As Principal of King’s Christian Collegiate, John De Boer has played an instrumental role in advancing the school’s dynamic vision for education. I caught up with John last week to hear his thoughts about learning, professional development, and the future of King’s Christian Collegiate, a lively and innovative OACS member school in Oakville that serves over 540 students.
LK: I understand that you came to King’s Christian Collegiate in 2003. What was it about the King’s vision for learning that initially drew you to the school?
JDB: We have a vision for learning that’s all about respect for the individual learner—it’s no longer cookie cutter education, so to speak. It’s not about the student fitting the classroom, but the classroom fitting the student. When I heard of this vision, I think, it led me to wonder, ‘Well, what can I do to make a difference within that kind of vision?’
Going to a new school, with policies that are coming out of that new mindset, there was an opportunity to help create effective cohesion, from school structure to policy, and to how teachers work with students.
LK: I read on the King’s Christian Collegiate website that staff meets weekly for professional development training to ensure they are equipped with the latest research on quality instruction. What has that research and professional development looked like within the past few years?
JDB: When you ask about our Research and Development sessions, you really are getting at a core aspect of our school. These sessions are a good example of something that’s been put at the front end of our focus on learning. We’re actively doing what we say we want to do.
In the last five years we’ve had top notch conference leaders (experts in their fields of study) come in to meet with our entire faculty before the school year begins. Two years ago, for example, Dr. Ross Greene, who specializes in collaborative problem solving, led our faculty for three days. He taught us how to work with students, how to uncover what their lagging skills might be in the classroom.
This allowed us to talk about how students learn, but also to develop a skill set as educators to uncover what the learning problems might be, and how to work with students as we do that.
But a three day conference by itself doesn’t do enough to deepen learning. You can get the beginnings of it, but you need Research and Development sessions on a weekly basis. Just as in our mission we’re trying to equip students for learning, we’re also equipping teachers.
LK: How have the research and development meetings impacted teachers?
JDB: Really the impact of our R & D sessions isn’t just about covering research topics. It’s the culture we get with faculty. It becomes a culture of inquiry, critical thought and mutual accountability. Collegiality can exist. We’re no longer working in silos. That’s a really nice outcome of the R & D sessions, and we have to be intentional about it. In many ways, I’m more interested in those outcomes than I am in asking how to be an expert in 21st century learning, for example.
LK: Within the educational landscape of Ontario, there seems to be a level of anxiety around keeping students engaged. What are your thoughts about that?
JDB: My own personal thought is that we as educators shouldn’t be overly concerned with doing whatever we can to engage students if that gets translated as some form of entertainment. It becomes a one way ticket that way—placing all the responsibility on the teacher—when really it is all about working together, especially when we talk about a learning culture of deep respect. Respect is a gift that we give to the other, a form of love that goes from teacher to student, as we respect them as individual learners.
We don’t want to slip into a frame of mind where it’s teachers doing whatever they can to keep the student entertained or engaged—engagement has to be within that teacher-student partnership. We’ve often said that if a student can come out of grade 12 at King’s with a clearer understanding of who they are as learners, then we’ve achieved our goal. If they understand themselves as learners, then they will be engaged. Perhaps we can shine a light on that; maybe, help students ask better questions.
One of our beliefs, one of our starting points, is that all students are motivated to learn. They may have forgotten how they’re motivated to learn, or they may not always see it, but people are born motivated to learn. It’s just a matter of getting at that belief—and working with students from that belief. Basically, if we can establish a culture of learning that is based on a Godly love and respect for the other, I believe there will be engagement.
LK: I understand that King’s is heading into another building Expansion? How might that expansion create new learning opportunities at King’s?
JDB: We’re adding specialty classrooms. One area that we want to develop is business leadership and entrepreneurship. So we’re asking how we can create a business centre. We are setting aside two classrooms that will have the technological support we need, such as trading stations and stock tickers.
The other area we’re working on is a media centre. We’d like to have the resources and space for students to focus more on media, and specifically film. How do you create a space where film can be watched in a quality way? Crisp images with great sound. That’s the best way to deconstruct what’s on the screen.
Although I talk about technology, we have to be very careful that we don’t just say that technology itself will create learning. It has to be first and foremost about learning. I’m really interested in technology that supports learning. And, if we’re going to create a preferred learning environment, then we need to do it right.
LK: Are there projects or initiatives happening at King’s that you’re particularly excited about?
JDB: We just hired a Director of Co-op Education this year. Co-op education has been done a certain way in schools over the years—in a way that’s very “school-like.” The mandate for our co-op director is to think outside that box. To really embrace innovation and to say, how can we get 200 students into a myriad of co-op experiences—from medicine to mechanics? How do we partner the co-op program with the careers program in grade 10? Our students are being well placed in good businesses where those business leaders are helping our students learn in ways that can’t be done in the classroom.
At the same time, we want our community to benefit from having King’s students out there. We see much capacity for mutual blessing.
LK: Where would you like to see King’s in the next five years?
JDB: We want to keep pushing our focus on learning, without slipping into a sense of complacency. I think that’s always the danger as a growing school—we have to make sure the vision doesn’t lose its vibrancy. We need to keep working outside of the usual institutionalized school expectations that can limit who we are and how we want to work. We want to keep pushing ourselves into a deeper understanding of what it means for our students to be people of Godly character.