Catholic Education Sunday 2015

Below you will find the message read at all masses this weekend celebrating Catholic Education Sunday.

Holy Spirit is a regional division that serves students in Bow Island, Coaldale, Lethbridge, Picture Butte, Pincher Creek, Taber, and surrounding communities.  Today, we celebrate Catholic Education Sunday.  Each year we set aside this special day to celebrate the gift of publicly funded Catholic Education here in the province of Alberta. This gift is not something that should be taken lightly, as there are now only three Canadian provinces that still fully provide publicly funded Catholic Education: Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. Other provinces, because of apathy or legislation, have lost this gift and there are many within our province who would like to see only one publicly funded system.  Therefore, it is essential that we recognize that Catholic education is precious, and something that must be nurtured and supported by our communities, not only today but throughout the years.

Catholic Education must fulfill two mandates: excellence in learning and spiritual growth for our students. From the learning perspective, Holy Spirit continues to be one of the most progressive and innovative systems in Alberta. Our recent provincial accountability pillar report shows that we continue to meet the standard of excellence in the categories of Safe and Caring Schools, Student Learning Opportunities, Parental Involvement and Continuous Improvement. A culture of learning permeates our schools, ensuring that students are being prepared for an ever changing world.

But, to be truly prepared, we must nourish our students spiritually. Through our three year faith plan, schools guide our students in developing their spirituality. This year’s theme, “A Horizon of Hope,” reminds us of our responsibility to exercise mercy and compassion in our communities. We were given a heart so that we can give and it is hope that we must give to our students, their families and to each other. Pope Francis says, “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.”

The words of Pope Francis remind us that we are unique in Catholic Education. It may be our jobs to educate, but it is our calling, our vocation, to form our students to be spiritually healthy, faithful, merciful and filled with hope. And so, as we celebrate Catholic Education Sunday this weekend, I would ask that you pray for the division…our students and our staff… as we unite to create a horizon of hope that inspires all to witness the goodness of God. Have a wonderful Catholic Education Sunday and God Bless!

Getting to Excellent

The following post was published in the Lethbridge Herald on October 21, 2015.

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the University of Lethbridge’s Scholarship Breakfast, featuring John Herdman, head coach of the Canadian Women’s National Soccer Team, as the guest speaker. His message focused on the ability to get to excellent and, although it targeted a sports audience, it resonated well with many educators in the room.

Getting to excellent in education comes from a desire to continually improve; to hone our skills with the objective of moving from good to great. Most people don’t wake up every day with a desire to be simply mediocre and professionals, whether they are in the classroom or on the artistic or athletic stages, don’t aim to merely reach good! Author Jim Collins says that the natural enemy of greatness is goodness, since being good can be seductive, leading to apathy and a lack of attention to results.

Excellence can only be achieved when we consciously cross over the line from comfortable to uncomfortable. Good lives in the world of comfortable, while excellence takes us from the ordinary to the extraordinary. That is a difficult step. Yet any improvement requires that step. We don’t get better without moving beyond what we do normally – it just doesn’t work that way! Herdman further articulated that excellence comes from the balance of three key factors: vision, passion and discipline. The interplay of these three factors is essential and any breakdown of the three will permanently detour the achievement of excellence.

But I believe there is a fourth factor that needs to come into play for most individuals seeking excellence. That fourth factor is culture. Creating an organizational culture where trust reigns, support is established and risk taking is encouraged allows movement from good to great. When that type of culture exists, people are far more willing to cross over the line, welcome a sense of discomfort and recognize the opportunity to learn to do something better. It is what schools should provide for their students, systems provide for their teachers and governments provide for school boards.

Excellence does not happen without hard work. It also does not occur by doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Getting to excellent often includes initial missteps or failure. And, while failure as a permanent condition should never be accepted, failure as part of learning must always be welcomed. In order for excellence to be manifested, it requires strong vision, intense passion, strict discipline and a supportive culture. The first three are individual traits that can be taught and role modelled, but the last requires a community or organization to establish and maintain. It is a shift that will benefit all when all decide that mediocrity is insufficient and good is not good enough.

FNMI Success

Last week, I had the privilege of attending the 1st annual First Nations, Metis & Inuit Education Symposium in Edmonton. The conference theme was Listening, Understanding and Moving Forward Together. Our Division sent a team of 10 including two of our highly respected elders.

Holy Spirit Catholic School Division

Holy Spirit Catholic School Division

It should come as no surprise that a central theme to the symposium was the importance of building relationships. Regardless of the position, teacher, principal, central office personnel or Board, building effective relationships are integral in being successful. In fact, the evaluation criteria for all of them calls for this ability. Through my work up north in proximity of Cree Nations and Metis Settlements and most recently in Blackfoot Territory, I’ve come to fully appreciate the importance of developing a strong and trusting relationship with our FNMI communities. This is not an easy feat given the history of residential schools and the inter-generational trauma that still exists. There is still a certain amount of shame felt when I’m around my aboriginal friends caused by the sins of generations past. All of us, whether religious or not, should shoulder that shame.

Building effective relationships with anyone, but especially with our FNMI people, require us to listen and understand first. Listening and understanding are far more important than speaking and teaching. Rather than tell our perspective, we need to be able to hear their stories. I’m always amazed at the wisdom I learn when I just listen to our elders speak. Their stories provide for incredible learning when we just listen to hear instead of listen to speak. Understanding comes through an open heart and mind and a willingness to challenge our own beliefs which are usually quite naive and more based on what we think we know rather than the actual truth. Remember history is generally written by those in power!!!

The importance of building effective relationships must always be a primary goal. However, to eliminate the gap of achievement and opportunity for our FNMI students and continually raise the bar, requires a clear focus on learning as well. To paraphrase a speaker at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission event held in Edmonton in 2014, “Education is our new buffalo.” Education acts as the bridge between two sides of the river as described by Chief Tony Alexis (@Tony_Alexis)  last week. The river banks do not need to look the same or be the same but there needs to be understanding about both sides.

Learning, both cultural and academic, must be parts of the equation for FNMI success. This is not an either/or decision but rather a both/and process. Moving together in unison, utilizing the strengths of all involved will bring about more success. And raising the bar and closing the gap requires high expectations, empathy and support not sympathy and excuses. Our provincial schools need to listen and understand and then teach with cultural awareness and sensitivity. Watching the success of our grad coach program, Oohkaanaayiikaakii’moap- “We are all striving for success” reinforces my belief that we can achieve both goals.

Our FNMI students deserve an education system that speaks to their culture and appreciates their languages AND sets high standards for education. The goal must be an education system that allows our FNMI students the ability (with their choice) to walk successfully in both worlds. Until we can replicate that system, the many negative cycles will continue to plague our FNMI people. That is not only unfair, it is unjust!

Relationships and learning- It is not one or the other- it is both. Relationships, always first but learning comes in a close second.


Edcamp: A conversation on learning

A couple of weekends ago, I had the pleasure of opening #edcampPSD at Greystone Centennial Middle School in Spruce Grove. While those who know me, understand it is easy for me to talk in front of groups, it was a little intimidating speaking in the infamous George Couros territory and having Discover Education guru Dean Shareski, lurking on the Twitter feed! I’m hoping that I was at least good enough to ensure that some future presentation won’t be called, “Why Chris Smeaton sucks!” (Inside joke- Paige & George)

Since edcamps are structured for maximum conversation between participants on self selected topics, an opening should be relatively short with some key points. It should be more similar to a TED Talk than the often dreaded “death by PowerPoint.” So my opening focused on the importance of events like Edcamps and why as teachers, we need to be always learning.

Edcamps speak to our inherent desire to always improve or hone our skills. Since they are typically held on Saturdays, when teachers should be home with family or doing their own personal business, there is a high level of commitment attached. But that commitment is also shared with intense autonomy. Participants vote with their shoes which allows for self directed opportunities. You discuss what you want to discuss; you learn what you want to learn. The Edcamp model supports the shift toward educators taking more ownership of their own professional development with the overarching goal of improved pedagogy and ultimately enhance student learning. Even the best school divisions will never be able to offer ALL to EVERYONE and so Edcamps fill a much needed void in professional learning.

Another important aspect of edcamps is professional dialogue and the sharing of ideas, best practices and even failures and fears.  It is always amazing (but not surprising) at the wealth of knowledge shared when educators engage in professional dialogue. The depth of these conversations underpins the importance of collaboration in our schools. Education has become far too complex for any one individual and private practice should no longer be tolerated. The Edcamp mentality of sharing best practices, asking tough questions around pedagogy and mostly being engaged in continuous improvement should be commonplace in every staff room.

Finally, the Edcamp experience reminds all of us to be continual learners. Our education degree or the multitude of degrees achieved after, still do not allow ourselves as educators to be satisfied with simply being learned. Professionals seek to continually improve; for educators that means to constantly learn. Learning is not another initiative, it is something that we must always do. If not, then we will create a society so well defined by the following quote.

In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists- Eric Hoffer



From the Desk of the Superintendent- October 2015

We are now into the month of October and the season of fall, but I want to take you back to my opening comments as a reminder of why we exist, where do we go and what do we do. We are unique because we are a Catholic school division and it is because of faith and through our faith that we create a horizon of hope. In 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.”

During the month of September, I’ve had numerous opportunities to share this question, “What does adulthood look like for the child who does not achieve in school?” It is a powerful question and should cause all of us to reflect. However, I would suggest the question is insufficient and incomplete. The addition needs to be about growing up into adulthood without faith, without some level of spirituality. In a recent article in Maclean’s magazine, Lisa Miller, director of clinical psychology at Columbia University’s Teachers College concluded the following:

Spiritually connected teens are, remarkably, 60 per cent less likely to suffer from depression than adolescents who are not spiritually oriented. They’re 40 per cent less likely to abuse alcohol or other substances, and 80 per cent less likely to engage in unprotected sex. Spiritually oriented children, raised to not shy from hard questions or difficult situations, Miller points out, also tend to excel academically. 

We have the ability to raise spiritually connected students in our schools, creating a horizon of hope for each and every one of them. As a mentioned in my opening comments, “Our jobs may be to educate, but it is our calling, our vocation for everyone here, no matter your role in the division, to form. To form our students to be spiritually healthy, faith filled and hopeful!”

So remember, it is not only what adulthood looks like for the child who does not achieve but also for the child who is not spiritually connected. It is a dual mandate that we must always take seriously in our role as Catholic educators.

Peace and blessings as you continue your role in our system!

Innovation: Let’s make it simple!

I just read the report on Innovation from the Conference Board of Canada which ranks Alberta as 15th overall. Given that Alberta is one of the top educational jurisdictions in the world, the stat is a little disconcerting. Innovation is defined by The Conference Board, “As a process through which economic or social value is extracted from knowledge—by creating, diffusing, and transforming ideas—to produce new or improved products, services, and processes.” Interestingly, nowhere in the definition is technology mentioned.

This is important and deserves attention since many equate innovation to technology. The fact is that innovation may be technology driven but in education, it is more about transforming ideas and improving practices. It is not that technology should not be in our classrooms; in fact it should be as common as pens and paper. But our way to innovation must begin with simple shifts in our ideas, our structures and our pedagogy.  So much fear of and from technology can be alleviated when we first begin to innovate with thoughtful purpose and through simple adjustments.

Simon Breakspear talks about the importance of pivoting in our practice. To me, this is exactly the beginning of innovation. It does not require a gigantic leap but rather a simple pivot that improves instruction, making it more meaningful, more effective and more efficient. We often become lost in the innovation network of the biggest and best, the newest and the most modern. That is not innovation for the average teacher nor the average person.

Committing to evolving our practice is the inertia required for the simplest form of innovation. We seek to do something better, then we do something different and innovation begins. It is that simple! System improvement is always preceded by school improvement which is always preceded by individual teacher improvement. There is no magic bullet and there is no other way for innovation to begin and eventually scale up and scale out. It begins in the classroom with a pivot in thinking and in doing! Innovation can become the normal routine when educators believe it is about transforming ideas, shifting processes and reflecting on one’s practice!

Remember…innovation is that simple! 

Moving forward with Student Learning Assessments

Last week, Holy Spirit decided to participate in the Student Learning Assessment pilot. The choice of all or none implementation was certainly not preferred but in discussing with many of our administrators and grade 3 teachers who participated last year, ALL was better than NONE! Enclosed is the message sent to all of our grade 3 teachers by our Director of Learning, indicating our participation. It provides our rationale and our steps to support this work.

Over the past number of years, Holy Spirit Catholic School Division has actively embraced innovation in teaching, learning and assessment. Guided by “Inspiring Education,” the Ministerial Order on Student Learning, and what we know to be in our students’ best interests, we were quick to walk away from Grade Three Provincial Achievement Testing and commit to piloting the Student Learning Assessment (SLA) in September 2014. In our quest to find better ways to assess all students, work was begun last year for each of our grade levels to create common assessments for Literacy and Numeracy to be used throughout our school division. Grade three teachers, at that time, chose to focus on the SLAs rather than create an additional assessment for Holy Spirit.

Through participation in the 2014 Grade 3 SLAs, our students and teachers were able to be part of creating a better way to assess student learning and use data to inform instruction. Although there were many challenges that came along with the 2014 iteration of Grade Three SLAs, as a school division, we were able to pull together to provide additional supports for our teachers including time set aside to collaboratively and individually score the Performance Task portion of the SLAs. At our subsequent Grade level meetings, additional effort was given to providing important feedback to Alberta Education for improving the assessment and its process.

In planning for the September 2015 administration of SLAs, Alberta Education has responded to many of our concerns. Some of the improvements this year include:

  • The SLA Teacher Dashboard was opened on September 1, allowing two full weeks for teachers to access teacher and student materials in preparation for the Assessment scheduled to begin on September 14. This includes full access to all of the assessment components for teacher preview. The SLA Teacher Dashboard has been expanded to provide access to school and division leaders. This added access will enhance the ability of leaders to provide any additional support that teachers may need with the dashboard.
  • Additional implementation supports are available through open access to SLA3 practice questions, released questions from the 2014 pilot and sample performance tasks.
  • Professional Learning Opportunities for teachers have been increased both before and after administration of the SLAs. Numerous sessions are being offered in Southern Alberta by SAPDC, including one on September 9, 2015 specifically for Holy Spirit Teachers. We will, once again host a collaborative marking day for teachers as well as additional time for marking as needed by teachers. SAPDC will offer sessions in collaboration with Alberta Education to assist teachers in analysing the digitally scored data reports once they become available. Substitute teacher costs for these professional learning opportunities will be covered through Holy Spirit Catholic Schools Learning Services.
  • Information from Alberta Education assures us that the Performance Assessment component of the SLA has been significantly streamlined and the accompanying material simplified. This includes a simplified administration guide, shorter exemplars and simplified scoring rubrics. It is anticipated that the time required to administer and mark the performance tasks will be reduced by at least half.
  • The time lines for the administration have been increased to 4 weeks for the Digital Literacy and Numeracy components and 7 weeks for the Literacy and Numeracy Performance Assessments.
  • There have been significant improvements to the Individual Student and Class Reports.

Alberta Education identifies the purposes of the SLAs to be to improve student learning (primary purpose), to enhance instruction for students and to assure Albertans the education system is meeting the needs of students and achieves the outcomes of the Ministerial Order on Student Learning. During the 2015 administration, there will be no school level, division level or public reporting of student results. The emphasis for this pilot year once again, is on improving the assessment instrument and the process of administering it. Teacher feedback will be vital to continuing to improve the Grade 3 Student Learning Assessment.

Since the SLA announcement from the Minister of Education, our Superintendent, Chris Smeaton has been working with the department to seek alternatives to all or none implementation. Unfortunately, his request to have a sampling throughout our division, which is well supported by Hargreaves and Shirley, has been denied. Given that, we believe that to opt out entirely would be a missed opportunity for our division. Therefore, Holy Spirit Catholic Schools will participate in this pilot and supports earlier mentioned will be provided to assist you in your work.

I am looking forward to seeing you all on Wednesday, September 98:30-11:30am at St. Basil’s Catholic Education Centre for our 2015 SLA3 Orientation Session with SAPDC.

Please pre-register at:

Should you have any further questions or comments, please do not hesitate to contact me. Thank you for your continued dedication to our students!


National Principals Leadership Institute- Designing Schools for the Future

This past summer, I was invited as a member of C21 Canada to attend the National Principals Leadership Institute in New York. The invitation provided for a presentation on the work of C21 Canada as well as an opportunity to serve as a leadership consultant to school and system leaders from across North America. The theme of the institute was designing schools for the future with a target date of 2040. One of the advantages I had as a Canadian Superintendent was my intimate knowledge of the work done in my home province of Alberta with Inspiring Education. The document that accompanies this path forward, focuses on preparing students for the year 2030  to be engaged thinkers, ethical citizens with an entrepreneurial spirit. This information assisted me in my work with participants as well as reaffirmed the work we are currently doing in my own school division.

The structure of the Institute was its greatest strength. Each morning a keynote presentation set the stage for the sub theme of the day. The keynote presenters were not directly connected to the K-12 education system and therefore, gave a unique perspective on designing schools for the future. Two panels followed, with the first addressing the keynote presentation while the second provided implications to schools.  The addition of the panel that addressed the implications in education drove home the importance of thinking beyond our own paradigm to truly design schools that will meet the needs of future generations.

There were a variety of futuristic topics, from urban planning to innovation, which laid a strong foundation for the team planning sessions in the afternoon. Participants were divided up into teams with the end result being the design and presentation of their school for the year 2040. Given our understanding that communication, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration are essential for student success in today’s ever changing world, the team format allowed administrators to live the experience we want in our classrooms.

The resulting projects were outstanding and more importantly doable. Although technology was leveraged in the future schools, it was not the dominate design. Common sense prevailed and a keen sense of current research on child development, teaching and learning. Innovation wasn’t simply categorized by technology but often it was by doing something different, perhaps more efficiently, more effectively or more deliberately. Multi-age classrooms, project based learning, common assessments and a mentality of learning for all where evident in all futuristic schools.

For some, including those (should be) common staples of education into future schools may be disappointing. But it seems that putting our vision of education into the Star Trek world of  teleportation is just too far-fetched. The challenge is letting technology serve us better in what we know about child development, teaching and learning. The frustration is in the knowing-doing gap; already knowing what we need to do but not doing it beyond the pockets of excellence that exist around the world. The presence of members from the C21 Canada Leadership Academy at the Institute provided some direction on moving from pockets of excellence to scaling out and scaling up. The latest publication, Shifting Minds 3.0 Redefining the Learning Landscape in Canada pursues a dual strategy of both improvement and innovation that is required to both maintain stability and enable forward momentum.

Designing schools for the future is about improvement and innovation. It is about challenging assumptions and beliefs and confronting the brutal facts. It will be messy and on a road less travelled. But it is what students deserve and what committed educators desire and that was evident throughout the Institute.

Many thanks to Lew Smith and Jann Coles from NPLI for the invitation and to all the leaders who I had the pleasure to work with during my time in New York! Best of luck in beginning your 2040 design today!




From the Desk of the Superintendent- Opening Message to Staff

Today in my opening comments I want to speak only about faith, not innovation or creativity, not common assessments or transformation. There will be other times for that but right now… simply faith. The reason I want to focus on faith is that it is our mission… that is what makes us unique. All school divisions including us, focus on the education piece but it is our existence as a Catholic School Division that makes us different.

This year is the last year of our 3-year faith plan. We began in 2013 with David Wells introducing us to our theme of “Taking Our Place at the Table.” He invited us all to come to the table. He reminded us that we are all worthy to come to the table, God welcomes us all. Those were comforting words because all of us at some point and time in our life have left God’s table; some because we did not feel welcome and others because we felt unworthy. But David pushed us a little farther in that not only did he say come to the table, but he also asked us to look around and see who wasn’t sitting with us and then asked us to go out and invite them too. Those not at our table were our lonely, our disenfranchised, our marginalized. But they too deserve to be at the table and we, as faith filled people need to invite them, go to them and bring them to the table.

That imagery led well to last year’s faith theme of “Walking Together.” For our schools, walking together was very tangible; it was visual and all students, no matter the age could understand and appreciate this idea. We walk together, sometimes in front, or in the middle, or near the end but we do it together. It reminded us that we are a community, all welcome, all different and unique but all together. Regardless of year 2 being over, we still continue to come to the table, to be invitational to all and we gather as one community, walking together in order to provide “A Horizon of Hope.”

Our theme this year reminds us of the responsibility we have as a community, to provide hope to all around us. Delphine Goodstriker, one of our elders said yesterday, “We were given a heart so that we can give.” And it is hope that we must give to our students and their families and to each other.

Hope is not the belief that all of our problems go away. Hope comes from faith, a faith where we may never understand the hand of God but we must always trust the heart of God!

It is sad that in our world there are many who have no hope and unfortunately, many of those are our students. Paint a picture of what adulthood looks like for those children who don’t succeed in our schools? Without hope, there is little chance for any negative cycle to be broken!

Pope Francis says, “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.”

Our jobs may be to educate, but it is our calling, our vocation for everyone here, no matter your role in the division, to form. To form our students to be spiritually healthy, faith filled and hopeful! This year I ask you to be reminded of our mission; a mission that calls on each of us to make a difference in our students’ lives by providing them hope. Creating a horizon of hope is not an easy task and that is why we must do it as one community, seated at one table and walking together.

And so as I conclude my remarks, I leave you with two short verses from Romans: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” Have a wonderful school year and God Bless!

Leadership is not about pleasing everyone!

Last week, I received a scathing comment to my blog Giving up control. While I didn’t agree with the comment, I allowed it to be published and thanked the individual for his opinion. Earlier in my leadership, I may have engaged in an argument with the individual trying to convince him that I was right and he was wrong but, I’ve long past that point in my career. Instead it reminded me that leadership is not about pleasing everyone and in fact if you try to please everyone, you will not lead any substantial change or have any significant impact.

“I don’t see how you can write anything of value if you don’t offend someone.” -Marvin Harris  

Leading requires challenging the status quo. I cannot believe that most leaders are hired to keep everything static! Leadership requires a focus on solutions not problems and moving forward not falling behind. But that does not mean that  fostering effective relationships is not also a part of leadership. You won’t move forward without building authentic relationships with your stakeholders but you also won’t move forward if you try to please everyone! It is a fine line that leaders must walk and often that line moves mid-step! This is one of the many traits that leaders must possess to be truly effective and why there is not an abundance of exceptional leaders. It is extremely difficult for any leader to deal with the multitude of opinions or polarizing expertise and so it is critical that the leader is very clear on the mission. Keeping that in the forefront will assist the leader in carrying on the work in the face of adversity.

This week, I’m serving as a leadership consultant at the National Principal Leadership Institute in New York. The focus of the institute is on designing schools for 2040 and all of the sessions drive home the need for innovation. For too long we’ve talked about school reform while business talks about innovation. Designing schools for 2040 will not be accomplished with simple tweaks or any measure of reform. Schools that will prepare students for their future and not our past will only be achieved through innovation! And innovation, the change required to make schools where they need to evolve to, will not come about without infuriating some. Everybody along the spectrum, from conservative to liberal, will have a point of view on this debate. Leaders must not only understand this but more importantly embrace it! And leaders must not simply take the easy path and settle for the middle because it pleases most. Sometimes the decision rests on the left or right or sometimes it is in the middle but the path must be on what is right, not what is popular.

It will take bold leaders to get us to this point. It will take a person who understands the importance of authentic relationships while also being prepared to stand up to the naysayers, often a very loud minority! Leaders cannot move any organization forward without reaching a tipping point but they will also become stuck in mediocrity if they wait for everybody to come onside before they begin. Create multiple feedback loops, develop a culture of collaboration and seek consultation, but don’t expect to please everyone or you won’t innovate anything! Leadership is not about pleasing or being popular, it is about doing things right and the right thing! Schools for 2040 and more importantly children of today don’t have time to wait to please everyone.