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Archive for the ‘Change’ Category

This is one of those dangerous posts to publish.  I know people will take parts of it out of context and repurpose it for their own benefit.  I am not new around here, I know that is what people do to superintendents and what people do in the age of outrage on the internet.

I have been getting a lot of phone calls and emails lately.  I am not sure of another time in the last decade when there have been so many.  I know I get a lot during job action, or when people think I have made a bad decision on calling or not calling a snow day, or when there are budget challenges.  This is different.  From mask wearing to vaccinations, COVID has brought people to the school district. 

Of course, it is not only a local issue, there are lots of videos circulating on the internet of school board meetings, particularly in the United States, of name calling and sometimes violence over COVID protocols.  Even Saturday Night Live noticed, and did a sketch (HERE) earlier this season on the growing phenomenon.  While more subdued in Canada, my colleagues tell stories of protestors at their doors, fights between parents in the parking lot over vaccinations, and name-calling and threats towards school officials.   And this is not a “don’t worry, it is just happening somewhere else” issue, our teachers and principals are seeing increased tensions and short-tempers regularly.   

My first thought is we need to be better than this.  Our kids are watching.  I appreciate there is great anxiety and frustration.  And I also know that school boards – staff and elected officials – are often more accessible than other government officials and thus an easy target.  Many of us spend our careers in education helping students see nuance, and trying to engage with challenging topics or those with whom we disagree in thoughtful ways – unlike all these images we are seeing.  I have yet to meet anyone in health or education who is not going above and beyond right now to do what they think is best for students.  

I also think about a post I wrote on “the hat rule” a few years ago.  We love topics that are easy to think about.  Masks are either good or bad, same with vaccinations.  When I listen to the health experts each week, I feel their frustration as they try to tell a far more detailed and nuanced story, but we do love to jump to things that are simple to think about.  Keeping kids safe in schools and providing rich opportunities for learning in our times of COVID is complicated and “hat rule” conversations are easy but incomplete.  What we love about these binary topics is that you are either with us or against us – it is like supporting your local sports team and uniting with everyone wearing the same coloured jerseys.

And finally, when this is over, I hope people stick around.  Those who have spoken to me about masks, ventilation, hand sanitizer, or vaccination,  don’t stop being engaged in schools.  Regardless of whether you have been happy or unhappy with the health guidelines, please keep holding me and others accountable.  Hold us accountable for ensuring that all students by grade 4 can read, that students of Indigenous backgrounds are succeeding at the same levels as all other students and that graduates have opportunities for post-secondary and other options after grade 12.  And hold us accountable for ensuring students are learning the skills and attributes of engaged citizenship.  This is our work and the success of all students in the community should be a concern for all of us. 

I realize it may seem far more important to a parent that all students in their child’s class are wearing a mask or are vaccinated than it is that they can read or socialize with others.  I get it.  COVID is scary.  The last 18 months have reminded us of the importance of school and the importance of collective action.  I do hope we show some of the same engagement and passions for the collective well being of all students – as I know it does not feel as immediate and personal as COVID, but we should all want all of our learners to be successful.

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Why has it been different this time?

This is a question I think a lot about when I walk through our high schools, see the structures they are experimenting with and talk with students and staff. It feels different.

Now into my second quarter century in the business the idea of making shifts in high schools is not new. Hearing grumblings about the traditional bell schedule, the perceived lack of student engagement, concerns over relevance of courses and leaning experiences, and someone saying something like, “they need to be more like elementary schools” are all views that I have heard every single year of my career.  And with complete earnest efforts each year I saw schools doing everything they could to find ways to think about time differently, reorganize class structures (e.g. for many Socials 8 and English 8 became Humanities 8) and an amazing array of strategies to build connections with students.

Of course, I can see how it would feel a bit like Groundhog Day.  In their totality the shifts were really tinkering at the edges.  And in truth, there was no urgency – for most students the system was working fine, and its resemblance to the system of their parents was reassuring to the community.  And while much attention was given to those really pushing the model of schooling like High Tech High or Big Picture Schools, the model of schooling for most has seen little change.  That is not to say there has not been change – I have argued here before that today’s school experience for students is very different than for those even 20 years ago, but it is not different in fundamental ways.

So, why do things feel different this time?

COVID has upended everything in our world and while new challenges are exhausting, they also create curiosity and urgency like no other times.  But I don’t think it is just COVID itself that has pushed us, but it has accelerated and exposed other elements.  It is not as much as they are new trends, they are just more obvious and really moving quickly.  Here are some other things I think are going on:

Equity – You cannot attend a conference or read an education publication without some discussion around equity.  Now it is a broad term and is inclusive of everything from Truth and Reconciliation to poverty and food security to students with specific identified needs.  A mindset around equity is having all of us question our practices in ways unlike times before.  It has both the curiosity and urgency elements.  When we talk about equity we immediately need to look at our teaching and assessment practices.  

Time – We have been trying to rethink the use of time in schools forever.  In high schools we had 2 classes at a time, we had 4 classes at a time, we had 8 classes at a time, we had 3 before lunch and 2 after lunch, we had moved the pieces around to many different combinations.  A lesson from COVID was time was more flexible than we thought it was.  In our region almost every high school is using some version of flexible time where students make choices over their learning.  For us, it is X-blocks in our high schools every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon where students can make choices over where they need to go.  We have long known not all students need the same time in each course, but we have used solutions like tutors and extra homework to deal with it – now we have thought differently.  Of course, these efforts were moving slowly before COVID, but COVID has absolutely accelerated the shifts.

Modern Skills – I am not really sure what to call this – it is all about making and creating.  While already trending before the pandemic we are seeing a massive interest in robotics – which was once limited to high schools, now having interest in specialized programs from the primary grades.   A similar trend is entrepreneurship.  What started as courses limited to students in grade 11 or 12 is now seeing great attention across the grades.  When students and parents talk about it, they talk about real-world skills and being competitive for the world.   No doubt the impact of emerging technology and everyone seemingly having a “side hustle” has been impacting schools for a while, but again COVID has really ramped it up.  

Post-Secondary – There is some really interesting data coming out of the United States.  A recent story indicates that US college enrolment is on pace for the largest 2 year drop in US History (interesting to see the only schools which are seeing increased registration are the most elite schools).  I have one of those friends who sends me every story he sees about the struggles of the post-secondary sector.  He is saying “I told you so” a lot these days.  Colleges have for a very long time just expected the students would come.  But maybe the pandemic has shifted some thinking – maybe students don’t need to build up the huge debt from the ever increasing post-secondary school costs, or maybe there are other ways to get credentialing and maybe large employers like Amazon and Google might bypass universities and hire and train students directly themselves.  All of this which is potentially fundamentally shifting post-secondary will absolutely impact the work in K-12.  Exactly what this means is hard to know yet, but again this is a larger trend that is pushing us.  If post-secondary is shifting, so must high schools that help prepare students for life after grade 12.

Now, the global shifts and increased commitments to equity were present before COVID but COVID exposed how much we haven’t done and still need to do.  There have been a new list of skills for the new world emerging for a while.  Time has always been a topic of discussion in high schools but a global pandemic really opened the door to doing things differently in how we organize.  And there have been questions for a while about post-secondary schooling but COVID sped up changes taking place.

All of this churn in our world is creating curiosity – from staff and community about how we can do things differently and better going forward and it is happening with an urgency unlike at anytime in my career.  

I am convinced this ain’t Groundhog Day – high schools are changing in real ways right in front of us.  

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Do you want your child to be the strongest student in their class? Or maybe, one of the weakest so they learn more? Or how about if they were all at the same level so they learn together?

In fact, we often want all 3 of these situations.

This will be the first time in my writing that I reference the work of a mixed martial arts athlete, but I think Frank Shamrock is onto something with his “+,-,=” system.  In short, Shamrock’s theory is that in order to be the best you need to work with someone who is better than you, someone who is equal to you, and someone who is not as strong and you can teach.

I love the simplicity.

Now, I can see how this would be useful for an MMA fighter, but it has really struck me how this is really what we want for our kids as they develop –  whether that is in school, sports, arts or other areas.  When our students are in a class with those at a higher level, they see what is possible which pushes them to challenge themselves.  And we often try to set up peer tutoring situations for our students where they get to teach others, as this helps to further enhance the learning.  And those at the same level leads to great cooperative opportunities and shared learning experiences.

Of course as you batch students together in classes this is hard to create in every situation.  I think what matters is that as often as possible we are looking to create all three situations.  It is OK to be the best player on a sports team, but if you are always that player you miss out on the other two situations which are important for growth.  And if you are regularly the weakest player on a strong team, you never get to experience the opportunities that come with teaching others and being truly part of a group that is always challenging each other.

While education can get caught up in letter grades and awards, its core business is about always getting better.  We should strive to continually put our students in situations where they are perpetual learners – sometimes being taught, sometimes teaching and sometimes collectively working together.

 

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Seth Godin wrote a provocative post about reimagining the curriculum last week.  It is not often that parents forward me blog posts, but 4 different parents from our district have sent me the post, each adding a comment like, “This is what we need for our kids.”   And I wanted to respond back, “We are doing it!”

First, here is the premise of Seth’s post:

We’ve spent 130 years indoctrinating kids with the same structure. Now, as some of us enter a post-lockdown world, I’d like to propose a useful (though some might say radical) way to reimagine the curriculum.

It’s been a century of biology, chemistry, arithmetic, social studies and the rest. So long that the foundational building blocks are seen as a given, unquestioned and unimproved. The very structure of the curriculum actually prevents school from working as it should.

Godin has a new list of courses he proposes including:  statistics, games, communication, history and propaganda, citizenship, real skills, the scientific method, programming, art, decision making and meta-cognition.  It is a great list.  And like Godin argues, I am sure this resonates for the skills we want for our children as we prepare them for the world we live in for both work and citizenship.

British Columbia refreshed its curriculum over the last decade and it has received a lot of global attention, and I would argue it is doing much of what Godin proposes – detailed lists of facts have been replaced by big ideas and curricular competencies, core competencies including thinking, communication and personal and social are put at the centre of all curriculum and Indigenous perspectives have also been embedded throughout the curriculum.  

Having been part of discussions that date back over a decade around modernizing BC’s curriculum, there were ideas like those Godin suggests, of swapping out “old” courses for “new” courses.  In the end the shells of the traditional system were maintained in BC, the subject areas are largely the same now for students as they were for their parents, other comforts including labeling courses by grade (e.g. you take French 9 and then you take French 10 – largely in groups of students the same age) were maintained and the basic structure of high school courses all being just over 100 hours was also kept.  Now, within these courses the massive changes I described above took place – and the experience has been modernized.

The beauty of Godin’s model is it radical.  It does not allow you to keep doing what you have been doing before.  The old courses are gone and replaced by new ones. Of course its great strength is its great weakness.  Very few students, teachers or parents I encounter are looking for radical shifts in education.  While we are interested in High Tech High and other schools that seem to be living Godin’s vision, these schools seem to exist as alternatives not the mainstream. While the education community appreciates the notion of change, they want change within the context of a system that is comfortable for them. 

It is not that we are broadly anti-change, but we are more incremental than radical.  I think most people agree with Godin:

We’re living in the age of an always-connected universal encyclopedia and instantly updated fact and teaching machine called the Net. This means that it’s more important to want to know the answer and to know how to look it up than it is to have memorized it when we were seven. Given the choice between wasting time and learning, too many people have been brainwashed into thinking that learning is somehow onerous or taxing.

So, here in British Columbia we have tried to do this by dramatically transforming the curriculum (the what and how of learning), yet not really changing the comfortable boxes we are used to.  For us, the strength of this is that we are able to make major changes while not radically disrupting the system.  And the downside, you can keep doing what you have always been doing – Social Studies 9 is still Social Studies 9 filled for 100 hours a year by a group of 14 year-olds – this shift relies on the commitment of everyone to the higher ideals of the change.

Since the turn of the century the calls for an overhaul and transformation have grown louder.  We have heard them come out of the globalization conversation and we have now heard them as a product of the pandemic.  I want to believe we can have the shifts that Godin and others write about within our current structure.  The realist in me says that this is actually the only way.  I like how David Albury recently described this work, “One of the tricks of transformation is to combine urgency and passion with courageous patience.”  We need the big thinkers like Godin to push us, and then we need to make these shifts within our reality.  We need to hold onto the comforts of the system we all have known while continuing to modernize the experience within it.  

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Everyone loves a cross-over episode – whether it is when Family Matters and Full House did it, or when it was Grey’s Anatomy and Station 19 or to date myself a bit, Scooby Doo and Batman.

How is that for a lead on this post?

My wife and I were talking with our 19-year-old daughter recently about her experiences last year as a first-year student at StFX University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. Out of the conversation came some tips she has for other students and prospective students based on her experiences, and some thoughts for parents as well. My wife has a parenting podcast – Lazy Parenting and she has turned this conversation into her latest episode (Here is the link) and I am sharing these tips here as a part of my blog. Thus is born the first crossover between the Culture of Yes and Lazy Parenting.


So here are 8 tips that Liz has for those heading off to university:

  1. Do a pre-campus tour. Now, doing this has been a little harder during COVID, but especially if you are going away visit the school before you go.  There is no way Liz would have ended up going to StFX if she had not gone for a visit first.  She got to picture herself in the dorms and feel comfortable with the community.  You can do a lot virtually, but nothing really replaces the experience of being there. 
  2.  Look up professors not just courses.  There are lots of stories from students about easy and hard courses or interesting or boring electives.  But simply knowing the courses to take is not enough.  Research the professors.   Different instructors may have completely different approaches.  Just like in high school, where some departments teach everything in a particular course exactly the same and others don’t – the same is true at university
  3. Show up. I know, this one sounds very obvious.  Go to your classes, extra sessions and office hours. You actually have far fewer structured hours of schooling than in high school and these connections you make with professors can be important. 
  4. Make a schedule.   This is one of those items that is far more important than in high school when timelines seemed so regimented.  At university, timelines are spread out and it is easy to look and think you have lots of time but tests and assignments are really condensed at the midpoint and end of terms.  It is crucial to put everything on the calendar at the beginning of the term and then build a plan to space out the work over the entire term so you are not overwhelmed.
  5. Get involved. It is a cliché to say get involved, but it is important that school is more than just school.  For Liz, it is playing varsity basketball, but there are dozens of teams, clubs and other ways to be connected.  Since you spend far less time in class than in high school, these other connections make school “sticky” and help you be connected.  You won’t study all day so you need other things to help keep you mentally and physically healthy.
  6. Look out for you. Be an advocate for yourself. Yes, there are a lot of services available at a university but there are not the usual check-ins from counsellors or administrators as in high school.  And universities are big places.  You need to speak up, for example, if you think your marks were not calculated correctly by your professor.  They are human and can make mistakes and nobody is going to do this advocacy for you.  Don’t find yourself in situations with classes saying, “I will just leave it, this doesn’t matter that much.”
  7. Do adult things. – For many students this shift of taking more responsibility is one of the biggest changes in university.   So embrace it.  The biggest one for Liz was probably owning her finances, and doing budgets, so she could plan for this year and beyond.  But there are also lots of little things, like going to the doctor if you are not feeling well that seem obvious but are new to having to do without the help of your parents.
  8. Pick the people around you carefully.  Surround yourself with others who lift you higher, push you to be better.  Again, the decisions sounds pretty obvious but just like in high school, your friends matter.  Yes, you want to have a good time at university but if you want to be a top student and have a good time, find others who think like you.  
 
Now here are five tips we have for parents as they send their kids off to university:
  1.  Stay in touch.  Facetime is a great invention.  We would have regular family dinners through video calls that let us continue some of our rituals even though we were thousands of miles away.  
  2. Make your kids do their own stuff.  It sometimes feels it would be easier just to register for them or do their course selections so they don’t screw it up – resist the temptation.  It is time for them to sign all the forms that need to be signed and pay their own bills.  Don’t be one of those parents who calls the professor to ask about an assignment for your child.
  3. Embrace your changing role. You are now more of a cheerleader and a guide at the side.  This is great and you can redefine the relationship you have with your child and school.
  4. Be genuinely curious. You might have gone to university – but that was probably 20 or 30 years ago.  Ask questions about how things work and what is going on at university.  
  5. Care about success.  It is important to believe in the process and we should not be driven by grades, but make sure your child knows that grades do still matter and you care how they do.   You can say grades don’t matter, but in the next breath you will say you want your kids to do well at university.  Each family has to come to terms with this catch-22.  Grades are not the only indicator of success, but they are definitely one of them. 

Liz’s experience was great last year.  So good in fact, as she heads into second year she is being joined by her brother who graduated high school in June and will also be in the business program at StFX this fall. 

We will see twelve months from now if all this advice still holds true. 

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This is the eighth and final post in a series  sharing some of my findings and reflections from my recent doctoral dissertation – How BC School Superintendents Spend Their Time.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about time over the last three years – how I spend my time at work and how my superintendent colleagues spend theirs.  I was fortunate that 59 of the 60 school superintendents participated in the study that gave a comprehensive insight into answering the question – just what do BC school superintendents do?  And while the results are interesting, the obvious next question is, OK, now that you know what you and your colleagues do, so what?   Before wrapping up this summer series of eight blog posts, I will share what I see as some of the implications and thoughts on the shifting nature of the job. 

It is also worth considering the role that the learning transformation agenda is having and will have on the superintendency in British Columbia. Superintendents are being expected to lead major changes in curriculum and assessment that are intended to ensure British Columbia maintains its standing in global education. While all school jurisdictions in North America have ongoing reform efforts, those in British Columbia have been exceptionally broad and ambitious. British Columbia has built as Tim Hopper and Kathy Sandford describe as “a landscape of innovation, personalization, and inquiry in classrooms, schools, and districts.” These transformation expectations, which have increased over the last decade, could lead to differently skilled individuals aspiring to the superintendency and to boards making different selections in their hiring for this position. The Ministry of Education in British Columbia has been clear about its vision, “to truly transform education, the BC education system must empower innovation throughout the province.”. Being a passionate learning leader with a strong background in curriculum and assessment, with a vision around transformation, is now mandatory for the superintendent position. Tracking how this focus might impact who is hired into the superintendent position will be interesting to follow.

There are several implications from this study for various educational partners. For superintendents, this study allows them to put their work in the context of their colleagues. With the high participation of superintendents, the study gives a complete picture of the entire province. Particularly for newer superintendents, the ability to compare their experiences to others in the role is valuable. I would encourage current superintendents to look at their use of time in relation to their colleagues and use this as an opportunity to consider other approaches to their work. This study can act as a conversation starter for superintendents who often do not ask each other how they allocate their time.

For the British Columbia School Superintendents’ Association, this study makes a strong case for adding additional supports for newer superintendents and for differentiating support for superintendents based on the size of school districts. It does seem that being a superintendent of a district of fewer than 6000 students is far different from a superintendent of larger districts. Typically, support for superintendents has been similar, but if the jobs are different, small and large districts’ superintendents should be offered different types of support. There is also an opportunity for the superintendents’ association to support female leaders currently in other district positions who may aspire to the superintendency. It can be an uncomfortable question, but what can the superintendents’ association do to ensure greater diversity in its ranks. More generally, for aspiring superintendents, this study shows that if they have seen one model in their district of how a superintendent spends their time, it is not the only model. As these individuals move into the role, they should seek out others in the province to consider different approaches to how they allocate their time and areas that get their primary attention.

For boards, there is an opportunity to reflect on their interactions with their superintendent. The wide range of time commitments is worthy of follow-up. Numerous superintendents referenced the distraction some board behaviour can be to the organization, and this issue is worth additional study. Boards also have a role to play in supporting new superintendents and ensuring they have the professional development in place to be successful. Both boards and the BC Ministry of Education should be looking at how they could make fewer urgent requests and be more strategic in their asks of superintendents.

Finally, this study provides a useful look into the superintendency for those in the community. This study helps to humanize the position.  The leaders in these positions are experienced educators spending long hours both managing and leading the school system.

I recognize my bias, but I was impressed by the complete and unwavering commitment that my colleagues have to the important goals of our system.  BC superintendents are driven by purpose—to enhance learning opportunities and outcomes for their students in their districts.

Want to read more?  My full dissertation is available under the research tab.  And here is the full list of posts with links from this summer on the various topics.

Gender and the Superintendency

The Impact of Student Populations on the Work of the Superintendent

The Majority of BC School Superintendents are New to their Jobs

Learning Leader vs. Community Leader

The Impact of Boards on How Superintendents Spend Their Time

All Urgent All the Time!
Controlling Time is a Matter of Perspective

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

Picking up on last week’s post on the rabbit hole of urgency many superintendents fall into in British Columbia, it was interesting to see how superintendents responded to the basic question of whether they felt they had control over their time.  

Different superintendents sometimes described two almost identical situations, and one would use it as an example of how they had no control over their time, while the other would use it to show how they were masters of their own time. The experience might be best summarized by one superintendent who argued, “In some ways no and others yes” when asked about the control of time.

Many superintendents acknowledged that they do have some choice on where they allocate their time. The views were often like those of this superintendent, “I feel I have control; however, there is limited time and those items that are deadline driven or urgent in nature get prioritized.” Another superintendent also took a reflective view of time: “Control is about juggling planned versus unplanned – and also find time for reflective practices and vision to sustain innovative practice.” Many of those who felt in control pointed to strong governance structures with their board, highly effective management teams, and their willingness to extend the workday to deal with the urgent during business hours but still make time for areas of passion in the evening and on weekends.

Those who did not feel in control felt their primary objectives around student learning were being hijacked by the demands of the Ministry, the board, and urgent emerging issues in the district. They would see themselves entering each day and week with a clear list of priorities, but this list would quickly shift to other items that would require their time and attention. Many described the superintendency as a “reactive” job that required continuous shifts.

It is important to note that the study of BC’s school superintendents was done in the midst of their dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.  There were numerous negative comments on how COVID-19 had impacted the work of the superintendent. As one superintendent said, “It has had a major negative impact, and it has taken priority over many other issues on my desk.” Others described COVID as all-consuming, and as another superintendent lamented, “I work seven days a week to support schools and our health authority responding to the pandemic.” It was definitely clear that many felt similar to this superintendent, “It really limited what we were doing and detracted from the momentum we had going.”

The pandemic has placed an increased role of the superintendent as the communicator-in-chief. Many reflected on the pandemic similarly to this district leader, “My attention has now become focused on communications: when, how and what. It requires considerable effort to continue to shape a narrative that allows staff, community and students to feel safe, supported and cared for.” Superintendents described new communication skills they built, often through video platforms, and there are opportunities to find ways to continue to use these communication skills and platforms in the post-pandemic world.

Most interesting is how superintendents describe the change in meetings and travel. The travel changes seem particularly helpful for superintendents from more remote districts, like one rural superintendent, who said, “It has actually reduced the amount of time I spend traveling and allowed me more time to focus on student learning.” A number of superintendents said it has adjusted the work week, with meetings that used to be at night now in the day because they are virtual and the work week now being a seven-day week.

While many positions in the school system lack the opportunity for flexible hours since they are currently governed by the traditional school day, the superintendent position has some greater flexibility, which has been utilized by some superintendents during COVID. Rather than shifting hours, many have simply added more hours to their day and week with the growth and ease of virtual meetings. Going forward, having some greater flexibility with remote meetings, they may be able to focus better on student learning during the traditional school day.

For future study, rather than simply looking at the impact, it would be useful to reframe the question and look at the changes made during COVID that had a positive impact on the work of the superintendent and the success of the district. Given that British Columbia has not had the lockdowns and a complete shift to remote learning as some other jurisdictions in North America, some of the changes that others have seen may be blunted in BC. It is challenging to see the forest for the trees, and still being in the midst of the pandemic at the time of this survey has definitely limited the ability to see silver linings that may emerge.  Some of the changes in time-use that emerged during the pandemic may disappear in a post-COVID era, while others may be permanent.  

Want to read more?  My full dissertation is available under the research tab.  Next week I will take a final look at implications for superintendents based on the findings around their use of time.

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

British Columbia school superintendents described the frantic nature of running from crisis to crisis in their daily work.  Whatever plans they might have for the day, week or month were often quickly derailed by something urgent – and there seemed to almost always be something urgent.  It was striking that while some saw their job as a very proactive job, one where you are looking around the corner to what is coming next, many see their work as reactionary, each day responding to a new item of top importance.

“The tyranny of the urgent” was commonly used as a comment when BC school superintendents were asked to reflect on their ability to control their own time. Whether it was human resources issues, health and safety, or very often board topics, superintendents were challenged to stay focused on their plans, and they are often derailed to deal with an emerging crisis.  One superintendent argued, “My to do list is usurped the moment I arrive at work with other urgent issues.” This view was corroborated by a second superintendent, who said, “I feel like I am trying to put out fires all the time. When something comes up in the district, it takes over everything.” And a third superintendent also shared a similar sentiment, “Priorities are often dictated by emergent situations.”

One BC superintendent described experiences that were common among many of the respondents:

I do have control over how I spend my time. Each day I have a list of the things that I need and want to accomplish and for the most part each day I achieve that list. The complexity is that each day a large number of things get added to that list, which I also accomplish. The result is that the day continues to get longer as I seek to achieve those things that I had put on the list. As I reflect on my eleven years as Superintendent, I think the days, weeks and years are getting longer with new additions and rarely anything being removed from the overall list. So, I guess I have control over how I spend my time, what I am not sure I have control over is the amount of time needing to be spent. This is because I do not want to shift focus from what is a priority for the team and district to accomplish tasks for outside systems and/or organizations.

Many shared this view that the time needed to be an effective superintendent was growing as the tasks that were viewed as urgent took more time. Community concerns and board matters were the drivers of the urgent on the list of items that superintendents identified as most commonly having primary responsibility. 

One superintendent described the experience as “a crisis every day” that needs to be dealt with. Superintendents recognized the political significance of certain issues that required their specific attention. While many items could be delegated, if the issue involved local or provincial government or had a media angle, they often took responsibility.

While many of the tasks of the superintendency, like budget planning, strategic planning, recruitment, and working with partners, appear to be the kind of tasks for which one could close their door and work on for eight hours in a day, the reality of the experience that superintendents describe is one that is often a frenzied pace moving from item to item.

There was a sentiment among respondents that outside officials, like board trustees and BC Ministry of Education officials, were creating unrealistic timelines with often changing demands that needed the superintendent’s attention. For further study, it would be useful to look more closely at the specifics of the tasks that are falling into the urgent category and whether they truly require urgent attention. It is also important for outside agencies who interact with superintendents to know that they are looking for greater predictability, so they can plan with their time appropriately on various tasks.

While there was a lot in the data and commentary from my colleagues that was invigorating and exciting, this impact on the urgent was depressing.  I do think some superintendents crave the urgent and run towards the problems.  For others, it may be passivity or just difficult circumstances.   My bias is that I see a key job of the superintendent is to play the long game, while others around you are focused on the immediate wins and losses.  If our job is simply keeping the balls in the air and trying to do that again tomorrow, the longer term shifts and innovation in education will be impossible.

Want to read more?  My full dissertation is available under the research tab.  Next week I will look at the question of whether BC School Superintendents actually have control of their time and the impacts of COVID-19 on the work. 

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

The sometimes rocky relationships between superintendents and school boards are often well covered in local news and many researchers have dug into the importance of the relationship between the local elected officials, and the hired lead for the education system.  As with many other parts in the education system, there are multiple right ways for the two entities to work together.  I have written before on my blog thoughts on this topic, like here in 2014, on how boards and superintendents support each other.

For this current study, the focus is on the time of the superintendent, and in part on the number of hours they spend with the board and / or on governance issues.  My study got feedback from 59 of the 60 superintendents in British Columbia on their use of time.  My bias going in to the study was that the larger the district, the more hours a week the superintendent spends on governance and with trustees.

My prediction was partly, yet not completely true.  There were dramatic differences in the time that superintendents spent with their boards. Superintendents were asked in one part of the survey to identify the number of hours in an average week between September and June they spent on governance.  Six of the seven districts where superintendents spent five hours or fewer each week on governance had populations of up to 6,000 students (these were categorized as small districts for the study), but the final one in the group was a district of more than 22,000 students (these were the largest districts for the study). Looking at the other end of the spectrum, and those superintendents that spend more than 21 hours a week with on governance, three of the seven districts are from the highest student population category of more than 22,000 students, and there is one each from districts from the four next categories in population.  It was not simple to say that it was only in the large districts that superintendents spent most of their time with boards.

There was also a dynamic with superintendent gender and time spent with the board. Twenty of the 28 superintendents that indicated they spent ten or fewer hours a week over the year with their board were men, while five of the seven that spend more than 21 hours a week were women. Similar to educational leadership, there was not a dramatic difference between superintendents in their first five years and more experienced superintendents on the time they spend with their Boards. Both the newer and experienced superintendents had comparable numbers at both ends of the spectrum of less than five hours and more than 21 hours a week.

Working with boards is a task that virtually all superintendents take primary responsibility for. This area scored the highest among the 33 tasks for which superintendents take the highest level of direct responsibility. The second highest task was strategic planning, a task that is often done in concert with elected trustees. Other high-ranking tasks for direct involvement by superintendents included working with government organizations, working with parent organizations and citizen complaints, all of which are often tasks that have some level of shared responsibility between the governance and administrative sides of the organization.

In written responses, many superintendents lamented about what they saw as excess time that they spent with the board, as this was time taken away from working with the school system and focusing on student learning. Several superintendents referenced general guidelines they try to come up with to divide their time between governance and working with the board and all other time working with the rest of the system. Superintendents referenced goals of 20-30% of their time working with trustees, but the data shows some are working more than this, and others are working less.

While not the purpose of the study, the relationship between superintendent and trustees was front of mind for many superintendents when reflecting on their use of time.  Said one superintendent when responding to a question on control over their time, “Yes, with the current Board I do. They understand their roles very well, and minimize the time taken on governance and related issues that are not a part of the plan for student success.”   But for others the opposite experience was true, like this superintendent, “At this point my board continues to create an ongoing crisis where I am continually trying to respond.”  When superintendents reflected on their ability to control their time, their thoughts on their current Board were often central.  

This study was not intended to determine what the ideal number of hours per week is for superintendents to spend with trustees on governance work, but the range of hours clearly opens up this question.

Superintendents expressed some frustration about how they work with their board. It is also important, particularly given how inexperienced so many superintendents are in the province, that they need support around governance, and not just the trustees. In their 2019 book, The governance core: School boards, superintendents, and schools working together Davis Campbell and Michael Fullan argued, “many superintendents simply view the board as an external power source, important and legitimate but not a part of the superintendent’s team.” (as an aside, this is a great book study for trustees and senior executive members)

There needs to be continuous ongoing work to support superintendents to understand the crucial role that boards play in the system and how superintendents support the work of the board and boards support the work of the superintendent.

For further study, it would be interesting to ask each board how many hours a week they spend with the superintendent to measure that time and see if there is an alignment in their views. There is probably no perfect answer, and this study did not set out to determine if five hours or thirty hours is more appropriate, but the vast differences are worthy of more discussion to understand the range of governance models better and determine what the successes and drawbacks are for the various number of hours that superintendents spend with their trustees.

Want to read more?  My full dissertation is available under the research tab.  Next week I will look at the urgency and reactionary nature of the superintendency.

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

BC school superintendents want the E in CEO to be Education and not just Executive. More than half of the province’s school superintendents report that they spent at least 11 hours a week on work that they would describe as educational leadership (supporting teachers, principals, working in classrooms, leading learning). Given that superintendents in British Columbia and across Canada were trained as teachers, this inclination should not be surprising.

Of course, there are competing demands.  BC school superintendents in my study, as well as those referenced in other research, report that they are often consumed by their board, administrative work, and community commitments. Being a learning leader and being a community leader compete for the time of the superintendent.

For my study, superintendents were asked to consider their level of involvement in 33 leadership and management tasks – everything from tasks within facilities, human resources and student services to financial management, curriculum and instruction and community relations.  Of the 33 tasks considered, 10 of the top 11 tasks in terms of the level of responsibility for superintendents were either in the curriculum and instruction category or community relations category. The top 5 (from 5 to 1) were:  Indigenous Relationships, Parent Organizations, Government Organizations, Strategic Planning and Board Relations.  Truly, a very unsurprising list of areas superintendents are most directly involved.  It likely would surprise few that the 2 areas at the bottom of the list for direct involvement are payroll and transportation.

In a similar, but slightly different task in my study, superintendents were asked to rank seven areas (facilities, human resources, business operations, student services, financial management, curriculum and instruction and community relations) based on the importance in their daily work.  Thirty-eight of the 59 superintendents surveyed ranked curriculum and instruction as either first or second, and 32 superintendents ranked community relations as either first or second.

Knowing that at some point, time is finite, these two areas do compete with each other for the attention of the superintendent. Superintendents seem torn, they want to spend their time on educational leadership, but they are taken away from this by administrative tasks and work with trustees. Superintendents often commented that they would extend their workday and week and are working more hours now than in the past to continue to be educational leaders in their district.

A Virginia study by Eric Armbruster of superintendents in that state over a decade ago had similar findings:

Superintendents today must be communicators, collaborators, consensus creators, community builders, child advocates, champions of curriculum and masters of teaching and learning. At the same time, they are expected to fall in with the bureaucrats, carry out mandates for the policymakers. School leaders today need to be versatile enough to respond effectively to these varied pressures while staying focused on the crucial mission of improving student learning. 

BC school superintendents in my study emphasized the key importance of relational capital in their work. Many of them noted their strong ties with various partner groups, their ability to move items forward because of relational trust, and how long-standing relationships were helpful. While superintendents felt the pull of community vs. educational leader, in the end, for most, it was not an either-or proposition. It needed to be both, and the tension of time was exacerbated by this conflict.

One BC superintendent when describing the pulls on her time nicely described it, “I do have control over how I spend my time. What I am not sure I have control over is the amount of time needing to be spent.” 

One of the great challenges for BC school superintendents, is one shared by others in various jurisdictions across North America – they were often high performing teachers who are committed to being leaders of learning for which they are accountable, and they also have the enormous set of commitments that come with  running a complex organization and being a community leader.

Want to read more?  My full dissertation is available under the research tab.  Next week I will look at the impacts of Boards on the work of BC School Superintendents. 

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