Dave Conlon – Program Director for the Canadian Student Leadership Association

Dave Conlon – Program Director for the Canadian Student Leadership Association
About Dave Conlon

Dave Conlon was an activity director at the secondary school level for over 26 years. He has chaperoned over 120 dances and knows how to get a cow into the principal’s office.

He is the Program Director for the Canadian Student Leadership Association (CSLA), prepares national newsletters, sells all the CSLA resources, maintains a leadership website, corresponds with CSLA members through a monthly e-letter and still manages to get his laps in the pool!

Connect with Dave: Email

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned


Above and Beyond Blog

Horizons Leadership Conference

Cody Deaner

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. Today we have on a special guest, Dave Conlon. Dave is a grandfather. He’s a friend of mine and someone who has so much to teach as he’s been doing this for so so long. Dave was an activity director at the secondary school level for over 26 years. He has chaperoned over 120 dances and knows how to get a cow into the principal’s office. He is the program director for the Canadian student leadership association. He prepares national newsletters, sells all the CSLA resources, maintains the website and corresponds with all the CSLA members through a monthly e-letter and still manages to get laps in the pool. Dave is also more formally known as the grandmaster by his grandkids. And he’s an awesome, awesome friend and educator. And with that being said, let’s jump right into today’s interview. Dave, welcome to the high-performing educators’ podcast. It’s a pleasure to have you. I know we’ve crossed paths multiple times when I was 17 and again at the Horizons Conference in Waterloo. Tell the audience who you are, the work you do, and why you got into the job, you do with youth today.

Dave Conlon (01:23):
My name is Dave Conlon, and I was a teacher in the Waterloo board for over 30 years. I had the best job in the world. I was an activity director and, which meant essentially that anything outside of the classroom was my responsibility or my fault. And, I ran the assemblies, the fundraisers, I got to deal with the motivated keen kids who wanted to create a positive climate and atmosphere in school. It was a great job. During that time, a fellow teacher tapped me on the shoulder and said, Dave, we’re having a meeting in Toronto with a bunch of these, other teachers who want to start a national association across Canada. And I was a young teacher. I said, sure, I’m up for anything. I joined this meeting in Toronto and I haven’t looked back since. So I’ve been involved with the national association of student leaders. Oh gosh, for now again, over 30 years. And I love it. It’s working with some of the best teachers and best students in Canada and promoting real life skills that students actually get to learn at high school and take out into the world real world, make their communities and make this country a better place. It gets me excited and keeps me going.

Sam Demma (02:39):
You mentioned you have been in this work for over 30 years, what has helped you remain passionate? It’s evident through your words that this is something that you love and you enjoy doing. A lot of teachers experience burnout, especially during challenging times. What is something, maybe an experience you’ve had or, an impact you’ve made that just reminds you every day that this is why you do the work you do, and you need to keep doing it regardless of what’s happening?

Dave Conlon (03:09):
It all comes down to the individual. I remember a kid who signed up for my leadership class. His name was Paul. He thought I was a cool teacher because he was on my swim team. Now Paul had what we call a timetable of avoidance, which means anything that was hard, he didn’t take. So leadership looked like it was not a lot of work, or homework and Conlon was in charge. So it was a win-win as far as he was concerned. So we gave him an event. It was called stars of the school, pretty simple. We cut out yellow stars. We put every kid’s name in the whole school, on the yellow stars, put them up in the main hallway. And it was called stars of the school, great little event.

Dave Conlon (03:53):
Great idea. And at the end of it, Paul came up to me and he said, you know, sir, that was really good for me. And I said, you know, as a teacher, well, Paul, yeah, you did a really good job helping nobody cut themselves. And everybody was happy at the end and the students liked it. So that’s good. He said, no, you don’t understand. That’s good for me. I said, what do you mean? And he said, you know, sir, that’s the first time that somebody ever listened to me. I get fired up by little nuggets like that, where kids actually feel power and they feel powered to do positive things. And I have lots of stories of students that I’ve run into across my career as a teacher and an activity advisor. And now as a national leadership person where I’ve put a silly idea out there and some students will come up to me and said, you know, we ran that in our school.

Dave Conlon (04:45):
It was amazing. And I go, great. I thought it was a dumb idea, but you guys, you guys made it work so fantastic. And that’s, that’s what really gets me going, is to see kids do things. And it all comes down to, I always used to tell kids when I taught the most useful thing I learned in high school was first year typing in grade nine. They taught us how to type. We took a whole course on typing. And honestly, we spent most of our time there were manual typewriters. We tried to Jimmy them. So the next class coming in couldn’t type. But anyway, but I did learn how to type, which meant I could type my essays in high school. I made money typing essays for other guys in university, and it was a useful skill. And I say to students, when you do student leadership or student activities and you run that event for cancer, or you run that prom, or you run that stars of the school event, you will learn skills that you will take out into the real world. And that’s what keeps me going.

Sam Demma (05:48):
I find it fascinating. You mentioned silly ideas turning into major successes. And the fact that one of the major things that keeps you going is seeing young people embody the power that they have, especially your student Paul in these challenging times of COVID have you had or come across any silly ideas yourself or CSLA has come across that have turned into some great building blocks for new success or a new impact for young people that you might want to share with other educators, for them to consider.

Dave Conlon (06:20):
It’s way too early, um, for COVID and students and advisors are saying, what’s your best COVID idea? And I said, look guys, it’s three weeks of school tops by now. And we haven’t figured out the good ideas from the bad ideas, and I know enough bad ideas. I don’t want to pass those on because those gets you into trouble. And usually you’re in the principal’s office. I’ve been in for a few of those, but, um, through CSLA that’s Canadian student leadership association, we have our Instagram and any great idea that we see. We will pass out to other schools across the country. A neat idea that I saw was called a shoe box parade. And all it was was each student built a parade float out of a shoe box. So you get your Nike’s toss. The Nike’s because they’re no good anymore. And decorate the shoe box as a parade, float in a theme for Disney or for your school mascot or whatever.

Dave Conlon (07:17):
Hi, that, that was a dumb idea. And yet I saw the parade floats and I said, oh, that’s an amazing idea. And all the kids did then is that they put them in a zoom little video and they made a parade with some commentary. And again, it’s the power of students who say, I can make that work. Another idea that I know students are trying is they’ve had coffee houses and coffee houses are great because you go to your school and see your friends up on stage where you can’t do that in these days. So what we’re going to do is have a zoom coffee hosts. Well, that’s great. Kids can gather in their rooms at home, their living room and see their friend up on stage in his own living room, playing his guitar or doing something, reading poetry. So I think those are great ideas and those ideas will come from students. And it’s a student who says, I think I can do that. I’ve got lots of great ideas that never happened, really because no student came up to me and said, I think I want to try that. And that’s where it happens. It’s when the student says, Hey, I think I can do that. Let’s run that at our school. That’s fantastic. That’s the energy. And that’s, that’s the power of the idea.

Sam Demma (08:27):
And leadership class, the stuff you teach helps students feel that way about themselves, helps them and pushes them to raise their hand and say, I can do this and educate.

Dave Conlon (08:39):
Yeah, absolutely. It makes it possible. And a lot of kids, and that’s the beauty of leadership class. Some kids come in because they’ve already done things and other kids have not done anything. And so we have a wide range of skills, wide range of abilities and interests. And some kids don’t want to run a dance, but they’re certainly fired up about the environment or they, you know, they think the environment is important, but they would rather do something for cancer. Exactly what we need is the range of people, the range of ideas and just the power of young people, making positive things happen in their school. That just keeps us going.

Sam Demma (09:18):
How do we help a student get to that point where they raise their hand and say, Dave, I don’t know if I can do this, but I’m going to definitely try.

Dave Conlon (09:29):
Real simple. They just watched the first couple and say, Hey, I can do a better job than that. That’s what most teenagers do they go like, you suck, you dry it, buddy. You get up on stage. And the beauty of doing these things in high school, through student leadership, student council, student activities, whatever we want to call it, you’re allowed to fail. And there’s people there who are going to help you. And I will make sure that the school doesn’t burn down or nobody gets blood on the floor or anything else like that. But we’re going to make sure that you try and experience and possibly you will fail. That’s a good thing that you don’t do so well your first time. But look, we’ve got another three months in this semester, you’re going to run something else and you’re going to discover, okay. Forgot to look after the garbage, got to figure out how we collect the garbage at the end.

Dave Conlon (10:21):
That’s a life skill that you think through the event from the beginning to the end. And the real thing that happens with students and student leadership is all through their high school career. They’ve been an audience they’ve shown up into the gym and there’s been an assembly on stage or a pep rally, or they’ve shown up in the cafeteria and they’re running spirit events or challenge games or whatever. All of a sudden they’ve crossed that line on the stage behind the microphone. And they’re now in charge. And that’s quite different because not only do they have to prepare before the event, they have to then clean up afterwards and talk to the custodians and work with the admin and all that stuff. So that’s the beauty of it. They get to see the whole package and not just the event and then walk out of the, the gym or the cafeteria or the field, wherever things are being run. So it’s a whole package that they learn.

Sam Demma (11:15):
Do you mention, if someone believes they can do it better, they’ll give it a shot. And the analogy he uses you get on stage and you try it. You’ve, you’ve spoken to thousands of students. You’ve also had the pleasure of, you know, doing Canada wide tours with horizons leadership conferences, from an student success educator perspective. Someone’s considering bringing in a speaker. How have you decided on what messages to bring in front of young people? What speakers to bring in front of young people, young people, if someone’s listening and wants advice on how to bring in a message that’s going to impact their kids.

Dave Conlon (11:51):
My first test is they’ve got to have done something, um, that there’s something, something tangible that this person has done not. Everybody’s won a gold medal at the Olympics. I understand that. What have you done? There’s lots of young speakers that will come to me and say, well, I’d like to be a speaker. And I say, great, what have you done? And they say, well, I know a lot about leadership. And I say, yeah, what have you done? So that’s my first test goal. My second test is authenticity and the kids judge authenticity and the kids judge, whether they can trust that person for what they’re saying. And you see it every time a supply teacher walks into a classroom. And I can tell you within two minutes, that class knows whether they’re going to do work or whether they’re going to pick on this teacher.

Dave Conlon (12:37):
So it’s the audience, the teams that are in that room that decide. So when I say to young speakers, I say, I need to see you in front of a student audience. I know your video. Doesn’t matter to me. I need to see you in front of a live audience. And then I will get the vibe, whether they’re connecting with the students. And the difference is I don’t need you to connect with a hundred percent of the students, but I need you to connect with that pocket of artsy students over there, or that bunch of jocks over there, or the metal Headbangers over there. I’m reminded of, , we went into a Saskatchewan into Weyburn, brought Cody Diener rustling, and, um, Cody did his presentation for the whole school. And he’s great. He’s an amazing speaker. And at the end about six guys came up, who I would say, are your fringe candidates in your school?

Dave Conlon (13:30):
And they said, oh, that was really cool, man. And um, Cody said, oh great. They said, yeah, we usually dip these assemblies in Weyburn speak. That means they skipped the assembly, but they said, we checked it out and heard you’re a wrestler. We thought it was worth staying for. So it was cool. You did a good job. That was the highest praise. Cause those are guys, they don’t skip assemblies because they don’t go, they check it out and they say, am I going to get another lecture? They’re not getting another lecture. Cody was there. He connected with that group. He connected with other kids in the room, but that group really got his message. So that’s what I look for because, um, not every speaker is going to connect with every kid, but they’re going to connect with a small group. So those are all things that I look for. That’s all.

Sam Demma (14:17):
Awesome. And I mean, I was looking at your new and improved website. I know the blog is something you’re really passionate about and sharing a ton of ideas. I even saw.

Dave Conlon (14:27):
Those are the ideas that, that have been out there. And I want kids to see those ideas because I know some kid in new Brunswick is going to look at that idea and say, I can do that and I can do it better. And that’s exactly what I want is for them to see that crazy idea or that fun idea, that community aspect and say, I want to do it. So we’ve got over 250 ideas on the above, beyond blog. So it’s kind of like a Pinterest for crazy student activities and leadership. So that’s, we’re hoping.

Sam Demma (14:58):
I love it. And I saw the video from the national conference, the promo video, and it pumped me up. I know this year, things might be a little bit different. What’s going on behind the scenes. So what are you guys planning and working on right now?

Dave Conlon (15:11):
Well, right now we’ve like anybody, we let’s start with school. School’s impossible right now. It’s almost as that, like every school has been invited to play basketball. Well, we all know how to play basketball, but they haven’t told us the size of the court. They haven’t told us how high the nets are and the refs haven’t shown up yet with the new rule book. So nobody knows what’s going on. Like that’s the situation. Most schools are finding themselves in. So as soon as they figure that out, we’re going to be able to help them. And we’re ready with number one, we’ve got an online curriculum for student certification. So if you’ve gone online with your leadership, because you can’t do it in class, we’ve got that. So there’s four levels there. Um, we’re online this very week with a student spirit week at our, on our Instagram of CSLA, Canadian student leaders.

Dave Conlon (16:01):
So all of those things are happening and we hope to run some online horizons, but we’re going to wait until schools are settled till they figure things out. And we think that’s going to happen sometime after Thanksgiving. And then we’ll be able to say, because schools, kids, teachers, they don’t want us bugging say, Hey, we got this, we got this, we got this. No, they have to figure out how high the nuts are, how big the court is. And then we’ll be able to help them. And we’ve gone online with a lot of our stuff at a know like speakers like yourself have gone online for performing, performing to schools and talking to school. So we’re going to invite you and other speakers to connect with the kids that, connect with us.

Sam Demma (16:46):
No, that’s awesome. And I’m wondering, I know you shared this story about Paul and the impact you had on him in your class. You mentioned that you have so many others. And I think stories when told effectively can change our feelings. And again, there’s an educator listening to this right now. Who’s burnt out who maybe hasn’t had a Paul moment for themselves in awhile. Can you share maybe one or two more stories? You can even change the name for privacy reasons just to re inspire or reignite that hope in it and an educator.

Dave Conlon (17:17):
There’s a couple things that I learned. And I only learned it when I retired. Was it kids don’t tell you immediately what a change or what it meant to them. How many times has a student walk? I started out as an English teacher and I had never had a student at the end of the class go, Mr. Conlon, you rocked my world. They don’t do that. You know, so I retired. And then all of a sudden I started getting all these emails as Caitlyn. I heard you’re retired. I just got to tell you, and I hear about something happened 10 years ago, or I hear about something that I honestly don’t even remember doing. And these are kids who it made so much to their growth and so much to their, their life in school that kids don’t tell you, um, kids make things happen.

Dave Conlon (18:07):
And then they realize later how important it was to them. But I think of my own children, I have four kids and each one of them in their school career, Mehta teacher who made a difference and believe it or not, they went to the same elementary school. So they’d basically the same elementary teachers. They went to the same high school. So they had almost the very same high school teachers. And yet for each of my kids, it was a different teacher who made a difference for them. And I think of a girl that I met as actually a, the horizons that you spoke at and she was in the audience and she was part of our student council. And the reason that I liked her in our student council was she was so gullible. Like she would believe that anything that I would tell her and I was, I wasn’t picking on her.

Dave Conlon (18:57):
We were having fun. And she would come back from war and she grew and became a strong student leader by the end, she was valedictorian. But I just thought of her as a really nice together kid. I only found out about five years ago, she came and had coffee with my secretary and myself and said, you guys don’t understand what you created for me. You created a home. My home life was not very good. I didn’t know that I knew this girl, but I thought pretty, pretty well. I knew her sister. She said my home life, wasn’t fun. And you guys created a home and something for me to grow from. And I only learned that I knew her as a great, competent, and I thought put together kid. But I only learned that just five years ago. And I’ve been retired for nine. So, you know, you don’t, you don’t know what you do for kids.

Dave Conlon (19:54):
And it’s often I say, it’s the tap on the shoulder. I’ve tapped so many kids on the shoulder just because I thought they’d be good for something. And they haven’t taken me up on it. And that’s okay. And there’s other kids that I’ve tapped on the shoulder and they’ve done it. And they it’s been amazing. So I say to teachers, don’t be afraid to tap a kid on the shoulder because how did I get involved in student leadership? Because another teacher tapped me on the shoulder as a young teacher and said, Hey, Conlon you got an English background you can write, or you got to know something about these new fangled computers. So we need that come and join us. And I did. And I’ve had fun ever since. So it’s been quite a ride for me. I’ve enjoyed it. Wow.

Sam Demma (20:33):
That’s awesome. And you’ve been doing this for a long time, so much so that people now call you the gram stir. Where does the name come from?

Dave Conlon (20:42):
Well, it came from my birth of the first grandchild and my wife turned to me and she said, ah, so what are you going to call yourself? And I said, well, what do you mean Dave is good enough? And she said, no, no. We have a grandchild and you get to pick your name. And I said, well, what are you going to call yourself? And she said, grad. And I said, cool. So I thought about it. And I said, I got it. The grand master capital T capital G lug hamster, and my wife hated it. She said, no, you’re not going to call yourself that. And I said, yes, I am. And my own children for kids, you know, there’s a dad, you’re not going to call yourself the Gramp stir. And I said, yes, I am. And my grandson and my granddaughter call me grandma, sister. And that’s what it is. It’s a, it’s something I’m proud of. And as I say, the kids, there are moments that you can, you can make a difference and make a change and become who you want to be. I’m the grandmaster.

Sam Demma (21:44):
Dave, the grand master capital T capital G. It’s been a pleasure having you on here. It seems as though you’ve done many of these, you’re great at it. I appreciate you taking some time to chat. If another educator out there, somewhere in the world, listening to this wants to reach out to you, have a cool conversation or just bounce some ideas around how can they do that?

Dave Conlon (22:03):
I always answer emails. It’s DConlon@studentleadership.ca. And that email is on the student leadership.ca website. , I’m always available and love to share ideas. And it’s much better talking one-on-one because you tell me what you’re doing in your school, what level you’re at and what students that you’re working with. And we’ll find an idea and a program that works for you because I’ve been doing it for a long time and there’s not a textbook kind of approach to anything. You have to make it your own. And there’s a lot of activity, people, leadership, people that I respect a lot. And I look at what they do. And I say, I can’t do it like that because it’s different. It’s like someone who’s a great cook. They mixed and meld all the spices and the tastes together. So great teachers are like that. They make it their own. They’re different. and that’s what I’ll do. I’ll provide the smorgasborg of ideas you pick and choose what works for you.

Sam Demma (23:10):
Cool, Dave, thank you so much. If you have any last idea or word of wisdom or catchphrase or anything you’d like to share with an educator, now’s a chance to do so.

Dave Conlon (23:21):
I honestly think that in the big game of life, being a teacher is one of the best, best games of all. Um, you get to work with some pretty amazing kids and I think you get to change the world in a positive way. And that’s, what’s kept me fired up about teaching and it still keeps me going. I said I’ve been retired for nine years. And the beautiful thing about being involved with this association is I get to travel. And when horizons conferences are back up and running, I go into some of the best schools in the country. And I see some of the best kids in the country, and that’s not just one province. That’s every province, that’s north and south. , there are some truly amazing students and truly amazing teachers and in this country. And that gives me hope and gives me great positive vibes for the potential of this country and the students in it. Awesome.

Sam Demma (24:19):
Thanks so much for coming today. It’s been a pleasure.

Dave Conlon (24:21):
Well, thank you, Sam, all the best. And I think this is an awesome idea. Running a podcast for teachers and students. Great job.

Sam Demma (24:29):
I hope you enjoy today’s interview with the one and the only Dave Conlon. If you enjoyed this show, I have one ask of you, please take two seconds to leave a rating and review. So more educators, all of your friends and colleagues can find this podcast and listen to it and please share it with them. Tell them to check it out. If you found this episode valuable in any way, shape or form. And if you want to come on the show because you have some ideas to share and inspiration to provide, please shoot us an email: info@samdemma.com and let’s get you on the high-performing educator podcast as well. I’ll see you in the next episode. Talk soon.

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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.