Lynne Charette, OCT, sets the tone that flows from principal to teacher to student.
By Stuart Foxman
Photos: Matthew Liteplo
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Six weeks into the school year, Lynne Charette, OCT, saw that one student was feeling anxious. "She was very self-conscious," says Charette. Unsure if she was doing things correctly, the student was seeking frequent approval. If it didn't come right away, she got down on herself.
So Charette wrote her a note. She recalls the gist of it: "When you feel overwhelmed, take small bites. You're not expected to do and know everything. Just become curious about learning, listen, observe and ask many questions. Be truly present."
It's simple yet great advice for any learner. In this case, the student happened to be a teacher candidate at the University of Ottawa's faculty of education. That's where Charette teaches now, after retiring in 2019 from a 35-year career with the Ottawa Catholic School Board (OCSB).
Her final job with the OCSB was principal at St. Benedict School, in Nepean, Ont., which she opened in 2016. For her work there, The Learning Partnership named Charette one of Canada's Outstanding Principals for 2019.
As a principal, and now as a university professor, Charette has the same objective: help teachers to approach their work with the right framework and mindset.
Much of what Charette expects of teachers applies to students too. Both groups have a lot to achieve and can feel pressure. Charette hopes teachers remember, and help their students to remember, this lesson. "Focus on a few goals," she says, "and build on the success you already have."
If you believe teachers set the tone in the classroom, then the principal sets the tone for staff. It's all connected. Charette encourages among teachers what she also wants to see from students.
"She gets excited about ideas," says Stephanie Myers, OCT, a Special Education resource teacher at St. Benedict.
When Myers joined the school, she was new to the elementary panel and wasn't tied to the traditional models. Myers had her own thoughts of what Special Education could look like, based on her understanding of the board's vision, including leveraging more digital resources. Charette was supportive, partly because she wants everyone, teachers and students alike, to follow their own paths.
"Lynne modelled risk-taking, so you model it, and students see it. It trickles down to the staff and students, so they want to try new things," says Myers. "The more that students have voice and choice, the deeper they can go into learning. Lynne also gave her staff voice and choice in their passions."
Everything can be mirrored. For instance, Charette is a huge booster of professional learning communities. She loves when colleagues brainstorm, and also recognizes that it helps teachers to promote the same strategies in their classrooms.
"We talk about how important collaboration is for students. What Lynne does well is build collaboration among staff," says Jeannie Armstrong, OCT, principal at St. Marguerite d'Youville School with the OCSB. "She sets the conditions for those opportunities, such as same-grade collaboration through scheduled prep time. Lynne creates school conditions that support a strong collaborative culture, so teachers recognize the importance of collaboration among students."
Charette began her career with the OCSB in 1984, and was a classroom teacher, system Special Education consultant, vice-principal and principal. Her ties to the board extend much further. Charette's father was superintendent of business administration with the OCSB, involved in building or retrofitting more than 40 schools.
"Dad would take my mom, my sister and me to school openings. I was always fascinated by school designs and how the staff created learning environments," says Charette.
She had a chance to open a school of her own with St. Benedict. Charette wanted it to have strong connections to social justice, environmental stewardship, entrepreneurship and inquiry-based learning.
At St. Benedict, Charette's first question for staff was "What's the difference that makes the difference for each child?" Why that? Educators often talk about making a difference. Charette says you can't generalize about how to do that. One size doesn't necessarily fit all. Her question was a reminder to teachers to "drill down," says Charette.
"Rather than go a mile wide and an inch deep, let's go an inch wide and a mile deep," she says. "It's not about being curriculum-driven; it's about being student-driven."
The Canada's Outstanding Principals award recognized how Charette champions inquiry-based learning, which she believes is central to unpacking curriculum content. "If your students can answer a question using Google," says Charette, "you're asking the wrong question."
That attitude changes the teacher role. As Charette explains, "I encourage teachers to transfer some responsibilities to students, because releasing authority engages students. Triggering inquiry takes modelling enthusiasm. Learning something new generates our own enthusiasm. Teachers get hung up on the content of the curriculum as opposed to the act of learning."
Charette's award also noted how she worked with Dr. Michael Fullan's New Pedagogies for Deep Learning network to promote the global competencies: creativity, communication, citizenship, critical thinking, character and collaboration.
That focus offered another example of how she both steered and entrusted her staff. Charette gave staff ample PD time to explore the issues, and then the freedom to evaluate how the six Cs played out.
"She had faith in us and let us be innovative," says Julian Daher, OCT, then a French Immersion teacher at St. Benedict and now a teacher at St. Michael School in Ottawa. "I said, ‘Lynne, I know the curriculum, but I want your permission to come up with tasks to measure the global competencies.' She said, ‘Run with it.' We were able to take the risks because Lynne wasn't a directive leader. She was a transformational leader."
What does that mean? "Think of a car," says Daher. Traditionally, the teacher drives the car and the students sit in the back seat. The teacher navigates the route. That isn't how it should work in the classroom, or between staff and school leadership.
"Through gradual release, Lynne invited teachers to go into the passenger seat and give input into direction, and eventually go in the driver's seat," says Daher. "Similarly, in the classroom I'm using more of that transformational approach. It rubbed off, in that I want the kids to help me direct the learning, or to direct the learning themselves. What can we do together, and how do we reroute? Learning is a journey."
As a principal, Charette practised what she called "organized abandonment." You look at all the initiatives coming down from the Ministry or board, layer that against the school context, and get deliberate in setting priorities. Maybe this year there's a desired focus on literacy, for instance, but it's not as important to the school as critical thinking.
It's a reminder too that teachers have a lot of things coming at them, and so do students. Keep things focused and filter out the rest of the noise.
"You could see that in the classrooms of Lynne's schools," says Brenda Wilson, OCT, a retired OCSB superintendent. She says that whenever Charette popped in, everyone was in a learning stance. They weren't worried about being observed. "It happened," says Wilson, "because teachers knew Lynne's expectations, and because everyone was excited about the process of learning and not just the outcomes."
"I focused on the learning and not the teaching," says Charette of her classroom visits. "That's the mandate. When I walk into the classroom, it should take me a while to find the teacher. I should see the teacher embedded in the learning. I should hear the students doing as much talking as the teacher, and see them learning in small groups."
Too much silence is a warning. "I'd wonder if I walked into a classroom and it was quiet. It wouldn't sound like the students were engaged," says Charette.
The smartest person in the room is the room, she says. "There is no hero image that brings about any kind of change that lasts. We're all in this together."
That means teachers need to be learning alongside the students. It gets back to her note to the University of Ottawa teacher candidate. Be curious. Listen. Observe. Question. "You have to focus on yourself as a learner," says Charette, "before you can become the best teacher you can be."
The Ontario Certified Teacher featured in this profile has been recognized with a teaching award and exemplifies the high standards of practice to which the College holds the teaching profession.