Retiring superintendent reflects on changes, challenges in the last 41 years

Zoë Watson officially retired as superintendent of Anglophone South School District on Nov. 1. (Roger Cosman/CBC - image credit)
Zoë Watson officially retired as superintendent of Anglophone South School District on Nov. 1. (Roger Cosman/CBC - image credit)

When Zoë Watson graduated from Sussex High School, her teachers advised her to pick another career, any career, other than teaching.

It was 1981, and there were no jobs. But Watson said she had no second choice.

And she didn't need one.

Forty one years later, Watson is retiring after serving as a teacher, school administrator, district officer, education department staffer, and finally, superintendent of the Anglophone South School District for the last decade.

"Well, it seems a little bit unbelievable, I must say, as I was cleaning out my office," Watson told Information Morning Saint John.

As superintendent, she oversaw the district's 69 schools, 23,000 students and 3,000 staff members.

Anglophone South School District/Submitted
Anglophone South School District/Submitted

Derek O'Brien, a former teacher and director of schools in St. Stephen, has been selected to take on the role.

Watson said she will miss the big school events and celebrations the most — playground openings, award ceremonies, drama productions, band events, heritage fairs.

"And of course, graduations," she said.

Technology changes and teaching

During her career, Watson saw fire, floods, a condemned school, two new schools, a few district amalgamations, accidents and tragedies, policy changes, school closures, many storm mornings, the nutrition policy and many health issues such as serious allergies, H1N1, a measles outbreak, and of course, COVID-19.

But it started in quiet Sussex.

In the early '80s, Watson's first days in the classroom were spent teaching Grade 6 in Sussex Corner, right when the new school opened.

"The thing I remember is students carrying their belongings and things from the classroom, the kilometre from the old Sussex Corner School to the new," she said. "That's a memory because that probably wouldn't happen today."

So much has changed, she said, from having to stand in line at the bank to cash her paycheque, to the equipment and teaching tools.

"It was a big deal when at Sussex Corner we each got an overhead projector for our classroom," she said. "Many of today's teachers wouldn't know what that was."

In the '90s, faxes reigned as the best mode of communication. Now, it's email, texts and social media.

While more advanced teaching tools made a lot of things easier, they also led to distracted students and online bullying.

"That can be very time consuming for our school administrators and our teachers," she said.

[It's] important that we realize that some people are on the edge of their seat waiting for change and other people find that it's quite a struggle. - Zoë Watson, retiring superintendent

Watson has seen fundamental changes not just in technology, but also in the makeup of the classroom and the role a teacher plays.

She was a teacher in the mid-'80s when the inclusion model was rolled out in New Brunswick, where the principle became serving every child, including ones with learning and cognitive disabilities.

She saw the role of teachers become more complex. She saw educational assistants join the team to help provide extra support to those students in 2011, and she also saw the beginning of the child and youth teams that work with public safety, addictions, mental health and social service workers "because teachers can't do it alone."

"Inclusion for sure has had quite an evolution and requires significant funding so that we can make each student feel confident and safe," she said.

The French as a second language and French immersion programs have also been in flux during her time, and continue to be, with a new system expected in the fall of 2023.

Watson said leaders should continue to build relationships and communicate.

"We're a big system and these changes do send quite a ripple effect into the system" she said. 
"[It's] important that we realize that some people are on the edge of their seat waiting for change and other people find that it's quite a struggle."

When she heard that the province is moving the implementation of the new system from 2024 to 2023, Watson thought about how important it is to have time to prepare.

"We had a plan together for 2024 and now that's going to have to be adjusted," she said.

"Provincial changes when they come, do take time and we need to spend lots of time talking about that and figuring out what the plan is going to be."

Golfing, reading, vacation

Watson said she was not counting the days for retirement, but she's been looking forward to travel, golf and reading.

"I was doing work things right up until last evening," she said from her hotel in Connecticut, where she's kicking off her retirement.

"I'm not very good at golfing, I haven't had a lot of time to do it," she said.

"I have lots of things that I'm looking forward to and I don't expect I'll be bored."