Monday, December 19, 2016

Handel's Messiah


The music and words of Handel's Messiah have been ringing through my head for the last few weeks. A couple of days ago I was a chorister for a production of the Messiah, and the oratorio is still with me in almost every waking moment and even in my sleep.

After avoiding choirs and choral music for most of my adult life, I joined the Prince George Cantata Singers in order to be part of this production. This is a community choir led ably by volunteer board and conducted by the fascinating character of Lyn Vernon, a renowned opera singer who has retired to a quiet rural life near Prince George.

I am now very glad that I did join on three accounts. First, it brought back great memories from my teen years of cracking jokes and hamming it up with the basses in the back row of the church choir. The only difference is that I was 17 then and they were in their 30s and 40s, and now I'm 47 and the basses are in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. Same basic set of relationships and jokes even though the characters are different. The second reason was to recall and revive my ability to read and sing music; it seemed with each practice I could hit one note higher and by the end didn't have to fake it. A specific guilty pleasure in this effort was to be able to sing at the top my lungs in a room full of people doing more or less the same thing. The third joy was the sensation from the rehearsals leading up to Dec 17th, and the performance at Vanier Hall, and the lingering sentiment.

Being on stage with 72 singers and the PG Symphony Orchestra was special. The guest conductor, Michael Newnham, was truly inspiring, particularly his quirky style and bold interpretations of the music. He tells great stories and makes powerful analogies during rehearsal, and makes all kinds of noises while he conducts. I don't have much to compare him with, but I can see he pushed the musicians to try new things and expand their ability to express. I loved his animated style, humour and comments about the text and music that he offered during rehearsals.

I have strong memories of the Messiah from my childhood and after. I have never sang in a Messiah production, but like anyone else growing up Mennonite I have sang bits and pieces in church, listened to it hundreds of times at home in a variety of arrangements, and gone to a sing-along Messiah at the Queen E in Vancouver. This experience was moving, to say the least. Unlike others among family and friends, I am not particularly musical, and quite ignorant of the breadth and depth of the classical music world. Nonetheless, if it moves it moves. I choked up a number of times in almost every rehearsal, and not just in the Hallelujah chorus. During the performance, with each completion of each chorus, the fellow next to me, Mike, sighed deeply and wiped his brow and eyes, sometimes with a quiet "wow" or "oh boy." I suppose we have become friends over the fall season -- he is an older Welshman, full of stories, folk tunes, and jokes -- exactly the sort of person I had hoped to meet when I joined the choir. I shared his emotional reaction to the music, compounded by stage nerves, the sopranos just in front of us, and the expressive conductor. After we belted out the final amen at the end of Worthy is the Lamb, he turned to me and said softly what was also in my mind, "I am shattered."

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Exit Plan

A year ago, then Superintendent of School District 57 Brian Pepper fanned out a letter of resignation -- he was stepping down "for reasons of health and opportunity." A year later, we have learned through the BC Ministry of Finance's financial disclosure statements that Mr. Pepper received a sizeable severance and vacation buyout in addition to other compensations including his annual salary, benefits, and so on. The $222,952 severance brought his total compensation in 2015 to $436,082. With the vacation buyout and the $67,411 paid to an acting superintendent (Sharon Cairns) during a medical leave-of-absence prior to his Mr. Pepper's departure, that brings to a total of $319,315 over and above regular compensation paid by the school district for the superintendent resignation in 2015. I have no idea about the inevitable lawyers's fees associated with this kind of business, but that, too, would be billed to the district. $319,000 is is a significant amount for a school district. For example, it is almost three times the amount available to teachers annually in their Pro-d Fund which supports about 85 applicants for conference expenses, subsidizes local professional development activities throughout the year, and pays for an annual educational conference with 1000 attendees.

Normally a resignation of this nature doesn't come with a severance package; it suggest a termination, buyout, or a parting of the ways. The specific circumstances of Mr. Pepper's departure have not been open to the public, so is now the stuff for speculation, which does not really get anywhere useful. Based on my own long and complicaged history of advocating for various reforms within our district, I have my own assessment of his tenure, but in this context the best and worst I'll say about him can be summed up with the word "guile" -- a not unfamiliar quality for someone in his position. However, the departure, along with others from among senior administration in the last year, should best be used as a cause for reflection. I wrote a post about some of that back in summer -- the need to take advantage of this change in leadership: http://thielmann.blogspot.ca/2016/06/leadership-change.html. Essentially, it is a good time for our new district administration to examine and respond to twelve ready sources that will help them decide what to do next, including a newly adopted (but largely unexplored) Strategic Plan.

The news about Mr. Pepper's severance led some teacher friends and I into a conversation about what to do when members of an organization need to go, are asked to go, or leave unexpectedly. In particular, when individuals hold key positions, it is not enough to wait for them to go before figuring out the process for replacement -- this leads to rash decisions and often the replacement is chosen with criteria completely focused on the strengths and deficits of the last person in that position. We've heard the same concerns from other school districts, boards of organizations, companies, intentional communities, clubs and associations etc., so we had many people with whom to make assessments and wonder about what went right and wrong before it was clear someone had to go.

What is needed is an exit strategy. How long is too long for a leader to hold power? What are the signs that an organization needs to make a personnel change? Who is responsible for starting a conversation with an individual when things fall apart. It is not as simple as looking to the next people in the hierarchy -- they are often reluctant to act on the data, so to speak, but it becomes less arbitrary when their is an exit plan. Do the existing performance reviews actually have the credibility to identify deep problems and the teeth to do something about it? Does the review process actually make sense in terms of the job criteria? Can it ferret out the difference between practices that need attention vs items that can't be accepted? What kinds of "first steps" are necessary before moving to termination? Is it better to buy out or wait it out? At what point in at the ongoing "power struggles" within an organization do people with the ability to intervene do so? What should be done early on so that legal battles can be avoided? How do you explain dramatic personnel decisions to others in the organization? Is there a dignified way to transition employees or leaders out of an organization?

We wrapped up our discussion by bringing it back to the school system. Sadly, we all know many teachers that made a lousy career choice decision to become teachers. Some need help, and often are willing to take it, but others should simply go and find something else to do. Our system of performance reviews is not up to the task of making this happen, and our collegiate solidarity makes it difficult for teachers to hold each other accountable. Those ill-suited to the profession tend to linger for years or even decades past their best-before date. As one of our group suggested, perhaps we should have a buy-out fund ready to go to provide a way out. It might not be particularly dignified but it would solve some problems. The other, perhaps more serious solution we had is to view important positions as a tour of duty with a set expiration, and that, once served, there should not be a stigma around returning to a "lower position." In the case of many principals and leaders within the school system, it would be great to get them back in the classroom. That kind of change would be hard to ignite... but not impossible. If Mr. Pepper would have started his tenure as superintendent with the knowledge that he had five years to make a difference, and then would have a variety of jobs to choose from afterwards within the district, we would probably have an extra $319,000 to spend in schools. Lots of ways to put it together, but hopefully our district leadership, especially the school board, are cognizant of the need to build an exit plan for all levels of the organization.