About Tomy Valookaran
Tomy (@tvalookaran) is the founder of bridges for solidarity. This is a business enterprise operating on social enterprise principles to bring together the poor in developing countries and the youth in Ontario high schools to work together to help create a global community of caring and mutual help.
Tomy is also the Chaplain at St. Mary C.S.S, the high school from which I graduated. Over the course of his career, Tomy has worked alongside other educators to coordinate one of the largest student clubs in the province called “Retreat Leaders.”
**Please note that all of our transcriptions come from rev.com and are 80% accurate. We’re grateful for the robots that make this possible and realize that it’s not a perfect process.
Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode of the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. Today’s guest on the show is a Chaplain; he’s a Chaplain that was at my high school. He was the Chaplain at the high school that I grew up at, that I graduated from; St. Mary Catholic secondary school in my hometown Pickering. He is someone who lives out this idea of serving others every single day, whether it’s with students, with his fellow colleagues and teachers, or for disadvantaged peoples and poor people around the world.
Sam Demma (01:11):
He’s the founder of something known as the bridges for solidarity. It’s a business enterprise operating on social enterprise principles to bring together the poor and developing countries and the youth in Ontario high schools to work together, to help create a global community of caring and mutual help. He worked closely with dozens of teachers from the high school I grew up at, to over this man of 20 years, donate over a million pounds of food to local food shelters. He runs and organizes one of the largest school clubs catered around service and mentorship for other young people. He calls it the retreat leader program. It’s a phenomenal program, phenomenal opportunity. My head was so deeply sunken in soccer when I was in high school that I didn’t get involved as much as I wish I could have, but he shares how he runs this on today’s episode and if you’re looking for ideas Tommy is definitely someone you should chat with. He will, he will give you a ton of ideas and he’s always looking for ways to help. So enjoy today’s interview, and I will see you on the other side. Tommy, thank you so much for coming on the High Performing Educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on this show. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit of the journey that got you into working with young people today?
Tomy Valookaran (02:32):
Well my name is Tommy Valookaran, and this is my 35th year of chaplaincy in general. I spent three years in a hospital chaplaincy before I came to high school working with young people. So my journey is is like, it takes like couple of books to write, but to put it just shortly, I was born and brought up in India. I was born to a family of seven brothers and two sisters and we just had a one bedroom house where we lived and we were pretty poor; so I can remember being hungry many times. And when I looked around as a, as a young person growing up like 10, 11, 12, I was always very angry at the society. You know, I could see all the injustices which are happening. Then I looked to our, our church and I became an altar boy.
Tomy Valookaran (03:36):
And the church was very involved in people’s lives there. So I, I felt, you know, this is something I could do with the together, with the help of others to improve things for everybody. And I was at a, in grade 10. I clearly remember there was a, I couldn’t go to a Christian school because we had no money. So we went to a, a Hindu school, which was free run by the government. And they, they had a guest speaker, a, a priest Salian priest who came in, he did sort of like a small assembly and he talked about how he’s making a difference in so many people’s lives. So he was asking for volunteers and I jumped in and they took us to a, a three day retreat. And one thing I remember is they fed that so well.
Tomy Valookaran (04:27):
And, and I, I bought right into it. Anybody who gave me food I’m good. Yeah. So that, that memory always stayed with me. And, and that made me passionate about social justice. So I went through priesthood through that. I spent 12 years in different seminaries and I was a few months away from ordination and we did, I did a retreat where, you know, it got, it became very clear to me that God is calling me to be a lay person doing the same work over must. Most priests do. And that’s how I got into chaplaincy and sisters of St. Joseph hired me from in Hamilton. I was a chaplain at the St Joseph’s hospital. And one of the wise nuns who was mentoring me she sort of suggested that I have a lot of gifts which will be useful for young people.
Tomy Valookaran (05:23):
And I’m a second Vatican council person, and I’m very passionate about all the changes, which has happened in the church. And so she sort of nudged me to apply and I applied to Durham and, and different people, and Durham called me for an interview. And we were like 25 people being, I, it for two, two positions and I got hired and I was very shocked with that hiring. So that’s how so the, it sort of organic how it came to young people. Then I started listening and you know, my passion has always been the passion of Jesus. Mm. And, and I spent a lot of time trying to understand the doctrinal teachings versus the real Jesus who was born in Palestine and some of the struggles he went through. And I realized, you know the God, he tried to reveal through his work was a, a God who is passionate for justice, a God who Christ when his people or anybody suffers because God created, everybody doesn’t matter what religion or no religion.
Tomy Valookaran (06:35):
So when they suffer, God suffers. And and Jesus really felt that passion. And he passed that on to a few people and those few people became a movement. Yeah. And I used that. So my experiences made me, first of all, very inclusive in my chaplaincy that everybody’s welcome no matter what, especially those who are struggling, especially those are marginalized. And well, my ministry is iCal because I grew up with Hindus and Muslims equally. So especially in a high school, there are Hindus and Muslims and buds. And I know they feel very much at home in my ministry. And I’ve always made it a point to let everybody who works with me know we preach God always, but we use words only when absolutely necessary through our actions. And, and that’s what St. Francis of ASIS preached. Yeah. Yeah.
Tomy Valookaran (07:44):
So, so the, the ministry I do is modeled after the ministry of Jesus, especially in the early church. And we build communities, small communities and not within the large school. So right now we have we eight color groups, we call them color families. And they are all led by two or three core leaders whom we have selected and trained, and they meet every week with their family and make it a safe space for everybody. And out of which comes all the other initiatives we do. So, so our retreat of the community, I was, I was explaining to a couple of kids who asked me what retreat leader was all about during the interview. So, so I tell them, listen, this is not another student group you are joining, or you wanna join. Yeah. This is a movement you a movement, which has changed the lives of so many people, a movement where so many before you have given so much to build it up the way it is.
Tomy Valookaran (08:49):
So right now it’s your turn to take it to the next level. And, and so we always try to go below the radar. We don’t like to show off too much attract too much attention. So people, everyone feels safe. Right. Nice. And so, well, Esterday like T I met with four great 11 students who are already retreat leaders, and they wanted to study a women’s group. And that’s our next initiative here. That’ll be our ninth initiative, nice coming out of our retreat leadership. So they want to focus on intersection of feminism, nice and amplify the voices of especially black and indigenous and people of color voices in feminism.
Sam Demma (09:44):
I like that.
Tomy Valookaran (09:44):
No, I believe, I believe when God, when, when we adults give their platform a safe platform where young people can express themselves and are given support. So they shine. They really shine.
Sam Demma (10:01):
I agree. I, I,
Tomy Valookaran (10:04):
Yeah, go ahead.
Sam Demma (10:05):
No, I was gonna say, I totally agree. And I have a follow up question, but continue. I don’t want you to lose your thought.
Tomy Valookaran (10:13):
Oh, okay. Well, Mr. Mora who is one of who worked with me as a team member asked me if I could suggest a speaker for their LGBTQ group. So I suggested one of our outstanding alumni. And so I was talking to her about it. And then, and then what she said was just incredible. She said, sir, your group saved my life.
Sam Demma (10:43):
Tomy Valookaran (10:45):
So we, we have that Alliance for compassion, LGBTQ safe group, which we run out of our chapel every Friday and just incredible how kids feel so safe and come every Friday at four 30 to five 30. And then
Sam Demma (11:03):
Tomy Valookaran (11:04):
So this is about you know, life. Yeah. You know, creating safe spaces where people feel safe, and that is the heart of Christianity. You know, it’s not about everything else that you, there is a famous saying. The Budha said the hand, that points to the moon is not the moon. So the, the, the sacraments going to church, they’re all the hands that point to God. They are not God. So a lot of people get stuck in the, in the, and, and I missed, missed the whole point. So
Sam Demma (11:43):
That’s a great perspective shift. I, I, I have to ask two questions. The first is, you said you were mentored by a nun, a very wise nun and do nuns sleep. And I’m asking because I was at a summer camp one time and, and the, you know, the nuns seem like they’re up at like three in the morning. And just, just outta curiosity, what do you think?
Tomy Valookaran (12:08):
Yeah, there are there are different types of nuns religious group. Yeah. Some are very active. They call it active condemn. So they, they are action oriented and some nuns just stay indoors and pray for everybody do counseling. So my sister is a nun of saying, you know, Francis commissioners of Mary and I have two aunts who are nuns. So yeah. NA had a big influence on my life.
Sam Demma (12:37):
Yeah. That’s awesome. So cool. And you know, the educator that’s listening to this right now is, is probably wondering how are you able to get so many students from the school involved, you know, the program, their treat leading program has, I think you, you said roughly over 120 students right now, and that’s a massive accomplishment where, you know, most student clubs and it’s not a club, it’s a movement, but, but where most, you know, typical student clubs would have 30 kids. Maybe if they’re lucky, you know, that many students involved your retreat leading and core program is, is, is, is blown up. And I’m curious to know what is it that makes so many students want to participate and get involved and, and help
Tomy Valookaran (13:22):
Because well, we, we do have a big history, like going back 10, 15 years, we have been building slowly, right? Yep. So their brothers, their sisters, older sisters recommend many parents know the work we do. So parents recommend kids to, to join because they see the change in their own children. Mm. Once they become part of a movement as opposed to ING your ego, like, so the, the way we train is we, we really give them opportunity to we, we call it graced history. So, so we give them the tools to go through their life five year cycles, zero to five, five to 10, 10 to 15, 15 to 17, whatever. And they have to write down the significant events or people they have had who had either a positive or a negative influence on them.
Tomy Valookaran (14:28):
Mm. And then we created safe space where they share that with each other. Mm. And, and once, once people see that, you know, everybody has burdens, they’re carrying and they really mold and become a real community. It’s almost like a family. And then, and that is what attracts people to join, to become part of that. You know, all of us are seeking, you know, to belong to something more than bigger than us. Yeah. And, and know that’s, that’s the God part in us wanting to connect with the God part in everybody else and thereby create what Jesus called the kingdom of God, where everyone, everyone is valued and appreciated and affirmed, especially those who are marginalized.
Sam Demma (15:23):
I love that. That’s awesome. And I would, I would only, as I would only assume that this year it’s been a little more challenging or a little bit difficult, but it sounds like from our previous conversation that it’s still moving forward and proceeding, and you still had an overwhelming amount of students interested. What, what looks different this year than previous years, and how have you been able to kind of adjust
Tomy Valookaran (15:47):
Well, well, this year it takes much more effort.
Sam Demma (15:53):
Tomy Valookaran (15:54):
From, from the team’s part. Cause you know, it, it’s not just about me. It’s about you know, there are many teachers who are very passionate about what we do. And, and so when you build a team, then, you know, when, when we come to a crisis, so one of the first things I, I got all my leaders together and what I said, including teachers, and what I said was, you know, the word for crisis in Chinese is means two things. It’s danger opportunity. So when it, when a crisis comes media, everybody looks at the danger like coronavirus and everybody looked at the danger, but there were so many hidden opportunities in there. Mm. And so we started focusing on the opportunities and then we had the George Floyd thing happened. And, and so we got all our black students together on zoom every, every week.
Tomy Valookaran (17:02):
And like we would be doing like two, three hour zoom meetings in the evening because there was so much hurt. We had to process. And then we brought in guest speakers and, and help them to heal. And once they felt they were comfortable, then they start going out into the community and, and, and start connecting with others who are hurt. So, you know, that’s typically how God works. You know, if you look at the history of God, you know, it’s when crisis has come, those are opportu for God, really to show up. Right. And so we do a, we have, we have done a lot of creative things like kids, we put together a black history assembly, like no, before no one has before done that. And, and kids loved it because it’s our own kids who shared their experiences. Oh, wow. Of being black and, and experiencing racism and how they managed to survive still. And then many kids were crying during the was ritual assembly. We Preap it and we asked every teacher to it. And so that would’ve never happened if it wasn’t on zoom and recorded. And, and
Sam Demma (18:21):
That’s awesome. And I was gonna ask you, you know, you just shed lay on one of them, but what are some of those opportunities that you think it came out of the challenges and changes that came along with COVID 19? I, I would assume that presentation doing the, the zoom was one way, because everyone had a chance to speak and share, and, and it was prerecorded. So you could re-watch it as opposed to a live thing. But yeah, you would know better than I, what were some of the opportunities that came along with?
Tomy Valookaran (18:51):
Well we learned so much new technologies.
Sam Demma (18:57):
Tomy Valookaran (18:58):
Well, I personally was forced to learn much more than kids, but because we had so much youth involvement in our leadership, they took over that side and they, they started teaching us how to do some of this stuff. So and care youth are very good at technology, you know looking from far to like a faith perspective, you know, what I see happening when you look at the digital technology, digital revolution, which happened like 20, 30 years ago, that was in preparation, God was preparing the earth to deal with crises like coronavirus. Now, can you imagine if we didn’t have the digital platform, holy, how we will deal with
Sam Demma (19:46):
It? I don’t know.
Tomy Valookaran (19:48):
Yeah. A lot of people don’t think that way. Right. But you know, really that God has been preparing with or pushing out all these new technologies, you know, from the east east end philosophy that they have a theory that you know, deep inside the earth lies all the, all what we need. And when the time is right, certain things, resources get pushed out and, and that’s how the earth survives. Right. Hmm. And when you look at oil, when you look at, you know, going back, you can clearly see certain technologies and certain resources being intentionally pushed out so that we, as a humanity can, can serve. Right.
Sam Demma (20:34):
And even when you look at activism, like, you know, everyday people expressing their concerns and having their voices heard wouldn’t be as possible if we didn’t have social media or, or the internet, you know.
Tomy Valookaran (20:49):
No, no, no. The climate movement, the black lives matter movement. These are powerful tools if used well to build the kingdom of God.
Sam Demma (21:01):
Yeah. Totally agree. I think that’s a great distinction to make in terms of your program this year and not just yours, but all the teachers who are involved, what are some of the initiatives that have gone on so far? I know you talked about the, the black history month, this Emily, I’m curious, like, what are other, some of the other things that have gone on? And yeah,
Tomy Valookaran (21:20):
We, we have a domestic outreach group. Nice. And this, usually we do Christmas outreach. So, you know, you remember when you were at St. Mary, it’s a big but this year we couldn’t collect things, right? Yeah. So, but we still had the families we sponsored. So kids went creative and they went with gift cards only. And and, and cash donations online. Nice. And I was just astounded like we initially kids only said, you know, let’s just put $10. People who want donate. I said, no, let’s put 10, 25 and 50, so people can choose. And we got so many people donating.
Sam Demma (22:06):
Tomy Valookaran (22:07):
And one of our alumni gave us $5,000.
Sam Demma (22:10):
Tomy Valookaran (22:11):
Because he has a business which has been successful during the coronavirus. Wow. And so we raised more money than normally we would. So we were able to give, I think about a hundred dollars gift cards per person, per family.
Sam Demma (22:31):
Tomy Valookaran (22:33):
Sam Demma (22:33):
That’s awesome. And the food drive has historically also been something that you and a lot of teachers worked on for years this year, I guess it’s not possible or how’s
Tomy Valookaran (22:44):
No, no, no. We are doing again gift cards, cards, cash. Oh. So we, so they’re preparing for our Easter food drive already. Got it. And we also, that group is connected with the bleed, the north, the organization, which which supports menstrual products, menstrual education. Oh, cool. So we also collected a lot of menstrual products to be given to that organization and, and they send it to some of the original communities or indigenous communities. And, and so we did that, then we have the international outreach group. They focus on international issues and they’re right now planning, excuse me, a, a hour fast from social media.
Sam Demma (23:34):
Tomy Valookaran (23:35):
Coming up in may. And they’re also planning a multicultural night, virtual in may. Nice. And, and the other group we have is best buddies. They focus on make out, making sure our our special education students are looked after. And so they have a group. They plan things that support them. Another group we have is indigenous F and M I group. They focus on highlight, educating our community on indigenous issues.
Sam Demma (24:09):
Tomy Valookaran (24:11):
Then we have a large group called safe and caring. So they focus on mental wellness and they are right now working. We just had a two week mental wellness week at, at our school where they highlighted how to get help if you need. And they have even created a website. So all these groups have Instagrams to, to follow. Okay. Then the other big group what am I missing among the nine. Okay.
Sam Demma (24:40):
That’s okay. Yeah. So there there’s does it’s. Yeah. It sounds like there’s, all of these groups are umbrella under the retreat leading program. Yes. Okay. So they come for weekly touch points altogether, monthly touch points, or how does it look like from the retreat?
Tomy Valookaran (24:57):
Well, the initiative groups is open to the whole school.
Sam Demma (25:02):
Tomy Valookaran (25:03):
So, but it is run by retreat leaders.
Sam Demma (25:05):
Tomy Valookaran (25:07):
And, and so what happened? They meet once a week.
Sam Demma (25:10):
Tomy Valookaran (25:11):
So each day we have at least one or two groups meeting for planning their activities. And these meetings are not just for planning either because one of the other big needs during this quarantine is isolation.
Sam Demma (25:27):
Tomy Valookaran (25:27):
And people feeling lonely. Right? Yeah. So, so as soon as we come together, we do what we call processs and thoughts, you know, what’s going on. What’s good. Nice. know what’s hurting you. And, and then, you know, people connect the, you know, I look at all these initiatives that tools to build intimate communities. Yeah. And out of those communities come miracles.
Sam Demma (25:56):
Tomy Valookaran (25:57):
So we, yeah. We have an Alliance for compassion. I spoke about the LGBTQ group. Yeah. And we have eco
Sam Demma (26:04):
Tomy Valookaran (26:04):
Eco is pretty they, they were involved and you know, Fridays for future, we even took a bus lot of kids, city, Queens park against, against all the bus school board. Well, they want, they don’t want you to do stuff like that. Yeah. But kids loved it. And, and, and because they felt they were, they had a voice. Right? Yeah. Yeah. Those are most of the groups I think I covered.
Sam Demma (26:38):
Yeah, no, no, no worries. And if we miss any, I can link them in the show notes of the episode as well. Just to make sure they have some recognition. How do you, how do you think as an educator, we make students feel valued, seen, heard, and appreciated without being like face to face physically, is it, is it just by giving them the chance to speak? Like, you’ve obviously you, you and a bunch of other teachers that run these programs have created those intimate communities. Is it the kids themselves interacting that makes them feel safer? Or what is it exactly that gives them that feeling of safety and community?
Tomy Valookaran (27:15):
First of all you know my advice to teachers who help run these things that you don’t run it it’s, it’s kids who run it. Yep. And then it’s kids who set the agenda and it’s kids who lead discussions. And we only get involved only if, for, we feel something is hurting somebody and, and otherwise, you know, they’re all student run. And so there’ll be a, a teacher present one or two teachers with with them, but that’s just to support. And, and I feel, you know, once you provide a safe environment where kids feel that they can speak and not be judge, mm. Then they tend to open up.
Sam Demma (28:08):
And how do you create that safe space? Is it by ensuring that when something happens, you address it, is it by setting rules or,
Tomy Valookaran (28:17):
Yeah. Yeah. Well, initially we, we talk about what are some of the, you know, we come as a group and then create certain rules for ourselves so that each of us feels safe.
Sam Demma (28:29):
Tomy Valookaran (28:30):
Okay. So they come up with suggestions and we keep the, as our as our safe space. So everybody needs to follow those. Cool. So, so one of the one the, we expect people to contribute. Yep. So, but you have the ability to Surpas, but the expectation is you’re going be actively participating.
Sam Demma (28:54):
Nice. Oh, very cool. That makes a lot of sense. Amazing. And I want to ask you a personal question. So in your own educational journey, when you were up and going through school, did you have teachers in your life that had a huge impact on you that, that inspired you to work with youth? Or why do you think that your ministry took you towards working with young people in education?
Tomy Valookaran (29:24):
I, I really have no answer for that because it sort of evolved.
Sam Demma (29:30):
Tomy Valookaran (29:31):
In fact if I have had any positive most of my experiences with educators have been pretty negative. And, and so I always want to go go the other way. Like, I’ve been expelled from a couple of institutions. Got it. Because of my activism. And, and, and so it, that the anger, which I grew up with against injustice is, you know, was healed and transformed by my connection with the, with the real Jesus Christ. Mm. Like, you know, a lot of people think Christ Jesus, Jesus, last name. No, that Jesus last name was something different. Mm. And so, so when you understand what Jesus Christ me means, then you start getting a feeling that, you know, if Jesus was the son of God, so are we, that’s the message of Jesus was like, we are all children of the same God. And, and, and once we get that, then we get empowered just like, Jesus, God.
Tomy Valookaran (30:41):
And, and that’s why we call, you know, the resurrected Jesus becomes us. Yeah. When we are passionate about the kingdom of God. So the work Sam you are doing is very similar. So you might think it’s your, well, it’s your two. But my experience tells me, no, we don’t choose. You know, it’s like, we are provided like, you know, we are lead. Yeah. You know, it’s like the Eastern philosophers. They say, you know, many times we think we are the dancers and, and artist, the person leading us. Mm. But they say, that’s not true. It’s. We are the dance itself, the God dancing through. Mm. And, and that’s the doctrine incarnation, right? Yeah. A lot of people don’t get it. Jesus never wanted to be worshiped. Jesus wanted to be followed. Mm. You know, just clearly said, you know, follow me, follow my teachings. That’s how you worship me. So, so I’m not I’m not very like a churchy churchy person. Yeah. But you know, I support churches when, what they do inspires people to create a caring, compassionate world. Yeah. And if they are inspiring them to be judgemental, you know, to divide people as versus them, then that’s not true. Authentic religion. Yeah. That’s brainwashed.
Sam Demma (32:25):
Yeah. Yeah. I think I love how you open this conversation, talking about, you know, the church is one of the hands that points to God, right? Yeah. And if it, if that’s something that helps you personally get closer to that, then, you know, go there and that’s great. And I love that philosophy. I want to bring this to a close I wanna respect your time. I know we’re a little overtime here, so I apologize. If you could go back and speak to younger Tommy, when you, when you did your first year of teaching at St. Mary and chaplaincy, you know, knowing what you know now and realizing that you know, you’ve learned things throughout the past. I don’t know how 20, how many years have you been at St. Mary now?
Tomy Valookaran (33:11):
I’ll St. Mary since 90, 99, 21
Sam Demma (33:15):
Years. So, you know, in the 21 or 22 years give, take if you could go back and speak to yourself when you just started, what advice would you give that might help you along the way?
Tomy Valookaran (33:29):
My advice would be Tommy relax. No, there is, there are other unseen grace is working with you because you are working for a cost greater than yourself. It’s not about you. And so, yeah, I wish he would, he, would’ve relaxed a little more. Got it. Because I’m much more relaxed now. And then, then big things happen, right? Yeah. People are attracted to you and you carry some, they, they, they connect with your passion because they have the same passion, otherwise they wouldn’t connect. Right. So, and, and we know from our experience that we all have a passion to make our world better than we, we know. So that’s God working through us to no, that’s what we call the journey to, to heaven. Right. And Jesus mission was to bring heaven to earth. Mm. And no, that’s the journey we are in.
Sam Demma (34:34):
Yeah. I love that. Awesome. This has been a phenomenal conversation. I feel inspired. Oh. If another educator is listening to this and is inspired, or just wants to have a conversation with you, like what would be the best way for them to get in touch with you? And if it’s, if it’s by email, go ahead and spell it out, just so they just, so they.
Tomy Valookaran (34:54):
Okay, email would be the, the best way, because I check my email. I have to cause a lot of kids communicate with me. So it’s Tomy.Valookaran@dcdsb.ca.
Sam Demma (35:16):
Perfect. Tommy, thank you so much for sharing some of your thoughts and advice and wisdom today on the podcast. I, I really appreciate it.
Tomy Valookaran (35:25):
Well I’m so proud of seeing you Sam, as an alumni of St. Mary we are always speaking highly of you and, and we hope to have you back again once the opportunity arises. Maybe we will see if we can come and talk to our, our leadership once I put it together for the next year’s leadership.
Sam Demma (35:48):
Yeah, for sure. No, I appreciate that.
Tomy Valookaran (35:51):
Sounds good. Okay, Sam.
Sam Demma (35:52):
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; f 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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