Exemplary OCT

Johanne Messner, OCT

by Leanne Miller, OCT

“Johanne, my tap’s leaking again – can you fix it?” someone asks her as she waits for the elevator.

“Of course,” she says with a smile. “Just let me find my duct tape.”

Johanne Messner may not actually have duct tape in her briefcase, but she could probably find some in a hurry.

“One of my jobs is being a fixer,” Messner explains.

Make that an award-winning fixer. Messner is the 2009 recipient of the Canadian Association of School Administrators (CASA) EXL Award. The award honours a CASA member who is an exemplary leader, role model and teacher. While they provide outstanding service to their provincial or national professional association and make significant contributions to the field of education, recipients enhance school administration and bring honour to themselves, their colleagues and the profession. Messner’s career reflects the criteria, and she’s not nearly done yet.

Messner has served as president of the Ontario Public Supervisory Officials’ Association and the Toronto Supervisory Officers’ Association. As well as being involved in provincial and national work through her professional associations, she has taught gifted education courses at the York and University of Toronto faculties of education, published articles on a range of education topics and helped to develop science teaching units for the Ministry. The common thread that runs through all of Messner’s contributions is her work teaching others.

“I’m a teacher first, foremost and always,” she emphasizes.

Messner began teaching in the elementary panel of the former North York board and taught students in kindergarten to Grade 10. She served as the board’s consultant for gifted education and then worked as a vice-principal and principal in several North York elementary and junior high schools. She became a supervisory officer in the Toronto DSB in 2001 and is currently one of the board’s 24 superintendents of education. She is responsible for more than 15,000 students and 900 teachers in the northeast quadrant of North America’s fourth largest school district.

“Superservant” is the term she uses to describe her role.

“My job is to support my 24 principals,” she explains. “They are at the forefront of our system – the key to student success – and it’s my job to do everything I can to enable them to be autonomous school leaders in supporting their teachers and students.”

A lot of that work involves fixing things.

“Parents call about a host of important issues,” she says, “and my job is to handle those issues appropriately.”

Calls range from complaints about poor test results to bullying incidents, and everything in between.

Whenever possible, Messner redirects calls to her principals. They must be seen to be resolving issues in their schools. That reinforces their autonomy. She counsels them to listen to parents with compassion and to find win-win outcomes.

“I tell them to look for common ground. No one wants bullying in their schools. So I encourage them to ask parents how they think it can be stopped.

“I might suggest, for instance: ‘This is what I’m planning – a two-day suspension – do you have a better solution? What’s important is that your child learns a lesson and doesn’t repeat the inappropriate behaviour, so how best can we achieve that result together?’ ”

She provides principals with what she calls a lifeline of support, which helps them make informed decisions.

“I give them a different perspective. We review relevant legislation or we talk through the possible implications of their decisions. I’m a sounding board for those on the front line.”

I love having the opportunity to help others be successful.

Some issues remain her responsibility, like those involving the Children’s Aid Society, the police or labour relations. If there is a gun or a knife involved, Messner explains, it’s an expulsion, no discussion. But most areas are grey and require listening and compromise and doing what’s best for students.

“If I can help resolve those kinds of issues and allow principals to focus on ensuring student success, then I’m doing a good job,” Messner says.
“Being a principal is more difficult today than it was five years ago. They’re expected to be hands-on curriculum leaders and managers at the same time. It’s good that they are required to do both, but it’s a great deal of work. I need to be available to help whenever I can.”

In addition to supporting her principals, Messner’s job involves interacting and working closely with her schools’ trustees, whom she describes as outstanding volunteers who represent the pulse of the community.

“Their perspective and input are vital to our public education system,” she says.

One of her schools, Thorncliffe Park PS, has over 2,000 students in JK to Grade 5. With more than 20 portables, it’s one of the largest elementary schools in North America.

Funding has been granted to build a new school, and when it opens in two years it will host 750 full-day kindergarten students. Messner sees nothing but opportunity.

“The Toronto DSB has not built many new schools,” she says, “and we have the time now to really think about how we can do the right thing for children. What kind of school should we build? Can it be a centre of excellence for early years? Should we include a parenting centre and try to make it the hub of the community? Should we have two JK to Grade 5 schools on site?”

Messner is energized and excited at the prospect of collaborating on such important decisions in partnership with the community. This includes working with architects, school council members, community representatives and administrators, as well as communicating with the local MPP and MP.

“It’s a privilege to be a small part of such an important project. We’re all working toward the shared goal of giving children the best possible start to their education careers.”


York Mills CI students visit students at Sunnyview PS in their snoezelen room.

Messner makes a point of spending time with students in her 21 elementary and three secondary schools. Last fall, student council members at York Mills CI were trying to decide where to focus their charity fundraising efforts for the year. She met with the students and discussed Park Lane PS – a school in their family for children with developmental disabilities. Now they are working to raise money to build a snoezelen room, a sensory space that helps students with developmental disabilities engage appropriately with their surroundings and maximize their ability to access learning opportunities.

“Look at the young people coming out of our public education system,” she enthusiastically comments. “They are amazing!”

She believes that the required 40 hours of volunteer community service exposes teenagers to fantastic opportunities that they wouldn’t otherwise have.

“We are helping to build empathy and commitment into our young people, and it’s exciting and rewarding to be part of such a system.”
Another aspect of the job that Messner relishes is serving as a mentor. She believes that she arrived where she is today thanks to the support and mentoring of colleagues. Luckily, she believes in giving back.

She supports staff seeking leadership roles. During a recent meeting of prospective Toronto DSB vice-principals and principals, she countered the popular belief that becoming an administrator means giving up your work with children.

“Not so,” she told the group. “Becoming a vice-principal or principal is equally about supporting student success. In fact, it affords teachers the opportunity to help more students to be successful in a greater variety of ways.”

Messner, along with other superintendents from across the province, also teaches and mentors participants in the Supervisory Officer’s Qualification Program. She spends weekends and part of the summer coaching principals from around the province and mentors a smaller group as it works through all four program modules.

“I love having the opportunity to help others be successful,” Messner explains. “We need strong leaders at all levels of our system.”

Her advice to them?

Learn how to juggle and always be over-prepared.

And it probably wouldn’t hurt to carry a roll of duct tape.