terms of education beyond the world of Ontario. And again made me challenge and question how we serve and support our students so that all students irrespective of background context family situation has an opportunity to really be who they’re meant to be in this world and to bring all their gifts to the world around them.


Tara Connor (07:34):
So that, that was that created some dissonance for me around private and public education about all, you know, single gendered education that, that drove me to do a master’s. I I’ve always done my graduate work while working full time or raising a family. And then I bumped over to the public poor because at that point I knew I was thinking leadership and I wanted to be able to be part of a community of school so that I could move around and have some flexibility of learning and growth. And then I would say a really profoundly rich experience from there with, to be a vice principal at Sy app, which at the time changed a little bit in its focus, but was for students that were sentenced under these criminal justice act, as well as students that were receiving were, have very profound mental health issues and concerns.


Tara Connor (08:24):
And so I really I really was able to see and understand the complexities of our student populist and, and some of the deficits of our school system and the driver that at times we expect our students to fit a school system that doesn’t work for them as opposed to building a school system that meets the needs of all students. And so I, I, I moved from that by special principalship to a number I’ll, I’ll say I was at a number of schools across the region of Halton large schools small schools kind of re the program between, you know, advanced placement AP or IB, or CPP. So community pathways, types of programs, so real diversity in terms of schools and settings. And I also moved into a program or actually kind of a regional program about maybe 10, 12 years ago.


Tara Connor (09:18):
So a couple of years into my role as an administrator where I was managing information for student achievement. So that was a very broad scale role that was working with all elementary and secondary schools to be able to critically look at data and information, to be able to drive the work that we did both in the classroom at the school level and at the system level. The other, the other probably experience that’s worth referencing is that I prior to this position was also in a, another school as principal that served adult alternative and continuing education. And that that portfolio was had responsibility for maybe thir 13 to 14,000 students in the region. It looked after both the day school components adult education, and then a whole umbrella of continuing education programs, inclusive of things like night school summer school for elementary and secondary international languages, elementary programs.


Tara Connor (10:17):
We had a rich and still have a rich educational program in both correctional facility at Maplehurst correctional. So the male and female prison systems. And and again, that, that was really rich for my own growth, but also my own passion around students don’t age out in terms of when they need education and support and how pivotal education is in the lives of our youth and adult in being able to secure a way to support themselves, support their families, contribute and connect to society. And we as educators have a duty and responsibility to serve and support our students from my perspective right from the time that they come to us through to the point that they that they are ready to, to step back and move into their next phase or stage of life. So, so lots of different experiences, all of which I’m grateful and all which I’ve, and my under able to support the needs. All students


Sam Demma (11:23):
You’ve really played every position on the field , which is,


Tara Connor (11:29):
Oh, there’s probably still more out there. I’m sure. I hope I haven’t hit the wall yet, but yeah, no, I’ve been lucky. I really, I, I, for me, I, I I’m grateful everything that I’ve done has just, has just challenged me in a new and different way. And I think again, has made me a much better deeper thinker as an educator. For sure.


Sam Demma (11:46):
I’m wondering if you could speak about how any of the experiences you’ve had, and maybe you can pick one, cause I’m sure there’s hundreds that you can remember and how it has shaped, how you look at education today. Maybe it was an experience with a student or an experience overseas, like any type of situation that further informed the way you look at education and approach it today. Do any kind of his stories or experiences that were really foundational to you come to mind?


Tara Connor (12:15):
Oh, I think there’s, there’s lots in there and certainly lots of students that I can think of and talk about. The one that I was the one that I was reflecting on a little bit prior to our chance to talk together. I know you talked either, we had talked about it, might there be a story or situation and, and that, that there was an impact that we were able to see that that student experienced in moving forward. And one of the pieces, I, I remember one thing that was really very moving for me is I was quite an early vice principal. So a couple of years in the job, I think was my second or third school. And I remember working with a student who was 16 at the time who was 16 ish, who was struggling with mental health issues and drug issues.


Tara Connor (12:59):
And what stood out for me at the time is that her drug of choice or her addiction with cocaine. And so that in and of itself’s an expensive drug with have her getting involved in issues with police and and theft to be able to support was what was a very serious addiction for her at the time. And it was, it was, you know, I, it was upsetting obviously, and really disheartening. And I remember working with her and trying to work through that. And she was in a real state of crisis in a number of different places as one could imagine, and, and self-medicating, and really trying to manage life at that time. And and, and then probably a year and a bit later, I was moved to yet another school. And I thought about her as we do think about lots of our students and many years later.


Tara Connor (13:53):
So when this was probably 10 years later, I became, as I mentioned, principal of Gary Allen high school now, Gary Allen learning center that, that serves and supports the all alternative continuing education within this region. And I remember being at our first graduation ceremony and the program had some day school with our adolescent students. So students that were looking for alternative learning across I had multiple sites. So Georgetown, Milton Oakville, and Burlington and then adult learners that educa that that connected to learning and credits through either day schools or evening classes. And then we had some flexibility with e-learning as well at the time or some virtual learning. Anyway, we had a graduation service and I was going to each of our events at, amongst all of these different sites and, and having the joy and pleasure of of helping to oversee the granting of diplomas.


Tara Connor (14:48):
And about the third or fourth student that came across the stage with this beautiful, wonderful probably 24, 25 year old young woman who was the same young woman that I remembered as a teenager, about 10 years ago. And and she was there with a loving, supportive family, and she proudly claimed her high school diploma that she had worked sometimes certainly to be able to achieve. And that was really profound for me in that it just reminds us that, you know, there’s, there is no, there’s no time that we tap out of serving and supporting our students and our adults and our community in terms of the access to education, the access to a high school diploma, that is the portal to be able to move forward in terms of either post-secondary or apprenticeship or or workplace pathways. And yeah, that was, that was for, it was, it was wonderful.


Tara Connor (15:42):
It was, you know, it was by happenstance that our path crossed are path. And, you know, you often wonder you do stay connected with some students, but not all, some of the most disconnected, you’re probably least likely to be able to see people and, and evolve is one is school. This is not, you know, high school years are not always the time that everyone can do the same thing in the same way to be able to at, you know, 17 and a half, get their high school diploma handed to them. And there are many complexities that kids carry and live through in their lives. That for whatever reason, make that, not the time, although we do lots of flexibility and access and support and wrap around to help there are times that they’re, they’re just not able to, and, and that notion of student success, they don’t age out at 18 or 19 or 21.


Tara Connor (16:37):
We are here until until they’re able to get what they need from us to be able to move to their next juncture of life. So that, that was really profound. It really drove in me a passion for a adult education. I loved that position because of what I, I believed it was doing in terms of service and support in our community. And it resonated for me as an educator, who’d been in traditional day schools and I became the voice amongst many of our day schools to say always connect. Even if students have a foot out the door and are saying, they’re done, always let them know the door is open and the hand is there and we will wrap around and support at any stage and age in which they’re able and willing to engage in engage in learning.


Sam Demma (17:20):
When you think about other educators who, what a beautiful story, by the way when you think about the educators who impacted you growing up, wh who comes to mind and what did those individuals do for you that made such a big difference. And also as you started your professional career, kinda like a two part question did you have any mentors or I’m sure you had many but any mentors that had a significant impact on you?


Tara Connor (17:47):
Mm-Hmm so I think for, for me, and I would probably liken this to probably anybody that has positive memories of their educational experience in either elementary or, or or high school secondary school, you know? Absolutely. I had a wonderful music teacher and, and I, I already was connected to that world prior to moving into high school. But, but he was a very, very powerful individual in so many of the lives of the folks the students that I was around and connected to. So what do we know about who are those teachers, who are those people? And we know that those are, we always know those are not necessarily the teachers that have the most profound pedagogy, and that can prepare, you know, the best set of notes. And that the, the ones you remember are the ones you connect with and the ones that build relationships and the ones that care and the ones that motivate you and challenge you.


Tara Connor (18:51):
And and, and know you beyond the student, that’s sitting in, you know, row two for fourth chair down. And so I would say that would be the same in my own educational experience as well. We did lots of trips and travel and rehearsals, and it was all the outside of class as much as inside of class of of just, you know, feeling connected and part of something that was big and rich and meaningful and powerful. That was a, that was a great connection in high school. And then in regards to mentors, that’s a great question I grew, I don’t wanna let on that I’m a million years old, but I can tell you in my context, where I grew up, it was kind of a low, lower middle class neighborhood that I grew up in my parents were super young when they had me, I think when mom was about 17 and my dad was 18 or 19, I, I didn’t grow up with role models of women who were either in professional lives or careers, or certainly having families and also balancing what that looked like.


Tara Connor (19:55):
And and I also juxta, you know, again, I would say the other piece of that is I also didn’t have anybody or many people that I knew that had gone through university and had kind of, again, a career path that, that connected to higher education. And so I, I, you know, navigating through that, I, I didn’t have lots of reference points or frameworks around that. So when I moved into my professional life, I was surrounded by other people that certainly became mentors and supports to me. And one thing that I’ll just say of, of maybe some interest is that as a woman, I didn’t have anybody that I knew, as I said, that the mantra that we used, I remember saying it in high school, well, I’ll have a career, but I, you know, I definitely won’t start my career until I, all my kids are in school and everybody’s, you know, where they need to be.


Tara Connor (20:46):
And, and I have a four kids, so that would’ve been about probably 15 years if I had followed that mantra. And so I, I was, for me, there was lots of women that were leaders that I spent lots of time talking to. And, and it was understanding the challenges, the path with areas, the just hearing their stories and, and to be quite Frank. Sam, I actually pursued a doctorate in looking at the knowledge, skills and attributes of female leaders. And I know that’s quite a dichotomous way to think of gender. It was the way that 20 years ago, that was what we had the language of very insular language we were talking through, but the experience of female leaders in moving into senior physicians of educational administration. And part of my research was a narrative point, obviously there’s research involved.


Tara Connor (21:36):
So one of my data tools was being able to in kind of my mid to late twenties, meander around all over the province to talk to all of these wonderful, creative, engaged professional women in the field of education to talk about their own career pathways and their own challenges and experiences in the workplace barriers what, what would drive them, what would inhibit them? You know, all of those things that I was so deeply curious about and that I was defining and refining within my own mind and framework of how I was hopeful to live my life and have my career and, and life unfold. And, and so I would say many of those individuals have been measures and many of those individuals, individuals have continued to be mentors for me even, even, even to present day for sure.


Sam Demma (22:25):
Hmm. That’s just, that’s awesome that you still stay in touch with them and your research sounds like it was a really enlightening experience, roughly how many female leaders did you talk to, or if you remember, like how many did you interview or get to chat with throughout that project?


Tara Connor (22:41):
Yeah. So I, again, when you, when you get into kind of doctor level research, you tend to do, there’s a triangular you know, methodology right. Triangulation, and that you have a number of data collection tools, and then you kind of just suppose to see if there’s some commonalities or somatic pieces that come through that research. Hmm. So the individuals, I, I think it was under 10, I would say it was probably eight to 10 individuals. But it was, it was deep in terms of that narrative process. So it was really and, you know, with your experience in interviewing and, and working with individuals, it was quite a structured process because it would be in, in the nature of that level of research. But it was really, you know, all the pieces, many of the things that you’re saying in that, you know, how did you do this?


Tara Connor (23:28):
And, and why did you do this and what drove you to do it? And what were the things that you have found challenging? And what are the things that you in, in, in making your decisions and pathways and, and working through kind of your next steps, you know, what, what were the things that were most frustrating? And, and, you know, I would hear lots of failures before success that’s really relevant and how people would navigate talking about their family life. I would have women that would say, I never mention the fact that I have kids, or if I ever had to stay home, it would never be because of a child because of their fear of judgment around what they bring to the role and, and what they can or can’t do within the, the job itself. So not an overly large group, that’s not a typical again, depending on the type of research that you’re doing a much broader had a much broader kind of range of data sets more expansive in terms of number of individuals in the, in some of the other ways that I was navigating that research, but for me, it was amazing and it was really compelling.


Tara Connor (24:28):
And it challenged me in lots of ways, personally and professionally in the way I thought about I just thought about understanding, understanding systems and, and leadership, and, and also that marriage of personal and private personal life and public life and professional life, all of those, all of those different pieces, for sure.


Sam Demma (24:50):
Today, education might look a little bit different than the, you know, the first year you got into it. Mm-Hmm, especially with the global pandemic, but hopefully coming to a close now that has brought a dozen different challenges into education. But I think with challenges also come some opportunities. And I’m curious, absolutely. To know what you think some of these new opportunities are that are arising because of the challenges and why you think we should be excited about some of them.


Tara Connor (25:20):
Yeah, no, thank you for that. Well, one thing I’ll start off with is I think that our, when I look at my the, the students who surround me, they are amazing, wonderful, brilliant individuals. And they have, when I think of what our youth have had to navigate at such a pivotal point of their own development and stage, and, and still the optimism, the creativity, the resilience what they bring each and every day to not only their, their daily life, but to their, their future. I think that’s very hopeful and optimistic and, and that we should all feel really excited for the future. When we look at whose hands the future will be in, in the years ahead. The other piece, I would say there’s a few parts of this that actually think are quite interesting. I think we’ve had clearly a significant shift in terms of the use of technology in supporting student learning.


Tara Connor (26:19):
And so we have had a learning for some time. We’ve had lots of, you know, we’ve had, you know, virtual experiences or online experiences for students that we’ve had or in, in the last probably certainly 15 years or so excuse me. But what I think it’s quite interesting is we had, we had a really polarized position prior to going into March, 2020, where we had educators adamantly articulating that we cannot have all students involved in e-learning that, that there are certain things we can’t do through an online platform that we can’t teach certain subjects that we can’t test with the same level of integrity certain aspects of learning by the nature of virtue of being online. And, and as a, as a necessity through this pandemic, we have had to develop the capability and the ability to be able to develop rich, robust learning experiences and opportunities for all students across all grades across all subject areas.


Tara Connor (27:26):
And we’ve been able to successfully do that. I will, for sure say that virtual learning or online learning is not a great fit for all students. And there are students that this is not a platform that serves or supports them well because of the way that they learned and the way that they connect with their learning. But there are lots of students that do very well with it. And we have teachers now with the skills and ability that can’t say we can’t do it because we know we can. And so the question would be how we use it and how, in what ways we utilize it to be beneficial and supportive of students. And and certainly we’ve, we’ve got flexibility from my mind, again, particularly coming as a former principal alternative education, that ability to be innovative and flexible, and as many ways that we can think of to be able to wrap around and support students where they’re at and what their learning needs are in my mind, technology just creates a whole nother range of opportunities that we can tap into now that we have a, a restir of experience and knowledge to be able to do that work.


Tara Connor (28:30):
So I think I will just say, I think that’s a positive by necessity, it’s driven innovation and by innovation, we’ve been able to drive action that I think will have future positive implications for, and, and and I think flexibility and access for students. The other piece I would say is, you know, we get stuck on doing things the way they’ve always been done. And so and I think, you know, it’s very easy to fall into a state of inertia particularly when you’re dealing with kind of the busyness of the day to day life. And so we do teacher interviews a certain way, the way that we’ve always done them. And parent council meetings always start at seven o’clock on a Monday night, and they’re always up in the library and they always run for this, like the time in our agenda always kind of looks like this.


Tara Connor (29:09):
And, and so one of the things that I think, again, that the pandemic has this experience of, of schools being closed of people being not being able to do what they’ve always done has driven us to do things differently by sheer necessity. And so, again, to the two examples of parents, teacher interview or parent counsel, you know, parent teacher interview is fabulous for parents that are available and, and accessible to come into the school between seven and eight 30 on a Thursday night and meet some of their teachers of their students teachers as they go through it. But what we know is not all parents can do that. And lots of our parents commute, and many of our parents are out of country or in job locations or have work schedules that look very different from what our day to day life looks like in school.


Tara Connor (30:02):
So I, I think that we all should be challenged to say, who have we made, what processes we made better or more accessible or more has built connections that end product has allowed us to be able to do what we intended to do, which is essentially connect parents as partners with their teachers and their students to be able to support the learning of the students in our school. And so if the goal is accessibility and the goal is the opportunity and the connection, then when we think in very siloed, very traditional ways, we have to think about who we’re not capturing and we have the function ability to do better. So I think those are, those are some of the things that we should all be teasing out to say, you know, we don’t wanna go back to, to the way it’s always been. We wanna say, what can we do to always be better? And I think there’s some great opportunities to do that, for sure.


Sam Demma (30:57):
I love it. It sounds like you’ve reflected on this. those are some great ideas and the accessibility piece is a huge one. I, I know from speaking to educators as well, it’s something that people are realizing the differences in access have really come to light because of the entire two years being stuck at home and other reasons as well. So I’m, I’m hopeful that it will continue to change and evolve and adjust. And yeah, that, that you’re one of the people that are leading the change. So keep it up.


Tara Connor (31:32):
Well, we have to do that work that that’s work that has to be done. I think


Sam Demma (31:36):
When you think about, you know, Tara in her first year of teaching if you could bundle up all of your experiences right now, and advice and travel back in time and tap her on the shoulder and say, you know, here’s what I think would’ve been helpful to hear when you were just starting in this profession, in this vocation. Not that you would change anything about your journey or path, but what advice would you have given your younger self or another educator? Who’s just getting into this vocation now.


Tara Connor (32:05):
Yeah, that’s a great question. I have to think way back in the reservoir to go back to that first year as I think about where I was and where I am now you know, I, I think reflectively around you know, kind of advice that that I would think, or that I would offer to others, or I think about for myself is that I think, you know, we do this work because we wanna serve and support. All right. And we want to always do the best by our students, but always do the best by our school communities, whether we’re in the classroom or at, at, at a principal level or at the board level, at, I think at every level of education or provincial level as well. And we set the bar, if, if we’re doing the job well, we set the bar really high for ourselves mm.


Tara Connor (32:48):
In that we want to always do it. Right. And we want to feel like we always did the best and the right thing in the moment at that time. And I can tell you you know, the reality is the jobs that we do are complex. They’re challenging. You’re often in, I would say certainly as administrator, you’re often in the grades, it’s very often very, very rarely that you have, this is the right decision, and this is absolutely the wrong decision. So you’re always trying to navigate with real kind of reflection and clarity that this, this is the right decision to make. This is the right action to make. This is the right way forward. And and I think through that, again, one of the things that we are should be great at is reflecting to say, how could we get better?


Tara Connor (33:35):
So what I would say in terms of advice is that don’t be so hard on yourself. Always do the best. You can always take the time to reflect how to get better. And so there’ll be times that things go, especially if you’re innovative and especially if you’re trying to do things differently, there’ll be things that go great. Cause that’s the nature of innovation and things that don’t go so great and celebrate great reflect on how you could be better action, being able to be better and get better, but then let it go, right? Don’t, don’t hang onto the things of what if I had only done and what if I, and with an, and there was another way I could have handled that there may have been, but be gentle it with yourself. And, and and know that that’s the part, part of part of doing this work is sometimes is always getting better.


Tara Connor (34:25):
And so that has to be comfortable with knowing that you, you can always build from, and you can always get better from where where you’ve been and that so I think we get stuck in ruminating around why did, why did this happen a certain way? Why maybe I should have done something else. And, and again, I don’t think that honestly, I don’t think that’s a particular value or helps you be your best self. I think reflection is important. I think having a, a strategy to be able to deepen as you continue your work moving forward, but at times you have to say, I did the best that I could in the moment with what I had and what I knew at the time. And and I’m gonna keep using those things to get better and be better at what I do and how I service support others.


Sam Demma (35:06):
Mm. I love it. Such great advice. If someone is listening to this and wants to reach out to you, ask a question or chat about something you share on the podcast, what would be the best way for someone listening to get in touch with you?


Tara Connor (35:23):
Yes. No problem at all. So I, I hope to be part of the Helton board for lots of years. So I do have an email through the board that anybody could email me at if they have an interest. The last name is connort@hdsb.ca and I’m always happy to connect and always happy to learn and and be connected to communities with people that would like to talk and like to learn and grow together.


Sam Demma (35:48):
Awesome. Tara, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. Really appreciate your time and insights. Keep up the great work leading the change, and we’ll talk soon.


Tara Connor (35:58):
Wonderful. Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.


Sam Demma (36:00):
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 Tara Conner

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.

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.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Reg Levergne

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.

Josh Windsor – Principal at Grand River Collegiate in the Waterloo Region District School Board

Josh Windsor - Principal at Grand River Collegiate in the Waterloo Region District School Board
About Josh Windsor

Josh Windosr is the Principal at Grand River Collegiate in Kitchener, Ontario. He has worked in numerous sectors including social services, business and marketing, and for the past 22 years as an Educator. Josh began his teaching careers in Health and Physical Education and Special Education but has taught Math, History, Geography, Science, was a Department Head of Special Education and a consultant responsible for professional development and a district elearning program.

Josh was a Vice-Principal at 3 high schools in the Waterloo Region before becoming the Principal at Grand River. In addition, Josh has been a long time coach in various sports in the community, at secondary schools and at the University level where he has been the head Men’s rugby coach at both Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo.

As a leader, Josh believes that growth mindset and self determination theory are the key components to school improvement and fostering innovative teaching practices that support student learning.

Connect with Josh: Email | Linkedin

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

University of Waterloo

Wilfrid Laurier University

Grand River Collegiate

What is an EA?

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.


Sam Demma (01:00):
This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest on the podcast is Josh Windsor. Josh Windosr is the Principal at Grand River Collegiate in Kitchener, Ontario. He has worked in numerous sectors including social services, business and marketing and for the past 22 years as an Educator. Josh began his teaching careers in Health and Physical Education and Special Education but has taught Math, History, Geography, Science, was a Department Head of Special Education and a consultant responsible for professional development and a district elearning program. Josh was a Vice-Principal at 3 high schools in the Waterloo Region before becoming the Principal at Grand River. In addition, Josh has been a long time coach in various sports in the community, at secondary schools and at the University level where he has been the head Men’s rugby coach at both Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo. As a leader, Josh believes that growth mindset and self determination theory are the key components to school improvement and fostering innovative teaching practices that support student learning. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Josh. I surely did, and I will see you on the other side. Josh, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Pleasure to have you on the show this morning, please start by introducing yourself.


Josh Windsor (02:19):
My name’s Josh Windsor. I’m a high school Principal at Grand River Collegiate in Kitchener, Waterloo in the Waterloo Region District School Board.


Sam Demma (02:27):
And you’re sitting in the seventh house that you will be flipping . Tell me about your unique journey into education. And when you realized that education was a thing that you wanted to work in.


Josh Windsor (02:42):
Yeah. So when I was young Sam, I had I, my father died very young and I kind of lived on my own right around 17 because my, my stepfather and my mother moved away from town and the relationship I had with my stepfather. Wasn’t great. So I just decided I didn’t wanna leave my friends. I stayed here and I had worked pretty much full time from the time I was 14. Like I, well, full time summers part-time jobs. And I started delivering newspapers. I had two newspaper routes, one in the morning, one in the afternoon when I was in grade six. Right. So I banked a lot of money. So I had some money that I could sit on rent. I rented a room from one of my parents’ friends and, and stayed here. And at about 19, I started working in group homes.


Josh Windsor (03:30):
So with kids and and that kind of led me into some positions where I was in a school. So kind of being a bit of an EA with kids that needed extra support. So one to one support for kids that kind of struggled with behavior and things like that. So I did a few of those stints through university and then 22, I started working for the children’s aid society and I did that offer around eight years. So one of my jobs well, most my, the job I did the longest was a night job while I finished university. It was 10 at night till nine in the morning. And part of that job was crisis support for foster parents. So I would go into foster homes when there was crisis issues and, and try to calm kids down, support the parents, you know do some mediation, those kind of things.


Josh Windsor (04:19):
And and kind of finishing school. I then really like, I liked working with kids, but I started I stayed with that night job. Then I did some business stuff during the day, and I ended up leaving, leaving that night job because I was eventually the director of sales and marketing for a very small software company. Nice. I decided I wanted to go to teachers college because it wasn’t really that fulfilling. So at 30 I went to teachers college. I continued to work in that business while I went to teachers college. And then I had my employers, they were, they were great. And they allowed me to do that because I could continue to do my job. And then when, when the Mike Harris government kind cut a lot of funding to municipalities, our software business started to decline quite a bit. And you know, the owners had said they, they probably can’t keep staff on. So they said, you know, if you have job prospects go, go around. And I was, I was done teachers college for about six months and I went in and saw a few principals and I had a job starting in January.


Sam Demma (05:21):
Wow. How did your upbringing inform the way you work with kids today?


Josh Windsor (05:30):
It, I think I have a, I have a unique perspective just around kids that live in situations and poverty. I would say, you know, I’ve, I I’ve learned through education, so I, I did my master’s bit. I I’m about three years finished my master’s and I learned quite a bit about equity work at that time, I dunno if you’ve ever heard of Laura Malindo, she’s a M P P for province of Ontario. She was actually one of my professors in


Sam Demma (06:01):
Wow.


Josh Windsor (06:08):
And she was shoe section with poverty and things like that. So I started to recognize kind of my privilege and thought I was a self-made person, my whole life. Right. I kind of


Sam Demma (06:17):
One


Josh Windsor (06:18):
Sec, Josh, that ceiling


Sam Demma (06:19):
You, you cut out after you said the word professor, you don’t mind just going back and say she was my professor and continue.


Josh Windsor (06:25):
Sure. Yeah. So Laura, me, Linda was my professor and


Sam Demma (06:32):
Oh, can you hear me?


Josh Windsor (06:35):
And I learned quite a bit about equity as cutting out.


Sam Demma (06:38):
Yeah. It’s chopping in and out just a little bit. Well try one more time. If it, if it cuts out, there’s also a call by phone option and you could just add a, a call. You could just call into this. I could give you a phone number. Okay. And we’ll get the video on, but then the, like, there’s very little chance that it’ll cut out on the phone, but it’s funny every time you say professor, it cuts ,


Josh Windsor (06:58):
But okay. Let’s I can probably go to a different computer and see if I can hard wire in might you think is my wifi.


Sam Demma (07:05):
It could be shouldn’t


Josh Windsor (07:06):
Be, but,


Sam Demma (07:07):
Well, it was fine. The whole, like first section, so kinda odd. Let’s let’s try it one more time. If it cuts out again, I’ll I’ll, I’ll pause you and we could try something else, but okay. Yeah. Start again at professor.


Josh Windsor (07:20):
So, okay. So Laura Malindo was one of my professors and a lot of the coursework was around equity and she taught me a lot about intersection between poverty and, and race and, and other types of situations where people have to deal with deal with being disenfranchised right in our society. And so thinking that I was a self-made person for a long time, I started to recognize the privilege that did have just basically white individual, right. White male. And so understanding kind how to work with kids that kind of live on those margins recognizing difficult situations. I’ve, I’ve been able to, I think build really strong relationships with students and staff. And and that helps me, I think, as we, you know, think about, especially with pandemic learning that trauma informed lens that we need around everything we do. And, and my, you know, my values are students first. And so, you know, we work to try to support students and, and we make decisions that are based on what’s in the best interest of the student at any given time. So that’s really how I, how I see things and, and how I work with students.


Sam Demma (08:41):
How do you build strong relationships with students, whether on the margins, you know, marginalized youth or not? I think there’s they definitely need different things, but I think all young people also need some standard things to build relationships with adults and teachers and educators. How do you think you go about building relationships with students?


Josh Windsor (09:05):
Well, I think, I think the first thing that we need in a school setting is, is we need good structures in place to support students as they understand what their responsibilities are and, and what their opportunities are. And so making sure that you know, students understand kind line around, around behavior and what’s acceptable, but then also recognizing that each day is a new day. So making mistakes is what we do when we’re young and, and that shouldn’t penalize you for an extended period of time, right. There’s consequences for our actions. But you know, if, if a student kind of does something that’s inappropriate in the school that, that warrants some kind of a consequence, then that next day, you know, I welcome. I, I welcome that student. You know, I make sure that my, my staff are treating that student respectfully all the time and, and try to kind build those relationships from the perspective of recognizing that, that we do make errors in our life.


Josh Windsor (10:09):
And I’m not perfect. I made a lot of errors when I was a kid, right. So I know what that can be like. And when you get those multiple chances and when you have those people that care about you in your life, especially you know, your parents, but also your teachers, when those, when those people that are a little bit different from your, from your family situation can invest in time in you and, and make you realize what’s out there and what your potential is. Then, then you feel way more confident in being able to move forward. Right.


Sam Demma (10:37):
Tell us about one of those caring adults you had in your life that made a significant impact on you when you were going through a difficult time or just trying to get by.


Josh Windsor (10:50):
Well, I would say like from the perspective of, you know, family, my mother always, you know, provided those moral values that I still hold today. And and, and then as, as kind of, I went through school, I, I would say there’s a few teachers that, that really supported me. So one of them, his name’s Jeff Sage I, I started to play rugby. So I was a varsity rugby player at university. And when I started to play in high school, I was, I was 18 years old, never played the sport, didn’t know much about it. And he just really encouraged me. And then he, he had said to me, at one point, you know, you could play rugby at university. And I said, really, I’d never thought about going to university. I’ve got three extended families with, I probably have 150 cousins.


Josh Windsor (11:38):
And I would be the only one out of that whole group that’s ever gone to university. Right. And so that was that to me was kind of inspirational where I, I, would’ve never thought about that pathway but I began to love this sport. And then I, and then I thought, well, Hey, maybe I can do that. Right. So that, and that’s where I say, when you have a, a teacher that just says to you, Hey, you could do, you could do this, or you could be this, or you’re good at this, right. That, that makes a kid feel so good. And, and, and they’re encouraged, right. And that confidence and that you know, capacity to think about themselves in a different light is, is really how, how we change lives and how we make sure that, that students can move forward and be good citizens.


Sam Demma (12:26):
Tell us more. I couldn’t agree more. I think back to the educators in my life who made a big difference and it’s people who listened people who got to know me on a personal level and built a relationship regardless of the curriculum or topic or subject they were teaching. Tell us a little more about what your journey looked like after you got your, you know, your degree in teachers college to where you are today. So the various roles you worked in education, what they looked like. And yeah, the whole journey in essence.


Josh Windsor (12:59):
So I, I started out teaching at Waterloo collegiate and I was a, I was a phys ed teacher, and I also worked in the special education department. So I was a coach as well. So I, I coached a lot of different sports. And so you got to see, you know, through, through that coaching and through PHZ, you gotta see lots of different kids, but lots of, kind of really motivated students. And then through my work in the special education department, I got to see students with learning disabilities and other needs that, you know, were needed, needed much more support weren’t as confident, right. So I had kind of, you know, those, those two real different experiences. And I worked there at WCI for about five years just different contracts, you know, never really having a full, never really having a, a tenured position at that point in time.


Josh Windsor (13:48):
And then I got a phone call from a principal Preston high school. And he was an interesting guy, like, I would, you would think like cowboy, right? Like in education and, and back then a lot of the principals were like that right there, wasn’t, there wasn’t a whole lot of rules about what they could or couldn’t do as far as hiring and, and those kind of things. So he said he said, Hey my name’s my name’s Murray baker. I hear you’re pretty good. I need a special education department head. You gotta tell me by noon. And that was, that was kind of the end of the conversation. So I, I went upstairs and talked to my principal who, who was a bit of a different character too. And he was, he laid out kind of, well, you kind of need to have more experience.


Josh Windsor (14:32):
And, you know, I had this seven year plan where I did each position for seven years and he says, you know, I don’t think you should take it. And you know, I thought about that a little bit. And then I, then I realized that, you know, opportunity doesn’t always knock. So I called him back and said, sure. So I, I did that for three or four years as a special education department had at Preston high school. And then an opportunity came up I was a gentleman by the name of Mark Harper, who was a superintendent at the time. He’s done a ton of work now. He worked at the ministry of bed and then he was a consultant for a while and he was going, he’s been going around the world to different ministries of education for different countries and supporting them.


Josh Windsor (15:15):
Wow. You know, he’s a incredibly intelligent guy. He’s, he’s super smart, but he was a superintendent on our board of did tell me, he called me and he said, I need someone to spearhead and run this new eLearning program, and then you’ll have some other duties. Would you come and be a consultant? And so I did. So I, I ran our eLearning program for a few years there. And then I went I, I went back to a school for a little while and, and after teaching for a little bit longer as a student success teacher and, and special education, and then some PHED I decided I might want to get into administration. So I became a vice principal at Huron Heights collegiate. And then I’ve been at I was at three schools as a vice principal and grand river. Now I, this is I’m into my fourth year and as a principal there, and it’s my first school. So that’s kind of my journey through different things in education anyway. So it’s been about 20 years.


Sam Demma (16:13):
That’s awesome. When you’re at here on heist, did, did you cross paths with Bob Klein?


Josh Windsor (16:18):
I know Bob Klein very well. Yes. So I actually taught leadership as I was a half vice principal, and I was the leadership teacher. Yeah. At Huron Heights before Bob Klein came to do leadership. Cool. so he, he kind of, he was doing a little bit of work with me initially, and then I got, I got moved school, so I went to kitchen and collegiate. And then Bob kind of took over leadership there. So yeah, he’s a, he’s a great guy. He’s full of energy.


Sam Demma (16:48):
Now you have a reason to call him and say, Hey, I was just to this young guy, Sam mentioned your name. such a cool journey through education. I love that. You mentioned that idea, that opportunity doesn’t always knock often. So when it does, you know, pounce on it, if it’s something that fires you up, say yes, try it out. At the beginning of this conversation, you told me that along with your career throughout education, you kind of self taught yourself to flip and renovate and sell houses. Like at what point did, did you start getting to that as well? And do you think it’s important that people in education also pursue things outside of the classroom to keep their fire lit?


Josh Windsor (17:35):
Yeah. So to probably Sam, I, cause when I started teaching, I was still working at the children’s eight society on nights and weekends. Got it. Mostly that was because I had a, had a, I just had a child. So my son was born, we kind of needed money. My wife was off. And I, I had bought a house a few years earlier with my brother that we had to sell cause he was moving. And so a lot of learning those things was just because I didn’t have enough money to, to pay anybody to do it. Right. And then and then I just started to like it and, and got into a few other things. I had a couple student houses at one point in time. The other thing that I’ve done and partway, you know, through that career in education, I’ve been a varsity rugby coach at two universities.


Josh Windsor (18:22):
So I coached at Wilford Laurie for seven years and I was I left L Wilford, Laurie. And I went back to my Alma mater, which was Waterloo. And I was there for five years as, as the head coach. So I’m not doing that now. I stopped doing that kind of the year before I became a principal, just because I didn’t feel like I was able to do everything well. And that was what I decided to give up. I also knew my son is now at university of Waterloo. So that son that was born when I first started teaching is now 20 and he’s playing varsity rugby at Waterloo. And I knew he was kinda going down that path and I likely didn’t wanna coach him. I stopped coaching him at the 13 because he, we, we wouldn’t get along very well when I was his coach. So


Sam Demma (19:07):
Awesome. I love, I love it. It’s funny. My dad was in a similar role coaching or helping very heavily with soccer programs. I was on up until about 11, 12, 13, and that’s when he took on the spectator role of quietly sitting on the stands and, you know, analyzing the game and we’d have those conversations in the car after the game ended, when it was a phenomenal performance, we had great conversations and when it was a terrible performance, we had great conversations. sometimes here in the harsh truth or feedback is difficult. Although it’s, it’s shared with you from a place of love and support in the hope that you’ll take it and improve your performance, how do you think you break sometimes hard criticism to young people, not only in a sports sense, but also, you know, in classrooms.


Josh Windsor (20:02):
Yeah. I, I think it’s really important to be honest with people. And so having those difficult conversations is something that as a, as a school administrator you really have to work at. I mean, as a principal, I spend more time with staff than I do with students now. Yeah. I really push myself to get out and, and talk to students and work with students. And because I’ve got a I’ve got a love for leadership. I try to do a lot of work with those kids still. So men in our school board, we still have kind of quasi activities directors that kind of run leadership classes. And then we have an administrator that oversees budget for those things. And so I always take on that role, despite the fact that in almost in most of our schools, it’s a, it’s a vice principal that does.


Josh Windsor (20:47):
But I, I just enjoy it. It’s an opportunity for me to, you know, be with great kids and, and support them and help them. But also then be a presence in this school. So when I have those, when I have those difficult conversations with some of those kids, it’s usually around kinda, you know, here’s the reason why we can’t run this event, right? Here’s the procedure, here’s the, you know, here are the worries that I have from a safety perspective. And so you’re gonna have to go back to the drawing board. And so, you know, students that have spent a lot of time on something have to kind of hear that, take that feedback and then go back and, and try to work. So you, you talk about positive things as you give them the, the advice or the, or the, you know, the negative feedback that they can’t do.


Josh Windsor (21:35):
Something I like to use one of the techniques that I, that I use is like a it’s inanimate third object. So if we’re, so if we’re talking about your, your planning process, for example, so when a kid tries to run an event, when our students run an event, they, they go through this planning process. There’s a template that they have to use. So when I give the, when I give the criticism or the feedback I’m talking about the template, not about them. Ah, and so using re using language like, so, so this plan is, needs some work because as opposed to, you need to work on this plan, right? So the language that, that we use is really important when I, when I use the term, you you’re, you are going to inherently take that as a personal comment. Right. And so you’re gonna internalize that when I talk about your plan though you’re not internalizing that as much. So that’s one of the techniques that I would use to kind of provide feedback to people that they maybe don’t want to hear. It usually makes things go a little smoother, right. Also use a lot of eye language. So I believe, I feel and, and that, you know, makes them recognize that I’m a part of that process. So you take on kind of that responsibility on their behalf.


Sam Demma (22:57):
I, I love that idea. I’m gonna steal it. when I have to break some bad news to people. I think when you said, I language, my mind also went to like, people’s physical eyes. I think it’s so important that when you not break bad news, but share a truth or an honest feeling with somebody that they can hear the tone of your voice and see you because you can tell if someone’s sincere in their remark or, you know, if they’re just brushing you off, whereas if you were to write it as an email, there’s so much left for guessing. Right. And people could assume one thing when you meant something totally different.


Josh Windsor (23:41):
Yeah. Agreed. I mean, there are some other techniques that I use, especially with students because body language and stance is really important. So a lot of the research out there would let you would tell you that males, for example, when you, when you are face to face with an individual, with a, with a male your shoulders are square, that, that really, to us signifies conflict or, or you know, challenge. So a lot of times when I talk to students like boys when they’re upset or angry, I go sit beside them. And so you’ll, you’ll maybe hear this, like there’ll Bey, there’s psychological kind of research and books around it. So when you wanna talk to your, to your son, you talk to him in the car. Cause you’re side by side. Right. And because, because you know, the, your tone and of that face to face stance really, really triggers kind of their, their fight or flight.


Josh Windsor (24:40):
Got it. Response rate. So, so when you sit beside them, then they don’t have to look you in the eye, which is, which is, if you think about kind of things from the animal kingdom. Right. And you know, you, look, you look at cat in the eye, for example, that’s con that’s like a challenge, right? Yeah. So there’s, so that works with humans quite a bit too. Whereas if you’re having a conversation with a, with a young lady, then they want that face to face contact, right. That, so you do square up and then you make sure your body, your body language is open. So you would never sit with your arms crossed, for example, cause that’s a closed stance and that means I’m not willing to listen. Right. So those body language things that you, you have to really think about as you have those conversations.


Josh Windsor (25:21):
And I use those quite a bit with students, but also with parents, because you can have parents that come in that are hop and mad about something, right. And then, you know, you have to try to calm them down and, and work to a solution. And that’s that’s one of the things that I find really interesting about education. And when you talk to you often talk to people in the business world who you know, think teachers get paid too much or, you know, there’s, there’s too much money spent on education and things like that. And, and I always explain it to them this way. I say, when you’re, when you’re managing a situation in your business, whatever that business is, you, you really have two points of view. You’ve got your customer and you’ve got your employee. Right. And so you’re trying to manage those two points of view when I’m trying to manage a situation in a school.


Josh Windsor (26:05):
So let’s say it’s a conflict of some kind between two students. I have four parents, if I’m lucky, cuz lots of times I have eight parents. Right. I could have outside agencies like the children’s aid and other things. I have to think about any of the adults that staff, that work with those individuals that may be involved in this. I have to think about the, the public perspective of what education should look like. And then I have to think about the policies and procedures of the school board and the school. And so I’m taking, you know, 6, 7, 8 different perspectives as I try to make a decision, which normally isn’t gonna make anybody happy. Right. Mm-Hmm, in those, in those conflicts. And so you know, you navigate those waters and, and really have to, you have to be able to build relationships and, and be able to kind of adhere to your moral compass as you, as you work through those things,


Sam Demma (27:05):
What resources have you found helpful in your professional development that has given you greater awareness at work, but also personally in your own life, you mentioned the NPP that taught you during your master’s degree. It sounds like she was a massive resource, but I’m wondering if anything else has been an inspiration or like a north star and guiding compass for, for your belief system and who you are today.


Josh Windsor (27:33):
I, I would, I would say recognizing that the public education system needs to be good for all students. Yep. Is one of the things that really drives me to continue you know, trying to do, trying to make those good decisions on a daily basis, trying to build a school culture that is welcoming to everybody and, and trying to help our young, you know, our, our young people recognize that they need to be engaged in the world to be good citizens. So you know, diff reading different, reading, different things all the time. So I’m always interested in, in research education. I’ve got a keen interest in science and physics cause that’s kind of a new area and I don’t know much about it. I was never science or physics trained, but when you hear kind of some things that are, that are happening out there, like around vision or, or other things where it’s like magic, these, these things that are going on.


Josh Windsor (28:31):
So, you know, I, I, I read different articles on a regular basis. I think about those things. And then learning from other people I think is where I, I truly get most of my kind of passion is just, just listening and talking to people, being engaged in professional development opportunities where you’re working in a group. So I think those are the, those are the places where I gain my efficacy at around, you know, what I believe. And then you know, trying to, trying to move barriers over the way a school board is school boarded, administrative of education is a significant bureaucracy. So I really work at trying to navigate through some of those things to make, make sure that things can happen. It’s really easy to say, no. You know, especially from a leadership perspective, which is where you do a lot of your work, right?


Josh Windsor (29:24):
So, you know, a student comes with an idea like we wanna have a hot dog eating contest. Right. you know, that would be one that we would say no to, but how do we then navigate through, what is the purpose of that activity? What is it that you, what is the end goal of that activity and how do we modify it to make it safe, to make it inclusive, to make it, you know, good for all of our students and to bring people together as opposed to do something that a couple of you, your friends wanna do. Right. so where where’s the greater good in what we’re doing? Where is the service leadership in what we’re doing? And, and I think, you know, from that perspective, it’s part of the reason why we’ve moved our school is a, an SDG school. And I dunno if you know what that is, the UN global system, the goals.


Josh Windsor (30:12):
Yeah. So I’ve got those goals posted up in our hallways, around our schools now. So the 17 goals are in each of our hallways. I’ve got teachers really working to try to do some real world things in their classrooms. So one example of that is we had a, a civics and history class. So two classes with one of our teachers last year start to engage some of the politicians in our community because my school is on Indian road. Mm. And the iconography, the original iconography of the school was a was a caricature of an indigenous person. And so that went away about 12 years ago. But our school nickname was the renegades and there’s still some of that residual feeling kinda around those things. And so some of our students didn’t think it was appropriate that the school was on Indian road.


Josh Windsor (31:04):
That’s our address. So we have started a process of, of engaging politicians around that with, with student support our students were at delegation at a city council committee meeting where they passed the, they, they they passed the motion to change the name of Indian road. And then that went to the, the larger council. So city council has passed that and we’re beginning a consultation process with people in the neighborhood beginning in may with our students being involved and, and teachers and things like that to, to try to move forward around, around making that change. So engaging our students in real world issues at the municipal and, and maybe provincial level, but also globally is I think how we have them recognize the change that they can make in the world, but also you know, understand that, that we all have a role as citizens to, to do the right thing.


Sam Demma (32:10):
I couldn’t agree more. It’s so cool to hear that the SDGs are on the walls in the hallways throughout your school. And teachers are actively trying to integrate those holistic outcomes and challenge based learning into the classroom. If you could take all your experience in education, bundle it all up, travel back in time, tap your younger self on the shoulder and say, Josh, this is the advice I wanted you to hear when you were just getting into education. Not that you would change anything about your path, but think about how you felt when you first got into this work and some advice or ideas that would’ve been helpful when you were just starting.


Josh Windsor (32:52):
I, I think what I would’ve told myself is just to be a little more confident in situations where, where you were working with other people mm-hmm I would say colleagues where you felt the decisions or the things that they were doing were not okay. Not in the best interest of kids. So I think as a young, as a young educator you have, you have your Federation and you hear things like, well, you don’t wanna say that to another teacher because that would be a member to member issue. And so you stay quiet on some things. And that’s one of the things I’m trying to do with some of our young teachers is encourage them to use their voice. Our, our young teachers coming out of teachers college, truly understand education. They’ve, they’ve been taught all of the right things that are research based.


Josh Windsor (33:40):
And I would say for the most part, the people that we’re hiring there’s, there’s still others there. But they’re still not confident. And they feel like they can’t say what they need to say. Right? So a lot of, a lot of the really good work gets hidden. So I think it’s, it, it’s such a, it’s such an issue with public education that we, we hire somebody at whatever 24 years old, you know, give or take a year or two. Then we put ’em into a classroom with 30 students and we have them close the door and we really don’t talk to them support them, or do much with them for a period of time. Those processes are getting a little better, but it it’s, you know, it, the professional development time that’s needed to build a, a quality teacher is extensive.


Josh Windsor (34:31):
And I, and I think, you know, I would go back and tell myself to have those conversations with those older staff that you don’t believe are doing the right things for kids. Cause it’s, it is easy to get jaded in, in this, in this business or, or industry because you will never, ever get paid anymore for working harder. And lots of times things occur that are negative in your, in your professional life that you feel like are causing you more stress, more issues. And so then you start to pull back on the things you do, right. And, and you’ve seen that clawback of time provincially over the last number of years. So things like planning time and prep time for teachers is, has continuously been clogged back while real wages have, have been reduced. And so people just don’t feel valued, right? And, and when people don’t feel valued, their efficacy drops and their capacity to be optimistic goes down and then their willingness to work hard really kind of starts to fade. Right. And and I think that can be, that can be combated just by bringing in young people that, that, you know, can energize you right. When you have those conversations.


Sam Demma (35:45):
Got it. Love the advice, not only applicable for education, but for any industry. If someone had a question about anything you shared on the podcast, wanted to reach out, chat with you, what would be the best way for them to get in touch?


Josh Windsor (36:01):
Well, they could reach me via email. So, you probably have my email. So do you want, do you want me to say it out loud?


Sam Demma (36:08):
Yeah. You can share it out loud, but I’ll put it in the show notes as well.


Josh Windsor (36:11):
Okay. Yeah. It’s josh_windsor@wrdsb.ca.


Sam Demma (36:21):
Awesome. Josh, thank you so much for taking the time to do this. I appreciate it. Keep up the amazing work and we’ll talk soon.


Josh Windsor (36:28):
Thanks Sam. It was really good to talk to you.


Sam Demma (36:31):
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 Josh Windsor

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.

Heather Pierce – Principal at Centennial Collegiate Vocational Institute

Heather Pierce - Principal at Centennial Collegiate Vocational Institute
About Heather Pierce

Heather Pierce is the Principal of Centennial Collegiate Vocational Institute in Guelph. After completing her BA., BEd. in 1998, Heather began teaching at Gateway Dr. Public School. She entered the teaching world during a period of significant change, including the introduction of EQAO testing and the new Ontario report card. After 2.5 years in the elementary panel, Heather moved to the secondary level, teaching English at Guelph Collegiate Vocational Institute.

Throughout her 16 years at GCVI, Heather had the opportunity to teach in 4 departments and took on the role of Head of Student Services. Heather’s passion for working with diverse learners led her to two program positions at the Upper Grand DSB (Student Work Study Teacher and Pathways and Postsecondary Education Lead). In 2018 she was placed at Centennial Collegiate as Vice-Principal and in 2021 she was appointed Principal at the same school. 

Heather’s experience teaching everything from Kindergarten to grade 13 has allowed her to watch students develop through all stages of the education system. She feels strongly that all postsecondary pathways need to be honoured and is focused on supporting students as they navigate the wide variety of opportunities beyond high school. She is committed to supporting students and families to end the stigma that university is the “best” path. 

Heather maintains her sanity by making personal fitness a priority; this comes in handy while she follows her two teens around the competitive sports world.

Connect with Heather: Email

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Centennial Collegiate Vocational Institute

Gateway Dr. Public School

Upper Grand DSB

EQAO testing

Grading for Equity by Joe Feldman

North American Center for Threat Assessment and Trauma Response

Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon

Student Success Programs at Upper Grand DSB

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 Heather Pierce, the principal of Centennial Collegiate Vocational Institute in Guelph. After completing her BA and BED in 1998, Heather began teaching at Gateway Dr. Public school. She entered the teaching world during a period of significant change, including the introduction of EQAO testing and the new Ontario report card. After 2.5 years in the elementary panel, Heather moved to the secondary level teaching English at Guelph Collegiate Vocational Institute. Throughout her 16 years at GCVI, Heather had the opportunity to teach in four departments and took on the role of the head of student services. Heather’s passion for working with diverse learners led her to two program positions at the upper grand district school board; student work study teacher and pathways and post-secondary education lead. In 2018, she was placed at Centennial collegiate as Vice Principal and in 2021, she was appointed Principal at the same school.


Sam Demma (01:55):
Heather’s experience, teaching everything from kindergarten to grade 13 has allowed her to watch students develop through all stages of the education system. She feels strongly that all post-secondary pathways need to be honored and is focused on supporting students as they navigate the wide variety of opportunities beyond high school. She is committed to supporting students and families to end the stigma that University is the best path. Heather maintains her sanity by making personal fitness a priority. This comes in handy while she follows her two teens around the competitive sports world. I hope you enjoy today’s insightful conversation with Heather and I will see you on the other side. Heather, welcome to the high performing educator podcast. Pleasure to have you on the show here today. Please start by introducing yourself.


Heather Pierce (02:45):
I am Heather Pierce and I am the Principal at Centennial Collegiate in Guelph, Ontario.


Sam Demma (02:52):
When did you realize that you wanted to get into education?


Heather Pierce (02:57):
I think that I am, am kind of genetically predisposed to work in institutions. I come from a long line of teachers. My grandmother was a teacher in rural Quebec. My mom, I refer to her as the super teacher. She actually has won teaching awards at the provincial and board levels. Wow. And she, she was just growing up. I watched her you know, jump out of bed at five in the morning, so excited to go to school every day and stay up late, you know, working on, on projects for her kids and, and, and working through lessons and assessment. And she definitely didn’t make the job look easy, but she made it look so rewarding. And I think as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a teacher. So I created a little school in my basement when I was little and I forced my brother.


Heather Pierce (03:49):
very meanly, forced my brother to be my student. And, and I followed her footsteps into the elementary panel and did start at that level. And then after about two and a half years, decided that I really enjoyed the working with the older kids. So I made the switch to secondary and and then I gravitated towards students that struggled. Once I was in the secondary panel, not just academically, but socially and emotionally as well. I taught a lot of alternative education which was so rewarding. And so I had zero intentions of ever getting into administration. I loved being a teacher. And when my principal at the time in 2001 said, I think you should think about administration. I said, you’re crazy. It’s not gonna happen. And by 2018, I just got the itch and I decided to give it a try.


Sam Demma (04:41):
You mentioned growing up your, you know, your mom didn’t make it look easy, but she definitely made it look rewarding. What, what did that look like? So how did you know, growing up that from watching her education was such a rewarding career path?


Heather Pierce (04:58):
Yeah, I think the enthusiasm and the energy that the, the job brought for her like I said, she was super mom on top of being super teacher, but she would bake cookies at 10 o’clock at night for her students. And we would always, my brother and I would always ask, are those for us or your school kids? So she just, he gained so much energy from the job. And my mom is tough as nails, but I saw her cry at times as well. Cry with happiness, but then also cry with frustration and just the for anybody that really likes a challenge and who really believes like I do that, the best things are the most difficult things to achieve. It’s, it’s the perfect job for that because that’s, I saw that through her and she would go and visit. She would actually go and watch her, her students play hockey at night. They, I have a game tonight and she’d find a way to pop by and watch a period or something. So I just saw the joy that it brought and the frustration, but then the triumph when she would tell a story about how she got through to a student who was struggling with a learning disability or some behavior issues, and just to see the accomplishment, that kind, that came out of that. That’s what really drew me in.


Sam Demma (06:16):
What about your role now and your own journey in education? Have you found extremely rewarding about working in education?


Heather Pierce (06:24):
I, I love the fact that working in education has very measured successes and they come in such interesting ways because a success for one student may be that they came to school for two days in a row. For another, it may be achieving honor roll and for another, it may be just that they actually advocated and asked a teacher for help on an assignment instead of sitting there silently for 75 minutes, you know, being confused. So I love that those, I like to I’m a little bit of a type, a personality, like a lot of teachers, but I like to have goals and cross those off and, and really see and measure success. And so those small wins that happen all the time are, are just what, what keeps me going and what I love about it. I love problem solving mm-hmm and bringing people together to communicate.


Heather Pierce (07:16):
And as an administrator, I find 99% of the time that we are dealing with issues it’s because of miscommunication. Mm. So I love being that person that mediates all parties and kind of brings everyone together. And it’s amazing when a student finally says, you know what, this is the reason I’m not coming to class. And it’s like, like, it just kinda blows your mind. Oh my gosh, we could have figured this out much sooner if we just all sat at the table together. And I love watching young people try to navigate through being trapped into minds. So there’s the child mind and then the adult mind. And and I love trying to figuring out, figure out what they need and, and what they want. And I am the parent of two teenagers. So that has been invaluable just to understand what’s relevant for teens. And you know, I, I don’t feel so uncool sometimes because I actually know some of the things that are going on in hip, so to speak.

Heather Pierce (08:15):
Very uncool way of saying it.


Sam Demma (08:18):
That’s awesome. You definitely have the pulse being that you are the parent of two teenagers, which is awesome. If you didn’t have kids, I would say, go on TikTok and spend a couple hours on there. Yeah. You know, you, you exude positivity and enthusiasm. It’s clear you’re doing the work that you love doing. What are the various roles that you’ve worked in within schools? You mentioned something about not wanting to leave the classroom. And I had a pass guest mention, you know, the perfect candidates for administration are people who love teaching and don’t wanna leave the classroom. Mm-Hmm, mm-hmm, what are some of the kind of pros and cons or pros and challenges of each of the different roles that you’ve worked?


Heather Pierce (09:02):
Yeah. I, I did love teaching in the classroom and I I’ve had the opportunity to teach kindergarten to grade 13 through my career, which is incredible. And so what I loved about the classroom was you know, the instructional piece, the instructional leadership of bringing things that I learned in PD into the classroom and trying them out and really trying to reach each student and through assessment, really trying to move everybody forward wherever they were. But I was also able to extend my classroom experience into some leadership roles as the head of student services in my last school. And that was essentially the head of spec ed but also alternative education and ESL education. So through that, I started working with small groups of students because generally that’s in spec ed. Yes. Or AltEd, that’s what you do.


Heather Pierce (09:57):
And I loved being able to really have deep conversations with small groups or one to one. And then as I was doing that job, my administrators started asking me if I wanted to be designated. So if there’s ever a meeting offsite or, you know, a principal has to be outta the building, they’ll ask, designate to come in and fill in. And I started doing that work here and there. And I absolutely loved it because it was again, an extension of that work that I was doing in spec ed and Ted, and trying to, to deal with difficult situations. And so what the role of administrator you do lose that whole, you know, experience of being in front of 30 kids and bringing a program to that room, but you gain so much in those really, really small conversations that then you can be an advocate and a mediator for you know, that student between the teachers or the parents or social workers or whatever it is.


Heather Pierce (10:55):
So there’s definitely a level of responsibility that comes with administration that you you have a little bit more control or you feel that you’re a little bit more in control when you have 30 kids in front of you and you kind of know where everybody’s at, but when you get to a school where there’s 1700 students, but you’re ultimately responsible for in families it gets a little bit overwhelming at times. But but again, I, because I get to have those small conversations and intensive conversations I, I find that to be the most rewarding piece of my current role


Sam Demma (11:31):
For an educator listening, who loves teaching in the classroom, but maybe has been tapped on the shoulder before, by others to say, Hey, you should consider administration. And they’re unclear, like, how the heck do you make a decision for 1700 students? Like, can you give us some insight into how in an administrative role you’ve like, decide to do things or how decisions like the process of decision making?


Heather Pierce (11:59):
Yeah. The the key to making decisions that are going to work effectively for everybody is forming the relationships the minute that you get into the building. And of course, you’re going to have to make big decisions before you really get to know everybody. Yeah. But the faster that you can get into all of the department, offices and classrooms and meet with the teachers you, you get an idea of where the priorities are, where the passions are. What’s been done in the past and maybe where some of the, the issues are. And I think when administrators first get to schools, they kind of sit back on committees and just watch what’s going on to get a pulse on where, where some of the issues may be. I’m very, I wear my heart on my sleeve and I’m very open with people and say, look, I have the, you know, the big job of making this decision.


Heather Pierce (12:52):
And there are people that are not gonna be happy. My goal is to make the decisions that are the best for our students and the student success and their families. I obviously care a lot, a great deal about my teachers. So I consider those you know, that perspective as well. But I think when you’re really honest with people and you have a process and you clearly lay that out, it’s really effective. So for example, we just had a huge, a tech refresh order that had to go in. And of course we are relying on technology more than ever before. And we’ve lost a lot of devices because we’ve had shutdowns and students have borrowed devices from the school and ended up, you know, a lot didn’t come back where they were broken. So everybody wants their department to be, you know refreshed or whatever.


Heather Pierce (13:39):
So it’s, as long as you have a process and say, look, I looked into what we did last year. And the year before this department got this, this department got this, these students are, you know, in the most need of technology at this point, or this is how much we’ve lost. So really doing your homework getting some data. And I, I always tell my staff, I’m a data nerd, whether it’s quantitative or qualitative, I gather as much anecdotal information or just crunch numbers as I can. And I rationalize my decisions that way. And I find it also works with parents. If I’ve made a tough decision, you know, if there’s a mark appeal or if there’s, you know, something that’s very serious something that’s related to an I E P development or something like that, you need to have the data and the evidence to back it up. And then if you, if you make it clear that you have the student’s best interest at heart then it, it works.


Sam Demma (14:32):
What resources throughout your career have been helpful in developing yourself professionally and also just giving you more ideas or resources. And that could be books, you’ve read courses you’ve been through and even humans, like human resources as well.


Heather Pierce (14:50):
Yeah. Our board, the upper grand district school board has really put a lot of people, power and money into particularly the topic of equity and C R P, which is culturally responsive and relevant pedagogy. So there have, there are books that like for, for example, right now, it’s I’m reading a book called grading for equity and just kind of opening your mind on, it’s not a one size fits all. You don’t just write one test and that kind of measures everybody’s success within a classroom. So that’s an example of a, a book, but it, it comes from the board. And I find my board in particular has been really good about providing those paper resources. But I also think that the biggest resources, just talking to people talking to my colleagues and, and getting out into the school, I do not tie myself to my office.


Heather Pierce (15:48):
I am out in the halls as much as possible I’m in and out of department offices in and out of classrooms. And so you get an idea of what’s going on and you ask questions and you find out, you know, which, which websites, or, you know, teacher resources have been effective. I love doing TPAs teacher performance appraisals for new teachers, because they’re coming out of, out of teachers college with incredible information yeah. And experience. And some of them are doing master’s degrees in equity topics. So they, they’re a huge source of information for me. And then one most recent one that really hit me is a man named Kevin Cameron. And he’s actually the director of the north American center for threat assessment and trauma response, which sounds like a very complicated position. And he’s been called into he’s a social worker by training.


Heather Pierce (16:45):
But he is been called in to respond to tragedies, like the Humboldt bus crash the shootings in Nova Scotia, Columbine and also with COVID because there’s trauma associated with COVID and that’s carried over into our classrooms. And so our board brought him in for a couple speaking engagements, and I found it fascinating because he is presenting this idea of a connection gap. So there’s, you know, you’ll hear teachers say, there’s an academic gap. We just, how are we gonna close that gap? They’re missing. The kids are missing so many skills, but Kevin Cameron’s idea is that we need to go right back to the connection gap. And until we make those connections again with the students that have been behind an avatar on a screen for a while we need, we need to deal with that piece first. And then the academic gap will close. So he’s been a huge source of professional development for me recently.


Sam Demma (17:42):
That’s amazing that that sounds like a phenomenal person to learn from and steal, steal some ideas. There’s a book called steal, like an artist. And it’s like this idea that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel that the ideas are out there. Sometimes it’s just a matter of, of finding them and, and implementing them in your own unique way. I’m curious to know throughout your career you’ve definitely had programs implemented in the school. And one thing that I think really inspires educators to remember the importance of their role is hearing a story about a student transformation. And I’m wondering of all the programs you’ve run. If there’s any stories that come to mind about a student, you remember who was transformed or changed, or very impacted positively by a program. And if it’s a serious story, you could definitely change the name just for the sake of privacy.


Heather Pierce (18:37):
Yeah. some teachers at my school about 10 years ago created a program called cadence, and it’s an offsite alternative education program. That’s available to all the students in our board, in the program grant board. And the motto of the program is a leader looks at the world and says, it doesn’t have to be this way. Mm. And then does something about it. So the kids are programmed from day one when they go in there. And this is a collection of students that have struggled from probably about eight different schools. And they are programmed to think if you don’t like what to see, then you can be the, be that agent of change. And of course you can imagine that kids that are coming out of those situations don’t have a lot of confidence and don’t see themselves as leaders or having the potential to, to make any change.


Heather Pierce (19:29):
So this, this one student named Jordan she, I didn’t actually ever hear her speak back at, at our homeschool. She was her attendance was spotty. She had no confidence at all, a lot of family issues going on had some learning issues in an IEP and was credit poor, like, I mean, S years old with five credits. And she went to this program cadence, and at the end of the program, they do a lot of experiential things. They go to camp Muskoka they volunteer and get their volunteer hours at yeah, food bank in town hope host and just, they’re given a lot of leadership opportunities to build skills. And I talk about measurement. I mean, this is the biggest example of measuring success at the end of the course, every student in the program stands up in front of a huge room of people. Most of them strangers, some of them have supports. Like I went to support, you know, my students to watch, but in general, they don’t know all of the people that are in front of them. And each student does a speech. And it is, they lay it all out there of how they’ve grown. And she stood up and at the microphone and looked out at this room and she gave a five minute speech. That was unreal. You would think she was the professional speaker.


Sam Demma (20:53):
Wow.


Heather Pierce (20:54):
And so like, I just about fell off my chair because to see the change that she went through and it was just chipping away slowly and building that confidence and building those skills. And I, and saying, building skills can live very up in the air and it’s very abstract, but they give specific, like, these are things that you need to do when you are creating a speech or communicating with someone or standing up to, to, to pass on what you’ve learned. And so she returned after doing that program she returned to school and she is in a position to graduate now, which I mean, awesome. There’s if you had have asked people at that point, they would’ve said no way. So it is definitely a success story. And I, I look forward to every semester I look forward to going and hearing those final speeches cuz it’s, it’s amazing.


Sam Demma (21:46):
That’s so cool. So the program is still running now. Like it still goes on yeah.


Heather Pierce (21:50):
Currently running right now. Yeah. Yeah.


Sam Demma (21:52):
Very cool. That’s amazing. Do you know how the idea came to life or what originated it?


Heather Pierce (21:59):
I, I know the teachers quite well that that created it and I think they just saw the need for an alternative for students that were not comfortable in the building, in a traditional building, sitting in a desk, looking at a chalkboard. And, and they really, I think took time to identify what was it that was missing. And it’s that sense of belonging and the sense of community. And that drives so much of that program. So I think it was a to get it offsite and get it out of a school building so that students could feel at ease and really feel like they were part of something special too. I think that was really important. And then for that, for thet two teachers to identify the motto of making change and doing that through community and collaboration, it was just amazing. So I think it was just from regular they’re, both PHED teachers. And they, they saw a need and they just jumped in and, and got, they got you know financial contributions from different groups in the community to make this happen. They did presentations to the board, they did their homework and and they pitched the idea and, and people absolutely loved it.


Sam Demma (23:12):
It sounds like they, they were a living example of the motto, see something in the world. You don’t like, you can do something about it.


Heather Pierce (23:20):
That’s exactly right. Yeah. Yeah.


Sam Demma (23:22):
That’s awesome. If you could travel back in time, but take with you the experience and the wisdom you’ve gained teaching in education and working all these various roles go and speak to Heather in her first year of education. What advice would you have given your younger self? Not that you want to change anything about your path, but things you think would’ve been helpful to hear earlier in your career.


Heather Pierce (23:47):
Yes. I look back on 1998, Heather, and I, it, it, I’m a totally different person and I often wish I could go back. And actually I taught grade six that year. And it was a very challenging class with six kids receiving self-contained spec ed support. And I went into that as a brand new teacher with a lot of theory in my head. And it was a very difficult time in education because it was very beginning of EQAO testing. Ah, it was the first year of EQAO testing and it was the, the first year for the new report card. And so people were spinning and I was so focused on the curriculum and the 125, you know, science expectations that you need to get to and preparing the students for the next stage and the big move to grade seven.


Heather Pierce (24:41):
And so I was buried in curriculum and paperwork and making sure that I was crossing everyt and doting every eye. And so my advice to that, Heather would be just to look at the big picture, not that I’m encouraging people to not teach curriculum, cuz obviously we do, but really looking at the big picture and sitting down with those expectations and saying really what do they need to know? What’s the bottom line. And learning about the kids first I would spend, like I encourage my teachers now not to give out a course outline on the first day of school. That’s always what we do in high school. We, we give them a Chris outline. We say, okay, 30% of your mark is this. And 20% of your mark is this. And then I, why not just spend the first few days or even the first week or in elementary you could spend a big chunk of time just getting to know who plays hockey in their spare time and who plays the trumpet. And you know, just getting to know the kids as individuals, because that will get you so far with the curriculum. Because then you can make it relevant and tailor it and responsive and, and just have the big picture. So I was buried, I was overwhelmed and when I was young and I was just so attached to that curriculum document and I, I would say focus on the kids in front of you first and you’ll be fine.


Sam Demma (25:58):
Yeah, that’s such a good piece of advice. One of the teachers that had a big impact on my life knew us all on such a personal level that he could teach a lesson and then apply it to every single one of our personal interests. Like he would stop and say, Sam, for this for you, this means X. And Kavon, for you in the fashion industry this means X, and I’ve stayed in touch with him. He knows how much of an impact he had on me. I’m actually going to his farm this, this summer to help him. Yeah. And, and I think it’s because he got to know us on a really personal level that I invested was invested much more in the things he wanted to teach us. That’s a great piece of advice. If, if, if someone wants to reach out to you after listening to this conversation, maybe they have a question about a program or something you shared or said, what would be the best way for them to get in touch with you?


Heather Pierce (26:50):
Unfortunately, I’m a really private person, so I’m not active on social media, which I love to follow other people on social media, what we’re doing, but I’m not really that person. So email would be the best and I can, I can have that in my bio. Email would probably be the best way to reach me and I’d love to connect with, with other administrators or teachers.


Sam Demma (27:11):
Perfect. I will make sure to also include it on the show notes of the podcast episode, if anyone wants to reach out. But Heather, this was amazing. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this. I appreciate it a lot. I know it’ll be helpful for educators all over the globe, whoever chooses to tune in. So thank you for doing this. Keep up with the great work and we’ll talk soon.


Heather Pierce (27:31):
Thanks Sam.


Sam Demma (27:33):
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 Heather Pierce

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.

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