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Director of Education for the Toronto District School Board Chris Spence poses for a photo in Toronto on Friday, October 12, 2012. (Michelle Siu For The Globe and Mail)
Director of Education for the Toronto District School Board Chris Spence poses for a photo in Toronto on Friday, October 12, 2012. (Michelle Siu For The Globe and Mail)

Chris Spence's teachable moment Add to ...

According to the CFL, however, he played just two games, in 1986, for B.C. But former TDSB chair John Campbell, who hired Dr. Spence, said in an interview that he didn’t tout his CFL career during the hiring process.

After working as a race-relations co-ordinator, he completed a teaching degree from York University and went on to do graduate work at the University of Toronto, where he obtained a PhD. Google Scholar lists four citations of his thesis.

Dr. Spence began teaching a special-needs class and worked his way up the system. Those who worked with him said he had a natural ability to connect with young people, especially African-Canadian boys. Modelling himself as coach-like mentor, he was well known for using motivational slogans with students and staff.

In a 2002 book about his experiences as a middle-school principal in a high-needs school, he recounted his efforts to refocus a troubled teen by taking him out to KFC to talk about life and basketball. “After a couple of hours of eating, watching videos and playing ball, we call it a day. He seems to appreciate my interest …”

“Kids loved him,” said Scarborough councillor Gary Crawford, who served as a TDSB trustee when Dr. Spence was hired and often saw him at work in east-end schools. “He’d be right down at their level, and they responded incredibly well.”

Following a stint as a superintendent, he took over as director of education for the Hamilton-Wentworth school board in 2004. There, he advocated for new approaches to teaching boys, including schools offering single-gender classrooms.

When the TDSB began looking for a new director, in 2009, Dr. Spence put forward his name but then withdrew after word leaked out in Hamilton, according to Mr. Campbell. After the board’s top two choices – one, the former chancellor of New York City’s school system, the other an education academic from Western Canada – fell through, Mr. Campbell encouraged Dr. Spence to re-apply.

At the time, Mr. Campbell added, “the board needed a public face” as well as inspirational leadership. The TDSB was coming out of a period of provincial supervision and was still reeling from the Manners killing.

Not everyone was enthusiastic. Some progressive parents took issue with some of his writings, citing a passage which raised eyebrows for its stereotypes: “Anyone who has ever watched little boys play,” he wrote in The Joy of Teaching Boys (2008), “can tell what they are up to, for good or bad; little girls, however, are different – they flirt, they pout, they manipulate.”

As director, he maintained a frenetic pace, with numerous speaking engagements, newspaper op-eds and an active Twitter account. From his early days as a principal, Dr. Spence had developed a habit of peppering his students and staff with inspirational quotes and aphorism, as a coach would with his team. As director, that early habit persisted, albeit on a much larger stage, and with a much broader audience.

Case in point: In October, 2011, he tweeted, “You can’t motivate a student you don’t know.” That line comes from U.S. education reformer Ted Sizer. In some of Dr. Spence’s presentations, he cites Prof. Sizer; in others, he doesn’t. But he’s hardly alone in his sloppiness: Such catchphrases appear, both with and without attribution, all over the internet, including power points by credentialed academics.

It raises a thorny question: How, in a field like education, does the line between motivational speech and plagiarism grow so blurry?

Searching for a replacement

Looking ahead, Charles Pascal has some trenchant advice for the 22 trustees: “The first step,” he said, “is to purchase a very, very large but inexpensive mirror. The board needs to learn from their mistake. [They] need to look at how they hire and how well they’ve gone about oversight.”

There are few jobs as complicated. With a multibillion-dollar budget, vast land holdings, 30,000 employees and responsibility for over a quarter of a million children, the TDSB is an organization unlike any other in the city. Directors of big city boards, according to veteran educators, are like deputy ministers, but they also answer to parents, unions, trustees and provincial officials. The job encompasses everything from ensuring that kids don’t get left at bus stops to understanding the latest curriculum research. Good directors also have loads of political and bureaucratic savvy, as well as a knack for snuffing out nascent brewing controversies.

But as this new search begins, the board will surely find itself pondering the delicate issue of the next director’s ego. It’s important to avoid “a cult of personality,” said Prof. Levin.

“Your salvation won’t come in the form of one person.”

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