About Julie Hunt Gibbons
Julie (@SOthinkingabout) is a dynamic school and system leader with a broad range of educational leadership experiences spanning three decades in two different school boards. Demonstrated success in collaborative leadership, strategic, operational, and program planning, faculty development, educational technology, and innovation.
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Listen to the episode now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or on your favourite podcast platform.
Halton District School Board (HDSB)
University of Western Ontario, B.A. in Political Science
University of Windsor, M.A. in Sociology
**Please note that all of our transcriptions come from rev.com and are 80% accurate. We’re grateful for the robots that make this possible and realize that it’s not a perfect process.
Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. I’m super excited for today’s conversation with Julie Hunt Gibbons. Julie is the superintendent of secondary programs and student success at the Halton District School Board, or I should say was the superintendent. She is retiring as of the summer of 2021. I believe right before we recorded she let me know that she would be retiring in the next few days.
Sam Demma (01:06):
So we got her on the show right after her long career in education came to a close. Now she’s a dynamic school leader and system leader with a broad range of educational leadership experiences spanning three decades in two different school boards. And she has a demonstrated track record and success in collaborative leadership, strategic operational, and program planning, faculty development, educational technology, and innovation. You could tell that Julia is super passionate about her work, but the way she got there was a little unique. In fact, she thought she was gonna work in law as you’ll hear about in today’s conversation. Regardless, I hope you enjoy this. I will see you on the other side, take some notes, get a pen, get a sheet of paper and I’ll see you soon. Julie, thank you for coming on the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show, just I think 10 days into your retirement. Oh, five days into your retirement. I love it. It’s a pleasure to have you here. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and take us back to the story about what actually got you into education in the first place?
Julie Hunt Gibbons (02:12):
Well, I’m Julie Hunt Gibbons, and I have just retired as a superintendent of education, specifically a program and student success superintendent at the Halton District School Board. So it’s been 30 years, so when you say, take me back, Sam, that’s a long time. So I started teaching in 1991 and I started in the Peel District School Board at a high school that doesn’t exist anymore called Morningstar High School and then I moved to heart lake. So I was up in Maltin in Brampton for the first part of my teaching career and why I became an educator; that’s an interesting one because I didn’t really have that, I want to be a teacher all my life piece. In fact, my undergrad is in political science and sociology, my master’s degree is in criminology with a focus on socio-legal studies, and I was doing that because I thought I wanted to go to law school.
Julie Hunt Gibbons (03:16):
And when I was doing my master’s degree, I was a TA. And then I taught a night school course in first year criminology. And most of the people I taught were adults who were taking it to get a bump in their pay as police officers or correctional officers. And I loved teaching. I really, really loved inspir people and sharing knowledge. And it just sort of went from there. And I I applied for both a PhD and a and to the faculty of education. And I got into both and I sort of explored both for one week panicked and then ended up at the, a city of Toronto doing my bachelor of education and becoming a teacher. And I taught all things in a history department that weren’t history. I taught politics and law and sociology. And so all those grade back then it was grade 13. So all those sort of 11, 12 and 13 core that students can take later in their, their high school career. So,
Sam Demma (04:26):
So I would be correct in saying you had no idea you’d get into teaching.
Julie Hunt Gibbons (04:31):
Absolutely not. My master’s degree was actually completed working in a maximum security women’s facility in SEL, AE, Michigan focused on women who were completing life sentences and in Michigan life is indeterminant life. It’s, it’s not a set time it’s until the day you die. And so I was going back and forth from Windsor to Michigan and doing interviews with women who were incarcerated. My very first job was actually working for lifeline, which is a program in Canada that was four lifers and BI lifers. And I was the executive assistant for this program while I was completing my ma. So no teaching wasn’t ever any part of it. It was all focused in that criminology field. And I, I thought I was going into law or at least a PhD in that area.
Sam Demma (05:24):
Well, you’ve peaked my curiosity now, as someone who interviews educators, you, you said you, you were interviewing women who are facing life sentences. What were those interviews about or, or what did they look like? You just, I’m kind of curious.
Julie Hunt Gibbons (05:36):
Well everyone was already tried and sentenced and incarcerated and serving a life term in the hero on valley maximum security women’s Institute in IIL and Michigan. And our, the interviews were really about what, how they got there. And, and a lot of it was from a feminist perspective and the role of patriarchy in their situations and in their criminal circumstances and then sort of where they were in their own journeys once incarcerated, because of course many had kicked drug habits. Others had found an education. They never were privy to when they were living on the streets, et cetera. And so it was all very qualitative in nature. And it, it was absolutely fascinating because, you know, someone could have been serving a sentence from when they were hooked on heroin and had killed a client in a sex trade piece.
Julie Hunt Gibbons (06:39):
And then now they have three university degrees and were straight and had found God and all the rest, and it didn’t have an impact in any way they were locked up until the end of their days. So it was a very interesting piece. And then when I working on the male side with the lifeline piece through Kingston again I, I loved the educational piece. I realized that that work might not sit well for a, a, a young woman looking to have a family and, and all the rest it was. So I made the decision that I wanted to help people, and I wanted to help people who got to go home at the end of the day.
Sam Demma (07:26):
That’s awesome. What a story. And when you reflect back, can you think of educators that you had in your life that had a huge impact on you that led you towards education? Like you mentioned that you loved teaching. Did you have any teachers who also loved teaching that had an impact on you?
Julie Hunt Gibbons (07:44):
For sure. I did. When I when, when I was a small child and, and, and in high school. And, and I also remember the ones who had the very opposite impact, you know, the, I think the mediocre, the ones that you forget, but the incredible, wonderful, and incredibly not wonderful are the ones that you remember. And I would say I took a, a lot of lessons from those that inspired me and I had the fortunate chance to go back. I went to high school in the us, so I moved, I grew up in Oakville and then we moved to new England and we moved back and I actually graduated from Thomas a Blakelock high school in Oakville. And I was able to do one of my practice teaching students there. And there were, there were some men in the history department who I had had in my grade 13 year when I was there. And it was the ability to be that powerful storyteller. And I think the reason I loved history so much was because of the oratory and the storytelling. That’s how I remembered and did well. I, I got into the story of all of it. And to this day, like I love historical fiction. That is my choice of reading at all times. You’re, you’re learning something, but history has come alive as well.
Sam Demma (09:07):
That’s amazing. And I think what’s so interesting about that is that the teacher that had the biggest impact on me was my history teacher. It was world issues class, but he was just sharing us history. And at the same points relate to, to my passion about storytelling and, and the way he delivered his lessons, which is so cool. You mentioned that, you know, some teachers that are great stuck out to you and some that were not so great, also stuck out to you. And it brought my mind to this quote that every, you know, person or situation were in is either an example or is a, like a caution or like a worry, you know, one example. Yeah. Non-example, I’m trying to think of what the opposite word was. So what are some of the things the best teachers did in your experience that you can remember? And also on the other side of the coin, some of the things you think that those not so great teachers did that had a negative impact on you.
Julie Hunt Gibbons (10:03):
I have always believed that kids don’t care what, you know, until they know what you care. They know that you care, and that’s the most important thing by far. Students need to know that you are the caring adult and that their, their life beyond whatever it, it is that you’re teaching is important. There has to be that human connection. Like we’re not widgets, we’re, we’re not robots, we’re human. And the human connection has to be there. And I always say to starting out teachers, you know, how do you answer the question when someone asks you, what do you teach? You know, and people might say, well, I teach math, I teach science, I teach history, teach students. I teach children. I teach human beings because that’s the most important piece, because when you reflect on your favorite teacher and I reflect on my favorite teacher, I can’t name the lesson. I can’t say what was so great about how they taught. I can only reflect on a feeling that they left me with and that feeling, that how much I enjoy being in their presence and being in that room, because it was engaging and enjoying. And it’s the feeling that you reflect back on that made them your favorite teacher.
Sam Demma (11:13):
I love that. And it’s so true. And what do you think are some of the ways they made you feel great? Like, was it by tapping on the shoulder by personalizing what they were saying to you by giving you a chance to share? Like, what do you think if I know you mentioned this is a long time ago, so it might be hard to pinpoint some specific things,
Julie Hunt Gibbons (11:33):
You know, having worked in the program department for the last number of years and, and seeing a lot of different people teach it’s, it’s the personalization of it. It’s the little things that start it with greeting students at the door, knowing their names, knowing something about them beyond just their name knowing and properly pronouncing someone’s name be having opportunities to form and build trust in relationships. So whether that’s you know, building in opportunities, regardless of what you’re teaching, you know, I could be doing teaching math or teaching geography. I can still use communi or circles and you sharing and, and opportunities where I get to know students beyond just the subject matter of desks and rows, and, you know, Sage on the stage where I’m just really regurgitate, you’re regurgitating what I’ve said. Like that’s, that’s not active teaching in this world today with Google Wikipedia, all those other things.
Julie Hunt Gibbons (12:35):
Students don’t need teachers for facts. Students need teachers to provide the engagement and that joy of education that becomes the self motivating piece to want to learn and to be inspired, to learn. And I think it’s those inspiring pieces that includes the various pedagogy. They’re not doing the same thing all the time being responsive. So one year I might be teaching a grade 10 history class. And I know that most of maybe I have 75% of very active boys in my class, and I better be doing kinesthetic learning and not having them sit there and read and regurgitate and history may be the worst subject for that because history doesn’t change, but we have to be responsive in, in how we teach. And that means knowing them and meeting them where they are. I taught math for the first five years of my career.
Julie Hunt Gibbons (13:33):
Cause there wasn’t enough history there. I don’t have math qualifications in nine and 10 that you could teach the subject. If you had a willingness back when I was doing this. And I, I said, sure, I’ll teach math. And I think the reason I excelled at it is because I told the students right up front in my math that, you know, this wasn’t, I, you know, I didn’t go and graduate from Waterloo and mathematics. I explained things in a way that made them understand it. And I took real world examples and, and I used you know, we were talking about integer and negatives and I, I, I got out that thermometer. We talked about how things look so people could com conceptualize. It made it O okay to ask any questions. There was no such thing as a, as a dumb question. And I, I think that was sort of made it a trusting environment. And when people trust people are more vulnerable and then they’re willing to go further, take greater risks and ultimately learn more.
Sam Demma (14:34):
I was gonna say, it feels like, it sounds like trust is the main ingredient and all the examples you just shared, you know, trusting that the person standing in front of the classroom does care about you trusting that you can ask questions, make a mistake and learn from it in a safe environment. Like it all seems like it stems back to care and trust and compassion. And these sorts of characteristics, those are the ones.
Julie Hunt Gibbons (14:57):
Sam Demma (14:59):
Those are the positive experiences. And we don’t have to, you know, spend too much time on the negative. But it’s funny. I find that a thousand people could compliment us in one person, says something negative and it sticks out in your head like a sore thumb. And it’s just, I think it’s a negativity bias that all humans have. And I’m curious to know if you could think back to some of those experiences that were negative as a caution, you know, what are things that you think other educators should never do or not do? You know, based on your experiences.
Julie Hunt Gibbons (15:31):
You’re very right. There, there is a, there’s actually been research done on, on how many positives someone has to hear in order to help balance that one negative piece. And I think back to when I was a small child in elementary school and a music teacher telling me that maybe I shouldn’t sing so loudly and you know, that sort of, that you know, that, that just joy to me, that kids have. And, and then maybe, wow, that was the first time I’ve reflected that maybe I wasn’t the best singer in the world.
Julie Hunt Gibbons (16:09):
But I, I do think that some times as educated, we really have to worry about what we say, because we’re in such a position of trust and people take it to heart. And so comments about levels like D streaming is a big thing in the province right now, right? And so commentary mid by educators about what levels you, you should be taking your courses at. And, and ultimately it should be a student’s choice because only they know how hard they’re working, how hard they’d like to work, what their post-secondary dreams are in any way. And, and you know, who are we to in any way cap those because, you know, people may have to work differing degrees, achieve their dreams, but their dreams are their own. And we have to be very careful that in what we say, that we are not in any way, a stepping on someone’s dreams.
Sam Demma (17:08):
I love that. And it’s so, so true. And I think at a young age, we look up to our teachers and they have, you know, not only are they in a position trust, but you’re technically in a position of influence, you know, what you say is, is listened to, and it might not be accepted, but it’s definitely reflected upon by the students. Most of the time, I would say, and you, you, you’re totally right. You know, if you tell a student you can or cannot do something it could affect them for, for, for years or, or change their perspective, Devon what’s possible for them. Aside from the situation of the singing, can you recall any other situations where something like that happened for you personally?
Julie Hunt Gibbons (17:47):
No. I just remember the overall the feelings, you know? Yeah. Like if you say someone’s name and it’s an association of a feeling of, of either it’s a good feeling, a bad feeling or, or a lack of feeling. Got it. And I think that, that everyone, regardless of what position you’re in, if you’re you know, an EA, a teacher, a vice principal, a principal, a superintendent, the, the goal should be to leave people with a good feeling. Hmm. Because that’s the empowering piece that became, I think most clear to me when I became a vice principal, because often the association for students is the vice principal is where you go, if you’re in trouble. And you know, even now I, I see people and they’re like, oh, you were my vice principal. And I know them and people say, oh, were you, were you a bad kid?
Julie Hunt Gibbons (18:39):
You knew your vice principal. And the answer, the answer is no, there’s no such thing as a bad kid, there are bad choices. And everybody makes bad choices at some point in their life. But just because you knew the vice principal didn’t mean that you, you were a bad kid. And I, I really tried hard as the vice principal. I coached. I was involved in student government. It was just trying really hard to make it, that it wasn’t a place where you went only if you got sent there, because it was a de disciplinary matter.
Sam Demma (19:12):
I love that. And it’s, you know, I’m not far removed from high school. I’m 21. And I, it’s funny because that’s such a very, that’s a true stereotype about the vice principal situation, and I’m glad you broke it. That’s awesome. I love that in terms of positions, you’ve played the whole field in terms of when it comes to education of teaching principal, vice principal superintendent, which of the positions have you found the most fulfilling personally, and what are some of the challenges you faced in it? And how did you overcome those?
Julie Hunt Gibbons (19:46):
I have thoroughly enjoyed every position I was in. So that one, that one is hard. I, I think it was the making the difference piece is what propelled me. So when I was a teacher, then they had, they had this thing called assistant department heads back then they haven’t had that role for a long time. And people pointed out I should apply for role. And I, I did. And then now you’re helping people within the department in a leadership role. And then the next progression was to department head. And then in peel, we had this title, it was super head because it was multiple departments. And it was just sort of what was the next piece. A lot of it was intrinsic as well as extrinsic and people saying to me, oh, you should apply for this. But a lot of it was the feeling that I could make a difference.
Julie Hunt Gibbons (20:46):
So moving from the classroom into administration, a, a lot of it was that I wanted to make a difference for more students. And I thought I could in that role because now I didn’t just have the students in my classroom who I saw every day. I had the students in the school and I was a secondary vice principal at Erindale secondary school in peel for five years. And back in the day Erindale was a very large school. And I know that I got to help a lot more students in that role than I did just when I was in the class. And, and then the next logical piece was then principal. And I was the principal at Warren park in south Missisauga. And again, the, the leadership and the tone of the school comes from the front office.
Julie Hunt Gibbons (21:44):
And I’ve always believed that, and I’ve always lived that and seen and knew that that was something that I was gonna ensure that the tone that came from any office that I was running was a very positive one and one that was student focused and students first. And it was, and when I left Lauren Park, I went to Halton and I was the principal at Nelson high high school. And then I was the principal at Oak culture, Fager high school before coming, becoming a superintendent. And even the move to superintendent was sort of, I had been a principal in three, in three different schools and two different school boards. And it, it was sort of, so what do I do next for my own per personal learning and growth, because I, I do see myself as a lifelong learner. And what is that next step? And so then as a superintendent, you are now that critical friend to a whole group of principles who you’re overseeing and supporting. And then as well, taking on the portfolio of program and student success, which is all focused on pedagogy and assessment and evaluation. Now I’m having that impact on the classrooms again as well. And so I would say I enjoyed all of those rules at the time, and each one sort of fit the stage of life that I was in.
Sam Demma (23:06):
There’s definitely at least a dozen educators listening, who are asking themselves similar questions. How can I make a bigger difference? How can I make a greater impact on more students on the entire school, on the educational system as a whole, in my entire school board. And they might be wondering, you know, Julie, how did you, how did you make the ascent? And if you could go back and speak to your younger self and give younger Julie advice you know, before moving up all these different positions, what advice would you give yourself?
Julie Hunt Gibbons (23:42):
Balance for sure. I think anyone who’s reflecting on this has to make sure that they’re reflecting on the bigger picture of work life balance that is very, very important and necessary for your success. EV everyone’s family situations are different. Everyone’s home responsibilities are different, and what you’re doing has to fit within where you are in your own life journey. At the time, this was brought home to me back in 2012, I was diagnosed with cancer and I was off work. I had to undergo surgery and chemo and everything else, and I am an ovarian cancer survivor, and I’ve been clear now for seven years. So that was the biggest wake up call to me about the work life balance at full confession. I do have that workaholic tendency work has always brought me a great deal of pleasure and therefore doing more of it.
Julie Hunt Gibbons (24:43):
I just, I’ve always been that way. Having and cancer really gave me pause to stop and think and think about it. And it’s one of the reasons I retired at my first eligibility. So in teaching your age and your year service has to equal a minimum of 85 in order to get your full pension. So I, I turned 55 this year and I’ve completed 30 years of teaching, which makes me 85, which means that I am my first eligibility to retire. And I took that, and I know I shocked a lot of people cuz they were like, you’re too young to retire. But as much as I love my job, I also love my family and I love life and I want to experience more of life on my terms. And you know, it’s not a job that you can do.
Julie Hunt Gibbons (25:36):
Part-Time right. It’s a big job, a superintendent, it’s a big job with long hours. And I wanted to be more the captain of my own ship and of more of that flexibility. And, and so that’s why I did take the opportunity and I’m looking forward to doing all sorts of things on my terms. So I still am that lifelong learner. I spend an awful lot of time listening to books, reading books. I, I get a great deal of pleasure out of learning new things. And I think I will continue to do that.
Sam Demma (26:10):
I love that. That’s such an awesome way to wrap up this conversation today. You’re five days into this new journey of living life on your terms, which is amazing. Congratulations, thank you for being vulnerable and sharing, you know, the story of overcoming cancer. That’s amazing and I’m sure your overcoming of that, that challenge has probably inspired so many other people who’ve gone through similar things, especially in the field of education so thank you for sharing that. If an educator’s listening and wants to reach out and just maybe chat with you, if you’re still open to those calls, what would be the best way for them to get in touch with you?
Julie Hunt Gibbons (26:47):
I’ve always opened to those calls. In fact, I’m keeping my board email. It is my hope that I will be doing some project work with Halton or any other board, as I say, I’m not leaving, because I don’t wanna work. I just don’t wanna work 50-60 hours a week anymore. And so I’m maintaining my board email so I can be reached there through email@example.com.
Sam Demma (27:15):
Awesome. Julie, thank you so much. It’s been a huge pleasure. I really appreciate you coming on the show, keep up with the awesome work and we’ll talk soon.
Julie Hunt Gibbons (27:23):
Thanks Sam. You keep up the awesome work too.
Sam Demma (27:28):
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; f you want meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network, you’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.
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