BC School Superintendents Association, Vancouver
Thank you, Sue-Ellen. It is truly an honour to join you here today.
It is always a privilege to be able to join fellow educators for robust conversation around matters of teaching, learning and leadership.
It’s good to be able to step out of that fast-moving river of responsibility now and then for sessions like this…to pause and talk about why we all do what we do—and how we can work together to do it better. No doubt you are already feeling quite stimulated by this morning’s proceedings—and I hope to keep that energy going for a little bit longer!
I’ve been reflecting on the theme of this conference, in particular the notion of transformation. Because there’s just a little bit of change going on in the K-12 world at the moment, am I right? If it’s any comfort, things are moving pretty fast these days in higher ed too…
Over at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology—which I hope you’ll make time see while you’re in town! —we have several Indigenous transformation masks in the collection.
They are revered and really beautiful things—intricately carved wooden masks used in ritual dances that can change from one mythological form to another with the pull of a few ropes and levers.
It seems so easy—now you’re one thing and then, just like that, you become something else entirely. If only real transformation were so simple and elegant! But then, even caterpillars have to turn to mush before they emerge as butterflies!
There is one particular mask that starts off as a Thunderbird — which you may know is UBC’s official mascot, a gift from the Kwiksutaineuk people.
The mask, which you can see on the screen behind me, was carved sometime before 1960 by Herbert Johnson, a Kwakwaka’wakw artist over by Kingcome Inlet. And when a dancer tugs the right strings… at the right time… and in the right way, the Thunderbird opens to reveal a bold human face.
Now, I would like to think that everyone in this room, from the novice classroom teacher to the most seasoned superintendent, is reaching for the right strings to transform education in BC and reveal the bold human face, mind and heart of every young life that we collectively touch.
And in an ideal world, that’s how it would be: everyone striving toward the same common vision.
But when the ground is shifting rapidly beneath our feet… when we feel unsure and unsettled by all the change that is being asked of us… well, it’s easy to lose our footing and focus. And so, we look to our leaders to regain clarity and purpose.
So, I want to pause for a moment here and ask you all to reflect on something as I continue with my talk. I’d like you to call to mind the person— or people! —that you consistently look to for leadership.
And then I’d like you also to consider: who looks to YOU for leadership?
Have you got them? Good. Because I want you to bring them along for the rest of this talk.
We are all challenged to lead, regardless of our titles or the number of schools or students we manage. And we must never forget that our decisions and actions as leaders have a ripple effect on real people.
Now, at UBC we recently launched a new strategic plan — a roadmap that sets out our collective vision, purpose, goals and strategies for the years ahead.
Our vision is a bold one: to “inspire people, ideas and actions for a better world.” And I consider it my duty, as President, to help put a human face on that massive aspiration… to bring it to scale and make it come alive for our students, staff, faculty, alumni and partners.
So, what do I mean by that? And what does it look like in practice?
First of all, it’s important to explain that I, like Margaret Wheatley who spoke earlier today, consider myself a “servant leader.” Robert K. Greenleaf developed this philosophy of leadership 50 years ago and it has been refined by many others over the intervening decades.
Servant-leaders focus first on the growth and well-being of others. They aim to build strong communities and lead by influence, rather than power. They start from a position of humility and respect, and strive to listen and serve with compassion and empathy.
In his essay on servant leadership, Greenleaf wrote:
The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or a least not be further deprived?
Servant-leadership certainly doesn’t mean that you don’t, at times, have to make tough decisions or assert yourself. But when you approach people from a foundation of mutual respect, no one is left feeling disempowered or dehumanized.
There is really no secret formula for servant leadership, but there are some important guiding principles: you want to support your teams … grow your people … listen well and often … build community; and … reflect and learn.
This approach can be extremely effective when you’re trying to turn a big ship and get everyone paddling in the same direction. And it can be applied broadly, from the front-lines to the C-suite.
Let me give you an example from UBC that integrates all these principles.
One of the priorities of UBC’s new strategic plan is enhancing the student experience. We have committed to working with student government to create opportunities for students to feel more engaged and better supported during their time at UBC—outside as well as inside the classroom, across all our campuses and learning sites.
We are expanding holistic, developmental and professional student advising and engagement to support students in determining and realizing academic, career and personal goals.
We are strengthening mental-health and recreation resources for all students. And we are continuing to improve the hubs where students gather to study and socialize.
Our work will foster a greater sense of belonging, predicated on personal growth within smaller, diverse communities in the context of the large and complex community that is UBC.
That’s the macro lens on leadership. We gathered our communities, listened carefully to their needs and desires, committed to providing the right tools for success—and then socialized the heck out of our vision through social media; student, staff and faculty newsletters; town hall meetings; podcasts; student breakfasts; and staff and faculty luncheons.
What that means is that our people clearly understand which port we’re sailing to. And that’s really important because when you’re below-decks, where you can’t see the horizon, and you’re paddling like crazy – you need to trust that you’re heading in the right direction!
The operational results of this clear and shared vision around an improved student experience can be seen across our campuses. For example:
Undergraduate commuter students who once felt disconnected from campus life now enjoy assigned Collegia spaces where they can rest, relax and even cook a meal when they at UBC.
A new pilot Program for Undergraduate Research Experience is enriching the research engagement of undergraduate students through innovative projects that offer targeted training and mentoring opportunities.
And students, staff and faculty continue to strengthen their mental health and resiliency through Thrive UBC—a 10-year-old awareness and advocacy program that is the gold standard for wellness initiatives among global universities.
Many of you here today will already know that this last point — the necessity of thriving mentally, physically, and spiritually — is deeply personal for me. And I guess that is another important aspect of how I try to humanize leadership.
I have been very open about my own mental health challenges. I’ve talked about it during breakfast meetings with students at my home … in speeches and magazine articles … and on social media. Because I do believe that there is a place for authentic vulnerability among leaders.
I once heard the expression, “We are all just walking each other home,” and I think this is an excellent reminder for leaders. So, let me ask you: what part of your own lived experience might make a critical difference for a struggling student or disheartened colleague? Are YOU willing to risk vulnerability to cultivate empathy and connection?
Now, interestingly, some of what I’ve talked about so far is reflected in the Ministry of Education’s recent move towards compassionate leadership across the K-12 system. Here’s how the Ministry frames it:
Systems Leadership in education inspires transformation and instructional best practices leading to student success. Systems Leadership is anchored in self-awareness, social awareness, responsible decision-making, self-management and relationship skills. System Leaders practice actionable self-reflection, facilitating and engaging in conversation, building generative relationships and systems thinking.
You can see the parallels to what I’ve been talking about in words like “social awareness” and “relationship skills” and “generative relationships.”
And this is a nice segue to what I want to talk about next, which is the slow and steady harmonization of the K-12 educational system with the post-secondary system.
I think it is fair to say that our two systems have not always played easily together. I have heard from several K-12 educators and even some professors in our Faculty of Education that there is sometimes a perceived lack of understanding and respect between boots-on-the-ground educators and the rare air of the academy.
But here’s what I know for certain that we have in common.
As educators, we all care first and foremost about our students. As educators, we all experience pressure from parents and employers to prepare their children—and future employees—to thrive in a rapidly changing world. And as educators, we are all constantly challenged to navigate new ways of thinking, teaching and learning in a landscape brimming with diverse people and perspectives.
As you know, the new K-12 curriculum embeds aspects of diversity across grades and subject areas to deepen understanding of issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity … to integrate Indigenous ways of knowing across all areas of study … and to strengthen mental health and resilience. High school graduation now favours the whole person—and not just that person’s GPA.
And at UBC, we are keeping pace with these changes. Our Faculty of Education is revamping its teacher training program to reflect the skills that will be required by tomorrow’s educators. And for in-service educators, they offer a whole range of free resources to support professional development such as Professor Jan Hare’s incredibly popular MOOC on Reconciliation through Indigenous Education, Dr. Stan Kutcher’s Mental Health Literacy for Educators training.
Our professors are changing the ways they deliver their lessons to reflect the way recent high school graduates have already been primed to learn—through flipped classrooms, free online courses, project-based learning and other methods.
Our Equity and Inclusion Office is funding special projects led by faculty, staff and students to enhance diversity across the university, including in admissions, academic programs, student services and experiences, and across thematic areas such as Indigeneity, accessibility, race and culture, and LGBTQ2SIA+.
And perhaps most importantly, we are continuing to find ways to strengthen the “soft skills” so highly prized by today’s employers.
Last month, we asked more than 100 employers at UBC Vancouver’s Career Days the question: What are the skills and qualities of a successful candidate in your organization?
Let me tell you what we heard.
Bench Accounting, one of western Canada’s fastest growing companies, wants to “hire for fit” — and teach the requisite technical skills later. They’re looking for curiosity, empathy and a willingness to learn — they’re particularly interested in the multidisciplinary skills of our Arts students.
PepsiCo values strong leaders who are also effective team players. They’re looking for strong oral and written communication skills and the ability to confidently interact with all levels within the organization, from the front-lines to the executive suite.
SAP wants to hire people who think big and dream big … people with integrity who are dynamic and adaptable. They want people who are collaborative, creative and fun. (These are their exact words, I promise you!) And most of all they want people who are passionate about helping businesses — and the world — to run better, and improve people’s lives.
Our students have so many ways to ready themselves for these roles, whether it’s through the nearly 10,000 annual co-op and Work-Learn opportunities … or student-directed seminars that allow upper-year undergrads to design and facilitate a three-credit course not covered in UBC’s current curriculum … or their involvement with student clubs and service organizations … or alumni mentoring programs … or, well, there are just too many examples to list here.
The point is: our systems are becoming more closely aligned. We are paddling in the same direction. From kindergarten right through to university graduation, we strive to nurture the students in our care to ensure the best possible outcomes.
We are all working together toward the same goal: student success.
Or perhaps I should say: life success.
Thank you for being here today. I am grateful for your attention and we have a little time left for discussion. I welcome your questions, and your thoughts on how we can continue to work together to transform education.