Leadership starts early…

Our CAIS Senior School Leadership Camp has been such a success – it is run by students for students – and schools across Canada take turns hosting it.  But a number of years ago, people started talking about a real gap in leadership opportunities for students in grade 7 and 8 and CAIS created a Middle School Leadership Camp.

So after considerable planning, here I am at Onondaga Camp with over 100 kids from CAIS schools across Canada, and I am finding it hard to write about how exciting it feels to see this camp come to life.  A group of campers told me they have been looking forward to this since the summer; I heard one girl on the high ropes course yell that she has never done something so exciting in her life; I watched as one girl hung on to the high swing, not letting go, as her peers shouted their encouragement:  “You can do it!” and “Just go for it!”; I watched the students write down their passions then talk about them – with enthusiasm – at breakfast!  These are kids that are gearing up to change the world…I can see it!

I try to write blogs each week, but today I am stumped.  How do you write about the importance of these kinds of learnings?  How do you describe the excitement I am seeing radiating from these students, especially when you know that they will remember this opportunity for years to come, and likely far more than the lessons learned in a classroom?

Someone wisely once said, “A picture is worth a thousand words”….  So here goes…

Camp Photo

Camp Photo

Camp Photo

Camp Photo

Camp Photo

Camp Photo

Camp Photo

Camp Photo

Camp Photo

Sometimes we forget what contributes most to raising great kids.  But when you see it – the joy and the mixed emotions running around – and you think about how this will impact them, you can’t help but be reminded of the importance of these national opportunities, and I am gratified that CAIS has made this possible.

Thank you to Mark Hord and his team – including the Onondaga staff – for making the first CAIS Middle School Leadership Camp such a great success.

Only in America?

I woke up the other morning in Maine and before getting out of bed, I noticed something different – a big American flag was waving outside my third floor hotel room window.  Out on the balcony I saw that the flag was flying at half-mast and it came to me – it was September 11th.  I wondered, even though Canadians share this day of mourning, how many flags in Canada were flying at half-mast?

I was in Maine to attend four days of meetings with my colleagues from the NAIS International Commission on Accreditation and the Independent Schools Association Network (ISANet).  Our associations serve hundreds of thousands of students in schools in over 100 countries.  We offer services ranging from communications, research, and accreditation, to advocacy, research, and professional development.  We are different associations, in various parts of the world, representing fiercely independent independent schools.

And yet we share a passion for excellent schools and for learning.

In Maine, I was reminded – yet again! – that all schools are facing similar challenges – in terms of marketing, we discussed declining enrollment, increasing requests for financial aid, and fundraising; and in terms of programs, we talked about innovation, technology, and personalization.  It was comforting to know that others ask similar questions of value and priorities and strategy.

But these meetings also make me a bit tense; I lose any sense of comfort I previously felt about the work of CAIS, and instead I feel this slight panic that we are behind every other association.  Ever feel that?

And yet I kind of like that off-balance feeling.  It makes me crave better.  I find myself taking constant notes of every idea, strategy and even good quotation.  (Interested in my favorite quote?  Jon Moser said, “Branding is what people say about you behind your back”).

Not only do I take notes, I email them.  To my staff.  Guess how that goes over.  This week’s “Idea” emails included things like:  “See NYSAIS’ Guidelines.”  “SeePNAIS’ new Indicator.”  “Let’s connect with VAIS about surveys.” “Check out the AISNE website.”  “Watch for Pat Bassett’s next blog on crowd sourcing.”  The joke is that they hate when I go away to conferences and meetings.  Sarah once threatened to cut off my ability to connect when I go away.  But you know what?  I believe that she – and the rest of them – actually likes the new ideas.

Our team loves different opinions; in fact, we thrive in an environment where we challenge each other.  It is not always easy, but in the end – virtually always! – it gets better.

So here’s the thing.  My visit to Maine gave me time with colleagues who share similar experiences and values, but who are diverse in their experiences, thinking and approaches to solutions and who also have the courage to challenge ideas.

Seeking out diversity is a great reminder to all of us in the independent school community who are in danger of working in isolation – a broad and collaborative network makes us all better.

Here is the value of a national organization that is further strengthened by an international organization.

p.s.  Here are three ideas worth checking out:

  • Order the new NAIS Trend Book. (Stay tuned for a CAIS 2012 Trends Presentation at the AGM)
  • Check out Andrea Syverson’s Brand About. (See how CAIS is implementing her advice to tell your story to a real audience)
  • Watch for Finalsite Social, a private social learning platform (and CAIS will be piloting it this fall)

“You’re just like every other snowflake”

David McCullough gave an unusual commencement speech; depending on who you listen to, he gave either one of the best or one of the worst high school commencement speeches ever.

Have you heard of him? He is the Boston area high school teacher who told students they “are not special.” That’s right, he told graduating students, those dreamy eyed teens about to set forth to pursue their dreams, that they are NOT special. He also made a statement about parents who are overly generous with compliments and shield their kids from reality. He told the audience, “You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies are meaningless…. We have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.”

Many people are not impressed with McCullough. The critics would have preferred that he deliver the more typical speech – about dreams and determination and going for it. They don’t want the children of America to have their dreams – and egos! – shattered.

But my sister and I think he is refreshing. Many current parenting practices – and some educational policies for that matter – focus on building self-esteem without requiring building accomplishments. There is considerable research that has shown that empty self-esteem boosts are detrimental to people in the long run.

Our only issue with David McCullough is that he said it before we did. You see, when Catherine and I get together, as we did this week on our road trip from Charlotte to Ashville North Carolina so I could attend the TABS board meeting, we solve all of the world’s issues, whether we know anything about the topic or not. We joke that we are preparing to write a book. Whenever we find something that bugs us, and we get all worked up about it and agree on a solution, we conclude that it will be a chapter in our book – this entertains us endlessly.

One of our favorite topics, and therefore our most developed chapter (in our minds at least) is on the subject of parenting. (You should know that Catherine is 13 years younger and has no children, but that kind of detail doesn’t stop us from considering ourselves experts.)

Our chapter on parenting shares the title of this blog: “You’re just like every other snowflake.” McCullough didn’t use this expression, so consider this blog our trademark.

Ps. Listen to the speech here. It is well worth the 12 minutes – we need to push for excellence, and we need to encourage students to do what they believe in, which is essentially what he’s saying.

Pps. Read The Subversive Graduation Speech for my favorite commentary by an independent school grad.

Bill Gates

I have a crush on Bill Gates. Here he is – a relentless innovator who changed the world of technology, a passionate philanthropist already responsible for saving over five million people from malaria, and the wealthiest man in America – at the NAIS conference in Seattle presenting on teaching and learning. Of all the things he could do with his time and money…luxury boats and dream vacations come to mind…he chooses to be in a room with over 4000 educators talking about what he cares about the most: “kids learning the stuff that counts”.

He joked that he is the world’s greatest supporter of independent schools and showed a photo of himself in grade 12 with the caption: “the last time I graduated.” He and Melinda both attended independent schools, but once he graduated from an NAIS high school, he said he didn’t need another diploma. And so he attended but never graduated from Harvard.

So without visible security and with a very down-to-earth approach, he spoke about the ideal learning environment: Yoda and Luke Skywalker engaging in one-on-one tutoring. He spoke about the need for metrics – how to measure, give feedback, and help teachers get better – but he also said that measuring can plague education. He defined education as creating a respectful culture where kids are engaged. (Okay, admittedly, nothing earth-shattering on that last point, but – just like that! – one of the most famous people in the world doesn’t skip a beat in stating a philosophy of education.) The fact is, he’s irresistible.

He mainly focused on one big question: How much can technology help us teach and learn? I want to share the resources he featured in four areas:

  1. Reimagining textbooks: CK-12inklinggooru
  2. Scaling our best teachers: UdemyiTunesUteachers pay teachers
  3. Connecting through social networks: epalsedmodo
  4. Personalizing: manga highkhan academy

Bill Gates thinks these links are worth checking out, and, therefore, so do I. I can’t remember who said it, but I have repeated the wise advice before: when in doubt, do as smart rich people do.

So please try something on his list, and let me know if you, too, develop a greater respect for (or even a little crush on) Bill Gates.

Three Questions for a Friday Afternoon

I was the only Canadian in the room this week, along with 100 of the top Headmasters in America, who had the honour of listening to four esteemed College Presidents. I want to share a few of their thoughts on “The College Scene” and leave you with the main question posed by each of the presenters.

John McCardell is the President of Sewanee, The University of the South, and former President of Middlebury. Perhaps he is best known for his leadership in the debate on reducing the drinking age in America. Yesterday morning, he passionately explored the theme of connections and our role in cultivating the habits of the heart. He quoted E.M. Forster, from Howard’s End:

She might yet be able to help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man.

Question One: How do you create opportunities for intergenerational connectedness?

Lee Pelton is the current President of Emerson College. Although he joked that the definition of a College President is someone who lives in a big house and begs for money, he focused his words on moral leadership. He acknowledged that the role of the leader is fundraiser and administrator, but he said the call to greatness is to look through the confusion, see the compelling moral dilemmas, find the “educational moments” and shine a light on them. He gave the recent examples of the occupy movement and the identification of illegal staff on campus. He asked the audience, “What would you do?”

Question Two: Consider a current incident that provides the opportunity to explore a compelling moral issue – do you have the courage to exert moral leadership?

Kent Chabotar, President of Guilford College and former Professor of Education at Harvard, talked about ‘Economy, Higher Education and Independent Schools’. He spoke about ‘The New Normal’ and our need to focus and prioritize, make data driven decisions, focus on our competitive advantage, and emphasize outcomes. He challenged schools to articulate the goals of all Financial Aid and to start each budget with a narrative. He believes that most strategic plans are “crap” because they are great on aspirations and rhetoric but short on action items and performance metrics.

Question Three: How do we link our strategic priorities to short-term objectives, action steps, a long-range budget and metrics?

Now you may have noticed that I said there were four college presidents but I have only reported on three. Well, I guess I made the moral decision to opt for a cheaper flight and intergenerational connectedness – I left the conference early so I could be there to pick up my son from school on his 13th birthday.

Learning and Leadership

As I stood at the bottom of the stairs early on Friday morning, I sent each of the five kids back upstairs for one reason or another. We billeted three boys here for the CAIS U13 Soccer Tournament, and they were polite, bright, and fun boys. But five kids required my full attention to get to Ridley by 8:00am with all their gear. So I developed a system by the second morning. Before they got to the front hall, I did the first check – shin pads, toque, socks, snack, teeth, etc – and if they missed something, they went back up. My favorite exchange was this:

AM: “Shin pads?”

Boy: “Yup. Both today.”

AM: “Teeth brushed”

Boy: “Mmmmm…. I did that yesterday”

It was a sincere comment but I couldn’t help but to laugh. And as he turned his head to go up to the bathroom, he laughed too.

There was a lot of laughter in our house. Around 8:30 pm the first night, the kids had too much energy to settle any time soon, so I suggested we all take our dog for a walk.

Boy: “A walk? At this hour? In the dark? What if we get mugged?”

Now part of me wondered if this comment was a slight on St Catharines or even our neighborhood, but I just laughed it off and assured him, “We are not going to get mugged around here.

Our billet shrugged and turned to put on his shoes, but he quickly retorted:

“We would in Winnipeg.”

As billeting parents, Kevin and I loved the extra energy the boys brought to our home, and I have to say, we learned a lot. For starters, it was work to keep these kids fed and in clean clothes. Many times I thought of my Nana who had nine kids. I could barely keep enough milk in the house for five kids!

But the real value, of course, is for the kids. National tournaments provide many excellent sporting moments. They also connect people from coast to coast – when SAC and UCC played the final game, there were boys from 16 CAIS schools across Canada cheering side by side, and I suspect that our billet boys will stay connected with my son. But the tournaments, including the opportunity to billet, are also about leadership development.

I saw that these boys had a lot to manage – playing three games per day in the rain and cold, meeting over 300 new people from across Canada, joining a family for three nights, and all while being far from the comforts of home. In an age when most parents hover over their kids, our CAIS boys are given the opportunity to learn independence.

Yesterday morning, here in Montreal at an assembly at The Study, I witnessed the leadership development that continues after the actual event. The girls’ soccer team presented a slide show about their time at the CAIS Soccer Tournament in Halifax. The girls clearly had a fun time – the mud and rain didn’t stop them – and they made great friendships with girls from across Canada. But they also demonstrated leadership – the girls were gracious enough to thank their coach for spending a weekend away with them and they articulated some of what they learned from their experience. One girl quoted Michael Jordon on the need to pick yourself up after losing and get back in the game. Even as a visitor to the school and not knowing the girls, I was proud to watch them reflect on resiliency with poise.

Last week, the CAIS Board approved a Billeting Policy to ensure these national opportunities will continue according to best risk management practices. This makes me proud. Clearly the vision of CAIS, to be the “voice of excellence in learning and leadership, shaping the future of education” applies not only to our staff but to our 45,000 students.


I’ve been in NAIS meetings in Colorado this week, so I am relying on email and skype to hear about my kids’ first days in the classroom. Here’s Jacob’s email response to my classic question: “How was your first day?”

Jacob: “Hi mom actually I might have a chance to make the team”

Nothing about his teachers, friends or what he is learning – he is fully focused on soccer.

Last night when I spoke to both kids, the number one thing they wanted to discuss was whether or not they would get cut tomorrow from soccer and field-hockey.

As parents, we don’t want our children to be disappointed; we want them to excel and have a variety of great opportunities, like playing on a travel team. And as a tuition-paying-parent – and I am sorry to admit it – there’s a part of me that thinks my kids should make the travel teams because I’m not paying for the school to cut my kid. (Dear Ridley College, I promise not to be one of those parents who will call and make such demands.)

I believe in strong co-curricular programs, and I know that parents choose our CAIS schools, in part, because of the well-rounded programs they offer (See yesterday’s Globe where many of our schools were featured). The sports program was the number one reason that Jacob chose Ridley. So is it healthy for kids to be cut?  Let me ask that again – is it healthy for MY kids to be cut?

It is timely that my husband (source of all good ideas….) sent me a New York Times article yesterday, called What if the secret to success if failure? Domenic Randolph is Head of one of New York’s most prestigious independent schools. He has swapped the Head’s office with his secretary and he has one thing on his wall: a white sheet of paper with a big black question mark. He did away with APs, he limits homework and he doesn’t like standardized testing. But what makes him stand out most of all, is his focus on how independent schools develop character. He has spent years developing programs focused on good character and how it can be taught at school. My favorite line is this:

“The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure,” Randolph explained. “And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.”

Last night on skype, I liked seeing that they wanted to make these teams – they wanted it badly – and I admired their passion. We spoke about the what ifs – what if they made it and what if they got cut. We agreed that they would try their best and try to stay composed, whether they make it or not

And, thanks to Randolph, I will focus on the value of grit, whether they make it or not.

p.s.  For a complete look at the Globe’s coverage featuring CAIS schools, visit our home page.