On Experience, Influences and Values

December 4, 2017 Gordon Thomas
Gordon Thomas

Over the course of my career at the Alberta Teachers’ Association I’ve been pretty focused on advancing the interests of our members and our profession, so I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about leadership. It wasn’t until last spring, when I was asked to present my thoughts on leadership at Summer Conference, that I started to reflect on the subject of leadership and my own approach to it. What I came up with was pretty straightforward: my own approach to leadership is not the product of academic study. It has been profoundly shaped by several very key individuals in the first decade of my career, by my experience in the profession and by my values.

Use Your Head And Your Heart

As a student in the faculty of education at the University of Lethbridge and as president of the ATA’s Education Undergraduate Society, I got to know dean Bob Anderson better than most students. While he was not one of my professors, due to my ATA role, dean Anderson insisted on regular meetings to chat about how things were going from the perspective of students.

There was lots to talk about, as I was in the first crop of students for whom a bachelor of education degree was required in order to teach, so the program was new and there was a lot of excitement. This was also an era of increased involvement of student leaders in the life of the university.

I appreciated Anderson’s calm, intelligent, warm and responsive leadership. He was revered by faculty and students and always had everything under what appeared to be effortless control.

We kept in touch after my graduation. When I dropped by the U of L while on home visits with my parents, Anderson always had time for me and was interested in my experiences as a new teacher. Part of this focused on how the faculty of education could do its job better, but during every meeting he also pushed me to commence graduate study.

We talked about various program possibilities and my different interests. I commented on his very able leadership of the faculty and asked about his own graduate program choices, especially his focus on educational administration. He was, after all, dean of the faculty. He told me that he had always focused on his academic interests, which did not include educational administration—his interests were educational foundations. This was a surprise to me. I had assumed that effective leaders were necessarily educational administration graduates. Dean Anderson set me right.

“Leadership is very different from administration,” he said. “You don’t need to study educational administration to be a leader. Be guided by one really important thing that you don’t learn in a classroom: leaders always use their heads and their hearts.”

Trust Teachers and Facilitate Their Work

I began my teaching career at the brand new Sturgeon Composite High School (I’m an extremely proud member of the founding faculty, and more than four decades later, the very last one of that group still “in harness”) and Norval Horner joined our staff as principal teacher after two years of school operation. Our third principal in that time, Norval was very clear about his vision of leadership. He came to us from outside Sturgeon and was an experienced and respected high school principal.

In fundamental terms, Horner trusted teachers. He believed, deep down, that every teacher should be free to teach. He also believed that a major responsibility as a school leader was to use his authority to facilitate the work of teachers. From my own experience and from my observations, I recognized that Horner’s core beliefs were not necessarily the core beliefs of all school or system leaders.

Horner was very active in the teaching profession and encouraged all of his colleagues to serve the Association. I joined the Economic Policy Committee, served on the negotiating subcommittee and became the local’s treasurer. Horner was elected to Provincial Executive Council.

Under Horner’s leadership, my own career flourished. I felt that I could take risks as a teacher in planning lessons and that I would be supported. The environment was always professional and respectful—decisions about the operation of the school were openly discussed and genuinely collegial. Good ideas were welcome.

Staff room discussion often revolved around ways of advancing the interests of the profession. I went back to school, completed an MEd degree and started a PhD. I felt trusted, fulfilled and supported as a teacher.

Work Collegially

When I joined Association staff in 1984, I got to work with Dr. Bernie Keeler, the ATA’s fourth executive secretary. Keeler, who retired in 1988 after two decades in the role, had a profound impact on the Association. He took the Association’s key political structures, which had been developed by John Barnett, and updated them as the profession grew to establish a professional secretariat to deliver programs to meet member needs.

The organization’s core structure today—our programs, program delivery models, the nature of our staffing and our governance—reflects decisions made during Keeler’s tenure. Through all of this, the organization was deliberately designed to be as flat as flat could be. Every member of executive staff reported to the executive secretary. Each program area had a coordinator, whose job it was to coordinate the work in the program, not to direct it. Staff members were made responsible for their assigned areas of work, empowering staff as much as possible. While there was never any doubt about who was in charge, Keeler believed in collegial relations. Work with colleagues, rely on colleagues, use collegial relations and professional responsibility to produce the best possible work. Don’t stand still. In all things, anticipate. Always be responsive to members. Keeler’s own allocation of duties included the responsibility to “anticipate trends” (and it’s still in my allocation today). Identify and enunciate the key values of the organization and ensure staff do the same.

In my first few months on staff, Keeler’s leadership style touched me directly. I answered my telephone one afternoon to be summoned directly to Dr Keeler’s office. My heart rate went way up, but I did not delay. Keeler advised that Education Minister David King was going to require all school boards to have in place a board policy on teacher evaluation. Keeler wanted to get in front of school boards by developing a teacher evaluation policy model that school boards could adopt and that our members could advocate, so he wanted a staff officer to study up on teacher evaluation (especially policy models) and I was the rookie.

I told Keeler that I couldn’t possibly be the ATA’s expert on teacher evaluation—I knew absolutely nothing about it. Keeler responded that he had great difficulty believing that I knew nothing about teacher evaluation because I was the ATA’s expert on the subject and the ATA’s expert would know everything. He gave me the task, as “expert,” to develop an ATA policy model that could be proposed for adoption by school boards. He suggested that we meet again in a few weeks and we could talk about teacher evaluation research, given that I was the ATA’s expert. He also pointed me to the ATA library. Also fortunate for me, he encouraged me to work with my colleague, PD Coordinator Dr. Mary-Jo Williams, whose superb work had created first-rate ATA policy on teacher evaluation, all approved by ARA.

At the next staff meeting, Williams and I explained why it was simply not possible to develop a one-size-fits-all policy model on teacher evaluation—there were just too many anomalies board by board.

“The task was not to explain why it could not be done, but to do it,” Keeler said, noting that the members wanted a policy model, so they were going to get one.

It was tortured work but over the course of the next month we got it done with a lot of help from our colleagues and a policy model was distributed to all local associations for use in influencing school board policy. And over the next few years I supported this work, providing critiques of draft school board teacher evaluation policies. I continued to be the ATA’s expert on teacher evaluation for almost two decades, helping to write the provincial Teacher Growth, Supervision and Evaluation Policy and the Teaching Quality Standard (both still in place today).

My staff colleagues and I had similar experiences in working with Keeler—in this instance, members wanted guidance in working to achieve good school board teacher evaluation policy, so our job was to get in front of it and get it done. I was trusted to get it done, with the help of my colleagues, and there was ample guidance and support. In every respect, the product would respect and advance the values and interests of the profession.

For Keeler, it was really important that collegial relations be the centre of the work of a teachers’ organization, and he used his leadership to ensure that collegiality was a core value of the organization, just as it was a core value of the profession itself. I learned and lived some very important lessons: organize around collegiality, empower professional responsibility, provide support, anticipate trends and be firm about adhering to organizational values.

Of course, I’ve learned an enormous amount from my colleagues and others, who have also had an impact on my view of leadership. But my professional life and my view of leadership have been particularly shaped by the influence of Bob Anderson, Norval Horner and Bernie Keeler. As a leader, I’ve always relied on collegial relations, empowerment and professional responsibility. I’ve reminded my colleagues (and our members) to stick to the key values of the teaching profession and I’ve enunciated those values. I trust my colleagues (and our members) and I try to facilitate their work, for the interests of our members. I’ve tried to anticipate where we should be going, and to start there first. And I always remember to use both my head and my heart in my judgment and in making decisions.


Bernie Keeler was a recognized leader and a mentor to many ATA executives.
photo: ATA archives

These elements make up my view of leadership and my own leadership style. For almost 20 years, I’ve sat behind the very same desk as did Dr. Keeler, and when the going gets tough I ask myself what Bernie would do; I ask myself what Norval Horner would do or what Bob Anderson would do. And then I ask what I must do. The answers to these questions always help me find a way through my challenges.

Following teaching service in Sturgeon School Division, Dr. Gordon Thomas joined Association staff as an executive staff officer in Professional Development in 1984. He was named associate executive secretary in 1998 and became the Association’s seventh executive secretary in 2003. He will retire in 2018.

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