Above: The deep work of coding requires noise-cancelling headphones and an appropriate playlist.
On the Job with… Greg Rousell, System Research Leader
Everyone in Grand Erie is likely familiar with the Multi-Year Plan’s goal of Success for Every Student, but they may not realize that one person is responsible for helping us understand it.
“I’m the one who tracks the successes,” says Greg Rousell, the Board’s System Research Leader. No matter what you do in Grand Erie, his work has probably informed your role in some way.
Right: Data requires context, so Rousell sometimes seeks out staff members such as Elementary Program Coordinator Heather Brown to ask questions.
Tracking those successes can sometimes start with millions of rows in a spreadsheet and thousands of lines of computer code in order to process, analyze, and present the information. Making sense of it all is the essence of Rousell’s role. It’s the sort of work that requires thorough organization, intense discipline, and an understanding of a technical language that allows him to take those lines of numbers and turn them into conclusions about students’ experiences and achievement, for example. It’s the sort of work that requires a deliberate start to the day.
“I woke up at 5:30 a.m. and got a run in before coming into the office,” says Rousell, who’s completed the 30-kilometer Around the Bay road race four times and is working on increasing his speed as he trains for the 10-kilometer relay this spring. “Beyond the physical benefits, it’s the mental benefits of exercise that are so important to me – I’m much more clear-headed after exercising, and by 9 a.m., I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot already.”
This balance will carry through Rousell’s day as the watch around his wrist reminds him to get up and move, sometimes warranting a brisk walk around the grounds of the Joseph Brant Learning Centre where he’s based. After that, he’s ready to settle into a few hours of what he refers to as “deep work.”
“Anyone who’s written any kind of computer code understands that the work is very sequential,” Rousell says. “You need to think about what you’re doing three steps behind and four steps ahead.”
Right: Rousell balances the long hours at his desk with periodic walks.
So, for a time, his office door is closed, the phone goes on do-not-disturb, email and other applications are closed, and a pair of noise-cancelling headphones goes over his ears. (For anyone looking for a playlist to power them through their own deep work, Rousell recommends Spotify’s Lo-Fi Beats.) This is how reams of information about EQAO results or credit accumulation can become meaningful recommendations for Grand Erie’s program staff, administrators, and teachers.
Joseph Brant Learning Centre is also home base for a few members of Grand Erie’s elementary and secondary programs teams, so the lunch room and hallways of the building often provide a place for substantial small talk.
“Understanding data requires context, and so I might pick a colleague’s brain about something program-related, for example, to determine what that context is,” he says. “With data, the question has to be, ‘What are you going to do with it? How is this going to change your practice?’ Otherwise, there’s no point in looking at it.’’
Rousell’s journey to his current position is probably not what one would expect.
“I’m a highly skilled prison guard,” he says matter-of-fact.
His post-secondary education began with the completion of Sheridan College’s Correctional Worker program (now called the Community and Justice Services program), which led to 11 years working in the youth justice system in open and secure custody, group homes, and a secure treatment facility.
“It was the last stop for young people in the justice system who had exhausted every other possible intervention,” he explains of one stint. “These were kids who were not criminally responsible or not fit to stand trial.”
Rousell’s duties as a frontline worker required taking each moment as it came. He describes the work as highly stressful, with a lot of off-the-cuff counselling, and really just trying to get the teens through their day. In the process, he was exposed to trauma and tragedies.
“That background helps inform my work today,” he explains. “While I deal with numbers, I recognize that attached to every number is a student, and for the students who need the most, I can help direct resources at a larger level than I could one-on-one. Both roles are public service, but in this role I can have a bigger impact on a larger number of young people.”
Rousell left his work in youth justice to complete a degree is psychology. The in-depth research he did at the time eventually lead to positions with the Durham District School Board and the Halton Catholic School Board before he landed his current role.
Rousell isn’t just dealing in successes in Grand Erie, of course; depending on the data he’s working with and the Board staff who are relying on it, trends and patterns may reveal something that isn’t hoped for.
“A colleague from another board refers to this as donning the Cloak of Doom – we often have to present bad news – but bad news is always far more interesting because it’s actionable,” he reveals. “If you’re looking for feedback, you don’t want a pat on the back, you want to know how you can learn and grow.”
These days, much of Rousell’s focus is on the student census – a first-ever survey of students in Grades 4-12, conducted last spring. The data collected and currently in various phases of analysis is being used to better understand student needs, remove barriers to inclusion, and effectively plan programming and supports for all students. This has been a collaborative effort with the Safe and Inclusive Schools team since September 2018, and he’s the only person in Grand Erie with the confidential access and ability to decipher all of it, linking responses to various identifiers.
“The goal of the student census is that as a Board, we will respond to the data in a meaningful way,” he says of the findings, which sometimes reveal disparities between groups of students. “Data is what it is – and if it reveals something troublesome, we have an ethical and a moral obligation to respond to it.”
Rousell knows he can’t dwell on it, though, and after he shuts down his computer at the end of that day, the work stays there.
“It’s a skill I honed working in child welfare,” he reflects. “You’ve got to be able to leave some things at the door.”
Rousell’s expertise in the field of research, data science, and knowledge mobilization is something that will be spreading throughout Grand Erie as professional-development sessions are planned to help increase administrators’ data literacy skills, with an overall goal of using data more nimbly in the work done as a system.
“If data doesn’t get into the hands of practitioners, it’s useless.”