Women of Influence

Last week, I was invited to the Women of Influence Lunch by one of my Board members and the keynote speaker was Maureen Sabia.  I admit that I was probably overly excited to be in a room full of ambitious women (and a handful of men!) to hear one of Canada’s most powerful women.

Sabia has made a career at the board level and is currently Chairman of Canadian Tire Corporation.  Just in case anyone thought I should call her “Chair” or some other more neutral term, I chose that word intentionally.  Sabia said that she worked hard to earn the title of Chairman and prefers not to be called a piece of furniture.

And that was just one of the strong opinions she expressed.  Her mother told her that you can do anything if you have the smarts, education and drive.  But Ms. Sabia actually disagrees with those motherly words of encouragement. She said that women have been gravely misled by a society that claimed they could have it all.  According to her, they can’t.  Equality, she says, is about making choices – she believes in equality of opportunity not equality of result.

As for women on boards, she said that since boards have to be very active and productive, everyone must work hard and ask tough questions.   She believes in diversity at the leadership level but not at the expense of expertise and experience.

But the line that I have wrestled with since her talk is this one -‘ there is no room for balance in the fast lane’.  Sabia has made some tough choices.  In law school, for example, she broke off her engagement and never married.  She clearly chose to put her career first and give up on the dream of raising a family of her own.

Is this the best message for aspiring women?   Of 93 SEAL Canada schools, 31 are led by women (14 of those 31 women run girls’ schools, though being female is not a prerequisite for the job); and one of those women is returning to her headship having had her fourth baby in the spring.  Most have had families and many have grown children. No one would argue that the life of a Head of School is a tidy, nine-to-five job.  It’s as tough as any CEO position and equally demanding in terms of hours, stress and the required leadership skills to manage a complex operation.

As far as I know, none of them use the title “Headmaster” but all have the smarts, education and drive.

Rather than Sabia’s take-no-prisoners approach, I would argue that these women are following a revised mantra:  You can have it all, just not all at once.

Today is Leonard Cohen’s Birthday

When I taught English at LCC, I began every class with a poem.  I would read the poem twice and everyone in the class would then share their favourite line.  Sometimes we moved immediately on to the rest of the class, but sometimes we just needed to discuss it.  I think those were my favourite times – when the students would be so moved or so interested that I just couldn’t think of what would be more important than that conversation.  We studied a poet for one month, which meant studying 15-20 poems per month and nine poets per year.

When CBC broadcaster for the arts, Eleanor Wachtel spoke at the school, she remarked that our students were more knowledgeable and passionate about Canadian poetry than most.

One day, a visitor to the school stopped by our classroom and asked what the students were studying.  “Poetry” was the answer.  “And who is your favourite poet?”  The class tossed a few names around then agreed that Leonard Cohen was definitely at the top of the list.  The visitor was impressed.  But then one boy stood up – and everyone knew that he was not the usual poetry-type of guy, (I suspect that even our visitor had that feeling), and he offered to recite one of Cohen’s poems:

With Annie Gone
whose eyes to compare
with the morning sun?
Not that I did compare,
but I do compare
now that she’s gone.

On this day, September 21, I hope that some of my students from Lower Canada College might notice it’s Leonard Cohen’s birthday and think back to those times when we just had to have the conversation. Maybe that boy has used his poetry recitation skills to woo a girl! Maybe they are still having those conversations in their own lives, where ever they might be now.

Maybe that’s the true power of the poet.

Happy Birthday Mr. Cohen…and thank you.
CBC has collected wonderful materials on poets and poetry in their archives that are available at:
The NFB has films on Leonard Cohen that are definitely worth watching:


Last week in Philadelphia, I attended meetings and workshops with Association Directors on accreditation, strategic partnerships, schools of the future, and assessment.

Accreditation? Assessment?  Associations?  What does it say about me that I find this stuff exciting?

One highlight was the presentation on assessment.   American public teachers are burdened with pressure to teach to standardized tests.  In fact, educators in North America whether in the public or independent sector, are all facing increasing pressure to ‘show us the money’ as it were.  Parents these days, themselves the most highly educated cohort in history, are demanding objective tools that will not only assess where little Johnny is relative to established, age-appropriate standards, but also to give a sense of the quality of the teacher and a school’s curriculum delivery.

Educators tend to resist assessment tools, not because they’re hiding anything, (for the most part), but because the tools have traditionally been sorely wanting in terms of providing a consistent and unimpeachable benchmark that embraces learning on all levels, and not just math scores.  And the idea of ‘teaching to a test’ is increasingly becoming anathema to 21st century educators who know that a child needs more than a good grade to make the grade in today’s world.

At the conference in Philly, the question posed was this: What if someone could design a test that was worth teaching to?

NAIS has done a great review of some of the existing assessment instruments such as school ratios, various types of tests, and ranking/​rating lists.  Check out their pdf called  “Demonstrating Independent School Quality: Inventory of Institutional Assessment Instruments.”

The assessment presentation was by Kevin Mattingly, Dean of Faculty at The Lawrenceville School.  Kevin asked some questions worth considering:  how do we assess those things that are most important? What’s worth teaching that is enduring beyond school? What is the value-add of our schools?  Since 2006, Lawrenceville is one of now 73 schools using a test called the College and Work Readiness Assessment (CWRA).

The CWRA is a modified version of the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) that presents realistic problems that require students to analyze complex materials varying in reliability and accuracy, and to construct written responses that demonstrate their abilities to think critically, reason analytically, solve problems and communicate clearly and cogently. These skills are intertwined and the CWRA measures them holistically. Additionally, the institution—not the student—is the primary unit of analysis.

Kevin argued that the CWRA is a test worth looking at and that teaching and learning should be aligned with assessment.  What caught my attention most was his passion.  Here was an educator making that case for using assessment to support teaching and learning.  That alone is a worthy pursuit.  But here is also a change leader who readily admits that his school is taking risks and trying new ways to engage and challenge students.  And he had the guts to share his progress.

It’s far from an answered question, and maybe it never truly can be.  But the quest to find ways to realistically and usefully assess a student’s progress in school, and with it, the progress of the school itself, is a worthy pursuit.  And not just because parents and politicians are calling for more accountability, and not just because we all need some objective measures that can help in the mix of ensuring that little Johnny is ready for the big leagues at university, but because improvements to teaching and learning is our daily goal for every student.

What a difference a year makes …

I am proud to be a parent of students returning to an independent school.

We initially chose the school because of the challenging academic program, the multitude of options available to them and, to be honest, for the sheer convenience of the kids being on the same campus as my office. But the kids were mixed about starting somewhere new, even though they were part of the decision to switch schools. (Yes, I belong to this new breed of parents who engage their kids in the process to spend loads of cash on their education….).  So our first week wasn’t always easy.

Our first experience was buying the uniform.  I remember holding the hands of my two nervous kids as we first entered the Ridley shop.  Jacob, who was ten, didn’t share my enthusiasm for purchasing his entire uniform second-hand.  He called me over behind a shelf, his eyes bulging with tears and informed me, “I will NOT wear someone else’s pants to school”.  Feeling now overwhelmed myself, I was quick to snap back, “Be thankful they don’t sell used boxers.”

Very quickly, however, their enthusiasm grew at a similar rate to my anxiety – they loved their first day of school but I had to deal with what to wear and what to pack.  One might assume that a uniform makes one’s life easier.  But with a regular uniform, a chapel uniform and a gym uniform (the latter including two shirts, two shorts, trackpants, hoodie, zip-up sweatshirt, and jacket), it is tough to be sure.  On the second day of school, as we drove to the drop-off spot, Jacob announced that we had to go home. “All the kids are wearing the other gym shirt.”

By Friday, I thought I could manage – drop-off was a success for two days in a row. But that day, I apparently missed the significance of the word “tribe” in the agenda.  So when I picked up the kids, I noticed that everyone wore a brightly coloured shirt.  Except mine wore their white shirts.  Tribe shirts, the fourth uniform, were not sold in the shop in early September.  As we walked to the car, my daughter Kathleen, who rarely utters a harsh word, stopped and looked me in the eyes and asked, “Mom, can you try a little harder next week?”

I am happy to report that we have all enjoyed this year’s week one – both kids wearing second-hand uniforms and no one frustrated that we need to try harder….


Congratulations to the new Heads of Schools:
  • Joanne Kamins at Balmoral Hall
  • Marc Ayotte at Hillfield Strathallan
  • Barry Hughes at Holy Trinity School
  • Sarah McMahon at Lakefield College School
  • Herve Gagliardi at Lycee Louis Pasteur School
  • John Wray at Mulgrave School
  • Wilma Jamieson at Queen Margaret’s School
  • Paul O’Leary at Royal St George’s College
  • Martha Perry at St Clement’s School
  • Tom Matthews at St George’s School
  • Cathy Thornicroft at St Margaret’s School
  • Mary Hebert at The Study
  • Adam de Pencier at Trafalgar Castle School
On behalf of our Canadian organization, welcome and all the best for a successful year.

In praise of the humanities

In Saturday’s Globe and Mail, John Allemang asks the question: can there be a connection between the disappearance of the liberal arts and the rise of homegrown terrorism?


He argues that the humanities is the best way to teach empathy and critical thinking, and he argues for a “re-enrichment” so that liberal arts includes other traditions. Ultimatley, he believes that humanities education should be valued not only as an intellectual distraction, “but as the prime component of both peace and happiness”.

I thought that I pursued an English degree at Queen’s because I enjoyed literature and wanted to share my passion with kids one day – apparently, I was also doing my part to contribute to world peace.

And yet I appreciate Allemang’s support for the study of the humanities.

During this week when children across the country return to school, let’s keep in mind the role of a strong liberal arts program in our K-12 schools.

Good teachers understand that the age at which students can handle critical thinking and empathy is long before 18 or 19 years of age.