Daring Greatly

When I was thinking about whether or not to take the job as Head of School and Foundation at Lakefield College School, I reread a quotation that inspired me, from the epigraph of Daring Greatly, which is a quote from Theodore Roosevelt:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again… who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.

At the time, I wondered if I could start a new job, in a new home, hours from my family.  I wanted to take the opportunity to put everything I had learned from my time at CAIS, when I saw 150+ of the best schools in the world, and to lead a school that our family loved through the experiences of our teenagers, but I felt that it was a huge risk, for many reasons that you can imagine.  Eventually, I realized I was compelled by this opportunity to dare greatly.

Good news so far – I am not sure how long it took, because it felt like love at first sight, but in the past year at Lakefield, I have fallen in love with all things Grove.  Our family feels so good about this decision that it hardly feels like a dare at all.

But now that I have just more than a year under my belt, and now that I have worked with our Leadership Team, board, staff and students, and now that we – as a full community! – have developed our Strategic Directions (stay tuned!), I feel that now is the time that this quotation really comes to life.

In the next few years, we need to make some big choices – for example, what will be our signature programs?  Can we grow our school size while retaining our culture and small-school advantage?  What will be the main elements of our new House Model?  Can we be a school with a rigorous academic program AND a caring community with an experiential, outdoor program?  How can we ensure our school is affordable to great families?

There are so many options for us, and we talk a lot about the fact that not one of them is a bad choice.  As a Leadership Team, we agreed that we will need to have courage to make good decisions and that whatever we choose will require us also to champion the choice for a good 3-5 years.  (We will, however, also do ongoing research and reflection, with the courage to switch gears if something is not effective.)

In other words, when I think about what is needed to strengthen the school, I believe that our Leadership Team will have to dare greatly.  The future of Lakefield, as with the future of all schools both public and independent, will require us to do things differently.  The trick for us at the Grove is to embrace what is new all the while retaining – and possibly strengthening – the best of what we are and have been.

At last night’s alumni reception in Calgary – my first Canadian alumni event and the first of many chances to connect with our global community this year – I loved hearing about everyone’s favourite aspects of Lakefield.  I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know a new part of our community – the experiences and stories of our alumni.  It reminded me of Jacob and Kathleen’s stories, and there were so many similarities with what I am hearing from our current students as I tour the houses in the evenings again this year.

But I had two additional questions.  It was important to me to also ask, what might need to change as well as what must never change.

Finding the right combination will be tricky.  In fact, finding the best way to manage our strategic choices will require our entire community of staff, students, parents and alum to fully embrace this concept of daring greatly.

I sincerely hope you will join me in the arena, so together was can make LCS the very best it can be for past, current and future students.

p.s.  On my flight home from Calgary, I started reading Brene Brown’s new book Dare to Lead.  Yesterday, and I kid you not, it was recommended to me by Mike Arsenault in the morning and given to me by Carol Grant-Watt (the new Head of Strathcona-Tweedsmuir) in the evening.  I was clearly meant to read this book!  And then there it is again in the introduction – Brown includes the Roosevelt quotation in this book too.

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Lakefield College School Alumni Reception, Calgary 2018

 

Our ‘Lake’ is more Lakefield than ever

We are not sure how many people joined us for Fall Fair 2018.  We outgrew the dining hall and had to move the alumni dinner outside, and even at that we had a waitlist.  Our food service provider told me he made 1300 chicken breasts and had 50 left – only at Lakefield would we use chicken as our metric.  Everyone said it was going to be the largest ever Fall Fair, and it was.  But not just because of the number of people.

On Saturday, we gathered to officially open our waterfront.  We wanted to do something special to celebrate and so we decided – why not throw a party?  We had the usual bake sales and raffles, with alumni from every decade, starting with the 40’s.  We also had children everywhere with bouncy castles, an art fair, and flags.  Our cake was a canoe with cupcake waves – it’s so amazing that I am including a photo below – and one unexpected outcome is that kids cried as they had to wait until after the official ceremony to dig in.  It was a party all right.

And then we gathered at the waterfront and the magic continued.  One of our students, Claire Campbell, worked with one of our teachers, Hugh Dobson, along with a whole crew of others, to organize a Paddle Extravaganza.  Over 80 paddlers canoed 10km of the Trent Severn Waterway – through four lift-locks – in support of the Canadian Canoe Museum.  Before arriving at our dock, they rigged up 41 flags, representing the 40 countries we have at the school, plus one from Curve Lake.  When they got within sight, hundreds of people gathered on our dock.  It was powerful and more than one person had tears in their eyes.  For me, I was full of anxiety about the wind and keeping to our program, but I just had to stop and enjoy the moment.  I relive that feeling every time I hear a story about their paddling experience – when the Turkish brothers made sure that they paddled with their flag; when the group yelled to slow down the American paddlers as they didn’t like the optics of them in the lead; when a staff member described the pride of paddling the canoe that belongs to her grandparents; and when the string quartet and the trumpeters surprised the paddlers by serenading them at the locks.  It was powerful.

And there was more.

Our waterfront is on the shores of Lake Kathchewanooka, and Katchewanooka is an Ojibway word, which directly connects us with our indigenous peoples, who also paddled our lake.  We enjoyed the music of Unity, an a cappella women’s group who perform their own work as well as traditional Indigenous music and began our ceremony with an Anishinaabe elder who acknowledged the land with a blessing and prayer.

Our students performed – we are one of the first schools in Canada to produce Mamma Mia! and we got a sneak peek preview of that show, with our dock as our stage. And we wrapped up the ceremony with a good Canadian song – everyone joined in the singing with our Rock Choir of ‘Ahead by a Century’.

It was a deeply meaningful and symbolic day.

Our new waterfront captures the best of the past – with our iconic boathouse looking spiffier than ever – with the best of the future – with our new dock reaching out into Lake Katchawanooka.  Katchewanooka means lake of many rapids, and typically, rapids are sections of a river where the water moves quickly.  It is the constant flow that ensures nourishment to the environment.  We are inspired by the idea that our lake is a symbol of change.  We began our official opening with our oldest alum – our past – paddling alongside our youngest student – our future.

This year, as we launch our strategic plan, we are working on our current – to maintain a balance of honouring our past and our traditions, but always moving forward with strengthening our strengths, and a genuine openness to always being better.

We know that we want our students to care, connect, and contribute.  We want our students to be known as leaders who demonstrate a responsibility to the environment.  We want our students to be known for their passion, particularly for their community.  When a school like Lakefield, that has been thriving for 139 years, considers its future, the question is not just what needs to change. The question is also what must we preserve.

We have a saying around here – That’s so Lakefield – and there were many moments on Saturday when that was the case. I am grateful that our new waterfront provided us with the chance to celebrate and be reminded of the power of our environment and the strength of our community. unnamed-1

 

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The Secret to Happiness

Summer is a busy place in independent schools, and there is some truth to the saying that you get more done when the students aren’t here.  Many people have asked me – How can the school be so busy when there are no students or teachers around?  Well for us at Lakefield, we have been renovating (new washrooms!), building (new outdoor seating areas!), installing air-conditioning (Go Grove!), training staff on outdoor first aid, putting the final touches on our new Strategic Plan, and finalizing a few publications.  And if that is not enough, we have also planned a whole new way to welcome our students and developed a plan to embed Harkness learning into all of our English classes.

But with only a week to go until everyone is back, I am getting more and more excited about the return of our students.  Don’t get me wrong – Kevin and I have had an amazing summer.  But having just spent my first summer on campus, I find this place gets lonely without our 365 teenagers. They are a constant reminder, for me, of why I do what I do.  But they are more than that.

I was recently reading about the most popular course in the history of Yale University.  It is called “Psychology and the Good Life” and it was designed to address the mental well-being of students.  Turns out, approximately one quarter of Yale’s students now take the course.  What does that tell us about today’s youth?  Laurie Santos, the instructor, shares some stats:  currently 80% of US college students report that they feel overwhelmed; over 50% are feeling lonely; and a third are so depressed, they find it hard to function.  These are pretty dire numbers.

Now some would argue that all of this emphasis on well-being is actually leading to more anxiety, check out Why are Americans so anxious?  But I am inspired by positive psychology.  I like that in the Yale course, students learn about the science of behavior change and have homework assignments such as performing five random acts of kindness.  I hope we can teach a course like this, although some days I think we already authentically live this course here, so maybe there’s no need to turn it in to a course when it is a way of life.

But one of Santos’ points really struck me:  “We know from psychology that the top key to happiness has to do with intentional social interactions. Very happy people spend time with other people.”

And then it hit me.  Boarding life with all of the inherent connections, leads to the good life.  What I hear from students is that they are happy here. When prospective students tour, they report feeling something different about this place.  And when prospective parents tour, they tell us that they see happy teenagers here more than any other school.  In fact, just recently, a Dad told us that he chose Lakefield over Exeter for his daughter – he noted that both schools teach through Harkness, but Lakefield students also have fun.

So our students are happy; our staff are happy.  And soon, when everyone is back, I will be happiest too.

p.s. Our teachers are always learning.  Kirsten Johnston, our new Thrive Coordinator, told me that Libby Dalrymple and Carrie Gilfillan heard this professor speak about her super-popular happiness course at the IPEN accelerator in June.  Libby shared this:  The first time I heard about her course was when she was interviewed on CBC’s The Current last February. Here is a link to the podcast – well worth a listen!

 

Expressing Individuality

Last week at The Opinicon, I did one of my favourite things: I spent time watching little children.  (I hope that doesn’t sound too creepy!). As I sat enjoying coffee, I spotted three children, probably around the age of six, heading towards the park.  It was one of those boiling hot July mornings, and two of the kids wore little tank tops, the kind with the spaghetti straps, and shorts. But one wore a long-sleeve – full length – jacket that was yellow, with a couple of red stripes, and when she turned around I saw that the back had big letters: “CHIEF.”  I love that kids express themselves so openly and confidently, knowing what they want and going for it.  Why let a heat wave get in the way of being chief?

The second scene was at the pool.  There was a boy – younger this time, maybe three years old? – who jumped into his parents’ outstretched arms. I watched as he scrambled to get the water out of his eyes and recover a bit, and then he shouted a word familiar to every parent:  “Again”.  I stopped counting the number of times this exact activity occurred.  Every parent has been in this situation – over and over.  I remember the enthusiasm of Jacob and Kathleen in these moments in the pool or in the park or wherever, and I remember struggling to just go with the moment.

Now there was a time when I thought I would be a junior school teacher – I would spend my days laughing and being inspired by their passion and creativity.  That quickly passed.  The requirements of the job – like managing the energy and personalities of 25+ children in one room – made me realize that I was more suited to teaching teenagers.

But the individuality and passion of both children got me thinking – when those kids grow up to be teenagers, they will not express their feelings so openly.  If they have been lucky enough to even discover their passion, they will more likely choose to try to fit in.  It is just that stage of life.  So there’s the fun part of my job.  How do the best high schools create opportunities for teens to be fire chiefs and shout “again”?  Three strategies come to mind.

People:  Teens need inspirational adults – those who pursue their own interests while also proactively engaging them to figure out who they are and what motivates them.  Teens don’t miss a beat; they listen and watch adults carefully, and they sniff out authenticity.  Teens are most drawn to adults who know and can be themselves. The best schools understand this intuitively and invest in attracting, developing and retaining a variety of inspirational adults.

Place:  Teenagers, especially, will take time to explore and connect with their environment.  They might not express this until much later in life, but place matters.  So the best schools invest in inspirational classrooms and spaces, both indoors and out.   Having spent a year at Lakefield, I now understand the expression that the classroom is the third teacher.  We see the benefits of being outdoors every day, and we know that teens thrive when their environment calls them to explore.

Programs:  Teens need choice.  Lots of choice.  They need to pick courses and clubs and activities that they want to try, and if they don’t want to try, they need policies that require them to get involved.  At Lakefield, as in all great schools, students are required to participate in arts and athletics, and they must engage in something every day after classes. We also encourage students to compete and push their limits.

When I recently saw a photo of one of our students winning the Dalglish Art Award, I was reminded that teens can find a way – when people, place and programs align – to express their passions and enthusiasms.  Teens may not express themselves as easily or as frequently as children, but we need to work hard to support them.

And when they do, we should all pay attention.

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My First Year

As I come to the end of my first year as Head of School, many people have asked me to reflect on how it has gone, and I can begin by saying – it has been quite a year.   First, I have tried to catch on to the unique language of Lakefield:  Paper Houses, Gladiator Day, Grove time, Chapel cards, K-Rod, Fort Night, TOD, DSB, and so on.  Special places seem to come with special language.

But when I really think about it, I cannot define this place or how I am experiencing it, without conjuring certain moments.  Some people take photos in those moments, but they are often disappointed that the image doesn’t do it justice.  Artists and writers strive for their lifetimes to capture the emotions of a moment, and the very best succeed.  I will do my best below to capture one of my Lakefield moments – in words and a photo – that captures a moment that defines my year.  Here goes…

It was a warm evening in June, and I wandered down to the waterfront to see if anyone was outside after dinner.  Now, you might think that being a community of teenagers, you would see everyone on their phones.  Not here – the volleyball court was going full-on with an intense game, there was music, and there were students all over the new deck and lawn.  And out on the raft in the water, a group of students stood waving and calling out, “AMK!”.

That was my Lakefield moment.

I felt proud of our students.  In the hours between dinner and study, our students were outside, in the water, on the grass, playing, and having fun.  They were forming the kinds of friendships that only come from these kinds of shared experiences, and they were dealing with the stress of culminating assignments, tests, and exams in such a healthy way, outdoors.  I also felt proud of our staff, who figured out how to adjust to our new waterfront to make this happen.

Most of all, I felt I belonged.  I’m not sure when students started calling me AMK, and they don’t usually address me this way (to my face at least!) but when that group called out to me, I couldn’t help but feel this incredible joy that only comes when you feel part of a strong community.

For over a century, people have tried to find the words to define the Lakefield difference, as I have just done.  My hope is that we never quite manage to define the magic of this place and my larger hope is that our experiences here continue to be so profound that we never stop trying.

I, for one, promise to keep trying in the years to come.

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That’s so Lakefield

One day this week, as I watched Garret Hart empty maple tree buckets in the rain, I thought – that’s so Lakefield.  And immediately a bunch of other images came to mind:

  • I walked past Ondaatje House one night and saw Jenn Browne working with a student on a university admissions essay. Why was that “so Lakefield”?  It was after 9:00pm and there was a teacher in a common room working with a student.  No big deal. That’s just what happens around here 24/7.
  • It was 9:25pm one night last month, and I was waiting for the Grove house girls to come over for cookies. I went to reception thinking they might come through the school; then I stood in my front hallway, thinking they would come to my front door, and wondering if anyone would show up.  And that’s when I heard a bunch of giggling girls coming through my house. They let themselves in my backdoor.  Of course they did.
  • In the middle of our Dance Showcase, a ring came down and one of our girls performed Cirque du Soleil style maneuvers as part of the dance. I had no idea our students were so talented, but when I mentioned this to an alum, he said, “That’s so Lakefield” (I’m not even kidding).
  • I walked in to Bruce McMahon’s class and they were studying da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (based on the concept of ideal human proportions). He suggested his students should measure him.
  • As I sat in chapel, listening to a chapel talk and facing the student body, I noticed a number of teary eyes, and felt my own eyes welling up. Only the alumni will really understand this one, but tears in chapel is so Lakefield.
  • I walked down the path of our Northcotte Campus to join everyone at our Winter Carnival. Around the corner comes a team of horses pulling a sleigh full of students.  We hire eight teams of horses for this event, and one of our student clubs restores antique sleighs. Now THAT is so Lakefield.
  • In a meeting one day, I looked out on our field, and was surprised to see a whole class out snow-shoeing. No one else thought this was unusual.  As I am learning, this is so Lakefield.

So as I look out my window and see that the ice on the lake has partially melted, and I think about our students coming back for our final term, I wonder how many more “so Lakefield” moments there will be.  I keep hearing that spring is the best time of year around here, and I for one, cannot wait to get started.

 

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Where do we lead?

Last week, our Leadership Team, along with members of the Strategy Task Force, the School Board and the Foundation Board, all met for a day long retreat.  We had a great speaker (Tim Fish, Chief Innovation Officer with NAIS, and author of On the Innovation Journey) and a great facilitator (Susan Wright, who already lead our Joint Governance Review process, so she knows our community well).  In addition to the usual small group discussions and yellow sticky notes (Can you do strategy without them these days?!) we completed a pyramid with the base being areas we want to match, the middle being areas we want to differentiate, and the top being area(s) we want to lead.

I just love that question – where do we want to lead?

I am reminded of the story of the famous artist who created a sculpture of a beautiful horse.  Someone asked the sculptor: “How did you create such a beautiful horse?” The sculptor replied: “It was simple… I took away everything that wasn’t a horse.”

As we go through this strategic plan process, I cannot help but think that we are working away at creating a beautiful sculpture as our core is already within us if we keep researching, thinking, talking and listening.

Later on in the week, after listening to another outstanding chapel speech, I wondered if those moments in chapel might be it.

In chapel talks, we give our students permission to be and express themselves.  We have already seen a wide range of topics, and while each follows a bit of a pattern, each is wildly different.  I think Tim Rutherford summed it up best when he commented: all of the speeches were powerful in their own way, just like our students.  (We are fortunate to have a CFO who is also completely student-centred!)

But what makes chapel talks so unique is not just the opportunity for individuals to express feelings, passion, and appreciation for Lakefield and others.  What makes our chapel talks so powerful is that there is a history of authenticity in a caring community.  This kind of acceptance among teenagers is not easy to achieve; but once teens feel it, they feel the freedom to express their most true selves.

One student captured it this way – a lot of the courage I’ve racked up to be able to share my story comes from watching others before me share their stories and emotions.

Creating an emotionally safe place for teenagers, where they can share their most profound experiences and explain what they have learned and how they have grown, is powerful stuff.  Schools with dedicated resources can develop great arts, athletics and academic programs.  What is far more elusive, even with significant investment, is the feeling part.

It is still early days with our strategy process, and we will be doing focus groups and research teams and more analysis of our findings to date, but we are chipping away, and we are excited to discover our very own beautiful horse.