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

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

October Post – World Teachers’ Day…Everyday

This October Blog, is actually the second version of my monthly post to you, and really represents a complete different effort than the original one I had penned last week which you will not see and will go into my x files. It has been quite a couple of weeks for us in the KPDSB, and for myself somewhat surreal at times; I’ll explain shortly. I went alone to my cabin yesterday for an exceptional day of bird hunting, and even a bit of teasing of potential moose hunting (I saw mine yesterday standing on my own road, looking at me as if to say, better check the calendar, guy!!). But mostly, as I was driving the far-away back roads of pure bush, I was thinking; and as a result threw the first copy of this post out of my mind and started over.

Why? Well….please consider this statement below:

“Within the past month, the Keewatin-Patricia District School Board has been visited by Ministry staff, including the Assistant Deputy Minister, the Deputy Minister and now the Minister of Education for the Province of Ontario. Our student achievement measures are all up and improving, our culture is strong and inclusive, and we are building a new 30 million dollar high school that we aspire will be a jewel of the north. The Minister will get to see first-hand what many of us in the KPDSB have felt and known for a long time; that our staff and schools are first-class and that all of our efforts to improve the lives of students are nothing short of heroic.”

You will see this comment later today in a media release that will follow this post, shortly. But the statement isn’t about visits of the highest profile Ministry folks to KPDSB, but rather about why they are coming to KPDSB? Yes, Minster of Education Liz Sandals will be arriving later today to visit two of our schools, and have lunch with the Senior Administration and Trustees reps on Tuesday; but what is really important is the “stuff” that goes on in between such visits, like the day-in and day-out work of all us. Three weeks ago, Deputy Minister George Zegarac also came, and I have to think he was quite enamored with us as he spent quite a bit of time with our staff and admin; he also trusted me enough to take him on a northern boat ride aways up a river north of Ear Falls!! But in the end what impressed me the most, was how he, and all of the Ministry staff have been so engaged with what our staff in our schools are doing….every day.

The 5th was World Teacher’s Day, so yesterday was our one day to celebrate teachers; I hope you enjoyed it!! But as I was driving Saturday afternoon looking for grouse, I began to really wonder….shouldn’t everyday for us be “Teacher’s Day”; and shouldn’t it also include EA’s, ECE’s, Admin, and our frontline and office people too? Everyday, we should be proud of who we are and what we do. For myself, I started as a high school math and Phys Ed teacher, never thinking or contemplating going into Administration; not that this is particularly important nor interesting other than my point being….before I consider myself a Director or administrator, I am a teacher, and I am proud of that.

My initial blog post was going to be more about the Efficacy work we continue to do, and about the changes that continue to unfold around us. I planned on mentioning the visit of the Minister, that is worthy of being included as it doesn’t happen everyday. I also was going to talk about it being October already, and use some superlatives that suggested how time flies fast, or something to that effect. And I was going to mention how exciting it is to be in the KPDSB during these times, because frankly it is! I think I was going to end by asking people to enjoy their Thanksgiving long-weekend, and that we have lots to be thankful for, which we do. (Spoiler Alert: I will still end with that!!)

However, I want to finish by commenting on something that happened last week, and that has been bothering me a great deal, to the point that it can be considered one of those things “that keep you up at night”. It was suggested recently in one of our community papers that we should move staff and administration around, out of a particular school (but for all intents and purposes, it could have been any school) because the school’s EQAO results were not at the provincial average. To go further, we were “advised” that we should only focus on numbers, statistics if you will, and judge our staff and administration by those very numbers and measurements. There was no mention of helping students, intervening when they were hurt, putting shoes on their feet when they had none, reaching into our own pockets to find lunch money because many had nothing to eat at school, hugging them tight when there seemed to be no one to hold our kids close after school hours. I could go on but won’t, although I am sure you get the picture. My first reaction was anger. If anything, I would staff my schools with people who put kids first, not measurements or numbers.

But after much thought, most of which was driving alone looking for chickens Saturday afternoon, I began to consider another perspective; that being ignorance. To suggest that our schools and our staff be judged alone on results and statistics, and not on interactions that underscore the basic good of the human condition, deserves not condemnation, but rather pity. Pity and awareness actually, because it serves to tell us that there continues to exist in our communities a mentality that all are the same, and have the same advantages in life. It assumes that every child that comes to us is in the same state and readiness, as opposed to the reality that we have many kids who enter our schools looking for a break, even though many may not be able to articulate anything remotely close to this concept. No, the individual who wrote about us moving people around because EQAO scores weren’t where they felt they “should be”, and then felt compelled to “sing” to the rain about it, will find the opera house a very lonely place to be. However, as I pulled into the cabin Saturday evening after a great afternoon of hunting, I came to the conclusion that there really are people who exist and believe we should judge our schools on standardized results alone. And in accepting that, I also concluded that it isn’t that these same folks don’t just “get it”; but rather they can’t sell it.

We are on the right track with our focus on the whole child, we are the right track when we put kids first, and we are the right track when we put faces to our children and not numbers. We are on the right track because we have stayed the course, and because of it, the Minister and her Deputies have come to call and see what the fuss is all about. These really are heady days for us in KP, and if you are like me, you would not want to be anywhere else! If you are proud of your school and colleagues, you should be; you are working alongside the best!

And yes of course, enjoy Thanksgiving, we have lots to be grateful and thankful for.

Call or email anytime, and take care,

Sean

Recent Events In The KPDSB: Red Lake

Hi Everyone,

In my recent conversation with the Ministry of Education’s Assistant Deputy Minister Gabriel Sekaly regarding our work on the QEDHS file, he stopped in the middle of the topic at hand and asked me: “How are you guys doing up there anyways?” Normally such a question would be simply a courtesy being extended to us, from a Ministry official checking in with us northerners. In this case, the somber tone and inflection really spoke of the folks that work far away from us, and how they really see us as being a unique setting. Gabriel was asking about how the Red Lake area was managing in the light of the recent Bearskin Airlines crash that occurred last Sunday night between that little stretch of highway between Balmertown and Cochenour. He had seen the news story on CBC’s The National a few days before.

When my phone started to ring at home on that Sunday night, from the principals in the Red Lake area, initially the call sounded like this: “Our lights flickered for a second, and then that was it. But we’re hearing a Bearskin flight has crashed and knocked out power.” My first thought was one of instant panic that we had staff or kids on board, or extended families. While by fate’s hand we did not have staff on that flight, we did have family members, a mother and a grandmother on board, coming home. We had students affected, and we most definitely had staff affected. The exceptional staff at Red Lake District High School, where one of the students who was directly affected attended, suggested that from their crisis events’ experiences, which have gone from being in the infancy stage to the experienced stage (and very quickly), they wanted to try and manage this surreal incident in-house, and they did. They pulled together, they supported one another, and while there are unquestionably difficult days ahead, they did just that; they got through it. On Saturday, the staff and students of RLDHS hosted and facilitated a community funeral in their gymnasium that approached 700 people. Last Friday, when I met with the families and family members of those whose lives were lost in the crash, I was caught off guard by the closing comment of husband and widower of one of the deceased; he said to me as I got up to leave his house “Take care of my son Sean, keep an eye on him.” His son attends Grade 12 and will graduate next spring, and while I know personally the family members involved, I won’t have direct day-to-day interaction with his son. I assured his Dad I will check in on him, on my travels. More importantly though, is not my limited involvement, but the daily involvement and support the staff in Red Lake will have.

As I drove home with Joan on Friday afternoon, I found myself drifting off and thinking of what it means to be a staff working in our schools, every day. What it means to live and breathe all the time, the experiences of our kids, their families, and their communities. If you work in any of our schools, your life often is intertwined with the events and lives of the communities in which we call home; regardless if you have immigrated to the North, or whether you have called it “home” from early on. Unfortunately, tragedy, while not exclusive to the North, often impacts us on a greater scale simply because we know one another. We celebrate the good with each other, and we support each other through the lows. Red Lake, your colleagues around the Board and the region again, are thinking of you and ready to support you in any way we can.

As we move forward together, with a feeling of change in the air, I feel it important to draw simple attention to the fact that one of my long-term goals is to reinforce the belief that we are all family, and that we are all in the greater work of closing significant deficits of our kids together. Meeting head on the challenges of the North’s needs and our kids, will remain one of the biggest efforts we have seen. Feeling like we’re all in together from you to me, is what it is going to take, and when we need to stop and smell the roses and check on our colleagues in other communities to make sure they’re OK, then that is what we do. I also promise you that as I continue to write these notes (Sheena calls them Blogs!), I will remain committed to the essence of us being Northerners and being proud of it!

Take care, and talk soon,

Sean