A lesson from real estate

My daughter came home from her first week of school and reported that, “Mr. Kidd said ‘Hello Kathleen.’”

Of all the things that she could report to me – from birthday party invitations to cross-country running – she reported that the Headmaster said hello.  She must not have been satisfied that I was suitably impressed for she emphasized one point to me as if I hadn’t understood, “By NAME.”

We know from research that ‘personal attention to students’ is the number one reason that parents choose to send their children to independent schools and I see CAIS schools working hard to know all students.  Last week alone, I saw Heads in action in Toronto, Bermuda, Mill Bay and Duncan and there was a common theme.

  • Jim Power (UCC) let me run a CAIS Finance meeting in his office – time spent out and about is time well spent.
  • Ted Staunton (Saltus) not only greeted students by name; in many cases, he exchanged quick conversations about co-curricular involvement, siblings, and holidays.
  • Peter Harding (Somersfield) says he drops whatever he is doing and greets families during drop off every morning.  He said that it may seem superficial, but it is a way to get to know the community, the families appreciate the greeting and he likes helping out with backpacks and car doors.
  • Bud Patel (Brentwood) said he interviewed staff, parents and students in his first month at the school and heard over and over – however you spend the rest of your day, be with the students during morning cookie break.  So he’s there.
  • Wilma Jamieson (Queen Margaret’s) ended the leadership team meeting – almost mid sentence – so we could all head out to the pool to watch the cardboard box boat races.

I am proud to report that in our CAIS schools, leaders value time with students and they know them.

We can take a lesson from real estate:  A friend wrote to tell us that the house that we bought in Montreal for $179,000 in 2000 and sold for $379,000 in 2005 is now on the market for $700,000.  Ouch.  Meanwhile, our St Catharines home has stayed about the same.  The lesson?  Location. Location. Location.

I asked Ted Staunton, who is running his fourth CAIS school successfully, about some of the secrets of his success.  The lesson?  Visibility. Visibility. Visibility.

The value of pink erasers

When I was in school, and we were bored in class, we sometimes passed around scrunched up pieces of paper.  We tossed them whenever the teacher turned her back or we maintained eyes front, in a studious pose, and passed them surreptitiously palm-to-palm. This amused us and connected us.

Or we wrote on pink erasers.  They were smallish, so you couldn’t fit much on them, maybe fewer than 50 characters.  But you could quickly delete any comments if necessary.  So you’d focus on the most important stuff, like:


“I’m bored”

“Question #25?”

“Do you like Kevin? Circle yes or no.”

Back in the 70s and 80s, pink erasers had a negative impact on classroom behaviour – they supported student distraction and cheating.

The pink eraser only served one educational purpose. It didn’t provide access to a limitless world of information, or connect you to students and learning around the world; and you couldn’t toss one to your Mom to ask if you could stay late to work on an assignment. No, the pink eraser only functioned to ensure that work was neat.  It is debatable if Marshall McLuhan would have even considered it to be an extension of a student.

I wonder.  Did educators debate the value of pink erasers and whether or not their potential for negative classroom behaviour outweighed their ability to improve work?  Did they discuss how to manage classrooms with pink erasers?  Did teachers sit in staff meetings discussing how to ban them or how long to keep them once confiscated?

Pink erasers have been a part of our classrooms for a long time (since 1770 – and that is no exaggeration!) and although students may still need the odd reminder of when it is appropriate and polite to use them, they know.

How long before cell phones are the same?

In praise of champions

My favorite English teacher passed away last week. Mrs. Wilkins was a powerful woman at Cathedral Girls School. I remember a moment in grade nine when she used the word “labyrinth” in a sentence then called on me to state its meaning. Now, I was a classic good girl – well-behaved, smart and somewhat timid so when I took a guess, and got it wrong, I was expecting the usual “good try” response. Instead she did something that no one had ever done to me before. She looked right at me, then she screwed up her face and shouted as if astonished…. “NO”. She sure got my attention.

I always got this feeling from her that she knew I was capable of more, and she wasn’t going to let me get away with less. And I delivered – I worked harder for her than any other teacher and I wrote poetry, short stories, and even a play on nuclear disarmament that was performed at a student assembly.

Out of the blue I wrote to her this summer to thank her for her belief in me. I never heard back from her, and I was disappointed. I really considered myself her favorite.

Her obituary said, “She dedicated her life to teaching young people about the merits of the English language and encouraged them to succeed through language. She was proud of the accomplishments of her former students. We were proud that many approached her in later years to thank her”.

Clearly Mrs. Wilkins had many many favorites, which is of course, the secret to great teachers, that they can make everyone feel special.

So in honour of Mrs. Wilkins’s love of language, and more importantly, in honour of her belief in me and others, I am using a word that is not in my Collins dictionary (although it does appear in an on-line version): championing.

I attended a Klingenstein session called “24/​7 Learning Leadership on the Job”. I took notes on the traits of leaders: they demonstrate certain personal characteristics (empathy, intelligence, optimism, integrity and open-minded); they have a higher than normal work ethic; they show evidence of leadership interest (attend grad school, seek feedback, and volunteer for extra projects); and they have a high level of professional competence (organizational savvy, collaboration, instructional leader and good communicator).

But I was particularly interested in the difference between women and men in their approaches to leadership: many women don’t ask for feedback and they wait to be identified rather than ask for opportunities. Someone in the room said that women needed more than a mentor, they needed a champion. What’s the difference?

A champion is “a person who defends a person or cause”. In our setting, I think a champion is someone who is looking out for you, advocating for you privately, suggesting opportunities that are best for you, offering honest (even brutal!) feedback and who is a good listener…there are arguable many other traits…

I’ve spoken many times about the current leadership challenge – we have great people in our schools but not enough of them are ready to take on the top administrative jobs.

So we need a national initiative to be championing women and men. For starters, in addition to a module on Change Leadership, we are offering a Women and Leadership module at the spring LI in Montreal. I challenge each school to send someone.

Who is your champion? Who are you championing?


Last week in Philadelphia, I attended meetings and workshops with Association Directors on accreditation, strategic partnerships, schools of the future, and assessment.

Accreditation? Assessment?  Associations?  What does it say about me that I find this stuff exciting?

One highlight was the presentation on assessment.   American public teachers are burdened with pressure to teach to standardized tests.  In fact, educators in North America whether in the public or independent sector, are all facing increasing pressure to ‘show us the money’ as it were.  Parents these days, themselves the most highly educated cohort in history, are demanding objective tools that will not only assess where little Johnny is relative to established, age-appropriate standards, but also to give a sense of the quality of the teacher and a school’s curriculum delivery.

Educators tend to resist assessment tools, not because they’re hiding anything, (for the most part), but because the tools have traditionally been sorely wanting in terms of providing a consistent and unimpeachable benchmark that embraces learning on all levels, and not just math scores.  And the idea of ‘teaching to a test’ is increasingly becoming anathema to 21st century educators who know that a child needs more than a good grade to make the grade in today’s world.

At the conference in Philly, the question posed was this: What if someone could design a test that was worth teaching to?

NAIS has done a great review of some of the existing assessment instruments such as school ratios, various types of tests, and ranking/​rating lists.  Check out their pdf called  “Demonstrating Independent School Quality: Inventory of Institutional Assessment Instruments.”

The assessment presentation was by Kevin Mattingly, Dean of Faculty at The Lawrenceville School.  Kevin asked some questions worth considering:  how do we assess those things that are most important? What’s worth teaching that is enduring beyond school? What is the value-add of our schools?  Since 2006, Lawrenceville is one of now 73 schools using a test called the College and Work Readiness Assessment (CWRA).

The CWRA is a modified version of the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) that presents realistic problems that require students to analyze complex materials varying in reliability and accuracy, and to construct written responses that demonstrate their abilities to think critically, reason analytically, solve problems and communicate clearly and cogently. These skills are intertwined and the CWRA measures them holistically. Additionally, the institution—not the student—is the primary unit of analysis.

Kevin argued that the CWRA is a test worth looking at and that teaching and learning should be aligned with assessment.  What caught my attention most was his passion.  Here was an educator making that case for using assessment to support teaching and learning.  That alone is a worthy pursuit.  But here is also a change leader who readily admits that his school is taking risks and trying new ways to engage and challenge students.  And he had the guts to share his progress.

It’s far from an answered question, and maybe it never truly can be.  But the quest to find ways to realistically and usefully assess a student’s progress in school, and with it, the progress of the school itself, is a worthy pursuit.  And not just because parents and politicians are calling for more accountability, and not just because we all need some objective measures that can help in the mix of ensuring that little Johnny is ready for the big leagues at university, but because improvements to teaching and learning is our daily goal for every student.