Chris Spence reveals tales of hope and challenge about how to improve our schools and ultimately the student’s life outcomes.


Thank you and good morning, everybody. It’s interesting as I was preparing for today my 12-year-old daughter said, “dad why are you always doing these presentations?” You know what I told her? I do it because I like the introductions, so I want to thank you for that very generous introduction.

I want to begin by reminding you of the words of author Neil Postman who said children are living messages that we send to a time we will not see, and the message that we have to send by way of our children is one of hope. Hope is what drives improvement and improving our schools, and ultimately our student’s life outcomes are what we’re all hoping for the future. So I believe that we in public education have to ensure that all students have these kinds of outcomes. I believe, in fact, that we have to guarantee that every student who walks through our door, gets these kinds of outcomes and you know guaranteed. When’s the last time you had a guarantee? Because guarantee is a very strong word, and I have to tell you the last time I had a guarantee I was 16 years old. My parents said, “Chris, if you’re not in by midnight I guarantee you will not see the light of day,” so this is the kind of commitment that I think that we have to make.

The first one is a healthy start, good nutrition, and intellectual stimulation. Now, more than ever, we know the importance of the early years, we also know that students get better outcomes in life and school when they have a caring adult in their lives. It’s also important that we make sure that every school every classroom is a safe place for students and staff, and again a safe school is a shared responsibility. A safe community is a shared responsibility, no one person can make it safe by themselves, but together we can ensure that we provide those kinds of environments because those are the best environments in which all students and all staff get an opportunity to thrive.

I say this not only as a director of education but as a parent. I have two children in our system and when I send them off to school every day. First and foremost is I want them to be safe, and of course, we have to ensure that they have the tools to succeed and literacy and numeracy are the foundation of the work that we need to do at our schools. We’re also making that shift now 21st-century learning, and we have also to make sure that they can collaborate, that they can communicate, that they’re critical thinkers, and creative in the way that they solve problems. Finally, an opportunity to make a positive, positive difference in their world. I’m absolutely blown away by the level of consciousness of today’s youth. So, part of what we have asked them to do is we now have a social justice action plan, where it is now an expectation that every school will be doing something to make a difference in their world both locally and globally. You heard a little bit about me in the introduction, but just let me tell you a little bit more about Chris Spence. First of all, I am who I am. It’s important that you understand that I am a former football player, now the reason I tell you that is that the last time I was doing a presentation, I overheard some people talking about these football players. Okay, they’re driving home after practice, and they run out of gas. They have to park the car, walk a couple of miles, get some gas, and come back. They want to make sure that the car is going to be safe, so one of the players says, “okay you guys you go to the back I’m going to turn on the hazard lights, tell me if they’re working.” So he goes, “okay guys, are the hazards working?” And the football players are standing to the back, and they’re going yes, no, yes, no.

Now if that’s your perception of football players I’m going to try and change it just a little bit today. I believe, as educators, that we have to have a moral purpose, and that moral purpose is to make a difference in the lives of the students that we seek to reach and teach. Critical to our success is to ensure that there’s a climate of high expectations in every classroom of every school and it’s not just about raising the bar, it’s also about a commitment to reteach regroup and make sure that all students have the resources that they need to be successful.

I share with you a story that’s been making its rounds I think that really illuminates the point. It’s about this night class from hell. It’s now October, and they’ve gone through four different teachers, and the word on this particular group of learners is you know what they just don’t want to learn, they don’t listen, they don’t cooperate, they don’t do their homework. So, they asked a highly decorated teacher retired teacher to come back and support the class. She’s working with his class, and things are going not so well, and after about three weeks she says enough’s enough, I’m going back into retirement. She goes down to the office to hand in her letter of resignation to the principal. Now the principal is not there, and she does something she knows she shouldn’t have done but she goes into the printer will special files, and she sees the profiles of these students, and she’s blown away by what she sees. She sees IQ numbers of 125, 130 the worst offender in the class an IQ of 140. Well, she goes back to the classroom the next day, and she just raises the bar telling them you will learn you will do your homework I will reteach, I will regroup together. We are going to make sure that we cover the curriculum and it’s going to be a great place for learning. Well in no time at all this is now the best performing best behaved class in the whole school, and the principal is just absolutely blown away. He calls her down says please share the secrets of your success, how did you do it how did you turn them around? She’s feeling a little awkward she says, you know I did something I know I shouldn’t have done, but I wanted to use special files I saw those IQ numbers, and I knew that they were capable of so much more, so I just went back, and I raised the bar. The principal’s looks and says listen I got to tell you those numbers that you saw those weren’t their IQ numbers, those are their locker numbers.

It just underscores the importance of creating a climate of high expectations, and as I said earlier, literacy for life is foundation skills that all students need. We have to make sure that every student can listen attentively, speak persuasively, read with understanding, and write with command. In Richmond, Virginia, the local penitentiary can now predict how many cells that they will need based on the number of grade two students reading below grade level. You see, what we’re doing is we’re saving lives, and the truth of the matter is under developed literacy skills are the number one reason why students are retained assigned to special education and why they fail to graduate from high school. The truth of the matter is adolescents entering the adult world in the 21st century will read and write more than any other time in human history. Improvement is not a mystery. Consider if this happens in every classroom of every school. I can guarantee that all students are going to improve. First, we have to believe in our students. We have to believe that with skilled and knowledgeable instruction in safe and caring environments all students will be successful. We have to understand that sometimes students just need more time, so time tailored to specific student needs and an understanding that not all students learn the same way or at the same rate. You see, traditionally, the student has always followed the teacher, but now more than ever, we need the teacher to follow the student and build on what that student knows and can do. All of this needs to be done through an equity lens equity being equal access to the benefits a system has to offer, but that may require differentiated treatment. You see, in education, I do believe that it is the work that we do is about social justice, which begins by gaining a passion for the plight of disadvantaged students. Like French philosopher Dennis Tito said, “passions, only great, great passions can elevate the soul to do great things.” We have to have a passion for the work that we do and those that we lead, as we continually ask ourselves which student tends to be privileged, who tends to be marginalized, and how can we take action in the classroom to interrupt these cycles of oppression.

I get it, we are living in a different world technology is no longer an option, it’s an essential tool for learning. We’ve gone from chalkboards to smart boards. My friend’s two-year-old son started crying because he was tapping the TV and it wasn’t going on. He uses different tools and different communication. I put up my hand here because I just bought my twelve-year-old daughter a cell phone. She’s like yeah everyone has one dad. She’s texting her friends, she’s calling her friends, and I have friends who tell me it’s only going to get worse. A friend of mine has a 16-year-old daughter who spends three to four hours a night on the phone. So, one night the phone rings and she was off after half an hour, and he says to her, “Wow, half an hour,” and she looks at him and says, “well what do you expect, it was the wrong number?”

Information is different. Kids are different. Obesity has now surpassed smoking as the number one health risk in North America. We have a moral obligation to make sure that our students are getting daily physical activity perhaps there’s no more relevant issue to our students right now than mental health. I’m proud of some of the work that we’re doing because now we have one of the first boards in Ontario to have a mental health coordinator to address these issues. Learning is different I don’t know about you, but I always reflect on my time in school, and I still remember sitting in that math class with a big sign over the clock that said, “time will pass, will you?” That was supposed to motivate us, right? So with all of these differences teaching and learning must also be different because we’re dealing with a generation of students that some have never lived without a computer, had a busy signal, used a phone booth, or lived in a house without multiple TVs and remote controls. You see, for them, Google has always been a verb, and Madden Matins always been a video game, not a Super Bowl-winning coach. Our job is to teach the kids that we have, not the kids that we used to have, not the kids that we wish we had, not the kids who exist only in our dreams. When I talk to today’s kids, they tell me that they want to be creators, they can be a filmmaker on YouTube, a recording artist on Second Life, an opinion leader on all the blogs, but when they come into our classrooms, our schools they have to power down. We have to find a way to bring the 21st-century into our schools because, in the 21st-century, our students will be selling to the world, buying from the world, working for international companies, managing employees from other countries and cultures, competing with people on the other side of the world for jobs and markets, working with people all over the world in joint ventures and global work teams, solving global problems such as aids environmental problems, and resolving conflicts.

So the question is, are our students ready? Because in the global economy and society of the 21st-century, all children will be left behind if their education is not organized with a global context in mind. I don’t think we know half of what these kids can do. I was reading about a school district in the United States that only allows computers in the classroom that are built by students themselves. I mean, what a brilliant concept and so doable from the perspective of student talent. You see, the same kids that we say can’t read and write well can remember and create complex lyrics set to hip-hop music. The same kids who can’t even spell, can understand movement on a basketball court, anticipate moves, and create elegant responses. Don’t tell me they can’t learn; it’s how we teach them and how we engage them. One of the great things about the role that I’m in is I get to visit a lot of classrooms and a lot of schools. The other day I was in a grade 2 classroom and then this girl she was drawing this beautiful, beautiful picture with all these colors, and so I said to her what are you drawing, and she said I’m drawing God. I looked at her said, but nobody’s ever seen God before, and she looked right back at me he said, well they will in a minute.

I love the story of Gillian Lynne because as a student, Gillian was driving her teachers crazy. She couldn’t sit down; she was always fidgeting, so finally, the teacher said to the mother, you know what, you got to get her tested. The mother reluctantly took Gillian to get her tested, and when the doctor finished with the test, he asked for a consultation outside. As he was walking out, he gently turned on the radio, and through the observation window, they could see Jillian dancing so gracefully to the music. The doctor looked over the letter and said there’s nothing wrong with your daughter, she’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school, and she ended up doing exactly that. Julian went on to have a brilliant career in dance she was the choreographer fit for Phantom of the Opera and Cats. For us, as educators, it should just be a reminder that our students have so many different learning styles. They can be picture smart, word smart, music smart, number smart, body smart, people smart, self-smart, and part of our role is to ensure that we value and respect all of those learning styles and provide an opportunity to nurture and develop them. As you know, relationships matter. They’re key to the work that we do because you can’t motivate a student you don’t know. There’s no learning without trust and respect, and neither are granted automatically by today’s students.

So this is a former student of mine his name is Ricky. Now that the face has changed and the name has changed, but a lot that lessons learned are timeless. You see, Ricky was a struggling student, but he was a gifted basketball player. One of the things that I deeply believe is that there has to be that strong instructional relationship and when you have that relationship with your students, and I think anything can happen. I first met Ricky, and over the course of the year, we had made great progress. He was, as I said, a very gifted basketball player, so we went to a tournament one day, and we came back, and I dropped the guys off, and I know I’m dating myself here, but I noticed my Walkman wasn’t there. I wasn’t sure if someone lifted it, I wasn’t sure if I left it at the gym or home, so I was telling one of my colleagues I said you know I’m not sure what to do because my Walkman seems to be missing. Well Ricky overheard that conversation and Ricky called the team meeting and he said to the guys, sirs Walkman is missing and it better be on his desk tomorrow, or you got to deal with me. Coming from Ricky, that meant something. Well, the next day there were three Walkmans on my desk. This event was just a constant reminder to me how important it is to make sure that we nurture those relationships with our students. So Ricky said to me, sir you know what your Walkman was in pretty rough condition, do you mind if I take it home? So he took it home, he worked on it, and he brought it back the next day working in better condition than it ever has. You see, Ricky had a gift for working with his hands, a gift we would have never discovered. So for me, he became a metaphor of what can happen to our students when they get pushed out of our schools. The most important thing that we can do is to believe in our students until they can believe in themselves. Jackie Robinson is a hero of mine and Jackie I think captures everything that I want to say here today because Jackie broke baseball’s color barrier back in 1942 when he burst onto the scene with his electrifying saw. He became a symbol of hope to millions and millions of people, but he was also a target of hate mail and death threats. During one game, Jackie was visibly shaken by the threat that he received earlier in the day, and it just threw off his game. He committed errors, struck out, and just wasn’t playing his game, but a timeout was called on the field and his teammate Peewee Reese walked over to Jackie, put his hand on his shoulder and he said, I believe in you-you’re the greatest player that I ever played with, and someday you will be in the Hall of Fame. Well, Jackie went on to score the game-winning run, and when he got inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1962, he recounted that incident, and he said his teammate Peewee Reese saved his life because he believed him, and I believe that that’s the opportunity that we as educators have every day. Believing in our students and in our ability to make a difference, so my message has been that we have to make a simple but powerful commitment to all of our students. That the opportunity to pursue their dreams will be constrained only by the limits of their imagination and never their postal code. I believe with every fiber of my being that we can accomplish that as a public education system. Thank you.