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social work

Arielle Ben-Zaken – Clinical Social Worker at CIUSSS

Arielle Ben-Zaken - Clinical Social Worker at CIUSSS
About Arielle Ben-Zaken

Arielle has worked with youth her entire professional career.  Whether in summer camps, high schools, and hospitals, Arielle has committed her life to becoming a source of hope and support for young people.  

Connect with Arielle: Email | Linkedin

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

CIUSSS du Centre-Ouest-de-l’Île-de-Montréal (CIUSSS)

BBYO Passport Summer Programs

West Island Therapy and Wellness Centre

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s guest is Arielle Ben-Zaken. She is a clinical social worker. She has worked in summer camps with students. She has worked as a school counselor in a high school. A lot of her work stems around the idea of helping young people. I mean, she’s been surrounded by youth in all of her different roles and responsibilities, and she also works with an amazing organization called Cell 360 to promote social, emotional learning in high schools and across North America. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Arielle. It was very insightful and enjoyable, and I will see you on the other side. Arielle, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here this morning. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit of your journey that brought you to where you are today working with young people?


Arielle Ben-Zaken (01:31):
Totally. Firstly, Sam, super, super excited to be here. I’ve always wanted to be on a podcast, so this is great. So I am a social worker here in Montreal. I’ve been a social worker for the last five years and I’ve been working with teens from, since I can remember. I did a lot of summer camp work where I was staffed with teens and my most amazing job that I loved so much other than the one I do currently was a, like I took kids on trips around the world. So I was like a teen tour guide, but I wasn’t actually a tour guide. I just took kids really you know, en engaged with them; I was their counselor kind of like overseas, and it was such an amazing experience. I think that for me was the eye opening experience that made me wanna come into social work.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (02:16):
I had had a kid on the trip. This was before I wasn’t even considering social work who opened up to me about struggles that she had gone through. And I thought to myself like, this is the type of population I wanna work with. They are malleable, impressionable. They’re a really wonderful population to work with. I have a lot to learn from them. They have a lot to learn from me. And so that really opened up my eyes to kind of how this whole thing started. So now I’m a social worker here. I work for the government, so I work like I do public job and then I also work for found medicine clinic. And then I also do some part-time therapy through a therapy clinic called the west island therapy center.


Sam Demma (02:54):
Oh, that’s awesome. And let’s go back to the beginning. Yeah. So the, the first way that you started teaching and engaging with youth was through summer camps.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (03:04):
Yeah, exactly.


Sam Demma (03:05):
So what got you into that and what was that experience like?


Arielle Ben-Zaken (03:08):
So it, first of all, it was amazing. I reminisce about that every day. It was like my favorite times of my life. I started going to summer camp at a young age. So at the age of eight I was at sleepaway camp from eight till 22. And so for me being a camper, there was really like a, a wonderful experience where I met a lot of staff that really had an impact on me. And then when it was my turn to become a staff, I was not gonna pass up the chance cuz I wanted to be the person who can have an impact on someone else as well. So I started there and that was my journey at summer camp.


Sam Demma (03:40):
Oh, that’s awesome. Yeah. And then the next role was in a school.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (03:45):
Yeah. So exactly. So, well actually not, no. So the next role after that I went on to get my master’s, my master’s in social work. Nice. Then I worked in youth protection, so child protective services. Okay. For a couple years. Yeah. Which was also a really interesting experience, both personal and professional. I learned a ton about myself difficult job obviously. You know, seeing kids going through situations of abuse and neglect is really tough. Yeah. But rewarding because of the role that I had, which was really working with the families to to, to, to help them out and really bring them back together. And then after that I went to the school, which was also super cool because it was a different way of working with teens. So again, I did like some of the counseling, so they came into my office and we had some conversation and I helped them with things they were struggling with, but I also just got to interact with the kids in a different way. You know, taught them I did like the drug and alcohol program where I went into the classes and I with, with the other social worker and we taught them about drugs and alcohol and healthy use and did some sex ed stuff too. Like it was just a really interesting way of, of engaging them. And it was so much fun.


Sam Demma (04:51):
What brought you into the classroom? Like the, the work that you do could take you in so many directions and it, it seems like you so many tried a bunch of different avenues, which is awesome. It gives you a diverse perspective, but what brought you into a school setting as opposed to just going to like working at a hospital or at a social work clinic, you know?


Arielle Ben-Zaken (05:08):
Yeah, yeah, totally. I think for me it was really engaging one on one with the teens. Whereas like in a hospital setting, you’re kind of you’re you, there’s not necessarily one specific role. Sometimes you could switch around departments. You’re not necessarily only working with teens. Like I knew if I got myself into a high school, I’d be working specifically with teens and youth. And that for me was, was important. Because like I said, they’re, they’re really fun, fun crowd to work with at the same time. They’re also struggling a lot. There’s a lot of issues there with like mental health. Especially now with the pandemic, things are like on, on a rise. And I really felt like it was, you know, again, like I’m not a superwoman or a superhuman and I can’t just like help everybody, like I want to, but I felt like I could at least have an impact on them and really create relationships with the students that I worked with and have them sort of like, like look up to me in a way and really be able to impart knowledge on them, which was important to me.


Sam Demma (06:00):
And have you, have you heard different things due to the pandemic this year from the students you interact with and engage with and what is like the number one thing students you think, and everyone has a diverse challenge and they might all be, not all be the same, but what is something that you hear coming up very often among lots of different teens?


Arielle Ben-Zaken (06:19):
Yeah, so I no longer, I no longer work at the school, but I do do like private clinical work with teens. Got it. But we’re seeing a lot of issues with body image self-esteem eating disorders. I was actually just part of a really amazing sort of work workshop with an NEB, which is like a, an organization that works with eating disorders. And I had it last night and they’re, I mean, the numbers are on a rise, like really, really completely on a rise. Kids are at home doing nothing but scrolling through social media. And you know, I I’ve, I’ve said this before that they’re they’re positives and negatives to social media and the positives are that there’s a lot of kids that are having kids, teens, whatever it is, adults that are having a voice now and, and a platform to use their voice, but on the other end there’s a lot of comparison and, and, and this is what my life looks like and all these, like what I eat in a day videos that are coming up now that kids are watching, teens are watching.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (07:15):
So lots of body image issues. Like I, I just read yesterday in the, in the top that we had, they spoke about I actually wrote it down if you don’t mind me reading it. Cause I thought it was, it was a oh yeah, 80. It was a statistic that 80% of Canadian girls ages, 10 to 17 downloaded a filter or used an application to change the way they look in pictures by the age of 13. Wow. Like it’s. Yeah. Yeah. So for me, like in what I do right now is I work a lot with body image and self-esteem, and it’s sort of like where I wanna continue going. Because as a woman who lives in society where these like there’s these beauty standards and all these things, it’s so important for me to help girls understand that it’s, this is not the only way to be the only way to go. Yeah. So, yeah.


Sam Demma (08:01):
Yeah. It’s so true. I’m actually working on a spoken word album called dear high school. Me and one of the poems is all about the pressure that society puts on us and how it can make life feel like an uphill battle. And it’s like, it’s crazy companies, large companies, and, you know, big corporations don’t sell us clothes and, you know, filters, they sell us the fact that we’re flawed quote unquote, and that we need these things to be perfect. And it’s so false, but it’s like, I deal with it. Everyone deals with it and it’s yeah, it gets exhausting, you know?


Arielle Ben-Zaken (08:31):
Yeah, totally. And it’s almost, it’s, it’s, it’s all we know, right? Yeah. Like it’s all we, we have grown up in this society where it’s, it’s really, we’re, we’re someone once said this it’s like we’re coming into a disordered society. Like society itself is really messed up. And so how can we be okay. Coming into a society? That’s not okay.


Sam Demma (08:48):
Yeah. I, I feel that a hundred percent I want to go back for a second. See your trips. Yeah. Around the world. Yeah. Where did this come from? What are these, can you tell, tell me more about it and an impact it had on you and also the students.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (09:01):
Totally. again, like I said earlier, like one of the best jobs I’ve ever had and I’m so grateful to have done it. It was with the company called B B Y O passport. I literally, it was like, I don’t know, six years ago I had no summer job didn’t know what to do. So my mom, and she’ll be very happy that, you know, she’ll hear me say this looked upon the internet for me to see like what, you know, I don’t know, like summer jobs and this popped up. And it was really, it’s a Jewish organization. B B Y O is an, is a, like a youth group, like a teen youth group. And so this is like their passport division. And really like, I started, I think the first trip I ever did, they got trips that go like all over the world.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (09:38):
They go to Eastern Europe, they go to the UK, they go a lot to Israel because of the, there’s a Jewish component to it. And I did my first trip to the west coast of the us, which was a three week trip. And I saw the entire west coast of the us. And then every other year after that, I went to Israel. A bunch of times I went to Italy, I went to Eastern Europe. Am I missing anywhere? I went, yeah, no. And that’s where I went. And it was just such an amazing opportunity. Like, firstly for me, it was a very different job compared to being a camp counselor because now you’re a counselor overseas. So at camp you’re their, you’re their parents, sister, brother, whatever it is, 24 7 here. You’re that also, but you’re really their only connection because they can’t turn around and go home as easily as they could up north here in Montreal.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (10:24):
So that was, that was a really interesting added experience of, or added part to the whole thing as well. And really like, again, there was like that Jewish component too. And I really like, I, I did not go to like Jewish, private school when I was growing up. I went to public school, so I didn’t really have a lot of Jewish knowledge. So I learned it a lot at camp. And then on these trips too, I was learning while also trying to help the kids learn as well. And I think for me, like you know, I love Israel. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. I’m, I’m part, I’m half Israeli, so it makes sense. Nice. And so for me, watching them fall in love with Israel was also amazing cuz I remember the time that I fell in love with it.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (11:00):
So there was like all those kind of added components. And then as I got older, right, as, as I sort of became more, I guess you can say like, like a senior staff in these trips there was a lot more of a mental health component that became obvious. Like when I started there was no mental health issue. I mean there were kids had mental health issues. Don’t get me wrong, but my last time working with the voo passport, my role was very different. So I went to Israel for six weeks. I was sort of like the mental health professional that ran around from trip to trip to deal with these issues. When I started, we didn’t have that, that wasn’t known to us as staff. And it just goes to show that mental health issues are increasing amongst teens like exponentially. So yeah.


Sam Demma (11:43):
And what do you think is the big life learnings that students took away from those experiences? I think that travel is such a transformative experience and curious to know what the students were saying after those or what you think they took away from that experience.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (11:59):
Yeah. I think, I think travel was obviously, you know, a big, a big part of it because that’s the reason they came on the trip. I think also though there was a sense of community that we created. We really worked hard to create. I think it’s easy for kids to be at school be impacted by those around them and then come on these trips and meet people. They may not necessarily be friends with at school and get to know people in a different way. It was a really intimate setting, right. I think like the biggest trip I was on at 40 fourteens, but I remember one year when I went, I had like 20 cuz I was the first trip going out. Wow. And so we’re like a little family and you could really get to know each other as you, as you go on these trips.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (12:34):
And there’s a lot of like personal learning, right? Like traveling for the first time away from mom and dad you know, seeing certain sites and learning history about, about wherever it was that we were that was also really, really big for the teens. And just a lot of fun, you know, like I think, I think for me the biggest thing when I worked on these trips was that I wanted to make sure that they walked away saying that was an amazing summer. I had such a great time. Can’t wait to do it again. Or now, nowadays when I see like on Facebook, my kids hanging out with each other from like previous trips years ago, I feel, I feel so. So like my, my heart is so warm because I see that they’re still connected. So it’s that sense of connection and community that was created that lasts quite a, quite a long time


Sam Demma (13:13):
And on the topic of mental health being on the rise and students, you know, it’s always been there, but students openly talking about it more and reducing the stigma, you know, you’re a board director, I believe of SEL 360. Can you tell us more about that initiative, why it started and you know, what you’re hoping to accomplish with it


Arielle Ben-Zaken (13:31):
Of of course. So cell 360 is an in initiative that was created to work on reducing the stigma, mental health in teens in the youth population. I jumped on board about a year ago now. We’re really like, everything’s starting to kind of get going now, which is super, super exciting. We’ve done a lot of Facebook live events to really get topics out there that are not discussed normally. Like, like normally I guess you know, in like that are not really discussed, I guess is what I’m trying to say. And, and just really getting people awareness, really creating awareness around, like we just had a, a few videos go out about ed disorders and exercise addiction. Things like that that are sort of, we, we hear the term, but nobody maybe sits down to have these types of conversations, at least not the way we do.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (14:17):
You know, we interview professionals, we interview people that are struggling’re in their own way. And I think that, I think ending the stigma for mental health for, for teens is so important. Because you’re right. Like you said, things are, you know, people are talking about it more now, so it’s really, they’re lucky to be part of a generation or, or of a generation where these conversations are happening. But I remember when I, when I was growing up, like I never had these, these conversations didn’t happen. People were really hush hush about them. It was embarrassing. You know, a lot of people didn’t even know what anxiety was or what depression was, but they knew they felt something different, but we didn’t talk about it. Right. so that’s really what, what cell 360 does and really tries to work on, on ending that stigma. We’re a board of wonderful people and I’m so honored to be a part of it, like really, really it’s super cool. And, and we’re just, we’re just growing and we’re, we’re starting to kind of really things are taking off right now, which is really exciting.


Sam Demma (15:12):
Where do you and the team see the organization or the work in like five years?


Arielle Ben-Zaken (15:18):
Yeah. Ooh, that’s a good question. I guess for, for me I’d really love to get into schools and start like a type of a workshop, like a cell 360 workshop program where we’re really getting into schools and really working with the, with teens and with youth on, on mental health. And yeah, like that’s where I see it going. I’ve always said this though. Like I think it’s super important that kids in high school, somewhere along the line have a class on psychology, have a class on mental health. Because if we can start it young, it will only get better as we get older. People will feel more comfortable talking about it as they get older. And I think that that is so, so, so important, like on, on top of math and English and French and Quebec and all those kinds of things that are super important. So is mental health and really getting teen to understand what they’re feeling, you know there’s nothing worse than feeling something different and not knowing what it is and kind of walking around feeling that whatever let’s say, depressive symptoms or anxiety symptoms and having no label or nothing to connect it with. Yeah. So I think that would be really important.


Sam Demma (16:19):
Yeah. As a student myself, I always found it weird that we learned so much about other things except for ourselves, you know, like totally the one thing that is that is with us our entire life we don’t learn much about. And you know, even now as I’ve grown up and I’m grown up, I’m 21, you still pretty young. But even now I’ve started to realize like your mind is the most powerful thing that you have that anyone has, right. Like everything that’s around us in our reality was once started and crafted in someone’s mind before they brought it to life. And we learned nothing about it and it’s like, we need to know more about this and feelings and emotional intelligence and there’s so many awesome topics. So I can’t wait to see that come to life because it surely will in the next couple years. So, oh, that’s amazing. And when a student approaches you as a social worker or somebody approaches you as a social worker, mm-hmm what do those initial reactions look like? Or sorry, interactions look like, is it a very open conversation? Do you encourage sharing? Like what does that look like? Yeah,


Arielle Ben-Zaken (17:19):
Yeah, yeah, yeah, no. So totally encouraged sharing. Something I think that’s really important about my job is that we, you know, I have to respect confidentiality. So yeah, I really let them know that everything that, that this person and I speak about is kept confidential. I can’t tell anyone about it. I think that initial understanding creates comfort already by just knowing that no one else will know about this kind of thing. And, and that I have no, I’m like legally bound. And can’t talk about these things openly. Yeah. I know for me, like my, my most important thing when I work with a client is I really work to create a safe space. It’s been a little awkward on zoom because I’ve do been doing a lot of my work on zoom, but I’ve been successful. And I feel like I’ve really created a safe space and, and really provided this, the, the support for the client to be able to share.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (18:03):
And yeah, I encourage sharing. I always say, like, I tell clients, you wanna cry, cry, don’t stop yourself from crying. Crying’s an emotion you need to let it out. I really try and make them feel comfortable. For some it’s really awkward and, and, and, you know, I’ve had clients say to me, like, this is really uncomfortable. And so take the first couple of sessions, just get to know them. Yeah. Like let’s chit chat about what music you listen to and what shows you watch and really try and get to know them that way. Because at the end of the day, I’m human too. And so if I can, if I can show them that I’m human and they can understand that about me as well, that I’m not just like this robotic, like social worker they may open up a little bit more to me.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (18:39):
So it’s, it’s, it’s a really interesting experience too. Like I’ve, I’ve been lucky in my jobs to be able to watch people progress from the moment I meet them to sort of like when our work ends together. And I find that the most rewarding and I tell clients all the time, like sitting from where I am, and I only see these people on our sessions, let’s say I’ve been able to see their progress. And they’re always like super they’re really, you, you really think that about me. It’s like, I’ve seen it. I don’t need to think about it. I’ve been able to watch that progress. And I think, yeah, it’s, it’s a lot of sharing. I, I really encourage that, cuz there’s no other way to know about someone than if they don’t share.


Sam Demma (19:14):
And some schools are blessed to have a social worker mm-hmm , but a lot of them don’t, you know, and a lot of local high schools that might not have the budgets or might not have the resource available. They don’t have a social worker in place. Yeah. In those situations, typically a student might actually go to their teacher and a teacher might be unsure how to handle the situation. You know, if you have to give some advice to a teacher, you know, they realize that a student in their class is struggling, don’t know how to approach the student. Like how would you advise them to go about starting that conversation or doing that?


Arielle Ben-Zaken (19:49):
Yeah. I think the, the biggest thing for a teacher let’s say is just to listen. I think that we forget that listening is one of our greatest skills. And that sometimes for someone listening is really all that they need. Mm-Hmm, a lot of people don’t listen to teens. And so it’s like, you know I’ve, I’ve read articles and read things and have conversations about when teens say to their parents, like you know I need to talk or something or they kind of give them an in about a conversation. Sometimes parents don’t listen. Sometimes parents are really easy to say, yeah, I’m busy. I can’t talk right now. But when the kid comes to you, that’s like a very important thing that they’re doing, cuz they’re ready to talk about something. Yeah. I think the same goes with teachers. Like just be, just listen, be open-minded.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (20:28):
There is obviously an, you know, sometimes situations where the teacher like is their hands are tied. Like they really can’t help. So I would always, you know, suggest to seek additional support either from the principal of the school or, you know, maybe look on the internet. There’s tons of really amazing. Especially here in Quebec, I’m only familiar with the resources here, lots of really awesome hotlines and you know, like team texting, they can text numbers now that they’ve opened up so that it’s not just on the phone cause some feel uncomfortable. So maybe even like reaching out to those to those types of, of help lines would be really helpful for teachers too. And yeah, I really think like I’m repeating myself like a broken record, but listening is so important, like such an important tool. Because when, when a Tina’s given time to talk and someone’s listening, let me tell you, they will, if they’re comfortable, they will talk. So it’s, it’s good to sort of make that connection.


Sam Demma (21:23):
Oh, I love that. I, yeah, it’s so funny. I once had a mentor tell me, you know, listening super important and you know, it’s, it’s the most underrated skill. And I didn’t know at the time that he was gonna test me on my own listening skills, but he’s like, Sam, I’m gonna read out some information for you. And he just told me this out of the blue and he’s a lot older and it was his, it was his professional bio and it had a set number of pieces of information in it. And after he finished reading, he just asked me, he’s like, Hey, can you recite however many pieces of information you can remember? And there was like 60 or 80 something pieces. And I, I recited like eight or nine. Yeah. And, and he was like, you failed miserably. And I was like, well, you didn’t, you know, you didn’t tell me it was a test. Yeah. And he said this sentence, I’ll never forget. He said, every time someone else opens their mouth, it is a test. Wow. And it was just like, I was like, whoa, like listening so important. And I can’t think that I’m listening. Good enough. I need to always try and be more present and turn off my phone and make sure I’m fully engaged in the conversation and not thinking about something else while the person’s speaking. So yeah. I just wanted to share that as well. I think you’re absolutely listening is like such a important thing to do. Not only in, you know, scenarios where you’re with a student, but overall just in life in general


Arielle Ben-Zaken (22:40):
Overall. Yeah. Like you just said, the thing to me that, that that is so important is that listening makes you be in the present. I think we live a lot of our lives in the past, in the future. And we rarely, rarely remember that the present is the most important. We’re never gonna get these moments back. So if we’re always living, trying to do something or, or wishing we did something different, we forget about what’s going on in, in, in, in this moment right now. And when you listen, you’re like you said, you’re off your phone, you’re connected, you’re engaged. You’re there. You’re like, it’s such an important thing. And we are like, I feel like sometimes we live life on autopilot, so we’re always going, going, going, going. And we rarely remember, like you said, listening will make you be in the present moment, just, you know, sit down and, and, and use your ears and hear what someone’s saying is so, so, so important.


Sam Demma (23:25):
I hear you there you go. I love that. No pun intended. Speaking about important things, if you could give your younger self advice, like if you could go back in time to the first year you got into social work and working with young people, knowing what you know now and having the experiences you’ve had, what advice would you give your younger self?


Arielle Ben-Zaken (23:45):
I love this question cuz I think about it a lot. I think I would tell my younger self that it’s gonna be okay, don’t worry. You’re gonna get this done. Or things are gonna pan out the way you want them to, but like, don’t rush anything. I was a very rushy like student. I remember I just wanted to get good grades, get outta school. And now I look back and it’s like, I wish I would’ve known that. And really to don’t sweat the small stuff, like a lot of stuff that I worried about back then, didn’t matter. Like I got to where I am now just because life happened and opportunities are arose and I was able to take them. Yeah. And just like go with the flow.


Sam Demma (24:19):
Love it. And if someone’s listening to this and they enjoyed the conversation and wanna reach out to you, what would be the best way for them to get in touch?


Arielle Ben-Zaken (24:28):
That’s a great question. I’d be more than happy to connect with anyone that wants to reach out. If people are on LinkedIn, you can find me on LinkedIn as well. Yeah. Anyway.


Sam Demma (24:39):
Awesome. Ariel, thank you so much again for coming on the podcast. This has been awesome.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (24:43):
Thank you so much.


Sam Demma (24:45):
You’re welcome. And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the High Performing Educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review so other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show; if you want 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.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Arielle Ben-Zaken

The High Performing Educator Podcast was brought to life during the outbreak of COVID-19 to provide you with inspirational stories and practical advice from your colleagues in education.  By tuning in, you will hear the stories and ideas of the world’s brightest and most ambitious educators.  You can expect interviews with Principals, Teachers, Guidance Counsellors, National Student Association, Directors and anybody that works with youth. You can find and listen to all the episodes for free here.

Kelly Karius – Founder of No Such Thing As A Bully

Kelly Karius - Founder of No Such Thing As A Bully
About Kelly Karius

Kelly Karius (@KellyKarius) is an award winning Social Worker, Mediator and Author who is committed to her mission of improving the lives she is able to affect.

Her books include “This is Out of Control! A Practical Guide to Managing Life’s Conflicts”, “The Brief Book of Bullying”, “Burgerslinger”, and “No Such Thing as a Bully; Shred the Label, Save a Child.

Kelly is well versed in First Nations issues in Canada, and is working with elders at Maskwacis, Alberta, to create a Grandfather’s Lessons version of The No Such Thing as a Bully System.

Kelly is also a founder of The Moment of Kindness Foundation, a non-profit foundation, which uses numbered cards and a data base system to promote a program of random acts of kindness meets technology. Kelly drives around in the #kindnesscar a bright green car that people sign with a sharpie marker to pledge kindness.

Connect with Kelly: Email | Instagram | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

No Such Thing as a Bully System

The Moment of Kindness Foundation

No Such Thing as a Bully; Shred the Label, Save a Child

Burgerslinger

University of Regina – Bachelor of Social Work

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s guest was recommended by another past guest, and if you are listening to this and there’s someone in your mind, maybe it’s you or someone you know that you think should come on this show, please reach out to me because I will reach out to that person.


Sam Demma (00:53):
Even if it’s you or someone you know, and interview them. I would love for you to reach out to me and let me know who you’d like to hear on this podcast. You can shoot me an email@samsamdemma.com. That is the reason today’s guest is on the show. Her name is Kelly Karius. She’s an award-winning social worker, mediator and author, who is committed to her mission of improving the lives she’s able to affect. Her books include “This is Out of Control! A Practical Guide to Managing Life’s Conflicts”, “The Brief Book of Bullying”, “Burgerslinger”, and “No Such Thing as a Bully; Shred the Label, Save a Child.”. Kelly is well versed in first nations issues in Canada and is working with elders at Maskwacis, Alberta, and I’m sorry if I mispronounced this, to create a grandfather’s lessons version of the no such thing as a bully system.


Sam Demma (01:38):
She’s also the founder of The Moment of Kindness Foundation, a nonprofit which uses numbered cards and a database system to promote a program of random act of kindness meets technology. Kelly drives around in the kindness car; a bright green car that people sign with a Sharpie marker to pledge kindness. I know you’re gonna enjoy this interview. We talk a lot about bullying. You know, what’s, what bullying really is and how to address it in a school. You know, Kelly is a wealth of knowledge on this topic, and I know you’ll enjoy this as much as I enjoyed learning about it myself. I’ll see you on the other side of the interview, talk soon. Kelly, 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, you know, sharing a little bit behind what brought you to where you are today working in education?


Kelly Karius (02:24):
Well, first of all, I’m so glad that you’re having me on your show. So thank you so much for that. My name is Kelly Karius. I’m a social worker from Red Deer, Alberta, Canada, and I, I started with No Such Thing As a Bully imagine about 20 years ago. Really recognizing that the way that we are currently dealing with bullying and have been dealing with bullying is not really effective and, and looking at a little, you know, six/seven year old and saying, “hey kid, you’re a bully “creates a box for them that, that they may never actually get out of. And, and so I, I had some really extreme experiences that got me looking at this and, and, and created No Such Thing As a Bully so that we could say we all use bully actions. We all use victim responses, one set of skills solves both, and the labels don’t help and, and really create a whole different format for us to start looking at this.


Sam Demma (03:31):
Can you share a little bit of insight into those experiences you had? And if there’re very extreme ones, you can change their names so that you’re not really, you know, sharing that information, but what are those experiences that led you to create this?


Kelly Karius (03:44):
Yeah, so I was bullied myself kindergarten to grade six, and then when I, when I came back in grade seven to a, to a different school, to a junior high, I I came wearing a Jean jacket with a pack of smokes and my fists clenched and beat up a boy in the boy’s bathroom. Whose name I won’t mention and and, you know, looking back on that, that kind of really displayed how that pendulum swings. Yep. So, you know, grade seven, I would be called a bully, but why? And then as I started my private practice, I, I was just a, a year into my private practice, just with a bachelor’s degree which was a bit of a jump. And, and I was hired as an advocate for 20 sets of parents whose teacher was mistreating the, their Stu the students class.


Kelly Karius (04:41):
And I, I mean, I’m sure when I look back on it, that I did a, a pile of things wrong. But you know, we went through the whole system, the school board, the, the ministry of education children’s advocate, the ombudsman nothing happened. And then at the end of that year, the teacher just moved on to a different school. And then in the summer I had a, a client teen client diagnosed with PTSD from bullying and a letter from a chief psychiatrist saying the bullying in this community is outrageous. Someone has to do something. So I put in a, this was about 20 years ago, 2001, I put in the proposal to do peer mediation. That was kind of all I knew at the time, but I didn’t realize how much I, I made people angry the year before and before I knew it, there was an article in the paper saying that I was being investigated by my ethics committee, that I was banned from all the schools in Melville that I wasn’t qualified to do the work that I was doing.


Kelly Karius (05:41):
And so I spent the next year fighting that. And at the end of it, I, I ended up suing the director of education and, and settling that out of court and then started looking at holy cow, why would we expect our kids not to bully when this is what’s going on with adults? Mm. And again, I’m not saying that my behavior was, was perfect in the situation in any way either. But just that every human being depending on what’s happening for them has the potential to use bully actions and has the, the potential to use victim responses to say, oh, this is a terrible situation. And I can’t do anything about it. Mm-Hmm . And so that, that is the experience that really got me looking at this and, and saying, we need a whole different system. We need a whole different way of, of, of doing this.


Sam Demma (06:38):
And what do you mean when you say one skillset solves both? And can you explain both the bully actions and victim results and how people tend to use them?


Kelly Karius (06:47):
Yeah, absolutely. So bully actions, if you picture if you picture one person in the middle of a circle of 10 people, and each of those 10 people saying one negative thing to that person in the middle we have on the outside of that circle, 10 people that each used one bully action. They’re not gonna say that they’re a bully. They, I just said, this one thing, I’m not a bully. That’s not who I am, but yet there’s a person in the middle who’s bullied.


Sam Demma (07:20):
Mm.


Kelly Karius (07:21):
And, and so those, you know, once we each start paying attention to those smaller bully actions that we use, that’s when we can really get a grip on this. And then victim responses is that person in the middle saying, there’s nothing I can do. There’s nothing I can learn. That’s gonna make this better. There’s nothing I can do to get out of this situation. This is, this is a problem of other people. I don’t have to do anything. You know, and, and sort of living in that space that says, I, I, I can’t do anything. And so the set of skills, whether it’s somebody using bully actions or somebody using a victim response, the set of skills are strengthening. Being able to look at those automatic thoughts that pop into your mind and go, you know what, what’s true about this. What’s not true about this. What’s another way of thinking about it. Mm. Being able to set and have goals and to feel good within ourselves, we don’t use bully actions when we’re feeling real good. Yeah. Ourselves. and that is the strengthening. And we are also not, not feeling that victim response when we are feeling really good within ourselves.


Sam Demma (08:38):
Yeah. It’s so true. That’s awesome. It’s funny. I’m writing a spoken word album right now. I’m one of the poems is called empty backpack. And the premise is that people’s words, don’t define your route. You bet on you since day one, you define yourself, it’s time you grab your backpack and empty it out and stop carrying the opinions of everyone else. And it really relates to some of the ideas you’re sharing right now. And I’m actually writing a chapter about it as well. And I was trying to break down why I thought people push their limiting beliefs on you, or would, you know, share or spew negativity at you. And the ideas that came to mind were things that you’re saying, things like low self-confidence superiority complexes or, you know, trauma that they’re personally going through. You know, when you don’t feel good about yourself, you hurt people. And that’s such an interesting thing. So what does the program or curriculum look like? So if, you know, if I was interested in learning more about no such thing as a bully, how could I do that? And if I wanted to engage with you, if I was a school and I wanted to engage with you, what would that look like?


Kelly Karius (09:42):
All right. So the actual curriculum has 25 lessons, things like fight or flight response friendship skills, how to know if you have a good friend, how to be a good friend things like inaccurate thoughts and balancing balancing inaccurate thoughts, and getting a, a grip on automatic thinking. There’s goal setting in there. There is emotions and being able to name how you’re feeling there is looking at the difference between just conflict and bullying and then assault. Because sometimes we call too many things bullying that really are not to engage I’ve got on the website, no such thing as a bully.com for $47 programs that people can grab and just see if it’s for them. And, and the programs are all five lessons to your inbox and then a zoom meeting each week fully proof your home fully that one’s for parents, fully proof your, your classroom that one is for teachers and bully proof, your school for administrators.


Kelly Karius (10:52):
Hmm. When a school wants to get involved, we offer to train five of their staff members and certify them in teaching this material. And it’s, it’s five, not one because the load is too heavy to carry for one. So over a two year period we, we have a school membership. We keep five people in your school trained for two years, if somebody leaves and you wanna put somebody else in under that same contract, you absolutely can. And then we do some meetings with with administrators as well. There’s a whole different policy for schools to use if they, if they join with no such thing as a bully and actually a whole different definition of bullying for schools to use as well. One that has nine points. And you, you have to mindfully look at the situation and see how things fit into those nine points. And that will help you determine is this bullying, is this just everyday conflict? Or is this something even more serious than, than bullying? And, and so it’s really a, a mindful way to look at it. If somebody just says, I want this, and I don’t need those $47 programs to see if, if it’s what we need. Then I would say, just give me an email Kelly, no such thing as a bully.com or a phone call, (403) 447-4404.


Sam Demma (12:22):
I love that. And you mentioned earlier as well, and something that peaked my curiosity, you mentioned that labeling a student as a bully could place him in the box that they never escape. Can you tell me more about that? What did, what did you mean when you, when you said that?


Kelly Karius (12:37):
Yeah. You know what I have, and I have an amazing story that goes with that. And, and this was like the moment that this was right in my face and I went, whoa. So I had started going school to school with no such thing as a bully. And, and often when I enter a classroom, the first question I ask is who in here is a bully. And usually there’ll be some Snickers, you know, maybe one person might put up their hand or, or often they’ll point at somebody else. And and, and then what what’s supposed to happen in my little mind script is then I say, okay, well, who has ever kicked somebody hit, somebody left somebody out on purpose called somebody a name, all these smaller bully actions. And then of course the hound go up and up because we’ve all done that in this case, this was a grade two classroom.


Kelly Karius (13:31):
And so that, so the kids are, you know, seven years old. In this case I asked that question, who in here is a bully and this boy put his hand up, hi, hi. And I said, well, you know what, I bet you have used some bully action, but I don’t think that you’re a bully. And he stands up out of his desk and he said, very firmly, I am a bully. And I was like, Hmm. Okay. And then later on that evening, I was in, so I would, at that time, I was in schools for five days. And so I was just kind of in this little community, I’m in the grocery store, getting, getting some things for supper. And, and I see a little girl in her mom and this little girl is pulling her mom’s hand and saying, mom, mom, look, it’s the bully lady, lady. And, and the mom turns around and she just like, so aggressively says, I’m so glad you’re here because there’s a kid in this school. That’s such a big bully that my kid doesn’t even wanna go to school. And I thought to myself, I bet that that’s that little bully. Mm.


Kelly Karius (14:38):
And then that really got me thinking about the power that he took. First of all, how many times has he been called that? And then, and then now a kid goes, well, that’s who I am. I know, I know because all these growns told me, so that’s who I am. And now I’m gonna hold on tight to that. And all of the qualities that it involves, because clearly I am very, very strong because look at how all of these adults are responding to me.


Sam Demma (15:10):
Mm.


Kelly Karius (15:11):
Now, if we put that kid in a school and we just say, no, there’s no such thing as a bully. You’re you are, you are a little boy that learned how to use bully actions to get what you want, and we’re gonna teach you some other ways.


Sam Demma (15:26):
Mm.


Kelly Karius (15:27):
All the power of that label is gone for, for that little one. And he is put in a position where, okay, I guess I’m, you know, I guess I’m gonna learn these, these other things. And, and so you, you know, you, not only in those small ages, it’s easy to see in those small ages because they’re just little ones, right? Mm. But now that kid grows up to be 12, 13, 14, 15, and is still an adult and is still taking his power from using those bully actions. This is how I get what I want.


Sam Demma (16:03):
Mm.


Kelly Karius (16:03):
This is one way to eliminate that.


Sam Demma (16:06):
And you, you know, you did mention the difference between bully actions and a bully. And I know it’s a part of the package, so we won’t get into it too deep, but what are some of the nine principles or points that a school could use to identify if this is a bully action, or if this is the characteristics of a full blown full blown bully.


Kelly Karius (16:24):
so here’s what I say is that there’s no such thing as a bully. Yeah. But there is bullying.


Sam Demma (16:30):
Mm.


Kelly Karius (16:31):
And so when a school is, is using this definition to look at that, or a parent what they’re looking at is, is what are the qualities in this situation? Mm. And is this something that we need to call bullying? So we’re still never actually saying the kid visibly.


Sam Demma (16:49):
Got it. Yeah.


Kelly Karius (16:51):
So, okay. So here’s how it works. In order for bullying to exist, there needs to be someone with a high bullying value frame of reference. So this is somebody who has the desire to hurt who has the, the takes superior power and enjoyment from what they’re doing. And they have a desire for control and contempt for the other person. So we’re looking at the qualities in the situation, do those exist. Mm. There needs to be an action that is hurtful, and that is repeated. And then there needs to be someone with a high victim response frame of reference. So this is somebody who feels vulnerable, who feels a sense of oppression, who feels unjust treatment. So what this lets us do is change any of those dynamics to change those, the situations. So if we look at the high victim response frame of reference, and we take that person, and we say, you know what, let’s work on some stuff. So you’re not feeling vulnerable. So you’re not feeling oppressed so that if this happens again, you can just walk away and not take any of it home with you.


Sam Demma (17:59):
Mm.


Kelly Karius (18:01):
Now we’re solving bullying by changing that dynamic. Or we work with the, the, the person who has the high bullying frame of re and, and we start working on, you know, why, why do you feel like you need to have this control? Tell me about how you’re contempt for other people, you know, let’s work at changing that. And, and so it gives, it gives a whole bunch of options or solutions when you break it down like this, and the way you define a problem leads to how you’re gonna resolve it. Mm. So we can define problems in ways that we, that really don’t have good resolutions and, and this, and that’s what we’ve done with bullying in the past. And this reverses that


Sam Demma (18:48):
Got it. And, you know, you mentioned that it happens not only with students, but also adults mm-hmm is this a program that you would engage with or potentially consider engaging with in workplaces in the future?


Kelly Karius (19:04):
Absolutely. In my private practice, I did a ton of corporate conflict management work with my first book that came out in 2006 called this is outta control of practical guide to managing life’s conflicts. And, and a lot of those things have made their way over into no such thing as a bully. This is stuff for everyone. And, and even when I’m teaching it my goal is to teach it to adults so that they can teach it to their important kids, to, to have somebody that kids don’t know, come in and stand on a stage and, you know give some tips that is important. And that reaches a certain number of kids in that audience. And I wanna make sure that, you know, when those kids go home, that their parents have that same material and those same ideas to be, to be working with. And so with this, with this system, there is of course the material for schools, but there’s also a book and a membership for parents. You know, so that a school can coordinate, this is what we’re doing at school. This is what we’re doing at home.


Sam Demma (20:19):
And where is Kelly in five years? And what does this program look like then?


Kelly Karius (20:24):
Oh, I’m so excited. So I’m, so I’m starting work on a project. That my goal is to get myself into a bright green motor home that people sign with a Sharpie marker to pledge kindness. Nice. Right, right now I have a kindness car, but it’s a little Honda civic. So I wanna go big and I wanna hit the road with no such thing as a bully and just you know, kind of be going school to school, community, to community and letting people know these ideas and, and what is available. And, and also with the goal of like directing people to other resources, you know, your valuable podcast and other other people that I know that are offering amazing things. Yeah, there’s so much out there and, and the more people know and can educate themselves about communication strategies and emotion strategies, the better off the world’s gonna be.


Sam Demma (21:26):
Love it. And if you could go back in time, I think you said 25 years, you’ve been doing this or 20 years. If you could go back to year one, knowing what, you know now and give your younger self advice, what would you share?


Kelly Karius (21:40):
Oh my goodness. You know what, some, sometimes it’s really good that you don’t know. Mm. Because you know, now I would say, just keep on going and, and, and go through that terrible situation few years after. And I might have said just avoid that whole thing, you know, don’t even take that job. That’s crazy. I think that, that the difference, the difference now in how I would handle it would just straight up be maturity. Mm. You know, understanding human reactions and responses better. Probably not getting, so I can remember times during that, that two year period where my anxiety was just so high anticipating things that never happened, you know? And, and so that would be some of my advice, like just live in the moment and don’t, even though a situation seems like it may be negative. The outcome of that might not be. Mm. And, and so to reserve that judgment and, and be able to just be like, okay, I’m gonna live in this moment and see what happens next. Yeah. That would be good. That would definitely be good advice for me at that time.


Sam Demma (23:00):
And you mentioned at the beginning of the podcast as well, some places where people could find you, but if someone is listening to this and they love the ideas and the content you’re sharing, what would be the easiest way for them to get in touch?


Kelly Karius (23:10):
So hit up the website, if you wanna know more; nosuchthingasabully.com. Kelly@nosuchthingasabully.com to email me, or just gimme an old fashioned phone call (403) 447-4404.


Sam Demma (23:26):
Love that. Kelly, thank you so much for coming on the show. It was so cool hearing this unique perspective on bullying. I can’t wait to see you on the road in your green motor home and hopefully be able to sign it and pledge some kindness to it, but until then keep up the awesome work. And we’ll talk soon.


Kelly Karius (23:40):
Thank you. And thank you for the work that you’re doing with youth. And I appreciate everything you do, Sam.


Sam Demma (23:46):
Thanks, Kelly. And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the High Performing Educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review so other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show; if you want 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. to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Kelly Karius

The High Performing Educator Podcast was brought to life during the outbreak of COVID-19 to provide you with inspirational stories and practical advice from your colleagues in education.  By tuning in, you will hear the stories and ideas of the world’s brightest and most ambitious educators.  You can expect interviews with Principals, Teachers, Guidance Counsellors, National Student Association, Directors and anybody that works with youth. You can find and listen to all the episodes for free here.

Karen O’Brien – Re-Engagement Counsellor

Karen O'Brien - Re-Engagement Counsellor
About Karen O’Brien

Karen has worked in the education system for over 30 years. She began her career as a secondary school classroom teacher teaching multiple subjects. She continued her teaching career with the added responsibility of being a department head. With each new role and school, she developed a passion for helping students who face barriers to success. Her passion led her to the headship at an alternative high school site for students who struggle in mainstream schools.

Today, she is the Re-Engagement Counsellor at Halton District School Board where she helps youth aged 14 to 21 from all high schools in the board stay in school or return to school. Karen works with community agencies and schools to create a plan for each student, ensuring they’re able to finish their high school education and take the next step towards achieving their goals – whatever those may be.

In her personal life, Karen spends time with her family, friends, and at the cottage where she loves to be by the water. She is also a member of a book club that has been ongoing for over 10 years. Her group discusses books, cooks together, and shares many laughs and a few trips. As a mother of two, Karen also gets a great deal of joy watching her children develop their own career paths and passions.

Whether in her professional life or her personal life, Karen loves to learn, take on new challenges and support others as they pursue their goals.

Connect with Karen: Email | Linkedin

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Halton District School Board

Western University – Bachelors of Education

Book Clubs in Ontario

Google Hangouts Guide for Teachers

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. I’m super excited to bring you today’s interview with Karen O’Brien. She has worked in the education system for over 30 years. She began her career as a secondary school classroom teacher teaching multiple subjects, and then continued her teaching career with the added responsibility of being a department head.


Sam Demma (01:00):
With each new role in school. She developed a passion for helping students who face barriers to success. Her passion led her to the headship of an alternative high school site for students who struggle in mainstream schools. Today, she is the re-engagement counselor at the Halton District School Board, where she helps youth age 14 to 21 from all high schools in the board, stay in school or return to school. And let me tell you Karen does an amazing job. I was fortunate enough to work with her on a project with some of those students, and it was a, a very in enjoyable experience working with her. Karen works with community agencies and schools to create a plan for each student, ensuring they’re able to finish their high school education and take the next step towards achieving their goals, whatever they might be. In her personal life, Karen spends time with her family, friends and at the cottage where she loves to be by the water.


Sam Demma (01:49):
She’s also a member of a book club that has been ongoing for over 10 years and her group discusses books, cooks together, and shares many laughs and a few trips. As a mother of two, Karen also gets a great deal of joy of watching her children develop their own career paths and passions. Whether in her professional life or her personal life, Karen loves to learn, take on new challenges, and support others as they pursue their goals. I hope you enjoy this interview with Karen O’Brien, and I will see you on the other side. Karen, thank you so much for coming on the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show this morning. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit behind the journey that led you into education?


Karen O’Brien (02:31):
Absolutely. So my name’s Karen O’Brien. I work for Halton District School Board; I’m the re-engagement counselor. So I work with youth 14-21 who have left school or are in, at risk of leaving school, and the 17 high schools board call me in to work with those youth one on one or in small groups to try and keep them in school and motivate them to not only finish high school, but to plan for their future and go beyond that. So I’ve been doing this particular job for 7 years. Before that I have been in seven different schools; a classroom teacher for the most part. Always looking for a new challenge, hence the move between schools and, and a variety of programs. I’ve taught alternative-ed, regular classroom, gifted, all sorts of different classrooms.


Karen O’Brien (03:26):
What, what got me here teaching? I, I always have sort of been looking to teach or did when I was younger. I thought teaching could, was a possibility and so definitely loved it when I got into the classroom, loved it, but what I really truly loved were those watching those kids who were struggling you know, had barriers to success, watching those kids succeed. Mm. And so tho those are the kids. I kept thinking, oh, those are the kids. Those are the kids I want, wanna work with. So so that’s probably what led me, led me first of all, into alternative education and then led me into this job when this job was advertised. I, I thought this is my dream job and talked to a couple people and they said, yes, yes, you’d be perfect. So I, I thought, oh, my worlds are coming together. This is exactly the work I wanna do.


Sam Demma (04:22):
Well, tell me more about the work itself with reengagement, you know, being a reengagement officer. I, I don’t know that many teachers and even principals are even aware of what it is that might be tuning in. So I would love for them to learn a little more about it.


Karen O’Brien (04:35):
No, yeah. So what I do, so there’s two parts of my job. So if kids have left school and disengaged completely been removed from the register, so 14 and up I contact them at least once a semester to try and talk to them about why they left school. I often look at what’s beyond school because often why they left school. It has nothing or very little to do with school has a lot more to do with what’s occurring in their lives. So I work with all sorts of community agencies whether it’s housing agencies or employment agencies or addiction agencies, I work with all sorts. So I’m work regionally with all of those. I’m on a couple of regional committees. So I have lots of connections. Mental health supports are huge. So I work with all of those agencies.


Karen O’Brien (05:27):
So if I have a youth and I think, okay, these are the barriers, these are the struggles we address those. I get them connected to those type of agencies if they’re not already connected and work hard for that, because that’s the first thing, that’s always the first thing, once they’re connected and on sort of a road to wellness and doing, starting to do better. And, and they start to also trust me and, and have a relationship with me within start to talk about school and what those school goals might be and how school can look for them. That school, isn’t always about sitting in a room of 30 kids in a classroom that school can be done very differently than what perhaps they had experienced. So we talk about how they can do school without that model, that they don’t feel they fit into.


Karen O’Brien (06:15):
And also after they’ve addressed some of their concerns. So a lot of the youth when I meet with them are not, they don’t really see themselves as students has, has potential graduates. So I try to reframe that and help the see themselves. Yes, you could absolutely be a student, maybe not the picture or you have in your head, but, but you can learn and you can be a student and you can go on. And the goal is to go on after high school. So you know, I also read a lot of data and studies, so I know that they’ll do better in life if they go beyond high school and, and post secondary. And that’s pretty, pretty critical for a lot of, of students is to find their passion and whatever that is. So to have either is certainly traditional post-secondary college or university, but there’s also apprentice.


Karen O’Brien (07:09):
There’s also work. There’s also like a dream, a passion. So, so having a plan beyond high school, getting the diplomas a huge win, but it’s, what’s the next step. So I always say, I don’t wanna just get you out of high school. I want to get you into something yeah. Beyond high school. And that’s my goal with them. So I work with them and then, yeah. And work with them, just one one-on-one for the most part, some small group stuff. But most part I do one on one because they’re all unique and need those, those supports. So those are the youth. So those of youth have left school. The other part of my job is I built a relationship with all the schools and the board. So they call me in when they have a kid who’s flounder ring, cuz I always say, please, please call me before they’ve left.


Karen O’Brien (07:56):
Oh, I have a much better chance of helping them. If you know, you introduce me because they know you and, and we meet and I start to work with them when they’re still in school has, you know, when they’re hanging by a thread I want in so the schools bring me in a lot for that too. And that’s that’s, to me, my has evolved so seven years ago, it was mostly kids who have left. Now it’s mostly kids who are disengaging, who are, and, and that’s the bulk of my days and most of my days, which, which I’m very happy for that shift.


Sam Demma (08:33):
Wow. I love that. And you mentioned trust no. Yes. The beginning, initially it might be a generic conversation about their life and what’s going on and listening to them until they trust you. How do you build that trust with a student who might be disengaging?


Karen O’Brien (08:48):
Well, a lot of it is just meeting them. So pre pandemic, I’d meet them near their house, whether that was, you know, at Tim Horton McDonald’s or in a park or the library, wherever, I’d say like, what’s easy for you, where can you walk to, can we just meet and, and either walk and talk or sit and talk. And, and just, and I build the trust, not by saying, tell me about your life as much as I tell them about my job and that I have the ability to help them, not just with school, but with other things, I, I can connect them with other things. So I start to talk about that. For the most part in that first conversation, we don’t talk as much about school we do about their lives and, and sort of what, they’re, what they’re looking for in this moment.


Karen O’Brien (09:41):
I need, you know, I have precarious housing in this moment. I need, I really wanna work in this moment. So I, whatever that one thing is, I work really hard off the initial meeting to make that connection and get them support in that, because then they trust me and then they go the next time. Okay, here’s this, here’s this, here’s this, we do get to the point where we talk about school. I talk about you know, I ask them about when they liked school, like, what do they remember? Even if they have to reach really far back, what is it that they remember to do they remember a class or a project or something? What do they remember? And, and every single time they end up talking about the teacher. So not, well, you know, they may say grade, whatever nine I did this, or with this, they’ll start with, but they talk about the teacher and I think, okay, this is, this is what teaching is.


Karen O’Brien (10:39):
This is relationships. So, and, and they inevitably, that’s the discussion that comes out, that they like that class because they like the teacher because the teacher respected and valued them. Mm-Hmm so that’s really inevitably where it comes from. So I try then to a nice soft place, I call it for them to land in the education system where they have that caring adult. So I don’t just say, go register. I take them, I work with the school, like who’s gonna work with them. Who’s the first teacher they’re gonna encounter. Who’s going to work with them. And let’s pick carefully so, so there’s a good connection or the, the chance of the good connection.


Sam Demma (11:22):
That’s awesome. I love that. And where did your passion come from to work with these, you know, these specific type of students, like, you know, did you have a teacher that impacted you as a student? Did you have a unique own, your own unique journey through school?


Karen O’Brien (11:37):
Definitely. I, well, I moved five times growing up, my father kept getting transferred, so that’s, that’s, you know, it creates a little little, now I look back, I think. Okay. You know, you had to make it the transition. It creates a little chaos in your life. Every time you move. The most difficult move for me was probably the middle grade 12. And so you know, that, that was a tough transition for me. I had an economics teacher who was awesome and really sort of looked out for me. I must say he, so I actually enrolled in economics initially when I went, you know, nice went to university ended up getting an English and economics degree. But, but I, I think that, that was because, and he was like, you know, just one of those teachers who was like, Hey, in the hallway and, you know, built the, like totally made me feel like, okay, I’m part of this.


Karen O’Brien (12:37):
Mm. Even though I don’t feel part of this school, I, I know in this class, I feel like I’m definitely part of this. So so I do think that I also think when I started out in teaching, I was really, really so super curriculum focused. Mm. Like, like that was my, like I knew the curriculum and I was like, you know, had my lesson plans and I was like, I was on it. And I had a, a great 10 class who was gifted in rich class and they were challenging. And so I stopped trying to make them fit my curriculum, that they taught me that that’s not gonna work. and started talking to them about what they want to do. So I’d say, okay though, this is what the curriculum says you have to do.


Karen O’Brien (13:32):
How do you wanna show me that you do that? And, and this was many, many years ago. So it was so my classroom probably appeared a bit chaotic in those days compared to other classrooms. But but like, I love that class. And I, and so that’s what started me on this journey thinking, okay, you know, this, this is yeah, this is, this is how, how you teach you. Don’t, you don’t teach curriculum, you teach kids, you teach students. And, and if you’re always focused on I’m teaching the student, whatever the curriculum is, we can bring in.


Sam Demma (14:10):
Hmm. I love that. You know, you mentioned your economics teacher as well. Sounds like they, they played a huge role. Can you PI point what they did specifically that made you feel like a part of the class? Like, I, I’m curious because I, I know I’ve had teachers like that in my own high school journey. And if you asked me my favorite class, I would tell you world issues, class with, you know, Michael loud foot . So what are some of those things that you think he did or they did for you?


Karen O’Brien (14:35):
Well, part of, so part is there’s twofolds. So the one is a passion for his subject. You know, he loved it. He loved, and he loved the world. So economics, I suspect like world issues. We didn’t have world issues, but economics gave us the opportunity to look at what was happening in the world and then interpret it through the economic lens, through what’s happening. And, and, and so everything seemed like you were getting this, this passionate person about his subject, but getting an understanding of the world and what’s going on in the, in the world that, you know, you’re about to enter as an adult. So though that combination of his passion for the subject and his understanding that students wanna see the relevance, right. We want like, like make this relevant for me, make me understand why this is important. So and he did the curriculum became very relevant to me.


Karen O’Brien (15:29):
The other piece was the, the constant one on one talks. When I look back, he was, he was, you know, he kind of would do a lesson at the front, but he was always, you know, beside me, or, you know, or checking or sitting or pulling a chair or grabbing two desks and putting two, like help this person with, like, he was constantly like, you know, his classroom evolved with relationships as well as with the curriculum. So it wasn’t like we weren’t all just getting the curriculum, getting information from her, from him. We were, we were you know, part of the learning journey as he circulated through and went. And I think that that’s the teachers who, who are on the learning journey with the students and, and meet the students at whatever step they’re at to get them to the next step or help get another student to help them get to the next step.


Karen O’Brien (16:25):
Like, that’s, that’s the learning journey. So if they’re part of it, rather than the, you know, purveyor of knowledge, it’s, to me, to me, that’s, that’s the key to, to really being excellent at your job and for students to then trust you. Because if you are the expert students, I don’t know. I just get the sense that students just sit and passively take it, and then they watch for, oh, did you make a mistake? I’m gonna watch for it kind of thing. Yeah. Like it becomes a little, little bit of a us, us versus him or her or them. But if you’re, if the teacher’s on the learning journey with the student, then I think, you know, everybody leaves.


Sam Demma (17:07):
Yeah. Cause they feel just like them. It’s like, we’re both learning, you know? Yeah.


Karen O’Brien (17:12):
Yeah. Yeah. My students taught me something every year. Like I, I was teaching English and I just still remember this one young person was so funny cuz I was, he was really struggling with the poetry unit and that day we divided everything. Anyway, he was struggling with the poetry unit. So I was explaining it and I was, you know, going, oh, this is so cool. And this is what the poetry’s doing. And he said, okay, I understand. He goes, you understand that? I’m never gonna love this stuff. Right. And I go, okay, hear you. I will, I will back. Like, like I thought, okay, I’m a little Mure. So I I’m, I’m okay with you not loving it. Let’s get down to what you need to know. Yeah. And move on. And he was like, okay, good. So we


Sam Demma (17:55):
Were good from


Karen O’Brien (17:56):
Then on like I thought, okay. Learning again. Right. I get that.


Sam Demma (18:01):
That is so funny. that’s awesome.


Karen O’Brien (18:04):
It was so funny.


Sam Demma (18:05):
Yeah. And so no thinking about your role again, as a, you know, the re-engagement officer in the past couple of years versus this year, how has it changed? Like has there been a huge need for it during like, you know, COVID and what are some of the challenges you’ve been faced with and how have you tried to overcome them?


Karen O’Brien (18:24):
So huge challenges cuz I’m used to going and meeting with the student face to face. So arranging a phone call or a Google hangout as, you know, students don’t turn on their cameras and you know, there’s, there’s, they don’t always attend. Not that they always attend it in person, but so huge struggle. So I have so what I’ve done is I’ve primary to use the staff in the school. So is there someone in the school they were connected to? And I talked to the school and so then I try a three-way Google hangout or a three-way phone conversation because if they had a student success teacher or a guidance counselor or somebody or a math teacher, whomever that they really connected with and that teacher feels they can help. Then, then we were on setting up the Google meet with them, with them to sort of introduce me.


Karen O’Brien (19:19):
So we work a lot of the administrators do that. A lot of the vice principals know these kids really well. So they, we did a lot of three-way Google meets initially. So we worked with that. I got a cell phone numbers whenever I could for kids and would start texting because I can get a response, even if it’s short initially from texting. So just lots of texting check-ins really looking again for that agent, like what, what can I get to help them not necessarily school, but what can I get to help them? So I’ve used, yeah. The Google meet with, with a, a caring adult who introduces us texting some kids I’ve just driven to and said, will you just meet me outside? And we can talk. So some kids I’ve just said, you know, are you willing to do this?


Karen O’Brien (20:10):
So if they are, yeah, we just, we, you know, safety protocols stay distant and stuff, but we’d you know, go walk in a park or, you know, whatever, or just stand outside their house and they’d stand in the doorway and I’d stand back and talk to them. So I did a number of those too, just to try, I you know, used whatever I could, we have Halton learning foundation here. There’s a barriers account. So if a student is struggling, their family’s struggling financially, you can we can give them grocery gift cards. So in some, sometimes I deliberate those and that was my way so, so that was my way in with some of the kids to, to try and engage them in that conversation. I definitely used that a lot. Because a lot of these kids yeah, don’t don’t have much, so that was my way in. So rather than yeah, so I just, yeah, showing up, I mean, I really just have to show up where whatever way they’re willing to show up, if it’s a Google meet or texting or a phone call or on their front porch or, you know, at the door of their building, whatever. Yeah. I just try to show up and be there.


Sam Demma (21:27):
That’s awesome. And did you find that this year there was more support, but you were able to still, you know, do the same type of work, but it was just more difficult and more work or did you find that it was a lot, like it was a lot harder and maybe more students might have slipped through the cracks as a result of the challenges that


Karen O’Brien (21:50):
I felt that more students were slipping through the cracks this year. Although I I’ve been doing my tracking this week and, and summarizing, so we, I feel as a board, we have a good handle on our students. So I, I worried that they were flipping a slipping through the cracks, but that’s partly because I wasn’t seeing them. Oh, picture man. I’m so, so accustomed to seeing them and doing the check-ins that way. But, but I feel we have a good handle on them. There are definitely more suffering from mental health challenges all sorts of other challenges. So we have social worker workers working through the summer mental health, there’s all those things. So I’m feeling like the kids are, they struggle more. Yeah, definitely struggle more, but I’m feeling like they’re connected. You know, we see how, how well they stay connected throughout the summer, but I’m, I’m hoping that we have enough connections that we’re hanging on to them and, and we’ll get them back in September. I’m so looking forward to face to face in September, I’m feeling like we just need to hang onto them and get them back and then support them once they’re back.


Sam Demma (23:06):
Yeah. Couldn’t agree more. It’s it’s so different. I even think about the work that I do speaking this students and doing it virtual is one thing doing it in person is a totally different thing, you know? Totally. So, yeah, I couldn’t agree more. And if you could go back seven years and speak to Karen when she was just getting into this role, what, like what advice would you give your younger self and knowing what you know now?


Karen O’Brien (23:31):
When I I think knowing what I know now, when I first got into this role, I tried to cover everything like do it all, but that brought no depth to my work. Right. So, so, so cover every possible thing. And what I learned is I personally don’t need to cover every PO. I need to make sure everyone’s covered all the kids are covered, but I don’t personally, like I’m not the only person, I’m the only person in my role. And there’s no other role this in the board, but that doesn’t mean there. Aren’t a lot of other people out there who I can tap on and say, Hey, can you connect with these kids? Or even people in the community you know, informal, informal mentors in the community. Like there’s so many people. So I think, I think what I’ve learned is to build that network over the years.


Karen O’Brien (24:22):
So even if I’m not the person you know, diving deep with that kid and helping them every step of the way, I’ve got them connected to somebody who can help them navigate that. And, and they may cycle back in and ask me questions the odd time. But I, I think, I think that I would tell myself to just like focus on not focus on the kids, but focus on your network and who can help and, and who you need to tap on because the, the faster you do that, the more help you’re gonna get for these kids.


Sam Demma (24:55):
Yeah, love that. Such a good piece of advice. Well, Karen, thank you so much for coming on the show. Really appreciate it. If someone’s been listening and they’re interested in the conversation, or just wants to chat with you, what would be the best way for them to reach out?


Karen O’Brien (25:09):
They’re welcome to email me. So obrienk@hdsb.ca.


Sam Demma (25:18):
Cool, awesome. Karen again, thank you so much. Enjoy the rest of your summer. This is probably coming out in September so if you’re listening now, you’re probably wondering what the heck, but , we filmed it in the beginning of July, so enjoy your summer and I’ll talk to you soon.


Karen O’Brien (25:33):
Okay. Thank you so much, Sam.


Sam Demma (25:35):
And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the High Performing Educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review so other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show; if you want 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.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Karen O’Brien

The High Performing Educator Podcast was brought to life during the outbreak of COVID-19 to provide you with inspirational stories and practical advice from your colleagues in education.  By tuning in, you will hear the stories and ideas of the world’s brightest and most ambitious educators.  You can expect interviews with Principals, Teachers, Guidance Counsellors, National Student Association, Directors and anybody that works with youth. You can find and listen to all the episodes for free here.

Breanne Oakie – Teacher at Wolf Creek Public Schools

Breanne Oakie – Teacher at Wolf Creek Public Schools
About Breanne Oakie

Breanne teaches grade 7/8 in a smaller town in Alberta.  Instead of giving you a formal bio here, take a moment to read the below email highlighting the story she shared with me over email…

“Sam,

Thank you for an amazing session today.  It was emotional and I loved how you had us all involved.  The way you presented made it feel like we were actually together, which I think many of us needed to feel.  I’m sure you are going to get bombarded with emails today but I wanted to tell you a short story that touches on what you said about our worth.

I teach grade 7 and 8 in a smaller town. One year, my supervision schedule had me as the detention room supervisor.  This seemed very weird to me as I am not known to be a hard disciplinarian and I’m a bit of a talker and it’s not supposed to be a social time in the DT room.  On the lunch hours I supervised, I saw the same kids over and over, many from the year before who were in my grade 7 class so naturally I wanted to catch up with them, find out why they were there, what they needed help with etc.  Over time, they just seemed to present this sadness.  I decided to email them telling them that I hoped they didn’t judge their self worth by the time they spent in the detention room, with the conflicts they had with their teachers, that were worth so much more and in time they would recognize it.  They never responded to me but they were in grade 8 so emotionally, they aren’t always up to discuss their feelings.

A year later, I ran into one of the boys who was in high school now.  He said he thought I would be happy to hear that he had figured some things out and was doing really well at school and was feeling successful.  He said he hadn’t realized his role in his own learning – that he was responsible for attending class and actively listening to the lessons, for participating in discussion, for reviewing his notes, for being prepared.  He is graduating this year.

The other boy was struggling with family trauma, drug use as a coping mechanism, and touched base with me when he was in high school. We try to touch base every few months to just check in. He messaged me to not let Covid dim my light:) He is on schedule to graduate but has some challenges ahead for sure.

Both boys said they got my email when they were in grade 8 but that they didn’t know how to respond to that level of emotion but now that they are older, welcome any kind of motivating letter from their former teacher.  I’m pretty sure Covid will prevent me from attending their graduation but I am working on their grade 12 letter to send them on their way into the real world and I think I’ll reference some of the points you highlighted in your presentation.

Thanks for starting my day off perfectly,

Have a good one,

Breanne Oakie”

Get excited!  This was an amazing conversation! 

Connect with Breanne: Email | Linkedin

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Wolf Creek Public Schools Website

Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA)

Alberta Teachers’ Conventions

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Friday, February 19th, I got this email from today’s guest, Breanne Oakie. She was a part of the teacher’s association that I was keynoting at, speaking at a teacher convention out in Alberta, and she reached out and she ended up sharing this really long story over email which I thought needed to be heard by you, by other educators, by people that work with young people that might be inspired to hear this transformational story.


Sam Demma (01:13):
And so I invited her on the podcast and she came on and we had an amazing conversation about so many different things. She is a grade seven/eight teacher in an elementary school that’s a part of Wolf Creek public schools in the Alberta area, North Red Deer. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Breanne and I will see you on the other side. Bri, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit behind the reason why you’re so passionate about the work you do today?


Breanne Oakie (01:48):
So I’m a junior high teacher and I kind of fell into that by accident. My degree is in elementary and I, I taught kindergarten one year and then after that I was teaching grade seven grade/eight grade/grade nine, and I’ve been doing that for the past 15 years. And I actually really love that grade cuz it’s kind of this juxtaposition, I guess, of emotions. You know, they’re going through a lot of hormones. They don’t wanna talk to you, but they need to talk to you. And it’s just a, you know, people always say that that’s a hard age but it’s actually one of my, my favourite things to do is spend time with teenagers. Just you feel really validated when they choose you to listen to their stories.


Sam Demma (02:34):
Hmm. I love that. And I’m actually curious to know why you got into teaching. Did it, did you know from a young age, were you one of those people that just knew or did someone nudge you in that direction? How did you end up landing in education?


Breanne Oakie (02:46):
Ah, it was completely by accident. I actually wanted to be a veterinarian course and I went to university and was recommended to go through a conservation biology course degree through, through agriculture, which you could get into vet school if you had taken the right the right classes. And so my first two years were in science and I kind of got my butt whooped by statistics and math and the labs. And I was like, I don’t belong here. Like there’s things I love about this. I love the animal courses. I love the nature courses. I love all of those things, but living in the lab and, and the scientific method and I just aren’t agreeing like it was very hard. Yeah. And I don’t know if it was just because I didn’t spend enough time studying. I wasn’t prepared or maybe I just inherently it wasn’t for me.


Breanne Oakie (03:37):
Hmm. So I actually got asked by the university to take some time off and I took the year off and I was like, what am I gonna do? And I was pretty stressed out because I always thought like, you have to go to university like, this is, you have to end up back here. What the heck are you gonna do if you don’t go there? So I worked at a whole bunch of different jobs that year and I did take some night classes just to get some credits and I wrote a letter to the university and they let me come back on probation. Nice. for the same program. But I took all the options for education, but mostly because I asked my friends, I said, I don’t know what to do with myself. And they said, well, I don’t know why you’re not spending it with people because that’s what you like to do. And they were like, you should either do psych or why don’t you be a teacher? Like you love spending time with kids. So I got into education and immediately it’s completely different. Like there’s, there’s nothing really scientific about it. It’s all about talking, sharing philosophy. And I definitely belonged in that realm a lot better.


Sam Demma (04:40):
Ah, I love that. So growing up, did you have teachers that had a huge impact on you or would you say that most of your drive came from your friends pushing you in that direction?


Breanne Oakie (04:49):
I did have amazing teachers and I loved school. And I remember my kindergarten teacher. My grade one, two teacher was the same teacher for two years. And , I remember when I had to move, she had a big special day for me and I went to her house and spent time with her kids and, and I just remember feeling so loved and having so much choice in the things that those teachers offered. My grade four teacher, my grade six teacher, I just, they were doing so many things that we’d talk about now, like mindfulness, you know, taking that time to set intention for your day, sun salutations in gym class. And I remember thinking nice, like, man, we’re just talking about that stuff now. We’re still trying to implement that stuff now. But when I was, you know, nine years old, my teachers were doing that and I just feel like they were kind of ahead of the game and and they never really inspired me to be a teacher, but I definitely remember how I felt out around


Sam Demma (05:43):
Them. Hmm. Oh, that’s awesome. Yeah. Maya Angelou always says you, you might not remember what people said, but you’ll remember how they, how they make you feel. Yeah. Which is awesome. How do you think we can make students feel how you felt back when you were in school today? Like what do you think is important to focus on as a teacher?


Breanne Oakie (06:04):
I think we have to realize for a lot of kids that they’re not like us, like not a lot of kids love school for academic reasons. Yeah. not a lot of the kids wanna go to university or that’s their plan, so they’re not, they’re not mirror images of us. So the very first thing we need to do is make that connection with, you know, what, what interests you. So if they play hockey, I spend a lot of time with hockey players in my school. Watching them play hockey. I don’t understand anything about hockey. I don’t have a favorite team. I don’t watch any NHL games, but I watch a lot of minor hockey. And they’ll be like, did you see my goal? Did you see this? And I’m like, I did see that, you know, and they wanna talk about it and they know that you will take the time and then it, it kind of segues into, you know, when they’re having a really bad day stress maybe about that or anything in their life, they know that, you know, maybe I’ll take some time to listen to their problem.


Breanne Oakie (06:54):
So I think it’s more just like that reconnection the heart to heart.


Sam Demma (06:58):
Yeah. Like


Breanne Oakie (06:59):
Listening. It’s not all, it’s not all curriculum. It’s not all academics.


Sam Demma (07:02):
Yeah. No, that’s awesome. I love that. Tell me more about what teaching right now specifically looks like for you is COVID having a big impact on the way you teach right now or is, is it still in person for you? How does that look?


Breanne Oakie (07:15):
It’s in person now. However, like our school is a 6, 7, 8 middle school and it used to be, we all had the same recesses and so the gym would be open and we’d all get to the kids, could all play in there at recess and the teachers could go in there and play basketball with, with them. And you could have relationships with kids in all different areas. Like I used to, I teach grade eight, but I coached grade six volleyball in the past. So I would know some of the grade sixes. And you can just have those, those ranges. And now we run our system on the grade, sixes have a completely different schedule. The sevens have a different schedule. The eights have different schedule. There is no mixing of grades. And so you can’t really connect with those kids. And like, it’s been a talk like a topic, get staff meetings, or the grade six teachers are like, you know, these grade seminars wanna come back to talk to us, but we’re teaching because their recess break is during our teaching time. And so we’re losing those connections when we’re trying to encourage them to have a person in the school, but the person is not necessarily the teacher that they have at the moment. It’s the person that they were connected to last year. And there’s a, there’s a gap there, right? Yeah. And we can’t have our classes intermingling. So if you know somebody from a different grade eight class and they wanna talk to you about a problem, they, they can’t come in your room. So you have to, it’s kind of hard.


Sam Demma (08:34):
Yeah. It’s a, it’s a weird time. And I’m gonna ask you, like personally, what has helped you with your teaching and what has helped you just stay positive during during the, the turbulence


Breanne Oakie (08:49):
Acts of service. I think it has affected me a lot. Like I remember crying because last year we were at home for three months and then we came back in September and then things started getting aggressive again. And they’re people like, I think we’re gonna shut down again. And I was like, no, no, no, no, no, we can’t do that. And I found out during a parent teacher meeting that the, like the, the government was having their meeting that night, that my husband was texting me. And he’s like, I think you guys are gonna be back at home next week. And I was like, what? I’m talking to parents right now. And one parent said, well, I just heard the news. So now, and I was like, what’s the news? And, and I, I remember crying cuz I was like, I do not like teaching kids because they disengage or they don’t have the internet.


Breanne Oakie (09:30):
And you don’t hear from them for so long. Mm-Hmm that it’s not the same as being in person. So for me to, to make myself feel better, I have to give back. So I did a lot of COVID drop offs. As soon as I heard that, I was like, okay, I’m gonna mark my calendar. And in two weeks I’m gonna, I’m gonna do these little drop offs for these people that I know are gonna need a little boost. And it makes me feel better, but I like to do it as a surprise, but they always know it’s me. Their parents always know to check the doors step, but it makes me feel better. And I know it’s ridiculous. Like some of the things that I put on their doorsteps are very,


Sam Demma (10:01):
Very funny. What do you put on them? Tell me .


Breanne Oakie (10:03):
Oh, well, so like I started last year, so like Easter, I made little Easter bunny eggs and I glued ears on the Ziplocs and I just dropped them all off and left a little message from the Easter bunny and then nice one summer was coming. I, my friend cleaning air basement. And she gave me this book of paper airplanes. So there was like premade ones, you just had to fold them. And so I folded like, like 10 of these airplanes and I had packages of sunflower seeds and I made a little tail and I just said just a little bit of sunshine for your day. And then I thought, well, they could flat them. So one of my students pictures over the summer of these sunflowers, like grow against her house. And then at Christmas I made little salt dough ornaments for their trees and just stuck them on their doorstep.


Breanne Oakie (10:43):
And it was actually a lot of work, but I think I needed to keep busy. I needed something to make me feel connected because we, we can’t see anybody. We can’t even talk to people in our school really. Like the teachers can’t have staff meetings together. You’re really not in proximity of people. You know, you can’t hug each other and I’m, I’m a very physical person. Yeah. That it’s hard when you’re going down the hall and they’re like, we have to be away from each other. So I just try to make people’s days in, in the smallest of ways, I guess.


Sam Demma (11:14):
I absolutely love that. It’s the whole idea of like being at the taco, right. yes, exactly. But such cool ideas, like who would’ve thought that a, something as small as a sunflower seed that a kid would be passionate about it, it plant them and send you pictures and now you, you can probably bond over that thing all the time. Like if they bring it up or if they send you a new picture or, you know, oh yeah.


Breanne Oakie (11:35):
If they always think that they’re my favorite, but I tell them that they’re all my favorites so I’m like, cause you got sunflowers. Someone else got something else. Like I love everyone. So yeah. But it is fun because then I, I get to have those relationships for years to come.


Sam Demma (11:48):
Right? Yeah. No, it’s so true. And sometimes, you know, a students like a sunflower, you know, sometimes you see them flourish, sometimes you don’t and, and sometimes they flourish 20 years later and, and you don’t really know the impact that you had, but I’m curious though, over your years of teaching, have you had any, have you witnessed any student transformations due to the, the love and attention from a caring adult? It could be you, it could be someone else in your school will. And the reason I’m asking is because there might be an educator listening, who’s burnt out and mm-hmm needs to be reminded why this work is so important. And I think, you know, seeing students transform and seeing students grow and become successful or become their best selves is one of the most rewarding things that this, this calling gives teachers. Mm-Hmm so when I ask you that question to any stories or students come to mind and, and if it’s private, you can change their name.


Breanne Oakie (12:39):
Yeah. yeah. I have ive had a few students. I have some students now that are either their twenties. I taught grade seven, two. Nice. And I was there for a couple of years and sometimes you, I like, and I taught friends. I was actually the French teacher, so I was teaching English. But then the school was like implementing this mandatory French program and they hated it. They lived in this like small little town and they’re like, this is so ridiculous. We have to take this. And I was like, oh, I love French. Like, this is my passion. Like, and this kid, he was like, and I remember he was always like skipped school to go to these farm. I don’t know, you call ’em symposiums. Right. He come back with all these free pencils and like talk about these tractors. And like, I’m not coming to school, I’m helping my dad with a Hey, like okay, whatever.


Breanne Oakie (13:22):
And like just last year. So he would be like 20, 24. And he sent me a message on Instagram and it was like some weird meme and was like, did you ever really experience high school? If you didn’t have a crazy French teacher? And I was like, dude, I haven’t heard from you in 10 years. And he’s like, do you remember? He’s like, I could barely get through English and you were making me learn French I, and I was like, this is coming at a really good moment because I had applied to take the year off because I, I was kind of burnt out and I was like, I just needed to figure out I, if I needed some more time or maybe I just need something different. And it was like the day before the last day of school and I was really emotional about saying goodbye to everybody.


Breanne Oakie (14:04):
And he was just like, you know, even though I hated French, like you were really like, you really made a connection with me. And I was like, I can’t believe you, like, after all this time you were reaching out. And it wasn’t like there was, he didn’t have any trauma or anything like it wasn’t like, but he didn’t, he wasn’t like a school person. Right. So the fact that we still had a positive relationship where he could think of this funny memory really made me smile, cuz I was like, man, I didn’t really know that you ever thought of me after all this time. 10 years. Yeah. Like a long time. But I mean I, and I know his family. I still try to keep in contact with a lot of people. But I’m trying to think if I can think of other people, sometimes you’re really amazed of the transformation.


Breanne Oakie (14:48):
Like if you only have a tea, a student for one year and you just pass them off and you don’t really have a relationship with them, you might not see that difference. Mm-Hmm . But I do have some students that I’ve been purposely in their lives or have taught their, their siblings. And I know their parents and you’re really happy that you stayed along the journey for those years, because then you do realize that they needed to you. Mm. I have a student who’s who’ll message me. He’s like, I really hope that when my cousin comes up to you that you teach him the way you taught me. Hmm. That you open up your heart and you, you talk about the hard things with him, because talking about the hard things is what really helped him because he wasn’t talking about those with his parents. But just being vulnerable. Yeah. I think is it’s very hard for people, but sometimes you have to be that person right. To kind of force them into, to opening up. Cause it’s a lot of pain if you keep it all inside.


Sam Demma (15:44):
Oh, it’s so true. And I’m curious to know the student who, who was skip class and go to the farming symposiums like what did, do you, what do you think you did while you were teaching him that had such a significant impact on him?


Breanne Oakie (15:57):
Well, we talked about chickens a lot. He was really into chicken farming. Nice. And I, I had moved to an acreage and I was like, I really wanna start chickens. Like, I don’t know how, I don’t know anything about chickens. And he was like, it’s like, you’re overthinking this. I have 100 chickens. I was like, I want five chickens. I just he’s like, yeah. So he made like a slideshow, him and his friend made a slideshow like how to build a coop and like what you had to do. And it actually took me seven years before I actually got chickens. And it’s true. Chickens are really low maintenance. They’re lower maintenance cats. and I told him, I said, well, I finally have chickens. I still five chickens. They only took me seven years to follow your slideshow to build this chicken. But yeah, I think just like kind of those interests and being fun like


Sam Demma (16:39):
That. No, that’s like, that’s so cool. Curious, do you still have the chickens?


Breanne Oakie (16:44):
I do. And I actually have, we still have one chicken that is still alive from the very first time we got chickens. So she’s like four or five years old. Yeah. but yeah, we, we always get a few more chickens every year.


Sam Demma (16:55):
Are the eggs good?


Breanne Oakie (16:57):
Well, mine are lazy. So they don’t really and they’re old. Like, I think that’s why most people get rid of them after a year. And then they get new ones. Yeah. But we get them, we get babies, but then they all grow up to be rooster. So now we have five roosters and then it’s really


Sam Demma (17:09):
Loud at our house. Now, now it’s an alarm clock system.


Breanne Oakie (17:11):
Yeah. And they do find their way into the house. Like they come out of their pen and they like, they know they eat the dog food. And then I found one in my, my kitchen the other day. Cause it came through the dog door so they’re not afraid of anything. So, but it’s fun, Mike. That’s awesome.


Sam Demma (17:27):
No, that’s awesome. So you would think it’s mostly about connecting with students on their particular interest


Breanne Oakie (17:34):
At the so yeah. Yeah.


Sam Demma (17:35):
Cool. I love that. And when you think back to the teachers that you had in, in, I think you mentioned them that grade one and kindergarten grade two, do you think they did the exact same thing?


Breanne Oakie (17:47):
Yeah, they did. I remember when we have journal time in grade one and you have those little booklets with half page of blank space for your drawing and then half lines for you to write your three sentences on. And I was always right about animals, about how I saw a deer or I was walking in the woods with my dad. And I remember she once wrote in there, like, I think when you grow up, you’re going to be like a wildlife biologist or you’re gonna be in a college just you’re gonna really observe nature around you and I, when I was 20 and I was in that program, I was like, you know, I love this, like listening to these CDs of bird sounds. And my dad is a birder and that’s just kind of inherently in my life. Hmm. Like thinking like how does she know that that was gonna be such an important piece of, of who I was. Right. but like other, their teachers I think mostly when they were with me during hard time, my parents separated mm-hmm I remember just like their actions when they found out that that was happening of how they treated me and how they were there for me. Really impacted me too.


Sam Demma (18:43):
Yeah. It’s tough to have hard conversations. How do you think you should initiate a tough, a tough conversation with a student?


Sam Demma (18:51):
It’s a tough one, right?


Breanne Oakie (18:53):
Sometimes it’s really scary. Yeah. And sometimes even though we’re adults, we try to avoid hard conversations. Like I, I do sometimes, like I know there’s kids, I need to talk to about hard things and I’m like, I really don’t know how to approach this. But sometimes I’ll be direct. If I, I can, if it’s, or sometimes you can just tell if you’re like an observer and you watch them come in the, in the morning and they sit and their head is down or the bell rings and they don’t leave for recess right away. And they’re kind of lagging around or they ask to stay in multiple times and you can kind of infer that something’s going on with their friends. And they’re not spending time with those people. Then it’s time for a talk. And some, sometimes I’ll be like, so let’s just lay it out straight, like something’s going on.


Breanne Oakie (19:36):
And you don’t have to tell me what it is, but I want you to know that I’m sensing that something is off. And, you know, if there’s someone in the school that you wanna talk to, then please let me know and we can facilitate that conversation. Hmm. Sometimes you wait too long and then like something happens and a, a kid runs to the bathroom and they don’t come back. And, and there’s, you have to have that hard conversation while they’re in tears because they waited too long to talk to somebody about it. Right. So you just have to be make space for them to be able to talk about their feelings. We do talk a lot about making safe space and trust. And I know a lot of students are afraid to say like one student told me a couple weeks ago, he’s like, I’m kind of afraid to talk to you because I’m afraid of what you hear.


Breanne Oakie (20:22):
You’re gonna make a phone call and things are gonna change for me. Hmm. And it’s like, really, like sometimes you’re amazed that you spend so much time with people and so much time’s gone by and you have no clue of what is happening. And so, I mean, I’m lucky I have two teachers like I have a partner teacher, so we split. So she sees those kids. We have two EA who get to work with some of those kids. The four of us adults can, can group and be like, something is, something is off. And one of us can at least make a connection with those kids. And then we have a counselor at school who does talk to them. But I think as an adult, you have to kind of get over that fear and just approach gently.


Sam Demma (21:04):
Yeah. Well, so true. And I think that students, like, they want to be treated like adults also. Right. So being able to have those real heart to heart conversations that are just super authentic, they probably connect to those too. Right.


Breanne Oakie (21:19):
Yeah. And I would hate to have a kid be like, you know, you, you were my teacher for two years and you never once reached out to me when I was struck. Mm. You know? And I’d be like, yeah, I couldn’t, I think that’d be really hard on me. Like I never reached out to you because I was afraid to talk about something hard with you. That’s my job. Like I’m supposed to, to make space for you to feel free, to cry or talk or just get it all out and, and then assess. Right. Sometimes I think they think, like he say something and, oh, no, shouldn’t have said it. And then there’s like not a plan. I’m like, you know, like let’s just sit and talk and let’s make a plan. And if certain things come up, then we do have to talk to a higher power. But sometimes it’s just, let’s just get it out and let the leg guys come because you’re obviously carrying something that’s very heavy. And if you don’t talk about it, then that’s, it’s painful for you.


Sam Demma (22:10):
Yeah. It’s gonna weigh them down. Mm-Hmm , if you could go back and give your younger educator self advice from when you just started teaching, like what would you say?


Breanne Oakie (22:23):
I, I think I would be more, more gentle mm-hmm I remember being like, you know, like even for something is public speaking, like the anxiety of, of kids crying and breaking a kid and being like, you know what, this kid’s gonna remember me forever for the wrong reasons. There are things that are more important than accomplishing certain tasks. Like I remember I had one, one little guy and in grade seven and he caught me a lot of grief and I, I’m probably not his favorite person. And he’s graduated since, but he was very smart and he just felt like he didn’t have to do what we had to do in class. He wasn’t gonna take the notes. And I think, you know what, maybe I wouldn’t have fought him so much. Like, you know what, if you think, you know, it, I’m not gonna sit there because eventually it escalated.


Breanne Oakie (23:07):
And he was suffering from a lot of turmoil. And I just thought that he was in there to dig it to me every single day. And then one day it, all, this came to a head with another student and he was bawling. And I was like, oh no. And it was going to the vice principal, this, this problem. And he was terrified. And I was terrified for him because I was like, I don’t know, at this point, if people have the strength to give you space to, to, to feel how you’re feeling right now, people are upset. They’re angry. They want you to have consequences for your actions. But it’s kind of haunted me ever since, because I remember sitting with him that moment and he’s telling me his story. And I’m like, I wish I had known this earlier. Hmm. You know, because right now you’re gonna get suspended. probably, and this is the way I wanna end everything. But I know he’s okay now, like he’s he’s grown up, he’s graduated. He’s he’s doing okay. School was never really his thing still, but he got through it. But I’ve never talked to him since. And I, it’s kind of one of my regrets that


Sam Demma (24:18):
I couldn’t be gentler at an earlier stage in my life. I think that it was just like, like teaching’s not a pres I think before it was like, we have to do this. Like we, this is our lesson. It has to get done. We can’t just abandon the lesson like this is, but now I’m more like, you know what, throw it out. We’re going to the forest. You guys need a mental health hour. Like, let’s just go and let’s go play. You guys need to run around. We’ll come back. We’ll regroup and we’ll get this done to. Yep. But I think when I was younger, it was more like they had to get done. Ah, that’s such good advice. And the, the mental health hour in the forest, is that something that you, you try and do now?


Breanne Oakie (24:57):
Well, because I do have like outdoor time with them. We’re supposed to be like outdoor education, but we just call it outdoor time because they only have gym three days a week. So we have this forest behind our school a little bit down the ways, and the kids love it, cuz it’s completely wild. It’s like dead fall. And they just, and we, we just play games in there. So we’ll play sometimes it’s camouflage or sometimes we’ll play infection tag and we’ll run around. And sometimes we just be quiet in there. There’s lots of deer in there. It would be nice if, if the grades could settle down enough to just do like journaling in there or read our novel study in there and, and be happy just being in outside. Right. But a lot of those guys have a lot of energy. So we do a lot of tag games in there, but they love it. The flag just for running around and like, I love it cuz our classroom has no windows cause we’re kind of inside. Yeah. And I don’t like not walking every day, so it’s just good for us to get out and just expel all that energy. Right.


Sam Demma (25:51):
You ever seen a bear in there? Pardon me? You ever, have you ever seen a bear in there?


Breanne Oakie (25:56):
Oh, there’s no bears in there. No, just lots of deer. Okay. We don’t have bears in town here. We’re in bear. We’re definitely in bear country, but not in town. Cool.


Sam Demma (26:05):
Cool. Awesome. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to chat. Good conversation flew by. It’s almost been 30 minutes. Thank you so much for sharing some of your stories, some of your personal philosophies on teaching the advice you would share to yourself. If another educator is listening and was inspired by anything you said, or just wants to connect about something, what would be the best way for them to reach out to you?


Breanne Oakie (26:27):
I don’t have any special platform. You can send me an email at my at my work email is fine, breanne.oakiecarriere@gmail.com.


Sam Demma (26:42):
Awesome Bri. Thank you so much. I appreciate you coming on the show.


Breanne Oakie (26:44):
Thank you.


Sam Demma (26:46):
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 in review so other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity to, 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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