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English Teacher

Brian McKenzie – Principal at Patrick Fogarty Catholic Secondary School

Brian McKenzie - Principal at Patrick Fogarty Catholic Secondary School
About Brian McKenzie

Brian McKenzie (@pforilla)has more than 30 years of experience in elementary, secondary and post-secondary education. Armed with a B.Ed. From Western in 1992, he joined the staff of Patrick Fogarty Catholic Secondary School in Orillia as an English teacher and enjoyed more than ten years of teaching everything from English to Philosophy to Data Processing.

He moved from the classroom to the school office in 2004 and since then, he has served as vice-principal and principal in 6 schools and at the board office in privacy and information management.

With his wife Christine, a teacher, he has three adult children, two standard-issue cats, and a beautiful backyard where he spends summers watching the Blue Jays. He is currently the Principal of Patrick Fogarty Catholic Secondary School in Orillia, where his teaching career began.

Connect with Brian McKenzie: Email | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Patrick Fogarty Catholic Secondary School in Orillia

Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board

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):
Brian welcome to the high performing educator. Huge pleasure to have you on the show. Please start by introducing yourself.


Brian McKenzie (00:08):
Sure. My name is Brian McKenzie and I’m principal of Patrick Fogerty Catholic Secondary School in Orilla Ontario.


Sam Demma (00:13):
When did you realize when you were a student pursuing careers, that education was gonna be the vocation for you?


Brian McKenzie (00:22):
Well, I think I’d began in high school. I had been kind of a student who liked to help other students with with tutoring and with helping out with courses. I I was I was never really one initially for public speaking or presentations, but I was as a result of taking one of my, one of my high school courses where I was forced to presentation. And I found that I actually had some skill and some talent that you know, leading a class and, and, and doing that kind of that kind of thing. When I got into when I got into university, I took a number of courses where having, again, having to do presentations and seminars, where a component of the course, and I found that I had to talent for it.


Brian McKenzie (01:07):
I became a, a TA in my in my fourth year and a graduate assistant. And I was working on my master’s degree. And then after I finished, I, I became a a session instructor at the university as well for a while. I found that you know, being in a classroom was a, was a natural fit for me. And I enjoyed it and I found that other people recognized my students and my colleagues and the other professors wanted to reinforce and and, and compliment my my, my classroom ability. I just found it was a good fit for me, a very natural fit. And I, and I have always enjoyed it.


Sam Demma (01:45):
Did you have educators tap you on the shoulder and tell you, you, you should consider getting into teaching? Was that something that ever came in your journey?


Brian McKenzie (01:55):
Yeah, I wouldn’t say explicitly. I think that became a little bit later you know, when I was in university where I was encouraged to, to apply, to be, you know, a session instructor and, and as a graduate assistant, I think that came a little bit later. I don’t think it was so much that somebody explicitly said to me in high school or, or university, you should be a school teacher or, you know, get into high school so much as just that I was good at what I was doing.


Sam Demma (02:23):
Got it. Yeah, that makes, that makes sense. For someone who’s listening to this who thinks might be the thing for them, but is on the edge in a nutshell, why do you think education is one of the best jobs in the world?


Brian McKenzie (02:42):
oh, simple question. Yeah. Well, I, I think people often get caught up in in believing that teaching is is, is kind of a day to day activity. And I think we’ve gotta look more holistically at what education is. Mm. I’d heard it described when I, when I was much younger as it’s the process of transferring civilization from one generation to the next we’re engaged in a huge, huge responsibility. And it’s not just about, you know, the, the individual subjects or the individual kinds, the things that we do on a daily basis, but it, it’s more holistically about the importance of ensuring that we’re creating a future that we all wanna live in and, and excuse me. And I, and I think education is, is is a tremendously important part of separating us from are, you know, from, from the distant past of, of of superstition and of primitivism and of a lot of a lot of a lot of attitudes and beliefs that we are best leading behind.


Brian McKenzie (04:00):
I, I, you know, I remember as a, as a younger teacher teaching north prize, the educated imagination, and, and he goes at in great detail into what is the importance of education. And it’s literally, it is about creating the world that we want to live in. And, and again, you know, I, I, I’ve often heard this one too. I, I, I gotta retire into the world that the younger generation’s gonna run. So I’ve got him make sure that I’m setting the conditions for a, for a, a comfortable life for my generation and ensuring that the world is better than we’ve been than I found it.


Sam Demma (04:36):
Hmm. I love that that’s a worthy pursuit. from the moment you decided you wanted to get into education what did the journey look like? So take me back and take me through the steps that brought you from where you started to where you are today.


Brian McKenzie (04:55):
Okay. So, as I mentioned I was working as a as a, as a professional instructor at the, I was at the university of Windsor where I graduated. Yep. And my initial intent was to be a lawyer. I had known a couple of a couple of classmates who had pursued the law. And it, it seemed like an interesting thing to me when I was in high school and when I was in my first couple of years at university. But as I, you know, as I progressed through, I realized that that wasn’t really a good fit for me. So it was it was in it was in my time that I was working as an instructor, that I started exploring what it, you know, what it was required to be, to get into the faculty of education.


Brian McKenzie (05:40):
I don’t come from a family with with extensive education background my, on my mother and my father’s side most of the family were blue collar and and or semiprofessional workers that weren’t necessarily highly educated in terms of multiple, you know, secondary degrees had one uncle who’s who’s a university professor, but that was about, about it. So, so the notion of higher education and extensive multiple, you know, multiple degrees and going on to education, wasn’t really stressed, very highly in my band. This was kind of a, a, a process of self exploration and, and I found, you know, what’s involved in, in, in becoming a teachers, another, you know, going to school for another degree and spend more time. And, and that was very attractive to me, just when I, when I love that what was involved in, in the year of of, of the faculty of education.


Brian McKenzie (06:43):
And I saw what the courses were, they saw what it involved that was really attractive to me. And, and I applied to, I can’t remember what schools anymore. I ended up at the university of Western Ontario for the faculty of ed. And I, you know, I, I immersed myself in that. I had a great time there. And and you know, maybe I was very fortunate that you know, it was in the early nineties when teaching jobs were pretty scarce as they, as they have been for the last few years. But I was fortunate to end up getting a job right out of laid out of my graduate.


Sam Demma (07:23):
That’s awesome. And throughout the experience and the different roles and positions you played in education which of them have been from your perspective? Some of the most meaningful, and I, I’m sure it’s hard to compare the roles , but maybe the, the different pros and cons in different positions you’ve played throughout education.


Brian McKenzie (07:47):
Yeah, well, yeah, I started as a classroom teacher. I became in fact, I started as a classroom teacher at the school I’m currently at where I’m now principal 30 years ago. And, and I very much loved that being in a classroom and working with, especially in a smaller community is is very rewarding because you know, unlike unlike working in a larger city or a municipal school board where the schools are very large, this is a very, a relatively small school at the time. They only about 500 students when they started teaching the class were very small. The, it was very possible to get to know all the kids. It was a fairly close knit community because we are a Catholic high school. We’re the only Catholic high school in town. So we also had some tight integration with our church and with our parish and with our elementary school feeders schools.


Brian McKenzie (08:41):
And so you get to know each other very well and very closely. In fact, some of the students that I taught back in the nineties are parents of the school now. And so I, you know, I’ve known them for many, many years and that, that is a, that’s really exciting. And that’s really rewarding work because getting to know kids you know, not just in, in the classroom, but also seeing them out in the community, seeing them, the church, seeing ’em at the, you know, the Saturday morning market and all those kinds of things. It does foster a much greater sense of community. I left here and in 2002 and went on a, like a 17 year odysey of working in a number of different schools, as well as at our school board. And all of them brought different things in different rewards and, and had to create great advantages.


Brian McKenzie (09:33):
I worked in as an elementary principal, I’ve worked as a secondary principal. I’ve worked as a, as assistant to the superintendents at the board office. I’ve worked in information management and they’ve all brought the different perspectives on education. I you know, I, I, I feel that I’m much better running a school after having at some time working in the board off, being the bigger picture of how our system works from seeing things from the, from the, from the administrative side of the board, as well as from the, from the school side. And it’s given me the ability to, I think to provide a much I don’t wanna say more rational, but at at least a much more balanced approach to, to running a school and, and what kinds of programs and services I can offer to do.


Brian McKenzie (10:30):
I’ve never regretted, not, you know, leaving the classroom and beginning into administration. I miss being in a classroom sometimes. Mm. And I you know, I was a, I was a very dedicat English teacher when I was a teacher. And I know that I could walk into an English class right now today if I needed to and, and, and, and and lead the class and have a lot of fun with it. So I never really felt that I, I lost that that ability, but but I, I, I don’t see it as having lost in any of as much as having gained a lot more and having the, the responsibility for shaping the instruction across the entire school is very exciting. And, and it’s very rewarding work in and of itself because you can see over the course of a, of a school year, you can see the growth and you can see the the progress that the students make.


Sam Demma (11:22):
You’re probably a lot closer to viewing the future of education or how, you know, education is changing and shifting. What are some of the things that you think have changed over the past two years due to the, the global pandemic and moving forward that you think are positively changing in education.


Brian McKenzie (11:43):
But, well, definitely the pandemic has accelerated our, our efforts for what we’ve been calling 21st century learning. And what 21st century learning is about is using much more than just the traditional, you know, teacher in front of the classroom tools and and approaches to, to teaching and learning, and have many more influences on their ability to learn than just a classroom teacher. When I started teaching, if kids wanted to know something about Shakespeare, they had to go to their whole, their high school English teacher, or they had to go to the public library. And there wasn’t a whole lot of other ways, or, you know, or, you know, if their parents had invested in second Britanica, but there weren’t a whole lot of ways to obtain knowledge outside of traditional classroom structures. Now over the last you know, 20, 20, so years as, as with the rise of of the internet, and even more specifically with the rise of specific social media channels, there’s a much wider opportunity and, and much greater opportunity for students to, to, to learn things on their own or to be exposed to different perspectives.


Brian McKenzie (13:00):
So the job of schools now, and we’ve seen this very explicitly occurring over the last couple of years with the pandemic, the jobs of schools now is to harness that and to kind of filter it and to organize it in a way that makes it you know, I don’t wanna say constructivist, but you know, in a way that is provides some logical progression in learning, you know, I have kids of my own and, and, you know, long before they ever got to high school, my, my son’s in particular had in depth understanding and knowledge of physics from playing some some computer games and, and video games, and could rattle off all kinds of things about trajectory and speed and velocity, and, and a lot of, a lot of fairly advanced physics classes. They had no clue of the science behind it, or the math behind, but they kind of understood it.


Brian McKenzie (13:56):
So taking the time now to back up and explain how it all works, the math thing it is, is an important role for a classroom teacher. But we, we, we do have to do it in a, in a, in a very careful and structured way to ensure that the kids aren’t just coming away with, with the head of facts, without any understanding behind it, but going forward. What I, what I really see is, is the potential that’s going to be very positive is the opportunity for teachers to very much be instead of gatekeepers, very much facilitators and very much coaches who help the students to understand and, and and focus on how they acquire learning, as opposed to just simply learning things.


Sam Demma (14:47):
We talked a little bit about alternative pathways on our first planning call also. And it’s understanding that, you know, every pathway is a valid option and every learner might be a little bit different. How do you kind of foresee school supporting those students with the D streaming of, of courses and everything that’s changed now in education as well?


Brian McKenzie (15:14):
Well, pathways have been really important to us over the last 20 years. We’ve really focused a lot on shaping an, an education program for the individual student. Yeah. 30 credit sent out is is, is not any anymore, really the model for a lot of students. We have students who take some credits through the day program here at school. Some they take through e-learning outside of school. Some they take in summer school. We have the opportunity for students to get into apprenticeships, to get into reach ahead credits in their, in their postsecondary, through colleges. The idea of students, again, just sitting passively in the classroom and listening to teachers talk is, is, is long. You know, it’s pretty much long gone. I think even you may have experienced this in your own high school experience, but there there’s much more opportunity for kids to get out of the classroom and learn through experience.


Brian McKenzie (16:13):
So I, I think you know, some changes are coming from the ministry of education, include a greater emphasis on experiential learning, a greater emphasis on e-learning and a greater emphasis on, you know, exploring what not even state exploring of, of, of ensuring that there are stronger opportunities for the, the, or the skill trades. And and technology based programs is, is going to be, is going to be really important too many, too many years in Ontario. You know, and probably by extension, the rest of Canada, the perception has been that the only marker of secondary or post-secondary success is a university degree , and, and it’s an unfortunate belief. You know and, and then even, even in, in terms of a postsecondary degree, we tend to identify a very narrow slice of, of postsecondary education as being valid or valuable.


Brian McKenzie (17:15):
You know, I, I often when we have arts nights here at the school, we have a school called cert, or we have a drama presentation or something. I always remind the parents who are the people that we most admire in society. There are actors, there are musicians, there are artists of all different stripes, but when kids say to their parents, they’re interested in a career in the arts, the parents laugh at ’em and tell ’em, that’s a hobby. You, you get a real job being accountant. I, I think we need to make sure that we’re offering a much wider range of experiences for students and, and a, and a wider range of, of postsecondary pathways to help them arrive at what they see as personal success, as opposed to what somebody else measures as success based on something as narrow as a paycheck or, or a specific post secondary diploma.


Sam Demma (18:06):
Ah, I love it. I couldn’t agree more. I mean, pursuing this podcast is an artistic expression, and some people would say, you’re crazy. This is what you spend your days doing


Brian McKenzie (18:18):
But yeah, well, a hundred percent. Right. And, and, and the thing is, is that maybe you’re not using the specific education you receive, but yeah, I can guarantee that’s not a whole lot of what you’re doing that you, and doesn’t rely on education that you’re receiving


Sam Demma (18:32):
A hundred percent.


Brian McKenzie (18:32):
Do it without having been educated, but you don’t necessarily, you know, and that’s the same thing in my job. I, I don’t really, I was an English teacher, as I said, and a history teacher, I don’t really get to use a whole lot of my knowledge of you know, 17th century poetry in my daily job, but there’s no a way I could be doing my job right now. If I hadn’t been as a as well educated as I was. And education doesn’t necessarily mean, like I said, it doesn’t just necessarily mean a university degree in a very narrow slice of what are considered to be valid. Occupations. Education comes from a lot of different different sources. It includes, you know, like I said, includes hands on learning through the trades and or through technology programs, it includes travel. You know, you can see you know, your listeners won’t see, but you can see I’m wearing a a sweatshirt that says Kenya on it.


Brian McKenzie (19:23):
Our school board has been actively engaged for the last 15 years and what we call service learning, where we’ve taken students to a number overseas destinations to work on school projects. And and we integrated with a multi credit program here at the school, so that they’re understanding the global context with what they’re doing. We’ve had trips from everywhere from China to south America, to Africa, to India where students have explored you know, the opportunity to work in in, in community development project. And, and, and it’s, those, those experiences have changed their, their lives. They have into been the countries that they never could have imagined visiting and seeing things that they never could have imagined seen. And it’s changed. In many cases, it changed the trajectory of their own careers, and they became more involved in social justice and, and development work or, or law or other areas that that have provided them with a much more rewarding and much more rewarding career than they might have initial that they were going to have.


Sam Demma (20:34):
It’s amazing. I know your school does a great job with the social justice programming and programs. I’m curious though, for yourself over the course of your career, what resources, even maybe people resources, but what resources have you found helpful in building your own philosophy and also tangible actions that you’ve taken in education? What resources have helped shape those things?


Brian McKenzie (21:01):
Well, I, I think the the greatest resource that we have in education is our colleagues. Mm. There’s an old joke that that, you know, well, it’s too likely to get into here. It’s okay. But just spice it to say that, you know, that, that, you know, there’s the old joke that you know, those who can’t teach or those who can’t do teach. Right. And, and, and, and that’s not at all, and that’s not at all true. What I do know is that some of the smartest and some of the most capable people I’ve met in my life have been my colleagues in education and whatever, I think I know whatever I think I’m good at. I spend sometimes 15 minutes, 20 minutes chatting with somebody at a meeting or in a conference call or something like that. And, and I learn something new.


Brian McKenzie (21:51):
I come away having learned something new every time because everybody has their own everybody has their own kind of way of learning for themselves as well. So if we take, you know, me sitting home alone or sitting at night on, you know, browsing on my computer and I, and I, and two or three new facts multiply that times to thousands of teachers in, in the system and the thousands of kids. And we’re all bringing that information back to the back to school together you know, education, isn’t just a one way isn’t just a one way thing. Schools are a place for where everybody learn. And, you know, when I, when I, I talk to my colleagues, when I hear ideas, we’ll, we bounce ideas off. Each other people ask for advice and people give advice. There there’s a lot of a lot of really powerful learning that can take place just in a, in a, in a, you know, on a casual conversation more, you know, more formally as I said, I spent a couple of beers in, in information management and several years working, you know, at the board off level doing that kind of stuff.


Brian McKenzie (23:02):
And what I’ve learned from what happens around the world in other places. You know, again, we often have the perception that we’re, you know, here in Ontario, we’re doing everything right. We’re, we’re the, we’re the pinnacle of, of educational achievement, but there are other places around the world that are far ahead of Ontario in, in a lot of areas and and do a far better job than, than we do in, in, in a lot of things. You know, I think of some jurisdictions where kids don’t even start school until they’re seven, whereas the, in Ontario get them into school as early as possible, starting as you as three. And yet schools that start kids later, you know, at age seven, in many ways, our, our have better outcomes for, for students than, than what we have here. When we’re starting in that three.


Brian McKenzie (23:54):
You I’ve learned a lot from studying how, you know, those other jurisdictions do things, how they make up for the lost time that, well, the perception of lost time by having kids start four year later, well, what are they doing for that? You know, from the time between H three agent, what are they doing? What are they doing? yeah, I mean, we are, we all have to recognize that whatever it is that we think we do well, there are other people who do things, do things well and sometimes even better, we can’t be so high bound in our own way of doing things that we can’t we can’t learn from them.


Sam Demma (24:32):
I love that perspective. And even if you approach every situation, thinking, you can learn something from the other party, you’ll probably one enjoy the experience talking to someone else or being around someone else, or being exposed to something new. And the chances are, you probably will take something away from that interaction. So I think it’s a good perspective.


Brian McKenzie (24:56):
Yeah. You know, and I, and I, and I do try to approach things that way when I was, when I was younger, it was, I’m gonna tell you something , and, and now it’s gonna be, can you please tell me something? I, I, you know, I’ve, I’ve learned that as well is that I have to be, you know, much more in a receptive mode than in a transmi mode. And and, and, and that’s where I’ve I think that’s, like I said, by, by just by talking to people, that’s where I’ve gained the most. I used to, I used to go to a lot more, again, when in my information management, I used to go to a lot of conferences. That’s where, that’s where I had to learn to sit down and be quiet. Cause most of the people in the room were a lot smarter and more knowledgeable than I was. And if I was going to be of any value in the role I had to learn to listen more than than talk and then be able to bear my, you know, my, my, my new learnings with with my colleagues.


Sam Demma (25:53):
I love it. Th this probably dovetails really nicely with my next question, which is, if you were able to take all your experiences and in education bundle, ’em up, go back in time to the first class you taught, tap yourself on the shoulder and say, Hey, Brian, this is what you needed to hear when you were just starting, knowing what you know now and the experience you have, what would you have told your younger self?


Brian McKenzie (26:19):
Oh man. Well the same thing that I’m telling my, my teachers here in my school now is that you can’t push students to learn more than they’re ready you to learn at any given time. Mm-Hmm what does, you know? And, and I, and I, I guess what I’m referring to specifically is the experience that we’ve just gone through over the last two years. We have gotten into the, the, into the, you know, into a mindset where we think we’ve lost time. We’re losing time, we’re losing time. And, and that the solution to the lost time is to accelerate base accelerate the, you know, the rate of learning, but it doesn’t work that way. You can’t say to a student who’s behind, I’m gonna, you know, jam you with more work to get you caught up. It just, it just won’t work.


Brian McKenzie (27:20):
You know, back in the, in the early nineties, there was, again, the baby bit of a, a bit of a story. There’s old episode of the Simpsons where the, the family moves to Colorado and they, Homer takes a new job working in a new power plant. And Bart ends up in a, in a special ed cloth because he’s behind the other kids in, in the new school that he’s in and the teacher is doing, you know, it’s a, it’s a silly team. The teacher is doing a joke, or it’s a bunch of kids sitting around the table and she’s gonna teach them to letter a and Bart says, let me get this straight. We’re behind the other kids. And we’re going to catch up to them by going slower than they are. And I’ve always that that line has always stuck with me as a teacher and as an administrator.


Brian McKenzie (28:06):
I, you know, again, it’s a funny throw away kind of line, but there’s some wisdom in it too, because oftentimes this is what the situation we, we, we put our, our students into is that we think that you’re behind so that the, the, the better way, the best way thing we need to do is to jam you with more work, which means slowing you down when students are behind. Sometimes the best thing you can do is stop the bus and figure out where are we, why are people being left behind? If, you know, if one or two kids are, are, are behind, okay. Yeah, we can, we can check into their, their work habits, or we can look into their, into their skills, but if an entire class or an entire school is behind, then maybe we gotta stop and figure out what it is we’re doing and are, you know, what is the, what is the source?


Brian McKenzie (28:57):
What is the cause? And what can we do to help get everybody back on track? Often use the, the metaphor of the, you know, if there’s an old story, I don’t know how true it is, but there’s an old story that you know, the British rail system at one point decided that in order to make sure the buses ran on time, it would stop picking up passengers. Right? So if the bus, if the bus had to, you know, left the Depot at 8:00 AM, and it was due at its first stop at 8 0 5 and then at eight, 10, and then eight 15, or something like that, if it saw too many passengers waiting to get on it, would, it wouldn’t stop and pick them up because it had to be at the next stop for, you know, five minutes later. And the joke is, of course, the, a bus driver would get to the end of the run and there’d be nobody on the bus, but he was on, at least he was on time.


Brian McKenzie (29:41):
And, and, and again, sometimes I think that’s what we do in the classroom. We get so intent on, you know, delivering curriculum and making sure we get all of our lessons in, and we make sure we hammer the kids with work on assignments and tests and, and on and on and on. And then, you know, you get to the end of the semester and you’ve lost the kids. They’re, you know, and, and there’s a lot of different ways that you know, again, you know, from your own experience, there’s a lot of different ways that kids show that they’re lost, right. They stop attending class or they’re, or they’re not doing their homework anymore. They, they shut down or they’re, you know, they’re acting out or there’s a lot of different kinds of indicators that the teacher has lost has lost the class. So we wanna make sure. And, and for me, , I wanna make sure that as we go forward, we’re not, you know, we’re not running the buses on time, we’re picking up passengers.


Sam Demma (30:31):
Mm. I love that. That’s such a cool analogy. And the Bart Simpson story, being someone who wants that every once in a while. that’s awesome. Well, if someone wants to reach out to you based on this interview, ask a question, talk about anything you discuss today, what would be the best way for them to get in touch with you?


Brian McKenzie (30:52):
You can, well, we have a social media channel for our school. It’s Instagram and on Twitter, it’s at @pforilla. Our school’s website is https://pfo.schools.smcdsb.on.ca/ and you know, there’s contact information for the school on there. And I’m, I’m, I’m I’m available through those channels primarily, cuz you know, I, I get too many emails to try to try to follow, but you know, there’s, there’s a couple of us that track the DMS on the, on the Instagram and on the Twitter channel. So we’ll be able to probably follow what best there.


Sam Demma (31:37):
Awesome. Brian, thank you so much for making the time to come on the show. I hope you enjoy the experience and keep up the great work and education.


Brian McKenzie (31:45):
Thanks a lot. And, and, and good luck to you with.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Brian McKenzie

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.

Catherine Hogan – English teacher and Student Leadership Advisor

Catherine Hogan – English teacher and Student Leadership Advisor
About Catherine Hogan

Catherine (@CatherineJHogan) is an English teacher and student leadership advisor at Westwood Senior High School. She is a high energy educator that consistently looks for new and exciting ways to give her students amazing opportunities. Enjoy this conversation with her.

 

Connect with Catherine: Email | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Westwood Senior High School

Canadian Student Leadership Conference

Canadian Student Leadership Association

Ontario Student Leadership Conference

Global Student Leadership Summit

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):
Do you want access to all the past guests on this show? Do you want a network with like-minded individuals and meet other high performing educators from around the world? If so, go to www.highperformingeducator.com. Sign up to join the exclusive network and you’ll get access to live virtual networking events and other special opportunities that will come out throughout 2021. I promise you, I will not fill your inbox. You might get one email a month. If that sounds interesting, go to www.highperformingeducator.com. Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s guest is Catherine Hogan. Catherine is someone I was introduced to by my other good friend; Dave Conlin. She is a student leadership advisor and she teaches grade 11 English with the English department at Westwood Senior High School. Catherine has incredibly high energy. We had to, to reschedule our podcast a few times before we got the chance to record it, but I’m so happy we did because there’s so much value you can take away from this interview. I hope you enjoy this. I’ll see you on the other side. Catherine, thank you so much for coming on the High Performing Educator podcast, huge pleasure to have you on the show. Why don’t you start by sharing a little bit about who you are, and how you got into the work you’re doing with young people today?


Catherine Hogan (01:26):
Okay, well, so my name’s Catherine Hogan, and I’m a teacher here at Westwood Senior High School in Hudson Quebec, and that’s just right outside Montreal. We’re kind of in the country a little bit. It’s a regional high school so we have 36 buses that come from a really huge district all around the outside of the island of Montreal and they all get shipped here to my school. This is my 21st year teaching and it’s about my ninth year now doing leadership. So I spent most of my early career teaching English at Lindsay Place High School. That’s where I spent my first 16 years of my career. And I got really interested in student life and started working on student life there with the advisor who was already there and he was really familiar with CSLC and he would do all of that, but he was sort of thinking that he was ready to kind of start to move out of leadership, and he was hoping that somebody else would come in. And so we worked together at Lindsay place for the first couple of years, and then I took over student life from there and that’s how I really started working with young people in leadership capacity. And then I was really lucky to be able to participate in CSLC and then the global student leadership conference and OSLC. And that’s really where I found, I found my passion. I found my people and that’s where I’ve been. That’s how I’ve been involved ever since.


Sam Demma (02:55):
Why teaching? You said you spent your early career teaching English, but did you get into teaching as your first profession and did you know from a young age you wanted to be a teacher or what led you to this calling?


Catherine Hogan (03:05):
Oh, well, that’s actually an interesting question. So both of my parents were teachers. My mom was a high school teacher. My dad was a university professor, but I didn’t get to teaching right away. So my first degree I was actually working as a parliamentary page in Ottawa and I did my first degree in political science and planning on going to law school. And that was always sort of my plan. And then I began to think a little bit about social work. I thought between the two avenues, that’s the way that I would be going. But I decided in between my two degrees, I decided to take one year off just to make money, to pay for my second degree. And I started doing a bunch of jobs working. I had always worked at a summer camp and by then I was working as the coordinator and then a strange opportunity came available to teach a science class to elementary students.


Catherine Hogan (04:01):
So I said, okay, I could do that. And it came through the same it was a municipal camp that I worked for and they were having municipal classes for their elementary students during the school year. So I did a little elementary science class once a week, every day after school. And I really started to really enjoy it and kind of find my stride and find my pace. And I loved the vibe with the kids and the energy that they brought every single week. And then I decided, and this was a huge change in a decision. I thought, well, I’m gonna apply into education instead. And then funnily enough I, I, I spent all this time sort of soul searching and deciding, okay, no, I’m gonna choose education over law. And I had a philosophy where I told myself that the world does need good lawyers, but they need smart teachers as well.


Catherine Hogan (04:56):
And so I thought, Nope, you know what, I’m gonna do this. I’m gonna become a teacher. And know that when I went to my interview for teachers college, they, they were very kind and they were looking through my portfolio and they looked through all my grades and everything and my letter of intent and they put it down and they said, no, we just have really one question, why are you going to law school? And I said, no, you’re not supposed to ask me that. Cause I made this soul searching decision. And because I’ve made this choice and I want to go into teaching because we need dedicated and exciting teachers, and this is what I wanna do. And actually I ended up sort of selling them on that. And they were really happy that I had changed my mind and made that decision. So it turned in out great.


Sam Demma (05:43):
That’s cool. My, my ex-girlfriend was going to go into law. And then she did some soul searching and now she’s in English and it’s like, she did three careers of law and switched over. So I think it’s never too late, which is awesome. It’s


Catherine Hogan (05:58):
Never too late. Great philosophy,21 years. You’ve been teaching as long as I’ve been alive. And I’m sure not to make you sound old at all, cuz you’re not. But that’s a long time with that amount of teaching comes a lot of wisdom and experience and I’m sure, you know, this year specifically has been very different than the first 20.


Sam Demma (06:02):
Yes. What sort of challenges are you and your school uniquely faced with during this time?


Catherine Hogan (06:30):
So one of the things I think that we’re finding the hardest is the changes that are coming continuously and we, without warning. So that’s been really hard. Teachers tend to be of a type personalities. We like to plan everything out. We like to make sure everything is perfectly organized and perfectly or orchestrated every single day for our little standup show each day. Right? But now we have this, this wrenched thrown into our plan where, where, where things change every single day. So we are teaching in person, then we’re teaching online. Now we’re teaching both a combination. We have an AB schedule now where we see the kids only one day. And then we see the other cohort on the opposite days. We also were just told by the minister that we need out communicate daily with all of our students who are out in quarantine.


Catherine Hogan (07:22):
We’re not entirely sure how we’re supposed to do this yet or how we’re supposed to communicate. What, what is our purpose? Are we reaching out for their mental health? Are we reaching out for their pedagogy? All of these things are really changing so quickly and without warning and, and teachers are really thinking on their feet every single minute of the day and trying to adapt. And, and this year, course, we just have so many challenges with, with just dealing with, with, with the kids themselves and how they’re doing and how they’re faring. And at my particular school, we are having a lot of challenges with mental health issues. By the middle of November, we had already had four students who had been admitted to the hospital for extreme mental health issues. And, and that usually we would have only four in an entire school year and we had four before October.


Catherine Hogan (08:18):
So, wow. We’re really at my school in particular, we’re trying to ease the anxiety and ease the stress of the kids and really focus on the day to day teaching and making sure that they are okay and faring well in, in such a difficult situation. They’re receiving really only half of the pedagogy time that they would’ve had, but yet they still have the same demands. They still have CJE applications waiting for them. They still have provincial exams at the end of the year. It’s a lot for them to manage. It’s a lot of stress. And sometimes I really think of that analogy of on planes. You know, when the plane’s going down, we’re supposed to put our mask on before we put on our children’s mask so we can help them. But teachers are also struggling in a lot of the same areas that the kids are. We’re also struggling with maintaining the balance of everything that’s changing and the health of our own families and the health of our own students and children and all of that. It just feels like we can’t quite put on our mask before we can put the masks on the kids to make sure they’re all doing okay as well. So that’s been, I think our biggest challenge here at my school this year,


Sam Demma (09:31):
And you’re not alone. I’ve reached out to dozens of educator who have responded back saying, Sam, this is a great opportunity, but usually I’d say yes right now I have to pass because I can’t even get my head above water. And yeah, one of the questions I wanted to ask you was how are you keeping your glass full? Cause you know, when your glass isn’t full, it’s hard to pour into others. And what have you been doing to cope that might be of value for another educator to, to hear about


Catherine Hogan (09:57):
We’re really, you know, I think here this year, I’m really relying on my colleagues quite a lot to pull me through the day. We have one pod group that really has a lot of both academic needs, but also a lot of emotional needs as well. So what we’ve done is the core teachers for that particular group this year, we’ve kind of made a little team of our own. We’ve made a little pod team of our own. So the core subjects being English, French, and math, those are the, the core for their group this year. We meet all the time just to make sure that we’re sharing our, our, our, or help stories for each other. We’re sharing like all of our information about each one of our child’s need children’s needs so that we can make sure that we’re on top of all of their needs, both, both academically and emotionally.


Catherine Hogan (10:50):
And, and then at the same time, we are there for each other. Each time we have a setback in that group come together, the three of us and we try to make a plan together. And I think that this is one of the nice changes this year about the fact that we don’t have our own classrooms this year. So our, we had to sort of give up our, our classes. And my principal told, it, told us that it was as though we were putting our classes on Airbnb this year, we were sort of, we are moving out and everybody else was moving in. And then we moved class to class because of that this year, we’re not staying just in our own classrooms. We are congregating together as teachers and we’ve, we’re really standing by each other and we’re working through these, these issues as a real good team.


Catherine Hogan (11:36):
And sometimes it’s a full school team. And sometimes it’s just, as I said, our little pod team, just to make sure that our individual class is still feeling successful and St their needs are being met. And I think that even though we have COVID this year, it’s brought us a lot closer because we really are working together for these kids this year. And I, I feel, I feel a great sense of community. That’s, that’s developing in my school this year. And I think we’re actually becoming a lot closer as a team. And for me that has saved my mental health. That is what is doing it for me every day. I know I can come in and even though it might be a hard day, I know that that the other teachers here have really kind of got, got my back and they’ll work through things with me this year. And it it’s been so helpful, even as somebody who is experienced. I have a lot of years, you know, sometimes I need just the ed energy from the new young teachers to get me through the day. So,


Sam Demma (12:36):
Well, your passion. Yeah. Your passion and energy is, is evident even now through this podcast, as I’m sure you’re listening, you can feel it too. What keeps you motivated and hopeful personally? Like you, you sound like you’re a teacher who’s just started teaching and is SOS excited to teach. Like, it seems like your passion has never left you. Where does that motivation, inspiration and hope come from?


Catherine Hogan (12:59):
Oh, well, thank you. That’s such a nice compliment, Sam. Thank you. Do you know what I, I really find teach teenagers to be so incredibly fascinating and so much fun. I love the way we get to see them begin to emerge into these young adults. And we get to see how they navigate or begin to navigate the world. And that really, it energizes me. I love the language of teenagers. I love to be around them for their energy, their curiosity, their ex excitement for the next stages of their life. I find that I can feed off that All day long, and I always Still kinda


Catherine Hogan (14:02):
Working ourselves like a herd of animals. And I find the teenagers they’re so interesting because they want to be adult and they want to go off on their own way and their own path, but they’re not secure yet these tiny little herds. And, and as they become more comfortable they’ll as a herd, they’ll try out new things and they’ll go and try different things, different challenges together. And I, I kind of love watching how they begin to navigate the world around them as little young adults and how they, how they grow and change from the time that they come in as seventh graders, the way up until the time that they graduate, when they are really ready to kind of leave the herd a little bit and become kind of the independent zebra, right. The one that can go off to the watering hole all by himself.


Catherine Hogan (14:50):
And I just, I just love it. I love watching them take those steps. It’s like watching, I think little children take toddler steps for the first time. It’s really quite the same when they come in from at grade seven and then they leave as seniors. And they’ve done all of these little steps by themselves. And I think that’s really where I, a lot of energy when people say, oh, you teach seniors in high school. Oh, that must be terrible. I think, no, that’s the best time to teach them because they’re really just on the cusp of becoming these amazing adults themselves. And I get to witness that and I get to witness all the little steps that got them there. And, you know, those are really special little moments, their first, their first heartbreaks their first talking about prom and what they’re gonna wear, and who’s who they’re gonna go with and, you know, all of the activities and all of the things that they go through. And they’re applying to these programs that so exciting. And I think, you know, all these steps that I get to witness and see happen every single day. It it’s like it’s like living all of these careers myself. It’s really fun. It’s, it’s really energizing for me.


Sam Demma (16:05):
And you took a pivotable pivotal step nine years ago when you decided to start teaching leadership, how did that decision fall onto your lap and unfold in your journey?


Catherine Hogan (16:17):
Well, it has unfolded in such a monumental way. I really think that I always love to be part of extracurricular activities and to be able to to lead activities that I know that the kids are going to remember. I loved high school. I think a lot of people that do go into teaching, they themselves really liked high school. And I really did too. And I think back to all of the memories that I had, that I made of being on school teams or being in the school play or being on student council, and I just really wanted to recreate those exact same feelings for students today. And I wanted to provide those kind of activities for them because I wanted them to be able to know that, you know, school is part academics, but I think it’s also part arts and part athletics and part activities.


Catherine Hogan (17:09):
I, I just love that for A’s because I think that’s what makes school a great school. And so I thought this is exactly what I wanna be part of. And I remember the first year that I went to CSLC I was new. I was nervous. I didn’t know anyone it’s really overwhelming your first few years at, at CSLC, but I remember like this amazing sense of comfort and acceptance feeling like I had met people that had the same feelings as me and people who understood that they like the same things that I did. They wanted to be part of those activities too. They, they wanted to bring enthusiasm to their school and you don’t find that those people, those people exist at every school, but they’re not your entire staff. Right. But when you get to go to CSLC or to OSLC or some of these big conferences, it’s, every teacher are there.


Catherine Hogan (18:09):
And it’s just so motivating to hear the ideas that they’re doing at their schools, and to learn how different schools across the country manage their activities, or manage their student life and, and, and what they bring to their schools, and then try to replicate those same amazing ideas in your own way at your own school. And, and I really feel like I’m so lucky to have met some of these people who are so inspiring to me as educators, and to feel that I’m a little bit a part of their world and, and share that with them has honestly changed my life. And I really feel like in my own, out, outside life, I’m so happy that I have these leadership advisors in my life because they’ve, they’ve tr they’ve taught me as well, how to deal with things in my own life and how to, you know, like bring, bring the best to every single day. I really feel lucky for that.


Sam Demma (19:07):
No, that’s amazing. And that’s the main reason I started this podcast. So we could continue building community for educators that are doing unique things in their school, or are throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks and on the topic of running your school and student life and leadership events, what’s going on this year, how are you and your team managing to do things? What have you ride what’s working? What’s not tell me more about the experiment.


Catherine Hogan (19:35):
Okay. Well, yeah, we are trying like all schools, we are trying desperately to keep any sort of student life activities working that we can, but also staying within a little bit of the parameters and framework and protocols of COVID. So we’re, we’re thinking out of the box this year, one of the things that I decided this year was okay, I’m gonna learn the language of my students. And that I have realized is TikTok. Now as somebody, my age TikTok makes zero sense. I have tried everything to try to figure out and understand TikTok, but my kids, my students have, have to me, they, we have TikTok challenges between our classes and our pods. And so a lot of the teachers, we started getting into it as well, and filming talks as well. And the minute the kids saw our tos, because of course we said, okay, we’re gonna bring this.


Catherine Hogan (20:30):
They just thought this was, is amazing. And then they would challenge us further. And so that is one way we, that we are definitely bringing spirit here this year. We’re trying to use some of the online platforms and social media in a way that can, can be engaging and fun for the kids. So that’s one thing that we’ve really tried to do this year. We are trying to do well, we have brought back our big morning announcements and we’ve made it into sort of like a little radio show in the morning to showcase all of our students because we don’t get to see their games. So we don’t have, you know, we don’t have, or Scholastic sports now. So we’re still highlighting some of our athletes each day. We’re doing shoutouts for them. We do our birthday shoutouts every day to make sure everybody’s feeling good about that.


Catherine Hogan (21:17):
And then we started incorporating sort of just fun ways to start the day. So we did a dad joke challenge for two weeks where the kids could submit their best and most cringeworthy dad jokes. And then the winners would get to come on to the morning show and tell their jokes to the whole school. And we would figure out who was the funniest student at Westwood. And so that made everybody laugh. Just simple, simple pleasures. We’re trying to bring back again, a lot of, sort of the simple, fun that we’d sort of forgotten and, and try to bring it back in such a way that we can do it safely and, and do it where we can get as much student involvement as we can. So we’re trying to do as much as we can virtually. We’ve done full game challenges.


Catherine Hogan (22:03):
So we’re, we’re start, we’re gonna have a full school bingo that we’re gonna to run through zoom. And I know lots of the other schools have tried that as well. We used to have it at my other school and a teacher, Alex, Kate, and she used to do it, and she did such a great job. She inspired me to try that here. So I thought, all right, we’re gonna give that a go here. And it it’s really, really been, it’s fun for us, a staff to see because the kids are really able to guide us through a lot of these online activities, cuz they’re so much more familiar with the platforms than we are. And so they’ll set it all up. Oh, we got a hashtag for our new, our new TikTok challenge and this is how we’re gonna roll it out to the student body. And


Catherine Hogan (22:49):
They’re really tech savvy. So that’s been one area that we’re really able to kind of develop a little bit this year during COVID is to run as much as we can virtually. And to just try to think out of the box as much as we can think out of the ordinary and, and be open to trying it, try it, we’ll just see it might work. It might not. And, and I’ve always had a philosophy that if we try it and, and I, I try to make, take away the hard part sometimes for the kids. I’ll try to take away the embarrassing part so they don’t feel embarrassed. So in the morning if the Anthem, cuz we listen to the Anthem at our school in the morning, but sometimes is so old school. The CD tends to break in the middle of the Anthem.


Catherine Hogan (23:36):
So now I’ve just taken to like hitting onto the morning announcements and I’ll sing the rest of the Anthem for the kids. And, and so I do it to just show them like, just don’t be embarrassed, be you, do you. And, and don’t worry about feeling embarrassed about these things. So I try to kind of put myself out in embarrassing situations as much as possible so that they don’t feel intimidated or embarrassed. I kind of call it. I always, and Justin Timberlake saying, he always said he was bringing sexy back. I say that I’m bringing nerdy back. I’m making it cool to be kind of nerdy around my school and, and the kids kind of, they embrace it. They’re like miss you own that. You own that. You’re not afraid to be like nerdy or whatever. And I’m like, no, I’m not.


Catherine Hogan (24:24):
And so it makes them also feel comfortable because then they don’t feel that when they do something that feels out of their comfort zone, they don’t worry as much. Cuz they sort of feel like, oh, well we can laugh at ourselves and we can have some fun and we don’t always have to be like super cool or like super popular. Like, you know, sometimes I I to just take that edge off so they don’t have to worry about those things so that they can just have fun and feel comfortable being themselves. And, and I really try to just be me at school and that’s just who I am. And I, I tell the kids, I am nerdy, man. I am gonna own that. I’m owning that. And, and I think they kind of appreciate that.


Sam Demma (25:09):
Yeah. I think they would too. If, if you were my teacher, I definitely would. Every single one of us has our own insecurities and yes. Funky traits. And if someone’s embracing theirs, it gives everyone else permission to do the same. Yeah.


Catherine Hogan (25:22):
That’s what I’m


Sam Demma (25:23):
Hoping. Yeah. Keep doing that. Over the 21 years of embarrassing moments and funky experiences and embracing nerdiness, what have you learned as an educator for yourself that if you could go back in time and speak to younger Catherine, when she just started teaching, what would you tell her? What would you share? There might be an educator listening who could benefit from hearing that.


Catherine Hogan (25:47):
Yeah. You know I think that the single most pivotal thing that has changed me as a teacher was when I did have children of my own. Mm. I, my expectations changed. My understanding of children changed a little bit. I, I have a daughter who has special needs and it’s really allowed me to see from an inside perspective how these kids function in a classroom. And I feel that I’m able to be honest with them. And I tell them all the time, you know, if you have trouble reading, cuz I teach English, I tell them a right away. I’m one person you don’t have to be embarrassed about cuz you know what, my daughter, I’m just gonna be honest. She’s about five grades behind in reading because she’s severely dyslexic and you know what I’m used to, people stumbling over words when they read to me and you don’t have to be shy about that.


Catherine Hogan (26:47):
And I really try to kind of let them know like I, I hear you. I get you. And, and I wanna make this experience not difficult for you, but comfortable for you. I, I want them to know that I understand them. I think that it, it, to me also become more flexible into understanding that there can’t be a one size fits all for education. Even if it’s a whole grade level, every kid is so incredibly different and their needs coming into classrooms are so incredibly different. And, and as a mom, I, I really try sometimes to, to teach them as though they were my own kids and how I would try to deal with things in my, with my own kids. And that’s helped me so much during COVID because I’m just gonna be honest. Like a lot of teachers, I’m an a type personality. So it’s like we have gotta cover this much curriculum on before the provincial exam and


Catherine Hogan (27:48):
Has to work hard, cuz everybody, I want you all getting into exactly the programs you wanna be in next year for CJ. But this year I’ve really learned that for some, sometimes in your life, mental health has to come first and, and other are things can wait and they’re not as critical. And it’s allowed me to step back and say, okay, I may not be able to teach all of a fellow this year because it is just too long. And I don’t see the kids every single day and where every other year I might have said, but a fellow is the best play I have to teach it. I’m realizing that it’s better to be a little bit flexible sometimes. And to make sure that what I am doing is fully effective and I can get the most out of my kids when they feel safe and secure.


Catherine Hogan (28:36):
And I’m really, I, I think almost in a way I have COVID to thank for that because it’s allowed me to step down a little and, and change, not drop down my expectations, but change my expectations. And also this was the first year I ended up just by accident of the way that our classes were scheduled this year. I was put teaching the alt class. So the alternative education class now I would’ve said from the, on, from the outset, like, wow, I, I am not gonna be good at this because of course I’m like super like organized and demanding. And I had to learn from them. And I learned from them on how to work in a way that worked for them. And, and they have showed me that they’ve so load me down. And they’ve, they’ve said we need more steps.


Catherine Hogan (29:30):
We need more time. And I’ve really through teaching this class, something that I thought would be so incredibly challenging. And it has been in a lot of ways, but I, I have seen a whole other side of what being successful means, teaching these guys and sometimes being successful isn’t that we got a great mark or we got into our university program that we wanted to get into sometimes being successful is we, we wrote a, an essay like we did that. We did that step by step and we were successful. And, and that has really taught me a lot that I’m gonna carry through my education career. And, and I have, I have my alternative students to thank for that. They’ve taught me this year and I bet they would never in a million years think that they were teaching their teacher, but they are, they really are.


Catherine Hogan (30:26):
And, and I tell them that, I tell them that all the time that I’m learning from them, I learn from them every day. And, and my first goal in there, I said, okay, my first goal is to learn. I’m gonna just learn how to love these guys before I can learn how to teach these guys. And, and that was the best thing that I think I’ve ever tried to do because man, I miss them every day when I’m not teaching that all class and every day there’s turmoil and every day there’s some kind of explosion of some sort, but we’re a team. We are a team in there and, and we are all going to through together. And I really feel like they’ve, they’ve shown me how to do that. Cuz they’re used to working in a team they’re used to being together all day, the same class. I’m not used to that. And they’ve really shown me how, how to teach in that environment and how to be a different teacher, a different teacher. And I, I appreciate that.


Sam Demma (31:21):
I love that. That’s a, it’s such a great response and you know, if you’re not in a place right now where you’re about to have kids, you can still take that advice by loving your students before teaching them. And I think that’s a beautiful way to put it. If someone’s listening to this and wants to reach out and bounce ideas around, share some of your energy, talk about TikTok or the other funky things going on, what would be the best way for another educator to reach out to you?


Catherine Hogan (31:46):
Ooh. They could reach out to me a whole bunch of different ways. They could definitely always email me and that’s easy. I always tell the students it’s easy to remember my email because it’s just C Hogan, which becomes Chogan. So I just tell them it’s chogan@lbpearson.ca. So just like Lester B Pearson. So chogan@lbpearson.ca; that’s my email. And absolutely, I, because I’m old, of course I’m a Facebooker. So absolutely add me on Facebook; it’s captain Hogan and it’s a picture of me riding my horse so you can find me that way, and they can always private message me as well through Facebook as well. And always reach out anytime, anytime. I’m happy to reach out with other educators for sure.


Sam Demma (32:32):
Awesome. Katherine, thank you so much for making some time to do this. I really appreciate you sharing your wisdom, your insights, and above all your energy with all of your colleagues on this show. I, I really do appreciate it.


Catherine Hogan (32:43):
Oh my gosh. I feel like I should be thanking you Sam. This has given me a great opportunity to think about some of the things that we’re doing this year and, and challenge myself to think a little bit differently and you know, just think out of the box. So I, I feel like I should be thanking you because I, it, this has given me really an opportunity to kind of stop and think over some of the things that we’ve been through this year going forward and how to use them better going into the next phase of this pandemic at schools. It’s, it’s a challenging one. So I’m hoping to learn new things each day.


Sam Demma (33:18):
No, cool. The feelings mutual and I’ll make sure to stay in touch and keep watching all the things that you’re working on. Yeah. And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the High Performing Educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review so other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show; f you want meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network, you’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

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Lenora Poulin – English teacher, Librarian and Student Leadership Advisor

Lenora Poulin - English teacher, Librarian and Student Leadership Advisor
About Lenora Poulin

Lenora (@LenoraPoulin) has been teaching for 29 years in the Fraser-Cascade School District in Hope, British Columbia. She began her career as an English and Social Studies teacher but after an inspiring professional development conference about student leadership, she changed her path.

She and her husband began the student leadership program at Hope Secondary in 1997 and she hasn’t looked back since. Lenora is a mother to two incredible girls and is also now the Teacher-Librarian at HSS. She believes in encouraging her students to be “good people” and the rest of what they need for life will follow.

Connect with Lenora: Email | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Hope Secondary School

Lean in – Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

Brené Brown – Daring Greatly

Angela Duckworth – Grit

Mitch Albom – Tuesdays with Morrie

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 we have on another amazing guest Lenora Poulin, she’s an English teacher. She’s also a teacher librarian and the student leadership advisor at Hope Secondary School. Its 180 kilometers, just north of Vancouver, at a small school of 350 kids. She’s been teaching at this school since she was 23 years old. You’re going to hear all of this and a lot more in the interview. Leanora is someone who has high energy. She’s someone who strives to give her students amazing experiences that will boost their hope, right? Hope secondary school, doing things that boost their hope, it’s really what’s needed right now in education. I hope you enjoy this conversation. I’ll see you on the other side. Enjoy. Lenora, thank you so much for joining the high performing educators podcast. It’s a pleasure to have you. I know we’re separated physically and by distance, but thanks to technology, we can connect. Dave, someone who we both mutually know introduced me to you. And just briefly talking to you before this interview, I can tell you have super high energy. I’m super excited to have you, can you just share with the audience, you know, what work you do with young people and why you actually got into this work in the first place?


Lenora Poulin (01:18):
Awesome. Well, I’m really excited to be here and I’m honored that Dave mentioned me. It’s awesome. So I’ve been a teacher for 29 years in the Fraser cascade school district, which I teach in the town called hope, which is about 180 kilometers east of Vancouver, small town, small school. We have 350 kids. But I have taught here since I was like 23 years old. You can do the math. And yeah, I, you know, in the beginning, when I first became a teacher, it was for all of the really cliched reasons. Right. I wanted to make a difference. You know when I first got the job here at Hope Secondary School, I was the first new teacher in about five years. And so it was kind of exciting. The school was growing and we’ve declined now, but it was, it was amazing.


Lenora Poulin (02:12):
And then in about 1997, my husband whom I met here we got married and we decided we wanted to take over the student council and turn it into a leadership class. And that’s what we did that summer of 1997. And we haven’t looked back since, although he doesn’t teach here any longer, he teaches at a different school and I have a different teaching partner, but getting to teach leadership students is I think Dave said that he feels like he has the best job. And I think I actually have the best job. I wouldn’t change it for anything. I teach English as well. And I’m also the school librarian. So you can tell we’re a really small school cause I wear lots of hats, but it’s, it’s amazing. It’s amazing work.


Sam Demma (02:55):
Hope secondary. I think the name of your school is what’s needed now more than ever in education.


Lenora Poulin (03:02):
We can play with that name a lot. It’s awesome.


Sam Demma (03:05):
That’s really, really cool. And you sound like someone who’s full of hope and I’m curious to know what makes you a hopeful, what, what keeps you going during tough times? Like the challenges we’re facing right now with COVID?


Lenora Poulin (03:18):
Oh, you know, it’s funny because even without COVID we get asked this question a lot, like, why do you keep doing what you’re doing? And you know, it, honestly it takes just one kid and it can just be a one thing that they said you know, you can be having the worst year and believe me in my 29 years of teaching, I’ve had years where I did not want to be a teacher very much. But then you have that one kid who lets you know, that, you know, your class was their favorite or for me coming to the library, these kids that come in here every single day to sign out a book or to just read and hear and or the leadership kids who are excited about an event that they’re trying to do. And that’s, that’s what gives me hope. Right? That’s what keeps it going every single year. Why I keep coming back because they make it worth it. For sure.


Sam Demma (04:14):
I love that. And you’re right. What the statement of putting on many hats that you mentioned earlier that you run the role of a teacher, you run the role of a library and you’re on the role of the head of the leadership class. One of the things that changed my life when I was a student and brought me a lot of hope again, playing on that hope theme was reading books. I started reading books when I was 16 and it’s changed my life ever since. And I’m sure you can attest to the same thing. Do you have any books? This is off topic question, but do you have any books that you think are worth reading for other educators and other students?


Lenora Poulin (04:52):
Oh, there are so many. Currently for me it changes all the time, right? Depending on people that I’ve heard speak or other books that I’ve read. One of the ones that’s impacted me the most, probably in the last 10 years is Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean in” which she’s the COO of Facebook. And it spoke to me because it’s about women in the workplace and I recommend it to so many young female leadership students and people that I work with because it reminds me that as women, we need to lean into the table. So often because we have these other roles as women in society to take care of our families and have the baby back the day, we back away from these positions because, oh, I’m going to have a baby in the next couple of years. So I shouldn’t take this job or you know, I’m going to be going on maternity leave or, you know, my family is doing this and, and we, we back away from the table instead of leaning in.


Lenora Poulin (05:57):
So that’s one of my favorites to recommend to young women. Bernay, Brown’s, didn’t daring greatly as, you know, a phenomenal read for anyone. And I also really like Angela Duckworth’s grit. There are some things in there that I don’t totally agree with, but our school is really trying to work on our students’ resilience and their grit. So we read it as a staff and that was really important because it gave us some common vocabulary and it was really cool. And it’s awesome because any of these books that I read for my own professional development just instantly become lessons for us to use in our leadership class, which is great.


Sam Demma (06:31):
Th that’s what I was going to ask you. When you mentioned all the staff, reading those books, did you spearhead that initiative after reading that book?


Lenora Poulin (06:39):
A little bit. The grit one came from my principal. It was funny because she came with it and I was literally holding the book in my hand and I’m like this one, which was awesome. And last year we actually got to hear Angela Duckworth speak at the California convention which was really cool. Unfortunate. It was virtually, but not because of COVID just because she couldn’t be there. But I try to give, actually every summer I get the start of the summer. I give every staff member, a book to read over the summer, sometimes it’s fiction. Sometimes it’s nonfiction, some of them might read them and some of them don’t, but I just think it’s just such an amazing way to be constantly learning and growing. And I think that that’s what makes me happy and satisfied in my job is because I’m always looking for ways to be better.


Sam Demma (07:30):
I love that so much. And I think it’s important in education. That’s a needed, that’s a needed feeling and I applaud you for that. And teachers that have impacted my life embody the same philosophy. And this conversation has reminded me of a book. I read one time called Tuesdays with Morrie. I don’t know.


Lenora Poulin (07:46):
That’s a favorite.


Sam Demma (07:47):
Ah, okay. That’s so cool. So I had an educator tell me to read it. And I think the actual storyline of the book with the student visiting you tell us every Tuesday, before he passes away and I’m not going to spoil it too much. I guess I just gave away the


Lenora Poulin (08:05):
It’s been around for a long for a while now. And I think that it’s just, it sings to so many people. It’s awesome.


Sam Demma (08:12):
And it’s so I think it’s so applicable to any teacher, whether you work in a school outside of school, you teach people something it’s, it’s so cool to see the relationship between an educator and a student. And you get to, you get to drive those relationships every day. And like you mentioned earlier, sometimes you don’t see the impact, but maybe 10 years down the road, someone tells you something or in the middle of a terrible year, one kid says something that just makes the whole year worthwhile. Yeah. Those moments are so important for educators to remind them why they do what they do. And there’s so many educators listening to this inspired by you already. And I want you to sh I want you to share one of those stories in as much detail as you can, except you can change the student’s name. You can replace the name so you can keep it private, but the more open and vulnerable we share it, the more able it will be an impact and influence someone else. So I’m curious to know you have a story where something you’ve done is it’s had a huge impact on a student and would you be willing to share it.


Lenora Poulin (09:09):
As story


Lenora Poulin (09:16):
To favorites? Okay. The first one, I’m not going to change their names because they’re amazing. So the first one with was with a student named Jessica a few years ago. One of the perks of being a leadership teacher is we often get to travel with students. We take them to conferences all over the country. And our favorite obviously is the Canadian student leadership conference. And a few years ago the conference was in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which for us VC girls, that’s an amazing experience. And my teaching partner and I took three young women that year to Halifax. And we always go early because we think if we’re going to travel all that way, we need to get the most out of this experience. And the interesting thing that students on the west coast don’t experience in the same way as the east coast is the actual history of our country starts on that east coast.


Lenora Poulin (10:10):
And so there’s so much for them to learn back there. So we arrived in Halifax on the Saturday and the conference started on the Tuesday and on, I believe it was the Sunday. We decided we were going to do three provinces in one day. So we were going to drive all the way from Halifax, Nova Scotia to prince Edward island. And we’re like, we can do this. It’ll be awesome. And D people think nothing of driving, like it’s two hours for us to drive to Vancouver. That’s a day trip. Like we don’t think anything about that. Yeah. So we drove, it was awesome. We got lost a couple of times. This is before GPS was as good as it is now. I don’t think our data plans included the east coast, so we might not have had our phones. Anyways, we made it to prince Edward island is about two o’clock in the afternoon.


Lenora Poulin (10:56):
We’re having lunch on the water on this dock and we’re eating mussels. And Jessica says there are kids back at school right now in a math class that they will never remember. And I am sitting here having a day. I will never forget. And like, I just get goosebumps every time I think about her saying it. I tell everybody that I know about that experience because it truly captures what is so amazing about leadership class and about the stuff that we do at our school, because we’re always telling kids that we get to create the stuff that kids remember about high school. You don’t remember a math lesson. I teach Shakespeare, no one is ever going to remember my McBath lesson. You know, maybe the time I wear a goofy hat and dressed as a witch, I don’t know, but they will remember those experiences. Right? Remember the time we participate in the pumpkin pie, eating contest, remember the time we went to Halifax and everyone else was in school and we were together learning about our history and having this great experience. And that is, that’s just, that’s my favorite story to tell about how important it is, what we do in connecting with kids. So, wow.


Sam Demma (12:16):
Absolutely love that I might be wrong. So correct me if I’m wrong. You mentioned there’s two stories and that one was phenomenal. I’m curious to know about the other one. Now


Lenora Poulin (12:26):
I’ll call you the other one too, cause it’s really so in, in my teaching career, unfortunately, because I’ve been teaching for 29 years, we’ve had some tumultuous political times and I have been on strike a few times in the last time was in 2014 when it was really bad. And we were on strike from the beginning of June until the end of September. It was, it was a terrible time. And I received a letter from a former leadership student who was just finishing up her teaching program at that time. And it was, I started this hashtag at that time on my social media called this is why. And it was exactly why she just talked about how, and I didn’t know this about her when she was in my class. And she was just this really cool person, super smart, very, very focused and driven goal oriented.


Lenora Poulin (13:24):
You never had to remind her about anything. But she was quirky funny and just really quick witted. And I loved being around her. And I loved watching her from grade eight, till grade 12, growing as a leader, you know, she never would have held a microphone or spoken in front of the school and those earlier days, and by the end of it, you know, you could just hand it and walk away. And she wrote me this letter about, and she talked about how her parents had these really high expectations for her at home. And she felt a lot of pressure. And she came from a great family. It wasn’t like that, but they just had really, really super high expectations. But that she was thanking us for bringing out these qualities in her that she didn’t know she had, that were more about, more than about the academics.


Lenora Poulin (14:12):
And it’s led her in this amazing career that she has now, and she’s actually not even teaching anymore. She’s doing she has her own private practice in counseling, which is really super amazing. And, but it was just so nice of her to just to get that acknowledgement and remind you that, you know, even when you’re in these terrible times that there are lots of people out there who you impacted. And for every Jessica and Sierra, there are hundreds more who just, you know, maybe don’t have the courage to let you know or think about you often, but they just haven’t reached out yet. And I just remind myself of that all the time, because I think about the teachers that I have, that I have never contacted and there have been some that I have. But I just had such positive school experiences. And I think about those people all the time. So I remind myself of that.


Sam Demma (15:04):
And now you have an excuse to reach out to those educators that were in your life. You can say, I was, I was talking on this podcast and you know what, you’re someone who changed my life. And I want you, I want you to know that now this is what I’m doing. And I’m sure it would bring a huge smile to their faces. You mentioned, you know, Sarah and Jessica at the beginning of their leadership journey would not in a million years, grab a mic and speak in front of the room or speak in front of the school. I’m sure now things are totally different. And I’m curious to know, you’ve actually, you’ve been doing this for longer than I’m alive, which is pretty cool. You, you know, you’ve definitely worked with dozens of speakers. You mentioned going to California, maybe it was CATA. I’m assuming maybe I can call you. I know you go to CSLC, you’ve probably been to OSSE before and all the other leadership conferences, and you’ve probably brought speakers into your school as well. I’m curious to know other educators that are listening are wondering how do you choose someone to bring into your school in front of young people?


Lenora Poulin (16:08):
Can I say the cost for a small school actually, unfortunately, that is a huge part of it, but I, you know, I, I listened to what Dave said about this and, and it really rings true for me as well. I really want an authentic message and it’s interesting because I’ve been doing this for so long and we have had, so we’ve had amazing speakers at our school and seeing some incredible speakers at national and provincial conferences. But it’s interesting when you get to see a speaker 2, 3, 4 times, and you start to realize that it’s a script, and I do understand that that is necessary in, in public speaking, for sure. You have your talking points, you have your things that you want to say, but I want to feel like that moment where you teared up is genuine. Not that it’s part of what you’re saying.


Lenora Poulin (17:08):
And so I really rely on the other people that I trust as leadership advisors in the province and in the country. And I trust my own instincts as well. And, you know, sometimes they’re not always right down. I do have to remember that because I’ve seen a speaker three or four times, they’re kind of stale to me, but for our kids that have seen them the first time it’s powerful. And it only has to, you know, the speaker only has to really connect with a couple of kids and I’m happy, right. Because they’ve made a difference, which is really cool. But yeah, I do really look for that authentic piece. And that when they’re talking to me as the person that’s looking to hire them that they’re going to work with our small school situation within our parameters, you know, especially, you know, when I, I mentioned cost, but that is a real factor for small schools and so many of us, and we often try to double up together and, you know, piggyback, okay, this person’s coming out here. Where else can we get them to come in? Even for horizons for CSLA right. Trying to work geographically with that, because there isn’t another high school close to us to, you know, that you could get to in the afternoon. And so, you know, those kinds of things are important, but yeah, I really liked that authentic story.


Sam Demma (18:29):
Hmm. I love that. I think authenticity is so important in anything that you choose to do, right? Not only speaking, but whatever your work is, whatever your project is, be authentic with it. Have you experimented with trying virtual stuff? I know a lot of educators are scrambling, not, not only with bringing in speakers, but just teaching online. I know you’re a smaller school. I talked to Jenna Fisher, who’s an advisor out in Saskatchewan and they’re doing a hybrid model in school, out of school. What are some things you’ve noticed that help your students participate in engage virtually.


Lenora Poulin (19:00):
The virtual thing? I mean, personally, that’s actually a real struggle for me. I, one of the things I learned the most in the spring is that I am an in-person teacher. I need to see people’s faces. And now we’re, we are actually back in person here. But we’re all wearing masks. So I’m really learning to look into people’s eyes. But the, like some of the speakers have really adapted well to the the virtual platform. And I really appreciate that. One of the things that’s the hardest is learning to look into the camera on your face and not at the picture in the zoom or whatever. And I, again, got to participate in the virtual global conference that Stu Saunders did. And it was really interesting to, to watch the different speakers and see, and that was right at the early beginnings of us, all kind of transitioning, watching the speakers who were quite gifted at looking at the camera.


Lenora Poulin (20:03):
And you felt like you were actually there while they were talking and maybe just looking at a screen off to the side, but then there were the other people who obviously had another screen next to them and were kind of just reading off that screen. So those are the kinds of things. We, we haven’t taken advantage too much of the virtual presentations yet. It’s actually one of my, I don’t know one of the things that’s bothering me about this, there’s this sense of urgency that we, we are all bored and we all need to be super engaged during this time instead of just letting people kind of figure it out. And I, I don’t want more meetings and virtual and, you know, I don’t want pro D virtually. So I need to figure out other ways to adopt and what work.


Sam Demma (20:52):
Yeah, no, I love that. That’s an awesome point. And if, if you’re listening right now and I mean, if you hear me say that you are, that one tip is, is gold to make sure you’re saying it the camera, and it’s a, it’s a constant struggle. Something you can do to help is get a sticky note and draw a smiley face on it and stick it above the camera. And


Lenora Poulin (21:16):
He’s very good out of it.


Sam Demma (21:17):
Oh, cool. I love that because it does make the world of a difference. If your audience feels like you are staring, whether it’s a whole auditorium or a classroom, it doesn’t make a difference. It feels more personal, which is, which is a great point. So thank you for sharing. This has been a great conversation. You’ve shared stories. You’ve shared tips. You shared why you got into education. I’m curious to know a little bit more about your decision to get into teaching. I know we talked about it briefly at the beginning, but was there a moment when you were in school? I know you mentioned that there was educators that had an impact on your life. Was your decision to get into teaching made at a young age when you were still a student, or was it something that happened after?


Lenora Poulin (22:01):
Actually I probably right from the very beginning of school my mom was a school secretary and so it was school was glamorous to me. Like it was just this awesome place. My mom loved her job and she was very good at it. And so I was always surrounded by this positive experiences of school, which is interesting because like my father didn’t graduate from high school. My mom did, but had no post-secondary different generations. Right. my grandparents didn’t graduate. And so all through school, I I’m the oldest of the children as well. So I like to boss people around. And so, you know, I just, I wanted, I liked school so much. I always wanted to please, my teachers, their jobs seemed so cool. And then I got to high school and same thing I did well you know, had a really positive high school experience.


Lenora Poulin (22:55):
But by about grade 11 or 12 my dad was, you know, you talk so much, you should be a lawyer. And my grades were great. Not as like, oh yeah, I should be a lawyer. And so I got into UBC and I was like, I’m going to be a lawyer. And then I took stuff that I had to take to be a lawyer. And I did not like that. All I can Nomex and yeah, I actually failed out my first year of university, which is always a good story for me to tell my grade 12 students I failed economics, I failed math and I failed French. I know it’s terrible. I should have taken French 12. That’s always my advice. I didn’t take it in high school, so I take it in university. And so I sat back and so I didn’t give up, I didn’t quit school.


Lenora Poulin (23:39):
I, I was, it says on my transcript forever failed year retreat required to, so I went to, at that time was community college. There weren’t as many universities then. So I went to community college and I was like, what are you doing? What do you like? And I love to read, I love English and I loved history. And so I started taking English classes and I’m like, Hey, this is what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m supposed to be a teacher. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. So I had to write a letter to get back to UBC and I did, and it turned out for the best and I just never looked back. Like it was what I was supposed to do. And I remember when I was student teaching in Burnaby, which is a very large district here in British Columbia.


Lenora Poulin (24:22):
And there were actually 13 student teachers at the high school that I was at at the same time, which is a lot. And this were sitting in the staff room and this girl looked at me and she said, you really love this, don’t you? And I’m like, oh yeah. I said, I never want it to be anything else. This is what I’m supposed to be doing. And it’s really sad. But the next day she wasn’t there. She actually quit. But but it was good because, you know, she realized that she didn’t love it. And it’s one of the keys. Teaching’s not a job. It’s not something that just pays the bills. And, and I am not somebody who like, I am so happy with the money that I make and what I can provide for my family. I’m so fortunate. My husband’s a teacher as well. So of course our lifestyle just goes together so well. But this is a passion. This is, this is a lifestyle there. Isn’t a moment in the year that I do not think about school even, you know, in the summer, you know, I’m out with my friends, we’re talking about school. We, you know, I’m in a bookstore. I see us, I see advertising signs that I take pictures of. Cause I think that will be great for leadership. So yeah, like that, that’s why I do it. It’s, it’s what I’m supposed to do.


Sam Demma (25:40):
I love that. So so much. And this is actually really crazy. And as you were speaking, it kind of was coming together in my mind, my girlfriend, her name’s Nikki. And if she listens to this and I tell her, I’ll tell her to shout out to Nicki, Nicki. She went to LA pre-loss school at Carlton U for two years before I met her. And then she basically decided to take a break because she was following her parents’ passion for her. And the reason that the reason we got in touch is because she watched my TEDx talk on YouTube and she reached out to saying, Hey, can we chat? Because I think a very informal route after post-secondary or sorry, after secondary. And she ended up talking to me and I dunno, one coffee chat led to the next. Then we started dating. And now she’s in school for English. Like, I don’t know when he told me the story, I was like, wow, this is so aligned. And she doesn’t know what she wants to do with it yet. And she’s doing English and power of politics, which is close to history. It’s like, you know, kind of but after I saw, I saw the resemblance when you explain that, which is.


Lenora Poulin (26:45):
And often people think, you know, oh, what am I going to do with an English degree? But just like I say to the kids today, you know, like sure, I went a traditional way and became a teacher, but there are really cool jobs out there. Heck you should just be an editor on social media and correct. Everyone’s grammar. That would be awesome. But you know, there are so many jobs and careers and passions that you don’t even know yet. Like they don’t even exist yet. So why not study what you want to study? And then, you know, look out there and say, well, where could I use this? And, and, and, you know, like I have a student who, you know, works for a very large company, but she does their social media and she has English and history degree. Right. But she understands how people think and how they want their information. And she’s a strong communicator. And, you know, there’s so many different ways that, that, that can go.


Sam Demma (27:41):
I once had a mentor who was an educator, tell me that there’s opportunities in every field. You don’t find them, you create them. And I think it’s, it’s so true. Lenora, this has been an amazing conversation. I could talk to you for hours and I’m sure everyone listening, can say the same. And I’m curious to know if an educator wants to bounce some ideas around with you have a cool energetic conversation and maybe from even another country or another province how can they reach out to you?


Lenora Poulin (28:10):
Well, the great thing about having an uncommon name is I’m actually fairly easy to find. Because I didn’t have to have weird email addresses and things like that. So even Twitter, I’m just, @LenoraPoulin. Facebook is the same, although I probably wouldn’t add you as a friend, because I only have friends on Facebook that I actually know. And young people don’t use Facebook anymore. Same with my Insta, my Instagram, but Instagram is mostly books for me. But also my email is lenora.poulin@sd78.bc.ca. Or you can just Google my high school and the Hope Secondary School website and all of our contact information is there as well.


Sam Demma (28:53):
Awesome. Laura, this has been awesome. Thank you so so much. And I would love to know, you know, you can shoot me an email afterwards about some books to read cause it would be, it would be cool.


Lenora Poulin (29:03):
That’d be great, Sam. I love that.


Sam Demma (29:06):
Okay. I’ll talk to you soon.


Lenora Poulin (29:08):
Thank you.


Sam Demma (29:09):
Another episode of the high-performing educator and the books. I hope you enjoyed this fruitful conversation with Lenora, So much amazing insights. She had to share so much inspiration in her own journey into education. I hope you really took something away from this and took notes. And as always, if you are enjoying these interviews, please consider leaving a rating and review. It helps more high-performing educators, just like you find these, this content, and benefit from it. And of course, if you are someone who has ideas and insights to share, send me an email at info@samdema.com and we’ll get you on the show as well. Anyways, I’ll see you on the next episode. Talk soon.

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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.