The Backward Class

May 14, 2014

Recently the Hot Docs Film Festival premiered a number of films including The Backward Class. This is the extraordinary story that follows a grade 12 graduating class from Shanti Bhavan, a residential school in Bangalore, India. What makes this story extraordinary is not just the students and a dedicated group of teachers, but the whole foundation of the school.

Dr. Abraham George, a successful businessman who lives in New York, returned to his former home in Bangalore and was appalled at the lack of economic and social progress. Although the caste system was abolished in 1950, nothing had really changed. With his own funds he purchased a tract of land and built a residential school, recruiting 24 kindergarten age students. All of the students came from the “untouchable” class, deemed unworthy of educating by the Indian government. After 13 years of preparation, this group of students was to become the first Dalit students in India’s history to write the prestigious national Indian School Certificate graduating exams for high school.

As with most travels, this journey had not been a smooth one. The 2008 international financial crisis almost ruined Dr. George and nearly forced the closure of the school; since that time buildings were left incomplete, attracting good teachers became more problematic, and resources became scarcer. In order to allow his first class to graduate, George was forced to sell his house and tell his own children that he did not have the resources to send them to college in the United States. His vision of providing an exceptional education to a group that had been ostracized and oppressed by virtue of birth so that they might become role models and leaders in their community was in jeopardy. And now exams were upon them with historical expectations of parents, school patrons, educators, and the school’s founder.

This is the story of the immense will, dedication, and vision of the individual and the collective. It is the story of empowerment through education.

The results of this first graduating class are remarkable. Every student passed, all of them graduated from Indian post-secondary institutions and are working for investment companies such as Goldman Sachs and Ernst & Young. They have recognized their position and privilege by giving half of their earnings back to their families, a quarter to the school and a quarter for their own living.

Imagine the impact that our own graduates would have on the world if they did the same.

Shanti Bhavan’s mission is to adequately develop the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children of India’s “lowest caste” by providing them world class education and instilling globally shared values to enable them to aspire to careers and professions of their choice. A true private institution with a public purpose.



Spring Baseball

March 28, 2014

Spring baseball started early for me this year. After a succession of coincidences our family found itself watching from the “sidelines” while a number of teenage Dominican Republic baseball players held their practice. It was not fancy.

The baseball diamond was regulation only in its dimensions. The clay, dirt infield was bumpy and uneven, the bags were in tatters, the outfield had grass a metre high and the fences consisted of old wire borrowed from a construction site. On the other side of the fence was the only roadway leading into the small town of Las Galeras. The batting cage was set in the woods and defined by old fishnets. Batting practice consisted of a player repeatedly hitting a large truck tire that two of his teammates propped up for him. The hardballs were soft from constant use and were covered in the red clay. There were only 20 in the bag.

The players’ equipment was in a similar state of disrepair. Baseball gloves were held together with shoelaces as the leather straps had broken; baseball cleats were clearly hand-me-downs. Surprisingly, everyone seemed to have their favourite team’s baseball cap – no Blue Jay caps to be seen!

For over three hours each day this group practised under the watchful eye and guidance of their two coaches. At the end of the practice one of the coaches, in his broken English, asked if our two sons and I would be interested in playing in a nine inning pick up game with this group the next day. We jumped at the opportunity.

What an afternoon! Our oldest son reached base and scored twice, though I can’t say that either our youngest son or I had such success. But that is not what I took away from the adventure. What a lesson in baseball – watching them play was magical: from soft hands and lightning throws, to homeruns that bounced off the highway into the woods to be retrieved by the rookies, to the constant laughter and banter that eclipsed every play.

And while they had very little, they had everything. It wasn’t about the best facility or equipment or the latest clothing – it was about the game – a game that they truly loved. And with that passion came dedication and a commitment to do your best. Perhaps that is why the Chicago Cubs and the Texas Rangers had already drafted three of the players.

As we enter into a new term, let’s remember why we play our team sports and the joy that it can bring.


Olympics and Cross Country Skiing

February 13, 2014

What is it about cross-country skiing that brings out the best of the Olympic spirit?

Eight years ago to the day Sara Renner was skiing in the woman’s cross country ski relay with Beckie Scott. Renner was in front of the pack when she broke her ski pole and quickly slid to fourth place. From the sidelines a Norwegian coach leapt onto the course and handed Renner a ski pole. In the end the Canadians finished with a silver medal, the Norwegians fourth meaning that the Norwegian coach may have cost his team an Olympic medal.

On Tuesday, a Russian skier had fallen three times with a broken ski. The Canadian cross country ski coach, Justin Wadsworth, rushed out onto the course with an alternate ski, took off the skier’s broken ski, put on the new one and sent him on his way. Unfortunately, the story does not end with a Russian medal, but in an ironic twist the Canadian coach is Beckie Scott’s husband.

I somehow could not see a Canadian hockey player offering the same support to a Russian hockey player! As Wadsworth said, “We help because we know everyone works so hard… everyone wants fair results. I watched and could not understand why no one was helping him, not even the Russians.”

And so it is as educators that each and every day, we reach out, offer that ski, to allow each child to do their very best. It is about celebrating the effort, hard work, and allowing each individual to show their best. It is the true Olympic spirit.



January 31, 2014

Like most people I am looking forward to the start of the Olympics. I know that there has a been a great deal of press regarding the security and the amount of money that is being spent to ensure that these are, “The safest and the very best Olympics.”

The motto of the Olympics is higher, faster, stronger – the qualities that are to take the athlete to the podium. Although these are necessary elements, it seems to me that the qualities of character, courage, and perseverance are equally as important. Some of the most inspiring stories come from the most unlikely events and people.

In the last Olympics one of the most talented and physically fit athletes was Brian McKeever who qualified for the 50km cross-country ski race. But, McKeever can’t read and he can’t even drive a car; he has a degenerative eye disease. By the time he was 20 he went from being able to see from the back of a 400 student lecture room to not being able to read from the front row. McKeever has his peripheral vision and by moving his eyes the right way and looking about half a metre above someone’s head he can void the blind spot in his vision. He has gone off the track numerous times and crashed into trees at speeds more than 60 km per hour. But he sees enough. He sees more than most of us. Despite a serious shoulder injury and ill with the flu he won the Canadian Olympic qualifying event. At the last moment at the Vancouver games, he was pulled from the event, but for McKeever this was not a setback, it was an opportunity to make him better.

When you see the stories in the papers, I hope that you take a moment and look behind the headlines to the enduring qualities that make the Games so special.

Enjoy the magic of the Olympics – and know that magic does not just happen – it is created and earned with character, courage, and perseverance.

Reaching Out

January 14, 2014

I hope that everyone had a relaxing holiday and that blackouts and whiteouts were not too much of your focus.

A day after Christmas I was walking with our family, some friends, and our dogs down a “winter road.” At the end of the road we saw a car full of people who had relied more on GPS than visual and the car was stuck in a snowdrift. We tried as much as possible to get the car out, but to no avail. The people in the car told us that they had already called for help, and not to worry.

On our walk back out, we saw several trucks and cars drive to the end of the road and turn around, without stopping to help. Worried, that no one was coming, we gathered a chain and shovels and went back to help them out of the snowdrift. Eventually we managed to get the car free and send them on their way.

I found the whole situation discouraging. It was the day after Christmas and no one was willing to stop, reach out and help – isn’t that what this season is all about?

Then I started hearing stories from the Toronto ice storm: families hosting seasonal dinner for their neighbours, friends checking on neighbours’ houses, people driving down from Northern Ontario with generators and setting them up so that families could have heat, and Hydro employees working exceptional hours and being in tears when they could not help people. That is the Toronto that I want to live in – the world that I want to live in.

The Untouchables

November 30, 2013

A couple of weeks ago an elementary school in British Columbia banned all touching in response to the “outbreak of fighting” that was occurring amongst the children. Apparently the measure is not really a policy or a ban, just a “short term measure.” I am sure that the kindergarten students recognize the difference.

So, let’s imagine a part of the day of non-touching. Parents who are walking their children, hand in hand, must let go at the gates to the school. The welcoming teacher, instead of holding the student’s hand and helping them with knapsacks, must stand back and give instructions. When students see each other, instead of the hugs that usually take place, they must just stare each other down. During the class, the teacher cannot put a hand on a shoulder as an affirmation, give a “high-five” for a task very well done, or have a handshake of congratulations. And so the list goes on.

Touch is language in and of itself. We instinctively know how to use it, but it is a skill. And through touch we communicate multiple positive emotions: joy, love, gratitude, and sympathy. Touching and being touched is a way that helps us to feel appreciated and cared for. The first sense that develops in the womb is touch; the first language that a baby understands after being born is touch. Although we have many things in common with other mammals, human contact is the thing that makes us different and that makes us…human. Research has taught us that children who are held more turn into cooperative, well-adjusted, confident, and loving adults, not the other way around.

So, it is difficult to imagine a school that focuses on studies and appropriate social interactions banning one of the most important tools of relationship building – touching.

Values & Leadership

November 22, 2013

The other day while I was driving to school I was listening to a couple of “political pundits” discussing Toronto’s mayor. Both of them said, “Let’s put aside values and talk about the running of the city.” I nearly drove off the road.

One of the most important roles, and possibly the most critical role, of any leader is to provide a steady moral compass. Whether you are the Head of a school, teacher, parent, or head of a multi-national corporation this role should be part of your fabric. Whomever you are leading is looking to you to provide guidance; to being a role model. That guidance comes from within and is supported by institutional or societal values.

Guiding others responsibly must encompass an understanding of ones self. This means continually engaging in a reflective process of making sense of your relationship with others and with the world around you, and trusting that your influence will be positive. To be open to self-doubt, fear and questioning helps to keep one grounded.

Every school that I know has a stated set of values and there is an expectation that everyone in the community: students, staff, and parents live by those values – even when they have left the school. The values are reinforced as they are posted around the school, spoken about in assemblies, on the soccer pitch, on the stage, and in the classroom.

To say that you would run an organization without values is like saying you would sail a boat without a hull and sail. Values represent our structure, our engine to move us forward in making the right decisions – our compass. It is hard to see how city hall, or anywhere, could run without values.

The World Series – Lessons Learned from Boston

November 5, 2013

I am a big fan of the city of Boston, though not of their sports’ teams…especially after what they did to the Leafs this past spring. But, I do have to admire the Boston Red Sox team; they climbed from last place in their division to winners of the World Series. After 86 years of frustration, the city of Boston and their beloved Red Sox have won the title 3 times in the past 10 years. Their transformation gives hope to all Toronto sports fans and provides lessons for us all.

The success of the Red Sox was not based on hope. If hope were the foundation, the Leafs would be perpetual Stanley Cup winners. Here are a few thoughts.

There were trades made in the off-season. Boston not only acquired talented players, but more importantly they were players with character. They brought a positive approach to the clubhouse. The new manager of the Red Sox (yes, a former Blue Jay’s manager) quickly came to understand the individuals on the team. He understood who were the leaders, who inspired others, and who would do whatever was necessary to win. Individual statistics were important, but they were less important than the team being successful. And collectively he inspired these individuals to become a team. When injuries occurred, as they do for all teams, there were no excuses, just players willing to help wherever necessary.

The other important aspect brought to the team was work ethic. The team was talented, but talent alone will not win titles. All we have to do is look at this year’s Toronto Blue Jays. Malcolm Gladwell talks of taking 10,000 hours as an element in becoming truly successful. We all want to be successful, but success does not come from wishing. A surgeon does not go from a Bachelor of Science to the operating room. For this team 10,000 hours was the starting point. They spent hours working on all the small things that allowed the team to become successful.

Whether we are coaching a house league team or running a business we can learn from this year’s Boston Red Sox team. Honouring the individual, challenging them, and bringing them together to honour each other as a team is challenging, especially on a daily basis. But in the end everyone is successful.

The Senate

October 28, 2013

For the past several months, and more particularly the past couple of weeks, Canadians have been regaled with stories from the Senate, stories that have seeped into the House of Commons and consumed Question Period.

There is a great deal at stake: the future of the three Senators, the Prime Minister, his majority government, and even the Senate itself. The past week has been particularly: interesting, disturbing, unsettling, offensive – take your pick of one, or all of the above.

Montcrest families know that our community is governed by the values set out in our Standing for Character. The component parts are: respect, responsibility, integrity, compassion, and courage. Every Montcrest student can recite these important values.

Let’s rewind the clock a couple of months and see what the Senate Scandal would have looked like if all members of the Senate and the House of Commons would have practised Standing for Character.

Respect: To value the institution of parliamentary democracy in Canada reflected in both the Senate and the House of Commons and to do nothing that would bring either of these bodies into disrepute.

Responsibility: All that are directly and indirectly affiliated with the events need to have demonstrated a work ethic that is beyond reproach and to know that they can be counted on by Canadians for their intellect and work to make Canada a better country.

Compassion: Instead of allowing debate to degenerate into personal attacks and vendettas there is a need to understand that all people make mistakes and may make questionable decisions, but there is always room for acknowledgement of wrongs and rehabilitation.

Integrity: To absolutely do the right thing all the time and not assume that with power comes privilege. The future of the Senators should not be determined by backroom deals and personalities, but by due process.

Courage: To have the courage to immediately respond to allegations, to acknowledge when a wrong has been committed, and the courage to face any consequences honourably.

I do not know whether the named Senators are guilty, this will hopefully be determined through due process. What I do know is that if all involved had wholeheartedly exercised the principles of Standing for Character, the resolution of the current “gong show” and the future of the Senate would not be debated around character, but around its relevance in our democratic process.

Alice Munro – Complexity of Interactions

October 21, 2013

Like many Canadians, I was delighted to learn that Canadian author Alice Munro had won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  As much as the award highlights and recognizes the work of Canadian literature and in particular the short story, it is Munro’s ability to draw you into her stories that resonates with me. Her understated humility, so rare these days, is striking.

Many of her stories are built around what appear to be the simplest of situations and the most ordinary of characters. And yet underneath there is a deep complexity both in characters and situations. Her gift as a writer draws us in to the story as if we were a part of it.

Each day as I walk around the play yard at Montcrest I encounter similar situations: ordinary children playing ordinary games and entertaining each other in ordinary ways.  But within this daily occurrence, in every playground across the country, lies the complexity of personal interaction and the adult role of managing and guiding these relationships. It is difficult to read Munro’s stories quickly, we need to pause and reflect, ponder and consider. We should do the same as we watch our children play. As we are drawn into Munro’s stories we realize that ordinary situations have complex layers built upon more layers.  Similarly, the play yard games have many layers that affect children’s daily interactions.

I look forward to going back and rereading some of Alice Munro’s collections. I know I will see characters and their relationships in a different light. As we begin another week, I look forward to working with our students as we guide their daily interactions at school.

Have a great Monday!


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