Dissatisfied not critical

Last week, I read the LeadershipFreak blog, “Being Dissatisfied without Becoming Critical.” I’m a great fan of the Leadership Freak but this post has haunted me ever since I read it. A leader, a teacher, even a parent has that same challenge. We are all dissatisfied with something or somebody, but the key point is to turn that dissatisfaction into a positive change rather than viewing it as destructive criticism and failing miserably. It is my belief that true transformation of the education system is being thwarted because we often see dissatisfaction as simply being critical and therefore, our fight or flight reactions take over.

Educators are typically either thin skinned or thick headed, and for many right reasons. The thin skinned comes from everybody and their dog telling educators what they need to do, to be better. Most of these “suggestions” come from non-educators whose only “expertise” comes from being a student, usually a long time ago, and comparing it to a business model that seldom works in “real” school. Don’t get me wrong, we need outside lenses but not everyone should be negative. The second reason we tend to be thin skinned is that every ill in society is either blamed on schools or at the very least, the cures are expected to be accomplished at school. For example, childhood obesity is not a school problem. Most often we deal with the symptoms of the problem but we do not create the problem. Finally, thin skinned comes from a lack of respect of the importance of educators in our North American society. “Those who can do, those who can’t, teach!” is not very complimentary. Not every educator deserves respect but there are far more that do than don’t. I can understand thin skinned but I have no tolerance for thick headed! “Been there! Done that!” or “This too shall pass!” are expressions we should never hear from our educators. In fact, those engaged either through actions or words in that sort of mentality should not be in education any longer. Systems, schools, the profession and students don’t need anymore ROAD (Retired On Active Duty) Warriors or CAVE (Continuously Against Virtually Everything) Dwellers.

Now the question is, “Have I expressed dissatisfaction or have I become critical?” Probably a little of both! And that is why leadership especially in a culture of change is so daunting. Relationships are so essential in moving change forward that often leaders want to “sugar coat” their real feelings of dissatisfaction so that it is not perceived as being critical. We need to acknowledge the great things occurring in our systems and celebrate. We also need to accept that we are not perfect and allow ourselves, without becoming defensive, that there will always be things to improve upon, hence dissatisfaction. Leaders need to applaud efforts in making changes happen even when they are dismal failures. And then, recognize dissatisfaction to ensure that we try and get it right the next time or the next time after that.

I’m very proud of the system that I lead. I believe that we have some of the greatest teachers, administrators, staff and students anywhere. Although I continually “brag” about the work being done in our system, I am still not satisfied. I’m hungry for more! I want all of our students being successful! I want all of our students to be engaged, safe, included and always feeling loved and supported. Truly, should any of us feel satisfied until that dream is realized? A number of years ago, my dissatisfaction cost my family and I greatly. In my position, I can understand the impact on me, but I will never accept the negative impact on my family. While some may argue that I had become critical, the truth depends on your point of view. I know that I entered this profession to make a positive difference in the lives of students and until I can achieve that, for all students, I will be dissatisfied. I may be able to better communicate my dissatisfaction today but…

Change requires us to be dissatisfied! And dissatisfaction needs to be viewed as a positive, a precursor to making things better. It needs to be embraced and enhanced. So the next time you have to share your dissatisfaction, communicate it thoughtfully with respect and when you hear dissatisfaction, respond to it positively with respect too.

Silence is golden!

Silence is golden! But unfortunately, in today’s society it is becoming a lost practice. We have become so plugged in and so activity-based that the gift of silence is neither appreciated nor valued. While I love my apps, listening to my country music and the busyness of my life, I would be lost without some silence. Silence provides an opportunity for prayer, reflection and communication.

This past week Christians around the world celebrated Easter. No matter what tradition you follow, Christian or not, prayer is an important part of our rituals. And prayer in silence is crucial in our connecting with our God. I don’t mean to squelch oral prayer but that silent conversation held between you and your God is required for your spiritual well-being. For me, it comes at the beginning of the day. Over the last number of years, it has become such a regular practice before I begin my work day that when I miss it… I really miss it! Whether it be five or fifteen minutes, that silence brings about a sense of peace and calm as I begin my day.

Silence is also required when we need to reflect or engage in deep thinking. There are times when we need to unplug and just sit quietly and think! The world is so noisy that we are unaccustomed to that silence and therefore this is a skill that must be taught at both home and school. Close your eyes, listen to your breathing and relax are usually substituted in our world for hurry up, quit stalling and give me the answer. We need to promote silence as one of the many ways in which we can reflect and ultimately learn. Collaboration, group work and engaging conversations should still be the norm in our classrooms but silence must also be allowed and encouraged.

Finally, silence is needed for true communication. Conversation involves talking and listening. Have you ever been at one of those large family functions where everybody was talking all at once? There’s a lot of noise but not much communication… unless you’re the loudest! The ability to listen comes from the ability to be silent. Communication is a 21st century competency that we must focus upon and it requires us to be silent. It is sometimes in our silence that we speak the loudest words!

We need to teach our children the importance of silence. We need to teach our children about the power of silent prayer and silent thought. Children need to be able to embrace both noise and silence and not fear either. There needs to be a comfort in quiet times. When you go home today or enter the classroom tomorrow, how are you going to teach the importance of silence? Children, and I would suggest that most of us adults, need to learn and remember that “Silence is golden!”

Autism Awareness Day 2012

Yesterday I headed out to our elementary school in Taber, St. Patrick, and visited our pre-kindergarten program, “Playful Spirits.” I was invited by our Pre-K leader, Mrs. Lastuka, to participate in her room’s celebration of Austism Awareness Day. I knew I was in for a treat when I was told to wear blue and be prepared to play. Mrs. Lastuka had partnered with the grade 4/5 class and together the “bigs” and “littles” played in blue sand, painted, colored eggs, decorated blue puzzle pieces and read books. Tucking my tie into my shirt, I had a great time “playing” with the children. As a superintendent, it is these times, around the children, that I miss the most!!!

However, there were a couple of things that made that morning a very powerful learning experience for me. The first was when we all gathered on the carpet and listened to a mother of an autistic child speak about autism.  She spoke of some symptoms and  challenges that faced the autistic child in simple language that was clearly understood by all of the students. It was about him, about their family and about all of us! Why do I say about us? Well, the statistics are alarming as autism affects 1 in 88 children and in particular 1 in 54 boys. And so, learning the signs and creating a better understanding is crucial.  This is especially critical for our schools so that we can give the gift of doing and witness the gift of being. The understanding and the ability to work and play together is what community is all about.  

And that leads me to my second powerful learning of the day, the importance of COMMUNITY. When I wasn’t coloring eggs or painting a puzzle piece I stood back and just observed. What did I see? Children, as young as three and as old as ten, interacting together without any barriers. There was no ‘we’ and ‘they,’ only a collective ‘us.’ There was only community, where everyone was accepted and welcomed. Yesterday’s event may have been the finest example of inclusion that you are going to find. Inclusion is not about space, but about community. Community is that relationship where ALL childrens’ gifts are recognized and celebrated.

The 1/2 hour drive back to Lethbridge allowed me to reflect on the morning. We’ve come a long way since the days when I began teaching high school in the mid 80’s. Back then, we really didn’t spend much time or effort, as regular classroom teachers, on diverse learning needs. In fact, when the student didn’t “get it,” or just acted differently, we just sent them to another place or into a different stream. We still have miles to go on our journey, but it is promising when we now focus on the assets of the children and what they can do instead of the deficits and what they can’t do. Our children, and ultimately our society, will be far better off when we can experience that type of community in our classrooms. Because that community will build a world of acceptance and support for ALL!

From the Desk of the Superintendent- April 2012

April 1st  means that there is less than three months remaining in this 2011-12 school year and that, is no April Fools joke. With only three months left in the school year, many plans are already well underway for next year. Our budget assumptions were presented at the March board meeting. These assumptions are based on what senior administration believes will impact the budget in the coming year.  Having completed our public consultations and hearing from staff, parents, students and community members in various forums, the 2012-13 strategic priorities have also been passed by the board. The Division will continue to focus on ways to build upon (1) Catholic Identity, (2) Success for Every Student and (3) Generative Governance.

The March board meeting dealt with numerous recommendations in preparations for the coming school year. The 2013-16 Capital Plan was passed and submitted to the government with a continuation of our previous year’s priorities: (1) Modernization of St. Michael School- Pincher Creek, (2) Modernization of St. Patrick- Taber and (3) New construction elementary school- North Lethbridge.  Another significant motion passed was the re-location of the CARE Campus from the McNally Community Centre to the Fr. Keon wing at Catholic Central High School. This decision was made after significant input from our staff and administration and provides for increased safety and transitioning options for our students. Finally, the board approved the recommendations set out in the West Lethbridge Public Consultation Report. The majority of these recommendations will come into effect for the 2012-13 school year and I believe address the concerns and issues heard from our community. For more information on our board meeting, please check out our Board Meeting Briefs.

Holy Spirit Catholic Schools, in partnership with Lethbridge Public and ASBA are promoting two Day in Education election forums on April 3rd and 4th. Lethbridge West candidates will be hosted on April 3rd at Chinook High Media Centre beginning at 7:00 PM, while Lethbridge East candidates will be part of a forum on April 4th at Lethbridge Collegiate Institute. All candidates will be asked to address Bill 2: Education Act and their views on provincial vs. local bargaining in their opening statements. Following those statements, questions from the floor will be responded to by all candidates. I’m hopeful that questions from the floor will revolve around educational topics that include: Catholic education, inclusion, funding, transformation, provincial achievement tests and diploma exams, curriculum and facilities. Please try and come out to listen to all of the candidates in Lethbridge. We are hoping that a similar format will be organized for our rural ridings as well.  

Transformation continues to be a topic of discussion around the division. I recently picked up on a conversation with some junior high Language Arts teachers as they discussed the topic of ensuring that assessment criteria really focused on the learning of the student. It was a powerful conversation that needs to be furthered in all schools and all homes. The new research out on motivation suggests that marks or grades in themselves do not provide for the development of intrinsic motivation for most students and certainly do not forward learning. I related the following coaching example at last week’s transformation conversation in Taber. “Telling your player that she is shooting 63% from the foul line does not improve her performance on the foul line. However, providing feedback on technique, concentration, etc can and will improve her foul shooting.” Specific feedback counts!

I continue to be proud with the many great things happening in our division each day. I am reminded of this when our Board of Trustees presents the Board of Education Leadership Recognition Awards at each school. These awards recognize the high achievement and significant improvement in each of our schools. I also recognize and applaud the commitment of our staffs as they engage in professional learning and dialogue at grade-level meetings and through social media like Twitter. Since joining Twitter (@cdsmeaton) I have been amazed at the professional growth opportunities it provides. It also allows us to share our own expertise to educators around the world like this video on 21st Century Literacy. Check out our own Holy Spirit YouTube channel for some other great video links.

Finally, this week marks the beginning of Holy Week. In our Catholic tradition, it is the most important time of our liturgical calendar. Through Lent, we have tried to live a life that more closely resembles and embodies Christ. Today at our Palm Sunday mass, I was again reminded of the passion of Christ and the compassion of God. In a world that has become far too focused on wealth and material possessions, our Church reminds us to reflect on what is most important in our lives. And so, on behalf of the Board of Trustees and Senior Administration, I wish each of you a blessed Easter with the continued understanding of God’s unconditional love for all.

Words we should never hear in school!

Schools should always try to be safe havens for all students. Even with all the bully-proofing programs offered and the multitude of strategies that school employ, we will never create that panacea. But I believe as educators, we can do something relatively simple that will assist in ensuring that all students, regardless of background, religion, color, creed, ability, etc, can feel the positive effect of a safe and caring environment. That simple task is our attention to and elimination of words that should never be heard in a school!

I first started thinking about writing this blog post last year when a group of parents from our Parents Inclusive Education Roundtable brought a powerful video for our educators to view. Since then, the R-Word: Spread the Word to End the Word campaign has gained international notoriety. Listening to these passionate parents talk about the word “retard or retarded” and how it made them and their children feel caused me to flinch and be overcome with a great sense of embarrassment and sadness. I know that I had used it before and I never addressed it in my educational life. Fortunately, I had a very patient mom explained to me why the R-word was so wrong. Simply put, the R-word is like any other minority slur.  Unacceptable!  

So, I call on all educators, to think of words that are commonplace in our schools and communities and then, quite simply, don’t allow them. Address it with your students and colleagues and teach them why they are unacceptable. Each of those words are minority slurs and schools should not tolerate them. Beginning in the younger grades, don’t allow name calling and as students get older don’t allow any word that may inflict hurt on another.

Here’s a short list that I’ve started and I hope that you will add to it: Racial slurs, Religious slurs, vulgarity, retarded, fag, gay, homo, geek, nerd…

Our world, beginning in our schools, needs to be more kind and gentle. Those attributes can only be accomplished when we say NO to unacceptable language in our buildings, our homes and our communities. Take a stand and be ALL IN and stop the words we should never hear in school!

From the Desk of the Superintendent- Bill 2 Update

On behalf of the Board of Trustees, I would like to thank our community, staff, parents and students who communicated their concerns with Bill 2 in reference to Catholic Education to the Minister of Education and our local MLAs. Your powerful advocacy prompted the Government of Alberta to introduce five amendments that were, in part, made to address our concerns. Due to the lateness of the amendments, Bill 2 died on the Order Paper and will not be able to be introduced again until after the election. It would be our hope that these amendments be part of the new legislation.

What I am most proud of, is how our community came together in such short notice and with such strong advocacy. Your commitment to ensuring that our rights as Catholic school supporters were not eroded is sincerely appreciated. Please find attached a letter of thanks from Board Chair, Sandra Dufresne.

Why Blog?

I would certainly say, that I began the process of blogging as another communication technique for our division. Last year, I produced a monthly e-mail message entitled, “From the Desk of the Superintendent” for our staff and school councils. The purpose of this mass e-mail was to inform our community about actions taken at the monthly board meeting and to highlight upcoming events. Our Board of Trustees are strong advocates for transparency and timely communications and so as their only employee, much of that work falls to me or my office. To jump into the fray of technology and hopefully gain a larger audience, I simply made the transition from mass e-mail communication to monthly blog post.  So each month or more often if necessary, I produce a blog post, “From the Desk of the Superintendent” that meets the requirement of division news. I’m hoping that our survey results will indicate that our communications from division office have continued to improve with this change in media.

When I wrote my first post in June 2011, I thought that I might add to the monthly contributions with the odd educational update under the namesake, “Superintendent’s Blog.” For those who know me well, I’m very comfortable speaking in front of large or small groups, but I’m certainly not a prolific writer. The ideas in my head flow fairly easily to my tongue but seem to hit a barrier when it comes to putting them down in word.  I marvel at the people who can sit down and write so eloquently and with such ease. It would certainly be a check on my personal bucket list if I could ever write a book. But an interesting learning is occurring; the more I write, the more I like to write and the easier it is to write. And so one of the first reasons why I blog is that it is teaching me to write better and that is motivating in itself. I now am in the habit of writing a new post every weekend and hope that I will be able to increase that presence even more in the coming months.

The 2nd reason that I blog is to be a role model for my staff. I have been a long time believer that leadership actions are far more important than leadership words. It is difficult for me to ask our administrators and our teachers to engage in blogging or any other innovative practice without engaging in it myself. When I look at our schools engaged in innovation, it is always being led by an innovative leader. Each of those leaders demonstrate a willingness to innovate and role model those traits. It may be involvement with Twitter, student blogging, creativity or fine arts but it is the leader modelling transformation and creating a risk taking environment. It is difficult for me to understand leaders who demand transformative pratices without engaging in them themselves.

The third reason that I blog is one that in the end will either endure me with many or cost me considerably. Simply put, I blog to challenge the status quo. Thank goodness I have an excellent senior leadership team who remind me that there are limits to what I can say! But honestly, if we are truly going to make the significant changes in education that are necessary, we all need to be challenged to think and act differently. The status quo is unacceptable for our children and therefore as a leader of a very successful school division, I must still be prepared to push the envelope.  I must be willing to create a little controversy and make all of us, including myself, slightly uncomfortable. None of us learn without being stretched and that can be uncomfortable.  

Finally, blogging allows me to contribute to my PLN. It allows me, not only to share my ideas but those of my staff and others who have guided me on my leadership journey. Ensuring that we meet the needs of each child will never occur in isolation and blogging is just another way of gaining inspiration from others and strength in numbers. My PLN is comprised of colleagues both in the system and around the world and their writings have inspired me and forced me to constantly reflect on my leadership practices. Their contributions to my learning far exceeds what I offer them and for that, I am most grateful.  

Now the question to you is… “Why do you blog?”

From the Desk of the Superintendent- Bill 2 Concerns

On behalf of the Board of Trustees of Holy Spirit Catholic Schools, I would like to highlight some concerns with Bill 2, the proposed Education Act that the Government of Alberta, is in the process of passing, prior to the upcoming election. There is no doubt, that new legislation is required in order to meet the needs of transformation. However, as it currently reads, Bill 2, has the potential to seriously impact publicly funded Catholic education in Alberta, Catholic school boards, and Catholic schools, teachers, staff and students. The Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association (ACSTA) and our Board of Trustees are urging all supporters of Catholic education to become more fully involved; become aware of the issues and take action. The Board of Trustees has already communicated their concerns to our local MLA’s and the Minister of Education.

Shared Facilities- The West Lethbridge Centre is an excellent example of partnerships working together to achieve synergy.  However, the strength of this partnership between the City of Lethbridge, Public Library, Lethbridge School District and our school division was an understanding of, and respect for, our values.  Section 192 (2) of the new bill, creates the potential for the government to dictate that secular and religious-based schools share a space, which may run contrary to the ability of the Catholic School to develop an atmosphere animated by a spirit of liberty and charity based on the Gospel.  As a result, it is our position that shared facilities are not acceptable and therefore would suggest an amendment to section 192 (2).

Blended Boards- The proposed legislation, Section 112 (1) would allow the Minister to combine Separate (Catholic) boards together with Public boards, creating a blended board. Like our Catholic schools, separate school districts and divisions are unique and must remain distinct.

Diversity and Respect Provisions- Within our Catholic schools, our Catholic theology, philosophy, practices and beliefs are fully permeated throughout the day.  Therefore, it would be impossible as suggested in section 58 (2) of Bill 2 and section 11.1 (2) of the Alberta Human Rights Act to excuse a student attending a Catholic school from religious instruction.  Given that, an exemption is being sought for Catholic schools.  We also believe that our Catholic theology and values cannot be limited and must be allowed to be taught uninhibited and without sanctions from the government.

Catholic education has been attacked in various provinces and lost due to government interference and/or public complacency. As Catholic education supporters we must be vigilant to ensure that Catholic education is not lost for our students in the province of Alberta. We do make a difference to our students and our communities and our value must never be taken for granted or diminished. Please support Catholic education by learning more from the ACSTA and taking action.

Purpose, Mastery and Autonomy

Educational reform is hard. If it was easy, we’d already have arrived where inclusive education was the norm and no achievement gap existed. But although we are on that journey, we have yet to arrive, in part because educational reform requires change and change is simply…hard! Complicating the issue is that the system, especially in Alberta is far from broken and in fact could easily and truthfully be described as already good. Furthermore, moving from a good to great system requires significant change that in all honesty has little of an urgency factor. To succeed and bring about the educational change required, to be a truly inclusive system, meeting the needs of each child, education must be motivated. The motivation that I speak of is not what most of us have grown up with, the carrot and stick model, but rather what author Daniel Pink suggests in his book, “Drive.” Today, education must be motivated by purpose, mastery and autonomy in order to meet our desired goals.

Purpose: I would suggest that most educators entered the profession because of an innate desire to help children. I would further suggest that most educators maintain that desire throughout their careers. The public should recognize this fact and be grateful for those professionals. But I see desire and purpose as slightly different. Desire is a wish and therefore, if not “granted” can fade. However, purpose is beyond the wish because purpose also insinuates action. It is not only a wish for but more importantly a will to! The purpose required for significant educational change comes from a deep rooted belief that I can and more importantly I will make a difference in each child’s life every day! Purpose does not make up excuses, it just does! It is about efficacy and is linked to what Michael Fullan refers to as the moral imperative.  Purpose is about the heart and begins the journey of motivation.

Mastery: Purpose is the first requirement to motivate but it cannot move forward without mastery. The will needs to be married to skill. Most educators would argue that throughout their careers they have always tried to meet the needs of each child. I would agree. But intention and implementation are two very different products. Mastery shifts our intentions to fruition. Instead of wishing to meet the needs of each child, we actually do! Success breeds success! The more mastery we develop in education, the more likely we are able to meet the needs of each child in our classes, schools and systems. Education is motivated by believing in our ability to first make a difference and subsequently, making that difference. Mastery requires a dual commitment from the system and the professional. BOTH need to allocate time and money to ensure mastery. What we’ve done in the past has produced good results but only through mastery will we be able to produce great results. While purpose is about the heart, mastery is about the head.

Autonomy: The final piece of the puzzle and most difficult to achieve in education is autonomy. I have been quoted before that “autonomy is wished for but not really wanted.” Education is part of a larger societal norm that promotes or at the minimum accepts the blame game. It is always someone else’s fault. Autonomy shifts that blame or more importantly the responsibility on to ourselves. Given our societal tendency to point our finger at the culprit, this requires a tremendous shift for education. Autonomy reminds us of that old saying, “Be careful what you wish for.” Autonomy does not mean that everything is up for grabs. There will always be some sort of required structure that sets limits and boundaries. The autonomy functions within the existing structure and allows educators maximum flexibility in forwarding purpose and mastery. And autonomy, does not promote isolation. We’ve come too far in educational research not to continue and promote collaboration. Autonomy is  most positively impacted when organizational trust is high and a culture of risk taking is encouraged.  

Educational reform requires us to break existing habits, challenge our current ideals and change our practices. It requires time and unless motivated to do so, it will continue with minor tweaks at best. In our ever changing, face paced world, we must be motivated to challenge our paradigms. Our success to build the world we want to live in will be long term and sustainable when our motivation is focused on purpose, mastery and autonomy.

Tortoise vs. Hare

This past week I led one of the worst meetings I’ve had in my career in senior administration. It wasn’t contentious and nobody’s temper blew but it left me and I’m sure the other twenty of my administrative colleagues wondering why we came together. The meeting was a joint meeting of our budget, curriculum and inclusive education committees and the purpose was…I’m not sure. Although uncertainty has its place in leadership as expressed by the Leadership Freak, this was not one of the best examples.

I’m passionate about educational change and have a difficulty not being  impatient for true transformation to occur. I also believe that the leaders I have in our schools are supporters of educational change, albeit at different points on their own learning journey. So what is holding us back from making the sweeping changes required to truly meet the needs of each child that comes into our schools? I would suggest that it is a matter of timing and that sustainable educational reform occurs in time of the tortoise and not of the hare.

My own leadership journey has been on a steep learning curve this past year due in part to my PLN and a concentrated focus on relevant reading. As I grow as a leader, I’m recognizing that significant systemic change takes time. Why? Because significant systemic change requires a grass-root movement. Leaders require great insights, precise vision and must be able to create opportunities for successful change but unless staff buy in and are part of the change process it will either not take hold or start off like the hare but fall well short of its intended goal.

Although I’m not an expert of the American system, I believe that the situation occurring in the United States would support my argument. Top down govenment initiatives like “No Child Left Behind” or “Race to the Top” are examples of failures because they expected “hare” like results and didn’t involve the professionals in the classroom.  The conversations and later the actions that will be necessary to move our system forward need to start at the government or board or administrative tables but they must extend to our school staffs as soon as possible. The responsibilty for student success must be collective and therefore rests with all involved in the school system. Not one single entity within the framework of education will be able to make transformation a reality on a solo mission.

Our three committees have forwarded some bold ideas of which I’m very supportive. However, in my role as chief learning leader, these ideas need to be translated into actions. Moreover, these actions call for long term embedding into our culture not fleeting transitionsof practice. Teachers who recite, “This too shall pass!” have some validity in their comments. Too often, our next best educational reform has not been well researched and seldom had any staying power. In many instances, these magic cures for education were imposed upon those in the classroom or the school division itself. Believe me, I have no tolerance for teachers or divisions who refuse to implement well established and researched strategies that have been proven to positively impact student learning. But systemic change is more than just about pedagogy, it is an attitudinal change that requires commitment not compliance.   

So going back to my meeting, I understand why we were all frustrated. We want to see results, we want to build the right fence and then exercise as much flexibility within that structure. But, the fence building takes time and more importantly the flexibility within can only occur when we motivate and involve our staff through the work of Daniel Pink in his book Drive: autonomy, mastery and purpose. That however, will be another post!

So for now, think like a tortoise not like a hare when you view educational transformation. Remember it took Finland 25 years to make the difference they are making in order for them to be considered a world leader in education.