Belmont secondary principal Ray Miller checks in with some students in the hall

Belmont secondary principal Ray Miller checks in with some students in the hall

FEATURE SERIES Pt. 3: Exam-ining education in the Sooke School District

Changing the way it's done

In the last part of our series on high school education in the Sooke School District, stakeholders look at the future

Kids and learning are different today, and the education system needs to keep up,” says Ray Miller, principal of Belmont secondary.

He’s sitting in his office surrounded by papers, schedules, curriculum and huge cardboard cutouts the size and shape of the various furniture being proposed for the new Belmont and Royal Bay high schools currently under construction and scheduled to open in September.

“The education system as a whole has had trouble adjusting and adapting to the needs of the community and the kids. That is where I think we need to put our resources.”

Okay, so what does that mean? What meaningful changes can we make systemically to a system, and learning model, that is, by his own admission, societally ingrained and responsively petrified?

“The first change that needs to be made,” he says, “is to move the mindset away from an adult-centred system to a student-centred system. We need to personalize the education system; make it fit for the student instead of it being a system that the student has to fit.

“What is it that they need in their education that will give them something of value to take with them in their lives?”

Then comes the kicker.

“Schools weren’t built to give the adults a place to work,” he says.

The way Miller sees it, the whole “how much we are paying the teachers?” issue is almost irrelevant. It’s more about how – and if – the teachers are accomplishing what they are being paid to do.

“We need to move away from the teacher being the sage on the stage, being all-knowing and ‘I have all the information, and I hold it and therefore I’m powerful, that’s what makes me different from you,’ to having the teachers be facilitators of learning. If the teacher can help shape people towards their interests, their passions, their goals, you’ll find, I think, that the same cost of that educator is used more effectively.”

The issue with that, according to Stephanie Longstaff, SD62 parents’ advisory council president at Belmont and mother of nine children who have gone through the SD62 system, is teacher autonomy.

“I think one of the biggest challenges we have is also one of the biggest strengths we have, and that’s the autonomy of the teacher,” she says. “The district, the principal, nobody can tell them how to teach what they’re supposed to teach. There are expected outcomes – by the end of whatever grade a child should know this – but how you teach them that is up to you.”

That can be great – “if you have an awesome, wonderful, captivating teacher,” who is able to engage the students while they’re teaching the curriculum, she says.

“But if you have a teacher that stands in front of the class and talks at them five hours a day, the kids might not meet those outcomes. Not because the teachers didn’t teach them, but because they didn’t engage the kids, didn’t get them involved; so the children didn’t actually learn the material.”

Her biggest frustration is exactly what Miller thinks is needed to remedy the system at a structural level.

“I’m a product from a school system that’s not so much different than the one we have today, unfortunately,” Longstaff says. “There are lots of good ideas and theories out there, but unfortunately most of them are up at the top levels – at the board office, or at the principal level or provincial government level – and haven’t necessarily made their way into the classroom yet. There are some teachers that are just doing it exactly the same way they have been for 30 years when they started teaching, and it’s not serving our students.”

So how do you get those great ideas into the classroom about what works best to educate kids when you can’t dictate how people will teach?

SD62 superintendent Jim Cambridge says you need to make it harder for people not do it the newer, better way.

“The way we’re designing and building the new schools is significantly different than the way it’s been done in the past,” he says. “We’re trying to make the notion of collaboration and teamwork – which is central to everything you read about what jobs and expectations and careers actually feature – part of the education of the kids. You walk through Belmont right now, you see very long corridors with basically 20 different individual schools along each side of them. It’s very hard for the teachers to collaborate, even when they want to. Well, we’re creating an atmosphere (in the construction of the new schools) where we’re forcing that issue a little bit.”

Miller puts it slightly differently, but essentially agrees.

“I think there’s a lot of nervousness among educators these days,” he says. “There’s a realization that evolution is afoot that if you’re not keeping up, you’re going to be left behind. I’ve seen teachers beginning to evolve. We need to continue to support and encourage educators in their adjustment in that direction.”

What makes a school –  what makes an education system – isn’t the bricks and mortar or wood framing and drywall that make the walls, but the people and culture held within them, Miller says. The district, he adds, is determined to bust open some of those walls to bring people closer together.

The new schools are designed to do that. They’re designed to encourage people to work collaboratively for the betterment of the whole.

“We have to make sure we’re providing the future of education, not the present,” says Wendy Hobbs, chair of the board of trustees for SD62. “And I think being able to work together collaboratively will make a better all-around student in the end, and lead to better learning outcomes.”

“In the real world,” Cambridge adds, “that’s how people work. They’re sharing ideas, which is where better ideas come from. It’s where better solutions to problems come from.”

So is there still room for the old-school lecturers who stand at the front of the class and teach, blanketing students with the information the curriculum mandates that they learn?

“If they’re relationship builders, yes,” Miller says simply. “If they’re content deliverers, no.”

“Kids expect, nowadays, to work together,” Cambridge says. “They expect to be able to talk about their ideas. The whole isolated experience of learning in a classroom, being talked at, needs to go away.”

And that’s what they’re trying to make happen, which, they think, will make us better off in the long run.