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Top executive faces challenging times

A sit-down with executive secretary Dennis Theobald

October 16, 2018 Cory Hare, ATA News Managing Editor
ATA executive secretary Dennis Theobald talks about his first six months on the job and the challenges that lie ahead.


    From classroom teacher to CEO Dennis Theobald

Bachelor of arts, University of Alberta


Edmonton Public Schools, substitute teacher


Onchaminahos School, Saddle Lake First Nation, all subjects


Tofield School, social studies, art and various other subjects


Seconded to Alberta Education, various senior management roles


Alberta Teachers’ Association, executive staff officer, Government


Alberta Teachers’ Association, coordinator, communications


Alberta Teachers’ Association, associate executive secretary


Master of business administration, University of Alberta


Alberta Teachers’ Association, executive secretary

Cluttered isn’t quite the right word to describe Dennis Theobald’s office. Located in a new addition that’s recently been completed at Barnett House, the corner office has a lived-in but temporary feel, like a university student’s dorm room (although the office is much more spacious).

The tables that serve as desks are covered in orderly stacks of papers and binders. At the opposite end of the room, an area for sitting boasts two chairs, a couch and a coffee table topped by a hefty cardboard box that’s waiting to be unpacked. Several pieces of framed art lean against a nearby wall, waiting to be hung.

On the small meeting table in the middle of the room sit a copy of the ATA’s latest budget and a pile of documents that includes a report labelled “Action Plan: Managing Political and Economic Uncertainty.” The whiteboard is filled with neat printing listing “prognosis” items, Theobald’s anticipated priorities for the 2019–20 budget.

Joining the Alberta Teachers’ Association in 2001 as an executive staff ­officer in the Government program area, Theobald became the coordinator of communications in 2008 and associate executive secretary in 2011. 

On Feb. 1 of this year, after the retirement of long-time executive secretary Gordon Thomas, Theobald took over as the organization’s top executive. He recently sat down with the ATA News to discuss what he’s learned so far and the challenges that lie ahead.

You’re just past six months into your new role. How would you describe the transition?

It’s been very challenging. Despite the fact that I’ve worked in a variety of ­senior roles here, I didn’t fully appreciate the complexity of the organization and just how many balls we have to keep in the air at any one time. Compounding that is the very challenging situation that we currently find ourselves in with provincial central table bargaining commencing and with an election on the horizon, creating both political and economic uncertainty.

What does the job of executive secretary entail?

It’s a very interesting combination of very high-level strategic work and at the same time a lot of demands for close attention on very specific pieces of work. You don’t get to sit in an ivory tower in this role — you actually have to get down and be involved in many aspects of the active running of the ­organization. I think that the secretary’s main job is to bring coherence to the very wide range of activities that the Association undertakes.

What is your strategic direction at this time?

We are dealing with an irreducible degree of uncertainty, and in that sort of circumstance the best you can do is ensure that you have the capability to respond to whatever comes, but also the ability to influence events before they arrive on your doorstep. My role is to enable the elected leaders of the Association to realize their policy objectives and directions.

Within the context of enabling the elected leaders to do what they need to do, what kind of issues are on your plate?

One of our key issues is election readiness. We have been preparing now for six months. We have done some forecasting and strategic planning so right now we have to look at what we need to have in place to prepare for the run-up to the next election and whatever outcomes might result.

We’re going to be getting an election readiness plan approved very quickly and details of that will be rolled out toward the end of October for immediate implementation.

Predictions are that Jason Kenney will be the next premier. What kind of plans are in place if that is the result and it leads to a contraction in the number of teachers?

The best thing we can do instead of trying to read the tea leaves or gaze into a crystal ball is to have the capacity to respond no matter what the circumstances are. What that entails, then, is ensuring that the organization is agile and resilient so no matter what happens, we will be there, we’ll enjoy the confidence of teachers and our political leaders will be presented with choices about how they’re going to proceed.

Regardless of which government is in place, we have work to do on reducing class sizes, on ensuring that children have access to junior and full-day kindergarten, that there’s a counsellor in every school and that there are ­appropriate supports for inclusion. That’s what our members have been telling us and that’s really very much the focus of our election campaign.

The real challenge is to not lose sight of the fact that, at the end of the day, we’re serving teachers, and all of our decisions have to ultimately go back and be informed by that.

What kind of a stamp are you bringing to the role of executive secretary?

We have developed a culture over the space of decades that I think has gradually fallen out of synchronization with modern expectations. One of the things I’m trying to do is begin to look at some of our longstanding administrative practices and change them.

It’s not merely about changing things to make them more effective or ­efficient. It’s about trying to change a culture, moving us into an environment that’s more conducive to teamwork, perhaps less hierarchical and one that really gives individuals who are employed by the Association a sense of opportunity and buy-in.

To what extent do you think teachers in the field will notice the changes as they unfold here, and how will the changes affect or improve the services that teachers receive?

We are attempting to address dramatically increased demands without dramatically increasing our staffing and while maintaining a high level of quality. If you’re going to try and do that, then you have to change the way you organize yourself and do business.
A lot of this is evident only within the Association, but what I hope to do is ensure that members will continue to receive very good value for the dues they pay us and exemplary service when they contact us.

Are there any issues that keep you up at night?

The uncertainty I’ve spoken to keeps me up at night because we are living through an unprecedented dichotomy in political opinion in the province and a polarization that I think is unusual, so that has very direct implications for teachers and for the profession and for the ATA. That is what’s keeping me awake at night. 

I’m sort of reminded of Colin Powell. He was asked during the first Gulf War how he was sleeping and his response was “I’m sleeping like a baby; I wake up every two hours screaming.” For me, it’s not quite that bad. ❚



On a personal note …

What do you miss about teaching?
Sometimes you hear about how you made a small difference in a kid’s life — that is tremendously satisfying. There’s also something about the camaraderie of the staff room. When you have a good staff together, it is a tremendously invigorating and supportive environment.

If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?
The ability to dilate time. That would be fun. There are a lot of weeks that I wish I had a couple of days between Thursday and Friday. 

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