About Mike O’Neil
Mike O’Neill has over 25 years of experience as an educator, consultant and school administrator with DCDSB. In addition, he has played many significant leadership roles within the system as Restorative Practice Lead and Facilitator, Development of the Bullying Awareness and Prevention Curriculum, and Executive Member of the Catholic Principals’ Council of Ontario (CPCO) Durham Chapter.
His committee work includes involvement with Mentoring for New Administrators, New Teacher Induction Program, and the School Effectiveness Framework Committee. In 2013, he was recognized nationally by The Learning Partnership with the Outstanding Principal Award for achieving increased academic success of students, building a positive school climate, and strengthening partnerships with parents and community.
Mr. O’Neill is a graduate of the University of Western Ontario where he earned his Bachelor of Arts; and University of Ottawa where he earned his Bachelor of Education. He earned his Master’s of International Education at Charles Sturt University. Mr. O’Neill is a member of the Knights of Columbus and belongs to St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Whitby.
**Please note that all of our transcriptions come from rev.com and are 80% accurate. We’re grateful for the robots that make this possible and realize that it’s not a perfect process.
Sam Demma (00:01):
Welcome back to another episode of the high performing educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s interview is a special one. And I know I say that often because almost all of the guests I bring on are incredibly special and doing amazing work, but today’s special guest is Michael O’Neil, who was actually the principal of the elementary school that I attended as a young person. Mike has over 25 years of experience as an educator consultant and school administrator within the DCDSB – Durham Catholic district school board. He has played many significant leadership roles within the systems of restorative practice, lead facilitator development of the bullying awareness program and prevention curriculum, and executive member of the Catholic principal’s council of Ontario Durham chapter. His committee work includes involvement with mentoring for new administrators, new teacher induction program, and the school effectiveness framework committee. In 2013, Mike was also recognized nationally by the learning partnership with the outstanding principle award for achieving increased academic success of students building a positive school climate and strengthening partnerships with parents and community. He is also extremely involved in his own local community, being a member of the Knights of Columbus and belonging to St. John, the evangelist Catholic church in Whitby. I hope you enjoy today’s jam-packed, informative interview and conversation with Michael. And I will see you on the other side.
Sam Demma (02:40):
Mike, welcome to the high performing educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here this morning. This is a, a very full circle moment for me because you were my principal at elementary school and , and now we’re together on this podcast. So welcome. Thank you for coming on the show today.
Mike O’Neil (02:56):
Aw, thanks very much, Sam. This is definitely the joy of, of being in this vocation, being able to see success amongst your students who you, you know, I, I recall you running around with the soccer ball on the field there. You know, and several times I think some of those soccer balls may have come towards my head, but I I’m thinking that that was unintentional Sam. So I, I won’t hold you to it. So congratulations on your success as well. I’m very happy to be here.
Sam Demma (03:26):
I really appreciate it. Well, why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit about what brought you to where you are today in education?
Mike O’Neil (03:33):
Yeah, sure. Sam so currently Sam I’ve, I’ve been in education for 25 plus years. And currently I’m residing in the role of superintendent of education for human resources here at the Durham Catholic district school board in the human resources department we’re responsible for over 3,500 employees and serving and supporting them in terms of you know, services ranging from recruitment payroll you know, support with leaves maternity leaves, et cetera. And any other issues that arise with employees collective bargaining. So it is being for me, I, I am now sitting kind of serving at a system level, trying to serve our students and ensure that our students have a qualified teacher in front of their classroom that they’re supervised that we have enough staff, which there’s definitely a teacher shortage at the, at the moment.
Mike O’Neil (04:37):
But you know, I, I’m working on a assist them level with our senior administrative team as well in enacting some of the strategic priorities around equity, excellence and engagement here at the Durham Catholic district school board. But I have, I began my career back in 1993 with or sorry, 1994, I’m aging myself even more . And I began as a kindergarten teacher, so it’s like, I’ve worked my way up from kindergarten to the system level here at superintendent. I, I was teaching a teacher of multiple grades grade six for a long time. I served as a consultant for the teaching and learning department here for the area of literacy. And then I spent 13 plus years as an administrator, a vice principal and a principal primarily in Pickering. And then I have as I mentioned before, come to full circle to be at the system level now and supporting our employees and students that way.
Sam Demma (05:46):
Did you know when you were a student that you wanted to work in education or how did that profession in vocation call out to you and become a part of your journey?
Mike O’Neil (05:55):
I could say I was probably most inspired by my parents. Both of them are educators, my mother, a kindergarten teacher and my father was a principal as well for over 25 plus years. So if I always had education in our household and there was always the education talk and but I, I didn’t really I’ll be honest. I wanted to, you know, if you were to ask me in grade, you know, 12, what I wanted to be, I wanted to be a firefighter. And then I got up a couple ladders and realized that was my fear of Heights would not allow me to do that. And then I, you know, in primarily in you know postsecondary education and I was primarily focused on being a lawyer to be honest.
Mike O’Neil (06:45):
But there was always a I always had, you know, being involved in extracurricular activities or on the stage and in theater and in drama, I always had an interest in you know, acting and then I think it was you know, when I, I went into a volunteer in a couple of schools just to get some community service and I realized, listen, I can be an actor here and I can be a kid, a little kid all the time. and so,youknow, I know that may sound,uunprofessional, but it allowed me to just have not necessarily be a kid, but feel the spirit of being a kid mm-hmm . And I think that,uis what inspired me is that I want to keep that spirit alive in myself. And so,uthen I pursued,uthe pathway,uto education.
Sam Demma (07:39):
And you live that mentality, like, I think back to growing up in St. Monica’s, you know, elementary school and you were one of the most energetic, and I don’t wanna say fun principals I ever had, cuz the rest of them were great too, but yeah, you really connected with the students and I’m curious to, do you believe that you should keep your, you know, your kid-like spirit alive, even in your adult work? Has that been important to you?
Mike O’Neil (08:09):
Oh, I, I, I think it’s education is challenging if you don’t keep that kid’s spirit alive and if you don’t feed off, I, I mean, I, I fed off the spirit, the innocence, the, the pure joy of, of children the curiosity of children. So you have to be able to feed off that. I, I, I wanted to enjoy work every single day. I wanted to, to be a part of the difference. It allowed me to just smile with the kids every single day. I mean Sam, you can remember, I think one of my most favorite moments there at, at St Monica’s was doing, I did the gang man style dance with everyone you know, just spirit days, pep, you know, pep rallies. It was like, I was a, I was a school president in for my student council in high school.
Mike O’Neil (09:09):
And I just felt like I could be school president without having to campaign for it all the time. So you know, again, that spirit alive, but that, to me, I mean, you mentioned their Sam connection and I, I think that’s that has been transformational for me in terms of where I you know, I think all educators need to, to realize that they, the they’re not responsible, you know, not that they’re not responsible, but they’re, they’re not, the importance is not whether or not someone gets into an Ivy league school. The importance is that someone feels connected and connection at that school. I mean, we, they spend just as much time with us in, during the day and with their peers and with their teachers, as they do at night with their family before they go to bed you know, for 190 plus days a year.
Mike O’Neil (10:08):
And if they, you know what do we want to do and what is, what you know, is important in family connection. So it needs to be in important in those schools. The kids need to know that they’re cared for that. They are loved that they’re allowed to make mistakes. I, I, you know, I always had a, a, a post or a in my classroom when I was a teacher that said, this is a mistake making class, you’re allowed to make mistakes. And you have to be feel comfortable. And the only way you can feel comfortable is by feeling a sense of belonging to that school mm-hmm to that classroom. So, you know my, the most important aspect for me was building up the social architecture in, in a classroom. And then as a principal in a school I was, you know, charged with, I wanted to make the school, the best school in the universe for those kids. And I always instilled that and said it every single day. You heard me on the announcements, Sam saying that every single day, and I, I drew believed it. We needed to, everyone needed to feel connected to one another, regardless whether they were in kindergarten or grade eight we are in it together. And once they felt comfortable and connected, guess what, they’re going to find success. It’s not going to matter who the teacher is or what they’re teaching. If they feel a sense of belonging and action, they’re going to succeed.
Sam Demma (11:40):
And where did those beliefs and philosophies come from? Did you have some mentors in education were they built off of your own personal experiences? Yeah. Maybe explain where those beliefs and ideas kind of originated for you.
Mike O’Neil (11:56):
Again, I think I, I, I bring it back to my my father and his his that was his approach as an administrator. It was all about making you know, a positive school, culture and climate for this staff because the staff needs to feel a sense of belonging together. And you know, he did have some great staff parties at you know, at the house that I remember. I mean, I won’t get into them now, but , it was just a sense of, you know, you had to have a, you know, share you share around the table. And that was instilled in me by that. And then I also had a a principal pat McKinnon that served as my first mentor and Mr. Mckinnon, who was the principal. He, that was his whole philosophy.
Mike O’Neil (12:50):
It wasn’t about, you know, what the kids were learning or what you were teaching is how are you treating these kids? Are you treating them fair? Are you treating them with a sense of humility? Are you you know approaching them at their level and you know Mr. Mckinnon let’s serve just as a role model for that, for me, just the way he operated being visible. And I think that was the one thing that I had previously seen principals who were just in the office and you never saw, but when I saw, you know pat McKinnon being the visible leader, that’s what inspired me to say, Hey, listen, I think I can enjoy it. Cause I don’t want an office job just sitting in an office, but I think that I could enjoy making a difference by being visible in the school and, and leading the school as an administrator.
Sam Demma (13:48):
That’s awesome. Shout out to pat McKinnon.
Sam Demma (13:55):
So connection, I also agree is so important as you mentioned, and over the past two years, that’s been a difficult one, you know, with COVID with the pivot in education and a lot of students being forced to tune in virtually how as a school board, or even as individual of schools, do you think teachers and educators can still make sure their students feel, you know, connected at least to their teacher or to their subject? Is there anything you’ve seen happen in the Durham Catholic district school board that’s worked out well? Yeah. Anything can speak on,
Mike O’Neil (14:32):
Yeah, I, you know, I think it’s, you’re right, Sam, that it has been probably one of the most challenging periods. You know, I didn’t realize that when I signed up for this job that, you know, we’d be facing unprecedented plague. Yeah. That would, you know ground the world to a halt for two years. But what it is, I, I think the key to building those connections is not necessarily lying in a tool that you know, there’s been many programs that have come and gone, you know, and, and you know companies saying use this tool with these activities to create the connection. At the end of the day, it really comes down to the personnel and who the person is that’s in front of our kids. They, you know, it’s human nature to want connections and to build on those connections.
Mike O’Neil (15:30):
So I think if you have, and what I think has been demonstrated in Durham Catholic district school board is that our teachers are the right caring adults at the right time during this period of challenge for our students. They are giving it them all, they’re all. And they are you know, I, I think the same way that we had to come closer together and we reached out and dug deep into our, our, our souls to find more connections with our family and friends went during this time. That’s the same thing that we had to do as teachers, you know because most of the kids would be, you know, when they were connecting virtually they’re on their, you know, bed in their pajamas with their cameras off, you know and they, you know, probably are sleeping but we had to engage them and find new tools and, and the ability to pivot, and it still make those connections and a different mode of learning.
Mike O’Neil (16:37):
But at the end of the day, it’s what the person says, what the teacher does how they demonstrate that they care and the respect that they show and the culture that they a built that is centered around understanding empathy. You know, curriculum came secondary during COVID you know, some of the things were where I saw the most successful classes where when they just, you know, teachers, even at the end of their ropes would say, Hey guys, it’s not a good day for me. It’s not a good day for us all, we keep getting bad news. So let’s just talk. And I, I think just the ability to connect and talk to our students during COVID, I believe teachers are the unsung heroes of the, the frontline workers during this time because parents were stressed to levels you know, unprecedented levels and, and, you know, they wanted someone to, they wanted some relief and somebody to teach their kids, and they wanted that journey of their children to continue.
Mike O’Neil (17:59):
And our teachers stepped up. So it’s not a tool, it’s a mindset. It’s a, an approach . And I, I think that our leaders, our principals did a fantastic, amazing job of, of helping support their principals to emphasize that message. You know, it’s not about, who’s getting an a, now it’s about who’s learning, who’s connecting who’s getting the supports that they need during this time and to health supports, et cetera. So you know, I, I truly believe that. And, and it, it comes down to my philosophy. I, I, I have a restorative mindset, a restorative practice mindset where you know, it’s built on connections, built on accountability to one another, but built on understanding one another. And so I think that restorative mindset that our teachers have here in Durham Catholic has made a tremendous difference for our students.
Sam Demma (19:03):
And curiosity in asking questions is so important. At some something that every teacher I’ve had or administrator that I’ve had, who’s been curious themselves, it ends up making it a better experience for the school and the students, because you realize that they’re not only there to teach you, but they’re also learning along the journey. And for any educator who’s tuning into this right now, who might be in their initial years of teaching, you know, back back when you were just starting someone like that. Uwhat resources have you found used or read,uon your own personal development as an educator or someone who works in education that you found helpful. And also if you could speak to your younger self, what advice would you, would you give?
Mike O’Neil (19:51):
What advice wow.
Sam Demma (19:53):
Don’t cheer for the Toronto Maple Leafs. That would be your first one.
Mike O’Neil (19:55):
Yeah, exactly. Yeah. I would say, you know, to my younger self is be confident, be resilient, because you need that in this job. I would also say to myself, don’t lose the joy because the times when I’ve struggled in, in this, and again, don’t lose that kid spirit. Yeah. You know, being inspired by that kid spirit, I, I would say to my recommendation for,youknow, new teachers coming in,and, and we hear, and I’m responsible for, or the new teacher induction program here. And we, we train them,uin a course,ucalled restorative practice. And again, it’s about,umaking connections. You know, it’s a, it’s, it’s an approach that is not adversarial, but collaborative with your kids,uin front, in your classroom. And so I would definitely recommend,youknow, looking into restorative practice and the tools that can be used to make those connections, restorative circles.
Mike O’Neil (21:02):
They were transformational for me in in intentionally and deliberately getting to know my students. Mm. And then getting to know me, my fears. The second thing I, I would say is as an educator, I mean, I would say I listen to a lot of brand, a Brown’s podcast about vulnerability, and you have to be vulnerable as a teacher, it’s okay for you to make mistakes as a teacher like Sam. I know I think, you know, if I, if I see some of my former students you know, especially the ones early in my career here that I taught in grade six, or even in kindergarten, I, I always, if I see them in a pub or whatever, I’ll buy them a, a drink and say, I apologize, because I wasn’t at my best at my first couple years.
Mike O’Neil (21:59):
Right. Yeah. But you know, it’s, it’s like always, you’re always need to strive to get better. Don’t rest on the lesson plans from, you know, your first year go in and always be a reflective person. And it’s okay if that lesson plan falls flat. And it, you know, my, my advice to my younger self or to new teachers would be it’s okay to go in and say, Hey, that lesson yesterday just did not go well, and we’re gonna have a, a redo. And that’s the best thing you’re in charge. You can have a redo, you can do things differently and you can reach them. So be vulnerable be you know ignite continually connect to that kid spirit that is shown and intentionally focus on the social architecture of your classrooms. What are the things that you can do that are so small that can make a difference whether it is, you know, joke Thursday, you know, I used to do those and having the kids come down and say a joke on, on the line, whether it be intentionally greeting kids at the door you know smiling acknowledging the kids acknowledging every single one of them.
Mike O’Neil (23:37):
And you know, I used to do what I used to call sunshine calls, and those sunshine calls were sometimes our parents, the parents, and this is the thing we always think that I think as teachers, we’re always afraid to call parents you know, what are they gonna say? Are they gonna question what I’m doing in the classroom? And, and everything well be vulnerable, but reach out to them, connect with, get those channels of communication going. I used to do sunshine calls, so I’d make it a, a purpose to make sure I called 10 kids a month 10 parents a month of children. And I’ve got through, you know, the whole class and repeat it to just not call, to say, Hey, listen, you know, Sam kicked another soccer ball towards my head. . But rather say, you know as Sam I just noticed this with Sam you know, he, I just observed him, you know, inviting someone into the soccer game that was you know, excluded from that. And I would just tell the parent that, so I would take notes about sunshine moments for my kids, and I think the parents needed to hear that you know, and that you know, helped you build even the kids’ confidence. I’m sure around the dinner table, when those calls were discussing,
Sam Demma (24:59):
Those are some phenomenal resources and mindset shifts that I hope yeah. You listening can implement in your own practice in your own school. Mike, thank you so much for taking the time to come on the podcast here. If someone wants to reach out to you to ask a question, it’s typically another educator from somewhere around the world, what would be the best way for them to get in touch?
Mike O’Neil (25:21):
Oh, definitely. Absolutely. And like I said, I love making connections with colleagues because that, that’s another thing, Sam advice for everyone just before I leave on this is rely on your colleagues. Mm. And you know, build relationships with them, work together because the best ideas come from one another, they don’t come from above from your principal, or, you know, the, the board, they come from one another. So I always encourage people to reach out. They can reach out to me at: Mike.ONeill@dcdsb.ca. So the Durham Catholic district school board and shoot me an email and you know, I’ll be more than be to connect with resources or things like that. And we’re always looking for qualified staff members. So you know, if you’re looking for a position, please reach out you know, like I said, all, what we want are caring adults in front of our classrooms. Those that are committed to making a difference in child’s lives, not just academically, but socially, emotionally in all aspects of their development so that we can have success stories just like you, Sam.
Sam Demma (26:40):
Mike, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you. And again, a very full circle moment. Keep up the awesome work, keep cheering for the Leafs. And I will talk to you soon!
Mike O’Neil (26:51):
Go Canucks! Hahah. Thanks Sam. Cheers.
Sam Demma (26:57):
Hey, it’s Sam again. I hope you enjoyed that amazing conversation on the high performing educator, their podcast, if you or someone, you know, deserves some extra recognition and appreciation for the work they do in education, please consider applying or nominating them for the high performing educator awards, go to www.highperformingeducator.com forwards the award. You can also find the link in the show notes. I’m super excited to spotlight and feature 20 people in 2022. And I’m hoping you or someone, you know, can be one of those educators. I’ll talk to you on the next episode, all the best.
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