From lifelong learner to teaching innovator

Kelly Harding drew on her work with at-risk teens to earn her doctorate in education. Her research could help change how teachers are taught.


Kelly Harding embodies the notion of lifelong learning. She’s earned four degrees from the University of Alberta, starting with a bachelor of arts and proceeding through to the PhD in secondary education she just completed. But she says it’s her role as vice-principal of Centre High in downtown Edmonton that’s kept her learning and looking for new ways to improve the classroom experience for students and teachers alike.

Since it opened in 1997, Centre High has emerged from the shadow of its reputation as a last resort for at-risk teenagers about to age out of the public school system. The school has become a respected, innovative learning institution that provides career pathways to learners who face challenges succeeding in a standard academic setting. Its flexible programming, campus-style class schedule and emphasis on post-secondary transition and career planning have won accolades and changed lives.

For someone devoted to innovative pedagogy, Harding says there’s no better place to be.

“People always tease me about being at Centre High for 18 years, but it’s the delta, because every student in the Edmonton area who needs more comes to Centre High,” she says. “I see Centre High as every high school—every kid who needs more or wants more comes there. It’s such a rich source of learning.”

That’s not to say the lessons are easily come by.

A better way to teach teachers?

“At Centre High, because of our unique student population, our mandate, our context, we were seeing more students with significant gaps in their education—cyclical poverty, transience, people coming from other parts of the country, other parts of the planet—and I started to pay attention to how my staff were dealing with all these challenges in their classrooms,” Harding says.

After looking at how other professions prepare new practitioners with residency periods, Harding decided to base her doctoral research on a pilot program in which new education grads from the U of A would spend a year in residency at Centre High, focused on giving them the skills to teach high-needs, at-risk youth in an urban setting.

“Lots of new teachers get hired into schools that are hard to staff, but once they get their contracts, they leave. I was looking for people who wanted to work in those settings. I think those students need the best teachers.”

With the support of the Edmonton Public School Board, the Faculty of Education and her staff, Harding brought in seven recent bachelor of education grads to do a year-long residency in Centre High’s classrooms. Though she suspected her research would show new teachers benefiting from the mentorship and expertise of experienced teachers, she didn’t anticipate that the interactions between mentors and residents would have such a far-reaching effect.

“I brought in seven new teachers, but the entire teaching staff benefited from these relationships and conversations. And what was really cool was that conversations happening between two teachers in the classroom were benefiting kids in the classroom as well.”

Harding hopes her research helps advance the conversation about how teacher training and development resources could be more effectively allocated, and what role faculties of education can play in better preparing new teachers.

“School districts spend a lot of money on teacher induction, new teacher workshops, sending consultants to work with new teachers—you look at those costs and say, what if school boards worked with universities to provide new teachers with a residency year like they do for physicians, lawyers, accountants,” she says. “If we can improve learning and teacher confidence, why wouldn’t we do that?”

Building a better future for all students

Not one to rest on her newly acquired educational laurels, Harding spent the past summer working on a solution for the proportion of Centre High students who weren’t finding their future along an academic path. With help from a grant by the Merit Contractors’ Association, which represents more than 1,300 construction companies in Alberta, Harding set up a two-week “boot camp” to help students get the necessary industry certifications and basic skills to work on a construction site, as well as providing the personal protective equipment they’d need on the job. With the help of Merit’s human resources department, 14 students who were about to age out of the public school system found work with Alberta employers.

The initial success of the construction boot camp prompted Harding to hire a program co-ordinator to work with Merit’s member companies to identify the skills they need so the program can continue providing a work-ready pathway to the construction industry.

“This construction piece is tangible, but it’s also metaphor,” Harding says. “When we work together we can build some incredible things.”

Harding adds that she’s always monitoring what educators in other jurisdictions are doing to improve the education experience and to help students succeed—not just as learners, but also as members of their communities. And though a bit of serendipity never hurts in realizing innovative ideas, Harding says the contributions of people who are willing to try something new are crucial.

“It’s not luck, it’s thoughtful pedagogy and being really mindful of the different ways students can approach a particular learning outcome and show what they know. And then being open to exploring it, taking risks, being okay with mess and noise and a little chaos, and recognizing that within that tension is an incredible space for new learning.”