About Debbie Hawkins
Debbie Hawkins (@SHS_Leaders) is the Campus Culture Director at Sunnyside High School in Fresno Unified, but grew up in the south valley and is a first-generation college graduate who after attending Fresno State made her home in the greater Fresno Area. Debbie is the wife to Jimmy and the mother to Jonah and Noah. Family is a defining factor in Debbie’s life and thus she reduced her teaching load to part-time status in order be home with her young boys while they were young.
Having raised her boys, she finds herself immersed in the work of student activities. This work has become her passion and her home. Sunnyside is a school committed to the work of developing student relationships, establishing a college-going culture, and being a healthy student-centred environment.
**Please note that all of our transcriptions come from rev.com and are 80% accurate. We’re grateful for the robots that make this possible and realize that it’s not a perfect process.
Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode on the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s guest is Debbie Hawkins, who is the campus culture director at Sunnyside High School in Fresno Unified, but grew up on the south valley and is a first generation college graduate who after attending Fresno state, made her home in the greater Fresno area. Debbie is the wife to Jimmy and the mother of Jonah and Noah. Family is a defining factor in Debbie’s life and
Sam Demma (01:02):
thus, she reduced her teaching load to part-time status in order to be home with her young boys while they were young. Having raised her boys, she finds herself immersed back into the world of student activities. This work has become her passion and her home. Sunnyside is a school committed to the work of developing student relationships, establishing a college going culture, and being a healthy student centered environment. I know you’ll enjoy this interview with Debbie because I enjoyed chatting with her and I will see you on the other side. Debbie, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here this morning. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit about what brought you to where you are in education today?
Debbie Hawkins (01:40):
My name is Debbie Hawkins. I have a very fancy title called Campus Culture director at Fresno Unified’s largest high school in where I’m located, obviously in Fresno. Our, our student population pushes 3000 so we are the biggest. What brings me to the moment of campus culture or what other people would call student activities is when I first got into education I was a coach, but really everything I’ve ever done in education’s really about mentorship and mentoring kids and investing in kids like you know, who they would become as an adult. So I find myself in this world of student leadership, because that’s always kind of been my passion and it just, that trail led me here.
Sam Demma (02:24):
Did you have educators that kind of pushed you in this direction? Cause caring for kids could have brought you into different roles. I’m I’m wondering why it specifically brought you into a school
Debbie Hawkins (02:34):
I guess complicated childhood, but easiest to say that school was always safe for me. Mm. And I had hero teachers who very, I’m a, I’m a first generation college student. I’ll and if you knew my whole story and we had like a lot of time maybe perhaps some wouldn’t see me in the seat I’m in today because I probably never would’ve got go to college. So those teachers, those heroes of my childhood passed very much pushed me eventually into the classroom once in the classroom and coaching. I don’t know. I always found myself when the crowd of kids having a good time. And there was a point at which I was at a site and I was a little burned out with being an English teacher. If I’m being honest. And the principal flat out, looked in the eye and said, what, what, what can I do to keep you? And I said, I need to do something where I’m investing in kids as people where I care more about their story than whether or not they know a list of conjunctions. And she approached me with student activities and, and that’s where it started 16 years ago. It was just a principal trying to keep me on campus.
Sam Demma (03:48):
That’s amazing. And tell me more about how do you define a hero teacher? What does that teacher do for you that has such a big difference and impact on you?
Debbie Hawkins (03:58):
I think as much as you can, like strips down everything, I came from a really small town. Yeah. So like when you’re from a small town, everybody knows the legends of your family and your cousins and you know, all that stuff. But, so I think my hero teacher saw me individually as a person and, and none of the backstory. Mm. And like, let me start from that point on. And in a lot of ways, never saw me as broken, but saw me as having potential. Mm. So to me, a hero teacher, as somebody who gives you a clean slate from day one, and it it’s, it’s harder to do than it sounds like it really is because Def kids definitely come with stories and brothers and sisters and cousins. And you, you know, things about kids before you ever meet them. I mean, I can log into student profiles and read all sorts of things, which by the way, I don’t do intentionally and never did, even when I taught English. But I always appreciated those teachers who, who just gave me a chance to be me.
Sam Demma (05:02):
Yeah. That’s such a cool perspective. And if a teacher is listening to this in the classroom and you know, they wanna make, they wanna make their students feel the same way you felt in those classes, like what would you kind of advise or tell them that they could try and do you know, is it to make sure you set aside time to get to know each student make time to hear, hear their stories and share their experiences and upbringing or, well, how do you think that looks in the classroom or school?
Debbie Hawkins (05:30):
What I think it looks like in a classroom at a school in general is you have to be very people first. You have to be very relationships oriented first. My son’s high school English teacher, her name’s SCR and officially, and, and I will love her forever because she changed my son’s life. And what she did is in Fresno unified, we’re a restorative practices school, which has all sorts of things that go with it. But one of the things that happens within restorative practices is that the idea of circle time, which I use in my classroom every week, we call it family Fridays. But it really is, is a restorative circle where kids get an opportunity to have a voice. Well, miss officially at Bullard high school does that every week in her English class. So she pauses her curriculum to put kids in circle and, you know, really dive deep into who each other are as people and what they think and, and what I think miss officially does.
Debbie Hawkins (06:23):
And what I I do in my own leadership class too, is, you know, that whole idea of start slow to go fast. You, you gotta like slow down and let kids know you as they need to know us as people too, like as an instructor, they need to know things about me because that’s what builds trust. And you do, you have to slow down. And I think when you’re a core content teacher, it’s scary because you don’t have many instructional minutes and you have a lot of expectations of you. But I have found that in education that once a kid trusts me and they have put me in their corner as somebody who’s gonna defend them I can get 80% more out of them academically, cuz they follow me off a cliff. If I told ’em to go, you know, I guess a bad analogy, but it’s true. They’d follow me anywhere. And once you’ve built those relationships, where are kid gonna follow you anywhere? Because you’ve slowed down, you slowed down and you took that time. You actually get more done academically.
Sam Demma (07:21):
I love that. That’s such a unique way to look at it. And I think it’s so true. I had one educator come on here one time and tell me that there was one student in his class that he was struggling with and the way that he won the heart and mind of this student over was by giving the student responsibility that this student thought he would never give him. And the situation was the keys to his car to go grab his lunchbox in the front seat and you know, and it, the story just hit me in my core. I was like, wow, that’s such a cool example of building a human to human relationship, not a teacher to student one. I think that’s amazing. Where do you think these philosophies and ideas came from? Was it just from your personal experience from other teachers? Like how did you come up with these ideas and these teaching philosophies?
Debbie Hawkins (08:08):
Well, everything’s, I, I guess seated in personal experience to some extent, I mean, there’s great educators in my past when I was a student and then you get involved and you start listening. You know, you it’s, the organization, CAA is an amazing one. So many speakers there. I, I would say that on my personal journey for development as a, as a leadership teacher there’s a program called capturing kids’ hearts, which was an early program in my career that really drew me in. And then fast forward, I, I meet a guy named Phil Boyt who is Phil, boy’s amazing. He has his own podcast. Everyone should be listening to Phil Boyt, read his books. And then you, you know, there, there’s just speakers and that come into your life. And I have the privilege at working at Sunnyside. And when I was hired here, there was a man named Tim Lyles, who he lost this year.
Debbie Hawkins (09:03):
And men talk about just an amazing person to learn from what you find out in education, which I’m going to assume applies to any profession out there is that once you have an ideology of who you want to be and what you want within this setting, you surround yourself with people whose core values begin to align with yours, right? So like you go find your tribe. So I found my tribe, you know, I listen to T street speak at kata and, and now, now that I heard her at kata, I’m gonna follow every talk. I find of hers on YouTube, you know deep kindness by Houston craft my class, read that together last year. Nice. You just, you began to, you know, you hear of this person who tells you about this person who tells you about this book and you begin to seek it out. It’s personal work though. If, if you wanna be that kind of educator, it’s personal work, which I think it’s personal work, no matter where you are in life.
Sam Demma (10:01):
Yeah. I love it. And people leave behind such amazing principles and values. I think more than everything else, when someone, you know, passes on, we can look at the things that they left behind and something that sticks out for me, even, you know, you talk about service a little bit and great people to learn from like, after my grandfather passed away, I was 13 years old. And the thing that sticks out in my mind are the values that he passed on to me as a young child. And it, it sounds the same with your colleague who passed away. Sorry to hear about that. And yeah, I’m sure your school is doing a great job of celebrating his, his life and his legacy. That’s amazing though. And did you ever have any doubts growing up as a, as a young educator and what were some of the things that went through your mind? Because I think it’s a very common experience for all educators to go through.
Debbie Hawkins (10:47):
Well, I have an atypical educator story. I mean, I failed the third grade and I’m I’m dyslexic. Oh, so yeah, I I had some challenges and in, in high school I remember my very favorite high school, creative writing teacher, like on my college application to the educational opportunity program at Fresno state saying student has unlimited potential. If she can get some support with her writing. And interestingly enough, as soon as he said it, it became this quest to be good at it. And like academically after my freshman year in college writing became my strongest thing. Wow. So, you know, it’s, it’s almost like when someone shines a light on it in a way that is soft and trying to guide you rather than like light you up and blow you up, but rather a guiding light. Yeah. It inspires you to kind of go on that path and take that journey because ultimately as a, you know, a 16 year old kid, I, I wanted to be successful and change my family’s narrative. Yeah. You know, I, I wanted it badly. So this man whom I trusted his name was Greg Simpson from ex or high school, amazing educator just gently said unlimited potential with a little support in writing. So I joined writing lab. Like I went and found some people to help me and ended up being a game changer for me.
Sam Demma (12:10):
I find that. So fascinating how someone that you trust, very few words have such a powerful impact on your mindset of how you view yourself and also the actions you took in your future. And it goes to show us how important it is that we choose our words and our actions both extremely wisely when working with any human being, doesn’t matter if it’s a student in your class or a stranger on the street. Do you think that the words of educators and students have such a massive impact on each other? And have you seen in, in reverse scenario where your words or your colleagues’ words have had a huge impact on students in your school and do any stories stick out in your mind?
Debbie Hawkins (12:51):
Well, since you wanna call me on the carpet on that one today, yeah. Honestly I’ve only been at Sunnyside for four years and cool. My first year here, I, I received an email during homecoming because I did something a little different that how don’t know maybe it was because I was new or, you know, and when you’re new, you’re a little unsure and you know, I’d never been at a high school. It came from a middle school and man, that email shock me to the core. Like I never had anyone talk to me like that. So I became like this head trip thing I had to come over and I overcome like it taught me a lot though, like in reflection. Mm. I am extremely cautious about what I say to people via written communication. Mm. I try to not be short and if, if I’m gonna be short, I try and go walk over and speak to them face to face. Yeah. Like lesson learned. And then, so this week we actually had two rallies before we had a rally on day one and day two of the school year.
Sam Demma (13:51):
Debbie Hawkins (13:51):
So day one of the school year, I told my, my little commissioner, Hey, you know, don’t play YouTube videos because the signal’s gonna drop when everybody comes into the gym. Yeah. And the hustle and bustle of it, I didn’t check in with him and he didn’t convert the file cuz he ran out of time. So sure enough, we get to this part where these very adorable little mom, girls are supposed to go dance to promote our diversity assembly. Mm. And the video wouldn’t play. so, yeah, I mean day one and I didn’t snap at him in the moment, but I also didn’t build him up. What I should have said was him and let it go. There’s always something that fails. This is our thing today. Of course. Yeah. And helped him like move through it. And I, you know, we haven’t been here for almost two years. Yeah. I didn’t coach him well enough. Like, so I’ve been spending the last I’ve spent the last week and a half now trying to build him back up, you know? Yeah. Cause it’s gonna take 20 or 30 interactions for him to be brave again.
Sam Demma (14:53):
Well, I applaud first of all, your responsibility. Thanks for sharing. I was also curious about the positive side of how words have affected students or
Debbie Hawkins (15:00):
Wouldn’t oh, positive. Okay. Positive side. Positive. Side’s easy. Yeah. I, I don’t know how I’ve become the, the teacher who, who attracts a lot of our foster and homeless youth kids. Mm. I don’t know how, but one, one philosophy I say leadership’s about what you do, not what class you have. Yeah. So a few years ago I had this one kid just show up in my room every day and just make artwork. And I just looked at him and I said, Hey, you, you have the ability to show up and be positive. You know, you should join my class. Mm. I don’t remember saying it to him, by the way. I just said it one day while they, I don’t know, coloring with markers. And anyway, Damien did join my class. The following year. He became my spirit commissioner. I didn’t know his whole story until almost the year was over. But wow. His words back to me were really powerful. He’s like, he, he basically said, your first impression of me is you should be a leader. Like you belong here. And for him, it, it made a difference cuz it came at a real critical time when he was doubting where he was. Mm. So I, I there’s, there’s a million instances where I could say I’ve said something to a kid, but here’s the funny thing. I very rarely remember the words I used.
Sam Demma (16:11):
Debbie Hawkins (16:12):
So you just always guard them and keep ’em positive. And, and the one thing I will say, and that I, I need to get back to doing, I used to keep a class list and I would mark down like an X mark, like, so for an for that week I had to give one overtly positive statement to each kid on my roster. Mm. And I made it like anecdotal where I would check it off.
Sam Demma (16:34):
Debbie Hawkins (16:34):
Because you know, life’s busy. Yeah. So that’s one way that I I’m gonna get back to that this year, but that is huge. And I’ll tell you another huge one that we all overlook. I also try and call three parents a week just to tell ’em their kid’s amazing.
Sam Demma (16:48):
Ah I love that. That. And what is the, what is the, what is the usual parent response to those phone calls? how does the phone call start? I’m sure it starts with oh is everything okay?
Debbie Hawkins (17:00):
50% of the time. It’s what do you do?
Sam Demma (17:02):
Debbie Hawkins (17:04):
What’d she do now? What’s going on? It’s always guarded at first and it’s really funny that if I don’t use my personal cell phone, 50% of them don’t pick up. And then, and I give ’em my cell phone number and tell ’em, if you have any questions, feel free to call me. And it’s odd because I will get random sets of parents who will text me and ask me a general school question because I just called them to tell ’em, Hey, your kid’s amazing.
Sam Demma (17:28):
That’s awesome. That is so good. I,
Debbie Hawkins (17:29):
I, I try and I’ve, I try and do at least three kids a week for the first month of school till I get through everybody.
Sam Demma (17:35):
There’s a, there’s such a cool story behind the idea of appreciating other people that I heard on a recent podcast as well. There’s a, there’s a gentleman named Jay Sheti. Maybe you’ve actually heard of him. Heard the name. Okay. So he has a podcast. He was a monk. He went to the mountains for like three years, came back and now he makes what he says is it makes wisdom go viral. And he has all these like cool videos and that’s awesome. He has a podcast and he interviewed this guy named scooter bran and scooter, scooter bran is the music manager of Justin Bieber and Demi Lavato and all these like huge music artists. And he was on the podcast and he was saying that his grandma did something for him and his family that changed the trajectory of all the kids’ lives. He said there was four grandchildren.
Sam Demma (18:16):
And on separate occasion, she pulled each grandchild, each grandchild aside and said, I have to tell you something very important and very special. And you can’t tell any of your siblings about this. And she said, you’re the special one. and she did it to all four of them on separate occasions and scooter didn’t find out till the day of her funeral while the grandchildren were around. He said, guys, you know, grandma pulled me aside and told me when I was a young kid, that I was a special one. And then his brother said, no, me too. And me too. And, and all four of them went their whole life believing that they had this special ability that they were an amazing young person. And I thought, what a powerful way to plant a positive belief in the mind of a young person. And it sounds like you’re doing the same thing, not only with the students, but also with the parents.
Debbie Hawkins (19:01):
I’m trying. And that’s, that’s the whole thing that I will all educators like, it’s, it’s an awkward time. Yeah. Alls you can do is try and over the summer I read this book called the four agreements and, you know to Miguel
Debbie Hawkins (19:14):
. Yeah. So like, you know, in the four agreements where it says, take nothing personally. Yep. You know, that’s my challenge, this year’s cuz in this crazy world where everything’s, everything’s uneven right now, still, you know, like everything’s still uneven and people react daily at us, around us, within this organization out of a sense of fear and self protection. Yeah. So really take nothing personally. And I’m really talking to my leadership class about that. We’re actually gonna read the four agreements at the end of the year when we do our book study as a class. But Tim Wild’s favorite book, by the way. I, I just, that, that whole that’s resonating with me this year is don’t take things personally because I think when we take things personally, it, it, it holds us back. Right.
Sam Demma (20:01):
It’s true. So true. And I think that sometimes the words of other people are based on one, their past experiences and two, the current things they’re going through, you know, you, you mentioned about the email and writing a short email. It’s it’s funny because whenever we write an email communication, the other person reads it based off the current mental state that they are in. So if they’re extremely happy, they’re gonna assume that your email was, was a pretty happy one, but if they’re struggling and, and then they read a short email, that’s just to the point, they’re gonna think that you’re upset or something and you know, 90 something percent of communication is nonverbal. And so I think, you know, some of the times too, when people attack us or put us down or attack a student or an educator and put them down, it’s, it’s asking ourselves, you know, what do they have to be going through to be expressing this situation like this? And I think that’s where empathy wins, you know, but it’s tough when you’re in the experience. It’s like, it’s a tough one. So if you could travel back in time and speak to your younger self, when you were just getting into education, knowing what you know now based on the experiences that you’ve had, what would you tell your younger self? What couple pieces of advice would you give?
Debbie Hawkins (21:10):
Number one, I’d say quit keeping score. I came in as a coach. Like I was so competitive and not just about like when we were on a basketball court. Mm. You know, I wanted to be the teacher with the highest reading scores. I wanted to be the teacher with the most kids coming to, you know, this or I, I was so worried about being perceived as having value that I think it held me back. I would’ve been much better off to have been more concerned about if I was valuable to at least one kid, you know, let go of those public perceptions a little bit when you’re young and invest in people individually, like deeply in one person at a time, one staff member, one kid my younger self and I would say not to take things so personal. Yeah.
Debbie Hawkins (22:04):
I, I, I don’t know when I was young, I had a lot of pride and, and things would hurt. And, and when you let things hurt, like where they wound you, it literally prevents you from having relationships with kids and being available to kids who need you, because you’ve spent too much time in your own self hurt. Like it was a waste of my energy as a young educator, you know, I, I needed a, I, I, I would encourage every young educator to find a group of two or three teacher, friends who are safe. And when something hurts, you can tell them so you can let it go. Cause you know, there’s something about that whole, like, you know, the truth will set you free. We’ll find people to go tell your truth to yeah. So that you can be free of its damage and move on. Yeah. Sometimes I think your, our pride like makes us put in the negative stuff, cuz we don’t want other people to see it. Like go get that ne get a trusted crowd, share with them, all those, those like doubtful things so that, that you can just be set free from it and move on. Don’t let it hold you back.
Sam Demma (23:06):
I love that.
Debbie Hawkins (23:07):
Trust me. Nobody’s good at this job. I’m 26 years in every year. There’s 10 things I need to be better at.
Sam Demma (23:14):
Debbie Hawkins (23:15):
It, it, it, this job never, it’s a big beast. You will never be perfect. Hey, it’s messy.
Sam Demma (23:21):
Every job. That’s the mindset to have. I mean, the day you think you arrive is the day you shouldn’t ever do it again, you know?
Debbie Hawkins (23:28):
Sam Demma (23:28):
We never arrive, you know, like we’re all human beings. We’re all messy individuals going through this experience called life and balancing everything, you know? That’s a cool mindset to have. I call what you just mentioned “Emptying my backpack.” When I feel like I’m holding onto too many thoughts and opinions of others or opinions and, and experiences and situations in my head, I call it emptying my backpack. I’m actually writing a poem about it for kids Yeah, that’s such a cool piece of advice to give yourself and I appreciate you being so honest, vulnerable, and open about this whole conversation. I think a lot of educators will listen to this and will really enjoy it and see a lot of their own experiences in what you’ve just shared. So thank you so much for coming on the show. Debbie, it’s been awesome. If someone wants to reach out, send you an email, bounce some ideas around or chat with you, what would be the best way for them to get in touch?
Debbie Hawkins (24:21):
Just use my staff email it’s firstname.lastname@example.org. You could Google Fresno Unified in my name and find me honestly.
Sam Demma (24:41):
Cool. All right, Deb. Debbie, thank you so much. This was great, keep up the great work and we’ll talk soon.
Debbie Hawkins (24:47):
Thank you very much for having me.
Sam Demma (24:50):
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 and review so other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show; if you want meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network, you’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.
Join the Educator Network & Connect with Debbie Hawkins
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.