About Mike Anderson
Formed in August 2020, the Elementary Remote School is a K-8 “virtual” school with approximately 4200 students, 220 teachers, 30 RECEs, 4 administrators, and 2 office coordinators. Their students and staff come from all across the Upper Grand District School Board.
Mike describes it as running a tech start-up.
**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 a good friend of mine. His name is Mike Anderson. He is the principal of the Upper Grand District School Board Elementary Remote School. The abbreviation for that is ERS, there school is known as the grand river otters, otters being their mascot.
Sam Demma (00:59):
And there’s tons of jokes about that. Mike was a teacher who hired me to speak back in, I believe it was December. It might even have been late November and he has one of the largest remote schools, virtual schools in all of Ontario. They have approximately 4,200 students! Over 200 teachers 4 administrators, 2 office coordinators and their administration staff, and their students come from all across the upper grand district school board! Mike, on this podcast alludes to it being almost like a tech startup. You know, you’re figuring things out as you go. And I can tell you, Mike is someone who has immense amounts of passion and purpose. You know, it’s very apparent that he has time for every kid in his school. He makes time, he’s answering hundreds of emails per day. He is someone who wears his heart on his sleeve and you can feel it during today’s interview. So without further ado, let’s jump into the conversation with Mike Anderson from the Elementary Remote School of the Upper Grand District School Board. I’ll see you on the other side. Mike, thank you so much for taking some time to come on the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show. We just literally worked together, like a week or two ago. Tell the listener why you got into the work you do with young people today and the unique situation you’re in right now running a remote school.
Mike Anderson (02:26):
Sure. Sam, thanks for having me on. It’s an absolute pleasure. So I’m an elementary school principal normally in a brick and mortar school. And I, I got into education. I think it all started when I was a kid going to camp at summer camp and, and I grew up watching counselors that had this great positive energy and were enthusiastic and playful, and they liked learning and there was a performing element to it and I found it really inspiring. To be honest, I don’t know if I found my teachers that inspiring growing up. And I always kind of thought like, I wish, I wish school could be more like camp where there was that like sense of fun and energy. And so I think, my career as an educator, I’ve tried to bring some of that camp feeling into a school environment. You know, building a community, connecting with kids being, yeah, having a playfulness around how we’re learning and how we’re doing things.
Mike Anderson (03:34):
So, so now as a principal at a remote school with, or so we’re 4,200 students, 265 staff I mean the challenges this year are yeah, in some ways, like it’s been absolutely ridiculous. This past fall has been the hardest I’ve ever worked as like in my life on anything. But it, it has this vibe of a, like a, a fast paced tech startup is the, is the way I kind of explain it. It sounds funny, but yeah, like we just, there was a while where we were, we started the year and we were short staffed, and our school together without enough teachers and we made a go for it. And we tried our best to to provide a quality program for our students. And there was a ton of challenges that we faced. And, it, it always felt like we didn’t have enough time to, to get everything done, but we’ve also yeah, we’ve had some, some good success. It, it feels good to look back and be like, you know what?
Sam Demma (04:57):
That’s awesome. Yeah, it cut out there. Just it cut out a tiny bit just near the end there. I don’t know. It was, I don’t think it was you. It was me and don’t worry. I’m gonna cut this little part out. Okay. But you said when you said it feels like, and then it, it just dropped
Mike Anderson (05:13):
Sam Demma (05:14):
About sorry, go ahead, startup. Yeah, I got, I got the whole tech startup piece and then towards the end it just cut out.
Mike Anderson (05:23):
It feels like over the last few, we are starting to have some recognition of our progress and some success that we’re having. So our hard work has been paying off. And when I say art, like it’s an entire team of people that, that is working incredibly hard to make this school function.
Sam Demma (05:42):
And it’s different this year, obviously than it has been for you in the past. What is, what is keeping you motivated and hopeful during this challenging time? I don’t wanna say it’s a bad time or a negative time. It’s just different. It presents new challenges and hurdles.
Mike Anderson (05:58):
Yeah. So I, I mean the things that give me hope and that keep me going, I think it working with some incredibly inspiring colleagues teachers and office staff and administrators who been yeah, just thinking outside the box and being creative. One of the things we’ve, we’ve sort of created an infrastructure in our school that allows like we have for a while we had a frequently asked questions running on a, on our staff website and we said, we need this to be crowdsourced. So we, we need everyone. Like, if you have a question thrown on there and if you don’t wanna her throat on there, we’re gonna, we’re gonna build this together. And the analogy we kept using with our stack was we are, we are gonna build an airplane together, but we have to do this while we’re already flying in the sky.
Mike Anderson (06:49):
We’re gonna build an airplane in the sky. And, and it is, it is not gonna feel ready to fly yet. There’s gonna be problems. And we need to just keep doing our best and work together. So the, the school, the elementary remote school, and we call ourselves the, the, the otters. We have we’ve, I’ve, it is incredibly inspiring to see the collaboration and the just, just the, the helping each other people. We have a, a, a Google chat we, which is an ongoing chat room with 260 plus staff members. And people, every day, someone asks a question and five different people give different suggestions and responses. So it, it, it kind of is like being in a school and you walk into a staff room, you’re like, Hey, anyone know how to fix this, or you pass someone in the hall, but we don’t have halls.
Mike Anderson (07:37):
We don’t have a staff room. So we wanna, it has turned into a place where people are helping each other and it is super exciting to see. And also you can imagine like in, in it’s also a way to decentralize sort of the, all the information so that I can share it out. And sometimes I’m jumping in the chat and answering and clarifying and other times like, it’s yeah. It’s, it’s staff working with staff. It’s, it’s really cool to see. I think another thing that gives me hope is I mean, we are working with kids, right? Kids are like, I find they are constant source of hope. You see either their creativity and their what, like, I don’t know about you, but when I see kids doing things that are thoughtful and kind for someone else, it fills me with a joy like that. It, I mean, it, it drives me to say, well, I’m, I’m in the right business here. I, I feel so much pride in, in seeing our students when they, when they step up and, and do things that yeah, they’re just amazing. So yeah, those are sort of the, my big drivers, I think. Yeah.
Sam Demma (08:52):
I’m with you on the, the second one and the first, although I’m not in a school seeing a chat box with 260 teachers, I, you got me really curious when you started talking about that. I’m, I’m sure there’s dozens upon dozens of amazing unique ideas that have been shared in that chat. And I’m curious to know what has been working or what have some of your teachers that you’ve heard and you thought, wow, that’s a brilliant idea. And maybe they report it back, that it went well. And maybe you can also share a challenger too. That might show someone that, Hey, you’re not going through this alone. It’s, it’s a universal challenge.
Mike Anderson (09:28):
Right? So I, I think that one of the, I mean, in terms of a, an overall success that we’ve had at our school to, to, to address the remote element of our remote school, I mean, all of our staff are a few of them are schools. But most people are by themselves or in a, in a room that they set up to be a, a teaching space. And we knew early on that we needed to build a culture a connected culture where we’re all part of something. It’s not just like I’m teaching at home this year. Mm-Hmm, , it’s, I’m part of something I’m part of something bigger. So we worked really hard and it sounds funny, but the very beginning myself and the, the first two VPs that we had Jen Apgar and Alan go we met in my garage on lawn chairs, like socially, just, this is back in August.
Mike Anderson (10:25):
And we are like it that maybe one of the reasons, it felt like a tech start, starting in a garage. I think one of us tweeted out like in the beginning and, and it is like, it had this sense of excitement and we had to answer all these questions, like, how are we going to decide who’s teaching? What, who are our staff gonna be? What’s our schedule gonna be like for the day, what, well, and, and we talked about, you know, what, what kind of strategies are we gonna use? And, and the one thing, the quote that started, and I, I, I feel bad cause I don’t remember who said this quote, but it’s it says the quote is culture eats strategy for breakfast. Mm. And, and we started with, we need a culture in our school, so we need a logo, a mascot, we need a brand.
Mike Anderson (11:12):
And we came up with the otters nice. And and, and we build off of that. And we, we knew we needed to be part of, we needed people to say, I’m not just like, oh, I, I sit at home and teach, no, I’m an Otter. I’m part of something bigger. So we, now we have spirit wear, we have our website. We have at one point I actually bought a giant Otter suit and store for an dorky little I mean, it was like a, a prize if kids raised enough money for our, our first Terry Fox video or Terry Fox campaign, which is like a, a fundraising campaign. We ran that at the very end of September. And I would say that was sort of a, a pivotal moment for our school because one of our teachers, I’m gonna get a shout out to Melissa Rose who came up with this idea and she took this initiative on, and we did a crowdsourced video where teachers all, all remotely submitted little video clips.
Mike Anderson (12:04):
We, she edited together. We posted it out there and we challenged people like we’re gonna try to raise. And I think our initial goal, like, you know, we wanna raise 500 or a thousand or 1500. And one of the, if they met one of the if the students raised that kind of money there were different sort of incentives. Mine was I’d wear a, an embarrassing auto costume around to work. And I did and it was funny so, but the neat thing is like, we raised way over our goal. I think we ended up braising over $7,000. And we, we think part of the reason that we raise so much money on awesome video and staff engagement and students getting excited about it, but also I think it was we interpreted this as, as the community saying, you, we wanna support you.
Mike Anderson (12:51):
You’re doing, we really happy. And we started to about then from parents, like, thank you. You’ve created a place for my child to go to school every day and learn, and they’re happy. Mm. So some parents and, and fair enough, after last spring with the emergency distance learning the online learning this fall, I think people had some different expectations and a bunch of parents I heard from said, this is going so well. We just wanted to make sure our kids were safe at home and not getting COVID. We didn’t expect them to actually make connections and like, be excited about learning and sharing things. So I, I think about the staff we we’ve had where been like a Google meet. So like similar to a zoom and students are still like, they’re getting school work done, but we’re, we’re always trying to think about what else can we do in our school to create a positive experience for our students, in fact not, not to suit your horn there, but Sam, like when you came in last week for your assembly, for our, for our school it was awesome.
Mike Anderson (13:57):
And the, the kids, like they loved it, the staff loved it. Your, your, your message of I mean, talk about like giving kids hope and and, and a like profound optimism for how they can make a difference, even during a global pandemic.
Sam Demma (14:13):
No, I appreciate that. And it’s so into inspiring to see kids taking action. I share that feeling that you have, that when a kid, you know, believes in themselves and takes an action that maybe they’re uncomfortable with at first, but they know they wanna do it. It just lights you up. And you just finished telling me before we started the interview that you have a student who approached you and said, I wanna make a website really curious to know how as educators, can we help our students have those moments where they start believing in themselves more. And then how do we not hold their hand through the journey, but give them the permission to go try and fail, and maybe just share that story of, of that kid and what actually happened there.
Mike Anderson (14:58):
Yeah. I mean, one of our students reached out to me today and said, I have an idea for our student council. And I said, okay, what, what is it? And this is just like back and forth messaging. And I said, tell me, tell me, I like, I like great ideas. What are you thinking? They’re like, what if we had a, what website for our student council? And I said, I love it. That sounds fantastic. You do you know how to do this? They were like, kind of, and I’m like, great. I think you’re the webmaster , this is the kind of, I mean, we have this really unique opportunity and we’ve tried to our student council and we, we have a parent like a school council as well. And we’re trying to do things like we do in brick and mortar.
Mike Anderson (15:37):
We’re trying to provide those opportunities for our kids online. And student council is something that we’d I, I, I, I, I’m gonna give a shout out to a student named Gemma who back in September, she, she created a Google slideshow and she’s like dear principal Anderson. I would like to propose that we have a student council love it. And she made this whole Google slideshow. And honestly I opened it and I had that feeling of like just amazement, just like, this is exciting. This is a student who is yeah. Just has a bunch of great ideas. And you’ve actually met Gemma cuz she introduced you on our on our assembly last week. I know. So she’s like, yeah, one of the active members of our student council now. And I think she and two of her classmates are now working on a school newspaper.
Mike Anderson (16:28):
And they want to give a space for our students to have a voice to write our articles about events that are going on in our school. And I’m thinking I’m gonna connect them with our new webmaster and start getting this all published it yeah, I think giving students a voice, giving them an opportunity in their school to say, this is what I’m passionate about, and this is what I want to do. The more that we can do that for kids it has this incredible ripple effect. One, I find it quite energizing and, and exciting for to, to see that and, and to develop those young leaders it gives them a venue and it also makes them feel, Hey, I, I, I can have an impact here. I can, I can have, you know, I can do something here in my school and I can have a voice in, in what my school, the community and the culture of the school is. Like, I love
Sam Demma (17:20):
That. Yeah. Yeah. And I can’t wait to see the, the website if, you know, if they need any help. I, I built my own site on WordPress and would be happy to share some, some wisdom as a fellow web master.
Mike Anderson (17:32):
I love that. I love that. So, and this is where yeah, I mean, connecting with community partners yeah. Is is always, it makes it for the students it’s so much more authentic, right? Yeah. so I know that we have one of our grade five classes Mrs. Kat’s class they’ve been connecting they’re, they’re very passionate about environmental issues and they’ve reached out and brought in some special guests to talk about what they can do and some, some projects that they can take on and take ownership for. So I, I sat in, on one of their conferences with a a local environmental champion. Nice that, yeah, it was super impressive. That’s awesome. I, I like bringing in community connections for kids to make the learning. It just, it makes, it brings it alive. Right. You’re not reading about something in a book you’re like asking questions to an expert. Yeah. And of all the times to do that, the remote school is perfect. The kids are all on a video screen. They know how to do this. Yeah.
Sam Demma (18:40):
Yeah, that’s an interesting perspective because I’ve also heard the other side of that, where a lot of educators are saying, oh, this is the year where, you know, we can’t do so we’re just not gonna do them. And I’m curious to know what your perspective is on that and how you would address that. And what yeah. What your thoughts are.
Mike Anderson (18:59):
Right. So my colleagues in the brick and mortar schools are obviously it’s the most important is keeping everyone safe and it is different. They can’t have, have assemblies like normal. So your assembly I mean at the remote school, there’s things that we can do that just cause of, yeah. Like we, we can kind of be more, we can think outside the box quite easily. And I mean, you can imagine at a school, they said, we can have we can have clubs, but we need to do it with physical distancing and maybe it’s gonna need to be remote. So I know I heard about one school, that’s trying to run a club and kids are in different classrooms, on a video meet in the same building. Yeah. Well, like we’ve got an awesome chess club right now, nicely. One of our teacher, like, yes, figure this all out.
Mike Anderson (19:52):
And we’ve got like moving towards like a ladder ranking system and kids challenging each other. And like, this is, I mean, yeah, it’s fun. We’re, we’re starting Tom Barker is taking the lead one of our teachers and we’re gonna start a coding competition in our school. And that like, yeah, now, you know, we, what we don’t have is we don’t have recess time. Mm. Right. But our, our students, like our they’re getting Ette every day or, or, I mean, depending on the age, but I know yeah, some kids are the other day when the first big major snowfall my daughter is one of the oters, so she was in grade seven. Nice. And her challenge, she’s like your physical activity. You need to go outside, you need to build a snowman as apology can, and then come back inside, you have 15 minutes go.
Mike Anderson (20:38):
And she like comes running down the stairs. I was like, where are you going? She’s like, hi, it’s ed. I gotta go. I was like, that’s awesome. Like she, and it’s cool. I mean, I don’t, yeah. It awesome. Those kind of things. We, we’re trying to leverage the opportunities we have being remote. We part a big way we do that is by partnering with parents and, and, and working, it is a partnership, especially this year mm-hmm to, to help our students kind of navigate it. And I, I should say, I mean, there, there are some people that are finding remote. I mean, it’s, it’s challenging and it’s different and we try to be creative and we try to think outside the box and still provide a quality education for our students. But it, there, it, it’s not perfect. There are, there are some stumbling blocks and there’s hurdles and there’s challenges that we we spent a lot of time trying to navigate through and, and learn from. But it does feel like we’re making progress, which is a positive thing.
Sam Demma (21:34):
No, that’s awesome. And for me, it seems like your successes with this remote school will almost become a rubric. If we have to do another year of virtual learning, what you’re going through is what Joseph Campbell would call the hero’s journey. You’re you went into the unordinary world, which is like the, the remote world, cuz no one’s ever done this before. And you overcame objections and figured things out and got challenged and figured out the problems. And now you’re coming back around the other side. And if this is to happen again, everyone, one’s gonna turn to you and your 250 staff and say, how the heck did you do that? Because you might have to do it again. And I mean, we could just call your experience right now, innovation, like this is what’s happening with your school. And I think it’s just a cool success story to highlight.
Sam Demma (22:26):
And I know there’s challenges that come all along with it, for sure. But what you’ve been able to do with all of your colleagues and everyone in the school is, and the parents and the students and everyone is, is phenomenal. And to have the kid engaged to the point where they run outside to build a snowman is pretty awesome. Which is, which is cool. But if you could go back in time to when you were just starting to teach and have wise, Mike right now speak to young foolish Mike, when you just started teaching. And of course you weren’t foolish, but you know, less wisdom, less experience. What advice would you give yourself? And then what advice would that, that this advice is probably the same as what you tell other educators, but what advice would you also give to your colleague right now and the education calling?
Mike Anderson (23:16):
I think I, I came into the teaching profession understanding that it’s important that you build relationships Hmm. With students and with parents and with colleagues. And I, I love the quote and I, again, I, I, I like quote, I don’t always remember where they’re from, but no one cares what, you know, until they know that you care. Hmm. And, and at, at the core, I think back the, some of the the, the best experiences and the best connections that I’ve made with, with students and with colleagues are through those like quality, like sincere human relationships. Mm. Caring about people is, I mean, it, it, it, this is a relationship, it’s a people driven enterprise. So I know even I, yeah, just thinking back, like connect first, build, build those relationships first cuz once you have that established then it’s so much easier to get kids excited about learning to get them passionate and enthusiastic.
Mike Anderson (24:20):
I, I should yeah. I, I just think back in my, are about the, the, the best experiences that I’ve had in this profession have come have been built on those relationships and building relationships that are sincere and honest and, and when there’s trust developed students can yeah, they thrive when, when, when a, when a, when a student knows that an educate or cares about them and is on their team and is encouraging them and supporting them it’s really exciting to, to watch what they can do and, and how far they can go.
Sam Demma (25:00):
I love that. And I C I couldn’t agree more when I think about the, the teachers in my life, who’ve made a huge to impact. It was people that were passionate about their content, like extremely passionate about what they were teaching, but then made an effort to get to know every kid in the class, to the point where they take their generic content and then add three or four words to apply it to specific students. You know, you know, I remember my teacher, Mike loud foot, who I talk about in my speech. He used to teach essence and then towards the middle and the end, he’d say, Hey, for, for you, this means this and Sam for you, this means this and Mike for you, this means this. And having those people who took the time to get to know you and build a relationship with you. And it just, it just heightened the experience so much. And I, and I couldn’t agree more. So thanks for sharing and anyone listening, you know, focus on the relationships, prioritize the relationships. Mike, thank you so much for sharing some of your wisdom. It’s already been 25 minutes time flies when you’re having a good conversation. Is there any way people like, what’s the best way for people to reach out if they like this and they just want to chat with you or have a conversation?
Mike Anderson (26:08):
Yeah, so, like, I think on Twitter, my my Twitter handle is @manderson27. And 27 is also the number I wear on my hockey Jersey shouted out to Darrell Sittler. Nice on. But yeah, so @manderson27 is probably the best way to connect with me. I’ll give you my email address as well. If people wanna send an email, Mike.Anderson@ugdsb.on.ca. Just heads up, I get between 200 and 300 emails a day right now in this current job. So it is super hard. I’m doing my very best. Yeah. To to get back to people in a timely fashion, but yeah, I’d be happy if anyone had any follow up questions or thoughts especially with the the winter break coming up. I’ll hopefully get a chance to get caught up on my email.
Sam Demma (27:00):
No, it sounds good. I’m, I’m dumbfounded that you even opened mind. So I appreciate it.
Mike Anderson (27:06):
Cool. Sam, thanks so much. This was awesome.
Sam Demma (27:08):
You too Mike. Appreciate it. 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 wanna meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network, you’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. 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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