With retirement looming on the horizon after 25 years with the University of Lethbridge (U of L) Faculty of Education, Dr. Pam Adams (BEd ’81, MEd ’99) can look back on a career in education spanning more than 40 years that took her from teaching students to transforming schools by bringing new ideas to teachers and educational leaders.
The seeds of her educational career were planted when she was still a youth, when her mother was a teacher and when colleagues were regular visitors to the family’s home.
I can’t remember a time when our house wasn’t full of people talking about teaching.”
Pam was in her mother’s Grade 9 English class and notes, “She was cutting edge on some of her strategies. She was using music, reflection, and differentiation way back in the early ’70s; these types of pedagogical approaches are commonplace now.”
While her mother had to leave the area to obtain her teaching degree, venturing to Edmonton to attend the University of Alberta, Pam was fortunate to take her training close to home. As she was growing up, plans were laid for a University in Lethbridge. “Every community in the area was so excited when it opened in 1967.”
By the time Pam graduated from high school in 1977, she had decided to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a teacher, and there was no question that she would attend the U of L.
It was a great honour to go to the U of L,” she says. “It was shiny and new and beautiful. It was built to reflect the values of community and collaboration.”
After graduating with her Bachelor of Education degree in 1981, Pam taught social studies at Hamilton Junior High and later taught at Winston Churchill High School. Then what she calls her “fork in the road” came in 1995. Faced with the choice of a path toward school administration or influencing education through a post-secondary position, she chose the latter and returned to the U of L to pursue her Master of Education degree. She followed that up with a PhD from the University of Calgary.
Pam, who plans to officially retire in July 2023, served as assistant dean of the Faculty of Education’s Field Experiences office, and has spent the past 15 years as an associate professor in the faculty, teaming with recently retired Carmen Mombourquette as co-lead of the Master of Education program. She has studied school improvement and education leadership for nearly 23 years and has co-authored books on those subjects. She sees her field of study as a good fit, since she refers to herself “a contrarian.”
“It has always been a case of me wondering about things and asking ‘why?’ or ‘why not?’” she says.
Her quest has led to the development of new strategies to foster school improvement by improving education leadership. It involves gravitating away from the traditional top-down leadership model to a more collaborative system that includes input from all stakeholders.
“School improvement and transformation is really difficult to achieve when the person at the top is tasked with making all the decisions for everyone in the organization,” says Pam. “Everything is about leadership: how many leaders, what are their characteristics, how do they lead, how do you use inquiring questions so the school and the system can grow.”
It’s a case of being part of team, she adds, using the NBA champion Golden State Warriors as an example. “My sports background caused me to think differently about school leadership: sometimes they look the same, but more often than not, each one has evolved to reflect a new paradigm of leadership.”
Such a generative-based approach is at the heart of a leadership model Pam helped develop, and which is now taught in the U of L’s Education Leadership program.
Pam has great respect for today’s school leaders, and great appreciation for their openness to work with her on incorporating new ideas.
“It’s so challenging to lead a school. It’s such a complex undertaking.”
“It has been a real privilege to be allowed to work in schools,” she adds. “School leaders have made time in their impossibly busy schedules to consider my contrarian ideas. They have allowed me to talk with them about ‘what ifs’, and they’ve been gracious and open to these ideas. I believe school leadership is in very good hands right now.”
Pam says her career at the U of L has involved “concentric circles of influence,” where she has gone from helping students and student teachers, to working with principals and superintendents, to taking her ideas to the education system level, then to the provincial and national level. Her influence has expanded across Western Canada with her work with the Greater Victoria School District.
She is mindful, however, that each move outward is a move farther away from the centre – the students – and she notes it’s important that all the decisions made at each level take into consideration the effect on students. Decisions made wisely will result in the best education possible for students. She believes education is the key to dealing with whatever social problem might arise, not necessarily to supply all the answers but to encourage the search for answers. If the education system does its job well, “students go out into their world with a different set of lenses on themselves and the possibilities they bring to society,” says Pam, “more caring, more understanding, more patient, and more curious.”
Perhaps even more contrarian?
Writer: Dave Sulz | Photographer: Rob Olson
• Leadership in Education: The Power of Generative Dialogue
• A Generative Approach to Leadership for All Educators
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University of Lethbridge
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