Leadership in Times of Challenge and Controversy

Good morning everyone,

I thought it would be a good time to send the first blog post of 2015 as we begin the last week of January, which for many of you that know me well, is the longest month of the year (in my opinion). Both for duration of calendar days, but also because the days typically in the north are shorter of daylight, colder, and harder on many people than we might think or admit to ourselves at times. But this last week of January also represents a bit of a hump; that we have made it through potentially the coldest month of the year, days becoming longer, the end of first semester at secondary and the beginning of the report “card-itis” syndrome that becomes a part of the elementary reality as well.

Over the past few months the Keewatin-Patricia District School Board has been involved in several very significant, and not-for-the-faint-of-heart situations, that needed both addressing and firm resolve to take them on, and to bring them to forward. These challenges have not been matters suddenly appearing out of nowhere, but rather simmering for years. While not alone in the sense that the recent NorWOSSA sanctions involved all of our secondary schools and athletic departments, they most directly put the community of Kenora and our six schools in the area in the direct spotlight, and under intense scrutiny. It has not been easy for the staff of Evergreen, King George VI, Keewatin, Valleyview, and Sioux Narrows Public Schools; and it certainly has not been without effect for all staff at Beaver Brae Secondary School.

Martin Luther King Jr. stated in1959 that “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” While Dr. King referenced man, the symbolism of his comments really are not gender-specific. As you read the next few paragraphs, please consider the power of its meaning. It is relatively easy to lead when times are smooth, the future certain and when struggles or challenges minimal, or even non-existent. However, when adversity shows itself, and tough and difficult events face you every day, (at times unrelenting) how we act, and how we respond is indeed the mark of us in KPDSB.

Events in recent weeks have tested us, as an organization, and some of us personally, as we were forced to respond to statements made in the media and in public forums, unwarranted and as I have termed them “indiscriminately and from the hip”. But those who have challenged us, and attempted to denigrate our staff in the media circles have failed; plain and simple they have failed to diminish the work that staff do every day, in every school, in every one of our communities. I mention this not to raise ire, but rather because over the last few weeks, I have received hundreds of supportive emails and calls from you as staff and community members indicating that our beloved KPDSB is indeed strong, and firm in its unconditional support of each other. And as we enter a new era of reasserting our system, our goals and actions needed to achieve our goals, there is feeling that with staff working together whether it be Sioux Lookout, or Dryden or Kenora, we are absolutely a formidable lot. As a powerful example yesterday, Sunday, January 25th, a Kindergarten Symposium kicking off Kindergarten registration week (and not just in Kenora but in all of our schools) was held and was incredibly successful. Thank you to those staff involved, the Kindergarten teams across the area, and thank you to vice-principal Shannon Bailey (Valleyview PS) for the coordination of such a wide-scale event.

I respectfully call on all staff, elementary and secondary alike, to promote our registration week for Kindergarten programming, in all KP schools. It is in our interests to talk this up and to vigorously advertise in our communities, arenas, grocery stores, restaurants, and social gatherings when the opportunities arise. And why wouldn’t you? Our Kindergarten programming under the leadership of our Kindergarten teachers and Early Childhood Educators together; and with Education Assistants working with our most vulnerable children alongside, create formidable teaching teams anywhere and indisputably. Thank you to all of you from all of us.

However, and back to the point of discussion, the NorWOSSA actions which somewhat centred around events at all of our secondary schools and originally out of Kenora, were as much about taking a stand, taking the high road, and ensuring any who we choose to compete with, abide by and follow the rules established for all us; not just some of us. In the days ahead there will be communication in the media and across our schools through our administration about the work that we, and more importantly you do in every one of our schools, and at the system level. Your administration will be able to share with you the action we have taken at the senior level in regards to students with Special Education, Aboriginal children, NorWOSSA athletics, and done so now at the provincial level, at the Director level, and at the local level. And…I encourage you to talk with your school administrator to have them share with you the details of what has transpired over the last few weeks and recently last week in Toronto, after having apprised them myself on several matters.

The rules of engagement, whether it be in sports or how we treat kids or enrol students, are rules for everyone and one system does not get to opt out of them. In the weeks ahead we will work hard and closely with others to clarify what the rules ares, and that all abide by them. I am proud of the KPDSB secondary administration, and especially proud of the KPDSB Athletic Directors who espouse fairness and competition with development of young people in mind. Thank you to Mike Lalonde and Geoff Zilkans (DHS), Janine Lavoie ( QEDHS), Darrin Bausch (RLDHS), Reg McDonald (BBSS) and George Lotsios (IHS).

I am proud of you, and I am proud of our coaches and our students.

I have been inspired by my staff, in a way that I have had difficulty putting into words, not unusual for me. But our staff are talking about what we are doing, they are talking about it in person, and they are talking about us on social media. They are speaking up about specialty programs like the new Grades 1-8 Hockey Academy Program at Sioux Mountain Public School with Steve Dumonski, or the Aboriginal Mentor Coach effort at Dryden High School with Kieran McMonagle. In short our staff, are speaking up and they are promoting us in an unprecedented way, and what we are seeing is good; it feels very good.

There is much to extrapolate from this blog, as it is about tough leadership and the requiem for making difficult decisions. We have been through a fair bit these last months, but it is over, and we have prevailed; adversity often bringing the best out of people. And now I ask for more out of you: having spoken with so many of you in the first several months about the Efficacy Review, and the impact on staff, we now require the voice of front-line staff. As a result, I am now inviting each school and board office in this organization to submit one person to represent your school and staff to participate in a staff/teacher Efficacy Working Group with me, meeting once a month. I will rely on your voice to help me act on the school and teacher efficacy needs and associated with concrete goals, and I assure you we will meet those goals. Please consider putting your name forward, by speaking with your school principal or vice-principal, and let’s now work together to deliver on needs that impact our school staff, using the Efficacy Review as our guide.

As I prepare to close, I want to share a passage a friend and colleague shared with me earlier this month, as I was responding to media requests that “challenged” our work with Aboriginal children and communities. Ironically, while I had to respond to serious statements about the KPDSB from one member of the Treaty 3 community, others did feel that our work was so valuable that as Director, I received a beautiful sweater jacket as a gift from several First Nation chiefs who did believe our rich history in helping Aboriginal students achieve and better their lives, simply reinforcing our already strong relationships with many Aboriginal and Métis families.

Before I end with this passage, I leave you my regular request, but this time more impassioned and more emphatically, ask questions of myself, or your leaders, and speak up. If you feel you have something to say about the KPDSB, please…..email and reach out to me as I ask of you. February is around the corner!

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Theodore Roosevelt “Citizenship in a Republic” (1910)

Take care, and if I can be of any assistance, please ask,

Sean

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November Post

Hi Everyone!

Have you ever noticed that during the late fall days and weeks that make up the latter part of October and early November, the sky at times turns into an amazing blue hue, with colors that can be nothing short of spectacular?

It becomes even more noticeable and even omnipresent, when you travel as much as I do within the Board’s reaches on our highways and you find yourself looking ahead into the horizon. On several occasions in the past couple of weeks, I found myself driving along Highway 17 from Dryden towards Kenora, under a heavy cloud cover of grey only to look westward where the sky opened up as a definitive line separated a deep blue from the clouds. I also found myself during these drives home, thinking and reflecting on many things, most of which I doubt would interest you, but on a couple of thoughts, most definitely I would speculate.

October and early November have been incredibly busy months for many of us, you, your families, your colleagues, your principals and administration, and absolutely for us in Senior Administration. For myself, I have probably and admittedly in hindsight, overextended myself a wee bit by trying to fulfill my commitment of meeting with every single staff in the system to discuss the Efficacy Review. Over the course of the last three weeks, I have managed to make it to Upsala, Ignace, Pickle Lake, all of our schools in Red Lake and Ear Falls, a few more schools in Kenora and in Dryden, and of course back and forth to Sioux Lookout on a couple of occasions. In total, I have now been to 17 of our schools, and have the remaining ones in Dryden and Kenora to go, before calling the “Efficacy Tour” complete. The visits and staff discussions have been as diverse as the Board is itself, and have been more than productive, sometimes challenging, but always a learning experience. I have also been working with the school administration team across the system to continue to impress the belief that Efficacy can mean change, and can make us better. But on this last point, is where my greatest learning and candidly, my greatest challenge of recent, has emerged.

I should add that after the last Efficacy email that I sent out, I did receive a criticism (I will call it friendly and perhaps even constructive) that I should not be so candid, perhaps even so open with staff. I have thought about that, and I have to tell you, while I appreciate the feedback, I disagree. So with this in mind, I want to tell you what has been stirring me; and in sharing this with you, I also invite your comments and thoughts too.

The Keewatin-Patricia District School Board has prided itself, on being a Board that is home to everyone, and a Board that can serve everyone. We have gone to great lengths, spent energy and much capital on celebrating our diversity and our challenges. I suspect the latter comment, because we have achieved so much when you consider how big our challenges are, specifically when it comes to the wide-ranging needs of our kids. We have celebrated, and in fact promoted our work in Special Education, Aboriginal Education, and even as recently as last week, our work in FASD. We have received national recognition for our work, and frequently are called upon to share our success stories with provincial leaders and other Boards, because as we have often identified, our work and our achievement when you look at where we start with our kids is truly nothing short of heroic. And yet, and for myself….a personal struggle, accepting that some in our communities might look at our accomplishments and agree it is noble work, but feel it is not the environment for their kids?

Recently, Susanne raised this question to me, that is “Can celebrating our challenges at times work against us?”, and while she and I may not always agree on the color of the sky, I do respect and value her opinion and experience a great deal. I also know that she, like all of my Senior Administration would only do and accept their best work for the good of the organization. So when she raised this question, I admit, I had to struggle with the notion that some in our communities might turn away from the KPDSB because we are a system for all, and include all. To complicate further my own internal questioning, is like many of you the fact that I too am from the North, and that we live, work and play in the very communities we have grown up in. The fact that a few of my own lifelong friends could consider looking away from the KPDSB because we have many different students and challenges, remains a very difficult concept to accept, to be honest. The KPDSB remains the biggest school board in Northwestern Ontario, outside of Thunder Bay, and is the face of public education, that I will not concede anything on. If you say you believe in equity and fairness, you need to live it, because talk is cheap. In other words, if you actually believe in all students then you accept all students, and that this stance is not merely a punch line.

What am I talking about? Perhaps the best example that I heard in the last couple of weeks, was when I was told of a situation of a new family who had moved to one of our communities. The family was looking at schools, and when they heard that the school closest to their home had an “FASD” dedicated program, felt that it would be an environment similar to contagion that they could not have their child in. As if to suggest FASD is a contracted disease, as opposed to the brain impediment that it is. I could rail against ignorance in our area or put the spotlight on racism and bigotry, or I could reflect on what this is telling me and all of us. And that is we need to work harder to get our message out, we cannot be nonchalant about our schools and we cannot under any circumstances take anything for granted.

We need to support our system.

We need to be champions of our schools! I have challenged staff everywhere I go to look at Efficacy, to question the status quo, to look at us from a different perspective and asked you all to consider how we can do things, a little or even perhaps a lot differently? If I can go school to school to school, and door to door to door, then I need to believe at the very least that every single staff will take ownership of their school too.

When I think back to my recent Efficacy Staff meeting at Golden Learning Center, Michelle Parrish and Kathi Fawthrop asked me to consider the following: if we are asking teachers to look at students from a growth mindset, then can we also not look at our teachers from a growth mindset as well?? Michelle, we certainly can and we will.

We will do better, and efficacy is all about believing we can do better, and that anything is possible, if we believe it to be right. Efficacy is also about asking tough questions, like can we compromise our beliefs that all students have a right to be in our schools, regardless of their background, their race, their needs, or their family circumstances? Efficacy also requires, as I have learned first-hand, tough true-grit leadership too. I am glad Susanne asked me the question, because it only reinforced my belief we are a system for all, and on that point I will never waver, not ever. It matters not to me, how challenged our kids are, they are human beings and they are the best their parents have got; we will never close our doors or send them down the street.

At my recent Ignace School Efficacy visit, Kevin Goudie surprised me with his comments; not because Kevin is opposed to expressing his views, but because of what he said. He remarked that we have been in very difficult circumstances where the environment had been extremely tough, and when you might visualize us as being at opposite sides of the table. But he also commented, that never, ever did our position about children and helping students waver, even in the face of extremely difficult conversations. He made my ride home that night, seem to fly by, as I clipped along the highway trying to get home to our youngest son Tristan’s birthday supper. I can tell you Kevin’s comments as have many of yours over the last few months, reenergized my belief and faith in the pursuit of public education and uncompromising support of KPDSB.

I am asking you to give of yourselves in support of the KPDSB, and more specifically your own schools. I remain steadfastly committed to my promise to you that I will never ask of you to give more than I am myself am prepared to give, and I am asking you to lead efficacy by example, by being strong and supportive of your colleagues and schools.

And for myself, I do plan on trying to slow down, for a little bit anyways, but I have a few more Efficacy visits to go.

Please think about what I have asked of you, and I encourage you, to as always, give me your thoughts.

Take care,

Sean

Embracing Change and Celebrating Our Accomplishments

Welcome Back, everyone, from what I hope was a relaxing, restful, and at times self-directed March Break, wherever that may have taken you. It was clear from the large number of responses to my email sent to all of you before the Break, that most were ready for it!

We will still get one or two more blasts of winter, living in Northwestern Ontario has taught many of us to expect that at this time of year, and even into April….but make no mistake, spring is coming and with it, the melting of snow and the sun’s warmth. And with it, the acceptance and relief that we have managed the most difficult winter in memory.

I send this version of my Sean’s notes to you, with many thoughts about where we are as an organization, and as we head into the “third period” of the year (hockey fans that’s a tribute to you as the playoffs are just around the corner and Hockey Night in Canada becomes a nightly pleasure as opposed to just a Saturday evening event!!!), it is a good time to reflect. There are many, many efforts, on a scale so diverse as the Board itself, taking place in everyone of our schools and in everyone of our classrooms, it is difficult to keep up. However, in saying this, and even though we are coming off of a restful March Break, I do feel it imperative to share with you that the pace of change now in the Board is not slowing down. We continue to work together with Confederation College as we bring them into more of our high schools as campus locations, we continue to partner and expand partnerships with Seven Generations and the Sioux Lookout Area Aboriginal Management Board (SLAAMB), we initiated the first ever partnership with a local hospital at the Meno Ya Win Health Center in Sioux Lookout by providing teachers and staff to young moms and their children who do not have access to education, and we continue to add to our FASD classrooms concept by expanding the program to include two more communities, strengthening our leadership as the only board in the province to do so.

On the Operations side of the organization, the staffing/budgeting process is virtually complete and was started this year in January positioning ourselves for a good and intensive conversation around staffing our schools based on their needs and in marked ways have overhauled how that looks. We have prepared a capital plan that is updated and will propose significant capital improvements to our schools including Red Lake, Upsala, Kenora and Dryden. And of course, we continue to await news on the biggest capital project application we have ever submitted to the Ministry: QEDHS.

Our IT department has been reorganized, and added muscle to it, and look for more changes to HR so we can help them in assisting our schools in hiring of staff in a fluid and nimble way, as well as be there for when any of our staff need to call upon them.

And for us on the Academic side of the organization, we continue to push very hard on some clear non-negotiables for me: less time out of classrooms for teachers and support staff, less absences out of schools for principals and vice-principals, more hands-on in schools, less meetings meaning less travel and greater utilization of beefed up video-conferencing equipment in all schools, and of course fewer initiatives. As Terri Forster, exemplary teacher at BBSS, commented to me earlier this year, it is a very “boots on the ground” approach. What a great term of reference.

And when I sit back now as I return home from another meeting with Ministry staff again last night, I consider this work and I am well-pleased. The Board is not perfect, no one has ever claimed us to be, and I will be the first to admit that; however, we are the hardest working group of staff and team-members that a director could ever ask for. I want the system to know that I have pushed the Senior Administration team very hard this year to work on implementing the very items identified above, and in the process reflect on how we do business. Change is very hard, but change is constant, and if with a purpose, can be a non-negotiable too. I am particularly proud of my senior team folks. We will be going through a very intensive self-efficacy review as senior administration soon, in which we will not only be challenged to look at ourselves and asked to consider our responsiveness to the needs of our system and staff, but how we are now preparing the team and system for the next decade and succession. It is exciting!

And amidst all of this, we continue to celebrate our schools and their accomplishments: we celebrate the fact that RLDHS under the tutelage of Darin Bausch went all the way to OFSAA championships from Red lake with his basketball team and performed admirably; we celebrate Tyanna Carpenter’s bronze medal at OFSAA in wrestling for BBSS; we celebrate the fact that as winter grinded along the staff at Ignace, Crolancia, and Savant Lake Public Schools continued to open their doors and provide not only learning opportunities for kids, but a place for them to go after hours in a healthy and positive way. We celebrate the fact that currently in Dryden, while the recent DHS 7-12  public consultations have evoked strong emotions, they have also brought out powerful public messages from parents in the community that they are so completely enamoured and pleased with the programming at Open Roads, New Prospect and Lillian Berg Public School, they couldn’t ask for anything better (at a recent public meeting, I stayed behind and talked with several parents for an hour in which all they could rave about was how welcoming and inclusive ORPS and Syrena Lalonde were!!). And we celebrate the day to day extraordinary efforts of classroom staff such Patti Boucha and Shelley Sabeski in the Firefly Classroom at Evergreen PS, which often go without any fanfare or recognition. We as a system are doing amazing things as I stated earlier and you as staff make the lives of others exceptional on a daily basis for so many.

Thank You.

After my last blog, I received quite a number of responses from staff, and I do try to respond quickly but personally. Your feedback and connectivity to me as Director is not only welcomed, it is vital. I have asked many staff who email me why it is they feel like they should take five minutes and read the musings of a guy who shares his thoughts on the system, our purpose and work we do. What I found interesting is that many of you indicated you feel it gives you insight into where we are going as an organization together. I do have a strong vision for the Board, replete with the Strategic Plan guiding us, but it is a vision and there is an agenda; a kids first agenda that is unwavering and uncompromising. Considering all of things I have tried to articulate for you above, I myself get a feeling of increased energy and dynamism! I like where we are going.

We are the face of public education in the region (we accept all who come to us), and we are the big kid on the block (benevolent as we are), and you all are on the front lines and part of an era now that is filled with excitement and change!

As always, please feel free to drop me a line at any time, and take care. And please keep your fingers crossed for big, big news coming soon!

Sean

End-of-January Note and Kindergarten Registration

Does January feel like the longest month of the year for you?? If it does, you can join the myriad of parents and staff who have told me the very same thing these past couple of weeks. Sure it has 31 days, which by mathematical terms makes it one of the longest months; but when you add that it also represents a period of the year where sunlight is lacking, add the three to four feet of snow we have received in some parts of the Board since January 1st, and that we have had more days than not below -40 degrees with windchill, and even a couple past -50 on a couple of occasions….is it any wonder people have felt that January grinds along?

But here is the thing, and it is worth noting, January ends in two days. The days are in fact getting longer, the warmer weather is coming, the kids will be going outside for breaks, “report card-itis” is almost done, and we have survived. It has been the longest and coldest January that I can remember, and while a few days ago, a colleague of ours remarked to me that it was colder in 1927, I am afraid I was not around to experience that winter. I send this end-of-January Director’s note, to draw attention to the fact, that we as northerners live in a special part of the world, by choice, and inherent in that choice is the resiliency that makes up part of our DNA.

(As an aside, a Director friend of mine last week, said he could relate to our weather, because they too were experiencing cold and frigid temperatures with the mercury dipping down to -12 at one point! How did they survive??!!!!)

I often feel that in my role as DOE, it is my responsibility to not only characterize why the KPDSB is different, but why that difference needs to be celebrated, and to communicate that celebration out to all stakeholders, including and particularly importantly, staff. If we were only talking about weather as being our defining characteristic, what a low-level comment on the KPDSB we would be making. However, when we deepen the conversation to our schools, all of them, our staff, all of you, and our kids, every one of them…..you begin to see that the Board is indeed very different.  So different in fact that our Ministry friends want to help and are trying to help us in the most unique ways and with that, we are trying to help ourselves in ways that we have never tried before, or had thought of even a few short years ago.

It has been raised to me by many staff over the past few months: has the nature of the Board, meaning the high incidence rates of kids with needs that years ago were not experienced, the diversity of our families and communities, the acceptance that we are a Board for all, and the fact that we are the Face of Public Education, in fact turned some people away?

It is a good question, and it requires a lot of thought, and reflection. Before I reply with (and this will surprise you) my opinion, let me first ask this supplemental question: if you were to be part of an organization, would you want it to be one that accepts all, welcomes all, and feels a responsibility to our most vulnerable? Would you believe that no matter how compromised an upbringing or home environment, (or lack thereof) that many of the kids who come to us face, we have an ethical responsibility to give them our best?

Or, would you close the door and turn the child away and say we can’t, because we really don’t have to, or “you’re not our problem”. Would you say that it’s Ok to exclude some by choice? If you believe in public education that truly is about closing gaps and levelling the field for all, not just some, I assure you, you have come to the right place. I say this, because I am incredibly proud of this organization, or as a principal said to me a few weeks back, “Sean, you bleed this organization.”

I suppose I do.

But these comments are not without a strong message to all of our staff: If I am proud of our organization, then I am going to assume you are too. And if you feel that the organization is good enough to call home as an educator, an education assistant, or office staff, and an education system to say “I am proud to work for the largest regional school board in the area.” (and I might add, one of the largest employers in the area too), then the assumption is that it is unquestionably equally good for everyone. The KPDSB sets the bar high for all and works relentlessly to improve, it is probably one reason we often feel our job is never done. It is also why we come up with amazing and innovative programs, and not wait to see what someone else is doing. However, I challenge you on this, if the system is strong enough for adults, then it’s good enough for kids, all kids, including yours and mine. This week is Kindergarten Registration Week for the KPDSB across the system; there are ads and media advertisements everywhere. I am not only respectfully asking all staff to speak up the KPDSB in your communities, I frankly expect it. The Board is surging and growing, and getting stronger; we have a bright future, and an impassioned vision of who we are and where we’re going. And if you had your choice, would you choose to get off the bus, or stay on the team?

Let the conversation begin, and as always, please feel free to call me.

As you ponder my comments, make sure you put time aside to cheer for our Canadians in the weeks ahead in Sochi!

Take care,

Sean