As I write my first Head Lines of the year, I can’t help but notice, outside my window, the vibrant fall foliage tinged with red, gold, and orange hues announcing the end of autumn. Fall has always been my favourite season and just recently, I found myself wondering why. Perhaps it’s because of the powerful memories I hold of my youth walking through the woods in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. I remember admiring mother nature’s colourful canvas, hearing twigs snapping sharply under my rubber boots while my father and I gathered wild mushrooms that mom would masterfully incorporate in her savoury harvest soup, a traditional dish during our Thanksgiving dinner. As you can see in this picture, our creative girls found a way to demonstrate both their love of fall and YHS.
The rapidly changing season reminds me how quickly time flies and how important it is to stop and take time to appreciate all that surrounds us. With Thanksgiving behind us and Halloween just around the corner, I am pleased to say that we have had an incredible start to the year. This has been my first official start to the school year as Head of School and I am very fortunate to be working with incredibly dedicated and caring faculty and staff. By now, classroom routines are well established and students and faculty have been engaged in incredible learning experiences both in and outside the classroom.
Speaking of learning experiences, a few weeks ago, in a Junior School assembly, I shared the real story of, “Little (But Tall) Julie and the Red Pencil Crayon”. I decided to share this true story of an experience I had as a young girl as a way of connecting with the girls while at the same time delivering an important message about friendship.
The story goes like this. At the beginning of the school year in Grade 3, after having purchased and sharpened my pencil crayons, a classmate, Isabelle Laporte, asked to borrow my favourite and most cherished, red pencil crayon. Despite my concern and hesitation and after establishing strict conditions of care for the said red pencil crayon, I reluctantly let my classmate borrow my pencil crayon. Upon returning my favourite red pencil crayon, and much to my horror, I discovered it was no longer the beautifully tall, perfectly sharpened red pencil crayon I cherished, rather it had become a sad, mangled and shriveled…three inch red pencil crayon. I described to the girls (in great detail and with many physical manifestations) how horrified, devastated, angry and sad I was.
Of course, there were funny moments as I told the girls this story, but I also shared with them how convinced I was that Isabelle had done this intentionally and how I vowed to no longer ever be her friend only to realize, the very next day, that it never really was her fault. The story ends by me explaining to the girls that I had jumped to a conclusion and that my friend had not had the time to explain to me that the pencil sharpener was defective and that she felt badly about what had happened. I shared with the girls how badly I felt for being so upset and unkind with my friend and what a valuable lesson it was for me as a young girl.
Although my intention in sharing this story with the girls was to talk about the ups and downs of friendship, the importance of not jumping to a conclusion, listening to each other and several other key takeaways, a remarkable thing happened that I wish to share with you. As I told the story, you could have heard a pin drop in the assembly. In fact, as I told the story, at times I could see them frown, other times giggle, other times gasp in horror! The girls were not only listening to the story; they could feel it. They had all been there. They could all relate to being disappointed or upset with a friend. What happened was a beautiful thing called empathy.
As you know, empathy is one of our core values and as a school leader, this is a value I truly cherish as it sets the tone for a caring and responsive school culture. Empathy, or the ability to understand others’ feelings and needs, is the foundation of a safe, nurturing and inclusive learning environment. It is important for us to recognize that for students to be successful, they not only need academic rigour but experiences that will help them develop their social and emotional learning.
In a global and interconnected world, empathy gives students the advantage to lead meaningful and productive lives. That’s why Forbes encourages companies to adopt empathy and perspective-taking principles, and the Harvard Business Review named empathy as one of the “essential ingredients for leadership success and excellent performance” (Golman, 2014).
According to Dr. Michelle Borba, child psychology expert, rather than a one-dimensional trait, empathy comprises nine teachable competencies that she identifies in her book entitled, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World (2016). These nine competencies Dr. Borba describes in her book include emotional literacy, moral identity, perspective taking, moral imagination, self-regulation, practicing kindness, collaboration, moral courage, and growing change makers.
I encourage you to read Dr. Borba’s book as it suggests that educating for empathy is not about using a toolkit or a one-off program, rather it requires ongoing work both by schools and parents. Here is a brief but very useful video where Dr. Borba suggests a few simple strategies for parents to build their child’s empathy.
Rest assured, these are competencies that our teachers regularly and intentionally weave into their lessons and interactions on a daily basis because we know that empathy makes our students better people and helps them understand one simple truth: We are all humans who share similar fears and concerns and we all deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.
To this day, even several weeks after I shared the red pencil crayon story at the Junior School assembly, students still come up to me to share their friendship experiences. These heartwarming and real connections with students are what make my job as a Head of School so deeply rewarding. Every day, in many ways, we learn from each other.
Head of School