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Teaching Tips

Terresa Amidei – Activities Director for Desert Ridge Academy

Terresa Amidei - Activities Director for Desert Ridge Academy
About Terresa Amidei

Terresa Amidei (@DRAsb2) has been an educator for 23 years.  She grew up in North Pole, Alaska and is currently the Activities Director for Desert Ridge Academy, a public middle school in Southern California. 

She cares about student voice and advocacy and works to be sure every student on campus is seen, heard, loved, and valued.  She says teaching is exhausting, but so, so worth it.  The work all educators do is vital!

Connect with Terresa: Email | Instagram | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Desert Ridge Academy

California Activities Directors Association (CADA)

What is American Sign Language (ASL)

SAVE Promise Club

PickWaste

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is Terresa Amidei. She has been an educator for 23 years. She grew up in North Pole, Alaska, and is currently the activity director for Desert Ridge academy, a public middle school in Southern California. She deeply cares about student voice and advocacy and works to make sure every student on campus is seen, heard, loved, and valued.


Sam Demma (01:04):
She says teaching is exhausting, but so, so worth it. The work all educators do is vital. You can reach her at her email, which she’ll share at the end of this interview or through her Instagram @draleadership. I cannot wait to share this, this conversation with you because it was so inspiring, and so filled with amazing ideas that you can implement into your schools and with your students. I will see you on the other side, talk soon. Teresa, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here today. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit about what brought you to where you are in education today?


Terresa Amidei (01:41):
Oh, sure thing. Thanks for having me, Sam. This is fantastic. So I am Mrs.Amidei. I am the activity director at Desert Ridge Academy. We are in the Coachella valley and it is hot, it is so hot. Fun fact, summer school last week; 122 degrees. Swear, the actual temperature. So, the next part of your question was for what brought me here? Well, a fantastic thing. Funny story. I went to CADA, which is the California Activities Directors Association, and I happened to hear Sam talk about his amazing PickWaste thing, which is recycling and how he was student voice, student advocacy, making a change for the better. And that’s how I met Sam and how I got into education was this, I thought like this, hmm, what really matters? Hmm, what, what matters? What will make a difference? Where, what should I spend all my energy and talent on? And it was education and then not only being an educator, but then I was middle school because middle school, there’s no one who gets to be an adult that says, you know what, if I could just go back to middle school, bless you. If I could go back to middle school, my life would be so amazing. Middle school is the best years. That’s only true for kids that come here because we really do try to make middle school, not so middle schooly. Do you know what I’m talking about?


Sam Demma (03:02):
yeah, I absolutely. I absolutely love that. And you know, before we even started the interview, I saw this little, what I thought was a tattoo on your wrist. And for those of you that are listening and don’t see the video, there’s this little butterfly on her wrist. And I thought it was a tattoo. And so I asked Theresa what it was. And can you explain a little bit about that, how it originated and how it’s being used within the school?


Terresa Amidei (03:20):
Okay. Well fun. Another fun fact, our school is situated. We’re in Southern California. So we’re in the migratory path of the Monarch butterfly between here and Mexico. So a few years ago we got a grant and we actually had some butterflies. And now I wish I would’ve put that picture up that were painted as a mural on our building. And so the kids were like, wait a minute. I thought we were Diamondbacks. Like, why are we getting butterflies? So my student leaders came up with this way to make our, our butterflies make sense for them. They use this initiative, it’s called the D butterfly project. And it’s like this, you know, there’s a lot of kids, especially post pandemic. And during the pandemic and this year and a half of lockdown, they were struggling, right? Their mental health was suffering. Their emotional health was bad.


Terresa Amidei (04:03):
Their physical health was maybe they, you know, they were stuck middle schoolers. It’s the hardest part because like they don’t have jobs and they can’t drive. So they can’t leave their house. Right. Unless someone’s picking them up or we have zooms like this, where I’m like, come on, we have this activity just come on down. We’ll have a quick dance party. Woo, woo. So my kids noticed the mental health was not so great. Right. But kids, it’s such a hard thing. Like, they’re not gonna say, Hey, hold a little sign. I’m suffering. Like I’m having, I’m struggling. I’m having a hard time. I’m thinking of hurting myself. But what they will do is take Sharpie and make a little butterfly, which is what I do every day. Now, when we see that as a trusted adult, what we do is I look and if, if you were holding it up, I would say, oh, Sam, I see that you have a butterfly.


Terresa Amidei (04:50):
I’m a trusted adult at desert Ridge. Can I help you? I, I can get you any kinda help and I can listen to anything that you need. Right. and I’m happy to say that I, I was in that situation and I was able to get a kid help so that, you know, it just takes one to make it worth the effort. Right. And even if you say, no this is just a support butterfly, cuz you can put one on to say you’re supporting other people. So it’s not so stigmatizing to be like, Hey, I need help. I’m you know, if everyone’s like, oh no, we’re all rocking this. Like we’re all here to support each other. Then I would say, oh thank you so much, Sam, for your support. That means a world to, to someone who’s really struggling. And then I’d also go like this check on Sam next week in case it was a legit butterfly.


Terresa Amidei (05:33):
And it’s just been a really great, great project. It’s so simple. It costs nothing. In fact, some of my students in leadership last year, we presented virtually of course at the national youth violence prevention summit. And we shared this idea and there was a kid in Georgia who was like, miss a, I love that butterfly project. I mean, that’s not exactly how I sounded, but to me that’s how I sounded. And he go and it’s, I mean, everyone has a pin. If there’s kids who are also on distance learning, we also had a thing where if your parents were like, don’t write on yourself, you know, that’s a thing. We just added the butterflies onto our name. So where I have mine with my pronouns, my she and her we would just add a little butterfly fun fact, if you go eight, I eight kinda makes a butterfly. So that was my butterfly when, when we were on distance.


Sam Demma (06:23):
Wow. That’s awesome. That’s so cool. Does that idea or project relate to the hashtag save promise? I saw that in your, your email and I was wondering what that was all about as well.


Terresa Amidei (06:32):
Yeah. Okay. So save promise is another organization that we are a part of and we have a club I’m the advisor for that club as well. Nice. So the safe promise is stands for students against violence everywhere. Mm. It actually came out of the Sandy hook promise group and save promise club was another one. And so they kind of merged and they had this fantastic organization where they’re just saying, Hey, we gotta minimize our gun violence. And to do that, to do that, it starts with eliminating isolation, social I isolation. Like if you, I mean, it makes sense. You’re like, yes, that makes sense. If you feel like you don’t have a place in the world, if you feel like you can’t get any help, if you feel like no one notices, if you’re there or not, then of course you might be, you know, drawn into violence because nothing matters.


Terresa Amidei (07:23):
So for us, we, we were really happy to be a part of that club. In fact we got oh, what was, I, I wanna say it was a relationship. And like like what do you call it when you get like a little award? And we were like, oh, you guys are doing such a great job of like, you know, being innovative and connecting students. And I was like, yes. Because we only just started it last year. We just saw this is a serious need. I mean, not to get all serious on a, on a upbeat podcast. But when we, when the whole nation was closed down, you know, due to COVID wow. The school shootings were dramatically dropped because there were, there were no kids to be engaged in violence. When we started opening up, it was, it was heartbreaking to hear like, oh, there was another case and then another case and then something else.


Terresa Amidei (08:09):
And it’s like, guys, we can’t go back to the same way of operating. We, we have to be there for each other. We have to rise up by lifting others. If you see somebody who’s sitting by themselves, don’t let the sit by themselves. You know, like you can say, like, if I saw you by yourself, Sam, I would say, Hey Sam, do you, do you need someone to stay with you? I mean, some people are introverts, you know? And they’re like, no, I’m really good by myself. That’s great. But I need to ask to be sure, because if you’re like, no, I really just really want, I just feel terrible. Like I’m, I’m by myself, you know, mm-hmm so part, part of that initiative is we, we participated in a start with hello campaign, which is simply like, hi, hello, Hey. Yeah. How you doing?


Terresa Amidei (08:55):
You know, like acknowledging you exist, that’s where it starts. So you don’t feel so isolated. And then later in the year we had a whole districtwide where say something campaign. So it’s like, when you see something, most people who are gonna be drawn into any kind of violence, whether it’s like, oh, I’m gonna, I got some beef. I’m gonna have to fight with that person at the bus stop. You know, they say something, someone hears it before it actually happens almost every time. So part of that campaign is like, Hey, let us know. Like our number one thing is keeping kids safe. Yeah. We wanna educate you. But we I’m, I’m also trying to make fully formed functioning, loving adults, you know? Yeah. So I don’t want you to get a black eye. Like, how are you gonna you’re you’re like all scared of the bus stop cuz you think someone’s gonna try to get you like that.


Terresa Amidei (09:43):
That’s no way to live. So that’s kind of the things we’re trying to be ahead of the game and be like, no, no, no, no, we, we don’t play that game. Like no, no, no, no, no. You don’t have to sit by yourself. Like no, no, no, no, no, no. You need a friend come on over. And the other cool thing we’ve done Sam, like I’m just on a roll I better, I better have some wine keep no, no, no. I’m good. I’m good. Another thing we started is we noticed you know, there was a lot of turmoil in the country. I don’t know if you noticed, have you noticed? Yeah. A lot of divide, a lot of people, like not talking to each other, a lot of people, like, I don’t believe you or you no, you’re this. So you must not be that.


Terresa Amidei (10:20):
Or if you’re this, then you’re all these other things. People are very complex. And I think we don’t, you know, take that time to get to know each other when we realize, oh my gosh, we’re really the same. We’re really the same. Like you care about the environment. I know that from the work that you did. Right. And so I care about the environment. Like I turn on my water, I get wet. I turn off my water. Yeah. I get some soap. I turn it on. I turn it off. Yeah. That’s that’s me. You might, you didn’t know that till now. But we had that love of, of the world and the environment in common. And if we don’t have a chance to ever talk about it, we will never know that we’re really the same. Mm. You know? And, and it’s like, when you know somebody and you care about someone, it’s like, you know, I’m not gonna hurt you or I, I’m not gonna want to hurt you or I’m gonna understand you better.


Terresa Amidei (11:07):
Or I’m gonna be more willing to listen to what you have to say, because we’re the same. Yeah. We have the same things in mind. So one of the clubs that we started when we were noticing all this, you know, national turmoil, people, adults being mean at each other, adults yelling at each other adults like, Ooh, I hate you because we, we just started a club called the rise above club. And it’s a spot where, I mean, I hope I can launch it with like, you know, and make it something great. But it’s the idea that we gotta be better than that. You know? And like kids, adults always think, oh, kids like, you know, kids, they’re little, I’m telling you kid, you’re a kid Sam. Well, okay. You’re probably really an adult, but I’m like, oh, you’re much younger than me. So to me, they’re kids. Right? Yeah. Kids have great ideas. Yep. Kids can change the world. They’re not the future leaders. They’re the leaders now. Yeah. They’re the leaders now. And they need a space to like, figure this all out. Like how are they gonna be able to talk about things if they don’t understand it? How are they gonna change something? If they can’t have a voice, how are they gonna be able to navigate the world when it’s all confusing and scary and make them have anxiety?


Sam Demma (12:18):
Yeah.


Terresa Amidei (12:19):
So for me, the club is it’s about student engagement, student advocacy, speaking up how to have a voice. Like there’s so many kids who don’t even know like, oh, that’s the process of speaking to the school board and getting policy change. Oh, I could write an email to every Senator which I did on my veteran’s day. Cuz I thought, well, this is an important day. I’m gonna use my day to make sure everyone knows what I’m thinking. Sam. It took all day. But you know what? I did it. Why? Because I thought it mattered. I thought it mattered. And, and even, even if no one reads it, I know I have spoke my truth to people who have are in a position to make a change, make some kind of change. So I’ve done what I can do from my little space.


Sam Demma (13:06):
Yeah. No it’s so true. Just so much, so much good stuff. So many cool ideas. Thank you so much for sharing. What led you in education towards the extra mile mentality? It sounds like you’re involved in so many things in the school. You know, you’re making an impact on so many levels as opposed to just being a teacher. No, there’s nothing wrong with just being the teacher and teaching the class and going home. quote unquote, but there’s so much more to it than that, but it’s like, you know, you, you get involved in so many different things. Where did that drive come from? And do you think that’s been a very self-fulfilling experience as well because you probably get more out of being a teacher and an educator as well by getting involved in so many different things.


Terresa Amidei (13:51):
Yeah. That’s excellent question. And here here’s the thing. First of all, I do have a, a wonderfully supportive family, my children and my my, my husband, you know, they, they know that this work is important. Because I always tell ’em this work is so important. Yeah. Like, like I I’m thinking about the work that I could do. I mean, I, I could do so many things. Right. Like I could have any kind of job, but I always say when it comes to education you know, I’m exhausted like on the daily, you know, like when they always do the COVID screening and they’re like, do you have a headache? Do you have muscle fatigue? And I’m like oh shoot. I do. because I’ve been here for like 15 hours. Yeah. And I’m like, wait, is it because I’ve been typing and is this why I have a headache?


Terresa Amidei (14:36):
Oh, is it because I was outside and I was 122. We were doing a tour of the campus. Yes. That is why I have a wait, can I wait? I’m like, okay. I can still taste. We’re good. We’re all good. We’re all good. It it’s I always say this, like, it’s just it’s not supposed to be an easy job. Mm-Hmm like some people think, oh, teachers it’s so easy. You’ve got the summers off fun fact. I worked three sessions of summer school this summer. I, I didn’t have any time off. That was self-imposed because I wanted to help the kids. I wanted to make a difference. Ooh. I wanted, I, I, I, I’m not, I always say this shouldn’t be an easy job. It should be a job. That’s worth it. Yeah. The job is really difficult if you’re doing it, if you’re doing it well, that’s how I see it.


Terresa Amidei (15:22):
If you’re doing it well, you should be tired because you’ve put everything into it. Yep. Like imagine whatever sport that you wanna play. You know, and it’s the, like, we just had the Olympics you know, you have an excellent, like the goat Simone. Right. And she’s doing it even. She’s like, wait, you know, like, wait you know, I gotta watch out for myself. Right. That’s one little side lesson, but, but she’s gonna be tired. She’s gonna be sweaty. Right. Because she’s giving it at all. She’s not coming in. And she’s like you know, she’s, she’s doing like amazing, innovative things that have never been done. Right. So I’m thinking, yeah, I’m in a classroom. But the work that we do, what most people don’t know, unless you’ve been an educator is how many decisions that you’re doing and how many things that you’re man, like my mind is always firing.


Terresa Amidei (16:12):
Like, like this is every, like the Sies right now. It looks like this in my brain. Right. because I’m like, okay, I gotta watch out for this kid. I know that kid’s dog just died. I know this mom is in COVID this one’s battling cancer. Like I’m managing all that stuff and trying to be like, you need to help others because you’re gonna feel better if you help others, if you serve other people. So for me, this job is like, it’s mission critical. It’s mission critical because whatever I do here, if I’m doing a good job, I’m gonna create happy, fully functioning, nonviolent, helpful humans. Mm. And that’s what I wanna see. You know, that thing, like be the change you wanna see. That’s the change I wanna see. I wanna see people who care, but also like have fun. Like I I’m, I work with children, you know, elementary kids, middle school kids, high school kids, even high school kids.


Terresa Amidei (17:06):
Right. Okay. Maybe they turn 18 when they’re in high school. Right. senior year. But are they really adults? Like, do they really understand all this stuff? And like have a driver’s license and know how to vote and pay a mortgage? Like, you know what I mean? How to get a rental application? Wait, the answer’s no, they don’t know any of those things. So it’s like, you still gotta remember they’re still children. Right. They’re still navigating what it’s gonna be to be like, oh, this is the life that I wanna have for myself. Mm-Hmm and this is the things that are important to me. I mean, there’s so many advocates out there, like thank goodness that are young people. Right. even like, I look at Amanda Gorman and I’m like, oh my gosh, that poem was just gives me the chills. Right.


Terresa Amidei (17:46):
But she’s in her twenties. Mm-Hmm , you know, this is a world that belongs to everyone who’s here. So for me, I, I just want, I just want kids to come in and be able to make mistakes, but like, you know, turn it into things that are gonna work for other people. Like, you know, we create the welcome messages and we don’t just make posters and we’re trying to lift people up. Like, we’ve got little secret, you know, like, oh, we’re gonna leave the, okay, I’ll tell you secretly okay. Like Friday, we’re having this welcome back dance. Of course, with the whole COVID like, you know, we’re very mindful of all those rules. And we’re like, okay, 10 of you here and 10 there. And we’re playing the games because they’re just so craving interaction. They they’re just craving this interaction. Right. So, you know, it wouldn’t be a time like, Hey, I’m gonna invite you to dance and we’re gonna do, we’re gonna learn times tables.


Terresa Amidei (18:35):
Cause I’m gonna get you caught up. Like that would not be an event that would go over while. Right. So safely giving them this interaction. But then here’s the secret. We already made these little love notes for every single person at the school and every single adult at the school. And while the dance is going on, we have a secret, you know, happiness ninja team where we’re gonna tape them on every single desk so that when they come in on Monday, they’re gonna go what now? I mean, I hope they do that. Some will be like, what, what is this? Like, you know, and whatever. Yeah. Because they’re kids, but some it’s gonna matter to some kid and some kid is gonna keep this little note and some kid is gonna tape it onto their little Chromebook or stick it in their backpack. And you know what and will probably, and this is the hardest part of leadership. We will probably never know that it made an impact on that. Yeah. We might never know, you know, like in a school, we we’ve got like a thousand kids and, and adults here. Right. And so in that, in that huge number, you know, you, you will not get any kind of feedback. That’s like, I love that. Keep that more of that, you know, they’re, they’re not gonna say anything. Yeah. But I just have to believe like it matters.


Sam Demma (19:50):
Yeah.


Terresa Amidei (19:50):
Being welcome social, you know what I mean?


Sam Demma (19:52):
Yeah. It’s like, you know, a tree falls into forest just cause you don’t hear it doesn’t mean it doesn’t fall. Right. It’s the same thing with student impact like it. Right. Right. You know, just cuz you don’t see the positive mental changes in physical changes that a kid might be undergoing due to something at school they’re still happening. Right. And that’s such a good reminder. You know, I like to think of educators, people like yourself as gardeners, you guys are planting seeds and watering them every day and sometimes you don’t see them grow. Sometimes you do, but they all grow, you know?


Terresa Amidei (20:21):
Well, and here’s the other thing, like what you put into it. So what if I’m, what if I’m like super critical, you know? And I’m like super short with you and I’m like, just sit down, Sam. That’s growing too. Yeah. You know what I mean? Yeah. That grows too. So I mean, and we’re all, we’re all human and it’s hot and there’s lots, lots of moving pieces. So, you know, I, I try to be mindful. I don’t always, you know, hit the mark, but I also try if I realize I’m like, Ooh, I was kind of harsh to Sam. I, I always try to be like, Sam, come on. I gotta make, I gotta make amends on that one. Cuz that I didn’t, I, I need you to understand, like even if you’re correcting a kid, like, I still love you. This is fine, but you can’t do these two things like stop doing this and then I still love you. You’re good. And now it’s over for me. If you stop doing that. right. Yeah. we just gotta have a way that we are like, oh, okay. Communicate, communicating what I need so that you can be successful. I’m just, I, I feel like I’m like the German guard, like help me help you. Yeah. That’s what I’m trying to do.


Sam Demma (21:23):
That’s awesome. Love it. Cool. And what are you most looking forward to this year? I know it’s gonna be maybe looking a little different than the past couple years. but, or maybe not, but what are you looking most forward to?


Terresa Amidei (21:36):
It’s okay. I mean, you know, not to sound so cliche, but it’s, it’s like that it is the little time when you catch a, well, you know what? I’m not gonna say miss a, I love that activity. I love getting my note. Oh miss a. I love that poster was so cute, but what they, what will they will do is they’ll come in and they’ll go like this, miss am. Hi. That tells me I’m doing the right thing. Or I’ll see a kid and they’ll be like, I’ll catch ’em and I’ll see ’em I’m like, I’m like, they’re getting their note and they’re like


Sam Demma (22:06):
Quick little smile.


Terresa Amidei (22:07):
yeah. And then I’m like, yes. When here’s something to happen on Monday. Okay. You ready for this one? Sam? It is. So this is so important because here’s the other thing with leadership. You don’t have to like, I mean, I’m trying to get all kids. I mean all like all of them, I’m trying to get all of them right. To where they need to go successfully, but you gotta do it. It’s like you gotta make those special moments. Like one kid at a time, one kid at a time, like this is, this is how here for me. Like the amount of reinforcement. If I can get one kid that’s enough to get me another week. You know what I’m saying? Mm. So this happened on Monday. My kids were, it was our last week of summer school, right. Of the last session.


Terresa Amidei (22:49):
And we were giving tours to the new kids who were coming in. So sixth graders who had never been here from seventh graders who had never been here because of COVID. Okay. And I was already like, you know, we had practiced in that super hot, hot heat. And I had like Otter pops for after, when it was done, then I’m not being paid by that. They’re just the cheapest Popsicle. I’m just saying Hey. So we were practicing, we’re doing all this stuff. And I had told my kids, look, I, some parents are gonna try to sneak in and I’m gonna be like, no, no, no parents, because I can’t have you lead a tour. I don’t know who those parents are. Right. I gotta keep you safe. That’s my number one job. Yeah. So there was this kid that came in, I’ll have to demonstrate the kid comes in and they’re with a parent and I’m like, wow, like getting ready.


Terresa Amidei (23:31):
Like I’m getting ready. I’m not in my pose, but I’m getting ready. Like, you gotta go, you can’t be here. Right. And the mom says, I’m an interpreter for my daughter. And I was like, whoa. And I’m like, what, what are you interpreting? And she says we’re doing, I need to do sign language for her. Okay. Now this is where it gets really good. Don’t make me cry, Sam don’t do it. I won’t okay. This is where it gets really good. Okay. So everybody’s messed up and you can’t really, you know, you can’t really see how anywhere they’re like this. Right. And so this mom says I’m doing a you know, ASL. And I said, oh my gosh. And so then we’re like my name. And we started doing, and then the girl, okay, you gotta imagine it. Okay. So with her mouth, she goes like this, she goes,


Sam Demma (24:13):
Mm.


Terresa Amidei (24:14):
Like this and it gets better because one of the clubs we have is ASL. So I, I bring over the little QR code where, you know, we have this for all the kids and I find the ASL club and I hold it up for her and her mom. Ooh. Yeah. I’m getting goosebumps. That’s how, you know, it’s the right thing. I pull up this card and I say, Hey, we have an ASL club. And she just went while she’s still like, and she just leans into her mom and her mom and her are like that. Okay. That, that alone will get me two more weeds of effort, because think about it. Are there a lot of kids who are gonna come to our school and need ASL interpretation? No, but this girl came now think about it. She came, it’s a new school. It’s already scary.


Terresa Amidei (25:00):
Anyway, she hasn’t been to campus forever and she now she’s here and, and she’s probably worried, oh my gosh, I’m not gonna be able to talk to anybody. Like no one will understand what I’m doing. Like everyone’s gonna think. I mean, well, plus I just watched Coda last night. It’s so good. Anyway. So I’m, I’m thinking about that. And then, and I didn’t know she was coming, no one told me like, oh, Hey, you’re gonna need to have a, you know, services for this kid. No one. I didn’t know. So the fact that we are like able to accommodate it and I’m like, I have a, we already have a spot for you. We have a spot for you already. You didn’t even have to say anything. We have a club that’s already everything that you like, it’s your field. Like, it’s like, if I was a kid and I was coming to school and I’m like, what?


Terresa Amidei (25:43):
You have a sticker and hot latte club. What, it’s exactly my people with exactly the things that I like and need that I identify with. You already have a space for me. Like, just think about how I mean, and it wasn’t, I mean, just think about how she was like that information to know there would be people and clubs hearing and, and not who could, she could already communicate. Like she wouldn’t already have to advocate for herself because it was already there. Mm we’re already ready for her. What, what do you think? What do you suppose a difference that would make for that family? And, and for that kid, now that she’s coming to our school


Sam Demma (26:26):
Safety, you know, they know there’s a family away from the family, right. It’s like, right. Every student might not need ASL, but every student needs a community where they feel welcomed and involved and loved and you know, included. And I think that’s exactly what that does.


Terresa Amidei (26:42):
right. And I mean, and to me, her face was like, you get me. Yeah. You get me and you have a space already ready for me. You saved me a, a space on the bus. Yeah. That’s what it says to me. So that like, I, it wasn’t, I, I keep a little sticking out. Like I keep all my little inspirational things. Mine is like, okay. It, it didn’t have to be a big thing. It just had to be the right thing. Like nothing heroic, just the right thing. That was, it was the right thing to have that club.


Sam Demma (27:09):
Yeah. I love that.


Terresa Amidei (27:10):
And, and you never know, you just never know when you’re gonna need it. You know? Like I said, I didn’t know she was coming and I’m like, boom, I got you. You know, some other kid came out like, boom, I got you too. Yeah. Oh, we don’t. Oh, we don’t have a club. You know what? Come sit down. We’ll find you advisor. We’ll make it right now.


Sam Demma (27:26):
That’s awesome. that’s so cool. Yeah. So how long have you been working in education?


Terresa Amidei (27:33):
Ooh this is my 23rd year.


Sam Demma (27:36):
Let’s go. Thank you for your service.


Terresa Amidei (27:42):
you’re welcome. That was easy. Yeah.


Sam Demma (27:45):
that was the first time anyone’s ever pushed that button. I love it.


Terresa Amidei (27:50):
It wasn’t, it wasn’t easy. It was hard, but, but worth it, like I said, it was hard but worth it.


Sam Demma (27:55):
Yeah. I hear you. So knowing what you know now and what the experiences you’ve had and the things you’ve learned, if you could go back and speak to Tonya year one, what advice would you give me to yourself?


Terresa Amidei (28:08):
Sam? Why’d you have to go there. Why’d you have to go there, Sam . Okay. Well, so many things have changed right, since that time, but there, if there’s anyone out there who’s listening, who’s an aspiring educator. I say, jump, jump all in and be all in from the very beginning. The, I mean, I see kids all the time, like in this community, cuz I, I live where I work and you know, my, my own children are like, oh mom, we don’t wanna go to the store with you. Cuz people are always like, miss, is that you? Or they’ll be like, oh, was Ms. Like what she got in her cart? I’m like, what? Nothing, nothing gonna see here. Just all vegetables and fruits but what I would, what I, I, when I have seen kids that are now like, oh my gosh it’s so my first job I was doing eighth grade. And so that was 23 years ago. So they were 14. So 14 to 23? Yeah. 37.


Sam Demma (29:01):
Oh


Terresa Amidei (29:02):
Yeah. I, I haven’t had the thing where those kids, kids are in my class yet. That hasn’t happened yet. I’m waiting for that. But, but I see him and like I saw one guy at Costco and like, he was, I’m like, you have a Costco card and I’m like, wait, you’re married, wait, you can drive like, wait, I’m like you. And he had like a toddler. And I was like, oh my gosh, why? And I say then like, I’m like, wow sorry about anything that I might have messed up you know? Cause I just was trying so hard, you know, trying so hard back then, but you don’t have, you really don’t have the skills for several years, like a, a full on, you know, repertoire of like everything, you know, plus I’ve taught like every subject before I got into leadership.


Terresa Amidei (29:46):
So math, science, English, social studies, intervention, computer Jo geography and, and now leadership. Right? So I’m like, oh no, I know. So I would say when I got to year 15, I was like, yeah, I think I’m pretty good. you know, like I’m like, I think I’m, you know what, I think I’m not being doing an right job. Yeah. I mean, yeah, yeah. I think I’m getting this right. And then I would say maybe like by year 18, 19, it was like, I know, I know what I know. You know, I know what I know. I know my value. I know that I understand this I’ve I’ve been around this block. Like, you know, kids are always like, oh, how’d you hear me? And I’m like, oh bro, I’m a mom. I’m a wife and I’ve taught middle school for 23 years. You really think I’m missing any of that. That’s going on in the corner. Cause I’m not, you know like I already know, I already know what you’re gonna do, you know? And so you can plan for it. So my, my only advice for my young self would be like, you’re gonna get there, you’re on the right path. Your, your ideas are golden. You just need to just firm it up a little bit. Right. And then, and then you’ll be here. Woo. With


Sam Demma (30:56):
Sam


Terresa Amidei (30:57):
I’ll be like, know, I’ll be like this one day. You’ll be with Sam, the recycling guy that you met at cat . You’ll never believe it


Sam Demma (31:05):
In 122 degree weather.


Terresa Amidei (31:07):
I know that. Awesome. Doesn’t global warming. Let’s seriously get on board.


Sam Demma (31:12):
Terresa, this has been so, so fun. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat about your experiences, what’s going on in your school. Everything that you’ve gone through and your journey into education, this has been so, so cool. If someone is listening and wants to reach out and just have a conversation, what would be the best way for them to get in touch with you?


Terresa Amidei (31:31):
Yeah. I would say email. I can, do you want me to drop that to you? And then you can,


Sam Demma (31:36):
I’ll put in the show notes, I’ll put it in the show notes as well, but if you want, you can even say it now or spell it out for


Terresa Amidei (31:42):
All right. Well, do you see my name right on the little thing? So put a . in between there. So terresa.amidei@desertsands.us.


Sam Demma (31:52):
Cool. Easy, simple. Thank you so much again. This is awesome, Keep up the great work.


Terresa Amidei (31:57):
Sam. You’re doing such great work yourself. I just wanna say thanks for reaching out. Like anytime, anytime you need some filler, just call me.


Sam Demma (32:04):
I will, appreciate it.


Terresa Amidei (32:05):
I love it. I love it.


Sam Demma (32:07):
All right. Well talk soon.


Terresa Amidei (32:09):
Okay. Bye Sam.


Sam Demma (32:10):
And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the High Performing Educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review so other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show; if you want meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network, you’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Terresa Amidei

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.

Kevin Fochs – Executive Director of Alaska FFA

Kevin Fochs - Executive Director of Alaska FFA
About Kevin Fochs

Kevin Fochs (@fochs_for_hd60) is the Executive Director of the Alaska FFA. Kevin spent 32 years in the classroom and is an award-winning agriculture educator and FFA advisor.

Kevin specializes in leadership development of youth and educating them about the opportunities and importance of agriculture. He is responsible for the oversight and management of the Alaska FFA Association and the Alaska FFA Foundation.

Connect with Kevin: Email | Instagram | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Alaska Future Farmers of America Association (FFA)

Agriculture Education at Montana State University-Bozeman

Masters of Education at Montana State University-Bozeman

Hobson Public School

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today I have the privilege of being joined by Kevin Fochs. He is the executive director of the Alaska FFA. Kevin spent 32 years in the classroom and is an award winning agricultural educator and FFA advisor. Kevin specializes in leadership development of youth and educating them about the opportunities and importance of agriculture. He is responsible for the oversight and management of the Alaska FFA Association and the Alaska FFA Foundation. Kevin does amazing work and we have a very enjoyable, laid back, but authentic conversation on today’s episode. I hope you enjoy it and I’ll see you on the other side. Kevin, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here today. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit about what brought you to where you are in your own life’s journey so far?


Kevin Fochs (01:32):
Yeah, well, I grew up on a cattle ranch in Montana actually, ’cause kids spent most of my life, life or youth in on a farm and ranch, raising cows and milking cows, riding horses. And when I graduated from high school, my mom said “Hey, you need to go on to college” and I was kind of fighting that I wasn’t actually thought, oh, I’ll just keep be work for a while and then think about it but she insisted, which was a very good thing. And so I went to Montana State, actually got a degree in agriculture education, started teaching in the state of Montana, taught there for, actually taught 6 years in a little town called Hobson. And and then I took a year off and got my master’s degree in school administration, which I never did use, but went to and then went to a town of Livingston. It was kind, it’s kind of a funny story, how I got to Livingston.


Kevin Fochs (02:31):
I finished up my master’s degree and the agriculture teacher that was there called I’m take a sabbatical for a year’s pregnant in Livingston. So he says, will you come teach for me for a year? And I said, sure, that sounds good. I didn’t have a job at the time. And so I went thinking I was gonna be there a year and he decided he was never, he was gonna stay on the ranch. So I stayed there and taught for 26 more. So, wow. So I taught 32 years in Montana. Wow. And actually taught those twin girls too, which was kinda cool when when they were, they took my class and the, the first week of school they, I had the kids introduce themselves and these two twins introduce themselves. And, and I says, you know, if you don’t, if you don’t like your ag teacher, you can blame your dad. And they, they would come up to afterwards, like what you about getting started in Oxton. So, yeah.


Sam Demma (03:37):
So that’s awesome. And


Kevin Fochs (03:38):
Then I, you know, I retired 32 years in Montana retired. I was, but, and I last about four months and I’m like, no, this isn’t ready. This isn’t where I wanna be. So not ready for retirement. So that’s brought me to Alaska. So I took the job up here in 2014 as their state FFA advisor. So I oversee all the FFA chapters in the state. So I’ve been doing that going on seven years. So


Sam Demma (04:08):
That’s awesome. And it sounds like your mom played a big role in you going to school and continuing your education. Did you have other educators in your life that tapped you on the shoulder and said, Hey, Kevin, you know, you should consider doing this work or getting into agricultural education. Did you have other educators that inspired you? And if you did, what did they do that made a huge impact on you? If you can remember any of them,


Kevin Fochs (04:32):
You know, I probably you know, my family, yeah. On my mom’s side was a lot of educators. My grandma was an elementary teacher. I had, I had three of my uncles actually taught my mom’s brothers and, and really, you know, I’m real close to, or really my, my uncle John made a big impression on me as youth. You know, part of my history. I lost my kinda a tragic story when I was young. I lost my my grandfather and uncle and my dad were hit by a train and killed when I was wow. Little, my mom at the time had four girls and myself and was pregnant with my little sister birdie. So she ran our ranch for about three years before she remarried. So wow. Real strong lady. So got a lot of, I listened to my mom, I guess growing up and making, you know, having her tell me to go to school, I guess was probably a good thing.


Kevin Fochs (05:38):
I actually looked at being a vet and got accepted to Colorado state finances. Weren’t that great for me? So I couldn’t afford to go to school there. So that’s what took me to, to MSU. And I actually started in architecture and that didn’t sit real well with me. So I actually got good grades in architecture, but decided I wanted to get into something that was, you know, probably still keep me associated with agriculture. Nice. That’s what led me to agriculture education had a, had a great ag teacher in high school, you know, ate, taught for over 40 years. Wow. Still, still talk to Gary Olson frequently. So yeah. Good guy.


Sam Demma (06:26):
Oh, that’s amazing. And thank you for sharing that part of your story. Yeah. I appreciate that must have been a really difficult experience growing up. But I believe that our adversity shapes our values and our principles and the rest of our life. And I’m curious to know what are some of the principles and values that your mom raised you with to help you pursue and continue through this, that difficult challenge at that point in your life or things that you think, ah, I believe this because of my mom. Any, any of those things come to mind? I feel like our, you know, parents play a big role in how we grow up as young people and educators play a big role in how students grow up as well. Curious.


Kevin Fochs (07:05):
Yeah. You know hard work I guess. And, and the ability to do what you set your mind to do, I guess, you know, in a matter of hardship, you know, my mom remarried and had two boys too, so there’s eight kids in our family, but my stepdad real close to him. Cause I was so little when my, my dad passed, my real dad passed away that he was my father, you know? But he used to always say, there’s no such word as I can’t,


Sam Demma (07:35):
Love that.


Kevin Fochs (07:36):
So yeah, that, that’s kinda a, something that drives you, you know, and just seeing the, the hard work and the strength of my mom.


Sam Demma (07:45):
I love that. Thank you for sharing. And, and what do you think keeps you going now? You know, what keeps you, you said you’re well past retirement or you stopped teaching in the classroom and now you’re, you’re doing a lot of work with students in agriculture and you know, it’s been keeping you in Alaska for the past couple years. What is your motivator today? What keeps you going?


Kevin Fochs (08:05):
You know, working with youth keeps you young, that’s fun.


Sam Demma (08:09):
Yeah.


Kevin Fochs (08:10):
And I guess you can always see the impact, you know, that even if you just change, you know, one person’s life there’s to the impact that you make with youth and particularly in Alaska being a young state and not having a lot of strength in their agriculture education programs in the state. So being able to grow that and seeing that you’ve made change, I guess that’s rewarding. So but, but youth always keep you young and you know, and still even touching base with those kids that you impacted when you’re teaching or, or associated with an FFA, you know, is rewarding.


Sam Demma (08:54):
Ah, I love that. And when you think of students whose impact you have seen or heard of maybe even 10 years down the road, sometimes you can probably attest to this. You don’t really know you impacted a kid until 10 years later when they come back and tell you other times, you know, right away do any impact stories of students that that have happened over the past 20, 30 years, however long you’ve been working with youth stick out in your mind are any stories that you can recall that are like, wow, this is, this was amazing. And maybe it’s a very serious story, so you can change their name if you wanna keep it private. But I’m curious if anything comes to mind.


Kevin Fochs (09:29):
Yeah. Oh yeah. There’s a lot of stories. You know, I always said, you know, the kids that were struggling, that you could see that you made a change with were the, probably the most rewarding, you know, a lot of times you have really intelligent students, really capable students and you don’t know that you made an impact on, so the ones that, you know, that’re having tough time with school or with life and, you know, I guess they’re the most rewarding, but one student in particular, I don’t know, I’ve told this story. It’s kinda my success story. I guess a teacher, I had a, I had a student that came into my class as a freshman. He was wearing sandals and short, you know, he was a city kid. He wasn’t your typical FFA type student. And he immediately brought his drop ad slip up to me and said, Hey, I didn’t sign up for this ag class.


Kevin Fochs (10:23):
I’m will you sign my drop ad? And you know, the school’s policy was, they couldn’t change class till the end of the week. Anyway, this was like beginning of school year. And I said, well know what, yeah, I will, at the end of the week, if you want me to sign it, bring it back up. But why don’t you, you know, stick with class till Friday and see what you, you see what you think. And bring it back up Friday if you wanna change so well, the end of the week comes up and he goes, you know, this sounds like an interesting class. I think I’ll, I’ll take this class. You know, he, the funny part is he was, didn’t have any association with agriculture whatsoever. He grew up in, you know, in town and as a sophomore, he ran for our chapter officer and he actually partnered with another classmate and they started raising pigs and he went on and he was really competitive and FFA, our FFA organization had speaking contests.


Kevin Fochs (11:28):
He went to national convention as the state winning speaker and competed nationally in a speaking event. And wow got elected to, to state office in FFA. The president president Clinton at that time came and toured Montana when he was a state officer. And he was one, one of like four people that got to spend a couple days with the president showing him agriculture in Montana. Nice. He went on Montana state and, and, and he got into vet science and he, he met a gal and was in vet science, ended up marrying this gal. He’s now managing the farm and ranch of his wife’s parents who retired. And he runs a 10,000 acre ranch in Montana growing grain and hay. Wow. Livestock and yeah. So pretty cool story. The, the highlights of that story when he got married, he actually asked, asked me to stand in. So


Sam Demma (12:36):
Was that’s amazing.


Kevin Fochs (12:39):
That’s yeah. Success story didn’t have any interest in agriculture whatsoever, but you, you know, impacted him and showed him that there’s opportunity in that as a career. And


Sam Demma (12:55):
That’s amazing. So when, when you think back to that first week of school, and this might be a long time ago, so I apologize for the pressure, but when you, when you think back to that first week that he was in your class, what do you think made him wanna stay by the time Friday came around, but you know, was it just the introduction that week and he might have been interested in the subject. Do you think you did some things that made him feel more welcome and involved, or what do you think by Friday made him not bring that slip to you and have you sign it?


Kevin Fochs (13:27):
Don’t know, I guess hopefully that, you know, I, I always tried to treat all kids with respect and, you know, care about kids. You know, I was accused of spending more time with my students sometimes than my own kids, which I don’t, think’s a bad thing, you know, so I kind was a father figure to some kids, you know, because they spend a lot of, a lot more time, a lot, some, some of ’em probably spent more time with me in class and on FFA activities than they did with their parents. A lot of ’em, but, you know, just welcoming. And I think you know, the nice thing about teaching agriculture was that it’s an elective. It’s not a required course, like some academics. And and, and there was a lot of variety. I really tried to show kids the big picture of agriculture when they were freshman.


Kevin Fochs (14:19):
We did a lot of things. You know, I actually, one thing I did was kinda unique is I actually gave them a list of, of materials of subject units that we were gonna teach. And I would let ’em vote on them, I would say, okay, we’re gonna, I’m gonna teach you most of this stuff, that’s on the list, but I wanna see where your interest flies. And so you know, we had animal signs and plant science and computers and mechanics, little stuff like welding carpentry. And, you know, that’s the neat thing about agriculture. You teach a lot of different subject areas. And so, so I’d give them a little buy in because they thought, you know, that they were, you know, getting to choose what they wanted to learn. Some, you know, that’s a, but most, you know, the one thing I wouldn’t give ’em a choice on, I would preface that too, is, is I had public speaking down as one of one of their choices. And that usually I got the worst voting, you know, nobody likes to public speak, but I would say this one is probably gonna get the least number of votes, but you’re still gonna do a speech this year, you know? And I made all my classes and good speeches during the year. So


Sam Demma (15:34):
That’s awesome.


Kevin Fochs (15:35):
All my classes. Cause I just, it’s just a, it’s a scary thing for people to speak. You know, they say it’s a big fear of people, but I think it’s really important that sometime in your life you’ll have to stand out in front of somebody and speak,


Sam Demma (15:50):
Yeah. Whether it’s one or 50 or thousand, it makes no difference getting up in front of someone and speaking, whether it’s one on one or with a bunch of people is a fearful thing to do. But I would argue it’s also one of the most important skills. Like you’re saying whether you want to get a job or whether you want to make sure you can ask that girl or guy out on a date I mean, can use in every capacity. Right?


Kevin Fochs (16:14):
Exactly. Exactly.


Sam Demma (16:16):
That’s a


Kevin Fochs (16:17):
Brilliant, you’re always,


Sam Demma (16:18):
That’s a brilliant idea though, having your class vote on the subjects or the chapters, like maybe you have a whole year curriculum, but instead of doing it in the way that you wanted to organize it, you, you could even yeah. Get the kids to vote on it and then whatever ones they wanna do first, you just put those the, you know, the start of the school year and work through it. I think a lot of teachers listening to this will love that idea and maybe even implement it in their classroom. So thanks so much for sharing this year and last year, and hopefully not the year coming have been very different than the rest of education up until this point in time. What are some of the challenges you’ve been faced with personally and how have you tried to overcome them?


Kevin Fochs (16:59):
Yeah. You know education, I think so, you know, it seems like budget is always an issue. I guess you learn to live with that. You do things that, that you can to, to supplant maybe some of the money that you don’t don’t have. You know, I wrote a lot of grants and my, and continue to write grants to support the programs that I’m doing now. So trying to alleviate that, you know, finding good support from community, I had a real strong alumni group that supported a lot of the activities that we did and they would financially support a lot of the things that we did with our, at least with our FFA organization. So that was good. You know, the, the COVID challenges that we’re facing is, are huge. You know, I actually worked in my house for 16 months. I just, realistically just came back to my office just a month ago.


Kevin Fochs (17:59):
So it’s been a challenge and I applaud the teachers that are, that are out there in the trenches trying to teach in this atmosphere. I, you know, it’s, you know, I told somebody, honestly, I told somebody if, if I was still in the classroom trying to teach what I taught to my kids, you know, agriculture’s a lot of hands on stuff like welding. And you know, we had a greenhouse where I, where I taught. So we worked in the greenhouse, grew plants and you know, we were actually raised chickens and used them in the school, we school farm. So we did some interesting things, but a lot of hands on skills and how you, you know, how you become innovative and are still able to teach those hands, this, but, but, you know, we’ve, I’ve operated in that climate, you know, the last two years we, we did our state FFA convention virtually, and we’re one of the first states in the, that put on our convention.


Kevin Fochs (19:16):
Granted we have a, we have a small membership in our state. So we have some advantages that way, but, but it was, you know, just stepping up and saying, Hey, we’re gonna make this happen. Kinda goes back to that, no such word as I can. You know, we just we’re gonna make it happen and do what we can and that’s what we did moving forward. And I think they were successful. You know, it brought some things to light that I think are positive. In Alaska, we’re such a we don’t have a lot of roads in our state. You know, the Western part of Alaska is pretty much you get there by a boat or plane or in the winter, you know, you take snowmobile up the river. So a lot of the villages and a lot of the, the communities are, are really remote.


Kevin Fochs (20:08):
So the thing that I see is I think we’ll deliver some of our future events and our conventions and our leadership events, I think will deliver them remotely and in person. So we’ll be able to provide some opportunities for kids that maybe weren’t able to do that just because of the distance. I mean, here’s, here’s a crazy story. I had a FFA chapter in cake and they came to our state convention. It cost about $7,000 to travel to our state convention. wow. If you could believe that. I mean, that’s normally what, you know, in Montana, that’s not even, I wouldn’t even pay that kids to, to, you know, national convention in Indianapolis. So, so, you know, huge, you know, two taking plane fair and taking another plane to get here and then, you know, yeah, just huge amount of expenses. So, so, so those barriers with travel are huge.


Kevin Fochs (21:13):
So, you know, being able to look at things a little differently and deliver some things remotely, I’ll good for us out. We saw a huge impact. I mean, we, you know, our convention had numbers in this. Well, you know, when you look at Facebook, we had over 8,000 people accessing some of the events that we were doing in our convention. And normally we have 250, 300 people at our convention in attendance, so, wow. So definitely reached a lot of people that weren’t, we hadn’t reached before. So that’s pretty neat, you know, so we’ll, we’ll look at that as we move forward.


Sam Demma (21:52):
Nice. Ah, I love that. And I would assume it’s also harder to get the word out maybe this year about FFA, but I remember on our previous phone call, you told me that you’ve still been able to keep the groups going and most of the chapters are still running in schools. And since you started, you know, you went from a couple FFA chapters to, I think you said 18. Is that how many are currently in Alaska?


Kevin Fochs (22:12):
Yeah, we started with six and when I first took this job and had like round, we had our actual membership was a 17 and we’ve grown our membership over 500 and we grew to 18 chapters. We’re actually had some, we’ve lost some members. I’ll be honest with you. We lost some members and lost some chapters is last couple years with COVID. So yeah. So we’re trying to rebuild that because there’s still that in person, there there’s a need for people to meet in person and have that relationship, I think, to draw new members and, you know, and just show kids what we’re about. So,


Sam Demma (22:55):
Yeah. And I hear, I hear you have a huge team as well. Is that true?


Kevin Fochs (23:01):
Oh, oh, as far as I, I do have state officer team, you have five state officers that help conduct our activities across the state. We’re just gearing up for things that we will go out and visit chapters this fall and do activities with them workshops. Matter of fact, they’re coming in next week to do those workshops, that training. Oh, great group. Great group.


Sam Demma (23:27):
Awesome. And if you could go back and speak to your younger self and give yourself advice on education, on teaching, on working with young people, knowing what you know now, and based on the experiences you’ve had over the past 20, 30 years, what advice would you give a younger self?


Kevin Fochs (23:48):
You know, that’s probably comes more from a personal side was I’m kind of a workaholic. So that was pro I guess if I had to do it everything over again, I’d probably to devote more. I’d take more time to, to be with family and do things that were personal. My work was and still is kinda my life. So, so it cost me, you know marriage. So yeah. So if I was gonna talk to people starting out, I’d say that, you know save some time for your personal life. That’s, that’s very important. So,


Sam Demma (24:32):
Ah, thanks for sharing that. I appreciate that. That’s it’s honest and I appreciate the, the honesty. Awesome. Kevin, thank you so much for doing this really appreciate you taking your time to come on here. Means a lot, and I know that educators listening took away some great ideas and hopefully can implement some of them as well. If someone li is listening to this and wants to reach out, maybe just send you an email or just, you know, get in touch with you, what would be the best way for them to do so?


Kevin Fochs (24:58):
Yeah, they can, they can share email me my emails, my last name’s pronounced Fox, but it’s spelled F O C S so it’s K Fox, alaska.edu, so, okay. And yeah, they’re welcome to send me an email. I’d be happy to talk to ’em, you know, I’ve done presentations for teachers that are just starting out and always enjoy doing that. Cause you know, they ask a lot of good questions and you can relate some, some stories, you know, that things that you’ve done, that you do different and


Sam Demma (25:33):
Love it. Yeah. That’s awesome. And they’ll see your beautiful HBAR mustache as well. They choose to book you but awesome. Thank you. Thank you so much,


Kevin Fochs (25:43):
Paul. You know, can I close with one thing though?


Sam Demma (25:46):
Yeah, please.


Kevin Fochs (25:47):
You know, and may I’m at fault too, you know, I had my youngest daughter, she, she was talking about she kind of said she didn’t wanna go to college. And you know, I had a college professor that retired from the university and even admitted that maybe sometimes we, we look at college as you know, we all want our kids to go to college. We all want them to get a college education. Like my mom consistent that I do. And I think that’s good, but I think there’s some, some some other opportunities out there that we need to pull from too. I think there’s some technical schools and other career choices that, that are easier to attain and, and are, are really rewarding careers and good paying careers. You know, my daughter, I insisted that she, she go to college and she was like, she’s kind of she’s hardheaded like her dad, you know, she said, oh, I’m gonna go into the military.


Kevin Fochs (26:43):
And I says, well, that’d be good. You can get an education in the military. That’s alright. You know, and, and she thought about that for a while. And she says, no, I’m not gonna do that. She goes, well, I’m, I’m gonna become a hairdresser. And I says, well, that’d be a good way to pay for your college. You cut hair while you getting your education. And then she, she was indignant, you know, my oldest three kids went to Montana state and she was indignant that she wasn’t gonna go to Montana state and follow in her older brothers and sisters footsteps. So she was she’s insisted that she was gonna the university of Montana. And in, in Montana, that’s kinda, there are rivals, you know, in football and, and our big rivalry between U of M and Montana state. And I says, well, okay, I suppose, you know, I was like, honestly, didn’t want to go to U of M, but I says, why don’t you as a senior, why don’t you go check it out and go to their orientation?


Kevin Fochs (27:42):
And so she did, and she came back and, and and she said, dad, I’m not gonna go to U of M I didn’t like it up there. So I’m gonna go to Montana state. So she did. And she started out and you know, getting the college education probably because I had forced her. And then she decided that she was gonna just get a two year degree in accounting. And, and she went to, you know, gall college there and got her accounting degree and is doing real well. She’s now sales manager for state farm insurance agent. So she, you know, is doing extremely well, you know, started off making more money than any of my kids that went, got a college education and, you know, like job and stuff. So, so I think, you know, sometimes maybe I don’t fault parents wanting their kids to go to college education, but sometimes they need to listen to, cause there was a lot of good occupations out there that kids can get. And I saw that, you know, teaching too, I had a lot of kids go to technical schools and go to two year programs and, and doing very well and enable to come back into their own communities and work and live and, and make a good living. So just a side note,


Sam Demma (29:01):
Oh, I appreciate you sharing that. I’m also someone that took a very different path. I went to school for only two months actually, and then decided to postpone my education to pursue all the work I’m doing with students. And back when I first started and told my parents that they would’ve thought I was absolutely crazy, in fact, they did. Right. you know but it’s important. I think that, that we love what we do and to love what we do. We have to sometimes go against other people’s opinions initially. But hopefully at some point in our future, it pays off. Right. yep, exactly. And I, I appreciate you sharing that, especially now there’s so many opportunities that didn’t exist, you know, 50, 60, 70, a hundred, 200 years ago. Like they, and, and some of them don’t even make sense unless you’re a student growing up right now and experiencing them first end. So yeah, it’s such an important thing to share. Cuz one thing that you say to a student could stick with them for the rest of their life. You know, you, you tell a student something about not being able to do something or being more realistic, and that might be the one thing that changes their future career choice and, and you don’t even know it. Right. So


Kevin Fochs (30:12):
Yes, funny to say, but that I, you know, I was a good student. I, I got good grades all through school and through college and I got one D in in college and it was in a, and it was in a class called introduction to agriculture education and it was introductory class for, for people to become teachers and agriculture. And it made me dang mad that I guess maybe that’s, part of the reason I ended up being a teacher is I was like, God, I can do this. You know, what do I get a D for


Sam Demma (30:46):
ah, I like that. Oh yeah. And sometimes when people say you can’t do something, it also gives you a little spark or fire to, to prove that person wrong and to continue pursuing the thing that you want to do. Or prove yourself right. You know, you overcome the challenge of not doing so well and now look at you, you know, 30 years later, but oh, that’s awesome. That’s awesome. Oh, amazing. Thanks for sharing that story. Any other things come to mind? You wanna, you wanna share with these educators listening before we wrap up?


Kevin Fochs (31:14):
Oh, I think that’s good. I, you know, I could go on and on and tell stories, but that’s probably enough stories. If they wanna get ahold of me, I’d be happy to talk to ’em too. I, you know, I, I will say that I applaud all the educators, you know, for what they do the time they spend with kids. And I guess when you look, there has to be some rewards besides money because they don’t get well paid for what they do, you know? So I applaud, I applaud you for, for the last two years of being able to get through the, the dilemma that you’re faced with and change the direction you you’ve been, you know, teaching the way you’ve been teaching. So still be able to do that.


Sam Demma (32:00):
Yeah, they appreciate it. I can tell you that for sure.


Kevin Fochs (32:03):
Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.


Sam Demma (32:05):
Yeah. Thank you for coming on. This has been awesome, keep up the great work. Don’t retire soon ’cause we need you too. Kevin. totally joking, but yeah. Keep up the great work. Stay in touch and yeah. You know, I look forward to hearing all the cool stuff you continue to do over in Alaska.


Kevin Fochs (32:21):
Thanks.


Sam Demma (32:23):
And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the High Performing Educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review so other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show; if you want meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network, you’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Kevin Fochs

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.

Debbie Hawkins – Campus Culture Director at Sunnyside High School in Fresno Unified

Debbie Hawkins - Campus Culture Director at Sunnyside High School in Fresno Unified
About Debbie Hawkins

Debbie Hawkins (@SHS_Leaders) is the Campus Culture Director at Sunnyside High School in Fresno Unified, but grew up in the south valley and is a first-generation college graduate who after attending Fresno State made her home in the greater Fresno Area.  Debbie is the wife to Jimmy and the mother to Jonah and Noah. Family is a defining factor in Debbie’s life and thus she reduced her teaching load to part-time status in order be home with her young boys while they were young.

Having raised her boys, she finds herself immersed in the work of student activities. This work has become her passion and her home.  Sunnyside is a school committed to the work of developing student relationships, establishing a college-going culture, and being a healthy student-centred environment.

Connect with Debbie: Email | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Sunnyside High School

Fresno Unified School District

CAA Speakers

Capturing Kids’ Hears Program

Phil Boyte’s Podcast

School Culture by Design – Phil Boyte

The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom – Miguel Ruiz

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. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s guest is Debbie Hawkins, who is the campus culture director at Sunnyside High School in Fresno Unified, but grew up on the south valley and is a first generation college graduate who after attending Fresno state, made her home in the greater Fresno area. Debbie is the wife to Jimmy and the mother of Jonah and Noah. Family is a defining factor in Debbie’s life and


Sam Demma (01:02):
thus, she reduced her teaching load to part-time status in order to be home with her young boys while they were young. Having raised her boys, she finds herself immersed back into the world of student activities. This work has become her passion and her home. Sunnyside is a school committed to the work of developing student relationships, establishing a college going culture, and being a healthy student centered environment. I know you’ll enjoy this interview with Debbie because I enjoyed chatting with her and I will see you on the other side. Debbie, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here this morning. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit about what brought you to where you are in education today?


Debbie Hawkins (01:40):
My name is Debbie Hawkins. I have a very fancy title called Campus Culture director at Fresno Unified’s largest high school in where I’m located, obviously in Fresno. Our, our student population pushes 3000 so we are the biggest. What brings me to the moment of campus culture or what other people would call student activities is when I first got into education I was a coach, but really everything I’ve ever done in education’s really about mentorship and mentoring kids and investing in kids like you know, who they would become as an adult. So I find myself in this world of student leadership, because that’s always kind of been my passion and it just, that trail led me here.


Sam Demma (02:24):
Did you have educators that kind of pushed you in this direction? Cause caring for kids could have brought you into different roles. I’m I’m wondering why it specifically brought you into a school


Debbie Hawkins (02:34):
I guess complicated childhood, but easiest to say that school was always safe for me. Mm. And I had hero teachers who very, I’m a, I’m a first generation college student. I’ll and if you knew my whole story and we had like a lot of time maybe perhaps some wouldn’t see me in the seat I’m in today because I probably never would’ve got go to college. So those teachers, those heroes of my childhood passed very much pushed me eventually into the classroom once in the classroom and coaching. I don’t know. I always found myself when the crowd of kids having a good time. And there was a point at which I was at a site and I was a little burned out with being an English teacher. If I’m being honest. And the principal flat out, looked in the eye and said, what, what, what can I do to keep you? And I said, I need to do something where I’m investing in kids as people where I care more about their story than whether or not they know a list of conjunctions. And she approached me with student activities and, and that’s where it started 16 years ago. It was just a principal trying to keep me on campus.


Sam Demma (03:48):
That’s amazing. And tell me more about how do you define a hero teacher? What does that teacher do for you that has such a big difference and impact on you?


Debbie Hawkins (03:58):
I think as much as you can, like strips down everything, I came from a really small town. Yeah. So like when you’re from a small town, everybody knows the legends of your family and your cousins and you know, all that stuff. But, so I think my hero teacher saw me individually as a person and, and none of the backstory. Mm. And like, let me start from that point on. And in a lot of ways, never saw me as broken, but saw me as having potential. Mm. So to me, a hero teacher, as somebody who gives you a clean slate from day one, and it it’s, it’s harder to do than it sounds like it really is because Def kids definitely come with stories and brothers and sisters and cousins. And you, you know, things about kids before you ever meet them. I mean, I can log into student profiles and read all sorts of things, which by the way, I don’t do intentionally and never did, even when I taught English. But I always appreciated those teachers who, who just gave me a chance to be me.


Sam Demma (05:02):
Yeah. That’s such a cool perspective. And if a teacher is listening to this in the classroom and you know, they wanna make, they wanna make their students feel the same way you felt in those classes, like what would you kind of advise or tell them that they could try and do you know, is it to make sure you set aside time to get to know each student make time to hear, hear their stories and share their experiences and upbringing or, well, how do you think that looks in the classroom or school?


Debbie Hawkins (05:30):
What I think it looks like in a classroom at a school in general is you have to be very people first. You have to be very relationships oriented first. My son’s high school English teacher, her name’s SCR and officially, and, and I will love her forever because she changed my son’s life. And what she did is in Fresno unified, we’re a restorative practices school, which has all sorts of things that go with it. But one of the things that happens within restorative practices is that the idea of circle time, which I use in my classroom every week, we call it family Fridays. But it really is, is a restorative circle where kids get an opportunity to have a voice. Well, miss officially at Bullard high school does that every week in her English class. So she pauses her curriculum to put kids in circle and, you know, really dive deep into who each other are as people and what they think and, and what I think miss officially does.


Debbie Hawkins (06:23):
And what I I do in my own leadership class too, is, you know, that whole idea of start slow to go fast. You, you gotta like slow down and let kids know you as they need to know us as people too, like as an instructor, they need to know things about me because that’s what builds trust. And you do, you have to slow down. And I think when you’re a core content teacher, it’s scary because you don’t have many instructional minutes and you have a lot of expectations of you. But I have found that in education that once a kid trusts me and they have put me in their corner as somebody who’s gonna defend them I can get 80% more out of them academically, cuz they follow me off a cliff. If I told ’em to go, you know, I guess a bad analogy, but it’s true. They’d follow me anywhere. And once you’ve built those relationships, where are kid gonna follow you anywhere? Because you’ve slowed down, you slowed down and you took that time. You actually get more done academically.


Sam Demma (07:21):
I love that. That’s such a unique way to look at it. And I think it’s so true. I had one educator come on here one time and tell me that there was one student in his class that he was struggling with and the way that he won the heart and mind of this student over was by giving the student responsibility that this student thought he would never give him. And the situation was the keys to his car to go grab his lunchbox in the front seat and you know, and it, the story just hit me in my core. I was like, wow, that’s such a cool example of building a human to human relationship, not a teacher to student one. I think that’s amazing. Where do you think these philosophies and ideas came from? Was it just from your personal experience from other teachers? Like how did you come up with these ideas and these teaching philosophies?


Debbie Hawkins (08:08):
Well, everything’s, I, I guess seated in personal experience to some extent, I mean, there’s great educators in my past when I was a student and then you get involved and you start listening. You know, you it’s, the organization, CAA is an amazing one. So many speakers there. I, I would say that on my personal journey for development as a, as a leadership teacher there’s a program called capturing kids’ hearts, which was an early program in my career that really drew me in. And then fast forward, I, I meet a guy named Phil Boyt who is Phil, boy’s amazing. He has his own podcast. Everyone should be listening to Phil Boyt, read his books. And then you, you know, there, there’s just speakers and that come into your life. And I have the privilege at working at Sunnyside. And when I was hired here, there was a man named Tim Lyles, who he lost this year.


Debbie Hawkins (09:03):
And men talk about just an amazing person to learn from what you find out in education, which I’m going to assume applies to any profession out there is that once you have an ideology of who you want to be and what you want within this setting, you surround yourself with people whose core values begin to align with yours, right? So like you go find your tribe. So I found my tribe, you know, I listen to T street speak at kata and, and now, now that I heard her at kata, I’m gonna follow every talk. I find of hers on YouTube, you know deep kindness by Houston craft my class, read that together last year. Nice. You just, you began to, you know, you hear of this person who tells you about this person who tells you about this book and you begin to seek it out. It’s personal work though. If, if you wanna be that kind of educator, it’s personal work, which I think it’s personal work, no matter where you are in life.


Sam Demma (10:01):
Yeah. I love it. And people leave behind such amazing principles and values. I think more than everything else, when someone, you know, passes on, we can look at the things that they left behind and something that sticks out for me, even, you know, you talk about service a little bit and great people to learn from like, after my grandfather passed away, I was 13 years old. And the thing that sticks out in my mind are the values that he passed on to me as a young child. And it, it sounds the same with your colleague who passed away. Sorry to hear about that. And yeah, I’m sure your school is doing a great job of celebrating his, his life and his legacy. That’s amazing though. And did you ever have any doubts growing up as a, as a young educator and what were some of the things that went through your mind? Because I think it’s a very common experience for all educators to go through.


Debbie Hawkins (10:47):
Well, I have an atypical educator story. I mean, I failed the third grade and I’m I’m dyslexic. Oh, so yeah, I I had some challenges and in, in high school I remember my very favorite high school, creative writing teacher, like on my college application to the educational opportunity program at Fresno state saying student has unlimited potential. If she can get some support with her writing. And interestingly enough, as soon as he said it, it became this quest to be good at it. And like academically after my freshman year in college writing became my strongest thing. Wow. So, you know, it’s, it’s almost like when someone shines a light on it in a way that is soft and trying to guide you rather than like light you up and blow you up, but rather a guiding light. Yeah. It inspires you to kind of go on that path and take that journey because ultimately as a, you know, a 16 year old kid, I, I wanted to be successful and change my family’s narrative. Yeah. You know, I, I wanted it badly. So this man whom I trusted his name was Greg Simpson from ex or high school, amazing educator just gently said unlimited potential with a little support in writing. So I joined writing lab. Like I went and found some people to help me and ended up being a game changer for me.


Sam Demma (12:10):
I find that. So fascinating how someone that you trust, very few words have such a powerful impact on your mindset of how you view yourself and also the actions you took in your future. And it goes to show us how important it is that we choose our words and our actions both extremely wisely when working with any human being, doesn’t matter if it’s a student in your class or a stranger on the street. Do you think that the words of educators and students have such a massive impact on each other? And have you seen in, in reverse scenario where your words or your colleagues’ words have had a huge impact on students in your school and do any stories stick out in your mind?


Debbie Hawkins (12:51):
Well, since you wanna call me on the carpet on that one today, yeah. Honestly I’ve only been at Sunnyside for four years and cool. My first year here, I, I received an email during homecoming because I did something a little different that how don’t know maybe it was because I was new or, you know, and when you’re new, you’re a little unsure and you know, I’d never been at a high school. It came from a middle school and man, that email shock me to the core. Like I never had anyone talk to me like that. So I became like this head trip thing I had to come over and I overcome like it taught me a lot though, like in reflection. Mm. I am extremely cautious about what I say to people via written communication. Mm. I try to not be short and if, if I’m gonna be short, I try and go walk over and speak to them face to face. Yeah. Like lesson learned. And then, so this week we actually had two rallies before we had a rally on day one and day two of the school year.


Sam Demma (13:51):
Nice.


Debbie Hawkins (13:51):
So day one of the school year, I told my, my little commissioner, Hey, you know, don’t play YouTube videos because the signal’s gonna drop when everybody comes into the gym. Yeah. And the hustle and bustle of it, I didn’t check in with him and he didn’t convert the file cuz he ran out of time. So sure enough, we get to this part where these very adorable little mom, girls are supposed to go dance to promote our diversity assembly. Mm. And the video wouldn’t play. so, yeah, I mean day one and I didn’t snap at him in the moment, but I also didn’t build him up. What I should have said was him and let it go. There’s always something that fails. This is our thing today. Of course. Yeah. And helped him like move through it. And I, you know, we haven’t been here for almost two years. Yeah. I didn’t coach him well enough. Like, so I’ve been spending the last I’ve spent the last week and a half now trying to build him back up, you know? Yeah. Cause it’s gonna take 20 or 30 interactions for him to be brave again.


Sam Demma (14:53):
Well, I applaud first of all, your responsibility. Thanks for sharing. I was also curious about the positive side of how words have affected students or


Debbie Hawkins (15:00):
Wouldn’t oh, positive. Okay. Positive side. Positive. Side’s easy. Yeah. I, I don’t know how I’ve become the, the teacher who, who attracts a lot of our foster and homeless youth kids. Mm. I don’t know how, but one, one philosophy I say leadership’s about what you do, not what class you have. Yeah. So a few years ago I had this one kid just show up in my room every day and just make artwork. And I just looked at him and I said, Hey, you, you have the ability to show up and be positive. You know, you should join my class. Mm. I don’t remember saying it to him, by the way. I just said it one day while they, I don’t know, coloring with markers. And anyway, Damien did join my class. The following year. He became my spirit commissioner. I didn’t know his whole story until almost the year was over. But wow. His words back to me were really powerful. He’s like, he, he basically said, your first impression of me is you should be a leader. Like you belong here. And for him, it, it made a difference cuz it came at a real critical time when he was doubting where he was. Mm. So I, I there’s, there’s a million instances where I could say I’ve said something to a kid, but here’s the funny thing. I very rarely remember the words I used.


Sam Demma (16:11):
Yeah.


Debbie Hawkins (16:12):
So you just always guard them and keep ’em positive. And, and the one thing I will say, and that I, I need to get back to doing, I used to keep a class list and I would mark down like an X mark, like, so for an for that week I had to give one overtly positive statement to each kid on my roster. Mm. And I made it like anecdotal where I would check it off.


Sam Demma (16:34):
Nice.


Debbie Hawkins (16:34):
Because you know, life’s busy. Yeah. So that’s one way that I I’m gonna get back to that this year, but that is huge. And I’ll tell you another huge one that we all overlook. I also try and call three parents a week just to tell ’em their kid’s amazing.


Sam Demma (16:48):
Ah I love that. That. And what is the, what is the, what is the usual parent response to those phone calls? how does the phone call start? I’m sure it starts with oh is everything okay?


Debbie Hawkins (17:00):
50% of the time. It’s what do you do?


Sam Demma (17:02):
yep.


Debbie Hawkins (17:04):
What’d she do now? What’s going on? It’s always guarded at first and it’s really funny that if I don’t use my personal cell phone, 50% of them don’t pick up. And then, and I give ’em my cell phone number and tell ’em, if you have any questions, feel free to call me. And it’s odd because I will get random sets of parents who will text me and ask me a general school question because I just called them to tell ’em, Hey, your kid’s amazing.


Sam Demma (17:28):
That’s awesome. That is so good. I,


Debbie Hawkins (17:29):
I, I try and I’ve, I try and do at least three kids a week for the first month of school till I get through everybody.


Sam Demma (17:35):
There’s a, there’s such a cool story behind the idea of appreciating other people that I heard on a recent podcast as well. There’s a, there’s a gentleman named Jay Sheti. Maybe you’ve actually heard of him. Heard the name. Okay. So he has a podcast. He was a monk. He went to the mountains for like three years, came back and now he makes what he says is it makes wisdom go viral. And he has all these like cool videos and that’s awesome. He has a podcast and he interviewed this guy named scooter bran and scooter, scooter bran is the music manager of Justin Bieber and Demi Lavato and all these like huge music artists. And he was on the podcast and he was saying that his grandma did something for him and his family that changed the trajectory of all the kids’ lives. He said there was four grandchildren.


Sam Demma (18:16):
And on separate occasion, she pulled each grandchild, each grandchild aside and said, I have to tell you something very important and very special. And you can’t tell any of your siblings about this. And she said, you’re the special one. and she did it to all four of them on separate occasions and scooter didn’t find out till the day of her funeral while the grandchildren were around. He said, guys, you know, grandma pulled me aside and told me when I was a young kid, that I was a special one. And then his brother said, no, me too. And me too. And, and all four of them went their whole life believing that they had this special ability that they were an amazing young person. And I thought, what a powerful way to plant a positive belief in the mind of a young person. And it sounds like you’re doing the same thing, not only with the students, but also with the parents.


Debbie Hawkins (19:01):
I’m trying. And that’s, that’s the whole thing that I will all educators like, it’s, it’s an awkward time. Yeah. Alls you can do is try and over the summer I read this book called the four agreements and, you know to Miguel


Debbie Hawkins (19:14):
. Yeah. So like, you know, in the four agreements where it says, take nothing personally. Yep. You know, that’s my challenge, this year’s cuz in this crazy world where everything’s, everything’s uneven right now, still, you know, like everything’s still uneven and people react daily at us, around us, within this organization out of a sense of fear and self protection. Yeah. So really take nothing personally. And I’m really talking to my leadership class about that. We’re actually gonna read the four agreements at the end of the year when we do our book study as a class. But Tim Wild’s favorite book, by the way. I, I just, that, that whole that’s resonating with me this year is don’t take things personally because I think when we take things personally, it, it, it holds us back. Right.


Sam Demma (20:01):
It’s true. So true. And I think that sometimes the words of other people are based on one, their past experiences and two, the current things they’re going through, you know, you, you mentioned about the email and writing a short email. It’s it’s funny because whenever we write an email communication, the other person reads it based off the current mental state that they are in. So if they’re extremely happy, they’re gonna assume that your email was, was a pretty happy one, but if they’re struggling and, and then they read a short email, that’s just to the point, they’re gonna think that you’re upset or something and you know, 90 something percent of communication is nonverbal. And so I think, you know, some of the times too, when people attack us or put us down or attack a student or an educator and put them down, it’s, it’s asking ourselves, you know, what do they have to be going through to be expressing this situation like this? And I think that’s where empathy wins, you know, but it’s tough when you’re in the experience. It’s like, it’s a tough one. So if you could travel back in time and speak to your younger self, when you were just getting into education, knowing what you know now based on the experiences that you’ve had, what would you tell your younger self? What couple pieces of advice would you give?


Debbie Hawkins (21:10):
Number one, I’d say quit keeping score. I came in as a coach. Like I was so competitive and not just about like when we were on a basketball court. Mm. You know, I wanted to be the teacher with the highest reading scores. I wanted to be the teacher with the most kids coming to, you know, this or I, I was so worried about being perceived as having value that I think it held me back. I would’ve been much better off to have been more concerned about if I was valuable to at least one kid, you know, let go of those public perceptions a little bit when you’re young and invest in people individually, like deeply in one person at a time, one staff member, one kid my younger self and I would say not to take things so personal. Yeah.


Debbie Hawkins (22:04):
I, I, I don’t know when I was young, I had a lot of pride and, and things would hurt. And, and when you let things hurt, like where they wound you, it literally prevents you from having relationships with kids and being available to kids who need you, because you’ve spent too much time in your own self hurt. Like it was a waste of my energy as a young educator, you know, I, I needed a, I, I, I would encourage every young educator to find a group of two or three teacher, friends who are safe. And when something hurts, you can tell them so you can let it go. Cause you know, there’s something about that whole, like, you know, the truth will set you free. We’ll find people to go tell your truth to yeah. So that you can be free of its damage and move on. Yeah. Sometimes I think your, our pride like makes us put in the negative stuff, cuz we don’t want other people to see it. Like go get that ne get a trusted crowd, share with them, all those, those like doubtful things so that, that you can just be set free from it and move on. Don’t let it hold you back.


Sam Demma (23:06):
I love that.


Debbie Hawkins (23:07):
Trust me. Nobody’s good at this job. I’m 26 years in every year. There’s 10 things I need to be better at.


Sam Demma (23:14):
Yeah.


Debbie Hawkins (23:15):
It, it, it, this job never, it’s a big beast. You will never be perfect. Hey, it’s messy.


Sam Demma (23:21):
Every job. That’s the mindset to have. I mean, the day you think you arrive is the day you shouldn’t ever do it again, you know?


Debbie Hawkins (23:28):
Amen.


Sam Demma (23:28):
We never arrive, you know, like we’re all human beings. We’re all messy individuals going through this experience called life and balancing everything, you know? That’s a cool mindset to have. I call what you just mentioned “Emptying my backpack.” When I feel like I’m holding onto too many thoughts and opinions of others or opinions and, and experiences and situations in my head, I call it emptying my backpack. I’m actually writing a poem about it for kids Yeah, that’s such a cool piece of advice to give yourself and I appreciate you being so honest, vulnerable, and open about this whole conversation. I think a lot of educators will listen to this and will really enjoy it and see a lot of their own experiences in what you’ve just shared. So thank you so much for coming on the show. Debbie, it’s been awesome. If someone wants to reach out, send you an email, bounce some ideas around or chat with you, what would be the best way for them to get in touch?


Debbie Hawkins (24:21):
Just use my staff email it’s debra.hawkins2@fresnounified.org. You could Google Fresno Unified in my name and find me honestly.


Sam Demma (24:41):
Cool. All right, Deb. Debbie, thank you so much. This was great, keep up the great work and we’ll talk soon.


Debbie Hawkins (24:47):
Thank you very much for having me.


Sam Demma (24:50):
And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the High Performing Educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review so other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show; if you want meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network, you’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Debbie Hawkins

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.

Lynda Burgess – Education Manager with Alberta Education

Lynda Burgess - Education Manager with Alberta Education
About Lynda Burgess

Lynda (@LyndaBurgess) is a relational leader and teacher first who has over 20 years of experience in teaching and leadership positions with St. Albert Public School.  She joined Alberta Education in 2013; working in the areas of technology, curriculum and First Nations, Metis and Inuit education.

Work-life aside she enjoys kayaking, hiking, cycling, golfing and lives in St. Albert with her 2 university-age children.

Connect with Lynda: Email | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

St. Albert Public School

Alberta Education

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens by Sean Covey

The Coaching Habit by Michale Bungay Stanier

University of Alberta – Faculty of Education

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. I’m so excited to bring you today’s interview. It is with my good friend, Lynda Burgess. Lynda is a relational leader and teacher first, who has over 20 years of experience in teaching and leadership positions with St. Albert public school. She joined Alberta Education in 2013, working in the areas of technology curriculum, and first nations meti, and Inuit education. She enjoys kayaking, hiking, cycling, and golfing and lives in St. Albert with her two University aged children. I hope you enjoy this interview with Linda as much as I enjoy chatting with her, and I will see you on the other side. Lynda, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here today. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit behind the journey that brought you to where you are today in education?


Lynda Burgess (01:27):
Well, good morning, Sam. I’m so pleased to be here. Thanks so much for the invitation. Just delighted to be able to take part, what brought me here to this? My journey. Gosh. Okay. How far back can we go, Sam? I, I don’t know how much time you’ve got.


Sam Demma (01:42):
we can go as far back as you’d like


Lynda Burgess (01:45):
Got into teaching by default actually had always been teaching piano lessons to, to others when I was started teaching piano when I, I was about 12 and didn’t start in teaching that’s for certain, in terms of a degree started in science and, and biology and mathematics and those sorts of things, but actually ended up teaching math and science in the end, but just, you know, not sure where I was headed and someone suggested, Hey, why don’t you be a teacher? Cuz you’ve been doing that, a music teacher all along. So yeah, what the heck thought I’d give it a shot. So did, and thought I’d stay in it for a few years. Actually. It’s, it’s tough to keep teachers actually the average retention is about five years on average, which isn’t very high. So you know, but several decades later I was still teaching and loving it, absolutely loving it and continued to be inspired by and model actually I guess, teaches I’d had along the way. So Sam, I don’t know how much detail you want, but happy to chat more.


Sam Demma (02:41):
Yeah, that’s awesome. And you mentioned piano lessons. Did you play the piano growing up? Was music and art, a big part of your, your life?


Lynda Burgess (02:51):
Yeah. My mom was a music teacher. She was on the Royal conservatory board in the Western board of Canada. You know, really, I don’t know if you know much about the piano world or the, the instrument world, but she was really involved. And so we like, you know, some kids learned the first thing they put on as a pair of skates. First thing we had was piano lessons since we were, I can’t remember how old, but so did that did study seriously for, for a lot of years and actually was teaching others since I was about age 12 myself. So it was just always part of the world and I played the violin as well and studied that quite seriously for quite some time. So I guess it was kind of a fit, you know, why don’t you just be a music teacher? So , and actually that ended up being my major and I did of course, mathematics and business ed and science as well. And I’d already done somebody outta my science degree. So there was lots, lots to offer there, but it was music that got me my first teaching job. There’s no question.


Sam Demma (03:46):
Yeah, that’s awesome. Specialty. And, and people often say that you learn the most when you start teaching the thing you’re learning. And I think that’s so unique that at the age of 12, while you are probably still learning to play the piano and still, you know, honing your skills, you took on the role of teaching others, which would probably, I would assume help you also become a better piano player. I think that’s one of the unique aspects of being a teacher. The more you teach, the more you also learn, you’re always a student and I’m curious to know, you know, music could have brought you in all these different paths, but it brought you to the classroom. Was there inspirations in your life that directed you to the words of the classroom? Did you have some awesome teachers or educators growing up that really inspired you to take this path on? Or maybe even your mom


Lynda Burgess (04:31):
Well, she’s the one who suggested it actually, but okay. But I suppose not to inspire me to take that on, but they didn’t inspire me along the way. There’s no question. And then once I started teaching that I would, you know, reflect on often in terms of, you know, what I was doing in terms of modeling what I had seen from them. Some, some great leaders who really inspired me, you know, from a math teacher whose style I just loved in terms of, and I was ended up being a math teacher actually for, for a lot of my career. But, but others as well, you know, who just were so passionate about what they did or just how they approached people, you know, at the end of the day, it was always about relationship and what they were able to draw out of people and how they, how they, they got got you to certain places that you didn’t even know you could go to, you know, in terms of exploring your, your talents or your skills or your interests or just opportunities, and just really inspired by sort of positive people, amazing humans who just did great work.


Sam Demma (05:28):
Can you recount personal examples of something that might even happen to you? Like I can tell you for me sometimes to a fault when I was in high school, certain classes were just check boxes that I needed to check off on my resume to be, hopefully become a professional soccer player and get a full ride division one scholarship. Yes. And it was my grade 12 foot issues teacher, Michael loud foot who made this crazy intentional effort to get to know every student in the class, teach a lesson. And then at the end or throughout the lesson, he would call you out. He would say, Sam, mm-hmm for you. This means X and Kavon for you. This means Y and he, he knew us based on our personal passion, so would take his content and apply it to our personal lives. And I could tell you, like, that’s a personal example of something an educator did, did, for me, that made a huge difference that turned his class, not only from a checkbox, but into a, an engaging conversation that I always wanted to participate in. And I’m curious to know if you can recount like any specific personal examples, similar, not similar to that, but maybe with another teacher you had that really helped you,


Lynda Burgess (06:35):
You know, that’s a, that’s a great, great point, Sam and great examples. I love it. And it’s, you know, for me, I think if I can think of gosh, 3, 4, 5, the more, I think the more come to mind of, of instances where that happened. And it was probably more around the general theme of someone paying attention or someone seeing something and you that you didn’t even recognize that was there, you know, or didn’t know was there, I think of a, you know, option classes in high school, I took drama cuz all the buddies were taking drama, you know, really was I talented at acting cotton but, but once I was in there, this drama teacher who was, and they used to put on major operatic productions at high schools back in, they do still now too. But suddenly he was casting me as the lead role in this play.


Lynda Burgess (07:21):
I was going, what, who were you calling on? you know, just, but he would give opportunities for these things cuz he saw something that I was like, I, are you sure that kind of thing. And then other, you know, other times too, with just like, I like the, like the comment you made there about connecting to you and to you personally. And you know, I just thinking back to a grade five teacher who was, you know, teaching science and talking about something and had seen me bring something in from recess and tied it into the lesson, it was like, wow, somebody’s paying attention here. You know, somebody’s connecting to something that I thought was, you know, neat or fun or important to me. And, and so it comes back to that whole relationship piece. It really does. So that’s really, what’s driven me over the years. Even now, you know, I’ve left teaching and gone to the government side of, of work in Alberta education, but still it’s all about the relationships and empowering other people.


Sam Demma (08:15):
I love it. And what does your work look like today and what are some of the exciting parts of the work that gets you up every day and move you to action?


Lynda Burgess (08:27):
love, it gets as excited up today and, and move to action. Love it. Well I we’ve been with Alberta education now for probably, oh gosh, how long now? Eight years maybe officially and been in many different roles there started there with the technology and then engagement curriculum. And now with the first nation maintain Inuit education directorate. And so, you know, I guess what inspires me all the way along to get up and come to work every day is the people I work with. Quite honestly, it comes back to that relationship piece and within the first nation maintaining education directorate, there’s just so much to learn and it’s a whole, it was a whole new world to me when I entered that, that work group about two and a half years ago. But it’s really about and what I’ve realized more and more as I’ve been there, it’s about still coming back to the relationship and having people, you know, where are they in their journey? Where are they in telling their story? And not that what’s going on with them that they own. There’s lots of other cultures who’ve been through many things. I won’t even get into any of that stuff. Yeah. But, but it’s really comes back to their perception of where they’re at at this moment in time really. And, and moving through that journey. So lots again, it comes back to the, the people and the relationships.


Sam Demma (09:39):
That’s awesome. And how did you find yourself in this role? Like what did the transition look like? And yeah, tell me more about that.


Lynda Burgess (09:47):
Well that was an interesting one. I was in curriculum for a few years and then they were looking to bring, wanted the leadership wanted to bring more educators into the directorate who had actually education experience in the field. And so I got tapped on the shoulder, did I, would I wanna come over and work with this group or work in this area? And it was a whole new world to me and I said, yeah, why not? How could I not? Right, right. There’s so much to be learned.


Sam Demma (10:12):
That’s awesome. And how did, and you probably got this question a few times, from other people, but how did, how did COVID and the pandemic shift plans change things or force you as a team to focus on some problems or things that are going on.


Lynda Burgess (10:28):
Yeah. Great, great question. And we’ve all lived it and still living it and it’s kind of UN unfolding a little bit. Now life is kind of returning to normal slowly. Right. But yeah, it was interesting cuz it brought to the forefront and some issues that were always there, but they weren’t as urgent particularly, you know, I think of the technology and the connection and being able to connect, you know, whether it’s having bandwidth or even having a device to connect through. And you know, we saw lots of that within our communities, you know, with the first nations communities and the met settlements, et cetera, but not, not, but even urban urban centers. You know, a lot of kids here, you might have four kids in the family and do you have four extra laptops at home? No, , you know, so lots of those kinds of issues and actually technology has always been a passion and love of mine that’s ever since I started teaching.


Lynda Burgess (11:18):
And it’s what brought me over to the government initially as a lead on projects, provincially and video conferencing was one of them. And so we’d been working on that for like over 15 years so this last year and a half has been really exciting for us because , we now see that everybody’s really embracing has a need to embrace it. Right. So it’s that, that need meets to, you know, that that need meets the technology that’s there. So just lots of adjustments like that, just lots of listening, lots of listening, lots of, you know helping folks to realize that they’re not alone, that they’re not taking this. They’re not the only ones dealing with that. There’s that there’s a lot of folks going through similar things and it’s okay to be feeling or dealing or whatever. Let’s just help each other out.


Sam Demma (12:06):
Love that. And what projects are you working on right now that you and your team are excited about and they get you up every day and get you moving


Lynda Burgess (12:16):
Well, in terms of the actual work, I guess where we work now is really about, you know, supporting indigenous education, the, the students. So there’s some different things we have going on. We have this one great committee that has representatives from all across the education system. We’ve got representatives from the superintendents group, from the professional development providers across the, across the province. We’ve got school boards, we’ve got university deans who sit on this there’s people from all across the education system, the teachers, the, a TAs represented as well. And we all come together when we work in what we call our indigenous education and reconciliation circle and just pulling together all of our expertise and knowledge to, you know, how can we continue to build capacity and understanding and, and support so that really trying to improve those outcomes for, for our indigenous students. So that’s, that’s that’s an exciting setting piece of work.


Sam Demma (13:10):
That’s awesome. Do you, or have you ever heard of Larissa Crawford,


Lynda Burgess (13:16):
Marisa


Sam Demma (13:16):
Crawford? She has a company called our future ancestors and it’s, she’s doing some phenomenal work in this space. That it’s sounds like you’re working in and she might be someone to connect with. You might have just a cool conversation.


Lynda Burgess (13:31):
Excellent. Yeah. Great to know. Thanks Sam. Thanks for sharing that. And, and could be too that our, my partners in the other side of our branch who connect more outward, could be, could have made connections with her already. And that’s good to know though, appreciate that. Yeah. Always looking for those connections.


Sam Demma (13:46):
I’ll, I’ll send you like a link and you can check out someone, her stuff. She, yeah, she’s, she’s awesome. I’ve seen her speak before and yeah, it’s really empowering and super powerful and she’s breaking a lot of different echo chambers and starting like really cool conversations. But if you could go back and you could speak to, you know, you’re not old, but younger Linda


Lynda Burgess (14:08):
I Sam ,


Sam Demma (14:12):
If you could, if you could go and speak to Linda when she first started teaching, knowing what you know now and what the experiences that you’ve had, what advice would you give your younger self?


Lynda Burgess (14:24):
I just say to trust your instincts and just believe in, in, in what your gut’s telling you. I mean, there’s just so many things that come flying down all the time, you know, let’s swing the pendulum this way and here’s the latest, greatest thing. And just, you know, you, it can be overwhelming at times and it it’s overwhelming anyway, that kind of a job that it is because it’s a service profession. There’s no question about it. And don’t enter it unless you really have that, you know, you really believe in to others because that’s the kind of profession that it is and requires that kind of hard in mind. And there’s so many great teachers out there who are, you know, and who are examples of that. But you know, just trust, trust your instincts and just, you know, believe in, in, in what you know, that, you know, if somebody else comes along and like, oh, well, should I, should I, could I, should I, what should I, you know what it’s like, you know, just disbelieve in yourself really mm-hmm and don’t be afraid to ask because nobody’s got all the answers and nobody’s an expert.


Lynda Burgess (15:25):
None of us are experts. None of us have arrived at that ultimate place on top of the hill where we know it all never gonna happen, not in this business. So yeah, just keep an open mind, you know, keep learning and you know, being that lifelong learner is so true, you know, that’s a passion of mine is that just, there’s always something more to know, you know, it’s one thing I go into I’ve, I’ve met a lot of people say, well, we’re the experts. And I go really, really? You mean you, you know, absolutely everything there is. How could you possibly, you were just amazing. Wow. and they often have lots of great stuff to offer, but it’s like, I mean, you never, you never get there. You never completely get there, which is exciting though.


Sam Demma (16:04):
Right’s


Lynda Burgess (16:05):
So much more waiting. The more, you know, the more you realize you don’t know. Right.


Sam Demma (16:08):
It’s the curse of knowledge. yes. It’s funny. Every time I ask an educator to come on the podcast, oh, you want me to share? I’m like, Hey, you know, lots of things, I’m not calling you an expert by any means, but you know, you know, lots of things. And sometimes people that know lots, they think they know little and, and that’s because they’re always continuing to learn. And I think that’s such an important thing to remember on that note. Some resources. Do you have any favorite books or things that you’ve read watched, listened to that have been impactful for you as an educator or even with the work that you do specifically with the government?


Lynda Burgess (16:47):
Oh my gosh. That’s, that’s a great question, Sam.


Sam Demma (16:51):
I’m putting you on spot and


Lynda Burgess (16:51):
That’s gonna be, you have, and you know, I have a hard time remembering what I had for breakfast. It’s that’s okay. So long ago, right? What did you do on the weekend? Oh gosh, let me think. It’s so long ago, but you know, just, just little tidbits. I like those sort of quick hits and quick little tidbits. I know there’s a lot of podcasts out there now that share good information. You know, just even little books on that you might think might not fit, but to me, communication is a big piece of it. It’s not, it’s not just what you say, but it is what you say, but it’s how you’re saying it too. And it is the what, yeah. You know, I see more people paying attention to that now, as opposed to, you know, just, you know, telling students as opposed to let’s rephrase that so that the student might be really thinking it’s about them or engaged.


Lynda Burgess (17:37):
And, you know, one little book I love is the coaching habit, which just talks about how to phrase different questions so that when you’re pulling out or you’re getting the person to, to think about as opposed to giving them the response as that’s one of the best PDs I ever did was called cognitive coaching. And it was all about that. All about different sort of questioning and different situations and how to get people to really think through. And it was all by choice of language all by the language that you’ve chosen and other great resources Covey, the seven habits. Yeah. you know, there’s a lot


Sam Demma (18:09):
Of good pieces.


Lynda Burgess (18:10):
Yeah. There’s a lot of great pieces in there, you know, and it’s something will come up and go like, oh yeah. Begin with the end in mind. Right. Or listen first, you know, as opposed to waiting your turn to talk, all of those kinds of things I, I find are just so important. They’re little nuggets, but they just really make a huge difference in terms of moving things along.


Sam Demma (18:29):
And a book I read when I was 15, 16 was the seven habits of highly effective teens. yeah. So teachers, teachers, if you’re listening, you can buy a set for your students. I’m not affiliated, we are not affiliated, but it is an awesome book with cool, really cool and effective principles and highly recommend checking it out. That’s awesome.


Lynda Burgess (18:51):
Yeah. Agreed. Absolutely


Sam Demma (18:53):
Cool. Linda. Well, thank


Lynda Burgess (18:54):
You. I’m affiliated either. I get your permission.


Sam Demma (18:56):
yeah, we have no affiliation here. Just trying to be helpful. Thank you so much for taking some time to chat on the show. I really appreciate it. I look forward to seeing the awesome work that you continue to do in the indigenous space. It’s so important. Keep it up and I hope to stay in touch and we’ll talk soon. If someone wants to reach out what would be the best way for them to get in touch with you to have a conversation?


Lynda Burgess (19:19):
On Twitter, it’s probably the best way or through email is good too. It’s been a pleasure, Sam, thanks so much for the opportunity. Best of luck to you. It’s been, it’s been super.


Sam Demma (19:28):
And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the High Performing Educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review so other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show; if you want meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network, you’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Lynda Burgess

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.

Tracy Lockwood – Owner of PLAY Education Consulting

Tracy Lockwood - Owner of PLAY Education Consulting
About Tracy Lockwood

Tracy Lockwood (@PLAY_Educator) is a certified K-12 PE Teacher and has over 25 years of experience as an educator and has taught K-12 students in Alberta, British Columbia, Abu Dhabi and Macau. She was employed as an Education Consultant for nearly 10 years where she facilitated hundreds of workshops for thousands of professionals at the local, provincial, national and international levels.

Tracy is a Master Trainer for the National Coaching Certification Program & DANCEPL3Y (dance-play). She has her Masters in Educational Leadership and has a passion for all things physical education, physical literacy and physical activity.

Today, Tracy runs a successful business, PLAY Education, and works with thousands of children, youth and adults every year around the world to empower and inspire them to move, laugh, connect, and smile, while learning new ways to be physically active and develop physical literacy. 

Connect with Tracy: Email | Instagram | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

PLAY Education

Professional Development Workshops – PLAY Education

Resources from PLAY Education

PLAY Education Youtube Channel

National Coaching Certification Program

DANCEPL3Y (dance-play)

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. I’m super excited to bring you today’s interview with our special guest Tracy Lockwood, who is a certified K to 12 PE teacher. She has over 25 years of experience as an educator and has taught K to 12 students in Alberta, British Columbia, Abu Dhabi, and Macau.


Sam Demma (00:57):
She was employed as an educational consultant for nearly 10 years where she facilitated hundreds of workshops for thousands of professionals at the local, provincial, national, and international level. She is a master trainer for the national coaching certification program and dance play. She has her master’s in educational leadership and a passion for all things, physical education, physical literacy, and physical activity. Today, Tracy runs a successful business; play education and works with thousands of children, youth, and adults every year around the world to empower and inspire them to move, laugh, connect, and smile while learning new ways to be physically active and develop physical literacy. She has an awesome website and brand, which she’ll tell you about all throughout the interview. I’m super excited to bring you this. Can’t wait for you to hear what she has in store. So without further ado, let’s jump in to the interview with Tracy. Tracy, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here this afternoon, depending on where you’re tuning in from can you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit about what got you into education, and then also into the work you’re doing today?


Tracy Lockwood (02:06):
Awesome. Hi everybody. Hi Sam, thanks so much for having me. My name is Tracy Lockwood and some people may have, may know me as the play educator. I have a business called Play Education, but 25 years ago, I actually got into education. And, and really there’s, there’s only a few educators in my family so I, I don’t know the, I guess the reason why I got in, in thinking back is mainly because you know, it was, it was a degree program that allowed me in . And so back, you know 20, actually it was 27 years ago when I was in university, I, I really didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. And I, I was thinking that I wanted to follow in some footsteps of family members and I, I really, I played a lot of sports, so I thought I wanted to be a physiotherapist or something to do with physical activity.


Tracy Lockwood (03:13):
And, and then in my second year of university I actually played volleyball in my first year. And then in my second year changed schools and got into education. And it was honestly the best thing that, that happened to me in my schooling, because I actually realized, of course I love physical activity. I love physical education. And the fact that I could take physical activity courses that went towards a degree was just amazing to me. I had, I had a great experience in all of my courses and, and that just really helped, helped kind of springboard where I traveled and where I was able to take my EDU education degree. And I, I always say I, I actually teach at the university of Alberta and I always say to my students like this, this degree, this education degree is a passport if you want it to be.


Tracy Lockwood (04:11):
And, and I’m so thankful that I chose that, that career path. And I, I just commend anybody who has chosen that career path. It really turned out to be that I love working with kids. And then in the end, I really love working with adults as well. I just love, I don’t know, helping people. And I thought that I would always do something that was a helping career path and, and this just, just suited me the best. And yeah, I’m grateful that it that’s the way it turned out, got to work with adults as a consultant for many, many years. And of course teach kids for many, many years as well. Nice.


Sam Demma (04:48):
And when you think back to when you were in, you know, college and university and making the career decisions and choices, can you think back to like the finding moments, like you could have chose many different programs or many different options that would still allow you to teach and work with adults and kids? Like why specifically teaching or did you, do you think you fell into this and then realized how much you loved it?


Tracy Lockwood (05:11):
Yeah, I think it, I think it’s, I really fell into it. Based on the fact that when I went to high school, I went to high school to play. Like I was in high school of course, to, to get my diploma, but I really was playing sports. Me too. I, I, yeah. Yeah. And you’re a soccer player. I, I played all sports and did not focus so much on the academics. It was like, yeah, it’s gonna be, I’m gonna be fine. I’m always gonna be fine. And, and I think that hindered my opportunities when I got into university. My first year, I went to a smaller university and, and got to continue to play the sport. I love of volleyball, but then realized that I needed to get my marks up a little bit higher. I needed to actually work a little bit harder.


Tracy Lockwood (06:01):
It was, it was so not a focus. And and just a bit of a struggle. I struggled in certain subjects like math and different sciences. I, I really struggled and I needed that one-on-one attention. But even when I did get that attention, that one- one kind of tutoring in high school, I still struggled. And, and to this day it amazes me that I not only have a degree, not that I’m not smart enough to get a degree. I think I applied myself because I got into education, cuz I was accepted into that program based on my marks after my first year, I kind of brought them up a little bit, but really I am always amazed that I actually have a master’s degree because I always think, wow, I, I don’t, I never liked writing and research makes me wanna have a nap.


Tracy Lockwood (06:54):
so I’m just, I was just thinking, you know, wow, how did, how did I accomplish that? So I, I really believe that, you know, because of getting into education, it kind of, springboarded a lot of loves that I have with physical activity, physical education, specifically got to do my master’s around physical literacy and, and something that I was passionate about. And I think that’s the key now that we’re, we’re just talking that the key is to find that passion. And I think I was able to do that through getting into a program, through them, working through what I love the best, working with kids, working with adults, physical literacy development, all of those things kind of just began to build upon themselves, but they only did that because I have a love for it.


Sam Demma (07:40):
Yeah.


Tracy Lockwood (07:41):
Yeah.


Sam Demma (07:42):
So that’s awesome. Yeah. I’m inspired right now by this rapper it’s American rapper named Russell vitality stage name is Russ and he always talks about this idea that when he was growing up in school, he was terrible. He was a terrible student. He hated school. And if you judged him on his work ethic, based on how much work he put into his studies, you would’ve thought he was a lazy student, but it’s because he just wasn’t doing work that he loved. But the moment you judged him on his work ethic and his ability when it came to music, he was off the charts. And so it sounds like you’re echoing the same ideas when you find the work you love. You know, maybe originally writing was boring and research put you to sleep. But when it was writing, that was related to a topic you loved and research related to physical education, it probably became something that you wanted to pour your heart and soul into. And as a year that has been filled with challenge and burnout, how have you kept your flame going? Cause I know there’s a lot of teachers and educators who are not sure that this is the path they still want to go down because of the challenges they’ve faced.


Tracy Lockwood (08:51):
Yeah. I, it is so true. And so many people have so many stories just about what they’ve gone through in this past while we, our, our pandemic kind of hit a little bit earlier, cuz we were overseas in Southeast Asia. It hit there first. Yeah. And and then we made the choice to, to come back from overseas to come back here. I, I think during this last year and a half or so it’s, it’s kind of reinventing myself. I think that’s what I’ve always done my entire career. If I, after five years, I’m in a school I’m like, okay, I need to reevaluate. If I’m just not feeling that I can contribute as wholeheartedly as I want to. I need to change mm-hmm and I’m, I’m okay with change. I love change and I’m not like a specifically routine kind of person anyways, which so that really suits my personality.


Tracy Lockwood (09:48):
So changing on the fly, changing the way that I do things has had to really come into play this year. So move to virtual, just like most schools, my business was not going to thrive if I wasn’t able to get into schools in person. So did a ton of virtual activities ton of virtual programs and lots of professional development teachers just putting myself out there. It was not easy because this way of learning and this way of, of speaking with somebody and seeing yourself on the screen all the time is so not comfortable. And it definitely was uncomfortable at the beginning. Just like I know a lot of teachers went through some major uncomfortableness with with dealing with how do you get your kids engaged even? And even just to get them turn on their videos. Yeah. I think the more that you do something, the more that you get comfortable with it and that’s exactly what happened.


Tracy Lockwood (10:48):
And just, just knowing that I was helping teachers, I was helping educators with professional development and, and really I have, I had the time they were, they had to jump right in. I had the time to maybe to look at the research, look what was going on out there, just seeing what the best practices were and then to implement them and then to share them with my network that I have mostly in in, in Canada. And so that, you know, that was really key. I, I think just knowing that I could help somebody and, and then of course the, the feedback that you get back from others, whether you’re a teacher, you get those, that feedback from kids, it can help you just continue to, to want to, to do more. And I think that’s what I was getting back from others. Like thank you for this, wow.


Tracy Lockwood (11:42):
This resource, this is, this is great to see. Really in this time I, I just need something practical and that’s, I guess that’s what I’m all about is that, that practical piece, I just wanna give teachers tools. And then also like seeing students online I have had a couple of university classes, like I mentioned, elementary ed classes and I was teaching a physical education, health and pedagogy class. And so it’s all about movement and so uncomfortable as uncomfortable as it is. I, you know, invited them to turn on their cameras as part of participation, not as part of how you, you know, how much you’re going to develop your skill, but just how are you trying? And so I, I think that that really helped just inviting them to turn on their, their cameras. And I really had some great experiences and some amazing students in my classes that, that were so thankful for the course, even though we couldn’t be in person, which would’ve been way better. I guess I, I really get external feedback that external feedback helps me want to do more. Yes. Yeah, that’s, that’s a big part of it.


Sam Demma (12:58):
Yeah. You and I share that I actually have a binder that I’ve filled with a bunch of emails and messages that I’ve received from students after work and presentations. And I I’ll read it to myself before key moments because I find that it’s us stopping us. And most of the time it’s our own like self-belief or self doubt, even when we’ve done great job, a great job. And we know we’re making an impact sometimes just rereading those things and reminding yourself of the impact can have a huge effect. Now I know as a teacher though, specifically, sometimes the impact isn’t heard or seen for like 10 years and there’s these awesome stories where 15 years later, a student sent an email and is like, oh my goodness, miss Lockwood, you know, your class changed my life and your physical education training changed my life. Can you think about, can you think back to any of those specific stories or moments that stick out in your mind from teaching both in, in the classroom and now with your own business?


Tracy Lockwood (14:00):
Oh, that’s such a good question. You know my, my friend Shannon always says that I, I feel the same way that she retains water, not information. So I feel like , I’m kind of the same nice where I I have a hard time thinking about like what happened way in the past, but, you know, there are definitely students that have come forward in just, just recently that have come forward in my university classes just to be, you know, most recent. Yeah. that have said, you know, this is the best course in my degree. And that just is like, Ugh, that makes me feel so, so great. And, and I ha I do have students that because I taught both of my boys physical education when they’re in elementary. Nice. I see the, the kids that they have grown up with that are now adults.


Tracy Lockwood (14:55):
Nice. I see them, you know, and I hear from them based on the fact that they still hang out with my two sons and, and I do hear really great things that that they didn’t always say in elementary, you know, you get the hugs, you get the high fives. Yeah. once in a while you get cards from, from parents that are just saying how thankful they are. But it, it is, it, it is something that you wonder, you know, it, you have to have that self confidence because I always wonder, you know, is that true? But then I have to remind myself, you know, they wouldn’t be saying it if it’s not. And, and then it is hard to, to focus on that. If you get one negative comment, you know as teachers, I still think about, you know, 20 years ago, 25 years ago, when I first started teaching, I still think about the parent that was not happy with their child’s mark in physical education.


Tracy Lockwood (16:01):
And, and that just sticks out. And it, I think that’s just us as human. We’re always trying to get better. And we, we do take in that negative element. Sometimes it’s very hard to break through that negative thought pattern. Yeah. But it just takes practice. And truly, I I’ve been learning that and I still am at my age, I’m still learning to, to, to be positive. There’s a program that I get to be a part of and I hope it’s okay if I bring it up, it’s called dance. Okay, good. It’s called dance play. And to be honest, the, the positive element that just wraps around that program just it’s really all about three rules, be positive, be fun and be yourself. And whenever I teach it, it’s a reminder to myself. So when I say to kids, you know, it’s really easy to be negative.


Tracy Lockwood (17:00):
It’s really easy to, you know, put yourself down. It takes practice to be positive. So when you’re dancing or when you’re doing something, you know, that challenges you you have to say, you know, I got this, I can do this. I am awesome. I look great. It’s a constant reminder. And, and I think every time I teach that program, it has actually built up my confidence level. Because I remind kids all the time. It’s like, oh yeah, remind myself. Yeah. Or, or when I look, you know, I tell kids to look themselves in the mirror when they’re brushing their teeth, hopefully in the morning. And again, at night they say, you know, you are awesome. You’re a great friend. You’re a great you know, sister or whatever brother you’re, you are you know, really great at math or you really kind, whatever it is, you have to remind yourself. So a as I’m telling them, it’s, it’s just a great confidence booster for myself, just to say, yeah, if I’m telling kids to do this, I also need to do this and model it. Yeah. And I think as teachers, we’re always thinking about how we can model and, and those make the best teachers. And I think that’s why a lot of people go into education is because they want to model you know, what they wanna see in the world.


Sam Demma (18:22):
Yeah. Be an


Tracy Lockwood (18:22):
Example and yeah. Be an example, make a difference. So so I think that, yeah, education is, it is a calling, but it’s also a choice. And yeah. And I, I commend people for making that choice because it does take a lot of work and a lot of effort to be a teacher. Yes. Especially now we’ve seen, what’s been happening over the last year and a half with having to switch completely how you teach, but, but you know, it, it, people have gotten through it. And there’s so many ups and downs in that, in the profession as it is. Yeah. But we are super resilient and we teach kids to be resilient and following our own example is going to be, you know, the best for, for everyone.


Sam Demma (19:12):
And at what point in your own journey, did you start getting this inkling of entrepreneurship and decide to start your own thing? And, you know, you mentioned dance play very briefly, just, just in case anyone’s listening to this right now, or you can’t see the screen and you obviously didn’t see what happened before we started recording, but the call started with Tracy playing music and dancing . So just so you know, she is the perfect person to teach this curriculum. But tell us a little bit about, you know, your own company and, and dance play and how they tie together and where that came from.


Tracy Lockwood (19:50):
Yeah. I, I really, I think I have great role models. My, my parents are entrepreneurs. So when I was 11, my parents started a restaurant business and they kept that same restaurant for 30 years. Oh, wow. So I grew up with, with my parents working so hard being entrepreneurs, but then, you know really doing it for themselves. And I think that’s where I, I didn’t realize, but that’s where it kind of started. And when I was teacher for about 15 years, I ended up getting a position as a consultant and worked provincially in the province of Alberta and then elsewhere kind of delivering professional development to teachers creating programs working on curriculum and tying curriculum with health and physical education into all of our professional development. And so just doing that was, it was sort of like I was running my own business, but not quite, you know, being salary employed.


Tracy Lockwood (20:57):
And about seven years ago, dance play came into my life. We were hosting a conference and we needed something kind of fun and different, and we didn’t have anything dance related. So at our conference, we, I, I was just looking online and just found this dance play thing and thought, wow, this is amazing. And so the person who owns dance play Melanie, she said, why don’t you come to a, to an instructor training, had no idea what I was getting myself into. I really am not a dancer. I love music. I love moving to music, but I have never taken any formal dance training. So so when I was taking that, I, I thought this is gonna be super overwhelming. It was the best time of my life. I loved it so, so much. Awesome. And realized that, you know, maybe because I had been thinking about running my own business, I had been thinking about going on my own and consulting, just that idea of having my own hours working from home, just having control.


Tracy Lockwood (22:03):
Maybe I’m a bit of control freak. I don’t know , but I, I do love the idea of structuring my own day. And as hard as I work, that’s how hard my bus that’s, how much my business is going to grow. So, yeah, so I just decided when dance play came into my life, that this was the next thing, this was the additional thing that I needed in order to supplement my play education business. So started started that, you know, about seven years ago and became a region operator. So I can operate in schools and, and then started hiring some instructors and, and really did a lot of it on my own for a few years, and just poured myself into the business and not only dance play, but play education and still delivered professional development, but really wanted to focus on physical education, physical literacy, physical activity.


Tracy Lockwood (22:58):
And that gave me the ability to do that. I, I really feel like specializing is, is important because you become much better in that area. Mm. And and in my other consulting role, I learned so much, I learned so much about research and about government contracts and about school programming and, and just curriculum. And, and really, I wanted to just focus on physical education, physical literacy, and physical activity. And that gave me leaving that job scary as it was, cuz it was a salary job. I, I had a, I’ve had a salary. I had a salary up to that point for 21 years. Wow. And I wouldn’t have been able to leave if I, my husband was an administrator and principal at the time. So I could lean on him and his salary in order to do that. Cuz man, it was tough.


Tracy Lockwood (23:55):
At first I had zero income for at least the first five months and, and then just started growing and building my network. I, I had a, a fairly large network to begin with. So I, I really had to look at all the people that I have been working with for over the years. And that was, that was key, you know, leaning on those people as much as I felt like, ah, I don’t wanna be a leach. That’s the last thing I wanna be. But I also felt that, you know, I’ve, I’ve really built up great relationships with a lot of consultants and a lot of people around the province of Alberta anyways. So I felt comfortable that I could reach out to them. Yes. And, and a lot of them just really accepted the fact that I could bring maybe something different to the table and these practical tools and, and just started going from there.


Sam Demma (24:49):
That’s so awesome. And what is play like, tell us more about play education. Yeah. Why is, why is that the name of the company and what does it do?


Tracy Lockwood (25:00):
Good question. Good questions. Play education stands for physical literacy and you, mm. And originally I had a different name. I think it was energized consulting and I had all of these different names and it was, it wasn’t easy to come up with that. It seems easy now, but in, in hindsight, I, I remember having a journal. I still have a journal beside my bed cuz I wake up in the middle of the night and I have to write scribble messes down. I just have to write. So I don’t forget. nice. So I wrote down like why, what are the things that I wanna do? So, you know, practical, educational, physical activity, all of those things. And, and then it just turns out I was like physical literacy. You know, I did my master’s in that. I really believe in the fact that we have to give kids a foundation in order to build their skills for them to be confident and comfortable and competent and motivated to be active for life.


Tracy Lockwood (26:03):
So that kind of was, was the springboard physical literacy and you stands for play and it couldn’t just be play. So I’m an educator. So education came into play there, so play education and it turns out nobody else had that name. so nice that that I could see. So it worked out great and, and I could get the website, play education.ca that worked out great. And I really just focus on, on professional development for teachers in those three areas of PHS ed, physical activity and physical literacy. Nice. I focus on dance, play programming. And about how many years ago, I would say two years, three years ago, three years ago now I created a resource called focus on fundamentals and it’s supporting the development of physical literacy. And I really wanted something to be a lesson plan guide that had like warmup activities, main skill development activities, and cool down activities.


Tracy Lockwood (27:11):
So developed this after 10 years of thinking about it, it was a scribble mess at the beginning and it took me about 10 years to finally, you know, develop this resource. But it was a lot of work, but it, it really ties in nicely of what I like to do for people. And that is provide tools and practical ideas that can be used like right away. And, and I think, you know, every things have evolved of course to where I am now, but but that’s, I’m just so happy how things worked out, you know, just taking that risk, which I was, was a huge risk when I think about it now. But I, I said to my husband at the time when I was doing, going to do this, I said to him, it’s now or never. Yeah. You know? And, and so having that entrepreneurial spirit, I always kind of have, I, I, like I said, I believe it was from passed down for my parents. Yeah. I just really wanted to jump in with both feet. So it’s left my position.


Sam Demma (28:19):
That’s awesome. I love the story. I absolutely love it. I, I too grew up in a family that owned a restaurant. Funny enough, my mom and my grandfather owned an Italian Italian slash Greek food restaurant called Joey Bravos. and wow. I


Tracy Lockwood (28:34):
Love the


Sam Demma (28:34):
Name well, yeah. And it was apparently there was a TV show back in the day called Johnny Bravos as well. And so they kind of got inspiration from that, but named to Joey’s and it’s funny growing up there, I would always go in and I would walk into the kitchen. And the first thing I would ask for is one of the chefs’ name was Rav I’d say, Hey Ravi, can I please have the standard plate? And he would bring me at a little plate with cheese, olives, and sausage and I would go and sit in the back and eat them. And I remember going to my doctor’s appointment one time and my pediatrician, Dr. MOS saying, Sam, you gotta stop eating sausages. I had like, I was gaining weight anyways, I totally going off track here. But I, yeah, I so relate to the entrepreneurial spirit of parents, which is so awesome.


Sam Demma (29:19):
And really when we think about it, people that influence us could be anybody, not even just our parents, like as a teacher, you play that same role in your student’s lives as a parent does because you see them for so many hours per day, even when you think no one’s watching, someone could be watching and the actions you’re taking could influence them. For example, you following your dream and passion of starting the business and going down this path might even inspire other educators to believe that they could follow their own dreams and passions outside of the classroom as well. And I just think it’s a really cool story to share. And I’m glad that we carved out some time to share it. If you could go back in time. I think you said 25 years ago, is that when you first started teaching?


Tracy Lockwood (29:59):
Yes. About that 27?


Sam Demma (30:01):
Yeah. Okay. So if you could go SA shaving off two years there, I see you . So if you could, you know, snap your fingers travel back in time 27 years ago and basically give your younger self advice, knowing what you know now, and based on the experiences you’ve had, what advice would you give your younger self?


Tracy Lockwood (30:22):
Wow. I think just trust in the journey, you know, trust that things are gonna work out as planned. I really am an optimistic person. Yeah. But, but there are definite times that I’m like, oh, should I do this? You know, this is a really tough decision or worry about things. And I really believe that I, I, yeah, I, I would’ve told myself to trust and, and the fact that I actually didn’t do a lot of traveling until 45 years old. So my husband and I both, we, we didn’t go overseas until our sons were in grade eight and grade 12. Oh, wow. And so that the idea of like, thinking back when I first started teaching and thinking to overseas travel and teaching in a Canadian international school in Abu Dhabi and then in Macau, like I never imagined, never dreamed that that would happen thinking that I would have my own business, never imagined that that would be where my career would lead me, but I, I truly believe that having an education degree has just really opened a lot of doors has just like, kind of led me into these like different paths and, and, and the fact that I’ve connected with so many awesome people.


Tracy Lockwood (31:52):
My, my network of friends, my network of professional colleagues has, has just been more than I could imagine, but, but, you know, I think it’s based on you, who you attract in your life. And I am open to attracting positive people you know, people who, who want to be better that are constantly learning. I, I just, I feel that because I am like that, I feel like I attract those kind of people in my life and I that’s who I want my life. And, and, and I still have so many, so many friends that that are that way too. And yeah, I, I, I think that word trust is important. I I’m, and, and just kind of ride the ride the wave of life, I think just as it comes. And there’s definitely ups and downs along the way. for sure.


Tracy Lockwood (32:52):
Some stresses especially with living overseas and having to start your light life over. And, and then starting back, back in Canada a year ago earlier than we thought we would come back from the cow. We we had to start our life over in a different province where we chose to start our life over in a different province. I’m trying to network here now, still doing a lot of work back with my network in Alberta. But man, it’s it’s tough to, to build a network, but it’s starting. Yeah. And it’s like little by little, just put yourself out there. And, and maybe that’s the other thing I would’ve told myself, like put yourself out there, girl. , it’s all gonna be good.


Sam Demma (33:34):
I love that. We, we need to set up a part 2 to talk about the, the worldwide experiences, because that’s a whole other conversation The longer we talk, the more questions I ask, the more questions I have for you, but thank you so much for taking some time to, you know, share your intentional journey on the podcast. I noticed at the end, you just corrected yourself. We said, we, we chose to start again in a different province. And that’s so important because you’re taking the responsibility, and it seems like your whole journey has been very intentional. You know, now is the time, time is now I’m doing this. And yeah, I think that’s like a phrase that kind of comes to mind when I think about everything you’ve shared in the past 30 minutes, it’s already been 35 minutes; time flies. That was a good conversation. If someone wants to reach out an educator or principal superintendent’s listening and they just wanna, you know, shoot you an email and have a conversation, what would be the best way for them to get in touch?


Tracy Lockwood (34:31):
They can definitely go to my website. It’s playeducation.ca and tracy.playeducator@gmail.com.


Sam Demma (34:41):
Love it, love it. Tracy, Thank you so much. Enjoy the rest of your summer. This will come out in September, so that’ll sound funny, but enjoy the rest of your summer and let’s stay in touch and I’ll, I’ll talk to you soon.


Tracy Lockwood (34:52):
Thank you so much, Sam. I really appreciate it. Love talking with you.


Sam Demma (34:55):
And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the High Performing Educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review so other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show; if you want meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network, you’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

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Katrin Heim – Innovation Coach with Buffalo Trail Public Schools

Katrin Heim - Innovation Coach with Buffalo Trail Public Schools
About Katrin Heim

Katrin Heim (@HeimKatrin) is an Innovation Coach with Buffalo Trail Public Schools. Her rural roots and years of teaching, primarily in division one have shaped her approach to teaching and leadership. Katrin believes that people (students, families, and communities), are at the heart of our work as educators.   

Connect with Katrin: Email | Linkedin | Twitter

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Resources Mentioned

Buffalo Trail Public Schools Website

What is an Innovation Coach?

Leadership and Mentorship

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s guest on this show is working in a position that we’ve never had the opportunity to interview before. Her name is Katrin, she is the innovation coach with the Buffalo Trail Public schools. Her rural roots and years in teaching, primarily in division one have shaped her approach to teaching and leadership.


Sam Demma (01:01):
Katrin believes that people, students, families, and communities are at the heart of our work as educators or those people who work in schools and in education. She is someone I have the awesome privilege and opportunity to work with for an event in September. I’m super excited about it, and I’m super excited about you listening to this interview with her. Enjoy this, I will see you on the other side. Talk soon. Kat, welcome to the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here today. Why don’t you start by just introducing yourself and sharing a little bit behind the journey that brought you into education?


Katrin Heim (01:40):
All right. Good morning. Thank you for having me, Sam. It’s wonderful to be here. As you said, my name is Katrin. I am an educator. I’ve taught for 11 years. This is my 11th year. I’ve worked primarily as a grade one and two teacher in a small rural school in Alberta where I also live and call home. And recently transitioned to our central office in the role of an innovation coach, and so that’s a fancy term for instructional coach support teacher brainstorm partner problem solver. And so my work partner and I work closely with the, the rest of our learning services department to support the teachers in Buffalo Trail Public Schools with anything teaching and learning related.


Sam Demma (02:40):
Now, how did you transition from kindergarten teacher to innovation coach? This sounds such a, this is so cool.


Katrin Heim (02:50):
Well, you know, I’ve, I’ve always loved working with other people. Okay. And so in my role as a grade one and two teacher in this small little school I was the only grade one and two teacher. And so I would often reach out to the other innovation coaches in our division as brainstorm partners or, Hey, this looks really cool. I’d like to try this, but I just don’t know how to get started. And so I just, I, as a classroom teacher, I started forming relationships with the innovation coaches we already had in Buffalo trail and loved it. I felt that I grew as a, as a professional. I felt that with their support, I became a better teacher. My lessons were more engaging and my students were impacted in a positive way. And so I just continued to develop those relationships and when the position became available, I just thought, yeah, you know what? I I’d like to do this and, and applied and here I am. So that’s awesome. Yeah.


Sam Demma (04:16):
And so at what point in your own career search, if we went back in time, 12 years, 13 years, like at what point in your own career journey and education, did you know that you wanted to become a teacher or an educator or at least work in education?


Katrin Heim (04:33):
it’s something that I’ve always known. Okay. From a very young age and it’s not like I can’t when I reflect back on even my childhood or my teenage years or deciding to go into education. I can’t recall a specific time in my life where I felt like this is what I needed to do or wanted to do with my life. It’s just always been what I wanted to do. My I’m a fourth generation teacher. There are, you know, great grandparents, grandparents, my dad, my sister is also an educator. And so it’s, I feel like it’s just in my DNA. But beyond that, I think going to university and coming home. So I went away to university in the city and then came back to this small rural, you know, Alberta community and decided to teach here. And the reason for that was that I wanted to make an impact in the lives of kids that I was closest to. Mm. I wanted to create opportunities for my own children, for my nieces, my nephews, my friends’ kids, the people who I love in my community. And that was really what what drove my decision to, to teach and to live here and still, what, what drives my, my work in central office, you know, these are, these are the people that I care about. And this is, these are the people, these are, people are the reason I do what I do. Mm.


Sam Demma (06:32):
Yeah. I love that. That’s awesome. And, you know, you mentioned the four generations of educators, which is phenomenal. did you also have teachers that taught you as a, when you were a student that had a huge impact on your decision to get into teaching? And do you remember who any of those people were?


Katrin Heim (06:51):
Yes. In fact there are. And I, I had the privilege to work with those people as a young teacher also.


Sam Demma (07:04):
Oh, cool.


Katrin Heim (07:05):
because I came back to the school that I graduated from in high school, I had the opportunity to learn and grow from those mentors as a teacher myself. And so, you know a couple of teachers that I can recall in particular really supported me as a new teacher when I was teaching my students to read, for example as a grade one and two teacher, that’s the biggest stressor perhaps even challenge in those years. And I never felt adequately prepared to teach children to read. Mm. Because it’s so complex. And and yes, and so I had one wonderful teacher who I would swing that, you know, swing into their classroom in the morning. And I would say, you know, I tried this yesterday and it’s just not working or this is what my kids are doing right now. How am I doing what do I need to know? Where do I go next? And having relationships with these, these individuals and having an opportunity to work alongside them and to be mentored by them on a daily basis was such a privilege and and really shaped how I taught. And yeah.


Sam Demma (08:55):
That’s awesome. Yeah. I was gonna ask you like those teachers that you had, even when you, do you remember even when you were a student, so like even before, when you were a young teacher, when you were, you know, grade seven grade eight high school, do you remember any of those educators, although I guess those are the same ones actually, that, that taught you as a teacher, when you were a student, what did they do that had an impact on you?


Katrin Heim (09:19):
Hmm. I think the greatest thing that I I can recall is that they created space for myself, my peers, my classmates, to be heard in their classrooms for each of us to be valued for who we were. We each of us had an identity and we, those teachers created the space for us to discover our identities and to to really shine in our own ways. I would say primarily, that’s what I remember from the teachers who had an impact. I mean, of course there were high expectations and there were beliefs that we, we could be successful and we would be successful and we were supported in those ways. But I really think that the teachers that I remember having the greatest impact created this space for each of us to shine and to be heard in their classrooms and believed in us.


Sam Demma (10:41):
Yeah. I love that. That’s awesome. And, you know, your problem solving skill set must have been highly effective and used a lot this past year because I’m assuming there was a lot of challenges. How have things, how have things been different this year teaching or working in education versus, you know, last year, in the years prior, because of COVID like, what are some of the challenges that you had to face and how did you try and overcome them?


Katrin Heim (11:11):
Yeah, there, there were many challenges. I mean, in my role as innovation coach my partner and I, my work partner, and I support all the teachers in Buffalo trail with, you know technology supports learning supports, like there’s a lot of different things that we help teachers work through. And prior to COVID, we spent a lot of time on the road and traveling between schools and meeting with teachers face to face. And that stopped very abruptly. And, you know, back in March, when we first transitioned to online learning, we we had to adapt very quickly to support our teachers in learning the skills that they needed to teach in an online environment. And so it meant you know, meeting with teachers using an online platform like Google meets or Google Hangouts to solve technology related problems so that they could get kids and families connected.


Katrin Heim (12:29):
That was the very quick sort of sudden shift back in March. And then it was just providing opportunities for teachers to learn these skills very rapidly because they needed them. And once the dust sort of settled there with that initial transition, it became a lot more our check-ins with teachers, there were, there were different levels to those check-ins I guess we could say because as innovation coaches, we were, we are supports to teachers so that they can, they can shine as teachers and they can create opportunities for learning with their students. And as we know, as teachers, as people, sometimes we need that social emotional check in. And so oftentimes when teachers would reach out with a question or a problem, or, Hey, could you help me with this? We’d set up a Google meet to solve, you know, a pretty straightforward question or problem, and we’d end up chatting for 15 or 20 minutes just about how’s life, like what’s going on.


Katrin Heim (13:55):
And so that was, I would say, also a change because people more than ever needed to feel connected. And so whenever we had an opportunity to connect with someone on a professional level to, to work through a problem or a challenge, that personal connection aspect almost became the priority, just very organically, like it wasn’t forced, it would just happen to be what people needed. So that was also, I would say, a change and the digital the way of connecting digitally with people saved us so much time traveling. Yeah. That we actually had amazing opportunities to connect with more people and perhaps people who we may not have connected with prior to COVID simply because there, the online learning aspect created the need for support, and then therefore we were able to connect. So I think, you know, in that sense, there’s a lot of good that has come from from COVID and online learning and for us in our work, the ability to connect with people online, you know?


Sam Demma (15:35):
Yeah, yeah. It changed a lot of gas too. Right. well, yeah.


Katrin Heim (15:40):
And, and time, and, and in so many ways it’s just as effective for someone to screen share or to talk through something and to bring people together.


Sam Demma (15:54):
Yeah. I agree. I mean, I would agree with the meetings, like the, the check-ins you can meet with so many people, I’m sure you find value in the, in person when you’re talking to a large group. Right. That’s where I think it makes a


Katrin Heim (16:07):
Absolutely


Sam Demma (16:08):
Absolutely makes a difference, but you’re right. Like, I, I mean, even myself, I was telling you earlier, like, this’ll be episode 120 something. Imagine I had to drive to every person’s school. Like , this should be impossible. Like I would have to fly to Alberta, you know? So there’s so many benefits that come with the technology, you know, and, and using it effectively, what are you forecasting for the next year? , it’s a hard question to ask, but I’m sure innovation, you know, I’m sure innovation focuses a little bit on the future, but do you think that the schools in Buffalo trail will be in person or a blend or a hybrid? Like we can’t, no one can really rub the magic ball and guess, but yeah. Curious what your thoughts are.


Katrin Heim (16:51):
I don’t know. I think honestly, it’s a it’s anyone’s guess at this point I don’t expect there will be a lot different from last year in terms of how we start in September, but again I don’t have a crystal ball, so it’s, I really hope that we can we can get back out into schools because spending time in classrooms, you know, anything online just doesn’t replace what it feels like to be in a classroom. So, yeah. I really hope that that’s in our future.


Sam Demma (17:36):
Love that. And in terms of your role, so I think you do a lot of supporting the schools, a lot of supporting the teachers. Does your role also include, like coming up with innovative ideas to build on, you know, programs that are already in schools? Like, what does the whole portfolio look like if someone’s listening to this thinking, this sounds pretty interesting innovation coach, and they wanna learn more, like, how would you break it down to a person that knows nothing about it?


Katrin Heim (18:01):
so I’ll just be starting my third year now as innovation coach. And there’s no


Sam Demma (18:11):
Set definition.


Katrin Heim (18:12):
I’ve never done the same thing twice. Let’s just put it that way. So when I started the focus of my role was a lot more around technology and innovative ways to weave technology into learning particularly with the lens of engagement student engagement. And as the role kind of shifted and progressed, we began to work more with the school based coaches. So we’ve got optimal learning coaches, inclusive learning coaches in our schools, in each of our schools. And of course our admin teams in our schools, our principals and assistant principals. And so as the role evolved, we, we shifted a little bit away from the technology side of things to the instructional aspect. And so a lot of our work and I say our, because I’m part of a team and we all sort of have that same focus.


Katrin Heim (19:30):
Nice. Although our portfolios are slightly different. And so we, we sort of shifted our focus to leading professional learning for our, our groups of teacher leaders in schools. Cool. And so we looked at pedagogy. So with our optimal learning coaches, the focus was on how do we create opportunities for student learning in our classrooms that are engaging rigorous and allow our kids to connect their learning so that they they have deeper understanding of the content and how it’s connected to all of the other content that they’re learning cool. So that they’re making connections and, and gaining that deep understanding and, and creating learning that allows students to transfer that understanding from, you know, between and amongst situations. And so back to your point, you know, so we’re leading this learning with optimal learning coaches in terms of our inclusive learning coaches, we’re supporting professional development for that group of teachers as well, looking doing some coaching with both of those cohorts in terms of supporting their work in schools, leading professional learning in their schools, but also supporting them with the work that they do with their teachers in their own schools.


Katrin Heim (21:19):
So nice sort of more about supporting the teacher leaders and the leaders in each of the schools so that they can then support their, their teachers instead of us like working individually you know, with teachers. So looking to have a bit of a, a larger impact by supporting those, those leaders and teacher leaders in, in schools. So that would be sort of the biggest shift that I’ve seen in my role. And I, yeah, I mean, I look forward to continuing to build relationships with those, those groups of teachers with our principals. Nice, because we find that those relationships that we build and we initiate and we nurture, and we support the work that is happening in schools. It allows leaders and, and teachers to do what they do best. And it creates again, just like, you know, the teacher that I reflected on having an impact on me in as a student in high school. Now we create the space for others to shine. We create the space for people to feel connected, to feel supported, to ask for help if they need to, or just simply to bounce an idea off. Because as we know, the more we talk through an idea and refine it the better it becomes. And so we really do our best work when we’re connected to others. And so that’s, that’s been a little bit of how my role has taken shape.


Sam Demma (23:20):
Yeah. It sounds like it involves a lot of people, teams of people. You never do the same task twice. You’re always solving problems and traveling a lot. Usually when there isn’t COVID that’s cool. Yeah, no, I, I, I just thought it’d be awesome to highlight what the role looks like in case someone wasn’t too sure about it or, or what it included. Now, if you could go back 11 years and give younger cat advice, knowing what you know now, what would you tell your younger self in your first year of working in education?


Katrin Heim (23:55):
Education is really about people.


Sam Demma (23:57):
Hmm. What does that mean? Tell me more


Katrin Heim (24:04):
It’s about kids. It’s about family, it’s about community. And I think I always had this sense, but I don’t know that I knew it or could have articulated its value the same way, you know, 11 years ago, as I, as I can now, you know, I’ve my first my first group of grade one and twos have now graduated.


Sam Demma (24:36):
Stop aging yourself.


Katrin Heim (24:39):
Know. I know. But


Sam Demma (24:41):
That’s


Katrin Heim (24:43):
Awesome. And to see, and to still to see these kids graduate. Yeah. And to be, you know, grow into the people that they are. And to know that not just myself, but all of their teachers through their school careers have impacted who they are as people who they are as learners. We’ve, you know, the relationships that I, as a grade one teacher established with my families sets the tone for their school careers. Yeah. You know, and, and these are the same families and the same students who are part of our community. And so I just, I just think education is really about people. It’s, it’s about kids. It’s about families, it’s about community and, and, and learning of course. But those relationships and those connections need to be front and center for that learning to take place.


Sam Demma (26:01):
Mm. I love that. Mm-Hmm, , that’s awesome. And I couldn’t agree more. I have a, a mentor who always tells me people buy people. Like at the end of the day, people buy people, you know, and relationships are extremely important. And I think it’s not only true in education, but in life in general, it’s like, it’s, it’s all about community and families and, and other people. If someone wants to reach out and talk to you, another person because it’s all about people, what would be the best email address to share, or what would be the best way for someone listening to reach out to you if they have any questions or just want to connect after listening?


Katrin Heim (26:38):
Sure. people can email me at katrin.heim@btps.ca.


Sam Demma (26:53):
Awesome. Katrin, thank you so much for coming on the show again. It’s been a pleasure having you on and keep up the awesome work innovating, and we’ll talk soon.


Katrin Heim (27:01):
Thanks Sam.


Sam Demma (27:03):
And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the High Performing Educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review so other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show; if you want meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network, you’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Katrin Heim

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.

Brian McKenzie – Principal at Patrick Fogarty Catholic Secondary School

Brian McKenzie - Principal at Patrick Fogarty Catholic Secondary School
About Brian McKenzie

Brian McKenzie (@pforilla)has more than 30 years of experience in elementary, secondary and post-secondary education. Armed with a B.Ed. From Western in 1992, he joined the staff of Patrick Fogarty Catholic Secondary School in Orillia as an English teacher and enjoyed more than ten years of teaching everything from English to Philosophy to Data Processing.

He moved from the classroom to the school office in 2004 and since then, he has served as vice-principal and principal in 6 schools and at the board office in privacy and information management.

With his wife Christine, a teacher, he has three adult children, two standard-issue cats, and a beautiful backyard where he spends summers watching the Blue Jays. He is currently the Principal of Patrick Fogarty Catholic Secondary School in Orillia, where his teaching career began.

Connect with Brian McKenzie: Email | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Patrick Fogarty Catholic Secondary School in Orillia

Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:01):
Brian welcome to the high performing educator. Huge pleasure to have you on the show. Please start by introducing yourself.


Brian McKenzie (00:08):
Sure. My name is Brian McKenzie and I’m principal of Patrick Fogerty Catholic Secondary School in Orilla Ontario.


Sam Demma (00:13):
When did you realize when you were a student pursuing careers, that education was gonna be the vocation for you?


Brian McKenzie (00:22):
Well, I think I’d began in high school. I had been kind of a student who liked to help other students with with tutoring and with helping out with courses. I I was I was never really one initially for public speaking or presentations, but I was as a result of taking one of my, one of my high school courses where I was forced to presentation. And I found that I actually had some skill and some talent that you know, leading a class and, and, and doing that kind of that kind of thing. When I got into when I got into university, I took a number of courses where having, again, having to do presentations and seminars, where a component of the course, and I found that I had to talent for it.


Brian McKenzie (01:07):
I became a, a TA in my in my fourth year and a graduate assistant. And I was working on my master’s degree. And then after I finished, I, I became a a session instructor at the university as well for a while. I found that you know, being in a classroom was a, was a natural fit for me. And I enjoyed it and I found that other people recognized my students and my colleagues and the other professors wanted to reinforce and and, and compliment my my, my classroom ability. I just found it was a good fit for me, a very natural fit. And I, and I have always enjoyed it.


Sam Demma (01:45):
Did you have educators tap you on the shoulder and tell you, you, you should consider getting into teaching? Was that something that ever came in your journey?


Brian McKenzie (01:55):
Yeah, I wouldn’t say explicitly. I think that became a little bit later you know, when I was in university where I was encouraged to, to apply, to be, you know, a session instructor and, and as a graduate assistant, I think that came a little bit later. I don’t think it was so much that somebody explicitly said to me in high school or, or university, you should be a school teacher or, you know, get into high school so much as just that I was good at what I was doing.


Sam Demma (02:23):
Got it. Yeah, that makes, that makes sense. For someone who’s listening to this who thinks might be the thing for them, but is on the edge in a nutshell, why do you think education is one of the best jobs in the world?


Brian McKenzie (02:42):
oh, simple question. Yeah. Well, I, I think people often get caught up in in believing that teaching is is, is kind of a day to day activity. And I think we’ve gotta look more holistically at what education is. Mm. I’d heard it described when I, when I was much younger as it’s the process of transferring civilization from one generation to the next we’re engaged in a huge, huge responsibility. And it’s not just about, you know, the, the individual subjects or the individual kinds, the things that we do on a daily basis, but it, it’s more holistically about the importance of ensuring that we’re creating a future that we all wanna live in and, and excuse me. And I, and I think education is, is is a tremendously important part of separating us from are, you know, from, from the distant past of, of of superstition and of primitivism and of a lot of a lot of a lot of attitudes and beliefs that we are best leading behind.


Brian McKenzie (04:00):
I, I, you know, I remember as a, as a younger teacher teaching north prize, the educated imagination, and, and he goes at in great detail into what is the importance of education. And it’s literally, it is about creating the world that we want to live in. And, and again, you know, I, I, I’ve often heard this one too. I, I, I gotta retire into the world that the younger generation’s gonna run. So I’ve got him make sure that I’m setting the conditions for a, for a, a comfortable life for my generation and ensuring that the world is better than we’ve been than I found it.


Sam Demma (04:36):
Hmm. I love that that’s a worthy pursuit. from the moment you decided you wanted to get into education what did the journey look like? So take me back and take me through the steps that brought you from where you started to where you are today.


Brian McKenzie (04:55):
Okay. So, as I mentioned I was working as a as a, as a professional instructor at the, I was at the university of Windsor where I graduated. Yep. And my initial intent was to be a lawyer. I had known a couple of a couple of classmates who had pursued the law. And it, it seemed like an interesting thing to me when I was in high school and when I was in my first couple of years at university. But as I, you know, as I progressed through, I realized that that wasn’t really a good fit for me. So it was it was in it was in my time that I was working as an instructor, that I started exploring what it, you know, what it was required to be, to get into the faculty of education.


Brian McKenzie (05:40):
I don’t come from a family with with extensive education background my, on my mother and my father’s side most of the family were blue collar and and or semiprofessional workers that weren’t necessarily highly educated in terms of multiple, you know, secondary degrees had one uncle who’s who’s a university professor, but that was about, about it. So, so the notion of higher education and extensive multiple, you know, multiple degrees and going on to education, wasn’t really stressed, very highly in my band. This was kind of a, a, a process of self exploration and, and I found, you know, what’s involved in, in, in becoming a teachers, another, you know, going to school for another degree and spend more time. And, and that was very attractive to me, just when I, when I love that what was involved in, in the year of of, of the faculty of education.


Brian McKenzie (06:43):
And I saw what the courses were, they saw what it involved that was really attractive to me. And, and I applied to, I can’t remember what schools anymore. I ended up at the university of Western Ontario for the faculty of ed. And I, you know, I, I immersed myself in that. I had a great time there. And and you know, maybe I was very fortunate that you know, it was in the early nineties when teaching jobs were pretty scarce as they, as they have been for the last few years. But I was fortunate to end up getting a job right out of laid out of my graduate.


Sam Demma (07:23):
That’s awesome. And throughout the experience and the different roles and positions you played in education which of them have been from your perspective? Some of the most meaningful, and I, I’m sure it’s hard to compare the roles , but maybe the, the different pros and cons in different positions you’ve played throughout education.


Brian McKenzie (07:47):
Yeah, well, yeah, I started as a classroom teacher. I became in fact, I started as a classroom teacher at the school I’m currently at where I’m now principal 30 years ago. And, and I very much loved that being in a classroom and working with, especially in a smaller community is is very rewarding because you know, unlike unlike working in a larger city or a municipal school board where the schools are very large, this is a very, a relatively small school at the time. They only about 500 students when they started teaching the class were very small. The, it was very possible to get to know all the kids. It was a fairly close knit community because we are a Catholic high school. We’re the only Catholic high school in town. So we also had some tight integration with our church and with our parish and with our elementary school feeders schools.


Brian McKenzie (08:41):
And so you get to know each other very well and very closely. In fact, some of the students that I taught back in the nineties are parents of the school now. And so I, you know, I’ve known them for many, many years and that, that is a, that’s really exciting. And that’s really rewarding work because getting to know kids you know, not just in, in the classroom, but also seeing them out in the community, seeing them, the church, seeing ’em at the, you know, the Saturday morning market and all those kinds of things. It does foster a much greater sense of community. I left here and in 2002 and went on a, like a 17 year odysey of working in a number of different schools, as well as at our school board. And all of them brought different things in different rewards and, and had to create great advantages.


Brian McKenzie (09:33):
I worked in as an elementary principal, I’ve worked as a secondary principal. I’ve worked as a, as assistant to the superintendents at the board office. I’ve worked in information management and they’ve all brought the different perspectives on education. I you know, I, I, I feel that I’m much better running a school after having at some time working in the board off, being the bigger picture of how our system works from seeing things from the, from the, from the administrative side of the board, as well as from the, from the school side. And it’s given me the ability to, I think to provide a much I don’t wanna say more rational, but at at least a much more balanced approach to, to running a school and, and what kinds of programs and services I can offer to do.


Brian McKenzie (10:30):
I’ve never regretted, not, you know, leaving the classroom and beginning into administration. I miss being in a classroom sometimes. Mm. And I you know, I was a, I was a very dedicat English teacher when I was a teacher. And I know that I could walk into an English class right now today if I needed to and, and, and, and and lead the class and have a lot of fun with it. So I never really felt that I, I lost that that ability, but but I, I, I don’t see it as having lost in any of as much as having gained a lot more and having the, the responsibility for shaping the instruction across the entire school is very exciting. And, and it’s very rewarding work in and of itself because you can see over the course of a, of a school year, you can see the growth and you can see the the progress that the students make.


Sam Demma (11:22):
You’re probably a lot closer to viewing the future of education or how, you know, education is changing and shifting. What are some of the things that you think have changed over the past two years due to the, the global pandemic and moving forward that you think are positively changing in education.


Brian McKenzie (11:43):
But, well, definitely the pandemic has accelerated our, our efforts for what we’ve been calling 21st century learning. And what 21st century learning is about is using much more than just the traditional, you know, teacher in front of the classroom tools and and approaches to, to teaching and learning, and have many more influences on their ability to learn than just a classroom teacher. When I started teaching, if kids wanted to know something about Shakespeare, they had to go to their whole, their high school English teacher, or they had to go to the public library. And there wasn’t a whole lot of other ways, or, you know, or, you know, if their parents had invested in second Britanica, but there weren’t a whole lot of ways to obtain knowledge outside of traditional classroom structures. Now over the last you know, 20, 20, so years as, as with the rise of of the internet, and even more specifically with the rise of specific social media channels, there’s a much wider opportunity and, and much greater opportunity for students to, to, to learn things on their own or to be exposed to different perspectives.


Brian McKenzie (13:00):
So the job of schools now, and we’ve seen this very explicitly occurring over the last couple of years with the pandemic, the jobs of schools now is to harness that and to kind of filter it and to organize it in a way that makes it you know, I don’t wanna say constructivist, but you know, in a way that is provides some logical progression in learning, you know, I have kids of my own and, and, you know, long before they ever got to high school, my, my son’s in particular had in depth understanding and knowledge of physics from playing some some computer games and, and video games, and could rattle off all kinds of things about trajectory and speed and velocity, and, and a lot of, a lot of fairly advanced physics classes. They had no clue of the science behind it, or the math behind, but they kind of understood it.


Brian McKenzie (13:56):
So taking the time now to back up and explain how it all works, the math thing it is, is an important role for a classroom teacher. But we, we, we do have to do it in a, in a, in a very careful and structured way to ensure that the kids aren’t just coming away with, with the head of facts, without any understanding behind it, but going forward. What I, what I really see is, is the potential that’s going to be very positive is the opportunity for teachers to very much be instead of gatekeepers, very much facilitators and very much coaches who help the students to understand and, and and focus on how they acquire learning, as opposed to just simply learning things.


Sam Demma (14:47):
We talked a little bit about alternative pathways on our first planning call also. And it’s understanding that, you know, every pathway is a valid option and every learner might be a little bit different. How do you kind of foresee school supporting those students with the D streaming of, of courses and everything that’s changed now in education as well?


Brian McKenzie (15:14):
Well, pathways have been really important to us over the last 20 years. We’ve really focused a lot on shaping an, an education program for the individual student. Yeah. 30 credit sent out is is, is not any anymore, really the model for a lot of students. We have students who take some credits through the day program here at school. Some they take through e-learning outside of school. Some they take in summer school. We have the opportunity for students to get into apprenticeships, to get into reach ahead credits in their, in their postsecondary, through colleges. The idea of students, again, just sitting passively in the classroom and listening to teachers talk is, is, is long. You know, it’s pretty much long gone. I think even you may have experienced this in your own high school experience, but there there’s much more opportunity for kids to get out of the classroom and learn through experience.


Brian McKenzie (16:13):
So I, I think you know, some changes are coming from the ministry of education, include a greater emphasis on experiential learning, a greater emphasis on e-learning and a greater emphasis on, you know, exploring what not even state exploring of, of, of ensuring that there are stronger opportunities for the, the, or the skill trades. And and technology based programs is, is going to be, is going to be really important too many, too many years in Ontario. You know, and probably by extension, the rest of Canada, the perception has been that the only marker of secondary or post-secondary success is a university degree , and, and it’s an unfortunate belief. You know and, and then even, even in, in terms of a postsecondary degree, we tend to identify a very narrow slice of, of postsecondary education as being valid or valuable.


Brian McKenzie (17:15):
You know, I, I often when we have arts nights here at the school, we have a school called cert, or we have a drama presentation or something. I always remind the parents who are the people that we most admire in society. There are actors, there are musicians, there are artists of all different stripes, but when kids say to their parents, they’re interested in a career in the arts, the parents laugh at ’em and tell ’em, that’s a hobby. You, you get a real job being accountant. I, I think we need to make sure that we’re offering a much wider range of experiences for students and, and a, and a wider range of, of postsecondary pathways to help them arrive at what they see as personal success, as opposed to what somebody else measures as success based on something as narrow as a paycheck or, or a specific post secondary diploma.


Sam Demma (18:06):
Ah, I love it. I couldn’t agree more. I mean, pursuing this podcast is an artistic expression, and some people would say, you’re crazy. This is what you spend your days doing


Brian McKenzie (18:18):
But yeah, well, a hundred percent. Right. And, and, and the thing is, is that maybe you’re not using the specific education you receive, but yeah, I can guarantee that’s not a whole lot of what you’re doing that you, and doesn’t rely on education that you’re receiving


Sam Demma (18:32):
A hundred percent.


Brian McKenzie (18:32):
Do it without having been educated, but you don’t necessarily, you know, and that’s the same thing in my job. I, I don’t really, I was an English teacher, as I said, and a history teacher, I don’t really get to use a whole lot of my knowledge of you know, 17th century poetry in my daily job, but there’s no a way I could be doing my job right now. If I hadn’t been as a as well educated as I was. And education doesn’t necessarily mean, like I said, it doesn’t just necessarily mean a university degree in a very narrow slice of what are considered to be valid. Occupations. Education comes from a lot of different different sources. It includes, you know, like I said, includes hands on learning through the trades and or through technology programs, it includes travel. You know, you can see you know, your listeners won’t see, but you can see I’m wearing a a sweatshirt that says Kenya on it.


Brian McKenzie (19:23):
Our school board has been actively engaged for the last 15 years and what we call service learning, where we’ve taken students to a number overseas destinations to work on school projects. And and we integrated with a multi credit program here at the school, so that they’re understanding the global context with what they’re doing. We’ve had trips from everywhere from China to south America, to Africa, to India where students have explored you know, the opportunity to work in in, in community development project. And, and, and it’s, those, those experiences have changed their, their lives. They have into been the countries that they never could have imagined visiting and seeing things that they never could have imagined seen. And it’s changed. In many cases, it changed the trajectory of their own careers, and they became more involved in social justice and, and development work or, or law or other areas that that have provided them with a much more rewarding and much more rewarding career than they might have initial that they were going to have.


Sam Demma (20:34):
It’s amazing. I know your school does a great job with the social justice programming and programs. I’m curious though, for yourself over the course of your career, what resources, even maybe people resources, but what resources have you found helpful in building your own philosophy and also tangible actions that you’ve taken in education? What resources have helped shape those things?


Brian McKenzie (21:01):
Well, I, I think the the greatest resource that we have in education is our colleagues. Mm. There’s an old joke that that, you know, well, it’s too likely to get into here. It’s okay. But just spice it to say that, you know, that, that, you know, there’s the old joke that you know, those who can’t teach or those who can’t do teach. Right. And, and, and, and that’s not at all, and that’s not at all true. What I do know is that some of the smartest and some of the most capable people I’ve met in my life have been my colleagues in education and whatever, I think I know whatever I think I’m good at. I spend sometimes 15 minutes, 20 minutes chatting with somebody at a meeting or in a conference call or something like that. And, and I learn something new.


Brian McKenzie (21:51):
I come away having learned something new every time because everybody has their own everybody has their own kind of way of learning for themselves as well. So if we take, you know, me sitting home alone or sitting at night on, you know, browsing on my computer and I, and I, and two or three new facts multiply that times to thousands of teachers in, in the system and the thousands of kids. And we’re all bringing that information back to the back to school together you know, education, isn’t just a one way isn’t just a one way thing. Schools are a place for where everybody learn. And, you know, when I, when I, I talk to my colleagues, when I hear ideas, we’ll, we bounce ideas off. Each other people ask for advice and people give advice. There there’s a lot of a lot of really powerful learning that can take place just in a, in a, in a, you know, on a casual conversation more, you know, more formally as I said, I spent a couple of beers in, in information management and several years working, you know, at the board off level doing that kind of stuff.


Brian McKenzie (23:02):
And what I’ve learned from what happens around the world in other places. You know, again, we often have the perception that we’re, you know, here in Ontario, we’re doing everything right. We’re, we’re the, we’re the pinnacle of, of educational achievement, but there are other places around the world that are far ahead of Ontario in, in a lot of areas and and do a far better job than, than we do in, in, in a lot of things. You know, I think of some jurisdictions where kids don’t even start school until they’re seven, whereas the, in Ontario get them into school as early as possible, starting as you as three. And yet schools that start kids later, you know, at age seven, in many ways, our, our have better outcomes for, for students than, than what we have here. When we’re starting in that three.


Brian McKenzie (23:54):
You I’ve learned a lot from studying how, you know, those other jurisdictions do things, how they make up for the lost time that, well, the perception of lost time by having kids start four year later, well, what are they doing for that? You know, from the time between H three agent, what are they doing? What are they doing? yeah, I mean, we are, we all have to recognize that whatever it is that we think we do well, there are other people who do things, do things well and sometimes even better, we can’t be so high bound in our own way of doing things that we can’t we can’t learn from them.


Sam Demma (24:32):
I love that perspective. And even if you approach every situation, thinking, you can learn something from the other party, you’ll probably one enjoy the experience talking to someone else or being around someone else, or being exposed to something new. And the chances are, you probably will take something away from that interaction. So I think it’s a good perspective.


Brian McKenzie (24:56):
Yeah. You know, and I, and I, and I do try to approach things that way when I was, when I was younger, it was, I’m gonna tell you something , and, and now it’s gonna be, can you please tell me something? I, I, you know, I’ve, I’ve learned that as well is that I have to be, you know, much more in a receptive mode than in a transmi mode. And and, and, and that’s where I’ve I think that’s, like I said, by, by just by talking to people, that’s where I’ve gained the most. I used to, I used to go to a lot more, again, when in my information management, I used to go to a lot of conferences. That’s where, that’s where I had to learn to sit down and be quiet. Cause most of the people in the room were a lot smarter and more knowledgeable than I was. And if I was going to be of any value in the role I had to learn to listen more than than talk and then be able to bear my, you know, my, my, my new learnings with with my colleagues.


Sam Demma (25:53):
I love it. Th this probably dovetails really nicely with my next question, which is, if you were able to take all your experiences and in education bundle, ’em up, go back in time to the first class you taught, tap yourself on the shoulder and say, Hey, Brian, this is what you needed to hear when you were just starting, knowing what you know now and the experience you have, what would you have told your younger self?


Brian McKenzie (26:19):
Oh man. Well the same thing that I’m telling my, my teachers here in my school now is that you can’t push students to learn more than they’re ready you to learn at any given time. Mm-Hmm what does, you know? And, and I, and I, I guess what I’m referring to specifically is the experience that we’ve just gone through over the last two years. We have gotten into the, the, into the, you know, into a mindset where we think we’ve lost time. We’re losing time, we’re losing time. And, and that the solution to the lost time is to accelerate base accelerate the, you know, the rate of learning, but it doesn’t work that way. You can’t say to a student who’s behind, I’m gonna, you know, jam you with more work to get you caught up. It just, it just won’t work.


Brian McKenzie (27:20):
You know, back in the, in the early nineties, there was, again, the baby bit of a, a bit of a story. There’s old episode of the Simpsons where the, the family moves to Colorado and they, Homer takes a new job working in a new power plant. And Bart ends up in a, in a special ed cloth because he’s behind the other kids in, in the new school that he’s in and the teacher is doing, you know, it’s a, it’s a silly team. The teacher is doing a joke, or it’s a bunch of kids sitting around the table and she’s gonna teach them to letter a and Bart says, let me get this straight. We’re behind the other kids. And we’re going to catch up to them by going slower than they are. And I’ve always that that line has always stuck with me as a teacher and as an administrator.


Brian McKenzie (28:06):
I, you know, again, it’s a funny throw away kind of line, but there’s some wisdom in it too, because oftentimes this is what the situation we, we, we put our, our students into is that we think that you’re behind so that the, the, the better way, the best way thing we need to do is to jam you with more work, which means slowing you down when students are behind. Sometimes the best thing you can do is stop the bus and figure out where are we, why are people being left behind? If, you know, if one or two kids are, are, are behind, okay. Yeah, we can, we can check into their, their work habits, or we can look into their, into their skills, but if an entire class or an entire school is behind, then maybe we gotta stop and figure out what it is we’re doing and are, you know, what is the, what is the source?


Brian McKenzie (28:57):
What is the cause? And what can we do to help get everybody back on track? Often use the, the metaphor of the, you know, if there’s an old story, I don’t know how true it is, but there’s an old story that you know, the British rail system at one point decided that in order to make sure the buses ran on time, it would stop picking up passengers. Right? So if the bus, if the bus had to, you know, left the Depot at 8:00 AM, and it was due at its first stop at 8 0 5 and then at eight, 10, and then eight 15, or something like that, if it saw too many passengers waiting to get on it, would, it wouldn’t stop and pick them up because it had to be at the next stop for, you know, five minutes later. And the joke is, of course, the, a bus driver would get to the end of the run and there’d be nobody on the bus, but he was on, at least he was on time.


Brian McKenzie (29:41):
And, and, and again, sometimes I think that’s what we do in the classroom. We get so intent on, you know, delivering curriculum and making sure we get all of our lessons in, and we make sure we hammer the kids with work on assignments and tests and, and on and on and on. And then, you know, you get to the end of the semester and you’ve lost the kids. They’re, you know, and, and there’s a lot of different ways that you know, again, you know, from your own experience, there’s a lot of different ways that kids show that they’re lost, right. They stop attending class or they’re, or they’re not doing their homework anymore. They, they shut down or they’re, you know, they’re acting out or there’s a lot of different kinds of indicators that the teacher has lost has lost the class. So we wanna make sure. And, and for me, , I wanna make sure that as we go forward, we’re not, you know, we’re not running the buses on time, we’re picking up passengers.


Sam Demma (30:31):
Mm. I love that. That’s such a cool analogy. And the Bart Simpson story, being someone who wants that every once in a while. that’s awesome. Well, if someone wants to reach out to you based on this interview, ask a question, talk about anything you discuss today, what would be the best way for them to get in touch with you?


Brian McKenzie (30:52):
You can, well, we have a social media channel for our school. It’s Instagram and on Twitter, it’s at @pforilla. Our school’s website is https://pfo.schools.smcdsb.on.ca/ and you know, there’s contact information for the school on there. And I’m, I’m, I’m I’m available through those channels primarily, cuz you know, I, I get too many emails to try to try to follow, but you know, there’s, there’s a couple of us that track the DMS on the, on the Instagram and on the Twitter channel. So we’ll be able to probably follow what best there.


Sam Demma (31:37):
Awesome. Brian, thank you so much for making the time to come on the show. I hope you enjoy the experience and keep up the great work and education.


Brian McKenzie (31:45):
Thanks a lot. And, and, and good luck to you with.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Brian McKenzie

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.

Bluefield Leadership Class **Student Interview**

Ryan Laughlin – Leadership Teacher at Bluefield High School
About Ryan Laughlin

Ryan Laughlin (@stickr10) is a proud Bluefield Bobcat from Prince Edward Island. Ryan is a veteran Physical Education and Leadership educator at Bluefield High School.

Ryan prides himself on physical fitness, servant leadership, and teaching engaging lessons that serve to develop leadership skills.

Today we are joined by the students in his two leadership classes. We ask them all the questions you’d be interested in hearing as an educator.  

Connect with Ryan: Email | Instagram | Linkedin | Twitter

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Bluefield High School

PEI Teachers’ Federation

Physical Education Association of PEI

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, and I’m super excited to be joined again by Ryan. Ryan and I already did an interview. You haven’t heard it yet because it’s not live, but it’s coming out very soon, but today I won’t be actually interviewing him. I’m gonna be interviewing two of his leadership classes and the students inside those classes. And the reason I’m so excited about this conversation is that you’re gonna get the opportunity to hear from students, you know, from a different part of the world what their experience has been like going through school during this time. Ryan, why don’t you kick us off by just kind of explaining where this idea came from, and why you wanted to, why you wanted to do this?


Ryan Laughlin (01:15):
Sure. So like a lot of places in Canada, there’s been a lot of restrictions in what we’ve been able to do, especially with our leadership classes. So I was talking to a colleague, Melanie Headley, and we were brainstorming ideas where we could engage students with something creative and give ’em an experience that I have not been able to because of restrictions. So we were talking about podcasts, she mentioned your name and I reached out and we connected and here we are.


Sam Demma (01:39):
Yeah. And I’m excited; I’m super excited so thank you for taking this on. I mean, we could just jump right in. We’ve we’ve outlined some questions and you have some students selected so why don’t we just call Jordan up to get started? You know, Jordan, the first thing I’m curious to know is your experience, as a student, how has it been affected during COVID 19?


Jordan (02:01):
I feel that at the start of the year, it was the most challenging to try to get used to all the protocols and wearing the masks and stuff, but in the whole run of things, I guess it was really minor because they’re really adaptable and once you got in the routine of doing them you know, it’d feel very unnormal not to do them right now. But I feel I of the big thing that has been most challenging is the uncertainty that it’s brought to the school year. Like I found that not knowing whether or not the materials that were cut outta some of the classes this year will affect or make challenges next year, going into University.


Sam Demma (02:45):
Mm, yeah. Such a good point, and do you already know what you wanna study or what you wanna get into?


Jordan (02:50):
Yeah, I’m going into business next year.


Sam Demma (02:52):
Oh, nice. Very cool, thanks so much for sharing. I totally agree. The uncertainty, this situation has brought is not only thrown off school, but like literally everything. My heart also goes out to the athletes who spent years training for something and now it’s falling apart. Jayden, I’m curious to know your perspective, you know, how has COVID 19 affected you personally? And I see you’re all wearing masks, so I’ll virtually put mine on as well, but go ahead.


Jayden (03:19):
Well for like sports and stuff, it’s kind of taken away from some of the time that we could like spend doing that. Like the rugby season last year got taken away from like all the students so that was, that kind of sucked. And also like the normal prom and graduation, that’s also another thing that’s kind of taken away from a lot of the students. And also what Jordan said, the uncertainty of like, whether it’s gonna affect next year, or even if we’re gonna go into like another lockdown again, the first one was pretty rough for a lot of people. So, couldn’t imagine going into like another big one.


Sam Demma (04:00):
Yeah. I hear you, man. The mental toll that we all went through going through a lockdown is super real, and I don’t think it gets talked about a lot, but we’re not supposed to live inside our individual homes and never see other human beings. , you know, I, I think if we go through another lockdown, we’re all gonna become these socially awkward humans that don’t know how to interact and talk other people. But yeah, that’s so right. And, and thank you for sharing. We’ll move on, we’ll move on. Let’s go right to Grace or actually let’s, let’s go right to Grace Conley. What are some things Grace that you think your teacher or other teachers in your school have done that you think have been helpful during this time?


Grace Angel (04:40):
Well I’m Grace Angel. Grace Conley’s not here yet, so I’ll just, I’ll just go first.


Sam Demma (04:46):
Oh, perfect.


Grace Angel (04:48):
So I found it really helpful that teachers were, I thought of as kind to remind they’re very patient and they reminded us to sanitize and put our masks up like distance and they don’t tend to flip out over it. They know from the most part that we didn’t need to forget and they know how scary, stressful the situation is for us and adults, because they tend to have kids of their own. And they’ve given us like leeway on assignments and stuff. And they’re just, there’s overall very understanding of how hard this is for everyone.


Sam Demma (05:23):
And what does patients look like in your perspective? Like when you say they’ve been patient, what do you mean by that?


Grace Angel (05:30):
Well, they’ve like, okay. So every day, like they constantly tell us to pull up our masks cause we keep putting them down and nice. They’re not like send us to the office. They’re just like, they keep remind us over and over. And they’re not like getting frustrated with it right away. They there’s


Sam Demma (05:51):
No punishment


Grace Angel (05:52):
Learning curve.


Sam Demma (05:53):
Yeah. There’s no punishment. It’s almost like I remember when I was in high school, you show up to class late and then if you show up to class late a second time, it’s like go to the office. like, you know, I feel like in this time you’re right. Like that has been reversed. We’re a lot more understanding and empathetic of the situation because everyone’s going through this, this new learning. So I totally agree. Thank you. Thank you so much for sharing. We’ll move on right to you Cassie Casie. I’m really curious to know what do you want more of right now? Like what do you think would make your school experience more impactful or a little better?


Jordan (06:32):
Okay. I’m Charlie. I think this one was my question. Okay.


Jordan (06:36):
So right now, like kind of just want normalcy, especially since it is our graduation year. And we are really lucky here in P because we’re able to be in school and we’re able to do things that a lot of other students in, around the world in, in the, in the country aren’t able to do. And I do wanna of COVID-19 and like why there are certain measures in place, but honestly it just kinda sucks. Like not being able to graduate with the people that we’ve been in school with for the past 12 years and not being able have school activities that make school enjoyable, just kind of make it less than ideal.


Sam Demma (07:17):
Yeah, I agree. And I made a mistake, so everyone listening, I apologized I asked their own question to the wrong people. But yeah. Charlie, thank you so much for sharing Cora, what’s your perspective on this?


Jordan (07:31):
Okay, so what was the question again?


Sam Demma (07:35):
like, what do you want more of right now? What do you think would make your school experience better?


Jordan (07:40):
Okay. So for what I wrote is I kinda just thought that we’ve done what, like 12 years of school with the exact same people. And I just think that in our last, probably like month even, it’s just been a lot of actual school work and I really just wanna be here with the people. Well, like doing activities like we, our grad week, we barely basically have like, like the activities that some of the other students gone to do, like seniors in the past years, we didn’t get to do anything nearly as fun. But like I, Charlie said, it’s not really anything you can do because of COVID, but yeah. Yeah. I just wish that we got to be here with the people and not do as much school even while we’re in the school.


Jordan (08:34):
And you


Jordan (08:34):
Can do that.


Sam Demma (08:35):
That sounds like what I would’ve wanted if I was in grade 12 again.


Jordan (08:39):
Yeah, exactly.


Sam Demma (08:41):
All right. Thanks for sharing both of you. I appreciate that. Well now move on to Cassie for real Cassie, if, if you had to give me an idea, like, what do you think makes a, a strong student leader or a good student leader? Nice glasses, by the way.


Cassie (08:56):
Thank you very much. I think that a great student leader is someone who’s selfless and kind. It’s someone who genuinely cares about other people and shows dedication and all that they do. It’s someone who contributes and is very involved in their school and community, and when they see opportunity to help or make a change that they take it,


Sam Demma (09:19):
Love it. And do you think student leaders are individuals that wear like clout goggles and glasses?


Cassie (09:25):
Yes. Specifically clout goggles.


Sam Demma (09:27):
love it. All right. Thank you so much for sharing. Sam, you have the, you know, one of the most beautiful names in the world. Can you tell me your perspective?


Sam (09:37):
Well, I agree with everything that Cassie said, but also someone who isn’t afraid to go outside their comfort zone, maybe like wear clout passes to school and someone that looks at things in different ways and tries to make other people fit in. So like having a spirit day that maybe includes the athletes and another one that includes like a different group of people, not just into like one group of people in the school, having a chance for everyone to be included.


Sam Demma (09:59):
Love it, man. Love it. What does your hat say?


Sam (10:01):
My hat says PEI rugby.


Sam Demma (10:03):
Ah, you play rugby. Yeah. Nice man. Love that. Love that. That’s awesome. Thank you both for sharing. Appreciate it. We will move on to Olivia. Olivia, what is one thing you’ve learned from this class ALA, you know, Ryan’s not listening that has had the biggest impact on you.


Jordan (10:20):
So one of the things I learned in this class that had a big impact on me was the meaning of servant leadership and what a servant leader is. It wasn’t really a philosophy I was very aware of before and knew much about, but we really dived into it here. And I really liked the project we did with it in class, where we like interviewed a servant of leader from a provincial organization, a provincial nonprofit, and we got to really meet them and connect them and share who they are to our class.


Sam Demma (10:45):
So if you had to, in your own words, describe what a servant leader is like from what you’ve learned. Like, how would you kinda, how would you explain it?


Jordan (10:53):
For me, a servant leader is someone who recognizes a problem in their community and takes charge by helping those people that are not as privileged or not, as, I don’t know, profitable in the community, like they’re taking charge and helping people that need it the most. Nice. And they’re serving by doing the work that they recognize that has to be done. They’re leading, they’re trying to build other leaders in the community. They’re not focused on having as much of the authority position as just trying to take charge and help others.


Sam Demma (11:22):
Yeah. They’re not focused on the CLO goggles. They’re focused on the work. love it. I’m just, that’s totally joking. thank you so much for sharing. That was a great answer. That another Sam, oh wow. We got lots of Sam. Sam, what do you think has been the most impactful thing you’ve learned from this class


Sam (11:39):
In this class? Definitely communication. Like throughout the semester, we’ve had like so many activities to focus on communication and working with others. Like we do nonverbal communication, like just like a month ago, we did one where we’d put in groups and like we’d have to put together shape without actually communicating like one person’s outta shape. Another person didn’t see shape. But anyways, the point is Mr. Locklin, I feel like, definitely focuses a lot on communicating, whether it be non-verbal or, you know, just like learning how to communicate as a leader. You know, like being polite and being respectful and like, you know, taking consideration, like reading the room or whatever, he taught us a lot, how to do that. Nice. which obviously is quite important in a leisure class. And of course, quite useful to assume the years in general,


Sam Demma (12:26):
Love that. Thanks for sharing. I think communication’s so important, like reading other people’s body language and also being able to express your idea is in a, in a succinct way, super, super valuable, especially in any future jobs you get into or any leadership position. So thank you both for sharing. Let’s move on to the next question. So if you could give your younger self, your younger high school self advice what would you say? Is Will here yet by the way? By the way, okay, so we’ll start with Will, ’cause I wasn’t sure I wanted to ask and see if he’s here and then we’ll move on.


Will (13:00):
I find everything kind of comes into your life for a reason whether you make mistakes, like you have to make mistakes and fail to like actually learn something. And I find that’s like one of the main things, if I like told like knew that whenever I was younger, like making mistakes is fine and like failing’s fine, but that’s like definitely the biggest one


Sam Demma (13:21):
For me. Yeah. I find that sometimes we attach our self worth to our school and our grades and our accomplishments. And if we don’t, you know, succeed, we feel like we’re worthless or like we, we failed when in reality failing to just you learn , you know, you’re realizing what you did wrong. So thank you so much for sharing. Is it Nalia?


Jordan (13:42):
Yeah. It’s Nalia


Sam Demma (13:43):
Perfect. What, what about, what’s your perspective? What’s something you’d share with your younger high school self?


Jordan (13:47):
If I could tell my younger high school self anything, it would be kind of just to enjoy the small thing. So like looking back as the class of 2021, we have one normal year of high school. So it was our grade 10 year. And I definitely took things for granted in my grade til year, if that was sports or social activities or just really the environment around the school. I do anything right now to go back to the way that was two years ago. So I think I just would really tell him not to take anything for granted and to every opportunity, but to make sure that you are making smart choices and you’re making the right choices because though we really think it’s not often the right time we learned this year that maybe you only have one time. So this world is so packed unknowns. I really just think you have to take advantage of every opportunity in front of you.


Sam Demma (14:33):
Yeah. I love that. It’s funny. Cause I read this post on online the other day was talking about when you talk about, you know, way back when, you know, when our parents are 40 years old and they say, oh, I remember back in high school, like these moments will still, we’ll still have those conversations, you know, so we should live it to the fullest of its potential regardless. And I, I agree. Totally. Thank you so much for sharing that and love the bucket hat by the way. super, super swaggy. All right. Last question. And we’ll start off with Matt, Matt mills, any final pieces of advice for another student who’s listening right now,


Will (15:08):
Some final pieces of advice would be don’t get too caught up in we’re about your future. Cause the people around you will be around you for a limited amount of time, cuz people go other high school or universities and go away for hockey. You know, you never know, right? So you gotta spend as much time with them as you can. And you don’t wanna be looking back thinking you could spend more time with them when you’re too busy, worry about your future.


Sam Demma (15:34):
Agreed. And I also think it’s important to stay like, you know, don’t let our egos get in between our friendships. Sometimes we hesitate or stop ourselves from reaching out to people that we haven’t talked to in a long time, because maybe there was something that happened five years ago and it’s like, yo, push that aside. You know that person and you could have a beautiful relief, you know, be the bigger person and reach out. I love that advice. And I’m giving you this advice as well and also sharing it to anyone watching, because I also need it at certain points. So thanks for sharing that. I appreciate it. And Grace, what about yourself?


Grace (16:08):
The most important advice I’d give to myself, I’d probably just to be more in high school. Like I found that if you’re more involved in your school and doing activities and spirit days and stuff like that, then it makes it a way better environment to grow up in. Yeah. And also like what said to not take your high school years for granted, like it’s some of the best years of your life. And I remember like when I was in grade 10, I was like, oh, be in grade 12. Like I just wanna graduate and stuff like that. But I think that the grade tens need to take this time and like actually experience high school and not just wish it away.


Sam Demma (16:45):
Yeah. Love that. Thank you so much for sharing. I appreciate it. Great job everyone. If everyone on three could yell. Thank you. Appreciate it. Are you ready? 1, 2, 3.


Ryan Laughlin (16:57):
Thank you


Sam Demma (16:58):
So great to hear from you guys from leadership class with Ryan at Bluefield, this, this has been a phenomenal podcast. Ryan, we wanna pop back in for one quick second, just to wrap this up. Thank you so much for organizing this for setting up the idea. We have another class coming on the afternoon and will be slapping these two episodes together as like a long masterclass from the students, any final words you wanna share or things you wanna express or, or say


Ryan Laughlin (17:23):
No, I think this was great. The new experience for the students and you could tell they were a little nervous yesterday leading into it, and I think they did a great job and it’s interesting to hear the different perspectives from different people and connected them together and giving them a new experience, which I think is valuable.


Sam Demma (17:38):
I agree. I agree. And if anyone, if anyone’s listening and was inspired by something your student said and wanted to reach out to one of them to ask them a follow up question what would be an email that they could send you to relay it to a student?


Ryan Laughlin (17:52):
Sure. Yeah. So my email is rjlaughlin@cloud.edu.pe.ca. So they wanted to fire me a message. I could forward it to the students for the next month to five weeks here and then they’re on their way into their new adventures.


Sam Demma (18:06):
Awesome. Ryan, thank you so much for organizing this really appreciate it. It’s been a pleasure and let’s stay in touch. It’ll talk soon.


Ryan Laughlin (18:12):
Awesome. Thanks.


Sam Demma (18:13):
And we’re back with Ryan’s second class, Ryan. Thank you again for being here and bringing your students. It’s super exciting.


Ryan Laughlin (18:20):
Yeah. It’s great to be here. I’m excited to see these students have a conversation with you.


Sam Demma (18:24):
All right. We’ll jump right in. We’ll start off with Amber, Amber, I’m curious to know has been the most challenging aspect of COVID 19 for yourself as a student.


Jordan (18:34):
Well, especially being a part of the graduating class of 2021, it is evident that COVID has faced off with like several challenges from wearing masks on a daily to not being able to see your friends as often. I mainly think that the most challenging part of like having COVID would have to be just planning all of our grad events and not being able to have the, the like expected graduation and prom and just all those fun events that we always looked up to. I definitely think though that this is something, even though we hated at the moment, it’ll be something that we look back on in the future and we’re gonna be grateful for eventually


Sam Demma (19:13):
adversity builds strength. Right. I, I totally agree. Emily, what about you? What’s your perspective on this?


Jordan (19:19):
So I kinda said the same thing, the most challenging part would be missing out on a lot of the things that we got to do without COVID. So this year we didn’t have a winter formal at our school and going on field trips was harder and our pro graduation is a lot different than it typically would be, but I’m glad that we got to do in person learning.


Sam Demma (19:38):
Nice love that. Thank you so much for sharing. And I totally agree. I know you got some, a virtual background of a beach. I really miss just traveling as well, right. yeah. Yeah. Thank you so much for sharing. Perfect. Moving on. We will go right to Devon. I’m curious to know what is something your teacher or the teachers in your school have done this year that you think has been really helpful? Despite the situation


Will (20:01):
I would say they definitely helped a lot with the safety protocols because the start of the year, we were really good with sanitizing and everyone wearing their masks. And as the year just progressed, a lot of people on started lacking off with it. But for me, most of my teachers remind everyone when they come into class and since they’ve done that, everyone’s just kind of kept on track with it. So I’d say the teachers have definitely helped the most with that.


Sam Demma (20:24):
I love that. Love that. And I you’re all wearing your masks, so good job. Ellie, what about yourself?


Jordan (20:30):
So I my, my teachers have been really helpful as in, they’ve still tried to organize things to get us out of the classroom and just, they’re always smiling and always like understanding that we are going through a lot right now with COVID and it is a totally different experience than we ever would’ve expected. So we’re still going on some different forms of field trips and we’re getting outta the classroom and they’re organizing different events for us which is very helpful along with just them, them being nice in general as well.


Sam Demma (20:57):
Yeah. I hear you. It it’s like, I think teachers right now are working a hundred times harder to just even make school possible. You know what I mean? Yeah. So why don’t we on three? Just yell out loud. Thank you for everyone in your class for Ryan ready? 1, 2, 3. love it. Awesome. All right, moving on. We’ll move to Carla. Carla, I’m curious to know what do you want more of right now? Like what do you think would make your school experience better?


Jordan (21:28):
For me, it would be more gathering. So during COVID we didn’t get to have our winter formal, like Emily said earlier, our graduating like from is different this year. We didn’t like at the cafeteria table, we’re allowed to have four people in my group of friends is like a group of like eight or nine. So we can’t all sit together even just at school either.


Sam Demma (21:50):
Yeah. I hear you. Nice bucket hat by the way. Emma, what about yourself?


Jordan (21:57):
Yeah, so definitely right now is something I want is freedom. Of course, that’s almost physically impossible. We’re all trying to do our part with COVID, but ever since I was a little girl, I’ve always dreamed of a big graduate and a very big prom and going to all the high school parities, but of course, with the protocols we’re we aren’t able to do that, but I live by everything happens for a reason. So I choose to take COVID. And even though there’s a lot of negatives, I choose to take the positives and realize how much I’ve grown and matured from the challenges and adversity. Come


Sam Demma (22:29):
Love it. Love it also, by the way, nice bucket hat. appreciate the answers. It really feels like you’re on a beach, so it’s awesome. I love that. Yeah, that’s great. Cool. All right. Moving on to the next question. Sabrina, what do you think, what do you think makes a great student leader?


Jordan (22:49):
So me a great student leader is somebody who is very involved in school and I’m personally very involved in my school and I love to include as many people as I can. And I think that’s what makes Bluefield really good school for leadership, because we are very inclusive and that’s like my main thing and just be kind to everybody. Nice. Yeah. That’s


Sam Demma (23:15):
By the way, we don’t actually use the video, so don’t stress too much about it. but I would, I would say like, you’re a superhero, like bouncing in and out of the video. , you know, like when I was a kid, I always wanted to be invisible, but no, that’s awesome. Thank you so much for sharing that. I appreciate it. And again, don’t worry about it. We don’t, we don’t actually use the video. Jenaya what about yourself? And did I pronounce that correctly?


Jordan (23:38):
Yeah. Jenaya but that was pretty good, actually. So for me, like a great student leader would have to be someone who has like, I really like students interest and they’re like willing to hear everybody out. And recently we just picked like our Val Victorians. So like, I just like chose who I thought best like represented the school, but then also like every other student as well. They’re also the ones who make connections like in the hallway with like a simple, like, Hey, like how you doing? You know? And they just are really good, critical, cool thinkers and show like a lot of commitment and consistency within like the school as well.


Sam Demma (24:09):
Nice. It love it. Love it. Awesome. Thank you so much. I appreciate you both sharing. you ever seen that vine where the guy goes like this and he just disappears? that’s literally what’s happening right now. Thank you both for sure. I appreciate it. All right, next question. Let’s go with Beth. Beth, what do you think is something you’ve learned from this class that has had a big impact on you?


Jordan (24:34):
Well, just from this class, I learned kind of how to express my thoughts and opinions. I’m the type of person who’s more shy until you get to know me. So I don’t really open up to people unless I’m comfortable around them, but in this class we have like a lot of great leaders and a lot of social people. So it just kind of allowed me to open up and share, even if I’m not like comfortable with them necessarily. So it just kind of encouraged me to step outta my comfort zone.


Sam Demma (25:00):
Love it. Love it. Thank you for sharing. Awesome. And Neil, what about yourself?


Neil (25:04):
The biggest thing I learned would be skills of patience. So I play and also coach sports. Nice. So you have to learn how to be patient with cuz I coach little, 10 and 11 year olds. So you have to learn how to be patient with them. Cuz what I think as a 17 year old would be easy, might not be the same as what they find difficult. Like I, I had a little dude who could only make it to half court and that was a big accomplishment. But if I was to look at one of my high school teammates during a drill thinking, they can only do their drill to half court, then that wouldn’t be up to standards. So you just have to learn to be patient and know everyone’s situation to be able to adapt to it.


Sam Demma (25:42):
Love that adaptability sounds like empathy as well. Sounds like it could be put in. They’re empathizing with the skills of different players on your team and their situations. That’s awesome, man. Thanks for sharing. And do you have aspirations to continue coaching?


Neil (25:56):
Yeah, I would like to continue coaching. My dad’s coached me ever since I was a little dude and I would love to have kids someday and coached them. That would be, that’s a big dream of mine.


Sam Demma (26:05):
Nice man. Awesome. Thanks so much for sharing. All right, perfect. Onto the next question. Let’s go with Gracie, if you could give your younger self advice, what would you say?


Jordan (26:18):
Basically just try and be optimistic, optimistic about things and things will like will change through time. I say this because looking back on myself, like in great and everything like I’ve developed more skills and knowledge and experiences throughout my whole high school experience. Also like I’m volunteer with my community. I’m able to keep a part-time job in overcoming struggles along the way through this, I’m able to reflect and change things through like experiences and everything. And back in grade 10, like I don’t think I would ever be able to do all the things I’ve done.


Sam Demma (26:53):
Love it. Great advice. Kaylee, what about yourself?


Jordan (26:56):
Yeah. If I could give my younger high school self advice, it would probably be to just live in the moment. Like you never know, the world’s always changing. You can’t really predict the future and you can’t change the past. You just gotta live in the moment. Focus on what’s right in front of you.


Sam Demma (27:12):
Yeah, love that. I think right now it’s a good reminder too, because we’re all striving to wait for the world to get back to normal. as opposed to live in life right now. So yeah, it’s great. Great advice. Thanks for sharing. All right. Onto the next question. You know, is there any final pieces of advice for students listening right now? Adele, anything you wanna share?


Jordan (27:33):
So I believe the path to enjoying high school is to get involved and not to be afraid to try new things. I always enjoyed musical theater, but I was always scared of what other people would think. But last year I was in a school musical and it was one of the best experiences of my life.


Sam Demma (27:51):
Oh, I love that. What did you act? Were you behind the scenes? Like what was your position?


Jordan (27:55):
Well I had quite a big role in the show, so I was involved in like all the choreography and like a huge part of harmonies and all that stuff, so yeah.


Sam Demma (28:06):
Oh cool. Love that. Awesome. Good stuff. And Jenna, what about yourself?


Jordan (28:10):
Well, mine’s kinda the same as Adele, but I think that high school will be like a treasure time of your life for the rest of your life. You know, you’ve heard from every wise woman, every grandma . So get involved, make friends study hard, but remember that your high school career isn’t soon, it’ll only be a memory that you look back on. So make it a memory that you want to look back on and appreciate.


Sam Demma (28:30):
Love it. Love it. Awesome. All right. Let’s yell. Thank you everyone. On, in on three for this episode, 1, 2, 3.


Ryan Laughlin (28:38):
Thank you.


Sam Demma (28:40):
Bluefield leadership. It was, it was a great chatting with you, Ryan, if you wanna hop back on for one quick second, we’ll wrap things up. Again, thank you so much for pointing to us together. It was awesome. Everyone already has your contact info for so no need to share it again, but I just wanted to say one final. Thank you. And keep up with the awesome work.


Ryan Laughlin (28:56):
I appreciate Sam. I’m glad that you were open to this and it was a really cool experience with the two classes. So I enjoyed it a lot. I wanna thank you for that.


Sam Demma (29:03):
And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the High Performing Educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review so other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show; if you want meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network, you’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Ryan Laughlin

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

Michael Straile – Assistant Principal Bonnyville Centralized High School

Michael Straile – Assistant Principal Bonnyville Centralized High School
About Michael Straile

Michael Straile has been the Assistant Principal of Bonnyville Centralized High School since 2018.  Previously, Michael taught grades 7 & 8 at H.E. Bourgoin Middle School in Bonnyville.  His passions outside of teaching include acting and film.  

Connect with Michael: Email

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Bonnyville Centralized High School

H.E. Bourgoin Middle School

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s guest is someone that I actually met speaking at a teacher’s convention last May. And his name is Michael Stralie. He has been the assistant principal of Bonnyville Centralized High school since 2018. Previous to that role, Michael taught grade 7 and 8 at another high school in his city.


Sam Demma (00:58):
and aside from teaching, he’s really passionate about movies, acting, and all things film. In fact, he has his own role in a full length feature film , which is absolutely amazing. so stay tuned for that, but in the meantime, enjoy the conversation that we had about his journey into education and what it was like for him growing up as a high school student. I hope you enjoy this and I’ll see you on the other side. Michael, thank you so much for coming on the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show, literally after meeting you less than a week ago. why don’t you start by sharing a little bit about yourself and how you got into the work you’re doing in education today?


Michael Stralie (01:37):
Oh, that’s a long story actually. My name is Michael Stralie. Teaching, so my 12th year teaching and my 3rd year as a, as a assistant principal, actually. I’ve taught from middle school, so I’ve taught grade seven and eight social studies in English. And then when I moved to the high school, I’ve taught social 10/1, 20/1, and K&E, which is knowledge and employability, math, science, English, and social. So I’m kind of go wherever they tell me really.


Sam Demma (02:06):
that’s nice. Nice.


Michael Stralie (02:08):
Yeah.


Sam Demma (02:09):
And, and why education Mike? Like wh when you were younger, did you just know this is what you were gonna do? Did you have someone nudge you in this direction? Did you think that I being the class clown was the calling


Michael Stralie (02:23):
I had, I, this gonna sound bad. I had no thought of being a teacher growing up. Yeah. I wasn’t your strongest student. I was like sixties to seventies. If I really worked hard hit high school and then graduated high school. And it’s kind of, I did what everyone does when you graduate high school, but you don’t know what you’re supposed to do. So I took business school and I went, I did a two year program at gram Cuban imagine studies and nice. But my journey in education kind of begins in my summers in that one where I worked at this place in town called the do center. It’s our bottle Depot. There’s a wood shop. And the do center is people with special needs. And I was working as an educational facilitator for them. Family friend had offered me the job for the summer and you know, school’s not cheap.


Michael Stralie (03:13):
So I took the first job I can get nice. And working with my clients, I was the, I was doing just little educational things on computers and reading and math and all kinda stuff, and just found myself loving my summers more than my studies when I was in university. The weekends are fun. Don’t get me wrong. But so finished my first year and then finished my second year, went back to the do, and I did the same thing and, and tried to enter the workforce. And I ended, the only job I could find was I was a door-to-door salesman. That was wonderful experience. Not really. It was very embarrassing. I felt guilty every time I knocked on the door. So I didn’t last long there. And I ended up coming home to Ville where I live now and I was help running one of the electronics store and I had an amazing boss there, but it just, it wasn’t for me running a business, managing, just not my, not my style.


Michael Stralie (04:12):
Yeah. And I remember having a conversation with my brother who is a teacher and this isn’t a generational thing by the way, teachers just hit in this like generation. So anyways, we were talking in like, I think I was in a drug store when we were picking some stuff up getting ready for Christmas. And I was just talking I’m miserable. Like I, this isn’t what I wanna do. And he was questioned me on like, what were things I enjoyed? And I when I hit high school, I really started to love social studies. And up until grade 12, I actually, it was, I thought it was boring. It was just history. I didn’t really understand it. Grade 12, I had a teacher who made it mean something to me. And so I was like, well, I like social studies and I like movies, TVs, all kinda stuff.


Michael Stralie (04:53):
So I could do a drama minor. So I applied back to grandma. Cuan decided to give up, I was the, I was gonna go to live in Scotland for a year, but decided I’d go back to school instead. And applied, got accepted and started learning all the fantastic things that come with education. And when I got my first practicum, it was awesome. Second one was amazing. My mentor teachers were fantastic. People who taught me so much, and I, I ended up getting hired the day I graduated with the division I’m at now. So was, I had just finished student teaching there that school themselves had already hired me on to come as an educational assistant to finish off my year. But then the principal ATG Bergy had interviewed Meg Bergmans in middle school where I spent the first nine years of my career, interviewed me and offered me a job at their too. And it just, everything lined up. And here I am nine years later, I’m the assistant principal at the high school here. This is my third year doing that. And it’s,


Sam Demma (05:52):
I guess,


Michael Stralie (05:53):
Guess history in the making.


Sam Demma (05:54):
That’s a phenomenal story, right. I wanna go back though. I wanna go back to when you were in grade 12 and you had this social studies teacher who made social studies mean something to you, as you said it, who was that teacher and how did they, how did they grab your attention and deliver such an impactful? What sounds like a life changing so semester for you?


Michael Stralie (06:19):
Yeah. So his name was, he was actually also my football coach. I only played weird 12 year of that, but his name is mark bullion and he was not your conventional teacher. He wasn’t super strict sit in row, be quiet lecture, like, and not, not old teachers like that, but that’s kind of the old school style kind of things. He, he was the first t-shirt I had, that was so sarcastic. And it was just funny. I, I can be sarcastic sometimes I’m told I don’t know if that’s true but just the way he’d bring humor into his lessons, just capture my attention and, and just kind of explaining how social studies isn’t just about history. Like, I don’t know how many times you ask, why do we learn social studies and responses? Oh, so we don’t repeat our past history and I and I’m sorry if I upset social studies teaches on it, but that’s not it at all.


Michael Stralie (07:10):
We’re trying to teach students to understand how the world is the way it is now. Yeah. We’re not gonna repeat those mistakes, but understand who we are and what our role is as a citizen in this world. And we have to understand how we got here. I know the world still has so so much growth. But I think looking at Canada’s history 150 years ago to where we are now, we’ve pro like progressed so much in acceptance. And I’m not saying we have acceptance, there’s still a long way to go, but it’s, it’s the more our students learn to be a proper citizen and what it means to be an active, engaged citizen in the world, the better chance we have seeing that acceptance that should already be in existence.


Sam Demma (07:54):
No,


Michael Stralie (07:54):
That’s awesome. And, and that’s kind of where he started with that is just getting me an understanding why social studies is so important and ended up being my major because of it. Hmm. And yeah, the world wars are cool to talk about. Don’t get me wrong, all that, like the history. Aspect’s awesome, but it’s, it’s so much more, I mean, there’s a reason why this math and science teachers get upset. There’s a reason why social studies is a great 12 or to graduate.


Sam Demma (08:23):
I love it. I love it. Hit him where it hurts. Right?


Michael Stralie (08:26):
Well, no math and science super important. Don’t


Sam Demma (08:29):
Get me wrong. No, I’m just joking.


Michael Stralie (08:30):
Yeah. I don’t wanna get those emails sort of like people who know me, like, wait, what are you saying? My math and science. I think it’s wonderful. I think everything should be great. 12 requirement,


Sam Demma (08:38):
But that’s awesome. I love that. And do you still stay in touch with mark now?


Michael Stralie (08:44):
No. I did see him. We did before COVID hit, we were doing like an alumni football game kind of thing. Nice. And I did have a chance to touch base with him. And I kind of explained like, Hey, you know, like you’re one of the reasons I became a teacher and to which he responded. Yeah. Sorry about that. like I said, he’s, and he’s not the only one it’s like for social studies, that’s, that’s kind of him, but there’s also another teacher. His name is Glen Flyn and he was, he was my computer and teacher . But it was just how he made me feel as a human being, like playing the one year of football. I, my pictures in the paper and he had to hang up in his classroom. So it’s that relationship, that caring thing where you see like, teacher actually cares. Cause I remember autographing it for him and I, I came back a year later after I graduated, just say hi, and it was still up. So it’s like, and people have teachers like that. Have you just take a minute to like, look, you’ll see just how much your teachers like teachers actually care. And unfortunately it, it took me till grade 12 to realize this.


Sam Demma (09:46):
Yeah, yeah. Sometimes it, it takes a student 30 years before they turn around, go find that teacher and say, Hey, I just wanted to let you know how much you change my life. You know, I’ve interviewed so many teachers who tell me that 10 years after a kid graduated or a student graduated, they heard from them. And sometimes the impact you have is never actually known as a teacher. They may, you may never hear from that kid again, but you know, you could have changed their life. And, and now they’re doing some great thing because of one thing you said in class or a lecture of totally changed their perspective. Right now, I would assume things are a little different and maybe different as an understatement but how are you striving to still build, you know, a great school culture and to make sure that students are feeling heard, seen, valued and appreciated, despite the challenges that the world is bringing us today.


Michael Stralie (10:40):
see, that’s a tough one because now you want me to like, talk about good things. I do. No,


Michael Stralie (10:47):
Not just me, but like, yeah. I’ll, I’ll talk about my school in general. Like so we, we do still have in class, like in-person learning going on. Cool. and I think like what most people are doing is just making sure you’re engaging with their students. Like I know personally, like you’ll see me often in like the eating area or the, the hub as we call in the morning and just saying hi to students. And last year, right before the school shut down, I had a group of kids who were like, Hey, do you wanna play Dungeons and dragons you? I was like, no, but okay, let’s try it. and ended up being a lot of fun. I was, I was actually, when COVID got like shut everything down, I was like, oh man, I was just getting into this.


Michael Stralie (11:27):
It was really cool. And I just noticed that like at our school in particular, teachers are starting to share like things that they’re interested in finding like students who, who, who are out for that. And there’s teachers who open up the classroom and me, it’s more just being goofy, walking around, chatting like it. I’m starting, like I said, a stress club, cuz I know it’s a lot of stress going on in the world right now. So students who are feeling stressed, I’m gonna have like new techniques every week that can build on different like remote meditation, yoga music and rhythm stuff. Just nice. Anything to help students find their center, I guess.


Sam Demma (12:04):
Yeah. No, that’s a phenomenal idea. And I know you got it from the convention. I did. Yeah. Yeah. That’s just, which is awesome. I think it’s so cool that there’s a space where teachers from around the province all come together and share unique and cool ideas. What is like one or two of the takeaways you had from the conference? Like any and all I know there are so many different sessions, but what, like I know the stress club was an awesome one, but what, what are some of the things you took away?


Michael Stralie (12:31):
Well I focused a lot on the stress ones. Nice. I, I did a couple of those and that was more just like learning how to, I think I said find your center and, and like in this world I think what people, people think teachers are stress, but I think most of our stress comes from the stress that students are feeling and, and us like, oh, like we gotta make sure that they know we’re here to make them sit, are helping them be successful. And so I think teachers, my nature or humans in general are greater showing empathy and you’re kind of taking on that stress and finding that balance of like, oh, I need to push you because you know, you’re, you’re heading off to university. I need to prepare you, but you’re also feeling all that stress and trying to find ways to help them out. So that’s why I focus so much on the stress. And I also saw this amazing one of social studies where she had basically talked about a whole year of a project. So every time you went through a new concept, you got to add to this big project that they’ll present at the end, at the end of the semester. And I thought that was the coolest thing, cuz I that’s something I wanna see in social studies is more engagement in more real life applications to it.


Sam Demma (13:38):
No, that’s awesome. I love that. Yeah.


Michael Stralie (13:40):
It’s well and of course your speech


Sam Demma (13:43):
Thanks.


Michael Stralie (13:43):
Clearly, clearly here I am. I I was actually thinking, cause I’m gonna talk about you for a second. Look, I’m hijacking your podcast that do that. Cause you talked about about your teacher, who’s also named Mike, so that’s obviously a super name full of cool people named Mike. Yep. And, and he, he would talk to you about like was it small, consistent actions yeah. To change the world. Yeah. And, and I was kind of thinking about this and I, I realized his small, consistent action was probably telling students to make small, consistent actions change the world and it, it worked right. Yeah. Like your story tells all that. So I, that, that really stucked with me is like reflecting on your career, you go back and like, am I being consistent and, and trying to deliver that message and no, I it’s really good. The only thing that sucked what teacher comp this year was not being able to like see people, people


Sam Demma (14:34):
See people. Yeah. You know? Yeah. I I’m totally with you. You and I do agree that the second best name in the world is Mike next to Sam. So , I’m just joking


Sam Demma (14:46):
But and mark would say the third best because it goes mark Sam, and then Mike.


Michael Stralie (14:51):
Whoa. What’s that?


Sam Demma (14:54):
Nah, just totally joking.


Michael Stralie (14:55):
I’ve never been bumped down to third plane. So it’s like when I’m running a race and there’s only three of us right now, I don’t know what


Sam Demma (15:00):
Happened, but no, I appreciate that. It, it was cool. Getting a chance to kind of share the story about how Mike loud fed my teacher kind of shaped my career and my life. And I was not someone who thought I’d ever be working in a school. I mean, I’m not formally a teacher, but a lot of my work is speaking to educators or speaking to students. And I thought I would’ve been a professional soccer player, hopefully, you know, playing in the MLS right now with four, my other teammates who are now playing pro. But things took a change. All thanks to a caring educator or someone like yourself who really cares about the things they’re teaching and, and tries their best to connect with students and build relationships. If you could go back in time though, to your first year teaching and kind of like give your younger self advice what would you say? What would have told your younger self as like a pep talk


Michael Stralie (15:56):
Oh, controversial. Here we go. So when you’re a teacher you’re kind of guided by curriculum. Yep. My advice to my younger self is I understand curriculum’s important. I don’t want teachers upset with me, but the most important thing is an educator’s relationship is getting to know your students and get, letting them know who you are. Not being a stranger, not just being an authority figure though. Yes. You should still be an authority figure, but getting to know them, building those relationships. And then once you have that, the curriculum can follow. Once you get to know your students, lets ’em get to know you. They’re more likely to want to hear what you have to say. You’re not just another adult coming, saying, sit down, shut up and listen to me. I got a story you’re gonna listen to. You’re gonna enjoy. You’re gonna learn from you gotta write test no, that works sometimes, but it’s, it’s about getting to know students even a little bit.


Michael Stralie (16:44):
Like you don’t need to know the whole life story, but like genuine caring is what they need. Mm. And I started middle school too, right? Like grade eight that’s hormones are all over the place. Yeah. so that’s, that’d be my, that’d be my advice is cuz that first year I’ll be the first five years for teachers is tough. Cuz you’re trying to figure out who you are as a teacher. I I, the strict one or I’m like the funny one, I’m like the cool one I’m at the laid back one and about, yeah, with within five years, you’re gonna, if you’re gonna make it or not, and you kind of fall into your own stride and, and then hopefully you get good results. And then also teaching myself that not everyone’s gonna like you


Sam Demma (17:25):
Yep.


Michael Stralie (17:26):
unless you’re me, cuz then you know,


Sam Demma (17:30):
No,


Michael Stralie (17:31):
You can’t win every student, but you can still find a way to relate to every. And so that they’ll at least want to hear what you have to say.


Sam Demma (17:37):
Yeah. I think it’s so, so true. And for teachers who are having the thoughts right now of, oh my goodness. This year has been insane in certain provinces. They haven’t even been in the classroom maybe at like at all and they’re, they’re struggling and they’re considering believing this vocation calling profession or they’re struggling to decide whether they wanna stay doing this. Did you ever have a moment in your career where you might have thought, I don’t know if I’m gonna do this again. And what did you tell yourself in those moments of maybe hardship or challenge?


Michael Stralie (18:13):
Cool. Since I’ve been teaching, I’ve never had that. I don’t want to teach anymore, but I have had days where like I just need a day off. Yeah. And normally I take the day off yeah, I like


Sam Demma (18:24):
It.


Michael Stralie (18:26):
That’s, that’s something that I think is right important is if, if you’re feeling that pressure as a teacher in Alberta anyways, we have personal days use a personal day. Don’t put your health at risk because really if you’re going in and you’re already defeated and you’re tired and you’re burnt out, you’re not helping yourself. You’re not helping your students. Take some time, find a way to calm yourself. Do whatever’s best for you and your students because you gotta find that that balance like a symbiotic relationship. Right. So if you’re not taking care of yourself, it’s going to eventually impact your students and possibly your school culture. So it’s taking that time and that’s my, the division I work for has before Christmas, it was almost directive where like, you guys have administrative, you need to take one before Christmas and I was like, yep. Booked


Sam Demma (19:18):
. So that’s awesome. That’s so cool. And for teachers who might be struggling right now and forgetting the reason why they got into teaching, you know, maybe the reason was they wanted to change a young person’s life or give back in the same way that a teacher, they had kind of mentored and, and, and taught them when they were in high school. Do you have any stories of transformation of students within schools that you’ve taught at or within the high school you’re at now where a student was going through a really tough time and maybe the style of a teacher or a relationship building thing kind of changed the students feelings, emotions, and, and led them down a, a, a brighter path. And the reason I ask is because one of those stories of transformation might remind an educator listening. That’s why I got into teaching and those moments still exist. So yeah, any, and I mean, if it’s a very personal story of a student that was really struggling, you can change their name, call them or whatever . But any of those stories come to mind.


Michael Stralie (20:18):
I, I’m gonna start with, if you are a struggling teacher you should know you’ve already, you already have a story. You just don’t know it yet. Yeah. It’s, it’s almost a thankless job and that’s okay. Cuz you’re doing a wonderful and sometimes like Sam said earlier, it could take 30 years for a kid to realize like just the impact that you’ve had. I, I haven’t gotten many, many letters, but I, I do remember the student when I was in grade eight and we’re just gonna call him Jimmy rough, rough life rough to teach. But liked my sense of humor. And we joked around and kind of gone through grade eight and he ended up moving away. Hadn’t heard from him, thought of him often wondering like, how’s this kid doing? Because I like, I get worried about students sometimes.


Michael Stralie (21:07):
Yeah. Run into him at seven 11. About a year ago, a kid had dropped like 150 pounds. He was in shape. And I’m kind of staring at him and didn’t recognize him. And he goes, STR, is that you like, yeah, yeah. Jimmy , he’s like, yeah. I’m like, well, how have you, how you been? He’s like, wow, really great. He’s like after grade eight, I, I moved to Emington and plea changed my life around started to focus more on school. And right now I’m upgrading and I plan on going to college and, or a trade school and, and try to find a proper career. And I thought that was great. And I thought that was the end of it. And then he had found my wife on, on Facebook. I don’t have social media. My wife does. And just like with the master, like, oh I hope you, Mr.


Michael Stralie (21:46):
Charley’s wife, like just, just wanted to say it was awesome catching up with him. It meant a lot for me to see him again. Hmm. And it’s just something so simple as just taking that rough kid and that getting a chance to know him. This is, this is where I would love to impart some wisdom that one of my best friends in the whole world, I have two of best friends, two best men at my wedding, by the way, one of ’em is famous for saying that the kids that are hardest of the love are the ones who need the love the most. Mm. So that kid that you think you hate, he’s just a pain in the butt and you’re like, oh, I gotta go deal with Jimmy today. Realize that Jimmy probably needs you more than anyone that day. Cuz people don’t with intention to harm anyone. Normally it’s a byproduct of what they’re going through themselves. So that’s the best thing I can say is just always remember a kid having a hard day and you know what you’re allowed a hard day too. It’s straining because those kids are also, like I said, the hardest love, and it’s going to take a lot of effort on your part and Don expect change in a day, but a good morning Jimmy can mean a lot.


Sam Demma (22:56):
Yeah.


Michael Stralie (22:56):
Just finding those things.


Sam Demma (22:58):
That’s awesome. And who’s the second best man.


Michael Stralie (23:01):
Another teacher actually. since Alise just when I moved here kind of met both them one of ’em I was working with he’s a ed teacher. Wonderful man, Dustin Blake. And then the other one my other best man. His name is Justin Barlow. Yeah. I’m using names. They they’re not, they better be listening to this when it comes out. I met him because we were coaching track and field one day and this random guy came out to me and said, Hey, can I live with you? And I was like, sure, I, their bedroom awesome. Justin, Justin Barlow and Dustin Blake had already known each other from all the Fette stuff. So Dustin had told him to go see me. And then yeah.


Sam Demma (23:39):
Long story short, he lives in your house.


Michael Stralie (23:42):
Used to, yeah. Now we’re both married. We have kids. But he’s literally half a block away from me. nice. So, and the other one lives in iron river. He’s been there always, ever since I’ve done him. But that’s another thing as a teacher, surround yourself with positive people who are like you, who can always get you through these tough things because I’ll give credit to those two guys, but, and many others, so many other people profession, but I’m just gonna sing. Cause they’re my best friends that having them like minded and be there definitely helped me progress. Because I’m also a little competitive. So it’s like, oh, you did that. Well, I’m gonna do this. so


Sam Demma (24:17):
That’s


Michael Stralie (24:18):
Awesome. Yeah. I would absolutely say that you need to follow it and then find other teachers another shout out to my friends. So who’s amazing. Social studies find his strategies to just surround yourself with those people you can learn from this guy. So is one of the greatest social studies teacher you’ll ever meet. I’d like to say second to me, but it’s not true. one day I hope that he’s almost as good as I am, but right now I’ve, I’ve, I’ve stole so much from his repertoire. So surrounding yourself as a, with people who are better than you and then try to be better than that.


Sam Demma (24:49):
Cool


Michael Stralie (24:49):
Love. And then list goes on. I, I probably have a hundred people who I can mention my mentor teachers when I came to the school division, taught me everything. I know. I don’t know if they wanna take credit for that or not. but they, they got me my start in this career. So like this just all over the place.


Sam Demma (25:05):
Cool. No, that that’s awesome. And when I think about mentorship, it’s, it’s so true. I, I have a whole list of people who helped me transition from school to work and selflessly just gave their time and energy to teach things and help with, you know, challenges. And I think it’s so true to wrap this up. Do you have any final parting words that you’d let like to share with a colleague maybe as a teacher who’s listening, you don’t even know who this person is and you just want to impart one last piece of sarcastic wisdom to this person.


Michael Stralie (25:38):
Yeah, so you guys will never be as good as me, but you might as well try no, that’s no, for real though, COVID sucks. And think that everything that you’re doing, that you’re struggling realize your students are, are doing it as well. And the best advice I could give, especially in an online classroom is don’t let them shut their cameras off. Mm it’s easy. It’s easy to shut off the camera and just disengage and, and be upset about the world and around it. I make my students turn it on because I wanna make it as, as possible. My camera’s always on, unless we’re doing just independent work. So it doesn’t matter if you’re in person online, just be there for them show ’em that you care, even if it’s something as simple as I don’t care. If you haven’t done your hair, turn on your camera. I wanna see you. I don’t wanna look at a black screen. I miss you guys to be genuine.


Sam Demma (26:24):
And also don’t forget to wear your mask. Right?


Michael Stralie (26:28):
that I was quick that filter. Do you? No. That’s you and your magic tricks, man. This is, this is all that started with your witchcraft.


Sam Demma (26:38):
Anyways, Mike, thank you so much for taking the time to to record this podcast. I so appreciate it and keep up the awesome work. If an educator wants to reach out, you know, crack a joke with you, have a conversation, hear about some of the different things that you’re doing in the school and maybe just learn from each other. What would be the best way for them to reach out to you?


Michael Stralie (26:57):
Well, I don’t have social media, but my personal email is fine. Throw it out there. That’s michael.straile@nlsd.ab.ca.


Sam Demma (27:09):
Perfect. Awesome, Mike, thank you so much for


Michael Stralie (27:11):
Thanks so much, this was awesome.


Sam Demma (27:13):
And we’ll keep in touch.


Michael Stralie (27:16):
For sure, man.


Sam Demma (27:17):
All right. And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the High Performing Educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review so other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show; if you want meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network, you’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Michael Straile

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

Karen O’Brien – Re-Engagement Counsellor

Karen O'Brien - Re-Engagement Counsellor
About Karen O’Brien

Karen has worked in the education system for over 30 years. She began her career as a secondary school classroom teacher teaching multiple subjects. She continued her teaching career with the added responsibility of being a department head. With each new role and school, she developed a passion for helping students who face barriers to success. Her passion led her to the headship at an alternative high school site for students who struggle in mainstream schools.

Today, she is the Re-Engagement Counsellor at Halton District School Board where she helps youth aged 14 to 21 from all high schools in the board stay in school or return to school. Karen works with community agencies and schools to create a plan for each student, ensuring they’re able to finish their high school education and take the next step towards achieving their goals – whatever those may be.

In her personal life, Karen spends time with her family, friends, and at the cottage where she loves to be by the water. She is also a member of a book club that has been ongoing for over 10 years. Her group discusses books, cooks together, and shares many laughs and a few trips. As a mother of two, Karen also gets a great deal of joy watching her children develop their own career paths and passions.

Whether in her professional life or her personal life, Karen loves to learn, take on new challenges and support others as they pursue their goals.

Connect with Karen: Email | Linkedin

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

Halton District School Board

Western University – Bachelors of Education

Book Clubs in Ontario

Google Hangouts Guide for Teachers

The Transcript

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

Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. I’m super excited to bring you today’s interview with Karen O’Brien. She has worked in the education system for over 30 years. She began her career as a secondary school classroom teacher teaching multiple subjects, and then continued her teaching career with the added responsibility of being a department head.


Sam Demma (01:00):
With each new role in school. She developed a passion for helping students who face barriers to success. Her passion led her to the headship of an alternative high school site for students who struggle in mainstream schools. Today, she is the re-engagement counselor at the Halton District School Board, where she helps youth age 14 to 21 from all high schools in the board, stay in school or return to school. And let me tell you Karen does an amazing job. I was fortunate enough to work with her on a project with some of those students, and it was a, a very in enjoyable experience working with her. Karen works with community agencies and schools to create a plan for each student, ensuring they’re able to finish their high school education and take the next step towards achieving their goals, whatever they might be. In her personal life, Karen spends time with her family, friends and at the cottage where she loves to be by the water.


Sam Demma (01:49):
She’s also a member of a book club that has been ongoing for over 10 years and her group discusses books, cooks together, and shares many laughs and a few trips. As a mother of two, Karen also gets a great deal of joy of watching her children develop their own career paths and passions. Whether in her professional life or her personal life, Karen loves to learn, take on new challenges, and support others as they pursue their goals. I hope you enjoy this interview with Karen O’Brien, and I will see you on the other side. Karen, thank you so much for coming on the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show this morning. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit behind the journey that led you into education?


Karen O’Brien (02:31):
Absolutely. So my name’s Karen O’Brien. I work for Halton District School Board; I’m the re-engagement counselor. So I work with youth 14-21 who have left school or are in, at risk of leaving school, and the 17 high schools board call me in to work with those youth one on one or in small groups to try and keep them in school and motivate them to not only finish high school, but to plan for their future and go beyond that. So I’ve been doing this particular job for 7 years. Before that I have been in seven different schools; a classroom teacher for the most part. Always looking for a new challenge, hence the move between schools and, and a variety of programs. I’ve taught alternative-ed, regular classroom, gifted, all sorts of different classrooms.


Karen O’Brien (03:26):
What, what got me here teaching? I, I always have sort of been looking to teach or did when I was younger. I thought teaching could, was a possibility and so definitely loved it when I got into the classroom, loved it, but what I really truly loved were those watching those kids who were struggling you know, had barriers to success, watching those kids succeed. Mm. And so tho those are the kids. I kept thinking, oh, those are the kids. Those are the kids I want, wanna work with. So so that’s probably what led me, led me first of all, into alternative education and then led me into this job when this job was advertised. I, I thought this is my dream job and talked to a couple people and they said, yes, yes, you’d be perfect. So I, I thought, oh, my worlds are coming together. This is exactly the work I wanna do.


Sam Demma (04:22):
Well, tell me more about the work itself with reengagement, you know, being a reengagement officer. I, I don’t know that many teachers and even principals are even aware of what it is that might be tuning in. So I would love for them to learn a little more about it.


Karen O’Brien (04:35):
No, yeah. So what I do, so there’s two parts of my job. So if kids have left school and disengaged completely been removed from the register, so 14 and up I contact them at least once a semester to try and talk to them about why they left school. I often look at what’s beyond school because often why they left school. It has nothing or very little to do with school has a lot more to do with what’s occurring in their lives. So I work with all sorts of community agencies whether it’s housing agencies or employment agencies or addiction agencies, I work with all sorts. So I’m work regionally with all of those. I’m on a couple of regional committees. So I have lots of connections. Mental health supports are huge. So I work with all of those agencies.


Karen O’Brien (05:27):
So if I have a youth and I think, okay, these are the barriers, these are the struggles we address those. I get them connected to those type of agencies if they’re not already connected and work hard for that, because that’s the first thing, that’s always the first thing, once they’re connected and on sort of a road to wellness and doing, starting to do better. And, and they start to also trust me and, and have a relationship with me within start to talk about school and what those school goals might be and how school can look for them. That school, isn’t always about sitting in a room of 30 kids in a classroom that school can be done very differently than what perhaps they had experienced. So we talk about how they can do school without that model, that they don’t feel they fit into.


Karen O’Brien (06:15):
And also after they’ve addressed some of their concerns. So a lot of the youth when I meet with them are not, they don’t really see themselves as students has, has potential graduates. So I try to reframe that and help the see themselves. Yes, you could absolutely be a student, maybe not the picture or you have in your head, but, but you can learn and you can be a student and you can go on. And the goal is to go on after high school. So you know, I also read a lot of data and studies, so I know that they’ll do better in life if they go beyond high school and, and post secondary. And that’s pretty, pretty critical for a lot of, of students is to find their passion and whatever that is. So to have either is certainly traditional post-secondary college or university, but there’s also apprentice.


Karen O’Brien (07:09):
There’s also work. There’s also like a dream, a passion. So, so having a plan beyond high school, getting the diplomas a huge win, but it’s, what’s the next step. So I always say, I don’t wanna just get you out of high school. I want to get you into something yeah. Beyond high school. And that’s my goal with them. So I work with them and then, yeah. And work with them, just one one-on-one for the most part, some small group stuff. But most part I do one on one because they’re all unique and need those, those supports. So those are the youth. So those of youth have left school. The other part of my job is I built a relationship with all the schools and the board. So they call me in when they have a kid who’s flounder ring, cuz I always say, please, please call me before they’ve left.


Karen O’Brien (07:56):
Oh, I have a much better chance of helping them. If you know, you introduce me because they know you and, and we meet and I start to work with them when they’re still in school has, you know, when they’re hanging by a thread I want in so the schools bring me in a lot for that too. And that’s that’s, to me, my has evolved so seven years ago, it was mostly kids who have left. Now it’s mostly kids who are disengaging, who are, and, and that’s the bulk of my days and most of my days, which, which I’m very happy for that shift.


Sam Demma (08:33):
Wow. I love that. And you mentioned trust no. Yes. The beginning, initially it might be a generic conversation about their life and what’s going on and listening to them until they trust you. How do you build that trust with a student who might be disengaging?


Karen O’Brien (08:48):
Well, a lot of it is just meeting them. So pre pandemic, I’d meet them near their house, whether that was, you know, at Tim Horton McDonald’s or in a park or the library, wherever, I’d say like, what’s easy for you, where can you walk to, can we just meet and, and either walk and talk or sit and talk. And, and just, and I build the trust, not by saying, tell me about your life as much as I tell them about my job and that I have the ability to help them, not just with school, but with other things, I, I can connect them with other things. So I start to talk about that. For the most part in that first conversation, we don’t talk as much about school we do about their lives and, and sort of what, they’re, what they’re looking for in this moment.


Karen O’Brien (09:41):
I need, you know, I have precarious housing in this moment. I need, I really wanna work in this moment. So I, whatever that one thing is, I work really hard off the initial meeting to make that connection and get them support in that, because then they trust me and then they go the next time. Okay, here’s this, here’s this, here’s this, we do get to the point where we talk about school. I talk about you know, I ask them about when they liked school, like, what do they remember? Even if they have to reach really far back, what is it that they remember to do they remember a class or a project or something? What do they remember? And, and every single time they end up talking about the teacher. So not, well, you know, they may say grade, whatever nine I did this, or with this, they’ll start with, but they talk about the teacher and I think, okay, this is, this is what teaching is.


Karen O’Brien (10:39):
This is relationships. So, and, and they inevitably, that’s the discussion that comes out, that they like that class because they like the teacher because the teacher respected and valued them. Mm-Hmm so that’s really inevitably where it comes from. So I try then to a nice soft place, I call it for them to land in the education system where they have that caring adult. So I don’t just say, go register. I take them, I work with the school, like who’s gonna work with them. Who’s the first teacher they’re gonna encounter. Who’s going to work with them. And let’s pick carefully so, so there’s a good connection or the, the chance of the good connection.


Sam Demma (11:22):
That’s awesome. I love that. And where did your passion come from to work with these, you know, these specific type of students, like, you know, did you have a teacher that impacted you as a student? Did you have a unique own, your own unique journey through school?


Karen O’Brien (11:37):
Definitely. I, well, I moved five times growing up, my father kept getting transferred, so that’s, that’s, you know, it creates a little little, now I look back, I think. Okay. You know, you had to make it the transition. It creates a little chaos in your life. Every time you move. The most difficult move for me was probably the middle grade 12. And so you know, that, that was a tough transition for me. I had an economics teacher who was awesome and really sort of looked out for me. I must say he, so I actually enrolled in economics initially when I went, you know, nice went to university ended up getting an English and economics degree. But, but I, I think that, that was because, and he was like, you know, just one of those teachers who was like, Hey, in the hallway and, you know, built the, like totally made me feel like, okay, I’m part of this.


Karen O’Brien (12:37):
Mm. Even though I don’t feel part of this school, I, I know in this class, I feel like I’m definitely part of this. So so I do think that I also think when I started out in teaching, I was really, really so super curriculum focused. Mm. Like, like that was my, like I knew the curriculum and I was like, you know, had my lesson plans and I was like, I was on it. And I had a, a great 10 class who was gifted in rich class and they were challenging. And so I stopped trying to make them fit my curriculum, that they taught me that that’s not gonna work. and started talking to them about what they want to do. So I’d say, okay though, this is what the curriculum says you have to do.


Karen O’Brien (13:32):
How do you wanna show me that you do that? And, and this was many, many years ago. So it was so my classroom probably appeared a bit chaotic in those days compared to other classrooms. But but like, I love that class. And I, and so that’s what started me on this journey thinking, okay, you know, this, this is yeah, this is, this is how, how you teach you. Don’t, you don’t teach curriculum, you teach kids, you teach students. And, and if you’re always focused on I’m teaching the student, whatever the curriculum is, we can bring in.


Sam Demma (14:10):
Hmm. I love that. You know, you mentioned your economics teacher as well. Sounds like they, they played a huge role. Can you PI point what they did specifically that made you feel like a part of the class? Like, I, I’m curious because I, I know I’ve had teachers like that in my own high school journey. And if you asked me my favorite class, I would tell you world issues, class with, you know, Michael loud foot . So what are some of those things that you think he did or they did for you?


Karen O’Brien (14:35):
Well, part of, so part is there’s twofolds. So the one is a passion for his subject. You know, he loved it. He loved, and he loved the world. So economics, I suspect like world issues. We didn’t have world issues, but economics gave us the opportunity to look at what was happening in the world and then interpret it through the economic lens, through what’s happening. And, and, and so everything seemed like you were getting this, this passionate person about his subject, but getting an understanding of the world and what’s going on in the, in the world that, you know, you’re about to enter as an adult. So though that combination of his passion for the subject and his understanding that students wanna see the relevance, right. We want like, like make this relevant for me, make me understand why this is important. So and he did the curriculum became very relevant to me.


Karen O’Brien (15:29):
The other piece was the, the constant one on one talks. When I look back, he was, he was, you know, he kind of would do a lesson at the front, but he was always, you know, beside me, or, you know, or checking or sitting or pulling a chair or grabbing two desks and putting two, like help this person with, like, he was constantly like, you know, his classroom evolved with relationships as well as with the curriculum. So it wasn’t like we weren’t all just getting the curriculum, getting information from her, from him. We were, we were you know, part of the learning journey as he circulated through and went. And I think that that’s the teachers who, who are on the learning journey with the students and, and meet the students at whatever step they’re at to get them to the next step or help get another student to help them get to the next step.


Karen O’Brien (16:25):
Like, that’s, that’s the learning journey. So if they’re part of it, rather than the, you know, purveyor of knowledge, it’s, to me, to me, that’s, that’s the key to, to really being excellent at your job and for students to then trust you. Because if you are the expert students, I don’t know. I just get the sense that students just sit and passively take it, and then they watch for, oh, did you make a mistake? I’m gonna watch for it kind of thing. Yeah. Like it becomes a little, little bit of a us, us versus him or her or them. But if you’re, if the teacher’s on the learning journey with the student, then I think, you know, everybody leaves.


Sam Demma (17:07):
Yeah. Cause they feel just like them. It’s like, we’re both learning, you know? Yeah.


Karen O’Brien (17:12):
Yeah. Yeah. My students taught me something every year. Like I, I was teaching English and I just still remember this one young person was so funny cuz I was, he was really struggling with the poetry unit and that day we divided everything. Anyway, he was struggling with the poetry unit. So I was explaining it and I was, you know, going, oh, this is so cool. And this is what the poetry’s doing. And he said, okay, I understand. He goes, you understand that? I’m never gonna love this stuff. Right. And I go, okay, hear you. I will, I will back. Like, like I thought, okay, I’m a little Mure. So I I’m, I’m okay with you not loving it. Let’s get down to what you need to know. Yeah. And move on. And he was like, okay, good. So we


Sam Demma (17:55):
Were good from


Karen O’Brien (17:56):
Then on like I thought, okay. Learning again. Right. I get that.


Sam Demma (18:01):
That is so funny. that’s awesome.


Karen O’Brien (18:04):
It was so funny.


Sam Demma (18:05):
Yeah. And so no thinking about your role again, as a, you know, the re-engagement officer in the past couple of years versus this year, how has it changed? Like has there been a huge need for it during like, you know, COVID and what are some of the challenges you’ve been faced with and how have you tried to overcome them?


Karen O’Brien (18:24):
So huge challenges cuz I’m used to going and meeting with the student face to face. So arranging a phone call or a Google hangout as, you know, students don’t turn on their cameras and you know, there’s, there’s, they don’t always attend. Not that they always attend it in person, but so huge struggle. So I have so what I’ve done is I’ve primary to use the staff in the school. So is there someone in the school they were connected to? And I talked to the school and so then I try a three-way Google hangout or a three-way phone conversation because if they had a student success teacher or a guidance counselor or somebody or a math teacher, whomever that they really connected with and that teacher feels they can help. Then, then we were on setting up the Google meet with them, with them to sort of introduce me.


Karen O’Brien (19:19):
So we work a lot of the administrators do that. A lot of the vice principals know these kids really well. So they, we did a lot of three-way Google meets initially. So we worked with that. I got a cell phone numbers whenever I could for kids and would start texting because I can get a response, even if it’s short initially from texting. So just lots of texting check-ins really looking again for that agent, like what, what can I get to help them not necessarily school, but what can I get to help them? So I’ve used, yeah. The Google meet with, with a, a caring adult who introduces us texting some kids I’ve just driven to and said, will you just meet me outside? And we can talk. So some kids I’ve just said, you know, are you willing to do this?


Karen O’Brien (20:10):
So if they are, yeah, we just, we, you know, safety protocols stay distant and stuff, but we’d you know, go walk in a park or, you know, whatever, or just stand outside their house and they’d stand in the doorway and I’d stand back and talk to them. So I did a number of those too, just to try, I you know, used whatever I could, we have Halton learning foundation here. There’s a barriers account. So if a student is struggling, their family’s struggling financially, you can we can give them grocery gift cards. So in some, sometimes I deliberate those and that was my way so, so that was my way in with some of the kids to, to try and engage them in that conversation. I definitely used that a lot. Because a lot of these kids yeah, don’t don’t have much, so that was my way in. So rather than yeah, so I just, yeah, showing up, I mean, I really just have to show up where whatever way they’re willing to show up, if it’s a Google meet or texting or a phone call or on their front porch or, you know, at the door of their building, whatever. Yeah. I just try to show up and be there.


Sam Demma (21:27):
That’s awesome. And did you find that this year there was more support, but you were able to still, you know, do the same type of work, but it was just more difficult and more work or did you find that it was a lot, like it was a lot harder and maybe more students might have slipped through the cracks as a result of the challenges that


Karen O’Brien (21:50):
I felt that more students were slipping through the cracks this year. Although I I’ve been doing my tracking this week and, and summarizing, so we, I feel as a board, we have a good handle on our students. So I, I worried that they were flipping a slipping through the cracks, but that’s partly because I wasn’t seeing them. Oh, picture man. I’m so, so accustomed to seeing them and doing the check-ins that way. But, but I feel we have a good handle on them. There are definitely more suffering from mental health challenges all sorts of other challenges. So we have social worker workers working through the summer mental health, there’s all those things. So I’m feeling like the kids are, they struggle more. Yeah, definitely struggle more, but I’m feeling like they’re connected. You know, we see how, how well they stay connected throughout the summer, but I’m, I’m hoping that we have enough connections that we’re hanging on to them and, and we’ll get them back in September. I’m so looking forward to face to face in September, I’m feeling like we just need to hang onto them and get them back and then support them once they’re back.


Sam Demma (23:06):
Yeah. Couldn’t agree more. It’s it’s so different. I even think about the work that I do speaking this students and doing it virtual is one thing doing it in person is a totally different thing, you know? Totally. So, yeah, I couldn’t agree more. And if you could go back seven years and speak to Karen when she was just getting into this role, what, like what advice would you give your younger self and knowing what you know now?


Karen O’Brien (23:31):
When I I think knowing what I know now, when I first got into this role, I tried to cover everything like do it all, but that brought no depth to my work. Right. So, so, so cover every possible thing. And what I learned is I personally don’t need to cover every PO. I need to make sure everyone’s covered all the kids are covered, but I don’t personally, like I’m not the only person, I’m the only person in my role. And there’s no other role this in the board, but that doesn’t mean there. Aren’t a lot of other people out there who I can tap on and say, Hey, can you connect with these kids? Or even people in the community you know, informal, informal mentors in the community. Like there’s so many people. So I think, I think what I’ve learned is to build that network over the years.


Karen O’Brien (24:22):
So even if I’m not the person you know, diving deep with that kid and helping them every step of the way, I’ve got them connected to somebody who can help them navigate that. And, and they may cycle back in and ask me questions the odd time. But I, I think, I think that I would tell myself to just like focus on not focus on the kids, but focus on your network and who can help and, and who you need to tap on because the, the faster you do that, the more help you’re gonna get for these kids.


Sam Demma (24:55):
Yeah, love that. Such a good piece of advice. Well, Karen, thank you so much for coming on the show. Really appreciate it. If someone’s been listening and they’re interested in the conversation, or just wants to chat with you, what would be the best way for them to reach out?


Karen O’Brien (25:09):
They’re welcome to email me. So obrienk@hdsb.ca.


Sam Demma (25:18):
Cool, awesome. Karen again, thank you so much. Enjoy the rest of your summer. This is probably coming out in September so if you’re listening now, you’re probably wondering what the heck, but , we filmed it in the beginning of July, so enjoy your summer and I’ll talk to you soon.


Karen O’Brien (25:33):
Okay. Thank you so much, Sam.


Sam Demma (25:35):
And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the High Performing Educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating and review so other educators like yourself can find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show; if you want meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network, you’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.

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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.