You teach your children some fashion sense
And they fashion some of their own
- Gordon Downie

Friday, July 29, 2016

Mr. Hutchings, What's a Metropolis Noir?

When I need to process significant events in my life, I write. Yesterday, my family attended a Tragically Hip concert in Edmonton. I need to write about it, and here's why.

I first heard The Tragically Hip on an Edmonton radio station in 1990. After my first half year at the U of A, I was working at a toy factory, assembling educational toys. My coworkers were hard working, interesting people. For most of the day, I worked beside a fellow named Dieter, who smoked a lot of weed and loved music. When 38 Years Old finished playing, he looked at me and said simply, "That is a f***ing poignant song." He was rough around the edges and I'm certain that Dieter regretted many of his life choices, but he knew his music.

I couldn't help but agree with him. The fictional tale of a real-life event struck a chord with me. That fall, I hoped to attend the Hip's show at Dinwoodie Lounge, but it didn't pan out. When I learned that they would be playing Edmonton's Convention Center in the summer of 1991, I knew they were a band I had to see live. Last night, I saw them in person for the last time and I'm filled with emotion. I hope this blog helps me figure out why the news of Gord Downie's cancer and the Hip's farewell tour has hit me so hard.

The Hip are to music as hockey is to sport. You need to be Canadian to completely "get" them. In one of my older blogs, Great Canadian Gordons I wrote

Their music is laced with references to Canadian culture. Hockey themes abound, most notably "Fireworks" celebration of the 1972 Summit Series, the disappearance of Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Bill Barilko in "Fifty Mission Cap" and a dirge about being a goaltender in "The Lonely End of the Rink". Their lyrics celebrate notable Canadians like Bobby Orr, Pierre Trudeau and David Milgaard. Distinctly Canadian terms like toonie, CBC, prime minister and the "crown" pepper their lyrics. Even Donald S. Cherry makes an appearance as a chicken delivery man in the video for "The Darkest One".

The Hip's songs tend to mention Canadian places. Niagara Falls, Bobcaygeon, Toronton, Kingston, Cape Spear, Clayoquot Sound, Sault Ste Marie, Northumberland Strait, Churchill, Thompson, Lake Memphragog, Isle Aux Morts. I'm not completely sure, but I have a feeling that "The Paris of the Prairies" mentioned in "Wheat Kings" may be Saskatoon. I am certain that many essays and perhaps Master's theses have been written about the Hip's connection to Canada through music. Beyond the stage, Downie and the band have had cameos in uniquely Canadian television shows like Corner Gas and Trailer Park Boys.

For me, though, the quintessential Gordon Downie moment is the role he plays in Michael McGowan's film, One Week. The film is profoundly Canadian as it follows its protagonist, who has terminal cancer, on a motorcycle pilgrimage from Toronto to Tofino. Downie has a brief role as a man who meets the doomed Tyler and shares his experience of battling cancer. When I think of Canadian icons, people who have helped develop my generation's Canadian identity, I think of people like Terry Fox and Rick Hansen. When it comes to people who reaffirmed my love of all things Canadian, I cannot think of a more iconic figure than Gordon Downie.

On a personal level, Downie's illness hits me hard. Like most of us, I've lost loved ones to cancer. Like Gordon Downie, I'm a father. The Hip have been a huge part of most of my adult life. It makes me incredibly sad to know that I've seen them live in concert for the last time. Fortunately, I got to enjoy yesterday's show with the people I love the most - my wife and two sons. I hope that a small part of my passion for The Hip lives on in my boys. To quote Don't Wake Daddy, 

We teach our children some fashion sense/And they fashion some of their own

The title of this post is a reference to a line from Greasy Jungle, and an unforgettable question a student asked me. As a beginning teacher, I used the Hip in class whenever possible. From trying to interpret New Orleans is Sinking in English to Drama tableau projects with 38 Years Old as the soundtrack to Wheat Kings in Social Studies, my love for the Hip extended to my students. For a few years, my home room was the Drama room and you could usually hear The Tragically Hip playing on the CD player. One day after school, a student asked me what "metropolis noir" meant. I've never forgotten the question, and I clearly remember seeing Ryan at Tragically Hip concerts years later. It makes me smile to know that a few of my students latched on to the important lessons I hoped they would find in The Hip's music.

When I really think about it, I'm sad for Gord, his family, and his closest friends. Last night's concert and the band's reaction since his illness went public demonstrates the depth of the band's friendship. And that, I think, is the root of my deep emotional connection to the Tragically Hip, their music, and their live shows.

I have so many incredible memories of seeing this band play. My first Hip show was July 26, 1991 at the Edmonton Convention Centre. Since then, I've seen them at Clark Stadium, Edmonton Agricom, Camrose, Northlands Coliseum, Edmonton Jubilee, the Centrium, Saddledome, and The Whiskey in Calgary. When I think back to each show, I definitely remember the overall event and how watching them play filled me with joy. I remember a few specific Gord Downie rants and moves. I've evolved personally. In the early years, pre-Hip warm up meant a lot of beer. The last time I saw them in Red Deer, we had third row seats. Instead of planning the pre and post-concert party, I had to think carefully about wearing good shoes because I would be standing for the whole show.

More than anything, though, I remember the people I attended the shows with, listened to CD's, and discussed their music with. Brad, Brenn, Brian, Dave, Deneen, Grant, Ian, Jeff, Jeremy, Jim, Kevin, Pete, Rochelle, Ryan, Sandra, Sharon, Steve, Todd, Wayne...the list goes on.

My wife has been with me the most. She is the first to admit that she didn't really appreciate the Hip until she saw them live. Every time I hear It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken, I think of her and the first time we heard it live. My best friend, Jeremy, has been with me for many shows. Last night, we talked before the show and fired Hip lines back and forth throughout. Jeremy was with me for the 1991 Convention Center show, so memorable, fuelled by lots of beer and a few unexpected complimentary drinks. We've seen them in Red Deer, Edmonton, Calgary and Camrose. Like my friends Dave and Wayne, we can trade Hip quotes for hours. And here's the great thing about the Tragically Hip. I guarantee that there are thousands of Canadians who have a story just like mine.

Last night, my emotions were unbridled, and I was not alone. My final Hip show was full of shouting, clapping, dancing, and singing out loud without a care in the world. My good friend Brian is hosting a back yard Hip party on August 20 when the CBC broadcasts their final show from Kingston.

I can't wait, but I don't want it to end. To close, I will borrow the opening line from Live Between Us.

Thank you. We are all richer for having seen you.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

For the Love of Joe

I've thought about how to start this a few times, and not many of them seemed to hit the mark. It's been a long time since I have written anything here, and peeking through some of my own posts reminded me exactly why I needed to write this. You see, the world lost a beauty today, and the most fitting way for me to reminisce about Joe Bower is to write a blog.

Joe's blog, For the Love of Learning, is incredibly influential. His popularity on Twitter and as a speaker about redesigning education is undeniable. The tributes Joe has received on social media since he suffered a massive heart attack speak volumes about his prominence. His understanding of how to harness emerging media to spread his ideas was absolutely cutting edge. I was always impressed and astounded by the reaction he elicited from people, particularly people who only knew him online.

I first met Joe Bower when he was 19 years old. Many people his age would have just graduated from high school, perhaps taken a year off to find themselves, and just dipping their toes into post-secondary school. Not Joe. He was already in his third year of his BEd, accepted into a highly competitive Middle Years Program at Red Deer College. Joe came to my school for his four week practicum and student taught with a good friend and colleague. From the outset, it was clear that Joe knew who he was and what he wanted to be. He loved teaching and sincerely wanted to be the best teacher possible.

Part of Joe's passion stemmed from his own experience as a student. When I found out that a good friend of mine taught Joe in high school, I casually mentioned it. Joe's reaction was typical. He didn't care about my relationship with this teacher outside of school. To Joe, this person was not a good teacher and he didn't care what a nice person he was. Joe always told you what he thought and you never had to guess where you stood. Joe would tell you, in no uncertain terms. One of my former students, now a school administrator, said "what a lot of people don't know is that Joe's brutal honesty is just an invitation to be honest ourselves." So true, Everett, so true.

As a student teacher, Joe jumped right in to the life of our school. In those days, we had a lot of younger staff who had not yet started families. The end of a work week often required a serious debriefing at a local establishment or someone's home. We played as hard as we worked, and Joe was always eager to be part of the fun. Joe started joining our Wednesday night teacher hockey during those years. Even better, Joe loved to play goal and he quickly became a mainstay of our group. Oddly enough, part of the teacher hockey ritual included rehydration at a local pub, and Joe lost a lot of sweat during our late night shinny sessions. Once Joe graduated and started teaching, he continued playing goal with us, despite the good-natured ribbing that comes with being a goaltender. At times, Joe would forget his long underwear and have to his big black protective cup with nothing underneath. He could have auditioned for the Showcase series Kink and received a role!

Another great memory I have of Joe is through skiing, or more specifically, snowblading. As a student teacher, he jumped right in to supervising the weekly ski club. Even though he started teaching at a different middle school, our ski clubs often booked the same nights at our local ski area, Canyon. Joe grew up next door to Canyon and he was a machine on the slopes. It was Joe who first introduced me to snowblading, a guilty pleasure I wrote about in a previous post (Confessions of a Shortboarder). Riding a chairlift with someone you know means you have 10 minutes to just talk. These 10 minute visits allowed me to really learn who Joe was. Our visits at Canyon evolved into an annual ski trip at Teacher's Convention that we called "Weekend at Fernie's".

The details of these ski trips should remain in the memories of those who participated, even though the details might be a bit foggy. We had a solid crew of participants and Joe was always front and center. He loved to ski, he loved to talk, and he loved to have a great time. He never missed a trip and some of my absolute favorite memories involve trips to and from the mountains with Joe. In another post (The Millennium Falcon), I reminisced about these trips. Joe was definitely one of the many hairy creatures my Falcon transported.

It was during these times that I learned exactly what a complex and admirable man Joe really was. He loved teaching, he loved sports, he loved life, and he loved Tamara. From the time I knew Joe, he knew that Tamara was going to be his wife. She understood, admired, and tolerated him. His love for her was resolute. I was honored to attend their wedding and watch them as they started a family.

As we grew older and busier, I didn't have as many chances to visit with Joe, though we still crossed paths regularly. One of Joe's first speaking engagements came when I ran the ATA Middle Years Conference in 2007. When I taught in the Middle Years Program at RDC, I invited Joe to my class to share some of the things he was doing in his classroom. Joe's early presentations were passionate, profane, and always elicited a strong reaction. I always admired Joe's willingness to swim against the mainstream to support what he truly believed in. It may not have made him popular with his employer, but that is the beauty of who Joe was. Joe could be incredibly abrasive, particularly if you didn't know him well.

My last conversation with Joe Bower fits the mold of my entire relationship with him. We were playing in a memorial hockey tournament last September. Joe played for an opposing team, but we found time for a drink and a chat in the parking lot, between games. Instead of a political or educational discussion, we talked about our families and baseball. We reminisced about a time he "slept over" in my basement following a Wednesday teacher hockey session, and we realized that 14 years had passed since that night. In those fourteen years, our families had grown. Joe had written a book and was the author of a hugely influential blog. I left Red Deer to become principal of a K-12 school similar to the one Joe attended as a student. Fundamentally, though, nothing had changed.

Joe would still literally give the shirt off his back to help a friend. He still believed passionately that our education system could be so much better than it currently is. He loved sports and having a good time with his friends. He wanted a better world for his children and family, who were the center of everything he did. As I said earlier, the world lost a beauty today. I know you can't comment on this blog, Joe, but I do hope you know how much I think of you.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Confession: Looking Back to Look Forward

This May, at the age of 42, I experienced a classic "loss of innocence." I remember learning about this motif in grade 10 English and relating it to first encounters with love, alcohol, loss and sexuality. I never imagined that I would relate it to my professional life.

I worked for Red Deer Public Schools for twenty years - eight as a classroom teacher, twelve as a vice principal. I worked in elementary schools and middle schools that serve a diverse cross-section of our community. Two years ago, I made a conscious decision to prepare myself to become a principal and lead my own school. Opportunities were scarce in our jurisdiction, so I decided to actively pursue this goal and let people know how interested I was in this goal.

For twenty years, I worked hard for Red Deer Public Schools. By working hard, I mean teaching, coaching, clubs, field trips, drama productions, organizing tournaments, working on conference and convention committees, supervising school events, planning school wide activities, fielding phone calls from people (including trustees phoning on behalf of their children) who need to get into the building, driving the bus, cleaning the bus, maintaining the bus, planning school retreats, planning admin retreats, organizing professional development for teachers and administrators, chairing committees, attending school board meetings, to name a few things.

I do what I do because I love it. I know that the students, parents, and staff I have worked with appreciate what I have done. I have boxes of cards, drawings, notes and gifts from people who have shown their appreciation. I call it my "Attaboy" collection and I keep it in my office for the days when I start to lose sight of the good that comes from being an educator. I hold these things close to my heart and will always do so.

It has been six months since I decided to pursue opportunities outside of Red Deer. It is no secret that I was pissed off about leaving. I was unsuccessful in a competition for a principal position and I really struggled with how things turned out. I applied and interviewed for a position at a dual track french immersion elementary school. I felt very prepared for my interview. I spent hours gathering my thoughts, talking to colleagues, and getting myself ready to convince everyone in my interview that I was the best choice for the position - principal of a K-5 dual track french immersion school in north Red Deer. I finished my interview and felt like I had communicated enough about my beliefs and demonstrated my passion for what I do.

The successful candidate was given a position in a K-8 school - a position completely different from the one we applied and interviewed for. It was frustrating for me because my entire background as a teacher and administrator is at the K-8 level. Earlier in the school year, I lost another competition for a district administrator position. In both of these competitions, I believed I was the best candidate for the position. I understand that there is a bigger picture and I concede that I did not deliver my best performance at the interview. Ultimately, however, the cumulative effect left me disillusioned with the school district I had given everything to for twenty years. In a word, I was heartbroken.

It took my a long time to get my bearings and I am thankful that members of our senior admin came to provide me feedback about my interview and the process in general. However, the more I thought about it, the more I was confused. My experience and background would have served me well in the position they filled. According to the feedback I received, I was well prepared for the interview and I provided thoughtful answers. Somehow, though, I was unable to communicate who I really am and what I bring to a school.

The students, parents, and staff in the schools I worked at knew me. They knew I would be a capable principal. They were shocked when I didn't get the position. 

I could say that I was not bitter about leaving Red Deer. I could say that I understood the decisions. I could say these things, but I would be lying. I received a great deal of supportive feedback from my colleagues. It was equally humbling, gratifying and aggravating that the people I worked with and knew me best could not believe I was passed over for a position I was ready to take.

Fortunately, opportunity has an odd way of unveiling itself. In my case, when one door closed, another swung wide open. A K-12 school in an adjacent school division needed a principal. The school was located in a community that is a short drive from my home and I decided to pursue this opportunity. As most of you already know, I was successful in this competition.

I have been given an amazing opportunity. The work I get to do in Delburne is markedly different that the work I would have done anywhere in Red Deer Public. We have fantastic students and the school is at the heart of the community. It is a beautiful facility. Our staff are proud, committed to the school, and dedicated to providing the best possible opportunities for our students. Had I remained in Red Deer, I would not have considered working in a high school. Today, I get to teach high school Biology. I left university with aspirations to be a high school teacher and I have finally realized my dream.

Working in a rural community is equally demanding and rewarding. I am consulted about community decisions and agencies on a regular basis. It is not unusual to have the mayor or village CAO in the school. People who attended school in Delburne are deservedly proud of their roots. I feel very good about the work I have done so far and I look forward to solidifying my position in the community. I have received very positive feedback from students, staff and parents so far. I am optimistic and excited about the direction we are headed.

For the people who really know who I am and the way I approach the work I do, I don't think it will come as a surprise...

Monday, June 17, 2013


Ain't no time for worrying
Gotta go
Move on
Got that getaway feeling
I'm leavin'
 ~ Paul Brandt

In May, 2006, I was called into the office at Glendale Middle School and informed that I would be leaving. My destination was Grandview Elementary School, the school where my eldest son Connor was attending Kindergarten. I was coming off a difficult year of soul searching. I sincerely enjoyed my time at Glendale, but there were a lot of things that made me look elsewhere. I was restless and ambitious, but I was not really ready to assume any great responsibility at a school level. My first five years of school administration strained my ability to focus on my family and I felt quite compromised. There were many things I wanted to accomplish at Glendale, but I felt like my family suffered because of my obligations at school. It pissed me off to miss hockey practices or skating lessons. My boys spent lots of time at school with me, which was fine, but it was also time we could have spent in a playground or in a park. I pursued a couple of principal positions during that vear. I was driven in part by ambition and in part by the memory of my failed hockey career. I became a Vice Principal at a young age, just as I entered the Western Hockey League at a young age. My untimely exit from hockey was fresh in my mind and I did not want to let opportunities pass me by. In the end, I was interviewed for two principal positions, offered one, and decided to pass it up because it would have forced my family to move a long distance from Red Deer.

My transfer to Grandview was proof to me that things happen for a reason. I have very special memories of my experiences at all of my schools. However, the past seven years at Grandview fill my heart like no other professional experience to date. I have written a lot about how much this school means to me. It chokes me up whenever I talk about it.

Grandview was a great place for my children. Without exception, they had amazing teachers. My boys grew up in full view and I cannot understate how much I value the opportunity to have front row seats. I was there for assemblies, concerts, field trips, and all of the special events I would have missed had I worked at another school. Moreover, I had the opportunity to actively shape their experiences by pushing for a climbing wall, booking guest instructors, arranging field trips, and planning many keynote events in Grandview's school year. There is no doubt that I had a vested interest in making Grandview the best possible place for my own children. However, a school needs to be a great place for all children. It should not matter whether a parent is an employee of the school district, a family that lives directly across the street, someone who recently immigrated to Canada, a family that lives in our catchment area or a family that will only be with us for a matter of days because their lives are in crisis. The diversity of the students who attend our school make it special.

Grandview is full of incredible people - staff, students, and parents. This is the part I cannot write without tears. These are tears of fierce pride, intense gratitude, and sincere love. I got my first introduction to the "Grandview Way" from Jean Cobb, who loved her kids first and foremost. When Jean did something, she did it with pure passion and genuine love for the students who attended her school. Early on, when we were asked to "go with the flow" and make a significant change to our school day, the eminently wise Kevin Shilling nodded his head and made a simple comment. "C'est la vie a Grandview"... Throughout their school career, my kids had nothing but the best teaching possible. Danece Workman, Gail Schmitt, Shirley Brault, Carol Johnson, Kelly Martinez, Maria Tisdale, Shauna Kadar, Lynn Gwartney, Carrie Tobler, Sue Mueller, Sandra Morton, Kevin Shilling. The list of amazing teachers my kids did not have is just as long. The list of amazing support staff matches the length of both lists. That, in my mind, is a true testament to the quality of adults who spend their days in our building.

Make no mistake. At Grandview, we work hard and we play hard. A few years ago, my friend Monte Selby came to spend a week in our school to write music with our students. One of the songs, Fun, says "We have fun here at Grandview/We have fun every day". That fun can be found in the classrooms, the hallways, the playgrounds, even the office. Our teachers love what they do, our kids love coming to school, and we fuel one another. I never miss dressing up for a spirit day, from cowboy to mad scientist to superhero to wearing full hockey gear (including my skates) for a day. Our staff also plays hard after hours. Staff retreats, hockey drafts, conferences, post-interview debriefs, progressive suppers, scavenger hunts, camping trips. We don't party every Friday like I did before I had kids, but when we decide to let go, it is a ton of fun.

Grandview is at the heart of our community. The playground, soccer fields, baseball diamond and outdoor skating rink are well-used after hours. The Red Deer Fencing Club uses our gymnasium every weeknight through the winter. Red Deer Pond Hockey teams hold practices and tournaments on the outdoor rink. Each winter, the school plays host to the Red Deer Rebels Enmax Pond Hockey program. My favourite evening of the year, however, is our family BBQ and outdoor movie night. Each year, families from the school (past and present) converge on the school grounds to eat, visit, and watch a movie on a gigantic outdoor screen. It is an evening that reminds me of the barn dances and church picnics of my youth and I am incredibly sad that this year's event was my last.

My time at Grandview has not been all sunshine and roses. For every difficult parent, there are 99 amazing parents at our school. I will not deny that I worked with some families that were completely dysfunctional and messed up. Overall, though, these types of people are not the norm. The norm is parents who volunteer for field trips, participate in fundraisers, sign agendas, attend school functions and want the best for their kids. It is a regular occurrence for people to walk into the building and say, "I've heard this is a great school. I want my kids to come here."

There have been some incredibly "interesting" events over the past seven years. Parents who have undergone sex changes so a child refers to their parents as "Mom" and "Mom Mom". Folks from all parts of the world who have no idea what we are talking about. One year, I returned from spring break and noticed that my office had an extremely bad odour. I searched the bookshelves and work desk for leftover food or milk that one of my "lunchtime guests" might have left behind, to no avail. I purchased a Vanillaroma stinky tree to try and cover the odour, with minimal success. One day, as I was searching my shelves, I found the source. At Christmas, one of our more interesting parents had given me a box of home made rum balls as a gift. Not trusting the source, I left the rum balls on a shelf and forgot about them, until I discovered that they had indeed gone bad. Another day, I had to restrain and physically remove a student from the playground to the "thinking spot" in our office. I had to quickly push the door closed to prevent them from bolting around me when I realized that I did not have my keys with me. The student stared a hole through me and bellowed, "LET ME OUT!" I replied, in an tone with equivalent volume and rage, "I CAN"T!" At the time, the door locked from the outside and I was indeed stuck in this room with an out-of control child. My response seemed to stun the youngster, who then asked (in a sincerely puzzled tone), "Really?" I then explained that no one was coming to open the door until I asked them to. The absurdity of our situation defused the conflict completely. "Really? You are the vice principal and you're locked in here with me? That's funny."

When I really reflect on my seven years at Grandview, it fills me with pride. I had the good fortune to work with amazing people - teachers, educational assistants, secretaries, caretakers, counsellors, maintenance staff, IT support, student teachers, community volunteers, guest artists and instructors, and central office staff. I worked three very different, yet equally impressive principals. I met hundreds of children and their families. I made lifelong friends and I watched my children forge powerful friendships. I can look around the school and see my fingerprints all over it. In the end, though, my career as an educator is a book and my years at Grandview have been seven of my favourite chapters.

I entered this school year knowing it would likely be my final year at Grandview. I was hoping to move into a Principalship in Red Deer Public, and when that did not happen, I decided to widen my view. Now, I am reminded of the lone traveler in Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken. I have decided to take a different path than most. I'm leaving behind twenty years of experience in a school district to start fresh with an amazing opportunity in a completely new community. I was hurt, disillusioned and frustrated when I was passed over for a position in Red Deer Public. Now, the excitement I felt when I first entered school administration has returned and I feel very confident about moving forward. Like the character in Frost's poem, I won't know whether this is the right decision for a while. At the moment, it feels right and it makes sense.

I’d rather live my whole life with a sense of abandonSqueeze every drop out, no matter what happensAnd not wonder what I've missedI’d rather risk ~Paul Brandt

Friday, June 14, 2013

Parting Words

After 20 years working for Red Deer Public Schools, I want to take a moment to recognize the colleagues in administration who have left the biggest impact on me.

Every Conversation Is Important - Barrie Wilson
Barrie was my first principal and to this day, he is one of my biggest heroes in education. In my books, he ranks with John Dewey, Howard Gardner and Elliot Eisner. He is an amazing, energetic, inspiring man. The biggest lesson I learned from Barrie was the importance of taking time to speak with (and listen to) people. Barrie would always ask me about my life away from the school. Even more important, he remembered what  we talked about and followed up on it. As a beginning teacher, I spent many hours in the school on the weekend and it seemed that Barrie was usually there. He ALWAYS took time to have a quick conversation about what was going on in my life. Today, I know how important it is to acknowledge the people I spend my day with. I'm no Barrie, but I can always aspire to be like him.

Passion is Power - Jerry Simonsen
Jerry was my second principal at Eastview Middle School. He is also the man I can blame and thank for pushing me to become an administrator. Like Barrie Wilson and so many of the people who coached me, Jerry believed in me. Jerry is incredibly passionate about many things - athletics, fishing, fitness, underdogs and students who fall through the cracks in the system. When Jerry believes in something, he does everything he can to make sure it is successful. Jerry's belief that I could and should be a leader in our school changed my life forever.

Work Hard, Play Hard, Laugh Lots - Rita Di Placido
For five years, I worked with Rita at Grandview Elementary School. As a teacher, administrator, parent and member of our school council, I came to respect "Mrs. D" in the most profound way possible. Nobody in our building worked harder than Rita. She was usually the first person at school and the last person to leave. If she wasn't in the building, there was a good chance she was doing something related to our school. Rita's intense pride and love of what happened at Grandview was evident in everything she did. She never missed a dress up day or a staff party. Rita capitalized on opportunities to play and laugh with exactly the same fervor she approached the "work" of being our school's principal. She was an amazing role model.

Show Interest - Sharon Lewis
I will never forget the feeling of being taken under Sharon's wing. Sharon is, quite possibly, the kindest and most thoughtful person I know. As a beginning teacher, I was invited out for drinks and over to Sharon's house for meals. Sharon and her husband Brad made such an effort to get to know me and we have become lifelong friends as a result. I can tell you with absolute certainty, however, that I am not the only new teacher Sharon has reached out to. Her sincere interest in others sets her apart as a teacher and administrator. I was fortunate to be her colleague, both as teacher and in admin, and I am incredibly sad that I missed the opportunity to be part of an admin team at GH Dawe.

Collaborate (and Serenity Now!) - Brian Bieber
When I arrived at Glendale Middle School, I was exposed to one of the most professional and thoughtful leaders I have ever worked with. To this day, I marvel at how organized, efficient and thoughtful Brian Bieber is. From never having a hair out of place to detailed agendas and planning, I've never worked with someone as "together" as Brian, though I still suspect he may have connections to the IRA. Brian is a master of gathering input and consensus. He values, considers and weighs the opinions of all stakeholders with a skill that I have witnessed in very few people. I only worked with him for two years, but the concept of "Serenity Now" is an absolute necessity when you work in difficult situations.

If You Don't Feed the Teachers, They Eat the Students - Marty Klipper
During my first two years of administration, I had the joy of working with Marty Klipper. Marty is one of the most sincere, genuine and caring human beings I have ever met. I was incredibly fortunate to learn about administration from Marty, because he always emphasized the need for teachers to feel like they could make a difference. Teacher efficacy was the focus of Marty's MEd and I learned a great deal from him about equipping teachers to do their best, reinforcing their efforts, and perhaps buying a couple of jugs of beer on Friday....

My Kids - Jean Cobb
I only worked with Jean for a year, but what stands out for me more than anything is her focus on the students in her school. They are "her kids" and Jean loves them like a mother. We laughed and enjoyed our time at Grandview. Jean allowed me to carve my own niche, helped me learn about compassion, and was instrumental in my successful transition to an elementary school.

Think - Bob Barthel
This year with Bob has been tremendous. He is an incredibly thoughtful man and I have grown to appreciate his laid back, sincere and pensive manner. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to work with him.

When I was 13 years old, I learned a lesson from my Grandpa. I went to visit him in the Cross Cancer clinic following his first round of radiation treatment. Prior to the treatment, he had a thick head of hair, and when I came into the room, he was wearing a United Way ball cap with a mesh back. He smiled, removed his hat and ran his hand over his bald head. His words were simple. “My hair is gone” he remarked, “but I have a really smooth head.” 

Grandpa’s words and the lesson behind them ring true for me today. Things have changed, but I have found a new opportunity and I am happy to make the best of it.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013


When I was four years old, I started school in Edmonton. Queen Alexandra is a beautiful brick school in Old Strathcona . I don't know if everyone recalls their first days of school with the same clarity I do, but I guarantee that every child has a distinct impression of school that has roots in their first experiences. I never questioned the value of getting an education, so it is no surprise that I chose to spend the rest of my life in school.

A month into grade 1, my family moved out of the city to an acreage. I left Queen Alexandra and transferred to Wye Elementary School. Wye served a growing and reasonably affluent acreage community just east of Sherwood Park. In my youth, "The Park" was a hamlet, a true bedroom community to Edmonton that was surrounded by acreages. In my first week of school, I wore a pair of burgundy cord pants and was informed "we don't wear red pants at our school." In spite of the rocky start, I grew to love Wye School. I liked most of my teachers, I developed strong friendships, and I did well academically.

I faced plenty of social speed bumps as a kid. In grade 2, I was sent to the principal's office for trying to hit grade 1 students with my belt. After all, they were trying to go down the grade 2 slide. I did odd things and got into trouble with my teachers for being a smartass. The pecking order of the playground meant that I had my fair share of pushing matches, disagreements, and fist fights. I was in combined classes for three of my elementary years, which meant that I socialized with a different group of kids than most of the kids I played sports with. I did not have a perfect school experience. I made mistakes, failed tests, wished I could fit in, got bullied and was unkind to some of my classmates. Overall, though, I survived and thrived because my parents and teachers believed in me. They let me make mistakes and find myself, even when it must have been very difficult to let me fail and mess up.

By the time I was in grade six and ready to leave Wye, things evolved remarkably. My best friend moved to another school and I had to redefine and reconnect. My best friend from hockey transferred to Wye that year and my social circle moved towards the kids I played hockey with. I was still tight with my circle of friends from the combined classes, but I had a broader group of friends than ever. In junior high school, high school and university, I continued to fill a variety of roles. Academic. Class clown. Athlete. Party animal. The more I think about it, the more I realize how pivotal my first six years of school were for me.

I'm inspired to write this post for a few reasons. First and foremost, I attended my 25th high school reunion over the past weekend. It was a very fun night. Even better, it was very well attended by my classmates from Wye Elementary. Chris, Corinne, Ed, Kevin, Holly, Linda, Lorinda, Melissa, Rich, Rob, Taylor, Terry, Tracy, Todd, Warren. There are almost as many people, who were not in attendance, that I have kept track of over the years. The more I think about it, the more amazed I am  by the connections we develop when we are in elementary school. There is no doubt that I have developed life-long friendships in every stage of my life, but few of them are stronger than the ones I developed when I attended Wye Elementary.

I'm extra pensive right now because I am about to turn the page on a new chapter in my professional career. I am leaving the school district I have worked in for twenty years to become the principal of a K-12 school in a neighbouring community. Since I entered school administration, I have always believed I would become a principal. Now, it is a reality and I could not be more excited. I spent the afternoon at my new school last Friday and left the building brimming with hope. From there, I went to the grade eight leaving ceremony for our feeder school. It was a wonderful evening that reminded me of my days at Wye. My time in both buildings last Friday started a literal trip down memory lane (in this case, Alberta's Highway 21). I spent the weekend surrounded by my elementary classmates and I realized how important schools really are to people. The chance to be part of a place that will evoke lifetime memories for a generations of children is equally special and compelling.

During the final days prior to our reunion, I discovered that one of my elementary classmates has ALS. Carrie was always one of the prettiest and most popular girls in our little school. I distinctly remember rewording songs from the Grease soundtrack that substituted her name for Sandy, the female lead of the Grease story. As we grew up, I always felt like Carrie was a friend and we shared a bond because we had so many shared memories at Wye. In junior high and high school, Carrie continued to be a popular girl and we generally ran in the same circles, attended the same events. When I was in University, I ran into Carrie a few times and always enjoyed the opportunity to visit with her. She was genuinely kind and I think we always had a measure of mutual respect. There was always a little piece of me that had a crush on Carrie and the older we got, it was much more than a "she's cute" crush. I liked Carrie because of how genuine and friendly she was. When my wife told me about Carrie, I couldn't hold back the tears. I haven't seen her for 20 years, but I can't stop thinking about her, her family, and the awful situation they are facing.

The multiple threads of this reminiscence form a tapestry that will inform and remind me as I move forward. As people, it is important to remember where we come from. As educators, it is equally important to remember where our students are going. We need to give kids the skills to weave their own life stories.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Power of Teams

I have been thinking about the power of teams. One of the most overused phrases around is "there is no I in team.". This phrase a ridiculous cliche that completely understates the incredible benefits of being part of a team. The power of teams goes so far beyond words and images. When a group of people gather together with a common purpose in mind, amazing things happen.

I feel very fortunate to have spent most of my life as a part of different types of teams. Early in my life, I played sports and was involved in group activities like Cubs. These opportunities exposed me to incredible role models and leaders. I wrote about many of these people in Things I've Learned From People I Admire. All of my closest friends, the people I wrote about in Stand By Me are people who have been my teammates in some shape or form. There is something galvanizing and life changing about being part of a team. Your shared experiences build memories that become permanently imprinted in who you are.

The vast majority of my team experiences come from being involved in sports. Over the years, I have played and/or coached hockey, rugby, soccer, volleyball, basketball, slow-pitch softball, skiing, cross-country running and track. I have watched major sporting events live and on television. Sports and competition speak to a primordial impulse, the survival of the fittest. For me, it does not matter whether I am playing, coaching or watching. When I identify with a team, there is nothing I want more than the success of that team. I wrote about my passion for hockey in The Game I Love but I can think of parallel experiences in many other aspects of my life.

Early in my teaching career, I spent my entire life in the school. I taught, coached, stayed late, played floor hockey and hung out with the caretakers. I spent evenings and weekends in the school marking, planning and simply hanging around. I was a rookie teacher and great people like Brad Anderson, Phil Penner, Jim Schlachter, Rob Willms and Daryl Zilinski took me under their wing. They helped me learn, relax and served as tremendous role models. Our school's administration team of Barrie Wilson, Sue Peters and Murray Saul were very much like our coaching staff. They led by example and taught me many great lessons about what it takes to be a successful teacher. My success was very much a result of the support and guidance from the people around me. 

Ultimately, my experience as a beginning teacher was analogous to my experience as an athlete. Just as an individual athlete cannot play a game without teammates, an individual teacher cannot reach their potential without the support of colleagues and administration. In a previous post called What Makes a Great School Great? I wrote about the strengths of the school I currently work at. In so many ways, our school is like a powerhouse hockey team. We have seasoned veterans, talented rookies, and an overall sense of unity. The students and parents in our school have high expectations and our staff rise to meet those expectations to the best of their ability. As a teacher, leader, administrator and parent of children who have attended our school, I can say with certainty that it is an amazing and high-performing team.

People who understand teams understand that individual success IS important. If team members do not feel the "I" component of contributing to the team, they don't reach their potential. The precise formula for success is never the same. Success might look like Don Cherry's 1977-78 Boston Bruins with 11 players who scored 20 or more goals. It might look like the Edmonton Oilers of the early 1980s, with 6 future Hall of Famers. Achieving the ultimate goal requires all team members to move in the same direction toward a common goal. There is a balance between "we" and "me", but both aspects need to be nurtured. 

In the end, I am a better person thanks to my involvement in teams. I understand that my personal goals need to fall within the framework of the place I work. I am not more important or less important than the people around me. I need them and they need me to be my best. This is true in my workplace, in athletics and in my family life. Teams have given me my best memories, my most powerful lessons and my best friends. Teams can make you jump in the air, punch walls, howl like a banshee and cry like prairie storm. They energize your limbs with excitement and can paralyze you with gut-wrenching anticipation.

We need to understand that the greatest things are achieved by teams. We may not always win and we may not always fulfill expectations, but when we feel a responsibility to those around us, our achievement is always greater. It is in the collective push that we find the power of teams.