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

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

Written directly from Jeannie (@JeannieArmstr20):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two quotes that resonate with me are:

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

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

Connect with Jeannie: Email | Instagram | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

University of Ottawa – Psychology Programs

University of Ottawa – Faculty of Education

Renfrew County Catholic District School Board

Ottawa Catholic District School Board

Peterborough, Victoria, Northumberland and Clarington Catholic School Board

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

The Transcript

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Jeannie Armstrong (14:06):
Yes.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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