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Alternative Education

Melanie Randall – Dance, English, Canadian & World Studies Teacher at Chatham Kent Secondary School

Melanie Randall - Dance, English, Canadian & World Studies Teacher at Chatham Kent Secondary School
About Melanie Randall

Melanie Randall has been teaching and coaching dance at the LKDSB for over 20 years. Her lifelong passion for dance began at the age of two, continued as she attended Canada’s National Ballet School at age 9, and inspired her to earn teaching certification in Ballet with the Royal Academy of Dancing and National Dance with the British Association of Teachers of Dance.

She has also studied and performed jazz, tap, and Modern dance and choreographed and produced numerous musical theatre and dance productions. Randall started teaching dance professionally in grade 10, completed her Honours Bachelor of Arts in Dance at the University of Waterloo, her Bachelor of Education at the University of Windsor, and her Honours Specialist in Dance at York University. She is a founding member and current vice-president of the provincial dance education organization: Ontario Secondary School Dancefest.

Randall founded the CKSS Dance Program in 2001, and the Dance Team in 2002, and she has been the head coach of the team ever since. Under her guidance, this student-led team has won dozens of awards, including a provincial championship in 2007. Randall has a passion for helping students improve their technique as well as providing opportunities for student dancers to become confident, creative leaders through choreography and teaching. In addition to dance education, Randall is passionate about literacy, employability, social justice, and supporting student mental well-being.

She is a member of her school’s literacy and antiracism committees and advises the GSA and student well-being council. She incorporates literacy, career studies, social justice, and well-being in the dance classroom as well as when she teaches English, Civics, and Careers.

On a personal note, Randall is a partner, mom, stepmom, sister, daughter, and grandmother. She loves reading, listening to podcasts, travelling, visiting galleries and museums, camping, hiking, and canoeing.

Connect with Melanie: Email | Instagram | LinkedIn

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Lambton Kent District School Board (LKDSB)

Canada’s National Ballet School

Royal Academy of Dancing

British Association of Teachers of Dance

Honours Bachelor of Arts in Dance at the University of Waterloo

Bachelor of Education at York University

Ontario Secondary School Dancefest

CKSS Dance Program

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 the High Performing Educator podcast.

Sam Demma (00:59):

This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is a good friend of mine. Her name is Melanie Randall. Melanie Randall has been teaching and coaching dance at the Lampton Kent district school board for over 20 years. Her lifelong passion for dance began at the age of two, continued as she attended Canada’s national ballet school at age nine, and inspired her to earn her teaching certificate in ballet with the Royal academy of dancing and national dance. With the British association of teachers of dance, she has also studied and performed jazz tap, modern dance, choreographed, and produced numerous musical theater and dance productions. Randall started teaching dance professionally in grade tent completed her honors, bachelors of arts and dance at the University of Waterloo, her bachelor of education at the University of Windsor and her honours specialist in dance at York University.

Sam Demma (01:52):

She is a founding member and current vice president of the provincial dance education organization, Ontario secondary school dance Fest. Randall founded the (CKSS) Craig Keilberg Secondary School dance program in 2001, the dance team in 2002, and has been the head coach of the team ever since. Under her guidance, the student led team has won dozens of awards, including a provincial championship. In 2007, Randall has a passion for helping students improve their technique as well as providing opportunities for student dancers to become confident and creative leaders through choreography and teaching. In addition to dance education, Randall is passionate about literacy, employability, social justice, and supporting her student’s mental wellbeing. She’s a member of her school’s literacy and anti-racism committees and advises the GSA and student wellbeing council. She incorporates literacy, career studies, social justice, and wellbeing into the dance classroom, as well as when she teaches english, civics, and careers. On a more personal note. Randall is a partner, mom, stepmom, sister, daughter, and grandmother. She loves reading, listening to podcasts, traveling, visiting galleries and museums, camping, hiking, and canoeing. I hope you enjoy this interview with Melanie and I will see you on the other side. Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today we are joined by a special guest and a good friend who rocks the be someone’s taco merch. Her name is Melanie Randall. Melanie, please start by introducing yourself.

Melanie Randall (03:31):

So my name is Melanie Randall, as Sam said, and I am a 21 year high school educator. Although my education career started way before then, about the age of 12. And let’s see, I have three kids and I coach the dance team at the school and life is busy and wonderful.

Sam Demma (04:01):

When you say your educational career started much longer ago, in fact, when you were 12 years old, what do you mean by that? Tell me how it started when you were 12.

Melanie Randall (04:11):

So my mom thought I would be really bored at home all summer. Okay. So she signed me up for the summer that I was 12 and 13 as a counselor in training a volunteer. So I didn’t get paid. Okay. But a counselor in training for a camp for kids from age two and a half to five. So I really feel like I started back then. And then when I turned about 14 is when I started teaching dance to young children. And eventually I was students just as a high school student, middle school student.

Sam Demma (04:56):

Awesome. Yeah. That’s so cool. So it went from volunteering at a camp to teaching dance, to transitioning. At what point did you realize? One day I see myself working in an actual school setting. And once you made that decision, what did your educational pathway look like?

Melanie Randall (05:18):

So I didn’t make that decision until later I kind of have an unconventional pathway to my career. So I started out I, I, wasn’t a very good high school student myself and I was pulled aside by my guidance counselor who had caught me skipping again,

Sam Demma (05:43):

Skipping rope. You mean? Right. Skipping rope. <Laugh>

Melanie Randall (05:46):

Right. I shouldn’t admit that, I guess.

Sam Demma (05:48):

No, it sounds man,

Melanie Randall (05:49):

But it’s going somewhere. It’s going somewhere. So he pulled me aside and he said, I’ve looked at your file. What are you doing with your life? You know, you’re in grade 11, you’re in grade 12, like, this is ridiculous. What’s going on with you? What do you wanna do? And I said, I have no idea. So he haul me down to his office and he said, what do you like doing? And I said, the only thing that I like doing is dance. And he showed me brochures from post-secondary schools that offer dance programs. So I thought, wow, that’s interesting. I better get my marks up. Mm. So that really all of a sudden engaged me. And I just that’s when I set the goal just for postsecondary. And yet, while I was at postsecondary school, majoring in dance at the university of Waterloo, I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my dance degree when I was done. Had originally thought that I wanted to start my own studio, open my own studio, but then I realized that people who run their own studios work evenings and weekends, and I wanted to have a family. I was pretty traditional. I’d always wanted kids. So I thought that schedule probably isn’t going to work out.

Melanie Randall (07:24):

So, and, you know, went from job to job like retail, restaurant services hospitality, things like that just while I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. And then I ended up getting married and having two kids and staying home with them for a couple of years. And then my sister was graduating from her undergrad at Brock. And my dad was picking up back in the day they were paper applications. Nice. So my dad was picking up a paper application for my sister to apply to teacher’s college. And he brought one to me too. And he said, you know, I think this would be a really good fit for you. And so I basically applied for fun. My dad said if I applied, he’d pay the 75 bucks or whatever, it was nice to apply to teachers college back in the day. And yeah, I got in, so it was kind a, I took the long way, but I got there and yep. Been doing that and loving it ever since

Sam Demma (08:39):

Every pathway is a valid option. So there was no right or wrong choice, just how it unfolded for you, which is awesome. And thank you for sharing. It sounds like one of the key aspects of your story was that one individual who made education personal to you by asking you, what are you passionate about? Mm-Hmm <affirmative> and when you said dance, you kind of connected the dots to, you know, there’s a future and a career doing that in this system, if you would like to tell me about how some of your educators or teachers you had growing up made an impact on you. It sounds like that individual did, is there anyone else that you can think of when you think back to your own educational journey that stood out? And if so, like what did those people do for you that made a big difference?

Melanie Randall (09:26):

So it’s been a really long time and I don’t remember any specific teachers remember that there was a Fette teacher at one of my high schools cuz they went to three different high schools. Oh wow. Yeah, dad was opp, so we got transferred a bunch. Got it. And and there was this P teacher and it was like a leadership course that we were taking and he really helped me to see leadership potential in me where I had never seen that in myself before. I also had a couple of English teachers who really had an impact on me. The, my favorite course I probably ever took was an, it was an O cause I’m really dating myself. Nice. <Laugh> so back, back in the day, O just in Shakespeare and yeah, I just, I, the teacher let us pick what we wanted to learn and she took us on field trips and you know, she appreciated my writing once she copied my essay onto transparency paper and put it up on the overhead projector <laugh> oh,

Sam Demma (11:06):

Wow.

Melanie Randall (11:07):

<Laugh> to show that rest without my name on it or anything. Yeah. So no one knew that it was mine, but you did, but but yeah, to show the other students what the expectations were. So that was pretty exciting. I really felt like someone believed in me.

Sam Demma (11:24):

That’s awesome. And

Melanie Randall (11:25):

That, yeah, it’s really important.

Sam Demma (11:27):

I think one of the most important things we can do working with youth is put the battery in their back, not just teach them curriculum, but help them realize that they can do the things they envision themselves doing, no matter how difficult it might be or how long a road it might take to get there. Because even if they don’t accomplish the big dream or goal, they tell you about just pouring self-belief in their brain will help them accomplish. So other tasks and activities in their life that just require that extra ounce of self-belief. And self-confidence mm-hmm <affirmative> when you think about your journey in education, you know, once you started, what are all the different roles you’ve worked in? Like tell me like kind of chronologically where you started, what you’ve done and where you are now.

Melanie Randall (12:15):

Okay. So when I originally went to teachers college, it was at a satellite campus of the university of Windsor. And there were only about 20 of us in the class. And it was teaching primary junior, which is BA basically JK to grade six. And I found out pretty quickly that I did not want to do that. <Laugh> it was, it was, that was not my path. Yep. But I still worked really hard and I did my best for the children and did my best for other professors and you know, all of those things. And the summer that I graduated, I headed to Western university to upgrade, to teach high school right away that first summer. And I got hired right away as a supply teacher. This is another neat story in my pathway. So I was supply teaching different courses, kind of all over the county and nice, you know, going to different schools. Everyone knows how supply teaching works. And I had a couple of long term supply gigs and that was cool. And then one of the high schools here in town the parent, the president of the parent council said, you know, she was saying to the

Melanie Randall (13:48):

Princip Thursday could be offering that here. And the principal said, well, yeah, but who’s gonna teach it. And my sister who had been hired full time, right out of teachers college with her high school qualifications happened to be walking by when they were having this conversation. Whoa. And she said, she said, my sister has a dance degree and she’s a qualified teacher. Wow. And I got her phone call that afternoon for an interview. Right. <laugh> and the interview was like very informal. It was, we hear you have a dance degree and teachers college, would you like a job? <Laugh>

Sam Demma (14:27):

Wow.

Melanie Randall (14:28):

<Laugh> yeah. So I started teaching it actually after school and in the evenings at two different high schools in town. Okay. And then they were kind of test driving it to see if there would be any interest. And there was a lot of interest. I think I had 60 students. Wow. sign up from both schools total. And yeah, I was still supply teaching during the day. And then I was teaching those courses at night and you know, it was a lot but really worthwhile because both schools ended up offering the program full-time during the day. Nice. So then though,

Sam Demma (15:15):

Yeah. A mom teacher

Melanie Randall (15:16):

<Laugh> right. So for two years I drove back and forth and taught at both the schools. And at the end of, I guess my third year of teaching, I wrote a letter to a superintendent and said, you know, I’m exhausted. I’ve been through three sets of breaks. <Laugh> wow. I didn’t tell ’em that, but you know I said, you know, I don’t mind which school you assign me to here are the pros of working at both schools. And I don’t mind which school, but please just assign me to one. Mm. And the one school had built a brand new state of the art dance studio. And at the other school, the principal was retiring. So the principal with the dance studio went to the staffing meeting and said, we want her. And we’re gonna take her at our school. And the principal who was retiring said, eh, do what you want <laugh> <laugh> cause he was retiring.

Melanie Randall (16:28):

He didn’t care as much, no longer invested in it. Yeah. So he yeah, he didn’t fight for me. And the other principal did, so I’ve been there full-time for 17 years and part-time, well, I guess, 18 years and part-time for three. So yeah. And then it wasn’t full-time dance. So my other qualification is English. So I was teaching English and dance at the same time and yeah, it was wonderful. And then about eight years ago, I was assigned civics and careers, which a lot of teachers don’t enjoy teaching or don’t want. And I was really nervous at first, but I love it. I absolutely love teaching those courses, especially the careers. I, I like civics because I really get the kids engaged in social justice and you know, their role in society as an active citizen of the world and the O you know, I can them to so many diverse topics and they get to choose what they explore.

Melanie Randall (17:54):

And, and that tells me so much about them. And you really get to know your students and these classes and the careers I love for the reasons you already said, you know, you get to know the students really well. You know what great things they’re, they’re going to accomplish, and you can fill them with so much confidence to follow their goals. And yeah, it’s great. Having them come back. A lot of them will come back at the end of grade 12 and they’ll say, guess what, miss I got into that program that I always wanted to get into. And I’m like, I teach 75 of you a semester. And I don’t remember what college program you wanted to be in, but that’s awesome.

Sam Demma (18:44):

That’s, that’s, that’s phenomenal. Taught dance, still teaching dance, also teaching English. How do you fill your cup outside of work? So when you’re not dancing, teaching dance or teaching English, what does Melanie do to make sure that she can show up at the best of her ability?

Melanie Randall (19:05):

So lifelong learning is really important. And so I like to take courses I’m actually in the middle of one right now, or actually I’m in the last week of one right now taking courses through the faculty of education, nice at various universities, just to, you know, either upgrade or know something new, or be able to teach something new.

Sam Demma (19:31):

What course, what course are you taking now or working through

Melanie Randall (19:35):

Senior social science. Cool. So it would qualify me to teach like sociology, psychology, anthropology, nice challenge and change in society, social justice and equity studies, gender studies. I, I’m kind of, there are so many I’m listing the ones that are world religions, things like that. Nice. We don’t offer all of those courses at my school, but you know, the, those are all part of the curriculum. So that’s the one that I’m working through right now. And then in the fall, I’m going to take a course called teacher leadership, part three, and I’ve already obviously taken one and two did really well. And I’m considering potentially taking principal course in January. Now I’ve put it out there.

Sam Demma (20:34):

TP some P QP

Melanie Randall (20:35):

P QP. Yeah. Yeah. it’s offered by our board in January 20, 23. Nice. So yeah, I think I might try it. I, I work really well with my administration and I have, you know, all these connections with students and, you know, I don’t, I don’t see the, the students as, you know, bad kids who need discipline in the office. I see troubled kids who need help from the office. Mm. You know, and I really think that I can help them. Not everyone, you can’t help everyone, not everyone wants your help, but if you can reach some or most yeah. Of the students, then, you know, that’s, that’s where you can, and you can do that in the classroom. Absolutely. But you know, next year I’ll be in year 22 and of teaching. And I just think maybe it’s time to try something a little bit different. Sure. And, and I feel that I have the skill for that position and it’s just a matter, sorry. Someone just started their lawnmower.

Sam Demma (21:53):

Can’t even hear it. Don’t worry.

Melanie Randall (21:54):

Okay, good. Yeah. It’s gonna get louder though. I think it’s okay. Yeah. So I forget where I was. You

Sam Demma (22:05):

Have the skillset for the job and yeah. Something that you,

Melanie Randall (22:09):

Yeah. So the course, because it’s offered by our board, I feel will give me a lot of opportunity to network and for the superintendents to get to know me and see my potential. And then I can decide after that, whether or not I want to actually interview to go on the list.

Sam Demma (22:33):

Nice. So, so many different roles, different opportunities. You, you, you said lifelong learning is one of the ways you fill your cup. Is there anything else you do, like aside from books and learning? Cause I feel like you can only do so much reading before. You’re like, I need a break, you know, <laugh> right.

Melanie Randall (22:52):

Well, you know, I love my Netflix. <Laugh> nice.

Sam Demma (22:55):

Hey, that’s, that’s valid. That’s, that’s valid. <Laugh> I do too.

Melanie Randall (23:05):

But not too much. We don’t watch too much TV. And because my partner is a teacher also, we talk a lot about work.

Sam Demma (23:16):

Yes <laugh>

Melanie Randall (23:16):

And you know, we count on each other for that support too. I love to travel and I like to do more of that now that my kids are much older and more independent, two of them are completely independent, but nice. The one, you know, and yeah, just traveling, camping, getting outside, going for walks, hikes in the woods are the best going to the beach with a book. Nice. I love that just by myself. I’ll do that quite a few times in the, in the summer. Oh, nice. And yeah, think that’s,

Sam Demma (24:04):

Those are great. Those are great outlets. Thanks. Thanks for sharing and digging deep <laugh>. When you think about your journey in education, if you could wrap up your 21 years of experience travel back in time, tap Melanie on the shoulder when she was just starting. Not that you would change anything about your path, but if you could take all the wisdom and go back, what would you have told your younger self in the form of some advice that you think would’ve been helpful to hear when you were just starting

Melanie Randall (24:36):

Not kind of to follow up with what you said, not to stress so much over the curriculum and you know, the curriculum, it all comes. It all happens anyway. But to really focus on not so much teaching curriculum, but teaching human beings. Mm. And really making that effort to connect with students as you deliver curriculum and, and allow them to explore the curriculum as well. And yes, just take advantage of all the professional development opportunities that are presented to you. And it’s all so useful and yeah, just don’t stress as much. I used, I used to be super uptight and now I’m chill.

Sam Demma (25:33):

<Laugh>, <laugh> love

Melanie Randall (25:35):

It. That’s what my students, well, that’s what my students say that I am, they say MROs so chill <laugh>. But you know, I have high expectations for my students because I believe that they all can reach those expectations, but I’m not an intense teacher. I’m not in their face about it. Cool. Just provide the opportunities. But I used, I used to stress out about every lesson and every every over schedule every second and make sure that I was doing everything by the book and I still do everything by the book, but I realize that it’s not as hard it’s, it’s easier than I thought.

Sam Demma (26:24):

Mm.

Melanie Randall (26:24):

You know, and I think you just get better at it. So it comes more naturally and that’s experience.

Sam Demma (26:32):

Yeah. Right. Less, I guess, I

Melanie Randall (26:34):

Think, yeah. We all need experience to get to the point where everything’s kind of second nature. But that’s what I would tell younger me is just connect with students and relax a little bit, just enjoy it

Sam Demma (26:49):

And empty your backpacks and eat some tacos. <Laugh> <laugh>.

Sam Demma (26:53):

Yeah. That’s awesome. Yeah.

Sam Demma (26:57):

Mel, thank you so much for coming on the show. This is a great conversation about your journey in education. Some of your beliefs around education, some of the things you’re working on or resources. If someone’s listening, wants to reach out or ask a question, what would be the best way for them to get in touch with you?

Melanie Randall (27:13):

I would say Instagram probably. And that is @_melrandall.

Sam Demma (27:25):

Awesome. @_melrandall, hit her up. She’s super chill. <Laugh> ask the questions. Connect. if you are a teacher who also teaches dance, you know, reach out or you’re looking for dance ideas, reach out. Mel’s an awesome person and a friend, and I know she’d be more than happy to chat with you. Mel, thank you so much for coming on the show. It’s been a pleasure to have you keep up the great work and we’ll talk soon.

Melanie Randall (27:52):

Thank you. It’s been great talking to you as well.

Sam Demma (27:56):

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

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Melanie Randall

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.

Karen O’Brien – Re-Engagement Counsellor

Karen O'Brien - Re-Engagement Counsellor
About Karen O’Brien

Karen has worked in the education system for over 30 years. She began her career as a secondary school classroom teacher teaching multiple subjects. She continued her teaching career with the added responsibility of being a department head. With each new role and school, she developed a passion for helping students who face barriers to success. Her passion led her to the headship at an alternative high school site for students who struggle in mainstream schools.

Today, she is the Re-Engagement Counsellor at Halton District School Board where she helps youth aged 14 to 21 from all high schools in the board stay in school or return to school. Karen works with community agencies and schools to create a plan for each student, ensuring they’re able to finish their high school education and take the next step towards achieving their goals – whatever those may be.

In her personal life, Karen spends time with her family, friends, and at the cottage where she loves to be by the water. She is also a member of a book club that has been ongoing for over 10 years. Her group discusses books, cooks together, and shares many laughs and a few trips. As a mother of two, Karen also gets a great deal of joy watching her children develop their own career paths and passions.

Whether in her professional life or her personal life, Karen loves to learn, take on new challenges and support others as they pursue their goals.

Connect with Karen: Email | Linkedin

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Halton District School Board

Western University – Bachelors of Education

Book Clubs in Ontario

Google Hangouts Guide for Teachers

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. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. I’m super excited to bring you today’s interview with Karen O’Brien. She has worked in the education system for over 30 years. She began her career as a secondary school classroom teacher teaching multiple subjects, and then continued her teaching career with the added responsibility of being a department head.


Sam Demma (01:00):
With each new role in school. She developed a passion for helping students who face barriers to success. Her passion led her to the headship of an alternative high school site for students who struggle in mainstream schools. Today, she is the re-engagement counselor at the Halton District School Board, where she helps youth age 14 to 21 from all high schools in the board, stay in school or return to school. And let me tell you Karen does an amazing job. I was fortunate enough to work with her on a project with some of those students, and it was a, a very in enjoyable experience working with her. Karen works with community agencies and schools to create a plan for each student, ensuring they’re able to finish their high school education and take the next step towards achieving their goals, whatever they might be. In her personal life, Karen spends time with her family, friends and at the cottage where she loves to be by the water.


Sam Demma (01:49):
She’s also a member of a book club that has been ongoing for over 10 years and her group discusses books, cooks together, and shares many laughs and a few trips. As a mother of two, Karen also gets a great deal of joy of watching her children develop their own career paths and passions. Whether in her professional life or her personal life, Karen loves to learn, take on new challenges, and support others as they pursue their goals. I hope you enjoy this interview with Karen O’Brien, and I will see you on the other side. Karen, thank you so much for coming on the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show this morning. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit behind the journey that led you into education?


Karen O’Brien (02:31):
Absolutely. So my name’s Karen O’Brien. I work for Halton District School Board; I’m the re-engagement counselor. So I work with youth 14-21 who have left school or are in, at risk of leaving school, and the 17 high schools board call me in to work with those youth one on one or in small groups to try and keep them in school and motivate them to not only finish high school, but to plan for their future and go beyond that. So I’ve been doing this particular job for 7 years. Before that I have been in seven different schools; a classroom teacher for the most part. Always looking for a new challenge, hence the move between schools and, and a variety of programs. I’ve taught alternative-ed, regular classroom, gifted, all sorts of different classrooms.


Karen O’Brien (03:26):
What, what got me here teaching? I, I always have sort of been looking to teach or did when I was younger. I thought teaching could, was a possibility and so definitely loved it when I got into the classroom, loved it, but what I really truly loved were those watching those kids who were struggling you know, had barriers to success, watching those kids succeed. Mm. And so tho those are the kids. I kept thinking, oh, those are the kids. Those are the kids I want, wanna work with. So so that’s probably what led me, led me first of all, into alternative education and then led me into this job when this job was advertised. I, I thought this is my dream job and talked to a couple people and they said, yes, yes, you’d be perfect. So I, I thought, oh, my worlds are coming together. This is exactly the work I wanna do.


Sam Demma (04:22):
Well, tell me more about the work itself with reengagement, you know, being a reengagement officer. I, I don’t know that many teachers and even principals are even aware of what it is that might be tuning in. So I would love for them to learn a little more about it.


Karen O’Brien (04:35):
No, yeah. So what I do, so there’s two parts of my job. So if kids have left school and disengaged completely been removed from the register, so 14 and up I contact them at least once a semester to try and talk to them about why they left school. I often look at what’s beyond school because often why they left school. It has nothing or very little to do with school has a lot more to do with what’s occurring in their lives. So I work with all sorts of community agencies whether it’s housing agencies or employment agencies or addiction agencies, I work with all sorts. So I’m work regionally with all of those. I’m on a couple of regional committees. So I have lots of connections. Mental health supports are huge. So I work with all of those agencies.


Karen O’Brien (05:27):
So if I have a youth and I think, okay, these are the barriers, these are the struggles we address those. I get them connected to those type of agencies if they’re not already connected and work hard for that, because that’s the first thing, that’s always the first thing, once they’re connected and on sort of a road to wellness and doing, starting to do better. And, and they start to also trust me and, and have a relationship with me within start to talk about school and what those school goals might be and how school can look for them. That school, isn’t always about sitting in a room of 30 kids in a classroom that school can be done very differently than what perhaps they had experienced. So we talk about how they can do school without that model, that they don’t feel they fit into.


Karen O’Brien (06:15):
And also after they’ve addressed some of their concerns. So a lot of the youth when I meet with them are not, they don’t really see themselves as students has, has potential graduates. So I try to reframe that and help the see themselves. Yes, you could absolutely be a student, maybe not the picture or you have in your head, but, but you can learn and you can be a student and you can go on. And the goal is to go on after high school. So you know, I also read a lot of data and studies, so I know that they’ll do better in life if they go beyond high school and, and post secondary. And that’s pretty, pretty critical for a lot of, of students is to find their passion and whatever that is. So to have either is certainly traditional post-secondary college or university, but there’s also apprentice.


Karen O’Brien (07:09):
There’s also work. There’s also like a dream, a passion. So, so having a plan beyond high school, getting the diplomas a huge win, but it’s, what’s the next step. So I always say, I don’t wanna just get you out of high school. I want to get you into something yeah. Beyond high school. And that’s my goal with them. So I work with them and then, yeah. And work with them, just one one-on-one for the most part, some small group stuff. But most part I do one on one because they’re all unique and need those, those supports. So those are the youth. So those of youth have left school. The other part of my job is I built a relationship with all the schools and the board. So they call me in when they have a kid who’s flounder ring, cuz I always say, please, please call me before they’ve left.


Karen O’Brien (07:56):
Oh, I have a much better chance of helping them. If you know, you introduce me because they know you and, and we meet and I start to work with them when they’re still in school has, you know, when they’re hanging by a thread I want in so the schools bring me in a lot for that too. And that’s that’s, to me, my has evolved so seven years ago, it was mostly kids who have left. Now it’s mostly kids who are disengaging, who are, and, and that’s the bulk of my days and most of my days, which, which I’m very happy for that shift.


Sam Demma (08:33):
Wow. I love that. And you mentioned trust no. Yes. The beginning, initially it might be a generic conversation about their life and what’s going on and listening to them until they trust you. How do you build that trust with a student who might be disengaging?


Karen O’Brien (08:48):
Well, a lot of it is just meeting them. So pre pandemic, I’d meet them near their house, whether that was, you know, at Tim Horton McDonald’s or in a park or the library, wherever, I’d say like, what’s easy for you, where can you walk to, can we just meet and, and either walk and talk or sit and talk. And, and just, and I build the trust, not by saying, tell me about your life as much as I tell them about my job and that I have the ability to help them, not just with school, but with other things, I, I can connect them with other things. So I start to talk about that. For the most part in that first conversation, we don’t talk as much about school we do about their lives and, and sort of what, they’re, what they’re looking for in this moment.


Karen O’Brien (09:41):
I need, you know, I have precarious housing in this moment. I need, I really wanna work in this moment. So I, whatever that one thing is, I work really hard off the initial meeting to make that connection and get them support in that, because then they trust me and then they go the next time. Okay, here’s this, here’s this, here’s this, we do get to the point where we talk about school. I talk about you know, I ask them about when they liked school, like, what do they remember? Even if they have to reach really far back, what is it that they remember to do they remember a class or a project or something? What do they remember? And, and every single time they end up talking about the teacher. So not, well, you know, they may say grade, whatever nine I did this, or with this, they’ll start with, but they talk about the teacher and I think, okay, this is, this is what teaching is.


Karen O’Brien (10:39):
This is relationships. So, and, and they inevitably, that’s the discussion that comes out, that they like that class because they like the teacher because the teacher respected and valued them. Mm-Hmm so that’s really inevitably where it comes from. So I try then to a nice soft place, I call it for them to land in the education system where they have that caring adult. So I don’t just say, go register. I take them, I work with the school, like who’s gonna work with them. Who’s the first teacher they’re gonna encounter. Who’s going to work with them. And let’s pick carefully so, so there’s a good connection or the, the chance of the good connection.


Sam Demma (11:22):
That’s awesome. I love that. And where did your passion come from to work with these, you know, these specific type of students, like, you know, did you have a teacher that impacted you as a student? Did you have a unique own, your own unique journey through school?


Karen O’Brien (11:37):
Definitely. I, well, I moved five times growing up, my father kept getting transferred, so that’s, that’s, you know, it creates a little little, now I look back, I think. Okay. You know, you had to make it the transition. It creates a little chaos in your life. Every time you move. The most difficult move for me was probably the middle grade 12. And so you know, that, that was a tough transition for me. I had an economics teacher who was awesome and really sort of looked out for me. I must say he, so I actually enrolled in economics initially when I went, you know, nice went to university ended up getting an English and economics degree. But, but I, I think that, that was because, and he was like, you know, just one of those teachers who was like, Hey, in the hallway and, you know, built the, like totally made me feel like, okay, I’m part of this.


Karen O’Brien (12:37):
Mm. Even though I don’t feel part of this school, I, I know in this class, I feel like I’m definitely part of this. So so I do think that I also think when I started out in teaching, I was really, really so super curriculum focused. Mm. Like, like that was my, like I knew the curriculum and I was like, you know, had my lesson plans and I was like, I was on it. And I had a, a great 10 class who was gifted in rich class and they were challenging. And so I stopped trying to make them fit my curriculum, that they taught me that that’s not gonna work. and started talking to them about what they want to do. So I’d say, okay though, this is what the curriculum says you have to do.


Karen O’Brien (13:32):
How do you wanna show me that you do that? And, and this was many, many years ago. So it was so my classroom probably appeared a bit chaotic in those days compared to other classrooms. But but like, I love that class. And I, and so that’s what started me on this journey thinking, okay, you know, this, this is yeah, this is, this is how, how you teach you. Don’t, you don’t teach curriculum, you teach kids, you teach students. And, and if you’re always focused on I’m teaching the student, whatever the curriculum is, we can bring in.


Sam Demma (14:10):
Hmm. I love that. You know, you mentioned your economics teacher as well. Sounds like they, they played a huge role. Can you PI point what they did specifically that made you feel like a part of the class? Like, I, I’m curious because I, I know I’ve had teachers like that in my own high school journey. And if you asked me my favorite class, I would tell you world issues, class with, you know, Michael loud foot . So what are some of those things that you think he did or they did for you?


Karen O’Brien (14:35):
Well, part of, so part is there’s twofolds. So the one is a passion for his subject. You know, he loved it. He loved, and he loved the world. So economics, I suspect like world issues. We didn’t have world issues, but economics gave us the opportunity to look at what was happening in the world and then interpret it through the economic lens, through what’s happening. And, and, and so everything seemed like you were getting this, this passionate person about his subject, but getting an understanding of the world and what’s going on in the, in the world that, you know, you’re about to enter as an adult. So though that combination of his passion for the subject and his understanding that students wanna see the relevance, right. We want like, like make this relevant for me, make me understand why this is important. So and he did the curriculum became very relevant to me.


Karen O’Brien (15:29):
The other piece was the, the constant one on one talks. When I look back, he was, he was, you know, he kind of would do a lesson at the front, but he was always, you know, beside me, or, you know, or checking or sitting or pulling a chair or grabbing two desks and putting two, like help this person with, like, he was constantly like, you know, his classroom evolved with relationships as well as with the curriculum. So it wasn’t like we weren’t all just getting the curriculum, getting information from her, from him. We were, we were you know, part of the learning journey as he circulated through and went. And I think that that’s the teachers who, who are on the learning journey with the students and, and meet the students at whatever step they’re at to get them to the next step or help get another student to help them get to the next step.


Karen O’Brien (16:25):
Like, that’s, that’s the learning journey. So if they’re part of it, rather than the, you know, purveyor of knowledge, it’s, to me, to me, that’s, that’s the key to, to really being excellent at your job and for students to then trust you. Because if you are the expert students, I don’t know. I just get the sense that students just sit and passively take it, and then they watch for, oh, did you make a mistake? I’m gonna watch for it kind of thing. Yeah. Like it becomes a little, little bit of a us, us versus him or her or them. But if you’re, if the teacher’s on the learning journey with the student, then I think, you know, everybody leaves.


Sam Demma (17:07):
Yeah. Cause they feel just like them. It’s like, we’re both learning, you know? Yeah.


Karen O’Brien (17:12):
Yeah. Yeah. My students taught me something every year. Like I, I was teaching English and I just still remember this one young person was so funny cuz I was, he was really struggling with the poetry unit and that day we divided everything. Anyway, he was struggling with the poetry unit. So I was explaining it and I was, you know, going, oh, this is so cool. And this is what the poetry’s doing. And he said, okay, I understand. He goes, you understand that? I’m never gonna love this stuff. Right. And I go, okay, hear you. I will, I will back. Like, like I thought, okay, I’m a little Mure. So I I’m, I’m okay with you not loving it. Let’s get down to what you need to know. Yeah. And move on. And he was like, okay, good. So we


Sam Demma (17:55):
Were good from


Karen O’Brien (17:56):
Then on like I thought, okay. Learning again. Right. I get that.


Sam Demma (18:01):
That is so funny. that’s awesome.


Karen O’Brien (18:04):
It was so funny.


Sam Demma (18:05):
Yeah. And so no thinking about your role again, as a, you know, the re-engagement officer in the past couple of years versus this year, how has it changed? Like has there been a huge need for it during like, you know, COVID and what are some of the challenges you’ve been faced with and how have you tried to overcome them?


Karen O’Brien (18:24):
So huge challenges cuz I’m used to going and meeting with the student face to face. So arranging a phone call or a Google hangout as, you know, students don’t turn on their cameras and you know, there’s, there’s, they don’t always attend. Not that they always attend it in person, but so huge struggle. So I have so what I’ve done is I’ve primary to use the staff in the school. So is there someone in the school they were connected to? And I talked to the school and so then I try a three-way Google hangout or a three-way phone conversation because if they had a student success teacher or a guidance counselor or somebody or a math teacher, whomever that they really connected with and that teacher feels they can help. Then, then we were on setting up the Google meet with them, with them to sort of introduce me.


Karen O’Brien (19:19):
So we work a lot of the administrators do that. A lot of the vice principals know these kids really well. So they, we did a lot of three-way Google meets initially. So we worked with that. I got a cell phone numbers whenever I could for kids and would start texting because I can get a response, even if it’s short initially from texting. So just lots of texting check-ins really looking again for that agent, like what, what can I get to help them not necessarily school, but what can I get to help them? So I’ve used, yeah. The Google meet with, with a, a caring adult who introduces us texting some kids I’ve just driven to and said, will you just meet me outside? And we can talk. So some kids I’ve just said, you know, are you willing to do this?


Karen O’Brien (20:10):
So if they are, yeah, we just, we, you know, safety protocols stay distant and stuff, but we’d you know, go walk in a park or, you know, whatever, or just stand outside their house and they’d stand in the doorway and I’d stand back and talk to them. So I did a number of those too, just to try, I you know, used whatever I could, we have Halton learning foundation here. There’s a barriers account. So if a student is struggling, their family’s struggling financially, you can we can give them grocery gift cards. So in some, sometimes I deliberate those and that was my way so, so that was my way in with some of the kids to, to try and engage them in that conversation. I definitely used that a lot. Because a lot of these kids yeah, don’t don’t have much, so that was my way in. So rather than yeah, so I just, yeah, showing up, I mean, I really just have to show up where whatever way they’re willing to show up, if it’s a Google meet or texting or a phone call or on their front porch or, you know, at the door of their building, whatever. Yeah. I just try to show up and be there.


Sam Demma (21:27):
That’s awesome. And did you find that this year there was more support, but you were able to still, you know, do the same type of work, but it was just more difficult and more work or did you find that it was a lot, like it was a lot harder and maybe more students might have slipped through the cracks as a result of the challenges that


Karen O’Brien (21:50):
I felt that more students were slipping through the cracks this year. Although I I’ve been doing my tracking this week and, and summarizing, so we, I feel as a board, we have a good handle on our students. So I, I worried that they were flipping a slipping through the cracks, but that’s partly because I wasn’t seeing them. Oh, picture man. I’m so, so accustomed to seeing them and doing the check-ins that way. But, but I feel we have a good handle on them. There are definitely more suffering from mental health challenges all sorts of other challenges. So we have social worker workers working through the summer mental health, there’s all those things. So I’m feeling like the kids are, they struggle more. Yeah, definitely struggle more, but I’m feeling like they’re connected. You know, we see how, how well they stay connected throughout the summer, but I’m, I’m hoping that we have enough connections that we’re hanging on to them and, and we’ll get them back in September. I’m so looking forward to face to face in September, I’m feeling like we just need to hang onto them and get them back and then support them once they’re back.


Sam Demma (23:06):
Yeah. Couldn’t agree more. It’s it’s so different. I even think about the work that I do speaking this students and doing it virtual is one thing doing it in person is a totally different thing, you know? Totally. So, yeah, I couldn’t agree more. And if you could go back seven years and speak to Karen when she was just getting into this role, what, like what advice would you give your younger self and knowing what you know now?


Karen O’Brien (23:31):
When I I think knowing what I know now, when I first got into this role, I tried to cover everything like do it all, but that brought no depth to my work. Right. So, so, so cover every possible thing. And what I learned is I personally don’t need to cover every PO. I need to make sure everyone’s covered all the kids are covered, but I don’t personally, like I’m not the only person, I’m the only person in my role. And there’s no other role this in the board, but that doesn’t mean there. Aren’t a lot of other people out there who I can tap on and say, Hey, can you connect with these kids? Or even people in the community you know, informal, informal mentors in the community. Like there’s so many people. So I think, I think what I’ve learned is to build that network over the years.


Karen O’Brien (24:22):
So even if I’m not the person you know, diving deep with that kid and helping them every step of the way, I’ve got them connected to somebody who can help them navigate that. And, and they may cycle back in and ask me questions the odd time. But I, I think, I think that I would tell myself to just like focus on not focus on the kids, but focus on your network and who can help and, and who you need to tap on because the, the faster you do that, the more help you’re gonna get for these kids.


Sam Demma (24:55):
Yeah, love that. Such a good piece of advice. Well, Karen, thank you so much for coming on the show. Really appreciate it. If someone’s been listening and they’re interested in the conversation, or just wants to chat with you, what would be the best way for them to reach out?


Karen O’Brien (25:09):
They’re welcome to email me. So obrienk@hdsb.ca.


Sam Demma (25:18):
Cool, awesome. Karen again, thank you so much. Enjoy the rest of your summer. This is probably coming out in September so if you’re listening now, you’re probably wondering what the heck, but , we filmed it in the beginning of July, so enjoy your summer and I’ll talk to you soon.


Karen O’Brien (25:33):
Okay. Thank you so much, Sam.


Sam Demma (25:35):
And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the High Performing Educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review so other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show; if you want meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network, you’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Karen O’Brien

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.

Andrea Taylor – Principal at Gary Allan Learning Centres for Adult, Alternative & Continuing Education

Andrea Taylor - Principal at Gary Allan Learning Centres for Adult, Alternative & Continuing Education
About Andrea Taylor

Andrea Taylor (@GaryAllanSchool) is a Secondary Principal with the Halton District School Board and she is presently responsible for the Gary Allan Learning Centres that offer Adult, Alternative and Continuing Education at 5 different locations across the region. Andrea began her career 32 years ago as an elementary school teacher before moving to the secondary level as a biology teacher and department head.

In 2003, Andrea was promoted to the role of Secondary Vice-Principal and in 2012, she became the Principal of M.M. Robinson High School in Burlington where in 2017 she was recognized as one of Canada’s Outstanding Principals. As an outdoor enthusiast, Andrea believes that experiential learning can lead to some of the best educational moments for any learner at any age.

Taking learning outside, or even out of a classroom, can allow a student to think more broadly and creatively about the world around them.

Connect with Andrea: Email | Twitter | Website

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Gary Allan Learning Centres

Halton District School Board

Bridges to Success Programs (BTS)

Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement Address

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:01):
Andrea welcome to the high-performing educator. Huge pleasure to have you on the show this morning, please start by introducing yourself.


Andrea Taylor (00:10):
Well, hello, I’m Andrea Taylor. I’m the principal of Gary Allen learning centers within the Halton district school board. So I oversee four campuses, five campuses across the region that deal with adult alternative and continuing education for the school board.


Sam Demma (00:24):
How did you get into adult education? Tell me a little bit about the journey that brought you to where you are now.


Andrea Taylor (00:31):
Well, it’s not my first principalship. My first principalship was at a regular high school M.M. Robinson from 2012 to 2017. And this is my 32nd year in education. So I guess after my five years there, I wanted something a little different. And so this was one of my career profile choices. And so I came here in 2017, so I’m in my fifth year of it. So I’m not really sure that I had any vision for adult education. However, it has been a really nice experience for this time in my career. So I’m, I’m really enjoying seeing how adults who may not have enjoyed their high school experience, know that there’s a way in which they can come back and get their diploma. It’s a, a very very inspirational job when you give them a diploma and they’re 45, 55, 65 years old. And you’re never too old to, to get the diploma.


Sam Demma (01:33):
So that’s awesome. I think it’s such a unique school to be working in filled with inspiration. It sounds like it’s a very rewarding position. What it’s tell me a little bit more about the position itself and what you do in the school and why, why, why it’s been inspirational for you?


Andrea Taylor (01:52):
Well, I think it’s been inspirational because alternative education is what we run in our day school, plus adult credit programming. So alternative education for those students who are completely disengaged with the high school career for many different reasons. And they need to be, you know, they benefit from being out of that sort of trigger environment, quote unquote. So we have a step program which is secondary teen engagement program here in Halton, across four campuses, one in Burlington, Oakville, Milton and Georgetown. We probably have a hundred and about 150 you know, spread out throughout the region who do face to face instruction. We also run an alternative program called bridges to success for the over 18 year olds who may start to be a little older than wanting to be in high school. And, but they’re close to graduating. So it’s completely online.


Andrea Taylor (02:48):
So between those two programs, we really work to help students get their diploma. And we’re very well supported. The school board is very supportive of the alternative education and students who may have been lost and, and not return know that they have a safe place to come and and, and, and learn skills, learn coping skills and develop some positive confidence to then, you know, face the world. And a lot of these students, not all of them, but some of them, you know, live on their own and we assist them in navigating those social organizations and community supports and keep that diploma as a focus for them. And then they also know that if they age out because one under the age of 21 has a right to an education in a, in a school, but they know if they age out and they’re over 21, they can stay with Gary Allen learning centers and become one of our adults to get their credits and finish off so many, many success stories in many different ways.


Andrea Taylor (03:55):
Some say, you know, that’s, that’s it Ms. Taylor? I’m 18. I gotta go work. I’m like, okay, well you go work, but then you come back to us because they know they get equivalency credits for their life experiences too. So there’s inspiration everywhere and the way the teachers work with the students. So stories of adults who come back, they may have developed a career. You know, they left school early, but they now have their own children and they don’t wanna be a hypocrite and say, you go get your diploma. You need to get your diploma. And they turn around and say, well, mom, you haven’t gotten yours. And I’ve had parents and children graduate together. And I sh you know, to shake their hands at commencement. So yeah, a lot of different things that happened. And then the new program that we brought into our learning center is for newcomers. It’s the language acquisition programs link ESL FSL for newcomers. And within a year and half, we already have over a thousand learners. And that’s non-credit, but allows them to, to gain language proficiency, which then would allow them to move into our adult credit program. So newcomers can then get their Ontario diploma. So we have a number of different vehicles and avenues within the school board to meet the needs of a wide variety of learners.


Sam Demma (05:12):
What is the step or steps program? Tell me a little bit more about that as well.


Andrea Taylor (05:16):
So the step program is the secondary team engagement program. It’s been with the board for an number of decades now. It has been fine tuned over the last couple of years. It’s it has about two or three classrooms, two classrooms at each site, smaller setting it’s supported with child, youth counselors and social workers. And EA our staff are very well trained in trauma informed classroom instruction restorative practice. And we welcome students. It’s it’s continual intake. So we run it as a positive parallel program to your traditional high school, so that our colleagues, when they know that they have a student who is not engaging, has high absenteeism has sometimes high social anxieties can’t handle the big craziness of the high schools. They’ll do a referral to our program and the first year that we have them, the step, the E and step really stands for engagement.


Andrea Taylor (06:20):
We try to engage them, build trust relationships. A lot of times the students don’t trust the educational system. It hasn’t helped them. It’s been more of a burden. And so we really work on that people to people skills. The next step is to in sort of expand them and into experiential learning. We have a TRX program, which is for trades. It’s a, it’s a woodworking shop here at the main campus in Burlington. And so the students become very creative, build everything from paddles to desks, to whatever they want. And some have gone on to the trades of that, that encouragement. And then the final step to it is when we’ve had them for a few years, we expand them into experiential co-op community co-op they may go into the bridges program to do digital learning. So they see what it’s gonna be like at college and university.


Andrea Taylor (07:15):
And many of our students will have post-secondary plans, but we really have to unpack, I guess, the harm or the, the reason for being disengaged from high school any distress or anxieties, we try to, to work with the student and the families to, to make it better for them. And and, and then, so we do get a, a number of really good success stories. Yeah, I could, I, I could spend all day telling you a number of the stories, so that’s step and, and some students do come to, to us and they feel better and they have those skills to go back into their homeschool. So they may reengage. So that’s why we’re a parallel program for the high schools, but other students stay with us and graduate from, from here as well, or they go onto the BTS or they, they may become our adult credit students as well. So we never really say goodbye to them. We really help them until they, until they graduat. And even when they’ve graduated, they’ve come back and been speakers sometimes for our kids. Just say, there’s hope don’t give up.


Sam Demma (08:23):
That’s awesome. Is BTS the bridges program. And how does that differ from the step program?


Andrea Taylor (08:28):
So bridges to success is really for the 18 to 2021 year olds it’s completely online so that you need to be of a more independent student. And self-directed, it is continual intake as well. So our teachers have a combination of step classes and a bridge class completely working online. And and so some of those students may have already graduated high school. They may be an an OSS D grad already, but they’ve found that they don’t like the pathway they’re on. So they, they come back and they change their pathway, change their courses, do their upgrading. Maybe they’ve taken a year off before post-secondary and wanna get their marks to be higher. And so those students are older and, but they’re still under the age of 21. And and so again, it’s a nice piece for us. If we’ve had a student for a number of years and they’ve developed independence and reliability and they can get their work done, then we move them on to a bridges program because that’s kind of what they’re going to see. And we didn’t know when we devised that, that the world would be at one point a hundred percent online. Yeah. So we were kind of positioned well for that, but our teachers and our students have really done well by that program.


Sam Demma (09:48):
At what point in your own career journey did you realize education is what you wanted to do with your life and how did you come to that realization?


Andrea Taylor (10:00):
Oh, I don’t know. I was a competitive athlete when I was younger and did all the sports in school and I’ve coached and I’ve always coached when I was younger, you know, I’ve, I’ve just been helping others and instructing since I was probably 14. And when I was at university, I I really wanted to go into med school because I had some really good doctors, sports medicine, doctors help me. So that’s what I really wanted to do. But in third year university, I realized I couldn’t afford med school. So I went my other love of sports and PhysEd and health biology. So I went on to teachers college with no regrets and have a, you know, my specialty, my specialists are in phys ed and biology. And that’s what I became. I actually started in elementary school.


Andrea Taylor (10:48):
So you know, sometimes things work out for you and you don’t even know why until you look back. And so I don’t regret going into education. You know, I started in, in elementary, so I I’ve taught every grade from grade five to OAC or to 12 U biology. Nice. before going into administration. So it’s it’s been a nice journey. And as I said, you don’t always know. So you know, I got into education kind of by default, and then I’ve been blessed along the way that opportunity has just come up. And, and I’m a person that doesn’t wanna say what if down the road. So, you know, you give it your best shot and you do in my mantra is to live, do well by the people I’m responsible for. So, you know, as a teacher, you’re responsible for the kids. And as, as an administrator, you’re responsible for staff and kids and parents. So you just, if you continue to do well by the P people you’re responsible for, then I find it’s worked out well.


Sam Demma (11:42):
Steve jobs has this quote in his 2005 Stanford commencement speech, where he says, you can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that at some point in your future, the dots will connect and what you just shared made me think of that. And it makes total sense. When you think back on your career in education and all the different roles you’ve worked in, what are some of the experiences you went through courses, mentors, you came across, anything that’s been, you think helpful over the yeah. That’s, you know, putting you on the spot here and that’s a, a long career to pull from, but I


Andrea Taylor (12:22):
Wasn’t one of your questions that were, you gave me.


Sam Demma (12:25):
I know


Andrea Taylor (12:27):
But that’s okay. I still have a good memory. I was just, just speaking to one of my, I mentors this morning, you know people that I I have known throughout my 30 plus years here at the board. And you just learn, you, you learn who it is that are your critical friends and people that you can rely on and, you know, our role of, of maintaining pro professionalism, but we also are still human. So there’s times where you need those critical friends and, and safe places to just be you because you have to, to let it out. But I guess, I guess the, the, I would say, and I said this to some people, but I think back the most pivotal year I had was my fifth year of teaching at the end of my fifth year a teacher, I was surplus.


Andrea Taylor (13:21):
And I was told I had, you know, I got picked up at another elementary school and I was teaching grade five and, oh my goodness. So I had to go and get my junior qualifications. And I thought after my first day of teaching grade five, I was about to quit. And I was like, oh my gosh, a little old, I don’t, I don’t know what to do with these 10 year olds. And they ended up being the best class that I had. I have had former students from that class contact me and they’re doing well, but what I learned from that and surviving that year with these grade fives and then moving on into secondary, and then moving on to adult tell you, is that everybody’s a 10 year old, they’re just in bigger bodies. So, you know, they all need purpose and, and belonging.


Andrea Taylor (14:06):
And you know, I had to take a special ed course because I had so many identified students and I had a couple students with cerebral palsy. And in that class, you know, we just lowered the net to play volleyball. One person was in a wheelchair. Just learned so many things from that class and that experience and that’s taking special ed one is why I was able to move into secondary, to, to teach a course for students, with autism in science. And so things happen along the way. And, and as I said, you just do well by the students you’re responsible for, but I, I still think of that sometimes I’m the 10 year old and I’m like, I need, I need to talk to someone. So, you know, we’re all we’re all 10 year olds just in bigger bodies. And we just need to remember to listen to each other and, and not judge. And they taught me so much. I, I did not know that 10 year olds could be so responsible.


Sam Demma (14:58):
Yeah. They’re


Andrea Taylor (14:59):
Just amazing, amazing age.


Sam Demma (15:01):
I love that. And right now education looks a lot different, maybe not so much for the online learners that you’ve already had in the past, but for the in person with the challenges of the pandemic and the rise of so many important conversations education looks different. What do you think some of the opportunities are maybe to change or to improve over the next couple of years?


Andrea Taylor (15:29):
Well, anytime you’re, you’re given challenges you know, it’s kind of almost like a, not a correction factor, but when you’re given challenges, you really have to back up and, and, and take a look at the big picture. And a number of my colleagues will laugh, cuz I always have sayings for things, but sometimes when you have challenges, you hang on too tight, you’re hugging the tree too close. You’re looking at the bark and you can see the ants, you know, mark through the Bart and, and it’s really cuz you feel like you have to hang onto something where sometimes, you know what this is maybe out of our control. So I’m gonna back up completely and go and see the whole forest. I’m gonna get to higher ground. And I’m gonna look at the whole forest and say, you know what, I, I need to take a different path.


Andrea Taylor (16:07):
I need to go this way now. And so I’m hoping that with education, we’re not hanging on all so tight. And we, we look at it and say, okay, what have we learned? What are the good and, and the good thing is that, you know, when I taught three or four U biology and I had a student with mono, they might lose the whole semester because they couldn’t, they were in the hospital and they didn’t have the energy and, and they had to come back and have to drop out for a bit and come back the next semester, we didn’t have a way to just move and maneuver things online and keep the work going to them. Right. so the hybrid approach to, to education is important. But I, I also think when you back up, you start to look at what are the priorities and what is education.


Andrea Taylor (16:50):
What’s the difference between teaching and transferring knowledge to educating the mind and education doesn’t have to come out of a book education, doesn’t have to come out of a digital screen education, you know, looking at how you best learn and wanna be a lifelong learner. And we need to take the opportunity right now to say, okay, what has worked really well? What can we change? And, and what can we continue to do that the students really need to learn about themselves and others to be contributing citizens to a society once they graduate. So I think the opportunity is, is to step back and just go, okay, like, you know, we’re gonna, it’s a virus, we’re gonna have to live with it. We’re gonna have to learn to manage it. But in that, how do we continue to, to help the child’s mind develop the youth’s mind, develop stay positive. Things will get better. They may be different, but will be okay and people need to, to know that. And and we will get through it. And, and so education has the opportunity to, to open its mind and go, how do we deliver this information? Are we doing it in the best possible way?


Sam Demma (18:02):
You mentioned near the beginning of the interview, sometimes you would have former students alone come in and share their stories with the current students. And it would generate some hope. I think hearing about success stories during challenging times is a great way to generate hope. And I’m sure there’s so many success stories that have come out of your, you know, school at the adult learning education center. But when you think of some of the students who have made significant changes and improvements are there any specific stories that stand out and you, if it’s a serious story, you can change their name for privacy reasons. But I’m wondering if there’s any specific story that sticks out in your mind about a student who had a serious change, and positive change.


Andrea Taylor (18:52):
Oh yeah. There’s, there’s there’s many, but I have to be very mindful. I, I do wanna protect privacy. Yeah. but what I will say I think because of the way our, our step program is with continual intake and itself pace, so students go at their own, right. And so some of them that come to us that are completely credit deficit as we call it we’ve had there’s one in particular. I won’t go into details cuz I don’t want anyone to be a BA because it’s quite unique coming out of the, you know, the GTA, the Toronto scene. Yeah. you know, know getting towards 18 and having very minimal credits. And I don’t even know if they were double digit credits, but once we were able to get through that step one of relationships and you can trust us and we’re here for you and we’re not gonna give up on you.


Andrea Taylor (19:50):
And we’re, you know, we’re working with your family as well. And they be, wow, these people are not just bail on me. They’re not just saying, you know he was able to get 10 credits in a year. He was able to do some equivalencies. He was with us for about two years and came to us with no, no sense of purpose or where he wanted to be. And when last year in the middle of COVID, of course we had couldn’t have commencement of how all was virtual, but we did have some students who were able to come back and, and get their diploma and I would have my mask on and I would meet them outside and I would give them their diploma and F them. And it was very rewarding to go from a young man that you worried would’ve ended up maybe incarcerated or, you know, there’s sometimes I worry about if my students are going even make it to their 20th birthday or 21st birthday, but because of our staff and, and, and our support staff, social workers, everybody who works around these, these very you know, challenging students are, but they’re just products of their, of their their environment in sense.


Andrea Taylor (21:09):
Anyway, it was just so heartwarming to give this young man his diploma. And I asked, what do you wanna do now? And he says, I think I wanna be a plumber and I’m absolutely go and do it. The people are so needed. Everybody has


Sam Demma (21:24):
Well, its


Andrea Taylor (21:24):
It’s awesome. And, and so, you know, that, that gives our staff hope because some of our students are so fragile and, and they’re human and you, you, you just wanna wrap around them. And that’s, our focus is to do wrap around learning and support and, and get them to that graduation where they can then stay and articulate to you. This is what I wanna do. This is what I wanna be, where when they first come here, they’re like, I don’t know. I don’t know. Right. I don’t know. And that’s, that’s the beauty of education is, is helping a young person know where they may wanna go. Now it might change that journey might PA you know, like mine, I thought I might be going into med school, but I went into education, but they need that first encouragement, nudge, and support to do that. They don’t have all the answers right now. And that’s what as role models as adults, as educators, we need to do that for them.


Sam Demma (22:20):
That’s such a heartwarming story. Thanks so much for sharing that.


Andrea Taylor (22:24):
Yeah. Yeah. There’s been other ones where I’ve run across a student and you know, heard, they had been in, had done some time. And, but I was just so pleased to see that they were alive at sometimes you have students that go through and you’re like, I’m just happy. You’re here with me right now. So it’s, it’s, it’s all good. And and that’s, you know, education is around out the people and that’s the important part of it.


Sam Demma (22:52):
Hmm. When you think about your experience throughout education, you’ve already shared some great learnings and feedback, but if you could take all of your experience, go back in time to your first and second year, third year teaching, you know, tap yourself on the shoulder and say, and this is what you needed to hear. What advice would you have given your younger self or also someone who’s just starting to get into this profession?


Andrea Taylor (23:26):
I think that kind of goes with one of the questions you gave me about, you know, mistakes that you made and what I’ve learned from the, I think I would tell myself more and more, listen, listen more. Sometimes the things we think in our head, people aren’t always ready to hear it and you have to listen to the people, whether they’re peers or your, your superiors or your students, wherever you fit within the educational system, but really listen without judgment and don’t jump to conclusions. And but then know if you have something that that’s important to say, you plan out and pick the proper time to say it and in, in what manner to say it. So I have had mentors and people along the way who you know, jokingly, I can come out like a bulldog sometimes and because I become passionate about some things.


Andrea Taylor (24:21):
And I think if I’m so passionate about it, I’m gonna make you so passionate about it, but they are not ready to hear it in a way. And so I’ve, I’ve learned to, to slow down my conversation. So if I could go back to, oh my God, when I was turning to, I was 24 turning 25 when I started, oh Lord. I would be just saying, slow it down, Andrew, just slow it down and listen. And, and you know, not wanna qua the passion cuz that’s just who I am. But yeah, we sometimes in education always have answers for things and sometimes we don’t have the answers and we need to give ourselves permission not to have the answers and listen for it. Someone else may have it. Right. And that’s what I would say. It’s just slow it down and and, and listen for sure.


Sam Demma (25:08):
That’s awesome. Thank you so much for digging back. That was also for anyone wondering a non-planned question.


Andrea Taylor (25:17):
You like, you just put me on, you put me on the spot, which is kinda like my job, you know, there’s you come thinking you have your day planned or nothing planned or whatever, and all of a sudden it, it takes own path. Right. And you just gotta go with it.


Sam Demma (25:28):
Okay. Yeah. I appreciate you sharing and taking the time today to come on the show. Talk about your experiences, a little, a little bit about the school you work at and some of your philosophies around teaching and education. If someone is listening has a question for you or wants to reach out what would be the best way for them to get in touch with you?


Andrea Taylor (25:47):
Best to email me (taylora@hdsb.ca)


Sam Demma (25:49):
Okay, perfect. I will make sure to include your email in the show notes of the episode as well, or the article that we put together and they can, they can find the email there when it does get released. Thank you so much again for doing this. Keep up to great work.


Andrea Taylor (26:02):
And thank you. It’s been a pleasure. It’s made my morning. I think it’s made my day. So I thank you, Sam.


Sam Demma (26:07):
You’re welcome!

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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.