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!

From the Desk of the Superintendent- Budget 2012 Highlights

On February 9, 2012, the Alberta government presented the provincial budget. After reviewing the budget with senior administration, I would like to provide some brief highlights and potential impacts to Holy Spirit.

One of the issues that the Board of Trustees and the Alberta School Boards’ Association (ASBA) sought was longer term funding. The ability to make longer term plans is critical to continually improving the education offered within our schools. The government certainly addressed this issue by providing a three year commitment. Base funding, which includes: (1) Early Childhood Services Base Instruction, (2) Base Instruction (Gr. 1-9), (3) Base Instruction (Gr. 10-12), (4) Class Size (ECS – Gr. 3) and (5) Class Size (CTS), will increase by 1% in 2012-13, 2 % in 2013-14 and 2% in 2014-15. All additional funding for differential factors and other funding will increase by 2% for the coming year.

One of the disappointments for our Division was that the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI) grant, which was reduced last year by 50%, continues to be reduced by that same percentage. AISI has been a tremendous support to our classrooms in working with teachers over the past twelve years. The professional learning opportunities afforded to our teachers to enhance collaboration, differentiated instruction, assessment for learning and overall 21st Century competencies has been extremely positive. We are hopeful that flexibility within the budget will allow for continued support of these endeavors.   

In October 2011, Premier Redford made a commitment to allocate $107 million back into the education system. This resulted in our Division receiving just under $667,000, which was used in its entirety to increase staffing levels. Under a new grant introduced by the government called, “Equity of Opportunity,” the Division will continue to receive this dollar amount for 2012-13. This funding, and its flexibility to best meet local needs is certainly appreciated.  

The budget did not contain any announcements for new capital projects or modernizations. This is unfortunate news for St. Michael School in Pincher Creek and St. Patrick School in Taber which are currently the Board’s top priorities for modernization. The Minister is looking at alternate means to fund these projects and we are hopeful that more money for infrastructure will be forthcoming.  

Lastly, a new model for allocating funding for Inclusive Education has been announced. The raw data illustrates an increase of $152,000 from the new model and $234,400 additional funding. This is substantially less than what we currently provide for our students. This is a shortfall of  $737,000 for 2011-12 which is in addition to the 1.1 million shortfall in 2010-11. The move to an inclusive education system is fully supported by the Division but it must also be financially supported to ensure each and every child’s needs are met.

In keeping with a desire to be transparent by the Ministry, Alberta Education has provided a link that communicates the projected budgets for all divisions in the province. I would suggest some caution in reviewing the data as enrolment projections from the province as opposed to the division’s projections have been included which may alter this data. Our projections for enrolment are more conservative, which may have a material impact to the budget.  The information for all jurisdictions can be found at:

There is still much work to do as we delve more closely into the details of the budget. Certainly our enrolments for 2012-13 will be a major contributing factor to our Division budget as well as our upcoming negotiations with our three employee groups. Further information will be provided as it becomes available.

Preparing tomorrow’s teachers!

On Friday, I had the pleasure of presenting to members of the Faculty of Education at the University of Lethbridge on the transformation agenda. I began my presentation with a quote that I took from a tweet by Dave Martin (@d_martin05) “If we teach today, the way we were taught yesterday no one will ever be prepared for tomorrow.”  Even though the U of L offers one of the finest education programs in the country, they too, like all teacher preparation institutions, must be involved if education is to be truly transformed. Currently Alberta Education is engaged in an action agenda that encompasses a number of initiatives, all of which are to impact transformation. They include:

  • Action on Curriculum (Curriculum Redesign)
  • Action on Inclusion
  • Action on Teaching and Learning
  • Action on Legislation
  • Action on Research
  • Action on FNMI Success

It would be unrealistic for our university partners to ensure that teaching training included the above list in great detail but I believe there are certain aspects that all new teachers need a solid background in to prepare our students for tomorrow. If we truly want engaged thinkers, ethical citizens with an entrepreneurial spirit, then here’s my list:

  1. The Three R’s- Relationship! Relationship! Relationship!- Great teachers of today and great teachers of tomorrow need to be able to develop authentic relationships with their students and parents, their colleagues and their administration.  I always add the word authentic because relationships based only on “feel good” instead of mutual trust and respect don’t last long. We know that successful students have at least one adult in the school that they can identify with and feel a sense of belonging. Every student needs to have that experience and it can only be achieved through authentic relationships. Great teachers are not friends with their students, they are mentors. That authenticity needs to flow to parents, colleagues and administrators as well. Trust, which is critical in our world today can only be built through the establishment of authentic relationships.
  2. 21st Century Competencies- It is time to move away from what to learn to how to learn. For too many years, we have been programmed to be content driven as educators. Although our curricula tends to be far too wide and not very deep, we still have to find the ability to embed these competencies. Students need the opportunity to be creative, innovative and collaborative. They need to be able to problem solve and think critically because, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” -Albert Einstein.
  3. Inclusive Education- One of the greatest shifts that I believe has occurred with inclusive education is starting from student strengths rather than student deficiencies. Furthermore, learning must be for ALL students not just some. That requires teachers to draw from a large toolkit of high yield strategies to meet the needs of EACH student. Understanding brain research, implementing differentiated instruction and utilizing powerful assessment strategies are not optional but rather part of what good teachers do… day in and day out. Setting up structures of intervention within the classroom and/or building cannot be left to chance. Inclusion means moving from feeling sympathy and making excuses to having empathy and creating opportunities.  
  4. Focus on FNMI- The last 150 years of FNMI education has been dismal. With an increasing birthrate in the FNMI population it should come as no surprise that all divisions will have more FNMI students in their classrooms in the coming years. The first step to FNMI student success must be on building strong and positive relationships. For too long, fingers have be pointed and blame has been established. This can only be eliminated by the development of trusting relationships and through a better understanding and knowledge of our FNMI peoples and their culture. Every time I view the video “Justice for Aborginal Peoples” it reminds me of the terrible injustices they have endured and the need to heal wounds we created. We have often told FNMI people what they need to do for their children’s success in school and quite honestly that has not worked. Instead, we need to ask our FNMI people what we can do as individual teachers, schools and systems to help create successful learners.
  5. Lifelong Learning- One of the 21st century competencies is lifelong learning. It is extremely difficult to teach if we are not role models ourselves. Teachers need to be constantly updating their skills, looking at the latest research and engaging in high quality professional learning. Going to a conference every 5 years is not sufficient given the complexities of education today. Teachers need to engage in collaborative activities both inside and outside of the typical school day. Social media has allowed educators to engage in professional dialogue based on their own needs and without expense. Students need to see teachers excited and passionate about their personal learning. Teacher’s enthusiasm about self learning and personal management must be readily viewed by students.   
  6. Be Bold- This is probably the most important to me as the senior leader of the division. We cannot maintain the status quo anymore if we truly want to transform education, and the only way to move from the status quo is to be bold. Being bold doesn’t mean being disrespectful or becoming an anarchist, but it does mean challenging the status quo and pushing the learning culture. It means trying something new and innovative, becoming a risk taker in your classroom and failing forward. Bold systems require bold leaders and bold schools require bold teachers. Without boldness we will wake up 5, 10, or 20 years from now and still be having the same conversations.

So, what would you say is important for preparing tomorrow’s teachers?

Finding your PLN

I recently read an article published in the ATA News suggesting that teacher’s autonomy and choice for pursuing growth plan goals had slipped. The article, “Teachers want a balanced approach to PD” is based on longitudinal data from the Alberta Teachers’ Association. In the ATA 2010 PD Survey only 44.4% of respondents reported a high degree of autonomy and choice in pursuing growth plan goals. This was compared to 51% in 2009. This one year dramatic drop (6.6%) has produced the opinion of the writer that, “teachers no longer feel as confident as they once did that they are in control of their own growth plans.”

Teacher growth in Alberta is governed by the Teacher Growth, Supervision and Evaluation Policy set forth by Alberta Education. This policy was a vast improvement to the cyclical evaluations that occurred in the past by making the assumption of competence for those teachers on continuous contracts. As a result of this policy, teachers are required to complete an annual professional growth plan that:

(i) reflects goals and objectives based on an assessment of learning needs by the individual teacher,

(ii) shows a demonstrable relationship to the teaching quality standard, and

(iii) takes into consideration the education plans of the school, the school authority and the Government, or the program statement of an ECS operator;

In the perfect world, systems and schools develop plans that align with their mission, vision and values and support the goals of the province or state. These plans are developed in a collaborative culture with considerable staff and community engagement. This alignment (in theory) should be carried through to the individual teacher to ensure that everybody in the entire system is moving in the same direction. However, in the imperfect world that we live in, various permutations of the above actually occurs. From my vantage point as a superintendent, it is a challenge finding the right  balance between achieving alignment and providing autonomy to our teachers.

The autonomy and choice of professional learning speaks of relevance and engagement. And I would suggest that finding a Personal Learning Network through social media like Twitter, can provide that autonomy and choice. Since engaging with Twitter in June 2010, I have been able to connect with and learn from educational gurus, trustees, administrators, teachers, parents, and community members. I’ve been involved in Twitter chats based on my need to learn or from simple interest. I have the choice of having it in the background constantly, checking it once a day or once a week… the choice is mine. I can search what I want and connect/follow with who I want. Twitter allows me complete autonomy.

But more importantly, Twitter has allowed me to connect with others who challenge my thinking and provide me with alternate perspectives. I get to express my thoughts and test my theories. I read more! I write more! I think more! I learn more! And… it is all about what I want or what I need. So the next time you want choice in your professional learning, engage in Twitter and find your PLN.

Beyond the Classroom: The Importance of Culture

Over the last couple of weeks I presented to a group of aspiring leaders and our own administrators about what governs education. The first part of the presentation is fairly straightforward. In education, we are primarily governed by legislation, collective agreements, board policy, administrative procedures and, for Catholic school divisions, Canon Law or diocesan rules. It is important for all educators (especially aspiring or current leaders) to have an understanding of these “governors,” as they provide context into the “hows” and “whys” from a system perspective. However, the silent “govenor,” and potentially the most powerful, is… CULTURE!!! To really address culture in education, you need far more than a 3-hour workshop or a short blog post. However, I hope my comments will create some fertile ground to allow for further discussions and more in-depth studies.

I began to really study the impact of culture when working with Wayne Hulley and Linda Dier, co-authors of “Harbors of Hope.” Their passion to create hope in our classrooms, our schools and our systems is essential for student success. Their work with effective schools research in Canada really set the stage for my own beliefs and in my direction toward building positive and impactful cultures.  I also learned that culture can be deep rooted, seemingly woven right into the very walls of the school or the structure of the system. And that… is why culture remains one of the most difficult changes in educational reform.

Although there are many types of cultures that must exist in a school, I want to concentrate on three that I have recommended to our leadership group and new administrators. These are not all encompassing, but I truly believe that their existence would create a powerful and positive learning environment for staff and students.

1. Culture of Professionalism: It is always bothersome when I hear the old adage, “Those who can, do – and those who can’t, teach!” There’s a little more salt rubbed into the wounds when I read of the high professional status held by teachers in Finland. It is disappointing that teachers have not garnered the professional status that I believe they deserve. Since everybody has gone through the school system, there tends to be an automatic belief that they understand the special skills that a teacher possesses to “teach”.  And quite frankly, if everybody could do it, we wouldn’t have teacher preparation programs lasting 4-6 years to learn the craft. Part of the definition of a profession is having specialized knowledge and, in truth, that is what teachers possess. Parents know their children better than anybody else, but good teachers know how to teach! Now, here’s where the professional piece lies: that distinct and specialized knowlege must be the most effective, most efficient and the latest proven research-based. It cannot be the same strategy that we employed 10 years ago unless it is the most effective, most efficient and the latest proven research-based! To take a page from Richard Dufour’s story of eye surgery, I’ll use my shoulder as an example. I have had numerous shoulder surgeries over a 30 year period for the same ailment. My first surgery required a scar of 3+ inches; my last surgery (8 years ago), required 3 small incisions. Both surgeries were effective but if I need another, which one am I going to choose? It is the same in education! Professionals are always looking for the newest methods. They don’t say, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it!” or “I’ve only got two years left so why learn something new!” We deserve to be held in high esteem in society, but unfortunately we have to earn it by continuing to exude the highest degree of professional practice. A culture of professionalism in your school produces excitement for staff, parents and especially students.

2. Culture of Learning: We’ve come a long way from “I teach! You learn!” to “I teach so that you can learn!” A culture of learning speaks to me in two distinct ways. The first is that a culture of learning shifts the focus from the teacher to the student. In a culture of learning, teaching is aligned and re-aligned to meet the needs of the learner. Teachers utilize differentiated instruction and assessment strategies (note – specialized knowedge) to ensure success for the learner. The “stand and deliver” and “one size fits all” methods of the past are strictly teacher directed and don’t support a professional culture. Classrooms now (or they should be) learner directed. The second aspect of a culture of learning exists for educators themselves. Effective teachers are constant lifelong learners. Learning is about stretching yourself, risk taking and, as I’ve said many times before, failing forward. It is about being creative and innovative. It is about honing your craft which is all about learning. And in today’s world, the learning comes through various means – from colleagues, from administrators, from post-secondary institutions, from social media (a big plug for Twitter) and even from students. Schools today cannot be teaching facilities, but rather learning communities where everybody is involved in the learning process. That is a true culture of learning.

3. Culture of Collaboration: The one room school house of the past created an extremely isolated profession. Many teachers still continue to work on their own because it is how they were trained and it is far easier (in the short run). Collaboration is hard work and it can be messy. It begins with class visits, co-planning, sharing best practices but needs to move beyond those infantile stages. Disciplined collaboration requires teachers to free themselves from everything except the student learning at hand. And that means sharing your successes and your failures. It takes time and it takes patience but most of all it takes commitment. The children entering our schools today are vastly different from even 10 years ago and the pressures placed on education and specifically educators continues to grow. Without collaboration, we will never be able to create the environment  required to transform our education system.

Leaders are instrumental in setting the stage for a positive culture in their schools and systems but it is the staff that must take the responsibility. In this day and age when education is being over scrutinized, there are many things that we do not control. However, we all have the ability to influence culture. Culture is less about working conditions and much more about conditions of work. And when conditions of work are highly professional, focused on learning and collaboration based well… that’s just good for educators and for students.


From the Desk of the Superintendent- February 2012

It is hard to believe that we are entering the 2nd half of the school year. Semester 1 is completed and diploma exams are finished for our high school students. Plus, we have certainly not experienced the winter weather that is typical for this time of year. With the exception of a short cold snap, a couple of weeks ago, and some hurricane force winds, our winter season has been fairly mild.

The January Board meeting was highlighted by a presentation from St. Joseph School in Coaldale. Val Leahy and Zac Coupland introduced the board to their exciting project, “Gone with the Wind!” With the successful grant application to BP Energy of $10,000.00, the school was able to purchase a solar array and 20 iPods. However, the project quickly developed into further “green solutions” with St. Joseph being the recipient of a wind turbine through the cooperation of Enmax. The Board was extremely appreciative of the update, impressed by the work of Mrs. Leahy and Mr. Coupland, and excited about the many future learning possibilities for students at St. Joseph School. For more information on the Board meeting, please see the Board Meeting Briefs.  

The West side public consultation occurred in January, with over 120 people in attendance from the school communities of St. Patrick FAE, Children of St. Martha and Father Leonard van Tighem. The event produced a wealth of feedback on questions designed by the multi-school committee, who sought direction on topics that included boundaries, transportation, programming and configurations. An additional 100+ participant forms were also submitted electronically to provide the opportunity for additional feedback. The Board has been presented with the raw data and directed me to provide a report with potential scenarios, recommendations and further questions at the next board meeting. On behalf of the Board and Senior Administration, I would like to thank all of the participants for their input.

February marks the beginning of the registration process for our schools. Advertisements have been placed in school newsletters, our division website and both print and radio media to highlight this date. However, the best advertisement of our system comes from within our community, our staff, our students and our parents. I would encourage all of you to promote your schools and the division as a whole. I am very proud of the high quality Catholic education that we provide at Holy Spirit. We are able to address the spiritual, academic, emotional, social and physical needs of our students in a Christ-centred environment. Our commitment to transform education to better prepare our students for the 21st century and be inclusive in our approach continues to be a focus in our division.  In the next few days, you will receive our 2010-11 Annual Report which provides testimony of our many successes and strengths of the division. If you would like further copies of this report for your business or personal use, please contact your local school or central office directly.

On February 9th, the provincial budget will be announced. We are hopeful that the budget will provide long term, predictable and stable funding for education. The return of 107 million to school boards by Premier Redford was certainly a welcome to this year’s budget. The Board of Trustees voted unanimously to allocate the total amount received (approximately $667,000) back into staffing. It will be interesting to see if and how the current tripartite discussions impact the education budget. These negotiations involve the provincial government, Alberta Teachers’ Association and the Alberta School Boards Association and to date, no agreements have been announced. Stay tuned after the budget for more information.

And finally, February brings about the beginning of our Lenten journey. In Lent, we are asked to engage in purposeful action. We are called and our response must be immediate to put Christ in the middle of our lives in preparation for the death and resurrection of our Lord.  As we enter the season of Lent with Ash Wednesday on February 22nd, we are reminded to see Christ in ourselves and in others and be Christ-like in our thoughts and actions. It is an opportunity to share our many gifts through sacrifice and almsgiving to those in need. And most importantly we humbly pray and ask the Lord for continual guidance in God’s ways. May God bless you this Lenten season!

Transforming curriculum

“Transformative change refers to changing the education system by re-examining student needs, how we teach students, what we teach them, how to better engage communities in educating students and how research can be harnessed to inform change.” This quote is taken from the Alberta Education Action Agenda 2011-14. This document was followed up with Framework for Student Learning: Competencies for Engaged Thinkers, Ethical Citizens with an Entrepreneurial Spirit. This powerful framework ensures that the student is at the heart of everything that we do in education and realizes that literacy and numeracy are foundational to student learning. It further defines the competencies required for students in the 21st century:

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

Alberta Education has been a leader in engaging stakeholders through their Action on Curriculum agenda. In 2011, they hosted three separate research roundtables on curriculum that “brought together education partners and stakeholders to share, interpret, review and discuss research, literature reviews and article summaries, and share practical experiences and knowledge.” Action on Curriculum- Summary of Findings Research Roundtables 1, 2 and 3. Each roundtable discussed key concepts.

  • Roundtable 1: Competencies, Literacy and Numeracy, Interdisciplinary Learning
  • Roundtable 2: Ways of Knowing, Student-centred/Personalized Leaning, Breadth and Depth, Interdisciplinary Curriculum
  • Roundtable 3: Flexible Timing and Packing in a Variety of Learning Environments, Responsive Curriculum, Assessment of Competencies, Assessment

Alberta has long been a world leader in education and there is no doubt that one of its greatest strengths in the past has been its curriculum. However, as I look at this new research and review other world class education systems, I fear that our curriculum may be becoming an increasing weakness. The content is massive and often unengaging for many students. Teachers struggle just to cover the curriculum, especially in the Provincial Achievement and Diploma Exam years, just in case it is a question on the test. The ability to go deep into concepts of interest to students is literally denied because of  the sheer number of outcomes. Rather than a richness of curricular outcomes where all students discover their passions and strengths, we are somewhat forced to offer a factory line production.

The work being done at the provincial level needs to continue but I’m not sure whether the massive reconstruct envisioned by Curriculum Redesign will be accomplished any time soon. And quite frankly, that is not fair to the students, especially high school students currently in our schools. Locally we need to make some quick adjustments to ensure that we are in fact meeting the needs of today’s students. The question is, “Will local divisions, local administration, local teachers and local communities be given permission to make curriculum transformative and meet the vision of Alberta Education or will we just continue to be forced to cover content in order to meet the plethora of outcomes?”


Accountability in Education

Earlier this year, the Minister of Education, Thomas Lukaszuk, communicated that the provincial government spends 33 million dollars daily to fund education in Alberta. For the average Albertan, that number is staggering and in all likelihood elicits questions like, “Where are they spending that type of money?” or “Why are they spending that amount of money?” These questions are certainly understandable given an aging population that has little direct connection to schools today. Furthermore, to this aging population, health care is of highest priority. It would therefore be easy to rationalize that there needs to be accountability in education. The amount of the provincial budget spent on education requires accountability…period! 

There are those that suggest that education should not have any type of accountability. Quite honestly, I have a really difficult time understanding that position. Our entire society is built on accountability. The issue, I firmly believe, is, ‘What are we accountable for?’ We cannot simply say no to accountability or we are viewed as shirking our responsibility. However, we do need to fight for an accountability that enhances our systems, our schools, the professionalism of our educators and most importantly our students’ success.  In other words, “Accountability makes no sense when it undermines the larger goals of education.”- Diane Ravitch

Organizations that rank schools based on test data have done a great disservice to students and have further engrained the word “accountability” as a swear word. The larger goals of education have little to do with high stakes testing. They have their place, but they cannot be viewed as the only way to make a system or school accountable. In a recent interview, Pasi Sahlberg, Director General of the Ministry of Education in Helsinki, Finland stated, “America is a good example of how data from standardized tests is used to judge individual schools or teachers. But the tests were not designed to judge teachers or schools. They were designed to judge student progress.” Statistics research would suggest that a representative sample would accomplish the ability to gage student progress more effectively, as illustrated by the current practice in Finland.

Part of our issue regarding accountability is the disconnect between what the general public believes education should teach and what research is overwhelmingly supporting. Literacy and numeracy will always need to be staples in education, but not from a “back to the basics” premise. We require students who have the ability to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Solely covering the content of a curriculum must be replaced by the development of  problem solving, creativity, analytical thinking, collaboration, and communication skills within an inclusive, ethical, and action orientated system. And those skills are far more difficult to measure, especially within the current accountability system.  What we need are bold schools as suggested by Will Richardson.

Often accountability systems are built based on what is easiest to measure. Test data and survey results are relatively easy to collect. However, the larger goals of education are not that simple and therefore not easily measured.  “What’s really important in education?” needs to be debated by all of us in and out of education. As educators we cannot simply ignore the need for accountability. Instead we must fight for what really counts and then measure that!

Forwarding the conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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