About Ryan McDonnell
Ryan McDonnell is very proud to be the principal at Superior CVI in Thunder Bay. Superior CVI is an incredibly diverse and inclusive community rooted in a dynamic culture that promotes excellence in academics, the arts, athletics and technology.
He considers it a great privilege to lead a school of innovative teachers and thoughtful and compassionate students. Ryan believes that relationships are the key to success in education, and he strives to build a community based on high expectations where all students feel valued, connected and empowered.
Connect with Ryan: Email
Listen to the episode now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or on your favourite podcast platform.
Superior Collegiate & Vocational Institute
Lakehead District School Board
**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):
Ryan welcome to the high performing educator podcast. Pleasure to have you on the show here today. Please start by introducing yourself.
Ryan McDonnell (00:08):
Yeah, thanks Sam. It’s great to, to have a conversation with you. So I’m Ryan McDonnell and I’m the principal at Superior CVI in Thunder Bay.
Sam Demma (00:16):
How did you get into the field of education? Is this something you knew you always wanted to do growing up?
Ryan McDonnell (00:23):
No. And it’s funny when, when, when I started to think about this, that it, it wasn’t always something that I wanted to do. So I have a, an uncle who is the guy who like everybody wants to be, who was a high school principal. And I thought that that was, was pretty cool, but didn’t really when I was in school or when I was in university, it wasn’t necessarily what I had my mind set on doing. Which is interesting, cuz education is, is really big in my family that it doesn’t matter what you do. But learning, learning is lifelong and learning is really, really important. So kind of a, a, a cool story that I like to tell is that my grandfather, who was an amazing man was from Greece and his family had had eight kids and they saved up and sent him to Canada for, for a new life.
Ryan McDonnell (01:06):
And so he always told this story about how his dad was really big into education and into books. And when they, he would leave the village, he would always come back with, with a book for, for the family. And during during the war, when their village was invaded by, by the Nazis they had a book of German art in their house and that sort of one favor, and, and my grandfather said that that saved our family. That was something. And it shows you that, that education can really, can really make an impact in someone’s life and save someone’s life. And so, as I kind of worked through school, I think I avoided going this route. And then I got to a point where, where I kind of had to dig deep and, and think about why I was really fighting it so much. And so I did a placement when I was in faculty of ed and, and I kind of figured out that, that this was for me and this is where I need to be. And, and I really haven’t looked back or regretted it since.
Sam Demma (01:59):
Tell me about that placement at the faculty of ed. What about that experience really confirmed that this was the path you wanted to take?
Ryan McDonnell (02:05):
I think that it’s, it’s kind of that just that excitement of, of being in a classroom and, and having those really cool conversations with kids that make an impact and, and having those moments where you could see a kid gets it and, and things they’re figuring things out. I think that’s really hard to, to replicate replicate anywhere else. And so I worked with a, a couple of really great teachers who I ended up when I started my teaching career. I, I worked with them and now I continue to work with them. And they’re, they’re great guys who, who really cared about kids and really were always trying to be at the top of their game and, and be really creative and, and meet the needs of kids and, and not just kids who are easy to teach, but the kids who are sometimes the most difficult to connect with that was, that was their focus and their passion. And I think for me, that really inspired me actually.
Sam Demma (02:55):
That’s awesome. So you did your placement realize, yes. This is a path I want to take. What did the rest of the journey look like to, to today?
Ryan McDonnell (03:04):
Well, at the time there were no jobs. Nice. So I actually I went I went with some friends after we finished university to, to the UK and taught in, in the Northeast of England. So I lived in a, a place called Newcastle and taught in a, a place called Sunland which is, is a lot like thunder bay. Right. that in terms of, of the demographic, in terms of like a real blue collar working class town so I, I lived there for a year and, and it was incredibly challenging. Like it was there’s some real flaws from my perspective in the system and the way that kids are, are grouped, according to their scores on, on a test. And, and some days were, were really, really tough, but I, I also learned a lot. So I learned a lot from, from the people in the school.
Ryan McDonnell (03:50):
The teachers that I worked with the kids in, in, in the classes that I was in I really, yeah, I really learned a ton about about what good teaching is. But also in some cases what bad teaching is. So I remember vividly the, the day I decided that I needed to come home. We all had this like it’s called a home form. So you have a group of kids that you’re with for a chunk of the day, for the whole year. And there was a kid in there who had a really, like, he had a life that I couldn’t live like a really, really challenging life. And I remember a teacher coming in and telling him that he was a waste of space and was gonna be just like his dad. And I was like, I’m out. I can’t, I can’t be a part of this anymore. Wow. And that, there was a lot of really good stuff that was happening and a lot of really good teaching. But for me, that was just it was, it was just different that, that there’s that at the time they were kind of stuck in the very I’m the teacher, this is the way this is the way it is. Which isn’t really an approach that works with me.
Sam Demma (04:47):
Yeah. Totally hear you. It’s funny, you mentioned Sunland new castle. Those are both two soccer teams. I sometimes watch on TV. Absolutely.
Ryan McDonnell (04:54):
Sam Demma (04:54):
Did you end up following any of the football when you were out there?
Ryan McDonnell (04:57):
Yeah. Yeah. And so I went to a couple of matches in, in, in Sunland. It’s, it’s absolute loot madness, right? Like when you’re, when you’re on the subway or where you’re at the stadium, it’s, it’s, it’s incredible. Like it’s yeah. People invest their whole lives in it. It’s absolutely. It’s absolutely something else. Like no professional sports in north America compares to it. It is it is absolutely out of this world.
Sam Demma (05:21):
A hundred percent. you mentioned an example of teaching that was not, is not very effective. That actually totally turns you off and probably had a very negative impact on that young person’s life. Give, give an example of some of the teaching you saw and even see today that you think this is what teaching is all about. This is a perfect example of, you know, how we’re supposed to show up for our kids and, and try to make a difference.
Ryan McDonnell (05:47):
And I think we we’ve come a long way in education and we were actually doing interviews the other day for, for a few teaching jobs. Sorry, I don’t know how to mute my phone here. No worries.
Ryan McDonnell (06:03):
Yeah. Maybe I,
Sam Demma (06:05):
It makes it more real is the job of principal, man. Yeah,
Ryan McDonnell (06:10):
There we go. No, so we are interviewing for, for new teachers, which doesn’t happen very often. Yeah. And almost everybody coming into the interview talked about forming relationships with kids and that’s, that’s always been, I think my style and, and, and been important to me. And I think been what, what, what I’m actually have have some skill at. And so I think the, the good teachers that I’ve always always admired and respected are the teachers that are able to form relationships with kids and also have really high expectations and high standards for them. So looking back to where I was when it, when I was in England there was a woman who I worked with who was was, was absolutely incredible. And we, we are actually in the same home form and she would take the kids skating at Christmas time, and she knew who, which kids were hungry and would bring them in food and discreetly make sure that they got it to, to take home and just really, really was able to connect with kids and, and form that, that really meaningful relationship that they may not have had anywhere else in their lives.
Ryan McDonnell (07:17):
But also hold them to account and say, you know what, you’re, you’re, you’re better than this, this isn’t, this isn’t who you are. Let’s figure out how we can make different decisions, which I think the guy who said, you know, you’re a waste of space was trying to say the same thing, but just said in a way that was, was really knocking a kid down. And then when I think of the, the teachers that I’ve, I’ve worked with throughout my career when I was when I was a teacher at, at the school, before I came to this one, I worked in guidance with a, a team of, of all women who are absolutely amazing at what they do and have all these really unique personalities. But I’ve never seen a team work the way that they do and at their focus was always what is, what is best for kids.
Ryan McDonnell (07:59):
And so taking time and some of them were there till five, six o’clock at night, just, just talking to kids and figuring out just listening oftentimes. And I think that that translates into a classroom taking time to get to know the kids before you to know your learners, to let them know that, that you, you care about them, that they’re part of your story. You’re part of their story that you’re really invested in them. That’s to me what good teaching is, and, and good teaching is stopping to talk to a kid in the hallway outside of your classroom. Good teaching is being involved in extracurriculars that’s to me, what good teaching is. And then you bring that into your classroom and, and that’s delivering curriculum, right? Like you, you, you use your relationship and, and you you’re able to, to leverage that, to get kids, to learn that the content of your curriculum. But you’ve already taught them the really valuable stuff about how to, how to be at life and how to be good people and how to make an impact through your interactions with them outside of the classroom.
Sam Demma (09:02):
I’ve heard relationships being a very foundational trait of effective education and effective educators. That idea of relationships has been echoed through so many different episodes. It sounds like you’re alluding to it there as well. What do you think enables an educator to build a strong relationship with a student? How do you build a, a relationship with the, with the student?
Ryan McDonnell (09:26):
I, I think the first thing you need to do is you, you need to talk to kids. So I think oftentimes we’re so pressed that we need to deliver the curriculum. We need to get into the content that taking two or three minutes at the beginning of the class, to, to greet kids at the door, to ask them what they did on their weekend to do a sharing circle where you just ask a topic every, every day that kids get, get 10 or 15 seconds to talk about that’s what, what builds relationships? I think, I think the key to building relationships is, is by having a really solid school community. So by really building a community where, where people know, know what’s expected of them where people know what to expect when they come here, that makes building the relationship easy.
Ryan McDonnell (10:10):
And I think building the relationship is only one aspect of the job. We also need to have, have high expectations for kids as well that often often we sometimes think, oh, you know, that kid has had a really tough life and we lower the standard for them, which I think we’re, we’re doing them a disservice. I think you, you use the relationship as a, as a medium, to, to help that kid learn and to inspire that kid. And sometimes some kids are, it’s a lot more tough to connect with them. Other times, kids are a little bit more open. One of the things that when I was a teacher was I think, I believe there’s power in, in feeding people. So I’d often bring, bring food into my classroom. And that kind of builds that, that culture of community, it lowers people’s guard. It lets them know that you care, care about them. And so since I’ve become an administrator, that’s something that I’ve continued doing the school breakfast program. I think it’s, it’s been one of the, the best part of my days to, to make some pancakes and then have a 32nd interaction with, with a kid that I think is what builds the relationship.
Sam Demma (11:13):
Awesome. relationships, education as a whole has changed, you know, the way we build them has changed, especially over the past two years when things went virtual and school was shut down. I’m not sure if you guys, you know, shut down where you were, but what are some of the challenges that your school community has faced over the past, you know, year, year and a half, and how have you strived to overcome those things?
Ryan McDonnell (11:37):
So our, our board was actually working from home for the, the longest out of anybody in the province, just cause we had a, a local situation and then the provincial guidelines changed. So we were essentially at home from from February last year, right until September of this year. And then the year before there was, was all kinds of stuff going on. And so I think that the challenge that came with that is, is to kind of echo what I was saying earlier, that it’s really hard to, to maintain connections and to, to have a community when, when people aren’t together. And so the past two years have really have really eroded the community in, in our schools. I would say that there’s, there’s definitely a different, a different atmosphere coming in. And so people who, who worked in our schools, but weren’t teachers were, would come in and would say it, it feels different in here that it was very, very flat.
Ryan McDonnell (12:28):
Kids went to class, then they went home. There was no, there was no laughter there was no connection. There was no, no real human interaction. There’s a story of a, a teacher on our board who actually said, you know what I, I miss when the kids were a little bit bad because at least then I knew that they were, that they were engaged and they were doing something. And I think that was something we really struggled with with was that, that loss of community. And then when we came back this year, there was, was all kinds of issues that we we’ve never really seen before in our schools, in terms of behavior and kids buying into really ridiculous TikTok challenges and, and significant mental health issues that, that have really surfaced in our kids over the past little bit. And I think that that’s a direct result of the, the change in relationship and not having that connection with, with teachers and not, I mean, that connection with, with other kids or having a connection in a, in a different way.
Ryan McDonnell (13:25):
I think that’s been a real, a real challenge over the last the last couple years and, and some of the stuff we tried to do like we went to a ton of kids’ houses that we would go there. The kids who we knew struggled with with poverty and food security, we would go to their houses and bring them food. We really focused on, on recognizing student achievement and student achievement beyond academic success. So we did a lot of things where probably over the, the last two years, eight or 10 times, we’ve just bought cookies or hot chocolate bombs or small things with a little certificate to a kid that said, and went to their house to give them when we were working from home to say, you know what, you’re doing a good job, keep it up where, you know, what, we know things have been tough for, you know, that, that we’re on your side and things are gonna get better. And it’s, it’s, it’s amazing how much that small thing makes it makes a big impact and, and was able to draw kids back in and let them know, okay, I, I need to get back to school. And when I get back to school, that teacher, that teacher cares about me and is waiting for me to get back.
Sam Demma (14:30):
Awesome. I think that’s sounds like you guys have done a good job at trying to tackle some of the things that are going on. And yeah, I think every school board is facing similar challenges right now with their return back to school. And some kids not being in a physical building for two years. Yeah. You know, even starting your high school experience late, you miss out on a lot of character, just general character development as a human and social interaction and all those pieces as well.
Ryan McDonnell (14:56):
For sure. And for, for some of our kids, the, the only structure that they had was when they came to school. And so for, for some of our kids, for, for the better part of two years, they, they kind of did what they wanted because they didn’t have someone in their life to, to set a boundary or, or to hold ’em accountable. And, and I think that, that we all in some way, or another kind of crave that and need that. And so coming back in September was, was tough for a lot of kids that we had, the vast majority of our kids desperately wanted to be here and were so excited to be back in the building and in classes and learning face to face and connecting with peers and playing sports and just the whole energy was, was amazing. But then we had a small group of kids that it was a, but a significant number, who it was a real struggle to come back to that, that, that it’s been their life has been very different over the past two years, and now we’re telling them, okay, you gotta come back here and you’re gonna have to sit here for, for 72 minutes, and then you’re gonna go over there for another 72 minutes.
Ryan McDonnell (15:53):
And it was just, it was just too much for them.
Sam Demma (15:56):
Yeah. I follow. And on the heels of op challenges or sometimes opportunities what are some things that you guys have learned through this period of time or spaces that you think have opened up as opportunities because of the situation we’ve all went through?
Ryan McDonnell (16:11):
I, I think we’ve learned a ton about again, to, to come back to relationships and how crucial relationships are, I think it’s reinforced for, for many educators the importance of our job and, and what we do does have an impact. And what we do is a crucial part of people’s lives. And so some of the stuff that we’ve learned throughout the pandemic is, is stuff that will really carry with us and embed into our, into our school communities. And so a couple of the things that, that we focused on coming back, especially, especially that we’d like to carry forward are that it’s we don’t need to test a kid in the first week, two weeks, month, month of school, that, that we know where they’re at, having them sit in a row and slide a piece of paper to, to, to find out what they know there, there’s lots of different ways to do that.
Ryan McDonnell (17:02):
And, and giving them a piece of paper is, is not, is not the most effective way. So we really focused coming back about engagement and taking your best activities and the activities as a teacher, you are most proud of and front loading those to the beginning of the course and, and using them to, to get kids excited about learning and, and really feel that magic of being in a place where they’re excited to find out something new. And they’re curious. And so that’s been a, a shift that I think we’re making as a school community is to really focus on engagement and focus on kids, being connected to each other, and connected to learning, and then learn to assess and evaluate in a different way. And so our board has made some pretty bold decisions, like many other boards in the province to to put exams, to shed those for, for a while.
Ryan McDonnell (17:49):
And so our students have not, not written exams in, in, in two years. So we just came back from a, a couple of days of where we had student success days where kids came in, they worked with a teacher, they got to, to fill in the gaps on some of their learning and the staff staff and kids are saying that was huge. That was, I was able to finally sit down with a kid one on one and explain to them what they were missing. And that’s, those are things that I think we, we need to, to continue to carry with us. That assessment and evaluation looks lots of different ways. Learning should be exciting. It shouldn’t be you standing at the front of the room what we’ve learned, I think from the pandemic. And I think kids kids will become consumers of education.
Ryan McDonnell (18:35):
So if they’re showing up to be right in front of you, don’t give them something that they can do by logging into, to zoom or teams that, that you need to have them there. You need to get them up, you get the need to have them doing stuff. They need to be connecting with others, because if they, if it’s just reading and answering questions, they can do that from home. Yeah. And so I think those are, are shifts that, that, that have happened in our school community. And also the other things, like just the, the importance of relationships and taking time to step back and, and, and have those really important conversations to connect with kids. The, the pandemic has driven mental health and wellbeing to the, the forefront of everything that we do that I think we, we can’t teach without recognizing the, the importance of, of wellbeing and mental health and, and all of us have a responsibility in that to, to really to use what we do to build positive mental health to promote wellness and to do all those things. But also that curriculum is only one aspect of our job.
Sam Demma (19:37):
Awesome. That’s amazing. When you think about all your experience in education, if you could kind of wrap it all together, go back, tap younger. Not that you’re old, but tap younger Ryan on the shoulder and say, Hey, you know, this is what I wish you heard when you were just getting started. What would you have told your younger self.
Ryan McDonnell (19:56):
And it’s and it’s funny, cuz I think it applies in my life outside of, of education. I think that it’s I’ve always been, been pretty driven. And I think what I’ve learned is that it’s, it’s not fair to judge other people by the standards that I set for myself. So I think that that, that people really are in most cases doing the best they can and our job is, is to support them to, to do the best they can and then to do better. I think that the judgment is, is not what, what I needed. It’s not what I needed to do to the kids I taught or, or the, the families that I worked with. It’s just to, to provide support and basically ask, Hey, what, what do you need? What can I do?
Sam Demma (20:38):
I love it. That’s a great piece of advice. And I think other educators will benefit from hearing it. It’s already been 30 minutes flew by really fast. crazy. Yeah. Thank you so much for Ryan take for taking this time, sharing a little bit about your philosophies in education, your journey the little stories about England and you know, where this has taken you, if someone’s listening and wants to reach out and ask a question, what would be the best email for them to get in touch with you?
Ryan McDonnell (21:03):
You’re absolutely welcome to reach out to me at my work email. So it’s firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sam Demma (21:14):
Awesome. All right, Ryan, thank you so much for coming on the show. Keep up the great work and I look forward to talking to you again soon.
Ryan McDonnell (21:20):
Perfect. Take care.
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