COLD LAKE – Will Baker has come a long way from being a phys-ed teacher in Australia to being named one of Canada's outstanding principals.
Baker, principal of Holy Cross Elementary School in Cold Lake, Alta., is one of 32 principals nationwide and one of three across Alberta to win The Learning Partnership's award for Canada's Outstanding Principal.
Diane Bauer nominated Baker for the award. When she became a principal at Dr. Brosseau School in Bonnyville, she turned to Baker for advice and mentoring. She is now associate superintendent of the Lakeland Catholic School District. She forwarded a 29-page submission touting Baker as a worthy recipient.
He was honoured at a gala awards celebration Feb. 8 in Toronto.
Also appreciative of his forward-thinking approach is Mary Anne Penner, a longtime school board trustee.
Baker prepares students not just for the immediacy of today and the fleeting years of elementary school, but also for their long-term prospects, said Penner.
"In today's world, if our kids aren't prepared for the future, which will be completely different from what we're living right now, then we haven't done our job," said Penner.
Baker loved sports and became a phys-ed teacher. After four years, he was looking for a change.
"Moving to an elementary classroom I started getting into the whole focus of what good teaching looks like. "
The basic process for teaching phys-ed skills flowed into other subjects. He could show his students how to write a good short story with certain language, characters, setting and plot.
Baker taught school in Australia for 10 years before coming to Alberta in a teacher exchange program in 1991. He enjoyed it so much he stayed. Three years later, he married his wife Louise, also a teacher. The couple moved back and forth between Canada and Australia, teaching in both countries.
In 1996, he secured a job as principal for six years at Elizabeth School, on a Metis settlement near Cold Lake.
He then was hired as principal of Mackenzie River School, serving schoolchildren of Cold Lake's air force community for five years. When the school closed, he took over at the new Holy Cross Elementary School, which opened in December 2007.
"One of the biggest changes was the chance to put across the Catholic perspective, and how that comes into everyday life in a school, just treating everybody well and being respectful," said Baker.
As schools deal with bullying and other behavioural problems among students, he said the Catholic system has an advantage over the public system. In the Catholic system, moral intelligence can be linked with God and the Christian faith, urging students to ask, "What would Jesus do?"
Holy Cross has three first-year teachers and three second-year teachers who need professional development and support of their peers. So instead of isolating teachers behind closed classroom doors, Baker goes into the classrooms and at times videotapes them at work, allowing teachers to observe other teachers on a regular basis. It is a technique that allows teachers to deconstruct each other's teaching methods and learn from their peers.
"The video is very powerful in being able to share with teachers and talk about their methods, and reflect on what they did," said Baker.
All teachers at Holy Cross have been trained in a process called Tribes, aimed at creating a culture that maximizes both learning and human development. The Tribes philosophy encompasses lesson plans, bully proofing, conflict management, discipline, academic achievement, attentive listening, meaningful participation, and strategies for integrating the curriculum with leadership and after-school youth development programs.
"Those things fit into Catholic education really well. Appreciation of others and no putdowns – imagine if we all did that in life and we all did that in the classroom – what a harmonious place it would be," said Baker.
Many people view a school's leadership structured as a hierarchy, with the principal atop the chain of command. But when the vice-principal resigned, Baker asked for no replacement. Instead, he created a leadership team of five veteran teachers to help guide the direction of the school, as opposed to him trying run a school single-handedly.
"It's an opportunity for them, when I am away for administrative duties, to step in and become the leader, be the principal for the day. They have a lot more ownership of the school."