November 6, 2014

We are all aware of the Ebola tragedy that is striking the West African countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea with close to 5,000 deaths and 13,000 reported cases.

The tragedy is not just in the number of people who have been inflicted and those that have died from this horrible disease. Equally disturbing is the response of the Western World – those that have the capability to profoundly alter the course of the disease. The headlines of papers across North America look something like this:

  • A Maine elementary school teacher has been barred from school after visiting Dallas, Texas where Ebola patients have been treated – despite having had no contact with any suspected patients.
  • A teacher was placed on mandatory 21 day leave after going to an educational conference and staying 10 miles away from Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital.
  • A rumour at a school in Mississippi was passed around that the Principal had, at one time, travelled to Nigeria. Swarms of parents removed their children from the school.

More recently states have imposed sanctions against health care workers – returning from helping those in the stricken countries. At odds with the World Health Organization, Canada has suspended the issuance of visas for residents and nationals of the West African countries. Permanent resident applications from the affected countries have been suspended.

A global tragedy has been wrapped in an abundance of politics and fear. It seems that Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s comment, “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself,” is most appropriate. Delivered at his inauguration in the midst of the Great Depression, Roosevelt went on to say, “Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for…We now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we cannot merely take but we must give as well.”

Our world is even more interconnected now than it was for any generation before us and we have the resources to give. The focus of our attention should be on helping countries by providing the expertise, resources, and commitment to stop the spread of the disease. When we have a flu bug that descends on schools we model for our students the care and support needed for those who are ill. Why have we reacted like this is a zombie apocalypse?

Our children would not be proud of us.


Malala – Nobel Peace Prize Winner

October 22, 2014

Last week people woke up to hear the wonderful news that Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi had jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for their promotion of children’s education. At 17 Malala is the youngest recipient of the award, and at 65 Kailash Satyarthi is one of the older recipients.

Malala’s receipt of the award is a triumph on so many levels. It is a triumph of the human spirit and courage. When we read newspapers today the focus seems to be so much on what are wrong, short-sighted decisions, and misguided directions of leaders. Reporters are very good at cutting people off at the knees but do not always provide support for those who follow their beliefs and passions. Taking on the Taliban in the first place was a courageous move; after being severely wounded by the Taliban, she refused to give in and continued her crusade as the voice for children. In schools we speak a great deal about values, courage, and integrity and we talk of developing the next generation of leaders. We heard of her award at the same time that many were involved in running the Terry Fox Run for cancer. What a time for young people to look at the profound impact of Terry Fox and Malala Yousafzai and know that they do not have to wait years to make a difference.

Kailash was almost 50 years older than Malala. There is no generational gap; there is no lack of understanding or communication, because both Nobel Peace Prize winners share a common language: the dignity of humans, and ultimately children’s ability to pursue their dreams. When we talk of passing the torch to the next generation we miss an exceptional opportunity. Malala and Kailash have had such a significant effect on the discussion of women’s rights because of the combined forces of youth, experience, optimism, and pragmatism. Kailash’s willingness to teach and Malala‘s willingness to learn weaves a fabric that is hard to destroy.

Schools do their very best at fostering leadership opportunities and providing students with the skills to make leadership decisions. Ultimately those who make the most significant difference are those that follow their passions and their values. It is our role as “adults” to teach, support, and get out of the way.

Character and Athletes

September 15, 2014

I read in the Globe and Mail last week that the President and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Tim Leiweke was answering questions at Ryerson University concerning the MLSE’s teams. He was asked about the recent emphasis on “analytics” in building successful teams. After answering this question he went on to say, “There are players we have in our organization today (Toronto Maple Leafs) whose numbers are off-the-chart good and whose character is just terrible. I don’t care how good your numbers are: if you have bad character, you are doomed for failure.”

How many times have we seen talented professional athletes who cannot achieve their true potential and likewise how many “underdogs” have we watched soar from obscurity? The elements of determination, a strong work ethic, a commitment to excellence and teammates are elements that would comprise “character.” These are some of the elements that coaches would like to see in their athletes as they work hard to foster character and teams.

And I read the rest of the paper, Ray Rice the talented running back for the Baltimore Ravens was suspended for the year for domestic abuse, Adrian Peterson, a perennial all-star was charged with youth battery for hitting his 4-year old with a stick. And finally, Oscar Pistorius, an Olympic icon in South Africa was convicted of culpable homicide.

Character is much more than determination, work ethic, and a commitment to excellence. Cultural historian Warren Susman has said that we have moved from a culture of character to a culture of personality and where we have moved from a notion of achievement to performance. The above athletes have performed at the highest level, but have they achieved?

As educators it is our responsibility to ensure our athletes understand that character is much more than just performance on the field, or rink, or arena. Character is a transferable trait; transferable to the classroom, to the home, to a social setting. The respect that athletes seek in the athletic arena is one that must flow from the athlete to their everyday life. It is our responsibility to ensure that our athletes understand and act in a manner that reflects the full definition of character.MLSE

Curriculum Nights

September 9, 2014

During the next couple of weeks many schools will be opening their doors for curriculum night. Parents will be visiting schools to gain an understanding of the road ahead for their child. This event presents differently depending on the school; from following a student timetable and meeting each of the teachers, to meeting with the teachers en mass in divisions, to meeting each of the subject teachers by department. It is a chance to “put a face to a name” and gain an understanding of the curriculum objectives, protocols, and practices.

The beginning of the school year is a critical time. It is the most important time to lay the foundation of building a bridge between teachers, students, and parents. The way that we go about this is by developing a positive relationship and we do this by asking and listening.

  • What do you see as your child’s greatest strengths?
  • What is the story that you hope you child will tell you in June?
  • What are your hopes and fears for this year?
  • Is there anything that you would like to tell me that will allow me to help support your child?

I write this as both a parent and as an educator. What those questions tell me is that I care, I respect your individuality, and that, in partnership, we can provide the very best opportunities for our children. We all know that the road from September to June will have some potholes (hopefully not as many as the City of Toronto). If we communicate regularly, and appreciate the uniqueness of each family and their hopes and dreams for their children, then we are truly vested in their best interest.

If curriculum night is about starting a partnership, then we need to begin by listening to each other and listening sometimes to what is not said. Instead of teachers talking at curriculum nights, perhaps we should be just listening?


Learn to Row

August 20, 2014

This summer my family enrolled in a Learn to Row program. It was a wonderful opportunity to do something together as a family, get some fresh air and exercise and, most importantly, learn something new.

We spent a few hours on land, watched a video and then headed out to the water under the watchful eye of two volunteers. Having watched Olympic and high school rowing and having spent a considerable amount of time in a canoe, I must admit that I was excited and confident about the next steps. After all, it was just putting in your oar and pushing water. I was placed in a single racing shell and within the first five minutes I was in the water; my first lesson was humility!

Since that first lesson we have rowed quite a number of times and we have learned a great deal. It is a sport that seems so simple, yet is very complex. The last time that I rowed I spent the entire time trying to figure out what to do with my hands. Our instructors have ranged in age from 15 to 85. They were all so encouraging, patient, and understanding as we gradually learned the technique of the sport.

What has been exciting for me is that I have learned much more than a new sport. I have come to appreciate more about learning. Learning takes time and patience; it is a journey that for some might come easily and for others there are bumps in the road. When you fall out of the boat it means that you are trying something new; it is just as important to get back into the boat right away and try again. The starting point of learning is identifying the gap between where you think you are and where reality exists. Having that knowledge allows you to become more self-directed in your learning and I believe that learning becomes more powerful. The relationship between teacher and student begins with understanding and communication. Both parties need to be invested and committed to ensure that progress and success may happen. And maybe, most importantly, it is never too late or early to learn or to teach. Finally our family has set a goal: a rowing race in early September. Whatever the result of the race, the journey has been challenging, fun, and rewarding; hopefully the same results will happen for your children this school year.


Canoeing and Current Affairs

August 7, 2014

I returned about a week ago from my annual canoe trip to the Canadian Arctic with a group of friends. We have been paddling Arctic rivers for a number of years and always enjoy each others’ company, the majesty of the flora and fauna, and the knowledge that we are travelling in areas that very few Canadians have ever seen. We are completely out of contact and carry a satellite phone only for an emergency.

We had our usual challenges of significant white water, but through the years of working together, trusting each other, and talking through the roar of the cold water, we always get through unscathed. And we are willing to help each other across the portages, none of which are marked and are only lined with millions of mosquitoes. We understand that each member of the trip has strengths and weaknesses and through the support that we give each other we feel a sense of accomplishment.

As we were in the plane returning to Toronto and reading the newspapers, it seemed that the world had changed. The headlines screamed of the MH17 tragedy, fighting began in Gaza, and the escalation of the conflict in Syria.

I turned to one of our canoe party and said, “We should take all of the combatants, put them in a canoe, and tell them to paddle together for a week.” At the very least they would have to talk to one another, work together, understand perspective, and optimistically trust each other’s actions. Perhaps a naïve suggestion, but better than the chaos and human tragedy that we are now seeing.



July 29, 2014

Last week I saw the movie Boyhood, a remarkable movie that was filmed over 12 years; if you are looking to spur family conversation this movie will do it. It not only traces the growth of a young boy, Mason, from the age of 7 to 18, but also examines the sea changes that happen within his family and his world during this journey.

Boyhood is more than just a coming of age movie; it is appealing on a number of different levels. We watch as Mason literally grows up through movie transitions that are subtle, but profound. Forever he looks at life through an inquiring lens, but always his lens. From the innocence of his early years through the stumbles of pre-teen and teen, to the beginning of a new era as he enters university, Mason shows us the power of the individual coming to grips with his relationship with the world and others, and his own sense of self.

It is through the eyes of Mason that we see the strength and foibles of his older sister and how his mother and father struggle with relationships as they nurture, cajole, lecture, and sigh through the growth of their children. Their dreams of a stable and “normal” family are weighted with the reality of relationships and finances as they struggle to define themselves. As parents we sometimes ask ourselves, “When will our children grow up?” The film shares with us the organic nature of this growth and as the years pass, how precious they are for adults and momentary they are for adolescents.

This is a very human picture that acknowledges the imperfect journey of families and individuals, the strength of family ties, and the triumphant resiliency of human nature. In what is an ordinary story we see the extraordinary. If there is one movie that you see this summer I would recommend Boyhood - it is very difficult to stop thinking of this film.


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.



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