About James Trodden
James is the Assistant Superintendent of Learning at Buffalo Trail Public Schools. Having spent over 27 years as an educator, James has a variety of experiences as both a teacher, school leader, and central office leader. He appreciates his years spent in rural education in Alberta, as the rural context is familiar and allows for the development of close connections and responsive schools.
Connect with James: Email
**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 (00:54):
Welcome back to the show.
Sam Demma (00:56):
Today’s special guest is James Trodden. James is the Assistant Superintendent of Learning at Buffalo Trail Public Schools. Having spent over 27 years as an educator, James has a variety of experiences as both a teacher, school leader, and central office leader. He appreciates his years spent in rural education in Alberta, as the rural context is familiar and allows for the development of close connections and responsive schools. I hope you enjoyed this conversation with James and I will see you on the other side. Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today we have a special guest from the Buffalo Trail Public Schools. His name is James Trodden. James, please start by introducing yourself.
James Trodden (01:44):
Hello Sam. Thank you for having me on this. I am working in Wainright, Alberta and I’m the assistant superintendent of learning with the amazing team that we have here.
Sam Demma (01:56):
When did you realize in your own life as a student, or maybe even it didn’t happen as a student, but as you grew up, that one day in your future you wanted to work in education?
James Trodden (02:07):
Oh, I like that question, Sam. You know what, I look back on my years in school and some of the greatest mentors and some of the most passionate people and the people that kinda reached into my life and changed the course of my history, they were all teachers. And so I went off to do a couple of different things in the world and I kept coming back to why am I not teaching? And that led me to that path.
Sam Demma (02:36):
Two questions, part one, what did your teachers do for you that you think made it a very significant impact on your development as a young person?
James Trodden (02:49):
I think they recognized where I was at and I think in seeing me, the child, the person in front of them they recognize that bit of time that they spent talking to me would make all the difference in the world. So I think back to a couple of the great teachers and they took the time to help me learn how to and me learn how to and that all thence for.
Sam Demma (03:18):
Ah, that’s awesome. And what were the things that you did in the world where you would question why you weren’t spending that same amount of time or that exact moment teaching in a classroom, <laugh>.
James Trodden (03:32):
Oh, what other things did I do,
Sam Demma (03:34):
Sam? Yeah, you mentioned you went off and did some things.
James Trodden (03:39):
I went off to university and I was taking a degree in science and I joined a program with the Canadian forces. Nice. And I joined a training program with them that paid for my university, but I also had to spend time as the in the army. So I did that and then I finished up as a teacher and I kinda had that choice to continue in the army or become a teacher and no doubt becoming a teacher, best choice.
Sam Demma (04:10):
Oh, that’s amazing. Did you have other people in your family or around you pave the weight for that decision? Were there other teachers in your household or your entire family?
James Trodden (04:22):
No, you know, often have that story, right. Teacher breed teachers, I come from come a very low educated family. My parents didn’t get out. Elementary school we’re very low social economic class. And so the idea that I would graduate or even go to university was beyond anything that they experienced or expected or would’ve considered.
Sam Demma (04:47):
Wow. Someone told me recently there’s no story without a struggle. And I think that’s true. I think a lot of the people that I look to as role models have been through their own journeys and their own challenges. And it sounds like you’ve had yours as well. Tell me a little bit more about the journey that brought you to the position you’re in right now. What are the different roles that you’ve been a part of in education and where did you first start? Tell me more about the journey.
James Trodden (05:21):
And it’s almost like a continuation of that journey from childhood <affirmative> where those mentors, those people that looked at my life, they’re all teachers and as a kid they were reaching out and giving me that second, third and sometimes 10th chats <laugh>. And then as a young teacher, I ran into just some amazing mentors. And my first vice principal he had this idea that you had to teach something new outside of your training or repertoire. And so each year I’m teaching a course that I don’t have a clue on, but it forced you to dig deeper into your practice. And then I had another amazing leader whose sole purpose was to build other leaders. So he would take us and expose us to thought leaders experiences. He’d help us out. He would get us reading, get us connected, get us connected to authors. And so along the way I had all these amazing opportunities when I became a young vice principal.
James Trodden (06:22):
My first principal was just a veteran and at different times he would step back from opportunities that presented itself so that I would have the opportunity. So that same theme and motif. And so it’s how teachers, no matter where we are or what we do, I always say you can tell teachers in the shopping market, right, <affirmative>. Cause there’s two kids and if a kid falls down and hurts themselves and there’s 10 people around, two teachers out, the 10 will be the ones moving to help a kid <laugh>. And to down a host ofs, there’s a teacher moving there, even if it’s there. And you know what, there’s just that sense of think applies in when of, And so brought me to hear the superintendent of the schools here is a mentor of mine. I knew her in the awe when we both worked in the Alberta government. And when she had the opportunity here, I jumped at it and it’s been a gift in my life. The same sort of thing. Teachers help out. And so she’s, she’s pushed me and it’s been a great working with her.
Sam Demma (07:39):
You mentioned that principal who exposed you to authors and thought leaders and experiences out of the diverse amount of experiences that he exposed you to. Is there anything maybe a resource, a book, an author, a conference, or anything that you remember vividly because it really left an impact on you or it changed the way that you think or provided you with some new perspectives and tools to bring back to your practice?
James Trodden (08:10):
There’s so many beautiful experiences, but he had me go to dinner one night, me show up to a conference and British Columbia had me go for dinner and there’s a group of us and there’s this incredible elderly man next to me and he was like, the man was asking me, What are you doing here? And I said, Well, I’m a teacher but my principal said I should come to this leadership conference. He goes, Oh, so you wanna be a principal? I said, No, not really, but you know what, I got the chance to go to the conference and it looks great and I’m always great to learn. And he says, Why wouldn’t you wanna be a principal? I said, I love teaching. I love just that beautiful moment where you work with kids and you get to see just them learn and grow and I don’t think there’s a greater experience.
James Trodden (08:57):
And so we spent the whole night convincing me principals do this and principals do that. So he’s another person that’s a principal. And I’m like, That’s great. Go to this conference. There’s like people, Wow. And introduced the keynote. The keynote is the head of the principal, the Harvard Principal Center for Leadership. And on the stage rock walks the old man I had dinner with, his name was Roland Barth, right? And so he wrote this incredible foundational book, actually it’s out of print now. So I helped use copies that I give to new administrators and it’s called Improving Schools From Within. And he talks about the strength and the secret to improving schools is the strength of people right next to you within the building and when you can tap into the power of people. And that fundamentally changed how I still see leadership. And I think when the old guys in the restaurant next to you and then he is walking on stage and he actually is the top instructional leader for Harvard, you should probably wake up and pay what he said.
Sam Demma (10:02):
That’s really cool, man. That’s a really unique, one of the odds out of the 4,000 people that you would be seated beside him at the table, right?
James Trodden (10:12):
Oh, make no mistake. My mentor did that on purpose.
Sam Demma (10:15):
James Trodden (10:16):
<laugh>. So he would come in, he’d do amazing things. He’d be like, James, I think you need to learn about this. Here’s a couple tickets to Nashville. There’s this and this going on. I want you to go to this conference. And you’d go down and you’d work with somebody and it would just be these amazing experiences. But that was his passion is that leadership comes through experiences and he can create experiences. So I mean he’d send us in a bunch of to see different people if we liked the book or something, he would figure out how to call. Just an incredible way of,
Sam Demma (10:55):
With the role you’re working in now, I’m sure there’s lots of opportunities to make student impact. Is there also opportunities for you to be like that principal and try and put teachers in similar positions or what does the majority of your time and days focus on now?
James Trodden (11:16):
I think that lesson from Roland Barum left me that improving schools from within. And so what is the value that we can provide to the people? I mean, people have strengths, people have weaknesses. So let’s pick on you for a bit, Sam. What was your biggest strength on the soccer field?
Sam Demma (11:35):
My biggest strength on the soccer field was probably my endurance. I wasn’t gonna be outrun by anybody.
James Trodden (11:41):
<laugh>. Okay, so you got endurance. What was one of your biggest challenges on the soccer field?
Sam Demma (11:46):
Using my left foot
James Trodden (11:48):
<laugh>. Okay, so I’m not gonna put you on the, you probably played right side, correct? Yeah. <laugh>, I’m not gonna put you on the left side because I’m gonna get you to do better with your left foot. Yeah. What I’m gonna do is I can put Sam in there for endless periods of time cause no one can beat his endurance and I’ll put him on the right side. Cause I know he is gonna struggle with his foot if that in soccer, but let’s pretend it does.
Sam Demma (12:13):
James Trodden (12:13):
<laugh>. So when you look at that, I think that’s what role and taught is that I don’t have to make you a better player if I’m your coach, Sam, I just have to recognize that you’re great and create the conditions for you to be great. So it’s what we try and do what nobody has it all I had, I could list to you the number of left feet I have <laugh>, the number of challenges I have, but you know what? I got a couple things down good. And I play towards those strengths. And so I try and do that when we work with principals, we have a learning team here of innovation coaches and they’re all different people and every one of them has a strength. And they probably all have challenges <affirmative>, but I’m not gonna get them played left side. I’m play to their strength. And so I think that’s what roll wanted is that the people are there, that you need ’em, how give ’em, create the conditions for them to play to their greatness.
Sam Demma (13:09):
There’s a phenomenal analogy. First and foremost, thanks for sharing that. I think I wish I had you as my coach growing up <laugh>. There’s a book called The Power of Now, which is all about mindfulness and living life in the present and
James Trodden (13:26):
Sam Demma (13:27):
Yeah. And the book opens with a little parable or analogy of a fictional character walking up to a man on the street asking for money, sitting on a box. And the person he asks for money from as you would know says, Well why don’t you open your box? And he goes, No, there’s nothing in the box. And he convinces the man asking for money to open the box and he opens it and lo and behold, there’s the pile of gold. And the analogy was that sometimes the gold is inside you. My question to you is how do we help teachers and how do we help students actually recognize their strengths if they don’t even realize that they have them or maybe even a student? How do we create the conditions where those things shine and we’re able to appreciate them and celebrate them and encourage them to keep using that skill or so that we can identify what their strengths are and then put them in the right positions.
James Trodden (14:30):
And so I mean you hit the point is how do we meet people? How do we intersect with them? And how do we intersect not with people or the class, but how do I know Sam <affirmative>? How do I take those moments as a teacher, as a human being in life? How do those to know Sam? And there’s something beautiful that one of my great teachers taught me and she had said, What? Meet that and you see here and understand them. I’ll say that again Sam. If see them, if hear them and you take the to understand them. I see you, you’ve shared your personal journey, I’ve listened to it. Do I understand it? Maybe on the surface, but I’ve never got the chance to sit down with you and ask the why and why now and why tomorrow. So I’m beginning to understand who you are because as we talk we have more intersections.
James Trodden (15:31):
So when I see that child come in late where I see that child struggling with reading or I see that child that’s having a great time on the playground or he owns up here, we play soccer and so owns snow soccer, can’t even say it. What do I take the time to go there and the ball with him? Do I take the time to understand why can’t read? Do I take the time? Cause when I see him and I hear him, I generally ask kids, how often do little kids get asked, What do you feel about this? What could I do better? <affirmative>, do you wanna see a kids go crazy, ask them a couple things that they wanna do better about the playground and their ideas are, but do you understand, take the time to understand of right. So I think that’s when you at how do get to do of ’em? And do you understand
Sam Demma (16:33):
What was the gap between dinner in BC to James first role as a principal?
James Trodden (16:43):
My first admin role as a vice principal, What was the gap? It was a couple years in there. There’s nothing more beautiful than being a classroom teacher.
James Trodden (16:55):
And so how do you make that choice to leave that what you love most? And so it was a couple years of training. I started my master’s degree, took a bunch of courses, and then it was just the idea that maybe we could multiply where we do, teacher has a beautiful impact in the classroom, but can we multiply what we do and have an impact in the school? <affirmative>, can we multiply what we do and have impact in multiple schools? And can you use that philosophy of meeting people where they’re at and hearing and understanding ’em? Can you change your little corner of the world with that?
Sam Demma (17:38):
Sometimes educators have a mentor who walks into their life and almost randomly out of their control and is the most helpful and guiding person they could have asked for. I think on other occasions, sometimes educators don’t know who to turn to or where to go. I wonder what your advice is on potentially finding a mentor. And I think that most people in education are so excited to help especially if you just ask. But from the educators listening who aspires to learn more and improve themselves and they think a mentor would help, how would they go about finding one?
James Trodden (18:25):
Sam, you hit both the key point and the paradox of the key point teachers help. It’s sure there’s a extra chromosome somewhere and some genetic code that <laugh>, but what’s really unique about a profession, especially at the beginning is we’re the profession that kinda works and lives for the most part in isolation. So you take a new teacher, a new teacher, they took all their courses with their professors and their classmates and they go off and do a practicum and they teach with a supervising teacher and the university mentor comes in and evaluates and maybe the principal comes in and they do that the four weeks and then maybe the 10, 12 weeks depending on the program. And they do a practicum and then they get their own classroom, they walk in and the door shuts
Sam Demma (19:21):
James Trodden (19:22):
And those great leaders and great systems find ways to open up that door. But you hit the ground running so fast, you’re young, you’re new to the profession and it can become very isolating. So what we talk about when we had the new teachers here is we introduce all the people that will help. It starts with the person sitting next to them and it starts with our superintendent is there to help out, they superintendents there to help ’em. We start by pointing out all the people that will help and we say, You know what? The difference between your success and not your success isn’t your ability and skills. It’s not what And don know the fundamental difference between the success that you have will be based upon on do you ask for help at the right time and the wrong time?
James Trodden (20:16):
<affirmative>. And we start to break down of the closed classroom. So as a profession, s a lot different. Remember my first here’s list, there’s classroom shut and make principal doesn’t know your name. Welcome to B <laugh>. So why systems have done so much better breaking that down and seeing them and doing that. So yeah, I think we ought to continue to push that. So what advice would I have is that you need to go and ask when things are good and you need to go and ask when things are bad. And you need to take the time to see other professionals at practice and you need to not worry about what you know or don’t know. Because a year veteran will know more who hasn’t taught that long, but it doesn’t mean that you don’t have value to them and they have value to you.
Sam Demma (21:11):
When you say see another teacher at practice, do you mean physically sitting in the back of their classroom with a notepad and watching them teach? What could that look like in a hypothetical situation?
James Trodden (21:26):
It could be that simple. It could be asking ’em to come into your classroom. It could be you going into their classroom. It could be saying, Hey, you know what, we’re both teaching social studies. What’s the chance that we can both it and see how it <affirmative> taking those time and your prep time? And teachers are so they work so hard, <laugh>, so, and they have that time, they’re often pressured to things. But can you take the time to and sit Sam’s 15, he kind of heard that he’s really at talking kids and watch you in your practice.
Sam Demma (22:10):
You asked me before the podcast started, Hey Sam, you doing okay? Your eyes look low, your tone of voice because it’s getting close to my early bedtime here, <laugh>, while we record this, but you took a very intentional moment to actually ask me how I’m doing. And I think it’s so important that we don’t brush over that when we’re speaking to anybody especially educators who are always filling up the cups of others. I’m curious to know how does James fill his cup to make sure that he can show up every day excited to try and pour into others and do good work?
James Trodden (22:50):
I live at absolutely gifted life, Sam. I get to spend time with people I respect and <affirmative>. I get to work at a job that Ive spent decades doing the best I can to what I can. But you’re right, balance. How do you find balance in 12, 13, 14 hour days? What you find it by making sure that you’re taking care of yourself? Are you eating when you can? I think a lot of young teachers, they get caught up. So squirrel snacks here, hours. But I think at i’s that physical health I meditate twice a day at I do long retreats on the weekend and hours meditating. So that’s kind of my personal piece.
Sam Demma (23:46):
Now, do you meditate in silence? Do you use an app? If there’s an educator who has heard about meditation so many times but has no idea where to start and thinks it’s about crossing your legs and saying what would your advice be? <laugh>?
James Trodden (24:03):
I think there’s so many different entry points into meditation nowadays. There are apps in that, but I do something at times with a or I teach where if you were to stop for one and just close your eyes and to every sound around you and just say, I hear the beep of my phone, I hear the wind on the window, I hear the creaking of my as I back and forth, the of my shirt as if you sit for one, just focus on the, that’s just an meditation and that one, all the stuff that was in your head just stays to the side for a bit. So there are many ways and into meditation, so I won’t won’t it here to you’re in town.
Sam Demma (24:56):
Cool. If you could travel back in time with the experience and all the opportunities that you’ve been exposed to throughout your entire career and tap James on the shoulder in his first year of teaching, knowing what now, what advice would you impart on your younger self? Not because you wanna change anything about your journey, but because you think it may have been helpful to hear that when you were just starting.
James Trodden (25:29):
Yeah, yeah. Such a good question. To admire them, I think what every young teacher, I think what needed to hear and remember. And if at time during my career I struggled, it’s this key thing. And that is what we do matters. What we do. I talk about this and I want you to think about with all the superhero movies and all that, there’s always a question, what superpower do you want? Do you wanna run or have amazing endurance or you know, fly? I think that teachers don’t recognize that what they do matters. And what they do is they take that child in front of’em and they span out the timeline of their entire life, that child’s life, and they change the course of their history. So when you look at that little kid who’s struggling to read, you can do stuff in that moment that matters. And when they’re a 30 year old reading a book,
James Trodden (26:35):
James Trodden (26:35):
A pretty darn good superpower to affect history into the future. So it matters. What would I tell myself? Keep going. What you’re doing matters.
Sam Demma (26:47):
That sounds like a really good snapshot of a future movie that Marvel should be working on creating <laugh> like a superhero teacher that can see 25 years in the future and watch live the impact of their actions in their classroom. And every day they have a new experience with a new kid and see how it plays out in 25 years. <laugh>
James Trodden (27:13):
I mean, there’s a bit of faith involved in that, but that’s what a teacher does. It’s sharing half their lunch because a kid’s hungry and at the dark point of that kid’s life, they remember, Oh my goodness, my teacher Sam fed me and someone actually cared about me. The tough part is we don’t always see the years into the future, but there is no doubt that that is a superpower beyond comparison.
Sam Demma (27:39):
Oh, I love the analogy. If an educator is listening to this, feels inspired, curious about something that you mentioned or wants to bounce some ideas around or ask a question, what would be the best way for them to get in touch with you?
James Trodden (27:55):
You know what? Email’s always the best ’cause we’re moving, right? So I think my email is my work email, email@example.com. That’s for Buffalo Trail Public Schools. So firstname.lastname@example.org
Sam Demma (28:19):
Thank you so much for making the time.
James Trodden (28:21):
A hold of pick on him. He’ll give it to you.
Sam Demma (28:23):
Yeah, yeah. Reach out to me whenever and I will spam James’s inbox with all of your requests. There you go. And James, again, thank you so much for taking the time to
James Trodden (28:34):
Well, I’ll slow down. Slow down a second, Sam. I know it’s close to your bedtime and
Sam Demma (28:38):
James Trodden (28:39):
But you know what? You don’t get out this a couple of things. You’re talking to teachers, so there’s gonna be some homework step two. So we’ll start with a question for you. You’re doing this podcast about educators, high performance educators. Yeah. Why would you choose in your life at your age, why are you choosing to put your energies towards this?
Sam Demma (29:04):
Yeah, great question. When I was in my senior year, I had a very clear picture built in my mind of what my life was gonna look like. <laugh>. My jersey was number 10 and it read demo and everyone in my school knew me as soccer Sam. That was also the start of my Hotmail email address that I carried with me through life until the end of high school. And I was very serious about it, not only from the athletic perspective, but also the academic aspect of my life as well. And when things came crashing down after two major knee injuries and two surgeries that I wasn’t prepared for, I lost a full ride. Soccer scholarship mentally felt like I lost my identity. And it was interactions that I had with Mr. Loud Foot. My grade 12 world issues teacher who is now retired, who initially just saw me as the quote Jock <laugh>, who was passing through his class to move on to his next athletic pursuit with kindness.
Sam Demma (30:13):
Of course his words really changed my trajectory and more importantly, my perspective of my own potential. I always thought subconsciously that without soccer, Sam was worthless as a person and didn’t have much else to provide because for 17 years, that’s all I did, 24/7 and every decision I made hinged around that identity. He was one of the first people outside of my parents and my family who I always would expect them to share these things with me. But hearing it from someone outside the household really made it made an impact. And he taught me that soccer was just one game in life, but life is filled with thousands of games. And the same emotions that I got from sport, I could get from so many other pursuits. And for him it was pursuits that had a positive impact on others. So why did I start the podcast?
Sam Demma (31:08):
This is a full circle moment when Covid hit, some of the educators that I knew about in my life were extremely burnt out. I would read their posts on Twitter, I would talk to them. I stayed in touch with a lot of the teachers that made an impact on me. I still actually every once in a while sit on Mr. L’s porch in front of his farm and we have a one two hour conversation. And I thought educators are really struggling right now just as much as students and students are being placed at the forefront of the support. But we’re all human beings and we all need support. Maybe I can somehow build a network where all these educators can get introduced to people that normally they might not have access to. And if they’re intrigued by something they say or share, it gives them a unique excuse to reach out and make a new relationship, share a resource, build a connection. And so it started with the educators in my life who I personally knew and very quickly just grew to people that I wouldn’t have a chance to talk to otherwise. And the hope that it would help build a stronger network and just share resources all with the hope that again a teacher might remember their purpose, why they started in the first place, and hopefully make another difference on a kid just like me in their grade 12 world issues class who is going through a difficult time.
James Trodden (32:30):
Yeah. Well thank you for sharing that. Think when you look at all the things and what should new teachers know, it’s that story and that story’s told a thousand times. Like Mr. Loud sees into the future, <laugh> your future and is able to impact it. And so think just about pieces. I think that’s what teachers have remember, is that story Homework time. You’re ready? Yeah. So you mentioned the Power Now by Eckley. Yeah. And you mentioned the opening story there. Have you read The Alchemist by Pu?
Sam Demma (33:05):
I don’t carry rocks in my pocket, but I love the story <laugh>.
James Trodden (33:11):
So it’s the same story that Eck tells. Right. And then the next one, have you read The New Earth by
Sam Demma (33:18):
The New Earth? I have not.
James Trodden (33:21):
So the power now is good. The new Earth totally is <affirmative>. There’s homework. I’ll be check, I’ll be checking.
Sam Demma (33:30):
I’ll it soon. Stay tuned.
James Trodden (33:34):
Anyway, I appreciate your time. Know it’s late in the night for you’re tired, but that’s good. You’re alive. That’s
Sam Demma (33:41):
Good. No, I appreciate your time, James. Thanks so much for making this possible and keep up the great work that you’re doing and we’ll talk soon.
James Trodden (33:50):
Thanks Sam. You will.
Sam Demma (33:53):
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