I don’t know that I’ve ever met Debbie Donsky in real life. Maybe she knows? However, I most certainly follow her on social media and feel like I’ve become so much wiser after these interactions. I was so pleased that she agreed to this interview.
This photo was taken at the front of my school by the butterfly garden the Kindergarten classes created after hatching caterpillars. The photo was taken by my instructional coach, Mirjan Krstovic.
From her Twitter Bio, Debbie describes herself this way – School Effectiveness Lead @PeelSchools, @TEDx, Assoc. Editor Word & Deed Publishers, she/her/hers, writer, creator, mommy, teacher, leader, learner of all things
Doug: My first question, as always, Debbie is this – Do you remember when we first crossed paths?
Debbie: Did we meet at a York Region event? I feel like you stopped and said hello to me at the Sheraton Parkway. Other than that, I think it is just online.
Doug: Gulp! I guess the memory may be one of the first things to go for me!
One of my favourite posts from your blogs is “You aren’t what I was expecting”. It begs the question – “What should I expect if/when I get a chance to meet Debbie Donsky?” https://debbiedonsky.com/you-arent-what-i-was-expecting/
Debbie: I think that what motivated me to write this piece were the assumptions people made about me. Joining a new board where I didn’t know anyone personally was challenging. I had done it before. When I began my career I was an LTO for a number of years so I moved around a lot in those first few years not only schools but boards and then those boards amalgamated into TDSB. I started fresh in York Region as a VP and now, I have joined PDSB awaiting placement on their senior team. When I joined the board, I was told by many that my reputation preceded me in the sense that people had heard I had my doctorate, was at the Ministry of Education and that I was shortlisted in the superintendent pool. I believe their assumptions were based on all of this–my qualifications and experiences rather than me as a person. In addition, having read my blogs and been aware of my involvement in social media, many people I met felt that they already knew all about me. I was even told by someone that they had heard that I prefer to be called, “The Doctor”! The students do call my Dr Donsky but THE doctor?
When people got to know me they would often say that I wasn’t what they expected. So I am not 100% what that means to each person who said it but what I do know, having spoken to a few people who have said that, is that they expected me to be arrogant, intimidating and condescending. I am none of those things. So ultimately, what should people expect? They should expect someone who is absolutely passionate about working with children and families, education in general, social justice and equity, learning, supporting my staff, not taking myself too seriously, having a great sense of humour, practicing gratitude and most importantly, my family. What I hope is that people will withhold judgement until they have actually had an opportunity to meet me, speak with me and laugh with me.
Doug: I’m a real fan of your blog and the wide variety of education related topics that you touch on. What’s your inspiration for writing and sharing?
Debbie: The inspiration comes from my own experiences, ideas I am grappling with, conversations I have had with colleagues, parents, students, professional learning opportunities – essentially, new learning I am doing.
Doug: Awesome answer. The real message is never stop learning. I know that I value the thoughts and ideas that you share via your blog.
Unlike many bloggers who express opinions, your posts typically are backed with real research and original references. You’re telling me (and others) that you’re well read. How do you decide what to read?
Debbie: I have a few friends whose recommendations I always take but I have always been an avid reader since I was a child. I used to take pride in alphabetizing my books on my bookshelf in my room. Now I colour code them because I always remember colour. I honestly have a book addiction and it is so out of control. I used to have 3-4 books that were next on the list and now I have about 20 waiting for me to read. The problem is that reading sends you to more reading so if I read a book and there is a reference to another book, I want to read that book. A friend told me that I should look up if there are podcasts that interview the authors so I won’t have to read the whole book but I don’t find that works for me. When I drive to and from work, I listen to Audible. I have ebooks and real books.
Doug: On your website, you interview yourself and I was particularly interested in what inspired your doctorate. https://debbiedonsky.com/interview-with-debbie/ How are you able to apply this in your school work?
Debbie: Essentially my doctoral work is about how power plays out in schools. The focus of my research was Critical Knowledge Building whereby I took the principles of Anti-Racism Education from George Dei, Pedagogy of the Oppressed from Paolo Friere and Knowledge Building from Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter and wrapped them all up in a bow. I wrote about how online spaces open new possibilities for democratic social justice because voice is amplified differently. This is pre-social media! This is something I use all the time in my practice in the school. I look at participation patterns, voice – who is amplified and who is silenced and what is my role in it and ultimately, how do I infuse anti racism and critical pedagogy into all of my work. There is also a component of whose knowledge counts. The work in the thesis looked at indigenous knowledges and how we value some knowledge over others as a process of colonization in the classroom. I write about the importance of personal narrative, indigenous knowledges, and the role of family in developing our own story. The last chapter of my thesis is an autoethnography which is essentially a study of myself! I would say it is very similar to the way I write my blogs–they are informed through personal experiences, research and practical application of both spaces of learning where one is not more important than the other.
Doug: Now, that is interesting. “Pre-social media” seems so long ago now and yet the same concepts would apply today, with more importance.
Come September, you take on a new position with Peel Schools – School Effectiveness Lead – what does this entail? In a district as big as Peel, how will you make sure you’re successful and effective?
Debbie: Well that is a question! I don’t officially begin in this position until the last week of August though I have had a transition meeting with the outgoing team. I know that school success planning, mathematics and culturally responsive literature all fall under my role. I will work with the leadership team in curriculum, principals and vice-principals in the system, as well as the math team to ensure success. I am so appreciative that I had one glorious year in a school before moving back to system level work because I don’t believe we can support schools if we have not worked in them and PDSB is so vastly different from YRDSB so there was a lot for me to learn. I think the best way to determine success and effectiveness is to seek feedback, listen and respond. This can only be done when you develop relationships with those you are seeking feedback from so as always, with each move, I will focus on the relationships.
Doug: I trust that you will use social media as part of this job and to do active inquiry. Can you name places you plan to look for inspiration as you plan for this job change?
Debbie: It is hard to name it before it happens but I assume, as always, it will be through the people I connect with, the learning I do and the challenges I face in my new role.
Doug: You’re quite a communicator with Sketchnotes. How do you feel they fit into your professional life? Are they for everyone?
Debbie: For me, it is a way to focus while in learning sessions. A friend of mine suggested it several years ago and I have not stopped. I promised myself when I finally get promoted I will buy myself an iPad Pro with a pen so I can try to do them digitally. Until then, it is Moleskin and fineline markers. I don’t know if it is for everyone but it works for me. I used to do sessions with classes in my former board and the experience that blew me away the most was a group of students with learning disabilities. I didn’t know them but their teacher told me that several of them would never put pencil to paper and yet in my session they could not stop. They had so much to share when they had the freedom to use images and words. It was astounding. Many people get overwhelmed looking at the sketchnotes that people make who are experienced but I think it is important, if you are interested, to just keep at it. Brené Brown says that “comparison kills creativity and joy”. We need to stop comparing and just do. Like anything, it takes practice and a commitment to learn and challenge oneself. I love looking at the different ways in which people use sketchnotes and develop their own style.
Doug: I’m guilty of being the opposite. I tried Sketchnoting with the end in mind and was frustrated when it wasn’t a piece of art. I love the story about the students.
Your Twitter profile shows a nice collection of Twitter lists. How do you use these lists in your online work?
Debbie: To be honest, I don’t. I think people have added me to their lists. I don’t use them.
Doug: Since you’re a TEDx speaker, you obviously don’t have an aversion to public speaking. What topics are you passionate about?
Debbie: Storytelling. It is so important to tell your story, authentically. Years ago I remember watching JayZ on Oprah’s Masterclass and he talked about learning from failure more than success. He was sharing about his first hit album and that after that he tried to recreate another album so that his fans would like it. He quickly learned that the creative process is not about anyone but yourself. When you create something from your authentic self, your story, it will resonate with others. When I listen to someone open their heart and soul to me, then I am passionate about it.
Doug: Are you available to speak at conferences or other professional learning events?
Debbie: Yes and I have. This year I was invited to do two keynotes – one for Simcoe County DSB and one for ETFO AQ. Both were quite an honour. I have also done many workshops over the years on a variety of topics.
Doug: Thank you so much for the interview, Debbie. It’s appreciated and I’m sure that our readers appreciate it as well. Where can you be found on social media for anyone who wants to follow and learn from you?
Debbie: My website is https://debbiedonsky.com/, my Twitter handle is @DebbieDonsky and my Instragram is @debdonsky and I use that for my art mostly.