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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.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Jeannie Armstrong

The High Performing Educator Podcast was brought to life during the outbreak of COVID-19 to provide you with inspirational stories and practical advice from your colleagues in education.  By tuning in, you will hear the stories and ideas of the world’s brightest and most ambitious educators.  You can expect interviews with Principals, Teachers, Guidance Counsellors, National Student Association, Directors and anybody that works with youth. You can find and listen to all the episodes for free here.

Ian Howcroft – CEO of Skills Ontario

Ian Howcroft - CEO of Skills Ontario
About Ian Howcroft

Ian Howcroft (@IanSkillsON) is an action-oriented leader and decision-maker with a focus on customer needs and service. He is the CEO of skills Ontario and one who can lead a team and is able to build consensus to maximize and leverage the strengths of team members to the overall benefit of the organization. Ian has a strong background and interest in advocacy, government relations, public policy, legal/regulatory issues, administrative law, and human resources.

Connect with Ian: Email | Instagram | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Skills Ontario Website

Volunteer Opportunities with Skills Ontario

Ontario College of Trades

Trillium Network for Advanced Manufacturing

Ontario Centre of Innovation

Hopin Event Software

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 on the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. I had an amazing conversation months ago with Shelly Travis, who is the, the state president, the national director of skills USA, which is a career and technical skills student organization. And after the conversation ended, she gave me the name Ian Howcroft to follow up with and hopefully get him on the show as well.


Sam Demma (01:06):
Ian is the CEO or Chief Executive Officer of Skills Ontario, an organization dedicated to promoting skill trades and technology, careers to young people. We have a phenomenal conversation on how COVID affected their operations and what they’ve done to adjust and pivot. . You probably all hate that word by now, but we talk about how he’s pivoted his organization, how they’re continuing the work they’re doing and still making an impact on the lives of so many young people and students. I’ll see you on the other side of this interview, enjoy. Ian, thank you so much for coming on the high performing educator podcast. It is a huge pleasure and honor to have you on the show today. Why don’t you start by sharing a little bit about yourself and why you got into the work you do with young people today?


Ian Howcroft (01:53):
Well, thanks Sam, I appreciate the opportunity. I am with an organization called skills Ontario. We’ve been around for just over 30 years and our raise on debt is to promote skilled trades and technology careers to young people. I got interested in that from my former job at an organization called Canadian manufacturers and exporters. I was there for almost 30 years in a variety of capacities, but every year I was there, one of the top three priorities, and usually the number one priority was a skilled shortage. We’re not gonna have the skilled workers for the future. How can we make relationships with schools and other organizations to promote skilled trades? So I was always involved in that and I ended up on the board of skills Ontario. And when the opportunity came to take over as CEO I was contacted and thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about solutions and things that we can do to help move things forward and create a clearer pathway for young people to understand what the potential is, how they can follow their path of, of career aspirations and how we can do some linkages with business and better engage them and also wanted to do things to promote to young people, but also part of that was getting to their parents and getting to some other audiences because they have a huge impact and influence on their kids. And many of them don’t know what the real opportunities are with regard to a future in skilled trades or technology careers. They say go to university not knowing what the full opportunity is. So we’re trying to dispel some myths and create some realities about the positive aspect of a career in skilled trades and technology careers.


Sam Demma (03:21):
Did you know when you were working in manufacturing that one day you’d be in an organization running an organization like Skills Ontario did you plan to do this when you were younger or like when was the moment when it was like, whoa, I’m making this shift and I’m, I’m gonna make this pivot?


Ian Howcroft (03:38):
Well, I was I, I thought when I went to Canadian manufacturers, I would be there three to five years get some experience make some contacts and move on, but that organization afforded me a whole lot of opportunities to do a whole lot of different things from, from membership business development, policy work speaking dealing with a whole variety of manufacturing related issues, one of them and skills. So I ended up staying there for almost as I said, 30 years, but my role changed and the issues changed and my passion continued to grow. So I also realized at some point I did not want to retire from an organization that I started with. So I was keeping my eyes and ears open for opportunities that I had an interest in and passion for myself. So when this one came up, I thought this is something I should look at. And and, and I did thankfully and I’ve been there for about two and a half years now.


Sam Demma (04:29):
That’s awesome. So cool. And I’m sure the first year working there with working with skills, Ontario has a, has been a lot different than this current year.


Ian Howcroft (04:38):
Yes. Yes. And when I started there, I thought there’s huge challenges, always with challenges come opportunities. And we got things moving forward. We had a lot of staff changes. We were trying to do things a little differently. Last year we’re off to a great start. And then we experienced here in Ontario, the labor disputes for the teachers. I thought to myself, what could be more challenging? The teacher dispute for like skills Ontario, nothing could be more frustrating. Nothing could be more problematic than that, but I was proven wrong again, as we got into the pandemic in March and that just changed everything we could deal with the teacher strike. We would work around that, but the pandemic just caused us to go back to basics and say, what do we need to do? How can we do that? Given the restraints the constraints and the realities that we have to face knowing that the health and safety of, of students staff and everyone was the number one priority.


Sam Demma (05:30):
Hmm. I like how you said with every challenge though comes an opportunity. And I wanna focus on that for a second because what we focus on grows, what opportunities have you seen along with the challenges in co of it right now?


Ian Howcroft (05:43):
Well, I, I think we’re learning new and, and different ways to better engage our staff and, and our audiences. We’re not allowed to hold in person events right now, which is a challenge when you’re trying to promote skilled trades. You want to have that hands on experiential opportunity, but we can’t do that. So what we did was pivot and started offering everything online, virtually remotely tried to have an experiential component to that, so they could do it in the classroom or, or, or do it at home. But we were, I think being very, as I like to think innovative and creative is how, how can we make this a meaningful experience? How do we get the, the interaction there? So we were able to link in with with students and with parents when everyone is in lockdown at home, we came up with a skills at home program.


Ian Howcroft (06:27):
Here’s something that parents can can learn from and watch encourage their kids to take part in it. The first one was a, a rollercoaster challenge using materials. You could readily find at home, build a rollercoaster and see how long you, you keep a marble in the air for, or on the roller coaster for. So we started looking at how we can do things to continue to engage our audiences, to continue to engage our partners, and also work with our main partner, the, the government of Ontario to deliver what their message was, was there’s an important opportunity and we need skilled trade. We need technology people and this is an opportunity for, for skills on Ontario to really come in and, and fill that, that vacuum that was left when everything else was being shut down.


Sam Demma (07:07):
That’s awesome. A lot of people have told me recently that the state of education right now, or anyone who works in, in the educational industry is like throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing what’s the, and,


Ian Howcroft (07:20):
And I, and I think, you know, we’re, we’re all trying different things. We’re all faced by the, the same challenge. So how do we, how do we do something that’s still gonna be impactful, still gonna create a learning environment for kids. And I know the, the teachers and the boards of education and the other partners involved are, are trying on to do everything they can to make it still a meaningful year for them. But it is a, it is a challenge, but I think as you said there’s creative ways to come up with new ideas and opportunities to, to address some of these challenges. One thing I’d just like to add is that with the remote delivery of our programs, we found out that that’s not something we’re gonna stop when the pandemic is over and we can go back to in person. We also think there’s still an important complimentary role to have remote delivery and virtual delivery. We’re able to engage everybody around the province. Whereas sometimes it might have been a geographic possibility for someone to attend an event or to come to a competition or to be in something that we’re doing a, the remote delivery allow us to engage them in a whole different way. So we’re gonna continue with that and use that as a complimentary program for for moving forward after the pandemic.


Sam Demma (08:29):
And it makes the presenter more easily and readily available. Like last week I did three presentations, one in Saskatchewan, one in New Jersey, one in Toronto, all from my bay. Like there’s no, you know, it’s, it’s from a delivery and an audience perspective. There’s so much possibilities in the virtual world. Tell me more about some of the things that have stuck. I love the skills at home, the, the challenge to build a roller coaster. What else have you experimented with as an organization over this time that has worked well so far?


Ian Howcroft (09:00):
Well, some of the things that we’re doing now we were talking about, but we moved forward a lot more quickly. We talked about having a podcast, but hadn’t yet done that. So this allowed us the opportunity to create the podcast. And one of our folks guy named Dan Cardinal put together a podcast. So we’re doing a podcast that we’re using to promote skilled trades and highlight individuals, highlight partners, highlight people that have gone through and become a, a skilled trades person and what they’ve done, how they overcame some challenges and are now leading a satisfying career and doing, doing really well. We, in the summer run something that we call our the summer camp program. We did about 25 camps around the province. They were in person weeklong camps. Couldn’t do that this year. So we said, if you wanna provide again, that opportunity for kids.


Ian Howcroft (09:46):
So we came up with 35 different camps and they were half day, full day or two day events. And we engaged twice. As many kids had over 800, approximately 800 kids involved in our summer camp program, which is almost twice what we would normally have and the results that we got, the evaluations we got were even more positive than what we’d had in the past. Now, our event, our, our evaluation in the past were very positive, but these ones were were even more positive because it allowed more kids to get involved in a whole variety of things and try things at home. Some were like tutorials, how to fix a bike, how to change a bike tire or, or a bike chain, but others were doing some, some cooking or baking at home. So we tried to make sure there, there was something there for everyone. So even when we go back to our in-person camps, we will have the complimentary virtual camps for those that can’t make it to a college, or can’t make it to one of our sites where we’re hosting an in-person camp. So it’s been a, a great experience in that regard. And we’re using that to, to learn by and move forward with. Oh,


Sam Demma (10:43):
Oh, that’s awesome. That’s really amazing. And, you know, despite the challenges, skills, Ontario has done an amazing job, it seems at, at pivoting. But I’m curious to know, are there any challenges that you have learned from cause we talked a lot about what what’s worked really well. But I think with any challenge, there’s great learnings. Like what is, what are some learnings that you think might be beneficial for other educators to hear about this new world?


Ian Howcroft (11:06):
Well, in, in general, I think what I’ve learned or had reconfirmed is don’t just go on assumptions. Mm-Hmm that, oh, that won’t work or this won’t work try things. And if it doesn’t work, adapt it, change it modify it, tailor it because if you just say, so that won’t work or that hasn’t worked before, I don’t think this will work. You’re gonna limit yourselves. Whereas if going with the more positive attitude and say, let’s let’s, what do we wanna do? Let, let’s try this. And if it’s not working or it’s not resonating with the audiences, partners make some, make some changes and, and don’t, don’t be afraid. This gave us an opportunity. Let’s try things. We we’re all in new territory here. So we don’t have to worry about, about failing. We everybody’s floundering.


Ian Howcroft (11:50):
So this, that gave us an opportunity to try things that perhaps we had talked about, but hadn’t done, but we’re able to move forward with, and, and we’re we’re as a, we have about 35 staff around the province now. And when we could get together, we did it a few times a year. But that was it. But now we’re, we’re getting together with, with teams, meetings or zoom meetings, and we’re engaging and trying to make sure we have no or, or fewer internal silos, so that we’re all leveraging what each other are doing, better understanding what each other are doing. So we may be farther apart physically, but I think we’re closer together a as teamed members and as colleagues within the organization. And I think that’s allowing us to do more and again, have more impact with our audiences, with the students, with the partners, with the educators.


Sam Demma (12:33):
That’s awesome. And I’m sure with the increased internal communications, you’re hearing a lot more about what the students want. What are you hearing as a whole organization from students right now? What is it that they’re, they’re asking you for? What are they challenged with specifically that, that you’ve heard of?


Ian Howcroft (12:50):
I think there’s a, a real appetite for information and how do I enter a skilled trade or technology career? And it’s much broader than many people think, you know, think they, they think of the traditional trades or traditional skills, but there’s like 152 skilled trades in Ontario. And we, we broader with, with technology. So we’re doing coding, we’re doing robotics mechatronics a whole lot of opportunities. So there’s a lot of interest in that, even though we’re having to do that remotely and doing the presentations virtually to the classrooms, there’s, there’s still an awful lot of interest in that. And we’re are going, we’re looking at how do we get the skills kits put together to give them that experiential opportunity at home? How do we make sure that they’re able to engage and get some experience with the limitations that have?


Ian Howcroft (12:50):
I think there’s a, a real appetite for information and how do I enter a skilled trade or technology career? And it’s much broader than many people think, you know, think they, they think of the traditional trades or traditional skills, but there’s like 152 skilled trades in Ontario. And we, we broader with, with technology. So we’re doing coding, we’re doing robotics mechatronics a whole lot of opportunities. So there’s a lot of interest in that, even though we’re having to do that remotely and doing the presentations virtually to the classrooms, there’s, there’s still an awful lot of interest in that. And we’re are going, we’re looking at how do we get the skills kits put together to give them that experiential opportunity at home? How do we make sure that they’re able to engage and get some experience with the limitations that have? So we, we still feel we have a very important role and there’s still an awful lot of interest.


Ian Howcroft (13:40):
And the Ontario government is highlighting the opportunities and skilled trades. So we’re working with our partners in business, our partners in labor, our partners in the education system to make sure that kids aren’t at a disadvantage because of the COVID limitations. We’re still able to provide them with the information to promote the skill trades and to give them information that that they can benefit from. When we were in, in, in the March and April timeframe, we tried to, well, what are the programs that we have? What are the products that we have? So let’s modify them so that we can put them available on our website or make them digitally we’ve updated some young women in, in trades. Our other programs that we have, we do first nations programming. So how do we make sure that we’re still offering relevant, impactful, and, and exciting events that will engage kids and provide an interactive experience for them?


Sam Demma (14:31):
Well, that’s awesome. That’s really cool. And you mentioned zoom calls and go Hangouts. What has been successful with virtual events? Is it doing a zoom webinar? Is it when all the students can see each other’s face on zoom? What has worked the best for you guys?


Ian Howcroft (14:48):
I, I think it depends on the event and we’re somewhat guided by what platform schools will allow. You know, Google hangout was one that I think the schools were, were using and we were getting into the, the classrooms that way. Yeah. We used WebEx for some of our larger events. We do when we have our normal competition, we have at, at the Toronto Congress center, we have about 2,400 hundred kids competing. We have almost 40,000 visitors. We hope the largest young women’s conference in Canada with 2000 participants, girls and young women and supporters, mentors, volunteers come out. So we had to gravitate towards the virtual delivery, but I was really pleased with our young women’s conference. We had about almost 1500 people sign on, lot more registered, but we have 1500 participants in our virtually young women’s conference.


Ian Howcroft (15:36):
We did a, a business summit. So we’re looking at the various platforms to continue to make sure that they’re continue to be more and more interactive and engaging for, for the participants as cuz we’re right now, we’re going to, we’re planning to do our competition virtually in the, in the spring we were won’t I don’t think be able to have in person events. And if we do, they’ll be smaller and have to modify that for the most part, we’ll be doing it virtually. So we’re looking at what’s the best platform to do that. What gives the kids the best opportunity to have an experience that they can have as meaningful, that they can win and be proud of their gold or silver or bronze medal. And how do we also use that to make sure our partners and our other supporters and volunteers are still engaged with us and realizing the value and benefits that they normally do through Skills Ontario.


Sam Demma (16:23):
Oh, that’s awesome. Really cool. There is a cool platform that was used recently with an event. I was a part of called hop in; might be worth checking out. They have like virtual booth. So a networking section where you meet one of’em with random people, there’s a main stage option, really cool stuff. And yeah, I’m sure you guys will probably build something in house and and build something really cool, but it might be worth, worth checking out. If anyone listening to this has been intrigued by any part of the conversation wants to connect with you, maybe ask some questions, bounce some ideas around, maybe they have some ideas for you. What would be the best way for another educator to reach out to you?


Ian Howcroft (17:00):
Well, I would refer everyone to our website. That has a lot of information about the programming that we’re doing. We have our Halloween spectacular skills experience based around some Halloween caution design pumpkin painting carving , a few other things around the Halloween theme. It’s all on our website as is all our other program information but that’s www.skillsontario.com. And I’m always encouraging people to reach out and contact me directly at ihowcroft@skillsontario.com. Contact information is on our website, but what we do is engage young people, engage parents, engage educators, labor and business. So we’re trying to do as much of that as we can. So I love hearing from students particularly, but I love hearing from our other partners and anyone else, that’s looking for some information about skills, promotion skills opportunities, and how they can work with Skills Ontario.


Ian Howcroft (17:51):
I just wanna point out that we have 35 staff, as I said, but we could not do what we do without our volunteers. And volunteerism is so important. We probably have up to a thousand volunteers that help us deliver our, our programming, our competitions, our contests. Again, right now we’re restricted to the virtual reality, but we look forward to engaging our volunteers in a variety of ways as we move forward, virtually as well. But also when we get back to doing our, our carbo boat races and the contest and the qualifying competitions, and again, we’ve also been able to offer a few new programs. We couldn’t do the car boat races, which have to take place at a pool and teams design it, but we’ve moved to an airplane glider contest that you can do it into schools could even do it at home if you had to. So we have a competition based on that. So there’s a lot of exciting things that are coming forward from this tragic COVID experience that we have to deal with.


Sam Demma (18:40):
Ian. That’s awesome. And thank you so much for sharing. There’s a lot of great ideas and insight coming outta this podcast. I’m sure a ton of people will, will be reaching out. Thanks again, for taking time to have this conversation, it’s been a real pleasure having you on the show.


Ian Howcroft (18:53):
Thanks, I’ve really appreciated the opportunity, Sam. Hopefully our paths will continue to cross.


Sam Demma (18:57):
And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the High Performing Educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating in review so other educators like your find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show. If you wanna meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network. You’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

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