Fresh Year, Fresh Start: How Ridley helps students forge their own paths

Written by Head of Upper School, Michele Bett

A new school year is just around the corner, and it is holding out hands full of promise. It is time for another fresh start, time to discover the wealth of untapped potential among our magnificent community of learners. Who can say what great new friendships will be forged in the Houses of Ridley College, what tests of courage, commitment, and collaboration will be faced on our sports fields, or what giant steps will be taken on the path of success?

Ah, but what do I mean by “success”? What do we at Ridley think we are trying to achieve? I would like to explore – and perhaps clarify – what success looks like from a Ridley College perspective, and to suggest a way for you parents to help.

Sir Ken Robinson’s highly regarded book, Finding Your Element: How to discover your talents and passions and transform your life, might be a good place to begin our exploration. Robinson says that one’s “element” is the convergence of natural talents and personal passions, and that finding one’s element is the most important quest that any of us can have. Finding your element is the quest to find yourself.

This quest involves both an outward and inward journey. The outward journey is the discovery of the opportunities the world can offer. The inward journey includes unlocking a student’s academic aptitude and accepting one’s unique purpose. 

Speaking of purpose, I have been impressed by Richard Leider’s recently published The Power of Purpose: Find Meaning, Live Longer, Better. In this book, the author says that to live with purpose is to actively live one’s values. Purpose is our essence and what makes each of us so special. When we get up in the morning ready to contribute to the world, we are living with purpose, living with meaning. Living like this is not just living – it is living well.

Research suggests that having a purpose requires an aim outside ourselves. Naming our purpose helps satisfy our need to matter and feel worthy. Through a Ridley College lens, we can see three important messages for our students:

  • They are part of something bigger than themselves;
  • They are committing to live a life of service; 
  • They are going to transform a world that needs them.

So when we talk about steps on the path of success, we are saying that the quest for each of us at Ridley is to find our element, our passion, and our purpose. Once we identify these, we need to learn how to live these values every day.

We believe that advisors, housemasters, teachers and coaches can all provide invaluable assistance to students on this quest because authentic learning and discovery thrive in a kind and caring community.

I think that high school is the right time for young people to begin thinking about these things. Students confront a bewildering range of choices and must make decisions all the time, but the most important of these decisions have to do with their own identity and integrity. 

I am reminded of a poem that many of you will be familiar with by American poet Robert Frost, called “The Road Not Taken.” In it, the speaker is walking through the woods, comes upon a fork in the path ahead and wonders which way to go. It is not always easy to know which road leads to success, to one’s purpose. As Apple co-founder Steve Jobs once said, you cannot connect the dots going forward; you can only connect the dots looking back. In other words, despite our best-laid plans, we can never know the future. It is only when we look back on those choices, those experiences, those seemingly chance encounters, that we can discern a direction.

So it is in the poem. The speaker finally chooses one of the roads, recognizing he will never know what he has missed by not choosing the other, but concluding that his choice has “made all the difference” in his life. The Grateful Dead sang a similar sentiment: 

There is a road, no simple highway

Between the dawn and the dark of night,

And if you go, no one may follow,

That path is for your steps alone.

As their popular song suggests, this path, this quest for one’s element, passion and purpose is exclusive, singular, “for your steps alone.” This year, each of us at Ridley will make choices that help to define us as unique individuals and to name that purpose that drives us forward. There is always some risk in making a choice, since we cannot know exactly where it will lead us, but when we look back one day we will be able to connect those dots, to see how our life’s path has led us to become who we are.

Given the various quests of the members of our community and the many pathways that lie ahead of us, perhaps you will understand when I write how delighted I am by the wonderful adventure that awaits us this year. But I also mentioned that there is a way that you could help. Of course, as parents you know your children in ways we never can, but there is one area on which to focus that I think could be valuable. 

Lea Waters, the developer of the Visible Well-Being program (which as some of you know has been adopted by Ridley College), has recently published a study that investigates the relationship between what she calls “strength-based parenting” and educational outcomes. 

A strength-based approach to parenting is one in which parents encourage their children to recognize and use their own character strengths. These strengths may include humour, kindness, self-control, persistence and so on. Waters accepts that emotional warmth and appropriate control are important aspects of parenting, but suggests that awareness and acknowledgement by parents of their child’s strengths helps support the healthy development of the child’s character and personality. 

Furthermore, Waters’ work shows how promoting a young person’s character strengths fosters academic achievement. She found that strength-based parenting not only influences a child’s well-being but also positively affects academic outcomes. Surely, it is good to know that Ridley’s emphasis on our students’ visible well-being has benefits both in and outside the classroom. Universities in Canada and beyond are still interested in student grades, and I believe that our educational priorities, along with your support, provide the best possible environment for young people to flourish academically, socially and personally.

In closing, I want to offer a warm welcome as we embark on our exciting, collective journey of discovery this year. Ridley’s faculty and administration are dedicated to helping each of our students discover their element, passion and purpose, and to thrive in every area of school life. This year will provide many challenges for us all – but challenges are simply stepping-stones to growth when we love what we do. 

Author and speaker Simon Sinek famously said, “Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress. Working hard for something we love is called passion.” One of our most important tasks as educators – and parents – is to help your children, our students, find their passion by discovering what they truly love.

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