October 24th, 2020

Final musings

By Submitted Article on November 13, 2019.

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

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

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

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

Which brings me to my last point: schools can’t do it alone and schools can’t do it all. The mandate creep for schools continues to grow and, quite honestly, we can only play a part in curing the ailments of society. We cannot cure them all on our own and some of the issues schools are being asked to fix require more attention on the home-front. I’ve written about building resilient kids before and parents who jump in and constantly remove all barriers that face their children do nothing to support a problem-solving mindset and instead only enable.

The general public and all governments, no matter who is in power, need to start recognizing that schools and the education system as a whole aren’t going to get “better” by slapping them across the proverbial head and constantly bad mouthing them. We still have one of the best public education systems in the world with a most diverse population. Rather than being berated for seemingly falling short on measures that often don’t tell the whole story, educators need to be celebrated and encouraged, as they continuously strive to improve the learning of all students.

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

Chris Smeaton is the superintendent of Holy Spirit Roman Catholic Separate Division

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