The Secret to Happiness

Summer is a busy place in independent schools, and there is some truth to the saying that you get more done when the students aren’t here.  Many people have asked me – How can the school be so busy when there are no students or teachers around?  Well for us at Lakefield, we have been renovating (new washrooms!), building (new outdoor seating areas!), installing air-conditioning (Go Grove!), training staff on outdoor first aid, putting the final touches on our new Strategic Plan, and finalizing a few publications.  And if that is not enough, we have also planned a whole new way to welcome our students and developed a plan to embed Harkness learning into all of our English classes.

But with only a week to go until everyone is back, I am getting more and more excited about the return of our students.  Don’t get me wrong – Kevin and I have had an amazing summer.  But having just spent my first summer on campus, I find this place gets lonely without our 365 teenagers. They are a constant reminder, for me, of why I do what I do.  But they are more than that.

I was recently reading about the most popular course in the history of Yale University.  It is called “Psychology and the Good Life” and it was designed to address the mental well-being of students.  Turns out, approximately one quarter of Yale’s students now take the course.  What does that tell us about today’s youth?  Laurie Santos, the instructor, shares some stats:  currently 80% of US college students report that they feel overwhelmed; over 50% are feeling lonely; and a third are so depressed, they find it hard to function.  These are pretty dire numbers.

Now some would argue that all of this emphasis on well-being is actually leading to more anxiety, check out Why are Americans so anxious?  But I am inspired by positive psychology.  I like that in the Yale course, students learn about the science of behavior change and have homework assignments such as performing five random acts of kindness.  I hope we can teach a course like this, although some days I think we already authentically live this course here, so maybe there’s no need to turn it in to a course when it is a way of life.

But one of Santos’ points really struck me:  “We know from psychology that the top key to happiness has to do with intentional social interactions. Very happy people spend time with other people.”

And then it hit me.  Boarding life with all of the inherent connections, leads to the good life.  What I hear from students is that they are happy here. When prospective students tour, they report feeling something different about this place.  And when prospective parents tour, they tell us that they see happy teenagers here more than any other school.  In fact, just recently, a Dad told us that he chose Lakefield over Exeter for his daughter – he noted that both schools teach through Harkness, but Lakefield students also have fun.

So our students are happy; our staff are happy.  And soon, when everyone is back, I will be happiest too.

p.s. Our teachers are always learning.  Kirsten Johnston, our new Thrive Coordinator, told me that Libby Dalrymple and Carrie Gilfillan heard this professor speak about her super-popular happiness course at the IPEN accelerator in June.  Libby shared this:  The first time I heard about her course was when she was interviewed on CBC’s The Current last February. Here is a link to the podcast – well worth a listen!


My First Year

As I come to the end of my first year as Head of School, many people have asked me to reflect on how it has gone, and I can begin by saying – it has been quite a year.   First, I have tried to catch on to the unique language of Lakefield:  Paper Houses, Gladiator Day, Grove time, Chapel cards, K-Rod, Fort Night, TOD, DSB, and so on.  Special places seem to come with special language.

But when I really think about it, I cannot define this place or how I am experiencing it, without conjuring certain moments.  Some people take photos in those moments, but they are often disappointed that the image doesn’t do it justice.  Artists and writers strive for their lifetimes to capture the emotions of a moment, and the very best succeed.  I will do my best below to capture one of my Lakefield moments – in words and a photo – that captures a moment that defines my year.  Here goes…

It was a warm evening in June, and I wandered down to the waterfront to see if anyone was outside after dinner.  Now, you might think that being a community of teenagers, you would see everyone on their phones.  Not here – the volleyball court was going full-on with an intense game, there was music, and there were students all over the new deck and lawn.  And out on the raft in the water, a group of students stood waving and calling out, “AMK!”.

That was my Lakefield moment.

I felt proud of our students.  In the hours between dinner and study, our students were outside, in the water, on the grass, playing, and having fun.  They were forming the kinds of friendships that only come from these kinds of shared experiences, and they were dealing with the stress of culminating assignments, tests, and exams in such a healthy way, outdoors.  I also felt proud of our staff, who figured out how to adjust to our new waterfront to make this happen.

Most of all, I felt I belonged.  I’m not sure when students started calling me AMK, and they don’t usually address me this way (to my face at least!) but when that group called out to me, I couldn’t help but feel this incredible joy that only comes when you feel part of a strong community.

For over a century, people have tried to find the words to define the Lakefield difference, as I have just done.  My hope is that we never quite manage to define the magic of this place and my larger hope is that our experiences here continue to be so profound that we never stop trying.

I, for one, promise to keep trying in the years to come.

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Making time for “the moments”

Last Sunday, I woke up to a note from a student I taught at Lower Canada College 15 years ago.  And it made me wonder – what makes a student wake up and write to an old teacher?  What are the moments that stand out, years later?

Ryan was part of a student trip to China that Kevin and I lead one March break, and we got to know his group of friends really well.  You tend to bond when you experience places like the Great Wall and the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor (home of the terracotta warriors).  But he didn’t write about our trip.  Ryan was a very good student, and I taught his brother and got to know his parents as well.  But he didn’t write about anything that ever happened during a class.  The truth is, if you had asked me years ago, to identify the student who would write to me out of the blue 15 years later, I am not sure that Ryan would have topped the list.

So why did a former student wake up in February and write to an old teacher?  With his permission, I share it here:

Hi Mrs Kee,

I was thinking about our long-term character flaws you asked us to work on.

Pete was compassion, Dave was chill, I was leadership and Joe was step up. I wonder how we all did on our various projects. I asked Dave and he said he is not much more chill. I think Joe has certainly stepped up as he is going to medical school which is quite a challenge. Not sure about Pete’s compassion (although he did send me a very nice note when he skipped my wedding).

With regards to my trait of leadership, I would have been even more specific and said that I needed to work on assertiveness (an element of leadership).  Sometimes I have the tendency to be too passive instead of grabbing the bull by the horns. I probably have improved since grade 11 though.

Hope you are doing well at the new school. Patti MacDonald sent me your new email address.

If you still want, I can try to organize a reunion (I can take the “lead” on that).



He is writing about a conversation that we had had, along with his group of friends.  It was actually a moment I also remember well, as does Kevin, which is remarkable given all of the students in both of our lives over the years.  This is a conversation that happened for two reasons – we knew each other well and we had opportunity to talk about something meaningful.  Time is key here.

I’m reading the new book by the Heath brothers, The Power of Moments, and they ask a question that I find compelling – what if a teacher could design a lesson that students would remember twenty years later?

Ryan’s letter is a good example of the power of moments.  I’m not sure, however, that moments are easily created.  I would not want curriculums all over the world to include a “life conversation”, thinking you can create a meaningful connection as if there was some kind of superficial magical formula.   The Heath brothers are talking about Disney; I am talking about having the kind of talks you can only have with people who know each other, over time.

For teenagers, what they want – and need! – are adults who get to know them and take the time to challenge their thinking.  In the case of my conversation with Ryan, it was authentic – and clearly turned out to be memorable – because you had people spending time together and actually speaking to one another about real issues that mattered.

We are all busy.  Most of us feel that we are too busy.  But this email is a powerful reminder that we need to slow down, put our phones away, and spend time connecting with each other.  And then for the moments to really be memorable?  We need to connect again and again, so when the chance to have a life conversation happens, we won’t even know it is a life conversation, because it is just what we do.

Thank you, Ryan, for this reminder.

Our culture and hot chocolate

Yesterday, I think I experienced the LCS culture.

It was after lunch, and I was taking down a bunch of green stuff that was used by students to decorate my house (See photo below. Actually, this is another example of our culture – students on their spare decorated my house and, surprisingly, my office.) I called to a group of boys to get their help with stuff that was up beyond my reach.  Turns out, they were killing time before their final soccer game, and we chatted about their season and the fact that it was a cold day for soccer.

I had an idea.  Wouldn’t it be fun to make the boys some hot chocolate?  But there were many problems with this concept.  For starters, the game started in less than 30 minutes.  The other minor difficulty was that I actually had no hot chocolate or stuff to make this idea happen for 20 boys.  So I texted a few people then hopped in the car to buy chocolate mix.

And then the magic started. I ran into a bunch of dons and Rachel Cazabon who offered to buy everything from Tim Hortons. “They do this,” she assured me. By the time I got home, she texted to say that they actually don’t do this, but she could get me some cups and she would meet me in the dining hall so we could make it happen there.  I pulled in to my driveway and there was Derek Doucet with two pots. “We are an Outdoor Ed school. We can make this on burners outside of Runza’s house”.

And then it continued. I walked across the field and Rachel was already outside heating the water. Derek drove to the OE kitchen to get cups and bins and more hot chocolate mix. Vicky Boomgaardt and Garret Hart showed up, with their kids, and helped. And then the crowd began to gather. Heather and Adam Ross, Pete Andras, Carrie and Rory Gilfillan, Erica Chellew – and their kids! – were all hanging around. (There may have been a couple of campus kids who had a third cup!) There were other staff members around too – Darren Mossman, Sue Armstrong, D’Arcy McDonell, and of course Ian Armstrong was running the tournament and Darren Moffat and Danielle Labrosse were coaching. Jim McGowan and Vera Wilcox chatted as they drove along the road… I am sure I am missing others, but my point is that it was a Saturday afternoon and there was our community watching the game, sharing a few laughs, and just hanging out.

After the game, we ladled out three pots of hot chocolate to both teams and whoever else was around. Everyone chipped in and at the end of it all, there was no trace of anything hot chocolate related.

Someone wise once said, “the more acute the experience, the harder it is to define”. Not sure if I will ever be able to “define” the Lakefield culture. But I do know one thing. Yesterday, a happy part of it, for me, was about hot chocolate and all it entailed.

p.s. Thanks to Simon Spivey for also showing up and capturing the game and our culture!


Hot Chocolate at Lakefield College School


Since arriving in August, I have done a lot of learning.  I’ve been reading everything I can get my hands on, and I have attended countless meetings. But perhaps my most important learning is the one that is hardest to define.

I didn’t set out with this plan to do this, but one day, I had been in a lot of meetings, and I decided that I just needed to get outside.  It was a gorgeous day and students were all over the fields, gym, and waterfront.  It was that afternoon that I first realized that the best way to really come to understand Lakefield College School is to just wander.  And so far, this has been my greatest joy.

I want to share five highlights of lessons learned from wandering:

  1. I have been visiting residences in the evenings for snack times.  This has become a bit of “a thing” – the Rashleigh boys dressed up in their jackets and ties; the Ryder boys, who told me they forgot I was coming so I should just expect a normal evening in the common room, were listening to classical music and reading.  Last week, the boys may have been outdone by the girls of Ondaatje.  When I arrived there, I found them meditating and praying with dim lights and calming music.  I have included a photo below.  When you zoom in on the shrine they were “praying” to, you can see their incredible sense of humour.  What I love about Lakefield is that our students are playful and they laugh.  A lot.
  2. Last Friday night, I wandered down to the bonfire that was organized by the grade 12s. I fell into step with three girls and asked where they were from:  Ghana, Japan, and Sudbury.  Lakefield is a global community, with 363 students from 36 countries and no more than 10% from any one country.  And I believe this experience is critical for developing global citizens.
  3. When I met with the houses, I asked them about their first impressions about the school this year, what they would like to see improved, and what advice they had for me, as a new Head.  I will give you a specific example, but know that this was pretty typical of the kind of responses I got.  One boy said this, “I arrived with one family, the one I was born into; but I will leave Lakefield with another… these guys” and all the boys went AHHHHH and pumped their hearts….What is amazing about Lakefield is the way our students speak so openly, so passionately, about things like love and connection.
  4. At the Grade 12 Opening Chapel, they sang, Land of Hope and Glory.  When they started to sing the song, I thought this is nice…But then they sang louder, and by the final verse and chorus, they just belted it out. Lakefield’s chapel remains the soul of the school, where students carry on certain traditions and start their days as a community.
  5. As I sat after school at the waterfront, in one of our new Muskoka chairs, slightly entertained by Garret Hart having to rescue a couple of windsurfers in his boat, Mike Arsenault joined me, and we had this long conversation.  That man has been teaching here for 36 years, and he is someone who captures, for me, the spirit of this school.  He wrote to me the next day, about our time together:

“For me, one of the things that is so true about this place is that no one hides. We get to see our students, each other, and ourselves as who we are. For me that is magic, and what makes this place so special and compelling. It fosters grace and compassion. We get to see the good, the bad, the ugly and everything in between. I often feel the wash of emotions rising to the surface in unexpected circumstances and am surprised at their timing and strength. In those moments when we are most vulnerable, we also get to witness something sacred about ourselves and each other.”

So, whether I wander around different buildings or other parts of our property, I believe the places – and people – create certain feelings, and my suspicion is that these feelings have not changed over time.  For what I am discovering as I wander, is that this is a place about more than classrooms, more than academics; more than sports, arts and community service… Lakefield is a place where we are free to be ourselves, where we laugh, where we find out what makes us most passionate, and where we connect with each other.

So here’s to wandering….

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Letter to my son at boarding school

Dear Jacob,

You have been away from us for one week now, and so much has happened since you left for boarding school.  In case you were wondering…

The first few hours were brutal. As we drove home, I checked my iPhone every ten minutes.  That first night, both Dad and I kept our phones by our side and turned on all night.  We never do that.

The next morning, I put some of your clean t-shirts in your drawers and opened your curtains.  I rarely do that.  Then I just stood there, and lingered in your room.  Dad found me and understood immediately.  He asked, “Does it feel like we are giving our son a gift? It doesn’t feel that way to me.”  And then we both had a good cry.  We never do that either.

I checked my phone all day the next day.  Other people texted, emailed, and/or called, and everyone I met in those first few days asked about you.  I had to suck it up and tell them all the same thing – we haven’t heard from him.  Not a word.

Every single person said the same thing, “No news is good news.”  But you know what?  No news didn’t feel like good news.

Dad and I talked about why you weren’t contacting us – Were you too upset? Were you too busy?  Were you trying to teach us a lesson?

We also reviewed the reasons we made this decision – it was as if we needed to keep reminding ourselves.  We knew we wanted you to enjoy more time outside, more time with friends, more time blurring the lines between learning and living.  We tried to picture all of those happy confident kids we met at drop-off, and we knew that would be you one day.

Most of all, we told ourselves – over and over! – that you wanted to go to Lakefield College School.  You were ready to grow independently from us and you could learn so much from a team of passionate people who share our values and have proven to be great at cultivating healthy, happy, generous, curious people. Do you remember what you did when we first told you that you could go to LCS?  You put your head down and did that “Yes!” motion, and then you looked each of us in the eyes and said, “Thank you Mom.  Thank you Dad.”

But I missed you.  Terribly.  And I wanted you back with me.  I also wanted you to write. Or call.  Anything!

On Wednesday, one of my colleagues asked about you.  I gave the same reply, although by that point, I was starting to feel bitter and even seeing some humour in your silence.   I may have called you a brat.

She said the same no-news thing, but then she reminded me that her boys went to boarding school.  I perked up.  I realized that I was so hungry to hear the stories of other families.  Two of her comments stood out.  She told me that she looked at boarding school as a series of summer camps “…and my boys LOVED summer camp!”   You said that same thing.

She also told me that her boys – all three of them! – have recently told her that boarding school was the second best thing their parents gave to them, after giving them their love.

And that’s when it hit me – I needed to stop thinking about me, and my feelings, and my needs.  Boarding school was not about me; it was what we knew would be best for you.  Deep down I knew it all along, but my heart still ached for you.  Still does.

So it helped that you finally made contact on day six.  I will forever have those first words memorized – “I’m at Tim’s with some friends and it has free wi-fi.  Lakefield is amazing. I’m so happy I came.”

Jacob, you have no idea how much those words meant to us. I’m not even offended that you wrote them to Dad and not me.  Really.  I’m also not bothered by yesterday’s email:  Hi mom I cant talk for long but everything is great.

Don’t worry about writing more.  Dad and I are just fine.

See you in two more weeks when we come up for the Fall Fair.

Love you more more more,


p.s.  Typically I check with you before I mention you in a blog.  Guess you should have written sooner.

p.p.s.  For the record – Jacob did sign off on this…