As I sat with colleagues from across America for dinner Monday night in Philadelphia, I could feel my blackberry buzzing away at my feet.  So I did what I try really hard never to do: I snuck a peek at the dinner table.  My family members were emailing and texting to make sure everyone knew about the devastation happening in Christchurch, the home of my brother, Patrick, as well as our sister-in-law, niece and nephew.  By 9:21pm, my other brother got a call, and they were all fine.  Totally okay.

My brother was teaching at his elementary school at the time of the earthquake.  Amidst all of the sadness we are hearing about that city, this is not a tragic tale at all.  This is the email we received from Patrick:

hi all,

This is a blog from one of my school’s classes. There is a lot of stuff at top but if you scroll down to pictures of earthquake aftermath it gives you a very small indication of what it was like (although it doesn’t do it justice). Normally, the school has a flat grassy field but with the liquifaction it turned into a mudpit. It didn’t rain a drop that day. In one pic you can see the hairline cracks that you could actually watch forming through the previously solid concrete (caused by water in the soil forcing its way up and soaked the kids bottoms as they were seated in their emergency lines)… Nothing like cracks forming in the concrete underneath you and mud bubbling up from dry soil to calm 250 restless kids 🙂

Glad it is over,


Thankfully, Patrick’s family and his class were safe. The reality of any tragic or impactful event is that life does go on. Using social media to keep us informed, I am able to share with you the inside of a classroom at my brother’s school after the earthquake:

While I wish I could be with him, it makes me happy knowing that he will go back to his school on Monday and be with his class. They need him, and I hope they take good care of my little brother too.

The CAIS for Accreditation

Michael Simmonds, our new Accreditation and Professional Development Director, and I are currently attending the NAIS International Commission on Accreditation Meetings in Maryland. Yesterday’s session was on, “Why Accreditation Matters”.

And our timing couldn’t be more perfect.

Our national organization announces today that we will change our official name from SEAL Canada to Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS). We have announced this change in a letter to Heads and a press release to over 150 contacts around the world.  This change was made in response to an overwhelming vote by our member schools.  I am proud to report that we had 100% participation rate in this process, and this level of participation represents the kind of engagement that will continue to take our national organization forward.

Through this lengthy process, we have considered the question: why is it important for the word Accreditation to appear in our new name?

At the Commission meetings, we discussed the public and private purpose of accreditation.

Publicly, accreditation provides the seal of approval for parents who are looking to understand what distinguishes one school from another.  In a country where education is provincially mandated, participating in a voluntary process of meeting National Standards provides public accountability. Our National Standards are based on research, developed by our members, vetted by the Standards Council of the Board and recognized by the NAIS International Commission on Accreditation.

Privately, the core of an accreditation process is really about improvement, and this begins with knowing your school, reflecting on strengths and weaknesses, being confident and transparent enough to share this with a group of peers from across Canada, and then implementing priorities.

I find it interesting to consider the balance of importance between the public and private purpose of accreditation.  But I’m not fussed over which is more valuable (to my American colleagues, ‘fussed’ means ‘overly concerned’). I actually find the debate similar to the one about which aspect of the accreditation process is more important – the internal evaluation review or the Visiting Committee’s external visit.

I often think of the total value of accreditation this way – I clean my house but I clean it better when company is coming (I can just hear my husband chuckling at that statement ‘I clean my house’).  Maybe that public purpose contributes to improving our private practice.

But what makes me proud is that in our new name, we are making a public commitment to genuine improvement.

Currently, approximately one in ten Canadian independent schools is a CAIS member.  I love that our schools across the country share a philosophy that learning never ends and the pursuit of excellence is ongoing.

Posing questions

With Valentine’s Day on Monday, let me share the most quoted exchange between me and my husband during this season:

Anne-Marie: “Hey Kevin. Want to go out for dinner on Valentine’s Day?”

Kevin: “Who? Me and you?”

When I think of all the questions that have been asked of me, believe me, that one remains the most memorable! Much to my husband’s embarrassment, because he really is a loving guy, I often remind him that he lacked a certain romantic flair at that particular moment. His question disproves the saying that there is no such thing as a dumb question, and it has become code for us whenever we think a question is dumb. We whisper, “Who? Me and you?” and still find it funny every time.

Questions are important and I am drawn to people who pose thoughtful questions. Being in the business of learning and school improvement, I see the power of questions. In fact, I often tell my kids that I care more about the questions they ask, than the marks they get. And I am often stunned by what they ask – on a recent drive, Jacob asked if the Eiffel Tower was built to be a decoration or if it had a purpose. Why does a child think about that? (In case you have that same question, the tower was built as the entrance arch to the 1889 World’s Fair).

Recognizing the value of questions, our Board spent time in advance of this week’s meeting developing good ones. They wanted to be sure that their time together addressed the biggest and most important issues.

The Governance Committee, chaired by Tina Woodside, is committed to the question of how to be a ‘best practice Board.’ Anne Birmingham gave a workshop of the “Five Key Areas of Effective Governance in Not-for-profit Boards.”

Peter Sturrup, Chair of the Standards Council, is working on the strategic priority around membership. He asked “What is our ideal size?”.

Bob Snowden, Chair of the Strategic Planning Task Force, asked if the most strategic priorities had been identified for our first year of our strategic plan implementation.

Kim MaGee, who chaired our Professional Development Task Force last year, lead a generative discussion around our vision of leadership. The Board spent considerable time on this question: We have a new vision statement to be the ‘voice of excellence in learning and leadership.’ What will that look like?

Great Boards recognize that posing questions is as important as answering them. Determining the right questions may even be more important than the answers. In the case of our national organization, the Board is off to a great start.

In thinking about today’s topic, I asked myself the following question: just how many years have Kevin and I been celebrating Valentine’s Day together?  It was a joy to discover that this year is our 20th.

Maybe this year, he will ask the question: “Hey Anne-Marie. Want to go out for dinner on Valentine’s Day?” I already know my response…

To-Do: Schools of the Future

I like lists.  That might be one of those ‘should I really admit that publicly?’ statements, but it’s the truth. My notebook, agenda and blackberry are full of To-Do lists that help me keep track of the priorities in my work and personal life. In my opinion, there is nothing better than the feeling of crossing something off of a list. On my flight today from Phoenix (where I presented to the Association of French Schools of America) to Philadelphia (where I will speak at the 119th meeting of The Headmasters Association), I happily crossed off a couple of big items and created a few new ones.

On Sunday, my family and I hiked the Grand Canyon – three hours down to a spectacular picnic in Indian Gardens, and three hours back up – and I was able to cross off a personal “bucket list” goal.  We were filthy, exhausted and exhilarated by the end of the excursion.  There’s a line from The Sentimentalists (winner of the 2010 Giller Prize for fiction) that says, “If you could remember one thing and have that be your life, what would it be?”.  Our day together at the Grand Canyon might be it.  We want to go back and hike down then spend a night sleeping at Phantom Ranch by the Colorado River; but in the meantime, I have a new personal goal:  do more stairmaster.

I crossed off a professional goal as well.  I’ve been working on identifying key trends and effective practices around sustainability in schools.  Allan Greggcollected national data on Heads and Chairs’ top challenges, and he found three issues scored over 50%:  Human resources, financial sustainability, and managing change (in that order).  The presentation I gave yesterday captured what I’ve been observing in our schools.  Once I tweak it, I will post this presentation to the PD section of our website.  (that’s a To-Do for this month!)

But what I’m really excited about is that a group of amazing professionals have crossed off a major To-Do item.  The NAIS International Commission on Accreditation had a Task Force that spent two years on a project called Schools of the Future.

Congratulations to two of my favourite people – Robert Witt (ED of the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools) and Jean Orvis (retired Head of Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences) – for chairing this process.

I humbly suggest that you add reading this document to your To-Do list.