Break Free from Traditional Roles

December 4, 2017 Jacqueline Skytt
Jacqueline Skytt

I became involved in the work of the profession during my first year teaching. Perhaps it was “beginning teacher” enthusiasm that caused me to volunteer to supervise two school clubs and be the ATA school rep, in addition to teaching seven different high school courses. At any rate, there I was, sitting in the September local council meeting with about 30 other teachers working through a lengthy business agenda. The local president capably chaired the meeting and there were a number of experienced, knowledgeable teachers around the table, but I have to admit there were times when the acronyms simply flew over my head because I hadn’t yet received the “special acronym decoder.” I left that meeting feeling energized, but I realized there was a lot for me to learn about the ATA to be a successful school rep. That was the beginning of being active in the Association every year of my career from classroom teacher, to being seconded to Alberta Education, then working in Sturgeon School Division central office and finally as an ATA staff officer. What were the reasons I was involved for 37 years?

Alignment with Core Values

Through my involvement, I came to realize that my core values aligned with those of the ATA. I believe in the power of public education, a system in which all students, regardless of ability, religion, race, sexual diversity or socioeconomic status attend a publicly funded community school and are taught by certificated, highly skilled teachers. My personal commitment to the mission of public education guided me to pursue a masters in curriculum and instructional supervision, which enabled me to focus on effective pedagogy and supporting students with the diverse learning needs. At this time, I was seconded to an Alberta Education regional office, held various executive roles in the ATA Home Economics Specialist Council, and served as an Association instructor.

My career and professional roles were very rewarding, providing me the opportunity to work with teachers, principals and superintendents across the province. These interactions and experiences taught me that all certificated Alberta teachers are committed to enhancing their professional practice and supporting student learning. I have been asked by educators from different parts of the world, “What makes Alberta’s education system excellent?” I tell them it is because all certificated teachers in Alberta are members of the same professional organization. In Alberta public schools and school districts there is acceptance of our shared responsibility to focus on quality teaching and student learning, which allows all stakeholders to work together for success.

Midway through my career I was fortunate to be hired to ATA executive staff and joined a fantastic team in Professional Development. One colleague in particular was an important role model for me and had a tremendous influence on how I would later approach leadership. Gordon Thomas taught me that as an executive staff officer you are representing the profession and therefore must be at the top of your game in every situation. This means you are held to high standards of accountability, must be knowledgeable and well prepared to have any credibility, respectfully and continuously advocate for Association policy, and focus on providing excellent service and achieving success. Those became my guiding principles as a leader.

Leadership Strategies

Leaders are shaped by what they have experienced and learned and by whom they have met. Throughout my time in Professional Development and later as assistant executive secretary, I was privileged to work with exceptional teacher leaders across the province on a variety of projects. These practical learning experiences informed my leadership practice.

Working inside the Association I observed efficient procedures (like colour coding program area reports), rigorous budget controls (look at the detailed ledgers in the ARA budget), rigorous attention to detail and an expectation for high, high standards. Executive secretaries Julius Buski and later Charles Hyman ensured efficient operations, budget controls and reporting structures. However, these leaders also believed in professional autonomy, providing the space and flexibility that encourages creativity and risk taking.

In this environment, PD coordinator Noreen O’Haire was not afraid to challenge the rules, take risks and make changes to improve our programs and services to members. The Association’s Beginning Teachers’ Conference is an example of this. In 1996 we started with 150 teachers attending a one-day pilot conference at Barnett House. Each year our team staff evaluated and refined the program and by 2008, 1,050 teachers were attending an annual two-day conference in both Edmonton and Calgary. The conference is now one of the Association’s premier activities.

Teamwork is the lifeblood of the Association. I believe the strength of the Association is at the grassroots level and every member can participate, contribute and make a difference for the profession. Across this province thousands of teachers are engaged in ATA committees, functioning as teams to improve working conditions and enhance teachers’ professional practice. Effective teams have a shared goal, defined roles and responsibilities, and the resources necessary to achieve the goal. Equally important, however, are open communication, respect and trust among all team members to develop positive working relationships.

When leading teams, I have tried to practice collegial leadership strategies such as shared decision making to determine the best course of action. I have learned there is more wisdom, knowledge and experience on a team than with any one person. Involving the team in the planning, development, implementation and evaluation of an activity results in everyone sharing in the work and contributing to its success. A committed team can achieve more than an individual acting alone.

Strategic planning is a key strategy to helping organizations grow and respond to changing context. The Association continues to evolve and remains effective because strategic planning is used to determine short and long-term strategic objectives. To be effective strategic planning must include the development of action plans that include measures for evaluation. I have observed local and specialist councils successfully implement exciting new programs and services by developing a bold strategic plan.

The Association has collaborated with education stakeholders on projects that advance its strategic directions. Some of these projects include supporting the development of school councils, implementation of the provincial Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI), and the current Education for Reconciliation Professional Development Project. Successful collaboration, however, requires that stakeholders agree on the purpose, operating principles, roles and responsibilities, and sharing of resources before project planning begins.

What Is Leadership In The Teaching Profession?

Effective teacher leaders exhibit all the qualities found in the education literature. I believe, however, that leadership in the profession is not limited to those in traditional leadership roles. Classroom teachers are leaders when they explain to a parent why standardized test scores are not an appropriate measure of student learning. Teachers who volunteer their time and expertise to serve on local, bargaining unit, specialist council or teachers’ convention association committees are leaders providing service to the profession. The teachers on Provincial Executive Council and executive staff are leaders when they advocate for Association policy and engage in activities that advance the strategic directions of the profession. Leadership in the profession is, therefore, a shared responsibility and a powerful resource to support the Association’s mission to promote and advance public education, safeguard standards of professional practice and serve as the advocate for its members. That is why I chose to stay involved in this amazing organization for 37 years.

After teaching in the Sturgeon School Division and working with Alberta Education, Jacqueline Skytt joined Association staff in 1996 as an executive staff officer in Professional Development. She became coordinator of that program area in 2002 and coordinator of Organizational Support in 2008 (that position was renamed assistant executive secretary in 2009). She retired from that role in May 2013.

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