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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 ...

Days before school started in September, 2010, thousands of Toronto teachers converged on the Air Canada Centre for what was billed as the “Believe It” conference.

The $345,000 rally starred Dr. Chris Spence, hired as director of education for the Toronto District School Board 18 months earlier.

As he strode around a dais at centre ice, wearing a jacket, an open-neck dress shirt and a wireless microphone, Dr. Spence came across as every inch the motivational speaker, channelling Tony Robbins and countless TED Talks presenters.

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“Today,” he began, “I ask you to believe …”

The speech, reprised last March for an independent TED talk, offered a potpourri of mainstream ideas about progressive education, anecdotes, jokes, references to famous thinkers, and stirring quotes.

Some were attributed to their sources; others, not.

“Our job is to teach the kids we have,” he told the cheering teachers, “not the kids we used to have, not the kids we wish we had, not the kids who only exist in our dreams.” But that elegant sentence, which is quoted in media reports about the event, also appears in a presentation prepared by one Cathy Watkins, a PhD from California State University, as well as other education blog posts that predate the event.

Long before Dr. Spence, 51, quit his post last week amidst explosive revelations of plagiarism involving a newspaper column, and further allegations involving his blog and his PhD dissertation, his high-profile approach to one of the city’s most visible public-sector posts had garnered considerable attention.

Through a public-relations firm, Dr. Spence declined requests for an interview.

Now, as the TDSB looks for a new director (an interim leader was named this week), the trustees have to figure out whether they want to find another charismatic leader who fought for programs for disadvantaged students, or someone more low-key who knows how to guide the $2.8-billion organization off the fiscal shoals.

Dr. Spence’s style never sat well with some education veterans. “A huge amount of showbiz,” said Charles Pascal, a former deputy minister of education, who added that he felt events like the one at the ACC sent the wrong message. “There was more than a modest amount of self-aggrandizement.”

Yet others, including many of Dr. Spence’s shell-shocked colleagues, are eager to offer a counter-narrative. Though he committed the cardinal sin of higher learning, they say he made significant gains in the way Canada’s largest board confronts the needs of low-income and minority kids.

“There are times when good people do bad things and I think this is one of those,” observed lawyer Julian Falconer, who led an inquiry into the circumstances behind the 2007 slaying of Jordan Manners in a Toronto high school and described Dr. Spence as “a progressive light in an institution slow to change.”

“You feel such a broad range of emotions,” added Jim Spyropoulos, TDSB co-ordinating superintendent for equitable and inclusive schools, stressing, as did Mr. Falconer, that he can’t condone plagiarism, but he still respects his former boss.

Dr. Spence persuaded the TDSB to tackle the “opportunity gap” for disadvantaged students, he said, including extensive teacher training on how to better deal with aboriginal and gay and lesbian students, as well as restless teenage boys. He also oversaw the establishment of the TDSB’s first Africentric school (his sister is the principal). “The response has been unprecedented,” Mr. Spyropoulos said.

The board will soon release a 2011 census that measures improvements since 2006. “This information will tell us to what extent Dr. Spence’s intervention was successful,” Mr. Spyropoulos said.

The last few months, however, have been tumultuous due to labour strife, cost overruns, school closures, and the fallout of a scandal involving revelations of dramatic over-spending on routine repairs. “It feels like we’re under siege at times,” Dr. Spence said last fall. “The issues coming at us have been relentless.”

Replacing Dr. Spence will be gruelling: His 2009 appointment followed a 15-month audition process. “The type of people you want already have jobs,” said Ben Levin, a former deputy minister who now teaches at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. “They’re not looking for a new one.”

From football to teaching?

Christopher Michael Spence was born in England in 1962 and grew up in Windsor, Ont. He is best known for playing professional football after graduating from Simon Fraser University in 1985. Media profiles note that he was a running back for the B.C. Lions for two seasons before being sidelined by an injury and that an attempted comeback in 1988 with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers didn’t pan out. He regularly mentioned his stint as a football player, often to drive home the point that athletes tend to be inappropriately stereotyped as “dumb jocks.”

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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