I am not quite sure why, but the dial of a grandfather clock, with its hands moving slowly yet surely, seems to me to be a much more evocative representation of the passage of time than the four-digit number at the top of our computer screens. This number might be factually accurate, but the circular motion of the hands reminds me of the recurrent beginnings and ends of our days, our nights, our seasons, our years. Time is ostensibly cyclical.
In the northern hemisphere, the start of the school year roughly coincides with Jewish Rosh Hashanah, as well as with Muharram, the first month in the Muslim calendar. This is also a time of transition between the harvest and the looming winter, when families gather together around the dinner table or in purposely-built allegorical booths to honour the past and give thanks for what we have received.
There can indeed be a high degree of symbolism around fresh beginnings and that is one of the reasons why we decided to introduce a new annual tradition at TFS, the Head’s Community Address, which I delivered on September 8. The start of a school year should be celebrated with a certain solemnity so that we can take stock of the past, be publicly grateful for our present and pave the way for the future. It is also an appropriate time for a community like ours to get together and be proud of our school.
As a matter of fact, the content of my opening address was of particular importance this year because I provided a preview of our new Strategic Plan, which sets out our values as a school. According to the plan, our mission is to ensure that our pupils become “multilingual critical thinkers who celebrate difference, transcend borders and strive for the betterment of humankind.” In my speech, I also referred to academic ambition, an international perspective, and the development of students as individuals and citizens as the three pillars on which rest a TFS education.
If the more traditional concept of excellence refers to the possible end goal, academic ambition centres on the learning journey. It is directly related to our knowledge-seeking spirit, our constant will to improve, our desire to give the best of ourselves. Students with a growth mindset believe that effort is the key to success. Instead of giving up when they face a challenge, they say, “I can’t do this yet, but one day I will.” Our role as educators is precisely to encourage this attitude to learning in our students and to make them conscious of the progress they make by tracking their individual academic achievement over time.
Ultimately, serious academic study in whatever discipline is not so much based on quantity of content as on quality of research. The aim is not to race through the curriculum or even introduce more and more exams, but to promote depth of analysis and clarity of expression in students. True scholars are defined by their inquisitive minds. Given that the pursuit of knowledge is what inspires them, they often ask more questions than they can answer, but that is absolutely fine. At the end of the day, it is this intellectual curiosity, this internal need to push boundaries that acted as one of the prime forces propelling Leonardo da Vinci, Newton and Beethoven into previously unexplored territories.
I am pleased to say that I saw plenty of this spirit at the Scholars Guild Dinner held earlier on this month. The guild is an honorary society that came into being in 1988 and it consists of approximately 40 students from Levels I to V with a proven record of academic ambition and involvement in the life of the school. Christopher Wang, Class of 2009, was the guest speaker this year and he reminded us of his time at TFS, where he learnt Latin, Spanish and German, and led the Classics and Haute Cuisine clubs. After obtaining a Bachelor of Sciences from McMaster University, he went on to medical school at the University of Toronto and is now a resident at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. He is only in his mid-twenties, but he has already been on several medical missions to China and the Democratic Republic of Congo and, together with his sister, he has founded Leaders in Global Health Transformations (LIGHT), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the training of health innovators around the planet. The students attending the dinner were truly inspired by the eloquence, humility and social commitment he abundantly showed.
In many ways, Chris embodies the desired characteristics of TFS students, as are now enshrined in our Strategic Plan. These could be defined as showing an unwavering desire to become more and more intellectually sophisticated through inquiry, participating actively in the wider life of the school in order to develop key transferable skills, having strong ethical values, and understanding that our mission in life as humans is to make a positive impact in our local communities and the wider world.
Luckily, those are precisely the characteristics that the best international universities expect us to promote. Jeremiah Quinlan, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale, recently declared to The Washington Post that his university looks for “students who have achieved in and out of the classroom” and also display other qualities “that are harder to quantify, like authentic intellectual engagement and a concern for others and the common good.” Likewise, the University of Virginia issued a statement to the effect that it is important to promote “good citizenship, strong character, personal responsibility and civic engagement in high school students.” I am pleased to say that all of that was corroborated at a breakfast hosted by TFS in late September where Ivy League officers updated university counsellors from across the GTA on current college admissions trends.
Circling back to the beginning, it suddenly dawns on me that our grandfather clock is now of a certain age but it is clearly chiming with the times. We have worked hard as a school for over 50 years and our harvest is rich and plentiful. At the start of this new and recurring annual cycle, let us all be grateful for that by celebrating what we stand for, and by taking pride in the universal nature of our mission and values.