Leaders of tomorrow: How private schools teach kids to handle big issues

Sasha Au Yong delved into Parkinson’s disease research and published a children’s book, Something’s Different about Grandpa.Alex Franklin/The Globe and Mail

Sasha Au Yong took on the leadership role of her school at Pickering College when she was in 11th grade, and now she has a story to tell.

Ms. Au Yong, who graduated from Newmarket, Ontario private school in 2021, was involved in research into Parkinson’s disease as a participant in Pickering’s school-wide Global Leadership Program. This led to her writing and illustrating a children’s book entitled Something is different with grandpaearning her a scholarship from the school to publish her first run.

“My character is learning that sometimes the little things you can do to help the person with Parkinson’s or the family can make a big difference,” says Ms. Au Yong, who is now studying graphics and journalism at Toronto Metropolitan University .

“We want our students to believe in themselves and learn that they too can make a difference,” said Julia Hunt, Pickering’s senior director of strategic innovation.

Teaching leadership skills is a high priority for private schools across Canada. While programming may vary from school to school, educators agree that the real learning doesn’t just happen in the classroom, but when students develop the ability to collaborate and lead.

“To be honest, we double down on ensuring that all of our students have leadership fundamentals at an advanced level so they can apply them to some of the big issues of our time, now and in the future,” says John Wray, Headmaster at Mulgrave School in Vancouver.

He names climate change, political polarization, conflict resolution and life with automation and digitization as major topics for his students.

“It’s easy to focus on glittering new programs and electives, and we have plenty of them. In fact, the most important thing is to prepare students to take care of their own well-being. We want them to be able to thrive in a more diverse, equitable and inclusive world, to be digital and media literate, to be critical thinkers and problem solvers, and to have communication and collaboration skills,” he says.

Ms. Hunt notes that at Pickering, “we believe so strongly in our leadership program that every student participates from kindergarten through 12th grade.

“Outcomes will of course vary by age, but everything is designed to develop students who are innovative, creative and compassionate global citizens who take action.”

Pickering offers Enhanced Global Leadership Diplomas that students can earn on top of their regular high school diploma, do community service based on projects like the one Ms. Au Yong worked on, and take a credit course in Global Leadership.

The school’s senior students are also invited to present their leadership projects to a panel that awards grants, such as the US$1,000 Ms. Au Yong received for the publication of her children’s book. Pickering’s younger students begin their leadership training with a series of challenges and projects, culminating with a “My Key Idea” speech at the end of the 5th grade.

In Sherbrooke, Bishop’s College School teaches leadership by having each of its 275 students participate in its cadet leadership program.

“It’s a long tradition and it really stands out. Our program began in 1861 and is the longest-running cadet corps program in the country,” says Bishop’s Principal, Michel Lafrance.

“The program is based on teamwork, problem solving, critical thinking and communication. It is mainly run by the older students, with a few adults supervising the program. The students learn to work together and to work out problems themselves,” he says.

Throughout the school year, Bishop’s students engage in activities that will challenge them outside of their comfort zone – marching, hiking, archery, zip lining, orienteering, traversing a high ropes course, camping survival skills and team building games.

The cadet program also allows Bishop’s students to work towards the ability component of the Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award and all students are trained in first aid by St John Ambulance.

“Our students go to university and beyond, applying the leadership skills they learn here. Our alumni say that the skills they acquire here can be applied to very different areas,” he says.

At Vancouver’s Mulgrave School, students learn leadership through an entrepreneurial program in which they work together to solve the kinds of problems that regularly arise in the real world, says Mr. Wray.

“Our entrepreneurship courses allow students to apply the skills they learn in their other courses. The problems they face are increasingly related to the social and environmental side of business concerns. You not only learn to lead, but also to take on responsibility,” he says.

Ultimately, the goal of teaching leadership is for students to leave with strong values, says Ms. Hunt of Pickering College.

“Our school was founded by Quakers and we teach Quaker values ​​– simplicity, peace, integrity, equality, compassion and stewardship of resources. These values ​​help students become good leaders,” she says.

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