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

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

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

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

Connect with Lorne: Email | Linkedin

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Nova Scotia Secondary Students Association

Dalhousie University

Canadian Diabetes Association

Mount Saint Vincent University

Diabetes Education and Camping Association

Before the Parade by Rebecca Rose

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:58):

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

Lorne Abramson (02:22):

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

Lorne Abramson (03:26):

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

Lorne Abramson (04:35):

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

Sam Demma (05:43):

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

Lorne Abramson (06:25):

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

Lorne Abramson (07:53):

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

Lorne Abramson (09:03):

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

Lorne Abramson (09:55):

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

Sam Demma (10:41):

Gotcha.

Lorne Abramson (10:41):

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

Sam Demma (11:41):

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

Lorne Abramson (12:01):

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

Sam Demma (13:00):

What haven’t you done?

Lorne Abramson (13:04):

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

Lorne Abramson (13:22):

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

Lorne Abramson (14:31):

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

Sam Demma (15:28):

Is it Phil Boyd?

Lorne Abramson (15:30):

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

Lorne Abramson (16:53):

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

Sam Demma (17:46):

Being accessible to the

Lorne Abramson (17:48):

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

Lorne Abramson (19:00):

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

Lorne Abramson (20:15):

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

Lorne Abramson (21:25):

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

Lorne Abramson (22:22):

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

Sam Demma (23:45):

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

Lorne Abramson (23:51):

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

Sam Demma (25:28):

Who’s a <laugh>

Lorne Abramson (25:31):

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

Sam Demma (26:42):

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

Lorne Abramson (27:04):

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

Sam Demma (27:13):

Okay.

Lorne Abramson (27:15):

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

Sam Demma (27:30):

Okay.

Lorne Abramson (27:30):

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

Lorne Abramson (28:29):

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

Lorne Abramson (29:26):

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

Lorne Abramson (30:35):

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

Lorne Abramson (31:45):

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

Lorne Abramson (32:40):

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

Lorne Abramson (33:40):

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

Lorne Abramson (34:30):

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

Lorne Abramson (35:53):

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

Sam Demma (36:14):

Nice.

Lorne Abramson (36:15):

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

Sam Demma (36:32):

Live long enough.

Lorne Abramson (36:33):

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

Sam Demma (36:41):

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

Lorne Abramson (37:09):

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

Lorne Abramson (38:21):

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

Lorne Abramson (39:24):

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

Lorne Abramson (40:42):

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

Lorne Abramson (42:21):

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

Lorne Abramson (42:55):

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

Lorne Abramson (44:00):

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

Lorne Abramson (45:12):

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

Lorne Abramson (46:17):

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

Lorne Abramson (47:41):

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

Lorne Abramson (48:54):

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

Lorne Abramson (50:16):

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

Sam Demma (50:55):

Oh, wow.

Lorne Abramson (50:56):

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

Sam Demma (51:19):

Wow. <laugh>

Lorne Abramson (51:20):

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

Sam Demma (52:56):

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

Lorne Abramson (54:00):

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

Sam Demma (54:06):

Sure.

Lorne Abramson (54:07):

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

Sam Demma (54:44):

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

Lorne Abramson (54:57):

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

Sam Demma (55:02):

Sounds good. So that’s good.

Lorne Abramson (55:04):

Okay, Sam, thanks very much.

Sam Demma (55:07):

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

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Lorne Abramson

The High Performing Educator Podcast was brought to life during the outbreak of COVID-19 to provide you with inspirational stories and practical advice from your colleagues in education.  By tuning in, you will hear the stories and ideas of the world’s brightest and most ambitious educators.  You can expect interviews with Principals, Teachers, Guidance Counsellors, National Student Association, Directors and anybody that works with youth. You can find and listen to all the episodes for free here.

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

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

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

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

Connect with Dan: Email | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Sunray Elementary Elementary School

Pasco County Schools

Pasco County Schools Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Committee

Becoming The Change Podcast

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):

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

Sam Demma (00:59):

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

Dan Wolfe (02:00):

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

Sam Demma (02:32):

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

Dan Wolfe (02:38):

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

Sam Demma (03:14):

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

Dan Wolfe (03:23):

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

Dan Wolfe (04:06):

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

Dan Wolfe (04:49):

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

Sam Demma (05:24):

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

Dan Wolfe (05:42):

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

Dan Wolfe (06:31):

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

Dan Wolfe (07:26):

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

Dan Wolfe (08:19):

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

Dan Wolfe (08:58):

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

Dan Wolfe (09:49):

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

Dan Wolfe (10:30):

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

Dan Wolfe (11:17):

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

Sam Demma (11:54):

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

Dan Wolfe (12:03):

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

Dan Wolfe (12:44):

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

Dan Wolfe (13:36):

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

Sam Demma (14:14):

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

Dan Wolfe (14:29):

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

Dan Wolfe (15:10):

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

Sam Demma (15:42):

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

Dan Wolfe (16:04):

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

Dan Wolfe (16:47):

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

Dan Wolfe (17:36):

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

Dan Wolfe (18:25):

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

Dan Wolfe (19:15):

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

Sam Demma (20:09):

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

Dan Wolfe (21:06):

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

Dan Wolfe (21:49):

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

Dan Wolfe (22:40):

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

Dan Wolfe (23:31):

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

Dan Wolfe (24:29):

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

Dan Wolfe (25:32):

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

Sam Demma (26:26):

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

Dan Wolfe (27:10):

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

Dan Wolfe (28:01):

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

Dan Wolfe (28:48):

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

Sam Demma (29:23):

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

Dan Wolfe (29:39):

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

Sam Demma (30:23):

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

Dan Wolfe (30:28):

All right, thanks so much, Sam.

Sam Demma (30:29):

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

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Dan Wolfe

The High Performing Educator Podcast was brought to life during the outbreak of COVID-19 to provide you with inspirational stories and practical advice from your colleagues in education.  By tuning in, you will hear the stories and ideas of the world’s brightest and most ambitious educators.  You can expect interviews with Principals, Teachers, Guidance Counsellors, National Student Association, Directors and anybody that works with youth. You can find and listen to all the episodes for free here.

Scott Johnson – Principal at Bowmanville High School

Scott Johnson – Principal at Bowmanville High School
About Scott Johnson

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

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

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

Connect with Scott: Email | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Bowmanville High School

Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE)

Cult of Pedagogy

Revisionist History with Malcolm Gladwell

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

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):

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

Sam Demma (01:00):

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

Scott Johnson (01:58):

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

Sam Demma (02:18):

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

Scott Johnson (02:26):

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

Scott Johnson (03:19):

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

Sam Demma (03:52):

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

Scott Johnson (04:06):

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

Scott Johnson (05:03):

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

Scott Johnson (05:56):

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

Sam Demma (07:08):

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

Scott Johnson (07:26):

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

Scott Johnson (08:39):

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

Sam Demma (09:09):

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

Scott Johnson (09:39):

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

Scott Johnson (10:31):

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

Scott Johnson (11:29):

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

Sam Demma (12:04):

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

Scott Johnson (12:13):

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

Sam Demma (12:18):

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

Scott Johnson (12:30):

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

Scott Johnson (13:34):

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

Sam Demma (14:36):

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

Scott Johnson (15:09):

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

Scott Johnson (16:03):

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

Scott Johnson (17:00):

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

Scott Johnson (17:52):

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

Sam Demma (18:36):

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

Scott Johnson (19:33):

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

Scott Johnson (20:36):

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

Scott Johnson (21:40):

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

Sam Demma (22:46):

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

Scott Johnson (22:58):

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

Sam Demma (23:55):

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

Scott Johnson (24:19):

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

Sam Demma (24:27):

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

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Scott Johnson

The High Performing Educator Podcast was brought to life during the outbreak of COVID-19 to provide you with inspirational stories and practical advice from your colleagues in education.  By tuning in, you will hear the stories and ideas of the world’s brightest and most ambitious educators.  You can expect interviews with Principals, Teachers, Guidance Counsellors, National Student Association, Directors and anybody that works with youth. You can find and listen to all the episodes for free here.

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

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

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

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

Connect with Jennifer: Email | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Upper Grand District School Board

Who is Ross Greene?

Grading for Equity by Joe Feldman

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):

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

Sam Demma (00:59):

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

Jennifer Meeker (02:20):

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

Sam Demma (02:28):

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

Jennifer Meeker (02:43):

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

Sam Demma (02:52):

Mm. So what was your path?

Jennifer Meeker (02:54):

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

Jennifer Meeker (03:28):

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

Sam Demma (04:16):

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

Jennifer Meeker (04:24):

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

Sam Demma (04:59):

Mm.

Jennifer Meeker (04:59):

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

Jennifer Meeker (05:47):

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

Sam Demma (07:00):

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

Jennifer Meeker (07:11):

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

Sam Demma (07:41):

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

Jennifer Meeker (07:58):

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

Jennifer Meeker (08:51):

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

Sam Demma (10:18):

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

Jennifer Meeker (10:26):

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

Sam Demma (11:31):

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

Jennifer Meeker (11:55):

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

Jennifer Meeker (12:44):

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

Jennifer Meeker (13:32):

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

Sam Demma (14:20):

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

Jennifer Meeker (14:31):

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

Jennifer Meeker (15:30):

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

Sam Demma (16:07):

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

Jennifer Meeker (16:46):

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

Jennifer Meeker (17:40):

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

Sam Demma (18:45):

Mm.

Jennifer Meeker (18:46):

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

Jennifer Meeker (19:43):

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

Sam Demma (20:20):

That’s awesome. I, I think it’s

Jennifer Meeker (20:22):

On this shoulder all the time, just telling me

Sam Demma (20:24):

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

Jennifer Meeker (21:01):

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

Sam Demma (22:11):

Mm.

Jennifer Meeker (22:12):

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

Sam Demma (22:20):

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

Jennifer Meeker (22:53):

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

Jennifer Meeker (23:54):

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

Sam Demma (24:57):

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

Jennifer Meeker (25:03):

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

Sam Demma (26:30):

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

Jennifer Meeker (27:07):

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

Jennifer Meeker (27:55):

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

Jennifer Meeker (28:38):

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

Sam Demma (29:12):

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

Jennifer Meeker (29:40):

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

Sam Demma (29:49):

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

Jennifer Meeker (30:02):

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

Sam Demma (30:08):

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

Jennifer Meeker (30:15):

Thanks Sam. Take care. Thanks for having me.

Sam Demma (30:19):

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

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Jennifer Meeker

The High Performing Educator Podcast was brought to life during the outbreak of COVID-19 to provide you with inspirational stories and practical advice from your colleagues in education.  By tuning in, you will hear the stories and ideas of the world’s brightest and most ambitious educators.  You can expect interviews with Principals, Teachers, Guidance Counsellors, National Student Association, Directors and anybody that works with youth. You can find and listen to all the episodes for free here.

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

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

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

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

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

Connect with Dawn: Email | Twitter | Instagram

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Lakehead University

Strait Regional Centre for Education

NSSSA (Nova Scotia Secondary Schools Students’ Association)

NSSSA – Conferences and Events

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):

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

Sam Demma (01:00):

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

Sam Demma (01:57):

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

Dawn Thompson (02:46):

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

Sam Demma (03:09):

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

Dawn Thompson (03:22):

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

Dawn Thompson (04:17):

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

Sam Demma (05:15):

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

Dawn Thompson (05:23):

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

Sam Demma (05:29):

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

Dawn Thompson (05:58):

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

Sam Demma (06:54):

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

Dawn Thompson (07:06):

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

Sam Demma (08:13):

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

Dawn Thompson (08:27):

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

Dawn Thompson (09:24):

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

Sam Demma (10:29):

Yeah.

Dawn Thompson (10:30):

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

Sam Demma (10:45):

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

Dawn Thompson (11:01):

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

Sam Demma (12:21):

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

Dawn Thompson (12:55):

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

Sam Demma (14:09):

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

Dawn Thompson (15:05):

I would love to see a four day school week

Dawn Thompson (15:11):

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

Sam Demma (16:25):

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

Dawn Thompson (16:43):

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

Sam Demma (17:44):

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

Dawn Thompson (17:51):

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

Sam Demma (17:54):

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

Dawn Thompson (18:17):

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

Dawn Thompson (19:14):

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

Dawn Thompson (20:11):

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

Sam Demma (20:52):

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

Dawn Thompson (21:02):

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

Sam Demma (21:22):

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

Dawn Thompson (21:30):

When tell her, she will be,

Sam Demma (21:32):

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

Dawn Thompson (21:54):

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

Dawn Thompson (23:00):

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

Dawn Thompson (23:53):

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

Dawn Thompson (24:57):

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

Dawn Thompson (25:57):

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

Sam Demma (26:49):

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

Dawn Thompson (26:55):

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

Sam Demma (27:26):

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

Dawn Thompson (27:37):

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

Dawn Thompson (28:50):

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

Dawn Thompson (29:41):

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

Sam Demma (30:45):

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

Dawn Thompson (30:49):

I hope

Sam Demma (30:50):

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

Dawn Thompson (31:25):

You don’t have to mark everything.

Sam Demma (31:29):

Hmm.

Dawn Thompson (31:31):

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

Sam Demma (31:59):

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

Dawn Thompson (32:25):

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

Sam Demma (33:10):

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

Dawn Thompson (33:27):

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

Sam Demma (33:35):

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

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Dawn Thompson

The High Performing Educator Podcast was brought to life during the outbreak of COVID-19 to provide you with inspirational stories and practical advice from your colleagues in education.  By tuning in, you will hear the stories and ideas of the world’s brightest and most ambitious educators.  You can expect interviews with Principals, Teachers, Guidance Counsellors, National Student Association, Directors and anybody that works with youth. You can find and listen to all the episodes for free here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connect with Melanie: Email | Instagram | LinkedIn

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Lambton Kent District School Board (LKDSB)

Canada’s National Ballet School

Royal Academy of Dancing

British Association of Teachers of Dance

Honours Bachelor of Arts in Dance at the University of Waterloo

Bachelor of Education at York University

Ontario Secondary School Dancefest

CKSS Dance Program

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):

Welcome back to the High Performing Educator podcast.

Sam Demma (00:59):

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

Sam Demma (01:52):

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

Melanie Randall (03:31):

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

Sam Demma (04:01):

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

Melanie Randall (04:11):

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

Sam Demma (04:56):

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

Melanie Randall (05:18):

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

Sam Demma (05:43):

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

Melanie Randall (05:46):

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

Sam Demma (05:48):

No, it sounds man,

Melanie Randall (05:49):

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

Melanie Randall (07:24):

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

Sam Demma (08:39):

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

Melanie Randall (09:26):

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

Sam Demma (11:06):

Wow.

Melanie Randall (11:07):

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

Sam Demma (11:24):

That’s awesome. And

Melanie Randall (11:25):

That, yeah, it’s really important.

Sam Demma (11:27):

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

Melanie Randall (12:15):

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

Melanie Randall (13:48):

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

Sam Demma (14:27):

Wow.

Melanie Randall (14:28):

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

Sam Demma (15:15):

Yeah. A mom teacher

Melanie Randall (15:16):

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

Melanie Randall (16:28):

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

Melanie Randall (17:54):

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

Sam Demma (18:44):

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

Melanie Randall (19:05):

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

Sam Demma (19:31):

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

Melanie Randall (19:35):

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

Sam Demma (20:34):

TP some P QP

Melanie Randall (20:35):

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

Sam Demma (21:53):

Can’t even hear it. Don’t worry.

Melanie Randall (21:54):

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

Sam Demma (22:05):

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

Melanie Randall (22:09):

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

Sam Demma (22:33):

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

Melanie Randall (22:52):

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

Sam Demma (22:55):

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

Melanie Randall (23:05):

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

Sam Demma (23:16):

Yes <laugh>

Melanie Randall (23:16):

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

Sam Demma (24:04):

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

Melanie Randall (24:36):

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

Sam Demma (25:33):

<Laugh>, <laugh> love

Melanie Randall (25:35):

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

Sam Demma (26:24):

Mm.

Melanie Randall (26:24):

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

Sam Demma (26:32):

Yeah. Right. Less, I guess, I

Melanie Randall (26:34):

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

Sam Demma (26:49):

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

Sam Demma (26:53):

Yeah. That’s awesome. Yeah.

Sam Demma (26:57):

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

Melanie Randall (27:13):

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

Sam Demma (27:25):

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

Melanie Randall (27:52):

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

Sam Demma (27:56):

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

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Melanie Randall

The High Performing Educator Podcast was brought to life during the outbreak of COVID-19 to provide you with inspirational stories and practical advice from your colleagues in education.  By tuning in, you will hear the stories and ideas of the world’s brightest and most ambitious educators.  You can expect interviews with Principals, Teachers, Guidance Counsellors, National Student Association, Directors and anybody that works with youth. You can find and listen to all the episodes for free here.

Larry Paquette – Principal at Northern Secondary School in Sturgeon Falls

Larry Paquette - Principal at Northern Secondary School in Sturgeon Falls
About Larry Paquette

Laurent (Larry) Paquette is the Principal at Northern Secondary School in Sturgeon Falls. He started his career at L’école secondaire catholique l’Horizon in Val Caron in 1992. Since then, Larry was a Physics, Math, Computer Science and Communications Technology teacher at Saint Charles Garnier in Whitby and then Northern Secondary School.

Upon moving to administration, he was a vice principal at Northern Secondary School and then Widdifield Secondary School in North Bay. For the past 10 years Laurent was principal at Northern Secondary School, the school at which he graduated from as a student. While at Northern Larry brought in two High Skills Specialist Majors (SHSM) into his school; one in Hospitality and Tourism and the another in Mining.

He also brought in Lego Robotics and Vex Robotics into Design Technology courses at the school. The favourite part of his job as a principal was the mentoring that he got to experience with his various vice-principals.

He is looking forward to retiring at the end of the August after a long successful career. What he will miss the most about his profession is the time that he spends with countless number of students. In retirement he plans to focus on his firewood business, travel and spend more time with his family.

Connect with Larry: Email

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Northern Secondary School

L’école secondaire catholique l’Horizon in Val Caron

Saint Charles Garnier

Widdifield Secondary School

High Skills Specialist Major Program (SHSM)

Lego Robotics

Vex Robotics

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):

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

Sam Demma (00:58):

This is the first episode of season number three, with your host Sam Demma. Today our special guest is Larry Paquette. Larry Paquette is the Principal at Northern Secondary School in Sturgeon Falls. He started his career at L’école secondaire catholique l’Horizon in Val Caron in 1992. Since then, Larry was a physics, Math, Computer Science and Communications Technology teacher at Saint Charles Garnier in Whitby and then Northern Secondary School. Upon moving to administration, he was a vice principal at Northern Secondary School and then Widdifield Secondary School in North Bay. For the past 10 years Laurent was principal at Northern Secondary School, the school at which he graduated from as a student. While at Northern, Larry brought in two High Skills Specialist Majors (SHSM programs) into his school; one in Hospitality and Tourism and the other in mining. He also brought in Lego Robotics and Vex Robotics into Design Technology courses at the school. The favourite part of his job as a principal was the mentoring that he got to experience with his various vice-principals. The favorite part of his job as a principal was the mentoring that he got to experience with his various vice principles. He’s looking forward to retiring at the end of August after a long successful career. What he will miss the most about his profession is the time that he spends with countless numbers of students. In retirement, he plans to focus on his firewood business, travel, and spend more time with his family. I hope you enjoy this reflective episode with Larry as he is now retired, focused on his business, and I will see you on the other side. Larry, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here today. Please start by introducing yourself.

Larry Paquette (02:39):

So I’m Larry Paquette. I’m a principal at Northern secondary school in sturgeon falls. I’ve been here as a principal for 10 years and this is my last year before I move on to retirement. So it’s, it’s been a great journey for me and I’ve, I’ve spent most of my career in this school. And actually I was a not only a principal here. I was also a vice- principal for four years, a teacher for twelve years and, and a student for for five years. So this has been my home for, for, for a long while.

Sam Demma (03:16):

That’s, that’s amazing. Thank you for your service. <Laugh>.

Larry Paquette (03:20):

You’re welcome.

Sam Demma (03:21):

When did you realize growing up that you wanted to work in education? Was there a special moment? Was it gradual? Tell me more about that.

Larry Paquette (03:31):

Yeah, so, so that’s a, that’s a great question. And, and for me, it’s going way back, right? So I can attest this to to probably some teachers of mine who were awesome and there’s a number of them along the way. And I struggled when I was in elementary school, but flourished in secondary school. And for me English is my second language. So I, I learned English in high school and I went to a French elementary school and then came to Northern to learn English that that was, you know, back in that day, we didn’t, we didn’t have the internet, we didn’t have that, that many opportunities to learn a language. And, and I came to Northern and I, and I had many great teachers here. That’s not, when I decided though I kind of, you know, went off to university studied engineering for a bit and then went into computer science and, and that’s my background, computer programming and software engineering.

Larry Paquette (04:31):

And I graduated in 91 and back then we were kind of in a recession and, and a bunch of us all French speaking. I went to a French speaking university in Subbury loon university, a bunch of us decided, Hey, let’s go to teachers college for a year. It’ll give us an extra year, something else in our backpack. Maybe a little more employable and ended up doing teachers college for a year and ended up in teaching. So there was no aha moment. It’s just, I gradually stepped into that role and, you know, enjoyed working with with students. That’s always been my passion.

Sam Demma (05:09):

Where did your interest for computer programming and computer science come from <laugh>?

Larry Paquette (05:13):

Oh my God. That, that, that also goes back to the mid eighties. It started here at Northern actually we had we had Vic twenties back then with a, a tape recorder and I had this awesome teacher, Mr. B Brenner was my teacher. And we learned about programming in basic. And actually I didn’t do well. I, I, I, I almost flunked the class, took it again in grade 12, my dad had encouraged me to keep at it for some reason. He kinda felt that computers would be the wave of the future. And my dad had a great eight worked in the mines and said, Ray, I’m not sure what he saw in computers, but he said, you know, you should keep at it because that’s gonna be, that’s gonna be taking over the world one day. And, and if you zoom back to 1985 not many computers around, I kinda lucked out. My mom bought me a, a Commodore 64. And that’s how it started for me. It’s just that passion of coding and, and getting a computer do to do things for me. And it went from there and, you know, I studied computers in university and I, I even had my my business at one point when I first started teaching and wrote some software for the ministry and wow. It was awesome.

Sam Demma (06:31):

What a awesome transition and initial starting point in education. Well, what are the different roles you’ve worked in since you started what schools, like, tell me a little bit about your journey chronologically.

Larry Paquette (06:44):

Yeah, so, so I first started teaching adults at night back then we were teaching word. Perfect.

Sam Demma (06:50):

Okay.

Larry Paquette (06:51):

And, and the funny thing about that story is that my girlfriend at the time took the course with me and we ended up getting married <laugh> so she’s, we’ve been 20, well, we’ve been married for 29 years this year. And, and I always joke about it. Like, I must have done a half decent job cuz she’s still around <laugh>. So that’s how I started teaching adults at night. They were mainly secretaries from the Subbury board. Okay. and then moved into a long term occasional position teaching computers and Ft. Even though I’m French teaching FCE was very challenging for me, but you know, it was a job. It gave me a couple months experience and moved into an LTO, a long term, occasional position in computer science. I think I was teaching some physics in, in a school in Whitby.

Larry Paquette (07:48):

Nice. So I spent a year there and then, you know, I was desperately trying to get back to to Northern and I knew the principal at the time. He was one of my teachers and I actually, I called him every two weeks on a Friday at two, just to connect with, ’em asked about the school and back then, like there were so few jobs. They hired three people that year. It was our board hired three people and I was one of the three and you know, more or less like the HES, the rest is pretty much, much history, but I, I moved into admin early on into my career just because of the opportunities. Right. So I, I ended up being a teacher in charge. I think I was about maybe 32 years old. Ah and then went and got qualified as, as an administrator and became principal here at Northern. And I was principal, I mean, vice principal here at Northern for, for four years. Then I was moved to north bay in a big school and worked there for two years. And actually I was fortunate because the principal who I worked with here at Northern as a vice principal, moved to Whitfield in, in north bay and I, I moved and worked with him there. So, and then came back here and then became principal. And, and I’ve been principal in this building for, for 10 years now.

Sam Demma (09:10):

What are some of the most rewarding aspects of the role you’re working in right now? And soon to be retired from <laugh>,

Larry Paquette (09:20):

It’s such a rewarding career overall and, you know, people will ask me, what did you like the most? Actually, I love being a vice principal the most, that was my favorite part of the job, because I got to work with kids on a one to one basis. As the principal though, you, you, you even have a bigger effect because you’re working with teachers also. Mm. and the community. So everything’s a a reward, right. Just, you know, knowing that you’re making a difference in your, your community. And, and this is my community. I grew up here and I’ve spent most of my life in this community and, you know, everybody knows you <laugh>, you know? Yeah. I’m the principal in my, in my community. There’s not 10 of us. Right. Yeah. So it’s and people reach out to you and, and, you know, I bump into people that I taught back in the day and they remember things and it’s, it’s, it’s such a, a rewarding, but challenging profession.

Sam Demma (10:21):

You mentioned your first role was teaching adults. How did that come about? Is that like typically a way that teachers usually start or tell me more about that experience?

Larry Paquette (10:35):

Not, not necessarily. I was kinda I kinda got into that by luck. I had a friend who was teaching adults who said, Hey, Larry, you wanna, you know, they’re looking for people who have that computer science background to teach to teach secretaries. Cool. And, and, you know, there were not that many of us in that, you know, in that, having that knowledge and I was still in university, I was like a computer science student when I first started teaching. Right. So it kinda gave me a taste of what teaching was all about. So, and also I ended up paying into my pension early on, so I kind young, still to retire, which is a real bonus. Right.

Sam Demma (11:15):

That’s awesome. Very cool. Along the journey, you mentioned you had some teachers that inspired you, impacted you along the way. I’m wondering if you can recall who some of those people are, and I’m sure there’s way too many to name, but maybe one or two that had a significant impact on you and what they did for you.

Larry Paquette (11:34):

Well, yeah, for sure. So, so the first one ISPR new, my grade eight teacher, and he probably doesn’t even know that he still lives in our community, but he kind of, you know, it’s just that patience, right. Cause I was a bit of a squiggly kid grew up on a farm. So, you know, sitting in a classroom was not my big thing, but I, I, I understood the importance of school. But, but that grade eight teacher was probably the first person that kind of made me realize, you know, I could do it. And then, you know, zoom forward to to high school. I, I had a couple the principal that hired me his name was Don Cole and, and Don taught me drafting in grade nine. And you can imagine moving from a small com small, small, rural school community into a bigger school.

Larry Paquette (12:27):

And I call this a bigger school, but it’s not a big school. We, we were maybe 400. Okay. and I took drafting with Mr. Cole. And, and I remember that first assignment, I got a hundred percent came back home and told my parents, man, I’m good at something I’m good at drafting, not knowing that every kid in the class got a hundred percent on his first assignment, that was kind of his shtick of okay. Of getting us to believe that we could do it. Ah, I shared that story with my staff. And, and I had a, a math teacher. His name was Ken Brener and I kinda replaced him here when I, when, when I got first hired, Ken was so patient and spent so much time, you know, he was always available at lunch before school, after school.

Larry Paquette (13:13):

Wow. if you wanted to learn more about Matt, Ken was your guy. And then I had a couple of university professors. One was his name was Dave Goforth was one of my computer science professors, just a, a all round nice guy. And then one of my faculty teachers who, cuz I was about to quit in November, in October and November, I just said, I’m done I’m I’m gonna go start my business, do my own thing. And he kind of took me a aside and said, Larry you know, you’re, you’re two months in. I think you’re gonna be a great teacher, just stick with it. And I did, which thank God he had that conversation with me.

Sam Demma (13:52):

Wow. And I love that story of giving every student a hundred percent on their first test quiz. When you realize that everyone got that, what was the Le like what lesson kind of came to mind or how did you perceive it?

Larry Paquette (14:07):

I, I was a little young to understand why that had happened. Really. Yeah. I understood that actually it took a while. I was probably well into my teaching career before I really realized, Hey, that’s like, that’s a nice little trick. Right? Yeah. Doesn’t cost you anything. And why be stingy with marks they’re just marks. Right. So yeah.

Sam Demma (14:28):

I love that. That’s such a great way to put the battery in the kids’ back and help them believe in themselves. You know,

Larry Paquette (14:35):

That’s, that’s, that’s exactly it.

Sam Demma (14:38):

Cool. thinking about your journey through education if you could take the wisdom and experiences you’ve had and bundle them up into a piece of advice for your younger self travel back in time and tap Larry on the shoulder in his first year and say, Hey Larry, this is the advice that would’ve been helpful for you to hear when you were just starting this career. Not that you would change anything about your path, but what advice would you give to your younger self?

Larry Paquette (15:08):

Forgive yourself for making mistakes. Don’t focus on those mistakes run with your horses. You’ll always have people who will challenge you, but they keep you honest. Mm. and, and, and zoom out. And, and actually for me, that just came about in the last month, <laugh> where I’m zooming out and, and saying, Hey, I’ve got, I’ve had an awesome career. And, and actually I’ll, I’ll give credit where credit is due on this one. They’ve parachuted in a vice principal into our school at the start of may. And she’s the one, you know, she’s, she’s, she’s younger than I am. And she just said, you know what, Larry, you’ve had a great career focus on that, going out and, and keep your head high because we tend to be critical. Right. We tend to focus on the negative instead of celebrating all the great things that we do. And when we do zoom out, all those little things that happened along the way, they made us better people and they’ve kept kept us honest. So that, that’s what I would say. Just be forgiving of your, your, your challenges, your mistakes especially if you have like, you know, if you, if you have noble intentions.

Sam Demma (16:18):

Yeah. I think we spend so much time focused on all the things we have yet to accomplish yet to do. Whereas there’s so many things we have accomplished and achieved and we forget to give ourselves the flowers for those things, or don’t reflect on them enough and celebrate them for a small moment in time and then never revisit them again. Right. speaking of some ch I mean, we didn’t really get on the topic, but along with successes and accomplishing things, I know the past two years have been a little bit difficult with the global pandemic that no one knew was gonna come. What are some of the challenges your school community was faced with over the past few years? And along with the challenges, what are some of the opportunities that you think came out of the situation?

Larry Paquette (17:08):

Well, so, so many challenges, it’s hard to zoom in on, on the one thing, cuz we’re kind of in the middle of it still. Yeah. And I kind of feel someone said at one point, like, we feel like we’re building a plane at the same time as we’re trying to fly it. Mm. so you know, the mental health issues are, are certainly coming to, to, to the forefront. And the importance of supporting kids, mental health is more important than actually the curriculum that we’re trying to teach. So yeah. So that’s a huge shift for us, for us as, as principals, but also for our teachers especially the ones that are, are kind of stuck, like in a bit of a rut in the classroom where they’re not seeing the bigger picture. Mm. so that’s been a, certainly a challenge and we’re really filling it with, you know, there’s about 12 days left before the end of the, the school year.

Larry Paquette (17:59):

Nice. You know, the wheels are coming off, right. The kids are really struggling right now. And, and so are the staff and everybody’s so tired, we’re just trying to get to the end of the year. You know, and part of my job is, is, is to to keep the focus right. To stay calm if, if I lose my wheels, then for sure things are gonna go south. Yeah. and staff look up to their principal to get us a pulse of how they should feel. So it’s, it’s been it’s been interesting and how I go about trying to keep that, that even keel is I, I I, I do I produce firewood <laugh> of all those things. And I think Sean might have mentioned it in his podcast. So I go out there and I, I work in the backlog, I cut wood, I split wood. I sell with customers. Nice. And I, you know, it, it keeps me active, keeps me in shape and clears my mind. Right. So I, I think that’s, that’s pretty much I, and I’m, I’m fortunate. I, I have I have an awesome family. I have five children wonderful wife. I, I rely on my faith to, to get me through the, the, the stormy waters

Sam Demma (19:16):

Love that. I, I love chopping wood. We, we have a little cottage about an hour and a half from our house. And from a young age, my grandfather had taught me how to, you know, safely swing the ax and we would chop up logs and, you know, use ’em for the bonfire pit. And it’s such a therapeutic activity. <Laugh> so you don’t do that a part as a part of school though. You do that outside when you’re not working outside of the classroom, like outside of the office.

Larry Paquette (19:49):

Yeah. I’m just gonna check. Can you still hear me?

Sam Demma (19:52):

Yep.

Larry Paquette (19:53):

You can hear me. Yeah. It was telling me that the microphone disconnected. Okay. We’ll back up a story about that. That’s okay. Yeah. No, this is totally separate. It’s it’s a separate business. There’s a bit of story behind that is just, it’s just like, instead of seeing a therapist, I go chop some wood and actually like I’ve got machinery. I’m not doing everything by hand. Yep. Yeah. I’ve got tractors and the processors and all this nice jazz, so yeah.

Sam Demma (20:17):

Oh, it’s cool. When did that begin and why what’s the, what’s the story behind it? <Laugh>,

Larry Paquette (20:24):

It’s a long story. As I told you, I grew up on a farm. Yep. and I have four brothers and, and we always worked so back in the eighties times were really different. We, we work together regularly and at one point my dad told me, like, he, he noticed I was struggling in, in, in being a principal. It was, it was a grinding job, not much. I, I wasn’t feeling like I was successful. And you said to me, you need to go back to your roots. You love producing wood. Maybe you should start producing wood, like just even for yourself. And that’s how it kind of started one little chainsaw with one ax and slowly built, you know, started selling a bit of wood, bought a wood splitter, bigger chainsaw tractor. And it just mushroom. So in retirement, I’m, I’m, I’m gonna be doing that full time.

Sam Demma (21:15):

Why do you think it’s important people working in education also have something like that. It doesn’t have to be wood cutting, but a hobby where they can forget about their work during the day, let their mind run loose. Like, how has that been helpful for you?

Larry Paquette (21:33):

Well, you need to recharge. And that was one of my biggest mistakes. When I started as a principal here, I was working 70, 80 hours a week. I was in six days a week and I was frustrated because nobody else was doing that. I, it was a choice that I had had made. Mm. And it came to the cost of my, you know, my family, my personal relationships. And I don’t think I was a good principal because, you know, I, I, I never took that time to rest and recharge and, and come back on a, on a different angle almost. Right. So, and I was fortunate, my, my superintendent took me aside and said, you know, Larry, I don’t even work 70 hours a week. So why, why are you working so hard? And I kinda learned to work smarter, right? Yeah. To delegate, to get people, to to, to take on some of those some of those pieces and let them run with with it.

Sam Demma (22:28):

One of the most rewarding aspects of a career in education is the impact you get to make on the lives of thousands of young students and young minds. And for those people who are listening, and obviously can’t see this, cuz there is no video <laugh> big smile across Larry’s face. When I said that, I’m curious to know over the years, if there are any stories of students who you can recall that were seriously transformed due to education. And if it’s a serious story, you know, you can change their name and explain it with a totally different name just to keep their privacy respected.

Larry Paquette (23:04):

Yeah, no, absolutely. So couple weeks ago I bumped into a parent and we are a small community. So, you know, I, she said, Hey Larry, how’s it going? Remember my son? And of course I did remember her son. And, and she had come to a parent teacher interview night and she said, you remember that parent teacher interview night? I said, no, I don’t. I remember your son, but don’t remember that teacher interview night. And she said, you know, you had told me that my son was great in math and her son, like not, not the type who would sit down in the desk. He was really active, a sports kind of guy like football, hockey, but in the classroom, not so much, didn’t do that well on tests, but I knew he was smart. I, I knew it because he would choose the toughest question on the test.

Larry Paquette (23:56):

And he’d answer that question. And not just the one question and hand in his test. Now, if I would’ve marked him, you know, usually traditional ways of marking, he, he would’ve failed because he would’ve only gotten that, that one question. But I knew he knew all the question. He knew all the answers. Anyway, she, she kind of, you know, she, she, she’s kind of beaming with pride when she was sharing that, that, that that experience and so fast forward about 30 years now I won’t, this kid now owns a, a company in our community, a big mining company and wow. You know, he, he runs that. I’m not surprised. I, I knew this guy was going places. You know, if I would’ve judged him on, on traditional ways of, of evaluation, you know, he, he, he wouldn’t have done well. And there’s so many stories like that.

Larry Paquette (24:49):

<Laugh> like, yeah. And that that’s, that’s the piece. And, and, and I’m sure I will be bumping into people for the rest of my life. People that I’ve taught. I’ve had one kid come back and said, remember that game doom. We used to play back in the nineties. Yeah. Yeah. Well, you know, we had used that game to learn about 3d modeling in my class. And he said like, that’s the one thing I remember from high school. I is learning how to use doom to like, we created like the school, we built the school.

Sam Demma (25:19):

Oh, wow.

Larry Paquette (25:20):

As a 3d model.

Sam Demma (25:21):

Okay. So

Larry Paquette (25:22):

It was outside the box thinking, but I have to give credit to my principal Don Cole, who I was talking about to gimme that, that leeway, that permission to trust me, to try something different. And I’ve tried to emulate that as, as a principal. If I have a, a teacher who comes in here with an outside the box idea, I run with it. I let them run with it. I encourage them to try it. The worst thing that could happen is we fail big deal.

Sam Demma (25:50):

Yeah. I, I love that. And I think it’s so important that we actually give ourselves the opportunity to fail. Because most of the time, before we try something, our brain actually stops us and we hypothetically fail. We don’t even actually know what the result’s gonna be, cuz we don’t even do it. <Laugh> I think. Well,

Larry Paquette (26:09):

Yeah. And I’d even add to that Sam, like if you’ve never failed, you probably haven’t tried hard enough. Right? Yeah. You’re always down that safe road where there’s, no’s no, I’m success meed many times and I’m okay with that.

Sam Demma (26:28):

Yeah. Because you keep picking up the acts and trying again, it’s like exactly, you’re gonna keep chopping away until we figure it out. Right. Yeah. That’s awesome. I’m excited to see your transition after you, you know, retire and it’s not, I don’t think retire is the right word. Just it’s a transition of your time and, and your efforts, right.

Larry Paquette (26:46):

It’s a change, right. It’s part of like being a principal is, is very demanding, very rewarding. But you know, you get to a point where, okay, I, I I’m, I’m getting there. I’m I wanna leave on my, my terms on high. I feel really good that Sean is gonna be taking the school over. Nice. and Sean’s excited too. And I I’m gonna be in the wings. Right. I, I told him if you need help, I’ll, I’ll, I’ll be happy to help out, but there’s, he’s coming to an awesome school. There’s a lot of great things happening. And, and I, I know I’ll hear about it and, and I’m glad for for him.

Sam Demma (27:22):

Awesome. Ah, I’d love to hear it. Thank you so much for taking some time to share some of your stories and wisdom today on the podcast. Thank you for your 29 years of service. I wish you the best in your transition. If there’s an educator who’s listening to this right now, wants to reach out, have a conversation or ask you a question, what would be the best way for them to get in touch with you?

Larry Paquette (27:42):

So there’s two spots, I’m at on Gmail. So it’s laurent.paquette@gmail.com.

Sam Demma (27:51):

Sure.

Larry Paquette (27:52):

If you look me up on Facebook, you’ll, you’ll, you’ll find me, you’ll see my picture there. I usually have drone pictures up on my Facebook page and I, my business is on there too. So if you want to chat, I’m we didn’t talk about this, but my favorite part of being a principal is also mentoring VPs and moving them into into the leadership position of the principal. So I would love to help out in any way

Sam Demma (28:28):

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

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Larry Paquette

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.

Tara Connor, Ed.D. – Principal, Abbey Park High School in the Halton District School Board

Tara-Connor-Ed.D.-Principal-Abbey-Park-High-school
About Tara Conner

Tara Connor is the Principal of Abbey Park High School in the Halton District School Board. She spent her upbringing following her passions of music, but her love for teaching and youth guided her toward a journey working in education. She spends her time thinking about how we can improve, not just as individuals but as schools and a system. 

Tara holds both a master’s and doctorate, has lectured in Universities and has an obsession with helping youth. She believes students don’t have to have it all figured out and advocates that students/educators follow their nudges and passions. 

Connect with Tara: Email

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Abbey Park High School

Halton District School Board

What are Advanced Placement Classes?

International Baccalaureate Program (IB)

Certified Practicing Principal Certification (CPP)

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 on the High Performing Educator podcast.


Sam Demma (01:00):
This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is Tara Connor. Tara Connor is the Principal of Abbey Park High School in the Halton District School Board. She spent her upbringing following her passions of music, but her love for teaching and youth guided her toward a journey working in education. She spends her time thinking about how we can improve, not just as individuals but as schools and a system. Tara holds both a master’s and doctorate, has lectured in Universities and has an obsession with helping youth. She believes students don’t have to have it all figured out and advocates that students/educators follow their nudges and their passions. I hope you enjoy this conversation with her, and I will see you on the other side. Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. I’m so excited to chat with today’s guest, Tara Connor. Tara, please start by introducing yourself.


Tara Connor (02:01):
Oh, thanks so much. Sam, I’m delighted to be here. So again, my name’s Tara Connor. I am a Principal with the Halton District School Board. Currently, I’m the principal of Abbey Park High School, which is a wonderful high school in Oakville, Ontario.


Sam Demma (02:13):
When did you realize growing up that you wanted to be in education, work in education, become a teacher and a principal


Tara Connor (02:23):
so I, I would say that wasn’t in my growing up years likely I didn’t I didn’t kind of have it marked and planned at eight or nine or 10 years of age, which I know some people do if they project their plans for the future. You know, to me, quite honestly, actually I spoke to one of our great 10 careers classes, not too long ago, but a similar type of question. It was very evolutionary for me. I moved into a, a undergrad program that was music program, so classical music and I also loved science. So I was going kind of where passions were and not really a, a deep sense of where I might wanna land. Interestingly I have an older sister that moved into education. I think almost as an antithesis to that, I thought, well, I’ll never do education.


Tara Connor (03:09):
That’s kinda her thing. And, and then of course, as I, as I went through it and started consider where I wanted to be and what I’d love to do, I, I reflected on the fact that I spent lots of years as a lifeguard and a swim instructor and a piano teacher and a babysitter. And I love young people. I love children and I love teenagers. And and so for me, that just that kind of moved into a launch of what made lots of sense in terms of where I was at the time as I was considering career paths. I never went in if you’d asked me second year in my, in my world of being a teacher, if I would ever be a principal, I wouldn’t have even had it on my radar, quite frankly. But what I did find as I moved into my career is that I, I really loved thinking about how we could be better as not only as a classroom teacher, but as a school and as a system.


Tara Connor (04:00):
Mm. And so quite naturally, I just started to wanna be part of bigger and broader conversations because to me that really resonated in terms of what scope and sphere of impact I may have in terms of service in the work that I do as I move through my professional life. So you know, through that, I, I navigated a masters of education, a doctors of a doctorate of education, and have taught at a number of universities and graduate level and, and always with the drive to know, and understand better how we can best serve and support our students. So as I said, at every juncture, I remember sitting in my master’s and folks talked about a doctorate, and I thought like, who who’s thinking about a doctorate? And I just, I think I just wanna do my master’s. And then two or three years later, I was enrolling in an international doctoral program, completely engulfed and excited about being able to do that launch. So I, I I’ve said to my grade 10 class and my own children, I have four you don’t have to have it figured out that life unfold, you follow your passion, you follow what you what you love doing. And at each juncture, you’ll figure that out in terms of what your next stage is.


Sam Demma (05:07):
I couldn’t agree more. I definitely am someone who followed my passion and didn’t really have a perfect understanding of where it was gonna take me. Yeah. so it’s so it’s so, so true. Tell me more about where your passion took you. So what were the different roles, the different steps the different schools you’ve taught in positions? Like take us along the entire journey.


Tara Connor (05:32):
Wow. This will be a long journey. I, I will start by saying just just to your last point. I, I still don’t think my journey’s over, so I don’t, I still am excited about what that, the future and what may lie ahead, what opportunities I’m able to be able to connect with and expand and learn and grow from. So, yeah, if it’s a value I can tell you, I grew up kind of in a typical public school situation, not lots of role in terms of professional women, at least in my life in higher education was not kind of a lived experience in my family or, or really community that I was connected to. So as I moved through undergrad, and then eventually pursuing a, a degree in education my first position actually was in a private all girls school.


Tara Connor (06:19):
And I oversaw a program from grade seven to grade 13. And for me, it was in it, it was an entirely different juncture and experience that I had in my own education. And it really started me to think about some of the challenges, barriers complexities of what schooling is and ensuring all students have an equal and opportunity to Excel and to succeed. I, I moved from within that period of time, I was fortunate to have a number of great professional leadership experiences. I also was able to travel on some professional exchanges, quite extensively, internationally to places like Japan and Australia to Germany and, and trips around north Africa and Spain, Turkey, Italy. And so it really broadened my scale and scope in terms of education beyond the world of Ontario. And again made me challenge and question how we serve and support our students so that all students irrespective of background context family situation has an opportunity to really be who they’re meant to be in this world and to bring all their gifts to the world around them.


Tara Connor (07:34):
So that, that was that created some dissonance for me around private and public education about all, you know, single gendered education that, that drove me to do a master’s. I I’ve always done my graduate work while working full time or raising a family. And then I bumped over to the public poor because at that point I knew I was thinking leadership and I wanted to be able to be part of a community of school so that I could move around and have some flexibility of learning and growth. And then I would say a really profoundly rich experience from there with, to be a vice principal at Sy app, which at the time changed a little bit in its focus, but was for students that were sentenced under these criminal justice act, as well as students that were receiving were, have very profound mental health issues and concerns.


Tara Connor (08:24):
And so I really I really was able to see and understand the complexities of our student populist and, and some of the deficits of our school system and the driver that at times we expect our students to fit a school system that doesn’t work for them as opposed to building a school system that meets the needs of all students. And so I, I, I moved from that by special principalship to a number I’ll, I’ll say I was at a number of schools across the region of Halton large schools small schools kind of re the program between, you know, advanced placement AP or IB, or CPP. So community pathways, types of programs, so real diversity in terms of schools and settings. And I also moved into a program or actually kind of a regional program about maybe 10, 12 years ago.


Tara Connor (09:18):
So a couple of years into my role as an administrator where I was managing information for student achievement. So that was a very broad scale role that was working with all elementary and secondary schools to be able to critically look at data and information, to be able to drive the work that we did both in the classroom at the school level and at the system level. The other, the other probably experience that’s worth referencing is that I prior to this position was also in a, another school as principal that served adult alternative and continuing education. And that that portfolio was had responsibility for maybe thir 13 to 14,000 students in the region. It looked after both the day school components adult education, and then a whole umbrella of continuing education programs, inclusive of things like night school summer school for elementary and secondary international languages, elementary programs.


Tara Connor (10:17):
We had a rich and still have a rich educational program in both correctional facility at Maplehurst correctional. So the male and female prison systems. And and again, that, that was really rich for my own growth, but also my own passion around students don’t age out in terms of when they need education and support and how pivotal education is in the lives of our youth and adult in being able to secure a way to support themselves, support their families, contribute and connect to society. And we as educators have a duty and responsibility to serve and support our students from my perspective right from the time that they come to us through to the point that they that they are ready to, to step back and move into their next phase or stage of life. So, so lots of different experiences, all of which I’m grateful and all which I’ve, and my under able to support the needs. All students


Sam Demma (11:23):
You’ve really played every position on the field , which is,


Tara Connor (11:29):
Oh, there’s probably still more out there. I’m sure. I hope I haven’t hit the wall yet, but yeah, no, I’ve been lucky. I really, I, I, for me, I, I I’m grateful everything that I’ve done has just, has just challenged me in a new and different way. And I think again, has made me a much better deeper thinker as an educator. For sure.


Sam Demma (11:46):
I’m wondering if you could speak about how any of the experiences you’ve had, and maybe you can pick one, cause I’m sure there’s hundreds that you can remember and how it has shaped, how you look at education today. Maybe it was an experience with a student or an experience overseas, like any type of situation that further informed the way you look at education and approach it today. Do any kind of his stories or experiences that were really foundational to you come to mind?


Tara Connor (12:15):
Oh, I think there’s, there’s lots in there and certainly lots of students that I can think of and talk about. The one that I was the one that I was reflecting on a little bit prior to our chance to talk together. I know you talked either, we had talked about it, might there be a story or situation and, and that, that there was an impact that we were able to see that that student experienced in moving forward. And one of the pieces, I, I remember one thing that was really very moving for me is I was quite an early vice principal. So a couple of years in the job, I think was my second or third school. And I remember working with a student who was 16 at the time who was 16 ish, who was struggling with mental health issues and drug issues.


Tara Connor (12:59):
And what stood out for me at the time is that her drug of choice or her addiction with cocaine. And so that in and of itself’s an expensive drug with have her getting involved in issues with police and and theft to be able to support was what was a very serious addiction for her at the time. And it was, it was, you know, I, it was upsetting obviously, and really disheartening. And I remember working with her and trying to work through that. And she was in a real state of crisis in a number of different places as one could imagine, and, and self-medicating, and really trying to manage life at that time. And and, and then probably a year and a bit later, I was moved to yet another school. And I thought about her as we do think about lots of our students and many years later.


Tara Connor (13:53):
So when this was probably 10 years later, I became, as I mentioned, principal of Gary Allen high school now, Gary Allen learning center that, that serves and supports the all alternative continuing education within this region. And I remember being at our first graduation ceremony and the program had some day school with our adolescent students. So students that were looking for alternative learning across I had multiple sites. So Georgetown, Milton Oakville, and Burlington and then adult learners that educa that that connected to learning and credits through either day schools or evening classes. And then we had some flexibility with e-learning as well at the time or some virtual learning. Anyway, we had a graduation service and I was going to each of our events at, amongst all of these different sites and, and having the joy and pleasure of of helping to oversee the granting of diplomas.


Tara Connor (14:48):
And about the third or fourth student that came across the stage with this beautiful, wonderful probably 24, 25 year old young woman who was the same young woman that I remembered as a teenager, about 10 years ago. And and she was there with a loving, supportive family, and she proudly claimed her high school diploma that she had worked sometimes certainly to be able to achieve. And that was really profound for me in that it just reminds us that, you know, there’s, there is no, there’s no time that we tap out of serving and supporting our students and our adults and our community in terms of the access to education, the access to a high school diploma, that is the portal to be able to move forward in terms of either post-secondary or apprenticeship or or workplace pathways. And yeah, that was, that was for, it was, it was wonderful.


Tara Connor (15:42):
It was, you know, it was by happenstance that our path crossed are path. And, you know, you often wonder you do stay connected with some students, but not all, some of the most disconnected, you’re probably least likely to be able to see people and, and evolve is one is school. This is not, you know, high school years are not always the time that everyone can do the same thing in the same way to be able to at, you know, 17 and a half, get their high school diploma handed to them. And there are many complexities that kids carry and live through in their lives. That for whatever reason, make that, not the time, although we do lots of flexibility and access and support and wrap around to help there are times that they’re, they’re just not able to, and, and that notion of student success, they don’t age out at 18 or 19 or 21.


Tara Connor (16:37):
We are here until until they’re able to get what they need from us to be able to move to their next juncture of life. So that, that was really profound. It really drove in me a passion for a adult education. I loved that position because of what I, I believed it was doing in terms of service and support in our community. And it resonated for me as an educator, who’d been in traditional day schools and I became the voice amongst many of our day schools to say always connect. Even if students have a foot out the door and are saying, they’re done, always let them know the door is open and the hand is there and we will wrap around and support at any stage and age in which they’re able and willing to engage in engage in learning.


Sam Demma (17:20):
When you think about other educators who, what a beautiful story, by the way when you think about the educators who impacted you growing up, wh who comes to mind and what did those individuals do for you that made such a big difference. And also as you started your professional career, kinda like a two part question did you have any mentors or I’m sure you had many but any mentors that had a significant impact on you?


Tara Connor (17:47):
Mm-Hmm so I think for, for me, and I would probably liken this to probably anybody that has positive memories of their educational experience in either elementary or, or or high school secondary school, you know? Absolutely. I had a wonderful music teacher and, and I, I already was connected to that world prior to moving into high school. But, but he was a very, very powerful individual in so many of the lives of the folks the students that I was around and connected to. So what do we know about who are those teachers, who are those people? And we know that those are, we always know those are not necessarily the teachers that have the most profound pedagogy, and that can prepare, you know, the best set of notes. And that the, the ones you remember are the ones you connect with and the ones that build relationships and the ones that care and the ones that motivate you and challenge you.


Tara Connor (18:51):
And and, and know you beyond the student, that’s sitting in, you know, row two for fourth chair down. And so I would say that would be the same in my own educational experience as well. We did lots of trips and travel and rehearsals, and it was all the outside of class as much as inside of class of of just, you know, feeling connected and part of something that was big and rich and meaningful and powerful. That was a, that was a great connection in high school. And then in regards to mentors, that’s a great question I grew, I don’t wanna let on that I’m a million years old, but I can tell you in my context, where I grew up, it was kind of a low, lower middle class neighborhood that I grew up in my parents were super young when they had me, I think when mom was about 17 and my dad was 18 or 19, I, I didn’t grow up with role models of women who were either in professional lives or careers, or certainly having families and also balancing what that looked like.


Tara Connor (19:55):
And and I also juxta, you know, again, I would say the other piece of that is I also didn’t have anybody or many people that I knew that had gone through university and had kind of, again, a career path that, that connected to higher education. And so I, I, you know, navigating through that, I, I didn’t have lots of reference points or frameworks around that. So when I moved into my professional life, I was surrounded by other people that certainly became mentors and supports to me. And one thing that I’ll just say of, of maybe some interest is that as a woman, I didn’t have anybody that I knew, as I said, that the mantra that we used, I remember saying it in high school, well, I’ll have a career, but I, you know, I definitely won’t start my career until I, all my kids are in school and everybody’s, you know, where they need to be.


Tara Connor (20:46):
And, and I have a four kids, so that would’ve been about probably 15 years if I had followed that mantra. And so I, I was, for me, there was lots of women that were leaders that I spent lots of time talking to. And, and it was understanding the challenges, the path with areas, the just hearing their stories and, and to be quite Frank. Sam, I actually pursued a doctorate in looking at the knowledge, skills and attributes of female leaders. And I know that’s quite a dichotomous way to think of gender. It was the way that 20 years ago, that was what we had the language of very insular language we were talking through, but the experience of female leaders in moving into senior physicians of educational administration. And part of my research was a narrative point, obviously there’s research involved.


Tara Connor (21:36):
So one of my data tools was being able to in kind of my mid to late twenties, meander around all over the province to talk to all of these wonderful, creative, engaged professional women in the field of education to talk about their own career pathways and their own challenges and experiences in the workplace barriers what, what would drive them, what would inhibit them? You know, all of those things that I was so deeply curious about and that I was defining and refining within my own mind and framework of how I was hopeful to live my life and have my career and, and life unfold. And, and so I would say many of those individuals have been measures and many of those individuals, individuals have continued to be mentors for me even, even, even to present day for sure.


Sam Demma (22:25):
Hmm. That’s just, that’s awesome that you still stay in touch with them and your research sounds like it was a really enlightening experience, roughly how many female leaders did you talk to, or if you remember, like how many did you interview or get to chat with throughout that project?


Tara Connor (22:41):
Yeah. So I, again, when you, when you get into kind of doctor level research, you tend to do, there’s a triangular you know, methodology right. Triangulation, and that you have a number of data collection tools, and then you kind of just suppose to see if there’s some commonalities or somatic pieces that come through that research. Hmm. So the individuals, I, I think it was under 10, I would say it was probably eight to 10 individuals. But it was, it was deep in terms of that narrative process. So it was really and, you know, with your experience in interviewing and, and working with individuals, it was quite a structured process because it would be in, in the nature of that level of research. But it was really, you know, all the pieces, many of the things that you’re saying in that, you know, how did you do this?


Tara Connor (23:28):
And, and why did you do this and what drove you to do it? And what were the things that you have found challenging? And what are the things that you in, in, in making your decisions and pathways and, and working through kind of your next steps, you know, what, what were the things that were most frustrating? And, and, you know, I would hear lots of failures before success that’s really relevant and how people would navigate talking about their family life. I would have women that would say, I never mention the fact that I have kids, or if I ever had to stay home, it would never be because of a child because of their fear of judgment around what they bring to the role and, and what they can or can’t do within the, the job itself. So not an overly large group, that’s not a typical again, depending on the type of research that you’re doing a much broader had a much broader kind of range of data sets more expansive in terms of number of individuals in the, in some of the other ways that I was navigating that research, but for me, it was amazing and it was really compelling.


Tara Connor (24:28):
And it challenged me in lots of ways, personally and professionally in the way I thought about I just thought about understanding, understanding systems and, and leadership, and, and also that marriage of personal and private personal life and public life and professional life, all of those, all of those different pieces, for sure.


Sam Demma (24:50):
Today, education might look a little bit different than the, you know, the first year you got into it. Mm-Hmm, especially with the global pandemic, but hopefully coming to a close now that has brought a dozen different challenges into education. But I think with challenges also come some opportunities. And I’m curious, absolutely. To know what you think some of these new opportunities are that are arising because of the challenges and why you think we should be excited about some of them.


Tara Connor (25:20):
Yeah, no, thank you for that. Well, one thing I’ll start off with is I think that our, when I look at my the, the students who surround me, they are amazing, wonderful, brilliant individuals. And they have, when I think of what our youth have had to navigate at such a pivotal point of their own development and stage, and, and still the optimism, the creativity, the resilience what they bring each and every day to not only their, their daily life, but to their, their future. I think that’s very hopeful and optimistic and, and that we should all feel really excited for the future. When we look at whose hands the future will be in, in the years ahead. The other piece, I would say there’s a few parts of this that actually think are quite interesting. I think we’ve had clearly a significant shift in terms of the use of technology in supporting student learning.


Tara Connor (26:19):
And so we have had a learning for some time. We’ve had lots of, you know, we’ve had, you know, virtual experiences or online experiences for students that we’ve had or in, in the last probably certainly 15 years or so excuse me. But what I think it’s quite interesting is we had, we had a really polarized position prior to going into March, 2020, where we had educators adamantly articulating that we cannot have all students involved in e-learning that, that there are certain things we can’t do through an online platform that we can’t teach certain subjects that we can’t test with the same level of integrity certain aspects of learning by the nature of virtue of being online. And, and as a, as a necessity through this pandemic, we have had to develop the capability and the ability to be able to develop rich, robust learning experiences and opportunities for all students across all grades across all subject areas.


Tara Connor (27:26):
And we’ve been able to successfully do that. I will, for sure say that virtual learning or online learning is not a great fit for all students. And there are students that this is not a platform that serves or supports them well because of the way that they learned and the way that they connect with their learning. But there are lots of students that do very well with it. And we have teachers now with the skills and ability that can’t say we can’t do it because we know we can. And so the question would be how we use it and how, in what ways we utilize it to be beneficial and supportive of students. And and certainly we’ve, we’ve got flexibility from my mind, again, particularly coming as a former principal alternative education, that ability to be innovative and flexible, and as many ways that we can think of to be able to wrap around and support students where they’re at and what their learning needs are in my mind, technology just creates a whole nother range of opportunities that we can tap into now that we have a, a restir of experience and knowledge to be able to do that work.


Tara Connor (28:30):
So I think I will just say, I think that’s a positive by necessity, it’s driven innovation and by innovation, we’ve been able to drive action that I think will have future positive implications for, and, and and I think flexibility and access for students. The other piece I would say is, you know, we get stuck on doing things the way they’ve always been done. And so and I think, you know, it’s very easy to fall into a state of inertia particularly when you’re dealing with kind of the busyness of the day to day life. And so we do teacher interviews a certain way, the way that we’ve always done them. And parent council meetings always start at seven o’clock on a Monday night, and they’re always up in the library and they always run for this, like the time in our agenda always kind of looks like this.


Tara Connor (29:09):
And, and so one of the things that I think, again, that the pandemic has this experience of, of schools being closed of people being not being able to do what they’ve always done has driven us to do things differently by sheer necessity. And so, again, to the two examples of parents, teacher interview or parent counsel, you know, parent teacher interview is fabulous for parents that are available and, and accessible to come into the school between seven and eight 30 on a Thursday night and meet some of their teachers of their students teachers as they go through it. But what we know is not all parents can do that. And lots of our parents commute, and many of our parents are out of country or in job locations or have work schedules that look very different from what our day to day life looks like in school.


Tara Connor (30:02):
So I, I think that we all should be challenged to say, who have we made, what processes we made better or more accessible or more has built connections that end product has allowed us to be able to do what we intended to do, which is essentially connect parents as partners with their teachers and their students to be able to support the learning of the students in our school. And so if the goal is accessibility and the goal is the opportunity and the connection, then when we think in very siloed, very traditional ways, we have to think about who we’re not capturing and we have the function ability to do better. So I think those are, those are some of the things that we should all be teasing out to say, you know, we don’t wanna go back to, to the way it’s always been. We wanna say, what can we do to always be better? And I think there’s some great opportunities to do that, for sure.


Sam Demma (30:57):
I love it. It sounds like you’ve reflected on this. those are some great ideas and the accessibility piece is a huge one. I, I know from speaking to educators as well, it’s something that people are realizing the differences in access have really come to light because of the entire two years being stuck at home and other reasons as well. So I’m, I’m hopeful that it will continue to change and evolve and adjust. And yeah, that, that you’re one of the people that are leading the change. So keep it up.


Tara Connor (31:32):
Well, we have to do that work that that’s work that has to be done. I think


Sam Demma (31:36):
When you think about, you know, Tara in her first year of teaching if you could bundle up all of your experiences right now, and advice and travel back in time and tap her on the shoulder and say, you know, here’s what I think would’ve been helpful to hear when you were just starting in this profession, in this vocation. Not that you would change anything about your journey or path, but what advice would you have given your younger self or another educator? Who’s just getting into this vocation now.


Tara Connor (32:05):
Yeah, that’s a great question. I have to think way back in the reservoir to go back to that first year as I think about where I was and where I am now you know, I, I think reflectively around you know, kind of advice that that I would think, or that I would offer to others, or I think about for myself is that I think, you know, we do this work because we wanna serve and support. All right. And we want to always do the best by our students, but always do the best by our school communities, whether we’re in the classroom or at, at, at a principal level or at the board level, at, I think at every level of education or provincial level as well. And we set the bar, if, if we’re doing the job well, we set the bar really high for ourselves mm.


Tara Connor (32:48):
In that we want to always do it. Right. And we want to feel like we always did the best and the right thing in the moment at that time. And I can tell you you know, the reality is the jobs that we do are complex. They’re challenging. You’re often in, I would say certainly as administrator, you’re often in the grades, it’s very often very, very rarely that you have, this is the right decision, and this is absolutely the wrong decision. So you’re always trying to navigate with real kind of reflection and clarity that this, this is the right decision to make. This is the right action to make. This is the right way forward. And and I think through that, again, one of the things that we are should be great at is reflecting to say, how could we get better?


Tara Connor (33:35):
So what I would say in terms of advice is that don’t be so hard on yourself. Always do the best. You can always take the time to reflect how to get better. And so there’ll be times that things go, especially if you’re innovative and especially if you’re trying to do things differently, there’ll be things that go great. Cause that’s the nature of innovation and things that don’t go so great and celebrate great reflect on how you could be better action, being able to be better and get better, but then let it go, right? Don’t, don’t hang onto the things of what if I had only done and what if I, and with an, and there was another way I could have handled that there may have been, but be gentle it with yourself. And, and and know that that’s the part, part of part of doing this work is sometimes is always getting better.


Tara Connor (34:25):
And so that has to be comfortable with knowing that you, you can always build from, and you can always get better from where where you’ve been and that so I think we get stuck in ruminating around why did, why did this happen a certain way? Why maybe I should have done something else. And, and again, I don’t think that honestly, I don’t think that’s a particular value or helps you be your best self. I think reflection is important. I think having a, a strategy to be able to deepen as you continue your work moving forward, but at times you have to say, I did the best that I could in the moment with what I had and what I knew at the time. And and I’m gonna keep using those things to get better and be better at what I do and how I service support others.


Sam Demma (35:06):
Mm. I love it. Such great advice. If someone is listening to this and wants to reach out to you, ask a question or chat about something you share on the podcast, what would be the best way for someone listening to get in touch with you?


Tara Connor (35:23):
Yes. No problem at all. So I, I hope to be part of the Helton board for lots of years. So I do have an email through the board that anybody could email me at if they have an interest. The last name is connort@hdsb.ca and I’m always happy to connect and always happy to learn and and be connected to communities with people that would like to talk and like to learn and grow together.


Sam Demma (35:48):
Awesome. Tara, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. Really appreciate your time and insights. Keep up the great work leading the change, and we’ll talk soon.


Tara Connor (35:58):
Wonderful. Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.


Sam Demma (36:00):
Hey, it’s Sam again. I hope you enjoyed that amazing conversation on the High Performing Educator podcast. If you, or you know, deserves some extra recognition and appreciation for the work they do in education, please consider applying or nominating them for the High Performing Educator awards, go to www.highperformingeducator.com/award. You can also find the link in the show notes. I’m super excited to spotlight and feature 20 people in 2022, and I’m hoping you or someone, you know, can be one of those educators. I’ll talk to you on the next episode, all the best.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Tara Conner

The High Performing Educator Podcast was brought to life during the outbreak of COVID-19 to provide you with inspirational stories and practical advice from your colleagues in education.  By tuning in, you will hear the stories and ideas of the world’s brightest and most ambitious educators.  You can expect interviews with Principals, Teachers, Guidance Counsellors, National Student Association, Directors and anybody that works with youth. You can find and listen to all the episodes for free here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connect with Reg: Email | Instagram | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Ottawa-Carleton Virtual Secondary School (OCVSS)

OCDSB

Hero on a Mission by Donald Miller

Russ Interview by Jay Shetty

The Transcript

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Sam Demma (16:11):
Mm.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Reg Levergne

The High Performing Educator Podcast was brought to life during the outbreak of COVID-19 to provide you with inspirational stories and practical advice from your colleagues in education.  By tuning in, you will hear the stories and ideas of the world’s brightest and most ambitious educators.  You can expect interviews with Principals, Teachers, Guidance Counsellors, National Student Association, Directors and anybody that works with youth. You can find and listen to all the episodes for free here.

Josh Windsor – Principal at Grand River Collegiate in the Waterloo Region District School Board

Josh Windsor - Principal at Grand River Collegiate in the Waterloo Region District School Board
About Josh Windsor

Josh Windosr is the Principal at Grand River Collegiate in Kitchener, Ontario. He has worked in numerous sectors including social services, business and marketing, and for the past 22 years as an Educator. Josh began his teaching careers in Health and Physical Education and Special Education but has taught Math, History, Geography, Science, was a Department Head of Special Education and a consultant responsible for professional development and a district elearning program.

Josh was a Vice-Principal at 3 high schools in the Waterloo Region before becoming the Principal at Grand River. In addition, Josh has been a long time coach in various sports in the community, at secondary schools and at the University level where he has been the head Men’s rugby coach at both Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo.

As a leader, Josh believes that growth mindset and self determination theory are the key components to school improvement and fostering innovative teaching practices that support student learning.

Connect with Josh: Email | Linkedin

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

University of Waterloo

Wilfrid Laurier University

Grand River Collegiate

What is an EA?

The Transcript

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

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


Sam Demma (01:00):
This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest on the podcast is Josh Windsor. Josh Windosr is the Principal at Grand River Collegiate in Kitchener, Ontario. He has worked in numerous sectors including social services, business and marketing and for the past 22 years as an Educator. Josh began his teaching careers in Health and Physical Education and Special Education but has taught Math, History, Geography, Science, was a Department Head of Special Education and a consultant responsible for professional development and a district elearning program. Josh was a Vice-Principal at 3 high schools in the Waterloo Region before becoming the Principal at Grand River. In addition, Josh has been a long time coach in various sports in the community, at secondary schools and at the University level where he has been the head Men’s rugby coach at both Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo. As a leader, Josh believes that growth mindset and self determination theory are the key components to school improvement and fostering innovative teaching practices that support student learning. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Josh. I surely did, and I will see you on the other side. Josh, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Pleasure to have you on the show this morning, please start by introducing yourself.


Josh Windsor (02:19):
My name’s Josh Windsor. I’m a high school Principal at Grand River Collegiate in Kitchener, Waterloo in the Waterloo Region District School Board.


Sam Demma (02:27):
And you’re sitting in the seventh house that you will be flipping . Tell me about your unique journey into education. And when you realized that education was a thing that you wanted to work in.


Josh Windsor (02:42):
Yeah. So when I was young Sam, I had I, my father died very young and I kind of lived on my own right around 17 because my, my stepfather and my mother moved away from town and the relationship I had with my stepfather. Wasn’t great. So I just decided I didn’t wanna leave my friends. I stayed here and I had worked pretty much full time from the time I was 14. Like I, well, full time summers part-time jobs. And I started delivering newspapers. I had two newspaper routes, one in the morning, one in the afternoon when I was in grade six. Right. So I banked a lot of money. So I had some money that I could sit on rent. I rented a room from one of my parents’ friends and, and stayed here. And at about 19, I started working in group homes.


Josh Windsor (03:30):
So with kids and and that kind of led me into some positions where I was in a school. So kind of being a bit of an EA with kids that needed extra support. So one to one support for kids that kind of struggled with behavior and things like that. So I did a few of those stints through university and then 22, I started working for the children’s aid society and I did that offer around eight years. So one of my jobs well, most my, the job I did the longest was a night job while I finished university. It was 10 at night till nine in the morning. And part of that job was crisis support for foster parents. So I would go into foster homes when there was crisis issues and, and try to calm kids down, support the parents, you know do some mediation, those kind of things.


Josh Windsor (04:19):
And and kind of finishing school. I then really like, I liked working with kids, but I started I stayed with that night job. Then I did some business stuff during the day, and I ended up leaving, leaving that night job because I was eventually the director of sales and marketing for a very small software company. Nice. I decided I wanted to go to teachers college because it wasn’t really that fulfilling. So at 30 I went to teachers college. I continued to work in that business while I went to teachers college. And then I had my employers, they were, they were great. And they allowed me to do that because I could continue to do my job. And then when, when the Mike Harris government kind cut a lot of funding to municipalities, our software business started to decline quite a bit. And you know, the owners had said they, they probably can’t keep staff on. So they said, you know, if you have job prospects go, go around. And I was, I was done teachers college for about six months and I went in and saw a few principals and I had a job starting in January.


Sam Demma (05:21):
Wow. How did your upbringing inform the way you work with kids today?


Josh Windsor (05:30):
It, I think I have a, I have a unique perspective just around kids that live in situations and poverty. I would say, you know, I’ve, I I’ve learned through education, so I, I did my master’s bit. I I’m about three years finished my master’s and I learned quite a bit about equity work at that time, I dunno if you’ve ever heard of Laura Malindo, she’s a M P P for province of Ontario. She was actually one of my professors in


Sam Demma (06:01):
Wow.


Josh Windsor (06:08):
And she was shoe section with poverty and things like that. So I started to recognize kind of my privilege and thought I was a self-made person, my whole life. Right. I kind of


Sam Demma (06:17):
One


Josh Windsor (06:18):
Sec, Josh, that ceiling


Sam Demma (06:19):
You, you cut out after you said the word professor, you don’t mind just going back and say she was my professor and continue.


Josh Windsor (06:25):
Sure. Yeah. So Laura, me, Linda was my professor and


Sam Demma (06:32):
Oh, can you hear me?


Josh Windsor (06:35):
And I learned quite a bit about equity as cutting out.


Sam Demma (06:38):
Yeah. It’s chopping in and out just a little bit. Well try one more time. If it, if it cuts out, there’s also a call by phone option and you could just add a, a call. You could just call into this. I could give you a phone number. Okay. And we’ll get the video on, but then the, like, there’s very little chance that it’ll cut out on the phone, but it’s funny every time you say professor, it cuts ,


Josh Windsor (06:58):
But okay. Let’s I can probably go to a different computer and see if I can hard wire in might you think is my wifi.


Sam Demma (07:05):
It could be shouldn’t


Josh Windsor (07:06):
Be, but,


Sam Demma (07:07):
Well, it was fine. The whole, like first section, so kinda odd. Let’s let’s try it one more time. If it cuts out again, I’ll I’ll, I’ll pause you and we could try something else, but okay. Yeah. Start again at professor.


Josh Windsor (07:20):
So, okay. So Laura Malindo was one of my professors and a lot of the coursework was around equity and she taught me a lot about intersection between poverty and, and race and, and other types of situations where people have to deal with deal with being disenfranchised right in our society. And so thinking that I was a self-made person for a long time, I started to recognize the privilege that did have just basically white individual, right. White male. And so understanding kind how to work with kids that kind of live on those margins recognizing difficult situations. I’ve, I’ve been able to, I think build really strong relationships with students and staff. And and that helps me, I think, as we, you know, think about, especially with pandemic learning that trauma informed lens that we need around everything we do. And, and my, you know, my values are students first. And so, you know, we work to try to support students and, and we make decisions that are based on what’s in the best interest of the student at any given time. So that’s really how I, how I see things and, and how I work with students.


Sam Demma (08:41):
How do you build strong relationships with students, whether on the margins, you know, marginalized youth or not? I think there’s they definitely need different things, but I think all young people also need some standard things to build relationships with adults and teachers and educators. How do you think you go about building relationships with students?


Josh Windsor (09:05):
Well, I think, I think the first thing that we need in a school setting is, is we need good structures in place to support students as they understand what their responsibilities are and, and what their opportunities are. And so making sure that you know, students understand kind line around, around behavior and what’s acceptable, but then also recognizing that each day is a new day. So making mistakes is what we do when we’re young and, and that shouldn’t penalize you for an extended period of time, right. There’s consequences for our actions. But you know, if, if a student kind of does something that’s inappropriate in the school that, that warrants some kind of a consequence, then that next day, you know, I welcome. I, I welcome that student. You know, I make sure that my, my staff are treating that student respectfully all the time and, and try to kind build those relationships from the perspective of recognizing that, that we do make errors in our life.


Josh Windsor (10:09):
And I’m not perfect. I made a lot of errors when I was a kid, right. So I know what that can be like. And when you get those multiple chances and when you have those people that care about you in your life, especially you know, your parents, but also your teachers, when those, when those people that are a little bit different from your, from your family situation can invest in time in you and, and make you realize what’s out there and what your potential is. Then, then you feel way more confident in being able to move forward. Right.


Sam Demma (10:37):
Tell us about one of those caring adults you had in your life that made a significant impact on you when you were going through a difficult time or just trying to get by.


Josh Windsor (10:50):
Well, I would say like from the perspective of, you know, family, my mother always, you know, provided those moral values that I still hold today. And and, and then as, as kind of, I went through school, I, I would say there’s a few teachers that, that really supported me. So one of them, his name’s Jeff Sage I, I started to play rugby. So I was a varsity rugby player at university. And when I started to play in high school, I was, I was 18 years old, never played the sport, didn’t know much about it. And he just really encouraged me. And then he, he had said to me, at one point, you know, you could play rugby at university. And I said, really, I’d never thought about going to university. I’ve got three extended families with, I probably have 150 cousins.


Josh Windsor (11:38):
And I would be the only one out of that whole group that’s ever gone to university. Right. And so that was that to me was kind of inspirational where I, I, would’ve never thought about that pathway but I began to love this sport. And then I, and then I thought, well, Hey, maybe I can do that. Right. So that, and that’s where I say, when you have a, a teacher that just says to you, Hey, you could do, you could do this, or you could be this, or you’re good at this, right. That, that makes a kid feel so good. And, and, and they’re encouraged, right. And that confidence and that you know, capacity to think about themselves in a different light is, is really how, how we change lives and how we make sure that, that students can move forward and be good citizens.


Sam Demma (12:26):
Tell us more. I couldn’t agree more. I think back to the educators in my life who made a big difference and it’s people who listened people who got to know me on a personal level and built a relationship regardless of the curriculum or topic or subject they were teaching. Tell us a little more about what your journey looked like after you got your, you know, your degree in teachers college to where you are today. So the various roles you worked in education, what they looked like. And yeah, the whole journey in essence.


Josh Windsor (12:59):
So I, I started out teaching at Waterloo collegiate and I was a, I was a phys ed teacher, and I also worked in the special education department. So I was a coach as well. So I, I coached a lot of different sports. And so you got to see, you know, through, through that coaching and through PHZ, you gotta see lots of different kids, but lots of, kind of really motivated students. And then through my work in the special education department, I got to see students with learning disabilities and other needs that, you know, were needed, needed much more support weren’t as confident, right. So I had kind of, you know, those, those two real different experiences. And I worked there at WCI for about five years just different contracts, you know, never really having a full, never really having a, a tenured position at that point in time.


Josh Windsor (13:48):
And then I got a phone call from a principal Preston high school. And he was an interesting guy, like, I would, you would think like cowboy, right? Like in education and, and back then a lot of the principals were like that right there, wasn’t, there wasn’t a whole lot of rules about what they could or couldn’t do as far as hiring and, and those kind of things. So he said he said, Hey my name’s my name’s Murray baker. I hear you’re pretty good. I need a special education department head. You gotta tell me by noon. And that was, that was kind of the end of the conversation. So I, I went upstairs and talked to my principal who, who was a bit of a different character too. And he was, he laid out kind of, well, you kind of need to have more experience.


Josh Windsor (14:32):
And, you know, I had this seven year plan where I did each position for seven years and he says, you know, I don’t think you should take it. And you know, I thought about that a little bit. And then I, then I realized that, you know, opportunity doesn’t always knock. So I called him back and said, sure. So I, I did that for three or four years as a special education department had at Preston high school. And then an opportunity came up I was a gentleman by the name of Mark Harper, who was a superintendent at the time. He’s done a ton of work now. He worked at the ministry of bed and then he was a consultant for a while and he was going, he’s been going around the world to different ministries of education for different countries and supporting them.


Josh Windsor (15:15):
Wow. You know, he’s a incredibly intelligent guy. He’s, he’s super smart, but he was a superintendent on our board of did tell me, he called me and he said, I need someone to spearhead and run this new eLearning program, and then you’ll have some other duties. Would you come and be a consultant? And so I did. So I, I ran our eLearning program for a few years there. And then I went I, I went back to a school for a little while and, and after teaching for a little bit longer as a student success teacher and, and special education, and then some PHED I decided I might want to get into administration. So I became a vice principal at Huron Heights collegiate. And then I’ve been at I was at three schools as a vice principal and grand river. Now I, this is I’m into my fourth year and as a principal there, and it’s my first school. So that’s kind of my journey through different things in education anyway. So it’s been about 20 years.


Sam Demma (16:13):
That’s awesome. When you’re at here on heist, did, did you cross paths with Bob Klein?


Josh Windsor (16:18):
I know Bob Klein very well. Yes. So I actually taught leadership as I was a half vice principal, and I was the leadership teacher. Yeah. At Huron Heights before Bob Klein came to do leadership. Cool. so he, he kind of, he was doing a little bit of work with me initially, and then I got, I got moved school, so I went to kitchen and collegiate. And then Bob kind of took over leadership there. So yeah, he’s a, he’s a great guy. He’s full of energy.


Sam Demma (16:48):
Now you have a reason to call him and say, Hey, I was just to this young guy, Sam mentioned your name. such a cool journey through education. I love that. You mentioned that idea, that opportunity doesn’t always knock often. So when it does, you know, pounce on it, if it’s something that fires you up, say yes, try it out. At the beginning of this conversation, you told me that along with your career throughout education, you kind of self taught yourself to flip and renovate and sell houses. Like at what point did, did you start getting to that as well? And do you think it’s important that people in education also pursue things outside of the classroom to keep their fire lit?


Josh Windsor (17:35):
Yeah. So to probably Sam, I, cause when I started teaching, I was still working at the children’s eight society on nights and weekends. Got it. Mostly that was because I had a, had a, I just had a child. So my son was born, we kind of needed money. My wife was off. And I, I had bought a house a few years earlier with my brother that we had to sell cause he was moving. And so a lot of learning those things was just because I didn’t have enough money to, to pay anybody to do it. Right. And then and then I just started to like it and, and got into a few other things. I had a couple student houses at one point in time. The other thing that I’ve done and partway, you know, through that career in education, I’ve been a varsity rugby coach at two universities.


Josh Windsor (18:22):
So I coached at Wilford Laurie for seven years and I was I left L Wilford, Laurie. And I went back to my Alma mater, which was Waterloo. And I was there for five years as, as the head coach. So I’m not doing that now. I stopped doing that kind of the year before I became a principal, just because I didn’t feel like I was able to do everything well. And that was what I decided to give up. I also knew my son is now at university of Waterloo. So that son that was born when I first started teaching is now 20 and he’s playing varsity rugby at Waterloo. And I knew he was kinda going down that path and I likely didn’t wanna coach him. I stopped coaching him at the 13 because he, we, we wouldn’t get along very well when I was his coach. So


Sam Demma (19:07):
Awesome. I love, I love it. It’s funny. My dad was in a similar role coaching or helping very heavily with soccer programs. I was on up until about 11, 12, 13, and that’s when he took on the spectator role of quietly sitting on the stands and, you know, analyzing the game and we’d have those conversations in the car after the game ended, when it was a phenomenal performance, we had great conversations and when it was a terrible performance, we had great conversations. sometimes here in the harsh truth or feedback is difficult. Although it’s, it’s shared with you from a place of love and support in the hope that you’ll take it and improve your performance, how do you think you break sometimes hard criticism to young people, not only in a sports sense, but also, you know, in classrooms.


Josh Windsor (20:02):
Yeah. I, I think it’s really important to be honest with people. And so having those difficult conversations is something that as a, as a school administrator you really have to work at. I mean, as a principal, I spend more time with staff than I do with students now. Yeah. I really push myself to get out and, and talk to students and work with students. And because I’ve got a I’ve got a love for leadership. I try to do a lot of work with those kids still. So men in our school board, we still have kind of quasi activities directors that kind of run leadership classes. And then we have an administrator that oversees budget for those things. And so I always take on that role, despite the fact that in almost in most of our schools, it’s a, it’s a vice principal that does.


Josh Windsor (20:47):
But I, I just enjoy it. It’s an opportunity for me to, you know, be with great kids and, and support them and help them. But also then be a presence in this school. So when I have those, when I have those difficult conversations with some of those kids, it’s usually around kinda, you know, here’s the reason why we can’t run this event, right? Here’s the procedure, here’s the, you know, here are the worries that I have from a safety perspective. And so you’re gonna have to go back to the drawing board. And so, you know, students that have spent a lot of time on something have to kind of hear that, take that feedback and then go back and, and try to work. So you, you talk about positive things as you give them the, the advice or the, or the, you know, the negative feedback that they can’t do.


Josh Windsor (21:35):
Something I like to use one of the techniques that I, that I use is like a it’s inanimate third object. So if we’re, so if we’re talking about your, your planning process, for example, so when a kid tries to run an event, when our students run an event, they, they go through this planning process. There’s a template that they have to use. So when I give the, when I give the criticism or the feedback I’m talking about the template, not about them. Ah, and so using re using language like, so, so this plan is, needs some work because as opposed to, you need to work on this plan, right? So the language that, that we use is really important when I, when I use the term, you you’re, you are going to inherently take that as a personal comment. Right. And so you’re gonna internalize that when I talk about your plan though you’re not internalizing that as much. So that’s one of the techniques that I would use to kind of provide feedback to people that they maybe don’t want to hear. It usually makes things go a little smoother, right. Also use a lot of eye language. So I believe, I feel and, and that, you know, makes them recognize that I’m a part of that process. So you take on kind of that responsibility on their behalf.


Sam Demma (22:57):
I, I love that idea. I’m gonna steal it. when I have to break some bad news to people. I think when you said, I language, my mind also went to like, people’s physical eyes. I think it’s so important that when you not break bad news, but share a truth or an honest feeling with somebody that they can hear the tone of your voice and see you because you can tell if someone’s sincere in their remark or, you know, if they’re just brushing you off, whereas if you were to write it as an email, there’s so much left for guessing. Right. And people could assume one thing when you meant something totally different.


Josh Windsor (23:41):
Yeah. Agreed. I mean, there are some other techniques that I use, especially with students because body language and stance is really important. So a lot of the research out there would let you would tell you that males, for example, when you, when you are face to face with an individual, with a, with a male your shoulders are square, that, that really, to us signifies conflict or, or you know, challenge. So a lot of times when I talk to students like boys when they’re upset or angry, I go sit beside them. And so you’ll, you’ll maybe hear this, like there’ll Bey, there’s psychological kind of research and books around it. So when you wanna talk to your, to your son, you talk to him in the car. Cause you’re side by side. Right. And because, because you know, the, your tone and of that face to face stance really, really triggers kind of their, their fight or flight.


Josh Windsor (24:40):
Got it. Response rate. So, so when you sit beside them, then they don’t have to look you in the eye, which is, which is, if you think about kind of things from the animal kingdom. Right. And you know, you, look, you look at cat in the eye, for example, that’s con that’s like a challenge, right? Yeah. So there’s, so that works with humans quite a bit too. Whereas if you’re having a conversation with a, with a young lady, then they want that face to face contact, right. That, so you do square up and then you make sure your body, your body language is open. So you would never sit with your arms crossed, for example, cause that’s a closed stance and that means I’m not willing to listen. Right. So those body language things that you, you have to really think about as you have those conversations.


Josh Windsor (25:21):
And I use those quite a bit with students, but also with parents, because you can have parents that come in that are hop and mad about something, right. And then, you know, you have to try to calm them down and, and work to a solution. And that’s that’s one of the things that I find really interesting about education. And when you talk to you often talk to people in the business world who you know, think teachers get paid too much or, you know, there’s, there’s too much money spent on education and things like that. And, and I always explain it to them this way. I say, when you’re, when you’re managing a situation in your business, whatever that business is, you, you really have two points of view. You’ve got your customer and you’ve got your employee. Right. And so you’re trying to manage those two points of view when I’m trying to manage a situation in a school.


Josh Windsor (26:05):
So let’s say it’s a conflict of some kind between two students. I have four parents, if I’m lucky, cuz lots of times I have eight parents. Right. I could have outside agencies like the children’s aid and other things. I have to think about any of the adults that staff, that work with those individuals that may be involved in this. I have to think about the, the public perspective of what education should look like. And then I have to think about the policies and procedures of the school board and the school. And so I’m taking, you know, 6, 7, 8 different perspectives as I try to make a decision, which normally isn’t gonna make anybody happy. Right. Mm-Hmm, in those, in those conflicts. And so you know, you navigate those waters and, and really have to, you have to be able to build relationships and, and be able to kind of adhere to your moral compass as you, as you work through those things,


Sam Demma (27:05):
What resources have you found helpful in your professional development that has given you greater awareness at work, but also personally in your own life, you mentioned the NPP that taught you during your master’s degree. It sounds like she was a massive resource, but I’m wondering if anything else has been an inspiration or like a north star and guiding compass for, for your belief system and who you are today.


Josh Windsor (27:33):
I, I would, I would say recognizing that the public education system needs to be good for all students. Yep. Is one of the things that really drives me to continue you know, trying to do, trying to make those good decisions on a daily basis, trying to build a school culture that is welcoming to everybody and, and trying to help our young, you know, our, our young people recognize that they need to be engaged in the world to be good citizens. So you know, diff reading different, reading, different things all the time. So I’m always interested in, in research education. I’ve got a keen interest in science and physics cause that’s kind of a new area and I don’t know much about it. I was never science or physics trained, but when you hear kind of some things that are, that are happening out there, like around vision or, or other things where it’s like magic, these, these things that are going on.


Josh Windsor (28:31):
So, you know, I, I, I read different articles on a regular basis. I think about those things. And then learning from other people I think is where I, I truly get most of my kind of passion is just, just listening and talking to people, being engaged in professional development opportunities where you’re working in a group. So I think those are the, those are the places where I gain my efficacy at around, you know, what I believe. And then you know, trying to, trying to move barriers over the way a school board is school boarded, administrative of education is a significant bureaucracy. So I really work at trying to navigate through some of those things to make, make sure that things can happen. It’s really easy to say, no. You know, especially from a leadership perspective, which is where you do a lot of your work, right?


Josh Windsor (29:24):
So, you know, a student comes with an idea like we wanna have a hot dog eating contest. Right. you know, that would be one that we would say no to, but how do we then navigate through, what is the purpose of that activity? What is it that you, what is the end goal of that activity and how do we modify it to make it safe, to make it inclusive, to make it, you know, good for all of our students and to bring people together as opposed to do something that a couple of you, your friends wanna do. Right. so where where’s the greater good in what we’re doing? Where is the service leadership in what we’re doing? And, and I think, you know, from that perspective, it’s part of the reason why we’ve moved our school is a, an SDG school. And I dunno if you know what that is, the UN global system, the goals.


Josh Windsor (30:12):
Yeah. So I’ve got those goals posted up in our hallways, around our schools now. So the 17 goals are in each of our hallways. I’ve got teachers really working to try to do some real world things in their classrooms. So one example of that is we had a, a civics and history class. So two classes with one of our teachers last year start to engage some of the politicians in our community because my school is on Indian road. Mm. And the iconography, the original iconography of the school was a was a caricature of an indigenous person. And so that went away about 12 years ago. But our school nickname was the renegades and there’s still some of that residual feeling kinda around those things. And so some of our students didn’t think it was appropriate that the school was on Indian road.


Josh Windsor (31:04):
That’s our address. So we have started a process of, of engaging politicians around that with, with student support our students were at delegation at a city council committee meeting where they passed the, they, they they passed the motion to change the name of Indian road. And then that went to the, the larger council. So city council has passed that and we’re beginning a consultation process with people in the neighborhood beginning in may with our students being involved and, and teachers and things like that to, to try to move forward around, around making that change. So engaging our students in real world issues at the municipal and, and maybe provincial level, but also globally is I think how we have them recognize the change that they can make in the world, but also you know, understand that, that we all have a role as citizens to, to do the right thing.


Sam Demma (32:10):
I couldn’t agree more. It’s so cool to hear that the SDGs are on the walls in the hallways throughout your school. And teachers are actively trying to integrate those holistic outcomes and challenge based learning into the classroom. If you could take all your experience in education, bundle it all up, travel back in time, tap your younger self on the shoulder and say, Josh, this is the advice I wanted you to hear when you were just getting into education. Not that you would change anything about your path, but think about how you felt when you first got into this work and some advice or ideas that would’ve been helpful when you were just starting.


Josh Windsor (32:52):
I, I think what I would’ve told myself is just to be a little more confident in situations where, where you were working with other people mm-hmm I would say colleagues where you felt the decisions or the things that they were doing were not okay. Not in the best interest of kids. So I think as a young, as a young educator you have, you have your Federation and you hear things like, well, you don’t wanna say that to another teacher because that would be a member to member issue. And so you stay quiet on some things. And that’s one of the things I’m trying to do with some of our young teachers is encourage them to use their voice. Our, our young teachers coming out of teachers college, truly understand education. They’ve, they’ve been taught all of the right things that are research based.


Josh Windsor (33:40):
And I would say for the most part, the people that we’re hiring there’s, there’s still others there. But they’re still not confident. And they feel like they can’t say what they need to say. Right? So a lot of, a lot of the really good work gets hidden. So I think it’s, it, it’s such a, it’s such an issue with public education that we, we hire somebody at whatever 24 years old, you know, give or take a year or two. Then we put ’em into a classroom with 30 students and we have them close the door and we really don’t talk to them support them, or do much with them for a period of time. Those processes are getting a little better, but it it’s, you know, it, the professional development time that’s needed to build a, a quality teacher is extensive.


Josh Windsor (34:31):
And I, and I think, you know, I would go back and tell myself to have those conversations with those older staff that you don’t believe are doing the right things for kids. Cause it’s, it is easy to get jaded in, in this, in this business or, or industry because you will never, ever get paid anymore for working harder. And lots of times things occur that are negative in your, in your professional life that you feel like are causing you more stress, more issues. And so then you start to pull back on the things you do, right. And, and you’ve seen that clawback of time provincially over the last number of years. So things like planning time and prep time for teachers is, has continuously been clogged back while real wages have, have been reduced. And so people just don’t feel valued, right? And, and when people don’t feel valued, their efficacy drops and their capacity to be optimistic goes down and then their willingness to work hard really kind of starts to fade. Right. And and I think that can be, that can be combated just by bringing in young people that, that, you know, can energize you right. When you have those conversations.


Sam Demma (35:45):
Got it. Love the advice, not only applicable for education, but for any industry. If someone had a question about anything you shared on the podcast, wanted to reach out, chat with you, what would be the best way for them to get in touch?


Josh Windsor (36:01):
Well, they could reach me via email. So, you probably have my email. So do you want, do you want me to say it out loud?


Sam Demma (36:08):
Yeah. You can share it out loud, but I’ll put it in the show notes as well.


Josh Windsor (36:11):
Okay. Yeah. It’s josh_windsor@wrdsb.ca.


Sam Demma (36:21):
Awesome. Josh, thank you so much for taking the time to do this. I appreciate it. Keep up the amazing work and we’ll talk soon.


Josh Windsor (36:28):
Thanks Sam. It was really good to talk to you.


Sam Demma (36:31):
Hey, it’s Sam again. I hope you enjoyed that amazing conversation on the High Performing Educator podcast. If you, or you know, deserves some extra recognition and appreciation for the work they do in education, please consider applying or nominating them for the High Performing Educator awards, go to www.highperformingeducator.com/award. You can also find the link in the show notes. I’m super excited to spotlight and feature 20 people in 2022, and I’m hoping you or someone, you know, can be one of those educators. I’ll talk to you on the next episode, all the best.

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The High Performing Educator Podcast was brought to life during the outbreak of COVID-19 to provide you with inspirational stories and practical advice from your colleagues in education.  By tuning in, you will hear the stories and ideas of the world’s brightest and most ambitious educators.  You can expect interviews with Principals, Teachers, Guidance Counsellors, National Student Association, Directors and anybody that works with youth. You can find and listen to all the episodes for free here.