From the Desk of the Superintendent- December 2019

Good morning! You will note that this came to you early Monday morning rather than on the weekend when the month of December started. This is part of an email/texting protocol that I would like to begin implementing given the strong support received by both the Teacher Board Advisory Committee (TBAC) and the Learning Leadership Team. I’ve asked that a “soft” policy be established to limit the time that work related emails and texts are sent by division staff. My direction to senior leadership is to not send any emails or texts to staff (barring emergencies) from 6:00 PM on Friday evening until 6:00 AM on Monday morning and from 6:00 PM to 6:00 AM on weekdays. I’ve requested school leaders to have conversations with their school staffs and see what would work best from their context during weekdays and the weekend, but I’m hopeful that at least a 12 hour time free from work related email/texting will be established for their schools. This is not about mandating when you do your work but simply not pressing send on your email or text between those hours. It is not going to be easy as most of us have become so technology dependent that we just send without ever looking at the time. This is also going to be a difficult transition for our parents as they’ve become accustomed to getting an almost instantaneous response from the school or individual staff member. That is why I’ve said a soft policy to allow everyone to get used to the fact that it is alright to disconnect for a period of time each and every day…and not just when you are sleeping. While we will get to this destination, remember, this is a journey right now!

Due to the inclement weather on Wednesday last week, the regular board meeting was postponed until December 4th. There is a recommendation on the table to use approximately $1.3 million dollars in operating reserves to cover off most of the shortfall in funding from the provincial budget. As I’ve previously indicated, the Board of Trustees were adamant that no reductions to front line staff would occur mid year when provincial funding was announced. They will also be looking at some other alternatives to potentially add to our operating reserves in order to ride out (but not totally eliminate) the shortfalls in funding expected in the next three years. Stay tune for some key messages coming out later this week.

I think it is really tough being in education today and I know that staff morale is waning as this was a topic of discussion at our most recent TBAC meeting. I want to go back to something that Dr. Jody Carrington said, “You do holy work!”. It may be difficult…okay it is difficult to not listen to the messages out there and some of the decisions being made but I need everyone to focus on that statement, “You do holy work!”. And I’m asking, especially our most veteran staff, to assist in reminding everyone about the work we do and the value you provide. There are a number of things we cannot control but we can control our own responses and in this time, we need those, whose influence is most trusted, to carry that message loud and clear.

While I’ll still provide a final message to staff before my official retirement, this will be my last “From the Desk of the Superintendent” monthly message. I began using my blog in 2011 to send out messages to staff and have written over 350 blog posts to date. When I began the process, it was my intent that my blogs would be informational. However, as I continued, I found that in many ways writing my blogs was an opportunity to journal publicly. It allowed me to share my thoughts on mostly educational topics and sometimes about life in general. I hope you found them to be both interesting and informational. Regardless it will be a practice I want to continue into my retirement.

And finally, as we enter into this season of Advent, I share with you this prayer from Sarah Martin from “The Awe & Wonder of Advent: Day 18”

Father, just as You sent John the Baptist to prepare the way for Jesus, help me to clear the path in my heart, too. Show me the distractions in my life that block me from all-out worship of You this Advent. Lord, I await Your coming! As I celebrate the first Advent––the first coming––I look toward the day where I will see You face to face. I imagine what it will be like. Give me a heart, Lord, that looks for Your coming on a daily basis. Help me to live my life where I’m constantly seeking Your presence. My offering to You today is my righteous life for I know I am only clean because of Jesus. Show me today how I need to be refined, purified, forgiven. Give me the strength to ask for forgiveness and to then change my ways.”

Saying goodbye to my CASSIX colleagues

Last night, I was recognized at our annual CASSIX/ASBOA Christmas Dinner and Retirement Evening. Other than my own senior administrative team, these individuals (senior leaders from across zone 6) have been my closest colleagues. My relationship with this esteemed group goes back to 2001 when I entered senior leadership. During what I call my “retirement parade” (last one next Friday), I’ve been able to extend my gratitude to the many who have been instrumental in my career. This group deserves many accolades for helping me transform into the leader I am today.

I was very fortunate that Medicine Hat Catholic gave me an opportunity to work in the role of Deputy Superintendent back in 2001 and was blessed to be mentored by Superintendent Dr. Guy Tetrault. Guy, or “top shelf” which was a phrase he used often, (even though he could rarely ever reach the “top shelf”) proved to be one of the most innovative leaders I have ever known. Since he had ideas for everything, trying to follow him was extremely difficult, and so I often thought I should just nail one of his feet to the floor so he only went around in circles. I thought arrogantly in my younger days that I was a pretty good idea man but Guy taught so much more. I’ll always be grateful that I was able to work with the Medicine Hat Catholic team of Guy Tetrault, Bernie Girardin and Sherri Fedor and the vision of the “Men in Black” as they certainly had a positive influence on my leadership.

CASSIX is like a family in many ways because there is always someone around who can help and guide you and offer support in your lowest moments. I remember the support I received from many of my colleagues when my employment came to an end with Medicine Hat Catholic and will be forever touched by the first contact made by my colleagues in Westwind School Division. In my early years, I was able to learn from some wonderful mentors like Eric Johnson, Mal Clewes, John Bolton and John Darroch. Each of these individuals paved the way for me in my career; sometimes with their words but more often with their actions. And while I was never as eloquent as any of the four, they taught me about the importance of standing up for what was right in education, which I think our Alberta Education Zone Managers can attest to. And I’ve always appreciated the close working relationship that I have with my fellow superintendents in zone 6, especially in the south-west. Our monthly breakfast meetings, that started with former Lethbridge School Division superintendent Barry Litun, have always allowed me to learn from my colleagues and sometimes just given me an opportunity to share frustrations.

My greatest learning however, has always come from those whom I worked with most closely, at the senior leadership level. I was always taught to hire better than yourself and surround yourself with excellence. Over the past 10½ years I’ve worked alongside people who are the best of the best. They made me a better leader by challenging my own thoughts, questioning my actions and making me ask better questions. Even though they knew that when I would come to work rubbing my hands together, which meant I had an idea, they listened to see how we might implement it or massage it to make it even better. But most importantly, they were extremely loyal not just to me but to the mission of the division. I will be forever grateful for them sharing their talents with this “dumb old hockey player.”

There is something very special here in zone 6. While we work in 10 different school divisions all with different bosses, we find ways to work together, to collaborate. With some tough financial times ahead, these relationships must be maintained and I would suggest even strengthened. Even as good as you are as an individual school division, you cannot do it alone and so I ask that you continue to treat each other as professional colleagues and maximize the collaborative networks that have been established by those who have come before.

CASSIX and our parent organization CASS has provided me with some of the best support imaginable. While we don’t hold professional status, we are professional and always committed to system excellence. It has been an honour to be associated with these men and women since 2001 and I wish them all the very best in their educational journey.

Supporting Principals as Instructional Leaders

In my work as a senior leader, I’ve long-held the belief, that the most influential person in a school division is the principal. Their ability to “lead from the middle” as explained by Andy Hargreaves is certainly influential but it also comes with some significant pressures from top and bottom. That simple fact should be enough for senior leaders to constantly focus on supporting these school leaders.

One of my priorities during my years as a superintendent was to visit schools. Early in my tenure, these visits focused on fostering relationships and building trust. The art of just being visible without any pre-conceived judgments is essential. But continuous improvement, whether at the classroom, school or system level stalls if those strong trusting relationships don’t lead to hard work. And that hard work needs to be supported by any and all members of senior leadership but especially from the seat of the superintendent.

In the last number of years, my visits still focus on relationship building by getting into staff rooms, having coffee with staff and informal chats but they’ve become far more intentional in assisting school leaders as instructional leaders. When I visit classrooms with one of the school leaders, teachers are pretty aware that my work is to support the leader’s development and not about the evaluation of the teacher’s practice. After visiting a classroom for about 10 minutes, I utilize cognitive coaching skills to begin the conversation with the leader. I might pose questions like:

  • What might be something you would like to affirm?
  • In a short statement, what might you say to affirm that teacher in what you saw?
  • What might be 2-3 questions you would like to ask in order for the teacher to be reflective of her practice?

You’ll note that the above always comes from a positive frame. The questions are based on what the school leader observed and are not about passing judgment but rather more intentional reflection on the part of the teacher.

That is all fine, but leaving it there is not enough to assist in instructional leadership. Now, I must either role model the conversation with the teacher or coach the leader through a conversation with the teacher. When demonstrating these conversations, I either work face to face with the teacher or elbow to elbow.  To be honest, I’m favoring the elbow to elbow conversations because they seem to be less intimidating for the teacher and with the Teaching Quality Standard  in front of us, we are seeing the same thing. It is always amazing when I hear a teacher say through her own reflection, “I never thought about that” and then, “I need to think about this more!” Reflective practice, no matter what you do, it an essential component of continuous improvement.

Being a role model, doing the work, asking the right questions and framing the affirming statements are all part of what I believe are important in supporting principals (and other school leaders) in their role as instructional leaders.  Senior leaders, need to get out of their office and practice their own skills to assist their school leaders. You should never ask your leaders to do something that you won’t do yourself and what I’ve found is by doing it intentionally, it is becoming more of a standard practice in our schools. By supporting your principals as instructional leaders, you are supporting your teachers, who are at the front line of offering optimum learning opportunities for ALL students.

Final Musings

Over the past number of years, the local paper, the Lethbridge Herald has provided superintendents in the area a chance to submit articles on a rotational basis. Although I’m not set to retire until January, the following article published on November 13th, will be my last.  Enjoy!

With my impending retirement in January, this will be my last submission to the weekly superintendent columns. Given that, I thought I would provide a bit of a reflection on, not only my last 10 plus years as lead learner in Holy Spirit, but also on my near 35-year career in education.

My first reflection point is about how much education has changed and yet, how much it has also stayed the same. Teaching mathematics all those years ago, I was the knowledge keeper and the textbook was more often than not the curriculum. The stand and deliver lecture style was the most appropriate teaching strategy and it worked because we valued compliant students and quiet classrooms. Today, educators and schools focus on engaging student activities to develop committed learners and classrooms are (or should be) a beehive of collaboration, which back in the day we called cheating! Yet, we still organize schools in grades based on a student’s age instead of on a continuum of learning that is unique to students because, quite frankly, the industrial model of education (select and sort) is what we know best.

Class sizes were large even back when I started, but we often had space to “stretch out!” However, the burgeoning population growth in Alberta and the lack of space has increased class sizes now to some epic numbers. But the biggest change is in the composition of our classrooms with more diverse learners than ever before. Educational assistants were far more rare, especially at the high school level, and now, they are essential in supporting student learning. Many students with diverse needs were often shut out of meaningful learning opportunities, or worse, just not allowed to attend school. The shift to a more inclusive education system, even though we are not fully there yet, it just morally the right thing to do. Teaching to the middle in my early years hit most students, while teaching to the middle now is very far from the extremes seen in classrooms today. The desire of educators to provide more personalized learning and meeting individual needs of students becomes more difficult as classroom sizes grow and complexity increases. 

I’m a great supporter of parents being advocates for their children but sometimes their expectations are unrealistic. A simple example of this is communication. I recently asked my own parents if they had ever called one of my teachers at home or communicated with them outside of the typical parent teacher interviews or meet the teacher nights. They were quite perplexed by the question until I explained that many teachers and principals are in contact with parents almost 24/7. Not only do parents receive more information about their child’s learning today than ever before, there is often an expectation to respond immediately when a phone call is made or an email or text is sent. While it may not be apparent, teachers and administrators do have lives beyond their jobs. I don’t believe teaching or leadership has ever been an easy job, but now it is far more fatiguing, especially mentally, than ever before. 

Which brings me to my last point, schools can’t do it alone and schools can’t do it all. The mandate creep for schools continues to grow and, quite honestly, we can only play a part in curing the ailments of society. We cannot cure them all on our own and some of the issues schools are being asked to fix require more attention on the homefront. I’ve written about building resilient kids before and parents who jump in and constantly remove all barriers that face their children do nothing to support a problem solving mindset and instead only enables. The general public and all governments, no matter who is in power, need to start recognizing that schools and the education system as a whole aren’t going to get “better” by slapping them across the proverbial head and constantly bad mouthing them. We still have one of the best public education systems in the world with a most diverse population. Rather than being berated for seemingly falling short on measures that often don’t tell the whole story, educators need to be celebrated and encouraged, as they continuously strive to improve the learning of ALL students. 

I chose to return to university in 1983 to obtain an education degree and, to this day, I’ve not second guessed that decision. It has been a great ride and I couldn’t imagine having done anything different!

Catholic Education Sunday 2019

Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario are the only three provinces remaining in Canada that still offer publicly funded Catholic education. If you are a new Canadian, or maybe just new to Alberta, your experience of Catholic education has probably been that it is not very accessible to the general Catholic population because it is private and involves high tuition costs. So, I’m sure you can appreciate what a gift we have here; a gift that often is either not known about or simply taken for granted.

In last year’s message, we asked all parishioners and all those connected to our Catholic schools to be aware of the modern Catholic school and to be more vigilant in their support of publicly funded Catholic education. In the bulletin, you will read the Alberta Bishops’ commitment to Catholic education and the work of GrACE, Grateful Advocates for Catholic Education, a provincial grassroots initiative that calls for proactive advocacy and engagement. Please speak to any of our trustees to learn more about our own GrACE group here in Holy Spirit.

 This year, staff and students have begun the implementation of our new 3-Year faith plan entitled, “Making Our Mark: Journey of an Intentional Disciple.” Intentionality is a lost skill in today’s world but we are called, not to be passive people, but rather intentional disciples. We have been asked to make our mark, not through superficial means, but to truly live the life God imagined for us. Catholic education is not about a series of activities or events, but rather is about a way of life that transforms us to intentional discipleship.

Year 1, Beginning the Journey, has a faith focus on seeing God’s presence and being in relationship with Him. Our calls to action are to be mindful of God’s presence and to be prayerful. In this secular world that we live in, it is important for our students to always be recognizing the presence of God in their own lives. We want to help our students learn to trust God, be mindful of the gifts God has provided to each of us and create holy moments in our lives.

We also want to develop a prayerful sense in our students, where they feel welcome to talk to God, listen to God and sometimes just rest in His presence. Time for prayer, personal or communal, cannot be lost in our fast paced world, but without that experience in our Catholic schools, many students will grow up and not ever know the power of being prayerful.

This is Catholic education and specifically Catholic education in Holy Spirit. It is hard work to be counter cultural, but it is the right work. Our youth, the students in our schools, deserve an education that speaks not only to the head but the heart and soul too!

 On this Catholic Education Sunday, we ask that you help our staff, students and schools as they become more intentional disciples through your prayers and petitions. Much strength will be felt by our schools in knowing that you, our parishioners, will be praying for our staff and students each and every day.  May God bless you and have a wonderful Catholic Education Sunday!

From the Desk of the Superintendent- November 2019

Did everybody survive Halloween? As I made my way through schools yesterday, there might have been just a little bit of excitement! Today unfortunately, there will probably be a fair amount of sugar highs!!!

I want to begin this message with some reference to our October board meeting. Every October, the Board holds their organizational meeting where committees are filled and most importantly, the board chair and vice chair are chosen. I’m very pleased that both Judy Lane (Board Chair) and Bob Spitzig (Vice Chair) have been re-elected or acclaimed back into these positions. Like previous board chairs and vice chairs I’ve had the pleasure to work with, Judy and Bob make a great governance team and will provide excellent consistency for new senior leadership beginning in January. For more information on the public meeting, please review the monthly Board Meeting Briefs.

We had some great conversations around continuous improvement plans with school and system education leaders in mid-October. While accountability always tends to focus on simply “the numbers”, assurance listens to the data story. Sometimes, context is everything and learning about the stories behind the numbers is far more important than the numbers in isolation. The honesty of our administrators is so valued and appreciated.

October has been a busy month for me visiting schools and working with our school administrators on their instructional leadership practice as part of their own new standard. These new standards for teachers, school and system leaders are the bedrock for conversations and reflective questions. Getting into schools and working with our leaders is still a highlight of my work. I’ll continue that work throughout the remainder of my time in Holy Spirit.

The biggest news coming out of October, was the announcement of the provincial budget. Even with some “transitional funding”, the elimination of class size funding, classroom improvement funding and the school fee reduction grant hit all school divisions across Alberta hard. For us, when you include the operating reserves that the board was already prepared to access, to balance the spring budget, the shortfall in funding is $1.6 million dollars. To be blunt, that amount will require some staff reductions and some reorganization. However, the board has decided that making any staffing reductions or reorganizations during this school year is not prudent. I’m extremely proud that the board has gone this way as it will not cause any disruptions mid-year. They will cover the shortfall with operating reserves and have asked me to find all possible efficiencies this coming year. This is important because using that amount of surplus dollars to balance the budget, leaves less than $1 million in operating reserves. Knowing that education funding will be static for the next three years, that amount of surplus is not sustainable and tough decisions will need to be made. While I know everybody’s reality around retirement is different, I’m hopeful that the voluntary retirement option for all staff is highly considered this year and reductions next year are through attrition and not termination. Never a message that I want to deliver but most know that I’m pretty transparent in my leadership and would rather let you know than make you guess.

November is a busy month for board members and superintendent(s) as the annual general meetings of the Alberta Catholic School Trustees Association (ACSTA) and the Alberta School Boards’ Association (ASBA) are held. When you add in the Catholic superintendents meeting that occurs just prior to these two events, it is a long time spent in Edmonton. Both Ken and I will also in Edmonton next week as part of Team Lethbridge. But, I will be back in time and looking forward to our division wide day with Dr. Jody Carrington. Given all the negative talk in the media, Jody will remind us about the importance of the work we do, something that seems to be often lost in the public today.

While it may be difficult, keep your head held high, be proud of what you do and always place your trust in God!

 

Saying goodbye at ERDI!

Last week, I attended my last Education Research Development and Innovation (ERDI) conference as a current superintendent. Since it was my last conference, I was recognized as a retiring education partner. As part of the recognition, I was given the opportunity for me to address the delegates, which began the start of my goodbye speeches in my transition to retirement. While I won’t bore you with the entire speech, I want to highlight what I believe are some essential messages for both corporate and education partners.

CORPORATE PARTNERS:

“Thanks to all of the corporate partners here tonight and those from previous conferences. I’ve had the pleasure of sitting on many of your panels. I really don’t fully understand the education partner selection process but I always felt blessed that whether I was chosen specifically for a panel or I was in the “he’s the only one left” group, to be part of your panels. But I especially want to thank the corporate partners who have recognized that there is a bigger world than just any province, that education does happen south of Calgary and that small divisions can be quick to respond, sometimes more flexible and highly innovative and creative. As you move forward with ERDI, please don’t forget the impact that a small rurban division can make to your own company. I’ve always believed that the corporate and education world could co-exist and learn from one another and ERDI is a shining example of that synergy. We learn together not for profit margin or education domination but simply because it is the right thing to do.” 

EDUCATION PARTNERS:

“A long time ago, a retiring superintendent said, “It’s lonely at the top.” I didn’t quite understand that until I became a superintendent over 10 years ago. Even with the very best people who you surround yourself with, there is no one in your organization who fully understands your role as Director or Superintendent. And so twice a year, I get to glean on the expertise of some of the finest educational leaders in Canada and I would say likely the world. I get to rub shoulders with colleagues who understand the role that I live regardless of the size of the division and that is both comforting and motivating. I know we have opportunities to experience that provincially, but seldom is it just only directors and/or superintendents… We continue to lead education systems that people anywhere else outside of Canada could only wish to have systems like ours in their countries. And we don’t stop, because as professionals we all believe in continuous improvement. Our moral imperative is so strong because we know that ALL students but especially our most marginalized need to be at the core of every decision we make. How can I, from the small city of Lethbridge not be motivated when I’m surrounded by the greatness of all those in this room.”

It was truly a gift to be involved with ERDI since 2013, not simply because of my own learning but for the advantages provided to the staff and students of Holy Spirit. Education is not typically dissimilar throughout the nation, and sometimes a common issue is solved by looking through a different lens or a corporate solution.  Business and education do and should mix because the lessons of leadership and change management are far more common than not. When the people in the room are in it for the sole benefit of student learning… you can’t lose!   

 

Standards and professional growth

In 1997, the Ministerial Order, Teaching Quality Standard Applicable to the Provision of Basic Education in Alberta was signed. It provided a standard with descriptors of the knowledge, skills and attributes related to teachers who were new to the profession (i.e. Interim Certification) and those who held a permanent certificate. A new policy derived from that Ministerial Order was the Teacher Growth, Supervision and Evaluation PolicyThe most notable shift coming from this policy, was the end of cyclical teacher evaluations and the introduction of Teacher Professional Growth Plans and a requirement for more robust supervision of instruction.

In the policy, an evaluation of a teacher could only be conducted under the following guidelines:

  1. Upon written request of the teacher;
  2. For purposes of gathering information related to a specific employment decision;
  3. For purposes of assessing the growth of the teacher in specific areas of practice;
  4. When, on the basis of information received through supervision, the principal has reason to believe that the teaching of the teacher may not meet the teaching quality standard.

The ongoing supervision of teachers was a fundamental component of the new policy in order to:

  1. Provide support and guidance to teachers;
  2. Observe and receive information from any source about the quality of teaching a teacher provides to students; and
  3. Identify the behaviours or practices of a teacher that for any reason may require an evaluation.

Finally, the Teacher Professional Growth Plan  was a plan developed by a teacher, which outlined the teacher’s proposed professional development activities to enhance his or her teaching practice. The full summary of policy requirements are:

  1. Each teacher employed under a probationary or continuing contract is responsible for completing an annual professional growth plan.
  2. The plan is submitted for review or approval to the principal or group of teachers delegated by the principal.
  3. The plan may be a component of a long-term, multi-year plan or may be fulfilled by mentoring a teacher or supervising a student teacher.
  4. Each teacher will meet annually with the principal or delegated group of teachers to review the plan and in consultation decide whether the teacher has completed an annual growth plan that reflects the following requirements:
    • the teacher’s self-assessment of learning needs
    • the Teaching Quality Standard
    • consideration of the educational plans of the school, system and government. (NOTE: This bullet was adjusted later in provincial negotiations to provide more autonomy to individual teachers)

I was a principal back in 1997, and when this new policy came in, I was quite happy with the elimination of cyclical evaluations, as I believed then and still do, that intentional instructional leadership is a superior strategy to improving pedagogy.  Unfortunately, I didn’t see growth plans as anything more than a checklist and compliant activity. And the idea that a teacher’s growth plan was to reflect the teaching standard was somehow lost in the translation for not only myself but for many teachers. Partly because of my own arrogance and my lack of maturity about the importance of professional growth, I fostered the belief that growth plans were simply compliant and checklist activities with my teaching staff. Sadly, as I continue to teach graduate level courses, I have learned that many of my teacher students, continue to share that same belief.

Sometime later, I had an epiphany and realized that part of the very definition of a professional was a desire for continuous improvement. This started my journey to recognize the importance of growth plans and over the last 10 years in the role of Superintendent of Schools, I’ve made this a high priority in my leadership. I meet with my senior leaders and all of my principals three times a year to review their growth plans. It is time consuming but I believe that in role modeling the practice with my own leaders, the uptake at the school level will be far greater. As important is the connection I foster with my leaders and the ability to support their own learning. While it is sometimes difficult for them to delineate their growth plans from their work plans, I push them hard to think about their own professional leadership. No matter where you are in your career, growth and improvement must always be a focus. Even as I get close to wrapping up my own nearly 35 year career in education, I realize not only my own need for continual growth but how much I still need to learn. Lifelong learning is life long!

Alberta Education has been a leader in updating a very dated teaching quality standard and also in creating both a leadership quality and superintendent leadership quality standard. In September 2019, these new professional standards, Teaching Quality Standard, Leadership Quality Standard and Superintendent Leadership Quality Standard became the law. The implementation of these new professional standards has the potential to positively impact educational practice more than anything mandated to date, if growth and continuous improvement are seen as non-negotiable. Teachers, school and system leaders must first align their growth plans with these standards! Your growth areas, cannot go outside of the standards you are to be held to and the plans must be highly intentional and goal driven. Superintendents and principals cannot afford to accept “laissez-faire” growth plans and teachers cannot continue to believe that these plans are only compliant and checklist activities!

We now have standards that have some teeth in them and are written with much clearer language and observable indicators. Principals as instructional leaders, can now more easily engage in supervision practices that focus on established growth areas. A pre-conference question might be, “What are the indicators within your competency growth area, that you would like me to observe?” While a post-conference question might be, “What was some evidence from your teaching that demonstrated you meeting that competency?” I cannot stress enough the importance of these conversations and the opportunity to ask reflective questions. Professional growth may be individual but it is not up for negotiations. With new standards in place and a strong focus on growth, leadership quality, teaching quality and most importantly optimum student learning will be enhanced.

Focusing on the competencies

The following blog post was published in the Lethbridge Herald on October 02, 2019.

Last Thursday, Holy Spirit began the first of three division wide collaboration days. While most professional learning days have keynote presentations and work in similar interest groups, these days will focus on student competencies and will be cross grade and interdisciplinary. Student competencies are not necessarily new, as they were initiated back in 2013 with a Ministerial Order on Student Learning, but the need to focus on them is becoming increasingly important. 

With a few rewrites during the last couple of years, the competencies that students need to be highly engaged in are as follows: (1) Critical Thinking, (2) Collaboration, (3) Communication, (4) Managing Information, (5) Personal Growth and Well-Being, (6) Problem Solving, (7) Cultural and Global Citizenship, and (8) Creativity and Innovation. When we look at what a student needs in order to be successful in adulthood, whether attending post secondary or not, it is the development of these competencies that sets one apart. Note, memorization and regurgitation are not competencies required! 

None of the above competencies are subject or grade specific and that is why our teachers and support staff gathered in non-homogeneous groups. In other words, there is an opportunity to teach and role model the various competencies throughout the school day, no matter what one’s professional position or the grade level with which they work.  Competencies are just common sense and given that common sense is not overly abundant in today’s world, what better place to develop them than in our schools.  

Just as we tend to parent as we were parented, we often teach like we were taught and learn as we learned. Our collaborative days in Holy Spirit are allowing our staff to wrestle with the competencies themselves in order to more fully bring them to life in their schools and classrooms. A focus on student competencies does not undermine the importance of foundational skills in literacy and numeracy, but rather enhances them. For example, in her new book, Limitless Mind,” Stanford professor Jo Boaler writes about the benefits of collaboration. She says,

An important change takes place when students work together and discover that everybody finds some or all of the work difficult. This is a critical moment for students, and one that helps them know that for everyone learning is a process and that obstacles are common. Another reason that students’ learning pathways change is because they receive an opportunity to connect ideas. Connecting with another person’s idea both requires and develops a higher level of understanding. When students work together (learning math, science, languages, English— anything), they get opportunities to make connections between ideas, which is inherently valuable for them.” 

We are all students and, just as this research suggests, the opportunity to collaborate and specifically focus on student competencies will benefit not only ourselves but the students in our schools and classrooms. This continued shift in practice will only improve the experience of our students and enhance their success in their adult lives! 

From the Desk of the Superintendent- October 2019

Well, that was quite the way to end September!!! We’ve closed all schools in the division three times in my days as superintendent, but this was certainly the earliest. It is not easy coordinating closures given that we cooperate with our neighbouring school divisions and the City of Lethbridge on busing but I was extremely pleased at their responsiveness to make a decision early so that we could do the same. The closures kept our Communications Coordinator, Anisha Gatner pretty busy and gave us a chance to utilize our new School Messenger software. All in all, I would say the communications going out were excellent and a big thank you to Anisha for that!

I never imagined once the beginning of this school year arrived, how many times I would be asked, “Are you counting down the days?” In the beginning, I was either a little annoyed or insulted but, I’ve come to realize, that is a logical question once an announcement of retirement is made. The simple answer is no, but I think it requires a little more context as everybody knows the excitement I have with the thoughts about being around our grandchildren more often and ultimately seeing them at the drop of a hat. Counting days until my retirement means to me that I’ve lost the passion for what I do and really don’t have anything left to contribute. While I need to be the judge of the first (passion), the division community needs to be able to weigh in on the second.  It would sadden me greatly if at the conclusion of my tenure as Superintendent of Schools, the rumbling in the community was that I should have retired earlier because my “best before date” had expired. Holy Spirit has been extremely good to me and as such, YOU deserve nothing but my very best until the day of my retirement.

September has come and gone in as usual…record time! We had some blips in our enrolment projections around the division. That can be understandable given our “rurban” configuration and also the diversity within Lethbridge. We grew a little less than 1% from last year’s numbers but unfortunately didn’t meet our enrolment projects of about 1.5%. While that doesn’t seem significant, it equates to about a quarter of a million dollars in lost revenues. This is cause for concern given that our board has consistently dipped into reserves to balance their budgets and maintain supports for students. Spending today’s dollars on today’s students has always been a priority of this board but the accumulated operating surplus that has been our saving grace in past years is close to drying up. With a new funding framework being implemented for 2020-21, I am hopeful that school divisions with a regional context and those who do not hoard money in reserves are recognized for their fiscal stewardship. The provincial budget is to be tabled on October 24th and it is out of control and so, as I communicated in my opening address, let’s just keep moving forward on things within our own sphere of influence.

One of the items within our own sphere is around professional learning. I’m so pleased with the initial outcomes of our first collaborative day. I think the opportunity for staff to gather in non-homogeneous groupings and focus on student competencies throughout K-12 rather than grade or subject specific lends itself so well to the reasons we collaborate. In my upcoming article for the Lethbridge Herald, I quote the following from author of Limitless Minds, Jo Boaler,

“An important change takes place when students work together and discover that everybody finds some or all of the work difficult. This is a critical moment for students, and one that helps them know that for everyone learning is a process and that obstacles are common.

Another reason that students’ learning pathways change is because they receive an opportunity to connect ideas. Connecting with another person’s idea both requires and develops a higher level of understanding. When students work together (learning math, science, languages, English— anything), they get opportunities to make connections between ideas, which is inherently valuable for them.”

My contention is that we are all students and the opportunity provided in these three days can have a great impact not only ourselves but the students we have in our schools and classrooms. Our new Director of Learning, Carmen Larsen and our two Learning Coaches, Louise Knodel and Dianne Brodie were instrumental in organizing this first day and my gratitude is extended to all those who volunteered to facilitate the various sessions. During that same time a group of our staff were involved in professional development on traditional games to support the learning of Indigenous language. I was able to pop in and witness some very engaged staff participating in beneficial professional learning as we continue to keep First Nations, Metis and Inuit learning as a priority. Our Division Principal, Annette BruisedHead organized this excellent opportunity as part of the Mioohpokoiksi Indigenous Language in Education Project Grant.

The September board meeting was a lengthy package and was highlighted by presentations from Director of Religious Education, Joann Bartley, who spoke on our new 3-Year Faith Plan and Director of Learning, Carmen Larsen who presented on our Collaborative Days. This was incoming Superintendent of Schools, Ken Sampson’s first board meeting. One of my comments during the board meeting was an affirmation of this board in allowing senior administration and ultimately school leaders to be “free” to be innovative and creative in their practice. This was well illustrated in the visit with the Minister of Education and the touring of St. Francis School and would have been similar in any of the schools in our division. While this approach by our board to be supportive of creativity and innovation should be seen as routine, it is not always the case and it is a gift I have experienced throughout my tenure as Superintendent of Schools. For more information on the September Board Meeting check out Board Meeting Briefs here.

I’m hoping that we will still have some fall weather even though winter hit hard this past weekend. Many of our administrators are heading to Red Deer at the end of this week for the 2nd annual Marked by God conference and so, hoping road conditions are good. The southern Alberta Bishop’s Dinner is scheduled for October 11th, on the eve of the Thanksgiving long weekend. Principal growth plans and continuous improvement plan reviews will also occur in October. I’ll be continuing with my school instructional visits and I head to my last Education Research Development and Innovation conference this month too! It is the norm for all in the world of education; a busy September runs into an equally busy October.

Keep warm, keep healthy, and may God continue to bless you in this most important work you do!