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Superintendent

Julie Hunt Gibbons – Superintendent of Secondary Program & Student Success at Halton District School Board

Julie Hunt Gibbons – Superintendent of Secondary Program & Student Success at Halton District School Board
About Julie Hunt Gibbons

Julie (@SOthinkingabout) is a dynamic school and system leader with a broad range of educational leadership experiences spanning three decades in two different school boards. Demonstrated success in collaborative leadership, strategic, operational, and program planning, faculty development, educational technology, and innovation.

Connect with Julie: Email | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Halton District School Board (HDSB)

Peel District School Board

University of Western Ontario, B.A. in Political Science

University of Windsor, M.A. in Sociology

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. I’m super excited for today’s conversation with Julie Hunt Gibbons. Julie is the superintendent of secondary programs and student success at the Halton District School Board, or I should say was the superintendent. She is retiring as of the summer of 2021. I believe right before we recorded she let me know that she would be retiring in the next few days.


Sam Demma (01:06):
So we got her on the show right after her long career in education came to a close. Now she’s a dynamic school leader and system leader with a broad range of educational leadership experiences spanning three decades in two different school boards. And she has a demonstrated track record and success in collaborative leadership, strategic operational, and program planning, faculty development, educational technology, and innovation. You could tell that Julia is super passionate about her work, but the way she got there was a little unique. In fact, she thought she was gonna work in law as you’ll hear about in today’s conversation. Regardless, I hope you enjoy this. I will see you on the other side, take some notes, get a pen, get a sheet of paper and I’ll see you soon. Julie, thank you for coming on the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show, just I think 10 days into your retirement. Oh, five days into your retirement. I love it. It’s a pleasure to have you here. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and take us back to the story about what actually got you into education in the first place?


Julie Hunt Gibbons (02:12):
Well, I’m Julie Hunt Gibbons, and I have just retired as a superintendent of education, specifically a program and student success superintendent at the Halton District School Board. So it’s been 30 years, so when you say, take me back, Sam, that’s a long time. So I started teaching in 1991 and I started in the Peel District School Board at a high school that doesn’t exist anymore called Morningstar High School and then I moved to heart lake. So I was up in Maltin in Brampton for the first part of my teaching career and why I became an educator; that’s an interesting one because I didn’t really have that, I want to be a teacher all my life piece. In fact, my undergrad is in political science and sociology, my master’s degree is in criminology with a focus on socio-legal studies, and I was doing that because I thought I wanted to go to law school.


Julie Hunt Gibbons (03:16):
And when I was doing my master’s degree, I was a TA. And then I taught a night school course in first year criminology. And most of the people I taught were adults who were taking it to get a bump in their pay as police officers or correctional officers. And I loved teaching. I really, really loved inspir people and sharing knowledge. And it just sort of went from there. And I I applied for both a PhD and a and to the faculty of education. And I got into both and I sort of explored both for one week panicked and then ended up at the, a city of Toronto doing my bachelor of education and becoming a teacher. And I taught all things in a history department that weren’t history. I taught politics and law and sociology. And so all those grade back then it was grade 13. So all those sort of 11, 12 and 13 core that students can take later in their, their high school career. So,


Sam Demma (04:26):
So I would be correct in saying you had no idea you’d get into teaching.


Julie Hunt Gibbons (04:31):
Absolutely not. My master’s degree was actually completed working in a maximum security women’s facility in SEL, AE, Michigan focused on women who were completing life sentences and in Michigan life is indeterminant life. It’s, it’s not a set time it’s until the day you die. And so I was going back and forth from Windsor to Michigan and doing interviews with women who were incarcerated. My very first job was actually working for lifeline, which is a program in Canada that was four lifers and BI lifers. And I was the executive assistant for this program while I was completing my ma. So no teaching wasn’t ever any part of it. It was all focused in that criminology field. And I, I thought I was going into law or at least a PhD in that area.


Sam Demma (05:24):
Well, you’ve peaked my curiosity now, as someone who interviews educators, you, you said you, you were interviewing women who are facing life sentences. What were those interviews about or, or what did they look like? You just, I’m kind of curious.


Julie Hunt Gibbons (05:36):
Well everyone was already tried and sentenced and incarcerated and serving a life term in the hero on valley maximum security women’s Institute in IIL and Michigan. And our, the interviews were really about what, how they got there. And, and a lot of it was from a feminist perspective and the role of patriarchy in their situations and in their criminal circumstances and then sort of where they were in their own journeys once incarcerated, because of course many had kicked drug habits. Others had found an education. They never were privy to when they were living on the streets, et cetera. And so it was all very qualitative in nature. And it, it was absolutely fascinating because, you know, someone could have been serving a sentence from when they were hooked on heroin and had killed a client in a sex trade piece.


Julie Hunt Gibbons (06:39):
And then now they have three university degrees and were straight and had found God and all the rest, and it didn’t have an impact in any way they were locked up until the end of their days. So it was a very interesting piece. And then when I working on the male side with the lifeline piece through Kingston again I, I loved the educational piece. I realized that that work might not sit well for a, a, a young woman looking to have a family and, and all the rest it was. So I made the decision that I wanted to help people, and I wanted to help people who got to go home at the end of the day.


Sam Demma (07:26):
That’s awesome. What a story. And when you reflect back, can you think of educators that you had in your life that had a huge impact on you that led you towards education? Like you mentioned that you loved teaching. Did you have any teachers who also loved teaching that had an impact on you?


Julie Hunt Gibbons (07:44):
For sure. I did. When I when, when I was a small child and, and, and in high school. And, and I also remember the ones who had the very opposite impact, you know, the, I think the mediocre, the ones that you forget, but the incredible, wonderful, and incredibly not wonderful are the ones that you remember. And I would say I took a, a lot of lessons from those that inspired me and I had the fortunate chance to go back. I went to high school in the us, so I moved, I grew up in Oakville and then we moved to new England and we moved back and I actually graduated from Thomas a Blakelock high school in Oakville. And I was able to do one of my practice teaching students there. And there were, there were some men in the history department who I had had in my grade 13 year when I was there. And it was the ability to be that powerful storyteller. And I think the reason I loved history so much was because of the oratory and the storytelling. That’s how I remembered and did well. I, I got into the story of all of it. And to this day, like I love historical fiction. That is my choice of reading at all times. You’re, you’re learning something, but history has come alive as well.


Sam Demma (09:07):
That’s amazing. And I think what’s so interesting about that is that the teacher that had the biggest impact on me was my history teacher. It was world issues class, but he was just sharing us history. And at the same points relate to, to my passion about storytelling and, and the way he delivered his lessons, which is so cool. You mentioned that, you know, some teachers that are great stuck out to you and some that were not so great, also stuck out to you. And it brought my mind to this quote that every, you know, person or situation were in is either an example or is a, like a caution or like a worry, you know, one example. Yeah. Non-example, I’m trying to think of what the opposite word was. So what are some of the things the best teachers did in your experience that you can remember? And also on the other side of the coin, some of the things you think that those not so great teachers did that had a negative impact on you.


Julie Hunt Gibbons (10:03):
I have always believed that kids don’t care what, you know, until they know what you care. They know that you care, and that’s the most important thing by far. Students need to know that you are the caring adult and that their, their life beyond whatever it, it is that you’re teaching is important. There has to be that human connection. Like we’re not widgets, we’re, we’re not robots, we’re human. And the human connection has to be there. And I always say to starting out teachers, you know, how do you answer the question when someone asks you, what do you teach? You know, and people might say, well, I teach math, I teach science, I teach history, teach students. I teach children. I teach human beings because that’s the most important piece, because when you reflect on your favorite teacher and I reflect on my favorite teacher, I can’t name the lesson. I can’t say what was so great about how they taught. I can only reflect on a feeling that they left me with and that feeling, that how much I enjoy being in their presence and being in that room, because it was engaging and enjoying. And it’s the feeling that you reflect back on that made them your favorite teacher.


Sam Demma (11:13):
I love that. And it’s so true. And what do you think are some of the ways they made you feel great? Like, was it by tapping on the shoulder by personalizing what they were saying to you by giving you a chance to share? Like, what do you think if I know you mentioned this is a long time ago, so it might be hard to pinpoint some specific things,


Julie Hunt Gibbons (11:33):
You know, having worked in the program department for the last number of years and, and seeing a lot of different people teach it’s, it’s the personalization of it. It’s the little things that start it with greeting students at the door, knowing their names, knowing something about them beyond just their name knowing and properly pronouncing someone’s name be having opportunities to form and build trust in relationships. So whether that’s you know, building in opportunities, regardless of what you’re teaching, you know, I could be doing teaching math or teaching geography. I can still use communi or circles and you sharing and, and opportunities where I get to know students beyond just the subject matter of desks and rows, and, you know, Sage on the stage where I’m just really regurgitate, you’re regurgitating what I’ve said. Like that’s, that’s not active teaching in this world today with Google Wikipedia, all those other things.


Julie Hunt Gibbons (12:35):
Students don’t need teachers for facts. Students need teachers to provide the engagement and that joy of education that becomes the self motivating piece to want to learn and to be inspired, to learn. And I think it’s those inspiring pieces that includes the various pedagogy. They’re not doing the same thing all the time being responsive. So one year I might be teaching a grade 10 history class. And I know that most of maybe I have 75% of very active boys in my class, and I better be doing kinesthetic learning and not having them sit there and read and regurgitate and history may be the worst subject for that because history doesn’t change, but we have to be responsive in, in how we teach. And that means knowing them and meeting them where they are. I taught math for the first five years of my career.


Julie Hunt Gibbons (13:33):
Cause there wasn’t enough history there. I don’t have math qualifications in nine and 10 that you could teach the subject. If you had a willingness back when I was doing this. And I, I said, sure, I’ll teach math. And I think the reason I excelled at it is because I told the students right up front in my math that, you know, this wasn’t, I, you know, I didn’t go and graduate from Waterloo and mathematics. I explained things in a way that made them understand it. And I took real world examples and, and I used you know, we were talking about integer and negatives and I, I, I got out that thermometer. We talked about how things look so people could com conceptualize. It made it O okay to ask any questions. There was no such thing as a, as a dumb question. And I, I think that was sort of made it a trusting environment. And when people trust people are more vulnerable and then they’re willing to go further, take greater risks and ultimately learn more.


Sam Demma (14:34):
I was gonna say, it feels like, it sounds like trust is the main ingredient and all the examples you just shared, you know, trusting that the person standing in front of the classroom does care about you trusting that you can ask questions, make a mistake and learn from it in a safe environment. Like it all seems like it stems back to care and trust and compassion. And these sorts of characteristics, those are the ones.


Julie Hunt Gibbons (14:57):
Definitely


Sam Demma (14:59):
Those are the positive experiences. And we don’t have to, you know, spend too much time on the negative. But it’s funny. I find that a thousand people could compliment us in one person, says something negative and it sticks out in your head like a sore thumb. And it’s just, I think it’s a negativity bias that all humans have. And I’m curious to know if you could think back to some of those experiences that were negative as a caution, you know, what are things that you think other educators should never do or not do? You know, based on your experiences.


Julie Hunt Gibbons (15:31):
You’re very right. There, there is a, there’s actually been research done on, on how many positives someone has to hear in order to help balance that one negative piece. And I think back to when I was a small child in elementary school and a music teacher telling me that maybe I shouldn’t sing so loudly and you know, that sort of, that you know, that, that just joy to me, that kids have. And, and then maybe, wow, that was the first time I’ve reflected that maybe I wasn’t the best singer in the world.


Julie Hunt Gibbons (16:09):
But I, I do think that some times as educated, we really have to worry about what we say, because we’re in such a position of trust and people take it to heart. And so comments about levels like D streaming is a big thing in the province right now, right? And so commentary mid by educators about what levels you, you should be taking your courses at. And, and ultimately it should be a student’s choice because only they know how hard they’re working, how hard they’d like to work, what their post-secondary dreams are in any way. And, and you know, who are we to in any way cap those because, you know, people may have to work differing degrees, achieve their dreams, but their dreams are their own. And we have to be very careful that in what we say, that we are not in any way, a stepping on someone’s dreams.


Sam Demma (17:08):
I love that. And it’s so, so true. And I think at a young age, we look up to our teachers and they have, you know, not only are they in a position trust, but you’re technically in a position of influence, you know, what you say is, is listened to, and it might not be accepted, but it’s definitely reflected upon by the students. Most of the time, I would say, and you, you, you’re totally right. You know, if you tell a student you can or cannot do something it could affect them for, for, for years or, or change their perspective, Devon what’s possible for them. Aside from the situation of the singing, can you recall any other situations where something like that happened for you personally?


Julie Hunt Gibbons (17:47):
No. I just remember the overall the feelings, you know? Yeah. Like if you say someone’s name and it’s an association of a feeling of, of either it’s a good feeling, a bad feeling or, or a lack of feeling. Got it. And I think that, that everyone, regardless of what position you’re in, if you’re you know, an EA, a teacher, a vice principal, a principal, a superintendent, the, the goal should be to leave people with a good feeling. Hmm. Because that’s the empowering piece that became, I think most clear to me when I became a vice principal, because often the association for students is the vice principal is where you go, if you’re in trouble. And you know, even now I, I see people and they’re like, oh, you were my vice principal. And I know them and people say, oh, were you, were you a bad kid?


Julie Hunt Gibbons (18:39):
You knew your vice principal. And the answer, the answer is no, there’s no such thing as a bad kid, there are bad choices. And everybody makes bad choices at some point in their life. But just because you knew the vice principal didn’t mean that you, you were a bad kid. And I, I really tried hard as the vice principal. I coached. I was involved in student government. It was just trying really hard to make it, that it wasn’t a place where you went only if you got sent there, because it was a de disciplinary matter.


Sam Demma (19:12):
I love that. And it’s, you know, I’m not far removed from high school. I’m 21. And I, it’s funny because that’s such a very, that’s a true stereotype about the vice principal situation, and I’m glad you broke it. That’s awesome. I love that in terms of positions, you’ve played the whole field in terms of when it comes to education of teaching principal, vice principal superintendent, which of the positions have you found the most fulfilling personally, and what are some of the challenges you faced in it? And how did you overcome those?


Julie Hunt Gibbons (19:46):
I have thoroughly enjoyed every position I was in. So that one, that one is hard. I, I think it was the making the difference piece is what propelled me. So when I was a teacher, then they had, they had this thing called assistant department heads back then they haven’t had that role for a long time. And people pointed out I should apply for role. And I, I did. And then now you’re helping people within the department in a leadership role. And then the next progression was to department head. And then in peel, we had this title, it was super head because it was multiple departments. And it was just sort of what was the next piece. A lot of it was intrinsic as well as extrinsic and people saying to me, oh, you should apply for this. But a lot of it was the feeling that I could make a difference.


Julie Hunt Gibbons (20:46):
So moving from the classroom into administration, a, a lot of it was that I wanted to make a difference for more students. And I thought I could in that role because now I didn’t just have the students in my classroom who I saw every day. I had the students in the school and I was a secondary vice principal at Erindale secondary school in peel for five years. And back in the day Erindale was a very large school. And I know that I got to help a lot more students in that role than I did just when I was in the class. And, and then the next logical piece was then principal. And I was the principal at Warren park in south Missisauga. And again, the, the leadership and the tone of the school comes from the front office.


Julie Hunt Gibbons (21:44):
And I’ve always believed that, and I’ve always lived that and seen and knew that that was something that I was gonna ensure that the tone that came from any office that I was running was a very positive one and one that was student focused and students first. And it was, and when I left Lauren Park, I went to Halton and I was the principal at Nelson high high school. And then I was the principal at Oak culture, Fager high school before coming, becoming a superintendent. And even the move to superintendent was sort of, I had been a principal in three, in three different schools and two different school boards. And it, it was sort of, so what do I do next for my own per personal learning and growth, because I, I do see myself as a lifelong learner. And what is that next step? And so then as a superintendent, you are now that critical friend to a whole group of principles who you’re overseeing and supporting. And then as well, taking on the portfolio of program and student success, which is all focused on pedagogy and assessment and evaluation. Now I’m having that impact on the classrooms again as well. And so I would say I enjoyed all of those rules at the time, and each one sort of fit the stage of life that I was in.


Sam Demma (23:06):
There’s definitely at least a dozen educators listening, who are asking themselves similar questions. How can I make a bigger difference? How can I make a greater impact on more students on the entire school, on the educational system as a whole, in my entire school board. And they might be wondering, you know, Julie, how did you, how did you make the ascent? And if you could go back and speak to your younger self and give younger Julie advice you know, before moving up all these different positions, what advice would you give yourself?


Julie Hunt Gibbons (23:42):
Balance for sure. I think anyone who’s reflecting on this has to make sure that they’re reflecting on the bigger picture of work life balance that is very, very important and necessary for your success. EV everyone’s family situations are different. Everyone’s home responsibilities are different, and what you’re doing has to fit within where you are in your own life journey. At the time, this was brought home to me back in 2012, I was diagnosed with cancer and I was off work. I had to undergo surgery and chemo and everything else, and I am an ovarian cancer survivor, and I’ve been clear now for seven years. So that was the biggest wake up call to me about the work life balance at full confession. I do have that workaholic tendency work has always brought me a great deal of pleasure and therefore doing more of it.


Julie Hunt Gibbons (24:43):
I just, I’ve always been that way. Having and cancer really gave me pause to stop and think and think about it. And it’s one of the reasons I retired at my first eligibility. So in teaching your age and your year service has to equal a minimum of 85 in order to get your full pension. So I, I turned 55 this year and I’ve completed 30 years of teaching, which makes me 85, which means that I am my first eligibility to retire. And I took that, and I know I shocked a lot of people cuz they were like, you’re too young to retire. But as much as I love my job, I also love my family and I love life and I want to experience more of life on my terms. And you know, it’s not a job that you can do.


Julie Hunt Gibbons (25:36):
Part-Time right. It’s a big job, a superintendent, it’s a big job with long hours. And I wanted to be more the captain of my own ship and of more of that flexibility. And, and so that’s why I did take the opportunity and I’m looking forward to doing all sorts of things on my terms. So I still am that lifelong learner. I spend an awful lot of time listening to books, reading books. I, I get a great deal of pleasure out of learning new things. And I think I will continue to do that.


Sam Demma (26:10):
I love that. That’s such an awesome way to wrap up this conversation today. You’re five days into this new journey of living life on your terms, which is amazing. Congratulations, thank you for being vulnerable and sharing, you know, the story of overcoming cancer. That’s amazing and I’m sure your overcoming of that, that challenge has probably inspired so many other people who’ve gone through similar things, especially in the field of education so thank you for sharing that. If an educator’s listening and wants to reach out and just maybe chat with you, if you’re still open to those calls, what would be the best way for them to get in touch with you?


Julie Hunt Gibbons (26:47):
I’ve always opened to those calls. In fact, I’m keeping my board email. It is my hope that I will be doing some project work with Halton or any other board, as I say, I’m not leaving, because I don’t wanna work. I just don’t wanna work 50-60 hours a week anymore. And so I’m maintaining my board email so I can be reached there through huntgibbonsj@hdsb.ca.


Sam Demma (27:15):
Awesome. Julie, thank you so much. It’s been a huge pleasure. I really appreciate you coming on the show, keep up with the awesome work and we’ll talk soon.


Julie Hunt Gibbons (27:23):
Thanks Sam. You keep up the awesome work too.


Sam Demma (27:28):
And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the High Performing Educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review so other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show; f you want meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network, you’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Julie Hunt Gibbons

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.

Mike O’Neil – Superintendent of Education at the Durham Catholic District School Board

Mike O'Neil - Superintendent of Education at the Durham Catholic District School Board
About Mike O’Neil

Mike O’Neill has over 25 years of experience as an educator, consultant and school administrator with DCDSB. In addition, he has played many significant leadership roles within the system as Restorative Practice Lead and Facilitator, Development of the Bullying Awareness and Prevention Curriculum, and Executive Member of the Catholic Principals’ Council of Ontario (CPCO) Durham Chapter.

His committee work includes involvement with Mentoring for New Administrators, New Teacher Induction Program, and the School Effectiveness Framework Committee. In 2013, he was recognized nationally by The Learning Partnership with the Outstanding Principal Award for achieving increased academic success of students, building a positive school climate, and strengthening partnerships with parents and community.

Mr. O’Neill is a graduate of the University of Western Ontario where he earned his Bachelor of Arts; and University of Ottawa where he earned his Bachelor of Education. He earned his Master’s of International Education at Charles Sturt University. Mr. O’Neill is a member of the Knights of Columbus and belongs to St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Whitby.

Connect with Mike: Email | Linkedin

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

The Durham Catholic District School Board

Pickering Catholic Principal Outstanding

The Learning Partnership: Innovation for Educators

What are Restorative Practices?

Sunshine calls

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. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s interview is a special one. And I know I say that often because almost all of the guests I bring on are incredibly special and doing amazing work, but today’s special guest is Michael O’Neil, who was actually the principal of the elementary school that I attended as a young person. Mike has over 25 years of experience as an educator consultant and school administrator within the DCDSB – Durham Catholic district school board. He has played many significant leadership roles within the systems of restorative practice, lead facilitator development of the bullying awareness program and prevention curriculum, and executive member of the Catholic principal’s council of Ontario Durham chapter. His committee work includes involvement with mentoring for new administrators, new teacher induction program, and the school effectiveness framework committee. In 2013, Mike was also recognized nationally by the learning partnership with the outstanding principle award for achieving increased academic success of students building a positive school climate and strengthening partnerships with parents and community. He is also extremely involved in his own local community, being a member of the Knights of Columbus and belonging to St. John, the evangelist Catholic church in Whitby. I hope you enjoy today’s jam-packed, informative interview and conversation with Michael. And I will see you on the other side.


Sam Demma (02:40):
Mike, welcome to the high performing educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here this morning. This is a, a very full circle moment for me because you were my principal at elementary school and , and now we’re together on this podcast. So welcome. Thank you for coming on the show today.


Mike O’Neil (02:56):
Aw, thanks very much, Sam. This is definitely the joy of, of being in this vocation, being able to see success amongst your students who you, you know, I, I recall you running around with the soccer ball on the field there. You know, and several times I think some of those soccer balls may have come towards my head, but I I’m thinking that that was unintentional Sam. So I, I won’t hold you to it. So congratulations on your success as well. I’m very happy to be here.


Sam Demma (03:26):
I really appreciate it. Well, why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit about what brought you to where you are today in education?


Mike O’Neil (03:33):
Yeah, sure. Sam so currently Sam I’ve, I’ve been in education for 25 plus years. And currently I’m residing in the role of superintendent of education for human resources here at the Durham Catholic district school board in the human resources department we’re responsible for over 3,500 employees and serving and supporting them in terms of you know, services ranging from recruitment payroll you know, support with leaves maternity leaves, et cetera. And any other issues that arise with employees collective bargaining. So it is being for me, I, I am now sitting kind of serving at a system level, trying to serve our students and ensure that our students have a qualified teacher in front of their classroom that they’re supervised that we have enough staff, which there’s definitely a teacher shortage at the, at the moment.


Mike O’Neil (04:37):
But you know, I, I’m working on a assist them level with our senior administrative team as well in enacting some of the strategic priorities around equity, excellence and engagement here at the Durham Catholic district school board. But I have, I began my career back in 1993 with or sorry, 1994, I’m aging myself even more . And I began as a kindergarten teacher, so it’s like, I’ve worked my way up from kindergarten to the system level here at superintendent. I, I was teaching a teacher of multiple grades grade six for a long time. I served as a consultant for the teaching and learning department here for the area of literacy. And then I spent 13 plus years as an administrator, a vice principal and a principal primarily in Pickering. And then I have as I mentioned before, come to full circle to be at the system level now and supporting our employees and students that way.


Sam Demma (05:46):
Did you know when you were a student that you wanted to work in education or how did that profession in vocation call out to you and become a part of your journey?


Mike O’Neil (05:55):
I could say I was probably most inspired by my parents. Both of them are educators, my mother, a kindergarten teacher and my father was a principal as well for over 25 plus years. So if I always had education in our household and there was always the education talk and but I, I didn’t really I’ll be honest. I wanted to, you know, if you were to ask me in grade, you know, 12, what I wanted to be, I wanted to be a firefighter. And then I got up a couple ladders and realized that was my fear of Heights would not allow me to do that. And then I, you know, in primarily in you know postsecondary education and I was primarily focused on being a lawyer to be honest.


Mike O’Neil (06:45):
But there was always a I always had, you know, being involved in extracurricular activities or on the stage and in theater and in drama, I always had an interest in you know, acting and then I think it was you know, when I, I went into a volunteer in a couple of schools just to get some community service and I realized, listen, I can be an actor here and I can be a kid, a little kid all the time. and so,youknow, I know that may sound,uunprofessional, but it allowed me to just have not necessarily be a kid, but feel the spirit of being a kid mm-hmm . And I think that,uis what inspired me is that I want to keep that spirit alive in myself. And so,uthen I pursued,uthe pathway,uto education.


Sam Demma (07:39):
And you live that mentality, like, I think back to growing up in St. Monica’s, you know, elementary school and you were one of the most energetic, and I don’t wanna say fun principals I ever had, cuz the rest of them were great too, but yeah, you really connected with the students and I’m curious to, do you believe that you should keep your, you know, your kid-like spirit alive, even in your adult work? Has that been important to you?


Mike O’Neil (08:09):
Oh, I, I, I think it’s education is challenging if you don’t keep that kid’s spirit alive and if you don’t feed off, I, I mean, I, I fed off the spirit, the innocence, the, the pure joy of, of children the curiosity of children. So you have to be able to feed off that. I, I, I wanted to enjoy work every single day. I wanted to, to be a part of the difference. It allowed me to just smile with the kids every single day. I mean Sam, you can remember, I think one of my most favorite moments there at, at St Monica’s was doing, I did the gang man style dance with everyone you know, just spirit days, pep, you know, pep rallies. It was like, I was a, I was a school president in for my student council in high school.


Mike O’Neil (09:09):
And I just felt like I could be school president without having to campaign for it all the time. So you know, again, that spirit alive, but that, to me, I mean, you mentioned their Sam connection and I, I think that’s that has been transformational for me in terms of where I you know, I think all educators need to, to realize that they, the they’re not responsible, you know, not that they’re not responsible, but they’re, they’re not, the importance is not whether or not someone gets into an Ivy league school. The importance is that someone feels connected and connection at that school. I mean, we, they spend just as much time with us in, during the day and with their peers and with their teachers, as they do at night with their family before they go to bed you know, for 190 plus days a year.


Mike O’Neil (10:08):
And if they, you know what do we want to do and what is, what you know, is important in family connection. So it needs to be in important in those schools. The kids need to know that they’re cared for that. They are loved that they’re allowed to make mistakes. I, I, you know, I always had a, a, a post or a in my classroom when I was a teacher that said, this is a mistake making class, you’re allowed to make mistakes. And you have to be feel comfortable. And the only way you can feel comfortable is by feeling a sense of belonging to that school mm-hmm to that classroom. So, you know my, the most important aspect for me was building up the social architecture in, in a classroom. And then as a principal in a school I was, you know, charged with, I wanted to make the school, the best school in the universe for those kids. And I always instilled that and said it every single day. You heard me on the announcements, Sam saying that every single day, and I, I drew believed it. We needed to, everyone needed to feel connected to one another, regardless whether they were in kindergarten or grade eight we are in it together. And once they felt comfortable and connected, guess what, they’re going to find success. It’s not going to matter who the teacher is or what they’re teaching. If they feel a sense of belonging and action, they’re going to succeed.


Sam Demma (11:40):
And where did those beliefs and philosophies come from? Did you have some mentors in education were they built off of your own personal experiences? Yeah. Maybe explain where those beliefs and ideas kind of originated for you.


Mike O’Neil (11:56):
Again, I think I, I, I bring it back to my my father and his his that was his approach as an administrator. It was all about making you know, a positive school, culture and climate for this staff because the staff needs to feel a sense of belonging together. And you know, he did have some great staff parties at you know, at the house that I remember. I mean, I won’t get into them now, but , it was just a sense of, you know, you had to have a, you know, share you share around the table. And that was instilled in me by that. And then I also had a a principal pat McKinnon that served as my first mentor and Mr. Mckinnon, who was the principal. He, that was his whole philosophy.


Mike O’Neil (12:50):
It wasn’t about, you know, what the kids were learning or what you were teaching is how are you treating these kids? Are you treating them fair? Are you treating them with a sense of humility? Are you you know approaching them at their level and you know Mr. Mckinnon let’s serve just as a role model for that, for me, just the way he operated being visible. And I think that was the one thing that I had previously seen principals who were just in the office and you never saw, but when I saw, you know pat McKinnon being the visible leader, that’s what inspired me to say, Hey, listen, I think I can enjoy it. Cause I don’t want an office job just sitting in an office, but I think that I could enjoy making a difference by being visible in the school and, and leading the school as an administrator.


Sam Demma (13:48):
That’s awesome. Shout out to pat McKinnon.


Sam Demma (13:55):
So connection, I also agree is so important as you mentioned, and over the past two years, that’s been a difficult one, you know, with COVID with the pivot in education and a lot of students being forced to tune in virtually how as a school board, or even as individual of schools, do you think teachers and educators can still make sure their students feel, you know, connected at least to their teacher or to their subject? Is there anything you’ve seen happen in the Durham Catholic district school board that’s worked out well? Yeah. Anything can speak on,


Mike O’Neil (14:32):
Yeah, I, you know, I think it’s, you’re right, Sam, that it has been probably one of the most challenging periods. You know, I didn’t realize that when I signed up for this job that, you know, we’d be facing unprecedented plague. Yeah. That would, you know ground the world to a halt for two years. But what it is, I, I think the key to building those connections is not necessarily lying in a tool that you know, there’s been many programs that have come and gone, you know, and, and you know companies saying use this tool with these activities to create the connection. At the end of the day, it really comes down to the personnel and who the person is that’s in front of our kids. They, you know, it’s human nature to want connections and to build on those connections.


Mike O’Neil (15:30):
So I think if you have, and what I think has been demonstrated in Durham Catholic district school board is that our teachers are the right caring adults at the right time during this period of challenge for our students. They are giving it them all, they’re all. And they are you know, I, I think the same way that we had to come closer together and we reached out and dug deep into our, our, our souls to find more connections with our family and friends went during this time. That’s the same thing that we had to do as teachers, you know because most of the kids would be, you know, when they were connecting virtually they’re on their, you know, bed in their pajamas with their cameras off, you know and they, you know, probably are sleeping but we had to engage them and find new tools and, and the ability to pivot, and it still make those connections and a different mode of learning.


Mike O’Neil (16:37):
But at the end of the day, it’s what the person says, what the teacher does how they demonstrate that they care and the respect that they show and the culture that they a built that is centered around understanding empathy. You know, curriculum came secondary during COVID you know, some of the things were where I saw the most successful classes where when they just, you know, teachers, even at the end of their ropes would say, Hey guys, it’s not a good day for me. It’s not a good day for us all, we keep getting bad news. So let’s just talk. And I, I think just the ability to connect and talk to our students during COVID, I believe teachers are the unsung heroes of the, the frontline workers during this time because parents were stressed to levels you know, unprecedented levels and, and, you know, they wanted someone to, they wanted some relief and somebody to teach their kids, and they wanted that journey of their children to continue.


Mike O’Neil (17:59):
And our teachers stepped up. So it’s not a tool, it’s a mindset. It’s a, an approach . And I, I think that our leaders, our principals did a fantastic, amazing job of, of helping support their principals to emphasize that message. You know, it’s not about, who’s getting an a, now it’s about who’s learning, who’s connecting who’s getting the supports that they need during this time and to health supports, et cetera. So you know, I, I truly believe that. And, and it, it comes down to my philosophy. I, I, I have a restorative mindset, a restorative practice mindset where you know, it’s built on connections, built on accountability to one another, but built on understanding one another. And so I think that restorative mindset that our teachers have here in Durham Catholic has made a tremendous difference for our students.


Sam Demma (19:03):
And curiosity in asking questions is so important. At some something that every teacher I’ve had or administrator that I’ve had, who’s been curious themselves, it ends up making it a better experience for the school and the students, because you realize that they’re not only there to teach you, but they’re also learning along the journey. And for any educator who’s tuning into this right now, who might be in their initial years of teaching, you know, back back when you were just starting someone like that. Uwhat resources have you found used or read,uon your own personal development as an educator or someone who works in education that you found helpful. And also if you could speak to your younger self, what advice would you, would you give?


Mike O’Neil (19:51):
What advice wow.


Sam Demma (19:53):
Don’t cheer for the Toronto Maple Leafs. That would be your first one.


Mike O’Neil (19:55):
Yeah, exactly. Yeah. I would say, you know, to my younger self is be confident, be resilient, because you need that in this job. I would also say to myself, don’t lose the joy because the times when I’ve struggled in, in this, and again, don’t lose that kid spirit. Yeah. You know, being inspired by that kid spirit, I, I would say to my recommendation for,youknow, new teachers coming in,and, and we hear, and I’m responsible for, or the new teacher induction program here. And we, we train them,uin a course,ucalled restorative practice. And again, it’s about,umaking connections. You know, it’s a, it’s, it’s an approach that is not adversarial, but collaborative with your kids,uin front, in your classroom. And so I would definitely recommend,youknow, looking into restorative practice and the tools that can be used to make those connections, restorative circles.


Mike O’Neil (21:02):
They were transformational for me in in intentionally and deliberately getting to know my students. Mm. And then getting to know me, my fears. The second thing I, I would say is as an educator, I mean, I would say I listen to a lot of brand, a Brown’s podcast about vulnerability, and you have to be vulnerable as a teacher, it’s okay for you to make mistakes as a teacher like Sam. I know I think, you know, if I, if I see some of my former students you know, especially the ones early in my career here that I taught in grade six, or even in kindergarten, I, I always, if I see them in a pub or whatever, I’ll buy them a, a drink and say, I apologize, because I wasn’t at my best at my first couple years.


Mike O’Neil (21:59):
Right. Yeah. But you know, it’s, it’s like always, you’re always need to strive to get better. Don’t rest on the lesson plans from, you know, your first year go in and always be a reflective person. And it’s okay if that lesson plan falls flat. And it, you know, my, my advice to my younger self or to new teachers would be it’s okay to go in and say, Hey, that lesson yesterday just did not go well, and we’re gonna have a, a redo. And that’s the best thing you’re in charge. You can have a redo, you can do things differently and you can reach them. So be vulnerable be you know ignite continually connect to that kid spirit that is shown and intentionally focus on the social architecture of your classrooms. What are the things that you can do that are so small that can make a difference whether it is, you know, joke Thursday, you know, I used to do those and having the kids come down and say a joke on, on the line, whether it be intentionally greeting kids at the door you know smiling acknowledging the kids acknowledging every single one of them.


Mike O’Neil (23:37):
And you know, I used to do what I used to call sunshine calls, and those sunshine calls were sometimes our parents, the parents, and this is the thing we always think that I think as teachers, we’re always afraid to call parents you know, what are they gonna say? Are they gonna question what I’m doing in the classroom? And, and everything well be vulnerable, but reach out to them, connect with, get those channels of communication going. I used to do sunshine calls, so I’d make it a, a purpose to make sure I called 10 kids a month 10 parents a month of children. And I’ve got through, you know, the whole class and repeat it to just not call, to say, Hey, listen, you know, Sam kicked another soccer ball towards my head. . But rather say, you know as Sam I just noticed this with Sam you know, he, I just observed him, you know, inviting someone into the soccer game that was you know, excluded from that. And I would just tell the parent that, so I would take notes about sunshine moments for my kids, and I think the parents needed to hear that you know, and that you know, helped you build even the kids’ confidence. I’m sure around the dinner table, when those calls were discussing,


Sam Demma (24:59):
Those are some phenomenal resources and mindset shifts that I hope yeah. You listening can implement in your own practice in your own school. Mike, thank you so much for taking the time to come on the podcast here. If someone wants to reach out to you to ask a question, it’s typically another educator from somewhere around the world, what would be the best way for them to get in touch?


Mike O’Neil (25:21):
Oh, definitely. Absolutely. And like I said, I love making connections with colleagues because that, that’s another thing, Sam advice for everyone just before I leave on this is rely on your colleagues. Mm. And you know, build relationships with them, work together because the best ideas come from one another, they don’t come from above from your principal, or, you know, the, the board, they come from one another. So I always encourage people to reach out. They can reach out to me at: Mike.ONeill@dcdsb.ca. So the Durham Catholic district school board and shoot me an email and you know, I’ll be more than be to connect with resources or things like that. And we’re always looking for qualified staff members. So you know, if you’re looking for a position, please reach out you know, like I said, all, what we want are caring adults in front of our classrooms. Those that are committed to making a difference in child’s lives, not just academically, but socially, emotionally in all aspects of their development so that we can have success stories just like you, Sam.


Sam Demma (26:40):
Mike, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you. And again, a very full circle moment. Keep up the awesome work, keep cheering for the Leafs. And I will talk to you soon!


Mike O’Neil (26:51):
Go Canucks! Hahah. Thanks Sam. Cheers.


Sam Demma (26:57):
Hey, it’s Sam again. I hope you enjoyed that amazing conversation on the high performing educator, their 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 forwards the 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 Mike O’Neil

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.

Brent McDonald – Superintendent of Education and Information Technology UGDSB

Brent McDonald – Superintendent of Education and Information Technology UGDSB
About Brent McDonald

Brent McDonald (@Brent4ED) is currently a Superintendent of Education with the Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB). For the past 10 years his portfolios in this role have included; Safe, Equitable and Inclusive Schools, Information and Technology, Parent Engagement, Leadership Development and Succession Planning and working with his Family of Schools within the district.  He’s also the President of Educating Computer Network of Ontario (ECNO).

Brent is passionate about student success and ensuring that all students have the resources and supports needed to be their best. He is also passionate about learning in the classroom, educational technology, and school leadership.

Connect with Brent: 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

Educating Computer Network of Ontario

Ray Dalio, “Principles”

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker Sam Demma. Today’s guest has now become a good friend of mine. His name is Brent McDonald. He’s the superintendent of education and it at the UGDSB the Upper Grand District School Board. He’s also the President of ECNO. They have a strong role in providing leadership and direction to school boards in regards to it, he’s also been a classroom teacher, a vice principal, a principal he’s done every single job you could imagine in a school maybe next to being a custodian. And he has so many valuable insights and ideas to share on the podcast today. I’m super excited because you’re going to learn so much from this interview. There are so many nuggets and so many insights. I’ll see you on the other side. Talk soon. Brent, thank you so much for coming on the High Performing Educators podcast. It’s a pleasure to have you take maybe, you know, one to two minutes to share with the audience who you are and why you initially got into the work you do with young people today.


Brent McDonald (01:03):
Yeah. Great, Sam, thanks so much for having me today to start with it’s a real pleasure and really appreciate the opportunity to do some reflection too, for for the podcast today and, and really pleased that you’ve got this series going, but I’ll, I’ll share a little bit about myself. First and foremost I’m a father to two youth as well. One is in second year, a university, and one just about to head into a post secondary experiences at a grade 12. So very interested in the work that you’re doing and I know we’ve we’ve spoken a past too about connecting with the youth in our school board and hope we get to continue that when we get on the other side of things here too. For me currently, I’m an educator by trade I guess.


Brent McDonald (01:48):
And I, my role right now is as a Superintendent of Education with the Upper Grand District School Board. So for those that aren’t sure where that is. That’s a Guelf and Orangeville area. And then kinda out to the four one, and then north up into some beautiful country around Mount forest and Harrison, just about an hour and a half hour west of Toronto. I’m so close to the city, but also some, some beautiful landscape that’s there. And what’s awesome is we’ve got a school board that is an incredible mix of diverse of students and families and a geography. So some very rural country areas, which are just beautiful and then some really vibrant more cities type centers, wealth in Orangeville, for example. So lots of, a lot of the challenges that we see around the province are replicated within the walls of our board and right now as a Superintendent of Education I get to get out into our schools and, and follow up with students and staff and our principals and vice principals that run our buildings.


Brent McDonald (02:49):
And that’s fantastic for me. I love that opportunity to get out and get into our schools. Previously I was for about 10 years of principal, myself to at about four different schools in our area. And just loved that opportunity to to lead and be part of incredible staff and student bodies that that were just full of motivation and energy to, to do things. And and I think part and parcel what I look back on the work that I’ve done. Those experiences as, as a teacher previous to that, it was a core French teacher and a science teacher, or an a grade one teacher. All of those experiences when I look back at what I like about my work, the most it’s the, the motivation and the, and the power and influence that we get from, from students and the communities who are charged up about doing incredible things.


Brent McDonald (03:40):
And I know we started just before the interview, talking about your project that you were working on around picking up garbage and, and making your communities better. And when you can harness sort of that spirit and that energy that people want to, to do better and to improve and be a part of that, it’s energizing. So for me I think back when I was more your age and kind of looking at where I wanted to go in life, I had, I had multiple jobs. I had all sorts of jobs and that was, I loved working and had a lot of different experiences to try and see where I wanted to land and what I wanted to be in. And I think when I started, started to reflect on where I wanted to land in terms of a career. I look back at the work that I had done and all the opportunities that I’d ever had to work with youth and students and to be inspired and humbled by their creativity and their hope and their optimism that they had.


Brent McDonald (04:38):

That’s what did it for me? And I said, no, I, I need to be involved in this. This is a very fulfilling for me personally and professionally but also what an opportunity to lead and to guide. And I think that was the second reason that I landed into the work that I did as a student, as a teacher and then a administrator. And now into the role that I’m in is that I had the great fortune to have some incredible role models as teachers, myself and not just around the content of the curriculum that we were being taught. And when I look back at what they taught me, yes, the curriculum was, was very important, but it was more those life lessons and the work that they taught me about the attitudes that are important to have going into life and the opportunities and the belief that they had. And I thought, you know, if I can turn around and rec replicate even a part of that for students in the work that I would do, what a great what a great opportunity to have and one that shouldn’t be squandered. So, so that’s probably where I got the idea and where I got the energy and sort of the push is, or, or influences or motivators that guided me down to the work that I get to do today.


Sam Demma (05:48):

I love that. And you mentioned the work you do today. A lot of it surrounds staying in touch with staff members, touring schools every 10 days or so to check in and see how everyone’s doing. What are you hearing from those teachers in those students, in those schools? What challenges are they currently being pressed with and faced with?


Brent McDonald (06:08):

Well, very similar to to the challenges that most industries are facing right now and, and your you’re right. Sam. So the work that we do it is I don’t work in a school. I worked out of an office right now. But I do have responsibilities for, for a group of schools, but I also lead our information technology department as well. And I’ve got a fantastic group of, of managers and staff and teams that help support that work. And so for me, it’s, it’s twofold. It’s I get to, I get to see what’s happening in our classrooms, and I get to have a hand and work with incredible people to help support students in schools and our staff that are trying to teach remotely and, and work remotely and, and get involved. So that’s pretty exciting work that we get to do.


Brent McDonald (06:57):
The other work I get to do is around leadership development and succession planning for the board. So working with with new teachers, young teachers, to encourage them into leadership pathways in whatever way they want to get involved in. And we talk a lot about reaching down to students and doing the same thing for them too. So we do try and get into our schools as, as often as I can. We, we dedicate usually one day a week to getting into our school buildings. We’ve pulled back on that a lot to this September and October, just out of respect for not getting too many people into our schools. But we reach out virtually. So it’s noon today, and I’ve probably talked to about five different schools already this morning about what’s happening and there’s ways that we can do that too.


Brent McDonald (07:40):

But the challenges I’d say that they are facing are very, very similar to to what other other industries and other sectors are. And for us, and, and Sam, you look back at your school career, I’d say the one thing about our profession and our sector is that it’s typically as predictable as anything it’s by clockwork. We’ve got school year calendars or regular year calendars that we fall on. And we have the school year calendar where sometimes looks the exact same year over year, over year for decades after decades. So, you know, the first week of school programs and initiatives that happen the, the fall activities that happen that Terry Fox runs that happen every September, the sports teams that always start in the same schedule, the graduation, the proms it’s as predictable as clockwork forever, and ever, and ever. And and kids, I think students look, look forward to that.


Brent McDonald (08:36):

I remember a student, myself being in grade five, thinking I get to have that grade six teacher next year, that everybody’s been talking about it’s finally my turn or it’s graduation. Next year, we get to go on the grade eight trip, or we get to do these milestones that that people look forward to. And all of a sudden that’s turned upside down and gone. And the predictability and the consistency that’s been involved in people’s lives forever. All of a sudden gets, it gets to be a very uncertain environment. And and that causes a lot of challenges for staff and students who built careers and, and expectations around what’s coming next and plans. Particularly for students who thrive on routines or who need routines and structure to be successful and to show their best their best efforts every single day for them not knowing is, is, is an incredible part of our incredible challenge them to overcome.


Brent McDonald (09:34):

So that I would say from a student’s point of view and staff, to some extent the, the uncertainty and the constant change throwing at a system that’s typically very traditional has been very, very difficult for folks. I’d say from a, from a system perspective too, and the work that I get to do, we’re typically a very, very collaborative organization. So before we launch an, a, an idea or an implementation, or, or think about how we’re going to implement a new idea or, or, or, or any type of new project there’s a lot of time that goes into the planning, the bringing different voices around the table to get input running it by students and staff and all of our different stakeholders that we have. And I’d say we have not had that luxury in the last four to five months to be able to do that.


Brent McDonald (10:31):

So for us, our, the way that we work has been changed an awful lot, and we’ve had to become, you know, I’ll use those words like nimble and agile that, that everybody talks about. And the, the dreaded pivot word that we’ve had to do so much more than than we ever have before. And for for our sector and our educators and students too. But at a system level, that’s probably been the most difficult pieces that are traditional consultative processes that we put in place in our collaborative efforts that we rely on have had to be speeded up in such greater fashion than we’re typically used to. And we’re doing a good job of it, but it is a change, right? It’s, it’s been a big change. So those would be some of the big the two big changes that I’d see from a student perspective. And then from a systemic perspective.


Sam Demma (11:22):

That’s awesome. Yeah, someone mentioned to me the other day, the state of education could be compared to throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks. And I’m curious to know if there’s anything that has stuck so far for you, if you have any unique ideas that are working, or if teachers have reported back to you or any principals saying, you know, Brent, this has really worked or on the other side, you know, this was a total flop and we learned something from it. Either of those things are extremely valuable. And if you have any to share, that’d be awesome.


Brent McDonald (11:53):

Yeah, Sam, I’d say for us, the one thing that we have learned the most, or that’s been most apparent, and I’d say up until, you know, September or even October, we haven’t had a lot of time to be able to pause and reflect on what’s happened because it’s been so busy, we’ve been busy throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what happens. So we, we haven’t had a ton of time to reflect, but the reflections that we’ve done and when, and we’re starting to do them more and more now, which I’m pleased about. But what we, what I’d say we’ve learned a lot that we have seen is for the first time ever in, in my career in the spring everybody stopped doing everything and focused on one thing, and that was getting getting us to work remotely and to have teachers and students learn remotely when we in the spring, when everything was shut down.


Brent McDonald (12:47):

So all of a sudden 5,000 staff members and 34,000 students in our board had one goal that we had to do really quickly and had to make sure it happened. And we don’t do that very often. Usually we are juggling, you know, curriculum expectations, we’re judging or juggling technology expectations were juggling. A lot of the work that we’re doing around social justice and whether it’s our anti-oppression work that we’re doing, or anti-black racism, all of a sudden everything funneled into one, one project as an entire group. And and we had to be conscious of all those other things that we did, but really it was one, one goal. And we did it. And if someone had asked me back in January, you know, do you think everybody in this board could, could just walk out of the buildings and work remotely and live remotely in the next two months?


Brent McDonald (13:37):

I’d say, no, that’ll take us years to years to really pull off in any cohesive way, given what everything else is is on everyone’s plates. But all of a sudden we didn’t have anything else on our plates. We had one thing and watching everyone come together and work together and have that spirit of cooperation and collaboration was, was fantastic. So when I say what stuck and what, what worked back to your question? I’d say we learned a lot about what we can do if we really focus and have clear, consistent goals and and keep it simple and small we can move fast and as a big system. So that was exciting for me to see I think mistake wise, the, you asked that as well mistake wise. Yes, absolutely. It’s not perfect. What we’re working on and that’s okay.


Brent McDonald (14:29):

We talk a lot about failure in our system and that failure is, is is a really good thing because you learn from it and if you’re failing and learning, that’s okay. That’s how you get better at it. And we have to be able to do that. And there, there’s a whole show that you could probably do on, on failure or a whole talk we can do on, on how you manage that. But I think we’ve created a culture of of safety for, for staff and students as best we can and by safety, I mean not necessarily physically safe, but really being able to say, Hey, you know what, we can try some things and if they don’t work, it’s okay, nobody’s going to get too upset. We’re going to fix it and move forward and learn from it.


Brent McDonald (15:10):

And I think that’s what we’ve done the last little bit. So from all of the granular mistakes that we make every day, and, you know, it’s seven months later and people are still not unmuting their mics on zoom calls, right. Those really small things that come to the, to the much bigger mistakes that we’re making. And for us, some of those have been trying to solve problems that really don’t exist. And and under estimating people in some respects too. So the example I use is we spent, we spent weeks worried about students three and four year olds having to wear masks all day and that, how can that possibly happen? Well, it did. We asked them and we provided resources and, and teaching to them. And I can go into a school at the end of the day on a Friday.


Brent McDonald (16:00):

And there’s a three-year-old has been there all week, all day, still wearing their mask and completely fine with that. So something that was a big worry for us in our planning turned out to not be a problem at all, and for most people but certainly not to the extent that we thought it was going to be as an example some of the other underestimations that we’ve made. And it’s just because it’s our first time through a lot of it, I’d say we planned. And we, we underestimated the amount of people that would take up remote learning, for example, through COVID. So, you know, our schools are open and we have options around remote, and we might’ve fought somewhere under 10%, five to 10% might pick that up and so we planned appropriately for that. And our board, we’re sitting more around 17% now, but there’s many boards that are sitting around 40 to 50% of their population that have opted for remote.


Brent McDonald (16:50):

Those numbers are staggeringly more than what we thought they would have been to start with. And we didn’t know. And again, didn’t have that time through the consultation to really find out. So it was best guesses. And so I’ve seen some areas where we have underestimated either whether it’s at the student level or systemically some of those pieces. And we’ll learn from that. And now, you know, the next time that we venture down this road we’ll know what’s a problem. What’s a real problem. And what’s not a real problem. So that’s been, that’s been interesting to watch, and I’d say we’ve learned from that.


Sam Demma (17:23):

There’s a gentleman named Ray Dalio wrote a book titled “Principles,” and we’re the most successful hedge fund managers in the world. And he has a concept known as the error log. And it’s a document shared by his entire company where every time a mistake is made instead of a manager, figuring it out, you personally log the mistake yourself, explain what happened and what you learned from it. And he says like every week, his old team reviews, this error discusses it publicly so that every single person in the company learns from one person’s mistake. And I thought it was a brilliant, brilliant concept. And you had so many other pieces of wisdom in this book. And you also mentioned, you know, the importance of resilience, which comes from overcoming challenges or going through failures and seeing the resilience of a three-year-old or a four-year-old must be a motivating site for you, especially for anybody. I’m curious to know, you know, those sites motivates you. What else keeps you motivated? What drives you to keep doing this work, even when times are really difficult and tough?


Brent McDonald (18:28):

Well, you, you, you nailed it right. There really is the youth that we have and their voices, and and seeing the hope that they have. So I’d say also the lessons that we learned from them and started the questions today, you know, why did I get into this work? And, and the other reason which lends into this motivator is, is that desire to keep learning. And we learn as much today from our youth, as I do from, from any professional development series or, or workshop. And, you know, when we look at the great work that’s happening around our environmental work that we’re doing, or around our anti-oppression anti black racism, anti-oppression work that we’re doing, our students are often the ones leading the charge and teaching us about about how things need to be. And, and sometimes we needed to take a step back and really look at at, at what they’re doing and what they’re asking and what they’re saying.


Brent McDonald (19:27):

And so those lessons that we learned from our, our youth and the questions that they put on the table holding us as the adults and the, the, the leaders and systems accountable for what we’re doing. That’s, that’s incredible. That’s a, that’s, that’s motivating for me and helps move us forward and think, yeah, these are the, these are the leaders of our future. So it’s up to us to get barriers out of the way so they can do the work that they want to see as they go forward. And, you know, I don’t know if it’s always been that way, but I’d say the student voice is, is, is alive and, and more present now than, than I’ve seen in years past. And there’s venues for it. And, you know, your, your show’s very much like that too. It’s bringing student voices and ideas for students forward. But we’re also seeing it in so many other places. So I think having that energy behind you, when you know that you’re in a school system that has 34,000 voices and opportunities ahead of them, that’s, that’s motivating you. Can’t not be motivated by that, that gets you out of bed in the morning.


Sam Demma (20:32):

I love that. That’s awesome. And for the educators who might be listening, hopefully they’re not struggling with motivation issues, but in the, in the case that they might be, and they’re struggling to get out of bed. Maybe in fact, it’s their first year in education. If I could take you back to your first year in education, and, you know, you, you started, you were a little bit uncertain, maybe really passionate to get going, but confused and overwhelmed with all the different systems and terminology. And there’s the, just, just the change of starting something new. What pieces of advice would you share with your past self and with other educators who are just starting to get into this role, especially during a year like like 2020 with the global pandemic.


Brent McDonald (21:16):

That’s a great question, Sam, in one night, we got to remind ourselves all the time and I alluded to it earlier, but I think if I went back to my first-year teaching self probably a lot of fear around failure and not doing things right. And I’d say I probably spent way too much energy worrying about that. Then just trying some things and seeing how it goes and being okay if it didn’t and moving forward. So I learned those lessons along the way, but I, I probably wish I learned those more quickly probably would have had a lot less sleepless nights as a, as a brand new teacher. I’d also say reaching out to, to colleagues and you know, when I first started, I think I remember my first email that I ever wrote as a teacher it’s we email was just coming on.


Brent McDonald (22:04):

And when that happened, which is a very sad thing to say, but I remember the first time that we got to do that as a teacher, and now the ability for teachers to connect and collaborate be outside the walls of their classroom is phenomenal. The, the PD that’s available on on social media, on Twitter feeds on, on that you can access at the, you know, whether it’s through podcasts, whatever it might be, you can get ideas and collaborate and make connections with people more than we ever could when I first started. So my advice would be not to encourage youth youth and new teachers to the profession, especially when you’re feeling up against the wall on something or worried about something, reach out and put the question out there. And I see it every day when I’m looking through feeds in the comments, the, the support that’s out there in the broader educational community for, for staff is fantastic and feels really supportive when you read it. And and there’s a, a great venue there for, for people, as opposed to just walking down the hall. There’s nothing wrong with walking down the hall and texting with your teaching partner down the way, but you have access to so much more than you ever did before. So use it would be my advice.


Sam Demma (23:16):

That’s awesome. And if someone wanted to get in touch with you, I know you’re busy and I have so much going on, but maybe there’s a fellow educator somewhere in the world who has ideas to share or wants to just bounce ideas around what would be the best way for them to reach out to you?


Brent McDonald (23:32):

Probably probably on Twitter. It would be the best way if if they’re looking for that. So my Twitter handles is @Brent4ED. So absolutely would be one of the best ways to reach out. You could do that or go into the Upper Grand District School Board website, and they can find me on there and make a connection. I just told people they should do it, just connect them and share ideas. And I think that’s what we have to keep on doing in this profession, especially as we’re all facing new challenges and new problems that we’ve never had before. We don’t need to solve it by ourselves. So it’s great to be able to bounce ideas off of each other and and see where we can go.


Sam Demma (24:14):

Right? That’s a great way to end this episode. Thank you so much for coming on here. I hope people reach out. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you, and I look forward to seeing you again in person when all of this passes or starts to change and adjust.


Brent McDonald (24:26):

We’ll definitely make that happen. Sam, I was talking to folks today who we’re hoping that we can continue down that thread too. So we’ll look forward to having you back and a huge thanks again for allowing me to be on your show today.


Sam Demma (24:38):

Thanks a lot. You bet. And there you have it. Another amazing interview on the High Performing Educator podcast. If you enjoyed this episode and liked it, consider reaching out to Brent, he would love to hear from you. And if you have your own ideas and insights that you’d like to share, please shoot us an email at info@samdemma.com. So we can also get you on the podcast. And as always, if you’re benefiting from this content and you’re enjoying it, consider leaving a rating and review. So more people just like yourself can find it and also consume it and learn new things for their own students in schools. Anyways, I’ll see you on the next episode. Talk soon.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Brent McDonald

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.

Darrin M Peppard Ed.D. – Past School District Superintendent, Speaker, Author, and Leadership Consultant

Darrin M Peppard Ed.D. – School District Superintendent, Speaker, Author, and Leadership Consultant
About Darrin M Peppard Ed.D.

Darrin Peppard (@DarrinMPeppard) is an author, publisher, speaker, and consultant focused on what matters most in leadership and education. Darrin is an expert in school culture and climate, as well as coaching and growing emerging leaders, and is the author of the best-selling book Road to Awesome: Empower, Lead, Change the Game.

Darrin was named the 2016 Wyoming Secondary School Principal of the Year by WASSP/NASSP and was the 2015 Jostens Renaissance Educator of the Year. In 2017, Darrin earned his Doctorate Degree in Educational Leadership from the University of Wyoming. Darrin was inducted into the Jostens Renaissance Hall of Fame in 2019. 

Darrin now shares his experiences from over 25 years in education, specifically those learned as an education leader during the past 13 years. As a ‘recovering’ high school principal, Darrin shares lessons learned and effective strategies from over 25 years in public education to help leaders (both adults and students) to become more effective and positively impact the world around them.

Connect with Dr. Peppard: Website | Instagram | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Road To Awesome

Jostens Renaissance

Bradley Skinner

Kid President

Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”

Rock Springs High School

Dr. Ivan Joseph, The skill of self confidence – TEDxRyersonU

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. I’m super excited to share with you today’s interview. Darrin is someone that I was introduced to by another High Performing Educator, as someone they thought I should interview on the show. And after having the some conversation with him, I can wholeheartedly and honestly tell you, Darrin is one of the most kindhearted, most influential and most open people that I’ve ever had the chance to speak to and interview on this show. His stories are amazing. His passion, his energy, his lessons, his advice. There’s just so much wisdom packed in this man. I would say he’s made a dent in education, but I don’t think a dent is a big enough representation of the impact he’s made. Darrin Peppard is a school district superintendent, a speaker and author, and a consultant who focuses on what matters most in leadership.


Sam Demma (01:00):
Darrin’s an expert in school, culture and climate, as well as coaching and growing emerging leaders. He is known for his keen insight culture. First leadership style and dynamic personality. He’s won numerous awards, been named principle of the year. He’s been added into the Johnson’s Renaissance educator of the year, and then the hall of fame. There’s so many accolades this man has collected and achieved and accomplished over the years, but on all honesty, all those things aside, Darrin’s just an amazing human being who has a lot of great stories to share. And I hope you get just a peak into some of those stories listening to this episode. I hope you enjoy it. I’ll see you on the other side, Darrin, thank you so much for coming on the High Performing Educator podcast. It’s a huge honor to have you on the show today. Why don’t you start by sharing a little bit about yourself and your recovering principle mindset and how you got into this work you’re doing in education today?


Darrin M Peppard Ed.D. (01:57):

Yeah, absolutely. Sam, thanks so much for having me on this is this is really a treat. So, so yeah, I, I consider myself a recovering high school principal you know like you and I were talking before we came on. It’s a, it’s a winding journey. And you know, certainly an interesting road that has led me to where I am now and, you know, being being through being a coach being a, a principal and now superintendent that principal role, I is still the role that I look at. And you know, it’s, it’s the time that I probably cherish the most in my professional career. Certainly a great opportunity to impact kids, a great opportunity to, to impact adults. But then also to work, you know around systems and being able to work, you know, work in and affect systems.


Darrin M Peppard Ed.D. (02:49):

You know, we were talking a again right before we started, you know, I go back to what really got me into education was when somebody asked me to help ’em coach a, a basketball team and I’m like, yeah, absolutely let’s do this. And it was a fifth grade girls basketball team. And so, you know, that is not a lot of high level in depth basketball, but it’s more, it’s just relationships and, and having some fun and, and, you know, just getting to be kids and work with kids. And that’s what hooked me to ultimately become, to become an educator. And so yeah, that’s, that’s I guess a little bit about me.


Sam Demma (03:28):

No, that’s awesome. And before your friend asked you to help coach the basketball team, where were you headed in life and was there anything else aside from that ask that he gave you that directed you in that direction?


Darrin M Peppard Ed.D. (03:42):

Ah, man, that’s a great question. So, so, you know, when I when I started college you know, I, I, I played tennis and basketball in high school. I was a, I was a really good tennis player. I was a basketball player. I was not, I wasn’t a very good player. I was just on the team, but you know then I had some injuries and, and some of those kinds of things. And I honestly, I was a little bit lost when I got into college, you know the person I probably connected with the most, at my high school. At, at a point I’m gonna talk about staff I’m sure. And, and how everybody has an impact on kids, not just teachers. And , this actually even is, is true of my life. Our high school athletic trainer was the person who had the most profound impact on me.


Darrin M Peppard Ed.D. (04:29):

I unfortunately during basketball, I spent more time in the training room than I did actually on the floor in games. I just was, you know, I just had the bad luck of getting injured a lot. And trainer John was, was somebody who really kind of inspired me. And so that’s where I thought I wanted to go. I wanted to be an athletic trainer and I don’t know, somewhere along the line, I kind of lost, lost my path. And, and to be honest with you, I, I actually dropped outta college and I got into the private sector. I was, I was working in retail sales. And yeah, fortunately when when my friend reached out to me and said, you know, Hey, I need somebody to help me coach this team. I don’t know what you know, it was it was a heck of an opportunity to inadvertently you know, or, or maybe there was some kind of destiny there to, to help me find that path. And know he, even after that, it was, you know, Hey, let’s, you know, notice this other team. And, and it really gave me a chance to connect with a passion. I didn’t know I had, and that was working with kids and supporting kids and helping kids as they, as they grow through life.


Sam Demma (05:40):

You’ve been able to experience some multiple roles, principal teacher now, superintendent as well. You just mentioned all staff have the ability to make a difference for educators listening, who might question that, that they have the power to also play a huge impact. What would you have to say? You alluded to the fact that you really believe that every member of staff can make a change.


Darrin M Peppard Ed.D. (06:01):

Absolutely. I, I think every single member of of every staff, or again, like I say, staff, you know, staff plus faculty we don’t, we don’t separate ’em in our district. We, we make sure that everybody understands that we’re all in this together and we’re all part of something special. I just, you know, through the course of my career, I, and, and again, I even go back to, to when I was a student, you know, I’ve seen those moments where it’s the coach that is impacting a kid more than the classroom teacher. Certainly they’re classroom teachers that make profound, profound impacts on kids. I absolutely don’t want to downplay that, but I think about man, when, when I was a high school principal, one of the people in my building who was probably as impactful as anybody else was a guy named Cleve and Cleve was our maintenance guy.


Darrin M Peppard Ed.D. (06:53):

Cleve was a retired engineer and just came to work at the, because he just wanted to make an impact to be around kids. And you know, so the role we gave him was in addition to just some general maintenance, he was our guy who set up for all of our athletic contests. And he was the guy who was there to, you know, make sure the water jugs were filled. And, and yeah, he did all of that, but man, that, that guy just, he just cheered his face off for every single one of our kids and our kids knew him and they loved him. He knew every kid by name. And then every one of our schools, there’s a Cleve, whether it’s a maintenance person or it’s somebody who’s working in food service, or it’s a bus driver we don’t, we don’t realize sometimes just because we get into routines and we get into our day to day, you know, I, I drive my bus and this is my route, or you know, I, I’m a special education para and these are the kids I go and work with.


Darrin M Peppard Ed.D. (07:51):

And this is my schedule. We don’t realize just how many eyes are on us and how much the things that we do every day impact, impact kids. And, and you don’t know until, until years later I I’ll share a quick story with you that here probably I’m gonna say six months ago, I got a message on Facebook from a former student. And I mean, it’s a kid that I had as a high school student. I, I had him from one year. He was part of a group of kids that I actually had at both junior high. And then when I moved to high school, those kids then were there a year later, but I only had this student one year and I never really thought that we built much of a relationship. I mean, we knew each other, but you know, it wasn’t like some of the other kids in that group because I’d only once, but he reached out to me and it was a really profound thing that, that he said to me, he, he shared with me that he felt he owed me an apology over.


Darrin M Peppard Ed.D. (08:55):

Just the way he had been as a student. He said, you know, I didn’t tell a lot of people this he said, in fact, you probably don’t remember me, but you’ll remember my girlfriend. And I, I mean, I remembered him instantly, but he said, what you don’t know is I was homeless. What you don’t know is I lived in a car and I was embarrassed. And, and so I acted out so that people didn’t know those other things about me. And I mean, this is, you know, I don’t know, 15 years later. And he felt compelled to reach out and tell me the story. Wow. And, you know, to know, to know that I had an impact on, on that young. And and for that matter that I still have an opportunity too. You know, we’re still, we’re still in contact. Yeah. What I, I guess I tell that story for this reason, whether you’re a teacher or in any other role office, secretary, principal, you don’t know the impact you have on kids until much, much later. And sometimes you never know, there’s so many hundreds and thousands of kids that every educator touches every day. And you’re making a difference and you know, right now it’s hard. Holy cow, is it hard right now, but you’re making a difference and you’re changing lives one kid at a time.


Sam Demma (10:20):

What a powerful story. Tell me how you felt when you read that message in your inbox.


Darrin M Peppard Ed.D. (10:29):

Well, I mean, as we’re talking about it, six months later, I’m tearing up about it. So, I mean, you can probably imagine you know, first we’re and I saw his name, I thought, no way wow. I haven’t heard from him in forever. And and then as I started reading that, I, I just, you know, I had to sit down. I was like, oh my goodness. And certainly, you know, I was, I was grateful that he reached out to me is filled with a little bit of pride, you know, certainly that, that I had made an impact with him. But then I also, I guess, as I reflected through the, through the course of the next few days, I also kind of was maybe a little bit upset with myself or disappointed in myself because why didn’t I know, is it possible that I didn’t take the time?


Darrin M Peppard Ed.D. (11:28):

I should have to maybe get to know him better? And I don’t know, maybe I could have helped him that because, you know, as he went forward in his life, there were some struggles with substance. There was some struggles with other things. And, and I don’t know, maybe I could have made a difference, maybe I could of to help him in that regard. But I don’t know. I guess I would say it was mixed emotions. But, but ultimately, you know, I still go back to what what I, what I cling to with that story is whether I realized it or not, I was making an impact on that kid.


Sam Demma (12:03):

Yeah. And sometimes we’re a harshest critic, so mm-hmm, , don’t be too critical on yourself. Yeah. How do we make sure as educators, we can be that cleave, we can be that Darrin for our students, especially in a time like COVID 19, how do we ensure our youth feel appreciated, cared for and heard?


Darrin M Peppard Ed.D. (12:24):

Man, that’s a really good question because, you know, one of the most difficult things, I think all of us face right now is it’s really, it’s challenging, I guess, to fill the cups of others when your cup is empty. And so one of the most important things I would say, and, and I’m probably, I’m gonna say something and I’m not doing a good job of right now. And so I’m gonna challenge myself to, to, to refocus on this, but we’ve gotta take care of ourselves. If we want to continue to make a difference in this super challenging time, we have to take care of ourselves whether that’s, you know good eating habits or, you know, getting some exercise, getting enough, sleep, drinking enough water drinking enough water. So one, I’m not doing a good job with probably not getting enough exercise, but we have to be able to make sure that that physically and mentally we’re ready to answer the bell every morning.


Darrin M Peppard Ed.D. (13:23):

And if we’re able to do that, then I would say the next thing is, you know, focus on relationships. You know, the academic piece doesn’t work without the relation anyway. And right now we probably need to put twice as much time into relationships. I mean, we, we hear the phrase, social, emotional learning right now. A lot. It is very much an in Vogue term. It’s an appropriate term but really at its core, it’s about having those relationships in place. So we recognize those challenges kids are going through. And so that kids feel comfortable reached out saying something, you know, or asking a question. I think that’s, that’s just the biggest, biggest things we can be doing for ourselves right now. You know, there’s, there’s all kinds of training and all kinds of, you know, other things we can do books we can read, but if we don’t number one, take care of ourselves and number two, build those relationships. None of that other stuff matters.


Sam Demma (14:23):

It’s foundational. It’s definitely foundational. Speaking of books, what is the Road to Awesome? What does, what does that mean to you and explain why you are compelled to write a book with that title?


Darrin M Peppard Ed.D. (14:36):

Yeah. So Road to Awesome. And there’s, there is, there’s definitely a story behind that. So and it’s like, like the road awesome itself, it’s long and winding, but so I’ll tell you when, when I go back to my first year as a as an assistant principal, so my first administrative job we, we had a pretty challenging culture in, in our school. We really had well, I’ll just put it this way. The, the philosophy in our school was catch, ’em doing it wrong. And that might be kids and it might be adults. You know, we even as a leadership team and I don’t think we were intentional with this, but this is just how it worked. I mean, the phrase that the other administrators used and, and I, I know I picked up on it very quickly and fell right into the culture.


Darrin M Peppard Ed.D. (15:30):

I’m not saying I, I stepped away from it. I fell right into it too, you know, was, I’m gonna ding that kid. I’m gonna ding that teacher. You know, it, it was all about catching people, doing things wrong. And we were in this staff meeting middle part of my first year. And this particular part of the meeting was mine to facilitate cuz we were talking about, you know, what are we gonna do about hats and cell phones? You know, really, you know, important stuff used foundational. So yeah, that’s yeah, facetiously that’s, it’s not foundational that’s, those are things we really should be wasting time on, but that’s, that’s what we were focused on. You know, kids have their cellphones out and you know, they’re wearing hats, what are we gonna do about it? So somewhere between, you know, if we start hanging ’em up on the little on the wall and those little calculator holders, or I don’t know, suspending kids or wherever, you know, people were chasing this, somebody raised their hand and just said, why does it always have to be about what they do wrong?


Darrin M Peppard Ed.D. (16:28):

And I had it be about what they do. Right. and, and I looked back at that now in time and, and I can tell you, the lady’s name is spring. She’s a school social worker, a brilliant young lady. It was like, bang, you know, the, the road splitting two for me right there. You know, we, I can keep going down this path. You know, we, we focus on what people are doing wrong. You know, maybe, maybe we can, we can exit this path and try another one. And let’s, let’s try to focus on what they do. Right. it led me to the Josten’s Renaissance program and, you know, I mean that, that’s a philosophy of recognizing rewarding and reinforcing the things that you respect. And we put that in place and we started working really hard around that and changing the way we did our work and changing the way we focused on things.


Darrin M Peppard Ed.D. (17:23):

And you know, it’s amazing how, you know, people will rise or fold whatever level of expectation you’re willing to hold them to. And if you’re using that recognition and reinforcement at a high level of expectation, they’re gonna meet that level of expectation. They’re gonna come right up to it. I mean adversity for stuff like that, you know? And I mean, let’s, let’s make it about, let’s make it about kids who are doing a great job in the classroom. Let’s make it about kids doing a great job in, in athletics or in activities or whatever, you know, in community service. You know, I mean, we shouldn’t just be focused on, you know, our football team or whatever, you know, know, I mean, we had one of the greatest bands I’ve ever been around as, as a high school principal. And I know a lot of that was we hired a great person for it, but he took that same philosophy.


Darrin M Peppard Ed.D. (18:19):

And, you know, he went from like 60 kids to 130 kids in the band and, you know, superior ratings all the time. And so, so fast forward just a little bit. And I’m at a Josten’s Renaissance Conference and I’m presenting with somebody who at the time was was a teacher I had hired now just genuinely a, a, a true friend of mine a guy named Bradley Skinner. And we showed this little video clip Kid President, who everybody loves Kid President. And he said something along the lines of using the the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken” you know, what, what if there are two roads I want to be on the one that leads to awesome . And even though I’d been on this road for a long time, I’d never had a, I’d never had a phrase for it.


Darrin M Peppard Ed.D. (19:06):

And Road to Awesome was born. And we, and we still are using that as a hashtag. It became a hashtag at our school. We had to paint it on our walls. I mean, it just like grew and grew and grew to where everybody knew, you know, Rock Spring High School is we’re all about the Road to Awesome. And when it came to west grand, it brought that with me and we’re on the road to, and so over the last year or two, I, I really had started thinking, thinking, and I really wanna write a book. And I, I wanted to write a book about leadership and about, about what the things that I think, not, not that everybody should follow, but just, I think these are the six things that truly make a difference in leadership. And, and that doesn’t mean being a principal leader.


Darrin M Peppard Ed.D. (19:52):

I mean, that’s any leader that I’m a classroom teacher, teacher leader, I’m in the business world, I’m a leader, I’m whatever. So six things in the book really that I focused on you know, leading with a clear vision building positive culture and climate empowering your student, empowering your adults, telling your story as educators, man, we stink at that. We are not good at telling our story. You know, unfortunately it’s, it’s standardized test scores or, you know, things that people say on Facebook that determine story of our schools. And it shouldn’t, you know, we have great things happening in every school across not only the United States through Canada. I mean, everywhere, there are great things happening in schools and we just have to do a better job of telling them. And then the last one is, is coaching. And, and, and by that, I mean, everybody, everybody can benefit from a coach as a leader. I can benefit from another leader as a, as a principal, as a teacher, whatever I can benefit from an outside perspective supporting me and, and helping me to, to see things differently. So as we’re working through the book it only made sense that the book had to have the title Road to Awesome.


Sam Demma (21:13):

Awesome. No pun intended. Yeah, there you go. I was, I was really, I was really enjoying when you were speaking about the difference between pointing out what the students were doing wrong versus what they were doing. Right. I was actually watching a Ted talk yesterday by someone by the name of Dr. Ivan Joseph. Who’s a self confidence expert and he’s his talk has over 20 million views. It’s a great one. He took on two soccer teams to coach at Ryerson, which is a university here that were both on a five year losing streak. No one wanted the job. He stepped up and took it it and used basically what you just told me to create two winning teams that both won the national championship over the next five years. And what he said was so often coaches, and we can replace that for any human being points out what the athlete does wrong.


Sam Demma (22:04):

You know, you’re not kicking in the ball, right? Get your knee over the ball and lean, you know, lean back and stare down before you kick the ball, or it’s always gonna go too high. And he’s like, instead of doing that, you can point out what someone else on the team did really well. So John goes and does a terrible job, but then, you know, Stacy goes and scores and, you know, beautiful form. He can say, Stacy, well done. Your, you kept your head down. Your knee was over the ball and the student or the soccer player, John who didn’t kick it well is taking in what he’s saying, but not having his ego hurt or feeling bad about himself. And that hit me so hard because, you know, even with pick the, the volunteer initiative, I run, we manage six or seven people. And sometimes we, we don’t think before we SP be to that degree and we can be critical to too hard sometimes on the people we manage or even ourselves.


Sam Demma (22:55):

And I just wanted to highlight that. Cause I think the point you raised is so, so important. I can even pinpoint as a young person when my coach spoke negatively to me and how it affected me personally which is, which is really, really powerful. Anyways, Darrin, this has been a very fruitful conversation. There’s so many nuggets and things that are coming out of this. If you could sum up your entire brain, all the wisdom that you’ve gained over the past, I think you said 26 years teaching and give advice to your younger self when you were just starting in education, what, you know, couple points of advice would you give yourself that you think would be helpful along the journey?


Darrin M Peppard Ed.D. (23:37):

Well, you know, not, not to keep hammering on the same thing, but I go right back to what you were just talking about. I know there were times where as a classroom teacher or, or as a coach where yeah, I probably focused more on, you know, what we were doing wrong. Mm-Hmm and you know, I think I would, I would remind myself or tell myself that don’t take yourself so seriously, you know, take, take a breath, remember that it’s about relationships. And at the end, at the end of the day, when you’re, when the students that you have in the classroom now, or the kids that you’re coaching on the court are 30 years old. They’re not gonna remember whether or not we won this game or that game. They’re gonna remember how you made ’em feel. Mm they’re gonna remember.


Darrin M Peppard Ed.D. (24:27):

And they’re gonna reach out to you because of the relationships that you built with them. And I mean, I, I know that I did that well, but I know there’s always, you know, I look back there’s ones. I know I could have done better. And so that would be one of them would be to, to just, you know, Don worry about the wins and losses, worry about the relationships because that’s, that’s what it’s really all about. And I don’t know, maybe I would tell myself, maybe you should journal what you’re doing because, because I was writing this book, I know there were stories that slowly came back to me, but I know there’s just hundreds and hundreds and more stories that you know, both good and bad, you know, one’s where I certainly don’t look very good because of, because of what I did, but there’s a lesson that came from it. Mm-Hmm and you know, I, I wish that you know, I would’ve written all that stuff down, you know, but I guess those are probably the two things I would, I would go back and tell myself.


Sam Demma (25:25):

Cool. I love that. That’s so awesome. And I’m guessing you journal every day now.


Darrin M Peppard Ed.D. (25:29):

I do as much as I can. Yeah, absolutely. You know, it’s, it’s mostly, it’s mostly the old you know voice journal nice as, as much as it is writing.


Sam Demma (25:39):

Awesome. Well, Darrin, thank you so much for taking the time to chat today. If another educator listening wants to reach out, talk, talk about your book, talk about idea is, and what’s working in your schools right now. What would be the best way for them to get in touch with you?


Darrin M Peppard Ed.D. (25:53):

So I would say there’s two different ways you know, any and all social media, I’m Darrin M Peppard just write like that, whether it’s Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook, that’s, that’s how you can find me. The other thing too, is, is on my a website. I mean, there’s a way to contract me through the website, which is shockingly roadtoawesome.net. So absolutely those are, those are two great ways to get in touch with me. And by all means, if there’s anything I could do, somebody needs somebody to vent to talk to. If I can share a little bit of advice or wisdom or, you know, even if somebody’s just got a great where they wanna share with me, I’d love to hear it.


Sam Demma (26:30):

Awesome. Darrin, thank you so much for coming on the show today.


Darrin M Peppard Ed.D. (26:33):

Yeah. Thank you, Sam. I really appreciate it.


Sam Demma (26:36):

Such impactful stories. I don’t know if your eyes like mine almost leaked while listening to this episode, but if it touched you, if it moved you, if it inspired you in any way, shape or form, please consider reaching out to Darrin. He’s someone who would love to connect to you. He’s someone who would love to have a conversation. He’s someone who would love to share ideas with and bounce things around and be a soundboard for you. And if you found this valuable considered leaving a rating and review on the podcast, it will help more educators. Like you find these episodes during these times, so they can benefit from the content and the inspiration in the stories. And if you personally have something you, you think should be shared with other educators around the world, please reach out at info@samdemma.com and will get you a spot on the, a podcast. Anyways, I’ll see you on the next episode. Talk soon.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Darrin M Peppard Ed.D.

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. Bridget Weiss – TIME featured Educator and Superintendent of the Juneau School District

Bridget Weiss - TIME featured Educator and Superintendent of the Juneau School District
About Dr. Bridget Weiss

Dr. Bridget Weiss is the Superintendent of the Juneau School District. After graduating high school in Juneau, Bridget graduated from Whitworth University in 1984, with a Bachelors’s in Mathematics, a Minor in Physical Education and a secondary teaching certificate. Following graduation, she spent the next 26 years in Spokane as a high school math teacher, coach, high school assistant principal, elementary principal, Executive Director of Instructional Programs and Superintendent. 

Once back in Alaska, Bridget spent four years as principal of North Pole High School and four years as Director of Student Services at the Juneau School District.  She started this year as the Interim Superintendent and was hired for the position permanently in January.  Bridget attained her Masters in Mathematics from Eastern Washington University and her Doctorate in Educational Leadership from Washington State University.  Her work has been in districts as small as 1,800 and as large as 29,000 students.

Bridget is completing her 38th year in education at the start of 2022 was named Alaska’s Superintedent of the Year!

Connect with Bridget: Email | Linkedin

Listen Now

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

Resources And Related Media

From Teachers to Custodians, Meet the Educators Who Saved A Pandemic School Year

Juneau’s Bridget Weiss named Alaska’s Superintendent of the Year

Juneau School District

Superintendent of the Year

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. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s guest is Dr. Bridget Weiss. She is the superintendent of the Juneau school district. After graduating high school in Juneau, Bridget graduated from Whitworth university in 1984 with a bachelor’s in mathematics, a minor in physical education and a secondary teaching. Following graduation, she spent the next 26 years in Spokane as a high school math teacher coach high school assistant principal elementary principal, executive director of instructional programs and superintendent. Once back in Alaska, Bridget spent four years as principal of north pole high school and four years as director of student services at the Juneau school district. She started this year as the interim superintendent and was hired for the position permanently in January. Bridget attained her masters in mathematics from Eastern Washington university and her doctorate in educational leadership from Washington state university. Her work has been in districts as small as 1800 and as large as 29,000 students. And Bridget is currently completing her 38th year in education. This conversation was phenomenal. You are gonna take away some amazing ideas. I hope you enjoy it. And I will see you on the other side, Bridget, welcome to thehigh performing educator podcast. It’s a huge pleasure to have you on the show here today. Please start by introducing yourself.


Bridget Weiss (02:35):
Thank you, Sam. I am Bridget Weiss. I am the superintendent in Juneau school district in Juneau, Alaska.


Sam Demma (02:43):
That is amazing. Tell me more about your journey into education. What got you started and then, brought you to where you are today?


Bridget Weiss (02:53):
Yeah, well, I’m super lucky. I actually am born and raised in Juneau, so I’m a third Juneau white and I went left Juneau to go to school college in Spokane and I Wentworth university. And just really knew from a pretty young age that education was what I wanted to do and spend my life committed to. I had a couple of really cool experiences with teachers that really inspired me. And so I started out as a teacher. I spent 16 years as a teacher teaching junior high and high school math and coaching and all of that. And I’ve spent the balance of 38 years being in a administrator since then.


Sam Demma (03:41):
I’m just gonna give you a round of applause for your service. you mentioned you’re welcome. You mentioned having some really cool experiences with educators and teachers. Can you expand on that and tell me a little bit more how those experiences shape a decision to get into education?


Bridget Weiss (04:02):
You know, I was in junior high and seventh grade and I met a teacher who the best way I can really explain it is he saw me, like, I just, he knew me, got to know me. He was a math teacher my basketball all coach. And he was always checking in to see how I was doing. He had a great, has a great sense of humor and he was one that just really inspired me to be my best self, you know, which was what we would say now as a seventh grader, I would never, ever have been able to articulate that. But he really did. And he used his sense of humor and his ability to build relationships, really genuine relationships with kids. And so it inspired me and it certainly also impacted the type of educator that I wanted to be. And so I, I just feel really fortunate to have had some of those experiences that steered me in this direction,


Sam Demma (05:09):
Being seen and heard is such an important thing for every educator to do with their own students in their classrooms. How do you think in terms of tangible actions, he did that for you when you were in grade seven, was it by asking questions by being interested in your hobbies? Like what did that look like as a student?


Bridget Weiss (05:33):
I think for me through the eyes of a seventh grader again, it’s one thing looking back it’s another, but he, he did get to know me, you know, personally he knew who I was. I still remember. I, I can, I can look out my office window right now and see the building, my elementary school and the building that I went to junior high end. And I can still go to the corner of the hallway where his classroom was, and I can picture myself walking by not even going to his class, but he was always standing outside interacting his hallway or his classroom interacting with kids saying, hello, you know, making sure that we were on our way to class on time. And and, and he, his humor again, was really a key player for him. And and it was always very supportive humor and it was humor that was specific to who we were, if that makes sense. It, it, it really made you feel again, heard and seen. And, and I think it’s really hard to do that sometimes in education, the more kids that a teacher is serving the, you know, the larger, the class sizes. And I have really tried to emulate that sense that a student could get in whether they were in trouble or doing something fantastic that I saw them, that, that I knew them and that I was there to help them either through something that was negative or encouraged them because they were doing amazing things.


Sam Demma (07:07):
That’s an amazing teaching philosophy. And it’s so cool that you not even realizing it learnt it when you were a student in grade seven. so awesome. And speaking of difficulty in doing that even to this day, I’m sure with COVID, it took that challenge to a whole new level. And you’re someone who was very crafty and resourceful during COVID to try and keep things functional and not only functional, but for the students in your school board. You’re one of the only educators. In fact, the only educator who has been featured in time magazine for your effectiveness during COVID, that’s been on this podcast I’d love for you to share a little bit about what happened during COVID and how you and your team at the board transitioned and adapted.


Bridget Weiss (07:59):
Yeah. You know, we, I, one blessing that I’ve had is, I don’t know if it’s my mathematical background or just how my brain works, but I am definitely a problem solver, a solution finder and that’s how I’ve always focused. Here’s a challenge. What is the best next step? How do I get this only the resources they need? What does this kid need if this isn’t working? What options do we have for this kid? You know, so I, that’s just, my frame of thought always is finding solution and being prepared for situations that we might not know about yet. So here comes along the pandemic. And really one of the things that happened to us is that we ended up with a potential COVID case in one of our elementary schools really early in March. And we had to act quickly to know to, because we, again, in March, 2020, we knew so little about COVID.


Bridget Weiss (08:57):
We didn’t even, we couldn’t even spell the word mask yet. Right. We, we, we were just, it was, we just did not know anything. What I had done about three weeks before that we were hearing the talk about this virus and, you know, what, what it might mean in other countries. And wow. I was sitting up and paying attention. So I pulled all our department leaders together. This was in early February and said, Hmm, let’s start thinking about this. What might we need to do? This is something we just couldn’t even have imagined a even February, 2020. And so each department, it, food services teaching and learning health services counselors. I had, ’em all the leads there. And we trouble shot through each department, what this could look like and what we, what should we be doing now to think about that?


Bridget Weiss (09:56):
And so when we were shut down on a Friday, March 13th, on Monday morning, we were delivering food to kids. We had, we had meals available. We had Chromebooks ready to be delivered to kids or picked up to try to build distant and delivery learning on the spot. It was quite something so literally from a Friday shutdown to a Monday we were able to deliver services to kids. And, and that was really meaningful to our families. Many of whom rely on the free, hot breakfast that we serve every morning to our elementary kids and so forth. So it, it was very quick turnaround operation.


Sam Demma (10:39):
That’s amazing. If you were to take the experience and make it a blueprint for another superintendent or educator, who’s interested in the creativity that went into solving this problem, what would the through line be? Would it be that you have to in advance or, you know, the moment something changes, give it attention in time? Like, how would you distill this down to a principal that another board or educator could use?


Bridget Weiss (11:07):
I think a couple of things, one is definitely being as prepared as possible for the unknown, which we had an emergency response plan and it had at four levels and we busted through those four levels. In the first day we were responding and normally those four levels are extended over a period of time a month, you know, months we blew through those four levels in one day. And so then you have to rely on your instincts your courage your team. So I’m a huge team advocate. So I partnered with my chief of staff who we, we do crisis response together and have for a number of years. And we sat at this desk in my office for hours and started designing what we thought next steps were making lists of who needed, what information how were we gonna support our custodial team?


Bridget Weiss (12:03):
So when I pulled those leaders together, again, because it was such an inclusive group, everybody had a heads up, everybody understood at least that we didn’t know everything and that we were going to be working really hard. And we didn’t know for sure the, so what of all that yet? But everybody was on point. Everybody was thinking through our custodial lead was thinking about what supplies we did have on hand. So we knew right away where to start looking for, for the next round of supplies. And, and, and again, food service, they were already contacting for the state for what waivers we might need. You know, so again, having the right people, you can’t do it alone. So making sure that you’re really including your full team is, and that just takes some intention and building that team in advance so that everybody feels confident in themselves, equipped and UN and knows that you do believe in them in doing some hard creative work, when the time comes,


Sam Demma (13:06):
It’s such a Testament to the power of a team and unified messaging. If everyone was to get different messaging, it would’ve caused a mass amount of chaos. amongst everyone, because everyone would’ve been unclear on what their roles and responsibilities were. And I see that there’s a whiteboard for everyone who’s listening. They can’t see it, but there’s a whiteboard behind you. I’m, I’m sure you erase that a couple hundred times. Would that be true?


Bridget Weiss (13:30):
but that is so true. I had lists on, I have two whiteboards, a in my office, I had lists of so many different action steps. I had lists of groups of people. So I had the board of education. What did they need? Teachers, staff, what did they need? Parents, families, what did they need to know? Because some of it was different. Some of it was the same information, but some of it was different. So we would do that. And then we would commute out. Then we’d erase it and we’d start over. As soon as something happened that we thought we need to alert them, we would write it on the list. And then we would use that to craft our, our messages. So, and, and all of a sudden, all of our normal tools that we use didn’t work anymore, right. We, we couldn’t call staff meetings together.


Bridget Weiss (14:14):
Our, our app wasn’t allowed to come into the building for a while. You know it just, so we had to rely on video. I had never made a video as a, as an administrator. I don’t have a, a communication department but, but we did that. We started just right away because I knew people needed to hear my voice and see my face versus email that was void of emotion, void, you know, void of the voice inflection that you can give gratitude with and so forth. So we immediately started in this office right here, my one person, chief of staff videoed on her phone a message that I could give staff right before they went away for their their week. So you know, just relying on, on your, on your skills and your team, and we just, nobody can do it alone. And, and really that’s true in a pandemic, extraordinarily true in a pandemic, but it’s really true on a day to day basis as well. We’re only as good as the people around us and, and those that we commit to lifting up and supporting along the journey with us.


Sam Demma (15:25):
You mentioned the importance of filming a video, so the educators could feel your grad to, and hear your voice inflections. Can we talk about that for a second? What is the purpose or what went through your mind to come to that conclusion that you needed to send a video?


Bridget Weiss (15:43):
To me community has always been really important. So whatever role I’ve had, I, as when I was a teacher, I was a coach. I, my classrooms were communities. My teams were communities as an administrator. My building became my community and really nurturing and developing that community ended up in good results for kids. And so what I found was all of a sudden, I felt so responsible for 700 people that I couldn’t talk with. I couldn’t run to a, a building and go to a staff meeting and share, which is what we normally do in crisis, because crises usually are very point based. They’re they’re involved in geographical school. Yeah. One school or another school. I go to the staff meeting. I tell them it’s gonna be okay. This is what we’re doing well, now it was everywhere. . And, and so I thought, I just need to do this, and it needs to be really lighthearted.


Bridget Weiss (16:37):
So I put, I’m a big diet Coke and peanut M and M fans and every fan, and everybody knows it. So I made sure somebody had delivered some to me. I had that in the backdrop and I they were going away for spring break. This was like one week after we closed down. And I also had a video that two elementary teachers had done that one in one week. They had gotten words from their kindergarten classroom about a song. They, they worked together to build lyrics and these two teachers sang this song. It’s gonna be okay, was the main lyric. So I tacked that on to the end of the video and had my message and then that video, and it really was. I needed to tell them it’s gonna be okay. I, I don’t know the future. I’m not sure what we’re gonna do next week when you get back from break, but we’re gonna be ready for you. And, you know, we can do this because we can do it together. And so that, that was in my mind what I just needed to express to them. And I knew that the written word wouldn’t quite get at it.


Sam Demma (17:42):
I love that. And filming that video sounds like it was an action on one of your personal to-do lists. You mentioned having all these lists of teachers needs and student needs and parent needs and communicating to them accordingly. What are some tools that you use to organize yourself? Whether that’s to do lists or software or anything that might be helpful for organizing your day and your tasks?


Bridget Weiss (18:08):
Yeah, I, I am, I’m a list maker. I, as you would imagine, I have a very logical sequential brain. And so I do a lot of lists. And really my calendar is a huge organizer for me. And it sounds funny, but that really is a tool. I use it in planning. I use it in tracking what this week is gonna look like, what I need to have done, what I need to prepare for. There are some other programs out there. I have just found that I, with the pace at which I work, the fewer layers of programs that I have on top of me, the more effective I am. So the, the scheduling nature of a account calendar really becomes almost a project board. You know, when I’m looking out a couple weeks ahead and, and so forth. So, so I really am driven by lists by calendar and you know, and again, having a strong cabinet team that, that reminds us all, when something’s coming up, that we need to be, we’re working on


Sam Demma (19:11):
Amazing. And on the topic of resources to do lists sound really important to you. what are resources that have helped you as an administrator and an educator, whether it be trainings you’ve been a part of or books you’ve read, or programs you’ve taken, or even simple advice that you think might be helpful for other


Bridget Weiss (19:32):
Well, I know that I am similar to so many and maybe all educators we have all this drive to improve, you know, there’s never a moment rest of wanting to do more or wanting to do differ. And, and sometimes it’s, it is exhausting because it, it is just literally a constant layer. You never quite get there. There’s always something more that you want to do, or a problem you haven’t figured out a gap, you haven’t figured out how to resolve. And so I think that’s a good thing, you know, I, I, I absolutely think it is what makes us better as we go. And so I think the skill of dissatisfaction that the, the characteristic of dissatisfaction is really critical to an effective leader. You, you must really be hungry and there’s so much work to do. There was work to do before the pandemic.


Bridget Weiss (20:35):
So right now, what I feel is a huge sense of urgency. And I’m, I’m in my 38th year in education. And so I’m getting anxious because I know I don’t have a lot of time left and there’s so much work to do. Our country has demonstrated that in the last year through the pandemic and the losses related to that, but our social justice issues, you know, are the, the needs of, so many of our kids have grown in the social and emotional area. And so I just, I feel like we, the drive is really important because what the drive does is it helps you continue to ask questions. Why aren’t we getting the results we want? What is it that we’re not doing that should be doing? You know, what is it that we’re doing that is not effective that we need to, or harmful in some cases, right?


Bridget Weiss (21:34):
Where, where are those places in our institution that are simply not working for some of our kids and some of our families, what do we need to stop doing? And, and right now, everyone is a also operating with such fatigue. Our teachers, our staff, our I just met this morning with our bus drivers. And it’s just everywhere. You know, our principles, everyone is, is so exhausted. So how we go about our business is really important, trying to focused on our priorities what, what do we stand for and how do we manage growth in those areas with limited resources, limited time, and a greater set of needs. And I think inspiring people to stay the fight, you know, to stay the course is really an important skill that a leader needs to have right now. And nobody needs to hear that we’re exhausted. Nobody needs to hear that we don’t have enough time. It, it, it simply, it is a way of life as a leader. And it certainly is before the pandemic. It is more now, it’s not that we shouldn’t take care of ourselves, but as a leader we really need to project optimism and hope for us to get through this next year, two, three years that we’ve got coming ahead of us in recovery,


Sam Demma (23:05):
How do you fill up your own cup? What are the things that you do outside of the walls of your boardroom or office to make sure you can show up optimistically and hopefully for not only your staff, but also all the students and families in the board?


Bridget Weiss (23:20):
Well, a lot of diet Coke and a lot of peanut M and MSS, the first step. After that I live in the most gorgeous area of the country in Southeast Alaska. And so I thrive in the out of doors. And so for me, personally, fresh air running, being on trails that fills my bucket. It’s really important for me. And I know when I haven’t gotten enough of it. So I think it is super important for everyone to find what fills their bucket. And we have an obligation to do that because we cannot fill others buckets if we don’t fill our own. And it is really a conscious decision and finding ways to fit it in. So I run early in the morning because if I don’t, it won’t happen. So it’s pitch dark this morning, probably 29 degrees . And but I was out there and and it was a great way to start the day. So everybody really has to fill their own bucket in, in whatever way does that for them. Awesome.


Sam Demma (24:24):
And, and if you want to share one or two final parting words or resources you think might be helpful for an educator listening, now’s a perfect time to do so.


Bridget Weiss (24:38):
I, I would say that one I’m, I’m not a big program person because I find that the heart of the work is so often in strategies and a mindset that and skill sets. However, I will say that one, as we move through this pandemic, and we have students with such increasing needs, our work around equity and social, emotional learning we use restorative practices here and it has made a huge difference in our, in our children and our families as we approach this work through the restorative practice lens. And and that is a, I think ill changer for many, many school institutions. But we have to keep looking at our, through our equity lens that there is no question that school is not still, it’s so frustrating to me, but it is still not the same experience for all kids.


Bridget Weiss (25:44):
And we have to keep fighting to change. When I hear that a child feels unseen, it breaks my heart. It is it is completely a travesty that we would have children show up and feel unseen. And so the work that we’re doing around equity and really partnering with our tribal agencies and, and other groups here to design systems that are very welcoming and socially just is, is really just important work. So I just encourage everybody to, to keep their priorities. You know, there’s a lot of noise. There’s a lot of tractors and a, a lot of anxiety in our country right now is and pointed towards schools. And we need to, as educators hold tight, stay the course with our priorities that we know our students and our families need and stand up for that and continue to, to take charge of what we do best for kids.


Sam Demma (26:53):
Bridget, thank you so much for taking some time out of your day to come on the high performing educator podcast. It’s been a phenomenal conversation. If an educator listening wants to reach out to you or mail you some diet Coke and M and Ms and peanuts, what would be the best email address or point of contact that they could send you a note or a question or a comment?


Bridget Weiss (27:17):
Sure. Email would probably be best. Send it to: bridget.weiss@juneauschools.org


Sam Demma (27:33):
Bridget, thank you so much. Keep up the great work and we’ll talk soon.


Bridget Weiss (27:38):
Sounds great. Thank you, Sam.


Sam Demma (27:41):
Hey, it’s Sam again. I hope you enjoyed that in 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 Bridget

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.

Tom D’Amico – Director of Education with the Ottawa Catholic School Board

Tom D’Amico - Director of Education with the Ottawa Catholic School Board
About Tom D’Amico

Tom D’Amico (@TDOttawa) is the Director of Education with the Ottawa Catholic School Board. He has over 31 years of experience in education and has had many roles including as a teacher, school administrator and as Superintendent of Human Resources and Superintendent of Learning Technologies and as the Associate Director of Education.

An award-winning educator he has been recognized with the Prime Minister’s Award for teaching excellence and with Canada’s Outstanding Principal award. As a Superintendent he received the EXL award to recognize excellence among members of the superintendency.

He has presented across Canada on the topics of educational technology and leadership in the 21st Century. Tom is the Canadian co-lead for New Pedagogies for Deep Learning (NPDL), a global partnership of over 1500 schools across 12 countries focused on practices to develop deep learning and the development of global competencies.

In addition to his educational qualifications, he holds an Osgoode certificate in education law; a workplace mental health leadership certificate, diversity and inclusive management certificate, an executive certificate in conflict management with a focus on alternative dispute resolution, and safe schools certification.

Tom is an off-ice official with the NHL and prior to his career in education was the general manager of Ottawa’s professional soccer team, The Ottawa Intrepid, and also spent time as the general manager of Malkam Cross-Cultural Training, a provider of cross-cultural communication, diversity and employment equity training.

“I believe in the empowerment of youth and their ability to make our world a better place, especially through the use of social learning and technology in a connected global society”.

Connect with Tom: Email | Twitter | Linkedin

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

New Pedagogies for Deep Learning

Trauma-Informed Teaching

Ottawa Catholic School Board

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the high-performing educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is Tom D’Amico. Tom is the director of education with the Ottawa Catholic school board. He has over 31 years of experience in education and has had many roles including being a teacher school administrator, a superintendent of human resources and superintendent of learning technology.


Sam Demma (01:02):
An award-winning educator, he has been recognized with the prime minister’s award for teaching excellence and with Canada’s outstanding principal award, as a superintendent, he received the EXL award to recognize excellence among members of the superintendent. He has presented across Canada on the topic of educational technology and leadership in the 21st century. Tom is the Canadian co-lead for new pedagogies for deep learning NPDL, a global partnership of over 1,500 schools across 12 countries, focused on practices to develop deep learning and the development of global competencies. Tom has a wide breadth of information and knowledge when it comes to education. I really hope you enjoy this interview and conversation with Tom this morning. He truly believes in the empowerment of youth and their ability to make our world a better place, especially through the use of social learning and technology in a connected global society. I’ll see you on the other side.


Sam Demma (02:04):
Tom, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show. Why don’t you start here by introducing yourself to the audience?


Tom D’Amico (02:15):
Happy to join you, Sam. Thanks for the invitation. I’m Tom D’Amico. I’m the director of education here in the Ottawa Catholic school board. And this is my 31st year in education within Ottawa.


Sam Demma (02:26):
And did you from a young age, think you were gonna get into education or what was your childhood dreams and how did that progress you to where you are now?


Tom D’Amico (02:33):
Yeah, that’s a, that’s a great question because I, both, my parents were teachers, so when I was growing up, the last thing I ever wanted to do was become a teacher I saw how they worked every night and every Sunday and I, my passion was soccer. So my, my goal all along was to play professional soccer and that’s what I wanted to do. So I played a high level in high school and then went to McMaster university for, to take Phy-ed. And I, I ended up playing soccer for four years, but my last year I ended up with a serious knee injury. So I had to, to change my plans and I, I realized I could no longer have that dream. So I had a backup plan and my backup plan was I went, went on, did a master’s of, sorry, masters of sports administration at OTAU and the Canadian soccer league, the CSL was just really getting going around that time.


Tom D’Amico (03:27):
And I ended up working with the team and then I was offered the job as their general manager. So it was a new dream and it was exciting and I was I was enjoying it, but then you also have to look at life. And the time I just was just got married, the league was not financially stable. Neither was the team. So I needed another backup plan. And cause my passion was sports and PHED I, when did I did my teachers college teachers, teachers college at Ottawa U and ended up leaving the team and becoming a, and just as aside I found out that my passions actually changed again and it wasn’t PHY ed. And where I found that I really enjoyed working with youth the most was with computers. And this was back in the late eighties and early nineties. And I saw how excited students were with technology and what it could do for them. And I ended up going back and taking some more courses and resulted in me becoming a business department, head and computer teacher. And from there I’ve moved throughout the board into different positions, every vice principal, principal, superintendent, associate director, and now director. So long story. But the answer to your question was, no, I did not dream of being a teacher. And in the end it was the right, right role for me to become an educator.


Sam Demma (04:45):
So bring me back to the day you’re on the field. I believe it was in Windsor. You, you know, you, you, you had an injury, you busted up the back of your knee and after that how did you decide teaching? Because like, that seems like that’s what you, you got into, you went back and finished your master’s of education like, or, sorry. No, you did your, you did a master’s you did a, master’s not in education, in soccer at sport administration.


Tom D’Amico (05:11):
Yeah.


Sam Demma (05:11):
Administration.


Tom D’Amico (05:13):
So, in my last year, because I, I really, you know, I needed, you never know if your professional sports is gonna work out for you. Yeah. It doesn’t mean you get rid of that dream. So when I did blow up my knee completely, it was a posture, Cru lateral collateral, ligament, and meniscus all went at the same time. So I actually went into shock on the field ended up in the hospital. They couldn’t do surgery right away cuz of the swelling, but eventually they, they did the surgery. So as I’m recovering, I’m thinking, my dream is dead. What am I gonna do? And I would say, although it wasn’t diagnosed, I was very depressed because your dream is just pulled from you in a, in a split second. So I had to reground myself and I liked learning and I, I knew I was interested in sports.


Tom D’Amico (05:56):
I loved coaching. I loved working with youth. So I, I changed that direction and ended up working in professional sports as I mentioned. But then when I looked at thinking, all right, professional sports might not work out. Cause the auto Intrepid were not very stable at the time. And the league wasn’t stable. I knew I liked working with youth. I knew I liked learning. And I had parents obviously in the past that have been educators. So that was my natural go-to. And that’s where I ended up going into, into teaching. It still allowed me to be a coach to coach soccer, to run soccer camps. I just couldn’t play at a high level anymore. But at when I entered that, that new door opened, I found all kinds of new opportunities.


Sam Demma (06:38):
Awesome. And what about coaching? Do you enjoy? It sounds like you’ve yeah. Enjoy in both the player experience, but also the coaching experience.


Tom D’Amico (06:47):
Yeah. And, and I, I coach both boys and girls at the time for, for club and then in, in high school itself very different. So with the with the guys team at, at high school, you know, many of them were not wanting to learn. They felt they were peaked and they knew everything. And at the time with the girls teams, it was really about the passion of learning that they wanted to learn how to get better in different skill sets. So that might’ve just been my experience of that school. So I don’t wanna general on gender. But that was my experience and the camps, because the camps I was doing for younger kids I, I found that I had some skills in being able to make it fun and enjoyable. So whether it was working with Tim bit soccer, which is, you know, the four and five year olds and bringing water balloons into the, the practices, just do whatever I could to engage them.


Tom D’Amico (07:40):
But with the goal of helping them develop their own skillsets and passions. So it didn’t matter to me that it was recreational or highly competitive. It was that people were getting out, they were doing what they enjoyed and I had an opportunity to help them with that. So that, that would be where I received some enjoyment from the coach side. The competitive side was still there. So when you, in Ontario, your goal was to get to offset, which you know, we had some success getting to the provincial levels. So that competitive thing side never went away. But I think I had learned that you need to have that balance. It’s not, not everyone is gonna go on and play at university or play professional and they don’t have to be that doesn’t need to be their goal. It could be just fitness, but it also could just be fitting in and socializing.


Tom D’Amico (08:27):
And as a teacher, I really learned that early on that if you could learn the passions of your students and find ways of engaging them, they’re gonna be more successful. And as a teacher, you all have less challenges because the behavioral problems are there. When there’s a relationship mm-hmm behavioral problems tend to come when there isn’t a relationship and they may not have a, an interest in your particular subject at all. So how do you relate to, to kids especially teenagers that don’t wanna be in your subject and the way to do that is find what their interests are and find ways of modifying the curriculum to match their interests.


Sam Demma (09:01):
That’s a great point. I was gonna say, you know, similar to your experience on the soccer field, having a team that’s open-minded and wants to learn is makes it a lot more enjoyable as a coach. And I would probably argue the same as someone in a classroom. You want kids that, you know, want learn and you hit it on the nail by saying, you know, you have to be invested in their interests for them to care about what you’re saying at the front of the classroom. What does that actually look like in a classroom? How do you ensure that you, that you do that as a teacher?


Tom D’Amico (09:28):
Well, I have not been in the class for a long time. So things have certainly certainly changed since I was last lost as a, a classroom teacher. So I certainly don’t espouse to have the talents that many of our new teachers have, but what it looked for me at the time, it was going out if I knew, for example, for sports, if it was a student in my class that was on the volleyball team and there was a game I would be there in the gym to watch them play, to cheer them on. So I was showing interest in, in their excitement and their passion. If it was a student that was in the, the band or in the drama, I made sure that I was there. I would ask them about it early in every class I taught. I always tried to find out as much as I could from, you know, whether it was interviews or just writing opportunities.


Tom D’Amico (10:07):
And I could find out that, you know, someone was caring for their grandmother and the grandmother had moved into their home and was ill and asking them, I saw not, not in front of everyone, but just say, you know, I appreciate you sharing that. How’s your grandmother doing? So you’re showing interest in the person first and the subject second. And to me, that’s what makes some of our teachers, the best they can be is not because they’re passionate about their subject. But they’re passionate about the students and helping students to be the best they can be. And recognizing that sometimes students are, are having a rough day and you need to accept that. And you, you need to, whether you’re bending rules or you’re just pausing them for some point sometimes because a student is late for class, the last thing they need is to be sent down to the office.


Tom D’Amico (10:55):
What they need is someone to know why they’re late or so maybe if they’re not willing to share, right, right. At that time, have a teacher, an educator that knows there’s so much going on in their life. That goes beyond what I’m teaching in this class, subject wise. And I need to respect that and they may not be ready to share with me but find the opportunity to ask them. So, you know, often I, I, I rarely gave detentions as a teacher, but if someone did something that was completely inappropriate, inappropriate, you needed to have a detention. I would never send it down to the office for, for things like that. I would say, okay, you’re gonna meet with me at lunch. That’s your consequence. And at lunch, we’d have a chance to talk. We could, whether it was one on one, or it was in small groups or was using the academics.


Tom D’Amico (11:40):
If I had a duty, I would ask them, come and walk with me. I did the same thing. When I became a vice principal or principal, I would often have people have their consequences doing cleanup in the yard, but I was out there with them and we would do it together. And when you’re doing it together, you have that opportunity to connect and to have discussions and let people know that, you know, they’re human, they make mistakes, we all make mistakes. And sometimes there’s consequences for the mistakes, but it’s the behavior that’s being trying. We’re trying to change, not, not saying to a person that they’re not worthy of being there. So I think all of those are pH fee that goes into what makes people strong.


Sam Demma (12:15):
Educators and walking beside the student, you know, during those moments shows them that you do care about them, as opposed to them being out there by themselves. You know, potentially thinking my school is against me and no one wants to see me succeed. It’s like, oh, you know, we care about you as a person and your development. And, you know, I’m willing to, to walk with you to show you how much I care. I think that’s a really good point when you have the time to do so. You know, you, you did the masters in sports administration, then the masters of education. And then what did your journey look like in education? So tell me more about your first role and how it evolved to where you are now.


Tom D’Amico (12:50):
Yeah, my, my first job in teaching was really interesting. One if as the I, I still remember the principal that hired me and this is, this things have changed now. I’m not sure you’d be able to do this anymore, but , I was teaching at the time in Ontario was called basic math. So grade 10 math, I was teaching pH ed. I was teaching grade 12 economics. I was teaching grade 13 religion. Oh, wow. I a section of adult ed. And then I had one extra course I needed to teach. And he called me into his office. And he said, for your last course, you have a choice. You can teach Spanish or you can teach computer programming. And I looked at him, I said, John, I, I don’t know anything about computers and I don’t teach Spanish and he, he responded by looking in the eyes and saying, Tom, I don’t think you heard my I’m giving you a choice, which of these two do you want ?


Tom D’Amico (13:38):
And I said, well, I guess I have a little interest in computers. So I’ll take computers. So that was in August and school started in September. And what he did was he gave me one book. So there was one book on it was called Wacom Pascal at the time. And I had to read that book to try and fit, figure out how to teach programming grade 10 Pascal. And as I said, I never would’ve picked that on my own, but because he had given that opportunity to me, it, it really changed my career path because I found out I had a passion for computers and technology. And I found out most of my students had the same and were no, no behavioral problems because they were so engaged and motivated to be on the computers. And there was instant rewards from any of them because they would be doing something.


Tom D’Amico (14:24):
And then if you, you, you see the results right away, cuz the computer, whatever you’ve programmed, they could see it work. So it was, it was really interesting. And I went on and took some more courses and ended up really changing away from my degree, which was phys ed and geography. And instead of teaching PHS, ed and geography, moving towards business courses like entrepreneurship at time, which brand new, which we started, I started the first multimedia computer course in Ontario. It was a pilot project. We wrote to the ministry at the time, the cost of a a scanner was about $3,000. The, we had, I think, three computers that had sound cards. And so we had dial up connections for the internet. And what we did was we created what we called the multimedia. So it was project based learning a bit ahead of its time and the multimedia manner.


Tom D’Amico (15:15):
Everyone had different tasks. We had managers, we had staff that would students that would become experts in sound. Some would become experts in videos. And then we looked for real life projects because technology was so new in 1990, you know, what could we do with this? How could we help companies how we helped small businesses? So we were doing real real life projects while learning the material. And I remember contacting the government, the federal government. So I saw a grant opportunity and it was probably 1991. And they were offering money to the, anyone that was interested in helping to digitize real Canadian artifacts. So I contacted them and they said, I said, I’d love to get my students involved. And the response was, we hadn’t thought of students, but that’s a great idea. And the project they gave us two amazing projects.


Tom D’Amico (16:03):
One was digitizing the books of remembrance. So the books of remembrance showing Canadian shoulders that had died, sit sits on parliament hill in house of near the house of commons. And one page at a time was being turned. So you had to be there on that day to see a relative’s name in the book. Wow. And they trusted us and our students to get the proper equipment. And we digitized it page by page and put it online in, in early nineties so that anyone could see their relatives names in the book. So the students that worked on that, you knew they weren’t doing it for a mark. You know, they were doing it to make a difference. And the second project they gave us was digitizing RTO hall. So looking at what happens with the governor general, and I took a group of students in the summer, a small group, they got to meet the governor general.


Tom D’Amico (16:52):
They got picture is they got the back behind the scenes tour and they had so much pride in all their, all of their work. So those were some early things in my career that I really saw the advantages of technology and what students could do with their passions. So my roots from there was I, I had been tapped on the shoulder by some other leaders to say, you should consider adminis. I loved teaching. I didn’t wanna leave teaching, but I took the courses just in case I wanted to open those doors later on. And sure enough, once I had taken the two courses, there’s a principals part one and a principals part two course. I was offered opportunity. I had to lead the school and go to another school as a vice principal. And I loved that role because as a vice principal, some people think the vice principle is both the disciplinarian.


Tom D’Amico (17:40):
And I think of a vice principle approaches. That is their job. It’s not gonna be a very fulfilling role. Yeah. If all you’re doing is chasing kids for skipping class and dealing with kids that were smoking on property, et cetera. But I viewed it as a chance to build relationships and help students that sometimes people call ’em at risk. I, I would call ’em students that need the most support. Mm. So the ones that need the most support are the ones that I had an opportunity now, regardless of who their teachers were to try and help them. And I wasn’t always successful and I made mistakes. But for many, I, I would think that I hoped that I was able to help them make some better decisions. And when they made wrong decisions, whether it was a suspension or detention, make them feel that when they were back, you have another shot, keep going.


Tom D’Amico (18:24):
You know, you turn that page. You’re not gonna be painted with a brush that you’re, you’re a bad person. You’ve made mistakes. So that was my experience as a VP. And then I had the opportunity for a principal. And as a principal, you delegate a lot of the tasks to your VP. So I, I think you have even more opportunity to shape culture as a principal. Mm. So as a principal, you can really delegate some of the day to day managerial tasks and you have a lot of time to work on leadership. So I loved being a principal, both in a couple, several schools. I was a principal at, I left the board at one point, I was doing the continuing education department, ed and ESL. And I left to become a general manager of Malcolm cross-cultural training. So it was just because I had that entrepreneurial spirit and the business side, I took a leave of absence from the board and started working from Malcolm.


Tom D’Amico (19:18):
And it was fabulous because you were going into companies, helping them with their equity. Again, the timing, this is 2001. So we’re looking at different society 20 years ago. And when the tragedy on September 11th hit, all of a sudden our services were in so much demand because companies needed people to come in to help people learn how to get along and not be fearful of people from other cultures. So I had to make the decision whether to buy into the company and make that a new career change or go back to education because I was on a one year leave of absence. Mm. And what I missed was the community. So I, I did let the owner know that I appreciated the opportunity and I was choosing to go back to the board. So I went back to the school board and give up that business side because I missed just dealing with people so much not having to deal about money and setting contracts and all, all of those areas.


Tom D’Amico (20:16):
So I came back and became a principal at a downtown school in Ottawa and backed a lot of high school, which I, I loved. I was there for six years, which is wonderful because you get to see students coming in. We were a seven to 12 school. So I got to see students coming in grade seven and then see them grad like grade 12. And you can see how much people changed from, you know, 11 to 12 year old to a 17 year old. Mm. And then from there a lot of these were tapping on shoulders. So I always took the courses I needed to be available if I decided to do something else, but I, I never left a job because I didn’t like it. I’ve always loved every job I’ve had. But one of the things, the next step, if you’re looking at a hierarchy is a superintendent and our board auto Catholic operates in a very flat model.


Tom D’Amico (21:02):
So although there are different positions, we really always have believe that leadership can be with or without a title, and everyone has a role to play. But I took the courses I needed because to become a superintendent, you have to do your supervisory officer qualification programs. So I, I did take those and sure enough, an opportunity came and technology and I applied and was successful, but it’s not just technology that portfolio. I also had the equity portfolio. I had the data portfolio, the, the computers, I had families at schools. So I got to work with, with principals. And I, I learned more skills in that, in those areas. And then there was an opportunity to switch into human resources. So I, I moved into superintendent of human resources and, and again, you’re, you’re dealing with good and bad, right? So there’s some good things or some bad things that happen.


Tom D’Amico (21:51):
We, we, at the time probably about 4,500 employees now we’re up to 6,000 employees. So you’re looking at little city, so good and bad things will, will happen. But I think as a leader, as an educator, you need to anticipate that there will be bad days and bad things happen, but then move on it from them and not get your judgment clouded by when you’re stuck with a bad thing, move on to all the good things you can do. And then the structure in our board was we have an associate director that all the superintendents report to, and then the director. So I ended up becoming the associate director for five years. And then two years ago, I switched the roles to director when one of my mentors said, Denise, Andre retired as director. And I was easy, easily easy for me to move into her position. All of us have different styles. So you’re never trying to be the leader that you’re replacing, but you’re trying to build on what they had built before you, so that’s been my my journey. Wow.


Sam Demma (22:46):
What a diverse experience. It’s, it’s really cool to hear all the different positions you’ve worked in and what you learn from each of them, and also how you think they impact the school and the community. And like you’re saying, the mini city that is a board, a board of education where do you think your beliefs, values and principles come from, you know, as an educator, because what you shared with me at each of those steps, your beliefs and values and how, although there’s bad things, you know, you want to focus on the good, and, you know, when you, you know, you had principles in the way that you dealt with students, like where did you, where did you get all those insights and principles and values from?


Tom D’Amico (23:24):
Yeah, everyone is different. Sam was I’m sure. You know, but I, I would say for me, it started in my house with my, in my, both my parents, I, I grew, grew up in a, a Catholic household with two Catholic educators. So I obviously saw them model. And I think I was taught at a young age that, although we didn’t, we were, I would say middle class, we never went without food or had some of the challenges that I know many youth have in our city. But we didn’t have a lot. So, you know, both my parents were when they were both teaching teaching, didn’t pay a lot back in the seventies and when I was growing up but we had what we needed. And I think I learned the value of hard from them. I learned the value of sharing, what you have when you do have enough that you help others.


Tom D’Amico (24:11):
So I would say it came largely from my parents and from my faith, but then my own experiences in my schools. I I’ve always believed that it’s a sort of a silly saying, but experience comes from experience, not from age . So when I was growing up, you know, a lot of times you could see people. And even though as a young educator, some of the students are always waiting to leave. They’re waiting for the next year. You know, you’re in grade eight, I’m gonna wait till I’m in high school in grade nine grade nine, you think, well, I’m just a, a, a rookie in grade nine. I’ll wait until I get into grade 10 before I take a leadership role. And then in grade 10, you think, well, I’m gonna be a senior in grade 11, and then you wait to grade 12 and by then you’ve missed four years or opportunity to lead.


Tom D’Amico (24:53):
So I’ve always believed that that anyone can lead at any time at any age. And the role of the adults is to remove some of those barriers and to help people with resources. So even as an educator, as a principal, I may not always be dealing with students. It could be staff, but I think those values are there. That don’t be so quick to say no to a, to a creative idea instead look at, well, what are the, not just the pros and cons, but what can I do to help them to see what can be done? And is the timing, the issue? Is it the resort to the issues, but always look at what we can do with, with youth, you know, we, we had someone that wanted to start a belly dance club. So I remember as a principal thinking, is this a joke?


Tom D’Amico (25:37):
Am I being set up? And when I looked into it, no, this was someone that, that’s what they did in the community. And they were good at it. And they wanted a way to let their peers know that this is what they could do. So brought than saying, no, you can’t, because this is gonna be problematic. It’s find a teacher supervisor. If you can find a teacher, supervisor, we’ll support where you need to get it going. I think it only lasted for a year or two, but for that student, it, it made a difference. So that’s where I would say that what’s what shaped and formed me as well as some fabulous mentors. I always look to mentors and leaders and ask them questions, looked at what can I learn from them? But I’ve never tried to replicate a leader. As I said, I’ve always tried to build on those skills.


Tom D’Amico (26:19):
And I think that’s another area where some people experience some, some failures is they see someone really strong or a great idea at one school and they try and replicate that person’s skillset or that idea instead of how do I iterate it, how do I take what’s working there and now apply it to my context. And certainly with equity, it’s so important to look at the cultural backgrounds of our students before taking an idea and saying, well, this is working at this school. If I need to look at that school and say, yeah, it’s working. And it’s a, you know, far majority Italian background, as opposed to another school, far majority Filipino background. I need to understand who I’m supporting and then recognize within that you have also other subcultures and different areas to look at. So that would be my my experience growing


Sam Demma (27:09):
Up. Oh, that’s awesome. I appreciate you sharing. I have to ask too, cuz you mentioned computers and you know, the board having three of them and how expensive they were. And my dad used to tell me growing up that they’d use these things called floppy disks. Do you remember, do you remember this?


Tom D’Amico (27:24):
I could bet your dad on that because even before floppy discs I actually did take a course in, in high school when I was in grade 10 or 11 and it, it happened to be computer programming. So although I said, I didn’t have any background, I took one course. And the way it worked to Sam was we had these bubble. So we had to program, we had these cards that had ones and zeros and you had to fill ’em in by pencil to write your program. They would then get mailed to the university of Waterloo and they would send it back about a week later and let you know where the errors were. So it was just unbelievable how awful that process was. Wow. and then yes, I started my first computer had a tape drive, so it wasn’t even a floppy disc.


Tom D’Amico (28:10):
It was a tape drive. And then from that, there were different sizes of floppy discs. So I’ve experienced all of those up to today’s. I, I try and stay as current as I can with the technologies, but they, they certainly have gone through lots of iterations and I member even records. So record records. I had a record in my garage and my daughters are both adults now, but at one point she saw this record in the garage and she said, dad were the CD ROMs ever big at your, in your age? had to explain to her, it wasn’t a CD rom it was a, a record for a record player. So that’s, funny’s a fun activity taking some of those items and give them to young children now and say, what do you think this


Sam Demma (28:48):
Is? I heard old cell phones used to be massive too. carrying around a brick. But


Tom D’Amico (28:53):
Yes, we had a staff member at my, at my first job as a teacher in, in 1990. He had a brief case that he carried around with them and in the briefcase was the cell phone. Wow. Cause he had a part-time job in the construction industry. And so when we would be on break in the staff room, he would take out this phone, which was literally you know, probably 10 to 15 times today’s phones. Look, it looked like a really large walkie talkie. Yeah. And that was one of the first cell phones that I ever saw and saw someone using. So we we’d come a long way.


Sam Demma (29:25):
So if you could travel will not back to the future, but back to the past and you know, speak to yourself in your first year of education, both the experience that you’ve gone through and the wisdom you’ve gleaned now, like what advice would you give your younger self walking into that classroom?


Tom D’Amico (29:43):
That, that’s a great question. And not having thought of that one prior to right now, the two things that come to mind one of them is letting myself know that there’s going to be bad days, but there’s gonna be way more good days. And that would be at my, my earlier advice. But I think early in my teaching career, it was so hard with teaching six different subjects that I wasn’t prepped for. There weren’t all the resources that we have now today. And every night staying up so late just thinking, you know, how am I ever gonna keep up? So that would be one piece of advice I would give myself, just know there’s gonna be bad days and expect it. And then you can move on. There’s gonna be way more good days. That would, that would be one key piece of advice.


Tom D’Amico (30:29):
And I guess the other piece I would give now is knowing that you can, you’ll never be able to accomplish everything, whether it’s teaching or it’s leading. So you have to know when to stop and when to say no to take care of yourself. So that, that reflects wellbeing. So, you know, if you’re, whether it’s marking as a teacher or it’s working on the perfect assignment, a lot of these are lessons learned during the pandemic. But I think my message to a younger self would’ve been don’t aim for perfection aim to do your best and sometimes doing your best. You means not doing everything could be missing deadlines. It could mean not having the best perfect assignment like something that might take two hours only spending an hour, an hour and a half and leaving that half hour for you for your own wellness and wellbeing. That would be my advice because there’s a lot of workaholics in, in teaching and a lot of type a personalities and that’s not necessarily healthy. And it’s, it shouldn’t be a badge of honor to say that you work till midnight, seven days a week. Mm. And the badge of honor would be, I, I worked to get enough done to be appropriate and support all my students, but also to dedicate time to myself and my family. I, I think that’s a shift that we need to continue to see.


Sam Demma (31:45):
I love that. And what do you think are some of the opportunities and some of the challenges that exist in education today as well? I know, you know, it’s changed a lot over the years and I think every year offers a new learning but yeah. What do you think are some of the, both the challenges and opportunities


Tom D’Amico (32:02):
Re reflecting that I’m doing the podcast with you during the pandemic. I mean, that obviously brings the challenges right away challenges during the pandemic have been huge because people are coming into schools with fear and having experienced trauma. And I think one of those challenges is that sometimes we just focus in the last two years, the pandemic being the physical, if you don’t catch COVID, you’re all good, but that’s not reality that people are afraid. They’re afraid they’re gonna catch COVID, they’re afraid they’re going to either lose their life. Or even if they’re not worried about they’re gonna catch it and spread it to someone else like, but so we have to have the opportunity there is for trauma-informed teaching and trauma-informed teaching needs, focusing on relationships. So I think that’s a real positive that’s come out of a pandemic and the people have seen the need to support one another, whether it’s student or staff, but also to have check-ins to check-ins to see how are you doing?


Tom D’Amico (32:57):
And it goes back to what I said about 1990s which really worked for me, was getting to know people first in subject second, we’ve had to intentionally do that during the pandemic to make sure are you okay? Are you, you know, is your family getting food? Do you have internet? Do you need a device before we can worry about teaching? The other challenge I’ll highlight and it’s, it’s a good one. And being called to task in this, in our current world, in society with the injustice of equity. So I, I, I use poverty as one example, but we’ve certainly seen anti-Asian racism. We’ve seen anti-black racism. We’ve seen challenges for members of the LG T. There’s so many unjust situations right now that we have to do better. And we have to recognize we just finished national truth and reconciliation day yesterday in orange shirt day.


Tom D’Amico (33:50):
That’s a sad chapter of our country, but we have to recognize it and learn from it and make things better. So those are the opportunities that as we recognize the problems, we can make them better. I’ll, I’ll give an example from our board. And I’m just taking one piece of equity. It could be many different areas of equity. So we have students that are, are black in our schools and our high schools, and what we’ve created are black student associations, so that they have more of a voice and they can look for what change are needed. And that’s a great opportunity to create those groups for, for equity seeking groups, but also to give ’em a voice. And so what I did as director was I said, I want to take one student from each of these black student associations and create an advisory committee so they can meet with me as director.


Tom D’Amico (34:37):
And we meet about every six weeks and they can tell me what’s going well. And what’s going well in our schools. And then being in a, in a privileged position of leadership and having some power, I’m able to try and implement some changes for the changes coming because of them. So they’re identifying things. We will have another black student association form, I think November 18th, this, this current school year. And I took part last year. I, I just listened. I, I was there and students led everything and they shared some terrible stories. So when they share stories of someone using the N word and how it made them feel, or seeing an educator that didn’t react when that was done, or didn’t know how to react having someone you know, read to kill a Mockingbird, you know, things that we can change structurally that we just hadn’t done.


Tom D’Amico (35:24):
So I think those are challenges, but they’re great opportunities. Black lives matter movement that can be really difficult in a school, or it can be empowering. So we need to find ways to do things appropriately and to empower youth so that they see that they can make changes, cuz they can make changes. We had a school, not all of our Catholic schools in Ottawa have dress code. Only four. I believe of the 15 have not dress code. They all have dress code, but they have uniforms. So two examples one of our schools they went the principal and they said, we wanna do something more for black lives matter. And we’ve designed a t-shirt and we wanna sell the t-shirt and the principal was completely giving them power by saying, I think that’s Agus idea. And what if we make that shirt be allowed as part of the uniform?


Tom D’Amico (36:12):
So people don’t have to just wear the school uniform that can also wear that and, and what a great activity. It, it raised money and the money went to a graduate of nut school who was raising money for a program. I believe it was in Uganda starting a, a sports program there. So it was just one thing after another, that was really positive out of their, these students generating that idea. Another example would be the group that met with me saying, you know, we have a bad policy in our board that students can’t wear bandanas. And it, it really reiterates inappropriate conclusions that a student wearing a bandana is part of a gang. And it’s an outdated concept that we just never changed. And it doesn’t reflect the fact that there needs to be some culture awareness that some headgear should be allowed in schools.


Tom D’Amico (37:02):
Yes. You could say a baseball cap is not gonna be allowed cause we’ve seen that as honor respect, but there are other headgear that is culturally appropriate. So we changed our policy because of those students. And now each school is going back and they’re implementing it and they’ll have some challenges because some people will push it to limits because that’s something teenagers do. And, and we need to expect them to push the limits and find what a reasonable solution or balance is. So those are challenges that have resulted in new opportunities and I feel are resulting in, in a better school board, overall, a more educated staff and a more educated group of leaders. As, as we continue to look at a, do we improve equity and how do we learn we’re on the same journey together. It sounds


Sam Demma (37:43):
Like a very student-centric view that you and your colleagues in the school board has, which is awesome. It’s cool to hear the different challenges, but also the equal seat of opportunity in each of them and how the, how those things are being brought to life in the schools. If another educator is listening and is at all inspired by this convers or enjoy to laugh about old technology and wants to reach out what would be the best way for them to, you know, shoot you a message what would be the best way for them to reach out?


Tom D’Amico (38:10):
So if it’s an educator, I would say Twitter (@TDOttawa). I know I have not reached the platform I need to be on for our students. So I should be on TikTok and Instagram. our school board is I’m not, but it’s on my learning path to, it just keeps changing. But I know for students they are there and I work with our students and for them, I have to teach them how to use email so that they can email me. But that’s the other path, certainly just do a search for our school board, Tom D’Amico, co-director of education that can email me Director@ocsb.ca. I will respond to every email I receive usually within 24 hours. That’s my, my time to get back to people and on, on Twitter, because it’s such a fabulous way for educators to share what they’re doing.


Tom D’Amico (38:58):
I’m always on Twitter just to lurk to see what their people are doing and to respond. We have 83 schools, so it’s not possible for me to get 83 schools, but in 30 minutes, as long as they’ve used common hashtags, I can see what’s happening right across our board. And then recognizing not everyone’s on Twitter. We have to also find other ways to, to be there in person when we can. And for our, for our students, I do know that our, we have a student Senate that our associate director meets with and I try and make those meetings when I can they’re on Instagram. So they will share all as much as they can. The great successes at their stories with other student, Senate leaders and student council co-presidents so they can borrow ideas and then modify them to make them work at their schools.


Sam Demma (39:43):
Awesome. That’s amazing. I love the hashtag idea too. Tom, thank you so much for taking some time outta your day to come on the show here today. I really appreciate it. It’s been an honor chatting with you about your philosophies, values and journey throughout education. Keep up the great work and we’ll talk soon.


Tom D’Amico (39:58):
Yep. Perfect. Thanks Sam. Really appreciate it. Take care.


Sam Demma (40:02):
And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the high performing educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review. So other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit for. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show. If you wanna meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network, you’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities promise. I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Tom

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.

Lesleigh Dye – Proud Director of the District School Board Ontario North East

Lesleigh Dye - Director of School Board Ontario North East
About Lesleigh Dye

Lesleigh Dye (@LesleighDye) was the Superintendent of Schools for Rainbow District School Board since 2006. She has been responsible for many portfolios from kindergarten program, to Indigenous education, Equity and Inclusive Education, adult education and leadership.

Prior to her work with the Rainbow School Board, Dye served as Principal and Vice-Principal of schools in Toronto and Ottawa.

With the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, she oversaw the implementation of the Student Success Initiative in literacy, numeracy and pathways. She also was involved with implementing expert panel reports aimed at improving student success.

With the Toronto District School Board, Dye served as the Central Coordinating Principal for literacy from kindergarten to grade 12.

She has a Master of Education from the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education, a Bachelor of Education from Memorial University and a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) from Carleton University. She also has a Certificat de français from Université de Grenoble.

Today, Lesleigh is the Proud Director of the District School Board Ontario North East. She is passionate about learning and teaching and the success of all students, in particular, those who identify as Indigenous.

Connect with Lesleigh: Email | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

JACK chapters (mental health clubs)

District School Board Ontario North East

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the high-performing educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today we have a very special guest on the podcast. Her name is Leslie Dye. Leslie is the proud director of the district school board Ontario Northeast. She has worked as a teacher principal system, principal and SO in various boards, such as the Toronto district school board, the Ottawa Carlton district school board, and the rainbow district school board.


Sam Demma (01:04):
Leslie is passionate about learning and teaching and ensuring success of all students. In particular, those who identify as indigenous. She enrolled as a PhD candidate at Trenton university. She has her master’s of education from the Ontario Institute of studies in education. She has a bachelor’s of education from Memorial university and a bachelor’s of arts honors from Carleton university. She has done so many different roles in different school boards and I think you’ll take away a lot from her experience that she shares on the podcast here this morning. I’ll see you on the other side. Enjoy.


Sam Demma (01:45):
Leslie. Welcome to the high-performing educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show. Please start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit about your story.


Lesleigh Dye (01:54):
Good morning, Sam. I am the proud director in district school, board, Ontario, Northeast. We have almost 7,000 students and we span from Temagami to Hurston everywhere in between 25,000 square kilometers.


Sam Demma (02:09):
That’s amazing. And what brought you to where you are now share a little bit of your own story and journey through, you know, elementary school, high school university, and then getting into teaching?


Lesleigh Dye (02:22):
I would say my story probably really started in my elementary years of learning. And so as a student in west Vancouver, they were very focused at that time on experiential learning. I am the type of learner who needs direct instruction. And so I, with about half of my classmates in grade four, the teacher Mr. Dean found that half of us could not decode. And so that really influenced me as, as a learner thinking that, that I wasn’t, I couldn’t greed, I wasn’t a good learner. Fast forward in high school, started high school in British Columbia, moved to Ottawa in grade 10, found that move pretty hard. Fortunately, I met my best friend in kind of mid-September, but those first couple of weeks no one talked to me, which I found fascinating that staff wouldn’t say hello in the hallways to me, students wouldn’t say hello in the hallway to me.


Lesleigh Dye (03:19):
And then I grew up in a home where it was an expectation that I would go to university. I’m very privileged that way. Went back to Vancouver, finished my first degree in Ottawa had the incredible honor of living in France for a year to learn French came back to Canada and went to Newfoundland and incredible province and didn’t teachers’ college. And then started my very first teaching job in Toronto. Moved from Toronto to Ottawa. As a principal system, principal came back to Toronto. I became a superintendent in the rainbow board, which is Sudbury did that for about 12 years and then moved up to the new, learn new Liskeard Timmins area. And I had just started my PhD.


Sam Demma (04:07):
And what is your PhD in congratulations by the way.


Lesleigh Dye (04:11):
Thank you. I’m I’m engaged in interdisciplinary studies. I really wanted to branch out beyond education. And on my research question that hasn’t been honed yet is the relationship between collective efficacy. So that notion that by working together, we can make a difference for students and student achievement, particularly students who identify as indigenous.


Sam Demma (04:37):
That’s awesome. That’s so cool. And when you reflect back on your own journey to where you are now, did you have educators and teachers in your life that, you know, nudged you towards getting a job in this vocation? Or did you just know from a young age that you wanted to do this your whole life?


Lesleigh Dye (04:55):
So from a young age, I knew that I loved working with children. So I babysat at a very young age. I lifeguarded, I taught swimming. I was always involved with students. I think it’s probably my aunt, my auntie Pam, who in my primary grades. She, I would say she taught me to read and just knowing that she changed my life. I, that really was a motivator for me.


Sam Demma (05:22):
Hmm. That’s amazing. And you mentioned grade 10 when you first moved to Ottawa, I believe you said it was a little bit difficult. Take me back there for a moment. Like, what was it like being the new student in a new school? What was that experience like for you and how are you trying to avoid that for other students and you know, your school board now?


Lesleigh Dye (05:45):
Yeah, I have to say Sam, I found it brutal. And, and I, I mean, you can see me because we’re on video. I come with a lot of privilege. I’m white, I’m female, I’m, I’m fairly social. And so I’d never been in a, in a situation where for an entire day walking into a building. So my home, my father was the only one that wanted to move to Ottawa. So it was not a happy home in terms of, okay, here we are. No one talking to me for an entire day, except a teacher, perhaps to say, Leslie, sit down or Leslie, put your hand up and actually walking home from school, crying, thinking what, like, I, this, this can’t possibly be what high school is going to be for me. And so if I fast forward, many years later, as a teacher, as a vice principal, principal superintendent now as a director, what I’m in our schools, I say hi to everyone, every single person, I, I say, good morning. If I know the student has Korean heritage, I say, watch if it’s French immersion, I say bowl shool, and really try to just acknowledge everyone. And so that really comes from my, my grade 10 experience.


Sam Demma (07:03):
Oh, that’s awesome. That sometimes fascinates me how our own past issues turn into our inspirations so that someone else doesn’t have to go through the same experience. And it sounds like that was very similar to your own experiences and stories. What are some of the challenges that you’re currently faced with now in education? I know, you know, in front of all of us as the global pandemic, which has been a huge one, but what are some of the challenges you’ve been currently faced with and striving to overcome as a school board?


Lesleigh Dye (07:33):
I would say there are probably two, one, which has really been emphasized during the pandemic and the other one, I would say, not as much. So first of all, the mental health and wellness of our students and our staff that has always been something that we as a senior team have been aware of and are putting supports in place. Some of our students found themselves and some staff to some of our students found themselves in really challenging situations when our schools were closed physically. And we are trying to make sure that we have the supports in place for them, as well as for our staff. One of the things we put in place last year was our employee and family assistance program. So that staff have access not only for themselves but for their child or for their partner or their spouse. The other big struggle for us in DSP. One is that we have a very low graduation rate and we know, and we are working really hard, our staff, our teachers, they’re incredible. We just need to make sure that we are using all the current research in what supports students the best to move forward because we can’t be working harder. We have to figure out a way to work smarter.


Sam Demma (08:55):
That’s a really good point. I think especially because of virtual learning, it was probably challenging for a lot more students and then getting the motivation to come back in class and be social. Again, must be a little bit challenging. What are some, you mentioned one program that, you know, you ran for your staff and students, which is awesome. What are some of the other programs that you heard of schools bringing in that may have been successful in the past couple of years?


Lesleigh Dye (09:22):
So there’s a couple of things that our schools have done particularly around supporting mental health and wellbeing for students. And in many of our high schools, we have Jack chapters and that their focus is to support as you probably know, to support mental health and wellbeing. And then our students Senate with our student trustees last year for the first time ever, we’ve only, this is just your four for us, for our Senate. They in the spring put together a virtual conference, totally student-led for their classmates. And it was all about mental health and wellbeing. And the feedback from that conference from students and from staff has been incredible. I’m so proud of our student trustees for putting that all together during virtual.


Sam Demma (10:11):
That’s amazing. And so would that have been a board-wide event or was that something you did for every single school?


Lesleigh Dye (10:19):
It was for all our students grade seven to 12, and students have a choice whether or not they participated and staff had a choice. So we had a, we have a boat about 3000 secondary students. And I would say at the end of the day, we had about a thousand participate in at least one session. Oh, wow.


Sam Demma (10:37):
That’s so cool. And it run over a couple of days or was that a day long event?


Lesleigh Dye (10:42):
It was a day-long because it was the very first conference and very first virtual conference. They bred four different sessions just for one day. They felt that was enough.


Sam Demma (10:53):
That’s awesome. Oh, that’s so cool to hear, especially that it was student-led. That’s let’s give those students a round of applause. That’s awesome. Leslie, when you think back to yourself in your first year of education what are some of the pieces of advice and wisdom that you might know now that you wish you could have transferred back?


Lesleigh Dye (11:18):
That’s a great question, Sam. I often think of my first year of teaching and think, oh boy, I wish I knew. Then what I know. I think that, so I had the privilege of working with the city of York. It was king middle school, grade seven, eight, and I had a grade seven class and there was a student Jay. And every time I said, kill and Eglington, if you know the Toronto area, every time I gave the students a choice in what they would create, he always tied it back to his, where he had come from Korea. And at the time I thought, oh, that’s interesting. I didn’t appreciate in my very first year, how important cultural identity and, and country of origin. And so fast forward, about 10 years, I had the enormous privilege of being a principal at CHOC foreign public school. So we had 400 students, all the students were black except for one student.


Lesleigh Dye (12:25):
But in that group of students who are black, 50% were Somalian in terms of heritage, 25% were Trinidadi and 25% were Jamaican. And what I really learned and I, I already kind of knew, but I really learned the difference between the history and the experiences of those groups of students. So on the surface, they look like they might be similar and yet making sure as an educator that I understand and appreciate background heritage, and I would use that same example now, living in Northern Ontario in the last board where I served, we had 11 nations all over [inaudible] identity. And they were always very careful to say to me, Leslie, yes, we are on Anishinaabe land, but we are different than that nation down the road. And I really, I really understood, I know I have so much more learning to do, but that is front and center for me.


Sam Demma (13:26):
As do we all right. I think the learning is never-ending. That’s so cool that you take the time to learn those things about the different cultural heritages of the students in the school. Because even when I think back to my experiences in high school, the teachers that made the biggest impact were the ones that got to know us personally, like on a deep, deep level, and could understand our motivations and our inspirations and where we came from and where we aspire to go. So that’s a really interesting and, and, you know, cool piece of advice. You’re also someone who has done so many different roles in education. What inspires you and motivates you every day to keep going and reach higher. Right. see what you, you know, went from the principal, the superintendent to director of education. Now you’re working on a PhD. What, what keeps you going Leslie? Is it like five coffees a day?


Lesleigh Dye (14:17):
It is students. It is hearing their stories. I can remember, oh gosh, this is about 10 years ago. A student had the equity portfolio and a student had made LGBT bracelets. They’re very colourful. And he was, I think he was in grade eight at one of our schools. And I had said to the teacher, could you please let them know? I’d like to buy some. And so I bought some and I, I put it on my wrist and I sent the photo back to the teacher and she said to me, that was probably in may. And that student said, I can’t believe that Ms. DI’s wearing my bracelet. Like, I, I can’t believe that I’m going to keep coming to school till the end of the school year or even Jamal last year, our student trustee, who at the very beginning and our first board meeting, he said, miss, I, I’m not speaking. I’m terrified. I said, that’s fine. We, we want you here. And you know, you and I can have conversations later, too. He graduated from high school, he’s off to university. He’s now in his own nation. He has one of the elected position to represent youth. And he said to me, you know, I wouldn’t have never would have had the confidence to put my name forward for that position in my nation, if it hadn’t been for being a student trustee. So it is totally our students that keep making.


Sam Demma (15:39):
That’s amazing. And how do you encourage a kid to break out of that shell and get involved? Is it just as simple as tapping them on the shoulder and telling them you believe in them, or what does that process look like of helping them realize their own potential?


Lesleigh Dye (15:52):
I think it goes back to exactly what you said earlier. It’s getting to know the students. And so with Jamal knowing I know before his first student Senate meeting, he had said, you know, I’m, I’m really, I’m not feeling very comfortable about this. I think, you know, we could practice that. I have that portfolio. We, we could practice what you’re going to say ahead of time. He sent me the most beautiful, beautiful Christmas card with his family. And so I’m like, who’s, who’s in the photo. I said, I didn’t know you had so many brothers and sisters. And so he described them to me. I, I think it, and of course I’m not having that relationship with all 7,000 students because we have a thousand staff. And so when all our staff have those relationships with a few students that every single student knows that we care about,


Sam Demma (16:42):
That’s amazing. That’s such a good ratio of student to teacher, by the way, I guess that’s one of the benefits of not a small school board, but maybe slightly smaller.


Lesleigh Dye (16:54):
We would be smaller on the Ontario context. We’re on the smaller side and that thousand staff, those are our custodians, our educational, our indigenous student advisors, who all play such a key role in serving our students.


Sam Demma (17:07):
Amazing. That’s awesome. This has been a very great conversation, Leslie, thank you so much for taking the time to share a little bit about your own experiences in education. What are some of the challenges you’re faced with and how you’re overcoming them as well as some of the programs that your school has run that have worked out in the past where do you hope education will be five or 10 years from now? And this is a difficult question and, and one that I’m putting you on the spot, but I’m curious to know what your future, what you’re hoping it to look like.


Lesleigh Dye (17:39):
If I look at the one, my hope, my absolute dream is that we have every single student graduating or getting an Ontario certificate and following their positive feature story. And I know we can do it. We will definitely be in a much better place five years from now, 10 years from now honouring the important traits that some of our students are thinking, oh, that’s not for me. And yet it’s such an incredible pathway. And so I really, I know that each student through the hard work of our staff we’ll get there. We’re not there yet, but we will get there.


Sam Demma (18:19):
I love it. Awesome. Leslie, thank you again so much for coming on the show. If another educator is listening and has been inspired and maybe wants to reach out and ask a question or have a conversation, what would be the best way for them to get in touch with you?


Lesleigh Dye (18:33):
I would say the best way is through Twitter, through a private message. And so that’s @LesleighDye. I’m on Twitter probably once a day. I love to learn from colleagues and so would really be excited to meet new people.


Sam Demma (18:50):
Awesome. Again, Leslie, thank you so much. Keep up the great work and we’ll talk to you soon.


Lesleigh Dye (18:56):
Have a great day


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

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Lesleigh

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.

Manny Figueiredo – Director of Education at the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board

Manny Figueiredo, director of education HWDSB
About Manny Figueiredo

Manny Figueiredo (@manuel__fig) became Director of Education at Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada on August 1, 2015. Manny has more than 25 years of teaching experience. He began his career as an Educational Assistant in a secondary school and then taught grades 4, 5, 7 and 8 in the Waterloo region.

He spent his time as a school administrator in Hamilton, where he became focused on building learning communities that used data to improve instruction, assessment and culture. He led work to enhance blended learning while an Executive Superintendent at
HWDSB.

As Director of Education, he proudly implements a set of strategic priorities that include Positive Culture and Well-being, Student Learning and Achievement, Effective Communication, School Renewal and Partnerships.

He is honoured to have led HWDSB as it built on these priorities to launch an Equity Action Plan, which envisions a culture shift built on recognizing and critically challenging historically built-in inequalities and injustices that contribute to inequitable outcomes in education.

Connect with Manny: Email | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

The Hamilton Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA)

Hamilton school board director leaving to lead local YMCA as president-CEO

Crises as Learning Triggers: Exploring a Conceptual Framework of Crisis-Induced Learning

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the high-performing educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is Manny Figueiredo Manny became the director of education at the Hamilton Wentworth district school board in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, on August 1st, 2015. Manny has more than 25 years of teaching experience. He began his career as an educational assistant in a secondary school, and then taught grade four or five, seven and eight in the Waterloo region. He spent his time as a school administrator in Hamilton, where he became focused on building learning communities that use data to improve instruction, assessment and culture. He led work to enhance blended learning while an executive superintendent at the Hamilton went with district school board as director of education.


Sam Demma (01:02):
He proudly implements a set of strategic priorities that include positive culture and wellbeing, student learning and achievement, effective communication, school, renewal, and partnerships. He is honored to have led the Hamilton Wentworth district school board, as it built on these priorities to launch an equity action plan, which envisions a culture shift built on recognizing and critically changing historically built in inequities and injustices that contribute to inequitable outcomes and education. I hope you enjoy this in-depth conversation with Manny and I will see you on the other side, Manny, welcome to the high-performing educator podcast. A pleasure to have you on the show here today. Please start by introducing yourself.


Manny Figueiredo (02:10):
Yeah, Sam, my pleasure. Thank you. My name is Manny Figueiredo and I live in Hamilton and Hamiltonian who grew up in Cambridge and a child of immigrants, family who came from the ASRS and in the mid sixties grew up in Cambridge and studied at McMaster university kinesiology and entered into education in 93, 94 as an educational assistant in Kitchener and then 95 became a teacher. And then in 2002, I moved to Hamilton where I was fortunate enough to become a vice principal, then principal and I hold the current job as director of education for the Hamilton Wentworth School board since September of 2015. So I’m entering into my year in this privileged role.


Sam Demma (03:01):
That’s awesome. I actually wanted to get into kinesiology when I was still an athlete and I applied to everywhere, Mac Queens Waterloo, and like a bunch of different universities. I’m curious to know what, what stopped you from getting into something more related to kinesiology as opposed to teaching or what directed you towards teaching?


Manny Figueiredo (03:21):
Yeah. Great question Sam. So, you know, when I was in high school, I was confused on what I wanted to do. So I, I loved athletics. I love sports, but I also love music. I hack around with guitar. I love the arts, I love everything, but I was inspired by some teachers who really encouraged me to teach and I loved young and I loved kids as well and young kids. So, but when I went to Mac, I knew I wanted to teach. I knew for sure I wanted to teach, but when I graduated, I didn’t get into a faculty of education my first year. So I actually took a job at the YMCA in Cambridge as a full-time program supervisor. So it actually reinforced that I wanted to teach because I was overseeing not only adult programs, fitness, recreation, but I was also overseeing youth camps, youth leadership programs. So that was then the following year I went to York university and I still work part-time at the Y. But when I landed a permanent job in teaching, I still volunteered at the Y for about five and six years to stay connected as a fitness instructor. So I figured I could sort of pursue both of my passions of fitness as well as as education. And that’s sort of where I landed education, but it was really inspired by some key teachers in my career.


Sam Demma (04:43):
You mentioned before we hit the record button, you hear that growing up, you played sports and sports were one avenue that kept you in school. And you had some really key teachers at that young age who I would, I would assume believed in you and maybe things weren’t going so well. Maybe bring us back there for a second and tell me more about that experience growing up and also what those teachers did that had such a significant impact on your progression.


Manny Figueiredo (05:07):
Yeah, my reflect upon what, you know, sort of drives me and motivates me, I think back as a student and I really did enjoy elementary school. And I think now what I’ve learned from that and think about the newcomers that have come into our communities. So for me, Portuguese was my spoken language at home. When I went to school, I spoke English, I didn’t speak English. And so the resource in supports weren’t there like they are today and a lot of the curriculum content wasn’t culturally relevant to me. So I couldn’t make the connections to the curriculum, to the, to the literature because it wasn’t my lived experience living as a, as a child of immigrant parents who spoke Portuguese and you know, my parents who are still with me today, we’re only, we’re only able to be educated to a grade three. So, but the turning point for me was my grade seven teacher and Mr.


Manny Figueiredo (06:10):
Dowling and he called me last year, ironic Mr. Dowling. he understood my lived experience and what do I mean by that? He was an immigrant. He was from Jamaica and he understood what island life was like, what it was like for immigrants to come here, who, you know, who, who were blue collar workers who left their home country due to oppression and poverty. And he spent the time he has a caring adult who said, Hey, Figueiredo smart, knock, figure it out, come see me after school, I can give you some extra math, help, figure it out. Are you getting involved in sports and athletics? So grade seven is what I joined the basketball team and started to really become engaged because if it wasn’t for school athletics or school extracurricular, my parents just didn’t have the means to pay for me to be involved in community sports.


Manny Figueiredo (07:10):
So so high school athletics and extracurricular were key to keeping me engaged. And because of that my grade seven teacher, and then later, Mr. Anderson, when I went to grab you park in Cambridge was my grade 10 teacher. He also said what’s your pathway? What are you thinking? And I didn’t know, because what I saw around Portuguese males in my town was many of them went to 16 and went to work in construction or they might’ve gone to become auto mechanics, but he would always remind me is explore all options. All pathways are available to you and don’t let people pigeonhole you into pathways that might not be matched to your skills or your passion or interests. So I always look back at Mr. Dowling and grade seven, and then Mr. Anderson in grade 10, that really were the caring adults and educators in my life that helped me navigate because my parents who sacrificed so much had to work, they worked shifts, they’re blue collar workers, and they could navigate the system. And one of the reasons they didn’t have that lived experience and nor could they speak the language.


Sam Demma (08:23):
Time was probably a barrier. You know, like my dad still tells me stories about my own grandfather, who as well, came over from Italy on the boat. And he worked at GM and he, you know, he would do a night shift. So you would be sleeping with my dad. And when my, when his son, my dad got home and the only time they would have dinners Friday nights at 2:00 AM, when my, my grandfather would wake up all the kids to eat a pizza that he brought home, you know? And so I totally understand the situation that makes a lot of sense. Those two teachers sound like they had a pivotal role in your life. You mentioned that one of them, you last week, what was that conversation like?


Manny Figueiredo (08:58):
It was actually last year, sorry, last year, sorry, last school year, which was in this past spring I got a call the office here and my assistant said, do you know Mr. Dowling? And I said, yeah, my, my grade seven teacher from Cambridge. Wow. She said, yeah, he left a message. He saw you on some news, clipping, Googled your name and he wanted to touch base with you. So we spoke. And he was so proud, but it gave me a chance to show my appreciation and to let him know the impact he had on my life at a very pivotal transformational time as a young adolescent. And he inspired me and reminded me that I said to him, you reminded me that no job is below. You remember that from your parents as immigrants, no job is below you. And no job is above you. Don’t let people limit. You put boundaries around you. So we had a conversation and we said with COVID is over this fall, we’re going to get together and have have breakfast face to face. So I’m looking forward to that.


Sam Demma (10:03):
It’s amazing. And roughly how many years would it have been?


Manny Figueiredo (10:08):
I know you’re going to ask that I was actually fricking that I, I, you know, I’ll be 51 next month. Okay. And so when I was a great seven, I would have been 12. So we’re talking 39 39 years ago.


Sam Demma (10:22):
So, and I asked you that not to ask your age, but I asked you that because sometimes in education, we think they’re supposed to be this instant ROI, make an impact on a kid, hear about it right away. It took your teacher 39 years to hear about, you know, the impact that he, that he had on you. And I think it’s so important to realize that in education, our role is to plant the seed and water the seed. And sometimes we don’t see it grow for a long period of time, but that doesn’t mean it’s not growing, right?


Manny Figueiredo (10:51):
No, I, but you make a great point. You know, the return on investment. I always tell educators, you are making a difference. What difference are you making? Sometimes you don’t see the fruit of your labor in the moment, but everything we say we do, our kids are watching us as role models and rightfully so they should be we’re educators. We made this choice to be professionals. So sometimes you don’t know the, you don’t see the immediate impact, but there’s always a long-term impact. Make sure it’s a positive one.


Sam Demma (11:27):
Yeah. So true. And you mentioned that Mr. Anderson was one of the first teachers who kind of challenged you and asked you, Hey what is your future pathway look like? And in the moment you weren’t really certain about something. And at a young age, we get asked that question a lot. I find that as we grow up, people, stop asking us what your pathway is because they think that you’re in it, you know? And you’re obviously someone who continued, you know, pursuing different pathways and moved from teaching to administration. So how did you continue navigating your career pathway and how did it evolve to where it is now?


Manny Figueiredo (12:03):
Yeah, you know, I tell my, my own children. I tell everyone mentors always have people to talk to doesn’t matter what age. So I recall when I went to Mac, I teaching with something I thought I wanted to do. So I had someone I knew who was a teacher and every Friday afternoon I began to volunteer in their classroom. I did have classes to see if this was what I wanted and that person as of today, or we’re still friends, he’s retired, but he was a mentor for me. But then when I went, graduated and I wasn’t fortunate enough to get into teacher’s college or the faculty of education my first year, either, you know, I participate as a, at the YMCA. I was there as an adolescent. I could play basketball. And I did a bit of a co-op placement there in one of my courses.


Manny Figueiredo (12:59):
So I thought I would reach out and I landed a job there. And I had, I had a mentor through the Y organization that I’m a big fan of the Y only because I worked there, but because I also, as a youth, it was a safe place that my parents could afford for. I could go shoot hoops. Right. but throughout my career, I’ve always had critical friends. What I mean by that critical friends or mentors who are going to guide you, but also give you some pretty objective feedback when things aren’t going well. So if I could send one message, we’re never too young or too old to have critical friends or mentors. And sometimes that is your parents, but sometimes in my case, my parents provided a great loving environment, but they could help me navigate because it wasn’t their experience. So who else could I reach out and take a risk and ask to mentor me and provide some guidance. So that’s been key in my life and it is still key today. As I have critical people, who’ve been directors of education, current ones, the ones who’ve retired, who continue to be there as mentors to provide guidance.


Sam Demma (14:05):
You raised a smart point, right? It makes me think about you know, airplane pilots, you know, a pilot would want to seek the counsel or mentorship from another pilot. You know, they wouldn’t ask a passenger. Hey, can you help me fly the plane? So yeah, you’re right. There are certain mentors who could help a lot. You know, there might be an educator listening to this right now thinking that sounds great Manny, but how do you find those people? How did you find them in your experience?


Manny Figueiredo (14:32):
Yeah. You know, I have, I find them like, you have to be intentional and sometimes you have to take a risk. So when I thought I want to teach, I went to the local school and said, Hey, do you accept volunteers? And, and I was placed in a classroom for a teacher who was willing to have me as a volunteer on Friday afternoon. So I maintain the relationship, right. I’ve volunteered in his classroom for four years. So I maintain the relationship. So I think that’s a key and, and, you know, you have to take a bit of a risk and go outside your comfort zone at times. And, and sometimes you might need another adult when you’re young to, to guide you. And sometimes that’s what teachers are can do as well. Sometimes it might think of the high school students to teachers can be that connection or that navigator to, to someone who might be a mentor in a different sector. Right.


Sam Demma (15:27):
So that makes sense. That makes a lot of sense and education right now as a whole, it looks a little different than it did three years ago, two years ago. Just because of the global pandemic, what are some of the things that, or challenges that you think the schools in your board are faced with right now? And how are, how are you striving to overcome those challenges?


Manny Figueiredo (15:48):
Yeah, I think that the most obvious one that every organization is dealing with, but especially education is you know, digital, remote learning. So we were fortunate in Hamilton prior to the pandemic. About seven years ago, we started to really push the teaching needs to be blended. And what I mean by blended is that if we live and work in the physical and digital world, we need to teach and learn in the physical and digital world. So we had a provision already in our school board when students with a device and our, and our secondary teachers. So when students entered grade nine, they were provisioned with a iPad that they would carry forward until they graduated, because we really believed that a blended learning had to occur would provide a bit more flexibility. Sure. You have to come in school, but we know the reality of life that some students might miss a class, do the athletics, extra curriculars or a part-time job.


Manny Figueiredo (16:49):
And if there’s a hub or a learning management system where things can be posted where they could access in case they miss the lesson, then there’ll be some continuity of learning. So now that was accelerated when last year we had around 9,000 students in elementary, where a district of 50,000 students chose remote. But what it forced us to do through feedback from parents was to say, Hey, standardized your platforms. I can’t have three kids on different platforms depending on, on the educators choice. So we did, we, we already had the hub, which is Brightspace desire to learn. We had that as an LMS, but then Microsoft teams was second. And now, as we entered this year, every teacher’s classroom was not only set up in the physical world as teachers do. We made sure through our infrastructure, that students’ names were attached to the virtual Microsoft teams classrooms.


Manny Figueiredo (17:43):
So it was by default it’s there, it’s ready to go. So whether the student this year chose remote and we have around 2000 this year, that the blended learning is there. If a child misses a class due to illness, or if a child has to self isolate now for 10 days, because they’re determined to close contact, because then they can continue their learning because the classrooms already set up. So that was always our vision. So we took advantage of the opportunity. Sure. There were challenges. And what we hear from our teachers is a lot of support was provided around the technical aspects of it. So thumbs up, but where we need to focus more is now, what is the pedagogical practice look like? What does effective teaching look like on these platforms versus in the physical world? So that’s the power of teacher networks. That’s where we get teachers to share best practices. So that’s a bit of our focus this year is to keep on leveraging those best practices from our educators.


Sam Demma (18:43):
In those moments where you feel burnt out. You know, there’s a lot of educators listening who had a tough two years. And I think in those deepest moments, the thing that keeps most people going is remembering why they do this. It’s like, you know, you know, what is the motivation and the purpose behind the work we’re doing here. And I’m curious to know yours, you know, what is the thing that keeps you motivated every single day to pursue this work and solve the problems as they come up?


Manny Figueiredo (19:09):
Yeah. And I I’m, I’m glad you mentioned around mental health and wellbeing educators too. So, you know, for myself personally, it was a diff it’s been a difficult 15 months. So going back to mentors, you need to find a place to vent. And, you know, my wife is a teacher, so I’d see her. I had a learning loud at home every day. She teaches court French and had 150 students that she had to support each day. So for me, a place to vent, right? Where’s that place I can vent. And I, it also forced me to say, be patient with yourself. You know, I’m a big believer of conceptual frame frameworks to manage change and where we are in a crisis. So we can’t ask for perfection when we’re in a crisis. So we need to be patient with ourselves and realize that things are going to change.


Manny Figueiredo (20:02):
And that we as organizational type, sometimes need to bring some stability by managing the multiple priorities coming from all different inputs. But for me, it was a reminder to myself to be patient, find some time to disconnect, you know, away from the screen. And, you know, for me, because of my fitness kinesiology background, it reminded me of importance of being physically active as much as possible during this time, not just for my physical body, but for my, for my mental health as well. But your question of the why I think I shared with you the stories of my parents as immigrants and my sisters who were immigrants as well, and their journey reminds me that education is an equalizer. It has to be an equalizer at times. It’s not, at times it has systemic practice that actually disproportionately impacts students, but we have to continue to challenge those systems and those structures because public education is it’s been key in my life. And I know that many newcomers who choose Canada, it’s one of the foundations of why they choose Canada is because of the opportunity through public education.


Sam Demma (21:22):
Yeah, it’s so true. So, so true. I think that’s why, especially, so in immigrant families, education is a very high value, you know my grandparents like, oh, the priority in their household was always school and that’s what got them out of poverty per se. And it’s so true. I think you’ve raised some really good points. If you could bundle up all your, you know, wisdom and experience and advice and, you know, walk into a classroom and instantly teleport 39, not 39 years back with back to your first year of teaching and speak to younger Manny, like knowing what you know now, what advice and feedback would you give your younger self to set yourself up for some success?


Manny Figueiredo (22:09):
That’s a great question. So if I could go back and speak to a younger version of me when I was 24 years old entering into my first permanent position. Yeah. Yeah. I think the first piece of advice I’d give myself is remembered to always be student-centered. In other words, there’s a lot of curriculum to cover, but you’re not a teacher is not about teaching a curriculum, a teacher’s about meeting the needs of kids and matching the curriculum to their needs. So I remember when I felt overwhelmed the first year or two is how do I cover everything until I gain more experience and said, you know, I can integrate things, get to know your students, what are their needs? Don’t let the curriculum be the driver, let the student be the driver.


Sam Demma (23:00):
Wow. That’s a great piece of advice. I love the way you kind of phrase that yeah. Meet the needs of the students and then match the curriculum to the students’ needs. That’s that’s powerful. Manny, if someone’s listening to this and they’ve enjoyed the conversation they love some of your philosophies and education and they just want to reach out what would be the best way for them to kind of get in touch with you.


Manny Figueiredo (23:25):
Yeah. They can just send an email mfigueir@hwdsb.on.ca to me or reach out on Twitter @manuel__fig they’ll see on Twitter. I’d love to connect.


Sam Demma (23:50):
Sounds great. Awesome. Again, Manny, thank you so much for coming on the show today. Really appreciate your time. Keep up the great work. And I look forward to talking to you again soon.


Manny Figueiredo (23:58):
Yeah. Thank you, Sam, for taking the time as well. My pleasure.


Sam Demma (24:01):
And there you have it. Another amazing guest and amazing interview on the high performing educator podcast. As always, if you enjoyed these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review. So other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show. If you want to meet the guest on today’s episode, if you want to meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network, you’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not feel your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Manny

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.

Aubrey Patterson – 30-Year Teacher, Principal, Superintendent & Founder of Warm Demanders

Aubrey Patterson, CEO Warm Demanders
About Aubrey Patterson

Aubrey Patterson (@PattersonAubrey) spent 30 years as a teacher, principal, and superintendent in a high-performing school district. Today, he is the CEO and Founder of Warm Demanders, an educational consulting company that provides coaching and online programs. Their goal is to help leaders build a high-impact remarkable culture, provide clarity with a smile, and find the time for the things that matter most!

Aubrey works with leaders to effectively use technology to develop structures and procedures as the means to improve learning conditions for teachers and students. To this end, Aubrey has developed highly regarded systems to recapture time and provide for exceptional communications.

These systems, like the extensive induction, formative job descriptions, truly collaborative meetings, and professional learning programs for teachers and administrators, are built upon three distinct leadership stages that much like dominoes, fall in succession: simplify, clarify and amplify. For more information go to: WarmDemanders.com

Connect with Aubrey: Email | Linkedin | Website | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

The Principals Seminar

Simon Sinek’s TEDx Talk

David Allen; Getting Things Done (book)

Getting to Inbox Zero

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 (00:03):
Aubrey, welcome to the high-performing educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here today. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and also sharing a little bit behind your journey? What brought you to do the work you’re doing today?


Aubrey Patterson (00:15):
Yeah. Well, that’s great to be here, Sam. Thank you for having me here today. Yeah, I’ve was a teacher and a coach and a principal and eventually a superintendent and I had like all these different roles in education and, you know, absolutely loved it. And I did that until 2017. And then after that time, I, you know, wanted to make some different dance in the universe. And so I, I started creating some, some new opportunities for people with with our educational companies. Nohea, and principal seminar were the first couple, but the main thing that, that I focus on right now is Warm Demanders that’s our, our newest company and, we help mostly school and district administrators you know, with their, with their day to day functions.


Sam Demma (01:12):
That’s awesome. Where did the, where did the passion come from or what was like the Eureka moment when you were going down the teaching path that you decided to make different dents and, and how did you kind of develop the courage to make the jump?


Aubrey Patterson (01:29):
Well it, when we go through like go through it, a teaching career, we, we always talk about growth mindset, the growth mindset ideals. And we talk about this all the time and it’s become kind of cliche, but if you really want to, you know, embrace those kinds of ideals, you have to be willing to take a, take a risk. You have to be willing to fail forward. And man, I’ve done a lot of that. And and, and honestly, I just never really had a problem with making mistakes. And I used to encourage them with the, with the people around me. So taking a leap, isn’t a, a difficult thing for me, it’s actually, you know, taking a leap and then sticking with things and trying to make that really big damp, that thing that will, that will really, you know, imprint success and, and pathways upon the people that we think we serve.


Sam Demma (02:25):
Oh, it’s amazing. I love that. And what, like, what is the principal seminar and Nohea and explain maybe the name behind the years? Cause I know it has an interesting backstory.


Aubrey Patterson (02:36):
Yeah. So my, one of my passions, like I have this deep belief that, that especially principals and also superintendents, assistant superintendents, like, like all of these people are so encumbered by all of the stuff that comes at them. Day-To-Day and it’s really unfair because everybody wants to have deep conversations with their people and everybody wants to have this amazing school culture. But they just can’t get there because there’s just so much stuff that comes at them. And a lot of that happens right at the front doors and often at the front office. So originally when I was looking to, to try, you know, help some people out, we started focusing on the school office and I spent a lot of time in, in Hawaii, especially in Maui and love a lot of the Hawaiian, the Polynesian ideals, and no Hayah is kind of like you know, everybody’s familiar with the Aloha spirit.


Aubrey Patterson (03:40):
It’s like the Aloha spirit plus leadership, like strong leadership. And, and what I really love about it is that it, it, it really allows you to be kind, and at the same time, you can be, you know, fanatically meticulous about systems and details and things like that. So it allows those, those people who, you know, like to get things done, to also be able to smile during the day. So know, Hey, I was focused on the school offices, principals seminar was, and is focused on new principals, helping new principals, but all of that has kind of evolved into our largest entity, which is warm demanders. And that’s where we have actually taken over those, those particular courses and brands and put them into this package to, to help all school and district leaders. And, and of course, warm demanders is kind of just as it sounds, we help people who, who want to be true to themselves in every part of their lives. You can be nice and be the principal. You can be kind to people and be really firm. You can, you know, be there for all the right reasons and love the kids and do all that stuff and still be very careful and with your processes and things like that. So anyway I see what you do, Sam. I just go on and on about this stuff. Once you get me started.


Sam Demma (05:09):
Hey, that’s why I brought you here today. I want you to continue speaking so warm demanders. What does the company do? Is it, is it solely providing courses consulting? Like if you had to explain it to a principal or a superintendent listening right now, how would you explain the whole organization?


Aubrey Patterson (05:30):
Yeah, so, so we, we do have multiple courses that, that we’ve released. We just opened up the doors in may. We’ve been overwhelmed with a huge, huge response with it. It’s, you know, it’s asynchronous learning at its best. And so that’s been really, really helpful, but like, that’s, that’s the courses, but we also do one-to-one coaching and that’s probably 60% of what we’re doing right now is one-to-one coaching virtually helping, helping school and district administrators you know, to, to get through all of the, the things they need to meander through in the, in these crazy times. And then we also provide these menus of you know, one stop shopping for, for schools and districts, where they can have an abundance of courses, you know, one click access for teachers or for administrators, et cetera. There’s a, there’s a lot there.


Aubrey Patterson (06:31):
So ultimately I would just kind of sum it up with everything is focused on helping people who want to be warm demander leaders. It is not focused in any way upon a traditional educational leadership where there’s a lot of hierarchy or there’s a lot of bureaucracy. I spend most of my time helping people get through the bureaucracy, get rid of the bureaucracy all of that, that kind of a thing. I’ve found a lot of success with it, both as the principal and a superintendent. And, and I like to help people, you know, with those kinds of things. And, and I honestly, it just finds that a lot of people don’t know which domino to flip over first. Right. And once we get them started, it’s, it’s just amazing. I just love it. Ultimately I, I love the one-to-one coaching the most, just love it.


Sam Demma (07:31):
I love that. That’s amazing. I want to selfishly go back to Maui and Hawaii for a second in my mind. So let me ask you, like what brought you out there and how were you exposed to these ideas of Nokia and this type of leadership?


Aubrey Patterson (07:51):
I honestly, I just got there like many people from some friends recommendations and then I stayed there longer and longer, more and more. I’ve always had an affinity to to hang out in, in Hawaii, like who doesn’t right, but like Hawaii and Southern California for whatever reason we do, I would say 70, 75% of our contacts right now are coming from the west coast. And there’s a particular vibe that really, that we really resonate with. And that I think that, that we give off in our, in our work that is, you know, with that warm and friendly part. And that part that you can be, you know, true to yourself in every, in every part of your life. And I think that’s what actually appeals to me the most about, about Hawaii, about, about many of the cultures that I, that I love is, you know, you can be the same person at home hanging out with your friends or, you know, leading a school or a school district. Like you should be able to always be comfortable in your skin. And I found that those ideals really allowed that. And and that’s where I kinda got, I don’t know, that’s where we got the vibe, that’s where we got the whole concept of, of know-how and you know, probably we would have called that first company Aloha, but, you know, that’s been used


Sam Demma (09:23):
And it didn’t go with that main stream. Right,


Aubrey Patterson (09:25):
Right.


Sam Demma (09:27):
That’s awesome. And when you were growing up, I want to, I want to go back for a second. Did you know that you wanted to get an initially into education and become a teacher superintendent and principal, or were you kind of steered down that path by other people in your life?


Aubrey Patterson (09:44):
Yes, I did. I, well, I knew that I wanted to coach my, my dad is, was an amazing teacher and basketball coach. Like he was, you know, won multiple provincial titles. He’s that, that guy that everybody loved in the community, he was a fantastic role model. And I, and I want it to be that, you know, I want it to be just like that. And at the same time I did quite well in school. I wasn’t a typical student that you know, that does well, that is, is studying a lot. And all that things came easy to me. I was just really lucky for, with that. And, and so I had a lot of people actually telling me, oh, you shouldn’t be a teacher when I wanted to be a teacher. And those people were encouraging me to go into business or to go into, you know be a lawyer, be a doctor, be these other things.


Aubrey Patterson (10:38):
And I listened to them at the start. And so my first year in university, I was in, I was in business and, and I did really well with the marks and all that. Like I loved that I was on the Dean’s list, but I hated it. And I quickly switched into education and everything felt right. And so and you know, from there, I was just really, really lucky to have fantastic role models when I was becoming a, a new teacher. And then I got to meet all these people that were like incredible leaders. And I said, huh, I think I could do that too. And I could, you know, and I keep on going and, and, and it was the same with coaching. I’d be coaching basketball. And I was around all these fantastic basketball coaches that just wanted to be better at it. And so that’s always been something for me is to, to see people that I’d like to emulate the qualities or the values that they have that I’d like to emulate, or that I’d like to, to grow. And, and, and that’s always, what’s been, been driving me.


Sam Demma (11:39):
Where does your principles come from? You mentioned earlier that failure is something you encourage and you want to fail fast and you want to fail quicker. Was that something that your dad instilled in you growing up or people in your life, or maybe a coach R where, yeah. Where did that come from? Because I feel like it’s such an important lesson, but not only high school administrators or any school administrator, that’s something that they need to embrace as well, but it’s hard to embrace. I find sometimes for all human beings.


Aubrey Patterson (12:09):
Yeah. Like I like, honestly, I, I think I, I got that. Yeah, definitely from my dad, but also from, from all of the coaches that I had when I was in, in school. You know, I was, again, really lucky to be in in some fantastic athletics programs, you know, as a player. And, and we always knew, like, for example, in baseball, you’re, you’re going to fail. If you fail 70% of the time, like you’re, you’re doing really well, like, like black junior right now is, you know, failing 680% of the time. You know, when he’s batting and he’s, he’s, you know, leading the league, like, like it’s just, it’s, it’s just part of getting better and it’s, it’s just what we have to do. And, and so I’ve always been comfortable with that concept. I know it’s become really cliche to say things like fail forward in that now, of course.


Aubrey Patterson (13:06):
But I’ve actually heard that for a long, long time. And, and I always encourage it and people, I know there’s a, there’s a guy that I hired years ago as a teacher. He came over from from a district close to us and, and he came up to me the very first day, you know, when he was kind of like an opening days thing. And he said where, what’s your number one word of advice. And I, and I had known him fairly well in the community is a great guy. And and I said, make a lot of mistakes the next time I see you, I’m going to ask you to tell me about your mistakes. And he started laughing and he said, no, really what? And I said, no, seriously, like, it didn’t make a lot of mistakes. Like I want you to make a lot of mistakes. And if, because we didn’t bring you over here to play it safe. And, and so anyway, he, he tells me all the time now that I’ve been gone for quite a while, and that when I bumped into him on the street, he’ll say, I’m still making lots of mistakes. I’m still making lots of mistakes. And so honestly, I think I was really lucky to have people encourage me to make mistakes. And I’ve just really always embraced that I’ve been comfortable with it.


Sam Demma (14:14):
Yeah, I like that. I love it a lot. And you mentioned before we even started this call, that one of the trainings you did when you were growing up was the seven, the seven habits with Stephen Covey. Where does your, your endless curiosity you continue learning come from? And do you think that’s like an important attribute of not only being an educator, but you know, someone who’s working with young people?


Aubrey Patterson (14:39):
Yeah, no, I, I, I’ve always been fascinated with how things happen, like the algorithms of how things happen. And like I love for example I think it was back in what, 2008, 2009 originally when Simon Sineck was first doing his Ted talk and talking about my why, and you know, where the, why came out in the whole, the whole thing of the golden circles and talking about apple and all of that. And that’s kind of been, become cliche for people to say, you know, what’s my why instead of saying, what’s my mission, what’s my, why I’m not against that. Please don’t get me wrong. I, I use it to what, what I’m saying is people are so focused on it that they often forget the importance of how and when, who, and where, and when we’re actually serving people, taking care of people, clarity is kindness, especially in difficult times like we’re facing right now.


Aubrey Patterson (15:34):
People really need clarity when they’re scared, when they’re nervous, they want, they’re looking for that, that step. It’s like when you jump into the deep end of the swimming pool for the first time, when you’re a little kid it’s exciting and you’re happy. And it’s like, look at me. And you’re in there about three seconds and you’re reaching for the side, you’re reaching for something solid. People want that clarity. And I think that clarity is exposed with the how, when, who, what, where, and again, I am not diminishing the why part at all, like completely believe that I love it. It’s a great starting point, but I’ve always been fascinated in the algorithm. The, if this, then that the how part, and that’s what I work with people on all the time is, and that, you know, we S we always say, we can save you anywhere from 10 to 20 hours or so 10 to 20 minutes in a day.


Aubrey Patterson (16:32):
And when we add up that amount of time, that, that adds up into like 6,000 minutes in a year, a hundred hours, you know, like and it’s really easy because we just have to go through and look at the algorithm and get really scientific with it. So going back to your original, what, you know, where did I get excited about all this kind of stuff? I was always fascinated with what led to that, you know, and in basketball, we would, we would put on a, you know, a press, a full court press. And I was always interested in, you know, what caused the turnover, you know, both as a player and as a coach. And typically it wasn’t actually the trap that on the ball that, that, you know, came that most people were focused upon. It was the, if this then that’s around it like that, that, that person had no place to pass. No, because you know, all of these other things happen. So anyway, you know, I’ve, I’ve always been fascinated by, by the how, by the way, the dominoes fall. And it just gets me to dig into things all the time. See, you just sent me down that rabbit hole. Again, I love the algorithm. Rabbit hole is my favorite. Then know,


Sam Demma (17:49):
Because you have a phenomenal mailing list, then you share algorithm type content through it all the time. And you do have like the free videos and tech tips on your website. That really helped me with the tabs that you told me to subscribe to. So like, if you had to give some quick organizational tips, things that you think need to be known and make the biggest ROI instantly what are like a couple of little things that you’d recommend people look into or educators


Aubrey Patterson (18:23):
For sure. Well, I, I love the research of David Allen who originally wrote, he wrote getting things done. And so, you know, 30, 40% of what I teach is based upon David Allen’s work or his, his original research and his, his most famous concept is the two minute rule. So if you can do something in two minutes, unless, you know, it’s rude, like, you know, you get up from a conversation or dinner and run through something and a while you’re, you’re, he should, you gotta be present with people, right. But if you can do something in two minutes, you should, because it will take you more time to file it away and bring it back. Then it would you know, just to do it in, in that two minutes. So most often, you know, we’ll, we’ll refer to email when we talk about this.


Aubrey Patterson (19:10):
So if you get something in your inbox and you take a look at it, and it’s, it’s gonna take you less than two minutes, if you can take the two minutes right now, we’ll do it. Cause it’ll take you more time to put it away and bring it back after. But that’s not only the reason that you do this with the two minute rule, because it also breaks your chain of thought in the future. It breaks your, your focus to have to go back and redo the, all these little things. And so all of these, you know, five seconds, 20 seconds, one minute here and there add up, but they don’t just add up to time. They add up in giving you an opportunity to focus better. And so my favorite or my second favorite tip is the two-minute rule. No matter what, if you can do it in less than two minutes, if you can, whether it’s email, whether it’s, you know, picking up a dish and putting it in the dishwasher, you know, whatever it is like day-to-day life or work, you know, you can do it less than two minutes, do it.


Aubrey Patterson (20:12):
This, my favorite tip is the next best action rule, which is have all of your subject lines in your email, in your things to do lists in your notes, in the posts that you write yourself, have every subject line begin with a verb with an action, and then you will always hit the ground running when you restart with that. So, for example, if I send you, if I write down on a, on a posted, you know mum’s birthday, you know, and if I just write down mom’s birthday and I come back to that a week later, I have to think, what, why did I write down mom’s birthday? Of course, I know her mom’s birthday is coming up, but am I getting her a present? Do I need to get something? Do I need to call my brother? Do I need to arrange something? Do I have to get some time off? What, why did I write down mom’s birthday? Now, the simple fact that I just wasted 20 seconds asking myself that is a problem. That’s a time problem, but I’ve also broken my train of thought on whatever else I was working on at that particular time. What if instead on that post-it I took the extra two seconds and wrote, get mom a present


Aubrey Patterson (21:29):
Order. Mom’s cake, no, start with that verb. What if I sent you an email Sam? And instead of saying podcasts in the email, but if I, instead I said reschedule podcast, because I’ve got a problem, then we can see, you know, the action that’s going with it. When we pick up that email or when we pick up that posted, or when we pick up that item in the things to do is we can, we can hit the ground running with it and we can keep our ideas flowing all the time. So what we’ve done is we’ve created an algorithm to keep her, our ideas flowing simply by using a verb at the end, in all of our emails and in all of our things to do. And we pass this gift on to other people you know, in emails and calendar invites, et cetera, by using, by using over. So that’s the next best action or what’s my next best action by mama cake? You know,


Sam Demma (22:27):
I love that. And when you do the, you mentioned that 60% of the work you do is with a one-on-one coaching. What aspect of the coaching do you enjoy the most? Like selfishly? Like what part of the journey of the teaching? Like what lessons do you enjoy sharing the most?


Aubrey Patterson (22:44):
Oh man, I’m going to sh when we get off the podcast here, I’m going to show you that what I get is I get a lot of texts. And so selfishly, because this puts a lot of fuel in my engine. I get, I get at least two or three texts a month that say something like, and I got this one, two nights ago, so I’m, I’ll show it to you after we got here, I got, I got this one from from a superintendent in California and it’s, and he just said, I got down from 25,000 emails to zero in 30 minutes because we have a system to do that right. To get to inbox, Sarah. And, and he went through one of the videos and I was coaching him on that kind of stuff. And he just said, I had the best sleep ever.


Aubrey Patterson (23:32):
Like he used just so happy. And it’s not that we should be so fanatical about inbox zero. I am. I like that because you don’t want to have your focus, be your email all the time. And that too. However, if you’re always worried about missing something or you’re wasting time going back into messages, or, you know, all of those kinds of things, which happens to a lot of great leaders, like they, this guy is a fantastic leader, but he he’s a fantastic leader at the expense of his own peace of mind. And, and this, this inbox, like he literally, he showed me, he had over 25,000 emails in his inbox, like aside from the technical problem, with that, like with this computer restarts and running through all of those multiple PowerPoints of that, that he’s got in there, right aside from that, it was driving him crazy.


Aubrey Patterson (24:23):
And, and so we worked on that last week and I referred him to one of our courses called manage chart lead easy that, that has that, that algorithm in it. And you know how to start with the two minute rule and to work through those things. Well, we start with inbox zero and he was so excited. And so selfishly, I love getting the texts that say I got to inbox zero, and I get a lot of those. And, and I just know that, that, you know, these people just feel so good about it. And I just, yeah, that’s just, that’s what I love the most is, is when somebody transfers those, those wonderful feelings, just with a nice text. Yeah.


Sam Demma (25:08):
I love that. Thanks for sharing that. I, that’s a cool story. Putting on your superintendent hat one, one more time for one quick, last question. Like if you could go back in time and give younger Aubrey advice when you were still in that role. But knowing what you know now, like what, you know, a couple of pieces of advice, would you give your younger self with the experience you have now?


Aubrey Patterson (25:33):
Yeah, no, I that’s. That’s a good one. I actually go back on that. I actually think about this a lot because I see the successes of all these people that I’m working with. And I think, oh man, am I on my best day? I didn’t do what you’re doing on in your everyday. Like, like, so I see these people doing these things. So I have a lot of, I wish I had a redo on this and this and this. And I, I did spend a lot of time in the schools and I did spend a lot of time, you know, working with principals and, and, and teachers on, on a variety of things. But if I had a, if I had a redo on it, I’d actually, I’d spend more time with the people that, that are impacting the teachers the most. And in our district that in our division, that was like the instructional coaches and the tech coaches and the people like that.


Aubrey Patterson (26:31):
Because those, those people have a lot of fantastic ideas and they often don’t have the authority or the wherewithal to, to actualize those ideas. And we did, you know, take advantage of those things a lot, but I see all of these incredible ideas that people have, and they talk to me about it now, like the people that I’m coaching, and they’ll say, I’ve got this idea, how do you think I could get this across? And, and I wish that I had spent more time. I wish I could have a bit of a redo and go back to, you know, extract more ideas to, to add, create systems that would allow the people that lead without authority. The people that you know, are a little bit nervous to get those ideas out, like just to find ways to do more of that. So yeah.


Sam Demma (27:22):
Oh, cool. I love that. Thanks for sharing. Yeah. Ideas are a really interesting thing. In fact, I was, I actually bought a book about ideas called thinker toys, and it’s like a book that encourages exercise that lead to more creativity to hopefully come up with new ideas. Yeah, that’s a really cool learning. I appreciate you sharing that. And like, we’ve had a great 30 minute conversation now it’s flown by if an educator or a superintendent and principals listening to this wants to reach out to you or get in touch, what would be the best way for them to do so?


Aubrey Patterson (27:58):
Well, I’m really easy to find because you just go to www.warmdemanders.com and I’m all over the place there. But you can also email me at aubrey@warmdemanders.com. You can find me on Twitter. Instagram, I’m easy to find. And, and just DM me, just find me. I’d love to have conversations. I never, by the way, if anybody contacts me, I never hard sell anyway, anybody I’m like, I’m always telling people what I think would be their best next action, you know, like their best lead domino. And quite often, it’s not to work with us. Like quite often, it’s like to work with one of these amazing other people that I’m working with and that too. So anyway, if somebody wants to find me and to do anything, just, just email me, www.warmdemanders.com or go to the website and click on something and just find us.


Sam Demma (28:50):
Okay. Sounds good. Awesome. Thank you so much for taking some time to chat. Keep up the great work and we’ll talk soon.


Aubrey Patterson (28:58):
Thank you, Sam.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Aubrey

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 Prochilo – Superintendent of School Effectiveness, Sudbury Catholic District School Board

Peter Prochilo
About Peter Prochilo

Peter Prochilo (@PeterProchilo) is currently a Superintendent of Education with the Sudbury Catholic District School Board. His portfolio includes the supervision of all Secondary Schools, Secondary Curriculum, Alternative and Adult Education, International Education and the Remote/Virtual School

Peter leads with a passion for equity of access and enhanced student pathways as he supports students, staff and school communities as they collectively strive for improved outcomes for all. 

Connect with Peter: Email | Twitter | Linkedin

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Time Blocking

Marzano’s Evaluation Method

It’s all in your head

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the high-performing educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker Sam Demma. Today’s guest is Peter Prochilo. Peter is currently a superintendent of education with the Sudbury Catholic district school board. His portfolio includes the supervision of all secondary schools, secondary curriculum, alternative and adult education, international education, and the remote slash virtual school. Peter leads with a passion for equity of access and enhance student pathways. As he supports students, staff, and school communities, as they collectively strive for improved outcomes for all. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Peter. It was an engaging one with lots of actionable ideas and insights.


Sam Demma (00:45):
Peter, welcome to the high-performing educator podcast. Each pleasure to have you on the show here today. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit about your upbringing and what brought you to where you are today?


Peter Prochilo (01:39):
Okay. Thanks Sam. Good to be here. So my name is Peter Prochilo and i’m the superintendent of education for the Sudbury Catholic district school board with primary responsibilities around secondary programming in schools. So my educational journey began back, I guess when we can go further way back started with my, one of my older sisters being an educator and, and watching what she was doing I’m the youngest of five. And there was a large gap between me and that sister. And so I watched her and the joy education and working with children and young adults brought her. And that was sort of my, my end, if you will. And then through university, it just became more and more clear through my involvement either in coaching various sports and just my involvement in the community that it was, it was going to be my path. And so that brings me to, you know, education. I had 26 years as a, as a teacher and then a special education resource teacher consultant program principal and school principal, and then the arose to apply to my present position here in Sudbury. And it became a big big shift at at my age to to take that leap and take that leap and come and take on this role and the challenges of the role. And it’s been it’s been great.


Sam Demma (03:19):
Wow. That’s amazing. And aside from your own sister, which must’ve been a huge inspiration and motivation for you, do you recall other educators or teachers that you had when you were a student that also played a pivotal role in your, you know, your own development as a student, but maybe even inspired you to consider education as well?


Peter Prochilo (03:39):
For sure. I think a lot of those came during my years in high school where we had a number of teachers that you know, it was sort of that unwritten rule. I didn’t need to be set. They were there for students. And we were able to students were able to connect with them and B became, they became mentors if you will. And then they and, and so they were, there were some go-to people that definitely paved the way, if you will, to see what, what a career in education would be like and, and what that looks like to help others. And so at that stage, it became for me realizing that, you know, educators are really the, the gatekeepers of equity and my friends and I, my, my peer group at that time were from a certain socioeconomic status.


Peter Prochilo (04:36):
And we were able to see how, regardless of your background, regardless of where you come from everyone was treated equally. And, and I was lucky to be in a school that that was espoused, but, you know, certainly for the mentors that I reflect back on as mentors, they were really championing that idea of equity before it became it became an entity, as we know it today, right. Being immersed in curriculum, immersed in policy they were living, they were living that idea of equity. It doesn’t matter. Who’s in front of me who comes through that door, we’re all treated the same and they should all have the same opportunities to succeed.


Sam Demma (05:22):
That’s amazing. And when you think about those educators that also had a big impact on you personally, like, what do you think they did for you? Like if you had to think back, and you’re not that old, so you can definitely think back to high school for a quick second, but if you had to put yourself back into a high school classroom, like, what do you think teachers do or can do to make sure that their students feel seen, heard and appreciated and, you know, make an impact on the students in their classroom? And what did your students do for you or your teachers do for you?


Peter Prochilo (05:54):
Well, I think, you know, reflecting back, I can, I can identify it now, but in the moment it was just accessibility. They were accessible. I think when you, when I reflect back on what it means to me now is that they were really showing their humanity. Right. We saw these people in the community, they were my coaches for soccer. They were like, we’ve seen them in, you know, community events or my church, or, you know what I mean? Like they showed the human face of service really, in a nutshell, they were, they were really exemplary in putting themselves forward. And we knew, you know, even at that age and everyone comes from different backgrounds, everyone has different experiences. Everyone has different challenges. Everyone is carrying things with them that we may not know right. Or that they’re dealing with, but they came into that classroom and that building everyday best foot forward, smile on their face. It’s old time, you know what I mean? I’m really cool with that. But it was like, it was, it was game time for them. Right. And so they knew being in that space, what they, what they could meet to the students that they serve. And that really shine through because you can see the, you can easily see the difference between those that ended up being mentors of mine, to those that were not as approachable.


Sam Demma (07:16):
Yeah. I think that’s really important, you know, making your students aware that you’re there for them and that you have time for them. My, one of the things my teacher did that had a huge impact on me was get to know me on a personal level so much so that he could understand my motivation for being in his class, right. For every student, the reason you might be sitting in biology class is different. One student might want to become a scientist. Maybe I just want to take biology so I could get into kinesiology in university. Like every student had a different reason. And if you know, the reason why a student is sitting in your class, it allows you to, you know, appeal to their motivation and interests. Yeah, accessibility getting to know the student were things that had a huge impact on me as well. So thank you for sharing that. What do you think are some of the challenges we’re faced with an education right now? I mean, obviously because of COVID, there are some huge ones. But what do you think are some of the challenges we’re faced with and what are some of the opportunities within the challenging?


Peter Prochilo (08:15):
I’m glad you said that Sam, because I see COVID as presenting, of course, the challenges that we all have come to understand, but it also provides a lot of opportunities, a lot of opportunities to meet those challenges. And one of the big challenges that we’re dealing with now, and I keep coming back to the idea of equity is, is equity of access. And so it’s really important in my role and for my colleagues and for all of our system leaders and school leaders is to really look at what are what are the, what are the impediments to equity of access in a remote situation when we’ve had to cycle into remote learning and you, it really becomes a parent students that, that need need more support than others. And there’s that you’re, you’re trying to try to bridge that gap, right.


Peter Prochilo (09:06):
In terms of providing and providing access, whether it be access to technology access to, to us. And just making sure that you are always acting as a community, right? Because you, you, you tend to a situation like COVID can quickly make people think in a, more of a siloed situation, right? This is, you know, this is my department, this is what I do. And the trick has been the push has been to make sure that everyone acts continues to act and they do to act as though we’re all, we’re all together because it’s more important to be together. Especially during this time, the opportunity comes in the realization that we’ve been able to very quickly and effectively leverage technology. And so for the last 10 years in education, we’ve been looking for ways to effectively use technology in a classroom setting.


Peter Prochilo (10:07):
Face-To-Face whether you’re a fan of Marzano’s work on, you know, the triad and using technology one, you know, one piece of technology for three students working collaboratively. And now you, you see that a lot of that change has that a lot of that shift has to happen because students are either at home working right. And trying to connect. And so the beauty came out in leveraging technology effectively to maintain that community feeling. And I think that’s one of the successes that, that shines through whether it was students in the elementary panel that had a complete remote school, and may we still partnered them with their homeschool. So they have that, that connectivity, and even for secondary students, right. Because in my, in my specific role, we’re going to go into this year where students have high school students that have a four year career, I’ve had two years jumping in and out of remote situation.


Peter Prochilo (11:04):
Yeah. And so now the opportunity is to really, when they come back face to face is to really, you know, show them what that community is all about because it’s been disjointed. Right. And so the opportunity and the challenge, you know, two-sided coin, the challenge is to you know, of course, all of our colleagues and, and, and my staff are ready to do so is to welcome them back with open arms, make them feel you know, deal with that, that, that little bit of trepidation, that little bit of anxiety will coming back face-to-face and really using that as an opportunity to showcase what a school community can be. All can be all about point.


Sam Demma (11:48):
Yeah. That’s awesome. And what personally, what personally motivates you every day to continue doing this work?


Peter Prochilo (11:57):
You must have a personal driver as well. They wakes you up and keeps you going as well. Yeah. It’s a number of things, but primarily that, that idea of being a guardian of equity, right. That’s the piece for me that, you know, it’s kind of the lens. I see a lot of problems through, you know, where, where is the equity piece in this? How can we make sure that the challenges challenges are met with that, with that lens you know, we have a group of students will always have a group of students that will do very well. We’ll always have a group of students that need extra support, but sometimes I find from my own experience is that we really need to connect with all students and making sure that they all have voice choice and see themselves as learners. Right. And it’s not only, and so you’re thinking not only for these four years that we have them in high school, but we need to help all of them see themselves or the next part, right. You’re preparing them for a few weeks that you, we may not see, but you, you, you want to make sure that we give them all the, all the tools that they need to make those choices. And, and to know that they’re better for having had us in their lives through grandiose.


Sam Demma (13:23):
Makes sense. My grandfather… I think you’re Italian? I come from an Italian background in Greek as well. And my Italian grandfather Salvato was a big gardener. And he would always bring me to his backyard, gardens, tomatoes, everywhere, cucumbers, zucchini, like everything. And the more I started working with students, I realized that educators or anyone that works with youth are kind of like gardeners and you plant the seed and you do what you can to water it. And, you know, sometimes, you know, you show up one day and the tomatoes fully there, you didn’t even see it grow. Sometimes it never grows until, you know, 20 years later and you don’t even realize it. And I think that’s the same with students. You know, you, you do everything you can to set them up for success. And you know, maybe 10 years later, they come up to you and say, Hey, Pete, I remember what you told me. I remember what you told me 12 years ago and, you know, whatever class. And you’re like, I don’t even remember what I told you. How do you remember what I told you? But I’m curious to know, do you have any stories that come to mind of, you know, programs that have impacted young people within the schools you’ve worked in, or students that have come up to you or teachers that, you know, and let them know about the impact of the work has had on them?


Peter Prochilo (14:36):
I’ve been lucky to have a number of really unique experiences. And I’ve been blessed with students that have sought either sought me out or met me by happens happenstance. And you either invited me to their wedding or made a you know, a king to came to my office to show me their first born child, you know, and they wanted me to meet there and see what they become. So at one point in my career I was facilitator, I mean, educator in a classroom that was purposely designed around students who always found themselves in physical altercations. So it was a standalone class where students came to me from different schools and we worked on we worked on an educational and a social plan for six weeks at a time. Okay. And so benchmarks were six weeks and we would, we assess work with the student and the family and have them go back to their home school.


Peter Prochilo (15:45):
Right. And so these students as you can imagine, were either on the verge of being expelled have multiple multiple incidents of physical altercations and the like, and I had I can remember each of their means for the two years that I taught that class. And I can remember even up to about four or five years ago, where one of those, one of those in this case, it was a young young man. Now an adult came to me and wanted to show me his, his welding, his new truck, right. Because he’s now, he’s now an underwater welder. So he took it to you know, and he wanted he came, he sought me out at the school where I was at and made the appointment to come and see me and want to, want me to see where he, he where he, where he’s been, what he’s been doing, that was great, you know, and it was I just stopped everything right there and made time for him.


Peter Prochilo (16:57):
And and we had a good, we had a good talk and I was good, you know, it’s, it was really good to see that some of those things that we, you know, we take each of the students’ interests to heart, of course, and you, you, you deal with each student individually, but it’s, it was good to see that sort of the cumulative effect of things that I stick to and say, you know, it goes back to your garden analogy. Cause my dad was a gardener as well. And so, you know, regardless of what produced that year, I knew that my dad did the same thing to that garden every year. She might tweak a couple of things, but the care that he put into that garden was the same every year, regardless. So the same thing in this case, this young man who came back in that, you know, it may have been at that point in time, I’m teaching this young person in that, in that immediate role when he was in that class, through these steps. Right. But sometimes we don’t think that, you know, we think it’s just a process, but it’s really a a connection that you’re making with the students. Right. And we, even though we might do it repeatedly, like you say, you don’t know that effect. Right. We may wonder what happens, but it was really great that the student came back to show me yeah. He was more proud of the certificate or his truck.


Sam Demma (18:29):
That’s awesome. That’s amazing. Yeah. The phrase that my teacher taught me that had a big impact that aligns with what you just said was you just got to take consistent action and forget about the result, take the actions and forget about the results. And his phrase was small, consistent actions. And I actually wear it on my wrist on this little wristband. I’ve actually, if you give them to the students too, but yeah, it was something my grade 12 older shoes teacher taught me and it’s such a good reminder. Yeah, you’re right. Like the process some years you stick to it, but the produce might not be as great, but you did everything that you needed to do. Same thing with teaching, you know, sometimes people forget that, you know, especially students forget that educators also have families and problems and challenges, and they’re also human beings themselves. You know, when they’re standing at the front of the classrooms, what are some of your own personal hobbies and passions? I know guitar is one of them, but maybe you can share a couple of those things.


Peter Prochilo (19:26):
You know, it’s really been trying to, like you say, try to stay consistent with things. So those are my own hobbies outside of, outside of my work, including my family. It would be certainly the outdoors is a big part of that, whether I’m golfing or I’m just out on a hike even, or for a run or even just a walk, especially around the lake here, it’s always, always trying to do new stuff like that. I’m always branching out that way. And also I know I mentioned golf even though it’s, it’s more of a long walk interrupted by hitting a light balls many times.


Sam Demma (20:06):
And swimming sometimes.


Peter Prochilo (20:10):
Yeah. And then, you know, for me, even one of the sort of escapes, if you will, is, is kind of the, the last few years has been reading nice items. Cause we’re always confronted with reading for for our occupation for work. And it’s there, but you know, making the time to read other items, right. Other other works, it’s always been non-fiction for me. I sort of been musically sort of the, the genre of music and biographies and the like, because music is certainly a big part of, there’s always a song in my head, said my staff one or two that are you humming today, right there. Yeah. So it’s just, it’s, it’s a sort of a combination of things, but certainly even with a busy schedule, just trying to maintain a level of physical activity as we get older, those opportunities for team sports seem to dwindle, but you know other than other than personal fitness getting out into nature is really.


Sam Demma (21:25):
I love that. Well, it’s on the topic of books about music. Here’s the one that I read recently that maybe you can check out. It might be a different genre than you’re used to, but I think you’d like it. So, this book is called it’s all in your head. Get out of your way by Russ Russ, Russell Vitaly is actually a Sicilian rapper from the U S yeah, funny. And I love his book. So he’s an independent artist and basically outlines the story of how he went from nothing to something. And what makes this story very unique is he never ended up joining a record label, turned them all down and kind of did it himself. And it just outlines this whole journey and story and what he overcame and how he got to where he is now and yeah, different genre, but you should check it out.


Sam Demma (22:10):
It might be something that you can listen to. And I think you’re so right about music too. Like when I think back to high school and every kid has different hobbies and they all play different sports and different activities, but I think something that every student has in common is they’ve listened to some form of music Friday. It’s like, it might be a different genre, but they all have a band or an artist or something that they like listening to. An art has such a way of connecting with young people so much so that I’m actually myself trying to work on a spoken word album to appeal to students as well. And yeah, you just really, you just nailed that connection in my own head. And I was like, ah, that makes a lot of sense. I think everyone has a piece of music that they’re always looking forward to. If you could go back Peter and speak to yourself in your first year of teaching, you know, when you’re, but, but with the knowledge and experience you have now looking back, what advice would you give your younger self?


Peter Prochilo (23:05):
Two things. One develop consistent habits right away. Okay. You know, because even the mentors at that time would tell me, you’re going to find your, you know, you’re going to find your way. Right. But you know, it’s really good to compare what you do. I always use the term skeleton, right. It ask my staff or Caitlin let’s deal with the skeleton and we’ll fill in the fill in the parts. You know what I mean? We’ll fill in the rest. But to have that starting point is really important. And I think if I would be able to go back, I would dig deeper in some of the literature and it would be non-educational. I would really go back and look at sort of the, the, the thoughts from the business world, how they manage time and how they, how you schedule your day and all those kinds of things. Because I still do that to this day.


Sam Demma (24:11):
Yeah.


Peter Prochilo (24:13):
I don’t know if you’ve seen time-blocking before.


Sam Demma (24:16):
I’m a huge fan.


Peter Prochilo (24:19):
And so I see this.


Sam Demma (24:22):
This is awesome.


Peter Prochilo (24:23):
I have one of these people make fun of me for it. That’s fine. But it’s my it’s my time blocking from five in the morning, till midnight. And what are my top priorities? What are my secondary priorities? And then a certain light rain.


Sam Demma (24:40):
Where did you grab the idea from originally?


Peter Prochilo (24:43):
There was a couple that floated around one strong Elon Musk that uses something similar. And then there were a few versions online and I just modified what I saw to fit, to fit. What’s going to work for me, but that’s what I mean by a skeleton. Right. So if I had something like that, when I started, that’d be number one, you know, searching for those elements that help you organize yourself and stay consistent. That’s the first, the second thing I would tell myself is don’t take yourself too serious. Yeah. Have a little, and I did have fun. Like, don’t get me wrong. There’s my stories are pretty hilarious from when I started teaching, you know, I had fun, I had fun with colleagues. I had fun working with students got involved. You know, I coached, I did some after-school group. Like we did a, I did a bunch of things, but not to take yourself seriously and just really enjoy where you are in that moment. Don’t think ahead too far.


Sam Demma (25:44):
I love that that’s, those are awesome pieces of advice. And you got me thinking again about the organizational techniques and tactics and ideas. Have you read any books that have been foundational in terms of your self-leadership stuff that you think you should, you know, would be valuable for another educator to check out or read or listen to?


Peter Prochilo (26:02):
Well, my experience has been fairly unique well in Ontario, because it’s always been through Catholic schools. I got in counted organization. And so I’ve always taken the Ignation view. So that’s been sort of my guidepost, spiritually and organizationally. Right. And so I really that kind of did that on my own for awhile. Yeah. Seeing that ignition thought. And then the concept of servant leadership really came forward in a boat 15 years ago, perhaps. Nice to forefront in terms of what, you know, green leaf had a whole series on servant leadership. And that was sort of the solidifying moment where it was, oh, this is a thing it’s not just something that’s rattling around in my head.


Peter Prochilo (27:01):
And and then just, you know, reading as much as I could about that and, and sort of identifying the items that I, the things that I already do, and then looking at what else I can incorporate, you can incorporate everything because you, you know, this is year 30 for me in education, 30, 31. So you know, educators take, you never abandoned the good stuff, right? Like it’s like a snowball, right. You start off with your core beliefs and then this comes along, right? This, this new thought, this new approach and you incorporate it into what you’re already doing, but you never let go of what’s at your core is getting bigger. But that in the center is still the center, still the center. Right. And you, you all, you pick up the great things and you know, some things go by the wayside, but you’re always, you’re always developing. You’re always adding to that core.


Sam Demma (27:58):
Love that. Awesome. Well, this has been a very awesome conversation. I really appreciate you taking some time to come on the show and share some of your philosophies, resources, stories it’s been. Yeah. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you. If, if there’s another educator listening right now who feels a little inspired or just wants to, you know, reach out will be the best way for them to get in touch with you.


Peter Prochilo (28:21):
Probably just through, email’s probably the easiest at this point. And I can share that with you, if you want me to, to share.


Sam Demma (28:28):
Sure. You can actually say it now, or I can put it in the show notes of the episode as well.


Peter Prochilo (28:32):
Yeah. So it’s just peter.prochilo@sudburycatholicschools.ca.


Sam Demma (28:45):
Awesome. Peter again, thank you so much. This has been great.


Peter Prochilo (28:47):
It’s been great. Thank you for the opportunity. It’s been great talking to you and I look forward to listening to the rest of your series.


Sam Demma (28:57):
Now and there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the high-performing educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review. So other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show. If you want to meet the guest on today’s episode, if you want to meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network, you’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not feel your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

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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.