Fostering well-being in youth


The well-being of youth is the well-being of society.

This equation drives the career of Dean Barnes Dean Barnes(BA ’93, Recreation and Leisure Studies), who is now a superintendent of education for the Halton District School Board in Burlington, Ontario, where his portfolio of responsibilities includes student well-being and mental health.

“One of the rewarding things about education is that you can always identify areas to make life better for others,” says Barnes.

As part of his current portfolio, he works with schools and three professional managers who supervise social workers and child youth workers for the board and a mental health lead who implements the mental health and student support mandates of the Ontario government. He gets the satisfaction of seeing the impact of those programs despite no longer directly teaching in classrooms.

Love of hockey

Barnes was raised in Burlington by Jamaican immigrant parents who nurtured his desire to play the very Canadian sport of hockey. There weren’t many Black children playing hockey, but he didn’t let that stop him.

“I was different, but I didn’t feel I was treated differently. I guess that being Black in hockey means more to me now looking back, but at the time it wasn’t something that held me back,” he says. Hockey continued to be important to him and he became a member of the University’s men’s hockey team in 1989-90.

His experience as a Black hockey player and love for the game inspired him to start a collection of Black hockey player cards, a hobby that was reignited during the recent pandemic. His extensive collection of cards ended up on display during the NHL’s Black Hockey History Tour last year. His next project is to produce a podcast that will include interviews with past and current Black NHL players from his collection.

It was his interest in sports that led him to the University of Waterloo’s recreation program, where he also did a minor in political science. “It just seemed to be a progressive university,” Barnes says about why he chose this institution. “I thought Waterloo was ahead of its time with the availability of their large co-op program.”

Learning through co-op

The university’s co-op education program, which provides students with four-month work terms that complement their academic education, was another reason Barnes chose Waterloo. While he had great academic mentors at the university, he says the co-op work terms “provided as much learning for me as the classrooms.”

For one term, he worked for the Peel Region health services department on a health and wellness fair that was taken to various companies in that area. He also coordinated work at Waterloo that involved gathering feedback on what students wanted to see in the student life building project that was underway at the time. Yet another co-op experience enabled him to teach physical education in the Peel District School Board.

Attracted to teaching

As time went on, he found himself increasingly attracted to a teaching career because of its potential to have an enormous impact on the lives of young people. He completed a Bachelor of Education degree, then a Master of Education at Queen’s University and later a PhD from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. He became a teacher, a principal and was named superintendent just over a year ago.

When he was the principal of T.A. Blacklock High School in Oakville, Ontario, the school was recognized as a Gold Certified Healthy School by the Ontario Ministry of Education because of the way the school integrated the curriculum, social and physical environment with community partnerships to enhance teaching, learning and student engagement.

He then became the system principal of the Welcome Centre and International Student Program for the Halton school board. The Welcome Centre helps students and parents transition from various countries around the world and supports their settlement into school and the community.


In all these roles, he found ways to mix his passion for sports and recreation with his education career. Barnes realized that even in his own life, there has always been a strong connection between physical and mental well-being and success. His involvement in hockey and other sports provided him with self-confidence and leadership skills that served him well and he wants young people in the school system to also have that benefit.

Barnes recalls one example from when he was a teacher in an under-served community in Toronto in which students took part in an art competition that got them seats at a Toronto Raptors basketball game. “Those of us from more privileged environments might take this for granted, but there are many students who do not have access to these experiences,” Barnes says.

“I think that extra-curricular activities are important to wellness, which goes hand-in-hand with academic learning,” Barnes says. But it is also important to communities and Canada as a whole, he adds.

“Education has always been the cornerstone of a democratic society. Society benefits from the work that we do as educators in uplifting all students and removing the barriers they face to their success.”