About Larry Tomiyama
After spending over 30 years of his life as an administrator in the Calgary School system in Canada, Larry (@TomiyamaLarry) was gifted the opportunity to work with some of the most vulnerable and behavioural students in his school system. Through that experience, Larry learned so much about trust, trauma-informed teaching, and how to build really deep relationships with kids.
He believes that his opportunity to work in this environment was a gift from God because it truly changed the way Larry understood education, leadership and life. He was so motivated to share his discoveries, he left the school district so he could speak with other educators and leaders about what he had learned.
**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):
Larry welcome to the high performing educator podcast. Please introduce yourself and share a little bit about the work you do in education.
Larry Tomiyama (00:11):
Thanks. It’s a pleasure and privilege to be here, Sal. It was great to meet you the other month and I’m happy to be here today. So I’m a,, I guess a lifelong educator, if you count of when I was in school it would be 55 years almost that I’ve been in school as either a student a teacher, a university professor. And I guess even the speaking that I do right now and the everything that I get to do right now is due to the path that God provided the opportunities that he provided for me. And it all kind of culminated in the last two years of my K to 12 teaching career with the Calgary Catholic school district. And in those last two years, I got to work with, be the principal of a school that educated the most behavioral, the most vulnerable, the most volatile students in the city of Calgary.
Larry Tomiyama (01:19):
But those students and the staff that I got to work with taught me changed and transformed the way I think about education, about life and about leadership. And I believe it’s been my calling for the last five or six years to go share this information with anybody who wants to listen because it’s it, to me, it was, it just put everything into perspective. It made sense to everything, to that part of things. So I don’t know if you want to hear anything a little bit about my, how I grew up and things like that, but really everything is kind of culminated. And the purpose of, I think why I’m on earth is occurred in, in that little space of time. I’m in, in the last five years,
Sam Demma (02:06):
What a beautiful realization to have and to still be able to share and have the time to share these things, which is phenomenal. I think you’re doing an amazing job. Please take us back to when you were growing up, tell us a little bit about your upbringing and also what got you into education in the first place, or should I say made you never leave?
Larry Tomiyama (02:30):
Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely. So, my, parents were both, Japanese. My mom was born in Japan. My dad was born in, Canada and, so I grew up in a small Alberta town of Taber, Alberta. 5,000 people there. It was a fantastic place to grow up. Small town, you went to school there. My dad owned a service station in a town, just, just east of the city. my mom worked in a canning factory, canning vegetables when she wasn’t, at home chasing us around, I have two brothers and a sister and, get to hang out with them in Calgary. So that’s, it’s great. both my parents have passed at this at right now, but, certainly the work ethic and the example that they provided will live on. And I hope, and I know that, they’re in heaven right now and I’m happy with most of the stuff that I do.
Larry Tomiyama (03:34):
But I’m sure wanna criticize me as well, too. So I’m, I’m okay with that. I’m okay with that. I went played a lot of baseball and basketball as I grew up and sports is a big part of my life and was able to pass that on to our kids, my own kids as I grew up. So went to the university of Calgary, started my teaching career in Calgary and never left and had a really, really fulfilling career as a teacher, as a principal worked at the, our central office for a little while and then kind of only moved into the post-secondary world. But that’s been part of it, but really the again, things really culminated in basically 2015 to 2017. And in those two years that I got to work with those students. My wife was gonna kill me, as I said, right after that, then I know I have to go share this information and I decided to leave the district. And that was not part of our retirement plan, but it had to be done. Luckily I’m still married. So,ushe was okay with it.
Sam Demma (04:57):
Hey, sometimes you have to ask for forgiveness and not permission, right.
Larry Tomiyama (05:02):
That was definitely one of those occasions sound I don’t re I don’t recommend it, but it worked out. Okay.
Sam Demma (05:09):
Bring us into the environment of the school that you had the opportunity to work in. I don’t think every educator understands the feeling, the experience. Tell us a little bit about, and also what you learned
Larry Tomiyama (05:23):
You bet. I think if it’s okay with you, Sam, I’ll tell you a little bit about it and then I’ll tell you a story. And it really it kind of, I think people get a better visual visualization of what’s there. Sure. So our lady alert school was created to educate those students because of their behavior, because of their brokenness, because of their issues that they were having. They couldn’t be successful in any other school. So they needed a place to go to do things maybe a little bit differently than other schools but to see if we could help them provide some type of therapy for them to get them to the point where they might be able to integrate themselves back into regular school. So most of the time these students been suspended or expelled from other schools and there’s really no else, nowhere else for them to go.
Larry Tomiyama (06:22):
So we got to educate them in our building. So we had 60 students. Half the building was for really cognitively delayed and students with severe, severe autism. And the other half was the students who, and I called them to screw you kids because they had no problem telling to, to screw off and many other things as well. But they were just students who had experienced no success in school. And as we found out lots of trauma that they experienced that caused them to not be able to function. And it was our opportunity that we got to help them function in a way that they can be a little bit more successful. So the story that kind of illustrates this really, really well is a story. I call this student little G I gave all my students nicknames and Ralph was really, really good then, and the kids really liked it.
Larry Tomiyama (07:31):
So they liked, they liked that name. So this guy was little G little G came to us in kindergarten. Story is that at the age of two little G had to be removed from his biological parents because his biological father was sexually abusing him. At age of four he was in the foster system and social services felt it was important for little G to be with a sibling to try and get a family connection. So little G was moved into a foster home with his 12 year old brother. He was four at the time that lasted about six months and he had to be removed from that house because his 12 year old brother was sexually abusing him. Enter us. We normally didn’t take students that young at five, we usually took them at grade three.
Larry Tomiyama (08:31):
We wanted them to go into a regular system and see if they could function. And then if there was a problem we would try and step in, but myself and our psychologist went to go see little G in his school that he was at. And we saw this cute, angry, sad, outta control, little boy. And I looked at her and she looked at me and we looked at each other and said, we gotta take him. So I entered little G into our school. I, he started in September. The hope was that we would hear at some point that little G was gonna be adopted. That was really the goal, social services working super, super hard to try and make that happen. And it was like November. And in November, we got the word that little G there was a family from out of town that was extremely interest in little G.
Larry Tomiyama (09:38):
It was like a party at our school. We started planning the party. His last day was gonna be December 22nd. I think it was the last year of school. And then he was gonna leave school with the family and go to their help. And in in conversations and therapy sessions little G had mentioned over and over and over again that he just wanted to call somebody, mom and dad again. And so we heard this news, we did everything. We invited the family in. We saw, we let little G be with his perspective parents. As many times as we could at school, things were looking really, really good. And I remember it so clearly it was December 21st, the last day before school was to let out. And I got a call from Steve, the social worker, and Steve said, Larry, I’ve got some bad news. I said, what’s that? The parents can’t take little G they’re not ready. They don’t want ’em. I don’t know what the reason was, but they can’t take ’em. So I’ll be there tomorrow morning, the last day of school tomorrow morning to let little G know that that’s what the situation was.
Larry Tomiyama (10:55):
Selfishly, selfishly, on my part, I it’s, Steve, this is. You’re gonna come to school at nine o’clock wreck this kid’s life again, and we’re gonna have to deal with them for the rest of the day. I’ve got no choice, Larry. We gotta do it. Fair enough. So December 22nd rolls around we’re in the conference room, I’m sitting across a little G little G’s teacher is sitting across from Steve. The social worker. We bring little G in our little G’s teacher is she’s crying already. And we’re just waiting. So the meeting starts and Steve communicates the little GE gee, I’m sorry that the, the adoption didn’t go through the, family’s not gonna take you and you’re not gonna be going home with them today. And I just put my head down and waited for the explosion and to everyone’s surprise, LGI jumps up onto the table that we are at jumps into my lap and says, that’s okay, Steve, Mr. T that’s me, Mr. T you’ll be my dad. Right.
Larry Tomiyama (12:23):
And I had nothing and I was praying to God, what the hell do I say? What do give some words, gimme some words. And what came outta my mouth was absolutely. I will always be your dad at school. G always, always, always. And he jumps outta my, laughing into this teacher’s lap who can’t even talk and says, and miss G you’ll be my mom too. Right. And I, and she couldn’t even breathe. So I took her head and I motioned it for a nodding action. So she would say, yes, I think that was a yes. G you’re doing okay.
Larry Tomiyama (13:03):
So the, the reason why I tell that story is because we got to work with these students who experienced trauma and everything else that no student should ever, ever have to experience, but we got the chance through the model that we used to get that kid to the point where he thought enough of us thought enough of me thought enough of his teacher, that he might be able to call him mom and dad. And we have that opportunity every day. And this is an extreme case for sure. But every day, as educators, as teachers that we have, when we get to step in front of our students, there’s lots of little G’s out there, lots. And in order for us to be able to tee each them, those kids need to feel safe and they need to feel that somebody cares about them.
Larry Tomiyama (14:04):
And I don’t care if you’re in grade, if you’re in kindergarten and grade 12, that, that model, that formula in order to make those kids safe and secure prior to teaching them and get them to trust you. It just spoke volumes to us as a staff. And we got to do this every day. Not that it was easy. In fact, it was brutal sometimes, but to be able to do that, it showed me why we got into the business at educating and teaching kids and how we can get them to learn to like themselves enough to be productive in the, in, in whatever that they do. So, like I said, I can go into the model a little bit more if you want, but certainly he’s a great example of teaching us what needs to be done with these, with some of these kids.
Sam Demma (15:08):
Wow. But before we jump into the model and talk about that a little bit, can you share in your perspective how you believe you’re able to build trust with students? Not only the challenging ones, but also the easy ones. You shared some experiences on our previous call that really highlighted how I believe, you know, sometimes building trust is a long process and can be very challenging, but once you have it, like you just explained with little G it becomes a beautiful thing. How do you think you build it?
Larry Tomiyama (15:46):
It doesn’t matter if the, I mean, if, if a student is traumatized or not, sometimes, I mean, and, and the model speaks to it really well at the bottom of the model before anything happens, it’s safety. So the student needs to feel safe and how we define safety. When we worked with these kids was that the student needs to be able to predict what’s gonna happen next. That’s what safety is because in their lives, in their homes, in their situations, you’re not safe. If you can’t predict, I don’t, they can’t predict how mom’s drunk boyfriend is gonna act. They can’t predict if they’re gonna have supper that day. They can’t predict if they get in trouble, what that’s gonna look like. So we are able at school will be able to create an environment where they can predict what’s gonna happen regardless of, of how they act, what they say or what they do.
Larry Tomiyama (16:41):
They’ll be able to predict how we’re gonna act towards them and that’s respect respectfully, lovingly whatever we need to do that doesn’t, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t consequences. Cause there consequ are critical, but students need to feel safe. The next step that we need after we got them to feel safe, we called it security and security is that they’re willing to do things, even though they might fail, they feel secure enough because of the adults in the room or their teacher or whomever that even though if they fail, it’s gonna be okay. And kids, especially kids who struggle in school, they don’t, they’d rather not try than fail. So we need to get ’em to that point where you know what it’s okay to. And I actually, I was listening to another podcast and people didn’t like that word failure. So they used the word falling instead of failure.
Larry Tomiyama (17:46):
And I kind of like that, cuz falling gives the connotation that that you followed, but you want to get up as well. Mm like that. I like that. Yeah. So, so first safety, security, and then trust and trust was vague. They knew how we were going to react in every situation, even though it was a consequence and, and there were, there were students that I suspended. But they knew that what was gonna happen, they were able to predict that part of things as well. The reaction of, of somebody when things didn’t go right. And once that was there ex that’s when the magic happened, but that sometimes that took years, but even, even in a regular classroom, their kids that, that are trustworthy already, just because they’ve had pretty solid background, loving parents, et cetera. But they still used to it’s they still gotta trust you so you can prove it to them.
Larry Tomiyama (18:54):
And it comes pretty easy for a lot of kids and teachers. But it’s that bottom third to bottom quarter where it’s not easy. So we have to work a little bit harder. We have to make an effort. They might be the kid in the class. And you might think that kid is the greatest kid in the world. He doesn’t say a word. He doesn’t bother me. He’s fantastic. But he might not feel safe. So we need to go and make an effort to create those relationships with those kids. It’s easy for the kids that you, like. I tell the kids that, you know, the teachers in training that you think you’re gonna, like all the kids, you’re not gonna like all the kids. In fact, you might not, you might dislike a lot of them or some of them, the key is they can’t know that every kid in that class needs to think that you’d love them. Your inside voice might not say so, but it’s okay. They just need to know that you care about them and yell. And then, like I said, that’s where the joy of teaching comes from when you get that pack from the students. So hopefully it might be kind of confusing, but hopefully I explained it.
Sam Demma (20:13):
Okay. You did a phenomenal job explaining that. And it leads me to my next curious question, where have your principal’s ideas come from? It sounds like a lot of them have come from your past experience. The two years spent in this school and the 55. So or so years you spent in education altogether, but what resources, what courses, books programs, anything have you used or consumed that have been very helpful in helping you make a bigger impact on kids in the classroom and also as an administrator?
Larry Tomiyama (20:53):
Yeah. You know what it’s to say that there was I mean, a, a big on Robert Greenleaf’s book, servant leadership was certainly influential in my life, but you know, most of my stuff and, and most of the things that I speak about is from firsthand experience stuff that I screwed up royally as a principal, as a thing, and then to be able to think back record it, document it and understand, okay, that’s, that’s why I messed up on that. I should have it this way, or I should have asked for more input this way or they didn’t trust me yet. So I’ve taken what those kids taught me and the model that we used there and brought it back to the way that I was a leader in the way, the, the successes that I had and the failures that I had. And it’s all the same thing when I messed up.
Larry Tomiyama (21:51):
And, and I thought my staff should act this way and they didn’t it’s because I didn’t take the proper steps to get ’em safe. They didn’t feel safe. They didn’t certainly didn’t trust me. After a year, two and a half, they trusted me and then I could, then we do anything and everything. And we created culture. That was amazing, but it took me that while. So like I said, it was a culmination of those two years, but all the years that I was a principal and as a, a leader with the district and things like that, it all made sense to me when I got to live it with these students. And it made sense why I fell or failed in that situation. And it made sense why I am success. I was successful in many of those ventures. If there’s another book that I’m, that’s really influential in my life, right, right now it’s called neuro teach and is written by educators.
Larry Tomiyama (22:55):
And it’s all about brain-based research. And, and again, all the stuff that I thought is now reinforced by recent brain research. That that’s why we are able to help these students said we did. That’s why many of these kids were so stuck that when they were traumatized and they were young, their brain was damaged, physically, physically damaged. But research also shows that we have an opportunity to create neurons in the brain. That’ll help switch or flip their script, that all these people hurt me in my life. So I’m not lovable. I’m not likable and switch that to your more than lable. You’re more than likable, more than worth it. And we’re gonna show you why you’re worth it. So it, it, I don’t know. I I’m just, most of my life is cuz I’m a little bit messed up and that’s how we kind of evolve for me that those two years risk reinforced all the things that I had done before. And it’s really created and given me a a platform and a foundation to be able to share some of this information.
Sam Demma (24:18):
And you do a phenomenal job sharing it and telling it through the old art of storytelling in a way that’s engaging and fun for the audience. And last time we connected, you shared the story of I don’t know if that made a good representation of the sound or what happened, but, man you share that story before we wrap up today’s uhonversation and what you learned from it personally, if remember,
Larry Tomiyama (24:46):
Yeah. W was that with the I’m trying to think of which story that I had told was that with the little guy that I was in the timeout room with, correct. Ah, okay. Okay. So let’s, let’s call this student OB. And so OB was a grade three student who came from a war torn country. And his life was basically before he came to Canada, was running and fighting in refugee camps. So he comes to Canada and not functional in a regular school, kicked out of a number of schools or Exel from a number of schools just because he wasn’t able to, to function in a regular classroom. So we arrived at our season grade three and as most kids are, they’re not really that happy when they start in our building, because it’s just another place that they’re gonna be unsuccessful at and they’re gonna get kicked out of.
Larry Tomiyama (25:54):
And that’s where their head is at. So I got a call from the classroom saying that’s coming down and it doesn’t look like he’s very, he’s very happier. He is not ready to start class. So I said, fine. So I leave my office and O’s coming down the stairs and I know he’s not doing really well because he’s sucking his thumb. And that was his coping mechanism for when he was stressed or anxiety rid. And he comes down the stairs and I said, OB, how you doing? Just take a seat on the chair and we can get started with the day when you’re ready. You let me know. And he had his thumb in his mouth and everything. He just says, sure, up, shut up, Mr. T screw you. So it went on and, and on to that nothing that was pretty tame to some of the names I was called.
Larry Tomiyama (26:48):
So I was okay with that. And he came down, so it came down the stairs and was really, really angry, started throwing chairs, throwing things around and then went after a student. So we had intervene and when a student gets violent, we have a room that we call our calming room. And it’s basically a six by six cinder brick wall room with a door and a window in it. And so we brought him in there and he lost his mind in there. Kickings spitting, anything that you can think of. And usually they calm down after a while. So when they calm down, we enter the CLA enter the room and, and see if we can work with them. And so I walked into the room and he was lying in the corner of the room and started to get violent again. So I had to leave. And so I just waited and waited them out and got quiet. And he was mumbling and mumbling. I said, OB, are you okay? What are it’s gonna happening? Oh, I felt, tell me MRT. And I said, what’s that OB what’s happening, whatever you need. And he says, MRT, I’m gonna take their outta your and rub it right in your eyes.
Larry Tomiyama (28:23):
I couldn’t even talk. I was laughing so hard. I, I thought that’s so brilliant. How can and someone be so elevated? So, so mad and think of something like that. It took me like five minutes before I could collect myself. I looked in there and he’s crying again in the corner. So I walk, I walk in, open the door and I just sit on the floor and don’t do anything. And,uhe looks at me and I look at him, he puts his head down and nobody says a word for another five minutes. Uand then I see him army crawl over to me and put his head on my leg. Cause I’m sitting down in the ground. So he sat there for a few minutes and he’s crying and crying. And then he kind of collects himself. And he says to me, Mr. T, you can hurt me now.
Larry Tomiyama (29:24):
And I said, OB, what are you talking about? No, one’s gonna hurt you. That’s not why you’re here. We’re not doing that. Cuz he said, when I’m bad like that, and I say bad things, my brother or my dad beats the. And so I, I said, OB, listen, it doesn’t matter what you say, what you do, no one is gonna hurt you here. That’s not gonna happen. So we sat there for a few more minutes and in my work sense of humor, I said to him, I said, you know what, OB, you know, that stuff said to me, you know, with this and putting in my eyes and stuff like that, I go, I don’t know how possible that is. Do you think you could really do that? And there was a pause and he says,uand then he just starts full out,ubelly laughing.
Larry Tomiyama (30:29):
Yeah. Things like that. I said, OB, go clean up and get your to class. Mm. And so it went off to class. The, the, the big thing with that again, is the safety piece. Mm. That a, in his mind he was predicting what was gonna happen. Yeah. So when he acts like this, then he gets hurt and we had to flip that and we had to convince him that doesn’t matter what happens and how much you lose your mind that you’re gonna be safe here. So that was a huge, huge step in creating that safety for him. And again, this is an extreme story, but we can do little acts in our classrooms that show students that it doesn’t matter. What’s gonna happen. Whether whether we reprimand you or not how we say it or whatever. But you’re gonna be safe in my class. And that’s really, really the that’s the place to start
Sam Demma (31:27):
Love that. That’s such a powerful story along with the other one you shared and I’m sure there’s hundreds upon
Larry Tomiyama (31:33):
Hundreds. Yeah, no, it’s some of ’em are, are so ridiculous. They’re funny. Yeah. ,
Sam Demma (31:42):
That’s so true. Well, Larry, this has been such a pleasure with you about the, you know, the philosophies, the principles you have, the way you view education, the framework from which the school functioned. It’s really interesting. And if another educator is listening and is inspired by this conversation or has enjoyed it and wants to ask you a question or invite you to their event, what would be the best way for, for them to get in touch with you?
Larry Tomiyama (32:08):
Probably. I mean, if you need more information, I mean, my website’s not great, but it’s okay, but certainly it’s there. And my web website is https://ineverythinggivethanks.ca/about/. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
And shoot me an email take a look at the website that my contact information is on there. I’d be happy to talk to anybody. I talk to a lot of educators just about working with, at risk students about what, what I believe in leadership and what I, what I know works. And so I would be willing to share with anybody because it’s that’s what God God has asked me to do. And I don’t want to, I don’t wanna make him mad.
Sam Demma (33:06):
Larry, thank you so much. I really, really appreciate the time, effort and energy you put into your work and appreciate you sharing some of it here. Keep up the amazing job. And I look forward to our next conversation, hopefully on a golf course.
Larry Tomiyama (33:20):
My pleasure. Thanks.
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