Fifth Year

Michelle Dittmer – President and Co-Founder at Canadian Gap Year Association

Michelle Dittmer Gap Year Association
About Michelle Dittmer

Michelle is an Ontario Certified Teacher and holds a B.Sc. from McMaster in Biology, a B.Ed. from the University Of Ontario Institute Of Technology and an M.A. in Leadership from Royal Roads University.

As a high school teacher, she realized that many of the essential skills to thrive as a young adult were being squeezed out by hard curriculum, leaving students feeling stressed, rushed, without direction and purpose and a sense of being unprepared for life outside of the classroom.

Searching for a way to make an impact, she has worked in youth policy development, leadership development, experiential learning, educational travel and educational partnerships.

All of these experiences have culminated in 10+ years of gap year advocacy and gap year planning support and led to the founding of CanGap.

She believes that gap years are a truly educational experience and should be part of more young people’s educational and career journeys.

Connect with Michelle: Email | Instagram | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Canadian Gap Year Frosh Week

Gap Year Planning Toolkit

Can Gap Year Podcast

Endy Mattresses

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 Denma. I am excited about today’s conversation! Michelle Dittmer, and I have spoken multiple times. We’ve worked together multiple times and the energy and purpose that she’s bringing to the world is so important. Michelle is the co-founder and president of the Canadian gap year association.

Sam Demma (01:04):
As a high school teacher herself, she realized that many of the essential skills to thrive as a young adult were being squeezed out of the hard curriculum, leaving students, feeling stressed, rushed without direction and purpose, and a sense of being unprepared for life outside of the classroom, searching for a way to make an impact. She has worked with youth in policy development, leadership development, experiential learning, educational travel, and educational partnerships. All of these experiences have culminated in 10 plus years of gap, year advocacy and gap year planning, support and led to the founding of Ken gap. She believes that gap years are an educational experience. That should be part of more young people’s educational and career journeys. As a gap year, student, myself, I have to say the work that Michelle is doing is so important and the chances are you have students in your classrooms who might think their best option is to take a gap year, but have no idea how to pursue it. And if that’s true for you, this episode is a must. Listen to, I will see you on the other side of this conversation with Michelle. Enjoy it. Take notes.

Sam Demma (02:19):
Michelle. Welcome back for a second episode on the high performing educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you back. How’s it going?

Michelle Dittmer (02:29):
I’m doing really well. You can’t keep me away. You’re just like a little magnet that I can’t get enough of.

Sam Demma (02:34):
Well, anyone who’s promoting experiential learning opportunities and gap years and fifth years to students are people that I want to surround myself with because, you know, I was someone who took that path and found it extremely rewarding. So I can’t thank you enough for the opportunities and doors you’re opening for thousands of other students who might feel uncomfortable to pursue that path due to societal pressures and everything else. What, what prompted you? And at what point in your journey, did you become such a huge advocate for gap years and what prompted you to start the Canadian gap year association?

Michelle Dittmer (03:07):
Well, I started my career off as a teacher, actually a high school biology chemistry teacher, believe it or not. And so that’s where, that’s where my career went. And what I found when I was in the classroom was that students were missing out on a lot of life lessons that we have taken education. And we have squeezed out a lot of things to make more space for curriculum and for grades and for testing. And we took out a lot of that personal development and that personal awareness of the high school experience. It became less about self discovery and more about checking boxes and achieving grades. And now this was a while ago. So things have evolved a little bit since I left the classroom, but that’s really where it was when I was a teacher and I stepped back and I said, this is not for me.

Michelle Dittmer (04:02):
This is not serving students. And I decided that I needed to figure out another way to make space for that. And so I left and I did everything from outdoor education to international service learning to youth policy. And what I kept coming back to is how are we going to make these students, these young people ready for life after graduation. And I kept coming back to this idea of what what’s happening elsewhere in the world. And gap years kept coming up and I kept asking myself, well, why is this not part of our Canadian culture? What is getting in the way? Why is it popular in the UK or in Europe or in Australia, New Zealand? What is it about the north American culture that says do not stop, do not pass, go do not take a break, keep going, keep pushing. And I realized that there was nobody out there strongly advocating for that intentional pause for that purposeful pause. And that there were no resources for the students who needed that and nobody to say, you know what it’s okay. And that’s where I started to make some space for it and founded the Canadian gap year association so that people in essentially had permission to, to take the steps that, that they needed in their lives. And to make a gap year an okay decision, if not a really, really positive one.

Sam Demma (05:33):
And in your exploration of understanding why it’s not as popular in Canada and north America, as opposed to Europe and other places, have you come to any conclusions or like figured out why it’s not, you know, celebrated here as much.

Michelle Dittmer (05:48):
Yeah, we are victim to the American dream. And there is this notion that you have to go fast and you have to go hard. And the harder you work, the more you will achieve, the more successful you will be, the happier you will be. And that you can see that through the burnout culture that we have. You can see that through the gig economy that’s emerging. You can see that idea of hustling. And if you’re not hustling hard enough, you need a side hustle to make sure your hustle level is at like an a plus. And, and so that’s part of it is, is that that push to go forward. We also have such a beautiful mosaic of cultures here in Canada. And with a lot of immigrant families, they come to Canada specifically for the education. And so new families to Canada’s or say, hell, no, you are not going back where I came from.

Michelle Dittmer (06:46):
I came here so you could have an education. And so that’s another piece where young people growing up with a Canadian identity have a conflict sometimes with their parents’ values and their parents’ vision for them. So those are kind of the two main factors that, that make it a little bit different here. Along with the cost of travel to get out of our country is extremely expensive. Whereas in Europe you can just pay a hundred bucks and hop on a flight and end up in another country. But that’s not the total excuse because Australia New Zealand make it happen all the time and they are equally large and equally far away from other countries.

Sam Demma (07:27):
And the further you plan in advance as my mom always tells me the cheaper the flights are. That’s so awesome. And on the, on the other hand, why is fifth year and gap years so celebrated in the European countries? Like explain to me and the educators listening, why you think that students need and should experience gap years?

Michelle Dittmer (07:51):
Yeah. I think that I had a really interesting conversation with somebody the other day that kind of flipped everything on their head. We always hear life is short. Life is short, do all these things. And she actually said to me, she said, life is long. What is one year? What is one year in the rest of your adult life? And you’re in the grand scheme of your career. And, and it’s not that long. And I think that that is more part of a European culture where we have a laid back view that there is a holistic version of happiness. We’ve got siesta time. We’ve got we’ve got the, the relaxed culture of that, that European vibe is very different than the north American hustle. And so that is incorporated all throughout their life. They’re taught to evolve at a slower pace and that those, those pieces will come.

Michelle Dittmer (08:54):
They just not come as lightning fast as our accelerated advanced yourself as fast as you can, north American culture. So I think that’s, that’s where it comes from over there. But the reality is that we need that time to slow down, especially when we’ve been put on this accelerated track. Because we forget to connect and figure out who we are. We’re too busy, checking boxes. We’re too busy getting those top grades for those top schools that we forget about our hobbies. We forget about the other subjects that interest us, but aren’t a prerequisite for that course. We push all of those things to the side and it’s like, flexing your muscles. Like if you only ever worked your bicep and you never worked your tricep, you’re going to not be able to move because you need both muscles. And that’s like the way that we are, we are pushing the academic side of things and we’re not developing that tricep. We’re not allowing these young people to develop all parts of them. And that’s why it’s so essential to so that they understand and they can feel fulfilled in every part of who they are and to discover things and new pathways that really interests them and light them up, especially after the pandemic where they’ve been drained that time to reinvigorate themselves and to connect with a pathway that actually makes sense with, for them and not necessarily just what they’re taught. Mark was there. There’s just so much value to getting some real world experience.

Sam Demma (10:31):
And I find it funny. I was listening to a poem recently by this, this poet named Shane. I can’t remember his last name. It’s escaping me. It starts with a K and in the poem, he says, I mean, that stuck out to me. He said, when I was young, you know, my, my school always asks me who I want it to be, and I would answer, but then they would tell me what I can’t do. Like, that’s so true. Like w like we can’t tell a student, you know, ah, you know, dream big and, you know, set goals for yourself. And then also, but you know what, you can’t do this and you can’t do that. It’s like, you know give the kid the free expression and know, encourage them to take the new opportunities to get new perspectives right now, though, schools all around the world, I would say, are in a state of uncertainty or unsure of what the future is gonna look like. Their, their, their students are unsure of what the features are going to look like. There are big problems being raised to the surface. There’s lots of questions. And question marks. How do you think educators can like calm down a little bit during this time and be that grounded source for their students?

Michelle Dittmer (11:33):
Yeah. I think one of the things that I know about students on a gap year and it’s paralleled in the educators that are supporting them is an extreme discomfort with uncertainty because we are creatures of, we evolved to avoid danger. We, once we found a cave that was safe with no lion in it, like we stayed in that cave because it was safe. We aren’t going to go out and we, aren’t going to start digging around in other caves because there might be a lion out there. And so that defaults to want to feel comfortable, to want things, to be predictable, to want things to be structured is innate to who we are as humans, because it was a survival technique when it, when, when we needed it to be a survival technique. But some of those things don’t necessarily serve us when we take it to the nth degree.

Michelle Dittmer (12:37):
When we start overprotecting, when we start, over-scheduling, when we start over predicting or over over supporting people and funneling them into whatever we think the next step is for them. So really embracing that discomfort with uncertainty is such an amazing gift, that and skill that we need to practice. So as educators, we need to be okay with uncertainty. We need to be okay with not having the answer we need to be okay with being uncomfortable and just waiting. When I was in teacher’s college, I always remember, you had to, you told you had to wait seven seconds in silence to allow people to process, and then, and then come up with an answer. And that was so uncomfortable. And it’s the same thing when we’re talking about young people’s future, if they don’t have an answer to what do you want to do next?

Michelle Dittmer (13:39):
Our default is to fill that silence with something to say, oh, you’re really good in science. You should be an engineer, or you’re a really compassionate person. You should be a social worker. And, and it’s our default to want to solve that problem instead of waiting that proverbial seven seconds and giving them time to come up with the answer, we’re rushed to try and fill that. And I think that’s what we’re doing with a gap year is giving them that seven seconds, allowing them to connect the dots, allowing them to reflect back, well, what actually lights me up, what subjects did I like? What did I not like? What are some of my hobbies? What are some of my interests? And giving them a little bit of space to connect the dots so that they can then come up with their own answer. And I think it’s important that we need to, to give them that space, even though it makes us uncomfortable, even though we would like to rush and solve all the world’s problems for them, that’s not serving them. And that’s not a good place for us. And that’s not our role as educators.

Sam Demma (14:47):
Most, I would argue that most people from north America, when they hear the words gap year, assume you’re going to get some boots and a bag. And I camping van and do a road trip and traveled to another country. Like it seems like the gap year has gotten placed in this container of traveling experiences. And I, I know from personal experience, that’s totally false and the gap year can be used for hundreds of different activities and exploration in your own personal life. Can you share a couple stories of students of yours that you have mentored through gap year that have what they’ve done and how it became a meaningful experience for them? Just to provide examples that a gap year is not just about travel, but it’s about broadening your experiences, your perspective, and helping you make a better next decision.

Michelle Dittmer (15:36):
Yeah. I’ll talk about a particular young woman that I just talked to this year actually. And she knew that she wanted to get into the beauty industry. That’s the direction that she, she wanted to head and her family was pushing her to go to business school. And you want to be in bed. You want to be in beauty, you got to make a business out of it. So you got to start with the business side of things and the rest will come after. And my hunch was that they actually hope that she would not go into the industry, that interest interested her, that she would get some sort of other enlightening experience. But once we started talking about this and she had convinced her parents that she was going to take a gap year, what we actually worked on with her was that each month she was going to explore a different area of the beauty industry.

Michelle Dittmer (16:31):
And so she would spend the first month focusing on aesthetics. So she’d find a free online course, she’d volunteer in an aesthetics like, like in a salon somewhere. And she would learn all she could for that first month. And then in month two, she was going to get into hair care. And so she would look at, she would take some free online courses. She would attend some tutorials. She would move into a hair salon and see what she could learn there. And we did this for about six months, different areas of the industry that she could explore so that she could get some clarity on which direction she wanted to go. And not only that in each step, along the way, she built a network of people that are going to support her later in the future. So if she decided that she wanted to get into hair care, she could then go back to those people that she had volunteered with, or those people that she had done informational interviews with and, and start to build her business or build her network, or find a job because she had that lived experience.

Michelle Dittmer (17:35):
So in terms of getting clarity on, on next steps, it’s a really great way to test things out. I call it your risk-free trial on life. And I talk about the, the Endy mattresses, like who their right mind would buy a mattress online without testing it like nobody, right? Like you guys sleep on it every night, they’re super expensive, but they come with this money back guarantee. And that’s what the gap year is. So before you’re investing all your money and all of your time and your studies get out there and test it out, and you might realize you are exactly on the right path, or you might realize that it doesn’t work for you all. And then you’ve saved yourself thousands of dollars and years of your life to figure it out. So that’s a particular one that really stands out for me.

Michelle Dittmer (18:24):
And we’ve got I have another person that I’m working with right now, and she has an incredible desire to find her place. She grew up in a small town and she herself is very, very passionate about sustainability, she’s vegan. She has a lot of those values that she doesn’t necessarily see in her community, and that’s really isolating for her. So she’s using that year to find her people, to find her place and to find a way where she can live out her values in a way that feels really healthy to her. And that’s really powerful when you feel misplaced your whole life to actually find that connection. And we’ve got people who want to get out and explore the world. People that are very self-aware and they say, you know what? I’ve lived in this town, the rest of my life. And there’s more out there. I just don’t know what it is. I want to see how other people live. I want to talk to other people, I want to hear other languages and they want to get out there and get some sort of perspective on what their life is like at home so that they can, they can make better decisions for themselves. And they can frame it in a more global context, which is really cool as well.

Sam Demma (19:44):
So awesome. Like I traveled a little bit in my gap year. I volunteered a lot in my gap year. I interviewed a lot of people as well in my gap year. And I feel like if I didn’t have my gap year, I would a hundred percent not be the person I am today. I’m doing the work I am doing and, and happy, you know, because I see a lot of, even my peers and my friends that went to school right away without being certain of what they wanted to do. And, you know, they’re finishing their degrees now. And a lot of them are back where they could have been right after high school is saying, I’m not really sure, like what I want to do or what I’m like excited about and this, because there was no inflection, there was no reflection. There was no break. There was no pause. There’s no seven second pause. So I can’t stress enough how important I think this is for students. And if an educator listening right now is realizing that there are some seniors or students in their classes that they think would love this experience. And they also sense that there might be some uncertainty or nervousness about their own futures. How would you recommend an educator, like approach a student in their class and be like, Hey, like, this is for you. And like, you should try this and here are some resources. Okay.

Michelle Dittmer (20:56):
Yeah. I think it’s to present it as an option. I think when we talk about post-secondary pathways, we’ve created a hierarchy where like university is at the top. And then if you never, if you can’t do university, then it’s college. And if you can do college, then it’s apprenticeship in the workplace and gap year isn’t even part of that. So we really need to shake up that, that mentality because that’s not true. So when you’re presenting options, talk about all the pathways and, and put gap year in there as an option right off the bat. And then in having those conversations, if they are uncertain about what steps they need to take, you can tell them that a gap year is not replacing higher education. It is a step on your life journey. And for some that means after your gap year, you returned to school for other people.

Michelle Dittmer (21:53):
That means that you you, you continue on out into the workforce because you found your passion. And when educators get out of their comfort zone in this conversation, that’s what the Canadian gap year association is here for. We have these conversations with students and their parents on a daily basis, and we have tons of free resources to help them decide if a gap year is the right thing for them. And if it is how you make it purposeful, how do you not sit on the couch for a year? How do you connect with the right organizations and opportunities that are going to help them achieve their own goals? Not the goals you want for them, but what are their own goals and how are they going to achieve it? So that’s what we do. And tons of resources on our website, which has, cangap.ca Instagram, we’ve got all sorts of events that we have. So just a plethora of resources, not only for families, but also for educators as well.

Sam Demma (22:51):
Awesome. This has been such an invigorating conversation about gap years, why they’re important, why they’re frowned upon in north America or looked at from a different angle, as opposed to European countries. So much great information. If someone is listening and is just inspired by it, or wants more, what’s an email address or a website that they can, you know, go to, to get in touch with you. Yeah.

Michelle Dittmer (23:13):
Of course www.cangap.ca, we’ve got all sorts of free resources there. You can send me an email directly. It’s michelle@cangap.ca. More than happy to support you and your students in any way that you might possibly need.

Sam Demma (23:30):
Awesome. Michelle, thank you so much for coming on the show, keep up the great work and I’ll see you soon.

Michelle Dittmer (23:35):
Take care.

Sam Demma (23:36):
And there you have it. Another amazing guest and 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 fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

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