Sean Nosek remembers his first days as an educator in Maple Ridge, starting out teaching English and gym at Thomas Haney secondary.
To the young teacher, a school like Thomas Haney, with its self-directed learning model, had existed only in textbooks.
“It was theoretical – what education was supposed to be moving toward,” he said.
Being part of a staff that was doing cutting edge work was great, and he fell in love with the institution itself – a three-year-old school that was big and open, with natural light, a modern esthetic and on a great site.
“For a 24-year-old, I thought I did pretty well, and had landed in a pretty good place.”
That was 19 years ago. Nosek is back at Thomas Haney, but now the principal – and one of the best in Canada. This is month Nosek was chosen to receive a Canada’s Outstanding Principals Award from the Learning Partnership. He is one of 40 across Canada to receive the honour.
After his first seven years as a teacher, Nosek moved to Maple Ridge secondary – “an excellent school in its own right.” He was promoted to vice-principal at 31, and still taught English.
“I found the transition to be smooth,” he said. “I took the best of what we did at Thomas Haney with me, and made it work in a classroom.”
He was there three years before being transferred to Westview secondary, where he remained as VP for a year, then was promoted to principal. The school was getting its new turf field, and Nosek was there to launch the soccer academy, and build a soccer exchange partnership with a school in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Five years ago he returned to Thomas Haney, this time as an experienced administrator.
He’s been good for Thomas Haney, and it has been good for him.
“There’s a notion that this is the most exciting time in education,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to be in a school that has embraced the change.”
Thomas Haney has a lot going for it, but the fastest car doesn’t always win the race, and Nosek has steered the school well.
Enrolment was in decline when he arrived, whereas now there is a waiting list of hundreds of students who want to get in.
Nosek helped to spread the word, about what the school is all about. THSS teacher Beth Mehrassa talked about this in the nomination package that went to the Learning Institute:
“Sean showed us that we need to proactively work to attract students and be solid advocates for our innovative school model. He, himself, has done so much to get the word out; Sean has done a masterful job of attracting students to our school in a time of declining enrollment,” she wrote. “People have always been curious about our school; now it seems that they are more seriously considering it to be a way of the future for education.”
Another teacher, Andrea Clayton, also wrote to the Learning Institute about Nosek’s role in selling the school:
“Before Sean came to THSS, the community doubted that the THSS model was right for students. There were many negative and non-founded rumours about the success of Thomas Haney students. Sean came to THSS believing that our personalized instructional model would meet the individual needs of today’s students. His enthusiasm and eloquent speaking skills helped explain what THSS was about,” she wrote. “Sean has helped make Thomas Haney an exciting, unique, teaching/learning opportunity school.
“He helped us get our collective groove back,” is how English teacher Kathryn Ferguson summarized it.
“As a former student once said to me: ‘It’s kind of like Mr. Nosek is an education rock star.’ I believe he is.”
Parents were concerned that there was too much freedom for younger students. The school responded by building more structure into the program for the younger grades.
Technology has also given educators the opportunity to “re-imagine high school.” In an increasingly digital world, Thomas Haney takes advantage of its flexible system to blend learning in the classroom with that online. Up to 80 per cent of THSS students bring a laptop to school with them every day. Nosek points out there are 1,100 students in the school, and about 200 have signed a work-at-home agreement. Some work, some are elite athletes and some just have anxiety about attending school full-time. Thomas Haney offers them a flexible schedule.
“But we absolutely value the face-to-face interactions between teachers and students,” Nosek adds.
Thomas Haney’s success has gotten attention from the education community, and the model is one that other countries seek to emulate. Recently guests from Iceland, the U.S. and Australia visited.
“I’ve been given the opportunity to speak with educators from all over the world,” Nosek said.
In announcing the award, the Learning Partnership describes Nosek’s work: “Sean encouraged everyone to step outside the box, stretch thinking and consider new possibilities for learning. As a result of his creativity and vision, student engagement and academic performance, attendance and assignment completion increased. Enrolment continues to increase. Under Sean’s leadership the school has gained international attention and recognition, causing Sean’s supporters to describe him as ‘charismatic, visionary, inspiring and dedicated.’”
THSS vice-principal Kristi Blakeway organized the nomination, because Nosek deserves credit for boosting the morale of staff, and changing the community perception of the school.
“The way that Sean leads the school – he’s very good at focussing on what matters,” she said.
“People are very proud of the way we do school here. It’s a school of the future.”
The winning principals will participate in an executive leadership training program at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, Feb. 23-27. They will receive their awards at the 10th annual Canada’s Outstanding Principals gala dinner event and awards ceremony on Feb. 25 at the Westin Harbour Castle Hotel in Toronto.
It’s affirmation for Nosek, who maintains passion for his work.
“I love it. It’s a crazy job … but the joys always outweigh the pressures,” he said.
“To work in a place where you have the opportunity to inspire and touch lives in an awesome opportunity.”