“Change is inevitable, growth is an opportunity” 2018 Graduation Address for St. Michael’s Pincher Creek

Oki! Bonjour Mesdames et Monsieurs, and Good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen and especially to our St. Michael’s Graduates of 2018.

Your graduation quote, “Change is inevitable, growth is an opportunity” leads me to the question, “What opportunity?” We know that some of the growth we encounter is innate, it just happens, like getting taller. And maybe there might be an opportunity because of your growth in height for a great block in volleyball or for rebounding in basketball, but I don’t believe that is what this graduating class meant! I think what they meant around growth was much more personal in nature and more about  your own control rather than simply because of the genes passed on by your parents.

To me, growth speaks to potential and your ability to be a learner. In education, we speak of growth as continuous improvement. For years continuous improvement got a bad rap in education. People assumed that the reason for it was that we needed to get better or grow because we weren’t good enough. But that is deficit thinking or worse, arrogant thinking to believe that none of us in this room or out there are so good at what we do, that growth or continuous improvement are not required. Even if you are pretty satisfied with your accomplishments to date, there is always room to grow.

In your life you will have opportunities to grow professionally and personally but I would suggest that within those two areas you also welcome the opportunity to grow spiritually. In my career I’ve met some individuals who are professionally at the top, yet they haven’t grown equally in their personal or spiritual journeys. In fact, they really are not very nice people and quite honestly most don’t really want to spend time with them. Personal and spiritual growth are about balance in one’s life in order to give to others.

You live in the area of the Blackfoot people whose rich traditions in native spirituality are a blessing. Their culture and ceremonies are rich in spiritual growth. You are graduating from a Catholic school whose beliefs embody personal and spiritual growth. You will never lose your way by focusing on your own faith development and your own spiritual traditions.

Growth is a wonderful opportunity… but you must take it! It just doesn’t happen by sitting around and waiting for it. You must search for it, and find your potential in it. Growth is not easy because it pushes you out of your own comfort zone and once stretched by growth you will never be the same or see the world in the same way. Growth should be a never ending journey. And if you take on that commitment to constantly grow and be mindful of the lessons learned from your family, friends, community and school, you will live a life of few regrets.

Be bold in your growth! Seize your opportunity! Let your journey of continuous improvement never fade! You’ve been called to always be the best version of yourself- find it and live it!        

On behalf of the entire school division, I wish you congratulations and God’s blessings! Thank you!

“We are Glorious” 2018 Graduation Address for Catholic Central High School

Oki! Bonjour Mesdames et Monsieurs, and Good Morning Ladies and Gentlemen and especially to our CCH Graduates of 2018.

Although I love movies, I’m not great at taking them in at the theatre and so unfortunately I’ve not seen the movie, “The Greatest Showman” from which you’ve taken your grad theme, “We are Glorious.” But I did listen to your theme song, “This Is Me” and reviewed the lyrics with much interest. I want to read to you a portion of those lyrics:

“I am brave, I am bruised

I am who I’m meant to be, this is me.

Look out ‘cause here I come 

And I’m marching on to the beat I drum.

I’m not scared to be seen

I make no apologies, this is me.”

I don’t believe we can teach you or leave you with a better lesson from our Catholic education system than from those lines. I am brave, I am bruised reminds us that life isn’t always easy. When you were younger, your parents and families seem to always be there when you were in trouble or kept you from getting hurt. But over time, they loosened the reins, allowed you more earned freedom and decision making which allowed you to become more resilient. That gradual release enabled you to become brave but also left you opportunity to be bruised. That same experience occurred in your schooling as we, your educators prepared you for more responsibility as you transitioned from early learning to elementary to junior high to high school and now on to your next chapter.

But I think the most critical line in the song is, “I am who I’m meant to be, this is me.” In our Catholic faith, we believe that we are all created in the image and likeness of God. How do you get better than that? You are a unique individual. You have been provided many God given gifts that you must embrace and use to be you! It may be your intellect or your compassionate heart. It may be your artistic skills or your ability to work with your hands. Maybe you are a natural leader or the very best team player. Whatever gift God has given you, be it your gender or your sexuality, or your heritage or any other gift…it is who you are meant to be. Don’t be apologetic, be you!

The only request from God is for you to be the best version of yourself. And the best version of yourself doesn’t involve Botox or plastic surgery. The best version of yourself is about being your true authentic self in order to serve others. Our world needs graduates like you, who without apology, will be themselves in order to serve others, especially those who are most marginalized. This is not about political activism but rather and most simply about serving for the greater good!

Take your grad theme to heart. Be glorious! Be brave knowing that you will be bruised but always be you. Remember that God created each of you unique but always in His image and likeness. Don’t ever apologize for that!

On behalf of the school division, I wish you the best of luck in your future and wish you God’s blessings. Thank you!

The Journey to Inclusion

Recently, my Director of Support Services and I have been meeting with a small group of parents from the system on our continued journey to inclusion. All of these parents have children with diverse learning needs, some more significant than others. This is not a formal committee of the board, but rather an opportunity to engage and provide a learning experience for all in the room. It is not a group of parents pointing fingers and laying blame – they are very solution focused, looking for ways to continually improve our inclusion processes. And so, the conversations revolve around perspectives and perceptions in order to eventually bring about a clearer understanding to all about what is meant by inclusion. We’ve also had similar conversations with many of our Inclusive Education Liaisons, because they too are instrumental in guiding this journey.

In order to move to a more inclusive education system there must always be an emphasis to shift culture and then align practice. It is recognizing each student’s unique gifts and challenges and celebrating every student’s successes. Fifty plus years ago, students with special needs rarely saw the inside of a school, let alone a classroom. The first iteration of inclusion began when students with special needs were integrated back into schools. Typically, and for all the right reasons at the time, they were segregated into a separate classroom. Often, our most compassionate educators and those who had background in the old “special education” were placed with these students. We believed that this was the best place for all of the students identified and, while some may have benefited greatly from this setting, we are now beginning to realize that it cannot be the default position for all.

The next iteration (which is becoming more commonplace in Holy Spirit) will be for students with special needs to be placed in regular classrooms with the necessary supports.  This means that inclusion decisions must always be made in the best interest of the individual child. While most would suggest that this move only benefits our diverse learners, the fact is that it is better for all of our students and society as a whole. Our children will develop a far greater sense of compassion and understanding surrounded by diversity in their classrooms. The lessons learned from students with special needs will greatly outweigh the lessons provided to them. Developing more inclusive classrooms will result in more inclusive communities, and that in itself should be enough of a driving force to continue the changes.

This is not a “flip the switch” change.  It requires strong leadership, tough conversations, capacity building and a shift in thinking and doing. We are talking about the goals and dreams we have for all of our children as they go through the K-12 system and then beyond. All of us want the best for the students in our schools and, regardless of ability, desire that they transition successfully beyond high school in order to experience a full and productive life. Schools may not know every “how” or “what” for full inclusion, but by knowing the “why,” they can make great strides.

I continue to look forward to conversations with our parent group. They’ve approached these meetings, not with an “us-versus-them” mentality, but with a strong commitment to supporting our school division and their own children. In the new year we will be providing further opportunities for parents and staff to engage on the topic of inclusion in our system. It is a journey that is important for all.    

From the Desk of the Superintendent- May 2018

I’m writing this blog post while in beautiful Kananaskis, having just finished attending the annual SPICE Conference hosted by Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association (ACSTA). I’ll be here for a couple of more days for Catholic superintendent meetings and then be back in the office on Wednesday morning. This is my first time attending SPICE since it tends to focus more on teachers and support staff, while Blueprints (which begins Tuesday evening) is more geared to administration.  I wanted to attend SPICE rather than Blueprints for a number of reasons this year. Firstly, our Excellence in Catholic Education Award recipient, Sandra Cormican was being recognized at a banquet on Friday night and whenever possible, I really like to be present for that event. Secondly, being out of the office for only part of Thursday and all day Friday really appealed to me given the amount of time I’ve spent travelling in the last couple of months. Finally, I wanted to spend some time with our staff since I don’t have as much direct contact with them compared to our administrators. What a gift! I’m so very thankful for the thirteen staff who attended, laughed and prayed with me during this retreat.

While the mountain getaway is certainly an opportunity to be more reflective, this year’s speaker, Father Richard Leonard proved to be one of my favorites. This Jesuit priest from Australia used his gift of storytelling to provide a theology message that was both simple to understand and accessible to everyone. His message challenged our thinking and it shook our hearts and guts.  To all of us, but especially our first time attendees, the retreat was emotionally draining and spiritually uplifting. I can’t say enough about the class of these two conferences organized by ACSTA and I would encourage everybody who works in Catholic Education to attend at least one in their career. In all likelihood, your presence at either of these conferences will change you forever.

Dare I say it…spring has arrived! While I’m grateful for the warmer temperatures, we must also keep in our prayers those who have been impacted by the flooding around our school division. Last weekend returning from Edmonton, I was shocked to see water flowing off the fields into ditches and looking like a fast-moving river in many areas. Pray…it is something we can do in our Catholic Education systems and it is something that we are ALL called to do especially when others are facing tragedy and turmoil.

May is budget month and so we are looking carefully at enrolments and class sizes, programs and essentials to ensure that we do our best to meet our highest needs within the division. While I don’t shy away from this duty, budgeting and staffing are typically high stress times. With us moving from site based to needs based budgeting, we have created more equity throughout the division. But, every need must be considered and unfortunately not all needs are the same and not all can be adequately supported.  In the end the Board of Trustees will receive a budget that I believe recognizes the diversity of our division and is fiscally responsible for this year and into the future.

We did receive some good news from the Minister late last week that the Classroom Improvement Fund has been reinstated. At this point, I’m unaware of the amount of the grant or the regulations around the use. I know, that it has been extremely beneficial in our system with the addition of staff and increased professional learning opportunities. This year we received an additional $636,000 and the dollars were distributed through a collaborative approach with our local ATA, board and senior administration.

I’m looking forward to attending FLVT’s musical Switched next week and then celebrating with our graduating classes of Catholic Central High School and St. Michael’s Pincher Creek. The start of the graduation season means we are closing in on the end of the school year. I’ve heard a couple of versions of this quote lately, “The days go slow but the years pass quickly” and I can’t disagree. May will turn into June and June into July and summer holidays. Enjoy these next two months because they’ll be gone soon.

Have a wonderful May and God Bless!

Why are we dismantling education in Canada?

It is Sunday…a typical work day for me (I try to take Friday night and all day Saturday off to spend with my wife and family) and I’m ready to focus on work I need to do for the division. But instead, I’m going to spend the next 2-3 hours or more responding to the following Chief School Superintendent Role Review.

  1. REQUIRED: Submit a current organization chart that reflects the central office
    structure. Organizational charts provide a visual representation and allow positions to be
    viewed in context within the complete structure. The job evaluation process is not only an
    evaluation and analysis of the work assigned, but also includes an understanding of the
    structure in which that work is conducted.
  2. Describe the key leadership and operational accountabilities of the chief superintendent role within your jurisdiction. When describing the accountabilities, include any external versus internal focus of the position, as well as the degree of risk involved in decision-making. This list of accountabilities should be sequenced by order of importance (i.e., the most important result for which the job exists in the organization should be the first) and should reflect the regular requirements of the job and not rare occurrences (i.e. what might happen).
  3. Describe the challenges of the chief superintendent role within your jurisdiction. When describing the challenges, consider emerging and critical issues, extent of innovation required, strategic planning processes, factors that guide decision making, who is affected by those decisions and how they are affected.
  4. Describe any specialized knowledge or skills and critical behaviours required for the role to achieve results within your jurisdiction. Consider knowledge (i.e., degrees, knowledge of certain programs) and any critical behaviours (i.e., building collaborative environments, systems thinking) the superintendent is required to have.
  5. Describe the environment within which the chief superintendent operates. To understand the organizational strengths and challenges in the context in which the superintendent works, describe the operating environment, including such factors as technology and systems, people, financial, capital and funding and the governance environment.
  6. Describe the nature and purpose of the chief superintendent’s relationships. Chief superintendents do not operate or provide leadership in isolation. When describing the superintendent’s relationships, consider how the relationships are managed to deliver on outcomes (may include relationships with Alberta Education and communities).

To say I’m a little frustrated would be an understatement. But the requirement to justify my work and compensation are fairly minor compared to the lack of respect for system leaders and education as a whole in Canada. In Nova Scotia, all school boards were eliminated earlier this year and in provinces like Alberta that has publicly funded Catholic education, the cry for one publicly funded system is growing louder and much more intense.

People and governments in particular, have you noticed that Canada has one of the best educational systems in the world? Add, that those results are within a public not a private system and that we have one of the most diverse populations in the world. Don’t compare us to Finland or Singapore which has a fairly homogeneous population, look at countries that are as diverse as Canada. You would be hard pressed to find a better education system in the world. More impressive, is that Canadian systems are not content with the current status quo and are always trying to improve student experience and success. And by the way, that continuous improvement desire doesn’t come from government policy or business plans but rather internal accountability within schools and systems.

One of the first reasons that public education in Canada is so successful is our teachers. While most of us in education are always challenging our post-secondary teacher preparation programs to be even more rigorous in their training, comparatively, we are so far ahead. The teacher that a student has matters. I’m not suggesting that the sole determiner of educational success is the teacher but all things equal, excellent teaching leads to excellent student success. Secondly, leadership in schools is also a contributing factor to the success of the Canadian system. Leadership counts and the best schools are always led by top quality principals and their teams. Our provincial system has long focused on developing leaders and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Alberta is consistently at or near the top.

Great boards also contribute to our exceptional standing in the world. When they are locally elected, they understand the context of their communities and are able to set the right direction. The best boards live not in the administrative world but in the governance world. They understand their role and which sandbox they should be playing in. Throughout my years in senior administration, I witnessed the best of the best (thank you Holy Spirit) and the worst of the worst. Trustees who are single issue focused, have axes to grind or in it for their own political gain have no business being involved in the education of children. Superintendents from across the country can tell you horror stories of those trustees and boards but thankfully those cases are the exception and not the rule.

Finally, system leaders are a critical part of the fabric of excellence in Canadian schools and governments (local and provincial)  need to recognize that sooner than later. I’ve already heard confidentially from a number of my colleagues from across Canada  who will be “pulling the pin” and retiring as soon as they can. It saddens me because these people would still be able to give more to their systems after reaching their index for retirement. Unfortunately, they have become so deflated from external factors, mainly government interference, both locally and provincially, that they will just call it quits. They are going to be sorely missed in their organizations because they are not just good leaders, they are great leaders! Retirement should be an opportunity to pass on the torch rather than needing to throw it because it keeps burning you!

Governments (local, provincial and federal) do your jobs! Set your direction based on what is best for all students and then get out-of-the-way! Don’t play in my sandbox, play in your own. Education will continue to improve not because of your influence but because of those within the system. Stop with the death by reporting, excessive accountability and the irresponsible timelines for compliance information and go back to trusting the systems that have led Canada to be the best in the world!

From the Desk of the Superintendent- April 2018

Welcome to April and the winter that never seems to end! I hope that everyone had a most blessed Easter and those who could were able to spend the time with family and friends.

March was certainly a full month of learning and activities in schools and throughout the division. Highlighting the learning was our Division Wide Professional Development Day with the entire focus on our First Nations, Metis and Inuit priority. We were fortunate to have the new Assistant Deputy Minister in charge of this portfolio from Alberta Education in attendance and she was very impressed with the work we are doing to support our aboriginal students. While there is still much work to do to ensure the highest levels of learning for all, we are certainly on the right track.

At the March Board Meeting, we introduced Mrs. Sandra Cormican, a kindergarten teacher at Children of St. Martha School as our Excellence in Catholic Education Award Winner. This is an award that has been established by the Council of Catholic School Superintendents of Alberta. During my 10 years here at Holy Spirit, we’ve recognized some excellent teachers/administrators for this award and Sandra now is part of this exceptional class. We also selected our Edwin Parr winner, an award which celebrates first year teaching. Ms. Erica Barr, from Father Leonard van Tighem is our Holy Spirit representative. She will be introduced to our trustees at the April board meeting. The decision for any of these awards is most difficult because of the high quality of candidates we have in our system. Our last divisional award the Share the Mission Award, has just come out and as in past years, I’m sure we will have another strong group of candidates. For more information on the March board meeting, please click here.

The provincial budget was released at the end of March and the budget assumptions were presented to the Board of Trustees at their March meeting. The good news is that the government is committed to funding enrollment growth. Our initial forecasts show the division growing by another 2% at minimum with the majority of the increase in Lethbridge. Disappointing news from the budget however, was the lack of an announcement of a new elementary school in west Lethbridge which is the Board’s first priority in their Three Year Capital Plan. The Board has requested a meeting with our local MLA for west Lethbridge for an explanation as to why Holy Spirit was not part of the capital announcements. There was also no mention of the classroom improvement fund which provided an additional $636,000 for schools this year. We are hopeful that through provincial negotiations, that money will be allocated once again.

April will be another full month with some great professional development opportunities. A number of our staff will be attending the Agile Schools Network in Calgary, uLead conference in Banff, the First Nations, Metis and Inuit symposium in Edmonton and SPICE and Blueprints in Kananaskis. All of these events either strengthen our educational practice in our classrooms and schools or further develop our faith. Regardless of the event, the need to be a constant learner in today’s world must always be emphasized. Personally, I’ve just finished reading the book, “Coherence” by Michael Fullan and Joanne Quinn and note that much of what is espoused in the book is already taking place at various levels in our schools. The Learning Leadership Team will begin to dive deeper into these concepts through the lens of the new leadership standards in the coming months.

Three more months in this school year! While this winter hasn’t seemed to want to end, here we are with less than 12 weeks of school remaining. This next stretch will fly by quickly but it can also be emotionally and physically draining. Make sure that you continue to keep your three priorities (faith, family, job) in the right order during these next three months. Enjoy the coming of spring (hopefully) and may God continue to bless you and the work you do!

No Armed Teachers Here!

Since the tragedy in Parkland, Florida and the ensuing conversations around gun control in the United States, I’ve found myself trying to hold back on not making comments. Part of my reasoning is because I’m Canadian and in some ways probably don’t have the right to judge another country’s policies. But I’m also an educator and realistically, kids are kids no matter where they attend school and safety is safety! Plus I’m a superintendent who would automatically be part of a decision (if ever made) to arm teachers in our own division.

Let’s begin with the idiocy of the gun control argument. The head of the NRA, Wayne LaPierre made this statement following the Sandy Hook tragedy, “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.” He is pretty staunch in his beliefs that Americans should be able to bear arms and would be very willing for his organization to make schools safer. Bad guy with guns, good guy with guns, bear arms and make schools safer… I think I’ve heard more coherent statements on the kindergarten playground.

I’m not an anti-gun socialist. I have an in-law who is an avid hunter and I admire the safety precautions he takes around the storage and use of his guns.  What I have a difficult time with is the ability to purchase assault weaponry (or use it for an auction/raffle prize) or to be able to walk around with a concealed handgun! This can’t be good for the fabric of any nation and given the history of ongoing school shootings and massive killings in the US, maybe it is time to re-think some policies.

I would be naive to believe that any compromised solution exists through the political arenas.  The extremes on both the right and the left are far too ignorant to seek a compromise somewhere in the middle. Their rights blind their responsibilities! The debate around gun control is far too political and in reality touches on only the symptoms of the problem and not the root cause.

Schools and communities do have an effective tact to improve safety but it will take all politicians and the public at large to support. Every single day we have students coming into schools who are living with or in traumatic situations and experiencing some of the highest levels of anxiety and pressure in history. The stress level of our students continues to grow exponentially.

Mental health support is our greatest equalizer to this problem. Systems are currently taxed in providing support for students with the hiring of additional school or family school counselors and mental health therapists. The wait times to see, or even the available resources of pediatricians, child psychologists and psychiatrists continues to grow. Wouldn’t that be a bonus if the access to these professionals was unencumbered by where you lived or what you made? Early intervention is also a key and therefore supporting the mental health needs of children at a young age is critical. Targeting early learners is one of the best investments for building stronger communities. In order to address the growing mental health needs of our students, funding (targeted) has to be made available. It needs to be adequate, ongoing and not tied to politics. This funding is simply the right thing to do regardless of political ideology. Unfortunately, this is not going to be a quick fix so don’t expect a turnaround immediately. This solution must be thought of as generational.

It seems that politicians, the odd media star, and the public cries foul over bullying in schools all too often. Most point their fingers without ever looking at their own contributions to the issue. When was the last time any of these officials ever spent time in the shoes of teachers and administrators dealing the complexities of our classrooms and schools today? It is easy to give advice from afar, how about giving support instead!

So politicians and public in general, instead of belittling public education and complaining about teachers, administrators, schools and systems, how about stepping up to the plate with real-time funding to support children and families. The answer in my system for creating safer environments is not arming our teachers but continuing to support the ever-growing mental health needs of our students and families…period!


From the Desk of the Superintendent- March 2018

“You have three priorities in your life. Faith, family and then the job! Keep them in the right order as much as possible.” 

That statement is one that I share with all of our new teachers at the beginning of each school year and is one that all of us should hear more often. Wellness is a hot topic in society today and given we have just come through the February blues and some of the worst weather that I can remember, the statement has tremendous merit. Unfortunately in our “busy” society, trying to keep those three priorities first of all IN our lives and secondly in the correct order is difficult to do. And, it just doesn’t happen or remain constant without ongoing attention and intentional work.

We are in the midst of Lent and therefore faith should be front and center in our world, but is it? I think we do a tremendous job at keeping faith in the forefront to our students throughout the school year and especially during seasons like Lent. But what about our own faith. I’m a cradle Catholic and like many of us cradle Catholics, we grew up with a lot of rote memory, a little bit of knowing and very little understanding. This fact hit me again hard at our Learning Leadership Team Professional Development around Inclusive Communities. Often, what I think our faith says about an issue and what our faith truly says about an issue can be quite different. It is a great reminder to me and hopefully to all of us that although faith is a journey, it requires commitment to learn along the way.  If we truly believe that faith is our own first priority (and that of the division) than what are we doing to enhance it? We have some of the strongest innovative practitioners in our buildings because of their desire to learn more, so why not the same fervor for faith development?

Our world is pretty messed up sometimes. People are consistently searching for something out there to “settle themselves” or provide the right balance. For religious people, we’ve always had faith as that “go to.” We’ve always had scripture in front of us and prayer at our side. Yet, too often we allow the busyness of our lives to take away or minimalize our biggest rock- faith. Wellness, personal or professional has to begin with ensuring that faith is our number 1 priority!

Family needs to be our second priority for a couple of reasons. First of all, and this is so evident in my own family is that it provides us with tremendous support. We need the ones we love the most to be around us and that time needs to be intentional! Being present is the key! Just as we need them, our families need us. It sounds almost comical but if you need find time to pray, schedule it and if you need to find time to spend quality time with your family, schedule it too! It would be nice if we already had the right balance all the time so that we didn’t have to schedule faith and family time but if you don’t have enough of it, you need to schedule it until it becomes the norm.  My wife and I will celebrate 35 years of marriage this year, our children are 30 and 25 years old respectively, our little grandson is already over 2 years old and the arrival of his new baby sister is only three months away. Time flies and it is in the blink of an eye. Don’t allow yourself to miss these wonderful family opportunities because of mixed up priorities.

And now focus on the job! Some people in the business world will think I’m crazy for placing work behind faith and family. They’ll likely state that I don’t have high enough expectations for my staff or that I’m a pushover or that the organization will be consumed with lazy employees. Well those who work with me know that I’m pretty driven and have very high expectations beginning with myself. I expect high quality work and continuous improvement from everybody in the organization. While I may be seen as pretty easy to get along with and relational as a whole, I don’t have a problem drawing a line in the sand when required. I’ve also learned that lazy employees are going to be lazy no matter what framework they work in. Quite honestly to those who are lazy in our organization or any other, shame on you! In the end, I know that providing permission to set priorities properly has a more positive effect than negative.

I’m not so ignorant to understand that there are times when our priorities get out-of-order. Sometimes the job we do is overwhelming and all-consuming. But our wellness requires us to hit the reset button every so often to get us back to what is most important. Don’t be afraid to take a step back, breathe and find your bearings so that faith, family and the job are re-ordered porperly! God Bless!

Style vs. Substance

Next week I’ll be part of an interview committee for a principal position in our division. Part of our process is the inclusion of multiple stakeholders who provide me with feedback on each potential candidate. Before we begin, I always provide the committee with a reminder to listen carefully to the answers and don’t get lost in the style of those being interviewed. “Did the candidate provide an answer to the question asked or did the candidate side step the question?” “Did the candidate provide concrete examples of actions taken or simply state what he/she would do if given the opportunity.” I’m looking for evidence not platitude, because often the best predictor of future performance is past performance. With that mentality, I’m hoping that committee members, including myself can see through the “style guy!” 

But what about when attending conferences and listening to keynote or other presentations? Does the same thinking apply? I would like to believe that intelligent conference attenders (we all believe we are) would be able to recognize the difference between rhetoric and research. However, after just returning from an international conference, I’m not sure we all get the style vs. substance paradigm simply based on the level of applause given or not!

Since our paths just crossed in the airport today, I’ll give you a personal example. The first time I listened to Canadian education guru, Michael Fullan, his presentation was dry. But his message was so powerful. He rocked me with the topic and in many ways he was instrumental the re-engagement of my own learning journey. Had I just focused on his style, I may have missed his critical messaging, the true substance of his talk. I’ve continued to follow Dr. Fullan throughout my career and have had the good fortune to hear him speak many times now. The “wow” factor doesn’t come from his style, which has improved steadily but rather in the content of his presentation.

I do understand the allure of the charismatic presenters. They typically say what we want to hear and use emotions with great ease. It is hard not to “fall in love” with the message because most often, they are tugging at our heart-strings. They make us laugh one moment and cry the next and most importantly they make us feel good about ourselves. They are simply affirming because they say exactly what we want to hear. But if we desire to be on an improvement journey, that keynote needs to push us beyond just feeling good about ourselves.

This is where substance has to come into play. This is where no matter how good we are feeling from the speaker’s talk, there needs to be that little push to go beyond what we’ve always done. I’m all for being affirmed at conferences on practices that are known to be tried and true. That affirmation tells me how far I, or my organization has come to this point. But that, is only one part of a true reflective evaluation. You must also be aware of how much farther you need to go along the journey and that will only occur if there are some challenges provided from the stylish and substance filled speaker.

It is not necessarily commonplace to find many high style and deep substance speakers at a conference because that ability is quite rare! But when you do, you should be walking out of the presentation feeling pretty good but also feeling challenged to take your practice up another notch. Default to substance if you have to choose because superficial talks will only promote false beliefs and when it comes to improvement, deep learning and serious reflection are required.

Ode to Support Staff

The following blog post was published in the Lethbridge Herald on February 21, 2018.

It is difficult not to automatically think about teachers when we talk about schools or education. In past articles, I’ve written about the importance of our school leaders and, just recently, about the unseen life of teachers. But our school systems do not run as effectively and efficiently as they do with only the certificated staff. Support staff (i.e. non-teachers/school administrators) make up between 40-50% of a school jurisdiction’s staffing population. I cringe every time we have guest speakers addressing our entire staff at division events who mistakenly refer to only teachers in the crowd because they’re missing acknowledging a large group of people who are instrumental to the running of this system.

When I began my career, a wise mentor told me to “make friends” with the school secretary (now called various names) and the custodian. What I learned very quickly was the impact both the front office staff and the caretaking team have on the overall culture of a school. In many instances they are the first contact for parents and students and their influence, with a pleasant greeting or a big smile, goes a long way to make the school environment even more welcoming. Those are just two groups within our support staff who are highly visible, yet their impact is often unseen by the public.

Another group within our support staff that provides tremendous benefit are those who work directly with children, students and parents. This may mean one on one interventions or leading small group activities. It may be supporting our First Nations, Metis or Inuit culture or meeting with parents to discuss mental health, attendance or possibly speech language strategies. Many of these caring individuals assist children and students facing multiple challenges. Sometimes they provide a kind word, or redirection of behaviour or support for opportunities that, without their presence, might be highly unlikely. Regardless, their approach is always delivered with much compassion.

The final group provide more support to the entire system as opposed to individual students and parents. They are sometimes forgotten because they are in central office, but their work is nonetheless invaluable. With a budget of over 60 million dollars, it is extremely important that you have capable people looking after the functions of payroll, human resources, business services and finance. Let’s not forget about the contributions of those in the departments of technology and maintenance. And while not direct employees of the division, bus drivers play a valuable role in transporting our students safely to and from school.

The bottom line is that, for school systems to perform at the highest levels, a strong support staff is required. Their impact is critical and should be recognized, even if they are seldom seen front and center.