Fostering Community

Head of School, Dr. Leanne Foster

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The Way to a Beautiful Heart

“Teaching music in not my main purpose. I want to make good citizens. If children hear fine music from the day of their birth and learn to play it, they develop sensitivity, discipline and endurance. They get a beautiful heart.” – Shinichi Suzuki

I grew up in The Junction, a now trendy west-end neighborhood north of High Park in Toronto.  But in my day (or as my daughter would say, in the olden days), it wasn’t so trendy.  A working-class neighborhood close to train tracks, stockyards, and an abattoir, the Junction was gritty and (depending upon the direction of the wind from the abattoir) malodorous.  But for me, it was an urban playground filled with intriguing sights and sounds and fascinating characters.  I remember One-Eyed Jack who teetered down the street every day accompanied by a three-legged dog named Dog (so named, I assume, to keep things simple, for Jack was not a deep thinker).  Then there was Strange Sadie, a mysterious recluse and hoarder whose dilapidated house was to be avoided at all costs (especially during Halloween).  And who could forget the Maltese Marching Band that perennially ushered in spring by shutting down Dundas Street West with a glorious pandemonium of pomp, circumstance, and overly elaborate uniforms.  And finally, there was the food – oh, I definitely remember the food.  While many of my generation grew up in meat-and-potato households where plastic cheese squeezed out of a tube was a delicacy, the Junction surrounded me with an exotic banquet of ethnic delights.  Perogies from Poland, cherry dumplings from Czechoslovakia, cabbage rolls from the Ukraine, halvah from Greece, pastizzi from Malta, and spicy meat patties from Jamaica – unfamiliar yet tasty delights that found their way onto our kitchen table.

Despite the working-class nature of the neighborhood, I benefitted from the richness of our local school’s arts program, particularly music.  I had an opportunity to begin violin in grade 4 with expert instruction by Mrs. Cusack, an itinerant music teacher who travelled from school to school.  Every afternoon, my homeroom teacher Miss Procunier carefully took out her pitch pipe and taught us a selection of hits from the 20s and 30s (I still remember sitting mesmerized as her warbling but captivating voice performed Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade or Harry Wood’s Side by Side a capella).  In grade 5 and 6, Mr. Gleeson accompanied us on the banjo as we channeled artists such as Woody Guthrie and Joni Mitchell.  And then in grade 7, instrumental band opportunities opened up and I turned my enthusiasm to the flute.  I carried my instrument proudly between home and school, and practiced every day, blossoming under the tutelage of a caring and talented music teacher, and growing through the camaraderie of school choir rehearsals and ensemble performances.

This week, People for Education released its Annual Report on Ontario’s Publicly Funded Schools, and music was one area of focus.  The report shows access to music education declining and severely unequal in schools across the province.  Only 33% of urban and suburban schools have a full-time music teacher, and the situation for small town and rural schools is even worse (11%).  The trend for music in schools is downward, and declining enrolments combined with tightening budgets suggest things won’t change in the near future.  Knowing what we know about the relationship between music and academic outcomes, the lessening commitment to music does not bode well for the future of many public school students in Ontario.

The importance of music education is now indisputable.   Longitudinal research and the use of technology such as functional MRIs demonstrate a positive relationship between musical training, cognitive development, and academic performance.  Children who study music tend to develop stronger working memory, are more fluent readers, have better focus, and possess a larger vocabulary than children who receive no musical training.  In addition to the cognitive and academic benefits of music instruction, however, I believe there are many other skills that develop and grow when children have the opportunity to learn an instrument.

When my daughter was four-years-old, I wanted to share my love of music with her and suggested she take up an instrument.  She chose the violin and began weekly lessons with a young, gentle and exceptionally patient teacher named Dini.  Olivia would be the first to tell you that focus, attention and standing in one place for more than 10 seconds did not come easily to her as a child, so the violin posed certain challenges.  Watching her simultaneously rejoice in making sounds on her wee instrument while struggling mightily to follow Dini’s technical instruction, I quickly realized that I had not given birth to a budding Itzhak Perlman.  But I knew that perfection in performance was not the reason for encouraging her to play.  She was developing a host of life skills that would be increasingly important as she got older.  I saw her become a better listener. I watched her slowly but surely internalize the self-control that standing still required.  When she was young, daily practice had to be initiated by me and supervised mightily, but over the years, I was able to step back as I saw her develop greater self-discipline, self-awareness and perseverance.  She learned to listen, to assess, to self-correct, and to try again.  I saw these same skills transfer to her academic studies in university.

There was something else that music gave my daughter.  It gave her joy.  It made her happy.  She experienced what it feels like to play as part of an ensemble – that magical moment when each part blends together to create a whole that sounds magnificent, and you realize that you are suddenly better than you could ever be alone.  Violin lessons didn’t last beyond the age of twelve, and despite a brief and painful flirtation with the alto saxophone, she didn’t pursue an instrument.  But years of lessons, alongside band classes and weekly choir practice at school took root, and she remains keenly interested in music of all genres.

When I think of the many students across Ontario who may never have these same experiences, I am saddened and angry.  The students at our school are blessed.  Each one of them can access music inside the classroom and out.  They have opportunities to follow their passion, and support from teachers who have the skill to take them as far as they want to go.  So as a Head of School, I feel immensely proud in what we offer to our girls.  But as a citizen of Ontario and a proponent of equal access to public education, I am discouraged.  I hope things will improve for children across the province, because I know there are many beautiful young hearts out there, yearning to make music together.

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The Transformational Mother

This Sunday is Mother’s Day, a day to celebrate each mother or mothering figure who plays an important role in the life of a child. This is the day to recognize all that mothers do, and to simply say, thank you.

I was doing a bit of reading about leadership this past week and came across a detailed list[1], characterizing traits of those known as transformational leaders. In looking over the list, I couldn’t help but think how closely it mirrored what a caring mother tries to do everyday in the service of her children.

Caring mothers:

  • Emphasize intrinsic motivation and positive development of followers;
  • Raise awareness of moral standards;
  • Highlight important priorities;
  • Foster higher moral maturity in followers;
  • Create an ethical climate (share values, high ethical standards);
  • Encourage followers to look beyond self-interests to the common good;
  • Promote cooperation and harmony;
  • Use authentic, consistent means;
  • Use persuasive appeals based on reason;
  • Provide individual coaching and mentoring for followers;
  • Appeal to the ideals of followers; and
  • Allow freedom of choice for followers.

A caring mother also bandages scraped knees, wipes away tears, cooks favourite meals, cooks not-so-favourite meals, and endures cries of, “You just don’t understand!” She takes on a seemingly endless array of daily duties that may frustrate, annoy or simply wear her out. But she is also blessed with moments that allow her to transcend the day-to-day as she helps her child move one step closer to the person she hopes her son or daughter will become. She leaves behind the mundane and brings to the forefront of her mind and heart the hopes and dreams she holds for her child. In these moments, she is a transformational mother. In helping her child aspire to be the best they can be, her life and the lives of her child are transformed together and for the better.

 So to each transformational mother out there, thank you for all you do. Thank you for persevering through those seemingly thankless moments while never doubting your ability to change a life for the better.


[1] Johnson, C. (2015). Meeting the Ethical Challenges of Leadership: Casting Light or Shadow. United States: Sage Publications.

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No Regrets

“We spend so much time being afraid of failure, afraid of rejection. But regret is the thing we should fear most. Failure is an answer. Rejection is an answer. Regret is an eternal question you will never have the answer to.”

– Trevor Noah, Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

Comedians often draw inspiration from a painful past. Stephen Colbert lost his father and two brothers in a plane crash when he was only 10 years old. Jim Carey grew up in immense poverty and his family became homeless when he was in his teens. Robin Williams grew up with extreme wealth and privilege but described a childhood filled will loneliness and emotional neglect. Nichole Force, author of Humor’s Hidden Power: Weapon, Shield and Psychological Salve argues that, “The comedian’s sensitivity to their own pain makes them especially sensitive to the pain of others; and the relief of that pain in others helps to relieve their own pain. In this way, bringing their audience joy literally brings them joy.”

Comedian Trevor Noah’s biography fascinated me. I knew little about his upbringing other than he was born and raised in South Africa. Reading about his childhood as the son of a black Xhosa mother and a white Swiss father brought to light the challenges he faced. He was quite literally the offspring of a crime – the outcome of a relationship between a white man and a black woman. And with that circumstance of birth came years of never belonging, of being hidden away for fear the government would take him from his mother, of abuse at the hands of an alcoholic stepfather, of abject poverty, and of the harsh reality of growing up during apartheid. There is humour in this thoughtful coming-of-age story, however, and Noah appears as resilient, mischievous, and steadfastly determined to not only survive but thrive in spite of his circumstances.

Noah experienced many rejections and he most certainly has come to achieve great success. His idea that success is an answer and rejection is an answer fascinated me. To look at success and failure as objective points of data was a novel way of looking at how we perceive the things life throws at us, and the choices we make. It really pushes us to acknowledge the value of knowing.

Most thought provoking, however, was Noah’s comment, “Regret is an eternal question you will never have the answer to.” What a brilliant way to look at how we sometimes approach risk taking. To never know whether one would have succeeded or failed is, in many ways, a tragedy far greater than failure. It’s the question that will never and can never be answered. An ongoing accumulation of unanswered “what if” moments can easily turn into an unfulfilled life.

I shared this quote today with the 19 Prefect hopefuls who applied for our school’s coveted grade 12 leadership positions. I spoke to them as a group, prior to distributing each girl’s individual decision letter that would bring joy to some and disappointment to others. In sharing the quote, I hoped to convey the importance of what they had elected to do: They purposefully and bravely chose to accept one of two answers – yes or no. It took courage on each of their parts, and demonstrated a willingness to take a chance. What each girl achieved in seeking out the answer to the question was clarity. What each avoided was regret, the eternal question to which there is no answer.

I suspect that tonight will be an evening of satisfaction for some and disappointment for others. Regardless of how girl feels, there is value in these moments. For those girls who were successful, they should savour the outcome but also know that each time they ask a question in life, the answer won’t always be yes. A no will most certainly come at some point.

And for those girls who were not successful, I hope they realize that the no answer they received today is only one answer of many yet to come. There will most certainly be beautiful yes moments in their future. And while they might not be able to see past their disappointment today (or even tomorrow), I know they will be stronger, wiser and more prepared to benefit from a yes because they managed a few no moments along the way.

So here’s to a life of being brave, of taking chances, and seeking the answer to life’s many questions. Here’s also to living a life of no regrets.