Inside the mind of a great teacher and administrator: An Interview with Debbie Elder

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Have you ever wondered what goes on in the mind of an administrator?  Have you ever thought about ways your administrator could support you better?  In this article, I talk to the very successful Debbie Elder, owner of Shady Oak Primary School.  During the interview, we discuss the challenges facing teachers today, how to engage gifted students, an app to make your life easier and much more.  Interested?  Keep reading.

Debbie Elder

To say that Debbie Elder is an educator is somewhat of an understatement.  She has taught students, teachers, and parents.  In fact, I could write an entire article on just her accomplishments. If you’re interested in a more detailed account of all her amazing endeavors, I’ll point you in the right direction a little later.

Let’s cover some of the really interesting tidbits, shall we?  First, Debbie is from Canada where she graduated from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.  This is where things get interesting.  Debbie’s first  job out of college was as a police officer on the Ottawa City Police Force.  If that wasn’t impressive enough, later she would serve as a youth worker where she worked with young males between the ages of 12 and 18 who have committed serious crimes.  But wait there’s more.  Debbie was voted Therapeutic Foster Parent of the Year in 1993 when she opened her home to troubled teens.

When it comes to understanding troubled youth, you’d be hard-pressed to find a teacher in our educational system with a better-suited background.

As amazing as all that is, it pales in comparison to what she’s accomplished since then.  Debbie has traveled the country training teachers in behavior management techniques. She owns Shady Oak Primary School.  She set up 14 schools (which she no longer runs) when she ran a school for middle and high school students in her home.   She also owns an after school franchise called Set them Up for Success.  To top it all off, she is a best-selling author of two books.

I’ll stop here with my “She’s so awesome” rant, but she is awesome!

Given Debbie’s experience with youth, it would be easy to assume she’s never had any difficulties in the classroom.  After all, not everyone enters their classroom with a law enforcement background, except for a superhero or two maybe.  Just like you, however, Debbie has had her struggles.

My first question was along these lines.  I asked Debbie to tell us about a tough moment in her teaching career.  One that would help define her as an educator.



My biggest struggle teaching happened early in my career in Calgary, Alberta Canada. I was working with a group of high school students and I made a request of one of the students and he refused, in front of the entire class. My reaction was so totally wrong. I jumped in head first to a power struggle that played out in front of the entire class. Let’s just say it was not pretty and definitely not one of my finest moments. But what I took away from this experience has shaped my in-class behavior, and continues to, each and every day. I realized that day that I can’t make anyone do what they don’t want to do. Heck, even small babies will spit their strained peas back at you if they don’t want to eat them!

Many times, what hurts makes us better.
Many times, what hurts makes us better.

After careful reflection, some research and asking others in my profession I came to the decision to never again ask a student to do something. Instead I now talk about what I am going to do, because ‘Debbie’ is the only person I can truly control, and even she can be difficult at times. Since practicing this approach I have much more cooperation from my students and our class time together is smooth and enjoyable. Like most teachers I use Rubrics to grade activities and projects. Before the student is even given the details of the assignment I discuss with them how I am going to grade their work. I am clear in my expectations and they are given an opportunity to ask questions prior to signing that they have read the rubric for the project and understand exactly what is expected.

The result is each student is empowered to earn the best score they can, but they are doing it for themselves, not to please me. I in turn, get to walk alongside them and encourage great work as their facilitator, not the classroom Dictator. This approach is so helpful in so many day to day interactions, for example when I dismiss my elementary students to use the restroom, I let them know when I will begin teaching again. Instead of demanding when they will return, since – again – I can’t control them! If they arrive late, they know the drill, they need to get the missed information at the next break which usually interferes with their recess time. But, it is their choice, there is no emotion involved on my part and students quickly fall in line and transitions improve tremendously.


Ms. Elder you have the unique experience of having seen our educational system from distinctly different vantage points.  You’re a mom, so you’ve seen things from that perspective.  You’re also a former preschool teacher, as well as having home-schooled your Daughters.  To top it off you’re also the owner of Shady Oak Primary School.

What do you think are the three largest challenges facing teachers today?

Teachers face several challenges. At Shady Oak Primary school we have alleviated several challenges that public school teachers face simply because of our size. We service 40 area students so our administrative needs are simplified and non-evasive.

The top three challenges our teachers face are catering to the different range of abilities,
accomplishing all that you set out to teach daily/weekly, having time to yourself during the day to plan, to grade and to meet with students individually.

Student Engagement

Amongst the EduCraft twitter followers, which are made up of educators, administrators, and education advocates, the most popular post of all time (a reach 68,000 people) was on how to keep gifted students engaged and learning.  I’m aware that your background with after school programs as well as the teaching philosophy of Shady Oak Primary are heavily predicated on the individual learner.  

What strategies have you employed or seen employed for keeping gifted students engaged?

Student engagement is highly valued at Shady Oak Primary School and Set them Up For Success. Our approach has been to involve the students at every step of the implementation process.

When we value our students enough to involve them they always respond with enthusiasm and clarity.

They are ‘on point’ with what we are trying to accomplish and by leading the students to own their learning they inevitably also own their behavior. Our approach is the same for all of our students, gifted and talented or not.

We have introduced ‘voting stones’ which give our kiddos a very concrete way to participate in the decision-making processes at school. One example of how we used the stones was when we were setting our classroom schedule. Students were given the opportunity to determine if they wanted recess at 10 or 10:30 am. If we taught math first recess was at 10 am. However, if we lead with ELA recess would be at 10:30. The students voted and recess first semester was a 10 am. After the Christmas break we offered another opportunity for the students to revisit their decision and they voted to reverse the morning order and take recess at 10:30 am.

Empowered students can show great maturity.
Empowered students can show great maturity.

After three weeks of the new schedule a second grader approached her teacher and stated that she was often too hungry to wait until 10:30 for her snack and if possible could they reverse their decision and return to their previous schedule?  Her teacher responded by telling her she would need to facilitate a referendum. She was instructed to get 2/3’s of the class’s signatures indicating that they were willing to go to a revote. She prepared her form and proceeded to acquire the necessary names on her list. Once she had what she needed they scheduled another vote. When the numbers were tallied it was evident that her classmates shared her sentiments and the original schedule was reinstated.

When I reflected on this process I was struck by the power this young second grader was able to step into. She discerned a problem, inquired about a solution and then took action – how magical is that! This opportunity will stay with her forever and she now has permission to stand up and challenge processes that don’t serve her, and all the other students who took part in this process gleaned the same message; change is always possible!

We concentrate on their strengths and compensate for their learning weaknesses.

This is done with empathy and consideration for their social needs. Rarely do you meet a student who is on grade level in every subject.

Typically they are at or above in some areas and below grade level in others. We appreciate this and are committed to meeting our students where they are. We have several different curriculums to drawn upon and work diligently to find a learning strategy that best fits each child. It is not uncommon for students to weave their day in and out of various classrooms as they continue on their educational pursuit to be challenged and highly engaged learners. We celebrate their successes often and work as a team to alleviate their learning differences.


Your school seems to be uniquely designed to both empower your kids, as well as adapt to the many things that make them special and individual.  Many of our readers do not necessarily have the support from administration to create a holistic system like Shady Oak’s.  Since you no doubt were instrumental if not solely responsible for the systems you have in place, what would you suggest for a teacher who wants to accomplish what you have, but for a single classroom.

Great question! I started this approach in my own classroom when I taught preschool, I used it again when I home-schooled my daughters from 3rd grade to college, in my middle and high schools and now in my elementary school. The tools and techniques are ageless and very adaptable. Teachers can implement one or all of these in their classrooms; all it takes is a strong desire and commitment to take their teaching to the next level. I have coached several teachers in these methods and I am willing to work with your readers as well.


Teacher Well-being

One of EduCraft’s primary goals is to remove the obstacles that make teaching harder than it needs to be.  What we’ve found is that teachers often feel overwhelmed with the multitude of responsibilities they have, both at home and at work.

What strategies do your school and/or teachers at school use to keep their responsibilities and workload manageable (e.g. learning management systems, teacher mentor programs etc) .

Great question! We use the Remind App to communicate with our parents. This helps to keep them in the loop on what we are covering in the classroom and how they can participate at home. We also send out a weekly newsletter and maintain an active website and Facebook page. Parent communication, when done correctly, removes so many obstacles for teacher success. By being proactive we have avoided several time-consuming incidences.

The Remind app  sounds like a good solution for keeping teachers connected with students and parents.  Do you know the approximate parent engagement percentage (how many communicate with the school using any of your chosen methods) across your school?

We have total parent engagement. We set it up as the ‘go to’ for daily homework, updates, and information that comes from their child’s teachers.

Managing teacher workload is a necessity.
Managing teacher workload is a necessity.

Our teachers are given, in addition to regular holidays, one personal day each semester. This gift of time helps to keep our staff upbeat, present and engaged in the learning process. We are big proponents for renewal and replenishing energy daily. We purposely avoid burn out by being very proactive. We devote regular time at each monthly staff meeting to discussion and implementation strategies that promote self-care.

We practice active recognitions and are constantly calling out the greatness in our teaching staff. We highlight what they are doing right and do not energize any negative behavior. Expectations are crystal clear allowing the teachers to navigate their path with intention and purpose. Every Tuesday, we bring in a yoga teacher who instructs the staff in meditation and additional self-care strategies.

In addition, teachers are given time after each staff meeting to prepare and coordinate the next month’s lesson plans. This gift of time allows our teachers to enjoy their weekends with their families and become revitalized for the upcoming week.


Many of the teachers out there reading this are probably thinking “Yoga sounds great by my administrator would never pay for that.”  As an administrator yourself, can you talk a little bit about the return on investment (ROI) conversation you must have had, either with yourself or your staff to justify the time and monetary investment?

Teachers and others in the helping profession often take care of the needs of others at the expense of themselves. I need my teachers ‘on top of their game’ and ready to fill the needs of their students and fellow staff members. In order to do this, you must be purposeful about your approach. I am a big believer in ‘walking the talk’. We often discuss self-care at our staff meetings; I listen and implement! I also lead by example and my staff is able to watch what I do and see that it aligns with what I am asking of them.


How do you think a teacher should approach getting their administrative staff to embrace wellness the way you have?

There are several studies that support this approach. Taking care of my staff is really like protecting the Golden Goose, without them I have nothing! I also encourage the teachers to be modelling this behavior for their students, it is a big part of our culture here at Shady Oak Primary. We have very little turnover and very few sick days are taken. My staff are upbeat and delightful to be around, to me that is priceless!

There you have it.  Wise words from a very successful educator.  If you’d like to find out more about Debbie Elder you can follow her on twitter through @DebbieStufs.  If you’re interested in her Set Them Up for Success after school program you can find that here.


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