From the Desk of the Superintendent- October 2011

I begin my monthly update reflecting on the sudden passing of Jeff Warkentin last weekend. Jeff was a new teacher at St. Michael’s School in Pincher Creek. His passion for teaching and more importantly his desire to always be witness to his faith was repeated throughout the funeral service yesterday. I was deeply impacted by the strength and emotional conviction of his wife in her tribute to her husband. Even in the short time that Jeff was with us, he touched the lives of the staff, students and community of St. Michael’s. Our prayers continue to go out to his wife and family. May God continue to bless her and her family with comfort and strength.

As a Catholic School Division, we rely on that faith. It is what makes us unique. It does not make us automatically better than our public school division counterparts but it does make us different! I am reminded of this especially in troubling or tragic times. Our ability to gather in prayer, openly, allows us a strength to heal. Too often we take this great gift of publicly funded Catholic Education and our ability to practice our Catholic/Christian faith for granted.  This was one of my key messages last week when I spoke at the Calgary Diocesan Catholic Women’s League Fall Meeting. May we always remember and treasure our gift!

This month we celebrate World Teachers’ Day on October 5th. Teachers around the world are recognized for the impact that they have on children day in and day out. Sadly in North America, teachers are not nearly afforded the same level of recognition as they are in other parts of the world. This is unfortunate as there are so many teachers who make a difference in a child’s life and most times without knowledge of it and certainly without recognition.  I was fortunate to have some great teachers in my life that helped shaped my path- Sister Aquinas, Mr. Matsuba, Mr. Tarnasky to name just a few. On October 5th, please take some time to let the teachers in your life and in your children’s life know how important they are to you.

The board’s regular meeting was held on September 28th. To review the main points please take a look at the Board Briefs. Of particular note is the desire of our board to engage our community in a transformation conversation. The changes required in education to meet the needs of each child will not be successful without the trust, understanding, permission and support of the community. On November 2nd we will begin that conversation with our teachers, our parents and other members of the community. We are hopeful that Alberta Education  personnel will also be able to attend this beginning dialogue. Please read my previous posts entitled “Transformation is a journey not a  destination” and “Action on Inclusion” for more information.

On behalf of the Board of Trustees and Senior Administration, I would like to take this opportunity to wish each of you a wonderful October and a joyous upcoming Thanksgiving long weekend.

God Bless!

Chris Smeaton

Transformation is a journey not a destination

Last week, I attended the transformation meeting for urban boards in Edmonton.  These events are being held throughout the province and are sponsored by Alberta Education, ASBA and ATA. Although my first thought about gathering “like” boards was to mix the groups up, I found it quite refreshing to be able to spend a day engaged in quality dialogue with our own teaching staff. I would say that we have a pretty strong relationship with our teachers, but are always pressed for time to really get to the “meat of the matter.” In reviewing the day, I have a couple of thoughts to share.

1. Transformation is a journey not a destination- Even though we need to have some thought about where we are going, we need to understand that transformation should be a continual journey. Until we reach perfection, we’ll always be on that journey. Education should be changing to meet the needs of our students and that in essence is transforming. The difficulty however, is that never before have we been requried to educate EACH student. And that puts us on a faster track than any change initiative prior!!!

2. Finland vs. Norway- I learned that both countries tackled school improvement differently. Norway who had a strong system suggested the status quo while Finland, decided to blow it up and start again. Don’t get me wrong, Finland is far different from Alberta and so any comparison has to be made carefully but should we be looking at really blowing the system up and starting from scratch? Consider the following and ask yourself whether the change would require just a tweak or a complete overhaul:

  • Do we need 2 monthsof summer holidays in today’s society?
  • Should we really have a distinct Social Studies and Science curriculum in the primary grades?
  • Does every child have to finish the same material in the same year/semester/quarter?
  • Does every child need the same curriculum?

3. Community readiness- If our true desire is to meet the need of EACH student then we had better be prepared to engage our communities. Battle scars will be the norm because school won’t be like it was and that will create considerable angst amongst our public. The known is always preferred to the unknown so resistance will be plentiful… from both inside and outside the system.

4. Mandate creep- A colleague of mine produced a visual that illustrated the number of initiatives facing school divisions. If transformation is truly what we seek, then let’s remind ourselves that research supports the implementation of  2-3 priorities not 50-60. Let’s focus on what is most important AND be prepared (all of us) to drop those things that don’t contribute in whole to our 2-3 priorities.  

5. Relationships are critical- To achieve the necessary transformation required, the relationship between Alberta Education, ASBA and ATA must be authentic. Too often, we fail because the relationships have been built on niceness instead of grit. Egos must be parked and ears must be opened. We must be prepared to listen to everyone without formalizing a counterattack part way through the message. We’ll hear things we don’t want to hear and probably not like but if the relationship is to be strong, it must be authentic.

Finally, I’m excited about being in education today. I think we are beginning to promote an attitude or even more importantly an environment where we can take risks. In our division we use the term, “Fail Forward.” We won’t get this transformation right immediately but we will never get it right if we don’t start. Every chance you get, talk about what transformation means to you and your colleagues and then get on board for a great ride!!!

Action on Inclusion

I began writing this article late last week while I was sitting in the airport awaiting my flight after attending the Building Capacity Information Session hosted by Alberta Education. The wait then and up till now has provided me the time to reflect on what I heard or possibly didn’t hear during the day. For the record, I’m in full support of our province’s move to an inclusive system where all students are successful. It parallels our division’s vision that states, “…where students are cherished and achieve their potential.” However, I believe there has to be some significant changes before every student achieves success and every classroom is inclusive.

  1. Eliminate Our Sort & Select System- Even with some of the best teachers in the world and creative methodologies, we still have in many ways a factory model. Our top students are encouraged to go to university, the next level to college and then the trades and finally into the  world of work. And to be really honest, we spend most of our time highlighting university which is where only a small percentage of our graduates go!  If we want all students to be successful, shouldn’t we also be focusing on the passions of the individual student. Isn’t it a great feeling to wake up every morning and love going to work!!!
  2. Change the Understanding of Our Schools- I’m tired of the rhetoric, “If it was good enough for me, its good enough for them.” Quite frankly, it isn’t good enough. Never before have schools been required to teach all children to a high level. High school graduation is not enough to secure a decent living in today’s society. Most jobs in the future will require some sort of post secondary training. This message needs to be communicated clearly to our communities so that we can develop trust, support, understanding and finally permission to change.
  3. Believe in the True Uniqueness of our Students- As educators we believe this intrinsically. But, every child still has to finish the same curriculum in the same ten month period. And by the way, it is critical that we continue with the same calendar we’ve had for… how many years? Right? Time cannot be the constant it must be the variable and learning must be the constant.
  4. Curriculum refinement- We have for too long engaged in a curriculum that is a mile wide and an inch thick. We require a robust curriculum that engages students, stimulates their minds and tweaks their interests. I’m hopeful that Alberta Education’s Action on Curriculum focuses on what is best for K-12 and not on satisfying post secondary requirements. Our curriculums need to focus on the competencies of the 21st century.
  5. From my students to our students- We know that teacher collaboration is a required not optional activity. The days of “just leave me alone in my classroom” are passe. But our students in an inclusive system also means collaboration with outside agencies and professionals.  This collaboration must be modelled by all from government right through to the classroom.

Action on Inclusion needs to be transformational. It can’t be just a little tweak but an entire movement. And for an entire movement it needs to come from both the heart and head of all stakeholders… with support!

From the Desk of the Superintendent- September 2011

On behalf of the Board of Trustees and Senior Administration, I would like to take this opportunity to welcome all of our staff, students and parents. I hope that the summer provided each of you with peace, tranquility and the ability to engage in quality family time. It is a great pleasure to welcome all of our new students and families this year. You have chosen a divison that is both a faith and learning community and as such is committed to providing high quality Catholic Education to all. Thank you for choosing Holy Spirit Catholic Schools!

This is the second year of our Three Year Faith Plan. Our theme for the entire division is, “Do you love me?” It is the question asked to Peter by Jesus in John’s gospel (John 21:1-17). As a faith community we are constantly called to respond in word and especially action to that question. I would invite you to read my blog on our theme for more information.

Schools today need to prepare students for tomorrow and not yesterday. In order to do that we must utilize sound teaching practices and infuse technology to build relevance. 21st century learning is not all about technology but it is also not void of technology. We need to recognize the needs of our students by addressing 21st century competencies – problem solving; creativity; analytical thinking; collaboration; communication; ethics, action, and accountability. Without these skills, our students will have difficulty in a future world that is vastly unknown.

One of the first conditions needed to address those skills is to create an environment of risk taking. In my opening address to staff, I used the term, “Fail Forward.” It means that when we fail we learn from it and move on. Failing forward creates new opportunities for learning. It is a term that I hope all will incorporate in our division. Artists, musicians and athletes practice fail forward constantly as they hone their skills. Problem solving and creativity, possibly two of the most important 21st century competencies cannot be enhanced if we are not prepared to risk-take or think outside the box.

It truly is an exciting time to be in education. I invite you to become involved in your school community – be engaged in this excitement and watch how we prepare your children for their future.

God Bless!

2011-12 Faith Theme: Do You Love Me?

On August 30th, our entire school division came together as both a faith and learning community to celebrate. Our Lady of the Assumption School organized a powerful mass with music provided by exceptionally talented staff. Fr. Tim of All Saints Parish was our main celebrant with Fr. Fernando (St. Martha Parish)  and Fr. Tomy (St. Ambrose/St. Catherine Parishes) as concelebrants, while Deacons Cliff Bogdan and Ray Wagner assisted.

Prior to these celebrations, I plant myself at the entrance so that I can meet and greet our staff as they come in. This year, my entire senior administration team accompanied me in this welcome. It allows me an personal opportunity to welcome back a very dedicated and committed staff. Furthermore, it is energizing as I feed off the excitement and enthusiasm that surround me.

This year we are continuing with our Three Year Faith Plan. Our theme for this second year comes from John’s Gospel (John 21: 1-17) in which Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Fr. Tim described this call as our need to let go fully in order to allow us to do the will of God. When we are truly free, we accept the will of God and ensure that our eyes are always fixed on Jesus. Like a waterfall, we allow the love of the Lord to rush over us without hesitation. Throughout this year, we will explore our theme and respond to Jesus’ call of, “Feed my sheep!”

Our vision states, “A Christ-centered learning environment, where students are cherished and achieve their potential.” Only when we truly focus on Jesus and see the face of Christ in each and every child can we begin to achieve our vision.

The Night Before Our First LLT Meeting

Tomorrow morning our entire Learning Leadership Team (LLT) will be heading to St. Michael School in Pincher Creek for our first meeting of the school year. It will be a relatively short meeting as we plan to head out to Castle Mountain for our retreat shortly after lunch. The LLT is made up of senior administration, principals, associate principals and our early learning coordinator. The ability for our entire team to get together for two days prior to the start of the year is awesome and will be particularly beneficial for demonstrating our culture to our new administrators.

I’m beginning my third year as Superintendent of Holy Spirit Catholic Schools and like my previous two opening meetings, I feel a great sense of excitement and a few jitters as well. The excitement piece is pretty self explanatory or should be. I’m a firm believer that when I’m not excited about the start of a school year it is time to get out of the profession. The jitters however are a little bit more complex. I would tend to believe that the LLT knows me fairly well and knows that I speak from the heart. Although actions speak louder than words, opening words can set a tone for the year either positively or negatively.

I’m very proud of the accomplishments of our school division over the past number of years. You don’t get the results we have and changes required to meet the needs of the 21st Century Learner without a whole bunch of committed educators and dedicated staff. But to continually improve requires both pressure and support, stability and change. It is not only critical for a leader to know when to exercise both but as importantly to communicate the need for both. Opening addresses need to inspire but also be realistic. Leaders need to find that balance to be truly seen as authentic.

Tomorrow when I meet with our LLT, I want to demonstrate my excitement for the coming year and also communicate a realism of our current conditions. Honesty and integrity are non-negotiable to ensure that our school leaders are instilled with a sense of hope and can translate that hope to their own staff, students and communities.

Wish me luck!

Leadership Day 2011

As I’ve previously written, I’m a neophyte to Twitter and this will only be the 7th post to my blog. I’m not sure I have the correct lingo and have much to learn but I continue to explore and more importantly use these medias in my work. This year, we have seven new formal leaders in our system. For a system of only 13 schools, that is considerable change. Given that, it is important that we provide some excellent mentoring support to all of these individuals and certainly in the area of 21st Century leadership. In terms of  leadership, I would suggest two pieces of advice fit especially well for school technology.

1. Engage in the technology yourself! Try it out and have some fun. Understand what it is like to learn a new skill again. People feel far more comfortable when their leader is involved in the technology that he/she is requesting others to be involved in. Leaders lead people they don’t simply tell them what to do!

2. Closely related to my first point is creating risk-taking environment. When you are engaged in a technology that you are still learning you are bound to make some errors along the way. Celebrate them! It is how we learn best. Encourage your staff to take risks and accept that the first time through might not be perfect. Reward attempts and consider failures as just learning steps. Creating a risk-taking environment with your staff will filter down to your students as well. That in itself is a good thing!

I hope this helps someone in their leadership journey and would welcome any feedback or comments.

Upcoming SALT retreat

On Saturday, August 6th (28th wedding anniversary) our Senior Administration Leadership Team (SALT) will be heading to beautiful Waterton Lakes National Park  for our annual summer conference. This conference brings together senior administrators (CASS & ASBOA) from southern Alberta and various Alberta Education personnel. On a rotating basis, each division is reponsible for the organization of the conference. One of the great aspects of this conference is that it is very family friendly with built in time for family activities. My first experience of this conference was in 2001 when I first became a senior leader. Since then, my wife (and even our grown children) try to make it down for a couple of the family type activities.

As part of our annual planning, I’ve always built in a mini retreat for my team either before or after the conference. This is an exciting time as we really start to get into the nuts and bolts of the upcoming school year. One of our first topics will be a continuation and possibly redirection of our thoughts on 21st century leadership. In a PLC format we will be discussing (1) Where we are? (2) Where do we want to be? and (3) How do we get there? I’ve commented before that if any of us are leading like we did 5-10 years ago, we are likely failing our staff, students and communities. The activity will move from philosophical discussion to practical applications. I’m a firm believer that we need to move forward with both our heart and head.

A second aspect of the retreat will be to further a statement I made to our Learning Leadership Team (LLT). This team is made up of SALT, principals, associate principals and our early learning coordinator. Prior to the end of the school year, I gathered our LLT in a circle (without technology) and stated that I wanted Holy Spirit Catholic Schools to be the best division in the province. It is a bold statement but I believe that every division should be striving for that same excellence. Our division is already strong and I’m extremely proud of our accmplishments but I believe that to stand still is to fall behind. That morning was a powerful example of what happens when, as a leader, you just sit back and listen. It will be a conversation that I will continue with our LLT and eventually with our stakeholders to move it forward. It is my commitment to meet with every school staff before Christmas to have this conversation. I’m hoping that as I enter my third year as Superintendent I have built enough trust so that our dialogue will be open, honest and solution focused. Effective relationships are built on authenticity.

The final piece of the retreat will be to sink our teeth into our Division’s Continuous Improvement Plan. Over the past two years we have attempted to follow the wise words of Michael Fullan and Douglas Reeves regarding the number of priorities. You will note that our plan has only three priorities and is a total of five pages long. We need to, first as SALT and then later with our LLT ensure that we are focusing on the right things. When we truly focus on the right things we will be able to drop things off our plate that don’t contribute to the priorities. Unfortunately, we in education don’t often enough subscribe to the “do not do anymore” list especially when we add something new to our plates.

I’m expecting our retreat to be messy with various opinions shared and views expressed. And to be honest, if it isn’t messy then I really didn’t do our team any justice. Collaboration is hard work and sometimes painstaking. But, if we want what is best for our students, then we can only proceed with intense and respectful dialogue.

Twitter or not?

I must confess that I am neophyte in the Twitter realm, only really beginning to seriously tweet at the CASA 2011 conference in Niagara Falls. Prior to that I had signed up because: (1) If I wanted my school administrators to engage in 21st century tools than their superintendent should be doing the same and (2) I thought it could be used as a communication tool. The first reason is fairly self explanatory from a leadership point of view. The second as a communication tool was less impressive in my initial thoughts. I had a hard time imagining that with only 140 characters, my communications would be no more than bus cancellations or other fairly mundane announcements. My belief was that Twitter needed to be accompanied with my Blog to be truly effective. During the CASA conference and these last three weeks, I have begun to understand the power of Twitter.

As I enter my 26th year in education, I would say that my summer holidays have always been a time to relax and rejuvenate. This has been common for me whether I have been in the classroom or the superintendency. However, holidays have also been a time where I have been able to catch up on my reading. Typically, I read educational articles and books that I never seem to have the chance to do so during the school year. This summer has been no exception with my completion of the books: “Leading and Managing A Differentiated Classroom” by Carol Ann Tomlinson and Marcia B. Imbeau and “Focus” by Mike Schmoker. But as engaging as these books have been, Twitter has provided me with the best professional learning this summer. I have been amazed with the breadth of topics I have been able to read about via Twitter. Most of the tweets or links provided are short reads but they evoke much reflection. I’ve read tweets that made me want to go out and change the world immediately and others that just infuriated me. The bottom line however, is I’ve engaged in a reflection of my own practice as a leader and the direction of our school division. I’ve felt a great euphoria in my new learning. It is an excitement that I’ve not experienced for quite some time.

Maybe even more important is a connection that I have established with educators and others from around the world. Since my exploration into this media I have “met” many gifted and talented individuals. The diverse thinking that I have been exposed to is challenging, refreshing and affirming. It continues to stretch my own thought process about our division’s journey in 21st century learning leadership. Leadership is so multifaceted and the vast array of opinions remind me of that. Twitter has allowed me to hear many voices which strengthen my own leadership capacity and ability. Over the next two days, I will be preparing for a retreat with my senior leadership team and Twitter has provided numerous ideas and reflective activities.

However, I do have one personal concern with Twitter. I have found that even though I don’t use it to provide my personal whereabouts (as a superintendent, my life is public enough as it is), there is a certain seduction to always checking who and what has been tweeted. My fear is that when I return to work next week and to my regular routine, I will not have the necessary time to review the vast amount of information shared every minute. What then? Will I go into Twitter withdrawal? The answer will come… in due time! Until then, keep tweeting and encourage all of your educators to engage in this powerful professional learning.

In support of differentiated instruction

During the past couple of years, our division, Holy Spirit Catholic Schools has spent considerable energy researching continuums of support for all students. School teams have participated in national and international conferences to learn more about, in particular, Pyramid Response to Intervention (PRTI). This is supportive of our province’s move toward a more inclusive education system.

One of the premises of PRTI, is that the majority of the students’ educational needs in the classroom should be met by the individual teacher. During my annual meetings with each of our school administrative teams, I asked the question if their teachers were prepared to meet the needs of 80% – 85% of the students in their classroom without external support? That is a tough task even for experienced teachers because they really need to have excellent classroom management and employ excellent differentiated instruction. Yet, that is what is required to meet the needs of the majority of students in the typical classroom of today. The lowest level of intervention is differentiated instruction!

I have heard Carol Ann Tomlinson on numerous occasions and have just finished reading, “Leading and Managing A Differentiated Classroom” which she co-authored with Marcia B. Imbeau. What I have consistently come away from her presentations or after reading her books is that differentiated instruction is just common sense and just plain good teaching. More importantly, differentiated instruction speaks to the core of our beliefs as teachers. We believe that every child is unique and therefore deserves a program that supports and enhances that uniqueness. Unfortunately, differentiated instruction like many excellent practices receives it’s fair share of “yes but” excuses. Chapter 7 of this book addresses these excuses easily and I would recommend every leader in education to review if you have staff who are resistant.

In our division, we have focused through AISI on teaching differently because students learn differently.  Our project, Engaging the 21st Century Learner has caused us to think differently in our approach to not only teaching but our own learning as adults. If we are teaching or for that matter leading the same way that we did 10 or 20 years ago… our students are suffering. The world is a very different place and we must prepare students for tomorrow not yesterday. In order to prepare our students, the next generation, we must embrace technology (a future blog) and we must differentiate our instruction to all students.  This is not an optional exercise.

I believe that the vast majority of us in education came into the profession not for the money or holidays but rather for the ability to change and impact the life of a child. In our quest for effective over efficient, teaching to learning, memorizing to understanding, evaluation to assessment, passive to active and isolated to connected learning differentiated instruction is a requirement.