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WillowWood School:
The Our Kids Report
Grades K TO Gr. 12 — Toronto, ON (Map)

WillowWood School:

Leadership interview with Fred Howe, WillowWood School

  • Name
    Fred Howe
  • Title

Video Contents

Highlights from the interview

  • The big one is the interaction with the kids. Even though I'm an administrator, I held on to things like coaching just because it's my way of staying in touch with the kids. So I still coach basketball. I still help kids write their essays. It's funny because my background is in English, so the senior students will come to me to get help with their essays before they give them to their teachers. So that's one thing I really love, is that interaction with the kids is still there, the parents and being there for them, talking things through, working out a plan for their kids. That challenge of doing that is fantastic.

  • And then, of course, just working with my staff. They're great people. They know how to get the most out of every situation, whether it's the kids they're dealing with or the resources they have or the building we have and the resources we have as a building, they just know how to do it. And working with them to make it better is fantastic. That's the three prongs, right students, parents and kids. I've been here most of my teaching career. I started in the public system and didn't really. I was actually close to quitting teaching. I didn't really enjoy it. 

  • So when I came here, I realized the opportunity was there to do what I wanted to do with kids, to teach them in the way that I wanted to teach them, to access materials that I wanted to access and to present it in ways that I knew would be meaningful to them. So I was excited by that prospect. But there was an openness to learning here that wasn't a traditional approach, and that's why I've stayed here this long, too. It varies. I mean, the culvert situation has changed those routines, but under normal circumstances, I try to get here. 7:30-ish starts with a workout in the morning and sometimes kids will meet me for those workouts. I have a basketball group that sometimes comes in and we do a little shooting around and playing in the mornings before school starts. So I try to start my day with some kind of physical engagement with the kids or on my own. If no one's with me, I'll just do my own workout. Once the staff starts filtering in, they always have questions in the morning and there's things that need to be addressed.

  • And you problem-solve and you work out ways. What the path of the day is going to be like, or the path going forward, not just for the day and troubleshooting the problems. And then I'll try to get out and greet kids. Sometimes I'll be outside on duties, greeting parents in the parking lot, saying hello, covering for staff absenteeism, and that's a good opportunity. Being outside and seeing the parents in the morning, that's a great opportunity under normal circumstances.

  • I know all of them. I know them all by face by name. I know every kid. The rest of the day for me is it's at that level of planning and looking to the future, finding things that are going to benefit our kids, working with the Ministry if we need to, working with the Federation of Independent Schools if we need to, different things throughout the day that are going to plan and make us a better place down the road.

  • So that's a lot of my day. And at lunchtime, I try to engage with people. I try to get out in the cafeteria, try to get down to the staff room when I can, and talk to people, see how their days are going, just engage. In general, the afternoons are my quiet time, usually quite often that's when I do more of my paperwork, unless there's an issue to deal with. But we have pretty good people that handle the issues here if they come up. So most of the time it's my quiet time in the afternoon and then at the end of the day, again, get back out in the hallways or get down to the gym or get out where I can engage with the kids a little more. I try to get to classrooms, to the day if I can. That's the hardest thing I find to do right now is to get into the classrooms. I used to do that way more than I have at the upper administrative level. And at the end of the day is usually responding to emails, answering phone calls and talking to parents and saying goodbye to the staff as they leave.

  • So that's pretty much my day. And you just have to sort of focus on those things that you are grateful for, you're thankful for in your job and in the people around you. And it makes a huge difference to what the rest of the day is going to feel like to you. It varies depending on when they come into the building. You have these general admission times that tend to be in the early elementary grades, then the grade seven and then the grade nine, that tends to be the entrance points for us. So a kid that comes in grade two or three, their parents might see it just as an elementary journey for them, and they would leave us after grade six. There are kids, definitely, that start in grade two and go all the way to grade twelve. They complete the full journey, and when they leave us, we've been part of their lives in a significant way for a long time.

  • But I think along the way you tend to try to figure out what the path for any kid is going to be, and how to keep as many options open for them as possible as long as you can. So there's kids in grade two that want to be brain surgeons, and by the time they're in grade eight, they want to be journalists, and by the time they're in grade ten, they want to go to business school. So it really changes along the way.

  • That openness, that understanding of the evolution of a kid is so important. You see them as a project. You teach them to see themselves as a project. And that project is going to be constantly evolving through their time with you. So whether it's a kid that's really keen on sports and they need that as part of their life to supplement, or it's the dominant part of their life that's going to determine a different path for them. If it's a kid who's an arts kid that's really good at drawing and visual art and graphic design and all those things, is it going to be something they do for enjoyment, or is it going to be something that's their path, that's where they're going with their life.

  • All those things are determined in such minute ways by influences in their lives and by the teachers and how they impact them and what their parents feel about things. That journey is constantly evolving as you get from elementary to high school. Once they're in high school, our goal is post secondary education. We're trying to get them a larger percentage to go to university than college, but it will vary year to year. It will always be: What are the things that make up where you want to go? What are the things that are going to make you happy? Is this a step in the journey, this university thing, or is it the end point? Is that what you want to be when you finish? Or is it just to get more? Not just, but it is just to broaden you and make you more aware of what you might want to do and maybe you end up going back to college for a supplemental diploma.

  • But that path is evolution. It's based on feedback constantly from everybody that's rounded the kids and from their questions that they ask about life and about the path they can take.

  • We have staff that are here for a long time because they like being here and they like working with the kids and they like the atmosphere and I guess they like how we run things. I get that feedback from the staff a lot, that they enjoy the environment and the way we work and problem solve together. So staff turnover is very low. So I think the best way to answer that is we have a teacher that was a student. So he was here when he was an elementary kid and honestly, when he left the school, he was out before us. It was under pretty difficult circumstances for him and we took a chance on him and we welcomed him with open arms. He was such a great kid with such lovely energy, and you just knew there was more there than what he had been showing where he was before.He's become one of the go-to staff members for the kid who's struggling, the kid who doesn't get why his parents want him to do what he has to do, or the kid that really has trouble with the motivation or the direction he's going in, this staff member gets it because he lived it.

  • And he goes to those kids and he'll give them great advice and he'll give them great strategies for handling what they're dealing with and he'll support them. And so when you've got a staff member like that and you can set him up as an example to the kids. You can say to them, look at that teacher, he was like you. He had difficulty in life, he had troubles when he was younger and especially when he was a teenager and got through with the people giving him good advice, people giving him strategies and him choosing which advice and which strategies were going to work for him and making them work. And so when you have that example living in your building, it's a really handy tool to have.

  • I think about the ones that have just left and the contact with them is still fairly strong. They will come back. They'll talk about their university and college experiences with their younger peers. They will share their experiences. We'll have some of them that come back and actually do job placements with us. They might come back and do a teacher's college placement or they might come back and even if we've had a couple of business placements, we've got a couple of tech placements. They'll come back because they want to stay connected to the school.

  • When we have our annual fundraisers, they all show up. They're all out there. It's a big carnival and a lot of them will come back and visit. There'll be kids that I haven't seen in 15 or 20 years show up. And that's always a challenge to the memory at my age. But you know the face and you can't remember the name. But really, I think there's a Facebook group that's well-connected. There's an Instagram group that's well-connected.

  • And I think there's that sense of we belong there, we fit it, we really made it work there. And that sort of communal sense of success ties everyone together. You've got kids that were in musicals together. The kid could have been in grade three and the other kid in grade twelve and they were in the same musical performing together. And so there's that connection of mentorship. When a grade twelve student takes a little grade three and says, you need to stand here when I'm singing, or you need to all stand here while you're singing. And those little moments of mentorship that stay with kids forever, they remember, that great, three kids going to remember, that great, twelve kids.

  • When they come here they get this sense that this is a family, a team, a group of people that are all going to be on my side and find a way for me to be happy and successful. And that's the biggest thing. I think that's the essence of that team family approach. When you walk in our building, the most common comment I get from a visitor is, this feels like home. And it's a regular school building. We've got a gym and a science lab and computer labs and lots of classrooms and an office. When you walk in the building, it looks like a school, but that's the first comment they make. It feels like home.

  • It’s the idea that you are the centre of a team as a kid, and that team is going to work with you. Everyone here is there to support you and make it work for you. And they don't get it at first, but they get it after a short period of time, for sure. Cooperation, friendliness, making the most out of every circumstance. Just a general feeling that there's nothing we can't get past if we all work together and find a way. There's kids that benefit from things like mindfulness and meditation and that whole area of things. And we have a group of people that are dedicated to doing that and staff that are engaged with that. We have people that are engaged with physical sports and all that. We have people engaged with the arts and all that. It's the sense of how all those things can work together and cooperate together, not just in terms of scheduling, but in terms of it being a part of what everyone kind of can get out of being at the school.

  • That sense of cooperation and understanding is number one here. I'd like to think it's, in general, fantastic. I think based on the testimonials we get from parents, I've been getting so many positive things, even through the Covid experience with parents telling us, we know you don't get to hear this, but we're glad you're doing a great job. We're happy with what's happening under these circumstances.

  • And I think, in general, the sense that even if there's a problem, we're going to sit down at the table, we're going to try to figure it out, we're going to cooperate together and look for a path that works for everybody. That connection with our parents is really strong, and they know that we have the best interest of their kids and looking to their future at heart. They're not just another number and another tuition that's coming into the building. I think even with the kids overseas, I've been overseas to China and to Korea, and I actually make a point of trying to connect with the parents of our kids when I'm there, because it's one thing for them to send their kids to the other side of the world and let people take care of them.

  • That connection to the parents is crucial. I would say it's more crucial here than in any other school that I've experienced, for sure. If we don't have that cooperative relationship, our style does not work. So we need it and so we cultivate it and we maintain it and we do our best to put it at the centre point of whatever we do. Our first approach is always problem solving. One of the first things I learned in education is there's always three sides to the story, right? The two people involved and what actually happened. We definitely sat down at the table. We have people on staff that are here for that purpose, that they provide the opportunity for the kids to say, this is what I experienced, this is what happened, and the other kid to say, this is what I meant, it didn't really mean, and really work it out and try to find out what actually happened and to resolve the feelings and the hurt.

  • Having said that, things that go on and continue, you have to have increased ways of dealing with it. You might say, okay, this is the solution, it's an apology. We work it out with an understanding that this shouldn't happen again. Happens again? We're going to implement a strategy. There'll be a consequence if this happens again. We'll talk to parents, bring them in, and have a meeting resolution with everybody there. But it's always problem solving oriented, with the consequence being practical rather than hugely punitive. 

  • Suspensions and expulsions here are really last resorts for us. We look to help kids understand where the other kids are coming from first, and if that doesn't work, then we take other measures. I think, first of all, an awareness of the world around them and how people interact within that world - that would be, I think, number one, they'd have a sense of setting goals for themselves, looking to achieve, and then at the same time understanding that you have to have things that allow you to get there. You can't just be wishful thinking. You have to have strategies, you have to have a path, you have to have achievements along the way to get to where you want to get, I think, a sense of a person with a healthy lifestyle.

  • They understand that you have to take care of your body, that you have to take care of your mind. You have to take care of your relationships and be part of a community, not live in isolation. And I think a sense that you get people, not everyone has the same motivations or the same background, the same cultural exposure, the same relationships as you do, and those are all going to trigger and configure how you interact with them. And so I think just a general awareness of people would be one of the things that's most important for someone.

  • We're on a street with five schools. There are five private schools along our street and a small residential community at the end of the street. And we have no issues or conflicts along the street at all. In fact, I think we let the community use our playground. Not officially, but it's open and people come and use it when we're after hours for sure. And we provide our gym for a lot of the local activities, gymnastics and Filipino Basketball Association place here. A lot of groups like that use our property or the church next door, the Korean church. We've been in a cooperative relationship with them forever. We welcome them into our building. They use our classrooms for some of their services on the weekends, and in return, they let us use their parking lot for our parents to turn around and drop off in the morning. 

  • There's a French school, there's a Greek school, there's a French elementary school, there's an all-girl school, and we all have different mandates. But when things come up that are crucial to the street, like safety, we all work together and we address things together. So I'd say we have a great relationship with our community and vice versa.

  • You have to know what you're looking for. So get a few criteria. Know that I want a school that's going to do X, Y and Z for my child, they're going to do X, Y and Z for me, and the whole package will be my way of evaluating which one is going to do the best job for me. If you just go in and look at different schools randomly, haphazardly, you're not going to have the same end result and you might miss the things. So really think it through. What do I want in a school? What am I hoping to gain? Also, and this is crucial, what does my kid want in a school? What do they want their experience to be when they walk out the door every morning and get on a school bus or get in the car and walk and get to that school and walk in the door?


THE OUR KIDS REPORT: WillowWood School

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