By Risa Gluskin

University of Richmond, Center for Leadership Education,

As a history teacher and former department head in a large school board I have been experiencing bubbling frustration with the decline of subject-specific leadership for years. A few years ago our board decided to scrap the subject-specific instructional leadership model and move toward non-subject specific learning coaches. Out went knowledgeable and helpful leaders in history, family studies and social sciences, geography, civics and K-8 social studies/history/geography. The program coordinator position was retained (the person who manages all of that but doesn’t necessarily deliver support him/herself).

I thought it would be interesting to know what the various subject leadership models across the province are. Based on some interviews with people in these jobs, here are some observations.

Subject-specific positions seem rare

Amongst the handful of people I spoke to, only one had a position exclusively tied to Canadian and World Studies and Social Sciences and History. Others have massive responsibilities including Literacy, Arts, CWS, English, SS&H, and Languages other than French. How one person can do all of that, I do not know. Another is responsible for cross-curricular literacy in a board that does not have any person responsible for CWS or SSH. An elementary consultant I contacted has a portfolio including Literacy (including a large summer literacy program), Social Studies, History and Geography. 

Literacy and numeracy take the cake

When asked if our subject areas are treated with equality compared to others such as literacy or numeracy, not surprisingly, all respondents said NO! It was frequently noted that the money goes toward literacy and numeracy, with more emphasis on numeracy lately. Particularly, a few people said that wherever there was collectable data, there was more money. Even those who had portfolios that included both CWS/SSH and literacy said literacy got far more money.

Subject councils and learning teams

I’m fascinated by the existence of these ‘organizations’ within school boards, probably because they don’t exist in mine, to my knowledge. We have voluntary subject councils, of which I am a member, that associate with the board but are not part of the board. I also suppose learning teams exist to varying degrees based on levels of interest. In a huge board like mine, they seem so small compared to the large number of teachers out there.

However, there seem to be some excellent models. A learning coach in a large board shared her experience leading a planning and assessment network of interested teachers who dive deep into particular concerns: their stated purpose is: “to provide a vehicle for meaningful teacher collaboration, leadership, innovation and learning related to the core work of Planning and Assessment. The structure provides an ongoing professional learning cycle that leverages moderation as a collaborative practice. It also builds communities and networks of learners across the system to support continued learning over time.” Below is their process for developing inquiry skills through a key question, feedback and concept maps for HSP3U: “Why are people so mean?” The board in question provides time, money and resources for this valuable network.

A legitimate question that the volunteer subject council to which I belong has debated is: how much volunteer labour should we do to shore up decreasing paid subject-specific leadership? For the previous two years we did not want to do the work of the previous instructional leaders in holding a PD Conference in February. This year we decided that teachers needed it so we organized the day alongside the paid Program Coordinator. It was an incredible amount of work – hours and hours of organization. In the end we had a day of excellent learning opportunities. But did the board recognize our labour? Did the board even blink an eye at our desire to support hundreds of teachers?


I was surprised to learn that a Curriculum Leader in a certain board was not supposed to work alongside teachers in the classroom. That may be a more common limitation than we’d like due to the excessive workload facing many of the people in these positions. Many of the people I interviewed are particularly well placed to be subject-specific coaches with their wealth of experience and vast knowledge of our subject areas. A number of respondents felt that coaching was a highly desirable mode of delivery, one they just didn’t have enough time to do or weren’t prescribed to do.  The people in these positions seem to feel pulled in numerous directions. This is not surprising given their vast duties.

In my some boards, non-subject-specific learning coaches are providing key services where there are pressing needs. Here’s an example from a school in a large board: “Many of our students struggle with basic literacy skills and he [the learning coach] has helped us build explicit reading for meaning strategies into our grade ten course.”


In addition to resource development and working with curriculum documents, a number of respondents report having responsibilities for many skill areas as well. These often include literacy, global competencies, inquiry, disciplinary thinking, and Aboriginal affairs (not exactly a skill but I’ll treat it as such here). How the coaches and leaders support teachers in all of these areas is a mystery to me. Inquiry alone is a massive undertaking, one that requires such a mindset chang

e for even the most dedicated of teachers. With the upcoming and ongoing revision of the Canadian and World Studies curriculum in light of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, there will be even more need for support of teachers with resources, teaching strategies and mindsets/knowledge.

Something new – hybrid teacher-coach

While there probably isn’t one particular format that is ideal for every board, here’s an interesting model coming out of my board. A colleague of mine, Chris Meyer (who I have discussed in some of my blog reflections on inquiry), proposed a model that was accepted. The position entails having a demonstration/exploration classroom in the morning at the coach’s home school and then having interested teachers stay at the school for the afternoon to get “coached”. Chris happens to be a physics teacher, but the board has extended the positions to history, geography, English, math and French as a second language. Actually, English gets two and math gets two. I really like the in-school coaching aspect.

Here is Chris’s rationale: “The teacher-coach’s class will serve as a model of pedagogical innovation in action. The hybrid teacher-coach walks the walk and talks the talk, and is equipped with a rich set of well-tested teaching materials to get interested teachers started within days.” When interviewed recently, Chris admits that most teachers come to him for subject-specific knowledge. He sneaks the teaching techniques in when they see his all-inquiry class working so effectively on task.

I cannot help but wonder, had Chris been a history teacher posing this model to the board, would it have been accepted? Regardless, the job exists. The history hybrid teacher-coach, however, will service over 100 secondary schools (including alternative schools). In reality, it will be curious teachers that take the opportunity to benefit from the services of the hybrid teacher-coaches.  

Risa Gluskin is a teacher in Toronto and a proud member of Toronto History, Humanities, Social Sciences Subject Council.

Contributing Writer

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