What I Learned In School

December 4, 2017 Ernest Clintberg
Ernest Clintberg

Fortune has provided me the opportunity to observe and learn from many effective leaders, first hand.

My parents were my early models. They grounded me in the basics of acting with integrity and being willing to step up and assist others regardless of economic or social standing. To them, part of integrity was to act, always, with honesty even when it hurt. My oldest brother provided me with a model of leadership, as he pursued school administration, when his actions demonstrated a willingness to advance the interests of others, whether in the school or the teaching profession.

For a period of time while attending university, I stayed in the home of Orvis Kennedy, who was executive director for one of the major political parties of the day. He demonstrated to me that politicians should and could act with integrity, reinforcing my parents’ tenets. During the same time period I met Ray Speaker, then a minister of the Crown. What I observed of him reinforced what Kennedy demonstrated, plus Speaker also demonstrated the need to listen to people, and represent and champion them fairly.

Once I began to teach, I found myself a leader by appointment in conducting my classes. However, earning student respect as a leader in the classroom was a different matter. Fairness, empathy and consistency, I learned, were paramount and foundational in gaining student respect. Knowledge, preparation and planning were important but secondary.

A bias for action

When I was appointed as an assistant principal, I served with Stan Woloshyn, principal. He coached and encouraged me to improve as a leader, believing he should prepare me for the principalship. Besides that, he demonstrated that one of the principal’s jobs was to protect all those in the school—students and staff—so that teachers could focus on their teaching role. He was open to having his decisions challenged, behind closed doors, by me and others.

Two weeks into my role as assistant principal, I was faced with the horror of making a decision, on my own. Woloshyn, was away and unable to be reached as was anyone else in authority. I had to demonstrate what I now term, “a bias for action.”

It was a Wednesday, just before the morning recess, when the school’s water supply stopped. Disaster presented itself as all the toilet bowls—16 of them in seven washrooms—were all full of waste and no water was available to flush. The school was in the country, still under construction and no one knew how the water arrived at the school or where it came from. After phoning for help, I found that no one was available. After walking the school to learn what teachers believed should happen, I came last to Gerry Smithaniuk, the physical education teacher. When I approached him, he said with a quizzical grin, “make a decision, big guy, you are the acting principal—act!”

I decided to close the school for the remainder of the day. Secretaries called in all the buses, which arrived just before the lunch bell. As the buses waited, the construction workers arrived and informed me, with smiles, that they had shut off the water to the school earlier and would turn it on again before the lunch hour started. I did not know whether to laugh or cry.

We sent the buses away to return at the regular dismissal time. The school day resumed and I prepared my first memo to the principal, copied to the superintendent, about the event.

Not smart enough

Nine years later found me appointed principal–teacher of a community school. A month into my appointment, I found myself at odds with a number of teachers who made a practice of leaving the building just after the buses left the parking lot. This made it difficult to have after school meetings. So I wrote a memo, brief and concise, clearly outlining a new policy: Teachers were expected to stay 15 minutes after the buses left, i.e. until 3:30 p.m.

The next two weeks, until the next staff meeting, found the staff following the new policy to the letter and providing me with cold shoulders. At the next staff meeting a teacher with preschool children explained that she needed to leave promptly at 3:15 to pick up her children before the child-care centre closed at 4 p.m. Most of the staff lined up to add their “two minutes” of comment about why my expectation was thoughtless and did not take their lives into consideration.

After an embarrassing and uncomfortable period of listening, I conceded to the wisdom of the staff and admitted my many mistakes. The lesson learned was that a staff must have a say in decisions that affect their teaching and lives. Further, it abruptly reminded me of the Code of Professional Conduct’s expectation, “The teacher as an administrator provides opportunities for staff members to express their opinions and to bring forth suggestions regarding the administration of the school.”

After that I took great care to involve staff in discussions affecting them and learned that their solutions were very often not only better than mine, but also offered help with the “heavy lifting.” This caused my rude awakening that I needed to involve others because I was not smart enough, did not have enough time and my best work was often accomplished with others.

These ideas prompted me to offer leadership opportunities to those who presented an aptitude for such roles. If they did not pursue an appointment in leadership, they improved the informal leadership structure within the organization.

Value and encourage those around you

Parents, often, are our first cheerleaders, and my parents were no exception. Even when they did most of the work, they made sure I was affirmed and credited for my part. Upon leaving home, I learned that the cold, hard world did not provide that affirmation, let alone credit.

However, when I began working part-time for Ray Speaker, now an opposition member of the legislative assembly, I found his leadership style affirmed, valued and encouraged others. This behaviour, what caused others to easily accept Speaker’s leadership, was also recognized by constituents. He was re-elected with significant pluralities every time he ran for public office, spanning 34 years.

Upon joining the staff of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, I had Dr. Calvin Fraser as my coordinator. The first task he asked of me was a bit of research on a question that Provincial Executive Council (PEC) had directed. I presented my findings to him and went on with other work. When PEC read the report, I was amazed to learn I had been credited. I had not expected this. When I asked Fraser about it, he said that it was only right that I be credited since I had done the work.

The lesson from Speaker and Fraser is obvious: credit people for their work and affirm them.

Leaders do what’s needed

Dr. Gordon Thomas, when I first joined executive staff, welcomed me and expressed his confidence in my future with the Association. As I worked with him, I observed that he demonstrated that he valued, trusted and relied on staff. The work he assigned was followed with support and encouragement and left the person to get the work done without interference.

Late one afternoon, information from a local bargaining unit came across my desk about a potential grievance. It demanded immediate attention before midnight that day or the grievance would die. Few people were left in the building as it was past 5:30 p.m. and there were poor road conditions that encouraged everyone to leave early. Thomas, the Association’s CEO, was still in the building.

There was no choice but to write a grievance letter immediately and fax it to the school board in question. Upon finishing typing the letter on my computer, I went to print a hard copy. The printer failed and then the computer froze. If the letter could not be printed, signed and sent, the grievance would be lost.

After considering handwriting the grievance, I went to Thomas and shared my dilemma. He smiled and told me how he was the fastest typist in his high school typing class, and blew on his fingers. As I read my handwritten letter, he typed and then printed it on his printer. I signed the letter, prepared a cover fax page and sent it to the school board with five hours to spare. The day was saved.

The lessons learned were that effective leaders (1) value and trust the person assigned the work and support their efforts to complete it, and (2) are willing to do whatever it takes, within the law, even to the point of taking on the smallest tasks when needed.

In summary

From my attendance at school as a student, a teacher, a principal–teacher and in the pursuit of representing the teaching profession, I have learned a leader should

  • act with integrity, even when it hurts;
  • listen to everyone relevant, including those at the lowest pay grade;
  • be fair and consistent;
  • develop a bias for action;
  • recognize that they are not smart enough, and do not have enough time, so there is a need to share the work;
  • know our best work is often done with others;
  • seek out those with an aptitude for leadership and encourage their growth;
  • affirm, value and encourage those around you;
  • be humble and do the menial tasks when needed.

Following teaching and administration experiences in Parkland School Division, Dr. Ernest Clintberg joined Association staff as an executive staff officer in Member Services in 2000. After a period at the Southern Alberta Regional Office, Dr. Clintberg moved to Teacher Welfare at Barnett House and was named coordinator in 2005. He became associate executive secretary in 2008 and retired from that role in July 2011.

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