IWM: Debbie Donsky

We interviewed Debbie Donsky, an experienced educator and principal in York Region, a role model for many (including myself) and a mother of two (fabulous, kind kids). We found out what one thing she would change about the education system, how she integrates art with life and work, and the importance of authentic storytelling. 

You are a doctor of education, what does that mean exactly? Do people address you  as “Doctor”?

I have an Ed. D. which means Doctorate of Education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. It is the same level as a Ph.D. but I specifically chose to get an Ed. D. rather than a Ph.D. because the Ed. D. is seen as a “practitioners degree”. The requirements were the same at OISE for both degrees: 8 courses, thesis and defence, and successful completion of the comprehensive exams. I took my degree part-time as I was working full time and raising two young children at the time. My focus of study was in the Curriculum department at the university and specifically it was in Equity and Inclusive Education practices. My thesis is entitled: “Critical Pathways Towards Antiracism In An Elementary Knowledge Building Classroom“. The focus was on looking at how power, knowledge, and learning happen in online and offline learning environments, the role of community, voice, and how we can build inclusive learning spaces through these practices.

When I am in a school, the students call me Dr. Donsky. It is funny because I wasn’t going to use it and then a former colleague of mine and an educator with a doctorate asked me how long it took me to get that degree. She said, “You have earned that title – Use it! It will be amazing for the young women in your school to know that you have that degree and will inspire them to do it themselves!” (agree, great advice and reasoning!)

You have had such influence on so many students, over the years in schools. Can you reach students as much in your current position?

Unfortunately, I don’t think so. That has been the biggest struggle for me in my current role as a system principal. I believe that the work I have done will ultimately affect students but the direct work with students is minimal. I have had the opportunity to work with students through my board’s Arts Camp which I co-directed last year. That was a wonderful opportunity and experience but generally, I don’t work directly with students. One of the great accomplishments in my role was working with a few colleagues to develop our board’s Modern Learning Strategy as one of the key strategies in our Board’s improvement plan. I believe this will have a profound affect on students throughout our system when implemented. Finally, I also teach the principals’ qualification course for the Ontario Principals’ Council. That also gives me the opportunity to influence future school leaders to consider a different way to lead but again, it is through influence and not direct work with students.

What was your favourite age to teach?

There is no favourite age really. I have taught all ages from K-6 but have been a principal in K-8 schools for a number of years. The arts camp I mentioned is a grades 7-12  opportunity so I have worked with high school age students as well. I honestly believe that working with children of any age is a gift and an honour and I treasure every moment that I have the opportunity to do so.

Is a principal mostly an administrative position?

It depends. For me it isn’t. I assume by administrative you mean paperwork. This part of the job is something that I do and has to be done but depending on the paperwork, it can also have a profound affect on students, staff and community. So for example, how I build timetables will have a profound affect on everyone in the school. The way I communicate, hire new staff, place staff, create duty schedules and develop a school plan will change the dynamic in the school. If we enter into every responsibility with the question, “How will I best serve students with the decisions I make around this task?” then it becomes bigger than paperwork. It becomes a way to reach your vision and show your integrity through action. (I love this, and believe in asking a similar question – no matter what our work might be  – is what can make us all be of stronger value in our role)

How challenging is it to deal with parents when they are upset about a school issue? Any tips for parents or teachers?

For those difficult moments, I have developed a mantra: “They are coming at me from a place of love”. This allows me to listen differently to the irate, angry, overwhelmed, frustrated, despondent parent. I wrote a blog post about this; The Mantras of School Principals and Shaming Helicopter Parents.

We have to listen empathetically and take our own emotion out of these moments. Parents get upset because they are frustrated, feel that they haven’t been heard and always are doing so to advocate for their children. My advice for principals and vice-principals as well as teachers is to listen with empathy and stay calm.

My advice to parents is, if you can, talk to someone you trust first and figure out the real issue. Consider how you will best be heard and what you hope to accomplish from the meeting. It isn’t easy. So many of my friends call me for advice when navigating the school system. I tell them what I think they should do and so often the school doesn’t provide the support they need for their child. This is most profound with students who have special needs and it is incredibly frustrating. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Through all of it, we have to ensure that our children maintain a healthy response to school and their teachers, but also recognize when the educator is out of line. I always ask my children, “ Do you respect this person?” If the answer is no, then that person doesn’t get to tell them who they are. Every situation is different and it is difficult to provide a process particularly when the educator on the other end does not respond in the way you would hope (even if you do everything I would suggest).

You are incredibly artistic, how does this help you in life and work?

It is therapy for me. It helps me quiet my mind. It is somewhat meditative for me in that sense. I have had many people ask me to sell my work and make something for them and I don’t know that it is something I want to do. I do it for myself.

I actually took several courses in art therapy when I was doing my doctoral work and my masters. I believe that the arts has a profound affect on all students. We talk so much about a fixed mindset in mathematics and the same is true for the arts. I was always encouraged by my teachers in the arts (other than dance of course) but so many young people are told they can’t do art. Brene Brown actually talks about “art scars” and how significant the impact is when a young person is told that s/he can’t create. I believe it is at the root of many of our anxieties and insecurities. We fear creating because of failure, judgement and ridicule. I used the arts all the time in my classroom as a teacher and as a principal I always had a variety of art materials in my office for students who came for a break, a safe space, or even when they were in trouble. It soothes their souls to create quietly.

Lately I have started using sketchnotes for my note taking at presentations, conferences and meetings. It has helped me to focus, synthesize and recall important points from the learning. I love it!

When did you start sketch-noting and why? (I love how you turned my post, 25 Big Thoughts For Your Small Business, into a sketchnote, it’s awesome!) 

I started sketchnoting last spring because a colleague suggested I try it. I find that when we have technology in front of us it is easy to try to multitask – respond to an email or text, update a document, etc. When I sketchnote, my computer is closed. I attend to the task and learning and it helps me to have a deeper understanding and make connections with different concepts. I have done some research on it and have found significant evidence that it is an effective way to learn. I have encouraged my students in my principal’s course to try and many of them love it. Some people use notebooks as I do and others may draw on their iPad or with Google Draw. Everyone finds what works for them. When I post my sketchnotes on Twitter for the people who have presented, they love it and ask for a  HD scanned copy so I send it to them and they have used them in subsequent presentations which I think is really cool. It has also helped me connect with new educators and build my PLN (Personal Learning Network) which is also wonderful. It is so important to seek influence both within and outside of your organization and the has been one way I have been able to do it.

What made you blog in the first place?

I actually wrote about this in my last blog.  I used to communicate all the time about my beliefs, wonderings, and challenges in my weekly memo to my staff, in staff meetings, through professional dialogue, network learning, and with students and their families. Moving to a system position, I really didn’t have the opportunity to do this anymore. My focus, understandably so, is to tow the party line. I would describe it as a compulsion – I have this need to share my thinking. The blog seemed like a good place to do so. My family, friends, and colleagues have been incredibly supportive of my work that has encouraged me to continue. (yes, please keep sharing!)

Do you write your blog weekly? Regularly?

When I started it was pretty much every weekend, but when I started I also promised myself that I would never write because I had to write, but because I had something worthwhile to say. I wait for inspiration. Sometimes it is a story that my children tell me, sometimes it’s a friend struggling with the school system, sometimes it’s a personal struggle – but always, when I write, it is authentic and something important to me. I have learned that it is important to write for myself and when I do that, it resonates more with others.

Do you think teachers can give a mark in art class? How?

Not sure. There is a great project that People for Education are doing right now called “Measuring What Matters“. One of the domains is “Creativity and Innovation” and they are working to develop competencies within each of the domains that looks at assessment and evaluation very differently. I find the prospect of this very exciting. Within our own Arts curriculum in Ontario we use the creative process to guide arts education. This is a great way to consider how students are using creativity as the arts should be more about process than product.

How did you come to illustrate a children’s book?

Frankie and BJ are Milo’s daddies. Frankie and I have been friends since we were 10 and 11 years old and have remained close friends since then. When they told me that they wanted to write a children’s book about Milo and surrogacy I said I would help them write it. I have written other children’s books for my classroom as a teacher and love storytelling. I have also published academic articles and chapters before so writing has always been something I loved. At the same time, just as I started my blog, I had also started drawing regularly and Frankie and BJ asked if I would consider illustrating the book once we had already developed the manuscript. I drew a couple of pictures, the one where they are holding hands at their wedding and the one of Milo wrapped in the rainbow blanket and they liked them so on I went. I did a lot of research for the images looking through their family’s Facebook pages, reviewing images online and tried to build images that were inclusive and representative of many different cultures and experiences. I have always believed that if you stand for one form of inclusivity, you must stand for all forms.  (YES! I love the story, the book, the illustrations, and the lesson that love is love and includes all – Milo’s Adventures is on my “favourite books for kids” list!)

How important is storytelling and imagination for young children?

It is vital. I believe as parents and educators it is our job, beyond health and safety or our children, to nurture their imagination, passion and gifts. All children have gifts. The storytelling is an interesting one. One of the things I love most about my family is the stories we tell. My grandmother used to start every story with, “You know the story…” and the retell the stories she had told us many times before but we never tired of them. We loved hearing them over and over and over again. There was one story about how my great grandfather chopped up the dining room table for firewood that was told to tell us how strong he was physically and with decision making as well. There was another story about how my uncle got a staple under his fingernail and that was the story she told to warn us to be cautious.  Each story helped us to develop a mythology about our family and our history. Interestingly, my husband, who is the child of a Holocaust survivor, did not grow up with many stories. There were a few but mostly they just stayed in the moment since so much of their history was taken from them. There are huge blanks for my husband in his family history and he spends many hours trying to reconstruct his family tree and find documents online to indicate something so he can piece together his own story. I love that he does this for our children.

As a teacher, I always supported my students in knowing their stories and the importance of them. My masters thesis was focused on supporting refugee students and their own stories. It was an amazing experience and recently, one of the students I wrote about (now in his 30s) reached out to me on Facebook and told me that I was his favourite teacher and his parents still talk about me. It was so cool. Another year, at a different school, I was involved in a project with a First Nations consultant. She took our family of schools through a process of learning about First Nations, Metis and Inuit cultures and taught us about the importance of family stories, the role of Elders and oral traditions.

For me, whether in my family, a teacher, as a school leader or a system leader, storytelling is what connects us to one another. When I share something of myself, then others share back to me and through this process of sharing we come to know ourselves, others and the world a whole lot better. It reduces stigma, racism, stereotyping, fear and hatred. To truly know another person is to know oneself.

Do people ask enough questions? Who has the answers?

I always think it is more important to ask questions than it is to have answers. Once you get an answer, it should lead you to a more complex question. To me, a person who can think of something in multiple ways and from diverse perspectives, is more knowledgeable. If we think we have an absolute answer, we probably haven’t looked deeply enough. As far as who has the answers, well, I think everyone does, from their unique perspective. You just have to be willing to listen to their responses. (brilliant, applicable in all we do – thank you!)

If you could change one thing about our education system, what would it be?

I think people should listen more and talk less. If we truly listened to our students, we would better know how to serve them. If we listened to our teachers, we would better know how to support and enable them. If we listened better to our parents, we would be better at building partnerships working towards the pursuit of excellence for every learner.

Finish this sentence: If at first you don’t succeed…

…you probably are mistaken.

There is learning in every experience. Change your attitude about your presumed outcome and simply ask yourself, what did I learn from this experience?


For more information visit debbiedonsky.com, and connect with her socially on InstagramTwitter and LinkedIn.