An Interview with Sue Dunlop

SueDunlopSue Dunlop is a Superintendent of Education with the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board and very active on Social Media.  Recently, she took time away from all of this to take part in this interview. I’m happy that we’re able to get a little deeper look at her.

Doug:  My first question is always the same – do you recall when our paths first crossed?

Sue: First let me thank you for this opportunity! It’s an honour to be asked to have an interview with Doug Peterson!!

I became aware of the work you do on behalf of the Ontario digital education community about 7 years ago. I followed you on Twitter, investigated your Ontario bloggers list and added my name.  Since then, you’ve been very kind in continuing to visit my blog and give shout outs on Twitter and in your weekly Ontario Edubloggers post. I keep hoping to actually meet you in person, but we’ve never managed to do it! I attended the Bring It Together conference a couple of times but somehow we didn’t make it happen.

Doug:  I’m sorry that we didn’t connect there.  We need to make a point of it some time. 

You certainly have affected my online learning.  You’re in one of my first Ontario Educator lists and your blog is one that I visit regularly.

Sue: That is very flattering! As you know, when you write a blog, you never really know who’s reading and if there’s any impact. While I write for myself, the act of publishing means that I am interested in others reading my thinking and responding to it. Whenever you have commented or highlighted a post in your weekly round up, it gives me a little frisson of happiness, sort of like Sally Field! (that’s a reference for those of us over 50…)

Doug:  That’s pretty much the essence of being a blogger!

Why would someone in a leadership position such as yours want to be so visible on Social Media?

Sue: Early on in my use of social media, and particularly Twitter, I came across the phrase “flatten the walls of the classroom”. The idea of opening things up so others could see inside was interesting and exciting, since for so many years, education had been a closed door enterprise. As a principal and now as a superintendent, I want to give others a view into my thinking. Education is very hierarchical, and those in formal leadership positions are often seen as two dimensional, or as “the boss”. I want people to see that I am a human as they are; I learn, make mistakes, and struggle every day.  I believe showing vulnerability and humility is a key leadership trait to strive for.

Doug: Could you ever be “too” visible and easily accessible?  You recently blogged about extending it.  

Sue: I’m mindful of what I say and share on digital platforms. I’ve found that people are generally respectful and kind. Sometimes I get called out on Twitter which is a bit disconcerting but ok. If someone wants to speak with me, I’ll engage face to face or by phone. Twitter is no place to have a real conversation.

That said, as a leader, I need people around me who are willing to tell the truth, who will dissent and who will give me honest feedback about the good, the bad and the ugly. As John Hattie says: ”Know Thy Impact”.

Doug:  I’ve never received an email from you!  I’ll take that as a good sign.  Do you sign your messages with your Twitter handle and URL to your website?  Why or why not?

Sue: Twitter no, URL yes. This is a tricky decision as I balance my work responsibilities vs. personal perspectives. I feel as if my blog is a more well rounded picture of me. People can always find me in Twitter if they want to.

Doug:  I’ve read many a Sue Dunlop post since I’ve discovered your blog.  I’m still impressed with the post Riding Around Town.  In the post, you talk about using a bicycle to get from HWDSB school to HWDSB school.  Do you still do this?

Sue: It’s super fun! I do it when I can in the fall or the spring. It is a challenge, as I supervise 20+ schools in downtown Hamilton and Waterdown so planning a route is essential. We also have the Niagara escarpment that runs through the city which is a challenging ride up!

Hamilton has an amazing bike share program (SoBi) which I subscribe to. So convenient and a great way to navigate the city.

Doug:  I would imagine finding a doable trail to get up that escarpment is important!  You’d hate Essex County – we’re flat everywhere.

When I went to school, the major form of transportation for we town kids was bicycle.  The school had bike racks when we could park during school hours. And, I might add, I never owned a lock and chain until I went to university.  My kids’ schools never had them so they never had the enjoyment of biking to school; are they a part of the Hamilton-Wentworth infrastructure?  It seems like a good idea with a focus on healthy activities.

Sue: You’ve asked a question after my own heart. Part of my work portfolio is Active and Safe School Travel which is all about encouraging students to walk, cycle or roll to school. We do have bike racks at most schools – but there often aren’t enough. If we could convince parents to stop driving their kids to school, we would increase physical activity and reduce congestion and pollution at school sites. It’s an issue across the province that many people are working on.

Doug:  Recently, my wife and I went house hunting with my son in Hamilton.  We were astounded at the pricing of houses, but they are certainly more reasonable than Toronto. Has this had an impact on enrolment or enrolment patterns in your district?

Sue: Hamilton is a great place to live with tons of trails, a large urban forest and vibrant culture. Its proximity to Toronto with more affordable housing prices has made it quite attractive. We haven’t yet seen a huge increase in enrolment but we are definitely holding steady. We are also a centre for newcomers to Canada which enriches our city and board culture.

Doug:  Your portfolio includes Student Achievement.  Do you see a use for Social Media in achieving increased student performance?

Sue: Such an Interesting question. Digital literacy is an essential skill for all of us and we have to teach it to our students, including use of social media. I believe there is potential for it to help increase achievement, but there’s very little research or evidence to back that up. I also worry that the lack of attention (thinking about the work of Howard Rheingold in Netsmart) inherent in social media is hurting our and students’ ability to focus and think deeply. Maybe someone smarter than me can figure out how social media might actually improve achievement. And, how might we measure that?

Doug:  As you visit schools, I’m sure you’re like every superintendent that I’ve ever known and you see everything during these visits.  What would you consider the most over-hyped piece of technology or software?

Sue: I question the use of interactive whiteboards. While there is potential for interesting applications, almost all the ones I see are used as a fancy chalkboard. I think the cost could be put to better use in other forms of hardware.

Doug:  Related to that, what do you see as the best piece of technology or software?

Sue: Seems obvious, but the internet is the best software. It’s changed everything and engendered so many other applications. In addition, the ability to collaborate online is really important. It comes back to flattening the walls of the classroom.

Doug:  Could you describe an exemplary use of internet technology in the classroom?

Sue: The best use of tech is when it is embedded in the learning and creating that students do. Recently a grade 6 class at one of the schools I work with investigated the use and impact of plastic straws. It rose from class interest, and they went all over the world digitally to find out more and create their responses. They eventually presented to Hamilton City Council with a call to action. So Doug, ditch the use of plastic straws if you haven’t already!

Doug:  Around here, we don’t use them and haven’t for a long drive.  We’re both big coffee drinkers and take them black so none of those stir sticks for us either.  But there are the lids.  With the increasing awareness of the problem, it’s very hard not to notice how plastic is everywhere.  Kudos for that Grade 6 class and their curiosity.

You do have some extremely interesting and insightful posts on your own blog.  Where do you get the inspiration?

Sue: Thank you so much! I am very fortunate to work with really interesting and smart people. Their words and thoughts give lots of ideas. I try to write down them down as I go. Then I go back to flesh them out sometime later. My most recent post is an example of one that I started several months ago. It came together after some deeper reflection.  

Doug:  Thank you for the time and insights.  I really appreciated learning more about you personally and gaining an insight to your leadership philosophies.  I wish you all the best pushing for more biking to schools in your district.  That would be a wonderful accomplishment.

Sue Dunlop is very active on social media.  Do yourself a favour and follow her.

Periodically, I interview interesting people like Sue for this blog.  You can check out all of the interviews here.

Author: dougpete

The content of this blog is generated by whatever strikes my fancy at any given point. It might be computers, weather, political, or something else in nature. I experiment and comment a lot on things so don't take anything here too seriously; I might change my mind a day later but what you read is my thought and opinion at the time I wrote it! My personal website is at: http://www.dougpeterson.ca Follow me on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/dougpete I'm bookmarking things at: http://www.diigo.com/user/dougpete