Transitioning to a New Superintendent

This is the first Lethbridge Herald article I’ve written since I officially announced my retirement for the end of December 2019. The new Superintendent of Schools for Holy Spirit Catholic School Division will take over the reins on January 5, 2020. It may seem odd to many that my announcement has come so early in the year, and even more strange that the advertisement for the position closed on February 15th with interviews to be held on February 25th. However, the reasoning is quite sound given that there are two additional senior administrative staff, Deputy Superintendent Brian Macauley and Director of Learning Lorelie Lenaour, retiring at the end of June.

One of my great advantages coming into my position almost 10 years ago was the ability to choose my own people early in my tenure. As people retired or left for other opportunities, I was able to select my own team to lead the school division. I believe there are less than six individuals in the system that I didn’t have the responsibility of hiring into their current administrative positions. I’m hopeful that the new superintendent will have the same advantage, and so the sooner she/he is named the sooner those senior positions can be filled. We are also about to embark on our next three year education plan and, while I have some great ideas about where we can go as a division, it is important that the new superintendent is well involved in the process.

How often have you heard that timing is everything? Since the superintendent is the Board of Trustees’ only employee, the selection of a new superintendent is clearly one of the Board’s most important responsibilities. Nonetheless, once the Board makes their selection and outlines contract, terms and conditions, it is the Minister of Education who provides final approval for the appointment. The review process by the Ministry can take up to four weeks and so this is why I say timing is everything. The Board is hopeful that this can occur prior to the calling of an election because, once called, the public naming of the new superintendent will be significantly delayed.

Probably the most important factor in my early announcement and quick search process is to ensure an effective transition for the school division. In a perfect world, the incoming superintendent will take on the role of deputy superintendent by August 1st, and I would be able to work with the individual for five months. The deputy role in the school division is highly concentrated in human resources. This initial placement would enable the successful candidate to better understand division practices and procedures and, more importantly, get to know the people. Since all systems have a resident culture, those five months will also allow the individual to become fully immersed before taking over in 2020.

There have only been three superintendents since Holy Spirit became a regional division in 1995. It is not a common occurrence for boards to hire superintendents, but ensuring the right one is chosen is essential. I’ve had a great run during these past 10 years, but it is now time for another person to take on this exciting leadership role. Fingers crossed, the transition plan established will empower the new leader to, not only build on the division’s current strengths, but to enhance and bring new life into the system, as required.

Know your people and let them know you!

It still amazes me there are leaders who don’t believe in the importance of fostering effective relationships with their people. And when I say people, I just don’t mean their direct reports but as many as possible within the organization. While I understand that may be impossible in larger corporations or school divisions, it should always be a priority.

Michael Fullan talks about “loving your employees” and I think that in order to love them, you must know them and they must know you. Let’s begin with the second part of that equation, “and they must know you!” Wait, wait, here comes that word…VULNERABILITY! Oh, Brene Brown would be so proud! In order to get to a point where you can really know someone, their hopes and their dreams, they need to know your authentic self. They need to know who you really are and what you stand for. I’m not talking about sharing your inner most secrets or your personal demons but quite honestly, they need to know you! While I may hold the leadership position of Superintendent of Schools, I’m also a son, husband, father and very proud grandpa of two amazing grandchildren. My staff and I would suggest a good portion of my network knows more about me than just simply being a superintendent. And that is where it must start, the beginning of an effective relationship, with trust and vulnerability extended from the leader!

For the past six years I’ve held future plan meetings with every administrator (central office and school) in our division. In someone who believes in moving people around, it provides me with some great insights for possible transfers and so it is extremely helpful for the organization. Getting people not only on the right bus but the right seat on the bus is essential. But the power of the exercise is the knowledge of your people’s plans and then seeing how you as a leader might assist them in fulfilling those plans. Simple questions that ask about future plans, growth areas, opportunities and barriers and successes and challenges all allow the leader to know their employees better. While my meetings are fairly structured, the idea is to portray the conversations as simply “fireside chats.” The more honest they are with you, the more you are able to support their development and sometimes, just get them “unstuck.”

I’m reminded that these types of chats don’t arise without a significant investment in trust building by the leader. You can’t get to that rawness without it! It is the rawness that you need in order to truly know your people and assist them in their own growth. And please don’t confuse “rawness” with the need to become a counsellor. You are coaching at best and listening at the very least, which is often what is just required.

The vulnerability scale for your people is on a continuum. Sometimes, employees are so tight-lipped (and for many reasons) that your ability to coach and sometimes just listen are limited. Sad and very frustrating but the building of trusting relationships is unique for every person, with some it requires a little more flexibility and a lot more skill. No matter, keep trying to know your people…they deserve it!

From the Desk of the Superintendent- February 2019

Last week, principals and senior administrators travelled to Mount St. Francis for a retreat. The focus of the retreat was on the 5 Marks of a Catholic Leader. The marks were developed by the Council of Catholic School Superintendents of Alberta. An Excellent Catholic Leader:

  1. Embraces the dignity of all as created in the image of God.
  2. Advocates for Catholic Education within and beyond the school community and makes decisions rooted in Catholic teachings.
  3. Intentionally directs and fosters the development of Catholic Education through faith permeation.
  4. Is called to be a witness and an agent of hope, proclaiming the Gospel message to all people, everywhere and at all times.
  5. Ensures a communal vision; recognizing that God will be found with and in each other. 

It has been 6 years since this group has gone offsite for some spiritual nourishment and while I know how difficult it is to get away from our schools and offices, I was again reminded of the importance of doing just that! Earlier this month, trustees participated in their yearly retreat at the Martha Retreat Centre. Like in our schools and for our students, spiritual retreats are an essential part of what we do in Catholic Education and going forward, we must continue the commitment to nourish our souls just like we nourish our minds in professional development.

One of my closing comments to the group was that this would be the last time this entire group was together for another offsite retreat. With the retirements of Brian Macauley and Lorelie Lenaour at the end of June the group will not be the same next year. This will also be the case in many of our schools with those who have already participated in the voluntary retirement program or those who may be announcing at a later date. While I’ll speak more about our retirees at our banquet in June, I can’t say enough of the blessing I’ve had to work closely with both Brian and Lorelie. They are truly excellent Catholic leaders and both have served Holy Spirit exceptionally well in their time here.

Speaking of retirement, the closing date for the Superintendent of Schools position is February 15th. Interviews have been set up for February 25th and I’m hoping that the turnaround for the announcement is quite quick. It takes approximately 4 weeks for the Minister of Education to sign off on a superintendent appointment. The sooner the announcement is made, the sooner we can begin planning for 2019 and beyond. While I’m very interested in who will be applying for the position, the decision for the new superintendent rests with the Board of Trustees and I’m taking as much of a “hands off” approach as I can in this process.

I’m well involved in my annual future plan meetings with all leaders in the school. This is year six of this process and I’ve always found it to be beneficial for both myself and the Division. The benefits are largely due to the honesty (and sometimes vulnerability) provided to me by our leaders. While I’ll have next to no influence beyond 2019, the information of future goals should be extremely helpful for the incoming superintendent. While I schedule these meetings with all administration, my door is always open for any staff to book a time to come in and discuss future plans.

At the beginning of this school year, we began our partnership with Canadian Blood Services. Our initial pledge target was 15. I am very proud to say that we had a total of 78 donors last year of which, 14 were brand new donors and 10 were reinstated (not donated between 12-36 months). Congratulations to all who donated this past year. Our target this year is 80! Happy donating!

In closing this message, I want to sincerely thank all those who in person or via email sent congratulations on my retirement announcement. I am most grateful for all of the kind words. God bless!

Doing right not simply being right!

Most young leaders come into positions with the strong desire to be right. It makes good sense! Walking into a leadership position there is a need for your employees to gain confidence in your abilities and one of the quickest ways to do that is to be right. However, if being right becomes the only mantra for young leaders little development occurs. The world (unfortunately) is full of young leaders who have turned older and still want to be right! They tend to be toxic to any culture and want to rule rather than lead!

But it feels so good to be right! That is because it is our ego that is taking over and the truth is, ego has little to do with effective leadership. The shift that must occur for the leader is from being right to doing right! The need to be always right is often authoritarian. The desire to do right comes from wanting to influence and not dictate. The ability to influence is one of the true characteristics of effective leadership.

If you have any sort of power in your position, you have the ability to make decisions and cast your “rightness” on them. Power, does not necessarily bring you influence or respect! Power, in of itself, does not make you a successful leader. In most cases, ultimate power brings only fear and compliance not support and commitment.

With power comes much responsibility to do the right thing. But how? I would look to two of my favorites, Simon Sinek and Brene Brown for insights and suggest that both of these leaders’ works are read and studied. Sinek always asks the question about the “why?” Do you know your why? Do you know why you exist as a company and as an individual? It is about your own core being, your own mission. The farther you move away from your mission, the more often you want to be right instead of do right. Brown has some great work on vulnerability. Leaders must “shed their armour” in order to lead with vulnerability! You cannot be right all the time but you can strive to do right always. That means being authentic, open and transparent. It means parking your ego and doing what is right for those you serve.

Traditional leadership wants you to lead with power and authority. Unfortunately we have too many examples of this in our world from politics to large corporations to even small businesses. Intimidation is often seen as the way to be right. But we can’t afford to continually support traditional leadership in any organization. Doing right for others must always prevail over being right for yourself!

 

Change Required

The following article was published in the Lethbridge Herald on January 09, 2019.

I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions. They typically require far too much change and, as we know, change is very hard. I’m a little friendlier with “fresh starts” since they can occur at any time throughout the year. But I think all of us, whether in education or in general life, should be looking at slow and steady improvement. Massive change rarely happens overnight and without many casualties. In reality, massive change tends to occur when little steps are taken and repeated until they become the norm.

Before I wrote this article, I took some time to review my superintendent colleagues’ musings over the past year. Virtually all of these articles spoke about change; things being initiated, practices being tweaked or improvements being made. Interesting when we know how difficult change is to accomplish. Douglas Reeves explains that, “Change of any sort is difficult and painful. Change represents a loss – a loss of prior practices and a loss of an established comfort zone.”

So what is the alternative? Do we really want to just maintain the status quo? Most people believe in change as long as it doesn’t impact them. There tends to be a fair amount of finger pointing when the topic of change comes up in any organization. Statements like, “They must be talking about him,” or “That never happened in the old days when she wasn’t here,” might be heard. The ever-increasing speed of change only seems to add to our resistance.

And what about leaders? They have seldom been hired to maintain the status quo. They are generally asked to build a better future, increase profits or get better results, all of which require improvements – and that means change. Being the best organization requires constant incremental shifts in policy, procedures and practice. That is part of the job description of any leader.

Change, whether from an organizational point of view or a personal perspective, begins with some uneasiness. Though no one likes to be uncomfortable, most of us know that being stuck in the same old routine is not overly healthy either. Improvement needs to come from honest reflection of one’s work and achievement of one’s goals. That in itself can be difficult, but it is a necessary step to begin the change process. Contextual data is far more important here than any individual’s opinion or judgment.

In the coming year, Holy Spirit will begin working on our next 3-Year Education Plan. Through a review of Alberta Education’s Accountability Pillar surveys and our annual ThoughtExchange data, trustees will begin to set the direction for the next three years and administrators will wrestle with how best to build on current successes and shift priorities to continually improve. We don’t want to lose the good work we’ve achieved through our focus on faith, literacy and numeracy or our commitment to First Nations, Metis and Inuit learning, but our priorities and efforts will need to be reevaluated and challenged to ultimately become better.  

That is the essence of change, to become better! School systems across the province have always been charged with that goal. We can’t do what we’ve always done and expect that the students in our schools will be better served or organizations will suddenly improve. Change is hard work; mostly because it is unpopular and creates uncertainty. Yet we can’t just wish for a better anything without making the necessary changes. Call it a New Year’s resolution, or a fresh start or simply building on your own successes, but engage in change this coming year to become the best version of yourself! As eloquently stated by Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Twitter Trolls!

I love Twitter! Since joining in May 2011 I have utilized it as a great source to share my own educational thoughts but more importantly learn from thousands of others in the Twittersphere. Virtually everything that I tweet out in regards to education, I include the hashtag #hs4 which is the school division where I serve as Superintendent of Schools. I also tend to include #abed which is the hashtag for Alberta Education. I think it is selfish not to share great information that can assist educators throughout the province.

While I love the power of Twitter from a professional standpoint and even a little bit personal, I’m becoming more frustrated with what I will call “Twitter Trolls.” While everyone is entitled to an opinion, it is disheartening when tweets are laced with hatred, foul language and rudeness. It is even worse when those tweets are coming from faceless accounts and the statements are made void of actual facts or misleading information for the sole purpose of “proving a point.”

Twitter and other social media platforms have some great benefits when used properly. Schools work hard to ensure that students are taught proper digital citizenship and leave an appropriate footprint. But when the adults can’t do the same…

As we approach a new year, I’m wondering whether all of us on social media might pause just a second before we hit send and…

  • Reflect on what message we are sending?
  • Reflect on what we are role modeling to others?
  • Reflect on the impact of our posts both positive and negative?
  • Think about who we might be helping or hurting?
  • Reflect on whether the content is leading or misleading?
  • Decide if we would really say what we want to say in person?

To me the last statement is essential and for most sets the bar. Could you really say the things you do on social media, with the same expression, to the person directly? If you can, maybe it is because you’re just not that nice or really vengeful and then in reality your bar is pretty darn low! So instead of being “Twitter Trolls” or just plain offside on other forms of social media,  let’s try to raise the bar in 2019!

From the Desk of the Superintendent- Christmas Message 2018

We are in the last week of school before Christmas and I’m sure many are looking forward to a little rest and relaxation over the coming holidays. Let’s just begin with this… WELL DESERVED!!! For those who don’t live in the education world, it is easy to point fingers and tell us “how few hours we work” or “how many holidays we get” but we know the truth about looking after our students and each other day in and day out. It is what you are called to do and you do it so selflessly and always for those in most need. Thank you!

December is always a tough month as we lead up to a vacation but this one was just a little tougher. We had more tragedies than usual and serious ailments and illness consumed many. Sometimes people find it difficult to be as faithful when bad things happen to good people. Yet, when we are faced with these issues, we turn to God and offer prayers to those in need. We strive to build a community of hope and offer a spirit of joy even when we face difficult times. It is this blessing that I see in the schools I visit and the people I see. Thank you again!

This time next week, I’ll be anxiously awaiting the arrival of our grandchildren for Christmas. Donna and I will be hosting Christmas for the entire Smeaton side of the family for the first time here in Lethbridge. Usually, we head to Medicine Hat, but it just felt right this time to stay home and cherish the blessings of little ones and older ones. Carter will be three in January and so Christmas will be very exciting for him, while Emerson, at only 7 months, will just be intrigued with all of the lights! I can’t wait to hold these two little ones! 

For some, this marks the last Christmas vacation as an employee of Holy Spirit. There have been quite a number of staff who have taken advantage of the voluntary retirement program.  I know this decision is not easy and so I can only wish you the best in your future and many thanks for your work. May this Christmas be extremely memorable!

Finally to all, I hope this Season of Advent was one of preparation, prayer and reflection. In just over a week, we will celebrate the birth of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. May the light of Christ guide all your travels and may the warmth of His love encompass you always.

On behalf of Donna and I, we wish each of you a most blessed Christmas and best wishes in 2019. God Bless!

From the Desk of the Superintendent- December 2018

December has arrived, which means I am rid of my “Movember” throwback Tom Selleck, Magnum PI moustache. Great cause…terrible look for me today!

All joking aside, the start of December is important for us in our Catholic tradition, as it is the beginning of our liturgical year. Over the next four Sundays we will be celebrating the Season of Advent in preparation of the coming of the Christ child. New beginnings are always important as they give us an opportunity to “reboot.” How do we get ready for Christmas? Who do we need to forgive? How do we learn to give more of ourselves to help those less fortunate and in need? All of these are questions to be reflective upon during this season.

But there is something else we must be aware of as we journey toward Christmas. Sadly, this most Holy season is not beautiful for all. Christmas can be a reminder to some of fractured families and broken relationships. It can cause anxiety or fear when food might be scarce or safety might be in question. It can also be a source of heartache if love is not present. Sometimes we are aware of the students and staff in our schools who will feel this way but many others either hide it well or lash out without us really knowing why. I think the second group I’ve mentioned are the most difficult, because we often want to lash back because “they” deserve it. And, maybe they do, but in this Advent Season we might want to look for a softer approach and a more compassionate response because… 

The month of November is always hectic. With meetings and conferences for CASS, CCSSA, ACSTA and ASBA, I felt like I was never home sleeping in my own bed. But one of the great benefits of attending those meetings and conferences is the opportunity to learn from others and share our own practices. Education is far too complex for anybody to do it on their own anymore and that is why I was so happy with the direction of our Division PD Day. Sharing our expertise and areas for growth in collaborative structures should always positively impact our practice and ultimately our students’ successes. I’m hopeful that we can arrange at least a couple of these collaboration days into future calendars.

The November board meeting tends to be the “meatiest” of all yearly meetings. The Board of Trustees are presented with the quarterly review of our Continuous Improvement Plan and are provided with the 2017-18 Annual Education Results Report.  The Fall Budget Update is provided as well as the Audited Financial Statements. Expenses are consistently higher than revenues and this year the Board dipped into their operating reserves to the tune of $752,829 plus $190,000 from capital reserves to balance our $65,632,839 budget. Over 79% of this budget will be spent on instruction and the percentages to be spent in the areas of Operations and Maintenance, Capital and Debt Services, Transportation and Board and System Administration have each been decreased from the actuals in 2017-18. While our enrollment growth this year did not meet our projection, I’m very pleased that we continue to place supports both certificated and non-certificated into our schools directly. Over the last five year period, our enrolment growth has been 4.8% while I growth of certificated personnel has been 11.9%. This year alone we’ve added 6.28 FTE to our teaching composite and 11.73 FTE to our support staff. This type of data is a great testament to our Board’s commitment to student learning.

As was communicated on Friday, Brian Macauley has announced his intention to access our Voluntary Retirement Program and will be completing his tenure as Deputy Superintendent on June 30, 2019. The deadline for accessing this program is December 14th. I know there are a number of staff who have made contact with HR to discuss this program more fully. I can also make myself available for those who would like to discuss their future plans with me. This is never an easy decision and so please know that my prayers are with you in your discernment.

Winter hit today and so roads won’t necessarily be great for travel so stay safe out there. Please remember your impact on others as we journey together in this Advent Season. Your response may lift up or put down those most in need. May this Advent Season be one of prayer, forgiveness, compassion and love. Have a wonderful December and God Bless!

In support of Catholic Education

The following blog post was written for and published in the Lethbridge Herald on November 14, 2018.

In late October, the Public Schools’ Boards Association of Alberta (PSBAA) initiated a campaign to consolidate all education into one publicly funded system. In essence, they are desiring one system that would effectively provide parents with no choice in educating their children. For those of us in Catholic Education, this is certainly not new. The threat to Catholic Education is part of our history and can be traced back all the way to Egerton Ryerson. However, the attacks and the rhetoric around this cause are becoming increasingly alarming.

From a quick glance this might seem like a great idea. Proponents will tell you that this could be a means of saving money, which could serve students better.  The research, however, suggests that merging school districts could actually cost more to run. Remember when we moved to one health care board for the province? Money was certainly not saved and service was not impacted in the positive. Bigger does not necessarily mean better.

If you were to simply make judgments from what you read or hear in some media outlets, you would believe that the current education system is failing our students. The fact is that Canada still ranks as one of the best educational systems in the world and Alberta is leading in that charge. In the recent PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results, Canada appears in the top 10 for math, science and reading. But more impressive is that our high standing is offered almost exclusively through public education to one of the most diverse populations in the world.

Parental choice would be lost if we regressed to only one publicly funded system. Currently, parents in the Province of Alberta have the ability to choose (within some parameters) which publicly funded school system (Public, Separate or Francophone) they desire for their children. Parents wishing to access the Francophone system must meet the requirements set forth in section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. For the Public or Separate (Catholic) systems, the parameter lies in residency, space and resource availability, as well as a desire for a faith based education or not. The opportunity to choose any of the three systems comes without the necessity of tuition fees, as is the case for private schooling. Parents desiring a faith based education rooted in the Gospel values for their children have the ability to access the Catholic system. This opportunity is provided to both Catholic and non-Catholic students. It is an option that continually motivates Public, Separate and Francophone divisions to provide an educational product that benefits students and the communities they live in, and also promotes system competition.

This healthy competition would be eliminated if only one system existed; and monopolies, even in education, are seldom beneficial to a population. Educational funding is based on student enrolment and therefore school divisions are continually seeking improvements to attract or simply maintain students. There is a natural competition that develops as each system strives to enhance programming and facilities. As each division seeks improvement, the bar is raised resulting in students and communities being the benefactors of this competition.

Just as important as the competition is the strong collaboration that develops through strong working relationships with neighbouring school divisions. These relationships create partnerships like dual credit opportunities, career planning and transportation that further enhance advantages for all students. The school divisions in Southwest Alberta have developed strong collegial relationships, as demonstrated by these partnership opportunities. Excellent practices have been shared, co-created and taught to one another to ensure that students in the area are receiving the highest quality of education available.

While some may view Catholic Education as an option it must also be recognized as a right since it is constitutionally protected. Catholic schools have been in existence for over 130 years in the province. It has and continues to serve the citizens of Alberta, both Catholic and non-Catholic, with high quality education. To lose this right, option or choice would not benefit our province and the students we educate and, in the end, that is what education is called to do!

Effective School Councils

A couple of weeks back, our school division invited a representative from the Alberta School Councils’ Association to provide a workshop on some of the functions of school councils. The presentation reminded me of the important work that should be done by this group but often gets lost because of well -intentioned volunteerism. I don’t believe that staffs will ever say no to the work that many of our parents do in schools today but, the true essence of their role is far more reaching than simple involvement.

One of the non-negotiable roles for school councils and parents in general, is being well-informed about school/division goals, results, and the strategies that are being implemented to enhance the quality of education for their children.  They should at the very least also have a general understanding of the state of education.

Pause: Look at your last school council meeting and see how much time was devoted to discussing the above.

Part of the issue is that most of us in education are quite content with the high level of involvement and volunteerism and shy away from the “meatier” topics. The flip side is that many parents don’t really want to be highly engaged in things like school plans and budgets because they just really want to help out. Neither of those are necessarily wrong but I think we can do better!

To begin with, schools need to communicate without using a bunch of “edubabble.” One of the courses I teach for Gonzaga University is Educational Leadership and School Improvement.” I constantly remind my students (and my own staff) to “keep it simple.” Ensure that the language you are providing makes sense and is easily understood by parents, the general population and your own staff. Fancy education terms may look great on paper but, if your parents don’t understand them, schools have lost a tremendous opportunity to engage. Schools must also be able to provide multiple types of results (i.e. not just large-scale standardized assessments) for parents to review and ask questions. One piece of data that schools have not leveraged well is that of improvement. The media tend to love to communicate low achievement results without any context.  For example, if you have a class where 50% of students writing a standardized assessment are not at grade level, why would you assume that they should suddenly be at grade level on the test? However, what a powerful and motivational message when schools communicate to parents the growth and the closing of the gap that occurred from one year to the next.

We recognize the importance of fostering a strong partnership between home and school and so school council questions, parent inquiries and/or teacher requests should never to accusatory in nature. I always ask our schools to review any results through an “autopsy without blame” lens. Pointing fingers or making excuses never leads to positive conversations. Instead, I would suggest pluralistic questions like the ones below. These questions might assist school council members and parents as a whole in gaining a better understanding of their child’s education, the school’s results and education as a whole.

  1. What might be some reasons for these results? (positive or negative)
  2. What trends are you seeing in the data?
  3. What are some key strategies that you will be focusing on in the coming year? What might be some results you’ll be hoping for with the implementation of these strategies?
  4. What are some of the school’s greatest strengths? What are some of the school’s greatest areas for growth?
  5. What are some ways that I might be able to assist in my own child’s learning?
  6. What are some of the trends in education? What are some of the things the school is doing to best prepare students for an ever-changing future?
  7. What types of professional learning is the staff engaging to impact their own practice?

This is certainly not an exhaustive list but it does provide for some focused discussion around the school council table. When we can get to this level, school councils are not simply involved but rather they are engaged and can contribute the effectiveness of schools themselves. In the end, we all want high quality learning for our students and school councils that are effective in their roles, can contribute to that goal!