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Student Success

Lorne “ABE” Abramson – Provincial Advisor for the Nova Scotia Secondary Students Association and Historian 

Lorne “ABE” Abramson - Provincial Advisor for the Nova Scotia Secondary Students Association and and Historian
About Lorne “ABE” Abramson

Lorne has been a lifelong advocate for youth with diabetes as well as youth empowerment. He has been very successful at developing and supporting many programs in these areas. Since the eighties he has volunteered his team supporting dozens of youth programs, camps and positive character building experiences for students. 

He has won numerous awards including the Dalhousie University Coaching Award, for 20 years of service in coaching Nova Scotia youth, and the Frederick Banting Award, from the Canadian Diabetes Association, for significant contribution to the mission of the Association in the areas of education and service.

Connect with Lorne: Email | Linkedin

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Nova Scotia Secondary Students Association

Dalhousie University

Canadian Diabetes Association

Mount Saint Vincent University

Diabetes Education and Camping Association

Before the Parade by Rebecca Rose

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:58):

Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is Lorne Abramson. Lauren has been a lifelong advocate for youth with diabetes, as well as youth empowerment. He has been very successful at developing and supporting many programs in these areas. Since the eighties, he has volunteered his time supporting dozens of youth programs, camps, and positive character building experiences for students. He has won numerous awards, including the Dalhousie University coaching award for 20 years of service in coaching Nova Scotia youth, and the Frederick Banting award from the Canadian Diabetes Association for significant contribution to the mission of the association in the areas of education and service. Lauren has so much expertise in the area of youth empowerment and so much energy and wisdom to share, so I hope you enjoy this conversation 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 have a very special guest. I met this guest in Nova Scotia at a conference and I’m so glad that we crossed paths. Some people know him as Lorne. Most people know him as Abe. Some people know him as Coach Abe. Abe, I would love for you to introduce yourself and let everyone listening know who you are.

Lorne Abramson (02:22):

Sure. Thanks Sam. Yeah, I’m, I’m my claim to fame was probably as a you know, as a person who started getting into teaching. So I was a math, a math teacher, how I became that is a, an extremely long story <laugh> which I will probably not get into, unless you ask me the appropriate questions. <Laugh> but I ended up becoming a math teacher, which my high school math teacher from Montreal who I, who I loved dearly. He was the one that said to me when I graduated, he said to me, you know, Lauren, he said, “everybody in those days called you by your last name.” You know, you know, I, I think you should consider becoming a math teacher. And I, and I I’ve made the stupidest comment I have ever made in my entire life.

Lorne Abramson (03:26):

And that was, who would wanna be a math teacher? <Laugh> that was like, it was one of those, this is to the guy that I had total respect for. And what I meant was in those days, math teachers, like teachers in general got no pay. It was like, it was crappy, you know, and and I wanted to be a dentist anyway, <laugh> so, so anyway to say the least over a period of years, I changed careers a couple of times and and then became a math teacher and eventually a math department head. And I always felt like I don’t know. I, I always felt that I needed to be more involved with community. And, and so for me the, the extracurricular stuff became almost more, this got kind of weird, but, but almost more important in some ways because I was a very accomplished math person.

Lorne Abramson (04:35):

So it was I went to McGill and did my joint honors in math and chemistry. And that was not a, that was not an issue. So I never had to work hard at, at the math part, but I really wanted to work hard at getting to know kids really well. And, and so I got involved in coaching volleyball, which I knew nothing about, except for the fact there were six on the side that was the limit of it. And and that became a big part of my life. And you know, and then I got involved in theater and, you know, and we did a lot of musicals and, you know, anyway, I it’s it’s and eventually in 1991, I got involved with the starting of the intro Lasse, which which, where, where we met the, you know not in 1991, but <laugh> sorry, Sam, but

Sam Demma (05:43):

I have to ask you though, because when people think about extracurriculars student leadership, typically I’ve heard people talk about the antithesis of it being math and science, and like these super academic courses that happen in schools. And usually those individuals are the ones who want their kids in their classroom, not going to conferences and not getting involved. So like, how the heck did you like have these two seemingly opposite things be so intertwined in your experience? Like what changed you or were you always of that mindset and you just also loved math?

Lorne Abramson (06:25):

The heck, it’s a good question. So I right from the get go I became the student council advisor at the, at Ellsley I at the J Oley high school was the school I taught in. And it’s obviously it’s a school in Halifax and it’s, it had this kind of funny deserved rep reputation of being a, kind of in a tough area. But in actual fact it was ridiculous. It didn’t make sense at all. That being said being the student council advisor I got to meet people like Andy Tido, who you might know and and St. Saunders and Tyler Hayden. And look, there were, there were so many people because of my connection as student council advisor eventually in 1992, mark Fraser who was he? He had been the student council president at Halifax west high school and Andrew Demond, who was the student council president at Parkview education center in, in Bridgewater, in Nova Scotia.

Lorne Abramson (07:53):

They met at a a CSLC or Canadian student leadership conference. They met at that, and they met also at the same time at that a whole bunch of kids from remember, this is 90, 91, I think was when it happened. But, but they met a whole bunch of kids from Ontario who were part and parcel of the O essay. So the Ontario secondary school students association, and and I heard the two of them said we could do this <laugh> it was kinda like, that was kinda like that. And I, I, I had the guy who was my who was the student council, president of Illsley was a guy who now is one of my neighbors. Oh, wow. Is Paul and Paul. He was just a great guy. And Paul said to me, I got this letter from this guy, Andy Kibito and a couple other people.

Lorne Abramson (09:03):

And he said they were there. Apparently they’re having some event at I think it was, it was being held at St. Pat’s high school, which, which now is underground somewhere <laugh> wow. It doesn’t exist anymore. And he said would you, would you be willing to come as our advisor? And I said, well, I am your advisor. What the hell matter with you? And he was really, he, it was kind of like, I think he, he really wasn’t quite sure what anybody’s role was gonna be. We had no idea. This was like, this is so new that nobody really knew. Yeah. And so we went to the conference and I can’t remember, there was probably about, I don’t know, 60 or 70 people at the conference. Nice. It was over a weekend. We held, we all slept on the stage of St.

Lorne Abramson (09:55):

Pat’s <laugh> being a camper that didn’t bother me. Yeah. You know, but and Paul, Paul was the one that, you know, he was the one that got me involved in the first place. And then I don’t know. And then it kind of just, I don’t, it kind of just took over, you know, and, and eventually, I think the next year I became the, the advisor for the Metro region, how that happened. I, I honestly got, I wish I could remember all that, but I think, I, I’m not sure that’s okay. How that exactly happened. But I know that I knew a lot of the people in, in the other schools in Metro.

Sam Demma (10:41):

Gotcha.

Lorne Abramson (10:41):

You know, cause I, I knew a lot of teachers, you know, and so on. And the guy who was the provincial advisor was a guy named cam Morrison. And he was also from Halifax west of course. And he was quite close with mark Fraser. And so at time we, and hi, his wife and my wife worked in nursing together. Ah, and, and so anyway, we, we knew each other outside of school as well. And I think, I think that what happened was he ended up staying as provincial advisor for, I think, I can’t remember it was two or three years. Then another guy took over from SAC high and, and then in 1990 I took over as provincial advisor and right till this year, so. Wow. Yeah.

Sam Demma (11:41):

Oh, that’s awesome. You mentioned earlier that like one of the things you think are so important in connection with student activities and extracurricular activities is building strong relationships with the students, the kids. How do you build a strong relationship with young people in your experience?

Lorne Abramson (12:01):

Well, I think first of all, it’s a matter of building trust. Mm-Hmm <affirmative> with all the nasty stuff that you hear about things that are going on in schools drives me nuts. I, I just can’t that part of it is just see, seems like, I don’t know, I never had, let me put it this way. I never had that, that issue. Whether it was personality or what part of it had to do with the fact that I think was that you know, I had a family my, we had, we had two daughters. My wife was always understanding about why I was going away that weekend <laugh> and and then I, I don’t know. I, I, I remember a couple, I, I eventually ended up being a Canada games coach for, for guys.

Sam Demma (13:00):

What haven’t you done?

Lorne Abramson (13:04):

I always say in the, I, you, if you live long enough, you’ll do a lot of stuff. Yeah. You know, like when, if you didn’t, if, if that didn’t happen to you, what’s wrong with you <laugh>

Lorne Abramson (13:22):

No, I, I, I, I get the question. I I’m gonna say trust was a big thing building that it takes, that takes a lot of, a lot of, I don’t know, desire to, to build that. I had, you know, the alumni of the organization played a big role in that cuz you know, people like, like Tyler Hayden and I used to have this, this very funny competition. And it was just that the competition was how many conferences have you been to? You know, and I, and at some point we were tied, you know, cause he used to come to, he used to come to everything and and he would speak at a lot, a lot of stuff. And I don’t know. And then one day he, I knew he was going away. I think it was one of the provincial conferences and I knew that this is gonna be it.

Lorne Abramson (14:31):

I got him, he was gonna be able to be there. And and so I, I made sure that I called him from wherever hell I was. And I said, okay here’s the deal. So now, now that you’ve been defeated, <laugh> this is it Tyler. And he said, okay. I COE. So ever, ever since then it was kind of, I just built more and more anyway, he, and he would not go to a lot of the regional conferences, but I don’t know. I think, I think people like him and people like, like Andy and, and Stu and, and Phil what was Phil’s last name? He was from Winnipeg. Oh God, he was, he’s also a keynote speaker.

Sam Demma (15:28):

Is it Phil Boyd?

Lorne Abramson (15:30):

Phil Boyd. Yeah. Yeah. And and I, I, you know, there were a lot of people like that that were around Mark Sharon Brock who I haven’t seen forever, like a long time. But there were people that were, there were people in the plus a who became keynote speakers like Paul, Paul Devo and Jeff Bri, they spoke together and we became very, the two of them, we were, we were still very close. Nice. They, they both got married. We went to the weddings, we went to it’s like, yeah. And, and I really like Paul’s wife Mor I like him <laugh> and if he sees this too bad, Paul okay. <Laugh> but I think he likes my wife more. He likes me anyway. I think a lot of it, you know, again, aside from just the trust issue, there’s a lot of testing that goes on, you know, like you can’t like, you know, you can’t develop the trust without some risk associated with that.

Lorne Abramson (16:53):

I think, I think once people who are involved in anything see other people that have faith in their relationship with you, that can’t help, but build, you know, for them, you know a good relationship. So I, I, it’s probably not a very good way of putting it, but you know, over the years, geez. I, I mean, I, all I can say is that it got easier and easier. Let me put it that way. There was expectations that I would always be there. That’s another thing, you know, that you’re, you make yourself available and accessibility

Sam Demma (17:46):

Being accessible to the

Lorne Abramson (17:48):

Students and yeah, so that, that’s, that’s a big deal. And I, I knew that, well, that, that, that was, that was a big deal in good times and bad times. And, and you, and there, there’s always gonna be both, you know, that happen, you know, in a, in an organization like this. And I, I, you know, I don’t know. So for, from that point of view, it got, like I said, it got easier and easier. I, I can’t say it any easier than that, but yeah. But the fact of the matter is, is that you know, there was, there was always someone in the organization or some buddies who who come outta the blue and, and will represent the people that you think that you wanna deal with. You know, like, and I, I don’t mean that to become your, your chosen ones, but, but it look, you can’t help.

Lorne Abramson (19:00):

Sometimes you can’t help that, you know? And so I, I, I guess that’s happened sometimes you, sometimes you think, how the hell did I ever get to know this person? Like, I don’t even know why, and, you know, and, and I, and, and you want, you wanna spend time with them somehow to change in some ways, this is probably totally off the wall, but change the way that they operate. Mm. And you re you realize that something about that is, is you, you, you see something in them. Mm. That, and it’s not just being a teacher all over again, but it’s, it, it has some part in that that you realize that you’re, you’re see an opportunity. Like, I’ll give you example of number of years ago, there was a guy who got elected president. He made a terrible mistake.

Lorne Abramson (20:15):

And that is he, he he just jumped into a situation where he, where, where it was just a bad choice. And I, I was sort of stuck with trying to figure out, well, how, you know, how do I, and I, I, you know, what, what do we do about this? And cuz he really, what he really needed to do is resign. And I didn’t know. That was the first time that happened. I think if I remember right. And I, and I wasn’t quite sure what to do about that. And it wasn’t like I have control over that. I’ve never had control of the organization. But I wanted something else to happen and nothing happened with that guy until years and years later. And he, he went off and became a teacher in Korea. Wow. And and he ended up marrying a Korean girl and they have a wonderful family and I met him.

Lorne Abramson (21:25):

I think they were, they were living in, I think they’s probably gonna know this, but they were living in in Vancouver. I think if I remember right. They moved back to Canada anyway. And I had a conversation with him and he said, and he said to me, I don’t know what was going on in my head in those days. And I thought to myself, oh my God, you know, like, this is, this is a good thing to say to me, it was good. Like it was like, and I, and I remember thinking he’s a really nice guy, you know, that’s like, it was kind like, like all of a sudden there was this, this change of, of, you know, of looking at him and thinking, oh no, he’s not just some jerk. You know, that that’s, that made, that just happened to make a mistake, but it’s also, he actually is a really nice person.

Lorne Abramson (22:22):

And, and somehow this all came out now, you know, like, and it took, it probably took his family in, in being a, being a parent. And, you know, I dunno, like, it just seemed like that was it. So, yeah, I know. I sometimes you’ll, you’ll, you’ll meet people like that. Who’s a girl Rebecca Rose, who was on the conference committee, she, I don’t think she ever became her and I were very close and she she came out of the closet at some point and she wrote a a book last year and the book is called oh shit. Was it before the parade? Hmm. I can’t, I’ve never remember it’s before the parade or after the parade. Anyway, it was a book about the gay community or the development of the gay community in Halifax in. And I went to her book launch. Oh my God. It was lovely. It was just like, it was like one of those. And I, and I was always close with her. She’s just, she’s just dynamite, you know? And, and like I, and her and I, and she ended up speaking, oh, well you, well, you met,

Sam Demma (23:45):

Yeah. I know her, listen to speech. I attended her. It was awesome.

Lorne Abramson (23:51):

Yeah. And she, there’s a person that got badly treated by a couple of people within the inter plus a, I think it was probably had something to do with the time of what was going on in, in, in the area that, you know, there were people that didn’t didn’t have a how to describe it. I was, it was from a, from a, a sociological point of view, you know, the relationship with the gay community was crappy. You know, it was just shitty, you know, and yet she had a lot of friends and, and she’s, Ugh, I love that girl. Yeah. She’s just, she’s fantastic. So when we met at her book launch, I hadn’t seen her for quite a while. <Laugh> and it was really funny. She’s like, like was really, you can imagine this, okay, she’s up there talking about her book, I’m sitting in the audience, which was packed at the Halifax library. And and she looks up and sees me standing like in the back, you know, I’m standing there and she stops what she was doing in the middle of all this. And she waves, hi, you know, like that. Right. It was like in the middle of, so everybody’s now turning around, you know, <laugh>,

Sam Demma (25:28):

Who’s a <laugh>

Lorne Abramson (25:31):

And every was turning around, you know, you know, and I, I threw a kiss, you know, and, and she went, she was great. So it was really funny. So afterwards, we went out for coffee and I mean, she’s, you know, again, she’s just one of those, she’s a, she’s a survivor in some ways. Yeah. I, I think, but also a survivor with a great attitude, you know, as you could tell that so it sounds like I know, I, I feel, I always feel very fortunate, maybe the smart and parcel of this. I always feel very fortunate to have met a lot of the people that I have met through the interse and, and in other, other things that I’ve done I mean, I’ve always been able to stay, I dunno, fairly close with, with people that I was close with and, you know, and just because they graduate and wherever go on, you know? Yeah. It’s, it’s like, it’s like Paul, Gule my, my neighbor, you know, <laugh> yeah. I, now I wave him when he walks by with his dog, you know? <Laugh> yeah. Anyway.

Sam Demma (26:42):

Okay. Yeah. Sounds like trust is a big one accessibility, and then just the general desire of wanting to make a change in other people’s lives. Like it, it sounds like that those are some of the, the big ones. When, when did you start getting involved in camps and on camps and being around camps and involved in camps have been a big part of your, your life as well?

Lorne Abramson (27:04):

Yeah. my camp story is it started in, in Montreal.

Sam Demma (27:13):

Okay.

Lorne Abramson (27:15):

And I was 16 and I had, somehow I had I had my nationals in swimming and I had my my instructors for canoeing.

Sam Demma (27:30):

Okay.

Lorne Abramson (27:30):

And, and I had never gone to camp. It was like, my parents could never afford to send me to camp who was expensive. And so a friend of mine said to me, you know, we were all looking for jobs, you know, I was 16 years old, you know, like, and and I, and this friend of mine says to me, you know, you got swimming and you got canoeing. Why don’t you go to camp? You know, like, and I said, camp, <laugh> like, don’t, they pay nothing at camp. And he said, no. He said, for people that have those, those specialties, you get well paid, you know, you’re okay. So I applied to camp Milwaukee, which was in Northern Quebec and it was a, a tripping camp if you know what that is. And it’s a camp that, that has kids that go and they go out on, on canoe trips.

Lorne Abramson (28:29):

Oh, cool. Yep. They’re there, they’re there for eight weeks. Wow. It’s not just a one week camp. And and so I, I went there and I had a great time and I had five to eight year olds <laugh> you can imagine, wow. I never, in a million years ever dreamed that I’d be working with teenagers. I mean, who the hell would wanna do that? You know, <laugh> and so I, I ended up going there and then the next year I got an offer from a local camp, which was called camp nominating and in a similar job, bigger camp. And I went there and I had a great time. And and then I, the next year I got offered a big job at pine valley camp, which was in the IANS. And I was at pine valley camp.

Lorne Abramson (29:26):

I worked my way up and eventually became the director. Ah, and and I was there for a long time. And then, and eventually I ended up, you know, moving to Nova Scotia, met my wife, and she was a nurse at, at camp. And and I and so I ended up moving to Nova Scotia. And like I said, you know, when I got involved in, in camp camp always played a role for me because I, when I eventually, when I got, got involved I started getting involved with volleyball and, and volleyball became a big deal. And as, as my own skills, as a coach got bigger, got better. There was a volleyball Nova Scotia camp, oh, that had started. And and, and my lady who was the, there were two, two women aside from my wife, but two women in my life that, that were both volleyball coaches.

Lorne Abramson (30:35):

One was Lois McGregor from hou. And she, she’s a very accomplished coach. And and, and Eva Justins who became the technical director for volleyball, Nova Scotia. Ah, and they, they took me little Abe. They took me under their wing and they, they just treated me like their kid, brother. It was just great. And they, they took me to everything. I was like, their, their here, here, go, go get Lauren. He’ll be fine. <Laugh>. And so I ended up with the two of them. We ended up running the volleyball Nova Scotia camps. Wow. For, for, for volleyball. And and then I don’t know, I, you know, as I, and then, then what happened was like, like I said, my wife and I got married and we had our daughter LA was born in 1989. And we had an older daughter is three years young, three years older than that.

Lorne Abramson (31:45):

But Lara was born in 89 and she, when she turned six in 1985, I had been doing all these camps all this time. And she ended up developing type one diabetes. So her doctor just happened at her doctor came to me and said, I heard that you this is the part that’s, that’s kind of a little weird, but he said, I heard you’ve been involved with camp. And I said, how do you know that? And I said, he said, turns out that Lois who I mentioned was one of his patients, <laugh> you, you, she must have said something about me in camp, you know, but that’s the only thing I can think of. Yeah. and so he ended up saying, look, are you you might be interested in getting involved in the diabetes camp. Cause he’s the one that started the camps.

Lorne Abramson (32:40):

Oh, wow. Back in 1961. And so I said, yeah, I might be, but I’m going away with my family to a, a one year program with to teach in, in England with the Commonwealth teachers Federation. And so I’ll be away for a year. And I said, I remember saying him said, do you think we should go, like, we’ll spend our first year with diabetes with, you know, at some, some place in another country. And he said, well, if you don’t go, I’ll take her, you know, <laugh> so, and he, he became very, he and I became very close. Ah, and that when I got back cuz I did, I did a couple of camps in, in England, like volleyball camps. And and then when I got back, he called and said, so cap starts tomorrow.

Lorne Abramson (33:40):

Want to come? You know, <laugh> I said, OK, what would you like me to do? And he said, I want you to, he said, I’ve been doing these caps for a lot forever. And I want you to take a look with your experience, want you to let me know whether you think that something needs to be changed. Mm. Which was a gutsy gutsy thing for someone who was initiator. Yeah. You know, to actually say, yeah, if you think about that. Yeah. And that, that was a big deal for me. Cause I, I thought what a, what a gutsy guy, you know, like, like, and I thought, and I knew him, I didn’t know him that well, you know? Anyway he and I became very close and and of course he was Lara’s doctor and you know, and so on and everybody loved this guy.

Lorne Abramson (34:30):

He was the quintessential camp doctor. He was it, you know? And so that’s got me started in the diabetes camps, which and then eventually when we, when we came back from England Laura had gotten involved in, in writing, in equestrian writing. Wow. So she went, so we got her involved with the Halifax junior Bengal answers and I got, I ended up, God knows how you end up with the Sam. You know, I ended up on the board of directors for the, you know, junior Bengal answers, like knowing absolutely zero, except for the fact that I’d go and watch my daughter ride, you know, that was yeah. And and myself and the writing instructor ended up starting a, an equestrian camp wow. For kids. And mostly it was for the horses, which was <laugh>, which I never, whichever I think back on it that holy crap, what did we do anyway, I did that for a couple of years and also did the diabetes camps. And I don’t know. And then I, I just kept going. And as you know, when we talked, I I’ve been doing it ever since. So I’ve doing the diabetes camps now. I think it’s been 35 years. Wow.

Lorne Abramson (35:53):

All over the world. It’s been, it’s been a, really, a really nice ride. Nice. Like it’s not over, but I had a great time two weeks ago being at the the camp at Kera national park. Nice. And you know, being the head chef

Sam Demma (36:14):

Nice.

Lorne Abramson (36:15):

Which is another thing, you know, I can do with you know, and I, like I said, you know, when inter plus a kids ask me, so, okay. How do you know all these people <laugh> and I, and I said, as I said to you earlier, I said, well, you

Sam Demma (36:32):

Live long enough.

Lorne Abramson (36:33):

Yeah. Live long enough or something might be wrong with you. Yeah. <laugh>. So

Sam Demma (36:41):

If you could, if you could, you know, take the experience and the, the wisdom that you have now, based on all the different experiences you’ve been through over so many years, and you could travel back in time and tap Abe on the shoulder when he was starting his first year of teaching. And first year of being a student, you know, council advisor, knowing what, you know, now, what advice would you, would you give your younger self

Lorne Abramson (37:09):

Just follow your dreams and just I can’t, I can’t say that anything that happened over the years had negative impact, but I just, I don’t, I mean, I, I don’t mean that everything was fantastic, you know? Yeah. But I don’t know, you know, like, like, I, I, I’ve always, like, you know, when I got involved in the diabetes camps, I loved the fact that my daughter who was seven years old at the time that she developed, I don’t know what would happen if we, if she had not developed really good relationships with the, with her friends that went, that were at camp, all who had diabetes and those kids today are 43. Wow. And they’re really good friends. And like, they still are like, it’s mind boggling, you know, like when you think about it. So I feel from on a personal level, you know, I feel like that was a big achievement, you know?

Lorne Abramson (38:21):

And I, I, I, I don’t think, I don’t know. It’s not that I, I did anything extraordinary in that sense. I just feel like though that, that there was a lot there was a, a lot of the things just happened to fall into place. And, you know, and I, I, if I, if to answer your question I don’t know what, I, I don’t know what would’ve happened to me had I not left the whole dentistry dream. Mm. You know there was a, there were a couple of people that, you know, cause I always wanted to be a dentist. I wanted to be an orthodontist. I had a, a cousin of mine who was, who was a dentist and he and I were quite close. And so I, that, that was the reason it wasn’t nothing to do with being a dentist actually.

Lorne Abramson (39:24):

But I, I can’t, I, I if I think back on it, I, when I don’t know, when I made a decision, I was the end of my second year of dentistry at university of Montreal. And I, I think part of me, I loved, I loved being at university of Montreal. I I’m bilingual. And, and for me, I dunno, that was, that was a, a perfect place for me. So I guess when I, when I’m thinking about this, when I made the decision to leave dentistry, people around me were totally in a state of shock. They thought, are you outta your mind? Like, you know, you’re leaving behind the million dollar paycheck, you know, like, what are you crazy? And, and I, and that was everybody. That was my girlfriend, my parents, every everyone that I ever had any contact with, except for one guy, one single guy.

Lorne Abramson (40:42):

And that was the guy who was the, he was the chair of the dental faculty at university of Montreal. And I went to see him, had to go see him, you know, tell I wanted, I wanted to leave or a leave of absence, I guess. And I had, fortunately I had done very well in, in the academic side. So for me, it was, I, it’s still, it’s still a hard thing for me to talk about because I, I know that in today’s world, what I’ve learned from people from younger people is that it’s a different world now. People are changing their, their choices, like all the time. Like it’s like, I, I, I’m always amazed at that. And I, I, I, I’m proud of the fact that they could do that and not fault to pieces. Now I’m sure there are people fault to pieces, but, you know, but then again, you see it a lot, you know, and for me at, at that time, it was such a mind boggling you know, choice that, cause in those days, you know, you, you made a choice in career, you stuck and you, and you stuck with it, you know?

Lorne Abramson (42:21):

And that, that was it. So for me, I, but anyway, at that time, I, I remember thinking, what am I gonna do? And, and I went to see my Dr. Ju his name was and sat in.

Lorne Abramson (42:55):

Don’t do anything that you think that you possibly might not be happy with. And I remember thinking that, I think, well, geez, you know, nobody’s ever told me that before nobody ever said those words, you know? And so I, I said to him, so what, what, what choice he said to me, look, he said, I I’m gonna give you a leave of absence. That’s unlimited. He said, you’ve done. Well. He said, what I’ll do for you is this every five years, I’ll send you to stay in touch with me every five years. I’ll send you a little note saying that if you haven’t made a choice to come back yet, then that’s fine. <Laugh> so I like, this is, this is what went on. This went on Sam, this went on for 20 years. <Laugh> now just think about that. I was a teacher, I, I only became a teacher in 1972.

Lorne Abramson (44:00):

And you know, really, I had no goals of being a T teacher, you know, that was not in my life choice. But I did. And and that’s a whole other conversation, but, but it was, again, a decision that totally made sense, you know, in this, in the sense of what, what kinds of things I was involved in and also, you know, becoming in, in the extracurricular world, it was perfect, cuz I not only did it fit with my going to camp, but also, you know, it had all kinds of other re repercussions. Yeah. And so he and I, Dr. Bushier and I, he was my saving grace. He was at the, there was nobody and, and there’s never been anybody else that that, and from those days, I don’t even know any of the people that I, I, I totally, I, it’s funny cuz my, I think that that time my girlfriend got married and she lives in now.

Lorne Abramson (45:12):

She lives in Florida, I think somewhere. And she and I kind of, you know, we talk once in blue moon and but you know, when I think about it, I dunno, you know, he was it. Yeah. And so, and of course the, the choice for me, I remember about 10 years after I’d been a teacher <laugh> I went to visit my old math teacher from high school who at that point had become the human resources head of human resources for the Montreal Protestant school board. Okay. And so I, I went to see him and he, he, he immediately said, hi Abrams an hour. You know, I was like, you know, that, that gravelly voice. And and I said, look, you know, you were right. I, I went back, made the choice to be a teacher and I’m very happy.

Lorne Abramson (46:17):

So he was really funny. He, I don’t know whether I have this here. Oh, it’s downstairs. He, he turned around and in his shelf he had a bookshelf and his bookshelf, he pulls out this red algebra book. Okay. And he said, I’ve been wondering if you were ever gonna come back and get this book. And he pulls it out and he opens it up and it’s, you know, how they used to have that stamp in the books that you’d have your name and all that, and what grade you were in and all that. And he pulls this thing out and it’s my algebra book, like my algebra book from grade 11 and issues you and I’m thinking yeah, there was all kinds of things like that that happened in my life. That was one of them. I I dunno. I, I can’t, you know, it’s funny cuz part of me, I, those were kind of funny days, you know, where I was making all these choices and and but that being said, it seems to have worked out.

Lorne Abramson (47:41):

<Laugh> just, you know, and I, if I talk to like a lot of times the inter plus eight kids, a lot of them will, you know, will will again ask me about choices. And you know, I said, it doesn’t matter. You know, like you, you can make a choice that you think is not gonna work out for you, but you, you can’t tell, you know, you, you don’t know. I mean, geez, my, my choice of being a teacher was insane. I was working for the department of health and welfare in Halifax for federal government, for family allowance. <Laugh> like, I, cuz I had become, I had become a Stu a social worker. Yeah. Essentially. And and I, I ended up I walked into work one day and here’s this poster on the wall. This is so ridiculous. This post big poster. And it says, do you work for, you know the federal government, do you have an undergraduate degree?

Lorne Abramson (48:54):

Are you interested? And, and, and then tells me that if, if I decide I can, I could go into they’ll, they’ll give me a full scholarship, not gonna cost me anything the full scholarship to do a bachelor of education. And then and then you could become a teacher and, or you could you oh. And by the way, and you’d get, you’d continue to get your full salary <laugh> for the whole year. Right? Oh my gosh. Okay. So I’m thinking to myself, what idiot wouldn’t do this. <Laugh> like, I was just thinking why, why and what it was about was I, later on I realized that the people that, you know, the, the government at the time in Nova Scotia were having a really hard time getting qualified teachers and that they were, they were ending up with teachers who this is not, not really saying anything, but the, the, the fact of the matter is they had a lot of people coming from other countries like India, Pakistan, China the west Indies, you know, a lot who, who didn’t necessarily speak English that well mm.

Lorne Abramson (50:16):

That being said, but they were, they probably had really good math skills. Mm. And but they really needed was a challenge local. Yeah. Yeah. They needed people who were local. And so they were offering this program. <Laugh> God just like, I think, I thought, really this is a program. And so I jumped at it and, oh, and, and then the other thing was when you were finished the year and you became your cuz it was a one year program. When you finished the year, you had the option of not going to become a teacher, but you could just take over your, your old job again.

Sam Demma (50:55):

Oh, wow.

Lorne Abramson (50:56):

I mean, it was, it was, it was such a ridiculous choice that like I thought, like really who, who wouldn’t do this? Yeah. So so I ended up God so I ended up doing that. I went to Mount St. Vincent university in Halifax, which at that time had 10 guys and 1500 girls.

Sam Demma (51:19):

Wow. <laugh>

Lorne Abramson (51:20):

And all 10 of the guys, except for, I think one were all married, had just recently got married. So not, not a good choice, but anyway, at that time and so I had a lot of, of friends that were girls anyway. And a lot of them ended up also at the end of the year, they ended up teaching. Wow. Got jobs at jail mostly. And, you know, so we, we became, we stayed friends for a long, long time. So I, I, and that, that was beginning of my teaching career, you know, and go figure on the first day of, of school, the principal at the time, who was a bit of a jerk, but he, he he actually went thing he was good at was hiring staff. And he, he said first day we had a meeting and he said, okay here’s the things that are available for you to volunteer for <laugh>, you know, was like, you know, everybody in the school was expected to volunteer for something. Mm. And so CA volleyball came up cuz the two volleyball coaches had left the school and they went to teach in the valley somewhere. Okay. In Annapolis valley. And I thought about it. I thought, well, I don’t know anything about volleyball, what the hell? <Laugh> nice. That’s helpful. So that was one of the great choices I ever made. But you know,

Sam Demma (52:56):

I don’t know, it sounds like trusting in your choices is a, sounds like that would be like a piece of advice that you might not know what the end result looks like, but still act confidently now and things will unfold as time passes. It sounds like all of your stories, they often involve other people. So it’s, you know, it sounds like building deep relationships, not only with students, but also with your colleagues and just human beings in general. Sounds like it’s been a big piece of your journey. <Laugh> whether it’s, you know, the doctor of your daughter or, you know the President elect of an association in Scotland. So <laugh> yeah, it’s it’s really cool to kind of hear your stories and, and your pathways and what we could take away from it. If, if there’s a teacher or someone, even if it’s not a teacher listening to this and they wanna connect with you or ask you some questions, what would be the best way for them to get in touch or reach out?

Lorne Abramson (54:00):

Probably just the easiest thing in today’s world would either be by message or, or by email.

Sam Demma (54:06):

Sure.

Lorne Abramson (54:07):

Do you, you, can, you, you can, my email is labramson@eastlink.ca and I don’t mind, millions of people have that email anyway. And so it’s labramson@eastlink.ca. And either that, or if they just looked up the NSSSA or Diabetes Camps, all my information is on there. Okay. So, yeah.

Sam Demma (54:44):

Perfect. Awesome. Hey, thank you so much for taking the time to share some stories. It was really fun and exciting to chat with you, and I appreciate you, you making the time, especially during a very busy time in your own personal life.

Lorne Abramson (54:57):

Ah, well, I’ll come. You can come visit us in our apartment. <Laugh> yeah.

Sam Demma (55:02):

Sounds good. So that’s good.

Lorne Abramson (55:04):

Okay, Sam, thanks very much.

Sam Demma (55:07):

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

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Lorne Abramson

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.

Atul Temurnikar – Co-Founder and Chairman, Global Schools Foundation (Singapore)

Atul Temurnikar - Co-Founder and Chairman, Global Schools Foundation (Singapore)
About Atul Temurnikar

Atul Temurnikar (@atultemurnikar) is a prominent member of the education industry in ASEAN, North & South Asia & Middle East. Now he serves as co-founding trustee and Executive Chairman of Singapore-based Global Schools Foundation (GSF), a not-for-profit organisation.

Mr Temurnikar is a staunch advocate of high-quality education that transcends socio-economic boundaries from Korea to Japan in the East, to Singapore to Malaysia in ASEAN and India and Middle East. His significant efforts in the education sector include as a member of the Schools Sub-committee of the National Integration Committee (NIC) set up by the Government of Singapore.

Mr Atul participated in recommendation of changes to the Indian Foreign Direct Investment’s (FDI) policies for India’s education sector, which were then implemented in 2013 with special cabinet approval. Many of other suggestions given to India’s former MHRD Minister were seen to have been implemented in the NEP 2020.

On the business community front, Mr Temurnikar is instrumental in bringing big ideas and big minds together from Singapore and India, and serves as the Patron of the Singapore chapter of the Institute of Directors (IOD India).

In the past two decades, Mr Temurnikar has been invited by several forum such as Institute of Directors, Horasis, Expert Guest on XL Podcast with Graham Brown on Leadership and Agile Thinking in Education
Expert Guest on MoneyFM 89.3, a Singapore based radio on the topic of mental health issues.

Achievements : Some of Mr Temurnikar’s key accolades include:

Distinguished Fellow award from the Institute of Directors, India;
The Walter L. Hurd Executive Medal, awarded by the Walter Hurd Foundation USA for demonstrating exceptional adherence to quality within and outside an organization;

Award of social recognition for contribution to SINDA in 2006 by then Dy Prime Minister of Singapore, Mr Lee Hsien Loong, for outstanding efforts in social services for the underprivileged in Singapore.

An eloquent speaker, Mr Temurnikar has delivered motivational speeches on leadership, entrepreneurship, life choices and the importance of education including at the Global Convention of the Institute of Directors in London, among others.

He ventured into the education sector after a 16-year technology stint with highly reputable global organisations such as IBM ASEAN South Asia and HCL Technologies.

Growing up in a middle-class family, Atul was among the top 3 students and ranked 3rd Merit among a million students who attended the Grade 12 exams in 1979 in Maharashtra (India) state board examinations.

Connect with Atul: Email | Instagram | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

ASEAN, North & South Asia & Middle East

Global Schools Foundation (GSF)

National Integration Committee (NIC)

Indian Foreign Direct Investment’s (FDI)

Institute of Directors (IOD India)

XL Podcast

MoneyFM 89.3

Distinguished Fellow award of the from the IOD India

The Walter L. Hurd Executive Medal

SINDA

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):

Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Dducator podcast.

Sam Demma (00:59):

This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is Atul Temurnikar. Atul is a prominent member of the educational industry in ASEAN, North and South Asia and the Middle East. Now he serves as co-founding trustee and Executive Chairman of Singapore-based Global Schools Foundation (GSF), a not-for-profit organisation. Atul is a staunch advocate of high quality education that transcends socioeconomic boundaries from Korea to Japan in the east to Singapore, to Malaysia and Asia and India, and the middle east. His significant efforts in the education sector include as a member of the Schools Sub-committee of the National Integration Committee (NIC) set up by the Government of Singapore. His accolades and achievements could be listed for the next 10 minutes. He has done so much for so many young people in the world of education, and I’m so grateful and honored to have him on the podcast here today. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Atul and I look forward to seeing you on the other side. Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today I’m joined by a very special guest, Atul. He is situated all the way across the world. <Laugh> We’re recording this before he goes to bed and right after I am waking up. Atul, please introduce yourself and tell the audience a little bit about yourself.

Atul Temurnikar (02:34):

So good morning everyone listening on this podcast, my name is Atul Temurnikar, and I’m a co-founder and chairman of a school network based all the way in Singapore.

Sam Demma (02:48):

Tell me a little bit about this school network. What inspired you to start it roughly I believe 20 years ago now, or become a part of it. And what does this network aim to do?

Atul Temurnikar (03:00):

So the school network, when we say we are looking at you know, a combination of a preschool primary school, high schools, and and, and these schools are almost like all in one in one location. And we’ve got about 35 schools in a network. These are spread across 10 countries. We are educating about 70 nationalities of students across our schools. It’s a huge diversity, right? So the schools are essentially providing education to all the expats, as well as local citizens of various countries. And the schools aim to be the, the substantially higher quality education providers in their, in their countries and geographies. And we, we are basically using these as community schools to be able to provide a great value proposition to our stakeholders, meaning our students and parents, so that they can get the highest quality of education at the prices that they’re paying so that they can get much better education for their children. And they can go to wonderful and beautiful universities, including the Ivy league universities and the us and UK and all over the world.

Sam Demma (04:13):

What, what inspires you to work on this project? Like tell me a little bit about your journey from, you know a student yourself to where you are today.

Atul Temurnikar (04:25):

So let me take you back. I would say roughly about 35 years back, you know, I was just, just coming out of my high school and and one of my colleagues and me, we kind of decided that we got a summer break. We had, you know, weeks to go for our results to come in. And we said, why don’t we do some activity? You know, like taking some home Touche tuition for students who are aspiring to be, you know, great students in the, in the high level exams. And we kind of gave a small ad in our, in the local city newspaper. And we say, Hey, we are tutors. And we wanna give you some sort of at institutions during this summer break. And unfortunately nobody turned up, maybe the, the ads are not really visible to anyone, or secondly, could be a possibility that we were not seen very credible and very genuine in our approach.

Atul Temurnikar (05:15):

So that was my first with education. When I had just enrolled myself into an engineering, it’s a very prestigious engineering institution in India, in south Asia. And so I began my journey with education with that first point of failure, where I was willing to offer my tuition services. And incidentally, I scored very high, extremely good performance in my high school. I was ranked fourth in the entire state of Matra. And that helped me kind of build my confidence that, you know, academics is something that, you know, you really have to work hard at it, but at the same time, if you get it right, you can really, really score very big in that, that, so with that kind of a background and fast forward to 20 years back I used to work in a very cozy job in IBM, Singapore based out of Singapore covering the whole of Asia region.

Atul Temurnikar (06:10):

And we were able to primarily provide a, a sort of a feedback from the community to try and understand what issues were going on. So when we were looking at it, we realized that there’s a possibility of providing a affordable education for expats who were relocating around the countries who may be not paid by their MMC companies or organizations for their school fees of their children. And so they used to kind of struggle with the budgets. And so we said, Hey, why don’t we look at something like, which is more affordable and we take it to the community and see how, how, how good it goes. And interestingly, very surprisingly to all of us, we realized that when I say we have a couple of friends, you know, just kind of having coffee together and trying with this idea. And so when I announced this particular school in Singapore, right next to the presidential palace of Singapore, and when we got thousands of people turning up to kind of know more about the school and they came to the open house and they said, well, we really like something, which is great value proposition.

Atul Temurnikar (07:21):

We think you guys can do it, but we don’t see anything here. Right? So they had, we had to build confidence. We had to build track record, and that’s how it got started. It, it was mainly a trigger from the community of what they were asking for. And we said, can we package a product together that meets the requirements with the community, rather than saying, Hey, here’s our school. You gotta pay 50 grand a year and, you know, take it or leave it. So we, we kind of did a reverse approach and we said, let’s price the product first and then go back and construct the cost structures so we can make a successful enterprise out of it. And that’s how it got started.

Sam Demma (07:57):

I love the story. Tell me a little bit more about how they, these schools differ from other schools in the area or, or, or, or what makes them from your perspective and the boards and teams perspective, a higher level of education.

Atul Temurnikar (08:14):

So one of the things that really differentiate us, I mean, there are, there are many things that really add to the whole outcomes driven game as we call it performance driven game. One of the basic things that really works for us is we have created a very strong, fundamental tech layer. I would call it the learning technology layer, which is allowing us to kind of bring all schools into one system, be able to have all systems and procedures automated, the workflow’s automated. So in a way, if I were to give you an example of what that tech layer does, it improves the learning for a child by almost 20 to 25% in terms of how we bring and deliver the education to them, and in terms of how they would’ve got it in other schools. And this is based on some primary statistics that we got from benchmarking institutions.

Atul Temurnikar (09:05):

The second thing we have done is really to make sure that teachers are very efficient so that, you know, they don’t really spend too many hours and minutes in trying to do the same redundant jobs, getting piece of information from one place to the other. So the entire teacher’s communication was actually automated. And the third thing we did was really to look at the quality of our academic excellence, you know, how are we delivering this academic lectures and, you know, the whole program and how do we benchmark with respect to top leading world institutions? And so we initiated the benchmarks. And from there, we realized that our education excellence that we were providing was actually really on par with some of the world’s best educational institutions. And as a result of that one of the benchmarks, very popular one, it’s called the Malcolm ball Ridge benchmark from the us, it’s managed by the ball Ridge foundation and the benchmarks are literally universal in the world.

Atul Temurnikar (10:07):

So we started benchmarking each of a campus with that, and it’s a nine parameter benchmark it’s done by independent assessors. And you got no say no control of what they’re gonna see. They basically evaluate the entire campus based on the academic excellence that we are able to offer on evidence basis. And then they come and do a physical inspection of this. And then they finally say, well, are you world class compliant and watch your score? And if not, then where do you stand? So I think this process of vibration really helps all our school stakeholders to be able to understand where do they stand with respect to a world class institution, like out of a score of let’s say 1000, are they in the band of 800 to 900, or are they below 500 that really gives them a great way of measuring their own academic excellence.

Atul Temurnikar (11:00):

And this is done at a process level system level institution level, and then they can really take the, what we call as opportunities for improvements or offi to be able to take back and then kind of create an action plan and improve your educational services. So it’s, it is bits and pieces of each of these things that we’ve been able to put together. So today, if we go to any country, any new markets, we are able to literally get all these things together and bring in a huge amount of synergy and integration with our school system, through the tech layers and through the various systems and excellence models that we’ve created.

Sam Demma (11:38):

That’s amazing. It sounds like this is something you’re extremely passionate about. What, what is the, the hope, the hope or the goal over the next 20 years with the, with the foundation.

Atul Temurnikar (11:52):

So if I were to simplify the hopes and goals, I would say number one, we would like to expand geographically to new markets. We’ve been predominantly in Asia, Southeast Asia, particularly. So the countries like Korea, Japan which part, which are part of north Asia, we have got Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and middle east United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. And and you know, so these are the countries that, where we are already in, but I think education is pretty universal in nature, right? Every country’s got schools and private schools and public schools and they have their own unique character. So our intention is really to expand to markets such as the west European markets of Spain, Portugal, Italy you know, the France and Switzerland. And, and then of course the UK markets and the north American markets of Canada and north America and USA. So idea is that, you know, now that we’ve got a technology driven educational product, can we take this to these markets? And, or can we work with the schools over there? And can we, how can we bring in the synergy so that those schools can really fire their optimum efficiencies, whether it’s a student or teacher or parents, they can really get the best benefits they can. And, and that was, that is one of the major hopes and aspirations that we have to really take this world class education into the different new markets.

Sam Demma (13:25):

It sounds like education has been a big pursuit for yourself in terms of the engineering background and you know, doing really well in high school, ranking forth in your whole region. What resources have you found or courses have you been through or books, have you read that you found were foundational in your own self education?

Atul Temurnikar (13:51):

So, you know it’s very interesting because, you know, engineering is a stream that really gets your thinking and acting very analytically. Yep. And second thing is I had a, you know, the privilege of doing my master’s in business administration from university of east London. So when you combine the principles of management with the engineering aspects, you can create a very different perspective of an educator because when you start understanding education, exactly what are the underlying layers, what are the challenges and how do we put it together and put the entire learning stack together. Then this is where the engineering and the, the principles of management really come in, principles of management, allow you to really apply the aspects of scale and enterprise growth into the entire ecosystem so that you can look at it more like a independently, you know, self-sustaining organization financially prudent complying with all the best practices in finance.

Atul Temurnikar (14:51):

And at the same time apply the aspects of principles of management for talent development, for leadership, scalability and, and also applying the aspects of engineering to the composition of products. I mean in one of our campuses in Singapore, which is going to be featured very soon on a, one of the, as a documentary on one of the most prestigious channels there is a very, very integrated school bus terminal that deals with 600 vehicles at any point in time. And, and, you know, you talk about 120 buses close to 500 cars and taxis, and it’s almost like a school bus terminal upon which school campuses is situated. And this entire technology that we were able to use to make it simplified so that it doesn’t cause and spill our traffic jams into the neighborhoods. And it was able to bring in efficiencies and transport for our own people, our stakeholders.

Atul Temurnikar (15:50):

So we use the simple concepts of engineering for delivering education within the campus through smart learning ways delivering various aspects of learning again, using technology. And then more importantly to make sure that the whole organization as a campus really functions very efficiently and, and, and something that the people look forward to every day is not a place where you can actually, you feel that, oh, it, it is gonna be a liability for us to kind of go there a difficult day already. I’m getting fatigued in, in the learning aspect and then things don’t work. Right. And imagine going to a school where you feel every day, you are more energetic to get up from your bed and go to the schools instead of, you know, staying back at home. And, and we’ve seen that evidence in our students when they come back, when they were coming back slowly from the post COVID stage, and they were coming to the physical schools and they said, we don’t wanna stay at home.

Atul Temurnikar (16:45):

It’s been too much. We would like to come back to school because that’s where we got friends. That’s where we have all our you know, ecosystems of learning. And we can learn better in schools rather than sitting at home and signing in, into a zoom session. So I think that’s really a testimonial coming in from various students and parents that the technologies that are being used in the schools are working and the school systems, which are being designed not to tax them or burden them. You know, there’s sometimes what happens is schools in their enthusiasm start putting too much of tech layers onto the students. So you got like 10 different systems that you need to log in, something for career, something for lessons and homework, something else to talk to the teacher there, you’ve got WhatsApp channels going on, you know, social media fees going on ly, or Instagram’s coming in, you know kind of disturbing all the students.

Atul Temurnikar (17:36):

But I think that’s what we are trying to do, simplify the entire effort in, in the ecosystem of communications, in, in what you’re trying to learn and make it very easy for, for students to kind of, you know, seamlessly move from one place to the other place, be it virtual, be it offline education. And this is where an institution’s tech background really makes a big difference in the way it can be put together. And this is not available of the shelf. Mind you, we’ve got our own technology company which has close to about 80 software developers working for us fulltime, and they build up bridges and they build the technologies for us so that everything can be managed very coherently seamlessly across and the information and the services cetera can be provided to students in a much more efficient way.

Sam Demma (18:26):

That’s awesome. How did your school’s transition during the COVID 19 pandemic when that all unfolded what, what shifted or had to happen or change in your schools?

Atul Temurnikar (18:39):

So we had a very unique experience in, in case of just when the COVID was about to happen, or let me take you to 2018. So during 2018, we actually implemented a new brand new campus called a smart campus in Singapore. And essentially what it does is it has all elements of technology in the classroom, meaning that you can have hybrid lessons in the classroom. Now, people asked us, why did you do it? Were you like, you know, sounded off that COVID is gonna come. And obviously nobody knew COVID is gonna come, but we implemented those technologies to bring in the, what we call as a student exchange programs so that students can sit in their classrooms exchange a, a sort of a lecture, or, you know, have a joint lecture on some topic with any other classrooms of any other campuses. And when they, with this technology was implemented.

Atul Temurnikar (19:31):

And just about when the COVID happened in the Jan of Feb of 2020, we already had the underlying technology in place. All we had to do was just roll it out to all the users. It was probably pre COVID rolled out to about 20% of the users. And then we overnight within a week I think Japan was the first country that immediately applied to lockdowns. And as soon as we got a lockdown message and we said, everything is closed down, we took just seven days. Our tech team was fabulous. It took seven days implemented the zoom, what we call the zoom webinar sessions across all campuses. And everybody was on virtual, just a maximum a week of kind of interruption. And, and that really gave a huge head start because it meant that the students that did not have any negative impact of the COVID, especially during when many countries were under lockdown and, you know, like every country due to regulations and how the things were evolving were actually bringing in the reversals and lockdowns at a different rate and a different pace. So that helped us. And we were able to make sure that every single student was on virtual, every single teacher was able to provide those tutorials and hold the classrooms without actually missing out on any single period. I think that’s how it really helped us. And the parents did recognize that we were very quick to come back with this virtual concept, and that was very helpful to everyone and highly appreciate it across the communities.

Sam Demma (21:12):

This is amazing roughly how many students are across all the different campuses. Like, do you know some of the numbers around, you know, how many students are involved? I think you said there’s roughly 30 fives, 35 campuses or schools now.

Atul Temurnikar (21:27):

Yeah. 35 campuses. And we’ve got close to about 31,500 students.

Sam Demma (21:33):

Wow. That’s this is awesome. Take me back to year one of, of starting this, did it start with one campus and like, how has the growth continued over the past 20 years?

Atul Temurnikar (21:49):

So when we started with the first campus I think on day one, we probably had just about under 50 students. And, but by the end of first year, we were almost like three 50 to 400 students in the first campus. And at the word of mouth really was extremely beneficial to us because the value proposition was so similarly compelling that the word of mouth really was like a typical social media wildfire. You know, it, it just went around everywhere and we didn’t have to do any marketing. In fact, the first five years of us campus, we were with zero marketing costs and a hundred percent word of mouth. And, and of course, when we started expanding to other countries, again, it was a action of border mouth, as we were being invited to Japan and Malaysia to come and set up campuses because they said, this is great.

Atul Temurnikar (22:38):

You know, we would love to have international education, but we’d love to kind of, you know, get it at the right, right price point. And that was what we were able to deliver. So in a way it was a great experiment that we started and we were able to make sure that it was sustainable. It was not something like a fly by night kind of operator idea that, you know, after two years, just, you just raise your hands and say, sorry, but my idea was different. You know, we can’t run the schools this way. <Laugh> so I think that way it was extremely you know, well planned and well executed. And we had a fantastic team that was doing work on the job on the ground, making sure that, you know, every aspect of these infant stages of every school, you know, the early years of every school, the first two to four years were taken care of with all diligence, as well as making sure that everybody was pretty satisfied with it.

Sam Demma (23:32):

What does a day in the life of a student, on one of these campuses look like, and does it differ at all from other schools? Like I know here in Canada, you know, our schools are quad master based, meaning students will, you know, do four classes per semester. And it, the school is broken down into the school year is broken down into two, like two sections of, of four classes each. Some schools here even do eight courses per semester. I’m curious to know what does the average day look like for a student in one of your school campuses?

Atul Temurnikar (24:12):

So you know, in as opposed to four quads, we have three terms in a year and these are organized obviously by four months each and we offer multiple curriculums. So each curriculum has a different start timing for it. For example, IB starts somewhere around July or August, depending on which country, which campus, and the, the way, if you look at it as a, a day in life of a student is, is basically trying to the students would be basically coming to the schools. And you know, they have these terms and within each terms, they have the monthly units. And then within each monthly units, they have the weekly units. So in a way it would be, you know, the minimum unit would be like a week and during a week, then they would have their plans and academy calendars.

Atul Temurnikar (25:04):

They need to finish up those classes periods. They need to be able to achieve a certain predefined learning outcomes. And then they proceed onto the next week. So it’s almost like a week by week scheduling that goes on, but it takes sure that the students have enough bandwidth and enough kind of know buffer time for them to be able to complete that week’s period and then be able to take off to the next week. So to the students, it is pretty seamless, but actually when the teachers are looking at it, it’s pretty much week by week. And making sure that, you know, you might have some sudden changes and sudden closure of schools because of maybe COVID issues or whatever it is, but then they wanna make sure that, you know, you are completely following the calendar all the way to make sure that you end it on the right times within that month and within those terms.

Atul Temurnikar (25:56):

And, and so there’s a discipline involved to make sure that it works. And also from a student point of view, it’s kind of, I would say a bit more structured in a much more peaceful way so that the students don’t really get P down by too much of workloads. You know, there are different learning spaces that every student has, their speed varies from student to student. So the system allows for everybody to kind of, and we are not a selective school in many of the campuses, or in fact, in all of the campuses, we are not a selective school. So we, we take in students who overcome to us and we make sure that they get the best out of this education and, and they, they can learn incrementally much more than that, what they would’ve learned in any other school in the neighborhood. So that’s one of value prop is to the students and that’s how they experience it.

Sam Demma (26:49):

That’s awesome. It, yeah, it’s, it’s so fascinating and cool to hear about this network of schools, and I hope it continues to expand and ma makes a significant impact, not only in, in Asia, but, you know, con continues the branch into Europe and hopefully in, in north America. It’s yeah, I think it’s really needed. It’s something that’s that that’s making a difference right now. You mentioned one of the schools that will be featured in a little documentary as well. I’m curious to know a little bit more about that.

Atul Temurnikar (27:22):

Yeah. So, you know, we, we operate out of the main headquarters are based out of Singapore and Singapore, as you know, in Asia and in the world, it’s called a smart nation, right? It’s one of those most happening countries in the world you know, great living indexes the best business environments, you know, it’s been tops in many, many areas. And I think one of the things that we think is to really create schools, which are marque schools in terms of the smart aspect of it, and that’s how we created the smart campus. And we took about two years to design it in about three years to construct it. And, and so we completed that in 2018. So the one of the TV channels came to know about this smart campus. And probably they read about it, or they were interested in how smart campuses or some people may call it digital campuses.

Atul Temurnikar (28:23):

But I I’m, I’m referring to smart because use the right amount of technology to deliver the right amount of learning outcomes. And so they picked it up and they reached out to us and they said, well, you have a smart campus in a country called Singapore and your country is known as the smart nation. Would you like to feature your campus on our channel? And we said, yes. Now we had agreed to that pre COVID and fortunately COVID happened. So they let the COVID pass. And then they came back to the post COVID period, and now they will be showing that documentary on the net geo channel, the national geo channel, sometime it would be scheduled from August mid August onwards.

Sam Demma (29:06):

Wow. That’s awesome. It’s that, that’s very exciting when, when you say smart campus and then you use the word digital, is it, is it all a digital experience or do students actually go to this campus?

Atul Temurnikar (29:21):

Yeah. So a simple definition between what a smart is and digital is everything that is smart has to be digital about it. Cool. right now that’s one second thing is why it is smart and not just digital is because it carries a huge amount of analytics mm-hmm <affirmative> and today’s context. You could call it artificial collisions, you could call it you know, data analytics, or we call it simply data analytics, everything that we do, we measure everything that we measure. We know what we are doing, good, what we are doing bad, or what we are doing average. We pick up all the averages and all the things, which we are not doing good, pick it up, feed it back into the system and let everybody improve on it. And that includes student teachers, everybody, including us and me. And that is how we make the system smart.

Atul Temurnikar (30:07):

Every aspect of the functionality of this goal becomes a measurable with performance analytics and to be able to, you know, craft out the necessary strategies to make that whole thing work. So that way it is a smart campus. And when, when this documentary comes out, you will see how every technology has been used in a particular way, whether it is a sports basketball game, right? We use the same technology that NBA Lakers and many of the NBA teams use whether it is soccer. You know, when you are playing games on the court, actually it’s recording the whole game via tokens and via technologies onto computers and servers. And you can play back, replay back the games, and you can see the player performances. Now that is the analytical aspect of the game. And that is extremely important to a child or student, the moment they played a game. So these analytics were not available. If you just play a normal game with the coaches giving you instructions

Atul Temurnikar (31:10):

That would actually mean that the coaches will be, you’ll be relying on the aspect of what the coaches are gonna tell you, but here not only coaches are able to tell you more pinpointed data, but they’re able to tell you, these are your strengths. These are your weaknesses. These are your improvement areas, come and prepare for it. So the next game you can do better than this. So there’s a very clear measurement. So I think not just sports and fine arts in, in academic aspects of the learning everywhere, we use smart technologies and in our technologies really measure everything student wise and make sure that the data we can give it to them is in a performance improvement more. And so therefore every child is more excited to see, okay, tell me, what else can I do teach? Can I, can I do something else different? Tell me where I can improve. So it becomes very, self-driven motivated kind of exercise rather than somebody come and, you know, knocks on your head and says, you know, you’re not good in this. You’re not good in that. And, and probably you’re good for nothing. And then you start this negative aspects of, you know, demotivational theory and, and really that’s not required. So student can see what they need to do. And, and, and these analytical tools are very, very effective in, in making sure it’s a self-motivated improvement.

Sam Demma (32:24):

You’ll have to share the documentary with me when it comes out. I can put a link to it in the featured article that we do on this podcast interview. Cause I, I would love to watch it and I’m sure other educators would as well. If, if someone is listening to this and wants to reach out, ask you a question, connect and have a conversation, what would be the best way for them to get in touch with you?

Atul Temurnikar (32:46):

I think they can get in touch with us on LinkedIn and they can also get in touch with us through our websites or they can email it to me at atul@myglobalschool.org.

Sam Demma (33:00):

Awesome. Atul, thank you so much for taking the time this evening for you to come on the podcast. It means the world to me. The, the work you’re doing is amazing. It’s phenomenal, and I hope it continues to spread. Please keep doing the great work and we’ll talk soon.

Atul Temurnikar (33:16):

Thank you so much. And thanks for having me. It was wonderful talking to you.

Sam Demma (33:21):

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

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Atul Temurnikar

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.

Dan Wolfe – Assistant Principal at Sunray Elementary School in Pasco County, Florida

Dan Wolfe – Assistant Principal at at Sunray Elementary School in Pasco County, Florida
About Dan Wolfe

Dan Wolfe has served in Pasco County, Florida for more than 20 years. During this time, he has held roles as a teacher, instructional coach and administrator. He is currently an Assistant Principal at Sunray Elementary. He was selected as Pasco County’s District Teacher of the Year in 2011-2012 school year. He is a part of the district’s Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Committee that recently established Pre-K through Grade 12 SEL standards.

For the past two years Dan has written a blog and recorded a podcast called Becoming The Change (formerly Our Moral Compass) which focuses on a different quote each day and how we can best apply it towards becoming the change through our own moral compass and the five areas in SEL. 

Connect with Dan: Email | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Sunray Elementary Elementary School

Pasco County Schools

Pasco County Schools Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Committee

Becoming The Change Podcast

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):

Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast.

Sam Demma (00:59):

This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest on the podcast is Dan Wolfe. Dan has served in Pasco County, Florida for more than 20 years. During this time, he has held roles as a teacher, instructional coach, and administrator. He is currently an assistant principal at Sunray elementary. He was selected as Pasco County’s district teacher of the year in the 2011/2012 school year. He is a part of the district’s Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Committee that recently established Pre-K through Grade 12 SEL standards. For the past two years, Dan has written a blog and recorded a podcast called becoming the change, which focuses on a different quote each day, and how we can best apply it towards becoming the change through our own moral compass in the five areas in social/emotional learning. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Dan Wolfe and I will see you on the other side. Dan, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here today. Please start by introducing yourself.

Dan Wolfe (02:00):

All right. Thank you so much for having me on Sam. I really appreciate it. My name is Dan Wolfe and I’m assistant principal at Sunray elementary in Pasco County, Florida. I just completed my 25th year in education where I have held multiple roles as a classroom teacher, instructional math coach, district math specialist, where I supported 18 title one schools kindergarten through 12th grade, and then also as an administrator. And my next step after assistant principal is hopefully to be a principal within the next year or so.

Sam Demma (02:32):

That’s awesome, man. When did you realize growing up that you wanted to work in education?

Dan Wolfe (02:38):

Well it started actually in high school, we actually, in my, in my high school, we had a child development course where three days a week we had pre-K students that would come visit and we got to teach lessons and things that we had planned out for learning how to do all that from, from our teachers and interact with the kids and work with them. And it just, it was just kind of like a bug that just kind of bit me and just that it was something I knew I wanted to do. And then in the summers I would go ahead and be a camp counselor, like a sports camp counselor and just enjoyed educating the kids, even in sports. And I said, this is, this is definitely my calling. So

Sam Demma (03:14):

That’s awesome. From, from the moments you realize it was your calling, what did the journey look like that brought you to where you are today?

Dan Wolfe (03:23):

Well, at the time it was kind of unclear. I, I, you know, I just took, you know, one step at a time. I mean, once I, I was blessed enough once I, I interned in a kindergarten classroom, which is, is kind of weird having a male and a kindergarten class, cuz a lot of the kids didn’t speak to me for the first couple weeks. They’re like, what’s this guy doing in here, but then they really warmed up towards the end of my, you know, middle and end of my internship and just really enjoyed it. And I was blessed to actually be hired at that school too. Mid-Year so I got a, a mini contract to finish out the year and then was able to be a part of the staff for the the next few years. And then that’s when I, I kind of got was interested in the leadership aspect.

Dan Wolfe (04:06):

I had been team leader, things like that. So that’s where you know, the, the administrative act aspect really came into focus. And one of the you know, after I had become a coach for a while and things like that, what I always wanted to promise myself was never to forget what it was like to be in the classroom. So when I became an administrator, cuz I feel like sometimes not, not all administrators, but there’s some that do forget and they don’t look at it through that lens anymore of what it’s like to be in the classroom. And I always had told my staff and I tell my staff to this day, if I ever forget or anything like that, please remind me because that’s, I, I wanna keep myself in check too, because it it’s very important for me to have that.

Dan Wolfe (04:49):

We ask the teachers to have that vividness in the classroom. I think as an administrator, you’ve gotta have that vividness with your staff and your students as well. So but yeah, so it just, you know, and it’s just as, you know, leaving no stone unturned I think is, is just very important in the field of education is just finding out cuz you, you only go through this life once mm-hmm <affirmative> and you don’t wanna have any regrets. And you just wanna it’s kind of like the saying go big or go home and that’s what you wanna do in, in this life and in this field of education, cuz there’s so many opportunities out there,

Sam Demma (05:24):

Most people on their 25th anniversary of anything probably cut a cake and have a party. And maybe you did that, but you’re you also wrote a book <laugh> so can we talk about it for a second? What inspired you to write the book and, and what is it all about?

Dan Wolfe (05:42):

Sure. so yes. Yeah. So I just recently had a book called becoming the change five essential elements for being your best self. And it’s it came out June 1st and it’s it’s available on Amazon and how it all came to be was our, our county was really big into social, emotional learning otherwise known as SEL since we have a million different acronyms, but just in case for listeners that did know what SEL was, that’s what it stands for. And what we decided to do as a district was develop pre-K through 12 SDL standards. So we could have that continuum just like we do for the academics. We wanna do it for the social emotional part because it’s like that Maslow before bloom philosophy, you can’t get to that bloom part. And so you have the Maslow mm.

Dan Wolfe (06:31):

You have to Maslow before you bloom is what they say. So so what we did is we developed standards in the there’s five elements or areas there’s self-awareness self-management social awareness relationship skills and responsible decision making. And while I was interacting with the group and everything, I I’m a big fan of quotes. And I came across a quote by Michelle Obama. And she referred to things as you know always reflecting on your own moral compass. And I just had this visual of that, those five elements are like our, our own moral compass within each of us. You might not even even know you’ve had it, you’ve always had it within you. They’ve kind of guided you through life cert during certain things, you know, whether it’s making responsible decisions or enhancing those relationships or, you know, or, or just knowing where you stand in the world, that self-awareness piece.

Dan Wolfe (07:26):

So what I decided to do is I decided to write a daily blog. I originally titled it, our moral compass, which eventually got changed to becoming the change just cuz it just, it kind of fit better into, you know, we were talking about that trajectory in life and things. So that was kind of like one of these things, you start off one thing, but that’s, you’re always open the change. So so I, I, what I did with the blog is I went ahead and took different quotes by different famous people. And then I would analyze them how it, how what it meant to me. Mm. And then I would go ahead and write about it and then ask the, the the reader, what it meant to them. Because when you look at a quote that you might have read 10 years ago, and then you read it again today, I’m sure it probably means something different, entirely different than it did back then because of your experiences, you know, and whatever you do, not just education, but just in life in general, you you’ve grown that much more.

Dan Wolfe (08:19):

So it’s gonna mean something different to you. So that’s what I started with and then decided, you know, why don’t I turn that into a podcast? So all was all I did was just re you know, record previous readings that I had done. And then just put it out there for the, you know, social media for the listeners, just, just for fun, just, you know, people listen to it. Great. If they didn’t that’s okay, too, if it, if it had some kind of impact on somebody that’s all that mattered. Hmm. And then all of a sudden the pandemic hit as it did for everybody <laugh>. And, and so I wanted to do something, you know, once I was done with my school day, I said, you know, know, I feel like I need to do something more, a way to kind of give back.

Dan Wolfe (08:58):

So I decided then to go ahead and write this book called becoming the change. And what it essentially has is it has a self-assessment within there where you go ahead and a, it has questions that, or statements that you go ahead and answer based on the five elements of where you are currently. And you’ve gotta be, this is where you have to be vulnerable. You know, we ask our students in education to be vulnerable. We, as educators are just, as people have to be vulnerable too. And the only way it change is ever gonna happen is if we’re honest with ourselves. So you have to be honest when you answer these questions within there. And then it’s gonna show you your strengths and it’s gonna show you your limitations. I don’t like to use the word weaknesses because I feel like it has a negative connotation where limit limitations, you know, you still have that area for, for, for growth.

Dan Wolfe (09:49):

And sometimes the limits we have are the ones that we put on ourselves. So you know, so within that what you’re able to go ahead and do is you go ahead and read it. Each chapter is broken down for each of the different elements. And what I have at the end of each chapter is if there, if your listeners remember in the seventies, eighties and nineties, there was a choose your own adventure book where you’d get to certain pages in the book. And then you, if you flip to this page, you know, there could have been a fire breathing dragon, or you, you know, went to another page. It was like treasure. Well, I don’t have any of that in my book, but what, what you’re able to go ahead and do is it’s your life, it’s your own adventure.

Dan Wolfe (10:30):

You get to choose a pathway. So if you’re strong and let’s say self-management, and you want to deepen, you know yourself in that area, you would read that chapter and then you get to choose what next, you can choose another strength, or you could choose a limitation and then eventually be able to read the whole book, but again, in the order that you want and I’ve throughout the book, I’ve got a lot of I have what are called compass checks along the way. And they’re basically things I, I pulled some of my blogs that I’d written from a couple years ago and put those throughout for each of the different areas. You know, so, so it’s got different facets, and then I have an image of that compass, just like you have a compass when you if you get lost in the woods, you, you look at that compass, it’s got the north south, east and west.

Dan Wolfe (11:17):

Well, that’s how the moral compass is set up with the five elements in the center at, at the epicenter is self-awareness. And then at each of the other four Cardinal directions are the other four elements. Mm. So it all comes back to self-awareness and some, and some days you lean on other elements more than than others. And but it, the one thing that’s good about the self-assessment is you can take it multiple times after you’ve, you know, focused on some different strategies that are within the book and everything, and then see if you’ve grown in those areas and, you know so it’s, it, it’s something you can use time and time again.

Sam Demma (11:54):

That’s awesome, man. How long did it take you to pull this resource together? Was it something you worked on throughout the entire pandemic? I’m just curious to hear a little bit about the process.

Dan Wolfe (12:03):

Yeah. Yeah. So it it went ahead and since, like I said, I had a lot of time on my hands when I wasn’t, you know, at school, I, I was just, I, I just had something, you know, just it’s, it’s just like anything else when you get really passionate about something and you just can’t stop, you know, there were times that kind of felt like I was back in college, again, pulling all nighters or whatever, trying to, because I just had to get these thoughts out. Yeah. And then probably, you know it I’d say it took a good, you know, five or six months to go ahead and, and write it and, you know, edit, and, and then it was just trying to learn the process. I mean, I had no idea once I thought that part was hard, just writing the book itself, which it was don’t don’t don’t get me wrong.

Dan Wolfe (12:44):

It definitely was. But then trying to have someone take a chance on you and wanna publish it cuz you know, you know, if you don’t have a lot big social media following or, you know, whatever it is, you’re just not that famous person. You know, they’re not always apt to go ahead and, you know, take a chance on you. I had over 40 rejections it wasn’t until ID finished the book probably in, you know, close to the summer of 2020. And I didn’t get have an interest in it until probably the fall of 2021. And that is when rode awesome, who I’m forever grateful and blessed to, to have taken a chance on me went ahead and showed some interest and we met and everything and you know I got to learn so much within the process.

Dan Wolfe (13:36):

Just even self-promoting and doing, which is not something I normally do. I’m very, I like to keep to myself and everything, but I said, you only go, this might be my only time I ever get the chance to go through something like this. So just pull out all the stops. But this, this was just important to me also to also not only prove to myself, but prove to my students and to prove to my daughter too, you know, about never giving up perseverance and just being able to overcome. And though though, I wasn’t, you know, I was confident that it was, it was gonna happen one day. I just didn’t know when, but I’m just glad I I’m glad I didn’t give up. And yeah,

Sam Demma (14:14):

That’s awesome, man. I love it. When you’re not working on the book or working at school, how do you fill up your own cup? What are some of the things that you do to ensure that you’re showing up to the best of your abilities at work?

Dan Wolfe (14:29):

Well, I think first and foremost, I, I wouldn’t be here without my family love and support of my wife and, and my daughter. And just having that time with them being able to, you know we live down here in Florida, so we’ve got the advantage of going to Disney world or, or things like that, cuz we’re pretty close to it. So that’s kind of like our vice as a family and we’ve done that, that always since she was little. So it’s just, it’s, that’s just, that’s just our thing and being able to do that. And I think it’s just important to always stay grounded to, they talk about work life balance, which is it’s very hard to do. And I don’t know if you can ever really, truly find that balance, but you can definitely put in the effort to make sure.

Dan Wolfe (15:10):

I, I, I think that that’s very important and also just the self care. I, I think, you know taking time, whether it’s, you know, you know, going to the gym, exercising, listening, the podcasts, reading just some of meditating, whatever else, you know, just some of those kinds of things, because if you’re not taking care of yourself, you can’t take care of others in the field of education. And that, that’s a, that’s a huge thing. Otherwise, cuz if you’re burning the bridge at both ends you’re not, you’re not being a benefit to anybody. So that, that’s huge.

Sam Demma (15:42):

When you think about the field of education, who are some individuals in your life personally, who have had a significant impact on you? Obviously your family you’ve mentioned them, but when you think about work, have you had, you know, mentors or people who have changed your beliefs helped you identified your blind spots and limiting beliefs and helped you grow into the school leader you are today?

Dan Wolfe (16:04):

Yeah. So one of ’em was definitely one of my college professors actually in graduate school Dr. Clint Wright he just, he just said it like it was and just told the importance of it. Wasn’t all just about what was in the textbook or anything else like that. He just, he just spoke to you as you would hope an administrator would and you could kind of look at it through the lens of what he was talking about. There are two quotes. Actually, yeah, there’s two quotes that he, that really stood out to me from him. One of ’em was if it’s to be it’s up to me that anything you want in life you’ve gotta go out and get it life. Isn’t gonna give you, gonna put it out on, on a silver platter for you.

Dan Wolfe (16:47):

You need to go out and get it. In my 25 years most of my time has been spent at title one schools, which are the lower socioeconomic status. And I, I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. Because just being able to tell the students there, the potentials that they have, that their, their life script has not been written yet. They get to write it themselves and being able to tell them if it’s to be it’s up to them, I’ll be there as that guide on the side, but in kind of giving them that push, but they’re the ones that can really make it to that next level. And then he said another quote as an administrator that I ha I try to always remember it’s a poor frog that doesn’t praise its own pond and it’s always letting others know how grateful you are for them.

Dan Wolfe (17:36):

And again, showing ’em, you know, telling ’em specifically, not just saying thank you, but thank you for what, what is it that, you know, to let them know that they matter? And again, it, it doesn’t matter what the position teacher, custodian, food and nutrition, office staff, whoever they’re everybody’s of value and they’re of equal value. And I always look at titles as just titles. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s what you do behind the title. That is what that is, what truly means something so that Dr. Clint Wright was for one thing a big mentor in my life. And then another one is Todd Cluff. He just recently retired from our county. He’s still doing consulting for leadership and everything else like that. But he really showed me what it’s all about to be that servant leader.

Dan Wolfe (18:25):

I had mentioned earlier in, in the podcast that I was part of like I did, I was a curriculum specialist where I supported 18 different schools, kindergarten through 12th grade that we had at one time in our county, what were called regional teams. We were the Northwest regional team and we all 18 schools were title one. And what we were able to do is kind of flip the script as far as showing schools that we were supporting them, that we were all family, that it wasn’t like uhoh, district’s coming out, cuz we’re all part of the same district. It was never, and he led the charge and all of that, just to show that grace that compassion it just, it, it was all about those relationships because that’s, what’s really gonna push you through any any challenges or obstacles that are in the way it’s the, it’s the trust and everything.

Dan Wolfe (19:15):

And, and he was able to show that and serve first and lead second and just, just his teachings and just watching him do what he, what he did just always amazed me and I did. And he was always still positive. And just try to it, it was, it went beyond data scores and things like that. It was about the people, it was about the kids. It was about the culture E each school. There’s no title one school, just like there’s no, non-Title one school, that’s the same. You can cross the street and you’re gonna have a different kind of culture, a different dynamic, a different need. And we were able to differentiate between those 18 schools over, you know, the, the time that we were a regional team and it’s definitely memories. I’d never, you know, trade for the world and it just, it made he made me a better leader because of it. So I’m a forever grateful to him.

Sam Demma (20:09):

Hmm. It sounds like they both had a significant impact on you. And I think having a significant impact on others is really one of the main reasons why people get into education. Everyone hopes they can help inspire young minds and guide them on their path and be a resource. I’m curious if there are any stories that come to mind of students who have been impacted by, you know, your leadership or the leadership of the staff around you that you have watched kind of soar. And the reason I ask is because sometimes educators forget why they started teaching, especially during very difficult moments. And I think at the heart of it sometimes the heart of the reason why they get into education is because they wanna make a positive change. So these stories of transformation in the student might help rekindle that fire in their, in their heart to keep going. Do you have any stories that come to mind of, of students or

Dan Wolfe (21:06):

Yes, I actually have. I have two, one as a teacher and then one as an administrator. Cool. And what’s interesting is, you know, both had a significant impact, but it’s from a different lens. And I think that that’s the and with the teacher one, it was early on in my educational career. It was a a girl in my class that could not read. Her mom had said her last couple of teachers that she’s had told her, told her already your, your daughter’s probably never going to read. So basically, you know, kind of like, I mean, again, I wasn’t there to hear it, but she basically told me it was like, kind of like the throw in towel. And she was like third grade. And that wasn’t, you know, again, I was in my second or third year.

Dan Wolfe (21:49):

I mean, something like that, throwing in the towel was not in my vocabulary to go ahead and do that. And I said, we’re, I’m gonna do all that I can. So what I even did is I went ahead and tutored her after school as well. And we continued to work on, we did site words. We did a lot with phonics and things like that, all those things to go ahead and build up her confidence within there. And I just told her I would be there every step of the way. And long story short, she was able to read. And she even, we had, we had a state test that year, where in Florida, if they don’t pass the state test and reading they’re automatically retained in third grade. So, but she passed. Mm. So she was able to, and the mom just was so thrilled, not because of the passing part, but the fact that her child could sit with her now and read and everything.

Dan Wolfe (22:40):

And I mean, I, and again, I don’t, I don’t ever take the credit for those kinds of things. I, I, that’s just, cuz it’s a team effort and you know, she put as much work into it as well. But it was just showing her that never quit attitude. And you know, I, I’m not sure what ha you know, it is been quite some time now, so I’m hoping she’s doing quite well, but I mean, just that, that right there, that that’s your why to be able to do that. Now from an administrator lens, it was a little bit different. Of course, fast forward, you know, quite a few years and a lot of things that as you know, across across the world, the nation, everything like that is a lot with mental health and the importance behind that. And we have within our district like threat assessments and things like that that we have to do, whether it’s threat to others or threat to themselves.

Dan Wolfe (23:31):

I had a student that was in fourth grade just a few years ago. He just had a lot of just threats to self and I mean, it never only, you know, once or twice did they have to, you know, you know be baker acted or things like that to be able to get the help, but there was a program called safe and home that, that is within our county and within our state where they have intensive services, where they even the counselors push into the home, help with coping skills and strategies. And you have to put in a lot of, you know, it’s not, you have to put in a lot of paperwork and requests to kind of get to that point and be able to, but I, I just knew that we needed to do all we could as a school to get him on cuz he had, so he had so much potential and, you know, just, just because of whether it was home life or whatever else or just his own self-esteem was suffering because of all this.

Dan Wolfe (24:29):

And you know, like I said, counselors would push in, they would go ahead and show skills self coping skills for the students they’d even work with the, the family as well of how the, you know, best help, you know, parenting strategies, cuz again, they don’t have those handbooks or things just to hand to the parents to say, here he goes, this is how you raise your child or anything like that. But fast forward a year later in fifth grade we have turnaround student awards and he was a turnaround student in his class and just the confidence in things like that. And you know, he was very closed off and everything. And one of the things that he even did when he, when he saw me recently is even just, he gave me a hug, he just came right up and I mean, I never would’ve expected that or anything else like that, but it’s just, I saw such a side to him that I always knew was there, but I was just, I would just hope that I just was able to help be that glimmer, that flicker of hope in his life to, you know, to, to show him that that, that things are possible.

Dan Wolfe (25:32):

You know, so those are two examples, you know, you know, of the kind of impact and it just kind of always rekindles that why, and, you know, just, just to be there and just just one of the sayings that we have at our school is my job is to keep you safe and your job is to help keep it safe and that’s not just physically safe, but that’s socially and emotionally safe. And I think one of the biggest things is educators out of the five elements is that social awareness piece where you try to look at it through the lens of others and it’s not just for the kids, but for your staff or whatever. It’s more about empathizing more than sympathizing within there. And it’s just, I, I think that’s just an attribute or an element that I think needs to be more pervasive as a society now more than ever with all that’s going on in the world right now is that social awareness piece. But yeah, so,

Sam Demma (26:26):

Ah, I love it, man. Thank you for sharing those stories. I know that whoever is listening is definitely feeling inspired or reminded about the impact education can have when you lead with self-awareness and as a servant leader, like your mentor, would’ve taught you and, and you know Clint yeah, your professor. When you think about your experiences in education, if you could bundle them all up, travel back in time to the first year, you stepped into a classroom to teach knowing what you know now, what advice would you have, you know, shared with you younger self, not because you wanted to change something about your path or journey, but because you thought it might have been helpful to hear at the start of your career

Dan Wolfe (27:10):

Perfectionism is a myth and it it’s important to be vulnerable. I think those are, I mean, it it’s something that you, you think that everything has, has to go a certain way. And you you’ve got your, your, your script or whatever your lesson plans in front of you, but they never go according to plan. And if they, you know, and you know, sometimes they go better than expected and then other times you think it was gonna be an awesome lesson and then it crashes and burns and that’s okay. The way that I look at it is in, in our county, we are, you know, in our state we have 180 school days. So I look at it and I tell a lot of today’s younger teachers too. It’s weird to me to say younger teachers now because I used to be one of ’em and <laugh>, I remember I had veteran teachers saying, Dan, you’ll be there one day soon.

Dan Wolfe (28:01):

And they were right. But I look at it there’s 180 or like 180 performances kind of like on stage, you know, not, you, you think of it as actors and actresses, not every play or performance goes well, but if one doesn’t go, well, you got 179 more to, to do better and you always try to, you know, you’re never gonna have that perfect one and that’s okay, but that’s what strives you to try to get to that. But when I, and that vulnerability that’s something not only as a beginning teacher, but even as a veteran teacher, it’s okay to have that. I, I even have it as an administrator, if I don’t know the answer to something or I make a mistake in something I’ll either, you know, I’m definitely gonna own up to it. If it’s a mistake or whatever, and say, I’ll fix that.

Dan Wolfe (28:48):

And I’m sorry that, you know, whatever it was, didn’t turn out the way that, whether it was a decision I made or, or anything else like that, that I thought would’ve turned out better. And it didn’t, or if I didn’t know the answer to something, I will go ahead and ask somebody that does, cuz I won’t have all the answers and I’m not gonna pretend like I do because you give the wrong answer, you get into a, a deeper hole than you started and, and you might as well just come out and say, okay, I don’t really know, but let me find out. I, I think as, as my advice to, you know my younger self would just be, you know trust the process and just be vulnerable.

Sam Demma (29:23):

Love that. It’s awesome. Thank you so much Dan for taking the time to come on the show and share a little bit about your book and your beliefs around education. If someone’s listening, wants to reach out, get in touch, what would be the best way for them to send you a message?

Dan Wolfe (29:39):

So probably the best way, I’m definitely Twitter is definitely my social media jam or whatever in regards to it. So my Twitter handle is @servleadinspire. So it doesn’t have the “e” on “serve” and it’s not that I can’t spell. It’s just that it won’t allow that many characters within the handle. So I said, so I do know how to spell serve. I just can’t spell it the way I want to on Twitter, but anyways <laugh>, but that’s, that’s probably the best way to definitely feel free to follow you know, or, you know, send me a DM, whatever, you know, anything I can do to help, you know we’re all, we’re all in this together.

Sam Demma (30:23):

Awesome. Dan, thank you again. Keep up with the great work and we’ll talk soon my friend.

Dan Wolfe (30:28):

All right, thanks so much, Sam.

Sam Demma (30:29):

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

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Dan Wolfe

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.

Scott Johnson – Principal at Bowmanville High School

Scott Johnson – Principal at Bowmanville High School
About Scott Johnson

Scott Johnson (@ScottJohnsonP) is the principal at Bowmanville High School. He started his career as a high school physical education teacher in Ontario and after a 2 year move to Alberta, returned home to a variety of teaching roles.

He has taught every grade other than Kindergarten and Grade 5 and has been fortunate to work in several different school communities. After working in Special Education, Scott became a vice principal and is thrilled to be back at BHS as principal. 

Scott is known for his innovative approach to teaching and for his work in integrating technology and pedagogy. Scott is passionate about equity and student success and works to ensure that all students are supported throughout the school.

Connect with Scott: Email | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Bowmanville High School

Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE)

Cult of Pedagogy

Revisionist History with Malcolm Gladwell

Wikis, Blogs, and Podcasts: A New Generation of Web-based Tools for Virtual Collaborative Clinical Practice and Education by Applied Research Press

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):

Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast.

Sam Demma (01:00):

This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is Scott Johnson. Scott Johnson is the principal at Bowmanville high school. He started his career as a high school physical education teacher in Ontario, and after a two year move to Alberta returned home to a variety of teaching roles. He has taught every grade other than kindergarten and grade five and has been fortunate to work in several different school communities. After working in special education, Scott became a vice principal and is thrilled to be back at Bowmanville high school as the principal. Scott is known for his innovative approach to teaching, and for his work in integrating technology and pedagogy. Scott is passionate about equity and student success, and works to ensure that all students are supported throughout the school. I hope you enjoy this interview and I will see you on the other side. Scott, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. It’s a pleasure to have you on the show here today. Please start by introducing yourself.

Scott Johnson (01:58):

Thanks Sam, and, and thank you very much for for having me on the podcast. My name is Scott Johnson. I am currently the principal of Bowmanville high school in Bowmanville, Ontario. We are a 9-12 school with approximately a thousand students located right in central Bowmanville.

Sam Demma (02:18):

When did you realize in your career journey growing up that education was the field you wanted to pursue and work in?

Scott Johnson (02:26):

Well, to be honest with you, I, I would be, I, I think I’m fairly late to the game in terms of determining what I I wanted to do. I was a PHS ed student at the university of Toronto and had the opportunity towards the end of my degree to do some work in some local high schools in downtown Toronto. And really, really enjoyed the experience I got to work with. I actually played hockey at the university of Toronto and I got to work with a, a former teammate of mine who had moved on to become a teacher. And I just really enjoyed the experience and thought to myself, this might be a, a, a good career move for me. I, I really enjoyed Fette as a, as a student and played all kinds of sports growing up and thought, you know, maybe I could join the ranks of the PHED teachers of the world.

Scott Johnson (03:19):

And so that’s sort of what got me into education and lots happened between then and now sort of over the last 17 years to get me you know, into the role of principal. And I, I, I’ll be honest, I’ve, I’ve enjoyed every, every step along the way. So I think the goal was to be a PhysEd teacher. I’m not sure if I ever actually realized that because I, I was his ed teacher for a very brief period of time, but I’ve got to do a lot of interesting things in a lot of interesting places and yeah, I’ve really enjoyed all, all the steps along the way.

Sam Demma (03:52):

Let’s unpack some of that journey, the 17 year journey from the start to where you are now, what was the start? What role were you in? What school take us through the journey from then to where you are today?

Scott Johnson (04:06):

Well, it was an interesting journey. I actually went to teachers college directly after university and then took a year off after university to go play hockey over in Germany for a year. Wow. Which was a great experience. It was tons of fun. But probably three quarters of the way through that hockey season. I, I kind of got the itch to, you know, I wanted to get started on this career in teaching. And so made the decision, you know, towards the end of the hockey season that I was gonna try and pursue this, this teaching career more seriously and ended up <laugh> I ended up actually accepting, I was so excited to be a full-time PHED teacher that I applied for and took a job at a school that I, I didn’t know really what the school was. And it turned out that it was a PHED teacher job in a youth correctional facility where I worked for a year.

Scott Johnson (05:03):

And, and I, I, I, it was a, a very bizarre way to start my career in terms of just not being something that I would’ve expected, but it, it couldn’t have been a better start to my career. I learned a ton working in that setting and working with those students and that I, you know, can say quite clearly, that, that had a significant impact on helping me get to where I I am today. You know, just, just dealing with students who had obviously been in conflict with the law and, and had lots going on in all assets or all aspects of their lives and, and seeing how school could, could be a, a positive influence on their life, really, you know, set me on a, a, a, I think a good track teacher wise after that. My, my now wife and I decided to move out to Alberta for a couple of years.

Scott Johnson (05:56):

And so we moved to a very, very rural community in, in Alberta. And I actually ended up teaching at a, at a incredibly small school, K to nine 160 students in a town that didn’t have a single stoplight. And it was just another great experience, just great kids, great families got the opportunity to teach a whole bunch of different grades. And again, really enjoyed the experience after a couple years, my wife and I decided to come back and I ended up teaching grade seven, and then I taught a little bit of special education in high school. And then I taught at an alternative education school. Then I moved to a, a lead teacher of special education role, and then moved into being a vice principal at an ed school, and then vice principal at a large rural school. And then at a small rural school. And now principal here at, at one of the larger urban schools and in our school board. So it kind of bounced around a lot, a lot of it by choice, but I, I think having that varied experience has been very helpful in the role that I’m in today.

Sam Demma (07:08):

What do you think you took away from your time working at the correctional facility with students who might have been in trouble with the law? What are some of the things you learned from those experiences that maybe informed the way that you show up today and in, in the high school you work in now

Scott Johnson (07:26):

To put it in its simplest terms? I learned very clearly that every student has a story, and I can’t tell you how much that has impacted me in my teaching career. It, it, it, I just working with those students, learning, you know, you work very closely with them, you work with them every single day. And you just, you learn so much about their story and you start to understand that there’s so much more to a student than what you, you may see, or what they may present, you know, in, in a 75 minute class. And, you know, now in my role as a principal, every single student, or every single issue that that comes across my desk, I, I get, get taken right back to that sort of touch point. That is, what’s the story here there, you know, you talk about, you know, you might hear things that for every misbehavior, there’s a reason, or, or, you know, if a student’s not being successful, as we think they could be there’s, you know, peeling back the layers of the onion kind of thing, to, to try and sort out why.

Scott Johnson (08:39):

And I go back to that very first year, really starting to recognize there is a story here for every student and it’s our job to try and work with them on, on all levels to try and help them be as successful as they can. And, and that, that lesson, like I said, you know, for, for, to get that as a first year teacher, I think was, it was difficult in the moment but has served me well over the last 17 years and, and will continue to serve me well for the rest of my career.

Sam Demma (09:09):

What resources, including people have been very instrumental or helpful in your own development, professional development in this career and job, maybe it’s some people you can think of who have mentored you along the way, some books you’ve read or courses you’ve been a part of, like, what has helped you show up at your best every day at work. And obviously you’re a human being. So there’s days where you don’t feel your best, but what do you think helps you show up to the best of your ability every day?

Scott Johnson (09:39):

Well, I, I think there’s a lot of things. And, and you mentioned, you know, the human aspect of it. The one great part about teaching is that you get to see a lot of people every day. And I mean, you know, we’ve dealt with this, the COVID pandemic over the last couple of years. And I think if you talk to, to any student, any educator, anybody involved in education, or even outside of it, the thing that they miss is that human interaction. Mm. So, you know, as a principal, I love being out in the halls. I love chatting with kids. I love chatting with teachers. I love you know, having conversations with parents, sometimes those conversations with any of those groups are not the easiest conversations, but they’re, you know, we’re all working in the best interest of students. And that’s, that’s kind of what gets me to work with a smile on my face every day.

Scott Johnson (10:31):

In terms of, of long term impact. I mean, I’ll go right back. They, they, they make you do a cheesy kind of assignment back when you were in teacher’s college, talking about your, you know, the favorite teacher or the teacher that, that inspired you. And I, I can think of a couple of teachers that I had along the way, you know, my grade two teacher, Mr. Jameson, my grade six teacher, Mr. Black, just people that had significant impacts on me growing up and, and, you know, having the hope that maybe I could replicate that experience for, you know, a young person growing up was certainly part of my motivation in terms of getting to where I am today, I’ve had all kinds of people who have been incredibly helpful. I, I, from principals to teachers just people and, and I think this goes back to you, you really can’t underestimate the impact that your words can have on another person.

Scott Johnson (11:29):

You know, I can think back to one of my principals who encouraged me to be a vice principal back when I had never really thought about being a vice principal. And, and she put that in my head and I was just like, oh, and I, I just got a sense of her belief in me and, you know, the, a small conversation on her part at a, you know, a lasting and, and significant impact on my life. So those are things that, that I try and pay it forward for lack of a better term, but there’s definitely been, been tons of people along the way, who, who just through their, their words and conversations have a, have had a big impact.

Sam Demma (12:04):

You’re one of the only guests we’ve had on who pulled out a blue ye USB microphone, and sounds like a radio host. <Laugh> gonna,

Scott Johnson (12:13):

I have been told that I have a face and a voice for radio. So I’m I’m good with that.

Sam Demma (12:18):

It leads me to believe that you might listen to a few other podcasts. Is there any educational podcasts that you’ve tuned into, or people that you’ve listened to that have helped as well as a resource?

Scott Johnson (12:30):

Well, to be honest, Sam, if, if you knew me as an educator one of the things that I like to draw upon is other other areas and bring those into education. Mm-Hmm <affirmative>, I like that you know, I’ve listened to lots of, of great educational podcasts. I mean, I started, I think my first educational podcast was the cults of pedagogy which is a, you know, a wonderful series, but what I’ve really, what I’ve really tried to bring in is some more, some different parts of, of the world and how they relate to education. So you talk about a guy like Simon Sinek you know, and, and his start with why book and, and, you know, he has a podcast. Seth golden, I think has a, a lot to say about leadership that is applicable across disciplines. I mean, a lot of it’s into business and marketing, but you take that and apply some of it to a school setting.

Scott Johnson (13:34):

Those are a couple of the podcasts. I’m sure you’ve heard of revisionist history with Malcolm Gladwell in the way that he, he can look at a seemingly straightforward issue and sort of flip it on its ear and, and you kind of, wow, I never looked at it from that perspective. And those are the kinds of things that I think are important in education. I mean, we’re faced with some fairly unique problems in this day and age. And if you’ve just, you know, that old saying, if you always do what you always done, you’ll always get what you always got, sort of thing. And, and, you know, trying to do things differently, cuz these kids are growing up in a different world in a, in a world that we really haven’t seen before. And I like to, to bring those other discipline in, in just to, to try and get a fresh perspective on some of the issues that we’re facing. And, and I find those people have, have some really quality ideas that can be translated directly to the work we do each day.

Sam Demma (14:36):

I love that if you could travel back in time to your first instance of teaching in a classroom, in a school setting and tap yourself on the shoulder and say, Hey Scott, not that you need any advice right now. Not that you wanna change anything about what’s gonna happen in your future, but this is what I think would’ve been helpful for you to hear when you were just beginning your career in teaching, what advice would you have given to your younger self or another educator listening who might be just starting this work?

Scott Johnson (15:09):

Well, I’ll tell you, I, I, I don’t have to necessarily go back in time because I got that, that the piece of advice that was critical to me. Mm. I got that from another person. And the lady’s name is Dr. Kathy Bruce. And she is I don’t know her exact role at Trent university right now, but she was the Dean of education. And I had the very fortunate opportunity at my old grade eight school to be her final teacher’s college associate teacher before she ended her teaching career and moved on to the world of teacher’s college at university. And I remember Kathy is a bit of a math guru, not a bit. She is a, a definitely a math guru and, and has done lots in the, the world of mathematics. But she had tasked me with teaching a math lesson to her grade seven class.

Scott Johnson (16:03):

And the question I asked her was, okay, where’s the textbook that you use? And she said, we don’t use a textbook. And that to me, that moment, and I’ve used that moment over and over again, over, over the last couple of decades was the, the first, the, the seed that was planted that said the education for these students does not have to look the same as your education. And I think that is the piece of advice. We, most people that go into teaching go into it because they love school and they had a, a great positive experience at school. And so oftentimes we will default to the experience that we had at school and that moment, which terrified me and sent waves of anxiety through my body saying, how am I ever going to teach math to grade sevens without a textbook? Because that’s what I was used to.

Scott Johnson (17:00):

And that’s what I was comfortable with. That is the piece of advice that I needed to say. We can do things differently. And I remember, you know, I use that again, when, when will Richardson I don’t know if you know, will Richardson, but he wrote a book in the mid two thousands called Wiki’s blogs and podcasts. You know, you, you, you mentioned the microphone. And I was, I was presented that by a teacher here at the school and I immediately was like, I’m gonna do a podcast. And I, I look back to that, you know, with my students and we’re gonna start a podcast and we’re going to do those things. And we’re talking, this is back in, you know, 2008, 2009. But it was that moment with Kathy Bruce that said do things differently. It’s okay to do things differently.

Scott Johnson (17:52):

So not only did she challenge me, but it was almost like she gave me permission. It was like, oh, okay. We can bring some of these innovative ideas, you know, into the classroom. And so, you know, I don’t know, going back to my former self, listen to your elders, listen to those people who have experience. I mean, you know, they’re the people who are doing it. And there’s lots of great stuff out there. And, and I, you know, I think of if I was a new teacher starting in 2022, you know, between Twitter accounts and podcasts and you know, other social media groups and websites, there’s tons of great resources to draw on. It’s just trying to find your niche in finding those people that that can help you. And, and I was fortunate to have a couple of those people really early on in my career.

Sam Demma (18:36):

One of the things that I believe is attractive about education is impact on young minds, shaping future change makers and seeing a student progress from potentially struggling to success or some form of clarity where they have this aha moment and a breakthrough because of years of help and support from caring adults in their lives. Could you think of a moment in one of your schools that you’ve worked in, or maybe even when you were teaching where you saw a student go from serious struggle to some clarity and some success that really brought a smile to your face, and if it’s a serious story you can change their name just for the sake of privacy. And the reason I ask you to share is because I think it will remind other educators listening, why this work is so important and inspire those who haven’t got into this work yet to seriously consider it as a pot, a potential career path in the future.

Scott Johnson (19:33):

Yeah, well, I can, I can, I can share an example of one that just happened recently. And as I, I think I started off saying that my dream was to, to be a, a PhysEd teacher and, and, you know, I, I didn’t really elaborate, but I, I, I never really made it as a PhysEd teacher because I think that first experience in the, in the correctional facility led me down a path towards special education which turned into student success, where you’re often dealing with students who have stories and those stories are often, you know, incredibly challenging. They have led incredibly difficult lives and, and have overcome so much just to even be with you in front of you know, in the classroom with you each day. And so I can think of a student and I won’t mention their name, but very difficult life history.

Scott Johnson (20:36):

Very challenging. I met this student back in, I believe their grade nine year obviously had difficulties in school, but again, having that ability to recognize the story there is more to this than what you are seeing each day, and just working with that student day by day getting to know them, working with some community agencies, just reaching out and trying to be that person. And it wasn’t certainly just me. There was a whole team of people that, that got to impact this student over the course of their high school career. And I, I ended up switching schools and, and we ended up reconnecting at, at the, the new school. And again, just continuing to be patient and working with that person. And I, I actually got news just a little while ago that they had graduated high school and were starting college in January.

Scott Johnson (21:40):

And, you know, if you, that, would’ve been a tough picture to imagine way back when we met in grade nine. And I think that’s the power of education. It’s the power of you know, in, in, in my context high school is we, we get four years to work with someone and we can do a lot in those four years. It doesn’t have to all be accomplished right away. But if you look at the, the growth that all students experience, you know, coming in at grade nine at 13, 14 years old and, and leaving high school at, at 1718 we, we have the opportunity to make a significant impact and, and in a lot of cases you know, I, I think we’re able to really help students get on the trajectory that they want to get on. And, and hopefully we, we do our best to, to bring the best out of them. And again, that’s, that’s kind of why we’re here and if you’re interested in helping people out with that, then education is definitely a career that will, you’ll find very fulfilling.

Sam Demma (22:46):

If someone is listening to this inspired, wants to reach out, ask you a question, or get in touch, what would be the best way for them to get in contact with you?

Scott Johnson (22:58):

Just send me an email. I’m on Twitter @ScottJohnsonP, not as active as I once was as, as other things have, have caught up and we’ll see where things go with Twitter, given the, the recent, the news of recently, but yeah. You, you know, my email address is, is checkout Bowmanville high school. My email address is, is there along with my picture and I’d be happy to chat. You know, one of the things that got me involved in education was some chats with some people who were in the business. At the time I was fortunate to go to the University of Toronto and be close to OISE and, and know lots of people that were in education so if anyone’s interested, I’d be, be, I’d be happy to chat. It’s a, it’s a great career. It’s got its ups and downs as all careers do, but at the end of the day, I’m, I, I, couldn’t be more happy with the decision that I made way back when

Sam Demma (23:55):

Scott, it’s a pleasure to bring you on the show here today, to talk about the journey, some of the ups and downs, some of the learnings and philosophies you hold about teaching. I cannot wait to see where the next five years of your career take you and, and what you’ll be working on and doing. Keep up the great work and don’t ever hesitate to reach out again in the future and thanks again for coming on, coming on the show.

Scott Johnson (24:19):

No problem Sam. Thanks for having me and thanks for doing what you’re doing. It’s, it’s a pleasure listening to your show and, and I appreciate the opportunity.

Sam Demma (24:27):

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

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Scott Johnson

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.

Jennifer Meeker – Principal of Special Education K-12 at the Upper Grand District School Board

Jennifer Meeker – Principal of Special Education K-12 at the Upper Grand District School Board
About Jennifer Meeker

Jennifer Meeker (@jennmeeker), is the Principal of Special Education K-12 at the Upper Grand District School Board. Starting as an elementary teacher turned secondary Administrator she has embraced the power of Ross Greene’s mantra, “Kids do well if they can”. She believes it is the adults job to figure out the barriers and to work alongside the student to dismantle those barriers. She has been an Administrator for 13 years and has learned a lot from the youth and families she has served.

In her new role as a system Principal she is supporting students with special education needs from a system perspective. She tries to understand the many reasons why students might be challenging. She works with specialized teams within the UGDSB to make sure that supports are in place so that schools can help students reach their true potential. In the role of highschool Principal she supported having all voices at the table when decisions were being made or programming considered for a student(s). She would tell you that her best learning came from the challenging students who became her teachers.

Connect with Jennifer: Email | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Upper Grand District School Board

Who is Ross Greene?

Grading for Equity by Joe Feldman

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):

Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast.

Sam Demma (00:59):

This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest on the show is Jennifer Meeker. Jennifer is the Principal of special education, K through 12 at the Upper Grand District School board. Starting as an elementary teacher, turned secondary administrator, she has embraced the power of Ross Greene’s mantra. Kids do well if they can. She believes it is the adults’ job to figure out the barriers and to work alongside the student to dismantle those barriers. She has been an administrator for 13 years and has learned a lot from the youth and families she has served. In her new role as a system principal, she is supporting students with special education needs from a system perspective. She tries to understand the many reasons why students might be challenging. She works with specialized teams within the Upper Grand District School Board to make sure that supports are in place so that schools can help students reach their true potential. In the role of high school Principal, she supported having all voices at the table when decisions were being made on programming considered for students. She would tell you that her best learning came from the challenging students who became her teachers. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Jenn, and I will see you on the other side, Jen, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here today. Please start by introducing yourself.

Jennifer Meeker (02:20):

Great. Thanks Sam. I really appreciate being here. My name is Jen Meeker. I’m the Principal of special education, K to 12 for the Upper Grand District School board.

Sam Demma (02:28):

If you traveled back in time to when you were just a student yourself, at what moment, if you can recall, do you remember making the decision and knowing that you were gonna pursue education in your future

Jennifer Meeker (02:43):

Education as teaching, as in, yeah, my teacher two years, three years out of university.

Sam Demma (02:52):

Mm. So what was your path?

Jennifer Meeker (02:54):

<Laugh>? my path was actually polys, sci and economics. Okay. Wanting to be in I don’t know, in training, definitely doing training of some sort. I was always coaching. I was always involved in, in athletics and working with people and I really enjoyed that part. But I always enjoyed the coaching aspect of everything that I ever did. So all through my life, whether it was riding, skiing, rowing, whatever, it was always something, there was always a coaching element to it.

Jennifer Meeker (03:28):

Hmm. I think that’s where it took me, but definitely it was someone that I worked with. I wasn’t in education, but I was working alongside educa education in a nonprofit role. And the person that I worked with was in education. And at one, one day she just said, when are you gonna become a teacher? And I was like, really thrown back and you talking about, she goes, you need to be a teacher. And so it was a time of my life where there was probably some need to be changed, things needed to change. And I was like, Hmm. So I applied to one school U of T at the time to OISE and thought if it was meant to be, it’ll be. And I guess it was <laugh> so, and I went and haven’t looked back. I’ve left once. I should say I have left teaching once.

Sam Demma (04:16):

Okay. Well talk about that in just a second. Tell me a little bit more about this nonprofit. So you graduate and start working in the nonprofit sector.

Jennifer Meeker (04:24):

Yes. well, no, I, I <laugh>. I started with an airline first. I worked for Alaska airlines. Nice. then I was working for an entertainment insurance broker. Okay. And circumstances ended up that I didn’t have a job and I ended up on unemployment actually at one point. And I should never have received unemployment, but when they called my boss, who, the company that I had left for good reasons she, the woman from unemployment called me and said, oh my God, we’re starting your unemployment today. You could never, I would never wanna work for that, man.

Sam Demma (04:59):

Mm.

Jennifer Meeker (04:59):

So it was it was actually a great opportunity for me. And then she gave me some, there was a couple programs where you worked for a nonprofit who received funds to be able to employ you on a sort of a contract basis. And this one just happened to be, it was the career education council at a Guelph and the person in charge that hired me was awesome. She was a great, a great mentor in the beginning in terms of developing the program. And it was a real, it was a, a, something that was very much in its infancy at the time. So I developed partnerships between businesses and schools to offer opportunities of, you know, realistic experiences for students around what was, what careers could be in the future. What was going on? You gotta take this back.

Jennifer Meeker (05:47):

This was 19 90, 2 93 91, something like that. And so things were very different then. But we, we had these great partnerships between, I, I remember Linemar was partnered with, I believe it was gateway, like drive public school in Guelph. And some of the things that they did was just, was just incredible. We had, I developed a teacher internship program where teachers went out into businesses in the summer and learned skills to see what pathways career pathways were out there. And I remember a tech teacher who wanted to go in and see what it would be like to be a first year apprentice. So we set that up. And within, I think it was day three, maybe he called and said, this is garbage. I know I don’t wanna do this anymore. You know, all they’ve got me doing is sweeping floors. And so we sat down and met with the, the plant manager and talked about it. And he said, you wanted to see what a, an apprentice might start at. Mm. And this might be something until I know who you are and your responsibilities, ability to do skills and things like that. Then I have to make that decision as to when you’re ready. And so once the teacher had learned that it was like, okay, I’m gonna ride this out. And he did. So I gave him full credit.

Sam Demma (07:00):

Wow. You’ve had such a diverse experience. What, what drew you towards entertainment when you were working in that position as well?

Jennifer Meeker (07:11):

Sadly, that was just a job. <Laugh> it was an opportunity. I needed to pay bills and I, I took it not an interest at all. I don’t think at the time because it was inter insurance, it was a lot of paper, paper pushing a lot of reading of contracts and things like that. Not, not what I wanted to do for sure. Not, not really working with people. And that’s always been my I would say that’s always where I’ve been drawn to is working with people working on teams.

Sam Demma (07:41):

Hmm. You mentioned that there was one occasion where you did step away from education before obviously returning, cuz you’re here again now. <Laugh> yeah. Bring me back to that moment. What, what was going on in your life during that period of time and what prompted you to step away?

Jennifer Meeker (07:58):

So it was probably the birth of my second son. And you know, I took the maternity leave, which had just become the year long maternity leave. Nice. And my husband is self-employed so we were, you know, the company was doing well and we as a family, it was a good decision. I, I still, I shouldn’t say that I totally took leave because I left education, but probably month eight of my maturity leave. I started working for a friend nice some basically being a, was an accounts manager for a company. And I was enjoying that because again, it was that working with people and got me out, but it was part-time and I could, you know, make, sort of make my own hours, which was great for my family. And then we had some life circumstances that, that said, you know what?

Jennifer Meeker (08:51):

You need a job that’s stable because you never know what’s gonna come down down the pipe. And, and I had never left touch with teaching for sure. I was still coaching different things. So I was always still doing that role and said, you know, it was time to go back. So I took a three year hiatus but I went back and went into a role. I had been teaching mostly grade 8, 7, 8 for the most part and really, really enjoyed that age level and really got along with with those students. And then when I went back, cause I’ve been gone so long, new principal, new school, well school wasn’t new, but a lot of staff had changed. Yep. And no one thought I was coming back. So they shoved me in a portable teaching grade, two, three split. And I took all the kids and nobody else wanted to teach, I guess, because my class list was quite quite an interesting group. But you know what, probably one of my best years of teaching, mm. I went back in going home, you know, oh my God, <laugh> what do I do? And partnered up with my ESL teacher at the time. And he and I had a great year. And in fact the following year we took that group forward and taught them again and took in another group as well. So we actually, he and I became team teachers. It was a something the principal decided she let us try. And it worked really, really well and definitely a highlight of my career for sure.

Sam Demma (10:18):

Tell me more about that. You said it was one of your best years in teaching from your perspective. Why is that?

Jennifer Meeker (10:26):

I think because it wasn’t easy. I think that I, I had to struggle. I had to figure it out. I felt that those students probably taught me more than I taught them in that year, for sure. Just about being, you know, I hadn’t taught that age group. I hadn’t taught students how to read before I hadn’t worked with ESL students before. And I had parent volunteers coming into my classroom, which didn’t happen in grade seven and eight <laugh>. I had an amazing apparent volunteer who came into my classroom and she was just amazing with the kids. And it just, I don’t know, I think, and I was out in a portable, so I was kind of out on my own. But I was, I was left be to, it was the, I think it was the only two, three split as well. So I was sort of on my own for everything. And that really just really have to struggle. And I, I spent a lot of hours doing that, but I actually would tell you that I grew a lot as a, as a teacher. I grew a lot as a human, but I definitely grew a lot as a teacher, too.

Sam Demma (11:31):

Most people would say it was their best experience because it was fun, enjoyable, and easy. And you’re telling me it was your best year because you struggled. Where does that mindset of yours come from? That struggle is something that, you know, leads to growth. And although difficult is a necessary step in the process of life. Is that from sports or like, like where do you think that comes from?

Jennifer Meeker (11:55):

Yeah, I think that’s, I, I think it’s from sports. I also think it’s how I was, you know, how my parents raised me too and everything. I mean, I never wanted for anything necessarily. I, I definitely lived a white privilege life. There’s no question about that. And I acknowledged that, but I also know that my parents didn’t hand me things. And I started working, you know I grew up in the country, so I started working very early on. We had a farm. I worked for a couple of big horse farms and so I was always pushed to work. So I, I have a, I think I have a strong work ethic. I, when I look back and it’s just, I’m just, that’s just daunting to on me, as you asked the question, when I look back over my life so far, all of my experiences that have been the best experience in my life have been because of challenge.

Jennifer Meeker (12:44):

Mm. So maybe I seek that out. I don’t know. You know, these sports that I chose to be involved in are not typical sports that everybody gets involved in. They’re, they’re tough. They’re, you know there’s always a challenge there and always an element of danger, well, not danger, but Del element of pushing yourself beyond your, your limits for sure. I would say that this, my jobs as I’ve chosen, you know, I never wanted to be a teacher thought got in, did it, whatever it was a challenge. Definitely. It challenged me for sure in the beginning. And then when I became a principal or when I became a vice principal, first of all, I mean, I had no intentions of going that route either. And it was someone who tapped me on the shoulder and said, it’s time you need to do this.

Jennifer Meeker (13:32):

And so I did it and you know, those are, those are life experiences where you’re not sure what it’s gonna be like on the other side. Exactly. Mm-hmm, <affirmative>, you’re comfortable where you are and comfort is a nice place sometimes. And then someone taps you on that shoulder and says, you should, you need to do this and including this most recent job. So I’m, I’m close to my retirement time. And I’ve taken on a whole new role, which again, first three weeks, first month and a half of the job, I was like, why did I do this? <Laugh> you know, I had to, but I love it. I love my job now. Yeah. And you know, I learning every day, I think learning for me is always, my, my husband would tell you I could be a professional student. I’m always wanting to learn more. So

Sam Demma (14:20):

Let’s talk about your current role right now. What are you doing day to day? What were those first two months like, and what do you love so much about it now?

Jennifer Meeker (14:31):

Again, I think it’s challenge for sure. There’s there’s new challenges every day is something new coming at me. Yeah. Because of the job. So I work with as the principal of special education, I work with teams, multidisciplinary teams across our board to support students in need. So whether it be students who are in a life skills program to students who are in a regular class placement, but have large learning challenges ahead of them. I work with families. I work with an amazing team of special education consultants including we call them team. Awesome. And I work with mental health with our psychologists and that department and our speech and language department. So we work as a team again. So I’m, I’m always attracted to teamwork for sure. And we try to, to support schools in providing the supports that students need in their building.

Jennifer Meeker (15:30):

So it’s a lot of it’s a lot of meetings. That’s, that’s one of the downfalls for me. I’d rather be on the, on the ground, but it is a lot of meetings, but I do get to work with some amazing people. And I, I don’t necessarily always see the successes at the end, but I hear about them. And I hear from the schools when you know, when the student is really, really struggling and we have some really high need struggling students and families. And I hear that, you know, something was got a little bit better. That’s, that’s just makes my day,

Sam Demma (16:07):

Let’s bring your brain back to one of those moments. When you think about certain emails like that of school or calls of schools reaching out and telling you, Jen, we had this student that was really struggling and we had this little win today. Are there any of those examples that come to mind that you’d like to share? I think stories of, of growth in young people is one of the main reasons why adults work in education. It’s like we wanna, you know, provide a positive impact on the lives of a young person. So if someone’s burnt out right now, it’s stories like that, that I think will really reunite their fire if teaching is what they should be doing.

Jennifer Meeker (16:46):

Yeah. And not in this, I mean, I have had current role too, but I’ll take back to when I was a vice principal I had a student who wasn’t on the radar at all completely not on the radar in in terms of the office was a, you know, a, B plus student never missed a day of classes, never missed a class, was easy to get along with you know, like not a, not an issue at all. That student had some struggles in her own life. And the student checked herself into care, basically put, he put her herself to the family children’s services who then placed her in foster care. And that was a sadness story. And I met with her and her worker and we talked about you know, her strengths and her needs.

Jennifer Meeker (17:40):

And, you know, we got to know her. She happened to have a love of courses as do I. So the two of us bonded in that moment. And and then I sort of became that her person for a while. And she struggled and it, what really, what she taught me was that even when we give students everything or when we give people everything that they, we think they need or we think is going to make their life better, it doesn’t always work that way. Mm. So I couldn’t understand why all of a sudden she became a behavior issue in class. She wasn’t attending school on, you know, regularly. She wasn’t getting the work done. And she was in on the radar of the office all the time. And I said to her, her worker, one day, I said, I don’t understand she has safety. She has a roof over her head. She has food on the table. She doesn’t have to worry about those things anymore. So while all of a sudden is she not succeeding. And she said, because now she’s being a teenager.

Sam Demma (18:45):

Mm.

Jennifer Meeker (18:46):

And she has the ability to do that. And that really, that really shot a light for me on on taking each case differently that each student that I, that I met and that I dealt with and understanding what their real needs are before I assume what their real needs are, I guess. So we then backtracked and then she had a job later on, this is, so this is a couple of years later, she had a job first job, you know, and the, I happened to know the employer and she wasn’t showing up for work regularly. And they were about to fire her. And I said to the employer, you can’t, here’s why you can’t because she needs you, you can’t because she doesn’t have someone there who is saying, you know, what, if you don’t show up to work today, you might get fired.

Jennifer Meeker (19:43):

Cuz she’s on her own. She’s making these decisions for herself. There’s nobody telling her that on a regular basis that really, really cares about her. And I said, so you need to be that person. So they didn’t fire her. And eventually she left on her own. But in a good way. And yeah, so, and she, and I had many, many conversations about that, but she’s remained in contact. I’ve lost track of her in the last year or so, but she had remained in contact up till then has a family of her own and ah, yeah. And, you know, and is in a good place from what I, from what I know. So yeah.

Sam Demma (20:20):

That’s awesome. I, I think it’s

Jennifer Meeker (20:22):

On this shoulder all the time, just telling me

Sam Demma (20:24):

<Laugh> yeah. What I need to do. It’s just a really cool reminder to realize you can have such a massive impact working in education, whether you’re on the front line or not like every single person plays a significant role in making sure a student feels safe and has an opportunity to learn and grow. How do, do you think we ask students what their needs are? Is it as simple as asking them, like how did you uncover her needs when you realized that what you wanted for her, maybe wasn’t what she thought she needed.

Jennifer Meeker (21:01):

That’s a good, that’s a good question. I mean, I think that I’ve always Ross green who wrote a book called kids do well, if they can is probably one of my biggest mentors in terms of thinking about students. And so I always look at, and, and this is one of the things she taught me, you know, she could do well when she could. And when there was a barrier that she couldn’t get through, that’s when things fell apart. And so as the adult, I needed to, to be able to be alongside her in that journey. And when she came up against a barrier that she couldn’t remove, I need to figure out how to help remove that if I could so that we could learn from it and then move forward until she hit the next barrier. And I think, I mean, I think that’s how we, we all do life. We just don’t realize it. But when we’re watching, as adults, as parents, we, you know, we look at our children and we try to remove all of those barriers for them. We never wanna see our children hit barriers, right. Because that’s, that, that means that they would experience hurt and they would experience failure or whatever. But in my life, failure has taught me probably more than success.

Sam Demma (22:11):

Mm.

Jennifer Meeker (22:12):

And again, I go back to those challenges. Right. I think I have to fail before I, before I succeed often.

Sam Demma (22:20):

Yeah. And you could even just swap the word failure with learn because every, you know, failure is just feedback from whatever event you were trying to accomplish or, you know, achieve. Yeah. So I think that’s a really great perspective. You mentioned this book. Are there any other books or resources that you found really helpful that have informed the way that you teach your professional development? It could even be courses or people I’m just curious to know. Yeah. Some of the things that kind of shaped your belief system.

Jennifer Meeker (22:53):

Well, definitely the work that I did with Ross green and I’m still following has been really important for me to take a look at, especially in special education, because we, we label students with a, with a disability, a learning disability or an intellectual disability and sometimes people get stuck on those labels. And he and another Dr. Mel Levine, who’s no longer around. They didn’t, they don’t look at students that way. They look at students from a whole, the whole student perspective. They get to know the student. And one of the, the questions I always say when there’s challenge, when a student, when I was a principal and a student was having difficulty and they’d come into my office rather than I may know a whole bunch already, but rather than assuming that I know what’s going on and what the issue is, I would ask I hear you having some difficulty what’s up with that. Mm.

Jennifer Meeker (23:54):

And they might not go right to it immediately, but we would dance around that for a long time if we had to. But I would just keep coming back and say, tell me more about that. What’s up with that. You know, and I’m not gonna say that I was, I’m always perfect in the moment because sometimes you get caught emotion. We gotta, yeah, we got the motion or we gotta get this done. Or, you know, I’ve got four other people waiting outside there to talk to me, whatever. But I try to stay present in that moment with whomever. It is that I’m, that I’m working with, whether it’s a staff member, another colleague, or with a student or a family or with my own family to say, what’s up, what’s up with that? How can I help? And they may not want my help. So just, you know, sort of getting the idea of that. So that came a lot from, from raw screen, I would say. I’ve done a lot of work with oh, I’m having a, a brain pause here.

Sam Demma (24:57):

I like that you used the word pause. <Laugh> strategic. I like it. <Laugh>

Jennifer Meeker (25:03):

You can give another one, but <laugh> yeah, I guess I’ll leave it at Ross because he is the, so, oh, the other, I guess the other book that I’ve been reading most recently is grading for equity. And it’s a resource that has really had me look, I, I never, I was always the teacher that thought that report cards were, were ridiculous that we should be having conversations cuz I’m more of a talker probably than a writer. Mm. And to have conversations with people about where they are with my students, I used to do that, to talk with them about know where you’re at, here’s where we need to go next. What do you think? What do you, how are you how are you gonna achieve this? How, how am I gonna help you achieve this? And when I look at the book grading for equity, you know, marks are often subjective. I can’t tell you that we all grade the same. So when I look at that and I look at you know, people coming from diverse backgrounds and who cultural upbringings, that, that don’t value, the same things that I might it’s, it’s a problem. So I’m just, I’m partway through that book and I’m really learning a lot again about, and I think about <laugh>, oh boy, 20 years ago, I wish I could go back and teach differently and great differently. And but you know,

Sam Demma (26:30):

Everything happens for a reason, you know, and at the time it’s supposed to happen. But speaking about traveling back in time, if you could take like the wisdom and experience that you have now, you know, close to the end of your career and go back in time and tap young, you know, younger Jen, you’re still very young, but younger Jen on the shoulder. <Laugh> and you know, you say, Jen, this is what you needed to hear when you were just getting started. Not that you would share any advice to change your path or the way you’ve taught, but what advice would you have given yourself that you thought would’ve been helpful to hear when you were just getting into this vocation?

Jennifer Meeker (27:07):

So it’s interesting that say that because I just I had a teacher that I hired at the beginning of the pandemic and she’s just starting her career. Got to know her, got to be in her class and see what she was doing. And I was so impressed with how her maturity for the beginning of her career come from. And I think that a lot of our new graduates are coming out with a different outlook than I had when I graduated. Right. and so I find, I found that she seemed to be so much further ahead than I was in my first year, my career. And so I actually gave her the two books that I just talked to you about and said, if I knew this, when I started my career, I think my career would’ve been different in many ways.

Jennifer Meeker (27:55):

I think I would’ve been a more effective teacher. I think I would’ve been a more effective administrator along the way. So if this helps you, if you can connect with it in any way, you know, this is what I leave you with. And so she’s, I’ve given her both those books and we’ll we’ll chat cuz I’m not going away and she goes and you know, she could, I think she’s got a great career ahead of her. So I think that’s what I would, I, and, and people did. I, I shouldn’t say that people didn’t do that cause I definitely, I mean the whole reason I’m in teaching is because of one, one woman who Deb McGaha, I’ll never forget her who did tap me on the shoulder and who did give me that sort of advice here and there.

Jennifer Meeker (28:38):

And there were other people along the way that that did in moments, you know? But that would be someone who definitely got me into the area of teaching. And then it’s the people that I work with now that, you know, keep me asking those questions and keep me you know, looking for, for differences, for different ways to support family, different ways to converse with kids, different ways to make things, programs better for students who struggle. And I think I, I, I look to those people all the time, cause I certainly don’t have all the answers.

Sam Demma (29:12):

It sounds like a through line of your advice would be building strong relationships with others, right? Like reading books written by other people, like learning from others. You know, you mentioned how much you look forward to working on teams a few times throughout this interview, and then again, referencing the people around you and how they question you and challenge you. So it sounds like, you know, making sure you’re not working in a silo is something that’s really important in education.

Jennifer Meeker (29:40):

Absolutely. We learn so much from each other. And why would you, why would you reinvent the wheel when you can take the wheel and just make it smoother?

Sam Demma (29:49):

Mm smart. I like it. Jen. Thank you so much for coming on the show today. If someone’s listening right now, inspired by it, wants to bounce some ideas around or have a conversation, what would be the best way for them to get in touch with you?

Jennifer Meeker (30:02):

They can reach out to me via email at jennifer.meeker@ugdsb.on.ca.

Sam Demma (30:08):

Awesome. Jenn, thank you so much. This was phenomenal. I appreciate you making the time, enjoy the rest of the year and we’ll talk soon.

Jennifer Meeker (30:15):

Thanks Sam. Take care. Thanks for having me.

Sam Demma (30:19):

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

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Jennifer Meeker

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.

Dawn Thompson – Strait Area Regional Advisor of the Nova Scotia Secondary School Students’ Association (NSSSA)

Dawn Thompson - Strait Area Regional Advisor of the Nova Scotia Secondary School Students' Association (NSSSA)
About Dawn Thompson

Dawn (@miztee7) grew up in Scarborough, Ontario and was educated at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. She is an educator with over 25 years of varied teaching experience: from Grade 4 to adults, in public and private schools, day school and summer school, in Ontario, Alberta, Nova Scotia and abroad, and in English and French. Currently, she works in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, for the Strait Regional Centre for Education.

While the subject areas of her classes have varied widely over her career, the one constant has been her involvement with student leadership. Dawn has many years of experience as a school Student Council advisor but has spent the last 11 years working with student leadership outside of school in the NSSSA (Nova Scotia Secondary Schools Students’ Association). She has been the Regional Advisor for the Strait Region and the Sou’West/Valley Region, as well as the Advisor Co-ordinator for the Provincial Conference. This year, she is proud to be transitioning to the position of Provincial Advisor for the organization.

She is a mom to 3 amazing teenage boys who make her laugh every day (and sometimes make her scream in frustration). She is a reader and a writer. She sews and gardens. But her true talent lies in the kitchen . . . and not just because of the food she makes.

Connect with Dawn: Email | Twitter | Instagram

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Lakehead University

Strait Regional Centre for Education

NSSSA (Nova Scotia Secondary Schools Students’ Association)

NSSSA – Conferences and Events

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):

Welcome back to another episode on the High Performing Educator podcast.

Sam Demma (01:00):

This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest, I had the privilege of meeting this past year in Nova Scotia. Her name is Don Thompson. Don grew up in Scarborough, Ontario and was educated at Lakehead University in thunder bay. She is an educator with over 25 years of varied teaching experience from grade four to adults in public and private schools, day school, and summer school in Ontario, Alberta, Nova Scotia, and abroad, and in both English and French languages. Currently, she works in Antigonish, Nova Scotia for the straight regional center for education. While the subject areas of her classes have varied widely over her career, the one constant has been her involvement with student leadership. Dawn has many years of experience as a school student council advisor, but has spent the last 11 years working with student leadership outside of school in the NSSSA (Nova Scotia Secondary School Students Association)

Sam Demma (01:57):

She has been the regional advisor for the Strait Region and the Sou’West/Valley Region, as well as the advisor coordinator for the provincial conference. This year, she is proud to be transitioning to the position of provincial advisor for the entire organization. She is a mom to three amazing teenage boys who make her laugh every day and sometimes make her scream in frustration. <Laugh> She is a reader and a writer. She sews and gardens, but her true talent lies in the kitchen, and not just because of the food she makes. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Don Thompson. She is filled with positivity and so much high energy, and I know you’ll enjoy it. I will see you on the other side. Don, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here today. Please start by introducing yourself.

Dawn Thompson (02:46):

Okay. I’m Don Thompson. I am a high school English and French teacher in Antigonish, Nova Scotia at Dr. John Hugh Gillis Regional Sigh school. But more significantly, the reason you asked me to be here is because I am the regional advisor for a student leadership organization in Nova Scotia called the NSSSA.

Sam Demma (03:09):

Your heart has been tied to the NS a for many years. Please tell us why it is such a meaningful organization for you and what inspired you to get involved.

Dawn Thompson (03:22):

So when I moved here about 13 years ago, I didn’t know anything about the Ente. It’s a Nova Scotia thing. I’m an Ontario girl. And I had a couple of students in an English class who said to me, miss, we’re going to this leadership conference and we need an advisor. Do you think you’d wanna go with us? And I thought, well, that’s kind of up my alley. I’ve done student council in the past. And I was sort of looking for my thing outside of the classroom. So I agreed to go. And afterwards I found out that it was over the long weekend in may and it was a three hour drive away. And I was gonna have to take some time off of school. And I thought, holy cow, what did I just get roped into? But my principal assured me that it was an amazing organization and that the girls who wanted to go were really great young people.

Dawn Thompson (04:17):

And so he said, just do it. And I got there and about five hours in, I called home and said, I wanna go to this every year. Mm. I have never experienced anything like this in my career, the enthusiasm, the positive energy and just the astounding quality of an event organized and run entirely by students, which was so well done. I thought I have to be a part of this. And then the two girls who asked me to go ran for co premier of our region, they won the election and they said, would you be our regional advisor? And I said, okay, <laugh> what do I have to do? <Laugh> and, and, and then it’s history from there

Sam Demma (05:15):

And N S a stands, can you share what the abbreviation stands for in case someone’s outside of Nova Scotia?

Dawn Thompson (05:23):

Of course it’s the Nova Scotia, secondary school students association

Sam Demma (05:29):

Love it. I, I loved the conference. I think I had similar feelings that you had being there over the summer. I second, everything you say about it. And if someone is in Nova Scotia listening to this and it’s not involved, what are you doing? What are you waiting for? You know, get involved right now. So when did you realize as a student yourself that you wanted to pursue a career and a future in education?

Dawn Thompson (05:58):

In high school, I thought I wanted to be a psychologist and my father kept trying to talk me out of it. He kept saying, oh, Don, you’d be a really great teacher. I didn’t know if that was really what I wanted. I, you know, like I’d done babysitting and I taught swimming lessons and I’ve done summer camps and things like that. So I guess I’d kind of always been involved in teaching, but I didn’t really know if that’s what I wanted as a career. And then in my last year of high school, I had a momentous conversation with somebody who I guess was kind of a mentor. And he said, Don psychologists build hospitals at the bottoms of cliffs and teachers build fences at the top. Which one do you wanna build? And I thought, I wanna build the fence. I wanna catch them before they fall. I don’t wanna fix them once they’re broken. So I became a teacher.

Sam Demma (06:54):

And when you made that decision after these meaningful conversations with people in your life, what did the journey look like from the moment the decision was made in your mind to where you are today?

Dawn Thompson (07:06):

I remember at university preparing for my very first student teaching lesson and I was terrified. I thought, what if I’m terrible? What if I suck? How am I gonna call my parents and say, I know we’ve spent thousands of dollars in a few years of my life, but I, I think I made a mistake. And then that first lesson was incredible. And like, in that moment, I knew that I belonged at the front of a classroom that like I was born to be there. It was the right fit. So I taught in a bunch of different places. I taught in Toronto for 10 years. I taught outside of Ottawa for the upper Canada school board for a couple of years. And then we moved to Nova Scotia. And in the time that I’ve been here I’ve taught at, I think, six different schools. I’ve taught every grade level from grade four to grade 12. I’ve taught English, French history, social studies, art drama. <Laugh> you name it? It’s pretty much been on my plate at some point in my career.

Sam Demma (08:13):

That’s so awesome. And in your role today, what are some of the aspects of the job that bring you the most fulfillment and joy and just fill your heart?

Dawn Thompson (08:27):

Truly my job with the NS a absolutely does every second. A lot of the time I get asked what do you do in, in your role as regional advisor? And I often answer, well, I don’t do much. I go to meetings, I listen to these kids talk and plan. They do all the work. I’m just the backup plan. And the reality is I do the job because I get, get so much out of it. Mm-Hmm, <affirmative>, it is so inspiring to watch young people be so capable to watch them plan and run incredible events and to do it all with no payback for themselves. This is not a job that they’re getting paid to do. They’re doing the work at the conference. It’s not like they even get to go there and just enjoy it. Yeah. It it’s a significant amount of work.

Dawn Thompson (09:24):

And one of the things that I love about it is that as a teacher, I have always wanted, I’ve always felt that it was my job to prepare students for the world outside of my classroom. Yes, I’m an English teacher, but who cares? If you can write a great essay, that’s not gonna do you a lot of good in your life. I would much rather know that I’m teaching you real life skills. And the N essay is a great way for kids to actually get those skills. They learn how to write appropriate emails. They learn how to read a contract and sign it, how to negotiate, how to create a budget how to problem solve, how to hire people and how to fire people. Yeah. So the skills that they get there are always so impressive. And in my career, I hear a lot about what kids can’t do. Mm. And the NS a always shows me what they can do when you give them expectations, they rise up and they meet them.

Sam Demma (10:29):

Yeah.

Dawn Thompson (10:30):

And give me hope for the future. Truly, you know, I think someday I’ll be in a care facility and it’ll be okay. <Laugh> because they’ll be BSA kids there looking out for me. The future of the world is in good hands.

Sam Demma (10:45):

Mm. So the, the students themselves sound like give you a ton of hope. I would assume they’re also the reason you’re fired up every day to get out of bed and pursue this work. What, what, what else keeps you motivated?

Dawn Thompson (11:01):

There’s a lot of joy in a classroom, right? When you can create a really great safe environment where kids come every day and they know that it’s okay to be who they are. And and that I’m interested in knowing them and learning from them as much as they learn from me, then you often get really, really great classroom conversations that go on which, which are so inspirational. And truly, there’s a really, really wonderful sense of comradery that comes with working with amazing colleagues, too. You know, those connections you make with other educators where you can think outside the box and solve a problem for a kid that nobody was expecting that like, that’s a really rewarding experience too, at the end of the day, if I go home and say, well, you know, maybe they didn’t learn how to write a really great introduction today, but I know that this kid felt loved in my classroom. This kid got some support for making a hard decision. You know, I connected with a colleague and we found a solution for a kid who’s gonna be away for three weeks or something like that. It just, those are the little things that really make every day matter.

Sam Demma (12:21):

I’ve spoken to many people in education over the past two years, and something many of them have had in common is there’s been moments of challenge, especially throughout the past two years personally, with the pandemic. And, you know, thankfully things are changing hopefully for the better for the rest of our lives. <Laugh> school will never go back to the way it was before, which I believe is a really good thing. You know, it’s challenge us to think outside the box and maybe change some of our focuses and practices, but I’m curious to know what you think some of the opportunities are that are coming outta this interesting time.

Dawn Thompson (12:55):

Hmm. Opportunities. I worry that we are not taking advantage of the opportunities that are coming here. We’ve got kids who are really, really connected to technology, and I hope that we find a way to use those opportunities the right way, because I’m a little concerned that right now we’re not preparing kids for how to handle the technology that they’re suddenly so well versed in. They don’t have some of the skills. I think that they really need to navigate that in a healthy way, but a lot of them have become in some ways independent learners. They’ve had to be if they’re doing online learning, if they’re missing classes, because they’re homesick, there’s a lot of independence there that I think we can really cultivate in them and that we need to cultivate in them a sense of personal responsibility for their achievements and their success. And more importantly, a hope that we find a way for them to recognize that what they do at school is really about preparing them for the real world, that there shouldn’t be that disconnect between your classroom and the job you might have someday. Mm

Sam Demma (14:09):

That’s a really great point. I think there are so many pathway opportunities that exist that even when I was a student, maybe we weren’t talking about as much in school and the whole pandemic has really shined a light on the, the flexibility of education or the ways it can exist. And I think it’s given students a chance to, you know, explore the world for maybe a year. Some, some schools in Ontario didn’t even actually go into a classroom for like eight months. And so, yeah, I think you’re absolutely right, like shortening that gap or that leg between what’s getting taught and what’s happening in the world. It sounds like more real world conversations are getting pulled into classrooms, even when we were at N say, the conversations that are happening are so forward thinking and based on current events. So I, yeah, those are, those are great opportunities for learning. What, what, yes, go ahead.

Dawn Thompson (15:05):

I would love to see a four day school week

Dawn Thompson (15:11):

Where kids are in classes four days a week, and there’s one day where they do all the other stuff. They do the extracurriculars, they don’t miss any class time. They get extra support. So they’re not being pulled out of a class to get support in another subject area. I would love to see education seen in a different light. We’ve been doing education the same way for hundreds of years, but the world we’re looking at today is not the same as a hundred years ago. And so I think hopefully the major changes, the, the spotlight that has been Sean on the current challenges in our whole society will allow us to be able to say, okay, we need to really make some bold moves here. If we can survive a couple of years of major changes with no preparation, you know, no, no reports written and no experts hired and no warning. And none of that stuff, if we can manage, then we can do a lot more and we should do a lot more to actually tackle the major challenges that we’re facing in our education system. For sure.

Sam Demma (16:25):

Time to push the limits. That’s the thing that comes to mind, you know be, yeah. What, what do you do to fill up your cup when you’re not at work or in the classroom to help you show up at the best of your abilities?

Dawn Thompson (16:43):

I read I’m an English teacher, so I have a real passion for literature to start with. But to me that’s a really, really great way to decompress get lost in a book, get lost in the life of somebody else, forget your own troubles for a little while and, you know, worry about how they’re gonna manage theirs, which are so much worse than yours. And <laugh> enjoy like I have a passion for language. So I love to see how a writer creates language and controls it and shapes the world, using words. That’s exciting to me. And I make sure that I try to balance that with physical activity and with time in my kitchen, I cook, I bake, I dance at the same time sometimes <laugh> and you know, I try to make sure that I spend time with my kids and I laugh and, and hang out with my friends and just, it it’s, it really is that balance in life, all the things in moderation.

Sam Demma (17:44):

Mm. I, I support the dancing and cooking at the same time. Sounds like a party. <Laugh>

Dawn Thompson (17:51):

You have to be careful though, and you should definitely wear an apron.

Sam Demma (17:54):

Yeah. <laugh> I should get food everywhere. That’s awesome. Well, when you think about people who have had a significant impact on you as a person and your professional development as a teacher who are some of the individuals that come to mind and what do you think those individuals did for you that had a significant impact?

Dawn Thompson (18:17):

There was a teacher in high school. I took political science in grade 12, and I remember walking in to his classroom every day, thinking I know nothing <laugh> and then I would leave going. I only know what I learned today in this class from him, but he never ever made me feel like, I didn’t know anything. In fact, he was the one who started calling me a political animal, somebody who was really passionate about that. And he made me actually want to live up to that. He got me interested in politics, and so I know that a lot of what I do in my classroom, I have shaped around trying to give kids that same feeling, trying to get them to see themselves in a way that maybe they have not in the past, trying to get them to say, well, it’s okay if I’m not an expert or I’m not perfect as long as I’m always trying to grow and, and learn and be better.

Dawn Thompson (19:14):

So I definitely would consider him to be a, a role model for the kind of teacher I became and have a very long relationship with the woman who was my cooperating teacher when I was a student teacher, ah her name is gay Thompson, no relation to me. Oh, wow. <Laugh> but I actually kind of think of her as a second mom, you know, we’ve known each other for 25, some odd years now, and it was amazing to be in her classroom and see what she did and then to work with her again, later on in my career and to watch the environment she created for teachers in her presence and to call her up during the course of my career, when I was facing a job crisis, should I take this job? Should I take that job? What am I doing in my classroom?

Dawn Thompson (20:11):

That’s not working anymore. And to be able to call her up and, and talk to her, not just as somebody who understood my profession, but also who understood me as a, a friend has been really, really extraordinary. And I hope that I pay that forward to young teachers who come into my space as well. And into my teaching world, I, I hope that I give them what she gave me. And then, and then someday when I am retired, I hope that they also call me up and say, Hey, I have this really great thing that happened. And, and, and I can celebrate it with them.

Sam Demma (20:52):

Ah, I love that. Are these individuals that you stay in? I mean, it sounds like you and gay Thompson stay in touch with, do you stay in touch with these individuals often?

Dawn Thompson (21:02):

Well, I don’t talk to her as often as I probably should. That’s okay. But I, we do, we, we call at least two or three times a year, major life moments. You know, she sends my kids birthday cards, which is so lovely. And, you know, just the, the little things that make sure that you stay in touch so that we know what’s going on in each other’s lives.

Sam Demma (21:22):

Nice. Well, this interview gives you another reason to reach out to her <laugh> so hopefully it facilitates a connection. So

Dawn Thompson (21:30):

When tell her, she will be,

Sam Demma (21:32):

So it’s obvious people have played an impact. Are there any resources that you think have also played an impact, maybe that’s books you’ve read that really provided unique perspectives or courses you’ve been a part of, you know, you mentioned the conference NS a, so that’s a big resource. What else?

Dawn Thompson (21:54):

Well, the N plus a I, I know it’s a student leadership organization and it really is designed run planned. The whole thing is for students, but teachers get a lot out of it too. When we go there as advisors, if, I mean, you did a session with advisors, you spent time with advisors over the weekend. You know, how important that time is for them. There are advisors who have been going to conferences for years, and it might be the only time that we see each other, but there’s such a really great sense of family that comes with that. We’re teaching in different places in the province, we’re teaching different levels, different subjects. And yet there’s a connection that we make that is really rejuvenating for a lot of us. And having that provincial conference, especially in may leading into that really rough part of the year, which is June there’s something that really fills up your tank to help you get through the month of June.

Dawn Thompson (23:00):

So it is definitely a huge resource for me, especially because I get energy from that. But I also have an opportunity to dialogue with colleagues, which is not something that happens on an everyday basis, often in a school, you know, you’re locked in your own classroom, doing your thing, that there is not a lot of opportunity to meet with other teachers and say, Hey, what are you doing in your space? Or I’m trying this, and I don’t know if it’s working out. What do you think have you had had experience with this? So certainly the S a has given me that the other thing that I would say really, really shaped my career in terms of a resource many years ago, when I taught in Toronto at Asian court collegiate, we had a principal who was kind of visionary, and he decided that he wanted to train everybody on staff.

Dawn Thompson (23:53):

And I’m not just talking about teachers, I’m talking about TAs caretakers in the building, secretaries administration, everyone who worked in that building was trained on a program, which was called tribes. It’s no longer called that now. It’s peace learning groups. I think I’m not sure that’s okay. Because I think that they’ve recognized that perhaps the name while it was well-intentioned was not necessarily a good choice, but really it’s about cooperative learning in your classroom. It’s about creating a community of learners who support each other for their success. And it’s about the teacher as much being a part of that community of learners as the students are. And so I took the training, but I was initially very skeptical because it was really designed for elementary students and they were trying to run this program with high school teachers. And I thought, oh, really, you think I can play that game with my grade twelves, are you crazy?

Dawn Thompson (24:57):

They’re not gonna wanna do that. And I asked a lot of questions and, and I was probably a little bit difficult. But at the end of the training, I committed to giving it a shot the next year in my classes. And so in September I started it up and I’ve never looked back. Mm-Hmm, <affirmative> the difference that it made in my classroom. Every single time has been tangible. It makes kids comfortable with each other. It makes them feel safe. It creates a relationship between me and them that is so necessary if you want real quality learning to happen. So during the pandemic, it was more challenging to do that because a lot of the activities required contact and they’re supposed to be sitting in groups and working in groups and they weren’t allowed to, and they had to wear their masks and they couldn’t see each other’s faces and they couldn’t touch the same ball.

Dawn Thompson (25:57):

So you can’t play the game where you throw the ball back and forth. Like it was just, there was so much about it. That was so hard. And I felt it because the environment that I created in my space was not the same. Mm-Hmm <affirmative> it was missing something. So getting back to it this year, just renewed how much that had such a gigantic impact on me as an educator. I would love to become a trainer and train other people to do that someday. But in the meantime, I make sure that I use it in all my classes, and I talk about it with my colleagues. I have the book that has the whole program laid out. I bought it, I consulted on a regular basis. I check out new activities that I might try from it. And I think that that was a really huge component for developing me into the educator that I am.

Sam Demma (26:49):

Isn’t the book, the same title of the program? Like what would the title of the book be if someone wanted to try and find it, or

Dawn Thompson (26:55):

The, the, I don’t, I’m hoping that they’re manufacturing a new version of it. Okay. But the old version was tribes, TLC the tribes learning community and it’s I think if you go online, they have a website, but I’m pretty sure exchange if you search up tribes, it’ll take you to peace learning groups now. And I think that they’re revamping a lot of stuff, so I don’t know how many of their resources their books are available anymore.

Sam Demma (27:26):

Okay. When you say using it, is it more so a collection of exercises and activities that you could implement in your classroom or what exactly is the program?

Dawn Thompson (27:37):

Well, the program has, it’s an approach really cool to how you run everything in your classroom. Okay. So I spend a lot of time at the beginning of a course, really making sure that I’m creating that space for students, getting them comfortable. They’re sharing information about themselves. I’m learning about them as individuals, as learners. They’re learning about me. We’re developing our four agreements, which basically set the rules for the classroom. You know, it’s about being an attentive listener. It’s about being mutually respectful to each other. It’s about the right to pass or participate, meaning that there are some times where if you don’t wanna talk today, you don’t have to. But recognizing that the more you don’t participate, the less other people get to know you. And then that’s not such a comfortable space for you. So understanding that you have to make choices and really building this sense of community in the classroom respect and celebrating the differences in our space and amongst our people, but also looking for the connections that draw us together and, and help us make a community.

Dawn Thompson (28:50):

So it’s a bunch of different activities that you can do. And then it’s sort of an approach to even how you run the lessons. If I really wanted to, I could structure all my lessons that way I don’t. But often I do have activities that we do on a regular basis that build that sense of community. And then eventually, probably about six weeks in when I feel like kids know me and I know them I ask them to give me a collection of probably about five names of people who they would like to have in what I’m now calling guilds instead of tribes. Nice. because it, I think a Guild is a really great name for what they’re doing. It’s a group of people who are not related by blood, but who have a common goal, their own success. Yep. And who have things in common.

Dawn Thompson (29:41):

So I’m calling them guilds now. So they tell me five people they’d like to have in their Guild. I put those guilds together and I promise them that at least one person that they have asked for will be in their Guild. So everybody has a safe person in their Guild. But I put those guilds together thinking about genders. I think about strengths and weaknesses. I think about personalities. I think about learning styles. I think about all of the things that contribute to how they might successfully work together. And then they sit with that group. They often work with that group. They don’t do everything with their group, but many things. And what I hear usually at the end of the year is how much they loved their group, how tight they became. You don’t have to think of a name for their group and they’d come up with crazy stuff all the time. And <laugh>, it’s, it’s just, there’s so much positive about it that I think if I create that in my space, then all the learning that happens in the room afterwards comes out of the fact that this is a good place to be.

Sam Demma (30:45):

Mm. Sounds like a conference in a classroom. That’s what came to mind. <Laugh>

Dawn Thompson (30:49):

I hope

Sam Demma (30:50):

<Laugh>. Yeah. It’s so that’s so cool. It sounds like it’s had a really big impact on your beliefs and philosophy and approaching education, which is awesome. I’ll definitely hyperlink it down below so people can check it out. If you could take all of your experience in education, all the wisdom you’ve gained and all of your years teaching go back in time and like tap down on the shoulder. When, when you were just starting to work in a school, knowing what you know now, not that you would change anything about your path, but what advice do you think it would’ve been helpful to hear when you were just starting?

Dawn Thompson (31:25):

You don’t have to mark everything.

Sam Demma (31:29):

Hmm.

Dawn Thompson (31:31):

As a beginning teacher, there’s this sense that you have to be on top of everything students are doing and everything they do matters, and you have to have marks for everything and you have to be accountable and guess what you don’t, mm-hmm <affirmative> sometimes you just have to relax and let the learning take place that there are other ways to assess the learning that’s happening and to check in with kids that has nothing to do with marking the work.

Sam Demma (31:59):

That’s a great piece of advice and I’m sure people who just started teaching over the past few years could have used that maybe two years ago before they jumped in so thanks for sharing. If someone is listening to this conversation, has been inspired by it, wants to connect with you, join your personal Guild, or ask you a question, what would be the best way for someone listening to get in touch?

Dawn Thompson (32:25):

Well, I I’ve got my social media, so I am on Instagram. I think I’m @miztee77. You’d have to request to follow me because I do keep it private, teachers have to do that. I’m on Twitter, so you can find me there too. I’m pretty sure I’m @miztee7 there, and obviously I’m happy to get emails too. So you know, if you wanna talk about teaching, you wanna talk about the NSSSA? My email address is kuzykmommy@gmail.com.

Sam Demma (33:10):

Awesome. Don, thank you so much for taking some of your time to stop marking some exams and you know, join me on the podcast to share some of your experiences and beliefs around education. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you and I can’t wait until our next conversation,

Dawn Thompson (33:27):

Sam, it was a real pleasure for me too. It was so nice to reconnect with you. I, I had a great time.

Sam Demma (33:35):

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

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Dawn Thompson

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.

Peter Sovran – Director of Education at the Upper Grand District School Board

Peter Sovran – Director of Education at the Upper Grand District School Board
About Peter Sovran

Peter Sovran’s career portfolio over the past twenty-seven years has included a variety of high profile, extensive and demanding senior leadership positions with the Hamilton-Wentworth, York Region and Toronto District School Boards and the Ontario Ministry of Education.

He has a proven track record of strategic, transformative leadership that has resulted in impactful changes to public education in Ontario, with a particular focus on improving
student achievement, well-being and equity of outcomes. His commitment to addressing the gaps in student learning that exist due to systemic and historic barriers was further cemented during his two years working with the Anishinaabeg of Kabapikotawangag Resource Council First Nations School in north-western Ontario.

Peter is currently one of the longest serving Associate Directors of Education in the province. Prior to this role Peter was an Executive Superintendent and a Superintendent of Student Achievement. He has served as a Senior Manager and Senior Policy Advisor with the Ministry of Education, leading the provincial eLearning program and Early Reading/Early Math initiatives.

Peter has been an elementary school principal and vice-principal and has taught in all grade divisions, elementary and secondary, including adult education. A lifelong learner, Peter is pursuing his doctorate in educational leadership and policy at OISE/UofT. He holds a Master of Science in Behavioural Neuroscience from McGill University, a Bachelor of Education (Science and Math) and Bachelor of Science in Psychology and Biomedical Ethics from the University of Toronto.

An avid runner and cyclist, Peter has completed several races including seven marathons. He and his wife carve out time from their busy schedules to enjoy tennis, hikes and finding new local artisan shops. They have two adult children.

“I am very humbled and excited about the opportunity to work with the dedicated trustees, staff, and community partners that serve the students of the Upper Grand District School Board. Together, we will ensure that UGDSB continues its well-established position as a leader in learning, service excellence, and environmental literacy and is proudly reflective of the distinct communities within its boundaries.”

Peter officially commences in the role of Director of Education and Secretary-Treasurer on September 1, 2021. He will begin his transition process over the coming months.

Connect with Peter: Email | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB)

Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB)

York Region District School Board (YRDSB)

Toronto District School Board (TDSB)

Ontario Ministry of Education

Anishinaabeg of Kabapikotawangag Resource Council First Nations School (AKRC)

Ontario Provincial eLearning program

Doctorate in educational leadership and policy at OISE/UofT

Behavioural Neuroscience at McGill University

Bachelor of Education at University of Toronto

Bachelor of Science in Psychology at University of Toronto

Biomedical Ethics at the University of Toronto

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):

Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast.

Sam Demma (00:59):

This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is Peter Sovran. Peter Sovran’s career portfolio over the past 27 years has included a variety of high profile, extensive, and demanding senior leadership positions with the Hamilton Wentworth York region and Toronto district school boards, and the Ontario ministry of education. He has a proven track record of strategic transformative leadership that has resulted in impactful changes to public education in Ontario, with a particular focus on improving student achievement, wellbeing and equity of outcomes. His commitment to addressing the gaps in student learning that exist due to systemic and historic barriers was further cemented during his two years, working with the Anishinaabeg of Kabapikotawangag Resource Council First Nations School in north-western Ontario. Peter is currently one of the longest serving associate directors of education in the province. Prior to his role, Peter was an executive superintendent and a superintendent of student achievement.

Sam Demma (01:58):

He has served as a senior manager and senior policy advisor with the ministry of education, leading the provincial eLearning program in early reading, early math initiatives. Peter has been an elementary school principal and vice principal, and is taught in all grade divisions,; elementary and secondary, including adult education. A lifelong learner. Peter is pursuing his doctorate in educational leadership and policy at OISE, University of Toronto. He holds a master of science and behavioral neuroscience from McGill University, a bachelor of education, science and math, and a bachelor of science in psychology and biomedical ethics from the University of Toronto. An avid runner and cyclist, Peter has completed several races, including seven marathons. He and his wife carve out time for their busy schedule to enjoy tennis, hikes, and finding new local artesian shops. They also have two adult children. I hope you enjoyed this conversation with Peter. It was a pleasure to speak with him and I will see you on the other side. Peter, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show. Please start by introducing yourself.

Peter Sovran (03:01):

Well, hi Sam. So pleased to be here. So I’m Peter Sovran. I’m the director of education for the Upper Grand District School Board.

Sam Demma (03:10):

When did you realize as a young professional, or even as a student that you wanted to work in education when you grew up?

Peter Sovran (03:19):

Huh? That’s right. That is a great question. My my career and and career aspirations have taken many, many turns. I think I started off wanted to be a professional baseball player. So that was that didn’t happen. And so then I then I pursued you know my postsecondary education and thought I’d be a, a neuroscientist. Wow. Went, went off to to do my graduate work. And and then I, I realized a couple of things. One was sort of a force of nature and that is that I’m severely, severely allergic to the particular animals that I was working with when I was doing experiments. Wow. <laugh> and so I got to thinking, do I wanna do this for the rest of my life? And while I was in graduate school, I really enjoyed you know, the teaching side of things. And so I started looking into that and talked to a bunch of people and started doing some some volunteering in schools. And, you know, as they say, kind of the rest is history,

Sam Demma (04:39):

Take me back for a moment to the baseball days. When did that dream become something you chased and at what time in your life did you put it on the shelf in terms of the aspiration to one day play professionally?

Peter Sovran (04:55):

Oh, I think pretty quickly. I think I was you know, sort of a young teenager and realized that while I was a pretty good pitcher I was a pretty good pitcher for, you know, my local league had a tryout with the under 18 team Canada. Didn’t make it. And I thought, well, if I didn’t make it past the preliminary stages of that triad camp, then I’m not sure I wanted to spend my entire early twenties traveling in minor league ballparks.

Sam Demma (05:32):

Nice. I love it. You mentioned severe allergies as well to the animals. Was this a physical response that you would experience or what was the paint, the picture? What did it look like?

Peter Sovran (05:43):

<Laugh> it, it was, yeah, I I had packed my bags. I had moved to, to Montreal to attend McGill university deliberately picked it because, you know, it’s one of our great Canadian postsecondary institutions, particularly in the area of neuroscience. And as I began working with the rats that I was gonna be doing experiments with, cuz they’re great at running around mazes and you know as you’re studying learning and memory systems, which is what I was really interested in in, in looking at I had a severe allergic reaction and so had a hard time breathing and spent the next couple of years running the experiments with you know, seems like people would be so used to it today, but I had to wear an industrial mask. And and so it wasn’t, it wasn’t all that pleasant. And as I said, it was probably a sign that I wasn’t meant to do this.

Sam Demma (06:49):

So you made the decision to get the teaching degree because you enjoyed the teaching aspect of the job. What did the journey look like from that moment forward that brought you to where you are today?

Peter Sovran (07:01):

Yeah, so began my teaching career and I began in high schools and I was math science teacher, which sort of goes hand in hand with studying neuroscience. Weren’t too many jobs at that time. So my first job I took was actually in an elementary school, my former elementary school to be precise. And I started working alongside some teachers who had taught me. So that was that was pretty interesting. <Laugh> and and back then whenever you had the lowest seniority in a school, you were let go from that school and you were let go from the school board. And so that happened year after year. And even though that seems like a horrible way to start off your career, it provided opportunities, provided opportunities to go to different schools and teach in different grades, meet different people.

Peter Sovran (08:02):

And I think that that also helped you know, develop my my real interest for not only teaching in high schools and in elementary schools, but all grades. So by the time I moved in to becoming a principal, I had pretty well taught every grade or experienced every grade. And as I look back now, that was just a, a great opportunity. So I did that. And and then I had this unique opportunity to go work on a project with the ministry of education. And that connected me back to, you know, my science roots. I went there and I stayed for about six and a half years. Wow. Took on a whole bunch of different jobs there became a senior policy advisor. So I learned that side of things as well as education, I learned all of the, the policy side of the work.

Peter Sovran (09:01):

And then became a principal went back to the ministry of education and ran e-learning Ontario, which is sort of the online learning for the for the province. That was really cool. And and then I became a superintendent of education. Did that for a number of years became an associate director. And and then this past September became the director here on the upper grant district school board. So as I said, lots of twists and turns, but each one of them was a learning opportunity. And at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about is continuously learning.

Sam Demma (09:40):

What, first of all, remarkable pathway, everyone I ask has a totally different journey to where they are today. It sounds like you’ve had your interests and curiosity pull you in so many different directions, which gives you such a broad perspective and diverse set of skills. What though keeps you curious and motivated to get up every day and continuously pursue new knowledge and do this work?

Peter Sovran (10:07):

Yeah, it’s that’s a great question. And it’s you know, that’ss, that’s the key, right? Is why, why do we get up each day and wanna keep doing what we’re doing? And so you’ll see from from my background, this is my office. You know, my office has a nice a chalkboard. If you were to see my desk, it’s it’s an old wooden teacher’s desk and I’ve got all the modern features there as well, but the reason why I’ve, I’ve, I’ve always wanted to set up my office in this way, is that each and every day, I need to be reminded the reason I come to work, the reason why the so-called corner office exists is to make sure that the decisions that we make help students with their pathways. Mm-Hmm, <affirmative>, that’s the passion, that’s the drive and sort of the blend of the, the modern and, you know, some of the traditional is also one of those things that drives me.

Peter Sovran (11:07):

What, what else can we do? That’s, that’s different, that’s new, that’s exciting, like doing a podcast with you you know, over zoom, right. We wouldn’t have done this a couple of years ago. Yeah. But you know, so that to me is still super exciting. Until every student can fulfill their own pathway, their own desires, then there’s work to do mm-hmm, <affirmative>, there’s something interesting to pursue, and it doesn’t have to be, you know, graduating from, from high school. But you know I had, I had a group of students a couple weekends ago, I went out to a performance that three of our high school bands had gone together and, and were doing this charity event. And so I had the opportunity to to speak with them as they were rehearsing in the afternoon.

Peter Sovran (12:01):

And you know, one of them asked me a question and they said, if you had a magic button, you could press and change things, you know, for the better what would you do? And I thought that was a great question. And, you know, my answer was I would press that button and enable every student to pursue what they wanted to learn and how they wanted to learn it. Mm. That would be one magic button. So that, but that, that’s what keeps it coming every day to to the job, because it’s the pursuit of that magic button. Really.

Sam Demma (12:39):

I love that perspective as someone who spent most of their life, chasing a dream that other people happen to deem as unrealistic. I, I will, I grew up on to play professional soccer. And by the age of 17, after three career ending, knee injuries realized it wasn’t gonna happen. Found myself lost. And I valued school very high up until that point, because it was a means to me getting a better soccer scholarship. If I had higher grades and the athletics, I could get a full ride scholarship to a school in the states. And after it fell apart, I felt a little lost and didn’t know what I wanted to pursue and ended up taking a fifth year of high school and then a gap year both of which made me feel like maybe I was following behind or making the wrong choice. And I think it was so important that I had people in my life who during those moments reminded me that every pathway is a valid option, you know, in every learner, it takes a slightly different path. And if every student could be encouraged to pursue their path and help help to realize that there is no correct or right or wrong choice, I think that would take a lot of weight off their shoulders.

Peter Sovran (13:52):

Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, that, that’s that’s, the goal is you know, find what your passion is, what your interest is, and that can change, you know, you don’t have to set your course and, and have your learning driven that way. And through that passion and that interest, as opposed to it’s Tuesday, you know, so we have to learn this.

Sam Demma (14:15):

Mm, got it. When you think about educators who have been impactful in your life, who comes to mind and maybe it’s, it could be a formal classroom teacher, but it could also be anyone you’ve crossed path with who has had a significant impact on who you are and the way you see the world today.

Peter Sovran (14:34):

Yeah. It’s I, I think about that a lot. I had I had a great teacher grade seven and eight. Mm. And music teacher. And and while I don’t consider myself a musician that was a turning point in my life. It was an opportunity to be part of something bigger, which was a band and to, to play in a band. And and this teacher, you know saw something in me that suggested that I had some leadership qualities. And so I became the band leader in, in grade eight after spending grade seven, you know, really studying and learning the instrument for the very first time. And you know, I look back and that was one of those turning points. You know, this this belief that you could be a leader and someone who not only said it, but then, you know, work to develop some of those leadership skills.

Peter Sovran (15:34):

So I think of I think of that teacher, I think of you know, some some principles who I had both as a student but then also as a, as a teacher and then as a principal, myself, you know, colleagues who were just great listeners. Mm. And and you know, when I look back, I always think of the people who made the most impact on me were the ones who you know, let me take a chance, let me, they, they actually allowed me to, to fail, but with kinda a safety net. Hmm. And you know, and that’s something I, I always wanna carry with me and, and hope to, you know, inspire others with as well that you learn, you learn so much from taking a risk and taking a chance and sometimes yeah. Making mistakes.

Sam Demma (16:37):

You mentioned listening as one of the qualities of a leader, you know, people in your life that listened really intently, left an impact on you. What are some of the other qualities you think make up a great school leader, whether it be a principal or a superintendent or a teacher. Cause I think everyone in the school is a leader in some way, shape or form whether it’s leading colleagues or leading students. Yeah. I’m curious to know your thoughts on, on some of the qualities.

Peter Sovran (17:08):

Yeah. and again, your, your point around everyone’s a leader in, in one way or another. And so leadership qualities aren’t reserved just for those formal leadership positions. Yep. And so definitely listening is a real key. But also, you know making sure that as you listen, and as you, as you gather, people’s voice that your decisions are informed decisions that people are involved in decisions that you make together. Mm. And I think that that is such an important quality for, for anyone in a leadership position is that you know, you involve people not, not at the end, but at the beginning. And then, you know, I, I would say strong leaders also need to be decisive. Strong leaders need to be accountable. And you know, in, in a lot of the reading that I, I do about leadership some of the the things that would always stand out would be that you know, great leaders are the ones who take the responsibility when things don’t go well, always, always, and they always keep the praise on everyone else when things go well, because inevitably it’s the team effort that gets you, you know your results.

Peter Sovran (18:37):

So take the responsibility when it doesn’t go well and give credit when it does to the others.

Sam Demma (18:44):

Ah, I love that. You mentioned reading when in your life did reading nonfiction books become, and maybe it’s your whole life, but what, was there a tipping point where you fell in love with books on a continuous pursuit of knowledge? And if, if there was, I’m curious to know along the journey, what, what are some books that have stood out to you if you can recall some of them?

Peter Sovran (19:05):

Yeah, absolutely. So the one that I would just referenced would be Jim Collins. Good to great. You would come into my office, you would see it prominently displayed in my office. I refer back to it a whole lot. And I’m

Sam Demma (19:20):

Surprised you don’t have some fly wheels on your board back there. <Laugh> yeah,

Peter Sovran (19:26):

I I’ve always preferred nonfiction. I’ve really thoroughly enjoy reading biographies. Yes. About about politicians, about athletes, about, you know, inspirational leaders about people in general you know, people’s lives are fascinating. And I think as you, as you dig in whether it’s an autobiography or a biography and, and you learn about you know, people’s journeys there’s so much to glean from that. And for me, it, it’s just a reminder that nobody does anything on their own. It’s all in a context, it’s a context of, you know, whether it’s your family, whether it’s your friends, whether it’s your colleagues, whether it’s your, you know people that surround you, then nobody, nobody ever does anything on their own. And and so as I read these nonfiction and particularly these biographies, I’m always intrigued by, you know, what people have had to overcome and how they’ve you know, relied on others or as you described, you know, some of these important people in your life that you just go to and you think, wow, see, I always thought that person just was completely self made and became this instant, you know, in inspirational leader and successful person.

Peter Sovran (20:52):

And yet even they had that turning point or they had that person that they lean on.

Sam Demma (20:58):

Hmm. Yeah. I, I think you’re absolutely correct. Every, even the ones that appear like an overnight success often have so many things to share in interviews and that can disprove those assumptions about the people that helped them, how long it took for them to build what they did build. There’s a book called principles by Ray Dalio. And he has this one, maybe have you read it.

Peter Sovran (21:23):

I know it. Yep.

Sam Demma (21:24):

Yeah. So there’s one chapter and the title is, you know, you can have anything, but you can’t have everything. And I think this same applies to whatever you choose to pursue in life, but there should be an ad that you can have anything but not alone. <Laugh> yeah. Good point. Yeah. Because I think you’re absolutely right in saying it’s always the result of a collective effort or in some way, the influence of other people that you’ve met along your own journey. When you think about the people that impacted you you know, your grade seven teacher the colleagues and principals you have ha have had along the way, are there any that you still stay in touch with closely to this day?

Peter Sovran (22:09):

Well, that, that great seven teacher, I still stay connected with him. Nice. And still have a friendship after all of these years. And it’s been many, many years. Wow. I would say pretty well, everyone who I would describe as having had an impact if they’re if they’re still with us I make an effort to to stay connected with them. And and, and also, you know whether it’s this new role that I took on last September. And perhaps I had, you know, connected with someone for a little while I’d reach out and say you know, I’m doing what I’m doing right now, largely because of the impact you had on my life. And I think it’s so important to remind people of that.

Sam Demma (22:58):

I, I love it. I try and stay in touch with my grade 12 world issues teacher who had a big impact on me. And I can tell that every time I reach out to him, he has this sense of gratitude because maybe sometimes educators don’t hear it often enough from their students or their colleagues, the difference that their actions and choices make in the lives of others. Books have been a big part of your life. How else do you fill your own cup when you’re not working in the office?

Peter Sovran (23:27):

Hmm. So a couple of things. I for my own self care, I I run and I try and run usually four or five times a week with that comes the other setbacks with injuries which I’m dealing with right now. Oh, no. And you know, and so, and, and I run both for my mental wellbeing and for my physical wellbeing. But when it comes to the work I deliberately don’t spend a whole lot of time in my physical office. I spend time in different places within our school board. And I make a point there’s one day a week that I spend in schools and in classrooms. And sometimes it’s two days a week. And I always say the reason I have to be in schools and in classrooms to interact with students and with teachers and, you know, office administrators and caretakers is that that’s where the rubber hits the road. That’s where the action happens. That’s where the impact is. And as the leader of the organization, I need to be right there and see it and, and hear it. And so that absolutely fills my cup. I will say to people best part of my week is always when I’m in schools.

Sam Demma (24:58):

Hmm. There’s so many amazing things happening in schools. I’m sure you’re quite inspired by walking through the hallways, stopping in classrooms, hearing the discussions, but over the past two years, there’s also been an equal affair of challenges with shifts. And, you know, I shouldn’t say the word cuz they’re moving out of it now, but COVID, <laugh> I’m sure there’s been moments where teachers have maybe even reached out to you burnt out people that you’ve inspired looking for some advice or insights. If you were to paint a hypothetical situation of a teacher walking into your, your office, which you’re very rarely in any ways, which makes us more hypothetical and they sat down and tears in their eyes telling you, you know, this has been one of the hardest years of my life. I’m feeling burnt out. I’m not feeling inspired. You know, do you have any words of advice for me, if you could kind of share a quick little blurb for teachers who might be feeling this way right now, what would you share or tell them?

Peter Sovran (25:59):

Yeah. so it, it’s not even a hypothetical Sam it’s it’s, it’s the reality that you know, going back to, you know, the context everybody’s lived in the context of of COVID and the global pandemic for you know, since March of 2020, I remember that day leaving March 20, 20 thinking okay. A couple of weeks we’ll, we’ll be back, we’ll be back. And we’ll just pick things up. And here we are June of two and you know, the, as difficult as it’s been for students the absolute champions of education have been all of the educators, you know, the teachers, the educational assistants, everybody that works in the system they managed to leave in March of 2020, and within two weeks went from, you know, a physical classroom to, to this, to, you know, a laptop, maybe a camera and all of a sudden they had to take their craft and completely reinvent how they engage with students.

Peter Sovran (27:19):

So I’d say, you know, what you’ve done over the last two years has made a difference. It’s made a huge difference, you know? Yeah. I, when I was a principal, I used to always end my, the, the staff meetings with this one slide, what you do matters. And it’s so true what you do in a school, connecting with a student, listening, teaching it matters and it’s mattered more so in the last two years than probably ever before, because teachers and everyone that works with students, they’ve not only been able to connect with them, but they’ve also shown them that despite a global pandemic, despite the biggest curve ball, if I could use a, a baseball analogy that was that was thrown at you you know, we persevere, we, we pick ourselves up, we dust ourselves off and we focus on what matters the most, which is that human connection.

Peter Sovran (28:33):

And so, yeah, it’s been incredibly tough. There is no question about it. And you know, the other reminder is that, you know, our, our leaders in our schools, our teachers or principals, and, you know, again, our caretakers are off staff. They also have lives outside of school. Yeah. That have been, that have been impacted, you know, they’re caring for other people. They’re worried about other people they’re, they’re worried about themselves. And so, yeah, it’s, it’s been so incredibly difficult, but I would say that, you know our sector in education, I mean, you know, our, our healthcare workers have been heroes through this, but I would put our educators, you know, right up there. You’ve made the difference. You’ve been the ones who have been on the other side of the screen for your students who have otherwise felt, you know, disconnected and lost. So I’m just like everyone, you know, planning for a return in September that will not go back to the way things work. Cause I think we shouldn’t do that. We should never try and go back. We should always, you know, learn from the situations that we’re in take, what’s worked and, and keep moving forward. But I really do hope that September and the fall looks different than it has these last two falls.

Sam Demma (30:08):

You positioned it perfectly. <Laugh> different is a good, good way to put it. I know it’s been a challenge, not only for staff in schools, but for superintendents like yourself, anyone who worked in education. And in fact, I would say humanity as a whole has had a challenge, no matter what industry or, you know, vocation, you worked in. The challenge that I sometimes think about often is those educators that just began teaching and their first year was in the middle of the pandemic who didn’t have, you know, 10 years of previous teaching experience to compare it to, and maybe had been thinking to themselves, what the heck did I sign up for? I, I’m curious to know if you could go back in time to your first few years working in education with the experience you have now, what advice would you have given to your younger self when you were just starting that you think may have been helpful to hear, and maybe it’s something we’ve already chatted about that you can reiterate or some new thoughts?

Peter Sovran (31:14):

Hmm. Yeah. I I would definitely say to myself, you don’t have all the answers, so look to others <laugh> mm. Number one, number two it, it’s okay to, to make a mistake and to take a risk and you know, within, within reason. Right. and and if it’s because you’re, you’re trying to do something to, you know, I improve the lives of others then you’re always on the right side of that. And and so I, I would, I would definitely say that, you know, those who have come into the profession during the pandemic or into a new position and, you know, I include myself as one of those people. You know, I became the director of education here in the upper grand district school board on September, the first of, in the midst of a pandemic.

Peter Sovran (32:19):

You realized though that even though you were teaching or leading, you know, with a mask on perhaps and sanitizing your hands more than you’ve probably ever done in your life <laugh> and that you were, you know, shifting from being in person to then being back in lockdown to doing things virtually that fundamentally one thing has not changed. And that connecting with people has always number one, the number was that teacher that I was, you know, almost 30 years ago to someone who’s just now started just remember that whether you’re connecting through zoom or teams or in person always keep those connections open, build those networks you know talk to talk to others who, you know, have, have walked in your path before I’ll share this story. When I first started this job you know, I I, I took over for Dr.

Peter Sovran (33:30):

Martha Rogers, who had been the director of education, the only director of education that the upper district school board had ever had. Wow. She had been, she had been in the role for 26 and a years. She was the founding director of education, you know, the, the first and only ever CEO that the organization had. And you know, sadly we lost DRS in December. So I had a really short period of time where I had that opportunity to connect with her. And every two weeks we would have coffee together and and conversation and lots of conversation. And it was my chance to, you know, pick her brain about you know, her 26 and a half years of, of running the organization. And it was also her opportunity to pick my brain about what’s this guy gonna be doing now that I’ve handed over this organization after 26 and a half years.

Peter Sovran (34:33):

And what it speaks to is, you know, that human connection and realizing that we can all learn from each other all the time. And as long as you’re open to that, you have to be open to that. You’ll keep moving forward. Once you start thinking you have all the answers that nobody can tell you how might be able so or different then it’s, then it’s time to take a really hard look at am I, am I really coming into the job each and every day, because I love doing it still or is it time to do something else? And it doesn’t matter what profession or what job you’re in. Everybody gets to that point

Sam Demma (35:18):

What a great piece of advice, especially towards the start or end of a new academic year to reflect on, I think to set our sales in the correct direction and be honest, if it’s not something that lights your soul then it’s okay to shift your sail as well. We need people who really want to be in education to be in education and it sounds like your conversations with Martha had a significant impact on you and testament to her and the human connection that I hope everyone strives to have with their colleagues and their students. This has been an awesome conversation Peter. Thank you so much for taking the time to call on the podcast. If someone wants to reach out to you, ask a question pick your brain, <laugh> absorb some of your genius, what would be the best way for them to reach out or get in touch?

Peter Sovran (36:11):

You know we’re always available at the Upper Grand District School Board. You just drop a line to our general inquiry. Give us a phone call you know, we’re, we’re on the web at ugdsb.on.ca. You’ll able to find you know, our contact information. And I love working with people who who are interested in, in leadership in, in any capacity and it doesn’t have to be just in education. And of course I will shamelessly say, I’m always, always looking for people who are, are passionate about working with students. And you know, this school board is an amazing place to work. So if you want reach out and you know, share your, share your passion for for working with students and making their lives better because that’s what it’s all about.

Sam Demma (37:13):

Awesome. Peter, thanks again for doing this. It was a pleasure chatting with you. Keep up the amazing work and I look forward to chatting with you soon.

Peter Sovran (37:21):

My pleasure.

Sam Demma (37:23):

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

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Peter Sovran

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.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd – Superintendent of the Victoria Independent School District and Adjunct Faculty at the University of Houston, Victoria

Dr. Quintin Shepherd - Superintendent of the Victoria Independent School District and Adjunct Faculty at the University of Houston, Victoria
About Dr. Quintin Shepherd

Dr. Shepherd (@QShepherd) is in his fourth year as Superintendent for the Victoria Independent School District. When he came to Victoria, his first priority was to listen to the voice of the community, parents, staff, and students.

From that, he invited those stakeholders to be a part of shaping the future of the District. Members of those groups have been, and continue to, work collaboratively with District leadership to make recommendations as we build that future to meet the current and future needs of Victoria students and the community.

Dr. Shepherd also serves as Adjunct Faculty at the University of Houston, Victoria. Recently, Dr. Shepherd published the popular “The Secret to Transformational Leadership.”

Connect with Quintin: Email | LinkedIn | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Victoria Independent School District

University of Houston

The Secret to Transformational Leadership Book

P-Tech Schools

Advanced Placement

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):

Welcome back to the high performing educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. The High Performing Educator was created to provide you with opportunities for personal development directly from your colleagues and peers. Each episode is like sitting face to face with a colleague in education at an amazing conference and chatting about their best practices, their learnings, their philosophies, and the mindset shifts that allow them to be successful in education today. If you enjoy these episodes that air Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, each week, please consider leaving a rating on the show on iTunes, so more educators can find it. And if you would like to receive emails that include inspiring videos for your students and actionable ideas for yourself and your staff, please visit www.highperformingeducator.com. Sign up, join the network, and I will see you on the other side of this conversation. Welcome back to the High Performing Educator podcast.

Sam Demma (00:59):

This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is Dr. Quintin Shepherd.. Dr. Shepherd is in his fourth year as superintendent for the Victoria Independent School District. When he came to Victoria, his first priority was to listen to the voice of the community, parents, staff, and students. From that, he invited those stakeholders to be part of shaping the future of the district, which you’ll hear all about in today’s interview. Members of those groups have been and continue to work collaboratively with district leadership to make recommendations as we begin building that future to meet the current and future needs of Victoria students and the community. Dr. Shepherd also serves as adjunct faculty at University of Houston, Victoria. And recently, Dr. Shepherd published the popular book, the secret to transformational leadership, which we will talk a lot about today. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Dr. Shepherd and I will see you on the other side. Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today we are joined by Dr. Quintin Shepherd from San Antonio, Texas,. Quintin, please start by introducing yourself.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (02:12):

<Laugh> my name is Quintin Shepherd. I’m currently in San Antonio by I, I, I reside in Victoria, which is a few hours east of here, southeast of here. I’ve been a superintendent for 18 years in three different states. Prior to that, I was a high school principal. Before that I was an elementary principal and, and what seems like almost a lifetime ago, I got to teach pre-K through 12th grade music every day, and it was awesome. Seeing the three year olds all the way up through the 18 year olds. I guess the other thing that’s that’s relevant is in my spare time, I, I teach at the University and I get to teach ed leadership for folks who are aspiring to be principals or, or superintendents and I also get to teach school law.

Sam Demma (02:53):

When did you realize growing up as a youngster, that education was gonna be the pathway you would take in the future?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (03:01):

One of my, one of my favorite sayings of all time is that little boys grow up to do what their mothers want them to do, but they do it in a way that their fathers would’ve done it <laugh>, which I think is like appropriate for a lot of men that I know. My mom was a school teacher. My grandfather actually her, her, her dad, he had an eighth grade education and lived on a farm, a working farm, and he was a school custodian. So he would get up at four o’clock in the morning and do chores, and then he’d go off and be a school custodian all day and then come home in the evening and do chores. And so I guess education is sort of in my blood. And like I said, my mom was a teacher taught kindergarten for a number of years, almost her entire career.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (03:42):

And I sort of resisted the call into education, but I think it was a foregone conclusion that I was gonna get into education. And shortly after I started as a teacher, I came to realize that there’s really only two groups of people who work in schools. There are those who teach, and there are those who support teachers. And I was a pretty good teacher. I think I was a pretty good teacher, but I wasn’t my mom, like my mom was an amazing teacher. She was one of these walk on water teachers. And I recognized that my calling and education was to be the number one chief supporter of teachers, and to try to make their job as easy as possible, try to keep the, you know, the, the politics away from the classroom and the, and, you know, do what I could to support, support what needs to happen in the classroom. And that’s where I found my calling.

Sam Demma (04:29):

You realize education is gonna be your pathway. What did the journey look like from that moment forward?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (04:37):

It was when you’re first outta college, it’s you know, you, you’re, you’re trying to sort out what direction is, is, is your life gonna take? And at the time applied for just about every job you could, you could imagine. And I landed in a small country school in rural Illinois, and it was, it was from there it’s, it’s a matter of one foot in front of the other, every step along the way. It’s, it’s recognizing that, you know, you, you have this dream and you have this vision and you want things to go a certain way, but sometimes life doesn’t see it that way. And sometimes life throws the opportunities that you didn’t see coming curve balls, for instance. And so you, you take a swing at every one of those and you miss some, you miss a lot of them, but then some of them you hit and it’s, it’s things like that.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (05:19):

That’s, that’s how I ended up at Victoria, Texas. Quite frankly, I was a superintendent in Illinois for a number of years. And then I moved to Iowa and, you know, things were going along splendidly and, and this opportunity came up to come down and meet the school board in Victoria, Texas. And you swing it, you swing at the pictures that are thrown at you. And it, it was the best move I could have possibly made. I’m doing some of the best work of my life and, and, and really feeling great about, you know, the work that’s happening.

Sam Demma (05:47):

Tell, tell us a little bit about why you’re in San Antonio, Texas right now. I know we talked about it before the podcast started, but what’s going on?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (05:55):

Yeah, so summer for for school administrators, a and for school board members, we try to focus on some pretty deep learning. So right now what’s going on in San Antonio is a statewide Texas conference for school board members. It’s designed for school board members, TAs V, Texas association of school boards. And it’s called the summer summer leadership Institute. And so school board members from all over the state of Texas come together for this conference and do some pretty intense learning for, for three days, which seems kind of unremarkable because educators do it all the time. Right. But you have to remember, these are volunteers. Yeah. These are people who have real jobs that pay real money, that they need to support their families. And they choose to come here for three days during the summer to keep up their learning. And that’s just a Testament to, you know, how, how committed they are to making sure that we have great public schools. And I just, so, so for a superintendent to be here and support their board, it’s just, it’s, it’s an awesome experience.

Sam Demma (06:49):

You mentioned that you realized shortly into your journey in education, that leadership was going to be your calling, or should I say supporting teachers and being the chief supporting officer <laugh>. I love that phrase. Yeah. When you realized that, what transition did you make and what started your deep interest and passion for leadership itself?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (07:13):

So my passion for leadership was, was really just this recognition that pretty, pretty soon after I started as a principal. I mean, when you’re doing the job as a principal, essentially, there’s a couple of things I’m gonna say. The first part is it’s a performance, just like when you first started as a teacher, like the first day in the classroom in front of kids, <laugh>, you’re performing a role in your mind, you know, what a teacher should be doing and what they should look like and how they should dress and so on and so forth. And you’re performing and you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re just doing the best you can. And and I recognize that the same is true for principles that when you start as a principal, there’s no, you’re, you’re playing by the rules as they’re handed to you.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (07:54):

Right. And so you do what your principal did or what the principal before you did. And that’s how a lot of leadership training takes place is by mimicry. Frankly. And then I, I became a superintendent and same thing, same exact thing. And after a year or two of figuring out how to play the game by the rules, as they’re handed to you, then you come to realize this, the same thing as a teacher, it’s true for a superintendent that maybe these rules aren’t right for me. Mm. Like they’re not the way that I’m supposed to be doing it. And the best way to describe it is, is it was like a suit that didn’t fit. Mm. And so start to change rules a little bit and say, look, we can do this thing differently. And when I started to do that, I, I came up on this, this recognition that I think a lot of how we’re doing public school leadership were just doing it wrong, quite frankly, mm-hmm <affirmative>.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (08:46):

And I couldn’t articulate it any better than that at the time. But I just felt like when I was reaching out to my community or when I was reaching out to my teachers, it just wasn’t working. I didn’t feel like I was connected to them because we’re gonna adopt a new curriculum here. We went out and did all this research. Here’s a curriculum, and we need you to do the summer professional development or training or whatever. And it’s like, it falls flat on its face. And you start to hear that the, you know, district office is disconnected from what’s happening in the classroom. And like all these things that, you know, it’s, it’s happens everywhere in education, and this is fairly, fairly commonplace. And so I started to flip the paradigm on its head as far as how I do leadership. And when I, when I came to recognize that is as a superintendent, there’s only two types of decisions that ever come to my desk. They’re either complicated or they’re complex. Now, if they’re complicated, there’s just one right. Answer. There’s one way to do it. So like a math problem, they’re complicated, right? Disassembling an aircraft engine and putting it back together. That’s complicated. Like, I’m not gonna ask you do that. Right. I’m guessing you, you’re not an aerospace engineer.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (09:53):

Complex is inherently unknowable complex. Doesn’t have one right answer. Mm. So what’s the best way to educate kids during a pandemic? Well, that’s a complex question. So what I committed to in my leadership is that anytime I’m faced with a complex issue, I will go to the people who are gonna be most impacted by that decision and give them the greatest voice. Mm. So for instance, with the pandemic, for a pandemic response plan, we went to the teachers first and we said, what would you do? How would you address this problem? And so we had about 700 teachers help us write our pandemic response plan had about 500 kids had over a thousand community members. So imagine this over 2000 people, co-authored this document. And we literally took their language and put it into the document. And then when we represented it to the community, the community’s response isn’t to judge the superintendent on his ability to write a pandemic response plan. Cause I didn’t write it. Yeah. The community says, we wrote this and this is pretty freaking awesome. Let’s get the work. And so really the, the leadership journey for me has been around. That’s how you support teachers, you support teachers by giving ’em a bigger voice in the complex issues that are facing education.

Sam Demma (11:03):

What an awesome way to craft a response plan. I would assume other districts heard about the success and maybe ask, how the heck did you facilitate this? Like, can you give me an, an idea of how long it took to craft that or how quick the turnaround was? And were there any challenges through the process?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (11:23):

It was couple, two or three weeks, at least from start to finish, which seems remarkably fast, but essentially, and we were doing it during the pandemic, which remember that meant that we were having these mega zoom meetings of 5, 6, 700 people at a time. Wow. And when we went to the students, that was crazy. I mean, imagine putting 500 middle school students in one zoom <laugh> and we did crazy, right. I mean, but we, we did it. And part of what we, part of what we did was not just let somebody come off mute that wouldn’t make any sense at all. What we wanted to do was crowdsource good ideas. So we’re, we worked with a company called thought exchange and we pitched the question to our kids and to our teachers. And, and there were lots of different questions, but as an example, what things should we focus on?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (12:06):

So that students have access to technology or what are biggest barriers to technology. And then every single teacher of the 700 who logged on, had a chance to respond. And then they had a chance to read the other 699 teachers. Wow. And what they said, and they could give them stars. So they were like, oh, that’s really, really smart. I didn’t think about that. Or no, that’s kind of dumb. We don’t need you to think about that. And it doesn’t matter because the whole thing’s anonymous. But by doing that then of 700 people who shared over a thousand thoughts, the, the smartest in the room go to the top, the stuff we should most focus on because they got the most stars. So that’s literally crowdsourcing great ideas. And so that was the language say top 15, 20%. That was the language that we then put in the pandemic response plan.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (12:51):

And then when we went to their students, we started with that and said, okay, students, this is what the teachers have said, what are your thoughts and questions about that? And then we crowdsourced that, right. And made the document that much more robust. So it took on like almost this three dimensional that shape. And then when we had done that, since we knew the kids were gonna be probably second most impacted by its decisions, parents would be third, most impacted. So then we went to the parents’ third and said, okay, now we’ve had teachers and students, what are your thoughts and questions? Mm, well then it turned into a whole other conversation about what needs to happen at home to support learning. So Sam, it was just this really interesting, fast and iterative process where we were constantly adapting and evolving in a, in a really rapid cycle. And we do that for any, anything that’s complex, which could be bonds or redistricting or closing schools. I mean, we’ve tackled some things that typically get lots of people fired and communities in an uproar and in our community largely says, Hey, thanks for giving me a voice in the process. This has been awesome.

Sam Demma (13:52):

I’m thinking it would’ve been really nice if I interviewed you two years ago. <Laugh> <laugh> because this, I mean, the cool thing is that this process is something that could be repeated with tons of complex issues. But I know being in Canada, there were so many school districts and superintendents struggling to find a way to create a really great response to the COVID pandemic. And in Canada, it was really bad. Like we, you know, everything shut down and stayed, shut down for a very long time. Students fell behind on learning. You know,

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (14:27):

Well, but even, even now though, I mean, we’re, as we’re coming out of the pandemic, this is still like, we’re doing the exact same thing now. But the new question is what things should we do to post the learning gap for those students who are behind more importantly, like there’s, there’s so many iterations on this. We’re also talking about what sorts of things should we focus on when it comes to student wellbeing and mental health and we were, we’re going directly to the kids. Nice. And so, so I’m, we’re actually kicking off. I’ve been told that we’re kicking off the largest participatory budgeting experiment in the history of the United States. Wow. We set aside 5 million of our Sr funding and we’re, we’re literally gonna go to each of our high schools and say here’s $500,000. And we want it to focus on student mental wellness and mental health.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (15:12):

And 250,000 is carved out for the kids themselves. So we’re basically gonna take this pile of cash to our high school students and say, how would you spend this money in a way that helps us solve the mental health crisis? So like the timing couldn’t even be better to share ideas like this, because I think this idea about mental health or closing achievement gaps or learning gaps, or what students are worried about as they transition into college or on and on and on the number of questions out there is endless. And what, what better time to just tackle them

Sam Demma (15:42):

Tackling tough questions over the past two years sounds like something you’ve done a lot of, and I’m sure it consumes a ton of your time. You also found the time to write a book <laugh> like, tell me, tell me about it, what inspired it? And what’s it all about?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (15:57):

I think the, the book had been on my mind for about a decade, as I said previously, I I’ve just, you know, been doing D leadership differently and, and seeing others, I’m not the only one doing it this way. Yeah. But seeing others do leadership differently, but that we lack maybe a common language around what it is that we’re doing and how we’re doing it. And so I’d been kicking around this idea of, of writing a book for several years, the pandemic just presented itself as a great opportunity to sit down and actually get my thoughts down on paper and or digitally, I guess <laugh> dating myself a bit. But, but essentially I wanted to make it very approachable. Like I tried to make this because if, if you’re steeped in leadership theory, then you can, you can, you know, see transactional versus transformational leadership in this book.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (16:42):

Or you can see technical versus adaptive, the work of Hz and Linsky, or you can see elements of power. I talk about power and Ross’s notion of power and so on, so forth, but that’s all the theory. That’s all the stuff that leaders learn, you know, as they go through university, I wanted to just make this approachable by saying, well, what’s common language. That’s that differentiates complicated versus complex. And it’s interesting because they’re almost two completely different. They’re two completely different languages. And the one that I like to use to explain it is so applicable at the classroom level, but it’s also about the leadership level. Is that a complicated way to look at your classroom is to tell the students, this is what I want from you because it assumes there’s one right answer, right? Mm. Or there’s a way to do this, and this is what I want from you.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (17:27):

And so we tell them, and when you’re in complicated, it’s all about judgment. So this is what I want from you. And if you don’t deliver it for me, I’m gonna judge you and you’re gonna be strong, or you’re gonna be weak, but either way, you’re fragile because it’s always complicated. And that’s how this works. And that’s what I, if a stands up in front of group of students and resists the urge to say, this is what I want want from you. And then they can focus on this is what I want for you. Mm

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (17:54):

Oh. Now that’s a conversation. What I want for you is to have a sense of autonomy. I want for you to have a sense that you’ve mastered the content I want for you, the opportunity to have worked in the best team that you’ve ever worked on to create this project. Well, that’s complex. There’s not one right answer. There’s not one way to do it. And the nice part about that is it resists judgment. I want these things for you. How can we make that happen? And so what I’m asking you to do is to suffer. I’m asking you to share your suffering. Like, I don’t know how to approach this project. I don’t know if I can work with this team. Awesome. So now what we’re doing is we’re in compassionate versus competent, right? And the, and that’s the juxtaposition because compassion, if you break that word down, passion is to suffer.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (18:37):

Compassion is to suffer with mm it’s. Empathy plus action. And so I, I try to create the language that says, look, you get whatever you’re asking for. Based on the language you use and too many leaders stand up and they use complicated language when they’re actually trying to do transformative and complex work. And as a result of that, the community has been trained to recognize complicated language to mean, oh, you want us to judge you <laugh> oh, so you wrote your pandemic response plan. Well, I think it sucks. I went to Google and this is like some other school district that did something. And so I’m like, well, use the right language, use the right language.

Sam Demma (19:10):

How long did it take to crystallize the ideas and get the book on paper? What was the start to finish process like?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (19:18):

It was just about a year start to finish. It was, I had taken a couple of false starts before, and then I met Sarah who helped me with the book, pulling it together and doing some of the vignettes. And what have you, Sarah Williamson. And she just helped me put together a structure. What I really needed is as I, as I shared sort of my background as a superintendent and I’m teaching university and so on and so forth, I, I, I stay sort of busy, I think is the word for it. And she, she helped me set up a timeline to say, no, you’re gonna sit down. You’re gonna, you’re gonna write, and you’re gonna turn these in. And these you deadlines and so and so forth. And so having an accountability partner really helped me. And I think the other thing that helped me, and this was a, this was a light bulb moment for me, I’ve, you know, over 40 years old and have had a pretty successful life, but just had this amazing light, light bulb moment that will transform every decision in every goal that I make for the rest of my life, which is the recognition that all of us have been taught to set goals.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (20:12):

Right. And so we try to create these goal habits, but the truth is that most of us truthfully fail at most of our goals. Like I would say the failure rate is probably close to 90, 95%. And it makes sense because we’ve designed our entire lives around the life that we’re living right now this very second. And if you set a goal that’s outside of that life, that you’re living a hundred percent of your life is working against that goal. Right? And so you’re, you’re destined to fail when you have goal based habits. And if on my goal based habit was to write, I was probably gonna fail. And then if you flip that goal based habit with something that’s completely different. So I’m gonna take a quick aside to prove a point here. Mm-Hmm, <affirmative>, I’m guessing that every day when you wake up, you brush your teeth.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (20:59):

I do. It doesn’t matter if you’re on the road. It doesn’t matter if you go visit your parents’ house, it doesn’t matter if you’re visiting a friend. It doesn’t matter if you’re home, you brush your teeth every day, right? You take a shower every day. Mm. And this is not a goal based habit. This is an identity based habit. Like, I don’t wanna have the identity of someone who has a bad breath or who stinks, right? Yeah. So I have an identity based habit. And the aha for me was, oh, no, no, no. I want to set my identity as someone who is a writer. So what does a writer do? Oh, well, a writer would get up every morning and they would write because they’re a writer and they would set aside a place in their house where they’re gonna do their writing and they’re gonna do this.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (21:38):

And all of a sudden these identity based habits. And then I never had to create a goal. I never had to carve out space. I never had to make the effort because I was living the identity of being a writer. And it, it kind of just took care of itself. And so like now I’m like, why have we not talked about this for fitness or health or nutrition or yeah. Getting a doctorate or just about anything goal or even teaching. If we try to have students have goal based behaviors to study versus identity based behaviors of, I am a scholar and a learner,

Sam Demma (22:07):

It sounds like you identify as a reader as well. I first learned about identity based goal setting in James Clear’s book, atomic habits. Yeah. It really resonated with me and changed the way that I think about things. I actually use a similar analogy. When I talk about brushing your teeth as a way to prove that we are never too busy when someone gives me the objection that I’m sorry, I can’t take this or do this. It’s because I’m too busy. What I actually start to understand is that even if I have the most busy day of my life, I still brush my teeth before I go to bed one, because it’s a part of my identity, but two, because it’s something that I prioritize right. It’s a priority. So if someone tells me they’re too busy, it just means that the thing that I’m asking them for is not of the similar priority as a task they’re already doing, or even more priority that they would switch their schedule for it.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (22:58):

That’s, that’s a very polite way of saying it. I think a little bit more harshly, they would say it is when somebody says I don’t have time valuable is I don’t care <laugh>

Sam Demma (23:09):

Yeah. Just of no value to me. <Laugh> that’s right.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (23:12):

That’s

Sam Demma (23:12):

Right. So am I correct in assuming that you like reading and like constant learning?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (23:20):

Yeah. I’m a, I’m a fairly voracious reader. I work with an executive coach and I, I didn’t realize this, but she had been in our conversations over the course of this past year. Just every time I referenced the book, kinda kicking it off or so, and I I’ve come to the I’ve come to the assumption that I read between 40 and 60 books a year on average. So yeah, pretty, pretty avid reader.

Sam Demma (23:39):

What are some of the resources that, of course your own book is gonna be a, an amazing one and teachers should consider picking it up, which books have you consumed or resources in general that have helped you develop yourself, turn into the leader you are today that you think other educators would benefit from consuming.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (23:57):

So for me on my leadership journey, lots of leadership biography, I take, I take great inspiration from leadership biography. So I read a lot of leadership biography. I also read a great deal of innovation work on innovation, anybody who’s writing about adaptive innovation and creativity, but specifically I stay away from education. Believe it or not, because I think that we, I think we understand creativity or entrepreneurship or innovation, but we have a, a somewhat slanted view of it. I think there’s a much better view view of innovation and creativity that comes from the business world. So I’m always kind of scouring for what’s out there in the business world, in that area. And I’ve learned a ton and I brought to, to education specifically in our space as we, when I got to Victoria, we didn’t have a department of innovation. We now have a department of innovation with the whole we’ve written, you know, approximately 15 million in grant funding every year. Wow. Just from the department of innovation alone. And it’s transformed the way we, you know, work with some of our schools, but virtually everything I learned about innovation, I learned outside of education and just applied to education.

Sam Demma (25:02):

Very cool. Speaking of innovation, creativity moving forward, what are some of the things you are working on right now with your school board school districts, superintendents that you’re excited about in the coming years or next next fall?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (25:20):

So, so I think that some of the stuff that I’m working on is obviously getting the message of this book out. Like, and that’s actually, I’m focused on that and getting this message out there because I think I have something that people can understand and I love to do it in medium size groups or even large group formats. Where, where we create, I create this space called house of genius. And I just, it rather than tell people about it, we actually do it like whatever group I happen to be in front of. We just solve a massively complex issue for that group right there in the room, and then we solve it and we go through it and it only takes, you know, 40, 45 minutes, depending on what we’re talking about. And then I back away from that and I talk through, well, this is how we did it.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (25:58):

This was the language. And this was the framework, and this is all the stuff from the book, but you just experienced it. You just lived it and you can live it, you know, any way you want to. So that’s, that’s kind of fun. And I’m excited about doing that in, in our district. We’ve launched a number of pathways. So for instance, our kids essentially we’re transforming the, the simple way of talking about it is that we’re trying to walk away from this notion of elementary, middle, and high school. Now let’s still have elementary schools, middle schools and high schools. Everybody’s gonna have elementary, middle, and high school. That’s not gonna change because that’s the way education works. But let’s just talk about what elementary school really should be right now. Elementary school. If you think about it is all about exposure. Mm.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (26:38):

Exposing kids to different learning pathways, different learning styles, different interests, trying to find their genius all about exposing, exposing, exposing, and then middle school. Once kids start to figure out what they’re good at and what they like and how they like to learn you move from exposure to experience that’s middle school. So how do you experience things like internships or job shadows, or how do you experience a, a profession or a unique way of learning? We, we just launched one of our stem middle schools just this last year. So we have a stem based middle school. That’s open enrollment for any kid that wants to go there. We have a project based learning school as well, but it’s all about exposure experience and then rethinking high school as pursuit. So pursuit means like I know I’m college or university bound, so this is the courses I need to take and so on and so forth.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (27:23):

So for our district, but that means more kids taking AP than ever in the history of the district. And the scores are higher, more kids taking dual credit than ever in the history of the district than their scores are higher. But we also have more kids doing CTE coursework, cuz they want to go right into the world of work. Nice. And so we’re trying to create pursuit opportunities and we’ve launched several Ptech high schools so that kids can their associates degree as, as they, as they move forward on their launch, which is pretty cool. And we’re all about this one simple, simple, simple concept, and that’s the concept of the, and the Amper sign, right? And so when you think about the Amper sand and it’s become a sign for our district, we even have it on shirts and stuff, all kinds of stuff. But essentially our goal is that every student finds their and which is a way of saying, we want you to find your genius, right? And we also want to guarantee that every single student who walks across the graduation stage has a high school diploma and university acceptance letter, military recruitment letter, or industry certification. So that on Monday morning they have work, they have work waiting for him. And we’re just over 92% right now of our high school, graduating seniors who graduate with their aunt. I’m not gonna quit until a hundred percent. I’m not gonna quit until I can guarantee parents a hundred percent successful launch rate.

Sam Demma (28:36):

Wow. That’s awesome. How many students are there in the district or the, I guess the area in total?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (28:41):

Just under 14,000.

Sam Demma (28:43):

Wow. That’s a, that’s a success story in itself. Yeah, on a large scale, it seems like the programs, ideas that are being implemented are having massive success. I want to talk about for just a moment a story of how something someone did in a school, maybe yourself or someone, you know, had a serious impact on one individual. And the reason I know sometimes it’s hard to remember these stories, but there’s probably hundreds on them. Oh, I’ve got one. Yeah. the reason I ask you to share it is because when teachers are feeling burnt out, sometimes it’s because they’ve forgotten why they even started this work in the first place. And I think stories of genuine impact relight that fire and helped them remember why they got into this profession anyway. So please feel free to share. You can change your name if it’s a serious story. Just for privacy.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (29:31):

I love, I love the story. It gives me cause sometimes when I tell it I get goosebumps and sometimes when I tell I can’t help, but cry. So in the, in the, at the start of this last school year, one of our middle schools was invested with mold and we didn’t have an extra facility. So we had to pull every one of our middle schools out of this kids out of this campus. And we needed to put ’em somewhere. And the only facility that we had available was all our alternative high school, which is a smaller, much smaller campus, but we just had to have a place to put the kids, but that displaced the alternative high school. So alternative high school, these are kids who are in credit recovery. These are kids who are disciplined placement. So they’re, they’re essentially on the dropout track.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (30:10):

Mm. These are students who failed out of traditional high school. They have very little credits or no credits and they’re in a dropout track and we’re just trying to get ’em to the graduation stage. And so we, we went to our, some of our community partners and we said, look, what if we could give these kids the golden ticket of a lifetime and a fresh start? Hmm. And if we can help these kids in a way that we’ve never helped them before, by giving them unprecedented levels of support, giving every one of them, an academic and life success coach. And could we put 120 of these students on the community college campus? Can we rent rooms from you? And so the community college president said, sure, this is interesting. I’m, I’m, I’m up for this so that they’re going to community college. Now these are kids on the dropout track.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (30:56):

These are, these are kids who failed out of traditional high school with zero credits. And so then our next wonder question, cuz I love wonder questions is I wonder what would happen if we help these kids apply for college? And I wonder what would happen if we gave ’em a success coach and you know what, I wonder what would happen if we we went ahead and enrolled them in a class just to see what happens. And so we we were very slow and deliberate and thoughtful and all the great things to happen. But outta the hundred 20 students who were on that dropout track 120 of them, a hundred percent successfully enrolled in college and passed their first collegiate course. Wow. And they’re all gonna graduate high school and they’re all college bound, 100% of kids who were on the dropout track.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (31:40):

And so we got to take them to a school board thing in February, which for the entire state of Texas. And so we took seven of the kids from that group to give a presentation. And there was one gal who stood up in front of that group. And she said, when I was a sophomore, I had a baby out of wedlock. So I was a single mother and I had approximately zero credits in high school. And she said, and I am now a college student. Wow. That’s amazing. Our success rate with our kids is so great. This is a, a great statistic. I’ll leave you with a statistic and it’s connected to dropouts, but it’s with homeless students. So we have hundreds of homeless students in Victoria Texas. And if you happen to be a homeless student and unhoused student in Victoria and you go to our schools, your chances of graduating high school are actually better than if you went to any school, anywhere else in the entire state of Texas, our homeless, our homeless student graduation rate is higher than the average for the state of Texas.

Sam Demma (32:42):

Wow. I I’m wondering, you mentioned success. Coaches who are the people that would be paired up with a student in that program to help them apply for college and you know, pass.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (32:54):

So we actually went to the community college counselor structure. So they, they already have academic coaches and support and so on and so forth. You know how community college works. Like there’s all this support structure in place. Yeah. Yeah. We’re like, let’s fold that over to the high school and pull kids up rather than push them.

Sam Demma (33:10):

Cool.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (33:12):

It worked like, who knew, we didn’t know it was gonna work, but that’s what innovation’s all about. Like try crazy stuff. And so we tried it and it worked,

Sam Demma (33:20):

It sounds like innovations in your experience. Start with the, I wonder questions. Is that something you explore a lot?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (33:27):

Yeah. We talk about it all the time. It’s either I wonder. Or what if those are the two best sentence starters.

Sam Demma (33:32):

Lovely, cool, cool. Well, we’re getting close to the end of the podcast here. This has been a phenomenal conversation because we’re close to game seven and the NBA finals. I wanted to play some throwback music. <Laugh> what we’re about to do is do a quick five rapid questions. Are you ready?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (33:56):

I’m ready?

Sam Demma (33:58):

Question number one. <Laugh> question number one is what is the best advice you’ve ever personally received?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (34:07):

Oh, wow. Best advice. Yeah. It’s it’s so cliche never give up,

Sam Demma (34:12):

Love it. What is the I’m putting you on the spot here? What is the worst advice you’ve ever received?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (34:20):

Worst. <Laugh> the worst advice I forgot was go to medical school. <Laugh>

Sam Demma (34:25):

<Laugh> Hey, you have to, you have to know your path, right?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (34:28):

That’s right.

Sam Demma (34:29):

<Laugh> I like that. If you could have everyone on the planet have to follow this one rule the way they live their life, what would the one rule be that everyone would have to follow? Non-Negotiable

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (34:45):

Start with vulnerability.

Sam Demma (34:47):

Mm, love it. If you could travel back in time and speak to Quentin, when he was just starting in education, what would you have told your younger self that you thought would’ve been helpful?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (35:01):

Don’t don’t lose hope.

Sam Demma (35:04):

Final question. If someone wants to buy your book, reach out and ask you a question, what would be the best way for them to get in touch with you?

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (35:11):

So they can buy the book through amazon. Easily found, it’s the secret for secret to transformational leadership, or they can go to our website; compassionate leadership. And I’m sure you can put that in the, in the talking notes for sure. Yep. That’s and that’s the best way to reach out to us.

Sam Demma (35:27):

Awesome. Thank you so much for taking the time to come on the podcast today. It’s been a pleasure to chat with you and meet you. I don’t think this will be our last conversation. Keep doing amazing work and have an amazing summer.

Dr. Quintin Shepherd (35:40):

Thank you, sir. Great to talk with you. Thanks Sam.

Sam Demma (35:43):

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

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Quintin Shepherd

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.

Reg Lavergne – Superintendent of Instruction, Innovation and Adolescent Learning and Student Success at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board

Reg Lavergne - Superintendent of Instruction, Innovation and Adolescent Learning and Student Success at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board
About Reg Lavergne

Reg Lavergne (@RegLavergne) is the Superintendent of Instruction for Southeast schools and for the Ottawa-Carleton Virtual Secondary School (OCVSS). Reg supports innovative and alternative approaches to Student Success and Adolescent Learning within this role.

For 23 years, Reg has served students in Kindergarten to Grade 12 in rural, urban, large, small, adaptive, and community schools as a teacher, department head, Vice-Principal and Principal. He has also served as the System Principal of Student Success and Innovation and Adolescent Learning.

Currently, Reg is working on an Educational Doctorate degree focused on increasing student voice and identity in student learning experiences. He is also designing and implementing the Authentic Student Learning Experience framework to embed student voice and is working with SSTs to build a model for Student Success for students in grades 7 and 8, and grades 9-12.

At the OCDSB, Reg has greatly enjoyed working with teachers to build and implement learning models and approaches that help students see their own genius.

Connect with Reg: Email | Instagram | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Ottawa-Carleton Virtual Secondary School (OCVSS)

OCDSB

Hero on a Mission by Donald Miller

Russ Interview by Jay Shetty

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:01):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast.


Sam Demma (01:00):
This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is Reg Lavergne. Reg Lavergne is the Superintendent of Instruction for Southeast schools and for the Ottawa-Carleton Virtual Secondary School (OCVSS). Reg supports innovative and alternative approaches to Student Success and Adolescent Learning within this role. For 23 years, Reg has served students in Kindergarten to Grade 12 in rural, urban, large, small, adaptive, and community schools as a teacher, department head, Vice-Principal and Principal. He has also served as the System Principal of Student Success and Innovation and Adolescent Learning. Currently, Reg is working on an Educational Doctorate degree focused on increasing student voice and identity in student learning experiences. He is also designing and implementing the Authentic Student Learning Experience framework to embed student voice and is working with SSTs to build a model for Student Success for students in grades 7 and 8, and grades 9-12. At the OCDSB, Reg has greatly enjoyed working with teachers to build and implement learning models and approaches that help students see their own genius. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Reg, and I will see you on the other side. Reg, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show this morning. Please start by introducing yourself.


Reg Lavergne (02:21):
It’s fantastic to be here and I really appreciate you reaching out to me. So my name is Reg Lavergne. I’m a superintendent of instruction with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board which is a public school board in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. I support a number of schools, but I also support the innovation and adolescent learning department and the student success programming across our district.


Sam Demma (02:44):
At what point in your own career journey did you determine that education was the field you wanted to pursue and work in?


Reg Lavergne (02:53):
Okay, so this might sound sad. I always wanted to be a teacher. My mother tell you if she was here right now, that when I was a very small boy and people said, what do you wanna do when you grow up? I said, I was gonna be a teacher. And I always did say that that I was gonna be a teacher. I, so that, that truly has been, was always, and still is my main goal. I like working in education. I like working with, with kids. I like helping and working with adults who are working with kids. And I have always naturally gravitated towards kids for whom the system didn’t necessarily work as well as we might like it to. So I’ve always gravitated towards, it’s not working. Why is that? What can we do differently?


Sam Demma (03:42):
That’s awesome. Tell me about the journey from five year old reg that always told his parents and everyone in his life that he wanted to be a teacher to reg today. Like what were the different positions and roles you worked in? Where did you start and what brought you to where you are today?


Reg Lavergne (04:01):
So I, I, I, I think I’d have to say that my, my journey hasn’t been exactly linear. Although I I’ve always been connected to education, so I was in school and then I’ve worked in, in schools and, and in education, my entire career. I actually when I was in school I was very fortunate. School worked for me. I really enjoyed school. I got a lot out of it. I actually went to university and I, my first degree was in music. So I was a music teacher first and I loved that. I got to work with kids in a very different environment to help them celebrate strengths that they didn’t know they had in a way that many people weren’t looking for and, and to help them see how they can contribute in ways that to be perfectly Frank society doesn’t always put on the forefront.


Reg Lavergne (05:00):
So when I was watching kids, we would often work with I, I was a high school teacher for the most part. I actually started working in a private elementary school. And then I got hired with public board, the secondary level, and I was working as a music teacher and we would go to the local elementary schools and I would watch kids who didn’t always have the easiest paths and had lots of different things. They were working through flourish when they were working with younger children and helping them, helping them grow and helping them overcome challenges that they were working with. And I really, really loved that. And from there I became a vice principal. I, I I worked actually, I should take a step back when I was in taking my my degree, my education degree. I sought where, where I, where I could sort of put my voice in what type of placement I, I was asking for.


Reg Lavergne (05:57):
I worked with children who were suspended or expelled from their schools or districts and, and helped their, their learning. I also volunteered in a program that was designed for kids who’d been suspended so that they didn’t stay at home all day. They came, we helped them with their schooling, but we also helped them with why they were suspended and how can we not get there again? I became a music teacher after that. When I became a vice principal, my first school was working with the student was in an adaptive school. So was working for students who had lots of different types of challenges social as well as cognitive, as well as physical and I, and I worked with with them. And then when I became a principal, I worked in an inner city and a rural school.


Reg Lavergne (06:43):
But I brought a, a very strong student success link to that, to those discussions, to those schools, those situations when a student was struggling, stopping and saying, why are they struggling? What can we do differently for them asking them to do the same thing multiple times when they’ve struggled on it on the first time, probably isn’t going to make them feel better about themselves. They may learn the skill, but they’re not going to feel better about themselves as they go through that. So how do we also take into account their thinking their their feelings about themselves? Do they think that they’re a capable learner? Do they think they’re smart? How can we make sure they do see that way? And how can we make sure that they do see that there are lots of options available to them and how can we help them get there?


Sam Demma (07:25):
Mm. I love that. And they’ve gone continue,


Reg Lavergne (07:31):
Sorry. No, I, I may have gone a little off topic there, but, but that was where sort of my thinking went. And actually one part I, I actually then started I moved out of working in a school and I was working centrally. I was assistant principal for four years of student success and adolescent learning. And I supported, I think it was 96 schools in our district on school student success programming and, and looking at, at options and opportunities for students outside of the, the, the norm outside of the traditional box that we might work in.


Sam Demma (08:04):
You mentioned that you had the opportunity to see students flourish in a different environment to uncover strengths, that they didn’t even know that sometimes they had. Can you share an example of what you mean by uncovering strengths? They didn’t even know they had, because I think that’s a beautiful thing to help a young person or a student realize,


Reg Lavergne (08:26):
Mm-Hmm, , there are so many I have a couple from my past, that’ll be more general. And then I can speak to one specifically that I’m thinking about from last year. Mm. So Stu students who that I was working with, who may not have had clarity on their strengths. I spoke very vaguely to say that they may not have thought they were very good at very much. And I remember, again, I was in a high school going to local elementary schools and intentionally partnering students up with, with younger children who needed help in different things. If it was music, they may have needed help playing their instrument or setting their instrument up or trying a new instrument or working through something that they were working on, but they were struggling and giving. I, I I’m, I’m seeing several in my mind right now, and I’m years giving, providing the opportunity for them to step up, to be a leader, to show their strengths to help someone else.


Reg Lavergne (09:36):
And I think that brought in the idea of contribution, right? As soon as you can bring in the idea where a person feels like they’re contributing in some way, they feel valued, they feel valuable, they feel important. They know that they have strengths that they can bring. And I would watch these teenagers working with these younger students and suddenly see them light up as the younger student achieved, what they were working on. And I could see that the, the older student realized, wait a second. I helped them do that. Right. I was able to, to share with them some of what I know, some of the skills I have, I was able to motivate them and make them feel that they can do this. They knew it was possible. And suddenly they did that. And I would watch the kids light up. And to me, I don’t think I have the words to describe how I felt on the inside, nor how the kids felt as they were going through that.


Reg Lavergne (10:32):
Because then all of a sudden, as we’re heading back to, to the main high school, I’m watching the excitement in this young person’s eyes, I’m hearing them talk about what they did and, and how they helped the other student. I’m hearing them talk about the other student’s achievement. Like it really wasn’t all about one person. It was about the different pieces. And I remember watching kids suddenly be willing to try more and to do more back in the classroom after that, because they sudden they saw that they had a strength that they, they could contribute. They could help someone else. And we’ve seen that in a program that we actually started last year in our district, it’s, it’s a, a ministry supported provincial program. So we did not design the entire program. We did design what it looks like for our district.


Reg Lavergne (11:25):
And we started a program with one teacher. And she started reaching out to students who had dropped out of high school without graduating and talked to them about a different approach and a different type of program. And it it’s called a SW program. So that school within a college, like I said, it’s a, it’s a provincial program in Ontario. It is situated to support students who are at risk of not graduating high school and connect them to pathway options. We took a, a slightly different approach to it. In terms of, of, again, reaching out to kids who were at risk of not graduating and finding out what are you doing right now? How can we connect that to your formal learning? So basically we were, we, we did. And when I say we, I mean, the lead teacher who is the most brilliant educator you have ever met she connected with kids who, who were not at school and started talking with them just to find out more about them.


Reg Lavergne (12:21):
What are your interests? What do you like to do? What do you do outside of school? You know, when you do that, that’s actually this part of the English curriculum. And it’s this part of that math curriculum. And at this part of the history curriculum, and she was able to, to show the students who, the structure that we developed together, that they were smart. They had talent, they had strengths. It may not manifest itself in a way that we would normally capture it in a school, but they were demonstrating learning in, in in, within their life. And she was, she was able to engage with them to, they came back to work with us. Now, this was in remote last year. So they actually did not return to a traditional school, but they did engage in some traditional school structures and different things.


Reg Lavergne (13:10):
They were engaged in outside the school. The teacher captured because they captured this demonstration of their learning. They had learned, they had developed a ton of skills, maybe not sitting in the classroom at 9:00 AM on Monday, but maybe at different times. And they were able to demonstrate that learning. And she worked with, with students capturing evidence of their learning. So she did not create lessons for them every day, the students from their interests and then where they wanted to go. So meeting their pathway goals developed learning experiences. And as they were doing that and demonstrating different learnings, the teacher was, was connecting that to different curricular expectations. And the students were accelerating the, the credits that they were earning. And at the end of June last year, 22 students graduated from high school. And I believe 18 of them are in college right now. These students had dropped outta previous.


Sam Demma (14:05):
Wow. That’s such a cool story.


Reg Lavergne (14:08):
Oh, get goosebumps. When I think of that story all the time, that teacher and that program approach changed those kids,


Sam Demma (14:20):
It’s a case study of how to deal with students of whom school is not working. Right. Like you mentioned earlier, sometimes school doesn’t work for everybody. Well, I think the question that came in my mind was like, how do we help those students who school is not working for? And it sounds like this program like fills that void. Is it continuing this year in person? Or like, tell, like, tell me a little bit more about it.


Reg Lavergne (14:45):
Yeah. We expanded it three teachers this year. And the program is full again. They’ve reached out to different groups of students and they’ve intentionally reached out to students that might not reach out to us to make sure that they are aware of those pieces and that, that, that there is an opportunity. And sometimes they situated from why not give a shot, try it out. If it doesn’t work, you don’t have to stay, right. We’re not, we’re not holding you here, but if it does work, this could be changing for you. And, and something, you said it, it made me, it made me think of something else that the, the teacher engaged with as well. In that program, we’re not saying that traditional learning structures are not engaged, right. They’re not out the door, they’re still there. Yeah. But they’re engaged differently as the student needs it.


Reg Lavergne (15:34):
And I remember talking with the teacher again, brilliant educator. And she was telling me this story about a student who had struggled in school for many, many years, obviously had dropped out of high school, was back into this program. And they needed a very solid, theoretical understanding of mathematics for the program they wanted to go into at the college the next year. And so the teacher engaged in some more traditional learning so that they could understand the theoretical underpinnings of the mathematical concept they needed to go in. The difference was the student knew why they needed it.


Sam Demma (16:11):
Mm.


Reg Lavergne (16:12):
And it was connected to their goal. It was connected to their pathway. It was connected to their passion. So they were, they were there, they were into it. They were working on it. I don’t believe six months earlier, the student would’ve engaged to the same degree, but because of the approach that that program provided and that educator provided for the student, they saw meaning and purpose for their learning as they had never seen it before. So that theoretical piece that possibly, and I, I, I can’t guarantee these pieces, but possibly before they may have thought, I don’t want that. I don’t care about that. Like, I’m not doing that. They knew it was important. It was important to them. It was part of their pathway goal. So they were totally engaged and worked very diligently with the teacher to learn in that way. So it is a balance of sort of a authentic in school and outta school experiences with some very traditional, theoretical learning opportunities as well.


Sam Demma (17:07):
There’s a really phenomenal new book called hero on a mission by an author named Donald Miller. And in the book, he talks about the importance of setting goals in the context of stories. Like he believes that the reason why most people don’t bring their goals to life is because the goal isn’t actually baked into a story about how their life could change or what it is they’re working on. And when you mentioned that student who didn’t understand why they needed this, all of a sudden realizing that it’s a key component of bringing their future goal to realization it just, it like compels you to, to do it and take action because no longer is it just a math class, it’s a stepping stone in your goal or your future, you know, story. Which I think is a really cool realization. And that’s what came to mind when you were explaining that, what do you do you, what’s the teacher’s name that runs this program? Does she also does she also teach like a grade or is she solely dedicated to running and organizing this, this program?


Reg Lavergne (18:10):
So she teaches she taught all the students last year. She teaches a third of the students this year, but she’s, she works with the other two teachers and they they’re very collaborative in their approach. Cool. In terms of bouncing off each other’s strengths so that the students can maximize they’re learning off of the, the strengths from the three teachers that are, that are involved. We have a fourth teacher that helps liaise with the college, the local college we have as well. Nice. because part of that program is the students. I call it tow dipping, but they, they engage in some college courses as well. And while they’re engaging in the college courses, they’re earning a college credit and a high school credit at the same time. Nice. to try to explore different options, they may not have considered the lead teacher in the program.


Reg Lavergne (18:57):
She is extremely humble and will not be happy that I have said her name. But her name is Donna. And and she was an exceptional educator. And she you know, she was the one working directly with the students last year. Helping them see their genius, which is a saying that I captured from another one of our, our educators to see their genius and to see the possibilities before them. And you know, she has, has dramatically changed and the colleagues she works with have dramatically changed the lives of children.


Sam Demma (19:31):
I’m getting goosebumps. It’s such a good feel. Good story. And it’s so cool to hear that the program is growing. I’m sure other boards might be reaching out to you after listening to this podcast, to ask some questions and connect with Donna too. about this, because I know it’s not an isolated problem or challenge. There are so many challenges in education, especially with the pandemic, but with challenges, come opportunities being on the cutting edge of innovation and student success, what do you foresee? Some of the opportunities being in education, things that are unfolding and the school board is working on that you think are really great opportunities for the future.


Reg Lavergne (20:11):
I will never say that COVID has been a great thing. It’s been a horrifying thing. It has caused so much harm. I will say that it created the opportunity to look at things outside the box. Mm that’s my very gentle way of saying sometimes we have to knock the lid off and push the wall over. Mm. And look outside the box. Traditional approaches to learning work for some and need to be available for some, they don’t work for everybody and we need to be more attentive to, and more responsive to and proactive to different ways of learning that engage people in different in, in different ways. I, I am very focused on who is the student? What are they doing? What do they want to do? What are their strengths? How is the learning environment set up to help them see meaning and purpose in their learning?


Reg Lavergne (21:18):
When we first went into shut down because of C learning, didn’t go into shut. Buildings did congregating together, did, but learning didn’t stop. And I was so privileged at the time. I was the principal of student success and innovation and adolescent learning at the time. And at first I remember thinking, what are we going to do? The way we’ve done everything. Our entire system can’t function right now, the way we’ve done it, what are we going to do? And I have to tell you how blown away I was with students, families, and educators, as everybody morphed into doing things in a very, very different way. I had the privilege of working with all of the student success teachers in our district. Every school that has grade seven and eight or grade nine to 12, has a student success teacher assigned a, a specific position for it.


Reg Lavergne (22:15):
And I was so privileged to get to work with all of them, incredible educators, incredible credible people. And we started doing a lot of brainstorming because those are the teachers that also support the students that are at greatest risk of leaving us, having not completed their courses and completed their diploma. And so we spent a lot of time talking back and forth. Well, what does this look like when you’re talking about students who don’t necessarily want to engage in learning every day, because they haven’t had success in it, or they haven’t felt good in it. Then when they’re sitting at home, it’s even more at risk that they’re not going to engage. So what are we going to do? And we built an approach, a philosophy, excuse me, and a framework to really take a look at all right, what are you doing right now at home?


Reg Lavergne (23:08):
You are learning. You are learning in very different ways, but you are learning. It just doesn’t look like it did the previous week when we were in a school building. So what are you doing? Talk to me about that. We had one student I’ve, I, I don’t think I’ll ever forget this. A teacher shared I’ll speak generally because yeah, I don’t, I have share name, but had contacted a student who had had a variety of different experiences in schools and not all of them. Good. And, and they were now at home as, as everybody was. And the, the teacher, the, the student success teacher asked the student what they were doing and the student was tearing apart a trailer and rebuilding it with his dad at home was just something they wanted to do at home by talking with the student and finding a little bit more about what they were doing.


Reg Lavergne (23:57):
And, and he engaged in regular conversations with the students. So to, to hear what they were learning, talked to me a little bit, suddenly we realized the student was actually doing two tech education courses with his dad at home by tearing it apart. And the teacher was able to capture evidence of learning through the conversation and the student would take pictures of what he was doing and share it with the, with the teacher to say, this is what we saw today. So we had to do this for X reason. That is not my area of strength. So I can’t give you the exact specifics on what they were say. But what I do know was that the student was engaged in activity. They really loved, they were working with their dad and they were able to explain why they were making the steps they were making.


Reg Lavergne (24:41):
And the teacher actually asked the student at point would write down the steps of what you were, why you were doing it. The student was like, sure, why? Well, there’s a grade 12 technical English course that would meet the criteria of, so by building a manual on how to tear apart and rebuild a trailer, the student was also working on a technical English course. This wasn’t a student who necessarily loved writing or loved literature, right? At that point in his life, he may at one point, but at that point he didn’t necessarily enjoy that, that approach, but he was totally on board with writing down what he was doing and why he was doing, we were capturing his thinking. It was important to him. It mattered to him. He was creating a technical manual. That for him was really, really important. And that connected some credits. So during the, the initial closures, and that’s what sort of inspired and led to the development of our approach with our program as well it was very much looking at well, what are they interested in? What are they good at? What do they wanna be working? That’s where we start. And that’s how they get that spark to continue pushing themselves even further.


Sam Demma (25:57):
It sounds like flexibility is such an important part of this process. Like the, the student being flexible, but also the, the teacher and maybe in the past flexibility has not been the most utilized idea when it comes to projects or completing assignments or the way that you complete the assignment. How did, like, how do you build a culture of flexibility where, where, like an educator is proactively looking for those ways to connect real world experience to specific students learning or is this like situation you’re explaining more used for the students who school is not working for?


Reg Lavergne (26:42):
That’s a great question. I think the flexibility piece is, is key. Yeah. How do we build the environment for it?


Sam Demma (26:51):
I’m putting you on the spot. not that you have to have the perfect answer.


Reg Lavergne (26:57):
No, it’s a great question. I think, I think it’s a, it’s a brilliant question. I I’m going share some of my initial thinking. And then this is the question I’m gonna walk away from thinking even more on, I’ll be honest with you. I think, I think part of it comes down to what’s the goal and who decides the goal and who’s decided how that goal is achieved. And we have we have a society, our, our, our society, and some may argue that it has to be this way for a society. As, as, as large as our planet is to function together that there are certain goals and there are certain ways that we’ve decided over a series of years or decades that work mm. I have to talk about that, that work to achieve those goals. And I think what we’re seeing, and I think COVID has helped illuminate this it’s, it’s put a spotlight on it.


Reg Lavergne (27:55):
That practices that work, we have to stop saying that we have to start saying they work for some and other practices work for others, and we needed to be more open to a diversity of practices that are going through. I think that certainly the approach we took in the district, I was working with student success teachers who I was very fortunate. We’re very engaged, very flexible, wanted to try different things to support student achievement in different ways and move that forward. What we’re seeing is that that thinking philosophy and the use of this framework is, is expanding in the district. As people are seeing that it’s working. Because I think something that just jumped into my head after what you said was the idea of permission.


Reg Lavergne (28:41):
Do we give educators permission to go outside the box to try things that are safe, appropriate, but that engage students in ways that engage them. So rather than it being an approach that I’m confident in, because I’ve seen it work a number of times, if I see it not working for a student, do I feel that I have the permission to try something different with them, especially depending on where they’re going with it. We all, depending on geographically where you lived, the people who were in the same area with you took the exact same courses through high school, had the exact same learning, delivering models in place. I’m guessing they didn’t all do exact, the exact same thing. So they took those learnings that they had and have tweaked them to has, and it tweaks them, adjusts them and applies them to where they went with it, what they wanted to do with their learning, what they wanted to do with their life.


Reg Lavergne (29:43):
So I think a part of it is giving that permission to, to, to dip into different ways of doing things, to saying for this student, that approach is appropriate and it supports where they want to go. It supports what they wanna do. So we don’t have to follow necessarily in, in sort of a, a, a very structured manner, traditional approaches, traditional approaches work in many cases. And so this isn’t a case of throw all of that out and try this instead, this is a case of, for this person who they are, their identity, their experiences, their goals, what about this? And I would even put on the table, imagine if we started saying to the student, well, what are you interested in? Well, what would you like to work on right now within the parameters of, of the, the the, the courses that we’re working on to say, how would you like to engage in that learning?


Reg Lavergne (30:42):
There are lots of different ways of engaging in learning that is embedded within English curriculum or science curriculum or math curriculum. I think we can give permission. And I’m, I’m in a, I, I’m very fortunate. I’m in a position where I can work with a number of schools and principals and vice principals and teachers, and, and I can establish the environment that provides for that position. I don’t mean for that to sound power trippy in any way. But when I, when I say it, I’m having a conversation with someone and, and I say, why not? That gives that permission to say, it’s, it’s okay to go outside of what you may have normally done, because you’re engaging with that student in a way that is going to be more effective for them and is ultimately going to enhance their wellbeing and their achievement. And I remember that when I was a teacher asking, you know, talking with my principal and when my principal said, why wouldn’t you try that? If you think that’s gonna work, knowing that my principal was supporting my thinking was very powerful for me. So that’s something that I try to do. And I’ve always tried to do in my roles as I’ve gone through. My career is, is to make sure that we’re engaging in those conversations and that we’re providing that permission because the permission is needed for us to change the way it was to the way it could be.


Sam Demma (32:06):
There is an American hip hop artist named Russ, and he was being interviewed by this guy named Jay Sheti one time. And Jay Sheti said, what is the best advice you’ve ever received? And he said, it was a question, what if it could turn out better than you ever expected? And when you approach situations with that mentality, what, like, what if it could turn out better than you ever expected or ever imagined, instead of what, if this goes wrong and terrible, you build some courage to try new things, to take new things on. And I think the, why not question becomes even more powerful. When you look at it from that perspective and back to your toe dipping analogy, you know, if you do try it and you dip your toe and the water’s really warm, and it’s working out, you dive in and, and, you know, you scale the program, get three teachers involved. And then, you know, five years from now, maybe the program is going throughout the whole board, and there’s like dozens of teachers organizing it and running it all because of a test, a pilot project which is really cool and exciting. This has been a really awesome conversation. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. If someone is listening to this Reg, wants to reach out, ask you a question, talk about this program or your experiences in education, what would be the best way for them to get in contact with you?


Reg Lavergne (33:27):
The easiest way would be to go to my board’s website ’cause you can find my email. I’ll spell my email over in a second, but you can find it there. My board’s website is ocdsb.ca and then you can do a search on me and you will find I’ll pop up. My my email is reg.lavergne@ocdsb.ca, and I’m more than happy for people to reach out and have conversations because as we look to what could be and what the possibilities are, that’s what I find is really, really exciting and and can truly change kids’, change kids’ lives.


Sam Demma (34:07):
Awesome. I agree. Thank you so much, Reg, for taking the time to come on the show. I really appreciate it. Keep up the amazing work and we’ll talk soon.


Reg Lavergne (34:15):
Thank you. Take care.


Sam Demma (34:18):
Hey, it’s Sam again. I hope you enjoyed that amazing conversation on the High Performing Educator podcast. If you, or you know, deserves some extra recognition and appreciation for the work they do in education, please consider applying or nominating them for the High Performing Educator awards, go to www.highperformingeducator.com/award. You can also find the link in the show notes. I’m super excited to spotlight and feature 20 people in 2022, and I’m hoping you or someone, you know, can be one of those educators. I’ll talk to you on the next episode, all the best.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Reg Levergne

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.

Steph Pearson – Learning Technology Consultant, e-Learning Lead, Ottawa Catholic School Board, Ottawa ON Canada

Steph Pearson - Learning Technology Consultant, e-Learning Lead, Ottawa Catholic School Board, Ottawa ON Canada
About Steph Pearson

Steph (@TheSPearson) is an engagement, education, and technology expert. She is constantly working to unlearn mindsets which result in inequities for Indigenous, Black, racialized and 2SLGBTQ+ students and colleagues. She has coordinated the OCSB elearning program for 4.5 years and assists teachers working to leverage technology from kindergarten to grade 12.

She has presented at various conferences across Canada demonstrating how digital tools can be used for differentiation, deepen understanding and to promote activism for social justice. She has contributed to several Ontario elearning writing projects such as Canadian Families (2017) and the Catholic Virtual Ontario’s Canadian History courses (2022).

As she returns to the classroom in September 2022, she looks forward to applying equitable and responsive strategies to engage students from grade 9 – 12 in History, Geography and Social Sciences. She has experience in the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program, the New South Wales (Australia) Board of Studies Curriculum, and taught in Glasgow, Scotland.

She can be found most days enjoying a grilled cheese sandwich, planning her next trip abroad and would like to say, “pspsps” to your cat.

Connect with Steph: Email | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

OCSB E-learning Program

International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program

New South Wales (Australia) Board of Studies

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood by Christopher Emdin

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:01):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator.


Sam Demma (01:00):
This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is Steph Pearson. Steph is an engagement, education, and technology expert. She is constantly working to unlearn mindsets which result in inequities for Indigenous, Black, racialized and 2SLGBTQ+ students and colleagues. She has coordinated the OCSB elearning program for 4.5 years and assists teachers working to leverage technology from kindergarten to grade 12. She has presented at various conferences across Canada demonstrating how digital tools can be used for differentiation, deepen understanding and to promote activism for social justice. She has contributed to several Ontario elearning writing projects such as Canadian Families (2017) and the Catholic Virtual Ontario’s Canadian History courses (2022). As she returns to the classroom in September 2022, she looks forward to applying equitable and responsive strategies to engage students from grade 9 – 12 in History, Geography and Social Sciences.


Sam Demma (02:00):
She has experience in the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program, the New South Wales (Australia) Board of Studies Curriculum, and taught in Glasgow, Scotland. She can be found most days enjoying a grilled cheese sandwich, planning her next trip abroad, and would like to say “pspsps” to your cat . I hope you enjoy this conversation with Steph, and I will see you on the other side. Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today we are joined by a very special guest. Her name is Step Pearson. Steph, please introduce yourself.


Steph Pearson (02:38):
Hi, I’m Steph Pearson. I am currently a learning technologies consultant with the Ottawa Catholic School Board, and I am heading back to the classroom in September to teach grade nine through 12 contemporary studies. And this is my 20th year of teaching.


Sam Demma (02:55):
Thank you for your service. tell me more about the pathway that brought you to learning technologies and how, like, what is that? Explain it to us.


Steph Pearson (03:05):
Excellent. So learning technologies is basically a fancy way to say what digital tools are we using to help students engage in the content to show what they’re know, show, what they know about a, a topic discover for themselves what they’re learning, but having technology really the perfect, the perfect way to describe technology is it becomes just that vehicle that kids use to learn. It also allows when used in the best possible ways, the teacher to really just fade into the background so that students can really pursue their interests and seek information that may not be available to them in the classroom in another way. So a classic example is some teachers like, well, I can’t teach black history and my Canadian history course because it’s not my textbook, well, get rid of the textbook and go to the internet. so cultivate sources for your students to be able to find that and see that and, and see themselves.


Steph Pearson (03:59):
And when we know representation really matters, technology just makes it so beautiful to be able to have students chase the stories of themselves and, and how they fit to take pictures. So so that’s really what learning technology is about is how do we, not only how do we get kids to be able to see themselves in the world, but how do we help students with special education needs? How do they use technology in order to show what they know about topics? And then how do we make the world more efficient? Like how do we make teachers time more efficient so they can spend that one-on-one time that technology just can’t do, they don’t have the human touch that do,


Sam Demma (04:35):
How did you get into this role? Was it something you always wanted to do or like, tell me a little bit about the big picture journey from, okay. Student growing up. When did you realize you wanted to get into education and then let’s zoom in as well to how you got specifically to here?


Steph Pearson (04:51):
Okay. So I never wanted to be a teacher, both my parents were teachers, my older sister was in training, so I kind of tried to avoid it. And then I realized, oh, crap, I actually really kind of good at this. And I’m, and I really started liking it. Yeah. And then I, and then I had the opportunity to go Australia for a year on a, on a teaching exchange. So it was a pretty amazing experience that I could walk out the gate of my, of my school, where I was teaching in Australia and be at the opera house in 40 minutes, like walk over the bridge. Like it was absolutely stunning, but part, they were in the very, this is in 2009 and they were just moving to a one to one student to laptop ratio with with apple products. And so I was there kind of participating in this kind of opportunity.


Steph Pearson (05:34):
We were nowhere near this, my home board, but here they were doing it. It was a private school. There was lots of money, lots of intention coming in at it. And so one of the things, their tech learning technologies, people did was let’s have a day every week where teachers can come and learn about what’s available to them. So that’s the year I got involved in Twitter, 2009. And because they were like, there are so many things to learn there. And so I got interested in that and I would just these little bite size ways to use technology better in your classroom. So then when I moved home came back to the Ottawa Catholic. I was like, this is something we could start doing here. And so I started leading little sessions. I’ve always been interested in technology. Like I was born in the seventies.


Steph Pearson (06:14):
So I tech like computers became a really, they only became really essential in my life in university. So I did all my research and paper, but I would word processor, I even learned to type on a typewriter . And so when, but when so as I’m leaving university, that’s where word processing is on computers and the internet is justfancy and, and so I’ve never been afraid to press buttons. And I think that’s really what all being techy looks like is just like helping people press buttons so that they go, oh, actually this is not a problem. I can press these buttons and it’ll be okay. And, and when they have, when educators get the opportunity to play in a, in a non-threatening environment, they are more likely to give their students those opportunities to play in those non-threatening environments as well. And sometimes when you talk to somebody who is really gungho computers, and they’re talking about Rams and gigabytes and ly blurs that means no nothing to somebody.


Steph Pearson (07:09):
So if you have somebody who’s willing to sit beside you and talk to you in really simple terms sit beside you and help you click that can really build confidence. And of course, we’ve seen that in the last two years, the pandemic where people who kind of tried to avoid everything technological, they’ve had to jump on board. And it’s been really amazing to see some, some teachers who were basically almost in tears when they would first start coming to our office hours. But then by the end, they’re like, we’re gonna try this really cool tool. And we’re, and, and so that just gives us so much to play in our role,


Sam Demma (07:41):
What did, what did that nonthreatening environment look like? Tell me a little bit more about how this looked and what the facilitation looked like. If another board is getting inspired by this and wants to try something similar.


Steph Pearson (07:54):
That’s a great question. So at first it was literally, I convinced the principal to buy coffee every morning. And so it was first thing in the morning and we would have coffee and donuts. And I I’m just like, this is kind of how I act in a classroom, so I would make jokes and we would just literally walk through the steps and and everybody would just, we’d do one tool and we focused on the tool. And then once people could feel like they could, you know, felt pretty confident about how to start like a how to, how to use a slide deck in their classroom. For example, once they got used to where they could click, then we could say, okay, these are the ways you can now use it. Right. So then they go, oh, and then I would volunteer.


Steph Pearson (08:36):
Like, if you really need me, I will try to organize so that I can be available, the period that I’m off on my prep and go, and excuse me, help you help your students. But most people, because they were only concentrating on that one tool that week, they were able to use it with their students, had some success. And so the next time they’d be like, okay, we’re ready to learn something else. Right. So it was, it was literally just building those relationships between people who were, who were afraid to kind of go or intimidated to go into these technologies and creating those opportunities for them to just get a chance to play. Now, this was, this was unique because again, the people who weren’t willing to give up time outside of the Workday they wouldn’t necessarily participate in this, but it was amazing that they would be talking to people who were participating in my workshops and they would start talking to their neighbor and their neighbor would go, oh, I didn’t know you could do that. So it was like that slow infiltration of like sneaky PD, right? One person’s more confident. And then everybody else built their confidence. And, and, and within a few years we had a, a very positive environment where when your own device became really just the norm, cuz the students were so used to seeing, oh, we’re gonna be using our computers game. Which of course in 2012 was a much different thing than now where a lot of people have gone one devices. So


Steph Pearson (09:59):
Sneaky PD


Sam Demma (10:00):
I like that. What are some of the tools that you find yourself using to maximize your time or that you really love and enjoy that you think every teacher should know about or use? And I know there’s no one size fits all, but it sounds like you’ve pushed a lot of buttons and you’ve probably pushed some buttons


Steph Pearson (10:22):
metaphorically and then


Sam Demma (10:24):
Some, you know, no pun intended you’ve probably pushed some buttons that have helped you a lot and you co you probably keep pushing those buttons. So I’m curious what those buttons are, what some of those tools are.


Steph Pearson (10:37):
Awesome. So one of the other hats that I wear is I coordinated our eLearning program at our school board. Nice. And what I find is some people just need the same information over and over again, but they’re asking it for, at very different times during the week or over the months. So Gmails templates are a God send. So if you’ve never looked at templates that saves my life because allows you to just save those statements that you make all the time and one place, and you can just randomly them into all kinds of emails, you can send images or gifts. And so when I’m trying to help students log into their email or log into their e-learning profile I can just send them gifts. So the kids can just know exactly where to click. And that’s also part of that is, is kind of leads to how do, how do young people learn and how do older people learn?


Steph Pearson (11:25):
Right. So a lot of our older staff really like when we, we write down the steps, then how to do it. But I find that if any, most people are pretty good. If I use a screencast and literally show them what buttons to press. So we use stuff like Screencastify all the time we, we video has a screen reporter tool. Canva has a screen reporter tool, and we just find if we can show them exactly where to click again, that anxiety just goes down and if you know, quickly, but they can watch those videos at half spot, half speed, and literally watch, okay, now I click here and literally watch and click here. So our, our our squad of three of us over the last two years, we’ve created something like 500 videos. We call it OCS B how to, and it’s literally how to click around and find the things that both educators need. Parents need students need, because we knew as long as there was a video, people were like, great. If there’s a video show me and then, and we were able to be more efficient in how the concerns and the, the requests that we were getting. So made a huge difference. So I spent a lot of time on video, video editing software over the last two years.


Sam Demma (12:36):
that’s awesome. So Gmail templates, big time saver probably just big stress reliever yes. And how to videos have been both been huge,


Steph Pearson (12:48):
Huge, absolutely huge. And again, once you have a bank, it becomes a lot easier to serve those needs and people, and it, and it’s always funny when people are putting in like service requests in our board and they, they wanna put it at urgent. I’m like, you’re, this is not an urgent issue, but it feels urgent to them. So if we can get back to them really quickly with the here’s the video where to click and I say this to like our teachers who are doing e-learning as well. Like if you send them a video a with your face on it, cuz I think that’s the other disconnect that we have with a lot of digital learning is that we take the humanity out of it. So I say, put your face in the bottom left hand corner. And so they see you talking about where you’re clicking on the screen, because then you are a real person, not just some ran who happens to stuff, right. So how do we build community in a digital world? And so I know that’s where this job is gonna go into the future is how do we make sure that all educators can talk about how do out, how to make positive digital interactions online?


Sam Demma (13:48):
You mentioned next year, you’re going back to the classroom, which also makes me believe that you were in the classroom before. Yes. tell me a little bit about the different grades you’ve taught, what that experience was like some of the high moments or things that you enjoy teaching or from teaching in the classroom.


Steph Pearson (14:05):
Yeah. So I’ve been lucky. So been this current role four and a half years. So prior to that, I, I taught seven and eight for a couple years in a couple different school models. So one where the seven and eights were attached to the K to six schools and another school where the seven and eights were by themselves and in another school where the seven and eights were with the grade twelves. So really interesting to see that very important developmental period of grade seven and eight and how which would be great, like 11 through 13 for our American viewers. They, that kind of, it’s so interesting when they’re the oldest students with kinder, they really get that, that they’re oldest students when they’re in their own world, it’s their own world. Right. Versus when they’re seven to 12 and they’re like, oh, the grade twelves are so intimidating.


Steph Pearson (14:50):
You’re like the grade twelves don’t think about you. I’m sorry. They, they haven’t given you a thought of debt, but yes, they’re intimidating. I’ve been lucky enough to be in contemporary studies. So social sciences, history, geography for over a decade. And and it’s been really interesting over that shift. So I taught in a predominantly white school for many, many years, and somehow I stumbled into teaching about equity and, and all of these things that have become really important over the last four years because of the, the media being better at reporting those issues. Right? Those have obviously always been an issue. But the media has gotten the mainstream media has gotten better at tracing the roots of the causes of inequities. So it was really interesting teaching at a predominantly white school where I’d be able, you know, we finally start talking about like how the color of your skin impacts how you walk in the world.


Steph Pearson (15:50):
So and I would have students just be appreciative at the end of the day saying, thank you for being, speaking to my experiences in a way that they weren’t hearing other classrooms, but then I moved to a school that was predominantly non-white. So a lot of black students, a lot of middle student students, students who identified as as Latinx and I, I was, I was really fascinated at how the teaching had to change. So when I was teaching predominantly white students, I was trying to convince them that racism exists and that sexism exists and that homophobias exist in, in some ways. And then I was teaching at a, at a student, a student group where they would’ve been facing all of those issues and I just would have to get them started and they were happy to run with books, ideas.


Steph Pearson (16:42):
So and we’re really excited to have those conversations and, and be validated that their experience is real and that they could use those to further their understanding of a topic. So for example, I had a student who we were talking about the word franchise and and they got stuck on the idea of like a McDonald’s franchise. And I was like, no franchise like voting. And they said, oh, okay. Yeah, no problem. So one of the students was like, you know, we could all vote miss. And I said, well, no, actually, and I look around the classroom and I said, actually only one person in this whole room would’ve been able to vote up until 1960. And they were like, what? And they’re like, yeah, one of you and they’re, and then now as that kid stood up and was like, I’m the only white guy in here, which was such a fascinating moment where he had never seen himself as other yeah.


Steph Pearson (17:33):
But in a room that was constantly othered by society by not in their own homes obviously, and not in their own communities, but by society at large is it was just so fascinating to see that realization. And of course how this, how their, how his peers reacted to that in a really supportive way that he then recognized that difference that he had never seen before. And that privilege of recognizing that difference. Right. So it’s been really fascinating to kind of watch that that, that arc of, of what that looks like and how that will feel in yet another school. When I go back in September and what the last four and a half years of pandemic black lives matter real deep, hard work in our school board for two S LGBTQ rights for students and opportunities, I I’m really looking forward to what I am going to learn from the students, as opposed to what I feel like I can impart on anyone else.


Sam Demma (18:29):
How did you determine you have to change your teaching style? Because I’m sure there are sometimes teachers who transition different, different age groups, maybe even different schools and try teaching the same way they taught in a previous situation and find that it’s not working. So like, what was the indicator for you to adjust and shift?


Steph Pearson (18:48):
Yeah, so Chris Emden has a great book called to all the white folks who teach in the hood. And so he had some really great ways to think about how, how to see kids who are not from your experience, how to see how you, what question you could ask yourself. So you see them as amazing whole human beings, but that their background is not the same as your background. So for example I stopped being annoyingly annoying about peop kids being late for class, because I realized that, and it probably was the case for a lot of the students in my first school, but in the second school, I realized they were walking their, their siblings classes, that there wasn’t anybody to pick them up in the morning that there they had unreliable power in their homes, right. So they had all these other complexities in their lives.


Steph Pearson (19:37):
That meant that getting to school on time was the least of their concerns, or just that it wasn’t of value that they, they also prescribed to like being on time is my thing, not their thing. So so for example, I just started showing news CRI clips the first 10 minutes of the day before I started teaching the lesson. Right. So so the 10 minutes I’m using my air quotes there. So the 10 minutes gave those students that wiggle room to be able to get there so that they could be there for the initial kit. These are the activities we’re gonna do today. Because part of why I was annoyed about kids being late is I didn’t wanna have to talk them through what we were gonna do for the day again. So if I just shifted my expectation, because I’m the easiest one to shift shifting 30 students is a lot harder than changing me a single human being for what my expectations are.


Steph Pearson (20:28):
So 10 minutes of news. And then what I would say to the students, if you are watching the news and you can connect it to the things we’re, we’re looking at, then do that. And so they got more learning or different style of learning and the students who then would come in, they could catch up if they wanted, they could check out the rule, the, the, the news reel that we’d watched or not, and we’d be able to proceed with our day. So that’s just one little small thing that I think the students appreciated just cuz it was just one less teacher that was gonna get on their case for not being there time. Right. And I think when, excuse me, when there are lots of other complexities in a student’s life, that doesn’t mean that there are any less capable of learning. It just means that there are other things that might also be important at that time.


Sam Demma (21:12):
You mentioned the book as a resource. Yes. Tell my white folks that teach in the hood. What other resources have you found helpful that have informed your practice and it could be books, but it could be absolutely anything that you think has changed your perspective or provided you with some tools and resources that you found helpful.


Steph Pearson (21:30):
Right? So if, if you, I, I do get a chance to read a lot of books in my current role. So one of the ones that I am currently obsessed with is gold. Muhammad’s cultivating genius and how we can think entirely different about how differently, about how we shape pedagogy and how we curriculum, how we design curriculum. And so she uses instead of like white thinkers, white Western thinkers, she uses the deep tradition of black literary societies from the 1830s and how, when people came to learn in a group, it wasn’t about literature necessarily, but it was about literary understanding. So what skill are you doing? How does it show you more about your identity? What kind of critical lens can we bring to a, a concept we find justice or injustice in the world and what does it say about joy?


Steph Pearson (22:28):
Like what kinda joy can we bring? So I love that framing. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching students in their bachelor’s of ed program. And again, trying to get them to think differently about how they want to teach, to get out of the, the, the skills or the way that they were taught. Right. Mm-hmm cause it’s very much, I was only in school and I learned the way the school and this is what my associate teachers teach, but, but let’s stop the pattern if we know the pattern isn’t working for all students. Right. So so I love go Goldie for that. Following voices that are very different than my own on Twitter and social media, Instagram. So a lot of two S LGBTQ voices black, LGBTQ voices people who are more right leaning than I am trying to find places, actively seeking out of my internet bubble so that I am presented with information that is different than I would get in my regular bubble.


Steph Pearson (23:30):
And it’s amazing how often those just little statements that people who identify with those groups will give me little tidbits that will just sit in the back of my mind. So I won’t necessarily jump to the same conclusions in the future. And I think that’s really powerful. Just again, questioning our bias, assuming I have bias, assuming I’m gonna screw things up, getting really good at apologizing. I think that’s a really good skill that all people could get better at, but especially educators, because we are gonna screw up and we need to be ready to hear that from our students that, Hey, you really offended me when and apologizing and then do the next right thing. Do the next thing that is going show that you’re really trying to atone for the mistake that you made, which I think is really important.


Sam Demma (24:17):
I love that. I think being vulnerable to also recognize when we made a mistake is just as important as, as you know, hearing somebody that’s upset with us and then saying, you know what, I’m really sorry. I, I had a guest come on the podcast named Barry Walsh and he’s retired, but still teaches and like volunteers a hundred days of his year in his, in his high school. And he’s like in his seventies now, which is so cool. And he was telling me this story about a student one time that stayed back in class and he was in a, a more rough area and a student came up to him and he must have said something or did something wrong. And the student just said, you know what, Barry, like, you’re you were an asshole yesterday. And you know, and Barry was just like, damn, I didn’t expect to hear that. But he looked at the kid and he, he said, after thinking about it, you know what I was mm-hmm , I’m so sorry. Mm-Hmm the student said that’s okay. Barry and walked outta the classroom and yeah. And he’s like, sometimes that’s really all a student needs to hear is a genuine apology. Yeah. And that’s all they’re looking for. And so I think, you know, apologizing is a really important skill. How have you seen that play out in your own teaching practice or the practice of others and has it been effective?


Steph Pearson (25:34):
Oh man. Well, and again, I think because one of the biggest structures we need to break down in terms of inequities is recognizing privilege, recognizing white supremacy, recognizing that we don’t know we’re swimming in this super of white supremacy. So so for example, I, I was told I used a phrase on Twitter that I had no idea what the route was on it. Cause it never bothered, never questioned. It, never had an opportunity to question someone very gently pointed it out to me. And then I apologized via Twitter. That I’d used the tweet that I’d used, the language that I wasn’t aware of. I deleted the tweet. I apologize because again, it’s that, that language it’s not, it’s not the intention, it’s the impact. Right. And sometimes you can’t explain your intention, trying to explain your intention just makes everything worse.


Steph Pearson (26:27):
Yeah. So you just gotta eat the humble pie. And that is with educators that’s with with colleagues, that’s with people. I don’t even know who I might have offended on Twitter, like all of those pieces, but it was amazing how many people came back to me and said, thank you for doing that apology because they just needed to see that a people make mistakes and B you can apologize. It apologize gracefully, and you don’t, and that doesn’t make you less of a person and doesn’t make you less of an educator. And it, and it certainly, but I think if you’re willing to give a good, solid apology, people are more likely to come up and tell you that you’ve been a jerk because they can see that you’re trying to change your behavior. And it’s the people who absolutely refuse to change that become the problem.


Steph Pearson (27:18):
When, if I’m pointing out where the boundary has to be and you keep crossing it, that I’m gonna stop trusting you. I don’t, you are not a safe space. You are not an ally. And so I need, so then I’m gonna find ways to work around you, as opposed to trying to, to call you in. Which I think is really what the lacks that we wanna do in education. Right? We want everybody to be moving in the right direction for the right, for the right reasons for all the students who need us most. Right.


Sam Demma (27:45):
You mentioned at the beginning of this interview that you’ve been in education for 20 years. If you could travel back in time, tap step on your shoulder in year one and say, not that you need to change anything about the path that you’re about to go down, but here’s some advice that would’ve been helpful for you to hear when you were just getting into education. What would you have told your younger self,


Steph Pearson (28:09):
Keep listening and keep listening and know that people are giving advice because they mean it from the deepest part of their soul. And even though you may not agree with it now, you may see the value it in the future. Mentorship is exactly that it’s people asking questions, trying to challenge or kind of thought. And sometimes I think, I think this is a issue with all young educators. We think we know everything because we’ve, you know, lived on the planet for 25 years but then when you get to your forties, you’re like, oh, the best thing we can know is that we don’t know anything at all. And the only way to be right is to constantly be willing to change our approach. So I think I was much more stubborn in my early days. And then I was really blessed to have really incredible people guide me not only in, in the classroom, but like spiritually and really kind of give me a different view of say Catholicism in a way that I did not.


Steph Pearson (29:10):
I was not, I didn’t see when I was growing up, but given who I was blessed to work with, I see, oh, this is, this is where the work can come into in Catholic schools where we have some, there’s a lot of political challenges as, as Catholic school boards. And I think there’s lots of room in faith to be inclusive and be amazing. So having that is what I know now when I people tried to tell me what to think earlier, but they were really just trying to guide me. So I think listen more would be a good one. And again, seek out those. I wish I would’ve sought out those different voices earlier in my career from those and people who aren’t necessarily educators, but those different voices back in the early two thousands.


Sam Demma (29:58):
If someone has been inspired by this conversation, enjoyed, it, wants to reach out, ask you a question or have a conversation, what would be the best way for an educator to get in touch with you?


Steph Pearson (30:08):
Easiest way is at on Twitter @TheSPearson. And you could certainly look me up, I’m all over the internet. So Steph Pearson and Ottawa, and you can find me it’s it’s my, my emails all over the internet.


Sam Demma (30:21):
OK, awesome.


Steph Pearson (30:22):
It’s the fastest way to do it.


Sam Demma (30:23):
Sounds good. Steph, thank you so much for coming on the show. Really appreciate it. Keep up the great work and we will talk soon.


Steph Pearson (30:30):
Perfect.


Sam Demma (30:31):
Hey, it’s Sam again. I hope you enjoyed that amazing conversation on the High Performing Educator podcast. If you, or you know, deserves some extra recognition and appreciation for the work they do in education, please consider applying or nominating them for the High Performing Educator awards, go to www.highperformingeducator.com/award. You can also find the link in the show notes. I’m super excited to spotlight and feature 20 people in 2022, and I’m hoping you or someone, you know, can be one of those educators. I’ll talk to you on the next episode, all the best.

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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.