Meet Hamilton Public School Board’s First Female Director of Education
New school year, new Director of Education at the Hamilton Public Council.
Sheryl Robinson Petrazzini, who comes to the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) with years of experience in the public school system and a “passion” for education, started the new role Aug. 17. director.
“I’m thrilled with this opportunity,” she said. “I’m gathering a lot of information…and looking to the future to see what a new vision might be.”
The Spectator sat down with Robinson Petrazzini days into her tenure to discuss her 30-year career, recovering from the pandemic and her first encounter with snow as a newcomer to Canada a while ago decades.
Responses have been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Tell us about yourself.
A: I have been an educator for 32 years. I started my career in Winnipeg as a teacher and taught there for three years before moving to the Toronto area to teach in the York and Scarborough school boards. I have experience teaching K-12 and have taught French Immersion and English.
I then served as a principal for 10 years, as well as a central principal responsible for school improvement, equity, and principal mentoring. I also had responsibilities in different areas of the curriculum, such as English Literacy and Early Childhood. Most recently, I was Superintendent at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), as well as Executive Superintendent, where I was responsible for approximately 136 schools.
I was born in Jamaica and immigrated to Canada when I was eight years old. Another very important part of my identity, of course, is being a wife and a mother. I have two grown daughters, one is in Ottawa and the other, coincidentally, is actually in Hamilton. When we found out there was a manager position in Hamilton, we joked among ourselves, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if…’. It’s no longer fun for her because I’m here now.
Q: You speak English, French and Spanish. How did you become trilingual?
A: I am someone who learned French through basic French. I wasn’t a French immersion student, but I had amazing teachers and absolutely loved it. I ended up doing a specialization at university in French and English. When I had my own children, I decided to speak French to them at home, so they are also trilingual.
I learned Spanish thanks to my husband and his family because my husband is from Argentina.
Q: What three things have you learned as a teacher that you have taken with you into leadership roles?
A: No. 1, whatever your role, we must put students at the center and remember that everything we do is to support student learning, achievement and well-being.
The second thing is the importance and power of relationships. Building relationships with students, with staff, with the community is what gets us through the good times, it’s what gets us through the tough times. We want our schools to be places where everyone, students and staff, can bring their authenticity.
The third thing is the power of public education. Throughout my career, I have worked with such diverse learners. Students come with such varying strengths and needs, and really take the time to learn who the people in front of you are so you can best meet their needs. We also need to think about our people’s strengths, needs and how best to support them.
Q: What is a memorable moment in your career and why does it stand out?
A: I’ll go back really far to 1993 when I left Winnipeg. All the students in the school from grades 7 to 9 circled around me and sang, “Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson. I went to the ugly cry. I will always remember that.
Q: What achievement are you proud of in your last job as Executive Superintendent of the TDSB?
A: I remember a very tragic incident involving the death of a student and being able to support the superintendent, make more than one personal visit with the family and be next to the mother who had lost her child and holding her hand, without needing to say anything but simply expressing that the school board was behind the family. I take pride in the fact that I really do my best to support others.
Q: What lessons have you learned as an educator during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how will you use them in the future?
A: We learned a lesson about our strength, our endurance, our flexibility, our adaptability. We learned the importance of teaching and learning with technology, but we also learned the importance of these human connections and that these tools of teaching with technology are really important in moving the program forward and program expectations, but at the heart of education is relationships.
Additionally, the importance of focusing on mental health and well-being while continuing to help students achieve the outcomes outlined in the program. It’s neither. We’ve always known this as educators, but the pandemic has obviously forced us to be more intentional and explicit about the supports we provide to students and families.
Q: What are some of the top tasks on your list when it comes to supporting students this fall?
A: We are focused on mental health and wellbeing, we focus on using the strengths and capacity of our people to support mental health and wellbeing, but also recovery. In our recovery, we focus on and think about student learning, but we also think about leadership. We were forced to lead in a very different way. He was responsive, he was very focused on health and safety. But we’re really trying to move to a place where we really focus on learning.
Q: Your biography emphasizes a “commitment to Indigenous rights, equity and inclusion”. Tell us about how you plan to elevate marginalized groups on the public board?
A: This is one of my passions as an educator. As a racialized person, I have experienced exclusion and racism and so I have had this experience. I personally recognize that the indigenous peoples are the first peoples of this land.
We know that September 30 is the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. It’s wonderful that we talk about it and have posters and pins and all those things, but we also have to find ways to make sure that the spaces we create demonstrate that commitment and that we move from performance to performance. real integration of Aboriginal education in the curriculum and in the culture of schools.
Q: Tell us about your start at school as a newcomer to Canada.
A: I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the movie “Cool Runnings”, but I literally had this experience. I came from Jamaica to Winnipeg in December. I was so excited because there was so much snow and I wanted to touch it. It was the first time I saw snow. I ran through the airport gates and ran back. It was so cold. It was my first experience in Canada.
Being in school was different because of the language. English is the official language of Jamaica, but I also grew up in the country and we spoke patois. It was a different experience than someone who grew up in the city. I remember this feeling of not being quite in my place. I remember how it felt. And it’s also something that has pushed me as an educator to really discover the experiences of your students. What did they come with and what were their experiences before coming to see us?