Paul McGuire is a recently retired elementary school principal from the Ottawa Catholic District School Board. I’ve known Paul for a number of years and have worked with him as part of a team that carried off the first Bring IT, Together Conference. It was a big chance for the ECOO organization, moving away from Toronto and partnering with another group. We wanted to make sure that we reached out to all educator groups and Paul seemed to be a natural for the administrators’ group.
Doug: I always ask people if they recall our first face to face meeting. I do recall ours and it was quite an embarrassing moment for me. Do you remember when we first met?
Paul: Hi Doug, I remember meeting and working with you at one of the BIT Conferences. It was a great moment for me. You have always been an inspiration. I don’t remember this being awkward at all, it was really fun to work with you on such a terrific project.
Doug: Then I guess the moment was more embarrassing for me! I distinctly recall being at the Convention Centre and you came over and stood next to me, ready to do work. It was the first time we’d met in person and you didn’t look at all like one of your social media pictures. I thought you were just looking for directions, so I asked “Can I help you with something?” I felt badly when your next move was to introduce yourself. You’d think that I would have known the committee members that we invited to be part of the team. How embarrassing!
Paul: Well that’s more my fault I think. I remember meeting George Couros for the first time at that conference. He told me I needed a better profile photo on my Twitter page so people could recognize me. I think I changed it the same day.
Doug: It was important to Cyndie Jacobs and me, as co-chairs of the conference, to have a principal on our team. What are your thoughts about that? Should all conferences have administrators do this?
Paul: Yes, I think it is important, however it is pretty difficult as the job of being a principal is pretty crazy. I would do it again now that I am a retired principal. Having said this, having an administrator on the planning committee is really important. There are workshops that could be done especially for administrators. They really need to learn to step up when it comes to digital integration. This is a role they have yet to assume.
Funny thing at the time. I blogged about what i was learning every day at the BIT Conference then got in trouble from my superintendent for being too out there whatever that means. All to say, principals are under their own kind of special pressure that makes getting involved in a conference like BIT problematic.
Doug: How could the conference have addressed the needs of administrators better?
Paul: Maybe there needs to be an administrator’s stream. They really need to be presented to in a forum where they feel comfortable. Administrators – in my experience – are pulled in so many directions. They need presenters who will guide them on a path to become digital mentors for their staff. It is, again in my opinion, tragic when you have an administrator in a school who does not have a very keen sense on how to use social media. The world is passing us by in so many ways and leaders need to step up and take an active role. This is an important message for them to hear at BIT and other conferences, however it has to be said with kindness, otherwise you will turn off your crowd.
Doug: In your retirement, you’ve become an even more regular educational blogger. One of the series of posts that I particularly enjoyed was the story behind your climb of Mount Kilimanjaro. Can you share any additional thoughts that didn’t make it into one of your posts? (They’re all tagged by Paul and you can read them here.)
Paul: Oh, my, that is a challenge! I tried to express everything I could in those posts. I remember getting up at 5:00 AM in Moshi, Tanzania to catch the wifi signal to get a post out. It was an incredible experience, one that I will never forget. I have never been challenged so much physically and I have to say I would do it again to see if I could do a better job. It was certainly a worthwhile experience, especially because I was able to raise almost $10,000 for a charity that works closely with families in my former school community. I think the main take away from this is experience would be the importance of challenging yourself away from your comfort zone. It was really important for me to leave the school system so I could take part in this experience. Kilimanjaro freed me up to really work outside the conventional box I was so used to after 31 years.
Doug: Is there another “Kilimanjaro” in your future?
Paul: Yes, certainly. I would say two right now. I have started working with the University of Ottawa Faculty of Education to take second year Education students to El Salvador for three weeks next April. This could be a transformative experience for teacher candidates as they will learn what education is like in the Global South. I am also working on a fundraising trek in Peru to take place next August. The money raised by the trekking group will be going to Christie Lake Kids, a wonderful group here in Ottawa that provides recreation opportunities for low-income children. I will certainly blog about both these experiences! By the way, we are looking for participants for our Peru trek if any readers are interested.
Doug: In your retirement, another area that you address regularly are the challenges as you see them to education. Your particular area of expertise is with school administration. You’ve mentioned that you like to protect your school and teachers from the “board office”. How important is that to you?
Paul: It has always been very important to protect teachers from the school board. I think this is the responsibility of the principal and that is actually how we were trained. You can’t be an effective leader and also be a ‘puppet’ for your school board. You need to be discerning and mature and realize that your staff are doing an incredibly difficult job every day. Your role as an administrator is to clear the way so staff members can be really effective at their job.
This is a fine balance. There are some great ideas out there, but many are not well understood and we sometimes seem to be too eager to rush into things without truly understanding how any particular idea will have a positive influence on student achievement. I have written a few posts recently that fully explain my concern in this area.
Doug: Have you ever found yourself in trouble with your supervisors as a result?
Paul: Yes, constantly and this is not something I take any pride in. Getting in trouble from your supervisors is not fun and can be really stressful. My vision and theirs conflicted. We were supposed to be agents of the board, but the way I saw it, my main responsibility was to my staff, parents and children. This means that you must, at times, stand in opposition to your supervisors. If you don’t have the courage to do this you should never become a principal. Principals in Ontario have no protection. Teachers do, we don’t. This allows senior administrators to act with impunity when it comes to school administration. The current system is incredibly unfair and intimidating. Most administrators just decide to comply. Eventually, for me, it became too difficult to remain working for the board and I had to resign.
Doug: Another thought that you have shared is that modern principals are often too young and experienced for the challenges of today’s schools. Can you elaborate on that?
Paul: They are too young, but not very experienced. I think to be an effective administrator, you need to live life. You need to experience life in all its joys and defeats. You need to learn humility and to really respect the opinions of others, especially those who do not agree with you. There is a certain arrogance amongst some administrators that simply makes the lives of others very difficult. I would say this actually has little to do with youth and lots to do with the acquisition of knowledge and compassion. Of the two, compassion is the most important.
Doug: What would be the ideal path for anyone to take if they’re going to be a successful administrator?
Paul: Teach, teach and teach more. Spend your career learning about education, kids, parents and communities. In the last part of your career you then can consider administration.
I don’t think it is a good idea to go into teaching with the end vision of becoming an administrator. This is something that should evolve over time. Many great teachers decide to keep away from becoming an administrator and we have to ask ourselves why this happens. For me the main quality to acquire before becoming an administrator would be humility. I wish I had seen more of this in my career.
Doug: So why isn’t it done more often?
Paul: I really don’t know. Is it ambition? Maybe. I really think people need to take the time to mature as a human being and as an administrator. Why is there such a rush to do a job that really takes a lifetime to prepare for? I think good leadership is poorly understood. I have replaced lots of poor administrators and in all cases these people were promoted to better positions. Why does this happen? Why do teachers worry so much when they get a new administrator? We ask so much of our students and our teachers, but i think we are failing when it comes to the expectations we have for our administrators.
Doug: You do seem to enjoy your use of social media. Stephen Hurley and I have noticed that, if we’re talking about your blog, you’re actively Twittering along. I’ve learned now to turn off the volume on my phone when we’re featuring you! How important is social media to you? Did you encourage staff to get involved?
Paul: Social media is a living and essential tool for educators. We need to communicate what we learn and what we experience in our schools. Paper newsletters are useless. We need to be experts at communicating with our communities. In my opinion, if you are unwilling to communicate as a school administrator you are in the wrong job. For staff, I think principals need to be trainers and facilitators. Encourage them to use more social media, but remember, their jobs are so busy – much busier than a principal’s, and we need to respect that.
With social media the learning and the connecting never stops. I have gained so much from my connections especially through Twitter. I simply do not understand how educators, especially administrators can do a good job these days without the effective use of Twitter.
Doug: How about administrators? You don’t see too many of them using social media.
Paul: No I don’t and I do not have very much tolerance for this. I do not accept the excuse that they are too busy to communicate – how does that make any sense? It is their job and they should take it seriously. Also, it they are not actively on Twitter, how are they learning? Accepting what they hear during school board sessions is simply not good enough.
Beyond that, their use needs to be effective. I see lots of administrators, especially superintendents who use Twitter as a cheerleading platform. Is that really the best that they can do. Some of these people are considered leaders in Ontario and they are basically sharing what they see on Scoop.it. I think they can do much better than that. We need dialogue and we need to share ideas and we need to learn to be critical and challenge what we see on social media. Lots of room for growth here!
Doug: I know that you were passionate about the facilities at one of your older schools. You had started one of those online funding programs to effect change. I can remember your daily prompts to vote and I did. What needed to be changed? How did the initiative end?
Paul: Well, first, thanks for voting Doug, I really appreciate your support! We won the Aviva Community Fund competition resulting in the infusion of $100,000 into our yard rebuilding fund. Money attracts money and we were able to eventually raise an additional $60,000 to entirely rebuild our old, asphalt yard. A great project for our community. We even had a special website for the project.
This was a truly important project for our community. We really need to look at the school environments that our low-income students inhabit. Many of these are old, underserviced and paved over with cracked decrepit asphalt. We made a huge effort to change this and now St. Anthony School in Ottawa has a beautiful yard, one that our kids really deserve. I loved working on this project, but really, why can we do better for our low-income communities?
Doug: A friend of mine used to start her questions to me this way so I’ll use it here. “If you were the King of the World”, how would you improve education?
Paul: How much space do you have? There is so much that could be done. I would start by having senior administrators that are really open to dialogue and change. Open up discussions and include your principals and teachers, maybe then we would really start to see innovation and change. Having said this, I do see change everywhere. I see change in the work of young teachers who are willing to try new things and do excellent work daily. I guess if I were king of the world, I would let all the wonderful teachers license to do their job without so much bureaucracy and silliness.
Doug: Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Paul. I appreciate it and I’m sure that readers appreciating know more about you.
Paul: Thanks for the invitation Doug, I really appreciate this.
Over the life of this blog, I’ve had the opportunity to interview all kinds of amazing people and Paul adds nicely to the list.
You can check out all the interviews here. https://dougpete.wordpress.com/interviews/