Talking Citizenship with the Deputy Head: October 2018
Though it’s been nine years since my son Jacob started at TFS, and just over two since he graduated, I’ll never forget the time when he first felt like he belonged. Not knowing anyone at the school before joining in Grade 6, it was by making the TFS hockey team that Jacob began to belong.
I could see the increased happiness and satisfaction on his face as he started to find his friends and his place, and realized that TFS would suit him well. The need to belong is surely one of the most universal of all human wishes. At its best, we find ourselves amongst those who, though perhaps different in temperament, aptitude or perspective, both deeply understand and accept us. All the better if they challenge us to be our best selves. Recently, I came upon a large flipboard in the Senior School’s Multi-Purpose Room. It had been divided in half. The left section was titled “I feel at home when…” while the right declared, “I need…to feel more at home.” Underneath each title was a kaleidoscope of colourful Post-it notes, offering answers and suggestions. This led me to think of the many-layered ways in which we foster a sense of belonging in all members of our community, most importantly, our students. It is beautifully apparent as soon as our youngest students become part of La p’tite école. The very first, and perhaps most enduring, lessons these two- and three-year-olds experience, is how to live harmoniously together and how to make sure each member feels like they belong. As they get older, this does not mean that conflicts, large and small, will not emerge amongst them now and then. What it does mean is that our children will learn the skills, the vocabulary and the discernment needed to negotiate differences and find compromise, a way to move forward peaceably, with no one left out or behind. Fostering inclusion is also one of the main goals of our transition programs (moving from one branch to another) that take place in Grade 1 at La p’tite école, Grade 5 at the Junior School, and Grade 7 at the West Campus. The programs are carefully thought out and structured to allow students to feel comfortable in taking the next step forward in their educational lives. I’d like to particularly point out the WEB/CAP program at the Senior School, which is crucial to the transition of our students coming from the Junior School and the West Campus. Specifically developed for students entering the middle school years, its name stands for Where Everybody Belongs / Chacun a sa place. Our CAPitaines, trained Level I and II student leaders who will be mentors and cheerleaders to those coming into the Senior School, are introduced to the new-to-Senior School students on Welcome Back Day. The CAPitaines, under the guidance and supervision of the Dean of Student Affairs, are each assigned to a specific group for the entire school year. In their groups, they take part in regular check-ins and other activities, while as a whole, the students gather for special events, such as the enormously popular Pyjamapalooza evening. The WEB program is now in its 11th year at the Senior School and we can say with resounding confidence that it is a success. Other programs that help, by their very nature, to create a school environment that brings everyone into the fold, are our houses, societies and clubs. In most cases, by branch, these groups cross grades and levels, allowing bonds to form amongst younger and older students, brought together as members of the same house, or by a shared interest or passion, be it coding, animal rights, music or journalism, to name but a very few. Much of this involvement leads to other forms of student growth. Over and over again I have seen or heard of students so inspired by their sense of belonging that they feel empowered to put their name forth for a leadership role. And similarly, a common refrain for their motivation is, “I want to make sure everyone feels that they matter, just like I do,” or “I want to ensure they have a great experience, just like me.” What strikes me the most, though, is how they find and form this belonging, this community of students with students, but also teachers and other staff, within our diverse and international context. Yet I put forth to you that it is this setting, with its common and shared values, that deepens our sense of belonging, thus allowing us to appreciate and celebrate our differences. Finally, I would like to touch on a community that continues to thrive long after they have left the halls of TFS; namely, I am speaking of our alumni. Last spring, we conducted an alumni survey. One finding jumped out at me. From amongst all of our fellow independent schools included in the study, TFS alumni stay the most connected to each other; to be more precise, 96% stay in touch with classmates. These ongoing TFS friendships reveal and mean so much. Back when Jacob was in Level I, he was asked by the school to buddy with Max, a new student joining TFS. Today, both have gone on to study engineering, one at McGill and the other at the Royal Military College; despite distance and the busyness of their university programs, they remain very good friends. This example is typical of TFS grads; I see it all the time. This is what gives me great confidence in knowing that our students, years and decades from now, will still be able to count on the friendships and bonds formed while at TFS.
Michael Burke Deputy Head, Citizenship and Community Engagement