Kevin Bush, OCT
Building a sense of unity
by Leanne Miller, OCT
Scan his office walls and Kevin Bush’s leadership beliefs become clear. You’ll see Martin Luther King, Jr. reminding us of how important a dream can be, while Nelson Mandela explains that hardships must be endured before goals can be achieved. Between these two visionaries hangs the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as a colourful mystery painting created by a former student inspired by the Butterfly Peace Garden program.
There is no doubt that these great thinkers with their powerful messages – as well as this meaningful work of art – have inspired Bush in his role as principal at Sir Guy Carleton SS, but it is his unique and masterful approach to leadership that was honoured by a 2010–11 Premier’s Award for Excellence in Leadership.
The 500-student-strong vocational high school – located in the Ottawa-Carleton DSB – has 90 teachers and support staff to provide students with life skills and prepare them for the workforce. Approximately 80 per cent of graduates go directly to work, while 15 per cent choose college or an apprenticeship, and the rest move on to community-assisted living.
Most students have struggled both academically and socially throughout elementary school and have experienced little success in education. As principal, Bush sees a twofold challenge. The first is to build and sustain a sense of unity within an often-disaffected student population. The second is to create a common vision for all members of the learning community – students, staff, parents and guardians. Bush’s award-winning approach began with his unique philosophy: that he is part of the knighthood.
The knighthood is the all-encompassing school theme that embraces a culture of chivalry, respect and honour. And if that notion doesn’t seem cool in an age of iPads and iPhones, students are quick to open their minds once they step into the principal’s office.
“Yes, that’s a real knight’s jousting helmet. Most students want to try it on and more than a few want to take it home,” Bush says with a grin and a laugh.
These kids need to see themselves as worthwhile, contributing members of society. It’s our job to do everything we can to help them get there.
The knighthood comes with the school’s five Cs: Courtesy, Common Sense and Co-operation lead to a Career. The fifth C, Communication, begins before a student decides to attend the school. “Often, by the time a child comes to us, parents and guardians have already visited several times,” explains Bush.
The school hosts a Welcome Barbecue in August and Grade 8 parents’ evenings in February and May to familiarize parents with the knighthood before September comes. “The more people become familiar with what’s going on in our building, the more supportive they are. The more common experiences we share, the more attached we all become to the knighthood,” says Bush.
Once students enrol, the communication never stops. Bush e-mails weekly Knight Talk newsletters to 250 families to reinforce a sense of community and belonging. He invites parents to school council meetings, student achievement and award celebrations, parent-teacher interviews and Follow Your Knight’s Timetable evenings.
It’s hard to find a student who doesn’t know Mr. Bush. When he’s not in the hallway talking to students – addressing them all by name – his voice can be heard on the morning announcements and his face seen during his daily televised announcements.
Perhaps uncharacteristically, students approach this principal all the time. Some just to say hello and a great many to ask for a piece of gum. Bush says he goes through several packs of sugar-free gum every day. “It’s another way the kids see me and get to know and trust me,” he reflects. “It helps make me human and approachable.”
Students celebrate their knightly achievements with Kevin Bush – in the Governor General’s dining room – at the weekly Lunch with the Principal. The room is fashioned to look like Sir Guy Carleton’s original dining area.
They also know him from Thursday’s Lunch with the Principal – a celebratory affair that recognizes a student’s knightly achievements. Everything from being a dynamo student volunteer during the provincial elections to helping serve nearly 800 people in need during the school’s annual Thanksgiving meal will earn you a seat at Bush’s table.
Recent guests include: Shaun, who represented the school at the Rick Hansen 25th-anniversary relay; Daniela, recognized for her consistent hard work, courteous hallway behaviour and ability to make friends easily; Stacey, who wheeled herself into the room, honoured for her fantastic daily efforts in gym; Naomi, a Grade 12 student who just a year ago enrolled in Sir Guy to take part in the school’s Specialist High Skills Major hospitality and tourism program and recently made it to the national level of the Skills Canada culinary competition.
“This is a very different school,” Naomi explains. “Mr. Bush’s job is far more demanding than leading a regular high school. It takes real dedication and patience. Students usually see the principal for something bad, but here we see him for good things. He knows everyone’s name and takes the time to talk to everyone – that builds and demonstrates trust.”
The Respect Club was established two years ago as an extension of the knighthood theme. Participating students must sign a contract and wear a bracelet to display their commitment to being courteous, having common sense and co-operating in and outside of school.
Says Bush: “It gives us a common language and set of behavioural expectations we can all talk about, both to correct inappropriate behaviour and to praise the many good deeds and actions. We’re talking about life skills here. These kids need to see themselves as worthwhile, contributing members of society. It’s our job to do everything we can to help them get there.”
Once a Respect Club member, a student can join the leadership crew and become a student leader for school-wide events such as the provincial elections.
Bush is a firm believer that a healthy body, mind and attitude contribute to a student’s success. And because of this, he is proud of a new community partnership that has led to the opening of a school health clinic. Nursing students from the Ottawa-Algonquin Joint Program make weekly visits to the school, while a doctor practises alongside a community-health-organization nurse for four hours every Friday to ensure that each student is healthy enough to learn.
It’s not surprising then that athletics is another important element of the knighthood. Not only must students take physical education each year, but over 60 per cent of the student body and nearly every teacher are involved in either intramural sports or are part of a competitive team.
Bob Lanthier, OCT, is a retired teacher who now volunteers at the school where he taught for 37 years. The former head of math and science explains that athletic involvement is another way to unify the students.
“They come to school on game days wearing their Sir Guy Carleton Knights T-shirts, beaming with pride at the opportunity to represent the knighthood.”
And when you ask Kevin Bush for his thoughts on education and how he brings his students together, he returns to the beginning – to where he draws inspiration. “Both the Butterfly Peace Garden and our school create environments and cultures where marginalized youth rekindle their passion for learning and creativity.
“It would be a mistake to say that our schools – any more than mystery painting – are all about some kind of instrumentalist process. In our knighthood and in that art form, we emphasize that it’s not about producing a product. Education is neither a commodity nor an investment in a corporate enterprise. Education, like mystery painting, is ultimately a contemplative practice. Both strive to discipline, nurture and liberate the mind and soul – not just for the benefit of the individual but in the service of community. Both allow for a recentering of our profoundly de-centred lives. Mystery painting has the potential to be liberating, just as the process of schooling does at Sir Guy Carleton.”
Kevin Bush’s 10 key traits for effective leaders
- Attentive: Prioritize but still have time to listen.
- Visible: Never underestimate the power of proximity.
- Sincere: Students and employees are experts at reading how genuine a person is.
- Democratic and Egalitarian: Demonstrate a democratic and inclusive ethos. The three musketeers were successful because they lived the motto, “All for one, one for all.”
- Forward looking: Understand that each decision sets a precedent. The degree to which others are included in that decision is crucial for team building and cohesiveness.
- Empathetic: Decisions can affect lives – making or breaking the potential, ambition and hope of others.
- Inclusive: Structure opportunities to celebrate daily, weekly and monthly inclusivity.
- Empowering: Recognize the strength of collective decision making. Leading takes a back seat to being part of the group.
- Facilitating: Create opportunities for the kind of risk taking that helps people reach their potential.
- Pragmatically visionary: Remember that true leaders create a future one day at a time. They have a vision of what that future looks like and the patience to see how one step will lead to the next.
The Butterfly Peace Garden and mystery painting
The Butterfly Peace Garden supports children affected by civil war and natural disasters in Sri Lanka by using various art forms to promote healing rituals for individuals and communities.
Mystery painting is a form of what Paul Hogan, Canadian artist and Peace Garden co-founder, calls imaginative induction – where problems or trauma, and sometimes celebration, come to be expressed through the images and stories that spill out of someone’s subconscious onto the canvas.For more information visit butterflypeacegarden.org.