-by Garry McKinnon, Superintendent
I had an interesting experience on January 11 at the University of Calgary when I joined three other superintendent colleagues to share with 350+ Faculty of Education students who are in the last semester of their Bachelor of Education program, some views on the state of education and some advice as they prepare to enter the teaching profession. My role was to represent the charter school perspective.
I emphasized in describing the unique role of the 13 charter schools in Alberta that charter schools are public schools which receive the same level of funding as any other publicly-funded school jurisdiction in Alberta. Charter schools do have a unique mandate to serve as a centre of research and innovation and to develop exemplary teaching practices, which can be replicated in other schools. In describing how each charter school does have a unique approach to learning and teaching, which is outlined in the school charter that is approved by the Minister of Education, I made reference to the Calgary Science School charter principles which include: engaging students in authentic learning experiences through a disposition of inquiry; enhancing learning and teaching through the use of technology and providing a variety of rich experiences in environmental and outdoor education and taking learning beyond the walls of the classroom. I suggested with reference to my 43 years of experience in a variety of roles in several school jurisdictions that I have come to believe that every school should be like a charter school and have a clearly articulated philosophy and guiding principles.
In responding to the question, “what would you like to see from graduates as future teachers?”, I made reference to learning and teaching in the Calgary Science School and feedback I have received from students, parents and teachers in outlining the following:
1. Having a Passion for Teaching – Teaching by its very nature is a very complex, challenging undertaking and at the same time it is a very rewarding profession which has a profound impact on all aspects of our lives. We need individuals in the profession who have a passion for teaching; it is a vocation- a calling. Each day I see teachers in our school who are highly dedicated and engaged in doing everything possible to help their students experience success as learners. The one concern is that teaching can become consuming and it is important for teachers to find a balance in their personal and professional lives.
2. Understanding and Operating from your Essence – I believe that our inner beliefs and values or what could be described as “our essence” have a significant impact on our actions. It is important to understand and operate from your essence. The teachers in the Calgary Science School have chosen to be in this school because the guiding beliefs and principles of the charter are consistent with their personal and professional essence.
3. Having Strong People /Relationship Building Skills – Clearly as educators we are in the people business and having strong people skills and being driven by a desire to build positive relationships are fundamentally important. You need to reach the child to teach the child. Students and parents in describing the special qualities of the Calgary Science School teachers made reference to teachers truly caring about their students and caring about what they are teaching. They described a prevailing culture in which there is a strong sense that, “we are all in this together and this is a good place to be”.
4. Being Able to Actively Engage Learners – The ability of teachers to achieve a high level of engagement of students as learners while addressing curricular expectations through varied, meaningful, authentic learning activities is a key measure of a quality education. The Alberta Education pilot survey Tell Them for Me which makes reference to provincial and national norms of student engagement and other school survey data reflect a high level of engagement as one of the hallmarks of the Calgary Science School. Students in describing how they are motivated through a variety of experiential learning activities observe that in the Calgary Science School, “it is never just an ordinary day”.
5. Being Confident as a Teacher and Being a Confidence Builder – Teaching is all about confidence building. Teachers strive to build a high level of confidence in each of their students by providing success experiences. Teachers in order to be confidence builders must have a solid base of confidence in themselves. Teachers in the Calgary Science School are accustomed to having many visitors to the school spending time in the classrooms and they are encouraged in keeping with the charter school mandate, to be very open about their professional practice and to seek opportunities to share best practices with others. They certainly need to have a high level of professional confidence.
6. Being Collaborative and a Team Player – We know that students do not learn well in isolation and similarly we know that learning and teaching is significantly enhanced through teacher collaboration with colleagues, teacher and student collaboration and student collaboration with their peers. It takes a special effort to develop collaboration and team building skills, but it most certainly is worth the effort. The willingness of teachers to be team players and to contribute to the culture of collaboration within the school has been described as a key to the success of the school.
7. Demonstrating an Innovative, Risk-taking Orientation – Teachers who pursue a teaching position in a charter school are by the very nature of the mandate of a charter school, risk-takers and innovators. If we want our students to have an entrepreneurial spirit as learners, our teachers must be models and mentors of risk-taking and innovation.
8. Being Skillful in using Technology to Enhance Learning and Teaching – The Calgary Science School teachers embrace opportunities to use technology to enhance learning and teaching. The real measure is not the fact that every student has a laptop or iPad, or that there are Smart boards in every classroom; it is how technology is used as a learning and teaching tool. The student demonstration of their learning through such things as electronic portfolios, blogs, Google Docs, displays with QR codes and technology-enhanced research and presentations is the real measure.
9. Maintaining a Research Focus – In the Calgary Science School, the focus is on the science of learning which is embodied in the teaching of mathematics, science, the humanities, the fine and performing arts, environmental and outdoor education and in essence all aspects of the school learning experiences. Teachers are models and mentors of a disposition of inquiry and research practices.
10. Maintaining a Learning Focus – Teachers see themselves as learners. They embrace opportunities to become engaged in job-embedded professional development through the 16 days that are allocated in the school year calendar, opportunities to conduct their own personal research projects which are funded through the Calgary Science School Research and Innovation project, graduate coursework and a variety of other professional development experiences.
Certainly this list of desirable qualities of teachers, is not all-inclusive. During the past school year, students, parents and teaching staff members have been engaged in a process of making meaning of the unique aspects of learning and teaching in the Calgary Science School through the development of 16 descriptors of Exemplary Teaching and corresponding descriptors of Exemplary Learning. These documents serve as a framework for teacher recruitment, professional growth plans, teacher evaluation and professional development. I have attempted to identify the knowledge, skills and attributes that I would like to see among individuals entering the teaching profession. As well, I see them as essential for bringing about significant change in learning and teaching in our schools.
I believe that we are in a very exciting and certainly a very significant time in education in Alberta. We have seen the in-depth consultative process associated with Inspiring Education and Inspiring Action and most recently the open dialogue on education fostered by our new Minister of Education the Hon. Thomas Lukaszuk as he prepares to finalize the Education Act to be presented at the spring session of the legislature. The importance of hearing the student voice and focusing on authentically involving students as engaged thinkers, preparing them as ethical citizens and promoting an entrepreneurial spirit in learning and teaching has been highlighted through this process. It has been suggested that there is a need for a major shift in what we are doing in our schools as we establish Alberta as a leader as a knowledge society.
During the panel presentation, I made reference to the enthusiastic involvement of the eleven student teachers in the Calgary Science School this past semester and pointed out to the education students that they have an important role to serve as change agents. I also made reference to the many examples of exemplary learning and teaching, many of which have been highlighted in the Connect! blog, which cause me to feel very excited about the direction we are going as a charter school as we strive to develop a deeper understanding of what a transformation in education should look like. It was a good experience to share these ideas and dialogue with the group of future teachers at the University of Calgary and I look forward to continuing the dialogue through the Connect! blog.