New Initiative to Inspire Meaningful Conversations

Starting in October, a new schedule will occur twice monthly affecting every student and teacher at St. Michael’s College School (SMCS).

The change in timetable is key to ensure this new, important school-wide initiative has the desired impact.

St. Michael's College School students participating in class


“There are significant topics that need to be discussed with our students that are difficult to address in the normal routine of the day-to-day classes,” says David Lee ’94, Vice-Principal, SMCS. “We know from research that meaningful, small group conversations facilitated by a caring adult can have a positive impact on school culture.”

Enter the Teacher Advisory Group (TAG). These small groups of 15, will be comprised of a mix of students from across all grade levels (7-12).

A St. Michael's College School student in class


“The blended group dynamic will give the passionate educators we have in the building an opportunity to engage students they do not normally teach, while also allowing students a safe space to voice their concerns,” says Kristy Onyeaju, English teacher and one of two TAG programme co-ordinators. “Often the most memorable lessons shared in the classroom space are the ones that do not stem from a plan or a textbook. I hope that the TAG programme will promote that type of pedagogical freedom,” she says.

So why now? The research is explicit.

According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, “An estimated 1.2 million children and youth in Canada are affected by mental illness --- yet, less than 20 per cent will receive appropriate treatment.”

Further, a 2006 study published by the Canadian government revealed, “70 per cent of mental health problems have their onset during childhood or adolescence.” (Government of Canada. [2006]. The human face of mental health and mental illness in Canada. Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada).


“Educational research supports the importance of ensuring that students’ emotional and social needs are being met in order to succeed academically and in life – the whole student,” says Liat Benzacar, Student Wellness Officer, who recently began her new role at SMCS. “This is an opportunity to empower teachers to manage classroom conflicts and interpersonal relationships, and begin to become comfortable with the importance of opening conversations around mental health and wellness,” she says. 

Benzacar brings past experience in co-designing and launching a social-emotional learning curriculum within a school, to St. Michael’s College School.

Content, themes, and focus areas for each TAG session are determined by a committee, tasked with forming the curriculum for this programme. John Connelly, Guidance Counsellor at SMCS is also a co-ordinator of the TAG initiative. 

An SMCS teacher instructing a class of students


“Some topics will be fun and will encourage team-building, while others will be more serious and encourage reflection and growth,” says Connelly, who also serves as moderator of the SMCS Student Government. “Many of the topics initially proposed (emotional intelligence, community, and belonging, the bystander effect, and so on) are informed by the recommendations of the independent report released in August of this year. Each session will end with a consolidating activity, and some of the fruits of these discussions will be shared with the broader community,” he says, adding, “We are also responsible for supporting teachers in facilitating the group sessions, sitting in, answering questions that emerge from the topics raised, and in collecting and collating student and teacher feedback to measure the success of the programme and to inform its growth and development.”

Bringing a broad range of perspectives as a previous classroom teacher, current Guidance Counsellor and moderator for several school clubs, Connelly sees other tangible impacts that the TAG programme could provide. “A second objective is to bring older and younger students together in an atmosphere that fosters peer mentorship, concern, and empathy,” he says.

An SMCS student reading in the Odette Library


“Building community means encountering one another in meaningful ways, not all of which need be competitive or academic.” And Connelly adds, “This is also a great opportunity for the ‘quiet leaders’ among us, those who lend us their moral and spiritual strength every day, but who may not be inclined to run for a position on student council nor to apply to be a prefect.”

The TAG programme will run as a Schedule T, every two weeks from 9:22 to 10:22 a.m. Presided by a teacher-advisor and facilitator, school administration aims to hold 15 TAG sessions this academic year.

“I hope the students will understand that we value their voice and that they are stakeholders in this community,” says Lee, who also teaches a class in addition to his duties as vice-principal. “Ultimately, the school culture is driven by them. They have both a voice in the conversation and a responsibility to use it to help St. Michael’s be a better place.”

FIVE FAST FACTS

  • Teacher Advisory Group (TAG) begins October 1, 2019.
  • Sessions held twice a month with a cross-section of students from all grades.
  • Focus of each 60-minute session determined by TAG committee.
  • Offers additional point of contact at school for students to access support.
  • Provides peer mentorship and leadership opportunity for students.