A smiling teacher sitting amidst pajama clad children holding books

Shannon Behan, Principal, Westview Elementary School: Life-long learning makes leaders

By Isabelle Southcott, originally published on qathet Living

Every weekday morning starting in 2019, Shannon Behan woke up at 4 am to work on her PhD. At 6 am, she’d get ready for her day as Principal of Westview Elementary School. Then, she would spend two hours every evening and all day Saturday and Sunday researching and writing for her degree. 

“I took breaks to go running, though,” she smiled.

Goal-oriented, tenacious and driven. Shannon is an educator, mother, marathoner, friend, grandmother, daughter and sister. She’s also only one of two School District 47 staff who have now earned a doctorate (the other is Superintendent Jay Yule.) 

“I love what I do,” said Shannon. “I am a goal setter (you should see what my New Year’s resolution list looks like!) I chart papers on walls, chat while running. I love learning, and I try to always be looking ahead to what might be coming around the corner.”

For her doctoral thesis, Shannon researched why so few School District superintendents in BC are female. About three-quarters of BC teachers are women, but fewer than one third of Superintendents are women. 

“Doing the research was fascinating,” said Shannon. “I spent at least an hour with the superintendents who participated in this study. The conversations were rich, genuine and honest.”

One reason why some women were able to rise into leadership positions is that they had support with raising their children. 

Some women leaders had partners who took on extra chores at home, others had family or partners with flexible schedules.

Indeed, Shannon completed her Masters degree when her children were four and six years old. She says that she and the father of her children were “mutually supportive of each other’s goals and aspirations.”

That was nearly 20 years ago. These days, she is free to pursue her biggest goals. 

Most recently, Shannon became a board member of the BC Principals and Vice Principals Association, where she works to support leaders throughout the Province of British Columbia. 

“Being an administrator can be isolating,” she said. “Gaining insight from a provincial perspective is so valuable.”

Although she has wrapped up her academic career – for now – Shannon still starts each day early, doing what she loves. 

Just after 7 am, you’ll find her unlocking the doors at Westview Elementary.

“The teachers are working hard each and every day in their classrooms. They are a highly-motivated bunch of amazing people and they inspire me to be better and do better. I am privileged to be working amongst the people I work with!”

What shaped your goals, as a child?

Shannon • I was born into a large Irish Catholic family, where there was a fundamental and core understanding that education and learning is a lifelong venture, that hard work matters and building community is a precious gift. When I was 15, I spent a year in Northern Lapland on the edge of the Arctic Circle as a Rotary Exchange Student. That opportunity opened my eyes to a whole new world outside of Powell River.

How did you get to where you are today, career-wise?

Shannon • After graduating from UVic, my first teaching experience was in Taiwan. I returned home to BC and spent the next 25 years working as a teacher, counsellor and administrator in elementary, middle and high schools. When the School District wanted to expand the international program, I took on the role of Principal of the certified BC offshore school in Beijing, and helped expand the exchange student program here. Then, I took on the Principal position at Westview. 

Do you have any mentors?

Shannon • I had some significant teachers/mentors throughout my formal and informal learning career. My mother, who moved here when she was 19, and raised a big family in a new country. My siblings and children who have worked and fostered careers in which they thrive, and careers they have changed when the time was needed. I have some dear friends who are living the immigrant experience and I watch and learn with humility, from their experiences.

How do you blow off steam?

Shannon • I run, hike, bike, golf, and do yoga. Exercise for me, is about getting outside, moving the body, and connecting with friends. But what I love most is getting lost in the trails and solving all the worlds problems while doing so! 

What does it mean to be a woman in leadership?

Shannon • Being a woman in leadership is a complex topic; one that I studied in depth while working on my Doctorate. My dissertation was an intensive study of female superintendents in the Province of British Columbia. We have a disproportionately lower number of females than males in the top jobs. But the reasons for this are complex: family responsibilities, perception of females in the workforce, the lateral violence women experience in the workplace and more.

Advice for younger women?

Shannon • First and most importantly; be yourself. Take the time and figure out ‘who you are” and know your core values. You have a voice, dreams, experiences and hopes that need to be shared with the world. Avoid trying to ‘fit into a mold.’ Take risks, set goals, believe in yourself. Surround yourself with people who want to see you succeed and do well. Also, find those who will hold up the mirror (figuratively) to you and, while championing you, will also give critical feedback. One of my favourite quotes that is often used by a key mentor is “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.” Find experiences and opportunities that challenge you, lift you up, change your thinking, while always staying true to your core values. The world is a complicated place and we need kindness, connection and creative thinking. You will define what the future holds. 

Top image credit: Westview Principal Shannon Behan on a school pajama day, with Grade 5 students and some of their favourite books – Photo courtesy qathet Living.

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