20 Questions with Darrin Pike

Published on May 5, 2014
Darrin Pike is CEO and director of education for the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District. — Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

Nearly a quarter of a century ago when he first started teaching at Fogo Island Central High, Darrin Pike was responsible for a fairly sizable classroom.
“Back in those days if you had a class below 30 (students), you were lucky,” said Pike, whose teaching career began in 1990.

Now as the first CEO and director of education for the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District (NLESD), Pike is responsible for every K-12 English-speaking student in the province. It’s a challenging role, but one he was more than happy to accept last spring.

He held the same job with the Eastern School District and is a former deputy minister with the Department of Education and the Department of Advanced Education and Skills. Pike was also a principal at Ascension Collegiate in Bay Roberts.

“Through all the transition issues — and we’re still working through them — I’m still probably the happiest person to be back in the K-12 system, but there’s always that apprehension and fear of the huge task at hand. Are you ready for it? Can you step up? Those kinds of self-doubt (issues) creep in a bit. I think that’s the humanistic part of taking on these roles. If you don’t have a little bit of that, you’re probably in trouble.”

It was in March 2013 that the province first announced its plan to consolidate the four regional English school districts and replace them with a single provincewide district. Pike said that with lots of activity happening in the lead up to NLESD becoming operational last September, it was important to ensure its formation did not pose a distraction to reopening schools.

“I think we did a good job of trying to minimize the impact and make sure the impact didn’t occur at the classroom level,” he said.

At an operational level, NLESD has since worked to identify issues and resolve them, streamline processes, and compare the best practices of the former regional school districts. The most recent school year also introduced an enhanced focus on core literacy and numeracy, according to Pike.

“I’m pleased with where we are with provincial policies, I’m pleased with where we are with operations, and I’m also pleased that, obviously, it’s all about the students, so the focus on helping students who need help, we didn’t lose that momentum.”


Twitter: @TeleAndrew

What is your full name?

Darrin George Pike.

Where were you born?

I was born in Gander.

What was your best school subject as a student?

Probably math and science.

Can you recall an act of rebellion you committed in your youth?

I don’t think I was rebellious as a youth. I think I did what most teenagers did, which was normal, standard teenage things. I don’t think anything stands out where I did a noteworthy rebellious act. I think I did what most teenagers did — not always think straight.

How did you decide to become a teacher?

My father was a drafting instructor, and I have a sister and a brother who are both teachers. It’s somewhat one of those family things — you got the bug of wanting to be in education. I think my desire has always been to work with students who are less fortunate in life. ... I’ve always wanted to work with kids.

Who was your favourite teacher growing up?

I had a math-computer teacher in high school (George Wright) that probably would be — if I could call a favourite teacher — he would probably rank up there. I think it’s because of the way he treated everybody, and he treated everybody with a lot of respect and connected with people, regardless of who you were. Whether you were the top student in the class or a student who was struggling, he always seemed to have a lot of patience. ... I think that always resonated with me. If I could be as good as Mr. Wright, then that would be a bar to measure up to.

Based on your own experience, what would you consider to be an important quality to have as a school principal?

I don’t think you can be in the K-12 system without wanting to work with students and wanting to have an impact on someone’s life in a positive way. I think that’s fundamentally ... where it starts and ends — that drive to make a difference in the students’ lives.

What is your most memorable experience as a classroom teacher?

I do remember once when I was in administration (at Ascension Collegiate), we started to build a music program, and the music program hadn’t been established to the degree that we wanted it. ... The music program didn’t have a lot of equipment. We had a music event, concert, at the high school. ... We had 60 or 80 guitars on stage at one point playing together in unison, a lot of students who were just learning to play guitar. What I always remember is one of the parents said to me, “Haven’t been in the school since elementary school. Haven’t been to a concert since elementary school to see my son perform.” ... I did always try to support the development of the arts, because it does allow students who don’t always achieve success in book studies a chance to be successful and contribute.

What are you reading at the moment?

I read for pleasure on vacations, and I obviously haven’t had one of them in a while, so my last two pleasure books were 18 months ago or something. Not summer past, but the summer before. At that time, it would’ve been a Bruce Springsteen biography (”Bruce” by Peter Ames Carlin). I’m a bit of a Springsteen fan. And I’ve read the biography on Steve Jobs (“Steve Jobs: A Memoir” by Walter Isaacson). Both interesting reads on the pleasure side.

While I’m working, I’m focused on academic reading. Like most of us, we’re always trying to figure out how to do our job better, so anything to do with leadership. The book I’m reading now is by Stuart Shankar (“Calm, Alert and Learning: Classroom Strategies for Self-Regulation”) ... It’s about how you can improve self-regulatory behaviour in students.

What is your favourite meal and who cooks it the best?

Pan-fried cod. The safe answer would be my mother (laughs). As long as the cod is fresh. ...  If it’s frozen, it’s not as good.

What would you consider to be the Newfoundland and Labrador K-12 school system’s greatest strength?

It starts with students ... I’m very optimistic, because I see youth being more open-minded. (There’s) more acceptance in society than our generation or older generations, so I’m very encouraged by the leadership youth show today when it comes to society issues that sometimes were challenging in the past. ... I think the other huge advantage we’ve got is we’re still community based. Our schools are still in small communities where people feel very connected to the school, and it’s not just a job. It’s not just, “I go to the building at 8:30. I leave at 3 or 3:30.” Most of our teachers are still connected to their school. I think that’s a real strength that we’ve still managed to keep in Newfoundland and Labrador.

What would you consider to be the same school system’s greatest challenge?

From a uniquely Newfoundland and Labrador perspective, we’re still dealing with a declining enrollment in the rural areas of our province. ... We have a lot of very small schools, so how do you maintain programming and good quality education in small populations? At the same time, we have a reverse problem. We have this massive growth of student enrollment in the greater St. John’s area that we can’t keep up with. We’ve got schools from this year to next year that are up 30-40 students in one year. We’ve got schools in our province that don’t have 40 students, and they’re a full school. ... I’m the person going around when I see new neighbourhoods, sweat starts to pour off me, because where are those kids going to school?

How did moving from working inside a school to working in the school board and government settings change your perspective about the K-12 system?

I don’t think moving from the district to the department changed my perspective on anything. I enjoyed my time working for government. ... Any time you move from one system to another system, you can learn strategies and techniques and administrative styles ... and you develop your skills. You can’t replace experience. You get better at your job the more you do, either through your mistakes ... sometimes through other people’s mistakes, and you learn through things that work well. From my perspective, none of this would have been in my career path 10 or 15 years ago. None of this discussion would have even been contemplated. But I really did enjoy my time in government. It sort of reconfirmed my passion or desire for wanting to be back in the K-12 system ...

The parent hat is also another good hat to put on when you’re wondering about what’s best for children, because as parents, we’re very protective of our own children. Our softest spot for all of us is our children. You can criticize me and I can take it on the nose, but anything to do with our children, typically it’s an emotional response rather than rational. ... But within that emotion, there’s a lot of wisdom within it too.

Who do you look up to or admire?

My grandfather (George Pike) worked from a young age in the lumber business. I’ve always admired Newfoundlanders and Labradorians historically for their hard work. I think that we often talk about how hard we work today and sometimes complain about how hard we work, but gee, historically there are hard workers in this province. On a global scale, I think Martin Luther King Jr., you admire his ability to create a vision people bought into and that resonated with people. And also, one of his messages around being really good at what you do no matter what you’re doing. It doesn’t matter what job you’ve got, be really good at that.

If you could travel anywhere in the world, where and why?

I’ve never been to Europe, so I think I would love to go to Italy or Germany. I’ve been to London, but just the historic sense of these communities and these countries would be appealing to me if I had a chance to travel to those kinds of places. But from a leisure perspective, give me somewhere where it’s warm weather and I’m a pretty happy person.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

I’m always taking advice in the sense that if I get the opportunity to read about leadership, I’ll do it. ... The worst thing you can do is not make a difference. I’m always trying to do that. Collective wisdom is better than the wisdom of one. I’m a firmly convinced of that. A quick decision is usually not a good decision. Take your time. You can revisit decisions. You don’t have to rush it. If it’s a big decision, take the time to make a better decision. One of the mottos  I try to promote — and I don’t know where it came from — historically the physician’s creed was do no harm. Somewhere along the line I read the educator’s creed — do nothing to diminish hope. That one sort of hit me at the core ... because if you think about it, if students lose hope, it all sort of stops then.

Where do you see the future use of technology in the classroom headed?

I think it goes without saying it’s here to stay. ... Ultimately, technology is going to become more and more integrated into the activities of the classrooms. It’s going to become more pervasive, more connected to what the teachers do and how the students learn. We’re seeing that now, whether it’s SMART Boards, iPads or cellphones, students are looking up the answer to the question. I do see technology as an enabler from the perspective of project-based learning and allowing teachers to (present) a problem and students collaborate and work on a problem together. I also see technology as a support to monitoring student progress and giving extra time or resources.

What’s your most treasured possession?

I don’t have an item. I don’t have a Beatles album that I particularly — well, I do have the “Yesterday” Beatles album (“Yesterday and Today”), but I didn’t keep it in mint condition ... I think what’s precious is your health and your family. I appreciate time. ... I had a knee injury recently, and right away realized if you like to run and you have a knee injury, it takes you back.

Had you not chosen to become a teacher, what do you think you might have otherwise considered as a career?

I sort of played around with the idea of doing pharmacy. I also thought about accounting. I guess the math in me came out in that sense. ... I was offered summer employment to do snow crab research, but I couldn’t see myself sticking with that as a future, even though I did enjoy the science part of that.

How much work needs to be done to get the schools ready for full-day kindergarten?

I think we’re absolutely ready for full-day kindergarten. I think that students are ready for it. I have no apprehension about our young children being able to attend full-day kindergarten ... There will be some professional development (for teachers) obviously. The curriculum is in good shape for full-day kindergarten. The only issue we have is the infrastructure piece ... getting the portable classrooms in place, doing the renovations necessary on some of our buildings to enable full-day kindergarten.