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Student Success

Dr. Sunaina Sharma – Program Leader at the Halton District School Board & Practicum Advisor at Brock University

Dr. Sunaina Sharma - Program Leader at the Halton District School Board and Practicum Advisor at Brock University
About Dr. Sunaina Sharma

Dr. Sunaina Sharma (@DrSunainaSharma) is an in-school program leader and secondary teacher with over twenty years of experience teaching with the Halton District School Board in Burlington, ON. She strives to put the learner’s needs at the forefront of all program planning, classroom teaching, and professional learning so that students participate in authentic and relevant knowledge construction.

Her doctoral research centred on understanding how to leverage digital technology in the classroom so that it supports student engagement. In her current role as an instructor and practicum advisor at a Bachelor of Education program, she uses her knowledge, skills and experience to guide future educators.

Connect with Sunaina: Email | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Halton District School Board – HDSB

Bachelor of Education – Brock University

Dr. Susaina Sharma’s Personal Website

Google Workplace

Ted.com

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. Today we have a very special guest. Her name is Dr. Sunaina Sharma. Dr. Sunaina Sharma is an in-school program leader and secondary teacher with over 20 years experience teaching with the Halton District School Board in Burlington, Ontario. She strives to put the learners needs at the forefront of all program planning, classroom teaching, and professional learning, so that students are participating in authentic and relevant knowledge construction. Her doctoral research is centered on understanding how to leverage digital technologies in the classroom so that it supports student engagement. In her current role as an instructor and practicum advisor at Brock University at a Bachelor of Education program, she is using her knowledge, skills, and experience to guide future educators. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Dr. Sunania Sharma and I will see you on the other side. Welcome back to another episode on the High Performing Educator Podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. And today we are joined with a very special guest, Dr. Sunaina Sharma. Dr. Sunaina Sharma actually uses one of my TED talks in her classroom, <laugh> which prompted her to reach out, and I’m so excited to have her on the show here today. Please start by introducing yourself.

Dr. Sunaina Sharma (02:18):

Hi, I’m Sunaina Sharma and I have been an educator for over 20 years, and despite all the challenges, it is still my passion.

Sam Demma (02:30):

What made it your passion over, or I guess 20 years ago, what started this journey for you?

Dr. Sunaina Sharma (02:36):

It’s an interesting story because I never intended to become a teacher. My path was set. I was going to go to law school and I was going to be a family lawyer. upon graduating with my Bachelor of Arts degree, I walked down the street from where I lived to the local high school and asked if anyone needed a volunteer because I graduated and I wanted to have more experience working with youth. And an English teacher at that school, Mo leaking, said, Oh, I’d love to have you join my class. My grade elevens are writing essays and they could use some help. So I started by going in twice a week. And what Mr. Leaking did with his students in that classroom was magic. His students were excitedly engaged and I wanted to be a magician like him. So I actually rescinded my acceptance to law school and set up on the path to attain my Bachelor of education.

Sam Demma (03:34):

You mentioned Mr. Leaking was a magician of sorts. What exactly did you witness in his class that got you so excited about doing something similar with your own group of students?

Dr. Sunaina Sharma (03:47):

So what he was doing with his students in his classroom was completely different from what I experienced in high school. My high school experience wasn’t very positive and I just remember copying notes and wrote memorization and weekly quizzes and monthly tests. And what he was doing was there was such an energy and excitement in the classroom. There was so much noise and movement, but it was all very planned and calculated. So if you looked through the window of his classroom, it looked chaotic, but it was all like organized chaos. It was so much fun to be in that room. I went from volunteering twice a week to four or five times a week. I just wanted to be in that room.

Sam Demma (04:31):

Oh, that’s so awesome. And what took you from that room to where you are today? Tell me a little bit about your journey through education.

Dr. Sunaina Sharma (04:39):

Okay. So I completed my Bachelor of Education in 2001 and immediately got hired by the Halton District School Board at the school that I volunteered at No Way <laugh>. So that, that opportunity allowed me to build connections, real connections with students, but also other educators in the building. So I ended up working for that school until it closed in 2018. And that school was amalgamated into the school that I am currently at, which is mm, Robinson in Burlington. Nice. And I’ve been at that, I’ve been at that school for four years along the way. I do love learning and figuring out how to be a better teacher. That’s always at the root of all of my learning and experiences that I seek out. So along the way, I ended up attaining my master’s degree, my master’s of education, and then I thought I was done, but then I wasn’t and ended up completing my PhD in 2018. So I have my PhD in education. Nice. So with that opportunity, it’s allowed me, I am a department head or program leader in my school. It’s allowed me to not only inspire and engage the people I work with, but it’s also allowed me to work in a Bachelor of education program in mentoring and guiding our future teachers,

Sam Demma (06:03):

Which is such an important role. I think teachers when performing very well and making genuine connections with their classrooms have a very big impact on the future being the kids that are gonna be running the future and being a part of it. I think back to an educator I had in my life who, like Mr. Leaking for you created an environment that all the students in his class wanted to be in. you know, over the past couple of years things have been quite different and a little bit challenging. I’m curious in your roles, what are some of the challenges you’re faced with right now and, and kind of how are you coming, coming, getting out of or getting over some of those things?

Dr. Sunaina Sharma (06:43):

Yeah, definitely the current challenges that students are struggling in the classroom after two years of disruptive learning, they do have gaps. And as such, when they encounter difficulty, they get frustrated and the outcome is they’re giving up, they’re struggling to persevere, to overcome the challenges and the obstacles.

Sam Demma (07:03):

Gotcha. H how as as an educator do you kind of support or help a student get over that or get through it? <laugh>

Dr. Sunaina Sharma (07:12):

It’s, it’s offering care and support. We always have to remember that our students are children. Mm. Although they like to present themselves as adults, they are children and we as educators are in a position to teach them we need to reestablish or reteach them. That learning involves failing. Mm. Somehow they’ve learned along the way that failing is bad or wrong and that’s where the unlearning needs to come. And we really need to reinforce that failing is part of learning and they have to fail forward.

Sam Demma (07:46):

I love that. I think back to soccer, growing up as an athlete, our coach would always sit us down after a terrible performance and instead of scolding us, would provide us with the opportunity to chat about it with all of our teammates to try and identify what went wrong and what we could learn from so that, you know, in the future, similar situations wouldn’t unfold again. And it felt like he helped us look at failure as a stepping stone rather than a, you know, an a dead end. So I think that’s a really important lesson to share with young people. what gives you hope? What keeps you motivated and inspired to show up to work every single day and put your best foot forward?

Dr. Sunaina Sharma (08:25):

Students and my colleagues give me hope. Students since 2020 actually have gone through four different modes of learning and they continue to still come to school every day and try their best and engage My colleagues give me hope because they’re always reflecting and learning. My department does not have the course binder that we keep reusing every semester or every year. We’re constantly revisiting our courses to make them better. Our courses never remain static. And the fact that my colleagues are willing to put in the work every summer to make the courses better for the upcoming year is inspiring.

Sam Demma (09:06):

I love that. you mentioned thinking about failure not as a challenge, but it’s something to learn from. I’m curious, among your own journey, if there are certain mistakes you’ve made or certain situations that have happened in your career that you’ve learned from that you think are worth sharing with other educators who might be listening?

Dr. Sunaina Sharma (09:25):

Yeah, that’s a great question cuz it actually is gonna allow me to talk about my PhD research. I used to think technology engages students and over the years I would encounter various professional development opportunities that introduced me to new technology and that would peak my interest. And I would go home and spend the whole evening planning this amazing lesson for the next day. And the next day as the students would walk into class, I would be excited because I thought I had this amazing lesson planned. And on a number of occasions there was detachment, disinterest, and complete disengagement. The students were not compelled with this lesson that I spent hours the night before planning. So that would have to result in me going to my teacher’s toolbox to just come up with something different for the day. But this happened a number of times and it led me to want to explore the relationship between digital technology and student engagement.

Dr. Sunaina Sharma (10:28):

I have seen the power of technology to engage students who have previously been disengaged, but I’ve also seen that sometimes they, the technology itself is what causes them to disconnect. So that actually is what inspired my PhD research because I couldn’t figure out why does technology work sometimes and why doesn’t it work other times? And I learned it’s not the technology that actually engages them, it’s what the technology allows them to do. It’s the outcome. Mm. So if the technology allows students to collaborate, connect, and construct their own knowledge, then it will engage them. So if you’re using technology in a different way than you should dump the use of the technology.

Sam Demma (11:16):

Tell me more about some of the tech tools that you have come across in your journey that you often go back to and consistently use because you think they allow students and teachers to have those three types of interactions.

Dr. Sunaina Sharma (11:32):

It’s nothing new. Often I think as teachers we’re looking for the new thing, but it’s often going back to the tools that we have and using them in a different way. Hmm. So for example if you attempt to have a class discussion, you’re always gonna have these few students that are participating in the class discussion. Often all your other students in the classroom have a lot to say, but for whatever reason they’re not raising their hands. Sometimes they just need more time to process to articulate their ideas or they feel like they’re being dominated by this other strong voices in the classroom. So one thing that I do is I’ll have a class discussion on a Google doc. We all use Google Docs, but to suddenly use a Google Doc for a class discussion allows students to carefully read each other’s thoughts process and then thoughtfully share their ideas. When I post a Google Doc as a class discussion, I will typically get 100% participation on that Google Doc. So again, it’s not a brand new tech tool, it’s using the tools that we already have at our fingertips in a different way so that students are able to collaborate and connect and construct their own knowledge.

Sam Demma (12:47):

And if working in groups, each of the groups could have a different color font selected so you could very quickly and live see the edits happening on the document, which is really, really awesome. I think that’s a, that’s so cool that you use Google Docs. I had never have used in a classroom Google Docs live with my classmates and my teacher. I think that’s a really cool idea. So thanks for sharing. you know, we talked a little bit about the learning around technology. what are some things that keep you motivated personally outside of technology? Cuz it seems like it’s a big part of your career. <laugh>,

Dr. Sunaina Sharma (13:29):

The people who I surround myself with are always the ones that are motivating me. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, we all have our days where it’s just, it’s not a good day, but suddenly you’ll enter a building and the people around you inspire you. I think educators are incredible people and we are resilient and never give up and that’s what we want to inspire in our students. I’m always working to try and build that self-efficacy and capacity in other educators around me. And this year I’ve actually received a great opportunity. I’m actually on a leave from my teaching position for one year. So I can take on this opportunity as a instructor and practicum advisor in a Bachelor of education program. That way I’m working with our future educators to motivate and inspire them. And it’s really interesting. I entered the program to motivate and inspire them and it has been so motivating for me to see our future educators. They are lifelong learners, they are dedicated to making school positive and they’re dedicated to making positive change in the schools.

Sam Demma (14:43):

Hmm. That must be a pretty cool experience working with the future educators of tomorrow. Right now. I’m curious maybe this, you’ve been in that role for a short period of time so it won’t be as applicable, but tell me about a story or a situation where a program that you ran or maybe you in a program you were a part of had a big impact on a student, whether that’s an educator as a student or an actual student in a high school or middle school.

Dr. Sunaina Sharma (15:11):

Yeah. I’ll tell you about our English program at our high school and then I can kind of share a little nugget of information on how that impacted my Bachelor of education program. Sure. But I don’t have a single story cuz how do you capture an amazing program? In, in one story, while I’ll give you a little snapshot, our entire English program focuses on the overarching umbrella of equity. So in our Grade 10 program, our students choose a graphic novel from a selection of nine. And one of the students chose to read a graphic novel and she said, I’ve never read a book for school that had a Muslim character. She’s wearing a hijab. And for me that was impactful because she saw herself in something that she was reading for school. our English program in grade 11 has students identifying what they see as a problem that is impacting equity or is creating an equity.

Dr. Sunaina Sharma (16:12):

And they work to identify a solution and try to inspire a larger audience through media to tackle that problem. And that allowed, so one of the grade 11 students actually took on a project to advocate for change. It took her to our school principal, it took her to the parent council, it took her, took her to our school board, and the result was change. she advocated for menstrual products in all hdsp bathrooms regardless of the fact that they were male bathrooms or female bathrooms. And now Htsp has implemented that across the board and that came from a grade 11 students English project.

Sam Demma (16:53):

Wow. So

Dr. Sunaina Sharma (16:55):

The impact of our program is that students are seeing themselves, seeing our community, seeing their global world, and they’re inspired to use their voice for positive change. So I was sharing a little bit of our program with my Bachelor of Education program students and one of my students started to get emotional. So I, I went over and said, Is everything okay? Cuz regardless of the fact that they’re adults, they’re still my students. Yeah. And they’re all humans. And she said, and she began to share a hurtful comment that a teacher had made about her eyes because she’s of Asian descent. And she said, What you are doing in your school with your English program is what I want to do, and now I realize it can be done. Mm. So I think the, when students see themselves in the curriculum, it is so powerful not only for those students, but for us as educators to see that positive impact.

Sam Demma (17:58):

Those nine books, it sounds like, you know, those resources had a big impact on that one student who saw herself in the material shared. I’m wondering for your own personal and professional development, if you have come across any resources throughout your own learning journey that you found really helpful. And this could also be peers but if there’s any books or courses or videos or people you follow that you found helpful what are some of those things?

Dr. Sunaina Sharma (18:30):

I don’t like to say this is the golden title. Yeah. This is the Golden Book. As I mentioned, we’re constantly changing our program. We’re on a four year cycle, so every four years we kind of revisit and say, Okay, is this outdated? Should we keep this or should we remove it? So I’m reluctant to name a title, but the news, we’re constantly using the news and having students look at the news. It’s so important. They’re aware of what’s happening in our world. We like to live in this little, I call it the Burlington bubble, but we need to be aware of what’s going on around us. The news is a great resource for me. Also, Ted, that’s how I stumbled across your TED Talk. We use your TED Talk. I think Ted Talk is the platform that we’re trying to create in our students. We want our students to know that their voice matters. Sometimes they say, Why does anyone wanna hear about this? And you go to TED Talk and you hear these amazing pitches or speeches or presentations on topics that you would think maybe wouldn’t have a large audience, but they do. So TED Talk and the news for me are great resources and tools, also documentaries. Hmm.

Sam Demma (19:49):

Awesome. I love that. I, I would love for you to send me <laugh> outside of this podcast, a list of awesome documentaries for my own pleasure watching <laugh>. So please do. is there anything that you would share or say to an educator right now who is feeling a little bit burnt out, a little uninspired and needing not a full pep talk, but maybe some words of advice? and if that person walked into your office at Brock and told you that, what would you kind of share with them?

Dr. Sunaina Sharma (20:22):

I would tell them to just take a deep breath and you’re not the only one. Lots of fe people are feeling burnt out and tired. with the ch with the changes in our students and their own self-efficacy they are needing our care and support more so than before the pandemic. I would continue to affirm to them that they are amazing and they’re great. Keep doing your best. If you are doing your best, that’s what matters. And if you’re feeling like you need some support, you really need to count on the people around you. Everyone’s a team and we’re all working together. That’s the case in my department, in the school that I work at, but also in the Bachelor of Education program with the other instructors in the cohort. We’re always leaning on each other for care and support. So I would tell that burnt out teacher, you’re doing great. Take a deep breath. Is there anything that people around you can help support you through?

Sam Demma (21:28):

Mm. Love that. That’s awesome. Well keep up the amazing work that you’re doing with educators. If another educator is listening to this and wants to reach out and ask you a question or share resources or have a conversation, what would be the best way for them to get in touch with you?

Dr. Sunaina Sharma (21:44):

The best way to find me is on twitter. I think twitter is such a great way to connect with others from around the world to engage in professional dialogue.

Sam Demma (21:53):

Awesome. What would your Twitter handle be?

Dr. Sunaina Sharma (21:56):

@drsunainasharma

Sam Demma (21:58):

Okay. Awesome. Sunaina thank you so much for making the time to come on the podcast here today. I really appreciate it. Keep up the amazing work and we’ll talk to you soon.

Dr. Sunaina Sharma (22:06):

Thank you so much Sam.

Sam Demma (22:08):

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

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Dr. Sunaina Sharma

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.

Small Consistent Actions Sam Demma – TEDxYouth@Toronto

Sam Demma: Global Keynote Speaker and Bestselling Author
About Sam Demma

Sam Demma (@Sam_Demma) is the youngest board director of the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers. A highly requested keynote speaker in the education space, Demma has delivered over three hundred presentations for clients who want to create a culture of hope, service, and self-belief. He is routinely invited for interviews on national media outlets and has been featured on the TEDx platform twice.

As a high school student, he co-founded PickWaste, a grassroots initiative that mobilized youth to pick up garbage in their communities. Within five years, the organization filled more than three thousand trash bags and provided students with six thousand meaningful volunteer hours. The initiative’s success confirmed for Demma how small, consistent actions could have a significant impact, and he lives that message in all he does.

Following his keynote presentations, students and educators often commit to performing more acts of kindness, taking small, consistent actions toward their personal goals, and proactively looking for ways to serve others. In his spare time, Demma dances the bachata, eats handfuls of tacos, and works to convince people that pineapples do not belong on pizza. For more information and booking inquiries, please visit www.samdemma.com.

Connect with Sam: Email | Instagram | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Canadian Association of Professional Speakers

TEDx

TEDx Talk, “Small, Consistent Actions”

PickWaste

Top 25 under 25 Environmentalists

www.samdemma.com

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 (00:13):

When I was in grade 12, my teacher told me three words that totally changed my life; small, consistent actions. It was April, 2017, and I was seated in his world issues class. Growing up, I have to admit, I wasn’t the brightest student and I didn’t like school all that much, but for some reason, every time I was in his class, I always felt engaged. And on this particular day, he was not talking about any ordinary topic. Instead, he was speaking about figures in history who have massively changed this world. People like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Gloria Steinham, Gandhi. The list went on and on, and he took these figures and he wrote their names on the board. This was the only teacher I ever had who still used the blackboard.

Sam Demma (01:21):

But then he began breaking down their lives, trying to figure out what common characteristics they all shared that enabled them to make a massive change in the world. We found they had many distinct traits that made them each different and unique. But there was this one thing, this one thing that was common among them all, they all took small, consistent actions that led to their global massive changes. You see, that day in class, my teacher proved to me and all of my classmates that if we wanted to make a massive change in the world, we could, and all we had to do was commit to a small, consistent action. I left class that day with a burning desire within my chest to try and make a change within my community. But like many of you, at the age of 17 years old, I had absolutely no idea how I was gonna do this. I didn’t have a job. I didn’t even know where I wanted to go to university, let alone talk about something like changing the world, right? Well, like many students, every day after school, I would walk home and my walk was about 30 to 40 minutes. I would take my headphones out, pop in my ears, listen to some music and podcasts. But after that day in class, I decided to change my routine. I took my headphones out, I put them in my pockets, and I began asking myself the questions,

Sam Demma (03:03):

Sam, how are you going to change the world? What is your small consistent action going to look like? Now, before I continue with the rest of that story, I need you to understand where I was personally at that point in my life, or else the story won’t make that much sense. Because two years ago, if you told me that I would be standing on this stage here today talking about a lesson that changed my life, I would’ve told you that you’re insane. In fact, I probably would’ve told you that I will be in the United States on a full ride scholarship playing division one soccer. Like many of you, I had a dream for my life from a very young age, and my dream was to play professional soccer. At the age of 13, I had the opportunity to travel to Europe and live by myself for six months and experienced the professional culture. And when I came back to Canada, I came back with a new passion for the sport. And throughout my four years of high school, I sacrificed everything to pursue my dream of playing professional soccer. But in grade 12, at the age of 17, everything changed. It was mid-November, maybe one week before the biggest opportunity in my soccer career, and I was playing in a friendly match with my team. It was just before half time, maybe five minutes before the whistle when I went shoulder to shoulder with this 250 pound beast.

Sam Demma (04:48):

And after our initial contact, I caught myself, but very quickly I realized that something felt a little funny in my left knee. And for the next five minutes, I ran around with some pain in my calf before deciding to put my ego aside and get off the field. And as I crossed the line, I immediately burst in the tears because deep down I knew that something was terribly wrong. And the worst part about it is that my parents weren’t even there, and I had to hit your ride home with my teammate. And for the whole 40 minute drive home, I pted in the backseat like a little child. Fast forward one month, I ended up getting the results from my mri, and it turned out I had torn the meniscus in my left knee. I felt absolutely defeated mentally and physically because I just missed the opportunity I had been training for so emphatically.

Sam Demma (05:50):

But you see, I wanted this dream so badly, so I would not give up. I got the surgery done and I got back onto the field. And just as things began to improve, I ended up tearing the meniscus in my left knee a second time. And this time around, looking back, I realized I broke down uncontrollably crying in front of my family, my friends, and my teammates. I couldn’t understand why life seemed to be beating me to the ground for no reason. I then had a second surgery, and I even took a fifth year of high school or grade 13 for you old folks back here to try and keep that dream alive. And just when I thought things could not get any worse, it happened again a third time this time in my other knee, which forced me to quit and give up the sport that I loved. It was at that point in my life that I realized I had so deeply attached my personal identity and self-worth to the sport I played. I mean, raise your hand if you have an email address here. I’m pretty sure we all do. Just to put it in perspective, it was so bad that my email was soccer, Sam 99, soccer was all I knew, and I feared that I would be worth nothing without it.

Sam Demma (07:16):

So that’s where I was at this point in my life when my teacher taught me this lesson about small, consistent actions. The reason I shared with you my soccer story is because I want you to understand you do not need to go through extreme adversity to knee surgeries and give up a lifelong dream only to realize that doing good things that benefit others also fulfills yourself. And my teacher proved that to me through his personal passion for solving world issues. And so while walking home from school, after that day in class, when I was asking myself the questions, How are you going to change the world? What is your small consistent action going to look like? I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back, I now see that I was taking the first small step towards building some serious momentum. And it took me 14 days to finally come up with an answer to those questions.

Sam Demma (08:21):

I was walking home when a coffee cup blew across the sidewalk, and I still can’t explain this portion of the story, but for some reason on an impulse decision, I decide to put my teacher’s theory to the ultimate test. I walked up to the cup, I bent down, and I picked it up. And for the next four months, I made my small consistent action picking up litter while walking home from school. I had no intentions of building something outta this, but to, to my surprise, my teacher was correct. And that small consistent action would soon thereafter grow into a citywide initiative. Because five days before summer break, my good friend Dylan saw me driving home and like any teenager, he pulled over, he rolled down his window, and he looked at me like this.

Sam Demma (09:17):

And then he said, Sam, what the heck are you doing? Why are you picking up garbage? And when I explained to him the theory that small actions lead to a massive change, he absolutely loved it. And then he made this statement that changed my future forever. He said, Sam, let’s do something with this. And that was the day that Pick Waste was born. Pick Waste is a community initiative that was started outta the necessity to play our small part in solving a global issue, while at the same time inspiring individuals like yourselves to realize the potential you have on this planet. It began on July 1st, 2017, and since that day, we have kickstarted four different cleanup crews in four different cities, completed over 80 cleanups, filled over 850 bags of garbage and picked up over 21,000 cigarette butts. It has also given me the opportunity to speak in front of over 8,000 individuals just like yourself, to spread this message and to raise awareness.

Sam Demma (10:29):

You see, our movement exemplifies the power of consistency. It was one small action, one small idea that led to this citywide initiative. But please do not get me wrong. The reason I told you about pick waste is not because I want you to go and start picking up litter, although if you do see it, please do pick it up <laugh>. But the reason I told you about pick waste is because I wanted to give you a real life example about how this theory of small, consistent actions played out in my personal life. But what is 10 times or even a thousand times more important is how this theory could play out in your life. Because there are thousands of social issues facing the world today that need courageous leaders like yourselves to step up and face these problems. The biggest lie we have ever been taught, told, or heard, is that one person is too insignificant, that one person is irrelevant in the bigger picture or on the global scale.

Sam Demma (11:36):

And I am here today to tell you that that is absolutely false, and I can even prove it to you in less than 10 seconds. Are you ready? Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Gloria Stein, and Lewis Tapp in Salman north of Will and Will before is Gandhi, Bill Dre and Forres, Nan, Gail, Fabio Rosa. The list goes on and on of people no different than you and I. You see, they’re just human beings who decide to commit to small, consistent actions, and it allowed them to change this world. What is stopping you from being the next person that I count on my fingertips? Tips Because my teacher told me that those figures in history are not anomalies. We can all change the world. Never underestimate the power of small actions executed consistently. Never underestimate the power of momentum because things in motion tend to stay in motion and never underestimate yourself because you are no different than any other change maker who has ever walked on this earth.

Sam Demma (12:47):

Now, before I wrap this up, I have one piece of homework that I wanna leave you with. As you leave this conference here today, I want you to think about one problem that you are passionate about, one problem that you wanna start solving. And over the next two weeks, the next 14 days, I want you to come up with some small, consistent actions that you can begin implementing in your personal life to start solving this problem. And I promise you, you’ll begin taking these actions, and it will start gaining momentum, and you will build a little initiative. And as you start to have an impact, people will begin asking you the question, “How do you plan on changing the world?” And when I was 17, in grade 12, I did not have ‘an answer to that question. But I hope that after hearing this presentation here today, if anyone ever asked you, how do you plan on changing the world,” you would take a little step back, put a big smile on your face, and respond with those three, simple but extremely powerful words; small, consistent actions. Thank you.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Sam Demma

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.

Eric Keunne – Program Lead, Youth Settlement (K-12), Equity and Inclusive Education at the Halton District School Board

Eric Keunne - Program Lead, Youth Settlement (K-12), Equity and Inclusive Education at the Halton District School Board
About Eric Keunne

Eric Keunne (@EricKeunne) is an Educator and Instructional Program Leader for Youth Settlement (K-12). He is also a Research Assistant for the Camerise Project (FSL hub) and a Ph.D. student in Francophone Studies at York University.

Eric has worked in his early career as a teacher and head of the French department at Misaje High School in the North West Region of Cameroon. Eric Keunne holds degrees from York University, Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, the University of Yaoundé1 and the École Normale Supérieure Annexe de Bambili in Cameroon.

Connect with Eric: Email | Instagram | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Camerise Project (FSL hub)

Francophone Studies at York University

Newcastle University

University of Yaoundé1

Ontario College of Teachers

Choq-FM 105.1

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. We have a very special guest with us today. His name is Eric Keunne. Eric is an educator and instructional program leader for youth settlement, K to 12. He is also a research assistant for the Camerise Project, also known as the FSL Hub and a PhD student in Francophone studies at York University. Eric has worked in his early career as a teacher and head of the French Department at Misaje High School in the North West Region of Cameroon. Eric Keunne holds degrees from York University, Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, the University of Yaoundé1 and the École Normale Supérieure Annexe de Bambili in Cameroon. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Eric, and I will see you on the other side. Eric, welcome to the High Performing Educator Podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here today. Please start by introducing yourself.

Eric Keunne (01:55):

Well, thank you so very much Sam. It’s really a pleasure to be on your show today. My name is Eric Keunne. I speak many languages. I speak Aghem the from the west region of Cameroon but my official language is French because Cameroon, where I come from is a bilingual language country, just like Canada. And my, the language I grew up speaking and studying in is French so you will realize that very often in this interview that I will use on French expressions. And you can also derive from there that as I’m a French language teacher, right. So I’m very happy to be here. I’m going to certainly have the opportunity to talk about my journey as an educator all the way from Cameroon and here in Canada, in Ontario now today. So, aside from that, I’m also a dad married to a wonderful wife. So, and my lovely two kids Michelle ve <inaudible>. So yeah. And pretty much also working towards bringing the Cameroon community together. As always, I’ve been very invested in, into that vain. And but what is very important is certainly to sheathe the path for the future of our kids. Rightm and the next generation. as an educator.

Sam Demma (03:10):

When did you realize growing up that you wanted to work in education? Was it something you always knew or something you stumbled into?

Eric Keunne (03:18):

That’s a wonderful question, Sam. I, well, it really gives me the opportunity to visit back against some sweet memories. Like I said, I was born and raised in Cameroon and Cameroon’s, a very beautiful country’s actually located in Central Africa. For those who you who are so wondering, Cameroon is the home to Toronto Rap NBA champion, Pascals, of course, yes. <Laugh> and also Ronald Soccer players like Samuel Ato and Roja mil. Yeah. So just like I indicated, Camon it’s a very, I’d say Sweden, blessed country in a sense that the dynamics of the population living in Cameroon is such a unique one, and I would love everyone to experience that. However as you know, Cameroon is also today, Cameroon as we know it today, is not only a result of colonization, but it’s also had to go through so many iterations as a country itself.

Eric Keunne (04:17):

So many changes actually happen in there. And that has also influenced my path. I grew up in a very, very modest family. My dad and Ream was a business man, and he was very, very invested into bringing up his children in such a way that they were not experience the same challenges just like he grew up experiencing. He, he was not fortunate enough to pursue his education on after elementary school. So one of the things that always prompted him to motivate his kids to go beyond his level where he dropped, was to ensure that, you know, they’ll be able to embrace the future. And for me, particularly he absolutely wanted me to hold a key position in the family, being that person who always trying to not only help others to navigate around the challenges that they were facing, because apparently, I, I had that gift, that talent of being able to, to communicate eloquently in French and also, but in a very respectful way.

Eric Keunne (05:27):

And for him, that was a sign that I would be an amazing educator in the future. So somehow he, he pushed me in this, into this profession. He pushed me to embrace and to love this profession. So I grew up with that in mind knowing that I had a huge responsibility, not only towards my family towards my community, but people that I, I meet with every single day. Mm. And I, you know, I grew up with that love and passion for, for education, for, for helping others people to grow and try. Right. And I ended up at a teacher’s college in, in Cameroon, and here I am today.

Sam Demma (06:03):

You mentioned Samuel Etto. Is, is football a big part of your childhood,

Eric Keunne (06:07):

<Laugh>? Absolutely, absolutely. I grew up playing football, we call it in Canada soccer, but I grew up playing football and enjoying it, just like every, every young man of my generation in Cameroon. And even now. And you know, when I actually started teaching, one of the things that I also dedicated my time doing, Sam, was to to coach, right? So I used to be a soccer coach when, in high school, when I was working in a high school.

Sam Demma (06:32):

So you mentioned the passion, where it came from. What did the journey look like from the different roles you worked in education and then the transition from Cameroon to Canada?

Eric Keunne (06:45):

Well, it wasn’t an easy transition all the time. So I, like I said, I I, I did my teacher’s education in Cameroon at Eco Hill, the Bomb, and next to bomb Bili. So ENS bomb, that’s in northwest region of Cameroon. And my training was in bilingual letters, bilingual education. So I was trained as a FSL teacher, but also as an English language as a English as a second language teacher. Nice. And when I finished my, my teacher’s education in Cameroon, I was actually assigned to my first high school in Cameroon government high school, je, where I spent almost two years. Ah, and I, I, I, I ended up being a department head for French in, in that high school. Then at some point my dad, who was very, very very motivated in seeing me exploring and exploiting all my full potential, he encouraged me to go beyond the level of being a teacher at the high school level.

Eric Keunne (07:48):

So he really encouraged me to pursue my, my post-secondary education. So I started looking for opportunities to doing a master’s degree. And I, so I started that in Cameroon, and I eventually got the chance to go study abroad in the uk. But before the uk I made a stop in Belgium in Brick. So where I studied for one year. Then I eventually ended up at the University of Newcastle where I did study in a Master’s of education program in international developmental education. So in the uk what was very fascinating about my, my journey there was the fact that I was able to not only match part of my experience with, you know, the reality of teaching and learning in the uk, but I was also able to share this experiences with so many learners around me. Mm-Hmm. <Affirmative>, I was a unique opportunity in that specific program.

Eric Keunne (08:38):

And I, you know, I want to take this opportunity to give a, you shout out to Professor Pauline Dixon, who will be probably listening from the uk. She was my professor in that program. And she, she really invested in, in a platform where all the scholars in this program would be able to come and share experiences, because of course, we were talking about international development, and it was also a unique platform to talk about some best practices and things challenges that we were actually able to identify in specific countries, especially in developing countries. Right. And how we could actually work towards fixing that mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. And back then we were talking about the, the, the development goals for the future. So it was very interesting. Right. And and back then, I also had a chance to do some supply job teaching in the uk some of the schools.

Eric Keunne (09:31):

So it gave me a unique perspective, right, to compare my experience from Cameroon and of course, in the uk. Then of course, eventually after that I moved to Canada here in Canada when I actually arrived in 2009, I didn’t write away get an opportunity to teach because the process was quite tedious and challenging. So I did apply to the College of Teachers. It took me about two to three years to get my OCC license, as you would imagine, Very, very stressful. But in the meantime, I was very lucky to to be invited to teach at a private school in Maka, Ontario. That’s why started my first teaching experience in Canada. Truly was at Town Center private high school. That’s why I started teaching in 2000 and, and 12. Nice. And it, it was good because I was working in a small school and it was really the firsthand experience for me working in Canada for the first time as a teacher, Right.

Eric Keunne (10:25):

Mm. And getting ready as my p my papers were being processed. And so it was really at that moment, and I, I really always thank the principal back then, Patrick McCarthy, who hired me and all the staff at thousand High School for all the support that they provided me with. And today I’m very, very pleased with where I am, because after Town Central High School I eventually had a chance to also teach at Seneca College in the nice living program where I was teaching French language as well. And after that I think in 2014 there was a, a position at Qua High School here in Halton, Hal, Industry School Board, for which I applied. And and I got a job in 2014. I’ve been really enjoying my journey so far since 2014 with Halton Industry School Board.

Sam Demma (11:14):

I love that your journey pursuing education has quite literally brought you around the globe, <laugh>, like

Eric Keunne (11:21):

Absolutely. Absolutely.

Sam Demma (11:22):

It’s so exciting to hear about the diverse perspectives you have and have picked up from teaching in such different places. What are some of the stark differences or, and similarities that you’ve noticed teaching in Cameroon versus teaching in UK and then versus both teaching in Canada, like <laugh>? I’m curious what kind of comes to mind when you think about those experiences and the similarities and differences?

Eric Keunne (11:48):

Well, the first thing that comes into my mind what I, in terms of, you know, comparing my teaching experience in these three countries is, is the fact that, you know, it’s actually provided me with a unique, unique facet of, you know, understanding the needs of the student and, and of course the families, right? Cause in Cameroon, one thing that is very interesting for you to know is that we do have very large class sizes, okay. And, and there’s that desire for every single students to to be knowledgeable. So they’re really, really looking into embracing every single word that comes out of the mouth of the teacher. So, to that is, to that regard, I think the position that you hold as a teach in Cameroon is quite different from how you position position here in Canada or somewhere else.

Eric Keunne (12:45):

Got it. Because you do have that you know, unique position as a, in Cameroon to secondly bring all the students towards a direction, the direction that you think it’s good for them, because they look up to you as not only teacher, but as a leader. I’m not saying it’s not the case here, is it still the case here? However, the dynamics in terms of the relationship is quite different. Right. And here, and, and that’s why I say I’m very grateful because I’ve had a chance to teach in Africa, in Europe, and now here in North America. So I, I, you know, I’m very blessed in that sense because throughout my journey, specifically here in Canada, I have come to the realization that, you know, beyond the fact that as a teacher, you are a leader, you are also there to facilitate the knowledge, not necessarily to give the knowledge to students, not only to provide them with everything that they need to swallow and digest now.

Eric Keunne (13:44):

Yeah. Right. You broaden the perspective, You open their avenue to students so that they can actually grow up with some critical thinking, Right. And be able to co-plan with you. Right. And that’s really what is amazing. You know, when I think about the experience here but again, you, you have to also understand that, you know, the, the, the way education is shipped around the world, it’s specifically tied to all the, the economic of that country as well. Because resources is very important when you think of planning in education. So for countries who have limited resources, financial resources I’m talking about here, and of course technological resources, it will be very, very difficult to apply the same system that we have here in Canada, everywhere. And, and to that, I think when you have the opportunity to move around a little bit, you get to appreciate every single country with what they actually bring forward in this uniqueness.

Eric Keunne (14:46):

So every country has a unique approach, which I like. So everywhere I’ve been to and here in Canada particularly I, I think one of the things that really makes me always enjoy my, my role as a teacher is really the passion that I see in every class that I go into, especially when it comes to the learning of French as a second language. Mm. As a French language teacher, I’m always, always very fascinated, but by the desire of students to wanting to learn an additional language. And that makes me feel happy because it really indicates the fact that beyond the, the, the, the noble desire to utilize that language, they want to learn the culture of a different country. And as you know as a francophone, I always try to promote all French countries, not just France and Quebec as we know, but try to open the horizons to my students in such a way that they can learn from all the French countries and including your history, right? Because yeah, no, the fact that this country speak French is a result of colonization, right? So it’s important that we bring that in perspective so that, you know, the kids that we actually teaching here can grow up learning, right? And visiting history, and be able to position themselves as citizens of the world. That the way I see,

Sam Demma (16:13):

I’m getting so much energy just speaking to you, <laugh>, I, I feel like educators listening will hopefully absorb some of this energy and remember why they got into education in the first place. What, what about teaching keeps you coming back every single day? Excited, Of course there’s challenges and difficult times, but what about the opportunity gets you excited to get outta bed every single day and teach and help in education?

Eric Keunne (16:41):

But I, I think what really gets me motivated every single day is the transformational aspect of our job as teachers, as educators. Not only do we provide in classroom space and time and platform for kids to be be able to express themselves, but we also help them to break down some barriers that they actually facing in their day to day life. I’ll tell you a little bit about my experience as an international student in the uk and you suddenly understand why I’m so motivated every single day going out and doing my job as a teacher. You know, when I actually landed in the uk back in two and eight and I think that was one of the most challenging moments of my life. Just now, one thing that I fail to, I forgot to mention, is that right now I’m, I’m actually working at my board’s welcome center.

Eric Keunne (17:41):

I’m in charge of the Youth Settlement Program, so helping and facilitating the transition of newcomer students and families in our, and in our schools, right? And that it’s really, it’s closely tied to my experience as an international students back in the uk. Cause like I said, it was one of the challenging moments of my life cuz I wish you know, I had something called the welcome center back then. Yeah. That was solely designed for newcomers and international students like myself, Right? I’m talking about the structure that is actually working towards supporting students every single. And I’m so happy to be working with this amazing team at the welcome Center Hall, District School of Welcome Center because as you know, newcomer students, and when they arrive in a place a new place like Canada or, or in Ontario or in Halton, they do have so many challenges that they’re going through.

Eric Keunne (18:34):

That was me back, back then. Yeah. I, I was struggling with language because like I said, I, I grew up speaking French, studying in French, so I had zero mastery of English language per se. Right. And in addition to that, I was trying to get used to my new environment, and I was far away from home, right? Yeah. So I had no place that I could go to or nobody that I could call a family member. Right? And, and with my, my being a francophone with little knowledge and master of English language I was required to to attend classes, graduate courses, for that matter. I was actually required to complete assignments in English. And, and, you know, it was very difficult. And I see that every single day for our newcomer students and, and families that come here, Right. The struggle with the language, but yet they actually exposed to the learning in English every single day.

Eric Keunne (19:29):

So, for me, particularly, I developed back then what I called my personal technical dictionary, and I still have it here in my shelves, I promise you that. <Laugh> <laugh>. So what, what was that is actually some a notebook that I, I, I actually designed for myself in which I would write down all the comments, expressions that I would hear people use every single day around the classroom in, in the articles that I was reading. Right? And I would, when I go home, I would translate those into French Mm. So that I could comprehend and understand these expressions. And then now in return, try to use them in sentences. This is simply to tell you how much time it takes for a newcomer students in a country like this, Right. To be able to understand the concept that are taught in a classroom and be able to utilize them.

Eric Keunne (20:20):

You see what I mean? Yeah. So it takes at least two, three or four double the amount of time for them to be able to develop the communication skills, the writing skills. And so language was a huge barrier, and language is a huge barrier for many newcomer students and families when they actually arrive here. Right. And for me, it’s very important when I wake up every single morning, is to think about every single student in the classrooms, Do they have all the tools? What am I doing as an educator to ensure that in our system, in our board, in our pro, every single student is equipped right. With the support that they need in order to try and succeed, Right? Mm. So, and beyond the language barrier, one thing that was very interesting to for me as well, and I really want to point this out I was a computer illiterate. Mm.

Eric Keunne (21:11):

As a matter of fact, I have learned how to use a computer for the first time in 2008, believe me or not. Right? Mm. And, and it would take me so many hours to type a single paragraph, this is the challenges that newcomer students and family’s experience because maybe they’ve not been exposed to technology from where they come from, Right? So, and I had to rely, rely on the support of my classmates and my professor, right? To get my work submitted online. So in thinking of that experience, I was trying to ask myself, what are we doing differently today in 2022, in such a way that students will not be experiencing the same challenges, right? So I’m not talking about financial challenges because that’s also something that every family and newcomer families actually go through. So, and it’s important for me when I wake up in the morning, to always ask myself this question, What am I going to do differently today?

Eric Keunne (22:09):

What am I going to add to what I did yesterday to put a smile on the face of every single student I encounter? And also, how do I actually foster collaboration with my team, with my staff, with the teachers that I work with to make the difference in the life of our students? Because every single student in our classroom, every single student is a success story waiting to be told. And we have a role to play into that. We have to be able to not only of God put forward our motivation, but also look for the resources that would help us as educators, as teachers, to transform the life of these individuals. Because this is the future of Canada. We’re talking about because 10, 10 years, 20 years down the road, the same student that we do have in our classroom today are the one who are going to help us navigate around our society. Are ha are those who are going to help shape the future of our country. So we need to continue to invest in education. We need to continue to embrace our job with all the energy and enthusiasm that is possible. But at the same time, I think a while ago I was talking about resources. I think the government needs also to continue to provide enough support Yeah. And financial resources for educators to be able to do the job efficiently. Mm.

Sam Demma (23:35):

You, you mentioned a few minutes ago when you were talking about your experiences overseas, that one of the things that was a little bit different was the way student and teacher relationships are built. I think what’s calming, calming common amongst here, Cameroon, Europe and the uk, is that one of the main goals of the educator, despite how the relationship is built, despite how the classroom is set up, is to help young people become their own success stories. As you just mentioned, that every student is a success story waiting to happen, and that educators play a part in it. I believe that that idea is one of the main reasons why people actually get into education. Because they wanna help people. They wanna serve young minds. They wanna make a difference. Sometimes we forget, sometimes educators forget why they started. And I think sharing an example of one of those success stories can help rekindle that fire. And I’m curious to know, in all year years teaching, if there are any success stories of students that come to mind that you might be willing to share. And it could be a very serious story of transformation, and if it is, you can change their name for privacy reasons. But I’m hoping you’ll, you’ll, you’ll be willing to maybe share one or two that that come to mind.

Eric Keunne (24:57):

Well, you know what? There’s so many success stories that I, you know, I could actually share with you. And I, I’m not just sure where to start, but I, I would love to, if you are okay, to probably read this letter that I received from one of my students. And she actually graduated I believe a few years ago no. Last year from Iru High School. Yes. And I, I, when she was about to graduate she actually sent me a very, very lovely letter, which to me kind of sum up the, the role and and, and I think the, the, not only the, the influence that we have on our students every single day, and, and for me it was at the same time also an appeal, right? Mm. And an invitation to even do better every single day. Because to me, when you have a student writing, you emailing you to share with you all these details and be able to tell you how transformative you’ve been in their lives, I think it’s just amazing as a staff, right? So for me, this is something that I want to share. Okay. Please, are

Sam Demma (26:15):

You ready for it, please? Yeah, I am. I’m patiently waiting. Ready? Excited. <Laugh>.

Eric Keunne (26:19):

Okay, so I, I’m, I’m really exactly what is, I’m not changing anything. Comment on this. Okay. Okay. And this student would, when, if she listens to me, shell recognize herself. S so the title of the email is La De So the End of Secondary School, High School S let me translate that because this is my bilingual mindset, Okay? It’s been long since the last emailed you, but now, you know, in the good of I, this is already end of, end of the school year, and she goes now in English. Okay? I would normally insist on sending you a French email, but since these words are so hard to say, I thought English might be better, they always say, High school goes by so quickly. And I didn’t believe it until now. Nothing could have prepared me for the memories I would make at ioi.

Eric Keunne (27:22):

But memories are only as good as the people who contain them. Mr. Kearney, you have taught me for more than three years. Oh, you have taught me in three years. Sorry, let me repeat that. That’s okay. You have taught me more in three years that I would’ve learned from anyone else. You brought a smile on my face on my worst days. Mm. And made me laugh at times. I didn’t expect. Without a doubt, you have been one of the most important role models in my life, and that is something I will never forget. Learning French for 12 years was a trial, but learning French with you was a joy. Selfishly, I wish you would have stayed at ioi, but even though you are not here physically, your memory leave in the praise of my peers. And I now, I have reached the end of high school, and I’m sad to live behind all the wonderful people who built me up these last four years.

Eric Keunne (28:27):

Mr. Kaney, without you, I don’t think I would be more, I will be where I am In another circumstance, I would’ve been pleased to see you watch me graduate. Although that isn’t an option. I will carry you in my heart today as I received my diploma. Thank you for everything you’ve done for me, All the lesson you have taught me, and all the lifelong memories I will carry onto university. Being your student was a privilege and owner, and I will be grateful for the rest of my life. Please send my best to your family. Don’t your friend forever. And I’m not reading this just because I want to sing my own praises. Okay? I’m, I’m sharing this because when I read this email, some, you know, I shared some tears. Mm. Because this is a student I taught for two years, and I left to take another role, but yet we kept in contact.

Eric Keunne (29:22):

So many of them, actually, this is just one of them, okay? And, and up to now, she’s at, in, she’s going to her second years at the university. And she recently emailed me just to ask for advice and to share with me where she’s up to many. This is really what I call the reward for teachers. This is how impactful we are. It’s shaping the lives of main students in this country, and of course, in the world. So to me, when I actually reach something like this, it gives me the motivation to go out there every single day. And of course, and to double my efforts to ensure that, you know, 2, 3, 4 years from now, we have people who be doing the same thing no matter what direction they decide to pick in life, whether they’re in finance, whether they actually become lawyers, whether they become anything. The most important is to plant the seed for all these students. You understand that all together, we’re walking towards the better tomorrow, right? This is the essence of this message. Mm.

Sam Demma (30:24):

What a beautiful letter. It’s so cool to see the seed planted, harvest, and see the impact, but I’m sure there’s also been situations where you’ve given your best foot forward, your best effort, and maybe you haven’t heard from a student until 10 years later or 15 years later. And maybe you wonder for a while, did I make a difference in that young person’s life? And even if they don’t, you know, send you a letter like that I think the impact is felt, you know, it’s a blessing to receive it, but sometimes they’re a little shy and they don’t share. Right?

Eric Keunne (30:57):

I agree with you. And that’s totally okay. Right. Because every single person is different, right?

Eric Keunne (31:02):

Yeah. So for me, the most supporting as an educator is to ensure that I do my job, you know, with all my passion and energy, and ensuring that the students in my classroom are safe, That the student in my classroom are able to recognize themselves in the curriculum that I’m using, that the student in my classroom are able to actually identify themself in the material that I’m using. It’s so important that way we are actually helping our students to feel included, but also to feel valued Yes. As individuals. So for me, it’s important to to point that out. Absolutely. Because as you know we’ve had so many instances in our schools where, you know, kids go through so many challenges. And I think our role as educators is also to be able to identify those students who are lacking behind, who are experiencing difficulties, who are actually feeling rejected for one reason or the other. Yeah. And being able to bridge the gap. Right. And I think the Covid 19 pandemic has created also more gaps, right? For, for these students. And it’s important that as educators we’re able to recognize that and identify the resources that are going to help them, that are going to really help to protect and uphold the right and dignity of all the students and families that we actually work with every single day.

Sam Demma (32:34):

I was gonna ask you what you believe some of the challenges are, but you just had some light on them, them. What do you believe are also some of the opportunities? I think as a result of covid 19, we’re spending more time focused on some of these things, whereas in the past, maybe we brush them by without giving them the time, attention, and energy they deserved.

Eric Keunne (32:54):

And I think one thing that I absolutely want to share is that, you know, as educators and, and teachers, it’s, it’s our responsibility. Yeah. Truly. and it, I think it’s really an imperative that, you know, we acknowledge and we embrace our responsibility to, to build, to buildable and inclusive classrooms and school communities. That is so crucial, right? So to me, I, one of the things that I always try to bring forward in, in my mind, and that’s one of my belief, is that, you know, as educators, we, we need to build a community in which every single learner, all the children can succeed. All the children can achieve success. And, and for me, I begin that through my, my enion lens, right? Which really seeks to engage and challenge my colleagues to recognize and disrupt the inequities that have actually impacted historical marginalized students in our, in our society and our schools. And we, we, we, that’s the reason I was talking about the curriculum a while ago. We must think about the curriculum as an instrument tool of learn a learning material through which we can actually infuse some inclusive perspective, Right? This way we can always make sure that the student voices are put forward, right. Especially for those who have been historically marginalized. So it’s important that as educators, we build that solid community in which every single learner can drive and succeed.

Sam Demma (34:29):

Mm. I love it. If you were to somehow snap your fingers and travel back in time to the first year you taught in the classroom, but with the experience and the knowledge that you carry now, what would you have told you younger self in the form of advice when you were just starting? And not that you would share something in the hope that you would change, the path you take, you took, but something that you thought maybe would’ve been helpful to hear when you were just getting into this vocation of teaching?

Eric Keunne (35:02):

I, I would certainly tell myself one single thing. Use the classroom opportunity to help the student understand their past and help them to shape the future. Because when I grew up, Sam, as a, as a student in Cameroon, I didn’t learn about the, the history of my own country in classroom. Oh, wow. It’s when I grew up that I learn about the history of colonization in Cameroon that is not taught in classrooms. So for me as a French language teacher, Cameroon, I would’ve loved to start talking about that within the, the classroom context and bringing that into perspective when I’m church, selecting my material. So it’s the same thing that, you know, I try to do today. Helping the students to understand the history of our country, Canada, the impact that, you know, there, residential schools I’ve actually had on you know, our population, our indigenous population, and how together we can actually work, right?

Eric Keunne (36:05):

To ensure that nothing like that ever happens again. Mm. Because if we fail to talk about what happens in the past, our kids will never understand, and it will be so difficult. And 20 years down the road, we will still be here experiencing the same challenges. I’m not saying that we should always dwell in the past and talk about everything in the that, but again, talking the perspective of bringing change, making some significant change for, for the current generation and for the future generation. So for me as a teacher, when I started back in 2005 in Camero, it would’ve been very interesting for me to bring that perspectives in the context of teaching a language like French, because I was so focused on grammar, like grammar and LA zone, because that was the curriculum. Of course. Yeah. But now having that critical lens, I think it’s important that every single language teacher, every single teacher is able to bring forward in all the current reality that we’re experiencing. Actually looking into what happens a few years ago and shipping the path for a better tomorrow for every single student.

Sam Demma (37:15):

I feel so energized. I have so much energy just hearing and, and listening to you speak. I know for a fact that the educators listening feel the same way. If one of them wants to reach out to you, share an idea, ask a question, collaborate on something, what would be the best way for an educator tuning in to reach out and connect?

Eric Keunne (37:36):

I think, the best way to reach, I will be through my Twitter @erickeunne Eric, as you already know, but also they, they can actually email me. My, my school board email is keunne@hdsb.ca, so that you can share with whoever wants to collaborate, because it’s, I believe in the power of collaboration. As educators, we can always come together to do some critical thinking on how, around how we can make things better for every single studen in our classes. And also, I believe in sharing, sharing experiences is what really help us to move forward as a community of learners. Sharing and sharing best practices, sharing some of the resources is what helps us to really bring the world into our classrooms because I usually tell my students one thing, which very crucial in, in a classroom, in the language classrooms particularly, it’s important that we bring the world to our kids.

Eric Keunne (38:37):

Mm-Hmm. <Affirmative> because if our students don’t have the opportunity to travel, just like I did back in, in a few years ago, as a language teachers, through the resources that we are using, we can actually help the students to travel, to travel without taking a flight. Yeah. To camon. We can bring in novels from Kaon, we can bring in novels from every single country around the world and be able to discuss that in a unique way. And that will help the student have a broader perspective around the world. And of course, provide them with the tools to be able to navigate after high school and traveling around the world to become that global citizen ambassador that we want our students to become.

Sam Demma (39:21):

You. I was about to end and then you sparked my interest in another area. So I’m gonna ask you one final question before we wrap up. You mentioned the importance of bringing the world into the classroom in the form of resources. And I’m curious to know, are there anything, are there any resources that you personally have brought into the classroom or your classroom spaces that you felt have helped bring the world into your classroom or help students see themselves in the curriculum? Are there any things that come to mind or things that you’ve used in the past that you think other educators might benefit from looking into?

Eric Keunne (39:55):

Absolutely. in terms of language teaching, you can always bring so many resources in your classroom. So what I’ve done in the past when I started teaching in Ontario is really to broaden the horizon by actually selecting and identify different resources from different countries around Lahan, Kaho around French countries in the world, right? And helping the kids to understand how language and culture are so intertwined, are so related, right? And helping them to understand, of course, the vq the experience vq of this, of people population in these different countries. One of the things that I’ve also done, I’m so connected to, I, I love communication by the way, and, and I always try to bring into my classes the opportunity for students to learn through news report from different countries over the world. So I, I bring the news reports so that we can listen to the news and talk about and be able to learn about experiences that are happening around, and of course in French, because we have so many varieties of French, so beautiful varieties of French that needs to be put forward when it comes to teaching and learning French, a language like French.

Eric Keunne (41:07):

Also, I had a few years ago the opportunity to take the students from my French club, a French club that I started at the college high school. So one of the French community radios in Toronto, Shock fm, where we had a debate. And it was a unique opportunity for my students to be able to do the learning outside of the classroom in a different setting, in a different context in the media, right? And I think that’s something that we failed to always think about. It’s learning is not just within the classroom context. The resources could be outside the classroom. And one, most importantly it’s also thinking about some resource people that you can always invite into your classrooms to talk about things that are crucial key to the students development. So thinking about who you can bring in your classroom or where you can take your students to so that they can learn from. It’s so important. So beyond the textbook, beyond the material that if you be using, it’s important that you brought in the horizon for the students so that they can actually, at the end of the day, have a rich experience. And I promise you, if you do that, every single student will be so pleased to come to school every single day and be able to be in your classroom and be so engaged. And that’s the essence of our job, right?

Sam Demma (42:23):

It’s so clear you’re doing work that you are meant to be doing every, Thank you so much for taking the time to come on the podcast. It means the world to me, and I know everyone tuning in is gonna feel energized and motivated after listening to our conversation. I can’t wait to continue to witness the things that you do and the impact you have. Keep doing the amazing work. And I, I look forward to staying in touch

Eric Keunne (42:50):

That I just wanted to take the opportunity to thank you in French. Cuz like I said it’s my first language, official first language. Don wish you all the best as well, and I’m looking forward to to listening to more podcasts from you.

Sam Demma (43:07):

Awesome. Thank you so much. Talk soon.

Eric Keunne (43:10):

My pleasure.

Sam Demma (43:11):

Hey, it’s Sam again. I hope you enjoyed that amazing conversation on the High Performing Educator podcast. If you or someone you know, deserves some extra recognition and appreciation for the work they do in education, please consider applying or nominating them for the high performing educator awards. Go to www.highperformingeducator.com/award. You can also find a 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 Jesse Macdonald

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.

Jesse Macdonald – Prince Edward Island’s Chef of the Year

Jesse Macdonald – Prince Edward Island’s Chef of the Year
About Jesse Macdonald

Growing up, Jesse MacDonald (@JesseMacdonald) had no aspirations of becoming a chef. Raised in Launching, PEI, he was born into a fourth-generation lobster fishing family where throughout his life he would hold every position in the family’s lobster boat from “cork to captain.” His childhood home was located on the corner of his grandfather’s large family farm, so he was able to spend ample time as a youngster gaining an appreciation for all things local. Growing up, farm to table wasn’t a movement or a fad for Jesse & his family; it was simply a way of life.

In middle school, he quite innocently got a summer job washing dishes at a local resort property, and these two wonderful worlds began to collide. By the time Jesse graduated high school, he was one of the lead cooks in the resort’s main dining room. Jesse then made the decision after high school to pursue cooking as a career, and that fall attended the Culinary Institute of Canada, graduating in 2010. Jesse spent time on the Island apprenticing under well-known chefs and establishments before, during and after graduation prior to leaving the province to broaden his culinary horizons with stops in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, France, Italy & Spain. After returning home to his native PEI in the spring of 2018, he accepted the position of Executive Chef of Rodd Crowbush Golf & Beach Resort and Corporate Culinary Ambassador for Rodd Hotels & Resorts.

Being home has served Jesse well since returning to his roots. In July 2018, he was awarded Chef of the Year for the PEI Tourism Department Best of Sea Restaurant Promotion which hosts the best chefs the Island has to offer to compete for the privilege of representing PEI at the International Shellfish Festival during the Garland Canada Chef Challenge Event and the chance to go head to head against some of the best chefs the country has to offer. Jesse also crowned Setting Day Festival Chef of the Year in May 2019 during the PEI Setting Day Festival Chefs Competition, where 8 of the Island’s Top Chefs were invited to compete in a fans choice competition celebrating the first catch of the spring Lobster Season. Since returning to red soil, Jesse has also become very involved in the Culinary Federations PEI chapter, as well as cultivating the next generation of food service professionals here on the Island, taking on a role as a support chef instructor during his resort off-season at his alma-matter, The Culinary Institute of Canada. Jesse is looking forward to his second full season back home in PEI, and is excited to continue to do his part to help build the already obvious momentum on “Canada’s Food Island.”

Connect with Jesse: Email | Instagram | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Culinary Institute of Canada

Rodd Crowbush Golf & Beach Resort

Rodd Hotels & Resorts

PEI Tourism Department Best of Sea Restaurant Promotion

International Shellfish Festival

Garland Canada Chef Challenge Event

PEI Setting Day Festival Chefs Competition

Culinary Federations

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, we have a very special guest on the show. His name is Jesse McDonald. Jesse began his foray into the hospitality industry quite innocently; taking on a summer job, washing dishes for some extra cash while he was in middle school. And he has worked in the food and industry beverage ever since. That means 15 years, three different provinces and many fulfilling experiences later, he is currently the executive chef at the Wheelhouse in Georgetown, as well as a second year chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of Canada. I got very hungry, just having a conversation with Jesse. I hope you enjoy this interview with him about his journey through different careers, different opportunities, all with a through line for his love of food. I hope you enjoy it, and I will see you on the other side, Jesse, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here today. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit about what you do with the audience?

Jesse Macdonald (02:04):

Yeah. Thanks Sam. So I’m a born and raised Islander from Prince Edward Island. Canada’s smallest province and yeah, I’m actually a chef by trade. So I’m an executive chef at a local restaurant called the Wheelhouse in Georgetown. I do that. We’re a seasonal restaurant so kind of in that role April till October, and then I also kind of on the off season of my industry job, am a chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of Canada here in the province as well.

Sam Demma (02:40):

Everyone eats food, it’s, it’s required for living <laugh>, but not everyone falls in love with making it. Where did your love and passion for food come from?

Jesse Macdonald (02:52):

You know, it’s funny, I, I I’ve told this story a bit, but you know, my love of food really happened kind of backwards compared to most chefs. I was kind of born and raised in rural P EI into a fourth generation lobster fishing family. Our house, essentially, even though it was a little bit down the road it was essentially on the corner of my grandfather’s large 50 acre farm kind of family style. And that farm had been in hidden, you know, his was his, my grandfather’s grandfather had been in our family for literally generations. So food was always a huge part of my life. You know, grandpa always had cattle and chickens and geese and pigs and, and things around the farm, which I spent a lot of time at. And then my parents fish lobster.

Jesse Macdonald (03:38):

So obviously naturally fell in love with the sea and still definitely identify kind of with that lifestyle mm-hmm <affirmative>. But it wasn’t until middle school. And I, you know, one of my good friends that’s now ironically the owner and boss of the kind of restaurant I work at <laugh> one of my close friends growing up you know, kind of call called me randomly on a afternoon in the summer when I was in middle school and said, Hey, I’m washing dishes at this local resort. And we need some people and you should come down and work with us. So I next day went down and got myself a job slinging dishes and kind of the rest is history. My two worlds collided a little bit really kind of fell in love with that hustle and bustle of the kitchen, but also had this like production background and understanding of food at like a grassroots level, which was something I didn’t necessarily realize was special for my upbringing.

Sam Demma (04:31):

What is your favorite dish to cook and eat and why <laugh>

Jesse Macdonald (04:37):

Oh, man, this change changes so much for those, for those that know me, well, they’re gonna be laughing at this question overall. I would say my favorite thing, and this is a generality, but I would say it’s cooking seafood in general. Obviously that’s what we have around specifically shellfish in our local fish and kind of local products, the reason being for so long and even still a little bit, you know, everyone thinks, oh, the only way you can eat muscles are steamed. The only way you can eat lobsters is boiled, you know, and the reality is there’s a whole, you know, myriad of ways and, and unique flavor profiles and manipulations you can do with this like beautiful product. So I would say that’s in general, kind of my favorite thing is, is, is taking our, you know, product and our shellfish that we’re so well known for, but kind of presenting it uniquely in a different way. People may not be used to, you know, some unique flavor, pairings and profiles, but like I said, in general, that would be kind of the area I, I like to hang out in for sure.

Sam Demma (05:39):

Yeah. That’s awesome. So take me from middle school to where you are now, once you started slinging dishes, working that first job falling in love with the hustle and bustle of the kitchen, what, what did the rest of the journey look like to today?

Jesse Macdonald (05:53):

You know, it’s funny because it, it feels very much like a whirlwind. It doesn’t feel, feel like that long ago. So that was roughly, you know, 15, 16 years ago. I’m 32 now. So kind of started in the kitchen. I believe I was 14 dish washed for that part of a summer. And then the next summer went back really enjoyed it, started again and kind of by happenstance. Just the way that you know, businesses work. Sometimes we had an influx of people that summer go out the door, ended up getting promoted from, you know, a dishwasher or, or steward as they called it. A little bit more politically correct than dishwasher, I guess to a prep cook and then to a line cook within like two weeks. So then all of a sudden I was in, you know, grade nine and learning how to cook professionally.

Jesse Macdonald (06:43):

And I had a big, like, you know, again, Royal PI upbringing. So I was big into like organized sports and stuff as a kid. And the thing that I, I really connected was I was like, this is exactly like a sport. It’s like, we’re a team and we all have a job to do, and we’re only successful. We all do it together. And it was just like something I was familiar with. And so I dove into it and I did that at the same local resort until I was in grade 12, by the end of the summer in grade 12, when I was there, I was actually running in one of the main dining minds. So I had no actual former tra formal training story, but I was, you know, by that point at four or five years kitchen experience and, and was actually the lead cook on one of our, our dining room minds, the resort is the large resort, you know, it had 150 rooms, so there was three different restaurants, a 40 seat, a hundred seat to 200 seat.

Jesse Macdonald (07:36):

So I had the mid-sized one. And yeah, like I said, I got a bunch of room to grow and it really worked to my advantage. And from there I went right outta high school after grade 12 and attended and enrolled locally in the culinary Institute of Canada here at Holland college on the island. So did that two year program between first and second year, you’re required to do a 600 hour internship. So I wanted to spread my wings a little bit. So instead of going back to the local resort I had been at for four or five years, I actually went to a well known island restaurant, but also Canadian restaurant at the time. It was 2009, was the in bay fortune. So made famous by chef Michael Smith. A lot of people know from the food network Canada. So my internship was under chef cuisine who was running day to day operations at the end chef Warren bar, who was actually still in the industry.

Jesse Macdonald (08:32):

Shout out to Warren, one of my big mentors. He has a restaurant in use slip BC called PVI. So only a couple years old, but this year actually it just copped onto the top 100 restaurants in Canada list. Wow. Very well deserved. He was my internship chef for my, like I said, my summer internship from school. And then chef Michael, who was kind of in the Mixel at the time would be there, you know, every once in a while intermittently. So kind of got to rub shoulders with both of those guys. They, they were the as I kind of say almost the finishing touch for me as a chef, because the whole background of the in is local products, you know, big farm, there’s three acres of produce. You go out every morning as a chef, decide what the menu’s going to be.

Jesse Macdonald (09:18):

It changes every day based on the products that you have in pick. And it was just like having that, like fishing and farming background with my parents and folks and pickling with Grammy and, you know, stumbling around behind Grampy when he was fencing or being at the Harbor dad. Like it was just my, like my two worlds colliding. It was like my background and my home life, but then also this like lifestyle in the kitchen that I was introduced to. So that was huge. I did that first summer, then I, you know, traveled around, I took a sous chef job, so got my first sous chef job, right outta school at a local golf course, then eventually moved to Guelph, Ontario as a sous chef as well was there for about a year and a half. Then I did kind of the typical young, Canadian thing.

Jesse Macdonald (10:03):

I feel like where I then took a couple months off and went to Europe, nice, kinda traveled through Europe and did that thing. I STO at a couple restaurants there, which means working for free. Nice. And just to kinda get the culture and stuff. So I did that at a hotel in France for a couple days and a little mom and pop restaurant in Italy where they made all their homemade pasta which was a hilarious, hilarious dynamic because it was all run by like a husband and wife and their only daughter. And the daughter was actually the boss, but the parents didn’t believe she was the boss. So like they would like boss her around <laugh>. But the reality was she was like ordering all the products everyone needed and like running the restaurant and doing the schedules. And she would like, look at me and like roll her eyes and I’d just shrug.

Jesse Macdonald (10:44):

Right. I, they were very Italian. I hardly understood a lot of what they said, but being kind of a, a little bit of a larger stature and they all being a little bit smaller. They were definitely excited whenever like the orders are coming and I’d be like, oh, I’ll take care of it. And they’d be like, oh yeah. Okay. Like <laugh>. So that was a, that was a cool experience for sure. So then I actually moved home from there and I got a sous chef job or second chef for essentially assistant manager. Okay. At the local resort, I started at washing dishes. Wow. So I kind of went back to where I started from there. I actually got an opportunity in the same company to become an executive chef, my first executive chef role. So I’d kind of be the lead of a kitchen.

Jesse Macdonald (11:28):

It was only 23 at the time. So that was a huge, huge opportunity restaurant and hotel was going through a big renovation, rebrand the restaurant. It was a different province. It was new Brunswick. So moved to new Brunswick in me mahi a little kind of seaside village. I was there for five years running that hotel. That’s where I met my partner currently Chantel we have a little girl together, Aaliyah. So we were there for five years and then I got an opportunity again, within that same company to come back home and kind of run their premier resort KBU well known golf course attached. So me and Chantel moved back to P I was there for five years before moving to my role this year at the wheelhouse in Georgetown. So this is my first summer there.

Jesse Macdonald (12:15):

And then kind of lining up when I was just kind of halfway through my stint at Crow Bush. I started working at my Alma mater at the con Institute Canada as a support chef instructor. I believe I’m going into my fourth season kind of in a lead instructor role now kind of been doing that intermittently and cover contracts and stuff. So yeah, that’s kind of a quick Kohl’s notes or long winded Kohl’s notes, depending, depending who you’re of yeah, kind of 16 of years in the you know, food and beverage industry for myself kind of on the cooking side of things.

Sam Demma (12:49):

That’s awesome. What a cool unique journey that’s brought you literally all over the globe. <Laugh>

Jesse Macdonald (12:54):

Yeah, it’s, it’s, it’s been crazy. Like I said, it’s a whirlwind, it doesn’t feel like that long ago, but it’s, it’s, it’s, you know, time is a funny thing.

Sam Demma (13:01):

One of the best ways to learn is to teach. It sounds like that’s probably been true for you with your experience teaching culinary students. How, how, how has that experience been for you? And tell me a little bit more about, about that.

Jesse Macdonald (13:19):

Yeah. the experience has been awesome, you know, like the biggest thing for me and I think a lot of chefs is that, like, I just like to talk about food, right? Mm it’s just it’s like it, it’s, it’s such a part of what you do day to day, and there’s such a wide array and vast like world out there. So you never stop learning. Right. You, you know, if you think, you know, everything, the reality is then you probably have an issue within yourself because it’s like there there’s, there’s endless amounts of knowledge out there. And the great thing about being a culinary school instructor is you’re, you know, day to day interacting with a hundred, 150, 200 culinary students that are extremely engaged, right? They’re like, they’re the people that have decided that I wanna do this as a career. This means something to me.

Jesse Macdonald (14:06):

So it’s, it’s almost for me a way to refill my tank, I find with the students and, and they do a lot for me as much as I do for them. And it’s, it’s making that genuine connection through kind of shared interests because the reality and the unique thing instructing at kind of the college level, in that vocational kind of area, is that all your students and yourself have a similar interest, or you wouldn’t be an instructor in this industry and they wouldn’t be a student. Yeah. So you have that, like you have that base to start on right away with everyone. Right. So it’s, it’s, it’s a very unique experience, but it’s one that I really, really do enjoy.

Sam Demma (14:47):

Is there stoves and oven tops in your classroom? <Laugh>

Jesse Macdonald (14:53):

Absolutely. So we have, like, obviously I’m a little biased, but we have kind of the premier facility in Canada. So we have 12 completely outfitted classroom kitchens, we call them. So the way that our program works is the first year students all through five different rotations run the in-school cafeteria services, about 300 students and clients from outside the building kind of cafeteria style. And then there’s about a hundred first year students that do that divided between five classes and five different chef instructors. They rotate through take every class through first year. Go do the internship that I had mentioned previously come back for second year, the second year students then move what we call upstairs, where there’s another kind of stable of classrooms. And they, then they begin to run our fine ironing facility in the building that has about 120 hundred and 30 seats depending how you lay it out. So it’s, it’s very much a working school. The students are working you know, two different restaurants, two different types of food service, and absolutely every single classroom has stove tops, deep friers grills, depending where you are, you know, the pastry labs have different mixers and giant ice cream machines and walk in freezers. And, and you know, the equipment in the, in the school is, is, is honestly world class.

Sam Demma (16:22):

Every time I talk about food, I start salivating and get really hungry. Is that an experience you have? <Laugh>,

Jesse Macdonald (16:30):

It’s funny because a lot of chefs have the and, and instructors are the same kind of have the same, like the, the ominous you know, existence around them where they don’t eat as much as people would expect them to. But part of that is because like, you’re almost constantly eating, so you don’t get hungry the same way a lot of times. But in saying that, especially when I’m in culinary, like when the students, depending what class you’re teaching and stuff, you know, some days if it’s black box day, you know, black box is black box exam, they would get a percentage of Americ for doing say a, they have to do a three course meal within a certain amount of time and use these three ingredients. There might be six students that go, so I have to, you know, taste and critique. So by the end, I’ve had two or three bites of, you know, six appetizers, six entrees and six desserts.

Jesse Macdonald (17:28):

I’m, I’m pretty full, you know, so a lot of times it’s almost like not directed eating, it’s like necessary eating, but at the same time, you’re in a professional kitchen. So you’re not necessarily eating anything bad ever. So it’s like cool because every once in a while, you know, a student will come up and have made something and you’ll taste and you’ll be like, oh my God, this is, this is really good. Yeah. Did you write, did you write this down? No, no, yeah. Go write this down. <Laugh> whatever you just did. Go write it down. Right. And that’s how you kind of get them to start their own adventure learning. Right. It it’s a unique thing at the college level. Cause you’re almost giving them that room to grow, but being there to kind of support them as they grow as well.

Sam Demma (18:11):

Ah, that’s so exciting. And I, it makes a lot of sense. I think one of the cool things about food is as well is that it’s attached to so many memories, like I think about traveling and if there’s a restaurant that just made phenomenal food, it sticks out in your mind, like a sore thumb. Absolutely. And it’s really cool that you do both teaching and the working in the kitchen. How do you build trust with your classroom of students every year? One on the first day they don’t really know anything about you.

Jesse Macdonald (18:43):

Yeah. That’s definitely something that I, I honestly try to focus on it. I, I basically talk about it the very first day when we sit down together. So we have, the way our class is set up is we have what we have or what we refer to as theory class. Hmm. So that always takes place for an hour, two, an hour and a half before kitchen. And then kitchen’s always four to six hours depending on your rotation. So on the very first day, when we sit down, I, I literally say to the students, you know, some of you have some kitchen experience, some of you have none. And that’s okay. However, the first thing that we have to establish, if we’re all gonna get the most out of this, you know, three or four weeks together is we have to tear down any barriers.

Jesse Macdonald (19:27):

And it’s a little bit of a unique way to present yourself to a classroom because the chef industry has very much been hierarchy based for so long and very, very regimented, but as kind of a newer chef and on the younger side and, and kind of hopefully bringing a little bit of change to the industry, they need to be comfortable to come to me for any reason. There’s no such thing as a silly question. A lot of times, you know, mistakes are actually learning moments. They’re not mistakes at all, especially in a kitchen. If you learn from the mistake you make and you either apply the understanding or don’t make the same mistake again, because of, you know, the troubleshooting that you do, then it wasn’t a mistake at all, right. There’s never gonna be a time when even myself, I make mistakes in the kitchen all the time.

Jesse Macdonald (20:18):

You’re never not going to, it’s just in reality. So the quicker that I can get them comfortable and pull down those barriers and be like, let’s actually talk about food. The more learning that actually naturally happens, and you can feel it in the classroom energy. So it’s like my conscious effort within the first week to feel that energy, when I walk into the classroom of them just being comfortable and there should be a buzz in the kitchen, meaning that they should be chatting about food. They shouldn’t be off task by any means, but oh, maybe we could do this as I’m cutting up the oranges to make a chili Vigar mm. Maybe like, you know, engage with what you’re doing. There’s nothing more terrifying to me than walking in a classroom of students at the culinary Institute. And you can hear crickets. Mm. Right. I’m like, whoa, we gotta get some, we gotta get some learning going on in here. <Laugh> being quiet. Chopping green onions is not learning right now. We eventually like, we, we start with all that stuff. Don’t get me wrong. And then you practice it continuously. But like, what are we doing? Right. Let’s engage with each other. That’s why we’re here, you know? Yeah,

Sam Demma (21:19):

Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Oh, that’s awesome. If there’s a teacher listening right now, who has a student in their class that is in a high school and is super passionate about food what could that teacher kind of share with that student or advise them to do, to explore that and maybe start their own journey towards becoming a chef or getting involved?

Jesse Macdonald (21:41):

The food industry remains one of the best entry level. And you won’t hear a lot of people say this, but I believe it, one of the best entry level positions that you can potentially inquire about because kitchens can be unique, you know? So a lot of them, you know, if a student was very interested and was like, Hey, could I come in for a day? I don’t know, in the next couple weeks that might work for you guys and just see what the operation is about nine out of 10 restaurants. If you would just look them up in, you know, a directory online or Google them in your city, I bet you, 90% of those restaurants, nine outta 10 would say, absolutely. And within two weeks would have like a time you could come in and just check it out. Mm-Hmm <affirmative>.

Jesse Macdonald (22:26):

So with that flexibility, you know what I kind of would say to someone like that is, is again, to my last point, if that’s something you might be potentially interested and engage, engage in someone in the industry engage with, maybe you have a friend of a friend that’s in the industry and they might be able to say, this is the place you should go check out. You know, like, like there’s a lot more openness, I think, to that type of thing in our industry than some of the others and people that have that interest should take advantage.

Sam Demma (22:57):

Yeah. That’s a really good point. And if you don’t ask, you’ll never know. Right.

Jesse Macdonald (23:01):

<Laugh> exactly right.

Sam Demma (23:03):

That’s awesome. Tell me about a story where you, maybe we’re a teaching a student, and I think the cool thing about your situation before I get to the question is that the students in your class are often in to be there, like you said, at the beginning. Whereas in some school situations, students have to take a course to get it on their transcript that maybe they don’t actually want to take. So I think you have the advantage of all your students being invested and really wanting to be there. But can you think of a story where maybe a student was having a difficult time? And the course kind of really helped them figure out who they are or where they wanted to go. And by the end of it, they were a slightly different person because of it.

Jesse Macdonald (23:43):

Yeah, absolutely. It actually happens so often in our school that we kind of have almost a term for it. But we, what we say is the student blossomed, meaning like a lot of times, and it’s funny and doesn’t almost relate to cooking in any sense, but we’re getting that college age person. So there’s a mix of, you know, 18, 19, 20 year olds. Maybe there’s a little bit of a Fu mature students, but what happens to a lot of kids I find is they start to gain confidence in theirselves as a person. And then when that happens, all of a sudden, the kitchen changes a little bit and they feel it and then they’re blossoming and then you can really work with that. And it happens quite often in our industry, because again, the kitchen is a funny place, but you know, good habits and discipline and things that you teach over archingly time management.

Jesse Macdonald (24:51):

A lot of times starts to bleed into the student’s personal lives. And then they’re like, Hey, I’m an adult. When did that happen? But it’s like, we talk about so much at school, right. Time management and this and that. And that’s day to day in the kitchen, like, and we are talking hyper time management, like referring to those black boxes. I talked to some courses in second year, you have to submit a timeline to the chef instructor. So, you know, I started off by 30 minutes in I’m going to be prepping my zucchini for my appetizer, cause I want them to marinate for 45 minutes. And my first plate is going up in two hours and 15 minutes. Mm. So like we’re hyper focusing on time management to like the five and 10 minutes. So then, like I said, naturally it bleeds into students’ personal lives and then they just become this like almost adapted person, right. A little bit. Right. They’re going through a personal growth and they’re going through career growth and it’s just like, the students grow up so much. <Laugh> from first year in September to graduation. And second year you almost feel like you don’t, you you’ve known them for way longer than you have, because they’ve had so many, so, so many moments of growth, right?

Sam Demma (26:05):

Yeah. Prepping the zucchini 45 minutes earlier. It turns into putting your clothes out the night before for the next day turns into exactly.

Jesse Macdonald (26:14):

Yeah,

Sam Demma (26:14):

Exactly. Starting to be early for school and work. Yeah.

Jesse Macdonald (26:18):

That’s

Sam Demma (26:19):

Yeah. That’s really cool. What, what keeps you personally motivated and excited every day to both cook and teach?

Jesse Macdonald (26:28):

Yeah, I would say just honestly, I mean, there’s always the initial thing, like wanna, you know, support my family and my wife and my daughter and make a really good life for them. And, and this is something that I think that I is, and, you know, have a little bit of a, a success in and kind of bring some things to the table and it is a big sacrifice for them because, you know, time consumption definitely is there and I’m trying to get better and, and, and that’ll, that’ll definitely happen as I get older as well. But for me, I was so lucky in the sense that I never once experienced that like screaming, yelling chef, that you always see the memes of and, and, and, and whatnots. And I really feel almost indebted to the industry. Like I have so many mentors and people that did so much for me in my early part of my career that I feel like I’m indebted to the same industry to do to the next sort of generation.

Jesse Macdonald (27:27):

What I feel the people before me did for me, because there was, you know, food pioneers here on the island that supported me since I was kind of a young cook because, you know, at that time in the mid two thousands, it was well before the food network was really famous and things like that. Like, it was rare for young people to come into the industry. So I felt like when I was kind of someone at 19 that was interested in, you know, traveling around and doing this stuff the older, the cooks that were, you know, in chefs that were my age now in their thirties were like, yeah, right on like someone else that’s interested. It was like that shared connection and interest again, that I talked about with the college students. So I just feel that, you know, that it’s important, you know, to pass along the support I received when I was their age and, and give something back to the community and, and to the industry.

Sam Demma (28:17):

That’s awesome. Amazing. D does your wife and daughter critique your food that you cook at home?

Jesse Macdonald (28:22):

So my wife always tell, like always makes fun of me because she’s like, you don’t cook like that at home. Like <laugh>. And, and, and I say, and not that my wife’s picky by any means, but I would call her particular in a certain sense. Yeah. For the, the type of food she likes. So we always kind of go back and forth in that, in that sense. So I’ll like barbecue and, and do some things, you know, pat club past and things at home like that. Yeah. But as far as like, you know, high-end restaurant food, she’s always saying, oh, you know, you have to do that for me sometime. And, and, and whatever. And I’m like, I’m worried that I’m gonna do all this stuff and, and you don’t like it. And then that’ll be sad because most, most times that doesn’t happen.

Jesse Macdonald (29:00):

And we have this funny stick in my house. One thing that I’m kind of a little known for and do a lot is, is pickling blueberries that I am willing to take to the grade that a lot of people like get great comments on my wife, Chantel absolutely despises them. So she just like every once in a while, we’ll be like talking with something, she’ll be like, yeah, like those pickle blueberries, and I’ll, you know, listen, those are good. So they’re, they’re super supportive for sure. So they don’t know so much critique, but there’s definitely a lot of fun poking being had for sure.

Sam Demma (29:34):

Awesome. Oh, very cool. Yeah. Well, if someone’s listening and wants to reach out to you, ask a question, get in touch, or maybe even inquire about sharing some recipes <laugh> yeah,

Jesse Macdonald (29:44):

For sure.

Sam Demma (29:44):

What would be the best way for them to reach out?

Jesse Macdonald (29:47):

So probably two avenues; feel free obviously to email me at jnmacdonald@hollandcollege.com, or fire me a message on Instagram @chefjessemac. I’m pretty active on, on Instagram, so those are probably the two easiest ways in avenues to get ahold of me and yeah, definitely love to engage with people, interested in food and kind of the tourism scene here on campus food island. And yeah, we’re just gearing up for fall flavors and our local festival here with some celebrity chefs on the way down. So we got a lot of cool events on the dockets, so, yeah, we’re just gearing up for kind of the last push through the 2022 tours season here on the island.

Sam Demma (30:36):

Awesome. Jesse, enjoy the last push and I look forward to staying in touch and hearing more about your journey. Keep up the great work and we’ll talk soon.

Jesse Macdonald (30:44):

Awesome. We’ll see you soon Sam. Thanks so much for having me.

Sam Demma (30:48):

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

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Jesse Macdonald

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.

Lorne “ABE” Abramson – Provincial Advisor for the Nova Scotia Secondary Students Association and Historian

Lorne “ABE” Abramson - Provincial Advisor for the Nova Scotia Secondary Students Association and and Historian
About Lorne “ABE” Abramson

Lorne has been a lifelong advocate for youth with diabetes as well as youth empowerment. He has been very successful at developing and supporting many programs in these areas. Since the eighties, he has volunteered his team supporting dozens of youth programs, camps and positive character-building experiences for students. 

He has won numerous awards, including the Dalhousie University Coaching Award, for 20 years of service in coaching Nova Scotia youth and the Frederick Banting Award, from the Canadian Diabetes Association, for significant contributions to the mission of the Association in the areas of education and service.

Connect with Lorne: Email | Linkedin

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Nova Scotia Secondary Students Association

Dalhousie University

Canadian Diabetes Association

Mount Saint Vincent University

Diabetes Education and Camping Association

Before the Parade by Rebecca Rose

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 (00:58):

Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is Lorne Abramson. Lauren has been a lifelong advocate for youth with diabetes, as well as youth empowerment. He has been very successful at developing and supporting many programs in these areas. Since the eighties, he has volunteered his time supporting dozens of youth programs, camps, and positive character building experiences for students. He has won numerous awards, including the Dalhousie University coaching award for 20 years of service in coaching Nova Scotia youth, and the Frederick Banting award from the Canadian Diabetes Association for significant contribution to the mission of the association in the areas of education and service. Lauren has so much expertise in the area of youth empowerment and so much energy and wisdom to share, so I hope you enjoy this conversation and I will see you on the other side. Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host, Sam Demma. Today we have a very special guest. I met this guest in Nova Scotia at a conference and I’m so glad that we crossed paths. Some people know him as Lorne. Most people know him as Abe. Some people know him as Coach Abe. Abe, I would love for you to introduce yourself and let everyone listening know who you are.

Lorne Abramson (02:22):

Sure. Thanks Sam. Yeah, I’m, I’m my claim to fame was probably as a you know, as a person who started getting into teaching. So I was a math, a math teacher, how I became that is a, an extremely long story <laugh> which I will probably not get into, unless you ask me the appropriate questions. <Laugh> but I ended up becoming a math teacher, which my high school math teacher from Montreal who I, who I loved dearly. He was the one that said to me when I graduated, he said to me, you know, Lauren, he said, “everybody in those days called you by your last name.” You know, you know, I, I think you should consider becoming a math teacher. And I, and I I’ve made the stupidest comment I have ever made in my entire life.

Lorne Abramson (03:26):

And that was, who would wanna be a math teacher? <Laugh> that was like, it was one of those, this is to the guy that I had total respect for. And what I meant was in those days, math teachers, like teachers in general got no pay. It was like, it was crappy, you know, and and I wanted to be a dentist anyway, <laugh> so, so anyway to say the least over a period of years, I changed careers a couple of times and and then became a math teacher and eventually a math department head. And I always felt like I don’t know. I, I always felt that I needed to be more involved with community. And, and so for me the, the extracurricular stuff became almost more, this got kind of weird, but, but almost more important in some ways because I was a very accomplished math person.

Lorne Abramson (04:35):

So it was I went to McGill and did my joint honors in math and chemistry. And that was not a, that was not an issue. So I never had to work hard at, at the math part, but I really wanted to work hard at getting to know kids really well. And, and so I got involved in coaching volleyball, which I knew nothing about, except for the fact there were six on the side that was the limit of it. And and that became a big part of my life. And you know, and then I got involved in theater and, you know, and we did a lot of musicals and, you know, anyway, I it’s it’s and eventually in 1991, I got involved with the starting of the intro Lasse, which which, where, where we met the, you know not in 1991, but <laugh> sorry, Sam, but

Sam Demma (05:43):

I have to ask you though, because when people think about extracurriculars student leadership, typically I’ve heard people talk about the antithesis of it being math and science, and like these super academic courses that happen in schools. And usually those individuals are the ones who want their kids in their classroom, not going to conferences and not getting involved. So like, how the heck did you like have these two seemingly opposite things be so intertwined in your experience? Like what changed you or were you always of that mindset and you just also loved math?

Lorne Abramson (06:25):

The heck, it’s a good question. So I right from the get go I became the student council advisor at the, at Ellsley I at the J Oley high school was the school I taught in. And it’s obviously it’s a school in Halifax and it’s, it had this kind of funny deserved rep reputation of being a, kind of in a tough area. But in actual fact it was ridiculous. It didn’t make sense at all. That being said being the student council advisor I got to meet people like Andy Tido, who you might know and and St. Saunders and Tyler Hayden. And look, there were, there were so many people because of my connection as student council advisor eventually in 1992, mark Fraser who was he? He had been the student council president at Halifax west high school and Andrew Demond, who was the student council president at Parkview education center in, in Bridgewater, in Nova Scotia.

Lorne Abramson (07:53):

They met at a a CSLC or Canadian student leadership conference. They met at that, and they met also at the same time at that a whole bunch of kids from remember, this is 90, 91, I think was when it happened. But, but they met a whole bunch of kids from Ontario who were part and parcel of the O essay. So the Ontario secondary school students association, and and I heard the two of them said we could do this <laugh> it was kinda like, that was kinda like that. And I, I, I had the guy who was my who was the student council, president of Illsley was a guy who now is one of my neighbors. Oh, wow. Is Paul and Paul. He was just a great guy. And Paul said to me, I got this letter from this guy, Andy Kibito and a couple other people.

Lorne Abramson (09:03):

And he said they were there. Apparently they’re having some event at I think it was, it was being held at St. Pat’s high school, which, which now is underground somewhere <laugh> wow. It doesn’t exist anymore. And he said would you, would you be willing to come as our advisor? And I said, well, I am your advisor. What the hell matter with you? And he was really, he, it was kind of like, I think he, he really wasn’t quite sure what anybody’s role was gonna be. We had no idea. This was like, this is so new that nobody really knew. Yeah. And so we went to the conference and I can’t remember, there was probably about, I don’t know, 60 or 70 people at the conference. Nice. It was over a weekend. We held, we all slept on the stage of St.

Lorne Abramson (09:55):

Pat’s <laugh> being a camper that didn’t bother me. Yeah. You know, but and Paul, Paul was the one that, you know, he was the one that got me involved in the first place. And then I don’t know. And then it kind of just, I don’t, it kind of just took over, you know, and, and eventually, I think the next year I became the, the advisor for the Metro region, how that happened. I, I honestly got, I wish I could remember all that, but I think, I, I’m not sure that’s okay. How that exactly happened. But I know that I knew a lot of the people in, in the other schools in Metro.

Sam Demma (10:41):

Gotcha.

Lorne Abramson (10:41):

You know, cause I, I knew a lot of teachers, you know, and so on. And the guy who was the provincial advisor was a guy named cam Morrison. And he was also from Halifax west of course. And he was quite close with mark Fraser. And so at time we, and hi, his wife and my wife worked in nursing together. Ah, and, and so anyway, we, we knew each other outside of school as well. And I think, I think that what happened was he ended up staying as provincial advisor for, I think, I can’t remember it was two or three years. Then another guy took over from SAC high and, and then in 1990 I took over as provincial advisor and right till this year, so. Wow. Yeah.

Sam Demma (11:41):

Oh, that’s awesome. You mentioned earlier that like one of the things you think are so important in connection with student activities and extracurricular activities is building strong relationships with the students, the kids. How do you build a strong relationship with young people in your experience?

Lorne Abramson (12:01):

Well, I think first of all, it’s a matter of building trust. Mm-Hmm <affirmative> with all the nasty stuff that you hear about things that are going on in schools drives me nuts. I, I just can’t that part of it is just see, seems like, I don’t know, I never had, let me put it this way. I never had that, that issue. Whether it was personality or what part of it had to do with the fact that I think was that you know, I had a family my, we had, we had two daughters. My wife was always understanding about why I was going away that weekend <laugh> and and then I, I don’t know. I, I, I remember a couple, I, I eventually ended up being a Canada games coach for, for guys.

Sam Demma (13:00):

What haven’t you done?

Lorne Abramson (13:04):

I always say in the, I, you, if you live long enough, you’ll do a lot of stuff. Yeah. You know, like when, if you didn’t, if, if that didn’t happen to you, what’s wrong with you <laugh>

Lorne Abramson (13:22):

No, I, I, I, I get the question. I I’m gonna say trust was a big thing building that it takes, that takes a lot of, a lot of, I don’t know, desire to, to build that. I had, you know, the alumni of the organization played a big role in that cuz you know, people like, like Tyler Hayden and I used to have this, this very funny competition. And it was just that the competition was how many conferences have you been to? You know, and I, and at some point we were tied, you know, cause he used to come to, he used to come to everything and and he would speak at a lot, a lot of stuff. And I don’t know. And then one day he, I knew he was going away. I think it was one of the provincial conferences and I knew that this is gonna be it.

Lorne Abramson (14:31):

I got him, he was gonna be able to be there. And and so I, I made sure that I called him from wherever hell I was. And I said, okay here’s the deal. So now, now that you’ve been defeated, <laugh> this is it Tyler. And he said, okay. I COE. So ever, ever since then it was kind of, I just built more and more anyway, he, and he would not go to a lot of the regional conferences, but I don’t know. I think, I think people like him and people like, like Andy and, and Stu and, and Phil what was Phil’s last name? He was from Winnipeg. Oh God, he was, he’s also a keynote speaker.

Sam Demma (15:28):

Is it Phil Boyd?

Lorne Abramson (15:30):

Phil Boyd. Yeah. Yeah. And and I, I, you know, there were a lot of people like that that were around Mark Sharon Brock who I haven’t seen forever, like a long time. But there were people that were, there were people in the plus a who became keynote speakers like Paul, Paul Devo and Jeff Bri, they spoke together and we became very, the two of them, we were, we were still very close. Nice. They, they both got married. We went to the weddings, we went to it’s like, yeah. And, and I really like Paul’s wife Mor I like him <laugh> and if he sees this too bad, Paul okay. <Laugh> but I think he likes my wife more. He likes me anyway. I think a lot of it, you know, again, aside from just the trust issue, there’s a lot of testing that goes on, you know, like you can’t like, you know, you can’t develop the trust without some risk associated with that.

Lorne Abramson (16:53):

I think, I think once people who are involved in anything see other people that have faith in their relationship with you, that can’t help, but build, you know, for them, you know a good relationship. So I, I, it’s probably not a very good way of putting it, but you know, over the years, geez. I, I mean, I, all I can say is that it got easier and easier. Let me put it that way. There was expectations that I would always be there. That’s another thing, you know, that you’re, you make yourself available and accessibility

Sam Demma (17:46):

Being accessible to the

Lorne Abramson (17:48):

Students and yeah, so that, that’s, that’s a big deal. And I, I knew that, well, that, that, that was, that was a big deal in good times and bad times. And, and you, and there, there’s always gonna be both, you know, that happen, you know, in a, in an organization like this. And I, I, you know, I don’t know. So for, from that point of view, it got, like I said, it got easier and easier. I, I can’t say it any easier than that, but yeah. But the fact of the matter is, is that you know, there was, there was always someone in the organization or some buddies who who come outta the blue and, and will represent the people that you think that you wanna deal with. You know, like, and I, I don’t mean that to become your, your chosen ones, but, but it look, you can’t help.

Lorne Abramson (19:00):

Sometimes you can’t help that, you know? And so I, I, I guess that’s happened sometimes you, sometimes you think, how the hell did I ever get to know this person? Like, I don’t even know why, and, you know, and, and I, and, and you want, you wanna spend time with them somehow to change in some ways, this is probably totally off the wall, but change the way that they operate. Mm. And you re you realize that something about that is, is you, you, you see something in them. Mm. That, and it’s not just being a teacher all over again, but it’s, it, it has some part in that that you realize that you’re, you’re see an opportunity. Like, I’ll give you example of number of years ago, there was a guy who got elected president. He made a terrible mistake.

Lorne Abramson (20:15):

And that is he, he he just jumped into a situation where he, where, where it was just a bad choice. And I, I was sort of stuck with trying to figure out, well, how, you know, how do I, and I, I, you know, what, what do we do about this? And cuz he really, what he really needed to do is resign. And I didn’t know. That was the first time that happened. I think if I remember right. And I, and I wasn’t quite sure what to do about that. And it wasn’t like I have control over that. I’ve never had control of the organization. But I wanted something else to happen and nothing happened with that guy until years and years later. And he, he went off and became a teacher in Korea. Wow. And and he ended up marrying a Korean girl and they have a wonderful family and I met him.

Lorne Abramson (21:25):

I think they were, they were living in, I think they’s probably gonna know this, but they were living in in Vancouver. I think if I remember right. They moved back to Canada anyway. And I had a conversation with him and he said, and he said to me, I don’t know what was going on in my head in those days. And I thought to myself, oh my God, you know, like, this is, this is a good thing to say to me, it was good. Like it was like, and I, and I remember thinking he’s a really nice guy, you know, that’s like, it was kind like, like all of a sudden there was this, this change of, of, you know, of looking at him and thinking, oh no, he’s not just some jerk. You know, that that’s, that made, that just happened to make a mistake, but it’s also, he actually is a really nice person.

Lorne Abramson (22:22):

And, and somehow this all came out now, you know, like, and it took, it probably took his family in, in being a, being a parent. And, you know, I dunno, like, it just seemed like that was it. So, yeah, I know. I sometimes you’ll, you’ll, you’ll meet people like that. Who’s a girl Rebecca Rose, who was on the conference committee, she, I don’t think she ever became her and I were very close and she she came out of the closet at some point and she wrote a a book last year and the book is called oh shit. Was it before the parade? Hmm. I can’t, I’ve never remember it’s before the parade or after the parade. Anyway, it was a book about the gay community or the development of the gay community in Halifax in. And I went to her book launch. Oh my God. It was lovely. It was just like, it was like one of those. And I, and I was always close with her. She’s just, she’s just dynamite, you know? And, and like I, and her and I, and she ended up speaking, oh, well you, well, you met,

Sam Demma (23:45):

Yeah. I know her, listen to speech. I attended her. It was awesome.

Lorne Abramson (23:51):

Yeah. And she, there’s a person that got badly treated by a couple of people within the inter plus a, I think it was probably had something to do with the time of what was going on in, in, in the area that, you know, there were people that didn’t didn’t have a how to describe it. I was, it was from a, from a, a sociological point of view, you know, the relationship with the gay community was crappy. You know, it was just shitty, you know, and yet she had a lot of friends and, and she’s, Ugh, I love that girl. Yeah. She’s just, she’s fantastic. So when we met at her book launch, I hadn’t seen her for quite a while. <Laugh> and it was really funny. She’s like, like was really, you can imagine this, okay, she’s up there talking about her book, I’m sitting in the audience, which was packed at the Halifax library. And and she looks up and sees me standing like in the back, you know, I’m standing there and she stops what she was doing in the middle of all this. And she waves, hi, you know, like that. Right. It was like in the middle of, so everybody’s now turning around, you know, <laugh>,

Sam Demma (25:28):

Who’s a <laugh>

Lorne Abramson (25:31):

And every was turning around, you know, you know, and I, I threw a kiss, you know, and, and she went, she was great. So it was really funny. So afterwards, we went out for coffee and I mean, she’s, you know, again, she’s just one of those, she’s a, she’s a survivor in some ways. Yeah. I, I think, but also a survivor with a great attitude, you know, as you could tell that so it sounds like I know, I, I feel, I always feel very fortunate, maybe the smart and parcel of this. I always feel very fortunate to have met a lot of the people that I have met through the interse and, and in other, other things that I’ve done I mean, I’ve always been able to stay, I dunno, fairly close with, with people that I was close with and, you know, and just because they graduate and wherever go on, you know? Yeah. It’s, it’s like, it’s like Paul, Gule my, my neighbor, you know, <laugh> yeah. I, now I wave him when he walks by with his dog, you know? <Laugh> yeah. Anyway.

Sam Demma (26:42):

Okay. Yeah. Sounds like trust is a big one accessibility, and then just the general desire of wanting to make a change in other people’s lives. Like it, it sounds like that those are some of the, the big ones. When, when did you start getting involved in camps and on camps and being around camps and involved in camps have been a big part of your, your life as well?

Lorne Abramson (27:04):

Yeah. my camp story is it started in, in Montreal.

Sam Demma (27:13):

Okay.

Lorne Abramson (27:15):

And I was 16 and I had, somehow I had I had my nationals in swimming and I had my my instructors for canoeing.

Sam Demma (27:30):

Okay.

Lorne Abramson (27:30):

And, and I had never gone to camp. It was like, my parents could never afford to send me to camp who was expensive. And so a friend of mine said to me, you know, we were all looking for jobs, you know, I was 16 years old, you know, like, and and I, and this friend of mine says to me, you know, you got swimming and you got canoeing. Why don’t you go to camp? You know, like, and I said, camp, <laugh> like, don’t, they pay nothing at camp. And he said, no. He said, for people that have those, those specialties, you get well paid, you know, you’re okay. So I applied to camp Milwaukee, which was in Northern Quebec and it was a, a tripping camp if you know what that is. And it’s a camp that, that has kids that go and they go out on, on canoe trips.

Lorne Abramson (28:29):

Oh, cool. Yep. They’re there, they’re there for eight weeks. Wow. It’s not just a one week camp. And and so I, I went there and I had a great time and I had five to eight year olds <laugh> you can imagine, wow. I never, in a million years ever dreamed that I’d be working with teenagers. I mean, who the hell would wanna do that? You know, <laugh> and so I, I ended up going there and then the next year I got an offer from a local camp, which was called camp nominating and in a similar job, bigger camp. And I went there and I had a great time. And and then I, the next year I got offered a big job at pine valley camp, which was in the IANS. And I was at pine valley camp.

Lorne Abramson (29:26):

I worked my way up and eventually became the director. Ah, and and I was there for a long time. And then, and eventually I ended up, you know, moving to Nova Scotia, met my wife, and she was a nurse at, at camp. And and I and so I ended up moving to Nova Scotia. And like I said, you know, when I got involved in, in camp camp always played a role for me because I, when I eventually, when I got, got involved I started getting involved with volleyball and, and volleyball became a big deal. And as, as my own skills, as a coach got bigger, got better. There was a volleyball Nova Scotia camp, oh, that had started. And and, and my lady who was the, there were two, two women aside from my wife, but two women in my life that, that were both volleyball coaches.

Lorne Abramson (30:35):

One was Lois McGregor from hou. And she, she’s a very accomplished coach. And and, and Eva Justins who became the technical director for volleyball, Nova Scotia. Ah, and they, they took me little Abe. They took me under their wing and they, they just treated me like their kid, brother. It was just great. And they, they took me to everything. I was like, their, their here, here, go, go get Lauren. He’ll be fine. <Laugh>. And so I ended up with the two of them. We ended up running the volleyball Nova Scotia camps. Wow. For, for, for volleyball. And and then I don’t know, I, you know, as I, and then, then what happened was like, like I said, my wife and I got married and we had our daughter LA was born in 1989. And we had an older daughter is three years young, three years older than that.

Lorne Abramson (31:45):

But Lara was born in 89 and she, when she turned six in 1985, I had been doing all these camps all this time. And she ended up developing type one diabetes. So her doctor just happened at her doctor came to me and said, I heard that you this is the part that’s, that’s kind of a little weird, but he said, I heard you’ve been involved with camp. And I said, how do you know that? And I said, he said, turns out that Lois who I mentioned was one of his patients, <laugh> you, you, she must have said something about me in camp, you know, but that’s the only thing I can think of. Yeah. and so he ended up saying, look, are you you might be interested in getting involved in the diabetes camp. Cause he’s the one that started the camps.

Lorne Abramson (32:40):

Oh, wow. Back in 1961. And so I said, yeah, I might be, but I’m going away with my family to a, a one year program with to teach in, in England with the Commonwealth teachers Federation. And so I’ll be away for a year. And I said, I remember saying him said, do you think we should go, like, we’ll spend our first year with diabetes with, you know, at some, some place in another country. And he said, well, if you don’t go, I’ll take her, you know, <laugh> so, and he, he became very, he and I became very close. Ah, and that when I got back cuz I did, I did a couple of camps in, in England, like volleyball camps. And and then when I got back, he called and said, so cap starts tomorrow.

Lorne Abramson (33:40):

Want to come? You know, <laugh> I said, OK, what would you like me to do? And he said, I want you to, he said, I’ve been doing these caps for a lot forever. And I want you to take a look with your experience, want you to let me know whether you think that something needs to be changed. Mm. Which was a gutsy gutsy thing for someone who was initiator. Yeah. You know, to actually say, yeah, if you think about that. Yeah. And that, that was a big deal for me. Cause I, I thought what a, what a gutsy guy, you know, like, like, and I thought, and I knew him, I didn’t know him that well, you know? Anyway he and I became very close and and of course he was Lara’s doctor and you know, and so on and everybody loved this guy.

Lorne Abramson (34:30):

He was the quintessential camp doctor. He was it, you know? And so that’s got me started in the diabetes camps, which and then eventually when we, when we came back from England Laura had gotten involved in, in writing, in equestrian writing. Wow. So she went, so we got her involved with the Halifax junior Bengal answers and I got, I ended up, God knows how you end up with the Sam. You know, I ended up on the board of directors for the, you know, junior Bengal answers, like knowing absolutely zero, except for the fact that I’d go and watch my daughter ride, you know, that was yeah. And and myself and the writing instructor ended up starting a, an equestrian camp wow. For kids. And mostly it was for the horses, which was <laugh>, which I never, whichever I think back on it that holy crap, what did we do anyway, I did that for a couple of years and also did the diabetes camps. And I don’t know. And then I, I just kept going. And as you know, when we talked, I I’ve been doing it ever since. So I’ve doing the diabetes camps now. I think it’s been 35 years. Wow.

Lorne Abramson (35:53):

All over the world. It’s been, it’s been a, really, a really nice ride. Nice. Like it’s not over, but I had a great time two weeks ago being at the the camp at Kera national park. Nice. And you know, being the head chef

Sam Demma (36:14):

Nice.

Lorne Abramson (36:15):

Which is another thing, you know, I can do with you know, and I, like I said, you know, when inter plus a kids ask me, so, okay. How do you know all these people <laugh> and I, and I said, as I said to you earlier, I said, well, you

Sam Demma (36:32):

Live long enough.

Lorne Abramson (36:33):

Yeah. Live long enough or something might be wrong with you. Yeah. <laugh>. So

Sam Demma (36:41):

If you could, if you could, you know, take the experience and the, the wisdom that you have now, based on all the different experiences you’ve been through over so many years, and you could travel back in time and tap Abe on the shoulder when he was starting his first year of teaching. And first year of being a student, you know, council advisor, knowing what, you know, now, what advice would you, would you give your younger self

Lorne Abramson (37:09):

Just follow your dreams and just I can’t, I can’t say that anything that happened over the years had negative impact, but I just, I don’t, I mean, I, I don’t mean that everything was fantastic, you know? Yeah. But I don’t know, you know, like, like, I, I, I’ve always, like, you know, when I got involved in the diabetes camps, I loved the fact that my daughter who was seven years old at the time that she developed, I don’t know what would happen if we, if she had not developed really good relationships with the, with her friends that went, that were at camp, all who had diabetes and those kids today are 43. Wow. And they’re really good friends. And like, they still are like, it’s mind boggling, you know, like when you think about it. So I feel from on a personal level, you know, I feel like that was a big achievement, you know?

Lorne Abramson (38:21):

And I, I, I, I don’t think, I don’t know. It’s not that I, I did anything extraordinary in that sense. I just feel like though that, that there was a lot there was a, a lot of the things just happened to fall into place. And, you know, and I, I, if I, if to answer your question I don’t know what, I, I don’t know what would’ve happened to me had I not left the whole dentistry dream. Mm. You know there was a, there were a couple of people that, you know, cause I always wanted to be a dentist. I wanted to be an orthodontist. I had a, a cousin of mine who was, who was a dentist and he and I were quite close. And so I, that, that was the reason it wasn’t nothing to do with being a dentist actually.

Lorne Abramson (39:24):

But I, I can’t, I, I if I think back on it, I, when I don’t know, when I made a decision, I was the end of my second year of dentistry at university of Montreal. And I, I think part of me, I loved, I loved being at university of Montreal. I I’m bilingual. And, and for me, I dunno, that was, that was a, a perfect place for me. So I guess when I, when I’m thinking about this, when I made the decision to leave dentistry, people around me were totally in a state of shock. They thought, are you outta your mind? Like, you know, you’re leaving behind the million dollar paycheck, you know, like, what are you crazy? And, and I, and that was everybody. That was my girlfriend, my parents, every everyone that I ever had any contact with, except for one guy, one single guy.

Lorne Abramson (40:42):

And that was the guy who was the, he was the chair of the dental faculty at university of Montreal. And I went to see him, had to go see him, you know, tell I wanted, I wanted to leave or a leave of absence, I guess. And I had, fortunately I had done very well in, in the academic side. So for me, it was, I, it’s still, it’s still a hard thing for me to talk about because I, I know that in today’s world, what I’ve learned from people from younger people is that it’s a different world now. People are changing their, their choices, like all the time. Like it’s like, I, I, I’m always amazed at that. And I, I, I, I’m proud of the fact that they could do that and not fault to pieces. Now I’m sure there are people fault to pieces, but, you know, but then again, you see it a lot, you know, and for me at, at that time, it was such a mind boggling you know, choice that, cause in those days, you know, you, you made a choice in career, you stuck and you, and you stuck with it, you know?

Lorne Abramson (42:21):

And that, that was it. So for me, I, but anyway, at that time, I, I remember thinking, what am I gonna do? And, and I went to see my Dr. Ju his name was and sat in.

Lorne Abramson (42:55):

Don’t do anything that you think that you possibly might not be happy with. And I remember thinking that, I think, well, geez, you know, nobody’s ever told me that before nobody ever said those words, you know? And so I, I said to him, so what, what, what choice he said to me, look, he said, I I’m gonna give you a leave of absence. That’s unlimited. He said, you’ve done. Well. He said, what I’ll do for you is this every five years, I’ll send you to stay in touch with me every five years. I’ll send you a little note saying that if you haven’t made a choice to come back yet, then that’s fine. <Laugh> so I like, this is, this is what went on. This went on Sam, this went on for 20 years. <Laugh> now just think about that. I was a teacher, I, I only became a teacher in 1972.

Lorne Abramson (44:00):

And you know, really, I had no goals of being a T teacher, you know, that was not in my life choice. But I did. And and that’s a whole other conversation, but, but it was, again, a decision that totally made sense, you know, in this, in the sense of what, what kinds of things I was involved in and also, you know, becoming in, in the extracurricular world, it was perfect, cuz I not only did it fit with my going to camp, but also, you know, it had all kinds of other re repercussions. Yeah. And so he and I, Dr. Bushier and I, he was my saving grace. He was at the, there was nobody and, and there’s never been anybody else that that, and from those days, I don’t even know any of the people that I, I, I totally, I, it’s funny cuz my, I think that that time my girlfriend got married and she lives in now.

Lorne Abramson (45:12):

She lives in Florida, I think somewhere. And she and I kind of, you know, we talk once in blue moon and but you know, when I think about it, I dunno, you know, he was it. Yeah. And so, and of course the, the choice for me, I remember about 10 years after I’d been a teacher <laugh> I went to visit my old math teacher from high school who at that point had become the human resources head of human resources for the Montreal Protestant school board. Okay. And so I, I went to see him and he, he, he immediately said, hi Abrams an hour. You know, I was like, you know, that, that gravelly voice. And and I said, look, you know, you were right. I, I went back, made the choice to be a teacher and I’m very happy.

Lorne Abramson (46:17):

So he was really funny. He, I don’t know whether I have this here. Oh, it’s downstairs. He, he turned around and in his shelf he had a bookshelf and his bookshelf, he pulls out this red algebra book. Okay. And he said, I’ve been wondering if you were ever gonna come back and get this book. And he pulls it out and he opens it up and it’s, you know, how they used to have that stamp in the books that you’d have your name and all that, and what grade you were in and all that. And he pulls this thing out and it’s my algebra book, like my algebra book from grade 11 and issues you and I’m thinking yeah, there was all kinds of things like that that happened in my life. That was one of them. I I dunno. I, I can’t, you know, it’s funny cuz part of me, I, those were kind of funny days, you know, where I was making all these choices and and but that being said, it seems to have worked out.

Lorne Abramson (47:41):

<Laugh> just, you know, and I, if I talk to like a lot of times the inter plus eight kids, a lot of them will, you know, will will again ask me about choices. And you know, I said, it doesn’t matter. You know, like you, you can make a choice that you think is not gonna work out for you, but you, you can’t tell, you know, you, you don’t know. I mean, geez, my, my choice of being a teacher was insane. I was working for the department of health and welfare in Halifax for federal government, for family allowance. <Laugh> like, I, cuz I had become, I had become a Stu a social worker. Yeah. Essentially. And and I, I ended up I walked into work one day and here’s this poster on the wall. This is so ridiculous. This post big poster. And it says, do you work for, you know the federal government, do you have an undergraduate degree?

Lorne Abramson (48:54):

Are you interested? And, and, and then tells me that if, if I decide I can, I could go into they’ll, they’ll give me a full scholarship, not gonna cost me anything the full scholarship to do a bachelor of education. And then and then you could become a teacher and, or you could you oh. And by the way, and you’d get, you’d continue to get your full salary <laugh> for the whole year. Right? Oh my gosh. Okay. So I’m thinking to myself, what idiot wouldn’t do this. <Laugh> like, I was just thinking why, why and what it was about was I, later on I realized that the people that, you know, the, the government at the time in Nova Scotia were having a really hard time getting qualified teachers and that they were, they were ending up with teachers who this is not, not really saying anything, but the, the, the fact of the matter is they had a lot of people coming from other countries like India, Pakistan, China the west Indies, you know, a lot who, who didn’t necessarily speak English that well mm.

Lorne Abramson (50:16):

That being said, but they were, they probably had really good math skills. Mm. And but they really needed was a challenge local. Yeah. Yeah. They needed people who were local. And so they were offering this program. <Laugh> God just like, I think, I thought, really this is a program. And so I jumped at it and, oh, and, and then the other thing was when you were finished the year and you became your cuz it was a one year program. When you finished the year, you had the option of not going to become a teacher, but you could just take over your, your old job again.

Sam Demma (50:55):

Oh, wow.

Lorne Abramson (50:56):

I mean, it was, it was, it was such a ridiculous choice that like I thought, like really who, who wouldn’t do this? Yeah. So so I ended up God so I ended up doing that. I went to Mount St. Vincent university in Halifax, which at that time had 10 guys and 1500 girls.

Sam Demma (51:19):

Wow. <laugh>

Lorne Abramson (51:20):

And all 10 of the guys, except for, I think one were all married, had just recently got married. So not, not a good choice, but anyway, at that time and so I had a lot of, of friends that were girls anyway. And a lot of them ended up also at the end of the year, they ended up teaching. Wow. Got jobs at jail mostly. And, you know, so we, we became, we stayed friends for a long, long time. So I, I, and that, that was beginning of my teaching career, you know, and go figure on the first day of, of school, the principal at the time, who was a bit of a jerk, but he, he he actually went thing he was good at was hiring staff. And he, he said first day we had a meeting and he said, okay here’s the things that are available for you to volunteer for <laugh>, you know, was like, you know, everybody in the school was expected to volunteer for something. Mm. And so CA volleyball came up cuz the two volleyball coaches had left the school and they went to teach in the valley somewhere. Okay. In Annapolis valley. And I thought about it. I thought, well, I don’t know anything about volleyball, what the hell? <Laugh> nice. That’s helpful. So that was one of the great choices I ever made. But you know,

Sam Demma (52:56):

I don’t know, it sounds like trusting in your choices is a, sounds like that would be like a piece of advice that you might not know what the end result looks like, but still act confidently now and things will unfold as time passes. It sounds like all of your stories, they often involve other people. So it’s, you know, it sounds like building deep relationships, not only with students, but also with your colleagues and just human beings in general. Sounds like it’s been a big piece of your journey. <Laugh> whether it’s, you know, the doctor of your daughter or, you know the President elect of an association in Scotland. So <laugh> yeah, it’s it’s really cool to kind of hear your stories and, and your pathways and what we could take away from it. If, if there’s a teacher or someone, even if it’s not a teacher listening to this and they wanna connect with you or ask you some questions, what would be the best way for them to get in touch or reach out?

Lorne Abramson (54:00):

Probably just the easiest thing in today’s world would either be by message or, or by email.

Sam Demma (54:06):

Sure.

Lorne Abramson (54:07):

Do you, you, can, you, you can, my email is labramson@eastlink.ca and I don’t mind, millions of people have that email anyway. And so it’s labramson@eastlink.ca. And either that, or if they just looked up the NSSSA or Diabetes Camps, all my information is on there. Okay. So, yeah.

Sam Demma (54:44):

Perfect. Awesome. Hey, thank you so much for taking the time to share some stories. It was really fun and exciting to chat with you, and I appreciate you, you making the time, especially during a very busy time in your own personal life.

Lorne Abramson (54:57):

Ah, well, I’ll come. You can come visit us in our apartment. <Laugh> yeah.

Sam Demma (55:02):

Sounds good. So that’s good.

Lorne Abramson (55:04):

Okay, Sam, thanks very much.

Sam Demma (55:07):

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

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Lorne Abramson

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.

Atul Temurnikar – Co-Founder and Chairman, Global Schools Foundation (Singapore)

Atul Temurnikar - Co-Founder and Chairman, Global Schools Foundation (Singapore)
About Atul Temurnikar

Atul Temurnikar (@atultemurnikar) is a prominent member of the education industry in ASEAN, North & South Asia & Middle East. Now he serves as co-founding trustee and Executive Chairman of Singapore-based Global Schools Foundation (GSF), a not-for-profit organisation.

Mr Temurnikar is a staunch advocate of high-quality education that transcends socio-economic boundaries from Korea to Japan in the East, to Singapore to Malaysia in ASEAN and India and Middle East. His significant efforts in the education sector include as a member of the Schools Sub-committee of the National Integration Committee (NIC) set up by the Government of Singapore.

Mr Atul participated in recommendation of changes to the Indian Foreign Direct Investment’s (FDI) policies for India’s education sector, which were then implemented in 2013 with special cabinet approval. Many of other suggestions given to India’s former MHRD Minister were seen to have been implemented in the NEP 2020.

On the business community front, Mr Temurnikar is instrumental in bringing big ideas and big minds together from Singapore and India, and serves as the Patron of the Singapore chapter of the Institute of Directors (IOD India).

In the past two decades, Mr Temurnikar has been invited by several forum such as Institute of Directors, Horasis, Expert Guest on XL Podcast with Graham Brown on Leadership and Agile Thinking in Education
Expert Guest on MoneyFM 89.3, a Singapore based radio on the topic of mental health issues.

Achievements : Some of Mr Temurnikar’s key accolades include:

Distinguished Fellow award from the Institute of Directors, India;
The Walter L. Hurd Executive Medal, awarded by the Walter Hurd Foundation USA for demonstrating exceptional adherence to quality within and outside an organization;

Award of social recognition for contribution to SINDA in 2006 by then Dy Prime Minister of Singapore, Mr Lee Hsien Loong, for outstanding efforts in social services for the underprivileged in Singapore.

An eloquent speaker, Mr Temurnikar has delivered motivational speeches on leadership, entrepreneurship, life choices and the importance of education including at the Global Convention of the Institute of Directors in London, among others.

He ventured into the education sector after a 16-year technology stint with highly reputable global organisations such as IBM ASEAN South Asia and HCL Technologies.

Growing up in a middle-class family, Atul was among the top 3 students and ranked 3rd Merit among a million students who attended the Grade 12 exams in 1979 in Maharashtra (India) state board examinations.

Connect with Atul: Email | Instagram | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

ASEAN, North & South Asia & Middle East

Global Schools Foundation (GSF)

National Integration Committee (NIC)

Indian Foreign Direct Investment’s (FDI)

Institute of Directors (IOD India)

XL Podcast

MoneyFM 89.3

Distinguished Fellow award of the from the IOD India

The Walter L. Hurd Executive Medal

SINDA

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 Dducator podcast.

Sam Demma (00:59):

This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is Atul Temurnikar. Atul is a prominent member of the educational industry in ASEAN, North and South Asia and the Middle East. Now he serves as co-founding trustee and Executive Chairman of Singapore-based Global Schools Foundation (GSF), a not-for-profit organisation. Atul is a staunch advocate of high quality education that transcends socioeconomic boundaries from Korea to Japan in the east to Singapore, to Malaysia and Asia and India, and the middle east. His significant efforts in the education sector include as a member of the Schools Sub-committee of the National Integration Committee (NIC) set up by the Government of Singapore. His accolades and achievements could be listed for the next 10 minutes. He has done so much for so many young people in the world of education, and I’m so grateful and honored to have him on the podcast here today. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Atul and I look forward to seeing you on the other side. Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today I’m joined by a very special guest, Atul. He is situated all the way across the world. <Laugh> We’re recording this before he goes to bed and right after I am waking up. Atul, please introduce yourself and tell the audience a little bit about yourself.

Atul Temurnikar (02:34):

So good morning everyone listening on this podcast, my name is Atul Temurnikar, and I’m a co-founder and chairman of a school network based all the way in Singapore.

Sam Demma (02:48):

Tell me a little bit about this school network. What inspired you to start it roughly I believe 20 years ago now, or become a part of it. And what does this network aim to do?

Atul Temurnikar (03:00):

So the school network, when we say we are looking at you know, a combination of a preschool primary school, high schools, and and, and these schools are almost like all in one in one location. And we’ve got about 35 schools in a network. These are spread across 10 countries. We are educating about 70 nationalities of students across our schools. It’s a huge diversity, right? So the schools are essentially providing education to all the expats, as well as local citizens of various countries. And the schools aim to be the, the substantially higher quality education providers in their, in their countries and geographies. And we, we are basically using these as community schools to be able to provide a great value proposition to our stakeholders, meaning our students and parents, so that they can get the highest quality of education at the prices that they’re paying so that they can get much better education for their children. And they can go to wonderful and beautiful universities, including the Ivy league universities and the us and UK and all over the world.

Sam Demma (04:13):

What, what inspires you to work on this project? Like tell me a little bit about your journey from, you know a student yourself to where you are today.

Atul Temurnikar (04:25):

So let me take you back. I would say roughly about 35 years back, you know, I was just, just coming out of my high school and and one of my colleagues and me, we kind of decided that we got a summer break. We had, you know, weeks to go for our results to come in. And we said, why don’t we do some activity? You know, like taking some home Touche tuition for students who are aspiring to be, you know, great students in the, in the high level exams. And we kind of gave a small ad in our, in the local city newspaper. And we say, Hey, we are tutors. And we wanna give you some sort of at institutions during this summer break. And unfortunately nobody turned up, maybe the, the ads are not really visible to anyone, or secondly, could be a possibility that we were not seen very credible and very genuine in our approach.

Atul Temurnikar (05:15):

So that was my first with education. When I had just enrolled myself into an engineering, it’s a very prestigious engineering institution in India, in south Asia. And so I began my journey with education with that first point of failure, where I was willing to offer my tuition services. And incidentally, I scored very high, extremely good performance in my high school. I was ranked fourth in the entire state of Matra. And that helped me kind of build my confidence that, you know, academics is something that, you know, you really have to work hard at it, but at the same time, if you get it right, you can really, really score very big in that, that, so with that kind of a background and fast forward to 20 years back I used to work in a very cozy job in IBM, Singapore based out of Singapore covering the whole of Asia region.

Atul Temurnikar (06:10):

And we were able to primarily provide a, a sort of a feedback from the community to try and understand what issues were going on. So when we were looking at it, we realized that there’s a possibility of providing a affordable education for expats who were relocating around the countries who may be not paid by their MMC companies or organizations for their school fees of their children. And so they used to kind of struggle with the budgets. And so we said, Hey, why don’t we look at something like, which is more affordable and we take it to the community and see how, how, how good it goes. And interestingly, very surprisingly to all of us, we realized that when I say we have a couple of friends, you know, just kind of having coffee together and trying with this idea. And so when I announced this particular school in Singapore, right next to the presidential palace of Singapore, and when we got thousands of people turning up to kind of know more about the school and they came to the open house and they said, well, we really like something, which is great value proposition.

Atul Temurnikar (07:21):

We think you guys can do it, but we don’t see anything here. Right? So they had, we had to build confidence. We had to build track record, and that’s how it got started. It, it was mainly a trigger from the community of what they were asking for. And we said, can we package a product together that meets the requirements with the community, rather than saying, Hey, here’s our school. You gotta pay 50 grand a year and, you know, take it or leave it. So we, we kind of did a reverse approach and we said, let’s price the product first and then go back and construct the cost structures so we can make a successful enterprise out of it. And that’s how it got started.

Sam Demma (07:57):

I love the story. Tell me a little bit more about how they, these schools differ from other schools in the area or, or, or, or what makes them from your perspective and the boards and teams perspective, a higher level of education.

Atul Temurnikar (08:14):

So one of the things that really differentiate us, I mean, there are, there are many things that really add to the whole outcomes driven game as we call it performance driven game. One of the basic things that really works for us is we have created a very strong, fundamental tech layer. I would call it the learning technology layer, which is allowing us to kind of bring all schools into one system, be able to have all systems and procedures automated, the workflow’s automated. So in a way, if I were to give you an example of what that tech layer does, it improves the learning for a child by almost 20 to 25% in terms of how we bring and deliver the education to them, and in terms of how they would’ve got it in other schools. And this is based on some primary statistics that we got from benchmarking institutions.

Atul Temurnikar (09:05):

The second thing we have done is really to make sure that teachers are very efficient so that, you know, they don’t really spend too many hours and minutes in trying to do the same redundant jobs, getting piece of information from one place to the other. So the entire teacher’s communication was actually automated. And the third thing we did was really to look at the quality of our academic excellence, you know, how are we delivering this academic lectures and, you know, the whole program and how do we benchmark with respect to top leading world institutions? And so we initiated the benchmarks. And from there, we realized that our education excellence that we were providing was actually really on par with some of the world’s best educational institutions. And as a result of that one of the benchmarks, very popular one, it’s called the Malcolm ball Ridge benchmark from the us, it’s managed by the ball Ridge foundation and the benchmarks are literally universal in the world.

Atul Temurnikar (10:07):

So we started benchmarking each of a campus with that, and it’s a nine parameter benchmark it’s done by independent assessors. And you got no say no control of what they’re gonna see. They basically evaluate the entire campus based on the academic excellence that we are able to offer on evidence basis. And then they come and do a physical inspection of this. And then they finally say, well, are you world class compliant and watch your score? And if not, then where do you stand? So I think this process of vibration really helps all our school stakeholders to be able to understand where do they stand with respect to a world class institution, like out of a score of let’s say 1000, are they in the band of 800 to 900, or are they below 500 that really gives them a great way of measuring their own academic excellence.

Atul Temurnikar (11:00):

And this is done at a process level system level institution level, and then they can really take the, what we call as opportunities for improvements or offi to be able to take back and then kind of create an action plan and improve your educational services. So it’s, it is bits and pieces of each of these things that we’ve been able to put together. So today, if we go to any country, any new markets, we are able to literally get all these things together and bring in a huge amount of synergy and integration with our school system, through the tech layers and through the various systems and excellence models that we’ve created.

Sam Demma (11:38):

That’s amazing. It sounds like this is something you’re extremely passionate about. What, what is the, the hope, the hope or the goal over the next 20 years with the, with the foundation.

Atul Temurnikar (11:52):

So if I were to simplify the hopes and goals, I would say number one, we would like to expand geographically to new markets. We’ve been predominantly in Asia, Southeast Asia, particularly. So the countries like Korea, Japan which part, which are part of north Asia, we have got Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and middle east United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. And and you know, so these are the countries that, where we are already in, but I think education is pretty universal in nature, right? Every country’s got schools and private schools and public schools and they have their own unique character. So our intention is really to expand to markets such as the west European markets of Spain, Portugal, Italy you know, the France and Switzerland. And, and then of course the UK markets and the north American markets of Canada and north America and USA. So idea is that, you know, now that we’ve got a technology driven educational product, can we take this to these markets? And, or can we work with the schools over there? And can we, how can we bring in the synergy so that those schools can really fire their optimum efficiencies, whether it’s a student or teacher or parents, they can really get the best benefits they can. And, and that was, that is one of the major hopes and aspirations that we have to really take this world class education into the different new markets.

Sam Demma (13:25):

It sounds like education has been a big pursuit for yourself in terms of the engineering background and you know, doing really well in high school, ranking forth in your whole region. What resources have you found or courses have you been through or books, have you read that you found were foundational in your own self education?

Atul Temurnikar (13:51):

So, you know it’s very interesting because, you know, engineering is a stream that really gets your thinking and acting very analytically. Yep. And second thing is I had a, you know, the privilege of doing my master’s in business administration from university of east London. So when you combine the principles of management with the engineering aspects, you can create a very different perspective of an educator because when you start understanding education, exactly what are the underlying layers, what are the challenges and how do we put it together and put the entire learning stack together. Then this is where the engineering and the, the principles of management really come in, principles of management, allow you to really apply the aspects of scale and enterprise growth into the entire ecosystem so that you can look at it more like a independently, you know, self-sustaining organization financially prudent complying with all the best practices in finance.

Atul Temurnikar (14:51):

And at the same time apply the aspects of principles of management for talent development, for leadership, scalability and, and also applying the aspects of engineering to the composition of products. I mean in one of our campuses in Singapore, which is going to be featured very soon on a, one of the, as a documentary on one of the most prestigious channels there is a very, very integrated school bus terminal that deals with 600 vehicles at any point in time. And, and, you know, you talk about 120 buses close to 500 cars and taxis, and it’s almost like a school bus terminal upon which school campuses is situated. And this entire technology that we were able to use to make it simplified so that it doesn’t cause and spill our traffic jams into the neighborhoods. And it was able to bring in efficiencies and transport for our own people, our stakeholders.

Atul Temurnikar (15:50):

So we use the simple concepts of engineering for delivering education within the campus through smart learning ways delivering various aspects of learning again, using technology. And then more importantly to make sure that the whole organization as a campus really functions very efficiently and, and, and something that the people look forward to every day is not a place where you can actually, you feel that, oh, it, it is gonna be a liability for us to kind of go there a difficult day already. I’m getting fatigued in, in the learning aspect and then things don’t work. Right. And imagine going to a school where you feel every day, you are more energetic to get up from your bed and go to the schools instead of, you know, staying back at home. And, and we’ve seen that evidence in our students when they come back, when they were coming back slowly from the post COVID stage, and they were coming to the physical schools and they said, we don’t wanna stay at home.

Atul Temurnikar (16:45):

It’s been too much. We would like to come back to school because that’s where we got friends. That’s where we have all our you know, ecosystems of learning. And we can learn better in schools rather than sitting at home and signing in, into a zoom session. So I think that’s really a testimonial coming in from various students and parents that the technologies that are being used in the schools are working and the school systems, which are being designed not to tax them or burden them. You know, there’s sometimes what happens is schools in their enthusiasm start putting too much of tech layers onto the students. So you got like 10 different systems that you need to log in, something for career, something for lessons and homework, something else to talk to the teacher there, you’ve got WhatsApp channels going on, you know, social media fees going on ly, or Instagram’s coming in, you know kind of disturbing all the students.

Atul Temurnikar (17:36):

But I think that’s what we are trying to do, simplify the entire effort in, in the ecosystem of communications, in, in what you’re trying to learn and make it very easy for, for students to kind of, you know, seamlessly move from one place to the other place, be it virtual, be it offline education. And this is where an institution’s tech background really makes a big difference in the way it can be put together. And this is not available of the shelf. Mind you, we’ve got our own technology company which has close to about 80 software developers working for us fulltime, and they build up bridges and they build the technologies for us so that everything can be managed very coherently seamlessly across and the information and the services cetera can be provided to students in a much more efficient way.

Sam Demma (18:26):

That’s awesome. How did your school’s transition during the COVID 19 pandemic when that all unfolded what, what shifted or had to happen or change in your schools?

Atul Temurnikar (18:39):

So we had a very unique experience in, in case of just when the COVID was about to happen, or let me take you to 2018. So during 2018, we actually implemented a new brand new campus called a smart campus in Singapore. And essentially what it does is it has all elements of technology in the classroom, meaning that you can have hybrid lessons in the classroom. Now, people asked us, why did you do it? Were you like, you know, sounded off that COVID is gonna come. And obviously nobody knew COVID is gonna come, but we implemented those technologies to bring in the, what we call as a student exchange programs so that students can sit in their classrooms exchange a, a sort of a lecture, or, you know, have a joint lecture on some topic with any other classrooms of any other campuses. And when they, with this technology was implemented.

Atul Temurnikar (19:31):

And just about when the COVID happened in the Jan of Feb of 2020, we already had the underlying technology in place. All we had to do was just roll it out to all the users. It was probably pre COVID rolled out to about 20% of the users. And then we overnight within a week I think Japan was the first country that immediately applied to lockdowns. And as soon as we got a lockdown message and we said, everything is closed down, we took just seven days. Our tech team was fabulous. It took seven days implemented the zoom, what we call the zoom webinar sessions across all campuses. And everybody was on virtual, just a maximum a week of kind of interruption. And, and that really gave a huge head start because it meant that the students that did not have any negative impact of the COVID, especially during when many countries were under lockdown and, you know, like every country due to regulations and how the things were evolving were actually bringing in the reversals and lockdowns at a different rate and a different pace. So that helped us. And we were able to make sure that every single student was on virtual, every single teacher was able to provide those tutorials and hold the classrooms without actually missing out on any single period. I think that’s how it really helped us. And the parents did recognize that we were very quick to come back with this virtual concept, and that was very helpful to everyone and highly appreciate it across the communities.

Sam Demma (21:12):

This is amazing roughly how many students are across all the different campuses. Like, do you know some of the numbers around, you know, how many students are involved? I think you said there’s roughly 30 fives, 35 campuses or schools now.

Atul Temurnikar (21:27):

Yeah. 35 campuses. And we’ve got close to about 31,500 students.

Sam Demma (21:33):

Wow. That’s this is awesome. Take me back to year one of, of starting this, did it start with one campus and like, how has the growth continued over the past 20 years?

Atul Temurnikar (21:49):

So when we started with the first campus I think on day one, we probably had just about under 50 students. And, but by the end of first year, we were almost like three 50 to 400 students in the first campus. And at the word of mouth really was extremely beneficial to us because the value proposition was so similarly compelling that the word of mouth really was like a typical social media wildfire. You know, it, it just went around everywhere and we didn’t have to do any marketing. In fact, the first five years of us campus, we were with zero marketing costs and a hundred percent word of mouth. And, and of course, when we started expanding to other countries, again, it was a action of border mouth, as we were being invited to Japan and Malaysia to come and set up campuses because they said, this is great.

Atul Temurnikar (22:38):

You know, we would love to have international education, but we’d love to kind of, you know, get it at the right, right price point. And that was what we were able to deliver. So in a way it was a great experiment that we started and we were able to make sure that it was sustainable. It was not something like a fly by night kind of operator idea that, you know, after two years, just, you just raise your hands and say, sorry, but my idea was different. You know, we can’t run the schools this way. <Laugh> so I think that way it was extremely you know, well planned and well executed. And we had a fantastic team that was doing work on the job on the ground, making sure that, you know, every aspect of these infant stages of every school, you know, the early years of every school, the first two to four years were taken care of with all diligence, as well as making sure that everybody was pretty satisfied with it.

Sam Demma (23:32):

What does a day in the life of a student, on one of these campuses look like, and does it differ at all from other schools? Like I know here in Canada, you know, our schools are quad master based, meaning students will, you know, do four classes per semester. And it, the school is broken down into the school year is broken down into two, like two sections of, of four classes each. Some schools here even do eight courses per semester. I’m curious to know what does the average day look like for a student in one of your school campuses?

Atul Temurnikar (24:12):

So you know, in as opposed to four quads, we have three terms in a year and these are organized obviously by four months each and we offer multiple curriculums. So each curriculum has a different start timing for it. For example, IB starts somewhere around July or August, depending on which country, which campus, and the, the way, if you look at it as a, a day in life of a student is, is basically trying to the students would be basically coming to the schools. And you know, they have these terms and within each terms, they have the monthly units. And then within each monthly units, they have the weekly units. So in a way it would be, you know, the minimum unit would be like a week and during a week, then they would have their plans and academy calendars.

Atul Temurnikar (25:04):

They need to finish up those classes periods. They need to be able to achieve a certain predefined learning outcomes. And then they proceed onto the next week. So it’s almost like a week by week scheduling that goes on, but it takes sure that the students have enough bandwidth and enough kind of know buffer time for them to be able to complete that week’s period and then be able to take off to the next week. So to the students, it is pretty seamless, but actually when the teachers are looking at it, it’s pretty much week by week. And making sure that, you know, you might have some sudden changes and sudden closure of schools because of maybe COVID issues or whatever it is, but then they wanna make sure that, you know, you are completely following the calendar all the way to make sure that you end it on the right times within that month and within those terms.

Atul Temurnikar (25:56):

And, and so there’s a discipline involved to make sure that it works. And also from a student point of view, it’s kind of, I would say a bit more structured in a much more peaceful way so that the students don’t really get P down by too much of workloads. You know, there are different learning spaces that every student has, their speed varies from student to student. So the system allows for everybody to kind of, and we are not a selective school in many of the campuses, or in fact, in all of the campuses, we are not a selective school. So we, we take in students who overcome to us and we make sure that they get the best out of this education and, and they, they can learn incrementally much more than that, what they would’ve learned in any other school in the neighborhood. So that’s one of value prop is to the students and that’s how they experience it.

Sam Demma (26:49):

That’s awesome. It, yeah, it’s, it’s so fascinating and cool to hear about this network of schools, and I hope it continues to expand and ma makes a significant impact, not only in, in Asia, but, you know, con continues the branch into Europe and hopefully in, in north America. It’s yeah, I think it’s really needed. It’s something that’s that that’s making a difference right now. You mentioned one of the schools that will be featured in a little documentary as well. I’m curious to know a little bit more about that.

Atul Temurnikar (27:22):

Yeah. So, you know, we, we operate out of the main headquarters are based out of Singapore and Singapore, as you know, in Asia and in the world, it’s called a smart nation, right? It’s one of those most happening countries in the world you know, great living indexes the best business environments, you know, it’s been tops in many, many areas. And I think one of the things that we think is to really create schools, which are marque schools in terms of the smart aspect of it, and that’s how we created the smart campus. And we took about two years to design it in about three years to construct it. And, and so we completed that in 2018. So the one of the TV channels came to know about this smart campus. And probably they read about it, or they were interested in how smart campuses or some people may call it digital campuses.

Atul Temurnikar (28:23):

But I I’m, I’m referring to smart because use the right amount of technology to deliver the right amount of learning outcomes. And so they picked it up and they reached out to us and they said, well, you have a smart campus in a country called Singapore and your country is known as the smart nation. Would you like to feature your campus on our channel? And we said, yes. Now we had agreed to that pre COVID and fortunately COVID happened. So they let the COVID pass. And then they came back to the post COVID period, and now they will be showing that documentary on the net geo channel, the national geo channel, sometime it would be scheduled from August mid August onwards.

Sam Demma (29:06):

Wow. That’s awesome. It’s that, that’s very exciting when, when you say smart campus and then you use the word digital, is it, is it all a digital experience or do students actually go to this campus?

Atul Temurnikar (29:21):

Yeah. So a simple definition between what a smart is and digital is everything that is smart has to be digital about it. Cool. right now that’s one second thing is why it is smart and not just digital is because it carries a huge amount of analytics mm-hmm <affirmative> and today’s context. You could call it artificial collisions, you could call it you know, data analytics, or we call it simply data analytics, everything that we do, we measure everything that we measure. We know what we are doing, good, what we are doing bad, or what we are doing average. We pick up all the averages and all the things, which we are not doing good, pick it up, feed it back into the system and let everybody improve on it. And that includes student teachers, everybody, including us and me. And that is how we make the system smart.

Atul Temurnikar (30:07):

Every aspect of the functionality of this goal becomes a measurable with performance analytics and to be able to, you know, craft out the necessary strategies to make that whole thing work. So that way it is a smart campus. And when, when this documentary comes out, you will see how every technology has been used in a particular way, whether it is a sports basketball game, right? We use the same technology that NBA Lakers and many of the NBA teams use whether it is soccer. You know, when you are playing games on the court, actually it’s recording the whole game via tokens and via technologies onto computers and servers. And you can play back, replay back the games, and you can see the player performances. Now that is the analytical aspect of the game. And that is extremely important to a child or student, the moment they played a game. So these analytics were not available. If you just play a normal game with the coaches giving you instructions

Atul Temurnikar (31:10):

That would actually mean that the coaches will be, you’ll be relying on the aspect of what the coaches are gonna tell you, but here not only coaches are able to tell you more pinpointed data, but they’re able to tell you, these are your strengths. These are your weaknesses. These are your improvement areas, come and prepare for it. So the next game you can do better than this. So there’s a very clear measurement. So I think not just sports and fine arts in, in academic aspects of the learning everywhere, we use smart technologies and in our technologies really measure everything student wise and make sure that the data we can give it to them is in a performance improvement more. And so therefore every child is more excited to see, okay, tell me, what else can I do teach? Can I, can I do something else different? Tell me where I can improve. So it becomes very, self-driven motivated kind of exercise rather than somebody come and, you know, knocks on your head and says, you know, you’re not good in this. You’re not good in that. And, and probably you’re good for nothing. And then you start this negative aspects of, you know, demotivational theory and, and really that’s not required. So student can see what they need to do. And, and, and these analytical tools are very, very effective in, in making sure it’s a self-motivated improvement.

Sam Demma (32:24):

You’ll have to share the documentary with me when it comes out. I can put a link to it in the featured article that we do on this podcast interview. Cause I, I would love to watch it and I’m sure other educators would as well. If, if someone is listening to this and wants to reach out, ask you a question, connect and have a conversation, what would be the best way for them to get in touch with you?

Atul Temurnikar (32:46):

I think they can get in touch with us on LinkedIn and they can also get in touch with us through our websites or they can email it to me at atul@myglobalschool.org.

Sam Demma (33:00):

Awesome. Atul, thank you so much for taking the time this evening for you to come on the podcast. It means the world to me. The, the work you’re doing is amazing. It’s phenomenal, and I hope it continues to spread. Please keep doing the great work and we’ll talk soon.

Atul Temurnikar (33:16):

Thank you so much. And thanks for having me. It was wonderful talking to you.

Sam Demma (33:21):

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

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Atul Temurnikar

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.

Scott Johnson – Principal at Bowmanville High School

Scott Johnson – Principal at Bowmanville High School
About Scott Johnson

Scott Johnson (@ScottJohnsonP) is the principal at Bowmanville High School. He started his career as a high school physical education teacher in Ontario and after a 2 year move to Alberta, returned home to a variety of teaching roles.

He has taught every grade other than Kindergarten and Grade 5 and has been fortunate to work in several different school communities. After working in Special Education, Scott became a vice principal and is thrilled to be back at BHS as principal. 

Scott is known for his innovative approach to teaching and for his work in integrating technology and pedagogy. Scott is passionate about equity and student success and works to ensure that all students are supported throughout the school.

Connect with Scott: Email | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Bowmanville High School

Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE)

Cult of Pedagogy

Revisionist History with Malcolm Gladwell

Wikis, Blogs, and Podcasts: A New Generation of Web-based Tools for Virtual Collaborative Clinical Practice and Education by Applied Research Press

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 (01:00):

This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is Scott Johnson. Scott Johnson is the principal at Bowmanville high school. He started his career as a high school physical education teacher in Ontario, and after a two year move to Alberta returned home to a variety of teaching roles. He has taught every grade other than kindergarten and grade five and has been fortunate to work in several different school communities. After working in special education, Scott became a vice principal and is thrilled to be back at Bowmanville high school as the principal. Scott is known for his innovative approach to teaching, and for his work in integrating technology and pedagogy. Scott is passionate about equity and student success, and works to ensure that all students are supported throughout the school. I hope you enjoy this interview and I will see you on the other side. Scott, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. It’s a pleasure to have you on the show here today. Please start by introducing yourself.

Scott Johnson (01:58):

Thanks Sam, and, and thank you very much for for having me on the podcast. My name is Scott Johnson. I am currently the principal of Bowmanville high school in Bowmanville, Ontario. We are a 9-12 school with approximately a thousand students located right in central Bowmanville.

Sam Demma (02:18):

When did you realize in your career journey growing up that education was the field you wanted to pursue and work in?

Scott Johnson (02:26):

Well, to be honest with you, I, I would be, I, I think I’m fairly late to the game in terms of determining what I I wanted to do. I was a PHS ed student at the university of Toronto and had the opportunity towards the end of my degree to do some work in some local high schools in downtown Toronto. And really, really enjoyed the experience I got to work with. I actually played hockey at the university of Toronto and I got to work with a, a former teammate of mine who had moved on to become a teacher. And I just really enjoyed the experience and thought to myself, this might be a, a, a good career move for me. I, I really enjoyed Fette as a, as a student and played all kinds of sports growing up and thought, you know, maybe I could join the ranks of the PHED teachers of the world.

Scott Johnson (03:19):

And so that’s sort of what got me into education and lots happened between then and now sort of over the last 17 years to get me you know, into the role of principal. And I, I, I’ll be honest, I’ve, I’ve enjoyed every, every step along the way. So I think the goal was to be a PhysEd teacher. I’m not sure if I ever actually realized that because I, I was his ed teacher for a very brief period of time, but I’ve got to do a lot of interesting things in a lot of interesting places and yeah, I’ve really enjoyed all, all the steps along the way.

Sam Demma (03:52):

Let’s unpack some of that journey, the 17 year journey from the start to where you are now, what was the start? What role were you in? What school take us through the journey from then to where you are today?

Scott Johnson (04:06):

Well, it was an interesting journey. I actually went to teachers college directly after university and then took a year off after university to go play hockey over in Germany for a year. Wow. Which was a great experience. It was tons of fun. But probably three quarters of the way through that hockey season. I, I kind of got the itch to, you know, I wanted to get started on this career in teaching. And so made the decision, you know, towards the end of the hockey season that I was gonna try and pursue this, this teaching career more seriously and ended up <laugh> I ended up actually accepting, I was so excited to be a full-time PHED teacher that I applied for and took a job at a school that I, I didn’t know really what the school was. And it turned out that it was a PHED teacher job in a youth correctional facility where I worked for a year.

Scott Johnson (05:03):

And, and I, I, I, it was a, a very bizarre way to start my career in terms of just not being something that I would’ve expected, but it, it couldn’t have been a better start to my career. I learned a ton working in that setting and working with those students and that I, you know, can say quite clearly, that, that had a significant impact on helping me get to where I I am today. You know, just, just dealing with students who had obviously been in conflict with the law and, and had lots going on in all assets or all aspects of their lives and, and seeing how school could, could be a, a positive influence on their life, really, you know, set me on a, a, a, I think a good track teacher wise after that. My, my now wife and I decided to move out to Alberta for a couple of years.

Scott Johnson (05:56):

And so we moved to a very, very rural community in, in Alberta. And I actually ended up teaching at a, at a incredibly small school, K to nine 160 students in a town that didn’t have a single stoplight. And it was just another great experience, just great kids, great families got the opportunity to teach a whole bunch of different grades. And again, really enjoyed the experience after a couple years, my wife and I decided to come back and I ended up teaching grade seven, and then I taught a little bit of special education in high school. And then I taught at an alternative education school. Then I moved to a, a lead teacher of special education role, and then moved into being a vice principal at an ed school, and then vice principal at a large rural school. And then at a small rural school. And now principal here at, at one of the larger urban schools and in our school board. So it kind of bounced around a lot, a lot of it by choice, but I, I think having that varied experience has been very helpful in the role that I’m in today.

Sam Demma (07:08):

What do you think you took away from your time working at the correctional facility with students who might have been in trouble with the law? What are some of the things you learned from those experiences that maybe informed the way that you show up today and in, in the high school you work in now

Scott Johnson (07:26):

To put it in its simplest terms? I learned very clearly that every student has a story, and I can’t tell you how much that has impacted me in my teaching career. It, it, it, I just working with those students, learning, you know, you work very closely with them, you work with them every single day. And you just, you learn so much about their story and you start to understand that there’s so much more to a student than what you, you may see, or what they may present, you know, in, in a 75 minute class. And, you know, now in my role as a principal, every single student, or every single issue that that comes across my desk, I, I get, get taken right back to that sort of touch point. That is, what’s the story here there, you know, you talk about, you know, you might hear things that for every misbehavior, there’s a reason, or, or, you know, if a student’s not being successful, as we think they could be there’s, you know, peeling back the layers of the onion kind of thing, to, to try and sort out why.

Scott Johnson (08:39):

And I go back to that very first year, really starting to recognize there is a story here for every student and it’s our job to try and work with them on, on all levels to try and help them be as successful as they can. And, and that, that lesson, like I said, you know, for, for, to get that as a first year teacher, I think was, it was difficult in the moment but has served me well over the last 17 years and, and will continue to serve me well for the rest of my career.

Sam Demma (09:09):

What resources, including people have been very instrumental or helpful in your own development, professional development in this career and job, maybe it’s some people you can think of who have mentored you along the way, some books you’ve read or courses you’ve been a part of, like, what has helped you show up at your best every day at work. And obviously you’re a human being. So there’s days where you don’t feel your best, but what do you think helps you show up to the best of your ability every day?

Scott Johnson (09:39):

Well, I, I think there’s a lot of things. And, and you mentioned, you know, the human aspect of it. The one great part about teaching is that you get to see a lot of people every day. And I mean, you know, we’ve dealt with this, the COVID pandemic over the last couple of years. And I think if you talk to, to any student, any educator, anybody involved in education, or even outside of it, the thing that they miss is that human interaction. Mm. So, you know, as a principal, I love being out in the halls. I love chatting with kids. I love chatting with teachers. I love you know, having conversations with parents, sometimes those conversations with any of those groups are not the easiest conversations, but they’re, you know, we’re all working in the best interest of students. And that’s, that’s kind of what gets me to work with a smile on my face every day.

Scott Johnson (10:31):

In terms of, of long term impact. I mean, I’ll go right back. They, they, they make you do a cheesy kind of assignment back when you were in teacher’s college, talking about your, you know, the favorite teacher or the teacher that, that inspired you. And I, I can think of a couple of teachers that I had along the way, you know, my grade two teacher, Mr. Jameson, my grade six teacher, Mr. Black, just people that had significant impacts on me growing up and, and, you know, having the hope that maybe I could replicate that experience for, you know, a young person growing up was certainly part of my motivation in terms of getting to where I am today, I’ve had all kinds of people who have been incredibly helpful. I, I, from principals to teachers just people and, and I think this goes back to you, you really can’t underestimate the impact that your words can have on another person.

Scott Johnson (11:29):

You know, I can think back to one of my principals who encouraged me to be a vice principal back when I had never really thought about being a vice principal. And, and she put that in my head and I was just like, oh, and I, I just got a sense of her belief in me and, you know, the, a small conversation on her part at a, you know, a lasting and, and significant impact on my life. So those are things that, that I try and pay it forward for lack of a better term, but there’s definitely been, been tons of people along the way, who, who just through their, their words and conversations have a, have had a big impact.

Sam Demma (12:04):

You’re one of the only guests we’ve had on who pulled out a blue ye USB microphone, and sounds like a radio host. <Laugh> gonna,

Scott Johnson (12:13):

I have been told that I have a face and a voice for radio. So I’m I’m good with that.

Sam Demma (12:18):

It leads me to believe that you might listen to a few other podcasts. Is there any educational podcasts that you’ve tuned into, or people that you’ve listened to that have helped as well as a resource?

Scott Johnson (12:30):

Well, to be honest, Sam, if, if you knew me as an educator one of the things that I like to draw upon is other other areas and bring those into education. Mm-Hmm <affirmative>, I like that you know, I’ve listened to lots of, of great educational podcasts. I mean, I started, I think my first educational podcast was the cults of pedagogy which is a, you know, a wonderful series, but what I’ve really, what I’ve really tried to bring in is some more, some different parts of, of the world and how they relate to education. So you talk about a guy like Simon Sinek you know, and, and his start with why book and, and, you know, he has a podcast. Seth golden, I think has a, a lot to say about leadership that is applicable across disciplines. I mean, a lot of it’s into business and marketing, but you take that and apply some of it to a school setting.

Scott Johnson (13:34):

Those are a couple of the podcasts. I’m sure you’ve heard of revisionist history with Malcolm Gladwell in the way that he, he can look at a seemingly straightforward issue and sort of flip it on its ear and, and you kind of, wow, I never looked at it from that perspective. And those are the kinds of things that I think are important in education. I mean, we’re faced with some fairly unique problems in this day and age. And if you’ve just, you know, that old saying, if you always do what you always done, you’ll always get what you always got, sort of thing. And, and, you know, trying to do things differently, cuz these kids are growing up in a different world in a, in a world that we really haven’t seen before. And I like to, to bring those other discipline in, in just to, to try and get a fresh perspective on some of the issues that we’re facing. And, and I find those people have, have some really quality ideas that can be translated directly to the work we do each day.

Sam Demma (14:36):

I love that if you could travel back in time to your first instance of teaching in a classroom, in a school setting and tap yourself on the shoulder and say, Hey Scott, not that you need any advice right now. Not that you wanna change anything about what’s gonna happen in your future, but this is what I think would’ve been helpful for you to hear when you were just beginning your career in teaching, what advice would you have given to your younger self or another educator listening who might be just starting this work?

Scott Johnson (15:09):

Well, I’ll tell you, I, I, I don’t have to necessarily go back in time because I got that, that the piece of advice that was critical to me. Mm. I got that from another person. And the lady’s name is Dr. Kathy Bruce. And she is I don’t know her exact role at Trent university right now, but she was the Dean of education. And I had the very fortunate opportunity at my old grade eight school to be her final teacher’s college associate teacher before she ended her teaching career and moved on to the world of teacher’s college at university. And I remember Kathy is a bit of a math guru, not a bit. She is a, a definitely a math guru and, and has done lots in the, the world of mathematics. But she had tasked me with teaching a math lesson to her grade seven class.

Scott Johnson (16:03):

And the question I asked her was, okay, where’s the textbook that you use? And she said, we don’t use a textbook. And that to me, that moment, and I’ve used that moment over and over again, over, over the last couple of decades was the, the first, the, the seed that was planted that said the education for these students does not have to look the same as your education. And I think that is the piece of advice. We, most people that go into teaching go into it because they love school and they had a, a great positive experience at school. And so oftentimes we will default to the experience that we had at school and that moment, which terrified me and sent waves of anxiety through my body saying, how am I ever going to teach math to grade sevens without a textbook? Because that’s what I was used to.

Scott Johnson (17:00):

And that’s what I was comfortable with. That is the piece of advice that I needed to say. We can do things differently. And I remember, you know, I use that again, when, when will Richardson I don’t know if you know, will Richardson, but he wrote a book in the mid two thousands called Wiki’s blogs and podcasts. You know, you, you, you mentioned the microphone. And I was, I was presented that by a teacher here at the school and I immediately was like, I’m gonna do a podcast. And I, I look back to that, you know, with my students and we’re gonna start a podcast and we’re going to do those things. And we’re talking, this is back in, you know, 2008, 2009. But it was that moment with Kathy Bruce that said do things differently. It’s okay to do things differently.

Scott Johnson (17:52):

So not only did she challenge me, but it was almost like she gave me permission. It was like, oh, okay. We can bring some of these innovative ideas, you know, into the classroom. And so, you know, I don’t know, going back to my former self, listen to your elders, listen to those people who have experience. I mean, you know, they’re the people who are doing it. And there’s lots of great stuff out there. And, and I, you know, I think of if I was a new teacher starting in 2022, you know, between Twitter accounts and podcasts and you know, other social media groups and websites, there’s tons of great resources to draw on. It’s just trying to find your niche in finding those people that that can help you. And, and I was fortunate to have a couple of those people really early on in my career.

Sam Demma (18:36):

One of the things that I believe is attractive about education is impact on young minds, shaping future change makers and seeing a student progress from potentially struggling to success or some form of clarity where they have this aha moment and a breakthrough because of years of help and support from caring adults in their lives. Could you think of a moment in one of your schools that you’ve worked in, or maybe even when you were teaching where you saw a student go from serious struggle to some clarity and some success that really brought a smile to your face, and if it’s a serious story you can change their name just for the sake of privacy. And the reason I ask you to share is because I think it will remind other educators listening, why this work is so important and inspire those who haven’t got into this work yet to seriously consider it as a pot, a potential career path in the future.

Scott Johnson (19:33):

Yeah, well, I can, I can, I can share an example of one that just happened recently. And as I, I think I started off saying that my dream was to, to be a, a PhysEd teacher and, and, you know, I, I didn’t really elaborate, but I, I, I never really made it as a PhysEd teacher because I think that first experience in the, in the correctional facility led me down a path towards special education which turned into student success, where you’re often dealing with students who have stories and those stories are often, you know, incredibly challenging. They have led incredibly difficult lives and, and have overcome so much just to even be with you in front of you know, in the classroom with you each day. And so I can think of a student and I won’t mention their name, but very difficult life history.

Scott Johnson (20:36):

Very challenging. I met this student back in, I believe their grade nine year obviously had difficulties in school, but again, having that ability to recognize the story there is more to this than what you are seeing each day, and just working with that student day by day getting to know them, working with some community agencies, just reaching out and trying to be that person. And it wasn’t certainly just me. There was a whole team of people that, that got to impact this student over the course of their high school career. And I, I ended up switching schools and, and we ended up reconnecting at, at the, the new school. And again, just continuing to be patient and working with that person. And I, I actually got news just a little while ago that they had graduated high school and were starting college in January.

Scott Johnson (21:40):

And, you know, if you, that, would’ve been a tough picture to imagine way back when we met in grade nine. And I think that’s the power of education. It’s the power of you know, in, in, in my context high school is we, we get four years to work with someone and we can do a lot in those four years. It doesn’t have to all be accomplished right away. But if you look at the, the growth that all students experience, you know, coming in at grade nine at 13, 14 years old and, and leaving high school at, at 1718 we, we have the opportunity to make a significant impact and, and in a lot of cases you know, I, I think we’re able to really help students get on the trajectory that they want to get on. And, and hopefully we, we do our best to, to bring the best out of them. And again, that’s, that’s kind of why we’re here and if you’re interested in helping people out with that, then education is definitely a career that will, you’ll find very fulfilling.

Sam Demma (22:46):

If someone is listening to this inspired, wants to reach out, ask you a question, or get in touch, what would be the best way for them to get in contact with you?

Scott Johnson (22:58):

Just send me an email. I’m on Twitter @ScottJohnsonP, not as active as I once was as, as other things have, have caught up and we’ll see where things go with Twitter, given the, the recent, the news of recently, but yeah. You, you know, my email address is, is checkout Bowmanville high school. My email address is, is there along with my picture and I’d be happy to chat. You know, one of the things that got me involved in education was some chats with some people who were in the business. At the time I was fortunate to go to the University of Toronto and be close to OISE and, and know lots of people that were in education so if anyone’s interested, I’d be, be, I’d be happy to chat. It’s a, it’s a great career. It’s got its ups and downs as all careers do, but at the end of the day, I’m, I, I, couldn’t be more happy with the decision that I made way back when

Sam Demma (23:55):

Scott, it’s a pleasure to bring you on the show here today, to talk about the journey, some of the ups and downs, some of the learnings and philosophies you hold about teaching. I cannot wait to see where the next five years of your career take you and, and what you’ll be working on and doing. Keep up the great work and don’t ever hesitate to reach out again in the future and thanks again for coming on, coming on the show.

Scott Johnson (24:19):

No problem Sam. Thanks for having me and thanks for doing what you’re doing. It’s, it’s a pleasure listening to your show and, and I appreciate the opportunity.

Sam Demma (24:27):

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

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Scott Johnson

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.

Jennifer Meeker – Principal of Special Education K-12 at the Upper Grand District School Board

Jennifer Meeker – Principal of Special Education K-12 at the Upper Grand District School Board
About Jennifer Meeker

Jennifer Meeker (@jennmeeker), is the Principal of Special Education K-12 at the Upper Grand District School Board. Starting as an elementary teacher turned secondary Administrator she has embraced the power of Ross Greene’s mantra, “Kids do well if they can”. She believes it is the adults job to figure out the barriers and to work alongside the student to dismantle those barriers. She has been an Administrator for 13 years and has learned a lot from the youth and families she has served.

In her new role as a system Principal she is supporting students with special education needs from a system perspective. She tries to understand the many reasons why students might be challenging. She works with specialized teams within the UGDSB to make sure that supports are in place so that schools can help students reach their true potential. In the role of highschool Principal she supported having all voices at the table when decisions were being made or programming considered for a student(s). She would tell you that her best learning came from the challenging students who became her teachers.

Connect with Jennifer: Email | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Upper Grand District School Board

Who is Ross Greene?

Grading for Equity by Joe Feldman

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 on the show is Jennifer Meeker. Jennifer is the Principal of special education, K through 12 at the Upper Grand District School board. Starting as an elementary teacher, turned secondary administrator, she has embraced the power of Ross Greene’s mantra. Kids do well if they can. She believes it is the adults’ job to figure out the barriers and to work alongside the student to dismantle those barriers. She has been an administrator for 13 years and has learned a lot from the youth and families she has served. In her new role as a system principal, she is supporting students with special education needs from a system perspective. She tries to understand the many reasons why students might be challenging. She works with specialized teams within the Upper Grand District School Board to make sure that supports are in place so that schools can help students reach their true potential. In the role of high school Principal, she supported having all voices at the table when decisions were being made on programming considered for students. She would tell you that her best learning came from the challenging students who became her teachers. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Jenn, and I will see you on the other side, Jen, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here today. Please start by introducing yourself.

Jennifer Meeker (02:20):

Great. Thanks Sam. I really appreciate being here. My name is Jen Meeker. I’m the Principal of special education, K to 12 for the Upper Grand District School board.

Sam Demma (02:28):

If you traveled back in time to when you were just a student yourself, at what moment, if you can recall, do you remember making the decision and knowing that you were gonna pursue education in your future

Jennifer Meeker (02:43):

Education as teaching, as in, yeah, my teacher two years, three years out of university.

Sam Demma (02:52):

Mm. So what was your path?

Jennifer Meeker (02:54):

<Laugh>? my path was actually polys, sci and economics. Okay. Wanting to be in I don’t know, in training, definitely doing training of some sort. I was always coaching. I was always involved in, in athletics and working with people and I really enjoyed that part. But I always enjoyed the coaching aspect of everything that I ever did. So all through my life, whether it was riding, skiing, rowing, whatever, it was always something, there was always a coaching element to it.

Jennifer Meeker (03:28):

Hmm. I think that’s where it took me, but definitely it was someone that I worked with. I wasn’t in education, but I was working alongside educa education in a nonprofit role. And the person that I worked with was in education. And at one, one day she just said, when are you gonna become a teacher? And I was like, really thrown back and you talking about, she goes, you need to be a teacher. And so it was a time of my life where there was probably some need to be changed, things needed to change. And I was like, Hmm. So I applied to one school U of T at the time to OISE and thought if it was meant to be, it’ll be. And I guess it was <laugh> so, and I went and haven’t looked back. I’ve left once. I should say I have left teaching once.

Sam Demma (04:16):

Okay. Well talk about that in just a second. Tell me a little bit more about this nonprofit. So you graduate and start working in the nonprofit sector.

Jennifer Meeker (04:24):

Yes. well, no, I, I <laugh>. I started with an airline first. I worked for Alaska airlines. Nice. then I was working for an entertainment insurance broker. Okay. And circumstances ended up that I didn’t have a job and I ended up on unemployment actually at one point. And I should never have received unemployment, but when they called my boss, who, the company that I had left for good reasons she, the woman from unemployment called me and said, oh my God, we’re starting your unemployment today. You could never, I would never wanna work for that, man.

Sam Demma (04:59):

Mm.

Jennifer Meeker (04:59):

So it was it was actually a great opportunity for me. And then she gave me some, there was a couple programs where you worked for a nonprofit who received funds to be able to employ you on a sort of a contract basis. And this one just happened to be, it was the career education council at a Guelph and the person in charge that hired me was awesome. She was a great, a great mentor in the beginning in terms of developing the program. And it was a real, it was a, a, something that was very much in its infancy at the time. So I developed partnerships between businesses and schools to offer opportunities of, you know, realistic experiences for students around what was, what careers could be in the future. What was going on? You gotta take this back.

Jennifer Meeker (05:47):

This was 19 90, 2 93 91, something like that. And so things were very different then. But we, we had these great partnerships between, I, I remember Linemar was partnered with, I believe it was gateway, like drive public school in Guelph. And some of the things that they did was just, was just incredible. We had, I developed a teacher internship program where teachers went out into businesses in the summer and learned skills to see what pathways career pathways were out there. And I remember a tech teacher who wanted to go in and see what it would be like to be a first year apprentice. So we set that up. And within, I think it was day three, maybe he called and said, this is garbage. I know I don’t wanna do this anymore. You know, all they’ve got me doing is sweeping floors. And so we sat down and met with the, the plant manager and talked about it. And he said, you wanted to see what a, an apprentice might start at. Mm. And this might be something until I know who you are and your responsibilities, ability to do skills and things like that. Then I have to make that decision as to when you’re ready. And so once the teacher had learned that it was like, okay, I’m gonna ride this out. And he did. So I gave him full credit.

Sam Demma (07:00):

Wow. You’ve had such a diverse experience. What, what drew you towards entertainment when you were working in that position as well?

Jennifer Meeker (07:11):

Sadly, that was just a job. <Laugh> it was an opportunity. I needed to pay bills and I, I took it not an interest at all. I don’t think at the time because it was inter insurance, it was a lot of paper, paper pushing a lot of reading of contracts and things like that. Not, not what I wanted to do for sure. Not, not really working with people. And that’s always been my I would say that’s always where I’ve been drawn to is working with people working on teams.

Sam Demma (07:41):

Hmm. You mentioned that there was one occasion where you did step away from education before obviously returning, cuz you’re here again now. <Laugh> yeah. Bring me back to that moment. What, what was going on in your life during that period of time and what prompted you to step away?

Jennifer Meeker (07:58):

So it was probably the birth of my second son. And you know, I took the maternity leave, which had just become the year long maternity leave. Nice. And my husband is self-employed so we were, you know, the company was doing well and we as a family, it was a good decision. I, I still, I shouldn’t say that I totally took leave because I left education, but probably month eight of my maturity leave. I started working for a friend nice some basically being a, was an accounts manager for a company. And I was enjoying that because again, it was that working with people and got me out, but it was part-time and I could, you know, make, sort of make my own hours, which was great for my family. And then we had some life circumstances that, that said, you know what?

Jennifer Meeker (08:51):

You need a job that’s stable because you never know what’s gonna come down down the pipe. And, and I had never left touch with teaching for sure. I was still coaching different things. So I was always still doing that role and said, you know, it was time to go back. So I took a three year hiatus but I went back and went into a role. I had been teaching mostly grade 8, 7, 8 for the most part and really, really enjoyed that age level and really got along with with those students. And then when I went back, cause I’ve been gone so long, new principal, new school, well school wasn’t new, but a lot of staff had changed. Yep. And no one thought I was coming back. So they shoved me in a portable teaching grade, two, three split. And I took all the kids and nobody else wanted to teach, I guess, because my class list was quite quite an interesting group. But you know what, probably one of my best years of teaching, mm. I went back in going home, you know, oh my God, <laugh> what do I do? And partnered up with my ESL teacher at the time. And he and I had a great year. And in fact the following year we took that group forward and taught them again and took in another group as well. So we actually, he and I became team teachers. It was a something the principal decided she let us try. And it worked really, really well and definitely a highlight of my career for sure.

Sam Demma (10:18):

Tell me more about that. You said it was one of your best years in teaching from your perspective. Why is that?

Jennifer Meeker (10:26):

I think because it wasn’t easy. I think that I, I had to struggle. I had to figure it out. I felt that those students probably taught me more than I taught them in that year, for sure. Just about being, you know, I hadn’t taught that age group. I hadn’t taught students how to read before I hadn’t worked with ESL students before. And I had parent volunteers coming into my classroom, which didn’t happen in grade seven and eight <laugh>. I had an amazing apparent volunteer who came into my classroom and she was just amazing with the kids. And it just, I don’t know, I think, and I was out in a portable, so I was kind of out on my own. But I was, I was left be to, it was the, I think it was the only two, three split as well. So I was sort of on my own for everything. And that really just really have to struggle. And I, I spent a lot of hours doing that, but I actually would tell you that I grew a lot as a, as a teacher. I grew a lot as a human, but I definitely grew a lot as a teacher, too.

Sam Demma (11:31):

Most people would say it was their best experience because it was fun, enjoyable, and easy. And you’re telling me it was your best year because you struggled. Where does that mindset of yours come from? That struggle is something that, you know, leads to growth. And although difficult is a necessary step in the process of life. Is that from sports or like, like where do you think that comes from?

Jennifer Meeker (11:55):

Yeah, I think that’s, I, I think it’s from sports. I also think it’s how I was, you know, how my parents raised me too and everything. I mean, I never wanted for anything necessarily. I, I definitely lived a white privilege life. There’s no question about that. And I acknowledged that, but I also know that my parents didn’t hand me things. And I started working, you know I grew up in the country, so I started working very early on. We had a farm. I worked for a couple of big horse farms and so I was always pushed to work. So I, I have a, I think I have a strong work ethic. I, when I look back and it’s just, I’m just, that’s just daunting to on me, as you asked the question, when I look back over my life so far, all of my experiences that have been the best experience in my life have been because of challenge.

Jennifer Meeker (12:44):

Mm. So maybe I seek that out. I don’t know. You know, these sports that I chose to be involved in are not typical sports that everybody gets involved in. They’re, they’re tough. They’re, you know there’s always a challenge there and always an element of danger, well, not danger, but Del element of pushing yourself beyond your, your limits for sure. I would say that this, my jobs as I’ve chosen, you know, I never wanted to be a teacher thought got in, did it, whatever it was a challenge. Definitely. It challenged me for sure in the beginning. And then when I became a principal or when I became a vice principal, first of all, I mean, I had no intentions of going that route either. And it was someone who tapped me on the shoulder and said, it’s time you need to do this.

Jennifer Meeker (13:32):

And so I did it and you know, those are, those are life experiences where you’re not sure what it’s gonna be like on the other side. Exactly. Mm-hmm, <affirmative>, you’re comfortable where you are and comfort is a nice place sometimes. And then someone taps you on that shoulder and says, you should, you need to do this and including this most recent job. So I’m, I’m close to my retirement time. And I’ve taken on a whole new role, which again, first three weeks, first month and a half of the job, I was like, why did I do this? <Laugh> you know, I had to, but I love it. I love my job now. Yeah. And you know, I learning every day, I think learning for me is always, my, my husband would tell you I could be a professional student. I’m always wanting to learn more. So

Sam Demma (14:20):

Let’s talk about your current role right now. What are you doing day to day? What were those first two months like, and what do you love so much about it now?

Jennifer Meeker (14:31):

Again, I think it’s challenge for sure. There’s there’s new challenges every day is something new coming at me. Yeah. Because of the job. So I work with as the principal of special education, I work with teams, multidisciplinary teams across our board to support students in need. So whether it be students who are in a life skills program to students who are in a regular class placement, but have large learning challenges ahead of them. I work with families. I work with an amazing team of special education consultants including we call them team. Awesome. And I work with mental health with our psychologists and that department and our speech and language department. So we work as a team again. So I’m, I’m always attracted to teamwork for sure. And we try to, to support schools in providing the supports that students need in their building.

Jennifer Meeker (15:30):

So it’s a lot of it’s a lot of meetings. That’s, that’s one of the downfalls for me. I’d rather be on the, on the ground, but it is a lot of meetings, but I do get to work with some amazing people. And I, I don’t necessarily always see the successes at the end, but I hear about them. And I hear from the schools when you know, when the student is really, really struggling and we have some really high need struggling students and families. And I hear that, you know, something was got a little bit better. That’s, that’s just makes my day,

Sam Demma (16:07):

Let’s bring your brain back to one of those moments. When you think about certain emails like that of school or calls of schools reaching out and telling you, Jen, we had this student that was really struggling and we had this little win today. Are there any of those examples that come to mind that you’d like to share? I think stories of, of growth in young people is one of the main reasons why adults work in education. It’s like we wanna, you know, provide a positive impact on the lives of a young person. So if someone’s burnt out right now, it’s stories like that, that I think will really reunite their fire if teaching is what they should be doing.

Jennifer Meeker (16:46):

Yeah. And not in this, I mean, I have had current role too, but I’ll take back to when I was a vice principal I had a student who wasn’t on the radar at all completely not on the radar in in terms of the office was a, you know, a, B plus student never missed a day of classes, never missed a class, was easy to get along with you know, like not a, not an issue at all. That student had some struggles in her own life. And the student checked herself into care, basically put, he put her herself to the family children’s services who then placed her in foster care. And that was a sadness story. And I met with her and her worker and we talked about you know, her strengths and her needs.

Jennifer Meeker (17:40):

And, you know, we got to know her. She happened to have a love of courses as do I. So the two of us bonded in that moment. And and then I sort of became that her person for a while. And she struggled and it, what really, what she taught me was that even when we give students everything or when we give people everything that they, we think they need or we think is going to make their life better, it doesn’t always work that way. Mm. So I couldn’t understand why all of a sudden she became a behavior issue in class. She wasn’t attending school on, you know, regularly. She wasn’t getting the work done. And she was in on the radar of the office all the time. And I said to her, her worker, one day, I said, I don’t understand she has safety. She has a roof over her head. She has food on the table. She doesn’t have to worry about those things anymore. So while all of a sudden is she not succeeding. And she said, because now she’s being a teenager.

Sam Demma (18:45):

Mm.

Jennifer Meeker (18:46):

And she has the ability to do that. And that really, that really shot a light for me on on taking each case differently that each student that I, that I met and that I dealt with and understanding what their real needs are before I assume what their real needs are, I guess. So we then backtracked and then she had a job later on, this is, so this is a couple of years later, she had a job first job, you know, and the, I happened to know the employer and she wasn’t showing up for work regularly. And they were about to fire her. And I said to the employer, you can’t, here’s why you can’t because she needs you, you can’t because she doesn’t have someone there who is saying, you know, what, if you don’t show up to work today, you might get fired.

Jennifer Meeker (19:43):

Cuz she’s on her own. She’s making these decisions for herself. There’s nobody telling her that on a regular basis that really, really cares about her. And I said, so you need to be that person. So they didn’t fire her. And eventually she left on her own. But in a good way. And yeah, so, and she, and I had many, many conversations about that, but she’s remained in contact. I’ve lost track of her in the last year or so, but she had remained in contact up till then has a family of her own and ah, yeah. And, you know, and is in a good place from what I, from what I know. So yeah.

Sam Demma (20:20):

That’s awesome. I, I think it’s

Jennifer Meeker (20:22):

On this shoulder all the time, just telling me

Sam Demma (20:24):

<Laugh> yeah. What I need to do. It’s just a really cool reminder to realize you can have such a massive impact working in education, whether you’re on the front line or not like every single person plays a significant role in making sure a student feels safe and has an opportunity to learn and grow. How do, do you think we ask students what their needs are? Is it as simple as asking them, like how did you uncover her needs when you realized that what you wanted for her, maybe wasn’t what she thought she needed.

Jennifer Meeker (21:01):

That’s a good, that’s a good question. I mean, I think that I’ve always Ross green who wrote a book called kids do well, if they can is probably one of my biggest mentors in terms of thinking about students. And so I always look at, and, and this is one of the things she taught me, you know, she could do well when she could. And when there was a barrier that she couldn’t get through, that’s when things fell apart. And so as the adult, I needed to, to be able to be alongside her in that journey. And when she came up against a barrier that she couldn’t remove, I need to figure out how to help remove that if I could so that we could learn from it and then move forward until she hit the next barrier. And I think, I mean, I think that’s how we, we all do life. We just don’t realize it. But when we’re watching, as adults, as parents, we, you know, we look at our children and we try to remove all of those barriers for them. We never wanna see our children hit barriers, right. Because that’s, that, that means that they would experience hurt and they would experience failure or whatever. But in my life, failure has taught me probably more than success.

Sam Demma (22:11):

Mm.

Jennifer Meeker (22:12):

And again, I go back to those challenges. Right. I think I have to fail before I, before I succeed often.

Sam Demma (22:20):

Yeah. And you could even just swap the word failure with learn because every, you know, failure is just feedback from whatever event you were trying to accomplish or, you know, achieve. Yeah. So I think that’s a really great perspective. You mentioned this book. Are there any other books or resources that you found really helpful that have informed the way that you teach your professional development? It could even be courses or people I’m just curious to know. Yeah. Some of the things that kind of shaped your belief system.

Jennifer Meeker (22:53):

Well, definitely the work that I did with Ross green and I’m still following has been really important for me to take a look at, especially in special education, because we, we label students with a, with a disability, a learning disability or an intellectual disability and sometimes people get stuck on those labels. And he and another Dr. Mel Levine, who’s no longer around. They didn’t, they don’t look at students that way. They look at students from a whole, the whole student perspective. They get to know the student. And one of the, the questions I always say when there’s challenge, when a student, when I was a principal and a student was having difficulty and they’d come into my office rather than I may know a whole bunch already, but rather than assuming that I know what’s going on and what the issue is, I would ask I hear you having some difficulty what’s up with that. Mm.

Jennifer Meeker (23:54):

And they might not go right to it immediately, but we would dance around that for a long time if we had to. But I would just keep coming back and say, tell me more about that. What’s up with that. You know, and I’m not gonna say that I was, I’m always perfect in the moment because sometimes you get caught emotion. We gotta, yeah, we got the motion or we gotta get this done. Or, you know, I’ve got four other people waiting outside there to talk to me, whatever. But I try to stay present in that moment with whomever. It is that I’m, that I’m working with, whether it’s a staff member, another colleague, or with a student or a family or with my own family to say, what’s up, what’s up with that? How can I help? And they may not want my help. So just, you know, sort of getting the idea of that. So that came a lot from, from raw screen, I would say. I’ve done a lot of work with oh, I’m having a, a brain pause here.

Sam Demma (24:57):

I like that you used the word pause. <Laugh> strategic. I like it. <Laugh>

Jennifer Meeker (25:03):

You can give another one, but <laugh> yeah, I guess I’ll leave it at Ross because he is the, so, oh, the other, I guess the other book that I’ve been reading most recently is grading for equity. And it’s a resource that has really had me look, I, I never, I was always the teacher that thought that report cards were, were ridiculous that we should be having conversations cuz I’m more of a talker probably than a writer. Mm. And to have conversations with people about where they are with my students, I used to do that, to talk with them about know where you’re at, here’s where we need to go next. What do you think? What do you, how are you how are you gonna achieve this? How, how am I gonna help you achieve this? And when I look at the book grading for equity, you know, marks are often subjective. I can’t tell you that we all grade the same. So when I look at that and I look at you know, people coming from diverse backgrounds and who cultural upbringings, that, that don’t value, the same things that I might it’s, it’s a problem. So I’m just, I’m partway through that book and I’m really learning a lot again about, and I think about <laugh>, oh boy, 20 years ago, I wish I could go back and teach differently and great differently. And but you know,

Sam Demma (26:30):

Everything happens for a reason, you know, and at the time it’s supposed to happen. But speaking about traveling back in time, if you could take like the wisdom and experience that you have now, you know, close to the end of your career and go back in time and tap young, you know, younger Jen, you’re still very young, but younger Jen on the shoulder. <Laugh> and you know, you say, Jen, this is what you needed to hear when you were just getting started. Not that you would share any advice to change your path or the way you’ve taught, but what advice would you have given yourself that you thought would’ve been helpful to hear when you were just getting into this vocation?

Jennifer Meeker (27:07):

So it’s interesting that say that because I just I had a teacher that I hired at the beginning of the pandemic and she’s just starting her career. Got to know her, got to be in her class and see what she was doing. And I was so impressed with how her maturity for the beginning of her career come from. And I think that a lot of our new graduates are coming out with a different outlook than I had when I graduated. Right. and so I find, I found that she seemed to be so much further ahead than I was in my first year, my career. And so I actually gave her the two books that I just talked to you about and said, if I knew this, when I started my career, I think my career would’ve been different in many ways.

Jennifer Meeker (27:55):

I think I would’ve been a more effective teacher. I think I would’ve been a more effective administrator along the way. So if this helps you, if you can connect with it in any way, you know, this is what I leave you with. And so she’s, I’ve given her both those books and we’ll we’ll chat cuz I’m not going away and she goes and you know, she could, I think she’s got a great career ahead of her. So I think that’s what I would, I, and, and people did. I, I shouldn’t say that people didn’t do that cause I definitely, I mean the whole reason I’m in teaching is because of one, one woman who Deb McGaha, I’ll never forget her who did tap me on the shoulder and who did give me that sort of advice here and there.

Jennifer Meeker (28:38):

And there were other people along the way that that did in moments, you know? But that would be someone who definitely got me into the area of teaching. And then it’s the people that I work with now that, you know, keep me asking those questions and keep me you know, looking for, for differences, for different ways to support family, different ways to converse with kids, different ways to make things, programs better for students who struggle. And I think I, I, I look to those people all the time, cause I certainly don’t have all the answers.

Sam Demma (29:12):

It sounds like a through line of your advice would be building strong relationships with others, right? Like reading books written by other people, like learning from others. You know, you mentioned how much you look forward to working on teams a few times throughout this interview, and then again, referencing the people around you and how they question you and challenge you. So it sounds like, you know, making sure you’re not working in a silo is something that’s really important in education.

Jennifer Meeker (29:40):

Absolutely. We learn so much from each other. And why would you, why would you reinvent the wheel when you can take the wheel and just make it smoother?

Sam Demma (29:49):

Mm smart. I like it. Jen. Thank you so much for coming on the show today. If someone’s listening right now, inspired by it, wants to bounce some ideas around or have a conversation, what would be the best way for them to get in touch with you?

Jennifer Meeker (30:02):

They can reach out to me via email at jennifer.meeker@ugdsb.on.ca.

Sam Demma (30:08):

Awesome. Jenn, thank you so much. This was phenomenal. I appreciate you making the time, enjoy the rest of the year and we’ll talk soon.

Jennifer Meeker (30:15):

Thanks Sam. Take care. Thanks for having me.

Sam Demma (30:19):

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

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Jennifer Meeker

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.

Tara Connor, Ed.D. – Principal, Abbey Park High School in the Halton District School Board

Tara-Connor-Ed.D.-Principal-Abbey-Park-High-school
About Tara Conner

Tara Connor is the Principal of Abbey Park High School in the Halton District School Board. She spent her upbringing following her passions of music, but her love for teaching and youth guided her toward a journey working in education. She spends her time thinking about how we can improve, not just as individuals but as schools and a system. 

Tara holds both a master’s and doctorate, has lectured in Universities and has an obsession with helping youth. She believes students don’t have to have it all figured out and advocates that students/educators follow their nudges and passions. 

Connect with Tara: Email

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Abbey Park High School

Halton District School Board

What are Advanced Placement Classes?

International Baccalaureate Program (IB)

Certified Practicing Principal Certification (CPP)

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:01):
Welcome back to another episode on the High Performing Educator podcast.


Sam Demma (01:00):
This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is Tara Connor. Tara Connor is the Principal of Abbey Park High School in the Halton District School Board. She spent her upbringing following her passions of music, but her love for teaching and youth guided her toward a journey working in education. She spends her time thinking about how we can improve, not just as individuals but as schools and a system. Tara holds both a master’s and doctorate, has lectured in Universities and has an obsession with helping youth. She believes students don’t have to have it all figured out and advocates that students/educators follow their nudges and their passions. I hope you enjoy this conversation with her, and I will see you on the other side. Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. I’m so excited to chat with today’s guest, Tara Connor. Tara, please start by introducing yourself.


Tara Connor (02:01):
Oh, thanks so much. Sam, I’m delighted to be here. So again, my name’s Tara Connor. I am a Principal with the Halton District School Board. Currently, I’m the principal of Abbey Park High School, which is a wonderful high school in Oakville, Ontario.


Sam Demma (02:13):
When did you realize growing up that you wanted to be in education, work in education, become a teacher and a principal


Tara Connor (02:23):
so I, I would say that wasn’t in my growing up years likely I didn’t I didn’t kind of have it marked and planned at eight or nine or 10 years of age, which I know some people do if they project their plans for the future. You know, to me, quite honestly, actually I spoke to one of our great 10 careers classes, not too long ago, but a similar type of question. It was very evolutionary for me. I moved into a, a undergrad program that was music program, so classical music and I also loved science. So I was going kind of where passions were and not really a, a deep sense of where I might wanna land. Interestingly I have an older sister that moved into education. I think almost as an antithesis to that, I thought, well, I’ll never do education.


Tara Connor (03:09):
That’s kinda her thing. And, and then of course, as I, as I went through it and started consider where I wanted to be and what I’d love to do, I, I reflected on the fact that I spent lots of years as a lifeguard and a swim instructor and a piano teacher and a babysitter. And I love young people. I love children and I love teenagers. And and so for me, that just that kind of moved into a launch of what made lots of sense in terms of where I was at the time as I was considering career paths. I never went in if you’d asked me second year in my, in my world of being a teacher, if I would ever be a principal, I wouldn’t have even had it on my radar, quite frankly. But what I did find as I moved into my career is that I, I really loved thinking about how we could be better as not only as a classroom teacher, but as a school and as a system.


Tara Connor (04:00):
Mm. And so quite naturally, I just started to wanna be part of bigger and broader conversations because to me that really resonated in terms of what scope and sphere of impact I may have in terms of service in the work that I do as I move through my professional life. So you know, through that, I, I navigated a masters of education, a doctors of a doctorate of education, and have taught at a number of universities and graduate level and, and always with the drive to know, and understand better how we can best serve and support our students. So as I said, at every juncture, I remember sitting in my master’s and folks talked about a doctorate, and I thought like, who who’s thinking about a doctorate? And I just, I think I just wanna do my master’s. And then two or three years later, I was enrolling in an international doctoral program, completely engulfed and excited about being able to do that launch. So I, I I’ve said to my grade 10 class and my own children, I have four you don’t have to have it figured out that life unfold, you follow your passion, you follow what you what you love doing. And at each juncture, you’ll figure that out in terms of what your next stage is.


Sam Demma (05:07):
I couldn’t agree more. I definitely am someone who followed my passion and didn’t really have a perfect understanding of where it was gonna take me. Yeah. so it’s so it’s so, so true. Tell me more about where your passion took you. So what were the different roles, the different steps the different schools you’ve taught in positions? Like take us along the entire journey.


Tara Connor (05:32):
Wow. This will be a long journey. I, I will start by saying just just to your last point. I, I still don’t think my journey’s over, so I don’t, I still am excited about what that, the future and what may lie ahead, what opportunities I’m able to be able to connect with and expand and learn and grow from. So, yeah, if it’s a value I can tell you, I grew up kind of in a typical public school situation, not lots of role in terms of professional women, at least in my life in higher education was not kind of a lived experience in my family or, or really community that I was connected to. So as I moved through undergrad, and then eventually pursuing a, a degree in education my first position actually was in a private all girls school.


Tara Connor (06:19):
And I oversaw a program from grade seven to grade 13. And for me, it was in it, it was an entirely different juncture and experience that I had in my own education. And it really started me to think about some of the challenges, barriers complexities of what schooling is and ensuring all students have an equal and opportunity to Excel and to succeed. I, I moved from within that period of time, I was fortunate to have a number of great professional leadership experiences. I also was able to travel on some professional exchanges, quite extensively, internationally to places like Japan and Australia to Germany and, and trips around north Africa and Spain, Turkey, Italy. And so it really broadened my scale and scope in terms of education beyond the world of Ontario. And again made me challenge and question how we serve and support our students so that all students irrespective of background context family situation has an opportunity to really be who they’re meant to be in this world and to bring all their gifts to the world around them.


Tara Connor (07:34):
So that, that was that created some dissonance for me around private and public education about all, you know, single gendered education that, that drove me to do a master’s. I I’ve always done my graduate work while working full time or raising a family. And then I bumped over to the public poor because at that point I knew I was thinking leadership and I wanted to be able to be part of a community of school so that I could move around and have some flexibility of learning and growth. And then I would say a really profoundly rich experience from there with, to be a vice principal at Sy app, which at the time changed a little bit in its focus, but was for students that were sentenced under these criminal justice act, as well as students that were receiving were, have very profound mental health issues and concerns.


Tara Connor (08:24):
And so I really I really was able to see and understand the complexities of our student populist and, and some of the deficits of our school system and the driver that at times we expect our students to fit a school system that doesn’t work for them as opposed to building a school system that meets the needs of all students. And so I, I, I moved from that by special principalship to a number I’ll, I’ll say I was at a number of schools across the region of Halton large schools small schools kind of re the program between, you know, advanced placement AP or IB, or CPP. So community pathways, types of programs, so real diversity in terms of schools and settings. And I also moved into a program or actually kind of a regional program about maybe 10, 12 years ago.


Tara Connor (09:18):
So a couple of years into my role as an administrator where I was managing information for student achievement. So that was a very broad scale role that was working with all elementary and secondary schools to be able to critically look at data and information, to be able to drive the work that we did both in the classroom at the school level and at the system level. The other, the other probably experience that’s worth referencing is that I prior to this position was also in a, another school as principal that served adult alternative and continuing education. And that that portfolio was had responsibility for maybe thir 13 to 14,000 students in the region. It looked after both the day school components adult education, and then a whole umbrella of continuing education programs, inclusive of things like night school summer school for elementary and secondary international languages, elementary programs.


Tara Connor (10:17):
We had a rich and still have a rich educational program in both correctional facility at Maplehurst correctional. So the male and female prison systems. And and again, that, that was really rich for my own growth, but also my own passion around students don’t age out in terms of when they need education and support and how pivotal education is in the lives of our youth and adult in being able to secure a way to support themselves, support their families, contribute and connect to society. And we as educators have a duty and responsibility to serve and support our students from my perspective right from the time that they come to us through to the point that they that they are ready to, to step back and move into their next phase or stage of life. So, so lots of different experiences, all of which I’m grateful and all which I’ve, and my under able to support the needs. All students


Sam Demma (11:23):
You’ve really played every position on the field , which is,


Tara Connor (11:29):
Oh, there’s probably still more out there. I’m sure. I hope I haven’t hit the wall yet, but yeah, no, I’ve been lucky. I really, I, I, for me, I, I I’m grateful everything that I’ve done has just, has just challenged me in a new and different way. And I think again, has made me a much better deeper thinker as an educator. For sure.


Sam Demma (11:46):
I’m wondering if you could speak about how any of the experiences you’ve had, and maybe you can pick one, cause I’m sure there’s hundreds that you can remember and how it has shaped, how you look at education today. Maybe it was an experience with a student or an experience overseas, like any type of situation that further informed the way you look at education and approach it today. Do any kind of his stories or experiences that were really foundational to you come to mind?


Tara Connor (12:15):
Oh, I think there’s, there’s lots in there and certainly lots of students that I can think of and talk about. The one that I was the one that I was reflecting on a little bit prior to our chance to talk together. I know you talked either, we had talked about it, might there be a story or situation and, and that, that there was an impact that we were able to see that that student experienced in moving forward. And one of the pieces, I, I remember one thing that was really very moving for me is I was quite an early vice principal. So a couple of years in the job, I think was my second or third school. And I remember working with a student who was 16 at the time who was 16 ish, who was struggling with mental health issues and drug issues.


Tara Connor (12:59):
And what stood out for me at the time is that her drug of choice or her addiction with cocaine. And so that in and of itself’s an expensive drug with have her getting involved in issues with police and and theft to be able to support was what was a very serious addiction for her at the time. And it was, it was, you know, I, it was upsetting obviously, and really disheartening. And I remember working with her and trying to work through that. And she was in a real state of crisis in a number of different places as one could imagine, and, and self-medicating, and really trying to manage life at that time. And and, and then probably a year and a bit later, I was moved to yet another school. And I thought about her as we do think about lots of our students and many years later.


Tara Connor (13:53):
So when this was probably 10 years later, I became, as I mentioned, principal of Gary Allen high school now, Gary Allen learning center that, that serves and supports the all alternative continuing education within this region. And I remember being at our first graduation ceremony and the program had some day school with our adolescent students. So students that were looking for alternative learning across I had multiple sites. So Georgetown, Milton Oakville, and Burlington and then adult learners that educa that that connected to learning and credits through either day schools or evening classes. And then we had some flexibility with e-learning as well at the time or some virtual learning. Anyway, we had a graduation service and I was going to each of our events at, amongst all of these different sites and, and having the joy and pleasure of of helping to oversee the granting of diplomas.


Tara Connor (14:48):
And about the third or fourth student that came across the stage with this beautiful, wonderful probably 24, 25 year old young woman who was the same young woman that I remembered as a teenager, about 10 years ago. And and she was there with a loving, supportive family, and she proudly claimed her high school diploma that she had worked sometimes certainly to be able to achieve. And that was really profound for me in that it just reminds us that, you know, there’s, there is no, there’s no time that we tap out of serving and supporting our students and our adults and our community in terms of the access to education, the access to a high school diploma, that is the portal to be able to move forward in terms of either post-secondary or apprenticeship or or workplace pathways. And yeah, that was, that was for, it was, it was wonderful.


Tara Connor (15:42):
It was, you know, it was by happenstance that our path crossed are path. And, you know, you often wonder you do stay connected with some students, but not all, some of the most disconnected, you’re probably least likely to be able to see people and, and evolve is one is school. This is not, you know, high school years are not always the time that everyone can do the same thing in the same way to be able to at, you know, 17 and a half, get their high school diploma handed to them. And there are many complexities that kids carry and live through in their lives. That for whatever reason, make that, not the time, although we do lots of flexibility and access and support and wrap around to help there are times that they’re, they’re just not able to, and, and that notion of student success, they don’t age out at 18 or 19 or 21.


Tara Connor (16:37):
We are here until until they’re able to get what they need from us to be able to move to their next juncture of life. So that, that was really profound. It really drove in me a passion for a adult education. I loved that position because of what I, I believed it was doing in terms of service and support in our community. And it resonated for me as an educator, who’d been in traditional day schools and I became the voice amongst many of our day schools to say always connect. Even if students have a foot out the door and are saying, they’re done, always let them know the door is open and the hand is there and we will wrap around and support at any stage and age in which they’re able and willing to engage in engage in learning.


Sam Demma (17:20):
When you think about other educators who, what a beautiful story, by the way when you think about the educators who impacted you growing up, wh who comes to mind and what did those individuals do for you that made such a big difference. And also as you started your professional career, kinda like a two part question did you have any mentors or I’m sure you had many but any mentors that had a significant impact on you?


Tara Connor (17:47):
Mm-Hmm so I think for, for me, and I would probably liken this to probably anybody that has positive memories of their educational experience in either elementary or, or or high school secondary school, you know? Absolutely. I had a wonderful music teacher and, and I, I already was connected to that world prior to moving into high school. But, but he was a very, very powerful individual in so many of the lives of the folks the students that I was around and connected to. So what do we know about who are those teachers, who are those people? And we know that those are, we always know those are not necessarily the teachers that have the most profound pedagogy, and that can prepare, you know, the best set of notes. And that the, the ones you remember are the ones you connect with and the ones that build relationships and the ones that care and the ones that motivate you and challenge you.


Tara Connor (18:51):
And and, and know you beyond the student, that’s sitting in, you know, row two for fourth chair down. And so I would say that would be the same in my own educational experience as well. We did lots of trips and travel and rehearsals, and it was all the outside of class as much as inside of class of of just, you know, feeling connected and part of something that was big and rich and meaningful and powerful. That was a, that was a great connection in high school. And then in regards to mentors, that’s a great question I grew, I don’t wanna let on that I’m a million years old, but I can tell you in my context, where I grew up, it was kind of a low, lower middle class neighborhood that I grew up in my parents were super young when they had me, I think when mom was about 17 and my dad was 18 or 19, I, I didn’t grow up with role models of women who were either in professional lives or careers, or certainly having families and also balancing what that looked like.


Tara Connor (19:55):
And and I also juxta, you know, again, I would say the other piece of that is I also didn’t have anybody or many people that I knew that had gone through university and had kind of, again, a career path that, that connected to higher education. And so I, I, you know, navigating through that, I, I didn’t have lots of reference points or frameworks around that. So when I moved into my professional life, I was surrounded by other people that certainly became mentors and supports to me. And one thing that I’ll just say of, of maybe some interest is that as a woman, I didn’t have anybody that I knew, as I said, that the mantra that we used, I remember saying it in high school, well, I’ll have a career, but I, you know, I definitely won’t start my career until I, all my kids are in school and everybody’s, you know, where they need to be.


Tara Connor (20:46):
And, and I have a four kids, so that would’ve been about probably 15 years if I had followed that mantra. And so I, I was, for me, there was lots of women that were leaders that I spent lots of time talking to. And, and it was understanding the challenges, the path with areas, the just hearing their stories and, and to be quite Frank. Sam, I actually pursued a doctorate in looking at the knowledge, skills and attributes of female leaders. And I know that’s quite a dichotomous way to think of gender. It was the way that 20 years ago, that was what we had the language of very insular language we were talking through, but the experience of female leaders in moving into senior physicians of educational administration. And part of my research was a narrative point, obviously there’s research involved.


Tara Connor (21:36):
So one of my data tools was being able to in kind of my mid to late twenties, meander around all over the province to talk to all of these wonderful, creative, engaged professional women in the field of education to talk about their own career pathways and their own challenges and experiences in the workplace barriers what, what would drive them, what would inhibit them? You know, all of those things that I was so deeply curious about and that I was defining and refining within my own mind and framework of how I was hopeful to live my life and have my career and, and life unfold. And, and so I would say many of those individuals have been measures and many of those individuals, individuals have continued to be mentors for me even, even, even to present day for sure.


Sam Demma (22:25):
Hmm. That’s just, that’s awesome that you still stay in touch with them and your research sounds like it was a really enlightening experience, roughly how many female leaders did you talk to, or if you remember, like how many did you interview or get to chat with throughout that project?


Tara Connor (22:41):
Yeah. So I, again, when you, when you get into kind of doctor level research, you tend to do, there’s a triangular you know, methodology right. Triangulation, and that you have a number of data collection tools, and then you kind of just suppose to see if there’s some commonalities or somatic pieces that come through that research. Hmm. So the individuals, I, I think it was under 10, I would say it was probably eight to 10 individuals. But it was, it was deep in terms of that narrative process. So it was really and, you know, with your experience in interviewing and, and working with individuals, it was quite a structured process because it would be in, in the nature of that level of research. But it was really, you know, all the pieces, many of the things that you’re saying in that, you know, how did you do this?


Tara Connor (23:28):
And, and why did you do this and what drove you to do it? And what were the things that you have found challenging? And what are the things that you in, in, in making your decisions and pathways and, and working through kind of your next steps, you know, what, what were the things that were most frustrating? And, and, you know, I would hear lots of failures before success that’s really relevant and how people would navigate talking about their family life. I would have women that would say, I never mention the fact that I have kids, or if I ever had to stay home, it would never be because of a child because of their fear of judgment around what they bring to the role and, and what they can or can’t do within the, the job itself. So not an overly large group, that’s not a typical again, depending on the type of research that you’re doing a much broader had a much broader kind of range of data sets more expansive in terms of number of individuals in the, in some of the other ways that I was navigating that research, but for me, it was amazing and it was really compelling.


Tara Connor (24:28):
And it challenged me in lots of ways, personally and professionally in the way I thought about I just thought about understanding, understanding systems and, and leadership, and, and also that marriage of personal and private personal life and public life and professional life, all of those, all of those different pieces, for sure.


Sam Demma (24:50):
Today, education might look a little bit different than the, you know, the first year you got into it. Mm-Hmm, especially with the global pandemic, but hopefully coming to a close now that has brought a dozen different challenges into education. But I think with challenges also come some opportunities. And I’m curious, absolutely. To know what you think some of these new opportunities are that are arising because of the challenges and why you think we should be excited about some of them.


Tara Connor (25:20):
Yeah, no, thank you for that. Well, one thing I’ll start off with is I think that our, when I look at my the, the students who surround me, they are amazing, wonderful, brilliant individuals. And they have, when I think of what our youth have had to navigate at such a pivotal point of their own development and stage, and, and still the optimism, the creativity, the resilience what they bring each and every day to not only their, their daily life, but to their, their future. I think that’s very hopeful and optimistic and, and that we should all feel really excited for the future. When we look at whose hands the future will be in, in the years ahead. The other piece, I would say there’s a few parts of this that actually think are quite interesting. I think we’ve had clearly a significant shift in terms of the use of technology in supporting student learning.


Tara Connor (26:19):
And so we have had a learning for some time. We’ve had lots of, you know, we’ve had, you know, virtual experiences or online experiences for students that we’ve had or in, in the last probably certainly 15 years or so excuse me. But what I think it’s quite interesting is we had, we had a really polarized position prior to going into March, 2020, where we had educators adamantly articulating that we cannot have all students involved in e-learning that, that there are certain things we can’t do through an online platform that we can’t teach certain subjects that we can’t test with the same level of integrity certain aspects of learning by the nature of virtue of being online. And, and as a, as a necessity through this pandemic, we have had to develop the capability and the ability to be able to develop rich, robust learning experiences and opportunities for all students across all grades across all subject areas.


Tara Connor (27:26):
And we’ve been able to successfully do that. I will, for sure say that virtual learning or online learning is not a great fit for all students. And there are students that this is not a platform that serves or supports them well because of the way that they learned and the way that they connect with their learning. But there are lots of students that do very well with it. And we have teachers now with the skills and ability that can’t say we can’t do it because we know we can. And so the question would be how we use it and how, in what ways we utilize it to be beneficial and supportive of students. And and certainly we’ve, we’ve got flexibility from my mind, again, particularly coming as a former principal alternative education, that ability to be innovative and flexible, and as many ways that we can think of to be able to wrap around and support students where they’re at and what their learning needs are in my mind, technology just creates a whole nother range of opportunities that we can tap into now that we have a, a restir of experience and knowledge to be able to do that work.


Tara Connor (28:30):
So I think I will just say, I think that’s a positive by necessity, it’s driven innovation and by innovation, we’ve been able to drive action that I think will have future positive implications for, and, and and I think flexibility and access for students. The other piece I would say is, you know, we get stuck on doing things the way they’ve always been done. And so and I think, you know, it’s very easy to fall into a state of inertia particularly when you’re dealing with kind of the busyness of the day to day life. And so we do teacher interviews a certain way, the way that we’ve always done them. And parent council meetings always start at seven o’clock on a Monday night, and they’re always up in the library and they always run for this, like the time in our agenda always kind of looks like this.


Tara Connor (29:09):
And, and so one of the things that I think, again, that the pandemic has this experience of, of schools being closed of people being not being able to do what they’ve always done has driven us to do things differently by sheer necessity. And so, again, to the two examples of parents, teacher interview or parent counsel, you know, parent teacher interview is fabulous for parents that are available and, and accessible to come into the school between seven and eight 30 on a Thursday night and meet some of their teachers of their students teachers as they go through it. But what we know is not all parents can do that. And lots of our parents commute, and many of our parents are out of country or in job locations or have work schedules that look very different from what our day to day life looks like in school.


Tara Connor (30:02):
So I, I think that we all should be challenged to say, who have we made, what processes we made better or more accessible or more has built connections that end product has allowed us to be able to do what we intended to do, which is essentially connect parents as partners with their teachers and their students to be able to support the learning of the students in our school. And so if the goal is accessibility and the goal is the opportunity and the connection, then when we think in very siloed, very traditional ways, we have to think about who we’re not capturing and we have the function ability to do better. So I think those are, those are some of the things that we should all be teasing out to say, you know, we don’t wanna go back to, to the way it’s always been. We wanna say, what can we do to always be better? And I think there’s some great opportunities to do that, for sure.


Sam Demma (30:57):
I love it. It sounds like you’ve reflected on this. those are some great ideas and the accessibility piece is a huge one. I, I know from speaking to educators as well, it’s something that people are realizing the differences in access have really come to light because of the entire two years being stuck at home and other reasons as well. So I’m, I’m hopeful that it will continue to change and evolve and adjust. And yeah, that, that you’re one of the people that are leading the change. So keep it up.


Tara Connor (31:32):
Well, we have to do that work that that’s work that has to be done. I think


Sam Demma (31:36):
When you think about, you know, Tara in her first year of teaching if you could bundle up all of your experiences right now, and advice and travel back in time and tap her on the shoulder and say, you know, here’s what I think would’ve been helpful to hear when you were just starting in this profession, in this vocation. Not that you would change anything about your journey or path, but what advice would you have given your younger self or another educator? Who’s just getting into this vocation now.


Tara Connor (32:05):
Yeah, that’s a great question. I have to think way back in the reservoir to go back to that first year as I think about where I was and where I am now you know, I, I think reflectively around you know, kind of advice that that I would think, or that I would offer to others, or I think about for myself is that I think, you know, we do this work because we wanna serve and support. All right. And we want to always do the best by our students, but always do the best by our school communities, whether we’re in the classroom or at, at, at a principal level or at the board level, at, I think at every level of education or provincial level as well. And we set the bar, if, if we’re doing the job well, we set the bar really high for ourselves mm.


Tara Connor (32:48):
In that we want to always do it. Right. And we want to feel like we always did the best and the right thing in the moment at that time. And I can tell you you know, the reality is the jobs that we do are complex. They’re challenging. You’re often in, I would say certainly as administrator, you’re often in the grades, it’s very often very, very rarely that you have, this is the right decision, and this is absolutely the wrong decision. So you’re always trying to navigate with real kind of reflection and clarity that this, this is the right decision to make. This is the right action to make. This is the right way forward. And and I think through that, again, one of the things that we are should be great at is reflecting to say, how could we get better?


Tara Connor (33:35):
So what I would say in terms of advice is that don’t be so hard on yourself. Always do the best. You can always take the time to reflect how to get better. And so there’ll be times that things go, especially if you’re innovative and especially if you’re trying to do things differently, there’ll be things that go great. Cause that’s the nature of innovation and things that don’t go so great and celebrate great reflect on how you could be better action, being able to be better and get better, but then let it go, right? Don’t, don’t hang onto the things of what if I had only done and what if I, and with an, and there was another way I could have handled that there may have been, but be gentle it with yourself. And, and and know that that’s the part, part of part of doing this work is sometimes is always getting better.


Tara Connor (34:25):
And so that has to be comfortable with knowing that you, you can always build from, and you can always get better from where where you’ve been and that so I think we get stuck in ruminating around why did, why did this happen a certain way? Why maybe I should have done something else. And, and again, I don’t think that honestly, I don’t think that’s a particular value or helps you be your best self. I think reflection is important. I think having a, a strategy to be able to deepen as you continue your work moving forward, but at times you have to say, I did the best that I could in the moment with what I had and what I knew at the time. And and I’m gonna keep using those things to get better and be better at what I do and how I service support others.


Sam Demma (35:06):
Mm. I love it. Such great advice. If someone is listening to this and wants to reach out to you, ask a question or chat about something you share on the podcast, what would be the best way for someone listening to get in touch with you?


Tara Connor (35:23):
Yes. No problem at all. So I, I hope to be part of the Helton board for lots of years. So I do have an email through the board that anybody could email me at if they have an interest. The last name is connort@hdsb.ca and I’m always happy to connect and always happy to learn and and be connected to communities with people that would like to talk and like to learn and grow together.


Sam Demma (35:48):
Awesome. Tara, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. Really appreciate your time and insights. Keep up the great work leading the change, and we’ll talk soon.


Tara Connor (35:58):
Wonderful. Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.


Sam Demma (36:00):
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 Tara Conner

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.

Reg Lavergne – Superintendent of Instruction, Innovation and Adolescent Learning and Student Success at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board

Reg Lavergne - Superintendent of Instruction, Innovation and Adolescent Learning and Student Success at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board
About Reg Lavergne

Reg Lavergne (@RegLavergne) is the Superintendent of Instruction for Southeast schools and for the Ottawa-Carleton Virtual Secondary School (OCVSS). Reg supports innovative and alternative approaches to Student Success and Adolescent Learning within this role.

For 23 years, Reg has served students in Kindergarten to Grade 12 in rural, urban, large, small, adaptive, and community schools as a teacher, department head, Vice-Principal and Principal. He has also served as the System Principal of Student Success and Innovation and Adolescent Learning.

Currently, Reg is working on an Educational Doctorate degree focused on increasing student voice and identity in student learning experiences. He is also designing and implementing the Authentic Student Learning Experience framework to embed student voice and is working with SSTs to build a model for Student Success for students in grades 7 and 8, and grades 9-12.

At the OCDSB, Reg has greatly enjoyed working with teachers to build and implement learning models and approaches that help students see their own genius.

Connect with Reg: Email | Instagram | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Ottawa-Carleton Virtual Secondary School (OCVSS)

OCDSB

Hero on a Mission by Donald Miller

Russ Interview by Jay Shetty

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:01):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast.


Sam Demma (01:00):
This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is Reg Lavergne. Reg Lavergne is the Superintendent of Instruction for Southeast schools and for the Ottawa-Carleton Virtual Secondary School (OCVSS). Reg supports innovative and alternative approaches to Student Success and Adolescent Learning within this role. For 23 years, Reg has served students in Kindergarten to Grade 12 in rural, urban, large, small, adaptive, and community schools as a teacher, department head, Vice-Principal and Principal. He has also served as the System Principal of Student Success and Innovation and Adolescent Learning. Currently, Reg is working on an Educational Doctorate degree focused on increasing student voice and identity in student learning experiences. He is also designing and implementing the Authentic Student Learning Experience framework to embed student voice and is working with SSTs to build a model for Student Success for students in grades 7 and 8, and grades 9-12. At the OCDSB, Reg has greatly enjoyed working with teachers to build and implement learning models and approaches that help students see their own genius. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Reg, and I will see you on the other side. Reg, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show this morning. Please start by introducing yourself.


Reg Lavergne (02:21):
It’s fantastic to be here and I really appreciate you reaching out to me. So my name is Reg Lavergne. I’m a superintendent of instruction with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board which is a public school board in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. I support a number of schools, but I also support the innovation and adolescent learning department and the student success programming across our district.


Sam Demma (02:44):
At what point in your own career journey did you determine that education was the field you wanted to pursue and work in?


Reg Lavergne (02:53):
Okay, so this might sound sad. I always wanted to be a teacher. My mother tell you if she was here right now, that when I was a very small boy and people said, what do you wanna do when you grow up? I said, I was gonna be a teacher. And I always did say that that I was gonna be a teacher. I, so that, that truly has been, was always, and still is my main goal. I like working in education. I like working with, with kids. I like helping and working with adults who are working with kids. And I have always naturally gravitated towards kids for whom the system didn’t necessarily work as well as we might like it to. So I’ve always gravitated towards, it’s not working. Why is that? What can we do differently?


Sam Demma (03:42):
That’s awesome. Tell me about the journey from five year old reg that always told his parents and everyone in his life that he wanted to be a teacher to reg today. Like what were the different positions and roles you worked in? Where did you start and what brought you to where you are today?


Reg Lavergne (04:01):
So I, I, I, I think I’d have to say that my, my journey hasn’t been exactly linear. Although I I’ve always been connected to education, so I was in school and then I’ve worked in, in schools and, and in education, my entire career. I actually when I was in school I was very fortunate. School worked for me. I really enjoyed school. I got a lot out of it. I actually went to university and I, my first degree was in music. So I was a music teacher first and I loved that. I got to work with kids in a very different environment to help them celebrate strengths that they didn’t know they had in a way that many people weren’t looking for and, and to help them see how they can contribute in ways that to be perfectly Frank society doesn’t always put on the forefront.


Reg Lavergne (05:00):
So when I was watching kids, we would often work with I, I was a high school teacher for the most part. I actually started working in a private elementary school. And then I got hired with public board, the secondary level, and I was working as a music teacher and we would go to the local elementary schools and I would watch kids who didn’t always have the easiest paths and had lots of different things. They were working through flourish when they were working with younger children and helping them, helping them grow and helping them overcome challenges that they were working with. And I really, really loved that. And from there I became a vice principal. I, I I worked actually, I should take a step back when I was in taking my my degree, my education degree. I sought where, where I, where I could sort of put my voice in what type of placement I, I was asking for.


Reg Lavergne (05:57):
I worked with children who were suspended or expelled from their schools or districts and, and helped their, their learning. I also volunteered in a program that was designed for kids who’d been suspended so that they didn’t stay at home all day. They came, we helped them with their schooling, but we also helped them with why they were suspended and how can we not get there again? I became a music teacher after that. When I became a vice principal, my first school was working with the student was in an adaptive school. So was working for students who had lots of different types of challenges social as well as cognitive, as well as physical and I, and I worked with with them. And then when I became a principal, I worked in an inner city and a rural school.


Reg Lavergne (06:43):
But I brought a, a very strong student success link to that, to those discussions, to those schools, those situations when a student was struggling, stopping and saying, why are they struggling? What can we do differently for them asking them to do the same thing multiple times when they’ve struggled on it on the first time, probably isn’t going to make them feel better about themselves. They may learn the skill, but they’re not going to feel better about themselves as they go through that. So how do we also take into account their thinking their their feelings about themselves? Do they think that they’re a capable learner? Do they think they’re smart? How can we make sure they do see that way? And how can we make sure that they do see that there are lots of options available to them and how can we help them get there?


Sam Demma (07:25):
Mm. I love that. And they’ve gone continue,


Reg Lavergne (07:31):
Sorry. No, I, I may have gone a little off topic there, but, but that was where sort of my thinking went. And actually one part I, I actually then started I moved out of working in a school and I was working centrally. I was assistant principal for four years of student success and adolescent learning. And I supported, I think it was 96 schools in our district on school student success programming and, and looking at, at options and opportunities for students outside of the, the, the norm outside of the traditional box that we might work in.


Sam Demma (08:04):
You mentioned that you had the opportunity to see students flourish in a different environment to uncover strengths, that they didn’t even know that sometimes they had. Can you share an example of what you mean by uncovering strengths? They didn’t even know they had, because I think that’s a beautiful thing to help a young person or a student realize,


Reg Lavergne (08:26):
Mm-Hmm, , there are so many I have a couple from my past, that’ll be more general. And then I can speak to one specifically that I’m thinking about from last year. Mm. So Stu students who that I was working with, who may not have had clarity on their strengths. I spoke very vaguely to say that they may not have thought they were very good at very much. And I remember, again, I was in a high school going to local elementary schools and intentionally partnering students up with, with younger children who needed help in different things. If it was music, they may have needed help playing their instrument or setting their instrument up or trying a new instrument or working through something that they were working on, but they were struggling and giving. I, I I’m, I’m seeing several in my mind right now, and I’m years giving, providing the opportunity for them to step up, to be a leader, to show their strengths to help someone else.


Reg Lavergne (09:36):
And I think that brought in the idea of contribution, right? As soon as you can bring in the idea where a person feels like they’re contributing in some way, they feel valued, they feel valuable, they feel important. They know that they have strengths that they can bring. And I would watch these teenagers working with these younger students and suddenly see them light up as the younger student achieved, what they were working on. And I could see that the, the older student realized, wait a second. I helped them do that. Right. I was able to, to share with them some of what I know, some of the skills I have, I was able to motivate them and make them feel that they can do this. They knew it was possible. And suddenly they did that. And I would watch the kids light up. And to me, I don’t think I have the words to describe how I felt on the inside, nor how the kids felt as they were going through that.


Reg Lavergne (10:32):
Because then all of a sudden, as we’re heading back to, to the main high school, I’m watching the excitement in this young person’s eyes, I’m hearing them talk about what they did and, and how they helped the other student. I’m hearing them talk about the other student’s achievement. Like it really wasn’t all about one person. It was about the different pieces. And I remember watching kids suddenly be willing to try more and to do more back in the classroom after that, because they sudden they saw that they had a strength that they, they could contribute. They could help someone else. And we’ve seen that in a program that we actually started last year in our district, it’s, it’s a, a ministry supported provincial program. So we did not design the entire program. We did design what it looks like for our district.


Reg Lavergne (11:25):
And we started a program with one teacher. And she started reaching out to students who had dropped out of high school without graduating and talked to them about a different approach and a different type of program. And it it’s called a SW program. So that school within a college, like I said, it’s a, it’s a provincial program in Ontario. It is situated to support students who are at risk of not graduating high school and connect them to pathway options. We took a, a slightly different approach to it. In terms of, of, again, reaching out to kids who were at risk of not graduating and finding out what are you doing right now? How can we connect that to your formal learning? So basically we were, we, we did. And when I say we, I mean, the lead teacher who is the most brilliant educator you have ever met she connected with kids who, who were not at school and started talking with them just to find out more about them.


Reg Lavergne (12:21):
What are your interests? What do you like to do? What do you do outside of school? You know, when you do that, that’s actually this part of the English curriculum. And it’s this part of that math curriculum. And at this part of the history curriculum, and she was able to, to show the students who, the structure that we developed together, that they were smart. They had talent, they had strengths. It may not manifest itself in a way that we would normally capture it in a school, but they were demonstrating learning in, in in, within their life. And she was, she was able to engage with them to, they came back to work with us. Now, this was in remote last year. So they actually did not return to a traditional school, but they did engage in some traditional school structures and different things.


Reg Lavergne (13:10):
They were engaged in outside the school. The teacher captured because they captured this demonstration of their learning. They had learned, they had developed a ton of skills, maybe not sitting in the classroom at 9:00 AM on Monday, but maybe at different times. And they were able to demonstrate that learning. And she worked with, with students capturing evidence of their learning. So she did not create lessons for them every day, the students from their interests and then where they wanted to go. So meeting their pathway goals developed learning experiences. And as they were doing that and demonstrating different learnings, the teacher was, was connecting that to different curricular expectations. And the students were accelerating the, the credits that they were earning. And at the end of June last year, 22 students graduated from high school. And I believe 18 of them are in college right now. These students had dropped outta previous.


Sam Demma (14:05):
Wow. That’s such a cool story.


Reg Lavergne (14:08):
Oh, get goosebumps. When I think of that story all the time, that teacher and that program approach changed those kids,


Sam Demma (14:20):
It’s a case study of how to deal with students of whom school is not working. Right. Like you mentioned earlier, sometimes school doesn’t work for everybody. Well, I think the question that came in my mind was like, how do we help those students who school is not working for? And it sounds like this program like fills that void. Is it continuing this year in person? Or like, tell, like, tell me a little bit more about it.


Reg Lavergne (14:45):
Yeah. We expanded it three teachers this year. And the program is full again. They’ve reached out to different groups of students and they’ve intentionally reached out to students that might not reach out to us to make sure that they are aware of those pieces and that, that, that there is an opportunity. And sometimes they situated from why not give a shot, try it out. If it doesn’t work, you don’t have to stay, right. We’re not, we’re not holding you here, but if it does work, this could be changing for you. And, and something, you said it, it made me, it made me think of something else that the, the teacher engaged with as well. In that program, we’re not saying that traditional learning structures are not engaged, right. They’re not out the door, they’re still there. Yeah. But they’re engaged differently as the student needs it.


Reg Lavergne (15:34):
And I remember talking with the teacher again, brilliant educator. And she was telling me this story about a student who had struggled in school for many, many years, obviously had dropped out of high school, was back into this program. And they needed a very solid, theoretical understanding of mathematics for the program they wanted to go into at the college the next year. And so the teacher engaged in some more traditional learning so that they could understand the theoretical underpinnings of the mathematical concept they needed to go in. The difference was the student knew why they needed it.


Sam Demma (16:11):
Mm.


Reg Lavergne (16:12):
And it was connected to their goal. It was connected to their pathway. It was connected to their passion. So they were, they were there, they were into it. They were working on it. I don’t believe six months earlier, the student would’ve engaged to the same degree, but because of the approach that that program provided and that educator provided for the student, they saw meaning and purpose for their learning as they had never seen it before. So that theoretical piece that possibly, and I, I, I can’t guarantee these pieces, but possibly before they may have thought, I don’t want that. I don’t care about that. Like, I’m not doing that. They knew it was important. It was important to them. It was part of their pathway goal. So they were totally engaged and worked very diligently with the teacher to learn in that way. So it is a balance of sort of a authentic in school and outta school experiences with some very traditional, theoretical learning opportunities as well.


Sam Demma (17:07):
There’s a really phenomenal new book called hero on a mission by an author named Donald Miller. And in the book, he talks about the importance of setting goals in the context of stories. Like he believes that the reason why most people don’t bring their goals to life is because the goal isn’t actually baked into a story about how their life could change or what it is they’re working on. And when you mentioned that student who didn’t understand why they needed this, all of a sudden realizing that it’s a key component of bringing their future goal to realization it just, it like compels you to, to do it and take action because no longer is it just a math class, it’s a stepping stone in your goal or your future, you know, story. Which I think is a really cool realization. And that’s what came to mind when you were explaining that, what do you do you, what’s the teacher’s name that runs this program? Does she also does she also teach like a grade or is she solely dedicated to running and organizing this, this program?


Reg Lavergne (18:10):
So she teaches she taught all the students last year. She teaches a third of the students this year, but she’s, she works with the other two teachers and they they’re very collaborative in their approach. Cool. In terms of bouncing off each other’s strengths so that the students can maximize they’re learning off of the, the strengths from the three teachers that are, that are involved. We have a fourth teacher that helps liaise with the college, the local college we have as well. Nice. because part of that program is the students. I call it tow dipping, but they, they engage in some college courses as well. And while they’re engaging in the college courses, they’re earning a college credit and a high school credit at the same time. Nice. to try to explore different options, they may not have considered the lead teacher in the program.


Reg Lavergne (18:57):
She is extremely humble and will not be happy that I have said her name. But her name is Donna. And and she was an exceptional educator. And she you know, she was the one working directly with the students last year. Helping them see their genius, which is a saying that I captured from another one of our, our educators to see their genius and to see the possibilities before them. And you know, she has, has dramatically changed and the colleagues she works with have dramatically changed the lives of children.


Sam Demma (19:31):
I’m getting goosebumps. It’s such a good feel. Good story. And it’s so cool to hear that the program is growing. I’m sure other boards might be reaching out to you after listening to this podcast, to ask some questions and connect with Donna too. about this, because I know it’s not an isolated problem or challenge. There are so many challenges in education, especially with the pandemic, but with challenges, come opportunities being on the cutting edge of innovation and student success, what do you foresee? Some of the opportunities being in education, things that are unfolding and the school board is working on that you think are really great opportunities for the future.


Reg Lavergne (20:11):
I will never say that COVID has been a great thing. It’s been a horrifying thing. It has caused so much harm. I will say that it created the opportunity to look at things outside the box. Mm that’s my very gentle way of saying sometimes we have to knock the lid off and push the wall over. Mm. And look outside the box. Traditional approaches to learning work for some and need to be available for some, they don’t work for everybody and we need to be more attentive to, and more responsive to and proactive to different ways of learning that engage people in different in, in different ways. I, I am very focused on who is the student? What are they doing? What do they want to do? What are their strengths? How is the learning environment set up to help them see meaning and purpose in their learning?


Reg Lavergne (21:18):
When we first went into shut down because of C learning, didn’t go into shut. Buildings did congregating together, did, but learning didn’t stop. And I was so privileged at the time. I was the principal of student success and innovation and adolescent learning at the time. And at first I remember thinking, what are we going to do? The way we’ve done everything. Our entire system can’t function right now, the way we’ve done it, what are we going to do? And I have to tell you how blown away I was with students, families, and educators, as everybody morphed into doing things in a very, very different way. I had the privilege of working with all of the student success teachers in our district. Every school that has grade seven and eight or grade nine to 12, has a student success teacher assigned a, a specific position for it.


Reg Lavergne (22:15):
And I was so privileged to get to work with all of them, incredible educators, incredible credible people. And we started doing a lot of brainstorming because those are the teachers that also support the students that are at greatest risk of leaving us, having not completed their courses and completed their diploma. And so we spent a lot of time talking back and forth. Well, what does this look like when you’re talking about students who don’t necessarily want to engage in learning every day, because they haven’t had success in it, or they haven’t felt good in it. Then when they’re sitting at home, it’s even more at risk that they’re not going to engage. So what are we going to do? And we built an approach, a philosophy, excuse me, and a framework to really take a look at all right, what are you doing right now at home?


Reg Lavergne (23:08):
You are learning. You are learning in very different ways, but you are learning. It just doesn’t look like it did the previous week when we were in a school building. So what are you doing? Talk to me about that. We had one student I’ve, I, I don’t think I’ll ever forget this. A teacher shared I’ll speak generally because yeah, I don’t, I have share name, but had contacted a student who had had a variety of different experiences in schools and not all of them. Good. And, and they were now at home as, as everybody was. And the, the teacher, the, the student success teacher asked the student what they were doing and the student was tearing apart a trailer and rebuilding it with his dad at home was just something they wanted to do at home by talking with the student and finding a little bit more about what they were doing.


Reg Lavergne (23:57):
And, and he engaged in regular conversations with the students. So to, to hear what they were learning, talked to me a little bit, suddenly we realized the student was actually doing two tech education courses with his dad at home by tearing it apart. And the teacher was able to capture evidence of learning through the conversation and the student would take pictures of what he was doing and share it with the, with the teacher to say, this is what we saw today. So we had to do this for X reason. That is not my area of strength. So I can’t give you the exact specifics on what they were say. But what I do know was that the student was engaged in activity. They really loved, they were working with their dad and they were able to explain why they were making the steps they were making.


Reg Lavergne (24:41):
And the teacher actually asked the student at point would write down the steps of what you were, why you were doing it. The student was like, sure, why? Well, there’s a grade 12 technical English course that would meet the criteria of, so by building a manual on how to tear apart and rebuild a trailer, the student was also working on a technical English course. This wasn’t a student who necessarily loved writing or loved literature, right? At that point in his life, he may at one point, but at that point he didn’t necessarily enjoy that, that approach, but he was totally on board with writing down what he was doing and why he was doing, we were capturing his thinking. It was important to him. It mattered to him. He was creating a technical manual. That for him was really, really important. And that connected some credits. So during the, the initial closures, and that’s what sort of inspired and led to the development of our approach with our program as well it was very much looking at well, what are they interested in? What are they good at? What do they wanna be working? That’s where we start. And that’s how they get that spark to continue pushing themselves even further.


Sam Demma (25:57):
It sounds like flexibility is such an important part of this process. Like the, the student being flexible, but also the, the teacher and maybe in the past flexibility has not been the most utilized idea when it comes to projects or completing assignments or the way that you complete the assignment. How did, like, how do you build a culture of flexibility where, where, like an educator is proactively looking for those ways to connect real world experience to specific students learning or is this like situation you’re explaining more used for the students who school is not working for?


Reg Lavergne (26:42):
That’s a great question. I think the flexibility piece is, is key. Yeah. How do we build the environment for it?


Sam Demma (26:51):
I’m putting you on the spot. not that you have to have the perfect answer.


Reg Lavergne (26:57):
No, it’s a great question. I think, I think it’s a, it’s a brilliant question. I I’m going share some of my initial thinking. And then this is the question I’m gonna walk away from thinking even more on, I’ll be honest with you. I think, I think part of it comes down to what’s the goal and who decides the goal and who’s decided how that goal is achieved. And we have we have a society, our, our, our society, and some may argue that it has to be this way for a society. As, as, as large as our planet is to function together that there are certain goals and there are certain ways that we’ve decided over a series of years or decades that work mm. I have to talk about that, that work to achieve those goals. And I think what we’re seeing, and I think COVID has helped illuminate this it’s, it’s put a spotlight on it.


Reg Lavergne (27:55):
That practices that work, we have to stop saying that we have to start saying they work for some and other practices work for others, and we needed to be more open to a diversity of practices that are going through. I think that certainly the approach we took in the district, I was working with student success teachers who I was very fortunate. We’re very engaged, very flexible, wanted to try different things to support student achievement in different ways and move that forward. What we’re seeing is that that thinking philosophy and the use of this framework is, is expanding in the district. As people are seeing that it’s working. Because I think something that just jumped into my head after what you said was the idea of permission.


Reg Lavergne (28:41):
Do we give educators permission to go outside the box to try things that are safe, appropriate, but that engage students in ways that engage them. So rather than it being an approach that I’m confident in, because I’ve seen it work a number of times, if I see it not working for a student, do I feel that I have the permission to try something different with them, especially depending on where they’re going with it. We all, depending on geographically where you lived, the people who were in the same area with you took the exact same courses through high school, had the exact same learning, delivering models in place. I’m guessing they didn’t all do exact, the exact same thing. So they took those learnings that they had and have tweaked them to has, and it tweaks them, adjusts them and applies them to where they went with it, what they wanted to do with their learning, what they wanted to do with their life.


Reg Lavergne (29:43):
So I think a part of it is giving that permission to, to, to dip into different ways of doing things, to saying for this student, that approach is appropriate and it supports where they want to go. It supports what they wanna do. So we don’t have to follow necessarily in, in sort of a, a, a very structured manner, traditional approaches, traditional approaches work in many cases. And so this isn’t a case of throw all of that out and try this instead, this is a case of, for this person who they are, their identity, their experiences, their goals, what about this? And I would even put on the table, imagine if we started saying to the student, well, what are you interested in? Well, what would you like to work on right now within the parameters of, of the, the the, the courses that we’re working on to say, how would you like to engage in that learning?


Reg Lavergne (30:42):
There are lots of different ways of engaging in learning that is embedded within English curriculum or science curriculum or math curriculum. I think we can give permission. And I’m, I’m in a, I, I’m very fortunate. I’m in a position where I can work with a number of schools and principals and vice principals and teachers, and, and I can establish the environment that provides for that position. I don’t mean for that to sound power trippy in any way. But when I, when I say it, I’m having a conversation with someone and, and I say, why not? That gives that permission to say, it’s, it’s okay to go outside of what you may have normally done, because you’re engaging with that student in a way that is going to be more effective for them and is ultimately going to enhance their wellbeing and their achievement. And I remember that when I was a teacher asking, you know, talking with my principal and when my principal said, why wouldn’t you try that? If you think that’s gonna work, knowing that my principal was supporting my thinking was very powerful for me. So that’s something that I try to do. And I’ve always tried to do in my roles as I’ve gone through. My career is, is to make sure that we’re engaging in those conversations and that we’re providing that permission because the permission is needed for us to change the way it was to the way it could be.


Sam Demma (32:06):
There is an American hip hop artist named Russ, and he was being interviewed by this guy named Jay Sheti one time. And Jay Sheti said, what is the best advice you’ve ever received? And he said, it was a question, what if it could turn out better than you ever expected? And when you approach situations with that mentality, what, like, what if it could turn out better than you ever expected or ever imagined, instead of what, if this goes wrong and terrible, you build some courage to try new things, to take new things on. And I think the, why not question becomes even more powerful. When you look at it from that perspective and back to your toe dipping analogy, you know, if you do try it and you dip your toe and the water’s really warm, and it’s working out, you dive in and, and, you know, you scale the program, get three teachers involved. And then, you know, five years from now, maybe the program is going throughout the whole board, and there’s like dozens of teachers organizing it and running it all because of a test, a pilot project which is really cool and exciting. This has been a really awesome conversation. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. If someone is listening to this Reg, wants to reach out, ask you a question, talk about this program or your experiences in education, what would be the best way for them to get in contact with you?


Reg Lavergne (33:27):
The easiest way would be to go to my board’s website ’cause you can find my email. I’ll spell my email over in a second, but you can find it there. My board’s website is ocdsb.ca and then you can do a search on me and you will find I’ll pop up. My my email is reg.lavergne@ocdsb.ca, and I’m more than happy for people to reach out and have conversations because as we look to what could be and what the possibilities are, that’s what I find is really, really exciting and and can truly change kids’, change kids’ lives.


Sam Demma (34:07):
Awesome. I agree. Thank you so much, Reg, for taking the time to come on the show. I really appreciate it. Keep up the amazing work and we’ll talk soon.


Reg Lavergne (34:15):
Thank you. Take care.


Sam Demma (34:18):
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.

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