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.

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.


The most distinguishing trait of the world’s best teachers


This week, the video of the father’s talk with the son about Paris terror went viral. The boy’s innocent evaluation of the events and then his absolute trust in his father’s reassurance were moving. The son’s final “Oui” was powerfully beautiful – I can picture their eyes locked and want to hold on to that image of trust and love. But it was the father’s amazingly quick ability to refocus his worries on to the flowers that most moved me. How did he even think of that? Wasn’t it amazing to see the boy ponder this idea and then smile? In that moment, the world witnessed what the best teachers aspire to do on a regular basis – they touch the soul.

I am fortunate to have witnessed two other such moments this week at Shawnigan Lake School’s accreditation review.

On Monday night, our team split up and visited the nine boarding houses. I observed a regular Strathcona House meeting that included usual items like curfew, thank yous, congratulations and reminders. Then the house parent announced something that would normally make my eyes roll, especially since it is only November – Christmas door decorations. But there was no room for my cynical scrooge feelings, because the room of girls immediately erupted with excitement. It was infectious. When I met with the house parent afterwards, she admitted that she shared my lack of enthusiasm for decking the halls in November, but she reminded me that this time of year can be stressful for students. She intentionally created this opportunity for joy, and I can only imagine how it will continue when the wrapping paper, tape and ribbons land in the hands of 50 teenage girls.

The second moment this week was in chapel. Shawnigan has a tradition of non-denominational chapel service that can include a sermon and/or prayers, and singing. (I am pretty sure I have explained before that I am a sucker for students singing? Well I could probably go so far as to argue that the second most distinguishing trait of the world’s best teachers is that they sing with their students!)

For a moment think of the typical image of today’s teenagers – disengaged, anxious, obsessed with their phones… Singing is not part of that stereotype. So you may have to work hard to imagine a group of enthusiastic singers. But please do. The boys behind me belted out Amazing Grace in my ear, and their singing was no louder than the rest.   And now picture this – David Robertson, the Headmaster of 23 years, approached the podium and did what great teachers do. He said he knew they could do better and could they please sing the last verse again, but with more enthusiasm. I couldn’t believe it! The organist started up again and the impossible happened – the 450 high school students sang with more zeal, and I nearly cried. If anyone ever questions their faith in today’s youth, they need to attend chapel at Shawnigan. In fact, visit any number of our CAIS schools if you want to witness amazing teens. I couldn’t sense it, but David Robertson knew that a second round would solidify that feeling of profound joy in the students.

Hanna Rosin explores youth anxiety in this month’s article in The Atlantic on The Silicon Valley Suicides and there are a number of important strategies. Even adults struggle to make sense of the complexities. All the more reason for great teachers – including great fathers, house parents and Heads – to help today’s youth navigate an increasingly complex and stressful world. This week reminded me of the powerful gift teachers give when they know and understand the needs of children and then respond to that need. That kind of love and joy is what our world needs most.

p.s. Here is the view of Shawnigan Lake School while walking to Strathcona House on Monday evening. The campus updates are spectacular!


Are you confident enough to be humble?

Sometimes I read or hear something and it sticks. I just cannot shake it and I find myself thinking about it on a walk or mentioning it in conversations. Last week at the Leadership Institute (known in our CAIS world as the LI), in preparation for one of my favourite traditions, I had one of those moments.

We have two relatively new traditions at the LI. One night, affectionately called “The Newbie Night,” includes speeches from two graduates of the LI who have gone on to become Heads. They speak about their first year on the job, and it is an evening of funny moments and lessons learned by Heads who have been groomed within the CAIS family. Every year, I sit back and enjoy their humour, humility, and passion. This year, Sharon Klein of St George’s School in Montreal and Jason Rogers of Rundle Academy in Calgary didn’t disappoint. (Their speeches are already posted here – thanks Jeremy! – and all LI grads who have become Heads are listed here.)

The other night, we hear from two “senior” Heads who have been nominated by their peers and whose influence extends beyond their school and province. It is truly a celebration of the Art of Leadership and over the years, we have heard from some of our CAIS giants, those names you’ve heard and always wanted to meet. (See them all here.) Again, I just love to sit back and watch them in action. I bet, if I really tried, I could remember something from each of them. This year, as anticipated, Hal Hannaford and Claire Sumerlus knocked it out of the park. (Again, watch them here)

I cannot decide which night I prefer – probably best not to choose! – but this year, what really struck me was not something included in the speeches, but something included in the introduction. For “The Seniors Night,” I always collect some remarks from colleagues. It was a letter from Catherine Kirkland, Junior School Director at Royal St George’s College in Toronto, that has captured me. In her letter of support for Hal Hannaford, she wrote:

Hal once said something to me before I became Head of the Junior School at RSGC, and it has been a question I return to often in my career “Are you confident enough to be humble?” Hal’s confidence allows him to lead by influence and not by authority, and his humility gives him the ability to build up those up around him. It’s great to work for Hal, because he always acknowledges your talents, contributions and importance to the school. I’m sure that every student, and certainly every teacher, who has been at Hal’s school could think of a time that Hal made a special effort to single them out, make them feel special or remark on a recent achievement. He makes those around him feel valued and an important part of the community. Hal makes everyone feel they have their own unique relationship with him – quite an accomplishment. Hal was the champion of “relational teaching” – long before it became the new buzz-word in teaching and leading.

I often say that at CAIS, we are in the business of asking good questions. Thanks to the Summer LI, the question that Hal posed to Catherine is now one that we can all consider as we spend the rest of our summer reflecting on the art of leadership.

Learn to Learn

This week at Rothesay Netherwood in New Brunswick, I was honoured to speak at the Learn2Learn Conference. When I was prepping for the address, I realized that some of my happiest moments in my career came during my ten years in the classroom.

For starters, kids make me laugh. They’re just so authentic. Once in a school, the Principal sent me off on a tour with a grade one boy, who told me he was excited to show me his favourite part of the school. Now I knew there was a brand new gym, so I expected to see that. But in a classroom, he explained that this was the place. He lead me to a bookshelf, where he got down on his hands and knees and asked me to do the same. You should know I was wearing a business suit, with a skirt, so this was a bit of a commitment. But I was intrigued. I asked, “What am I looking for?” His eyes bulged, and he whispered: a mouse trap.

But teaching also allows you to connect with people in profound ways. I remember one of my students at Lower Canada College in Montreal. I taught her English, and I was also her advisor, which meant that for three years, I ate snack and lunch with her and ten other students. Needless to say, I knew those kids well. I remember being quite nervous for one parent teacher interview. My student’s mother was quite ill, and in fact, she passed away during the school year. So there I was telling talking about writing skills and reading comprehension. She listened, then said, “You know, Mrs. Kee, I think of you, in my daughter’s life, as an angel.” I was shocked. That’s a powerful responsibility.

So this week, in preparation for The 2051 Project and Summer LI, I find myself thinking about a few things: we know that the key to any successful school is its teachers. Hands down, nothing is as important, and I heard that time and time again – from students! – in my 2051 Student Focus groups this year. We know from our CAIS National Parent Motivation Survey that parents want teachers to develop students’ character, morals and values. But what do we know from the perspective of teachers? What is their best advice about the future of education?

I asked teachers on Monday about their best advice to future teachers, and asked them to tweet them to me using #project2051. Here they are, 15 direct tweets from teachers:

  1. Develop relationships with students in order to facilitate risk taking & passion.
  1. Get to know your students on a personal level – it is more than just a classroom relationship.
  1. Ability to write, speak, read well. Digital literacy. Be adaptable.
  1. It’s student centered, failure ok, voice and choice.
  1. Never lose the need to teach generosity in the forest of technology
  1. Get to know your students well and everything else will follow.
  1. Top priority for today’s students? – a Growth mindset.
  1. Take risks and encourage your students to be risk takers as well!
  1. Teaching responsibility and independence.
  1. Make learning real, so students can relate to it.
  1. Priority for my students and children is global citizenship.
  1. Develop confident, lifelong learners.
  1. Prepare your students for jobs that do not yet exist.
  1. Build relationships with your students.
  1. Understand how they learn best.

Based on this list? I’d say our future students will be in good hands.

p.s. Congratulations to Tammy Earle for organizing a great conference.

p.p.s. Safe travels to the CAIS Summer Leadership Institute participants!

What’s the future of independent school education?

I have a daughter, Kathleen who is 13, and a son, Jacob, who is 15; and probably like you, we believe we have raised them the very same way, and yet they are totally different. From a young age, we often said of Kathleen, that we could ship her to China, alone, and she would be just fine. But Jacob was always cautious and never one to jump in to something. When Jacob was four, we enrolled him in this artsy nursery school program. Jacob loved the outdoors, and we liked the emphasis on play, and we thought he really needed that creative and stimulating environment.

Now, I just came back from Washington where I heard Susan Cain, the author of Quiet. And I am so glad that her kind of research now exists, so we can think differently about introverts. If I had read her book back then, when Jacob was four, I might have chosen differently for him. But at the time, my husband and I wanted this lively learning program for him. We loved it there.

So we couldn’t figure out why he was so unhappy. We would see the artwork displayed; nothing by Jacob. At Halloween, he was the only kid who refused to wear a costume. At the Christmas concert, he lay on the stage and the other kids marched and danced over and around him. The highlight was at one point, the teacher tried to pick him up, and he loudly yelled, and it was a moment when it was silent in the auditorium so everyone heard him, “I told you I didn’t want to do this and stop touching me”. That was when all the home video cameras turned away from their child to my son…. And the image went up and down as they laughed. That day, he was the kid who made all parents feel better about their own parenting, because no matter what their child did, he was not THAT child… today the video would go viral.

Soon after that concert, we decided it was time to pull him out of the program. I called the teacher, and even she agreed that it might be time to go. But she said she had one more strategy to try. She said she noticed that he was engaged and happy in activities but seemed to get upset at the transition points – moving to the drama room, or getting ready to go outside. She said she was going to tap him on the shoulder about ten minutes before the transition time, and quietly tell him what was coming next.

And she was right. When Jacob gets into something – some might now call that flow – he doesn’t like to be interrupted. That kid could focus for hours if you let him. Jacob needed to prepare for what was coming. And once he knew it and wasn’t rushed in to something, he settled down and had a great year. I am so thankful for that teacher for thinking deeply about what might be needed for my child to thrive.

Jacob’s feelings at a young age remind me of how I feel when I stop and really think about all that is happening in the world of education: many options, over-stimulating, rapidly changing without knowing where you’re going. A few specifics here –

  • Our CAIS National Parent Motivation Survey revealed that the number one priority for parents is not necessarily academics, but the development of character, morals and value. Our schools do this well, but we can be more intentional.
  • We need to address issues of wellness, particularly as we see a rise in anxiety and mental health challenges.
  • We need to figure out how to cultivate learning in our schools, in a way that is unique and really focuses students on a growth mindset, especially in comparison to what is offered in very good public schools, for free.
  • And perhaps the greatest challenge, we need to figure out how technology can enhance learning, while also ensuring deep relationships, while also finding opportunities to address cost per student, to ensure our model of education remains permanent and strong.

My point is that schools can be very stressful environments for teachers, with all the additional pressures, but also for leaders whose job it is to manage change. And the more we know where we are headed, the more we can tap shoulders along the way.

So I was so pleased that this week, John Chubb, President of NAIS, spoke to over 250 people in three cities, to give us that proverbial tap on the shoulder. A summary of his remarks are included in our December newsletter.

Choosing great teachers

At the Independent Schools Association Network (ISAnet) meetings this week in Montreal, Roger Martin gave an outstanding presentation on the need to stop strategic planning. He argues that to win, a company must choose to do some things and not others. He put it this way – if the opposite decision is stupid, then it isn’t a choice. For example, a company claims to choose to focus strategically on customer service; but would any company not choose to focus on customer service? That would be stupid, so that’s not a choice. Strategy is all about making choices.

What are the most critical choices for independent schools? If you agree that great schools have great teachers, then recruiting great teachers is the most important choice we make. We are living in a time when there are many more teachers than jobs, so how do we get it right?

At the NAIS Commission on Accreditation meetings this week, I sat between two American Heads who compared notes on how they make that choice. First, they agreed that they must participate in the hiring process. Both of these Heads interview all candidates in the final stage. I find this investment of time extraordinary considering all of the demands on Heads’ time, like running a multi-million dollar business, fundraising, and knowing all students personally. Couldn’t department heads and HR directors manage the process? But both also agreed that the Head’s role is not so much to ask questions, but to deliver three important messages:

i. Great teachers are kid magnets.

It is not enough for teachers to have knowledge expertise and to motivate students. It is not even enough to know their students and share their passion! The best teachers have that added quality that is tough to articulate. One Head called it “kid magnet,” and I’ve used the term “Pied Piper;” but whatever the phrase, great teachers attract kids to them and learning.

ii. Great teachers live the culture.

Some may think of independent schools as demanding places to work, as the expectations are higher. But great teachers love the unique components that make our schools special. One Head noted: We are an Episcopal school and we go to chapel everyday. If you don’t want to be part of a community like this, then this isn’t the place for you. The other Head put it this way: We need teachers who support our community. I don’t want to have to ask anyone to come to assembly. Our teachers want to be there.

iii. Great teachers want to reinvent school

Education is changing and great independent schools want to be leaders in that change process. So great teachers need to have a growth-mindset. One Head put it this way: We need teachers who are open to trying new things and creating a school that is not like the one they attended.

Both Heads make a choice to invest their time in choosing teachers. I wish I could capture their passion as they described the importance of this decision and how they approach it. I could tell – they are great Heads who run great schools and they don’t want anyone less than great to get in their way! Two words come to mind when I think about their whole hiring process: lucky kids.

p.s. Thanks to Dave Monaco, Head of Parish Episcopal School in Dallas and David Mahler from The Out-of-Door Academy in Florida for their inspiration.