Lessons and Observations

December 4, 2017 Julius Buski
Julius Buski

The Internet, as well as educational and business administration textbooks and classes, are replete with discussions of leadership. Among many other things, we are told that great leaders are future oriented 100 per cent of the time, have a positive attitude, take responsibility, empower others, lead by example, provide support, are risk takers and consensus builders, etc. Given the current events unfolding in the world, it is undoubtedly a timely topic and should be one of paramount importance to our profession—for being a teacher is in itself being a leader.

During my career of more than 45 years, I held a wide variety of teaching positions—classroom teacher, assistant principal, principal, deputy superintendent, ATA staff officer, ATA executive secretary and CEO, secretary general of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, president of the Edmonton Public Teachers Local, president of the Greater Edmonton Teachers’ Convention Association, and director of the Western Canada Educational Administrators’ Conference,1 among others. During this time I had the wonderful opportunity to work with individuals with various leadership styles ranging from exceptional to worrisome. These experiences, as well as some study of leadership theory, have helped shape my thoughts on the matter and most likely my own leadership style(s)2.

At the outset, I submit that leadership is the very essence of teaching. It is a mantle thrust upon the teacher whether one wills it or not. Our success as teachers depends very much on developing leadership skills to help guide our youth in this most important quest. Further, the teaching profession provides exceptional opportunities for developing effective leadership skills, whether in the classroom, related teaching positions, or leadership positions within our professional organization.

Did I make mistakes? You bet! Did I learn a lot? Absolutely! Which individuals helped me along this journey and what are some lessons I have learned about leadership?

1. You might not recognize leadership when you see it

I began my teaching career at the age of 18 at Westmount Junior High School in Edmonton. Having graduated from high school two years prior and not having a clear career path in mind, I took a year off and worked in several jobs before deciding to give teaching a try, and enrolled in the one-year Jr. E. teacher preparation program at the University of Alberta. The province was experiencing a teacher shortage at the time and the one-year program was intended as a bridging mechanism to bring people into the profession. Most of us went on to complete our B.Ed. degrees through summer schools and evening classes and/or a return full-time to university. Many of us, including me, continued to studies at the masters and doctoral levels.

The teaching assignment was a challenging one. I was faced not only with the all-too-familiar problems of any first-year teacher, but also with the very small age separation between me and many of the students, as well as a cohort of young people who were less willing to learn than I had expected. Enter the principal—Roger Johnston. Mr. Johnston (I would never have dared call him by his first name!) was a quiet, thoughtful individual. He tended to hover in the background and provide support when it was needed. His thoughtful suggestions, encouragement and friendliness are likely the factors that ensured that I toughed out the first few years and stayed in the profession. It was only when I started writing this article that I realized what tremendous leadership skills he possessed. A quiet, supportive, encouraging leader, who was also a consensus builder among staff. A belated posthumous thank you, Mr. Johnston!

2. Leadership sometimes means just observing and holding back

One of my principalship assignments was to an elementary school whose principal (who I was replacing) had opened the school 16 years prior and had served in that position since that time. I was the only staff change that year. There I was, having just completed my Ph.D., gained all that “valuable knowledge” and anxious to begin implementing some new ideas. Fortunately, I chose not to leap off the cliff and start making changes. Rather, I spent the first year observing and getting to know the staff. After that year, we were able to work together and make some mutually agreeable and desirable changes to how the school operated.

3. Sometimes you need to anticipate and forge ahead and take action!

In September–October 1994, Alberta Education Minister Halvar Jonson proceeded with a much needed regionalization and amalgamation of school boards. This anticipated action had been previously announced but it was not until the release of the final details in mid-October that we knew the lay of the land. These major changes in the landscape of Alberta jurisdictions would have a profound impact on our own organization, particularly our locals and bargaining units. Our task was clear to me as executive secretary of the ATA and to our political leaders. We would need to restructure so that our locals and bargaining units would be congruent with the new board structures. This was clearly a no-brainer and in anticipation of the government action, we had already organized teams of Provincial Executive Council members and Association staff to work with our locals and bargaining units in the restructuring. In our opinion, no further approval from any of our own governing bodies was necessary—the job needed doing. The reorganization went smoothly, albeit not without a tremendous amount of work by our staff and elected officials.

Within a year or two of this exercise, another provincial jurisdiction announced that it too would be undertaking a reorganization of boards. I was invited to speak with a committee of the teacher organization in that province about our experience. That organization shied away from taking any action and consequently found itself with a structure that did not match the board structure in that province.

Lesson learned: anticipate, forge ahead and do not be afraid to take action when necessary.

4. Sometimes leaders take different approaches to address the same problem

On November 24, 1993, the Ralph Klein government announced that effective April 1, 1994, education budgets would be cut by five per cent. It would be up to each jurisdiction to decide how to implement the cut. While the Association could provide guidance to locals and bargaining units, it was ultimately up to each unit to work with their employing jurisdiction to deal with this issue. Within our 120 collective agreements, many teachers accepted a five per cent cut in salary, a few bargaining units opted for staff reductions, some negotiated reductions in salary only on certain portions of the grid and some jurisdictions coped with the reduction without needing to renegotiate. In one instance—Camrose Separate No. 60—the teachers dealt with the issue in a very creative fashion by voting unanimously to make a tax deductible, charitable donation to the board in the amount of five per cent of their salary. I frequently recall this situation as an excellent example of different leadership approaches to a similar problem.

5. Leaders understand the scope and limit of their role

Knowing the boundaries of what you can/should do as a leader is basic to being a successful leader. This can be a challenge to teachers who are elected to top leadership positions in their organization—particularly where there is a staff component in place to undertake the basic work of the organization.  The newly elected leader (for example, the president of the ATA) must make a rapid adjustment from what he or she did in a position without staff support to this new role. There is sometimes a tendency to stray into the area of administration, resulting in unnecessary friction, with staff not knowing whose instructions to follow. During my time as ATA executive secretary, I had the good fortune of working with a number of ATA presidents (Brendan Dunphy, Frances Savage and Bauni MacKay) who understood this delineation of leadership roles. They provided the very necessary (and often challenging) political leadership, both within and outside the organization, with a clear understanding that administration of the organization was not within their purview.

Later, as secretary general of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, I also worked with a number of presidents, the majority of whom understood this role. CTF president Doug Willard stands out in my mind as a model of one who fully understood and practiced that. When Doug and I visited teacher organizations he would speak on political and philosophical challenges facing our profession and then ask me to relate details as to how they were impacting us at the time. In retrospect, that relationship was as close to a perfect textbook example of shared leadership as one might find.

On the flip side, a model of leadership at the bureaucratic level was Philip J. Cox, executive secretary of the Edmonton Public Local. Phil was appointed executive secretary when the divisional locals in Edmonton merged in the latter part of the 1950s, creating what was then the largest local in the province. He was a Second World War veteran who had taught prior the war and re-entered the profession upon his return. The role of executive secretary was clear to Phil—represent teachers as forcefully as possible and keep the elected leaders on track with their mission, nudging them as necessary. At the time I served as local president, release time was not provided, so we did all of our ATA work after hours. I appreciated the quiet guidance and advice of this rare individual who seemed to have all the answers and total dedication to our members and to the local.

It’s fundamental

As I reflect upon these leaders I have known, I come back to my original point. Leadership is fundamental to our teaching profession. As teachers, we practice leadership in the classroom and in all positions related to our teaching role, whether in the school system or in our professional association. Few professions offer such an opportunity.

My very best wishes to all of you in your leadership roles!


Dr. Julius Buski joined Association staff in 1980 after extensive teaching and administrative experience largely in Edmonton Public Schools. He was named associate executive secretary in 1986 and became executive secretary in 1988. He retired from this role on December 31, 1998 and went on to become secretary-general of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation from 2000 to 2006.


1 I view all of these as teaching positions. We are first and foremost teachers. The other roles we play are only possible because of that.

2 I believe that most of us practice a variety of leadership styles.

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