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Special Education

Jeannie Armstrong – Superintendent of Learning: Special Education Services, Faith/Equity & Indigenous Education at the Peterborough, Victoria, Northumberland and Clarington Catholic School Board

Jeannie Armstrong – Superintendent of Learning: Special Education Services, Faith/Equity & Indigenous Education at the Peterborough, Victoria, Northumberland and Clarington Catholic School Board
About Jeannie Armstrong

Written directly from Jeannie (@JeannieArmstr20):

Originally thought about Communications. Had the opportunity to be on local radio as a teenager and I really liked the experience. One of my best friends was killed in a car accident a week before graduating high school and this experience changed my life.

Following the devastation of this experience, I knew that I wanted to help other people but truly did not know how….. Changed my direction to a degree in psychology and thought about pursuing a Ph.D. to help young people process grief and loss.

I had classes at Ottawa U from Monday to Thursday and would often travel home from Friday to Sunday to spend time with my family. On one of my trips home, I ran into my grade 6 teacher, Mrs. Yolkowskie. She encouraged me to come volunteer with her on days when I did not have class.

I said I would call her and did. I began volunteering at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic School every Friday in Mrs. Yolkowskie’s special education class. I loved the experience. It was in this classroom that my dream of becoming an educator was born.

I finished my BA in Psychology and applied to Faculties of Education at Ottawa University and Queen’s. Between finishing my BA and starting my BEd, I married my husband (now 29 years). I chose Ottawa U because of its close proximity to home. I travelled back and forth that year to finish my BEd.

When I finished my BEd. there were few jobs. This was a time when few positions existed in the province so I supplied for a year until I received a contract with the Renfrew County Catholic District School Board. I worked in a rural school community and in a larger school until I became a principal at the age of 31.

I worked in Renfrew Catholic for 22 years before making a family decision to transfer to Ottawa Catholic where I worked as a principal for four and a half years. Working in a rural board and large urban board was a wonderful experience.

Throughout my career I have been inspired by so many educators,family and friends. Perhaps my biggest influence is my Aunt Jean.

Was hired as a Superintendent with PVNCCDSB in December of 2020. Had the portfolio of Faith, Equity, Indigenous Education and Secondary Program from January 2021-February 2022. Have since moved into the portfolio of Special Education Services, Faith/Equity and still supporting Indigenous Education until the end of the year.

For me, advocating for, supporting & empowering students is what I try to do each and every day along with continuing to learn and grow. When we stop learning, we stop living.

Two quotes that resonate with me are:

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.” Steve Jobs

“Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance.” Eckhart Tolle

Connect with Jeannie: Email | Instagram | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

University of Ottawa – Psychology Programs

University of Ottawa – Faculty of Education

Renfrew County Catholic District School Board

Ottawa Catholic District School Board

Peterborough, Victoria, Northumberland and Clarington Catholic School Board

Calm within the Storm: A Pathway to Everyday Resilliency – Dr. Robin Hanley Dafoe

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.


Sam Demma (00:59):
This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is Jeannie Armstrong. She originally thought about communications as her career, had the opportunity to be a local radio on local radio as a teenager and enjoyed the experience. But it was after a very tragic event that occurred in her life that totally shifted her path. It changed her direction, led her to do a degree in psychology. She reflected and considered about pursuing a PhD to help young people. And it was an educator she met along her journey that helped her realize that the true passion she had lied in a career in education. She finished her BA in psychology, applied to the faculty of education at Ottawa University and Queens. She finished her BA and started her BED, married a husband, now 29 years, and she chose Ottawa U because it was close to home and traveled back and forth that year to finish her BED.


Sam Demma (01:58):
She then worked in the Renfrew County Catholic District School Board in a rural school community and in a larger school until she became a principal at the age of 31 years old. She worked in the Renfrew Catholic board for 22 years before transferring to the Ottawa Catholic board. And throughout her career, she has been inspired by so many different educators, family members and friends, but perhaps her biggest influence was her aunt Jean. Jeannie was hired as superintendent with PVNCCDSB in December of 2020. She had the portfolio of faith equity, indigenous education and secondary programs until February of 2020, and has since moved to the portfolio of special education services, faith and equity, and still supporting indigenous education. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Jeannie. It’s a very insightful one. I will see you on the other side. Jeanie, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here this morning. Start by introducing yourself.


Jeannie Armstrong (02:57):
Hi, my name is Jeannie Armstrong. I’m the superintendent of faith equity, indigenous education and special education services for the Peterborough Victoria Northumberland and Clarington Catholic District School Board.


Sam Demma (03:09):
You gotta do a course just to get the name of the school board, right?


Jeannie Armstrong (03:13):
Exactly. Yeah.


Sam Demma (03:14):
When did you realize growing up that education was the career or field that you would pursue?


Jeannie Armstrong (03:21):
It actually came in my mid twenties. So originally in high school, I thought of communications. And I was thinking of going into broadcasting. I had done some stints on local radio and was certain that that was my path. And so I headed off to university or I planned two in the area of communications a couple days before graduation, Sam, my best friend was killed in a car accident. And at that point in time going through that process, that grieving process at such a young age, I really felt as though I had a calling to help youth who were going through similar trials. And so I really thought seriously about changing my program. And eventually I did move into psychology and I was certain that that was going to be my path. And I would end up doing a PhD in psychology and be able to support youth who were going through the grieving process.


Jeannie Armstrong (04:24):
And then I ran into one of my favorite teachers from elementary school. She taught me both in grade one and grade six, and I had classes four days of the week and came home on the weekends sometimes. And I met her on a Friday afternoon and she asked me if I would volunteer in her class, she was a special education teacher. And you know, when one of the most impactful people in your life ask you for a favor to volunteer in the classroom. I certainly wanted to support her in that. And so I said, yes, I would, I would go in and start volunteering. So I filled out the appropriate paperwork and began my volunteer experience and working with those students each and every day, it changed my life. It changed my path. It was so impactful and the relationships that I developed it was such a wonderful experience to see the growth and development, particularly with little ones who maybe three or four weeks before weren’t able to read. And then all of a sudden they got it and the light bulb went off and it was just such a rewarding experience that I went home. And I said to my family, I, I found my calling. I wanna be a teacher. And so I finished my psychology degree and applied for my ed at Ottawa U and away I went. And that was the beginning of the path that I continued on for the rest of my life.


Sam Demma (05:51):
Did you teach in elementary school first? And what, like, what are the different roles you have played since in education?


Jeannie Armstrong (06:00):
Oh, I’ve taught a range of grades and including being a special education teacher, both as a teacher and as a teaching principal for many years. And so I think for about seven years in my career, I supported special education students. I mean, we support all students as in any role, whether it’s a classroom as a classroom teacher or a principal, but specifically as a special education resource teacher, I spent about seven years in that role. And I loved it. So yes, a range of grades. I had a lot of system experience, wonderful people that supported me in my growth and development and taking on system pieces, working with the ministry of education and different projects being a guest lecture at O U faculty of education with some mentors who I worked with there, completing my master’s in education. And so just a range of experiences.


Jeannie Armstrong (06:52):
And I was quite young when I became a principal. It was not something I had really thought about doing. It just sort of happened naturally. And I had a few really wonderful mentors as well who encouraged me. And I think saw something in me that I did not see in myself. And one of them was the director of education at the time, Lauren Keon who was just an amazing man. He had was wonderful at building relationships. He could meet somebody once and remember their name and a little bit about their family. And so he was able to make that connection with people. And it was from those mentors that in particular, Mr. Keon, that I recognized the importance of relationships and making people making that connection with people. Cuz he had a way of making people feel as though you were the only person in the room, even though he was very busy he made a point of always connecting with everyone.


Jeannie Armstrong (07:49):
So he was an important influence in my life. And then there was another principal that I had. There was so many, but Carol sulfur was another mentor who was just an amazing curriculum, expert, phenomenal leader. And she really encouraged me to become a principal. And so I became a principal at the age of 32. I was very, very young. Wow. And was a principal for 17 years. Worked with Renford county Catholic district school board for many years. And then my husband and I decided to look at relocating to the Ottawa area and I worked with Ottawa Catholic school board again for another four and a half years before my current role.


Sam Demma (08:33):
Do you stay in touch with your teacher from grade one and grade six?


Jeannie Armstrong (08:37):
So she passed away. She passed away about five or six years ago, but I did get to connect with her and she did see my pathway into leadership at least. Yeah. So it was wonderful. I, I did go to visit her at her home at one point in time and you know, it was nice because she did get to say that she was very proud of me. So I did have that opportunity for her to see the pathway that I was pursuing. So that was wonderful. But she, she has since passed away


Sam Demma (09:08):
One of the most meaningful aspects in it of education and you’ve probably experienced it firsthand now is when you teach somebody and then they go on their path and come back and say, thank you so much. And it’s like, that person used to be five years old. That person used to be 15. And now they’re an adult with the family doing their thing. And I was able to play a part in their development. I think it’s such a full circle moment. In fact, one of the teachers who changed my life, I’m going to volunteer on his farm on June 11th. just to catch up with him and see how he’s doing. So I think those connections are so, so important. What is, what does the role you’re working in today? Look like, explain a little bit more about what’s you’re responsible for now and, and, and what you’re doing


Jeannie Armstrong (09:54):
Well. So I came to PB C in 2020 and you know, it it’s a different role at the system level. I did a lot of system work as a principal and being able to make those connections and working at the ministry level. And as you know, as a teacher, you have a tremendous impact on students in your classroom. And when you coach sports, then you get to, again, impact other students. As a principal, you have an impact on students schoolwide and you get to really be able to create a culture at this school that supports student growth and wellbeing and engagement. And so that was wonderful. And at the system level you have an opportunity to impact system change. So that as well as excite is exciting yesterday I had the opportunity to visit a school when I try to get into schools as much as I possibly can to still have that connectedness to the kids.


Jeannie Armstrong (10:52):
Yeah. And so it’s wonderful that I still get to go back and visit. So I, in my role right now, I’m the superintendent of faith equity, indigenous education and special education services. So those are large portfolios but I love everything that I’m doing. And the work that we’re doing is so important. When you think of those portfolios and the impact on the lives of students you know, I don’t take for granted each and every day, the work that I get to do, and I recognize with great humility and respect the impact that the work that I do can potentially have, and the work of my team, it’s really the team that I have that I’m supporting that I’m serving each and every day that I making the difference for students system wide.


Sam Demma (11:44):
Hmm. You’ve done so many different positions in education, so many different roles. Someone once told me the person that makes a good principal is the person that loves teaching in the classroom. The person that makes a great superintendent is the principal that loves being a principal. And doesn’t wanna leave that role. Did you ever struggle moving along the roles or and, and how did you get over that, that emotional barrier.


Jeannie Armstrong (12:17):
Yeah, no, that’s a very good point. And, and yes, I would say that each transition is difficult because it’s the relationships and the people that you meet along the way it’s difficult to leave. So as a teacher, it was challenging for me to make that leap as a principal, particularly being so young. Yeah, and, but what really helped me was the fact that coming from a small board, we were, were able to be a principal in a rural area first and then work our way up to a larger school. So I was a teaching principal for seven years, so I slowly got to transition the role and it, it was wonderful that opportunity always tried to stay connected to classrooms and to kids. No matter what role I’ve had you wanna be able to put a face to the name and to you know, really connect with both the staff and the students in school. And so even now as a superintendent as I said, I try to get into schools all the time and make sure that I’m still keeping that connection to the people that I serve, but it is difficult. Yeah.


Sam Demma (13:23):
Yeah. I, I, I mean, it’s like leaving a family. , it’s like you’re leaving a family to go to a different family and it can be challenging. I’ve heard some stories that people are really struggling with the transitions.


Jeannie Armstrong (13:38):
One of the things Sam that I think has really helped is I’ve stayed connected to, I have friends that in Renford Catholic, I have friends in Ottawa Catholic that I’m still connected to regularly. And of course my new family at PV and C. So I’ve tried to stay connected with all of those peoples on a regular basis so that I still have kept up those relationships, which helps.


Sam Demma (14:02):
Would, would the name Deb Lawler ring a bell?


Jeannie Armstrong (14:06):
Yes.


Sam Demma (14:07):
Deb was a good friend. I had lunch there last week in Ottawa. That’s awesome. That’s so great. When you say stay connected, what does that look like for you? Is it checking in every once in a while via text email, or like how, what does that look like?


Jeannie Armstrong (14:22):
Yeah, checking in all the time with phone calls, texts and also visiting face to face. So making plan to, you know, I’ll go back to Ottawa for a visit and you know, I’m planning to meet up with staff members from my former school in the next couple of months. And so just trying to, to stay connected as best you can and making time to keep those relationships up by meeting face to face and going for dinner and all of those pieces. Yeah.


Sam Demma (14:54):
You talk about systems, level roles, giving you the opportunity to make a big impact on schools within a district or a school board. And the work is it’s really important and, and it can impact thousands of young people. I would assume you also have the opportunity to, to meet other superintendents, people from other boards and kind of collaborate. And overall it gives you this cool perspective of education. I’m curious to know what you think are some of the challenges that education is for currently faced with right now. And secondly, part two of this question, some of the opportunities that you believe exist.


Jeannie Armstrong (15:29):
Yes. So I, I don’t like just to use the word challenges cause I do see everything that we’ve been through with the pandemic as an opportunity for growth and change. And I think everything that is presented to us in life is an opportunity for growth. So I try to use a positive mindset with rather than thinking about challenges. I, I see them as opportunities for change for growth, and the pandemic has been very difficult for many of our families for our staff. We do recognize that, but in many ways there’s been tremendous opportunities for students to develop skills that they may not otherwise have developed. You know, when you think of the technological skills that students have when you think of the ways that teachers have been able to adapt their practices to online learning that’s not going to go away.


Jeannie Armstrong (16:21):
And so I really do see that what we have been through as a system, as a country globally has had a positive impact in some ways. And I think coming out of this, what we need to recognize is the value of connection and relationships, because that is what truly has been missed. And so we really do need to reinvest some time on self care on student mental health and wellbeing on student voice and engagement. And just being able to, to recognize the importance of that connectedness, that teachers need to have those re positive relationships with students as superintendents, we need to be connected to the schools that we serve. So just really it’s about relationships and connection, and that will be our path forward.


Sam Demma (17:12):
People use the term teacher burnout in the education sector field, but I think during COVID, there was a global human burnout people as a whole, no matter what industry you worked in were experiencing this overwhelming anxiety and frustration and confusion, what, while you were going through that challenge yourself, how did you ensure to fill your own cup? Or what does self care look like for gen Armstrong


Jeannie Armstrong (17:41):
Well if you ask my family, they’d probably say I don’t do that enough.

Jeannie Armstrong (17:47):
But you know, it really is. It’s about my family and you know, my faith as well. And it’s the little things each and every day, you know, sometimes our days as system leaders are long and sometimes we have meetings till late at night, and it’s hard to find that time for yourself, but I try to celebrate in little ways, whether it’s a favorite cup of coffee, whether it’s listening to my favorite playlist, if I’m commuting in the car whether it’s taking time to just read a book, I love to read. So for me, that’s always something that I valued and it’s, it’s what I do to really unwind to try and get in some physical activity. And, and I would have to admit I’m not great at that, but I’m trying to, to work on that and get better at that. Nice, but take time to go for a walk at night and to just spend time with my husband and my family.


Sam Demma (18:37):
That’s awesome. I love that. I, I think self-care looks different for every person, right? As long as you find the things that fill your cup and work for you, I think it’s really important that we spend time on those things. You mentioned reading, being a big part of your life, what resources in the form of books or podcasts or people have you found helpful throughout your entire educational journey and career thus far?


Jeannie Armstrong (19:01):
Oh, Sam there’s so many one that our team is reading right now as a part of a book club is calm within the storm, which is Dr. Robin Hanley depo. And she is a professor at Trenton university here in Peterborough, and it’s a book really about resiliency. And so as a team, we’re, we’re reading that right now and, or just finishing that book. And it’s very, very powerful. And I’ll just share with you one quote that really resonated with me as we’re coming outta a global pandemic, not every storm that comes into your life is meant to take you down. Perhaps that storm is coming to clear a path that you could never have found otherwise. And so if we think about, you know, the, the different things that have even happened in my own life that have maybe shifted my path slightly, they were meant to be all of these pieces are meant to be, they’re meant to steer you in a certain path.


Jeannie Armstrong (20:03):
I really believe that. And you know, I’m very grateful for the opportunities that I’ve had and for even, you know, dare I use that word, the challenges that I faced because they’ve brought me to where I am today and I wouldn’t change any of those experiences. Because I believe it’s made me who I am today. And it’s brought me to this exact point in my life. I think if, you know, I had any advice for people who are starting out in their career, I would say to have faith in yourself and to trust your instincts and stay connected to the people that support you because they often help guide your path in ways that may not be clear at the time. And that, you know, if one door closes another door opens and just follow the path where it takes you and don’t be afraid of change, many people are, you know, are fearful of change. It’s a challenge for sure, but embrace change because sometimes if you have the courage to embrace change, wonderful things can happen.


Sam Demma (21:10):
I got shivers when you shared that quote like goosebumps, like through my body, that’s such a powerful way to reframe a challenge or a storm. And as you were saying it, my mind instantly started going back to challenges, quote unquote, that I faced storms that I weathered and like connected the dots to ways that some of those storms actually opened up new doorways and avenues that I wasn’t even looking at or focused on or new learnings or new character traits that I had to develop. What a phenomenal way to look at. Yeah. Look at challenges in life. Thank you for sharing that. I, I’m gonna leave this interview thinking about this for the whole day when you think of your time in the classroom or in the school, and you still spend lots of time visiting schools. So maybe you also hear about the stories, but I’m curious to know if there’s any stories that remain in your mind about how education has changed the life of young people and maybe there’s specific student in mind or somebody who was having a difficult time that was maybe in one of your classes or one of your schools that you heard of and had like a serious transformation.


Sam Demma (22:24):
And if it’s a, you know, a very serious story, you could change their name just to keep it private. And if there isn’t a specific story that comes to mind, you can also just talk about how you think education impacts the lives of young minds.


Jeannie Armstrong (22:39):
Wow. That’s I’m just trying to think, Sam there’s, there’s been so many, I mean, over 26 years in education, there’s been so many students that I could speak of. But I think what I reflect on most is, you know, the times when I could be in the grocery store and all of a sudden I hear a voice behind me and, you know 15 years later, or 20 years later, if somebody that I taught many, many years before and a few have stopped me to tell me about, you know, perhaps a change in pathway challenges that they face, that they were able, able to overcome. And the fact that they remember my name and wanted to take the time to tell me about, you know, how they’ve put their life in order or how they’ve made the changes necessary.


Jeannie Armstrong (23:39):
And whenever I have someone take the time to do that, I make sure to tell them that I’m proud. Mm. I always try to do that as a teacher. And, and I, and I mean, it, you know so there’s been those opportunities, but I also think of the many opportunities for students, perhaps that the transformation may not have been as great, but even for example, students were shy and afraid to share their voice. And, you know, I could see leadership potential in them and encourage them as a principal to apply to the minister student advisory council where they’d have an opportunity to share their voice with the minister of education. And in my time in Renfrew Catholic, I believe I had six or seven students that made the minister student advisory council. I think it’s something of a record. But it’s simply just encouraging them to apply and share their voice at a large level and, and to believe in themselves.


Jeannie Armstrong (24:36):
And many of those students then have, you know, commented to me about how that impacted them and how they were able to develop confidence in themselves. And again, like I talk about the people that had faith in me, it’s just about paying it forward. And when you have faith and you believe in students and you give them the opportunity to share their voice, not just with you, but at a system level, at a provincial level, at a national level great things happen. And I think as adults, what we can learn from that is that it’s really important to listen. It’s important to just take the time to listen to what kids have to say. Our students are amazing, and I think of you, Sam you know, doing these podcasts and international speaking events, and it’s really remarkable. And I know that at your age, I would not have been confident enough to do even what you’re doing. And so, you know, hats off to all of these young people who are making a difference each and every day and creating that national or global impact students like, like you said, that that are making that, that change. And it’s those voices that will really propel our nation forward. And that’s exactly what we need to do as adults is take a step back and let students be leaders and listen.


Sam Demma (26:09):
And it was my teacher in grade 12, Mr. Loudfoot, who helped me redirect my focus when I was going through my biggest storm after three major knee surgeries or knee injuries and two surgeries and lost the full ride scholarship and felt like my life was falling apart. And he was the one who believed in me when I stopped believing in myself and helped me realize that soccer was just one game in life, but life is filled with thousands of games, and at any time you can start playing a new one and that the skills you learn in one aspect of life can be transferred to another. And the list goes on and on. He like foundationally changed my life, and I’m so grateful I crossed path with him and that’s the person I’m visiting on the farm, you know, next week. And this has been such a refreshing conversation about education, about opportunities, about the future of education. If someone wants to ask you a question, get in touch, reach out, what would be the best way for them to do so?


Jeannie Armstrong (27:08):
They can contact me by email or through my Twitter account, Sam. So that’s, that’s great. I’m always open to learning from other people and connecting. So absolutely!


Sam Demma (27:19):
Awesome. Jean, thank you so much for coming on the show. You were awesome. Have an amazing day and we’ll talk soon.


Jeannie Armstrong (27:25):
Thanks so much, Sam, take care.


Sam Demma (27:28):
Hey, it’s Sam again. I hope you enjoyed that amazing conversation on the High Performing Educator podcast. If you, or you know, deserves some extra recognition and appreciation for the work they do in education, please consider applying or nominating them for the High Performing Educator awards, go to www.highperformingeducator.com/award. You can also find the link in the show notes. I’m super excited to spotlight and feature 20 people in 2022, and I’m hoping you or someone, you know, can be one of those educators. I’ll talk to you on the next episode, all the best.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Jeannie Armstrong

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.

Lisa Spencer – Student Success, Gap-Closing and Experiential Learning

Lisa Spencer – Student Success, Gap-Closing and Experiential Learning
About Lisa Spencer

Lisa Spencer was born and raised in North Bay Ontario. Inspired by amazing educators, she dreamt of one day having the chance to teach. Early entry to Nipissing University’s Orientation to Teaching Program, she was able to start her undergraduate degree in Environmental Geography learning through the lens of an educator.

Following passion for Special Education, alternative and experiential learning, Lisa found her place teaching youth identified as “at-risk” of leaving before graduating. Teaching in multiple schools, in multiple roles, she turned her focus to Special Education, gap-closing initiatives and the integration of experiential learning to enhance engagement and build relationships.

Now serving the Near North District School Board in a central role, Lisa supports Student Success, Gap-Closing and Experiential Learning initiatives as the Secondary Program Coordinator.

Connect with Lisa: Email | Linkedin

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Nipissing University’s Orientation to Teaching Program

Near North District School Board

Okta Master Schedule

Simon Sinek, “Start With Why”

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):
Do you want access to all the past guests on this show? Do you want a network with like-minded individuals and meet other high performing educators from around the world? If so, go to www.highperformingeducator.com. Sign up to join the exclusive network and you’ll get access to live virtual networking events and special opportunities that will come out throughout 2021. I promise you I will not fill your inbox. You might get one email a month. If that sounds interesting. Go to www.highperformingeducator.com. Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s guest is Lisa Spencer. She was born and raised in north bay, Ontario inspired by amazing educator. She dreamt of one day being a teacher herself. Early entry to Nipissing University’s Orientation to Teaching Program, she was able to start her undergraduate degree in Environmental Geography learning through the lens of an educator.


Sam Demma (01:00):

Following she, she developed a passion for special education and alternative and experiential learning, and she found her place of teaching youth identified as at risk of leaving before graduating. She taught in multiple schools in multiple roles, and she was able to certain her focus to special education gap, closing initiatives and the integration of experiential learning to enhance engagement and build relationships. And today she serves as the near north district school board and she supports student success gap closing and experiential learning initiatives. A as the secondary program coordinator, Lisa has a ton of wisdom. I hope you enjoy this episode. I will see you on the other side, Lisa, thank you so much for coming on the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to, to have you on the show. We had an awesome conversation a few weeks ago, so much so that I thought we needed to share a little bit of it on the show today. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit behind the reason why you got involved in education?


Lisa Spencer (01:58):

Sure. Good morning. And thank you so much for having me. So my role this year is a program coordinator for Near North District School Board. My official title is secondary program coordinator, gap, closing student success and HSM. So it’s a very wide portfolio. And I think that that kind of touches on part of why I, I involve of myself in education to begin with. I feel like public education is a very holistic process. I was moved by a teacher when I was 14, which may seem like a fairly cliche story, but I was on a journey to learn. And I love information and I love systems and I love natural systems and observing them. And I had a, a very involved science teacher in grade nine who not only was able to help students connect information in a meaningful way, but really worked to develop community and how community impacts learning.


Lisa Spencer (03:02):

So she very much inspired me and inspired me to follow education in the sense that you can appreciate it, not just for being a, an objective learning adventure, but more so that the more you sub immerse yourself in it and find value in it, the, the more it pays you back. So my first teaching experience was eight and a half years of, of contract work working with at risk youth specifically have a knack for developing rapport and relationship, but by showing and helping students find the relevant, see, and what they’re learning and attaching it to everyday experience. So my journey led me to experiential learning, which is a method by which we help students understand the context of their learning through hands on activity and linking it to everyday everyday activity, seeing it in the world around us and being able to draw connection between theory and application and, and derive meaning from that process. And it’s super inspiring. And the reason I get up and go to work every day is to watch the light bulbs come on for other individuals. And that doesn’t just limit itself to students, but also to adults too, because adults have just as much fun learning as, as students do.


Sam Demma (04:19):

I love that. That’s so awesome.


Lisa Spencer (04:22):

Relates what you’re looking for, but yeah.


Sam Demma (04:24):

Yeah, absolutely. I’m actually curious to know more about what your teacher did back in school that really inspired you. Like what, like what specifically did she do that made you so inspired that, you know, you decide that one day you wanted to be an educator?


Lisa Spencer (04:41):

Well, there’s a number of things. She and I actually continue to have a friendship past my high school experience. Nice. I had her three times. I come from a small community and at the high school I attended, there was only a few hundred students when I attended there. And so you end up having the same teacher more than once. So I was able to, to see her teaching practice in grade nine, and then again, repeat itself in my senior years. But the, the one story that comes to mind most easily is they’re talking about particle theory as you heat a substance, the molecules and, and particles inside substances spread apart. And we know that when a, it becomes a liquid and then a vapor, those particles become chaotic in their movements, inspired by the energy around them and how they, and she was able to liken that to things that we would see in her everyday life.


Lisa Spencer (05:33):

And I can remember being 14 years old and her talking about how the electricity and the summer heat passing through the power lines on the power poles, outside the wires would, would stretch and you would see them lengthen in the summer and they would dip and, and to have someone bring something so real to the table. And then that really made a difference for me. And it’s not something that I would’ve observed or made sense of without someone having pointed that out, but it really did build a firm foundation for, oh yeah, that’s really, that’s really cool. And I mean, watching the, the processes that go on in the world around you, without context, you just kind of take them at face value, but to have someone explain to you at a science, atomic particle level, why something is happening and that you’re able to take that away.


Lisa Spencer (06:26):

And that’s just the learning inspiration. I mean, personally, she developed a rapport with students in our class and maybe students that other teachers might not necessarily always make time for, but she’s sought them out. And she pulled them in and she made sure that they knew they were cared about and that they mattered to that learning. And and to watch that objectively was a, was a very moving thing for me to connect to an adult who valued you as a person. Who’s not related to you and not maybe a friend to you. That was a very moving thing to see meaning not just in learning and progress, but also to see meaning in the development of individuals who eventually will, will contribute to society. That, that to me was a very, very wraparound as we call an education, a wraparound process that affected all of the parts.


Sam Demma (07:15):

Awesome. That’s so cool. I love that because when I look at the teachers that had the biggest impact on me, it was also teachers who connected the dots. Like my one teacher that I always talk about Mike loud foot, who like totally inspired me and changed my life. He would take his lessons and then try and apply it specifically to every student’s interest. So he knew us, he knew us so much. So on a personal level that he could had teach a lesson. And then after teaching, it’d say, Sam, for you, this means X and Koon for you. This means X. And for Julia, for you, this means X. And he would take the lesson and give his best attempt to apply it to all of our personal situations and the things that he knew we were passionate about. And like you, like, I still remember the lessons that he taught due to that reason. And I think it’s so powerful. I’m curious to know though, you’ve piqued my interest in relation to your interest in experiential learning. What does that look like right now? I know things are a little odd and funky. But what does, what does hands on learning look like during this crazy time?


Lisa Spencer (08:18):

Oh my goodness. What agree? A question hands on learning has been impacted in, in the sense that in, in the educational community right now, it’s a, it’s a huge challenge to bring in community partners who, who we very much appreciate because they are that real world context. And so we have a, a, a huge palette of community partners who we so very much, and we’ve developed great relationships where they can come in and help us to, to bring the relevancy to the table in the sense that like, here’s the real world connect. Here’s how hands on learning looks in the work field. In this climate, we have been able to activate a lot of outdoor learning, and we’ve really stretched ourselves to engage with partners who can meet us outside and help our teachers scaffold the work of teachers to bring the learning outside shared manipulatives off the table.


Lisa Spencer (09:13):

It’s looking around the, to see how we can engage students with that hands on aspect. And again, it’s a, it’s about bringing that relevancy and that skillset because experiential learning really is about skillset. It’s about critical learning critical thinking, problem, solving, teamwork, collaboration, you being frustrated and moving through that frustration. And there are a lot of applications that we can still access. Yeah. Despite the restrictions of, of the climate that we’re living in many teachers especially at the secondary level, because here in, in in north bay at the near north district school board, we’re working within an Okta master schedule. So teachers have those 25 days in class with those students all day for 25 days, while that sounds stressful, it really does silver lining allow teachers to develop really rich tasks with their secondary learners. So the labs that we may not have been able to fit into a 50 year, a 60 minute period for chemistry or biology or physics or mathematics, because we know that there are labs, many labs that we could be using for, for mathematics and, and other abstract concepts and ideas.


Lisa Spencer (10:30):

The 25 day opt master schedule really does allow teachers again, to develop those relationships in and use those timetables to their advantage, to expand the learning, to reach those experiential learning goals that they may not have been able to reach in different constraints. So I guess the, the, the, to sum it up, it’s been impacted in the sense that we’re moving from a more traditional model where we would have someone come in, show us the relevancy and participate in an activity to a more teacher driven teacher custody of that, of that learning where we’re doing it in class, we’re doing it outside, but we’re doing it as a group and as a collective and we’re moving through it. So I really do think that there’s a lot of positives to that process, but we do need to support our educators and feeling confident to do that. And so that’s kind of how the, a role has shifted this year.


Sam Demma (11:19):

That’s awesome. And your interest in education started with at risk youth. I wanna dive into that a little more. Tell me more about that. And what do you think is the most important thing when it comes to building a relationship or connection with a student that might be just a little more difficult to get through to?


Lisa Spencer (11:38):

Sure. So when, when working with, at risk youth, we recognize that they’re coming to school every day with a different need set. Hmm. Their goals aren’t necessarily to get an, a plus with R O S S D graduate and, and look at post-secondary. A lot of students come to school with a mindset and I have to be here till I’m 16, and they don’t really necessarily engage with the learning in the same way. So as a classroom teacher, the most important thing is to try and show students how, what you’re offering to them can open up the possibilities for them in the future, but more so to express to them that they mean something to you. They mean something to the educational community, and they mean something to the community outside of the classroom and developing that report. And it was interesting as you were, you were expressing your story from the teacher that meant so much to you taking the time to know what’s gonna make the difference to know that, you know, so, and so’s father owns a garage, and that’s how you spend your weekends to know that, you know, you have a, a person in your life who’s experiencing X, Y, Z to get to know those students.


Lisa Spencer (12:52):

And , again, these are things that in education we say over and over, but being in the hall when they arrive to class and, and welcoming them, but being genuine about it and really taking a notice about what’s happening. And if, if you take the time to, to set that groundwork and to build a community in your classroom, not only does your attendance go up, but the engagement, it goes up, the respect is there mutual respect between you and between the student. And then you can meet in the middle to kind of Fasten that, that learning. The most important thing I think is, is to understand why learning is important to that individual and making sure that you’re gearing and planning your activities and learning to meet their needs. And while that sounds like a, a self-service, is, is that not what learning is anyways, because if we don’t, if we can’t show students why it’s important, then why are we teaching it? Yeah.


Sam Demma (13:47):

Love that. So, so true. I, I, I remember there was a few situations where I was sitting in a math class and asking myself, why are we doing this? And have had teachers that didn’t connect the dots and you get disengaged. Like if the dots aren’t connected, you, you get disengaged. You forget why you’re doing it. And frankly, you don’t really wanna do it. But if someone makes that, why clear the how and what fall in place, very easy. There’s, there’s an awesome book called Start With Why by this guy named Simon Sinek. And he talks about the importance of, you know, figuring out why you’re doing something before you figure out how you’re gonna do it, or what you’re gonna do, or when you’re gonna do it. He’s like those all come after you figure out why. And I think it’s just a great reminder because at every point we should be asking ourselves, why am I teaching this?


Sam Demma (14:31):

And if you can’t come up with a clear reason, you know, you better find one or change what you’re teaching which is a great reminder for every educator when it comes to students and learning, you know, something that also happens sometimes is transformation. You know, a student could, you know, come into a classroom at the beginning of the year and be totally upset and, and a totally different person than the person when they leave the classroom. And those stories happen. Sometimes we see them. Sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we hear about them 25 years in the future. When a student writes a handwritten note or sends you a random email, but I’m curious to know in your years of education, have, have you seen a student transformation and of the of the many of them can you actually share one of them in detail, but you can change their name so that, you know, they, they can remain private. The reason I’m asking is because it will help another teacher remember why they teach and that that reason could re spark and, and Repar their passion for teaching. And despite the challenges they’re facing this year, remind them why, what they do is so important. So do any stories come to mind that you wanna share?


Lisa Spencer (15:45):

So many so many, I think if I could start maybe with a broader concept here. Yeah. The students. So in, at risk programming the students that, that present themselves at my door and so when they were 14, we’ll say, and I was, you know, a young go-getter teacher, those students were coming with a parcel of I’m gonna call it additional baggage whereby they come from houses with addiction or incarceration histories, or involvement in social services and things like that. So the students who come don’t trust the system, they don’t trust adults. And so the number one thing is we had just discussed is developing that rapport, but they frequently come to their, so your classroom and think like this isn’t for me, this is not how I’m going to survive in life is by doing well at school. I have other means by which to be successful outside of this place.


Lisa Spencer (16:44):

And so the number one thing is to show them that they have so much potential and to find their diamond and kind of help them dust it off and find out what that it is. Mm. And I find that if, if we can really help individuals or show individuals or enlighten individuals to find out and embrace what their, what their diamond is, that’s when we see that transformation that you’re discussing, and you might not be the cause of it, you can surely help them on that journey. I’m still quite good friends with the graduate who’s 27 now, which makes me feel very old, but , and so he’s 27, but he came from a very difficult home and he was, you know, I would be teaching him environmental science. I also taught him English. And he would show up to class. And the entire time I would teaching, he would be drawing and sketching and distracted and whereby in many classes you would get in trouble for that disengagement where teachers would redirect him to task, which is absolutely something that we’re taught to do. This was something that I knew that he had to do in order to focus. And so watching this person really struggle through school but recognize that he had so much talent in specific areas. I nourished that. And so and other teachers did too, not just me, but that was a, a thing that, that we nourished and him and encouraged him to do. He’s now a very, very successful tattoo artist. He graduated from school.


Lisa Spencer (18:17):

And, and he did at one point in his life have a very difficult time with addiction. But we stayed in touch. He found it within himself to overcome that. And he’s a very successful tattoo artists. He’s moved to Cochran and he he’s doing wonderfully. He visits anytime he is in town, but to see his reflection on education and recognize that he just wasn’t ready because of the things that were going on in his life, but to still feel welcome every day. Like to me, that’s a huge success us. I could talk about students who I’ve connected with as well, who, you know, they’re, they’re shy and awkward in high school and they graduate and find themselves and their doctors and lawyers and obstetricians. I, my sister, when she had her son, I was in with her during labor. And there’s one of my former students coming in to do, you know, wow, the OB Y N check in.


Lisa Spencer (19:11):

And, and so there’s a lot of in a very small community, especially too, you get to see those students who decide to stay in the region, you get to see them blossom and flourish and be successful. And those students who maybe aren’t, you know, as successful, they still see you in public and they’re kind and friendly, and they have children of their own and they’re being successful. So I feel like pretty much every student I’ve ever worked with has a success story. It’s just that you have to be the type of person that helps people see their own success.


Sam Demma (19:44):

That’s so cool. It would be such a round circle moment to go get a tattoo from that student. that’s yeah, that’s an awesome, that’s an awesome story. And I love that. What personally drives you? Like if I had to ask you what your, why was like, why you mentioned it briefly, but I’m curious to dig into it. Like, why do you get up every day? Why do you teach, why do you love doing this work? Like what’s the reason behind it for you?


Lisa Spencer (20:10):

Very philoso. So off of a question, I, I would have to answer that by saying that all things are connected, all human beings are connected. And I think it’s our job as human beings to find that humanity and that kindness to support others. And I’d rather be an optimist who’s disappointed every day than a pessimist. Who’s always a right. Mm. So I think that it’s really important to look for the best in, in the world, around us and to make change when we can, right. If you want better do better. And I think that, like for me, getting up every day is, is maybe I’ll be able to help a situation or solve a problem that makes the world better, easier, smoother for someone and and show someone the value in learning and progress.


Sam Demma (21:03):

Oh, cool. I love that. And if you could go back to I, the first year that you taught the first year that you worked, what advice, knowing what, you know now, would you give your younger self?


Lisa Spencer (21:18):

You have to focus on the good that’s happened in the day. Hmm. And learn from the things that you’re very self critical about, and you’re always your own toughest credit. You’re always. And so the things that you see about yourself that you’ve done wrong will not be the things that others focus on. Hmm.


Sam Demma (21:39):

That’s great. Now that’s great advice.


Lisa Spencer (21:41):

And don’t teach kindergarten, haha. I’m just thinking it’s very overwhelming. Kindergarten kids are very overwhelming and it’s when you speak to elementary teachers, they would say the opposite that teenagers are terrifying. Whereas I find that those adolescents are just so much more open and honest. They’ll tell you exactly what you need to know. We four year old child, like, I, why are we crying? Cuz we can’t find our myth and I would cry with them. So so I guess the, the short story is know, like know where, know where you wanna be and invest in that. Hmm. With all you got.


Sam Demma (22:19):

Cool. No, I love that. And if someone listened to this and was inspired at all by the conversation, what would be the best way for them, another educator to reach out to you and just have a conversation?


Lisa Spencer (22:29):

Sure. I would love to have a conversation with anybody that would like to chat. My email address is lisa.spencer@nearnorthschools.ca. They can email me anytime.


Sam Demma (22:42):

Lisa, thank you so much. I appreciate it. Keep up with the awesome work and we’ll talk soon.


Lisa Spencer (22:47):

Lovely chatting with you, Sam. Thank you so very much and have a great Tuesday.


Sam Demma (22:50):

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 that I mentioned at the start of the show. If you want to meet the guest on today’s episode. So 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 Lisa Spencer

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.

Michael Kelly – Catholic Educator, Coach, World Traveller, Hockey Fan and Student Leadership Advisor

Michael Kelly – Catholic Educator, Coach, World Traveller, Hockey Fan and Student Leadership Advisor
About Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly (@729Kelly) currently teaches at Michael Power St. Joseph at the TCDSB. Michael is a highly motivated, passionate, inclusive Catholic educator, coach, world traveller, hockey fan and student leadership advisor interested in expanding his professional network and collaborating with like-minded teachers.

He is a passionate and dynamic young educator and life-long learner who works in west end of Toronto. He is very interested in issues of special education, history, politics, experiential learning, community service and civic engagement.

Michael is an Ontario Certified teacher who works for the Toronto Catholic District School Board in the secondary panel. He is a proud graduate of the University of Toronto – St. Michaels College and OISE.

Michael has worked in several placements in both elementary and secondary school settings, and community service organizations in local communities as well as overseas. Experiential learning, inclusivity and community service form his core beliefs and philosophy on education.

Michael is also a dedicated volunteer and board member of a number of community organizations serving in a variety of roles and capacities, and he has played a key role in recruiting young people to vote and become engaged in the democratic process in Toronto.

He is a passionate advocate for Catholic education, Special Education, Cooperative education, athletics and creating inclusive high-quality learning environments and experiences for his students.

He is involved as a Student Council Teacher Moderator, Coach, and Chaplaincy team member at every school community he has the opportunity to serve. He believes in the tremendous potential educators have to shape and mold the minds and character of the next generation of young leaders.

Michael also collaborates and supports English teacher and podcast host, Adrian Del Monte on The Whole Hearted Teaching Podcast.

Follow on Twitter at @podcastforheart.

Connect with Michael: Email | Instagram | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Michael Power St. Joseph

Adrian Del Monte

Gen School Italian Heritage Foundation

Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead

Brene Brown: The Power of Vulnerability

Dr. Tim Elmore

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):
Do you want access to all the past guests on this show? Do you want a network with like-minded individuals and meet other high performing educators from around the world? If so, go to www.highperformingeducator.com. Sign up to join the exclusive network and you’ll get access to live virtual networking events and other spec opportunities that will come out throughout 2021. I promise you I will not fill your inbox. You might get one email a month. If that sounds interesting, go to www.highperformingeducator.com. Welcome back to another episode of the high performing educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s guest is Michael Kelly. Michael is someone who reached out to me after listening to another podcast and inquired about coming on the show. And he’s a very passionate educator. Michael Kelly, currently teachers at Michael power St. Joseph at the Toronto Catholic District School Board. He is highly motivated, passionate, and in an inclusive Catholic educator coach, world traveler hockey fan and student leadership advisor, interested in expanding his professional network and collaborating with like-minded individuals.


Sam Demma (01:13):

He is passionate and dynamic and a lifelong learner who works in the west and of Toronto. He’s very interested in issues of special education, history, politics, experiential learning, community service, and civic engagement. He is also involved in as a student council teacher, moderator coach and chaplaincy team member at every school community. He has the opportunity to serve. He believes in the tremendous potential educators have to shape and mold the minds and character of the next generation of young leaders. He also supports his good friend and a past guest on this show, Adrian Del-Monte with the whole hearted teaching podcast. I’m super excited for you to hear today’s interview with Michael. It was packed with so much great information enjoy. I will see you on the other side, Michael, thank you so much for coming on the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the, the show after we connected a few months ago. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit behind the story about why you got into education.


Michael Kelly (02:14):

Okay. Well thank you. Thanks Sam, for having me on the show, big fan of your podcast. You’ve got some great, great interviews, great educators, so really happy to be here. So I will work for the Toronto Catholic district school board. Currently I teach on a contract right now at Michael power St. Joseph teaching history and religion. So I’m teaching grade 10 right now. And yeah, I’m, I’m really interested in kind of moving into this this space of podcasts. I think it’s a great kind of professional development resource for teachers and I think it’s a great opportunity to share ideas, share resources. So why I was interested in coming on the podcast and kind of sharing a little bit of my own, my own story. So I, I studied undergrad at the university of Toronto and graduated from and I was actually in the concurrent education program at the time at St. Mike’s college. So you know, we, we did kind of a very like he program where you’re taking undergrad courses at the same time as as your teacher’s college. So it was kind of for folks who knew that they wanted to go into teaching and it was a great, great, great experience. And the last couple years working for the TCDSB has been fantastic, some really great personal and professional highlights which I’m sure we’ll yeah, we’ll get into.


Sam Demma (03:45):

That’s awesome. And how did you actually find the podcast? I know there’s a, it came through an interesting turn of events. I’m curious to know how you landed on it, cuz you, you know, you sent me an email and I was like, oh, this is so cool. And we connected whereabouts to, did you find it?


Michael Kelly (04:01):

So I there were actually two kind of sources initially, I believe it was Mike Michael con who’s the student leadership coordinator and teacher at the board level does tremendous work. And I think he was featured on one of your earlier shows and he’s shares a lot and I connect with him online and on social media, on Twitter. And I believe I saw it there as well as a colleague and friend of mine, Adrian Delmonte, who you may know who we partner with on the wholehearted teaching podcast. He kind of mentioned that he was in conversation with you. So that’s kind of how I more checked out a few episodes on the podcast, really like the kind of theme and direction. So yeah, that’s how I found found the podcast.


Sam Demma (04:50):

So cool. Shout out to both Mike and Adrian. Yeah. If, if you’re tuning in, they have their own episodes as well. You can check ’em out.


Michael Kelly (04:57):

Oh, they’re great guys. Great teachers.


Sam Demma (04:59):

Cool. You mentioned that had some serious highlights in education. Why don’t we just dive into those right now? I’m assuming you’re gonna talk about the Coliseum and Rome and taking some experiential learning trips abroad. And, and you know, when we talked before this podcast, you mentioned that those experience really reignited your passion for learning and teaching. And I’m curious to know more about how those impacted you and why you think it’s important to learn also experientially.


Michael Kelly (05:26):

Well, I think the, yeah, that’s a great point. Like I think my initial kind of connection I, I made between kind of teaching and experiential learning came through my own travel. So when I was in university, I actually you know, taught or actually had a chance to volunteer in a couple of different placements in my program through going over to places like South Africa and Bosnia actually to do some volunteer work. So that’s really where kind of the, the seed was planted. So to speak in terms of connecting how powerful service learning and experiential learning can be for, for myself as an undergrad student. And then by extension, a couple years later, I had the opportunity to, as you mentioned, go, go over to Italy in for a few summers in a row to go to labia and Naru. So the Northern and Southern regions of IItaly with groups, hundreds of students big stellar staff team.


Michael Kelly (06:29):

And we essentially spent the summer teaching grade 12 ancient Civ course. The kids got a credit. They were able to obviously experience the culture, the partnership between our board and the York Catholic Board and the Gen School Italian Heritage Organization. So I had initially connected with that organization through an my own high school trip when I was at student at the Asia Bowen. And yeah, years later I was invited to go on as a staff member. It was a tremendous experience, right? The, the students had, you know, besides the academic immersion and, you know you know, being able to go out to the PIAs and the markets and the restaurants and the site seeing and all the historical sites, they also got some life skill training, which I thought was really like an added bonus to the program where for many of the students on the trip, it was their first time, you know, away from mom and dad away from their family.


Michael Kelly (07:32):

And it was also kind of a, a test run to see whether, you know, they were thinking at applying a post-secondary, they could see whether they could handle the dorm life, so to speak, right? Like they, they had a chance to kind of see whether that was something that was well suited to them or not. And you know, they had to do, you know, in some cases do their own laundry, like, you know, kind of keep track of their assignments on their own right time management you know, learning direction, right. Trying to navigate around places like Rome and Pompe and Florence Positano the multi coast. Right. So it was a really, really great immersive experience. And I think for, for a lot of the students, they found that they actually grew over the course of that trip, even though it was like 3, 3, 4 weeks or so, they actually grew a lot after the experience.


Sam Demma (08:31):

And I’m sure going from traveling through Europe to coming back and hoping to go this summer again, and COVID hitting, you know, every thing kinda, you know, blew up and it, it sucks to a degree, but what does education look like now for you? I know, you know, unfortunately you can’t go back to Rome, but what does it, what does it look like now and what do you think are the opportunities just like they existed in Rome? What do you think are the opportunities that exist today now in this environment for young people?


Michael Kelly (09:05):

Okay. So I think it’s a great question. So the first part, in terms of the challenges, I think that you’re, you’re asking about the major challenge, one of the major challenges I’m finding is just us student engagement and definitely concerns about student mental health would be kind of first and foremost and at the forefront of my mind. And I think I can speak for a lot of colleagues as well to say that they, they would probably say the same thing. You know, there’s a little bit of a learning for even as a younger teacher, there’s a little bit of warning curve adapting to the new technology, getting used to, you know, being on zoom and Google meets all the time and, you know, really multitasking on, on a regular basis. For example, like right now we, we have some students who in the morning we’re are teaching in person in the building, but we’re also live streaming our classes simultaneously at the same time that that has been definitely a new experience in the last few months.


Michael Kelly (10:11):

And you know, just, you know, trying to form those positive student relationships can be a little bit challenging when everyone’s covered with a mask. And you’re, you know, you’re trying to teach, you’re trying to tell a joke, a story to your class, and you’re looking for some kind of facial recognition for them to actually, you know, affirm what you’re saying or, you know whatever it might be. So I think those are some of the challenges that teachers are facing right now. Now I know some, those are some that have come to mind and just the workload. I think definitely teachers find that they’re spending more time trying to convert their lessons into an online format because remote learning is so, so different. And the hybrid learning we’re doing is so different from a traditional classroom model. So being able to adapt and be flexible has been really key.


Michael Kelly (11:07):

But the great to get to your next point about like, what are some of the opportunities? I think one of the kind of silver linings or opportunities here has been the great degree of just like innovation that you see your teacher colleagues are doing, whether it’s in your department or in your school. And we actually had a staff meeting a couple weeks ago where it was great to, you know, see and hear teachers sharing what they’re doing in their virtual learning environments. And it just blows my mind some of the, the innovative practices. Like we didn’t even know that some of these techniques were possible a year ago. Right. so I, I do think, you know, obviously there’s a lot of realistic challenges but then there’s also the opportunities to innovate and use things like Google Jam board or for myself, I’ve been trying to utilize a lot of virtual guest speakers and partner with other outside organizations like that.


Michael Kelly (12:07):

That has been tremendous. Like just one example was when I was teaching my a 10 history course for Canadian history, I was able to bring in a world war II veteran who was living in BC. And we were able to have kind of a live interactive discussion with him and just to enrich the curriculum, enrich the learning experience for the students. So I think that there, you know, there are kind of some, and, you know, as we always tell our own students, we kinda have to take our own advice and adopt a bit of a growth mindset in this environment. For sure.


Sam Demma (12:47):

I think that’s so true now more than it ever has been, you mentioned before we started recording that right before the school board tried transitioned back into in person, it seemed like teachers and yourself were just getting the hang of teaching online and teaching virtually. And I’m curious to know when you say getting the hang of it, what did that look like? Like what did your average day look like? What do you think was helping you teach virtually if someone else is listening right now and still teaching in a, a virtual scenario?


Michael Kelly (13:19):

That’s a great question. So in terms of some of the tips that helped kind of teaching from home and being fully virtual all day, I think, you know, scheduling your day almost to the hour to the minute is extremely important. I think in an online environment, even more so than I would say in person you know, just scheduling your breaks, making sure that you’re, you know, you, you can never pour from an empty cup, right? So taking care of your own your own wellbeing as the teacher in the class is obviously paramount to your student success and to their own health and wellbeing, but making sure that you’re pacing things for yourself and your students. You know, in terms of we had a great teacher on staff at the beginning of the year, and he’s been providing support Jeff bobs here at Michael power, great guy, great teacher who gave us some great tips in terms of scheduling, giving our students an activity in the morning, let’s say in our morning online class, and then giving them time to sit with that, with that virtual work, using Google or zoom breakout rooms to give the kids some time to interact and make sure that you’re not lecturing them for three hours straight or, you know, in the morning in the afternoon.


Michael Kelly (14:42):

So definitely breaking up the variety of activities is really important and provide that kind of differentiated instruction. And that just helps with the general classroom management. I found that you’re not gonna have kids goofing off as much if they know what the schedule is in advance, they know the exact time that they’re gonna be doing certain activities or tests. I found that that was really helpful. And then for sure, like just once again, some personal self care, like going for a run, right. Going for walks hikes you know, during the spring last year, I had a chance to get back more into mountain biking, which I had in cycling, like, which I hadn’t done in years. And that really helped. I, I, I felt with my own productivity right in the downtime and, and then reading and you know podcasts and a big film B and always checking out new things on Netflix and Amazon. So kind of tho those things really helped to kind of refuel the tank so to speak once, once the day was over cuz you know, burnout and kind of taking care of your own wellbeing is definitely critical in, in, in this environment more than ever.


Sam Demma (15:58):

There’s a new movie that just came out and Denzel Washington plays one of the main characters and he’s cracking, he’s cracking a criminal and trying to figure out what this guy did and the movie’s titled the little things. And there’s multiple times throughout the movie where Denzel stops and looks at his co police officer investigator and says, it’s the little things that gets you caught. And I, I made the connection between education and thought, you know, from a teacher’s perspective, it’s also the little things, not that you catch your kids doing, it’s the little things you do that make the biggest difference. And I’m so glad you mentioned being a perpetual learner because I think it’s so important leading by example, and showing your students that you’re doing everything in your power to educate yourself, encourages them to have a desire, to continue learning and, and want to read books. I mean, people can’t see this, but while we’re filming this behind you on your ledge of your chalkboard is a dozen books there. And I’m curious to know what, what are some of the books that you have read, or maybe some of the podcasts you tune into, give yourself a shout out and that you think teachers could check out and, and benefit from, from consuming. I I’d love to, I’d, I’d love for you to share.


Michael Kelly (17:11):

Sure. So some of the content I’ve been consuming lately, that’s been helpful. I, I would say would be first and foremost Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead her audio book. That, that was really helpful for me back in the spring and even teaching summer summer school over the summer that was really instructive, really great book. And she has kind of accompanying podcast that goes along with it, which she’s continually updating with great guests. And it talks a lot about leadership. It talks a lot about kind of organizational culture talks about resilience and empathy and vulnerability. I was introduced Brene Brown initially through her Ted talk on the power of vulnerability, which is also really worth checking out. And you know, a lot of the messages she has doesn’t necessarily speak directly to education, but it speaks to the workplace.


Michael Kelly (18:13):

And I found that her, her writing her books, her podcast were really instructive as well as gentleman from the United States named Tim Elmore, Dr. Tim Elmore. He’s done some work with John Maxwell. Who’s kind of a leadership expert and Tim Elmore has a podcast in an organization called growing leaders. And he talks a lot about different issues that are going on in the education world and that podcast, you know, during my runs or hikes or bike rides, that’s, that’s been a really great resource for me in terms of just giving me some in additional creativity and inspiration. And then, yeah, a, as you mentioned bit of a plug here, but I have to give credit where it’s due. I’ve been working with Adrian Del Monte an English teacher from Bishop Allen.


Michael Kelly (19:15):

We used to work together more directly, but yeah, he started a podcast earlier in the in the fall around November called the wholehearted teaching podcast, which a lot of the inspiration for, from that came from Brianne brown and her kind of discussion of wholehearted living. So the idea of the podcast on wholehearted teaching is really we invite educators people in the education space, whether they be teachers principals people in administration, directors writers, authors we’ve had on people in the educational psychology space different topics to talk about the current issues in education. And I, we have a really great podcast coming out new episode on this Tuesday, March 2nd with an individual named Desante hotten, and he’s gonna be talking all about mental health as well as how that affects black mental health in, in particular and how that connects to our role as educators, as we focus on combating racism in, in our society. So really kind of top of mind since we’ve just finished black history month and, you know, engaging in that kind of work along with Adrian and collaborating and helping out in any way I can and promoting has been really helpful for me, you know, just learning about the stories and the different personal journeys and narratives of other teachers who’ve come come before you has been really inspiring for me and has helped kind of push me along through the challenges of this pandemic.


Sam Demma (21:04):

I love that. That’s so awesome. And I’ve tuned into a couple of the episodes, and I know you’ve been, you and Adrian have been doing a anti-racism like series. I would say there’s a ton of great info on the podcast and the Twitter, by the way, shout out at wholehearted teaching podcast. That that’s awesome. So, so good. If you could go back to your first year as an educator and give yourself feedback like, and, and give yourself advice, what is the main thing you would, what is the main sort of things you would say to yourself, or tell yourself to almost get started in this profession again? If, if you could go back and feel free to just unmute yourself as well.


Michael Kelly (21:49):

Yeah, it’s a good question. So in terms of the advice I would give to kind of a first year educator right now would be really to, you know, first and foremost, just be humble and understand that there’s a lot to learn. And you know, you’re going to need in, in my experience, learn how to identify support systems, identify colleagues who, you know, are gonna be supportive, who are gonna act as mentors to you. Because I think that’s what initially for me anyways, that got me into teaching in the first place is having those really great high school teachers. You back at Bishop Allen, who tacked you on the shoulder and realized, you know, okay recognize there was a talent or an interest or a passion. And that was really for me, what was helpful. So for a first year educator, I would see be, be humble try to be resourceful spend time listening.


Michael Kelly (22:50):

Right. we often listen in order to respond you know, rather than listening to really just understand. And I think that that’s a really important concept to understand as you enter into a new profession. And just be very curious in quiz, ask a lot of questions, right? There’s no such thing as, as a dumb question and really seek out the support from your mentors. And I think that that, that will serve a first year educator. Well, whether it’s in this environment or any other environment and allowing yourself to, you know, understand that it’s a long journey in education and you don’t have to expect to be perfect or have all the answers right out of the gate. Right. and, you know, just pursue an attitude of lifelong learning, I think is really, really, really, really important. Your education doesn’t end after teachers college or after graduation. It actually, for me, it just, it just began like it’s just getting started. Right. And even a couple years in now, like, I feel like I’m just learning so much, so yeah. Just stay curious, stay stay humble and ask a lot of questions.


Sam Demma (24:14):

That’s such good advice. That is awesome. And if, if an educator listened to this interview today and is inspired by anything that you shared or just wants to have a conversation with you, be the best way for them to get in touch with you?


Michael Kelly (24:26):

So best way would be, you can connect with me. I’m on Twitter at @729Kelly. I’m on LinkedIn as Michael, just Michael Kelly, and then by email michael.kelly@tsdsb.org, always looking to connect with like-minded educators and people in the education space and always looking for another, another interesting guest to bring onto the podcast with Adrian. So always looking to learn more. So that’s, that’s where you can reach me.


Sam Demma (25:12):

Mike. Awesome. Thank you so much for taking time outta your day to come on the show. I really appreciate it. I look forward to listening to your future episodes as well. Keep doing awesome work and, and I’ll talk to you soon.


Michael Kelly (25:22):

Thank you, Sam, for this opportunity and keep up the great work you’re doing a you’re doing such great work and I really admire and respect it. So thank you.


Sam Demma (25:31):

Thank you so much. And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the High Performing Educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review. So other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show. If you wanna meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network, you’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

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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.

John Dennison – Student Success Teacher at Corner Brook Regional High School

John Dennison - Student Success Teacher at Corner Brook Regional High
About John Dennison

John(@Jnosinned) is an experienced Special Education Teacher and Student Success Teacher, at Corner Brook Regional High in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, with a demonstrated history of working with Student Leadership in Newfoundland and nationally with the Canadian Student Leadership Association.

John is a graduate from Memorial University of Newfoundland with bachelors and Masters degrees in Education. He is also skilled in Nonprofit Organizations, Coaching, Facilitation, Management, public speaking and Social Media.

John is a very proud father of his son Tyler, a business graduate, working in Corner Brook, and his daughter Andressa who is currently teaching in Alberta. John is retiring from his current position at the end of this current school year, and is looking forward to the unwritten adventures that await him and his wife Katherine in the future.

Connect with John: Email | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Cornerbrook Regional High School Website

Canadian Student Leadership Conference

Memorial University of Newfoundland Programs

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):
Of the high performing educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s guest is all the way from Newfoundland and Labrador. He is the student success teacher at Cornerbrook Regional High Western school district. He manages dozens of students who might need just a little additional support, or that might be learning in a slightly different way. Today’s guest John Denson has made a huge impact on students within his region. And what makes his story so inspiring is that the work he’s doing for these young people is very similar to the work that he had and support he had back when he was a student going through a very traumatic time in his own life. You’ll hear his humor, his, his jokes. They’re, they’re pretty good. You’ll also hear his dog barking a little bit. In this episode, it’s a very authentic down to earth interview, and I’m super excited to bring it to you today. John has a heart of gold and you’ll hear about it in this episode. Hope you enjoy this, I’ll see you on the other side. Okay, John, thank you so much for coming onto the high performing educators podcast. Tell the audience where you’re from, the little island that you’re from, that you’re super passionate about. You just told me about, please also explain who you all are and how you got into the work that you’re doing and have done over the past 30 years, almost congratulations in education


John Dennison (01:30):
So, okay, so I’m, I’m like I said to you, I’m, I’m honored to be included in this program again, I’m not quite sure how how I got chosen, but it’s certainly an honor to be included in this wonderful podcast with you. I’m from a little tiny island called Twillingate, off the Northeast coast of Newfoundland. Also known by Readers Digest, pegged it as the iceberg capital of the world, believe it or not. And of course, Newfoundland is the tiny little island off the Northeast coast of North America, half an hour ahead of everybody else, which can sometimes cause glitches when you’re doing podcast interviews, apparently . But anyway, I’m a student success teacher in Corner Brook on the west coast of Newfoundland. And I’ve been engaged with this program for about 10 years now.


John Dennison (02:21):
I’m a special education teacher but this program is designed to work with students who are at risk for whatever reason of not being successful in school. So it’s my task to motivate and try to get them through school with whatever means it takes whatever we can do to support them, their families, whatever, to get them through high school. As compared to who, you know, my special education teacher background, who is who we have the students assigned to us based on exceptionalities, those kinds of things. These, the students I work with now are just students that for whatever reason are not getting through school and are at risk and not being successful all in living through the cracks. But in the meantime, I was introduced 13 years ago, this, this September to the Canadian student leadership conference, just by being asked to tag along as a, a van driver to take some students to St.


John Dennison (03:13):
John’s to a national conference. And and I got hooked, I got hooked line and sinker by as a Newfoundland expression by the whole philosophy of student leadership through council school spirit you know, the motivational pieces of, of watching and motivating students go beyond what they ever thought they were capable of. And as myself as a teacher seeing at this conference you know, motivational speakers like mine, who, who knew that they, their engagement in school was more than just textbooks and notes and, and assignments and tests and quizzes, that there was a bigger role for us all to play in the life of the school and through motivating our students to, to go above and beyond. So, you know, I came back from that conference, totally pumped and, and fueled up, ready to go. I watched my students the same that year as well as my teacher comrade room in Austin, who, who was there with me.


John Dennison (04:18):
And anyway, I kind of like quietly evolved into taking over the student council from my friend Ruben to the point that became, you know, my second passion along with the students that I worked with. And, and we were fortunate enough in 2011, myself and Ruben to host our own student leadership national conference here in Cornerbrook. And and again, that just fueled us and our staff F at the time. And and you know, it’s just been wonderful experience. And, you know, it’s, it’s something that has certainly made the last 13 years of my career a much more enjoyable component and, and aspect to, to being the teacher that I guess I never really knew I was, but found a, that I could be all through student leadership and student engagement and all these wonderful things.


Sam Demma (05:06):
It’s so cool. They say that the teacher learns the most, right. And you know, you’re at the same time, you’re also the student. And it sounds like you embody that philosophy, which I think is so important, you know, remind ourselves that, you know, even though we’re teaching, we’re still growing. And I think that’s a, a beautiful mindset to have, especially during a difficult time you’ve been doing this on the cusp for 30 years. that’s yeah. 10 years older than I’ve been alive.


John Dennison (05:33):
I’m yeah. Fortunately you can’t see the gray in my beard because this is all on this is just an audio version, but yeah. But yeah, I still look like I’m like 19 years old, to be honest, my voice sounds a little more mature, but no, just kidding. You got anyway. Yeah. 30 years.


Sam Demma (05:50):
Yeah. You got the energy of a young person. And that’s a huge compliment


John Dennison (05:55):
well, thank you. It is only Wednesday though. so talk to me Friday.


Sam Demma (06:02):
Depends when people tune in, but you’re so right. What keeps you going 30 years? What keeps you motivated and hopeful and inspired?


John Dennison (06:11):
It’s funny. I, I, I, I don’t wanna talk about myself a lot. I, I, I left high school. I was 16 when I graduated from high school, believe it or not, because my birthday is at the end of December. Mm. And when I left high school, my dad passed away when I was 12. And, and quite, quite ultimately I became lost soul as well. And I know now looking back that I was depressed, I was getting had marks, and I was wishing I was getting higher marks with all my good friends sitting around the back of the class with me kind of thing. And somehow, and, and I won’t get into the whole story, but I stumbled into education. And you know, I landed myself in this position and then all these different pieces of puzzle came together that, that put me in the opportunity to work with students who were me ultimately, you know, like I, I, I, when I did my special education degree, I had the goal to to diagnose myself as a gifted underachiever.


John Dennison (07:10):
And I think that’s probably a lot more common than what we realize is that, you know, there are a lot of gifted underachievers out there who just need somehow to see the light. And I guess, through a number of different things that came away, I landed in a perfect job for me. And it’s, it’s just fueled me to reach out to those people that need reach, to be reached out to, and you know, like even today, and, you know, in, in my 29th and so many months, year, I met a young fellow today, two young fellows today, actually, who are down and out, and they’ve got their issues at home and they’re struggling to get through school. I had the conversation with them about me. I reflected back to me who would, you know, my situation, which is too many years ago, for me to even tell you, you know, and, and they connected and I managed to connect with them.


John Dennison (07:59):
So those connections are really the opportunity each day. So I can’t wait to go to school again tomorrow just to see if he came back and they came back. And if they’re there and if they’re not trying to figure out what I can do to, to bring them back, you know, and, and I’ve realized over the years, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned, I think is a teacher is a that I can’t win them all. I can’t win all the battles. It, it takes more than me wanting it. It has to be, the student has to want it. Somehow. I have to instill it in their heart. That it’s one that an education of being successful has to be one of their top three priorities. It has to be beyond getting the drugs and the hits. And, and sometimes it has to be number four, getting fed for that day or whatever the case may be. So you know, it’s just, it’s just that fuel and that passion is still in there. And I don’t think it’ll ever leave me. When I do retire, I’ll find something to help somebody somewhere, you know, just kind of build to me. And again, that’ll lose back to my parents and all those kinds of things, but that’s amazing. It’s just, it’s just an important thing. My dog’s barking in the background. I think she wants to come in, but anyway, that’s okay.


Sam Demma (09:12):
<Laugh>


John Dennison (09:13):
I was gonna, I could go on a complete, other tangent on how a Labrador retriever has changed my life and view perspectives on everything too, but


Sam Demma (09:20):
We can talk dogs for sure. I love that. You mentioned, could


John Dennison (09:25):
We, well, I’ll just throw this at you very quick. I’ve had two Labrador retrievers and they’ve taught no matter who shows up at our front door. And this is something that I try to take in perspective, no matter who shows up in my front door, and you could be colored, you could be wearing a turbine. You could be a police officer. You could be looking for food for the food bag, my dog, my Labrador retrievers each and every one of em have always just want to be there. Friends. If you just wanna pet, they wanna lie down. I’ll let you rub their belly. And it really doesn’t matter what color you are, what gender you are, what, what, you know, what, what LGBTQ status you are or who you are that you are welcome to them for a rub on their belly or a pat on their head. And it’s just kind of like something that I’ve watched and realized that yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me. Thank you, Molly. Thank you, candy. So I love that.


Sam Demma (10:17):
That’s so cool. Anyway, that’s awesome. There you, do. You still have them both.


John Dennison (10:21):
Actually candy passed away, but now I have Malia chocolate lab and I have Marley who’s a little Heese, which in, interestingly enough, I brought back to Newfoundland from CSLC 2009. Wow. In Cochran, Alberta, they both flew down on the plane with me. So they’re my CSLC dogs. Yeah.


Sam Demma (10:38):
So they’re just ingrained in leadership as much as you are. yeah.


John Dennison (10:42):
Yeah. Cool. Yep. It’s is they they’ve taught us a lot. Molly’s chocolate lab, the little Heese is still only 15 pounds. And I’ve learned some things about bullying. Interestingly enough, from the dogs and, and size does matter when it comes to nature. And in some respect bullying, because my chocolate lab will just push the little white dog out of the way, and she’s gonna get, you know, the treat first or whatever. And her little white dog just has to succumb to that. So there’s, I’ve talked about this to some of the kids and, and, you know, like my, my white dog has just accepted it, but still has kept the big chocolate lab as being his best friend. You know? So there’s like, there’s a way to accept, like you’re not really being bullied necessary and it’s not so much the order of size in the species. It’s just kind of like coming to grip, you know, you’re not all gonna be in first place. And, you know, sometimes you have good to make way for the big guy that’s bumbling by first and those kinds of things. Yeah, no, that’s fine. I dunno, sidetrack, you can delete that part if you want to.


Sam Demma (11:50):
Nah, I wanna leave it in the, the authentic stories make this thing so relatable and interesting and you need, especially to your own life.


John Dennison (11:56):
And, and I don’t know if it’s a, it’s like an answer for anybody who’s being bullied, but I think its just, you just realize, you know, this stuff goes on in nature and I’m sure that, you know, in our woods right now and it’s moose hunting season inland that a big gold moose is gonna make with the, the, the pretty female moose over the smaller bull moose just because he is bigger and that’s the way nature works and yeah, you’re right. But in nature sometimes that’s the way things play out anyway. Yeah. Maybe we overthink things too much. Maybe I spent too much time wondering about my chocolate lab pushing my little white thing away from the tree bowl anyway.


Sam Demma (12:33):
That’s okay. I love it. Can you, I know you food for lots of food for thought you would definitely have, you know, dozens, if not dozens, hundreds, if not hundreds, thousands of stories of young people who have come across your classroom, come across your experience, who have had an impact on, do you mind sharing a story and it could be a story that’s you deeply and you can change the student’s name in the sake of privacy. But the reason I want, I want you to share the story is because an educator might be listening. Maybe this is their first year in education and things are so different where they’re living and they’re getting the whole wrong view of what an educator can do for a young person’s life and the impact they can have. Yeah. And, and inspiring story about impacting and changing a young person’s life will remind them by the work they’re getting into is needed now more than ever and really important. Do you have any stories that come to mind?


John Dennison (13:27):
Yeah. And again, it’s hard because , it’s people aren’t naturally, well, I shouldn’t say people because I, I guess Donald Trump is sorry Donald, I threw that out there, but it, but it’s hard to, it’s hard to, I guess, talk about my successes without, you know, trying to become the all end all, but yeah, but anyway, I’ll, I’ll share a couple of stories. I know one of the very first and, and the two stories I can think of that really popped in my head are we have time for two, of course of, I guess if I don’t ramble one has to do with my student success position and the other has to do with my role as a leadership teacher, I guess, and, and student council advisor. I, I remember one of the first students I ever had way back in 2000 leadership role just sort of showed up at our, our high school.


John Dennison (14:20):
Cause I also help early school leaders. We call them now back in the day there were dropouts, but the early school lever term is the nice friendly term for a student who dropped outta school. But this is a student who, this was a young girl who left the high school. And at the time when she left high school, she was babysitting for a local owner and, and she kind of just walked out of school and started a babysitting for, for this particular family. And as when she reached 19, he kind of offered her a job as a bartender or, or his wife did or whatever. And, and she kind of like, she kind of did both things. She was so she was doing making money and stuff and she was content. Anyway, she came knocking on our door one, one September because she was gonna apply to go back to school, to do her early childhood education in training to kind of like open a daycare or, or work at a daycare because she en enjoyed the babysitting and wanted to get outta the bar business because who doesn’t wanna get outta the bar business.


John Dennison (15:22):
Anyway, she realized when she came in that she’d never graduated of all these years, there was probably three years after high school that she thought she had graduated. She was missing one in, in English. Now in, in Newfoundland, we have a general graduation and we have academic and there’s an honors graduation. And she was tr she was looking to graduate generally, which is kinda like, which will get you into community college and an opportunity to upgrade if you wanted to go to university. So anyway, long story short, she ended up doing an English course with kind of online because back then I did have some courses that were not, not virtual, quite like today’s virtual, but there were courses that she could do from home online with a couple of textbooks and email me assignments. So she didn’t have to come into the building to continue working at home.


John Dennison (16:07):
And, and we could, you know, establish that re teacher, student relationship. She was successful. She graduated and she’s now, you know, a proud mom, she’s gotta open her own daycare and been super successful. And, and she always knocks on my door at Christmas time and, and brings me something. A lot of, lot of people know me will appreciate the fact that nine times outta 10, it’s a liquor store give. But anyway you know, and it’s not about the gift, but it’s the fact that she comes in and she has that smile on her face, the same smile that she had the day that I told her. Sure, we can fix this and this is how we’re gonna do it and you’re gonna be fine. You know, it’s just, it’s, it’s just amazing to think back that you know of myself and, you know, wishing that I had somebody who could have reached out to me like that and provided me that opportunity, cuz I was 2% away from getting into university when I left high school.


John Dennison (17:05):
And you know, it took me three years to convince Memorial university to take me. And if I just had somebody at that, that that to go to bat for me and help me figure out how to get those two percents, you know, and anyway, I’m over it now doesn’t sound like it, but I’m over it so anyway, that that’s that, but those are the aspects. Those are the, those are the, the pieces of the puzzle that really help. And, and there’s been quite a few, like you said, there’s, there’s, there’s been well almost 10 years now of, of working with students that, you know, were down and out and needed a little extra something. But, but for the, the teacher that may be listening that’s that, you know, is also got, I am in a unique position cuz the teacher is listening is also worried, most likely worried about, you know, the government exams, the final exams, tests and scores admit wanting, you know, how the overall percentage is for their class.


John Dennison (18:03):
I’m in a very unique position in the sense that I really get to know I’m paid, get to know at, you know, sure. Maybe 80, 90 kids a year, but, but I held them and find out what makes them tick and really be able to, you know, use a priv, whatever it takes to get them up after a and up running or whatever the case may be to start making right decisions and some, some support in making some good choices, those kinds of things. So I get that. I’m unique in that, but I think just connecting with students is so, so, so important and being able to identify a little bit of who they are and what they are and find out where they want to go and, you know, instill on their, and that even if it is a biology or a science or a math or an English class, you’re teaching them, making them somehow connect those little steps and you know, that they’re making in those classes and doing those assignments leads to the bigger steps and the bigger picture that, that whatever their future is that they want.


John Dennison (19:08):
And it’s mind boggling to me to think that so many of the kids in high school right now, the careers aren’t even invented at this point that they’ll be doing, I haven’t got my head around that, but I see it because I’ve the 30 years I’ve taught, we’ve gone from having two or three computers in a school to everybody has a phone now. And everybody has the technology that, that, that 30 years ago we never thought we’d have. And I often think back too about, you know, if I could show my dad who died in 78, I remember he was big on this calculator. He had, that had memory. He bought that summer and an old Polaroid SX, 70 camera that, that, that spit out picture right in front of him. If he could see the photography that a cell phone, the technology in a cell phone and what things are now, I mean, it’s just mindboggling to think what’s happened in my lifetime.


John Dennison (19:59):
You know, the, so anyway, another bit you can cut out if you feel the need later on. The story I have is from a student council, president of mine who who’s got a very special place in my heart. She, her mother passed away. She found her mother dead on her kitchen floor. When she was in grade nine, I think it was, it was the year before we hosted our national conference. And she came to our school as a grade 10 student just after losing her mom, put her, I encouraged her to get involved with student council only because I knew, I knew a little bit of her family. I knew who she had been, not I’d known her, her sisters before. And I knew that she had a spark in her just because of her mom really, and having known her family, that she was to any student council that I was part of and, you know, lock story short.


John Dennison (21:00):
She, she did get involved. She became the president in her grade 12 year and, and she led like many, I’ve had some really strong leaders. She definitely was one of the top, you know, three to five for sure. Went on to become a, a nursing student at Dalhousie has just finished a road scholarship at Oxford and has just been accepted. I hope Micah hope you don’t hear this cause I might get it wrong. I think Berkeley in California to start med school. So she’s a nurse, she’s got a PhD in psychology and she’s off the med school in California and this girl she’s done Ted talks. She, she organized a charity in her mother’s name under the, the cancer society after biking across the province and then hosting, I think it was the equivalent of 10 marathons in 10 days. She organized a charity in her mom’s name that provides money for the transportation of families to be with their family member who’s receiving treatment in St.


John Dennison (22:11):
John’s or in Halifax. She’s got two chapters when she opened it in. She opened the chapter as well in, in a, in Nova Scotia. And she’s just a phenomenal young lady. She always you know, pays homage to me as being a contributor in that which I’m, you know, humbled by because, you know, I just, I really just did what I did for her, what I tried to do for all my students. And that’s just chat and say hello and find out what ticks and help support them and point them in whatever direction it is they wanna go and they need help to find. So that’s kind of, so anyway, it’s, it’s every, every student isn’t a opportunity and every student has something to offer and every student needs an adult in their life and they may already have it, but they also need a teacher just to say, good morning to them in the morning and goodbye to them in the afternoon.


John Dennison (23:06):
And we’ll see you tomorrow more kind of thing. And I think little bits and pieces are important and I don’t stand in the entrance of the building every day and, you know, greet everybody. I don’t, you know, go outta my way to say hello to everybody. But if I’m in the hall and I see people, then I will make sure that they feel if they look uncomfortable or whatever, that, that they’re happy to be there. And you know, if they don’t need me, they’re not going to hear from me. But if, if I get a vibe that maybe they need to say hello, or how are you doing? Is everything okay? Then they’re gonna hear that too. And I think just, you know, making that extra connection besides assigning tests and quizzes and assignments and those kinds of things, but yeah, it was good. It’s a big task. It’s a tall order. It’s huge, but very rewarding.


Sam Demma (23:52):
I was, I was gonna ask you, how do we make young people feel cared for and how do we make them feel appreciated? Is it by those small gestures? Like if there’s a teacher listening right now,


John Dennison (24:03):
It can be, it can be everything. I think from a wink to a smile, wink works well these days with COVID mass on the go knows if it smiles. But, and then of course it is 2020. A wink can be misinterpreted, but usually if it’s coming from a 55 or old bald man, that’s a teacher in your school is probably okay. anyway, it’s, I’ve gotten away with it anyway. But it’s usually followed up with some conversation. But I think it can be anything from, you know the breakfast club, making sure students, you know, just walking through and just connecting, just saying, hello, just how are things going? What are you doing? What can I, you know, it’s just a, a welcome mat. It’s just, I mean, I don’t, I’m not, I don’t take all the advice for my Labrador retriever.


John Dennison (24:55):
I don’t roll around on the floor, expecting people to Rob and tickle my belly, but somehow, you know, my dog could do that. And that, that somehow makes a connection. So it’s just figuring out what to do, then lie down and roll and ask people to pick your tickle, your belly, that that makes them connected somehow. You know another instance that just happened today, for example, a young girl who I knew, I know she ran for student council last year. Didn’t get on, she didn’t get elected. And I just happened to see her today. And we had our meetings today of, of, for our, any students interested in running. And I said to her, I said, you didn’t, you didn’t, you didn’t come to our meeting today. Are you not interested in running for student council this year? And she said, well, no. She said, I struggled with it a little bit last year.


John Dennison (25:43):
And you know, she said, I didn’t get elected and I was kind of, and that kind of stuff. And I said, okay. I said, I totally get that. I said, you know, there’s my daughter ran. She didn’t get elected. And she, she really was uncomfortable with the whole student council thing for a while. But I said, if you stop and think about it, look at you right now. You’re a year older. You’re, you’re more mature. You’re alive. You’re doing well in school. You seem happy cuz every time I see you have a smile on your face. So it wasn’t really that bad you got over it. You’re a little bit stronger for it. Believe it or not. You went through adversity and you’re still smiling and you’re able to talk to me about it. So I would be more than happy to see you throw your hat in the ring again, listen, you remember, you’ve got nothing to lose next year, this time we could potentially be having the same conversation.


John Dennison (26:31):
Sure. You didn’t make it, but you stuck your neck out there and you tried and you gave it your best shot. So if you’re, you know, I just said, if you’re not really interested and it’s not something you want this year don’t bother. But if you think you’ve still got something to offer, well, give it a shot. And don’t forget. We also have two positions on each grade level that are teacher nominee positions. So maybe, you know, you could come and ask a teacher to nominate you and you could be part of the council that way. So anyway, five story short that was at lunch and sometimes you’re wrote the afternoon. She came and sat in the chair next to my desk and she said, you’ve got me thinking about it and she might just run. But anyway, my fingers are crossed. I better not say it secretly for her to run.


John Dennison (27:13):
Oh darn I can’t, I can’t be too supportive. Anyway. I just hope that she runs and we will. Let’s just say, if she’ll be more than welcome if she wins, how does that sound anyway? That’s awesome. It’s you know, it’s just, it’s just making those connections, you know, remembering a face from last year, remembering seeing somebody down and asking them how they are or just, you know, having the opportunity to reach out awesome. Again, it’s, it’s, they’re all different. You know, the, the government tends to, and this is advice for teachers. The government tends to come now with blanket policies that expect every round student to fit in a square hole. And it just doesn’t work in education. We’re a gray science education is a gray science and one size does not fit all. And as a matter of fact, one of the sizes looks really stupid on some. So, you know, it’s, it’s just the, it is. But if we can get the best out of each of them, that’s all we can ask for, but we don’t get paid. We get paid to set up the trough for success, but we don’t get paid for pushing their heads down in the water or in the, so we just gotta roll with that. And every second Thursday we get paid. So there’s that bonus. Yeah.


Sam Demma (28:27):
True. That’s awesome. John, look, I could talk to you for hours on hours. There’s so much wisdom, so many stories to share. I’m sure we’ll do a part two and a part three. If there’s an educator listening right now, who’s thinking, you know, I just got into, this is my first year. This isn’t what I signed up for. This seems crazy. What was advice? Do you wanna end this episode sharing with them?


John Dennison (28:50):
Oh, it’s crazy. No doubt. It’s crazy. Hang on for the ride of your life. It’s interesting because my daughter, I love her she’s high school trained, but she’s in year two of teaching primary elementary in Alberta and she you know, she’s struggling this year. She taught out grade three last year and like I said, she’s high school trained. And this year she’s teaching grade four, so a second lot of curriculum. So I, I know we’ve talked and she’s struggling a little bit with the whole idea of am I cut out to be a teacher? And you know, the reality is you’re not everybody is. I remember I love this little Tibit my mom at my wedding. She, she stood up at the microphone. This was the, this was the year actually I had just started teaching. I had six months in and she said there were two reasons that she knew of that I became a teacher and one was July and the other was August and, and, you know, looking back, there’s nothing wrong with those summer vacations.


John Dennison (29:49):
But I think it’s like everything. It’s like every career I’ve been so fortunate that I’ve gotten this gone to work every morning with a smile on my face. And I’ve left with a smile on my face the last day of the summer before each day of school in September, I have trouble falling asleep because it’s, it’s more about, it’s not anxiety. It’s more about and maybe it’s anxious, but it’s more an excited, anxious about what we’re gonna do. Who am I gonna face? Who the new kids are, you know? And if you can get that passion for your teaching career somehow and real every, we have the opportunity to influence thousands of students in our careers, but the reality is if we do it right, we’re influencing generations upon generat upon generations. Because if I did my job right, 30 years ago, then those parents now something I said or something I entrenched deeply inside them is influencing their kids and so on and so forth.


John Dennison (31:01):
And that’s some something that, that I know it sounds awfully conceded or perhaps a little, you know, top heavy. But if we do our jobs, right, we’re not just teaching them how to go on to university and do better in sciences or English or math or become doctors or lawyers. We’re in, we’re influencing them and how to be become good strong members of society. And I also believe that it takes welders. It takes pipefiters. It takes Walmart greeters, Tim Horton’s workers, doctors, and lawyers, and politicians to change the world and to do good things in the world. It’s not just the high end. It’s, it’s all, it’s all perspective. It’s every student in the building has an opportunity and has just needs a catalyst and just needs to realize that their potential is huge. And we’ve seen that was some of the, you know, some of the protests worldwide, that it’s a shame that some of the incidents that have happened have the result has had to have been protests and those kinds of things.


John Dennison (32:17):
But, but you know, there’s definitely voices out there. There are definitely voices that we need to hear. And a lot of them are young voices. So anyway, because I I’ve always felt it a bit cliche to say that you are the next generation, you, your generation can change the world, whereas they can’t. Yeah. And we’re starting to see that in 20, 20, 20, 21, because hopefully because my, my generation, you know, has helped them in instill that in them, hopefully. True. So anyway, your job next, putting all the pressure on, and you’re doing your part, you’re doing your part, but yeah, no, we can definitely do another part down the road. Well, actually comfortable than I thought.


Sam Demma (32:59):
You’re, you’re a pro. This seems awesome. If anyone wants to reach out to you and talk about some of the stories or just connect, maybe it’s another educator from a different province. What’s the best way for them to get in touch?


John Dennison (33:09):
With you? So I, I’m not a huge fan of Facebook only because I found that it just became too much of what the randomness people do in their day. That that really, I don’t have time to pull around with. I’m on Twitter @Jnosinned, which is Dennison backwards. That was something I maybe we’ll save that story for another time. It’s a good story. It’s something that, that young teachers could do with their with their students sometime for entertainment. Is all about putting your name backwards anyway @Jnosinned. But if you look for John Dennison, I think you’ll find me. My email, school email is johndennison@nlesd.ca ,newfound Labrador English school district cell phone. Now won’t go there. school phone school phone is (709) 634-5828.


John Dennison (34:12):
Cool. they want meal find Google’s amazing that way. Yeah. But definitely reach out. I certainly don’t don’t mind sharing anything, you know, if there’s any future employers out there, by the way I may be looking for, Hey here, I never thought about this before. , here’s, here’s an opportunity to have me come to your school and work for a living or somewhere else. I’ve noted actually that the prison system in Hawaii apparently hires retired teachers to come and work. So the idea of moving from the iceberg capital, the world to probably the volcano capital of the world is kind of appealing, but anyway, we’ll see, but there’s anyway, it suits the, maybe you’ve heard enough for me today.


Sam Demma (34:59):
No, man, I can’t get enough. I’m loving is one of my favorite conversations, but we will, we will wrap it up there and I’m gonna thank you, John, for taking some time to chat and I’ll have you on again soon. This has been a pleasure.


John Dennison (35:11):
Ah, no sweat. I’m I’m here. I’m here. Maybe we’ll start doing a monthly report from the rock


Sam Demma (35:18):
I’m so I’m so down.


John Dennison (35:19):
Cool. And when Dave, when Dave con listens to this and I’m sure my good friend, Dave will listen there will be no screeching involved, Dave, and I don’t think we’ll be doing a, a pod screech in either. So unless, unless Sam, unless you get lots of requests, maybe we could do an after 10?


Sam Demma (35:37):
I’m I’m open to it. love it, John. All right. Thank you so much. Okay. Take care of my friend, such an impactful interview. So many amazing stories. John has so much wisdom to share so much positive energy. I really hope that I can go and meet him soon in person after COVID passes. I think we’d have amazing conversations and I encourage you to reach out to him as well. He would probably love to hear from you. In fact, I’m sure he would absolutely love to hear from you. And I would, I would love for, for you to connect with him. If you did enjoy this, please take two seconds to consider leaving a rating and review. It’ll help more educators, just like you find this content and benefit from it. And if you are someone who has ideas and inspiring stories in education, shoot us an email at info@samdemma.com so we can get you on the show as well. Anyways, I’ll see you on the next episode. Talk soon.

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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.