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.

Psychological Safety

A couple of weeks ago, during a conversation with an executive coach I was re-introduced to the term “psychological safety.” I had not thought much about the term previous from a leader’s perspective but after the talk I realized the importance. As I further reflected, I realized how much psychological safety is connected to high performing organizations.

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Most organizations, but especially educational organizations are constantly seeking to continuously improve. Improvement is not typically about doing the same thing better, it is more often about tweaking your processes or radically shifting your practice.

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Improvement is about becoming both more efficient and effective and ultimately more innovative and creative. But how do you create a culture of improvement if you haven’t first created a culture of trust? How can you ask your staff to be bold without them feeling psychological safety?

Innovation originates from individuals stepping outside the typical boundaries. While there are some “jobs” that require employees to stay strictly within the boundaries, most allow more flexibility. In education, where we are constantly looking to improve the experience of our students, out of the box thinking and doing are required. This doesn’t mean a “free for all” because research still needs to be a guiding principle. But without a culture that allows for “failing forward” and “learning fast” our classrooms and overall systems will continue to practice insanity.

Each time we ask or promote staff to “do things differently” we are asking them to move from the comfortable to the uncomfortable, from a place of competence to a place of incompetence. Few of us like to the feeling of uneasiness when we are faced with a new situation or learning a new skill, but it makes it much easier if a safety net is provided. That net is psychological safety!

We know too much today about the importance of trust in an organization. Now leaders need to extend that trust to highlight psychological safety for employees so they may step up and out, be bold and free and make the differences required!


From the Desk of the Superintendent- February 2018

Last Thursday, my dad underwent open heart surgery at the Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary. They cracked his chest open (I still shudder at that thought) and replaced two of his heart values. He was in ICU until late Saturday afternoon and then he walked on his own to the “step down” unit. On Tuesday, he was discharged after he passed all of his tests including walking up and down flights of stairs and drove back (as a passenger) to Medicine Hat with my mom and our son, Jordan. I’m grateful for the surgeon, Dr. Kent and his team and most thankful for the care my father experienced at the hospital especially from the nurses in ICU. But what has this to do with education?

We have an expectation in the medical field that practice is always evolving. None of us would be very impressed if our doctors relied on procedures that were outdated or used old technology that increased patient suffering and/or recovery time. Given that dad was out of the hospital in six days, I’m pretty confident that Dr. Kent used the latest methods that were soundly grounded in research. So why do so many in the general public want an improvement in the education system yet are unwilling to accept any changes in practice because, “That’s not how I learned it when I went to school!” We accept it wholeheartedly in the medical profession but fight it tooth and nail in the education profession!

I’m proud of many things that occur in our school division but one that sticks out the most is our willingness as a division to continually improve. It doesn’t seem to matter whether it is in business practices or classroom pedagogy, maintenance or leadership, we’ve developed a culture of improvement. Our system believes in moving forward, trying new things in order to get better at whatever we do. Even though we have tightly aligned priorities, we’ve created a freedom within the context of each of our schools to move outside the box in our thinking and in our doing. I’m honoured to visit classrooms on a fairly regular basis (one of the best parts of the job) and watch innovative practices from teachers who are going beyond, trying new and learning forward. It is exciting to watch and necessary to counter the ill-informed public who want to improve education without changing anything! Please don’t ever stop that willingness to evolve! 

The beginning of February is the start of the second half of the school year, semester 2 or quarter 3 depending on where you are in the division. It also marks the month that we begin the season of Lent, the 40 days (not including Sundays) that prepare us for the death and resurrection of Jesus. Christian faiths around the world know it as a time of prayer and repentance, fasting and abstinence. It is a journey where we reflect on how we might become the best version of ourselves and the person that God has called us to be.

It is not an easy journey and so as Matthew Kelly says, “Be gentle with yourself.” Strive to find time to pray, time to give and time to fast during this Lenten season. And may God bless you in your Lenten journey!


The unseen life of a teacher

Once a week, the Lethbridge Herald publishes a column written by a superintendent of one of five school jurisdictions in the Lethbridge area. This week’s column is authored by Chris Smeaton, Superintendent for Holy Spirit Catholic School Division and was published on January 17, 2018. CASS thanks the Lethbridge Herald for permission to post this article on our website.

Unfortunately, there are some in society who believe they know exactly what teachers do simply because they attended school. Their view may even be more skewed depending on their own experiences as a student, be it compliant, challenging or somewhere in between. The fact is that what students (or ex-students) see in their classrooms is only a part of the art and science of teaching.

I would suggest that teaching is a calling because, quite clearly, not everybody can or wants to shape the lives of children every day. The complexity of our classrooms continues to grow and the mandate of education expands on a yearly basis. Often what has been a home or community responsibility in the past has fallen into the laps of educators. This statement is not meant to elicit sympathy for the teaching profession or forward a victim mentality, but rather acknowledge the multifaceted role of today’s teacher.

One of the aspects of teachers as professionals that is not seen on a day to day basis is a commitment to continuous improvement. Beyond a specialized skill set, professionals, athletic, artistic or educational, all seek to get better. We would like to believe that this continuous improvement is limited to professional development days organized by schools or divisions in the yearly calendar, and while those can provide excellent learning, improvement is, or at least should be, an almost daily occurrence.

Teachers are constantly reviewing assessment data, reflecting on their own practice and searching for strategies that engage all students in their classrooms. There are many sleepless nights when teachers can’t seem to find the right strategy to assist a struggling student. Some are enrolled in graduate programs and others are engaged in online learning. Professional conversations, engaging in action research and book studies are just some further activities that teachers do invisibly, away from the classroom.  

We all know there is a level of mediocrity in all professions. Teaching is no exception. As an employer, it would be naive of me not to realize that skill level and competence varies and that not every teacher is as committed to professional development as they should be.  My message to those in education who do not believe and, more importantly, do not engage in continually improving practice is, “Shame on you!” Fortunately, locally, in Alberta and throughout Canada, the majority of teachers believe in their professional responsibility of continuous improvement.

So, the next time you hear somebody talk about the life of a teacher, don’t focus on what you see in the classroom or the perceived holidays. Instead, remember the role they play in shaping our future generations, managing complex classrooms and accepting the responsibility of caring for and supporting somebody else’s children! And, alongside all of these activities, think about their desire to continuously improve their practice in order to enhance every student’s success, part of the unseen life of a teacher.

Do you know your leaders’ future plans?

About this time every year, I hold my future plan meetings with all of our system and school leaders. It is a practice that I initiated about five years ago. There is no doubt that it is time-consuming with almost 40 administrators and meetings lasting between 30-60 minutes but it continues to provide great dividends. I ask the same set of questions each year:

  1. What are your 1, 3, & 5 year plans and where would you like to be when you retire?
  2. What are three schools you would be like to work at if transferred?
  3. Who are three other administrators you would like to work with?

I want to tackle the last two questions to begin with. Although we are a small system (15 schools) of which 6 are rural, the transferring of school leaders is a common practice. In the perfect world, associate principals would move between the three and five year mark while principals would inherit a new school experience every seven years. Are there exceptions to this rule, absolutely! Retirements occur, vacancies happen and families change which all impact when and where to move particular administrators. Moving administrators for the sake of moving them is not all that helpful for morale or system and school improvement. That is why, the first question I ask regarding future plans is so vital to this exercise.

Growing more leaders has to be a main focus of any senior administrator. By listening closely to future plans and aspirations I’m better able to support the growth of each of our leaders. This is especially important when looking at their final position (what position they want to retire from) and working backwards. Part of my role has to be to facilitate getting the experiences and providing the background necessary to achieve their preferred position. Sometimes that is within the system but in other instances it requires them to take a position outside. I’ve had three very talented in-house leaders leave for promotions elsewhere and while many may argue that those are losses, I’m proud that those opportunities were taken because those same individuals may come back one day into my position.

But there is an important factor that needs to be addressed prior to having successful future plan meetings. Quite simply, a strong relationship has to be developed so that your administrators can trust you in the conversation and know that you are as equally concerned with their professional/personal growth as with system improvement. And that relationship has to be authentic enough to engage in tough conversations when needed. Future plans are not fluff!

The process I began five years ago provided some great insights. But today, with even a stronger culture of trust, the conversations are more telling. I’m blessed that my administrators “shoot from the hip” when we meet. I’m told potential retirement dates and impending baby plans which assists me in putting the ever changing jigsaw puzzle together. I will retire in the coming years and this process should assist in maintaining strength in our system and school leadership well beyond my departure.

From the Desk of the Superintendent- January 2018

It is the last weekend before we welcome staff and students back into our schools on Monday morning. Unfortunately, for some of our staff and students, the Christmas holidays were not necessarily a joyous event. I point this out to remind all of us that we may greet students who exhibit some negative behaviours and may have some staff in our buildings with more frowns and tears than smiles and laughter upon our return. Do what we’ve always been called to do in Holy Spirit- love, support and pray for them!

Our high school students will be busily preparing for Diploma Exams and some of our junior high students will be writing Provincial Achievement Tests in January. I want to wish all of our students the best as they write these exams and express my gratitude to the teachers (both at that grade/course level and those before) for preparing our students so well. I won’t say don’t stress over these exams as I know they are stressful but don’t let that stress consume you and disable your ability to do your very best.

An annual event in January is the future plan meetings I have with every administrator in the division. There has and will likely be more retirement announcements this year and certainly others in the future. It is a big jigsaw puzzle trying to move people into positions where they can continually grow and these conversations are extremely helpful in getting all of the right pieces in place. Part of the reason that these conversations are so helpful is the honesty of our administrators about their future plans. By laying all of the cards on the table, I able to look not just at next year but 3-5 years ahead since the puzzle like sand, is always shifting. While January is committed to our administrators, I’m always open to staff coming in and discussing their own future plans and seeing how I might assist in achieving them.

I want to conclude my January message with a reflection from Fr. Richard Rohr. I subscribe to his daily meditations, but to be fair, most are far too “academic” or “theological” for this dumb old hockey player to comprehend. Today’s reflection however, made good sense to me as we continue to support All students no matter ability, race, creed, culture, nationality, religion, sexual or gender orientation, identity and/or expression. Simply put, we are all created in the image and likeness of God! 

Far too much of religion has been about defining where God is and where God isn’t, picking and choosing who and what has God’s image and who and what doesn’t. In reality, it’s not up to us. We have no choice in the matter. All are beloved. Everyone—Catholic and Protestant, Christian and Muslim, black and white, gay and straight, able-bodied and disabled, male and female, Republican and Democrat—all are children of God. We are all members of the Body of Christ, made in God’s image, indwelled by the Holy Spirit, whether or not we are aware of this gift.

Can you see the image of Christ in the least of your brothers and sisters? This is Jesus’ only description of the final judgment (Matthew 25). But some say, “They smell. They’re a nuisance. They’re on welfare. They are a drain on our tax money.” Can we see Christ in all people, even the so-called “nobodies” who can’t or won’t play our game of success? When we can see the image of God where we don’t want to see the image of God, then we see with eyes not our own.

Jesus says we have to love and recognize the divine image even in our enemies. Either we see the divine image in all created things, or we don’t see it at all.Once we see God’s image in one place, the circle keeps widening. It doesn’t stop with human beings and enemies and the least of our brothers and sisters. It moves to frogs and pansies and weeds. Everything becomes enchanting with true sight. We cannot not live in the presence of God. We are totally surrounded and infused by God. All we can do is allow, trust, and finally rest in it, which is indeed why we are “saved” by faith—faith that this could be true.

Welcome back, stay warm and have a great month of January!

Invest in leadership- grow them!

I’m back in the office today after a great break over Christmas and as is the norm to my morning routine, I pulled out the book, Leadership Promises for Every Day- A Daily Devotional by John C. Maxwell and read the January 3rd reflection. But since it was my birthday yesterday and I wasn’t in the office, I thought I would read the reflection for January 2nd too! It was entitled, “Grow a Leader- Grow the Organization.”

I’ve been fortunate to be in formal leadership roles since 1991. During that time, I’ve written about, talked about and taught about leadership. I’ve benefited from working alongside and learning from some of the greatest leaders (thanks Dorothy Cowell and Guy Tetrault to name but two) and I’ve also experienced the opposite which, were just as important learning experiences. The bottom line is that leadership counts more than what anybody wants to admit. From the January 2nd reflection:

The strength of any organization is a direct result of the strength of its leaders.”

  • Weak leaders = weak organizations
  • Strong leaders = strong organizations

I’m not sure I believe in the statement that we have naturally born leaders. I think great leaders are made and grown through their experiences and the mentoring from others. Growing up, I watched my father in the cutthroat world of junior hockey always demonstrate honesty and integrity. Two of his former hockey players, Kelly Hrudey and Pete Peeters have often spoke of those qualities of my dad. I’m not sure where he learned it from but I do know that he was always purposeful in demonstrating those qualities to all those he interacted with in his work and in his home. It will be one of my greatest accolades when I decide to retire if those same qualities are spoken about me and my leadership.

We have a duty as leaders (formal or informal) to teach and mentor, to guide and direct. Sometimes the direction required is blunt but that should be rare. Most often, our mentoring comes through our actions, simply lived. It is gentle persuasion, leading with questions not answers and most importantly for the benefit of the person being mentored and not us personally – this is not for our own egos.

Our world has a leadership crisis because we too often see poor examples of leadership. We are bombarded through the media and all of those reality TV shows about what constitutes leadership and how to get ahead in the world. We’ve come to believe that nice guys finish last and the only way to get to the “top” is to be ignorant, arrogant and plain nasty. And while there is truth that it has worked for some, I find it hard to believe that the majority of the organizations or governments led by these types of individuals would be considered strong and/or healthy!

Organizations who want to be or remain successful must invest heavily in leadership training. They must be on the constant look out for those individuals (both internally and externally) who are committed to a collective vision and not simply their own careers. They must seek individuals who demonstrate integrity and honesty and then grow them to their greatest potential.

We are experiencing a “graying” population in organizational leadership and without an intentional effort to grow more leaders we will continue to have a shortage of the “right” leaders. A call to action must be heard to grow more leaders not more followers. Be intentional in your leadership development programs to grow leaders who will make your organization stronger not merely by profit or test scores but through empowering more of your personnel. Surround yourself with the very best people who have better skills than yourself and then let them unleash their own potential.

By concentrating on strong leadership, strong organizations will result.


Christmas Message 2017

Monday will mark the first day of the last week before Christmas holidays. Five more days and schools will close their doors for the annual Christmas vacation. There will be many excited children this coming week and probably a few staff as well. Unfortunately, there will also be some students whose behaviour will escalate because of the upcoming holidays. We sometimes forget that for some children, school is the safest place in their lives and going home for the holidays and away from their normal routine causes extreme bouts of anxiety and stress. I ask that you be especially patient this coming week to support all those whose excitement might be a little higher or their moods be a little darker than usual.

I also recognize that this time of the year can be challenging for some staff members. Christmas gatherings can remind us of lost loved ones or sick or absent family members or just dynamics and conflict that occurs during this season. We tend to forget that there is always a story behind the smile or the frown, the laughter or the tears. I would also ask that just as you are patient with those students in your buildings you are patient with each other. As Advent is the season of hope, I pray that you bring your hope and your light to those most in need.

Today, amid so much darkness we need to see the light of hope and to be men and women who bring hope to others. – Pope Francis

The year 2017 has almost come to the end and as most of us do, we like to reflect on our year. It is always easy to list the things we didn’t do but I would challenge you to change your thinking and reflect on all that you’ve accomplished this past year. Sometimes we minimize or trivialize what we’ve done, yet it is often those smallest gestures that have the greatest impact. Don’t ever forget the impact you can and do make on your students, colleagues and community.

Enjoy the blessings of the upcoming Christmas season. Take time to celebrate the coming of the Christ child, time to pray and reflect and time to rest and relax. May God bless you and your family with a joyous Christmas. Have a great last week of school and see you in 2018!!!

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From the Desk of the Superintendent- December 2017

Last night, the Board of Trustees held their November meeting. The November meeting for all boards across the province is heavy with content. The Audited Financial Statements are reviewed and passed along with any transfers necessary. The budget is updated with finalized numbers and approved by the Board. And, the Annual Education Results Report (AERR) is also presented and approved. I know many cannot wait to read the 40 page AERR but for those who desire a shorter version take a look at our summary.

I would never be so arrogant to believe or publicly communicate that our results don’t illustrate that we have some areas for improvement. We are a professional organization and as such continuous improvement should be something we always strive. But we also have some results and some practices that are considered excellent not just here in the south but provincially and even nationally. Just this week, I’ve had conversations with two large education corporations who have sought us out to find out how we’ve developed such a culture of innovation, a spirit of creativity within a highly aligned and data informed system.

When I’m in the building, I always try to pop in to the professional learning sessions that we host. Earlier this month, I attended a session on the Collaborative Response Model in which we have a number of schools piloting this year. What a powerful process to limit students from falling through the cracks and to allow staffs to engage in solution focused conversations to assist all students. Whether it is our collaborative peer mentor program or our grade level meetings or like this morning, a session for early learning, I’m always amazed at the rich learning taking place not just for the participants but for me as well. There is always a nugget that I take away, sometimes it is crystal clear and other times it requires my further reflection. I value the professional learning opportunities we offer and the support we provide within our Holy Spirit context.

But my favorite time is when I can get out of my office, get into schools and classrooms to witness learning firsthand. Yesterday, I was able to watch a master teacher provide exceptional reading intervention to a small group of students and then witness a brand new teacher try a new strategy to engage students on parts of a short story. Her comment, “It might crash and burn” when I first asked her about it excited me because she was willing to try something different regardless of me, the superintendent being in the classroom. That is the culture that we want to continue to foster in order to support our teachers’ collective autonomy and better engage our students each and every day.

People who are not in the education system have no concept of the pace of education. Tomorrow is December 1st and it is difficult to fathom that we have already completed three months of the 2017-18 school year. Blink…and it will be Christmas. But even though education runs like a sprint and not a marathon, we still need to find time to pause and reflect. In our faith, the season of Advent provides just such a time. We prepare for the coming of the Christ child not with more gift buying or shopping but with simple and quiet times in prayer. As we begin this Advent season, I pray that all of us, intentionally slow down our pace to ensure that God always has a part in our busyness!

Have a wonderful December and a blessed Advent!

Divisions can’t work in silos

The following blog post was written for the Lethbridge Herald and published on November 22, 2017.

Before I began to write this week’s article, I went back and read my colleague’s articles in the past. While some of the articles are about specific initiatives within a particular division, most articles highlight education from a more global perspective or focus on areas that all school divisions prioritize. A correct assumption from reading these articles is that many of the goals in education are similar from division to division. Living in this area, it would make good sense that there would be a common focus on our First Nations population. Literacy and numeracy, cornerstone skills for all students, would also be a common objective. Student wellness, effective transitions to post-secondary and the work world, and the continued need to manage the changing face of education would all be reflected in area divisions.

But what might not be as easily recognized, and is very unique to this area, is the strong connection between the school divisions. Put simply, we get along, we work together, and we support each other. That doesn’t mean that we are not highly competitive with each other, but it is neither “cut throat” nor “win at all costs.” Our competition focuses on getting better and then raising the bar so that, ultimately, the winners are the students, parents, and communities as a whole. We are all learning organizations and, as such, take lessons from each other and apply them to our own context.

A couple of weeks ago, senior education leaders from across the province attended our College of Alberta School Superintendents’ (CASS) annual conference. One of the keynote presenters, education guru Michael Fullan, spoke about leadership in the middle and the importance of connecting outwards and collaborating beyond. For us in the southern part of the province, that lateral capacity building is just common practice. During the year we gather a minimum of four times as CASS colleagues from Zone 6.  This gives those who oversee human resources or those who are responsible for curriculum or inclusive education an opportunity to come together to share best practices and brainstorm solutions. It is about helping all students, not just the ones in your own division.

For years, research has said that education is far too complex for teachers to be isolated and working alone. Schools have made great strides in providing more time for teachers to work in collaboration. Divisions have also worked hard to develop networks of schools so they can learn from each other. It just makes good sense that divisions apply that same research with each other. Divisions need to continue to work collaboratively, eliminating any silos that may exist. Students deserve the highest quality of education, parents deserve publicly funded choice, and our communities need to see the advantage of working with, not against, each other.