Thirty-six years ago, Randy Fox began his career in education. Now the director of education for Living Sky School Division is ready to retire from full-time work.
“I’m looking forward to still working, but at a different pace,” says the native of Holdfast. “I hope to do some contract work or part-time work in education or otherwise, just to – I wouldn’t say ‘keep busy’ – but have a sense of purpose as opposed to ‘just sitting.’”
His job as the chief executive officer of a school division serving 29 schools and 5,700 students, winds up at the end of August. And while he doesn’t want to “just sit” permanently, he is looking forward to doing just that for a little while on the deck of the family cottage this fall.
“The lake is so nice in the early fall,” he says. “It’s quiet, there’s just something really nice about being there.”
Of course, spending time at the lake just as the school year starts isn’t something he’s been able to do much of in the past and he’s looking forward to the down time.
“I’m really looking forward to that,” he says, “I think I will still be working, but I won’t rush into anything in the fall.”
He and his wife Susan, who also works at Living Sky School Division in the payroll department (and who is as yet undecided about retirement), are parents and grandparents, but his busy career has meant missing out on some family times.
“I am looking forward to the time with my family, my grandchildren, my own children, of course, just a lot of those sort of things … just having some good relaxing time.”
Fox says he and Susan, who have two adult children, will continue to reside in North Battleford, where their daughter Marisa is a teacher, and who has a son, Jori. Their son, Nolan, works in Saskatoon in recreational sales. He and his wife Brittani have a son, Lennon, and are expecting another child.
They hope to spend more time at the lake with the family, and enjoy activities such as fishing and boating when they are there, but they like the quiet times, too.
“Sometimes we’re just quite happy to sit on the deck and enjoy looking at the lake.”
While he’s looking forward to more time with his family, saying goodbye to his current position will be bittersweet for Fox.
“I’m going to miss what I do here and the people I work with,” he says. “This has really been a good opportunity. Living Sky is a good place to work and being director has been great. I’ve had a very supportive board and great people working throughout the system, yet I am going to enjoy retirement.”
Fox holds a Masters of Education from Aspen University, a Post Graduate Diploma in Educational Administration from the University of Regina and a Bachelor of Education and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Saskatchewan. He is also a member and past president of the League of Educational Administrators, Directors and Superintendents of Saskatchewan (LEADS).
“As I was growing up and going from youth to young adult I saw myself [going into education] and it seemed to fit,” says Fox about his decision to become a teacher. “My mother was a teacher, so I had an idea what was involved and I knew it was a lot of work, but I knew that going in. I had some good role models as a young person. I had some teachers and people I really thought highly of and respected and so that was part of it.”
Fox’s career has taken him to many locations across Saskatchewan. His career as a classroom teacher began in Central Butte as a language arts teacher. His interest in sports also saw him coaching.
In the mid-1980s he took a teaching position at Rosetown. There, too, he coached various sports such as hockey and basketball, and tried to find time to play hockey himself.
It was in Rosetown that he first had an opportunity to try out school administration when a year-long temporary opportunity as vice-principal came up. When the year came to an end, he decided that he would like to continue in administration.
“I really enjoyed my work in the classroom. I was in Rosetown for four years before I became vice-principal and I still remember those kids and enjoyed a lot of good days and also some challenging days … but, not to be arrogant about it, I felt like I could do good things in school administration,” says Fox.
In administration, Fox believed he could have a good influence in a bigger kind of way.
“You can look at that different ways,” he says. “Had I stayed in the classroom, you multiply how many years by how many students I would be directly in contact with, it might have made a big difference, too, but it felt like I had something to offer as a school leader, so I took the opportunity and I’m glad I did.”
To continue on as a school administrator, in 1987 he took a principal position at a K-12 school in Eyebrow in the Davidson School Division.
“The first principalship in that small school in Eyebrow was very gratifying,” says Fox. “I really enjoyed those days there, having that opportunity to be the principal. It was a good time to come in to it because there were opportunities to shape things, because that’s when, in Saskatchewan, we were coming into the Saskatchewan School Improvement Model. It was an opportunity to look at your school, look at ways to make it better, and I had a good staff there, very onboard with respect to what their school was like and working to make it the best it could be.”
After several years in Eyebrow, Fox accepted the position as principal of Craik School, also in the Davidson School Division. For him, it was a great opportunity to work in a facility that had a newly renovated high school and a brand new elementary school, combined into a K-12 school. It provided more opportunities to grow and learn as an educational leader. During this time of learning on the job, he also began his post-graduate work in education.
The next step in Fox’s journey, along with his family, was to Swift Current in 1992 where he accepted the position of vice-principal of the Swift Current Comprehensive High School. The job was an opportunity to put to the test all he had learned about leadership.
Five years later, he took the next step in his career, that of becoming a LEADS member as assistant director of education in Nipawin School Division.
“There were some different opportunities to get into LEADS and I chose that one,” says Fox.
“I went there because Nipawin had good reputation as a good school division. I had known some of the people working there throughout Saskatchewan School Improvement Program of the day, the ‘80s to the ‘90s, so I knew some of the people in leadership positions there … it was an opportunity to work in a different school division from what I had been in, also one that was seen as very effective and very progressive,” says Fox. “And that’s what it was, it was a school division like most, with its challenges, but it also was one with a lot of really good people, really dedicated to their kids in their schools.”
The new position provided Fox with opportunities to work in many facets of education in a more comprehensive and detailed way than ever before. Duties included supervising and supporting student services and curriculum implementation, as well as working closely with the director and the board in such things as policy development and budget.
The opportunity to serve as director came in 2000, when he took on the position of director of education for the Biggar School Division. Like many of the other roles Fox held during his career, this one provided opportunities and challenges and, as always, was a great opportunity to learn.
The year 2006 brought school division restructuring to Saskatchewan, and Fox became assistant director of Living Sky School Division. In 2010, with the retirement of Ron Ford, Fox was offered the job of director, and has words of praise for fellow school division staff and the board of trustees.
“My whole career, I’ve been fortunate. I’ve had good boards of education and good people in various offices and schools.”
Saskatchewan school divisions are facing tough financial times with provincial budget constraints, but Fox isn’t pessimistic.
“We’re in a time where the board has to start looking closely at its budget for the future, but even having said that, I think it’s manageable for Living Sky School Division ... without losing the momentum I think we have in some areas such as supporting First Nation and Métis kids. It’s just spending some time on what we are spending our money on and how we are being efficient in how we are supporting kids.”
Although he is no longer in the classroom, it really is all about the students for Fox, and he believes today’s teachers are outstanding.
“There’s always been good teaching, you go back centuries, and there’s been good teaching, but I think the level of understanding around learning and the ability to respond to the needs of kids is better than it’s ever been.”
And he is gratified by “the willingness of teachers to use the extensive knowledge we have now about how kids learn, using that to engage kids and to help them be successful.”
He says, “I know that sounds pretty general in a way, but I really feel like we’ve made strides in that area in the last 10 years, so I am very proud of that.”
He is also proud of Living Sky’s work supporting First Nations and Métis students, and not just in how it relates to ambitious provincial education sector goals of increased graduation rates.
“I’m very proud, as well, of how our schools have been very open to learning about all kinds of things, learning about other cultures, so if you go to a school that, for example, doesn’t have very many First Nations or Métis students they are very open to learning about treaties, learning First Nations and its culture and taking that on and recognizing that it’s important for all students to know those things and not just the students of the culture,” says Fox.
“I feel good about the way we’ve seen a grasping of those things in our schools, by our teachers and our students.”
One of the ways First Nations and Métis culture has been supported by the school division is in the creation, about six years ago, of an elders council.
“I am very proud of our elders council,” says Fox. “They are just really good people. You can’t help but learn from them and you can’t help but respect them.”
Having an elders council doesn’t benefit just First Nation and Métis students, but all students, he explains.
“The thing about our elders council is their perspective on wanting all students to succeed. They want First Nations students and Métis students to do well in school and to feel good about being in school, but they want all kids to be successful. I think they feel good when they see their First Nation and Métis students feeling good about being in school and talking about being leaders of tomorrow and becoming prime minister and things like that.”
Fox sees two programs underway in Living Sky as particularly important to the success of First Nation and Métis students. One of them is the grad coach program at North Battleford Comprehensive High School, which is making a difference in a lot of ways, he says.
“It’s helping students feel they have a place in that school and making them feel the school is theirs as well as others’,” says Fox. “The other thing, maybe more technical, but maybe as important as anything, is credits.”
The grad coach programs helps students move through the high school years with a strategy of getting the credits they need to move on to their goals – and the results are encouraging.
“More students in Grades 10, 11 and 12 have earned credits than what has ever been the case in the past, and really so much credit has to go to that program and the people who work in it, paying attention to kids.”
The other program Fox sees improving student success is the relatively new program being rolled out by the province, and in place at Cando School of the Living Sky School Division, called Following Their Voices. It’s an initiative that is designed to improve First Nations, Métis and Inuit student outcomes by engaging and supporting students, firstly through the student-teacher relationship. Following Their Voices looks to increase student engagement, participation, credit attainment and graduation rates. It too, says Fox, is seeing success.
These are two of the kinds of things he would like to see expanded to benefit more students.
“I think some of the answers are out there for our province as to how we can see more First Nation and Métis kids graduate from high school, I just think we need to do more of it,” Fox says. “I know there are some things that will make a difference for kids if we can just do them.”
Graduation rates will also be affected by early years work as well – “some of the things we are doing with the younger students around literacy, for example, making sure they can read when they leave Grade 3, and even for some cases when kids are in high school and literally can’t read.”
Putting them in the right program can make school more meaningful.
“I think we’re going to see that graduation rate jump,” he says. “We’re going to see quicker improvement there than what we’ve have had in the last couple of years.”
These initiatives are what Fox sees as “paying attention” to students.
“I think what we need to do more of, especially for students who may be at risk, is to really follow their path as they come through school and make sure we are guiding them as they transition, whether from elementary to middle years or middle years to high school. That someone is really paying attention to how they are doing, where they are, where they are every day, how are they doing in getting their work done, we just need to pay attention to all our students.”
Some, he points out, are going to be successful regardless, but there are also those students who will succeed if there is some adult paying attention to them.
Cando School is a good example of where really paying attention has paid off, according to Fox. He first became involved in Cando School when he was director of education with the Biggar School Division. He remembers his first visit there, when the principal was Bob Clipperton.
“I just saw so much potential there ... and a staff that was working hard to try and meet the needs of those kids,” he says.
For the last several years, under the principalship of Tammy Riel (who has accepted a position as principal of Naicam School beginning this fall), Fox says many things have been implemented to bring success to Cando School.
Three years ago, Riel was instrumental in starting a land-based learning initiative that has expanded each year since. It’s not just a “camping trip.”
“There are so many good things about it,” says Fox. “For the kids from Cando in particular having that opportunity to spend some time with elders, to spend an extensive period of time ... in a situation where you are not distracted by everything that’s going on all around you, and that might be things that are distracting in a very negative way, such as drug use, or it could be things more positive, like the things you participate in, sports or whatever.”
It gets students, First Nation and non-First Nation, into a different setting where they can benefit from the guidance of elders who take their role seriously, he says.
“It’s not just the conveyance of cultural teachings, it’s really helping students think about their decisions and helping them realize that they can be more than what they are right now. They can be very successful in whatever they choose to do, if they are going to work at it and be patient in getting there.”
The other piece of it that is really important, he adds, is that students are still completing curriculum outcomes.
It’s also a time to use technology to learn, says Fox. It’s not about being isolated with no technology.
“It’s not like we’re saying you can’t have any technology for a week,” he explains. “We are trying to help them see you can have technology, but it doesn’t have to consume you. You don’t have to be on your smartphone all the time texting, you can put that away and you can learn on the land and you can still use your iPad or maybe even your phone to help you learn, but you can put that stuff away and you will be OK.”
Technology has its place in education, Fox believes. In fact, he was the first chairperson of the Saskatchewan Educational Technology Association Board, formed in 2009 to address technology-related needs in the province.
“It’s not technology for technology’s sake,” says Fox. “Technology serves us as one of our tools for learning, in [the classroom] and also you could say it serves us in business purposes, too, as a school division, but it’s there as a tool that we use and that’s how we have to approach it. If we are using a computer just for the sake of using a computer, are you really learning what you need to learn?”
In addition to the Saskatchewan Educational Technology Association Board, Fox has served on a number of committees and boards. Most recently, this has included being one of the directors in Saskatchewan to serve on the C21 Canada CEO Academy, a group of educational leaders from across Canada dedicated to transforming education to better equip students to flourish in a dynamic future.
He has also served as the president of the League of Educational Administrators, Directors and Superintends of Saskatchewan, as LEADS executive zone representative, and a member of the LEADS Professional Relations Committee as well as the LEADS Educational Leadership Committee.