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Meet PHS’s new principal

Top goals include helping students graduate, filling educational gaps left by COVID-19 disruptions

Connor Lalande
Shawville September 7, 2023
With a new school year having just begun, THE EQUITY sat down with Pontiac High School’s new principal, Dr. Terry Burns.
During the conversation, we asked Burns about his background, educational philosophy and the path forward he envisions for Pontiac High School.
Burns is originally from the Smiths Falls, Ontario region. He holds a B.A. in Economics from Carleton University, a Bachelor of Theology from Global University, a Master of Education from Southeastern University and a Doctor of Ministry from Acadia University.
Prior to his work as an educator, Burns worked in business, as a Pentecostal Pastor and in international development.
Burns’ answers have been edited for clarity and readability.

What memories do you have of being in school and how do you think education has changed?
I remember how difficult it was in grade nine to integrate into a very large institution, being very intimidated by the older classmen. But as time went on, I enjoyed all that high school had to offer. I was very active in sports and music. It was a very busy time. I was playing football. I played junior hockey. I had a part-time job. I played in the band. Throughout it, I managed to have decent grades. So, it was a very busy time. There were no wasted minutes in my life when I was a teenager.
The other thing I would add is that there wasn’t as much pressure on people’s grades to get into universities other than for professional programs. So back then, if we did a good job and we graduated, we had a fairly straight path to university. So we weren’t under the same pressures that students are now for spaces and competitive programs. It’s much more competitive.
It looks like before your work in education, you worked in business and as a pastor. How have these prior experiences shaped your educational philosophy?
I always tell people, “I’m a third career guy.” I spent a lot of my life in business. I was a supermarket manager and a marketing manager in the business world. I was always interested in church life, and I retrained and became a minister. I spent 17 years total as a full-time clergyman, so I’m still an ordained minister and function in that capacity on the weekends.
I started doing overseas development work through a church organization. Working in orphanages and hospitals in East Ukraine, my wife and I relied on our teacher training to support ourselves. She was a career educator, and I was using my educational training to support us when we were doing that work, and then life evolved so that we were becoming more and more immersed in the educational side of things.
When I look at my life skills, being comfortable with language, being a strong administrator, a great love for people, those skills and characteristics of my personality led to me having an enjoyable experience as a corporate person as a nonprofit leader and, and as an educational leader. Very similar skills, you just transport them across the different types of organizations where you’re working. So many of my attitudes and beliefs have been shaped by those experiences.

What made you want to take on the principal position at Pontiac High School?
When we had to return to Canada because of the need to look after some aging family members, I had applied to be on the Western Quebec board as a teacher. When they saw my resume and saw that I’d had principal experience, they asked me if I would interview for a principal vacancy. I accepted that responsibility and things went well and when the position here close to home opened up, I thought it would be a good opportunity to work closer to my home in Cobden.
I was successful in that interview process and was given this responsibility. I’ve had my eyes on the school for a long time. I visited here a few times, and I thought it would be a really amazing thing if I would have the honour to be the principal of the school.
I felt that I belonged here because I love sports, I’m a small town person and I understand the culture of small town life.

Do you have any goals as the new principal of Pontiac High School and if so, how do you plan on implementing them?
Number one would be making sure that we’re graduating as many students as we possibly can through either Pontiac High School itself or adult education, making sure that the maximum number of students are successful in obtaining their high school diplomas.
We want to make sure that we’re at a very high level of excellence with respect to all aspects of instruction. We look at how we plan, how we teach, how we assess and how we communicate. We’re very thoroughly concerned with the safety, security and overall well being of all of our students through keeping a close eye on promoting strong anti-bullying and anti-violence messages and initiatives.
In our school, we have kids who experienced COVID. I think we can all agree that that was a very difficult time in community, family and educational life and so there’s been some adjustments needed to get kids back into school as a community, relating to each other in a healthy way, and identifying anything that was a learning gap during the COVID years and making sure that we go back and reinforce those things so that our students have all that they need when they do leave our school system.
The employment landscape has changed drastically over the past decade. What ways do you believe it’s important to prepare students for the realities of the modern working world?
Things are changing so quickly that we are aware every day that we could be training kids for jobs that don’t exist yet. What we have to do is teach skills that can be used across vocational, academic and professional life. We’re also finding out more and more that there are tremendous opportunities on the vocational technical side of things.
One of the things that we’re extremely proud of here at Pontiac High School is our welding program. And so over one third of our students are taking welding and we have a large number that are interested in the trades. So, we’re focused on making sure that they are developing skills that they’ll be able to use in any of these areas, but especially not being able to see potentially some jobs that are going to exist that we don’t know about yet, we have to make sure that they’re ready to pivot very quickly. And so, we’re focused on 21st century skills.

On a more personal, lighthearted note, when you’re not working, what do you like to do with your free time?
My wife and I are enjoying a season of life now where our children are grown and married and have families of their own. So, my wife and I are enjoying the opportunity to travel. I’m still very busy in sports, I’m a jogger, a hunter and I play golf. I love to go visit my grandchildren and stay involved in what they’re doing.
It’s a great honour to be the principal of the school here. Everywhere I travel, people are congratulating me and reminding me of what an important responsibility this is. We trust that we’ll continue to produce great community people and perhaps people that even shape things around the world in the future.

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