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Blazing a Trail

Sheryl Robinson Petrazzini is the first woman and the first person of colour to lead the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. The 30-year veteran educator became director of education in mid-August. She shared her journey to Canada, her authentic leadership approach and her early impressions of Hamilton with Meredith MacLeod.
Sheryl Robinson Petrazzini is the first woman and first person of colour to lead the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board. Photo: Jeff Tessier Photography

You were born in Jamaica and came to Canada at eight years old. What brought your family to Canada and what were your early impressions of your new home in Winnipeg?

It was the wintertime, December. I always say to my mom that was kind of mean. So when I arrived, my early impressions were that it was obviously very cold and life was very different. I grew up in Mandeville, in Manchester, and so very much country living and living off the land. Like a lot of families at that time, my mother left to go to Canada to get more opportunities for her children, especially around education. My mother had essentially elementary school education, but she really understood what it could do and what it could mean for her five children, so she instilled that in all of us. So we knew that was why we were suffering through these winters and living in this place that was so different than how we grew up.

I would say, too, that the early impressions in terms of going through school is that it wasn't easy in the beginning. I was the only Black child in all of my classes until second year university. And so that made a real impression on me because it taught me a lot, obviously, about what I wanted to do as an educator, because I decided really early on that I wanted to be a teacher. 

How does your lived experience inform your leadership and your priorities as an educational leader?

I never saw myself reflected in the curriculum unless it was to talk about negative things, ways in which Black people had been oppressed. I grew up in a time when Roots, the series, was on television, and the repercussions of being the only Black child around when that was happening were really difficult. And I did suffer teasing for my hair and my lips and my skin colour. 

And the impact of being absent as I was as a Black person, but as Indigenous people were as well, that stayed with me. 

At HWDSB, we have an Equity Action Plan. I'm very pleased that we're going to be bringing forward a human rights policy and an anti-Black racism policy. Those are going to be brought forward very soon to the board for approval. I just think that having had a lived experience of being an immigrant, being a racialized minority in a setting, it really stays with you. It informs how you lead and who you are. I think it makes me mindful of the importance of service. It makes me mindful to think about whose voices are missing from conversations. I think in our system, we are learning the impact of racism and oppression. And I think it's both holding people to account and supporting their learning and supporting their capacity as antiracist educators and leaders. 

And I think the other thing is the importance of understanding intersectionality. Because people see me, I'm a Black person, but they don't know the other pieces of my identity. I'm married to a white person from Argentina. I have children who identify with two cultures, and we speak three languages in my home. And I've been very fortunate because I've had this opportunity to be educated. So my lived identity is very different than how I grew up. 

You have teaching experience spanning kindergarten to Grade 12. What was your most challenging teaching assignment?

One of my most challenging experiences is also my favourite. So let me start with that, because that is teaching Grade 8. I started my career teaching in Winnipeg. I taught there for three years, teaching grades 7 to 9. And Grade 8 is special and beautiful, and I loved it, and you have to love it. But it is very challenging. As you know, young people are growing, they're challenging authority, they are learning who they are. All of those things make it different every day. But I always maintain the purpose of education is to support young people, to find their voice as they struggle to become independent adults. That's what always kept me intrigued and interested. And quite frankly, it's just you have to have a sense of humour when you're teaching that grade. And that's very much what I used a lot. So that was really both good and challenging. I would say another challenging experience I had was teaching in a secondary school in Scarborough at the time when I kind of first arrived in Toronto, and just seeing all the young people who were having such difficult time in life.

So I saw high absenteeism, I saw kids struggling, kids that were parents themselves. All of that was really difficult as a young teacher just to kind of deal with and learn how to support students, because, of course, these are secondary students. So it's really different than dealing with a Grade 8 student who's talking back to you, right? These are people who are now preparing for adulthood. And so you saw the systemic issues that prevailed that allowed this to happen. You saw poverty as an influence. You saw racism as an influence. You saw all these socioeconomic factors that made these students be what they are in front of you. That was very challenging. But I definitely don't shy away from a challenge. And so I have to say, as much as I have different challenging experiences, that I always persevered and I always found the joy in it and found ways, I think, to instill that joy and sense of pride and purpose in the students that I supported. 

What is your greatest memory as a teacher?

When I was leaving Winnipeg after my third year of teaching there was a school dance and it was just really touching because I was a type of teacher that really made an effort to get to know as many students as possible. So here you have a school that's grade seven, eight, nine, and I tell you, literally all of the students formed a circle and were singing to me, “Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson,” which was just lovely. I was Sheryl Robinson at the time. Now, I did go on to look up the lyrics of the song and what they mean. But the kids meant it in a big positive way.

It was a beautiful moment and I truly, truly did cry.

Sheryl Robinson Petrazzini has spent much of her first months on the job meeting staff, visiting schools and learning about Hamilton. Photo: Jeff Tessier Photography

You are the first female education director at the HWDSB. What does that mean to you?

I'm grateful to the HWDSB Board of Trustees for the honour of being appointed as the first female director. It's very important for me to acknowledge and share that throughout my career, I have had strong and supportive role models, most of them female. It’s important for others to see female leaders in these highly visible roles. I take that responsibility to heart, especially as I have daughters of my own. As I've benefited from strong role models, I seek to be a role model to others through my relationships and actions.

Representation is very important, especially for our students, for whom it's important to see what is possible. I know I mean different things to different people. I think about how being Black matters, and how being a woman matters. My children are bi-cultural. This is such a gift, to bring two strong cultures together for them. They will grow to be role models for others as well. 

I'm visiting schools and I'm seeing students, however they identify: male, female, nonbinary. This appointment means different things to different people. So there is my pride in having this honour, but I also sort of need to let it live for others because it means different things to different people. 

But I think it is important. It's an important acknowledgment. Women are, as we know, phenomenal leaders. And I'm here because I've had incredible female mentors throughout my career. 

What will your experience in working in diverse communities and serving underserved and marginalized students bring to your role at the HWDSB?

I really believe in servant leadership, I really believe in service. And I think as educators, those of us who work in the education system, whatever our role is, we're there to serve. We're serving students, we're serving communities. But I think that the biggest thing that I learned is the importance of respect, the importance of understanding that parents are their children's first and best teachers and that people don't always come to us and advocate for their children in the ways that we would want. 

But we need to hear what they're asking us and what they're telling us. We're not always able to do everything that people are telling us, but what are the ways in which we can reflect that we're listening? I think that listening and that respect are so incredibly important.

And I think that's one of the most important things that I've learned. And as someone who went through the system, as I said, and didn't feel like I really saw myself or reflected, I think now we're in a very different time. We're in a time where people who have been underserved and who have been oppressed by our system and sometimes intergenerationally have really found their voice. And so we have to be prepared to listen and focus on community and human rights and Indigenous rights. It’s ongoing learning, not just as an individual in my role, but as a system. 

How have you spent your first six weeks on the job?

It's been a whirlwind. It's funny, I just said to someone this morning, it feels like five seconds and five years. It's interesting because I am in a place where I'm meeting everyone, I'm learning a new language because school boards all have their own language, so I'm creating cheat sheets for myself. I’m meeting staff in purposeful one on one meetings and really listening to people. We have an incredible team here, an incredible executive council. So I feel very privileged and very fortunate to get to work with the staff. So I've been doing a lot of meeting with staff. I've gone to visit schools and I’m meeting with trustees, getting their insights and wisdom and experience and starting to take note of what's going really well and what people are proud of, and also listening to what people are dropping, sometimes overtly, but sometimes just as hints about what's going well in the system and what are things that we maybe need to focus on going forward.

And right now, we have a strategic plan in place that has five overarching priorities, and we're continuing with those priorities because there's been so much disruption to our system. We will be starting to look at new directions and new priorities, but for now, we're staying the course. And so I've had an opportunity to meet with some of our union leaders and partners. I've had a chance to meet with some community groups, too. So I feel really good because I feel like I'm hitting on all of the really important stakeholders. 

Also, with the support of the communications department, I’ve started a director at HWDSB Twitter account. I'm not the world's best tweeter, I'm going to be honest, but the purpose of this is to highlight the great things that are happening in HWDSB schools. 

What is the biggest challenge the board faces?

The first is post-pandemic recovery. We're being very intentional and looking at how students have been impacted by the pandemic and how our staff have been impacted by the pandemic. We have a list of commitments. We have a Pandemic Recovery plan and in those commitments, we talk about ensuring that we're making that connection between student achievement, well-being and equity. We are focusing on student learning and where they are. And so I think that makes us be a little bit more intentional about assessing students. Different children and different students have been impacted differently. And so we have to be mindful of that. 

When we say, thank goodness we get to go back to normal. I'm that person that says, OK, let's unpack that a little bit, because what does normal mean? It seems harmless to say it, and what we mean is how great it is to be back in person. That's wonderful. But normal may not have addressed the learning needs of students who have been underserved in our system for a really long time in different ways. Whether we're focusing on equity, human rights, anti-oppression, or we're focusing on special education needs because students learn differently, we can't just say we're going back to normal because normal may not have cut it. 

Who or what has been the biggest inspiration for you?

Mr. Smith was my social studies teacher in Grade 6. He had such an incredible sense of humour. It was a pleasure to go to class. Like you couldn't wait to see what Mr. Smith was going to say and do, but he was so connected to us as students. He was just wonderful and funny. When I became a teacher, Mr. Smith was the first principal I worked for as a teacher. He taught me the importance of relationships. He taught me how important it was to connect to your students and to connect with people that you work with. And then I really learned that from him. And then I had a teacher in Grade 7 who really made me realize that I was good at school. I was pretty smart, and I think coming to this country from another country, there were ways in which I realized I hung back, and I was afraid, and I was afraid to make mistakes. And then Grade 7, something happened, and I just kind of blossomed and realized, first of all, I love this school thing, and I'm good at it, but I realized I had friends from different groups. 

I was kind of like in all the circles. And that also, I think, stayed with me because I realized that different people needed different things from school. And so, as an educator, how could I sort of reach all of those different students? And I think that's still the work. I think that as a system, we have to continue to ask ourselves how are we meeting the needs of our various learners? How are we meeting the needs of our diverse community? 

We want them to feel welcome, we want them to feel seen and we want them to feel that they have voice. And so those are the things that we're working on, which is very different than when I went to school. Students didn't necessarily have that voice. And I think as a system in HWDSB, that is one of the priorities and one of the things that we are looking at, because one of our priorities is about positive culture and well-being. That's important for students, but it's also important for our staff, right? And when they are able to show up as their authentic selves and be positive and have their well-being supported and attended to, that's going to do wonders for our student experience.

What personality or characteristics will you draw on most in your role?

I would say listening, which is what I'm doing now. I'm entering a new system. I recognize I've come in, there's lots of amazing things that are happening at HWDSB. It's for me to learn about them and to learn and understand how things are done and why. And so I do that really by listening to what people have to say. I think the other thing is I'm very authentic. I think I'm a very authentic person. And I talked to our leaders this summer. We had a meeting for our system leaders, and I talked about showing up as your authentic self. So I really model that, and I seek to model that. It means that I use humour. It means that I like to connect with people one on one. I listen to people. I like to hear what their stories are. I take time for people. And I think those are the things that are just so important in order to connect and understand. And you're gathering information as you're doing that so that you can figure out ways to do an even better job. And that's what we're going to do as a system.

I think it's also connected to that question about being the first female. I don't need to be a certain type of director. I'm going to be Sheryl. I'm going to be authentically Sheryl and bring my lived experience and my skills and my knowledge to the role.

You have frequently visited Hamilton to see your daughter who attends McMaster. What have been three of your favourite activities you’ve done while in the city and what remains on your list of things to do here?

We have visited waterfalls. I read there's between 75 and 100 waterfalls in Hamilton. I think we've been to five, so many more to go. We've hiked around Cootes Paradise. We’ve spent a lot of time at Bayfront Park. One of our favourite things to do is to go down to the tropical house at Gage Park, the greenhouse. I’ve spent a lot of time there watching my daughter do her homework. 

We've been out to some really good restaurants, like Valentinos and Shy's Place. As part of my entry plan, I’ve been meeting with trustees in their wards. These one-on-one conversations have taken me local restaurants like Caro, Vintage Coffee Roasters, Bedrock Bistro, and Aces Family Restaurant. It’s been wonderful to meet with trustees in the diverse communities of Hamilton they serve.

What have you learned about Hamilton in your new role? Have your impressions of the city changed at all?

The city is beautiful. It is more beautiful than I knew. Driving in from the east, it's so gorgeous. Going up the Mountain, it's beautiful. Right? And then same thing when you're going down the Mountain and heading out, it's gorgeous. Hamilton is all these beautiful surprises.