May 23

Chris Smeaton

What is your legacy?

 

A number of years ago I spoke about creating a legacy. While some may believe this to be egotistical,  there is nothing further from the truth. In education, we should be trying to create a legacy each and every day. True legacies are not about self other than the goal to improve oneself in order to pass on those important life lessons to the students we teach and the people we interact. Legacy is far from ego because it is not what we get but it is about what we give.

Often when I speak to young teachers or those still in training I reiterate the importance of the relationship with their students.  Sadly, they may be the only person in their student’s lives who truly cares for them. They may be their safe haven and only horizon of hope. Their legacy is about what they can give each student to be better, feel safer, rise above and aspire to a better future. The memories of our best teachers always revolves around how they made us feel. As a parent and now a new grandparent, isn’t that we want all of our educators to do and to be?

Jung-quote

It saddens me when the important impact we play as educators on our students is not fully recognized. All professions have poor performers but to lump all educators with a few bad apples is unfair and unwarranted! The vast majority of educators in our systems desire the best for their students. And in order to accomplish this, we must seek to be the best and ultimately create the legacy that students deserve and we desire.

As we come closer to the end of the year, I think it is important to ask ourselves the following questions:

  • What legacy did I create?
  • What will my students, parents, co-workers remember about me?
  • Did I make the life of someone better because of my actions?
  • Did I make a difference?
  • And finally, how do I create my legacy even better next year?

Every year at our retirement banquet I listen to the stories of our retirees and of the legacies that they have created. It is such a positive evening because of the stories. Most often the stories I hear would be best told to our beginning teachers. For not only do we need to pass on our experiences to our students we must to our newer staffs too! They are our future! Legacies can build on each other if allowed and nurtured.

I admire those who retire when they are at the top of their game, love what they do and are still contributing to their legacy. I am grateful for the many retirees who have gone before me and left a legacy that I can build upon. As you conclude this school year, remember to reflect on the legacy you want to create from this point forward.

Legacy

May 15

Chris Smeaton

What have you learned?

I think it is quite sad that our world is so driven by achievement. What did you achieve this year or what award did you receive or simply what did you get, are common questions that surround us. It is not that I’m anti success, quite the opposite. My issue is that achievement seems to be the most frequent and narrowest evaluator of success. Sometimes, especially in the education world, it is the easiest to measure but does it really tell us what is most important.

As we near the conclusion of the school year, I would like to change the conversation slightly. Instead of what did you achieve, I would like to suggest we ask what have you learned? One of my favorite sayings on learning comes from Eric Hofer who writes, “In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.” Relating to my thoughts, achievements come and go but learning is continuous.

To complement the conversation on what have you learned I think you need to add from where and from whom. In education, I think we have a rich resource of who we can learn from daily. So here is my list:

  1. Learn from the world- It is easy to become myopic in education. Our world can quickly become our classroom or our school or our district. We can become so consumed with the busyness of our own lives that we forget to take the time to see what is around and beyond us. The fact is, there is much to learn from “out there.” Thinking outside the box or learning from the world requires us to first take the box off our heads to see what is out there. Our “norm” may not actually be the “norm.” It is extremely difficult to bring a multiple perspective into your classroom, school or district if you only possess a singular perspective. Learning from the world should both be affirming of current practice that is truly making a difference in the lives of students and challenging on practices that are not. While this could likely be a blog post in itself, suffice to say, learning from beyond your borders is a requirement.
  2. Learn from your parents- How often do we state that parents are the primary educators of their children and then don’t listen to them? I know we own pedagogy- it is what distinguishes us as a profession but parents know their kids! Don’t get me wrong, I know we have “snowplow” parents, ones who cover up and make every excuse for their child but that might be the learning lesson in itself. Parents are a valuable resource to our learning when we listen to and communicate with in order to form a strong partnership. Just because they may not have a teaching degree doesn’t mean they can’t contribute to our learning.
  3. Learn from your students- “Out of the mouths of babes!” Some of my greatest lessons have come from daring to listen to my students. Schools may be hierarchical but learning is not. Students have great capacity to teach us many things…if we are open, honest and willing. Often our learning can come from simply observing them- witnessing their innocence, seeing their fears and frustrations and watching for what excites and motivates them. Our students don’t just come as learners, they come as teachers as well.
  4. Learn from your colleagues- A frustration of mine is when educators either shut their door and refuse to collaborate with their colleagues or truly believe that they can’t gain anything from their colleagues. The days of the teacher as independent contractor must come to an end. In every school or district there exists pockets of excellence and  learning from colleagues will assist in scaling up and scaling out. Education is not complicated, it is complex and requires a “we” not “I” approach. Raw conversations on pedagogy, comparison of common assessments and colleague visits need to become the norm not the exception. Learning from colleagues means you share your expertise and your problems. There is always great expertise within a building- tap into it and contribute to it!

Learning cannot be optional in our ever-changing educational world. We must be constantly stretched to improve and get better. The students we face are constantly changing, the world is ever evolving and change is the norm. Given that, our own personal/professional learning must take on a higher level of priority. What have you learned must be always front and center in order to move success from achievement related only.

As you conclude this school year, ask the question, “What have I learned?”

May 02

Chris Smeaton

From the Desk of the Superintendent- May 2016

Good morning from Kananaskis where I’m joining my fellow Catholic Superintendents for a couple of days of meetings before Blueprints. Blueprints follows SPICE and from all indications, the SPICE conference which finished up on Sunday was a huge success. Congratulations again to our Excellence in Catholic Education Award winner Chris Hartman who was recognized here on Friday evening. We are fortunate in the province of Alberta to have both of these conferences and I would encourage all staff to attend during their careers. They are extremely powerful conferences and provide tremendous spiritual growth for all participants.

May has arrived which means we have less than 40 days to prepare for the end of the school year. It will be a busy stretch as we continue to work on staffing, develop plans to address our priorities for 2016-17 and of course finalize our budget. While the provincial budget didn’t provide any additional grant funding, the government recognized the importance of funding growth. In our current economic times, that commitment was welcomed news as our school division continues to grow and expand. We are looking at another enrolment increase for next year of between 2.0-2.5% or 100 + students. Since 2013-14 we have grown by just under 320 students and have hired an additional 18.28 FTE teachers. Put another way, we’ve hired a new teacher for every 17.36 students since that time. I know that since my time with the Board, our trustees have always committed to spending today’s dollars on today’s students and not placing it into the war chest of reserves.

This week we celebrate Education Week. Our division doesn’t really highlight this because there is such a strong belief that every week is Education Week. I’m confident in saying that for a couple of reasons. One is through my school visits. Whether I’m working in a classroom, observing practice or simply engaging with staff in their meetings, my beliefs are reaffirmed about the strengths within Holy Spirit. Secondly, is the recognition we receive from outside our walls. Case in point, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is sending a researcher to our Division to look at our practices around aboriginal learning. We have also been invited to be part of a research study for this same reason. I think sometimes we are simply too humble to really highlight these accolades or… we are just not content with the status quo and therefore are continually looking at ways to continuously improve. Looking beyond our own division  and accessing professional development through accessing division/school or personal funds has also caused us to see other possibilities. Both personal and systemic growth requires a balance between reflection inward and reviewing outward.

May signals the start of our high school graduations, our feather blessing and sash ceremony, our Pow Wows and our long service awards. Each of these events are strong reminders of who we are and what we do. There is always room to improve and I will never be one who doesn’t stop pushing and learning. But at the same time, it is important to recognize and celebrate the many positive qualities that exist within Holy Spirit. Stealing a line from CCH principal Carol Koran and slightly modifying it I end with the following statement,  “What we do in Holy Spirit is good!” 

Enjoy the month of May and God Bless!

 

Apr 20

Chris Smeaton

School fees and the basics

The following article was published in the Lethbridge Herald on April 20, 2016.

Holy Spirit Catholic Schools has just set their strategic priorities for the next three year and it should come as no surprise that literacy and numeracy are front and centre. The statistics are overwhelming that children who do not read by the end of grade 3 are unlikely to complete high school. That fact in itself should be enough of a driver for all school systems to focus on literacy and numeracy. This may also be one of the reasons for the “back to the basics” movement that often dominates the press. I will not ever divert from my strong belief in developing those foundational skills in our learners. Strong literacy and numeracy skills are non-negotiable and are very much prerequisites for future competencies that students will require to be successful in their ever evolving world.

While these skills are essential, I would consider them the minimum standard for education. They are ground floor practices, meaning they should be seen in every classroom. What parents and students have come to expect, however, are ceiling level practices. Basics are just not enough. In a world filled with gaming technology, instant messaging, and global connections, engaging students is a must. They are coming into classrooms questioning why certain outcomes need to be learned and expecting an answer better than, “because it is in the curriculum.” They want their learning to be connected to their own life, not without rigour but certainly with relevance. To achieve this, teachers need to go beyond the basics.

Like many of my colleagues in the role of superintendent, I have pleasure of visiting schools and getting into classrooms. I’m always amazed at the high level of instruction occurring in our classrooms and the innovative practices that our teachers are engaging in. What I see in our schools is far from “basic,” but providing that rich learning experience also comes with a cost. School divisions and individual schools wrestle to lower fees for parents in these tough economic times without losing the engaging aspects we now call the norm. Systems also struggle with equity. The opportunities of an engaging education must be afforded to all and not just some.

When reviewing the charging of school fees the proposed definition of basic educational services is, “The services, supports and materials required for a student to meet the core curricular outcomes at a basic level as defined in the Guide to Education (Math, Science, Language Arts, Social Studies, Religion, Physical Education, Health, Art, Music).” The proposed definition of enhanced educational services is, “Services and materials that are not required to meet the core curricular outcomes at a basic level as defined in the Guide to Education but that are provided to enhance the student’s learning opportunities.” What I struggle with is the murky line that divides “basic” from “enhanced” and the question of our ability to offer the richness of educational experiences currently in our schools if held to these strict definitions.

Holy Spirit has eliminated the instructional resources fees parents pay for the 2016-17 school year. No longer will parents pay $45 for elementary students, $55 for junior high students and $65 for high school students. While that might not seem like much, it is a loss in revenue to the schools of almost $170,000. School and system leaders are also reviewing all fees collected by schools and trying to characterize them as either “basic” or “enhanced.” It is not an easy or cut and dry decision. The desire to lessen the financial burden for parents is certainly the will of the Board, but so is providing an all-encompassing, highly engaging learning environment. Striking that balance will be the ultimate goal.

 

Apr 11

Chris Smeaton

Interviews 101

In the education world, we are getting into interview season. Over the next couple of months, a number of positions will be advertised and interviews will be scheduled. I’ve been on both sides of the table over the years but in my current position, I’m more likely to be asking the questions and making the decisions. Whether it is fair or not, interviews can often be the deciding factor in getting the job or not. Given the importance of the interview, I would suggest there are some key points to remember in order to be more successful through the experience.

  1. Practice- Interviews can be a source of stress for many. A great strategy to minimize that stress is to practice through mock interviews. Write out potential questions and respond. Have someone ask you some of these questions and provide you feedback on what you say. One of the exercises I do with my graduate students is mock interviews. I try to do this in groups of three so that one person is always an observer of the interviewee. Often, we are not aware of our speech habits and an observer can point out what we typically say and how we say it and also watch for general trends in what we do. That critical set of eyes is of great assistance in learning how we respond and allows us an improvement path forward.
  2. Know the position- Make sure you do a little research about the position you are applying for and know about the organization as a whole. You don’t need to enter into a research project or become invasive but you need some cursory knowledge walking in. It is helpful if you can respond referencing something about the position available or the organization overall.
  3. Be yourself- Phoniness will eventually catch up to you so ensure that the real person comes to the interview and not a made up version. It is critical that you don’t fake it! Be real! The company is looking to see if you are the best candidate and the best fit and that is difficult to ascertain if you are not yourself. While you may get the job, inconsistencies will begin to pop up that will expose you as somewhat of a fraud.
  4. Answer the question- As an interviewer I shut down pretty quick if you don’t answer the questions and instead just pontificate! I need to know what you know through a particular question or set of questions. If there is a point that you need to make, or something you want me to know, keep it until the end of the interview. Good interviews always leave an opportunity for the candidate to end with some concluding remarks. Answering the question in a concise manner also allows for the interview schedule to remain intact. Going over the time limit because of drawn out responses does not bode well.
  5. Style is important but… There are those who are comfortable in the interview process and while I may need a strong communicator, your answer is more important than how you answer. Be sure that you add substance to your responses. Many interviewers believe that the best predictor of future performance is past performance so include specific examples of what you have done. Sell me on your strengths, don’t bedazzle me with your…

The interview process can and should be prepared for in advance. It has the potential to illustrate the difference between you and all of the other candidates. Don’t miss this opportunity by being unprepared.

 

Apr 01

Chris Smeaton

From the Desk of the Superintendent- April 2016

Happy Easter! I hope everyone had a blessed Easter and enjoyed some well deserved time away from the busyness that seems to consume all of our lives.

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This Easter was especially special as it was the first for me as a grandpa! Our beautiful grandson Carter, wishes you a very happy Easter too!

 

 

 

April…already… which means we are less than three months away from the end of the school year. And while we are thinking about the work we need to complete by the end of June, we are already in the planning mode for next year. The Board of Trustees began this process at their March meeting by setting their priorities for the next three years.  I’m hopeful that these priorities can remain consistent over the next three years rather than changing on a yearly basis. In other words, it would be nice to develop a three-year education plan (knowing tweaks and adjustments are required) rather than a completing a three-year education plan every year! While I understand the need for compliance, I’ve been assured that our planning documents have the ability to look much different and therefore should be more user-friendly.

Strong and vibrant organizations understand that setting priorities must always precede budget. You need to be very clear first about what your “big rocks” are, and then allocate to them. There will never be enough money, no matter what party is in power, so you had best decide what your key priorities are before you begin the budget process. The provincial budget is slated to be released on April 14th. Moving forward, our Learning Leadership Team will be assisting in setting some division-wide three-year targets for our plan. Some of the targets will come directly from our common assessments. I am so very proud of the work done by our own teachers in the development of our common math assessment. What a wonderful example of a highly collaborative and professional culture! These common assessments align with the Alberta Assessment Consortium Key Visual: Assessing Student Learning in the Classroom which prompts teachers in confirming standards with their colleagues. It is essential that standards are consistent across the division without standardizing excellent practice. The recognition of the fine line that exists between standards and standardization has allowed our schools to continue to be innovative in their approaches to student learning, adaptable, flexible and current. As I’ve often said, “It is not either/or, it is both/and.”

The last topic I wish to address in my monthly communique is Inclusive Communities. The Division has been very strategic in its quiet approach since this topic continues to be highly political and community polarizing. It is very sad that keeping parents as the first and primary educators of their children and ensuring ALL students are safe, cared for and compassionately treated with dignity has caused so much division. Those of you who heard me speak at our Spiritual Development Day and others who know my story, know that this topic in very personal to me, as both a Catholic father and a Catholic superintendent. We’ve always served a spectrum of students and will continue to do so with love and compassion. Our procedure as been submitted to the Minister of Education and we will await the department’s feedback. However, if you’ve felt your child has been in a safe and caring environment in our schools before, that will continue, as nothing has changed. The approach we’ve always taken under my leadership speaks to our vision, “Holy Spirit Catholic Schools, A Christ-centered learning community where students are cherished and achieve their potential.” It is not for some students, it is for ALL STUDENTS!

Have a wonderful April and God Bless!

 

Mar 20

Chris Smeaton

Let’s begin with content!

Last evening I had the pleasure of moderating the film, “Most Likely to Succeed” at the Fort Macleod Film Festival. The American documentary challenges our thoughts on where education needs to go in order to “perhaps” better prepare our students for an ever-changing future. The main focus of the film is High Tech High, a charter school with extremely progressive and innovative methods. Unfortunately, the audience may get lost in the enormous leap from where many schools are today compared to High Tech High, instead of looking at where we might begin to make the necessary changes in our system of education.

I began my comments with the acknowledgement that we live in a vastly different society compared to how most of us grew up. Yet, while we’d not accept using medical techniques of the 1950s or farming practice of the early century, we are reluctant to take the same leap in our educational structure. All of us attended school, some of us were successful in school and we know it! There is a certain amount of comfort in keeping school static, just like it was when we attended. While I don’t believe that all systems can make the wholesale transformation to High Tech High tomorrow, I believe there is one shift that we can start with that will be helpful in this journey.

Let’s begin with content! If you have ever sat on a curriculum development committee you will be reminded of the difficulty of drafting a curriculum that satisfies everybody. Depending on your viewpoint, this outcome or that outcome needs to be incorporated into the new curriculum. It is amazing how everything becomes important and nothing can be defined as essential. The result is a curriculum that is far too wide, forcing many educators to cover instead of ensuring deep learning. In essence, we take on a mentality of teaching to the test just in case it is on the test!  That regurgitation of knowledge is not well supported in research as true learning since many students lose that knowledge within three months.

Even though I often get my knuckles rapped, I continue to advocate for our teachers to collaboratively define the key learner outcomes in each grade/subject that are necessary for success in the next level. Once established, focus on those outcomes and go deep in the learning, capturing student interest. It is not sufficient that our primary response to the question, “Why do we need to learn this?” is “Because it is in the curriculum.” By focusing on key learner outcomes, we build in the time to really teach and therefore improve overall student learning. Students begin to recognize that there is a purpose to their learning, they have time to build their mastery and isn’t it nice that we can teach them a little about autonomy along the way!

There is another essential component to thinning the curriculum. Standards still have to be met and so teachers need to build common assessments around these key outcomes. Baselines must be established to inform our practice and set our direction to achieve high quality learning. The conversations around these common assessments assist in improving teacher practice. Comparatives are important in professional dialogue. But comparatives are made more difficult when everything needs to be taught and/or assessed. We cannot move toward an improved education system without reducing our content and without greater precision on what is most important!

 

Mar 09

Chris Smeaton

The Importance of Principals

The following article was published in the Lethbridge Herald on March 9, 2016.

Most often, behind every great school is a great principal. School leadership counts. I’ve contended for many years that the position with the most impact in a school division is that of the principal. They are pulled in many different directions on a daily basis and contend with issues, whether rudimentary or crisis, that demand time and energy. The reality is that the role of the principal is extremely complex and takes almost “superhuman” abilities to do it well. I’m always amazed at the lack of understanding by my students in the Principalship course I teach around the complexity of the role. It is not until we list all of the “job requirements” that they begin to understand the challenge of the position. Principals are essential in establishing and maintaining a quality learning environment.

It is easy to sit on the sidelines and analyze the effectiveness of the principal. But once you learn of the multifaceted role, a greater appreciation of their work is gained. In the current system, principals are evaluated based on seven dimensions: (1) fostering effective relationships, (2) embodying visionary leadership, (3) leading a learning community, (4) providing instructional leadership, (5) developing and facilitating leadership, (6) managing school operations and resources and (7) understanding and responding to the larger societal context. Within each of these competencies, a number of indicators are provided to guide the practice of the principal.

The first dimension, fostering effective relationships, is foundational to the role of the principal. Great principals build great relationships. Those relationships don’t just include staff and students but also parents, community members, central office personnel and trustees. Under this dimension, the principal not only has to act with fairness, dignity and integrity, but must also model and promote open and collaborative dialogue and use effective communication, facilitation and problem solving skills. Don’t forget about demonstrating sensitivity to and genuine caring for others while improving relationships, dealing with conflict and cultivating a climate of mutual respect. And finally, under this guideline, the principal is required to promote an inclusive, safe school culture that respects and honours diversity. Those are just the indicators for the first dimension!

When you really start to dig into what is expected of the principal, you start to appreciate the difficulty of the position. Effective principals are very special and should be well recognized for their efforts. It is not an easy task to create a safe and caring environment, meet the varying needs of students, staff and parents alike and ensure high quality learning in schools. It takes time and commitment and simply a love of the job. Principals have a huge influence on the culture of the school and the learning that occurs. Their work must never be undervalued or overlooked.

Mar 07

Chris Smeaton

From the Desk of the Superintendent- Spiritual Development Opening Address

Good morning everyone and welcome to today’s Spiritual Development Day. Today is a day that highlights our difference as a Catholic School System. Our learning is not academic focused, but rather faith based. Our minds will likely be challenged but it is more important that our hearts are moved and our spirits our nourished. Today is our last Spiritual Development Day in our current 3-Year Faith Plan.

Many of us remember when we began our faith plan in 2013 at the Enmax with David Wells. He introduced us to our first year’s theme of “Taking Our Place at the Table” and invited us all to come to the table. ALL, was a central theme, not just some and so we were challenged to look at who was not at our table and invite and welcome them.

We then moved to our 2nd year where we focused on “Walking Together.” A very visual theme reminding us we are all God’s people, “created in the image and likeness of God” and as such called to walk together- at times leading, at times near the end and at other times in the middle. We walk as one faith community, all welcome, all different and unique, but all together!

And finally we concluded with creating a “Horizon of Hope” in our division. I’m always reminded of the words of Elder Delphine Goodstriker, “We were given a heart so that we can give.” And so our final theme is about creating a horizon of hope for our students and their families and hope for each other. In our belief, hope is not simply wishing things get better. Hope comes from faith, a faith where we may never understand the hand of God but we must always trust the heart of God!

Remembering the words of Pope Francis, “Today amid so much darkness, we need to see the light of hope and be men and women that bring hope to others.  To protect creation, to protect every man and woman, to look upon them with tenderness and love, is to open up a horizon of hope.” That has been the focus of this year.

And then we were gifted with the Jubilee Year of Mercy. And together with our faith plan, we are called to continue our attention to our lonely, our poor, our disenfranchised and the most vulnerable and marginalized in our communities.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Matt 25:35

Mercy given! Mercy received!

Throughout the day, I ask that you constantly remind yourself of our journey during our 3-Year Faith Plan and contemplate on your response as an individual and your response to our students during this Jubilee Year of Mercy.

God Bless!

Feb 29

Chris Smeaton

From the Desk of the Superintendent- March 2016

Last week, we hosted 10 school divisions from across the province, who form the Learning and Technology Policy Framework Community of Practice. This was a great honour, as it allowed us to showcase our work as well as learn from other innovative divisions around the province. I had the privilege of presenting to the group on our journey and my focus was on changing culture. One of the slides I shared addressed my belief as superintendent regarding relationships and asked the question, “Do they know you or do they fear you?” Although I understand there will always be some trepidation when I visit schools, it is of critical importance that I’m out in schools simply getting to know our staff and students. The photo below shows me “playing” in the early learning program at St. Catherine School last week. While I fully understand my role as Chief Educational Officer of the Division, it is the opportunity to get into schools and interact with staff and students that I cherish the most. And while I have fully committed to going out to schools every single week for a morning or afternoon, it is so much easier because of the welcome I receive in each of our schools. As I stated to our support staff during their PD day, I am grateful for the warm reception I receive visiting our schools.

The month of March brings us into full swing of planning for 2016-17. The Board of Trustees will finalize the strategic priorities at their March meeting and principals will begin looking at how they will incorporate them into their own school continuous improvement plans. It is the intent to be even tighter and more precise for next year while still encouraging individual school autonomy and maximizing creativity and innovation in the pursuit of those priorities. This loose/tight style has served us well in our continuous improvement journey!

Capital projects were highlighted at the board meeting in February. The draft 3-Year Capital Plan  was presented for review and will be finalized at the March meeting. We are excited about the opening of Blessed Mother Teresa School this fall and the modernization of St. Michael’s School in Pincher Creek continues to progress well. We also had a start-up meeting for our modernization of St. Patrick’s School in Taber. I don’t think most people recognize the magnitude of our small Catholic Division tucked away in south-west Alberta having three major capital projects. While it certainly points to outstanding planning from central office, it also speaks to the work of our current and former Board of Trustees in their tremendous advocacy role. Often these individuals go unnoticed in their work and yet results like this demonstrate the importance of their role.

Our annual Spiritual Development Day is on March 7th. While faith development should always be an ongoing process, this day reminds us of the importance of nurturing ourselves spiritually. I always look forward to this day as not only is it refreshing but it is also very challenging. Our personal faith journey is complicated and should include both challenges and revelations. I will be speaking about these challenges as it pertains to inclusive communities from the vantage point of both a Catholic Superintendent and father. It should be a great day especially with our special guest Steve Bell.

Enjoy this next month as we continue our Lenten Journey in preparation for Easter. God Bless!

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