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Denise Dwyer receives 2018 InspirED Award

OISE ‘opened my mind to a different way of thinking’ says alum and Assistant Deputy Minister of Indigenous Education and Well-being

May 28, 2018

By Kaitlyn Balkovec


Denise Dwyer

(Photo courtesy of Denise Dwyer)

Advocating for what is right is a core principle for Denise Dwyer, winner of OISE’s 2018 InspirED Award.

The honour, given annually by OISE’s Young Alumni Council, recognizes administrators and leaders who have made immense contributions to the education sector.

Dwyer, who holds the position of Assistant Deputy Minister of Indigenous Education and Well-being in Ontario, recently received the recognition at an OISE reception. She says it’s standing up for the rights and justice of others that motivates her each day.

To highlight, she describes a documentary which profoundly resonated:

In the film, Revolutionary Medicine, a woman in Honduras visits a doctor to treat her back pain. Instead of continuing to prescribe painkillers, the doctor took the time to learn why the woman’s back was so sore. When he discovered she was carrying water a long distance each day, he pushed the government for accessible clean water in her community.

“When I saw this doctor going above and beyond to really meet the basic needs of the community, I thought, ‘That’s the approach we need to take more intentionally in education,’” she said.

“Within education is an embedded, inherent component of advocacy. You know that some of your students might be hungry before you teach them, or maybe some of them need attention from you because they’re anxious. It’s important to look at the bigger picture, focusing on the well-being of students to address those wider needs,” Dwyer said.

View photos from the InspirED Awards Reception

Driven to make a meaningful impact in the lives of others, it’s no wonder the 2013 graduate of OISE’s Master’s in Adult Education program was chosen for this year’s InspirEd award.

The Mississauga, Ont., resident recently spoke with OISE News about receiving the honour, describing how her earlier years in law led to her love of education, and what motivates her today.

Read on for an exclusive interview with OISE alumna Denise Dwyer. 

Denise Dwyer and OISE Dean Glen Jones

Denise Dwyer receiving the InspirED Award from OISE Dean Glen Jones.

What does receiving this award mean to you?

I didn’t know I was being considered for this award, so receiving it was a complete surprise and it’s also very humbling at the same time. It’s an honour because those who nominated me or considered me for the award are of a younger generation and are newer in their careers. There’s something very special and touching about being seen as inspiring by a newer generation.

Secondly, receiving this award is both an honour and humbling because it recognizes me as an educator, valuing the fact that my contribution didn’t come from following a traditional educator route. It acknowledges the diversity of perspective and life experiences that others can bring to education.

This award is given to an OISE graduate who has made a positive impact in education. How has what you learned at OISE played a role in the impact you're making today?

As I said, I did not have a traditional educator role as a teacher. My first career was as a lawyer and I began as an assistant crown attorney. During that time, I did a lot of mentoring and coaching. I taught at the Ontario police college, I worked with a lot of witnesses who were doctors and teachers, and I coached high school students when they would do mock trials or mooting competitions. I realized that there seemed to be this common thread of teaching, mentoring, and coaching throughout my career.

I decided to get my Masters in Adult Education at OISE because of the teaching and learning component that has always been prominent for me. Doing the program opened my mind to a different way of thinking. It gave me a very rounded perspective and a new approach to issues that I had not been trained in as a lawyer. I became a more flexible and nimble thinker, and I think that really prepared me for my role at the Ministry of Education, which is a very policy driven role.

With my OISE degree, I began thinking about what can be done to prevent kids from entering the criminal justice system in the first place. I was trained as a lawyer, I was trained to advocate in court but I wasn’t necessarily given an increased learning on Indigenous populations, or critical race theory, or social determinants to crime.

Some of this thinking began to happen for me in a way that I was understanding the importance of education and how adults learn. Working in the criminal justice system, the tools are very blunt. I learned to use tools in a different way, to consider the importance of perspective, and connect the fact that education really is social justice work.

What inspires or motivates you most in your work every day?

One thing I’m motivated by is the passionate people that are dedicated to education. You have people that are educators from the classroom but you also have people with such a diverse set of competencies from health, to recreation, to mental health, to sociology, to equity. It’s a broad span of professionals that help us build policy, particularly those who specialize in amplifying student voice and engaging students.

Another thing that motivates me is the ability to be an advocate (as mentioned above re. her response to seeing the Revolutionary Medicine documentary).

My job focuses on student well-being, which is everything around the academics that are necessary for students to be academically successful. The work itself is a holistic approach to supporting the diverse needs of students, including their emotional, cognitive, social, physical, spiritual well-being.

I’m happy to be part of something that’s moving upstream, where we’re creating support and successes in education, increasing literacy, and reducing suspension and expulsion. I see this as a turning point around the whole student experience. It really creates positive educational outcomes.”


All comments are solely those of Denise Dwyer and not those of her employer.