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equity

Peter Sovran – Director of Education at the Upper Grand District School Board

Peter Sovran – Director of Education at the Upper Grand District School Board
About Peter Sovran

Peter Sovran’s career portfolio over the past twenty-seven years has included a variety of high profile, extensive and demanding senior leadership positions with the Hamilton-Wentworth, York Region and Toronto District School Boards and the Ontario Ministry of Education.

He has a proven track record of strategic, transformative leadership that has resulted in impactful changes to public education in Ontario, with a particular focus on improving
student achievement, well-being and equity of outcomes. His commitment to addressing the gaps in student learning that exist due to systemic and historic barriers was further cemented during his two years working with the Anishinaabeg of Kabapikotawangag Resource Council First Nations School in north-western Ontario.

Peter is currently one of the longest serving Associate Directors of Education in the province. Prior to this role Peter was an Executive Superintendent and a Superintendent of Student Achievement. He has served as a Senior Manager and Senior Policy Advisor with the Ministry of Education, leading the provincial eLearning program and Early Reading/Early Math initiatives.

Peter has been an elementary school principal and vice-principal and has taught in all grade divisions, elementary and secondary, including adult education. A lifelong learner, Peter is pursuing his doctorate in educational leadership and policy at OISE/UofT. He holds a Master of Science in Behavioural Neuroscience from McGill University, a Bachelor of Education (Science and Math) and Bachelor of Science in Psychology and Biomedical Ethics from the University of Toronto.

An avid runner and cyclist, Peter has completed several races including seven marathons. He and his wife carve out time from their busy schedules to enjoy tennis, hikes and finding new local artisan shops. They have two adult children.

“I am very humbled and excited about the opportunity to work with the dedicated trustees, staff, and community partners that serve the students of the Upper Grand District School Board. Together, we will ensure that UGDSB continues its well-established position as a leader in learning, service excellence, and environmental literacy and is proudly reflective of the distinct communities within its boundaries.”

Peter officially commences in the role of Director of Education and Secretary-Treasurer on September 1, 2021. He will begin his transition process over the coming months.

Connect with Peter: Email | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB)

Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB)

York Region District School Board (YRDSB)

Toronto District School Board (TDSB)

Ontario Ministry of Education

Anishinaabeg of Kabapikotawangag Resource Council First Nations School (AKRC)

Ontario Provincial eLearning program

Doctorate in educational leadership and policy at OISE/UofT

Behavioural Neuroscience at McGill University

Bachelor of Education at University of Toronto

Bachelor of Science in Psychology at University of Toronto

Biomedical Ethics at the University of Toronto

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.

Sam Demma (00:59):

This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is Peter Sovran. Peter Sovran’s career portfolio over the past 27 years has included a variety of high profile, extensive, and demanding senior leadership positions with the Hamilton Wentworth York region and Toronto district school boards, and the Ontario ministry of education. He has a proven track record of strategic transformative leadership that has resulted in impactful changes to public education in Ontario, with a particular focus on improving student achievement, wellbeing and equity of outcomes. His commitment to addressing the gaps in student learning that exist due to systemic and historic barriers was further cemented during his two years, working with the Anishinaabeg of Kabapikotawangag Resource Council First Nations School in north-western Ontario. Peter is currently one of the longest serving associate directors of education in the province. Prior to his role, Peter was an executive superintendent and a superintendent of student achievement.

Sam Demma (01:58):

He has served as a senior manager and senior policy advisor with the ministry of education, leading the provincial eLearning program in early reading, early math initiatives. Peter has been an elementary school principal and vice principal, and is taught in all grade divisions,; elementary and secondary, including adult education. A lifelong learner. Peter is pursuing his doctorate in educational leadership and policy at OISE, University of Toronto. He holds a master of science and behavioral neuroscience from McGill University, a bachelor of education, science and math, and a bachelor of science in psychology and biomedical ethics from the University of Toronto. An avid runner and cyclist, Peter has completed several races, including seven marathons. He and his wife carve out time for their busy schedule to enjoy tennis, hikes, and finding new local artesian shops. They also have two adult children. I hope you enjoyed this conversation with Peter. It was a pleasure to speak with him and I will see you on the other side. Peter, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show. Please start by introducing yourself.

Peter Sovran (03:01):

Well, hi Sam. So pleased to be here. So I’m Peter Sovran. I’m the director of education for the Upper Grand District School Board.

Sam Demma (03:10):

When did you realize as a young professional, or even as a student that you wanted to work in education when you grew up?

Peter Sovran (03:19):

Huh? That’s right. That is a great question. My my career and and career aspirations have taken many, many turns. I think I started off wanted to be a professional baseball player. So that was that didn’t happen. And so then I then I pursued you know my postsecondary education and thought I’d be a, a neuroscientist. Wow. Went, went off to to do my graduate work. And and then I, I realized a couple of things. One was sort of a force of nature and that is that I’m severely, severely allergic to the particular animals that I was working with when I was doing experiments. Wow. <laugh> and so I got to thinking, do I wanna do this for the rest of my life? And while I was in graduate school, I really enjoyed you know, the teaching side of things. And so I started looking into that and talked to a bunch of people and started doing some some volunteering in schools. And, you know, as they say, kind of the rest is history,

Sam Demma (04:39):

Take me back for a moment to the baseball days. When did that dream become something you chased and at what time in your life did you put it on the shelf in terms of the aspiration to one day play professionally?

Peter Sovran (04:55):

Oh, I think pretty quickly. I think I was you know, sort of a young teenager and realized that while I was a pretty good pitcher I was a pretty good pitcher for, you know, my local league had a tryout with the under 18 team Canada. Didn’t make it. And I thought, well, if I didn’t make it past the preliminary stages of that triad camp, then I’m not sure I wanted to spend my entire early twenties traveling in minor league ballparks.

Sam Demma (05:32):

Nice. I love it. You mentioned severe allergies as well to the animals. Was this a physical response that you would experience or what was the paint, the picture? What did it look like?

Peter Sovran (05:43):

<Laugh> it, it was, yeah, I I had packed my bags. I had moved to, to Montreal to attend McGill university deliberately picked it because, you know, it’s one of our great Canadian postsecondary institutions, particularly in the area of neuroscience. And as I began working with the rats that I was gonna be doing experiments with, cuz they’re great at running around mazes and you know as you’re studying learning and memory systems, which is what I was really interested in in, in looking at I had a severe allergic reaction and so had a hard time breathing and spent the next couple of years running the experiments with you know, seems like people would be so used to it today, but I had to wear an industrial mask. And and so it wasn’t, it wasn’t all that pleasant. And as I said, it was probably a sign that I wasn’t meant to do this.

Sam Demma (06:49):

So you made the decision to get the teaching degree because you enjoyed the teaching aspect of the job. What did the journey look like from that moment forward that brought you to where you are today?

Peter Sovran (07:01):

Yeah, so began my teaching career and I began in high schools and I was math science teacher, which sort of goes hand in hand with studying neuroscience. Weren’t too many jobs at that time. So my first job I took was actually in an elementary school, my former elementary school to be precise. And I started working alongside some teachers who had taught me. So that was that was pretty interesting. <Laugh> and and back then whenever you had the lowest seniority in a school, you were let go from that school and you were let go from the school board. And so that happened year after year. And even though that seems like a horrible way to start off your career, it provided opportunities, provided opportunities to go to different schools and teach in different grades, meet different people.

Peter Sovran (08:02):

And I think that that also helped you know, develop my my real interest for not only teaching in high schools and in elementary schools, but all grades. So by the time I moved in to becoming a principal, I had pretty well taught every grade or experienced every grade. And as I look back now, that was just a, a great opportunity. So I did that. And and then I had this unique opportunity to go work on a project with the ministry of education. And that connected me back to, you know, my science roots. I went there and I stayed for about six and a half years. Wow. Took on a whole bunch of different jobs there became a senior policy advisor. So I learned that side of things as well as education, I learned all of the, the policy side of the work.

Peter Sovran (09:01):

And then became a principal went back to the ministry of education and ran e-learning Ontario, which is sort of the online learning for the for the province. That was really cool. And and then I became a superintendent of education. Did that for a number of years became an associate director. And and then this past September became the director here on the upper grant district school board. So as I said, lots of twists and turns, but each one of them was a learning opportunity. And at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about is continuously learning.

Sam Demma (09:40):

What, first of all, remarkable pathway, everyone I ask has a totally different journey to where they are today. It sounds like you’ve had your interests and curiosity pull you in so many different directions, which gives you such a broad perspective and diverse set of skills. What though keeps you curious and motivated to get up every day and continuously pursue new knowledge and do this work?

Peter Sovran (10:07):

Yeah, it’s that’s a great question. And it’s you know, that’ss, that’s the key, right? Is why, why do we get up each day and wanna keep doing what we’re doing? And so you’ll see from from my background, this is my office. You know, my office has a nice a chalkboard. If you were to see my desk, it’s it’s an old wooden teacher’s desk and I’ve got all the modern features there as well, but the reason why I’ve, I’ve, I’ve always wanted to set up my office in this way, is that each and every day, I need to be reminded the reason I come to work, the reason why the so-called corner office exists is to make sure that the decisions that we make help students with their pathways. Mm-Hmm, <affirmative>, that’s the passion, that’s the drive and sort of the blend of the, the modern and, you know, some of the traditional is also one of those things that drives me.

Peter Sovran (11:07):

What, what else can we do? That’s, that’s different, that’s new, that’s exciting, like doing a podcast with you you know, over zoom, right. We wouldn’t have done this a couple of years ago. Yeah. But you know, so that to me is still super exciting. Until every student can fulfill their own pathway, their own desires, then there’s work to do mm-hmm, <affirmative>, there’s something interesting to pursue, and it doesn’t have to be, you know, graduating from, from high school. But you know I had, I had a group of students a couple weekends ago, I went out to a performance that three of our high school bands had gone together and, and were doing this charity event. And so I had the opportunity to to speak with them as they were rehearsing in the afternoon.

Peter Sovran (12:01):

And you know, one of them asked me a question and they said, if you had a magic button, you could press and change things, you know, for the better what would you do? And I thought that was a great question. And, you know, my answer was I would press that button and enable every student to pursue what they wanted to learn and how they wanted to learn it. Mm. That would be one magic button. So that, but that, that’s what keeps it coming every day to to the job, because it’s the pursuit of that magic button. Really.

Sam Demma (12:39):

I love that perspective as someone who spent most of their life, chasing a dream that other people happen to deem as unrealistic. I, I will, I grew up on to play professional soccer. And by the age of 17, after three career ending, knee injuries realized it wasn’t gonna happen. Found myself lost. And I valued school very high up until that point, because it was a means to me getting a better soccer scholarship. If I had higher grades and the athletics, I could get a full ride scholarship to a school in the states. And after it fell apart, I felt a little lost and didn’t know what I wanted to pursue and ended up taking a fifth year of high school and then a gap year both of which made me feel like maybe I was following behind or making the wrong choice. And I think it was so important that I had people in my life who during those moments reminded me that every pathway is a valid option, you know, in every learner, it takes a slightly different path. And if every student could be encouraged to pursue their path and help help to realize that there is no correct or right or wrong choice, I think that would take a lot of weight off their shoulders.

Peter Sovran (13:52):

Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, that, that’s that’s, the goal is you know, find what your passion is, what your interest is, and that can change, you know, you don’t have to set your course and, and have your learning driven that way. And through that passion and that interest, as opposed to it’s Tuesday, you know, so we have to learn this.

Sam Demma (14:15):

Mm, got it. When you think about educators who have been impactful in your life, who comes to mind and maybe it’s, it could be a formal classroom teacher, but it could also be anyone you’ve crossed path with who has had a significant impact on who you are and the way you see the world today.

Peter Sovran (14:34):

Yeah. It’s I, I think about that a lot. I had I had a great teacher grade seven and eight. Mm. And music teacher. And and while I don’t consider myself a musician that was a turning point in my life. It was an opportunity to be part of something bigger, which was a band and to, to play in a band. And and this teacher, you know saw something in me that suggested that I had some leadership qualities. And so I became the band leader in, in grade eight after spending grade seven, you know, really studying and learning the instrument for the very first time. And you know, I look back and that was one of those turning points. You know, this this belief that you could be a leader and someone who not only said it, but then, you know, work to develop some of those leadership skills.

Peter Sovran (15:34):

So I think of I think of that teacher, I think of you know, some some principles who I had both as a student but then also as a, as a teacher and then as a principal, myself, you know, colleagues who were just great listeners. Mm. And and you know, when I look back, I always think of the people who made the most impact on me were the ones who you know, let me take a chance, let me, they, they actually allowed me to, to fail, but with kinda a safety net. Hmm. And you know, and that’s something I, I always wanna carry with me and, and hope to, you know, inspire others with as well that you learn, you learn so much from taking a risk and taking a chance and sometimes yeah. Making mistakes.

Sam Demma (16:37):

You mentioned listening as one of the qualities of a leader, you know, people in your life that listened really intently, left an impact on you. What are some of the other qualities you think make up a great school leader, whether it be a principal or a superintendent or a teacher. Cause I think everyone in the school is a leader in some way, shape or form whether it’s leading colleagues or leading students. Yeah. I’m curious to know your thoughts on, on some of the qualities.

Peter Sovran (17:08):

Yeah. and again, your, your point around everyone’s a leader in, in one way or another. And so leadership qualities aren’t reserved just for those formal leadership positions. Yep. And so definitely listening is a real key. But also, you know making sure that as you listen, and as you, as you gather, people’s voice that your decisions are informed decisions that people are involved in decisions that you make together. Mm. And I think that that is such an important quality for, for anyone in a leadership position is that you know, you involve people not, not at the end, but at the beginning. And then, you know, I, I would say strong leaders also need to be decisive. Strong leaders need to be accountable. And you know, in, in a lot of the reading that I, I do about leadership some of the the things that would always stand out would be that you know, great leaders are the ones who take the responsibility when things don’t go well, always, always, and they always keep the praise on everyone else when things go well, because inevitably it’s the team effort that gets you, you know your results.

Peter Sovran (18:37):

So take the responsibility when it doesn’t go well and give credit when it does to the others.

Sam Demma (18:44):

Ah, I love that. You mentioned reading when in your life did reading nonfiction books become, and maybe it’s your whole life, but what, was there a tipping point where you fell in love with books on a continuous pursuit of knowledge? And if, if there was, I’m curious to know along the journey, what, what are some books that have stood out to you if you can recall some of them?

Peter Sovran (19:05):

Yeah, absolutely. So the one that I would just referenced would be Jim Collins. Good to great. You would come into my office, you would see it prominently displayed in my office. I refer back to it a whole lot. And I’m

Sam Demma (19:20):

Surprised you don’t have some fly wheels on your board back there. <Laugh> yeah,

Peter Sovran (19:26):

I I’ve always preferred nonfiction. I’ve really thoroughly enjoy reading biographies. Yes. About about politicians, about athletes, about, you know, inspirational leaders about people in general you know, people’s lives are fascinating. And I think as you, as you dig in whether it’s an autobiography or a biography and, and you learn about you know, people’s journeys there’s so much to glean from that. And for me, it, it’s just a reminder that nobody does anything on their own. It’s all in a context, it’s a context of, you know, whether it’s your family, whether it’s your friends, whether it’s your colleagues, whether it’s your, you know people that surround you, then nobody, nobody ever does anything on their own. And and so as I read these nonfiction and particularly these biographies, I’m always intrigued by, you know, what people have had to overcome and how they’ve you know, relied on others or as you described, you know, some of these important people in your life that you just go to and you think, wow, see, I always thought that person just was completely self made and became this instant, you know, in inspirational leader and successful person.

Peter Sovran (20:52):

And yet even they had that turning point or they had that person that they lean on.

Sam Demma (20:58):

Hmm. Yeah. I, I think you’re absolutely correct. Every, even the ones that appear like an overnight success often have so many things to share in interviews and that can disprove those assumptions about the people that helped them, how long it took for them to build what they did build. There’s a book called principles by Ray Dalio. And he has this one, maybe have you read it.

Peter Sovran (21:23):

I know it. Yep.

Sam Demma (21:24):

Yeah. So there’s one chapter and the title is, you know, you can have anything, but you can’t have everything. And I think this same applies to whatever you choose to pursue in life, but there should be an ad that you can have anything but not alone. <Laugh> yeah. Good point. Yeah. Because I think you’re absolutely right in saying it’s always the result of a collective effort or in some way, the influence of other people that you’ve met along your own journey. When you think about the people that impacted you you know, your grade seven teacher the colleagues and principals you have ha have had along the way, are there any that you still stay in touch with closely to this day?

Peter Sovran (22:09):

Well, that, that great seven teacher, I still stay connected with him. Nice. And still have a friendship after all of these years. And it’s been many, many years. Wow. I would say pretty well, everyone who I would describe as having had an impact if they’re if they’re still with us I make an effort to to stay connected with them. And and, and also, you know whether it’s this new role that I took on last September. And perhaps I had, you know, connected with someone for a little while I’d reach out and say you know, I’m doing what I’m doing right now, largely because of the impact you had on my life. And I think it’s so important to remind people of that.

Sam Demma (22:58):

I, I love it. I try and stay in touch with my grade 12 world issues teacher who had a big impact on me. And I can tell that every time I reach out to him, he has this sense of gratitude because maybe sometimes educators don’t hear it often enough from their students or their colleagues, the difference that their actions and choices make in the lives of others. Books have been a big part of your life. How else do you fill your own cup when you’re not working in the office?

Peter Sovran (23:27):

Hmm. So a couple of things. I for my own self care, I I run and I try and run usually four or five times a week with that comes the other setbacks with injuries which I’m dealing with right now. Oh, no. And you know, and so, and, and I run both for my mental wellbeing and for my physical wellbeing. But when it comes to the work I deliberately don’t spend a whole lot of time in my physical office. I spend time in different places within our school board. And I make a point there’s one day a week that I spend in schools and in classrooms. And sometimes it’s two days a week. And I always say the reason I have to be in schools and in classrooms to interact with students and with teachers and, you know, office administrators and caretakers is that that’s where the rubber hits the road. That’s where the action happens. That’s where the impact is. And as the leader of the organization, I need to be right there and see it and, and hear it. And so that absolutely fills my cup. I will say to people best part of my week is always when I’m in schools.

Sam Demma (24:58):

Hmm. There’s so many amazing things happening in schools. I’m sure you’re quite inspired by walking through the hallways, stopping in classrooms, hearing the discussions, but over the past two years, there’s also been an equal affair of challenges with shifts. And, you know, I shouldn’t say the word cuz they’re moving out of it now, but COVID, <laugh> I’m sure there’s been moments where teachers have maybe even reached out to you burnt out people that you’ve inspired looking for some advice or insights. If you were to paint a hypothetical situation of a teacher walking into your, your office, which you’re very rarely in any ways, which makes us more hypothetical and they sat down and tears in their eyes telling you, you know, this has been one of the hardest years of my life. I’m feeling burnt out. I’m not feeling inspired. You know, do you have any words of advice for me, if you could kind of share a quick little blurb for teachers who might be feeling this way right now, what would you share or tell them?

Peter Sovran (25:59):

Yeah. so it, it’s not even a hypothetical Sam it’s it’s, it’s the reality that you know, going back to, you know, the context everybody’s lived in the context of of COVID and the global pandemic for you know, since March of 2020, I remember that day leaving March 20, 20 thinking okay. A couple of weeks we’ll, we’ll be back, we’ll be back. And we’ll just pick things up. And here we are June of two and you know, the, as difficult as it’s been for students the absolute champions of education have been all of the educators, you know, the teachers, the educational assistants, everybody that works in the system they managed to leave in March of 2020, and within two weeks went from, you know, a physical classroom to, to this, to, you know, a laptop, maybe a camera and all of a sudden they had to take their craft and completely reinvent how they engage with students.

Peter Sovran (27:19):

So I’d say, you know, what you’ve done over the last two years has made a difference. It’s made a huge difference, you know? Yeah. I, when I was a principal, I used to always end my, the, the staff meetings with this one slide, what you do matters. And it’s so true what you do in a school, connecting with a student, listening, teaching it matters and it’s mattered more so in the last two years than probably ever before, because teachers and everyone that works with students, they’ve not only been able to connect with them, but they’ve also shown them that despite a global pandemic, despite the biggest curve ball, if I could use a, a baseball analogy that was that was thrown at you you know, we persevere, we, we pick ourselves up, we dust ourselves off and we focus on what matters the most, which is that human connection.

Peter Sovran (28:33):

And so, yeah, it’s been incredibly tough. There is no question about it. And you know, the other reminder is that, you know, our, our leaders in our schools, our teachers or principals, and, you know, again, our caretakers are off staff. They also have lives outside of school. Yeah. That have been, that have been impacted, you know, they’re caring for other people. They’re worried about other people they’re, they’re worried about themselves. And so, yeah, it’s, it’s been so incredibly difficult, but I would say that, you know our sector in education, I mean, you know, our, our healthcare workers have been heroes through this, but I would put our educators, you know, right up there. You’ve made the difference. You’ve been the ones who have been on the other side of the screen for your students who have otherwise felt, you know, disconnected and lost. So I’m just like everyone, you know, planning for a return in September that will not go back to the way things work. Cause I think we shouldn’t do that. We should never try and go back. We should always, you know, learn from the situations that we’re in take, what’s worked and, and keep moving forward. But I really do hope that September and the fall looks different than it has these last two falls.

Sam Demma (30:08):

You positioned it perfectly. <Laugh> different is a good, good way to put it. I know it’s been a challenge, not only for staff in schools, but for superintendents like yourself, anyone who worked in education. And in fact, I would say humanity as a whole has had a challenge, no matter what industry or, you know, vocation, you worked in. The challenge that I sometimes think about often is those educators that just began teaching and their first year was in the middle of the pandemic who didn’t have, you know, 10 years of previous teaching experience to compare it to, and maybe had been thinking to themselves, what the heck did I sign up for? I, I’m curious to know if you could go back in time to your first few years working in education with the experience you have now, what advice would you have given to your younger self when you were just starting that you think may have been helpful to hear, and maybe it’s something we’ve already chatted about that you can reiterate or some new thoughts?

Peter Sovran (31:14):

Hmm. Yeah. I I would definitely say to myself, you don’t have all the answers, so look to others <laugh> mm. Number one, number two it, it’s okay to, to make a mistake and to take a risk and you know, within, within reason. Right. and and if it’s because you’re, you’re trying to do something to, you know, I improve the lives of others then you’re always on the right side of that. And and so I, I would, I would definitely say that, you know, those who have come into the profession during the pandemic or into a new position and, you know, I include myself as one of those people. You know, I became the director of education here in the upper grand district school board on September, the first of, in the midst of a pandemic.

Peter Sovran (32:19):

You realized though that even though you were teaching or leading, you know, with a mask on perhaps and sanitizing your hands more than you’ve probably ever done in your life <laugh> and that you were, you know, shifting from being in person to then being back in lockdown to doing things virtually that fundamentally one thing has not changed. And that connecting with people has always number one, the number was that teacher that I was, you know, almost 30 years ago to someone who’s just now started just remember that whether you’re connecting through zoom or teams or in person always keep those connections open, build those networks you know talk to talk to others who, you know, have, have walked in your path before I’ll share this story. When I first started this job you know, I I, I took over for Dr.

Peter Sovran (33:30):

Martha Rogers, who had been the director of education, the only director of education that the upper district school board had ever had. Wow. She had been, she had been in the role for 26 and a years. She was the founding director of education, you know, the, the first and only ever CEO that the organization had. And you know, sadly we lost DRS in December. So I had a really short period of time where I had that opportunity to connect with her. And every two weeks we would have coffee together and and conversation and lots of conversation. And it was my chance to, you know, pick her brain about you know, her 26 and a half years of, of running the organization. And it was also her opportunity to pick my brain about what’s this guy gonna be doing now that I’ve handed over this organization after 26 and a half years.

Peter Sovran (34:33):

And what it speaks to is, you know, that human connection and realizing that we can all learn from each other all the time. And as long as you’re open to that, you have to be open to that. You’ll keep moving forward. Once you start thinking you have all the answers that nobody can tell you how might be able so or different then it’s, then it’s time to take a really hard look at am I, am I really coming into the job each and every day, because I love doing it still or is it time to do something else? And it doesn’t matter what profession or what job you’re in. Everybody gets to that point

Sam Demma (35:18):

What a great piece of advice, especially towards the start or end of a new academic year to reflect on, I think to set our sales in the correct direction and be honest, if it’s not something that lights your soul then it’s okay to shift your sail as well. We need people who really want to be in education to be in education and it sounds like your conversations with Martha had a significant impact on you and testament to her and the human connection that I hope everyone strives to have with their colleagues and their students. This has been an awesome conversation Peter. Thank you so much for taking the time to call on the podcast. If someone wants to reach out to you, ask a question pick your brain, <laugh> absorb some of your genius, what would be the best way for them to reach out or get in touch?

Peter Sovran (36:11):

You know we’re always available at the Upper Grand District School Board. You just drop a line to our general inquiry. Give us a phone call you know, we’re, we’re on the web at ugdsb.on.ca. You’ll able to find you know, our contact information. And I love working with people who who are interested in, in leadership in, in any capacity and it doesn’t have to be just in education. And of course I will shamelessly say, I’m always, always looking for people who are, are passionate about working with students. And you know, this school board is an amazing place to work. So if you want reach out and you know, share your, share your passion for for working with students and making their lives better because that’s what it’s all about.

Sam Demma (37:13):

Awesome. Peter, thanks again for doing this. It was a pleasure chatting with you. Keep up the amazing work and I look forward to chatting with you soon.

Peter Sovran (37:21):

My pleasure.

Sam Demma (37:23):

Hey, it’s Sam again. I hope you enjoyed that amazing conversation on the High Performing Educator podcast. If you or someone, you know, deserves some extra recognition and appreciation for the work they do in education, please consider applying or nominating them for the high performing educator awards. Go to www.highperformingeducator.com/award. You can also find the link in the show notes. I’m super excited to spotlight and feature 20 people in 2022. And I’m hoping you, or someone you know, can be one of those educators. I’ll talk to you on the next episode, all the best.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Peter Sovran

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.

Jeannie Armstrong – Superintendent of Learning: Special Education Services, Faith/Equity & Indigenous Education at the Peterborough, Victoria, Northumberland and Clarington Catholic School Board

Jeannie Armstrong – Superintendent of Learning: Special Education Services, Faith/Equity & Indigenous Education at the Peterborough, Victoria, Northumberland and Clarington Catholic School Board
About Jeannie Armstrong

Written directly from Jeannie (@JeannieArmstr20):

Originally thought about Communications. Had the opportunity to be on local radio as a teenager and I really liked the experience. One of my best friends was killed in a car accident a week before graduating high school and this experience changed my life.

Following the devastation of this experience, I knew that I wanted to help other people but truly did not know how….. Changed my direction to a degree in psychology and thought about pursuing a Ph.D. to help young people process grief and loss.

I had classes at Ottawa U from Monday to Thursday and would often travel home from Friday to Sunday to spend time with my family. On one of my trips home, I ran into my grade 6 teacher, Mrs. Yolkowskie. She encouraged me to come volunteer with her on days when I did not have class.

I said I would call her and did. I began volunteering at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic School every Friday in Mrs. Yolkowskie’s special education class. I loved the experience. It was in this classroom that my dream of becoming an educator was born.

I finished my BA in Psychology and applied to Faculties of Education at Ottawa University and Queen’s. Between finishing my BA and starting my BEd, I married my husband (now 29 years). I chose Ottawa U because of its close proximity to home. I travelled back and forth that year to finish my BEd.

When I finished my BEd. there were few jobs. This was a time when few positions existed in the province so I supplied for a year until I received a contract with the Renfrew County Catholic District School Board. I worked in a rural school community and in a larger school until I became a principal at the age of 31.

I worked in Renfrew Catholic for 22 years before making a family decision to transfer to Ottawa Catholic where I worked as a principal for four and a half years. Working in a rural board and large urban board was a wonderful experience.

Throughout my career I have been inspired by so many educators,family and friends. Perhaps my biggest influence is my Aunt Jean.

Was hired as a Superintendent with PVNCCDSB in December of 2020. Had the portfolio of Faith, Equity, Indigenous Education and Secondary Program from January 2021-February 2022. Have since moved into the portfolio of Special Education Services, Faith/Equity and still supporting Indigenous Education until the end of the year.

For me, advocating for, supporting & empowering students is what I try to do each and every day along with continuing to learn and grow. When we stop learning, we stop living.

Two quotes that resonate with me are:

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.” Steve Jobs

“Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance.” Eckhart Tolle

Connect with Jeannie: Email | Instagram | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

University of Ottawa – Psychology Programs

University of Ottawa – Faculty of Education

Renfrew County Catholic District School Board

Ottawa Catholic District School Board

Peterborough, Victoria, Northumberland and Clarington Catholic School Board

Calm within the Storm: A Pathway to Everyday Resilliency – Dr. Robin Hanley Dafoe

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.


Sam Demma (00:59):
This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is Jeannie Armstrong. She originally thought about communications as her career, had the opportunity to be a local radio on local radio as a teenager and enjoyed the experience. But it was after a very tragic event that occurred in her life that totally shifted her path. It changed her direction, led her to do a degree in psychology. She reflected and considered about pursuing a PhD to help young people. And it was an educator she met along her journey that helped her realize that the true passion she had lied in a career in education. She finished her BA in psychology, applied to the faculty of education at Ottawa University and Queens. She finished her BA and started her BED, married a husband, now 29 years, and she chose Ottawa U because it was close to home and traveled back and forth that year to finish her BED.


Sam Demma (01:58):
She then worked in the Renfrew County Catholic District School Board in a rural school community and in a larger school until she became a principal at the age of 31 years old. She worked in the Renfrew Catholic board for 22 years before transferring to the Ottawa Catholic board. And throughout her career, she has been inspired by so many different educators, family members and friends, but perhaps her biggest influence was her aunt Jean. Jeannie was hired as superintendent with PVNCCDSB in December of 2020. She had the portfolio of faith equity, indigenous education and secondary programs until February of 2020, and has since moved to the portfolio of special education services, faith and equity, and still supporting indigenous education. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Jeannie. It’s a very insightful one. I will see you on the other side. Jeanie, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here this morning. Start by introducing yourself.


Jeannie Armstrong (02:57):
Hi, my name is Jeannie Armstrong. I’m the superintendent of faith equity, indigenous education and special education services for the Peterborough Victoria Northumberland and Clarington Catholic District School Board.


Sam Demma (03:09):
You gotta do a course just to get the name of the school board, right?


Jeannie Armstrong (03:13):
Exactly. Yeah.


Sam Demma (03:14):
When did you realize growing up that education was the career or field that you would pursue?


Jeannie Armstrong (03:21):
It actually came in my mid twenties. So originally in high school, I thought of communications. And I was thinking of going into broadcasting. I had done some stints on local radio and was certain that that was my path. And so I headed off to university or I planned two in the area of communications a couple days before graduation, Sam, my best friend was killed in a car accident. And at that point in time going through that process, that grieving process at such a young age, I really felt as though I had a calling to help youth who were going through similar trials. And so I really thought seriously about changing my program. And eventually I did move into psychology and I was certain that that was going to be my path. And I would end up doing a PhD in psychology and be able to support youth who were going through the grieving process.


Jeannie Armstrong (04:24):
And then I ran into one of my favorite teachers from elementary school. She taught me both in grade one and grade six, and I had classes four days of the week and came home on the weekends sometimes. And I met her on a Friday afternoon and she asked me if I would volunteer in her class, she was a special education teacher. And you know, when one of the most impactful people in your life ask you for a favor to volunteer in the classroom. I certainly wanted to support her in that. And so I said, yes, I would, I would go in and start volunteering. So I filled out the appropriate paperwork and began my volunteer experience and working with those students each and every day, it changed my life. It changed my path. It was so impactful and the relationships that I developed it was such a wonderful experience to see the growth and development, particularly with little ones who maybe three or four weeks before weren’t able to read. And then all of a sudden they got it and the light bulb went off and it was just such a rewarding experience that I went home. And I said to my family, I, I found my calling. I wanna be a teacher. And so I finished my psychology degree and applied for my ed at Ottawa U and away I went. And that was the beginning of the path that I continued on for the rest of my life.


Sam Demma (05:51):
Did you teach in elementary school first? And what, like, what are the different roles you have played since in education?


Jeannie Armstrong (06:00):
Oh, I’ve taught a range of grades and including being a special education teacher, both as a teacher and as a teaching principal for many years. And so I think for about seven years in my career, I supported special education students. I mean, we support all students as in any role, whether it’s a classroom as a classroom teacher or a principal, but specifically as a special education resource teacher, I spent about seven years in that role. And I loved it. So yes, a range of grades. I had a lot of system experience, wonderful people that supported me in my growth and development and taking on system pieces, working with the ministry of education and different projects being a guest lecture at O U faculty of education with some mentors who I worked with there, completing my master’s in education. And so just a range of experiences.


Jeannie Armstrong (06:52):
And I was quite young when I became a principal. It was not something I had really thought about doing. It just sort of happened naturally. And I had a few really wonderful mentors as well who encouraged me. And I think saw something in me that I did not see in myself. And one of them was the director of education at the time, Lauren Keon who was just an amazing man. He had was wonderful at building relationships. He could meet somebody once and remember their name and a little bit about their family. And so he was able to make that connection with people. And it was from those mentors that in particular, Mr. Keon, that I recognized the importance of relationships and making people making that connection with people. Cuz he had a way of making people feel as though you were the only person in the room, even though he was very busy he made a point of always connecting with everyone.


Jeannie Armstrong (07:49):
So he was an important influence in my life. And then there was another principal that I had. There was so many, but Carol sulfur was another mentor who was just an amazing curriculum, expert, phenomenal leader. And she really encouraged me to become a principal. And so I became a principal at the age of 32. I was very, very young. Wow. And was a principal for 17 years. Worked with Renford county Catholic district school board for many years. And then my husband and I decided to look at relocating to the Ottawa area and I worked with Ottawa Catholic school board again for another four and a half years before my current role.


Sam Demma (08:33):
Do you stay in touch with your teacher from grade one and grade six?


Jeannie Armstrong (08:37):
So she passed away. She passed away about five or six years ago, but I did get to connect with her and she did see my pathway into leadership at least. Yeah. So it was wonderful. I, I did go to visit her at her home at one point in time and you know, it was nice because she did get to say that she was very proud of me. So I did have that opportunity for her to see the pathway that I was pursuing. So that was wonderful. But she, she has since passed away


Sam Demma (09:08):
One of the most meaningful aspects in it of education and you’ve probably experienced it firsthand now is when you teach somebody and then they go on their path and come back and say, thank you so much. And it’s like, that person used to be five years old. That person used to be 15. And now they’re an adult with the family doing their thing. And I was able to play a part in their development. I think it’s such a full circle moment. In fact, one of the teachers who changed my life, I’m going to volunteer on his farm on June 11th. just to catch up with him and see how he’s doing. So I think those connections are so, so important. What is, what does the role you’re working in today? Look like, explain a little bit more about what’s you’re responsible for now and, and, and what you’re doing


Jeannie Armstrong (09:54):
Well. So I came to PB C in 2020 and you know, it it’s a different role at the system level. I did a lot of system work as a principal and being able to make those connections and working at the ministry level. And as you know, as a teacher, you have a tremendous impact on students in your classroom. And when you coach sports, then you get to, again, impact other students. As a principal, you have an impact on students schoolwide and you get to really be able to create a culture at this school that supports student growth and wellbeing and engagement. And so that was wonderful. And at the system level you have an opportunity to impact system change. So that as well as excite is exciting yesterday I had the opportunity to visit a school when I try to get into schools as much as I possibly can to still have that connectedness to the kids.


Jeannie Armstrong (10:52):
Yeah. And so it’s wonderful that I still get to go back and visit. So I, in my role right now, I’m the superintendent of faith equity, indigenous education and special education services. So those are large portfolios but I love everything that I’m doing. And the work that we’re doing is so important. When you think of those portfolios and the impact on the lives of students you know, I don’t take for granted each and every day, the work that I get to do, and I recognize with great humility and respect the impact that the work that I do can potentially have, and the work of my team, it’s really the team that I have that I’m supporting that I’m serving each and every day that I making the difference for students system wide.


Sam Demma (11:44):
Hmm. You’ve done so many different positions in education, so many different roles. Someone once told me the person that makes a good principal is the person that loves teaching in the classroom. The person that makes a great superintendent is the principal that loves being a principal. And doesn’t wanna leave that role. Did you ever struggle moving along the roles or and, and how did you get over that, that emotional barrier.


Jeannie Armstrong (12:17):
Yeah, no, that’s a very good point. And, and yes, I would say that each transition is difficult because it’s the relationships and the people that you meet along the way it’s difficult to leave. So as a teacher, it was challenging for me to make that leap as a principal, particularly being so young. Yeah, and, but what really helped me was the fact that coming from a small board, we were, were able to be a principal in a rural area first and then work our way up to a larger school. So I was a teaching principal for seven years, so I slowly got to transition the role and it, it was wonderful that opportunity always tried to stay connected to classrooms and to kids. No matter what role I’ve had you wanna be able to put a face to the name and to you know, really connect with both the staff and the students in school. And so even now as a superintendent as I said, I try to get into schools all the time and make sure that I’m still keeping that connection to the people that I serve, but it is difficult. Yeah.


Sam Demma (13:23):
Yeah. I, I, I mean, it’s like leaving a family. , it’s like you’re leaving a family to go to a different family and it can be challenging. I’ve heard some stories that people are really struggling with the transitions.


Jeannie Armstrong (13:38):
One of the things Sam that I think has really helped is I’ve stayed connected to, I have friends that in Renford Catholic, I have friends in Ottawa Catholic that I’m still connected to regularly. And of course my new family at PV and C. So I’ve tried to stay connected with all of those peoples on a regular basis so that I still have kept up those relationships, which helps.


Sam Demma (14:02):
Would, would the name Deb Lawler ring a bell?


Jeannie Armstrong (14:06):
Yes.


Sam Demma (14:07):
Deb was a good friend. I had lunch there last week in Ottawa. That’s awesome. That’s so great. When you say stay connected, what does that look like for you? Is it checking in every once in a while via text email, or like how, what does that look like?


Jeannie Armstrong (14:22):
Yeah, checking in all the time with phone calls, texts and also visiting face to face. So making plan to, you know, I’ll go back to Ottawa for a visit and you know, I’m planning to meet up with staff members from my former school in the next couple of months. And so just trying to, to stay connected as best you can and making time to keep those relationships up by meeting face to face and going for dinner and all of those pieces. Yeah.


Sam Demma (14:54):
You talk about systems, level roles, giving you the opportunity to make a big impact on schools within a district or a school board. And the work is it’s really important and, and it can impact thousands of young people. I would assume you also have the opportunity to, to meet other superintendents, people from other boards and kind of collaborate. And overall it gives you this cool perspective of education. I’m curious to know what you think are some of the challenges that education is for currently faced with right now. And secondly, part two of this question, some of the opportunities that you believe exist.


Jeannie Armstrong (15:29):
Yes. So I, I don’t like just to use the word challenges cause I do see everything that we’ve been through with the pandemic as an opportunity for growth and change. And I think everything that is presented to us in life is an opportunity for growth. So I try to use a positive mindset with rather than thinking about challenges. I, I see them as opportunities for change for growth, and the pandemic has been very difficult for many of our families for our staff. We do recognize that, but in many ways there’s been tremendous opportunities for students to develop skills that they may not otherwise have developed. You know, when you think of the technological skills that students have when you think of the ways that teachers have been able to adapt their practices to online learning that’s not going to go away.


Jeannie Armstrong (16:21):
And so I really do see that what we have been through as a system, as a country globally has had a positive impact in some ways. And I think coming out of this, what we need to recognize is the value of connection and relationships, because that is what truly has been missed. And so we really do need to reinvest some time on self care on student mental health and wellbeing on student voice and engagement. And just being able to, to recognize the importance of that connectedness, that teachers need to have those re positive relationships with students as superintendents, we need to be connected to the schools that we serve. So just really it’s about relationships and connection, and that will be our path forward.


Sam Demma (17:12):
People use the term teacher burnout in the education sector field, but I think during COVID, there was a global human burnout people as a whole, no matter what industry you worked in were experiencing this overwhelming anxiety and frustration and confusion, what, while you were going through that challenge yourself, how did you ensure to fill your own cup? Or what does self care look like for gen Armstrong


Jeannie Armstrong (17:41):
Well if you ask my family, they’d probably say I don’t do that enough.

Jeannie Armstrong (17:47):
But you know, it really is. It’s about my family and you know, my faith as well. And it’s the little things each and every day, you know, sometimes our days as system leaders are long and sometimes we have meetings till late at night, and it’s hard to find that time for yourself, but I try to celebrate in little ways, whether it’s a favorite cup of coffee, whether it’s listening to my favorite playlist, if I’m commuting in the car whether it’s taking time to just read a book, I love to read. So for me, that’s always something that I valued and it’s, it’s what I do to really unwind to try and get in some physical activity. And, and I would have to admit I’m not great at that, but I’m trying to, to work on that and get better at that. Nice, but take time to go for a walk at night and to just spend time with my husband and my family.


Sam Demma (18:37):
That’s awesome. I love that. I, I think self-care looks different for every person, right? As long as you find the things that fill your cup and work for you, I think it’s really important that we spend time on those things. You mentioned reading, being a big part of your life, what resources in the form of books or podcasts or people have you found helpful throughout your entire educational journey and career thus far?


Jeannie Armstrong (19:01):
Oh, Sam there’s so many one that our team is reading right now as a part of a book club is calm within the storm, which is Dr. Robin Hanley depo. And she is a professor at Trenton university here in Peterborough, and it’s a book really about resiliency. And so as a team, we’re, we’re reading that right now and, or just finishing that book. And it’s very, very powerful. And I’ll just share with you one quote that really resonated with me as we’re coming outta a global pandemic, not every storm that comes into your life is meant to take you down. Perhaps that storm is coming to clear a path that you could never have found otherwise. And so if we think about, you know, the, the different things that have even happened in my own life that have maybe shifted my path slightly, they were meant to be all of these pieces are meant to be, they’re meant to steer you in a certain path.


Jeannie Armstrong (20:03):
I really believe that. And you know, I’m very grateful for the opportunities that I’ve had and for even, you know, dare I use that word, the challenges that I faced because they’ve brought me to where I am today and I wouldn’t change any of those experiences. Because I believe it’s made me who I am today. And it’s brought me to this exact point in my life. I think if, you know, I had any advice for people who are starting out in their career, I would say to have faith in yourself and to trust your instincts and stay connected to the people that support you because they often help guide your path in ways that may not be clear at the time. And that, you know, if one door closes another door opens and just follow the path where it takes you and don’t be afraid of change, many people are, you know, are fearful of change. It’s a challenge for sure, but embrace change because sometimes if you have the courage to embrace change, wonderful things can happen.


Sam Demma (21:10):
I got shivers when you shared that quote like goosebumps, like through my body, that’s such a powerful way to reframe a challenge or a storm. And as you were saying it, my mind instantly started going back to challenges, quote unquote, that I faced storms that I weathered and like connected the dots to ways that some of those storms actually opened up new doorways and avenues that I wasn’t even looking at or focused on or new learnings or new character traits that I had to develop. What a phenomenal way to look at. Yeah. Look at challenges in life. Thank you for sharing that. I, I’m gonna leave this interview thinking about this for the whole day when you think of your time in the classroom or in the school, and you still spend lots of time visiting schools. So maybe you also hear about the stories, but I’m curious to know if there’s any stories that remain in your mind about how education has changed the life of young people and maybe there’s specific student in mind or somebody who was having a difficult time that was maybe in one of your classes or one of your schools that you heard of and had like a serious transformation.


Sam Demma (22:24):
And if it’s a, you know, a very serious story, you could change their name just to keep it private. And if there isn’t a specific story that comes to mind, you can also just talk about how you think education impacts the lives of young minds.


Jeannie Armstrong (22:39):
Wow. That’s I’m just trying to think, Sam there’s, there’s been so many, I mean, over 26 years in education, there’s been so many students that I could speak of. But I think what I reflect on most is, you know, the times when I could be in the grocery store and all of a sudden I hear a voice behind me and, you know 15 years later, or 20 years later, if somebody that I taught many, many years before and a few have stopped me to tell me about, you know, perhaps a change in pathway challenges that they face, that they were able, able to overcome. And the fact that they remember my name and wanted to take the time to tell me about, you know, how they’ve put their life in order or how they’ve made the changes necessary.


Jeannie Armstrong (23:39):
And whenever I have someone take the time to do that, I make sure to tell them that I’m proud. Mm. I always try to do that as a teacher. And, and I, and I mean, it, you know so there’s been those opportunities, but I also think of the many opportunities for students, perhaps that the transformation may not have been as great, but even for example, students were shy and afraid to share their voice. And, you know, I could see leadership potential in them and encourage them as a principal to apply to the minister student advisory council where they’d have an opportunity to share their voice with the minister of education. And in my time in Renfrew Catholic, I believe I had six or seven students that made the minister student advisory council. I think it’s something of a record. But it’s simply just encouraging them to apply and share their voice at a large level and, and to believe in themselves.


Jeannie Armstrong (24:36):
And many of those students then have, you know, commented to me about how that impacted them and how they were able to develop confidence in themselves. And again, like I talk about the people that had faith in me, it’s just about paying it forward. And when you have faith and you believe in students and you give them the opportunity to share their voice, not just with you, but at a system level, at a provincial level, at a national level great things happen. And I think as adults, what we can learn from that is that it’s really important to listen. It’s important to just take the time to listen to what kids have to say. Our students are amazing, and I think of you, Sam you know, doing these podcasts and international speaking events, and it’s really remarkable. And I know that at your age, I would not have been confident enough to do even what you’re doing. And so, you know, hats off to all of these young people who are making a difference each and every day and creating that national or global impact students like, like you said, that that are making that, that change. And it’s those voices that will really propel our nation forward. And that’s exactly what we need to do as adults is take a step back and let students be leaders and listen.


Sam Demma (26:09):
And it was my teacher in grade 12, Mr. Loudfoot, who helped me redirect my focus when I was going through my biggest storm after three major knee surgeries or knee injuries and two surgeries and lost the full ride scholarship and felt like my life was falling apart. And he was the one who believed in me when I stopped believing in myself and helped me realize that soccer was just one game in life, but life is filled with thousands of games, and at any time you can start playing a new one and that the skills you learn in one aspect of life can be transferred to another. And the list goes on and on. He like foundationally changed my life, and I’m so grateful I crossed path with him and that’s the person I’m visiting on the farm, you know, next week. And this has been such a refreshing conversation about education, about opportunities, about the future of education. If someone wants to ask you a question, get in touch, reach out, what would be the best way for them to do so?


Jeannie Armstrong (27:08):
They can contact me by email or through my Twitter account, Sam. So that’s, that’s great. I’m always open to learning from other people and connecting. So absolutely!


Sam Demma (27:19):
Awesome. Jean, thank you so much for coming on the show. You were awesome. Have an amazing day and we’ll talk soon.


Jeannie Armstrong (27:25):
Thanks so much, Sam, take care.


Sam Demma (27:28):
Hey, it’s Sam again. I hope you enjoyed that amazing conversation on the High Performing Educator podcast. If you, or you know, deserves some extra recognition and appreciation for the work they do in education, please consider applying or nominating them for the High Performing Educator awards, go to www.highperformingeducator.com/award. You can also find the link in the show notes. I’m super excited to spotlight and feature 20 people in 2022, and I’m hoping you or someone, you know, can be one of those educators. I’ll talk to you on the next episode, all the best.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Jeannie Armstrong

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.

Peter Prochilo – Superintendent of School Effectiveness, Sudbury Catholic District School Board

Peter Prochilo
About Peter Prochilo

Peter Prochilo (@PeterProchilo) is currently a Superintendent of Education with the Sudbury Catholic District School Board. His portfolio includes the supervision of all Secondary Schools, Secondary Curriculum, Alternative and Adult Education, International Education and the Remote/Virtual School

Peter leads with a passion for equity of access and enhanced student pathways as he supports students, staff and school communities as they collectively strive for improved outcomes for all. 

Connect with Peter: Email | Twitter | Linkedin

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Time Blocking

Marzano’s Evaluation Method

It’s all in your head

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the high-performing educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker Sam Demma. Today’s guest is Peter Prochilo. Peter is currently a superintendent of education with the Sudbury Catholic district school board. His portfolio includes the supervision of all secondary schools, secondary curriculum, alternative and adult education, international education, and the remote slash virtual school. Peter leads with a passion for equity of access and enhance student pathways. As he supports students, staff, and school communities, as they collectively strive for improved outcomes for all. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Peter. It was an engaging one with lots of actionable ideas and insights.


Sam Demma (00:45):
Peter, welcome to the high-performing educator podcast. Each pleasure to have you on the show here today. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit about your upbringing and what brought you to where you are today?


Peter Prochilo (01:39):
Okay. Thanks Sam. Good to be here. So my name is Peter Prochilo and i’m the superintendent of education for the Sudbury Catholic district school board with primary responsibilities around secondary programming in schools. So my educational journey began back, I guess when we can go further way back started with my, one of my older sisters being an educator and, and watching what she was doing I’m the youngest of five. And there was a large gap between me and that sister. And so I watched her and the joy education and working with children and young adults brought her. And that was sort of my, my end, if you will. And then through university, it just became more and more clear through my involvement either in coaching various sports and just my involvement in the community that it was, it was going to be my path. And so that brings me to, you know, education. I had 26 years as a, as a teacher and then a special education resource teacher consultant program principal and school principal, and then the arose to apply to my present position here in Sudbury. And it became a big big shift at at my age to to take that leap and take that leap and come and take on this role and the challenges of the role. And it’s been it’s been great.


Sam Demma (03:19):
Wow. That’s amazing. And aside from your own sister, which must’ve been a huge inspiration and motivation for you, do you recall other educators or teachers that you had when you were a student that also played a pivotal role in your, you know, your own development as a student, but maybe even inspired you to consider education as well?


Peter Prochilo (03:39):
For sure. I think a lot of those came during my years in high school where we had a number of teachers that you know, it was sort of that unwritten rule. I didn’t need to be set. They were there for students. And we were able to students were able to connect with them and B became, they became mentors if you will. And then they and, and so they were, there were some go-to people that definitely paved the way, if you will, to see what, what a career in education would be like and, and what that looks like to help others. And so at that stage, it became for me realizing that, you know, educators are really the, the gatekeepers of equity and my friends and I, my, my peer group at that time were from a certain socioeconomic status.


Peter Prochilo (04:36):
And we were able to see how, regardless of your background, regardless of where you come from everyone was treated equally. And, and I was lucky to be in a school that that was espoused, but, you know, certainly for the mentors that I reflect back on as mentors, they were really championing that idea of equity before it became it became an entity, as we know it today, right. Being immersed in curriculum, immersed in policy they were living, they were living that idea of equity. It doesn’t matter. Who’s in front of me who comes through that door, we’re all treated the same and they should all have the same opportunities to succeed.


Sam Demma (05:22):
That’s amazing. And when you think about those educators that also had a big impact on you personally, like, what do you think they did for you? Like if you had to think back, and you’re not that old, so you can definitely think back to high school for a quick second, but if you had to put yourself back into a high school classroom, like, what do you think teachers do or can do to make sure that their students feel seen, heard and appreciated and, you know, make an impact on the students in their classroom? And what did your students do for you or your teachers do for you?


Peter Prochilo (05:54):
Well, I think, you know, reflecting back, I can, I can identify it now, but in the moment it was just accessibility. They were accessible. I think when you, when I reflect back on what it means to me now is that they were really showing their humanity. Right. We saw these people in the community, they were my coaches for soccer. They were like, we’ve seen them in, you know, community events or my church, or, you know what I mean? Like they showed the human face of service really, in a nutshell, they were, they were really exemplary in putting themselves forward. And we knew, you know, even at that age and everyone comes from different backgrounds, everyone has different experiences. Everyone has different challenges. Everyone is carrying things with them that we may not know right. Or that they’re dealing with, but they came into that classroom and that building everyday best foot forward, smile on their face. It’s old time, you know what I mean? I’m really cool with that. But it was like, it was, it was game time for them. Right. And so they knew being in that space, what they, what they could meet to the students that they serve. And that really shine through because you can see the, you can easily see the difference between those that ended up being mentors of mine, to those that were not as approachable.


Sam Demma (07:16):
Yeah. I think that’s really important, you know, making your students aware that you’re there for them and that you have time for them. My, one of the things my teacher did that had a huge impact on me was get to know me on a personal level so much so that he could understand my motivation for being in his class, right. For every student, the reason you might be sitting in biology class is different. One student might want to become a scientist. Maybe I just want to take biology so I could get into kinesiology in university. Like every student had a different reason. And if you know, the reason why a student is sitting in your class, it allows you to, you know, appeal to their motivation and interests. Yeah, accessibility getting to know the student were things that had a huge impact on me as well. So thank you for sharing that. What do you think are some of the challenges we’re faced with an education right now? I mean, obviously because of COVID, there are some huge ones. But what do you think are some of the challenges we’re faced with and what are some of the opportunities within the challenging?


Peter Prochilo (08:15):
I’m glad you said that Sam, because I see COVID as presenting, of course, the challenges that we all have come to understand, but it also provides a lot of opportunities, a lot of opportunities to meet those challenges. And one of the big challenges that we’re dealing with now, and I keep coming back to the idea of equity is, is equity of access. And so it’s really important in my role and for my colleagues and for all of our system leaders and school leaders is to really look at what are what are the, what are the impediments to equity of access in a remote situation when we’ve had to cycle into remote learning and you, it really becomes a parent students that, that need need more support than others. And there’s that you’re, you’re trying to try to bridge that gap, right.


Peter Prochilo (09:06):
In terms of providing and providing access, whether it be access to technology access to, to us. And just making sure that you are always acting as a community, right? Because you, you, you tend to a situation like COVID can quickly make people think in a, more of a siloed situation, right? This is, you know, this is my department, this is what I do. And the trick has been the push has been to make sure that everyone acts continues to act and they do to act as though we’re all, we’re all together because it’s more important to be together. Especially during this time, the opportunity comes in the realization that we’ve been able to very quickly and effectively leverage technology. And so for the last 10 years in education, we’ve been looking for ways to effectively use technology in a classroom setting.


Peter Prochilo (10:07):
Face-To-Face whether you’re a fan of Marzano’s work on, you know, the triad and using technology one, you know, one piece of technology for three students working collaboratively. And now you, you see that a lot of that change has that a lot of that shift has to happen because students are either at home working right. And trying to connect. And so the beauty came out in leveraging technology effectively to maintain that community feeling. And I think that’s one of the successes that, that shines through whether it was students in the elementary panel that had a complete remote school, and may we still partnered them with their homeschool. So they have that, that connectivity, and even for secondary students, right. Because in my, in my specific role, we’re going to go into this year where students have high school students that have a four year career, I’ve had two years jumping in and out of remote situation.


Peter Prochilo (11:04):
Yeah. And so now the opportunity is to really, when they come back face to face is to really, you know, show them what that community is all about because it’s been disjointed. Right. And so the opportunity and the challenge, you know, two-sided coin, the challenge is to you know, of course, all of our colleagues and, and, and my staff are ready to do so is to welcome them back with open arms, make them feel you know, deal with that, that, that little bit of trepidation, that little bit of anxiety will coming back face-to-face and really using that as an opportunity to showcase what a school community can be. All can be all about point.


Sam Demma (11:48):
Yeah. That’s awesome. And what personally, what personally motivates you every day to continue doing this work?


Peter Prochilo (11:57):
You must have a personal driver as well. They wakes you up and keeps you going as well. Yeah. It’s a number of things, but primarily that, that idea of being a guardian of equity, right. That’s the piece for me that, you know, it’s kind of the lens. I see a lot of problems through, you know, where, where is the equity piece in this? How can we make sure that the challenges challenges are met with that, with that lens you know, we have a group of students will always have a group of students that will do very well. We’ll always have a group of students that need extra support, but sometimes I find from my own experience is that we really need to connect with all students and making sure that they all have voice choice and see themselves as learners. Right. And it’s not only, and so you’re thinking not only for these four years that we have them in high school, but we need to help all of them see themselves or the next part, right. You’re preparing them for a few weeks that you, we may not see, but you, you, you want to make sure that we give them all the, all the tools that they need to make those choices. And, and to know that they’re better for having had us in their lives through grandiose.


Sam Demma (13:23):
Makes sense. My grandfather… I think you’re Italian? I come from an Italian background in Greek as well. And my Italian grandfather Salvato was a big gardener. And he would always bring me to his backyard, gardens, tomatoes, everywhere, cucumbers, zucchini, like everything. And the more I started working with students, I realized that educators or anyone that works with youth are kind of like gardeners and you plant the seed and you do what you can to water it. And, you know, sometimes, you know, you show up one day and the tomatoes fully there, you didn’t even see it grow. Sometimes it never grows until, you know, 20 years later and you don’t even realize it. And I think that’s the same with students. You know, you, you do everything you can to set them up for success. And you know, maybe 10 years later, they come up to you and say, Hey, Pete, I remember what you told me. I remember what you told me 12 years ago and, you know, whatever class. And you’re like, I don’t even remember what I told you. How do you remember what I told you? But I’m curious to know, do you have any stories that come to mind of, you know, programs that have impacted young people within the schools you’ve worked in, or students that have come up to you or teachers that, you know, and let them know about the impact of the work has had on them?


Peter Prochilo (14:36):
I’ve been lucky to have a number of really unique experiences. And I’ve been blessed with students that have sought either sought me out or met me by happens happenstance. And you either invited me to their wedding or made a you know, a king to came to my office to show me their first born child, you know, and they wanted me to meet there and see what they become. So at one point in my career I was facilitator, I mean, educator in a classroom that was purposely designed around students who always found themselves in physical altercations. So it was a standalone class where students came to me from different schools and we worked on we worked on an educational and a social plan for six weeks at a time. Okay. And so benchmarks were six weeks and we would, we assess work with the student and the family and have them go back to their home school.


Peter Prochilo (15:45):
Right. And so these students as you can imagine, were either on the verge of being expelled have multiple multiple incidents of physical altercations and the like, and I had I can remember each of their means for the two years that I taught that class. And I can remember even up to about four or five years ago, where one of those, one of those in this case, it was a young young man. Now an adult came to me and wanted to show me his, his welding, his new truck, right. Because he’s now, he’s now an underwater welder. So he took it to you know, and he wanted he came, he sought me out at the school where I was at and made the appointment to come and see me and want to, want me to see where he, he where he, where he’s been, what he’s been doing, that was great, you know, and it was I just stopped everything right there and made time for him.


Peter Prochilo (16:57):
And and we had a good, we had a good talk and I was good, you know, it’s, it was really good to see that some of those things that we, you know, we take each of the students’ interests to heart, of course, and you, you, you deal with each student individually, but it’s, it was good to see that sort of the cumulative effect of things that I stick to and say, you know, it goes back to your garden analogy. Cause my dad was a gardener as well. And so, you know, regardless of what produced that year, I knew that my dad did the same thing to that garden every year. She might tweak a couple of things, but the care that he put into that garden was the same every year, regardless. So the same thing in this case, this young man who came back in that, you know, it may have been at that point in time, I’m teaching this young person in that, in that immediate role when he was in that class, through these steps. Right. But sometimes we don’t think that, you know, we think it’s just a process, but it’s really a a connection that you’re making with the students. Right. And we, even though we might do it repeatedly, like you say, you don’t know that effect. Right. We may wonder what happens, but it was really great that the student came back to show me yeah. He was more proud of the certificate or his truck.


Sam Demma (18:29):
That’s awesome. That’s amazing. Yeah. The phrase that my teacher taught me that had a big impact that aligns with what you just said was you just got to take consistent action and forget about the result, take the actions and forget about the results. And his phrase was small, consistent actions. And I actually wear it on my wrist on this little wristband. I’ve actually, if you give them to the students too, but yeah, it was something my grade 12 older shoes teacher taught me and it’s such a good reminder. Yeah, you’re right. Like the process some years you stick to it, but the produce might not be as great, but you did everything that you needed to do. Same thing with teaching, you know, sometimes people forget that, you know, especially students forget that educators also have families and problems and challenges, and they’re also human beings themselves. You know, when they’re standing at the front of the classrooms, what are some of your own personal hobbies and passions? I know guitar is one of them, but maybe you can share a couple of those things.


Peter Prochilo (19:26):
You know, it’s really been trying to, like you say, try to stay consistent with things. So those are my own hobbies outside of, outside of my work, including my family. It would be certainly the outdoors is a big part of that, whether I’m golfing or I’m just out on a hike even, or for a run or even just a walk, especially around the lake here, it’s always, always trying to do new stuff like that. I’m always branching out that way. And also I know I mentioned golf even though it’s, it’s more of a long walk interrupted by hitting a light balls many times.


Sam Demma (20:06):
And swimming sometimes.


Peter Prochilo (20:10):
Yeah. And then, you know, for me, even one of the sort of escapes, if you will, is, is kind of the, the last few years has been reading nice items. Cause we’re always confronted with reading for for our occupation for work. And it’s there, but you know, making the time to read other items, right. Other other works, it’s always been non-fiction for me. I sort of been musically sort of the, the genre of music and biographies and the like, because music is certainly a big part of, there’s always a song in my head, said my staff one or two that are you humming today, right there. Yeah. So it’s just, it’s, it’s a sort of a combination of things, but certainly even with a busy schedule, just trying to maintain a level of physical activity as we get older, those opportunities for team sports seem to dwindle, but you know other than other than personal fitness getting out into nature is really.


Sam Demma (21:25):
I love that. Well, it’s on the topic of books about music. Here’s the one that I read recently that maybe you can check out. It might be a different genre than you’re used to, but I think you’d like it. So, this book is called it’s all in your head. Get out of your way by Russ Russ, Russell Vitaly is actually a Sicilian rapper from the U S yeah, funny. And I love his book. So he’s an independent artist and basically outlines the story of how he went from nothing to something. And what makes this story very unique is he never ended up joining a record label, turned them all down and kind of did it himself. And it just outlines this whole journey and story and what he overcame and how he got to where he is now and yeah, different genre, but you should check it out.


Sam Demma (22:10):
It might be something that you can listen to. And I think you’re so right about music too. Like when I think back to high school and every kid has different hobbies and they all play different sports and different activities, but I think something that every student has in common is they’ve listened to some form of music Friday. It’s like, it might be a different genre, but they all have a band or an artist or something that they like listening to. An art has such a way of connecting with young people so much so that I’m actually myself trying to work on a spoken word album to appeal to students as well. And yeah, you just really, you just nailed that connection in my own head. And I was like, ah, that makes a lot of sense. I think everyone has a piece of music that they’re always looking forward to. If you could go back Peter and speak to yourself in your first year of teaching, you know, when you’re, but, but with the knowledge and experience you have now looking back, what advice would you give your younger self?


Peter Prochilo (23:05):
Two things. One develop consistent habits right away. Okay. You know, because even the mentors at that time would tell me, you’re going to find your, you know, you’re going to find your way. Right. But you know, it’s really good to compare what you do. I always use the term skeleton, right. It ask my staff or Caitlin let’s deal with the skeleton and we’ll fill in the fill in the parts. You know what I mean? We’ll fill in the rest. But to have that starting point is really important. And I think if I would be able to go back, I would dig deeper in some of the literature and it would be non-educational. I would really go back and look at sort of the, the, the thoughts from the business world, how they manage time and how they, how you schedule your day and all those kinds of things. Because I still do that to this day.


Sam Demma (24:11):
Yeah.


Peter Prochilo (24:13):
I don’t know if you’ve seen time-blocking before.


Sam Demma (24:16):
I’m a huge fan.


Peter Prochilo (24:19):
And so I see this.


Sam Demma (24:22):
This is awesome.


Peter Prochilo (24:23):
I have one of these people make fun of me for it. That’s fine. But it’s my it’s my time blocking from five in the morning, till midnight. And what are my top priorities? What are my secondary priorities? And then a certain light rain.


Sam Demma (24:40):
Where did you grab the idea from originally?


Peter Prochilo (24:43):
There was a couple that floated around one strong Elon Musk that uses something similar. And then there were a few versions online and I just modified what I saw to fit, to fit. What’s going to work for me, but that’s what I mean by a skeleton. Right. So if I had something like that, when I started, that’d be number one, you know, searching for those elements that help you organize yourself and stay consistent. That’s the first, the second thing I would tell myself is don’t take yourself too serious. Yeah. Have a little, and I did have fun. Like, don’t get me wrong. There’s my stories are pretty hilarious from when I started teaching, you know, I had fun, I had fun with colleagues. I had fun working with students got involved. You know, I coached, I did some after-school group. Like we did a, I did a bunch of things, but not to take yourself seriously and just really enjoy where you are in that moment. Don’t think ahead too far.


Sam Demma (25:44):
I love that that’s, those are awesome pieces of advice. And you got me thinking again about the organizational techniques and tactics and ideas. Have you read any books that have been foundational in terms of your self-leadership stuff that you think you should, you know, would be valuable for another educator to check out or read or listen to?


Peter Prochilo (26:02):
Well, my experience has been fairly unique well in Ontario, because it’s always been through Catholic schools. I got in counted organization. And so I’ve always taken the Ignation view. So that’s been sort of my guidepost, spiritually and organizationally. Right. And so I really that kind of did that on my own for awhile. Yeah. Seeing that ignition thought. And then the concept of servant leadership really came forward in a boat 15 years ago, perhaps. Nice to forefront in terms of what, you know, green leaf had a whole series on servant leadership. And that was sort of the solidifying moment where it was, oh, this is a thing it’s not just something that’s rattling around in my head.


Peter Prochilo (27:01):
And and then just, you know, reading as much as I could about that and, and sort of identifying the items that I, the things that I already do, and then looking at what else I can incorporate, you can incorporate everything because you, you know, this is year 30 for me in education, 30, 31. So you know, educators take, you never abandoned the good stuff, right? Like it’s like a snowball, right. You start off with your core beliefs and then this comes along, right? This, this new thought, this new approach and you incorporate it into what you’re already doing, but you never let go of what’s at your core is getting bigger. But that in the center is still the center, still the center. Right. And you, you all, you pick up the great things and you know, some things go by the wayside, but you’re always, you’re always developing. You’re always adding to that core.


Sam Demma (27:58):
Love that. Awesome. Well, this has been a very awesome conversation. I really appreciate you taking some time to come on the show and share some of your philosophies, resources, stories it’s been. Yeah. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you. If, if there’s another educator listening right now who feels a little inspired or just wants to, you know, reach out will be the best way for them to get in touch with you.


Peter Prochilo (28:21):
Probably just through, email’s probably the easiest at this point. And I can share that with you, if you want me to, to share.


Sam Demma (28:28):
Sure. You can actually say it now, or I can put it in the show notes of the episode as well.


Peter Prochilo (28:32):
Yeah. So it’s just peter.prochilo@sudburycatholicschools.ca.


Sam Demma (28:45):
Awesome. Peter again, thank you so much. This has been great.


Peter Prochilo (28:47):
It’s been great. Thank you for the opportunity. It’s been great talking to you and I look forward to listening to the rest of your series.


Sam Demma (28:57):
Now and there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the high-performing educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review. So other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show. If you want to meet the guest on today’s episode, if you want to 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 feel your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

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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.