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.

The Power of Introverts

This afternoon I listened to Susan Cain speak on “The power of introverts.” Like any TED talk I’ve listened to before, the message was thought provoking and caused me to ponder on what we are trying to do in education today. I’m a great advocate for ensuring that the competencies of the 21st century are well established in our schools. In fact, any chance I get, I’m talking and presenting about the need to transform education to prepare our students for their future and not our past.

One of the 21st century competencies  as defined by Alberta Education that I’m most comfortable with and believe is most critical to solving problems that are yet to exist is collaboration. The ability to work in a team structure, share ideas, and create synergy is a strong component of my leadership belief. I would suggest that my sports background has much to do with this belief. I’m especially driven to eliminate the culture of isolation that exists in many schools and classrooms. There is too much research that supports teacher collaboration as a successful strategy for improved student learning. And so, if we really want to be bold then collaboration has to modelled by the adults and taught to the students.

And then, I listen to Susan and am reminded that not everybody fits the mold that we want to establish. And I’m reminded that no sustainable improvement  in education or society is an all or nothing. It is always a delicate balance. In our desire to meet the needs of the 21st century learner we’ve forgotten that they are as much different and as much individualized as the 20th century learner. They are all unique! Just as we must develop collaboration in all students, we must do so by recognizing the unique gifts of both the extrovert and the introvert.

People that know me, know that I’m far from an introvert but, when do I do my best thinking? When do I reflect or think critically? When do I write? My wife is downstairs watching TV and my daughter is out with her boyfriend and I’m left in our home office in…silence! Maybe that’s not introversion but it works for me and I’m sure it works for many students. I would hate for us in education to take that away from any of our students for the sake of collaboration. So remember the next time you’re organizing group work or collaborative activities and you have a student or two that likes to work on their own in silence…let them. Don’t allow it all the time but allow it enough to honor their own power as introverts.

From the Desk of the Superintendent- March 2012

We are now back into full swing after our February break, which saw our staff engage in quality professional development. The Alberta Teachers’ Association provides for the two day convention which featured Rick Hansen as their opening keynote and Dr. Yong Zhao as a sessional presenter. Both speakers provided engaging and thought provoking messages to our teachers. In addition, our division hosted a 2-day support staff conference that is always extremely well received and appreciated. Lifelong learning cannot be just a phrase we use in education but rather an attitude we embrace. These opportunities are beneficial to our staff but more importantly to the students in our classrooms.

March begins with an invitation to assist the division through our public consultation process. Our public consultation will be held on March 5th at Catholic Central High School Campus East beginning at 7:00 PM. Registration is required and available by clicking here. Each year the Board asks our staff and parents for further direction towards meeting our strategic priorities of Catholic Identity, Student Success and Generative Governance. This year we have invited high school students and community members to bring their perspectives as well. We would love to see you and hear your voice as we build the future together.

Schools continue to be a bedlam of activity this month. Every school is well involved with Lenten activities.  Teachers are busy preparing report cards and getting ready for parent teacher interviews. Interviews are a great  method of continually building a strong partnership between home and school and I would encourage all parents to attend. In addition, we have two fabulous drama presentations beginning next week. Alice in Wonderland is being performed by students at St. Francis and Cinderella is playing at CCH. Both of these productions will be highly engaging and will demonstrate the many talents of our students and staff. Finally this month, we bring all of our staff together for our annual Spiritual Development Day on March 19th. Michael Chiasson, who will be facilitating the upcoming Lenten Mission at All Saints Parish and then the Diocesan Youth Rally in May, will be our Keynote Speaker.  In addition, there are over 20 breakout sessions planned to support the spiritual growth of our staff.

Our regular February board meeting began with a cheque presentation for the Food for Thought campaign from the Lethbridge Herald. Our division received nearly $12,000.00 from generous donations made to this campaign. The money is distributed by our Mother Teresa committee to support breakfast, lunch and other nutritional programs in our schools.  I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Lethbridge Herald and all who generously gave to this campaign. The major discussion item at the board meeting was the proposed Education Act and its impact on Catholic Education. There are some concerns with the new Act and as a result the Board will be communicating these concerns to our local MLA’s and the Minister of Education. Although Catholic Education is a constitutional right in Alberta, we must never take it for granted and remember that it is also a gift. The importance of Catholic Schools is communicated here in this short video. To learn more about our meeting, check out the Board Briefs.

Last weekend I returned to Medicine Hat to attend the funeral of a former student. Joe was a student of mine for three years and one of the students I took on an exchange to Ottawa and Montreal in my early teaching career. The gospel reading at his funeral was taken from Luke.  “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Luke 12: 35-40) Joe’s untimely death reminded me that we do not know when the Son of Man will return and, as such, we must always be ready for that return. During this Lenten Season, may we all prepare ourselves for that unknown time when God returns or calls us home. Be loving! Be compassionate! Be forgiving! Be prayerful! And may we welcome God’s cup of grace so that we may be His light in the world.  

May God continue to bless you and your family during this season of Lent.


Provincial Achievement Tests

In the Province of Alberta, students in grades 3, 6, and 9 write Provincial Achievement Tests (PAT’s) on a yearly basis. Grade 3 students write tests in only Language Arts and Mathematics, while students in grades 6 and 9 complete the previous two plus Science and Social Studies. These tests were initially instituted as a check on curriculum but they have morphed into something that is causing much discussion in education circles. Today, PAT’s are used by some organizations to rank schools and by Alberta Education as part of their accountability system to evaluate schools and systems. The Accountability Pillar is not solely based on these standardized tests but the results certainly impacts the color coding received in division and/or school reports.

A couple of weeks ago at our Council of School Council Chair/Board meeting, I was asked to provide responses to our parents regarding PAT’s. Their questions revolved around the following concerns:

  • How important are PAT’s?
  • What are they actually used for?
  • Why are PAT results used as part of the student’s final mark or as their final exam?
  • Why is there so much stress placed on students who write PAT’s?

Unfortunately in the current accountability system, PAT’s are very important. The current mindset is that good results demonstrates a good school while the opposite is true given poor results. Educators, and I would suggest most parents would agree that there are far more methods to evaluate a student, a school or a system than just PAT’s. In the last 10 exam reports that I have prepared, I have always included the following statement, “Achievement and diploma exams only assess part of what students learn throughout the year. The best descriptor of student learning comes from a thorough and broad-based assessment program that teachers maintain during the school year.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about accountability and I’ve said that numerous times before. And although we need to make some significant changes to truly transform education, we still must maintain and articulate some sort of standards. I just don’t see how provincial achievement  tests can be seen as the premier measure of student learning or system success. In a world where we are trying to engage our learners and build 21st century competencies, bubble tests just don’t cut it!

It is always my intention to try and reduce the pressure on staff regarding provincial exams. My reasoning is that student learning is far more involved than any one test can measure and my own belief (that is also supported by research) that by and large, good teaching will achieve good results. If we continue to focus on the instructional practices in the classroom, at honing our craft as educators, then the results will take care of themselves. This was made crystal clear in a conversation with Tony Wagner at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. However, it is a difficult mindset for our administrators and our teaching staff not to focus on these tests when they are ranked by external institutes and rated with a color coded report card.

So why don’t parents just excuse their children from writing these exams as they legally have the ability to do so? Simple- it impacts the results for the school and system as excused writers count as zero in the calculations. This can be extremely significant and potentially damaging, especially if a small cohort is writing. Those students excused automatically bring down the “rating”  without recourse. The focus on those external sources is also why teachers and/or schools use the PAT result for part or all of the final grade. Some students may not necessarily be as motivated to study for a test that means nothing for their own mark. It is a vicious circle!

Maybe the problem is we don’t or we can’t define what student learning truly is or looks like. But I am convinced that where we need to go in education will never achieved by continued infactuation on these tests. Creativity, innovation and collaboration, all necessary for our 21st century can’t be accurately assessed in a written test setting only. Student choice in learning and the ability to go deeper into the curriculum will continue to be at odds with a standardized test of this nature. 21st century learning deserves 21st century schools, 21st century curriculum and 21st century assessment. And furthermore… our 21st century students deserve it!

From the Desk of the Superintendent- Public Consultation

The Board of Trustees will be hosting a public consultation on March 5th in the cafeteria at Catholic Central High School Campus East from 7:00 PM – 9:00 PM. The consultation will be open to all Holy Spirit staff, parents, guardians, high school students and community members. We are hoping that this wide range of participants, especially the student voices, will provide excellent feedback to guide both the Board and Senior Administration in planning for the 2012-13 school year. The Division currently has three strategic priorities: (1) Catholic Identity, (2) Student Success and (3) Generative Governance.  Through small group discussions, the Board will be seeking information on how we are addressing these priorities and what we need to improve upon. The feedback provided will assist in the development of the Board’s Continuous Improvement Plan. The current plan is available here. In order to plan appropriately, registration will be required. Registration information will be available on our website by February 22nd.

Being instead of doing!

I’m a subscriber to the Leadership Freak. I love the insights I receive about leadership in under 300 words. The blog causes me to reflect on my own practice as a leader in a school division- sometimes I’m reaffirmed for what I’m doing and other times… However, some of the posts really push me hard in my thinking and cause me to be truly reflective. This past week, Dan Rackwell forced me to stop and consider my leadership practice in his blog, “How to Stop Drifting and Find Focus.” I quote, “Activity seduces. Leaders easily fall into the ‘Let’s just go do something’ trap. Activity without destination is futility. The ultimate destination is who not what. Before you do, ask who; ask who you want to become. The same goes for organizations. Who we want to become always precedes and guides what we want to do. Impatient leaders say let’s do something. Wise leaders say, ‘Let’s become something’.”  

School divisions and other organizations have mission or vision statements that should guide their “becoming something.” Our vision reads, “A Christ-centered learning community where students are cherished and achieve their potential.” This is our becoming something! As educational leaders we often get caught up in the vicious circle of trying to do things instead of setting direction. In other words doing something instead of being something. This is especially true as we journey on the transformation agenda. We have been so consumed by trying to transform education by doing things instead of really focusing on what transformation looks like as teachers and administrators and in classrooms, schools and systems.  We attend to the urgent (doing) rather than focusing on the important (being). And the important is to know who we want to be as a staff,  as a school, as a system and as a community.

In many school divisions, it is now time to start planning for next school year. Before we begin to put down what we are going to do or how we are going to do something, we need to fully understand and reaffirm who we are or who we want to become. Educators need to be reflective so that before we do… we are!