Forwarding the conversation

One of the commitments that I made to my staff in August was to visit every classroom and meet with every staff before the Christmas break. I finished these visits in mid-December. Part of my goal for these visits was to engage staff on why I believe that schools and education as a whole need to be transformed. Unfortunately, some of my message was lost due to  examples I used in describing why we need to change, continue to hone our skills and simply do things differently. However, although quite disappointed that my intent was not viewed positively by some staff, I still intend to forward that conversation. As an educational leader, it is far too important and I am far too passionate to let a little criticism stand in the way of conversations about educational reform.

One of my points was that in order to transform education, we need to fully engage the community. In Jamie Vollmer’s words, we need community trust, understanding, permission and support to truly make any significant change in education. This point was further drilled home to me as I visited with my parents over the Christmas holidays. Both being semi-retired, they represent a significant population that have little to do with the day to day education system in our province. Even though they are fairly well informed because of my involvement in education over the past 26 years, I found it ironic that their perceptions of education were still fairly limited. And that is why all of us in education need to forward the conversation on transformation.

So here are some thoughts that I believe we need to engage our public in order to transform the system. However, it needs to come from local educators and not provincial organizations. Parents and the community at large  trust their own local educators more than anybody else.

  1. The schools of today need to be very different than they were before. We can ill afford to have students not graduate from high school. The opportunities today for a middle/upper class lifestyle without a high school education and only due to a strong back and a good work ethic are few and far between. Too often the result of not graduating high school is either a journey to the justice or welfare systems. Neither of these “career paths” are acceptable to society.
  2. With not graduating from high school not being an acceptable option, we now are required to be successful with all students. Teachers are being asked to meet the needs of all students in their classrooms. This requires a teacher to have multiple strategies to engage all students simultaneously. Differentiated instruction and assessment are no longer optional in today’s classrooms. I don’t believe most non-educators understand the amount of work required to differentiate a classroom.
  3. One of the reasons that teachers are professionals is that they possess a specialized knowledge. Although all of us have gone through school, the life of a teacher in the classroom can only really be learned through experience. Outsiders may think they know what happens in a classroom but until you’ve actually experienced it as an educator, most are really unaware of the professional practice required. Except for the technology, there have not been many changes in the physical structure of the classroom or doctor’s office. But it is the practice occurring within those structures that demonstrates the specialized knowledge. And like the doctor, that specialized knowledge needs to be supportive of the latest research and the most effective and efficient.
  4. Assessing student success cannot be limited to a single written exam. We need multiple assessments for students to demonstrate learning. Some students can perform the task, others can verbally describe, while still others are great on paper and pencil tests. Unfortunately, we limit the description of being a successful student to the one who performs well on the written exam.  How fair is that? In reality, what do we really want to accomplish in education and is it measurable? “The central task of education is to implant a will and a facility for learning; it should produce not learned but learning people. The truly human society is a learning society, where grandparents, parents, and children are students together. In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.” (Eric Hoffer- Reflections on the Human Condition, 1973)
  5. The mandate creep in education has become unmanageable. School systems are expected to pick up the slack from society. What was once taught at home, at church or in the community is now expected to be picked up at the school.  Great organizations know what their core business is and then organize around those priorities. The priorities of school have long been put aside to meet the deficiencies of society. Schools cannot focus on their core business, namely education without support from communities.

These points are only the beginning of the conversations needed. Accountability, curriculum and the professional status of educators are also important conversations that need to occur and I will blog about in the future. Furthermore, there are some incredible leaders who utilize social media to further these conversations. Check out Sir Ken Robinson, Will Richardson or Pasi Sahlberg who are passionate leaders of educational reform. But as I’ve said before, transformation begins with a conversation.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing you’ve always done and expecting different results. If education doesn’t change from both inside and outside the system we will continue to engage in insanity. Local educators… forward the conversation and assist in making a system not for today but for tomorrow!

 

 

From the Desk of the Superintendent- January 2012

Happy New Year and welcome to 2012. I have certainly enjoyed the time off between Christmas and New Year. It is always wonderful to have some extra time to spend with the loved ones in our lives. I’m coming back to work fully rested and ready to take on an extremely busy January… even as I enter another decade!!! Who said 50 was old???

December always seems to fly by in a blur due to the bedlam of activity that occurs in our schools and throughout the division. I try and make it a point to get out to the schools for as many Advent and Christmas activities as possible in December. Although I’ve seen my fair share of concerts and other activities over the years, I’m always excited to see the many talents of our staff and students at this time of the year. These talents share the Christmas message which is foundational to our Catholic schools. Thanks to all involved for their time commitment and more importantly their faith commitment to ensuring that Christmas is about Christ.

The December Board meeting was highlighted by a presentation on Alberta Schools Wind Power Project. The Board passed a motion to be part of the Wind Power Project which will provide long term predictable costs and a great benefit to the environment. Other highlights included: Presentation of the 2012 Infrastructure Maintenance Renewal Plan, CUPE 1825 contract ratification, and the transfer of funds from capital reserves to finance the two additional modulars for St. Patrick Fine Arts Elementary. For more information on the board meeting, please see the Board Meeting Briefs.  

January begins with a special ASBA meeting on the 9th for Board Chairs, Superintendents and Secretary Treasurers to discuss the progress of the current tripartite discussions being held. There is no doubt that while the desire for long term sustainable funding and labor peace is the goal, I am concerned that some decisions made at the provincial level could have a negative impact on our local system. Although the relationships between the Alberta Education, Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) and the Alberta School Boards’ Association (ASBA) are much improved, negotiations have an ability to cause lines to be drawn and ultimatums to be given. Let’s hope that our students and our staff are not negatively impacted by these decisions.

Another big event will be our west side public consultation hosted by Children of St. Martha School. All parents and staff from St. Patrick Fine Arts Elementary, Children of St. Martha and Father Leonard van Tighem are invited to this event on January 16th beginning at 6:30 PM. Please click here for the link to register. A small committee of parents and staff from each of the three schools and senior administration have been working together to provide some potential options to ensure the best utilization of our west side schools. The input provided will assist the Board in their long term planning.  

Finally, the Board of Trustees and Senior Administration will be busy as they begin their staff appreciation lunches in January. This is the third year that the Board has been involved in providing lunches for our staffs. These luncheons serve as a token of appreciation for their excellent work and dedication. It is a great opportunity for board members and senior administration to mingle with the staff at each school and further recognize their positive impact made on the students of Holy Spirit and the community at large.

In closing, I would like to leave you with this New Years Prayer video. May God Bless you in 2012.

Christmas Message to Staff

Life in education is certainly busy. It seems like only yesterday when we began the year, I addressed you and asked, “Do you love me?” and was met with complete silence… and then laughter! Most people who are not in the education system cannot fully appreciate how busy the days are in our school lives. And that is why we put our heads down in September and when we look up again, we are already approaching the Christmas season. When you are in the moment and that seems like all of the time in education, it is hard to “stop and smell the roses.” Yet, as we come into this Christmas season and prepare for our break, that is exactly what we must do. 

While driving to my next concert or assembly during this season, I have time to stop and smell the roses. The radio stations are now on full Christmas carol mode and although the song, “Grandma just got run over by a reindeer” causes me to laugh, “O Holy Night” allows me to reflect. I reflect on the wonder of that most holy night, when Jesus was born. I reflect on the calm that prayer provides me in this most busy season. And I reflect on the many gifts that God has provided me in my life.  

I was blessed to be born into a family with loving parents. I am blessed to have a wonderful, loving and supportive spouse and two amazing adult children.  And I continue to be blessed with good health, much hope and great happiness. But each day that I walk into my office, I am reminded how blessed I am to work here in Holy Spirit. I am surrounded throughout the division by thoughtful and compassionate individuals. People who are faith filled and committed to making a difference in every child’s life that walks through our doors. And that is a blessing not just for me but for every parent and every child who calls Holy Spirit home.

As you begin your well deserved holidays, I would like to thank you for the blessings each of you provides to our students and each other. Take time to truly celebrate the season. Take time to spend with your loved ones. Take time to relax and rejuvenate.  And finally, take time to reflect on the blessings that God has bestowed on each of you.

Have a Merry Christmas filled with peace, joy and love. And may God bless you in the coming new year.

 

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!