That experience inspired Dr. Bernstein to go back to school with the aim of attending a university for psychology. Once he became a registered educational and clinical psychologist, he worked for hospitals, school boards, and clinics in Canada and the United States. “I did just about everything you can do in psychology, but I was always pulled back to working with kids,” he says. “It’s my passion because you can really make a difference with them.”
As someone who went through harsh times and felt alone as a young teen, Dr. Bernstein empathizes with Chisholm Academy students. “My early experience is the greatest influence on what I do now and how I do it,” he says. “I tell my students that the hardest things in life can lead to the greatest growth.With roots in an educational psychology practice, Chisholm’s teaching philosophy views students’ emotional health as pivotal to their learning capacity. “We come at the whole school experience from a unique angle, in that our priority is to create an environment where kids feel comfortable,” says Dr. Bernstein.
Lorna Hughes, Chisholm’s admissions officer and HR coordinator, says Dr. Bernstein is like a father figure in the school community. “He has so much knowledge and expertise, but also a personal understanding of how it feels to be a teenager having a rough time. For parents, they know they're in good hands because of his professional background. They know that they can trust him when they have concerns, and he makes himself available immediately.”
The Chisholm teachers we spoke to appreciate Dr. Bernstein’s down-to-earth manner and warmth. “Right from the first time I met him when I was interviewing, I could tell he was an easy-going guy,” says Vice-Principal and Guidance Counsellor Graeme Schnarr. Teacher Yvonne Curic echoes this sentiment, saying she’s never had a more supportive or collaborative administrative team in her career.
Parents agree, with one commenting, “As soon as I started talking to Howard, I could tell he really knew his stuff as a child psychologist. But he's also a real person and he doesn't try to confuse you with technical knowledge. He talks to you like an equal and is very honest about what the school can and can’t do for your child.”
Another reported that there was “lots of laughter” in her first meeting with him, alongside straight talk. Several parents say Dr. Bernstein was the first school administrator who was genuinely open to hearing—and implementing—their ideas about how their children learn best. “In the past, I’ve been called an ‘enabler’ of my son’s anxiety because he’s very attached to me and often needs me to be around. Dr. Bernstein wanted to hear why I wanted to take the approach of easing my son into Chisholm one class at a time, with me being available when he needed calming. He agreed, and the whole process was a true partnership.”
As for working with Adam Bernstein, associate director of the school, Dr. Bernstein says it’s a positive and productive relationship—despite the fact that he never intended to work with family. Seeing them together, it’s obvious that their good-natured ribbing is integral to the lighthearted environment. “His experience in mental health counselling is ideal for Chisholm, and the kids love him because he has an inner teenager like me,” says Dr. Bernstein.
With roots in an educational psychology practice, Chisholm’s teaching philosophy views students’ emotional health as pivotal to their learning capacity. “We come at the whole school experience from a unique angle, in that our priority is to create an environment where kids feel comfortable,” says Dr. Bernstein. “Students who’ve had a difficult time in school don’t love it. They don’t even like it very much. Some of them have been teased and bullied. When they come here, we make them feel good about who they are. They see they’re not alone. Feeling good is the fundamental starting point for learning. There’s an overarching focus here on wellness and providing for all of the kids’ needs, well beyond just academics.”
The Chisholm leadership team is extremely selective in faculty hiring, though the teachers are a diverse group. Some have decades of experience, while others are freshly minted. Some have only the baseline special education training, while others have achieved full specialization. But they all have one thing in common, according to Dr. Bernstein, and that’s what he calls “heart.” “It’s the one skill you can’t train teachers in, and it’s a must-have here. Teachers have to want to really connect with our kids, to dig deep and truly get to know them so that they can see the early warning signs when they’re about to shut down or give up. We hire teachers who have that drive and dedication.”
“Our teachers are not just teachers,” says Dr. Bernstein. “They’re mentors. They’re compassionate, trusted adults in the lives of kids who need that more than most. They understand what it looks like when kids get anxious or frustrated, and they know how to defuse escalated situations so that everyone can get down to learning.”