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

2014 Reflections and Wishes

Happy Holidays Everyone!!

I will simply start this last blog of 2014, by thanking everyone in the organization, from custodians, to early childhood educators, to administrative assistants, teachers, principals, parents, elders, and of course the kids themselves, for a memorable and overwhelmingly successful year! I think 2014 will be remembered as a year in the KPDSB that saw great change, greater impact, and accomplishment for our schools, those that serve them and are served by them everyday.

Thank you.

As I write this last post, I can share with the organization that since September I have now been able to visit, and meet with every single school and staff in the entire region known as KPDSB; we even brought both Board office staffs together last week to meet with them together too. It has been at times, challenging (driving our northern highways can make this so), informative, but more than anything rewarding and extremely validating. I have enjoyed my visits to all of your classrooms, your staff-rooms and libraries, your assemblies, and our meetings focused on Efficacy and reform. I hope by now, that when you read comments from me about efficacy, and change, you will have a better understanding of what it is we are talking about at the system level. And of course if you have more questions, you can always email and ask me! However, the one thing that the Efficacy staff visits have also been and represent is “investment”.

As I sit back and reflect on the hundreds of conversations with staff, I have come to appreciate how important it is that we, who work at the system and senior level, remain connected and in sync with what is happening every day in our classrooms with our teachers and educational assistants. While I will admit that getting to every school in three months was a slight undertaking, I have always felt that it was an investment in our system, our schools, and in you. I have come to believe, like any good investment, the return will be greater, and that the return on the Efficacy visits will be ten-fold. I believe this to be true. Why??

Because the last several months, have not been just about efficacy, have they? They have been about empowerment, openness, challenging the status quo, getting better to become the best, motivating and activating new thinking, new beginnings, and ultimately about change and leadership. It has been about flattening the organization, so that each one of us is not just colleagues in name, but in importance, that the traditional hierarchy of doing business is removed. It is about seeing the same sense of value in two new teachers at Beaver Brae in Tyler Greenwood and Brooks Meija, as we do with experienced teachers at Dryden High School like Todd Desaultels and Rick Lindquist. It is about recognizing the incredibly hard work that folks like Mike Lalonde do on behalf of all student-athletes for NorWosaa, or what Suzanne McIntosh does with her vocal musical group “Good Fortune”. It is about the seeing the same value in the support that Deb Liedtke provides as an educational assistant at Red Lake District High School, as new teacher Brennan Flickinger provides his students at Crolancia in Pickle Lake….and as Caryl Hron provides school principals as the Superintendent of Education. We are integral to the success of each other, and we motivate those beside and around us; in our work though this is particularly rewarding because a lot of “those” around us, are students, young people looking for someone to inspire them and in turn inspiring us with their stories of resiliency.

I have also come to the realization over the last number of months, that leadership is very important, and that true leadership is tough. Being a leader, can be very difficult, because making decisions can be easy to criticize and judge; that taking a stand isn’t always popular and that taking the high road also means taking the hardest and silent road. But it also is the right road, and I myself am reminded daily by staff in schools, it is what defines the KPDSB, it is what marks our organization, and it is what people have to come to expect from us and from me. To make tough decisions, to take a stand, and to represent our interests and the interests of our kids. I find that as we enter the holiday recess, I am motivated by many of you, and in the same breath continuously humbled by your commitment to our organization. As I commented to our new Board of trustees recently at an orientation, our strength collectively is our people, and I believe that.

2014….well for us in the KPDSB meant many additions to our schools, especially with kindergarten and special education programming in mind. We moved into our new Board office in Kenora downtown and overlooking the lake, and we were visited by the Assistant Deputy, Deputy Minister, and Minster of Education, and all within one month. No other Board can say this (by the way, you need to check out the Minister of Education’s annual Christmas card to all school boards….there is a KPDSB flavour to it!!!). We had improvements in all of our student achievement measurements in Grades 3,6, and 9; and we installed video-conferencing equipment in every single school, keeping people off the roads, in classrooms and principals in schools. And oh yeah, we also announced that we had been successful in securing the funding for a brand new $30 million state-of-the-art high school in Sioux Lookout!! Yes it has been quite a year.

On the personal front, some of you became parents, some of you became known as “no longer bachelors: Jason McMillan”, some of you became grandparents, some of you were diagnosed with cancer, and some of you are beating cancer. And you put kids first throughout all of it; so again thank you.

As I close, I want to share with you, that while 2014 will be hard to top, we will start the new year with the same renewed energy and focus that we started this current year with, and I encourage you all to feel empowered and to take a hold of your learning and your own personal leadership. I predict that we will face tough decisions in 2015, and that we will face challenges in the new year; but in doing so we take the approach that we neither seek nor avoid our challenges and problems. We deal with them.

I wish everyone of you and your families to get the “long winter’s nap” that we hear about at this time of year, rest, and enjoy those around you as you, like myself contemplate the year was, and the one that will be.

Here is to an optimistic and hopeful 2015,

 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

New KPDSB Media Campaign: Continuing to Celebrate Our Staff

Hi Everyone!

As I write this edition of the Director’s Journal (Blog I suppose!), I am actually reminded of a couple of things that characterize and define part of what it means to work in the KPDSB! It is early November, there are a few flakes falling to the ground, meaning that really we are on borrowed time, and one of the first road closure on our highways has occurred. My plans for early this morning were to leave my house, and begin the drive to Savant Lake, then onto Pickle Lake, but not before stopping at QEDHS to visit the folks there first. Many of us travel these highways all the time, and while my messaging and priority remains committed to reducing time out of schools, time off the roads, and time away from meetings, this morning’s trip was to be my final school visits for round one of this year. Unfortunately, fourteen tractor trailer units collided and piled up on the highway between Kenora and Vermilion Bay closing travel down for about 12 hours! Why I am sharing this little anecdote; how often do we travel our roads living in the Northwest, for personal, family, recreational, and work related reasons? As my wife Cecilia reminded me this morning “do people from Southern Ontario, really understand where we live, and what we have to do, to get around?” Good question; I wonder myself sometimes.

You may or may not have heard some of the recent radio messages across the airwaves lately that are on behalf of the KPDSB. We typically do some promotion and radio advertisements for matters such as kindergarten registration, open houses, or special wishes such as “Merry Christmas”. What is new this year, and what I have asked Sheena (our communications assistant) to help me with, and for many of you to help with, is for our grass roots staff to do these ads for us now! Before, we would have a generic radio voice bring messages to the public; however, in keeping with my commitment to celebrating and recognizing our school staff and front-line personnel, I will be having Sheena contact many of you to do the ads for us. For example, last week, we brought wishes and a message of being safe at Halloween. This week we have Remembrance Day ads running.  The next two weeks will involve ads celebrating National Child Day and National Bullying Awareness and Prevention Week. Why is this important? The messages are important to be sure in themselves; what is more important is that we have exceptionally real people who are making lives of others extraordinary! I want us to showcase real staff, with real narratives representing the organization. The entire system can expect this approach to continue and to gather momentum as we go forward. To those that have already recorded announcements on our behalf, thank you!

The strength of our system is reinforced by the efforts and on the backs of our staff, we can never forget this. As always, I welcome and encourage staff to call or email me at any time, to express concerns or ask of me questions, my office is always open.

The highway just opened, Savant Lake and Pickle Lake, here I come!!

Take care,

Sean