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.

Where do we lead?

Last week, our Leadership Team, along with members of the Strategy Task Force, the School Board and the Foundation Board, all met for a day long retreat.  We had a great speaker (Tim Fish, Chief Innovation Officer with NAIS, and author of On the Innovation Journey) and a great facilitator (Susan Wright, who already lead our Joint Governance Review process, so she knows our community well).  In addition to the usual small group discussions and yellow sticky notes (Can you do strategy without them these days?!) we completed a pyramid with the base being areas we want to match, the middle being areas we want to differentiate, and the top being area(s) we want to lead.

I just love that question – where do we want to lead?

I am reminded of the story of the famous artist who created a sculpture of a beautiful horse.  Someone asked the sculptor: “How did you create such a beautiful horse?” The sculptor replied: “It was simple… I took away everything that wasn’t a horse.”

As we go through this strategic plan process, I cannot help but think that we are working away at creating a beautiful sculpture as our core is already within us if we keep researching, thinking, talking and listening.

Later on in the week, after listening to another outstanding chapel speech, I wondered if those moments in chapel might be it.

In chapel talks, we give our students permission to be and express themselves.  We have already seen a wide range of topics, and while each follows a bit of a pattern, each is wildly different.  I think Tim Rutherford summed it up best when he commented: all of the speeches were powerful in their own way, just like our students.  (We are fortunate to have a CFO who is also completely student-centred!)

But what makes chapel talks so unique is not just the opportunity for individuals to express feelings, passion, and appreciation for Lakefield and others.  What makes our chapel talks so powerful is that there is a history of authenticity in a caring community.  This kind of acceptance among teenagers is not easy to achieve; but once teens feel it, they feel the freedom to express their most true selves.

One student captured it this way – a lot of the courage I’ve racked up to be able to share my story comes from watching others before me share their stories and emotions.

Creating an emotionally safe place for teenagers, where they can share their most profound experiences and explain what they have learned and how they have grown, is powerful stuff.  Schools with dedicated resources can develop great arts, athletics and academic programs.  What is far more elusive, even with significant investment, is the feeling part.

It is still early days with our strategy process, and we will be doing focus groups and research teams and more analysis of our findings to date, but we are chipping away, and we are excited to discover our very own beautiful horse.

With Gratitude

(Below is the talk I gave in chapel on Tuesday evening).

When my kids were little, I read somewhere that developing gratitude was important for children’s development.  So the Kee family had a routine before bed – we would sing three songs:  You are my sunshine; Hush Little baby; and the Lord bless you and keep you – and then I would ask them to tell me three things for which they were grateful.  It just became – what are your three things.  As children, they would find it easy to come up with a list, and it often included what they had for dinner that evening, or more likely, what they had for dessert.

As an aside, when Jacob and Kathleen came to Lakefield, I would text them all kinds of questions and they would rarely give me more than a one or two word response.  Early on, I would text – how was your day?  And the most popular response, of course, was…. good.  It would drive me crazy.  Don’t do that to your parents.   Then I got clever, and I would text them and ask – what are your three things?  I am so smart.  I started to get multiple word answers.  I would be grateful if you would send multiple word messages to your parents.  Parents love multiple word texts.

Back to my children, when they were children. There came a day, when I was tired and although I hate to admit it, I was frankly just going through the bed time motions, almost rushing them so I could get on with my evening and go to bed early.   One night, I remember being close to wrapping up the night, when one of them asked me for my three things.

I thought – oh my gosh… I am too tired.  I have had a long day.  I really had nothing to be thankful for.   But there they were, looking right at me, anticipating that I would enjoy this new aspect of our ritual.  I had to come up with something.

And so it began.

As often as possible –  I would love to say every night, but I just sometimes forget – I end my day, before I got to sleep, by thinking of the three things for which I am most grateful.  I wish I could tell you that I can easily think of three things.  But I have realized that it requires work. Not just one thing, but three things can be tough.

Finding three things to be thankful for on any day is important.  When you are grateful, you have no room in your life for self-pity. But here’s the thing – finding three things on a bad day is even more important.  The ups and downs of life can sometimes eclipse an attitude of gratitude – but the more we can focus on gratitude, the happier and healthier we are.   I try to make gratitude a habit or a discipline.  I find it helps me with perspective.

I’m reading this book – I recommend it – it’s on the best seller list this Christmas season.  It is Oprah’s book called The Wisdom of Sundays.  She includes an entire chapter on Gratitude.  (Read two sections – page 152 and 165.)

So whether you practice gratitude in the evening, in the morning, or in the moment you are least grateful, I hope you will take a moment before you leave Lakefield for your holiday and think about the three things you are grateful for.  The German mystic, Meister Eckhart, once said – If the only prayer you say in your entire life is thank you, that will be enough.

That’s my first hope for you.  But there’s more….Feeling gratitude and not expressing gratitude, is like wrapping a Christmas present and not giving it.

The greatest gift is feeling gratitude AND expressing it.  That’s my second hope for you – that sometime this week, you will express gratitude to someone… anyone!  But find that courage deep down and express it.  See how that feels… It is not happy people who are thankful; it is thankful people who are happy.  And now, I would like to express my gratitude to you.

Four days per week we spend our time here in chapel, and I am thankful for three things that you do here in chapel.

  1. I love when we sing all together, thanks to our most talented Syd (spelled with a Y) and I love when our choirs sing, with the help of our most talented music teachers. I also love when those of you with special talents sing on your own and/or play musical instruments. I love that you get up in front of your peers, who are not an easy audience by the way, and you sing and play music. We have enjoyed a lot of performances this fall, and I appreciate all of you who share your talents.
  2. You may be surprised by this second one, but I also love our Lakefield approach to Standards. It is not like any other school.  I wish there were not as many standards announcements, but I absolutely believe in the way students deal with discipline and the way students share the stories with each other in chapel.  We are a small community here and stories spread quickly, so I am thankful that we have a system to minimize gossip.  We are respectful of each other in our community, and I really appreciate the time we give to support each other.
  3. And number three – I am thankful for chapel talks. It takes courage to get up here and be vulnerable and speak.  I think it is one of the most valuable traditions of this school.  To have the opportunity to listen to our grads as they share stories of their thoughts and lessons learned, and as they express gratitude for their family and friends… it is becoming a real highlight of my days.

Michael Bernard Beckwith wrote – Begin to notice what you have in your life that you are grateful for and when you look at life through the lens of gratitude, you don’t see as many obstacles or hindrances. You see potential, you see possibilities.  Then you become an open vehicle for more inspiration, more wisdom, more guidance, coming from the spiritual part of your being.

I’m so grateful to be here at Lakefield, and I am grateful to all of you for being here with me.

I hope you enjoy your holiday.  I hope you make time to practice gratitude and express gratitude, especially to those you love.


Where do Middle School Students Learn Best?

At our upcoming Heads and Chairs Meeting in Ottawa, our theme is Place, Pedagogy and Purpose, and we will have an Architects Panel. This question will be part of our conversation.

But for now, I have reason to believe they learn best outdoors. Last week, over 100 Middle School Students from CAIS schools across the country gathered at Camp Onondaga. This year, our program focused on significant youth issues:

  • Bullying
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Social Media and Identity
  • Student Mental Health
  • Aboriginal Education

We were intentional about mixing the groups by province, and we gave them plenty of time to engage in conversations in the great outdoors. The photos tell the best story, but here’s some of the feedback as well:

– Students had many opportunities to meaningfully connect with their peers. Almost instantly, students developed friendships with students across Canada. Between their cabin groups, passport groups, and the time spent doing the camp activities, students were constantly having fun with new faces.

– The presenters told me that they were impressed with how engaged the students were during the sessions and the number of insightful questions. It shows that our students are not only capable, but passionate about solving big issues.

– My quietest student said she felt that the staff and students made it really easy for her to step out of her shell and talk to people from different schools.

– My students found the camp extremely valuable for improving their leadership skills. All of the girls were happy to learn that there are many different types of leaders (something they did not realize)

– My students noted that the workshops were fantastic and loved how the social media workshop did not focus on the dangers of having a profile but how they could use their social media accounts to promote leadership.

– The Gender Identity workshop was very valuable. My students were inspired by the speaker and think Gender Identity is an extremely important topic for kids their age. One of the initiatives they would like to start at our school is a Gender Identity workshop for their peers.

Huge thanks to Philip Lloyd, our CAIS Program Committee, our workshop presenters, the Onondaga staff, and the CAIS faculty advisors. Most of all, thanks to our CAIS students for their passion, energy, and ideas. May you go on to change the world.

Advice to Teachers (from an Awesome Teacher)

The month of June can be tough on teachers – everyone is tired, cranky, and ready for a holiday. I was so inspired by the story of one of Jacob’s favourite teachers, Rory Gilfillan, that I asked him to share it:

Last week I was talking an Advisee down from great heights.  She is shy.  She also LOVES history and has a 97 in it.  She desperately wanted to win the History Award.  I don’t teach this course so I have no influence. I wasn’t sure she would get it so I ordered a book on Amazon called Inventing Freedom and then I got a card.  I texted her and told her to meet me under the tent they have put up for grad.  Turns out her Mom was with her. I set out two chairs at the back and made a small speech at the front outlining the short but distinguished pedigree of the Gilfillan History Award for Awesomeness.  I then called her up receive her award.

It’s seriously the best thing I have done in a very long time.

The interesting part of it was how long it took me to figure it out.  Katherine had a 97 in history but a lower mark in Math.  I kept saying, “Why on earth are you stressing about History?  You don’t even need to write the exam and you would still do well.   You really need to be stressed about Math.” And then, after a long back and forth conversation, I worked it out.  She wanted the award.

Quite frankly, I don’t always listen closely enough or hang in long enough to get to the truth.  In this instant I slowed down my usually high frequency operation and hung in two minutes longer.  There I found the truth, and I wanted to celebrate her.  This was a great moment for Katherine but, seriously, an even better moment for me.  I achieved, for about three minutes, what I came in to this profession to do:  I made a difference.

We, as teachers, spend so much time worrying about technology and assessment and making our classes good.  All fine and well but that’s not why I got in to this and it certainly won’t be what I remember when I reach the end of my career. I want to remember this lesson: I need to hang in on conversations in order to be able to hear what matters and then act on it.

I will remember that moment.

The best part is that the student in this story ended up winning the actual award at Saturday’s Closing Ceremony at Lakefield College School.

I wonder about this question – when she thinks back on her graduating year, which moment will be more cherished and memorable?

My guess is the audience of two, and my hope is that more teachers follow the lead of Rory Gilfillan.


p.s. I had permission from both Rory and Katherine Petrasek to publish this story.


Ten Lessons from CAIS Students on LGBTQ+

What can we learn from this week’s first ever CAIS Student Panel?

For starters, technology is changing the way we connect. As I sat in my kitchen, chatting with three amazing students about the highly personal topic of gender orientation, gender identification, and sexual orientation, I felt moved by their courage and inspired by their passion and ideas. I felt as if they were in my kitchen with me. But the fact is the students were only images on my laptop. Frank, Sid, and Miles were actually each by themselves, sitting in classrooms in St George’s, St Michaels University School and Shawnigan Lake School. Meanwhile, over 100 people – staff and students alike – sat in their separate CAIS schools across the country. Some joined in alone, but others sat in groups, at least one class of students joined the panel; and two schools broadcast the panel in their community spaces.

The impressive part? Frank, Sid and Miles not only spoke articulately but also managed to jump in and interact with the participants on the chat. This was truly a national conversation!

So I have a few big take-aways: we should connect more often as a national network; we should include students in the conversations – Maureen Steltman, Head of Fraser Academy suggested we should have invited parents! – and we should have the courage to continue the conversation and maybe even take on other big topics.

But the most important lessons came directly from the students. I encourage you to watch the full discussion, but here are the ten lessons from my notes:

  1. Safety is a big issue, and everyone has a right to feel safe, both emotionally and physically. We need to raise awareness and talk more about tolerance.
  2. Include age appropriate curriculum on gender orientation and identification. Our CAIS schools have the liberty to do more than just the provincial curriculum, so we should be leaders in the classroom.
  3. Support a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA; sometimes called Gender Sexuality Awareness) club in your school; and if you don’t have one, start one. Clubs can promote visibility and demonstrate acceptance.
  4. Challenge the subtle homophobia and passive bullying that continues to exist in society. Schools can teach the significance of words and the harm that can be done.
  5. Share resources – check out our CAIS LGBTQ+ resource page here
  6. Understand that change can take time and remember that even small things can really help.
  7. Market our CAIS schools as safe and open places; Sid and Miles told me that they chose their universities based on what they researched on the university websites (Good for Carleton and UBC!)
  8. The media has made the conversation about bathrooms, but that’s not the issue! Students want to understand and be understood.
  9. We need schools to update their policies. If the government can pass Bill C-16 to ensure Canadians are free to identify themselves and express their gender as they wish while being protected against discrimination and hate, then schools need to figure out how to best support all students and staff. Schools can start by including students in the development of policies.
  10. Leaders have to understand the issues, hold people accountable for their actions, and do more to raise awareness.Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 4.19.26 PM

It was a privilege to be part of Monday’s powerful conversation, and I am so grateful to Frank, Sid and Miles for their openness, courage, and candor. I love thinking about the conversations that will continue across the country because of their leadership. Maybe some of the conversations will even happen in your kitchen!

Is financial sustainability still the number one challenge facing independent schools?

Every three years, we ask our CAIS Heads and Chairs to identify their top three challenges, and we use this data to inform our research and professional development programs. So in 2013, when the top challenge was financial sustainability, we made that our focus (Think 2051 Project!). When you are in the business of whole school continuous improvement, you better know what is top of mind for members.

So this is the year to ask again, and I predict the following – the number one challenge will not be financial sustainability.

Merriam-Webster defines sustainability as “able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed.” Good news! I have read every accreditation report over the past ten years, and more significantly, I have read every Response Report that demonstrates a school’s commitment to implementing the recommendations. This qualifies me to tell you that CAIS schools are not anywhere near “being used up;” in fact, they are working hard to ensure the opposite.

But for anyone thinking that this is a feel-good blog about the future of CAIS schools … “Not so fast Lopez!” There are significant questions in the current educational landscape:

  • Assessment for learning – How do we ensure it is dynamic, embedded and formative, based on real time data and enabled by technology?
  • Blended learning – How do we lead in terms of real-time, data-driven instruction and open up multiple pathways for students to learn and parents, students and teachers to communicate?
  • Competency-base learning – How can we develop a broader conceptualization of evidence of student mastery? And can we figure out a way to get universities to honour this in the application process?
  • Personalized learning – How do we move toward personalization for each student’s unique needs, interests, passions and competency-based pathways, while honouring the provincial curriculum requirements?
  • Project-Based Learning (PBL) – How can we do more student exhibitions that are authentic demonstrations of learning and connected to our communities, without simply making them an add-on for students?
  • Work-based learning – How can our university preparatory schools include co-op opportunities? Can they also be global, and entrepreneurial? Can we develop a badge system that is meaningful and rigorous?
  • Adult-development learning – This is new; in fact, I just made it up. But I am reading How to Raise and Adult and I believe that the author has hit on one of the key challenges facing our schools in particular: how do we raise happy students who know and like themselves? How do we encourage parents to back off and do the same?

Given these challenges, no school can rest on its laurels and not worry about its future strength. So for CAIS schools, I propose two new years’ resolutions:

  1. Change our terminology from “sustainability” to “permanence and strength” and focus on ongoing research to answer the above questions.
  1. Collaborate in terms of research but also in terms of PD. Never before has it been more important to figure out these challenges, and I am a firm believer in the power of together. (If you are a CAIS leader, you should meet your colleagues in Vancouver in April to have some catalytic conversations about the future of education. Read more and register here.)

p.s. I like this list of post-secondary trends.