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Leadership strength can emerge from tragedy

ATA holds inaugural Women in Leadership Summit

March 17, 2020 Jen Janzen, ATA News Staff

From chaos to control, tragedy to triumph, leadership opportunities are everywhere. That was the message delivered by Jillian Marino on March 8 at the inaugural ATA Women in Leadership Summit, held at Barnett House in Edmonton. 

Using examples from her life, Marino told the crowd of 120 delegates that they can find strength in whatever circumstance they find themselves in. 

“It’s not the policies, or procedures or the forms you put in place; it’s how you respond to what’s going on in your world,” she said. 

On Sept. 11, 2001, the day of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, Marino was in her first year as an assistant principal at Queen Elizabeth School in Edmonton. She got to school not knowing what had happened, but, she recalled, “when I got to school, something was different.” 

“We had staff in the hallway crying. We had a large Muslim population in our school who were broken-hearted.” 

A few years later, during the war in Afghanistan, Marino received word that there would be 300 new students coming to her school, many of whom were refugees. Not only was it a dramatic increase to the student population, the refugee students also required special programming. 

“How do you respond to that?” she asked the group. “You’re welcoming, you’re safe, you’re caring, you’re warm. [You say,] ‘We’re glad you’re here. We are public education—you belong here, and we’re going to do everything we can for you.” 

In 2014, Marino was the victim of a violent home invasion during which she was assaulted physically and sexually. She was off work for six months, and her case was in the media every day. When she was preparing to return to work, her superintendent, whom Marino credits as being incredibly supportive, gave Marino the option of returning to work at another school in the city, in case it would be easier to return with a fresh slate. Marino turned this down, however, indicating that she wanted to go back to familiar territory, and she returned to her school, where she found support, kindness and a greater empathy in her interactions with students. 

As Marino worked to recover from the trauma of her injuries and the ongoing public attention to the court case, she was struck by the effectiveness of changing the way she framed her context. This included her approach to questioning why something happens.  

“Kids ask all the time, ‘why me?’,” Marino said. “’Why’d you make me move and not him?’ It’s a super important question in our lives, but when you go through something really tough, there is no why. You have to change the question. What do I do with this? And as soon as I switched to ‘what do I want to do with this,’ then I was able to do something.” 

Marino says her ordeal has helped her become a better school leader. She can more easily relate to staff and students who have faced or are facing their own trauma. 

“I can help them frame it,” she said. “They have a piece of the human experience that’s different from others and they’ll be remarkable adults because of it, and that helps them find a little bit of hope.” 

Now the principal at Vimy Ridge Academy, Marino said that she was grateful her horrific experience didn’t harden her, or make her lose her own sense of hope and passion for creating safe environments for students. 

“The minute you stop seeing the good in kids, you can’t do the job anymore.” 

The Women in Leadership Summit continued on March 9, with keynote talks by Dr. Michael Kehler from the University of Calgary, and Gwen Dueck, retired executive director of the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation.



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