A Shared Responsibility
by Ed Noot, SCSBC Executive Director ◊
Nothing in the picture above would lead you to believe that these three teachers would grow into key educational leaders in the SCSBC family of schools, and yet we have.
The picture, taken around 1994, shows Henry Vanderveen, me and Dave Loewen enjoying cake as the staff of the Clayburn Hills Campus of Abbotsford Christian School celebrated a milestone. At the time, we three were emerging leaders. I served as a vice principal, Henry as the learning assistance coordinator and Dave as a Grade 7 teacher in charge of athletics. Abbotsford Christian School was at the tail end a period of explosive growth, having built the Clayburn Hills campus to replace some thirteen portables that were situated on the Heritage Campus site. Henry Contant, who was the principal at Clayburn Hills at the time, notes that, “The unprecedented growth at ACS elementary necessitated an ever-changing and growing leadership and administrative structure.”
Abbotsford Christian School was at the tail end a period of explosive growth, having built the Clayburn Hills campus to replace some thirteen portables that were situated on the Heritage Campus site. Henry Contant, who was the principal at Clayburn Hills at the time, notes that, “The unprecedented growth at ACS elementary necessitated an ever-changing and growing leadership and administrative structure.”
The “ever-changing and growing leadership structure” offered opportunities to the three of us. Today, Henry and Dave serve as superintendents of two large SCSBC school systems and I serve as the Executive Director of SCSBC. While the growth of ACS at that time created the need for leaders, there were other factors that contributed to the leadership identification and development. As we three reflect on our leadership journey, it is clear that leadership skills were nurtured in a culture of support that led us to take on a variety of leadership roles along the way.
The story highlights the importance of leadership development as a key responsibility of all leaders, and one that ultimately contributes to the greater cause of Christian education. “I always tried to hire those whom I deemed had the greatest potential for growth as a leader, whether that be at the administrative or curricular level. I knew that dynamic, emerging school leaders would eventually leave ACS for other schools. However, I always felt that it was better to have worked with them for a few years, than working with other less inspiring leaders who would want to stay their entire career at our school.” (Contant)
Key elements in the leadership journey seem to be identification, opportunity and support.
Vanderveen notes that, “Leadership development should be an important part of every leader’s work. Senior leadership in our schools should be hiring great teachers but, as early as the interview process, should be looking for leadership potential as well. Leadership potential may be evident from an individual’s education or experience, but can be discerned from watching interactions with others or observing how difficult situations are handled. Potential leaders often need to be nudged. We become teachers because we love working with kids and it can be difficult to imagine doing anything different.”
Contant echoes this reflection when he states, “I was constantly and aggressively recruiting staff who were much more talented than me in many areas. I learned very quickly that as the principal I couldn’t do it all by myself. Our school needed a strong leadership team of young and veteran educators/leaders to deal with the myriad of issues that came with a growing and ever changing school system.”
What is it about emerging leaders that catches our eye or leads us to see potential in them? Noot believes that two character traits stand out among emerging leaders:
- Emerging leaders express interest in the big picture. They are engaged in the school community and express an interest in and passion for the aspects of school that are beyond their classroom walls – such as policy, government initiatives, the work the school board and FISA.
- Emerging leaders are often staff members who seek to find solutions when issues emerge. It is easy to identify problems in our schools, but emerging leaders can view a problem or issue as an opportunity for constructive change and begin to seek solutions that will address the issue and enhance our professional learning community. They display the confidence to move beyond a problem and engage others in collaboratively seeking to turn a negative into a positive.
Once an emerging leader is identified, they sometimes need a shoulder tap. An open conversation highlighting the leadership potential that is evident and asking if there might be a desire to take on some leadership roles or to at least explore leadership can be a pivotal moment in an emerging leaders career. I remember several times when an experienced teacher, leader or friend tapped my shoulder, and these conversations have had a profound effect on my career path.
Loewen’s experience as a new teacher hired by Contant supports the importance of opportunity. He reflects, “At ACS I was given ample opportunity to exercise already existent leadership gifts, but more importantly to develop leaderships gifts and skills I did not know I had. This was accomplished because the formal leadership teams were willing to be creative in how they provided opportunities AND because they were NOT threatened by seeing someone succeed in an area they once led in.” Vanderveen notes that, “When a teacher has been identified as a potential leader, a senior administrator should find opportunities for him or her to experiment with leading, perhaps even giving up a favourite task, to create an opportunity.”
As Contant noted earlier, school growth can create new leadership opportunities, but it goes beyond that. Loewen frames it this way: “To some degree there was a culture of try which meant that I was allowed to try new stuff (outdoor education, new sports teams and cross campus unit plans) I had to bring the idea, rationale and details, and I was generally encouraged to go for it.” A culture of try encourages new ideas, thereby creating natural opportunities for leadership. A vigorous discussion of the rationale will ensure that ideas are consistent with a school’s mission and vision.
Opportunity is critical in the leadership journey. Without opportunity, the emerging leader has no sense of testing the waters and therefore is not developing as a leader. School growth can create natural opportunities for new leadership but even when schools are not growing, creative principals can create natural and authentic leadership opportunities for emerging leaders to embrace.
Once a leader is identified and given opportunity, it is critical that they receive support. Support can come in many forms and can be informal or formal. When supporting the emerging leader, Vanderveen notes the importance of, “providing clear direction and honest feedback.” Loewen reflects that during his time as an emerging leader he, “received support in trying new things and in taking on new roles and responsibilities.”
Informal support can include meeting regularly to review how things are going and to have informal discussions on leadership tasks, joys and challenges. This type of regular and informal interaction is critical for the emerging leader as it gives an opportunity to process new experiences with a veteran leader.
At a certain point, however, more formal leadership support should also be engaged. This could include focused professional development seminars and workshops, mentorship (within or outside of the school), reading of professional journals or books and enrolling in a leadership development program like Educators Leadership Development Institute (ELDI).
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to supporting a new leader. The important aspect is to create opportunities to learn and to reflect on the nuances of educational leadership. Establishing these opportunities will take the intentional focus of the emerging leader and of the one who tapped their shoulder, but it is well worth the effort. The common engagement around professional readings or workshops can be a time of significant learning and connecting for both leaders. It is also noteworthy that, by engaging in these types of supporting activities, the senior leader is not only contributing to the development of the emerging leader, but they are modeling the practice of lifelong learning and development.
Formal support can also include programs like the jointly sponsored (CSI/SCSBC) Education Leadership Development Institute – ELDI. Vanderveen highlights the benefit of this program, “ELDI is an excellent program to help potential leaders to determine for themselves whether school leadership is really for them. Participants are exposed to a wide variety of school leadership scenarios – the good, the bad and the ugly – so they have an understanding of potential leadership issues.”
What if you train them and they leave?
What if you don’t train them and they stay?
– John Maxwell
Contant highlights the desire for a blend of youth and experience in the leadership mix, “I consciously focused on hiring young, energetic, visionary, creative, innovative, educators, but I also looked for experienced master teachers who could provide needed curricular leadership within our school.”
The three emerging leaders in the picture all benefited from Contant’s approach and from the opportunities presented by the Abbotsford Christian School community. We, in turn, have all played a role in identifying and supporting a new generation of emerging leaders.
Leadership development is a critical need in society at large and in Christian schools in particular. It is a shared responsibility and one that we exercise for the betterment of our schools and for the greater good of Christian education.