Thursday, 29 May 2014

Hats Off to Staff Meetings

     "The next item on our agenda is the committee report on the school hat policy. I'll turn it over to you, Joan."

     "Our committee has met 6 times and have developed a workable policy. Feel free to make comments or ask questions."

     "Yeh, I have a question.  Why do we need a hat policy anyway?"

     "We've included a rationale.  We feel that it is socially unacceptable to wear hats inside a building..."

     "Despite the fact that kids' dads wear hats everywhere?"

     "Well, it may be common practice, but it's not appropriate behaviour and as educators we should be raising the level of..."

     "And it's disrespectful.  Some of these kids just put their caps on to defy us.  It's insolence.  They need to show their respect for those in authority."

     "Plus, like, when everyone wears a hat?  It's like, really hard for the kids in the back to see?"

     "But isn't it also a part of their identity?  A badge that tells the world who they are- a symbol of adolescence, when young people are trying to assert themselves, to demonstrate their independence and solidarity with one another."

     "Getting back to the report- after the rationale the actual hat policy is very simple.  `Students are not permitted to wear headgear in the school."  The committee changed the word "hat" to "headgear"  because "hat" is too vague.  By "headgear" we mean any type of head covering, kerchiefs, ball caps, toques, etc."

     "So. like, what if a girl has a real cute hat that goes with her outfit?  That's socially acceptable, right?"

     "It may be socially acceptable but for the purposes of this policy, girls' hats are also not allowed.  The committee felt it would be discriminatory to permit girls to wear hats and not boys."

     "Excuse me, but isn't the term "headgear" also used to refer to the headdresses of some religious sects?  Couldn't we get into trouble with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms?"

     "What if some guy had a head injury and he has a bandage on his head?  Or lost his hair from some medical procedure and wanted to wear a hat to cover up?"

     "Of course we would make exceptions."

     "Okay, so can they wear hats in the hall?"


     "In the gym?"


     "What about out on the playing field, or at the arena?"

     "Well, they gotta wear helmuts.  A guy could crack his skull on the ice, you know."

     "If the teacher deems headgear is necessary, I guess that would be up to him or her."

     "What about after the bell goes?"


     "What about after school?"


     "How about dances?"


     "What about visiting students?"


     "Well, how about on the weekends at a tournament or something?"

     "That is okay."

     "Well, I  don't think that's right.  If they can't wear hats in the school during the week, they shouldn't be allowed to wear them on the weekend."

     "The policy mentions students.  What about teachers or workmen?  How about the delivery men, the guy who stocks the pop machine?  He always wears a hat."

     "The committee assumed that teachers and anyone else employed by the school division would dress appropriately.  As for other adult guests in our school, we have no control over them."

     "Yeah, but if they're guests, we can tell them to take their hats off.  If it's a school rule, then everyone should have to follow it."

     "Oh right, like you're going to tell the pop machine guy to take his hat off."

     "I would. If it's unacceptable for kids, it's unacceptable for adults and I would have no problem asking him to take off his hat, politely, of course."

     "And parents?  You would do the same to them?  Not me.  I wouldn't tell a parent what to wear."

     "No kidding. Some parents are uncomfortable enough in here.  They should be able to wear whatever they want."

     "Maybe if we were able to educate the parents, we wouldn't have such a hard time with the kids."

     "Joan,  thanks for all the work you and your committee have done on this issue.  The staff has given you a little more food for thought, so perhaps you can meet again and give us your revised policy next meeting.  Next on the agenda, the committee report on the type of food offered in the concession..."  

Originally published in ATA News Moot Points column, March 14 1995

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Some things never change

My  mom Janet Martin
In October of 1950 my mom defended her Master's thesis at the University of Alberta. Her area was teacher education and her goal was to assist the relatively new education faculty to find out how it could do a better job of predicting which students would make good teachers. 

The introduction to her paper identifies province wide concerns about the high turnover of teachers and speculates that even if teachers were to be paid higher salaries, it would not be enough to retain them if they were never suited for the job in the first place. Sound familiar?

There were 222 students in the Faculty of Education in 1950. My mom recorded their high school and university marks and conducted a battery of spelling, intelligence, reasoning and personality tests. Then she compared the data with their student teaching reports. What correlation did she find between their knowledge, skills and attributes and their ability to teach? Girls seemed better than boys. Those with higher scores on intelligence tests and those with better university marks did a bit better in their student teaching.  Good spellers and those with good vocabularies were better teachers. As far as reasoning and personality traits went, there was no correlation.

I still have all my mom's raw data from her research. I wonder what happened to those young teachers who would be in their late 80s now. How many of them continued in their chosen profession? Did the excellent student teachers become even more excellent? Did the poor and average student teachers improve and become good or even excellent? Would a teacher who was excellent in 1950 be considered excellent today?  If I could talk to them, what would they tell me about teaching excellence? 

Today, are we any closer to knowing what qualities make an excellent teacher? The Task Force on Teaching Excellence does not define teaching excellence. Neither does it attempt to find out why 45% of beginning teachers leave the profession. Like their predecessors, were some never suited for teaching? Were they driven out by the demands of the classroom or a lack of respect for their chosen career? Or tempted by higher paid and more prestigious jobs in other fields? These are the real problems facing Alberta today. These are the questions the Task Force should attempt to address. 

Friday, 23 May 2014

FAQs about the Three Es

In 2009, Albertans shared their dreams for the education system. Inspiring Education generated thoughtful insights, deep thinking, and many platitudes highlighting the need to prepare Alberta's students for their future. Albertans told us that although our education system is excellent, we need to be more excellent. The way in which we have previously delivered education is no longer sufficient. Five years later, some citizens are confused about the way forward. Is the vision envisioned by Inspiring Education still visionary? The Standing Committee on Engagement, Ethics and Entrepreneurship is pleased to provide answers to the following frequently asked questions.)

Why are you replacing the three Rs with the three Es?

Inspiring Education told us that we need to be bold and innovative. It’s not enough for our education system to provide students with knowledge and skills-we need to provide students with the attributes that will enable them to be successful players in the global marketplace. While the three Rs provided generations of students with foundational knowledge, they were part of a factory system of learning that has no place in today’s changing world.  Further, the three Rs didn't even all start with the letter R.  Ethical citizens, engaged thinkers, and those with entrepreneurial spirits can obtain skills and knowledge. You cannot argue with these attributes. And lots of good words start with E. Excellence. Energy. Experience. Empowerment. Emissions. The Environment. Enlightenment. Entitlement. The Edmonton Eskimos. The Economy.

I'm not really sure what it means to be an engaged thinker.  Could you explain it to me?

  • An engaged thinker is someone who thinks critically and makes discoveries; who uses technology to learn, innovate, and discover; who works to identify problems and find the best solutions; who communicates these ideas to others; and who adapts to change with an attitude of optimism for their future in Alberta’s economy.

When you say Albertans should be ethical citizens, do you mean voters who unquestioningly obey the rule of law, or opposing voices who believe in advocating for their rights and questioning the status quo?

How can every Albertan have an entrepreneurial spirit? If all Albertans start up their own businesses, who will do all the work? 

  • Inspiring Education is all about giving educated Albertans the tools they need to excel. While Merriam-Webster says an entrepreneur is someone who organizes and assumes the risks of a business, one does not need to be an entrepreneur to be entrepreneurial. People with entrepreneurial spirits create opportunities for themselves and others to succeed in Alberta’s corporate culture through hard work; they strive for excellence; they explore ideas; and they are competitive (yet still collaborative), bold  and confident(yet still humble), adaptable and resilient.

I've been hearing a lot about students finding their passions, 21st Century Skills, and the Dual Credit strategy. How do those three things fit together?

The world is changing. Work is changing. Jobs are being crafted around technology that didn't even exist five years ago. So we are giving students the opportunity to play their part in Alberta's economy by allowing them to train for today's jobs today.

What does it mean when you say "We're changing the way we think because the world is changing"?

We're shifting our focus and putting students first, unlike in the past when we put students last. Today's students require a well-rounded education to prepare them for their future in Alberta's economy. In a world where anyone can discover the secrets of the Arctic without leaving the house, education is no longer limited to textbooks. So we are getting rid of textbooks and their associated funding, giving educators licence to be more creative so that they can inspire innovation and excellence. With the assistance of industry partners, we're redesigning the entire curriculum K-12 over the next two years so the current textbooks will be outdated anyway. 

Will there still be schools and classrooms and teachers? 

  • Of course. 

Will education still be mandatory? 

  • Yes! 

Will we continue to evaluate students with high stakes exit exams and make educators accountable by evaluating their excellence? 

  • You bet. Because as we transform our education system, change alone is unchanging. 

Who is “Inspiring Education”?

  • Inspiring Education is Everyone. And did you notice? That starts with an E too!

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Let's start testing sooner

Standardized testing is in the news a lot lately, and I'm all for it. But why start with grade twelves?  Every teacher I know says that there would be no problem getting students to an acceptable level if only the kids had the proper background to begin with.  Wouldn't it make more sense to start testing kids before they ever start school?

In order to implement national testing of young children, we would have to radically alter the present child-rearing system.

Being a parent is, without a doubt, the most important job a person can hold in this life. Yet it requires no qualifications, recommendations or previous experience, and one's performance is never evaluated.  Unpaid and undervalued as it is, what other job holds such serious ramifications upon our society?

Unfortunately, it appears to be a job that few people do well. Many children today are being raised in an environment that is not conducive to optimal learning, if not downright damaging. If we could somehow ensure that students enter school with some fundamental skills and knowledge, our national test results would be the highest in the world.

In order for parents to provide their children with the necessary skills for success, I suggest that they be properly trained and certified by a government agency.

Prerequisites for parenting would include a degree in child care and development from a recognized institution. This program would include a "student parenting" period. Student parents would be required to care for children (infant, toddler, elementary school child and the dreaded "teenager" respectively) for extended periods of time, under the supervision of a certified parent.  Upon completion of this degree, graduating parents would be allowed to conceive or otherwise obtain their first child.  At this point they would be subject to a probationary period during which they would be visited at random and their performance evaluated by a panel of parenting experts.

Upon successful completion of the probationary period, those who wish to work outside the home may designate another certified caregiver during their working hours.  Both parents and designates would be evaluated from time to time in order to ensure that the children are being cared for properly, and are progressing at an acceptable rate. Guidelines for acceptable progress would be made known to the parents well in advance of the supervisor's visit.

At the end of year three in the parenting program, children would be expected to complete the first standardized exam. Both skills and knowledge objectives would be tested.  Marks would be made public and those children who do not receive a satisfactory mark would require remedial work until year five. At this time, the second standardized test would be given before the child enters kindergarten. Children would not be able to enter kindergarten until they had successfully completed the exam.

Business and government feel that all students should leave school with a common "standard" yet they begin at age 5 with a huge range in their social, emotional, and intellectual development. It would be so much easier if we started with a homogeneous group. 

Originally published in the A.T.A. News Moot Points, September 8, 1993. 

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Task Force on Teaching Excellence

May 14 2014

I would like to present some concerns with the findings of the Task Force on Teacher Excellence.

As a parent, I want to be sure that all students have access to great teachers who not only instruct but also educate the whole person.  As a teacher, I believe that to be true. I believe most of Alberta’s teachers are strong teachers.  All three of my kids attended public school in Slave Lake. Their teachers helped them develop communication and life skills. Because of their teachers, they can play music, create art, and speak French. Because of their public education, they are good citizens who have respect and tolerance for people who are different from themselves. Because of their teachers, they have all found a passion for the sciences.  My eldest daughter is completing a PhD in Biotechnology at Cambridge University. My second daughter is top of her class in Geophysics at the U of A.  My son is in Computer Science at the U of A. I say this not to boast about my children’s intelligence, but to say that even though they grew up in a remote northern community, they have received an excellent education from their public school teachers.

The report states no teacher has lost his/her certificate in the past ten years due to incompetence and finds this “inconceivable.” It uses this fact to support its recommendation that Alberta’s teachers need greater evaluation.  The fact no teacher has lost a certificate due to incompetence is not evidence that the system is failing. It could even be construed as success. It could mean teaching skills are being nurtured and that weak teachers are becoming strong teachers. Given that 40% of Alberta’s teachers leave the profession within five years it is more than possible that those who lack competence leave the profession.
Teachers are judged every day. They are judged by their students. They are judged by parents. They are judged by their school based and district administrators. They are judged by their communities when their school’s test scores are published and when the Fraser Institute publishes its school rankings. They are judged by society when today’s youth fail in any conceivable way. Most of all, they judge themselves. They judge themselves every single day when they ask “what could I have done differently?” and “how could I do better?” and “how can I get this concept across?” or “how can I reach that one kid who resists learning?”  

How is it, in a province where industry regulates itself, where doctors and nurses and lawyers and engineers have their own regulatory bodies, that Alberta’s teachers are not considered capable of regulating themselves? Alberta’s teachers need support from the Ministry of Education. They need financial support, they need moral support and they need educational support. The one thing they do not need is one more agency telling them they are not good enough for Alberta’s students.


Nicola Ramsey, Slave Lake

Friday, 9 May 2014

For every Albertan, in every community, an excellent MLA.


On behalf of the Task Force for MLA Excellence, I am pleased to submit my Report to Albertans. This report makes recommendations on MLA excellence to ensure that for every Albertan, in every community, there is an excellent MLA.

In our deliberations, the interest of the citizen was paramount – the citizen came first. The well-being of the citizen is job one. Not profits for the shareholder, hubris for the politician, or “getting product to market.” The Task Force believes its recommendations will help to transform the province and achieve the vision of Inspiring Democracy.

The Task Force undertook a rigorous consultation process. For this the Task Force would like to thank its 68 Twitter followers, 256 Facebook friends, and 97 blog readers who participated in its one day of consultation.

Why were no politicians or corporations invited to sit on the Task Force for MLA Excellence? 

Clearly, MLAs themselves have far too much at stake in matters that concern them and their constituents to sit on a panel making recommendations in this matter. Corporations also have a vested interest in the democratic process. While Albertans of all colors and stripes were invited to contribute to the Task Force, no MLA or corporation chose to do so.  By embargoing the process, they told Albertans they were not interested in pursuing MLA Excellence and have no one to blame but themselves if their voices were not heard.


Alberta has a very strong political system. With a 42 year long unbroken reign by one political party, it has served Albertans well. So why establish a Task Force on MLA Excellence? The largest part of the answer rests in Inspiring Democracy – Alberta’s long-term vision for democracy centered on Albertans. The aspirations set out in Inspiring Democracy can only be achieved by aligning governance with its vision. We must determine what is working well and what can be improved. Because governance is at the core of a successful democracy, we must do all we can to achieve MLA excellence.

Does the current system protect Albertans from poor MLAs?

We acknowledge that Alberta has the highest per capita income, the highest median hourly wage, the highest rate of economic growth, and the lowest unemployment rate in Canada.  That being said, we can do better. The Task Force notes that in the past 42 years there has been no case in which an MLA has been removed from office due to incompetence. Given the province has 87 MLAs, the Task Force found this statistic almost inconceivable.  We acknowledge that some struggling MLAs and their leaders may leave on their own accord but the current model does not assure competence. Albertans agreed, with only 23 per cent of Albertans expressing confidence in the ruling party.


1.    What is excellent governance? Everyone has an MLA, and everyone has an opinion of MLA excellence. Central to achieving MLA excellence is a definition of excellence and clear expectations for practice. We have not developed such a definition, nor do we intend to.
2.    How to enable MLAs to be excellent. The Task Force recommends better MLA education, a mandatory one-year internship, a province-wide mentorship framework, and expanded opportunities for further learning. The Task Force makes no recommendations on how to fund or operationalize these recommendations.
3.    Leadership The Premier has the greatest impact on MLA excellence. The right Premier can propel a province forward, creating an environment in which MLA excellence flourishes. A definition for leadership excellence should align with the definition for MLA Excellence. See item 1.
4.    Conduct The existing system requires greater openness, transparency, timeliness, fairness and efficiency. Issues of misconduct, including convictions for actions that are unbecoming to the honour and dignity of the office, must be open and transparent. Public shaming of those who commit these egregious misdemeanors is suggested.
5.    Competence The Task Force recommends a very different system than the one currently in place. Rather than the long standing practice of elections every 4-5 years, we recommend the introduction of a system of certification including a review of performance at the end of the MLA’s first year office and further continuous repeated evaluations until such time as the MLA leaves office. Failure to achieve MLA excellence will result in the MLA having his/her governance certificate revoked, thereby being banned from any further governing.

The Task Force recommends the current model of shared responsibility between voters and the government be retained, with appropriate modifications to implement the recommendations of this report. If those modifications cannot be made under the existing model, the Task Force recommends that the entire system be thrown out and replaced with a disciplinary and certification process of its own design, preferably one in which key stakeholders have no involvement. The Task Force believes adoption of its recommendations will help Albertans to achieve the vision of Inspiring Democracy and to position Albertans for success in the world. These recommendations will ensure that:

For every Albertan, in every community, there is an excellent MLA.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

The First Class

The recent report of the Task Force on Teaching Excellence got me thinking about my own education, and reminded me of an article I wrote many years ago. Read it and ask yourself "what is teaching excellence?"

I was having dinner the other night when Bad Moon Rising came over the radio. "That's Mr. Hilton's favourite song!" I cried. Mr. Hilton was my Grade 5 teacher. Fresh out of UBC and filled with youthful vigor and untested theories about what could be done in the classroom, Mr. Hilton challenged every notion I had about what a classroom was and was not. I didn't like him. In today's parlance, he was "outside the box." Way outside the box.

I had good teachers during my early school years. Mrs. Caldwell was the classic little old lady teacher. Mrs. Teeple kept her class of 42 in line with a stern, yet loving hand. Mrs. McKibben, my Grade 3 teacher, was young and fun. Mrs. Parmar was serious and orderly. In those classes, we sat in rows. We wrote neatly. We did book reports and memorized times tables and sang songs. We were grouped for instruction according to ability. We were in a box.
But Mr. Hilton! In math, we worked at our own pace and were rewarded with candy for our successes. He made a big, vertical box with sliding doors. If you got 50 percent, you opened the bottom drawer and got a treat. Sixty percent got you a better treat in a higher level drawer, and so on. Those of us who hit the 80s never quite figured out why he never refilled our drawer, but as I think back, I realize that none of us tried to go for the lower mark. In our social studies unit on First Nations' peoples (called "Indians of North America" in those days), we were divided into groups and built structures. To the janitor's distress, hay bale houses, willow huts and tepees filled our quarter of the open area. We cooked traditional dishes, wore costumes and gave guided tours to the other classes.
Aside from being creative with the curriculum, Mr. Hilton entered into our personal lives. He delighted in challenging our assumptions and our ways of doing things. He outraged us by telling us we lived on the prairie when we knew there were plenty of trees around. He insisted on grouping us according to his own plan—weaker students with stronger ones, unpopular with popular. It seemed so unfair that I was paired with Debbie, who could merely draw the pictures for our report while I did all the "work" of writing, even though I couldn't draw a stick man and Debbie's delicate pastel drawings greatly added to our project. Mr. Hilton also secretly asked the most popular girl in the class to include a shy and friendless girl in all activities—a plan that backfired when the truth came out.
When the year ended, Mr. Hilton gave us a survey on his teaching for the year. In our youthful year-end enthusiasm, we gave him an overwhelming "two thumbs up" and were rewarded with his presence in Grade 6 as well.
As I said before, I didn't like Mr. Hilton. I wished desperately for someone different to be my teacher in Grade 6, but it was not to be. I craved a return to order and gold stars and picking my own partner. It wasn't until I began my own teaching career that I began to appreciate what Mr. Hilton was all about. Sure, he made mistakes—big ones. But he showed us that you have to take risks to make gains. For the less able students, he provided opportunities for a different kind of success. For those of us who were teachers' pets, he showed another way. He taught us how to be uncomfortable—that neat rows and routines were not the only way to live. He taught us how not to conform and, for me, how to work with someone you don't like. They say that teachers never forget their first class. That's the year we experiment and test and play around with all those theories and ideas we hope will work—the year we enter our first tentative relationships with our young charges. I wonder how well Mr. Hilton remembers his first class? I know I have never forgotten it.

Shortly after this article was published, my grade three teacher, Mrs McKibben, forwarded a copy of it to Mr. Hilton, who had become a school administrator and had recently retired.  He wrote back to me saying he still had the final report cards of his first class!
Originally published in the ATA News "Moot Points" column, summer 2002

Friday, 2 May 2014

Just a teacher

Miss Hartford and one of her track stars, Willy Lappenbush.
Willy passed away last year.
I started teaching in Sexsmith Alberta in 1980. I loved my school and my students.  It was a school where the kids did not have locks on their lockers because...well, why would they?  

I was a teacher librarian. I was 22 years old. I was innocent and enthusiastic.  I coached Reach for the Top. I was advisor for the yearbook. I had a very bad school choir. I coached track. I supervised school dances. I taught debate and English and creative writing and library skills and journalism and outdoor ed and consumer ed. I took the fan bus to watch the Sexsmith Sabres play in the Mighty Peace Football league-even though I had no idea what a "down" was.

Senior high kids asked for help with physics. I had no idea what they were learning. I would get them to explain what it was they didn't understand. I would rephrase their questions. They would thank me for helping them find the answer. The principal would drop by and ask. "Miss Hartford, why are there so many teenage boys in the library?"  Well...first of all, you assigned them here on their spares.  And second, should I remind you?  I am 22 years old.
At a colleague's wedding.

We had a young staff. Every Friday was "POETS" - "Piss On Everything, Tomorrow's Saturday" at the Sexsmith bar. We shared strategies and success. We commiserated over our challenging students. We talked about frustrations and failures and the funny things that happened that week. One day a kid threw a desk at a teacher. One teacher told his students there was a contest between the teachers to see who would get the most Christmas presents. It turned out not to be him. We talked about the kids from LaGlace whose moms made them go to church every Sunday when they were hungover and the the kids from Teepee Creek where it was said the three Rs were "ruttin' ropin' and ridin'" and where you might go to a fight and a dance would break out. In later years former students would join us, awkwardly. Including that kid who threw the desk.  

We celebrated "no bus" days when we could get caught up with our marking and get ahead with our planning and the principal would take us to the truck stop for lunch.  We reveled in teachers' convention when we could go for a drink after work and a restaurant for dinner. We cheered with our students when they achieved success and wept with them when one was lost to suicide or another was killed in a highway accident.

Mostly, we worked. We tried new techniques and joined committees and went to conferences and took notes at in-services and learned new technology. We might have been naive, but we were not fools. We knew what we did was not glamorous or well-respected. In a community fueled by oil and gas, being just a teacher wasn't much of a job.

I left Sexsmith in 1986. I have not taught in a traditional classroom for almost 30 years. Some of my  colleagues got tired of being just a teacher and moved on, moved up, or moved out. Like me, some moved to a non-traditional teaching environment. But others stayed and many of them have begun their transition to retirement.

To those front-line teachers, I salute you. I salute you for your dedication and your wisdom and your compassion.  Most of all, I salute you for your courage. I salute your for the courage to stand in front of a classroom day after day after day and share ideas and try to inspire and try to prepare your students for this uncertain life. Courage to build thousands of relationships that may never last more than a semester. Courage to try and courage to fail, and courage to get up the next day and try again. Courage to politely listen to parents and administrators and government officials tell you that everything you have done is wrong and then to go back and try it differently- and courage to stick to your guns when you know your way works. Courage to hear that your students are now doctors and scientists and owners of successful businesses and you are still just a teacher.

And I thank you. I thank you for walking beside me on the first steps of my teaching journey. I thank you for being there to share the laughter, for providing a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on. I thank you for pulling together when times were hard. And as you move forward in your life's journey, be proud. Yes, you are a teacher. But just a teacher? 

Oh no my friends, you are so much more than that.