What’s really important in education?

Like most parents, I remember very clearly the day that our son and our daughter were born. Holding them in my arms that first time, I can guarantee you my first thoughts were not, “I sure hope they do well on their Provincial Achievement and Diploma Exams!” In fact, when I think back to their first days of school, I didn’t wish for that either. I wanted them to be healthy and happy. I wanted them to enjoy school like I did, to make friends, to love learning. I wanted them to love their teachers and for their teachers to really love them and to make them feel special. Although I’ve been reflecting on this for the last while, the point further resonated with me when I read the article, “Leave a mark, Not a grade.”

When I began my career in teaching, my goal was to make a difference in my students’ lives. As a coach, my goals always included learning, improving but most of all making an impact on my players’ lives. Making a difference in students’ lives is still my main goal as a superintendent. When I reflect on my time in the classroom or on a volleyball court, it is pretty easy to measure my level of success at making a difference. But as a superintendent, how do you measure whether I personally, or the system as a whole, are making a difference. The current system evaluates success based on standardized tests, surveys and other accountability pillar measures. The question is, “Does this really measure what’s important in education?”

Given my thoughts above, most would believe that I’m just another educator who doesn’t believe in accountability or standardized tests. In fact, quite the opposite! The billions of dollars spent on education is just one reason why accountability is required.  And standardized tests provide us with necessary benchmarks and rigour required for a high quality system. My issue is that the current accountability system only minutely measures what’s really important in education. Where in the color coded report card that every school division in Alberta receives does it tell me that we’ve made an impact on an individual student’s life? Furthermore, where does it tell us that the student has improved, is a better collaborator, critical thinker, problem solver, demonstrates immense creativity or any other of the 21st century skills required for tomorrow’s world.

I am hopeful with Alberta Education’s transformational agenda. Their vision from Inspiring Education to create an educational system that highlights the (1) Engaged thinker, (2) Ethical citizen and (3) Entrepreneurial Spirit, should be applauded. But for that reality to occur, each and every one of us must remember the hopes and dreams we have (had) for our children and grandchildren and ensure that what’s really important in education is what’s really measured!

Christmas is about Christ!

This past week an elementary school in the Ottawa area became a national news story when they chose to replace their traditional Christmas concert with a non-denominational February fest. I did a quick review of some of the 451 comments already posted and to say the least, it is an extremely controversial topic.  

Last Friday, I attended the first Christmas concert of the season hosted by St. Patrick Fine Arts Elementary. The title, “Christmas on the Brain”, would suggest that the school went with a more non-denominational theme. However, from the opening prayer led by the school principal to the final rap, the theme was certainly all about Christ. In our schools, Christmas is about Christ.  

We are blessed to have the opportunity to proclaim our faith in public. It is what makes Catholic Education unique and distinct. During this month of December, our schools will be organizing many Advent and Christmas celebrations. They will all involve Christ because it is what we do and who we are. Catholic Education is ALL about Christ.

From the Desk of the Superintendent- December 2011

It is hard to believe that 2011 is coming to a close and soon we will be ushering in a new year. Although we still have the entire month of December, it will fly by before we know it. When I look back at 2011, I am proud of the many accomplishments of our students and staff. Whether it be their involvement in a fine arts production, an athletic event or volunteering they make Holy Spirit what it is today: “A Christ-centered learning community where students are cherished and achieve their potential.” 

The November board meeting tends to be fairly financial in nature. The Board of Trustees finalized the final budget and received and approved the audited financial statements. These decisions made by the Board demonstrated the commitment to their values. As an example of this commitment, the Board recommended that  the entire money received by the provincial government be allocated to staff in schools. This amounted to 5.65 FTE teaching positions, 1.5 FTE educational assistants and 1.0 FTE FNMI Support Worker. Furthermore, an additional 1.15 FTE teaching position will be hired to help further support students. This is an investment of nearly $800,000.00 into our classrooms. The Board also approved the combined 3-year Education Plan/Annual Education Results Report that is subsequently forwarded to Alberta Education. For further information on the Board meeting please refer to the Board Meeting Briefs.

Our schools are well involved in December with Christmas plays, concerts and other activities. It is a busy time for the schools and I want to acknowledge and thank our staff for the countless hours they put in to making these events special for the students and parents. I try to make it to many of the concerts as I thoroughly enjoy watching the many talents of our students. So many of my fondest memories of my own children, now adults, come from the activities they participated in the school.

Looking out the window today, it is not hard to believe that we are approaching Christmas. The fresh snowfall should remind us of a new beginning. Yet, all I could think about this morning was the cold, the poor driving conditions and, did I mention the cold! But then I spent some time with students at St. Paul and my thinking radically changed. You see, all they could think about was the wonder of snowflakes and all the fun activities they were going to be able to do in the snow. Perspective! Those children knew that this snowfall meant a new beginning and they welcomed it with open arms. Our Catholic faith has a new beginning at this time of year as we commence the Advent Season. It is a beginning that we need to look upon with hopes, dreams and possibilities. We need to look at this preparation for coming of the Lord’s birth with the eyes of a little child. And if we do, we won’t see the cold but instead the warmth of God’s love and His wonder.

May God Bless you and your family with a joyous Advent Season.

Changing our teaching habits!

At the conclusion of next week, I will have completed meeting with all of our school staffs and visiting virtually every classroom in the division. My conversations with school staffs have revolved around the transformation agenda both as a division and a province. One of my central messages has been that we have to start doing things differently because few of us have the ability to work any harder. While I was having some quality time with our daughter in the States, I had some time to reflect on my message and also finish reading Jim Knight’s book, Instructional Coaching. Although my intent on reading his book was specifically from a supervision or coaching slant, his message about change was most thought provoking. I quote from his book:

” Changing the way we teach requires us to change habits of behavior, and changing habits is not easy, as anyone who has tried to quit smoking, lose weight, stop spending, or increase exercising has realized… Desire and will power usually aren’t enough to make real change occur. Due to our habitual nature, we are naturally inclined to protect the status quo.” (pg 5) I relate to our staff that I’m not much of a role model, as I continue to put in my 70+ hour work week and furthermore, every Sunday has been my “planning day” for the past 26 years in education. Habits do die hard don’t they!

I don’t want to stop the message of changing what we do because I believe each of us needs to be part of the answer.  I also believe that we all need to dialogue about what we can do differently and then, slowly at first, and with small steps, begin to implement the changes required.

Knight also talks about the stages of change from researchers Prochaska, Norcross, and DiClemente (pg 85-89). The six stages from an educational perspective are as follows:

  1. Precontemplation- teachers in this stage tend to blame externally for problems in their classrooms. They tend to blame students or parents, complain about lack of support from administration, class size or anything other than themselves.
  2. Contemplation- teachers begin to consider why they may need to change and what are the gains and losses of adopting.  They start to look internally but just don’t know what to do.
  3. Preparation- teachers start to take the time to plan and articulate exactly what they want to change. They begin to have conversations with their colleagues in preparation for the change. It is at this stage that I am convinced an environment of risk taking must be part of the culture of the school and/or division. Teachers need to feel safe in knowing that it will acceptable to fail and be prepared to “fail forward.”  
  4. Action- teachers are now doing things differently. They are implementing new teaching strategies. Support is critical at this juncture. Teachers need to feel the support from their colleagues and especially from their administrators. “We don’t do that in this school/division!” will surely put a quick end to any forward action.
  5. Maintenance- teachers need to continue the action in order for it to be sustained. Continual support is still required and the fear of slipping back into old habits is a reality. The maintenance phase is adjusting to and finding comfort in the new routines and can require considerable time and effort.
  6. Termination- teachers at the termination stage have fully integrated their new teaching practices. The change is not viewed at anything other than the normal course of events.  

“Change is difficult because change requires us to change our habits and create new routines. If teachers are emotionally fatigued by the pressing immediacy of their professional life, overwhelmed by innovation overload, is it any surprise if they are not quick to pick up a practice and make it a routine in the classroom? Yet teachers need to keep trying to learn and implement better instructional practices if school are going to get better at reaching all students.” (Jim Knight- Instructional Coaching pg5).  

If we truly want to transform education in our schools, then it is the responsibility of the government, the profession, the division, the public and the individual teacher to fully understand the difficulty of the change process and support with more than just words the actions required. It may begin with one but the end result must be systemic. Every child deserves that!!! 

“What we know today does not make yesterday wrong, it makes tomorrow better.” Carol Commodore

Welcoming the New Roman Missal

This coming Sunday, we begin the journey of Advent in the Catholic Church. It is a beginning and as such is an important time for all Catholics as we prepare for the birth of our Lord. But it will be more than that because on November 27, 2011, the First Sunday of Advent, a new English translation of the Eucharist (Mass) will be introduced in English-speaking countries across the Roman Catholic world. For cradle Catholics, this will be almost foreign as many of the traditional responses that we have come to know and say will be changed. And why? Bishop Henry has provided an excellent response that I provide here.  

I look at the changes from a couple of different points of view. The first comes from my background in education. The new translation is far more accurate than the previous version. We would never want to use old methods when improvements are available in education and so now that we have more accuracy, we should welcome the changes with open arms. The second point of view is far more personal. I would like to say that every time I respond in church it is done with great thought. But to be honest, because I’ve grown up in the Catholic Church, many times my responses in church are automatic and without any thought. The New Roman Missal forces me and hopefully all of us to really concentrate on what we are saying, what we are professing and in reality, what we truly believe. I admit that for the first while, the mass will feel a little bit awkward and clumsy as we struggle with the new language. But in our struggle, we will deepen our faith as we truly reflect on our responses.

There are some excellent resources to assist Catholics in learning about the New Roman Missal. As a Learning Leadership Team (system and school administrators) we engaged in discussions on the changes and were provided inservice through videos and readings. Listed below are some excellent resources for parents and all members of our Catholic faith.

New beginnings can cause some anxiety as we journey where we have not gone before. However, I hope you see this new beginning as a wonderful opportunity to learn together and grow in our faith. May God bless you and keep you close as we begin the season of Advent and the New Roman Missal.

Transformation begins with a conversation.

On November 2nd, we hosted our first transformation conversation. It was a small crowd involving school council chairs, ATA site representatives, school and system leaders, post-secondary faculty, Alberta Education personnel and trustees. The format of the evening was set up as a world cafe in order to mix and match as many viewpoints as possible. The protocol that everybody had something to offer was paramount in our evening. Our conversation was structured using three leading questions: (1) What was school like when you attended? (2) What is school like today? (3) What changes are required to transform education without additional resources? Let me provide the context of the third question. Since beginning in education in 1985, I have yet to say that we have enough money in education. Therefore, why would we assume that more money/resources is inevitable in our transformation journey? Furthermore, it would be unfair to “blue sky” our thoughts on changes only to hear that the resources are not available.  Before we began question #3, I showed the illustrated video from Sir Ken Robinson: Changing education paradigms.

The resulting conversation developed five main themes for change:

  • Prepare for the “Real World” – 21st Century Learning
  • Re-thinking the Concept of “School”
  • Assessment
  • Curriculum
  • Community

The last part of the evening was spent on generating 1-2 actions that we as a school division should be looking at to further the transformation process. Four general themes became evident in this area:

  • Student focus
  • Changing School Structure
  • Assessment and Curriculum
  • Teacher focus

The entire synopsis of the evening can be found at Transformation Conversation.

The way forward is having more conversations with staff and parents. Even more important is the conversation with our disengaged parents and our students. They all need to be part of what education is to become. The need to change is not going to be easy as I have previously written in my post “Reducing Failure” but it is critical that we overcome our resistance. There are some great posts by Eric Sheninger and Scott Franklin involving change that I would suggest you read as they help us understand that the change in education will not be easy and will be messy. And finally, I would suggest that you view a quick video entitled Learning to Change, Changing to Learn: A Canadian Perspective that I picked up from George Couros for some further provoking of our thougths on education. 

Transformation begins with a conversation and its journey will never end. What a great and exciting time to be in education!!! 

“Wanderer, your footsteps are the road, and nothing more; wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking. By walking one makes the road, and upon glancing behind one sees the path that never will be trod again. Wanderer, there is no road–Only wakes upon the sea.”  Antonio Machado

Reducing failure

Last week, we hosted our first transformation conversation with parents, teachers, leaders, post-secondary faculty, Alberta Education personnel and trustees. It was a gathering of approximately 50 participants who by in large have had successful experiences in either their own schooling or their children’s schooling. Later this week, I will provide the feedback from the evening and my own commentary. However, today, I want to speak about what I believe is at the heart of the transformation journey or Alberta Education’s- Action on Inclusion, namely reducing failure!

Since the beginning of October, I have been able to meet with 9 of our 13 school staffs and visit every classroom in those schools. The visits allow me to provide an update on the work of the division, information on the transformation agenda and to start the most important conversation that I believe is facing us in education today, “How do we reduce failure in schools?”  Let me be crystal clear, this is not an attack on our staff as we continually achieve from good to excellent results as communicated by the current standard of measurement from the government, the Accountability Pillar. In fact, the Alberta Education System overall is a world class leader. But still, one in four students in Alberta does not complete high school in the “normal” three year period.

I believe the approaches we’ve begun in Holy Spirit are a start toward reducing failure. The first, an emphasis on early learning has been well established for last number of years. Our Early Learning team provides tremendous support with our Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten programs. We’ve also been able to develop critical partnerships that offer before and after school programming to assist parents in supporting their needs. The concentrated efforts of establishing strong early learning programming in a play environment is further supported by Alberta Education’s document, “Let’s Talk About the Early Years.” While I believe that local divisions have the best ability to meet those needs, I would suggest that the government can assist by the following:  (1) Ensure flexibility of funding from early ages to grade 3 to meet the diverse needs of all  learners; (2) Eliminate barriers between ministries in order to support the diverse needs of all learners; and (3) Develop an integrated curriculum that focuses on the needs of the early learners to grade 3.

Our second approach that is assisting to reduce failure is not well established but has seen some great growth these last two years. Although many of our staff have participated in Pyramid Response to Intervention training, it is not the “program” that makes the difference. What is reducing failure is making time flexible and learning the constant. I have stated previously that although we innately believe as educators that all students are unique, we still (by and large) require them to finish the same work in the same amount of time. The adoption of intervention blocks in K-9 and flex blocks in high school are creating additional time for students. Offering a continuum of support, student learning needs are being better addressed in multiple groupings. There is no doubt that  timetabling these intervention periods is an art and so I applaud our school administrators for their work in creating this time. I am cautious with what I would suggest should be the government’s response to support this endeavour. It would be easy to suggest that the government automatically open its purse strings and allocate more money to divisions. And while I would never say no to additional funding, I think it is fair to also remember that more is not necessarily better in many cases. Adequate, sustainable and predictable funding will allow school divisions to meet local needs.   

Finally, I share with you an additional requirement to help reduce failure. Simply, we cannot continue to do the same things we have always done and expect different results. The workload in education has become virtually impossible to manage. We cannot ask anybody in education to work harder! But we can ask and probably should insist that we find ways to work smarter. This may be our toughest challenge in education! We have done what we have done in the system for so long and our results have consistently been good, if not excellent. There is a sense of stability when we maintain what we have always done. Yet, I continually see dedicated educators becoming more tired as their load increases. The concept of  balance between work and home is slowly disappearing and that is not good for educators or our students. We need to find ways that we can continue to improve and reduce failure without burning out and giving in! This change requires all of us to look at what we do, evaluate what is most important, create a don’t do list, share responsiblities and in the end work smarter!

Catholic Education Sunday- November 6, 2011

This coming weekend, we celebrate Catholic Education Sunday.  Each year we set aside this special day to celebrate the gift of Catholic Education here in the province of Alberta.  This year’s theme, as proclaimed by the Bishops of Alberta, is, “Open Wide the Doors”What a wonderful theme our Bishops have proclaimed this year. Open wide the doors speaks to our desire to welcome into our schools ALL children whose parents seek a Gospel permeated environment. And that is what Catholic Education is and needs to continue to be about. It is much more than just programming and buildings, it is about our Catholic faith, our Catholic tradition.

Catholic Education also speaks of partnership. We are blessed that Catholic Education is publicly funded but need to recognize that it requires the involvement and support of the home and the parish. This triad of strength allows Catholic schools not only to exist but to flourish.  In Holy Spirit we have developed an excellent relationship with our school councils, our parents and our parishes. We are grateful for this continued support. It is another reason why we continue to maintain such high standing in our surveys and our results. 

Our division began our journey in a three year faith plan last year. This year, in our second year, our theme is “Do You Love Me?” It is the question Jesus asks Peter in John’s gospel. And it is the same question that we are asked in Catholic Education. Our response is to open wide the doors and it requires each of us to learn to surrender our lives fully to Jesus. We are called to be witnesses and allow the love of Christ to flow freely over us like a waterfall.

Catholic Education calls us to seek wisdom. Wisdom penetrates our hearts and our homes allowing us to see the light of Christ. It is wisdom that acts as the fuel to light our paths toward the kingdom. Wisdom is radiant and unfading and so must our Catholic Schools. We are signs of hope when we let wisdom shine brightly and end the darkness that surrounds us.  Catholic Schools need to continue to be beacons of hope for our students and communities by opening the doors wide.

As we celebrate Catholic Education Sunday, I ask that you pray for our Holy Spirit staff – that they continue to fulfill their mission of offering education that is fully permeated with Gospel values; that they continue to surrender their lives to Jesus; and finally that they continue to seek wisdom to infuse the love of Christ in our students’ and communities’ hearts and souls. 

God Bless!

From the Desk of the Superintendent- November 2011

It is hard to believe that two months of the school year have already come and gone. Each month, our schools send me their newsletters and I am always amazed at the number of events planned for our students. When I review each of our school’s calendars I begin to understand why time flies by so quickly- we are very busy! But even in our busyness, we still ensure that our Catholic faith is front and central in everything that we do. This coming weekend, we celebrate Catholic Education Sunday. It is a recognition of the gift of publicly funded Catholic Education that we experience in Alberta. Most countries and many provinces in Canada do not have that same luxury, and so we need to remember not to take Catholic Education for granted. Later this week, I will post my Catholic Education Sunday message.

Catholic Education in Holy Spirit School Division is about providing each student entrusted to our care with an education rooted in the Good News of Jesus Christ. And that means excellence! At this past board meeting, I presented our trustees with our Accountability Pillar Results for October 2011.  With an excellence standing in the following categories: Safe and Caring, Program of Studies, Drop Out Rate, Rutherford Scholarship Eligibility Rate, Transition Rate, Citizenship and School Improvement; and improvement or maintenance of results in 15 of 16 measure categories, we are definitely providing high quality Catholic Education. In fact, in some of the categories, we are among the leaders in the province. These results are a direct result of the work of our committed and dedicated staff and wonderful students.

There were significant decisions made at the Regular Board Meeting held in October. Certainly the decision of the Board to provide additional staffing to our highest needs in the division with the additional funding received by the province was most welcomed. In addition, the Board is taking public engagement to the next level by hosting an initial conversation on transformation (occurring November 2) and initiating a process to review our west side schools. Further information will be coming out from my office about this important public consultation event. The Board will also be meeting with School Council Chairs later this month. I would like to congratulate Sandra Dufresne, who was acclaimed as Board Chair, and Terry O’Donnell, who was acclaimed as Vice Chair. For further information about the meeting, please check out the Board Meeting Briefs.

This month I am continuing with my school visits. In my opening address, I promised to meet with every staff before Christmas. The visits are structured so that I can visit every classroom and be introduced to the students and, at an appropriate time (before school, after school or at lunch), meet with the staff. I provide the staff with a consistent message from school to school and then open it up for questions. Although I love my job, one of the drawbacks of being a superintendent is the minimal contact I have with students. These visits provide me with that opportunity and I am grateful to be around the students. It is great to be in schools and witnessing the many great things going on every single day!

On behalf of the Board of Trustees and Senior Administration, I would like to take this opportunity to wish each of you a wonderful November.

God Bless!

Chris Smeaton

Trying to create a sense of urgency!

Last Wednesday, I presented our Board of Trustees with our October 2011 Accountability Pillar results. A quick review would suggest that Holy Spirit Catholic Schools is a good solid division. We received very high achievement and excellent overall in the areas of: Safe and Caring, Program of Studies, Drop Out Rate, Rutherford Scholarship Eligibility Rate, Transition Rate, Citizenship and School Improvement. Furthermore, we improved in 3 of 16 and maintained our results in 12 of 16 measure categories. In fact, in some of the categories, we are among the leaders in the province. Very impressive and I would be the first to congratulate our staff and students for those results. So, what’s the issue?

Our division like many divisions in the province of Alberta have good results. Yet, we are involved in talks about transformation. Why? Is good not good enough? To paraphrase Jim Collins, the natural enemy of greatness is goodness. The Alberta system is almost paralyzed because we are good. Although no leader including myself was hired to maintain the status quo, that is what we are doing. We lack the urgency to move to greatness and understandably so! A move toward greatness requires a major shift not a little tweak in our education structure and more importantly in our own educational beliefs. The question is how do we create that urgency and really address the needs of future society with students who are 21st century competent. How do we ensure that students leaving our schools possess these 21st century competencies:  problem solving; creativity; analytical thinking; collaboration; communication; ethics, action, and accountability? If these are the agreed competencies that need to be cultivated in our schools, what are we doing to instill them in our classrooms? That is the question to be addressed by the entire community!

Is that enough to create the urgency? I would suggest that it may not be for three reasons. The first is simply because until we are visibly failing our students and no longer solid in our results,  good will be good enough. Secondly, a complete overhaul of our system will likely result in a significant implementation dip as research would suggest. Do we have the patience either provincially or locally to ride that wave until we meet greatness? And thirdly, I would suggest that our measuring of “success” will continue to produce good enough results and therefore not create any urgency. Provincial Achievement Tests and Diploma Exams certainly have their place but fall considerably short of measuring a student’s achievement of 21st century competencies.

On Wednesday, we will begin a local conversation with staff, parents and other stakeholders to discuss how schooling needs to be transformed. It will be our initial conversation and will set the stage for many more conversations to govern the action that will be required. The work needed to ensure that every child is successful will be messy.  We cannot be satisfied with and continue to have a 3-year high school completion rate of 72.6% for the province. It is my belief that our society will suffer greatly with a less than stellar completion rate and result in an eradication of our middle class. I’ve written about transformation and inclusion in previous posts and strongly believe that it is a conversation that we need to fully engage our communities.

At the beginning of the school year, I indicated in my opening address that before Christmas, I would meet with every staff. Part of my meeting involves asking the question, “How do we make Holy Spirit School Division the best division in the province of Alberta?” But in essence, I’m really asking, “How do we create the urgency to move from good to great?” Transformation requires us to find that urgency and run with it!

Our conversation has already begun with our school leaders and will begin with a small group of stakeholders on Wednesday. I hope that each of you will also begin that conversation and… create a sense of urgency. Good luck!!!