Ottawa's new education director is committed to equity and engagement
October 24, 2018
In university, pursuing a teaching career wasn’t on Camille Williams-Taylor radar.
After completing an undergraduate degree in English & History at the University of Manitoba, she enrolled in the federally-funded Official-Languages Monitor Program established in 1973 to promote Canada’s two official languages and the cultures they convey by encouraging young people to make their language and culture known to students in a region other than their own.
Under the program which underwent a name change to ‘Odyssey’ 11 years ago, educational institutions throughout the country receive the services of language assistants.
Williams-Taylor spent a year in Saint-Quentin, a small town in northern New Brunswick, helping the neighbouring community high school teacher provide authentic English opportunities to students while learning French.
At the end of that assignment, she did a six-month French language skills program at Universite Laval in Quebec City.
“That’s when I decided to become a teacher,” said Williams-Taylor who is the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) next director of education.
She will spend the month of December doing some transition planning with outgoing director Dr. Jennifer Adams before officially assuming the role on January 1.
Back in Winnipeg after being away for 18 months, Williams-Taylor worked to earn funds to attend McGill University’s Faculty of Education and secure her teacher certification. She taught for two years in Winnipeg before coming to the Greater Toronto Area in 1991.
“I had always yearned to come to Toronto and, while walking through the faculty lounge at the University of Manitoba where I was taking a course, I saw an advertisement for a job fair for Ontario school boards,” she said. “I was invited to a number of interviews during March break in 1991 and was successful.”
Declared surplus after a year with the Peel Region District School Board, Williams-Taylor taught for seven years with the City of York prior to amalgamation, became a vice-principal in North York and was a principal for a decade in Scarborough schools.
She was also seconded to the Ministry of Education literacy & numeracy secretariat and helped develop new teachers as a seconded course director for York University’s Faculty of Education urban diversity program before joining the Durham District School Board (DDSB) as a senior executive in 2011.
With the support of her husband of 20 years and trusted mentors, the mother of three children, including 15-year old twins, applied for the director of education position in Ottawa after seeing the job posting in the summer.
“I thought it was attractive and I am bilingual which one of the requirements was,” she said. “I was interested, but I had some reservations as my children are still in school. My husband, however, said it looks like a good opportunity and we could make it work.”
The largest school board in Eastern Ontario, the OCDSB offers a wide range of programs to 73,000 students in 143 schools. Employing about 10,000 teaching, administrative, para-professional and custodial staff, the board has an annual operating budget of almost $1 billion.
Williams-Taylor was selected after a comprehensive search that unearthed several exceptional candidates.
“We felt confident that Camille has the skills and experience to support our commitment to learning, equity, well-being and engagement,” said OCDSB chair Shirley Seward. “She is passionate about bringing voice to students, staff and families to foster positive relationships and support student success.”
The educational leader thanked the board of trustees for the opportunity and is looking forward to the new challenge.
“The responsibility is huge, but the opportunity to influence outcomes that are lasting is very important,” she pointed out. “With each role that we play in education that broadens the scope of influence, there’s greater opportunity for positive impact. So when I look at an opportunity like this, the scope is huge. It is really an investment of faith in me which I take with humility and great gratitude. It’s a signal to me that there are people who believe in my capacity to undertake this as a huge responsibility to a community.”
Building a vision for public education that ensures students have the best learning opportunities in a safe and caring environment is Williams-Taylor’s priority.
“One of the things that I envision is the capacity to prepare our students to be creators of their society and not just consumers of what is given to them,” she noted. “So when we think about how it is we are going to shift our structures to cultivate a society of people who are creating and building as opposed to just consuming, a shift in lens is required. So that is why my perspective on diversity is diverse ways of thinking instead of not just a question of diverse realities or experiences. That is what leads to innovation. When we create climates where people who think in a variety of ways can be brought together to solve problems and forecast solutions, we are on the right track.
“Some of the changes that we need to foster is how is it that we engage young people and families to be able to think in those ways, what do we empower them with and how is it that they are able to leverage their talents to make those kinds of changes and come up with innovative approaches to building possibilities.”
Camille Logan, a superintendent of education with the York Region District School Board, said Ottawa is fortunate to have an outstanding educator lead their district.
“She is an innovative educator whose expertise in educational leadership is not only well known in the boards where she has worked, but beyond,” said Logan who recently completed her PhD. in sociology & equity studies.
During her seven years with the DDSB, the employee services unit was rebranded, a French Immersion Public School in north Ajax bearing the name of Canada’s first Black governor general, Michaelle Jean, was opened and an equity and diversity strategic framework was unveiled last year.
“The opportunity to be part of developing the equity profile through the leadership of many is one of the highlights my time with the DDSB,” said Williams-Taylor who was the school board’s first Black superintendent. “We were able to draw many people to that conversation and develop so many clear deliverables and pathways. It has opened a conversation that hasn’t been there in lots of other broader platforms before. To be able to inform that, invest in that and influence how it is people are engaged in that conversation stands out. The ability to coach other leaders has been rewarding and I also enjoyed my time as the Family of Schools superintendent for 25 schools. In that role, you learn all the time. You learn from students, staff and leaders and then you offer learning as well. That honed a lot of my leadership.”
DDSB education director Lisa Miller and board chair Michael Barrett thanked Williams-Taylor for her distinguished service.
“Her commitment to equity was a clear passion during her tenure,” Barrett added.
Williams-Taylor is Canada’s third Black director of education after Harold Brathwaite who broke the colour barrier in Peel where he held the position for eight years until 2002 and Dr. Avis Glaze who was with the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board from 2002 to 2004.
Working under Glaze who was Ontario’s first chief student achievement officer and chief executive of the literacy & numeracy secretariat where she played a key role in improving student achievement in the province was instructive for Williams-Taylor.
“Having the opportunity to watch her leadership was inspirational,” she said. “I have in my office a copy of the Royal Commission on Learning report that I often cite and quote because when you look at that document, that body of research and the manner in which it was conducted, many of us are still drawing from that.”
Glaze served on the Ontario Royal Commission on Learning and was chosen by the Canadian government to assist with education reform in South Africa.
She said Williams-Taylor is an innovative leader and inveterate learner who will ensure that excellence and equity co-exist in her district.
“All students in Ottawa, regardless of their background or personal circumstances, will benefit tremendously from the focus she will bring to her new role,” said Glaze.
Ajax High School principal Eleanor McIntosh met Williams-Taylor when she joined the DDSB. They have worked on several initiatives, including The Cypher Black male empowerment conference, the Strong Academy Durham summer program and the Durham Black Educators Network Activating Students Success Awards and the ‘And Still We Rise’ conference.
“Camille has been a mentor, colleague and good friend,” said McIntosh. “We have become very close over the years and I truly value the influence she has had in my life. She is a visionary leader with a strong sense of purpose and morality. An amazing orator and natural story teller, she provides a powerful model for young women who are seeking to pursue a leadership role in the education sector.”
DDSB school social worker & attendance counsellor Tracey Grose said the board is losing a great leader.
“She’s an innovator who is abundantly creative in producing education materials for all to understand the concepts she creates,” said Grose. “Though thrilled with her appointment, we are sad to lose someone of her calibre.”
The eldest of two girls, Williams-Taylor spent her first 11 years in Jamaica before the family relocated to the Bahamas where her father, Errol Williams – a teacher-turned-systems analyst – was assigned. They migrated to Winnipeg 18 months later.
Williams-Taylor mother, Dorothy Yates, was an outstanding athlete.
At the 1962 Central American & Caribbean Games in Jamaica, she won a silver medal with a 5.38 metres leap in the long jump event and was a member of Jamaica’s 4x100-metre relay team that won a gold medal in 47 secs. Later that year, she finished 10th in the long jump at the Commonwealth Games in Perth.