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Social Worker

Arielle Ben-Zaken – Clinical Social Worker at CIUSSS

Arielle Ben-Zaken - Clinical Social Worker at CIUSSS
About Arielle Ben-Zaken

Arielle has worked with youth her entire professional career.  Whether in summer camps, high schools, and hospitals, Arielle has committed her life to becoming a source of hope and support for young people.  

Connect with Arielle: Email | Linkedin

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

CIUSSS du Centre-Ouest-de-l’Île-de-Montréal (CIUSSS)

BBYO Passport Summer Programs

West Island Therapy and Wellness Centre

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. Today’s guest is Arielle Ben-Zaken. She is a clinical social worker. She has worked in summer camps with students. She has worked as a school counselor in a high school. A lot of her work stems around the idea of helping young people. I mean, she’s been surrounded by youth in all of her different roles and responsibilities, and she also works with an amazing organization called Cell 360 to promote social, emotional learning in high schools and across North America. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Arielle. It was very insightful and enjoyable, and I will see you on the other side. Arielle, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here this morning. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit of your journey that brought you to where you are today working with young people?


Arielle Ben-Zaken (01:31):
Totally. Firstly, Sam, super, super excited to be here. I’ve always wanted to be on a podcast, so this is great. So I am a social worker here in Montreal. I’ve been a social worker for the last five years and I’ve been working with teens from, since I can remember. I did a lot of summer camp work where I was staffed with teens and my most amazing job that I loved so much other than the one I do currently was a, like I took kids on trips around the world. So I was like a teen tour guide, but I wasn’t actually a tour guide. I just took kids really you know, en engaged with them; I was their counselor kind of like overseas, and it was such an amazing experience. I think that for me was the eye opening experience that made me wanna come into social work.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (02:16):
I had had a kid on the trip. This was before I wasn’t even considering social work who opened up to me about struggles that she had gone through. And I thought to myself like, this is the type of population I wanna work with. They are malleable, impressionable. They’re a really wonderful population to work with. I have a lot to learn from them. They have a lot to learn from me. And so that really opened up my eyes to kind of how this whole thing started. So now I’m a social worker here. I work for the government, so I work like I do public job and then I also work for found medicine clinic. And then I also do some part-time therapy through a therapy clinic called the west island therapy center.


Sam Demma (02:54):
Oh, that’s awesome. And let’s go back to the beginning. Yeah. So the, the first way that you started teaching and engaging with youth was through summer camps.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (03:04):
Yeah, exactly.


Sam Demma (03:05):
So what got you into that and what was that experience like?


Arielle Ben-Zaken (03:08):
So it, first of all, it was amazing. I reminisce about that every day. It was like my favorite times of my life. I started going to summer camp at a young age. So at the age of eight I was at sleepaway camp from eight till 22. And so for me being a camper, there was really like a, a wonderful experience where I met a lot of staff that really had an impact on me. And then when it was my turn to become a staff, I was not gonna pass up the chance cuz I wanted to be the person who can have an impact on someone else as well. So I started there and that was my journey at summer camp.


Sam Demma (03:40):
Oh, that’s awesome. Yeah. And then the next role was in a school.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (03:45):
Yeah. So exactly. So, well actually not, no. So the next role after that I went on to get my master’s, my master’s in social work. Nice. Then I worked in youth protection, so child protective services. Okay. For a couple years. Yeah. Which was also a really interesting experience, both personal and professional. I learned a ton about myself difficult job obviously. You know, seeing kids going through situations of abuse and neglect is really tough. Yeah. But rewarding because of the role that I had, which was really working with the families to to, to, to help them out and really bring them back together. And then after that I went to the school, which was also super cool because it was a different way of working with teens. So again, I did like some of the counseling, so they came into my office and we had some conversation and I helped them with things they were struggling with, but I also just got to interact with the kids in a different way. You know, taught them I did like the drug and alcohol program where I went into the classes and I with, with the other social worker and we taught them about drugs and alcohol and healthy use and did some sex ed stuff too. Like it was just a really interesting way of, of engaging them. And it was so much fun.


Sam Demma (04:51):
What brought you into the classroom? Like the, the work that you do could take you in so many directions and it, it seems like you so many tried a bunch of different avenues, which is awesome. It gives you a diverse perspective, but what brought you into a school setting as opposed to just going to like working at a hospital or at a social work clinic, you know?


Arielle Ben-Zaken (05:08):
Yeah, yeah, totally. I think for me it was really engaging one on one with the teens. Whereas like in a hospital setting, you’re kind of you’re you, there’s not necessarily one specific role. Sometimes you could switch around departments. You’re not necessarily only working with teens. Like I knew if I got myself into a high school, I’d be working specifically with teens and youth. And that for me was, was important. Because like I said, they’re, they’re really fun, fun crowd to work with at the same time. They’re also struggling a lot. There’s a lot of issues there with like mental health. Especially now with the pandemic, things are like on, on a rise. And I really felt like it was, you know, again, like I’m not a superwoman or a superhuman and I can’t just like help everybody, like I want to, but I felt like I could at least have an impact on them and really create relationships with the students that I worked with and have them sort of like, like look up to me in a way and really be able to impart knowledge on them, which was important to me.


Sam Demma (06:00):
And have you, have you heard different things due to the pandemic this year from the students you interact with and engage with and what is like the number one thing students you think, and everyone has a diverse challenge and they might all be, not all be the same, but what is something that you hear coming up very often among lots of different teens?


Arielle Ben-Zaken (06:19):
Yeah, so I no longer, I no longer work at the school, but I do do like private clinical work with teens. Got it. But we’re seeing a lot of issues with body image self-esteem eating disorders. I was actually just part of a really amazing sort of work workshop with an NEB, which is like a, an organization that works with eating disorders. And I had it last night and they’re, I mean, the numbers are on a rise, like really, really completely on a rise. Kids are at home doing nothing but scrolling through social media. And you know, I I’ve, I’ve said this before that they’re they’re positives and negatives to social media and the positives are that there’s a lot of kids that are having kids, teens, whatever it is, adults that are having a voice now and, and a platform to use their voice, but on the other end there’s a lot of comparison and, and, and this is what my life looks like and all these, like what I eat in a day videos that are coming up now that kids are watching, teens are watching.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (07:15):
So lots of body image issues. Like I, I just read yesterday in the, in the top that we had, they spoke about I actually wrote it down if you don’t mind me reading it. Cause I thought it was, it was a oh yeah, 80. It was a statistic that 80% of Canadian girls ages, 10 to 17 downloaded a filter or used an application to change the way they look in pictures by the age of 13. Wow. Like it’s. Yeah. Yeah. So for me, like in what I do right now is I work a lot with body image and self-esteem, and it’s sort of like where I wanna continue going. Because as a woman who lives in society where these like there’s these beauty standards and all these things, it’s so important for me to help girls understand that it’s, this is not the only way to be the only way to go. Yeah. So, yeah.


Sam Demma (08:01):
Yeah. It’s so true. I’m actually working on a spoken word album called dear high school. Me and one of the poems is all about the pressure that society puts on us and how it can make life feel like an uphill battle. And it’s like, it’s crazy companies, large companies, and, you know, big corporations don’t sell us clothes and, you know, filters, they sell us the fact that we’re flawed quote unquote, and that we need these things to be perfect. And it’s so false, but it’s like, I deal with it. Everyone deals with it and it’s yeah, it gets exhausting, you know?


Arielle Ben-Zaken (08:31):
Yeah, totally. And it’s almost, it’s, it’s, it’s all we know, right? Yeah. Like it’s all we, we have grown up in this society where it’s, it’s really, we’re, we’re someone once said this it’s like we’re coming into a disordered society. Like society itself is really messed up. And so how can we be okay. Coming into a society? That’s not okay.


Sam Demma (08:48):
Yeah. I, I feel that a hundred percent I want to go back for a second. See your trips. Yeah. Around the world. Yeah. Where did this come from? What are these, can you tell, tell me more about it and an impact it had on you and also the students.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (09:01):
Totally. again, like I said earlier, like one of the best jobs I’ve ever had and I’m so grateful to have done it. It was with the company called B B Y O passport. I literally, it was like, I don’t know, six years ago I had no summer job didn’t know what to do. So my mom, and she’ll be very happy that, you know, she’ll hear me say this looked upon the internet for me to see like what, you know, I don’t know, like summer jobs and this popped up. And it was really, it’s a Jewish organization. B B Y O is an, is a, like a youth group, like a teen youth group. And so this is like their passport division. And really like, I started, I think the first trip I ever did, they got trips that go like all over the world.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (09:38):
They go to Eastern Europe, they go to the UK, they go a lot to Israel because of the, there’s a Jewish component to it. And I did my first trip to the west coast of the us, which was a three week trip. And I saw the entire west coast of the us. And then every other year after that, I went to Israel. A bunch of times I went to Italy, I went to Eastern Europe. Am I missing anywhere? I went, yeah, no. And that’s where I went. And it was just such an amazing opportunity. Like, firstly for me, it was a very different job compared to being a camp counselor because now you’re a counselor overseas. So at camp you’re their, you’re their parents, sister, brother, whatever it is, 24 7 here. You’re that also, but you’re really their only connection because they can’t turn around and go home as easily as they could up north here in Montreal.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (10:24):
So that was, that was a really interesting added experience of, or added part to the whole thing as well. And really like, again, there was like that Jewish component too. And I really like, I, I did not go to like Jewish, private school when I was growing up. I went to public school, so I didn’t really have a lot of Jewish knowledge. So I learned it a lot at camp. And then on these trips too, I was learning while also trying to help the kids learn as well. And I think for me, like you know, I love Israel. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. I’m, I’m part, I’m half Israeli, so it makes sense. Nice. And so for me, watching them fall in love with Israel was also amazing cuz I remember the time that I fell in love with it.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (11:00):
So there was like all those kind of added components. And then as I got older, right, as, as I sort of became more, I guess you can say like, like a senior staff in these trips there was a lot more of a mental health component that became obvious. Like when I started there was no mental health issue. I mean there were kids had mental health issues. Don’t get me wrong, but my last time working with the voo passport, my role was very different. So I went to Israel for six weeks. I was sort of like the mental health professional that ran around from trip to trip to deal with these issues. When I started, we didn’t have that, that wasn’t known to us as staff. And it just goes to show that mental health issues are increasing amongst teens like exponentially. So yeah.


Sam Demma (11:43):
And what do you think is the big life learnings that students took away from those experiences? I think that travel is such a transformative experience and curious to know what the students were saying after those or what you think they took away from that experience.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (11:59):
Yeah. I think, I think travel was obviously, you know, a big, a big part of it because that’s the reason they came on the trip. I think also though there was a sense of community that we created. We really worked hard to create. I think it’s easy for kids to be at school be impacted by those around them and then come on these trips and meet people. They may not necessarily be friends with at school and get to know people in a different way. It was a really intimate setting, right. I think like the biggest trip I was on at 40 fourteens, but I remember one year when I went, I had like 20 cuz I was the first trip going out. Wow. And so we’re like a little family and you could really get to know each other as you, as you go on these trips.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (12:34):
And there’s a lot of like personal learning, right? Like traveling for the first time away from mom and dad you know, seeing certain sites and learning history about, about wherever it was that we were that was also really, really big for the teens. And just a lot of fun, you know, like I think, I think for me the biggest thing when I worked on these trips was that I wanted to make sure that they walked away saying that was an amazing summer. I had such a great time. Can’t wait to do it again. Or now, nowadays when I see like on Facebook, my kids hanging out with each other from like previous trips years ago, I feel, I feel so. So like my, my heart is so warm because I see that they’re still connected. So it’s that sense of connection and community that was created that lasts quite a, quite a long time


Sam Demma (13:13):
And on the topic of mental health being on the rise and students, you know, it’s always been there, but students openly talking about it more and reducing the stigma, you know, you’re a board director, I believe of SEL 360. Can you tell us more about that initiative, why it started and you know, what you’re hoping to accomplish with it


Arielle Ben-Zaken (13:31):
Of of course. So cell 360 is an in initiative that was created to work on reducing the stigma, mental health in teens in the youth population. I jumped on board about a year ago now. We’re really like, everything’s starting to kind of get going now, which is super, super exciting. We’ve done a lot of Facebook live events to really get topics out there that are not discussed normally. Like, like normally I guess you know, in like that are not really discussed, I guess is what I’m trying to say. And, and just really getting people awareness, really creating awareness around, like we just had a, a few videos go out about ed disorders and exercise addiction. Things like that that are sort of, we, we hear the term, but nobody maybe sits down to have these types of conversations, at least not the way we do.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (14:17):
You know, we interview professionals, we interview people that are struggling’re in their own way. And I think that, I think ending the stigma for mental health for, for teens is so important. Because you’re right. Like you said, things are, you know, people are talking about it more now, so it’s really, they’re lucky to be part of a generation or, or of a generation where these conversations are happening. But I remember when I, when I was growing up, like I never had these, these conversations didn’t happen. People were really hush hush about them. It was embarrassing. You know, a lot of people didn’t even know what anxiety was or what depression was, but they knew they felt something different, but we didn’t talk about it. Right. so that’s really what, what cell 360 does and really tries to work on, on ending that stigma. We’re a board of wonderful people and I’m so honored to be a part of it, like really, really it’s super cool. And, and we’re just, we’re just growing and we’re, we’re starting to kind of really things are taking off right now, which is really exciting.


Sam Demma (15:12):
Where do you and the team see the organization or the work in like five years?


Arielle Ben-Zaken (15:18):
Yeah. Ooh, that’s a good question. I guess for, for me I’d really love to get into schools and start like a type of a workshop, like a cell 360 workshop program where we’re really getting into schools and really working with the, with teens and with youth on, on mental health. And yeah, like that’s where I see it going. I’ve always said this though. Like I think it’s super important that kids in high school, somewhere along the line have a class on psychology, have a class on mental health. Because if we can start it young, it will only get better as we get older. People will feel more comfortable talking about it as they get older. And I think that that is so, so, so important, like on, on top of math and English and French and Quebec and all those kinds of things that are super important. So is mental health and really getting teen to understand what they’re feeling, you know there’s nothing worse than feeling something different and not knowing what it is and kind of walking around feeling that whatever let’s say, depressive symptoms or anxiety symptoms and having no label or nothing to connect it with. Yeah. So I think that would be really important.


Sam Demma (16:19):
Yeah. As a student myself, I always found it weird that we learned so much about other things except for ourselves, you know, like totally the one thing that is that is with us our entire life we don’t learn much about. And you know, even now as I’ve grown up and I’m grown up, I’m 21, you still pretty young. But even now I’ve started to realize like your mind is the most powerful thing that you have that anyone has, right. Like everything that’s around us in our reality was once started and crafted in someone’s mind before they brought it to life. And we learned nothing about it and it’s like, we need to know more about this and feelings and emotional intelligence and there’s so many awesome topics. So I can’t wait to see that come to life because it surely will in the next couple years. So, oh, that’s amazing. And when a student approaches you as a social worker or somebody approaches you as a social worker, mm-hmm what do those initial reactions look like? Or sorry, interactions look like, is it a very open conversation? Do you encourage sharing? Like what does that look like? Yeah,


Arielle Ben-Zaken (17:19):
Yeah, yeah, yeah, no. So totally encouraged sharing. Something I think that’s really important about my job is that we, you know, I have to respect confidentiality. So yeah, I really let them know that everything that, that this person and I speak about is kept confidential. I can’t tell anyone about it. I think that initial understanding creates comfort already by just knowing that no one else will know about this kind of thing. And, and that I have no, I’m like legally bound. And can’t talk about these things openly. Yeah. I know for me, like my, my most important thing when I work with a client is I really work to create a safe space. It’s been a little awkward on zoom because I’ve do been doing a lot of my work on zoom, but I’ve been successful. And I feel like I’ve really created a safe space and, and really provided this, the, the support for the client to be able to share.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (18:03):
And yeah, I encourage sharing. I always say, like, I tell clients, you wanna cry, cry, don’t stop yourself from crying. Crying’s an emotion you need to let it out. I really try and make them feel comfortable. For some it’s really awkward and, and, and, you know, I’ve had clients say to me, like, this is really uncomfortable. And so take the first couple of sessions, just get to know them. Yeah. Like let’s chit chat about what music you listen to and what shows you watch and really try and get to know them that way. Because at the end of the day, I’m human too. And so if I can, if I can show them that I’m human and they can understand that about me as well, that I’m not just like this robotic, like social worker they may open up a little bit more to me.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (18:39):
So it’s, it’s, it’s a really interesting experience too. Like I’ve, I’ve been lucky in my jobs to be able to watch people progress from the moment I meet them to sort of like when our work ends together. And I find that the most rewarding and I tell clients all the time, like sitting from where I am, and I only see these people on our sessions, let’s say I’ve been able to see their progress. And they’re always like super they’re really, you, you really think that about me. It’s like, I’ve seen it. I don’t need to think about it. I’ve been able to watch that progress. And I think, yeah, it’s, it’s a lot of sharing. I, I really encourage that, cuz there’s no other way to know about someone than if they don’t share.


Sam Demma (19:14):
And some schools are blessed to have a social worker mm-hmm , but a lot of them don’t, you know, and a lot of local high schools that might not have the budgets or might not have the resource available. They don’t have a social worker in place. Yeah. In those situations, typically a student might actually go to their teacher and a teacher might be unsure how to handle the situation. You know, if you have to give some advice to a teacher, you know, they realize that a student in their class is struggling, don’t know how to approach the student. Like how would you advise them to go about starting that conversation or doing that?


Arielle Ben-Zaken (19:49):
Yeah. I think the, the biggest thing for a teacher let’s say is just to listen. I think that we forget that listening is one of our greatest skills. And that sometimes for someone listening is really all that they need. Mm-Hmm, a lot of people don’t listen to teens. And so it’s like, you know I’ve, I’ve read articles and read things and have conversations about when teens say to their parents, like you know I need to talk or something or they kind of give them an in about a conversation. Sometimes parents don’t listen. Sometimes parents are really easy to say, yeah, I’m busy. I can’t talk right now. But when the kid comes to you, that’s like a very important thing that they’re doing, cuz they’re ready to talk about something. Yeah. I think the same goes with teachers. Like just be, just listen, be open-minded.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (20:28):
There is obviously an, you know, sometimes situations where the teacher like is their hands are tied. Like they really can’t help. So I would always, you know, suggest to seek additional support either from the principal of the school or, you know, maybe look on the internet. There’s tons of really amazing. Especially here in Quebec, I’m only familiar with the resources here, lots of really awesome hotlines and you know, like team texting, they can text numbers now that they’ve opened up so that it’s not just on the phone cause some feel uncomfortable. So maybe even like reaching out to those to those types of, of help lines would be really helpful for teachers too. And yeah, I really think like I’m repeating myself like a broken record, but listening is so important, like such an important tool. Because when, when a Tina’s given time to talk and someone’s listening, let me tell you, they will, if they’re comfortable, they will talk. So it’s, it’s good to sort of make that connection.


Sam Demma (21:23):
Oh, I love that. I, yeah, it’s so funny. I once had a mentor tell me, you know, listening super important and you know, it’s, it’s the most underrated skill. And I didn’t know at the time that he was gonna test me on my own listening skills, but he’s like, Sam, I’m gonna read out some information for you. And he just told me this out of the blue and he’s a lot older and it was his, it was his professional bio and it had a set number of pieces of information in it. And after he finished reading, he just asked me, he’s like, Hey, can you recite however many pieces of information you can remember? And there was like 60 or 80 something pieces. And I, I recited like eight or nine. Yeah. And, and he was like, you failed miserably. And I was like, well, you didn’t, you know, you didn’t tell me it was a test. Yeah. And he said this sentence, I’ll never forget. He said, every time someone else opens their mouth, it is a test. Wow. And it was just like, I was like, whoa, like listening so important. And I can’t think that I’m listening. Good enough. I need to always try and be more present and turn off my phone and make sure I’m fully engaged in the conversation and not thinking about something else while the person’s speaking. So yeah. I just wanted to share that as well. I think you’re absolutely listening is like such a important thing to do. Not only in, you know, scenarios where you’re with a student, but overall just in life in general


Arielle Ben-Zaken (22:40):
Overall. Yeah. Like you just said, the thing to me that, that that is so important is that listening makes you be in the present. I think we live a lot of our lives in the past, in the future. And we rarely, rarely remember that the present is the most important. We’re never gonna get these moments back. So if we’re always living, trying to do something or, or wishing we did something different, we forget about what’s going on in, in, in, in this moment right now. And when you listen, you’re like you said, you’re off your phone, you’re connected, you’re engaged. You’re there. You’re like, it’s such an important thing. And we are like, I feel like sometimes we live life on autopilot, so we’re always going, going, going, going. And we rarely remember, like you said, listening will make you be in the present moment, just, you know, sit down and, and, and use your ears and hear what someone’s saying is so, so, so important.


Sam Demma (23:25):
I hear you there you go. I love that. No pun intended. Speaking about important things, if you could give your younger self advice, like if you could go back in time to the first year you got into social work and working with young people, knowing what you know now and having the experiences you’ve had, what advice would you give your younger self?


Arielle Ben-Zaken (23:45):
I love this question cuz I think about it a lot. I think I would tell my younger self that it’s gonna be okay, don’t worry. You’re gonna get this done. Or things are gonna pan out the way you want them to, but like, don’t rush anything. I was a very rushy like student. I remember I just wanted to get good grades, get outta school. And now I look back and it’s like, I wish I would’ve known that. And really to don’t sweat the small stuff, like a lot of stuff that I worried about back then, didn’t matter. Like I got to where I am now just because life happened and opportunities are arose and I was able to take them. Yeah. And just like go with the flow.


Sam Demma (24:19):
Love it. And if someone’s listening to this and they enjoyed the conversation and wanna reach out to you, what would be the best way for them to get in touch?


Arielle Ben-Zaken (24:28):
That’s a great question. I’d be more than happy to connect with anyone that wants to reach out. If people are on LinkedIn, you can find me on LinkedIn as well. Yeah. Anyway.


Sam Demma (24:39):
Awesome. Ariel, thank you so much again for coming on the podcast. This has been awesome.


Arielle Ben-Zaken (24:43):
Thank you so much.


Sam Demma (24:45):
You’re welcome. 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 Arielle Ben-Zaken

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.

Kelly Karius – Founder of No Such Thing As A Bully

Kelly Karius - Founder of No Such Thing As A Bully
About Kelly Karius

Kelly Karius (@KellyKarius) is an award winning Social Worker, Mediator and Author who is committed to her mission of improving the lives she is able to affect.

Her books include “This is Out of Control! A Practical Guide to Managing Life’s Conflicts”, “The Brief Book of Bullying”, “Burgerslinger”, and “No Such Thing as a Bully; Shred the Label, Save a Child.

Kelly is well versed in First Nations issues in Canada, and is working with elders at Maskwacis, Alberta, to create a Grandfather’s Lessons version of The No Such Thing as a Bully System.

Kelly is also a founder of The Moment of Kindness Foundation, a non-profit foundation, which uses numbered cards and a data base system to promote a program of random acts of kindness meets technology. Kelly drives around in the #kindnesscar a bright green car that people sign with a sharpie marker to pledge kindness.

Connect with Kelly: Email | Instagram | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

No Such Thing as a Bully System

The Moment of Kindness Foundation

No Such Thing as a Bully; Shred the Label, Save a Child

Burgerslinger

University of Regina – Bachelor of Social Work

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. Today’s guest was recommended by another past guest, and if you are listening to this and there’s someone in your mind, maybe it’s you or someone you know that you think should come on this show, please reach out to me because I will reach out to that person.


Sam Demma (00:53):
Even if it’s you or someone you know, and interview them. I would love for you to reach out to me and let me know who you’d like to hear on this podcast. You can shoot me an email@samsamdemma.com. That is the reason today’s guest is on the show. Her name is Kelly Karius. She’s an award-winning social worker, mediator and author, who is committed to her mission of improving the lives she’s able to affect. Her books include “This is Out of Control! A Practical Guide to Managing Life’s Conflicts”, “The Brief Book of Bullying”, “Burgerslinger”, and “No Such Thing as a Bully; Shred the Label, Save a Child.”. Kelly is well versed in first nations issues in Canada and is working with elders at Maskwacis, Alberta, and I’m sorry if I mispronounced this, to create a grandfather’s lessons version of the no such thing as a bully system.


Sam Demma (01:38):
She’s also the founder of The Moment of Kindness Foundation, a nonprofit which uses numbered cards and a database system to promote a program of random act of kindness meets technology. Kelly drives around in the kindness car; a bright green car that people sign with a Sharpie marker to pledge kindness. I know you’re gonna enjoy this interview. We talk a lot about bullying. You know, what’s, what bullying really is and how to address it in a school. You know, Kelly is a wealth of knowledge on this topic, and I know you’ll enjoy this as much as I enjoyed learning about it myself. I’ll see you on the other side of the interview, talk soon. Kelly, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here today. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and, you know, sharing a little bit behind what brought you to where you are today working in education?


Kelly Karius (02:24):
Well, first of all, I’m so glad that you’re having me on your show. So thank you so much for that. My name is Kelly Karius. I’m a social worker from Red Deer, Alberta, Canada, and I, I started with No Such Thing As a Bully imagine about 20 years ago. Really recognizing that the way that we are currently dealing with bullying and have been dealing with bullying is not really effective and, and looking at a little, you know, six/seven year old and saying, “hey kid, you’re a bully “creates a box for them that, that they may never actually get out of. And, and so I, I had some really extreme experiences that got me looking at this and, and, and created No Such Thing As a Bully so that we could say we all use bully actions. We all use victim responses, one set of skills solves both, and the labels don’t help and, and really create a whole different format for us to start looking at this.


Sam Demma (03:31):
Can you share a little bit of insight into those experiences you had? And if there’re very extreme ones, you can change their names so that you’re not really, you know, sharing that information, but what are those experiences that led you to create this?


Kelly Karius (03:44):
Yeah, so I was bullied myself kindergarten to grade six, and then when I, when I came back in grade seven to a, to a different school, to a junior high, I I came wearing a Jean jacket with a pack of smokes and my fists clenched and beat up a boy in the boy’s bathroom. Whose name I won’t mention and and, you know, looking back on that, that kind of really displayed how that pendulum swings. Yep. So, you know, grade seven, I would be called a bully, but why? And then as I started my private practice, I, I was just a, a year into my private practice, just with a bachelor’s degree which was a bit of a jump. And, and I was hired as an advocate for 20 sets of parents whose teacher was mistreating the, their Stu the students class.


Kelly Karius (04:41):
And I, I mean, I’m sure when I look back on it, that I did a, a pile of things wrong. But you know, we went through the whole system, the school board, the, the ministry of education children’s advocate, the ombudsman nothing happened. And then at the end of that year, the teacher just moved on to a different school. And then in the summer I had a, a client teen client diagnosed with PTSD from bullying and a letter from a chief psychiatrist saying the bullying in this community is outrageous. Someone has to do something. So I put in a, this was about 20 years ago, 2001, I put in the proposal to do peer mediation. That was kind of all I knew at the time, but I didn’t realize how much I, I made people angry the year before and before I knew it, there was an article in the paper saying that I was being investigated by my ethics committee, that I was banned from all the schools in Melville that I wasn’t qualified to do the work that I was doing.


Kelly Karius (05:41):
And so I spent the next year fighting that. And at the end of it, I, I ended up suing the director of education and, and settling that out of court and then started looking at holy cow, why would we expect our kids not to bully when this is what’s going on with adults? Mm. And again, I’m not saying that my behavior was, was perfect in the situation in any way either. But just that every human being depending on what’s happening for them has the potential to use bully actions and has the, the potential to use victim responses to say, oh, this is a terrible situation. And I can’t do anything about it. Mm-Hmm . And so that, that is the experience that really got me looking at this and, and saying, we need a whole different system. We need a whole different way of, of, of doing this.


Sam Demma (06:38):
And what do you mean when you say one skillset solves both? And can you explain both the bully actions and victim results and how people tend to use them?


Kelly Karius (06:47):
Yeah, absolutely. So bully actions, if you picture if you picture one person in the middle of a circle of 10 people, and each of those 10 people saying one negative thing to that person in the middle we have on the outside of that circle, 10 people that each used one bully action. They’re not gonna say that they’re a bully. They, I just said, this one thing, I’m not a bully. That’s not who I am, but yet there’s a person in the middle who’s bullied.


Sam Demma (07:20):
Mm.


Kelly Karius (07:21):
And, and so those, you know, once we each start paying attention to those smaller bully actions that we use, that’s when we can really get a grip on this. And then victim responses is that person in the middle saying, there’s nothing I can do. There’s nothing I can learn. That’s gonna make this better. There’s nothing I can do to get out of this situation. This is, this is a problem of other people. I don’t have to do anything. You know, and, and sort of living in that space that says, I, I, I can’t do anything. And so the set of skills, whether it’s somebody using bully actions or somebody using a victim response, the set of skills are strengthening. Being able to look at those automatic thoughts that pop into your mind and go, you know what, what’s true about this. What’s not true about this. What’s another way of thinking about it. Mm. Being able to set and have goals and to feel good within ourselves, we don’t use bully actions when we’re feeling real good. Yeah. Ourselves. and that is the strengthening. And we are also not, not feeling that victim response when we are feeling really good within ourselves.


Sam Demma (08:38):
Yeah. It’s so true. That’s awesome. It’s funny. I’m writing a spoken word album right now. I’m one of the poems is called empty backpack. And the premise is that people’s words, don’t define your route. You bet on you since day one, you define yourself, it’s time you grab your backpack and empty it out and stop carrying the opinions of everyone else. And it really relates to some of the ideas you’re sharing right now. And I’m actually writing a chapter about it as well. And I was trying to break down why I thought people push their limiting beliefs on you, or would, you know, share or spew negativity at you. And the ideas that came to mind were things that you’re saying, things like low self-confidence superiority complexes or, you know, trauma that they’re personally going through. You know, when you don’t feel good about yourself, you hurt people. And that’s such an interesting thing. So what does the program or curriculum look like? So if, you know, if I was interested in learning more about no such thing as a bully, how could I do that? And if I wanted to engage with you, if I was a school and I wanted to engage with you, what would that look like?


Kelly Karius (09:42):
All right. So the actual curriculum has 25 lessons, things like fight or flight response friendship skills, how to know if you have a good friend, how to be a good friend things like inaccurate thoughts and balancing balancing inaccurate thoughts, and getting a, a grip on automatic thinking. There’s goal setting in there. There is emotions and being able to name how you’re feeling there is looking at the difference between just conflict and bullying and then assault. Because sometimes we call too many things bullying that really are not to engage I’ve got on the website, no such thing as a bully.com for $47 programs that people can grab and just see if it’s for them. And, and the programs are all five lessons to your inbox and then a zoom meeting each week fully proof your home fully that one’s for parents, fully proof your, your classroom that one is for teachers and bully proof, your school for administrators.


Kelly Karius (10:52):
Hmm. When a school wants to get involved, we offer to train five of their staff members and certify them in teaching this material. And it’s, it’s five, not one because the load is too heavy to carry for one. So over a two year period we, we have a school membership. We keep five people in your school trained for two years, if somebody leaves and you wanna put somebody else in under that same contract, you absolutely can. And then we do some meetings with with administrators as well. There’s a whole different policy for schools to use if they, if they join with no such thing as a bully and actually a whole different definition of bullying for schools to use as well. One that has nine points. And you, you have to mindfully look at the situation and see how things fit into those nine points. And that will help you determine is this bullying, is this just everyday conflict? Or is this something even more serious than, than bullying? And, and so it’s really a, a mindful way to look at it. If somebody just says, I want this, and I don’t need those $47 programs to see if, if it’s what we need. Then I would say, just give me an email Kelly, no such thing as a bully.com or a phone call, (403) 447-4404.


Sam Demma (12:22):
I love that. And you mentioned earlier as well, and something that peaked my curiosity, you mentioned that labeling a student as a bully could place him in the box that they never escape. Can you tell me more about that? What did, what did you mean when you, when you said that?


Kelly Karius (12:37):
Yeah. You know what I have, and I have an amazing story that goes with that. And, and this was like the moment that this was right in my face and I went, whoa. So I had started going school to school with no such thing as a bully. And, and often when I enter a classroom, the first question I ask is who in here is a bully. And usually there’ll be some Snickers, you know, maybe one person might put up their hand or, or often they’ll point at somebody else. And and, and then what what’s supposed to happen in my little mind script is then I say, okay, well, who has ever kicked somebody hit, somebody left somebody out on purpose called somebody a name, all these smaller bully actions. And then of course the hound go up and up because we’ve all done that in this case, this was a grade two classroom.


Kelly Karius (13:31):
And so that, so the kids are, you know, seven years old. In this case I asked that question, who in here is a bully and this boy put his hand up, hi, hi. And I said, well, you know what, I bet you have used some bully action, but I don’t think that you’re a bully. And he stands up out of his desk and he said, very firmly, I am a bully. And I was like, Hmm. Okay. And then later on that evening, I was in, so I would, at that time, I was in schools for five days. And so I was just kind of in this little community, I’m in the grocery store, getting, getting some things for supper. And, and I see a little girl in her mom and this little girl is pulling her mom’s hand and saying, mom, mom, look, it’s the bully lady, lady. And, and the mom turns around and she just like, so aggressively says, I’m so glad you’re here because there’s a kid in this school. That’s such a big bully that my kid doesn’t even wanna go to school. And I thought to myself, I bet that that’s that little bully. Mm.


Kelly Karius (14:38):
And then that really got me thinking about the power that he took. First of all, how many times has he been called that? And then, and then now a kid goes, well, that’s who I am. I know, I know because all these growns told me, so that’s who I am. And now I’m gonna hold on tight to that. And all of the qualities that it involves, because clearly I am very, very strong because look at how all of these adults are responding to me.


Sam Demma (15:10):
Mm.


Kelly Karius (15:11):
Now, if we put that kid in a school and we just say, no, there’s no such thing as a bully. You’re you are, you are a little boy that learned how to use bully actions to get what you want, and we’re gonna teach you some other ways.


Sam Demma (15:26):
Mm.


Kelly Karius (15:27):
All the power of that label is gone for, for that little one. And he is put in a position where, okay, I guess I’m, you know, I guess I’m gonna learn these, these other things. And, and so you, you know, you, not only in those small ages, it’s easy to see in those small ages because they’re just little ones, right? Mm. But now that kid grows up to be 12, 13, 14, 15, and is still an adult and is still taking his power from using those bully actions. This is how I get what I want.


Sam Demma (16:03):
Mm.


Kelly Karius (16:03):
This is one way to eliminate that.


Sam Demma (16:06):
And you, you know, you did mention the difference between bully actions and a bully. And I know it’s a part of the package, so we won’t get into it too deep, but what are some of the nine principles or points that a school could use to identify if this is a bully action, or if this is the characteristics of a full blown full blown bully.


Kelly Karius (16:24):
so here’s what I say is that there’s no such thing as a bully. Yeah. But there is bullying.


Sam Demma (16:30):
Mm.


Kelly Karius (16:31):
And so when a school is, is using this definition to look at that, or a parent what they’re looking at is, is what are the qualities in this situation? Mm. And is this something that we need to call bullying? So we’re still never actually saying the kid visibly.


Sam Demma (16:49):
Got it. Yeah.


Kelly Karius (16:51):
So, okay. So here’s how it works. In order for bullying to exist, there needs to be someone with a high bullying value frame of reference. So this is somebody who has the desire to hurt who has the, the takes superior power and enjoyment from what they’re doing. And they have a desire for control and contempt for the other person. So we’re looking at the qualities in the situation, do those exist. Mm. There needs to be an action that is hurtful, and that is repeated. And then there needs to be someone with a high victim response frame of reference. So this is somebody who feels vulnerable, who feels a sense of oppression, who feels unjust treatment. So what this lets us do is change any of those dynamics to change those, the situations. So if we look at the high victim response frame of reference, and we take that person, and we say, you know what, let’s work on some stuff. So you’re not feeling vulnerable. So you’re not feeling oppressed so that if this happens again, you can just walk away and not take any of it home with you.


Sam Demma (17:59):
Mm.


Kelly Karius (18:01):
Now we’re solving bullying by changing that dynamic. Or we work with the, the, the person who has the high bullying frame of re and, and we start working on, you know, why, why do you feel like you need to have this control? Tell me about how you’re contempt for other people, you know, let’s work at changing that. And, and so it gives, it gives a whole bunch of options or solutions when you break it down like this, and the way you define a problem leads to how you’re gonna resolve it. Mm. So we can define problems in ways that we, that really don’t have good resolutions and, and this, and that’s what we’ve done with bullying in the past. And this reverses that


Sam Demma (18:48):
Got it. And, you know, you mentioned that it happens not only with students, but also adults mm-hmm is this a program that you would engage with or potentially consider engaging with in workplaces in the future?


Kelly Karius (19:04):
Absolutely. In my private practice, I did a ton of corporate conflict management work with my first book that came out in 2006 called this is outta control of practical guide to managing life’s conflicts. And, and a lot of those things have made their way over into no such thing as a bully. This is stuff for everyone. And, and even when I’m teaching it my goal is to teach it to adults so that they can teach it to their important kids, to, to have somebody that kids don’t know, come in and stand on a stage and, you know give some tips that is important. And that reaches a certain number of kids in that audience. And I wanna make sure that, you know, when those kids go home, that their parents have that same material and those same ideas to be, to be working with. And so with this, with this system, there is of course the material for schools, but there’s also a book and a membership for parents. You know, so that a school can coordinate, this is what we’re doing at school. This is what we’re doing at home.


Sam Demma (20:19):
And where is Kelly in five years? And what does this program look like then?


Kelly Karius (20:24):
Oh, I’m so excited. So I’m, so I’m starting work on a project. That my goal is to get myself into a bright green motor home that people sign with a Sharpie marker to pledge kindness. Nice. Right, right now I have a kindness car, but it’s a little Honda civic. So I wanna go big and I wanna hit the road with no such thing as a bully and just you know, kind of be going school to school, community, to community and letting people know these ideas and, and what is available. And, and also with the goal of like directing people to other resources, you know, your valuable podcast and other other people that I know that are offering amazing things. Yeah, there’s so much out there and, and the more people know and can educate themselves about communication strategies and emotion strategies, the better off the world’s gonna be.


Sam Demma (21:26):
Love it. And if you could go back in time, I think you said 25 years, you’ve been doing this or 20 years. If you could go back to year one, knowing what, you know now and give your younger self advice, what would you share?


Kelly Karius (21:40):
Oh my goodness. You know what, some, sometimes it’s really good that you don’t know. Mm. Because you know, now I would say, just keep on going and, and, and go through that terrible situation few years after. And I might have said just avoid that whole thing, you know, don’t even take that job. That’s crazy. I think that, that the difference, the difference now in how I would handle it would just straight up be maturity. Mm. You know, understanding human reactions and responses better. Probably not getting, so I can remember times during that, that two year period where my anxiety was just so high anticipating things that never happened, you know? And, and so that would be some of my advice, like just live in the moment and don’t, even though a situation seems like it may be negative. The outcome of that might not be. Mm. And, and so to reserve that judgment and, and be able to just be like, okay, I’m gonna live in this moment and see what happens next. Yeah. That would be good. That would definitely be good advice for me at that time.


Sam Demma (23:00):
And you mentioned at the beginning of the podcast as well, some places where people could find you, but if someone is listening to this and they love the ideas and the content you’re sharing, what would be the easiest way for them to get in touch?


Kelly Karius (23:10):
So hit up the website, if you wanna know more; nosuchthingasabully.com. Kelly@nosuchthingasabully.com to email me, or just gimme an old fashioned phone call (403) 447-4404.


Sam Demma (23:26):
Love that. Kelly, thank you so much for coming on the show. It was so cool hearing this unique perspective on bullying. I can’t wait to see you on the road in your green motor home and hopefully be able to sign it and pledge some kindness to it, but until then keep up the awesome work. And we’ll talk soon.


Kelly Karius (23:40):
Thank you. And thank you for the work that you’re doing with youth. And I appreciate everything you do, Sam.


Sam Demma (23:46):
Thanks, Kelly. 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. to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Kelly Karius

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.

Lewis Keys – Lead Child & Youth Coordinator California National Guard

Lewis Keys – Lead Child & Youth Coordinator California National Guard
About Lewis Keys

Lewis Keys (@thejoelkeyssr) is a Texas native that comes with over 10 years of experience working as a Youth Development Professional. He specializes in the areas of teen engagement, family enrichment, and activities programming.

Now a resident of Sacramento, CA, he serves in a senior-level leadership position providing resources and programming to military families throughout the State of California. Lewis truly believes that “connection with today’s youth is built by healthy transparency from those who lead them”.

Connect with Lewis: Email | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Upward Bound Program for High School and Middle School students

Boys and Girls Club of Greater Sacramento

California Guard – Youth Programs

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. Today I have the awesome privilege of interviewing Lewis Keys. I had the amazing opportunity to work with him and his youth over at the California national guard for a six week program over the summertime. And he actually, you know, was open to the idea of coming on the show to share a little bit about his own experiences working with young people and his journey in a leadership position working with youth. Lewis is a Texas native that comes with over 10 years of experience working as a youth development professional.


Sam Demma (01:10):
He specializes in the areas of teen engagement, family enrichment and activities programming. Now a resident of Sacramento, California, he serves in a senior level leadership position providing resources and programming to families throughout the state of California. Lewis truly believes that connection with today’s youth is built by healthy transparency from those who lead them. For more information, I’ll drop Lewis’ contact information in the bio of this episode so stay tuned for that, but enjoy the episode and I will see you on the other side. Lewis, thank you so much for coming on the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show all the way from California . Why don’t you start by sharing a little bit behind your own journey and how you got into the work you’re doing today with young people?


Lewis Keys (01:56):
Well, right on man. Well, Sam, first off, man, it’s a pleasure man to be here. I’m excited to have gotten to, to have known you so far, man, and, and an honor to be here on this podcast. But man, how I got started, it started back in 2010, and I was working with a program called upward bound in back in college. It was a summer program for high schoolers; well, middle schoolers and high schoolers who wanted to get, you know, 6-8 weeks of the college experience per se on campus and stuff like that. And so, you know, I worked that I was a, a activity leader for, for that, and that was fun. It was great and I realized like, you know, I had a knack for, you know, reaching young people, you know, and talking to them and meeting them right where they were and understanding that they aren’t, that they aren’t, you know, just troubled kids per se, but they are young people that need older guidance.


Lewis Keys (02:59):
and so I, I came to realize that and again, over the years I’ve worked with various youth organizations, the boys and girls clubs, great organization. I worked with other smaller organizations I’m originally from Texas. So I worked in community organizations in Dallas. So that was fun obviously. And then I made a move here to California continued to work the boys and girls club. And now I work with military youth. And so it’s been a journey it’s been good. So that’s kind of how I got my start.


Sam Demma (03:32):
Did someone inspire you when you were a young person or did some, did you have an older human being that gave you wisdom when you were a young person?


Lewis Keys (03:42):
You know, it was, it was a lot of different people from football coaches, baseball coaches family, friends relatives, you know men, men that I looked up to that were really encouraging, even women, you know, who were super encouraging and, and saw potential and said, Hey, you, you have something great. You know, don’t lose it. But I think the most pivotal inspiration was my aunt. She told me I was probably about 14 and I was sitting in my, my, I was at my grandfather’s house and I was in the back room and I was watching TV and she said, come here. And I walked over to, but I walked over there with my head kind of slumped down, you know, head down, just kind of slow, whatever she said, stop. She said, pick your head up. And I said, okay. She said, pick your head up. She said one, we don’t walk with our head down. We’re not gonna walk with our head down. We want you to see where you’re going. Right. And she was speaking obviously with vision and stuff like that for the future, but she was like, you know, pick your head up. But then the next thing she said, I want you to tell you, I wanna tell you something. She said, never forget your influence.


Sam Demma (04:48):
Mm.


Lewis Keys (04:49):
And she told me that and I never forgot it. And I remember, and I always keep that with me that no matter who I’m talking to or whether it be young, you know, young kids or whether it be, you know, adults, other adults, no matter I go, I always remember her words, you know, remember your influence. And so that is that, that I would say that’s the one person who really inspired me a lot.


Sam Demma (05:14):
Speaking in front of any group of people, young or old is a huge responsibility because of that fact you have influence or over them, you know, how do you make sure that your messaging and your programs that you have run are helping students and influencing them in, in positive ways?


Lewis Keys (05:34):
I look at it I’ll be honest. I, I take a look and I say, what would I have wanted when I was their age? Hmm. You know, I put myself back in their shoes and say, what would I have wanted and also needed. Right. for example, you know, I, we try to do, I try to make sure we do career prep, college prep, things, also exposing them to entrepreneurship. I try to make sure we expose them to financial literacy, you know, things like that. I, cause I say to myself again, what would I have? What did I need at that age? And what would I have wanted?


Sam Demma (06:07):
Mm that’s a really good way to look at it. And you know, I want to go back to 10 years ago when you first initially started I’m sure like, like yourself and anyone who does something new for the first time, it’s a little bit challenging and it’s a little bit different. Did you have any experiences or road bumps along the way that you really learned from as a youth worker?


Lewis Keys (06:27):
Yeah. Yes. And that, that particular challenge came in the form of you can’t beat too familiar with those you lead. And so I had to understand that though, I though I had enjoyed having fun with the kids and we played and we did different activities and games. They had to still view me as a, an authority figure as a leader. Right. And I had to mature as a leader. So that definitely a roadblock that I, that I had to grow into that I had to learn and I had to develop that skill.


Sam Demma (07:05):
Yeah. Well, could you, if you don’t mind, if it isn’t too much to ask, can you tell me a little more about the experience or and if it’s you know, some names you can change the names or, you know, just to keep it private


Lewis Keys (07:16):
Of course. No, no, of course, man. I was, I know, especially really I’d say, I, I didn’t, I didn’t catch it about 20, about 2010, but it really caught up to me about 2012 or 2013. When I worked the boys and girls club, I was in Dallas and worked at a particular club down there and I’d gotten to know the youth, you know, I, I had probably out of college graduating under undergrad, maybe a few months. Yeah. You know, so I wasn’t too far removed from still being a student. Right. And I was a graduate student at the time. And so I was only five, six years, you know, separated from some of these kids in aged. And so I found myself doing activities that were fun with them. And I remember doing some activities that were really fun and we had days and days out where I would joke with some of the kids and, and laugh and we’d play.


Lewis Keys (08:11):
And I remember one time where I knew that there had to be a line to be drawn. We were on our way to a, a, a program that evening could all collegiate steps. And that’s where you take some of your older high school seniors, or your whole older high school kids, sophomores, juniors, and seniors, and you get them exposed to different things, preparing them for college. Mm. And I remember that evening on the way there having one young man, I won’t say his name, but having one young man, he just, you know, he was one of the ones that I would always joke with laugh and he would go back and forth. But this particular night he was, he was being a little bit extra, as we would say, he was doing a little bit more than, than most. Yeah. cause he just, you know, he saw me as a friend, so he just kept going and kept going. And even while we were there collegiate steps, I’m like, Hey, stop talking. You’re playing too much. He would dismiss me, man, whatever, whatever, whatever. Mm. And I remember, I remember that night I had to have a very good, good, good, good talk. A very good talk. And I’m to said like that, I had to have a very stern talking to with him and letting him know like the way you acted tonight was completely outta bounds. Mm.


Lewis Keys (09:25):
You were completely outta line. You, you were, you weren’t listening to nobody, you know, you weren’t doing any of this and it wouldn’t be, I would be well within my right to suspend you from the club or whatever. And then he said something to me. He said, well, it’s not my fault that you act like one of us.


Sam Demma (09:43):
Mm.


Lewis Keys (09:44):
And it was, it was a chin check. I had to take it Sam. Honestly, I had to take it right on the chin because it was it right. Then it taught me that you can’t lead them and also be a among them. Mm. And so I had to take that into consideration. And then from that moment on, I changed the way I approached programming, the way I approached leadership, the way I approached getting to know kids. And I learned that you have to establish a boundary up front of, I am in charge and I’m here to, to encourage you and lead you. Right. But I am not one to be messed with. I am not your friend. Right. I am one to help to the next level. And so that was definitely an experience I had to I had to take you with me. I went home that night, not, I mean, it was in my mind, just replant and replant to grow from that experience. I had to learn from it.


Sam Demma (10:40):
Thank you for sharing. First of all, and being vulnerable to share the whole story. I appreciate it. And I’m sure all the educators listening right now. Appreciate it also. And you know, being 21 myself, I sometimes feel like students might feel as though I’m just like them. And there might be a blurring of boundaries in certain situations. So hearing you say this now is kind of making me think how I can apply it to my own situations when I’m working with young people as well. So I, I appreciate you sharing. How do you think we bridge that gap between being relatable, but also being the leader? You know, like those are, they seem like they’re two separate things, but I feel like we can bridge them. Like how do we actually practically do that?


Lewis Keys (11:18):
It’s one, one word transparency.


Sam Demma (11:21):
Mm


Lewis Keys (11:23):
It’s one word transparency. You have to be obviously have boundaries, obviously. Well, two words, boundaries and transparency. One, you set boundaries, which you do at the beginning. You say, Hey, I am, I am here to lead. I’m here to encourage, I’m here to help push you to the next level. But also people don’t con connect with someone they aren’t, they don’t feel connected to, they won’t connect unless they feel like you can relate to me. And how can, how can I, as a I’m I’m, I’m 32, right. As you consider, you know? Right. but I’m , but I’m, I’m 32. Yeah. And how can a 17 year old feel connected to a 32 year old through experiences? Mm. Me being vulnerable about and, and transparent about my experiences. You may have experienced, you know, you may be that 17 year old may be experiencing a time where they’re ensuring themselves.


Lewis Keys (12:17):
They’re not confident as whether it be as a athlete or as a singer, as a writer, as a, a, a musician or whatever as a leader. Well, I can take you back to what, 2006, when I felt UN not confident as a athlete when I had scholarships, but I wasn’t what I wanted to take. When I felt, when I dropped the ball, you know, all these different things, sharing our transparent stories, right. Because stories are what connects us. Right. If you think, look at human history, everything we know most of what we know about human history is passed down through stories. Yeah. And so I think it’s a, it’s being trans parent about our stories, right. Within the bounds of obviously keeping it appropriate of course, by being transparent about our stories and seeing how we can encourage them and bridge that gap so that they can say so that that young person can say, wow, okay. Yeah, they may be older, but that here it is. But they understand


Sam Demma (13:13):
Story are universal. Right. I, I think that’s why it’s so important that we share them. You know, if a teacher’s listening right now, how would you recommend they share their stories with their kids? Like how do you usually share your personal experiences with your programs and with your students to make sure they can build that relatability?


Lewis Keys (13:31):
Of course. I, if anybody’s listening, if you, you wondering how, how you can set that up, I would say it starts with environment first with the setting. You, I wouldn’t say, try to try to share your stories while they’re taking a standardized test. Yeah.


Sam Demma (13:45):
not the sound,


Lewis Keys (13:47):
Not really the, not really the moment. Yeah. But set it up, set up your environment, set up the setting where it’s comfortable letting some boundaries be known saying, Hey, we’re gonna keep this thing appropriate, but Hey, I want us to have an open space today. I want us to have some free talk today. Right. Cause a lot of times, you know, we say, okay, well we have to get the programming done. We have to get the lesson in or whatever, but it’s okay to pause for about 45 minutes and say, Hey, let’s, let’s have some moments to share. You can set it up. It can be something that is on go. It could be twice a week. You know, things like that, setting up moments and times where they can share and, and what they’re going through. And of course with teenagers and even with younger kids, they’re not gonna tell you everything that’s going on.


Lewis Keys (14:30):
Right. But asking those filler questions, how you, how you guys feeling what’s been going on with you guys, what’s happening. I do a thing. Something that I do is called high, low time. And so we do high, low time. I do with some I I’ll I’ll ask, Hey, we’re gonna do some high, low time. And what high, low time is, is that tell us some highs from your week, some positive things, some great things, some good things that happened. Some things that you saw or you were like, yo I’m I really, I was really appreciating that, but then tell us some lows, some things that you didn’t like, some things that happened that weren’t so positive. Right? And so what that does is that begins to open up, right? The can so that they can begin to, you know, start to unpack some things. And you’ll be surprised how many kids will start to look forward to high, low time, because they’ll get a chance to unpack stuff.


Sam Demma (15:16):
And other people in their life might not be asking them those same questions or willing to hear it or not even be aware of it. Whereas when it’s an outside source, it’s almost like a strange ally, right? They they’re, you’re there to support, but you’re not a family member or a friend. And I think that makes a huge difference. You do this in class, like during the sessions we do on Friday at the beginning of the last one you asked, tell us some highs, tell us some lows and students are sharing question for you. Why military youth now you’ve progressed in, you know, worked with many different young people. Now you’re with the California guard, what’s brought you to, to this specific, or what’s called you to this specific group of kids.


Lewis Keys (15:57):
You know, I honestly think that there is a need and I think there’s one a need. But also I think that powers beyond myself understood that COVID was coming and that, you know, I, I think we’re all called for a certain time and for a certain season and certain places. Yeah. And I believe that where I am now I was needed here for this particular time for COVID happening, right. For pre COVID because here I am, you know, this guy that used to work with, with, with and girls club youth and, and you know, kids in impoverished neighborhoods and, you know, coming from, you know, an impoverished neighborhood myself relating to that, to now working with military youth, you know, some of these youth, they, they may not even understand like, wait, what, I don’t, I don’t get this. I don’t get that.


Lewis Keys (16:50):
What are you talking about? And I think it is been, it’s been a, a good experience, but I think being here now what’s brought, it, brought me here. Now it is opening up perspectives mm. For our kids opening up perspectives. Because a lot of times, you know, depending on where we’re brought up, where we’re raised, what we do, we see the world one way mm-hmm . And I think that I have been privileged since being here to expose our military youth here statewide to things that that are different than their surroundings, different than their, what they’re used to. Right. They see things differently. And I think exposing them to some, some, some realities and, and some different things here of, of the, not just the state, but in the world. And I think it’s been a, it’s been an encouragement. It’s been a benefit, not only to our youth, but not only to our program, but even to some of our leaders, you know, they tell us, thank you just for what you share and what you offer. So yeah,


Sam Demma (17:50):
Love that. Love that. Thank you so much for sharing a little more about the program and what brought you here now? Where do you see yourself in like five or 10 years? , it’s a, sometimes it’s a tough question, but where, where do you see yourself in five, 10 years,


Lewis Keys (18:05):
Man? I, I honestly see. I, you know, I truly see that, you know, I’ll progress in other ways, whether it be speaking abroad in different places. I, I definitely see myself leading leading a, whether it be a, in a church setting, whether it be a, a, like I said, religious setting in that, in that aspect, but then also, but I also see myself obviously, different business ventures, all these different things, but I above all, I see myself taking care and loving on people still. I see myself to love on people.


Sam Demma (18:42):
I love that. That’s awesome. Cool. Lewis, thank you so much for taking the time today to come on the show and just chat a little bit about your philosophies and how you approach your programming with these young people in these programs. If someone wants to reach out to you and have a conversation, what would be an email they could, you know, reach you at or the best way to get in touch?


Lewis Keys (19:04):
Sure, sure. If you guys reach out to me, you can reach out to my personal email; it’s lewis.keys@yahoo.com. So reach out, love to hear from you.


Sam Demma (19:32):
Lewis, thank you so much again for coming on the show. I can’t wait for the next week session and we’ll talk soon.


Lewis Keys (19:39):
All right, Sam. Much appreciated, thank you brother.


Sam Demma (19:41):
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 Lewis Keys

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.

Liat Benzacar – Student Wellness Officer at St. Michael’s College School

Liat Benzacar – Student Wellness Officer at St. Michael’s College School
About Liat Benzacar

In line with the Basilian model of educating the whole person in mind, body, and soul, the Wellness Programme at St. Michael’s College School (SMCS) plays an important role by supporting students’ social and emotional needs inside and outside the classroom.

The dedicated, full-time Student Wellness Officer, Liat Benzacar, holds a master’s degree in social work and is registered with the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers. Benzacar collaborates with parents, teachers, and other academic support staff to provide student support services such as individual counselling, crisis and safety planning, referrals, specialized classroom programmes, and more.

Connect with Liat: Email | Linkedin

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

St. Michael’s College School

Wellness Programme at St. Michael’s College School (SMCS)

Psychology at York University

Masters of Social Work (MSW) at University of Toronto

Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers

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 so excited to bring you today’s interview with our special guest, Liat Benzacar. Liat is the student wellness officer at St. Michael’s College School. You may have never heard that title before (student wellness officer), and if you haven’t, you’ll learn more about it on today’s interview and why it’s such an important role that she fulfills in her school community.


Sam Demma (01:03):
And hopefully more schools in every school will have at some point in our future, she did her honors or bachelors of arts from York University, and then her masters of social work at the University of Toronto. She overlooks the wellness of the entire school community. And her journey to get into this role and position is a very unique one and very inspiring. And we talk about so many different amazing concepts on today’s podcast, so not only will you feel inspired from her own personal stories and experiences, but also from the concepts that we discuss and talk about. I hope you enjoy this interview, I will see you on the other side; talk soon. Liat, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast, huge pleasure to have you on the show here today. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit, a little bit behind the reason why you’re passionate about the work you do today?


Liat Benzacar (01:54):
Sure. Sam, thank you for having me. It’s so nice to be here. So I’m Liat Benzacar. I am a school social worker at St. Michael’s college, and have been so for the last two years. This is probably close to my eighth year in school social work and it’s where I started my career in schools, and it’s been really a wonderful journey. And I think some of the things that brought me here, it’s an interesting question. I think it probably started at summer camp. I went to a summer camp that sort of intentionally focused on issues of social justice and relationship building and so while I was a camper, I had the opportunity to be influenced very much by the, that sort of educational, informal, educational lens as a camper and then also transition into being a leader in the camp and eventually a camp counselor who was, you know, offering those opportunities to campers coming in.


Liat Benzacar (03:07):
And then as I finished my very many years as a camper, as a counselor, excuse me at camp, I thought to myself like, how do I keep doing this work, where I’m able to have an influence on young people still at the time, a young person myself where I can still have this impact in an informal educational setting you know, and continue this work outside of a summer camp bubble. So I did that in, in a variety of forms. I was, you know, three university. I was teaching informal education classes through youth groups and other movements through, you know, Sunday schools and things of that nature. And then came time to decide like what I wanted to be when I grew up. And social work sort of fit Ellen to my lab as an option because in the midst of, you know, working in this informal educational setting, as I had been through university, I also found that I was able to impact more you know, people, I guess, young people on an individual basis and, and found that I is opening up space to have discussions around mental health and other things to support, you know, friends or, you know, former campers of mine.


Liat Benzacar (04:29):
And anyway, to make a whole long story short, I, you know, I, I sat with an application of, you know, a teacher’s school application and a social work school application. And I, I, I went ahead and, and did my master of social work. And as soon as I graduated this wonderful career of school, social work that I had no idea existed, fell into my lap, which was sort of like the perfect marriage of all of these wonderful experiences I had had to that moment that informal education, that impact on individual young people’s lives in a school setting. So I, I, I really fell in love. I was so fortunate to start basically right away. And I haven’t looked back since


Sam Demma (05:18):
That’s such an awesome story. And I know there are, is an educator, you know, listening right now, who is wondering what is a school social worker. Cause I know every school doesn’t have one. And I’m curious, I’m curious if I, I I’d love for you to actually just shut some light on it for the people who are curious of, you know, what it is and, and what they do and why you are passionate specifically about that role.


Liat Benzacar (05:41):
Yeah, I, that’s a great question. And, and, and the schools who have social workers in them are really so fortunate and I don’t mean that to tube my own horn. And I, of course, I see, I see that in a variety of ways and I think schools more and more now are carving up the space for mental health and community support. So the role of a social worker really when I, when I meet with students for the first time is I, I say to them, my, my role in school is to make sure that you’re functioning at your very best. And so I think we all can that if a student is not taking care of their wellbeing, if their mental health is not being considered if they’re struggling in their relationships, if they’re grieving, if they’re, you know, having questions of identity if they’re moving through a breakup and they don’t have supports it’s really difficult for us to expect them as an academic institution to be focused on the things that we want them to be, the curriculum, their assignments, their tests, their exams, their performance, so that they can get into University.


Liat Benzacar (06:53):
So, you know, spaces who have carved out a social work role really acknowledge that without, you know, focusing on student wellbeing, we can’t expect them to function academically at their best.


Sam Demma (07:07):
I love that. That’s such a good perspective. And I would imagine you have so many impactful conversations as a social worker. And I’m curious to know if there are any stories that can ’em to mind that you think I’m so glad this position exists. So these students could share these things. And if it’s a serious story, you know, maybe you could change their name or just call them Bob,


Liat Benzacar (07:30):
You know, I, I can use an experience of my own. So I was so fortunate to be able to work at the high school that I went to and for a number of years, and I remember sitting, I was on a social work team at that time of different social workers, and we were contracted out to different schools. And I remember turn, there’s two campuses of the school. And I remember turning to the other social worker who was at the other campus and saying, I am beyond thrilled to hear that we finally have a social worker in this school. And she said to me, Leah, we’ve always had a social worker in this school. I said, I went to this school, I didn’t know about a social worker. And their response was, if you didn’t know you need it. Mm. And, and there’s a lot of reasons for that response.


Liat Benzacar (08:26):
I think funding is a big thing. So oftentimes in, in the board schools, a social worker is overseeing quite a number of different schools, and they’re only actually contracted to be in the physical for half a day. And therefore they’re not able to have the same impact perhaps as a social worker like myself, who’s in the school five days a week and really becomes part of the programming and the curriculum and, you know, the, the student body and their families, et cetera. But I thought what an interesting approach, right. And, and that informed so much for me at the next sort of years of carving out space in the schools that I worked in and making sure that even if I was there for half a day, that at the very least people knew that I was there. So I, I would say, you know, that, that was my, my personal experience that, that sort of pushed that forward for me.


Sam Demma (09:26):
I love that. And it’s funny on our first conversation, I asked you, you know, if a student comes into the offices and, and is like, ah, I don’t know what I want. I want what I wanna do with my life, or I’m having this challenge. I asked you, you know, like, what’s the first thing you usually do and you, without a doubt said, listen, you know, I let them speak. And I listen. And I was curious to know more about your perspective on listening and why you think that’s so impactful or important to do before speaking.


Liat Benzacar (09:54):
I mean, I act actually a colleague of mine said, you know, one of the first meetings we had with a student together, there was this like air of silence. And they said they felt so uncomfortable. Like they wanted to fill the space. And, and we had a, we sort of debriefed about silence in a moment. And I said, well, did you notice that the was actually able to come and bring their own response, not influenced by anything that we were maybe interested in knowing about particularly. But in that silence, actually, we were allowing a student to think about what they wanted to bring to the table. Now, what that does, I think you know, is, is shares to the student in silence. Number one, that I feel comfortable in that. And number two, I’m ready to listen when you’re ready to talk. Mm. And so I think listening is really important, particularly for young people because they spend so, so much time listening to other people, right? Especially these last two years, listen up, you gotta wash your hands. You gotta keep six feet distance. You gotta sit in this way and you can’t turn that way. And you have to eat your food facing this Plexiglas, and you have to wear your mask in this fashion and it better not be off your nose. So they spend a lot of time listening.


Liat Benzacar (11:16):
That’s great. Right. And, you know, in, in that process, when we’re trying to move them along, you know, you might ask yourself like, how often are they being listened to in, in all of that, and how are all of these moments when they’re constantly listened and filtering and taking information are they even able to, or allow space to listen to their own sort of inner dialogue and what’s going on for them? So listening is a really important, I, I, I wanna say skilled, but I almost also just wanna say opportunity for, for people to have so that they know that they’re valued, that they’re important and that when things are difficult, they can express that. And when things are wonderful, they can express that. And, and we know, you know, from a social work lens, like if I feel something and I name it, I actually take the power out of that feeling.


Liat Benzacar (12:22):
I met with a student recently, like close to the end of the school year, who I was connected with them through their mom. And they said to me, you know, it feels like my kid really needs to talk to someone. Is it possible that they can speak with you? I said, yeah, that’s what, that’s what I’m here for. And so when I met with the student, they said to me, I have never in my life, listened to how I was feeling, let alone actually say it out loud. And I had this sort of argument with my parents, and I was so frustrated about how much COVID has impacted my life, that I finally just said out loud, this has been really hard for me.


Liat Benzacar (13:11):
And I felt instantly better. Right. And so really can disarm a feeling. We can really take the away its power as soon as we name it. And I, in that moment, I think that student felt listened to by their parents. Right. Like, and maybe it took sort of a blow up conversation for it to get there. But finally there was a moment like, oh, they’re listening to, to me and it’s bubbling out and it came out and then we spent the last, maybe three weeks of school talking to one another creating space for them to be able to just be listened to. And what was so nice actually at the end of it, all saying, you know, like I’m, I’m willing for anyone to look a sin so that I can actually impact their own ability to be able to share how they’re thinking or that, that they’re feeling and to create space where they feel like they’re being listened to. And this all happened in three weeks. It was like this big sort of like moment and push forward. So I love that, how that answers that for you.


Sam Demma (14:17):
It does. And you gave a killer story, which is awesome. I have a colleague and a mentor who tells me, let like the importance of listening and that when other people are talking, you know, it’s a test, like, you know, test yourself because we, we like to think we’re better listeners most of the time than we actually are. And he, he challenged us very easily, you know, at the big beginning of a call that we had, there was a group of us, he said, I’m gonna share with you like a bio, my professional bio, just, just listen to it. And he went through the whole thing and he’s like, okay, there was 86 points of information inside this long bio that I just presented to you write down as many as you can remember at max, like, you know, without telling us that we had to do it beforehand at max, we got like five or six of the pieces of information.


Sam Demma (15:04):
And he was like, okay, now I want you to know that this is a test and I want you to try again. And of course, the second time you remembered like way more things. And, you know, I’m like, I didn’t know, the, I didn’t know, the first time was a test and it was his lesson of saying like, well, every time someone else speaks, it’s a test. And that just like, kind of hit me. And I was like, oh, I need to be a more attentive listener. And I just, I love how much of an impact listening had on that student and, or, or, or how much being heard or listen too had on that student. I think it’s just a really good thing to remember that, you know, young people don’t always want us to talk to them or give them advice. Sometimes they just wanna be able to speak and be heard and understood. That makes me like wonder when you were a student, did you have teachers in your life who had a big impact on you growing up that listened to you or made you feel heard? Or what are some things that educators did in your life that inspired you to go down the similar path?


Liat Benzacar (15:57):
Before, before I answer that, I did also wanna say just, you know, on the coattails of what you just shared that in addition to being listened to, I think what’s interesting is sometimes I will spend time with a student just sitting in, in quiet space together. And then eventually, perhaps it does open up space for them to feel listened to. But I think that’s another part, right? Like often when they’re, they’re sort of pensive or thinking about what they would want to share that space can be difficult for, for people to hold. Mm. So, you know, there have been times it doesn’t happen frequently, but there have been times where I will just sit in, in, in silence with a student to show that that’s okay. Right. Like it’s okay. Actually, just to sit here and be quiet for something time to collect your thoughts or to sort through them, or just to know that somebody’s here, as you’re thinking about them to yourself.


Liat Benzacar (17:05):
But to your point, did I ever have a, a teacher or mentor who made an impact in my life? And yeah. I mean, there’s a few, you there’s a few. And what’s funny is actually the one that is standing out in this moment right now is the one in grade 10 who told me I was gonna fail math. And they said to Melia, you’re just not gonna make it through the, this course. Like you, you you’re gonna fail. And I remember being so like emotionally impacted by that, like the, the teacher was sort of implying what they thought about me overall as a person. And on the one hand, I appreciate that. I think they recognize that it was gonna be an immense amount of work for me to put in, to catch up in, in my understanding at that point. And also I think it’s sort of like affirmed all of the self talk I had over the years of like, I’m bad at this. I’m no good at this. Why bother? And then looking back I have a close friend who, I think I said that to one time. I said, you know, I’m bad at math. I’m no good at math. It’s, you know, I don’t even bother. And they said to me, who told you that?


Liat Benzacar (18:40):
I said, well, interesting, you should ask. In addition to myself, sort of figuring that out on my own, I had a teacher who said that to me. And they said, that makes all the difference because I actually, and, and this particular friend happens to be quite gifted in math and said, you know, it’s about time sometimes and time, and how you think you can approach something. So the impact that teacher had on me, I guess you could say was an interesting impact. I wouldn’t say negative or positive. I just would think, you know, looking back, it was a moment for me to consider what the words of a mentor how the words of a mentor can impact you and, and your thinking of yourself. And this friend of mine said, you know, you could be good in math, if you decided it was something that you wanted to focus on.


Liat Benzacar (19:36):
And also it’s important to recognize there are some things that we’re really great at and, and lean, you have things that you’re great at. And some things that we’re not great at. You know, Sam, I’m sure you can relate to that from, from an athlete’s perspective, right. Like I know I’m good in my sport. Perhaps I’m not good in every sport. Yeah. But I Excel particularly in my sport. And so I think, you know, twofold, like it’s important to acknowledge how, what we say to ourself can impact the way we approach things. And also it’s important to acknowledge things that we’re great at and, and, and be okay that we can’t be great at everything.


Sam Demma (20:19):
I love that. I think it’s such a good piece of advice. I love that you brought the idea of like our limiting beliefs or just our self-talk. I think that all the negative and positive things that passed through our mind, a lot of them are attached past experiences. Like if I was to write down all of my limiting beliefs, like if I was to like yourself, I was to sit down and think, where did these come from? You know, if I had the perfect memory, I’m sure I could like pinpoint them to certain things I’ve watched or heard or seen, or people directly told me. Right. Even it kind of fascinates me, even if like you had someone in your life that tried to do something that you’re trying to do and failed at it, how their own past experience they’ll, they’ll kind of like, pour it onto you.


Sam Demma (21:02):
Like if I had an uncle who, you know, started a restaurant and his restaurant failed, I went to him and said, Hey, should I start a restaurant? His first answer is gonna be absolutely not. You know? And that’s just based on his unique past experience. So I think the whole idea of like beliefs and limiting beliefs and the power of words is such a interesting thing to talk about. I love that you brought it up. I also think it’s a common problem amongst adolescents and high school kids. You know, that’s when we’re still building our identities and figuring out who we are, and I don’t think self-talk positive or negative ever goes away. I think it’s something that happens your entire life. But I mean, I’m glad to hear you had a, a positive friend that challenged you a little bit to to figure out where that belief came from.


Liat Benzacar (21:48):
And I’m inspired by that friend. Oftentimes I’ll ask a student who will say, well, I, I’m not gonna submit that project because if it’s not perfect, why bother? And I use that language. I said, you know, where is that voice coming from? Whose voice are you hearing say that to you? And oftentimes not always, you’ll get sort of like an eyebrow and a giggle. Like how did you know somebody said that to me. Yeah. Right. And that sort of internalization of, you know, a, a constant reminder of some kind, if you’re not gonna do it perfectly, don’t bother. And you ask that student, well, where did you hear that they know exactly where they heard it or who they it from and how often they’re hearing it, and now it’s become their own voice. Mm


Sam Demma (22:33):
It’s funny, I’m working on a poem right now called empty backpack. And the premise is that throughout our high school experience and life, we start to carry around the thoughts and opinions of everyone else. And it like weighs our backpack down. The whole idea of the song is like, our poem is like, you have to let those things go and empty out your empty out your backpack.


Liat Benzacar (22:53):
And also it’s so important for us to acknowledge that the people we interact with daily have a backpack of things. Yeah. Right. And I say that to, to, to, to the, my colleagues, to the teachers I work with to the students I interact with and everyone carries a backpack and it’s filled with stuff you will never know. Yeah. and so that joke you make or that comment you say actually can impact somebody in a way that you could never understand because that backpack is zipped real tight. Yeah. Right.


Sam Demma (23:29):
Yeah. It’s so true. I, I love that. It’s, it’s, it’s two perspectives, you know, people should be mindful what they say to you and you should be mindful what you say to others. Right. It goes both ways. I love that. This is just an inspiring conversation. Went down a couple of different rabbit holes, but you know, back to the topic of education this year has been different. I don’t wanna say it’s been terrible or bad or anything that a lot of people are saying that we have to pivot. I know we have to pivot a little bit, but it’s been different. It’s been a little bit challenging. What are some of the challenges that you faced and how have you worked to slowly overcome them?


Liat Benzacar (24:03):
Yeah. where to begin there. I mean, aside from the sort of obvious challenges of like shifting to an online world and setting up space and being comfortable and considering what it means for me now to meet with students in their home space rather than their school space and it not being as private as I sort of am aware of in a moment when we’re sitting in my office, I know it’s just me and one other student. I would say that COVID in general sort of like significantly altered our sense of time. Right. and so I I’ve often said, and I’ve heard, I’ve heard many people say like this, this, this sense of repetition, this repetitive nature, this feeling like it’s groundhogs day really impacts the way we think the way we feel and the way we behave. You know, I think pre pandemic for the most part, most of us could structure our days to like a, a, a beginning, a middle and an end.


Liat Benzacar (25:04):
Yeah. And, and, and that, that sort of linear process helps us process what’s going on in the world, how we can fit, you know, what’s going on for us into those moments. And then when it blends into one and there’s no beginning and no end, and we really are having difficulty setting up boundaries it, it impacts our well be. And like I said, at the beginning, if it’s impacting your wellbeing, it’s impacting your ability to be successful academically. Now what, what that does additionally, is it, it, it sort of puts us in a state of chronic stress. Right. and, and I know, and I’m sure, you know, in your experiences, a student, like stress can be helpful in a lot of ways. But then when it moves into a space where it’s chronic, where it’s happening all the time, I’m not producing my best work.


Liat Benzacar (25:54):
I’m not functioning at my best. And so teenagers to begin with, and that’s the, primarily the, the population that I work with their prefrontal cortex has not yet developed, which means that the filter part of our brain is not yet developed. And also now, because of the pandemic, this fear of what’s going on outside puts us in a state of fight or flight. And so we’re not able to process information well. So we’re exhausted all, all the time. We are, are scared in some ways all the time. And the example I use is it, you know, our, our, our prehistoric brains, haven’t, you know, they’re not that much different than our brains are now. And so if I believe that there’s danger outside, right. And the danger at this moment is this pandemic. And, you know, early days is how’s it gonna impact me and my life and my family and every step I do, I have to consider.


Liat Benzacar (26:57):
So if you hear a bear wrestling outside your cabin in the, at all of the night I’m probably not gonna get restful sleep. And if I don’t get restful sleep, how does that impact my ability to interact with my friends? How does that impact my ability to interact with my teachers? How does that impact my ability to store and remember information? And so we saw, you know, a lot of shift in relationships, a lot of shift in engagement, a lot of shift in academic success. And then of course this big shift and conversation around mental health. So, you know, I, I, I think, you know, in all of that, we wanna try and find some strategies. Now, I think early days there was this strategy of like, let’s practice gratitude. Let’s think of all of the things that, you know, we’re really grateful to have.


Liat Benzacar (27:57):
And I think that worked for a while. But I think we also know that focusing on the positive doesn’t always make us happy and when it’s chronic and happening for 18 months over time, and I’m practicing gratitude and I’m practicing gratitude and I’m practicing gratitude you eventually start to ask yourself well, but now what and so there was this shift, I think, in our thinking in our school, like allowing students space to go grieve, right? Yes. You’re grieving a year. You, you know, for our grade 12 students, for example, you’re grieving a lost year in a lot of ways and a lost opportunities, and yes, there’s so much that we can look at that you benefit from. And also there was a big loss. And so I think acknowledging that again, listening, using that sort of like lens where you’re able to actually just like sit in the mud with people was so important.


Liat Benzacar (28:52):
Right. And, and also on top of it, all, all of us, you know, me as the school social worker, but all the, the faculty, all the staff in our school, we could speak from a place of understanding where they were coming from, because in some sense, we were experiencing it together now, all in our own different ways. Yeah. So, you know, we’ve, we’ve heard a lot like, oh, we’re all on the same boat. And, and I really liked sort of a, a challenge to that, which was, we all are in a boat of some kind and some of us have more resources than others. And so it’s easy to say we’re all in the same boat and we’re, we’re, we’re, we’re sitting in this discomfort together, which in a lot of the senses we were, and I think that’s what connected us well with students in those moments. But also acknowledging that, you know, each person’s boat might, may, may look a little bit, each person’s backpack might look a little bit different. Right.


Sam Demma (29:48):
Yeah. Right. I heard a similar analogy, like the, though the reverse we’re all on the same ocean, but yeah. We all have different boats, some have inflatable boat and some have a yacht, you know, and that could be related to resources or supports, you know, systems. And I thought, I was like, wow, what a good way to look at it, because it’s true. We’re not, we’re all facing this very differently. So, and we’re all, we’re all going through this very differently. And I think it’s important to acknowledge it. Yeah, this is, this has been a great conversation. Yeah. Thank you so much for taking the time to come on the show. If you could go back and give your younger self, I think you said you’ve been in education for eight years now. Yeah. If you could go back to your first year and give your yourself advice, what would that advice be?


Liat Benzacar (30:36):
What would that advice be? That’s a great question. What advice would I give my younger self stop and smell the roses, you know, like I, and, and you know what, actually, I, I think I did an okay job doing that, but I think we were oftentimes were so focused on the pace at which the people around us are moving. And so we move at that pace rather than stopping and asking ourselves, like, is this the pace I wanna be working at? Like, you know, and, and I was fortunate enough to have parents who encouraged me to take a gap year after high school. And again, you know, after I went back and finished a, a degree, an undergraduate degree, like in like, there’s no a rush, like, you know, in 10 or 15 years from now, you’ll be pretty much in the same space as you imagine yourself.


Liat Benzacar (31:33):
And as you see your friends sort of pursuing. But I, I probably would’ve said just to, to really stop and take opportunity to take those experiences in, rather than focusing on the pace that everyone else was moving at. And in that I learned to shed the feeling of, of regret, I, I have done a lot of hard work to shift regret into the opportunity to learn. And so people say like, is there anything that you regret and your life? And I say, you know, honestly, no. Because I work to, I, I acknowledge that feeling of regret if I feel it. And then I say, okay, like, I didn’t have the opportunity to make a decision. And perhaps I made one that looking back, I would change. But what now can I learn moving forward? So I would also maybe ask myself to, to shed those feelings a little bit earlier, but yeah, I guess, you know, for, and, and maybe my younger self also just, you know, because I’ve found so much passion working in supporting students in their academic endeavors by elevating access to mental health support and wellbeing, you know, just to practice that a little bit more myself in those early years.


Sam Demma (32:58):
Cool. Love it. Thank you again so much for, for coming on the show.


Liat Benzacar (33:03):
Yeah, of course.


Sam Demma (33:05):
Love the advice to your younger self. If another educator is listening and just wants to reach out, you know, send you an email or get in touch, what would be the best way for them to, you know, reach out to you?


Liat Benzacar (33:14):
Great question. Probably, you know, by emailing me. So they can email me at benzacar@smcsmail.com. So that’s my direct work email. I’d be more than happy to connect and collaborate and work on ideas which I’m very fortunate to be able to do with a lot of other social workers, but I’d be more than happy to connect with educators or anyone who’s just interested in, in finding out more about what I do. So, yeah, that’s my email.


Sam Demma (33:47):
Cool, awesome. Leo, thank you so much again for coming on the show. Keep up the awesome work and we’ll see you soon.


Liat Benzacar (33:52):
See you soon.


Sam Demma (33:53):
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; f 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 Liat Benzacar

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.

Lori Wagner – Coordinator of Student Support at Myrnam Outreach and Homeschool Centre

Lori Wagner – Coordinator of Student Supports
About Lori Wagner

Lori Wagner is the Myrnam Outreach and Homeschool Centre (MOHC) Coordinator. She was born feeling the need to make connections and to help others. The passion to teach was in her blood.  She has always looked at learners from an individualized lens; a perspective that was different from how others looked at the teaching profession over twenty years ago.

Her path through life has been filled with twists and turns, which has deepened her compassion for others, and has allowed her to approach times of change and struggle with a perspective that has helped her live every day to the fullest. 

Connect with Lori: Email

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Myrnam Outreach and Homeschool Centre (MOHC)

Camp Widow

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. Today’s guest is Lori Wagner. Lori actually saw me speak at a teacher convention about two and a half months ago, and we connected right afterwards and it was obvious that she would be a great fit for a podcast interview; so we brought her on. Lori was born with the feeling that she needed to make connections and to help others.


Sam Demma (01:03):
The passion to teach was in her blood. She always looked at learners from the individualized lenses; a perspective that was different from how others looked at the teaching profession over 20 years ago. Her path through life has been filled with twist and turns, which has deepened her compassion for others and allowed her to approach times of change and struggle with the perspective which has helped her live every day to the fullest. And she vulnerably shares some of those challenges during this interview today and it’s actually an anniversary of a huge challenge that she went through years ago. But that’s what really has boughten out her light and her compassion and I think you’ll get so much out of today’s interview. So I’ll hear you. I’ll hear from you on the other side; enjoy today’s episode. Lori, thank you so much for coming on the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show after meeting at the teachers convention briefly. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit about what led you to working with young people?


Lori Wagner (02:02):
Well, it was, well only the thing that I ever wanted to do. My dad was a teacher for 40 years, probably at the same school. He was a junior high science, which did not interest me at all. I, no offense to those teenagers. I love coaching them. I love teasing them, in the hallways and walking down, getting like blown away by their acts, the body after street. But I do not like teaching them and the reason is I am kind of a five year old at heart. So where can you be goofy and like sing in front of a class and do weird accents and just make kids like super engaged? Elementary! So that was my route. And then I chose special ed because I just have a passion for finding the, like that student who is struggling. You see them so frustrated and when you get to that point that you can see you’ve like figured out how they learn and that spark goes in their eye,


Lori Wagner (02:56):
It’s like the best thing ever. Mm. So that’s why I went this special ed route. And it’s still a passion of mine to figure out kids with learning disabilities, ’cause you really see them kind of get lost in the regular classroom. And if you don’t have that sped eye that I feel like I do have and really know how to get to them and do those diagnostic testings and make a difference, like in my first practicum there was a boy and he was like a non-reader non-writer by the end of my practicum, he wrote a creative writing story that was two pages long. ‘Cause I made this cool project. It was like create a creature and the news came and it was just like that. So that was not even teaching. That was my practicum. It impacted me to then carry that on to the next years ahead.


Sam Demma (03:40):
I love that something interesting is you mentioned, you know, when you, you really feel for them when you see the struggle and you know, you’ve been through an instrumentable amount of struggle and I’m curious to know what your perspective on struggle is. Like how do you view struggle?


Lori Wagner (03:57):
Sometimes you have to view a sense of humor. Yep. Sometimes you have, you have to view it with the silver lining. Sometimes you have to view it that we are all struggling in some way. So it was really interesting to me. So the backstory about what Sam is talking about, the struggle is today it’s a 12th anniversary. My husband’s death. It was a sudden death in the avalanche. I was, was pregnant at the time, six months pregnant with my second child. And that was really one of the, well, that was the hardest thing that I had to do in the months ahead and deliver by myself and crazy two little babies, but the connections and the compassion that I felt from the people of BC and also of Alberta who supported me, like it filled my heart. It made me feel like I wanted to do that for other people in any way. So on this day, like if my voice shakes a little bit, you’re just gonna have to ignore it.


Sam Demma (04:54):
But no it’s just feels


Lori Wagner (04:55):
Passionate about it. Like it’s my, it makes me smile. When I think back to that feeling because he had died on a, in a mountain called McBride in the Rocky mountains, which funny and left, I ended up moving there and changing my life and new perspectives were, were changed there. But I just remember going to view his body, which my parents thought I was pretty. He is either like, you’re gonna you’re pregnant. This is gonna be bad for the baby. And I was like, no, this is what I have to do. And the whole town of 500 people just rallied around us, the victim service worker, which is now one of my best friends. She stayed us with us the whole time. The corner was like, if you need to see him at two in the morning, again, you just call me, I’ll come pick you up.


Lori Wagner (05:41):
We’ll take you to the hospital. The hotel put us up, everyone at the, the hospital and restaurants were just feeding us and taking care of us. And I was just like, wow, these people don’t even know me or my family. And they’re crying for me. Like this is made me feel like this connection to strangers that I now like, especially on this day, I love connecting to people. I don’t know because everyone has a story. And if I can make them smile sometimes like that taxi driver that I’m like reaching out, not treating ’em my keys, a second class per, or that Pelman that I’m like, how’s your day going? And like, what’s new with you. And those people that don’t get talked to in my travels, which I usually somewhere amazing on March 24th. Cause I’m determined to make this day the complete opposite of what it was.


Lori Wagner (06:33):
So I’ve always like gotta go to Vancouver. We’ve gone to the states a couple times last year, we’re supposed to go to Texas. And so the pandemic hit last year and it, it gutted me because March back to the perspective of how people are feeling right now, I really feel like now people all understand what March brings me because there is, we’ve been getting emails about that unresolved trauma that many people feel from last year that their world was falling apart. And how now they’re reacting, not by like a cognitive way, but it’s hitting them like with anxiety or just this feeling of unsettling and, or just they’re crying for no reason, nobody because of what happened last year. So every month I go through this process and I never know when it’s gonna hit me. I’m usually a little bit anxious, but last year it felt like our world was falling apart.


Lori Wagner (07:28):
So that’s how it brought me back to a PTSD feeling of 11 years ago from last year, my world fell apart. So it tanked and it put a, and not a great place, which I’m now with the help of some therapists and getting back on meds and being pro mental health, no stigma talking about it. But people now understand that that is not something you think about the whole world feels this trauma right now. And so it was hard for me to talk about this to other people. Well, cuz they would say, oh, March 24th is, that’s gotta be such a hard day. I’ve got all these text that are saying big hugs to you. And, but they don’t know that I actually broke down last weekend for no reason. I don’t know because I just felt like I got hit with a truck. Mm.


Lori Wagner (08:14):
I dug my husband’s ashes out and like feeling them. I don’t know if you know anything about ashes, but there’s bone bin in there. There’s teeth and crying. And my present partner who he’s been with me for six years is super supportive about me crying over my dead husband, which is like not really that common. So I’ve gone on now, a mini tangent from the con connecting with compassion and then kind of back how trauma has made me feel. But I’ve had hard days, but I’ve also had a lot of times that I really just had to laugh at what was going on. So I can give you an example of that time


Sam Demma (08:53):
Please. And before you continue, before you continue, I just wanna say thank you so much for being so vulnerable and sharing this part of yourself. It will relate to some people listening and, and they’ll find some strength in your sharing. So thank you so much.


Lori Wagner (09:08):
Yeah, no, Sam, I really think that being young widow, I was 32 at the time. So I went out to, because I, I don’t know how to be a widow. I’ve got two little kids and a section on grief in chapters had like seven books in it. And the one that I picked up and looked at was about finding a new golf partner one year 65. And it was so unrelatable that I’ve like since reached out, there’s a camp down the states called camp widow, which now they operate them Ontario. There’s an amazing camp called camp care, which is a grief family trauma camp. Oh wow.


Sam Demma (09:40):
It’s,


Lori Wagner (09:41):
It’s just that connecting with other widows that know what’s happening and how it feels to have two little kids that feel like you wanna crawl up in or how many kids crawl up in a corner and cry, but you can’t because you have to keep goings. So anyhow, there was one time, couple, it was probably, I don’t know, six years in and I kind gone through some ups and downs with my in-law family because death brings out hard feelings in people. And sometimes there’s times that we weren’t talking and we got back on track and my mother-in-law and father-in-law were always amazing. So I decided to do something important for them and take some, I’ve always offered the ashes to them and they said, no, no, no, that’s fine. You don’t have to. So I looked into it and there was this place in the states that you could get ashes like blown, like glass into this orb.


Lori Wagner (10:33):
And then it made like a beautiful little ornament. So I contacted them down there and they said, this is what you have to do. You need so much ashes and we’re gonna, you can ship it down and then we’ll send you the ornaments back. So I’m at the kitchen table having a beer with my, my dead husband’s ashes and kind of looking at it like, this is the most ridiculous thing. Like this is ridiculous. So I’m, I’m scooping it out and I’m like, I wonder what, part’s going down the state SCO be your arm, proving your, I don’t know, but you’re going, this is a man who never went on a flight to the states. I was like your first vacation. Hey congratulations. So I go to the post office and funny enough, the lady at the counter was also a bit of, and she was, but she not a looking at the dark side of humor kind of person than I am, like kind of laughing about the crazy stuff.


Lori Wagner (11:25):
So yeah, she goes, what’s in the package. And I said, and I was like, it’s ashes, my, my dead husband’s ashes. She was like, well, how much would you think this, this would be worth? Cuz you have to put that a on there when you have the item that you’re shipping down. And I was like, what do I say? Priceless? Like nothing like it’s ashes in the metal container. Like I don’t know what to tell you. And my friend was there and she kind of understands my sense of humor and we’re trying not to laugh because this is so crazy. I’m shipping my husband off and trying to put a price tag on his, his, his worth. But that there’s no sense in that to me. So anyhow, it was just one of the stories I had shared with my widow group because they got it and thought it was very humorous and yeah, it was just one of times, like my kids had asked many times actually when they’re little, can we pull out daddy? And I was like, okay, here we go. Like bring up, open the box up. And I have to remind my two year old, like daddy’s not a sandbox. Let’s get the cars out of there and yeah, shut ’em up and put them to bed. And then I have a little moment of like, wow, that was hard, but also crazy. And this life is so weird, but also amazing.


Sam Demma (12:41):
Hmm. And you said when you, you moved to where the accident happened in your life, you know, changed, like what changed for you? How did you approach life differently? Like, I’m curious to know what minds said shifts happened after the experience


Lori Wagner (12:56):
That life is too short and we can, and there’s really bad things that happen that we shouldn’t worry about the little things. So especially during this pandemic time in teaching, there’s been a lot of people worrying about what I call the small stuff like and worrying about. I’m not talking about getting sick, but just worry about those little details. And my perspective now is like, whoa, I don’t care. Like pretty pandemic or whatever about chewing gumming class. Or if you have a hat on let’s, I’m not arguing about those details. I cannot do it or worrying about. So my social online kids that I have in grade eight that are also struggling with theirs, some health problems going on, there’s some family stuff, Hey, guess what? Grade eight, you’re gonna still be a good person. If you don’t remember 18, whatever, whatever. So what we’re gonna do is just do the review. I’ll help you through the test and we’re getting you through grade eight social cause this will not matter in five years. Like I cannot deal with the silly details when there’s bigger things in life. So what had happened was I was starting to go visit my, the victim service lady that we got to be connected with. She was about my age and I would use it kind of as mistakes. So my perspective also was I’m just a swearing podcast or not,


Sam Demma (14:14):
It’s just fellow educators. So it’s okay.


Lori Wagner (14:17):
I’m gonna make this life the same way I would’ve done with my husband. So that means I’m gonna learn how to drive a fifth wheel. I’m gonna get myself a big one ton to pull it around. And I’m fricking doing it with a eight month old and a two almost three year old and it’s happening. So I learned how to pull a fifth wheel all that thing to through the mountain passes all the way up. It’s like, I don’t know if you know where prince George is, but anyhow, you go through Jasper and then you go, instead of going down Camelot and Vancouver, you take it up to like halfway to it’s 45 minutes from Mount Watson. Okay. If that gives you some sort perspective on perspective again, on where I’m at. So I’m parked in our backyard and I’m thinking, okay, instead of parking in our backyard, maybe I should look for some investment land.


Lori Wagner (15:02):
There’s another backstory about why I had some money for investment land because I had these bring me back to this, but I had some thoughts three months before he died about him dying. And I kept, it was a gut intuition that I could not fight and we just had sign life insurance. So, oh wow. Bring me that if you’d like. Okay. So anyhow, I’m connected with this real estate lady who we had got to be good friends, cause everyone in this town is like a personal connection. It’s such a cute little small town. And she said to me, so too bad, you weren’t like looking at buying a business because you’d be so good. You’re really sociable. And I, and I said, what kind of business? She said, it’s a trading company, kind of those like small town, bulk health food jars on the wall, little cafe that, that, so I said, well, I love baking that that would be like, take me to see it.


Lori Wagner (15:52):
And it was just this place. You ever walk into a place and you feel like it’s home. Like, wow, this feels amazing. So I said, well, what’s the catch on this? She goes, well, there’s a couple there that would like to go in with a partner. They don’t wanna do it on their own. So I asked my friend if she knew them. And of course she does cuz you know, everyone in this town. And so I cold called this guy. He was a retired banker and just had a conversation. We went to go see the building again. And he goes, okay, well think about it. I’m in, if you’re in. And I was sitting outside, looking at the mountains and put my kids to bed in the trailer and I thought, this is crazy if I walked away for like, I was on math leave.


Lori Wagner (16:33):
But if I left my teaching career, which I do love, but would I regret not trying when I’m 85? And my answer in my heart was like, this would be something I would regret, not throwing all, just all caution to the wind and taking this huge leap by myself and just doing it. And my thought was always like, what’s the worst that could happen. Mm. The worst that could happen, it would go south. And I could move back to Alberta. What’s the best that could happen. I can change up my life a little bit. Get myself out of that. Like whenever I’d go to the local grocery store or see someone in town, I’d get that pity widow look like, how’s it going? Worry. Yeah. And then you’d have to kind of like console other people, even though they’re trying to be very compassionate, but it was a hard space to be.


Lori Wagner (17:23):
And it was also a small town that people knew me. I’d taught in for 10 years. So I made the decision like within minutes, I’m gonna buy this business and we’re moving. I had three apartments above this to go building. Like we can live up there. So I call my parents from, from the backyard. I was like, so, and they were worried about me living on an acreage Alberta by myself. Mm. Like they were that concerned like Lori, you’re gonna have to sell your house just after Luke was born. That’s my son. You can’t handle it all acreage by yourself. You’re a single mom. Now you’ve got two little kids and they made me move into town to be closer to them right after he died. So anyway, I called about, I was like, mom, dad, I have something to tell you. He might wanna sit down.


Lori Wagner (18:04):
I bought a business to McBride and I’m moving there next month. And what are you like, are you actually insane? And I was like, it’s happening? So anyhow, I move up there. We had a couple years we lived in and then I ended up finding the most amazing soul healing place up on the mountain road, just by chance through my friend up there. That was in the same en road that my husband died at the top of that mountain. And that house was, I’ll send you pictures after like you, people from out where you live will not believe that some people are that lucky to live in such a magical mountainous valley. Like it was just gorgeous. And I lived there for about eight years and then circumstances kind of, I don’t know if you believe in the universe and like putting things out there, but I always wanted to live in the mountain.


Lori Wagner (18:55):
I always wanted to own a bakery. And this is like, when I’m a teenager, I did that. I did that. I wanted to get back to teaching and I kind of felt a little bit stuck in that mountain town. The schools, people were moving out, the schools were like 50 kids. There was a, and any opportunity for me after I’d worked in a few different places. So I thought I love this place, but I’ve also dated the men in this town. So I’m not gonna find any new ones. I also do want a partner that is going to be like my chapter two partner, which I did meet up there who coincidentally his birthday’s today. So now always celebrate.


Sam Demma (19:31):
Wow.


Lori Wagner (19:32):
Yeah, it was the universe saying to me, here you go, Laurie, like my, my best friend. And I looked at each other when we were talking about this and I met him up on a, a Memorial ride for their friend. And I said, so how old are you? And he said, 40. And last month, when’s your birthday? March 24th. And my girlfriend and I looked at each other like, is this, is this a screen Still around years later? And, and it’s brought me back to, Alberta’s the most amazing school my kids are doing well, and we’re all doing well. And we just appreciate what we have.


Sam Demma (20:08):
Wow. It’s such a good reminder to cherish the small and big things in life, you know? Your story’s amazing. And if you had advice for young teachers or, you know, teachers that are just getting into the profession, what would you share with them?


Lori Wagner (20:23):
Well, I do have a new teacher in here that I apparently I’m mentoring. Nice. So I, yeah, I, I did see her come in and get, she kinda get overwhelmed, which is normal. But I, so the new position I came into was a position that kind of fell into my lap last year. And it was the facilitator of the home learning outreach program. And it had no structure. It was like a, just a program. They thought they would get up and running to increase enrollment. And when I got hired or offered the position, they said, I said to them, so what does this look like? And they said, whatever, you’d like it to be. So every day was a learning process last year. And every day was scary until I learned something and could apply it the next time. And so I, in that, by from it, and then by the end of the year, I could see how far I’d come.


Lori Wagner (21:12):
So this new teacher came in and then also we revamped the program twice this year and the other teacher’s like, oh my goodness, what are we doing? I’m like, everyone just stop. Let’s take it day by day. This will all work out. I’ve been through this before we will learn. We will grow. We will tweak. And that’s part of even teaching, right. Or being a human, like we’re supposed to make mistakes. We’re supposed to be scared. We’re supposed to be uncomfortable or else we wouldn’t be growing. So when I was, had no idea what I was doing last year, I learned even more like when I moved to BC, scary, uncomfortable, but worth all those magical years I had with the people that lived in that town and what memories we collected. So we’ll, we’ll collect memories by being stressed out and anxious and taking that step.


Lori Wagner (22:01):
I know, I feel like a lot of the teaching community, I’m not type a, but I feel like there’s a lot of type a out there and that’s hard to deal with change, but I think we need to force ourselves to deal with change. And I could not live with not changing because I would get more quickly. Yeah. Frankly. And before, before Cory died, I was thinking, oh, this life’s kind of boring. And then it got really boring, but you know what? My daughter, when she was eight said to me, dad didn’t die. We would never have met all these people and had these experiences. She’s kind of an old soul. And I was like, you’re right. Like, good for you seeing this over lining in this. Cuz we, we lived in an amazing life in the mountains. Like we quad to the top of the mountains and a, you go up for snowmobile to the cabin to have a hot dog grow river boating on the river.


Lori Wagner (22:53):
Whenever we’d want to like doing all these crazy things that people who live in Alberta or who live in the city. My kids experience so much because of the steps that we went through. And so now, okay. Back to the teacher, the first year teacher thing. Yeah. Change and being scared is good. I just do just do it. Put, take your steps forward, build the plane as you’re flying it. And that’s fine because that’s how even I’m 44, this little young thing is 22 coming in and I can tell her it’s okay. I still sometimes don’t know what I’m doing, which is what I tell of kids. Cause kids, since we’ve got like, oh, you’re an adult, you’ve got it all together. I’m like, guess what? No, we don’t. And that’s okay. Cause we’re, if we figured it all out, we might as well be dead, be honest.


Lori Wagner (23:43):
So I also look at kids and young people that are just coming into their own well, I’m thinking like teenagers and kids too. I think we have too much, too many high expectations for kids and how they behave in their emotions and what they’re dealing with because I kids live in like the red or green zone and we kind of operate the yellow zone. And when we like, we can be okay, but when we get mad, we’re mad or sad. We get sad where kids just go from one extreme to the other and I can have a crying fit, but it could be in my own space cause I can regulate myself. But when kids are overwhelmed or their parents are overwhelmed because of what’s going, how they’re feeling. I really think that we need to take the behaviors as something behind it and recognize that adults have temper tantrums. So how can we expect our kids to walk into the door? Having good days all the time. Yeah. So I guess that comes like from a first year teacher, how we’re feel about things to how you’re recognizing the emotions in our fellow staff members and just trying to be compassionate about where everyone’s at and sharing that with them. Cause then you don’t feel like you’re alone. Same with like the sharing with the widows. You don’t feel like you’re alone anymore.


Sam Demma (25:01):
I love it and thank you so much for taking the time again today to chat about all this. I really appreciate it. If another educator is, is tuning in right now and wants to reach out to you and have a conversation about anything we just shared, like what would be the best way for them to reach out to you and have a conversation?


Lori Wagner (25:22):
My email would be fine. I would, could would share out to them if anyone reached out to you. I don’t know any other technology.


Sam Demma (25:30):
Email is perfect. Yeah. Just spell it out.


Lori Wagner (25:36):
Oh, it’s loriwagner44@gmail.com. Perfect.


Lori Wagner (25:45):
So what was I to say with oh, sharing with people? I, yeah, I’ve also like cold reached out. Like when people, the avalanche victims really get me those news stories. If you Google my name, Lori Wagner, avalanche McBride, that story went national because it was at the end of the very bad avalanche here. Wow. So now when I hear about these like credit mess, I will reach out to those widows or widowers, or whether I know them or not. And just say, Hey, I’ve been through what you’ve been through. If you’d like to reach out, I totally help walk you through how you’re feeling and it’s okay to feel that and validate that for you because, and some of them have come back to me and we’ve had that kind of conversation. And on those that also were a little bit lost, like I was lost. So I’ve often thought about a podcast about widows ’cause I don’t know if there’s a lot out there, but it might be an interesting topic.


Sam Demma (26:40):
I think that’s a great idea. An amazing idea. And if you do start it, let me know. But again, thank you so much for taking the time to chat today and honoring the, you know, the Memorial, today’s 12 years. I really appreciate it. Keep doing awesome work and stay in touch. I would love to stay in touch, whether it’s over email or whatever and keep doing great stuff and, and I’ll talk to you soon.


Lori Wagner (27:07):
Okay. Thanks a lot, Sam.


Sam Demma (27:09):
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; f 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 Lori Wagner

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 Holwegner – CEO of Health Stand Nutrition Consulting Inc “The Chocoholic Nutritionist TM”

Andrea Holwegner - CEO of Health Stand Nutrition Consulting Inc "The Chocoholic Nutritionist TM"
About Andrea Holwegner

Andrea Holwegner (@ChocoholicRD) is the founder and CEO of Health Stand Nutrition Consulting Inc. established in 2000. Her mission is to empower people to create a healthy and joyous relationship with food and their body.

She leads a team of experienced dietitians that help busy families with meal planning success, weight concerns, eating disorders, digestive issues, sports nutrition, heart health, diabetes and more. She is an online nutrition course creator, professional speaker and regular guest in the media. Andrea is the recipient of an award by the Dietitians of Canada: The Speaking of Food & Healthy Living Award for Excellence in Consumer Education.

In her spare time, she enjoys skiing, mountain biking and sipping wine with her husband over a delicious meal. Most of all, she loves being a mom and playing in the dirt in the vegetable garden she grows with her son. Join Andrea’s free nutrition newsletter that goes out to thousands of people each week for her latest TV segments, articles and healthy recipes from her award-winning blog at www.HealthStandNutrition.com/newsletter

Connect with Andrea: Email | Twitter | Linkedin | Website

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

National Eating Disorder Information Centre

Health Stand Nutrition Blog

Russ and Jay Shetty Podcast Interview

Dan Siegel: Name it to Tame it

Andrea’s website

Andrea’s free weekly newsletter 

Nutrition for mental health (article and video)

9 things everyone should know about eating disorders

Dispelling the top 4 myths about eating disorders (article and video)

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 (00:02):
Andrea, welcome to 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 about who you are?


Andrea Holwegner (00:12):
Well, thanks for having me, Sam, of course. People mostly call me the Chocaholic Nutritionist because of my passion for balanced, not clean living. But of course, my name’s Andrea Holwegner. I’m a registered dietician, a busy mom and owner of Health Stand Nutrition in Calgary and lead a team of about 10 dieticians and growing as we speak specializing in really helping people with overall health and wellness and, you know, topics like how to get enough veggies to wanna, you know, take care of your health, but still save room for our favourites, like chocolate and potato chips and all the good stuff too.


Sam Demma (00:52):
If I was choosing to work with a dietician, they would have to have a giant picture with chocolate-covered strawberries in their office, or they would not be an option.


Andrea Holwegner (01:03):
Oh. And that might just be what I’m staring at right behind me here.


Sam Demma (01:09):
Yeah. That’s, it’s so awesome. Where did your passion for, you know, health and nutrition come from? Where, where did that stem from?


Andrea Holwegner (01:19):
You know, I was raised by a mom that like baked bread and we had family dinner together each night and just a family of, of food, loving people. My grandparents were farmers and grew all sorts of good stuff in the garden. So I just had a really rich upbringing with the love of, of good food and good culture. And then along the way, my dad in his forties became quite sick with cardiovascular disease. He became one of the youngest guys that were being followed by a local cardiologist here for very complex heart disease. And so he had some bad genetics both of his parents really complicated health histories and, you know, my dad, wasn’t the healthiest guy. There was probably a little bit too much you know, baked goods and all sorts of good stuff that he liked to to get into.


Andrea Holwegner (02:12):
He was a chewing tobacco guy. He was a banker, but he was a chewing tobacco guy, which was an interesting thing. So that also increased his risk. And so I watched him go through complicated, you know, health, recovery quadruple bypass surgery carotid artery surgery. And, you know, as a, a kid in high school going into post secondary, I was really starting to look at the connection between nutrition and health. And so the rest is history, sort of a, a food loving dietician, married with a total nerdy science brain that wanted to know more about how food connected to our overall health. And that’s how I ended up here.


Sam Demma (02:56):
When you’re going through school you get bombarded with so many different ideas. Atkin’s diet, this diet that diet eat these food groups, don’t eat these food groups. How do you approach nutrition from a Al approach? And maybe this is like what you get when you consult with you, but in a nutshell, what is your approach to nutrition and how could someone listening start to embody the same approach?


Andrea Holwegner (03:28):
Well, I love this question because of course the word diet when you even you ask people how that’s perceived or even the word dietician, and of course the word dietician has the word diet in it, and it also has the word diet it. And so most people think they’re going to be deprived and it’s gonna be awful. And that they’ll, you know, never be able to enjoy their favorite, fast foods or chocolates or ice creams or taco chips, whatever your favorites might be. But really when we look at our brand at health stand nutrition and our overall philosophy, it’s always about coming back to the big picture. So I always say to people, there are no bad foods, there’s only bad overall diets. And so if you love McDonald’s French fries, or if you love chocolate like me what we want to think about is, well, how do we make sure that stays in your diet? And then we wrap healthy eating around it. And this is a way more vulnerable, enjoyable, fun way to live than thinking about taking out all of the joy and being known as a fun sucking dietician. I have no interest in that. I have a total interest in teaching people how to keep all the good stuff in and finding the joy.


Sam Demma (04:38):
Do you think it’s obvious that there’s a, between nutrition and physical health, even explain through your situation, watching your father go through his situations? Do you also believe there is a connection mentally based on the foods that we choose to consume and eat?


Andrea Holwegner (04:57):
Absolutely a hundred percent. What we know about nutrition is if you think about it, there’s nothing more immediate that has an impact on your energy, your mental health, and how you focus, concentrate at school or work and how you feel than what you’re eating. And that can happen in the matter of minutes to, you know, an hour. If you think about how you feel, if you haven’t eaten in a long time, it could be state of hangriness that starts to, to emerge where we get hunger mixed with anger in our practice, we’ve also coined the term anxiety, and that means you’re, you know, anxious. Some people get really anxious when they haven’t fueled themselves properly and maybe it’s cuz they didn’t plan ahead, they forgot, or maybe they’re following some crazy cleany eating plan or low carb plan or whatever plan might be trending on Instagram or TikTok trying to, you know, make them a, a different version of themselves. And the more we restrict fuel, particularly carbohydrates for our brain, usually the hanger and the more anxious people get and nutrition has an absolute direct correlation to how we feel. And so when, what we’ve seen through COVID is a massive spike in mental health issues across the globe. Our business has grown as a result of so many emotional eating issues and working from home issues for parents, for kids and massive increases in eating disorders very much directly a mental health illness connected to food.


Sam Demma (06:33):
What does that look like? What is typically, what does the K that you typically get presented? It’s obviously not a good thing that more of these cases are happening and I mean, it’s a good thing. Your business is growing, but it’s unfortunate that it’s because of the health challenges of more and more people. What, when someone comes to you with this sort of a challenge, what does, what does it typically look like? And I, I would assume every situation is different, but give us a little bit of an idea,


Andrea Holwegner (07:01):
You know, maybe the best way to, to share this might be just to go through a couple of examples of, you know, some of the situations that we’re seeing, that’s really common. So we’ve seen you know, whether it’s teachers or, or, you know, individuals that are working from home, the whole changing dynamic of work has really shifted how people eat when they eat, what they eat and when your refrigerator is right next to you and you’re bored or you’re stressed, it becomes a source of comfort, right? And we all eat for emotional eatings or emotional reasons. Dieticians included, you know, the beginning of the pandemic, I pretty much wanted to just sit down with a box, a chocolate and call it a day. I mean, it was overwhelming for all of us.


Andrea Holwegner (07:41):
So because of that shift in the working environment, we’ve seen a huge shift in in people’s mental health. And then as a result of that, we’ve seen some people, for example, put on 50 pounds in developed diabetes or heart issues struggles with their body image and their confidence as a result of, you know, even being on a screen and through video conferencing has shifted people’s ability to really, you know, feel self confident. When you’re staring at yourself on video each day, it, it’s not healthy. It’s like walking around with a mirror attached to you and that’s not good for anybody. So one of the first things we do with our clients working on zoom is we teach them how to turn off their self view so that they’re not having to see themselves, cuz it’s really exhausting people, self-check themselves a lot and we just want them to be present and focused on why we’re here and what we’re doing.


Andrea Holwegner (08:34):
The next sort of piece, you know, if we were to sort of dive a little deeper into what we’re seeing with eating disorders you know, it depends on the source that you’re looking at, but there’s probably been a 30% rise in eating disorders, particularly amongst young adolescents going to school and that’s for a variety of reasons, you know, no surprise, everything changed school, changed their social community, changed you know, dance and music and sports, all of that community. And that way that adolescence really connect and alleviate stress. All of that became, it was just gone. And then households were experiencing a lot of family dynamics and family stress as a result of that as well. And so we see this huge increase in in eating disorders and knowing that in Canada alone, we’ve got a million people diagnosed with an eating disorder right now on top and that was pre COVID. So I don’t know what these numbers are gonna look like towards the end of this year, but it’s super concerning what we’re seeing in the collaborative work we’re doing with physicians and and therapists throughout the country,


Sam Demma (09:41):
Seeing yourself on conferencing is one challenge. I think for young people, it’s also challenging when they’re on TikTok, Instagram, seeing what is being presented as the perfect person, the perfect body image, the perfect diet, the perfect exercises it goes on and on. How do we address this? Or when someone comes with you comes to you with a case of emotional eating or an eating disorder, what are some of the initial steps that you know, that you can take or they can take to start working on it and, and hoping to soon resume back to a positive, more holistic diet approach?


Andrea Holwegner (10:26):
Yeah. So if we, if we were to look at first off, you know, like why do eating disorders even happen in the first place? I think a lot of times people see it as you know, it’s purely image focused or body weight focused, and really that’s actually quite a myth. What we know about eating disorders is there’s some genetic predisposing factors for example, being highly perfectionistic and achievement oriented. So we see if I think of our client load that we see often in our practice, these are like the top of the class. These are the kids that are the troublemakers. These are the adolescents that are, you know, on the social committees. They are like leading the charge in their peers. But with that drive and that high achieving mentality sometimes comes a lot of anxiety and a lot of feeling the need to perform or be perfect in so many of ways from school and in their extracurricular activities.


Andrea Holwegner (11:21):
The other thing too we know about eating disorders is there’s a lot of cultural factors, there’s mental health factors. There’s a lot of family dynamic factors. So for example, how your family communicates and how sort of emotionally connected they are, has a really big impact on our ability to be emotionally sound as well. And so oftentimes we see when we inherit an eating disorder, adolescent or teenager or someone in their twenties or thirties, oftentimes we probably inherit their family in the work that we need to do. So sometimes you know, parents might not be great at emotion coaching and helping their kids through stress and anxiety and what to say. And, and and so therapists that we collaborate with will spend a lot of time digging into the family dynamics. Sometimes it’s you know, when, when we look at who also is at risk for eating disorders, absolutely.


Andrea Holwegner (12:16):
The LGBTQ plus community is highly at risk for eating disorders just based on so much of a journey and being true to who they truly are at the end of the day. So if that is you, I, I, and you’re listening to this podcast. I just want you to know you are absolutely not alone. There’s help eating disorders that are affecting all different ages, all different genders all different socioeconomic patterns. You know, we’ve had lots of LGBT members as clients. We’ve had young boys that are 13 with anorexia. We’ve had women in their sixties that have never sought help for their eating disorder women that are pregnant and the list goes on, so it really can affect anybody. And it’s a lot of complex factors on how we get here.


Andrea Holwegner (13:06):
Along the way. And then Sam, you, you asked me about like, well, what do we do? Like what we know it’s affecting a lot of people, but what are the steps in kind of reaching out for help? And so when we’re kind of looking at overcoming and eating disorder, there’s three pieces or probably four pieces of, of help. The first is actually, you know, somebody in your trusted friend in family community that can be a support person is going to be someone that’s in your corner can be so helpful. Well, just that is more connected to you. Second is going to be working with your family physician, cuz sometimes there’s assessments or medical treatments and sometimes medical monitoring to make sure your, for example, your heart is healthy. All of these types of things need to be monitored, your mental health.


Andrea Holwegner (13:52):
The third piece is actually the field of psychology. So we were work with a lot of psychologists. The heart of the treatment, any needing disorder is absolutely through therapy and through really digging into how did we end up here and what are the ways that we can you know, get ourselves back on track to feeling more comfortable in our skin. And then of course working with a registered to dietician that specializes in eating disorders and it’s super important to find somebody that really gets it. Otherwise you’ll just be frustrated. It’s kind of like going to see a kidney doctor when you’ve actually got heart health issues. You need to find to all doctors are not created equally. And so all dieticians are not created equally in terms of their areas of specialty. So someone that really stands mental health and eating disorder behaviors is really who you wanna be seeing so that when you’re talking to them about your fears and worries and it’s, it’s something that we’ve heard before and people have gone before you, and we know what to do with that to help you kind of overcome some of these challenges.


Sam Demma (14:54):
There may be someone listening who is going through this right now and you’re giving them some great information for them to think about and start their steps on a healing journey. If there’s someone listening who, when you’re explaining the situ can identify someone else in their life, who they think is struggling with this, who they’d like to help, how would you advise that person reach out to that individual? Like how can you be there for somebody if I, if you had a friend in high school or a colleague who might be going through this, how can you make sure that you’re not crossing a bad and making them feel uncomfortable, but you can also be there for them through this tough time.


Andrea Holwegner (15:34):
This is such a great, great thing to to be talking about Sam, cuz I can promise you, there’s probably somebody, you know, that is struggling with anxiety, depression, suicidality, self-harming behaviors, eating disorder behaviors. And the best thing that you you can do is, is really just reach out with compassion and care. You know, you might say something like, Hey, I’ve noticed that you don’t really seem yourself these days is everything okay? That’s a better question than saying, Hey, I’ve noticed that you’ve dropped some weight. So somebody with a needing disorder, this is highly triggering. And sometimes actually will we in the nature of what we know about the distortion in body image and mental health might actually be perceived as a compliment that Hey, people are noticing that my weight is down. So that is the worst thing that you could say.


Andrea Holwegner (16:25):
That’s a do not say, do not comment on people’s weight, their body size, make it all about, I’ve noticed the it you’re different. I’m seeing maybe some of the life in your eyes has gone down. You know, I’m noticing that you’re, you know, not as engaged or you’ve kind of lost a little bit of, of some of your pozas in your spark that I kind of know you for oftentimes adolescence, we see them socially isolating more and that’s been tricky to sort of suss out through co with. But for teachers and parents really taking a pulse on sort of that social isolation piece is really, really key to notice on.


Sam Demma (17:04):
That makes a lot of sense. And I asked because in high school there was some people like that in my life and it was always a, it was always a challenge to figure out how to approach it. So I think it’ll be helpful for teachers and also for students to have that context. So thank you for sharing.


Andrea Holwegner (17:21):
I think all of us, when we’re going through a tough time, don’t want somebody to come and, you know, attempt to fix it for us cuz you know, that probably just makes us angry if anything. Yeah. But what we know is really helpful is if people can see that we’re struggling and people can sort of hear and express compassion and just give us some space to even talk about it without any need to fix it as a parent or a teacher or a friend that is the best thing that we can do is just give people that forum and that space instead of tip toing around it and pretending it’s not there and ignoring the elephant in the room is name it. In emotion focus therapy that therapists use, we talk about, you know, validating or seeing the, or, or naming the emotion first.


Andrea Holwegner (18:08):
So we call that name it to tame it. When you say to somebody, Hey, I can see that you’re looking sad or Hey, I can see that you’re looking angry. This actually calms emotion because you’ve named the emotion in our brain. It just sort of feels like, wow, validating that somebody can see that I might be struggling. The next thing that you can do is then, you know, either add to the validation that it’s like, it makes total sense why you would be feeling sad or I can imagine it feels really scary or that you’re really angry about X, Y, and Z. So that naming it and validating it and then just allow some space for them to tell you what’s going on or not share. And if they don’t share the first time, that’s okay. It doesn’t mean it has, hasn’t been successful. They just know you’re someone that’s not going to judge them or try and fix the problem for you and give you all of the, you know, 10 strategies on what you should do to get better at this. You know, you can keep kind of having those conversations and in time that person will talk to you. This is what we know. They just need to know that they’re safe with you and that you’re not judgemental.


Sam Demma (19:12):
I was listening to an amazing podcast with Jay she and a rapper named Russ sounds unrelated, but this’ll make sense. In a second, Russ was explaining how he always wanted to feel understood and when he was going through tough situ people in his life would tell him, I know exactly what it feels like. And Russ knew that they had no idea because they had never been through it. And he said them saying that actually made him feel more alone. So, you know, there is understanding in accepting that you don’t understand what someone’s going through, but just deciding that you’re gonna be there to support however they need it. And I thought it was a really beautiful phrase or mindset and it sounds very similar to what you’ve just explained. So I thought I would bring it up.


Andrea Holwegner (20:04):
I love it. That’s so great. I mean I think if we can really just say, I can’t imagine what you might be going through, but what I do know is that you got people in your corner like me, if you choose to kind of, you know, open up to me that have got your back, that’ll help you figure out the next steps. And I certainly don’t know the exact answers as to what we need to do next, but Hey, we could do it together. And that type of support is so much more you know, wrapping people with a warm, cozy blanket which is really what we need through this COVID period, more than ever.


Sam Demma (20:38):
And some chocolate covered strawberries. Yeah.


Andrea Holwegner (20:41):
You know, chocolate covered strawberries, chocolate covered almonds, chocolate covered raises. All of them are good for me.


Sam Demma (20:48):
That’s awesome. Well, this has been a phenomenal conversation. If someone would like to get in touch with you, reach out with a question, excuse me, or check out some of your resources, what would be the best way for them to absorb everything that is you in the company?


Andrea Holwegner (21:08):
Oh, okay. Well you can go over to our website first off its www.healthstandnutrition.com. And if you go into the search area of our website and just search the topic, eating disorders, we’ve got a ton of videos and articles and supporting resources that might be a useful place for you to to start to inquire. We’ve also got a free weekly newsletter. It comes, you know, goes out to thousands of people each week where we give people really balanced living tips and recipes and information that is in alignment with the topics that we’re talking about today for physical health, as well as mental health. And the other resource I would suggest is you can go over to the national eating disorder formation center. They’re known as www.NEDIC.ca. And they’ve got a ton of supporting resources for teachers, parents, students and the general public on all things, eating disorders. If you need a little bit more support there.


Sam Demma (22:03):
Awesome. Andrea, thank you again. Keep up the awesome work and I look forward to talking again.

Andrea Holwegner (22:09):
Thanks so much, Sam.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Andrea

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.

Tali Aziza M.S.W., R.S.W. – School Counsellor at Netivot HaTorah Day School

Tali Aziza M.S.W., R.S.W. - School Counsellor at Netivot HaTorah Day School
About Tali Aziza

Tali is a Registered Social Worker who works at a Modern Orthodox Jewish Day School in Thornhill Ontario. She works specifically with students in Pre-Nursery through to Grade Three providing one on one counselling, consultative services and social-emotional learning program development and implementation.

Tali earned her Bachelor of Arts Degree at IDC in Herzliya, Israel. She then completed her certification in holistic nutrition through The Institute of Holistic Nutrition in Toronto and then her Master of Social Work at Wurzweiler School of Social Work in New York.   

Connect with Tali: Email | Linkedin

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

The Zones of Regulation (SEL resource)

Netivot Hatorah Day School

The Ruler Program (SEL resource)

YALE Center for Emotional Intelligence

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):
Tali welcome to the high-performing educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here today. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit about what brought you to the work you’re doing today with young people?


Tali Aziza (00:13):
First of all, thank you so much for having me on I’m so excited to be talking to you today. So I am a registered social worker. I sort of came to my work now in schools through it, wasn’t always my, my path to end up in the school system. Really, I started, I did my undergraduate degree in psychology. I always knew I wanted to work with children. But more specifically at the time I wanted to work with children with eating disorders. So after my undergrad degree I went and did my degree in holistic nutrition. So I became a certified holistic nutritionist with the goal of combining the two together and working in eating disorders. I started my masters of social work and did my placements my first one in the school system and my second one really specializing in eating disorders.


Tali Aziza (01:07):
And then after graduating, I really, I tried out a little bit of different things, but I really found that I loved working in schools. And the reason being is that you get the opportunity to work with such a wide variety of different presentations and, and different kids dealing with different things. And what’s really neat about being in the school system is you really get to be on the front lines and really have a very strong impact. I find on the kids that you’re working with. So I didn’t land working specialized with eating disorders. I sort of work from a more holistic perspective. But I do feel that the work ties in because we get to work from a preventative model. And, and even in the work that I do, I try and interweave making sure that we’re doing all the protective factors to ensure that people have healthy, strong relationships with food moving forward, but also are, you know, protective from anxiety and things like, like that as they grow older.


Sam Demma (02:06):
Can you take us back to your first experience working in a school setting and explain kind of how you fell in love with working in a school?


Tali Aziza (02:17):
So what’s interesting about my, my position in the work that I do is I work really with very young kids. And so from a social work perspective, it, it almost seems like a little counterintuitive. The youngest age group I work with are kids who are, you know, 18 months almost. And I work with the kids up until grade three. So when I started, I, I, in hindsight, like I was completely sort of out of my comfort zone working with kids who are so young is not really something that you get a lot of experience with in, in social work school. But immediately I saw how we had the opportunity or I had the, to become part of the framework of the school. So right immediately, like first day you’re, you’re not locked up in your office as this like very fancy formal school social worker. You’re really in the hallways, in the classrooms out on recess duty, welcoming the kids as they come into will. And so you get the ability to like sort of infuse some of this social and emotional support into the school day in so many different ways. And then the added bonus is it’s, it’s wonderful working with kids who are, who are younger, you get to it’s so gratifying and it’s, so they’re so sweet and, and welcoming of any sort of interventions or anything like that. So that’s been really positive too.


Sam Demma (03:44):
And tell me more about your journey into social work as a profession. Did you know, growing up that you wanted to be a social worker or what led you down that path?


Tali Aziza (03:54):
So it’s an interesting question. I always knew I wanted to work with children. I, and after finishing my degree in psychology, I was looking into a master’s in psychology, but really with a master’s in psychology, you almost sort of need to go down the road of a PhD to be able to really do the work that I wanted to do. And then my dad actually said to me, one day, he said, like, I think you’re over complicating things here. What’s the end goal. And let’s think about up the most direct route you can take to get there. And so my end goal was I wanna work with children. I wanna support children, social and emotional wellbeing. And the most direct route was through a master’s in social work. Because that really allows you to be on the ground, working with kids, doing the work. And you know, maybe some of the other things are, you know, come into play later down the road, but that was like the most direct route to get me to my end goal. So it really, it really never had to do with social work per se. It was always more about working with children.


Sam Demma (04:53):
Cool. And what do you find are some of the challenges that students are faced with? I mean, you probably see them before most people do. You might even be the first adult in a young child’s life to hear a challenge before they even tell a parent or a family member, what are some of the common challenges that you’re seeing in young kids and how do you as a caring adult support those challenges and those young, those young learners and human beings?


Tali Aziza (05:20):
So it differs, I mean, you, you see different things at different age groups. So really when you’re talking about really, really young kids a lot of the times you’ll see more of the behavioral or the social side of things. So you’ll be, might, you might be seeing more tangible, like outbursts tantrum, like behavior some social, some signs like that. But as you work with children and as they get older, you start to see different things coming out. So I work with up to grade three. So as you approach the grades you start, you do start to see a lot more of the anxiety, be it social anxiety generalized anxiety things like that. More, more social issues coming out. Self-Esteem issues, things like that. And this has all been of course, really complicated by the pandemic also.


Tali Aziza (06:14):
And one of the things that I spent a lot out of time worrying about when we first transitioned to being in lockdown and being online is that for a lot of these kids, these are really pivotal years and nobody has eyes on these children. So be it from, you know, whatever perspective, but sometimes when you’re living with your kid day in and day out, you don’t know necessarily notice some of the things that might be going on for them. It’s important for them to be in a school setting, to have different people with different perspectives, looking out for your kids. So that’s, that’s a big thing. And, and now we are seeing, I mean, I do, I do find that we do see more anxiety kids struggling more socially, definitely struggling more academically, which plays into all of the social and emotional stuff as well.


Tali Aziza (07:01):
So where I come in and you ask, like, what do we do about it? It of course differs from kid to kid, but really I think that the most powerful work that, that I do in that the department does is really being an advocate and a cheerleader for these kids. I think going into school every, every day. And knowing that you have someone in the building who is on your team, no matter what they want you to do. Well, you know, I, I have kids come in and they’ll sit in my office for a few minutes and even just color and talk. There’s not any huge social work intervention happening, but just knowing that there’s somebody there who cares about you, you have a space to go. If you, you know, if you’re feeling really overwhelmed or you have a fight with a friend, or you’re just not feeling great that day I think really makes a huge difference. And I don’t think it needs to be big or fancy or, you know, super well researched interventions, I think. And even, you know, for, for you and I like growing up in a different time, we didn’t necessarily have that. And so having someone that, you know, is there for you in the building, like just that in and of itself, I think is really impactful.


Sam Demma (08:11):
It’s not like you have some grade one walking into your office and you hand them this white sheet of paper with check boxes on it. And you’re like, put you diagnose yourself and that’s correct. Check off your problem, or right. It sounds like you’re more focused on building relationships. Mm-Hmm and really showing that these students, that you care about them as human beings. Mm-Hmm how do you think you build that relationship? Obviously, accessibility is a big thing, like being accessible and having this space open, but once they enter the space, how do you go about building their relationships and ensuring these young kids know you are on their team?


Tali Aziza (08:47):
Right. So it really starts so much even before they come into the office. Mm-Hmm , and what’s really neat about being able to be in a school system. And, and the school that I work in is that there really is no stigma around going to see the social worker. We call, call ourselves the school counselor to make it a little bit more friendly. But like I mentioned before, you know, I’m outside on the playground every day, when the kids come in, I agree, read them outside. I’m outside on recess duty. I’m very visible within built into the framework of the school. So they don’t see me as like someone you go to when you have a quote unquote problem or something like that. And, and we often joke that we sometimes have the opposite issue that like, after recess, everyone wants to come speak to the school counselor cuz you know, someone took my ball or this or that.


Tali Aziza (09:38):
Which is amazing because there’s really no stigma around it. So it starts in the hallways. It starts in creating that rapport in, in the safe spaces that the kids are comfortable in. And then the other important piece of it, which can get sometimes a little tricky in a school based setting is I’m really careful to really distinguish between discipline and social work. Mm. Which can be tricky because sometimes the kids that you’re dealing with, you know, can struggle from both angles. Right. And so they, there might be a discipline component and there’s a social and emotional component, but it’s really important that I’m not the, the discipline in person. Because then the kids will shut down and won’t wanna relate or talk to me. So it’s really important that I stay neutral from that perspective. And then once the kid comes in the room and, and you know, you don’t have any negative association from anything else beyond that point.


Tali Aziza (10:36):
It really, at first from kid to kid, I like to find out what the kids like to do. And, and you know, the first few sessions, I really just focus on building a relationship because if there’s no relationship there, then the rest of the work won’t land, it won’t work. So depending on the kid and what their interests are, we do different sort of things to ensure that we’re building that relationship. And from there that like sort of lays the foundation for all the other things, to be able to permeate so much better.


Sam Demma (11:04):
I love that. And there’s definitely an educator listening right now who loves the ideas you’re sharing, but does not have a social worker in their school currently. Mm-Hmm how would you apply these same mindsets for an educator or a classroom teacher? Or do you have any tips for like a, just a classroom teacher on how they could use some of these same ideas to help their own students if they don’t have a social worker in their school and not, not that they can be the teacher and the social worker that’s not possible, but maybe there’s some mindsets or some ideas that they could use in their, in their classrooms when situ arise.


Tali Aziza (11:40):
Oh, sorry. I just cut out for a second. That’s okay. Absolutely. I think first of all, it doesn’t need to be a social worker. I think the biggest gift that the students have coming into the building is the teachers themselves. They have the most impact on the children. And the biggest thing the teachers can do is ensure that each and every child feels seen and recognized by the teachers. So something that I know that within my school, but in general teachers have been more cognizant of in recent years is, is how we greet students. Ah so for example, instead of the kids rushing into the classroom and the teacher standing at the front of the room and saying, okay, things away, take out your books. You know, we have the teachers, a lot of teachers standing outside the classroom and looking at each kid as they come in and saying their name and saying, hi, how are you or giving them a smile or even giving the kids the opportunity to do that to each other, just creating that like one small moment in a day where the kid is looked at and feels seen and recognized and genuinely cared about.


Tali Aziza (12:42):
We never know what’s going on for these kids at home. And so that one small moment could be huge. That could be all they’re getting in their day. So not to underestimate the power that you have. And, and I know that isn’t time, there, there is no time as a teacher it’s, you can’t make it appear from nowhere, but in those transitions, in those moments and then something that we’ve created that, that my school has taken on is something where we carve out time every day to address the social and emotional needs of our student. So there’s 15 minutes, there’s supposed to be 15 minutes with each teacher we’re dual curriculum school. So in the morning and in the afternoon where they take time to check in and find out how the kids are doing either, or they, you know, something as simple as talking about recessing kids, giving a thumbs up or thumbs down some sort of a reflect or carving out time just to do some sort of social and emotional learning anything like that, but even in just creating that space and opening that door to talking about feelings and things like that for some kid that could signal to them, okay, this is someone that I can open up to.


Tali Aziza (13:53):
And it doesn’t need to be big ways or in, you know, in fancy ways or in taking time to meet with every student, you can’t do that as a teacher. But there all are small things. Something else that I’ve done in the past that I think is, is really amazing to do if you have the time or the resources is journaling with students. So it it’s amazing because it gets students also working on their writing working on their thought and idea formation. But it is also a really nice way to build relationships with students. So you can give a prompt, give a question and then have students write their response and you don’t need to answer every single student every single time, but each time you can go through and write a response to some of the students and, you know, maybe ask them a little bit more. And then through this journaling exercise, which can become part of the framework and the structure of your class you’re, you’re first of all, tackling so many things you’re tackling, you know, you’re giving space to gratitude. You’re giving space to mindfulness, you’re giving space to relationship formation, but through all of those things, you can also be opening the door for kids to be able to confide in you or share with you if they need to.


Sam Demma (15:06):
It sounds like all these activities lend themselves like creating a safe space or a space where there’s more communication mm-hmm . Do you have any tools, resources, fun games that you’ve leveraged or used when it comes to mindfulness, social, emotional learning or even things that have helped you learn more about the topic that you think teachers or other social workers might find helpful?


Tali Aziza (15:30):
Mm-Hmm yeah, so there’s, so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There’s really great, well research programs out there for all of these things. So for example, the zones of regulation program is a great program. It was developed by an OT and it’s a great program that’s aimed at teaching children, how to identify their feelings, label their feelings and what to do to maneuver through their feelings in a comfortable and expected, appropriate way. So there’s a whole program that exists around that it’s very well researched, very well founded, and the, it, it’s not complicated or hugely costly. You buy the book, it comes with the CD and there’s a lot of information about it widely available online as well. Another program similar to that is the social thinking program that has books and, and all sorts of follow up activities that can really guide you in, in relating this conversation and bringing it in there’s something similar called the ruler program.


Tali Aziza (16:29):
Some of these are more expensive and, and more complicated to, to take off than others. But the zones is a really easy one to start with. The other thing is, is that there’s a lot of really great literature out there. And by literature, I mean like books for the kids themselves. Cool. So, and, and what’s really great now is you don’t need to go out and necessarily buy all of these books. They have so many read alouds on YouTube. So just even knowing some of the books that are really great for bringing up that conversation, teaching kids about their emotions. And, and that’s the important piece is we have to teach them. We can’t just assume that they know, right. So a lot of kids feel anger, but they don’t know that that’s to anger. They just know it’s a really uncomfortable feeling in their body.


Tali Aziza (17:17):
Mm-Hmm so there’s an education piece that has to come into play here too. And there’s a lot of great books that do just that. So for example, the color monster is an amazing book that can be adopted to different ages and teaches about that. And there’s for sure many read, read aloud for that on the you to yeah. So that’s the great, those are great things to do. The other thing that I like to tell teachers to do is we like to, we like to tell students that, you know, at times they need to be calm or they need to, they need a break or to calm down, but we can’t just assume that kids know what it looks like and what it feels like to calm down. We have to practice that with them. Mm. So even just taking five minutes in a day and having like five minutes of mindfulness time, you can put on some relaxing music, you can have some mindfulness come coloring sheets. You can have time to take a book. You can have time to write in a journal, but all of these things, they need practice with getting into that state to be able to then access it when they need it. We can’t just go about the hustle and bust of our day all the time, and then expect that kids know how to calm down when they’re told to calm down.


Sam Demma (18:27):
Yeah. That’s such a good, that’s such a good piece of advice, even for parents. Like, because I know that like teachers, a parent often tells their child calm down or stop doing this or do that. And like, yeah, a kid might be totally confused as to what that looks like. And you know, they’re not gonna sometimes listen to your words, but they’re gonna follow what you are doing. And if you’re screaming at them to calm down, kinda goes against the whole thing you’re asking them to do.


Tali Aziza (18:55):
Right. And then if they don’t know what to do, then that’s frustrating and that can further contribute to whatever behavior you’re already seeing. So I like to tell parents very often I tell parents to like model calm and to practice calm. So take five minute. It and, and sometimes even just as you come in the door after school is a great time and it’s important for whatever their calming activity is to be something they can access independently. Mm-Hmm , if it’s something that they need a lot of support with, it’s less likely that that’s gonna be effective in the moment that it’s needed. But if you have a space that’s, and it doesn’t need to be, be designated to calm as in nothing else happens there, that’s not feasible for most people, but a space that’s associated with a calming activity. You practice that calming activity, they get comfortable with accessing it independently. It’s gonna be much more effective in the moment.


Sam Demma (19:45):
That’s awesome. And examples, you mentioned, if you journaling mind for, with some music, there’s also so many great apps. There’s an app literally called calm mm-hmm, , there’s an app called the Headspace or insight timer. If you wanted to introduce your students to meditation or some form of mindfulness, mm-hmm, , the list just goes on and on. I’m sure you could find videos and even guided meditations or guided mindfulness act activities on YouTube. Mm-hmm . Uthese are all very cool things to implement. What do you think is one or a few of the opportunities that exist in education today, or, I, I know there’s a bunch of challenges that have come along with COVID that’s very clear and obvious, but on the other side, what do you think some of the opportunities are?


Tali Aziza (20:30):
Hmm. I think that’s a, that’s an interesting question. I think we spend so much time talking about yeah. What, you know, how it set us back in so many ways. I think in, in some ways, access to resources is, is changing. And for some people it’s, it’s easier. And for some people it’s harder. So for example, you know, there’s therapists now who are meeting with kids online, so that might make therapy more accessible to some kids OT, more accessible to some kids. It also hinders the process in a lot of ways too. So that’s a whole, whole Def different conversation. I think that the time at home has really allowed parents to get to know their children. Mm-Hmm . And so I think that as educators and I’m sure a lot of educators would feel this way. A lot of times we’re trying to help parents see some of the things that we’re seeing at school and what’s come as a result of the time at home is that a lot of parents, you know, are really seeing it.


Tali Aziza (21:28):
And I know specifically that year where we transitioned from being totally in school to being fully blindsided by all of this and then being at home, I, I know, and I suspect that globally, a lot of parents were calling teachers and saying, oh my goodness, I, I see it now. Like I get what you were telling me. I didn’t know it before. So I think there is this awareness and there’s partnership that comes from parents re really being part of the classroom, you know, be really being the ones who are, are spearheading it in a lot of ways. So there’s, first of all, an added appreciate that I think always needed to be there for the incredible work that teachers are doing. And that with that has come greater partnership and greater awareness from the parent perspective. So I think that that allows us to go so much further in how we can support and help children,


Sam Demma (22:24):
Speaking of gratitude and appreciation, not only educators, but everyone that works with young people, including yourself and other social workers. If you haven’t heard it recently, thank you so much for the work that you have done and continue to do. If parents aren’t telling you our students it’s making a massive impact. And I appreciate it. Because I know when I was in school, I could have definitely used a teacher that I could celebrate my wins with. Also share my challenges in a very safe environment. Thank you so much. This has been an awesome conversation. If someone is listening and wants to reach out, ask a question or share some feedback, what would be the best way for them to reach out and get in touch with you?


Tali Aziza (23:05):
Yeah, absolutely. And I’m always happy if anyone sort of wants to come up with some ideas or is maybe struggling with something please feel free to reach out. I’m happy to brainstorm together. I can be reached by email and it is taliazizacnp@gmail.com


Sam Demma (23:25):
Awesome. Tally, thank you so much. Keep up the great work and we’ll talk soon.


Tali Aziza (23:30):
Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

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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.