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St. Jude's Academy:
The Our Kids Report
Grades JK TO Gr. 12 — Mississauga, ON (Map)

St. Jude's Academy:

Leadership interview with Aaron Sawatsky, St. Jude's Academy

  • Name
    Aaron Sawatsky
  • Title

Video Contents

Highlights from the interview

  • Three things that I love about my job. I love schools. I like kids. I don't know if that's the same or if those are separate. I can't really separate those two. So being able to go in every day and feel that energy that kids bring and being able to teach them, that's fantastic. So that's a hard thing to not enjoy. A third thing has been my own kids. I wanted a place for my own kids to go, that I could ensure they're getting the best quality education.

  • We’ve been growing and really advancing over the last few years, especially our high school area. We started off with the elementary, and it's been growing. This is just our 15th year of existence. We started off with 21 kids in a small house 15 years ago, and now we have over 550 students. We have a full high school. And yes, it's quite exciting. So every year it's getting bigger and better. And so it's taking a turn that way in that you always have new and new problems, new issues when you're starting to get size and scale.

  • We are IB from JK all the way through to grade twelve. So when I started St. Judes back in 2006, I started it with the idea of becoming an IB school. You're not able to start an IB school right off the bat from day one. They want you to get a few years under your belt first. It was very important for us because it's a framework. Having an outside organization not necessarily audit you, but be there with you to make sure that you're doing what you need to be doing. There's a lot of credibility with that, and that's what I really wanted. I wanted to make sure that there was credibility, that we were doing what we said we were going to do, that there was a plan. A plan was laid out so that we could see what was supposed to happen. Teachers understood where we were going and what it was supposed to happen. That was very important to me.

  • In my high school, I was exposed to one of the very first high schools in Canada to actually have the diploma program. Back then, it wasn't a diploma program. It was just the IB because IB was just grade eleven and twelve. And then when I became a teacher going through university and became a teacher, we'd heard about the IB program, and I started investigating it. I realized this was the best framework that I could see to put into a school, to make sure that you had the integrity of what you were teaching. And so that was so important to me. It just seemed to really make sense. Inquiry based learning is just so much more important to us than teachers. Standing at the front of the room, lecturing in the classic style. We can even go back a little bit further in school. I always wondered, why do we do things the way we do?

  • I wanted to have a school that the kids actually enjoy. Learning is magical. To learn something about science or to learn things with mathematics. It's like magic. And so for kids to go to a class thinking that it's dull and boring, I don't understand that. If kids are not enjoying school, I think that we're doing something wrong. And so the whole idea with the IB is that being inquiry-based, and having students ask great questions first, to sort of kick off where we're going. It made it real for them. It made it something they would like and would enjoy.

  • The landscape of the IB has changed since we started off. There are a lot more schools that have the IB. The more IB schools, the merrier, because the better we're going to have the next society, I think. It's asking kids to be globally minded, we're asking kids to start thinking about these things now, as opposed to thinking about them maybe later in high school or possibly even university. If they're thinking about global issues at a younger age, and are able to come up with a problem, come up with a solution for that problem and present that, that's huge because of the confidence that it instills in the kids.

  • And we're definitely seeing now the kind of activism that young people are capable of. They're really kind of leading the way in terms of making sure that people are listening to them and their views are being seen and being heard. So, yeah, we know now that students of this age are more than capable of handling that kind of thinking.

  • But of course, with the internet now, we don't need to learn the information as much as critically think about the information. And so that's where the modern school is. So that's what we have to teach the kids now how to deal with the modern school and the modern age. In fact, in some ways, they teach us more because they're growing up in the middle of it. And they don't actually know the way it used to be even 20 years ago. So it's quite exciting.

  • Yes. So all IB schools do have a common element and a common thread. But there's just one part that it's not really an IB thing: it's just relationships. We start every staff meeting, every planning session that we have talking about relationships. This has to be about a relationship between the student and the teacher, the student and the parents, the parents of the administration, because it's not a product, it's not a pair of jeans that you go to buy. It is a relationship. And no kid really fully grasps the potential unless they feel safe and secure in an environment. And they're not going to do that unless they feel like they have a relationship with the teacher.

  • If they just feel like they're going through the motions, if they're just hit there to check off a box, then that's what you're going to get is a box that is checked. So what St. Jude's, how it's a little bit different, is we still have that relationship. We have no intentions of ever growing big enough that we don't have those relationships.

  • I want to be able to know every single student in the school. All of our teachers do know every kid by name. That's very important to us. We know the parents. We know the kids. We want to be able to say hello in the hall and know who each other are. We feel that's the biggest thing with, especially in the digital age that we're in, is keeping the relationships so important.

  • Interacting with the students is very important. Being there and present in the building and talking with parents, talking with students, talking with teachers on a daily basis. It's almost the informal approach of leadership that people can approach us about anything. Students will come up to us and pitch ideas for the student council, for things that they'd like to do. And it's a great opportunity for them just to be able to approach us at any point because it is a relationship. It's not filled with bureaucracy.

  • So I do a lot of walking around the school. That's one of the first things I do. Last year was kind of fun. For the first time in six years, I taught a philosophy class, grade eleven philosophy class. Now, as long as I remembered not to be late for that class, which happened a few times, it was a blast. That class was so interesting. When you get a bunch of 15 and 16 year olds and you're talking about what is good, what is evil, what is beauty, what is art, these are great questions, open end questions that the kids love to debate. So that was a lot of fun.

  • So I do a lot of walking around the school. That's one of the first things I do. Last year was kind of fun. For the first time in six years, I taught a philosophy class, grade eleven philosophy class. Now, as long as I remembered not to be late for that class, which happened a few times, it was a blast. That class was so interesting. When you get a bunch of 15 and 16 year olds and you're talking about what is good, what is evil, what is beauty, what is art, these are great questions, open end questions that the kids love to debate. So that was a lot of fun.

  • So I do a lot of walking around the school. That's one of the first things I do. Last year was kind of fun. For the first time in six years, I taught a philosophy class, grade eleven philosophy class. Now, as long as I remembered not to be late for that class, which happened a few times, it was a blast. That class was so interesting. When you get a bunch of 15 and 16 year olds and you're talking about what is good, what is evil, what is beauty, what is art, these are great questions, open end questions that the kids love to debate. So that was a lot of fun.

  • That's basically my day. We pop in and out of classrooms all the time. The administration is constantly doing evaluations on our teachers, and that takes a long time. So we're popping into classes in sort of ten to 15 minute intervals so that we can make sure that what's going on in the classroom is what we're telling the parents is happening as well. We want to make sure that whatever we sold the parents when they came in, we're actually doing that's important for us.

  • It's true that when we were smaller, I knew every single parent by name. It gets a little bit more difficult as they're dropping off and picking up, all the newer ones that come in. But with our full leadership team, we try to make sure that everybody is being able to be represented, covered and talked to pretty much on a daily basis, whether it's a deputy head of school, head of school, myself or just a lead teacher. We constantly talk to the parents on a daily basis. It's very important to us. Being accessible and approachable is very important for us.

  • We don't have a rule book, that's for sure. We learn quickly that a rulebook is easy for us, but it does not make sense for the parents or the students. So we look at everything almost on an individual basis. That's a lot more work for us. But I just find I can't be fair unless we look at everything on an individual basis. If it's a conflict between two students, if it's a conflict between a parent and a teacher, I think it's so important to go into it knowing that with a blank slate, basically, and understanding that get the information, find out what's going on and try to hear people to find out what the problem truly is so that you're not finding that problem again and again and again. We find if we just used rules, adding a rule would just sort of mask a problem or sort of drive a parent away to go find another school that may have been more suited for them. So we look at everything on an individual basis and so that we can try to solve it. Once again, it goes back to our philosophy of having a relationship with each one of the parents and each one of the students.

  • I don't know if we have a particular type. We have the full demographic. We really do. We are not the most expensive school. We are probably not the most prestigious school, although we're not the most inexpensive and probably not the least prestigious. We're kind of a middle of the road school that way. And we really do attract a wide spectrum of students from backgrounds, demographic ability. It's very hard for us to pinpoint. We do take the data every year to look at the demographic of who we have. And it's amazing how year by year it changes. And so we haven't really been able to pinpoint that. The majority would be from Mississauga, Brampton, next would be Milton, and then some from Oakville as well.

  • IB teaches you how to ask the right questions, how to think about what you're learning, to look at your own strengths and weaknesses so that you understand how you learn. So how should I study? How should I look at these things? So it really helps to foster a confident student. The only type of student that I say doesn't do well is someone if their parents forced them to come, they don't have the attitude to be there. And that's only been once or twice that we've actually seen that. And they've kind of got their mind made up that this is not where I want to be, but my parents want me to be here pretty much everywhere. Everyone else that comes in has a lot of fun because we make it a very fun school. We strive to have as much fun as we possibly can.

  • So if you actually are excited about going to school, you're excited about going to see your friends. Classes aren't a drag. They're not a bore. Then we've eliminated half the problems right there. So we do everything from crazy house games and house cups. We have a huge house system within our school and that's so important. And so that's one of the first things. The second thing is just the teaching staff who we hire. If they don't have a sense of play, they don't usually get hired. So when we do our mass interviews every year, we do a big mass interview where 60, 70 teachers come in to apply for usually the one or two positions we have open. We actually put them through a whole process where the other staff members get to come in and evaluate as well, because we're looking for a certain type of teacher,they have to have a sense of play, a sense of joy, a sense of enthusiasm.

  • Because if you're not enjoying the class, if you're just sitting there and you're thinking, this guy doesn't want to be here and I don't want to be here, then that's what you're going to get. You're going to get two people that don't want to be there. So we like a school where the environment is just to have as much fun as you possibly can. So random acts of craziness happened all the time. It can be a simple thing in the morning from choosing three people, one from each house, getting them to take off their right shoe, taking a garbage bin, and seeing who can throw their shoe into the garbage bin first. And it sounds crazy, but little things like that randomly throughout the week just makes the kids really like school.

  • We teach our students to challenge our teachers, not in a bad way, but in a good way. We constantly ask our students to ask our teachers: Why am I studying this? Why am I learning this? When is this going to be needed? Because that's so important to us. So that's part of that inquisitiveness as well. We want kids to know why. So they would ask a lot of those questions. 

  • Private schools are different, and you need to find one that matches your student or your kid and your family's lifestyle, your value system. That's the biggest thing. I encourage people not to bounce around from one to the next. I mean, it's one thing if you have to move, but stability is a very important thing for a kid in their younger years. So find a school that you really feel comfortable with. So go into a school. Go to a school that will actually let you come in for a trial day or a trial week. We've let people sometimes come for two or three weeks just for classes to figure out for the next year if this is where they want to be. If they're still not sure, keep coming back until you either know yes or no.

  • And then we encourage our families as well to think of what you wish the school could do better. What are some of our flaws or warts, so to speak, and make sure that you tell these new parents about that as well. So they don't go in thinking that we have rose-coloured glasses and everything is perfect, because no school is perfect. So you have to find out which one is right for you. So check it out, take your time, really investigate and see. And that's about it. Trying to find the one that fits you best.

  • All schools that I know of, it's about the leadership. If it has the right leadership, then it will probably be a good school. That is the most important part. So if you want to see a red flag, can you actually access the leadership? Can you talk to them? Can you express why or find out why something is done the way it is? If you have a suggestion, will they at least hear it? You can't always do it, of course, but will they at least hear it? That is so important. So the big red flag would be to check out their leadership and see if you're just talking to an admissions person and you can't get a hold of anybody else. That's a pretty big red flag.

  • Learning doesn't have to be painful. It can be fun, it can be really enjoyable. And the more social you make it, the more enjoyable you make it for the kids, the better they're going to do. And the better that they do, the greater advantage they're going to have in life. So that's the biggest thing for me right now. I'm trying to encourage parents to look for some place that your kid is going to flourish. The old ways are gone where we try to yell at kids or try to force them to do something or guilt them into things. They just don't work. We don't usually parent that way much anymore and so schools that still offer that I just don't find them effective. So kids are a lot more savvy in some ways in some ways they're not. But one of the ways is that they can smell authenticity and so try to be a school that is authentic and has an authentic good time and you're teaching something for an authentic reason and that will speak volumes.


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