In episode 8 of the Voices in Education podcast, we explore how we can ensure SEL programs support our ESL students. Listen in as Casey talks with Johnny Gannaw, Dean of Students at Highline Public Schools in South Seattle, about how he’s addressing the social-emotional needs of a culturally diverse community of students and families.
Learn more about Johnny Gannaw: Johnny Gannaw’s LinkedIn profile
You're listening to the Voices in Education podcast, powered by Securly, where we hear from new voices and explore new ideas about how we can reimagine education to support whole student success. Education is at an inflection point. As we grapple with complex challenges like funding and enrollment, as well as diversity, equity and safety, we also have an opportunity, an opportunity to reimagine education. Now more than ever, we know the importance that students' overall wellbeing plays in their success. They need to feel supported and safe and connected, to be able to engage in their learning and achieve their full potential. Join your host, Casey Agena, a former teacher turned instructional coach and technologist, as he interviews inspirational educators, school leaders, wellness professionals and more, to amplify their voices. You'll learn about the innovative work they're doing to support student safety, engagement and overall wellness. And who knows, you may even spark a new idea of your own. Ready to reimagine education? Let's go.
I'm your host, Casey Agena. And in today's episode, I'll be talking with Johnny Gannaw, who hails from south Seattle, about his role transitioning from outdoor education expert to administrator in the Highline School District here in south Seattle. Listen in as Johnny and I talk about his role and the work that he does in making sure that students are connected and — definitely over the past two years are reconnected to schools and to the adults that are here to support them — as well as the challenges that he faces in making sure that students feel supported.
Thanks for having me, Casey. I'm excited.
Yeah. And we've had some really good conversation leading up to this. And I think this just really helps us to just dive right in because just to hear about you and your work and what are these challenges, particularly around socially emotional learning, student mental health and these issues as we talked about earlier are at the forefront of everyone. And particularly over the past 24 months, the past two school years, even here where we both live in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. And so with that, how has it impacted your work? And what's the impact on students and their families?
Yeah. As you said, I work for Highland School District. This has been going on for almost 13 years. And the very first thing that impacted my work was my job for over a decade, I worked at Camp Waskowitz up in North Bend, that's owned and operated by Highline. And we ran week-long camp adventures for kids, connecting them to nature and people. Social-emotional learning was at the forefront of the work that we did there. When the pandemic hit, that all had to stop. And so the camp sat empty, kids weren't able to come and we were doing virtual things. We're doing our part like everyone else but my energy and focus, I wanted to get back with kids. And so I up and changed jobs, largely because of the pandemic, because I was like, I knew that camp wasn't going to be able to be where it's at and it's still not.
And so I transitioned into a role of dean of students at Cascade Middle School, “go Cougars.” And I'm able to take the things that I've done at Waskowitz and incorporate some of the social-emotional learning components with the students I'm working with. Honestly, as I was telling you before, seeing students in their element at a comprehensive school compared to the camp setting at first was like, this is completely different. But what I'm hearing from a lot of kids, families and teachers is there's far more hesitation to be involved, lack of respect in a way sometimes for students when they're with each other and with teachers than there ever was. And that's possibly because of the past 24 months. Individualized plans for students are more important now than ever. I feel like just connecting with the kid and not having just one way of doing things but getting to know the student and their needs and how to support them and then partnering with the families is another big thing that I've noticed.
Parents are tired. And when you connect with them and tell them an issue that's going on with their kid, they already know. They'd spent the past 24 months very close with their children. And making sure to loop the parents into the concerns of the kids but then also making sure the parents know the good things that are happening with the kids too. Getting a lot of that. You've called me a lot that my kid is skipping class. What are they doing that's good? And so seeking out that opportunity for the kids too, if you're not seeing it at the forefront, is also really, I think, been a shift, at least for me compared to my old position.
Well, I'm thinking about that question and what's impacting our students and their families. I'm thinking about us as adults who are in the lives of students and parents or adults in the lives of students. And if they're feeling stressed about home life, their work situation, whatever it may be, so when the students go home, they're getting that. When the students go to a, now we're seeing some sports and activities in our community, and if the coaches are stressed or whatnot, they're getting that from the adults. The next morning, they're coming back to school and the teachers, as you mentioned, are stressed and the admin, there's a lot going on. And they're feeling that from the adults. That's a lot.
That's a lot. It is a lot.
Every situation they're going into where they look for those adults, for those relationships, the adults themselves are challenged too.
Right. And you think, that would be a challenge, as you said for an adult, imagine if you're a 10, 11, 12 year old, navigating that. There are so many stresses on them beyond just math and science, to be able to be successful at school. And I think that often that stress will then come out in their behaviors, making poor choices and teachers don't have capacity to be able to support them. And as an administrator at the school, we don't have capacity to deal with every single student that has those needs. And that's where I say, partnering with the parents has been key. I have felt at least at our school, when you reach out to those and you make those relationships, I have several parents that will actually call me.
I had one today call me on the way to school because their son was having a bad day. My kid's having a bad day, I want to make you aware of it because we've had challenges with this kid over the past couple of months. And so after getting off the phone call with that parent, I realized in that moment, I'm seen as more than just the person that's at school, greeting them and being there for them. I'm a partner to this parent and this parent wants to make sure I'm aware that their kid's having a bad day before they step to the school doors so that I'm already ready to take on that moment. And that's really what I think we need more of in schools. I know that sounds crazy because who has time to talk to every single parent regularly? But there are those students that are high flyers as we'll call them, that really need that extra support. And the moment that you can partner with those families and know that student really well, that's when you see them succeed.
And compounded on all of this, for those of you all the way out on the East Coast and you know where we are on the map, but being this kind of unique, urban, suburban environment where Highline School District is and we're talking about parents, there's a real kind of interesting mix from a diversity standpoint, cultural diversity standpoint.
That plays into that role as well. Tell us a little bit about what that makeup is like in the Highline School District of the students and their families?
Yeah. Highline School District is an extremely diverse district. I think there's 80 languages spoken. The families come, there's many immigrant families but there's also a lot of families who have lived here their entire life. Their parents went to Cascade or their parents were Highline School District. And so you have this really interesting combination of folks that care a lot about the community because that's all they know. And then you have these people who have come to this community to do better. Our school, for instance, speaks Vietnamese, Spanish and English. Classes are taught in all those languages. And so that is our primary demographic of students at our school.
That's very symbolic of Highline as a district. Having many different schools that are dual, trilingual. Again, that's another way to let kids feel like they're safe and comfortable when they're in those spaces. It's also a way for parents to know they can go and talk to someone at that school and get their questions answered, hear their concerns. Highline being such a melting pot of all these different folks, it's very unique in that way I would say. Very unique.
I think that environment that we were touching upon, it's challenging for you, I think, of just knowing the environments that the kids are going home to because as you said, you have this Vietnamese. What is the family dynamic of Vietnamese families or Somali families or these mix of families that you have? Where school is their common environment that they're working with yet, they're spending time at home and that you're partnering with these different.
Right. Right. Honestly, Casey, I try to look at every family as their own unique crew. I try not to look at it in the bubble of well, this is a Vietnamese family, so it's going to think this way. And this is a Somali family. They must think this way. Because I've learned that they could be the same cultural background but they have different factors playing into their life, whether they are immigrant family, whether they again, have lived in the area their entire life. And so when I have these conversations with families, I try to put that to the side and focus on the student and the student's needs really. And what it is that is happening at school. From that you build the relationship with the families where you then learn a little bit more and you get those pieces of, you get introduced into their family life and their culture and things just by having conversations with the parents.
And then that gets transferred over to the school. When a teacher's like, this kid is coming to my class every morning, hungry and angry. It's well, I've talked to the families and the parents work graveyard shifts and they're not able to be home when the kid has to leave for school so the kid wakes themself up, the kid walks to school, sometimes in the rain and the freezing temperatures, gets to school. Yeah, they're going to be hungry and angry because I would be. Let's have a plan for that kid. Let's get them breakfast, even if they come late. Let's make sure that they get a check in with an adult because they woke up in the morning, got themselves ready and if they walk in 10, 15 minutes late, I'm glad you got yourself here. And so I look at the families more as individuals because I grew up in the same neighborhood that I'm working in now, being identified as a White male.
I have privileges because of my skin but I didn't grow up with those privileges as far as socioeconomic status goes. And so I know how families are working and I know that the kids have needs, that it's our responsibility to meet those. And I find that those students, that they then create those relationships with and you establish that individualized plan like I was saying, they're far more successful during the day. If that kid sneaks by and gets into their class and I haven't been able to check in with them yet, the teacher will message me right away, needing support for this student. And it's a quick duel and it's like, I haven't checked in with you. Let me get you breakfast. I know what you need. While Highline is a very diverse district, there's no one single type of family. It's all over the place.
Let's take a short break to hear a word from our sponsor.
The Voices in Education podcast is brought to you by Securly. Pioneering the student safety movement in 2013, Securly continues to lead the charge in innovative education technology. As the only whole student success platform for K-12 education, Securly helps schools ensure student safety, increase student and family engagement, proactively support student wellness and optimize student device and technology initiatives. More than 15,000 schools worldwide choose Securly to help them keep students safe, engaged and well. To learn how Securly can support your school, visit www.securly.com.
And now back to the interview.
In your previous role, working at the camp and the experience that you were providing for not only the students but then working with the adults there, because there's a lot of, how has that helped in terms of transcending yourself into your current position? Because I'm hearing a little bit about it in terms of it's not camp counselors but it's teachers and it's not the campers but it's students but the families are still there.
The uniqueness of Waskowitz, to be honest, I had no family communication. The kids would come for a week. High school kids were their leaders. The teachers would be there to teach the classes. And we had a staff that would be there and support regularly. Only we would communicate with families if a kid had to be sent home and often we'd partner with the schools for that. And so the family communication piece is honestly a whole new world for me. And what a time to get this new world, when families are like, I don't know what my kid needs. They've been in their room for 24 months. They don't talk to me.
And so what I've been able to do is take the things that we do at Waskowitz in those four or five days when they're there, break down barriers, regardless of your socioeconomic status, regardless of what you look like, where you come from, what accident you might or might not have. It's all about, we are on the same page. We are all on the same page. We are there together for the week. They eat the same meal. They go to sleep at the same time, they wake up at the same time, they're on a schedule. That mindset is what's really allowed me to say, "I need to create that same kind of feeling with my students, with my teachers that I'm working with, with their families, of just being on that even ground." We're all in this together. When a student or family has conflict or even a teacher for that matter, I listen to them first. Tell me what's going on. To build that understanding that I'm here for you and I want to hear your concerns.
And then I'll go into the details of, well, here's some things I want to talk about. And so I think in comparison to what I've taken from Waskowitz in that component is just going into those situations being able to say, "This is a human. We're all on the same level. It's a person just like me." They might be mad. How do I get them to calm down. They might be crying. How do I figure out what's going on? Using my role as a dean to connect in that way, as opposed to being the authoritarian disciplinarian, like most people know deans to be and being more of that, this is my guy, this guy supports me. And I want that for my students, my teachers and the parents I work with.
Has the student digital component played a role in whether it's behavior incidents or just how they connect positively and creating communities or whatnot? Especially in middle school.
All of this was a whole new world for me being an outdoor educator for so long. We literally disconnected kids. That was part of our thing. Electronics get put away. We're going to be in the woods for a week. No TVs. And so when the whole world hit on a personal level, I'll just say, it was I had to learn everything, Zoom, all this. And got to that speed. Students are so technologically advanced at this moment where they're able to do so much and the things they talk about. I'm like, "What is that? Can you show me that?" I think on one side of things because students have so many things that they're able to access, all of our students have Chromebooks, many of them have cell phones. There's so many platforms for social media and outside of school. When I was in school, I barely saw the friends or talked to them after the school bell rang, it was like, go home. See them the next day.
Now these kids come to school the next day with all of these pictures and screenshots and things that someone said last night. And it's a whole new world in that regard. And I think really the past 24 months has elevated that because that was their only way to communicate with people. It was normal. It was the way that it was. That's one piece of it. The other thing is really taking that technology and how do we implement it into the classroom so that it's a tool that they're using, not just for gossip after school. Giving them games and different things that they can play with in their classes to use technology the right way.
Thinking back, I guess, over the past year, what have you learned that is really going to empower you to kind of move forward? Particularly focusing on that relationship side of things, the parents, the teachers you work with, the students, what have you learned this past year that you can look ahead to say, "Okay, here's what's going to pivot to even make things better?"
I've actually thought about this a lot because I was a younger educator when I got into the game. And I think for so many years, I would say even to the past year or two, I have found that connection with that student or that family and I can be the only one. It has to be me. It has to be me that helps this kid because I have the connection. And what I've really learned this past year, especially in my current position, is helping those students and those families see that it's a community effort. Not having it just be that one person because you connected on this video game or this movie that came out. You like their vibe. But everyone is here for you.
I think as I've developed in my role, it's really making sure that I have this connection with this kid. How can I now partner them up with other students or other staff members? And if that means I'm doing the leg work to be like, "Hey, this person also likes Roblox, do you like Roblox? Oh, cool. Be friends." And creating that because again, being masked up and not talking. Transition's a very quick period, they're not stopping to talk to friends unless they know them. And so that's part of my role too, is finding ways for kids to connect with other people and connecting with their other adults too.
I want to highlight a couple of things that you shared that really resonate with me. Like that R word of relationships. I think that it's multifaceted in terms of the students and the different adults, the parents and the teachers and how much the students hesitate but they want it. And the parents are relying on that.
And then the teachers need it, particularly now. For everybody in that Cascade “Go Cougars” community, I think that is something that's the big takeaway for me. Johnny, I want to thank you for your time, lending your voice to Voices in Education and all of you out there, we're taking to different places, sharing different people with you that you may not necessarily connect with. Thank you all for joining another episode of Voices in Education. Thanks, Johnny.
Thanks for tuning in to the Voices and Education podcast, powered by Securly, where we hear from new voices and explore new ideas about how we can reimagine education to support whole student success. If you enjoyed today's episode, we hope you'll consider subscribing to the podcast and sharing it with others who would benefit from listening. Even a small act of support helps us reach more people and make a bigger impact. For the resources from today's episode and additional details about the podcast, please visit www.securly/podcast. And until next time, thanks for listening.