Leadership interview with Ryan Smid, Robert Land Academy
Highlights from the interview
The first thing I love about my job is I am a very proud parent, but a proud parent of two daughters. And so what I really like about Robert Land Academy is it's an all-boys school. And so I feel a little bit like a grandpa sometimes because I can come here and spend time with the boys and really get engaged with the boys. But at the end of the day, I can go home and carry on with my own life. So I feel like I can have that rapport with the boys here. So that would be the first thing.
The second thing I really like is I am a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the Canadian Armed Forces. And so as you can see here, the school is military inspired. We do wear a uniform, and a lot of the same culture that existed in the Canadian Armed Forces exists here as well. And so for me, I feel really comfortable working at Robert Land Academy.
Every student has their own story. Every student is unique in their own way. And to a certain extent, we try to meet individuality, even though the core of our program is ensuring there is one standard. So what I would say in a nutshell is this is an extremely rewarding job when I thoroughly enjoy doing what I can see, boys make progress. Well, when I first arrived and having taken over other institutions before in the military, I knew it's important to just take a look and see how things are running and find the strengths that we have and try to identify the things that we might be doing better. So I really wanted to take that opportunity first. And what I found is that we have existed for 42 years because we do have a successful program.
It's because we really do consider ourselves to be one family, all of the staff together, and so we try to act that way. And I think that the boys in the program just simply benefit from that. A typical day for me. I like to arrive early to the Academy, so the boys are generally up at about 6:30. I tend to arrive between 6:30 and 7. And what I like to do is, again, this is my old army life. I like to do my PT, my physical fitness, my exercise for the day. I like to do that first thing in the morning. Today was a good example of it because it's starting to get hot out so good that you can do it in the morning when it's cool. And what I'll try to do is while the boys are getting ready, they get an opportunity to see me out doing PT. So I like to start my day with that. The boys end up preparing for classes. They head off to classes. When I'm finished PT, I'll head off to the office. It doesn't seem like there's always a ton of emails and stuff to work through, which is fine.
But generally, on any given day, I have the opportunity to spend time in the office, spend time talking to staff. We have our old groups and our meetings to ensure that we're ready for the next steps that come, whether it's tomorrow or three months from now. But I also have the opportunity, and I make this point every single day, to get out and see what the boys are doing and spend time with the boys. I think it's important that I see them and that they see me for my own part. So I have a good sense of what they're going through on any given day. I certainly wouldn't want to be detached from them. Even though I know what the program is day to day, it can fluctuate and boys individually have good days and bad days for the boys. They're going to spend most of their day either in class or doing activities and we try to do those outside as much as we can. They certainly get time for studying and we have a tutor that's here after hours to work with them and that is an important part of our program.
So we have three programs really when we think about it, and our first is our junior program and that's grades 5-6-78. So kids that would be an elementary school, then we have an intermediate program, boys that are in grades nine and ten and then finally we have our senior program for boys that are in grade eleven and twelve. Any parent would recognize that those three different sorts of age groups, boys go through different phases in their life and act in different ways.
Grade 11-12 boys, they see the future, the future is right around the corner and they know that they're getting ready for university, they're getting ready for life. Those boys do quite well here at the Academy and because by this point, especially if they've been in our program for a number of years, they have the self discipline, the self regulation to do well with the environment that we have prepping for the future. The boys in grade 9 and 10, those boys are a little bit different and that's the group of boys that they've gone through puberty or going through puberty, a lot of change in their lives. University is a million years from now. It's certainly not something that's around the corner, very difficult to keep them focused on their studies, and so all of those boys in each of the programs perform well when they have adult supervision 24/7, which is what we provide here at the Academy.
We are a very labour-intensive organization. And that goes back to my statement about 24/7 adult supervision. So each of those three programs always has a minimum of two guys, two adults working with the company, and then there are others that are superimposed over top of that, and then the teachers are superimposed over top of that. So there is a lot of supervision and there are a lot of staff members, but that's necessary in order to execute our program properly. I am proud to say that one thing that I was able to introduce here at the Academy for our staff members is a living wage.
So we're very proud of that. And I think that probably is helping us minimize the staff turnover as it is. But what we do find is that we have a lot of younger individuals, both men and women, who work here at the Academy as operations staff in particular. And our Academy offers an opportunity for those that have graduated university or police and colleges to get experience here that they use to move on in their lives. And then what's really good about it is we try to maintain a relationship with those individuals, because we sometimes get them back 20 years down the line.
I like the atmosphere, the military culture and atmosphere that exists here at Robert Land Academy. And maybe it's because I have two daughters and no sons that I enjoy the environment of an old boys school. But I guess it’s more broad than that. I think that there is a role for all boys schools and all girls schools in Canada. And when I look at the current education system and I compare it to what I grew up in, and then I compare what my daughters are going through and they're 14 and twelve, I see huge differences. And what I really notice is that our current public school system, for lack of resources or whatever, does not seem to be serving boys as well as it did at one point in time. And so when you see which cohort is it that drops out of school the most? It's boys, which cohort is it that is doing worse at school with regards to grades, it's boys. And so what one recognizes at the end of the day is that boys and girls learn differently. And yet our public school system just has a one size fits all system.
And so that's not a comment about girls. They tend to be doing better in the system that exists at public school. But I'm also a firm believer that girls also learn differently from boys, and a different type of instruction for them might also help them. So I'm just pleased to be part of an all boys school that recognizes this difference and works to try and ensure that these boys can meet their full potential. Well, the values of the school have not changed in 42 years, and those values are commitment, courage, honor, loyalty, and labor. And so we try to instill those in all of our boys. But what I recognize here now in my first year is that commitment is probably the one value that our boys really need to have in their lives. Too many of our boys have come to the school having quit everything they've ever done, whether it's quitting school, quitting their sports teams. Unfortunately, too many of them quit relationships within their family. And so what we try to inspire them to do is to make a commitment not to all those things, but make a commitment to yourself, make a commitment to yourself, to be your best you every day.
One of the things I wanted to change here at the school, when I arrived, there was no formal alumni association at all. And so one of the things I'm very proud of is that we have established an alumni committee. It's chaired by an alumnus. It has twelve members that are all alumni on the committee, and they're working hard now, both for the benefit of the alumni, but also for the current students. And so, again, Cobett has thrown us a bit of a wrench into our plans, because certainly it is my intention to have the alumni come back and speak to the boys. And I think that's critically important. We have many alumni who have gone on to do quite important things in their lives, names that we know one might recognize from across all walks of life. And to have them come back and share their experiences with our boys is critically important. And so to the extent that we have been able to do that, and we have on a number of occasions through Zoom.
Every year we have a very challenging physical exercise called the fall exercise. It's three days long and the boys march about 30 km a day for three days with their rucksacks just in the Niagara region, and it's pretty powerful. Boys really push themselves as you can imagine, most boys have never marched that far in their lives or had to push themselves and so when they get to the end of that third day it's a very rewarding experience to be part of when you see kids that didn't know they had that in them. And yet they succeeded, and so how does that connect to the alumni? When I talk to alumni and I do on almost daily basis, what resonates the most with them and their experience here at Robert Land Academy was their participation in the fall exercise and so I'm really proud to say that this year we will have the alumni participate with the boys in the fall exercise and I'm really hoping that over the course of those three days the alumni are going to be able to set an example for those boys and they're going to be able to spend time and talk to them individually and perhaps motivate them for other things in life beyond just marching in the exercise.
So it's a shared bond that we're trying to create. We get all kinds of students and I should say that our program is one that I think would work for any boy, all boys when you think about what it is that we do here which is a highly structured living and learning environment, the boys have no access to the Internet, the boys do not have their cell phones at all ever and the boys have a structured day, they get three healthy meals a day, they get physical fitness every single day and they have a tutor available to them that helps them every single day. So what boy would not do better under those circumstances? I think every boy but what types of boys do we get? Because not every boy needs to come here. There are lots of boys that do very well for themselves in the public school system or at another private school but the boys that end up doing well here are boys who require that structure. They're not doing well at public school or whatever school they may be at at this moment in time because they're not focused, because they're not guided along, because they don't have mentorship and so all those things are things that we offer here at the Academy.
Robert Land Academy is not easy when we talk about commitment, the boy needs to make a commitment to the program, and too often what we find is that boys are not prepared to make that commitment. And so there are boys, there are families who will apply. But it's clear the boy doesn't want to come here, even though the parents might think it's in their best interest. And so we don't accept that boy. Those are the only types of boys we don't accept. They don't have to like it, and none of them are going to love it. But what we do see is a recognition sometime sooner, sometimes later, that what they did, what they accomplished is what's made them the man that they are today.
So it was very interesting for me to see that there's very little middle ground here at Robert Land Academy. Either you're all in or this is not the program for you. As long as that student is prepared to put in the work. Right. They have to be committed to the program. And that's not Brian and any kind of grandeur on our part, like, we recognize that boys have good days and bad days. We have lots of boys here that are at our school right now that would have been kicked out of any public school or certainly any other private school. But we recognize that they have difficulties and we are working with them and their parents to overcome those difficulties with that boy. Right. And so when I talk about structure, and boys that do well at the Academy, or our program works well for boys who suffer from ADHD, we can work with those boys, boys that might otherwise not be successful in public school because there aren't the resources, the time, the human resources to deal with those boys. Well, that's precisely what we do here.
So for many of the boys, Robert Land Academy and maybe their last opportunity because they've gone to public school, they've gone to other private schools, and they're not doing well there. And so here's sort of a last opportunity, and a lot of boys will buy into that and recognize that there's only so many chances in life. I spoke a little bit earlier about a family atmosphere, and I certainly feel that way about the staff, but I think that the staff would also feel that way about the boys. And time and time and time again I hear from staff, and I'm looking forward to experiencing it myself this year. We never thought that boy was going to make it to Christmas, let alone graduate. And you hear that repeatedly.
And so from a culture perspective, we have a very much a family environment where our staff care individually about each of the boys that are here. Every staff member knows the name of every boy at the Academy. Yeah, I think we will. We certainly recognize that there needs to be a relationship between the teachers and the staff and the parents, because the parents are one third of the solution to this problem. Right. The boy needs to be committed. We've spoken about that quite a bit. Certainly the staff are committed, but we also need the parents to be committed.
Most parents obviously do want to be involved, and they've looked us up because they are having issues at home or they do think that their son could do better. And so we're involved. So I do think that the relationship between the staff and the parents, not only is it important, but it's one that we try to ensure that there's open lines of communication. I do think as the headmaster, I've taken it upon myself to communicate more directly with parents, which is something that we didn't used to do in the past, because we do have a communications officer and our admin staff do reach out on day to day issues with the parents. But as headmaster, there certainly are more opportunities where I can communicate directly to parents, information that they would need and in a covert environment.
Okay, so there are probably lots of different types of interstate conflict, and we deal with those. Every single day, because every single day there will be a boy who for whatever reason, feels compelled to instigate another boy. And I think that is the nature of probably being a teenage boy or just even a boy, period. And why does one do that for a whole host of reasons. Seeking attention, trying to settle a score, you name it, and it's there. So how do we deal with these things? Well, I guess the good news is, as I say, we deal with them every single day. And so it's relatively routine for us. And I guess the important part in Brian and this is that you don't allow these situations to escalate because certainly nobody wants to see a relatively harmless prank turn into a fist fight or something like that. And so because we have adult supervision 24/7, the boys are rarely in a position where they can escalate something without staff being able to step in and de-escalate it. And so on a daily basis, you'll see staff just take a boy aside and maybe we have to go walk a lap.
If Robert Land Academy was a person well, I guess we named the Academy after Robert Land, didn't we? And Robert Land was the first settler of what is now Hamilton. And he has a long and illustrious history that dates to the American Revolution in the War of 1812. And so I think that we've modeled our school after a real person, and that's how we came up with our five values. So if Robert Land Academy was a person today, I think it would be a lot like Robert Land. The individual who was an adventurous man, but family was very important to him. He was a model citizen. And I think that's what I hope that our boys become. Not all of them are going to be astronauts. Not all of them are going to be Prime Minister. Not all of them are going to be doctors. Some of them might not even make it through university. But what I hope that they can all do is be model citizens and be able to contribute to the community in which they live and to be good husbands and good fathers when the opportunity arrives for them.
Certainly choosing a school for your kids is probably one of the most important things that you're going to do. And so, in my mind, the most important aspect of that is just being honest and being honest with yourself, but being honest with, in this case, with your son, what is best for your son. And I think what we find is too often while parents think they're doing the best thing for their son. Maybe it's the best thing for them, and you can see where this is coming from. Every parent wants to protect their child like that's. Just human behavior. That's just very natural. And yet, I think my opinion would be a parent's role is to prepare their offspring for real life. And it turns out that real life is hard. And as much as we want to protect our children from all the difficulties in this crazy world, the only thing that we can do is to prepare them for it, and you need to prepare them for it intellectually, morally, and physically. And I feel that's what Robert Land Academy does.