About Michael Booth
Michael Booth is the Principal of Blyth Academy’s Yorkville and Orbit Campuses. Previously, he taught undergraduate courses at Northwestern University, Loyola University and Indiana University while pursuing a Ph.D. in Film Studies. Michael has a B.A. from McGill University and an M.A. from New York University.
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Sam Demma (00:00):
Do you want access to all the past guests on this show? Do you want to network with like-minded individuals and meet other high performing educators from around the world? If so, go to www.highperformingeducator.com, sign up to join the exclusive network and you’ll get access to live virtual networking events and special opportunities that will come out throughout 2021. I promise you I will not fill your inbox. you might get one email a month. If that sounds interesting, go to www.highperformingeducator.com. Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator Podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s guest is Michael Booth. He is the Principal of the Blyth Academy, Yorkville and Orbit campuses. He has previously taught undergraduate courses at Northwestern University, Loyola University and Indiana University while pursuing his PhD in film studies. Michael has a BA from McGill University and an MA from New York University.
Sam Demma (01:06):
I had the pleasure of speaking at a couple of Blyth campuses over the past few years, and Michael’s energy really reflects the professionalism that all of the Blyth students and campuses have and contain and pass on to all of their students. I hope you enjoy this episode. I’ll see you on the other side. Michael, welcome to the High Performing Educator Podcast. It’s a pleasure to have you on the show today. Why don’t you start by sharing a little bit about yourself with the audience and explain why you got into the work you do with young people today?
Michael Booth (01:36):
I am the the Principal of Blyth Academy’s downtown Toronto campus. I started with Blyth Academy. We are a, a small boutique private high school in Southern Ontario with campuses across the province from, I think we have 10 campuses now stretching as far east, as London and west as Ottawa. I started with the school 11 years ago now when I was returning to Toronto with my family after the first half of my career was mostly in, in academia, in the states and I was doing my graduate work there. And we were coming back to Toronto. I was looking to come back to secondary education and they were opening a new campus at that time in Mississauga and asked if I would be interested in running that, which I did for eight years. And a couple of years ago go, move to the Toronto location, and this summer I’m also the principal of a new campus we’ve begun, which exists in the virtual hemisphere. Nice. Which is in following the model of what all of our bricks and mortar campuses did in the wake of the lockdown in March running classes face to face with teachers and students through the zoom platform on an entirely, but the, these classes are exclusively virtual for its students.
Sam Demma (03:17):
That’s awesome. And it’s slightly different than maybe what teaching was like last year in the past 11 for you. What has been working in your two locations, virtual and in person with your students right now, and what problems or challenges have you been faced with that you guys have slightly overcome or are still dealing with that someone listening might find valuable?
Michael Booth (03:38):
Well, we’ve been very fortunate at Blythe because I think that more than most, any other school in the province our existing, physical model the gap between that model and what we, we are doing virtually is I think smaller at our school than most any other. And the reasons for that is that we have always had very small class sizes. So in the physical campuses, our class sizes have always been capped at 16 students. The average class size is eight students in the virtual world. We cap them at 12 and they still average about eight. We also have what used to be a, a fairly unique academic calendar where most high schools in the province are either semester with two semesters of a full course load being four courses per student, per semester, after or full year with students taking all their courses from September, until June at the same time, we’ve always been on a quarter system which is in fact what most of the public schools in the province have now turned to.
Michael Booth (04:57):
And the quarter system means that a full course of students is two courses per what the public schools are calling quadmesters. We call them terms. So from September, until mid-November, you might take geography and math, and then you’ve completed those courses, and then you move on to science and history and, and so on. And so that that mix of two courses at a time plus small class sizes plus our school is everything we do and, and our entire structure is dedicated towards very rigorous, comprehensive communication between ourselves students and students, parents, and guardians. Mm. And so in the wake of, of COVID in, we, we were notified, I think, right before March break by the Tuesday after March break, we had resumed classes on the same schedule, same timetable, and didn’t miss a day for the rest of the, the year.
Michael Booth (06:13):
And we simply maybe not, but more simple for us. We were able to effectively mirror what we do in the physical campus, through the zoom platform, so that those are when students are only doing two classes a day, the duration of the classes is longer. So we have two hour and 15 minute time blocks for each class per day. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that students just, as in the physical campus, it’s a very rare, you virtually never would walk around our classrooms and see teach every teacher classroom after classroom standing at the front of the room and, and in a more of a lecture mode trying to pitch it down the middle and hoping that more advanced students aren’t bored and weaker students are following. We have two hour and 15 minutes with an average of eight students in the class to engage in different styles of teaching different styles of assessment.
Michael Booth (07:20):
A lot of one-on-one conferencing, a lot of group work. Our teachers float around the room and students have opportunities to engage in different learning activities in the same class. On the same day, we can do that through the zoom platform as well. So it’s not necessarily the case that our student are listening to a teacher drone on, as I am for two hours on end. They might have a half hour 45 minutes of more traditional classroom conversation, discussion, PowerPoint presentation, have a small break rejoin, and then they might be assigned independent work that they might in breakout rooms on zoom. They might do off camera and then come back. They might have conferences scheduled with the teachers in that second hour to do one on one work. And so our model is really equipped us well to, to carry on in, in that format, the physical school we have resumed physical classes in September and because of our class sizes we’ve been able to maintain social distancing and cohorting of 15 or fewer students.
Michael Booth (08:34):
So no student is exposed to more than 15 other students at any given time of the year. And if a student is unable to come to the school because of an illness in their household, or a situation of immunocompromised or something like that, there is a virtual option coupled with the physical option, always available mm-hmm . So teachers have cameras in their classrooms and you’ll see if a student’s not able to be there. The student will be projected onto a a screen through zoom and be able to interact with their classmates and the teacher.
Sam Demma (09:10):
That’s cool. That’s how awesome game plan. And I think you’re existing model sets you up and life up really well to adapt and evolve with the current situation. What has, what have the students really enjoyed about the changes? Have they given the school or teacher any feedback on what they’re liking and disliking or what they wanna see more of and less of?
Michael Booth (09:34):
Yeah, I think, I mean, I was, I was actually really impressed and we, because we are, we’re a small school community, very, very inclusive, very diverse, very supportive. We all last year, we already had, you know, a very strong community that proved quite resilient. And our approach was able to cater to students that were struggling to adapt to a virtual classroom. And they supported each other for some students they actually really, I mean, they like the fact that they don’t have a commute for some student into, might be struggling with anxiety for them, some of them, the virtual format has actually helped alleviate that. I think, but I, I don’t know that the students have really in the virtual school their are students that don’t live within commuting distance to our physical campuses.
Michael Booth (10:41):
And so we have students from Alberta, we have international students that, that appreciate being able to join our schools without being physically there. They appreciate that we’ve been able to maintain continuity. So where many students in the last half year have, have effectively lost quite a bit of their access to teachers and curriculum. So we’ve, we’ve really this year, for example, our grade 11 math class is struggling because many of the students did not gain the fifth foundations they needed in grade 10 math. So we’ve been kind of triple timing it to help those students through their grade 11 course. But the students that have been with our school ha have not had that struggle because they didn’t have that interruption. We still have the same flexibility and of time tabling. So students have as much course selection and of course, flexibility and adaptability through the year that they’ve always had with us, whereas in many schools, because of the, the challenges that they’re facing the timetables are pretty set and they’re not changing and they’re not adapting.
Michael Booth (11:59):
And and very often they don’t even know exactly what it’s going to be in the next quad master, much less the third or fourth quad master. I think that the challenges that we faced are, are again, they’re, they’re not dissimilar from what we face in the physical school, it’s just, they’re taking on digital forms. So for example, students being shy about or, or, or lazy about, or not wanting to turn their cameras on. And we, as with everything, we, we approach that with empathy and support, we reach out to the student and their families to try and have discussions about what’s happening. If it’s a case of something appreciable like, like anxiety or their, an internet connection, isn’t speedy, we’ll make arrangements where that, you know, that’s okay. But as, as the, as the weeks progress and the year progresses, we, we approach that not unlike we might, we would approach attendance.
Michael Booth (13:06):
So if a student is struggling to make it to class on time or to come to class that’s, that’s enters into the conversation that the school has with the student and their, and their parents or guardians. And unlike, I, I, I know again in the, I, I’m not meaning to I fully appreciate the challenges that, that some of the public schools and the province are facing. And I, I really admire the work they’ve done, but they simply don’t have the capacity to help students and, or require students to have their cameras on. So they’ve got, you know, 25 students in a class and all of their cameras are off. And we, that’s not the case with us. We, we might have one student that we’ve made an arrangement with, but otherwise their cameras are on, they’re engaged and we’re having daily lessons with all of the interactions that we normally would.
Sam Demma (13:57):
Nah, that’s fantastic. And I know your campus has a lot of athletes as well, and extra quicks are a big part. How are you navigating these students who were super involved in other areas, aside from academics, not being able to do those things anymore, is there some way to deal with that and manage with that that’s been successful?
Michael Booth (14:15):
I, Yeah, that’s the, the athletics part is, is more challenging. Where, where one of our strengths lies is with the four terms and three periods a day of which students take two they can manipulate the schedule so that if they’re doing athletics outside of the school, so we have competitive figure skaters, hockey players, soccer players track athletes who have been able to maintain their, their practice schedules. There’s not a lot of games going on, even outside the school. So that’s a nice option with, with our clubs and physical education classes. We, we ran PHY ed in the fourth turn in the spring last year. And it was actually a great course to run because it, it helped us to motivate the students to get outta their bedrooms, which I think initially, I mean, it’s still a problem, but it’s initially it was a serious problem.
Michael Booth (15:16):
And we were doing yoga classes online and we were doing fitness classes, or we were asking them to design their own health programs, but varsity soccer is not really happening. Unfortunately mm-hmm, with other extracurriculars and clubs, because we’re trying to maintain the cohorts of students on Wednesdays. We run a shortened academic day and then we have two periods in the afternoons dedicated to extracurriculars and clubs. So our student council is up and running. We have a math club, we have a model UN club. We have, I think about eight different clubs going and extracurriculars going on for a total student population of 150 students. And so weekly, they’re getting to do that, meet other students in the school. And and that’s how we’ve been able to
Sam Demma (16:10):
Do that. That’s awesome. No, it’s fantastic. There’s so many different challenges, but it seems like you guys have been very successful at managing it and pivoting and finding what works and sticking with it. I think a huge key was the empathy piece that you mentioned in meeting kids where they’re at and understanding their situation before trying to coach them through anything. And I’m curious to know when you were a young person, not that you’re old , but when you were younger and you were in school did you have an educator in your life that made a huge impact on you and what did that person do? That made a big difference. And how did that, like, how did that lead you into education? Was there a defining moment where you decided I want to be a teacher?
Michael Booth (16:53):
Yeah, I think grade seven. I was I was fortunate to go to a, an independent school in Toronto where not unlike many of my friends, my dad was in, in, on base street and banking. And I, I thought until grade seven that I would just do whatever it was he did when he put his suit on to go to work in the morning. But I had an English teacher who was that teacher that, that that touched a lot of us and made me even more excited about the humanities than, than I had been in the past. And really after that, it didn’t occur to me to do much of anything but teaching. And that was really twofold. One was, I always liked working with, with kids. I was a camp counselor but it was also the academic side of it.
Michael Booth (17:46):
So that was, you know, my first job was actually working at the high school. I went to I was working in the boarding house and I was and actually my high school teacher that really inspired me had to take a leap of absence for the second half of the year. So when I was in my second year out of undergrad, I took his, his courses. And that was that, that kind of sealed the deal. And then I wanted to pursue graduate work. But the thing I loved about the graduate work most was the teaching and the thing I didn’t like as much as it was not as conducive to raising a family and yeah, and, and engaging students as much as I wanted to focus on. So that, that was what prompted me to come back to Toronto and, and, and work with life.
Sam Demma (18:38):
That’s awesome. That’s a cool story. And was it just a push that he gave you that inspired you? Was it, what, what made him an impactful teacher? Because the educators listening who are thinking, how can I be more effective with my students? And I can tell you, I had a grade 12 world issues teacher named Mike loud foot who changed my life. And the thing for me with him was his passion. He really cared about what he taught, what he taught. And when he talked about it, you just wanted to listen because he was excited. And I I’m curious, what was it like, what was the qualities of your teacher that made it different from every other class?
Michael Booth (19:14):
In the, in the case of the grade seven teacher, that’s when we started talking about themes in the novels, we were reading of the story and that I’d never done that. And so it brought my level of engagement with the material and my level of thinking beyond what I knew existed. Mm. And then he, he taught like, instead of in, for the poetry unit, instead of only doing 19th century romantic poets, we studied pink, Floyd’s the wall. And we did, I, I think it, I think it was a three or four week unit on that. and so that made me realize that studying wasn’t just out of the textbook and it wasn’t remembering dates and so forth. Mm-Hmm . So in, in my, the case, my high school teacher he, he taught a course that was of his own design that he, that called modernism and I, I, and about modern the modernist movements in art and literature and and the arts in general and, and philosophy.
Michael Booth (20:20):
And I didn’t know that existed either when, when I was in grade that was grade 13. And like a lot of my teachers in high school, I, I would sit in class and I wanted to be as smart as they were. I wanted to be able to cite thinkers and I wanted to be able to interpret the world. I wanted to be able to give commentary and analysis at levels that I couldn’t at the time. Hmm. So that’s a little, that’s a little passe these days. I think, I think a lot of times when people, you know, the current pedagogical trends are more towards experiential learning and student driven learning, and finding ways to, to engage the students almost as if it’s your job to, to, to tap into what they are interested in. Mm. Whereas in my day it was more the case that you’d kind, it was, the teacher would stand there and just be so illuminating that you would be inspired.
Michael Booth (21:32):
And I, I think I, I, I think a mix of both is, is worthwhile. And I, I, I sometimes worry that we put we certainly do it Blyth and, and we put a lot of emphasis on making sure are that we are engaging, the students interests as they exist before they enter the classroom. And my feeling is there’s actually nothing wrong with challenging them to move outside of their, their the interests that they bring in to recognize connections between those interests and what the teacher may be talking about that day. Mm. And, and there’s nothing wrong with challenging them to exceed what their immediate knowledge is of. And I, I, I think particularly in the age of social media where their interests, their desires, their curiosities are being satisfied by the second. And it’s whatever they, they within themselves think to tap into quite literally they don’t have as much experience with feeling uncomfortable or challenged.
Michael Booth (22:47):
And so I fear that if we don’t, build those skills in them, that the world is a much harsher and crueler place to enter as an adult for them than it was for me in my generation. And I fear that when confronted with the challenges of having to meet the expectations of someone other than themselves, that they won’t have much practice in doing that. And so we’re constantly trying to find that balance with us and, and, you know, like with the black screens, like we start with empathy, we start with accommodations, but ultimately the goal is to work on resiliency and that may involve consequences. And we don’t lay them down at the outset. As a matter of course, we work with each student with each family to find what the, the line is. Yeah. But ultimately we’re working to wean them off of the accommodations and the need for degrees of empathy that they might need at the start.
Sam Demma (23:50):
That’s so true. And Ray Dalio, hedge fund manager wrote a book called principles, and he talks about problems and he says most often the bad outcome is just a root of a bigger issue. So having a screen is not actually the, the problem, it’s a symptom of a problem, which you have to uncover through conversations. So I think the approach that you guys take is a great one and it’s well thought out, and I think it can be applied to any problem a students facing. It’s probably not the real problem. Just a root, gotta dig a little bit deeper. That’s fascinating.
Michael Booth (24:25):
Yeah. One of my refrains to the teachers is 99.99, 9% of the time, whatever the behavior or posture a student is, is, is presenting is not what’s actually going on inside. So if it’s a boy that’s kind of fronting and pretending, or not pretend, but acting like he doesn’t care and he’s not interested and sometimes a little oppositional or what have you underlying that is actually some, probably some insecurity maybe you know, certain struggles in particular areas of processing or what have you mm-hmm . And so you always have to translate what’s in front of your face, into an understanding that you don’t actually know. And until you have a better sense of it, give the benefit of the doubt because otherwise they’ll shut down. Yeah. But then going back to my earlier point, ultimately, we’re going to work to get you to, to the place where we don’t have to do that translation, because we figured, figured out where, where the problem lies and what we can do about it.
Sam Demma (25:35):
Yeah. There’s a quote what people don’t or what kids or students don’t, what, what kids don’t speak out, they act out I think Josh ship was the speaker who said that once, and it really resonated with what you do is saying what you’ve learned so far on your educational journey. Maybe you, if you could, could you summarize your key learnings that if you could talk to your former self, when you just started, like what key learnings or pieces of advice would you give? Imagine there’s an educator listening. Who’s just starting teaching now, or is a little overwhelmed your experience over the past 11 years, what do you think are some key things to tell your younger self or a new educator?
Michael Booth (26:14):
Well, I think what we were just talking about is, is is probably the, the refrain that I, that I use the most and the, the way I can best explain it is there’s a great seminar that I’ve gone to a couple of times that my wife is a social worker. So she, she introduced me to this and it’s called walk of mile in my shoes. And it’s for parents of students with learning disabilities and what they do. They start the seminar by showing parents of student of children with, with learning disabilities, a problem on a, on a board and asking them to take five or 10 minutes to solve the problem. And, but the problem is pure gobbly go, and there is no solution. Yeah. And when the parents experience that, then the presenter says, so that’s what your child is going through 24/7.
Michael Booth (27:11):
Mm. And I’ve been to a couple, my wife has been to many and, and she says that she’s, and it happened when I was there. She’s never seen, been attended the seminar when one of the fall, others has not broken down in tears realizing that when he was brow eating his, his son or daughter, that they weren’t being lazy or resistant or whatever, just for the cuz they liked to do that. Cause they were having a struggle that was invisible to the parents. And I think it’s similar. We all fall into habits of, oh, they’re Johnny. So and so is struggling again and giving me a hard time because Johnny is lazy or unmotivated or what have you. And I’m not in the trenches in the classroom as much as I used to be. So I feel like it’s my job to remind teachers to try to walk a mile in their, their student shoes.
Michael Booth (28:07):
Mm that’s awesome. And, and then on the other token, I mean, it’s all about navigating these, these, these often conflicting or competing demands not necessarily only accommodating and this is parents and students. Yeah. We have the capacity at this school to be highly responsive to students struggling or trying to achieve a higher goal or what have you. And the, the immediate impulse is at times to, oh yeah, we can make that accommodation. So we will, and that’s fine at the start, but ultimately the end goal is always, how do we, how do we work ourselves off of needing that accommodation? Like if, if possible.
Sam Demma (28:57):
Yeah. That’s awesome. And a side note question before we wrap up today over your right shoulder, there’s a picture on the wall. It might it be Martin Luther king. I’m curious to know if this is your office or what that picture says.
Michael Booth (29:12):
No, that, that is my office. It’s it’s an album cover for a John QUT train jazz saxophone player.
Sam Demma (29:19):
Nice. yeah. Cool. Very cool.
Michael Booth (29:22):
Having a rough day. I’ll just turn around and look at that and it makes me feel a bit better.
Sam Demma (29:26):
Oh, I love it. Cool. That’s amazing. And if anyone wants to reach out, have a conversation, they think something you said was impactful or inspiring, what’s the best way for someone listening (an educator) to do so?
Michael Booth (29:39):
My email email@example.com is, is great. And I can schedule zoom calls and, and phone calls and or email exchanges.
Sam Demma (29:48):
Awesome! Michael, thank you so much for taking some time today. I really appreciate it, it’s been really insightful. And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the high performing educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review so other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show. If you wanna meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com, and signing up to join the exclusive network. You’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.
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