Trustee Carol Gibson: reflections on her term in office

Post by Carol Gibson in



School board Trustee Carol Gibson has never sought the media limelight, but has remained one of the most dedicated elected officials in our city. Earlier this year Carol decided that she would not be running for re-election, choosing instead to enjoy retirement and spend time traveling with her husband. Contacted by Vancouver Courier schools columnist Naiobh O'Connor, Carol did an email interview. Naiobh's piece is available to read here. Carol provided with the full responses, which we share below.

When I started my job as a Vancouver School Board trustee in 2005 a colleague asked me how I measured success in the role. My response then is similar to what it is today. Given the role, I know I have been successful when I pose a question to staff and they respond with fixed eye contact, indicate sincerely and verbally that it is an excellent question and that they will think about it and get back to me.

Why does this represent success for me?

Organizations are typically change averse. Forced change is typically destabilizing and resisted by individuals. If a question engages individuals to investigate, to inquire and to examine current practice, it will facilitate dialogue and permit individual people to themselves inquire whether there are different ways to accomplish a goal. Follow through is absolutely necessary. However, if the Board is challenging staff to take a new direction, one way to have it happen is for staff to bring it forward as their own.

I have been fortunate during the two terms to have represented the Board to BCSTA, BCPSEA, Vancouver Diversity Committee, Vancouver Heritage Commission and to the Metro ESL Consortium. I have represented BCSTA to the Inter-ministry Committee on Youth Crime and Violence as well as to the Teacher Qualification Service Board. Toward the end of my first term as a trustee, I was also asked and agreed to serve on the BC College of Teachers.

What I bring to all of these roles is an analytical approach to problems, experience to work with complexity, understanding of multiple competing interests, an understanding of governance and a pragmatic professionalism that is bred in the bone.

As a trustee I am not certain you can ever say definitively "this, I accomplished." I am always working with others, with the Board, with competing interests, with staff, with parents and the community. What we accomplish happens through the individual and unique contributions of each of us and all of us.

One of the most challenging aspects of being a trustee is understanding the role and balancing competing priorities. The role has two aspects and balance is critical.

On advice to future school trustees

If I were to offer advice to prospective school trustees it would be as follows.

Remember that school boards are co-governors of public education with the Ministry of Education.

This is a "partnership" with an inherent power imbalance as the Ministry controls the funding. However, as the current Minister has so wisely stated, the actual control over the funding is with Treasury Board. Boards need to ensure that, regardless of governing party or the specific Minister, the Board works jointly with the Ministry to present to Treasury Board the best case possible for increased funding for public education.

We cannot do this if we continually pick unnecessary fights with the Ministry or a Minister. More critically, we cannot do it if we pick fights on behalf of stakeholder groups who are more than capable of representing their own interests to the Ministry.

My second piece of advice is to bear in mind that we are advocates for the specific needs of our communities. The community includes students, parents, staff, the electorate and their commitments to public education.

Boards need to be open, transparent and consultative within communities. As individual trustees we may never know specifically who, in the privacy of a polling booth, actually cast a vote to elect us. We therefore must respectfully serve and listen to all members of the community, not just those with the loudest voices or the most organized e-mail campaigns.

More critically, as trustees we need to ensure we listen to, but do not distort education priorities for children by serving political agendas of other organized interest groups who are fully capable of representing their own interests.

On budgets & staff morale

Budget constraints are the norm for any public sector organization including education, health and welfare. In the forty years that I been involved in public education at various levels I have never once heard a Minister, a President, a Superintendent, a Chair of Board or a Union President publicly state that there was sufficient resources to meet a mandate.

This was the case even in the days when we were responding to the demands of the Boomer Generation by indiscriminately throwing money at every problem.

The challenge for Boards of Education is to accept that there will never be enough money, work with the Ministry to make the best case to Treasury Board to get funds for specific initiatives and then to manage the funding in the most responsible, transparent and accountable manner possible.

There is only one taxpayer and Boards must always be mindful of this.

Staff morale is challenged as it always is by organizational change. The role of the Board is to govern through change, to set a clear direction and to assist senior staff as they also manage through the changes. For trustees it is critical to understand that we can accomplish nothing if we lose the trust, respect or cooperation of all our staff.

The Board's role is not to micro-manage, it is to govern. The distinction between these two functions is sometimes not fully understood. It is also a challenge to ensure that contributions of all staff are respected, recognized and supported.

Boards need to balance their responses to requests from various groups to favour their needs over those of another group. To do otherwise creates dissension, resentment, dissatisfaction and dysfunction.

On challenges the VSB will face in the future

The biggest challenge for any Board is to understand the complexity of issues in all areas of the public education enterprise. Trustees must clearly understand their role individually as well as the role and mandate of a Board.

A response from many trustees across the province to the Comptroller General's Report of VBE was "we're elected, it is not legitimate to evaluate our competency." I would argue that being elected and being competent is what the electorate should expect, and what trustees should expect of themselves. Trustees are required to understand the complexities, listen to the electorate, set direction and occasionally make decisions that may challenge their ability to be re-elected.

Two examples may be useful:

  1. The VBE has committed to a sectoral review which may or may not provide the data required seriously to evaluate educational program and facility changes required to accommodate the needs of 21st century learning in our aging and seismically challenged infrastructure. The recent earthquakes affecting Japan and New Zealand heightened parent concern about seismic upgrades to our schools. The Board may need to think outside the box.
    For example, could the Board speed up the seismic processes if it created permanent swing-space for students who must be re-located. Other Districts have used closed schools for this purpose and provided daily school bus service for students as part of the capital project cost. Vancouver also has large sites that could accommodate a more permanent installation of portables.This could serve the needs of several seismic projects, reduce delays and reduce the need to replace portables after 4 moves. The current Queen Elizabeth site provides one example of this type of approach.
  2. There are legal challenges and recent decisions that will affect all school districts. Vancouver is the media centre for the province. This places VBE at the centre of media attention to the exclusion of all other Boards in BC. Conversely, there are some issues that generalize across all Boards on which Vancouver can play a leadership role.

For example, the Supreme Court decision on Bills 27 and 28 did not "strike down the class size and composition provisions in legislation" as the BCTF would have the public believe. Rather, it stated that the "failure to consult the BCTF" was at issue. The Supreme Court has provided government 12 months within which to rectify this failure to consult. Vancouver's internal staffing analysis on this issue is potentially useful for all Boards.

The BCTF is calling for a return to 2002 staffing levels as stipulated in the contract. Preliminary analysis in Vancouver suggests that if Vancouver returned to the class size and composition requirements of the 2002 contract the District would hire 137 fewer teachers than the Board employed in 2010-11.

This means that despite enrolment decline in Vancouver from 2002 to 2010 and despite the "1000 violations" of legislated class size and composition provisions Vancouver hired 137 more teachers than it would have had it operated under the 2002 contract.

What else would you have done as a Trustee if possible?

There are always those issues in relation to which I look back and think I would like to continue to contribute because the longer term goal takes longer to achieve than you wish it did.

Three things come to mind:

  1. We live in one of the most "language rich" communities on the planet and yet multiple language learning is not a focus of our public school system. Edmonton School District has had Mandarin and other second language immersion programs for over 20 years and VBE is only now getting started. My dream is to one day be on an elementary playground or in a secondary hallway in Vancouver schools and routinely hear students asking "how would I say that in your language."
  2. Vancouver has an Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreement which, through my first term, the Board worked with many members of staff and community to bring forward for formal signing. My dream is eventually to see the curriculum in every subject area infused with Aboriginal content such that every Aboriginal student sees his or her culture and history included.
    They may then fully experience themselves in our schools as part of the living and thriving Aboriginal cultures which have and will continue to contribute to BC and Canada as a whole.
  3. ESL and immigrant settlement was an issue for me from the beginning. Initially, schools were not included as major contributors to immigrant and refugee settlement even though they had always been involved. In my first term, we worked to get federally funded settlement workers in schools (SWIS) which has had a significant positive impact on how VBE is able to respond to new immigrant and refugee families.

There is still much work to be done to help Boards, all levels of government and staff at all levels fully to understand the challenges faced by school districts to integrate refugee families into our schools. District staff work with multiple NGOs in Vancouver, but I am not sure there is generalized knowledge in the education system of the conditions from which refugee families have escaped or the challenges they face to integrate.

- post by NPA School Trustee Carol Gibson.


Carol failed to mention the extremely positive contribution she made at the BC College of Teachers.

"We live in one of the most "language rich" communities on the planet and yet multiple language learning is not a focus of our public school system. Edmonton School District has had Mandarin and other second language immersion programs for over 20 years and VBE is only now getting started. My dream is to one day be on an elementary playground or in a secondary hallway in Vancouver schools and routinely hear students asking "how would I say that in your language.""

Canada has two official languages. I think that these people know this when they move here. Somehow this woman does not.

Translation: Patti Bacchus lacks the ability to be objective and respectful of differing views.

Great post. Thoughtful and insightful. I hope you have more pieces like this.

Gee, I sure hope she retires and settles in China and starts an English Immersion program there so we can all move there in confidence afterward and not speak Chinese. Just like come here and not speak English...or French. No that's simply great! Phew!

Hear, hear!
We have two official languages in Canada. French and English. That's why newcomers are 'assaulted' by police...mistaken identity. Because they don't speak either one of them! LOL Public money we don't have thrown out the window taken away from real sues because the politicians want to score with the 'visible minorities'!

Actually Libby,

Chinses schools teach Enlgish in the classrooms. By third grade, most children have a very good grasp on the English language. (But then again, the kids start school at ages 2-3)

I realize we have two official languages in Canada, but we also have huge immigration numbers and for Vancouver those numbers would be from Asia.

I can tell you, I have been let out of jobs because I speak neither Mandrin or Cantonese. This is something I never even considered happening in my lifetime. I can only imagine where things will stand for kids going through school now and heading into the job market at some point. Look at the stores in Vancouver, the businesses - how many are Asian owned. That number is going to grow.

Giving the parents the option of having their kids learn Mandrin or Cantonese is a smart thing.

You know Max, I think you've given me pause to rethink my opinion here..

Multiple languages for children can only be a good thing...:-) who said you can't teach an old dog new tricks...

George, when I went through school, you had to have 4 years (mandatory) French in order to get into a post secondary institution.

I have not used French since leaving school, decades ago.

Over the last few years I've had the opportunity of doing contract work in both the forest and mining resource sectors.

As I very much enjoy both of these industries, I have looked for other full time opps. And it is disheartening when you have all, and more, qualifications with the exception of speaking Cantonese or Mandrin. Like I said, something I never, ever considered happening.

Asia is one of our main trade partners. Companies move offices to Vancouver in order to do business between the two countries. So you either realize the changing face of business and move to work with it, and within it, or you get let out.

Let's face it, unless you are working in a government job, French isn't going to benefit you the way Mandrin or Cantonese or Spanish for that matter, will.

Very true Max..

Well said. When I was in high school (huge gasp !!! ) we were allowed to take any language we chose that was offered up to Grade 11. Unfortunately, the only languages on offer were French and German, and the latter only if enough students signed up. Therefore, de facto, we took French.

I took French through Grade 12 and onward into university. Also come form a 1/2 Francophone family. Can't speak a lick of the damn tongue.

Moved to Mexico during university (with no prior spanish training - save a few 'malas palabras'), lived with a Mexican family, came out with stronger Spanish skills than I'll ever have in French. Have returned to Mexico since in a working /teaching capacity, and used what I learned.

Point being, any language is useful if you are working in a global context. But learn it, live it, don't just book learn it. There is so much value in being able to speak other languages and communicate with other cultures - it is one of the richest and most rewarding experiences I have ever had. But offer what makes sense, and teach it for the purposes of communication, not to pass the stupid exam!

Hasta L'Huevos Compadre

I have had a too brief opportunity to work with Carol, but long enough to know that she will be missed. In our joint interactions she has demonstrated a grasp of the issues and realistic priorities. She has also attended a number of community meetings such as those in Marpole, which are primarily dealing with planning matters. However, she realizes that these massive proposed changes in Vancouver's neighbourhoods are going to have profound effects on Vancouver's school system. She has listened well.

My partner is a teacher. She has 6 to 9 ESL languages in her class of 24 every year. This experience along with just living in Vancouver has made me really appreciate our rich diversity of languages and cultures. I enjoy it daily. It would, however, be good if we provided more incentive for new immigrants to also learn our language. From what I've seen in the school system our new arrivals have expectations that this is all laid on by the schools system and they don't feel they have to do anything themselves. More specifically the children are in ESL programmes at school, but the parents at home often are making little or no effort to learn English.

Having said that, I know there are many exceptions who are making those efforts. Another aspect is that it is quite enjoyable to work with people from different cultures. I have particularly appreciated this recently in the political sphere. Many new Canadians are participating in this important process and we are all better for it.


It was expalined to me by a previous employer that it is not unusual for Chinese parents to send their small children to live with relatives in China in order to learn the language and the culture.

It also allows the parents to work with out restrictions.

When the child hits school age, they come back to Canada to live with their parents and carry on.

Friends of my brother's, who currently reside in Norway, are wanting to move here. They had to pass an English language test, medical test, criminal background test and prove financial stability. They are still waiting for the okay.

The Thought of The Day

“More than a decade ago I attended a Citizenship ceremony at The Italian Cultural Centre. 200 people from 112 countries were sworn in as new Canadian Citizens. Proud to become Canadians... or so I thought...until one day when I found out that some of them kept their fingers crossed, and in fact they never wanted to live according to the customs of their adoptive country, but according to that of the countries they originated from. “

Wear turbans with the RCMP police uniforms because of religious beliefs, renaming 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' ... to 'Snow White' because it was making fun of the 'little people', ban Hans Christian Andersen ‘Ugly Ducking’ from the school curriculum because it was considered racist, stop the Merry Greeting during... Christmas, and more recently divert monies from the already depleted Arts and Crafts and Music programs that are Universal, Yes - U-N-I-V-E-R-S-A-L! and have no language boundaries, to programs for Mandarin and Cantonese immersion.

What? Why? Because some political hacks in their quest for votes have no shame, no brains and not a shred of patriotism left in them! That’s why.The irony is that no mentioning of any First Nation language request was ever mentioned in any press release, from any politician, anytime. That's hypocritical and shameless IMO.

Unless your ancestors were First Nations, you are an Immigrant or the son or daughter of Immigrants. Period.

I understand that and I respect that. So should you. One shouldn’t come here and start changing things and waiving the newly acquired visible minority status around. No, Siree Bob. If I wanted my kids to speak Cantonese I would have gone directly to China. But I didn’t that’s that.

This has nothing to do with anything; it’s just a bunch of feckless politicians playing the Visible Minority Concerto for the Politically Correct Violin.

Speaking of which it reminded me of Robertson’s trip to China...and his quest to learn Mandarin at taxpayer’s expense, in under one week. I heard it paid off in the end, when he addressed one lady with ‘Your city’s tits are huge and your butt looks sustainable to me, now let’s shag for expensive currency.” Don’t ask.

I speak five languages. Three I learned throughout my two decades of schooling. The other two I picked up directly from the source during the periods I lived abroad. Despite all that it didn’t help me an iota while trying to deal with a car accident I was involved in few years back here in 'cosmopolitan' Vancouver. Hit from the side by a giant Lexus SUV, driven by a middle-aged Asian woman who was two months old in Canada(found out from the police officer on the scene), with no Insurance papers and no driving Licence on her, with no English language...or French skills what-so-ever! The passenger in her vehicle also displayed the same non verbal skills that would have made a mute look like motor mouth. And yet, there they were, freshly anointed Permanent Residents, as I found later when I had to go through the ICBC insurance dance.

Do I think that our Immigration system is flawed? Absolutely!
To all the new apostles of change for the sake of change out there, when it comes to Canada, I say ‘hands off’ our customs and history and languages. Now, before preparing to counter-argue me on this, remember the saying ‘When in Rome do as the Romans do’ ...
My point exactly!

English, French...Spanish, Italian, Cantonese, Greek, Russian, Tagalog, German, Korean...languages. These are languages. But when my kid is threaten by the prospect of not getting a job because they don’t speak the Punjabi or Mandarin dialect here in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada ...there is something wrong going on. Some people call this ‘reversed discrimination’; I call it ‘plain stupid politicians walking’.
There. My two Kopecks.

Good Night and Good Bye.
Bonne Nuit et au Revoir.
Buona Notte ed Arrivederci.
Buenas Noches y Adiós
Goede Nacht en Vaarwel

We live in Vancouver and this keeps us busy.


Here's my Citizenship Test story from some years ago.

All participants were required to sit in mini desks each separated from the other by at least one chair. Different versions of the test papers were then to be distributed at random through the room, each being in a different coloured cover. All obviously to prevent collusion or cheating.

Except right at the front was a group of eight people all sitting together, all of the same ethnicity, clearly unable to speak a word of English or French and apparently with a helper, presumably a trusted individual who would translate the questions they were unable to read without also giving the answers. By an astonishing coincidence they all randomly got the same colour test paper and the helper was clearly a very efficient fellow, given the terseness of his translations and the speed with which the group finished.

Were I a cynic, and seeing as wagering has taken off on this site, I'd willingly put down $100 to say they all got 100%.

Your story reminded me of a time when I had to endure jury selection. I sat with a lovely lady who just happened to be of Chinese origin while we waited our turn. We were there for several hours, and passed the time chatting about everything under the sun to distract ourselves from the tedium. When her name was called, she was able to be excused because, as she was able to relay via the bailiff to the judge, 'no speaky engrish.'

I had never before pissed myself laughing while simultaneously feeling had and appalled..... she got points for cheek.

Thank You Glissando!
And that's should run for office. Because you are not afraid to say it how it is Sir! Cut throughthe BS politics. I have my own stories too, including the one when I got a parking ticket last winter around the Pacific Colliseum skating rink, one of the days when I indulged myself with the Canadian Skating championships. All the Free parking stalls on the streets in the neighbourhood were occupied by the resident's cars while they were standing nearby with arrow signs calling to 'Pak Hiya' for $10. Democracy, eh? Ta da.

The world is changing so fast today! I'm thankful more people are beginning to learn Chinese!

Yes indeed Cherlyn!

I'm sure we are all looking forward to the many benefits that are to be expected from the rise of a corporatist totalitarian empire on the other side of the Pacific.

Check out!

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