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Creativity, drive, mentorship: Why Dr. Barbara Smith is having a deep educational impact

January 14, 2021

By Perry King

Photo of Barbara Smith

When asked to describe who she is and how she approaches her work at the Giles School, Dr. Barbara Smith began with one descriptor.

“I think one word is creative. I try to be creative in curriculum design and problem solving,” said Smith, the principal of the Toronto-based independent French immersion school.

“Creative, because I believe there's enough things that aren't working that could be great. And to do them the same old way, or to try and just polish them a little bit, doesn't really get to solving  much deeper issues in society.”

It is this ethos, and the drive to make it happen, that has seen Dr. Smith lead and create thoughtful and engaging learning experiences for children and families alike for decades. An alumna of OISE who earned her PhD in 1996, Smith has built a wealth of experience in teaching and leadership in public, independent, charter and international schools in Canada, the United States and worldwide. Smith also taught at OISE, McGill and the University of Saskatchewan.

That drive has resulted in Dr. Smith helping to open three independent schools in Canada and the United States, “each with a distinct niche,” she says. She also sits on the Board of Directors for the Ontario ASCD (the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) and has presented at over 100 conferences throughout her 40-plus years as an educator.

“By rubbing up against other passionate educators at such events, I am able to learn firsthand, how others are grappling with challenges and how they are creatively making a difference in the lives of their students, staff and greater school community,” said Dr. Smith, who is also a graduate of the University of Saskatchewan, where she earned her Masters of Education.

She has also worked on accreditation teams for CAIS (Canadian Accredited Independent Schools) and Advanced Education in the US. “Working alongside other passionate educators to acknowledge the strength in schools and recommend suggestions for helping schools with next steps has been incredibly rewarding,” says Dr. Smith.

“I learn so much when I work with others on a common task. Unfortunately, there is much that needs to be improved in public, charter and independent school systems; if they can think more about the research and practice, we can all shape ideal schools.”

As principal, Dr. Smith was able to navigate a number of educational reforms and take part in designing the program and the hiring of progressively-minded teachers – fueled by growth mindsets.

“At the Giles School, we have shifted the focus from bilingualism to include language learning within a broader goal of learning language to understand culture and industry,” said Dr. Smith. “In so doing, we have added a new emphasis on STEM, as well as expanding our languages to include an exposure to the six official languages of the United Nations.

The Giles School added robotics, coding, chess, filmmaking, novel writing, debating, service learning and leadership to their program, with the aim “to help our students be ready for anything – with the skills, understandings and experiences to be influential global citizens,” said Dr. Smith.

She’s also a teaching principal at Giles, an aspect of her work that she treasures. Dr. Smith really wants to get to know her students and staff to better understand their part in the culture and how she can relate to them better.

“I hope that many exceptional young teachers would also consider me a mentor and appreciate having time to talk to and go through things with,” she said.

Mentorship has played a crucial role for her growth. One of her mentors was the late David Booth, who Smith considers her “Tuesdays with Morrie” – a relationship that helped her above and beyond her call of duty as an educator.

Many OISE faculty had a tremendous impact – late Professor Emerita Merle Walstrom, Professor Jack Miller and Professor Emeritus Gordon Wells all had a tremendous impact on her training – but Dr. Booth was a huge support to Dr. Smith; she recounted many lovely anecdotes about their time together.

“When I helped open the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a high school near Detroit’s 8-mile District, David came and presented to our staff,” she recalls. The school planning team took David to Baker’s Keyboard Lounge and he stayed right through to closing, taking in all the richness of the local artistic culture.

“When I was a principal of the William E. Doar School for the Performing Arts in Washington’s D.C.’s northeast area, David came and spoke to our kids, teachers and parents.” The following summer the School flew three of their arts teachers to the CODE Conference (Council of Ontario Drama and Dance Educators) in Huntsville, Ont. Dr. Booth made time to pick them up from the Toronto’s Pearson airport and drive them to and from event in Huntsville. “To this day, these teachers speak so fondly of David and the congenial conversations they shared during this trip,” she says.

“I still miss our monthly lunches with David at his favourite restaurant across the street from OISE.” Dr. Booth also made time to provide advice and endorse Smith’s work. He read every page of her first book, The Charter School Principal’s Story, and her latest publication due out in April 2021 – How Much Does a Great School Cost?: School Economies and School Values.

This book was dedicated to David, not only because he believed in me, but because he pushed educators to see beyond the ‘red schoolhouse’ – to design ideal schools,” she said. “We were very pleased when OISE established the David Booth Memorial Bursary and both my husband and I are happy to have contributed to this worthwhile cause. David left behind a legacy of kindness and wisdom.”

Overall, her experiences at OISE and the University of Saskatchewan helped Dr. Smith polish a fiercely focused outlook about the need for schools to establish their niche to align with “the program, the teacher talent, and the community, with a solid mission and a vision moving forward.”

“Working in independent and charter schools enabled me to implement more ideals promoted by such experts as Hargreaves, Leithwood and Fullan, as the report cards, the program, and the vision for an ideal school do not need to be limited by governmental mandates that can gravitate towards sameness,” says Dr. Smith.

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