Evolving Practice

I was struck by a conversation I was involved in with our leadership program participants last week. We began to reminisce about the teachers who had taught us and some of the practices that were considered the “norm” in those days! Each of us could recount many examples of those teachers who made such a positive difference in our lives but we could all also relate practices that would be considered abusive in today’s world. Corporal punishment, throwing chalk, shoes or anything else to get one’s attention, kneeling on rocks or simply being called out and belittled are practices that needed to be changed! And thank goodness, they have changed!

Unfortunately, we’ve linked the word change to everything in regards to education reform. We have come to accept the notion that in order to improve education we must change this or change that. Consequently, the use of the term change in education, which is difficult in any regard, comes with a heightened negative connotation and causes many educators to fear and resist the notion. Common sense and strong research literature drives why we needed to change the “chalk throwing” exercise, but what about other teaching practices.

When one of the teachers in our cohort mentioned the term “evolving practice”, I was struck at the how much more positive it was compared to “changing practice.”  It may seem simplistic, but I believe it will assist us as we continue to transform education. Evolving practice can be categorized as:

  • Accepting our role as professionals
  • Being reflective on our own practice and responsive to the needs of our students
  • “Honing our craft”
  • Affirming what we do well and revising what we don’t
  • Internal not external
  • Accepting our role as learners not just teachers

Over the past decade we’ve made some necessary changes that support educational reform. There are still some changes that need to occur from a school, system and societal point of view for education to be truly transformed. However, teaching practice must evolve to lead that transformation. The evolution of teaching practice requires a learning paradigm. We can no longer survive on only the art of teaching (relationships) but must fully accept the science component of teaching. Just the advances in brain research alone, should force us to teach differently. The evolution of teaching requires a concentration on reflection. We should no longer do what we’ve always done, but instead seek to employ more effective and efficient pedagogy. Our reflection allows for proactive thought rather than reactive action. And finally, evolving practice reminds us that although assumed competent, we must strive for far more than this minimum. We must evolve to demonstrate the highest level of professionalism and provide teaching practice that ALL students deserve.  

 

Don’t forget to celebrate!

The school year in Alberta is coming to a close and it will coincide with my first year of blogging anniversary. What began as a desire to simply communicate from the my office has developed into an almost weekly personal education reflection. Upon reviewing my yearly blog posts, I would suggest that the vast majority talk about the need to transform our educational system. Leaders in education speak of educational reform and continuous improvement plans because a good portion of their job is to push the status quo. We don’t want to be seen as complacent and satisfied with the current state. It is always our desire to reach the vision of our systems.

I was reminded this past week about the importance to celebrate and affirm instead of just pushing the transformation envelope. When we talk about education reform or school improvement plans there is a tendency for us to fall into the trap of deficiency. There is no doubt that education needs to make some significant changes to meet the needs of the 21st century learners but education, especially in Alberta provides some pretty amazing pride moments too!

One of the things that I’ve started every year during our last meeting with our Learning Leadership Team (senior and school based administrators) is a circle activity. We pull our chairs into the middle of the room and circle up for discussion. This year, I modified the discussion to include a Think, Pair Share activity to highlight our successes. With their partner I had them respond to three questions:

  1. What have you personally done this year to make the division the best division in the province? What will you do next year to continue that work?
  2. What has your school done this year to make the division the best division in the province? What will your school do next year to continue that work?
  3. What has the system done this year to make the division the best division in the province? What does the system need do next year to continue that work?  

It was an extremely rich discussion because it not only highlighted our successes and affirmed our direction but also allowed all of us to build for next year. I’m not one for status quo and I become frustrated when we don’t move forward quick enough, but there has to be a time to quietly sit and “smell the roses.” When you reflect on your work this year, don’t forget to celebrate. There are a lot of results that we should all be proud of!!!

Where lies the enemy?

There is considerable finger pointing in our world today. We’ve replaced responsibility with accountability. Too often, society is quick to blame somebody or something else for their own woes. This really struck a chord a couple of weeks ago when I was involved in a Twitter chat that blamed everything beyond themselves. Even trying to add a different perspective led to more insults and eventually I left the conversation because there wasn’t going to be anything positive forthcoming.  

Unfortunately, education has also become part of that same culture. The “blame game” is alive and well throughout education! The supposed cures for education seem to be entrenched with the language of, “If only” If only we had more money, more time, smaller classes, less testing, more educational assistants, more resources, etc. There seems to be this belief that with “X”, we would be so much better off. And while I would never say no to any of the above, more of the above will most likely only lead to better sameness and not significant change in our educational system.

Our education system really needs to be transformed. The initial purpose of education was never intended to have the student as the central focus. And although we often use the language that we are student centred there are only “some” times when that is actually the case. Even though we have solid research backing improved pedagogy, assessment and structure we still want to continue as we always have.

So where lies the enemy? Quite simply, it lies within each of us, not them but us. We are part of a society that prefers blame to responsibility. We prefer excuses to solutions and we too quickly see barriers instead of opportunities. It is far easier to look beyond rather than within and to call the system a failure before we call ourselves to task. Sad but this culture exists from leader to teacher and from parent to student.

Yet, I’ve been blessed to be around teachers who have made great changes and significant impacts in the lives of students throughout their careers. Why? What’s the difference? Simple, they say “I can and I will!!” They expect and more importantly they accept that conditions may not be optimal but they always move forward. When you walk in their rooms you wish you were a student again and if you are a parent you hope your child gets the opportunity to be in their class. They exude passion and compassion! They believe in their students and set high expectations for all without any excuses.

If we truly desire to make education relevant to the students of today we need to recognize the enemy within each of us and dispel it. No more excuses! No more “If only, What if, But, or I can’t! Then, and only then, will we begin to transform ourselves and then truly reform the system.   

 

 

From the Desk of the Superintendent- June 2012

It is hard to imagine that we have only one month of school remaining and the Stanley Cup Playoffs are still going on!!! All kidding aside, each year seems to pass by quicker than the previous and this year was no exception. I’m very proud of the accomplishments of Holy Spirit again this past year. We are blessed with gifted and talented staff and students and fortunate for engaged and caring parents and families. Although people may suggest that as Superintendent of Schools, my perception may be a little biased, I am confident with my beliefs because of both internal and external feedback. During these last couple of months, a number of Alberta Education personnel have visited our division and reviewed our programming. The common conclusion is almost disbelief that a small “rurban” Catholic division can offer such a breadth of programming and supports for all students. Some of the programming that has been highlighted by Alberta Education and recognized as being on the leading edge in the province includes Early Learning, Fine Arts, Inclusive Education, AISI,  and we achieve this within a Christ-centered environment.

The need to transform education in order to address the 21st century competencies is becoming embedded in our practices within Holy Spirit. When I get the chance to be in our schools, I witness firsthand how our staff are addressing the Framework for Student Learning that has developed the following competencies for today’s learner:

  • Critical Thinking, Problem Solving and Decision Making
  • Creativity and Innovation
  • Social, Cultural, Global and Environmental Responsibility
  • Communication
  • Collaboration and Leadership
  • Lifelong Learning, Personal Management and Well-Being
  • Digital and Technological Fluency

When I began my teaching career in 1985, I was considered a good teacher. However, if I walked into a classroom today and taught exactly like I did when I began, I would be mediocre at best. Education has changed, teaching practice has been refined and the process of learning with all the research now available is certainly very different. That is why we must continue to transform education and why I’m so proud when I walk into the many classrooms already making those changes.

During the  month of May the board held its regular meeting as well as a special board meeting to pass the preliminary budget for 2012-13. At the regular board meeting, a group of parents from St. Michael’s School in Pincher Creek presented about the success of their playground build. They will be part of a documentary film  that will shown at the school on June 10th. For all the highlights of the regular meeting, please check the Board Meeting Briefs. The preliminary budget is balanced with the use of $544,000 from operating reserves.  Our projections shows that we will have a stable student population again next year. The unknown for the budget however, will be salary and benefit costs, as all three employee groups’ (ATA, CUPE 1825 & CUPE 290) contracts expire as of August 31, 2012. Salary and benefits for all staff contributes to over 77% of a nearly 53 million dollar budget.  

With the election behind us, we now have a new Minister of Education. The Honorable Jeff Johnson who represents the riding of Athabasca-Sturgeon-Redwater has taken over the reins as Education Minister. Minister Johnson has indicated three priorities for his department: (1) Capital Projects, (2) Education Act and (3) Tripartite Agreement. Certainly these priorities are very important to Holy Spirit. I will have the opportunity to listen to the Minister at the ASBA Spring General Meeting on June 4-5 in Red Deer. As well, Minister Johnson is meeting with Board Chairs and Superintendents on June 19th, here in Lethbridge. I have heard very positive comments about Minister Johnson already and we look forward to working with him and the department.

As the year finishes up, I would like to take this opportunity to wish all of our students the best of luck in their final exams. Enjoy the summer but always continue to be a learner. Spend time reading a book, learning something new and just having fun by playing. And most importantly, be safe! To all our parents, families and care givers, thank you for your continued support. You are an integral part of the community that helps raise each child. We value your insights and most of all, your love and concern for your children. And finally to our staff- thank you again for your commitment and ongoing dedication to making the lives of students better.

Have a wonderful summer! Good luck and God Bless!

 

Educators need Twitter!

I read a message while following the chat at #connectedca that stated, “I’ve learned more from Twitter in the last year than in the last 5 years of PD activities.” This message was similar to one I provided at my opening address beginning this year. This does not imply that I have not attended some powerful professional development opportunities over the past five years. In fact, my learning has been positively impacted in a number of PD activities and conferences. But Twitter provides me with a couple of things that even the best conferences or other PD activities cannot.

Twitter is immediate and revolves around my time. When I’m at my computer, I have Tweetdeck running constantly. The pop up function allows me to engage in a conversation of interest if I choose. The part of “if I choose” is the important piece. Twitter can be down right addicting, but I’m really in control of it. It allows me to have more autonomy in my professional learning. I remember being concerned that I would miss something when I wasn’t on Twitter, but George Couros helped me understand that the information is always available. The ability to engage with other passionate educators anywhere and anytime is powerful. The opportunity to connect with superintendents, educational leaders, teachers, parents and others passionate about education is invigorating. And yes… I get to do it on my time and when it is convenient for me.

A second aspect of the importance of Twitter deals with the overall positiveness of the conversations. Quite simply, it is uplifting listening to people around the world talk about their best experiences and sharing their expertise. Contributors in general, are about “Real change, not better sameness!” They are about I can not I can’t! They are about opportunities not barriers! They are about change not status quo! And finally, they are about commitment not compliance! In my position, I get to hear from all the nay sayers. Education reformers, some government officials and often unions tell me all that we do wrong. But on Twitter, I hear the opposite! I hear what we do right and just as important, how we can make it even more right for our students.  It allows me to believe that the glass is half full not half empty and that transformation is occuring one person at a time. 

I’m witnessing a number of our schools engaging in Twitter workshops. The majority of our school administrators are involved as well. It is exciting to read the conversations as they attach the hashtag #hs4 for our division.  The increased amounts of collaboration and opportunities for professional dialogue are providing positive results. Twitter offers educators an example of doing something different. With time being ever so precious, the ability to choose when to engage provides a motivator to engage. Thanks to all those on Twitter who have made such a positive impact on my professional learning!

The importance of play!

This past week I visited one of our Pre-Kindergarten classrooms to observe their Science Fair. Imagine that! Four year olds with their parents engaged in neat experiments, laughing and learning through play. When I reflect on the activities I witnessed, two main messages come through loud and clear.

The first message is targeted at parents. It is very unfortunate that our societal norm leaves us with little family time. Working parents are coming home after long hours, exhausted, often forced just to stay afloat. But as difficult as it is, our children require our attention to simply play. What was occurring in this early learning class were “experiments” that were easy to do and fully engaging. This “play” time was not only a positive bonding experience but also a learning opportunity for the children. I would never speak ill of technology but active play is critical for a child’s development. There was such great learning that occurred in the past when children helped parents cook and bake, played hide and seek or explored the wonders of the local park together. Too often we get caught up in “doing homework” instead of losing ourselves in a good book or watching another video instead of playing outside.

The second message goes out to our primary educators. Many years ago, there was a premium when students sat quietly in straight rows of desks and worked independently. That was an example of good classroom management. And while classroom management is important, the true role of school needs to focus on learning. In today’s schools, learning cannot be optimized in straight rows of desks with quiet students. In fact, primary rooms (K-3) should have at the minimum, desks in pods (if desks at all), tables and learning centres where students are actively (which means not quiet) engaged. I will take it one step farther and say that in K-3 classes, play (intellectual and social) should be an integral part of the learning structure.    

For most of the its history, education has been a compliance activity. Those students who sat up, listened, worked independently generally did well based on how we measured success. Today however, we need to move students from being compliant to becoming committed. Learning needs to become a commitment for our students and one way to facilitate that change is to welcome play into your home and your classroom.

Living and Learning

This weekend I provided messages to the graduation classes of Catholic Central High School in Lethbridge and St. Michael’s School in Pincher Creek. With both convocations being on the same day, it was a mad dash to finish up with CCH in the morning and then drive  the 1 hour to arrive in time for the ceremony in Pincher Creek.  Although another member of my senior administration could have provided the address, I believe that whenever possible, it is my responsibility to be present and celebrate our graduates. Guest speakers have the right to have a longer speech but I’m of the thought that my remarks should be fairly concise and carry a message that is linked to the graduation theme. Therefore, here is one of my addresses this past weekend. Enjoy!

Oki! Bonjour mesdames et messieurs and good morning ladies and gentlemen, honoured guests and graduates of 2012. It is my pleasure to bring greetings on behalf of the Holy Spirit Catholic School Division.

This past week I have been present at two traditions of CCH graduations, the Feather Blessing Ceremony & Metis Sash presentation on Monday and our graduation mass last night. Traditions like these speak to who we are and more importantly who we want to become. Traditions like these also speak to your theme of Living and Learning.

Living is not only about today or this week (as we parents sigh in relief). It is about yesterday and the many days to come. Living is not about getting what you want but receiving what you need. It is not about giving because you have to it is about giving because you want to. And finally, living is not a gift for yourself but rather a gift to share with others.  Our Catholic background, our Christian faith calls us to live a life of service and I would suggest that through your parents and families guidance and the entire school system, you have developed an exceptional response especially in the area of social justice. In fact, you are part of today’s youth who have a far better understanding of injustice, intolerance and prejudice than any generation previous. It is you, the youth of today who, often through social media have changed political landscapes, brought awareness to economic travesties and alerted the world to war criminals like Joseph Kony. You have said this is not right, this is not acceptable, what can we do to change it and then began to change it. That is not a life for self, it is a life for others. Continue to embrace this life!

Unfortunately learning has been defined in today’s world simply as results. Learning is a process that all of us should be engaged in during our entire life. While a result is final, learning is continual. Learning is less about natural ability and skill and far more about effort. It is about having a mindset that is focused on growth and development and less about the end result. In today’s world we need learners. Learners want to improve, they want to get better and be better. Our world needs learners who are creative and innovative, who want to ask why before how. We need people like you who embrace struggle, who risk take, who fail forward and who understand learning, especially deep learning causes us to be stretched and somewhat uncomfortable. You can be satisfied with a result but never stop your desire to learn more.

Living and learning is not just a graduation theme, it is a way of life. And this way of life has been influenced by many. Please do not forget to give thanks to all those that have helped you live and learn throughout these past years. Thank the teachers and staff members in your schools, your friends and families, your parents and especially as we celebrate this Mother’s Day weekend, thank your mothers. God’s love is often compared to a mother’s love- unconditional and forever. Don’t forget your moms!  

As you leave your high school experience, remember to live fully, love deeply and learn always! On behalf of the division, I wish each and every one of you God’s blessings. Thank you!

From the Desk of the Superintendent- May 2012

Last night I returned from spending a week in beautiful Kananaskis, Alberta. The purpose for being out of the office for a week was twofold. First, I met for two days with other Catholic superintendents around the province. This is an excellent opportunity to share our experiences, mentor one another, further develop our faith and finally, discuss issues regarding Catholic Education. We meet four times a year and this meeting is held in Kananaskis due to the Blueprints conference which follows. Blueprints is an annual conference hosted by the Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association (ACSTA) with a targeted audience of Catholic administrators, trustees and clergy. This year, Holy Spirit had 11 administrators, 1 trustee and 2 parish priests attend. Blueprints and its sister conference Spice, for teachers and support staff, are powerful faith development events that generally leave participants physically exhausted but spiritually renewed. This year, as conference chair, I was part of an outstanding committee who were able to bring in Reverend Raymond Carey from Portland, Oregon. Over a three day period, he challenged us with the theme of “Shalom: Seeking Wholeness and Balance in Catholic Leadership.” We really are blessed to have Catholic education in our province and conferences devoted to nurturing our faith and spirituality are instrumental in our continued success.  

The regular April board meeting began with the introduction and recognition of Ms. Nicole Parkin, a teacher at St. Michael’s School in Pincher Creek. Ms. Parkin has been selected as the Edwin Parr Award nominee for Holy Spirit. The Edwin Parr Award recognizes excellence in first year teaching. On May 9th, a banquet will be held to honor all of the nominees from neighbouring school divisions and one will be chosen to represent Zone 6. With the election over, the Board requested that letters of congratulations be sent to our new Premier and our local MLA’s. Other action items included the approval of a number of Locally Developed Courses, items for discussion with the Council of School Council Chairs and continued support of “A Public Education” campaign.  The Board also reviewed and amended Policy 18: Board Governance and Policy 20: Fiscal Stewardship. For a complete review of the April meeting check out Board Meeting Briefs.

We continue to plan for the coming school year as we prepare our budget that supports our strategic priorities of (1) Catholic Identity, (2) Success for Every Student and (3) Generative Governance. A generative governance structure requires multiple stakeholder feedback loops. The Board of Trustees and Senior Administration have made a conscious effort to increase two-way communication throughout their term, with public consultations, transformation conversations and face to face meetings. This month the Board of Trustees will meet for the third time this school year with the Council of School Council Chairs (COSC). To enhance this dialogue, the Board Chair and/or myself will sit with the group to answer any pressing questions. This will ensure that the meeting agenda will focus on rich discussion and fruitful dialogue on topics that impact our entire system. A great example of this was the rich dialogue held on Provincial Achievement Tests at the last COSC meeting.  Another important method of gaining stakeholder feedback is through our Schollie Surveys. The data we gather is crucial and therefore I am requesting that you (staff, parents and students) provide your insights. To assist you, we have made all of the surveys available online until May 11th. Please check them out here.

The school year is coming to a close and that means high school graduations. This coming weekend I will be bringing greetings to the graduates of Catholic Central High School in Lethbridge and St. Michael’s School in Pincher Creek. I always look forward to addressing our graduating students. They are our future and they represent the collective effort of their parents, our schools and our parishes. Regardless of the graduation theme, I always try and leave them with a reminder of the importance of faith in their life, purpose in their work and love in their heart. It really is a simple formula to find joy. And so, I close my May message with a blessing for our graduates and a wish that they find Shalom in their lives… perfect balance. God Bless!

 

Mythical barriers to transformation

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve either read or been told that Provincial Achievement Tests (PAT’s) and some other standardized tests are barriers for teachers and systems to transform. I’ve made my beliefs about Provincial Achievement Tests well known to our administrators. I had hoped that this message was also firmly established within our staff and community but alas, assuming is never a good idea. When I hear that PAT’s cause us to teach to the test and not be creative or innovative in the classroom, well… my blood boils and my blood pressure soars!

In Alberta, individual teachers are not evaluated or ranked on PAT results. In fact, I have never heard of a teacher in my travels being terminated for low PAT results.  It doesn’t happen, it is a myth! The only person that can truly be “fired” for low PAT results is me, the superintendent. And so, if it is my neck on the line, and I’ve communicated my belief on PAT’s, why do we continue to allow this mythical barrier? There is some merit that schools may be driven to push PAT results given that they are ranked by external organizations. I find this practice reprehensible because school learning environments have far more depth than just test results and most often the comparisons from school to school are very unfair.  Both schools and divisions are provided an Accountability Pillar report card by the government that highlights test results as well. These color-coded reports can cause some angst when there is more red and orange than blue and green. However, I am a staunch believer that a focus on excellent teaching will lead to excellent results, no matter matter how it is measured. The research is still very clear that the number one contributor to student learning is the quality of the teacher in front of the students!

At our recent AISI School Team planning session, I spoke about measures in general and for our upcoming focus on student engagement. I truly believe that the more intellectually engaged our students are, the more student learning will occur. I’m all about student learning!  We need to be able to measure where students are currently (benchmark) and where they need to get to (outcome). We need to measure improvement. We need to measure learning on a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis and we need to celebrate that learning. There is no possible way that PAT’s written every three years can measure the learning we need to measure in education. We need our teachers to recognize and eliminate mythical barriers and provide them with freedom to explore opportunities.

I recognize there are real barriers in education. Our Alberta curriculum with the vast number of outcomes is certainly a barrier. However, the current work within the department on Curriculum Redesign is exciting and should result in creating increased opportunities for our students. Regardless, real barriers must not stifle our move to meeting the needs of every child. We cannot afford to stop the great work of transformation because of real or mythical barriers. Student learning has to be the constant in our classrooms, our schools and our divisions. The parameters currently established may be more restrictive than we wish but within that structure we must maximize flexibility, innovation and creativity. One of our first steps is to eliminate our fear, tolerance and acceptance of mythical barriers. Our students deserve that!

A message to the government

Tomorrow, Albertans go to the polls. This provincial election has been one of the most intriguing in many years as there appears to be no clear cut majority. However, that decision will be left up to all of the people who cast their votes for the candidate and party of their choice. My blog today is not meant to be leading but rather, I want to express a message to the government regarding education regardless of the winning party. Education is on the cusp of greatness and therefore as a passionate educator, I desire that our government and for that matter any government provides an ear to the right people to continue this massive transformation. So here goes…

Board of Trustees– Trustees are the elected officials in our system and responsible to the community. They provide an excellent context and focus on what is best for students. They are typically under-appreciated and that is disheartening. They certainly don’t provide their leadership because of the pittance of pay they receive. They do this often 24/7 job because they care about providing high quality education to students and want the best for the community they serve. Trustees understand they are required to make tough decisions to be good financial stewards but don’t throw them under the bus. Listen to their ideas, dreams and hopes… they will assist greatly in the transformation of education.

Senior Administration– These education (CASS) or business (ASBOA) officials are a great source of information. They have typically come to these positions with a wide range of experiences. Superintendents have been classroom teachers and school principals and so their expertise is vast. They are also leaders and leadership is required to make a difference for all children in education today. Senior administrators view the system from the balcony and the dance floor simultaneously and live in both the political and non-political world. Their insights are crucial in leading a transformative culture.  

Teachers– Improvement of any system must include collaboration with those who work “in the trenches.” Teachers provide the expertise of the here and now. They understand pedagogy, curriculum and assessment. They are charged with the implementation of transforming education at the classroom level and therefore must be part of the conversation. They are able to create opportunities for growth and remove many barriers to guide success. When research suggests that the number one contributor to student success is the quality of the teacher, they cannot be ignored in the conversation.

Parents– We’ve typically liked parents who support us in education and criticized those that don’t. Parents are partners in the education of their children and in reality are their first teachers. There is a need to listen to parents who are satisfied without becoming ecstatic as well as parents who are dissatisfied without being critical. The engagement of parents has never been more important, as they can and will lead the paradigm shifts in thinking required by our communities. Engage them and the system will receive the necessary boost!

Students– “Children should be seen not heard” was probably not acceptable in the past but certainly is not acceptable now! In fact, student voice is essentiall if we truly want to move education forward. Education is not something that we do to our students but what we do with our students. And the only way to truly education with, is to listen to. Students need to be recognized as an important part of the solution. We cannot continue to ignore their dreams, their input and their ideas. There is no one group that has the market on ideas. Student voice is required and we must be open to hear and ultimately confront their sometimes brutal facts!

Tomorrow a government will be elected and soon after a Minister of Education will be named. While there are many others who will provide you expert advice on education, please don’t forget to listen to and engage with the above groups! They will lead Alberta through transformation!