Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of January 31, 2000
The greying of school leaders
School division gets ready as principals near retirement age
By LELLA BLUMER
Special to the WCR
Of all the changes facing Catholic education in the next decade, one trend is fairly predictable: people get older.
Right now, 56 per cent of the principals in the Edmonton Catholic school division are 50 years of age or older. Forty-five per cent of assistant principals are in the same age range.
Most, if not all, will retire in the next 10 years, and the question of who will step in to fill all those shoes is being taken seriously.
"We have long known that there would be this bubble of teachers and administrators who would reach retirement age all at the same time," says board chair Ron Patsula.
In fact, an early retirement incentive plan has been offered to division employees for years in an effort to spread out the effects of a major exodus of senior personnel.
And it's working, said Henry Pilipchuk, director of human resource services. Over the past 10 years, roughly five per cent of the division's teaching staff took retirement prior to age 55.
"We look at doing anything we can do to help fill that gap," Pilipchuk says, "but it is an individual decision - you can't force people to take it."
But an aging population is just part of the equation, says Moe Bessette, a long-time school principal and division principal recently appointed to the new position of assistant to the superintendent: leadership services.
"The baby boomer thing accounts for the numbers, but the bigger issue is that excellent teachers are not aspiring to administrative roles.
"Part of my job is to take teachers and inspire them to become leaders, and also to take those who are in administrative positions and enhance their leadership skills.
"We want to challenge them and captivate their imagination."
It sounds good on paper, Bessette admits, but the facts are that the move to site-based management has meant principals are spending more of their time on managerial duties, and very few teach in the classroom at all.
And they're getting less support from a depleted division staff that is still feeling the effects of severe cuts in funding, he adds.
Both factors add up to the role of principal being one to which few teachers are attracted.
Patsula agrees, "the expectations that we now place on our school based administrators have greatly increased."
Prior to the 1994 cutbacks, the school division had a strong leadership training program, he points out. But "to minimize the effects on the classroom there has been a tendency to sacrifice these professional, leadership development programs."
That is starting to change, Bessette says, and there is a move toward "reclaiming the role of the principal as an instructional leader."
One initiative developed by Edmonton Catholic principals in conjunction with superintendent Dale Ripley is for each principal to begin spending some time every day in direct instruction.
The reaction has been very positive, Bessette says.
"Principals are frustrated. It's hard to support teachers if the principals don't have first-hand information about the classroom, and many lament the long hours they have to spend on managing non-instructional issues."
Developing a leadership succession plan, Bessette says, is "more than saying who will replace who" at the school level.
Part of his leadership training strategy is to bring principals together from across the division and work on building "process," skills like the ability to run a meeting, resolve conflicts, and work collaboratively as well as independently.
Another significant aspect of the plan will be to encourage candidates to broaden their knowledge base by pursuing post-graduate studies, possibly by offering university accreditation for the training principals receive from the division.
"We need to formalize the process of acquiring leadership skills. Right now, principals are good at steering candidates, but we need something more formal for them to take that next step."
The reason the division wants to develop its own training program is to maintain a Catholic faith base, Bessette adds.
"In Catholic schools, principals are managers, they are instructional leaders and they are spiritual leaders. Those roles are not divided.
"The Catholic dimension is not something that can be taught in a course; it permeates everything we do."
Above all, Bessette emphasizes, any division succession plan needs to be implemented systematically. "It needs to be systematic in order to survive. And if it's carried out systematically, it becomes systemic."