From the Desk of the Superintendent- February 2017

Earlier today we finished our second round of Continuous Improvement Plan reviews. Based on feedback from our school leaders, we structured the reviews where three schools came together to share their successes and challenges around our three priorities. The sharing was incredible but it was the honesty of our leaders on their challenges that made me most proud. In a world where competition seems to be “the only way” it was collaboration and sharing that dominated the conversation.

The meetings demonstrated the importance of not being on an island or doing it on your own and showcased Holy Spirit as a school division and not a division of schools. That may seem like something so simple but many divisions have yet to realize that shift. That shift has really been forwarded by our leaders. It is not that they should stop advocating for their own school but not at the expense of another. Great leaders can see the small and big picture; they can be on a dance floor and the balcony at the same time. We are fortunate to have that type of leadership in our buildings and maybe we should share a few lessons for the larger than life leader down south!

While I’m not often political in my messages I just can’t miss the opportunity to comment a little on President Trump and on the divisive environment he has created not only in his own country but around the world. His supporters are so proud that he is doing something rather than just sitting on his hands and waiting. It doesn’t seem to matter whether his actions, “Executive Orders” are in fact legal or constitutionally sound. “You’re fired” can’t be the response to every matter of disagreement! I understand how rules can inhibit or slow what we sometimes want to do but I’m not sure any school division would benefit from a Chief Executive Officer who operated without guidelines, procedures and policy. Rules or fences (not walls) actually protect us and assist us in upholding standards to follow.

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Leadership is not about power, position or authority and organizations (or countries) need to incorporate loose/tight structures and have a balance of top down and bottom up decision making. There are times when I do wish I could make more decisions unilaterally or speed up a process but in the end, our success as a school division comes from we not me. This always hits home for me when I get a chance to share our Holy Spirit story to outside divisions and to external stakeholders. They seem quite amazed at the culture we have developed without any fancy visuals or illustrious documents. We just do what we need to do and constantly look to improve.

As we enter into the second half of the school year, I want to again extend my gratitude to all those in our system who continually push to make our vision come alive ensuring that within this Christ-centered environment, students are cherished and achieve their potential! Have a wonderful Family Day long weekend and enjoy your learning at your upcoming conventions and conferences.

Connecting the Dots

The following blog was published in the Lethbridge Herald on January 25, 2017.

I recently came across a visual from Marzano Research that illustrated the differences between the old factory model of schooling and the new paradigm we are striving for in education in Alberta.

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The old mentality had us simply collecting dots, placing high importance on content and compliance. Granted, for many years the factory model of schooling worked well, producing a compliant workforce that was well equipped with the basic skills needed to meet the job market of the time. Today, however, both the job market and the workforce are far more dynamic. As a result, schooling needs to be more than just collecting dots, but rather connecting the dots.

So, what does connecting the dots mean for our students? The new economy, whether it be local, provincial, national or international, requires that our students to be able to innovate. They need to be active in their learning, collaborative in their approaches, flexible and adaptable. Instead of consuming or replicating knowledge, which received high marks in the old system, students prepared for the future need to be able to produce and create. They need to be able to take content from one area and relate it to another.  They need to ensure that their learning is based on commitment to and not compliance of.

Connecting the dots doesn’t mean that content is less important and does not imply a decrease in rigour. Rigour still needs to be maintained but a focus on relevance needs to be added. The learning of content cannot remain isolated. Instead it must become integrated and connected to real life. This may be uncomfortable for those of us who have already experienced “old school” learning, where specific subjects were offered in distinct blocks of time. However, when you really view learning in everyday life, you realize it is not isolated into separate units – it is fluid. Current efforts to link subjects through cross-disciplinary approaches simply make good sense to what we know about learning today.

Unfortunately, one of the difficulties in making that shift is that many of our assessments are structured for the old school model. It is easy to measure achievement in reading, writing and arithmetic, but simple assessments are unable to ascertain proficiency in competencies like creativity or collaboration. “Book smart” is only a fraction of what a student needs leaving school to be successful in this changing world. If we desire to truly connect the dots then alternative assessments, like performance assessments, must also be utilized. These types of assessments increase our ability to distinguish between what a student knows and what a student can do with what s/he knows.

This last statement is what business and industry leaders from across the country are looking for in high school graduates. Students must complete high school and, ultimately, post-secondary with an ability to adapt and innovate. They must be able to shift from simply collecting the dots to connecting them.

From the Desk of the Superintendent- January 2017

Wow…January 2017! I’m having a hard time realizing that it is already the month of January (almost mid school year) and we are now in 2017. We are 17 years into the 21st century. Do you remember where you were and what you were doing in the year 2000? I was in Taber at the time, principal of St. Patrick School and as a Catholic community we celebrated the Great Jubilee and opened holy doors.

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That was seventeen years ago; How things have changed and yet also stayed the same. As you begin this new year, I would ask that you reflect on your life since the year 2000. What has changed or stayed the same for you and how will you continue to grow this year in your faith, as a person, with your family and in your job?

One change that will be impacting our system and the entire Diocese of Calgary is the announcement of Bishop Henry’s retirement. Bishop William McGrattan from Peterborough will be installed in the Diocese on February 27th. I have worked closely with Bishop Henry since I began my senior administration career in 2001. Throughout that time, we’ve not always agreed on everything and I’m sure I’ve frustrated him once or twice. But what I am proud to say is that we had an authentic relationship. It is so unfortunate that he has been misquoted and misrepresented by many, including his own and yet he always remained resilient, faithful and committed to Catholic Education. I’m very grateful for his enduring support, especially during a time in my life when my career in Catholic Education wasn’t very pleasant for myself or my family. I would ask that you pray for Bishop Henry as he transitions to retirement.

Looking back at December, I was in turkey heaven, enjoying six Christmas dinners at schools. What a wonderful tradition in many of our schools. Holy Spirit was well represented at the Palix  Foundation presentation where we spent a day learning more about the core story on brain development and adverse childhood experiences. This information was presented to the Board of Trustees at their regular meeting and a challenge to share whenever and wherever possible was made. All of the videos are now available to watch on our own YouTube channel.

In January, I start my future plans meetings with all of our system and school leaders. I’ve asked the same three questions for the last number of years:

  1. What are your 1, 3, 5 year plans and what position would you like to hold when you retire?
  2. If transferred, which three schools would be your preference?
  3. Who are three current school leaders you would like to work with?

I’m always humbled by the honesty of our leaders in these confidential conversations. It demonstrates tremendous trust which allows me to assist all of our leaders on their career paths. Developing more leaders not more followers has to be the primary goal of any leader. Now that I’ve reached that magical 55 years of age and realistically have about 3 1/2 years remaining, it is imperative to put all the right pieces in place to ensure that Holy Spirit continues to grow once I decide to retire. While I schedule these meetings for leaders, I welcome the opportunity for any staff to come in and chat about their future plans with me.

As I close off this latest installment of From the Desk of the Superintendent, I just want to provide best wishes for 2017. May God bless you and your family with great hope, good health and much happiness.

Teaching Grit

As an individual who grew up in a highly athletic environment, grit and/or mental toughness were almost natural byproducts. You played and worked hard, you didn’t quit and you earned what you deserved.

gritI can’t ever recall just showing up and automatically winning a prize! But I also recognize that the attributes of grit and mental toughness were taught to me, in most instances, positively. There were many adults in my life that instilled those qualities and I’m grateful.

I would like to say that I’ve been forever grateful, but the truth is that it is just been in my later years that I’ve come to understand the importance of grit/mental toughness. My revelation certainly comes from my own learning but sadly I have become more aware from the increase in mental health issues that populate our schools. Grit is not well established in the millennial generation or many of the students entering our schools today. Simon Sinek speaks to this issue in his interview On Millennials in the Work Place. While everyone would benefit from listening to this 15 minute clip, I would suggest that it is a must for every parent, educator and corporate/industry leader.

It is not easy being a parent in today’s society and I certainly wasn’t a perfect parent. I’m hoping that from what I’ve learned I’ll be a far better grandparent. But I know there are some helpful hints to teaching grit and developing stronger and more resilient children. Here are some for you to ponder:

  1. Don’t jump in and save your child when it is not life threatening. Snowplow parents (clearing away all of the issues) or helicopter parents (hovering around all the time) do nothing to develop grit.
  2. Provide children with age appropriate responsibility and expectations. Chores are not mean, child slave labor is! Homework or class projects are their responsibility not yours!  High expectations with support should be the norm.
  3. Every child is unique and will learn at different rates. Don’t put undo stress on your children when they don’t meet arbitrary milestones.
  4. Children need to learn to deal with stress. Protect them from toxic stress and assist them to work through tolerable stress. Know the difference and respond appropriately.
  5. Remember learning is about making mistakes, readjusting and then retrying. Mistakes are part of the learning process.
  6. Reward and reinforce hard work and effort. Focus on improvement not just the end result. Role model a growth mindset to your children.
  7. Become a learner yourself. There are some great resources out there on brain development which will assist in developing strong and resilient children. Check out the resources available through the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative.
  8. Watch your language! “Just suck it up” or “Be a man” are not necessarily your best strategies for developing resilient kids. As an aside, please watch this short trailer from The Mask You Live In.
  9. Spend quality time with your child. They need help in developing human relationships without electronics. Relationships are more than just “likes” on social media.
  10. Let your kids live their own life, your childhood dreams are over. Don’t live your dreams through them…please!

My list contains 10 but there are many more. The challenge however is to share them and to help each other in growing communities full of strong and resilient children.

From the Desk of the Superintendent- Christmas Message

It is hard to imagine that we are about to start Christmas vacation. Although, given the excitement of our students and probably some staff (me included), this last week has seemed to drag on! But it is here! The first four months of the school year have flown by and when we meet again in the new year, we will be in 2017!

Although I didn’t get to all of our schools these past couple of weeks, (I did manage 6 turkey dinners though) I’m in schools enough to be very grateful for all the work you do. I’m thankful for the commitment to the journey of Advent and the Christmas season. As a Catholic Christian community, we acknowledge that Christmas is about Christ. It is not about happy holidays or crowds at the mall or even finding that perfect gift; It is about that tiny baby! That message is always evident in our schools. But I’m also proud of the love, care and attention provided to our students and their families by you, the staff of Holy Spirit! There are so many kind gestures that go on behind the scenes, so much time taken outside of the normal day and so many prayers provided without much recognition. To all of you, my very sincere thanks!

Christmas will be extra special this year for the Smeaton household as we will celebrate our grandson’s first Christmas. They say that something happens to you when you become a grandparent and it is not easily explained but rather needs to be experienced. All I can say is that simply I’ve been blessed with so many good fortunes in my life, and becoming a grandparent is certainly one of my greatest blessings.

img_3594I’m also aware that there are some in our community who will not have the same joyous experience this Christmas. Strains in relationships, illness, tragedy or other events sometimes leave individuals and families wishing that the season would never arrive or be over as quickly as possible. For those, I humbly offer my prayers that God may heal your heart and bring comfort in your sorrow.

And so as you begin your holidays, I pray that the Christ child born over 2000 years ago continues to live in your heart. May you experience of unconditional love of Christ during this season and may God bless you and your family in 2017.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Keep it simple!

I grew up with a friend who was absolutely brilliant and he had a vocabulary to match. You almost needed a dictionary to understand the words he used on a fairly regular basis. When I did understand his vocabulary (which was usually rare), I would often tease him by rephrasing his statement in common and simple language that was better understood by most. While it was a game for us back then, I’m often brought back to the notion that especially in education, we like to use a vocabulary that is complicated and understood by few. Throw in a few acronyms that riddle the educational field and the language of “educational babble” is born!

But why? Why do we insist on using language that is difficult to decipher? Why do we take a short message and make it into a run on sentence filled with so many descriptors that by the time we finish reading, we’re not sure of the intent? Why don’t we just employ the phrase, “Keep it simple!”

There are people like my high school friend who just have that expanded vocabulary and their use of language just comes naturally. I can live with that. However, I’m not as patient with those who use their language to make themselves appear smarter, or worse, who use it to intimidate or demean others. Most educators do not act in this previous manner but even so, education babble continues to persist.

I have the pleasure of teaching a graduate level course for Gonzaga University entitled, Leadership and School Improvement. One of the culminating activities is the development of a school improvement plan. I ask students to complete a plan that highlights one or two priorities in their own school, develop a couple of SMART goals for each of the priorities, link some effective strategies and ensure measurement tools are clear and targets are set.

While the assignment is straightforward, the first drafts are generally full of “educational babble.” This is not in any way a slight to my students but rather to our educational systems that promote more compliance and less commitment; Where vagueness is favoured over specificity and words are more important than actions.

When reviewing the plans, I always ask my students the following questions:

  1. “Do you understand what this means?
  2. Will your staff understand what this means?
  3. Will the parents understand what this means?


I’m not quite as eloquent as Albert Einstein but I do convey the same message if my students have some difficulty articulating their meaning. But it is the 2nd question that is most important for school improvement because without a common understanding by staff, nobody is accountable. School improvement plans must be commitment driven, not compliance manufactured. Commitment cannot occur without personal accountability. And personal accountability cannot occur without common understanding on both the meaning of the goals and on what each member of the team agrees to do to accomplish the goals. Fancy articulations rather than precise language results in a beautiful document that means next to nothing in terms of improvement.

Finally, the language in our plans must be parent friendly. We can only gain the high trust we require from our parents (and community for that matter), if they can understand what we intend to do. If we want to truly move from only accountability to the government to assurance to parents and the community, common understanding is a prerequisite. Why would parents want to become partners in education when all the language appears to talk down to them.


Keeping it simple does not imply “dumbing it down!” What is truly means is ensuring substance overshadows style and commitment replaces compliance. Before you send a message out, ask yourself if you truly understand the content, whether other staff understand it and finally will it be meaningful to your parent population. Keeping it simple usually means better understanding for all!

From the Desk of the Superintendent- Advent 2016

November has come and gone and now we enter the Advent season. On Monday at our opening prayer at St. Basil Catholic Education Centre, I began with this message from Creighton University Online Ministries:

As we begin Advent, we light one candle in the midst of all the darkness in our lives and in the world. It symbolizes our longing, our desire, our hope.

When we wake up, each day this week, we could light that candle, just by taking a few moments to focus. We could pause for a minute at the side of our bed, or while putting on our slippers or our robe and light an inner candle. Who among us doesn’t have time to pause for a moment? We could each find our way to pray something like this:

“Lord, the light I choose to let into my life today is based on my trust in you. It is a weak flame, but I so much desire that it dispel a bit more darkness today. Today, I just want to taste the longing I have for you as I go to the meeting this morning, carry out the responsibilities of my work, face the frustration of some difficult relationships. Let this candle be my reminder today of my hope in your coming.”

And every night this week, we can pause briefly, perhaps as we sit for a minute at the edge of the bed. We can be aware of how that one, small candle’s worth of desire brought light into this day. And we can give thanks. Going to bed each night this week with some gratitude is part of the preparation for growing anticipation and desire.

Come, Lord Jesus! Come and visit your people. We await your coming. Come, O Lord!

The season of Advent is a journey of preparation for the coming of the Christ child. And in that journey we are reminded to light our own candle that burns within each of us, but also to help light the candle of others who may be in need. Unfortunately, there are many in our Holy Spirit community whose light is dim because of tragedy or illness, broken relationships or just brokenness. As we journey together, I ask that we all strive to offer more compassion and patience, more love and support and to keep Christ in our hearts and prayer on our lips.

May God bless you during this season of Advent!


Why Change Curriculum?

The following blog post was published in the Lethbridge Herald on November 30, 2016.

Alberta Education is undergoing the aggressive task of updating the curriculum currently being taught in our schools. While it may seem that curriculum changes are always occurring, the truth is that Alberta’s curriculum actually ranges in age from eight to thirty years old. That fact in itself should answer the “why” for curriculum review, but there are many other reasons to make the change.

There always seems to be a fear of what will be lost when a curriculum is revised. I like to take the approach of what will be gained and use the new definitions of literacy and numeracy to illustrate. Alberta Education now defines literacy as the ability, confidence and willingness to engage in language to acquire, construct and communicate meaning in all aspects of daily life. Numeracy is defined as the ability, confidence and willingness to engage in quantitative or spatial information to make informed decisions in all aspects of daily life. These definitions far exceed what we use to call reading, writing and arithmetic. They do not just rest in language arts and math classes and place sole responsibility on those teachers, but instead crossover into all subjects and grades. Holy Spirit Catholic School Division recognizes the importance of our students learning these foundational building blocks and has therefore set literacy and numeracy as priorities for the next three years.

But there are still more reasons to develop new curriculum beyond just age and the required focus on literacy and numeracy. In order to maintain our world class standards and give our students both local and global advantages, we must do things differently. Many of our older courses of study put a premium on rote learning and skills development in isolation. New curriculum needs to fit local context, show practicality, engage students’ desire to learn and build competencies that will serve our students well into an ever-evolving future.

All of us can remember attending our own classes and wondering why we had to learn a certain concept. What was the purpose of learning this isolated fact or formula and how would it serve us beyond our days of schooling? New curriculum must be flexible enough to show relevance in students’ lives. Our patent response to why students must learn something can’t simply be because it is in the curriculum. Future curriculum must allow students the opportunity to apply their knowledge and skills to their daily life. In other words, schools can’t only exist to prepare students for real life – schooling needs to be real life.

“Doing things differently” has been a focused direction for our school division for the last number of years and will continue to be into the future. That shift in practice, however, does not come without some trepidation. It is far easier to default to what we’ve always done or what we know. But what is easier isn’t always right. In order to build on exemplary practices and innovative approaches a new curriculum is required. Alberta students deserve the very best and part of the solution resides in a responsive curriculum that engages students and motivates them to become active lifelong learners.


Last week, my good friend and colleague Michael Chechile, Director General for Lester B. Pearson School Board sent out a tweet that asked Michael Fullan to summarize his day/ presentation/ approach/ strategy/ deep learning/ in one word to make it happen. It really should come as no surprise that Fullan’s one word was TRUST. One word, so simple yet so powerful for education or business organizations. James O’Toole suggests that trust:

  1. Is the most elusive and fragile aspect of leadership.
  2. Is the glue that binds people together in groups.
  3. Must be earned. It is hard to earn, easy to lose, and once lost, almost impossible to regain.

Trust is essential in fostering effective and authentic relationships both inside and outside of an organization. You cannot have a strong relationship without trust…period! In organizations where teamwork is crucial, trust must be alive and well. Patrick Lencioni in his book The Five Dysfunctions of Team lists absence of trust as the first dysfunction.

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If there is an absence of trust, then fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results prevails. From effective relationships to organizational change, trust is the key ingredient.

When I’m working with new or perspective administrators around the quality standard of “Fostering Effective Relationships” I always begin with trust. Just as literacy and numeracy are foundational for student learning, so too is trust to leadership. Knowing about the importance of trust is not enough, it must be put into practice. But how?

Stephen M. R. Covey, author of The Speed of Trust, articulates 13 behaviors of high trust in this short video. And while I would never disagree with his list, I would also place the characteristic of vulnerability as a pre-requisite for building high levels of trust. Old style leadership training would categorize this trait as a major weakness. Vulnerability however, doesn’t naturally imply weakness or losing your thick skin (believe me, leaders still need a thick skin) rather it means not losing your compassionate heart. Being vulnerable as a leader requires great confidence in oneself and a willingness to put yourself out there. It is more about strength of character than authority of position. Trust and vulnerability work hand in hand and in any successful organization, great leaders demonstrate both.


Alignment counts!

This week our senior administration completed our school continuous improvement plan reviews with all of our school leaders. The process is fairly simple in that each school administration team comes into the board office and shares their plan with our senior education leaders. While I understand that it can a little intimidating for our newer leaders, it is meant to be an opportunity to share the great work occurring in each school, ask some questions and engage in conversations around continuous improvement. While it may cause some reflection from our school leaders (I tend to nudge & challenge a bit), it is important to all of our senior education leaders to come away with a greater understanding of individual schools.

In reviewing our meetings, it was the consensus of our senior leaders that this round of continuous improvement plan reviews was our best. The alignment around our board strategic priorities was tight. Part of the reason for such tight alignment is that our priorities have grown out of the work that we’ve been doing as a school division for the last number of years. While they are board priorities, they were not established from a purely top down model. Our foray into being data informed and far more reflective on professional practice has led us to this place. Being reflective in our practice and being guided by data are where significant improvement breeds.

There’s something else about our priorities that makes alignment easier to attain…they’re written in plain English, not educational babble and they can be formed into SMART goals so improvement can be measured. It sounds simple but if there is not common understanding with staff, how are we going to engage parents in helping to achieve our priorities if they don’t understand the meaning. My graduate level students from Gonzaga University hear me say often to utilize the KIS Principle, “Keep It Simple.”

But our success is not only around our alignment in priorities. We have created an alignment in our language of questioning. It is not only accepted that we use the question, “How do you know?” it is expected; Senior administration to school administration and visa versa, school administration to teachers and it is surfacing in our classrooms too from teacher to student. We’ve created alignment around instructional practice and ensured that our professional learning is supportive.

I’d be naïve if I didn’t believe there are some outliers in our division. Not everybody believes in our priorities or our methods or even our PD, but the tipping point has long since passed and those who choose not to keep up unfortunately fall farther and farther behind. Continuous improvement is difficult in education period but when your ideals and practices, your actions and understanding and your support and desires are aligned, it occurs! Holy Spirit is a school division not a division of schools because alignment counts!