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

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.