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Director

Darlene O’Neill — Director of employment and student entrepreneurial services at Fanshawe College

Darlene O’Neill — Director of employment and student entrepreneurial services at Fanshawe College
About Darlene O’Neill

Darlene (@Darlene68615693) started her career in the Department of National Defence where for 21 years she worked in a variety of roles – the final 7 years were as the senior human resources business manager, for the civilian workforce supporting the east coast navy.

Prior to joining Fanshawe College, Darlene worked for Nova Scotia Community College as a career practitioner and a project manager in essential skills.

Darlene joined Fanshawe College in 2011 as the assistant manager, career services, community employment services and cooperative education. In 2012, she became the manager of the department, and in 2015 became the senior manager. In 2017, Darlene was appointed director, employment and student entrepreneurial Services. Darlene is the lead administrator for the military-connected college initiative at Fanshawe and is currently the administrative co-lead in the college’s united way corporate campaign. Darlene is also a part-time professor in the career development practitioner post graduate program.

Darlene holds a Bachelor Degree in Psychology, a Master of Education Degree (Adult Education) and a Career Development Practitioner postgraduate certificate.

She is the recipient of the Michelle C Comeau Leadership in Human Resources Award (Federal), The National Federal Government Managers Network Leadership Award (Managing Change), the National Defence Human Resource Leadership Award, co-recipient of Employment Ontario (MTCU) Leadership Award (Collaboration), The Fanshawe College Presidents Award (Administrator) and the CCVPS Art King Award ( Student Service).

Darlene is committed to creating inclusive environments where student centric mindsets are prevalent. Strategy, empathy and empowering effective change are of utmost importance to her in her leadership and work.

Connect with Darlene: Email | Instagram | LinkedIn | Twitter | Facebook

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Department of National Defence

Royal Canadian Navy

Fanshawe College

Nova Scotia Community College

Military-Connected Student in Trades Pilot Project (MCSTPP)

Career Development Practitioner Post Graduate Program

The Transcript

**Please note that all of our transcriptions come from rev.com and are 80% accurate. We’re grateful for the robots that make this possible and realize that it’s not a perfect process.

Sam Demma
Welcome back to another episode of the High-Performing Educator. Today’s special guest is a new friend of mine. I met this individual in person in November. She is a powerhouse. Her name is Darlene O’Neill. Darlene, welcome to the podcast. Please take a moment to introduce yourself.

Darlene O’Neill
Hi, Sam. Thank you very much. Yeah, my name is Darlene and I’m the Director of Employment and Student Entrepreneurial Services at Sandshop College here in London, Ontario.

Sam Demma
You are someone who has so much energy. I remember just watching you absorb the first keynote presentation of the Ignite Conference and you’re fully engaged. It was so cool to see you sticking around for the entire day and supporting the event. Tell me a little bit more about your role and why you’re so passionate about the work that you do on campus. 

Darlene O’Neill
Yeah, so I’m really, really fortunate. I have the responsibility for helping all students at our campus, as well as all our alumni and community members find employment, which is really, really important because we all know that the main reason students go to college is to get a job. So I have a wonderful, wonderful team made up of a lot of co-op consultants, career consultants, entrepreneurial consultants, and community employment consultants. And I think it’s really important that we demonstrate passion ourselves as leaders if we want our team to demonstrate passion.

Sam Demma
And recently, you also started doing a little bit of support for our students taking on a military pathway. Is that correct?

Darlene O’Neill
That’s right. Yes. I’m the lead administrator here at Fanshawe College for the Military Connected Campus Initiative, which provides a holistic support for our military connected students. So, not necessarily serving members and or veterans, but also their families. And we just want to make sure that they’re supported academically and socially through their journey here at Fanshawe. So, I’m really blessed to be leading that initiative.

Sam Demma
Sometimes I ask people that work in education, when they realize they wanted to do so, I get typically a few different answers. The first category is people that tell me they used to create little doll houses or little school classrooms in their basements when they were little kids. A second subset tell me that they had parents who were in education and they decided to follow in their footsteps. And the third group tells me they had no idea and they stumbled into it. Which group do you fit in and what did your journey look like that brought you to education?

Darlene O’Neill
Oh wow Sam, that’s a big question. I think a little bit of all of it. When I was a little girl I used to be the person in the middle of the circle in kindergarten reading stories to the other students while the teacher went about their business and doing things that they needed to do. So I’ve always loved education, but I was working for National Defence for 21 years. And I hit a glass ceiling in National Defence where I didn’t speak French, unfortunately, and I had just finished a master’s degree in education. And I thought, oh well, well just leave Defence and I’ll go and try my hat in education and here I am now almost 20 years later and loving what I do. I did choose, I chose college education as the pathway for me because my education is in adult education and I’m really passionate about watching young people and people of all ages that come to college specifically for that aspirational better life.

Sam Demma
I love that. Can we talk about your experience working in defence for just a moment? Like what were you doing with National Defence and what are some of the skills you developed there that you think have bridged into the work you’re doing today at Fanshawe?

Darlene O’Neill
Yeah, so my career in national defense started with the submarine inventory control point. And I was buying parts for submarines. But that, you know, it progressed. I went on to do my undergraduate degree and I ended up in the Self-Directed Learning Center. I actually opened a self-directed learning center at Defence in Halifax and that was really fun. And then I went on to become a senior human resources business manager, working directly for the admirals on the East Coast. And my role was strategic HR for about 7,000 civilians that support the Navy on the East Coast. It was so enlightening for me. I was a young leader. I was there when 9-11 happened. And that taught me some great lessons in determination, in commitment, in ethics, in just supporting people and being very, very proud of the work that the military does to give us a better home.

Sam Demma
Young leadership is something that may relate to some of the educators tuning in who are getting into the profession at a very young age, that feel a little bit like an imposter at times, are very intimidated by everybody else in their school or in the spaces they’re operating. How did you navigate as a young leader? What did you do to be sure of yourself and know that you were a valued member of the team so you could show up and use your gifts to the fullest of their potential? 

Darlene O’Neill
Great question. I think I’ve been very fortunate throughout my entire career, especially as a young leader, to have amazing mentors. I will never forget the first meeting I attended with an admiral in the room. And you know, an admiral is a pretty big guy in the Navy. And, you know, the admiral told me afterwards, Darlene, you’re going to have to learn to wear a poker face. And I was like, oh my goodness, okay, so that was lesson number one, wear a poker face. But try to come with a solution. So if you’re going to ask a question, have a possible solution to present when you’re asking the question. Always treat people with respect and dignity and expect that for yourself as well. Even though you’re young, doesn’t mean that you don’t have good ideas, doesn’t mean that you’re not committed and dedicated, it doesn’t mean that people won’t respect you. A lot of, you know, young people build our world. They’re our future, so we need to invest in them. And as a young leader, I think, you know, the biggest lesson I learned was find a mentor, too. And spend time with them and learn from them. Watch them. Watch people that you respect. Don’t speak before you think is another good one because sometimes the most important things you say are unsaid.

Sam Demma
I’m just absorbing all this information right now as I’m sure that the guests tuned in are doing the same. Speaking about developing young people and the fact that they’re our future, that’s literally what you’re doing at Fanshawe. When you think about the impact the program is having on students, do you have any stories that come to mind of students who have joined the college and when they first came, they were a little uncertain and unclear. And a few years later, they were graduating and getting placed and doing amazing work in the community or in a job. And, you know, you may not have a specific story if you do great, but if you don’t have a specific one, maybe you can talk a little bit about some of the pathways that students take when they come to Fanshawe?

Darlene O’Neill
Yeah, I have lots of stories of students that have entered into the doors of our office and have gone on to do amazing things. There’s been a few that stick out. We have a number of young entrepreneurs that took advantage of our summer incubator, and they’re now quite successful in their own right. We have Kelvin, the fritter guy. If you’ve tried Kelvin’s fritters, they’re amazing. And we have a fashion designer that’s lived quite a great life as a result of taking advantage of opportunities. Also, there are a number of international students that touch my heart quite often. I have one who’s actually now on my team, but I watched this young man from his very first days at Fanshawe navigate COVID, navigate online learning. He went on to become the student union president. So he’s had a wonderful career path. And when I look at all of the things that he’s done to find his way, they’re all reaching out, finding mentors, asking for help, not being afraid to say, I don’t know, but I want to learn and building relationships. Another young woman, she’s now quite successful in Tech Alliance, which is a part of our entrepreneurial ecosystem here in London. It does all of their media, all of their marketing and social stuff for them. There’s so many of them. There’s accountants and there’s law clerks and there’s a young man that was paralyzed as a result of an accident and he’s gone on to become quite a young accountant. He’s an athlete, plays sledge hockey, he just lives his best life. And I think these students are the ones that come through the doors, they study hard, but they build relationships, they get involved in student life, they get involved in their mentorship programs, they attend workshops, extracurricular activities, Ignite at one point or another. So, yeah, so I think that those are some of the students that really stand out for me. And then from a community perspective, we also have a community employment agency. And our community employment agency has seen so many people that are facing some pretty tough times, walk through the doors, swallow that pride, ask for help, and now they’re contributing members of society, which is a wonderful thing when you work in the employment field and career field and education field. It’s amazing watching people grow.

Sam Demma
It’s like the caterpillar to butterfly story.

Darlene O’Neill
Absolutely, it sure is. You know, the biggest part is asking for help, right? And once you walk through that door, the world of possibilities opens for you.

Sam Demma
You reiterated the importance of relationships. Many educators know how important it is to build relationships with their students, to build relationships with their colleagues. How do you think you build relationships with young people, with students that are going through your school buildings and programs?

Darlene O’Neill
So I think the secret sauce is simply a smile. A smile and some eye contact can make the world of difference. You know many people when they come to post-secondary they’re scared, they might have been, you know, traveling from another world by themselves, from another country, they might have come from rural Ontario and have never been in the city, and they might be someone that’s just been laid off of a job or a career changer. And it’s a lonely, lonely place if you don’t build relationships. So I intentionally walk the halls of the college and I try to make eye contact and smile with students. And they remember who I am because when they catch your eye and smile back, that’s an instant I see you. I see you. I believe in you. I recognize you. And I’m here to support you. And I think that’s really important in the life of students is to know that somebody cares about them.

Sam Demma
And not only do you build relationships with the students, but you also want to build strong relationships with colleagues. A lot of educators that tune in, especially the ones that are just getting started in education, they’re worried because they don’t know too many of the people that they’re working with. How do you go about building relationships with colleagues and collaborating and just, yeah, building a stronger relationship amongst members of your team?

Darlene O’Neill
That’s a great question. So I think, you know, oh Darlene’s extroverted so she can talk to anybody. That’s true, but it’s also true that introverts can make impactful relationships and build impactful relationships. I think, you know, as I said earlier, the first thing to do is to model the behavior share with others. So, ask for help. Like, if you feel that your team can’t do this on their own, build a relationship with somebody else. The Student Union, the International Office, the Student Services Office, the Counseling Office, the academic teachers, and the deans, we’re all on the same agenda. We all want our students to be successful in post-secondary. And so I think, you know, following through on what you say you’ll do is really important. Be a doer, practice reciprocity. So if somebody does something for your team to make your team shine, then you return the favor somehow. Or at least at minimum recognize what they’ve done to support your team’s success. Recognize as a leader what your individual team members have done. Always say thank you. And it doesn’t need to be a big hoopla, but thanking your team members in public is really important. It empowers them, it emboldens the work that they do, and it verifies the work they do. It makes them feel valued. So if you can make another human being feel valued, then they’re going to feel commitment, and they’re going to want to help you. And I think that that’s a secret sauce as well, is always, you know, make sure that you know or make sure that you recognize the good work that other people do.

Sam Demma
I love that. You’re supporting student success in many ways, your team’s success. I know there are some exciting developments that are coming together at Fanshawe, maybe even a new wing being built or a facility. Are we not allowed to talk about it?

Darlene O’Neill
No, we can. Absolutely. We’re super excited. I can, absolutely.

Sam Demma
Okay, tell me some of the new developments

Darlene O’Neill
that are coming together that you’re really excited about. Yeah, so 10 years ago we started Leaf Junction and Leaf Junction is our entrepreneurial arm. Creativity and innovation is a game changer at Fanshawe College. And so we are super excited that on January 26th, we’re going to be opening Innovation Village in partnership with our student union, our Center for Research and Innovation, Leap Junction, and our Library Learning Commons. So a lot of partners living together in one building, but we have created the most exceptional space for students ever. And I look at you, Sam, in your green room, you know, with your mic and your earphones. And we have all these rooms for these students now where they can go in and do broadcasts. And we have a virtual reality room. There’s makerspaces. It’s so exciting. We had a sneak peek last week. And it’s a look into the future for Fanshawe College and lots of opportunities to partner with us and to help our students grow, but also to solve challenging situations for employers. So, as I said earlier, young people are going to be the future, and so we’re going to give them an opportunity through Innovation Village to solve problems in our community and with our employers and to help them make this place a better place to be in.

Sam Demma
This village sounds amazing. What does it physically look like? When I hear village, I think collaborative and lots of different shops. Like, what does it look like physically?

Darlene O’Neill
There’s lots of spaces, there’s lots of alcoves, there’s lots of wide open spaces. It’s bright. It’s really honouring our Indigenous culture as well. It has external gardens. It has a fire, a sacred fireplace outside. It’s like, there are three So it’s huge and airy and bright and lots of glass, lots of windows, lots of greenery, funky colors. It’s really, really cool. When you come back to Fanshawe, Sam, I’ll take you on a tour.

Sam Demma
Please.

Darlene O’Neill
It sounds like the perfect place to brainstorm creative ideas, talking about innovation.

Sam Demma
It certainly is, yes. And outside of this massive project, are there anything else that you’d like to spotlight that’s coming together at the college or programs or anything that other people might not be aware of that’s really awesome that’s happening behind the scenes?

Darlene O’Neill
Well everything Fanshawe is awesome, I’ll just say that. I love Fanshawe College, I love the opportunities and that it creates for people. I love the people I work with, I’m very happy. My boss always tells me that I remind her of the little girl in the Maxwell House commercial. I’m not sure if you’ve seen that, but you know, she’s always like, I love my job and I love my family and I love my friends. So, awesome things happening at Fanshawe. Well, Sam, we met at Ignite, which is our student conference, a career conference for students. And it’s pretty exceptional that about 400 students spend a Saturday with us. This year, 2024, will be Ignite’s 10th anniversary. So we’re always looking for employers to support our students with opportunities for growth and employment and to make a difference in their workplace. So yeah, Fanshawe just continues to be an amazing place to be.

Sam Demma
Ah, I love it. If you could travel back in time, speak to yourself when you were just starting your work in education but with the knowledge you have now and the experience what would you tell your younger self that you think you need to hear when you were just starting the journey? 

Darlene O’Neill
Yeah that’s a great question Sam. I think I would tell my younger self earlier you talked about imposter syndrome and young people having imposter syndrome I would tell my younger self that you know what it’s going to be okay do what you do be authentic be true to yourself and good things will happen and always always give back make sure that you say thank you younger self just be authentic and don’t give up don’t ever give up I once one of my mentors once told me, you know sometimes young people that are successful are seen as the golden child or the golden employee. And I was that person at one time and it hurts the core sometimes when people would say things like that. And my boss would say to me, my mentor, she would say, you just rise above that. Rise above it. There’s better days ahead, and you will be successful. Don’t be angry, don’t be sad. Learn from what these people are saying, and the biggest lesson that you can learn from a leader or a colleague is what you don’t wanna be. And so always remember what you don’t wanna be.

Sam Demma
Awesome. Darlene, thank you so much for taking the time to come on the podcast, talk about some of your beliefs around education, a little bit about your career journey and your own personal trajectory, some exciting developments happening at Fanshawe College. If there is someone who’s listening to this feeling very inspired by you and would love to just ask a question, what would be the most effective way for them to get in touch and reach out?

Darlene O’Neill
Yeah, so anybody can email me at any time at doneill@fanshawec.ca.

Sam Demma
Awesome. Thank you again, Darlene. This has been a pleasure. Keep up the great work. Enjoy your upcoming travels, and I will see you at some time in 2024. Awesome. Thank you again, Darlene. This has been a pleasure. Keep up the great work. Enjoy your upcoming travels, and I will see you at some time in 2024.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Jeff Armour

The High Performing Educator Podcast was brought to life during the outbreak of COVID-19 to provide you with inspirational stories and practical advice from your colleagues in education.  By tuning in, you will hear the stories and ideas of the world’s brightest and most ambitious educators.  You can expect interviews with Principals, Teachers, Guidance Counsellors, National Student Association, Directors and anybody that works with youth. You can find and listen to all the episodes for free here.

Brent Dickson – A masterclass on events, engagement ideas and becoming the least popular teacher in your school (It’s not what you think…)

Brent Dickson – A masterclass on events, engagement ideas and becoming the least popular teacher in your school (It’s not what you think…)
About Brent Dickson

Brent Dickson (@brent_dickson) is a leadership & physical education teacher at Centennial High School. In 2005 Centennial High School started with one leadership class of 25 students.  Now Centennial has six leadership classes per year with around 200 students total. 

Brent has been teaching student leadership in BC and Alberta for over 20 years. He has presented in schools and conferences across Canada and is the Director of the Canadian Student Leadership Association. Previously, he served as President of the Alberta Association of Student Councils and Advisers. His previous schools have also hosted the Jr. High and the Adviser Alberta conferences.

Currently teaching leadership and P.E., he is the Department Head of Student Leadership at Centennial High School in Calgary, Alberta. He also coaches rugby there as well, and he is the certified Link Crew coordinator there. Brent was awarded the Canadian Student Leadership Association Leader of Distinction Award in September 2012 and an Alberta Excellence in Teaching Award Finalist in 2004.

Connect with Brent: Email | Instagram | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Brent Dickson’s Personal Website

Canadian Student Leadership Association (CSLA)

Alberta Association of Student Councils and Advisers (AASCA)

The Boomerang Project

Centennial High School Website

Kahoot

What is a Walkathon?

The Transcript

**Please note that all of our transcriptions come from rev.com and are 80% accurate. We’re grateful for the robots that make this possible and realize that it’s not a perfect process.

Sam Demma (00:00):

Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator Podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s episode is a little bit different. Firstly, we don’t have the normal intro playing. You may have already noticed that. Secondly, we have a repeat guest. Our repeat guest today is Brent Dixon. Brent is a leadership and physical education teacher at Centennial High School in Alberta. In 2005, the high school started with one leadership class of 25 students, and it now has six leadership classes per year with around 200 students total. I’m so grateful that Brent took the time to come back on the show. We used today’s conversation to talk about so many amazing ideas that he has implemented in his school, in his classrooms, with the help of his student leaders that have created massive impact and generated awesome results in the hope that you can steal and borrow some of these and his ideas. We talk about everything from the power of colouring to running a rock athon, to using candy <laugh> to generate some very meaningful conversation and ideas, to having a special appreciation for students on their birthdays. Like there are so many amazing ideas in today’s conversation, and I hope you really enjoy it and take something away. I will see you on the other side of this conversation with Brent. Today’s special guest is a good friend of mine, Brent Dixon. Brent, welcome back to the show. Please take a moment to introduce yourself.

Brent Dickson (01:41):

Well, hello, my name is Brent Dixon and I’m a teacher in Calgary at Centennial High School. We’re a 10-12 school and for the most part I teach student leadership, and then I occasionally have a phys ed class. Also, in the spring I coach junior boys rugby. So I’m a man of many efforts, I guess. Not talents. <laugh>,

Sam Demma (02:03):

You’re a man of many both. And I can say that from personal experience. There are tons of teachers listening to this, some of which are always looking for new ideas. They can’t see that. Behind you. During this interview is a collage of colored superheroes and cars and unicorns and just beautiful pictures that your students colored behind you on the wall. Can you explain what those pictures are, why they’re up there, and how a teacher could use something similar to engage their students in a leadership perspective?

Brent Dickson (02:36):

Sure. So it was actually as Covid forced us to get a lot more creative. when I was doing leadership classes, we didn’t run near as many activities and sometimes we weren’t even doing any. So I really had to find stuff to engage them. And so I, I can’t credit where I got the original idea. I saw it somewhere, but the idea to let kids color in class. So once a semester when they come in, I have four different designs out specifically Spider-Man and cars and a unicorn, and of course SpongeBob squarepants, but it could be whatever, nice. And a whole bunch of crayons. And then they come in and I say, it’s just time to color. And so they’ll start coloring one thing and they are very into it. And then on the instruction it says that we’ll put them up around the classroom once you’ve shown it to me.

Brent Dickson (03:24):

And so I kind of talk about how it’s kind of like a fridge door at home where you know you color something great and your mom puts it up nice. So they, the first time I did it, I couldn’t believe how into it they were. And then I realized I really gotta limit this to once a semester. And so I chose a Friday where our, our Fridays are shorter class. And even that day we had a modified schedule, so it was a little shorter. We never actually got to doing any leadership work. Cause kids would come up and they’re like can I color a second one? I’m like, well, it has to be different. Okay, so now I’m doing SpongeBob. Can I color a third one? Sure. by the end of halfway through the second class, I had to run down to the photocopy room and make more copies cuz I realized I wasn’t gonna have enough for the day.

Brent Dickson (04:04):

And then they show you very proudly and they put ’em up around the room and we just use like some green painters tape and I’ll leave them up until the, well, until the end of the semester. And there’s actually three I can’t really show you, but they’re up behind a screen. This was last spring. These three kids said, we want ours to last longer, <laugh>. So they’re behind the screen we pull down so you can sort of see ’em sometimes. I’m looking at ’em right now and so they might just be there a long time. But oh, one little tip though. Don’t put green tape on your windows cuz I discovered if I left them up too long, the sun would make it leave residue. Ah, we were scraping tape off of those windows. It was not good. So

Sam Demma (04:47):

Do you stick to the walls?

Brent Dickson (04:49):

Stick to the walls? That’s right. Otherwise it’s awesome. And so actually we did that last Friday and so now it’s Tuesday. I still have kids. They’re all coming in. They, they’re checking out each other’s, they actually take their friends to show them their drawing. And then there’s one that’s that my grade tens thought was amazing. They all had to look at and find out what kid in grade 11 had made that post or colored that thing. So it’s, it’s a simple little thing, but they just need a break and they need something a little different and something that, that they can feel good about and be engaged. So

Sam Demma (05:22):

I think it’s the simple little things that make the biggest impact. Sometimes the small ways in which we appreciate other people engage our students leaves the biggest impression. I remember being in your classroom, facilitating some workshops, speaking in the school, and there was something that you do for every single student’s birthday that I think is priceless. And it’s one of those simple little things that really makes them feel appreciated and included in a part of the community. Can you explain your little birthday hack and where it came from? <laugh>?

Brent Dickson (05:55):

Yeah. Well it, most of my ideas, I either copy from someone else or they’re by accident. And so I had some ring pops left over this a few years ago, just kind of little, the cheap candy you put on your finger and then you suck on the ring pop. I had a few left over in from some activity and then it was a kid’s birthday and I said, well, why don’t you have a ring pop? And they got like all excited and then the other kids are, can have a ring pop. And I’m like, well, it’s not your birthday <laugh>. And so then it became a tradition and so I, I was hitting I think it was superstore to get ring pops and then there was a real crisis because they weren’t carrying them anymore. And you can tell my generation, it didn’t occur to me that I could just go on Amazon and order buckets.

Brent Dickson (06:39):

So once I figured that out, started bringing them in. So what happens is I’m, I’m lucky on my attendance program, it tells me two weeks out every kid’s birthday. Nice. And so when it’s their birthday, the very first time we practice, there’s a very specific song. So it’s happy birthday to you. And then they have to point their fingers and they go Cha Chacha. They do that a few times. And then at the end we say, happy birthday Dear Sam, and we draw your name out and happy birthday to you. And then they have to show jazz hands and we say, and many more <laugh> and it’s super cheesy, but they all know how to do it and they expect it. And then sometimes they’re writing their names on the calendar that the birthday’s coming up, the kid comes up and they choose their ring pop and I take a picture of them with it.

Brent Dickson (07:26):

And and then some of the kids they like, they’re asking, well, can I get a ring pop? It’s not your birthday. oh it is. Well show me your id. You know, they have <laugh>. And then the kids like, well what if it’s not my birthday this semester? I’m like, well, you come on your birthday or close to it and I’ll get you one. Well what if my birthday’s in the summer? You come last day of classes in June and we’ll take care of you <laugh>. Several kids will come in looking for their ring pop for sure. So wow, it’s a little thing. But if you make the ring pop a big deal, then it becomes a big deal to them. They can’t get one. I mean, they can obviously go to the store and buy their own, but I will never give a kid a ring pop for anything other than their birthday. I got other treats and stuff for other things, but it’s just the event and making a big deal of it that I think and, and letting ’em know that, that we know and that we care about ’em.

Sam Demma (08:13):

You could use any object, but if you hype it up and make it significant, the students will also hype it up and believe it’s significant. And I think that’s such an important reminder, not only for physical gifts and little objects, but for teaching. When you’re passionate about what you’re teaching, you’re passionate and enthusiasm about the subject will hopefully rub off on the students. your Ring pop idea made me think back to a conversation I had with Josh Sable, and you might know the name Josh is from Tanem Bomb Chat. It’s not a west A school in the west. He’s, he’s here in Toronto, but they do this thing at the end of the year that they call the Golden Bagels. And it’s like the Oscars, but they hand out these shelac bagels <laugh> on a golden piece of string. And it’s like the school’s big end of the year celebration.

Sam Demma (09:08):

And I, I was at the school recently and they gave me one as a parting gift and it’s, it is ugly, it’s a bagel with sesame seeds on it, glued on. And you, you would think to yourself, who the heck would want this? But it’s what’s attached to it, the meaning that’s attached to it. And I think there’s so many things that you do that have such good important meanings in your classroom and outside of it, one of the things that I loved was the wall of cell phones. Can you talk about what inspired that decision? And I, I just think that in a world that’s always glued to their phones, it’s such a cool idea and one that I think other educators could benefit from trying in their own classrooms if done correctly at the start of the semester, <laugh>.

Brent Dickson (09:52):

So this is how you can become the least popular teacher in your school,

Sam Demma (09:56):

<laugh>.

Brent Dickson (09:57):

 so I had a couple years ago, I had a semester that put me over the edge with a class that the phones were such a problem and they were just getting worse and worse. They just couldn’t leave ’em alone. And so they were addicted to ’em all the time. They’re on top of that. They weren’t engaging with each other, they would, I even had like a guest speaker in one time and third of the class is on their phone. And so it just kind of had decided that’s enough, but you can’t, you can’t really do it mid-semester. You have to kick it off at the beginning. So some friends of mine at SKO High School in Edmonton had been doing this, so I copied their idea and I found out that there are phone caddies you can order off of Amazon. I had no idea.

Brent Dickson (10:37):

 and then when I went and searched it, like there are tons and tons of them. So apparently this is a market, I shouldn’t be surprised that this is a big market for teachers. So it’s a thing you kind of can hang over your blackboard. And so I ordered one that’s got 42 slots in it. You wanna order the bigger one if you got bigger classes. And then when the kids come in, they have to put their cell phone in their designated slot. And so I write down the number for each kid, so in case one gets left behind, I know who it belongs to, they have to put it in right away. And then on the screen I have what’s called a do now activity running. So it could be almost anything. It might, so for example, today I had these cards you hand out that were pre-made and they had to ask someone else what’s big question number one?

Brent Dickson (11:21):

So like one, and then I have the kids report after. So one kid asked someone else, who would you invite to dinner if you could invite anyone? Another question was what countries have you traveled to and which was your favorite? So it, you know, simple basic stuff like that. Yeah. So they, so I’m taking away their phone, but I’m giving them something to do right away. And so I have a whole PowerPoint set with a whole bunch of these slides that I go to and I just recycle each semester. And then the other thing I do is the kids are not allowed to have their cell phone until the last 10 minutes of class. Mm. And so unless they come to me and they have a very specific reason they’re posting something or looking for something. And the funny thing that happened when I first started was I’d put up these times on a piece of paper and I said, it’s exactly this time.

Brent Dickson (12:08):

So you don’t get the phone until three twenty four, not 3 23, not 3 22 or whatever it is. Right. And then this one kid says grade 12 student, well Mr. Dixon, how are we gonna know what time it is if we don’t have our phone? And I’m like, that is an excellent point, <laugh>. But then I went to Walmart and I bought a little digital phone and I, it’s right beside the phone caddy. And now all the kids know, and I actually ran into him just a week ago. He, he graduated last spring and he was back at the school and I said, Hey, your your clock is still there. He’s like, no way. And I said, yeah, I, I’ll tell teachers how sometimes you don’t think of everything and you gotta listen to students. And so the clock is there and they know that they can’t touch their phone until it touches that spot.

Brent Dickson (12:58):

Now the real bonus for that is it actually frees them from the phone. It allows them to engage with each other if I, and then I can be the bad guy, right? Like, oh, I wish I had my phone. But most part they really don’t. Yeah. And so we, when they’re working on their projects and stuff, we’ll play music. Like a kid can be DJ for the day with a Bluetooth speaker and whatever, but they’re talking to each other. So even if they’re sitting and making a poster or they’re planning something or whatever, they’re also talking about what happened on the weekend. They’re talking about that science test they hated or whatever it is. But they’re connecting, which we know more than ever is super important as they’re having that face to face conversation. I, I will never go back to cell phones and kids’ hands. I, I, I thought it would work and I was really impressed with how great it really has made a difference in the class.

Sam Demma (13:52):

Speaking about listening to students, what are some of the ideas that have been student generated in the school over the past couple of months? Is there anything that students in your class have suggested you try or as a school that you do? Is there initiatives or ideas or anything that’s going on right now that you think this was, you know, co-created with the help of the students in front of me?

Brent Dickson (14:17):

Well, there’s one little one that it’s not hard to do either that we’d been talking about before is we called them kind of our dinosaur posts on Instagram. And so it kind of had 2, 2, 2 names. It was the dinosaurs of the school or it was the day so you can decide what you, so Centennial opened in 2004 and I came to the school in 2005 and the kids were starting to talk about what was different. I was telling ’em some stories about how the gym wasn’t ready the first time and oh, what the cafeteria looked like. They were fascinated by this stuff. It was like I could have gone an hour of old school centennial story time. So then I said, well, why don’t we, or do you wanna explore this further? So they came up with the idea that we would identify, so they picked five teachers that I kind of told ’em who had been around a long time.

Brent Dickson (15:08):

So they interviewed them all and they asked them, they asked them what was one of their favorite stories from back in the day, and then something about why they, I’m trying to remember now why do they why they’re still at Centennial now and what do they love about Centennial cause cuz a lot of people have taught here for, you know, 18, 20 years. And so they came up with these stories and they took a picture of each of them and to promote it, they put some of these dinosaur posters up around the school and just said, coming soon. And then for five days they just posted them on Instagram and it got a lot of conversation. I think kids were like, no way. That’s what it was. Like that wing was closed. You had to wear hard hats at the beginning or whatever it was that that they thought was great.

Brent Dickson (15:51):

So it was, it wasn’t very hard and it kind of showed a little shout out or respect to those teachers that had been around a while. And it wouldn’t have to be from the beginning of the school, but you know, just in your building who’s been here maybe 10 or 15 years, cuz they’ll have, even if the physical building hasn’t changed Mm. They’ll have stories of stuff that was different. We used to do this, or this time this thing happened, or, or whatever. It’s, you know, so it, it wasn’t very hard and it worked really well.

Sam Demma (16:19):

There are, it sounds like there are a couple of things you do annually, the birthdays, the phones, the coloring, the different activities you mentioned previously. What are some of the other things that you, you do on a non-negotiable basis? Every single year, like this is an absolute hit and every single time we do it, students love it and you’ve continued to do it or intend to continue doing it because you think, gosh this always has such a positive response.

Brent Dickson  (16:54):

I, I’ll go from really small to really big. Okay. I would say that one of our biggest that has the biggest impact is our rock athon.

Sam Demma (17:02):

Ah, nice.

Brent Dickson  (17:03):

To every spring. And so we had done it before Covid for a few years and then of course it got blown up like everything else. And then we brought it back this last spring. And so I’m sure a lot of people listening have had this similar experience where we’ve got these traditions, but there’s no kid in the building that’s done them <laugh> kinda like starting over again, right? Yeah. So rock athon, what we do is we raise money for the Alberta Children’s Hospital, but it really doesn’t matter what you choose. Nice. And kids will form a team of, of six to 10 kids and they have to fundraise as a team, $750 to qualify to come to Rocka. And then they also pay a ticket fee for the, for the event, for the expenses of the event. So right now it’s been $25 though it may have to go up a little bit with inflation here in the future.

Brent Dickson  (17:56):

Nice. The kids have to, so the first thing they do is they register as a team. They pay their, their $25 per person fee, and then we have them in as a group and then they start their fundraising. And it can be from soliciting people to bottle drives, to bake sales. Like there’s all sorts of creative stuff that goes on. And if they raise that amount of money, then on the day of rock athon, we always do it on a Friday one or they have to bring in a rocking chair. So that’s the idea of rock athon. It’s not like rocking and rolling. And so at one, so for 15 hours straight, one kid or another has to be in the rocking chair and rocking. Ok. And so that’s kinda the thing that they’re getting sponsored to do. So during this, and we set them up in little groups in the main cafeteria area, we kind of map it out with tape on the floor.

Brent Dickson  (18:46):

And so that’s kind of their little living room or their camp. And so during class some of them get excused and they’re rocking and they get to miss school while they’re doing it. So that’s not a bad thing. And and then what we do is if they fundraise $1,500, then they get power at their station. so I have like several electric cords stacked away for Walkathon. So the idea there is they can plug in like an Xbox or a, a blender for smoothies or whatever they want. And some kids say, well, I’ll just bring my own. And I’m like, and then I’ll cut it up because my wall <laugh>, but they’re good with, so usually about a third of the groups will fundraise that extra money. And so it’s like Call of Duty all day with them and they’re loving it. Right.

Brent Dickson (19:32):

And so that goes during the day and then we actually bring in a whole bunch of food trucks and the food trucks will give us a percentage of their profits in our parking lot. And all the kids in the building get to participate in that. But if you’re part of Rock Aon, you’re wearing a t-shirt that says rock athon on it and kind like a v i p we walk you to the front of the line and those lines are pretty long, so it’s nice to be able to get your fries or tacos or whatever else it is. Right. I give a taco shout <laugh>. And then after school, once the building’s cleared, we have a full on party. Okay. So we have, we actually bring in some bikes and trikes and skateboards and then go up, down, up, down, or they’re allowed to actually ride the bike in the building.

Brent Dickson (20:14):

Nice. we’ll set up treat tables. We have a photo booth going at one point. We bring in a professional improv company. This year we’re looking at maybe doing a hypnotist. we’ll do like cahoot games and then there’s times we just let ’em sit and visit and chill and we bring in dinner for them as well. And then we go till about 1130 at night. And it’s, it’s an awesome experience because I, the key things you gotta do, if you’re gonna try to fundraise for something that’s significant, you need to have a great cause and then you need need to have a social experience for kids just said, Hey, donate money to Children’s Hospital. We’re not gonna get much if we just said, Hey, why don’t you come hang out with all your friends on a Friday night at Centennial. They’re not coming when you put the two together, that’s the magic where they have those things and then you’re gonna have success.

Brent Dickson (21:06):

And we had, I can’t tell you how many kids I heard after, either anecdotally or personally talking about, oh, I should have signed up for Rock Athon. I didn’t know what it was nice. We’re anticipating we’ll have at least 50% or twice as many teams next year. Now the kids have seen it and they kind of know what it is. It’ll top out at some point, but you just kind of have to see it and experience like, oh, I should have done that. So that it’s, it’s a big huge event. It takes a lot of practice and, and work to get ready for. But the other real payoff too is your kids running the event. Oh man. Like the, how happy they are and how good they’re feeling about what they did and that it was their thing that they ran. So

Sam Demma (21:45):

That’s a massive idea. Give us a medium size idea and then a small idea.

Brent Dickson  (21:53):

Play bingo in the cafeteria at lunch.

Sam Demma (21:56):

Hmm.

Brent Dickson  (21:57):

So I would strongly recommend buy yourself a smaller bingo drum.

Brent Dickson  (22:02):

Is so easy. You just go in at lunch and you can go on the the worldwide web and they have plenty of printable bingo cards.

Sam Demma (22:10):

What’s that?

Brent Dickson (22:10):

Just yeah,

Sam Demma (22:12):

<laugh>,

Brent Dickson (22:13):

Just get just get goofy prizes. Like go to the dollar store, get like a two liter bottle of pop, get a thing of chips, get, get a thing of Princess Tiaras or Wagon wheels, it doesn’t really matter. And, and you just play bingo at lunch and Nice. And so we’re about 1500 kids in our school and every time we do bingo, we’ll have two to 300 kids. All their playing bingo. Nice. And when they call it, they come up, they get their prize, they’re super happy, it doesn’t take very much and it’s, it’s a win. Right. And the nice thing about it is, you know, if you’re doing the pie eating contest or something like that, that’s a few kids that participate and launch the watch. We do a lot of that kinda stuff, but this is one where they can come up and they can, whoever wants, can be a part of it and have a chance to win. Right. And then if you’re really ambitious, take their pictures of the winners, post it on Instagram so they’ll have glory forever as they won these, this pair of two sweatpants from the smart shop that who knows <laugh>, how they’ll ever be able to wear it. But, but it’s glory forever. Right.

Sam Demma (23:17):

<laugh>. Okay. Medium size idea. What if someone orders a small leadership idea? What are you telling them?

Brent Dickson  (23:23):

Small leadership idea.

Sam Demma (23:25):

I mean you already shared a few at the beginning of this call, but anything else come to mind?

Brent Dickson (23:30):

Oh I think just, well I’ll give you a couple lollipops in the classroom. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> I discovered this one by accident and it works really well. we had some, some kids, we have an opening orientation with our link crew program where we bring candies in for these tours and stuff and there was a bunch left over and so a kid comes up and says, Hey, can I have a lollipop? And I’m like, sure. Then another kid, Hey, can I have a lollipop? And so I realized this was popping. These are the cheapest type that you get when you go to the doctor when you get a shot. Lollipops or not fancy schmanzy lollipops. Yeah. And I started putting them in this bowl and there was a run on lollipops real quick. So then I discovered I can only put out one bag a week or I’m gonna go broke <laugh> issue Now I went to the dollar store and they’re not carrying them right now.

Brent Dickson (24:21):

Okay. I had to turn to Amazon at a slightly larger expense. I need to find a new supplier of my chief load cups. Nice. But it’s just a little thing that’s really easy. And then I think the other thing is, is little things is just recognizing kids in your school. So we do things like we’ll have the coyote the month display and we just picked four random kids that have done not academic or athletic, but just have done cool things. Like a teacher just told me a half hour ago, Hey, I got a kid for carry of the month and it was a kid who has been helping out with a special needs kid, ah, and just kind of helping them at lunch and some things like that, that kind of just stepping out and, and that, I don’t know this kid very well. They may not be an athlete at all. They may not be an academic all star, but that’s pretty amazing what they’re doing. So that’s a, that’s a way to recognize,

Sam Demma (25:07):

I won’t forget the young man who held the door open when I walked through the front doors of your school. And then you told me that he holds the door open every day for everybody. And I think I had three or four students after I was making a big deal about it. Tell me that they walked through the door every day and he’s holding it for them. And most times they have their hands full and they’re so grateful for it. So I think recognizing your population once a month, once a week in your classroom, I think that’s a great idea.

Brent Dickson (25:36):

Here’s another little bonus idea along that lines. We, we do Walmart greeters on Friday mornings. Nice. You have kids go, we have two doors that kids come in, you have to kind of figure out your building. Maybe there’s just one place or maybe there’s a couple. So we split ’em up and I’ve got two Bluetooth speakers. So they go to each door and they play whatever music they want, long as it’s appropriate. And they just say good morning. They kinda wave, say Good morning, welcome to Centennial. Kind of like a Walmart greet. And you, I’ve watched when kids come in, some, some will be stone faced all the way through. but some you see they get a smile on their face or Oh hey, how are you? That kind of thing. Right. And so we made some t-shirts that kind of ripped off the Walmart logo. We changed it to Centennial. But you don’t even need anything like that. You can go to the Dollar Star and get Walmart greeter hats or, I mean, who cares? You call it. Yeah. It’s, it’s, it’s nothing. But and actually the kids have found the music that works the best is old school like playing Abba or Elvis or something like that. Cause cause no one really has an opinion on it, whether they love it or not.

Sam Demma (26:38):

<laugh>,

Brent Dickson  (26:39):

It’s just a little easy thing to do. And oh, and then when my, my kids come back as Walmart greeters they get a two pack of dad’s cookies and a superstore juice box.

Sam Demma (26:49):

Nice.

Brent Dickson  (26:50):

Not a big deal, but like that’s how you earn those is you’re a Walmart greeter. Right. And it’s mostly just thanks for coming in early and, and doing that for other kids. Right.

Sam Demma (26:58):

Yeah. I think the incentives are great ideas, whether it’s a ring pop lollipop, a dad’s cookies, some chocolates. I know you have assorted candies that you hand out for certain things too.

Brent Dickson (27:10):

This seems like the most unhealthy leadership program ever. We we’re really not all about just handing out candies of bribing kids. There’s a lot more going on. But

Sam Demma (27:18):

We talked about candy, crayons, social media ideas, recognizing students. We talked about the rock athon. This was a full on masterclass for student leaders and student leadership ideas. So Brent, thank you so much for coming on the, the podcast today to share all of your wisdom and insights. If someone wants to learn more, you have a blog filled with ideas where should they go to read and and check those out?

Brent Dickson (27:46):

It’s easy to remember; brentdickson.net. So you go on there and I try to faithfully periodically I put down stuff, just different ideas, things have been working out. usually try to start with a story about something that kind of inspired me. Usually something that a kid did. And then here’s an idea for your school. Here’s an idea you can do in your class. And when you go on there, you can either like it and follow it or you can actually click a click a spot where the post comes directly to you in an email so you can check it out and hopefully it helps you out.

Sam Demma (28:15):

Awesome. Brian, thank you so much. I’m gonna title this podcast episode, how to Become the Most Unpopular Teacher in Your School, <laugh>

Brent Dickson (28:25):

Perfect

Sam Demma (28:26):

With the phone case id. I love it. no, seriously, thank you so much for coming on the show. Keep up the great work, keep up the great writing, and I look forward to crossing paths again soon.

Brent Dickson  (28:35):

All right. Thank you brother.

Sam Demma (28:38):

I believe that educators deserve way more recognition, which is why I’ve created the High Performing Educator Awards. In 2022, 20 educator recipients will be shortlisted, each of whom will be featured in local press. invited to record an episode on the podcast, and spotlighted on our platform. In addition, the one handpicked winner will be presented with an engraved plaque by myself. I will fly to the winner’s city to present this to them and ask that they participate in a quick photo shoot and interview on location. The coolest part, nominations are open right now, and they close October 1st, 2022. So please take a moment to apply or nominate someone you know or work with that deserves this recognition. You can do so by going to www.highperformingeducator.com/award. We can never recognize educators enough.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Brent Dickson

The High Performing Educator Podcast was brought to life during the outbreak of COVID-19 to provide you with inspirational stories and practical advice from your colleagues in education.  By tuning in, you will hear the stories and ideas of the world’s brightest and most ambitious educators.  You can expect interviews with Principals, Teachers, Guidance Counsellors, National Student Association, Directors and anybody that works with youth. You can find and listen to all the episodes for free here.

Debbie Hawkins – Campus Culture Director at Sunnyside High School in Fresno Unified

Debbie Hawkins - Campus Culture Director at Sunnyside High School in Fresno Unified
About Debbie Hawkins

Debbie Hawkins (@SHS_Leaders) is the Campus Culture Director at Sunnyside High School in Fresno Unified, but grew up in the south valley and is a first-generation college graduate who after attending Fresno State made her home in the greater Fresno Area.  Debbie is the wife to Jimmy and the mother to Jonah and Noah. Family is a defining factor in Debbie’s life and thus she reduced her teaching load to part-time status in order be home with her young boys while they were young.

Having raised her boys, she finds herself immersed in the work of student activities. This work has become her passion and her home.  Sunnyside is a school committed to the work of developing student relationships, establishing a college-going culture, and being a healthy student-centred environment.

Connect with Debbie: Email | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Sunnyside High School

Fresno Unified School District

CAA Speakers

Capturing Kids’ Hears Program

Phil Boyte’s Podcast

School Culture by Design – Phil Boyte

The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom – Miguel Ruiz

The Transcript

**Please note that all of our transcriptions come from rev.com and are 80% accurate. We’re grateful for the robots that make this possible and realize that it’s not a perfect process.

Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode on the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s guest is Debbie Hawkins, who is the campus culture director at Sunnyside High School in Fresno Unified, but grew up on the south valley and is a first generation college graduate who after attending Fresno state, made her home in the greater Fresno area. Debbie is the wife to Jimmy and the mother of Jonah and Noah. Family is a defining factor in Debbie’s life and


Sam Demma (01:02):
thus, she reduced her teaching load to part-time status in order to be home with her young boys while they were young. Having raised her boys, she finds herself immersed back into the world of student activities. This work has become her passion and her home. Sunnyside is a school committed to the work of developing student relationships, establishing a college going culture, and being a healthy student centered environment. I know you’ll enjoy this interview with Debbie because I enjoyed chatting with her and I will see you on the other side. Debbie, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here this morning. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit about what brought you to where you are in education today?


Debbie Hawkins (01:40):
My name is Debbie Hawkins. I have a very fancy title called Campus Culture director at Fresno Unified’s largest high school in where I’m located, obviously in Fresno. Our, our student population pushes 3000 so we are the biggest. What brings me to the moment of campus culture or what other people would call student activities is when I first got into education I was a coach, but really everything I’ve ever done in education’s really about mentorship and mentoring kids and investing in kids like you know, who they would become as an adult. So I find myself in this world of student leadership, because that’s always kind of been my passion and it just, that trail led me here.


Sam Demma (02:24):
Did you have educators that kind of pushed you in this direction? Cause caring for kids could have brought you into different roles. I’m I’m wondering why it specifically brought you into a school


Debbie Hawkins (02:34):
I guess complicated childhood, but easiest to say that school was always safe for me. Mm. And I had hero teachers who very, I’m a, I’m a first generation college student. I’ll and if you knew my whole story and we had like a lot of time maybe perhaps some wouldn’t see me in the seat I’m in today because I probably never would’ve got go to college. So those teachers, those heroes of my childhood passed very much pushed me eventually into the classroom once in the classroom and coaching. I don’t know. I always found myself when the crowd of kids having a good time. And there was a point at which I was at a site and I was a little burned out with being an English teacher. If I’m being honest. And the principal flat out, looked in the eye and said, what, what, what can I do to keep you? And I said, I need to do something where I’m investing in kids as people where I care more about their story than whether or not they know a list of conjunctions. And she approached me with student activities and, and that’s where it started 16 years ago. It was just a principal trying to keep me on campus.


Sam Demma (03:48):
That’s amazing. And tell me more about how do you define a hero teacher? What does that teacher do for you that has such a big difference and impact on you?


Debbie Hawkins (03:58):
I think as much as you can, like strips down everything, I came from a really small town. Yeah. So like when you’re from a small town, everybody knows the legends of your family and your cousins and you know, all that stuff. But, so I think my hero teacher saw me individually as a person and, and none of the backstory. Mm. And like, let me start from that point on. And in a lot of ways, never saw me as broken, but saw me as having potential. Mm. So to me, a hero teacher, as somebody who gives you a clean slate from day one, and it it’s, it’s harder to do than it sounds like it really is because Def kids definitely come with stories and brothers and sisters and cousins. And you, you know, things about kids before you ever meet them. I mean, I can log into student profiles and read all sorts of things, which by the way, I don’t do intentionally and never did, even when I taught English. But I always appreciated those teachers who, who just gave me a chance to be me.


Sam Demma (05:02):
Yeah. That’s such a cool perspective. And if a teacher is listening to this in the classroom and you know, they wanna make, they wanna make their students feel the same way you felt in those classes, like what would you kind of advise or tell them that they could try and do you know, is it to make sure you set aside time to get to know each student make time to hear, hear their stories and share their experiences and upbringing or, well, how do you think that looks in the classroom or school?


Debbie Hawkins (05:30):
What I think it looks like in a classroom at a school in general is you have to be very people first. You have to be very relationships oriented first. My son’s high school English teacher, her name’s SCR and officially, and, and I will love her forever because she changed my son’s life. And what she did is in Fresno unified, we’re a restorative practices school, which has all sorts of things that go with it. But one of the things that happens within restorative practices is that the idea of circle time, which I use in my classroom every week, we call it family Fridays. But it really is, is a restorative circle where kids get an opportunity to have a voice. Well, miss officially at Bullard high school does that every week in her English class. So she pauses her curriculum to put kids in circle and, you know, really dive deep into who each other are as people and what they think and, and what I think miss officially does.


Debbie Hawkins (06:23):
And what I I do in my own leadership class too, is, you know, that whole idea of start slow to go fast. You, you gotta like slow down and let kids know you as they need to know us as people too, like as an instructor, they need to know things about me because that’s what builds trust. And you do, you have to slow down. And I think when you’re a core content teacher, it’s scary because you don’t have many instructional minutes and you have a lot of expectations of you. But I have found that in education that once a kid trusts me and they have put me in their corner as somebody who’s gonna defend them I can get 80% more out of them academically, cuz they follow me off a cliff. If I told ’em to go, you know, I guess a bad analogy, but it’s true. They’d follow me anywhere. And once you’ve built those relationships, where are kid gonna follow you anywhere? Because you’ve slowed down, you slowed down and you took that time. You actually get more done academically.


Sam Demma (07:21):
I love that. That’s such a unique way to look at it. And I think it’s so true. I had one educator come on here one time and tell me that there was one student in his class that he was struggling with and the way that he won the heart and mind of this student over was by giving the student responsibility that this student thought he would never give him. And the situation was the keys to his car to go grab his lunchbox in the front seat and you know, and it, the story just hit me in my core. I was like, wow, that’s such a cool example of building a human to human relationship, not a teacher to student one. I think that’s amazing. Where do you think these philosophies and ideas came from? Was it just from your personal experience from other teachers? Like how did you come up with these ideas and these teaching philosophies?


Debbie Hawkins (08:08):
Well, everything’s, I, I guess seated in personal experience to some extent, I mean, there’s great educators in my past when I was a student and then you get involved and you start listening. You know, you it’s, the organization, CAA is an amazing one. So many speakers there. I, I would say that on my personal journey for development as a, as a leadership teacher there’s a program called capturing kids’ hearts, which was an early program in my career that really drew me in. And then fast forward, I, I meet a guy named Phil Boyt who is Phil, boy’s amazing. He has his own podcast. Everyone should be listening to Phil Boyt, read his books. And then you, you know, there, there’s just speakers and that come into your life. And I have the privilege at working at Sunnyside. And when I was hired here, there was a man named Tim Lyles, who he lost this year.


Debbie Hawkins (09:03):
And men talk about just an amazing person to learn from what you find out in education, which I’m going to assume applies to any profession out there is that once you have an ideology of who you want to be and what you want within this setting, you surround yourself with people whose core values begin to align with yours, right? So like you go find your tribe. So I found my tribe, you know, I listen to T street speak at kata and, and now, now that I heard her at kata, I’m gonna follow every talk. I find of hers on YouTube, you know deep kindness by Houston craft my class, read that together last year. Nice. You just, you began to, you know, you hear of this person who tells you about this person who tells you about this book and you begin to seek it out. It’s personal work though. If, if you wanna be that kind of educator, it’s personal work, which I think it’s personal work, no matter where you are in life.


Sam Demma (10:01):
Yeah. I love it. And people leave behind such amazing principles and values. I think more than everything else, when someone, you know, passes on, we can look at the things that they left behind and something that sticks out for me, even, you know, you talk about service a little bit and great people to learn from like, after my grandfather passed away, I was 13 years old. And the thing that sticks out in my mind are the values that he passed on to me as a young child. And it, it sounds the same with your colleague who passed away. Sorry to hear about that. And yeah, I’m sure your school is doing a great job of celebrating his, his life and his legacy. That’s amazing though. And did you ever have any doubts growing up as a, as a young educator and what were some of the things that went through your mind? Because I think it’s a very common experience for all educators to go through.


Debbie Hawkins (10:47):
Well, I have an atypical educator story. I mean, I failed the third grade and I’m I’m dyslexic. Oh, so yeah, I I had some challenges and in, in high school I remember my very favorite high school, creative writing teacher, like on my college application to the educational opportunity program at Fresno state saying student has unlimited potential. If she can get some support with her writing. And interestingly enough, as soon as he said it, it became this quest to be good at it. And like academically after my freshman year in college writing became my strongest thing. Wow. So, you know, it’s, it’s almost like when someone shines a light on it in a way that is soft and trying to guide you rather than like light you up and blow you up, but rather a guiding light. Yeah. It inspires you to kind of go on that path and take that journey because ultimately as a, you know, a 16 year old kid, I, I wanted to be successful and change my family’s narrative. Yeah. You know, I, I wanted it badly. So this man whom I trusted his name was Greg Simpson from ex or high school, amazing educator just gently said unlimited potential with a little support in writing. So I joined writing lab. Like I went and found some people to help me and ended up being a game changer for me.


Sam Demma (12:10):
I find that. So fascinating how someone that you trust, very few words have such a powerful impact on your mindset of how you view yourself and also the actions you took in your future. And it goes to show us how important it is that we choose our words and our actions both extremely wisely when working with any human being, doesn’t matter if it’s a student in your class or a stranger on the street. Do you think that the words of educators and students have such a massive impact on each other? And have you seen in, in reverse scenario where your words or your colleagues’ words have had a huge impact on students in your school and do any stories stick out in your mind?


Debbie Hawkins (12:51):
Well, since you wanna call me on the carpet on that one today, yeah. Honestly I’ve only been at Sunnyside for four years and cool. My first year here, I, I received an email during homecoming because I did something a little different that how don’t know maybe it was because I was new or, you know, and when you’re new, you’re a little unsure and you know, I’d never been at a high school. It came from a middle school and man, that email shock me to the core. Like I never had anyone talk to me like that. So I became like this head trip thing I had to come over and I overcome like it taught me a lot though, like in reflection. Mm. I am extremely cautious about what I say to people via written communication. Mm. I try to not be short and if, if I’m gonna be short, I try and go walk over and speak to them face to face. Yeah. Like lesson learned. And then, so this week we actually had two rallies before we had a rally on day one and day two of the school year.


Sam Demma (13:51):
Nice.


Debbie Hawkins (13:51):
So day one of the school year, I told my, my little commissioner, Hey, you know, don’t play YouTube videos because the signal’s gonna drop when everybody comes into the gym. Yeah. And the hustle and bustle of it, I didn’t check in with him and he didn’t convert the file cuz he ran out of time. So sure enough, we get to this part where these very adorable little mom, girls are supposed to go dance to promote our diversity assembly. Mm. And the video wouldn’t play. so, yeah, I mean day one and I didn’t snap at him in the moment, but I also didn’t build him up. What I should have said was him and let it go. There’s always something that fails. This is our thing today. Of course. Yeah. And helped him like move through it. And I, you know, we haven’t been here for almost two years. Yeah. I didn’t coach him well enough. Like, so I’ve been spending the last I’ve spent the last week and a half now trying to build him back up, you know? Yeah. Cause it’s gonna take 20 or 30 interactions for him to be brave again.


Sam Demma (14:53):
Well, I applaud first of all, your responsibility. Thanks for sharing. I was also curious about the positive side of how words have affected students or


Debbie Hawkins (15:00):
Wouldn’t oh, positive. Okay. Positive side. Positive. Side’s easy. Yeah. I, I don’t know how I’ve become the, the teacher who, who attracts a lot of our foster and homeless youth kids. Mm. I don’t know how, but one, one philosophy I say leadership’s about what you do, not what class you have. Yeah. So a few years ago I had this one kid just show up in my room every day and just make artwork. And I just looked at him and I said, Hey, you, you have the ability to show up and be positive. You know, you should join my class. Mm. I don’t remember saying it to him, by the way. I just said it one day while they, I don’t know, coloring with markers. And anyway, Damien did join my class. The following year. He became my spirit commissioner. I didn’t know his whole story until almost the year was over. But wow. His words back to me were really powerful. He’s like, he, he basically said, your first impression of me is you should be a leader. Like you belong here. And for him, it, it made a difference cuz it came at a real critical time when he was doubting where he was. Mm. So I, I there’s, there’s a million instances where I could say I’ve said something to a kid, but here’s the funny thing. I very rarely remember the words I used.


Sam Demma (16:11):
Yeah.


Debbie Hawkins (16:12):
So you just always guard them and keep ’em positive. And, and the one thing I will say, and that I, I need to get back to doing, I used to keep a class list and I would mark down like an X mark, like, so for an for that week I had to give one overtly positive statement to each kid on my roster. Mm. And I made it like anecdotal where I would check it off.


Sam Demma (16:34):
Nice.


Debbie Hawkins (16:34):
Because you know, life’s busy. Yeah. So that’s one way that I I’m gonna get back to that this year, but that is huge. And I’ll tell you another huge one that we all overlook. I also try and call three parents a week just to tell ’em their kid’s amazing.


Sam Demma (16:48):
Ah I love that. That. And what is the, what is the, what is the usual parent response to those phone calls? how does the phone call start? I’m sure it starts with oh is everything okay?


Debbie Hawkins (17:00):
50% of the time. It’s what do you do?


Sam Demma (17:02):
yep.


Debbie Hawkins (17:04):
What’d she do now? What’s going on? It’s always guarded at first and it’s really funny that if I don’t use my personal cell phone, 50% of them don’t pick up. And then, and I give ’em my cell phone number and tell ’em, if you have any questions, feel free to call me. And it’s odd because I will get random sets of parents who will text me and ask me a general school question because I just called them to tell ’em, Hey, your kid’s amazing.


Sam Demma (17:28):
That’s awesome. That is so good. I,


Debbie Hawkins (17:29):
I, I try and I’ve, I try and do at least three kids a week for the first month of school till I get through everybody.


Sam Demma (17:35):
There’s a, there’s such a cool story behind the idea of appreciating other people that I heard on a recent podcast as well. There’s a, there’s a gentleman named Jay Sheti. Maybe you’ve actually heard of him. Heard the name. Okay. So he has a podcast. He was a monk. He went to the mountains for like three years, came back and now he makes what he says is it makes wisdom go viral. And he has all these like cool videos and that’s awesome. He has a podcast and he interviewed this guy named scooter bran and scooter, scooter bran is the music manager of Justin Bieber and Demi Lavato and all these like huge music artists. And he was on the podcast and he was saying that his grandma did something for him and his family that changed the trajectory of all the kids’ lives. He said there was four grandchildren.


Sam Demma (18:16):
And on separate occasion, she pulled each grandchild, each grandchild aside and said, I have to tell you something very important and very special. And you can’t tell any of your siblings about this. And she said, you’re the special one. and she did it to all four of them on separate occasions and scooter didn’t find out till the day of her funeral while the grandchildren were around. He said, guys, you know, grandma pulled me aside and told me when I was a young kid, that I was a special one. And then his brother said, no, me too. And me too. And, and all four of them went their whole life believing that they had this special ability that they were an amazing young person. And I thought, what a powerful way to plant a positive belief in the mind of a young person. And it sounds like you’re doing the same thing, not only with the students, but also with the parents.


Debbie Hawkins (19:01):
I’m trying. And that’s, that’s the whole thing that I will all educators like, it’s, it’s an awkward time. Yeah. Alls you can do is try and over the summer I read this book called the four agreements and, you know to Miguel


Debbie Hawkins (19:14):
. Yeah. So like, you know, in the four agreements where it says, take nothing personally. Yep. You know, that’s my challenge, this year’s cuz in this crazy world where everything’s, everything’s uneven right now, still, you know, like everything’s still uneven and people react daily at us, around us, within this organization out of a sense of fear and self protection. Yeah. So really take nothing personally. And I’m really talking to my leadership class about that. We’re actually gonna read the four agreements at the end of the year when we do our book study as a class. But Tim Wild’s favorite book, by the way. I, I just, that, that whole that’s resonating with me this year is don’t take things personally because I think when we take things personally, it, it, it holds us back. Right.


Sam Demma (20:01):
It’s true. So true. And I think that sometimes the words of other people are based on one, their past experiences and two, the current things they’re going through, you know, you, you mentioned about the email and writing a short email. It’s it’s funny because whenever we write an email communication, the other person reads it based off the current mental state that they are in. So if they’re extremely happy, they’re gonna assume that your email was, was a pretty happy one, but if they’re struggling and, and then they read a short email, that’s just to the point, they’re gonna think that you’re upset or something and you know, 90 something percent of communication is nonverbal. And so I think, you know, some of the times too, when people attack us or put us down or attack a student or an educator and put them down, it’s, it’s asking ourselves, you know, what do they have to be going through to be expressing this situation like this? And I think that’s where empathy wins, you know, but it’s tough when you’re in the experience. It’s like, it’s a tough one. So if you could travel back in time and speak to your younger self, when you were just getting into education, knowing what you know now based on the experiences that you’ve had, what would you tell your younger self? What couple pieces of advice would you give?


Debbie Hawkins (21:10):
Number one, I’d say quit keeping score. I came in as a coach. Like I was so competitive and not just about like when we were on a basketball court. Mm. You know, I wanted to be the teacher with the highest reading scores. I wanted to be the teacher with the most kids coming to, you know, this or I, I was so worried about being perceived as having value that I think it held me back. I would’ve been much better off to have been more concerned about if I was valuable to at least one kid, you know, let go of those public perceptions a little bit when you’re young and invest in people individually, like deeply in one person at a time, one staff member, one kid my younger self and I would say not to take things so personal. Yeah.


Debbie Hawkins (22:04):
I, I, I don’t know when I was young, I had a lot of pride and, and things would hurt. And, and when you let things hurt, like where they wound you, it literally prevents you from having relationships with kids and being available to kids who need you, because you’ve spent too much time in your own self hurt. Like it was a waste of my energy as a young educator, you know, I, I needed a, I, I, I would encourage every young educator to find a group of two or three teacher, friends who are safe. And when something hurts, you can tell them so you can let it go. Cause you know, there’s something about that whole, like, you know, the truth will set you free. We’ll find people to go tell your truth to yeah. So that you can be free of its damage and move on. Yeah. Sometimes I think your, our pride like makes us put in the negative stuff, cuz we don’t want other people to see it. Like go get that ne get a trusted crowd, share with them, all those, those like doubtful things so that, that you can just be set free from it and move on. Don’t let it hold you back.


Sam Demma (23:06):
I love that.


Debbie Hawkins (23:07):
Trust me. Nobody’s good at this job. I’m 26 years in every year. There’s 10 things I need to be better at.


Sam Demma (23:14):
Yeah.


Debbie Hawkins (23:15):
It, it, it, this job never, it’s a big beast. You will never be perfect. Hey, it’s messy.


Sam Demma (23:21):
Every job. That’s the mindset to have. I mean, the day you think you arrive is the day you shouldn’t ever do it again, you know?


Debbie Hawkins (23:28):
Amen.


Sam Demma (23:28):
We never arrive, you know, like we’re all human beings. We’re all messy individuals going through this experience called life and balancing everything, you know? That’s a cool mindset to have. I call what you just mentioned “Emptying my backpack.” When I feel like I’m holding onto too many thoughts and opinions of others or opinions and, and experiences and situations in my head, I call it emptying my backpack. I’m actually writing a poem about it for kids Yeah, that’s such a cool piece of advice to give yourself and I appreciate you being so honest, vulnerable, and open about this whole conversation. I think a lot of educators will listen to this and will really enjoy it and see a lot of their own experiences in what you’ve just shared. So thank you so much for coming on the show. Debbie, it’s been awesome. If someone wants to reach out, send you an email, bounce some ideas around or chat with you, what would be the best way for them to get in touch?


Debbie Hawkins (24:21):
Just use my staff email it’s debra.hawkins2@fresnounified.org. You could Google Fresno Unified in my name and find me honestly.


Sam Demma (24:41):
Cool. All right, Deb. Debbie, thank you so much. This was great, keep up the great work and we’ll talk soon.


Debbie Hawkins (24:47):
Thank you very much for having me.


Sam Demma (24:50):
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 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.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Debbie Hawkins

The High Performing Educator Podcast was brought to life during the outbreak of COVID-19 to provide you with inspirational stories and practical advice from your colleagues in education.  By tuning in, you will hear the stories and ideas of the world’s brightest and most ambitious educators.  You can expect interviews with Principals, Teachers, Guidance Counsellors, National Student Association, Directors and anybody that works with youth. You can find and listen to all the episodes for free here.

Natasha Bathgate – Director of Learning and Innovation at West Island College

Natasha Bathgate - Director of Learning and Innovation at West Island College
About Natasha Bathgate

Natasha Bathgate (@NLBathgate) is the Director of Learning and Innovation at West Island College, Calgary. An educator for 17 years, she is passionate about people, nature, and good design.

Natasha was born in Wales, emigrated to Canada in 2008, and lived in Vancouver for 10 years. Currently in Calgary with her husband and twins aged 10, Natasha is driven by a need for continuous growth, new experiences, and feeling strong.

Connect with Natasha: Email | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

West Island College

Royal Road University – Masters of Arts in Educational Leadership and Management

IB Leadership Certificates

Choose your Own Adventure Books

The Transcript

**Please note that all of our transcriptions come from rev.com and are 80% accurate. We’re grateful for the robots that make this possible and realize that it’s not a perfect process.

Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s guest is Natasha Bathgate. She is the director of learning and innovation at West Island College in Calgary. An educator for 17 years, she is passionate about people, nature and good design. Natasha was born in Wales, emigrated to Canada in 2008, and lived in Vancouver for 10 years. She’s currently in Calgary with her husband and twins who are age 10, and Natasha is driven by a need for continuous growth, new experiences, and feeling strong. And I know you will take all of that and so much more away from our conversation today, so enjoy. Natasha, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show this morning. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit of the reason behind why you’re so passionate about the work you do in education today?


Natasha Bathgate (01:34):
Sure. So I’m originally from Wales in the UK which is the kind of land of daffodils and male voice choirs and rugby. And I came to Canada over 20 years ago now and just first of all, moved to Vancouver and fell in love with Vancouver and decided that at some point in my life I wanted to, to be living there permanently. So I’ve now been living in Canada as a Canadian citizen since 2008 I think; 2007/2008. And funnily enough, I didn’t actually get into work in education for many of the reasons that other people may have. My pathway was not exactly traditional. I, the reason I got into education is because I wanted to get permanent residency in Canada and when I was looking to, when I was looking to fill out all of my papers to come, to, to move to Canada they had a list of careers that were on that were, were acceptable to get a get permanent residency.


Natasha Bathgate (02:38):
And at the time I was working as a travel consultant and travel consultant originally was on the list. And then at that time, September 11th happened and the Canadian government took all travel related careers off the list. So I was ready to put my code in the code of the job I was doing. And and then it was no longer there. So I just was chatting with a few friends in Wales and around in a pub one day. And and I said, look, I really wanna move to Canada. What am I gonna do? I looked at all the list of things and I considered vending machine repair technician. Yeah. I thought, okay, I can train in that pretty quickly. So maybe I could do that. And then one of my friends said, Hey, why don’t you go into teaching? I think you’d be pretty good at teaching.


Natasha Bathgate (03:21):
And I just thought, no, like why would no never considered that? Why would I do that? Yeah. And she said, well, and I thought, what would I even teach? And anyway, I was, I was quite good at art at school and I I yeah, I enjoyed drawing and painting, so I thought, okay, I’ll just go and see if I can do that. So I started, I arranged to I arranged to shadow my old art teacher in Wales and I just thought, okay, well, I’ll see if I see if I would be interested in doing this. So I shadowed her for a little while. Then I submitted my application to do a a postgraduate for kit in education so that I could become qualified to teach. And anyway, kind of fast forward a few, a number of years, cuz it still took a long time to get the actual qualification, the work experience, the visas, et cetera. But finally I, I managed to move to Canada and that’s what got me into teaching.


Sam Demma (04:19):
That’s so that’s, that’s such an,


Natasha Bathgate (04:21):
But I did actually. Yeah. And it turns out I I do, I mean, I’m not teaching right now. I’m director of learning and innovation, but I for the last like fif 16 years, I’ve been teaching and I love it because it’s even though I’m not directly teaching, I’m still obviously very closely connected to it. I just it’s, it’s so interesting. It’s never boring. Like there’s never, you know, you, you never go into the school or the classroom thinking, oh God, it’s gonna be another boring day. There’s never a dull moment. And because every student is different and every student has different backgrounds and different experiences and different little quirks and it’s just such a great fun place to work.


Sam Demma (05:03):
Well, I was gonna ask you like, what was your first role? And maybe you could explain what director of learning and innovation looks like as well, because I’m sure many people are wondering that sounds like a cool role and I’ve never heard of it before. So yeah,


Natasha Bathgate (05:16):
I know. It’s funny. Yeah. So well, yeah, so originally I was an art team, so I was teaching art for a number of years. And then I became the kind of department head of, of a, of a department that had a bunch of different subjects to do with arts and technology graphic design, computer science, all that. And then I started to become really interested in educational leadership and about I think five years ago now I did my masters in educational leadership and management at a really awesome university called Royal Rhode university in Victoria, Vancouver island. Nice. And the reason I kind of chose that university is because they really have a very kind of future focused, collaborative, innovative approach to teaching leaders to become leaders. Hmm. And so, so yeah, so I got into educational leadership because I really just wanted to be able to have a bit more impact and influence on the future of education.


Natasha Bathgate (06:18):
And I think that I was able to influence the students in my classroom on a daily basis, but I got to a point where I thought, you know, I want to be able to be part of decision making at a, a broader level. So that’s why I got into educational leadership. So my role is really, I feel I found myself, I felt I’m quite lucky Rudy, cuz my role is about, you know, I get involved in educational research. I continually sort of observe teaching and learning in the classroom. I work with teachers and ask them like, you know, what do you need to be at your best? Like how, how can I support you to be the best teacher and the best person? And then I, and then I just I guess building relationships with teachers to help them be the best teachers they can be.


Natasha Bathgate (07:04):
And some people, some schools will call this role director of academics. So it has different job titles, but it really is about making sure that the, the teaching and learning that’s going on in your school is aligned with, you know, your vision, mission and values it’s aligned with where you believe the future of education should be. And and it’s just kind of, you know, if we say we want students to be curious, then what does teaching and learning look like for students to be curious? And what does the teacher look like if they, if you, if you want that teacher to infuse curiosity in students, then what should that teacher be doing? So I don’t get involved with the day to day. I don’t get too involved with the day to day kind of operational stuff. Like that’s why I think I’m quite lucky. I really do love this job. Yeah. but yeah, I think that’s, I think that’s it up.


Sam Demma (08:00):
That’s awesome. And you know, from talking to Jim and from also just reading a ton on the website, I found that you take like the school takes a very personalized approach, tries to create a very personalized approach for every single student and learner. I would assume like that’s a big part of your work as well is like, would I be correct in saying that? And what does that look like? Like for you or for the school?


Natasha Bathgate (08:21):
Yeah. With teachers, cuz I guess I, because I work closely with teachers. Yeah. So I’m trying to per I’m trying to personalize the professional growth for teachers. Hmm. So it starts off with, it starts off with a one-on-one conversation towards the beginning of the year and setting goals. And the goal is of course aligned with, you know, the teaching and learning quality standards for the province. But once we’ve had that conversation, then I, I make notes about what that person has said. And I, and I work hard to try to find things that I think would interest them. So if I’m suggesting professional development activities, I might suggest books. I might suggest connecting them with certain people. Like I, I try and I try and build capacity in individuals by really connecting them with other people as well, who could, who could support them. Nice. And that’s kind of also the, my approach that was my approach to teaching as well. When I was, when I was teaching, that was my same approach. I just want to find out, you know, what is it that person needs, wants enjoys and how can I build their capacity by drawing upon those, those things.


Sam Demma (09:37):
I love that. And you know, you mentioned goal setting as well. Has that been a foundational pillar in your own personal life? Like think back to when you were still in whales, like is one of the first things you did is sit down with a pen and paper and like write out your own personal goals. Like tell, tell me more about that.


Natasha Bathgate (09:52):
So I don’t necessarily write them down and I know that’s key thing that if you write them down, then it’s, you’re more likely to achieve them. But I do, I’m very, very goal orientated oriented. I’m very driven by goals. And even if I don’t write them down, I’m kind of quite determined to achieve them. So, so for example, I was determined to move to Canada no matter what. And I knew it was gonna take a long time and I, and it, it did take an extraordinary long time because even once I got my teaching qualification, I, I still had to get a couple of years experience teaching in Wales before I could even submit my application to, to move here. And I think the same with, with getting the right to become an educational leader. I originally had applied to a university in, in Vancouver that I thought was gonna be good to UBC and and no disrespect to UBC anyones listening this, but , I, I had an application to, to, to go onto their educational leadership program, their masters I was accepted.


Natasha Bathgate (10:58):
And then as I was choosing the different courses, I was, I couldn’t choose the courses until after I’d been accepted. And then once I chose the different modules, I was reading the descriptions and thinking, I don’t know, this doesn’t sound like a particularly future focused, you know, innovative learning environment for me. And, and I was so set on being an innovative future oriented leader. I realized then that, that university wasn’t gonna be right for me. So I withdrew and that meant I was back a year. I, I, I kind of wasted a year, I suppose, cuz I then had to submit an application to another place that did fit what I was looking for. So I, so that’s an example, I suppose I am very goal, goal oriented and, and I’m, I’m prepared to, you know, to take a side step if it means taking longer to get the right thing.


Sam Demma (11:51):
And it sounds like with your work supporting educators, one of the goals is to really make a huge impact on the, on the students because that’s kind of like the end results you’re hoping for by helping the teachers become better and more equipped to, to teach their students. Like if that’s the end goal, how do you think right now we, we make students feel seen, heard and appreciated in this, the, you know, very different and difficult situation.


Natasha Bathgate (12:15):
Well, you know what I think actually I’ve been reading a little bit about like generation Z and what, what gen what, what your generation the characteristics, I guess, and one thing that I’ve noticed is that I don’t even know if they need much help, like your generation is so, so driven. And so so intent on making an impact and not afraid to speak up about things that they believe need to be talked about. And I’ve noticed in my I’ve noticed in recent years that that students are this generation all they need is the space to be, to, to be heard. Yeah, they don’t need, they don’t even need much encouragement. They don’t even need to be, you know, it’s like, here’s a space, here’s the time we’re gonna have this meeting come and say what you need to say. And, and, and I, I think that the students right now, the generation right now are incredibly capable and brave.


Natasha Bathgate (13:20):
And I think that, I know it sounds kinda corny, but I do think the future’s safe. Like I think the future is safe in, in your hands and, and this generation. So, so back to your question, I guess it’s I think it’s really important to know what it is that to, to be constantly aware of the issues of today that we need to make sure that we’re getting voices around the table. So, you know, for example, obviously a, a big piece of a, a big, I, it’s not issue, but a, a big topic, I guess at the moment in education and around the world is, is diversity, equity and inclusion. And how can we make sure that, that everybody feels safe and included and valued and respected and honored and appreciated. And they’re all fairly, you know, you wouldn’t think that would be too difficult, but, but I’ve realized that some students don’t feel safe and valued and honored. And when you ask students, if you just have the courage to ask them, what’s your experience like what’s going on for you? Mm-Hmm and what, what should we be doing differently then, then it’s, I guess it’s that sense of my moral, I, I feel a sense of moral responsibility. I feel as an educational leader, I feel a moral responsibility to, to give these students a voice and to actually act on it, you know?


Sam Demma (14:52):
Yeah. I, I, I think that’s so important and I’m assuming over this past year, those conversations have started to happen and have been happening. That’s, that’s amazing. And is it usually in the form of a one-on-one conversation or do you find it being more of a group conversation? Like how’s it working?


Natasha Bathgate (15:09):
Well, I mean, I’ll give you an example. I think earlier on in the year I had sent, I had sent a communication out to our alumni saying just really kind of an invitation, I suppose, to anybody who’s, who has expertise in advancing your organization or, or your community with diversity, equity and inclusion, or anyone who has an interest in this area, or anyone who has experiences at, at w that they want to share with me, please reach out. So it was just an open invitation. And I, and from that, I had just a small number, but six people contacted me. Some of them met, some of them kind of contacted me as a group. And I, so I met with them as a group and then one of them was just as an individual and that, that started in January. And it’s really kind of built in momentum to the point now where I’m now.


Natasha Bathgate (16:03):
So I, I meet with this kind of group of alumni only once a month, but but I’m also meeting with some students from us within the school who are sharing their experiences and, and sadly their experiences have not been, you know, have not been great. And and it’s, it’s, it’s been very difficult to hear, you know, when you’ve, I’ve only been at school for two years, but I know that other people who have been there longer feel, feel terrible, that, that some people have not out great being at the school for the last number of years. And also not also not necessarily realizing and not knowing that, but now that the stories are kind of out now that we have that awareness. Now we can start to develop an understanding around, well, what contributed to that? Like, what as leaders, what, what should, and could we be doing to, to to make everybody feel, you know, to help everyone feel safe and included in the school.


Natasha Bathgate (17:01):
And now we’re at the point where, I guess I, I’ve also introduced some of the alumni to our, some of our current students, so they’ve kind of met and shared their experiences. And now this week, hopefully we are about to start a student pluralism group, which is really around, let’s start having discussions about, about how we can, how we can make the school, I guess, a more inclusive place. Nice. But we have incredibly intelligent, passionate, brave individuals at the school who they just need, you just need to unlock. And they’re like jumping into there. , it’s just a case of turning the key. You don’t even need to open the door, like they’re ready. So it’s, it’s an exciting place to be in education right now, I think.


Sam Demma (17:48):
And it takes a ton of self awareness as a school community, as educational leaders to address those things, because it’s uncomfortable. Right’s not, it’s, it’s not a uncomfortable thing to do, but it’s definitely the right thing to do. And I think it’s cool that, you know, you’re very passionate about addressing those things and, and kickstarting those conversations and unlocking those doors. So the conversations can happen. You, you mentioned that, you know, you didn’t go to UBC because it didn’t feel like they had the right training materials that would lead to the innovative approach you were hoping to take. What, what do you think the future of education looks like being someone who sounds super passionate about innovation in the future? Like if, you know, if you could jump into time machine in travel there, what would you suspect to change or be different in the future?


Natasha Bathgate (18:34):
Well, I think that I think that we really need to explore a bit more about where learning happens and to be more open, to learning happening in different places other than a school building. And I know that already takes place. I know that people go on, you know, experiential learning trips to different parts of the country or different countries. And you know, and we have, there’ll be sort of work experience. And at our school, we have few experts come in. So it does happen to a certain extent, but I think we need to have much greater flexibility in mainstream education. So for example, my kids are homeschooled. I’ve got twins who age 10 and my husband was really passionate about homeschooling them, which was kind of funny, cuz I I’ve been a teacher for a long time. So I was like,


Sam Demma (19:23):
You sure,


Natasha Bathgate (19:24):
I wasn’t. I know I was thinking, well, this is strange. Is this like a sort of slap in the face of my profession here? But anyway, he, he really wants to do it, so I’m going along with it right now. But so they he’s been homeschooling them for, for just over a year and it, and it turns out that because of COVID, it’s fine. It, it makes sense. But what I’m noticing though, is that what he does is he pieces together. They’re learning experience through all different things. So they go, they go to a place in Calgary called Phoenix foundation, which is kind of like a school for homeschool. And you can choose what day of the week you go, depending on what what’s happening on that day. So they, they go once a week to that, then they meet up with a huge homeschool network group and they have different activities outside.


Natasha Bathgate (20:09):
And then they share like the parents will share expertise and do little workshops. So, so anyway, there’s that flexibility and, and choice over learning that is also about homeschooling. But what I think would be even better is if they could also have a consistency of going to choosing to go to a particular place for a couple of days where they’re gonna meet the same people all the time and build up those relationships and have that consistency and have, have that expertise from teachers. But then to be able to say, actually for like Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, I’m gonna go to this place here and learn from these different experiences. So this is a bit of a long-winded answer, but I think the key really with, with learning is, is flexibility of where the learning happens. And, and to, to make it normal because it, in so many places right now, like there’s, you know, there’s schools that are outdoor schools, there’s schools that specialize in project based learning there’s schools that specialize in the arts there’s schools that specialize in everything. But, but if you want, you kind of have to be all in, like, you know, if you choose to go to an outdoor school or a, or a school that it specialize in project that only does project based learning, then you’re kind of, you’re invested in that one thing. But I think the future of education and mainstream education, I think needs to be that that those options become, become commonplace.


Sam Demma (21:40):
Yeah. Yeah. It makes a lot,


Natasha Bathgate (21:41):
It’s only a subtle, it’s only a subtle change. It’s kinda like, you know, they should be able to create their own adventure, you know, create your learning adventure and, and you know, what, what works for you.


Sam Demma (21:51):
And I think that comes back to what you mentioned earlier about, you know, sparking curiosity. Like I think back to books I used to read and the choose your own adventure books were the funnest, you know, I would say flip to page 70, if you want to try this. And, and I’d much rather read those than reading a blank book just right through. And I younger. So yeah, I think we could definitely pull that model into education. Yeah. Which is a really interesting idea. And if you could go back in time and speak to younger Natasha, the first year you got into teaching, like knowing what you know now, what pieces of advice would you give your younger self?


Natasha Bathgate (22:26):
Oh my gosh. It’s tough one. I think just yeah, I think, I think probably just to have


Natasha Bathgate (22:43):
Just to, to learn from other people, like I was terrible at classroom management at the start and, and, and I think learn from other people, observe other people watch what’s going on, watch the experts and learn from the experts. It’s not to say that I didn’t, but I didn’t get looking back. I think if I had made more of an effort to ask another teacher, can I come and can I come and watch your class? I know you’ve been teaching for 10 years. I’ve heard that you’re really good at this, that and the other. Can I come and watch? So I think seeing each seeing really learning from learning from people who are better than you at something and not being, not being embarrassed to, to say, I’m, I really suck at this. I need to get better at it. Can you show me, can I learn from you? Mm. I think that’s something that I would probably do because I, there was a time when I think I did struggle with, I was working in a school in, you know, terrible schools in Wales and England, where, where they throw paper balls at you, like as a teacher, you you’re, you know, yeah. I had things thrown at me. I had a garbage can thrown at me. Wow. so it’s really about survival in that, in that, in that situation. And I think I needed some more survival tactics.


Sam Demma (24:00):
Being, being a soccer fan. I was gonna ask you, are, were they hooligans? yeah,


Natasha Bathgate (24:07):
That’s funny. They were, they would wanna be hooligans. They were, they were hooligans in training for sure. Yeah.


Sam Demma (24:11):
That’s funny, that’s funny. Awesome. Well, this has been a phenomenal conversation. If someone’s listening right now and has been inspired in any way, shape or form and wants to just have a conversation, what would be the best way for someone to, you know, get in touch with you and reach out?


Natasha Bathgate (24:26):
Well, I do use Twitter and I use LinkedIn. I think my Twitter is just @NLBathgate I think, and then I don’t use LinkedIn as much, but yeah. Twitter or LinkedIn or even yeah, I think those would be the best. I would just put those, you can incorporate those into the podcast.


Sam Demma (24:43):
Sounds good, Natasha. Thank you so much.


Natasha Bathgate (24:45):
And then I, and I’d be happy to have a conversation with anybody for sure.


Sam Demma (24:48):
Perfect. Thank you so much for doing this and coming on the show, I appreciate you sharing some insights and some of your experiences. Keep doing great work and I’ll, I’ll see you soon.


Natasha Bathgate (24:56):
Thank you, Sam. Thanks a lot. Okay, bye.


Sam Demma (24:59):
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 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.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Natasha Bathgate

The High Performing Educator Podcast was brought to life during the outbreak of COVID-19 to provide you with inspirational stories and practical advice from your colleagues in education.  By tuning in, you will hear the stories and ideas of the world’s brightest and most ambitious educators.  You can expect interviews with Principals, Teachers, Guidance Counsellors, National Student Association, Directors and anybody that works with youth. You can find and listen to all the episodes for free here.

Brent Dickson – Leadership and P.E. Teacher at Centennial High School

Brent Dickson - Leadership & P.E. Teacher at Centennial High School
About Brent Dickson

Brent Dickson (@brent_dickson) is a leadership & physical education teacher at Centennial High School. In 2005 Centennial High School started with one leadership class of 25 students.  Now Centennial has six leadership classes per year with around 200 students total. 

At Centennial, students have hosted and run two Alberta Student Leadership Conferences in 2009 and 2016.  Each conference welcomed 900 students and 150 advisers from across Alberta as well as guests from other provinces and territories. 

Centennial students also organize and run an annual Rockathon fundraiser. Last year 240 students raised $25,000.00 for the Alberta Children’s Hospital.  Brent Dickson is happily married to the amazing Krista and is the proud father of four boys.

Brent has been teaching student leadership in BC and Alberta for over 20 years. He has presented in schools and conferences across Canada and is the Director for the Canadian Student Leadership Association. Previously, he has served as President of the Alberta Association of Student Councils and Advisers. His previous schools have also hosted the Jr. High and the Adviser Alberta conferences.

He is currently teaching leadership and P.E and is the Department Head of Student Leadership at Centennial High School in Calgary, Alberta. He also coaches rugby there as well and he is the certified Link Crew coordinator there. Brent was awarded the Canadian Student Leadership Association Leader of Distinction Award in September 2012 as well as being an Alberta Excellence in Teaching Award Finalist in 2004.

Connect with Brent: Email | Instagram | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Brent Dickson’s Personal Website

Canadian Student Leadership Association (CSLA)

Alberta Association of Student Councils and Advisers (AASCA)

The Boomerang Project

Centennial High School Website

Kahoot

The Transcript

**Please note that all of our transcriptions come from rev.com and are 80% accurate. We’re grateful for the robots that make this possible and realize that it’s not a perfect process.

Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s guest is a more recent friend of mine. His name is Brent Dickson and in 2005, Centennial high school started with one leadership class of 25 students. Now they have six leadership classes with over 200 students and at Centennial students have hosted and run two Alberta student leadership conferences in 2009 and 2016, each conference welcomed 900 students and 150 advisors from across Alberta, as well as guests from other provinces and territories. Students of Centennial organize and run an annual walkathon fundraiser.


Sam Demma (01:20):
And last year, the students (240 roughly) raised $25,000 for Alberta children’s hospital. Why am I telling you this? Because Brent Dicksonn is the teacher and educator who runs these programs and helps these students accomplish these milestones. Brent is married to the amazing Krista and the proud father of four boys. He has taught student leadership in BC and Alberta for over 20 years (longer than I’ve been alive.) He’s presented in schools and conferences across Canada as one of the directors for CSLA, the Canadian student leadership association. Previously, he was the president of the Alberta association of student councils. And currently he teaches leadership and PE, and is the department head of student leadership and coach of rugby at Centennial high school in Calgary, Alberta. There is so much more to learn and to absorb from Brent’s genius and his knowledge. He gives you a ton of gems and information on today’s episode, but I highly encourage you, after listening to reach out to Brent! Ask him about his programs, his different experiences, or ask him a question or just connect and have a nice phone call. Without further ado, let’s hop into the episode with Brent Dickson. I’ll see you on the other side. Talk soon. Brent, thank you so much for coming on the high performing educator podcast. Huge, huge pleasure to have you on the show. Why don’t you start by sharing a little bit about yourself and how you got into the work that you’re doing in education today? What did that career journey look like for you from a young age?


Brent Dickson (02:53):
Sure. Well, I’m Brent Dickson. I teach leadership and phys ed in Calgary at Centennial high school. I also am the junior boys rugby coach, which I hope to one day coach again, when we get past all this craziness. I actually grew up in Edmonton and then moved out to BC to do my education degree there and I started teaching in Abbotsford . And actually, the story of how I got into leadership was kind of funny because I was at one high school at WJ Mouat, which some of your listeners will probably know. And I was surplus after a year there because I was taking over someone’s leave and I was coaching football and I was teaching social studies and just thought I was in heaven. It was the best thing ever. And then I got transferred to another school, Yale Secondary which was a great school, but they didn’t have a football program.


Brent Dickson (03:43):
So I was devastated at the moment I wasn’t doing what I really hoped to do. And so I was teaching classes and just kinda, and I was also coaching some basketball and I felt like I really needed something to kind of energize me to be a lot of fun. And there was this guy, Wade Perry, who a lot of people know who was teaching leadership there and he was transferring to another school. And I didn’t really know Wade very well, but I kind of saw a little bit about what they were doing in leadership. And I thought that looks pretty cool. I’d like to be involved with it. I don’t really know what it’s all about, but it looks kind of neat. So this is the thing I’ll tell my kids, you gotta be proactive sometimes. So I went into the principals office and I said, you know, I’m only have taught two years at this point.


Brent Dickson (04:23):
And I said, I’d really be interested in teaching that leadership class if you need somebody. So I found out later that then they went and asked eight other teachers on staff to see if they would be willing to teach it. Cause they were probably a little nervous about a rookie coming in and doing it. And all eight teachers said no. And then they came to me and said, Brent, we would love to have you teach that leadership class. Mm. And then so I was, I had no idea at the time that I was choice number nine in the school, I was just really excited to teach it. yeah. So basically I was just going off of what can I remember we did in high school and things I saw in university and one of the very best things that Wade did for me was he me up for the BC provincial conference in November for me and two cast. So we went off to Harrison, hot Springs resort, and I got to meet amazing people like norm Bradley and Debbie coy and Hanta, and my whole vision and world opened up to what student leadership actually could be as I met these amazing teachers and mentors and the journey since then, I never could have predicted going into education, but it’s been far better than, than probably what I would’ve wished for heading in as a teacher.


Sam Demma (05:33):
That’s phenomenal. And now if I was to take you back a, another 10 years before you specifically even got into leadership, at what age did you know that you wanted to get into education just generally become a get into teaching or, or like, did you know, or was this something that you stumbled into?


Brent Dickson (05:51):
I knew I was not going to be a teacher cause my parents are teachers and you cannot do what your parents do because that would be embarrassing. So all the way through, I was kind of lost in like when I, I just knew I wanted to go to university. I, I figured, well, I like socials and English, so I’ll go into humanity stuff. At one point I was looking to kind of do a business type thing, but I got really lucky. I ran into my old football coach. I, I went to Harry Ainley high school in Edmonton and he invited me to come back and help coach his football team. And I thought, that’d be great. It’s a good thing on the resume, be fun. And I needed some stuff like that to apply to, you know, business programs and things. And this crazy thing happened. It turns out that it was so fun coaching kids, and it wasn’t like the football was great, but it was really about kids. These grade 10 football players. I had so much fun with it. And then I decided to humble myself and realize there’s actually a career out there where you can work with kids all the time. So I kind of reoriented and went into education and have loved it. Haven’t looked back.


Sam Demma (06:56):
And I’m guess sing growing up? You also had a huge passion for sports. It seems very obvious that you love sports and whether it’s rugby basketball, like the, all the different sports that you’ve played or coached. And how has that affected your experience as a teacher? I know this year, it’s, it is a little different because of the pandemic. But what is it like, what, what is teacher sports taught you that, that has helped you with your teaching? And why do you love doing it so much? Like gimme another peek into the coach side of Brent.


Brent Dickson (07:28):
I think that that coaching and teaching like leadership and other, they all kind of compliment each other. Like you’ll see kids in different ways. You know, like, like if I’m teach in an academic class, this kid might not be very successful at all. And then they come out on the rugby pitch and they’re like an amazing leader and that’s where they shine. And I also find you can build these amazing connections with athletes in a different way. And then when it comes back into the classroom and whatnot, you know, you kind of have that sort of vibe. I even remember my first year, you know, a rookie teacher at Moit and I didn’t know what I was doing. And a couple of these football players were in my class. I remember, and some kids were donkey around and they actually gave the business to the other kids and said, don’t mess with coach. not that that’s the most important part, but it talks about the relationship. Yeah. Have, like, I know know you, you were high level soccer stuff, so, you know, you, you talk about that same kind of thing. I think, I think it’s just different Avi or different areas where they can shine and show. And I think all those skills, they really meld together nicely.


Sam Demma (08:34):
And I think if the students, if the student sees you praise them on the field, but they’re struggling academically, they’re confidence might be even raise when they go back into the classroom because they think, oh, Brent knows I’m a, I am a phenomenal athlete and he wants to see me succeed. And, and I think it’s really cool that you’ve done so many different things inside the schools you’ve worked at. You mentioned, you know, a bunch of your friends, some of which I don’t really, I don’t know too much about Wade and your mentor, shout out to all of them who helped you when you were just getting started in leadership. How are you staying in touch with you know, your peers, your friends, your colleagues around the country right now during this time?


Brent Dickson (09:12):
Trying , it’s kind of hard. Yeah. To be honest, we all get a little zoomed out as you can imagine. I like it. I think the one thing I’ve actually enjoyed was actually your podcast especially when it’s friends of mine. So I, I just listened to one you had with Ren Lacone. And so I sent her a message after, and I said, this was awesome. I I’m working out, I’m listening to you talk. And it felt like I was back at CSLC, the Canadian student leadership conference, sitting in the advisors lounge and having an awesome conversation with you. I found that with these different ones, I know I’ve also enjoyed the ones, you know, people, I don’t know, they have insights and things from different areas, but I think those little connections are great. Even I got a little boost like I, I’m a director with Canadian student leadership and I primarily do the social media posts along with Maddie and some others. And so I even just had a conversation with Lenore pool and out at hope, BC. Nice about she’s recommending great children’s literature books for leadership kids. Well, even just that 15 minute conversation on the phone gives you a boost, cuz this is my kindred spirit. We both believe the same things about kids. And I think even just those short little births kind of give you energy, you know, as you stay connected. Yeah.


Sam Demma (10:29):
I, I totally agree. And the only thing


Brent Dickson (10:31):
All over the place here now though, yeah,


Sam Demma (10:33):
I know, honestly, the only thing that kinda stops is ourselves. Like, you know, we can pick up our phone and make a quick phone call. Unfortunately we can’t see them in person right now, which is a little more difficult. But it’s still possible.


Brent Dickson (10:46):
I’ll add, add some to that too. I think is important for all of us as teachers. Is that personal connection? You know, I got into, I went, did my workout this morning. I got in, I had a few jobs I wanted to get done before we did this podcast and I didn’t get any of ’em done but instead I spent 40 minutes talking with some other PHY ed teachers. I don’t get to connect with as much. I then ran into a, a French teacher she’s actually retiring the end of the semester. We were able to talk about what’s next and so forth. Then as I’m making my way to a classroom my good friend, the drama teacher was there. And you know, you have to remind yourself, that’s actually more important than the list of other things. Mm-Hmm, , you know, taking time for people and talking to them. I think it gives to them, it gives me energy, especially when we’re all distanced out like this right now.


Sam Demma (11:29):
Yeah. No relationships are so important. And whether it’s relationship with your colleagues or with your students, and you mentioned that, you know, earlier that it’s so important to build relationships on and off the field also in the classroom during this time, I’m sure you’re finding it a little more difficult to build those relationships with some kids at home, some kids in school. How are you striving to still build relationships with your students during this time?


Brent Dickson (11:54):
I think the thing I found we’re, we’re a little different. We’ve been live okay. In person a lot. And then we got, we got put totally online mid November. Okay. So I had the advantage that I already had built a face to face relationship with these kids. Mm-Hmm so I’m not the guy to necessarily say starting on line, how you do it. Yeah. But I think one thing that I really learned, actually, I was kind of mad. We were told that every day we had to do attendance with these kids on our timetable. And as a leadership guy, I was kind of frustrated. I thought these kids have so much on their plate trying to figure out their core stuff. Why are we like adding on and dumping on to what they already have to deal with? And I was very wrong.


Brent Dickson (12:34):
I know that’s shocking. I should have had everything figured out in my life now. But what I realized very quickly is those kids wanted to see me and they wanted to see each other. And the attendance was probably like 95% all the way through. Wow. So then I decided now I, there was sometimes where I was doing instruction and things, but a lot of times I was like, they just need something fun. So I’d, I’d show a five minute video or we’d do a little thing where I’d pick five kids and you had to tell me two truths and a lie. Or, and then I, at the end, actually, one thing I did is I called it the five minute free for all. And so they could all turn on their mic if they wanted to go, they could go, but they could all turn on their mics.


Brent Dickson (13:15):
They could type stuff into chat with each other. They could make jokes, they could do whatever. And you know what Sam, most of them stayed all the time. Eventually like after 20 minutes, sometimes I’d have to cut it off and say, okay, D actually has to go do some things. Yeah. But it reinforced to me how important connection was. Like they, they just wanted to be there with each other and, and get a little inspiration and have some fun. So I think no matter what you’re doing, you gotta find a way to put that into your to your teaching. Like I think when, when kids come into my leadership class, there needs to be almost every day. Even if it’s just five minutes, a little active type lesson that does some team building teach is a value or a skill. And that’s that idea of, you know, you build your house brick by brick. And I think that, and I think that’s possible to do online as well is you start drawing them out and using different different tools and skills and whatnot. Totally


Sam Demma (14:09):
Agree. And I’m sure those five minute free for alls become a highlight in the class. And the kids probably all look forward to them. I’m curious to know as well during regular curriculum, have there been moments this year where you had this idea that you were gonna cover certain subjects and topics today and the conversation that the kids wanted to have was just different and you had to adjust, veer off curriculum and, and address this conversation. And were there any moments like that as well that you’ve experienced so far?


Brent Dickson (14:41):
Actually, when, when kids first came back mm-hmm so we, we like everybody we’ve been out since mid, since mid-March and then Alberta decided that all kids were gonna come in at once. And so I found the first couple days, like we did our team building things and name games and all these kind of stuff, they needed to talk through and process what had happened to them. Yeah. And I think in some ways they needed to grieve a little bit, especially my elevenths and twelves about what they’d lost out in the semester before they needed to talk about what it felt like being back what made them even feel safe. Like I remember there was one kid I had who, you know, her mom was immune compromised and she was pretty stressed about everyone needs to make sure they have their mask on and sometimes kids would forget.


Brent Dickson (15:26):
Right. And so she, she came to me and said, Mr. Dixon, can you talk to ’em about that? Cuz I’m, I’m really stressed. And so there was kind of that processing stuff we had to go through. And and then I know everyone hates the word pivot, cuz we’ve used it way too much but we have just this last semester we have had to constantly figure out ways to adapt. So, you know, we actually decided for the first time, not that this is rocket science to everyone, but we, we came up with a plan for how we were gonna do a virtual pep rally. Mid-December and we do one pep rally a year. Normally it’s a big, huge tradition. Of course you can’t come into the gym. Kids, kids were awesome. They had a plan. We were, we were just about ready to make a video of teachers.


Brent Dickson (16:06):
We were gonna do an online Kahoot. We were, you know, all these kind of things. And then on the Wednesday it’s announced that the following Monday school’s all online. Mm. So the whole thing kind of blew up. And I was really proud of these kids because instead they said, well, let’s do a virtual Christmas spirit week. And they came up with the plans while we’re online, they came up with idea, you know, like it was traditional stuff like the ugly Christmas sweater day and things like that. And we re reached out to this new burger place that had opened just by us. And so they gave three burgers away a day for kids were participating. But to me it was the idea. I was super proud of them that they were able to find a way to say, well, okay, we’re not gonna just give up we’ll we’ll adjust and do something else because like we have those, I’m sure like most programs, we have those key anchors that are traditions at different times of year and a whole lot of ’em there isn’t really a way to adapt. They kind of just get blown up. And so you just gotta find a way with something else.


Sam Demma (17:02):
I love that. And I’m, I’m assuming the Christmas stuff wasn’t really successful because I, I feel like any opportunity to come together and do something fun. Kids are just jumping on them these days.


Brent Dickson (17:13):
What tell you one little cool story that happened with it. Yeah. Can’t take any credit. It was total fluke. Okay. One of our special ed teachers. So our special ed classes were still coming into the building. Everyone else was online. Yep. And so it was I think it was Christmas hat day. And so she had some Santa type hats. So she took them around. She ’em on her special ed kids and took some pictures and submitted it to me. And I put ’em out on Instagram. And then what I would do is I would have a kid we’d figure out how many total pictures came in and then they’d tell me the number. And then I’d just say, okay, number 22 is the winner just random? Well, randomly this special ed kid got picked, he’s not on Instagram or anything like that.


Brent Dickson (17:55):
And so I had to kind of figure out who he was. And so I went to the teacher and I was able to go into the classroom where they were at. And I said, Hey, did you know you won like a burger meal at icy Berg and kids? Like what, what he’s like kind of freaking out excited. He came back to me three times in the next two days to my classroom, just to confirm that it was really true and that he’d actually won this. Wow. So then his his teacher aid and him, they, we, I called over there and said when they were coming. And so they, they walked over for lunch on a day and he got his meal and everything, I got picture of it. And so that was really cool. Like, so, you know, I mean, that’s like the Disney moment. I couldn’t have really planned for it, but it was awesome.


Sam Demma (18:37):
No, that’s phenomenal. And those moments are, are, I would say right now they might be few and far in between because of COVID. But in normal school, those moments are, are, are everywhere. And I’m sure that you, over your, over your whole career of teaching, there’s been so many moments like that. And, and so many students who you’ve impacted and who your colleagues have impacted and your whole team at your school have impacted. I’m curious to know out of all the stories you’ve heard and maybe you have one of those files on your desk called the bad day files where you like pull out the notes. Kids have sent you to kind of lift your spirit. It’s I’ve had some other teachers talk to me about it. Of all those moments, which those moments of transformation are, those, those Disney moments, which, which of those stick out the most, and the reason I’m asking, and you can just choose one or two. And if it’s a serious story, you can obviously take away their name as well. Just so you don’t disclose it. The reason I’m asking is because there might be an educated sitting right now, who’s burnt out. Who’s considering not teaching anymore who might want to leave the vocation. And your story of impact might remind them why this work is so important despite the challenges they’re currently faced with.


Brent Dickson (19:45):
Yeah, actually, you know, I was thinking, I, I kind of knew the question was coming. Cause I heard you ask other people before. And I, you know, I have some that are like really dramatic, like, oh, this kid went to a conference and I saw how it changed their life or things like that. But there’s actually one that came that I kept thinking about. And it was this student named Zach and he was a three year leadership student. He since graduated and he was almost like an positive way, the poster child for the introvert, like this kid never said anything in class ever. I knew not to ask him for like in front of the whole class to give a comment, cuz he would just, he just couldn’t do it or wouldn’t yet there every day he’d be there at lunch for the activity to help set up and clean up.


Brent Dickson (20:33):
He’d be dressed in the thing you were doing that whatever it was we asked him to do. And even some of the conferences like the day horizons type conferences we’d go to he’d sign up for those. And sometimes I’d be a little surprised, you know, I thought that might be a little outside of his his comfort zone, but he’d be there. And actually in grade 12, was this other student, Ethan who kind of just decided to be his self-appointed buddy. And he was beside, I mean, he’d be with class, not that he like, you know, didn’t have any friends or anything, but just, you know, kind of like that reaching out thing. And and I just really appreciated this kid, his consistency. He’s a kid that you could maybe not notice if you don’t really pay attention. Hmm. And then so in his grade 12 year we were doing ugly Christmas sweater day and he always is dressed up in whatever it was.


Brent Dickson (21:20):
He comes in and he’s wearing an Oilers hoodie and I can’t figure out what’s going on now. This kid is a horror, hardcore flames fan. Like at least every other day, he’s got some flames thing on. So I’m looking at him and I can’t figure out what he’s doing. And then all of a sudden I get it. He’s decided that the Oilers hoodie is the HAPPI sweater that he can wear. And I’m like, so I start halfway through the sense I’m like, why are you wearing? And then I realized what it was and I just started laughing that is the funniest thing ever. And so he kind of, and he doesn’t laugh, he just smiles. Right? Yeah. And then I said, well, where did you get that? And he says, oh, my uncle has one. Justin said, he’s an Oilers fan. Well, about a week later, this is one of, really one of my highlights of my career.


Brent Dickson (22:04):
A week later as the semester was, you know, right before Christmas, he brought me a Christmas present and, and it was bigger. Usually it’s just, you know, like some little gift card or card or something. And he says, don’t open it now, open it later. And I’m like, okay, well, thank you very much. Well, I opened it later and it was a fancy Oilers glass. Wow. And, and I thought that’s really cool. In spite of the fact that we’re enemies on the hockey rink that he kind of thought that much of me yeah. To give, to give me something that was kind of our personal joke and also something that I would really like. And, and I thought, you know what, that’s awesome. Like in three years, I know that leadership made a difference for him. And it would be different experience for him than maybe that kid that would be happy to get on the mic or jump around or be that crazy kid. But I think it was just as meaningful for him. And he was able to give as much to the class for us as any other kid.


Sam Demma (22:58):
There’s so much to unpack. I think that’s a phenomenal story. And what this makes me wanna say is that in leadership, there’s a space and a place for everyone. And I’m curious to know how you made your student feel comfortable enough safe enough, appreciated enough to still want to participate because there might be some introverted students who don’t feel valued or appreciated and always keep to themselves. It seems like you got through to this one kid and I’m curious to know, how do you think you get through to students? Is it just by listening? Is it by asking them question, tapping them on the shoulder and saying, Hey, here’s an opportunity for you? Like how do you make your students feel appreciated, valued and, and comfortable in the class?


Brent Dickson (23:39):
I think that’s a three hour lecture. yeah. I think, you know what, it’s a lot of little things and, and most of it I’ve been taught by those mentors that have come before me about things you do. Like it’s little things like whenever I can, I try to make sure music’s playing. When they come into a class at the beginning of class, every time almost we do some kind of a fun, interactive activity and they get a chance to meet different people and talk to them. I don’t just, when we do discussions, it’s not just one kid saying their idea in front of the whole class, you try to get ’em in smaller, you know, with a partner or with a small group where they can talk. I think it’s the, a huge part is the tapping on the shoulder and saying, Hey, I think you’d be good for this.


Brent Dickson (24:20):
You should come to this conference. You should sign up for this group. We need you. And you know, it’s all the things we do as teachers like getting to know that kid, like, you know Zach loves the, or the loves the flames. So you talk about the game the night before and, and you built, and I think it’s just that little step by little step. And you create, you create that environment. And I think sometimes there’s some kids where you don’t necessarily know how much they appreciate it, even though maybe they haven’t seemed to be as engaged in it as some others. But then they’re the kid that faithfully shows up on that zoom meeting and hangs around for the five minute free for all, even if they don’t chat or anything, they just wanna be there and be a part of it. Right. So I think that, I think sometimes as as teachers leadership advisor, we underestimate how much kids thrive and appreciate and need that kind of environment.


Sam Demma (25:12):
No, I, I, I wholeheartedly agree. And it’s so true. And sometimes it might be as simple as a, as a tap on the shoulder. And what you mentioned about, about talking about the, the Oilers game or the flames game to Zach, because I was, he, that’s what he was interested in. My grade 12 world issues teacher would do the exact same thing. We’d walk into class and by, you know, week three, week four, he started to know what most of the students liked. And I don’t think he remembered it all up here. I think he wrote it down because it was, it was pretty impressive, but he would take his content and material. And after teaching, it would, would apply individual students and be like, Sam, for you as an athlete. This means this. And kaon for you as someone who’s interested in fashion, this means this and Olivia for you, someone who’s interested in, in the movies, this means this.


Sam Demma (25:58):
And he would, he would take his material and almost like give us the personalized applications or call to actions based on our, our likes and our dislikes. And it always stuck in my mind. So I, I think doing that is so impactful. It had a huge impact on me. I’m still a young guy. I’m 21 and I still remember it. So I think that’s great that you talk about that as well. Okay. If you could travel back in time and speak to younger Brent, and be the, be the mentor to yourself when you’re just starting teaching, what would you have told yourself? What advice would you have given yourself?


Brent Dickson (26:35):
I think I would say to not get obsessed about your to-do list. Hmm. I think that we as teachers, we have a to-do list that we have no choice about things that must get done. And then we have things that we really wanna get done. And I actually keep one each week, like I got on my computer to remind me of stuff I gotta get through. And we have these windows in our school day. You can get, ’em done. Mm-Hmm and depending on your prep time and what’s going on, or I’ve got so much time after school and we sometimes you can get obsessed with that and you need to make time for kids. And that’s something I had to learn. So like, for example, you know, there’s the leadership classroom here and the door is open and it’s right after, or lunch or something.


Brent Dickson (27:24):
And you see a kid kind of just hanging around outside, you know, and they’re sort of making like, they’re not really there to see you, but they really would like to talk to you. My advice to young Brent would be, unless it’s an absolute emergency, ignore the to-do list, invite the kid to come in and have a five minute conversation. Or even like I talked about this morning, right? Like I had some things I wanted to get done, take some time to talk to colleagues. You’re never gonna regret a relationship building moment. And you’re never gonna remember the, the one report card thing you had to fill in or some form for a trip or, you know, and those things are, we gotta get ’em done. But I think that, you know, worst comes to worst. You say to somebody, I can get that job done today because I needed to talk to this kid. And I think we’re always gonna win in the end if we do that.


Sam Demma (28:13):
I think you’re so right. And if, if someone’s listening right now and is thinking to themselves, I wanna have a relationship building moment with Brent and it’d be, it’d be really cool to connect with him and just chat with him, ask some questions, share some of their own stories for whoever’s listening. What would be the best way for them to reach out to you and just have a conversation?


Brent Dickson (28:33):
Well, they could email me brdickson@cbe.ab.ca and I would catch ’em there or Instagram @brdickson. And actually I have a website that’s kind of a side hobby of my it’s brentdickson.net. And I try to just post every week or two, just some leadership ideas or this kind of cool thing happened in my classroom or stuff. And, I don’t know, maybe there’s some ideas there they might wanna connect to but I’m always open to the, the back and forth conversation because I find anytime you talk to someone else, you get two things good back.


Sam Demma (29:06):
And you’re also available for a few select keynote speeches per year. So give yourself a quick shameless plug there as well if an educator’s listening who might wanna bring you in.


Brent Dickson (29:17):
Used Carl salesman pick!? Yeah. I, I love speaking in other schools, working with other leadership programs or full keynotes to schools and things like that. And so when things calm down, I would love to come to your school. I’ve spoken in conferences and schools all across Canada and it’s been my fun side thing to do. And it’s so energizing to spend time with kids or teachers, share the things you know, and you get so much back. So if someone’s looking for a presentation or consultation or just some good clean fun, they can contact me as well. And, information about presentations and stuff is all on my website. Perfect.


Sam Demma (29:56):
Brent, thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to come on the show. Hopefully you can cross this off your to-do list if it was on it. this has been a pleasure. I’ll stay in touch with you soon and keep up the amazing work.


Brent Dickson (30:08):
Awesome, thank you.


Sam Demma (30:10):
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 working 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.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Brent Dickson

The High Performing Educator Podcast was brought to life during the outbreak of COVID-19 to provide you with inspirational stories and practical advice from your colleagues in education.  By tuning in, you will hear the stories and ideas of the world’s brightest and most ambitious educators.  You can expect interviews with Principals, Teachers, Guidance Counsellors, National Student Association, Directors and anybody that works with youth. You can find and listen to all the episodes for free here.

Richard Vissers – Director of Admissions at Holy Trinity School

Richard Vissers – Director of Admissions at Holy Trinity School
About Richard Vissers

Richard Vissers joined Holy Trinity School (HTS) in 1996 as the senior chemistry teacher. Since then, he has also served as the Grade 9 and 10 Coordinator, Guidance Counsellor, Director of HTS Camps, and Chair of the Miller Thomson Scholarship Committee. Whether coaching a team, guiding the yearbook, or organizing the House and Leadership programs, Richard has worked in all areas to provide opportunities for students to engage and develop pride in their school, which will stay with them for a lifetime.

Richard attended Trent University to achieve a Bachelor of Science (Honours) and then Queen’s University to achieve a Bachelors of Education.

Connect with Richard: Email | Linkedin

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Holy Trinity School

Trent University

Queen’s University

Prep Skills College Expo

Lifelong Learning

The Transcript

**Please note that all of our transcriptions come from rev.com and are 80% accurate. We’re grateful for the robots that make this possible and realize that it’s not a perfect process.

Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is Richard Vissers. He is the Director of Admissions at Holy Trinity School. He joined Holy Trinity School in 1996 as the senior chemistry teacher. Since then, he has also served as the grade 9 and 10 coordinator guidance, counselor, Director of the Holy Trinity School camp and chair of the Miller Thomson Scholarship Committee. Whether coaching a team, guiding the yearbook or organizing the health and leadership programs, Richard has worked in all areas to provide opportunities for students to engage and develop pride in their school, which will stay with them for a lifetime. And I can tell you from my interview with Richard, there’s a ton of value he has to share and advice to provide. I hope you enjoy this as much as I enjoyed recording it. I’ll see you on the other side. Richard, thank you so much for coming on the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show. I know we met at the beginning of the year, which for both of us felt like a long time. We go as a part of the Prep Skills College Expo, but tell the audience, why don’t you start by telling the audience a little bit more about yourself and how you got into the work you’re doing with young people today?


Richard Vissers (01:12):

Sure. Well, first off Sam, thanks so much for having me today. I really appreciate the opportunity and I have been teaching. I’m almost embarrassed to, I’ve been teaching for a long time now and I started at a boarding school over 20 years ago, and that was that was trial by fire. When you work at a boarding school, you have lots of different hats. And so I’ve been at the current school HTS right now for over 20 years. And I’ve had lots of great opportunities here. And as when, when you first reached out to me and invited me to participate, I started thinking about, you know, what got me into this role, what got me into teaching, I suppose. And really, I started to think about some of the people in my life back when I was in school, high school in particular, but even before that, you know, teachers that took an interest in me and that’s those of the memories that I have that are strongest and most positive and actually reflect a lot of what I’m doing now on a daily basis.


Richard Vissers (02:09):

So it was teachers that took the time to get to know you took an interest in you and, and came forward with ideas and, and kind of pushed me a little bit to, to try some new things that I probably you know, slightly she that I probably wouldn’t have done without some, some motivation, some encouragement and a little and a little bit of a push. So I think that’s probably, what’s mostly gotten me into what I, what I’m doing today. And those are the, some of the things that I thought about when you reached out.


Sam Demma (02:40):

Tell me more about those teachers and what they did or how they pushed you. I’d love to know.


Richard Vissers (02:48):

Let’s see you know, one of the people I had an English teacher, she reached out to me she said, you know, I’m really looking for someone to join and be a photographer, take some pictures around the school and get involved in that way. I had a, I, I tried in for the hockey team. I wasn’t the greatest hockey player, but I tried out, I didn’t make the team. But the coach you know, we had a good relationship. I was in a class that he was teaching. He, he connected with me a couple days later and said, you know, Richard saw you worked hard and we’d still like you to be involved. Could you help about and come along? And, you know, there’s managing and there’s on the bench and travel and all that. So you know, those are some people that really stuck their neck out for me and saw, you know, got me to be involved in the school.


Richard Vissers (03:30):

And, and so those are some of the things that kind of stuck with me. And I had some friends too at school that reached out and said, you know, you should really do this. And had a, one of my, one of my friends the track and field team was leaving. And I said, yeah, I’m doing track this year. And then I didn’t, I wasn’t gonna go. And she jumped in said, why aren’t you going, you know, that’s the best part of the day. You get to leave, you get to compete. And so I managed to get outta my class and jump on the bus and had a great day, and it was pretty successful and and kept at it for a few more years. So those are some memories of people kind of extending themselves to me. And, and that’s the, that’s the type of work that I’m doing now. I really think work in my position, Director of Admissions is really about finding kids and finding great families and providing some opportunity so they can come in and take advantage.


Sam Demma (04:17):

I love that that’s a, it’s an admirable role and every single player on the team, including the management, if you’re talking about hockey is super important, and I’m sure, you know, the school, the students, the administration is a little different this year in terms of the challenges you’re faced with as compared to maybe last year or time in the past. What, what are some of the challenges this school is facing right now? And how are they overcoming them or how are you overcoming them?


Richard Vissers (04:47):

It is a challenge, Sam. There’s no question about it. This is a different world a different environment and families, however, still are, are looking into finding a place for their children, finding a school for their children. And, and it’s a huge investment emotionally. It’s a, it is a huge investment financially as well, and they take a lot of time. They take it very seriously and you know, their children’s education is, is probably the single most important thing they’re going to consider as they, as they have children and, and their families grow. And it’s, it’s a very touchy, feely process. Families want to come into a school, they wanna see it, they want to feel it. They want to hear it. And the biggest challenge in, in my role and the people that I work with here the, the challenge is to replicate that somehow.


Richard Vissers (05:37):

And I’m very fortunate. I work in a school where I know that the students here take great pride. They love coming to school. They really do. They really, really do run to run to the doors when they get here in the morning, you know, they’re that excited to be with their teachers and their friends. And so how do you replicate that? How do you, how do you allow a family to look under the hood, so to speak and get a sense of how things work here and get, and get that feeling. That’ll make them feel good about their decision when they choose to apply or enroll at the school. And so those are the biggest challenges. That’s the number one challenge that that we’ve faced here. And every admissions office in every school’s faced with right now.


Sam Demma (06:18):

Yeah, no, that’s a, it’s a tough challenge, but it sounds like you’re doing a, a pretty great job at, at overcoming it. I’m curious to know what’s working in the school and with admissions what what’s working right now.


Richard Vissers (06:32):

Absolutely. Student voices are probably the big guess thing that we’ve leveraged. And we always have, but we’ve just had to find a new way to, to leverage that, you know, the parents would normally show up at school and say, hello, a few words to myself and my colleagues. And, and then we would pass them off to one of our student ambassadors, one of our tour guides and, and they take it from there. And invariably they’d come back 20 minutes later, half an hour later, an hour later, and there’s all smiles. And you can just tell that they’ve really gotten a sense of what the school looks like, and, and the kids here have done a great job. So it’s their voices that we want to include. And so, you know, just like you and I are chatting video conference now, we we’ve extended that.


Richard Vissers (07:14):

We’ve got lots of students that join us online to meet with families and to answer questions, we’ve run some student panels so that we have some of our student leaders all lined up with some questions ready to go, and parents are invited to log in and they’re, we invite them to make sure their children are paying attention to and with them. And so that they can hear these student voices. We really kind of leveraged friends as well. We wanna know when we, when we meet families who do you know, that might already be at the school and so that we can connect them and, and connect them with maybe students that are coming from a similar school, similar background. And so that you know, that there’s some credibility there that they’re not just seeing it virtually. They’re actually hearing it from people that, that they know and have some faith in already.


Richard Vissers (08:01):

And, and so those are ways we’ve also leveraged our parents in the same way. You know, most schools would say their parents are their biggest tool for marketing. You know, word of mouth is there’s, there’s no better form. And so we’ve gotten parents involved for in panels discussions like that as well, where they can come on board and answer questions, and the prospective families can, can listen in and hear their experience. And, and some of the thoughts and emotion that went into their decision making. And so it’s not rocket science. We’re putting people together online, virtually like this. But it it’s worked well. And I, and I think parents appreciate the effort and appreciate the access to some of these parents and students that are with us.


Sam Demma (08:45):

Oh, that’s awesome. And, you know, you mentioned people that, you know, and it, it jumped for me, it jumped to your colleagues like anyone in education would be, you know, happy to have a conversation with yourself, with anyone else who’s, you know, working in a school. I’m really curious to know, I know we touched upon it earlier about, you know, how you got into your role. Right now I’m curious to know what actually directed you to education though. And what, what emotions made you decide you wanted to get in, into, you know, the role of a teacher or admissions officer. Where did that come from?


Richard Vissers (09:20):

That’s a great question. And I had to think about that a little bit too and think about some of the influences earlier on in my life before I even got to university. And I mean, for, for so many people, it starts with their parents and, and my mom in particular manner, my, at her, right. And I’ve used that line with families that I meet every day, but it, my mom and instilled in me a sense of manners and, and respect for people. And that started out in an early job delivering papers. And I know that doesn’t happen very much anymore. So the car drives by and tosses the paper into my, into my driveway, but it made you, it made me get out there and meet people and talk to people and, and have to use my manners and develop some kind of customer service skills so to speak.


Richard Vissers (10:06):

And I found I was pretty good at it. And over the years, I had lots of jobs growing up that were, that were in kind of a customer service area. And so when I got through to university and I was looking around at things that might be a good fit for me, I thought, you know, I really enjoy working with people. I really enjoy working with students. And, and it was a really great teaching program at the school that I was at. And so I applied after my first year of university and I was accepted and had some great intern along the way. And so it took off from there and I’ve, and I’ve been doing it ever since.


Sam Demma (10:43):

And when you’re feeling down or unmotivated, what do you kind of reflect on to keep yourself going? What, what keeps you motivated during tough times?


Richard Vissers (10:51):

That’s an easy, easy answer here because I have the ability to still get up from my desk, walk down the, a hall and jump into the kindergarten classroom. Mm. And you don’t have to spend too many minutes with a group of four year olds and five year olds to understand why you’re in, why you’re in a school, why you’re teaching those kids. They look at you, you know, your, their friend right away. Right. big smile goes a long way and, and come. And so you end up reading with them, you end up sitting and talking with them. And so when I’m having a tough day at school or, you know, you kind of need some, some motivation it doesn’t hurt to wander down and, and see some of the youngsters, it really it’s better than a better than a cup of coffee.


Sam Demma (11:34):

I love that. And, and what, you know, that keeps you motivated, what keeps you hopeful? What, you know, what keeps you hopeful about the work that you’re doing in a school?


Richard Vissers (11:46):

Well, a school like this HTS that I work at it really truly is about opportunity. I think that’s the word that I’ll use with families and with students more often than, than most others. We want students that are gonna come in and take advantage. We have some really great facilities. We have really fantastic teachers. We have really fantastic programs and we want students that’ll come in and, and take advantage and, and look at this as an opportunity and kind of, we want them to come in with big dinner plates of eyes. Right. They’re so excited to, to jump in and, and to be able to try some of these things so forth. So that that’s something that resonates with, with most families when we’re sitting down.


Sam Demma (12:28):

No, that’s awesome. And you know, if I wanted to stop by of the school, would it be too much to ask to stop by the kindergarten section?


Richard Vissers (12:40):

I would love to. Absolutely. You know, I I’ll tell families. We have strategically placed the kindergarten classroom pretty much in the heart of the school. Nice. And whether you’re in grade 12 and coming down for lunch, or you are in our middle school heading to the gym you’re going to have to walk by those classrooms and they see and hear everything you say and do. And they, they, when they can, they wanna hug you and say hello to you and high five, you, they want you to stop in and, and be their friend. And and so absolutely Sam and when we can have visitors back in the building, you are most welcome to come in and have a, and I’ll take you by the kindergarten classroom. You’ll have 16 new friends just like that.


Sam Demma (13:18):

That’s awesome. That’s so cool. And, you know, if you could go back in time, speak to your younger self and, you know, give advice you’ve been in education, you mentioned for over 20 years, I’m sure you’ve learned some things and gain some invaluable wisdom. If you could, your former self, what pieces of advice would you give knowing what you know now?


Richard Vissers (13:39):

Absolutely. you know, one of the, kind of the, the philosophy right now, the language at our school that we’re using every day is to be a lifelong learner. Hmm. And, you know, at times you, people are resistant, they’re set their path, you know, they’re, they’re comfortable with what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. And change is always a challenge for people. But I really think that as I reflect especially now in a new technical world, digital world, you know, there’s lots of skills that that I can still be using and learning about and leveraging every day. And so you know, our message for our kids here is you’re gonna be learning for the rest of your life. Well, you know, that applies to me too. And so right now I’m kind of in the middle of it.


Richard Vissers (14:26):

This is something that I haven’t done before, you know, interviewing like this. And so you know, I want to take advantage of that and, and go through processes like that all the time and chow myself. So being a lifelong learner is something that I think everyone needs to have to kind of develop and, and come to grips with and have an understanding that it’s your benefit. You might try. You might, you might not love it. And that’s okay too, because then maybe you’ll go on and try something different that you do discover that you love.


Sam Demma (14:52):

And for every educator listening, I think it’s so relatable, especially right now, we’re being tasked with learning how to teach online or learning how to do interviews with families online, or, you know, learning how to run conferences online. It takes that perpetual learner’s mindset to continue, you know, figuring things out and learning along the journey. If a teacher wants to reach out to you to have a conversation was inspired by anything we talked about, what would be the best way for someone to get in touch with you?


Richard Vissers (15:21):

You’re most welcome to certainly call the school or send me an email. Those, those are probably the best ways. The admissions number is 905-737-1115 and my email is rvissers@hts.on.ca. But yeah, those are the best ways to get in touch with me. Unfortunately, I can’t say drop by the school, because right now in the world that we live in visitors are, you know, it’s, it’s a, it’s a tough situation.


Sam Demma (15:43):

The kindergarten kids don’t wanna see you right now, guys, don’t come. Haha!


Richard Vissers (15:47):

They wanna see you. They just they know they have to wait. Haha!


Sam Demma (15:51):

That’s true. Yeah. Awesome. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to have this conversation. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you and learning a little bit more about HTS and, and all the work you guys are up to, and the changes you’ve been making to adjust. I really appreciate it.


Richard Vissers (16:03):

Thank you, Sam. I appreciate the opportunity too. It’s a pleasure to have a conversation with you.


Sam Demma (16:07):

There’s the entire interview with Richard. I hope you enjoyed it. It inspired you to stop in front of the kindergarten class. If you have one in your school today, and maybe just look at the smiles on those little students’ faces and get re-energized about the real reason why he got into education in the first place. If you did enjoy this, consider leaving a rating and review, consider reaching out to Richard and having a conversation. And as always, if you have something that you need to share that you think should be heard from other educators around the world right now, please reach out at info@samdemma.com and we’ll schedule a time for you to come on the show as well until then I’ll see you on the next episode.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Richard Vissers

The High Performing Educator Podcast was brought to life during the outbreak of COVID-19 to provide you with inspirational stories and practical advice from your colleagues in education.  By tuning in, you will hear the stories and ideas of the world’s brightest and most ambitious educators.  You can expect interviews with Principals, Teachers, Guidance Counsellors, National Student Association, Directors and anybody that works with youth. You can find and listen to all the episodes for free here.

Erika Rath – Director of Student Services at The Sacred Heart School of Montreal

Erika Rath - Director of Student Services at The Sacred Heart School of Montreal (Part 2)
About Erika Rath

Erika Rath is the Director of Student Services and teacher at The Sacred Heart School of Montreal. Erika has been working in the educational field since the late 1990s. She was always involved in her community recreation programs and worked as a camp counsellor and director for several summers.

While studying in Cegep and University, Erika worked with pre-school children and led classes for parents and young toddlers. In 2004, while completing her Bachelor’s degree in Human Relations at Concordia University, Erika became a teaching assistant in the department and realized that she loved working with people and leading groups. After finishing her BA, she decided to obtain a certificate in Teaching English as a Second language so that she could travel the world and teach. Before making any firm plans, she was accepted to do her Master’s in Educational Psychology at McGill University and was also offered a job in a learning centre at her old high school.

Both opportunities led her to realize that working with students was her passion. She went on to teach English and Social studies at the high school for 5 years and then was accepted to do the one-year teaching program at The University of Toronto.  Upon returning to Montreal, Erika was finally able to use her TESOL certificate and worked for Concordia in the continuing education department.

On a whim, Erika applied to The Sacred Heart School of Montreal and was hired for a part-time position. Over the years, Erika has been fortunate to experience a variety of roles within the school. She has taught English, been the Student Life Coordinator, the Director of Academics, helped out with enrolment and advancement, advised students on post-secondary choices and more.

Currently, Erika oversees all of student life, the boarding program, the grade 12 program, the discipline at the school and teaches the PD-personal development class to all grade levels. Erika is passionate about educating the whole student and hopes to help in their growth and development by creating an environment where students can talk openly without fear of judgment.

Erika is the proud recipient of the 2021 Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence.

Connect with Erika Rath: Email | Linkedin

Listen Now (Part One)

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

Listen Now (Part Two)

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

Resources Mentioned

Erika Rath Personal Blog

TED Talks

Trunk or Treat

Award for Teaching Excellence

National Coalition-Girls School (NCGS )

Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS)

The Transcript

**Please note that all of our transcriptions come from rev.com and are 80% accurate. We’re grateful for the robots that make this possible and realize that it’s not a perfect process.

Sam Demma (00:01):
Erika welcome back to the high performing educator podcast. This is your second time on the show. It is a pleasure to have you here today because you’re celebrating a huge milestone because of the impact that the program that you’ve been running in your school is making, why don’t you introduce yourself in share a little bit about that milestone moment?


Erika Rath (00:24):
Sure. Thanks. Sam for having me again, I, love being here. So yes, I’m the director of student services at the sacred heart school of Montreal in Montreal, Quebec. And I’m also a teacher. I teach a class called PD – personal development. And basically I was given the award for teaching excellence for helping to empower young women and and you know propel them forward to be change makers and, and make a difference in this world. And I think in order to do that, we have to understand who we are and where we come from and be vulnerable and be open to having challenging and sometimes conversations. So the class is pretty unique. I see the students for one hour, every eight days and it’s not mandated by the ministry, so there’s no homework, there’s no grading, there’s no marks, which is great for them. And for me, of course, and it gives us the ability to be ourselves and see where the win. Of course, I go in, obviously with a plan, a video to share an activity that we can work on, but it’s amazing to see that the, the, we, we find ourselves going in different directions based on what we need that particular moment.


Sam Demma (01:37):
Students often hear the word PD when they have a day off No, we, we have a PD day and every kid goes home to watch Netflix and eat chips and teachers go and improve their practice or teaching. What inspired the creation of a, a PD class for students. And what does the content and the curriculum actually looked like in that Classroom?


Erika Rath (02:05):
Sure. Great question. So, so first of all, here we call it a P day. So we try not to confuse the students with PD and PD, but, but it’s funny because teachers when we have PD days or we have we do professional development, right? So that’s, so it’s, it’s a bit similar in the sense that for the students, we are, we’re growing, we’re personally, we’re developing ourselves. And so the, the course is not something I created it already existed before I even came to the school, but it was called GI and that was general instruction. And so when we think of what is generally taught, you know, that could be a whole gamut of things. And of course what did, was, I tried to modernize it a little bit and realize that you know, there are certain things that still were really important, like mass etiquette, right?


Erika Rath (02:52):
Like how to sit properly in a chapel or in any place of worship and be respectful. But there were some other things that I just, you know, maybe weren’t my forte or I didn’t know them well enough. And so I, I kind of said like, let, what else can we be teaching? So digital citizenship and literacy, like what, what is your place online? How to, how to be, how to act online, things like that. And then also just like looking back at my own experience in high school and thinking like, what were some of the things is that I was missing there? Oh, like a place to have a conversation about how I’m feeling as a woman or as a teenager growing into a body and, and, and a discussion around that. And, oh, I’m sure if I’m feeling that 10 other students are feeling that too. Could we at least try to be comfortable in an uncomfortable place together and come together through that that, that the, the sense that we’re the same and how could we connect over that? And so that’s really kind of where I was teaching general instruction, and then I thought, I don’t want it to be so general anymore. I want it to be a little bit more about our growth and development. What could we be calling this? And we played around with some names, and that’s what we came up with.


Sam Demma (03:58):
You mentioned sometimes you go to the class and obviously you have ideas of activities, videos to watch. What are some of the resources, maybe books, videos that you and the class work through to prompt some meaningful discussion, maybe, you know, name a couple of those resources that you think might be helpful if someone else’s listening and will wants to have a meaningful discussion with a group of young women.


Erika Rath (04:23):
Sure. So I, I mean, I’ll be honest. I use a lot of videos from Ted talks. I really, I think those are great. It’s great to see people you might not really ever get to see in, in real life. You know, just walking down the street or in your community. So I use a lot of that. I short snippets I use a software called my B, so what I’ve done is it creates like a portfolio system for the students. And so what is really cool is that they can see kind of their growth and development over the course of five years. So, wow. How did I respond to a reflection in grade seven and then, wow, I’m now a mature young adult in grade 11. How do, how am I responding a little bit differently, maybe to a similar topic, but we’re delving in a bit deeper.


Erika Rath (05:02):
I also bring in a lot of guest speakers because let’s be honest, I’m not an expert in everything and, and any, you know, in all, in all of things. And so I think it’s really important to have people who know a lot more or who are more research based than I am coming in. So, you know, like mad will come in and do a talk about driving under, under the influence. We’ll have guest speakers about mental health coming in. We might have residents or doctors in, in in from different hospitals coming in to talk to us about different things. I, I wanna make sure that the students are getting the right information. And if I don’t know it, I, I don’t wanna pretend to. So I don’t think there’s any, you know, anything, there’s no shame in saying, I don’t know, but let me figure out how I can know it and present it to you in the best way.


Sam Demma (05:50):
That’s awesome. And the sharing of uncomfortable things like you mentioned earlier, yeah. Often happens when trust is built. At least that’s how I look at it when I am about to share something that I think is very private or maybe a little bit embarrassing or something. I only talk to with some of my best friends. How do you think you build, build that trust with a student and a group of students to this degree where they’re willing to share this uncomfortable conversations?


Erika Rath (06:27):
That’s such a great question. I mean, trust is definitely not built overnight. And, and I find that I’m in a bit of a difficult position here. As a director of student services, I’m also in charge of discipline at, at the school. And so I, I don’t want a student to feel that she can’t come tell me something just because I might have given her a detention the week before for uniforms or lates or, or whatever else the, the infraction might have been. So it’s really hard to juggle the two, but I think being approachable, you know, like the door to my office is always open. Also just being physically close to the girls and where they keep their belongings, that helps. But also, like I often tell stories about my own childhood or my, my parents or my family or what it was like growing up.


Erika Rath (07:07):
And then I think it’s like, oh, Ms. Roth is sharing. She’s putting herself out there. She’s being vulnerable. She’s trusting us with this story. Then they do learn to trust me also, I do wanna have a good of time with them. I do wanna share, I do wanna address topics. The other part of the job, the discipline part is not the fun part. It’s not like I get joy outta that. It’s just that that’s part of what I have to do. And, and the truth is that’s a teaching, that’s a teachable moment as well. Like we’ve asked you to do something. You might not agree with it. But we’re asking you to do it. We’ve given rationale and we’re asking you to follow it the same as at work, right? Your boss says you have to come in at eight 30. Well, you like to sleep until nine 30. Well, you have to figure out how to get there at eight 30 and, and be respectful and do that. So I think it’s about life skills and realizing that we work with a lot of different people. We might not always like the rules, but we still have to follow them. You know, we can find out why there are rules. But I think it all really comes back to the trust, the teachable moment. And hopefully the girls can see me like and separate the fact that the discipline is involved.


Sam Demma (08:11):
I love that. A big part from talking to you previously, I know a big part of your work is also encouraging service, the importance of giving back. And I know right now you’re doing some unique things in this school, not only to give back to the students, but also to fundraise and give back to the community as a whole. What are some of those things that are going on that you think are unique ideas that other schools may be able to implement and also touch upon the importance of service?


Erika Rath (08:38):
Sure. That great, great high. I mean, we’re so devoted to service. It’s, it’s one of our our goals social awareness, which empowers to action. And so this year’s a little bit tricky again with COVID. We often do huge boxes of food in every Homer homeroom. Every student is responsible for bringing in, you know, like ketchups and mustards and cereals and things like that. We also do toy drives and warm, mittens gloves, hat, socks. Unfortunately, a lot of the places that we support have reached out to us and said due to, to limiting of space and just with COVID, they don’t want the actual items this year. So everyone’s donating money so that we can buy gift cards at grocery stores to donate to needy families so that they can have a Christmas meal on their, on their table.


Erika Rath (09:22):
In addition we’re selling hot chocolate at lunch, just raising money in, in different ways. We have a spare change challenge. So we decorate those huge water bottles and the grades have to put change in their water bottles and grade who raises the most money in change will win like a free dress day or a pizza lunch in the new year. You can also kind of like if you have a rival grade, you could stick bills into their ch into their jug. And then it kind of like offsets their amount, but we’re still obviously raising money. So it’s still good. And then an idea that we came up with this year, which I’m super proud of, which a lot of fun is a call the advent calendar. So everyone knows, you know, you get an advent calendar, you open it up every day.


Erika Rath (10:02):
There’s a little chocolate. Sure. That’s a little fun surprise. We, the school, we are the advent calendar this year. And so students have prepaid for the entire month of December and every day they come to school and we dispense a small all gift to them. That was a surprise. The night before we might email them with a clue, or we might tell them, you know, it’s a free dress day tomorrow because you bought the advent calendar passport. Today they got to pie a teacher or their class rep we’ve given out like 10 bits. We will give out things like Christmas cookies. And then on Fridays, we double up the gift, cuz they’re are not here on the weekend. So we raised quite a bit of money that way, and it’s just nice to see students participating and having fun and doing good for the community. And, and I want them to understand that it’s an integral part of who we are, but we can also have fun in a meaningful way as well.


Sam Demma (10:53):
When you say Tim bits, do you mean Tim BES?


Erika Rath (10:56):
So we, we got this Tim bits. Yeah. Now I’ve been wanting to see the Tim BES. So we, we we had preordered, so we just got a lot of Timbits


Sam Demma (11:04):
That’s so awesome. And this past year has been unique for you as an educator because it’s been full of transition, you know, COVID slowing down, hopefully fingers crossed, not speeding up a good in with new variants and whatnot. How have you continued to educate yourself and you know, continue with your own PD and personal development. What are any conferences you attended over the past year, since we last spoke that you found meaningful or resources that you’ve you’ve read or watched that you as an educator thought were helpful, that someone else may been it from?


Erika Rath (11:38):
That’s a great question. I, I think it’s the students that really continue to inspire and, and energize me this year has been so much better than last year. You know, I feel like we’re kind of back to normal just with the mask, which is fine. You know, we’re all used to wearing it. It’s part of our lives. We had our first school assembly in September and I could feel the buzz in the room and like just the sheer, like wanting to be together and the applause and the raw rawness of it. I, I was sitting in, in the chair at the front and I could feel tears coming down my cheek because I was so happy to be happy and so happy to be like, oh my God, we’re together. This is actually happening. And it, it made me realize like the togetherness, the community that we have is I always knew it was important, but we had been missing that for over a year.


Erika Rath (12:27):
We did it in other ways online and things like that, but it obviously wasn’t the same. It just, it made me realize how much the girls need each other. And it, it made me quite emotional. So I, I can say that, yes, I attend PD and, and it’s always good, but I feel it’s, it’s the learning I get the day in and day out here that I think really propels me to do more good. I really, I do some work with NC a national coalition of girl schools. I do some work with C a I S Canadian accredited, independent schools both fantastic organizations that I love doing PD with. And obviously our sacred heart network as well. It’s, it’s amazing, you know, winning this award actually people from the network started reaching out. Can we talk about your class? Ask, can we talk about PD? And all of a sudden I’m on zoom calls, sharing with people like around the world at sacred heart, which is such an amazing opportunity. So the PD and the connecting and, and the networking has been really good, but like I said, it’s the girls, it’s, it’s really the girls.


Sam Demma (13:29):
Yeah, it’s so cool. And if someone’s in another school wanting to start something similar with a group of girls, how would you instruct them to start? Or where do you think they should take their first step to bring something like this to life?


Erika Rath (13:48):
I would love that first of all, anyone can reach out to me, you know, through you. That’s not a problem. But also it’s so funny, your, your question just sparked like a, like a memory for me. I was doing a bachelor’s in human relations at Concordia university. And everyone was like, what is that? And I’m like, it’s a way to learn how to talk to people and run groups and be a leader. And it’s funny for our field placement for our, our stage. We had to find, we had to come up with a program, design it and implement it. And as I look back, I, I realize now my program was done in an elementary school with grade five and six girls for eight lunch times. And I ran activities about body image. Ah, and so I’m thinking back now and I’m like, oh my God, this was kind of like in me the whole time, like, I feel like this is a way, like what I was of meant to do. So I think if you have an idea, you, and you wanna like, just run it by your students and they’ll tell you if it’s good or not, like, believe me, I run a lot of ideas by my students and they’ll be brutally honest. So but they’ll tell you, you know, like I think, I think there’s a lot of like power in at least trying. And I know it’s hard to like sometimes put yourself out there, but these conversations are too important to not be had.


Sam Demma (15:00):
Yeah, I totally agree. And if someone does want to learn a little more about how you run the program and potentially even have you give them a little blueprint or the first steps to try it in their school, who knows maybe this program grows and becomes its own thing that other educators, you know, can learn from you and implement in their own schools. But if someone does want some more information and has some questions for you, what would be the best way for them to get in touch, reach out, ask a question.


Erika Rath (15:29):
Sure. That would be my email, erath@sacredheart.qc.ca. I check that all the time. So that would be the best way to reach me.


Sam Demma (15:37):
Awesome. And as we enter the holiday season, depending on when this interview comes out, it might not logically make sense. So , as we enter the hypothetical holiday season any last words any last pieces of wisdom for an educator who might be listening anything you wanna se share or send as a parting word?


Erika Rath (16:01):
So I think just, you know, we are all looking forward to the holidays, cuz I think we do need a break educators work really hard. We’re with students all the time. We’re on all the time. And I say this to students too. Like we all need some downtime to be with our friends and our family and then, and to come back, you know, refreshed and energized in the new year. I think it’s really important to do something for yourself to take a little bit of time for self care and also to continue realizing why we do what we do for me. It I’m, I’m passionate about it and brings me a lot of joy. And so I just think it’s important to give back at this time some time for yourself and, and, you know, be happy to be with family and friends and enjoy the moment and be present.


Sam Demma (16:43):
Erika, congratulations again on the huge milestone and award. So deserving enjoy the holiday season and we’ll talk to you soon.


Erika Rath (16:52):
Sounds good. Thank you too.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Erika Rath

The High Performing Educator Podcast was brought to life during the outbreak of COVID-19 to provide you with inspirational stories and practical advice from your colleagues in education.  By tuning in, you will hear the stories and ideas of the world’s brightest and most ambitious educators.  You can expect interviews with Principals, Teachers, Guidance Counsellors, National Student Association, Directors and anybody that works with youth. You can find and listen to all the episodes for free here.