The Secret Sauce of Great Schools

As we think about our new strategic plan here at Lakefield College School, we are engaging in professional development that is focused on our future.  All of us – staff and faculty – will aim to get off campus for one day to consider three questions:

  • What are the skills that students will need in the future?
  • How is the world changing?
  • How might LCS need to change?

We are in search of innovative practices; we will travel in teams that are cross-divisional; and our mandate is to talk about the future of our school.  Other than that, we are free to go wherever!  More on this another time.

Meanwhile, we are also doing additional reading, and I am interested in the following at the moment:

  • New research from the Sutton Trust, a British foundation focused on social mobility, finds that 88% of young people, 94% of employers, and 97% of teachers say life skills, such as confidence and motivation to tackle problems, interpersonal skills and resilience, are as or more important than academic qualifications. New research is finally supporting what educators have long known to be true: Students need more than just academics to succeed.
  • The Gen Z Effect: The Six Forces Shaping the Future of Business:  Donna Orem from NAIS wrote an article about this book, and my favourite point is this:  due primarily to advances in technology and a near equivalent number of people in all age bands, age will no longer be a major shaper of attitudes and behaviors. Rather, people will be defined by their connections in communities.
  • Lifelong Kindergarten: To thrive in today’s fast-changing world, people of all ages must learn to think and act creatively —and the best way to do that is by focusing more on imagining, creating, playing, sharing, and reflecting, just as children do in traditional kindergartens.
  • Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast: Strategy must ask the questions: who do we want to be? What are we great at? What will we be uniquely advantaged at doing?

But here’s the thing that I really want to think about:

When I was first appointed to be Head of School and Foundation, I got a letter in the mail from Mr Kim Krenz, a former Head of Science at Lakefield College School.  He was a good writer, and it was kind of him to write, plus I was intrigued that he was writing from a nursing home, so I wrote him back.  Since August, we have been exchanging letters regularly about teaching and Lakefield and life. I should add that he is 97 years old, and his nurse, Melissa Zubrickas, is a Lakefield grad.

They visited me recently, and I was quite moved by their passion for this school. Later that day, Melissa emailed me:  “I am 27 and Kim is 97, a 70 year difference; so it is quite amazing how LCS brings people together.”

No kidding it is amazing!

So while I want us to visit innovative places and read the latest research on the future of education, I hope that we take the time to think about what really matters.  To me, what has to be our focus – no matter what! – is people.  There is an abundance of theory on what is best for students and schools and what needs to change, but the secret sauce of great schools will always come down to connecting great staff and great students.

Here’s to my 97 year old pen pal who reminded me of the power of connections.

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Wandering

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

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

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

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

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

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

So here’s to wandering….

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On Moving and Metaphors

On the first day I came to Lakefield, I was on my own. Kevin and the kids were on a canoe trip in Algonquin with Kevin’s brother and his kids – it’s their 12th year taking this trip – so I had to get to my new home alone.

I rented a UHaul van, which should have been all I needed, given that I wasn’t moving furniture.  When I got to the rental place, I was surprised when the guy told me that he had a 10 foot truck for me.

I said, “Really?  Do you really think I need a ten inch truck?”

And he said, “Honey, if you want a ten inch truck, head down the road to Toys R Us.  I’m giving you a ten foot truck.”

He handed me the keys, and when I found the truck in the parking lot, there was another guy rushing me to drive out quickly.

But I just stood there, staring at what looked to me to be a massive truck.  I had never driven anything like this before.  Was no one going to teach me to drive this thing? So I took a photo and texted my sister, who had just moved a few weeks earlier and also rented a truck.

I asked her, “How do I drive this thing?”

She wrote back, that Tony, her fiancé, drove it and he scraped the side along a bunch of parked cars. Her advice was this – “Whatever you do, stay left.”  That was it.

So I got in and started driving.  To be honest, I found the whole experience somewhat amusing and mostly irresponsible.

Part way home, I realized that something was wrong.  There was no rear view mirror.  How was I supposed to go forward, when I couldn’t see what was behind me?  I’m an English teacher, and I was so struck by this metaphor of me driving to my new life, without looking behind. Fortunately, at some point on the drive to Lakefield, I realized that there were two big, long side mirrors, so what I had to do was learn how to see behind me, just through a different indirect, side perspective.

About half an hour from the school, I realized that I was fine driving this truck forward, but I did not think I could back it up down the driveway to my new house.  So I texted Tim Rutherford, our CFO and Associate Head of School.

He wrote back, “When you arrive, park the truck and text me. I will take it from there.”

So here I am at Lakefield College School, with a few weeks behind me now.  I am asking lots of questions, learning to spend my time in new ways, focusing on the future while learning all I can from the past, and relying on others – many others! – in this amazing community.

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p.s.  When I arrived, Tim took this photo of me, which I thought was so thoughtful! Only later did he admit that he took the picture because he was happy to see the “$19.95/day” on the side of the truck!  He was clearly thinking about a different metaphor… so I will add that humour really ensures that we are all enjoying our new adventure together…

p.p.s. I will be updating this blog to the Lakefield branding very soon!  For now, my priority has been getting to know everyone here!  But stay tuned…

May there be moments

Everyone advised me to take time off between jobs.  Everyone.  Given that the Kee family is about to embark on major life adventures – with me starting a new job in a new community; Kathleen starting a new school; and Jacob beginning McGill – many people offered advice on how to cope with our upcoming change.  Some said to take a good month off; others advised that the amount of time was not as important as the need to actually get away.   My husband Kevin and I really thought about what our ideal holiday could include, and we decided to totally splurge on a two-week family trip to France.

But when we really thought about what it meant to “take time off,” we decided that in addition to time and place, we actually needed a third criteria:  a complete break from email or anything work-related.  For the first time in years, I didn’t have a professional book with me, and I didn’t have any access to email or social media.

The combination of extended time in a beautiful and interesting place, with no ties to regular life, created what our kids started calling – the dream vacation.  We were trying to be quite mindful of our dream vacation, so we planned our outings (and our food!) each day.  As those of you with teens understand, our kids sometimes could be cynical. Whenever we were faced with our trip not going as planned, like when we were lost or when it poured rain on our bike ride, the kids would lower their voices and snicker, “Dream vacation”.  But every night over dinner, we came to enjoy recounting the day’s adventures, and we focused on describing certain moments – highlights for each of us.  A few of mine include the following:

  • We turned a corner on our bike path along the Loire Valley and suddenly, as we pushed to get up a hill, we realized that we were between two enormous, as-far-as-the-eye-could-see fields of sunflowers. I remember gasping at the beauty.
  • We sat at the Louvre, staring at “Liberty Leading the People,” and Kevin came to life explaining the context. The kids and I marveled that he could recount so much history but also explain it in such a compelling way.  The moment was certainly the inspirational painting, but it was also this chance to be reminded of a strength of personality that we don’t have time to appreciate daily.
  • As we sat under a tree in the rain, we remembered that we had two umbrellas. Kathleen and Kevin sat under one, and Jacob arranged the second without realizing that he had left me completely uncovered. When Kathleen laughed and pointed to me sitting completely in the rain between two umbrellas, Jacob said, “But then my legs would be exposed.”  Almost immediately he was startled by the selfishness of what he had said, and we all laughed.  At other points on the trip, when there was a quiet moment, one of us would whisper, “But then my legs would be exposed,” and we laughed every time.

I guess my point is that a dream vacation includes beauty, inspiration, laughter and joy.  We are so grateful for our experience!  But now that I am back, I realize I want to try to do two things:  I want to seek opportunities for moments on a daily basis, and I want to take time to feel them and relive them.  My hope is that our dream vacation is not limited to two weeks in France.

And as we head into the second month of summer, my hope for you is that you have many moments of beauty, inspiration, laughter, and joy.  More importantly, may you take the time to know – really know and feel! – that you are experiencing a moment, and enjoy that moment too.

Transitions

Today I am between two great jobs – CAIS and Lakefield College School – and I am about to head off for a holiday of a lifetime.  But before I sign off from CAIS for good, and begin writing from my new position, I wanted to write a few thoughts to the members of our national organization.

As I said in my newsletter, I have two messages.

First – thank you. At CAIS, we always say that an association is like a gym membership – you only get what you put into it. Over the years, I have had to make many – MANY! – calls so that we could make things happen, and I have appreciated your investment of time to bring ideas to life. I get teased about how much everyone dreads the call or email from me, so I just want to say that I try not to take it personally!

I have been truly blessed by incredible leadership at the board level, by intelligent people who want to give their energy to our mission of whole school improvement and our vision to shape the future of education. A special thank you to my Chairs, all of whom have put in long hours behind the scenes: Tom Hockin, Jeff Paikin, Rob Cruickshank, and Peter Jewett.

Finally, the biggest of thanks goes to the CAIS team. Something magical happens when you put a group of passionate, hard-working, smart and good people together… in our case, they are all of that and more. I have learned so much from them and will miss each of them.

I also want to say this – keep going. Our CAIS schools are filled with teachers who pour their hearts and souls into their jobs. Our schools are filled with students who will go on to change the world – I have no doubt about that! So our schools really need leaders, who will manage all of the day-to-day stress of schools, but who will also spend time thinking about how to make their schools even better.

The real challenge of the future of independent schools is that good is not good enough…we can never rest on our laurels. No matter how great our schools are – and CAIS schools are great schools! – we must strive to get even better…our students deserve our best and ongoing efforts.

In closing, the genuine commitment to improvement of our entire CAIS community has been a driver for me over the years. I look forward to maintaining my ties in my new role at Lakefield, and once I get my head above water, I promise to take the phone calls and give back, the way you have taught me to do.

For now – happy summer!

image1On a hike in Twillingate after our amazing CAIS Summer Leadership Institute…shooing away the mosquitoes…marvelling at the icebergs….and looking to the future…

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:

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Influences on Student Learning

Visible Learning summary

Visible Learning powerpoint

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