About Dawn Thompson
Dawn (@miztee7) grew up in Scarborough, Ontario and was educated at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. She is an educator with over 25 years of varied teaching experience: from Grade 4 to adults, in public and private schools, day school and summer school, in Ontario, Alberta, Nova Scotia and abroad, and in English and French. Currently, she works in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, for the Strait Regional Centre for Education.
While the subject areas of her classes have varied widely over her career, the one constant has been her involvement with student leadership. Dawn has many years of experience as a school Student Council advisor but has spent the last 11 years working with student leadership outside of school in the NSSSA (Nova Scotia Secondary Schools Students’ Association). She has been the Regional Advisor for the Strait Region and the Sou’West/Valley Region, as well as the Advisor Co-ordinator for the Provincial Conference. This year, she is proud to be transitioning to the position of Provincial Advisor for the organization.
She is a mom to 3 amazing teenage boys who make her laugh every day (and sometimes make her scream in frustration). She is a reader and a writer. She sews and gardens. But her true talent lies in the kitchen . . . and not just because of the food she makes.
**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 on the High Performing Educator podcast.
Sam Demma (01:00):
This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest, I had the privilege of meeting this past year in Nova Scotia. Her name is Don Thompson. Don grew up in Scarborough, Ontario and was educated at Lakehead University in thunder bay. She is an educator with over 25 years of varied teaching experience from grade four to adults in public and private schools, day school, and summer school in Ontario, Alberta, Nova Scotia, and abroad, and in both English and French languages. Currently, she works in Antigonish, Nova Scotia for the straight regional center for education. While the subject areas of her classes have varied widely over her career, the one constant has been her involvement with student leadership. Dawn has many years of experience as a school student council advisor, but has spent the last 11 years working with student leadership outside of school in the NSSSA (Nova Scotia Secondary School Students Association)
Sam Demma (01:57):
She has been the regional advisor for the Strait Region and the Sou’West/Valley Region, as well as the advisor coordinator for the provincial conference. This year, she is proud to be transitioning to the position of provincial advisor for the entire organization. She is a mom to three amazing teenage boys who make her laugh every day and sometimes make her scream in frustration. <Laugh> She is a reader and a writer. She sews and gardens, but her true talent lies in the kitchen, and not just because of the food she makes. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Don Thompson. She is filled with positivity and so much high energy, and I know you’ll enjoy it. I will see you on the other side. Don, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here today. Please start by introducing yourself.
Dawn Thompson (02:46):
Okay. I’m Don Thompson. I am a high school English and French teacher in Antigonish, Nova Scotia at Dr. John Hugh Gillis Regional Sigh school. But more significantly, the reason you asked me to be here is because I am the regional advisor for a student leadership organization in Nova Scotia called the NSSSA.
Sam Demma (03:09):
Your heart has been tied to the NS a for many years. Please tell us why it is such a meaningful organization for you and what inspired you to get involved.
Dawn Thompson (03:22):
So when I moved here about 13 years ago, I didn’t know anything about the Ente. It’s a Nova Scotia thing. I’m an Ontario girl. And I had a couple of students in an English class who said to me, miss, we’re going to this leadership conference and we need an advisor. Do you think you’d wanna go with us? And I thought, well, that’s kind of up my alley. I’ve done student council in the past. And I was sort of looking for my thing outside of the classroom. So I agreed to go. And afterwards I found out that it was over the long weekend in may and it was a three hour drive away. And I was gonna have to take some time off of school. And I thought, holy cow, what did I just get roped into? But my principal assured me that it was an amazing organization and that the girls who wanted to go were really great young people.
Dawn Thompson (04:17):
And so he said, just do it. And I got there and about five hours in, I called home and said, I wanna go to this every year. Mm. I have never experienced anything like this in my career, the enthusiasm, the positive energy and just the astounding quality of an event organized and run entirely by students, which was so well done. I thought I have to be a part of this. And then the two girls who asked me to go ran for co premier of our region, they won the election and they said, would you be our regional advisor? And I said, okay, <laugh> what do I have to do? <Laugh> and, and, and then it’s history from there
Sam Demma (05:15):
And N S a stands, can you share what the abbreviation stands for in case someone’s outside of Nova Scotia?
Dawn Thompson (05:23):
Of course it’s the Nova Scotia, secondary school students association
Sam Demma (05:29):
Love it. I, I loved the conference. I think I had similar feelings that you had being there over the summer. I second, everything you say about it. And if someone is in Nova Scotia listening to this and it’s not involved, what are you doing? What are you waiting for? You know, get involved right now. So when did you realize as a student yourself that you wanted to pursue a career and a future in education?
Dawn Thompson (05:58):
In high school, I thought I wanted to be a psychologist and my father kept trying to talk me out of it. He kept saying, oh, Don, you’d be a really great teacher. I didn’t know if that was really what I wanted. I, you know, like I’d done babysitting and I taught swimming lessons and I’ve done summer camps and things like that. So I guess I’d kind of always been involved in teaching, but I didn’t really know if that’s what I wanted as a career. And then in my last year of high school, I had a momentous conversation with somebody who I guess was kind of a mentor. And he said, Don psychologists build hospitals at the bottoms of cliffs and teachers build fences at the top. Which one do you wanna build? And I thought, I wanna build the fence. I wanna catch them before they fall. I don’t wanna fix them once they’re broken. So I became a teacher.
Sam Demma (06:54):
And when you made that decision after these meaningful conversations with people in your life, what did the journey look like from the moment the decision was made in your mind to where you are today?
Dawn Thompson (07:06):
I remember at university preparing for my very first student teaching lesson and I was terrified. I thought, what if I’m terrible? What if I suck? How am I gonna call my parents and say, I know we’ve spent thousands of dollars in a few years of my life, but I, I think I made a mistake. And then that first lesson was incredible. And like, in that moment, I knew that I belonged at the front of a classroom that like I was born to be there. It was the right fit. So I taught in a bunch of different places. I taught in Toronto for 10 years. I taught outside of Ottawa for the upper Canada school board for a couple of years. And then we moved to Nova Scotia. And in the time that I’ve been here I’ve taught at, I think, six different schools. I’ve taught every grade level from grade four to grade 12. I’ve taught English, French history, social studies, art drama. <Laugh> you name it? It’s pretty much been on my plate at some point in my career.
Sam Demma (08:13):
That’s so awesome. And in your role today, what are some of the aspects of the job that bring you the most fulfillment and joy and just fill your heart?
Dawn Thompson (08:27):
Truly my job with the NS a absolutely does every second. A lot of the time I get asked what do you do in, in your role as regional advisor? And I often answer, well, I don’t do much. I go to meetings, I listen to these kids talk and plan. They do all the work. I’m just the backup plan. And the reality is I do the job because I get, get so much out of it. Mm-Hmm, <affirmative>, it is so inspiring to watch young people be so capable to watch them plan and run incredible events and to do it all with no payback for themselves. This is not a job that they’re getting paid to do. They’re doing the work at the conference. It’s not like they even get to go there and just enjoy it. Yeah. It it’s a significant amount of work.
Dawn Thompson (09:24):
And one of the things that I love about it is that as a teacher, I have always wanted, I’ve always felt that it was my job to prepare students for the world outside of my classroom. Yes, I’m an English teacher, but who cares? If you can write a great essay, that’s not gonna do you a lot of good in your life. I would much rather know that I’m teaching you real life skills. And the N essay is a great way for kids to actually get those skills. They learn how to write appropriate emails. They learn how to read a contract and sign it, how to negotiate, how to create a budget how to problem solve, how to hire people and how to fire people. Yeah. So the skills that they get there are always so impressive. And in my career, I hear a lot about what kids can’t do. Mm. And the NS a always shows me what they can do when you give them expectations, they rise up and they meet them.
Sam Demma (10:29):
Dawn Thompson (10:30):
And give me hope for the future. Truly, you know, I think someday I’ll be in a care facility and it’ll be okay. <Laugh> because they’ll be BSA kids there looking out for me. The future of the world is in good hands.
Sam Demma (10:45):
Mm. So the, the students themselves sound like give you a ton of hope. I would assume they’re also the reason you’re fired up every day to get out of bed and pursue this work. What, what, what else keeps you motivated?
Dawn Thompson (11:01):
There’s a lot of joy in a classroom, right? When you can create a really great safe environment where kids come every day and they know that it’s okay to be who they are. And and that I’m interested in knowing them and learning from them as much as they learn from me, then you often get really, really great classroom conversations that go on which, which are so inspirational. And truly, there’s a really, really wonderful sense of comradery that comes with working with amazing colleagues, too. You know, those connections you make with other educators where you can think outside the box and solve a problem for a kid that nobody was expecting that like, that’s a really rewarding experience too, at the end of the day, if I go home and say, well, you know, maybe they didn’t learn how to write a really great introduction today, but I know that this kid felt loved in my classroom. This kid got some support for making a hard decision. You know, I connected with a colleague and we found a solution for a kid who’s gonna be away for three weeks or something like that. It just, those are the little things that really make every day matter.
Sam Demma (12:21):
I’ve spoken to many people in education over the past two years, and something many of them have had in common is there’s been moments of challenge, especially throughout the past two years personally, with the pandemic. And, you know, thankfully things are changing hopefully for the better for the rest of our lives. <Laugh> school will never go back to the way it was before, which I believe is a really good thing. You know, it’s challenge us to think outside the box and maybe change some of our focuses and practices, but I’m curious to know what you think some of the opportunities are that are coming outta this interesting time.
Dawn Thompson (12:55):
Hmm. Opportunities. I worry that we are not taking advantage of the opportunities that are coming here. We’ve got kids who are really, really connected to technology, and I hope that we find a way to use those opportunities the right way, because I’m a little concerned that right now we’re not preparing kids for how to handle the technology that they’re suddenly so well versed in. They don’t have some of the skills. I think that they really need to navigate that in a healthy way, but a lot of them have become in some ways independent learners. They’ve had to be if they’re doing online learning, if they’re missing classes, because they’re homesick, there’s a lot of independence there that I think we can really cultivate in them and that we need to cultivate in them a sense of personal responsibility for their achievements and their success. And more importantly, a hope that we find a way for them to recognize that what they do at school is really about preparing them for the real world, that there shouldn’t be that disconnect between your classroom and the job you might have someday. Mm
Sam Demma (14:09):
That’s a really great point. I think there are so many pathway opportunities that exist that even when I was a student, maybe we weren’t talking about as much in school and the whole pandemic has really shined a light on the, the flexibility of education or the ways it can exist. And I think it’s given students a chance to, you know, explore the world for maybe a year. Some, some schools in Ontario didn’t even actually go into a classroom for like eight months. And so, yeah, I think you’re absolutely right, like shortening that gap or that leg between what’s getting taught and what’s happening in the world. It sounds like more real world conversations are getting pulled into classrooms, even when we were at N say, the conversations that are happening are so forward thinking and based on current events. So I, yeah, those are, those are great opportunities for learning. What, what, yes, go ahead.
Dawn Thompson (15:05):
I would love to see a four day school week
Dawn Thompson (15:11):
Where kids are in classes four days a week, and there’s one day where they do all the other stuff. They do the extracurriculars, they don’t miss any class time. They get extra support. So they’re not being pulled out of a class to get support in another subject area. I would love to see education seen in a different light. We’ve been doing education the same way for hundreds of years, but the world we’re looking at today is not the same as a hundred years ago. And so I think hopefully the major changes, the, the spotlight that has been Sean on the current challenges in our whole society will allow us to be able to say, okay, we need to really make some bold moves here. If we can survive a couple of years of major changes with no preparation, you know, no, no reports written and no experts hired and no warning. And none of that stuff, if we can manage, then we can do a lot more and we should do a lot more to actually tackle the major challenges that we’re facing in our education system. For sure.
Sam Demma (16:25):
Time to push the limits. That’s the thing that comes to mind, you know be, yeah. What, what do you do to fill up your cup when you’re not at work or in the classroom to help you show up at the best of your abilities?
Dawn Thompson (16:43):
I read I’m an English teacher, so I have a real passion for literature to start with. But to me that’s a really, really great way to decompress get lost in a book, get lost in the life of somebody else, forget your own troubles for a little while and, you know, worry about how they’re gonna manage theirs, which are so much worse than yours. And <laugh> enjoy like I have a passion for language. So I love to see how a writer creates language and controls it and shapes the world, using words. That’s exciting to me. And I make sure that I try to balance that with physical activity and with time in my kitchen, I cook, I bake, I dance at the same time sometimes <laugh> and you know, I try to make sure that I spend time with my kids and I laugh and, and hang out with my friends and just, it it’s, it really is that balance in life, all the things in moderation.
Sam Demma (17:44):
Mm. I, I support the dancing and cooking at the same time. Sounds like a party. <Laugh>
Dawn Thompson (17:51):
You have to be careful though, and you should definitely wear an apron.
Sam Demma (17:54):
Yeah. <laugh> I should get food everywhere. That’s awesome. Well, when you think about people who have had a significant impact on you as a person and your professional development as a teacher who are some of the individuals that come to mind and what do you think those individuals did for you that had a significant impact?
Dawn Thompson (18:17):
There was a teacher in high school. I took political science in grade 12, and I remember walking in to his classroom every day, thinking I know nothing <laugh> and then I would leave going. I only know what I learned today in this class from him, but he never ever made me feel like, I didn’t know anything. In fact, he was the one who started calling me a political animal, somebody who was really passionate about that. And he made me actually want to live up to that. He got me interested in politics, and so I know that a lot of what I do in my classroom, I have shaped around trying to give kids that same feeling, trying to get them to see themselves in a way that maybe they have not in the past, trying to get them to say, well, it’s okay if I’m not an expert or I’m not perfect as long as I’m always trying to grow and, and learn and be better.
Dawn Thompson (19:14):
So I definitely would consider him to be a, a role model for the kind of teacher I became and have a very long relationship with the woman who was my cooperating teacher when I was a student teacher, ah her name is gay Thompson, no relation to me. Oh, wow. <Laugh> but I actually kind of think of her as a second mom, you know, we’ve known each other for 25, some odd years now, and it was amazing to be in her classroom and see what she did and then to work with her again, later on in my career and to watch the environment she created for teachers in her presence and to call her up during the course of my career, when I was facing a job crisis, should I take this job? Should I take that job? What am I doing in my classroom?
Dawn Thompson (20:11):
That’s not working anymore. And to be able to call her up and, and talk to her, not just as somebody who understood my profession, but also who understood me as a, a friend has been really, really extraordinary. And I hope that I pay that forward to young teachers who come into my space as well. And into my teaching world, I, I hope that I give them what she gave me. And then, and then someday when I am retired, I hope that they also call me up and say, Hey, I have this really great thing that happened. And, and, and I can celebrate it with them.
Sam Demma (20:52):
Ah, I love that. Are these individuals that you stay in? I mean, it sounds like you and gay Thompson stay in touch with, do you stay in touch with these individuals often?
Dawn Thompson (21:02):
Well, I don’t talk to her as often as I probably should. That’s okay. But I, we do, we, we call at least two or three times a year, major life moments. You know, she sends my kids birthday cards, which is so lovely. And, you know, just the, the little things that make sure that you stay in touch so that we know what’s going on in each other’s lives.
Sam Demma (21:22):
Nice. Well, this interview gives you another reason to reach out to her <laugh> so hopefully it facilitates a connection. So
Dawn Thompson (21:30):
When tell her, she will be,
Sam Demma (21:32):
So it’s obvious people have played an impact. Are there any resources that you think have also played an impact, maybe that’s books you’ve read that really provided unique perspectives or courses you’ve been a part of, you know, you mentioned the conference NS a, so that’s a big resource. What else?
Dawn Thompson (21:54):
Well, the N plus a I, I know it’s a student leadership organization and it really is designed run planned. The whole thing is for students, but teachers get a lot out of it too. When we go there as advisors, if, I mean, you did a session with advisors, you spent time with advisors over the weekend. You know, how important that time is for them. There are advisors who have been going to conferences for years, and it might be the only time that we see each other, but there’s such a really great sense of family that comes with that. We’re teaching in different places in the province, we’re teaching different levels, different subjects. And yet there’s a connection that we make that is really rejuvenating for a lot of us. And having that provincial conference, especially in may leading into that really rough part of the year, which is June there’s something that really fills up your tank to help you get through the month of June.
Dawn Thompson (23:00):
So it is definitely a huge resource for me, especially because I get energy from that. But I also have an opportunity to dialogue with colleagues, which is not something that happens on an everyday basis, often in a school, you know, you’re locked in your own classroom, doing your thing, that there is not a lot of opportunity to meet with other teachers and say, Hey, what are you doing in your space? Or I’m trying this, and I don’t know if it’s working out. What do you think have you had had experience with this? So certainly the S a has given me that the other thing that I would say really, really shaped my career in terms of a resource many years ago, when I taught in Toronto at Asian court collegiate, we had a principal who was kind of visionary, and he decided that he wanted to train everybody on staff.
Dawn Thompson (23:53):
And I’m not just talking about teachers, I’m talking about TAs caretakers in the building, secretaries administration, everyone who worked in that building was trained on a program, which was called tribes. It’s no longer called that now. It’s peace learning groups. I think I’m not sure that’s okay. Because I think that they’ve recognized that perhaps the name while it was well-intentioned was not necessarily a good choice, but really it’s about cooperative learning in your classroom. It’s about creating a community of learners who support each other for their success. And it’s about the teacher as much being a part of that community of learners as the students are. And so I took the training, but I was initially very skeptical because it was really designed for elementary students and they were trying to run this program with high school teachers. And I thought, oh, really, you think I can play that game with my grade twelves, are you crazy?
Dawn Thompson (24:57):
They’re not gonna wanna do that. And I asked a lot of questions and, and I was probably a little bit difficult. But at the end of the training, I committed to giving it a shot the next year in my classes. And so in September I started it up and I’ve never looked back. Mm-Hmm, <affirmative> the difference that it made in my classroom. Every single time has been tangible. It makes kids comfortable with each other. It makes them feel safe. It creates a relationship between me and them that is so necessary if you want real quality learning to happen. So during the pandemic, it was more challenging to do that because a lot of the activities required contact and they’re supposed to be sitting in groups and working in groups and they weren’t allowed to, and they had to wear their masks and they couldn’t see each other’s faces and they couldn’t touch the same ball.
Dawn Thompson (25:57):
So you can’t play the game where you throw the ball back and forth. Like it was just, there was so much about it. That was so hard. And I felt it because the environment that I created in my space was not the same. Mm-Hmm <affirmative> it was missing something. So getting back to it this year, just renewed how much that had such a gigantic impact on me as an educator. I would love to become a trainer and train other people to do that someday. But in the meantime, I make sure that I use it in all my classes, and I talk about it with my colleagues. I have the book that has the whole program laid out. I bought it, I consulted on a regular basis. I check out new activities that I might try from it. And I think that that was a really huge component for developing me into the educator that I am.
Sam Demma (26:49):
Isn’t the book, the same title of the program? Like what would the title of the book be if someone wanted to try and find it, or
Dawn Thompson (26:55):
The, the, I don’t, I’m hoping that they’re manufacturing a new version of it. Okay. But the old version was tribes, TLC the tribes learning community and it’s I think if you go online, they have a website, but I’m pretty sure exchange if you search up tribes, it’ll take you to peace learning groups now. And I think that they’re revamping a lot of stuff, so I don’t know how many of their resources their books are available anymore.
Sam Demma (27:26):
Okay. When you say using it, is it more so a collection of exercises and activities that you could implement in your classroom or what exactly is the program?
Dawn Thompson (27:37):
Well, the program has, it’s an approach really cool to how you run everything in your classroom. Okay. So I spend a lot of time at the beginning of a course, really making sure that I’m creating that space for students, getting them comfortable. They’re sharing information about themselves. I’m learning about them as individuals, as learners. They’re learning about me. We’re developing our four agreements, which basically set the rules for the classroom. You know, it’s about being an attentive listener. It’s about being mutually respectful to each other. It’s about the right to pass or participate, meaning that there are some times where if you don’t wanna talk today, you don’t have to. But recognizing that the more you don’t participate, the less other people get to know you. And then that’s not such a comfortable space for you. So understanding that you have to make choices and really building this sense of community in the classroom respect and celebrating the differences in our space and amongst our people, but also looking for the connections that draw us together and, and help us make a community.
Dawn Thompson (28:50):
So it’s a bunch of different activities that you can do. And then it’s sort of an approach to even how you run the lessons. If I really wanted to, I could structure all my lessons that way I don’t. But often I do have activities that we do on a regular basis that build that sense of community. And then eventually, probably about six weeks in when I feel like kids know me and I know them I ask them to give me a collection of probably about five names of people who they would like to have in what I’m now calling guilds instead of tribes. Nice. because it, I think a Guild is a really great name for what they’re doing. It’s a group of people who are not related by blood, but who have a common goal, their own success. Yep. And who have things in common.
Dawn Thompson (29:41):
So I’m calling them guilds now. So they tell me five people they’d like to have in their Guild. I put those guilds together and I promise them that at least one person that they have asked for will be in their Guild. So everybody has a safe person in their Guild. But I put those guilds together thinking about genders. I think about strengths and weaknesses. I think about personalities. I think about learning styles. I think about all of the things that contribute to how they might successfully work together. And then they sit with that group. They often work with that group. They don’t do everything with their group, but many things. And what I hear usually at the end of the year is how much they loved their group, how tight they became. You don’t have to think of a name for their group and they’d come up with crazy stuff all the time. And <laugh>, it’s, it’s just, there’s so much positive about it that I think if I create that in my space, then all the learning that happens in the room afterwards comes out of the fact that this is a good place to be.
Sam Demma (30:45):
Mm. Sounds like a conference in a classroom. That’s what came to mind. <Laugh>
Dawn Thompson (30:49):
Sam Demma (30:50):
<Laugh>. Yeah. It’s so that’s so cool. It sounds like it’s had a really big impact on your beliefs and philosophy and approaching education, which is awesome. I’ll definitely hyperlink it down below so people can check it out. If you could take all of your experience in education, all the wisdom you’ve gained and all of your years teaching go back in time and like tap down on the shoulder. When, when you were just starting to work in a school, knowing what you know now, not that you would change anything about your path, but what advice do you think it would’ve been helpful to hear when you were just starting?
Dawn Thompson (31:25):
You don’t have to mark everything.
Sam Demma (31:29):
Dawn Thompson (31:31):
As a beginning teacher, there’s this sense that you have to be on top of everything students are doing and everything they do matters, and you have to have marks for everything and you have to be accountable and guess what you don’t, mm-hmm <affirmative> sometimes you just have to relax and let the learning take place that there are other ways to assess the learning that’s happening and to check in with kids that has nothing to do with marking the work.
Sam Demma (31:59):
That’s a great piece of advice and I’m sure people who just started teaching over the past few years could have used that maybe two years ago before they jumped in so thanks for sharing. If someone is listening to this conversation, has been inspired by it, wants to connect with you, join your personal Guild, or ask you a question, what would be the best way for someone listening to get in touch?
Dawn Thompson (32:25):
Well, I I’ve got my social media, so I am on Instagram. I think I’m @miztee77. You’d have to request to follow me because I do keep it private, teachers have to do that. I’m on Twitter, so you can find me there too. I’m pretty sure I’m @miztee7 there, and obviously I’m happy to get emails too. So you know, if you wanna talk about teaching, you wanna talk about the NSSSA? My email address is email@example.com.
Sam Demma (33:10):
Awesome. Don, thank you so much for taking some of your time to stop marking some exams and you know, join me on the podcast to share some of your experiences and beliefs around education. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you and I can’t wait until our next conversation,
Dawn Thompson (33:27):
Sam, it was a real pleasure for me too. It was so nice to reconnect with you. I, I had a great time.
Sam Demma (33:35):
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.
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