Leading to Learn draws favourable reviews from participants
Ever since the Ministry of Education announced its Education Sector Strategic Plan five years ago, much of the attention has focused on the goals to improve on-time graduation rates for First Nations, Inuit and Métis students by 2020.
In the interim, there have been various initiatives that have been undertaken with that goal in mind. Now you can add Leading to Learn to that list. The intended primary audience is principals and administrators, with the overarching aim that they are the ones who can set the tone to make First Nations, Inuit and Métis students feel more comfortable in their respective schools.
Count on Aaron Fosseneuve, a First Nations educator, among those who have high hopes for this project that started two years ago.
Fosseneuve has only been involved personally for this year, and he is looking at the opportunity to interact with colleagues provincewide as the ideal catalyst prior to assuming the principalship at Charlebois Community School in Cumberland House this fall.
“This is the best professional development I have been to in my 15 years in education because this is looking at things through a different lens in terms of building healthier relationships,” Fosseneuve remarked.
“This is south meets north. So that is what makes this possibly the best initiative in years because we get to learn from each other and that’s why I am hopeful with this compared to some of the others we have seen,” he added.
He lauded the desire to have an understanding of both the Indigenous ways as well as the more traditionally utilized system. “I think it’s going to be a great tool for administrators to help establish equity outcomes for our First Nations, Inuit and Métis students.”
Susan Nedelcov-Anderson, assistant deputy minister with the Ministry, was equally ebullient about the prospects. As one of those who was in on the ground floor, she has been pleased with the evolution and commitment shown.
“We had this dream, but you never know for sure until you walk things through. We took some chances with this because there was not a set plan to follow. There were some muddy waters along the way, but you can see how everyone is pulling together and the relationships developing.
“This is such strong professional learning for administrators, and administrators are a critical piece for schools to lean on. With their support, and that of Elders, we have all the pieces in place for sustaining this initiative. To hear some of the stories that were shared here first-hand, I was just glad I was here today,” she enthused.
Jenise Vangool, who is principal at St. John Community School in Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools, cited the fact that this is the first-ever, provincewide professional development of this kind as a key factor.
“It’s great because it is created by and led by principals and so that can be very impactful in our schools. For me it has helped us a great deal to share with colleagues and it has given us time to reflect on what we know has to be done. There is a moral imperative for us to get this right, and for me personally, the greatest impression has been to witness the teaching of the Elders.
“I felt like every time we left one of these meetings that we were able to utilize what we had shared in terms of making a difference. Everyone has a shared commitment and an accountability to report back to the group,” she noted.
Fosseneuve stressed the importance of having six diverse divisions involved in the process, noting how it is a major help in building capacity and establishing a strong network.
“I definitely can share my experiences from Northern Lights [School Division]. But being here with colleagues from the other divisions is empowering, and you can gain a lot from having the other perspectives. At first there wasn’t a lot of conversation necessarily, but now it’s like we are a family,” he noted.
“The Saskatchewan Professional Development Unit has been fantastic in helping us all figure this out along the way and to facilitate these meetings has not been easy, but they have been there every step of the way,” Nedelcov-Anderson said.
She praised the overall collegiality of having involvement from the Ministry, school divisions, the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation and the Saskatchewan Educational Leadership Unit. “We’re all in this for the same reason and that’s to see success for all Saskatchewan students.”
According to Vangool, the collaboration that developed along the way has been a major contributing factor to the respective administrators feeling comfortable enough to put themselves in a vulnerable position to arrive at this place before the end of the school year.
“It has been a lot of work, but very rewarding and inspiring both personally and professionally. I think what we have talked about are very manageable things we can do in our own divisions and there is much to build on moving forward.”
Vangool said in her own school she has already seen tangible evidence of success. She noted attendance figures as one of the examples of how students are feeling more engaged and that is a direct factor in seeing some of the improved outcomes.
She indicated how each teacher on staff has had a First Nations, Métis or Inuit student for whom they assumed a strong personal connection and measured their respective data. “You could see the emotion that developed and it’s because, as teachers, we care about these kids. So to strengthen those relationships in terms of recognizing the importance of culture is so important. We’re now at a pivotal point and there is a strong commitment to carry forward. This group [administrators] is motivated to continue to build those bridges.”
Shaun McEachern, Director of SPDU, said the sort of distributive leadership model that has been followed has been key to the success.
“I walked into this when it was already well underway, but the feedback has been glowing,” he said, while praising the work of SPDU Associate Directors Lindsay Shaw and Connie Molnar in particular. “The next step now is for these folks to stand in front of their colleagues and share the work. I know they are excited, but they are nervous about it too because they know there is some heavy lifting ahead.”
McEachern was adamant that a lot of the work that has gone into Leading to Learn has been “off the side of people’s desks, and it has been above and beyond, and that’s because they believe in the work they are doing and see its importance.”
He did caution that it is important to maintain the funding from the Ministry to allow this program to flourish and grow.
Fosseneuve underscored the importance of “building success as a pathway to empower our students through culture, language and overall sense of self so that they will know where they want to go in life. We have to do this together and that’s the biggest takeaway for me. The biggest change personally is how I look at the importance of community engagement and how our schools can benefit from that. That has been the biggest learning curve.
“What we have been talking about as a group are things that can definitely be adapted to our individual situations.”