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Student Leadership

Claire Kelly (OCT) — Assistant Head of School: Student Life at Appleby College, an independent grades 7-12 school in Oakville, Ontario

Claire Kelly (OCT) — Assistant Head of School: Student Life at Appleby College, an independent grades 7-12 school in Oakville, Ontario
About Claire Kelly

Claire Kelly (@ClearGreenDay) serves as Assistant Head of School: Student Life, at Appleby College, an independent grades 7-12 school in Oakville, Ontario. Her responsibilities include leading a portfolio of outstanding student-centric experiences in Arts, Athletics, Service, Student Leadership, and Boarding Life, supporting coaching and leadership development experiences for faculty and students, and facilitating opportunities for student growth and school culture.

Claire teaches English and AP Capstone Research, where she has supervised over 70 academic Research studies, an array of which have been published in external peer-reviewed journals. Claire earned her PhD from OISE/UT (’19), in Leadership, Higher, and Adult Education.

Her interests include leadership development and organization change, career patterns, and gender representation, and Independent school headships in Canada. Claire has co-led affinity groups for women leaders and taught the Women in Leadership module each summer since 2019 with Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS). She has written three children’s books (Rubicon) that combine her love of travel with her passion for Arts, Literature, and Social Sciences, all designed to cultivate young readers.

Claire loves to run, paddle, dance, and play sports. Her love of learning continues beyond the classroom with hobbies such as learning guitar, enjoying music, and travelling. She lives with her husband, Nicholas, also, an educator, two sons, Julian and James, and mini-Doodle, Piper, on the beautiful Appleby campus.

Connect with Claire: Email | Instagram | LinkedIn | Twitter | Facebook

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Appleby College

Leadership, Higher, and Adult Education – OISE/UT

Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS)

Rubicon Publishing

Student Leadership – Appleby College

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
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. Today I’m very excited, we have a special guest, Dr. Claire Kelly. Dr. Kelly, please take a moment to introduce yourself to everyone who’s tuning in today.

Claire Kelly
Hi Sam, it’s great to be here. Please call me Claire. I am a teacher going into my 25th year of teaching, which is amazing to me. I don’t know how that happened. And I am currently an assistant head of school at Appleby College, and I’m head of student life there. So I work a lot with students and very closely with all aspects of the student experience.

Sam Demma
When did you realize in your journey as a student and young professional that you wanted to work in education?

Claire Kelly
Yeah, that’s a great question. As in like what got me into this work?

Sam Demma
Yeah, well, everyone has a very different pathway. Some people tell me they built dollhouses in their basement and taught the toys class. Some people told me that their family worked in education and they followed that pathway. What was your journey into working in schools?

Claire Kelly
Yeah, I guess, you know, ultimately, I started, I became a teacher because I love working with students, with children, with adolescents. You know, unlike many people, I love adolescents. I think they’re really amazing and they have so much to teach us. So, but yeah, going back to the start, I guess my father was a professor, my aunt was a school teacher, so I had some familial influences. However, yeah, I think, you know, teachers in high school certainly left strong impressions on me. I had some great teachers, they helped me better understand myself. I was also an athlete for much of my schooling. I spent a lot of time out of school in some ways, but a lot of time with coaches. And I loved working with people to accomplish goals, like whether it was as an athlete or as whether it was like individual athlete or on a team. I just loved being able to make those connections through sport. And I love the drama that you get from, you know, going through a game together or I was a figure skater for a long time, so like a four minute solo and all the preparation and all the people that go into making that happen. Yeah, and I think, you know, ultimately I like movement, I like variety, I love that teaching is never the same day twice. And we have this incredible ability to meet so many people, which is incredible. And I love the rhythms of the days and the years. So, yeah, I have to say I’m really happy where I am. I’m really glad I chose this. It just seemed like a natural part of – natural place I would end up.

Sam Demma
The rhythm and changes and movement as a school teacher are very vast. I’m sure it’s very similar with the role you’re in right now in student life. What does being the head of student life look like? What is the day-to-day in this position currently, what does it entail for someone who’s never been in that position or doesn’t know too much about it?

Claire Kelly
Yeah, that’s a great question. It’s an incredible role. I absolutely love it. I’ve been, this is my third year in that role. So I’m relatively new and it involves arts, athletics, service opportunities and running the co-curricular program for students, which is at our school is mandatory. So we have a very robust co-curricular program with, you know, approximately 60 different opportunities for kids. We also have a student leadership and a fantastic student leadership program with, you know, so many formalized responsibilities that are graduated really from grade 9 to grade 12. And then we have the Boarding Life program, which is, you know, our school is a day school, but it’s also a boarding school and we’re one of the only schools in North America that has mandatory boarding program for all their grade 12 students, so they move on campus and then they and then they get they stay and they live that year and understand you know a little bit more about themselves and what they need to prepare for classes and get ready in the morning and you know feed themselves and all sorts of life skills, as well as a fantastic university prep experience. So, a lot of our parents will say things like, you know, this is almost like the dress rehearsal for going off to university, which is really an incredible opportunity. So student life looks like having a sense of really getting to know students really, really well from breakfast in the morning through study in the evenings, certainly at this school, and having a good sense of what they need and what drives them to be the best they can be.

Sam Demma
I felt very honored that I was able to visit the school and tour campus when it was around Thanksgiving time and I had this beautiful potato lunch. And it was delicious. It sounds like there- I love this thing.

Claire Kelly
There’s an exo group that runs our dining hall. It’s incredible.

Sam Demma
It sounds like there are so many unique opportunities for the students, even the staff, as a part of student life on campus. One of my favorite authors is a gentleman named Jim Rohn. He talks about the seasons of life and how they can be tied to the seasons of business or just like the idea that there’s rhythms to things. And he has a phrase, he says, you know, after opportunity is always adversity in some way, shape or form. You know, with lots of opportunities, there’s also challenges. And I’m curious, what are some of the challenges that you think you’re faced with right now at school or on campus?

Claire Kelly
Yeah, that’s such a great question. How long do we have? Yeah, I mean, there are always challenges. So we could name off. There are some significant challenges that our students are facing. There’s eco-anxiety, there’s mental health, there’s DEIB, how to better integrate and have a more just world. There’s Indigenous reconciliation, especially in Canada. It’s hard not to think of that as top of mind. University admissions, that might be not as grand a scale as some of the other challenges, but it’s certainly a significant landscape for our students and it’s a very changing landscape right now and with the latest news from federal government and it will be interesting to see what that means in terms of the impact even on undergrad students and the available programming. So, kind of watching that closely. Socioeconomics, you know, it’s really hard to buy a house right now. It’s hard to buy a house anytime, but certainly it’s very challenging for any student growing up in this generation is looking at some big challenges, how to fund the life that they want to lead. You know, increasingly VUCA world every time I turn on the news. So, there are some big, big challenges.

Claire Kelly
I guess how do we deal with that? Well, you know, day by day as much as possible. We hope there’s a strategic plan of some sort. And that helps. And like ultimately, like, I guess a lot of people have seen opportunity in challenge and there is always opportunity in challenge. You know, the Dalai Lama talks about that. Whenever there’s a challenge, there’s an opportunity to face it, to demonstrate it, to develop our will and determination. I’d also say, like, as school teachers, we’re kind of right in the rhubarb. We’re dealing with some of this every day because this is the student world. And I’d say that, you know, humbly, we continue to work on these. We have time, we have space, and we have these incredible moments of dialogue that we get to sit and work with a huge collective of youth. And that’s a pretty magical place. So we learn from them, they learn from us. It’s a pretty neat thing. So and then, you know, we have these great opportunities as well, certainly at our school, where we bring in highly motivated and motivational speakers like yourself. So that was really wonderful to have. But, you know, I think, you know, I work with some really incredible people. I work with motivated, kind, talented people, and they see challenges as opportunities to do things better. That’s really the only thing we can do is try to find the opportunity in it. We think certainly for teenagers, challenge is an inherent part of being a teenager. You’re always challenging, challenging yourself, you’re challenging other people, you’re pushing boundaries, you’re trying to find that light. It’s a pretty exciting space when you think about it. It’s like that liminality, you know, you’re in the middle of something. And it’s really essential to growth. So the question is really for me is how do we tackle the challenges and how can we have impact in our school’s culture? How can we arm these kids with the skills that, you know, they have nascent within them? How do we, how do we develop those and give them to them so that they can have an impact on their larger worlds? So I don’t know if I fully answered that, but that’s kind of what we do. I try to do everything.

Sam Demma
Yeah. I love the idea of seeing opportunities within the challenges. The same author I mentioned, Jim Rohn, he always says, we can’t change the seasons, but we can change ourselves. And if we do change ourselves, everything changes. And it’s like the challenges are gonna be there, but it’s our perception of them that makes all the difference. What of the programs you ran last year, or even in the past couple of years, do you remember having a really positive impact if there are other people tuning in thinking, oh, maybe they can consider this for their school or their community as well?

Claire Kelly
Yeah, that’s a great question. Well, as I mentioned, we have a very robust co-curricular program, so that’s pretty amazing. Students can choose from, you know, participating in a sports team or joining an all-school play, or trying their hand at robotics or design or working with seniors. We have a group, or several groups, that go out actually into the community and work with seniors and work with school children and try to find time and space to work together and learn from each other. So that’s pretty neat. Other programs that were really successful, I did mention the Student Leadership Program which certainly I’m really proud of, spending a lot of time with motivated kids gives me a great deal of hope. I think, yeah, when we talk about programming, it’s really about giving students opportunities, especially I think in that early teen time, you know, that tween, pre-teens or tween time, when they don’t really know who they are, finding time, finding space, finding people who will give them something to help them think a little bit more or discover something new. So one of the things we do pretty well at our school is we have a significant breadth of opportunity and we try to offer, we offer so much. Sometimes it’s challenging to do so, but the breadth is really to really offer students an opportunity to try something new, get to know themselves, get to maybe change their mindset about things they thought they didn’t like or areas where they didn’t think they that, yeah, give them that time to really dive in. And it’s okay if you don’t like it, it’s kind of a, it’s a very low risk, very safe opportunity. But really finding those moments to, yeah, to realize that, hey, you know what, I’m not just an athlete, I really like singing, or I want to try stand-up comedy, or I want to try to see if I can plant a sustainable garden. So how are you going to spend your time? How are you going to spend your life? That’s really it in a nutshell. So we try to challenge them through opportunities to help them discover a little bit more about themselves. And it’s pretty neat to see in a teenager’s life to change from say, grade eight to grade 12. It’s sometimes it’s, well, it’s always remarkable. And sometimes it’s really, really surprising.

Sam Demma
When you think about seeing those changes in students, what does that look like? Is it a change in behavior? Is it, they start very shy or uninvolved and the time they’re graduating the school, they’re involved in everything? What does that actually tangibly look like in your experience?

Claire Kelly
Yeah, I think that’s a great question. It is all of those things. I guess it’s a change very much in confidence, and it’s that confidence to, it’s okay to be myself, it’s okay to try things, it’s okay if I’m not cool, because actually like embracing that and recognizing that you’re trying something new and there’s a chance you could fail, that makes you really brave, that makes you really cool, ironically, right? And then it’s really neat to see the shift in students, both in terms of individual but also in collectives where they’re like, oh, that is, it’s amazing what you did. It’s incredible that, you know, you want to lead the academic council. Good for you. Let’s all jump on board because you’re doing some really neat things there and I want to be part of it. And I think that’s something that comes with confidence. I think, you know, grade seven, grade eight, grade nine can be tough. Those are tough years for students. And we need to give them a lot of support. We need to remind them that they should be trying new things. They don’t know everything about the world yet and challenge them to engage. And I think as long as we can keep them engaged and keep them talking and keep them with an eye towards the future, that they can really start to thrive. Yeah, so I would say that students… I’ve seen… well, last week, let me think of an Last week I was at a karaoke show that was run by some students and we had significant participation from students in the evening, it was a fundraiser, and they had to do a little bit of preparation. And we must have had 12 acts that were coordinated, planned, choreographed, and I guess the thing that struck me, and several of the other teachers there, if I can speak on behalf of a few of us in the audience was some of the students that I saw in grade 9 who were quiet and shy and reserved and really trying to find their place. We’re up there in the middle of it all, taking the lead, feeling comfortable, really owning that stage and you know that would be, that’s a very visual example.

Claire Kelly
It doesn’t always have to be, you know, someone who seems introverted becoming an extrovert because that’s not necessarily what we want either. You know, I have a lot of time for introverts and I think being able to stand on stage and perform is not necessarily what everyone needs to do, but I do think that it was a pretty great reminder of how confidence can propel students to new heights and give them the self-awareness that hey maybe I already had that in me. I had those those really nascent performing skills or I really wanted to show off my dancing and having my friends around me doing the same thing allowed me to do that or the environment was safe and it was low risk and I could do this. And maybe it took four years to get there, but it’s a memory that they’re going to have. And I think it’s also a skill that’s going to propel them forward. So that’s really what I saw. I think about a little talent show I had when I was in elementary school and I rapped a song by Eminem with two of my friends

Sam Demma
I think about a little talent show I had when I was in elementary school and I rapped a song by Eminem with two of my friends. It was absolutely terrible but I still think about it and I remember the feeling I had personally when I walked off stage and felt so proud that I did it Knowing that I was really nervous knowing that I was really Embarrassed even a little bit about the performance, but that I still showed up anyway. And I’m sure so many students built so much confidence as a result of that event. And if you’re listening right now, thinking about doing something similar, use this as a case study. I think it provides such a unique opportunity for students and staff to introspect and reflect being a part of the experience. Something you said earlier was that students throughout school are learning so much about themselves. And I believe that all humans are consistently learning things about themselves as they go through life. And one of the greatest teachers is our own mistakes, our own learnings. And I think about myself, you know, I just organized a cross candidate trip, and I was a pretty terrible manager of others. I tried with my limited skill set managing others, and it all went well from other people’s perspectives, including the people I managed, but I learned a lot. And there’s a lot of things I would do differently if I did something like that again. I’m curious, what are some of your learnings in education as an educator that other educators tuning in might be able to learn from your experiences?

Claire Kelly
Wow, well that’s a great question, Sam. And thank you. I like your little anecdote of bringing everyone across Canada. That’s really, that sounds like an amazing trip. That was cool. I guess in terms of mistakes, I’m sure I’ve made many and probably on a daily basis. So I’m pretty comfortable with most of them, I think. I think, you know, there are always an opportunity for learning. And as educators, you know, I think we go into education because we like learning, we were lifelong learners and there’s nothing like experience. So I think like personally, yes, of course, lots of mistakes professionally. I’d say that, you know, one that comes to mind for me is in the beginning of my career, I taught English and history. I still teach English, but not history. And I teach a little bit, not as much as I used to now that I’m in an assistant head role, but in the, yeah, at the very beginning, in the first few years, I talked far too much. I just, I thought, I don’t know what I thought. I, I, I, you know, too much lecturing, too much standing in front of the class or sitting in, sitting with the class and, um, you know, too much, uh, stage on the stage behavior. And what I think I, like, I think I know why. There’s a sense, certainly when you’re starting out, you want to show these kids who you’re not that separated from age or you don’t think you are, although I think they always think, oh, she’s so old. She is as old, even though I was probably 25. I think I wanted to show that I knew what I was doing and that I belonged there. I belonged I belong there with my own classroom. And I had knowledge and yeah, I’m sure that’s where it was coming from. But certainly in the last 20 years or so, I’ve been using the Harkness method as an English teacher, certainly at our school, and it’s really changed the way I teach English. And it’s one of our certainly foundational programs at the school that we’re very proud of, but it’s really changed the way I think I do a lot of things. Harkness, I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, it’s a very constructivist and democratic sort of way of teaching, where you’re all sitting around a table and I facilitate, so I set it up, I draw maps, I keep track of who said what, and I inject things here and there just to kind of prompt and see where the conversation will go. But ultimately, it’s not about me. It’s really all about the students and how they build on each other and what they’re able to share and debate and critique and extend and all that. And I think the best conversations really happen when I’ve set the stage, but when I just sit back and listen.

Sam Demma
What a powerful lesson in teaching. I drew some parallels immediately to speaking on stage and how powerful silence is for audience members because it gives them an opportunity to digest the information you’re sharing or answer the questions you’re asking and engage with the stories. And I think there’s a cool parallel there too. I was at Crofton House in Vancouver. They had a lot of classrooms with oval shaped tables and they’d have these really cool conversations where everyone feels engaged because you’re all looking at each other. There’s a formal name for it and I’m forgetting it, but maybe you know.

Claire Kelly
Yeah, it might be like the Harkness Method. 

Sam Demma
Okay. Yeah. Yeah, so I appreciate you sharing that and I love the reflection of speaking less and allowing the students to be more involved with the content and with each other. What is something that keeps you hopeful, like keeps you motivated and keeps you showing up? 

Claire Kelly
Yeah, that’s a great question. Another great question. So, like what gets me out of bed in the morning? I think you always have to have an answer for that, right? And it’s a good reminder, especially as you get further on in your career. I think for me, this is going to sound really Pollyanna-ish, but I love my life. I love what I do. I love that, as I mentioned earlier, like every day is different. So even though I’ve been at this school, I’ve worked at two big schools in my career, and I can honestly say like every day is different. I’ve never had the same job two years in a row. Not because I keep moving around in any way, but just the job is different. It’s so dynamic to work with students and to work with children and to have, you know, we must have 150-200 interactions a day. So, what, you know, there’s the plan and then there’s the reality of the up and down and the crossfire dialogue and and all the things that happen and it’s just a, you know, it’s really an incredible experience to work in a school if you like students and I think, you know, they just have so much to offer. I love working with teenagers. Yeah, you know, also I have a family that I love. I love my husband, my kids. One of my sons goes to our school as well. He just started, so that’s been really powerful for me to see my world through his eyes and to experience a little bit more. I feel like I get the full student experience through him. And he’s new this year. He’s, I guess if our school had used those terms, he would be a freshman. He’s brand new and he’s in the first year we offer. He’s in grade seven. So he’s learning all about the rhythms of the school day, but rhythms of the year, the programming, the teachers, the other students, what to expect, what he should be striving for, what he really likes himself. So it’s been really, really, really, yeah, it’s just an incredible education for me to see that through his eyes, and I’m really looking forward to this journey together, if you will.

Sam Demma
That’s awesome. You get to hear about the impact of the structure of the school and the opportunities and the programs in student life, right in front of your own eyes with your son, which is awesome.

Claire Kelly
Absolutely, and you know he tells me if I’m wrong too, which is also really important.

Sam Demma
That’s cool. I really appreciate you taking the time just to talk a little bit about your journey, some of your beliefs around education, some of the opportunities you believe that exist right now, some of the challenges. You’re doing a phenomenal job and there’s probably educators right now listening to this thinking to themselves, wow, this, Claire’s inspiring, you know, especially those that are just starting in the journey themselves. If there is an educator listening to this thinking that and they want to reach out and ask a question or just share some gratitude after hearing this interview, what would be the best way for them to get in touch?

Claire Kelly
Oh, thanks, Sam. Those are really kind words, first of all. And yeah, I love connecting with people. So I’m always happy to answer emails or, you know, be on social media. So probably through my email is the best way, ckelly@appleby.on.ca or through LinkedIn. Yeah, those are probably my go-to’s.

Sam Demma
Awesome. Claire, Dr. Kelly, thank you so much for coming on the show. It’s been a pleasure. Keep up the amazing work and I look forward to crossing paths again soon.

Claire Kelly
Thanks so much, Sam. It was a pleasure and really nice to see you again.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Claire Kelly

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.

Pratima Burton  — Student Achievement Leader for Equity, Inclusion and Anti-Racism at the District School Board of Niagara

Pratima Burton — Student Achievement Leader for Equity, Inclusion and Anti-Racism at the District School Board of Niagara
About Pratima Burton

Pratima Burton is the K-12 Student Achievement Leader for Equity, Inclusion and Anti-Racism at the District School Board of Niagara. She has been with the DSBN for 26 years and has held a diverse array of roles that underscore her commitment to redefining excellence. Having dedicated 15 years as a secondary school English teacher, Pratima transitioned into pivotal roles such as instructional coach, secondary English consultant, and vice-principal. Her current role in equity is a testament to her dedication to creating safe and inclusive space for students and fostering a genuine sense of belonging for all.

Pratima’s dedication to equity is deeply rooted in her lived experiences, propelling her advocacy for students with diverse backgrounds and identities. While she thoroughly enjoys her current position as an administrator, Pratima fondly reminisces about her 15-year tenure as a classroom educator, where she found immense joy in inspiring student development, fostering learning, and witnessing growth. However, she also realizes the importance of the work the equity team does and the impact on building schools that are safe and inclusive spaces for all students, where their identities are affirmed in the curriculum and throughout the school, and where barriers for success are removed so all can achieve.

Connect with Pratima: Email

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

District School Board of Niagara (DSBN)

Future Black Female

Equity, Inclusion & Anti-Racism at the DSBN

National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM)

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
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator Podcast. This is your host, Sam Demma. And today we have a very special guest, Pratima Burton. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast. Please take a moment to introduce yourself to the listener.

Pratima Burton
Hi, Sam. Thank you for having me here. My name is Pratima Burton. I am a student achievement leader for equity, inclusion, and anti-racism for the District School Board of Niagara. So basically what that means is I’m a System Principal. So I guess what that comes down to is I’m a principal without a school. So I’m kindergarten to grade 12, but I don’t have my own school. So I think that’s probably the hardest thing about that role. I don’t get to engage with kids regularly, but that’s not my daily experience. But it is definitely a joy when I do get to work with kids.

Sam Demma
And the work you’re doing reaches so many young people and impacts all the schools. For someone who’s not familiar with the role, what does the day-to-day look like?

Pratima Burton
The day-to-day is very different every single day. We may have planned meetings where we’re collaborating with educators, with student groups around initiatives that they want to do. We may be working with teachers around resources for their classes. Sometimes we go into schools and work with students who want to start affinity groups. So it could be, you know, something different every single day. Sometimes we’re supporting administrators because something’s gone away that you don’t want it to go, and then we’re there to help with considerations and for teachers. So that’s some of the work. But it’s different every day, and I think we love it that way.

Sam Demma
Sometimes it’s challenging to show up. We are busy, we’re overwhelmed, and the thing that gets us through those difficult moments is our personal reason why. I’m curious, when you think about the work you do in education, why do you show up every single day? 

Pratima Burton
Oh, there’s so many ways we can go with this. I’ll tell you a little personal story. When I was in grade eight, it was that time of year where your teacher helps to decide where you’re going to go in grade nine. And back in my day, the options were basic, general, and advanced. And although I was a really, I was a bright student, I worked very hard, I thought I was going to go into academic, or sorry, advanced, as it was called back then. But the teacher recommended me for general. And I don’t know why I never asked. Culturally, my parents wouldn’t have asked because it would have been considered disrespectful, right? I had a friend who advocated for me and said, look, she can go to advanced, and then if she doesn’t do well, she can go down general, but it’s not easy to go up to advance. So although my self-esteem was impacted, I went into advanced and I did very well on a roll all the time, graduated, you know, near the top of the class with everybody, you know, with my peers. But it was something I never, ever forgot. And the interesting thing is that I came into this role four years ago, but this time it was her story. Same thing, very bright student, and at the time when she was going to grade 9, it was academic and applied, and the teacher recommended her for all academic, but except for math, which was ironically her favorite subject. So I just don’t want to see students experiencing things like that. I don’t want students to have the same experiences that are grounded in bias that maybe their families encountered. So I think that’s my motivator. I think that’s why I stay in the role. I just want to see some change. I don’t think change is gonna happen from my generation. I think adults sometimes, some adults are stuck in their ways. They just like things that are, that have always happened the way that they have. And we might not even be able to explain why they happen or why we keep doing some practices. But it’s the kids who are going to use their critical thinking skills and ask why do we do this, why hasn’t this changed. And I just want to support them in giving them the tools and strategies to ask those questions and look at things through an equity lens.

Sam Demma
Amplifying student voice is so important, and you’re a massive champion of doing just that. Can you think of a question a student asked or a recommendation a student brought up that sparked change within a classroom or a school board? There’s probably so many, but is there one in particular that maybe comes to mind when you think about that question?

Pratima Burton
Yeah, I could share with you something that’s very recent. At our school board, one of the learnings that we do for educators is something called an equity cafe. And an equity cafe is an opportunity for educators to come online and have casual conversations with my team about equity topics that are pertinent to their classrooms, to their schools, to their students. And this is where we share considerations and strategies around those topics. And it’s a great opportunity for them to ask questions.

Pratima Burton
Well, we just did our Equity Cafe for Black History Month. And what we did different this time was that we actually had students come and present. So, how did that come about? We have an organization, a community partner named Future Black Female. And I have an individual on my team who is the Black Youth Engagement Coach, and they go around to schools supporting students, starting affinity groups. And one of the common narratives that was coming up was that students felt that in some schools, Black History Month wasn’t being celebrated in a meaningful way. And they wanted to do something about that. So we got together, we did some brainstorming, and these were all your ideas, into a kit, you know, flags, balloons, banners, posters, a QR code that took you to a resource list of, you know, uplifting songs and daily announcements, a book list, videos about history. And the idea was that at the very least, this is what schools should use to celebrate the excellence, the joy, and the achievements of Black history. And, you know, we grappled with the idea of this being just performative, a checkbox item. But then we came to the conclusion that in spaces that maybe there isn’t much happening, this is a start. And we always get asked by educators for numerous topics, like, where do we start? So we’re saying with this Black History Month kit that this is where to start, at the very least.

Pratima Burton
Start here, put out an announcement, say, hey, any students, all students who want to come and be on a Black History Month committee, come, we’ll put our ideas together, we’re going to start with this kit and see where it goes. So back to the Equity Cafe, talk to educators, and it was like a panel and they answered four questions. Why is Black History Month important to you? Why is it important to celebrate Black excellence achievement and joy at school during Black History Month? Why is it important to celebrate Black excellence and joy and to affirm identities, Black identities, all year long? And finally, what do you as students want to see happening in your schools? And the students were absolutely fantastic. They just blew everybody’s minds. It was so impactful for educators. I mean, I can go on and say a lot of stuff, but when you hear it from the voice of students sharing their experiences, it just means so much more. I mean, I really think that sometimes as educators, we have an idea of how students move through our spaces, but it’s so different from the way that they actually move through school spaces. And I just want to elevate those voices so that students could share that. And at the end of that session, we used this Black History Month kit to challenge schools that the next Heritage Month, why don’t you create something like this? Get student voice, take it away, and share what you’re doing.

Sam Demma
There may be an educator listening to this thinking, oh my goodness, this is absolutely amazing. I want to do something similar with my schools. Is the Black History Month package a resource that is publicly accessible or is it just within the school board?

Pratima Burton
Actually, it’s within the school board. We just got together. We just Googled some things. What do we want on this kid? You know, we found a few things, put it together, and printed things, made sure they were accessible, packaged them up, and sent them away. I mean, who knows? Maybe it’s a possible retirement plan. Very huge month, kid. Obviously, that’s probably not the route that I’m going to go, but no, it’s the idea of just asking the students. I don’t think you need to have a pre-packaged kit. Just ask your students, because what students will ask for in one classroom or one school is going to be different than another.

Sam Demma
Fair. It’s so important to give students a seat at the table because it builds responsibility responsibility and ownership. And when they have responsibility over the outcomes and ownership of the ideas, they’re more excited to bring them back to their schools and take action on bringing them to life. The work that you’re doing to amplify student voice is so important. There is also right now in education, many opportunities and with opportunities are challenges. What do you think some of the challenges and opportunities are that exist in education right now?

Pratima Burton
I think one of the challenges are like all the competing priorities, right? There’s so many things that are looking for space, looking for time, and I think sometimes what happens is we focus on, you know, like literacy, numeracy, we have to get kids ready for post-secondary, and of course all of those things are important, but if kids don’t feel safe, they don’t feel they’re included, there isn’t a sense of belonging, then I don’t think they’re going to achieve as well as we want them to. They’re not going to reach their potential. So, I think one of the challenges would be time. And there’s always so much to do. Like for my team, time definitely is a challenge because we’re often asked by people to come collaborate. You look at this resource, can you come create a resource? And there’s five of us on our team. And we try to overcome that challenge with collaboration. I mean, you can’t do this important work dealing with equity, inclusion, anti-racism in a silo. And we try to be very efficient and very effective. You know, we call on our supports. If there are several schools asking for the same kind of resource, then instead of working with the schools individually, we bring them together. We do an equity cafe. We offer a workshop. And as I mentioned, we don’t do the work alone. We have wonderful community partners. We have Niagara College. We have Brock University.

Pratima Burton
I mentioned a local organization, Future Black Female. We do a lot of learning with Facing History and ourselves. And even within our school board, we have the Mental Health and Wellbeing Team, the Safe and Accepting Schools Team, the Indigenous Education Team, Spec Ed Team, Curriculum Teams. We have a wonderful seniors team that supports this work. So when you put all those people together, we’re able to overcome the challenges because we do need to elevate each other’s work, right? And when it comes to challenges and hard questions, I always remember advice that our former director gave us, and I think I heard this from him about 10 years ago, and he said, no matter how hard the challenge or how hard the decision is that you have to make, you’re going to get clarity when you frame it a certain way. And the framing question would be, what’s best for kids? So what can’t you overcome when you come together and you put it that way?

Sam Demma
On the other side of every challenge is also an opportunity. When you think about the opportunities that exist that align with what’s best for kids, like what opportunities come to mind?

Pratima Burton
Well, earlier you mentioned the idea of like the table, right? Coming to the table. So again, when I got into this role, one of the things my team and I tried to do was listen to students and see what they were asking for. And one of the things they asked for was like a student group, like a student council, but not at our schools, like us coming together, like the whole board. And so three years ago, we started the process to launch like a student alliance. And we’re doing it with secondary schools. And as you said, the idea of the table, we didn’t want to create an alliance, a group, something already structured, and then have the students come apply and join it. What we wanted was to build that table and have the students build it so they can sit at their table and to learn alongside with us. And so we started with focus groups. We had about four or five focus groups and we had students, secondary grades nine to 12, lots of representation come and let us know and share with us what they thought this group should look like.

Pratima Burton
They had ideas about who should be in it and what grades and when we would meet and what some of the focus would be and what the process, what the application process would be, how to make it equitable. So now we have this group of like the powerhouse of passionate kids, you know, real advocates who are really dedicated to reshaping and revitalizing their schools and their communities. There’s 50 students. And, you know, we are, as some graduate, we bring on new students, but this is our second full year, and they are really dedicated to creating inclusive spaces. And their vision is to be changemakers who represent and advocate for sovereignty speaking and equity deserving students. And, you know, when you give the students a voice, this is what can happen. And it’s almost like you give them a voice, they’re heard, they are affirmed, and then they come up with the next big idea. So this group then came up with an idea, we now call it the Inclusive Schools Poster, is what we call it. It was an activity that we did last year with the group, and we just basically said, like, let’s do some brainstorming. Let’s come up with what are all the criteria that you think a school needs to have so that it is safe and it is inclusive so everybody has a sense of belonging. And so, you know, 50 students, lots of chart paper, lots of markers, in groups, writing down all these ideas. I think we ended up with like over 300 points. It’s a lot.

Pratima Burton
And we weren’t sure at the time where this was going, but then they started chunking all the ideas into themes. We took all those themes, we narrowed them down to, you know, probably about 75, down to 50, and we ended up with 20 points. And we looked at it and we thought, this is incredible. These are 20 things that are telling us, through student voice, exactly what a school needs to be in order for it to be safe and inclusive, a place of belonging, so that now we can learn and achieve. We have a wonderful communications team who took all those 20 ideas and put them into this beautiful poster. And we did not want it to be decor. So now, it’s this group, the DSBN, and they call themselves DSBN IDEA. So it’s Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Alliance of Students.

Sam Demma
Nice.

Pratima Burton
They love the acronym. So they are now wanting to create a video. And in the video, they are going to talk about the why, the importance, the process, which I think is very important, and how to use the poster. It’s not decor, it’s a teaching tool. It shares their values and it’s what we should all be aiming for. And some of the things on the posters are like, in an inclusive school, we do better when we know better. We are mindful of our words and their impact. We ensure everyone is safe and belongs. We question, we interrogate, and we take action on injustice. Like, these are student words. They’re not student words that adults recrafted. These are their words. And it’s pretty powerful. We’re hoping to launch the video in March. And we’re just so excited for administrators and teachers and parents, councils and students to see that this is what we believe in.

Sam Demma
What a beautiful testimony to student voice and case study for other school boards to involve their students in creating policy and ideas, guidelines and principles to live by. I am so excited to hear that your school board has put this together, and I hope that other school boards and educators tuning in are writing down these ideas to implement with their students. Did this alliance of the students also come up with the Rise Up Conference? And if so, tell us a little bit about that, that annual event.

Pratima Burton
Yes, it did. It did start from them. That’s why last year was our first one, because they had said, you know, like, can we do a conference? And I think it came up at our first meeting, which would have been in October. And these conferences take like so long to plan. We had 200 students at our first one last year. And although I hadn’t planned anything or my team hadn’t planned anything of that size, we knew it was going to take a long time. So we just got right to it. So the kids were like, let’s do this conference. You know, I’ve heard of conferences where kids come together and they do this learning, there’s presentations and activities, and we’re like, okay, let’s do it. So we started brainstorming ideas. Okay, what are the topics you want to learn about? And that’s where we started. After we got the topics, we started looking for workshop ideas and for presenters. We just put out all of our feelers, the people we know, you know, in the community and throughout the province, but at other boards and just friends and family just to tie in whoever we could to help us. And we offered students lots of opportunities to help us as well. But we were getting the sense that, you know what, they didn’t really want to be involved in the planning. And that’s okay, because you know what they wanted? They wanted something for them. They did not have that before them before. So we wanted to create something that was a celebration for them.

Pratima Burton
And although they did, you know, introduce the speakers and thank them and that kind of thing, we wanted them to come into a space and see that this was created for them, all of their accommodations met, and that they wouldn’t have to ask for anything. So this year, we are hosting it again. It’s our second annual. As you mentioned, the DSPN Student Equity Conference, Rise Up Students Leading the Change. rise up students leading the change. And the intent is to create a space where all students are going to feel valued and respected and supported. We’re going to work together. We’re going to share ideas. The idea is for them to also network with other students, so that when they go back to their own schools and they may have a social justice action plan in mind, the staff leaders that come with them could, you know, help them connect with other schools and work smarter as opposed to harder, right? Especially if they all have, if they have similar initiatives. So just to walk you through what that day looks like, you know, the students arrive this year, we have 240 students. They have a very special keynote speaker to this time, Sam. We’re so happy you’re joining us.

Pratima Burton
We have eight workshops, and we have lots of variety. We have someone talking about loving yourself and never giving them back. We have somebody coming and talking about having special education obstacles and the way that they’ve overcome them. We have Justice for Children and Youth coming because we have some students who are really interested in knowing what their rights are and how to advocate. We have our Indigenous Education team coming and they’re bringing a panel of their students, which is exciting for students to learn from students, especially in their first voices. We have future black female coming and the Canadian National, sorry, the National Council of Canadian Muslims coming to do a session as well. So we have lots of variety for students to choose from. So they get to attend two workshops and lunchtime is always fun. We call it our community mingling. So we have community partners that come and set up tables and offer students information on student-centered resources. And when we did that last year, we didn’t know how it was gonna go because the long table of community partners was what was standing between the kids and their lunch. So we thought the kids were gonna go right for the lunch, but when they saw all this table set up, they were so engaged and did not realize that there was so much available for them in their community. We’re also intentional in making sure that spaces are safe. So we have a youth counselor, social worker. We make sure that we have a multi-faith meditation room available for anybody who needs to take that time. This year, we have a dance group coming. We’re going to be doing a little bit of Bollywood and Afrobeat.

Pratima Burton
And we have somebody doing a mindful art activity. And of course, the food is always a big hit. We have an inclusive buffet. So regardless of your dietary accommodation needs, you can walk up to the table and there is plenty for you to choose from. We want students to know that we created this space for them so they wouldn’t have to ask. And I think one of my most memorable moments last year was just something I had the luck, the honor to overhear. A student said, I wish school could be like this every day.

Sam Demma
It is overwhelming to hear about the beauty of this event. It’s so obvious care, love, and collaboration was fostered in creating it with all the moving parts and pieces, the thoughtful accommodations for everybody to feel welcome and included. Again, I hope other educators are listening, taking some inspiration from this idea to see if they can create similar experiences or spaces in their schools and in their communities. You mentioned it takes a pretty long time to plan something like this. What is the planning process for an event of this size?

Pratima Burton
As soon as the last event was over, we contacted the facility and asked if we could book for this year, right? Because the space was ideal, it’s big, it’s lots of light, and just the movement throughout the day was so easy. They were wonderful in accommodating the spaces we needed and helping us set up. So a year in advance and then we start, you know, putting out our feelers and keeping our ears open for possible topics and speakers. And the first time that we have our meeting again with our group, as we did this year, we ask them, okay, who do you want this year? What do you want to learn more about? And we know that we have some students who are returning, but we’re also going to have new students. So we like to change it, change it up. I think we have almost all of our workshops are new this year.

Sam Demma
Thinking about experiences where students have been impacted by the conference or their experiences at school, can you tell me of a story where you heard of a student situation that was impacted by education or by an event? And if so, you don’t have to share that student’s name if it’s a serious story. But I’m curious, what example comes to mind for you?

Pratima Burton
So one of the first experiences I had in this role, we were asked, my colleague and I, to come to a school to talk to a group of students. They had been experiencing some discrimination and they felt that every time they were sharing what happened to them, they were having to almost justify their feelings. And so, you know, I’m South Asian, my colleague is a hijab wearing Muslim lady, and she’s a wonderful colleague. And we walked into the room where there were a couple of students. And there was, I believe, a South Asian student and a black student, two young ladies, and we walked into the space and we had our meeting, they did their sharing, we intently listened, and at the end of the meeting, one of the girls made the comment that, when you walked in, we knew that it was going to be okay.

Pratima Burton
And I think what she was expressing to us, and what she did go on to elaborate about is that by looking at us she knew that we had some experiences that would have been similar to hers. So all she had to do was just explain. She didn’t have to justify, she didn’t have to rationalize, she just had to say it and knew that we believed her. And that’s why I think representation is so important as well. So that is something that sticks with me.

Sam Demma
I really appreciate you sharing that story. I think it’s so important students can see themselves in their teachers, in their staff, not just the educators in the school building, in their peers, in the role models that are shared in the community. And I appreciate you sharing that story. It’s unfortunate that students even feel like they have to justify, you know, certain situations and stories, but in certain situations, it is the reality. I hope that happens less and less as we move forward as a result of having your poster in every single school, not only in the Niagara Board, but hopefully elsewhere in the future. If there is an educator listening to this podcast who’s felt inspired, motivated, energized, or curious based on our conversation and they wanna reach out to you and ask a question, what would be the best way for them to get in touch with you?

Pratima Burton
Well, that would be by email. It’s pratima.burton@dsbn.org. I’ll spell my name. It’s Pratima.Burton.

Sam Demma
Pratima, I look forward to seeing you in the spring. Keep up the amazing work. You’re doing a great job, and I look forward to connecting again soon.

Pratima Burton
Thank you so much for having me, Sam. And you are doing inspiring work as well, and we are so looking forward to having you join us in April.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Pratima Burton

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Lindsay Reynoldson — Leadership and Physical Education Teacher at Rutland Senior Secondary

Lindsay Reynoldson — Leadership and Physical Education Teacher at Rutland Senior Secondary
About Lindsay Reynoldson

Lindsay Reynoldson is a Leadership and Physical Education teacher at Rutland Senior Secondary School in Kelowna. She was the chairperson of the 2023 British Columbia Student Leadership Conference hosted at RSS, and she is a member of the British Columbia Association of Student Activity Advisors.

Lindsay has been teaching for 10 years in Kelowna and Fort St. John, B.C. She is a strong advocate for creating connections with students, and she believes that every student has the ability to achieve greatness. Lindsay works to create a culture in her classroom where students feel safe and heard, feel comfortable trying new things and making mistakes, and where everybody feels welcome. Lindsay also coaches rugby and volleyball at her school, is a curricular leader, and is currently in her final courses of her Master’s of Education Program at UBC O.

Connect with Lindsay: Email | Instagram

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Rutland Senior Secondary School

British Columbia Student Leadership Conference

British Columbia Association of Student Activity Advisors (BCASAA)

Bachelor of Kinesiology (BKin) – University of British Columbia

Canadian Student Leadership Association (CSLA)

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
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator Podcast. This is your host, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is a good friend of mine, Lindsay Renoldson. Lindsay is a leadership and physical education teacher at Rutland Senior Secondary School in Kelowna. She was the chairperson of the 2023 British Columbia Association of Student Activity Advisors. Lindsay has been teaching for 10 years in Kelowna and Fort St. John, B.C.

Sam Demma
She’s a strong advocate for creating connections with students, and she believes that every student has the ability to achieve greatness. Lindsay works to create a culture in her classroom where students feel safe and heard, feel comfortable trying new things and making mistakes and where everybody feels welcome. Lindsay also coaches rugby and volleyball at her school, is a curriculum leader, and is currently in her final courses of her Master’s of Education program at UBC. I hope you enjoy this insightful conversation with Lindsay and I will see you on the other side. Lindsay, please for everyone tuning in, take a moment to introduce yourself.

Lindsay Reynoldson
Hi, Sam. Yes, my name is Lindsay Renoldson, and I am a teacher at Rutland Senior Secondary in Kelowna, BC. I teach leadership and physical education. I’m also a volleyball and rugby coach, and super excited to be here with you today.

Sam Demma
We met at the British Columbia Student Leadership Conference, and you teach leadership. It sounds like that is a big part of your experience in education. Why do you love the work that you do in student leadership and how long have you been doing it?

Lindsay Reynoldson
So I’ve been doing student leadership since I first started teaching actually. My first job was PE in leadership in Fort St. John and I really love it because I find I get to connect with the kids in a different way than I do in academic settings. And I also love leadership because there’s a spot for everybody to contribute in the class and really just seeing the growth of students through their four-year span where I’ve had students that come in super timid not really wanting to talk to their peers and by the end of their fourth year in grade 12 they’re running a pep rally in front of 500 plus students. So it’s really awesome to see the growth that students have and just see all the opportunities that it can provide for students. 

Sam Demma
When you were a student yourself, were you in a leadership classroom?

Lindsay Reynoldson
So I was in a student council classroom, so I was really big into student council. When I was in school, I didn’t have time to take leadership in my courses because I was taking all the sciences and everything else, and I literally had no room. But we did, our leadership teacher from my school also did student council, so I was always doing student council. I was involved in like the orientation stuff. So anywhere I could get involved in my school, I did. Yeah.

Sam Demma
Okay, cool. Awesome. And when you think back to your own experience through school, was there a teacher you had that had a big impact on you? And if so, what did that teacher do that made a big difference? 

Lindsay Reynoldson
Yeah. So I actually had quite a few teachers, I would say, that made a big impact on me. I know I had one physical education teacher that was, she was also one of my coaches. She was just amazing. And I had another French teacher and rugby coach that’s just amazing. And I think the big thing about them is they just really cared about their students as individuals and not like, they weren’t just there to do their job and go home. They really took an interest in their students and just provided us with so many opportunities that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Like our rugby coach took us to Disneyland was one of our trips and she made that possible. But she was just one of the most incredible human beings I’ve ever met in my life. And she was one of the like key contributors, I would say to want to go into education too and to have students have that person. Because I find sometimes we have students that not fall through the crack, but they don’t, maybe they don’t excel in certain places in the academics.

Lindsay Reynoldson
And finding, like a passion, finding a niche for all students is so important. And I think she was one that really made sure that all students had somewhere to belong in the school.

Sam Demma
You mentioned just now that she was a contributing factor to wanting to get into education. Did you know when you were a student, did you know when you were growing up that you wanted to be a teacher? Did you play house or where did that realization come from? When did you decide? 

Lindsay Reynoldson
So my mom was a teacher. So growing up I was just always around her and her teaching and from a young age, I always wanted to be a teacher. When I was in grade one, I would pull all my stuffed animals into the living room and have spelling tests for them and like set up my classroom and have that ready. And from the time from grade one to grade 12, I always wanted to go into education. And that was a big passion of mine. And I was super excited And then I actually did some summer camp in my grade 12 year that didn’t run as smoothly as I wanted. And after that, I was like, I don’t wanna do this. I don’t wanna go into education.

Lindsay Reynoldson
And I completely changed my career path into wanting to go into physiotherapy. And I went to school, I went and did kinesiology at UBC and was super into physiotherapy. And I was in a mentorship program and I was being mentored by a physiotherapist. And going through that process and looking into her job and going through some different job shadows, I realized that I wasn’t passionate about it and then came back to education and had some amazing university professors, got some experience in high schools, in university teaching, and realized again that that was really where my passion lied.

Sam Demma
It’s awesome to hear your journey because every person’s journey into education is very different. They’re not all a straight pathway. And there’s never a wrong time or bad time to reignite that passion if it’s something you truly want to do. I think one of the reasons most educators get into this vocation is because they want to make a positive impact on the lives of human beings, on the lives of students and even their staff members.

Sam Demma
Can you recall a story where a leadership experience or a classroom moment where something that was taught or something that was said had a very positive impact on a student? The reason I ask is because I think people love hearing those stories. Is there any that come to mind? 

Lindsay Reynoldson
I’m just thinking that’s a good question. I think, I’m trying to think of a specific story. And one thing that really sticks out to me is I have had I had a student that I taught from grade 9 to 12 that graduated last year. And at the end, she wrote. Mia Karr and in it, she was just talking about some specific experiences that I didn’t even remember, but just about how much of an impact that it had on her life. And if she hadn’t have done it, her life would have been completely different.

Lindsay Reynoldson
So I don’t know if I can think of a big thing, but I’ve heard a lot, just kind of those small things add up all the time, which is interesting. And I know one of my students just did his capstone presentation. And I heard afterwards that he said, going to leadership was one of the defining moments in his high school path. And he found somewhere that he finally felt like he could fit in, which was really interesting to hear.

Sam Demma
Oh, that’s amazing.

Sam Demma
When you think about the conferences students attend and the activities, I think what ends up happening is they build so many deep relationships, not only with the other students that are attending, but also with the advisors. How do you think, as an advisor, you build a strong relationship with a student? Like, what do you do to cultivate that?

Lindsay Reynoldson
I think a big thing for my classroom is having a safe space where students can come, and I’m really big on team building, especially at the beginning of the semester. So we do a lot of classwork, I would say, at the beginning of the semester, and it’s all about building those relationships with myself and the students and with the students and each other. And going to the different conferences and having those opportunities, I find just really solidifies that with the students. And even just before I came on this podcast, I had one student that was asking about BFLIC and CFLIC for next year, and if we had figured out when we’re registering and he was making sure I’m on that because he’s super interested, he did BFLIC this year and he’s ready to go again, he wants to go back and he had such an incredible experience. So I think for me, the biggest thing is relationships and carving out that time and understanding that if things don’t go exactly the way I want or if the lesson doesn’t work out for that day, and we just have to switch it up and just have a moment to kind of talk and breathe and go through what everybody’s going through, then that’s okay. And things need to change. And the most important thing is being able to have those talks with the students and understanding that At the end of the day, we’re all human and we need to treat each other with kindness and just providing that space to do so.

Sam Demma
How long have you been attending the conferences CSLC and be selected? I know you said you started teaching leadership right when you started teaching or getting involved But have you been attending all the conferences since then as well?

Lindsay Reynoldson
Well, when I was in Fort St. John, we didn’t go to the BSLCC or CSLCC. I was at a middle school there, and they just never had done that before, and because it was my first contract, I didn’t really know anything about it. So I didn’t get into the conferences really until I came to Rutland. I went to the CSLCC in Abbotsford, but when I was in high school, I also went to BSLCC. So I had attended them in high school, but I just hadn’t actually been able to experience a B-SLIC until this year as an educator, which is shocking because the first one we went is the one, or the first one I attended as an adult is the one that we hosted, but it was a really amazing experience. I’ve also taken students to the CADAA summer camp though. So I have had different experiences bringing students to different places, but I would say the big turning point is working with Al Hopkins and Ryan Wakefield, who are two amazing educators, when we were all at Spring Valley Middle School together, and they really got me into it, and reignited my passion, I would say, in leadership. That when a position came up at Rutland Senior for a leadership teacher, immediately I was like, I know I need to do this, this is my passion, this is where I need to go.

Sam Demma
Sometimes people assume that these student leadership conferences are exclusively for the students, although I know that the advisors also leave with so much. Not only do they have a chance to connect with all their friends that they haven’t maybe seen in a long time, but there’s advisor sessions. And I’m curious, what are some of those advisor sessions like?

Sam Demma
What are the things that you walk away from that event with? And I know that you personally were organizing it, so maybe you didn’t have as much time to sit in on them, but what have you heard?

Lindsay Reynoldson
Yeah, I would say looking back on the CFLIC one, the advisor sessions were super important to me because they took away so many different things that I could then bring back to my school, and I think it’s a really great way for advisors to also fill their cup because a lot of times we’re focusing so much on others that, and we tell the kids that they always need to make sure their cup is filled before they can fill to others. But I think as advisors, sometimes we don’t take that message to heart and we don’t focus on that. So I think the conferences are such a great place for advisors to get that refresh and to fill your own cup and to connect and network with other advisors because leadership is such a fantastic way to share ideas and going to the first piece like that’s where I was able to meet more leadership teachers in my school district that I didn’t know and now I have a really good connection so I’m constantly texting, emailing, I need to do this, what are your thoughts on this and also I know that this year we had Andy and Stu who were running our advisor program and we had so much great feedback from the advisors about things that they could practically bring back to their classes immediately, different ideas, just different events, different ideas, different things to try with their students. And I think it’s so important as advisors for us to have that professional development as well as our students.

Sam Demma
Not only are you involved in leadership, teaching, but you also coach athletics. How do you refill your own cup when you’re exhausted or things are overwhelming? What do you do to take care of yourself?

Lindsay Reynoldson
I really try to focus on my own physical health too. Teaching physical education, I feel that’s really important. And if I’m stressed out, having a bad day, go for a workout, go for a run. That was something my mom always used to tell me anytime I phoned her stress, she would just say, go for a run. And I’d be like, no mom, I don’t want to go for a run.

Lindsay Reynoldson
She’d be like, no, just go for a run. I’d be like, blah, blah, blah. And I would go for a run and then everything was better afterwards. So for me, I find the physical exercise really helps me. Another thing is just surrounding myself with people that I can count on, people that will always be there for me. I’m very fortunate about where I am that I work with a fantastic leadership partner at my school. I also work in a physical education department with amazing human beings, so I’m really fortunate that I always have somebody to connect with if I am having a bad day. Another thing too is I can be having a really bad day and I’ll show up in one of my classes. I’ll put some music on We’ll do a little dance party talk to some of my kiddos, and I’m like it’s all good. It’s all good.

Sam Demma
Okay, cool. So it sounds like physical activity is a big tool that you use in your own toolkit to improve how you mentally and physically feel Yes, I would say I’m very similar I’ve noticed that when I’m not feeling the best, if I move my body, my mindset almost follows the movement.

Lindsay Reynoldson
Exactly.

Sam Demma
And improving and lifting my spirit. So that’s really cool to hear that. Are there any resources you found really helpful or mentors that have been instrumental in your development as a teacher? And if so, you don’t have to name them all because I’m sure there’s like lots of different people who you’ve leaned on, but maybe some of the lessons they’ve taught you that you’ve found really helpful. If anything comes to mind, it’d be really cool to hear your thoughts.

Lindsay Reynoldson
I would say some of the things that have really helped me is reminding, I’m thinking of my class and my leadership class, reminding me that it’s student leadership. And like, not everything needs to be 100% all of the time. And if things don’t go 100% perfectly, that’s okay. Because that’s where we learn. And understanding too that because it’s student leadership, to really focus on the students and help guide them to do the events and it’s not, it’s not teacher leadership and really teaching the students to do that and helping to support them. I think that was a big thing to remind myself of because just in my daily life, I’m very much a perfectionist. I like everything to be 100% perfect all the time. That’s not realistic. So to remind myself about that all the time. And I all often have mentors, just if I think something doesn’t go wrong, just to kind of talk it out, and really refocus and refresh my mind on what’s important. And one thing my mom always tells me if I’m really stressed, too, she’s like, is it life threatening? I’m like, no, it’s not life threatening. She’s like, okay, then we’re good. It’s not life threatening.

Sam Demma
Yes, mom, you’re right. That is so cool. I was recently attending a conference in Quebec city and there was a speaker and he was talking about the difference between the fear of danger and the fear of uncomfort. And there are two different things. You can be afraid and it not be a legitimate fear, it’s just a fear of change. Whereas if there was a bear turning around the corner and you’re walking some path in BC, that’s real danger and you should be very uncomfortable, you know.

Lindsay Reynoldson
Exactly.

Sam Demma
And so just to ask ourselves those questions just like your mom does is such a great way to reground ourselves and move forward. Those are great pieces of advice. It is, has CSLA been instrumental? That’s like, I know a big resource for schools across Canada. Is there any books that come to mind? Is there any other resources that sometimes you lean on or pull from?

Lindsay Reynoldson
For sure, I really look for the CSLA. There’s the Google Drive with a lot of different ideas, talking to Ash and Dave there. We hosted a Horizons conference last year as well. And looking at all the resources they have on their website to help. I’ve also been reading a book, just The Culture Coach, is what I’m reading right now. And I find it really, really interesting.

Lindsay Reynoldson
And it has a lot of practical, practical lesson and practical things that I’ve been bringing into my teaching right now. So, that’s been pretty awesome too.

Sam Demma
Oh, it’s amazing. You mentioned that one of the big reminders you tell yourself is that it’s student leadership. It’s led by students and helped and organized by adults and teachers. I saw that firsthand when I was at BCSLC and how many students were helping out with the British Columbia Student Leadership Conference. How they all stayed after and arrived early and volunteered all day and were running around. Can you give an example to a teacher who is listening to this, who has no idea what a student leadership conference entails, just some of the roles and jobs that students would have filled in during that three-day conference?

Lindsay Reynoldson
Yeah, so our students had such a big role in that conference, and I give so much props and kudos to those kids because they were there for hours. And leading up to the event, we had training days on the weekend. They were there Mondays after school, setting everything up. We had our students, they were the MCs, they were in charge of their spirit groups. They ran the talent show. They got everything ready for our reflections. They organized and planned a pep rally during the conference.

Lindsay Reynoldson
Really anything at the conference that could be done by students was done by students, which was so important for us to be able to give them that opportunity to lead on a grander scale. And I know a lot of our students, that was the first time that they had those opportunities. And just talking to the students after, they really appreciated getting the opportunity to do that because sometimes we have amazing leaders in our school, but they’re not given the opportunity. And it’s so important to provide these opportunities because then you just see students flourish and do amazing things. And just understanding that they are capable of so much and giving them and providing them to do that. And I know for our MCs too, we had two amazing MCs and we had an issue at Beast Lake where and and we hadn’t even talked to them. They were like, everybody come in, we’re gonna do a dance party. Like they had already thought of things, they were already going, and Ryan and I just looked at each other and we’re like, they’re fine, they’ve got this, they’re crushing it. So that was really awesome to see. How many students were volunteering? It seemed like a pretty large group. So we had 40 from our school and we had about 10 from Spring Valley Middle School. So I would say we had about 50 students volunteering in total.

Sam Demma
I think what’s so amazing about that is that when you give a young person or a student a responsibility, an important responsibility, it shows them that you trust them because you’re placing something of importance in their hands. And I had a past guest come on the show and he was telling me that he had a student in his classroom who was challenging at times. And to help this young person realize that he was important to the teacher, the teacher one day pulled out his car keys and said, hey, to this young person, can you please take my keys, go to my car and grab something out of the passenger seat?

Sam Demma
And the kid was like, me? Like, you want me to go do this? And they had had challenges and things before and he said yep here’s my keys I trust you go grab it out of the yeah you can bring it back and he said you wouldn’t imagine how much that small decision meant to this young person in my classroom I think that’s what leadership does it gives young people this opportunity to take on responsibility and build trust in themselves and also with the people around them would you say that’s what you see happen as young students take on these roles and responsibilities at conferences?

Lindsay Reynoldson
100 percent. I think providing them these opportunities just makes them feel like you were saying, just the trust. As soon as students know you trust them and that you care for them, like things completely change. And by providing them these opportunities, just seeing them in the hall, seeing how they interact with other students now, it’s just really amazing to see and how important these conferences are for young students and how much that it can really help and change their lives. And I received, I’m just going to read it out, I received a text message from a family member of mine who had their son at the conference. things that she said to me afterward, see if I can find it, and something that just really stuck with me, sorry. 

Sam Demma
No, pull it out. These are the things that educators always look for. 

Lindsay Reynoldson
She said, “I hope it warms your heart knowing what a huge difference it makes to kids. Having my own personal child there gave me a completely different take on it. Changing the trajectory of kids’ lives, and in this case, those that carry the light in each school.” It’s a big deal. So things like that and understanding how you don’t know the little things that just make such a big difference and can really change somebody’s life. So I think that’s super important to provide these opportunities for kids. And like you were saying about your other guest who used to give his car keys to students, I do that all the time. And even today we had to bring something to the food bank.

Lindsay Reynoldson
And I was like, okay, here are my keys. Don’t judge me that I still have my golf shoes in my car. Like, can you go stick these in for me, please?

Sam Demma
For the educators listening, what this means is if there is a provincial conference, leadership conference happening in your province, send some of your students, get involved. It’s gonna be a life-changing experience for them. And students of Lindsay’s are already asking for her to re-sign up.

Lindsay Reynoldson
100% yes it’s so important if you can go go go I highly recommend it because it’s not only amazing for your students as we said it’s amazing for the advisors as well and you’ll get so much out of it and it’s amazing yes send everybody.

Sam Demma
What is something that you’re very excited about in 2024 that you’re looking forward to?

Lindsay Reynoldson
2024, there’s a few things I’m really excited about. We’re starting quite a few things. We’re starting rugby right away. I’m super excited. My students have been asking me since the first week of September when we’re starting rugby. So they’re ready to go. So I’m super excited about the teams we have this year. I’m super excited, hoping to bring some students back to the Cata Leadership Conference in the summer, bringing some students to C-Slick and B-Slick this year. Well, next year, but 2024. I’m also finishing my master’s in April, so I’m really excited about that, too. So there’s quite a few things to look forward to, yeah.

Sam Demma
Awesome. Well, I wish you the best of luck in all your adventures in 2024. It’s been such a pleasure having you on the podcast. Thank you for taking the time and yeah, keep up the great work, know that you’re making a difference and I hope that we cross paths again sometime in the new year. in the new year.

Lindsay Reynoldson
Thank you, Sam, as do I.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Lindsay Reynoldson

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.

Christina Holston — Executive Director of West Virginia HOSA-Future Health Professionals and a Career Technical Education Teacher at Ben Franklin Career Center

Christina Holston — Executive Director of West Virginia HOSA-Future Health Professionals and a Career Technical Education Teacher at Ben Franklin Career Center
About Christina Houston

Christina Holston is the Executive Director of West Virginia HOSA-Future Health Professionals and a Career Technical Education Teacher at Ben Franklin Career Center where she teaches Secondary Honors Medical Assisting. She is a recipient of the 2017 West Virginia HOSA Secondary Advisor of the Year.

Prior to her career in education, she worked as a Patient Care Coordinator/Medical Assistant for an OBGYN medical practice for seven years. She started at Ben Franklin Career Center eight years ago and became the WV HOSA Executive Director in 2017. Christina also serves as the National Technical Honor Society Advisor for Ben Franklin Career Center as well as the CTSO Coordinator. She was a graduate from the program she teaches as well as a HOSA alumni.

Christina enjoys watching students blossom into young professionals. She encourages them to get out of their comfort zone and strive to be the best they can be. She believes CTE is for all students and would love for all students to have the opportunity to be involved in CTSOs. Christina believes advocating more for CTE and CTSO would help spread the word and have more opportunities for the youth.

Connect with Christina: Email | LinkedIn | Facebook

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

West Virginia HOSA-Future Health Professionals

Ben Franklin Career Center

National Technical Honor Society

National Coordinating Council for Career and Technical Student Organizations

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
Welcome back to another episode on The High-Performing Educator. This is your host, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is an exceptional human being and a new friend of mine, Christina Holston. Christina Holston is the Executive Director of West Virginia HOSA, Future Health Professionals, and a Career Technical Education Teacher at Ben Franklin Career Center, where she teaches secondary honors medical assisting. She is a recipient of the 2017 West Virginia HOSA Secondary Advisor of the Year. Prior to her career in education, she worked as a patient care coordinator and medical assistant for an OBGYN medical practice for seven years. She started at Ben Franklin Career Center eight years ago and became the West Virginia HOSA Executive Director in 2017. Christina Christina also serves as the National Technical Honor Society advisor for Ben Franklin Career Center, as well as the CTSO, Career Technical Student Organization Coordinator. She was a graduate from the program she teaches at, as well as a HOSA alumni. Christina enjoys watching students blossom into young professionals, encourages them to get out of their comfort zone, and strive to be the best they can be. Christina believes advocating more for CTE and CTSOs would help spread the word and have more opportunities for the youth. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Christina, and I will see you on the other side. Christina Holston, welcome to the show.

Christina Holston
Thank you for having me.

Sam Demma
Thank you so much for being here. For everyone listening, can you please just introduce yourself?

Christina Holston
My name is Christina Holston. I am a health science educator here in Charleston, West Virginia. I teach honors medical assisting, and I am also the executive director of West Virginia HOSA, Future Health Professionals.

Sam Demma
For a lot of people that are tuning in from Canada, they might not even be familiar with HOSA and all the brilliance that it is. Can you just give a breakdown on what HOSA is and why you’re so passionate about the work that you do with them?

Christina Holston
So, HOSA is a career tech student organization and it’s 100% healthcare. So there’s over 75 different competitions that students that are passionate about healthcare are going to pursue a career in healthcare can utilize and improve their worth ethic from team building to leadership skills to public speaking as well as those health science events that can help improve their skills. So overall HOSA is just an amazing organization to make the young leaders a better health healthcare professional in the future. 

Sam Demma
I’m gonna make make the assumption that you’re very passionate about health care yourself about healthcare yourself and there was probably a point in your own journey where you were deciding do I get involved in healthcare full-time or do I teach kids in school and it seems like you’ve married both of those passions but tell me a little bit about your own career journey and what brought you to education?

Christina Holston
So when I was in high school I took the program I currently teach. No way. So my senior year in high school I took a medical assisting program. I absolutely loved it. I completed my clinical hours, which was 100 hours in a medical office with a OBGYN in the area. And after I completed my hours, I was hired right on the spot. I was his medical assistant and then I moved up to his office manager. And then my teacher that I had in the program that I’m currently teaching, retired. And she contacted me and she said, Christina, I think that you would be great for this position. And I was involved with Ben Franklin, the school

Christina Holston
that I teach at, for quite some time. I served on their advisory committee. So I was still keeping up with the school because it’s helped made me the professional I am today. So I decided to apply for the position. And I told the physician that I was working for, hey, this is something I want to do. So got the position. And then being involved in HOSA again was very important to me because I’m a HOSA alumni.

Christina Holston
So when I was in this program, I also competed in HOSA and I placed in job seeking skills both years. I represented the school nationally in Nashville, Tennessee. Career tech education has always been a big part of me. And the fact that now I can deliver that to the youth makes it even better.

Sam Demma
I know that one aspect of the amazing experiences that young people have attending CTSO events and joining them is the mentorship that comes along with it with your advisor. A lot of the times people’s advisor is not only their teacher, but it’s like a second parent or a confidant or someone you can ask advice from. Did you stay in touch with your advisor when you were going through the program in high school? Do you still talk to them now? Are they still around?

Christina Holston
I still do, and she is doing absolutely amazing. She serves now on my advisory board. So being a CareerTech educator, you’re required to have advisory members to help keep your program to the standards that it needs to be. So I keep her on board because she’s a registered RN. Even though she’s retired, she’s still very well-knowledged

Christina Holston
whenever it comes to this program. And I’ve tried to keep this program as much as what she kept it, but just continue to add to it a little bit more. And she always makes me strive to be even better. And she’ll say, well, Christina, I wanted to do that, but you know me, I didn’t have the energy. Meanwhile, this woman can outrun me.

Christina Holston
Like she’s so fit. You wouldn’t even think that she, I still don’t know her age and I’ve been trying to figure it out for 15 years, but she’s living it up on the retirement life with her grandbabies. I actually just talked to her Tuesday this week. We had a luncheon for Christmas at work and we invited the retirees and she wasn’t able to make it. But she does come to my advisory committees and she still helps me out whenever I need it. So, she’s like a second mom to me.

Sam Demma
Can you think of a moment when you were working with her or she was your mentor that just had a big impact on you, like a specific situation where something was going on and you talked to her and it just opened up new perspectives and changed the way you were thinking. And then also, if you can’t think of a specific scenario like that, tell me about one more recently with some of the students that you help and you mentor as part of the HOSA program?

Christina Holston
Well, with the teacher advisor that I had, she always believed in me, like to the point where I thought she was crazy sometimes because that just wasn’t me. Believe it or not, when I was in high school, I was very shy. I hated public speaking. I disliked it. I didn’t want to do projects in front of the class.

Christina Holston
I was just so shy and so backwards that I’m like, why is she wanting me to do all this stuff in this organization? So she wanted me to run for state officer and state officer is an executive committee of high school and post-secondary students that run the organization because HOSA as well as other career tech student organizations are student led. So she really wanted me to run for state officer. And I said, no, I said, there’s no way I could do this. I can’t give a speech in front of 700 people. There’s no way. However, I did compete. And now I take it back to with me being an advisor and with me being an educator

Christina Holston
for this program. And I always tell my students, get out of your comfort zone. If I could go back, I would have done it. And then I tell them how shy I was and how backwards I was. And they’re just in awe because they’re like, you, like, you talk all the time. You talk too much. So she always believed in me and she always gave me that push. And she still does. And here we are 15, almost 20 years later, and she’s just still one of my number one supporters. And then with regards to my students, I have two state officer candidates running as well as several competing and competitions. And this is my favorite time of the year because I see these students put in the work and they’re going to deliver that in March at our state conference. And these are kids that didn’t think that they can do anything. And then they just blossom into this young professional. And then if they place, we’re taking that to Houston, Texas this year for the International HOSA Leadership Conference.

Christina Holston
So right now, definitely when we get back from holiday break, it is going to be such an amazing time for my kids and I get to sit and just watch it all.

Sam Demma
That is absolutely awesome. I just sneezed. 

Christina Holston
That was a good mute.

Sam Demma
I did mute it on point. When you were working with the students, I was honored to be at the State Conference. I got to notice how receptive they were to you and how much they look up to you. How do you think, as an educator, you build relationships with young people?

Christina Holston
You always have to have that barrier and those boundaries, of course, because you’re working with the youth. However, as an educator, it’s okay to listen to them. It’s okay for them to have a shoulder to cry on. It’s okay to give them that extra push and to be a little hard on them. I don’t wanna say be their friend because that’s not what we need to be. But we definitely need to be there for them. They’re young, they’re going to make mistakes. Just give them that opportunity. And in CareerTech Education, we’re like the best kept secret with CTE. And I hear the Department of Education say this all the time. CareerTech Education and CareerTech Student Organizations are the best kept secret because they do so much for students and that’s on the high school level and even the post-secondary level but with me being in the high school setting I see these kids that have struggled in their home high schools and There’ll be teachers that I know at these schools say Good luck with that student Don’t know if you should do this, give them a chance and they’ll be the best student that I had in that class. So just be there for them and give them chances but still be hard on them.

Sam Demma
I think it’s so important we don’t write students off before even giving them a chance just because another teacher, another person said, this is a difficult young person. And I think a challenging young person is a massive opportunity. Like the reason sometimes people are challenging to work with is because they have things going on. And I think more challenges lead to greater impact. Like some of the most impactful people in this world had challenging upbringings and were difficult to deal with growing up. And I just think there’s so much power in just seeing the human behind the challenges and behind the behaviours. Have you had situations where you’ve had difficult students? And how do you work through those specific examples?

Christina Holston
I have. Now, with being in CareerTech education, it is a little different because the students that are here at the Career Center want to be here. Ah, fair. So they try, I mean, they will do anything and everything that they can to make it through our programs and to get the trade and to get the certification, definitely in the health science education, the kids want to be here. However, I’ve had students that I’ve lost due to poor attendance. We do drug tests here. So we have them like they’re on the job. So it’s a requirement for them to have a drug test. I have lost students because of positive drug screens. It breaks my heart, but they know. They’re with me for two years. They know attendance, grade, and drug screens, part of the program. However, I’m still there for the kid because even though they can’t complete my program, I’m going to still be there for them. And I’ve had to deal with this recently with one of my students. And, you know, I told this individual, I’m still proud of you. I’m not upset with you. Am I hurt? Yeah, but this is going to be your comeback. You know, you’re going to graduate high school. You’re going to go into health care still. This is just your wake-up call. And I’m going to still be here if you need me. So it’s just that learning curve for them. And I’m not going to belittle her, I’m not gonna think less of her just because of this incident that she had. I’m going to still be her cheerleader. 

Sam Demma
You have this positive perspective of seeing difficult decisions that people make as learning experiences instead of failures, which is beautiful. Where does that positive outlook come from? 

Christina Holston
I would have to say I picked that up from my dad because my dad, if I made a silly mistake when I was younger, he was never one to really get on to me. He would just have that serious talk with me in the kitchen and just say, Christina, you’re gonna learn from this. It’s gonna be okay. Meanwhile, if my mama bear came in the kitchen, it was a different story. Her and I would just go at it. But no, my dad was just always more calm and it’s life. We make mistakes. We have obstacles and we learn from them. So we just take it from that. So I really give that and a lot of my worth ethic to my dad because he was such a big part of my life and really helped me be the professional that I am today.

Sam Demma
I remember coming home from grade seven. I made a terrible decision and was actually suspended. And I haven’t shared this story many times. But the thing is, I wasn’t initially suspended. Someone else got in trouble for something that I did and didn’t tell the principal that it was actually me. And so my friend went home with a suspension, I went home without one, and I was sitting on my bed, and just out of integrity, I started crying. And my dad walks in, he’s like, what’s going on? I was like, dad, I did something, someone else got in trouble for it, they didn’t say my name, so now they got a suspension, I feel terrible. He’s like, come on, son. And he brought me into his van, and he drove us back to the elementary school, and walked me into the principal’s office and I sat down and told the principal everything. I got in trouble, the other person was off their suspension. But it was one of the biggest learning experiences for me. And I go back to that moment and I think, what would have happened if my dad ran in and got extremely angry? Would I ever have been vulnerable enough again to own up to a mistake that I made in the future, knowing that I did something wrong or would I have kept it to myself because I was afraid. So I think it’s so important that when people do make mistakes, we don’t necessarily punish them for them but instead hold them to a higher standard and give them opportunities to make their decisions right. And it sounds like your dad did the same for you. And so there’s that cool similarity there. Did your parents work in CTE? Where did this passion come from?

Christina Holston
Well, my dad was involved in diesel technology. So he was a manager for a diesel shop. So he has that trade, that CTE background. And then he also was an advocate and a judge for SkillsUSA, which is another career tech student organization that’s pretty popular for the CTE world. So I remembered my dad would come here to Ben Franklin at the school that I’m teaching at, and he would judge those competitions for diesel. And a few months ago, I was going through one of his old suitcases that he had, and I actually found a thank you letter from Ben Franklin when I was in high school, because normally when you think of career tech education, you think of the bad kids. And he said, well, Christina, I just don’t know if that’s the setting for you. And I said, well, this is an honors program. I can help my GPA. It’s a health science program. So he ended up saying, okay, you can go ahead and do it. That’s fine. And I think that’s another stigma that CTE has too, that it’s only for those kids that struggle. You know, if you’re going to college, you don’t need to go to the career center. And all of that does not pertain to what career tech education is. And that’s another thing too that I’m really passionate about is just advocating and letting people know that it’s okay to send your student here. Even if they’re going to college, several of my students go to college, you’ve met a ton of them and know that they all want to be registered nurses. This is that foundation that they can get ahead of their peers and excel even more when they go to college.

Sam Demma
Not to mention the leadership skills, right?

Christina Holston
Absolutely.

Sam Demma
Communication skills, friends, lifelong relationships.

Christina Holston
The networking in general is just outstanding. I mean they’re not going and they’re in high school and then now we’re going into the middle schools with CTSOs. So I mean this is just a great learning experience for our future youth and I will advocate for it as long as I can.

Sam Demma
What are some of the opportunities you see in education right now? I know that the world is always changing and student needs are changing and opportunities are changing. What are some of the opportunities you’re excited about right now in education?

Christina Holston
With regards to opportunities, I love what I do and I love my job. And I can’t speak for academic teachers because the career tech education world is just so different. Because again, my students wanna be here. We’re working with our hands a lot more. So they get into it a little bit more than your traditional English class or your math class. So with regards to opportunities, I mean, of course they’re there because we need teachers, we need educators, we need good ones, but we just need educators that are going to understand the kids and to be there for the kids and make that path for them to take. Will it be bumpy? A hundred percent. Definitely post-COVID, you’ve seen a difference in the adolescents. But I feel like this year it’s slowly getting back to normal. The kids want to be in the classroom. Their attention span’s improving a little bit. So with regards to opportunities, I think that there’s just a wide variety, but of course there are opportunities in education because they’re needing educators to educate. But it’s just gonna take that certain special someone to be able to juggle all the struggles that you may have while you’re being an educator. I know that really didn’t answer your question, but it…

Sam Demma
No, it gives a great perspective. Like, from the way you position it, it sounds like the opportunity is to connect with the kids. I mean, that’s a consistent always. And sometimes I think whether you’re in a CT classroom or a traditional classroom, it’s like, that’s always the magic, is let’s connect with the kids. Whether the world’s changing, it’s like connect with the kids. Whether technology’s changing, connect with the kids. I just think it’s important to reiterate that. And you, I mean, you have kids in your classroom that you support and then you have a kid at home. How do you make sure that you take care of yourself, balancing so many different responsibilities with teaching and raising a kid and the work you do volunteering and even the work you do with HOSA? 

Christina Holston
I love to be busy. I always have. I was an athlete when I was younger, so this is just part of my life. I educate, help my students out through the day, whether it’s pertaining to our CTE coursework or to HOSA. My students know I’m available in the evenings as well, too. I communicate with them with the school-approved app. And then, of course, I have my four-year-old at home. And on top of that, I’m a fitness instructor. So all of this keeps me going. It makes me happy. So just juggling through that, I don’t know what I would do without it. And during COVID, it was basically that way. Like I was going crazy. You couldn’t go to the gym. I couldn’t see my students. I had to do everything virtually. Like it was, that was a big wake up whenever we were shut down for the pandemic. So it’s just something that I love to do. I’ve always been busy and I added on the coordinator here at my school now to so not only do I help with the post on the state level, but I also help. I’m going to start helping with skills USA for our students upstairs as well as FFA for our animal systems program. So, you know, I’m just adding, adding to my resume.

Sam Demma
One of my mentors says, build a life you never have to retire from or take vacation from. Now, I of course would still go to beaches and swim and dance bachata and all this fun stuff. But that sentence resonates with me because if you love what you do, you enjoy showing up, you enjoy being busy because you’re looking forward to the work, you’re looking forward to the service to others and it sounds like you found a few buckets in your life that just fuel you the more you do them, which is awesome because I think a lot of people are still looking for that, whether they’re in education or not, just human beings in general. On days where you don’t feel like showing up, where you’re like, ah, I just want to sleep in today, like I don’t want to get there. Like what on those days gets you through?

Christina Holston
The overall… depends on the day. Yeah. Depends on the time of the year. What gets me through is is knowing my students’ overall goal. So with my students, they’re going to be certified medical assistants. They can get other certifications as well, too. So even though they may be struggling right now and they don’t wanna do all the work, when February’s around the corner and I give them their certification test and these kids pass it, it just makes me so happy. And not only that, but this year, my students, I have partnered up with a local hospital and my students are getting paid to do their clinical hours. Getting paid to do a hundred hours in a medical office. And then right after they’re finished with that, they’re eligible to be hired. And then not only do they have a good paying job right out of high school? But they can also get scholarship opportunities. So if they are going to nursing school, then this local hospital is gonna be there to support them. So this year is really exciting for me because even though the seniors right now are driving me a little crazy, I know that we’re getting to that end and that’s what we’ve been working on for two years. And then here in a few years when I check on them, because I keep up with all my students. I make sure that I communicate with all of them. If I had a student from seven years ago that still needs me, they know to contact me.

Christina Holston
And it can be pertaining to work or just pertaining to their mental health. Like I’m here for them and I will always be here for them. So right now it’s been a little bit of a struggle before break with my senior class, but I know when we come back in January, it’s going to be their time to get ready for that test. And we’re going to do it. They’re going to get certified. They’re going to get paid for clinical, and they’re going to get hired, and if they want to go to college, they can. If not, they have a good paying job.

Sam Demma
In the context of business, people often say, build a vision so big that other people, other team members can see themselves in that big vision. So get to know each of your team members’ dreams and aspirations and goals and find a way to help them reach that thing by working with you, through working with you. It sounds similar in your classroom. You figure out what each of the kids actually want and then try and create a pathway to help them get there. And on those days where you don’t feel like showing up, you remind yourself of each of the students’ goals. You’re like, why are we here in the first place? And I think that’s a really good reminder to educators to get to know their kids, connect with the kids. And then also to just remind yourself why you’re showing up each day. This has been an amazing conversation. It’s already been over, I think, about 30 minutes. If you could- Are you serious?

Sam Demma
Yeah, if you could travel back in time… 30 minutes? I know, isn’t that crazy? If you could travel back in time to the first day you were teaching a CTE classroom and you had all the knowledge and experience that you have now, what advice would you give your former self?

Christina Holston
Well, being a CTE educator, you get the job, they hand you the keys, and you walk into a classroom. You know nothing about lesson plans. You know nothing about curriculum maps. You know nothing about standards or CSSs. So luckily for me, I completed this program. However, stepping in a room full of high school students was a whole different ballgame. I know medical assisting and I can train a new medical assistant, but you want me to train all of these high school students? So luckily in our state we have a great system and we have a great workshop that we have to go through in order to get our teaching license because again, we’re not that traditional classroom teacher. However, I had to wait a whole year before I was able to do it. So I just winged it and with the help of my former teacher.

Sam Demma
Everything went great.

Christina Holston
And some coworkers here as well, too. So if I would give advice to my former self, stepping into a classroom, again, just be patient. My advisor that I had, my teacher I had told me, cause I like to plan and I like to be on top of things. She said, Christina, three years. Give it three years. I’m like, three years? I can’t wait that long. Like, it has to be like three days for me to have my ducks in a row. She was 100% right. I finally got it in year three. So I mentor new teachers here in our building. And I tell them the same thing. Because again, we know what we are supposed to do. But we don’t know the teaching part because we’re CTE and we came from working in industry. So just be patient, jump through those obstacles, research, be involved, continue your education, do professional development, do as much as you can because that’s overall going to make you a better educator and make you better for the students.

Sam Demma
Sometimes I get impatient too with the things that I want to happen, whether it’s speaking at a specific event or finishing a book. I’m subscribed to this newsletter and there was recently an idea that resonated with me. And the idea was that sometimes, certain activities don’t actually require any action on our part, just patience. And his example in the newsletter that he shared was massive ocean waves. At any point in time, during any day, there is at least 10 hundred foot ocean waves somewhere in the middle of the ocean that are smashing down, that are continuously rising and falling without us even doing anything. And he said, take your intentions, take your goals, take the aspirations you have and act like you’re throwing them on top of one of those waves and eventually the wave will reach the shore or it’ll come back to you. And so if you feel like you’ve prepared the best you can and you’ve done the test and you’ve studied, maybe the last thing to do is to just release it to the ocean and let it come back to you when the time is right. And for you, it sounds like that was the three years.

Christina Holston
Yes, yes, yes. And it’s true. And I would say that to all educators. I really think three years is just that good mark to really figure out, oh, okay, I’ve done this in the past, I’m not gonna do this anymore, I’m gonna take this out of my lesson, let’s add this, or I’ve done this for too long, let’s switch it up. So I think that that would just be a good rule for all new educators that are entering education and that way it can better not only themselves, but also their students.

Sam Demma
This has been an energizing conversation. I’m so excited that we set aside some time to chat about your journey through education, the different roles you’ve done, a little bit about HOSA, your beliefs around connecting with kids, building relationships. What is, to wrap up here, what is one thing you’re looking forward to in 2024?

Christina Holston
One thing I’m looking forward to in 2024 is this senior class actually getting the paid externship. A lot of our students here in West Virginia have to work. They have to pay for their cars. They have to pay for their cell phones. So this local hospital said, you know, we want them. We need good employees. We know we get good ones from this program. We want them for clinical and we want to pay them.

Christina Holston
And then that way, if they are working, then maybe they can keep that job after their clinical hour, or they don’t need that job after hour, and they can just do their clinicals and then just go home, do their homework, because they’re still high school students. So I’m really excited to see this partnership with local hospitals pick up, but I’m super excited to see my students get that certification and add those credentials behind their names and then graduate high school. So that is one thing that I’m really excited about. And then of course, the state leadership conference for HOSA. I have several students that are competing and I have two state officers, one of those state officers you’ve inspired, which I’ve shared with you. So come March, I’m really excited to see them finally show the work that they’ve been putting in for their competitions and to show the judges that they’re the best of the best. And yeah, this has been an exciting time of the year for me. Even though I was struggling right before break, I’m like, I can do this. I think all educators were. It’s just time, we gotta get to break. But then once we get back in January, we’re refreshed, we’re ready to go, and hopefully the students will be too.

Sam Demma
It’s waves right? Sometimes it’s waves. You feel great, sometimes you feel down, but you show up and that’s what brings you through it and I’m sure 2024 is going to be amazing for you. I’m excited for you and I look forward to crossing paths again at some point. But keep up the great work. Thank you so much for taking time to join me on the show But keep up the great work. Thank you so much for taking time to join me on the show and I look forward to talking again soon. Thank you.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Christina Holston

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.

Mac Fred Mbonimpa — Event and activities coordinator at the Student Association of College La Cité

Mac Fred Mbonimpa — event and activities coordinator at the Student Association of College La Cité
About Mac Fred Mbonimpa

Mac Fred Mbonimpa (@MbonimpaMac), is the event and activities coordinator at the Student Association of College La Cité. After his graduation 2 years ago at college La Cité, Mac started his professional career at La Cité in events as the event coordinator.

Mac Fred Mbonimpa has been a dedicated and accomplished event coordinator at College La Cité, bringing a wealth of expertise and creativity to the realm of event planning. With a passion for creating memorable experiences for students, Mac has played a pivotal role in organizing and executing a variety of successful events for the college community.

Throughout his tenure, Mac has demonstrated a keen eye for detail, ensuring that every event is meticulously planned and flawlessly executed. He has collaborated with various stakeholders, including faculty, staff, and students, to bring innovative and engaging events to life.

One of Mac’s notable strengths lies in his ability to adapt to diverse event requirements. From academic conferences to cultural celebrations, as he was an international student himself, he has consistently delivered events that resonate with attendees and leave a lasting impression.

Mac is not only known for his organizational prowess but also for his exceptional communication skills. He has fostered positive relationships with vendors, sponsors, and participants, contributing to the overall success of each event.

As Mac reflects on his career as an event coordinator at College La Cité, he takes pride in the collective achievements and the positive impact created through memorable and well-executed events.

Connect with Mac: Email | Instagram | LinkedIn | Twitter | Facebook

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

College La Cité

Student Association at College La Cité

Canadian Organization of Campus Activities (COCA)

COCA Conferences

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
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator. This is your host, Sam Demma. And today I have a very special guest, a young guest, someone that I met this past summer at a conference called COCA, the Canadian Association of Campus Activities. And we connected, we stayed in touch. This young man is doing amazing work in the university space, in the college space at La Cite, as an event programmer. Today’s special guest is Mac Fred Mbonimpa. Mack, please start by introducing yourself.

Mac Fred Mbonimpa
Thank you, Sam. Yeah, as you said, my name is Mac Fred Mbonimpa. I’m an event coordinator at La Cite College. It’s my second year as the occupying that post, and it’s been a great experience. As you said, we met in COCA. It’s a conference that happens every summer where universities and colleges, event coordinators and artists and everyone with talent get together to meet and to experience a good, the magic of events, I’ll say like that. Magical events and marketing, programming. Yeah, and I think it was a good experience there at COCA. I went there as an event coordinator and Sam was there as a, I’d say, a keynote speaker going to meet others, right? So I don’t know if I said it right, but this is where we met and we connected. And I’m glad that he invited me today. It’s a pleasure. So tell me a little bit about the work that you do with La Cite and what got you interested in events? Because I know you not only do work with the college,

Sam Demma
So tell me a little bit about the work that you do with La Cite and what got you interested in events? Because I know you not only do work with the college, but you also just love the magic of events in general. So where did that passion start? And tell me about the work that you do.

Mac Fred Mbonimpa
To be honest, when I started, I just finished college and I didn’t know what to do because I wasn’t planning to stay here in Canada. I was thinking of getting my PR and go back to Burundi, but I got a chance, I was working in Quebec City in a car dealership, and I had a friend who worked at the Students’ Association of Les Clay Collegiales. And he called me, he was like, oh, Mark, I know you just graduated and we’re looking for someone in events. And I know you, he’s a friend of mine, I know you, we go out sometime together, and I know your vibe and I know it’s something you would do. And I was like, okay, well, what is the job exactly? It was like, you know, you’ll be coordinating events. I was like, okay, never done that. Instead of, it’s not my birthday or my sister’s birthday. So, I was like, okay, I graduated in business administration. And so I thought I would be doing, going to work in an administration somewhere in a hospital or something like that before I get my PR. And I wasn’t happy where I was in Quebec City. I wasn’t feeling good because I was so far from the family, so far from the friends. I was alone there. And the sales were not going good. I wasn’t selling that much. So I was like, okay, I’ll give it a try. What is the interview? He’s like, okay, you can just submit your CV. I submitted it and then I had the interview. It was a Friday and I came back from work so pissed because I was trying to negotiate with my boss to raise my pay because I wasn’t selling and I wasn’t getting that much money. So he said, he wasn’t agreeing with me. So I was like, oh, I have an interview for a job. And that was, in Quebec City, I went there for my internship when I finished. So I just finished and I heard it’s a job at La Cité and I lived like three minutes from La Cité. I was like, that’s good. So I didn’t know what I’m going into. I go to the interview, Al was there, Allen was there, and they were interviewing me, asking me questions about the student association. I didn’t know anything. I was like, what do we do at the student association? It’s like, I went three years at Slashy Tether. I don’t know anything about the student association. It was so bad. But when it came to my character, when it came to talking, animating, you know, cause I was young too. So he said, it’s a really, it’s a job. It’s a good job when you’re young cause you’re more motivated, more ready to move, more ready to organize and be more creative. So Al liked me like that. He was like, okay, thank you. After the interview was good. And he was like, okay, we’ll call you back. And I call my friend, the friend, I was like, man, I just did the interview. And I think, I don’t know how he went, but I missed some questions. And my friend was like, okay, we’re gonna see. And I get another call back like two minutes after, and I didn’t know it was Alain. So he’s like, hey, I get the call. I’m like, I thought he’s one of my friends, that was the same friend who just called me. I picked up the phone, I was like, yo. And I was like, hi, I’m Al, we were in the interview together. I was like, oh, I’m sorry, I thought it was my friend, Colin, so I felt so down, like, wow, I just, this is my potential boss, and I’m paying you. But he said, you know, you start on Tuesday. I was like, what? You start on Tuesday. So five minutes after the interview, I got the job. Wow. I was so impressed. And he told me the pay and I was so glad and so happy. And he told me that I’ll be working like from home when I want. So it’s like a really easy job to do. Like you can be home, you can work from school. If I don’t have any event, I can be working from home. I was like, that’s so good. And I’m still in Quebec city, which is five hours from Ottawa and I’m starting on Tuesday. So I was like, wow. So Saturday I go, I see my boss. I’m like, man, according to the discussion we had yesterday, I thought about it. I can’t stay here. And going back to Ottawa, I was like, okay. But we had a good relationship with my boss. He’s young. But I wasn’t agreeing to what he was proposing. So I went back, I came back to Ottawa and then I started on Tuesday and Alan told me the first day he was like, the reason why I chose you is because I saw you’re a guy who’s motivated, energetic and everything. So I want you to use that to learn, to learn because for real I had zero experience in it, zero. So and Al is a good teacher, I would say that Al’s been my mentor in events. He knows, I always tell him that most of everything I know I learned it from you. So it was in May I think, yeah it was in May. So the school was starting in September so I had a lot of months to learn. So we started, we started, he taught me everything from cables, how to keep cables, how to keep them, how to roll everything, how to use mics, how to sign contracts. He taught me, we used that summer to prepare the September and I was learning. And two weeks after it was COCA. Two weeks after that I got the job was COCA. So it was a good thing for me. I went to Koka and then I met the schools. I met many people who do my job and I didn’t know anything about my job. And that’s what I’ll tell people. Once you have an experience, everything, you don’t know anything. So it was a good time, was a good time. You know, Koka, we were partying every day. And some, after that, I was like, wow, everyone is organized. Everyone has their shit together. Everyone has their things lined up, you know, almost asking, can you show me your schedule? Can you show me your September calendar? I was like, I don’t have any of that. But the good thing, we had a group chat and we were like, we would be sharing ideas, asking questions, you know. So this is what helped me too. COCA helped me a lot. So because in September, at some point, I had like weeks when I didn’t have anything planned. I was like, okay, I don’t have any more ideas. And I would ask friends from COCA. So it really helped me. This is where I started. So by the time it was in September, I was ready to start. It was a good time and a good experience.

Sam Demma
So two years ago, Al asked you the question, what does the Student Association do? The Student Union. And you didn’t have an answer. Let me ask you that now again, so you can redeem yourself. What does the Student Association do, Mac?

Mac Fred Mbonimpa
The Student Association is, I’ll call it, it’s like the parent, your parent, when you are in school, by the time you’re in school, it’s your parent because it gives you everything you need, they’re capable of giving you, except from academic wise. So they deal with the student life. So what we do in the Student Association, we give you insurance, we give you, we have the bank food, we have, say, any question you have, any questions students have, they can come to our offices and we’ll figure out a way to answer them. Yeah, so we make sure we’re diverse, we include everyone. So I’ll say something I missed as a student was a student association, because I didn’t know it existed. If I knew, I feel like my college life would have been better, because I could have enjoyed the privileges, I could have used it, I could have used the insurance, I could have used the many things that we give. I could have participated to the events, to the activities organized every time. So I was that kind of student who used to go from school after my class or go back home. But now I’m always advocating to say, stay, stay, check, check our IG, check. You know, we have things planned for you. We have gifts. We give a lot of gifts to students. We have students who can’t afford groceries. We have a food bank. So I’ll say we manage the student’s life. So this is how I can explain it in easy words.

Sam Demma
One of the things I know you’re passionate about being an international student yourself is ensuring that every student on campus feels like they have a community, feels like they’re a part of the community, that they belong, that they’re taken care of. Tell me a little bit about your passion for ensuring international students also feel welcomed and supported through their university and college experience.

Mac Fred Mbonimpa
So I feel like the way I can explain it, I’ll say international students, they arrive in Canada and they arrive as, it’s their first year, first winter, first everything, right, mostly. And the person that they go to look for help is gonna be other people from the same country. You know, I’ll go look for another Burundian to ask him questions. But the other Burundian asked another Burundian. And we stay in Canada, but we stay in Burundi. Gotcha. So we keep the mentality from Burundi. And you never get to experience the Canada’s, what Canada gives, at the gifts, you know, or you don’t, you know, they don’t learn how to, how to use their credit cards. They don’t learn how to get a good job, how to have a, you know, so I feel like this is where they get stuck. Because they come here, they don’t have a family. So they go find families in their friends and their friends, which is good, though, but their friends are bringing them like them. So they’ll go to school and go back home. So go back home to their friends. So what I always trying to do is always do activities that are Canadian, like more of that shows you the Canadian culture. Like, let me say like last this month, we did a buffet and the buffet was really like, was a Canadian, the Canadian culture. The Canadian culture one, we were giving turkeys, things like that.

Mac Fred Mbonimpa
So, and I wanted the international student to know what is the Christmas of Canadians? What is, what do they do during this time? You know, I know sometimes that it doesn’t align with their cultures and religion, which is good, which we respect. But if it aligns, you should try it. In gen, I’m planning to take students to ski, to do some hikes, to things like that. So yeah, so I always, when I’m organizing events, I always go to look for the international department. And I’m like, yo, I’m not asking any of your budgets, but I’m asking that you promote these activities because I want international students to participate. Because we’re two different departments, international department and our department is two different. They have their own it’s, it goes back to, they try to align to their culture, right? But, so what I always fight for is them to know, them to learn, and be, have friends, Canadian friends, to be open, to be open to have, at some point, I’d say, when I was in college, I didn’t have, I had friends but mostly was friends from Ivory Coast because I’m trying to find people like me, I’m trying to find people who think like me but once you participate in those activities you will meet other people. They will explain to you, you go to watch a hockey game, you don’t know anything about it, you have another friend sitting, another colleague, classmate sitting next to you. He’s a Canadian. He will explain everything to you and you’ll like the sport. I didn’t watch, I watched the first game of hockey. I was so confused. I was like, why, why everybody’s going out, who’s left with two people? Why is there many things, many? But if you have a friend, you should go there with a team, with a group. You, you, you, you learn and you make friends and maybe you like the sports, you know. So this is something I always advocate for. I’m so, so close to the international department because of that, because they understood it and now we’re really working together. it’s been a good thing to the students because last month we had the hockey tournament or organized by our team, our hockey team. And we had many schools coming and I was asked to find volunteers to work on that tournament. I was like, why not look for international students to volunteer?

Mac Fred Mbonimpa
So I went to the international department and they sent like a big team of international students to work there. They arrived early in the morning, they taught them how to use the timer, how to see foes, things like that. And at the end of the day, they liked the game. They’re like, you see, you came, you didn’t know anything about hockey, but you were controlling the game. You were putting the points out, you know, things like that. So, and it’s a good experience. They liked it, and this is something that gives me joy, because I’m like, didn’t get that chance, but let me try to give it to international students, yeah.

Sam Demma
I think that’s what most educators aspire to do when they get a similar job in education. It’s to make a life of a human being better, to provide them with a unique experience that they know will enhance their lives or that they didn’t have in the past, so they want to give it to others. It sounds like collaboration is a big part of your strategy, not competing with other departments, but collaborating, ensuring that everyone works together to provide the best possible experience to students. In your experience, how do you effectively build relationships with students on campus so that they trust you and they come to you and they have questions and they want to ask you things? How do you build that relationship?

Mac Fred Mbonimpa
First of all, I’ll say it’s easy for them because they think I’m a student. I had friends, student friends, realizing one month after, two months after that, I’m a staff, I’m a full-time staff. I’m like, oh, for real, you graduated?

Sam Demma
That’s awesome.

Mac Fred Mbonimpa
And I’m like, you didn’t know? You think the whole time that I spent at school is because I’m a good student? So, yeah, so first of all, that’s the first thing is they relate. They relate. They feel like we’re in the same group of age. And the second thing, I feel like I don’t… What would I say? Yeah, I make them my friends. I make them my friends. I try to listen when I can, because sometimes it’s hard to deal with students. Sometimes they don’t wanna listen. But, and I feel like I have this way of approaching people with, I don’t know, I had a student who came to our office was so, so, so pissed off. This is an example I’m gonna give you. So pissed off, he was from another campus and he came and he was loud telling everyone in our department how we’re not helping the other campus, things like that. And then I arrived, I saw him, he was a guy like around my age. I was like, so because I saw the other staff, because they’re more older, they were trying to calm him down and I took him outside and I’m like, oh bro, let’s go and talk. So I talked to him like another friend, like I was like, don’t think I’m one of them, like I’m, you know, okay, what’s your problem? You know, you don’t have to say it like that because, you know, people listen when you come, you know, people, this is how people gonna like you because if they want to help you, they have to like you first, you know, they have to like the way you approach them. So yeah, and he came and we talked, like we talked and after it’s where he realized, oh, oh, you’re one of them too. You know, like you work with them, but I gave him his answers, but he didn’t realize that because I didn’t come with the approach of being, I’m not gonna say, I’m not gonna use this word, I was gonna say being too polite, you know how teachers talk to students, like, oh, calm down. I came like a friend, I came like, yo, bro, let’s go and talk outside, you know. And it really helped him, it really, we answered his questions and it really helped me too to engage with him. So I feel like, I don’t know how to name it, but I’m more, I’m easy to talk to because you would feel like I’m approachable.

Sam Demma
I was going to say the word that comes to mind for me is authentic. You are the same, whether you’re talking to your friends or you’re talking to a student, it’s just Mac. People probably resonate with that because there’s no different version of you. This is what you get. And I’m sure students appreciate that because maybe in certain scenarios, they feel like they’re being talked down to, or they feel like the person talking to them is exercising their superiority or the fact that they’re in a position of power, whereas you approach it just like a human. Hey man, let’s go talk. So it sounds like collaboration, authenticity are two of the big things you’ve kind of shared and talked about so far. I’m curious, in the 2024 school year with event programming, what are some of the experiences that you and the team are working on that you’re really excited about providing to students on campus? And if there isn’t one in the future that you’re excited about, maybe you can reflect on one that happened in 2023 that you’re really proud of? 

Mac Fred Mbonimpa
Yeah, I’ll say I’m part of one event we did last year. It was during the Black History Month. It was called a multicultural show. Nice. Where we had many artists from all over different cultures. Like we had even Burundian drummers, of course, I have to represent.

Sam Demma
Nice.

Mac Fred Mbonimpa
But we had, like, we had a, it was a good show. It was a really beautiful and gave us, gave us good points. Like I would say, students liked it. Like, it helped us recruiting other students because they were like, oh, this is what they do at La Cite. So it was a good event. And I’m planning to redo it this year. And this year we’re trying to do it in two separate forms. We’re trying to have a panel inviting businessmen, black businessmen, politicians to come and have a panel discussion with students. They’ll be asking questions. That will be the first event. The second event will be the multicultural show again. So, which is good, which I’m excited to see again. But the second one that I’m really, really working on and I’m trying to put all my efforts in it because I feel like I’m ready for next year. But when it comes, I always like new challenges. I always like new events that I’ve never done. But the event that I’m planning, but I’ve done it last year, but in a small way. I did it, it wasn’t a big event. It’s called Cité Talon, it’s a talent show. It’s a, yeah, a big talent show. I’m planning to organize a big talent show this year. I want, my goal organizing this is for students, for the winner, who wins Cité Talon, I want him to feel like he’s a talented person. He can use that, he can put it in his CV and say, I won at La Cité among us many students. So, always work on how big is the event, how did you organize this? Because last year we did it, but it wasn’t that big. The prize the student would win last year he would win $300 and go to and have a trip to Peterborough to participate in other talent shows between schools. So this year I want I want hours to be big, hours to be… I want many students to participate. I want to be ready in advance. And yeah, I’m still figuring you out, thinking what kind of prices would we give, you know, what kind of things we would give the student to feel like it’s another value to his talent. He would, you know, I’m gonna use you as an example, right?

Sam Demma
Okay.

Mac Fred Mbonimpa
For example, like when we’re presenting Sam Demma, we can say Sam Demma has been on TV, Sam Demma has been on TED Talk. So these are things that adds value to your name. So things like that. So I want students to mention, oh, I’ve won La Cité talent show. So this is what I’m working on. And I hope it’s gonna be good. I hope the budget is going to match. I hope everything is going to be good. But yeah, I’m so excited for the event. Yeah.

Sam Demma
It sounds awesome. I think it would give so many students an opportunity to shine their light. There’s probably so many young people on campus who have passions, who have interests that nobody else knows about because they don’t have an opportunity to share it. And this talent show is going to give them an opportunity to showcase that talent in front of everybody and be recognized for it, which is really cool, especially for international students that may have a barrier to connect with people. But an activity, a talent is universal. You don’t have to speak the language to share, share your light or showcase a talent. So I’m excited to see it come together. La Cité’s got talent, you know, it’s kind of like Canada’s got talent.

Sam Demma
Well, it’s really great to hear about some of the things you have planned for the new year and the event that went well last year. If you need some connections to some business people to sit on your panel, I happen to know a few that I think would match what you’re looking for and that could do a really great job for you. So reach out to me after this conversation is done. But tell me to wrap this up, if you could go back in time to when you were just starting your position at La Cité, when you didn’t know anything about the role, you’re overwhelmed, stressed out, maybe even a little bit anxious, if you could go back in time and speak to that version of yourself, but knowing what you know now, what would you tell yourself? What advice would you give?

Mac Fred Mbonimpa
I’ll give him first, a word of encouragement. I’ll be like, the Reds, it’s a good experience. It’s something you don’t wanna miss, you know, because I feel like, 100% events are so hard to do. So complicated that demands a lot of details, small, small details. You forget one, you’re done. You forget one, you lose a lot of money. But yeah, I’ll say, I’d say to Mark, to be more organized, to be more organized, plan these things ahead. To know that as the more you’re organized, the more you have space to plan for others, the more you see what’s missing. And then I feel like this is the thing I didn’t know, I didn’t have in me, is the organization, organize my documents, keep my things together, write everything down, give myself tasks and due dates, you know, things like that. That would have helped me a lot when I started, but, you know, I had to learn it through experience and I feel like I’m still learning, but it’s a good thing. So, but one is be ready, you enjoy. To this day I’ve never went to work not happy. I’m a believer so I always thank God for having gave me this job because I like it and then I’m willing to continue doing it. So yeah, so I would say I would out there.

Sam Demma
Mac, thank you so much for sharing. I appreciate hearing your reflections. I appreciate your time, your energy, your passion for the work that you do. Keep up the amazing work. Merry Christmas, happy holidays, all the best in 2024. And I hope that our paths cross again sometime soon.

Mac Fred Mbonimpa
Thank you very much, Sam. Yeah, happy holidays to you and your family. Wish you, I already texted you what I wish you for 2024, but I said it again, I wish you more success, man, and I’m so proud to be your friend, because I’m, you know, it’s a flex. It’s a flex.

Sam Demma
Appreciate you, brother, thank you. Thank you so much. Thanks.

Mac Fred Mbonimpa
Thank you.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Mac Fred Mbonimpa

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.

Michael Saretzky — Recipient of the Prime Ministers Award for Teaching Excellence in STEM

Michael Saretzky — Recipient of the Prime Ministers Award for Teaching Excellence in STEM
About Michael Saretzky

After graduating from the University of Victoria’s Education program in Cranbrook, BC, Michael Saretzky started teaching in Fox Creek, AB. Michael spent three years there teaching a variety of grades from grade 5 to grade 11. After his time there, Michael moved with his wife, Shauna, to Hinton, where they both taught for 9 years, even teaching PE 8 together. While in Hinton, Michael taught mainly grade 8, and social studies. It was also in Hinton where Michael started his Master’s in Educational Technology through UBC. Also in Hinton, Michael and Shauna had their two children, Peyton and Macy.

In 2017, Michael and Shauna made the move to Red Deer, AB, to be closer to family. In Red Deer, they both teach at St. Patrick’s Community School, the only year-round school in the city, and where both of their children now attend. Michael completed his Master’s in 2021, while implementing a variety of technology programs within his own classroom, as well as his colleagues. Michael has taken many of his classroom practices and presented on them at different teacher conventions. He has spoken about video games in the classroom, using cooperative games to teach, setting up an esports team and using a classroom government to link the federal government system. This spring, Michael will also be presenting on running a media program at a middle school, something Michael has been doing at his current school with students from grade 6 to 9. Since first implementing this program, which started as an idea during online learning, it has morphed into a student led twice a week announcement program. Furthermore, Michael was recently recognized for his use of technology in the school by being awarded The Prime Ministers Award for Teaching Excellence in STEM – Certificate of Acheivment.

Connect with Michael: Email | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

University of Victoria’s Education Program

Master’s in Educational Technology at UBC

St. Patrick’s Community School

The Prime Ministers Award for Teaching Excellence in STEM – Certificate of Acheivment

I Love it Here – Clint Pulver

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
Welcome back to another episode of The High Performing Educator. This is your host, keynote speaker and author, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is a new friend of mine, Michael Saretzky. After graduating from the University of Victoria’s education program in Cranbrook, B.C., Michael Saretzky started teaching in Fox Creek, Alberta. Michael spent three years there teaching a variety of grades from grade five to grade eleven. After his time there, he moved with his wife Shauna, to Hinton, where they both taught for nine years, even teaching physical education grade eight together. While in Hinton, Michael taught mainly grade eight and social studies. It was also in Hinton where Michael started his master’s in education technology through UBC. Also, in Hinton, Michael and Shauna had their two children, Peyton and Macy. In 2017, they both moved to Red Deer, Alberta to be closer to family and today, they both teach at Saint Patrick’s Community School, the only year-round school in the city and where both of their children now attend.

Sam Demma
Michael completed his master’s in 2021 while implementing a variety of technology programs within his own classroom and as well with his colleagues. Michael has taken many of his classroom practices and presented on them at different teacher conventions. He has spoken about video games in the classroom, using cooperative games to teach, setting up an eSports team, and using a classroom government to link the federal government system. This spring, Michael will also be presenting on running a media program at a middle school, something he has been doing at his current school with students from grades 6 to 9.

Sam Demma
Since first implementing this program, which started as an idea during online learning, it has morphed into a student-led twice-a-week announcement program. Furthermore, Michael was recently recognized for his use of technology in the school by being awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence in STEM, Certificate of Achievement. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Michael, and I will see you on the other side. Today we have a very special guest that I had the pleasure of meeting more recently toward the end of the school year here.

Sam Demma
And our guest today is Michael Saretzky, from, born and raised, Vancouver Island. Michael, how are you doing?

Michael Saretzky
Good, thanks. How are you?

Sam Demma
I’m doing well. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast. I know that you were born and raised in Vancouver Island, but where is home for you now?

Michael Saretzky
Right now, my wife and family were in Red Deer, Alberta.

Sam Demma
What brought you from the beautiful Vancouver Island to the beautiful Red Deer in Alberta? 

Michael Saretzky
A lot of different paths along the way brought me out to Alberta initially and then we eventually settled down in Red Deer. So, story’s kind of long, but my wife was finishing up for practicum on Vancouver Island and I got a phone call on, I think it was a Wednesday that I had a job offer up in Fox Creek, just between Edmonton and Granbury. And they asked me if I could be out there for the Monday. So we, I said yes. And so we drove from on Friday after she was done her last day of school, drove from my hometown of Gold River down to Victoria about four hours to say goodbye to my grandma.

Michael Saretzky
And then from there, we drove up to Cranbrook to her family because she had to get ready for her wedding that was happening in a couple weeks. And on the Sunday I drove from Cranbrook to Fox Creek, which was probably about 14 hours, and I got the last hotel room in Fox Creek. It was during the break-up in the oil field. And the room was only available because the guy couldn’t come in that day. He actually canceled his room. So it was literally the last hotel room in town.

Michael Saretzky
And so the next day, he was supposed to be coming in. So I had to pack up all my stuff and moved everything to the hotel room, went up to start teaching my first class of high school English. And that was my introduction to professional teaching. And did that for three days and had teacher convention on that weekend. And I was still living in and out of hotel rooms. And went to teacher convention up in Grand then was able to actually go live at a vice principal’s house for a couple days there. And then on Tuesday, I think it was after school, I drove from Fox Creek down to Red Deer, where my dad and stepmom live, and stayed here. And then went and met my wife down in Calgary and her family, and then we flew to the Dominican Republic to get married. So yeah. And then, yeah, we were down there for a couple of weeks, got married, a bunch of family down there, came back up, went to my wife’s convocation in Cranbrook, and then I introduced her to Fox Creek.

Sam Demma
What a story. So you redefined what it means to couch surf. It’s not just about bouncing around. You literally, you bounced around working, like finding a job, finding a permanent place to work. And so tell me a little bit about why you wanted to work in education. Did you know growing up that you wanted to be a teacher or how did you, how did you find this vocation?

Michael Saretzky
Another long convoluted story. Now I had a lot of great teachers in my schooling. My grade three teacher, Mrs. Erb. My grade six teacher, I remember she was brand new to the profession, Ms. Fisher. We were her first class. And a bunch of other ones in high school, my stepdad included. And my mom was an EA, so I had that introduction to school, but I always wanted to be a pilot. And unfortunately, well, I guess fortunately now, I’m colorblind and I was told I could not be a pilot. So, I decided to go into school for business and I want to work in the airline business, but obviously just not as a pilot.

Michael Saretzky
And I was walking down from Camosun College in Victoria down to the mall with this guy. I can’t remember his name. He was in school with me. I think his first name was Chris. And we’re walking down and I was deciding if I wanted to get into education or if I wanted to continue with business. And he said, well, which one’s going to make you happier? And I remember crossing the road and by the time I crossed the road, I said, you know what? I think teaching. And that kind of got me into the path of education. Just a random conversation with a friend from university.

Sam Demma
There is an individual who is a speaker and author by the name of Clint Pulver. And he has a very inspiring story about wanting to be a pilot since he was a little kid, but having a decline in his vision and not being able to actually fly. And he pursued it for something like 10 years before he had to give it up and he was so upset. And he ended up pivoting, taking a different pathway. And today he speaks all over the globe and he’s a professional drummer. And just recently he launched and announced that he was releasing a YouTube special about his journey back to flying.

Sam Demma
Apparently he’s had some special operation on his eyes and it was a very inspiring story. So I don’t know, when you mentioned the pilot situation and things not working out, like yourself, this Pathways probably brought you so much fulfillment in the same way that Clint’s Pathway has and it just made me immediately think of his story. So I appreciate you sharing that.

Sam Demma
It sounds like business was also a passion of yours. How do you integrate your passion for business into the work that you do in education? Is there any way that you do that? Or are you involved in extra curricular stuff with students? Like tell me more about what you love about school. 

Michael Saretzky
Well, one of the things like during COVID, I remember we were doing our online teaching, the grade eight team, and during the first half an hour of the classes, we were getting the students ready and the teachers, we’d just talk online. And I remember the students saying, no, you guys should have like a TV show. And so we started talking, oh yeah, we could call it Wake Up St. Pat’s. And that’s just when we came back in the classroom, we had to do options and the option classes had to be in your cohort, you could like the students can leave. I was like, you guys came up with this idea of having a talk show. How about you guys have the talk show as your option class? In doing that, I structured as a business. That’s probably where that idea of structure came from, just from my experience in business courses. We actually have a COO, we have a crew director, and we have a whole hierarchy in the class where if you’re in charge of the class, you actually need to be able to do everyone’s job, and you need to be able to step in if someone else is absent. You actually were able to meet our two CEOs of our class. They were the ones that interviewed you when you were in here.

Sam Demma
Yeah, that’s awesome. I didn’t know there was an entire structure to the two students that I met who conducted a phenomenal interview. For everyone listening, I met Michael at a presentation in Red Deer and two of his students interviewed me following the presentation and it was a phenomenal conversation. They had amazing tech equipment. How long have you been operating that show and this hierarchy of students in the classroom?

Michael Saretzky
So that would be, sorry, I just got to think. Those students are now in grade 11 that were in grade 8 at the time. So, about three, four years, and now it goes all the way down to grade six, and we have – it’s running three, four days a week now with different classes doing it. Some of the grade sixes are doing an awesome job with interviews, with their part. And what’s interesting is I’ve kind of let the students kind of morph it into what they want. My idea when I brought it to them was sitting behind a news desk, just a very traditional news program.

Michael Saretzky
But they’re each in charge of a segment if they’re part of a production crew. So in the production crew, you have your production crew director who’s in charge, and then you have your camera person, and you have your anchors. And sometimes the anchors are in front of the camera, sometimes they’re behind the camera, kind of prompting questions. And they kind of just come up with their own segment ideas. Last year we had, I think it was grade 6 and then grade 7, say, let’s do finish the lyrics. So now they have a, they’ll play a song and then students as young as grade 1s, maybe even kindergarten, all the way up to our staff have to finish the lyrics. So it might be Taylor Swift or it might be something from Disney, but it’s pretty entertaining.

Sam Demma
How have you witnessed student change throughout being a part of this class in terms of their leadership abilities and personal development? 

Michael Saretzky
Just, yeah, some who kind of might sit in the, I’ve had the opportunity to teach a lot of these guys in a variety of different subject areas. Those grade 8s that started this program actually taught them in grade 6, some in grade 7, all of grade 8, and even some in grade 9. And teaching them in grade 6, I know some were much more quieter in the traditional classroom setting, but they’ve just taken on a leadership role and taking on different responsibilities on their own with editing. Our editors are some of the strongest students, but they’re also some of the quietest ones. And it’s just been amazing to see how strong they are in these classes. And it’s been interesting, too. Some of them have actually come back and offered to edit.

Michael Saretzky
When tvhey’re in high school, they’ve come back and done volunteer hours so they can do a grade nine farewell video and stuff.

Sam Demma
Oh, wow.

Sam Demma
That’s awesome.

Sam Demma
If someone was listening to this and wanted to replicate something similar with their classroom, what are a sequence of steps you would share with them to encourage them to get started doing something similar? Listen to the students and be willing to let control go.

Michael Saretzky
This generation is so powerful with technology and they have amazing ideas. I know sometimes, I know for myself, from my experience as a teacher, you don’t want to sometimes let go of the control of the classroom, but it’s amazing what sometimes, what can develop when the students are in charge.

Sam Demma
Oh, I love that. Thanks for sharing. When you think back to your own, you mentioned grade three teacher who had an impact on you, what do you think they did that made a big impact on you that educators listening can strive to provide to the students in their classrooms? 

Michael Saretzky
I don’t like my grade three teacher. She was a very traditional teacher, but she just had expectations that you’d need to reach. My grade six teacher being new to the, um, education, she was just, it was a very unique setting where she was willing to try different things. She brought different ideas into the classroom. I remember we were in a split class and she actually had like a different area for the grade sevens where they’re learning about Egyptian tombs and stuff. And so they had like their own little sitting area around the library that was kind of more, there’s hieroglyphics that the students were creating and stuff.

Michael Saretzky
So I don’t know, it’s always interesting what new teachers bring into the classroom. I’ve had a lot of student teachers come in and they’re just a wealth of, like a breath of fresh air, I guess, and a wealth of knowledge. And it’s always neat to bring in ideas off of them and keep them. I had a student teacher last year, she’s actually a teacher here now, and she set up a Sudoku board in my classroom just this year. And it’s a big board on the bulletin board and the students just spend time making their own Sudoku’s. It’s pretty cool.

Sam Demma
Oh, no way.

Sam Demma
Yeah.

Sam Demma
That’s awesome. Is it like a trivia you start with the beginning of classes sometimes or they fill it in at lunch or how does it work?

Michael Saretzky
A lot of times it’s free time they have in the class that they can work on on their own. Because I know some of them get a little frustrated. They’re working on it, someone else comes in and they make a mistake. But it’s an interesting process just having them realize that people are at different levels of learning

Sam Demma
and not everyone’s familiar with the Sudoku. Yeah. It sounds like you’ve done a great job of building relationships with the students in your classroom by providing different learning opportunities, whether it’s with technology or creating puzzles on the wall. How do you think you build a relationship with a young person, with a student in your classroom? I think the biggest thing is listening to them.

Michael Saretzky
I know I came into the profession and I was very traditional in my teachings where I’d stand at the front, maybe rows of students, and it was, you know, I’m teaching and then here’s your work to do. But getting to know the students as an individual, they have so many different stories that we can learn, we can use that in the classroom, we can just get to know who they are and maybe maybe what they have to bring or what needs you can also help them with.

Sam Demma
I love that. I think when I think back to my experiences in school, I think it was the teachers who listened the most to me, that I felt understood me the most, and therefore I paid more attention to their class and the material they were sharing with us, which led to a greater experience and a better relationship with those individuals. So I think based on my experiences, that what you’re sharing had a big impact on me and I hope other educators listening take that into account.

Sam Demma
What are some of the things that you try and do in your classroom to foster that space where students wanna listen and you wanna listen to them, just to make students feel like they’re safe and understood and appreciated?

Michael Saretzky
it’s kind of different this year because I’m in a new field. For several years I’ve been teaching language arts. Yep. And building that trust with them, with their writing, it has been a big value. So students, I always used to have a, like when I was teaching language arts, I would have a journal and we’d do a topic every Thursday. And their journal was between, like, they would write in the journal and they knew I would read it. And they were quite honest, especially once they knew that it was, like, not for everyone else to read. being in math, it’s been a little bit different because it’s not the same sharing, I guess. But it’s also, I mean, math is different from when I went to school because we were always taught like this is the right way to do things. And I was quite, I always enjoyed math, but there’s so many different ways to learn math. And so just giving students the different ways and allowing them to explore that way that they learn best.

Sam Demma
I guess math can be an analogy for building relationships. Like there’s many different ways to build relationships with students. That’s just one. Tell me a little bit about, oh, sorry, go ahead.

Michael Saretzky
Well, it’s just not always being in the classroom. Like I mentioned, like we have this field trip tomorrow and allowing students to see you outside of the classroom. I also coach a bunch of different activities such as eSports and volleyball. And I mean, eSports has been so huge because now you have the students who might not typically want to join a sports team coming out for a sports team. And there’s so much that you can build with eSports. And like last year was our first year having an eSports team.

Michael Saretzky
And now it’s moved into option class from grade six all the way to grade nine. And you have a lot of interaction between students from grade six and seven, from eight to nine. And it’s just, yeah, there’s so much value in those extracurricular activities and stuff that like, that’s where you build a lot of connections with students.

Sam Demma
Did you get involved in extracurricular activities as an educator first thing out the gate when you were just getting settled? Did it take you a while to say, let me try this? I think there might be some newer educators listening wondering when’s the right time to put your hand up and get involved.

Michael Saretzky
Yeah, I was probably I started coaching volleyball at my first school, but probably it wasn’t until my second or third year. And then at my second school in Hinton, I took on one of my first jobs there was as a phys ed teacher. So that just naturally came. If a coach was needed in a specific sport, then I would take that on. But as you get more and more comfortable in the profession, then I think it comes more naturally to take on that extra responsibility.

Sam Demma
Have you had any teachers or educators that mentored you, or any books you’ve read or conventions you’ve attended that have been instrumental in your own development as an educator?

Michael Saretzky
Oh, there’s countless teachers who have helped me along the way or administrators. I could start listing them, but it would be… I’d feel badly about leaving some out, but definitely my stepdad, as I said, he was a teacher.

Michael Saretzky
He taught me… He was a teacher librarian, and so I was in his class for that. But he’s just been a wealth of knowledge for, getting into the profession. And then my wife is a teacher. We actually teach in the same school. And so, I mean, she’s always being such a strong supporter. And then a lot of admin have helped me along the way, but also all my colleagues. Curious.

Sam Demma
Curious, when you think about the things that they’ve helped you with or shared, are there a few key cornerstone lessons that you go back to or things that you think really make all the difference?

Michael Saretzky
The biggest thing I think like with my wife, we’re both very different teachers. And we were both actually teaching the same subject and just seeing it from a different perspective. And we’re able to communicate like I’ll do things quite differently in my class than she would, but then I also make sure I come back to some of the more like some of the things that she might be teaching. Actually, this tomorrow we’re going on a field trip to a Christmas carol. And although I’m not teaching LA anymore, she’s the one that got me doing that in my class. But she kind of got me going a different avenue.

Michael Saretzky
She always used to take her students to the play in Edmonton.

Sam Demma
Ah.

Michael Saretzky
And so she kind of suggested, like, maybe look at it as a play. So rather than being the traditional text, we would do kind of a reader’s theater in the class. And it’s just, the kids love it. You got your performers who can take on the bigger roles and then you got other students who might take on a smaller role but might do the first time reading in class. So it’s kind of better I think than maybe reading the traditional text because if a student has to read a whole paragraph but they don’t want to read it in front of the whole classroom, it’s kind of a safer environment.

Sam Demma
Sounds like the big lesson is to be open to teaching differently. Have that perspective that you could be teaching the same subject but doing it totally different than somebody else. So even if you have the opportunity to sit in the back of someone else’s classroom and see how they teach it, to have conversations about what you’re teaching, is that a common practice? Like sharing what you’re teaching in your classroom with your other colleagues that are teaching the same things and then sharing ideas?

Michael Saretzky
Yeah, and actually our admin team, they’re big advocates of collaboration.

Sam Demma
Cool.

Michael Saretzky
Actually, once a week we are meeting with our grade team or PDs. If there’s time available, we will meet with our subject team. So, you’ll be able to connect with different people. And actually, they just had us going in and observing our, our grade team. So I would go into like another grade eight teachers class. And it was an excellent experience and just being able to see how people do it differently with the same students.

Sam Demma
If someone is listening to this in the spirit of collaboration, if they want to reach out to you and me too, or have a conversation, ask you some questions about your journey through education, or some of your philosophies and beliefs around teaching, what would be the best way for them to get in touch or reach out to you?

Michael Saretzky
Well, my social media is put up pretty tightly. I use Twitter a bit, but probably email. Just, yeah. Yeah. Which would be michael.saretzky@rdcrs.ca. Awesome. Yeah. Perfect. 

Sam Demma
I’ll make sure to put it in the show notes of the episode just so people can reach out to you if they have a question.

Sam Demma
It’s been an absolute honor having you on the show, Michael. Thank you for taking the time. So close to the holiday season. I hope you enjoy the field trip. By the time this is released, the field trip will have been long gone, but I know it went really well. It was a pleasure chatting with you. Thank you for making the time to come on the show. Thank you for making the time to come on the show.

Michael Saretzky
Thank you for having me.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Michael Saretzky

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.

Ireland Black — Success Coach in Bowden and Spruce View

Ireland Black — Success Coach in Bowden and Spruce View
About Ireland Black

Ireland Black, is the Success Coach in Bowden and Spruce View. She facilitates the Youth Empowerment & Support (YES) program for both schools which uses a positive mental health focus to provide universal programming to students in Grades K-8.

After receiving her degree in Psychology, Ireland chose to step away from her job as an Advanced Leader 1 Lifeguard in order to find a position that was better aligned with her future goals. The YES program is a perfect fit for her as she has not only been able to utilize her knowledge from obtaining her degree & to use the skills she developed volunteering with the RCMP but it allows her to continue to foster healthy and positive relationships with the students, staff and communities.

Ireland believes that each child should have a good understanding of what it means to have positive mental health and continues to encourage students with her motto “You can do hard things.”

Connect with Ireland: Email | Instagram

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Youth Empowerment & Support (YES) program

Muriel Summers – Leader in ME

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

Red Deer Polytechnic

The Bubble Gum Brain by Julia Cook

Royal Canadian Mounted Police

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
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator Podcast. This is your host, keynote speaker, and best-selling author, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is my friend, Ireland Black. She is the success coach in Bowden and Spruce View, Alberta, and facilitates the Youth Empowerment and Support Program for both schools, which uses a positive mental health focus to provide universal programming to students in grades K through 8. After receiving her degree in psychology, Ireland chose to step away from her job as an Advanced Leader I lifeguard in order to find a position that was better aligned with her future goals. The YES program was a perfect fit for her as she has not only been able to utilize her knowledge from obtaining her degree and to use the skills she developed volunteering with the RCMP, but it allows her to continue to foster healthy and positive relationships with the students, staffs, and communities she serves. Ireland believes that each child should have a good understanding of what it means to have positive mental health, and continues to encourage students with her motto, you can do hard things. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Ireland, and I will see you on the other side. Ireland, thank you so much for coming on the High Performing Educator podcast. Please, let’s get started by having you just quickly introduce yourself to the listeners.

Ireland Black
Awesome. So thanks for having me. I’m Ireland Black. I’m a success coach out of Bowden in Spruce View, Alberta. So what that means is I’m a facilitator with the Youth Empowerment and Support Program, which is the YES program. So that’s about my role. It is formulated to support resiliency skills in kids from K-12. So we support students with their mental health awareness and to enhance their social and emotional skills.

Sam Demma
I’m kind of jealous I never had my own success coach when I was going through school to be honest. Is this a newer position within the school board? Like, tell me a little bit more about how you came to becoming the success coach. I believe the program’s been around for quite some time now, at least within Chinook’s Edge?

Ireland Black
I can’t speak for other divisions. I started in May, so I’m still pretty new to the position, but I have a degree in psychology, so I was really looking for a role where I could use my degree and I love working with kids. So this was just kind of the perfect fit.

Sam Demma
Awesome. Tell me some of the things that you would be talking about with a student and how the role actually operates. Do you walk into a certain amount of classrooms each day? Is it more like a guidance counselor role where they walk into your classroom and you help them through things? Like, tell me a little bit more about what it looks like day to day.

Ireland Black
Yeah, so it’s a little bit of both. I’m responsible for universal programming. So that means every student K to eight in the division is receiving the same like programming within their classrooms. So I think that’s really cool. That kind of looks like me. I come in with a PowerPoint, I have games, activities. Um, just yesterday I taught one about flexible learning. So we read a book called The Bubble Gum Brain, and I had them all like try and squish a piece of gum between their like two peace sign fingers. So that’s a lot of fun, but I also have my own classroom in each building. So students are always welcome to come in, have a chat. I’m in the, I call it the first line of defense. I find that kids, because of the role I’m in, are very open to having chats with me. They’ll come in and ask for hot chocolate, they’ll sit on the couch, but they can’t take on that counselor role. So if it’s just like they’re having a bad day, I absolutely am there for them, but if it’s anything bigger than that, then I refer them to the family school wellness worker. Outside of that, I put on lunchtime programs, so that’s anywhere between small targeted groups for maybe anger management, friendship skills, or at something fun like Lego, coloring, and crafts. And then after school is the same. So we try and pick kids. We call them our yes kids. The kids who might need that extra support, um, need a safe place to land after school before they head home. So we range from a variety of topics between sports. We’ll do mini sticks in the hallway, we’ll do bake clubs, we do craft clubs, basically whatever the kids want, I will provide.

Sam Demma
It sounds like, although you’re not the counselor role, you create so many safe spaces for students to explore their skills and to feel like they belong or are a part of something. Can you think about an experience you’ve put on that has had a big impact on students, maybe one that you consistently like doing over and over again with different groups because it just works so well?

Ireland Black
I found recently that the baking club has been a huge hit. I’ve ran three of them now. I have one coming up in December for Christmas. And I thought it was simple enough. I used to love baking cookies, but those kids come in and I vary the age groups when I run them, but it takes patience

Ireland Black
when they come in because they’re so excited and they don’t always understand like with cooking and baking comes the cleaning and comes measuring and so When I walked into it, I was just expecting you know, like here’s your recipe. Here’s your ingredients Go ahead have fun. But then it was like sitting them each of them down and being like, okay, like this is a measuring cup and this is what the numbers mean. And, um, this is why we do it this way. And this is how we have to preheat our ovens. And so I found that it was super impactful for them because they got to not only learn that skill, but it’s also like I saw them work through and problem solve. And there was some frustration when things didn’t turn out. But it’s the one that they keep coming back and being like, can you do this again? Like it was so fun. And so I think they get the most from it. And being in the position I am and with the knowledge I have, I get to see like the skills that they’re practicing and that they’re learning. So that’s beneficial for me to see as well.

Sam Demma
And you get to eat some of their creations probably?

Ireland Black
Absolutely.

Sam Demma
Which is so great. For someone listening who is thinking right now, oh my goodness, baking club? That sounds amazing. I’m stealing that idea. What does it look like in terms of preparation, facilitating that, and how often would you do it? Like, paint a little bit of a picture so if there’s a teacher listening, they could take some of these ideas and implement them in their own school.

Ireland Black
Absolutely. So I have implemented this year, I try and run each program for a month length. So I pick one day of the week after school, usually two and a half hours for the big club I find to be enough, especially for those kiddos learning how to clean and wash dishes. But yeah, so I’ll pick like a Monday after school, I have them sign up two weeks in advance. And then I, once I get those forms back, I usually ask them what kind of recipes they want. I start with something very minimal, simple. I don’t even jump to cookies right away. It’s like box cake, just so we can practice measuring and following instructions. And so I think no matter what age group you pick, you have to be really mindful that you might be getting the kids who don’t know how to measure and don’t know how to clean. And so setting yourself up for success and setting them up for success is taking those smaller steps by starting with the box cake, which might seem a little ridiculous. But then by the end of it, when they’re baking their brownies and their cookies, and you’re getting to the point where they’re feeling confident, it’s so worth it. I’m lucky enough to have a very decent budget for my position to be able to provide all of this. I know when certain staff or support staff they hear bake club, the first thing that comes to mind is price tag because it can be huge. It’s not cheap for all those ingredients, especially when you’re putting it on for eight to ten kiddos. So my advice, research what you need beforehand, buy in bulk, and just know that at the end of the day, you’ll need a little bit extra because stuff is always, always going to end up on the floor.

Sam Demma
Nice.

Sam Demma
It sounds like the Bait Club has been one of the highlights. Is there maybe one other program that you’ve experimented since you started that isn’t like a typical club that you’d find in a school? Like, Bait Club is very unique. Is there anything else that you do that you think is a little bit unique that others may have never tried before? 

Ireland Black
I actually just this month kind of ran a club of my own that I came up with. So it’s called noodle noggins. And the purpose is to take kids from, I want to say, grade three to six and target the kiddos who aren’t doing very well academically, who might be struggling with writing skills or research skills. And but they still have that drive, like they want to succeed. And not every kid is going to be an honor roll student, but sometimes with that comes lack of self confidence or they keep getting the grades back and they’re not happy with them, but they’re trying their best. So I invented this lunch program where the kids come in and they pick a topic, any topic that they’d like to research and to find three fun facts. They have to, I make up three research questions for them and they go and they put it on a poster or a PowerPoint and every week when they come in, I give them a couple of noodles for lunch. And so, I haven’t seen anything like it. It was something that I know watching my sisters, like my sisters are very smart people but they have people in their friendships, even I had people in my friendship growing up that just were like defeated because no matter how hard they tried, they weren’t doing as well academically as they wanted. And so I’ve really seen these kiddos regain some confidence and trust in their own abilities. And I always tell them like, it’s not the grade, we’re not grading this. I just want to remind you that like, when you work hard, you are successful based on the outcome that you get. So, if you give it 110% and you get a 65 and that’s good for you, then you’re golden. That’s successful. So, I haven’t seen anything like it. It might be popping up in other schools because I’ve shared it with all of my team. So, yeah, that’s probably one that I haven’t really heard of before.

Sam Demma
Free noodles and extra help and resources sounds like a great club to me. What does empowerment mean to you? I know empowering young people is a big part of your your role and from your passion as you explain these different clubs, I can tell that you care about it. What is it like, what does empowerment mean to you?

Ireland Black
That’s a great question. I think being in this role, empowerment means making an impact. I think when if we put too much pressure on the mental health or the emotional side of things, of course, empowerment is uplifting and it’s encouraging and it’s positive. And of course, I believe in those things. But at the end of the day, if I can make the impact on any student, I’ve empowered them. I think empowerment comes in so many different forms. I have a student in eighth grade who I’m running a program, hood up, won’t look at me. Sorry. That’s okay. Hood up, won’t look at me. And by week three, she took her hood off. And so I like went up, we have a water bottle, it’s called the Heroes Program. And I gave her a water bottle and she looked at me, she’s like, pay attention. And I was like, right. But I could tell that you’re, you’re getting there. You took your hood off for me today. That’s huge. So yeah, I think empowerment to me is really focusing on putting those kids first and extending my reach as far as I can to collect all those kiddos in between. Whether they’re super successful, academic, athletic, or they’re on the end where they’re maybe quieter or isolated even, I just want to get my impact and my reach on as many kids as I can. What is the HERO Program? The HERO Program is one of the programs we run for grades seven and eight. I believe it’s the Impact Society. It’s awesome. It’s fantastic. It’s working with real life stories and giving them meaning and showing the kids like if you take down your walls and just let people in, you’ll be more successful and you’ll feel connection and you’ll be able to express more empathy for others because others will finally be able to give empathy to you. be able to express more empathy for others because others will finally be able to give empathy to you. And they have this water bottle and it’s my favorite thing. Every time I hold up the water bottle the whole class says I have gifts and abilities and the desire to succeed. And I just think it’s phenomenal because the water bottle represents, it doesn’t matter the package you come in, if you run a 10k rates, at the end of the day like if you grab your $50 water bottle or the water bottle you bought in bulk from Costco, the water is what’s important. So it’s what’s on the inside that counts. So I love the Heroes Program. I can’t speak highly enough about it. The kids love it. They come up to me all the time, chasing me on the hallways, Miss I, Miss I, I have the gifts and abilities and the desire to succeed. And I don’t always have a water bottle with me, but I recognize that and I know that they’re trying and whether they’re saying it for the water bottle or saying it because it’s important to them, I know eventually it will click and they’ll start to believe it. And that’s really what matters, so.

Sam Demma
The moment where that student of yours took the hood off must have just gave you goosebumps and been such a empowering moment for yourself to remind yourself that the work you’re doing is also making a difference and an impact. Have you had any more moments like that one? It didn’t have to be a student, you know, removing a piece of clothing or something, but like, is there any other moments you’ve had since you started in this position that just reminds you how important this work is? 

Ireland Black
I wanna say that this past week has been such a huge reminder The kiddos I work with they have faced a lot of change through this position, I think there’s been Three of us now which is unfortunate But life happens and so they really struggled when I started being like how much do we want to invest in this lady? Like she might not be around and I think they’re getting to the point now where there’s that trust and that relationship. And I really saw an impact when I had a student in the third grade. And she came up to me one day after school, she’s like, Miss I, you told me that I can do hard things. And when I went home, like I finished my math homework and she hadn’t done her math homework since September. And so I was like, oh my goodness, that’s amazing, good job. And she was so excited, she was jumping up and down, she ran over and gave it to her teacher and he just kind of looked at me, he’s like, she did her math homework? And I was like, yeah, she did her math homework. I was like, he looks at me, he goes, it doesn’t look like any of it’s right, but it doesn’t matter. And I was like, no, it’s handed in and it’s done. And so it was kind of a kind of chuckle because it’s just math homework. But she was so excited. And she, we can do hard things is kind of like a personal model of mine. And so just hearing some little kid just full of excitement, and that they took that to heart was like, mind blowing to me. It was so impactful and I just think it meant so much to me to just see how excited she was even though she got nothing right. And to do that and to hand it in.

Sam Demma
The idea is that you can do hard things. I would argue it’s not just math homework. Like that is a foundational belief that this young person may carry with them for the rest of their life. And remember when they’re in the middle of a hard project at a future job or a hard time in their personal life and running up to you and saying, Miss, I did my math homework. It could be like a foundational moment in developing that principle they carry forward with them. And so I think what you’re doing is just so important and I hope more school divisions create a position like yours to empower young people and remind them of these very important lessons. I’m curious, you are having a positive impact on these young students. I’m wondering if you had a teacher when you were a kiddo who had a very positive impact on you and if so, what did that teacher do for you?

Ireland Black
My most impactful teacher was Jeff Madsen. He was my English teacher from grade 11 to 12. And I was going through a really rough time in my life. I had lost three immediate family members within two years. So I was struggling with a lot of grief. And I was recently diagnosed with Graves’ disease. So I was going through a lot. And I just remember always being so welcomed in his class. And I was very shy in grade 11. And very meek. And I remember I was having a bad day and I was in Radius, which was the writing club in our school that he ran. And there was a little office upstairs and he came in after lunch to his English class, I was just having the worst day. And I came and I sat down and grabbed my book or whatever and he was like, I didn’t know how much that meant, but looking back, like, that was such a critical moment for me. Being able to have someone care and not relinquish expectations, like, I still had to go read the book, but to be put into a safe space and an environment where I was comfortable was huge. And he mentored me through all my writing. And he was someone that I could trust and rely upon. And so I think, in this position, although I’m not an English teacher, and I don’t run a writing program, the care that he had and the empathy and the compassion, and just the kindness, and how he treated us in grade 12. He’s like, you’re grade 12 students. If you have to go to the bathroom, don’t ask. I’m trusting you to come back without Tim Hortons. And so I carry that with me being like, I got to trust these kids and I need to show them empathy and compassion. And I just want to embody what he gave to me.

Sam Demma
I was recently attending a divisional PD day in the Livingstone Range School Division in Lethbridge, Alberta. I had the pleasure of speaking at it, and I also listened to this lady keynote called Muriel Summers, and she runs a program called Leader in Me. And one of her phrases was, could it be that simple. And you’re telling your story about Jeff and the fact that he offered you a safe space. You know, sometimes we think we have to do something so huge to make a positive difference in the life of a young person. But more often than not, it’s just about showing them that we care. It’s about showing a young person that you have time for them, that you believe in them, that they can talk to you. And I’m curious, like how do you think you connect with young people and make a difference in their lives?

Ireland Black
I think the number one thing I try and do is something you just mentioned is make time for them. I never want to turn a student away. So if they come to me, whether it’s to push them on the tire swing at recess or to sit and have a hot chocolate and talk about their bad day, I have to make time for them. And I want to make time for them, because I need them to know that I care. And I always tell them, you’re always welcome here. You can tell me about your bad days. You can tell me about your good days. But you need to know I care about how you’re doing. And I want you to be having the best day you can. So whether that’s you’re having a bad day and we can make it a little bit better, then that’s the best day you can have. And so for me, I always say like, these kiddos will come first to me. And I think that’s what I try and do is care for them and show them in the hallway. I smile, I say hi, I use their names, I give them high fives when I walk past their room, I give them a big smile and a wave. I just try and make myself present for them all the time.

Sam Demma
You mentioned at the start of this interview that you’re a psychology major and you love psychology. Are there any, not doesn’t have to be related to psychology, but are there any resources or books or anything that you’ve read that has informed some of your own beliefs in teaching or helping others? You mentioned using people’s names and I remember as a young person, I had a teacher who told me to check out this book called How to Win Friends and Influence People. And it was all about building these interpersonal skills and relational skills. And one of the chapters was about the importance of people’s names. And I was just so fascinated by it that after I read the book, whenever I was shopping in a grocery store or anywhere, if a person had a name tag on, I would address them by their name. And there was one occasion where the cashier looked at me and said, do I know you? I was like, no, but I just saw your name tag there. And she went, oh my goodness, thank you so much. And we ended up talking for two minutes and she ended up giving me a 15% discount on my order. I didn’t – I wasn’t expecting a discount, but I just became fascinated by that idea. And I’m curious if you’ve read any books or followed any people that have impacted the way that you show up every single day?

Ireland Black
That’s a tough question. I think there was a moment in my positive psych class during my degree and my professor, Anami, she’s lovely, she’s out at Red Deer Polytechnic for anyone who’s curious, she kind of stopped and she was like, Listen, I know to some of you, this is nothing more than telling you to be mindful and be positive. And this is things you’ve heard before. But how often do you apply them? How often do you take that minute to be mindful? How often do you take that moment to actually ensure you’re actively listening to someone, that you’re making eye contact, that you’re using their names, you’re repeating info back to them. How often do you do that outside of these four walls, outside of this classroom? And everyone’s kind of looking at each other like, oh, she got us there. And after that, I just remember taking that to heart and leaving the room being like, that’s exactly what I have to do. Growing up my grandpa had always told me like always take the high road. The V was always worth it and so I think I’ve carried myself through that lens and then when she had kind of called us out in class that day it kind of reminded me like it doesn’t take this big huge grand gesture it’s holding the door and acknowledging someone, it’s saying good morning. Positive psychology and being having a positive and a growth mindset is huge. But it’s so easy to get caught up in life sometimes that we forget that all it takes is that hello and being mindful and connecting with yourself just as much as trying to connect with others. And so I think that, although it’s not a specific book, was probably where I got a lot of my insight was that positive psychology class.

Sam Demma
Take the high road. It’s worth the view. That’s gonna be stuck in my brain for the next couple of weeks because of this conversation. I thank you so much for sharing that.

Ireland Black
Of course.

Sam Demma
This has been an insightful conversation from start to finish, whether it was the bake club, talking about the teachers who had an impact on you, talking about the moments that teachers create when they give their students time and believe in them. Thank you for making the time in your busy schedule to share with everyone listening with myself. I really appreciate it. If there is an educator listening right now, they want to reach out to you and have a conversation or share a compliment, what would be the best way for them to get in touch?

Ireland Black
Oh, first of all, thank you for the opportunity to be here. It’s been lovely and I was excited coming into this because I don’t think a ton of people know about the position. And so I’m happy to spread the word. I hope it carries on to other divisions. The best way to get a hold of me would be my email. So that’s iblack@cesd73.ca.

Sam Demma
Awesome, Ireland. Thank you so much or Miss.I I should say. Awesome, Ireland. Keep up the great work and I look forward to crossing paths with you again very soon.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Ireland Black

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.

Darlene O’Neill — Director of employment and student entrepreneurial services at Fanshawe College

Darlene O’Neill — Director of employment and student entrepreneurial services at Fanshawe College
About Darlene O’Neill

Darlene (@Darlene68615693) started her career in the Department of National Defence where for 21 years she worked in a variety of roles – the final 7 years were as the senior human resources business manager, for the civilian workforce supporting the east coast navy.

Prior to joining Fanshawe College, Darlene worked for Nova Scotia Community College as a career practitioner and a project manager in essential skills.

Darlene joined Fanshawe College in 2011 as the assistant manager, career services, community employment services and cooperative education. In 2012, she became the manager of the department, and in 2015 became the senior manager. In 2017, Darlene was appointed director, employment and student entrepreneurial Services. Darlene is the lead administrator for the military-connected college initiative at Fanshawe and is currently the administrative co-lead in the college’s united way corporate campaign. Darlene is also a part-time professor in the career development practitioner post graduate program.

Darlene holds a Bachelor Degree in Psychology, a Master of Education Degree (Adult Education) and a Career Development Practitioner postgraduate certificate.

She is the recipient of the Michelle C Comeau Leadership in Human Resources Award (Federal), The National Federal Government Managers Network Leadership Award (Managing Change), the National Defence Human Resource Leadership Award, co-recipient of Employment Ontario (MTCU) Leadership Award (Collaboration), The Fanshawe College Presidents Award (Administrator) and the CCVPS Art King Award ( Student Service).

Darlene is committed to creating inclusive environments where student centric mindsets are prevalent. Strategy, empathy and empowering effective change are of utmost importance to her in her leadership and work.

Connect with Darlene: Email | Instagram | LinkedIn | Twitter | Facebook

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Department of National Defence

Royal Canadian Navy

Fanshawe College

Nova Scotia Community College

Military-Connected Student in Trades Pilot Project (MCSTPP)

Career Development Practitioner Post Graduate Program

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma
Welcome back to another episode of the High-Performing Educator. Today’s special guest is a new friend of mine. I met this individual in person in November. She is a powerhouse. Her name is Darlene O’Neill. Darlene, welcome to the podcast. Please take a moment to introduce yourself.

Darlene O’Neill
Hi, Sam. Thank you very much. Yeah, my name is Darlene and I’m the Director of Employment and Student Entrepreneurial Services at Sandshop College here in London, Ontario.

Sam Demma
You are someone who has so much energy. I remember just watching you absorb the first keynote presentation of the Ignite Conference and you’re fully engaged. It was so cool to see you sticking around for the entire day and supporting the event. Tell me a little bit more about your role and why you’re so passionate about the work that you do on campus. 

Darlene O’Neill
Yeah, so I’m really, really fortunate. I have the responsibility for helping all students at our campus, as well as all our alumni and community members find employment, which is really, really important because we all know that the main reason students go to college is to get a job. So I have a wonderful, wonderful team made up of a lot of co-op consultants, career consultants, entrepreneurial consultants, and community employment consultants. And I think it’s really important that we demonstrate passion ourselves as leaders if we want our team to demonstrate passion.

Sam Demma
And recently, you also started doing a little bit of support for our students taking on a military pathway. Is that correct?

Darlene O’Neill
That’s right. Yes. I’m the lead administrator here at Fanshawe College for the Military Connected Campus Initiative, which provides a holistic support for our military connected students. So, not necessarily serving members and or veterans, but also their families. And we just want to make sure that they’re supported academically and socially through their journey here at Fanshawe. So, I’m really blessed to be leading that initiative.

Sam Demma
Sometimes I ask people that work in education, when they realize they wanted to do so, I get typically a few different answers. The first category is people that tell me they used to create little doll houses or little school classrooms in their basements when they were little kids. A second subset tell me that they had parents who were in education and they decided to follow in their footsteps. And the third group tells me they had no idea and they stumbled into it. Which group do you fit in and what did your journey look like that brought you to education?

Darlene O’Neill
Oh wow Sam, that’s a big question. I think a little bit of all of it. When I was a little girl I used to be the person in the middle of the circle in kindergarten reading stories to the other students while the teacher went about their business and doing things that they needed to do. So I’ve always loved education, but I was working for National Defence for 21 years. And I hit a glass ceiling in National Defence where I didn’t speak French, unfortunately, and I had just finished a master’s degree in education. And I thought, oh well, well just leave Defence and I’ll go and try my hat in education and here I am now almost 20 years later and loving what I do. I did choose, I chose college education as the pathway for me because my education is in adult education and I’m really passionate about watching young people and people of all ages that come to college specifically for that aspirational better life.

Sam Demma
I love that. Can we talk about your experience working in defence for just a moment? Like what were you doing with National Defence and what are some of the skills you developed there that you think have bridged into the work you’re doing today at Fanshawe?

Darlene O’Neill
Yeah, so my career in national defense started with the submarine inventory control point. And I was buying parts for submarines. But that, you know, it progressed. I went on to do my undergraduate degree and I ended up in the Self-Directed Learning Center. I actually opened a self-directed learning center at Defence in Halifax and that was really fun. And then I went on to become a senior human resources business manager, working directly for the admirals on the East Coast. And my role was strategic HR for about 7,000 civilians that support the Navy on the East Coast. It was so enlightening for me. I was a young leader. I was there when 9-11 happened. And that taught me some great lessons in determination, in commitment, in ethics, in just supporting people and being very, very proud of the work that the military does to give us a better home.

Sam Demma
Young leadership is something that may relate to some of the educators tuning in who are getting into the profession at a very young age, that feel a little bit like an imposter at times, are very intimidated by everybody else in their school or in the spaces they’re operating. How did you navigate as a young leader? What did you do to be sure of yourself and know that you were a valued member of the team so you could show up and use your gifts to the fullest of their potential? 

Darlene O’Neill
Great question. I think I’ve been very fortunate throughout my entire career, especially as a young leader, to have amazing mentors. I will never forget the first meeting I attended with an admiral in the room. And you know, an admiral is a pretty big guy in the Navy. And, you know, the admiral told me afterwards, Darlene, you’re going to have to learn to wear a poker face. And I was like, oh my goodness, okay, so that was lesson number one, wear a poker face. But try to come with a solution. So if you’re going to ask a question, have a possible solution to present when you’re asking the question. Always treat people with respect and dignity and expect that for yourself as well. Even though you’re young, doesn’t mean that you don’t have good ideas, doesn’t mean that you’re not committed and dedicated, it doesn’t mean that people won’t respect you. A lot of, you know, young people build our world. They’re our future, so we need to invest in them. And as a young leader, I think, you know, the biggest lesson I learned was find a mentor, too. And spend time with them and learn from them. Watch them. Watch people that you respect. Don’t speak before you think is another good one because sometimes the most important things you say are unsaid.

Sam Demma
I’m just absorbing all this information right now as I’m sure that the guests tuned in are doing the same. Speaking about developing young people and the fact that they’re our future, that’s literally what you’re doing at Fanshawe. When you think about the impact the program is having on students, do you have any stories that come to mind of students who have joined the college and when they first came, they were a little uncertain and unclear. And a few years later, they were graduating and getting placed and doing amazing work in the community or in a job. And, you know, you may not have a specific story if you do great, but if you don’t have a specific one, maybe you can talk a little bit about some of the pathways that students take when they come to Fanshawe?

Darlene O’Neill
Yeah, I have lots of stories of students that have entered into the doors of our office and have gone on to do amazing things. There’s been a few that stick out. We have a number of young entrepreneurs that took advantage of our summer incubator, and they’re now quite successful in their own right. We have Kelvin, the fritter guy. If you’ve tried Kelvin’s fritters, they’re amazing. And we have a fashion designer that’s lived quite a great life as a result of taking advantage of opportunities. Also, there are a number of international students that touch my heart quite often. I have one who’s actually now on my team, but I watched this young man from his very first days at Fanshawe navigate COVID, navigate online learning. He went on to become the student union president. So he’s had a wonderful career path. And when I look at all of the things that he’s done to find his way, they’re all reaching out, finding mentors, asking for help, not being afraid to say, I don’t know, but I want to learn and building relationships. Another young woman, she’s now quite successful in Tech Alliance, which is a part of our entrepreneurial ecosystem here in London. It does all of their media, all of their marketing and social stuff for them. There’s so many of them. There’s accountants and there’s law clerks and there’s a young man that was paralyzed as a result of an accident and he’s gone on to become quite a young accountant. He’s an athlete, plays sledge hockey, he just lives his best life. And I think these students are the ones that come through the doors, they study hard, but they build relationships, they get involved in student life, they get involved in their mentorship programs, they attend workshops, extracurricular activities, Ignite at one point or another. So, yeah, so I think that those are some of the students that really stand out for me. And then from a community perspective, we also have a community employment agency. And our community employment agency has seen so many people that are facing some pretty tough times, walk through the doors, swallow that pride, ask for help, and now they’re contributing members of society, which is a wonderful thing when you work in the employment field and career field and education field. It’s amazing watching people grow.

Sam Demma
It’s like the caterpillar to butterfly story.

Darlene O’Neill
Absolutely, it sure is. You know, the biggest part is asking for help, right? And once you walk through that door, the world of possibilities opens for you.

Sam Demma
You reiterated the importance of relationships. Many educators know how important it is to build relationships with their students, to build relationships with their colleagues. How do you think you build relationships with young people, with students that are going through your school buildings and programs?

Darlene O’Neill
So I think the secret sauce is simply a smile. A smile and some eye contact can make the world of difference. You know many people when they come to post-secondary they’re scared, they might have been, you know, traveling from another world by themselves, from another country, they might have come from rural Ontario and have never been in the city, and they might be someone that’s just been laid off of a job or a career changer. And it’s a lonely, lonely place if you don’t build relationships. So I intentionally walk the halls of the college and I try to make eye contact and smile with students. And they remember who I am because when they catch your eye and smile back, that’s an instant I see you. I see you. I believe in you. I recognize you. And I’m here to support you. And I think that’s really important in the life of students is to know that somebody cares about them.

Sam Demma
And not only do you build relationships with the students, but you also want to build strong relationships with colleagues. A lot of educators that tune in, especially the ones that are just getting started in education, they’re worried because they don’t know too many of the people that they’re working with. How do you go about building relationships with colleagues and collaborating and just, yeah, building a stronger relationship amongst members of your team?

Darlene O’Neill
That’s a great question. So I think, you know, oh Darlene’s extroverted so she can talk to anybody. That’s true, but it’s also true that introverts can make impactful relationships and build impactful relationships. I think, you know, as I said earlier, the first thing to do is to model the behavior share with others. So, ask for help. Like, if you feel that your team can’t do this on their own, build a relationship with somebody else. The Student Union, the International Office, the Student Services Office, the Counseling Office, the academic teachers, and the deans, we’re all on the same agenda. We all want our students to be successful in post-secondary. And so I think, you know, following through on what you say you’ll do is really important. Be a doer, practice reciprocity. So if somebody does something for your team to make your team shine, then you return the favor somehow. Or at least at minimum recognize what they’ve done to support your team’s success. Recognize as a leader what your individual team members have done. Always say thank you. And it doesn’t need to be a big hoopla, but thanking your team members in public is really important. It empowers them, it emboldens the work that they do, and it verifies the work they do. It makes them feel valued. So if you can make another human being feel valued, then they’re going to feel commitment, and they’re going to want to help you. And I think that that’s a secret sauce as well, is always, you know, make sure that you know or make sure that you recognize the good work that other people do.

Sam Demma
I love that. You’re supporting student success in many ways, your team’s success. I know there are some exciting developments that are coming together at Fanshawe, maybe even a new wing being built or a facility. Are we not allowed to talk about it?

Darlene O’Neill
No, we can. Absolutely. We’re super excited. I can, absolutely.

Sam Demma
Okay, tell me some of the new developments

Darlene O’Neill
that are coming together that you’re really excited about. Yeah, so 10 years ago we started Leaf Junction and Leaf Junction is our entrepreneurial arm. Creativity and innovation is a game changer at Fanshawe College. And so we are super excited that on January 26th, we’re going to be opening Innovation Village in partnership with our student union, our Center for Research and Innovation, Leap Junction, and our Library Learning Commons. So a lot of partners living together in one building, but we have created the most exceptional space for students ever. And I look at you, Sam, in your green room, you know, with your mic and your earphones. And we have all these rooms for these students now where they can go in and do broadcasts. And we have a virtual reality room. There’s makerspaces. It’s so exciting. We had a sneak peek last week. And it’s a look into the future for Fanshawe College and lots of opportunities to partner with us and to help our students grow, but also to solve challenging situations for employers. So, as I said earlier, young people are going to be the future, and so we’re going to give them an opportunity through Innovation Village to solve problems in our community and with our employers and to help them make this place a better place to be in.

Sam Demma
This village sounds amazing. What does it physically look like? When I hear village, I think collaborative and lots of different shops. Like, what does it look like physically?

Darlene O’Neill
There’s lots of spaces, there’s lots of alcoves, there’s lots of wide open spaces. It’s bright. It’s really honouring our Indigenous culture as well. It has external gardens. It has a fire, a sacred fireplace outside. It’s like, there are three So it’s huge and airy and bright and lots of glass, lots of windows, lots of greenery, funky colors. It’s really, really cool. When you come back to Fanshawe, Sam, I’ll take you on a tour.

Sam Demma
Please.

Darlene O’Neill
It sounds like the perfect place to brainstorm creative ideas, talking about innovation.

Sam Demma
It certainly is, yes. And outside of this massive project, are there anything else that you’d like to spotlight that’s coming together at the college or programs or anything that other people might not be aware of that’s really awesome that’s happening behind the scenes?

Darlene O’Neill
Well everything Fanshawe is awesome, I’ll just say that. I love Fanshawe College, I love the opportunities and that it creates for people. I love the people I work with, I’m very happy. My boss always tells me that I remind her of the little girl in the Maxwell House commercial. I’m not sure if you’ve seen that, but you know, she’s always like, I love my job and I love my family and I love my friends. So, awesome things happening at Fanshawe. Well, Sam, we met at Ignite, which is our student conference, a career conference for students. And it’s pretty exceptional that about 400 students spend a Saturday with us. This year, 2024, will be Ignite’s 10th anniversary. So we’re always looking for employers to support our students with opportunities for growth and employment and to make a difference in their workplace. So yeah, Fanshawe just continues to be an amazing place to be.

Sam Demma
Ah, I love it. If you could travel back in time, speak to yourself when you were just starting your work in education but with the knowledge you have now and the experience what would you tell your younger self that you think you need to hear when you were just starting the journey? 

Darlene O’Neill
Yeah that’s a great question Sam. I think I would tell my younger self earlier you talked about imposter syndrome and young people having imposter syndrome I would tell my younger self that you know what it’s going to be okay do what you do be authentic be true to yourself and good things will happen and always always give back make sure that you say thank you younger self just be authentic and don’t give up don’t ever give up I once one of my mentors once told me, you know sometimes young people that are successful are seen as the golden child or the golden employee. And I was that person at one time and it hurts the core sometimes when people would say things like that. And my boss would say to me, my mentor, she would say, you just rise above that. Rise above it. There’s better days ahead, and you will be successful. Don’t be angry, don’t be sad. Learn from what these people are saying, and the biggest lesson that you can learn from a leader or a colleague is what you don’t wanna be. And so always remember what you don’t wanna be.

Sam Demma
Awesome. Darlene, thank you so much for taking the time to come on the podcast, talk about some of your beliefs around education, a little bit about your career journey and your own personal trajectory, some exciting developments happening at Fanshawe College. If there is someone who’s listening to this feeling very inspired by you and would love to just ask a question, what would be the most effective way for them to get in touch and reach out?

Darlene O’Neill
Yeah, so anybody can email me at any time at doneill@fanshawec.ca.

Sam Demma
Awesome. Thank you again, Darlene. This has been a pleasure. Keep up the great work. Enjoy your upcoming travels, and I will see you at some time in 2024. Awesome. Thank you again, Darlene. This has been a pleasure. Keep up the great work. Enjoy your upcoming travels, and I will see you at some time in 2024.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Jeff Armour

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.

Jeff Armour — Chief Operating Officer (COO) for the University Students’ Council (USC) at Western University

Jeff Armour — Chief Operating Officer (COO) for the University Students’ Council (USC) at Western University
About Jeff Armour

Jeff Armour (@WesternUSC) is the Chief Operating Officer (COO) for the University Students’ Council (USC) at Western University. Jeff graduated with a B.Sc. from Western University and after a few years of service overseeing the Wave and Spoke restaurant and bars on campus the USC encouraged Jeff to enroll in the Project Management program through Western’s Continuing Studies. Jeff was subsequently promoted to higher-level leadership position in the organization until ultimately landing at the COO role he currently holds. Jeff also recently completed his EMBA at Ivey in July 2023.

Jeff has an extensive background in strategic planning, project management, operations restructuring and realignment, change management and financial strategy.

Jeff is married to Mindy and has three children, Kennedee, Ben and Brad. He was born in BC but grew up in Peterborough, Jeff moved to London for school at Western and never left.

Connect with Jeff: Email | Instagram | LinkedIn | Twitter | Facebook

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

University Students’ Council (USC)

B.Sc at Western University

Western’s Continuing Studies

Eccelerated Masters of Business Administration (EMBA) at Ivey

Sebastian Sassaville – From Everest to the Sahara

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
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is Jeff Armour. Jeff is the Chief Operating Officer (COO) for the University Students Council at Western University. Jeff graduated with a Bachelor of Science from Western University, and after a few years of service overseeing the Wave and Spoke restaurant and bars on campus, the USC encouraged Jeff to enroll in the project management program through Western’s continuing studies. Jeff was subsequently promoted to a higher level leadership position in the organization until ultimately landing at the COO role he currently holds. Jeff also recently completed his EMBA at Ivy in July 2023. Jeff has an extensive background in strategic planning, project management, operations, reconstructing, and realignment, change management, and financial strategy. Jeff is married to Mindy, has three children, Kennedy, Ben, and Brad, was born in BC, but grew up in Peterborough. Jeff moved to London for school at Western and has never left. I hope you enjoy this insightful interview with Jeff, and I will see you on the other side. Jeff, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. I really appreciate it.

Jeff Armour
Hey, thanks for asking me. I’m excited to talk with you.

Sam Demma
Something that piqued my interest, obviously we met at the orientation week at Western, but something that piqued my interest that we haven’t talked about is your start in construction, because I come from a family of tradespeople and my dad is a plumber by trade and builds homes. Tell me a little bit about your start in construction and how that led to working at the university?

Jeff Armour
I’ll try and give the Coles notes because I don’t want to take up the whole time, but the Kohl’s notes are essentially, when I was really, like, I don’t think I was 16, my dad was, who’s a doctor, was having his office renovated by a contractor who actually became a close family friend. And he suggested I approach him to see if, you know, I could do some work with them, you know, trying to get in those values of work and then getting pay. And I was the oldest child, so, you know, get out there and lead the way for everyone else kind of thing. So that job, I got it. And that guy, his name’s Robert Thurnbeck, who has passed away since, but was really formative for me. A lot of, even to this day, a lot of the leadership things he taught me, even though I don’t think I for sure he was not trained or anything, it just came naturally to him. He was leading a construction company and working with customers. So it was all of that sort of massaging of, there’s money at play, there’s timelines and all the rest of it. Learned a ton from him. When he passed away, I kind of took over the reins at like 19 years old of this company that had projects that still needed to, and it kind of split a little bit, but there was a chunks of it that, you know, I continued on and did some of the work that he underway. And it was kind of like, I was currently enrolled in the university doing my bachelor of science and it was really appealing to me to be doing that construction. So in the summer I was doing it, I was getting to lead a team of like, you know, there was like 20 years old, let’s say, or 19 years old. And there were, you know, carpenters that were working with me that were like 45 or 50. And the plumbers didn’t want to show up and the electricians were like, I think the price is going to go up. And here I am learning all of these, like you’re thrown into it, trying to make a go of it, and a great learning atmosphere. At the same time, I was finishing my BSc, and at that time, there were some challenges in some of the operations, and I was working at The Wave, which is an on-campus restaurant, not just in terms of financially, and we’ll probably get into that later on about how I sort of like view services in the post-secondary environment. But there was challenges with like people, bumps in seats too, like it wasn’t, you know, working. The general manager, the role I’m currently in, which I now call the chief operating officer, but the general manager at the time called me up and asked my suggestion for improving some of those spaces. And I gave him the recommendations and then he offered me a job and said, like, yeah, I want you to come and do all of that and see if you can fix it. I was young still, like 22, 23, somewhere in that range. And I thought, you know what? I can always come back to the construction, but this kind of interests me. And I will say my parents kind of pushed me a little bit. I think they felt like I was growing up maybe too quickly. I was working seven days a week with the construction thing. You work five days a week and then you do quotes and billings on the weekends and you pay deposit. It was non-stop. And it was probably a little too much. I don’t know. I’ve never asked him about that. Maybe over the holidays I will. But came to the USC, University Students Council, which is interesting because every university has a University Students Council. But the USC, for example, at McMaster, it’s the MSU, McMaster Student Union. Across Canada, the USC is known as the Western USC kind of thing. So I’ll say that a lot, so I’m just preparing the listener for that. Came to the USC, and that’s where things really changed in terms of like, it struck a chord in me where the construction money was great, but I suddenly had these thoughts mid-20s, late-30s of like, maybe it’s not about money entirely. You got to be able to pay your bills. I want to be able to like make sure my kids have what they need to, you know, if they want to play sports or whatever. But you know, me working seven days a week and just, you know, the thing about construction was you could literally see something at the end of the day and be like, wow, we showed up here and there was no second floor and now there’s a second floor on. And when I go back to Peterborough, which is where that happened and where I’m from, I’ll drive around the city and be like, oh, I put the roof on that house, there’s all the addition or like music. Can’t believe that chimney’s still up. The mortar was a little cold that day when we were repointing the channel. My point is, there’s a satisfaction that comes with physical creation. And I think what I tapped into, even though I was just working at the bars and restaurants, was the impact and the purpose that interacting with students at probably one of the most critical phases of their life when they’ve left home and they’re trying to figure out their way and they’re trying to learn and they’re trying to figure out how to make friends all over again and all of that, but in a different, they’re reinventing themselves, but also trying to invent what they’re going to be. And it just really resonated with me. That’s how the two came together.

Sam Demma
Can we go back to Robert for just a moment? It sounds like he had an instrumental impact on you. When I think about people in my life who have played big roles and taught me lots of things. Many of the greatest lessons came in moments when I was extremely emotional or something was happening or I made a mistake or things fell apart and this voice of reason from another human being just changed my beliefs or shifted my perspective in a big way. And I think back to a gentleman named Chris who, when during the pandemic my work was falling apart because all these schools were canceling engagements. And he helped me realize that, although it’s a changing and challenging time, there will be opportunities if you shift your focus and focus on the fact that people are gonna need this work now more than ever, and less people are gonna be doing it. And if there’s less people doing it and more people that need it, don’t you think that could be a cool opportunity if you figure out how to deliver things virtually. And it was like, it just, it was a big shift mentally for me. And so I’m wondering, when you think back to your time spent with Robert, do you have any experiences you can remember where you may have had a challenge or something come up and his lesson kind of pushed you forward? And if so, what was one of those examples?

Jeff Armour
Like, there are several I reference all the time, so I could probably give you an example in different realms. But before I do that, I want to say what you just said about finding a way to deliver this message. I think one of the… I don’t know that I would have accepted this invite from someone else if I didn’t feel like what you’re doing and what you’re talking about is absolutely critical. mental, the access to information that the world has, the mental health struggles that we have, the inability to make mistakes or accept that something is wrong because everything is perfect that you see online. I can tell you right now, it’s not even 9.14 in the morning, I’ve already made like four mistakes. And I love it because if it takes you 100 mistakes to get it right, let’s get through 99 of them real quick so we can get to it being right. But that isn’t the way the world is right now. And people need to hear that. Yeah, you’ve got crap in your backpack, as you say, and you got to get it out of there. You got to own it and accept it. And sometimes that stuff is good. Mistakes are good, right? And I think that’s to answer your question now, is I got to borrow a company truck. He had all these F-150s that had the red and white stripes and they all looked the same. And there I was, you know, and I had just gotten my license the year before and I put one of them in the ditch and I had to call him. And we had just had radios, there was no cell phones. So it was like these, you know, radios that we shared with all the trucking companies and everything. And I had to call and say over that radio, so I knew like 300 people in Peterborough were going to hear this. Hey, I need you to come out to quarter line. And I expected this is a job. He gave me a dollar raise every year, a 50 cent raise every year. You have a job. As soon as you’re done school, you just show up. You’re going to get a 50 cent raise. I expect with every paycheck, you’re going to buy a tool. Here’s a tool belt and a hammer just from a shop. You just pull it down. He goes, and I’m going to get you started. But like you want to see a tape measure in there, I want to see this, you want to see that. And if I took you to the garage right now, I have, it looks like you’re walking into a Rona or a Home Depot because he forced me every paycheck to buy a tool, but he gave me a raise every year. I knew it was coming, right? And I knew I had a job. So there was stability there, but there was also patience when I made a mistake, right? Like put the truck into the ditch. But then there was also like life lesson stuff. Like, you know, so I was the young lad. They always called me the young lad, right? Where’s the young lad today? Oh, I’ve got him in another job site. He’s cleaning up this. Well, we need him over here because we’ve got to move a bunch of drywall and like we don’t want to hurt our backs, that sort of thing, right? But he’d go pick me up and drive me over and he goes, tomorrow’s payday and he’d kind of look at me, you know, and he, you know those Colts, the wine dipped, rum tipped Colts, you know, like I’m sure they still exist, but he always had one in his mouth and he would pull it out and look at me, and he’s like, what do you think if I just paid him on Friday instead of tomorrow, right? And I’d be like, I think they’d be really upset, you shouldn’t do that, you know, and he would do it and then he said, he said, you know, what were they saying, right? And, you know, and he’s like, it’s good to remind them that they’re getting a paycheck and their work is valuable and you take him up for pizza lunch and make a big joke about it and big celebration and like it wouldn’t hurt anyone or anything like that but he really understood the balance and at the time I thought he was being I don’t know what the word is for it it wasn’t self-centered but I believe that it brought joy him handing a paycheck to a person and that person going like thank you. Mm-hmm Do you know I mean like I did a good job and there’s money coming to me because I worked for you and the customers Are happy and he was always so happy he was like a big bundle of joy all the time and all that like and and Even though we’re doing construction and sometimes it was like pouring rain and right out there putting tarps on stuff and it was brute, you know Everybody was happy and I think it was connecting. Everyone now connects work and work life and what’s that work life balance and all the rest of that. Like there has to be a division and work is where you’re unhappy, but life is where you’re happy. Do you know what I’m saying? And I think just separating that is terrible. Like I referenced Wayne Gretzky earlier on. He was someone, it was a podcast recently and they asked Wayne, what’s the magic number? How many hours a week were you practicing? How many hours a week? And he laughed and he’s like, zero. I never practiced. I was just playing the game.

Sam Demma
Ah.

Jeff Armour
The mindset of like, when are you putting in that work so you can go get the joy of in the game is separate. It’s all part of the game, right? I like to just, the game was something that we got to organize once in a while as a bonus, but being able to go out there with my friends and shoot, you know, stick or whatever. So there was a lot of those little kind of lessons about like people finding their purpose in their work and then understanding that, you know, the people that are putting up the skyscrapers in Toronto so people can live closer to their work downtown and make that city more vibrant are critical. That’s critical work that’s going on in the world. And I don’t think, I think people don’t see it that way anymore. They’re all jumbled up about what’s the purpose and what their job is and what they’re trying to do and maybe chasing the dollar a little bit. And they’re not finding happiness in that, I don’t think.

Sam Demma
You mentioned earlier that you realized maybe it’s not so much about making lots of money, making enough money, yes, to pay the bills and have some cool experiences, but that there was more important things. When did that realization come to you? Was that when you were transitioning into working in schools? Because I think, especially for younger teachers and even young professionals, there is this, I guess there’s this belief that to be successful, you have to make X amount of dollars. And I think it traps so many people into doing things that they don’t love just to check a box.

Jeff Armour
Right. Yeah, and yeah, for sure. And I’m not trying to be, there’s a lot of people who work really hard to make a lot of money doing that. And I don’t wanna suppose that I understand that that’s what motivates them or keeps them happy. That’s for a therapist to do to figure out where that comes from, you know, and maybe they ate, maybe they grew up in a household that struggled, you know, with food insecurity and who knows. And then now, having enough money is really important and that’s what makes them happy. Great with that. Great with that.

Jeff Armour
But for me, I think it was the building piece, the builder, the contractor part of me that was great at it. I really feel like I understood it and I connected with it. But I feel like there was a few moments when I was like sitting with a young student. It was – so I worked some nights and sitting there with a young student and they were just talking about how their roommates like – it’s late at night. We’re waiting for their buddies to come pick him up because you know he got left at the bar and whatever whatever and you know Most bars, you know in the world would be like it’s closing time get the hell out We don’t we don’t do that on campus. We make sure everyone gets home safe We try and see that people are leaving and you know, hey, you’re walking by yourself Let me get you foot patrol or whatever like we take it’s just a different approach not not as a maybe as a value proposition But it’s more just like, could run campus and, you know, people are trusting us to take care of their children.

Jeff Armour
Exactly, yeah.

Jeff Armour
So sitting with, and then just broke down and then we had a long conversation. I’m pretty, if memory serves me, we actually gave him a job and he was waiting for his buddies to come back and he’s like, you know, I gotta go home for Christmas and like, I’m pretty sure I’m failing a course and my dad’s not going to be okay with that. Not going to be. And, you know, we had some conversations and it was, I remember that one specifically, because it was outside the bar, it was out, we call it Concrete Beach, it’s outside of the building, but there’s this big area where students, you know, gather on campus. And it was a good conversation that made me realize, you know, wow, like, maybe, I’m going to struggle with this all the way through, but like, because I’m much better at self-deprecating, but like maybe I made a difference in that person’s life, right? And although I can’t see it like I built a second floor in a house, I have to believe I’m making a difference. And that statement, I have to believe I’m making a difference, I say to myself weekly weekly ever since in the 25 years that I’ve been at USC.

Sam Demma
You might not be seeing the second floor, but you’re definitely building a foundation in a person’s life the same way you built a foundation in a building with the work that you do with the USC. What are a few of the parts to your work that you find really rewarding? I’m sure there’s so many, but what are a few that come to mind?

Jeff Armour
Well, an easy one is, so my role is the chief operating officer. I am the, again, I hate talking hierarchically, but just so the listener can understand, on an org chart, I’m the top full-time staff person. So we are staff-run, but we’re student-led. So the boss, my boss, is the president who sits on the board of directors. There’s nine of them, so eight students at large, and then the president. That board is my boss that hires, fires me, does performance evaluations and all the rest of it. That president changes over every year. So they get elected. We come back in January, this, like, in four weeks or three weeks, and we’re going to hear who’s running to be president next year, and one of those people will be my boss and the new board of directors representative. So, first out of the gate, if you think, you know, well, thinking it’s bizarre is okay, because it’s awesomely bizarre, but not being okay with it means you should never work for a student association. You’re not gonna ever accept it if you’re like, oh, I couldn’t take orders from a 22, 23 year old. So that’s probably the best part for me though, is every single year, there’s a new slate of ideas, a new, fresh, sort of like, hey, I love that thing they did last year, I didn’t love this part of it so much. You know, and they run, they develop a platform, and then they open up, you know, I kind of call it when the person gets elected, they get to sit down with the current president because they don’t start until June 1, and myself and we open up the big book of truce, right? Okay, so you said you were going to reduce the price of coffee at Starbucks. We don’t run the Starbucks, right? But let me tell you how we use our on-campus operations to advocate for affordability in terms of food on campus, because we’re always cheaper than the, right? So it was like, oh, well, that’s all I really wanted. And right. So then what we’re going to do is we’re going to do a heavy advertising campaign that says, you know, hey, if you want to bottle a little water, we’re 25 cents cheaper. And we won’t we don’t directly say, you know, the school is this and the school is that we just advertise it because we’ve got a great relationship with the school. They’re actually but they got to pay bills as well. They’re a business and their purpose is a little bit different than what our purpose is. Our purpose, our mission, our vision statement is students have the power to change the world. And specifically, we say students, because although we have elected student leadership, you might think that’s the students that have the power to change the world. We actually it’s all students. So like we do something called midnight breakfast where we put out food during exams. And when those students are studying over and well, then they need that pick me up around 11 o’clock. They can just come over and grab a free plate of eggs and waffles and bacon and whatever. Fill their belly, see some people, get away from their desk, and then go back and study. And we believe that those students, one of them’s gonna go on and figure out a cure for the common cold, or is gonna go write some amazing poetry, or is going to be a great track star, and you know, whatever, and they’re gonna change the world in some way, shape, or form. So that’s why we do what we do, that’s why I get out of bed every morning, is I believe that students have the power to change the world.

Jeff Armour
The second thing is how we do that, our mission statement is we do that by enhancing the educational experience. So we don’t do the educational experience, we do mentoring and training and all of that, so there is some huge educational component, but in this moniker, it’s uppercase educational experience, which is what Western does. So we just enhance it, bus pass, health and dental, bars, orientation week, as you saw, stuff like that.

Sam Demma
With the USC, you’re also directly managing lots of different staff members and I’m assuming people would be reporting to you lots of times during the day. It sounds like you also were managing people on the construction site. In your experience managing people on the construction site and even at the university, what have you found to be effective when it comes to managing other human beings? I’ve had a couple of experiences and it’s challenging. It’s challenging.

Jeff Armour
It is. And that’s the beauty of it is people are challenging. If it was easy, they wouldn’t need a chief operating officer, right? If everyone just came in and did exactly what they said they were going to do and they never got sick and they never were confused about about what the priorities were or all that sort of thing, then it would be really easy. But the key to remember for me anyways is, first of all, you have to have the belief that everybody coming into work wants to contribute and feel valued. So that goes back to, it can’t just be about money. It has to be about something else. And I’ll tell you, if it’s, they’re not finding purpose where you’re at and I’m not talking I’m not talking specifically But the USC If you’re not finding purpose working for a consulting firm in Toronto My hope for you as a fellow human being is that you figure that out quickly Because what you are wasting is resource that you can’t get back You can always make more money, but you can’t get time back if your impact and purpose is somewhere else boy I hope you figure that out quickly. And so that is the approach that I take when managing people is, first of all, are you okay? And do you understand, like, what makes you happy and where you’re finding purpose? And if that isn’t the case, let’s talk about that and work through that. No hard feelings, no harm, right? I’m here to be your, I’m here to help you navigate all this if I can, if I can have the honor of doing that, right? The second thing is you understand then, now if you’re connected to what we’re doing, if you believe the students have the power to change the world, if you believe that this consulting firm that you’re working for is really making the agricultural sector a better place to be and that’s important to you because you’re down as a farmer, then awesome. Like you’re doing, you found it, right? Now do you understand from a leadership level, hierarchically, right? What the expectations are from either strategic planning or what makes impact or where we’re going as a team. And even if we’re all going in the wrong direction, let’s go in the wrong direction together, right? Figure out it’s the wrong direction, make corrections and then figure out what the right direction is. Because you’re not gonna get it right the first time, which is where the third thing comes in, which is patience. So is the person okay? Have they found their purpose? Are they able and willing to contribute? Because I don’t believe nobody comes into work to do something wrong. I’m like, oh, today I’m going to like make these mistakes or whatever. If they’re making mistakes, it’s either because they haven’t been trained. That’s the management’s fault. Or they don’t understand where they’re going. Management’s fault. Or they’re not propped up with the tools and resources to do what they need to do, management’s fault. So someone failing at the frontline level or even middle management, I see that as my, that’s my fault. I haven’t had enough time to talk to them. They’re not getting enough direction. They’re not getting enough. Or, or they’re unhappy. And this goes back to, you know. 

Sam Demma
Wrong position.

Jeff Armour
Are you, and if, and sometimes and I’m not gonna I’m gonna stick with construction to keep it at work from what I’m currently doing There were there were times where I had to sit down with someone not sit down because it’s construction site you know you’re having a coffee and the person be like It’s getting harder to get her to bed on Monday and Tuesday now and when I’m like, oh, what do you like? You know, I always like to do this like well, why not like just do it You know, how about you work here half time so you still get a solid paycheck and you got some money and go try that out. Yeah, yeah, you know what I mean? So encouraging people to be their best and if they happen to be their best where I’m the chief operating officer, that’s a win. The win-win is, or that’s a win-win. The win of that person going and figuring out what, but that attitude goes to the entire place. And people start to feel like, hey, I don’t get what’s going on here. I’m not afraid to ask because I want to be at my best because I don’t want to disappoint the students or I don’t want to disappoint my manager or whatever it is. So those are kind of the three ways. So it’s not really about I’m not much of a like during COVID. Yeah, I had to take a more, you know, firm hand on the wheel, if you will say, but that’s because we weren’t in a normal operating environment. It was like, yeah, you’re all not coming to work. This is what we can do, and this is what we can’t do. And this is, I know you used to like, whatever, like flip pancakes for midnight breakfast. But today what you’re doing is you’re doing a newsletter and you’re helping to copyright that. Like, cause, but you’re going to get, you have a job. So you go back to Maslow’s, like the primary thing is like, are you safe? Do you, can you pay your bills? Can you, you know, and that’s, that’s where you went during COVID. So other than that, I’m, I’m more of a carrot type of person of like, if we do this, wouldn’t this be great? And we can move the needle and move down this path as opposed to running around the office, trying to catch someone doing something wrong. You know, I saw you left five minutes earlier. And like, you know, the madmen approach of like the sixties and seventies and in fair and probably early two thousands as well. I think that approach has entirely changed.

Sam Demma
I was recently attending an event in Quebec City and saw a speaker by the name of Sebastian Sassville, and he has climbed Everest and done these crazy endurance adventures, 240 mile runs across the Sahara Desert. And he recently, more recently, did a bike ride across America, which is one of the most physically challenging, I guess, long-term races you can do. And he mentioned a time during the race when he was about to give up, and he had a team of, I wanna say, seven to 10 people that were supporting him along this two-week journey. He had to be on the bike 22 hours a day for the entire experience. And he talked about a moment where he broke down, it was very close to the finish, maybe a couple of days before the end. And he said, I think I’m gonna give up. And he had a team member basically tell him, no, you can’t because it’s not about you, it’s about us. There’s 10 of us showing up every single day. Sass, you gotta pull your weight. This is about our mission, our race, it’s not yours. And he shared this lesson with all of us in the audience to just remind us that our missions aren’t about us, it’s about we, the team, and all galvanizing towards and moving towards a common goal or a common mission. It sounds like that’s very similar to how you approach the call to action.

Jeff Armour
In my first week taking over this role, it’s funny you say that, for all the management team, the place was, it needed some of what you’re talking about there, and I printed up a sign that said we, and I had all the senior managers put it up. So reporting to me, there were eight senior managers at the time, and they all report, one was like each of the divisions, right? That support the organization and students and put WE up in their office. And within two weeks, everyone was asking like, what’s the WE all about? And it’s like, well, we’re either gonna fail together or we’re gonna win together, right? So that’s a very cool story though. Wow. 22 hours on the bike.

Jeff Armour
22 hours on the bike.

Sam Demma
And not just one day, it’s like two weeks in a row. He was talking about moments where he had hallucinations and he mentioned how vulnerable he had to be. At certain points, he couldn’t even reach down and touch his toes. He’d have to have other team members dress him every single morning. He had people making all of his meals. Talk about relying on the people around you to get the job done and recognizing that you can’t do it all alone. It was just a really cool, really cool, powerful analogy. And I’m carrying that with me in my backpack moving forward. And this conversation just reminded me of it a little bit. 

Jeff Armour
That’s huge. It’s almost like, and I don’t want to dehumanize him, but like, it’s almost like he represented the organization that was doing work 24 hours a day. It was happening. And there were all these people that were propping it up. And even when the organization was ready to fail, everyone was like, they rallied around him, like, you can’t. We’re not gonna let this stop, because this thing we value a lot. And I’m not, I know I realize I’m referring to a human being as a thing, but like, he sounds like he wasn’t even thinking for himself, he was just like, wait, literally just, you know, people were functioning for him, which is, yeah, unbelievable.

Sam Demma
Yeah.

Jeff Armour
I’ll think of that name for you again. I don’t have a pen and paper with me, so I’ll get that.

Sam Demma
Yeah, I’ll share it with you right after the podcast is done. Sebastian Sassaville. Sassaville. And anyway, yeah, it was very inspiring and it reminded me of this conversation. It sounds like you’re also very passionate about the services on campus, like the restaurants. And you worked in operations, you talked about working in the restaurant. Tell me a little bit about how those operate and why you’re passionate about them.

Jeff Armour
So yeah, we have a ton of, the benefit of being a big student association, we have a wide breadth, but we also have depth. So, like we do, we have a club system.

Jeff Armour
Every school has a club system, for most schools have a club system, but our club system has, you know, there’s 13,000 unique members and over 17,000 memberships. So some of those 13 have two memberships in clubs. That’s like a third of campus is involved in our club system, right? The spoken wave operations, although I’m happy that they generate revenue and that’s all great, what I’m really happy about is they’re lined up and working in those operations, 95% of the staff are, yeah, 95 or higher, are students. So they’re students that come in and get trained and work in the environment. And again, that’s important because they have a job, it helps them, you know, we pay back over a million dollars in salaries back to students every single year so that they can, you know, it’s no small, these aren’t small operations. The big thing it comes from is the community, right? And those people get exposed to other people they wouldn’t have met. And I feel like we’re at a bit of a crossroads, and not just post-secondary education wise, but we’ll stick to that, because that’s what this is about, in terms of like, especially with COVID, and you’ve got people in second and third year that didn’t get to go to their grad prom in high school or they didn’t, you know, have those formative experiences in high school. And high school is way too short. They used to be a grade 13. And that’s created a whole other mixture of issues because the drinking age is 19 and they’re coming at 18 or 17 in some cases. And so then that creates, well, what are you going to do when you’re 17, 18? You’re going to go to a house party. Well, this is an unpopular, students would call it a hot take is what I’m about to do here. But I would rather have the students drinking legally in a venue where they can be supervised with smart-served people. And we can put plates of nachos out and they can get food and it can be spread out over the course of the night. And we know what they’re drinking is safe. Or what’s worse is, you know, the recreational drugs that have turned into other things because it’s easier to get that thing going to the LCBO and get, buy a, you know, bottle of vodka or whatever. It isn’t about the vodka. It isn’t about the food and beverage operations making money. It isn’t about the clubs being used by—all those things are touch points on community and whether we want to accept it or not on the drinking and other stuff, the party side of the social side of things, or on the usage side for the services, students are looking for community. And I believe it’s our job to provide that and the universities, and not just Western, across the board. Parents are handing their to us at 17, 18 years old. And there’s an expectation there, in my opinion, that there’s going to be some resources and opportunities for them to build communities and develop and grow the way I did. When I came out, there was OAC, and that was grade 13. And then I moved into university, and I think I was able to go to the bars and all that right out of the gate. And so I made friends really quickly. And those friends were the ones that right before Thanksgiving, one of them would come back and be like, man, I got a turkey dumped. My girlfriend came back from Queens and she dumped me after Thanksgiving. It was called the turkey dump. I don’t know. They probably break up with them now over Instagram or TikTok or something. And then we’d all sit around, go to the spoke and grab some nachos and some wings, listen to Rick McGee and like, you know, sort of like everything would be okay. Instead of now, they don’t know where to go, right? And their roommates, maybe they’re not getting along with or nobody’s home. And so they go on Instagram or they go on social media and then there’s their community isn’t a real community. It’s a fake representation of what the world is. And so when you’re comparing yourself against that with the access to information, but it’s never been higher, the access to information, access to social media and all the rest of that. But there is an all-time low for patience for people making mistakes, saying the wrong word, doing something wrong, and an all-time low of community building. It’s a powder keg for what we see going on right now, which is widespread, you know, anxiety and pain, the actual, like, you know, people can cry on the drop of a dime. And so that’s what gets me going when you ask, well, what are the services? What do they mean? It’s an opportunity for you to, it’s just like, as you know, going back to my biology as you know, the electrons bounce around and hit more things, the more interactions you have, the more chance you have for a reaction. And that’s what the USC, I think, is trying to do is create opportunities for those interactions, which you did and you saw during orientation week. And like, after you left the stage, the number of students who either emailed or texted or DMed, they took a video of you and then sent it to my president Sunday and said like, that was awesome, you know, and right in the middle of the week, you know, they’ve been away from their family for three days now, and we hit them with something like what you had to say, that interaction maybe made them turn around and go to someone that they wouldn’t normally talk to and say like, how great was that? Like, the backpack guy, you know, like, you know what I’m saying, right? And that’s, we’re trying to create those interactions to create a community so that we can create some, at the end of the day, some reiliency.

Sam Demma
I wanna be just cautious of the time. You okay for one more question?

Jeff Armour
Yeah, great.

Sam Demma
Okay, cool. And I think reminding yourself, you said earlier, that I have to believe that I’m making a difference is something that I do consistently. Even after walking off a stage, you know, one time I was doing a presentation and there was a student sitting 90 degrees away from me facing the wall. And the entire presentation I was in my own head thinking, is this person listening? I was getting frustrated and a little bit upset. Is it me? Is it my delivery? What’s going on? And I remember driving home, being a little bit upset about it. And it’s funny because the whole room was engaged and it seemed like this one person was not potentially paying attention and I focused on that. But when I got home, this individual had sent me an email and it was a really long email. And I told this to a mentor of mine named Chris, the whole situation, and he told me, he’s like, it’s not up to you to decide how other people receive the information you share when you’re on stage. It’s up to you to just deliver it authentically, to lead with the mission and the purpose and hope that people will digest it and do with it what they need to. And so that always sticks with me, especially when I walk off stage and I’m not sure if it connected or I’m not sure if it made a difference. So I lean on those words you were saying and even what Chris tells me. But how do you pick yourself up in moments where you might doubt your own impact?

Jeff Armour
Well, I doubt it all the time. That’s why I have to say it all the time. Because although I don’t know that I could recount a moment like what you just shared, which is very, very cool. I kind of see it like I’m a constant sort of I try and be for the world, this constant kind of like, just a light.

Jeff Armour
Do you know what I mean? And it’s there. You want to look at it. And you in your case, yeah, actually look at it. You want to look at it or you don’t want to look at it. Sometimes you want to lay on the beach and get a tan. Other days, you know what, I just want to look at it through a window a little bit. And like, as long as it’s there, I can’t, it goes back to my management principles, like, I can’t assume where you are at in terms of like, you know, if you’re happy or not. But I want to present some thinking that maybe this world’s a little bit different than the way you’re perceiving it at the moment. Because the moment you’re in, if I had looked at myself when I was 20 years old being a contractor, I would have thought, is this my life, working seven days a week? But it was preparing me for a contrast, but also it was giving me data points on what was actually gonna make me happier. So it’s not a failure, it’s like, oh, well you tried being a contractor, it didn’t work. It actually worked great. And I probably could have afforded a bigger Christmas tree if I’d taken it. But like, yeah, it’s, the obligation is to just, I think, share it, and that’s why I say I have to believe I’m making a difference. The nice thing is, is that you have moments like you had that you just shared where someone sends you an email. Or there’s a president that you worked with, you know, six years ago, and they happen to now work for someone else, and you hear them say something to someone else that you told them September of their year, six years ago. And they say, you know, it’s not really about, you know, someone else. You just have to present the best version of yourself and share the light. And, you know, and then you’re like, oh my goodness, that’s the thing that I talked to them about. And now it’s made it different. You don’t realize it until you start see it reflecting back on yourself. And you’re like, okay, maybe this is catching on. Does that make sense?

Sam Demma
Yeah, it does. I think we need more lights in the world. So keep shining.

Jeff Armour
I meant it more like from a chemistry standpoint, that it’s not a river where you have to get in or you get out. It’s just kind of a passive presence, not like the light, like a church or something like that. It sounded like we got religious there, but yeah, I know it’s more, you can take the light in and you can not, you can stare directly into the eclipse if you want. But I wouldn’t recommend it.

Sam Demma
You might lose your vision. Last question, what are you most excited about? There’s so many changes happening in the world. There’s so many diverse student needs. What are some opportunities that you’re very excited about as we move into 2024?

Jeff Armour
I think that what the world is experiencing right now from AI and deep learning to the escalating conflict going on around the world in many different areas, that’s a very challenging time and I have to believe that challenges like that, humanity has always come out on the other side as a better version of itself. And I have three kids and I want to make sure that what the world looks like when they’re ready to shine their own light, we’re running with the analogy now, is a good place to be. And that’s what gets me up every single day is like, can we have to make a change here? There has to be a change that comes from all of this. And we’re being pushed for some reason, and you can never see it in the moment. You know, in that moment, when you’re going through that exam that you’re going to maybe not do well on, or you got to go home and tell your parents that you’re not going to pass or whatever it is. On the other side of that, if we can be patient with each other and we can help each other find our purpose and then we can be clear communicators and give like that’s what the direction is, is clearly communicate without trying to compare ourselves to each other. You know, like you always hear the adage, the only person you should be comparing yourself to is the version of yourself the day before. If we can get to that state, you know, where we just want to better ourselves and find ourselves, that’s what’s driving me. Specifically in 2024, I don’t know, I kind of want to see, I just want, you know, Travis and maybe Taylor Swift to break up or get married one or the other. It’s like something has to happen there because it’s like consuming everything. I’m excited for, you know, we’ve had a good cycle of the route of COVID and the student voice and activities coming back. I’m really excited to see what comes next with that and just, you know, continue to make a difference and hopefully hear more stories about, you know, that light reflecting back for myself so I can keep going.

Sam Demma
Love that. Jeff, this has been an insightful conversation. Thank you so much for taking the time, for sharing some of your ideas, your management principles, and the work that you’re doing with USC. Keep up the great work and all the best in 2024. Keep up the great work and all the best in 2024.

Jeff Armour
I’ll keep going as long as you keep going.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Jeff Armour

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.

Lynne Jenkinson — Executive Director of Flagstaff Family and Community Services

Lynne Jenkinson — Executive Director of Flagstaff Family and Community Services
About Lynne Jenkinson

Lynne has a diploma in Communication Arts; Broadcast Journalism and has had a varied career in private broadcasting and working many Government contracts for different levels of Provincial and Federal Governments. Lynne is currently the Executive Director of Flagstaff Family and Community Services and has been in this position since 2011.

Lynne is also an active FIRST Board member, FIRST is Flagstaff’s Informed Response Sharing Team. She is also an active member of the Flagstaff Food Bank Board and currently serves as Secretary and main fundraiser and grant writer. Lynne takes great pride in knowing what services are available not only in Flagstaff, but in outlying areas as well as what is available Provincially and Federally. Lynne writes many different grant proposals annually to introduce or sustain programs in Flagstaff and manages those many different Government grants through FFCS and FIRST.

Lynne is very community oriented and likes to be involved with projects that assist citizens live a successful life: mentally, physically and holistically.

On the personal side Lynne and her spouse Austin Hanson operate a year-round 10 site campsite in Camrose County that serves visiting workers and tourists. That operation continues to attract new people to Camrose County each year.

Connect with Lynne: Email | Facebook

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Flagstaff Website

YESS (Youth Employment & Skills Strategy) Program

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator Podcast. This is your host, keynote speaker, and author, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is my good friend from Daislin, Alberta, Lynne Jenkinson. Lynne has a diploma in communication arts, broadcast journalism, and has had a varied career in private broadcasting and working with many government contracts for different levels of provincial and federal governments. Lynne is currently the Executive Director of Flagstaff Family and Community Services and has been in the position since 2011. Lynne is also an active FIRST board member. FIRST is a Flagstaff’s informed response sharing team. She’s also an active member of the Flagstaff food bank board and currently serves as secretary and main fundraiser and grant writer. Lynne takes great pride in knowing what services are available not only in Flagstaff, but in outlying areas as well, as what is available provincially and federally. Lynne writes many different grant proposals annually to introduce or sustain programs in Flagstaff and manages those many different government grants through FFCS and FIRST. Lynne is very community-oriented and likes to be involved with projects that assist citizens in living a successful life mentally, physically, and holistically. On the personal side, Lynne and her spouse, Austin Hansen, operate a year-round tent site campsite in Camrose Country that serves visiting workers and tourists. That operation continues to attract new people to Camrose County each year, including myself and the backpack team in the spring of 2023. I hope you enjoyed this insightful conversation with my good friend Lynne, and I will see you on the other side. Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator Podcast. This is your host, Sam Demma. Today we are joined by a very special guest, a guest that we met on the road as a part of the Empty Your Backpack Speaking Tour, Lynne Jenkinson from FIRST. Lynne, thank you so much for coming here and being on the show.

Lynne Jenkinson
Well, it’s always a thrill when people invite me to be on a podcast because to an old chick like me, this is kind of new stuff, but it’s also old stuff because we used to do documentaries all the time years ago when I was in radio. So yeah, podcasts are really becoming such a large and big thing. So it’s quite exciting for me. I’m excited

Sam Demma
I’m excited to have you on. Thanks for saying yes. Tell the audience a little bit more about yourself and what broughy outo where you are today.

Lynne Jenkinson
Well, I started way back in radio, Sam, way back in 1984, a long time before a lot of people were even thought of. And then I retired at the young age of 30 because I was kind of burnt out before burnout was even a term. And then I started just doing government contracts and now I’m the executive director of Flagstaff Family and Community Services and also the executive director of FIRST, which is a charity we run, which is Flagstaff’s Informed Response Sharing Team Society. And our mission in life is to promote healthy relationships. So we’re always looking for ideas and speakers to bring into our local schools through FIRST and the government grants that I get or grants from donors, grants from corporations. So we can leave, I guess, a footprint for the young people in the Flagstaff area. So I always say if I can bring a speaker in and they touch one person, we have done our job because from testimonials we see that people say, wow, like I learned that from that speaker and that is going to be maybe what I follow in life or I’m going to make sure I instill that in my life.

Sam Demma
When you finished in radio, how did you find this opportunity at first? Tell me more about the transition.

Lynne Jenkinson
Well, it took a long time because I was 30 years old and I thought, okay, I want to do more in life. So over about the next 14 years, I just looked for different jobs. Hey, I even worked in a liquor store, even worked as a cobbler. I shouldn’t choose for a while. I just went and learned new things and did things. I’m even a meat cutter by trade because I went to school for five months to learn how to be a journeyman meat cutter. I didn’t like meat cutting because you’re kind of a linsicle all day because it’s kind of a cool job you’re doing with the whole meat. But then I started getting just government contracts. I was working for this and that. And then I just kind of fell into a job at FFCS because they needed a teacher for a year for a federal government program to teach youth age 15 to 30 how to work and how to keep jobs. And then after that, it just seemed a good fit. And I got hired at Flagstaff Family and Community Services, which also partners with FIRST. So we sort of partner and run the charity as well. And then in 2009, I got a full-time job. And in 2011, I became the executive director. So that’s what happens in rural Alberta. When you decide to stay in a rural area, it’ll happen in rural Ontario too. You find the job that fits you, and you kind of figure out how it works into your life.

Sam Demma
Let’s talk a little more about that one year you spent teaching. What was that experience like for you?

Lynne Jenkinson
Well, that was a federal government-funded program. Right now it’s called the YESS program, Youth Employment Skills Strategy. Years ago it used to be called Skills Link. And the federal government will fund agencies to run programs, they call them interventions. And we had 15 students, and for six months, they were with me in a classroom, and we taught them how to do resumes. We even had one student teach others how to play chess, because that was once again, using your brain, right? So they learned how to do resumes, they learned how to find jobs, they learned how to keep jobs. And we said way back when, the old executive director, her name was Gail Watt. We said way back when what we’re teaching them to do is how to have coffee How to do coffee how to sit around and chat with people?

Sam Demma
And did you feel the work in the classroom was just as meaningful as the work you do now as an executive director Or what aspects of it did you really enjoy and found and on the reverse found challenging?

Lynne Jenkinson
Oh, very challenging is when you’re dealing with different people. Even think of a classroom with 15 people and they were aged 15 to 30 years old. Some were school dropouts. They didn’t call them school dropouts. They called those alternative schools and I think they still use that word now. And we had a lady who was 30. So you had people from age 15 to 30. So what was the most important thing is, wow, they’re all individuals. And I can’t imagine how teachers do it today, either grade 1, grade 8, grade 12, when you have 30 to 60 students in a classroom, because each of those people have a different personality, and they have different needs and wants. And how do you serve everyone? Very hard to serve everyone, but we talk about inclusive societies. societies, you have to figure out a way to connect with each of the people in that classroom. And me, that was 2003 and 20 years later, I still know where some of those youth are. 

Sam Demma
That’s incredible. What do you think helped you connect with the students in your classroom? How did you get to know them and tailor some of the content to their needs during the time in the room?

Lynne Jenkinson
Well, I’ll tell you this, Sam, I would never be able to be a teacher because I’m not politically correct. I connect with people by being honest and truthful and sometimes by swearing.

Sam Demma
And they receive it. They’re used to that. That’s their world, a lot of students.

Lynne Jenkinson
The one thing about youth is they can smell a fake as soon as they walk into a room and and the other thing we did I’ll tell you it’s If people well people are gonna hear this because I’m gonna say it there was Students in that classroom because they’re figuring out how to work for a living and stuff Yeah, if they weren’t there by 830, I knew where they lived. There was one couple. I literally Threw the sheets off their bed and dragged them out of bed in the house They lived in and said, you know, come on, I’m not playing this game and let’s go. You got to get up and go to work. You can’t do that for school, right? Teachers can’t do that, but you have to go that extra step. And that’s why 20 years later, some of these youth are still working. They have, gosh, one guy has grandchildren.

Sam Demma
Oh, wow.

Lynne Jenkinson
He had twins when he was 16 years old. And now 20 years later, one of those twins has had their own children. So that’s a huge thing when you… And they’ve been successful. They’ve stayed working. They’ve had families. These are federal government funded programs that no one really knows about because they run under the radar. And these are the changes that these federal government grants are making in people’s lives through educating and assisting them through the hard times in life.

Sam Demma
Without your guidance and the government funded program, that young man who now has grandkids, maybe you would have went on a totally different path in life. Thinking and hearing about his success story now, how does it make you feel?

Lynne Jenkinson
It makes me feel that we all work together as community, came together because in our program, we never had a problem finding employers who would take the youth that came through our program. Sometimes the youth in those six months that they worked and they were paid like the employers were paid a subsidy to take them on and that would still happen today if we had a current contract. Our last one ran out last year. But what happened was it really showed how community gets together to make sure that youth are successful. You can’t do it alone, Sam, and you know that, right? You know that from your speaker’s tour and building up all these relationships is that we cannot do it ourselves, and everyone has a story. And that’s the other thing that is so, so important. Listen to the story and see what you can pick out of that story as an educator to make a difference in that youth’s life.

Sam Demma
You mentioned that that one time you went to the individual’s house and pulled the sheets off and said, hey, let’s go. You know, today teachers wouldn’t be able to do that. It’s a different time. But the principle behind that action is you seriously believing and investing in these human beings’ success to the point where you’re willing to hold their hand and walk them to school, basically, or the facility, where does that principle or that level of belief in others come from for you?

Lynne Jenkinson
I think it comes from, I grew up on a Air Force base, CFB Cold Lake, and I think it comes from learning through life, watching my parents work. It comes through knowing that once we have discipline in our lives, and it’s not because I’m military, but it is. Like there’s a discipline and there’s rules that we must follow, and even if we don’t fit in, there’s still a way that everyone can fit in. Like right now I see a lot of youth struggling, and this is a post-pandemic, oops that bad word, but it is, struggling with anxiety. Well how can we give them the tools to live with that anxiety? How can we give them the tools to make sure they get out of bed every day feeling good? About themselves not just about everyone else. It’s about themselves It all starts with the way we feel in self, but I look at that the way I grew up It was it was discipline. It was accountability. It was responsibility to ourselves, but also to others.

Sam Demma
Did you have roles and responsibilities that were a part of your everyday life growing up, that was a part of your accountability to others, i.e. your parents?

Lynne Jenkinson
And I’m gonna say yes, but I’m the youngest of five and my oldest sisters would say, parents went way easier on me than they did on the first children in the family, right? And my dad-

Sam Demma
That’s what they always say.

Sam Demma
Yeah, I’m sorry.

Lynne Jenkinson
And my dad used to say to me when I was a teenager, he says, you can go do anything and it’s not gonna shock me because your brothers and sisters pretty much did everything except murder somebody. And I wasn’t going to shock them by doing that.

Sam Demma
No. Hopefully not.

Lynne Jenkinson
But it is, like when we have expectations, years ago somebody said to me, as like when you have, when you’re dealing with youth, are youth going to love the parent who has no expectations or are they going to love the parent who has expectations. And you’ll find that youth will really gear toward the parent with no expectations because that makes life easier. When you have to deal with the parent with expectations, it does make life harder. But once we have those expectations instilled in us, we keep growing to get out of that mediocre, adequate life. And we kind of want to have expectations for ourselves where we are a little bit better than we ever thought we could be.

Sam Demma
Would you say that mentality also applies in a classroom with teachers and their students? Should teachers have some sort of expectations or hold their students to some form of standards?

Lynne Jenkinson
I think they should, but for teachers, when you’re dealing with everything we’re dealing with today, is I think it’s hard to have expectations for everyone. And I think some teachers just say, you know, to have a good sleep at night, it’s like, oh, you know, I just got to wash that out of my brain because that would just add to so much stress. And teachers do have a lot of stress today. But you can see teachers that come in every day and flight staff and say, you know, my expectation is that today will be a better day than the last day. And, you know, I hang out with a grade one teacher, retired grade one teacher, and we just see a difference now in our schools. And, but boy, those teachers just shine who do have those expectations that each student will do what they can do or do better each day.

Sam Demma
And I think pouring self-belief into students is so important. One of the educators that changed my life had high standards for me. After I lost the ability to play soccer, he believed that I was going to do something else great in the world. And it was his expectation and the standards that he held me to that helped me find that belief in myself. And I can’t thank him enough. In fact, I invite him to speeches every once in a while and him and his wife come and hear about the impact he had on me and it makes them emotional. And I think every educator has that opportunity to hold their students to high standards in a non pressuring way, but in a very positive way. And you know, I’ve had many interactions with you, you seem to always be very optimistic and try and see things from a positive perspective. And I’m curious to know where that where that mindset comes from?

Lynne Jenkinson
I think it just comes, some people say, well, she’s the most negative person you ever met because she’s always talking politics and what’s happening in government and what’s affecting us. But it’s not that, you wouldn’t get through life if you didn’t have that thinking that everything can be better and will be better. And I’m always looking, always look to learn. And I did learn something and you will love this. I really think I went to an open house for the Battle River Community Foundation and an educator was speaking. His name was Patrick Whittleton. He lives in Daisland and works in Camrose and he said what’s happening right now because he’s um they’re doing like summer school to teach people to read or get better at reading. He says what’s happening right now is an acronym TLTR and it’s going to make people like me angry. It means too long to read. That is coming from our social media, right? And reading, and that’s how we learn. We continue to read, we continue to talk, we continue to converse. And that’s made a difference in my life that I took communications in college. Communication has changed over the years, but we still have to converse, we still have to be relational. You know yourself, when you’re out there speaking to the students, how they just glom onto you later. Remember, we ordered 200 books and we said, let’s just leave the books at the end rather than handing the books out to all the students. And the lineup at the end of your speech, we had 200 books. We left that day with only six books and then parents phoned us and we ran out of books because we gave away six books within the next week. Yeah. But that’s why, like the expectations are, that’s I guess the way I stay positive is I never have assumptions. People continually disappoint me but people always continually surprise me and the youth of today continually surprise me because a lot of people are negative about them saying this and this and this. It’s like, yeah, but they’re living in a way different world than I did 50 years ago with technology, everything else, but have the expectations that they will surprise you every day, they won’t disappoint you.

Sam Demma
You talked about the importance briefly there of being relational and building relationships. And it’s definitely something that I try and do when I’m working with students or delivering a keynote in front of an audience. How do you think you build a relationship with young people?

Lynne Jenkinson
I try so hard by getting the government grants that I can bring speakers in because that’s how the young people know me in this area. They know me as that lady from First or that lady from FCS, and parents begin to know. And then I think I build a relationship with the youth because we are here at FFCS, they begin to know that we’re here at FFCS and at first, and they know that they could pick up a phone. I’m not into texting. I will never give out my cell phone number because I like to sleep at night and other people don’t. And it’s the phone number and they just know that, hey, I can phone that office where that lady Lynn is and maybe I can ask her a question. I get people to phone about scholarships, those sorts of things. It’s not my job to know this and to help, but it’s my job to build my community. So I would never turn somebody away. It might take me two days to answer your phone call, and I want to talk to you. I want to hear your voice. I want to hear emotion. I want to meet you if I can. I want to see your face. I want to know your story.

Sam Demma
I love that you said it’s not my job to know, but it’s my job to build the community. And I think so often, not only in education, but in workplaces in general, people will say, well, that’s not a part of my job, so I’m not doing it. And I think if each of us were in positions that we were passionate about, and we always led with curiosity and the intent to build community and help the people around us. We would just have much more happy, optimistic places to work and employees to work with.

Lynne Jenkinson
And we would build better teams. We would build better teams. We would build better communities. But a lot of people are just scared sometimes to say what they really want to say so that’s that that’s that inclusive society We may disagree and I always say to the youth when we do our federal government programs You don’t have to like the people you work with but you have to work with them Yeah, like and hate is an emotion that really just sucks the wind right out of you So just figure out how to like people like the way their eyebrow goes, like their blue eyes, just like something about them and then you’ll get through the day and we will then continue to build our teams and build a community that is going to be successful.

Sam Demma
Great advice for a teacher who has one student that gets on their nerves. Find something to appreciate about them, find something to enjoy about them. There is always something even when it seems like there isn’t because we’re so similar as human beings, more ways than we are different. What is your wisdom for an educator who is just getting into the work, teaching young people who might be a little overwhelmed and intimidated by the current state of the profession and they came to you and said, Lynn, I’m really struggling, I just started doing this, I need some advice. What would you tell them?

Lynne Jenkinson
And I would say, I know it’s really hard because you all belong to a teacher’s association, but find somebody in your community, whether they’re a teacher or not, who can mentor you and that you can talk to and be honest with, that you can tell your story to without judgment. Judgment is so big these days, but let’s do no judgment and just find somebody you can talk to because we have to worry about FOIP and those sorts of things, but you can still tell a story without identifying anyone, no matter whether you’re in a small place or a big place, but find somebody to talk to because if you carry it within yourselves, which I see a lot of teachers do because they just feel they can’t share because it might identify that student or that issue, it won’t. If you tell your story, there’s no use of names, there’s no use of addresses, there’s no use of phone numbers. Just tell a story to somebody, but find that trusted individual that you can talk to.

Sam Demma
How have those types of conversations played a role in your own story?

Lynne Jenkinson
I’m very good at sharing, as you may have noticed already. But it is, as I said, I retired at 30 from radio because I was burnt out, but I didn’t stop. I took six months off. I could afford it at the time. I took six months off. I figured out what I wanted to do in my life. And counselling is a great thing too. I recommend counselling for everybody. But the other thing is you got to be able to pivot, and you got to be able to pivot in a positive way. But when you find a trusted individual, for me, I have a very good partner, right? So I can drop everything on Austin and he will be non-judgmental. He may not even have anything to say, but I dropped it on him and it’s just like a counselor. But that’s the most important thing, to be able to know that you can share and there’s always somebody else out there who is going to care.

Sam Demma
It’s so important that you mentioned he might have nothing to say but you can still share it all with him. I was listening to a podcast recently with a author named Simon Sinek and he was talking about the value of just sitting in the mud with people, not sitting beside them when they need you to give them advice or tell them what to do, but just to sit in the mud with them and be a shoulder. And sometimes that’s all we need. And sometimes that’s all students really need in their teacher or a mentor. And sometimes that’s all human beings need. And oftentimes when people tell me they’re going through a challenge or they’re struggling, my first gut reaction is to give them advice. And I stop myself and I remind myself, this is not what they need from me right now. They just need me to be here for them. If they need advice, they’ll ask for it. And they’ll make that request, or if they want my perspective. And if not, I’m just going to sit in the mud with them. And I think that’s one of the best ways to support young people. Have you had an experience where a young person was struggling and you kind of sat in the mud, the other thing that is so hard to do, Sam, is sit in silence.

Lynne Jenkinson
Sit in silence. There’s no judgment. There’s no nothing. And that eye contact, really important. You’re there with them in the room. And yes, I have numerous examples over the years, and it’s very hard for me to sit in silence. And people who know me and youth know that. And it’s like, so when you dump something on me and I just sit there with no look on my face not even you know and I just sit there and look at them and possibly you know just you sit in that silence you sit in that mud as you say and and that I guess numerous times and they know right then and there that that person has connected with them and they’re where I’m not even thinking anything anymore. I’m just sitting there with them and yeah, numerous times. And that is one of the best things you can do. And boy, does that build trust as well. No judgment, just silence. And then it’s, and as you say, no advice. Everyone has to figure out their own story.

Sam Demma
Such a good reminder.

Sam Demma
Because I mean, speaking about myself, I always feel the urge to jump in and connect the dots behind how what they’re explaining and experiencing connects to my own life. And the reality is, most of the time, people don’t wanna hear it. They just want you to be there. And I think being there is one of the characteristics or traits of a high-performing educator. Being willing to spend time with the student, having, as we said, high expectations for them, or just some standards that you believe this young human can grow into and the version of themselves that you think they can become, even if it’s a little higher than they have for themselves. That’s another high trait of a or another great trait of a high performing educator. What else do you think makes a high performing educator? What traits make a effective teacher or someone who influences you?

Lynne Jenkinson
One thing that I really find and it is so hard because of the stress on the educators, is just that ability to be present. The ability for those youth to know that you’re present, as I said earlier, they will call out a fake within seconds. But that ability to be present, whether it be speaking to them, just understanding where they’re at. at and in a classroom atmosphere it is that each youth knows you’re there. That you are not clicking on your phone and looking at your phone, you’re not looking at your watch as your watch is talking to you. It’s that ability to be present and more and more people are losing that ability because there’s just so much other stuff coming at them. So it is that ability just to know this is where I’m at right now and I’m here for you as an educator. And I’m here for you at break too, if you need me. But during that classroom too, to be present for every one of those youth, very, very difficult.

Sam Demma
There may be an educator listening, thinking, gosh, I wish we had FIRST in our community to support some of our schools, to bring in speakers and to help bring these programs in front of their youth. Are there similar organizations in different provinces that you’re aware of? If there’s an educator in Ontario listening to this or there’s an educator in BC or is it just in the Flagstaff area? 

Lynne Jenkinson
For what we do, I’ve just seen it in Flagstaff, but there are other groups. There’s charitable groups within any community, whether it be a Lions group or a Knights of Columbus, groups like that could help people bring in speakers. It’s always looking for partnerships, once again, relationships, once again, building community, and somebody with the passion. For me, I have the passion. I think bringing in speakers will change lives because it gives the students in our area, remember, we’re 8,440 people over 4,065 square kilometers. So bringing in a speaker, you from Ontario, a young man who has a message, that just knowing and if I can build that passion in somebody else to say, wow, if I go raise some money, maybe that school will work with me and we can bring in a speaker. Schools to me are very open to bringing in new ideas and new people. They will give you a couple hours of their day, and it may change the life of that one student in an audience of, around here it’s 200-600 students. In a large center, it could be 1,200 students listening to you, maybe more, Sam, right? You don’t know till later, that’s one thing about technology today. They can e-mail you later and ask questions, and teachers can get in contact with you. We have to share our knowledge and our passion and then we will build up the youth continually.

Sam Demma
I was so grateful for the opportunity to come to Daislin. It was such an amazing experience and I talk about it with Cross and Alion and Nina, the team, that it was so awesome because because although a small community, sometimes in the rural communities that we visited, including Daislin, there was so much gratitude, or at least that’s what it felt like from our perspective. And I just really enjoyed it, the hospitality, the experience, the location. So thank you for making it possible for us. And I hope to come back sometime soon. If there is one piece of advice you could give yourself when you were just starting your career, like you could travel back in time with the knowledge and the wisdom you have now and tap yourself on the shoulder and say, hey, I know you don’t think you need to hear this right now, but here’s what you need to hear. What would you tell your younger self?

Lynne Jenkinson
I would tell my younger self, and it’s interesting because I still see the same issue today, and I am a woman and I was entering a career that was very male dominated broadcasting at the time, I would say to myself still say it every day, you are worth it. Just keep going. No matter your gender, no matter, like you are worth it. Somebody else may not recognize that, but when you recognize it in yourself, you just keep moving forward. You are worth it.

Sam Demma
I love that. Lynne, thank you so much for coming on the show today. If there is an educator who wants to reach out to you, ask a question or share their thoughts about this interview, what would be the best way for them to get in touch?

Lynne Jenkinson
My best way to get in touch with me is via email. So it’s director@flagstafffcs.ca. I usually get back to people within a day on email. I do have a real life, but I will get back to you within a day because I do have my email hooked up to my phone and I believe that’s the best way and a lot of people have gotten a hold of me that way. And it’s a great way to build relationships and then when I email you back, you get my phone number.

Sam Demma
And if you’re ever camping in the Daisland area, she happens to have a beautiful campsite. So feel free to email her about that as well.

Lynne Jenkinson
Thank you, Sam. I really appreciate that. And I do hope that like with speakers, especially the youth, I hope to have you back in three to four years because then we get another group of students.

Sam Demma
I look forward to the day. Thank you for coming on the show again, Lynne. Keep up the great work and we’ll talk soon. Keep up the great work and we’ll talk soon.

Sam Demma
Thank you.

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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.