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.

On teaching goodness

With the drama in American politics and the Quebec mosque shooting tragedy this week, I find myself searching for goodness, and last night I think I found it.

I attended a production at Ashbury College by Dandelion Dance, featuring a diverse group of girls telling their stories through dance. These young women bravely took on important and very personal issues, and the whole experience of watching them was moving. But there was something else about the performance that was special. I don’t think any one of them was ever dancing alone on stage; this was never about a singular performance. I found myself watching their stories, but I was equally drawn to the non-dancing girls, as they stood along the sides, watching and smiling. They seemed genuinely supportive of each other. That vulnerability in teenage girls as they danced, combined with the open display of support by their peers, was profound.

I needed last night. I needed to see that the world is still full of joy, generosity, hope, and beauty. I know that life is not that simple, but I was reminded last night that it can be.

Can it be this simple for schools?

We have a responsibility to teach subjects. I know there is concern about the extent to which tackling world events should take precedence over “covering the curriculum”, but good teachers find that balance.

We are also getting better at teaching skills like creativity, collaboration and critical thinking.  We help students discover their passions and give them real-world opportunities to learn.

We are also focusing – very appropriately – on teaching mindfulness and wellness. As we think about all of the problems in our world, we need to engage our students in big conversations, and we must be mindful of their anxiety and help them to remain optimistic.

My hope is that we continue to take seriously our responsibility to teach goodness. Our CAIS schools are special communities where students learn and realize their full potential with innovative programs. But they are also loving communities where good teachers inspire students to listen, accept differences, build trust, and celebrate others.

It is that simple.

Who is shaping the future of education?

Between zoom meetings and school visits, I have been in conversations with over 40 school leaders this month – and it is only January 21st! Here are some highlights:

  • CAIS Boarding schools want to better understand the impact of a new President in America on high school student school choice. Will more students choose Canada? (In case there was any doubt, we think the answer is a resounding yes!)
  • Martin Jones, Principal of the Middle School at Mulgrave, was very kind to give me a tutorial on their pilot project on Live Time Assessment. He and Craig Davis were so motivated by John Hattie’s work on the 195 influences on student achievement, and the particular finding of the powerful influence of feedback on enhancing student achievement, that they are eliminating traditional report cards and moving to a system of continuous reporting. Their faculty is highly motivated and their parent body is hugely supportive. I admit – I am fascinated by this initiative, and Craig Davis will be leading two Catalytic Conversations at the National Leaders Conference (NLC). (See below for more links to this research).
  • Small schools leaders discussed the unique value proposition of small schools – relationships, opportunities to support learning, nimble environment to implement change quickly, student leadership, strong sense of community – and they want to explore creative opportunities for collaboration.
  • K-8 school leaders are passionate about the value-add of an independent school education that begins at age four. They are interested in finding more research to support the benefits of an early investment in education.
  • Erin Corbett, Head of River Valley in Calgary, introduced me to a new app called Seesaw, which is a student driven digital portfolio that enables easy parent communication. I was very excited to learn from a lovely student (see below) and when I shared my enthusiasm with the NLC Program Committee, I learned that a number of CAIS schools are piloting this and other apps like Sesame and FreshGrade. Again, more on this at the NLC.
  • When I met with the boards and leadership teams of Elmwood, Southridge and St John’s, I was inspired by their commitment to continuous improvement. Like all CAIS schools, they are already excellent, and yet they invest time in learning about international trends and research, and debating their choices.
  • This week, when I walked in to the office of Rob Lake, Head of Collingwood, he handed me a copy of The World Economic Forum White Paper, (included in yesterday’s Top 12) and told me about his commitment to inviting every parent – and they have over 1000 students! – to his home for dinner this year. I was moved by his dedication to knowing his community and developing relationships.
  • When I met with Carol Grant-Watt, Head of West Island College, and when I spoke with Conor Jones, Head of York School, they explained how they supported a fellow CAIS school in their time of need. I cannot emphasize enough that they were not bragging; they just wanted me to know about our powerfully caring community in CAIS.
  • The Catalytic Conversation facilitators and I met this week to prepare for the NLC, and I was reminded that the scope of initiatives happening in our schools in all areas of program and operations is impressive. Get to Montreal in April to engage with these leaders, and you too will see their leadership in action. One word for them – wow.

So, in answer to my initial question, in the title of this blog?

Without a doubt, our CAIS schools are full of leaders who are more committed than ever to learning and creating powerful opportunities to challenge and support students. Thanks for a great start to 2017.

Read more about the most powerful influences on student learning:

Teachers make a differenceimg_7847

Influences on Student Learning

Visible Learning summary

Visible Learning powerpoint

Alina Blunston is a Grade 3 student at River Valley School in Calgary.


Top Reads of 2016

What are the topics that defined independent school education in 2016? I scoured our CAIS Top 12 articles to find those that met two criteria – most important (to me) and most read (by you) – and I have organized them by our CAIS National Standards.

#1 Vision, Mission, Values and Strategy

I love predictions, and so do you…. Here are Deloitte’s predictions for the year ahead (2017).

#2 Co-Curriculum and the Learning Environment

We are all focusing more on helping students cope with the challenging issues they face today, and almost every strategic plan includes wellness. I am a fan of Lisa Damour, author of the New York Times bestseller Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood. Read the book or read excerpts here.

#3 Academic Program

The popularity of this article should come as no surprise, as all CAIS schools are obsessed with providing the school experience possible. I love this finding from this popular Atlantic article: if high schools want to prepare students for college, they should focus less on specific content and more on critical thinking, reasoning, and teamwork.

#4 School Leadership

Here is a case of the title really saying all there is to say – The One Type of Leader Who Can Turn Around a Failing School. Who doesn’t want to read this Harvard Business Review article?

#5 Human Resources

Our new CAIS Accreditation Guidelines include a new Indicator on School Culture:

Policies and practices are in place to ensure that teachers and staff work collaboratively and actively to pursue positive, respectful, and appropriate relationships with their students and with other adults in the school community.

I could write a lot about why, but culture is definitely a priority for all schools. Hal Hannaford (Selwyn House) teaches a module at our CAIS Leadership Institute, and Jason Rogers (Rundle) is going to join him at our Summer LI at King’s Edgehill in July.

Here’s the culture article pick: The #1 Factor That Determines A Toxic or Thriving School Culture

#6 School and Community

Here’s a favourite topic for all educators – today’s parents. Robert Evans and Michael Thompson wrote about Parents Who Bully The School in this NAIS article, and perhaps somewhat unfortunately, this proved to be a popular choice with our CAIS readership.

#7 Enrolment Management

We have come a long way – thanks in part to the work of The Enrolment Management Association – in understanding that effective enrolment management includes recruitment, marketing, retention, and financial strategies. This popular article resonated with our CAIS community, probably because we work hard to be authentic and engaging with prospective families.

#8 Governance

The most important publication of 2016 was our CAIS Governance Guide…. Obviously! But this list of seven rules for board members’ fundraising is another popular – and super quick! – read.

#9 Finance

Truth time – the most read article was this one about the bbq test, and it is somewhat along the same lines as this more substantial McKinsey one: Are today’s CFOs ready for tomorrow’s demands on finance?

#10 Physical Plant, Health and Safety

There is a notable increase in, and sophistication toward, the approach to risk management in our schools, and I am proud that CAIS Schools take student safe-guarding so seriously.

#11 School Improvement

The most popular article was this one: These ten ideas are each getting $10M to Change High School.

If these kinds of ideas inspire you – and I hope they do! – join our National Engagement Forum hosted by SMUS and SAC. (Warning: No cash prize.)

#12 Boarding

2016 will be famous as the year that Trump was elected. What will be the impact on Canadian enrolment? Read:  College in Canada? Trump Effect. Alarm Bells in China. Is it safe?


Happy New Year! The Kees on Brooklyn Bridge, New Year’s Eve, 2016.

The Great Canadian Curriculum Debate

We are bringing together the academic leaders from all of our CAIS schools, and organizing something called The Great Canadian Curriculum Debate on Tuesday April 11 at 8:30am in Montreal.  This is the final morning of our National Leaders Conference.

Our panel will explore what is best for Canada, our schools and our students.

In Canada, a provincial curriculum is required in all schools, including independent schools, whether they receive provincial funding or not.  We also have schools choosing other curriculums in addition to the provincial requirements – IB, AP, Reggio Emilia, and Montessori. When it comes to university admissions, we see that universities accept the IB diploma from high schools all over the world, except from Canadian high schools.

Should we consider truly independent independent schools, from a curriculum perspective? What do other countries do? Which is ideal?  If one of the provinces has the “best” curriculum, could we do more to share nationally?  Our vision for CAIS is shaping the future of education, and more and more I am hearing that we cannot do this while we are bound by provincial requirements.  Can there be a new national vision?  Of interest in terms of university admissions, would universities accept students who didn’t have the provincial diploma, for example?  I asked an education lawyer, and he said he does not think anyone is bound by law to only accept provincial diplomas, so what would it look like if independent schools offered their own diplomas? Or could CAIS offer a diploma?

The role of curriculum is also changing. Enormous time and resources are focused on developing curriculum and ensuring its effectiveness. But we know that the teacher is the key. Meanwhile personalization and technology are upending schools. So as we shift toward a more personalized model of education in our technology driven world, what is the value of curriculum? How will a set curriculum contribute to developing well-rounded people, who want to pursue their individual passions and make a difference in the world? And when you have the confidence to allow your teachers and students to thrive in this innovative environment, how will assessment and university admissions change?

We believe that Canada needs more innovation and leadership from our K-12 schools, and we are excited to invite leaders to the table to help shape the path forward for our schools and our students.

To join our CAIS National Leaders Conference, you must be in an academic leadership position.  To register, click here.

p.s. One of my CAIS Board Members, Michaele Robertson, suggested we have a look at this  It is New Zealand’s way of puzzling through the same question.


The two biggest differences a teacher can make in September

Dear Teachers,

The buzz word of the day is personalized, and I follow the debates carefully. In August, McKinsey and Company wrote about how to scale personalized learning; this week, One Schoolhouse claimed to be the “first independent school with personalized student courses.” We all use the word, and at the very least, we all seem to agree that however you define it, you should articulate your vision for teaching and learning, and then you should live it. (Our updated CAIS Accreditation Guidelines includes this requirement: Through an ongoing consultative process, the school has published a definition of excellence in teaching and learning that encompasses current research.)

I am also excited by the way technology can enhance personalized learning. This week alone, I have had seven meetings with my colleague Claudia Daggett, President of ISACS, as well as NEASC/CIE Heads from around the world. A conference call is one thing, but meeting by Zoom allows us to see each other and thus create a deeper connection. This summer, when I had the chance to explore the work of the Global Online Academy’s Teacher Institute, I was inspired by their intentional focus on how to build community with students in an online environment.

But here’s the thing – while I care about research, technology, resources, and course content, and I care that you have learned about the latest in teaching and learning, including your definition of personalized learning, I mostly care about one thing and one thing only.

I care about my children and I care that you know, and I mean really know, my children. So as I think about personalized learning and what really matters to me, whether it is face-to-face or virtual, I think about two of the most important things you can do this month.

Number One: Get to know your students.

When I visited TCS last month, I was impressed that they asked all new students to share a one minute video about themselves. The faculty watched them in their opening meetings and the students will also get to see them. This is such a demonstration of a commitment to knowing students, and I was inspired by their intentionality. I know that TCS, like all CAIS schools, will continue to be intentional about knowing their students. To me, this means challenging and supporting them, sharing stories, and laughing together, in a way that you can only do when you know each other. Deep learning follows from there. It is the connection between teachers and students that is the most important differentiator between good and great schools.

Number Two: Connect with your students’ parents.

When I dropped off Jacob at LCS this week, I was struck by one thing. Hugging. Jacob hugged his friends, but also his housemaster, teachers and staff members. And so did I. The LCS community, like all of our CAIS schools, is so good about reaching out to parents. I didn’t hug the new residence don, Elliott, because I just met him, but I loved that as I pulled out, he yelled across the road: “Bye Anne-Marie and nice to meet you!” If he is the hugging type, I will hug him next time I see him.

My hope? Connect with me. It doesn’t have to be a long letter or phone call, but please
know that I want to be part of my child’s day-to-img_6754day, because all he gives me is a “good”. For example, I was sent a photo of Jacob as he was leaving for his four-day trip to Algonquin Park; I know this is a trendy marketing strategy, but I also know it made my day.

I appreciate that you have a zillion things to think about and do in September, and I thank you in advance for considering my request. Believe me when I say, it will make a huge difference.

Thank you, and have a great year.

CAIS is in the business of asking good questions

This is the season for graduation speeches, and here is another one that I love, by James Ryan, Dean of the Harvard School of Education.  He tells the story of his past speeches – he spoke two years ago on time and last year about sin, so when people asked him what he would speak about at this year’s graduation ceremony, he would reply: That’s a good question. And this became his topic. He lists what he believes are the most important questions, and of the six, my favourite question is this – “Wait. What?”

I have other favourite questions; in fact, I often say CAIS is in the business of asking questions. Now before you ask, “Wait. What?” let me explain.

  1. Accreditation

At CAIS, we spent a lot of time determining the best questions to ask in the Internal Evaluation process, and I am proud that our 2015 Accreditation Guidelines include the most relevant questions that the best schools should be discussing, if they want to remain the best schools in Canada. This spring, we spent considerable time talking about the questions to ask during a CAIS Accreditation visit. We have always said that the role of the Visiting Committee is primarily to validate what was written in the school’s Internal Evaluation Report. But what could be even better? (One of my favourite questions…) Two initiatives:

  1. a) We believe that great schools have great Boards, so we are now including a Board member on the Sunday of every Accreditation visit to make the governance review a true peer-to-peer process.
  2. b) We also believe that great schools focus on culture, so we have introduced a new School Culture Focus Group, led by the CAIS On-site Coordinator, to our review process.
  1. Research

You will not believe the quality of this year’s Research Reports.   We have 15 CAIS leaders conducting research on some of the biggest questions facing our industry. These will be shared this fall, but I want to thank Tammy, Glenn, Chad, Denise, Sarah, Helen, Shailau, Danielle, Mary Anne, Jim, Justin, Garth, Glen, William, and Adrian now for their hard work this year. Honestly? We couldn’t be happier with their progress.

  1. Learning Community

CAIS is a national learning community. Different national groups come together face-to-face only three times per year (Heads and Chairs in October; National Leaders in April; and Aspiring Leaders in July). This means that we are “Online all the time” exploring – again! – the big questions in education. Over 200 people participated in our Spring Governance webinar series and today we are announcing a new one: CAIS Students will lead a panel on how to support LGBTQ+ students. How can schools be better at supporting students’ questions around gender and sexuality? Now that’s a good question.

When we are best at our jobs, we are focused on the best questions. No “Wait. What?” about that.

p.s. Watch Dean James Ryan’s speech called Good Questions here.