School's out after 43 years

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 August, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 August, 2004, 12:00am

AS ALLAN MCLEOD, head of the Canadian International School of Hong Kong (CDNIS), walked into the younger students' playground on the last day of the summer term, the response was instantaneous. He was mobbed by five- and six-year-olds calling out his name, requesting autographs for school yearbooks and asking questions about his departure. Mr McLeod, 62, was not just leaving for the holidays. It was the final day of school in an education career spanning 43 years.

The previous day, there had been an emotional farewell assembly. 'Quite wonderful,' Mr McLeod said. But to anyone from the 'fear and trembling age' of principals, the happy, impromptu playground reception seemed an equally fitting tribute to the quiet but deliberately spoken man who has spent the past six years helping to shape the school's direction.

That's not long as school stays go, but it is in keeping with his long-held belief - and education research to back it up, he said - that about six years is the right length to serve in a leadership role before it is time for fresh ideas.

CDNIS takes pupils from age four to 18. Mr McLeod spent his first two years as vice-principal of the middle and high school and next four as head of school. A major part of the legacy he has sought to leave is a strong sense of community and an environment where people care about each other.

Indeed, respect for students and by students is something that comes up many times as he talks about his years in education. It was something he worked at during his first job as a principal in 1973 at an inner city elementary school in Scarborough, Toronto. 'We couldn't change what was going on at home but could sure change what was going on for them during the day.' This was something he worked at in his last headship.

At CDNIS, he used a four-pronged approach to values: 'Respect and caring for self, respect and caring for others, developing a sense of belonging and developing a sense of social responsibility,' he said. 'Ask yourself, do you want to go into an office where no one is sensitive or respectful and where they don't treat each other well? Well, this is the children's workplace right now.'

For example, there are no bells at CDNIS to signify the end of classes. This minimises interruptions, allows more time on task and is altogether more in keeping with how the rest of society works, he said. 'I have often wondered why we ring bells in schools. It seems to presume children can only get around if someone is ringing a bell at them.'

During Mr McLeod's time in Hong Kong, which he leaves today, CDNIS has continued to stride forward. As head, he oversaw the opening of a new extension and a rise in numbers to exceed 1,500 students. The school has introduced the advanced placement programme for senior students to earn university credits before leaving school and its reputation with universities is now well established after just six graduating classes.

This year more than 60 graduated from the school. 'It was very, very gratifying watching the Grade 12 graduation and knowing that all the students there had multiple offers and were going on to universities all over the world,' Mr McLeod said.

It also helped cap a career that began more than four decades earlier at the age of 19 when he stood in front of a class of 44 12-year-olds at Maryvale Public School, also in Scarborough. Mr McLeod started out in the 'sage on the stage' era with teachers at the front of the class and working largely from textbooks. Towards the end of the 1960s, the pendulum swung over to the 'guide on the side' days where teachers became facilitators with students working in groups.

'But it went too far. It changed from rigid rote-learning to a very unstructured way of doing things. What we learnt in the 1970s was the magic word 'balance'. Many of the new ideas were superb but they were not sufficient. There was a place for testing and whole group learning for efficiency. We then found there was a swing to activity-based, child-centred learning combined with some teacher-centred activities.'

The 1980s and 1990s, he felt, brought two major moves forward in education thinking: multiple intelligence concepts and the realisation that IQ testing was highly limiting; and metacognition, that is, having awareness, understanding and control of your learning.

Goals have also changed dramatically with the information age. 'It used to be our focus was knowledge. Now it is the ability to acquire and use knowledge that is important rather than storing it in your brain because these days we are almost overwhelmed by knowledge.'

The formula for life-long learning, one of today's popular aims, was simple, Mr McLeod said. 'You give students the skills and you make them enjoy learning. People don't enjoy learning if it is drilling and memorisation leading to an examination. That is a very artificial construct.'

Mr McLeod himself is a sterling example of life-long learning. He did well at high school but his family could not afford to pay for his university education. Instead he went to teacher training college in Toronto, then fully funded by the province and open to students straight from high school.

A year later, he gained his certificate and started at Maryvale, spending his summers working for his undergraduate degree, majoring in maths and geography at Queen's University. He went on to do a Master's at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, also collecting principal and supervisory qualifications, among others, along the way.

In 1980, after almost 20 years as a teacher, vice-principal and principal in a variety of schools in Scarborough - with brief spells on exchange to Australia and the UK - Mr McLeod become an area superintendent. He rose through the levels and in 1990 moved to Vancouver as superintendent of schools.

He actually first retired in 1997 and had set up a non-profit venture bringing together business and education when he received a call asking if he would interested in applying for the vice-principal post at CDNIS. He was. 'I had been training principals for 15-16 years in how to exercise leadership, what a quality school looks like, what an effective school does. The most exciting thing for me was the opportunity to put into practice what I had been preaching.'

For his second retirement Mr McLeod is going to add to the extensive travels he has undertaken while living in Hong Kong. He is moving to Malta from where he and his wife Mary plan to see Europe and spend time visiting their two daughters and three grandchildren in Canada.

Meanwhile, his education odyssey is finally set to end. It had seemed an interesting, practical way to pursue post-secondary studies. 'After I started, though, I never wanted to change. There was such exhilaration in teaching young people and sharing their enthusiasm, their sadnesses and their joy.'