Former Olympic wrestler Chris Woodcroft, OCT, celebrates victories big and small as the principal of a Kitchener high school.
By Trish Snyder
Photos: Markian Lozowchuk
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"This is the best part of my job,” says Chris Woodcroft, OCT, as he knocks before entering a Grade 10 classroom at Resurrection Catholic Secondary School in Kitchener. “Good morning, I’m sorry to bother you Ms. Craig,” he begins. “Is Hilary here?”
Surprise visits from the principal are no big deal when the guy knocking is a 25-year teaching veteran who greets students by name, coaches school teams, snaps school photos like a one-man yearbook club and gets a rush of satisfaction from calling people out for good deeds.
“I would like to congratulate Hilary for being selected to go to the Dominican Republic!” Woodcroft announces to the English class on this late-spring day. Hilary claps an excited hand over her mouth and her classmates break into applause. Making the cut for the Waterloo Catholic District School Board’s annual mission trip to the Caribbean nation is a big deal — the social justice equivalent of being named to the senior basketball team. She and two dozen students from around the board will spend a week living with host families experiencing everyday life in the impoverished nation — hopefully returning with a renewed desire to help others. “We are so proud of you and look forward to sharing this experience with you,” he says, yahooing with the class before he hustles downstairs for a meeting. “Their peers are the most important part of their lives right now,” Woodcroft says afterwards. “That’s why I like to recognize students publicly.”
He chooses less fanfare, but just as much consideration, when gently breaking the news to the students who didn’t make the cut: he invites them one by one to his office in case any crumble. “I have something disappointing to tell you,” he says to Julia, a Grade 11 student. “You’re not in the top five but you are the first on our waiting list. You had a phenomenal interview and there’s nothing you could have done differently. You participate in a number of social justice initiatives and we appreciate that you’ll continue to do this kind of work no matter what.” It wasn’t the result Julia wanted, and yet Woodcroft’s gentle approach had her walking out with a smile.
Woodcroft is transforming schools with his extraordinary gift for connecting with people. During the four years at his previous school, Monsignor Doyle Catholic Secondary School in Cambridge, he helped turn around test scores, renovate rundown facilities and expand extracurricular activities. In January 2015, The Learning Partnership named him one of Canada’s Outstanding Principals. He’s quick to credit this success to teamwork, which isn’t surprising coming from a former Olympic wrestler. (Thank goodness for Google; you’d never hear about this impressive achievement from Woodcroft, who was still competing for the national wresting team from 1990 to 1993 — his first three years as a new teacher.) The principal channels his athletic perseverance and work ethic into helping others attain greatness in education.
When the Monsignor Doyle community learned at the end-of-year 2013 liturgy that he and vice-principal Lorrie Temple, OCT, were being transferred, 1,000-plus students were reportedly stunned into silence before jumping up for a standing ovation. “Chris encourages and celebrates everyone else while, humbly, never taking credit for the many ways he’s changing lives,” says Marianna Worth, chaplaincy team leader with the Waterloo Catholic District School Board. “He’s the most transformative Catholic leader I know.”
When Woodcroft was appointed principal at Monsignor Doyle in 2010, he took relationship building to the next level. He earned respect and admiration from his staff by remembering their birthdays, carrying a caseload of the most troubled students and covering classes so they could, for instance, attend funerals or watch their child’s kindergarten graduation. He was a daily fixture in the hallways and classrooms, as well as at extracurricular activities — taking pictures of teachers running labs, lessons, rehearsals, meetings and field trips. Woodcroft would then spend several hours composing a weekly staff email to highlight individual contributions and express his gratitude to all.
“I’ve never worked with someone who took the time to document the good deeds occurring within the school, while sharing these successes with his team,” says Kimberly Myers, OCT, a guidance counsellor at Monsignor Doyle. “It truly is what built a collaborative environment. Chris understands that to lead people is to motivate them. He understands that if you empower individuals to feel good about what they do, they will, in turn, do good for others.”
Next, he took on the task of boosting student achievement. After seeing reports of high student anxiety, Woodcroft prioritized wellness. He built a fitness room and reworked timetables to implement Sparking Life, a program that integrates exercise into the school day. School Learning Teams were then established to tackle literacy and numeracy. For math, they dissected EQAO test scores to pinpoint deficits and invited a math consultant to offer ideas. The department adopted intentional strategies like spiralling (teaching a concept, building on it and then revisiting it before moving forward), to identify when students were missing concepts. They initiated EQAO practise testing, which now takes place board-wide. Math scores rose 13 per cent in applied categories and 18 per cent in academic ones; literacy scores broke 80 per cent for the first time. A principal’s jaw dropped when she heard their results — one Doyle feeder school, for instance, typically scores in the 30s.
Woodcroft modelled his high expectations for quality instruction at staff meetings and during professional development (PD) days. “Everyone has had that one teacher who made us want to teach,” he explains. “It’s my job to inspire my staff to want to be that teacher for someone else.” The principal began one PD session on differentiated instruction with a fun task using stacking cups that he had borrowed from various schools. He was so influential as an instructor, and the activity so engaging, that three departments in the school were inspired to order their own cups to use in lessons to connect with students.
Other times, he asked individual teachers to share best practices and ushered the staff on gallery-style walks throughout the school — he knows what his staff does well because he spends so much time in classrooms. One teacher excelled at reaching students in science by asking unorthodox questions at the start of the year: How excited were they about science? How comfortable taking risks? By sharing their winning strategies and making teachers the heroes, he gives teachers the tools — and the desire — to improve. “He’d challenge you to be better than you were when you had arrived,” says Temple.
He’d also speak up if he saw in-class approaches that weren’t up to par, asking how a particular technique was helping students to learn. “Chris did such a good job celebrating the great stuff, that when he saw something that didn’t measure up, he was able to get through in a way that made people receptive,” says Temple.
With his trademark high energy, Woodcroft introduced new initiatives from the Ministry and the board. A few years ago, he brought staff in line with the province’s new assessment framework (learning goals and success criteria) by remaining relentlessly positive and explaining how it would improve both teaching and learning. “It was his delivery,” says Myers. “He had completely bought into it and explained everything in a way that showed why it made sense and why it was ultimately good for the students.”
A student named Joseph at Monsignor Doyle certainly tested Woodcroft’s commitment to doing whatever it takes to help others succeed. In Grade 9, for example, he was barely passing and his hot temper was getting him kicked out of class. The principal reached him by staying calm, while forgiving and offering the teenager a fresh start after every misstep: “You made a bad choice,” Woodcroft would say. “It doesn’t make you a bad person but let’s move forward and make sure it doesn’t happen again"
When the student was sent to the office, the principal helped him cool off by inviting him for a walk or for lunch. Woodcroft showed Joseph the value of pausing to think, instead of blowing up and saying something he’d regret — a skill the young man began to use at school and at his part-time job. “He helped me see where I’d made mistakes but he focused on the solution rather than the problem,” says Joseph, whose letter was one of a stack submitted to support the principal’s award. “Mr. Woodcroft was always positive. His attitude made me want to achieve things, and he helped me see how I could improve. He never let me quit and never accepted anything less than my best effort. He taught me how to be the best me.”
The OCT featured in this department has been recognized with a national teaching award and exemplifies the high standards of practice to which the College holds the teaching profession.
Great leaders know their purpose is to serve those they lead. Award-winning principal Chris Woodcroft, OCT, shares his favourite management strategies for vice-principals and principals.
Learn names and be present in all conversations. Take the time to greet your students and staff throughout the day, and celebrate a job well done.
Be true to your priorities, no matter what challenges you find yourself up against. Woodcroft’s include God, family, personal health and career responsibilities.
The way you carry and conduct yourself does not go unnoticed within your school community. Your attitude, demeanour and persona are infectious.
There is no benefit to yelling, arguing, using sarcasm or a condescending tone with staff or students. Keep your cool at all times and lead by example.
Respect a 24-hour rule. Better to take the time you need to deal with an issue in an appropriate manner than make a rash decision and suffer the consequences later.
This proactive approach will pay dividends in all areas, whether in the classroom, hallway, cafeteria, parking lot or during extracurricular activities.