Meaning and Purpose #2January 18, 2023
Meaning and Purpose #2 School District No.36 (Surrey)
I had the good fortune to get hired by the Surrey School District in a job that was like no other in the Canadian school system except another start up in North Vancouver SD. Three of us were hired to start a new movement called Community Education that was just in its infancy in the United States funded by the Mott Foundation out of Flint, Michigan. Within months after beginning my tenure in this new job I was the only one of the three to be sent to Michigan all expenses paid by the Mott Foundation to learn first hand what this new movement in education was all about. I loved my job and as a young buck right out of university I had my own office and secretary, unreal! The downside was that there were quite a few teachers in the system who were jealous of my good fortune and initially I was shocked by some of their behaviour. Entering the work world was a steep learning curve for a kid from rural Quebec but fortunately for me I had a great boss and mentor in Dr Don McKinnon. Don taught me so much and all these years later I call him every six weeks or so to check in on him back in British Columbia as he’s into his 90s. It’ll be a very sad day for me when I can’t hear his voice or see him in person.
While in my Community Education job I proposed forming a Provincial Association (ACE-BC) while away at a Cultus Lake retreat and fortunately Don listened and backed the idea after much discussion amongst all the attendees. For some reason I have to try to do something new and can’t sit still with the status quo. I’m always trying to tweak something to make something better or dreaming up an idea to go off in a new direction (I’ve been like that ever since I was a kid-I’m a dreamer). Sometimes I wish I weren’t like that because it can rub some people the wrong way and others can be threatened by it. I was never competing in my jobs and roles with others, I just wanted to do whatever seemed like the right thing to do. I was driven by what I did and not money or position. I started our own community education brochure paid 100% through advertising and distributed it throughout my zone using recycled Globe and Mail newspaper bins (remember them), and had them painted school board colours by our District Maintenance Department with Surrey School District logos. Enrolment in our Continuing Education programmes increased by 35% in the first year alone. Interestingly, I was told by Senior Leadership to stop producing my own brochure and stop my work on the community conflict resolution centre. I never agreed with those demands and ultimately it caused me to reevaluate my career in education. The only thing I regret about leaving the system and my District Principal position are the benefits and life time pension, at this point in my life I’d be on “easy street” if I had them.
I moved to Beautiful British Columbia from Eastern Canada because of the outdoors and I started the Environmental-Outdoor Education Department I spoke about in my first Meaning and Purpose blog. I left my Environmental-Outdoor Education Co-ordinator position because I was responsible for signing off teachers on their field trips; in other words I had to say they were competent and qualified to lead the field trip. I knew if something ever happened who would be called on the witness stand first and I felt that I should be compensated for evaluation of teacher’s competency and for accepting accountability if something went wrong. That might seem like a contradiction from what I said previously but it really isn’t. My position was very different and accepted much greater risks than the classroom teacher. My boss at the time said that would create problems within the district with the Surrey Teacher’s Association so I reluctantly left my job after three years and passed it off to another individual who was exclusively outdoor education focused. What now? I decided to go into the classroom (everyone kept telling me I didn’t know what it was like to be on the front lines after six years in the system) and chose grade 6/7 for one year (I have a plaque from the kids at year-end graduation- To A Great Teacher Mr Brian Luckock on the wall behind me). Then the following year a principal at a secondary school asked me to join his team and teach science which I did for 2 years and finally a year teaching biology in a high school in Canberra, Australia. When I came home after that year the Deputy Superintendent, Terry McBurney, asked me to tackle a problem that the Board and the Senior Leadership were grappling with. It was a district-wide conflict involving the Parent Teacher Advisory Councils and the Board. I had a two year mandate but I resolved in within the first year. I knew I had to be authentic and understanding of the PTAs issues to work with them. The first half year was a lot of active listening and earning their trust before moving forward into problem-solving. It ended with a weekend retreat to Mt. Baker in Washington State where I had arranged at a friend’s cottage for all of us to stay. A couple of PTA representatives and a couple of School Board representatives, and myself to hash out the details of the agreement.
As fate would have it, that year I came across a new programme at the Justice Institute of British Columbia in Conflict Resolution. Believe it or not those words didn’t exist in the Canadian lexicon back then. I went on to be in the first group of graduates two years later (4 of us) and one of the first accredited mediators in Canada. I founded the first community-based mediation centre in Western Canada and second in Canada plus the first school-based Peer Mediation programme in Canada at Frank Hurt Secondary School in Surrey. I rounded out my 18 year career in public education restructuring Continuing Education for the school district and starting the first Adult Literacy programme in British Colombia. I’m immensely proud of my work in my education career and pleased to know many of the things I started are still with us today. I honestly don’t know why or how I can see things in the future that others can’t. Conflict Resolution in the school system was a good example of that. I approached the Justice Institute of BC (JIBC) about the idea but they saw no value in my ideas. After introducing the Peer Mediation programme and the Summer Institute for Educators in Conflict Resolution with teachers attending from across Canada, the JIBC practically begged me to transfer the two programmes to their provincial body; which I did. I truly felt they had the resources and the organizational support to take the programme to the next level which I didn’t have in Surrey.
Closing Story: There’s a doctoral student who has written her thesis on the history of Conflict Resolution in British Columbia that has some glaring errors in it. The community-based mediation society was conceived and initiated by me, and not someone else. I had the blessing of my boss; yes, that man Dr Don McKinnon yet again to use some of my time on this idea I had. It took a huge amount of work to get it off the ground and I did have the support of many people along the way (Dr Gordon Hogg, former Mayor of White Rock, MLA Member of the British Columbia Legislature, MP Member of Parliament helped me with the BC Societies Act as a non-profit). I approached a Canada Grants Officer who helped me write the grant proposal and then the two of us arranged a meeting with my local Member of Parliament, Benno Freisen. I knew that by sending my drafts to the Grants Officer for review that she would see herself as a co-author and I’d have her support. Through the three year grant we obtained we were able to secure a store front lease on office space in Newton, office furniture and equipment plus a secretary, an operating budget, and an Executive Director to lead the enterprise. Three years gave us a chance to become self supporting and introduce the public to a new concept. Those first few years we had so many people walk through our doors thinking they were going to a meditation class. Surrey|White Rock Mediation Society.
All in all, I had too many career moves within the Surrey School District to mention here (7). I ended my career in public education as a district administrator and really did not want to leave but the Leadership Team I had to work with at the district office were philosophically light years away from where I was coming from. They didn’t value creativity, innovation, entrepreneurial spirit, change where necessary for the betterment of public education, and bold moves that challenged the status quo. If you study organizational culture you will learn that there are four main types of organizational culture; they are: Change-Oriented, People-Oriented, System-Oriented, and Competition-Oriented. If you guessed public institutions are System-Oriented you guessed right. Public institutions to some degree out of necessity are driven by stability, control, consistency, predictability, and maintaining the status quo along with an internal focus and order. Public institutions are stewards of the publics money and thus need by nature to be more conservative than competition driven private sector organizations ie. General Electric, driven by an external focus with an eye on their competition and a need for stability and control. Public sector institutions attract by and large more conservative individuals who are more invested in their personal security and job predictability. Dr McKinnon and my first Superintendent of Schools, Mr Jack Evans, did not entirely fit that mold as leaders. For me personally, they were the perfect leaders given who I am, and I’m thankful to have had Dr McKinnon three times in my career with Surrey as my boss. Without him I would never have accomplished what I did. In summary of organizational culture, an organization’s over riding culture as in my case may be Systems-Oriented; one can still potentially find micro cultures such as Change-Oriented. However, understand the dominate culture will always trump the micro culture in the long run as I could attest too.