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This is the third in a series of posts that will share some of my findings from my recent doctoral dissertation – How BC School Superintendents Spend Their Time.

Before doing this research, I definitely had some pretty clear ideas on the experience levels of the 60 BC school superintendents.  I had assumed most superintendents had at least five years in their current job, and had between 10-15 years of experience in their districts.  I was very wrong on both counts.

Fifty-nine percent of BC superintendents are in their first five years in their current job. This high percentage is stunning. While there may have been a particularly high turnover in recent years, having such a high percentage of superintendents new to their job offers a huge challenge and opportunity in support for these leaders.  The narrative I often have heard is that rapid superintendent turnover is an American phenomenon and Canadians superintendents tend to spend far longer in their positions.  The data does not support this.

While the study did not look at the reasons for such a high rate of change in the last five years, given the level of experience of superintendents when most assume the position, it is likely that many superintendents retire out of the job in under five years. Those who support superintendents, including universities, boards, and their own association, must recognize the high level of newness in the group and the need for ongoing support and mentoring.

I assumed that many superintendents had experiences similar to mine, which would have seen them move into the district in a board role and advance to the superintendency, thus often having between six and 15 years of experience in their current district. The data shows that almost three-quarters of BC superintendents fall into two categories—they are either in their first five years in the district, which likely means they moved into the district to become superintendent or have more than 16 years of experience which likely means they grew up through the system in their district from teacher to school administrator to district administrator and superintendent.

There are likely very different kinds of supports required for superintendents who are newcomers to a school district compared to educators who have spent their career in a district and move into the position.  For those new to a district, there is an entire culture to learn on top of a new job, while those who advance in the same district have the experience of redefining themselves in a new role as a key challenge.  This career trajectory for superintendents is important for the Superintendents’ Association and Ministry of Education to understand as they support their leaders.

The level of experience of BC superintendents was largely unsurprising. Most superintendents have worked from 16–35 years in the system. It is interesting to see that nine of the leaders have worked for more than 35 years. Educators reach their full pension at 35 years in BC, so it is often discussed that there is little financial incentive for them to continue working beyond this point.

One regret in this part of the research was not asking for superintendents’ ages, whether they thought this job would be their final job, and how many years they planned to work until they retired. All of this data would be useful for further study to understand the position better. Given the data around experience, one could assume that almost 75% of superintendents definitely plan to retire in the next decade, but it would be useful to have this information more specifically.

While there were striking numbers of new superintendents, their experience with how they spent their time was not much different from their more experienced colleagues. In looking at 33 management and leadership tasks, the level of involvement of superintendents in their first five years was largely the same as those who were more experienced.  Whether it is human resources, facilities or student services, the differences between the level of direct involvement from superintendents in their first five years and those more experienced was minimal.

It was noteworthy in looking at the time new superintendents reported spending each week on educational leadership that four of the five who indicated they spent more than 21 hours a week were in their first five years, and 10 of 14 who spent at least 16 hours a week were in their first five years. This data may indicate a shift in the type of people being hired into the superintendency that are more focused on making time each week for educational leadership related activities, or it may indicate that superintendents early in their tenure invest more time in educational leadership activities.

Of all the data in the survey, learning that so many of the BC superintendents are in their first five years is something that really stands out.  There are real needs to support a group of superintendents who are often new to districts and where over half of those in positions are new to them in the last five years. Superintendent recruitment and retention is an ongoing issue. It is also worthy of further study to learn more about the commitment of less experienced superintendents to educational leadership activities and whether this potential trend indicates any changes in the focus of educators being hired into the position.

Want to read more?  My full dissertation is available under the research tab.  Next week I will look at the struggle superintendents have between being a community leader and an educational leader.

This is the second in a series of posts that will share some of my findings from my recent doctoral dissertation – How BC School Superintendents Spend Their Time.

It won’t surprise anyone that the size of a school district impacts the work of the superintendent.  It is true in likely almost any organization, the smaller the organization the more hands-on the boss is in the daily work.   

While BC has 60 school districts, they have a tremendous range in student populations. Two districts, Surrey and Vancouver, combine for a greater student population than the combined population of more than 50% of the other 58 school districts in British Columbia.  The 60 districts range in populations from a few hundred students to more than 70,000 students.  As an example of the diversity, the Stikine School District (School District 87) has fewer than 300 students in an area of over 80,000 square kilometers—twice the size of Switzerland.

It seems that providing all 60 superintendents with the same support when their populations are so different is a poor idea. Superintendents in the smaller districts regularly commented in the study that they had to take on a greater number of roles, as there are just not enough staff to take the different responsibilities. Often, superintendents of the smallest school districts described a job that seemed completely different from those of the larger school districts.  In many ways, it seemed as those the superintendents in the study were reporting on two different jobs – those done by superintendents in the largely urban, higher student population school districts and those done by superintendents in the largely rural, lower student population school districts.

In looking at 33 management and leadership tasks, my study confirmed what other researchers had found before, the unsurprising finding that those in smaller student population districts are more directly involved in the daily operations than their large student population colleagues. In mapping the data though, it was not as simple as plotting all 60 districts by population and you would see the shift in levels of direct responsibility continuously decline from the smallest to the largest district.  

Superintendents with student populations below 6,000 and particularly below 2,000 students had higher levels of direct involvement in tasks, but above 6,000 students, there was not very much difference. Superintendents of districts with between 6,000 and 10,000 students reported a lower level of direct responsibility than each of the three higher population categories.

Superintendents in districts of 2000 students or fewer averaged 2.77 on their level of involvement on the 33 management and leadership tasks (this is based on a 4 point scale, where a 4 would indicate primary responsibility for all tasks). The next highest were the districts of up to 6,000 students, at 2.48. All of the remaining superintendents in the other four population categories averaged between 2.23 and 2.38. It appears there is a threshold at which superintendents’ direct involvement drops, and then it levels off.

A superintendent of a district with a population of about 8,000 students would likely have the same level of direct involvement in activities as a superintendent of 18,000 or 28,000 students. It seems that at a threshold of about 6,000 students, a district is large enough that it has senior-level staff that can be delegated some of the specific tasks that take place in the board office. The remaining tasks stay with the superintendents as a primary responsibility even in the largest school districts.

Superintendents from smaller districts were far more likely to spend additional hours each week on educational leadership than those from larger districts.  Educational leadership includes tasks like spending time with teachers and administrators focused on learning initiatives, being in classrooms, and supporting the district efforts around curriculum and assessment.  Thirteen of the 14 superintendents who spent at least 16 hours a week on educational leadership related activities were from districts with student populations of no more than 6,000 students. Conversely, three of the six superintendents from the largest districts of more than 22,000 students indicated they spent more than 21 hours a week on average with their Board.

Moreover, superintendents from smaller districts had more time for educational leadership activities than those from larger districts, who often spend a lot of their hours with their board and on governance issues. In the districts of up to 6000 students, 25 of the 31 superintendents reported they spent more than 10 hours a week on educational leadership activities, while only seven of the remaining 28 superintendents in districts with more than 6000 students reported they spent more than 10 hours a week on educational leadership activities.

So, if you want to be a superintendent and spend time on educational leadership, one of the conclusions you could make is that you want to be a superintendent of a school district of with a population of no more than about 6,000 students.  Of course, if you want to be immersed in board governance, one of the large districts may be the right spot for you.   

Want to read more?  My full dissertation is available under the research tab.  Next week I will look at the level of experience with BC School Superintendents.  
This is the first in a series of posts that will share some of my findings from my recent doctoral dissertation – How BC School Superintendents Spend Their Time.

For my study, I surveyed all BC school superintendents, collecting demographic data and information on how they spent their time.  Following the data, I wrote more on gender that I had anticipated I would.  The data showed a real gap in the gender of superintendents, and also a difference in the work that male and female superintendents do in the job.

A critical factor in understanding the work of superintendents is who they are and what experience they bring to the job. And while women occupy a higher share of superintendent positions in BC than in the United States, there is still a dramatic difference between the percentage of female superintendents in British Columbia relative to teachers and principals and vice-principals.

In BC, 64% of school superintendents are men, which is lower than the 76% in the United States but far higher than the percentage of male teachers (25%)  and school administrators (40%). While both teachers and administrators are continuing to become more female-dominated professions, the gender mix of the superintendency has stayed quite consistent for at least a decade. Researching for a blog post in 2011, I found that 67% of superintendents were male, so this gender divide is basically unchanged in a decade.  Of the 60 school districts in BC, 21 had female superintendents in the spring of 2021. 

Female superintendents lead some of the smallest districts in BC, 15 of the 21 women head-up districts of 6000 students or fewer. They also lead some of the very largest, as three of the six districts with more than 22,000 students are led by women. However, mid-size school districts seem to lack female leaders, as only three of the 21 districts in size from 6001 – 22,000 students have female superintendents.

In looking at the work of female superintendents, four of the five superintendents in the province that reported spending at least 21 hours a week on educational leadership related issues were women. In American literature on school and district leaders, female leaders were far more likely to have a background in teaching or curriculum. This background may help explain the time female superintendents spend on the topic.

Considering time with their Board, five of the seven BC superintendents that spent at least 21 hours a week on governance were also female. It would be worth further exploration to consider why female superintendents were more likely to spend higher numbers of hours both on curriculum and on governance related issues than their Board.

For the research, all BC school superintendents were surveyed for their level of involvement in 33 management and leadership tasks – everything from purchasing and busing to facilities decisions to interactions with governments.  Superintendents scored their direct involvement on a four point scale.

Female superintendents were slightly more likely to be involved in the 33 leadership and management tasks than male superintendents, with an average score of 2.59 versus 2.45 for males (on a 4-point scale in which a 4.0 would mean they had primary responsibility in all areas). However, with female superintendents occupying the position in many of the province’s smallest districts, the district population could also be the driver, not gender, for their higher level of involvement. It is true that, on average in BC, female superintendents have more direct involvement in leadership and management tasks and are more likely than their male counterparts to spend 21 hours a week or more with their board and on educational leadership activities.

There are real opportunities to understand better how more women can move into the superintendency. Tom Glass, writing for the AASA in 2000 on the US experience, argued, “The two most widely cited reasons for the paucity of women in the superintendency are that women are discouraged from preparing for the superintendency and school boards will not hire them”. It would be useful to understand if American experiences for females aspiring to the superintendency are similar in British Columbia. Further exploration would also be needed to understand the findings that such a high number of female superintendents are the heavy time spenders with boards and on educational leadership.

If our teaching staff and principal and vice-principal pools are becoming increasingly female, it is important for organizations like the those who support superintendents and the Ministry of Education to look at how they can ensure females are supported into the superintendency.  And I was left with other questions, like why are women superintendents in the smallest and largest districts but not in the mid-sized districts?  Why do female superintendents spend more time in a week both with their boards and on curriculum and instruction than their male counterparts?  While not data collected in my study, is there ethnic and racial diversity in the female superintendent pool (for that matter the superintendency in general) in BC?  If the pool of candidates (teachers and administrators) is increasingly female will this change the make-up of the superintendency?

There is a lot of useful American literature looking at gender and the superintendency.  My research has nothing truly profound to say to answer the question why there are not more female superintendents or what we should do about it (that was not within the scope of the research).  It does seem clear that the public dialogue about gender and the superintendency in the United States is one that we should also be having in British Columbia and Canada.

Want to read more?  My full dissertation is available under the research tab.  Next week I will look at the impact of student populations on the work of the superintendent.  

It had been a while since I had been a student. I finished my Masters degree in 1999 – that was last century! At the time, I had imagined continuing on immediately into my doctorate. I actually visited a school and did a lot of research on programs, but other things began to take priority and I moved on.

The opportunity re-emerged about five years ago in conversations with my friend and mentor Dr. Yong Zhao, who was then at the University of Oregon, now at the University of Kansas.  And all the sudden, by the fall of 2018, we had a cohort of 17 students ready to do a Doctorate in Education through a Vancouver cohort of the University of Kansas. My fellow classmate, Gerald Fussell (I guess it is Dr. Fussell now) recently wrote a very good summary of our experience HERE that is a great read for anyone looking to better understand the doctoral experience or maybe join the next cohort.  I won’t cover the same ground, but here are some of my student lessons from my experience:

Sometimes You Need to Start Over

I wrote about eighty pages of my dissertation over the Christmas break.  It was most of my first three chapters.  I knew it wasn’t great.  It felt like I was pasting together a bunch of different ideas and trying to make it coherent.  I needed someone’s opinion, so I sent it off to my advisor.  He got back to me quickly, and we set up a Zoom call.  His advice – don’t try to fix it, start over.  I had assumed he would give me a list of things to fix, and that would give me a good to-do list.  I was not so lucky.  Well, actually I was.  I had all the ideas, my paper just lacked voice or energy.  It was bland.  Not trying to fix it was the absolute best advice.  Two weeks later, 70 pages had become 50 pages and it was a completely different paper – one that was something I was proud to have written.  We always try to fix and edit papers, but sometimes we just need to start over.

Don’t Lose Your Voice

The biggest problem with that first draft I discarded is that I was trying to write how I thought it should be written and not in my voice.  I write a lot.  On this blog and elsewhere, I publish thousands of words each month. And I know I have a casual tone, but I thought I needed to abandon that for my doctorate.  My advisor told me just the opposite was true.  So, in version two, my dissertation read more like my blog posts with my voice coming through. At first it was excruciating not to write in my own voice, and then the words just flowed when I could “just write.”

Grades Don’t Matter as Long as They are Good

I know grades in grad school don’t matter.  And I have spent much of my 25-year teaching career trying to elevate the importance of learning, and decrease the obsession with grades.  But . . . when all of a sudden you are getting grades again, it is the first (and sometimes only) thing you look at.  I was guilty.  I appreciated ongoing feedback until I got my grade and then I was done.  As long as the grade matched the expectation I had, I was no longer interested in ongoing feedback, I was ready to move on.

Professors Want You to Succeed

Again, remember it has been a while since I have been in school.  I think I have been jaded by television and movie characters of college professors over the last two decades. Every professor I worked with really wanted all the students to do well.  None of them wanted a bell curve, or for some to succeed at the expense of others, they just wanted everyone to do well.  Professors challenged me, pushed me, and made me defend my positions.  Especially as I approached some key deadlines over the last six weeks, they went above and beyond to help me hit targets, so I could graduate now.  

Study What Interests You

It sounds simple that you should study what interests you, but I hear from many people that they are not  even interested in their research.  I knew early on what I wanted to study, and it was something I had been wondering since I started as superintendent more than a decade ago, just what do superintendents really do?   I know what I do, but it is that the same as everyone else?   As I began to collect my data, I became obsessed by it.  I had the good fortune of having 59 of 60 BC School Superintendents respond to my survey so I had a complete picture of the province.   If I am going to invest so much time into research and writing, it should be something I care about.  And full credit to every professor along the way in the program who allowed us to design papers and projects that had direct relevance to our work in our school districts.  

Enjoy Challenging and Being Challenged

Having people disagree about ideas was one of the best parts of the program.  I find we don’t debate ideas well in the school system.  We debate people most of the time. Of course, this is so true in the state of world politics and is true in education, that we struggle to take an issue with ideas and we decide if someone disagrees they must be a bad person.   I also find in education most staff are fairly like minded.  So even our disagreements are superficial.  In the program, professors challenged me about my ideas, my data and my future vision.  And they encouraged me to pushback.  I can’t remember another time in my life this has happened.  Even my dissertation defense was loud and tense but engaging and never felt personal.   It is a skill I need to continue to work on as challenging others and being challenged made me better.

Break It into Smaller Chunks

We have all given this advice as teachers to students.  Take a large project and divide it up into smaller parts so you are not overwhelmed.  And a doctorate works with this strategy as well.  There are obvious milestones along the way to work towards.  In addition to individual courses, there is the comprehensive exams, the proposal approval and ethics approval that all serve as useful smaller benchmarks.  I would hear a new term to me often used – ABD – All But Dissertation.  This describes students who finish all the course work but never finish the dissertation.  I see different percentages cited online, but it looks like up to a 1/3 of all doctoral students might fall into this category in some programs.  I know there are a lot of reasons for why this fact is true, but the act of dividing a seemingly overwhelming 100 page research project into small, manageable tasks with obvious small victories sure helped me along the way.  We definitely build up the mystique of the dissertation. 

You Get Out of It What You Want

There are no financial or professional incentives for those of us in the K-12 sector in British Columbia to finish our doctorate degrees.  In some jurisdictions, you need a doctorate to be a superintendent, or you get a pay bump with the added credential, this is not true in BC.  It was interesting for our professors in the program as they universally described our mindsets and engagement as completely different from many of their usual students.  We were there because we really wanted to learn, be challenged, work together, and were driven by intrinsic motivators.  When your motivators are your own, you get out of the doctorate what you want.  You don’t have to do all the readings, or participate in all the discussion boards, or revise a good paper into a great paper.   But you can.  And apparently, we did far more than “regular” students. The program balances the old world of letter grades and credentials, and the new world of personal bests and ongoing improvement.  

Conclusions

I was thrilled earlier this month to successfully defend my dissertation, How British Columbia School Superintendents Spend Their Time, and complete the doctorate process.  I had the sense of accomplishment that Gerald wrote of in his post. I have heard comments before like “a doctorate doesn’t make you smarter.”  I get it and that is true at face value.  But doing my doctorate has made me smarter – it has allowed me to look at issues differently, read papers I would never have read, connect with experts I never might have known, be exposed to new ideas and write, write, write.

My full dissertation is available HERE under the Research tab on my blog site.  Over the summer I am going to take some of my main findings and share them in short, more casually written, and hopefully user friendly posts that will create conversations.  

Next Week . . . . a look at the gender differences in the superintendency.  

It sort of feels like June.

When you are in schools for a while, different parts of the year have a unique “feel”. And while it is not quite the way it used to be, there are some of the June “feels” right now. You feel the energy of track meets and graduation and more classes learning outside.  You also feel the exhaustion that is typical in any June but more prevalent for sure this year.  

It does feel like we are ending a 15-month school year.  The year started at spring break of 2020.  You remember spring break of 2020?  We all sort-of, kind-of, maybe knew that we might not be coming back to fully in-person learning after the 2-week break.  And it was far from a 2-week break, as vacations were cancelled teachers and administrators began to get their head around what school without the buildings of school was going to be.  And from that point in March of 2020 to now, in June of 2021, it has all been a blur.  I know there was a summer break in there, but it was not a break like it is in a typical year, as time was spent preparing, and then re-preparing with new health guidance for September of 2021.  But here we are, with a real sense of accomplishment, the 15-month school year is now coming to an end.  Of course, COVID-19 is still on our minds, but when we look to the Fall we are having conversations about “near normal” times based on the latest guidance from health authorities.

So, a few observations.

  1.  The people in our system are special.  I would often hear of how slow education was to adapt, and then over the last 15-months, we have run linear courses, fully remote courses, hybrid courses, blended courses, quarter in-person courses, and now planning for semestered courses for the fall. And we have been diligent with health protocols throughout the system.   I know almost all professions have had to adapt over the last 15 months.  But in many jobs, you can move your computer from the office to your home and your job is fairly similar.  When you switch between all these different delivery models in education, it is not just the delivery model that changes, but everything about the course changes.  How you teach and assess in a hybrid course vs. a quarter in-person course is completely different so it leads to an ongoing process of reinvention.  
  2. There is a lot of trust in education.  In our district about 95% of families returned for in-person learning last fall, and over the year that has increased to almost all families now in attendance.  If we remember back to last August, there was a lot of fear and anxiety all around us.  There was also a lot of trust in key health officials in British Columbia and in schools to be safe places for students and staff.  And things were not perfect, but we were able to keep schools open for in-person learning all year. I have had my faith restored that  there is a lot of public trust in traditional institutions like health and education.  This does not mean we are not questioned (and we should be – this is healthy), but when there is conflicting information in the community, people turn their trust to schools.  We can never take this for granted and it makes me proud to be in the system.    
  3. I am most sorry for our grade 12 students.  A lot of people have been impacted by COVID.  No group more than the graduates of 2021.  I remember 12 months ago, when we lamented the challenges of the grad class of 2020.  They had the last 3 months of their school career turned upside-down. The class of 2021, had the last 15 months in a constant state of “I’m sorry, we wont be able to have ____ this year.”  And the blanks were endless, they were sports teams, clubs, humanitarian trips, fashion shows, boat cruises, awards nights, music concerts and of course in-person graduations.  Especially over the last few weeks, as some of the health restrictions have been eased, it has been wonderful to watch the community come together to celebrate this year’s grads.  They are a particularly special group.  In general, we need to give young people a lot of credit, they have sacrificed so many experiences that cannot just be delayed but are forever lost.  

I have written a lot on COVID related themes this year (COVID and High School as a Commodity, Is it Time for School Sports to Return?, Video is Changing Us, Superintendent Blogging in a Pandemic and Beyond, 7 COVID Edu Trends That Will Stick, What We Have Missed, Is This Essential? and Resetting Blended Learning).  And I am sure there will be more to write about in the fall.  For now, I want to thank all those in our system for the 15-month school year.  To those I work with who would join me for early morning calls on a Saturday when we had a COVID exposure that needed to be communicated, to those who kept our schools clean, to those who supported our most vulnerable learners, thank you.  We have all earned a summer vacation.  I close the year with this weird mix of pride and exhaustion.  Thanks to all of you reading this for continuing to offer thoughtful commentary and engagement.  

This is not actually the last post for me for the year, I have a entire series of posts planned for the summer, but more on that next week.  For now, I want to thank you for your positive contributions to this most challenging time.  

I am tired.  But I am constantly reminded that I picked the best profession because of the people I get to work with everyday.  

Happy Summer!

I often have said that every class in the future would be a blended class. What I didn’t expect was for this to happen over night.  I use this space to celebrate many of the amazing things that are happening in classrooms, schools and education on a regular basis.  It is also worth writing about the things that don’t quite hit the mark as this is part of learning as well.  And blended learning, at least in our high schools this year, was only just fine, and there are some important lessons going forward.

First it is important to give the context for our COVID induced blended learning in West Vancouver.  Our schools have had in-person learning for the entire year.  Health rules placed limits on the size of cohorts in schools, so given the diverse electives that many of our grades 10-12 students take, this often meant that they took one fully in-person course each quarter and one blended course where they attended every other day.  Most grade 10-12 students in BC took some blended courses this year, particularly in larger high schools to meet the established cohort rules. Ultimately this year’s COVID blended learning experience was necessary to support student choice and programming.

I should also note that I am using blended learning and I realize it is not synonymous with hybrid learning but we have been using them as analogous this year.  For those outside the school system you probably see this as more edu-speak, and you are right, but blended learning and hybrid learning are actually different.  One of the challenges has been in different classes in the same school some have been running what would be typically blended learning classes and others hybrid classes but acting as if they were the same.  There are some varied definitions on both terms – HERE is one that was helpful for me.  

So, with that as a background, we finish this year with many saying that “blended (hybrid) learning was not as effective as we would have liked.”  And we have data that actually backs up some of the concerns.  

We asked our students and staff: 

Question: If you have taught/taken a hybrid course in Quarter One or Quarter Two (mix of face-to-face and remote learning), what effect has the hybrid structure had on students’ Knowledge and Understanding and Marks and Achievement?

Marks and Achievement

Knowledge and Understanding

In these graphs – the grey is negative, the blue is positive, the orange is no difference and yellow is no response.  We asked similar questions of in-person learning and the results were reversed.  So, where does this leave us?  Was I wrong in what I have been saying that all classes should be blended classes?  I don’t think so.

There was a specific required structure to the blended classes we offered that was required by the Health rules – half students were in class and half weren’t on any given day to reduce density and allow for physical distancing.  Teachers were assigned to blended classes again as necessary given the health rules.  From my conversations, the three big takeaways are:

  1. Blended learning works better for some students than others (heck so does face-to-face) and when they can self-select into courses.  We saw from the data that we did have a quarter of students that saw blended learning as a net positive.
  2. Blended learning works better for some teachers than others.  Some teachers are passionate about notions of flipped classrooms and extending in-class learning digitally and even balancing face-to-face and virtual participation at the same time.  Like with students, having teachers self-select into blended learning makes it better.
  3. Blended learning works more easily in some content areas than others.  Again back to our health rules, it was random this year which classes ended up being blended so we could not go through the thoughtful process of deciding that maybe PE 10 should be face-to-face but Social Studies 11 might work well as a blended course.

These findings are backed up by what was found across Metro Vancouver. Earlier this spring Dean Shareski published a white paper – Pandemic Shifts – that was the culmination of hundreds of local educators sharing their experiences during COVID around scheduling, assessment, blended learning and wellness.  The section on blended learning offers some excellent advice going forward.  

I think blended learning is a huge part of the future of learning.  We have some rehabilitation to do so blended learning is not saddled as only being the type of experiences we offered during a pandemic.  The way we were forced to offer it this year, didn’t match the promise and opportunities that blended learning can offer.  We are emerging from the pandemic with a far more flexible high school system for students, and we need to find the right ways to make blended learning a key part.  

 

Is This Essential?

When it comes to schooling everything is essential.  At least that is what we are made to believe.  While I often hear about what should be added to schools, I never hear any arguments about what should be removed to make space for new content.   One of the most prolific of these debate is handwriting – which I waded into a decade ago (and won’t again here).  One lesson from the handwriting debate is as much as we want schools to be doing more and different things, we are pained to think that our kids could miss out by not having everything required in school that we had mandated for us.  We generally seem to wish our kids to have all the same experiences we had, just more and better.

COVID has really forced us to have these conversation around what is essential, in ways that we were unable or unwilling to do outside of a pandemic.   No longer could we keep doing things because we had always done it, or everyone else was doing it in their classes.   We have had to truly adopt the Marcus Aurelius quote, “Ask yourself at every moment, is this necessary.”

I have written before about the particular impact of COVID on high schools.  HERE is a recent post on COVID edu-trends that will stick and HERE is a link to a recent white paper that Dean Shareski produced working with over 200 educators from our region examining scheduling, blended learning, assessment and wellness in our secondary schools in COVID and beyond.  

More than anything else, COVID has really made us rethink the use of time in schools.  In the pre-COVID era, we had neatly organized blocks, all of the same length, with each course the same number of blocks over the year.  Some teachers had this planned down to the minute.  While jurisdictions across North America have faced different realities, the last year has seen shifts from “regular” blocks, to virtual, to hybrid to new models.  In our district, there is now more flexible time for students, and blocks are of different lengths on different days.  The traditional block model has been disrupted.  And while we can’t ignore that these efforts are occurring in a pandemic – the new models are working for many students.  

This year has been both utterly exhausting and invigorating for many colleagues.  They have had to reinvent their courses from the ground-up.  And in doing so they have cut out a bunch of stuff that now no longer is as necessary as it seemed, but they have also been able to give renewed energy to other materials – content and competencies that are truly essential and ones which bring out the passion of the students and teachers.

Asking ourselves, Is this essential?  is always a good question to ask.  But of course, we often don’t – not just in schools, but in many parts of our lives and society.  COVID is making us take a hard look at content and competencies and the results are showing that we are building back a schooling system that is different than the one we had just a couple of years ago.  

You may have heard of students spending a semester in Europe or Asia.  Or maybe even about the school where you can learn on a boat for a year with the Class Afloat Program.  Well, West Vancouver Schools always wants to stay out front, and that is why today we are announcing the Galaxy High Program – where you spend a full-term learning in outer space.

Background

Space-Based Learning is an emerging field for study.  We have seen the real growth in place based learning, and outdoor learning in recent years, so it seemed natural that if we are looking to the earth for learning, we should also be looking into space.  And what might have seemed far fetched in recent years has become a reality recently.  The SpaceX Project from Elon Musk which includes his recently announced all-civilian mission, has opened the doors for students.   

The name and much of the curricular inspiration for our program comes from the 1986 television show Galaxy High – which emphasized many of the lessons that we are hoping for our students. Students will be stationed at the Galaxy High Space Station and from there travel as necessary to the moon for recreation and other programs.     

Supporting Courses 

While students in this program spend one term (3 months) in space it is a year-long program as they prepare for their trip.  In the first term, students will study space in popular media taking courses like Star Wars vs. Star Trek – Which Side Are You On? In the second term, students will focus on the specific preparations for their time in space.  Courses will include meal prep (learning how to use liquid salt and pepper for starters!), going to the bathroom in space and living in zero gravity.    

Program Description

On April 1, 2022 students will blast off from Loof Lipra Air Force Base just north of Vancouver.   Once landing at Galaxy High Space Station students will participate in many of the same courses they would normally take here at their local high school, and will earn credits for traditional courses.  Not even in space can you escape the high school lecture.  Given that they are in space they will take advantage of their surroundings.  Just like with how students connect with the earth here, over time, more time will be spent outside the space station and students will travel in the area around the station.    

Guest astronauts

We are excited to announce that just like on Earth our students will have access to wonderful experiences which includes several amazing guest speakers that will join us at Galaxy High.  Nancy Cartwright (an original cast member of the GH tv show and the long time voice of Bart Simpson), Lance Bass (formerly from the boy band N Sync who will also double as our music and dance teacher) and West Vancouver Schools own Principal Steve Rauh – many often say that Mr. Rauh is “out of this world”.  This is an all start lineup!

Admissions

We know the twelve spots in this program will go quickly, so we want to create a fair and equitable way to allow entrance. We are partnering with Rockets Candy for a Willy Wonka style promotion where 12 program admission certificates will be available in cases of Rockets Candy.   These will be distributed across Canada over the next 3 months and each has tracking devices so we can immediately celebrate those who find the certificates and become official students.  And like with the famous Willy Wonka story, even those who are not selected get a delicious consolation prize – Rockets Candy – a longtime birthday party loot bag / Halloween staple in Canada.  

Of course now seems like the absolute right time to launch (see what I did there) the program, given that there have been zero reported cases of COVID-19 in space – and anyways you wear a full mask in space so you are well protected.    

Today’s announcement is the latest in the long line of innovative actions from our school district.  Here is the list of those from recent years:

In 2012 I launched my FLOG.

In 2013 I made the announcement of Quadrennial Round Schooling.

In 2014 we formalized our System of Student Power Rankings.

In 2015 we created our Rock, Paper, Scissors Academy.

In 2016 we introduced the Drone Homework Delivery System.

In 2017 we introduced the Donald J. Trump Elementary School of Winning.

In 2018 we announced the construction of Soak City Elementary.

In 2019 we went back to the 80’s with the launch of the Belvedere Learning Academy.

In 2020 we embraced the latest in learning styles with our PBL (Pajama-Based Learning) Program.  

We know these are challenging times, but innovations just can’t stop. Happy April 1st.

A couple weeks ago I wrote about 7 COVID Edu Trends That Will Stick following the pandemic.  Of course as much as there are things we have learned and experienced that we want to maintain, there are other experiences that have really been missed in schools for the last twelve months.  We know that concerns over well being are very real and there are aspects of schooling that while maybe not directly tied to reading, writing or math, that are crucial.   While definitely not an exhaustive list, here are 5 things that have been missed this past year and we need to return:

Travel – I know travel comes up for many people in all parts of their lives, but it is a big part of school and not just those big spring break trips that groups of students might take to Europe.  Travel is about secondary PE classes going to the local fitness facility to work out, it is about elementary students going to Science World or the Aquarium and it is about school teams or performance groups getting to go to other places to play and perform.  And for adults it is about going to meetings and conferences and connecting in-person with colleagues.  We don’t realize how much travel is in education until it is gone.  Travel enriches the school experience for everyone.

Performance – Practice is great but performance is also a big part of school.  While in some areas performance can continue – if you are learning math you can “perform” on a test.  And yes, there are virtual performances for various disciplines in the arts.  But there are no musicals, public dance recitals or school rock concerts.  In sports all competition between schools has been wiped out.  While training still continues, this practice usually leads to competition in games, tournaments and meets.  And it is not just sports and arts, it is also robotics, science fairs, debating events and many other places that competing and performance are part of the learning process.  All of this has been on hold.  Training is great, but training that builds towards performance and all of the lessons that come from it are really powerful.  We need to get back to public showcases.  

Shared Meals – Whether it is kids or adults, food is a big part of school.  Lunch times with friends are often some of the best memories for students as they build social skills, make friends and foster community.  And for adults, food often bring us together.  We debate ideas over pizza or learn from a great speaker while eating sushi together.  And in our community food brings people to the school.  Feast events or similar opportunities are reasons for people to come together.   The power of “breaking bread” is real and is something that is used so often in schools (though I admit that I am eating a little healthier without the food events).  

Being Off – It can feel like with video conferencing we are always on.  Whether you are an adult or child in the system, we all need some times to be off – to be with our own thoughts.  In the world of Zoom, Google Meets and Teams this feels often less easy.  Having our cameras on makes us feel like we are always watching and being watched.   Being on all the time is its own version of exhausting.  It will be nice to have the option of sitting quietly in the back of the room again in the post-COVID world.

Unplannedness – I wrote a post last spring about the loss of chit-chat.  The argument is that one of the best things about school is the silly side conversations about tv shows, or personal interests.  And while we can create some of this online it is not the same.  During the pandemic our rules in school need to be very strict – it is hard to deviate from the script.  These deviations, often called “teachable moments,” are some of the best parts of school.   This unplannedness (I am not sure this is actually a word) is so lacking.  Over this last year every movement during the day has clear purpose and structure.  And while I agree with those who say in this world we can “get through the work much faster” the real work of education is much bigger than the outcomes for any course.

There is definitely a lot to take with us from the COVID-19 education world and continue with going forward but I am also hopeful that we see a return to some elements we have really missed this past year.  

Reject False Choices

As we continue to educate in the midst of a pandemic should we prioritize student well being and their mental health or the curriculum and traditional course work?

These are the kinds of questions in education that I find extremely frustrating because of course the choice is not really one or the other.   

It was reassuring listening to Linda Darling-Hammond speak last week at the annual AASA National Conference on Education.  She spoke about how the focused commitment to social emotional learning will lead to other improved education outcomes, and as we support the well being of our students, this is actually also part of the academic agenda.   These important elements of our system are not siloed off, they are interconnected.

It was the second time at the conference I heard a strong argument around the rejection of false choices.  In remarks at the start of the conference, AASA President Kristi Wilson spoke about a new school being built in her home district in Arizona that has a joint focus on STEM and the humanities.  She spoke about rejecting the notion that if you were committed to future technologies including coding and computers you did so at the expense of history or critical thinking.

The challenge of false choices is something I see all the time with education.  Just jump onto edu-Twitter and there will be many experts telling you that in education you have to choose between X or Y.  It is really reflective of the larger challenge we seem to be facing in our world where so much of what we do has become polarized.  If you believe in a strong arts program, you can’t be committed to high academic achievement.  If you think having students digitally connected you are somehow opposed to getting students outside and engaging more closely with our planet.  It is really hurting our system – we want to simplify discussions.  If the new principal is a former basketball coach they must not value the arts.  Or if they taught senior math and science they will not support the humanities.  

It is not a choice for education to be about preparing students for a world of work or life as a contributing citizen.   It has always been both and so much more.  Those who perpetuate false choices from inside and outside our system do so with the goal of dividing education advocates.  Our system has always had multiple goals and social, emotional and academic development do not come at the expense of each other.

We need not have “Pepsi or Coke” debates in education and we should be wary of those who want to perpetuate false choices in our system.