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Interview with Sheila Gilkinson

Student Success Lead Teacher
Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB)

Toronto Catholic District School Board logo

Sheila GilkinsonSheila is a teacher by trade and vocation. She speaks with that unique combination of genuine care and polite authority that years spent in the classroom will give to you. A regular Pod participant, she is in a unique position to talk about how the CET has helped her make a difference in the lives of many at-risk students. The following is an executive summary of our 90 minute interview.

CET: How would you describe your role in one sentence or less?

SG: It is all about building a “coalition of the willing”. I have the opportunity to meet a lot of people and when I do, I look for ways our work can connect to better help students in our schools reach their goals.

CET: Can you give us examples of how being a part of the CET helped you build this coalition of the willing? 

SG: For me, the CET Pod sessions have been a great way to stay current, share information and network with colleagues from other boards, colleges and universities. These contacts have opened up new doors at the post-secondary level. Last year, Pod connections resulted in three workshops of the 42 that made up ‘Leaders Of Your Own Learning’ a board-wide Professional Development Day my working group organized for 2300 secondary teachers held on February 13, 2015.

  • OCAD University: Sean Baker, Manager, Student Recruitment, organized a workshop that provided hands on activities as well as information about OCAD programs. Participants finished the day at the AGO.
  • University of Toronto, Mathematics Department: Pamela Brittain, Outreach and Special Project Officer, facilitated two mathematics workshop for over 60 Maths teachers. This was a rare opportunity for them to network and learn new teaching skills, and the feedback was very enthusiastic.
  • Ryerson University: Tobin Walsh, Specialist High Skills Major with the TCDSB and fellow CET member, linked with the Sports & Media Team to organize a tour of the university as well as a training session on how to create your own sportscast for 50 teachers.

Career highlights:

  • 1990: English teacher at Father Henry Carr High Secondary School, Rexdale
  • 2001: English Department Head
  • 2005: Student Success Teacher
  • 2008: Student Success Resource Teacher at the Board level (Leadership of Professional Development for SSTs and Credit Recovery Teachers, Coordination of board-wide Secondary PD; organization of Department Head and Student Success Conferences, and Student Success Regional Meetings, Leadership of the Stop the Stigma Student Mental Health Initiative)
  • 2010: Student Re-Engagement Project Lead

This year, colleague Linda Wren and I connected at a CET Outreach and Engagement Pod meeting with Sarah Pole from the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. Sarah is the director of the LAWS program (Law in Action Within Schools) which organizes a Youth Summer Program of seven one-week sessions for 60 students each week. For $1,220, these high school students get to experience the life of a university student, studying at the Law School during the day, staying in residence at night, enjoying three meals a day and evening activities. Sarah Pole, director of the program and Pod Lead, offered to partner with the board to sponsor ten TCDSB students. The 10 scholarship students selected from high schools located in priority neighbourhoods could not afford a program like LAWS on their own, so this was an opportunity of a lifetime.

In addition, my connection to post-secondary through CET has led me to choose colleges and universities as locations for PD events I organize.  This past year, I held student conferences at Humber College and University of Toronto and held our Department Head conference at Hart House.  Being on these campuses, builds understanding and connection for both teachers and students and our department plans to continue this practice next year.

CET: All these connections were made at the CET Pods. Can you tell us more about the Pods please?

SG: I think that the CET Pods are a great way for education professionals to make new contacts and create partnerships. In a climate of budget cuts, support programs are placed under enormous pressure to identify activities and projects that will have the most impact possible with the least resources. Having access to a community of peers, front-line staff or program managers, representing all the school boards, colleges and universities of the city, has opened new doors for me. Pod meetings were definitely a solid investment of my time and have helped me several times over. It is important for me to stay up to date as the teachers I work with typically go from completing their degree in education to spending years in the classroom. Many don’t know about the wide range of post-secondary programs available to at-risk students that have been developed in the past decade. The CET provides this connection between high schools, colleges and universities.

CET: Could you give more concrete examples of how attending Pod meetings helped create these connections between your high schools and PSE institutions?

SG: Absolutely. As I mentioned, most teachers haven’t had the opportunity to learn about new programming at post-secondary and few of the Student Success teachers I work with had ever been on a college campus. Through my Pod contacts, I have been able to organize a full day meeting at a college each of the past five years, at Humber College (South Campus), Seneca College (Newham campus), Centennial College and George Brown (Casa Loma and St James).

Feedback on these days have been excellent. Teachers saw how different from the traditional classroom the students’ new learning environment had become: open space concepts; Wi-Fi and computer spaces, online research to replace books, etc. They also learned more about the increased transferability of credits, which is becoming more fluid between institutions and between colleges and universities. They attended presentations about the programs and initiatives in place to support at-risk students, and realized that these mirrored the student success programs at the high school level. In other words, they realized how much of a shared investment they all had in the success of students, which was a huge eye-opener for them.

In fact, these PD experiences have led two of the teachers who participated to connect with our college hosts to arrange visits for at-risk students.  The teachers had been looking for ways to motivate students in the Credit Recovery program and so they invited them to see what was available after high school in order to help them form goals that would encourage them to succeed.

Early in my career in Student Success, I was privileged to hear Dr. Bruce Ferguson speak and his comments have stayed with me for the last decade. He said ‘students need to leave us on a better life trajectory than they came to us with.’  As teachers in secondary school, we need to support students in their efforts to earn their diplomas, but our role doesn’t stop there.  We need to help them understand the opportunities of the pathways beyond high school and then help them build the skills they need to be successful there.

Interview conducted on July 7th, 2016


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