Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Leadership Change

Over the last two weeks I’ve been meeting with a teaching colleague to plan out a one-week intensive SFU summer course for local teachers. The aim of our course is to explore themes in the development of leadership and mentorship capacity among educators. We start with a central question about identity — the self that teaches, the self that leads. A sublime approach to leadership requires that we both embrace and deconstruct who we are as teachers, learners, leaders, or mentors and also that we move beyond our own experiences in order to open our mindsets to new challenges, theories, strategies, and communities of practice. We see leadership much like a backpack — it is filled both with tools of our own design (and the result of our experience) but also the tools we acquire for a specific trek across a specific landscape. We will also emphasize that leadership is differentiated. It is tempting to see (and respond to) a hierarchy in action when we look at an organization like a school district, with certain people selected and even paid to be “leaders.” When we scratch the surface, however, we see multifaceted roles for diverse approaches to leadership, and that some of the most effective forms of leadership have nothing to do with title. Instead, these forms often relate to values and practices involving moral purpose and intention, authenticity and voice, learning-oriented design, interdependence and relationships, and "followership." Nonetheless our recognized leaders, the ones to whom leadership is attached as a job description, bear our special scrutiny and can provide insight as to how power works, and how we can arrive, individually and collectively, at values and practices that are vital to our contexts as educators.

During the same time as my colleague and I are planning this leadership course, we are witnessing that largest change in School District 57 management in at least 15 years, if not ever; an occasion for reflection on educator identity and deconstructing leadership structures if there ever was one. This is the culmination, or perhaps just the latest development, in a dramatic year at the board office. We’ve had a superintendent depart after being on leave, an acting superintendent come and go and come back again, a new superintendent hired from out of province, and similar comings, goings, leaves, resignations, and new hires from other senior staff (i.e. assistant superintendents). Each of these moves is accompanied with a narrative, with dramatic speculation deserved or not, and theories about "why" involving everything from gentrification to palace revolt. Alongside these moves is a significant administrative shuffle between schools, one of largest of its kind in decades. This entire management transition come with some controversy, casualties, and political intrigue (as expected in any organization) but also with the promise of change and renewal. I, for one, am excited about the prospects.

The senior jobs in a school district come with heavy responsibilities. The local (SD57) superintendent and his/her team makes operational and educational decisions with a $130 million annual budget — larger than the City of Prince George, affecting a staff of over 2000 including about 850 teachers, and about 14,000 students in 40 schools. The superintendent also sets the tone for the organization (or is one of many doing so) in terms of foci, labour relations, student achievement, inclusion of all learners, professional ethics, and stakeholder dialogue (notably with parents and the media).

When the current HR dust settles, it looks like we’ll have almost a complete change “at the top” and next year would definitely be the year to expect new directions in the organization. This is new ground — not unlike a clearcut or razed landscape — but also one with new horizons and unpreventable new growth. The stakes are high; in addition to the new management team, the “double down” next year is that we are expected to pilot or implement all of the new curriculum, and make progress towards the “transformation of our education system.” Landscape is apt metaphor — to the clearcut, fresh burn, or blown down patch of forest comes a lush burst of fireweed and other pioneer species -- the stable and mature ecosystem is a long way off and not a guarantee. In the same way, there are many simple yet important short-term measures that can be taken to start anew. Not taken, this landscape will quickly be filled by whatever comes naturally, for better or worse, and the job at arriving at a stable ecosystem (e.g. an inclusive and productive district culture) becomes more difficult. The "seral stage" or period of regeneration will be an unavoidably awkward process with mistakes made and lessons learned. The long-term measures, however, can not be reactionary and will require more consideration and intent.

Perhaps I’m speaking in circles, so to bring this home I suggest that the new management of our district look to these dozen places for insight on what to do next — in addition to their own experience they can fill their backpacks with the following:
  1. Strategic Plan. Prepared by an external consultant, and the result of extensive stakeholder feedback, this report contains some fresh ideas and vocabulary about the possibilities for change in our district. The strategic planning itself was held up by years of politics, but the outcome may have worth the wait — but only if it is taken up by senior management. The first couple of pages are boilerplate, similar to what has appeared in District Achievement Contracts of the past. Page 4-7 contain the new stuff, an interesting balance of values and actions. If senior management is looking for a departure from the past, they could start by simply focusing on the six community needs: adaptability, community connectedness, uniqueness, relevance, communication skills, and fairness. All district initiatives (e.g. website, media releases, board room procedures, new programs, policy development, budget talks, etc.) will benefit by being filtered through the lens of these six needs. For some reason the Strategic Plan can’t be found on the SD57 website but it is archived here: http://sd57dpac.ca/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/sd57-strategic-plan-april-26-2016.pdf.
  2. Report on Rural Education. We have many rural and remote schools in our district, some just outside Prince George and six others in Mackenzie, McBride, and Valemount. Mainly in 2014 and 2015, some of the rural school staff, as well as their communities and other stakeholders, were consulted about the needs of their schools. A report with great background information and 14 recommendations was created, some of which are practical, others idealistic, and others controversial. One of the latter involves a scheme to increase video conferencing “options” for rural schools —while this is indeed a accepted form of “distributed learning” it has also been decried by the teachers and communities affected as an erosion to teaching and learning conditions in rural schools. There was an attempt this year to force these “options” on schools, but cooler heads and longer memories prevailed — the last attempt at increasing capacity for video conferencing was expensive, seldom used, and unsuccessful. Still, the report contains other viable and practical actions (p. 33-34) — the door is open to experimentation and further collaboration; the stakeholders have stated their commitment to stay involved. For some reason the Report on Rural Education can’t be found on the SD57 website but it is archived here: http://sd57dpac.ca/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/2016.01.18-Report-Ad-Hoc-Committee-on-Rural-Education-FINAL.pdf
  3. Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreement. This has been a long time in development and is still in draft form. Once signed, this agreement will guide program development for Aboriginal learners and help address gaps of equity and achievement. At issue appears to be the amount and kind of consultation with local First Nations communities. Surveying other completed AEEAs from around the province, no two are alike although they all share common themes. Most of them have broad support and signatures from local First Nations community leaders. The coming year is the year to get this right and finalize the agreement. Finding an actual copy of the draft AEEA proves difficult. I will post a link if I can find one.
  4. Archived District Plans. Each year the school district, through it’s superintendent and approved by the board, releases a variety of reports and growth plans. Among them are literacy plans, rural school plans, Aboriginal education plans, achievement reports, and facility plans. Each one tells a story, and each one conceals as much as they reveal. Nonetheless, the represent issues and foci that were important at the time, and taken together form a useful data Now that the Ministry of Education has changed its reporting requirements (e.g. see http://www.sd57.bc.ca/Documents/Ministry%20of%20Education%20-%20Enhancing%20Student%20Learning.pdf), many of these documents will no longer be written. The various collections of past reports are sometimes hard to find on the district website, or have been removed, but some of them are archived at https://www.sd57.bc.ca/Programs/Reports/Pages/default.aspx.  Probably one of the most interesting (to me at least) was the 2010 DSC Report (District Sustainability). This omnibus report suggested all kinds of cuts and school closures, some of which were eventually approved. The process leading up to the DSC and the process of deciding what to do with it were laden with problems, too many to get into in this space. Suffice to say that there are powerful lessons to be learned from how that all went down.
  5. District Achievement Contracts.  Chief among the old documents is the "DAC." The former superintendent referred to these as “compliance documents, written for a general audience but intended for the Ministry of Education; not meant to withstand statistical analysis, but indicative of trends and efforts to improve performance.” Why do these have value for new managers of our school district? They contain powerful, if arguable, statements by former senior admin about our district, including their priorities and a summary of the important work that goes on in the district. It is their attempt to pay attention to what is going on. The most recent of the DACs available on the SD website can be found at https://www.sd57.bc.ca/Programs/Reports/Documents/2013-14%20Reports/2014.07.15%20District%20Achievement%20Contract%202014.pdf.
  6. Long Range Facility Plan. The 2015 long-term facility plan is perhaps the most relevant and consequential of past reports. This lays out some possibilities for school reconfiguration in the future, but no actual commitment to close schools and so on. The other data in the report is useful: school capacities, enrolment figures and such -- information that in the past was hard to find without a freedom-of-information request or demand from the elected board. Given the acrimonious nature of the 2010 sustainability process, and the legacy of school closures in SD57 (24 out of 64 school closed since 2001), this document will certainly be put to the test if the topic of school closures or reconfiguration comes up again. In particular, the fate of the secondary French Immersion program will be fun one to watch -- does it stay at the crowded Duchess Park or does it move to the roomy PGSS? The LRFP is archived at https://www.sd57.bc.ca/Programs/Reports/Documents/2014-15%20Reports/2015.05.26%20Long%20Range%20Facility%20Plan.pdf.
  7. Recommendations from the Ad Hoc committee on Technology and Learning. This group met in 2014 and 2015 to discuss long standing technology issues in our school district. Their findings and recommendations have yet to be publicly released, or if they have, can't be found (seeing a pattern here?). In an era of mobile technology, web-based computing, and continuous digital innovation and disruption, the school district is still locked in a technology model from the last century: single platform, restrictive hardware policies, and ongoing issues with wireless networks and access by staff to basic functions such as printing from BYOD devices — a model that is encouraged but not supported. There are some serious and specific unresolved technology issues in our district, going all the way back to centralizing of district technology services almost 20 years ago. Thankfully, the world of educational technology has evolved enough that many of these issues really aren’t that relevant anymore. What remains, though,  are ongoing needs and basic questions about access, function, equity, and assessment (reflection/action on what is working and what is not). The newly formed Technology and Learning District Committee has its work cut out for them.
  8. The School Board Trustees. This group is responsible for much of the management change this year -- that is one of their official roles -- and are the gatekeepers to the various reports and decisions that have set direction in our district past, present, and future. They have not made all of the decisions or written all the reports, but they have made their mark on them. In the past this mark was most often a rubber stamp, but we’ve seen this role evolve to become more activist, progressive, and engaged. Similarly, the board does not manage the school district (that is for senior administration) but they do have a give-and-take role that can and should involve intervention, co-governance, and advocacy within and beyond the management of school and district programs. A key connection between the board and the rest of the district is in the budget process. The “Extended Committee” approach has succeeded in gaining a more inclusive perspective on the needs of the district (or needs of the students), but is not as successful in translating these intentions into changes in direction. A step is missing — the board needs to have a consistent means of taking stakeholder input from the budget process or other yearly feedback opportunities and creating priorities that are actually reflected in the budget.
  9. Employee Stakeholders.  PGDTA (teachers) PGPVPA (admin), CUPE (maintenance), CUPE (support staff) and others. All of these groups were consulted on the criteria for hiring the new superintendent, and this feedback could again be used to see the kinds of values and issues that are important to each stakeholder group. When one or more of these groups speaks up in an official capacity (e.g. at a public board meeting or by letter), management needs to pay attention. If they are at the point of raising an issue publicly, this action has not been taken lightly — there is thought, experience, debate, research, and numerous voices behind their concerns. There are a variety of examples from the last few years to illustrate this point — instances where the board and senior management have been cautioned about the impacts of a particular decision — the initiation of the Northern Learning Centre comes to mind. When management has listened, these kinds of decisions have been modified and the outcome improved. When management has not listened, these decisions have usually resulted in unnecessary failure and “we told you so” moments. 
  10. Community Stakeholders.  DPAC (parents), University of Northern BC, Northern Health, City of PG, Regional Districts. These groups, too, were consulted about what the needs of our district and they should be involved in what happens next. For example, the past chair of the DPAC (Sarah Holland) has amassed a very useful collection of research into our school district over the years, some from the SD itself and some from outside agencies. It is telling that in the past, community groups wanting to know more about their schools could face stonewalling by the SD and had to complete freedom-of-information requests to learn what they needed. The flow of information has improved since then, but there is room to improve.
  11. Individual staff. Our district contains scores of teacher and administrators that are “students of the organizational history;” that have insight into problems and solutions. Find them, invite them, ask them questions, listen to them, discern what can be learned from them. Getting them to be involved in district-wide solutions will be tricky. Some are already involved — they are practicing leadership in its many forms and in their own way. Others have gone into hiding and need to be coaxed out by an inclusive, welcoming climate as free as possible from politics and penalties for speaking up. One great source of insight from individual staff is the collection of Learning Team and Innovation grants conducted by teacher groups over the last few years. While the grant results are difficult to find publicly, the District Principal of Learning Innovations and the District Learning Commons VP are very familiar with the range and depth of these inquiry projects.
  12. The literature. I love it when educational leaders justify a new policy or practice by saying “the literature says…” or "what we see in the literature..." While these phrases are often used as a cover, it does speak to the need for educators to look to theory to help solve problems. New curriculum aside, there is lot of really good stuff being written and practiced about educational reform in BC and beyond right now. We need look no further than the many respected and accomplished educators in our own district and province to help guide us into the literature. Dedicated folks from post-secondary are also ready to help. Experience translates as often to baggage as it does to insight, to the the tools needed to make change. Our leaders need to lighten their backbacks of as much baggage as possible and make room for new equipment. Experience needs to inform our identity as educators, but not predetermine every outcome. Notably, the experience of others is one of the most valuable sources of theory. See #1-9 above!
I encourage our new district management to explore these dozen “places” as they form a vision for next year, or at least accommodate themselves to the various visions at play in a complex organization. To add to the district-wide “year of change” I’ll be sharing what we put together for this SFU leadership course in terms of literature and learnings. Here’s one little gem — an example of what happens when leadership is distributed. Thanks to my colleague Trina Chivilo for sharing this with me: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pYKH2uSax8U.