When an American high school student made national headlines in 2014 for posing with his cat for his senior yearbook portrait, it gave Ryan Sikkes an idea.
The image of Draven Rodriguez and his cat, Mr. Bigglesworth – accompanied by blue and pink lasers – went viral. It inspired Sikkes to bring his Calico Redox to school a few days later, for the same purpose.
The end result is nothing short of hilarity. It features both Sikkes and his cat, straight-faced and looking directly into the camera.
“That picture has gotten a lot of mileage,” Sikkes said.
It’s a testament to the Vanier Catholic Secondary School principal’s sense of humour, one part of his personality that helps him and his staff get through tough times.
“I’m the first guy to laugh at myself,” he said.
“I spend a lot of my days problem-solving and troubleshooting by myself and with my staff. In those frustrations, seeing the humour is what helps keep us energized through it.”
The Learning Partnership recently named Sikkes one of Canada’s top 40 principals.
But it’s not the first award Sikkes has won as an educator. In 2008, the Canadian Association of Principals named him the Distinguished Vice-Principal of the Year.
Sikkes is humble when it comes to speaking about his accomplishments. He credits his staff for a lot of the success at Vanier.
“I’m really honoured to be recognized for a lot of the things that go on here, but it’s not me that does most of the work,” he said. “There is such a committed, hardworking and passionate staff here who do the heavy lifting.”
Sikkes’s career path at Vanier has stretched over a decade. He taught mathematics, chemistry and general science at the school before he began his role as vice-principal in 2006.
As his family grew, he decided he needed something “a little more 9-to-5” so he took a job as director of human resources at the Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board in 2011.
“That really was the only reason I left,” he said.
In his absence, Vanier experienced some rocky times. Vanier’s former principal, Ed Frison, was transferred out of the school by the Yukon’s Department of Education in March 2013. Frison had come under fire from students and parents during a controversy over the school’s use of a same-sex policy document written by former Whitehorse bishop Gary Gordon.
The document, which leaned heavily on Catholic doctrine, called homosexuality a “disorder” and an “intrinsic moral evil.” It also forbade students from forming a gay-straight alliance at the school.
After the Vanier controversy broke, it revealed other deep-seated fractures within the school. Some teachers and students complained that Frison and Gordon were taking the school in an overly conservative direction, to the detriment of students’ academic focus.
When Sikkes returned to Vanier in Aug. 2013 to take on the role of principal, he said he approached the issues the same way he deals with any problem a student might have.
“You focus on the positive and you support that,” he said.
“When I came back, I came back to a school that has a core of incredibly committed and passionate educators who wanted to form good relationships with students. And that’s what we went and did.”
The transition back to Vanier couldn’t have been possible without the support of his staff, who understood that Sikkes wouldn’t be able to make it to “every basketball game or concert,” he said.
It also wouldn’t have been possible without the help from his wife.
“I have the most supportive spouse, there’s no way I could be the principal that I want to be without her walking alongside me every day.”
Sikkes is also known as someone who encourages new initiatives. In 2008, the primary basis for his award was the Root of Empathy program he started at the school. It helped teens look at situations from different perspectives, to better understand how their actions affect other people.
Last year, a Filipino teacher at Vanier asked Sikkes whether the school could celebrate her country’s independence day in June. “All I did was say yes and sign a few cheques, but the actual work, that’s all done by other people,” he said.
More recently, a group of Filipino students approached Sikkes with an interesting idea for the school’s curriculum.
They proposed to create a specific course that would help them, and anyone else who was interested at the school, learn more about their country, its history and culture. After spending the spring and fall designing the course, it was approved by the Department of Education for credit.
Yesterday was the first day it was officially offered.
Sikkes estimates that about one-third of the student population – about 115 students – are now first- or second-generation immigrants from the Philippines. When he started as vice-principal in 2006, there were about 20.
“We’re trying as hard as we can to make as many opportunities for our students to integrate with each other,” he said.
The outstanding principals are nominated by their peers and chosen by a national selection committee.
Akela Peoples, president and CEO of The Learning Partnership, said the principals are recognized using the following criteria: leadership and student achievement, leadership and innovation, instructional leadership, professional learning teams, partnerships with families and communities, personal growth initiatives and corresponding letters of support.
In Sikkes’s case it was Edith Elder, chair of the Vanier Catholic Secondary School Council, who nominated him.
“He’s described as a master teacher and someone who excels in terms of being a role model,” Peoples said.
“Also as someone who mentors and supports both teachers and students. He even interviews prospective students and their parents to give them a better understanding of Vanier’s programming.
“I’ve been reading these letters for a number of years and I don’t think I’ve ever read that before.”
The 40 principals will be recognized at the annual Canada’s Outstanding Principals gala on Feb. 23 at the Westin Harbour Castle Hotel in Toronto.
They’ll also take part in a five-day leadership program at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.
Last year’s Yukon winner was Watson Lake Secondary School principal Jean MacLean.
Contact Myles Dolphin at