“Hope is what keeps all students engaged and will help them reach their potential.” – Tom D’Amico, Canada

“I grew up in a family of educators but I never wanted to go into education… because I saw how hard they worked every day and every night,” says Tom D’Amico. “What I didn’t get then, but I do get now, is that you work so hard because it is rewarding to know that you are having an impact on someone else’s life.”

And for nearly 25 years, D’Amico’s hard work has directly affected thousands of lives. As Superintendent of Human Resources and Leadership Development for the Ottawa Catholic School Board, he has shepherded groundbreaking changes to his school district, which serves 39,000 students in 82 schools.

“Twenty-three years ago I created the first ministry-of-education-recognized multimedia computer course in Ontario as a pilot project,” says D’Amico. “At the time, a scanner cost close to $2,000 and most of our computers did not have sound cards or CD ROMs. Our ‘Multimedia Manor’ project-based learning course focused on differentiated learning and differentiated assessment tasks.  It was 23 years ago that I saw how engaged and creative students could be when they were presented with problems to solve, and the right tools to help them with their inquiries.”

D’Amico credits the lessons learned so many years ago in helping to shape him when he became the superintendent of learning technologies in 2009. “I had an opportunity to have a system-wide impact,” he says. “We transformed our system from one where the main technology was the overhead projector, to where we are now:  solid broadband infrastructure, wireless access in all 82 sites, mobile devices for all educators, a BYOD environment for our students, LCD projectors and SmartBoards in almost every class, access to quality digital resources, the promotion of social media use by all, and a culture that promotes professional development, professional learning networks, creativity and innovation.” D’Amico is understandably proud of these accomplishments, and gives a great deal of the credit to his teachers. “It is a great district to teach in, and a great district to learn in,” he notes.  “I strongly believe that these are the greatest times to be an educator, thanks in part to the potential that technology provides to all our students when placed in the hands of talented educators with a strong pedagogical background.”

D’Amico’s achievements have been widely recognized. And even though education was a second career for him (D’Amico started out in professional sports), he has never regretted the change. In fact, he has received several awards, including being named as one of Canada’s Outstanding Principals, the Ontario Catholic Supervisory Association EXL Leadership Award and is the The Canadian Blogger of the Year in the category of Best K-12 Administrator Tweeter (@TDOttawa).  In 2012, he was named as one of the “50 Global Edu Leaders to Follow on Twitter.” A popular speaker, D’Amico routinely presents across Canada on the topics of educational technology and leadership in the 21st century.

Today, D’Amico shares who has – and continues to – inspire him in his work, and gives us his perspective on what needs to happen in Canada (and globally) to advance his students’ education even further. Enjoy!

Can you tell us about a favorite teacher, or someone who made a difference in your education?

A physical education teacher, Moe Rodrigues, had a great influence on me.  He provided me with opportunities to take on more and more leadership at school, and he helped me gain confidence in public speaking.  Thanks to him, I was able to move away from being a shy student, to a confident and involved student leader.  These skills have developed and have helped me throughout my career.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

Technology is now a part of everything we do in our school board.  We have been successful in system change.  Some of the early innovative approaches we took included moving to a BYOD system in a wireless environment and promoting the use of social media by staff and students.  Where we have met with success was focusing on the pedagogy and using the tools to enhance the changes in teaching practice, not focusing solely on the technology.  Our basic premise has been that if we change the teaching pedagogy and complement it with technology, our students will become more engaged.  We believe that students who are more engaged will have resulting increased student achievement.

We have always had a multiple entry approach to technology.  We have used real-life tools like Skype, Google Hangouts, Facebook, and other industry tools that our staff and students would be using outside of school.  Rather than dictating a particular tool, we encouraged staff to be innovative and use what works best for them to reach each and every student.  The teaching practice was the priority but the tool could help them differentiate the instruction and the assessment.  We created an innovation fund so that teachers could access some funds to help with their creative approaches to teaching.  All along the process we had focus groups and we listened to what our students were telling us, and we reminded our teaching staff that they were the most important factor in determining student success, not the technology.

In your view, what is the most exciting innovation happening in education today?

The most exciting innovation in education today is the access to differentiated modes of instruction.  A student who is guided in the right direction can use a variety of methods to solve the problem at hand, and as a result, be engaged in their own learning.  The movement away from lower order skills of memorization and facts is exciting as we move to higher order skills of analysis and the resulting creation of knowledge.  We are seeing students excited about learning and the use of technology is a key enabler for many who in the past were slipping through the cracks.

Is there a 21st century skill (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, or creativity and innovation) that you are most passionate about? Why?

Our board priorities include teaching and learning with a focus on:  communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking.  All of these are skills that we want our graduates to leave our system with.  I would suggest that the last two listed, creativity and critical thinking, are the skills that will help us overcome problems and challenges like cancer, poverty, and political conflict.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

If I had the ability to provide every child with an educational tool, it would be an Internet-connected mobile device.  Whether a device is a tablet or a wearable device does not matter, it is the fact that the Internet-connected device will provide every child with hope.  Hope is what keeps all students engaged and will help them reach their potential.  If the device is connected, we can ensure that each student has access to the right resources to meet their needs, and personalized learning will result in personalized success, regardless of the physical and other barriers that may face them in their learning environment.

What is your region doing well currently to support education?

In Ottawa Ontario, Canada we are doing a good job at providing education for all.  All students have the right to an education.  We are doing a good job at focusing on research-based instructional practices and providing the resources necessary to help teachers become even better at their profession.

How must education change to ensure that students are equipped to thrive in the 21st century?

At the political level we need to move away from a focus on standardized tests as a means of deciding which schools or systems are successful and which are not.   The reliance on PISA as a measure of a country’s education success is only as accurate as what PISA chooses to measure and the validity of the testing instruments.  The funds that are going into the implementation of standardized testing could perhaps be better spent on providing access to regions where broadband is still not accessible.  If standardized testing is to remain a priority for our different levels of government then we need to expand what the tests are measuring.  The typical 4Cs of communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking need to be measured as well.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

The biggest obstacle that we have had to overcome has included the lack of funds to create the required learning environment that will enhance 21st century skills.  As priorities were adjusted to allow us to create the required environment, the next area to address was the required training to allow for a change in practice.  We recently shared this presentation with all of our principals to help our staff focus on teaching practice and not just technology (presentation based on Fullan’s Stratosphere).

How can teachers or school leaders facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

We have shared our resources and our presentations as we have learned from our mistakes along the journey.  We continue to learn from others and our professional learning network has expanded to a global community of learners.  Some examples include our move to an open environment where social media is embraced and used to promote communication and learning.  Another example would be our transition of our traditional libraries to new learning commons that focus on the skills that we want all of our students to develop.  A third example would be the building of our new schools where learning spaces extend beyond the classroom, such as an outdoor science learning area, or an IWB for student use in the hallway, and classes with no singular desks but rather flexible furniture to promote collaborative learning.

About Tom D’Amico

  • Birthplace: Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
  • Current residence: Greely, Ontario, Canada
  • Education: Bachelor of Physical Education, Bachelor of Education, Masters in Physical Education (Administration)
  • Website I check every day – How I try to stay current: I check several websites on a regular basis in order to stay connected.  I use ScoopIT as my main stop to review current education technology news and postings, and I also use Feedly as my main RSS reader to peruse current blogs that I follow.  Some of my favourite sites include:  Edutopia, Edudemic, Getting Smart, Emerging Ed Tech, Free Technology for Teachers, Cool Tools for 21st Century Learners, Mashable, Educational Technology and Mobile Learning, and TechCrunch.  I review daily or weekly compilations using Education Dive (EdDive) and Edtech roundup.  I also enjoy a truly Canadian perspective by visiting Mindshare Learning and I receive weekly recommended sites and resources from several groups in Diigo.  I also try to stay current by participating in several EdWeb.Net groups and webinars.
  • Person who inspires me most: A great Canadian Hero, Terry Fox, has inspired me ever since I followed his cross-Canada run when I was a high school student.  What inspired me the most was the fact that he was a regular kid, just like my friends and I at the time, but he was turning his challenges into awareness and fundraising, something that would have an incredible impact on the whole country. In addition to Terry Fox, I was always moved by the power of Mother Teresa and her huge impact on the world, starting with one person at a time.
  • Favorite childhood memory: Enjoying family time in our backyard pool.
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure): I just returned from the CASA (Canadian Association of System Administrators) conference in St. John’s Newfoundland, and I’m looking forward to some time at our family cottage in Southern Ontario.
  • When was the last time you laughed? Why? I laugh everyday – laughter is the best way to handle stress and to keep everything in perspective.  I’ve learned to never take myself too seriously.
  • Favorite book:
    I don’t really have a favourite book. I enjoy reading about leadership, education, and technology.  I’m currently reading “Intentional Interruption” by Steven Katz and Lisa Ain Dack, and “Networked – The New Social Operating System” by Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman.
  • Favorite music:
    I enjoy all types of music, except for Rap songs when I can’t understand the lyrics… makes me feel old!
  • What is the best advice you have ever received?
    The best advice came from my father when I was first appointed to the role of vice-principal.  He said, “The job of an educator, never ends, you can always do more, the to do list will never be empty, so you need to know when to stop, it will always be there tomorrow.”
  • Your favorite quote or motto:Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you” (Mother Teresa)
  • Other: Prior to starting a career in education, I was involved in professional sports as the general manager of Ottawa’s professional soccer team, the Ottawa Intrepid. I’m still involved in professional sports as an off-ice official with the NHL.  Doing stats at the Ottawa Senators games is a privilege and has helped me connect to students throughout my teaching career.

For more information on Tom D’Amico, see the following links:



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