JoAnna Roberto, BA’97, M.S.Ed.’00: Relationships and Reflection Are the Keys to Her Professional Success
August 27, 2019 by Lisa McMahon, M.A.'09
In her role as superintendent of curriculum and student achievement at the District School Board of Niagara, in Ontario, Canada, JoAnna Roberto, BA’97, M.S.Ed.’00, oversees the central curriculum for 79 elementary schools and works with her senior administration team colleagues as well as system principals, consultants, instructional coaches, English as a Second Language itinerants, and school principals and vice principals. She leads her team with an emphasis on three key aspects of the board’s strategic plan—relationships, respect, and responsibility—to create a culture where everyone is valued and appreciated, something she said she experienced as an undergraduate at Niagara University.
“The university gives you a feeling that they are very vested in you as an individual, and I think that’s always left a lasting impression with me around my successes in several departments, from French/education, to business and theatre,” she said. During her time at NU, Roberto remained on the Dean’s List, was a recipient of the Teaching in Excellence award, and served as co-president of Phi Delta Sigma.
The Niagara Falls, Ontario, native knows a lot about relationships. A first-generation Canadian born into a close-knit Italian family, she says that her grandmother (Nona) taught her the importance of maintaining a connection with others through the meals she would prepare at the restaurant the family owned on Victoria Avenue, where everyone was invited, whether family, friends, or friends of friends. You’d hear her Nona say “vienite a mangiare” which means come and eat, Roberto said. Often, Roberto’s Niagara professors were at the table, because her Nona wanted to know the people who were having an impact on her granddaughter’s life.
“That was something my Nona valued, to meet the people,” Roberto said. “Meeting them and feeding them and inviting them to the table was a very important aspect of our culture, but also of who we were and are.”
That concept of gathering at the table is one Roberto brings with her to her job. She visits schools three to four times each week, creating opportunities for student ambassadors, instructional coaches, and principals to gather and share their ideas. She notes that she appreciates the opportunity to learn from everyone so that she can stay connected to the classroom and focused on the students.
“There are lots of people around the table to make that happen,” she said. “It’s really about students at the core--they drive the work that I do. Everything is built together to a point where it’s their ideas coming forward to make things happen. And that’s the type of learning culture and the relationship piece that’s most important when working collaboratively together.”
Roberto has moved rapidly along her career path, starting as a teacher at the Hamilton Wentworth Catholic District School Board before returning to her hometown, where she took on positions of increasing responsibility with the District School Board of Niagara as vice principal, principal education officer for the Ministry of Education, assistant superintendent, and superintendent of schools and curriculum and student achievement. But she is quick to credit her colleagues, mentors, family, and professors with the support they gave in helping her achieve her professional success.
“You can’t do it alone,” she said, “so you really have to be surrounded by a supportive family and great mentors and colleagues along the way who believe in you.” She notes that compassion, understanding, and the desire to give back as a servant-leader are key to the work that she does.
“It’s not about you, it’s about those who are supporting you, those who are surrounding you, and ultimately, the collective commitments around giving back to students,” she said. “I think the whole concept of being humble, of giving, and of being kind to those you work with, have been key attributes that I took away from the university. (The professors) were there to support you to make sure you were well-equipped on your journey, and that you were going to be a lifelong learner, and that you really wanted to give back in that same humble and kind approach that they surrounded you with.”
Reflection is also crucial for Roberto to grow and improve as an educator, she noted.
“I spend a lot of time around that reflection aspect, around how I can add value and improve,” she said. “I think the beginning of the school years are exciting times, and the end of the school years are these amazing opportunities to reflect on the joy of learning and the great accomplishments that occur along the way.”
In her seven years as superintendent, Roberto’s district has had consistent academic improvements in the literacy and mathematics skills (the district’s five-year EQAO trends indicate a +15% increase above the province in grade 3 and +12% increase above the province in grade 6 in math), and she has advocated for the professional development of all teaching staff. She also worked on the district’s renewed strategic plan for 2015-2020 with the director of education and the district’s board of trustees, collaborating with 80 participants representing elementary/secondary students, administrators, teachers, First Nation Métis Inuit, unions/federations, trustees, senior team, school council parents, and the community. As part of the process, participants and the community were given an opportunity to share their thoughts and ideas on what the priorities should be and how to continue to best move the system forward in a positive way. As a result, the strategic plan focused on the theme of “I Matter” as a learning, individual, and community member.
In addition, Roberto’s curriculum department has implemented the math scope and sequence in her district and provided each teacher in grades K-8 an opportunity to participate in a math series to further support math for teaching content knowledge. She also maintains strong connections with colleagues across the province supporting math strategies, and serves on the Provincial EQAO Modernization Review Committee.
Her desire to be a lifelong learner led her to start Niagara’s Ph.D. program in leadership and policy. She hopes that her professional future offers “continued happiness and the joy with those I work with and am inspired by. I’d like to continue along other paths in public education, because it has been a rewarding and fulfilling journey.”