About Paola Di Fonzo
Paola has over 10 years of work and volunteer experience in youth and adult faith formation in both the Catholic parish and Catholic school settings. Currently, she is the Chaplain at the All Saints Catholic Secondary School.
She recently finished her Masters in Theology at the University of Toronto.
**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 other 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 my good friend, Paola, Paola Di Fonzo is the chaplain at All Saints Secondary School. She just recently got her masters degree. So she’s still pursuing education, even while she’s teaching. She is a powerhouse. I had the opportunity to work with her last year with her entire school, doing keynotes for all four grades.
Sam Demma (01:06):
And this year I got to work with her again, to do a SHSM certification, a specialist high skills major with her with, with her students on public speaking, it went really, really well. It was awesome. This year she’s also responsible for OYAP, the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Programs coordinating that and SHSM programs, so she has a lot in her hands. Here’s my good friend, Paola. Paola thank you so much for coming on the High Performing Educators podcast. It’s a pleasure to see you again, virtually not in person this time. Can you share with the audience who you are, how you got into the work you’re doing with young people today and yeah, I think that’d be a great way to kick this off.
Paola Di Fonzo (01:46):
Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having me, Sam. So my name is Paula Di Fonzo. I’m a chaplain out here on the east end with the Durham catholic school board and I’ve been here for about, I think it’s like two and a half years now. Before that I spent the last decade, the last 10 years, which sounds crazy, because I’m still such a baby. I’m still so young, but I started right after I graduated high school working in like churches, parish settings, and developing youth programs for young people. So I’ve been sort of doing this sort of faith formation work with young people for the last decade. And, and yeah, that’s, that’s what I do. And the reason really I got into this kind of work is because during those formative years for me, probably starting in grade five till well into high school, I had such a wonderful group of adults who took care of me and cared for me on that deeper level.
Paola Di Fonzo (02:43):
Like I played sports and I was in the musicals and I was on student council and I did that sort of stuff, but it was this one particular community that cared about me on a spiritual level that, that held me up throughout those major years where things get really tough and you’re changing so much and the world seems to evolve so quickly. And it was that group that really sustained me during that time. And, and the reason that I think that I’ve been successful and I don’t mean that in an academic or a career way, but just as a human being, it was that group that really held me up and all, all I wanted to do was do that for other people. Mm-Hmm and I didn’t know that at the time, I didn’t know that it was a career opportunity.
Paola Di Fonzo (03:26):
I always thought I, I get a job as a teacher. Not that that’s a, a bad job, but I thought I’ll do that and then on my evenings and weekends, I’ll work in this faith formation setting and I’ll work with young people and guide them in that way. And then as I grew up and started to branch out a network, I realized, oh, like I could get paid for this. This could be my livelihood. I would love that. So that’s what I did. I pursued it. I, you know, I studied Christianity and philosophy and my undergrad, I did my masters in this and, and here we are and I’m loving it. I’m really happy.
Sam Demma (03:58):
That’s awesome. I know you completed your masters recently, so congratulations again. Thank you. Going back to that group for a second, that really uplifted you through high school. What was it that they did for you that made a huge impact because whether you realize it or not, you kind of describe the current state of the world being that it’s changing and evolving and have a constant support, or I guess someone looking over your shoulder could have a huge impact. So I’m curious to know if you could boil down, you know, from that group, you know, what did they do that just made such a massive impact for you as a young person?
Paola Di Fonzo (04:33):
That’s a great question. And it’s hard to really reduce it to one thing, but the word that immediately came to mind for me was relationship. They, we built real relationship. It wasn’t, you know, you come and you listen to this message and you go home. It was a family so much so that you couldn’t wait until Friday night came along because you knew you were spending your weekend with these people. And it felt like a home you felt like that need for belonging was truly fulfilled them getting to know you getting to know like the deepest parts of you and still like loving you and caring for you through that is transformative. And, and I can only hope to replicate that in the roles that I’m in, but it’s really grounded in that relationship building. I think that’s what it was for me. If I could reduce it to one thing that was the major part.
Sam Demma (05:20):
That was awesome. And the way they, I guess, built those relationships was just asking questions. And like you said, getting to know you on a deeper level and you know, during COVID, that’s a huge challenge. I know usually you you’re in an office and the student walks right in and has a conversation with you. The state of the, the world in education right now is totally different. And I’m just curious to know, as you take in that big breath, what are, what are some of the challenges that have been presented? And I’m sure they’re very similar to everyone who’s listening. So you’re not alone here. I’m just curious to know what it looks like in your world.
Paola Di Fonzo (05:55):
Yeah. Like it’s exactly what you just said. I mean, as I was preparing some thoughts for our conversation today, I kept going back to that. The biggest challenge for me and my role right now is how limited we are in building relationship, real, authentic connection. Isn’t really happening virtually. Like that’s the one thing that I haven’t been able to translate to the virtual platform. I, I can’t have, you know, like the students would come in before and after school on lunches, we’d just hang like, it’s not, yeah. They certainly came in to, you know, seek guidance and some counseling and, you know, to pray together, we did that, but for sure, we’re the beauty lies more so than in any other.
Paola Di Fonzo (06:39):
I think interaction is like those casual Hangouts where we’re just chilling. Like we’re just being real with each other. We’re being human with each other and we get to know each other in that real way and that’s just not happening. And I, I haven’t been able to translate that again to the virtual platform just yet. So that’s been, that’s been a challenge that it’s something that I miss terribly. That’s something that without it makes my job really hard, really, really hard because there’s no relationship of trust being built and relationship of vulnerability being built. So how do we, how do we journey together in the faith without those things, right? How do we journey together as human beings, without connection and trust and vulnerability that can really only be established with human connection. Like we need to be around people and that’s been the hardest part I feel. Hmm.
Sam Demma (07:29):
Yeah. The reason I ask is because there’s a lot of educators listening who might have some great ideas and if they do at the end, we’ll share your email address for you. Two can connect, having been power in conversations and just bounce different ideas around on the other end of a challenge is I would say hope and overcoming it, which is obviously a great feeling during these difficult times. What sustains your personal hope? What keeps you hopeful? Although there’s lots of challenges and, and turbulent times right now.
Paola Di Fonzo (08:03):
Yeah. I, as difficult as it’s been, and as exhausted as I feel, I don’t feel like I’ve lost hope. Hmm. And that’s a major blessing. I’m so happy for that because as soon as you lose hope, like you’re in trouble, right. Things can get really, really dreadful. But for me, I’ve, I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to get back to basics mm-hmm and what I mean by that is like reflect. So we can’t my role as chaplain, right? So some of the big things I would coordinate in our school are, are large scale school masses. That’s not happening. Our grade retreats not happening. Anyway, we gather for liturgy together not happening. So I have had to really reinvent the wheel here and ask myself, all right, what are the basic human needs that I can cater to? Mm-Hmm what can I do to really see, like going back to like the most primitive needs of human beings, right?
Paola Di Fonzo (08:57):
The need for rest, especially during this high emotion time, the need for community, the need for belonging. Like how can I cater to that? And just the opportunity to, to just strip away all the layers, you know, sometimes you can just build up so much around the base needs of a human being and we start to layer up just so it make it look like we’re doing something good or you know, it makes it look good to other people like, look how much I’m accomplishing all of that’s out the window. And we’re just, we’re down to the most basic needs of our, of human beings of our students and stuff. And that’s sort of been exciting. It’s so terrifying, but so exciting to have the opportunity to do that because I think it’s a gift to have that opportunity. And it’s gonna change the game from here on out. It’s gonna change how we do things going forward. It’s given us an opportunity to stop retreat, reflect and kind of come back stronger. And that’s, what’s giving me hope, knowing that we we’re learning a lot right now, we’re gonna learn a lot about ourselves, our communities, and how to do things better. And that’s exciting. That’s
Sam Demma (10:01):
Exciting. Yeah. That’s what you just explained is how I’ve even felt during this time, because I made the rash decision before even watching the social develop. I meant to take a year off social media and it’s been over a month and a half now. And that to me was the whole like, Hey, look what I’m doing. And Hey, let’s, you know, keep in touch and Hey, check out my life and there’s positives and negatives to social media. But, but you’re totally right in terms of, you know, the state of education right now, it’s, it’s going back to those basic needs. How are you reinforcing those things? Are you make, are you just ensuring students are getting enough rest by encouraging them to or what does that look like for you as a, as a teacher and an educator?
Paola Di Fonzo (10:44):
Yeah. So in a very PR I, I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my time. At least in the first few months of transitioning back to school, it it’s looks very different. It’s not transitioning back to what we know school to be. It’s, it’s a totally different world, but I knew that I didn’t wanna do anything that would just be for the sake of doing them. Like I don’t operate like that. Right. nothing showy and nothing, you know, I just wanted to make sure I was caring for the person at the most basic level. And so what it’s and I’ll explain maybe one of the, the things we’re are trying to do around here, but I’ve developed something called tee time and meditation on the field. Mm-Hmm so classes sign up one class at a time and I do two slots a day in the morning.
Paola Di Fonzo (11:28):
And because they’re only here for a couple hours in the morning, right. Our students, and we go outside and we sit on the field, they’re six feet apart. So it’s a mask break. And I have, I have cookies with, for them. And we chill under the sun and we do some breathing exercises, some meditation, some stretching, and like, that’s it. And like, that’s just upping our self care game. And that’s really the, the extent of my connection with the students. But by the end of that hour together, they are just so relaxed. Some of them are asleep, which is like, I give them that permission. I’m like, I’m not gonna get offended, listen to your body. And mind here, allow yourself to just rest. And that has been so great, so fruitful, but we’re getting back to, to the basics, right. They just need time to check in with some deeper parts of them that maybe they don’t have the opportunity to, or even know how to, without some guidance. So those tee times have been a gift for, for me, for sure. And I hope for the students and staff and we’ve been doing that pretty much every day since mid-September, it’s
Sam Demma (12:30):
Been good. You must feel like a monk by now two hours a,
Paola Di Fonzo (12:33):
Well, that’s what someone says to me. They’re like, wow, you get to meditate for two hours every morning. And I’m like, you know what? I’m not really meditating. Like I’m guiding them in it. So I’m so like, okay, what’s next? And I’m in my head. So I’m really not relaxed when I do it. But but I hope they are. That’s the whole point.
Sam Demma (12:49):
That’s awesome. That’s so cool. Is there any common questions that come up that you use as prompts to have them reflect during that stuff?
Paola Di Fonzo (12:57):
Great question. It the whole time is really just them listening to their bodies and their minds. So I say to them, I always give them this. Disclaimer. I say, no matter what I demonstrate up here, whether it’s a type of breathing exercise or it’s a stretch that we’re doing, or, you know, I encourage you to lie down for the meditate, no matter what I demonstrate or model at the front of the space, if your body or your mind is saying, I’m not into that today, I don’t really want to, or I don’t feel comfortable or it hurts, listen to your body and give yourself the freedom to adjust, modify, or sit that one out and, and give yourself what you need. And that’s really, the only prompt for the morning is I just want you to learn to listen to yourself. And that’s not just for that hour.
Paola Di Fonzo (13:38):
It’s hopefully a skill that you take with you for the rest of your life. Like, I’m learning that I’m getting to the end of my twenties now, but like spend a lot of time listening to so many other things. So many other voices, so many other opinions, so many other, you know, expectations and, you know, social media is a whole other thing, but we don’t listen to what we need sometimes. Right. And so that’s really what I, I ground the whole exercise in learn to listen to yourself. Do you need to practice this breathing? Probably like, we, we all need some deep breaths every so often, but give yourself what you need. And I think that’s, I think that’s the message that we need right now as we transition back to school and figure it all out. Yeah.
Sam Demma (14:22):
So true. And sometimes an educator just needs a reminder that the work they’re doing is really important and it has a huge impact. It makes a huge difference. A lot of the educators that I’ve spoken to tell me that they have a file on their desk, they call it different name, but sometimes it’s called the bad day file. And it’s filled with all the notes that students sent them over the years or have written to them. And I’m curious to know, if you have a story of a student who has you have witnessed become, you know, become transformed into a, into a better version of themselves and maybe had a big breakthrough through school because of the work that you do and that your school does. And the reason I’m asking you to share is because another educator might be listening is a little burnt out, is forgetting why they got into education. and the impact you have, you can have in this, in this, in this work is tremendous. And you can change the student’s name if it’s a very personal story. But when I ask you that, is there any student or story that comes to mind?
Paola Di Fonzo (15:26):
There’s there’s names bouncing around in my head. But I’ll say this one thing about the work we do as chaplains and educators, and is we plant a lot of seeds. Mm. And sometimes we don’t get to see the fruit. Mm. Right. And so, like, I’m sure maybe some educators out there are like, I can’t even think of a name of a person who I’ve seen change because of my influence. And that can be so disheartening and you lose motivation, you lose hope. But something I was always told in this role was you just plant the seed. Right. And that might bloom in an hour, a day, five years three decades, who knows. Right. But it doesn’t mean that your impact wasn’t wasn’t relevant, wasn’t important. You plant the seeds and, and it’ll be watered, you know, and, and you might not see the fruits of it, but it doesn’t mean that you’re, that you’re any less effective as an educator, as a chaplain.
Paola Di Fonzo (16:30):
So that’s something I hold onto. Like, can you a specific example of students who, you know, their lives are transformed cuz of my influence? I don’t know. Like, I don’t know. I don’t, I don’t even think that way sometimes. Like I don’t, I just hope that God’s doing something in their heart. Right. And I’m just here going, God loves you, you know? Right. In my role as chaplain, it’s very faith focused. So I just, I just plant that seed and I hope that it’s being watered down the road, but I love that. That’s that’s I think how I would respond to that.
Sam Demma (16:59):
Okay, cool. I love that. That’s a great, that’s a great way to look at it. And planting the seed is just as important as re you know, sewing the fruit. In fact, you can’t have one without the other. So I think that’s a brilliant way to look at it. Amazing. And if there’s an educator listening, who’s in their first year of teaching and they’re like, what the heck did I sign up for? This is very different than what I expected it to be. You know, what advice would you have for them? Think back to when you just got into teaching what advice do you wish you had someone tell you, or maybe they did tell you it and you think it’d be wise to share it with someone listening. Who’s also getting into this role,
Paola Di Fonzo (17:36):
Give it time, give it time. Like in the first I’m still so new at this. So I like, I feel kind of silly giving, sharing some wisdom, but if there was anything, like if there is anything I could have heard in the first few years of this kind of work, it’s, it’s gonna feel like a whirlwind of emotion and chaos in the beginning, and you’re gonna be so busy and tired and maybe unmotivated. Can you hear that? That’s okay. It’s okay. Oh, they’re even calling me. Perfect. So , we’ll wrap up here. Iming. No problem. No, it’s no, it’s not a big deal. I think it could be easy to quit the game because you’re so tired and you’re like, I don’t want this. I didn’t sign up for being this overworked and maybe feeling unmotivated because you’re not again, seeing those fruits from the seeds that you’re planting.
Paola Di Fonzo (18:35):
And it could be really easy to walk away, but over the years, as you, you know, you grow and you, you develop as a person. And as an educator and as a chaplain and whatever it is it gets easier and you start to maybe see those fruits and to just trust that you have gifts to offer, like we all do. Every single person on this planet is put here for a reason. And we have something to offer the world. It’s just discovering what that is. What are our gifts? What are our desires and how can we give that to the world? And we all, we all have that purpose. So that’s what I would say.
Sam Demma (19:09):
And if there’s, someone who wants to reach out and bounce ideas around or have a conversation, like I mentioned earlier, what would be the best way for someone to get in touch with you?
Paola Di Fonzo (19:18):
They can certainly reach out through my board email. Okay. So I don’t know if you wanna put that into the description or anything, but it’s firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sam Demma (19:32):
All right. Perfect, Paola, thank you so much for taking some time to come on the show here and chat. I really appreciate it.
Paola Di Fonzo (19:37):
Thanks Sam. It was my pleasure.
Sam Demma (19:39):
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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