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Teaching Tips

Michelle Lowey – Teacher Physical Education & Sports Medicine

Michelle Lowey - Teacher Physical Education & Sports Medicine
About Michelle Lowey

Michelle Lowey (@Ms_Lowey) is the teacher of Physical Education & Sports Medicine at Dr. E.P Scarlett High School.  She is HIGH energy and has so much to offer throughout this conversation. 

Connect with Michelle: Email | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Dr. E.P Scarlett High School Website

Terry Fox Run

What is a Social Media Detox and how to take it

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s guest is Michelle, Michelle Lowey. She is a teacher of physical education and sports medicine. She has her BA and her BEd major in physical education and kinesiology. She teaches at Dr. E.P Scarlett and is also the learning leader of student activities.


Sam Demma (01:00):
This conversation was filled with awesome stories and actionable advice and tips so make sure you have a note and a notepad and a pen beside you so you can take down all the different takeaways that you hear during this conversation. I’ll see you on the other side of the interview, talk soon. Michelle, thank you so much for coming on the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show, why don’t you start by sharing with the listener who you are and how you got into the work with young people that you do today?


Michelle Lowey (01:30):
Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Sam. I’m so happy to be here. So my name is Michelle Lowey. I’m a teacher at EP Scarlett. I’m actually new to EP Scarlet. So that’s in Calgary. I’m new to Scarlet this year, I’m just taking on a new role of learning leader of student activities. I also teach leadership and sports medicine and I’ve been in the leadership world for probably about five years. So when I was a student teacher, I was working at Centennial High School and, you know, like I, I knew what a leadership program was, but I didn’t really know the full extent and the depth of what what it all entailed. So when I was a student teacher at Centennial, I worked with a man by the name of Brent Dixon.


Michelle Lowey (02:20):
He’s you know, a fairly big figure in the, in the leadership world. And he has been just a phenomenal mentor to me for the last five years. And he showed me what true student leadership was and the impact it can have and just, you know, the amazing connections that you build with students and that you build in the community. And ever since then, and I saw this model to me as a student teacher, I’ve been all in and it’s been, it’s been incredible. I’ve been involved in the leadership world with Brent, at Centennial for about five years, and now I’m kind of, you know, carving out my own journey now and you know learning leader, student activities at Scarlet, and yeah, really excited to be involved in this world and to be exposed to it because like I said, prior to that, like, you know, I was a kinesiology major and a Phys ed teacher and, and all those things, which I still love. But prior to that, I, I didn’t know the depth of, of what it meant to run a leadership program. And I’m just, I’m so fulfilled to, to be a part of that.


Sam Demma (03:24):
I was gonna say the listener, obviously can’t tell, but there’s a beautiful skeleton over your left shoulder, which definitely relates to your love for kinesiology, which is awesome. Sure. Which makes me really curious, can major turn leadership teacher. What , what led you down this path at what moment in your own career exploration, did you know, I wanna be a teacher, like, was there a defining moment, was there a teacher that spurred you in this path or did you just stumble into it and realize how much you love it now?


Michelle Lowey (03:54):
You know what I always kind of like all throughout high school in that I always, in the back of my mind, I wanted to be a teacher. My journey to, to get there was a little bit longer. I kind of, you know, I did the whole typical gap year thing that a lot of kids do me too. And I ended up kind of getting into a job that was, you know, stable and I was making decent money and, you know, that sort of thing. And, and I, one day, you know, I was kind of at the top of the ladder already in that job that I was at. And one day I just realized I’m like, I, I need more than this in life. And I need to have an opportunity to, to impact others and, and to connect more. And so I was a bit older, but I, I went back to university and, and here we are today. So it was absolutely the right decision and I’m in a career that’s, you know very, very fulfilling. And I, I feel very blessed to be involved in this world.


Sam Demma (04:50):
I love it. And the world has changed specifically education and the whole world with the pandemic. Things have shifted, things have adjusted. There’s been, if I can even use that word anymore. A lot of pivots. Yeah. what are some of the, what are some of the challenges, but also unique opportunities? And I wanna use that word because I feel like there’s, there’s lots of opportunities as well. What are some of the challenges and unique opportunities that you’ve been seeing and experiencing over the past couple of months?


Michelle Lowey (05:20):
Yeah. You know, so I, I think the challenge and, and for, for me, for teachers for students and for, for everybody has been you know, that lack of real human connection. Mm. I was thinking the other day, I was like, it has been 10 months since I’ve hugged somebody other than my significant other. Yeah. And I think that’s, that’s, that can be really challenging for people and it, it can start to kind of wear you down. But I think, you know, many people are feeling this way and I think we, we do what we can. Right. you know, we’ve been super limited in terms of the activities that we’ve been able to run at school leadership and, and what we do in leadership looks nothing like it did last year. But we’ve adapt adapted, right. We, we seek out opportunities to still find ways to connect.


Michelle Lowey (06:10):
And, you know, we you have to get creative, you have to get creative, you have to use your imagination. When I, when I first came into this position, you know, again, new school, new position, I had many people tell me as, as learning leader of student activities. Oh, well, you know, you’re not gonna do, you’re not gonna do anything this year. Like, oh, it’s gonna be a cake walk. You won’t have any actual particular. And, and I’m kind of like, not a chance, like, no, like we will find a way to still, you know, do amazing things. And I, and I think we have, I rely heavily on my students for fun and fresh ideas. You know, especially as it pertains to things, you know, social media and pop culture and, you know, those kind of ways to connect you know, we’ve, we’ve taken our, our traditional events, you know, things like, you know, the Terry Fox run, which is normally, you know, 2000 people exiting the school and running together.


Michelle Lowey (07:04):
And, you know, that obviously wasn’t an option, but we, we made it work. So we we did it. So students and teachers could donate and we set a goal $2,000. And if we beat that goal, we had two very generous teachers that offered to run the, the Terry Fox run on behalf of BP Scarlet. Nice. And they did so in very fun costumes. So there was tutus involved and mullet wigs and pub onesies and all the great stuff. And so we raised, I think just over $2,200, which is incredible in these times, and we had, these two is running in this obstacle course and we’ve videoed it. And there’s kids outside everywhere watching, and we made a fun video with it. And, you know, so I really believe that when there’s a will, there’s a way. And although there’s been, you know, unique challenges and I think you know, it’s, it has been tough times.


Michelle Lowey (07:55):
I think there’s been, you know, things that I have learned through all of this that I never would’ve learned. If COVID, you know, wasn’t a thing, there’s things that I will, I will permanently change moving forward into next school year. Mm. Whether, whether COVID is here, here or not. And, you know, whether it’s my virtual presence, my online presence, that’s been a huge thing like running our school, Instagram accounts has been nice. You incredible way to connect. And so yeah, I think there there’s challenges, but with those challenges, it becomes opportunities to learn and opportunities to grow and, you know, rise to the occasion.


Sam Demma (08:31):
My grandfather always used to tell me if there’s a will, there’s a way, if you want something, you know, work hard for it and change, change what you believe about the situation, because your beliefs will to how you feel about it, how you feel leads to your actions and your actions will lead to the result that you get. And it’s obvious that you’ve been staying optimistic as much as you can in positive. You’re smiling throughout this whole conversation, which is awesome. I keep smiling. Yeah. Although they, although the listener can’t see it, but that’s totally fine. Despite the, the challenges you talked about, your students and yourself coming up with fresh ideas, and some of them have been, you know, really well received. And I’m curious to know out of all the ideas that you have tried out all the spaghetti, you’ve thrown against the wall to see what sticks, what are like one to two, or maybe even like three other small things and no pressure to share three. But if you have one or two ideas that you think are worth sharing, that, that have worked well for you in the school I would love to hear about them.


Michelle Lowey (09:29):
Yeah. So we yeah, we’ve done a variety of things. And again, kind of coming back to that Instagram, that’s been been our biggest thing. And our, our school actually didn’t have an Instagram account prior to this year. And, and thank goodness we have that, that ability to connect in those ways. So we ended up, we ran a virtual spirit week which was, and I know a lot of schools, this isn’t super unique. A lot of schools have been, been doing similar things. So we had, you know, your dress up days, your, your pajama days, your Lancer gear days and things like that. And it was kind of funny because every morning I would have the students, so they would be set up in the front foyer and we would, you know, pump some, some good pump up energy music versus in the morning, you know, eight 30 and the kids are walking in the half asleep still.


Michelle Lowey (10:16):
And the first day they, they came, the kids came through the doors and they were kind of like, what the heck is this? they were, they were a little bit like, you know, a little thrown off by it. Yeah. And, you know, and I had my leadership kids in, out there and their they’re dressed to the nines and whatever spirit day it was. And I, and they’re, you know, wishing kids have a great day, you know, spirit week this week when gift cards do this, do that, like all these online activities that we were running the stories on Instagram, all that stuff. And by day two, it was like, okay, the kids were coming through the door. They were less shocked. They were a little bit happier. They were smiling. They engaging in whatever, you know, dress update. It was. And by the end of the week, it was absolutely incredible to see.


Michelle Lowey (11:04):
And I think, I think it was so important to do that. And I think that was, that was kind of a pivotal moment and still being able to build that school culture. I think a lot kids and a lot of staff have, have come into the school year thinking, you know, oh, it’s, it’s not the same and it’s gonna be this, and it’s gonna be that. And, and you know, with, with kind of that negative mindset and not that I can blame them at all, we’ve all been there. It’s hard to, it’s hard to stay positive, but I think that was a pivotal moment. I really, really all throughout the course of that week teachers getting involved and they’re out in the foyer and we have this music pumping and the kids are coming in and it just, it really sets the tone for the day.


Michelle Lowey (11:48):
And it was just, it was incredible to see the transformation over the five days of doing it from, from day one to day five of just how the kids were receiving it. And they were, you know, just dying to have their picture taken, to be featured on Instagram. And, you know, whereas day one, they were running away from the camera. They wanted nothing to do with it. So it was kind of really creating that environment and saying, you know what? Yes, COVID is here. Yes. your school year does not look the same, but we got you. And, and we’re still gonna make this the best experience that we can. So I think that the spirit week was a really good one. We had helping hampers. Nice. So it was really unfortunate. We were, my class was, was right in the middle of, of plan for, for helping hampers.


Michelle Lowey (12:34):
And we had great stuff planned. It was like for every $4 a student donated they would get a ballot entry and the, the entry was for a ton of different prizes. You had your, like your regular, like your gift cards and things like that. But we had fun stuff too, where you win like a Lazyboy recliner that follows you for the day students were gonna break down to these kids classes from class to class. We had they could win movie lunch. So normally at lunch with COVID, the kids have to go outside or they have to stay in their classroom, which, you know, isn’t always the most fun. And so we had a movie lunch where kids could, you know, win a movie lunch in the Hilary gym, and we would put on their, their favorite movie and give them COVID friendly snacks, and they could invite six of their buds and, and hang out in the gym.


Michelle Lowey (13:21):
So we had all these wonderful things planned and then boom within a day you’re moving to online learning. And so that was no more so everything that we had been planning for kind of went out the window in an instant. So we had three days before we were moving to an online platform. And let me tell you, my kids rose to the occasion. Nice. And we, we hammered the advertising and we did so many creative things on Instagram, and we had teachers involved and, you know, putting this stuff in D two L shells. And anyways, so I just I delivered hampers actually yesterday. We did up five hampers plus we had a thousand dollars left over for an emergency fund. We raised over $3,300 and we did it in, in two days essentially.


Sam Demma (14:09):
Wow, that’s crazy.


Michelle Lowey (14:11):
Yeah. So it was, it was awesome. And, you know, my kids did, they did all that footwork and I felt bad for them because it didn’t, it didn’t turn out like we thought, but like I said, kind of going back to that, that ability to pivot and to be flexible and to, to learn from these opportunities. And then, you know, to think, you know, it’s, it’s such tough times right now, and yet people are still so charitable and so giving and loving and caring. And so it’s really, really inspiring to see.


Sam Demma (14:38):
You mentioned school culture as well. And it it’s obvious that you’ve cultivated with the help of other staff and students and amazing school culture, despite the fact that it’s virtual right now. I think one of the main ingredients of school culture is hope. And when students have hope, things will happen. And when teachers have hope things will happen. And when administration has hope, you know, they’ll take action and things will happen. How do you personally stay hopeful despite challenges and, and what keeps you motivated during this time?


Michelle Lowey (15:08):
Yeah, so, you know, I think that the that’s a variety of things, Sam, like , would it be bad if I said that a vaccine keeps me hopeful?


Sam Demma (15:17):
That’s okay.


Michelle Lowey (15:18):
Yeah. Oh man. I was supposed to get married last, last summer. Yeah. And our wedding got postponed. And so I’m supposed to get married this summer. So fingers crossed, you know, that vaccine is coming. Yeah. But I think, you know, even much bigger picture than on that. My students gimme hope. Right. And being able to see them and see them be so resilient and, and gritty and still empathetic and caring through all these times. That’s what gives me hope. And, you know, we did a little thing on, on acts of the kindness last week. And I had students that, that wrote like all the like beautiful letters to senior homes. Mm-Hmm, they did these gratitude chains, you know, with the little strips of paper that you linked together. And they, they wrote what they’re grateful for and these huge gratitude chains that they decorated their houses with. I had one, one student wrote over 40 handmade letters to the troops. Wow. And we had pictures of them. She showed me, I was just like, I was blown away and she sent them off to, to wherever. And they’re being sent overseas. There was sidewalk chalk and window posters and homemade cards. And it’s like, how do you look at that? And lose hope.

Michelle Lowey (16:34):
Right. Like you don’t, and it’s, it’s just amazing. So honestly what gives me hope my students gimme hope and that youth and that energy and, and all that great stuff is, is just so lovely to see. And I’ve had, you know, I’ve had bad days and I think we all had through this, but more often than not, , you know, I leave teaching my class and, and my heart is full and I love it. Yeah. That, that brings a lot of hope.


Sam Demma (17:00):
Ah, that’s awesome. And I’m sure, you know, you’re listening right now thinking the same thing your students probably give you a ton of hope. The work is I don’t even wanna call it work. It’s more of like a calling a vocation because you have such an opportunity to impact the future of a young person, young people, hundreds of them, thousands in your entire school. If you could go back though and speak to your younger self, when you just started teaching and you know, you’re frazzled, you’re not sure what to do. You’re overwhelmed, you’re anxious. You, maybe some of the emotions that we all felt when COVID hit again. But what would you have told yourself? What advice would you have given your younger self before you got into teaching?


Michelle Lowey (17:43):
Oh relaxed. yeah.


Sam Demma (17:49):
I love it.


Michelle Lowey (17:51):
It all works out. Mm. I’m, I’m pretty a type and I’m the perfectionist type. And I, I I like things to be a certain way. And I think with, with student leadership and with teaching in general you need to let go of that perfectionist mindset. You need to be willing to accept that, you know, on some days mediocrity is, is all you can sustain and that’s okay. Right. And be kind to yourself, be kind to yourself would be a big one for sure. I think that you know, it’s really, really important in this profession and working with young people and especially, especially in these times, you know, is that, that acceptance of yourself, that acceptance of, of the work that you’re able to do, you know, like I often I’ll find myself and I’m, you know, running the school Instagram account and I’m looking at other schools, Instagram accounts, and it’s a constant comparison like, oh man, look at these great things for are doing and, oh, we should be doing this and why aren’t we doing that?


Michelle Lowey (18:52):
And, oh, they did that better than us. And yeah. And I think that, you know, it, it’s good to get ideas certainly, and to, to be able to collaborate and, and grow. But I think that can also push you into a bit of an unhealthy mindset. So I think it’s important to balance, you know, work ethic and drive and, and commitment to that craft and commitment to be better. And to balance that too, with, with you know, the, the understanding that what you’re doing in this moment, it is good. Right. And to believe in that and to believe in yourself and to know that, you know, it, it always finds a way of working itself out.


Sam Demma (19:29):
I think that advice is so necessary, not only for you listening, but also for your students, because jealousy comparison, those feelings that you get when looking on Instagram is something that we all experience. And right now we’re using devices and you’re using devices way more than typically we would. And in fact, that’s actually one of the reasons why I decide I was gonna take time away from social media. Now, of course you have to continue running the school account. But I had those similar feelings when I was speaking and I would see another speaker and I was like, wow, they’re doing so great. And their work so amazing. And it just makes you feel like you’re not doing the right thing. And yeah, I think comparison kills creativity and comparison your own unique gifts and talents that you could be using to make an amazing experience for your students. So I like that you brought that up and were vulnerable enough to share that because it’s something that everyone goes through.


Michelle Lowey (20:23):
It’s funny, cuz you spoke to my class at the horizons conference and you oh, no way that you were you were gonna go through your little social media detox and actually that inspired me to do the same. Oh cool. I’ve, I’ve taken a, a hiatus obviously other than the school accounts. Yeah. I’ve taken this from the the social media and, and for those reasons, like it’s just, you know, it was a lot of time and an inability to not engage with some of those negative things. Yeah. And I needed to, I needed a break. Yeah. I think that’s okay.


Sam Demma (21:00):
No, I hear you. And if someone wants to use their phone for good to connect with you and, and steal us some of your positive energy and share some ideas and be a soundboard, where can another educator reach out to you? Would you prefer an email or a social account? Like what would be the best way?


Michelle Lowey (21:15):
I think email’s probably the best. I am kind of planning on getting back on my, my professional Instagram after the new year. So my handle for Instagram @ms_lowey. But again, I won’t be on there till after the new year. But probably the best way would be email. So my school email, which is mrlowey@cbe.ab.ca.


Sam Demma (21:42):
All right. Perfect. Michelle, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing some of your wisdom and insights. I really appreciate it.


Michelle Lowey (21:48):
Thank you so much, Sam. My pleasure.


Sam Demma (21:50):
And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the high performing educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating in review. So other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of this show. If you wanna meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network, you’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Michelle Lowey

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.

Brent Dickson – Leadership and P.E. Teacher at Centennial High School

Brent Dickson - Leadership & P.E. Teacher at Centennial High School
About Brent Dickson

Brent Dickson (@brent_dickson) is a leadership & physical education teacher at Centennial High School. In 2005 Centennial High School started with one leadership class of 25 students.  Now Centennial has six leadership classes per year with around 200 students total. 

At Centennial, students have hosted and run two Alberta Student Leadership Conferences in 2009 and 2016.  Each conference welcomed 900 students and 150 advisers from across Alberta as well as guests from other provinces and territories. 

Centennial students also organize and run an annual Rockathon fundraiser. Last year 240 students raised $25,000.00 for the Alberta Children’s Hospital.  Brent Dickson is happily married to the amazing Krista and is the proud father of four boys.

Brent has been teaching student leadership in BC and Alberta for over 20 years. He has presented in schools and conferences across Canada and is the Director for the Canadian Student Leadership Association. Previously, he has served as President of the Alberta Association of Student Councils and Advisers. His previous schools have also hosted the Jr. High and the Adviser Alberta conferences.

He is currently teaching leadership and P.E and is the Department Head of Student Leadership at Centennial High School in Calgary, Alberta. He also coaches rugby there as well and he is the certified Link Crew coordinator there. Brent was awarded the Canadian Student Leadership Association Leader of Distinction Award in September 2012 as well as being an Alberta Excellence in Teaching Award Finalist in 2004.

Connect with Brent: Email | Instagram | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Brent Dickson’s Personal Website

Canadian Student Leadership Association (CSLA)

Alberta Association of Student Councils and Advisers (AASCA)

The Boomerang Project

Centennial High School Website

Kahoot

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s guest is a more recent friend of mine. His name is Brent Dickson and in 2005, Centennial high school started with one leadership class of 25 students. Now they have six leadership classes with over 200 students and at Centennial students have hosted and run two Alberta student leadership conferences in 2009 and 2016, each conference welcomed 900 students and 150 advisors from across Alberta, as well as guests from other provinces and territories. Students of Centennial organize and run an annual walkathon fundraiser.


Sam Demma (01:20):
And last year, the students (240 roughly) raised $25,000 for Alberta children’s hospital. Why am I telling you this? Because Brent Dicksonn is the teacher and educator who runs these programs and helps these students accomplish these milestones. Brent is married to the amazing Krista and the proud father of four boys. He has taught student leadership in BC and Alberta for over 20 years (longer than I’ve been alive.) He’s presented in schools and conferences across Canada as one of the directors for CSLA, the Canadian student leadership association. Previously, he was the president of the Alberta association of student councils. And currently he teaches leadership and PE, and is the department head of student leadership and coach of rugby at Centennial high school in Calgary, Alberta. There is so much more to learn and to absorb from Brent’s genius and his knowledge. He gives you a ton of gems and information on today’s episode, but I highly encourage you, after listening to reach out to Brent! Ask him about his programs, his different experiences, or ask him a question or just connect and have a nice phone call. Without further ado, let’s hop into the episode with Brent Dickson. I’ll see you on the other side. Talk soon. Brent, thank you so much for coming on the high performing educator podcast. Huge, huge pleasure to have you on the show. Why don’t you start by sharing a little bit about yourself and how you got into the work that you’re doing in education today? What did that career journey look like for you from a young age?


Brent Dickson (02:53):
Sure. Well, I’m Brent Dickson. I teach leadership and phys ed in Calgary at Centennial high school. I also am the junior boys rugby coach, which I hope to one day coach again, when we get past all this craziness. I actually grew up in Edmonton and then moved out to BC to do my education degree there and I started teaching in Abbotsford . And actually, the story of how I got into leadership was kind of funny because I was at one high school at WJ Mouat, which some of your listeners will probably know. And I was surplus after a year there because I was taking over someone’s leave and I was coaching football and I was teaching social studies and just thought I was in heaven. It was the best thing ever. And then I got transferred to another school, Yale Secondary which was a great school, but they didn’t have a football program.


Brent Dickson (03:43):
So I was devastated at the moment I wasn’t doing what I really hoped to do. And so I was teaching classes and just kinda, and I was also coaching some basketball and I felt like I really needed something to kind of energize me to be a lot of fun. And there was this guy, Wade Perry, who a lot of people know who was teaching leadership there and he was transferring to another school. And I didn’t really know Wade very well, but I kind of saw a little bit about what they were doing in leadership. And I thought that looks pretty cool. I’d like to be involved with it. I don’t really know what it’s all about, but it looks kind of neat. So this is the thing I’ll tell my kids, you gotta be proactive sometimes. So I went into the principals office and I said, you know, I’m only have taught two years at this point.


Brent Dickson (04:23):
And I said, I’d really be interested in teaching that leadership class if you need somebody. So I found out later that then they went and asked eight other teachers on staff to see if they would be willing to teach it. Cause they were probably a little nervous about a rookie coming in and doing it. And all eight teachers said no. And then they came to me and said, Brent, we would love to have you teach that leadership class. Mm. And then so I was, I had no idea at the time that I was choice number nine in the school, I was just really excited to teach it. yeah. So basically I was just going off of what can I remember we did in high school and things I saw in university and one of the very best things that Wade did for me was he me up for the BC provincial conference in November for me and two cast. So we went off to Harrison, hot Springs resort, and I got to meet amazing people like norm Bradley and Debbie coy and Hanta, and my whole vision and world opened up to what student leadership actually could be as I met these amazing teachers and mentors and the journey since then, I never could have predicted going into education, but it’s been far better than, than probably what I would’ve wished for heading in as a teacher.


Sam Demma (05:33):
That’s phenomenal. And now if I was to take you back a, another 10 years before you specifically even got into leadership, at what age did you know that you wanted to get into education just generally become a get into teaching or, or like, did you know, or was this something that you stumbled into?


Brent Dickson (05:51):
I knew I was not going to be a teacher cause my parents are teachers and you cannot do what your parents do because that would be embarrassing. So all the way through, I was kind of lost in like when I, I just knew I wanted to go to university. I, I figured, well, I like socials and English, so I’ll go into humanity stuff. At one point I was looking to kind of do a business type thing, but I got really lucky. I ran into my old football coach. I, I went to Harry Ainley high school in Edmonton and he invited me to come back and help coach his football team. And I thought, that’d be great. It’s a good thing on the resume, be fun. And I needed some stuff like that to apply to, you know, business programs and things. And this crazy thing happened. It turns out that it was so fun coaching kids, and it wasn’t like the football was great, but it was really about kids. These grade 10 football players. I had so much fun with it. And then I decided to humble myself and realize there’s actually a career out there where you can work with kids all the time. So I kind of reoriented and went into education and have loved it. Haven’t looked back.


Sam Demma (06:56):
And I’m guess sing growing up? You also had a huge passion for sports. It seems very obvious that you love sports and whether it’s rugby basketball, like the, all the different sports that you’ve played or coached. And how has that affected your experience as a teacher? I know this year, it’s, it is a little different because of the pandemic. But what is it like, what, what is teacher sports taught you that, that has helped you with your teaching? And why do you love doing it so much? Like gimme another peek into the coach side of Brent.


Brent Dickson (07:28):
I think that that coaching and teaching like leadership and other, they all kind of compliment each other. Like you’ll see kids in different ways. You know, like, like if I’m teach in an academic class, this kid might not be very successful at all. And then they come out on the rugby pitch and they’re like an amazing leader and that’s where they shine. And I also find you can build these amazing connections with athletes in a different way. And then when it comes back into the classroom and whatnot, you know, you kind of have that sort of vibe. I even remember my first year, you know, a rookie teacher at Moit and I didn’t know what I was doing. And a couple of these football players were in my class. I remember, and some kids were donkey around and they actually gave the business to the other kids and said, don’t mess with coach. not that that’s the most important part, but it talks about the relationship. Yeah. Have, like, I know know you, you were high level soccer stuff, so, you know, you, you talk about that same kind of thing. I think, I think it’s just different Avi or different areas where they can shine and show. And I think all those skills, they really meld together nicely.


Sam Demma (08:34):
And I think if the students, if the student sees you praise them on the field, but they’re struggling academically, they’re confidence might be even raise when they go back into the classroom because they think, oh, Brent knows I’m a, I am a phenomenal athlete and he wants to see me succeed. And, and I think it’s really cool that you’ve done so many different things inside the schools you’ve worked at. You mentioned, you know, a bunch of your friends, some of which I don’t really, I don’t know too much about Wade and your mentor, shout out to all of them who helped you when you were just getting started in leadership. How are you staying in touch with you know, your peers, your friends, your colleagues around the country right now during this time?


Brent Dickson (09:12):
Trying , it’s kind of hard. Yeah. To be honest, we all get a little zoomed out as you can imagine. I like it. I think the one thing I’ve actually enjoyed was actually your podcast especially when it’s friends of mine. So I, I just listened to one you had with Ren Lacone. And so I sent her a message after, and I said, this was awesome. I I’m working out, I’m listening to you talk. And it felt like I was back at CSLC, the Canadian student leadership conference, sitting in the advisors lounge and having an awesome conversation with you. I found that with these different ones, I know I’ve also enjoyed the ones, you know, people, I don’t know, they have insights and things from different areas, but I think those little connections are great. Even I got a little boost like I, I’m a director with Canadian student leadership and I primarily do the social media posts along with Maddie and some others. And so I even just had a conversation with Lenore pool and out at hope, BC. Nice about she’s recommending great children’s literature books for leadership kids. Well, even just that 15 minute conversation on the phone gives you a boost, cuz this is my kindred spirit. We both believe the same things about kids. And I think even just those short little births kind of give you energy, you know, as you stay connected. Yeah.


Sam Demma (10:29):
I, I totally agree. And the only thing


Brent Dickson (10:31):
All over the place here now though, yeah,


Sam Demma (10:33):
I know, honestly, the only thing that kinda stops is ourselves. Like, you know, we can pick up our phone and make a quick phone call. Unfortunately we can’t see them in person right now, which is a little more difficult. But it’s still possible.


Brent Dickson (10:46):
I’ll add, add some to that too. I think is important for all of us as teachers. Is that personal connection? You know, I got into, I went, did my workout this morning. I got in, I had a few jobs I wanted to get done before we did this podcast and I didn’t get any of ’em done but instead I spent 40 minutes talking with some other PHY ed teachers. I don’t get to connect with as much. I then ran into a, a French teacher she’s actually retiring the end of the semester. We were able to talk about what’s next and so forth. Then as I’m making my way to a classroom my good friend, the drama teacher was there. And you know, you have to remind yourself, that’s actually more important than the list of other things. Mm-Hmm, , you know, taking time for people and talking to them. I think it gives to them, it gives me energy, especially when we’re all distanced out like this right now.


Sam Demma (11:29):
Yeah. No relationships are so important. And whether it’s relationship with your colleagues or with your students, and you mentioned that, you know, earlier that it’s so important to build relationships on and off the field also in the classroom during this time, I’m sure you’re finding it a little more difficult to build those relationships with some kids at home, some kids in school. How are you striving to still build relationships with your students during this time?


Brent Dickson (11:54):
I think the thing I found we’re, we’re a little different. We’ve been live okay. In person a lot. And then we got, we got put totally online mid November. Okay. So I had the advantage that I already had built a face to face relationship with these kids. Mm-Hmm so I’m not the guy to necessarily say starting on line, how you do it. Yeah. But I think one thing that I really learned, actually, I was kind of mad. We were told that every day we had to do attendance with these kids on our timetable. And as a leadership guy, I was kind of frustrated. I thought these kids have so much on their plate trying to figure out their core stuff. Why are we like adding on and dumping on to what they already have to deal with? And I was very wrong.


Brent Dickson (12:34):
I know that’s shocking. I should have had everything figured out in my life now. But what I realized very quickly is those kids wanted to see me and they wanted to see each other. And the attendance was probably like 95% all the way through. Wow. So then I decided now I, there was sometimes where I was doing instruction and things, but a lot of times I was like, they just need something fun. So I’d, I’d show a five minute video or we’d do a little thing where I’d pick five kids and you had to tell me two truths and a lie. Or, and then I, at the end, actually, one thing I did is I called it the five minute free for all. And so they could all turn on their mic if they wanted to go, they could go, but they could all turn on their mics.


Brent Dickson (13:15):
They could type stuff into chat with each other. They could make jokes, they could do whatever. And you know what Sam, most of them stayed all the time. Eventually like after 20 minutes, sometimes I’d have to cut it off and say, okay, D actually has to go do some things. Yeah. But it reinforced to me how important connection was. Like they, they just wanted to be there with each other and, and get a little inspiration and have some fun. So I think no matter what you’re doing, you gotta find a way to put that into your to your teaching. Like I think when, when kids come into my leadership class, there needs to be almost every day. Even if it’s just five minutes, a little active type lesson that does some team building teach is a value or a skill. And that’s that idea of, you know, you build your house brick by brick. And I think that, and I think that’s possible to do online as well is you start drawing them out and using different different tools and skills and whatnot. Totally


Sam Demma (14:09):
Agree. And I’m sure those five minute free for alls become a highlight in the class. And the kids probably all look forward to them. I’m curious to know as well during regular curriculum, have there been moments this year where you had this idea that you were gonna cover certain subjects and topics today and the conversation that the kids wanted to have was just different and you had to adjust, veer off curriculum and, and address this conversation. And were there any moments like that as well that you’ve experienced so far?


Brent Dickson (14:41):
Actually, when, when kids first came back mm-hmm so we, we like everybody we’ve been out since mid, since mid-March and then Alberta decided that all kids were gonna come in at once. And so I found the first couple days, like we did our team building things and name games and all these kind of stuff, they needed to talk through and process what had happened to them. Yeah. And I think in some ways they needed to grieve a little bit, especially my elevenths and twelves about what they’d lost out in the semester before they needed to talk about what it felt like being back what made them even feel safe. Like I remember there was one kid I had who, you know, her mom was immune compromised and she was pretty stressed about everyone needs to make sure they have their mask on and sometimes kids would forget.


Brent Dickson (15:26):
Right. And so she, she came to me and said, Mr. Dixon, can you talk to ’em about that? Cuz I’m, I’m really stressed. And so there was kind of that processing stuff we had to go through. And and then I know everyone hates the word pivot, cuz we’ve used it way too much but we have just this last semester we have had to constantly figure out ways to adapt. So, you know, we actually decided for the first time, not that this is rocket science to everyone, but we, we came up with a plan for how we were gonna do a virtual pep rally. Mid-December and we do one pep rally a year. Normally it’s a big, huge tradition. Of course you can’t come into the gym. Kids, kids were awesome. They had a plan. We were, we were just about ready to make a video of teachers.


Brent Dickson (16:06):
We were gonna do an online Kahoot. We were, you know, all these kind of things. And then on the Wednesday it’s announced that the following Monday school’s all online. Mm. So the whole thing kind of blew up. And I was really proud of these kids because instead they said, well, let’s do a virtual Christmas spirit week. And they came up with the plans while we’re online, they came up with idea, you know, like it was traditional stuff like the ugly Christmas sweater day and things like that. And we re reached out to this new burger place that had opened just by us. And so they gave three burgers away a day for kids were participating. But to me it was the idea. I was super proud of them that they were able to find a way to say, well, okay, we’re not gonna just give up we’ll we’ll adjust and do something else because like we have those, I’m sure like most programs, we have those key anchors that are traditions at different times of year and a whole lot of ’em there isn’t really a way to adapt. They kind of just get blown up. And so you just gotta find a way with something else.


Sam Demma (17:02):
I love that. And I’m, I’m assuming the Christmas stuff wasn’t really successful because I, I feel like any opportunity to come together and do something fun. Kids are just jumping on them these days.


Brent Dickson (17:13):
What tell you one little cool story that happened with it. Yeah. Can’t take any credit. It was total fluke. Okay. One of our special ed teachers. So our special ed classes were still coming into the building. Everyone else was online. Yep. And so it was I think it was Christmas hat day. And so she had some Santa type hats. So she took them around. She ’em on her special ed kids and took some pictures and submitted it to me. And I put ’em out on Instagram. And then what I would do is I would have a kid we’d figure out how many total pictures came in and then they’d tell me the number. And then I’d just say, okay, number 22 is the winner just random? Well, randomly this special ed kid got picked, he’s not on Instagram or anything like that.


Brent Dickson (17:55):
And so I had to kind of figure out who he was. And so I went to the teacher and I was able to go into the classroom where they were at. And I said, Hey, did you know you won like a burger meal at icy Berg and kids? Like what, what he’s like kind of freaking out excited. He came back to me three times in the next two days to my classroom, just to confirm that it was really true and that he’d actually won this. Wow. So then his his teacher aid and him, they, we, I called over there and said when they were coming. And so they, they walked over for lunch on a day and he got his meal and everything, I got picture of it. And so that was really cool. Like, so, you know, I mean, that’s like the Disney moment. I couldn’t have really planned for it, but it was awesome.


Sam Demma (18:37):
No, that’s phenomenal. And those moments are, are, I would say right now they might be few and far in between because of COVID. But in normal school, those moments are, are, are everywhere. And I’m sure that you, over your, over your whole career of teaching, there’s been so many moments like that. And, and so many students who you’ve impacted and who your colleagues have impacted and your whole team at your school have impacted. I’m curious to know out of all the stories you’ve heard and maybe you have one of those files on your desk called the bad day files where you like pull out the notes. Kids have sent you to kind of lift your spirit. It’s I’ve had some other teachers talk to me about it. Of all those moments, which those moments of transformation are, those, those Disney moments, which, which of those stick out the most, and the reason I’m asking, and you can just choose one or two. And if it’s a serious story, you can obviously take away their name as well. Just so you don’t disclose it. The reason I’m asking is because there might be an educated sitting right now, who’s burnt out. Who’s considering not teaching anymore who might want to leave the vocation. And your story of impact might remind them why this work is so important despite the challenges they’re currently faced with.


Brent Dickson (19:45):
Yeah, actually, you know, I was thinking, I, I kind of knew the question was coming. Cause I heard you ask other people before. And I, you know, I have some that are like really dramatic, like, oh, this kid went to a conference and I saw how it changed their life or things like that. But there’s actually one that came that I kept thinking about. And it was this student named Zach and he was a three year leadership student. He since graduated and he was almost like an positive way, the poster child for the introvert, like this kid never said anything in class ever. I knew not to ask him for like in front of the whole class to give a comment, cuz he would just, he just couldn’t do it or wouldn’t yet there every day he’d be there at lunch for the activity to help set up and clean up.


Brent Dickson (20:33):
He’d be dressed in the thing you were doing that whatever it was we asked him to do. And even some of the conferences like the day horizons type conferences we’d go to he’d sign up for those. And sometimes I’d be a little surprised, you know, I thought that might be a little outside of his his comfort zone, but he’d be there. And actually in grade 12, was this other student, Ethan who kind of just decided to be his self-appointed buddy. And he was beside, I mean, he’d be with class, not that he like, you know, didn’t have any friends or anything, but just, you know, kind of like that reaching out thing. And and I just really appreciated this kid, his consistency. He’s a kid that you could maybe not notice if you don’t really pay attention. Hmm. And then so in his grade 12 year we were doing ugly Christmas sweater day and he always is dressed up in whatever it was.


Brent Dickson (21:20):
He comes in and he’s wearing an Oilers hoodie and I can’t figure out what’s going on now. This kid is a horror, hardcore flames fan. Like at least every other day, he’s got some flames thing on. So I’m looking at him and I can’t figure out what he’s doing. And then all of a sudden I get it. He’s decided that the Oilers hoodie is the HAPPI sweater that he can wear. And I’m like, so I start halfway through the sense I’m like, why are you wearing? And then I realized what it was and I just started laughing that is the funniest thing ever. And so he kind of, and he doesn’t laugh, he just smiles. Right? Yeah. And then I said, well, where did you get that? And he says, oh, my uncle has one. Justin said, he’s an Oilers fan. Well, about a week later, this is one of, really one of my highlights of my career.


Brent Dickson (22:04):
A week later as the semester was, you know, right before Christmas, he brought me a Christmas present and, and it was bigger. Usually it’s just, you know, like some little gift card or card or something. And he says, don’t open it now, open it later. And I’m like, okay, well, thank you very much. Well, I opened it later and it was a fancy Oilers glass. Wow. And, and I thought that’s really cool. In spite of the fact that we’re enemies on the hockey rink that he kind of thought that much of me yeah. To give, to give me something that was kind of our personal joke and also something that I would really like. And, and I thought, you know what, that’s awesome. Like in three years, I know that leadership made a difference for him. And it would be different experience for him than maybe that kid that would be happy to get on the mic or jump around or be that crazy kid. But I think it was just as meaningful for him. And he was able to give as much to the class for us as any other kid.


Sam Demma (22:58):
There’s so much to unpack. I think that’s a phenomenal story. And what this makes me wanna say is that in leadership, there’s a space and a place for everyone. And I’m curious to know how you made your student feel comfortable enough safe enough, appreciated enough to still want to participate because there might be some introverted students who don’t feel valued or appreciated and always keep to themselves. It seems like you got through to this one kid and I’m curious to know, how do you think you get through to students? Is it just by listening? Is it by asking them question, tapping them on the shoulder and saying, Hey, here’s an opportunity for you? Like how do you make your students feel appreciated, valued and, and comfortable in the class?


Brent Dickson (23:39):
I think that’s a three hour lecture. yeah. I think, you know what, it’s a lot of little things and, and most of it I’ve been taught by those mentors that have come before me about things you do. Like it’s little things like whenever I can, I try to make sure music’s playing. When they come into a class at the beginning of class, every time almost we do some kind of a fun, interactive activity and they get a chance to meet different people and talk to them. I don’t just, when we do discussions, it’s not just one kid saying their idea in front of the whole class, you try to get ’em in smaller, you know, with a partner or with a small group where they can talk. I think it’s the, a huge part is the tapping on the shoulder and saying, Hey, I think you’d be good for this.


Brent Dickson (24:20):
You should come to this conference. You should sign up for this group. We need you. And you know, it’s all the things we do as teachers like getting to know that kid, like, you know Zach loves the, or the loves the flames. So you talk about the game the night before and, and you built, and I think it’s just that little step by little step. And you create, you create that environment. And I think sometimes there’s some kids where you don’t necessarily know how much they appreciate it, even though maybe they haven’t seemed to be as engaged in it as some others. But then they’re the kid that faithfully shows up on that zoom meeting and hangs around for the five minute free for all, even if they don’t chat or anything, they just wanna be there and be a part of it. Right. So I think that, I think sometimes as as teachers leadership advisor, we underestimate how much kids thrive and appreciate and need that kind of environment.


Sam Demma (25:12):
No, I, I, I wholeheartedly agree. And it’s so true. And sometimes it might be as simple as a, as a tap on the shoulder. And what you mentioned about, about talking about the, the Oilers game or the flames game to Zach, because I was, he, that’s what he was interested in. My grade 12 world issues teacher would do the exact same thing. We’d walk into class and by, you know, week three, week four, he started to know what most of the students liked. And I don’t think he remembered it all up here. I think he wrote it down because it was, it was pretty impressive, but he would take his content and material. And after teaching, it would, would apply individual students and be like, Sam, for you as an athlete. This means this. And kaon for you as someone who’s interested in fashion, this means this and Olivia for you, someone who’s interested in, in the movies, this means this.


Sam Demma (25:58):
And he would, he would take his material and almost like give us the personalized applications or call to actions based on our, our likes and our dislikes. And it always stuck in my mind. So I, I think doing that is so impactful. It had a huge impact on me. I’m still a young guy. I’m 21 and I still remember it. So I think that’s great that you talk about that as well. Okay. If you could travel back in time and speak to younger Brent, and be the, be the mentor to yourself when you’re just starting teaching, what would you have told yourself? What advice would you have given yourself?


Brent Dickson (26:35):
I think I would say to not get obsessed about your to-do list. Hmm. I think that we as teachers, we have a to-do list that we have no choice about things that must get done. And then we have things that we really wanna get done. And I actually keep one each week, like I got on my computer to remind me of stuff I gotta get through. And we have these windows in our school day. You can get, ’em done. Mm-Hmm and depending on your prep time and what’s going on, or I’ve got so much time after school and we sometimes you can get obsessed with that and you need to make time for kids. And that’s something I had to learn. So like, for example, you know, there’s the leadership classroom here and the door is open and it’s right after, or lunch or something.


Brent Dickson (27:24):
And you see a kid kind of just hanging around outside, you know, and they’re sort of making like, they’re not really there to see you, but they really would like to talk to you. My advice to young Brent would be, unless it’s an absolute emergency, ignore the to-do list, invite the kid to come in and have a five minute conversation. Or even like I talked about this morning, right? Like I had some things I wanted to get done, take some time to talk to colleagues. You’re never gonna regret a relationship building moment. And you’re never gonna remember the, the one report card thing you had to fill in or some form for a trip or, you know, and those things are, we gotta get ’em done. But I think that, you know, worst comes to worst. You say to somebody, I can get that job done today because I needed to talk to this kid. And I think we’re always gonna win in the end if we do that.


Sam Demma (28:13):
I think you’re so right. And if, if someone’s listening right now and is thinking to themselves, I wanna have a relationship building moment with Brent and it’d be, it’d be really cool to connect with him and just chat with him, ask some questions, share some of their own stories for whoever’s listening. What would be the best way for them to reach out to you and just have a conversation?


Brent Dickson (28:33):
Well, they could email me brdickson@cbe.ab.ca and I would catch ’em there or Instagram @brdickson. And actually I have a website that’s kind of a side hobby of my it’s brentdickson.net. And I try to just post every week or two, just some leadership ideas or this kind of cool thing happened in my classroom or stuff. And, I don’t know, maybe there’s some ideas there they might wanna connect to but I’m always open to the, the back and forth conversation because I find anytime you talk to someone else, you get two things good back.


Sam Demma (29:06):
And you’re also available for a few select keynote speeches per year. So give yourself a quick shameless plug there as well if an educator’s listening who might wanna bring you in.


Brent Dickson (29:17):
Used Carl salesman pick!? Yeah. I, I love speaking in other schools, working with other leadership programs or full keynotes to schools and things like that. And so when things calm down, I would love to come to your school. I’ve spoken in conferences and schools all across Canada and it’s been my fun side thing to do. And it’s so energizing to spend time with kids or teachers, share the things you know, and you get so much back. So if someone’s looking for a presentation or consultation or just some good clean fun, they can contact me as well. And, information about presentations and stuff is all on my website. Perfect.


Sam Demma (29:56):
Brent, thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to come on the show. Hopefully you can cross this off your to-do list if it was on it. this has been a pleasure. I’ll stay in touch with you soon and keep up the amazing work.


Brent Dickson (30:08):
Awesome, thank you.


Sam Demma (30:10):
And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the High Performing Educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review so other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show. If you wanna meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network. You’ll have access to working events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Brent Dickson

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.

Deb Lawlor – Coordinator, Intermediate/Secondary Student Success OCSB

Deb Lawlor - Coordinator, Intermediate/Secondary Student Success OCSB
About Deb Lawlor

Deb Lawlor (@deb_lawlor) is the coordinator of student success at the Ottawa Catholic District School Board. 

Her interests include authentic learning experiences & inquiry.  She is also an avid outdoor enthusiast, photographer, traveler, optimist & cook.  In this episode, we talk about her educational journey and her travelling sabbatical. 

Connect with Deb: Email | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

6 Modern Sabbatical Ideas

Specialist High Skills Major Program

Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program

Hapaweb Solutions

Smiths Falls

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker Sam Demma. Today’s guest, I had the pleasure of working with back in 2019, and then in 2020, she took a sabbatical to go travel the world and she’s finally come back and I convinced her to come share some of her wisdom on the show. We talk a ton about her social sabbatical. Today’s guest is Deb Lawlor. Deb Lawlor is the coordinator of intermediate and secondary student success at the Ottawa Catholic school board. She also now has taken on the portfolio of helping to coordinate anything related to SHSM and OYAP, specialist high skills major, or the Ontario youth apprenticeship programs. And she is a powerhouse. She won’t be in education too much longer but while she’s here, we can learn a lot from her. I hope you enjoy today’s episode. I’ll see you on the other side.


Sam Demma (01:34):
Deb, thank you so much for coming on the high performing educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show. Can you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit about how you got into the work that you do in education today?


Deb Lawlor (01:47):
Okay. Hi, I’m Deb Lawlor and I’m currently working at the Ottawa Catholic school board as a coordinator in the intermediate secondary student success department. And I have been an educator for about 25 years now. I started way back when, and I was able to leave from high school, get into university to take a teaching degree. I did my Phys ed degree first and was able to start yeah, actually with adults in the beginning, I sort of, I call it, I went through the back door to try and get a job at the time because there wasn’t anything available. And through, some people who were in a class of mine, they told me about it and I started teaching adults. So I was probably, I was in my, my mid twenties and I was actually teaching adults who were anywhere from 18 years old and my oldest student was 54.


Deb Lawlor (02:36):
I can remember Florian because he was his grandfather in my class trying to get his education after having left. I think he left like grade five, six and went to work on his farm and he was just trying to get his basic grade nine math and, and get his G E D at the time. And from there I moved on to teaching grade seven and eight. I wanted to get into working with the kids. I, I enjoyed working at adult Ted, but it was really, I wanted to do the extracurricular. I wanted to coach, I wanted to have activities beyond, you know, student council with the kids and work with them in that way. And so I was able to, to go into grade seven and eight. And from there I moved into a high school when, when St mother Teresa was opened up in the day when, when we were expand quite a bit in the Ottawa area for, for schools out in some of our outside the city areas.


Deb Lawlor (03:23):
And I taught there for almost 14 years teaching F ed mostly for anything from grade 9, 10, 11, 12 girls to mixed classes with grade 11 and 12 girls, boys and I, my last class I taught was actually a grade 10 boys class, which was quite fun. They, they, they made me laugh. and partway through that time, I started consulting at the school board as if I said consultant halftime and did that for about eight years. And after that, I moved on into being the coordinator within my department. And the section that I have is called specialized pathways, which really covers some programs for are students who are trying to get through high school and explore areas within options for them after high school, whether it’s apprenticeship going right into the workplace or if they take a college or university pathways.


Deb Lawlor (04:12):
So I have focus programs, dual credits, specialist, high skills, major or Chisholm program as we call it. And oh yeah, the Ontario, a youth apprenticeship program, which is some fascinating areas where you can really look at what are the options we can offer students today that are not just taking a class, you know sitting, listening, and, and learning, but they’re actually doing, they’re doing the hands on pieces, getting into job work experiences and finding out about what the work world would would be like in their career that they’re wanna choose and pursue.


Sam Demma (04:42):
I love that. And if you can think back for a moment to when you were younger and going through university or school and teachers college, when did you actually know, ah, I want to be a teacher. Was there like someone who pushed you down that path or did you just know at a young age that that was the calling for you?


Deb Lawlor (04:59):
It’s funny, you asked me because my path sort of, I had a very direct path and I meandered for many years and then I came back to it. So I actually, I wanted to be a teacher in grade four. I, I loved school as a kid. I wanted to that was all I wanted to do was to be a teacher. And, and then I hit grade six and all of a sudden I met somebody in my class and they were very well off. And when I looked at what she had, I wanted that and I thought, well, her dad’s a lawyer. I’m gonna be a lawyer. They’re rich. I’m gonna be a lawyer. I wanna get into them pursuing that. So from grade six, all the way to grade 11 until like took grade 11 law, and then I went, I don’t wanna be a lawyer anymore.


Deb Lawlor (05:37):
so a way too much detail and article and the, the research you had to do to look up stuff did not interest me. So then my brain went to the second thing. Okay. At the time I was in grade 11 and in grade nine, I got braces. So I went and had braces grade 9, 10, 11, 12. And again, I’m going, Hmm. My orthodontists are making a killing and not hurting people while doing it. So I thought, great. I wanna be an orthodontist. So I went down to see my guidance counselor and he’s like, yep, you’re gonna need to take this science and this science and this science and here’s, I said, oh, I don’t wanna do that. That’s not of an interest to me to take all the sciences. Yeah. And at the time I, then I was grade 12 by then I had started, I had started working at a summer camp when I was in grade 10 and I was working with kids mostly anywhere mostly preteens, like kind of like your 11, 12, 13.


Deb Lawlor (06:28):
And then I took over the program to work with kids who were counselors in training. They were the 15, 16 year old. So in working with them and I wasn’t very, and still am a strong athlete in, in my abilities. And so I was playing on all the school teams at school and it wasn’t until I finally talked to my dad. So if you talk about who was my influencer, it was my father. Hmm. He said a couple of things to me, one of the things was he, he told me, and this was really important to hear as a female back in 1980s, you, you can do anything you want to like, whatever you choose to do and to be, go for it. That’s, that’s your, your, your ability to try and do that. So that was one thing that was very important to hear.


Deb Lawlor (07:07):
The other thing was he’s, you know, I had this idea that, you know, I did well in school. I had good grades. I could be anything I wanted to be, I could apply to any program and probably get in. But when he said to me, think about this for a moment, if you’re gonna work for 30 years, you better darn well, like what you’re gonna do. And I kind of went, whoa, I’m like, yeah, like 30 years, that’s a long ti 30 years is a long time. Yeah. I have to try and imagine what I would wanna do for 30 years and was at a time when, like, people actually did the same thing for 30 years. That’s no longer the case anymore. But in thinking about that, I went, all right, well, look at your life, Deb, you are playing all these sports. You’re an athletic person.


Deb Lawlor (07:51):
You enjoy being active and you enjoy working with kids that you’ve been doing this at this camp, put the two together. And it was like, well, okay, yeah. Be a PHY ed teacher. And in my mind, at the time though, I was like, well, but you know, I could be more than a pH ed teacher, but I went back to the thought of, you had always wanted to be a teacher anyway. So it doesn’t matter what, you know, that stigma that might have been around it was, is I thought I could enjoy that for 30 years. And so, yeah, my dad was, was a very big influencer and what I could do and that I could choose anything I wanted to, whether I was male or female at the time. And also to say like, you wanna enjoy what you do. And I remember my first years of work going, I, I don’t, I didn’t work a day in my life because I didn’t feel like it was work, you know, in the beginning I, you know, I was doing with my physi and that, and I was kind of like, yeah, like I’m, I’m getting paid to play.


Deb Lawlor (08:43):
You know, now there’s a skill to making play interesting to kids and having them engaged. Yeah. Don’t get me wrong. But yeah, I, I, I really don’t feel for most of my career that I’ve really worked a day in my life in that sense that it, it it’s enjoyable. I, I love what I do.


Sam Demma (08:58):
That’s awesome. And it’s changed a lot over the past couple of years, specifically this year and something I’ve recently started to realize is that our beliefs lead to our emotions, our emotions lead to our actions and our actions lead to our results. And when we get a different world view, our beliefs change, then our emotions change, our actions changes and our results that we might even project onto our students change. You recently took a sabbatical and traveled the globe for a year, gained some new perspectives, came back to the classroom. And I would say arguably back to education, arguably more passionate, more inspired with a new clarity. Could you share a little bit about what prompted you to make that decision to travel and how it affected you as a professional in education?


Deb Lawlor (09:47):
Okay. I’ve always loved to travel. I, I started traveling in, in my mid twenties and the nice thing. I mean, it’s, it’s to double edge sword as a, as an educator, we are pegged into times that we have to travel mm-hmm. So we have to travel at March break. We have to travel at Christmas the two week time break. And then we, and we graciously have a summer time where we can choose to, to do some, some intensive traveling during that time on the flip side of that, it’s also very costly at all those high season times. But what sort of got me into wanting to pursue some sabbaticals and, and, and to travel in that way was in order to go to New Zealand in Australia. And I, and I did that on a sabbatical that I took back in oh 5 0 6. It was my first one.


Deb Lawlor (10:32):
I, I had that care at dangling in front of me for five or six years as I was on reduced pay in order to, to get to that goal. But what drove me was I wanted to see Australian New Zealand, but the time to see their summertime was in our wintertime and as a teacher, I wasn’t gonna be able to do that. Mm. And so that gave me the drive, the push to kind of go, okay, let’s try this, this sabbatical where I do a reduced pay. And it’s given, you know, I’m paid from a, that final year from my own money. And when I did that, it allowed me to see places. I, I, I had never, you know, had an opportunity to see. And this time when I went to go, my, my dream was to go to, to Asia. I wanted to go explore Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos, and see cultures that I didn’t know very much at all about.


Deb Lawlor (11:16):
And it allowed me to immerse myself into a place that there was new things to see there was new things to taste. There were new people to get to know. And I traveled with people who were internationally spread across the world. There was people from the UK, people from Switzerland, people from Germany, I met people who were Dutch all over the globe. And I think just that exposure to people, you start seeing other perspectives. And I’m always very curious about the education systems in other places. And you talk to them about how long’s your school day and what do your kids do? You know, what are the sports that they might get involved in? What extracurriculars do they run? How do they do that? And it was very interesting to me going to Asia because it is very different in some ways to, to how we do things.


Deb Lawlor (12:04):
I, I had a really great opportunity. This little boy in Vietnam came and, and approached me while we were wa walking between PI places on, on the tour. And we had a chance to stop. And I was sitting on a bench and this little nine year old boy came up and he said to me, is it okay if I sit and talk with you? And I said, sure. And I kind of looked around for the parent and, and the parent and his father and his grandfather was sitting on the bench across from me. And what I had ended up finding out later from my guide was that this was how a lot of the children would try and learn English. They didn’t wanna learn from their teachers who were Vietnamese. They wanted to learn from English speaking first language people. So they were often encouraged to see, seek out the tourists and have conversation to practice through English.


Deb Lawlor (12:49):
And so I was fascinated because this little guy, he knew, knew more about Canada than some of the students that I knew. And he was like, he, I told him where I was from. And he started talking about, well, your population is approximately this million, this number million. And you have a very large country, and it’s very cold there. You know, he had all these, I, you are nine years old and can tell me about my country. It was very interesting. But then to ask and say, so, you know, like, what are the types of things you do? What do you like doing at school? And he liked computers and he liked reading. And I asked him about sports and I said, physical activity. I said, do they do it at your school? And it wasn’t popular among some of the kids. And there were some things that were happening, but it was very oriented to achieving and to practicing your lessons and working on those types of things.


Deb Lawlor (13:42):
So I always find it interesting to travel elsewhere, to find out what they, what they do. And, and can we learn anything from, from other other cultures and, and, and having other perspectives. I mean, just on the, on tour itself my tour in New Zealand that followed that was, I was probably the oldest on that tour for most of the time of that tour. I was probably 20 years senior, too, to most of the people on the tour. And again, to have that perspective of youth and say, you know, how do you see these things and what do you, think’s happening in the world? And is this working, and, and why would you do this? Or wouldn’t you do that? Was very interesting. And I met a, I met another teacher from the UK and she was 32 and, you know, worked at elementary.


Deb Lawlor (14:24):
So again, something different for me to kind of probe. And I’m actually still in contact with, with three of the four of the gals that I met. We’re still on, on WhatsApp together to, to connect and talk about things and see how, how we’re doing. So the opportunities. And then, so what that brings back with me then Sam, for coming back to work is, is a, a renewed vigor about what I do and, and listening then to finding those other perspectives when, when I’m dealing with what I deal with now and making sure that, you know, there’s not somebody in the room that’s not heard mm-hmm , and if I’m not hearing a voice, I start to look for it and thinking or asking myself, well, what would this person think? Or how would this impact this person? Whereas before, you know, if you, it might have just been a bit more narrow because you haven’t had all those other different perspectives to hear about.


Sam Demma (15:15):
That makes so much sense. And would you recommend other educators listening to travel?


Deb Lawlor (15:20):
Oh, absolutely. I highly recommend I’ve done three sabbaticals over my time. Nice. And my next one will be permanent but no, I, I think it’s a great, I think it’s a great opportunity. And you know, what, you, you also don’t need to travel extensively far away. I mean, I, I went to Asia, I went to New Zealand. Yeah. Those are big, big options to try and, and get away from. But what COVID OS taught me is that you can actually explore around the area you live. I’m actually trying to, now that I’m restricted in where I can go from auto it’s like, well, what new trails can I go check out? And what are the new, I went to a grocery store the other day that I, I kept seeing fruit for a long time, on my way to my, my physio appointments.


Deb Lawlor (16:02):
And I said, I that’s Adonis. I’m like, that’s telling me something. That’s not a Sobeys. It’s not a Loblaws. You know, I thought, well, what kind of, you know, what’s, what’s the type of foods and stuff. So I went in and I, I had a, a little mini exploration, you know, for half an hour of just walking through aisles and going, wow, okay. Like in their deli, they’ve got a whole bunch of chickpeas and they have nuts and they have different produce that I couldn’t normally find in the wintertime. And I thought, you know, looking at the different culture that’s been brought into a store and it was very exciting in that same way of just going something new, something different and something to try. So I absolutely, I, I would highly recommend travel for, for anyone to do, but it, it can be travel even to another province.


Deb Lawlor (16:42):
If you haven’t explored Canada, it could be to a, to a small town. We live in Ottawa here with my board. But I mean, there’s Smith falls around there’s, Almont, there’s Kingston, not far our way, there’s these small little town Smith falls, Richmond, like you can explore, you know, and I think that it adds to when we’re lifelong learners, mm-hmm, , you’re constantly in, in education, you are a lifelong learner. Whether you like it or not, because you’re not always gonna be teaching the same courses, the same grade level, you’re gonna change positions. You might go into advance, you’re always gonna need to learn. And if you keep open to that learning, then it makes it a lot easier for, for what you’re


Sam Demma (17:20):
Gonna do. I was speaking to an educator yesterday on a phone call, Michael Kelly from the Toronto Catholic district school board. He teaches a GLE learning strategies course. And he was telling me that he has a passion for history, and that’s what he got into education be cause of. And there was this opportunity to travel to Italy with his students and show them history. And he said, by going on that travel experience, it renewed his passion and reconfirmed for him that he does love history. And it’s so exciting to him. And it’s so cool. And he said, he came back to school with so much more passion to teach it. And I think it’s the same case for you, but in a slightly different position that you’re now working in with the school board. What new challenges though, have you been faced with over the past? I don’t know, a couple of months that you’ve been placed back into this position right after a global pandemic?


Deb Lawlor (18:11):
Yeah, definitely a, a change in in experiences coming back to this, I, I wasn’t, so therefore I wasn’t in, in place working when COVID hit in, in the spring when schools were, were, were adjusting that I think part of the challenge I’ve seen is trying to find ways to make activities. And this is activities with my teachers or the activities teachers are doing with students trying to make activities that we normally would do engaging. Now that they’ve a lot of it switched online. And I, I think the screen time is a challenge. I, I think it’s, it’s very difficult for people to be on screen, how they’re in school. And then, and then they go home on, in our board. They, they flip flopping days at high school and then go home and then you’re expected to be on screen all day long with that.


Deb Lawlor (18:59):
And then a lot of what people’s personal interests and hobbies are, is to be on social media or to be online on, on their device. So, so I think that’s the, the biggest change that I’m, I’m on screen now all day long and I’m on meetings and, and doing trying to connect with teachers through Google meets or individual Hangouts, or it it’s a lot of a lot of time that just sitting. So I just, you know, before I, I got online with you, I just came from my walk outta lunch that nice, you know, get outside dress for it. It’s a little chillier there today. Yeah. but, and, and I also thinking it’s trying to reach out to our students and, and our teachers for me, cuz I, I work with our staff to, in a meaningful way. It, it’s making sure that they’re is those human connections that we still need.


Deb Lawlor (19:54):
And so something, you know that you can try and create, that’s fun. Something that, you know, is lighthearted being able to make use of time. That’s precious for people being consistent in terms of what you want to try to accomplish and be clear about things. It, it’s a challenge to try and make sure that, you know, you’re not wasting people’s time for different pieces. And then also for me in the, the role that I have is I get funding to run some of these programs. And there’s a lot of funding this year that we’re not using it for buses. We’re not using it for supply release. We’re not using it for hospitality reasons. So now it’s like, well, what do we use that funding for? And it’s trying to find ways to brainstorm and to think outside the box of, okay, I can’t, I can’t bring a, a, a provider and to give a certification to students. So what am I gonna do instead? You know, we ask, we can do it online, but it’s like, well, can I give you kits that you can have someone zoom in live with you and you guys each now all have your individual piece to build a house and to work on that and understand the, the makings behind construction and, and, and the skills that go with that.


Sam Demma (21:08):
I love that that’s an amazing understanding and how things have changed and shifted what is going really well though. I, you talked about an online system that specifically the O C D S B or the OCS B is using that’s working really well for teachers and students and helping them keep track of their it’s. I believe it’s like a Google workflow or something along those lines.


Deb Lawlor (21:30):
So ha power workspace is what we use. Yep. And teachers are able to load up all of their different materials in there. But the nice thing about Hapa is that the students it’s already set up for them when they walk into their, into their, their, they say, walk into their class when they begin their class, when they get yeah. Virtually, if they sign in and the folders for each of their courses are already in Google drive. So if they had math history, religion, and English happening, then there’s already a folder that has all their documents that they need. So it kind of removes that need for a binder. You’re not losing papers, things aren’t falling out. If the teacher knows the student’s gonna be away, they know that that information is in there to access wherever they are remotely and be able to do that.


Deb Lawlor (22:13):
And that was a, a nice thing to be able to see happen where it really, I mean, COVID, that’s a plus side of it. Is it really accelerated how quickly our staff is using it and becoming comfortable with it? Because we had to last spring when everything went, went remote, now I could see in the future that, you know, let’s say a student has a lacrosse tournament that we can misses some of their classes, right? Yeah. Then they come back and they know everything’s already in there, or they’re on their bus, taking the ride out, or they’re driving to Toronto to, to do a tournament you know, in their personal life. And then they can be worth on the stuff and not miss anything that that’s gonna happen there. And Harara allows the students to actually add cards to it. So you can actually collect evidence and, and they might have something where say, you know, Sam, I want you to add, you know, your ideas to this slide and Deb, I want you to put your ideas in this slide and each student would have a slide to add into it.


Deb Lawlor (23:06):
So now you have collaboration happening between students, even though they’re in their different places or it could even be happening in the same classroom because now you can’t touch each other’s, you know, laptops and materials, et cetera, but they can still be collaborating on the same document together. And and the assessments are done there through there as well in track so that they teachers able to see their progress as they’re working on it, to see where they’re at and whether they need some little reminders to, you know, keep going at it, or if they, you know, need feedback and get some help and they can do that electronically as well.


Sam Demma (23:37):
I love it. And you mentioned that your, your next sabbatical will be your final one before that parting day mm-hmm . What, what keeps you hopeful and motivated when working in education with young people, despite the challenges that we’re facing?


Deb Lawlor (23:53):
There’s always hope if you look for it. It it’s, I, I have an attitude of gratitude and I think that alone really gives me hope because as even, even walking outside today, I was thinking, you know what, I, I can go outside and walk. I’m not sick with COVID right now. Yeah. And I have my health and I’m in an area that I can do this in. I think that the the ability to not give up that there is that there’s always going to be something kind. I see people being kind that’s hopeful to me. So when you see simple kind gestures during your day, someone opens the door for, for you at work, you’re out in the grocery store. And, you know, you can still see the smile of people’s eyes above the mask, right. If, if you look for it, if, if you, so it’s pain attention to the little details.


Deb Lawlor (24:47):
Sometimes watching that, you know, someone’s got a real joy for Christmas right now in my department, and they’re just, every decorations are going everywhere and it makes people smile. And I think the other thing too, is just knowing that this too shall pass like it, this isn’t gonna be forever. It’s inconvenient. Absolutely. it’s, it’s depressing for some at times it’s certainly financially impacting people and, but it’s not gonna last, it will, it will be done someday. And I think you, that having that belief, knowing that it, you know, when you think of something hard that you went through it, wasn’t forever mm-hmm . And at the same time, what gives hope is that there’s other people that you can, that you can be helpful to around you. And that in itself is very, oh, very inspiring to, to see others doing that, to, to watching, you know, students making things for others, for the can.


Deb Lawlor (25:46):
I mean, the can food drives aren’t happening in the same ways that they did before, but we’re still finding people who are thinking outside the box. And I think when I see that when I see people being innovative, when I see people being creative with the situations they’ve been given, and yet seeing really neat things that they’re doing with their students, that gives me hope within, you know what’s gonna happen. And, and you sort of get pushed outside your comfort zone. But I think that gives me hope in the sense too, that we’re doing things that we might not have done. Had we not been put in this position? Yeah. You know, there’s been a lot of quick changes. People are collaborating a lot more now because they need to. Yeah. And they’re seeking help out from other people. I, I, I put an all call out to my, to my Chim leads across the province, you know, back in October when I was like, oh my gosh, I don’t know what to do with this.


Deb Lawlor (26:35):
And, and I got 13, 14 responses. And then I connected with those people by phone and followed up. And then we chatted about things. And then I went, okay, I’m not the only one dealing with this. Someone else is feeling the same thing I am. And someone else is going through something similar. And as you talk to someone, you just kind of go, okay, I’m not alone in this. There there’s others who are going through the exact same thing. And then you stop being so hard on yourself in what you’re trying to deal with because others are doing the same thing.


Sam Demma (27:02):
Yeah. I love that. And your hope is hopefully rubbing off on your hope, the listener. I hope this reminds you that there is always a perspective shift that you can have, right? That’s the whole idea of change. What you’re believing about the situation. It will change how you feel. It will change your actions and you’ll get a totally different result. Deb, if you could travel back in time and speak to your younger self, when you just got into education, what would you say?


Deb Lawlor (27:30):
Oh, so if I’m, I’m speaking to myself from my perspective now to my younger self?


Sam Demma (27:34):
Yeah. In education. Okay.


Deb Lawlor (27:37):
Don’t take it personally. I love it. I think as young educator is we take everything personally. We are upset if they don’t do the homework, the student doesn’t do their homework in our class. We’re upset when they walk out and say, I hate you. That we’re upset when, you know you, you plan this great lesson, you put all this effort and it totally bombs. And the kids think it sucks. You know? Like I, I think you can’t take it personally. You do the best that you can with what you’ve got and that’s gonna develop over time. I think part of it is I would tell myself I would tell myself it doesn’t have to be perfect. I think there’s so much, we strive that, you know, you’ve gotta have that perfect lesson. It’s gotta be, everyone’s gotta receive it in the right way.


Deb Lawlor (28:20):
And, and everyone being happy with it. I’d probably tell myself not to work so many long hours. I burn the candles a lot when, you know, and you do as a young teacher because yeah, you just, you need to you until you get the experience until you, you know, figure out what it is you, and if you’re teaching something different all the time, it’s, it’s inevitable it’s gonna happen. What else would I tell myself? I would tell myself to, to enjoy the ride. Mm. But really enjoy the ride because it, it, and I think I did, I eventually, I, I started to do that to really, to, to it’s about the journey. It’s not about the endpoint really, to, and, and not to be afraid to, well, certainly to not worry so much about the content. And it’s more about, it’s more about the skills that you’re teaching the kids.


Deb Lawlor (29:08):
And again, sort of my beginning year, my first, you know, five, six years that wasn’t in my mind as I, as I grew, and as I got more experienced, you, you start to enjoy those kids who who are the challenge, the kids who don’t agree with you, who, who will push and who have issues that you start to realize that you can help mold and help guide them. And it’s not all about having the kid who puts their hand up all the time and raises their hand and hands everything in and does everything you want them to. And doesn’t talk back to you. After a while I started seeking out the kids who I thought you’ll be okay without me, you’re gonna do fine and be all right, but you need a little more attention and, and, and you need in year and you need me to ask you, how are you doing today? You know, scale of one to 10, where are you at just doing a check in? Doesn’t need to tell me a, any information. I don’t need to know the details, but if I know you’re a four today, then I’m gonna deal with you a little bit different than if you’re at an eight, you know, and, and, and cut you a little slack and give you a little bit of room and be understanding that, Nope, you’re not gonna get that assignment into me today. And it’s not the end of the world.


Sam Demma (30:18):
I like that. That’s awesome. Deb, thank you so much for coming and sharing some of your wisdom and advice on the show here today, and some of your own personal journey through education. If another educator wants to reach out to you, what would be the best way for them to do so maybe Twitter or an email or whatever you prefer.


Deb Lawlor (30:35):
Yeah, they can, they can give me an email at debbie.lawlor@ocsb.ca. So debbie.lawlor@ocsb.ca. My Twitter handle is @deb_lawlor.


Sam Demma (30:55):
All right. Awesome. Thanks so much, Deb. I look forward to staying in touch and seeing where your travels take you next.


Deb Lawlor (31:02):
Sam’s it’s been a pleasure to be here.


Sam Demma (31:04):
And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the High Performing Educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review so other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show. If you want to meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network. You’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you so soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Deb Lawlor

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.

Hugues Bertrand – Social Studies and Leadership Teacher

Hugues Bertrand – Social Studies and Leadership Teacher
About Hugues Bertrand

Hugues Bertrand is a Social Studies and Leadership teacher at Pierrefonds Community High School in Pierrefonds Quebec for 26 years now. Long time Quebec leadership advisor, Canadian Student Leadership Conference (CSLC) 2010 chair and Canadian Student Leadership Association (CSLA) member. 

Hugues has always been a student life enthusiast helping students discover themselves and reaching their true potential. He truly believes in being open-minded when interacting with students and emphasizes the importance of simply listening to what they have to say.

Connect with Hugues: Email

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Resources Mentioned

Pierrefonds Community High School

Canadian Student Leadership Conference

Canadian Student Leadership Association

Speakers Bureau of Canada

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s guest is Hugh Bertrand. He’s been teaching for over 26 years. He’s also a huge fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He had a virtual background on zoom during our interview, and he airs so many amazing insights into ideas to engage his students, to make them feel a little more appreciated and valued during this time. And he also shares this idea about keeping an envelope of all the notes he has been receiving over the years of teaching and calling it his bad day file, where if he’s not having a great day, he pulls a note out, reads it to remind him self, why you got into education. There’s so many other insightful ideas on this episode. I hope you enjoy it. Take notes, listen actively, and I’ll see you on the other side. Thank you so much for taking some time out of your busy schedule to come out onto the High Performing Educators podcast. I’m curious to know, can you share with the audience who you are and what you into the work that you do with youth today?


Hugues Bertrand (01:04):
Okay, well, I’m I’m Hugues, I’ve been teaching for 26 years. I got started teaching, I guess my dad was a teacher, so that that’s obviously I knew a bit about the job but definitely doing a lot of student life stuff that that’s just, you know, wanting to make a difference and helped kids reach their potential you know, overcome the roadblocks. That’s thrown at them like by themselves or by others. So that’s kind of been my motivation.


Sam Demma (01:31):

Awesome. When did you know a lot of teachers, I speak to say they, they knew at this super young age, some of them say they figured it out after going to university. What was the case for you?


Hugues Bertrand (01:39):

I think you know, what I decided just before, you know, university I had all these different jobs you know, from being a lawyer notary to dentist and and and then just before university, when I to decide, I, you know, decided to go into teaching first it was Phys. Ed. and then high school degree. And you know, and then I just kind of branched out to social studies and in high school. So that’s, that’s when I decided it.


Sam Demma (02:06):

That’s awesome. And you’ve been teaching longer than I’ve been alive. That just means that you’re a wise and, and you know, so much about it and can provide so much great insight. And I’m really curious to kind of dive a little bit more into that. Have you been at the same school for your entire 26 years? Have you bounced around what kind of different roles have you played in?


Hugues Bertrand (02:29):

I have been pretty lucky. I’ve been in two schools. I started in, in an inner city school in Montreal for four years. Yep. And then that school closed. And then I moved to the, the school I’m at now PCHS in Pierrefonds. And I’ve been there for while now it’s like 22 years.


Sam Demma (02:42):

Awesome. So cool. And there’s a lot of challenges this year in education. Things are definitely different. I don’t want to make it negative or seem like there’s roadblocks in every way we turn, but COVID presented us with opportunities and challenges. What are some of those challenges that you’re seeing day to day in your school and whether it’s virtually while you’re at home or sitting in an office?


Hugues Bertrand (03:04):

When I think about that question is it’s, you know, like overall, like the help, right? Like, that’s like, you gotta be conscious of your own health. And then your, and your student’s health and your own family. As I explained to my students, like on day one you know, guys, like, you know, I’m more, all this PPE welcome to the new normal this, this didn’t feel normal to me. And I was very honest with them. And know they were all wearing masks in class. I was very lucky. My students were pretty good. I mean, they don’t have to wear it. They can, they can take it off while they’re sitting, but most of them do which share reassuring. So that that’s definitely like some of the challenges, like the hell aspect of it, it kids being off for six months in Quebec, like that was like, you know, that was like, they’re rusty. So that’s something that we need to keep in mind. you know, and in the mix, my school, like the seniors mix one day at school, one day at home. So like juggling the online and, and in class you know, like you got to adapt, like they have to, but you also have to adapt.


Sam Demma (03:59):

Yeah. That’s so true. How do you find teaching virtually is it a challenge? How do you get cameras? How do you get students to turn their cameras on and raise their hands and, and speak in class is difficult?


Hugues Bertrand (04:10):

Right. I, I find it’s made me a better teacher. Like I realize that the other day, like you know, I was being ready for a session and, and I definitely keep it shorter. Our classes are 75 minutes school and, and, you know, I pants to myself, lecturing. I rarely lecture for 35 minutes at school anyway. So I try to like mix it up and you know, having them to have their cameras on is, is a challenge. You know, like I know like there’s some schools that have rules and they have to have it on, but then it’s like, you know, it’s, it’s facing a wall or, yeah. You know, I noticed this morning, I was, I was teach out a few online classes and some of their bad, they were, some of them were in their bedroom and it was really dark.


Hugues Bertrand (04:45):

Like I could see the shades were down and everything. And I, I made a few comments, like guys, like, you know, like, it’s almost like it’s night in your room. Like, , you know, let, let let in some lights. But yeah, it’s not easy. I, I try to to flip the classroom a bit. So I put some talking points up and then I, and I try to engage them. And even though like, when you share documents, depending on what you’re using, you don’t see them all, but like, I call out their names, so then they have to kind of be there. And and I, you know, I, I kind of like share, like, I usually share material with them ahead of class or during class. I’m like, Hey guys, there’s a video here. That’s 15 minutes when I’m done, you’re gonna know, watch this. And then be ready to talk about it next class. So I kind of like, it’s, it’s made me a better teacher, I think, cuz I have to think about delivery. I have to think about the material I’m using. Some of the things that I was using, I can’t use anymore in the same way. So I, I think like, you know, it’s forced me to be more creative.


Sam Demma (05:37):

That’s awesome. I think that’s a beautiful way to look at it. No, one’s given me a response like that yet. And I’ve done a dozen in interview so far making you a better teacher. So you look at it from the positive perspective. There’s so much challenges going on right now, but like you are looking at this from a positive angle. I’m curious to know what gives you hope personally despite the challenges, what keeps you going, what keeps you motivated and hopeful with the work that you’re doing?


Hugues Bertrand (06:03):

I think I, I believe in the end science will win. I mean I think that’s, you know, you have to think that this is gonna, this too shall pass is gonna end. If not, I think you just gotta go bonkers. So you gotta, you gotta believe that it’s gonna, there’s gonna be an, we don’t know when you know, I mean so, so, and I think it, it forced people to take a look at their own life. What really matters obviously when we were quarantined for like all these months in the winter last year, you know, like, I mean like my, my wife’s the teacher also, so we were both at home teaching from home. Our two kids were at home going to school at home. So, you know, so that forced us to kind of like, you know work around those things. But it’s a, it’s kind of like, you know, you gotta slow down. I think, I think it’s forced me to slow down and then, okay, so I can’t do this and this and this anymore. So I think, I think, you know, like I have the hope that it’s, you know, I, I hone, I, sorry, I hope I, I hold onto the hope that it’s it’s, you know, science will win. And then basically you know, and then I kind of like just kind of prioritize things.


Sam Demma (07:04):

That’s awesome. I love that. It makes perfect sense. There’s nothing else that we can do this. Stuff’s kind of out of our control and we have to just let it play. Its play its part and then we’ll get going when it’s done. I’ve spoken again to dozens of educators already. And I’ve asked them this question, you know, we’ve, you’ve been in education for 26 years. You’ve helped dozens of students, maybe not even academically, but also with their mental health, with their physical health. Maybe you’ve mentored them, gave them some life changing advice. And maybe once or twice someone’s written you a letter when they’re like 20 years older saying hug, you changed my life back in class. And now I’m doing this job because of what you said. And I’m curious to know what can we do during COVID that will ensure that the kids that are in your class right now have that same response 20 years later. Like how do we, how do we care for our kids right now?


Hugues Bertrand (07:56):

I think, I think we gotta be there and listen we gotta be patient. You know, I mean, I’m getting like, you know, they have lots of questions and, and they have a lot of things that they’re not sure about. And then so I think we gotta hear them out. I like, for example, like, you know, like I mentioned, there’s six months, like kind of rust that asked needs to be knocked off. So, you know, things like, you know, maybe you would’ve done three, three projects and from one and then maybe you’ll do two and maybe you’ll have to walk them through things. You know and then if they’re like, you go off topic, like you gotta, you know, like you ha you have to take the time to listen to them. And, and, and sometimes this is the best thing you can do is listen.


Hugues Bertrand (08:34):

You know when I think back of kids, who’ve gone back to me over the years. You know, and unfortunately I there’s been many in, in those are bonuses that I call as I call them. Mm-Hmm you know, I think, I think, yeah, what did I do while I listen? I gave him the time you know, and like we had a case at school yesterday, like it was announced, but the way it’s announced, it’s, it’s, you know, there’s a student in a class bubble that that’s positive. So that question, that kid was already at home, so they isolate the class and yet, but some other kids in the school were like, you know, they were, I, my grade 11 class, they were upset. We wanna know who it is. We wanna know what level. And I know I, and I stopped the lesson to kind of explain like what you can’t it’s privacy it’s, you know, how would you feel is of people knew your help you know, what, what goes on between you and the doctor?


Hugues Bertrand (09:18):

So, but I mean, I could have like, just pushed a lesson, but I stopped mm-hmm cause I think they, they were uneasy. They were nervous. They, they, they, they want, they were, they were reacting to this situation. So I think we need that’s what we need to do is we need to slow down. We need to listen to them. You know, we don’t all, maybe we don’t have all the answers, but at least if we’re listening to them and gave ’em a chance to like, like a platform you know, and, and, and also I think sometimes like we gotta you know, try to like, not steer away from it, but like, you know, there’s other things going on in COVID is everywhere in the social media. It’s, it’s in news, it’s everywhere. So I think they kind of need a bit of release from that.


Sam Demma (09:53):

Sometimes I love that we have two ears of one mouth. My mentor told me, it means you have to listen twice as much as we speak. And I think it’s a beautiful testament, especially in a classroom when student voice is being heard very little, especially right now with what’s going on. And aside from teachers, they’re the next in line being affected to a major degree. So I think that’s a beautiful point. And I appreciate you for sharing that in terms of, of students that have been impacted by your direct teaching and mentorship over the years, I would love for you to share a story or two that touches your heart deeply of a student you’ve impacted. You can change their name for the sake of privacy, but do you have a story you’d like to share of a, a student who’s maybe talked to you after they graduated and said, how big of an impact they had on, on, on their life?


Hugues Bertrand (10:39):

You know what, like, it’s funny, you mentioned that and I get emotional and then like having taught 26 years and you know, and, and I, I’m kind, I think I’m the same guy after 26 years. I’m a little bit wiser. I, I sometimes like you know, I’m better at what I do. But yeah, there’s a few that I can say I can think of, but I think like, you know, when I, I think back on my first four years of teaching in inner city you know, being like 23 and, and, and I remember like, like the kids I bonded well with the kids and, and them with me. And so I guess like 30 years later, like I get these, the Facebook you know, I mean, I’m old, so I’m on Facebook.


Hugues Bertrand (11:19):

And I got this Facebook messenger from, from an ex student. You know, who’s now as a family of five kids and says, look, I just wanted to let you know, thank you for impacting my life. And I wanna let you know that I have a job now. And, you know, and I got out of like where inner city, where we lived and I’m married, I have five kids and I’m working. And so that, that, that was really meaningful for me. And this is, this was the student I always said I was closed with. And I took under my wing and you know, spent a lot of time with listening and sometimes steering them in the, in the right direction. You know, I mean, if I come closer in, in, in, you know, to my career, like, like in the last 10 years, like I have students, I still, I have a group of students that I, I talk to well actually I it’s like a group of that.


Hugues Bertrand (12:03):

I, I, that I once in a while, I’ll, I’ll drop a message, like don’t need to respond and just, just you know, thanking them from like I on Facebook. So I get to see their life and I see what they’re doing and, you know, just kind of like tell ’em, they’re all success stories. And these are kids that I’ve like, you know, over the years, like reached out to me again with, with thank you for being there or thank you for you know, what you did for me. And you know, it’s, it’s nice to have that connection. I actually have nobody knows this , that’s cool. I have I have like a folder on my desk and it’s been like, I keep it on my desk every year. And it’s like letters or notes I’ve gotten from kids over the years.


Hugues Bertrand (12:41):

And you know, so I just know when, when you have an off day, you know, you’ll open that folder and like, you know, it sets you back. So nobody knows what that folder is, or at least now, but yeah, that’s that, that’s something for me. Like, I, I’ve been very AP very lucky, you know, I mean that the kids I always tell kids you know, not for me, but like, you know, you got to let people know, like, you know, if they made a difference in your life good or bad, you got to let them know. You know, cuz if you don’t let them know, they’ll never know that they made a difference. So, you know, yeah, I’ve been, I’ve been very, very lucky.


Sam Demma (13:12):

Yeah. Sometimes they don’t send those messages or write those letters until 20 years down the road. And I think educators sometimes, especially the younger ones who are just starting don’t realize the impact they’re having and half the purpose of this podcast is to remind them that no, what you’re doing is important, despite the challenges we’re currently facing the work is needed now more than ever. And the stories of impact do surface, maybe not right now, but they might 10, 15 years from now or when you least expect it. And I think that idea of having a folder on your desk is beautiful. Do you remember any of the letters that you recently have read?


Hugues Bertrand (13:49):

Well I had, I had one a student sent me a copy of a university paper that you were roles in sociology and it was like, you know, something shed done for in university and it was about me. So , so it was really, you know, it was I was very humbled. And, and this is someone who’s like now in their thirties with, you know, two kids, but you know, I mean, I, I, I think back I’ve done mean there’s I, you know, I guess there’s so many, like, you know, that that’s hard to pinpoint one, but they’re all, they’re all you know, they all touch me like, you know, I find it very touching, so and I, and you’re right. Like, you know, we have the power as teachers, like, you know, we can make or break a kids’ day.


Hugues Bertrand (14:33):

Like, and, and we need to remember that. Because sometimes, you know, like like kids, like you know, they, they they’re fragile even if they don’t show it. So, so, you know, we have that you know, like we, we may say something or do something that’s gonna turn off a kid completely and we might, and the worst thing is you may not notice. And then they’ll just go on you know, so good or bad. So I think we, we need to be mindful of that. You know, teaching teaching is, is an important profession and you know, and I think a lot of responsibility comes with that.


Sam Demma (15:07):

That’s so true. That’s awesome. I appreciate you sharing the story and the letters and the, the good moments. I can see the smile that you brought to your face, which is awesome. And it’s encouraging for anyone else to hear. And I love the idea. Again, if anyone’s listening, go make your own folder, we can call it the folder of appreciation or whatever you, you wanna label it and put it on your desk and put all your letters in it and revisit them. When you’re feeling down. I have a similar concept that a coach told me and it’s called that you done good list, and it’s not things that other people have given to me or said to me, but it’s things that I’m proud of that I’ve done. And when I feel like I’m not doing enough where I feel like I’m moving too slow, instead of focusing on where I want to go, I focus on where I’ve already gone, what I’ve already done, where I’ve already been, the people I’ve already impacted and met, and that change of focus leads to so much more positive decisions.


Sam Demma (15:57):

And I think it’s, it’s evident not only in education, but in all areas of life. So again, thanks for, for sharing that on a, a separate note. It’s really difficult right now to bring in powerful messages into a school. And I’m sure, or you’ve dealt with bringing in speakers for dozens of years right now. It’s harder than ever. If someone’s listening an educator that might be a little bit younger, not as wise just yet, , they’re building their wisdom. They wanna, you know, bring someone into their school to speak. How would you advise them to do so? Maybe even without COVID like, what do you look for in a person to bring in front of your students?


Hugues Bertrand (16:33):

I, I think whenever you’re gonna bring somebody in front of your student, like, you know, as one of my mentors always said, like, you have to have seen them or somebody you trust is seen them, like, so that’s school number one, like just bring in somebody just to bring somebody is the, is the bad idea. Yeah. So like you have to have like seen them or heard and, or, or somebody you trust. I seen them I think you gotta think of case this could be meaningful to my students and maybe you may find it’s really like, this is really good, but like, you know, you gotta know your students. Yeah. What, what they’re needing obviously right now it’s complicated. You know, I was, I know at school, like I was, you know, reaching out administration about maybe starting some student life this year, again, you know, and through, through the bubbles and, you know, and then the next day we have a case at school.


Hugues Bertrand (17:13):

So I’m like that didn’t get that, that fell down the list of things to do for the, for my principal by no fault of hit of his. So I think ask around, I mean, there’s some great organizations in Canada you know for, for leadership. So there’s Speakers Bureau. And so, so you can, like, you can see now with technology you can usually see clips of speakers and presenters. So like that that’s, I mean, do your homework, check it out, talk to people, ask questions you know, ask definitely there’s lots of good people to bring in like you know, kids, kids you know, they, they, sometimes you need to change it up and, and they respond you know, to somebody else, you you’d be saying the same thing, but you bring, somebody give the same message and sudden like, oh, it’s heard. But you know, by, by any means necessary, like that’s, that’s always one of, some of my mantra.


Sam Demma (18:00):

No, that’s awesome. And when it comes to speakers, what do you thinks the most important thing in relation to having impact on the students? Is it content the person shares? Is it the way they deliver it? Is it how they engage the students? Is it because it’s interactive? Is it their age?


Hugues Bertrand (18:16):

I think I’ve, I’ve been very fortunate again having been involved with leadership and, and, and going to conferences and hosting conferences. So I’ve been exposed to many, many speakers. I would say the delivery it’s not just the age. But I think the delivery, how they interact with the students is, is, is big because like, you know, you have to, you have to hook them as they, they say , but you’ll have a, it’s a mix of that, a message too, because if you have them, but then you don’t have a message or don’t deliver the message then it’s you know, once you have your attention. But I think, I think the interaction with student is, is very, very important.


Sam Demma (18:52):

Okay, cool. No, that’s awesome. And is there any plans, not, maybe not even in your school, but in other schools to do stuff virtually or is that totally out of the question?


Hugues Bertrand (19:01):

I think, I think the plan is there, the idea is there. I know I, I sit on the, our central student committee at the school board and give kids from all the, every school. And we were talking last week, you know, we usually have a senior leadership day. We have a junior leadership day and we said, well, you know, we could probably do it online you know, and bring in people. So I think the plan is there. I think it’s just right now, we’re kind of like, you know, as think cases are going up, like colors changing. So we’re just kind of like, yeah, you know, we’re gonna see where we’re gonna be with this. You know, and I think it’s one of things where we may have to adapt, but yeah, I think online for now, online speaking and is, is, is probably the way we’re gonna do this.


Sam Demma (19:38):

That’s awesome. It’s also encouraging to hear for other educators. It’s, it’s not the end, right? No, this is just a bump in the road. If someone’s listening right now, who’s a fellow educator who’s a little bit burnt out. Not maybe they just started this career. Imagine you were 23 years old and this was your first year of teaching and there was someone your age talking to you when you were 23, what would you tell that 23 year old who’s just starting in this industry?


Hugues Bertrand (20:04):

Be yourself, cuz kids will know like that’s kids kids will figure out pretty quick. So just be yourself, which I think is one of my strengths. When I talk to students that I’ve had that like, you know, what are 10 years ago, 20 years ago? You know, I’m like, you know, like, I haven’t changed. I mean, I’m, I’m more gray. I, the same haircut you, although it’s long now, but you know, like like at the same haircut I haven’t changed you know, they, they come to my classroom or if they, you know, green hackers. Yeah. That was my team when I was 16. So it’s not gonna change. You know, so like be yourself you know, be open open-minded listen, listen to them. You know kids don’t do well when you come in and just talk to them like that’s or anybody for that, for that, for that matter, don’t be shy to as for help.


Hugues Bertrand (20:51):

You know that’s that these are things that you know, but be yourself, be open-minded listen to them. You know, be fair. I think like kids will respond well to that and, and, you know, it’s, it’s a great job, but it’s not for everyone. I, and, and it’s not you know, it’s, it’s, it’s, you gotta work, you know, you gotta, I mean, I I’ve been doing this 26 years and I still, still learning every day. Like, you’re, I still screw up sometimes. You know, and, and I, and I, I’m still learning, I was talking about how I adapted everything. I’ve been adapting and changing things don’t to, to, to be successful you know, and do the job, you know, in the last year or so. So now I think you just, you just gotta, you know, keep an open mind.


Sam Demma (21:34):

Love it. Open mind, listen, twice as much as you speak, ask for help, these are all great pieces of advice. Hugues, thank you so much for taking some time to do this interview today and inspire some fellow educators. I’m curious to know if anyone in the audience wants to reach out to you and maybe bounce some ideas around that’s another educator how can they reach you in, how can they do that?


Hugues Bertrand (21:54):

Well, I don’t I, I have a, I guess email would probably be the best way. I mean, I have a Facebook page, but that’d be hard to find me, so my email probably the best way to reach me. Okay. I was gonna make a joke and say mySpace, but I don’t even know what that is. So it has to be pretty old. So yeah, hbertrand@lbpearson.ca is probably the best way to reach me through email. And then we can go from there. I don’t have a website or anything, although you know so that, that’s probably the best way to reach me.


Sam Demma (22:24):

Okay. Awesome. Here again. Thank you so much, so much wisdom, so much to share, and I really appreciate you making some time. Oh, you’re welcome. I hope you enjoyed the episode with Hugues Bertrand so much practical advice and ideas to share. Please reach out to Hugues. He’d love to hear from you. He loves connecting with fellow educators and teachers like yourself. And as always, if you took something away from these interviews, if you’re taking something away from them and you’re learning something new, consider leaving a rating review. So more educators just like you can find this content and benefit from it. And if you have insightful stories or inspiring ideas that we can use in schools right now, please reach out at info@samdemma.com. So we can get you on the show and share those stories with your colleagues. Talk soon, see you on the next episode.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Hugues Bertrand

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

Dr. Bridget Weiss – TIME featured Educator and Superintendent of the Juneau School District

Bridget Weiss - TIME featured Educator and Superintendent of the Juneau School District
About Dr. Bridget Weiss

Dr. Bridget Weiss is the Superintendent of the Juneau School District. After graduating high school in Juneau, Bridget graduated from Whitworth University in 1984, with a Bachelors’s in Mathematics, a Minor in Physical Education and a secondary teaching certificate. Following graduation, she spent the next 26 years in Spokane as a high school math teacher, coach, high school assistant principal, elementary principal, Executive Director of Instructional Programs and Superintendent. 

Once back in Alaska, Bridget spent four years as principal of North Pole High School and four years as Director of Student Services at the Juneau School District.  She started this year as the Interim Superintendent and was hired for the position permanently in January.  Bridget attained her Masters in Mathematics from Eastern Washington University and her Doctorate in Educational Leadership from Washington State University.  Her work has been in districts as small as 1,800 and as large as 29,000 students.

Bridget is completing her 38th year in education at the start of 2022 was named Alaska’s Superintedent of the Year!

Connect with Bridget: Email | Linkedin

Listen Now

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

Resources And Related Media

From Teachers to Custodians, Meet the Educators Who Saved A Pandemic School Year

Juneau’s Bridget Weiss named Alaska’s Superintendent of the Year

Juneau School District

Superintendent of the Year

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. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s guest is Dr. Bridget Weiss. She is the superintendent of the Juneau school district. After graduating high school in Juneau, Bridget graduated from Whitworth university in 1984 with a bachelor’s in mathematics, a minor in physical education and a secondary teaching. Following graduation, she spent the next 26 years in Spokane as a high school math teacher coach high school assistant principal elementary principal, executive director of instructional programs and superintendent. Once back in Alaska, Bridget spent four years as principal of north pole high school and four years as director of student services at the Juneau school district. She started this year as the interim superintendent and was hired for the position permanently in January. Bridget attained her masters in mathematics from Eastern Washington university and her doctorate in educational leadership from Washington state university. Her work has been in districts as small as 1800 and as large as 29,000 students. And Bridget is currently completing her 38th year in education. This conversation was phenomenal. You are gonna take away some amazing ideas. I hope you enjoy it. And I will see you on the other side, Bridget, welcome to thehigh performing educator podcast. It’s a huge pleasure to have you on the show here today. Please start by introducing yourself.


Bridget Weiss (02:35):
Thank you, Sam. I am Bridget Weiss. I am the superintendent in Juneau school district in Juneau, Alaska.


Sam Demma (02:43):
That is amazing. Tell me more about your journey into education. What got you started and then, brought you to where you are today?


Bridget Weiss (02:53):
Yeah, well, I’m super lucky. I actually am born and raised in Juneau, so I’m a third Juneau white and I went left Juneau to go to school college in Spokane and I Wentworth university. And just really knew from a pretty young age that education was what I wanted to do and spend my life committed to. I had a couple of really cool experiences with teachers that really inspired me. And so I started out as a teacher. I spent 16 years as a teacher teaching junior high and high school math and coaching and all of that. And I’ve spent the balance of 38 years being in a administrator since then.


Sam Demma (03:41):
I’m just gonna give you a round of applause for your service. you mentioned you’re welcome. You mentioned having some really cool experiences with educators and teachers. Can you expand on that and tell me a little bit more how those experiences shape a decision to get into education?


Bridget Weiss (04:02):
You know, I was in junior high and seventh grade and I met a teacher who the best way I can really explain it is he saw me, like, I just, he knew me, got to know me. He was a math teacher my basketball all coach. And he was always checking in to see how I was doing. He had a great, has a great sense of humor and he was one that just really inspired me to be my best self, you know, which was what we would say now as a seventh grader, I would never, ever have been able to articulate that. But he really did. And he used his sense of humor and his ability to build relationships, really genuine relationships with kids. And so it inspired me and it certainly also impacted the type of educator that I wanted to be. And so I, I just feel really fortunate to have had some of those experiences that steered me in this direction,


Sam Demma (05:09):
Being seen and heard is such an important thing for every educator to do with their own students in their classrooms. How do you think in terms of tangible actions, he did that for you when you were in grade seven, was it by asking questions by being interested in your hobbies? Like what did that look like as a student?


Bridget Weiss (05:33):
I think for me through the eyes of a seventh grader again, it’s one thing looking back it’s another, but he, he did get to know me, you know, personally he knew who I was. I still remember. I, I can, I can look out my office window right now and see the building, my elementary school and the building that I went to junior high end. And I can still go to the corner of the hallway where his classroom was, and I can picture myself walking by not even going to his class, but he was always standing outside interacting his hallway or his classroom interacting with kids saying, hello, you know, making sure that we were on our way to class on time. And and, and he, his humor again, was really a key player for him. And and it was always very supportive humor and it was humor that was specific to who we were, if that makes sense. It, it, it really made you feel again, heard and seen. And, and I think it’s really hard to do that sometimes in education, the more kids that a teacher is serving the, you know, the larger, the class sizes. And I have really tried to emulate that sense that a student could get in whether they were in trouble or doing something fantastic that I saw them, that, that I knew them and that I was there to help them either through something that was negative or encouraged them because they were doing amazing things.


Sam Demma (07:07):
That’s an amazing teaching philosophy. And it’s so cool that you not even realizing it learnt it when you were a student in grade seven. so awesome. And speaking of difficulty in doing that even to this day, I’m sure with COVID, it took that challenge to a whole new level. And you’re someone who was very crafty and resourceful during COVID to try and keep things functional and not only functional, but for the students in your school board. You’re one of the only educators. In fact, the only educator who has been featured in time magazine for your effectiveness during COVID, that’s been on this podcast I’d love for you to share a little bit about what happened during COVID and how you and your team at the board transitioned and adapted.


Bridget Weiss (07:59):
Yeah. You know, we, I, one blessing that I’ve had is, I don’t know if it’s my mathematical background or just how my brain works, but I am definitely a problem solver, a solution finder and that’s how I’ve always focused. Here’s a challenge. What is the best next step? How do I get this only the resources they need? What does this kid need if this isn’t working? What options do we have for this kid? You know, so I, that’s just, my frame of thought always is finding solution and being prepared for situations that we might not know about yet. So here comes along the pandemic. And really one of the things that happened to us is that we ended up with a potential COVID case in one of our elementary schools really early in March. And we had to act quickly to know to, because we, again, in March, 2020, we knew so little about COVID.


Bridget Weiss (08:57):
We didn’t even, we couldn’t even spell the word mask yet. Right. We, we, we were just, it was, we just did not know anything. What I had done about three weeks before that we were hearing the talk about this virus and, you know, what, what it might mean in other countries. And wow. I was sitting up and paying attention. So I pulled all our department leaders together. This was in early February and said, Hmm, let’s start thinking about this. What might we need to do? This is something we just couldn’t even have imagined a even February, 2020. And so each department, it, food services teaching and learning health services counselors. I had, ’em all the leads there. And we trouble shot through each department, what this could look like and what we, what should we be doing now to think about that?


Bridget Weiss (09:56):
And so when we were shut down on a Friday, March 13th, on Monday morning, we were delivering food to kids. We had, we had meals available. We had Chromebooks ready to be delivered to kids or picked up to try to build distant and delivery learning on the spot. It was quite something so literally from a Friday shutdown to a Monday we were able to deliver services to kids. And, and that was really meaningful to our families. Many of whom rely on the free, hot breakfast that we serve every morning to our elementary kids and so forth. So it, it was very quick turnaround operation.


Sam Demma (10:39):
That’s amazing. If you were to take the experience and make it a blueprint for another superintendent or educator, who’s interested in the creativity that went into solving this problem, what would the through line be? Would it be that you have to in advance or, you know, the moment something changes, give it attention in time? Like, how would you distill this down to a principal that another board or educator could use?


Bridget Weiss (11:07):
I think a couple of things, one is definitely being as prepared as possible for the unknown, which we had an emergency response plan and it had at four levels and we busted through those four levels. In the first day we were responding and normally those four levels are extended over a period of time a month, you know, months we blew through those four levels in one day. And so then you have to rely on your instincts your courage your team. So I’m a huge team advocate. So I partnered with my chief of staff who we, we do crisis response together and have for a number of years. And we sat at this desk in my office for hours and started designing what we thought next steps were making lists of who needed, what information how were we gonna support our custodial team?


Bridget Weiss (12:03):
So when I pulled those leaders together, again, because it was such an inclusive group, everybody had a heads up, everybody understood at least that we didn’t know everything and that we were going to be working really hard. And we didn’t know for sure the, so what of all that yet? But everybody was on point. Everybody was thinking through our custodial lead was thinking about what supplies we did have on hand. So we knew right away where to start looking for, for the next round of supplies. And, and, and again, food service, they were already contacting for the state for what waivers we might need. You know, so again, having the right people, you can’t do it alone. So making sure that you’re really including your full team is, and that just takes some intention and building that team in advance so that everybody feels confident in themselves, equipped and UN and knows that you do believe in them in doing some hard creative work, when the time comes,


Sam Demma (13:06):
It’s such a Testament to the power of a team and unified messaging. If everyone was to get different messaging, it would’ve caused a mass amount of chaos. amongst everyone, because everyone would’ve been unclear on what their roles and responsibilities were. And I see that there’s a whiteboard for everyone who’s listening. They can’t see it, but there’s a whiteboard behind you. I’m, I’m sure you erase that a couple hundred times. Would that be true?


Bridget Weiss (13:30):
but that is so true. I had lists on, I have two whiteboards, a in my office, I had lists of so many different action steps. I had lists of groups of people. So I had the board of education. What did they need? Teachers, staff, what did they need? Parents, families, what did they need to know? Because some of it was different. Some of it was the same information, but some of it was different. So we would do that. And then we would commute out. Then we’d erase it and we’d start over. As soon as something happened that we thought we need to alert them, we would write it on the list. And then we would use that to craft our, our messages. So, and, and all of a sudden, all of our normal tools that we use didn’t work anymore, right. We, we couldn’t call staff meetings together.


Bridget Weiss (14:14):
Our, our app wasn’t allowed to come into the building for a while. You know it just, so we had to rely on video. I had never made a video as a, as an administrator. I don’t have a, a communication department but, but we did that. We started just right away because I knew people needed to hear my voice and see my face versus email that was void of emotion, void, you know, void of the voice inflection that you can give gratitude with and so forth. So we immediately started in this office right here, my one person, chief of staff videoed on her phone a message that I could give staff right before they went away for their their week. So you know, just relying on, on your, on your skills and your team, and we just, nobody can do it alone. And, and really that’s true in a pandemic, extraordinarily true in a pandemic, but it’s really true on a day to day basis as well. We’re only as good as the people around us and, and those that we commit to lifting up and supporting along the journey with us.


Sam Demma (15:25):
You mentioned the importance of filming a video, so the educators could feel your grad to, and hear your voice inflections. Can we talk about that for a second? What is the purpose or what went through your mind to come to that conclusion that you needed to send a video?


Bridget Weiss (15:43):
To me community has always been really important. So whatever role I’ve had, I, as when I was a teacher, I was a coach. I, my classrooms were communities. My teams were communities as an administrator. My building became my community and really nurturing and developing that community ended up in good results for kids. And so what I found was all of a sudden, I felt so responsible for 700 people that I couldn’t talk with. I couldn’t run to a, a building and go to a staff meeting and share, which is what we normally do in crisis, because crises usually are very point based. They’re they’re involved in geographical school. Yeah. One school or another school. I go to the staff meeting. I tell them it’s gonna be okay. This is what we’re doing well, now it was everywhere. . And, and so I thought, I just need to do this, and it needs to be really lighthearted.


Bridget Weiss (16:37):
So I put, I’m a big diet Coke and peanut M and M fans and every fan, and everybody knows it. So I made sure somebody had delivered some to me. I had that in the backdrop and I they were going away for spring break. This was like one week after we closed down. And I also had a video that two elementary teachers had done that one in one week. They had gotten words from their kindergarten classroom about a song. They, they worked together to build lyrics and these two teachers sang this song. It’s gonna be okay, was the main lyric. So I tacked that on to the end of the video and had my message and then that video, and it really was. I needed to tell them it’s gonna be okay. I, I don’t know the future. I’m not sure what we’re gonna do next week when you get back from break, but we’re gonna be ready for you. And, you know, we can do this because we can do it together. And so that, that was in my mind what I just needed to express to them. And I knew that the written word wouldn’t quite get at it.


Sam Demma (17:42):
I love that. And filming that video sounds like it was an action on one of your personal to-do lists. You mentioned having all these lists of teachers needs and student needs and parent needs and communicating to them accordingly. What are some tools that you use to organize yourself? Whether that’s to do lists or software or anything that might be helpful for organizing your day and your tasks?


Bridget Weiss (18:08):
Yeah, I, I am, I’m a list maker. I, as you would imagine, I have a very logical sequential brain. And so I do a lot of lists. And really my calendar is a huge organizer for me. And it sounds funny, but that really is a tool. I use it in planning. I use it in tracking what this week is gonna look like, what I need to have done, what I need to prepare for. There are some other programs out there. I have just found that I, with the pace at which I work, the fewer layers of programs that I have on top of me, the more effective I am. So the, the scheduling nature of a account calendar really becomes almost a project board. You know, when I’m looking out a couple weeks ahead and, and so forth. So, so I really am driven by lists by calendar and you know, and again, having a strong cabinet team that, that reminds us all, when something’s coming up, that we need to be, we’re working on


Sam Demma (19:11):
Amazing. And on the topic of resources to do lists sound really important to you. what are resources that have helped you as an administrator and an educator, whether it be trainings you’ve been a part of or books you’ve read, or programs you’ve taken, or even simple advice that you think might be helpful for other


Bridget Weiss (19:32):
Well, I know that I am similar to so many and maybe all educators we have all this drive to improve, you know, there’s never a moment rest of wanting to do more or wanting to do differ. And, and sometimes it’s, it is exhausting because it, it is just literally a constant layer. You never quite get there. There’s always something more that you want to do, or a problem you haven’t figured out a gap, you haven’t figured out how to resolve. And so I think that’s a good thing, you know, I, I, I absolutely think it is what makes us better as we go. And so I think the skill of dissatisfaction that the, the characteristic of dissatisfaction is really critical to an effective leader. You, you must really be hungry and there’s so much work to do. There was work to do before the pandemic.


Bridget Weiss (20:35):
So right now, what I feel is a huge sense of urgency. And I’m, I’m in my 38th year in education. And so I’m getting anxious because I know I don’t have a lot of time left and there’s so much work to do. Our country has demonstrated that in the last year through the pandemic and the losses related to that, but our social justice issues, you know, are the, the needs of, so many of our kids have grown in the social and emotional area. And so I just, I feel like we, the drive is really important because what the drive does is it helps you continue to ask questions. Why aren’t we getting the results we want? What is it that we’re not doing that should be doing? You know, what is it that we’re doing that is not effective that we need to, or harmful in some cases, right?


Bridget Weiss (21:34):
Where, where are those places in our institution that are simply not working for some of our kids and some of our families, what do we need to stop doing? And, and right now, everyone is a also operating with such fatigue. Our teachers, our staff, our I just met this morning with our bus drivers. And it’s just everywhere. You know, our principles, everyone is, is so exhausted. So how we go about our business is really important, trying to focused on our priorities what, what do we stand for and how do we manage growth in those areas with limited resources, limited time, and a greater set of needs. And I think inspiring people to stay the fight, you know, to stay the course is really an important skill that a leader needs to have right now. And nobody needs to hear that we’re exhausted. Nobody needs to hear that we don’t have enough time. It, it, it simply, it is a way of life as a leader. And it certainly is before the pandemic. It is more now, it’s not that we shouldn’t take care of ourselves, but as a leader we really need to project optimism and hope for us to get through this next year, two, three years that we’ve got coming ahead of us in recovery,


Sam Demma (23:05):
How do you fill up your own cup? What are the things that you do outside of the walls of your boardroom or office to make sure you can show up optimistically and hopefully for not only your staff, but also all the students and families in the board?


Bridget Weiss (23:20):
Well, a lot of diet Coke and a lot of peanut M and MSS, the first step. After that I live in the most gorgeous area of the country in Southeast Alaska. And so I thrive in the out of doors. And so for me, personally, fresh air running, being on trails that fills my bucket. It’s really important for me. And I know when I haven’t gotten enough of it. So I think it is super important for everyone to find what fills their bucket. And we have an obligation to do that because we cannot fill others buckets if we don’t fill our own. And it is really a conscious decision and finding ways to fit it in. So I run early in the morning because if I don’t, it won’t happen. So it’s pitch dark this morning, probably 29 degrees . And but I was out there and and it was a great way to start the day. So everybody really has to fill their own bucket in, in whatever way does that for them. Awesome.


Sam Demma (24:24):
And, and if you want to share one or two final parting words or resources you think might be helpful for an educator listening, now’s a perfect time to do so.


Bridget Weiss (24:38):
I, I would say that one I’m, I’m not a big program person because I find that the heart of the work is so often in strategies and a mindset that and skill sets. However, I will say that one, as we move through this pandemic, and we have students with such increasing needs, our work around equity and social, emotional learning we use restorative practices here and it has made a huge difference in our, in our children and our families as we approach this work through the restorative practice lens. And and that is a, I think ill changer for many, many school institutions. But we have to keep looking at our, through our equity lens that there is no question that school is not still, it’s so frustrating to me, but it is still not the same experience for all kids.


Bridget Weiss (25:44):
And we have to keep fighting to change. When I hear that a child feels unseen, it breaks my heart. It is it is completely a travesty that we would have children show up and feel unseen. And so the work that we’re doing around equity and really partnering with our tribal agencies and, and other groups here to design systems that are very welcoming and socially just is, is really just important work. So I just encourage everybody to, to keep their priorities. You know, there’s a lot of noise. There’s a lot of tractors and a, a lot of anxiety in our country right now is and pointed towards schools. And we need to, as educators hold tight, stay the course with our priorities that we know our students and our families need and stand up for that and continue to, to take charge of what we do best for kids.


Sam Demma (26:53):
Bridget, thank you so much for taking some time out of your day to come on the high performing educator podcast. It’s been a phenomenal conversation. If an educator listening wants to reach out to you or mail you some diet Coke and M and Ms and peanuts, what would be the best email address or point of contact that they could send you a note or a question or a comment?


Bridget Weiss (27:17):
Sure. Email would probably be best. Send it to: bridget.weiss@juneauschools.org


Sam Demma (27:33):
Bridget, thank you so much. Keep up the great work and we’ll talk soon.


Bridget Weiss (27:38):
Sounds great. Thank you, Sam.


Sam Demma (27:41):
Hey, it’s Sam again. I hope you enjoyed that in 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 Bridget

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.

Mike Anderson – Principal of the Grand River Otters Elementary Remote School (4200 students)

Mike Anderson - Principal of the Grand River Otters Elementary Remote School (4200 students)
About Mike Anderson

Mike Anderson (@manderson27) is a high energy educator and the Principal of the Elementary Remote School of the Upper Grand District School Board. 

Formed in August 2020, the Elementary Remote School is a K-8 “virtual” school with approximately 4200 students, 220 teachers, 30 RECEs, 4 administrators, and 2 office coordinators. Their students and staff come from all across the Upper Grand District School Board.

Mike describes it as running a tech start-up. 

Connect with Mike: Email | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

UGDSB Elementary Remote School Website

How company culture determines success (Culture eats Strategy)

Bachelor of Education at University of Windsor

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s guest is a good friend of mine. His name is Mike Anderson. He is the principal of the Upper Grand District School Board Elementary Remote School. The abbreviation for that is ERS, there school is known as the grand river otters, otters being their mascot.


Sam Demma (00:59):
And there’s tons of jokes about that. Mike was a teacher who hired me to speak back in, I believe it was December. It might even have been late November and he has one of the largest remote schools, virtual schools in all of Ontario. They have approximately 4,200 students! Over 200 teachers 4 administrators, 2 office coordinators and their administration staff, and their students come from all across the upper grand district school board! Mike, on this podcast alludes to it being almost like a tech startup. You know, you’re figuring things out as you go. And I can tell you, Mike is someone who has immense amounts of passion and purpose. You know, it’s very apparent that he has time for every kid in his school. He makes time, he’s answering hundreds of emails per day. He is someone who wears his heart on his sleeve and you can feel it during today’s interview. So without further ado, let’s jump into the conversation with Mike Anderson from the Elementary Remote School of the Upper Grand District School Board. I’ll see you on the other side. Mike, thank you so much for taking some time to come on the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show. We just literally worked together, like a week or two ago. Tell the listener why you got into the work you do with young people today and the unique situation you’re in right now running a remote school.


Mike Anderson (02:26):
Sure. Sam, thanks for having me on. It’s an absolute pleasure. So I’m an elementary school principal normally in a brick and mortar school. And I, I got into education. I think it all started when I was a kid going to camp at summer camp and, and I grew up watching counselors that had this great positive energy and were enthusiastic and playful, and they liked learning and there was a performing element to it and I found it really inspiring. To be honest, I don’t know if I found my teachers that inspiring growing up. And I always kind of thought like, I wish, I wish school could be more like camp where there was that like sense of fun and energy. And so I think, my career as an educator, I’ve tried to bring some of that camp feeling into a school environment. You know, building a community, connecting with kids being, yeah, having a playfulness around how we’re learning and how we’re doing things.


Mike Anderson (03:34):
So, so now as a principal at a remote school with, or so we’re 4,200 students, 265 staff I mean the challenges this year are yeah, in some ways, like it’s been absolutely ridiculous. This past fall has been the hardest I’ve ever worked as like in my life on anything. But it, it has this vibe of a, like a, a fast paced tech startup is the, is the way I kind of explain it. It sounds funny, but yeah, like we just, there was a while where we were, we started the year and we were short staffed, and our school together without enough teachers and we made a go for it. And we tried our best to to provide a quality program for our students. And there was a ton of challenges that we faced. And, it, it always felt like we didn’t have enough time to, to get everything done, but we’ve also yeah, we’ve had some, some good success. It, it feels good to look back and be like, you know what?


Sam Demma (04:57):
That’s awesome. Yeah, it cut out there. Just it cut out a tiny bit just near the end there. I don’t know. It was, I don’t think it was you. It was me and don’t worry. I’m gonna cut this little part out. Okay. But you said when you said it feels like, and then it, it just dropped


Mike Anderson (05:13):
And you


Sam Demma (05:14):
About sorry, go ahead, startup. Yeah, I got, I got the whole tech startup piece and then towards the end it just cut out.


Mike Anderson (05:23):
It feels like over the last few, we are starting to have some recognition of our progress and some success that we’re having. So our hard work has been paying off. And when I say art, like it’s an entire team of people that, that is working incredibly hard to make this school function.


Sam Demma (05:42):
And it’s different this year, obviously than it has been for you in the past. What is, what is keeping you motivated and hopeful during this challenging time? I don’t wanna say it’s a bad time or a negative time. It’s just different. It presents new challenges and hurdles.


Mike Anderson (05:58):
Yeah. So I, I mean the things that give me hope and that keep me going, I think it working with some incredibly inspiring colleagues teachers and office staff and administrators who been yeah, just thinking outside the box and being creative. One of the things we’ve, we’ve sort of created an infrastructure in our school that allows like we have for a while we had a frequently asked questions running on a, on our staff website and we said, we need this to be crowdsourced. So we, we need everyone. Like, if you have a question thrown on there and if you don’t wanna her throat on there, we’re gonna, we’re gonna build this together. And the analogy we kept using with our stack was we are, we are gonna build an airplane together, but we have to do this while we’re already flying in the sky.


Mike Anderson (06:49):
We’re gonna build an airplane in the sky. And, and it is, it is not gonna feel ready to fly yet. There’s gonna be problems. And we need to just keep doing our best and work together. So the, the school, the elementary remote school, and we call ourselves the, the, the otters. We have we’ve, I’ve, it is incredibly inspiring to see the collaboration and the just, just the, the helping each other people. We have a, a, a Google chat we, which is an ongoing chat room with 260 plus staff members. And people, every day, someone asks a question and five different people give different suggestions and responses. So it, it, it kind of is like being in a school and you walk into a staff room, you’re like, Hey, anyone know how to fix this, or you pass someone in the hall, but we don’t have halls.


Mike Anderson (07:37):
We don’t have a staff room. So we wanna, it has turned into a place where people are helping each other and it is super exciting to see. And also you can imagine like in, in it’s also a way to decentralize sort of the, all the information so that I can share it out. And sometimes I’m jumping in the chat and answering and clarifying and other times like, it’s yeah. It’s, it’s staff working with staff. It’s, it’s really cool to see. I think another thing that gives me hope is I mean, we are working with kids, right? Kids are like, I find they are constant source of hope. You see either their creativity and their what, like, I don’t know about you, but when I see kids doing things that are thoughtful and kind for someone else, it fills me with a joy like that. It, I mean, it, it drives me to say, well, I’m, I’m in the right business here. I, I feel so much pride in, in seeing our students when they, when they step up and, and do things that yeah, they’re just amazing. So yeah, those are sort of the, my big drivers, I think. Yeah.


Sam Demma (08:52):
I’m with you on the, the second one and the first, although I’m not in a school seeing a chat box with 260 teachers, I, you got me really curious when you started talking about that. I’m, I’m sure there’s dozens upon dozens of amazing unique ideas that have been shared in that chat. And I’m curious to know what has been working or what have some of your teachers that you’ve heard and you thought, wow, that’s a brilliant idea. And maybe they report it back, that it went well. And maybe you can also share a challenger too. That might show someone that, Hey, you’re not going through this alone. It’s, it’s a universal challenge.


Mike Anderson (09:28):
Right? So I, I think that one of the, I mean, in terms of a, an overall success that we’ve had at our school to, to, to address the remote element of our remote school, I mean, all of our staff are a few of them are schools. But most people are by themselves or in a, in a room that they set up to be a, a teaching space. And we knew early on that we needed to build a culture a connected culture where we’re all part of something. It’s not just like I’m teaching at home this year. Mm-Hmm, , it’s, I’m part of something I’m part of something bigger. So we worked really hard and it sounds funny, but the very beginning myself and the, the first two VPs that we had Jen Apgar and Alan go we met in my garage on lawn chairs, like socially, just, this is back in August.


Mike Anderson (10:25):
And we are like it that maybe one of the reasons, it felt like a tech start, starting in a garage. I think one of us tweeted out like in the beginning and, and it is like, it had this sense of excitement and we had to answer all these questions, like, how are we going to decide who’s teaching? What, who are our staff gonna be? What’s our schedule gonna be like for the day, what, well, and, and we talked about, you know, what, what kind of strategies are we gonna use? And, and the one thing, the quote that started, and I, I, I feel bad cause I don’t remember who said this quote, but it’s it says the quote is culture eats strategy for breakfast. Mm. And, and we started with, we need a culture in our school, so we need a logo, a mascot, we need a brand.


Mike Anderson (11:12):
And we came up with the otters nice. And and, and we build off of that. And we, we knew we needed to be part of, we needed people to say, I’m not just like, oh, I, I sit at home and teach, no, I’m an Otter. I’m part of something bigger. So we, now we have spirit wear, we have our website. We have at one point I actually bought a giant Otter suit and store for an dorky little I mean, it was like a, a prize if kids raised enough money for our, our first Terry Fox video or Terry Fox campaign, which is like a, a fundraising campaign. We ran that at the very end of September. And I would say that was sort of a, a pivotal moment for our school because one of our teachers, I’m gonna get a shout out to Melissa Rose who came up with this idea and she took this initiative on, and we did a crowdsourced video where teachers all, all remotely submitted little video clips.


Mike Anderson (12:04):
We, she edited together. We posted it out there and we challenged people like we’re gonna try to raise. And I think our initial goal, like, you know, we wanna raise 500 or a thousand or 1500. And one of the, if they met one of the if the students raised that kind of money there were different sort of incentives. Mine was I’d wear a, an embarrassing auto costume around to work. And I did and it was funny so, but the neat thing is like, we raised way over our goal. I think we ended up braising over $7,000. And we, we think part of the reason that we raise so much money on awesome video and staff engagement and students getting excited about it, but also I think it was we interpreted this as, as the community saying, you, we wanna support you.


Mike Anderson (12:51):
You’re doing, we really happy. And we started to about then from parents, like, thank you. You’ve created a place for my child to go to school every day and learn, and they’re happy. Mm. So some parents and, and fair enough, after last spring with the emergency distance learning the online learning this fall, I think people had some different expectations and a bunch of parents I heard from said, this is going so well. We just wanted to make sure our kids were safe at home and not getting COVID. We didn’t expect them to actually make connections and like, be excited about learning and sharing things. So I, I think about the staff we we’ve had where been like a Google meet. So like similar to a zoom and students are still like, they’re getting school work done, but we’re, we’re always trying to think about what else can we do in our school to create a positive experience for our students, in fact not, not to suit your horn there, but Sam, like when you came in last week for your assembly, for our, for our school it was awesome.


Mike Anderson (13:57):
And the, the kids, like they loved it, the staff loved it. Your, your, your message of I mean, talk about like giving kids hope and and, and a like profound optimism for how they can make a difference, even during a global pandemic.


Sam Demma (14:13):
No, I appreciate that. And it’s so into inspiring to see kids taking action. I share that feeling that you have, that when a kid, you know, believes in themselves and takes an action that maybe they’re uncomfortable with at first, but they know they wanna do it. It just lights you up. And you just finished telling me before we started the interview that you have a student who approached you and said, I wanna make a website really curious to know how as educators, can we help our students have those moments where they start believing in themselves more. And then how do we not hold their hand through the journey, but give them the permission to go try and fail, and maybe just share that story of, of that kid and what actually happened there.


Mike Anderson (14:58):
Yeah. I mean, one of our students reached out to me today and said, I have an idea for our student council. And I said, okay, what, what is it? And this is just like back and forth messaging. And I said, tell me, tell me, I like, I like great ideas. What are you thinking? They’re like, what if we had a, what website for our student council? And I said, I love it. That sounds fantastic. You do you know how to do this? They were like, kind of, and I’m like, great. I think you’re the webmaster , this is the kind of, I mean, we have this really unique opportunity and we’ve tried to our student council and we, we have a parent like a school council as well. And we’re trying to do things like we do in brick and mortar.


Mike Anderson (15:37):
We’re trying to provide those opportunities for our kids online. And student council is something that we’d I, I, I, I, I’m gonna give a shout out to a student named Gemma who back in September, she, she created a Google slideshow and she’s like dear principal Anderson. I would like to propose that we have a student council love it. And she made this whole Google slideshow. And honestly I opened it and I had that feeling of like just amazement, just like, this is exciting. This is a student who is yeah. Just has a bunch of great ideas. And you’ve actually met Gemma cuz she introduced you on our on our assembly last week. I know. So she’s like, yeah, one of the active members of our student council now. And I think she and two of her classmates are now working on a school newspaper.


Mike Anderson (16:28):
And they want to give a space for our students to have a voice to write our articles about events that are going on in our school. And I’m thinking I’m gonna connect them with our new webmaster and start getting this all published it yeah, I think giving students a voice, giving them an opportunity in their school to say, this is what I’m passionate about, and this is what I want to do. The more that we can do that for kids it has this incredible ripple effect. One, I find it quite energizing and, and exciting for to, to see that and, and to develop those young leaders it gives them a venue and it also makes them feel, Hey, I, I, I can have an impact here. I can, I can have, you know, I can do something here in my school and I can have a voice in, in what my school, the community and the culture of the school is. Like, I love


Sam Demma (17:20):
That. Yeah. Yeah. And I can’t wait to see the, the website if, you know, if they need any help. I, I built my own site on WordPress and would be happy to share some, some wisdom as a fellow web master.


Mike Anderson (17:32):
I love that. I love that. So, and this is where yeah, I mean, connecting with community partners yeah. Is is always, it makes it for the students it’s so much more authentic, right? Yeah. so I know that we have one of our grade five classes Mrs. Kat’s class they’ve been connecting they’re, they’re very passionate about environmental issues and they’ve reached out and brought in some special guests to talk about what they can do and some, some projects that they can take on and take ownership for. So I, I sat in, on one of their conferences with a a local environmental champion. Nice that, yeah, it was super impressive. That’s awesome. I, I like bringing in community connections for kids to make the learning. It just, it makes, it brings it alive. Right. You’re not reading about something in a book you’re like asking questions to an expert. Yeah. And of all the times to do that, the remote school is perfect. The kids are all on a video screen. They know how to do this. Yeah.


Sam Demma (18:40):
Yeah, that’s an interesting perspective because I’ve also heard the other side of that, where a lot of educators are saying, oh, this is the year where, you know, we can’t do so we’re just not gonna do them. And I’m curious to know what your perspective is on that and how you would address that. And what yeah. What your thoughts are.


Mike Anderson (18:59):
Right. So my colleagues in the brick and mortar schools are obviously it’s the most important is keeping everyone safe and it is different. They can’t have, have assemblies like normal. So your assembly I mean at the remote school, there’s things that we can do that just cause of, yeah. Like we, we can kind of be more, we can think outside the box quite easily. And I mean, you can imagine at a school, they said, we can have we can have clubs, but we need to do it with physical distancing and maybe it’s gonna need to be remote. So I know I heard about one school, that’s trying to run a club and kids are in different classrooms, on a video meet in the same building. Yeah. Well, like we’ve got an awesome chess club right now, nicely. One of our teacher, like, yes, figure this all out.


Mike Anderson (19:52):
And we’ve got like moving towards like a ladder ranking system and kids challenging each other. And like, this is, I mean, yeah, it’s fun. We’re, we’re starting Tom Barker is taking the lead one of our teachers and we’re gonna start a coding competition in our school. And that like, yeah, now, you know, we, what we don’t have is we don’t have recess time. Mm. Right. But our, our students, like our they’re getting Ette every day or, or, I mean, depending on the age, but I know yeah, some kids are the other day when the first big major snowfall my daughter is one of the oters, so she was in grade seven. Nice. And her challenge, she’s like your physical activity. You need to go outside, you need to build a snowman as apology can, and then come back inside, you have 15 minutes go.


Mike Anderson (20:38):
And she like comes running down the stairs. I was like, where are you going? She’s like, hi, it’s ed. I gotta go. I was like, that’s awesome. Like she, and it’s cool. I mean, I don’t, yeah. It awesome. Those kind of things. We, we’re trying to leverage the opportunities we have being remote. We part a big way we do that is by partnering with parents and, and, and working, it is a partnership, especially this year mm-hmm to, to help our students kind of navigate it. And I, I should say, I mean, there, there are some people that are finding remote. I mean, it’s, it’s challenging and it’s different and we try to be creative and we try to think outside the box and still provide a quality education for our students. But it, there, it, it’s not perfect. There are, there are some stumbling blocks and there’s hurdles and there’s challenges that we we spent a lot of time trying to navigate through and, and learn from. But it does feel like we’re making progress, which is a positive thing.


Sam Demma (21:34):
No, that’s awesome. And for me, it seems like your successes with this remote school will almost become a rubric. If we have to do another year of virtual learning, what you’re going through is what Joseph Campbell would call the hero’s journey. You’re you went into the unordinary world, which is like the, the remote world, cuz no one’s ever done this before. And you overcame objections and figured things out and got challenged and figured out the problems. And now you’re coming back around the other side. And if this is to happen again, everyone, one’s gonna turn to you and your 250 staff and say, how the heck did you do that? Because you might have to do it again. And I mean, we could just call your experience right now, innovation, like this is what’s happening with your school. And I think it’s just a cool success story to highlight.


Sam Demma (22:26):
And I know there’s challenges that come all along with it, for sure. But what you’ve been able to do with all of your colleagues and everyone in the school is, and the parents and the students and everyone is, is phenomenal. And to have the kid engaged to the point where they run outside to build a snowman is pretty awesome. Which is, which is cool. But if you could go back in time to when you were just starting to teach and have wise, Mike right now speak to young foolish Mike, when you just started teaching. And of course you weren’t foolish, but you know, less wisdom, less experience. What advice would you give yourself? And then what advice would that, that this advice is probably the same as what you tell other educators, but what advice would you also give to your colleague right now and the education calling?


Mike Anderson (23:16):
I think I, I came into the teaching profession understanding that it’s important that you build relationships Hmm. With students and with parents and with colleagues. And I, I love the quote and I, again, I, I, I like quote, I don’t always remember where they’re from, but no one cares what, you know, until they know that you care. Hmm. And, and at, at the core, I think back the, some of the the, the best experiences and the best connections that I’ve made with, with students and with colleagues are through those like quality, like sincere human relationships. Mm. Caring about people is, I mean, it, it, it, this is a relationship, it’s a people driven enterprise. So I know even I, yeah, just thinking back, like connect first, build, build those relationships first cuz once you have that established then it’s so much easier to get kids excited about learning to get them passionate and enthusiastic.


Mike Anderson (24:20):
I, I should yeah. I, I just think back in my, are about the, the, the best experiences that I’ve had in this profession have come have been built on those relationships and building relationships that are sincere and honest and, and when there’s trust developed students can yeah, they thrive when, when, when a, when a, when a student knows that an educate or cares about them and is on their team and is encouraging them and supporting them it’s really exciting to, to watch what they can do and, and how far they can go.


Sam Demma (25:00):
I love that. And I C I couldn’t agree more when I think about the, the teachers in my life, who’ve made a huge to impact. It was people that were passionate about their content, like extremely passionate about what they were teaching, but then made an effort to get to know every kid in the class, to the point where they take their generic content and then add three or four words to apply it to specific students. You know, you know, I remember my teacher, Mike loud foot, who I talk about in my speech. He used to teach essence and then towards the middle and the end, he’d say, Hey, for, for you, this means this and Sam for you, this means this and Mike for you, this means this. And having those people who took the time to get to know you and build a relationship with you. And it just, it just heightened the experience so much. And I, and I couldn’t agree more. So thanks for sharing and anyone listening, you know, focus on the relationships, prioritize the relationships. Mike, thank you so much for sharing some of your wisdom. It’s already been 25 minutes time flies when you’re having a good conversation. Is there any way people like, what’s the best way for people to reach out if they like this and they just want to chat with you or have a conversation?


Mike Anderson (26:08):
Yeah, so, like, I think on Twitter, my my Twitter handle is @manderson27. And 27 is also the number I wear on my hockey Jersey shouted out to Darrell Sittler. Nice on. But yeah, so @manderson27 is probably the best way to connect with me. I’ll give you my email address as well. If people wanna send an email, Mike.Anderson@ugdsb.on.ca. Just heads up, I get between 200 and 300 emails a day right now in this current job. So it is super hard. I’m doing my very best. Yeah. To to get back to people in a timely fashion, but yeah, I’d be happy if anyone had any follow up questions or thoughts especially with the the winter break coming up. I’ll hopefully get a chance to get caught up on my email.


Sam Demma (27:00):
No, it sounds good. I’m, I’m dumbfounded that you even opened mind. So I appreciate it.


Mike Anderson (27:06):
Cool. Sam, thanks so much. This was awesome.


Sam Demma (27:08):
You too Mike. Appreciate it. And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the high performing educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review so other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show. If you wanna meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network, you’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

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

Ryan Keliher BA, BEd, MBA, – Teacher, Author, Coach and Teenage Motivator

Ryan Keliher BA, BEd, MBA, - Teacher, Author, Coach and Teenage Motivator
About Ryan Keliher

Ryan Keliher (@superstarcurric) BA, BEd, MBA, is a high school educator who has spent the past eleven years teaching, coaching and motivating teenagers. He is a former valedictorian, university basketball captain, and Academic All-Canadian who is passionate about student leadership and personal development.

Keliher resides in Prince Edward Island, Canada with his wife Siobhan and their baby boy, Rafael.

Connect with Ryan: Email | Instagram | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Charlottetown Rural High School

Ryan’s Personal Website

The Superstar Curriculum

The Hate you Give

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker Sam Demma. Today’s guest was actually someone who was introduced to me by a former guest, Melanie Hedley, a teacher from Bluefield High School introduced me over email to this gentleman named Ryan. And I’m so glad she did because the conversation we had was phenomenal and I can’t wait to share it with you.


Sam Demma (00:59):
Ryan Keliher has his BA his BEd , his MBA, and is a high school educator who has spent the past 11 years teaching coaching and motivating teenagers. He is a former valedictorian university basketball captain and an academic, all Canadian, who is passionate about student leadership and personal development. Ryan resides in Prince Edward Island, Canada with his wife Siobhan and their baby Raphael. He is also an author, an author of a book called the superstar curriculum. It’s a phenomenal book. He’s sold over 2000 copies and today we talk about so many different topics, things that come directly out of his book, but also his own philosophies on student leadership and how to navigate these difficult times. I hope you enjoy this conversation. I will see you on the other side. Ryan, thank you so much for coming on the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show this morning. Can you start by sharing a little bit about yourself and why you got into the work that you do in education today?


Ryan Keliher (02:01):
Sure. First of all, I just wanna thanks. Thank you a lot for having me on today. I’m really looking forward to being on the pod and just a little bit about me. So my name is Ryan Keliher and I am a high school teacher and I’m 14 years into my career and I teach out of Charlton Rural High School in tiny Prince Edward Island. Nice. Why I kind of got into education? I was really fortunate to have had some awesome teachers when I was going through school and they made me really like being in school and they had a really positive impact on me. And as I grew up, I kind of just felt like I’d like to that kind of do what they do. I really, I really admired them. I really thought what they did was meaningful and from a fairly early age, like in high school, kind of, it was my, it was my goal to become a high school teacher. So I really didn’t even pursue a ton of other options after I kind of got hooked in by these engaging teachers. I kind of said, yeah, you know what? I think I wanna do that too.


Sam Demma (03:07):
Ah, that’s awesome. What did they do? Like what did those teachers do for you that left such an impression on you and pushed you to pursue this path?


Ryan Keliher (03:17):
I think what, when I think of kind of the two or three teachers that stand out the most you know, they, they were really knowledgeable in their subjects, but more almost Mo I would say more importantly, they really made me and my fellow classmates feel valued and welcome in class. And when you added that combination in where students felt like they were valued in the classroom, plus they were gonna get material that, you know, from teachers who were knowledgeable in, in their content areas, it really drew me into the classroom. And, and it was a place that I liked to be at a place I liked. I liked to come every day to learn.


Sam Demma (04:00):
Wow. That makes sense. And, and I think right now that’s a challenge that all educators are, are faced with. It’s tough to do it virtually. Now, maybe in PEI, you guys might be still working in the classrooms, but what are some of the current two things, challenges and opportunities during this time, because I think both are present and I would love to some insight on, on both sides of the coin.


Ryan Keliher (04:22):
Yeah. Well, PEI has, we’ve been very fortunate to kind of, of to keep COVID 19 the spread of it at bay here on the island. So we’ve been quite fortunate. But that, that being said the last two weeks actually my high school has moved to online learning leading up to leading up to the career break. So, you know, it has presented its challenges, but like you said, with, with those challenges come opportunities. I think with education, the biggest challenge, whether it’s virtual learning or in person learning is developing that connection and maintaining that connection with students. And then kind of like what I alluded to the, you know, the teachers that I admired most growing up, they made that connection first and then that made learning a lot easier. It made engagement a lot easier. It made buy a lot easier.


Ryan Keliher (05:10):
So I think that gets more difficult when you, when you move to the remote learning model. So it’s about keeping that at the front of mind as an educator, but how can I still maintain these connections with my students when I’m not seeing them day to day? So for me, it was, you know, little checking emails here and there creating some engaging videos to kind of start class you know, whether they were funny or fun or, or just a little different. And then, and then, you know, using that as kind of the springboard to the content of each lesson, but showing that you care and showing that, that, that you value their time you know, whether it’s in person or online, I think is the most challenging, but it, it kind of, I important opportunity in education and when it comes to opportunity, I’m a big believer that, you know, I think it’s Napoleon hill who says, you know, your biggest opportunity is where you are right now.


Ryan Keliher (06:07):
So, you know, as, as educators or as students, right, it’s important that we think about what we can do in the moment to kind of have actions that create positive reactions for our students. So whether, like I said, it’s a welcome video that puts a smile on somebody’s face, or whether it’s a really well laid out plan that is going to be challenging for students, but you’ve thought about what supports you can put in place. And at the end of it, they’re looking back and saying, you know, that was really tough, but I felt I was able to do it with, with supports in place. I feel like I’ve grown from it, you know, it’s, it’s how, how can those actions create those positive reactions?


Sam Demma (06:49):
And right now, maybe not yet in PI, but sports have been canceled as well postponed, or, you know, they practiced virtually through zoom all in their basements. You, I know you growing up were a big athlete. I played soccer, you played basketball, saw the Steve Nash picture on your page. I loved it. You dedicated the first part of your book to building character, and I would assume that sports helped you build your charact to a huge degree. Mm-Hmm how did sports have an impact on you and how are we, how can we continue to build young people’s character through this time?


Ryan Keliher (07:27):
Okay. Yeah. So with, with sports, I mean, sports played a huge part in my life. And as far as character development, like it, it played a really important role. And with, with my book, you’re right, the first quarter of the book is dedicated towards character development and then it progresses into have in my development and some opportunities for leadership. But as far as character development goes, I, I often share kind of my leadership story with, with my students. So I was a kid I grew up and I was playing hockey and, you know, I was pretty good hockey player, but I definitely wasn’t the best player on the ice. And, but it seemed every year I would get the opportunity to be the captain or the assistant captain on my hockey team. And I, and it just kind of became the norm. And I never really understood why I just kind of was that per, who would become the captain or the assistant captain.


Ryan Keliher (08:21):
And then I went to junior high and I started to play basketball and the same thing would happen. I’d be thrown in the captain role of the team. And then I went to high school and the same thing would continue. And then in high school, I was named the valedictorian of my high school class. And again, I would always kind of wonder in the back of my mind, I’m like, why am I always thrown in this role? Because, you know, I don’t feel like I do anything exceptionally special as a, as a leader, but people always seem to put me in this role for some reason. And it, and it never really, even, it never really clicked until I went to university and I played university basketball. And so I was 17 leaving high school, going to my first year university. And by Christmas time I was named the captain of my university basketball team.


Ryan Keliher (09:14):
And we had players who were 25, 24, 23 years old on it. And I’m thinking, how, how come I am the captain of my team? And it finally, that’s kind of when the light bulb went off and all it was was that my personal bar, as far as character went over time, whether it was through instilling values fr from my parents was high. And I, I cared a lot about being a good teammate. I’m a big believer that, you know, the only thing better you can have than good teammates is being a good teammate. Hmm. Think better. You can have than good friends is being a good friend. I think that really helped me pursue a opportunities in life. It opened up a ton of doors and it allowed me to lead by example a lot. And like I said, there was nothing ever special about it, but I was always willing to do my best. I was always willing to set the bar high and is always willing to cheer and help others along and over time. I guess people notice. So, you know, when you’re thrown into these opportunities through sports, it there’s the skill development, but there’s the character development that occurs that is equally important. And as you grow older and you may divert away from sports that character develop, it becomes even more important than maybe the skill development, you know, ever, ever was.


Sam Demma (10:41):
And without sports present at certain times, especially right now, how can we ensure that we’re still helping young people build their character? Is it by giving them unique opportunities or pushing their boundaries? Yeah. I’m curious. What, what do you think?


Ryan Keliher (10:56):
Yeah, I, I think it’s about giving them opportunities for growth. Like for me, school, you know, is always about growth, more than grades. And sometimes students don’t see it that way. And, and, and sometimes educators don’t see it that way. Cuz we do have that responsibility to kind of assess curricular content. But when I think of my 14 years and the most important conversations I’ve ever had with students, very few of them were curricular content related. And the most important ones that stick out were always character related or, or opportunity related or, you know, goal related and the more teachers, you know, and, and, and educators think of their students in front of them. As, as people who are gonna go and do great things in a variety of fields I think you, you can be a little bit more per perceptive about developing that character education in the classroom while still, you know, making sure the content of your course is, is, is covered and, and covered to a high degree. You know, I’m not trying to discount the importance of curricular content, but it’s, it’s everyday success principles, you know, are not explicitly taught in class, but the opportunities develop to develop the, those principles are abundance. So teachers have to be aware of that and you know, are able to kind of pull those threads when the opportunities present themselves for students.


Sam Demma (12:20):
I love that. And I’m curious now, too, as well, you mentioned Napoleon hill, you have your own book, the superstar curriculum. What prompted you to write that? Was there a moment in education where you thought this is needed for, for young people? It was in a personal challenge. You set for yourself, where did that come from?


Ryan Keliher (12:38):
It, it happened when I was finishing my masters of business. My so when I finished my MBA, I was kind of in writing mode cause I just finished my thesis and I was doing a lot of journaling at the time. And I noticed a lot of my journaling had to do with these important convers that I’ve had with students over the pro the over the last decade. And a theme kind of started to emerge on how a lot of these conversations had to do with character. And they had to do with leaders, personal leadership, and they had to do with seizing opportunities and they had to do with developing strong habits of mind and thought, you know what? I’m a big non-fiction reader. And in my opinion, there, there weren’t a ton of non-fiction self-awareness books out there for, for young adults.


Ryan Keliher (13:27):
So I thought, well, maybe I’ll go and create one. And so I, so I did create the superstar curriculum and the idea behind superstar is that what, what I’ve come to learn over the years is that, you know, the biggest superstars in our lives, although, you know, we often think of the major celebrities or sports stars or movie stars. But when we think about the biggest superstars in our own lives, they’re the people who are much closer are to us, they’re our parents or our coaches or our teachers or our friends. And the, the reality is, is, is if, if that’s the case, then if you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you might be the superstar in somebody else’s life. Hmm. So it’s just about the profound power we have to, I packed others on a daily basis and it happens at, at the ground level. And it does expand out to, to, you know, the stars that we’re talking about from Hollywood to sports. They’re tremendous inspirations, but the reality is the, the day to day inspirations that we have are all around us, including all right, ourselves.


Sam Demma (14:36):
Oh, love that. And where can people find that resource if they want to check it out? I think you offer an online version for free and then like a paperback version and a discount right now, where can they find all that information?


Ryan Keliher (14:47):
Yeah. If they wanna check out ryankeliher.com it has kind of all the information there, the book’s available on Amazon, but if, you know, if a school or, or an educator was looking to a bulk order, I would recommend contacting me cuz I can probably get you a better rate than what, what Amazon could provide. So yeah, so ryankeliher.com and you could check me out there or on Instagram @superstarcurriculum.


Sam Demma (15:13):
Cool. And if you could go back in time and speak to younger Ryan, when he just started teaching, what pieces of advice, knowing what you know now would you have given yourself?


Ryan Keliher (15:26):
I think for me, I, what I always try and keep in mind is, so my grandma, there was a teacher and I remember vividly that a conversation we had. So she was 87 at the time. And she said, you know, Ryan, now that you’re a teacher and your job is to teach. It’s really important that you also remember that your prime married job is to learn. Hmm. And that always stuck with me. And I think moving forward for, for anybody who’s going into education is to keep that kind of front of mind because COVID changed everything, new practices are going to change everything technology’s going to change everything. So the, the way kids interact is constantly changing. So educators have to be willing to learn and adapt year over year, whether they’re, you know, you’re just adding little tweaks to your practice or there’s something fundamental that has to, you know, involve you making a major shift in your practice, the importance of teachers having that willingness to learn is paramount.


Sam Demma (16:37):
I love that. And one bonus question, just for fun. What, what books are you reading right now? Is there anything that’s been interesting you or you’ve been cracking open?


Ryan Keliher (16:48):
Yeah, actually I just I’m into the hate you give right now. And I I’ve, I’ve just kind of started it, but it’s been tremendous thus far and I’m looking forward to reading it. I don’t read a ton of fiction. So it’s, it’s a good opportunity over the holidays to kind of break into that. And I’m, I’m more of a non-fiction reader for sure.


Sam Demma (17:08):
Awesome. Ryan, thank you so much for taking some time to come out on the show. I really appreciate it and, and have an amazing holiday season with family and friends. And I look forward to keep continuing to follow your journey.


Ryan Keliher (17:20):
Great. It was great talking to you. It was nice to meet you and I’ll be following your journey as well. Happy holidays.


Sam Demma (17:26):
And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the high performing educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review so other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show. If you wanna meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network. You’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Ryan Keliher

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.

Jason Eduful – Teacher, Basketball Coach, Youth Minister and Mental Health Advocate

Jason Eduful - Teacher, Basketball Coach, Youth Minister and Mental Health Advocate
About Jason Eduful

Jason (@__MrE) is an educator, basketball coach, youth minister and advocate for mental health.  His goal is to bridge the gap between marginalized youth and extraordinary education. 

He is also the youngest guest that we’ve had on this podcast! 

Connect with Jason: Email | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Cardinal Ambrozic Catholic Secondary School Website

Equity Studies at York University

Coach Carter Movie

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s guest, his name is Jason Eduful. He goes by Mr. Eduful for his students. He is an educator, a basketball coach, a minister, and an advocate for mental health and his goal is to bridge the gap between marginalized youth and extraordinary education. Jason is one of the youngest educators.


Sam Demma (01:06):
I’ve had the chance to bring on the show and you can tell by our very energetic conversation. He’s super excited about the work that he’s doing. Although there are challenges, he’s seeing them as opportunities because he knows like Malcolm X said without education, you’re not going anywhere in this world. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I enjoyed it. See you on the other side. Jason, thank you so much for coming onto the High Performing Educators podcast. You play the perfect role visually. I know no one can really see you right now, but you got those beautiful glasses on and can you please tell the audience who you are, why you got into teaching and the work that you do with young people today?


Jason Eduful (01:46):
Yeah, no problem. First of all, thank you so much for having me, Sam. I’ve heard so many great things about you, had an opportunity to listen to some of your work and it truly is inspiring. So keep doing what you’re doing. My name is Jason Eduful. I’ve been teaching for about, this will be year number eight. I currently teach at Cardinal Ambrozic Catholic Secondary School in the Peel region. You know, I really started with studying equity and racial studies at York University. That was like my passion and then I took that and kind of switched gears a little bit and started studying philosophy and theology. And so that’s really what I’m teaching now. I’m teaching theology at the grade 12 level, for the most part, they kind of throw me everywhere other than math and science, ’cause we don’t get along, but usually anywhere else , I’m usually free to go. Married for a year and a half now a year and a bit.


Jason Eduful (02:43):
So yeah. She’s also a teacher normally grade five, but due to the whole pandemic situation, she’s online kind of teaching kindergarten. Nice. but yeah, I’m usually I’m a coach, I’m a mentor. I guess I’m a best friend at some point but , but normally that’s what I do. I usually love working with kids just mainly because you know, I, I just remember being a high school student. And I remember really that lead up into high school. I hated school so much. And I hated it mainly because I felt like nobody number one could relate to me. I grew up kind of Weston and Lawrence ish back in the day. It wasn’t the nicest neighborhood I’ll leave it at that. But we had a lot of outreach in the community specifically Weston park, Baptist church and front lines with a special woman, who’s kind of like my mentor still Bonnie Parsons.


Jason Eduful (03:41):
Mm. She kind of took us under her wing and made sure that we were, you know, not only getting that educational side of things, learning how to become men in a really rough neighborhood, but also kind of connecting that spirituality to it. Hmm. And so I still partner with front lines when I can, but for the most part you, yeah, that’s really where I started things. And then grade 10, I believe, I wanna say I started or something piqued my interest in school, you know? My grade 10 teacher, Diana Espanza, who also is ironically my vice principal right now. , she I don’t remember what the assignment was. I’m not gonna lie to you sound, but I remember the response, like the response was huge. I, I handed in an assignment and she tore it apart.


Jason Eduful (04:31):
Like just, if I could say like red ink on a paper, there was no white spots. Like just ripped it up and gave it back to me and said, this is not acceptable. Like, this is not who you are. It’s not a reflection of what you’re capable of. And it was the first time that somebody ever really said that to me. So in my mind, you know, you’re in grade tenure. You’re like, okay, lady, whatever. Like , I’m with the next, let’s gone with this. But she, she just kept pushing me. She kept pushing me. She kept pushing me. She kept pushing me. I, I, and it was the first time I resubmitted an assignment. Like I wasn’t like an, a put less student, but I was a pretty solid kid. Like you don’t talk to me, I’ll do the work. We’re good. And so when she ripped that apart and she gave me the opportunity to redo it, and then we connected again.


Jason Eduful (05:11):
And from that time I remember ironically, I had her every other year till I graduated. And so I was kind of stuck with it. There was no getting around it, but she really, she really inspired people and challenged them to really think about, not only like you could have your own opinion, but she was gonna challenge that opinion. And you had to make sure that you were able to back it up, you know? It’s funny, cuz my cousin Reggie sent me a video yesterday two days ago and it was about either, it was a youth you video just about something saying who’s your worst or your best teacher. And it was, it was hilarious because most of it was all like negative things, but like the passion that these people had for the teachers that they hated like full names, like Jason Eduful, grade six.


Jason Eduful (06:00):
And I’m thinking, I think that we forget as teachers, how powerful of an impact that we can have on kids either positively or negatively. Mm you know what I mean? So that’s kinda a little bit above my background where I jumped into it. And then from there obviously she inspired me to really become a leader in the community because it was more like one learning can be fun. Mm. Right. and number two, if you really put enough time into any student and in all like now times like people are like, well, how much time can we really put in versus press for time? But if you just take that time to build those connections, you can literally inspire anybody. And so that’s what really got me jumping into why I wanted to become a teacher and why I’m still doing it now.


Sam Demma (06:47):
So you’re telling me, your teacher gave you nightmares about red pens. So you touched, you touched on something really cool. You mentioned the fact that she gave you a second chance to resubmit the assignment. How do we give students that feeling? Like, what did you feel like when she gave you a second chance? If you could go back to grade 10, Jason or grade six, Jason, I can’t remember which one it was. What was going through your, on your mind when she gave you that second chance and how can we give kids today that similar, similar feeling?


Jason Eduful (07:25):
Grade 10, Jason would probably immediately be like, what is wrong with this woman? Like, you’re not my mom, like, get outta here. We don’t need any, this, I was very confrontational. And now in the, that I’m in now after obviously years of mentoring people and doing things like that and coaching, you can tell when somebody standoffish, there’s a reason, you know? And so I think from the teacher perspective, giving kids an opportunity to resubmit, isn’t gonna kill you. You know what I mean? I know we’re crunched for time, but if our goal is to make these students and these pupils into better human beings, right. Especially I’m in a Catholic school. So we kind of have our own little virtues that we’re kind of going off of. So we want them to be it’s called Catholic graduate expectations. So what do we want them to look like when they graduate?


Jason Eduful (08:14):
If we can focus on those and just put the curriculum to the side for a second, if we can focus on the making kids better people, we’re doing way better of a job than just, Hey, you deserve a 90 on this paper. Hey, you deserve a 50 on this paper. But from the student perspective, I remember thinking, number one, why won’t you leave me alone? Like I don’t get a number two. Wow. Like once, once it kicked in and it didn’t kick until grade 11, I won’t even lie to you. Mm. But grade 11, when I had her again, I was like, oh my God, here we go again. This lady is gonna rip everything up. And then just gimme a, like, she would write paragraphs of like, you should improve in this. Why don’t you think about this? Why don’t you? And I’m like that now, unfortunately, but for my students that have me my bad, you know, where it comes from now.


Jason Eduful (08:59):
But as the student, I think it wasn’t until grade 11, like I said, but in grade 11, I really thought, man, she actually wants us to succeed. Like, it’s not about like, here’s the mark that you got. Thanks for doing the assignment. It was really, yeah. You did this assignment, but dig deeper. Like why, why did you, why do you think I made you do this? You know what I mean? Why do you think I made you redo this so many times because you’re just hitting the crust, like jump in there. And so yeah, like I think we should all give second chance again. Second chances. Isn’t gonna kill anybody, man. I know we make it a big thing, but it’s we can do it every day.


Sam Demma (09:37):
Yeah. It’s so true. I’m curious to know, you mentioned that now that’s your teaching style which is, which is awesome. Is there, is there a story that comes to mind and you can change the student’s name for the sake of privacy, but I want a story where you believed in a kid where they didn’t believe even themselves and you know, you push them past the threshold and maybe they even broke down and told you how big of an impact it had on them. I feel like a story like that told right now from a place of vulnerability, but also to remind another educator that the work we do is so important, cuz it can transform a student’s life and their whole future can really re spark and reignite a passion in another educator. Do you have any of those stories that come to mind when I ask you that question?


Jason Eduful (10:22):
Yeah, I got a couple I’ll just use my cousin’s name that way. It’s not keep privacy there. So Reggie graduated. Oh man. How many years ago now? Maybe three and a half. Three and a bit years ago. Mm. And at that time I was teaching at a different school in Brampton. Reggie was how would I describe Reggie? Reggie was a ball of energy that couldn’t sit still only cared about girls. Like that was, that was Reggie’s by like the only thing that mattered to him was girls. Didn’t really care about school was on the basketball team, not the best point guard out there but you know, you tried, you tried. And so I, I started this kind of mentor, mentor mentor relationship with the student. And Reggie really started to open up and really talk about, you know, his upbringing, his life.


Jason Eduful (11:25):
And I remember one of the assignments that I got Reggie to do at the time. I don’t know if you’re a DC Marvel kind of guy, but at the time arrow was like number one on every list. And so he had to do a CPT and I, I, I, he handed it his CPT and it was, it was, it was done. do that. It was done but just didn’t meet any of the expectations, you know? And so as opposed to me just ripping it apart I, I said to him, I’m like, listen, and, and again, we talk about like building those relationships with students, getting to know the learner. Right. All that’s very important because every day he would come in, we’d have a conversation, honestly, about the episode of the, like that week, that Wednesday we would talk about it.


Jason Eduful (12:15):
And I had said to him, why don’t you just rewrite the ending? He said, he didn’t like this season finale rewrite the ending. The curriculum is so huge, right? When we’re thinking about curriculum documents and what we have to accomplish in the semester and blah, blah, blah, you can tweak it to be whatever you want it to be. Essentially, as a teacher, a teacher knows that. So why not get him to do something that he’s interested in? Right. get him to reevaluate what he’s doing, still hit the major learning goals, overall specific, whatever. And then go from there. And so I got him to do it. He killed that script. It was amazing. And then the second half of that was with all the personal, what that was going on, he needed like a big brother. And I didn’t realize that I was doing that for him at the time.


Jason Eduful (13:00):
Cuz you know, guys, guys come in, you talk whatever. When, when you know, everybody’s out of the doors is a different type of conversation. Right. And so coaching him, teaching him really got us, I guess, a lot closer than I even thought. And so he was sharing things with me and we were building and we were teaching like, what is the correct as a man? You know what I mean? What’s the proper response that you should be having in certain situations. And so I told you that he was a a point guard. I didn’t tell you he was good, but he was a point guard and I remember we were up in a very important semifinal gay and I called him and I was like, yo, Reggie, you’re going in? And he’s like, what? like, the game is close.


Jason Eduful (13:44):
What do you mean? And so, you know, he did shoot like, don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t, there wasn’t that much faith, but I was like drop on the blade, kick it to the corner, our shooters shoot, you know? And I remember him doing exactly what I said, do it to the corner, hit a shot rimed in and out. And then he got the rebound and I was not expecting that at all. Hit the got the basket, got an N one missed the free throw. So we lost, but he came me at this a coach, you have no idea how much that meant to me, blah, blah, blah. And I was just like, we lost is the only thing that through mind, I like, yeah, we lost, what are you talking about? But anyways, fast forward, three years later he came to visit me at the school that I’m at now.


Jason Eduful (14:34):
And we just had great conversation about life, man. And I didn’t realize in the moment I was just being me, you know? And I didn’t realize how much I impacted him. So now he’s in university, he’s studying to become a teacher. I don’t think he’s gonna be as a crazy mark as I am, but he is definitely loving his experience and he credits me for most of it. And I just say like, honestly, all the glory to God, cause like I didn’t even in that moment, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just being me. You know what I mean? So that’s one story. I’ve had tons, but I won’t kill you with them. But that was one, one story of Reggie,


Sam Demma (15:11):
Reggie, the point card, Reggie,


Jason Eduful (15:14):
The point card that cost to speak.


Sam Demma (15:17):
That’s amazing. You mentioned, you know, you transitioned from teaching to mentoring, you know, you have a different conversation when it’s one student in the classroom, teachers that are listening, educators that are listening. Could you give them any advice on what the difference is? Like if you had to explain what the difference is between teaching and mentoring, a young person, you do a lot of, you know, sports, coaching, mentoring, young people and teaching, mentoring and teaching are a little different. What’s the difference? And how can a teacher also be a mentor to some of their students who need it most?


Jason Eduful (15:48):
Yeah. I think the biggest one is, is confidential and, and privacy. I think that’s one of the biggest ones. Obviously as a teacher, you have certain obligations that you have to fulfill, right? So if you hear something or you’re alerted to something, then you have out that obligation to report if you’re mentoring somebody, you still have that same obligation, but your scope needs to be widen a little bit. Right. And so when you’re thinking about, because mentoring can vary, right. It doesn’t have to always be something negative. Right. and so when we’re thinking about mentoring, especially mentorship, every coach, if you’re coaching properly, you’re a mentor mm-hmm right. And I think people forget that. So like I, even on the basic level, like I mentor, I, I always call them my sons. Like I have 15 sons a year, not this year, cuz we don’t have any season, but I have literally 15 sons every year.


Jason Eduful (16:38):
And what mentoring looks like to me and how I do it is 6:00 AM. We’re in the gym, right. We’re teaching them not only time management, but how to be productive. Right. We’re teach them how to do everything else. Are you in uniform? We go to a I’m at a uniform school. So like upholding yourself etiquette. Right? Respect. You can’t respect yourself. If you’re not dressing properly, you can’t respect administration if you’re not following rules. Right. So again, making sure that each of them are in uniform moving on to like they’re not allowed to cuz they know all it’s not gonna fly, but you’re not allowed to skip class. Mm-Hmm you’re not allowed to get caught cheating on a test. Not that anybody cheats on tests or anything like that. and again, then we have study hall like before we actually have practice, we have a study hall and that’s usually because the gyms used and we’re waiting, but still we have a study hall and myself being an educator, I should be able to, I’m not saying if you’re an educator, you should know every single subject for the most part.


Jason Eduful (17:39):
I know most of them, so there should be no kid. And if I don’t know anything, I know colleagues that do you know? And that’s when you start calling in favors, mm-hmm, my mentorship. Doesn’t just stop at, you know, the 30 people, unfortunately that are in my class. You know what I mean? That goes beyond that. So anytime there’s a situation, whether they’re in trouble with administration, whether they’re in trouble with their teacher, I try to make it a point that their teacher should contact me. Right. Mm-hmm I wanna know what’s going on with my boys. And I want make sure that they’re in the best position to not get I at of whatever situation, but the best outcome could that could possibly be obviously displayed is the one that we’re gonna choose. So yeah, there is a difference between teaching and mentoring, but I feel like every coach and every teacher should know that at very most they’re a role model. And if you’re a role model, whether you like it or not, unfortunately we sign up for this gig and that’s what it is. You are quote unquote, a mentor, right? In any way, shape or form. So, but again, coaching any, any coach out there will tell you the same thing. Like you, you can’t coach and not be a mentor like it doesn’t that’s just


Sam Demma (18:42):
Go and just go watch coach Carter and you get it. Exactly.


Sam Demma (18:50):
Coach Eduful I love it. That’s awesome. And you know, right now is a time that’s very difficult, very different. If you signed up for teaching and this was your first year, you would be thinking, wow, what is going on? This is so different. While some educators that are listening are in that boat. And so you being someone who’s been in the assistant teaching for, you know, over seven years, eight years now, you said, what advice could you give that person who’s just starting and maybe has a weird perspective on what this job looks like?


Jason Eduful (19:22):
The first thing I would say is it, it, it gets better. this is not the norm. This is not the norm. I know everybody’s calling this the new norm, but this is about the norm. It’s really hard for me right now, just because of my personality and the way that I teach. Right. So when I really started teaching my philosophy, everybody has to make like a philosophy of as a philosophy of education. And that philosophy as of education, for me, was bridging at between marginalized youth and extraordinary education. And so for how I did that was being a relational based teacher. Right. And so what that looks like on paper is, you know, starting to getting to know your kids, right? Whether it is their needs specific, right. And every kid has needs, man, whether it’s an IEP, whatever, like everybody has, you needs what are their skills?


Jason Eduful (20:13):
What are their interests? What are their likes? What are their dislikes? And then I would say once you have that, understand that, man, I know we preach this all the time of this thing called like backwards design, right? Where it’s like find what’s the most important or start from your end goal and work backwards. We really need to jump back to that. But in that we really need to talk about rationale. And I think that for me is the most important, especially if you’re a new teacher coming in, or even if you’re a teacher that’s been in here, why do they need to know this? I’m so sick of kids graduating and be like, sir, I learned nothing. Like I went to university and like, this was like, why am I starting from scratch? You know what I mean? And I get that, that’s true, but we should be teaching.


Jason Eduful (20:55):
‘Em Critical thinking. We should be teaching them things that they can use in the future. You know, like kids shouldn’t be coming back now they’re buying ready to buy a home and they have no idea what a mortgage is. Hmm. You know what I mean? And so certain and things like that in terms of life skills, life lessons, we should be teaching them straight from the jump. You know? Another thing that I really, really love doing and anybody that knows me will tell you, this is I’m, I’m an advocate for experiential learning. Mm. And so that’s literally just like a, a process of learning that really involves you kind of getting in like getting in their, your hands on. And it always has to come with a rationale. And so again, why are we learning this? So in, in ethics or philosophy or great 12 religion, we learn about ethics and morality.


Jason Eduful (21:39):
Okay. Why do I need to know about ethics and morality? Because we live in a society, right? Yeah. You might have your own principles, your own moral compass, but what does society deem to correct. Based on the job that you’re in. Right. And we have those type of conversations. It’s difficult, especially in COVID obviously, cause I’m the type of teacher. I don’t know. Maybe you have a teacher like this, that would you remember? I would just, I usually sit at my desk, like on my desk. I have like the concepts on the board. And then we have conversations. We have just have a, like a big discussion. Yeah. And as kids are talking and as I’m facilitating that dis discussion, I might bring up, okay, well, that’s a key word that we need to learn and that’s on the board, let’s copy this down.


Jason Eduful (22:16):
And then we fill and we learn like that. And so obviously on a computer I might be a little bit difficult. Right. I I’m just thinking of like Dr. Christopher Edmond, who I, who I’m a big fan of. And he talks about, he’s really like a stem advocate who speaks on issues of race and culture, but mainly known, he’s known for his like hiphop education where he takes hiphop and rap and he makes it, and he interviews it with, you know, science, technology, engineering, and math. I really love the backbone of that. Like get back to the roots of things that kids wanted to you, if you know what your kid wants to do and you know how your kid can thrive, you can have four or five different assignments in your classroom. Yeah. We’re so stuck and rigid on this. Well, this is my rubric, so how am I supposed to, well, yeah, your rubric is made to be changed.


Jason Eduful (23:02):
You typed it at one point. So we type it , you know what I mean? But yeah, like I, I would honestly tell that first year, if it, if it is a first year teacher, I’d be like, man, it, it gets better. It definitely gets better. This is different. It is challenging. But again, we just have to find ways to get around these barriers. And we’re like, we, every teacher’s had that day where they’ve gone up to the front of the class, had no lesson plan and just swing it. Like you guys, you know, we, we know how to do this. So it’s just about adapting, you know? Yeah.


Sam Demma (23:31):
Jason, you’ve had a smile on your face, this whole interview. and I wanna know what gives you hope personally and what motivates you personally to show up to work despite the challenges optimistic, enthusiastic, and ready to serve.


Jason Eduful (23:44):
Right. I gotta say faith. Faith is number one. My faith keeps me grounded. My faith keeps me going. I know that I’m doing some sort of vocation, at least I believe so. And, and I’m hoping that that transfers are manifests to the kids and they know that I’m not here just to get a paycheck, but I I’m here to see each and every one of them succeed. I think that’s number one, student success is a huge motivator. Hopefully one day a championship for a school would be a great motivator, but yeah, no, just seeing the kids just be themselves and grow. And, you know, I’ve had kids from grade nine and I’ve had the pleasure of being at this school long enough to be, and see them in grade 12. And it’s like, when they see me, like we, they still remember the handshake that we had in grade nine. You know what I mean? They still remember the nickname that I gave them. You know, I like, I don’t even remember these things and just to keep them grow and just become men and women and mature. That’s one thing that gives me hope because I know that something’s working so things changing, you know what I mean? But again, that all jumps back to faith. The thing that keeps me grounded and motivated. So I think that’s one of the biggest factors that gives me hope.


Sam Demma (24:20):
That’s awesome. I love that so much. And, you know, especially during a time, like COVID when we have so many challenges, faith is a huge thing that keeps you grounded. I, some, some of the challenges you already mentioned with COVID were teaching online. Were there any other challenges you’ve currently been faced with and have you had any unique ideas to overcome any of them that you think might be helpful to other educators?


Jason Eduful (25:20):
I think again, the biggest one for me, challenges would like not being able to just interact with the kids on a, on a more personal level. Yeah. Like some kids don’t want it to run the cameras and that’s totally cool. And I don’t push anybody to do anything like that, but just in general, like that face to face interaction, like we crave that we miss that for a lot of people that what builds them up. That’s what keeps them going. Some of the things that I’ve tried to do, especially since we shut down in March and then kind of reopened now I’ve really tried to start doing assignments and tasks that have everything to do with allowing students to really dig deep and critically think in terms of how to overcome whatever it is. Right. So I’ve literally, I’m done with tests for now.


Jason Eduful (26:08):
I don’t do any tests, all assignments like, Hey, there’s no exam anymore. So your CPT is another assignment I’ve changed and revamped all my stuff. So that it’s really not only engaging for them but relevant. And I think that’s the most important thing. If it can’t be relevant, if it’s, I usually ask myself, if I wouldn’t do the, is I’m not gonna make them do it. Hmm. Right. It might be better because I’m a little bit inclusive to age. I kind know what they like, you know what I mean? Like that might be a factor, but if I’m not feeling this, if I’m not vibing with it, then I’m not going to give it out to my students. Right. and so I think, especially on a time where, you know, they, half of them don’t want to be on the screen.


Jason Eduful (26:48):
Half of them don’t want to be, they rather be playing video games. They’d rather be with their friends. They can’t do that. Mental health is a really big factor right now that I think a lot of us are forgetting to acknowledge. So why give them stuff that you wouldn’t even want to do? Mm. You know what I mean? So I, I, I would go back to rationale, why are we giving this to them? Right. I think people forget that we’re honestly living through history right now. like and we can accomplish so much more if we just take the time to slow down and give out relevant assignments, relevant topics, relevant lessons. And I think that will help people in terms of what we’re struggling with, you know, and gotten some of the mistakes that we’re seeing.


Sam Demma (27:32):
Yeah. I love that. That’s awesome. Jason, I could talk to you for an hour, man. This has been an amazing conversation and will definitely do a part two part three. If any educator right now is listening into this, maybe from another province or country and thinks this guy has some cool ideas. This guy’s unique, this guy’s out the box. I wanna talk to him and just bounce some ideas around, how can another educator reach out and have that conversation?


Jason Eduful (27:56):
Yeah, for sure. I would say thank you please, please do reach out. they can find me on Twitter @__MrE. Also, if you wanna shoot me an email Jason.Eduful@dpcdsb.org. Cool. Those are my two main platforms.


Sam Demma (28:16):
Yeah. Awesome. Jason, I’ll be staying in touch and this has been phenomenal. So thank you so much for taking the time to chat.


Jason Eduful (28:23):
Thank you so much Sam. Have a good one.


Sam Demma (28:26):
And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the High Performing Educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review so other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show. If you wanna meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network. You’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Jason Eduful

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.

Ren Lukoni – Teacher and student leadership advisor at L.P. Miller Comprehensive High School

Ren Lukoni - Teacher and student leadership advisor at L.P. Miller Comprehensive High School
About Ren Lukoni

Ren Lukoni (@RenLukoni13) has been a teacher in Nipawin, Sk. for 24 hours – just jokes – 24 years. She is also the student leadership advisor at L.P Miller Comprehensive High school.

During that time she has written two leadership courses, two local pottery courses, and has been involved in student leadership not only in her school and community but also through provincial and national organizations. 

Hosting and attending student leadership conferences has been a highlight of her career, as has the relationships she has formed through those conferences and leadership networks. Ren is a firm believer in “being the change” and is also very aware that people usually hear her before they see her.

Connect with Ren: Email | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

L.P. Miller Comprehensive High School Website

Kahoot

Saskatchewan Student Leadership Conference

Virtual Bingo

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker Sam Demma. Today’s guest is a new friend of mine. Her name is Ren Lukoni. She has been a teacher in Nipawin, Saskatchewan for 24 years. During that time, she has written two leadership courses, two local pottery courses, and has been involved in student leadership, not only in her school and community, but also through provincial and national organizations. Hosting and attending student leadership conferences has been the highlight of her career as has the relationships she has formed through those conferences and leadership networks.


Sam Demma (01:13):
A lot of her friends are actually other guests on this podcast. Ren is a firm believer in being the change and is also very aware that people usually hear her before they see her. This is a very powerful conversation and I hope you enjoy it. Ren has so much passion and advice and insight to share. Make sure you have a pen and a sheet of paper ready for this interview. I hope you enjoy it. I will see you on the other side. Ren, thank you so much for coming on of the High Performing Educator podcast. It is a huge honor and pleasure to have you on the show. Why don’t you start by sharing with the listener, why you got into education and why you do the work that you’re doing today?


Ren Lukoni (01:55):
All right. Well, thank you so much, Sam, for having me on, I I’m really honored to be in the esteemed ranks as Mark England, as I saw before, and some of the others that that you’ve had on your podcast. I think what you’re doing is great. Basically my parents, both of them are educators. So it just kind of came in the, the bloodlines and I never really thought of doing anything else. Well, I did think of being a veterinarian until I realized you don’t get to play with animals all day long so that got me into education. My parents are both educator and like I said, I’ve been doing it now 24 years.


Sam Demma (02:28):
Wow. And despite the fact that your parents were educators, I know you still had to make the personal decision that you wanted to get in teaching. At what moment in time did you know I’m gonna be a teacher and dive down that path?


Ren Lukoni (02:43):
I think it just, I, I always, I guess what solidified it for me was my internship. Okay. I’m just being with the students, you know, being hands on you know, you get your four years of education you know, through lecturing, but it’s the hands on being in the classroom, that energy, that vibe that’s what solidified it for me. And I knew that that was, that was my jam.


Sam Demma (03:03):
Awesome. And you’ve been doing it now for 24 years. I would call you a veteran things, things have definitely shifted changed. You’ve had different challenges over the years. What keeps you going though? Why this work even it’s tough and challenging. Why is this the work that you think is so important to keep doing?


Ren Lukoni (03:23):
Because it’s rewarding to work with students. It’s, it’s, it’s a reward. It’s a, you, you learn from them every day. They’re inspiring. You know, lots of these students come from backgrounds and, and things that, that we have no idea what they’re, what they’re going through. And so just to, to be, be part of their day and try to brighten their day and, and make it be a you know, make school, be a place that they want to be, that they want to learn that they wanna be part of. And that’s been really tough in COVID because everyone’s been so, you know, separated and so kind of isolated. Right. Literally. So you know, that that’s, that’s been tough, but being back in has been so good on so many levels.


Sam Demma (04:06):
No, that’s awesome. And mm-hmm, speaking of, you know, seeing students change and transform and being able to impact them no matter what part of the journey they’re on right now, over the past 24 years, I’m sure you’ve had lots of students reach out. Or you’ve seen students, who’ve had huge transformations and they thank you, or they write you notes. And I’ve been talking to mark and other teachers, and they tell me that some of them have a rainy days file where they basically pull out notes that people have read them, or students wrote them, sorry to brighten their spirits. And I’m curious to know if any of those stories you’d like to share if any of them come to mind. And the reason I’m asking is because if another educator is burnt out on the edge right now, forgetting why they got into this work, a story of transformation could be something that reminds them, why, what they’re doing is so important. And if it’s a very serious story or a big transformation, that’s great. But you can change the name for privacy reasons if it’s, if it’s really serious.


Ren Lukoni (05:03):
No, it’s just there’s been a couple of things I’ve had like, like I, I said in my classroom, I keep up reminders of kind of legacy pieces from students. I mean, I keep in touch with a lot of them through social media, although not till after they graduate. That is one thing that I’ve been, been really tough on. And actually, it’s kind of funny because as I tell them, okay, once you graduate, then, you know, you can, you know, look me up on social media and I’ll have some of them at their grad parties at the stroke of 1201, send me, you know, the friend invite or whatever. And I’m just like, oh yeah, like that, that kind of, that’s a feel good thing. Right? Yeah. You know, and it’s been interesting, like I’m at the point now where I’m even, and starting to teach some of those students some of the kids of my students.


Ren Lukoni (05:46):
Nice. and so that’s, you know, a real con you know, a real feel good thing, but kind of a, a realization of, of, you know, it’s kind of cyclical, right. I actually, one of the biggest transformations that had actually, it was last year, I was actually away on medical leave. I, both my knees replaced at the same time. And, and the I was honored enough to have one of my former students who just freshly got outta university, be the one who covered my leave. And so that was really inspiring for me too. It, it has been tough with COVID it’s that connections, right? It’s the connections that are key with the students, you know, when they’re in the classroom, when they leave the classroom, I think a lot of educators would agree that our jobs are to teach ’em in the classroom, but the important ones are outside the classroom.


Ren Lukoni (06:35):
It’s what sets them up for life after, you know, high school and, and the real life situations. And I think that’s what really actually made me gravitate towards student leadership. Right. Is those, those, those impactful experiences, those life lessons. And, and I think that, you know that’s been part of key of why I’ve, I’ve kept doing things is just to keep that those life lessons going, they keep you on your toes, they keep you AF fresh. Right. and then that’s why I, I enjoy doing those kind of things, but it has been challenging in COVID that’s for sure. Yeah.


Sam Demma (07:09):
And when did you get involved in student leadership? Was this something that when you started teaching, you got involved with right away or were you introduced to it? How did that introduction to student leadership happen?


Ren Lukoni (07:20):
Well, I was I was actually involved in student leadership when I was a student myself. And I looked back in my notes when I became a teacher and I got to go to a conference in Chicago, Illinois, and one of my favorite speakers there was Mr. Mark, she Brock. Nice. and so I actually still have like, and it was a typed copy of a handout. You know, that was kind of what got me hook, line and sinker. And then I thought, you know what, I enjoyed that myself as a student. So I want to continue that in, in my role as an educator you know, getting involved in student council I actually was one of the first ones in the province to write a leadership course for credit. Nice. So that really got me inspired.


Ren Lukoni (08:03):
You know, I got involved with hosting our school here. We’re a, we’re a town, literally a town of 5,000 people, one traffic light. nice. And we hosted the, the Saskatchewan student leadership conference. We’ve hosted it three times. Nice. so at, you know, having a thousand people come to our school, come to our community and, you know, be part of it. And, and another thing too is, and I, I tell this to my leadership friends my, my C slickers people who are missing really, really greatly during this COVID experience, because we usually get to see each other at CS slick in, in some time each year. But like I said, it’s just getting involved in that and getting to know those people and having that, that network of, of people who are like you and who want to do the same and want to, to be better and, and make things better.


Sam Demma (08:55):
I love that. That’s such a great story. And it’s funny, you mentioned Mark Sharon Brock because I called him last month to talk about speaking and what advice he would give a young person, the nice bike principle. He was telling me all about his own journey. And I’m sure that had a huge impact on you. You alluded to a little earlier the challenges that you’re being faced with right now, and what do they look like? I know they’re different for each teacher and each school in each location, but what are the current barriers you’ve been facing? And maybe you can share a little bit of how you’ve overcome some of them and some of them that you’re still working on?


Ren Lukoni (09:29):
I mean, it’s an ever evolving process. And I think that’s part of it just kind of wrapping your head around it. it, it’s, it’s been a challenge, I think for me, and I don’t know what other educators feel like, but it’s the constant cleaning. Yeah. That part has kind of, you know, taken a bit of a, a hit on me. The challenges are just with people being in the classroom and then not being in the classroom. Or, you know, here, I feel we are providing a, a very safe environment you know, with the masks, with you know, sanitizing hand washing those kind of things, but it’s those connections doing so safely that at first was a barrier and now it’s, it’s been a good thing we’ve realized, you know, you can socially distanced and be safe.


Ren Lukoni (10:13):
I think it, that it’s part of the trust issues I think, is what has been the hardest overcome. Mm. And that we’re working, we’re working on it. And again, I mean, we’re just a town of 5,000. Like, you know, I, I tell my saying before I tell my, my friends, you know, N one’s really on, on the, the road to nowhere. Like, not that we’re at the end of the road, but you know, we’re not on a trans Canada. We’re our closest city of 40,000 people is an hour and a half away. So at first it was kind of interesting because , some people were joking with us like, oh, you know, Laconia, you always have an isolated life because you live in nip one, you know, you’re, you’re on the way to nowhere. And, and that was kind of the chuckle, but I mean, you know, COVID is proven to us that it, it can be in any community anywhere. And so it’s, it’s that establishment establishment of trust, you know, and, and hard during these COVID times to, to, to keep that going.


Sam Demma (11:06):
Yeah. No, it’s so true. And the relationship building is harder. I know you mentioned it earlier a little bit as well. Are you doing classes in, like in person or are they virtual? Is there of both, how’s that looking for your school?


Ren Lukoni (11:19):
It’s a mix of both for us here, our high school, well, our school, I should say it is a high school, but we’re grade seven to 12. We have about 425 students here. Nice. so with grade seven and eights they’re in the same kind of cohorts are same groupings, grades nine, about the same, they switch a little bit up for some of gonna apply to our classes. And then our grade 10, 11 twelves are division fours. We’re running a block timetable mm-hmm which I’m sure lots, others are doing two, two hour classes running quarters and then one, one hour class for a whole semester. So that’s what it’s looking like for us. It, it, you know, we’ve had to make some tweaks, some adjustments. I also happen to teach art and, and pottery. So having a two hour class of that has been really good.


Ren Lukoni (12:02):
We get a lot more creativity and, and things like that done. And I am looking forward to, I have my leadership class next quarter. So I’m really excited to do that, but then there’s gonna be challenges with that too, because, you know, we want to do things to help people and be out in the community. And it’s, it’s finding those ways to be, to, to do that still and be safe and show that we care and build those relationships and and, and just kind of get out there, but doing so in a safe way.


Sam Demma (12:26):
Yeah. No, it’s so true. And things are definitely difficult, but not impossible. And so I’m curious to know what things are working in the school right now, in terms of maybe some ideas that the school has tried to engage the students, or maybe that you’ve tried on zoom or in your classroom, any ideas come to mind that you think are worth sharing?


Ren Lukoni (12:46):
Oh, yeah, for sure. So we are running, I didn’t answer that in the previous question, but we are running like fully face to face. Okay. cool. So we do have some students that have elected to go online when people have to self isolate or self-monitor, I mean, they’ve been in touch, you know, we, we, we go online for that. So we’ve been able to do some things in our school you know, running Kahoots doing some virtual bingos have been great. And I talking to some other colleagues just this morning, actually in their saying, okay, what can we do to get that spirit up? You know, you can do your spirit days and, and people can do those individual things today as plaid day mad for plaid day. So, I mean, lots of people were dressed up unintentionally even, which was great.


Ren Lukoni (13:28):
Nice. but that’s been a challenge too, just because of the, the numbers. Right. you know, we’re still lucky enough we’re running our extracurricular programs and then live streaming them. So that’s been kind of a connection you know, to our sports. We’ve had modified sporting seasons. But like I said, our student council’s meeting our humanitarian group is meeting. They actually did they was their idea. They came up with post-it notes on lockers, just to old people that they care and to kinda give ’em a boost for the start of a second quarter. Nice. So that’s good, but you know, you do what you can and you, like I said, you have to kind of make it a place where people wanna be worth doing school clothing right now, which is also, you know, help kind of boost morale. But like I said, you know, other than that, you’re always kind of looking for something, okay, what can I do reach out? Or, you know, it’s tough to, we think of our school as like a hub for a community. And yet the only ones that are allowed in are really the staff and the students. So that’s been a real barrier as well.


Sam Demma (14:26):
Yeah. That makes sense. No, it’s true. I love the ideas of Kahoot. I love the virtual bingo. those are all, those are all great. And no one can see it right now cuz they’re listening, but you you’re in an art room with beautiful paintings all over the walls and on the roof. And you know, what, what got you interested in art? I know we didn’t talk too much about that. We talked about your journey into education, but why is an art teacher? How did that start for you?


Ren Lukoni (14:52):
Well, believe it or not. At the time our current art teacher, it was over Christmas and he was roofing and actually fell off the roof and broke his arms. Oh my gosh. And then I came in. Yeah. So it was kinda trial by fire. At that point I was just kind of a newbie. I was, I was teaching arts educat, which is music, dance, drama and art. Yeah. So the principal at the time said, Hey, you know, can you fill in? And, and that’s just how I got my start in, in doing art. Kind of took some, took some workshops and, and had help of another teacher. And I also was teaching Potter kind of self taught, took some lessons on that. You know, and just kind of went that route. And, and it’s interesting because I actually started all my educational career as an elementary teacher grades four or five.


Ren Lukoni (15:40):
And actually what, what brought me to this area? This is actually my, my dad’s hometown. But it was my, my grandmother who saw an ad in the nip one journal. And she actually sent me the clipping mail, but when I went to apply for it I heard from the division office. Oh yes. We’ve heard your grandmother. She called and I was like, really? And they’re like, oh yeah. And it went along the lines of likely my granddaughter need job and and you know, so that’s what brought me here. You know, I was lucky enough to have many years with my, with my grandmother here in Nipon my dad’s hometown. So there’s a bit of that kind of legacy. And I think that that’s a, a, a key point that we need to, you know, maybe go back to, or you know, when things kind of get tough or when, you know, things kind of seem impossible or like we’re dealing with COVID it’s, it’s, it’s those reminders of the leg see of what you did in the past, but then also how you can move forward.


Sam Demma (16:36):
I love it. and I could relate to the grandparents story. I never had my grandma or grandfather call, but they’re very, they’re very, they’re very outspoken as well. That’s how I’ll say it. And that’s a great story to end with because you showed that despite you didn’t know the role and the requirements and the skills involved, you kept a growth mindset and you were, you pushed yourself to learn the skills by taking extra classes and by jumping into the fire and with COVID, it’s a very similar scenario, although it’s not art class, it’s just new reality that we don’t know much about. And we have to put on that growth mindset and try and figure things out as we go. if you could give your younger self advice in education, like if you could go back to the first year you started teaching, but have all the wisdom you have now, what would you tell yourself that you think would be really valuable to hear.


Ren Lukoni (17:28):
Take the small risks, take the safe risks cuz those, the ones that you either learn from or they pay off the most mm-hmm I, I really believe strongly in like, you know, smart risk taking I would say like just, just put yourself out there and, and always want to lifelong improve. Mm. You know, there’s always things you can learn and be open to those things. You know, if you would’ve asked me then would I be a high school teacher teaching art, pottery leadership and art Zeta? Absolutely not, but that’s just the way it went and, and you just have to kind of roll with the punches and go with what’s what’s thrown at you and, and just find to persevere. I think that’s a big I think that’s a, a big area that we all need to, to, well, we have been persevering, but especially with students, it’s just to, to persevere, to stick with it you know, try to make it fun.


Ren Lukoni (18:21):
Yeah. Obviously you know, that first year teaching is is a lot of work. But it’s a lot of fun as well. That’s a tough one to go back and tell myself because you know, you reflect back on, on your career and, and you look back at how things have changed or how things are evolving, especially now with COVID. You know, and I think that’s also advice that you need to give is just be, be ready to evolve. You know, take, take those experiences, take those risks and, and, you know, do it for the better and to stay positive. You know, it’s easy to say it it’s hard, it’s harder to do, but it it’s that it’s that positive outlook, that positive mindset, that growth mindset, like you said that we need to, to, to really emphasize right now.


Ren Lukoni (19:09):
And, and for me, it’s the people. Yeah. People are, are, people are what and the relationships are what keep me going, keep me inspired. You know, and, and I, I wouldn’t be the person I, I am today without those, those, those impacts and, and you know, the Nicole hairs of the world, the mark E Englands of the world, Dawn, we here in Saskatchewan the, the two twisted, I call ’em twisted sisters, even though they’re not Sandra and dot out of Alberta, like I’ve had so many you know, really I’ve been so fortunate to have the crew of people that have been around me to, to you know, support me and, and help me grow. And like I said, I could go on for hours on the list of people. I mean, we got a crew from our cease, like the PI crew, the new fees you know, our own Saskatchewan crew, our SACA crew, like I’ve been so fortunate to work with so many quality people and quality leaders. And I think that that’s a good piece of advice is, is, you know, be around a good people. Hmm. Surround yourself with a good people and learn from them.


Sam Demma (20:13):
I’ll tell Nicole, you say, hi, she’s in Qatar as I’m sure. You know I interviewed her literally two days ago. And her you’ll be coming out just, just before yours. So maybe too can connect about it.
Ren Lukoni (20:26):
Yes, no, I, like I said, I miss Nicole and like I said, she has been a leader by example, let me tell you.


Sam Demma (20:33):
Nice, awesome, Ren, thank you so much for making some time to come on the show. I really appreciate it. This was a great conversation and keep up all the great work.


Ren Lukoni (20:40):
Well, thank you so much, Sam. I really appreciate all you’re doing and, and truly thank you. I’ve really appreciated it.


Sam Demma (20:47):
And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the High Performing Educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review so other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show. If you wanna meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network, you’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise, I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see to you on the next episode.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Ren Lukoni

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.

Michael Booth – Principal of Blyth Academy’s Yorkville and Orbit Campuses

Michael Booth - Principal of Blyth Academy’s Yorkville and Orbit Campuses
About Michael Booth

Michael Booth is the Principal of Blyth Academy’s Yorkville and Orbit Campuses. Previously, he taught undergraduate courses at Northwestern University, Loyola University and Indiana University while pursuing a Ph.D. in Film Studies. Michael has a B.A. from McGill University and an M.A. from New York University.

Connect with Michael: Email | Linkedin

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Blyth Academy Website

Principles by Ray Dalio

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):
Do you want access to all the past guests on this show? Do you want to network with like-minded individuals and meet other high performing educators from around the world? If so, go to www.highperformingeducator.com, sign up to join the exclusive network and you’ll get access to live virtual networking events and special opportunities that will come out throughout 2021. I promise you I will not fill your inbox. you might get one email a month. If that sounds interesting, go to www.highperformingeducator.com. Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator Podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s guest is Michael Booth. He is the Principal of the Blyth Academy, Yorkville and Orbit campuses. He has previously taught undergraduate courses at Northwestern University, Loyola University and Indiana University while pursuing his PhD in film studies. Michael has a BA from McGill University and an MA from New York University.


Sam Demma (01:06):
I had the pleasure of speaking at a couple of Blyth campuses over the past few years, and Michael’s energy really reflects the professionalism that all of the Blyth students and campuses have and contain and pass on to all of their students. I hope you enjoy this episode. I’ll see you on the other side. Michael, welcome to the High Performing Educator Podcast. It’s a pleasure to have you on the show today. Why don’t you start by sharing a little bit about yourself with the audience and explain why you got into the work you do with young people today?


Michael Booth (01:36):
I am the the Principal of Blyth Academy’s downtown Toronto campus. I started with Blyth Academy. We are a, a small boutique private high school in Southern Ontario with campuses across the province from, I think we have 10 campuses now stretching as far east, as London and west as Ottawa. I started with the school 11 years ago now when I was returning to Toronto with my family after the first half of my career was mostly in, in academia, in the states and I was doing my graduate work there. And we were coming back to Toronto. I was looking to come back to secondary education and they were opening a new campus at that time in Mississauga and asked if I would be interested in running that, which I did for eight years. And a couple of years ago go, move to the Toronto location, and this summer I’m also the principal of a new campus we’ve begun, which exists in the virtual hemisphere. Nice. Which is in following the model of what all of our bricks and mortar campuses did in the wake of the lockdown in March running classes face to face with teachers and students through the zoom platform on an entirely, but the, these classes are exclusively virtual for its students.


Sam Demma (03:17):
That’s awesome. And it’s slightly different than maybe what teaching was like last year in the past 11 for you. What has been working in your two locations, virtual and in person with your students right now, and what problems or challenges have you been faced with that you guys have slightly overcome or are still dealing with that someone listening might find valuable?


Michael Booth (03:38):
Well, we’ve been very fortunate at Blythe because I think that more than most, any other school in the province our existing, physical model the gap between that model and what we, we are doing virtually is I think smaller at our school than most any other. And the reasons for that is that we have always had very small class sizes. So in the physical campuses, our class sizes have always been capped at 16 students. The average class size is eight students in the virtual world. We cap them at 12 and they still average about eight. We also have what used to be a, a fairly unique academic calendar where most high schools in the province are either semester with two semesters of a full course load being four courses per student, per semester, after or full year with students taking all their courses from September, until June at the same time, we’ve always been on a quarter system which is in fact what most of the public schools in the province have now turned to.


Michael Booth (04:57):
And the quarter system means that a full course of students is two courses per what the public schools are calling quadmesters. We call them terms. So from September, until mid-November, you might take geography and math, and then you’ve completed those courses, and then you move on to science and history and, and so on. And so that that mix of two courses at a time plus small class sizes plus our school is everything we do and, and our entire structure is dedicated towards very rigorous, comprehensive communication between ourselves students and students, parents, and guardians. Mm. And so in the wake of, of COVID in, we, we were notified, I think, right before March break by the Tuesday after March break, we had resumed classes on the same schedule, same timetable, and didn’t miss a day for the rest of the, the year.


Michael Booth (06:13):
And we simply maybe not, but more simple for us. We were able to effectively mirror what we do in the physical campus, through the zoom platform, so that those are when students are only doing two classes a day, the duration of the classes is longer. So we have two hour and 15 minute time blocks for each class per day. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that students just, as in the physical campus, it’s a very rare, you virtually never would walk around our classrooms and see teach every teacher classroom after classroom standing at the front of the room and, and in a more of a lecture mode trying to pitch it down the middle and hoping that more advanced students aren’t bored and weaker students are following. We have two hour and 15 minutes with an average of eight students in the class to engage in different styles of teaching different styles of assessment.


Michael Booth (07:20):
A lot of one-on-one conferencing, a lot of group work. Our teachers float around the room and students have opportunities to engage in different learning activities in the same class. On the same day, we can do that through the zoom platform as well. So it’s not necessarily the case that our student are listening to a teacher drone on, as I am for two hours on end. They might have a half hour 45 minutes of more traditional classroom conversation, discussion, PowerPoint presentation, have a small break rejoin, and then they might be assigned independent work that they might in breakout rooms on zoom. They might do off camera and then come back. They might have conferences scheduled with the teachers in that second hour to do one on one work. And so our model is really equipped us well to, to carry on in, in that format, the physical school we have resumed physical classes in September and because of our class sizes we’ve been able to maintain social distancing and cohorting of 15 or fewer students.


Michael Booth (08:34):
So no student is exposed to more than 15 other students at any given time of the year. And if a student is unable to come to the school because of an illness in their household, or a situation of immunocompromised or something like that, there is a virtual option coupled with the physical option, always available mm-hmm . So teachers have cameras in their classrooms and you’ll see if a student’s not able to be there. The student will be projected onto a a screen through zoom and be able to interact with their classmates and the teacher.


Sam Demma (09:10):
That’s cool. That’s how awesome game plan. And I think you’re existing model sets you up and life up really well to adapt and evolve with the current situation. What has, what have the students really enjoyed about the changes? Have they given the school or teacher any feedback on what they’re liking and disliking or what they wanna see more of and less of?


Michael Booth (09:34):
Yeah, I think, I mean, I was, I was actually really impressed and we, because we are, we’re a small school community, very, very inclusive, very diverse, very supportive. We all last year, we already had, you know, a very strong community that proved quite resilient. And our approach was able to cater to students that were struggling to adapt to a virtual classroom. And they supported each other for some students they actually really, I mean, they like the fact that they don’t have a commute for some student into, might be struggling with anxiety for them, some of them, the virtual format has actually helped alleviate that. I think, but I, I don’t know that the students have really in the virtual school their are students that don’t live within commuting distance to our physical campuses.


Michael Booth (10:41):
And so we have students from Alberta, we have international students that, that appreciate being able to join our schools without being physically there. They appreciate that we’ve been able to maintain continuity. So where many students in the last half year have, have effectively lost quite a bit of their access to teachers and curriculum. So we’ve, we’ve really this year, for example, our grade 11 math class is struggling because many of the students did not gain the fifth foundations they needed in grade 10 math. So we’ve been kind of triple timing it to help those students through their grade 11 course. But the students that have been with our school ha have not had that struggle because they didn’t have that interruption. We still have the same flexibility and of time tabling. So students have as much course selection and of course, flexibility and adaptability through the year that they’ve always had with us, whereas in many schools, because of the, the challenges that they’re facing the timetables are pretty set and they’re not changing and they’re not adapting.


Michael Booth (11:59):
And and very often they don’t even know exactly what it’s going to be in the next quad master, much less the third or fourth quad master. I think that the challenges that we faced are, are again, they’re, they’re not dissimilar from what we face in the physical school, it’s just, they’re taking on digital forms. So for example, students being shy about or, or, or lazy about, or not wanting to turn their cameras on. And we, as with everything, we, we approach that with empathy and support, we reach out to the student and their families to try and have discussions about what’s happening. If it’s a case of something appreciable like, like anxiety or their, an internet connection, isn’t speedy, we’ll make arrangements where that, you know, that’s okay. But as, as the, as the weeks progress and the year progresses, we, we approach that not unlike we might, we would approach attendance.


Michael Booth (13:06):
So if a student is struggling to make it to class on time or to come to class that’s, that’s enters into the conversation that the school has with the student and their, and their parents or guardians. And unlike, I, I, I know again in the, I, I’m not meaning to I fully appreciate the challenges that, that some of the public schools and the province are facing. And I, I really admire the work they’ve done, but they simply don’t have the capacity to help students and, or require students to have their cameras on. So they’ve got, you know, 25 students in a class and all of their cameras are off. And we, that’s not the case with us. We, we might have one student that we’ve made an arrangement with, but otherwise their cameras are on, they’re engaged and we’re having daily lessons with all of the interactions that we normally would.


Sam Demma (13:57):
Nah, that’s fantastic. And I know your campus has a lot of athletes as well, and extra quicks are a big part. How are you navigating these students who were super involved in other areas, aside from academics, not being able to do those things anymore, is there some way to deal with that and manage with that that’s been successful?


Michael Booth (14:15):
I, Yeah, that’s the, the athletics part is, is more challenging. Where, where one of our strengths lies is with the four terms and three periods a day of which students take two they can manipulate the schedule so that if they’re doing athletics outside of the school, so we have competitive figure skaters, hockey players, soccer players track athletes who have been able to maintain their, their practice schedules. There’s not a lot of games going on, even outside the school. So that’s a nice option with, with our clubs and physical education classes. We, we ran PHY ed in the fourth turn in the spring last year. And it was actually a great course to run because it, it helped us to motivate the students to get outta their bedrooms, which I think initially, I mean, it’s still a problem, but it’s initially it was a serious problem.


Michael Booth (15:16):
And we were doing yoga classes online and we were doing fitness classes, or we were asking them to design their own health programs, but varsity soccer is not really happening. Unfortunately mm-hmm, with other extracurriculars and clubs, because we’re trying to maintain the cohorts of students on Wednesdays. We run a shortened academic day and then we have two periods in the afternoons dedicated to extracurriculars and clubs. So our student council is up and running. We have a math club, we have a model UN club. We have, I think about eight different clubs going and extracurriculars going on for a total student population of 150 students. And so weekly, they’re getting to do that, meet other students in the school. And and that’s how we’ve been able to


Sam Demma (16:10):
Do that. That’s awesome. No, it’s fantastic. There’s so many different challenges, but it seems like you guys have been very successful at managing it and pivoting and finding what works and sticking with it. I think a huge key was the empathy piece that you mentioned in meeting kids where they’re at and understanding their situation before trying to coach them through anything. And I’m curious to know when you were a young person, not that you’re old , but when you were younger and you were in school did you have an educator in your life that made a huge impact on you and what did that person do? That made a big difference. And how did that, like, how did that lead you into education? Was there a defining moment where you decided I want to be a teacher?


Michael Booth (16:53):
Yeah, I think grade seven. I was I was fortunate to go to a, an independent school in Toronto where not unlike many of my friends, my dad was in, in, on base street and banking. And I, I thought until grade seven that I would just do whatever it was he did when he put his suit on to go to work in the morning. But I had an English teacher who was that teacher that, that that touched a lot of us and made me even more excited about the humanities than, than I had been in the past. And really after that, it didn’t occur to me to do much of anything but teaching. And that was really twofold. One was, I always liked working with, with kids. I was a camp counselor but it was also the academic side of it.


Michael Booth (17:46):
So that was, you know, my first job was actually working at the high school. I went to I was working in the boarding house and I was and actually my high school teacher that really inspired me had to take a leap of absence for the second half of the year. So when I was in my second year out of undergrad, I took his, his courses. And that was that, that kind of sealed the deal. And then I wanted to pursue graduate work. But the thing I loved about the graduate work most was the teaching and the thing I didn’t like as much as it was not as conducive to raising a family and yeah, and, and engaging students as much as I wanted to focus on. So that, that was what prompted me to come back to Toronto and, and, and work with life.


Sam Demma (18:38):
That’s awesome. That’s a cool story. And was it just a push that he gave you that inspired you? Was it, what, what made him an impactful teacher? Because the educators listening who are thinking, how can I be more effective with my students? And I can tell you, I had a grade 12 world issues teacher named Mike loud foot who changed my life. And the thing for me with him was his passion. He really cared about what he taught, what he taught. And when he talked about it, you just wanted to listen because he was excited. And I I’m curious, what was it like, what was the qualities of your teacher that made it different from every other class?


Michael Booth (19:14):
In the, in the case of the grade seven teacher, that’s when we started talking about themes in the novels, we were reading of the story and that I’d never done that. And so it brought my level of engagement with the material and my level of thinking beyond what I knew existed. Mm. And then he, he taught like, instead of in, for the poetry unit, instead of only doing 19th century romantic poets, we studied pink, Floyd’s the wall. And we did, I, I think it, I think it was a three or four week unit on that. and so that made me realize that studying wasn’t just out of the textbook and it wasn’t remembering dates and so forth. Mm-Hmm . So in, in my, the case, my high school teacher he, he taught a course that was of his own design that he, that called modernism and I, I, and about modern the modernist movements in art and literature and and the arts in general and, and philosophy.


Michael Booth (20:20):
And I didn’t know that existed either when, when I was in grade that was grade 13. And like a lot of my teachers in high school, I, I would sit in class and I wanted to be as smart as they were. I wanted to be able to cite thinkers and I wanted to be able to interpret the world. I wanted to be able to give commentary and analysis at levels that I couldn’t at the time. Hmm. So that’s a little, that’s a little passe these days. I think, I think a lot of times when people, you know, the current pedagogical trends are more towards experiential learning and student driven learning, and finding ways to, to engage the students almost as if it’s your job to, to, to tap into what they are interested in. Mm. Whereas in my day it was more the case that you’d kind, it was, the teacher would stand there and just be so illuminating that you would be inspired.


Michael Booth (21:32):
And I, I think I, I, I think a mix of both is, is worthwhile. And I, I, I sometimes worry that we put we certainly do it Blyth and, and we put a lot of emphasis on making sure are that we are engaging, the students interests as they exist before they enter the classroom. And my feeling is there’s actually nothing wrong with challenging them to move outside of their, their the interests that they bring in to recognize connections between those interests and what the teacher may be talking about that day. Mm. And, and there’s nothing wrong with challenging them to exceed what their immediate knowledge is of. And I, I, I think particularly in the age of social media where their interests, their desires, their curiosities are being satisfied by the second. And it’s whatever they, they within themselves think to tap into quite literally they don’t have as much experience with feeling uncomfortable or challenged.


Michael Booth (22:47):
And so I fear that if we don’t, build those skills in them, that the world is a much harsher and crueler place to enter as an adult for them than it was for me in my generation. And I fear that when confronted with the challenges of having to meet the expectations of someone other than themselves, that they won’t have much practice in doing that. And so we’re constantly trying to find that balance with us and, and, you know, like with the black screens, like we start with empathy, we start with accommodations, but ultimately the goal is to work on resiliency and that may involve consequences. And we don’t lay them down at the outset. As a matter of course, we work with each student with each family to find what the, the line is. Yeah. But ultimately we’re working to wean them off of the accommodations and the need for degrees of empathy that they might need at the start.


Sam Demma (23:50):
That’s so true. And Ray Dalio, hedge fund manager wrote a book called principles, and he talks about problems and he says most often the bad outcome is just a root of a bigger issue. So having a screen is not actually the, the problem, it’s a symptom of a problem, which you have to uncover through conversations. So I think the approach that you guys take is a great one and it’s well thought out, and I think it can be applied to any problem a students facing. It’s probably not the real problem. Just a root, gotta dig a little bit deeper. That’s fascinating.


Michael Booth (24:25):
Yeah. One of my refrains to the teachers is 99.99, 9% of the time, whatever the behavior or posture a student is, is, is presenting is not what’s actually going on inside. So if it’s a boy that’s kind of fronting and pretending, or not pretend, but acting like he doesn’t care and he’s not interested and sometimes a little oppositional or what have you underlying that is actually some, probably some insecurity maybe you know, certain struggles in particular areas of processing or what have you mm-hmm . And so you always have to translate what’s in front of your face, into an understanding that you don’t actually know. And until you have a better sense of it, give the benefit of the doubt because otherwise they’ll shut down. Yeah. But then going back to my earlier point, ultimately, we’re going to work to get you to, to the place where we don’t have to do that translation, because we figured, figured out where, where the problem lies and what we can do about it.


Sam Demma (25:35):
Yeah. There’s a quote what people don’t or what kids or students don’t, what, what kids don’t speak out, they act out I think Josh ship was the speaker who said that once, and it really resonated with what you do is saying what you’ve learned so far on your educational journey. Maybe you, if you could, could you summarize your key learnings that if you could talk to your former self, when you just started, like what key learnings or pieces of advice would you give? Imagine there’s an educator listening. Who’s just starting teaching now, or is a little overwhelmed your experience over the past 11 years, what do you think are some key things to tell your younger self or a new educator?


Michael Booth (26:14):
Well, I think what we were just talking about is, is is probably the, the refrain that I, that I use the most and the, the way I can best explain it is there’s a great seminar that I’ve gone to a couple of times that my wife is a social worker. So she, she introduced me to this and it’s called walk of mile in my shoes. And it’s for parents of students with learning disabilities and what they do. They start the seminar by showing parents of student of children with, with learning disabilities, a problem on a, on a board and asking them to take five or 10 minutes to solve the problem. And, but the problem is pure gobbly go, and there is no solution. Yeah. And when the parents experience that, then the presenter says, so that’s what your child is going through 24/7.


Michael Booth (27:11):
Mm. And I’ve been to a couple, my wife has been to many and, and she says that she’s, and it happened when I was there. She’s never seen, been attended the seminar when one of the fall, others has not broken down in tears realizing that when he was brow eating his, his son or daughter, that they weren’t being lazy or resistant or whatever, just for the cuz they liked to do that. Cause they were having a struggle that was invisible to the parents. And I think it’s similar. We all fall into habits of, oh, they’re Johnny. So and so is struggling again and giving me a hard time because Johnny is lazy or unmotivated or what have you. And I’m not in the trenches in the classroom as much as I used to be. So I feel like it’s my job to remind teachers to try to walk a mile in their, their student shoes.


Michael Booth (28:07):
Mm that’s awesome. And, and then on the other token, I mean, it’s all about navigating these, these, these often conflicting or competing demands not necessarily only accommodating and this is parents and students. Yeah. We have the capacity at this school to be highly responsive to students struggling or trying to achieve a higher goal or what have you. And the, the immediate impulse is at times to, oh yeah, we can make that accommodation. So we will, and that’s fine at the start, but ultimately the end goal is always, how do we, how do we work ourselves off of needing that accommodation? Like if, if possible.


Sam Demma (28:57):
Yeah. That’s awesome. And a side note question before we wrap up today over your right shoulder, there’s a picture on the wall. It might it be Martin Luther king. I’m curious to know if this is your office or what that picture says.


Michael Booth (29:12):
No, that, that is my office. It’s it’s an album cover for a John QUT train jazz saxophone player.


Sam Demma (29:19):
Nice. yeah. Cool. Very cool.


Michael Booth (29:22):
Having a rough day. I’ll just turn around and look at that and it makes me feel a bit better.


Sam Demma (29:26):
Oh, I love it. Cool. That’s amazing. And if anyone wants to reach out, have a conversation, they think something you said was impactful or inspiring, what’s the best way for someone listening (an educator) to do so?


Michael Booth (29:39):
My email mbooth@blytheducation.com is, is great. And I can schedule zoom calls and, and phone calls and or email exchanges.


Sam Demma (29:48):
Awesome! Michael, thank you so much for taking some time today. I really appreciate it, it’s been really insightful. And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the high performing educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review so other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show. If you wanna meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com, and signing up to join the exclusive network. You’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

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