Fostering Community

Head of School, Dr. Leanne Foster


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It’s All About The Climb

It felt right to start our week in Chapel following Family Day. After all, we are a family at Trafalgar. Coming together as a whole school for special moments like this is what strengthens our community and deepens our ties (It also gives us a chance to straighten our ties too, but uniform inspection is another topic).

As we so often do in Chapel, we raised our voices in song and delighted in a couple of old favourites. But then, in a moment of planned genius (or sweet serendipity) our choral director livened things up with a mix of Katy Perry, Shakira, and Miley Cyrus (when she was still the G-rated Hannah Montana). Watching the girls’ faces light up when the first familiar yet unexpected song started to play, watching lips move in synchronized expression and arms swaying rhythmically overhead, I was reminded of music’s ability to spread joy.

Each songs’ words spoke to the adolescent experience, just as popular music has done for generation after generation. Thinking back to my own teenage years, I recall wearing deep grooves in my records as I played and replayed songs by Bread, Chicago and Simon & Garfunkel (Needless to say, I’m aging myself here, while also revealing that my adolescent years leaned towards introspection rather than rebellion). While popular music changes with the times, its function remains a constant – to reflect the myriad of emotions that has always been the purview of adolescence. Music reminds us in our youth that generations have gone before us as we travel that rocky path towards adulthood and, in their best iterations, the songs give hope to despondent youth that better days are ahead.

In her autobiography, the poet Maya Angelou wrote, “Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to the loneliness.” What poignant words to express music’s powerful ability to give comfort as well as joy.

I am glad we took a moment this week to let the girls sing what speaks to them in this time of their lives. It can be hard growing up, and those middle years are particularly fraught with challenge. As much as we tell them they’re wonderful, that it gets better, that good times are ahead, we’re adults, and the words we speak sometimes ring hollow in their ears. Miley, on the other hand, has a message that sounds authentic:

The struggles I’m facing,
The chances I’m taking
Sometimes might knock me down but
No I’m not breaking
I may not know it
But these are the moments that
I’m going to remember most…

Keep the faith baby, it’s all about the climb.

A great message for anyone, but a particularly important one for young girls as they continue the climb.






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The Power of Kindness

In September 2007, two Nova Scotia high school students decided to take action after watching students taunt a Grade 9 boy simply for wearing pink on the first day of school. The two older boys brought 50 pink shirts to school and asked fellow students to wear them as a sign of support for the younger boy.We stand up to bullies,” was the powerful message that reverberated through the halls that day. Ten years later, Pink Shirt Day is part of an international anti-bullying campaign designed to create awareness in schools and communities around the world.

This year, Canadian schools will recognize Pink Shirt Day on February 22nd. At Trafalgar Castle, our Middle School Leadership Council began creating awareness amongst our students with an informative Chapel presentation. Their message was simple: Bullying can happen anywhere, but at our school we want to do something about it. It was an authentic effort by our girls to address a perennial challenge that impacts all schools and harms so many people.

Although no school is immune to the problem of bullying, I strongly believe that school culture greatly reduces or increases the likelihood of it occurring. Culture influences the way in which others respond to difficulties, and conveys established norms that make it evident what is and what is not acceptable. In other words, the values we express and uphold as a school community have a greater capacity to create a kind and supportive environment than any policy document or off-the-shelf program ever could.

The research bears this out. Numerous studies have shown the overall ineffectiveness of anti-bullying programs, pointing instead to the importance of teaching compassion. Schools need to actively generate kindness and thoughtfulness through modelling and explicit teaching in order to create an authentic culture of care that touches all students. University of Tampa Professor Patty O’Grady notes, “Children and adolescents do not learn kindness by only thinking about it and talking about it….Kindness [is] best learned by feeling it so that they can reproduce it.”

The old saying, “It’s the little things that count factors heavily in the creation of a culture of care. Holding the door open for someone, greeting people by name in the hallway, stopping to help pick up a dropped notebook, or showing concern when someone is having a bad day – all these moments combine to create a pro-social school environment that offers multiple additional benefits.

Students who are encouraged to help others often experience what author Allan Luks termed the “helper’s high”, a biochemical response to altruistic acts that releases endorphins, reduces stress, and lessens anxiety. Helping others naturally makes us feel more generous, thereby fostering compassion and empathy. All these things make it less likely for a culture of bullying to take hold, and more likely that normal childhood moments of anger, frustration, and hurtful words become the exception rather than the rule.

There is no doubt we need to talk openly about bullying with our children. The statistics are alarming, and with the added challenge of 24-7 access to social media, incidences of bullying are on the rise. Schools need to support both the bullied and the bully, while educating about the need for by-standers to speak up because we know from research that intervention can stop an act of bullying in 10 seconds or less.

It’s true that bullying, when it occurs, does not always take place in school, particularly as cyber-bullying knows no geographic limits. More often than not however, it does. Schools, therefore, play a vital role in educating and providing the supports necessary to tackle the problem where it most often lives – in hallways, classrooms, playgrounds, change rooms, and online. Any school that isn’t prepared to publicly acknowledge that bullying can occur within its walls is, at best, naïve and, at worst, irresponsible.

School leaders, in particular, must lead the way and make it known to all that bullying will not be tolerated. As one of those leaders, I believe it is likewise important to demonstrate what we do want in our schools – to model how generosity, acts of kindness, and consideration for others are simply the way we behave. Of equal importance is the need to help students (and sometimes parents) understand that acts of meanness amongst peers – even very hurtful ones –are not necessarily acts of bullying. We should be cautious not to label every friendship problem or social difficulty in that way, but instead help children and adolescents move forward with facilitated discussions that encourage perspective taking, with ideas to manage tricky relationships and solve problems, and with strategies to deal with the type of childhood conflicts that are normal (and, in fact, important to healthy emotional development).

I am proud of the open conversations we are having at The Castle. We are able to acknowledge when things go wrong and work to respond to difficulties quickly, thoughtfully, and responsibly. Fortunately, these moments are few and far between. Most of the time, we get to focus on celebrating what’s going right. We enjoy our strong sense of community, we talk about our differences, we encourage each other to forgive (and often laugh) at small misunderstandings, and we feel warmth inside our hearts when we act with care and consideration. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that on February 22nd, when Trafalgar Castle comes together as a community to speak out against bullying, we will do so with pink shirts, compassionate voices, and a whole lot of kindness.


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A Gosling’s Leap of Faith

In a leap of faith, the three-day-old Barnacle goose will follow its parents and jump out of the nest in search of food. The nest is built high on a cliff, more than 400 feet above the ground. A leap from that height would be a remarkable undertaking for any newly hatched gosling, but what makes it even more remarkable is the fact that three-day-old Barnacle goslings cannot fly. Yes, you read that correctly. They. Do. Not. Fly. Despite a complete lack of aeronautic ability, the tiny gosling reluctantly and nervously pushes off from the cliff in response to its mother’s beckoning “kaw”, and begins the long – the painfully long – plummet to the ground below.

My daughter brought this fascinating phenomenon to my attention while watching an episode of the BBC series Life Story. Her excited cry of, “Mom, you have to see this!” resulted in the two of us perched on the edge of our seats, watching with shock and awe as a tiny ball of fluff plummeted metre after metre after metre, ricocheting off rocks, bouncing and tumbling the last few feet, until rolling to a stop. We collectively held our breath as we awaited the final outcome. Did this tiny, intrepid creature survive its death-defying act – a leap into the unknown borne of instinct and courage? The BBC’s barnacle goose made it. Some don’t, we are told.

After sitting in silence, contemplating what we had just watched, my enthralled daughter stated: “My life’s goal is to have the resilience of a Barnacle goose!” I thought about it for a moment and realized it wasn’t at all a bad goal for any of us to have.

Nature’s gift to this remarkable creature is an ability to go with the flow. As the Barnacle gosling falls through the air, it knows to let go. It doesn’t flail. It doesn’t resist. It simply “is”. It accepts a loss of control in that brief moment of life and gives into the fall. It’s the acceptance of this inevitable moment of uncertainty that increases the gosling’s odds for survival and ensures the future of the species.

We’ve been talking a lot at the Castle lately about the future and uncertainty. The Grade 12s are holding out hope for university decisions that feel weighted with life-altering implications. The Grade 11s are learning more about the Prefect selection process that determines which girls represent the Trafalgar student body in the coming year. In working through these future-oriented topics together, we’ve talked about what it means to want something (sometimes badly), what it means to take a chance (particularly when the outcome is less than certain), and what it might look like and feel like to try and fail.

Potential failure isn’t the part of the conversation I want our girls to focus on. It’s the element of risk and the willingness to leap into the unknown – that’s what I want them to consider. What holds some of them back? Why are some not willing to throw themselves off the proverbial cliff (or even put their hand up to volunteer an answer that they believe with 85% certainty might be right?). Too often, girls will talk themselves out of an opportunity before even trying. They stand on the precipice but can’t take the plunge.

That same reticence carries into adulthood as shown by a study indicating that women are less likely than men to apply for jobs when they do not believe they are qualified. Whereas men are prepared to throw their hat in the ring when they believe they have 60% of the job qualifications desired, women check themselves much more frequently and carefully, believing that they shouldn’t apply for a position unless they meet a 100% qualifications threshold.   Interestingly, it’s not only fear of failure that limits female applicants. While 21% of women cited fear of failure as a reason not to put their name forward, a greater number, over 40% said they did not apply because they believed it would be a waste of time and energy. In other words, rather than taking a chance and going for a job they believed they could do, they self-selected out.

We are seeing how this lack of self-assurance impacts women in the sciences. Research by Cornell psychologists Joanne Ehrlinger and David Dunning (2003) found that a woman’s lack of confidence in her scientific ability, even when her performance on a test indicated that she was equal to that of men, resulted in her being more likely to refuse an offer to enter a scientific competition. The authors extended this analysis to explain why fewer women than men are pursuing careers in science.

So where does that leave us? We have capable, intelligent, ambitious, young women who may struggle at any given point in time with a lack of confidence, fear of the unknown, reticence about expending energy on anything less than a sure thing, and an endless “Should I? Shouldn’t I?” loop of uncertainty that discombobulates even the most rational mind. If the wee Barnacle goose possessed the same mindset, failing to even approach the edge of the cliff because it was afraid of failure, not believing the outcome could be positive, lacking confidence in its abilities, or equivocating endlessly about whether or not to jump, the future of the species would be grim.

We need to help our girls prepare for what they will think and feel when they stand on the precipices they will surely encounter in life. We need to tell them that sometimes in life, overthinking things – particularly the type of overthinking that verges on compulsion – well, that’s simply not our friend. We need to help them understand that whether its fear of failure that holds them back, pessimism about a positive outcome, or a cost-benefit analysis that leads to inertia, the result is the same – failure to leap into the great unknown will limit future possibilities. Courage in the leap, stillness in the descent, and bounce in the landing – those are ingredients for a successful life. And in that, we should all be thankful to the Barnacle goose for giving us a recipe to follow.