Peter Weeks and his wife Ursula take in an Adelaide Crows Australian Football League game during an exchange visit this past summer.
Giving up some summer holidays for principal exchange a good deal
So why would a principal, so busy for so much of the school year, choose to take time in summer to travel 14,000 kilometres just to meet another principal and tour schools? If it’s to be a participant in the short-term leader exchange of the International Educational Exchange Program of the ATA, it’s because the benefits enrich in three key ways: professionally, pedagogically and personally.
This past summer of 2014, my wife Ursula and I were fortunate enough to travel to Loxton, South Australia to return a visit by my Australian counterpart Paul Rowe, who had come to Canada with his wife Merylyn last fall as part of the South Australia administrator exchange program. The entire process has been one of the most enriching in my career.
We were matched with Paul and Merylyn Rowe from Loxton, South Australia. It was almost uncanny how close our match was. Loxton is a small rural town, as is my home of Nanton. Paul was a retiring school principal, who still works as a relieving administrator and educational consultant, of similar age to me. Merylyn was a kindergarten (called reception in Australia) teacher and my wife Ursula is a recently retired K-1 teacher. Paul has a passion for music and Aussie rules football and I have a passion for music and CFL football. Through the early part of 2013 we began to bond through emails, Skype and long distance phone calls, working toward the Rowe’s visit to Nanton in fall 2013.
Through our mutual interests and shared views on education, students and learning, we became friends quickly. While they were here in Canada we took the Rowes to a Dwight Yoakam concert in Cranbrook, Head Smashed-in Buffalo Jump, the Royal Tyrell Museum and a Calgary Stampeders football game, offering them a buffet of Canadian culture and geography. They toured several schools in the Livingstone Range School Division and we got to meet with early childhood representatives from the Lethbridge Public School District. While touring J. T. Foster High School, in Nanton, Paul offered some basic instruction in Aussie rules football to a number of PE classes.
Although the exchange was officially for two weeks, we hosted the Rowes for about three-and-a-half weeks, and they took the opportunity to extend their trip even beyond that, seeing other sites in Canada after they left us. It was a pattern we’d follow when we went to Australia in the summer of 2014.
Without a doubt, though, the highlight of the exchange was the rich professional conversations that took place. Thomas Guskey and other educational researchers have noted in the literature the value of such dialogues, but I’d argue the ante is raised when those conversations take place with someone from a different system and culture. We rapidly discovered that we had differences, but far more similarities in our contexts and, above all, in the challenges facing us as educators in the 21st century.
Ursula and Merylyn shared myriad teaching strategies for early learners, and Merylyn shared with me my first introduction to the work of John Hattie, whom she’d seen in a workshop just prior to their trip to Canada. Paul, as a very seasoned administrator, was able to give me suggestions and advice from a detached but knowledgeable perspective, which was exactly what my career needed at the time.
Our bonding was rich personally, as we shared new music and passion for our respective football games. This enabled wonderful deep professional discussions about pedagogy and learning in the 21st century. Paul was intrigued by our work on high school redesign, and we shared many ideas on how that might work best for students.
On July 4, 2014, Ursula and I headed to Australia. We had decided that, after staying with the Rowes for three weeks and experiencing life in South Australia, we would take extra time to travel across Australia.
The Rowes took us on a grand tour of South Australia, from the South Coast, through the McLaren Vale wine country and out to the outback of the Flinders Ranges, arranging for us to stay with various friends and getting to know the real Australia not always seen on the travel shows.
Our highlights included wine tasting in the Vale; standing at the mouth of the great Murray River; eating camel meat at a pub in the outback; seeing the Adelaide Crows being beaten by the Hawthorn Hawks (from Melbourne) in an AFL footy game; seeing wallabies, emus, flocks of parrots and kangaroos in their natural element; and eating some of the best freshwater fish on the planet (Coorong mullet) and wonderful sea fish (King George whiting, flathead and garfish).
After our tour we headed back to Loxton for the more directly educational portion of the exchange. We started in Loxton Primary (elementary), where Ursula spent two days sharing Canadian children’s literature and a presentation about Canada’s animals with classes from K-7.
I got to share my background as a football coach with sessions on Canadian football (gridiron, as the kids referred to it) with a number of PE classes. This was interspersed with great discussions with teachers and the school’s principal. We were struck by how Loxton Primary (and every school we visited, as we were to find out) has an active agriculture program. In the primary schools, this takes the form of a kitchen garden. In the high schools, full vineyards, sheep farms and cattle operations are common.
During that first week in the schools we travelled back the three hours to Adelaide and got a session at the State Education Department. Unlike Alberta, there is only the state level of jurisdiction in South Australia – no individual school districts.
While in Adelaide we received workshops on their principal quality standard and on Aboriginal education in Australia, got a tour of an Aboriginal art gallery and a demonstration of didgeridoo (actual name yitaki) playing.
Again I was struck by similarities and differences. As in Alberta, the role of the principal has expanded considerably and the expectations for those in that position have grown. They, too, are having difficulty getting and retaining good school leaders.
Also similar is the sad history of the legacy of colonialism that affects Aboriginal education today as they work, like us, to find a way of redressing the wrongs of past education practices for the indigenous population.
However, as in Alberta, there is a strong will to find a better future for all our students.
From there I toured a number of Riverland (the area around Loxton) high schools, seeing first-hand another similarity to our Alberta context – the challenges of rural schooling in times of declining population. I was struck by the difference between some of the schools I saw, depending on whether they were in a growing or declining population area, whether they had large or small populations of Aboriginal and English-as-a-second-language students, and whether they had a strong local industry or one in decline.
Administrators in South Australia, from my observation, struggle with the same tough decisions about class sizes, staffing, facilities and prioritizing as we do. They also struggle with how to move learning forward in the 21st century and making school relevant to increasingly disengaged student populations.
While there I was asked to give a mini-session with a group of area principals on our Alberta high school redesign process. In a frank, informal atmosphere, we shared ideas and insights into how we best meet student needs in an increasingly complex world. It was a highlight.
Staying with the Rowe family, we got to know their four boys and get their views on education as well. Nightly discussions with Paul were a continuation of our rich dialogue in Canada. On a personal, professional and pedagogical level, I know I grew as an educator.
While we were in Loxton, Paul celebrated his 60th birthday with a big celebration. I even got to sit in on guitar with his band, the Krome-Plated Yabbies.
I have been in a very reflective time as an educator, trying to find my bearings in the complexity of the current educational context. My talks with Paul were invaluable for me to reset my compass.
When the Rowes came to J. T. Foster School, in Nanton, they presented the school with a handmade quilt denoting aspects of life in Loxton. When we said goodbye in Loxton at the weekly Friday school assembly, we left with them two wooden plaques, designed by J. T. Foster media students, carved by the construction department and painted by our art students. It was a great moment of bonding for our two schools. We left Loxton with tears in the corners of our eyes and lumps in our throats.
If we were sad when the Rowes left us in Canada, we were sadder when we left them in Loxton, even knowing we had two more weeks of Australian adventure ahead of us. This sadness is leavened by the knowledge that we have two wonderful friends and colleagues down under.
That’s why a principal should give up some summer holidays for an exchange – you’ll enrich yourself professionally, pedagogically and personally. Not a bad deal at all. ❚
Peter Weeks is a long-time principal who served for four years at J. T. Foster School, in Nanton. He’s now working on curriculum and high school redesign while teaching English, social studies and technology at Willow Creek Composite High School, in Claresholm.