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Jeff Armour — Chief Operating Officer (COO) for the University Students’ Council (USC) at Western University

Jeff Armour — Chief Operating Officer (COO) for the University Students’ Council (USC) at Western University
About Jeff Armour

Jeff Armour (@WesternUSC) is the Chief Operating Officer (COO) for the University Students’ Council (USC) at Western University. Jeff graduated with a B.Sc. from Western University and after a few years of service overseeing the Wave and Spoke restaurant and bars on campus the USC encouraged Jeff to enroll in the Project Management program through Western’s Continuing Studies. Jeff was subsequently promoted to higher-level leadership position in the organization until ultimately landing at the COO role he currently holds. Jeff also recently completed his EMBA at Ivey in July 2023.

Jeff has an extensive background in strategic planning, project management, operations restructuring and realignment, change management and financial strategy.

Jeff is married to Mindy and has three children, Kennedee, Ben and Brad. He was born in BC but grew up in Peterborough, Jeff moved to London for school at Western and never left.

Connect with Jeff: Email | Instagram | LinkedIn | Twitter | Facebook

Listen Now

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

Resources Mentioned

University Students’ Council (USC)

B.Sc at Western University

Western’s Continuing Studies

Eccelerated Masters of Business Administration (EMBA) at Ivey

Sebastian Sassaville – From Everest to the Sahara

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
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host, Sam Demma. Today’s special guest is Jeff Armour. Jeff is the Chief Operating Officer (COO) for the University Students Council at Western University. Jeff graduated with a Bachelor of Science from Western University, and after a few years of service overseeing the Wave and Spoke restaurant and bars on campus, the USC encouraged Jeff to enroll in the project management program through Western’s continuing studies. Jeff was subsequently promoted to a higher level leadership position in the organization until ultimately landing at the COO role he currently holds. Jeff also recently completed his EMBA at Ivy in July 2023. Jeff has an extensive background in strategic planning, project management, operations, reconstructing, and realignment, change management, and financial strategy. Jeff is married to Mindy, has three children, Kennedy, Ben, and Brad, was born in BC, but grew up in Peterborough. Jeff moved to London for school at Western and has never left. I hope you enjoy this insightful interview with Jeff, and I will see you on the other side. Jeff, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. I really appreciate it.

Jeff Armour
Hey, thanks for asking me. I’m excited to talk with you.

Sam Demma
Something that piqued my interest, obviously we met at the orientation week at Western, but something that piqued my interest that we haven’t talked about is your start in construction, because I come from a family of tradespeople and my dad is a plumber by trade and builds homes. Tell me a little bit about your start in construction and how that led to working at the university?

Jeff Armour
I’ll try and give the Coles notes because I don’t want to take up the whole time, but the Kohl’s notes are essentially, when I was really, like, I don’t think I was 16, my dad was, who’s a doctor, was having his office renovated by a contractor who actually became a close family friend. And he suggested I approach him to see if, you know, I could do some work with them, you know, trying to get in those values of work and then getting pay. And I was the oldest child, so, you know, get out there and lead the way for everyone else kind of thing. So that job, I got it. And that guy, his name’s Robert Thurnbeck, who has passed away since, but was really formative for me. A lot of, even to this day, a lot of the leadership things he taught me, even though I don’t think I for sure he was not trained or anything, it just came naturally to him. He was leading a construction company and working with customers. So it was all of that sort of massaging of, there’s money at play, there’s timelines and all the rest of it. Learned a ton from him. When he passed away, I kind of took over the reins at like 19 years old of this company that had projects that still needed to, and it kind of split a little bit, but there was a chunks of it that, you know, I continued on and did some of the work that he underway. And it was kind of like, I was currently enrolled in the university doing my bachelor of science and it was really appealing to me to be doing that construction. So in the summer I was doing it, I was getting to lead a team of like, you know, there was like 20 years old, let’s say, or 19 years old. And there were, you know, carpenters that were working with me that were like 45 or 50. And the plumbers didn’t want to show up and the electricians were like, I think the price is going to go up. And here I am learning all of these, like you’re thrown into it, trying to make a go of it, and a great learning atmosphere. At the same time, I was finishing my BSc, and at that time, there were some challenges in some of the operations, and I was working at The Wave, which is an on-campus restaurant, not just in terms of financially, and we’ll probably get into that later on about how I sort of like view services in the post-secondary environment. But there was challenges with like people, bumps in seats too, like it wasn’t, you know, working. The general manager, the role I’m currently in, which I now call the chief operating officer, but the general manager at the time called me up and asked my suggestion for improving some of those spaces. And I gave him the recommendations and then he offered me a job and said, like, yeah, I want you to come and do all of that and see if you can fix it. I was young still, like 22, 23, somewhere in that range. And I thought, you know what? I can always come back to the construction, but this kind of interests me. And I will say my parents kind of pushed me a little bit. I think they felt like I was growing up maybe too quickly. I was working seven days a week with the construction thing. You work five days a week and then you do quotes and billings on the weekends and you pay deposit. It was non-stop. And it was probably a little too much. I don’t know. I’ve never asked him about that. Maybe over the holidays I will. But came to the USC, University Students Council, which is interesting because every university has a University Students Council. But the USC, for example, at McMaster, it’s the MSU, McMaster Student Union. Across Canada, the USC is known as the Western USC kind of thing. So I’ll say that a lot, so I’m just preparing the listener for that. Came to the USC, and that’s where things really changed in terms of like, it struck a chord in me where the construction money was great, but I suddenly had these thoughts mid-20s, late-30s of like, maybe it’s not about money entirely. You got to be able to pay your bills. I want to be able to like make sure my kids have what they need to, you know, if they want to play sports or whatever. But you know, me working seven days a week and just, you know, the thing about construction was you could literally see something at the end of the day and be like, wow, we showed up here and there was no second floor and now there’s a second floor on. And when I go back to Peterborough, which is where that happened and where I’m from, I’ll drive around the city and be like, oh, I put the roof on that house, there’s all the addition or like music. Can’t believe that chimney’s still up. The mortar was a little cold that day when we were repointing the channel. My point is, there’s a satisfaction that comes with physical creation. And I think what I tapped into, even though I was just working at the bars and restaurants, was the impact and the purpose that interacting with students at probably one of the most critical phases of their life when they’ve left home and they’re trying to figure out their way and they’re trying to learn and they’re trying to figure out how to make friends all over again and all of that, but in a different, they’re reinventing themselves, but also trying to invent what they’re going to be. And it just really resonated with me. That’s how the two came together.

Sam Demma
Can we go back to Robert for just a moment? It sounds like he had an instrumental impact on you. When I think about people in my life who have played big roles and taught me lots of things. Many of the greatest lessons came in moments when I was extremely emotional or something was happening or I made a mistake or things fell apart and this voice of reason from another human being just changed my beliefs or shifted my perspective in a big way. And I think back to a gentleman named Chris who, when during the pandemic my work was falling apart because all these schools were canceling engagements. And he helped me realize that, although it’s a changing and challenging time, there will be opportunities if you shift your focus and focus on the fact that people are gonna need this work now more than ever, and less people are gonna be doing it. And if there’s less people doing it and more people that need it, don’t you think that could be a cool opportunity if you figure out how to deliver things virtually. And it was like, it just, it was a big shift mentally for me. And so I’m wondering, when you think back to your time spent with Robert, do you have any experiences you can remember where you may have had a challenge or something come up and his lesson kind of pushed you forward? And if so, what was one of those examples?

Jeff Armour
Like, there are several I reference all the time, so I could probably give you an example in different realms. But before I do that, I want to say what you just said about finding a way to deliver this message. I think one of the… I don’t know that I would have accepted this invite from someone else if I didn’t feel like what you’re doing and what you’re talking about is absolutely critical. mental, the access to information that the world has, the mental health struggles that we have, the inability to make mistakes or accept that something is wrong because everything is perfect that you see online. I can tell you right now, it’s not even 9.14 in the morning, I’ve already made like four mistakes. And I love it because if it takes you 100 mistakes to get it right, let’s get through 99 of them real quick so we can get to it being right. But that isn’t the way the world is right now. And people need to hear that. Yeah, you’ve got crap in your backpack, as you say, and you got to get it out of there. You got to own it and accept it. And sometimes that stuff is good. Mistakes are good, right? And I think that’s to answer your question now, is I got to borrow a company truck. He had all these F-150s that had the red and white stripes and they all looked the same. And there I was, you know, and I had just gotten my license the year before and I put one of them in the ditch and I had to call him. And we had just had radios, there was no cell phones. So it was like these, you know, radios that we shared with all the trucking companies and everything. And I had to call and say over that radio, so I knew like 300 people in Peterborough were going to hear this. Hey, I need you to come out to quarter line. And I expected this is a job. He gave me a dollar raise every year, a 50 cent raise every year. You have a job. As soon as you’re done school, you just show up. You’re going to get a 50 cent raise. I expect with every paycheck, you’re going to buy a tool. Here’s a tool belt and a hammer just from a shop. You just pull it down. He goes, and I’m going to get you started. But like you want to see a tape measure in there, I want to see this, you want to see that. And if I took you to the garage right now, I have, it looks like you’re walking into a Rona or a Home Depot because he forced me every paycheck to buy a tool, but he gave me a raise every year. I knew it was coming, right? And I knew I had a job. So there was stability there, but there was also patience when I made a mistake, right? Like put the truck into the ditch. But then there was also like life lesson stuff. Like, you know, so I was the young lad. They always called me the young lad, right? Where’s the young lad today? Oh, I’ve got him in another job site. He’s cleaning up this. Well, we need him over here because we’ve got to move a bunch of drywall and like we don’t want to hurt our backs, that sort of thing, right? But he’d go pick me up and drive me over and he goes, tomorrow’s payday and he’d kind of look at me, you know, and he, you know those Colts, the wine dipped, rum tipped Colts, you know, like I’m sure they still exist, but he always had one in his mouth and he would pull it out and look at me, and he’s like, what do you think if I just paid him on Friday instead of tomorrow, right? And I’d be like, I think they’d be really upset, you shouldn’t do that, you know, and he would do it and then he said, he said, you know, what were they saying, right? And, you know, and he’s like, it’s good to remind them that they’re getting a paycheck and their work is valuable and you take him up for pizza lunch and make a big joke about it and big celebration and like it wouldn’t hurt anyone or anything like that but he really understood the balance and at the time I thought he was being I don’t know what the word is for it it wasn’t self-centered but I believe that it brought joy him handing a paycheck to a person and that person going like thank you. Mm-hmm Do you know I mean like I did a good job and there’s money coming to me because I worked for you and the customers Are happy and he was always so happy he was like a big bundle of joy all the time and all that like and and Even though we’re doing construction and sometimes it was like pouring rain and right out there putting tarps on stuff and it was brute, you know Everybody was happy and I think it was connecting. Everyone now connects work and work life and what’s that work life balance and all the rest of that. Like there has to be a division and work is where you’re unhappy, but life is where you’re happy. Do you know what I’m saying? And I think just separating that is terrible. Like I referenced Wayne Gretzky earlier on. He was someone, it was a podcast recently and they asked Wayne, what’s the magic number? How many hours a week were you practicing? How many hours a week? And he laughed and he’s like, zero. I never practiced. I was just playing the game.

Sam Demma

Jeff Armour
The mindset of like, when are you putting in that work so you can go get the joy of in the game is separate. It’s all part of the game, right? I like to just, the game was something that we got to organize once in a while as a bonus, but being able to go out there with my friends and shoot, you know, stick or whatever. So there was a lot of those little kind of lessons about like people finding their purpose in their work and then understanding that, you know, the people that are putting up the skyscrapers in Toronto so people can live closer to their work downtown and make that city more vibrant are critical. That’s critical work that’s going on in the world. And I don’t think, I think people don’t see it that way anymore. They’re all jumbled up about what’s the purpose and what their job is and what they’re trying to do and maybe chasing the dollar a little bit. And they’re not finding happiness in that, I don’t think.

Sam Demma
You mentioned earlier that you realized maybe it’s not so much about making lots of money, making enough money, yes, to pay the bills and have some cool experiences, but that there was more important things. When did that realization come to you? Was that when you were transitioning into working in schools? Because I think, especially for younger teachers and even young professionals, there is this, I guess there’s this belief that to be successful, you have to make X amount of dollars. And I think it traps so many people into doing things that they don’t love just to check a box.

Jeff Armour
Right. Yeah, and yeah, for sure. And I’m not trying to be, there’s a lot of people who work really hard to make a lot of money doing that. And I don’t wanna suppose that I understand that that’s what motivates them or keeps them happy. That’s for a therapist to do to figure out where that comes from, you know, and maybe they ate, maybe they grew up in a household that struggled, you know, with food insecurity and who knows. And then now, having enough money is really important and that’s what makes them happy. Great with that. Great with that.

Jeff Armour
But for me, I think it was the building piece, the builder, the contractor part of me that was great at it. I really feel like I understood it and I connected with it. But I feel like there was a few moments when I was like sitting with a young student. It was – so I worked some nights and sitting there with a young student and they were just talking about how their roommates like – it’s late at night. We’re waiting for their buddies to come pick him up because you know he got left at the bar and whatever whatever and you know Most bars, you know in the world would be like it’s closing time get the hell out We don’t we don’t do that on campus. We make sure everyone gets home safe We try and see that people are leaving and you know, hey, you’re walking by yourself Let me get you foot patrol or whatever like we take it’s just a different approach not not as a maybe as a value proposition But it’s more just like, could run campus and, you know, people are trusting us to take care of their children.

Jeff Armour
Exactly, yeah.

Jeff Armour
So sitting with, and then just broke down and then we had a long conversation. I’m pretty, if memory serves me, we actually gave him a job and he was waiting for his buddies to come back and he’s like, you know, I gotta go home for Christmas and like, I’m pretty sure I’m failing a course and my dad’s not going to be okay with that. Not going to be. And, you know, we had some conversations and it was, I remember that one specifically, because it was outside the bar, it was out, we call it Concrete Beach, it’s outside of the building, but there’s this big area where students, you know, gather on campus. And it was a good conversation that made me realize, you know, wow, like, maybe, I’m going to struggle with this all the way through, but like, because I’m much better at self-deprecating, but like maybe I made a difference in that person’s life, right? And although I can’t see it like I built a second floor in a house, I have to believe I’m making a difference. And that statement, I have to believe I’m making a difference, I say to myself weekly weekly ever since in the 25 years that I’ve been at USC.

Sam Demma
You might not be seeing the second floor, but you’re definitely building a foundation in a person’s life the same way you built a foundation in a building with the work that you do with the USC. What are a few of the parts to your work that you find really rewarding? I’m sure there’s so many, but what are a few that come to mind?

Jeff Armour
Well, an easy one is, so my role is the chief operating officer. I am the, again, I hate talking hierarchically, but just so the listener can understand, on an org chart, I’m the top full-time staff person. So we are staff-run, but we’re student-led. So the boss, my boss, is the president who sits on the board of directors. There’s nine of them, so eight students at large, and then the president. That board is my boss that hires, fires me, does performance evaluations and all the rest of it. That president changes over every year. So they get elected. We come back in January, this, like, in four weeks or three weeks, and we’re going to hear who’s running to be president next year, and one of those people will be my boss and the new board of directors representative. So, first out of the gate, if you think, you know, well, thinking it’s bizarre is okay, because it’s awesomely bizarre, but not being okay with it means you should never work for a student association. You’re not gonna ever accept it if you’re like, oh, I couldn’t take orders from a 22, 23 year old. So that’s probably the best part for me though, is every single year, there’s a new slate of ideas, a new, fresh, sort of like, hey, I love that thing they did last year, I didn’t love this part of it so much. You know, and they run, they develop a platform, and then they open up, you know, I kind of call it when the person gets elected, they get to sit down with the current president because they don’t start until June 1, and myself and we open up the big book of truce, right? Okay, so you said you were going to reduce the price of coffee at Starbucks. We don’t run the Starbucks, right? But let me tell you how we use our on-campus operations to advocate for affordability in terms of food on campus, because we’re always cheaper than the, right? So it was like, oh, well, that’s all I really wanted. And right. So then what we’re going to do is we’re going to do a heavy advertising campaign that says, you know, hey, if you want to bottle a little water, we’re 25 cents cheaper. And we won’t we don’t directly say, you know, the school is this and the school is that we just advertise it because we’ve got a great relationship with the school. They’re actually but they got to pay bills as well. They’re a business and their purpose is a little bit different than what our purpose is. Our purpose, our mission, our vision statement is students have the power to change the world. And specifically, we say students, because although we have elected student leadership, you might think that’s the students that have the power to change the world. We actually it’s all students. So like we do something called midnight breakfast where we put out food during exams. And when those students are studying over and well, then they need that pick me up around 11 o’clock. They can just come over and grab a free plate of eggs and waffles and bacon and whatever. Fill their belly, see some people, get away from their desk, and then go back and study. And we believe that those students, one of them’s gonna go on and figure out a cure for the common cold, or is gonna go write some amazing poetry, or is going to be a great track star, and you know, whatever, and they’re gonna change the world in some way, shape, or form. So that’s why we do what we do, that’s why I get out of bed every morning, is I believe that students have the power to change the world.

Jeff Armour
The second thing is how we do that, our mission statement is we do that by enhancing the educational experience. So we don’t do the educational experience, we do mentoring and training and all of that, so there is some huge educational component, but in this moniker, it’s uppercase educational experience, which is what Western does. So we just enhance it, bus pass, health and dental, bars, orientation week, as you saw, stuff like that.

Sam Demma
With the USC, you’re also directly managing lots of different staff members and I’m assuming people would be reporting to you lots of times during the day. It sounds like you also were managing people on the construction site. In your experience managing people on the construction site and even at the university, what have you found to be effective when it comes to managing other human beings? I’ve had a couple of experiences and it’s challenging. It’s challenging.

Jeff Armour
It is. And that’s the beauty of it is people are challenging. If it was easy, they wouldn’t need a chief operating officer, right? If everyone just came in and did exactly what they said they were going to do and they never got sick and they never were confused about about what the priorities were or all that sort of thing, then it would be really easy. But the key to remember for me anyways is, first of all, you have to have the belief that everybody coming into work wants to contribute and feel valued. So that goes back to, it can’t just be about money. It has to be about something else. And I’ll tell you, if it’s, they’re not finding purpose where you’re at and I’m not talking I’m not talking specifically But the USC If you’re not finding purpose working for a consulting firm in Toronto My hope for you as a fellow human being is that you figure that out quickly Because what you are wasting is resource that you can’t get back You can always make more money, but you can’t get time back if your impact and purpose is somewhere else boy I hope you figure that out quickly. And so that is the approach that I take when managing people is, first of all, are you okay? And do you understand, like, what makes you happy and where you’re finding purpose? And if that isn’t the case, let’s talk about that and work through that. No hard feelings, no harm, right? I’m here to be your, I’m here to help you navigate all this if I can, if I can have the honor of doing that, right? The second thing is you understand then, now if you’re connected to what we’re doing, if you believe the students have the power to change the world, if you believe that this consulting firm that you’re working for is really making the agricultural sector a better place to be and that’s important to you because you’re down as a farmer, then awesome. Like you’re doing, you found it, right? Now do you understand from a leadership level, hierarchically, right? What the expectations are from either strategic planning or what makes impact or where we’re going as a team. And even if we’re all going in the wrong direction, let’s go in the wrong direction together, right? Figure out it’s the wrong direction, make corrections and then figure out what the right direction is. Because you’re not gonna get it right the first time, which is where the third thing comes in, which is patience. So is the person okay? Have they found their purpose? Are they able and willing to contribute? Because I don’t believe nobody comes into work to do something wrong. I’m like, oh, today I’m going to like make these mistakes or whatever. If they’re making mistakes, it’s either because they haven’t been trained. That’s the management’s fault. Or they don’t understand where they’re going. Management’s fault. Or they’re not propped up with the tools and resources to do what they need to do, management’s fault. So someone failing at the frontline level or even middle management, I see that as my, that’s my fault. I haven’t had enough time to talk to them. They’re not getting enough direction. They’re not getting enough. Or, or they’re unhappy. And this goes back to, you know. 

Sam Demma
Wrong position.

Jeff Armour
Are you, and if, and sometimes and I’m not gonna I’m gonna stick with construction to keep it at work from what I’m currently doing There were there were times where I had to sit down with someone not sit down because it’s construction site you know you’re having a coffee and the person be like It’s getting harder to get her to bed on Monday and Tuesday now and when I’m like, oh, what do you like? You know, I always like to do this like well, why not like just do it You know, how about you work here half time so you still get a solid paycheck and you got some money and go try that out. Yeah, yeah, you know what I mean? So encouraging people to be their best and if they happen to be their best where I’m the chief operating officer, that’s a win. The win-win is, or that’s a win-win. The win of that person going and figuring out what, but that attitude goes to the entire place. And people start to feel like, hey, I don’t get what’s going on here. I’m not afraid to ask because I want to be at my best because I don’t want to disappoint the students or I don’t want to disappoint my manager or whatever it is. So those are kind of the three ways. So it’s not really about I’m not much of a like during COVID. Yeah, I had to take a more, you know, firm hand on the wheel, if you will say, but that’s because we weren’t in a normal operating environment. It was like, yeah, you’re all not coming to work. This is what we can do, and this is what we can’t do. And this is, I know you used to like, whatever, like flip pancakes for midnight breakfast. But today what you’re doing is you’re doing a newsletter and you’re helping to copyright that. Like, cause, but you’re going to get, you have a job. So you go back to Maslow’s, like the primary thing is like, are you safe? Do you, can you pay your bills? Can you, you know, and that’s, that’s where you went during COVID. So other than that, I’m, I’m more of a carrot type of person of like, if we do this, wouldn’t this be great? And we can move the needle and move down this path as opposed to running around the office, trying to catch someone doing something wrong. You know, I saw you left five minutes earlier. And like, you know, the madmen approach of like the sixties and seventies and in fair and probably early two thousands as well. I think that approach has entirely changed.

Sam Demma
I was recently attending an event in Quebec City and saw a speaker by the name of Sebastian Sassville, and he has climbed Everest and done these crazy endurance adventures, 240 mile runs across the Sahara Desert. And he recently, more recently, did a bike ride across America, which is one of the most physically challenging, I guess, long-term races you can do. And he mentioned a time during the race when he was about to give up, and he had a team of, I wanna say, seven to 10 people that were supporting him along this two-week journey. He had to be on the bike 22 hours a day for the entire experience. And he talked about a moment where he broke down, it was very close to the finish, maybe a couple of days before the end. And he said, I think I’m gonna give up. And he had a team member basically tell him, no, you can’t because it’s not about you, it’s about us. There’s 10 of us showing up every single day. Sass, you gotta pull your weight. This is about our mission, our race, it’s not yours. And he shared this lesson with all of us in the audience to just remind us that our missions aren’t about us, it’s about we, the team, and all galvanizing towards and moving towards a common goal or a common mission. It sounds like that’s very similar to how you approach the call to action.

Jeff Armour
In my first week taking over this role, it’s funny you say that, for all the management team, the place was, it needed some of what you’re talking about there, and I printed up a sign that said we, and I had all the senior managers put it up. So reporting to me, there were eight senior managers at the time, and they all report, one was like each of the divisions, right? That support the organization and students and put WE up in their office. And within two weeks, everyone was asking like, what’s the WE all about? And it’s like, well, we’re either gonna fail together or we’re gonna win together, right? So that’s a very cool story though. Wow. 22 hours on the bike.

Jeff Armour
22 hours on the bike.

Sam Demma
And not just one day, it’s like two weeks in a row. He was talking about moments where he had hallucinations and he mentioned how vulnerable he had to be. At certain points, he couldn’t even reach down and touch his toes. He’d have to have other team members dress him every single morning. He had people making all of his meals. Talk about relying on the people around you to get the job done and recognizing that you can’t do it all alone. It was just a really cool, really cool, powerful analogy. And I’m carrying that with me in my backpack moving forward. And this conversation just reminded me of it a little bit. 

Jeff Armour
That’s huge. It’s almost like, and I don’t want to dehumanize him, but like, it’s almost like he represented the organization that was doing work 24 hours a day. It was happening. And there were all these people that were propping it up. And even when the organization was ready to fail, everyone was like, they rallied around him, like, you can’t. We’re not gonna let this stop, because this thing we value a lot. And I’m not, I know I realize I’m referring to a human being as a thing, but like, he sounds like he wasn’t even thinking for himself, he was just like, wait, literally just, you know, people were functioning for him, which is, yeah, unbelievable.

Sam Demma

Jeff Armour
I’ll think of that name for you again. I don’t have a pen and paper with me, so I’ll get that.

Sam Demma
Yeah, I’ll share it with you right after the podcast is done. Sebastian Sassaville. Sassaville. And anyway, yeah, it was very inspiring and it reminded me of this conversation. It sounds like you’re also very passionate about the services on campus, like the restaurants. And you worked in operations, you talked about working in the restaurant. Tell me a little bit about how those operate and why you’re passionate about them.

Jeff Armour
So yeah, we have a ton of, the benefit of being a big student association, we have a wide breadth, but we also have depth. So, like we do, we have a club system.

Jeff Armour
Every school has a club system, for most schools have a club system, but our club system has, you know, there’s 13,000 unique members and over 17,000 memberships. So some of those 13 have two memberships in clubs. That’s like a third of campus is involved in our club system, right? The spoken wave operations, although I’m happy that they generate revenue and that’s all great, what I’m really happy about is they’re lined up and working in those operations, 95% of the staff are, yeah, 95 or higher, are students. So they’re students that come in and get trained and work in the environment. And again, that’s important because they have a job, it helps them, you know, we pay back over a million dollars in salaries back to students every single year so that they can, you know, it’s no small, these aren’t small operations. The big thing it comes from is the community, right? And those people get exposed to other people they wouldn’t have met. And I feel like we’re at a bit of a crossroads, and not just post-secondary education wise, but we’ll stick to that, because that’s what this is about, in terms of like, especially with COVID, and you’ve got people in second and third year that didn’t get to go to their grad prom in high school or they didn’t, you know, have those formative experiences in high school. And high school is way too short. They used to be a grade 13. And that’s created a whole other mixture of issues because the drinking age is 19 and they’re coming at 18 or 17 in some cases. And so then that creates, well, what are you going to do when you’re 17, 18? You’re going to go to a house party. Well, this is an unpopular, students would call it a hot take is what I’m about to do here. But I would rather have the students drinking legally in a venue where they can be supervised with smart-served people. And we can put plates of nachos out and they can get food and it can be spread out over the course of the night. And we know what they’re drinking is safe. Or what’s worse is, you know, the recreational drugs that have turned into other things because it’s easier to get that thing going to the LCBO and get, buy a, you know, bottle of vodka or whatever. It isn’t about the vodka. It isn’t about the food and beverage operations making money. It isn’t about the clubs being used by—all those things are touch points on community and whether we want to accept it or not on the drinking and other stuff, the party side of the social side of things, or on the usage side for the services, students are looking for community. And I believe it’s our job to provide that and the universities, and not just Western, across the board. Parents are handing their to us at 17, 18 years old. And there’s an expectation there, in my opinion, that there’s going to be some resources and opportunities for them to build communities and develop and grow the way I did. When I came out, there was OAC, and that was grade 13. And then I moved into university, and I think I was able to go to the bars and all that right out of the gate. And so I made friends really quickly. And those friends were the ones that right before Thanksgiving, one of them would come back and be like, man, I got a turkey dumped. My girlfriend came back from Queens and she dumped me after Thanksgiving. It was called the turkey dump. I don’t know. They probably break up with them now over Instagram or TikTok or something. And then we’d all sit around, go to the spoke and grab some nachos and some wings, listen to Rick McGee and like, you know, sort of like everything would be okay. Instead of now, they don’t know where to go, right? And their roommates, maybe they’re not getting along with or nobody’s home. And so they go on Instagram or they go on social media and then there’s their community isn’t a real community. It’s a fake representation of what the world is. And so when you’re comparing yourself against that with the access to information, but it’s never been higher, the access to information, access to social media and all the rest of that. But there is an all-time low for patience for people making mistakes, saying the wrong word, doing something wrong, and an all-time low of community building. It’s a powder keg for what we see going on right now, which is widespread, you know, anxiety and pain, the actual, like, you know, people can cry on the drop of a dime. And so that’s what gets me going when you ask, well, what are the services? What do they mean? It’s an opportunity for you to, it’s just like, as you know, going back to my biology as you know, the electrons bounce around and hit more things, the more interactions you have, the more chance you have for a reaction. And that’s what the USC, I think, is trying to do is create opportunities for those interactions, which you did and you saw during orientation week. And like, after you left the stage, the number of students who either emailed or texted or DMed, they took a video of you and then sent it to my president Sunday and said like, that was awesome, you know, and right in the middle of the week, you know, they’ve been away from their family for three days now, and we hit them with something like what you had to say, that interaction maybe made them turn around and go to someone that they wouldn’t normally talk to and say like, how great was that? Like, the backpack guy, you know, like, you know what I’m saying, right? And that’s, we’re trying to create those interactions to create a community so that we can create some, at the end of the day, some reiliency.

Sam Demma
I wanna be just cautious of the time. You okay for one more question?

Jeff Armour
Yeah, great.

Sam Demma
Okay, cool. And I think reminding yourself, you said earlier, that I have to believe that I’m making a difference is something that I do consistently. Even after walking off a stage, you know, one time I was doing a presentation and there was a student sitting 90 degrees away from me facing the wall. And the entire presentation I was in my own head thinking, is this person listening? I was getting frustrated and a little bit upset. Is it me? Is it my delivery? What’s going on? And I remember driving home, being a little bit upset about it. And it’s funny because the whole room was engaged and it seemed like this one person was not potentially paying attention and I focused on that. But when I got home, this individual had sent me an email and it was a really long email. And I told this to a mentor of mine named Chris, the whole situation, and he told me, he’s like, it’s not up to you to decide how other people receive the information you share when you’re on stage. It’s up to you to just deliver it authentically, to lead with the mission and the purpose and hope that people will digest it and do with it what they need to. And so that always sticks with me, especially when I walk off stage and I’m not sure if it connected or I’m not sure if it made a difference. So I lean on those words you were saying and even what Chris tells me. But how do you pick yourself up in moments where you might doubt your own impact?

Jeff Armour
Well, I doubt it all the time. That’s why I have to say it all the time. Because although I don’t know that I could recount a moment like what you just shared, which is very, very cool. I kind of see it like I’m a constant sort of I try and be for the world, this constant kind of like, just a light.

Jeff Armour
Do you know what I mean? And it’s there. You want to look at it. And you in your case, yeah, actually look at it. You want to look at it or you don’t want to look at it. Sometimes you want to lay on the beach and get a tan. Other days, you know what, I just want to look at it through a window a little bit. And like, as long as it’s there, I can’t, it goes back to my management principles, like, I can’t assume where you are at in terms of like, you know, if you’re happy or not. But I want to present some thinking that maybe this world’s a little bit different than the way you’re perceiving it at the moment. Because the moment you’re in, if I had looked at myself when I was 20 years old being a contractor, I would have thought, is this my life, working seven days a week? But it was preparing me for a contrast, but also it was giving me data points on what was actually gonna make me happier. So it’s not a failure, it’s like, oh, well you tried being a contractor, it didn’t work. It actually worked great. And I probably could have afforded a bigger Christmas tree if I’d taken it. But like, yeah, it’s, the obligation is to just, I think, share it, and that’s why I say I have to believe I’m making a difference. The nice thing is, is that you have moments like you had that you just shared where someone sends you an email. Or there’s a president that you worked with, you know, six years ago, and they happen to now work for someone else, and you hear them say something to someone else that you told them September of their year, six years ago. And they say, you know, it’s not really about, you know, someone else. You just have to present the best version of yourself and share the light. And, you know, and then you’re like, oh my goodness, that’s the thing that I talked to them about. And now it’s made it different. You don’t realize it until you start see it reflecting back on yourself. And you’re like, okay, maybe this is catching on. Does that make sense?

Sam Demma
Yeah, it does. I think we need more lights in the world. So keep shining.

Jeff Armour
I meant it more like from a chemistry standpoint, that it’s not a river where you have to get in or you get out. It’s just kind of a passive presence, not like the light, like a church or something like that. It sounded like we got religious there, but yeah, I know it’s more, you can take the light in and you can not, you can stare directly into the eclipse if you want. But I wouldn’t recommend it.

Sam Demma
You might lose your vision. Last question, what are you most excited about? There’s so many changes happening in the world. There’s so many diverse student needs. What are some opportunities that you’re very excited about as we move into 2024?

Jeff Armour
I think that what the world is experiencing right now from AI and deep learning to the escalating conflict going on around the world in many different areas, that’s a very challenging time and I have to believe that challenges like that, humanity has always come out on the other side as a better version of itself. And I have three kids and I want to make sure that what the world looks like when they’re ready to shine their own light, we’re running with the analogy now, is a good place to be. And that’s what gets me up every single day is like, can we have to make a change here? There has to be a change that comes from all of this. And we’re being pushed for some reason, and you can never see it in the moment. You know, in that moment, when you’re going through that exam that you’re going to maybe not do well on, or you got to go home and tell your parents that you’re not going to pass or whatever it is. On the other side of that, if we can be patient with each other and we can help each other find our purpose and then we can be clear communicators and give like that’s what the direction is, is clearly communicate without trying to compare ourselves to each other. You know, like you always hear the adage, the only person you should be comparing yourself to is the version of yourself the day before. If we can get to that state, you know, where we just want to better ourselves and find ourselves, that’s what’s driving me. Specifically in 2024, I don’t know, I kind of want to see, I just want, you know, Travis and maybe Taylor Swift to break up or get married one or the other. It’s like something has to happen there because it’s like consuming everything. I’m excited for, you know, we’ve had a good cycle of the route of COVID and the student voice and activities coming back. I’m really excited to see what comes next with that and just, you know, continue to make a difference and hopefully hear more stories about, you know, that light reflecting back for myself so I can keep going.

Sam Demma
Love that. Jeff, this has been an insightful conversation. Thank you so much for taking the time, for sharing some of your ideas, your management principles, and the work that you’re doing with USC. Keep up the great work and all the best in 2024. Keep up the great work and all the best in 2024.

Jeff Armour
I’ll keep going as long as you keep going.

Join the Educator Network & Connect with Jeff Armour

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):

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):

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):

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):

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):

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):

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.

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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.