Michelle Lemaire – System Principal at the Halton District School Board Welcome Centre

Michelle Lemaire - System Principal at the Halton District School Board Welcome Centre
About Michelle Lemaire

Michelle Lemaire (@MsLemaire) is an educator for over 20 years, starting her teaching career as a math teacher in Seoul, Korea. Born in Singapore, Michelle spent her formative years there and continued her high school education in Ontario, followed by earning bachelor’s degrees from Queen’s University and a Master of Education from the University of Toronto. Today, she is the system Principal at the Halton District School Board Welcome Centre.  In this role, she is responsible for newcomer students and their families.

She is a proud mum of two children, a partner to her best friend of 25 years, and sister to four crazy siblings – all of whom keep her grounded in her journey through life.  Michelle is a self-proclaimed foodie, news junkie and world traveller who seeks every opportunity to learn and be the best version of herself every day.

Connect with Michelle: Email | Linkedin | Twitter | Instagram

Listen Now

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

Resources And Related Media

HDSB Welcome Centre

Ontario Principal Council Feature

Halton District School Board

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:01):
Welcome back to another episode of the high performing educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker Sam Demma. Today I have the privilege of interviewing Michelle Lemaire. Michelle and I had the opportunity over a year ago now to work together at her old school. Ushe has now moved on to a new position. She is a systems principal at the Halton district school board. Michelle is a school administrator, who has worked in various roles in different countries with a demonstrated history in building community, through positive relationships, collaboration, and innovation. She is skilled in curriculum leadership, capacity building and data informed decision making. She has her Masters of Education focused in measurement and evaluation from the university of Toronto. She brings a genuine passion, curiosity and authenticity to her work in education, which I think is so, so important. I hope you enjoy this amazing conversation with Michelle and I will see you on the other side. Michelle, welcome to the high performing educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here today. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit about what you do in education?

Michelle Lemaire (02:15):
Well, thank you very much, Sam, for this opportunity. My name is Michelle Lemaire and I’m currently the system principal of the Halton district school board at the welcome center, which serves newcomer families. So new to Halton as well as international students who come to visit our schools and live with us for as long as four years or as short as one year or even six months. So this is where I am now. And I’ve only been in this role for couple of months formally. And it’s been a great ride so far and I’m pretty excited to, to stay on this journey.

Sam Demma (02:53):
Well, let’s speaking of journeys, let’s, let’s break down your own journey to where you are today. Okay. You know, how did you get into education growing up? Did you know that you wanted to be a teacher or how did you stumble across this vocation?

Michelle Lemaire (03:06):
Well, that’s a great question. Inevitably somebody would always ask me that question along the way, and my response has always been the same because it’s true. I, I’m the oldest of in my family. So the, the duty and responsibility to care for my siblings has always fallen on me and that’s okay. Because I really enjoy it and it fulfills me. I mean, there are times where I wanna pull my hair out right. And get super frustrated. I mean, they are your siblings after all, but at the end of the day, it really fills me up. When I see young people being successful at what they’re doing, or at least taking steps towards achieving their goals or achieving what I see as their potential. So that’s what really fills me up and drives me in my job and in my role. So that’s how I kind of fell into cheat teaching.

Sam Demma (04:03):
That’s amazing. That’s so cool. I, I mean, you could have got into coaching, you could have got into, it sounds like anything related to caring for, and working with youth along the way. Did you have teachers or educators kind of tap you on the shoulder and say, it’s so obvious that you love caring for young people, you should get into teaching. Was there any mentors in your life or did you just know? Yeah.

Michelle Lemaire (04:23):
You know what, that’s a great question. There weren’t any explicit taps, but I did have teachers and principals who looked out for me and I’ve always been so grateful for that. I saw like they had direct impact on how I did at school. And that really kind of made me think about, gosh, you know, if they can do this for me, how awesome would it be if I could do this too, for, for others, for young people. So, you know, as I went through high school, I remember my grade 10 grade nine music teacher, and he was my music teacher all through high school. Right. And he was the best like Mr. AFAO. I can just tell you now, like he is cool and quirky and funny, but strict. And I always knew that he’s got my back and he’s always looked out for me and one of what’s best for me.

Michelle Lemaire (05:16):
And he would check in on me, which I really deeply appreciated. I had a principal, a high school principal who was always curious about what I thought and would always talk to me about stuff. And I’m like, me, you wanna talk to me about this and I thought, gosh, you know, how, how awesome it was to feel that my voice matters. And so to me that was so empowering and that really fueled me and really got me towards the journey of, of educating. So it was kind of like one step led to another, right. You’ve got my home life where I’m, I’m helping my siblings and I’ve got, I’m being at school and I’ve got these teachers who mentored me and cared for me and asked me for my thoughts. And so those two kinda came together in a, in a very what’s the word in a beautiful way, harmonic way, that kind of led me to, to my path in education.

Sam Demma (06:17):
So inspiring teachers. I think it’s, it’s so funny. We can all think back to a teacher we had in high school who really poured into us. I hope. Yeah. Everyone had that experience. And every educator I ask on the show has a similar answer. They can pinpoint who those people were and why they had an impact fast, fast, you know, moving forward, you, you finished high school, I’m assuming you went to teachers college. What was that first role that you got into an education? And how was that experience as a new educator for you?

Michelle Lemaire (06:46):
Oh my gosh. , you know what, my first teaching job, I actually taught overseas. Oh, wow. Yeah. And I, and I would not change it. One, it was really hard. It was super hard. I taught in Korea. Wow. So I taught in an international school there in English. I taught math there and it was really, really hard because as a new teacher and I reflect upon that now I was so caught up with the curriculum, the math, you know, like, I’m like you guys, you guys need to know this. And, and the focus as I think about that now, and, and with my experience, it’s always about the relationships, right? It’s always about the connections that you make with other human beings. And that’s what gets through to each other to it, to all of us. I mean, you mentioned earlier, you know, you talk to people and every teacher you talk to have always said, I had this one teacher who really looked out for me, but I bet if you to everybody else, who’s not an education.

Michelle Lemaire (07:50):
They would have a, they would have a, of people who would say I had this really awesome teacher, or I had this really horrible teacher. And to me, that’s, that’s what I would like to change. I want, I want more of that. I had this awesome teacher and less of the, I had a really crappy teacher. Do you know what I mean? Yeah. So I think so you’re, I, back to the original question, like what, what was my first couple of years as a new teacher? It was really hard as I got caught up with curriculum and I mean, I built relationships along the way. And by the end of my first year, I realized that, you know what, like, I really need to focus on the relationships as well as the curriculum, if not more with the relationships so that kids can trust me.

Michelle Lemaire (08:41):
I, it boils down to trust, right? Like the kids can trust, like the teacher’s got my back. And I need to do what they ask me because I trust that when they tell me to do these things, it’s for my own good. And it will come back to help me out. So in subsequent years I took that to heart and I really worked at making sure that I built those good relationships with kids. And with my colleagues too, because it takes a village. Right. We get to lean on each other. And I certainly don’t have all of the answers and I’m not perfect. And I’m not highly skilled in every single area. Yeah. I need my colleagues to help me out in my blind spots.

Sam Demma (09:25):
That’s amazing. So you said something that was interesting, you said it was really hard and then you said, but I wouldn’t change a thing. And typically those two sentences don’t go hand in hand, you know? Yeah. So tell me more about the aspect of that experience that made it so desirable that you wouldn’t change a thing, because I think other educators might benefit from teaching overseas as well, or maybe it’s something that they should all look into or consider. Yeah.

Michelle Lemaire (09:52):
The really hard part was a couple of things. So one was one is the fact that you’re living in a foreign country and you’re not familiar with the culture with the way things work. In, in Korea, I did, I don’t speak Korean, so I, I, I’m not fluent in the dominant language and culture. So I was an outsider from the very get go. And to me that really reminded me of what it’s like to be vulnerable, right. And to not have all those things, those privileges with you all the time. And cause of that, I think I’m a better teacher. I’m a better human being because it taught me the value of kindness and the value of empathy and patience. Right. the other hard part was I think just cuz you would start any new job, a new something is always hard.

Michelle Lemaire (10:55):
And I needed to work through that. I needed to go through that process and allow that to happen and go on the other side and said, you know what I put on all that hard work and you know, what it was worth it. Yeah. And I learned so much about it. I mean, you, I’m sure you can relate to that Sam as, as an athlete, a professional athlete and going through your own personal journey. I’m sure you relate to that too. So that’s why I feel that it’s, it was so hard, but I wouldn’t change it because it made, made me who I am today.

Sam Demma (11:27):
That’s amazing. I love that. I I’ve had so many experiences from traveling too. I, I haven’t taught overseas. That’s a totally different ballgame, but just the experience of being immersed different culture can be so eyeopening and world view broadening, you know, you could change your perspectives very quickly. So you came back from teaching and then what did you start doing here?

Michelle Lemaire (11:51):
I, I, everything was so serendipitous. I came back. I was so fortunate to be able to find a full-time job upon returning back to Canada. And I just started teaching right away in high school again at high school where I didn’t even expect to land. Like I didn’t even think I could, would get the job, but I did. I was so lucky. And I, so teaching math again at that high school, the first year again, was another new journey because I’m suddenly flipped back to an English speaking country and you know, I’m teaching math. And then the following year I was swapped and taught. I taught in a different program where I was working with a lot of in risk youth. And that itself taught me a lot too. About the privileges that I enjoyed growing up and realizing that not everybody comes to the table with the same social and cultural capital.

Michelle Lemaire (12:50):
So again, that really built my character. And, and my values would solidified what it was that I got into this profession for right. There were days of course, pulling my hair up, just like I’m helping my siblings, I’m ready to like scream. But then at the end of the day, when you go back and you, and you, you talk to the kids at the end of the year and you would say, you know what, guys, that was a really hard year. And they’re like, yeah, miss, that was hard. But they would say, but it’s okay, miss, we got your back. And I’m like, and this is why I’m here. Right. so yeah, that was my, my journey back here in the health.

Sam Demma (13:35):
That’s awesome. And at some point you made the decision to not leave the classroom, but take on a different role in the school of principal. Yeah. What every educator I’ve talked to always says, principal is great, but I miss being in the classroom. and I know that leaving the classroom is a very difficult decision. What was the impetus or the inspiration for you to, you know, reach for that different role in the school? And how did you enjoy both of the roles?

Michelle Lemaire (14:04):
Well, it, it’s funny, you should ask because I never thought of myself being a principal, right? Like it was not something that I actively thought of to say, and by this time I’m gonna be that what provided the impetus was I was working with a principal and I had this idea. I was like, so what do you think if we did this, we can really engage kids this way and really move them forward in their learning. What do you think about that? And my principal said, huh, yeah, let’s try it. And I’m like, oh my gosh, did you actually just say yes. And the fact that he was able to empower me with this idea and make a difference with kids in the learning, I thought, gosh, how awesome would it be if I could be in that chair and, and empower other staff to say, yes, you can do this. That’s a great idea for kids. It’s a great idea to help kids cuz it’s good for them. And that really was what pushed me over to, to really go after this, this position of being an administrator.

Sam Demma (15:16):
It’s funny when you were saying or explaining the idea yeah. Of him giving you permission or telling you to go for it. Yeah. The word that came to mind was like enabler. It sounds like a principal as someone who enables potential, you know, a hundred percent.

Michelle Lemaire (15:30):
and that exactly it just like a classroom teacher would enable or empower their classroom, their students. Yeah. The principal’s job is to empower students and their staff to make the, to give them that permission, to try things in the spirit of helping students be the best that they can be. Right. And unleashing that, that potential.

Sam Demma (15:56):
Love that. What do you think are some of the programs that you’ve run in the past in your schools that, that you think were a success or that some of the, or maybe even some of the teachers approached you and said, Hey, Michelle I have enough idea yeah. And you kind of enabled and some good things happened.

Michelle Lemaire (16:18):
That’s a great question. I don’t know if I can nail down to one or two programs that were good for kids, but there were, I can give you a few examples from last year, even though last year was a really different year for us in schools. Right. and despite the challenging year, last year, we had lots of great things happening in our school, not my school now, but lots of great things that happened. So for example, we had one teacher come to me and said, you know, what, how cool would it be if this is my, I wanna get kids to redraw the red dress, the red dress pro project on a murdered, missing in indigenous women. But we draw them using lines that we can define using math, linear equations on Desmos, create these dresses and then hang them up for display to commemorate the murdered and missing indigenous women.

Michelle Lemaire (17:23):
And I said, yes, how awesome would that be? Let’s do it. And let’s bring in our indigenous instructional program. The, to help us through with this, let’s bring in our shift team to think about how we’ve been creatively display this while still honoring this project, the, the initiative behind the re the redress project. So that’s one idea. And, and in this entire journey, our kids benefited and that was the main thing, right. They benefited in so many different ways, you know, of course they learned math, but what’s more important was they truly understood and really dug into the issue of the miss and indigenous women in a math class, which seems so out of context by why not, like, why can’t we have these interdisciplinary learning, right. Yeah. So that was that’s an example of a project I’m really proud of. I’m proud of my staff for doing it. I’m proud of our students for participating in it. And for the other periphery staff that came together to allow it and, and help it along its way.

Sam Demma (18:35):
That’s the new phrase educators will take away from this episode that they can bring back to their principles or, you know, admin saying, wouldn’t it be cool if , yeah. That’s such a, yeah. Such a great way to put it because is I think every, every movement, every, you know, event starts with one of those sentences, right? How do you, how do we build like a community and a culture where principals or sorry, where teachers in their schools feel connected enough and a part of the community to come to you with the idea and actually share. Do you think it’s about letting them know that every, every idea is a good idea or yeah. How do you build a community where staff are willing to come and, and ask those questions?

Michelle Lemaire (19:23):
I, I think first I think you need to model it as a leader that, that you are willing to take risks yourself. And I don’t mean like risks that are, you know, uncalculated. Yeah. And, you know, like, because there is always a threshold of risk that we have to manage. It’s a real, the real part of our job. Right. so there are always some kind of what I call non-negotiables. Yeah. Right. You can never put a student at risk. You must always maintain the privacy of our children. You must always keep learning at the forefront. Those are the, the non-negotiables you need to always honor the individuality of each student and honor their voice, et cetera. So once those foundational pieces are set in, in, in place, then as a leader, you model and you ask questions. Right. And what I have learned in my journey, and I continue to learn because I, I don’t think I’ll ever get it right.

Michelle Lemaire (20:28):
Is to always ask questions, but it’s not about just asking any question, you need to ask the right questions. Mm. And you spend the time trying to find what are the right questions, because once you have the right questions, then you can better define a problem. Right. So my hope is, and, and my you know, my mantra as a leader has always been all, given the non-negotiables, here are my things that here are the things that I wanna go after, which is engaging students, making sure that they are reaching their full potential, that they all always feel included. They’re never left out. The table’s always set for them. Come what may given all of that? What can we do? And how can we, how can we do it in, in a way that would engage kids? And what I have learned is that you ask the kids, the kids would tell you. And that to me is a form of sharing power, a form of including voice. And at the end of the day, our jobs as educators is to facilitate that, how do we share it while maintaining all of those?

Sam Demma (21:47):
Non-Negotiables. That’s an amazing philosophy. yeah. Thanks. And, and a way to look at it. Yeah. Thanks. Usually I think about non-negotiables as like taking out the trash and doing the dishes in my house for my parents, you know..

Michelle Lemaire (22:00):
That’s the same in my house. It’s true.

Sam Demma (22:03):
That’s awesome. I love it. Yeah. And so, if you could know, there might be some new educators who are just getting into teaching, listening to this interview. If you could like, basically take the experience and knowledge you have now and give advice to first year teacher Michelle, knowing what, you know, what would you tell your younger self?

Michelle Lemaire (22:26):
That’s a great question. I would tell my younger self and, or new teachers that it’s O it’s okay to not know everything. Mm. Cause when you start, you feel like you need to know everything. And I, and I maybe that’s a function of youth, right. I will, would, I would say it’s okay to not know everything and you will continue to not know everything. And the key thing is to always be curious and to approach situations with both curiosity, curiosity, and humility. Right. And then the next step is to look for common ground, always look for common ground, cuz differences will always be there. Yeah. It’s the common ground that gets you through stuff and you can walk through things. So once you look for common ground, you build that relationship, then you can move forward. Right. Mm-Hmm so I think that would be the advice kind of be kind to yourself. It’s okay. To not know. And it’s actually better that you don’t know everything because that keeps you humble. But please continue to be curious and be kind and look for common ground.

Sam Demma (23:45):
Now we have common ground because you and my mom make us do dishes and yes, the clothes , it’s funny. That’s awesome on your right behind you. No one can see this cuz it’s audio, but there’s a little quote that says, be yourself, everyone else has already taken. What about that phrase? Kind of stuck out to you so much so that you put it on the shelf.

Michelle Lemaire (24:04):
I love that you picked that up because from, from the time I’ve been a teenager and my dad always kind of said that to me and I, you know how parents say up to you and you’re like, okay, whatever. Yeah. You’re my dad. Like as if you would know anything, you’re my mom. Like as if, and they would always just tell me like, who cares, what I other people say or what other other people think. And I would just kind of dismiss it. And as I got older, I mean, I wasn’t a shop one day and I saw that and I got, I said, you know, that’s it. I need to be me. And I need to be okay with being me. And I get to define me because nobody else gets to define me. Everybody else is already taken. And not me because why I define me. That’s why that, that statement really resonated with me.

Sam Demma (24:58):
Love that. I think encouraging authenticity and just defining your own self worth is so important because when you realize that you’re one of one it’s like when you can trust in your intuition and your own creative ideas, you can bring things to the table that no one else could because no one has your unique experiences and no one’s taught, you know, no one’s taught in the same school at the same time in Korea, teaching English, you know, like all those things build up the person you are. Yeah. So such, such an important reminder also for kids, you know, but hundred percent, Michelle, this has been an amazing conversation. Thanks so much for coming on the, the show here today. If, if there’s an educator listening that wants to reach out or get in touch, what would be the best way for them to reach out to you?

Michelle Lemaire (25:44):
Different ways through email (lemairem@hdsb.ca) and through Twitter (@MsLemaire), I have an Instagram account (@mslemaire) that I created for kids. They can reach out to me through Instagram if they want, if that’s their thing, but you know, any of those three different ways would work.

Sam Demma (26:00):
Okay, perfect. And I’ll put your, if you’re okay with it, an email totally on the Twitter, in the show, note to the episode. Yeah.

Michelle Lemaire (26:06):
Sounds good.

Sam Demma (26:08):
All right. Thank you so much again for coming on the show! Keep up with the great work and we’ll talk soon.

Michelle Lemaire (26:12):
Yeah, you bet.

Sam Demma (26:14):
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, 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.

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