Transforming boarding school blues in the dead of winter

I had one of those moments yesterday—clear and perfect.  I was skiing down the fresh powdered snow of the slopes at Sir Sam’s watching students whizz by me, snow blowing in their eyes, big grins on their faces. In fact, the whole school was there with me—roughly 400 of us (students and faculty)—working on carving our turns, or snow board grabs (or even just trying to stay on our feet), stopping to enjoy an outdoor barbecue lunch with hot chocolate and hitting the slopes again—together, as a community.  It was Ted Pope Day.  My mind was refreshed, my body relaxed, I was happy.

Lakefield College School students and staff enjoy a day on the slopes at Sir Sam's during Ted Pope day.
Lakefield College School students and staff enjoy a day on the slopes at Sir Sam’s during Ted Pope day.

A fellow Head of School, Adam Pencier (Trafalgar Castle School), recently commented that “January is the toughest time for schools, particularly boarding schools.” He said this in reference to the challenges that come with winter.  As the Head of a small, rural predominantly boarding school located in the heart of cottage country, I have to agree.  January and early February, in particular, can be tough at times.  The days are cold, the nights are long, and our interest in outdoor activity may be less then enthusiastic when temperatures drop below -15ºC.

It’s no coincidence that we host an entire week of special activities, called Spirit Week, in the final week of January and that we plan whole-school events, like Ted Pope Day, to take us out of doors.  From Ted Pope Day, Red and Green day, and K-Rod (‘human’ dog-sled) races, to Winter Carnival at Northcote Campus, intentionally creating opportunities that we can look forward to, embrace and enjoy (especially during the toughest winter months), provides us with some of our favourite memories and experiences.  As a community, and as individuals, we become better connected and have fun.

The days may be cold, but sunny too.  And the evenings are long, but full of fun new experiences. We are not even noticing that it’s -15ºC outside, because we are trying to pull our sled across the finish line first. We are refreshed, relaxed and happy.

While it is the formal responsibility of many of our staff (Assistant Heads of school life and student support, residential teams, advisors, teachers, guidance counsellors) to ensure that the emotional, academic and physical health of our students is nurtured, there are an equal number of informal opportunities, such as those highlighted in Spirit Week, to do the same.  And they are just as important.

“We pride ourselves in being a community that teaches through relationships.  To do that well, we need opportunities to foster those relationships on an informal level as well, beyond more formally structured academic settings. The School Life program, grounded in our missions and values, is very intentional about strengthening the connectivity of our community and interpersonal relationships, to foster student and staff morale to reach the highest level possible, a feeling of contentment that ‘it is good to be here!’”  John Runza, Assistant Head: School Life

Essays included in books like Educating from the Heart and Schools with Spirit: Nurturing the Inner lives of students and teachers (both recommended by John), that speak to the value of unstructured time, connecting with nature, and attending to our “inner lives,” reflect ideas worthy of consideration for any boarding and day school program.

Heather Avery, who is leading the way in researching best practices relating to health and wellness programs for schools, agrees.  She believes recent research, suggesting that both mindfulness and physical activity may help in warding off depression and anxiety, are an inspiring basis to inform the school’s initiatives. She cites the work of John Ratey in Spark (2008) and Martin Seligman’s Flourish (2011) as being key texts in this regard.

“In Flourish, Seligman, the founder of positive psychology and a major contributor to the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Resiliency Program, makes a strong case that positive education programs, which cultivate skills and habits such as optimism, gratitude, and positive emotion ‘offer an antidote to the runaway incidence of depression, a way to increase life satisfaction, and an aid to better learning and more creative thinking’ (2011, 80).” Heather Avery, Assistant Head: Student Support

Lakefield College School, with its emphasis on building relationships and its beautiful natural campus, is already a school that enacts positive education.  Our staff reinforce strengths, connect with students, and encourage activity and fitness. Positive education is not a new direction for us, but a more intentional adherence to the path we already follow in education.

Throughout the winter and spring terms, Heather will be working to gather input and feedback from parents, students, and faculty about the features of a wellness program they would like to see and could support.

In the meantime, we look forward to Winter Carnival next week—and more of those clear and perfect moments—as we continue to embrace and enjoy the opportunities that allow us to connect, relax and be happy.