Greg Smyth

School District 70 – Port Alberni, BC

I’ve been a secondary school principal and District leader in School District 70 (Alberni) for the past 22 years, the last three years as Superintendent of Schools.


The MDI broadens and deepens our knowledge and understanding of wellbeing and, by emphasizing student voice, provides valuable information from students’ perspectives about their lives, schools and communities.


Since first administering the MDI in 2012/13, our District’s use of the MDI has evolved to a place where it is now a key indicator of student well-being and is prominently reflected in our annual District and school plans.

When thinking about your own job or role, how do you think it allows you to make change?

There’s a lot of positional influence that can come from district leadership but in our School District I am confident that a “top down” direction is matched by a “bottom up” belief that student well-being has a tremendous impact on student success. It’s a belief shared by teachers, administrators, support staff and trustees, and its pervasiveness is one of the strengths in our system wide approach. As Superintendent, it’s more than the ability to influence district priorities, to require school plans focusing on wellbeing or to find resources to support our initiatives. I’ve seen that simply acknowledging and elevating the importance of well-being validates our deeply-rooted beliefs and unleashes a passion and commitment in educators throughout our schools. As one teacher told me, the value I place on student wellbeing not only gives teachers permission but also creates an expectation that they attend to student wellbeing.

If you could share one piece of advice about how to connect and engage with people around middle years issues, what would it be?

Two thoughts: First, it doesn’t matter so much where you start but more that you get started. If you’re waiting for someone else to take the lead you might waste a lot of valuable time waiting. Invite similarly-minded people to look at the MDI, start a conversation, spark some curiosity, generate a movement…whatever it takes to make the middle years both common issues and common ground. Second, be prepared that people will be both over-whelmed and over-inspired by the vast amount of information in MDI reports! There is so much data in the MDI report that, given our moral commitment to wanting to improve every single measure, people tend to set goals and plan initiatives far beyond what they can realistically handle. It’s also likely that each participant in a ‘data-mining’ activity will discover something that individually interests or resonates with him/her but not necessarily with the larger group. This is particularly true when multiple stakeholders come together but that’s one of the joys and challenges of working with the breadth and depth of MDI information: there’s something for everyone in the MDI and we need to be mindful that moving from understanding to action is dependent on a variety of factors. 


When considering school level MDI results we ask administrators to consider zones of interest, influence and control. For example, a school might be very interested in the issue of nutrition and its impact on learning and may exert a degree of influence on nutrition through breakfast/lunch programs but it doesn’t control student nutrition that largely happens in homes. Nutrition is an important area to address but it might be best addressed in a different manner and with a community partner. Instead, we suggest that initial MDI plans might consider areas over which schools exert the greatest control and have the greatest impact. To that end, most of our early attempts to action the MDI focused on explicitly teaching social and emotional competencies such as self-regulation or empathy, or increasing school-related assets like connectedness or school climate. Most importantly, though, is the realization that schools need to understand the data in the context of their school community, to identify areas that resonate with the school, and to engage where they have the capacity to leverage positive change. No matter what schools choose as a focus area, the impact of initiatives to improve student wellbeing are felt across the MDI. So, a focus on After School Activities will yield an increase in the number of students reporting assets relating to after school activities and is equally likely to impact on measures relating to connectedness with adults, peer relationships, empathy, pro social skills, and so on.

What challenges have you overcome in the process of working with the MDI?

We received and reviewed MDI reports for a couple of years before we became more purposeful and intentional about the data. Shifting from a curiosity about the MDI to intentionally using MDI data, however, presented three initial challenges: perceptions about the validity of self-reported student data, the inability to “drill down” to individual students, and tracking results over time. The first was easily overcome given the attention paid to the development of the MDI and its rigorous field testing but the other two issues required a more significant shift in thinking as to how we use student evidence. In the end, we had to accept that unlike our past experiences using individual student literacy or numeracy data, working with population-based evidence required a new approach to understanding the data and planning for action. And this was a good shift – away from the ‘fix it’ targeted intervention approach – to thinking more globally about student well-being and universal approaches to improve outcomes for all students. Also, since we don’t (and shouldn’t) compare data from different Grade 4 and 7 cohorts, we chose to apply a ‘line of best fit’ approach in looking at trends over time.

Resources from Greg Smyth