I had short stint at Albert Education in 2013, and my work there was centred around supporting the education sector in unpacking and bringing to life the latest draft version of the PPCSLA, also known as the Professional Practice Competencies for School Leaders in Alberta. This was intended to eventually be passed as a Ministerial Order and then applied to the work of all school leaders in the province. It was an interesting time to jump in and try and get up to speed in 2013 as there were a number of exciting projects across the province who were immersed in this work. I was fortunate enough to spend time with Chinook’s Edge and Red Deer Public Schools who developed a process with a team of professors from the University of Lethbridge, where they included the PPCSLA to their school leaders professional growth plans, and then created a system of monthly coaching conversations about their growth as school leaders. (Much of their work can be reviewed in their book Leadership in Education -The Power of Generative Dialogue). I also had a chance to visit an exciting project with the Albert Assessment Consortium as they looked at how the implementation of the PPCSLA could support teachers with quality instruction and assessment practices. In addition to these projects and a few others, the Alberta Teachers’ Association was also completing a 2 year program with school leaders to provide training and certification in Cognitive Coaching to enhance their practice. I was learning so much and gaining valuable insights into these unique ways to support the work of principals and assistant principals in a variety of contexts. As each of these projects reported back to the government, Alberta Education was able to use the results to refine the competencies for school leaders and share with Superintendents best practices with potential implementation.
In February of 2018, Alberta Education implemented three new standards in Alberta. The first one was an update to the Teacher Quality Standard. The next two were new standards - the Leadership Quality Standard and the Superintendent Leadership Quality Standard. These standards came into effect in September of 2019. For those interested in receiving certification for the Leadership Quality Standard, they were offered opportunities to take two day courses prior to the 2019-20 school year, as were staff interested in the SLQS. The implementation of these new standards created a renewed focus for all school divisions to develop processes to ensure that their leaders are meeting them each year. In addition, any teachers who are seeking to be an assistant principal or principal needs to understand the LQS and how to implement them in a school. When I was at Alberta Education learning from and supporting the projects out in the field, I had only my teaching, school counselling and assistant principal experience to draw on. I was inspired by what I learned and I was excited to try out my craft as a school principal. I left the ministry after applying, interviewing and being offered the opportunity to be a principal and I arrived at St. Martin’s School in Vegreville in the fall of 2013. I was excited to put into practice all that I had learned about the PPCSLA… which eventually became the LQS. Fast forward to 2021 and after 7 and bit years as a principal, I am have found myself in a Division leadership position tasked with helping support teachers who are excited to venture into leadership in understanding the LQS.
I feel like in some ways I have come full circle in my professional practice. I am unpacking the leadership quality standards and trying to find a way to educate our educators around these concepts after doing this work back in 2013. This winter I was blessed to lead of 9 volunteer principal group leaders and over 20 teachers and vice-principals who were excited to learn more. We decided to pair off the 10 CLQS items (the Catholic Leadership Quality Standards which was developed based on the Leadership Quality Standards but infuses our shared Catholic values and adds one additional standard) and run 5 sessions after school for 1 hour each. We called our program “Formed” and we tried to design each session to provide some insights into the standards and offer an opportunity for discussion in breakout groups. The participants had to review the two CLQS items and then read an article that I selected to highlight some additional details related to the topic. I also leaned on our Division’s Senior Leadership Team to assist me with the topics, soliciting their expertise for 4 of the 5 sessions. Our Superintendent talked about faith aspects of leadership in a Catholic school Division, our Deputy Superintendent shared her experiences leading a learning community and getting staff excited about engaging in meaningful professional learning. Our Director of Early Learning and Student Services shared some practical advice on instructional leadership and our Secretary Treasured reviewed how budgets for the Division and schools are developed and how we manage our resources. This was an excellent opportunity for all of us to engage in these discussions and share our expertise with our participants. Most importantly, it helped our participants understand certain aspects of leaderships and develop a connection to our principal leaders and guest speakers - future resources for them as they navigate their way into potential leadership roles.
My favourite aspect of Formed, however, was the meeting before the session, where I had the chance to connect with our principal leaders who were paired off to lead our breakout groups. These principals and I would discuss the 2 CLQS items and share our own takeaways from the reading. This conversation was excellent and it helped me get to know our 9 principal leaders better, and I think it also allowed them to get to know me better as well. I really appreciated their insights and I recognized that these conversations were supporting them in their own work as school leaders too. These unique opportunities for reflection are very meaningful, and I found during my tenure as a principal, not frequent enough. As I look back on my time at Alberta Education following the leadership projects across Alberta, that was the key to each projects success - creating unique opportunities for guided reflection on school leadership. Although the government was seeking feedback on their draft of competencies, the magic was all in the process. As I reviewed the feedback from our Formed sessions, it was the breakout conversations that was everyone’s highlight. I think it is fair to say that authentic and engaging reflection of our leadership practices in a group that has high levels of trust and openness among its members is as meaningful an experience that any school leader may have! And I have to say that when these opportunities exist, it can be some of the best professional learning one will receive… and all it costs is time.
Here is another takeaway for me during this process: as we know, the best way to really learning something is to teach it. As I planned each FORMED session and reviewed the LQS, I learned these standards in more detail than I had before, and what I realized was just how well thought out and speak to the heart of school leadership - well done to everyone from Alberta Education who had a hand in developing them. The main focus of the first four competencies is 1) relationships, 2) a growth mindset 3) vision, and 4) culture. This speaks volumes to me because the standards emphasize before getting into the nitty gritty, the three main ingredients to lead a school community. Sometimes, a new school leader feels compelled to jump in and start observing teachers and giving constructive feedback, or making organizational changes before they get to deeply learn their context and the LQS reminds us that it is about relationship, having a growth mindset ourselves and modelling our own learning, developing a shared vision and building a culture of learning among the schools faculty, students and parents.
As the LQS states, the school leader first establishes effective relationships - a school leader needs to learn the people whom they are serving. This means they need to take time building trust, learning how to best communicate with staff and to understand their staff and their roles in the school, as well as get to know them as people. Any school is only as good as its staff (see Professional Capital by Fullen and Hargreaves), and since this is the number one asset of any school, a school leader has to know them, connect with them and serve them to be the best educators possible.
The second theme of the LQS really helps connect a school leader with their staff and it is to model a commitment to professional learning. In other words, a school leader must have a growth mindset and model it for their staff. Therefore, a school leader needs to be somewhat vulnerable in terms of not knowing everything and needs to demonstrate they are willing to be the “lead learner” and work along side their staff in gaining new knowledge and skills. This helps a school leader lead by example and also helps build trust among staff as they are seen as a willing participant to the professional learning process. My favourite example of this is when a school leader also takes on a small teaching assignment and intentionally puts in to practice things they are learning with their staff and shares this at staff meetings or on PD Days. This sets an outstanding example to school staff and provides a school leader with additional credibility as well because they are not just talking the talk, but they are walking the talk too. This can be difficult to fit into a principal schedule which seems to get more demanding by the year, but when it can happen it is an excellent way to apply new knowledge and practice the art of teaching.
The third task is developing a shared vision for the school community about what to value in teaching and learning. This cannot be the principal’s vision - this is a shared responsibility and developing that vision among all stakeholders takes time and persistence. But it becomes the driving force of what schools create for their priority and focus area for a school year or more. The best way to move a school community forward in an area is to do it together, so everyone must be on the same page. This means using data, looking at results, getting into meaningful discussions with staff, students, and parents to determine which way a school should steer its efforts. This work can seem daunting, but it is some of the most exciting work I have done as principal. By creating a vision for your school, a principal can align all aspects of their work around this vision and use it to help drive decisions - around budgets, PD, staffing, and creating structures to bring that shared vision to life. Developing a shared vision can have a tremendous impact on a school over time when it is done well and when it is done in collaboration.
The final tasks from the top four according to the LQS is to lead the learning community and inso doing develop a culture or a way of doing “teaching and learning”. All schools have a culture, and if a principal is not ready to influence that culture, they may realize the culture will influence their leadership. The way we respond to issues, help students who may be struggling, support those less fortunate in our communities, manage student behaviour or deal with change in the middle of the school year, will all be reflected by the culture of the school. When a school has a culture that prioritizes creating a fair workload for all staff, then the response to a new student who arrives mid year will be to put them in the current class in that grade level with the least number of students. But when the culture of a school is more about everyone working hard in their respective areas to maximize the service to students, then they may respond to a new student by determining which class may best meet their learning needs regardless of class size. Another example of school culture can be directly related to the leadership style of the principal. If a school leader is often transactional in their interactions with staff, then the culture of a school may reflect that leadership and some staff may only do things when it is in their best interest. However, when the school leader is inspirational in their leadership and puts the needs of others first, more school staff are likely to follow suit and be more will to give their time and energy to best meet their students needs. (These excellent examples were shared with me by our group of principal leaders when we met prior to one of our sessions around this LQS item). The greatest school culture to me is defined as “generative”, where the school staff seek out challenges and creates possible solutions in an open and trusting community. A generative school community has a culture where everyone is a leader in their own way and are eager to learn, grow and implement change when it is well developed and has a high likelihood of making a difference for students, even if it means more or different work for the staff. Developing a culture like that in a school is no easy task, but it is certainly what every school leader should strive for.
There we have it - the top 4 of 9 LQS items and none of them refer to assessment practices, or how to best teach the curriculum. They are about people and establishing relationships, modelling learning, developing a shared vision, and creating a learning community that is focused on serving all students and offering the best education possible. The Leadership Quality Standard, from my experience and in my opinion is a brilliant document that will help guide the work of Alberta school leaders for years to come!