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.

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This is the season of gift-giving

When our children were in kindergarten and grade one, they were standing at the bus stop and my husband, Kevin, overheard this conversation:

Jacob – The kids at school are saying that Santa is not real.

Kathleen – What?

Jacob – The kids at school are saying that Santa is not real. It’s our parents.

Kathleen – Jacob, do you really think our parents fly all over the world on a sleigh, giving gifts to other kids?

And that was the end of it.  He was convinced, and we were humbled.  Our children just could not imagine that their parents could be that generous at gift-giving.

Since I have arrived, four months ago, I have seen that gift-giving happens at Lakefield College School.

For example, this week, we heard our first chapel talk.  There are two gifts embedded in this tradition. The first is that teenagers stand in front of 350+ people and express gratitude for their friends and family. I asked Niko to share his speech with me, as I am pretty sentimental about firsts, and he will forever be my first chapel speech as Head of School.  With his permission, I want to share a couple of sections of his chapel talk.

Niko said this:

Nanna, there is not one negative bone in your body; you are the most optimistic, happy, and joyful person in the world. I aspire to have those same characteristics, which at the moment I do not.

The second gift within our traditional chapel speeches is that students give advice to their peers.  Niko said this:

I’ve experienced more in my time here at Lakefield than in my entire life. Lakefield is what you make it to be, and that’s what makes it so special. Basketball has been a huge part my journey at Lakefield. Times when I’m stressed and I have a lot of work or when I just don’t feel like me, I’ll just go and shoot hoops and that will make me feel better or distract me from whatever is bothering me.  For the people that haven’t found that something, this is the perfect place to find it. Lakefield gives each of us an opportunity to find that thing.  We have the facilities, the community, and the resources to find that something that helps you. That is what makes Lakefield so special.

There is a real gift in every single chapel speech when teens express this kind of passion – and vulnerability! – in front of hundreds of others teens.  I can assure you – it is very powerful to sit in chapel in those moments, as our students listen.

There is also the gift of sharing talents.  Our Grove Society Christmas Gathering is a perfect example of how our community develops passions – we get to enjoy our orchestra, choirs, creative writing, and additional expressions of passions like global initiatives and environmental stewardship. We have had an incredible fall with our Remembrance Day ceremony and our Damn Yankees musical, which are two of the best performances in the country.  There is talent at Lakefield College School – and it is reciprocal. Our faculty teach our students to bring out the best in themselves; and I hear our faculty talk about how much they learn from our students.  Gift-giving is a gift that gives twice, and there is a lot of generosity in our community.

We are also blessed to be part of a broader community. Lakefield is not just a school with teachers, staff and students. The power of this place is that parents and alumni are also actively involved. When I look around at the decorations right now in chapel, and I can see the care that went in to every decision – the maple syrup, the skis, the snow shoes, and the terrapin (I am waiting for the honey bee to arrive).  We are fortunate to have a community that shares the responsibility of caring for and celebrating our students.

Finally, I want to leave you with a thought about the real power of gift-giving.

I believe that our staff are exceptional.  They work hard and long hours.  They are passionate about their subject and the art of teaching and learning. But there is something more. I felt it as a parent, when my children were here, particularly when they went through some tough times and their teachers, Heads of House and frankly all of the adults that surrounded them, supported them.

Nelson Mandela once said – It never hurts to see the good in someone. They often act the better because of it.

I believe our staff and teachers see the best in our students and go above and beyond to support them to be the best people they can be.

Now that I have lived here for four months, I have to say that I now better understand the expression that Lakefield College is a feeling. Some have called it Grovey and I think that is a perfect word because no one knows what it means. But there is a feeling here that is created because of the relationships between students and between students and staff. I also cannot define that feeling, but whatever it is, it is the gift of this school and being part of this community. And I am grateful to be a small part of it.

So in this season of gift-giving, may you give the gift of sharing your gratitude for others – and expressing it!

May you give the gift of sharing your talents.

May you give the incredible gift of listening to one another.

And, throughout this entire holiday season and beyond, may you give the gift of seeing the best in others.

One reason to celebrate a happy new year

I have spent the last six days repeating “Happy new year!” but the cold-hearted truth is that a frightening number of students in North America will not have a happy new year.

In her January 2nd New York Times article, Vicki Abeles shares some pretty depressing statistics about teen anxiety and what she calls a “nation of unhealthy schools”:

  • Nearly one in three teenagers told the American Psychological Association that stress drove them to sadness or depression — and their single biggest source of stress was school.
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a vast majority of American teenagers get at least two hours less sleep each night than recommended.
  • Only 14% of college professors believe their students are prepared for post-secondary studies.

I must admit that I find this subject increasingly upsetting and have addressed it before.

On a personal level, I worry about my own kids – they say they are happy, but are they? Really? And how do we really know? I can tell you for sure that they are sick of my wanting to talk about stress and how they cope with it. They told me over the holidays (before reading the article, when I asked about stress) that Lakefield has a wellness project that is run by faculty and administration, and a happiness initiative that the students lead (they were most excited by cookie decorating.) My hope is that these strategies work, but I can tell you this: my kids feel well supported by the adults – professional and personal – in their lives. And this matters most.

On a school level, what matters to me is that schools demonstrate awareness and support. The fact is, kids are kids wherever they go to school. We need schools to be all over issues of anxiety and mental health such that all students thrive. When I take a look at our CAIS schools, I am encouraged to see the following:

All this to say, I actually think our CAIS schools are leaders in developing strategies to promote wellness and mindfulness.

And that makes me happy enough to sincerely wish you a happy new year.

Groceries and balloons

When Jacob left for boarding school in grade nine, he didn’t write or call for eight days and I just about lost it (Read Letter to my son at boarding school for details.) My daughter, Kathleen was 12 at the time and very sensitive to her Mom’s struggle. The first few family dinners were tough for me, and when she could sense that I was missing him, she would launch into a detailed story of her day with vigour and verve.   Eventually her sensitivity turned to teasing, which was exactly the humour I needed to push through my sadness. It was beautiful the way she really took care of me two years ago.

All this to say that she knew that when it was her turn to go away to boarding school, she could not ignore her mother. She knew that all summer, just the thought of her leaving would bring tears to my eyes, so she would have to do a better job of staying in touch than her brother did. I had high expectations – she is a lovely daughter and it helps that she is competitive with her brother, so I expected that she would find joy in going to boarding school and staying connected to her mother, at the very least, just to spite him.

You can see where this is going.

I heard nothing for three days. I must have checked my phone every five minutes, just in case. During that time, I got two photos from her housemaster (So smart to connect to parents in the early days!) and a call from Sarah Milligan, Lakefield’s Director of Enrolment Management. Because Sarah worked with me as our CAIS Boarding School Project Director, she knew I would be hungry for information about both kids, particularly my baby. We didn’t have much time to talk, but she managed to get in three quick stories about her “Kathleen sightings”. When I shared them that night with my husband, Kevin, he asked for them to be repeated. Clearly he, too, was starved for updates.

Finally, she texted to report that she got her new computer. When I asked how everything was going, she wrote: “It’s good!! My roommate is really nice and everyone is really friendly.” What a relief. Since then, her communication can be characterized by snippets. She does text almost every day, but it is either purely transactional (Did you cancel my kilt shipment) or entirely bland (Good!).

Here’s the worst. On Sunday morning, she texted that she and her roommate were going shopping. I was thrilled to hear from her and I jumped to conclusions that she was reaching out to engage me. I immediately wrote back for details and she wrote nothing. Later in the evening, I wrote again, asking about her day and evening. Just give me something! She eventually texted the most vague message ever: “We bought groceries and balloons.”

This was her first weekend away, and I am a desperate mother, starving for information. I miss her. Terribly. I even tell her that I miss her and I love her on a regular basis. And all I get is groceries and balloons?

As was the case when Jacob first left home, I need daily reminders that the decision to attend boarding school is about what is best for students, not parents. When I am missing them the most, I think back to some advice a friend once gave me: our job as parents is to give our children ‘roots and wings’ and the roots are definitely the easy part.

Why did you choose that school?

With the upcoming Kee family move, we spent time in Ottawa this weekend. Kevin met his new colleagues, and the kids and I searched for a home (we bought one in the Glebe!) On Friday night, we were all invited to dinner at the current Dean of Arts’ house, and I had the opportunity to watch my kids in action with a room full of adults – professors and administrators! – who were brand new to them. I eavesdropped on one conversation that really got me thinking.

Jacob and Kathleen were asked which of the local public schools in Ottawa they would choose for next year. I thought of interrupting my conversation to reply, but instead, knowing that a university crowd is a fairly safe one, I watched.

Jacob explained that they would go to boarding school. He reported that he chose Lakefield because it had “better programs”, and he gave the example of outdoor education. He went on to tell the story of last week’s river rescue when he had to wear a wetsuit and jump in rapids and be saved, and do the saving of another boy as well. He said it was those kinds of extras that made him choose Lakefield.

Admittedly, I was relieved to hear this. That focus on the outdoors was exactly what we hoped for with his choice. (Is it bad to admit that I was pretty proud of his confident reply?)

For a while the conversation turned to what the adults knew of Lakefield – that Prince Andrew went there and it was near Peterborough. One woman from Spain added that the King of Spain had also attended Lakefield. When Kathleen expressed surprise at that, she was asked about her decision. Now Kathleen hasn’t started yet, and I had no idea how she would handle the question about school choice. So I watched, ready to jump in, if needed.

She turned the attention back to them by asking, “Have you ever been to camp?” For a while, the conversation turned to camp, and she smiled and nodded. Then she went on to tell them the following (more or less):

Kathleen: Well, Lakefield is a lot like camp. We live on the water and do a lot of fun activities. Plus, everyone knows everyone.   It’s a great place.

She smiled confidently (and I had that Mother pride moment again). I later heard one woman quietly ask Kathleen, “How often will you get to see your parents?” And she lit up. “Oh. Every 2-3 weeks or so. It is just like being away for camp.”

There are moments in life when, as a Mother, you know you’ve made a good decision, and I felt that then. For starters, we gave our kids a fair amount of autonomy in the process of choosing a high school, focusing on finding a school that uniquely suits them. We took some heat for that, and for allowing them to choose boarding. So as I watched them own their decision, share their enthusiasm for their boarding school experience, and handle themselves with grace and confidence, I have to say it: I felt proud.

As the Executive Director for 97 CAIS schools, I sometimes worry about how all of our students would justify their school choice. But then I imagine our 50,000 students having 50,000 conversations where they share their passion for their schools with confidence.

And that image not only makes me smile, it also makes me proud.

Why do we work so hard?

Every once in a while I pause and think – do I work too hard? In my job, the travel can be the real slog, especially with delays and cancellations. Usually around this time of year, my husband reminds me how often I have been away. (To save you the time, Kevin, the answer is 17 nights in two months, including three weekends). But then I think – everyone works hard! Sometimes conversations are like competitions as people compare schedules – long days, evenings, and travel – until someone gets a topper (for me recently, it was weekends).

So the more interesting question, and I think we should all pause and answer it from time to time is this – why?  Why do we work so hard? I found myself thinking about two reasons, and then really dwelling on a third.

The first is people. I work hard because I work with incredible people. I mean it!  CAIS leaders go the extra distance to get the job done, and my passionate team feeds on their passion. I am so motivated by everyone that I work hard to keep up. I don’t want to single anyone out, but Friday night at 10:17pm, I got this email from Sheri Little, our PD Coordinator: “We are on fire!  I am thrilled to be part of this team.  This LI is going to be the best ever and the CAIS team is going to set the bar even higher in 2015/16”. With that kind of attitude, who wouldn’t work hard?

The second is projects. I get to work on incredible projects designed to support the very best schools in Canada. Our schools are busy and CAIS leaders work relentlessly on improvement; so the projects we design – accreditation, PD, and research – must always add value, both now and in the future. Projects such as revising our Accreditation Guidelines and creating The 2051 Project compel me in a way that I can forget that my job is a job.

So when I stop and think about why I do what I do, I feel lucky to have a meaningful career. I actually love the people and the complexity of the challenges. I feel fortunate that my time is spent doing something that really matters to me. Furthermore, while some people like to be experts at their job, I actually like feeling that I may be in over my head. So I get sucked in, and yes, I work hard. My guess? Every CAIS leader and educator feels similarly.

But this week, I had to dig deeper. I had meetings and then the NAIS conference in Boston so my days were long, and by the fifth night at the hotel, I found myself really wondering why I do what I do. It is a privilege to work for CAIS, and I genuinely love my job, but at the end of a long day, when I am away from my husband and kids, that just doesn’t cut it. I need a topper.

So I focus on my family. It is hard to think about, and it can seem inherently contradictory, but my job, which takes me away from them, also enables me to give them more than I could have hoped for. Kevin and I believe that money is best spent on experiences and the gift of learning. So at the end of the day, when we both think about this question of why we do what we do, we always agree that there is no better investment – albeit it’s an expensive investment! – than giving Jacob and Kathleen a CAIS education.

Is it possible to be a working Mom and an excellent Mom?

I try to be a good mom and good at my job. It means you have to be flexible at times – like when you leave work early to be with the kids after school and you have to get your work done late at night or in my case early in the morning. (I work hard not to send emails before 7am, but sometimes I stockpile them and hit send all at once. So gratifying…). I am fortunate to have a somewhat flexible job, so I can take time off, for example, to take the kids to appointments or see an afternoon presentation if it works with my schedule. Sometimes I don’t even have to try to be a good mom – one night in Vancouver, I woke up out of a deep sleep and texted a reminder to Kevin about Kathleen’s orthodontist appointment. When I eventually woke up, I texted again to ask if he would have remembered without me, and he pleaded the fifth. My point is that I believe there is some mechanism deep within women that helps us be good Moms, without always trying.

But all of this runs off the rails when someone gets sick. Now I have already written about the time Jacob barfed at boarding school, and about the time I barfed when we were first married, so it is only fair that I write about Kathleen’s barfing at home experience … clearly this is a theme for me! Something about that experience that forces the big questions…

So there I was Sunday night holding back Kathleen’s hair as she lay with her head in the toilet. Poor thing knew it was coming and, based on what was going around, I knew it would happen all night. I was faced with a choice: I knew my Mom (who typically drops everything when the kids are sick) was not in town; I knew Kevin had a big meeting but could be home for parts of the day (I had already checked); and so I had this dilemma. If I canceled my trip to Vancouver, I could be an excellent Mom to my teenaged daughter. But this was a pretty important trip for me, with two days of meeting with students, admin and boards…which are tough to reschedule….my board chair was joining one of the meetings… never a good idea to reschedule a volunteer….But then what if I got sick? Do flights still have barf bags? Do they even call them that?

I decided that this was not a life-threatening illness; her father would be there with her at some points, and she would be fine to stay home alone. But the motherhood guilt about leaving had kicked in, so I got up three of the next four times she got up, which meant I was in pretty rough shape myself when my alarm went off at 4:45am. As I left the house, I felt incredibly guilty. Then, when I got her first text, and she told me that she was hoping to watch Dance Moms, I felt ready to nominate myself for Worst Mother of the Year Award…

My point is that doing both requires a strong support network and tough choices.

Much as I would have liked to be home to bring her soup in bed, I think she benefitted from taking care of herself and filling her day – she actually chose to watch a documentary on North Korea so she could understand the hype about The Interview. (If you haven’t checked out the free-range kids movement, Skenazy’s new show aired last night.) I hope she will come to learn that women – in particular – have to reprioritize sometimes when things don’t go as planned.

As for me? I am trying to focus on the recent discussions about the need to take a long view of “balance” in our lives, and hoping that the same can be said of parenting.