Lessons Learned: How Good Schools Become Great
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 3 Apr 2003, p. 405-416
Murton, Karen, Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
Elspeth and Agnes Fairbairn and why they are important for this speech. Good teaching. The school experience. The importance of the teachers. Student care at Branksome Hall. The advisor system. The ongoing education and evaluation of faculty. Teachers in great schools. A wide range of teaching strategies. Great curriculum. The International Baccalaureate. Principalship. The second principal of Branksome Hall. Leadership. The importance of knowing one's community. School culture. The story of a great school.
Date of Original
3 Apr 2003
Language of Item
Copyright Statement
The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
Empire Club of Canada
Agency street/mail address:

Fairmont Royal York Hotel

100 Front Street West, Floor H

Toronto, ON, M5J 1E3

Full Text
Karen Murton Principal, Branksome Hall
Chairman: Ann Curran
President, The Empire Club of Canada
Head Table Guests

Anne Fotheringham, Owner. Fotheringham Fine Art and Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Ewarama Sackey, Student, Head of Senior School, Branksome Hall School; Grant Kerr, Associate Minister, St. Paul's United Church. Brampton; Lindsay Fleming, Student, Head Girl, Branksome Hall School; Wendy Cecil, Chair, Branksome Hall Board of Governors; Michael J. Murton, President, Murton & Company Inc.; David A. Edmison, President, Martin Lucas & Seagram Investment Counsel and Past President, The Empire Club of Canada; Mary Hallward, Executive Vice-President and Managing Director, McLean Budden and Alumni, Branksome Hall School; and Michael G. Locke, Area Vice-President, Commercial Banking (GTA), Scotiabank.

Introduction by Ann Curran

As I sat last night preparing for today's luncheon I was struck by the parallels of The Empire Club of Canada and Branksome Hall.

Now I know what you're thinking: "What does the Empire Club, that for many years described itself as an old boys' network, have to do with a private girls' school?"

Well, try to imagine what Toronto would have been like 100 years ago.

A few blocks from here was Webb's Restaurant, a popular spot for influential gentlemen of law, business, education, the clergy or medicine. A group of learned men that feared that Canada may sever ties with Britain formed an organization to educate and inform members about important issues regarding Canada and the British Commonwealth.

About the same time, a few horse-drawn, motor car or new electric trolley blocks away, Margaret Taylor Scott was at 102 Bloor Street East opening the doors of her new girls' school--Branksome Hall. After visiting girls' schools in England, Germany and the United States, she was ready to combine the best of their examples in a school of her own.

One hundred years later both institutions have survived and thrived Both have outgrown their original premises and expanded upon their mandate to educate and inform.

Many students and alumni of Branksome are members of the Empire Club and of course both institutions in their centennial year are headed by women.

So, today we have the pleasure of hearing from Karen Murton, Principal of Branksome Hall on "Lessons Learned: How Good Schools Become Great"

Intuitively, we all understand that the educational experience is about more than learning the three "Rs." Yet, how much responsibility should schools bear today for extending education beyond academics? And, if this is their role, how can schools best use the resources at their disposal to build a respectful, engaging, safe, and academically stimulating environment? How can they develop a model of care tailored to students' needs? How can schools create a culture of excellence that takes their unique communities into account?

Karen Murton, Principal of Branksome Hall since 1998, has been providing educational leadership as both teacher and administrator for almost 20 years. She has been principal of A.Y. Jackson Secondary School, vice-principal of Victoria Park Secondary School and Lawrence Heights Middle School and a teacher in both the public and independent school systems. She has an impressive CV but I thought an excerpt from Branksome's centennial book, "The Road Well Kept," might better describe why this woman heads one of Canada's leading independent girls' schools.

`...The bottom tine is "accountability," a word Karen Murton uses so frequently it deserves a ceremonial flag of its own, and she considers herself as accountable for her performance as anyone else. She is frank and pragmatic. She welcomes constructive criticism and encourages open, informative communication; she submits a detailed report to the board of governors at every meeting, sends frequent letters to parents and polls parents, alumni and students regarding their level of satisfaction with the school. Karen works a 12-hour day, attends after-school events, hosts regular breakfasts for the prefects and, in the middle of the night, jumps out of bed at the sound of sirens or screeching tires. "If there's a false fire alarm, a car accident, I'm out there on the street," she says. "It's my responsibility. It's good to live on campus. The girls know: 'She's here for us."'

Karen will share her insight into the elements of what makes good schools great. Drawing on her extensive experience within both the public and independent school systems, she will discuss fundamental principles designed to help students from all walks of life strive to achieve their full potential.

Karen Murton

Approximately three weeks ago I met Elspeth and Agnes Fairbairn for the first time.

I was in England as part of our school's centennial celebration and a group of us from the school visited Branksome alumni in London and surrounding towns. It was also my first trip to The Sherburne School for Girls in Dorset--a school steeped in Branksome history.

Our centennial trip was a huge success in many ways--but what stood out for me as most significant was the loyalty and genuine love that so many of our alumni expressed for Branksome Hall.

But who are Elspeth and Agnes Fairbairn, and why are they important to us this afternoon? During the Second World War, Branksome Hall welcomed hundreds of young girls to the school who became known affectionately as our English War Guests. They came to Canada, as it was a safe haven, particularly when the threat of Germany invading England was on everyone's mind. Branksome's War Guests came from a variety of schools, with over 50 girls from the Sherborne School, alone.

How young English girls came to Branksome and to Canada is a story in itself. Many of them were here for four or five years. But as Elspeth and Agnes explained to me: "The principal called our parents and told them that they had 48 hours to make a decision. There was a ship sailing for Canada and there was room for us as students. Our principal encouraged our parents to send us as the dangers of the war were everywhere. She had found a school in Toronto, Canada where we would receive a fine education and live safely until the war was over."

Elspeth was 11 at the time and her sister just a few years older. Well, Elspeth and Agnes arrived in Canada, found their way to Toronto and finally to Branksome Hall.

The year was 1940. They did not see their parents again until 1944.

Now, one of the best parts of this story is that I heard it firsthand at Elspeth's home in Marnhull, Dorset. On our way to tea at her home, we travelled down winding, narrow roads, past stone fences looking for the house named Vale Cottage on Ham Lane--but there was no doubt that we were at the right place when we saw a sign with our Branksome Hall school motto, "Keep Well the Road," hanging from one of the stone fences.

Elspeth and Agnes greeted us wearing their Branksome Hall pins on their blouses and as we were ushered into their home, the first thing we saw were scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings and photos from Toronto newspapers in the 1940s. Needless to say, it was an afternoon spent going down memory lane in more ways than one.

Elspeth and Agnes are part of a group of over 100 English War Guests who attended Branksome Hall during the Second World War. I met many of them during my visit to England. Their passion for the school is extraordinary and their memories are lasting; they remember the good teaching and they vividly recall the names of their teachers--those who provided them with a comprehensive academic program. Every war guest I met remembered the principal--the decisive and energetic Edith M. Read. Every alumnus felt strongly that she still belonged to the distinctive culture of Branksome Hall.

Good teaching essentially means good teachers and curriculum; strong, decisive leadership and a distinctive school culture. This is what the alumni in England remembered about their years at Branksome Hall.

These are the building blocks for great schools.

As I look out into the audience, I see many educators; some are current colleagues and many are people whom I have known from my previous schools. I see many in the audience who work in the corporate sector; and there are those of you who work in "not-for-profit organizations." I would comfortably guess that many of you are parents. Lastly, and may I say fortunately, we have many students in our audience today. It is always fun to get a glimpse of Canada's youth and its future!

There is one thing that everyone of you has in common--and that is a school experience.

There is no a recipe for making good schools great. No two institutions are the same, and no blueprint exists to guarantee educational excellence. But if everyone is this room were to reflect back on their school memories, I guarantee that you will findthat at least one of the building blocks for great schools comes to your mind--good teaching, sound leadership, and a distinctive school culture.

Frequently, I will have candidates whom I am interviewing for teaching positions at Branksome thank me for giving them so much time when I meet them in the final stages of the interview process. My reply is always the same thing: "Hiring good teachers is the most important thing that I do. You are the frontline people. You can make it happen for our students. Without you, the school day does not happen."

In "Schools of Hope," the author Daniel Heath states: "When teaching becomes a job, not just teachers, but, more importantly, students, risk being hurt every clay they enter school. Teaching is a calling and the individual teacher, not the principal or supervisor, is responsible for his/her own fulfillment and happiness in this profession."

As a school principal, my job is to ensure that teachers are knowledgeable, qualified, and caring. This means teachers understand and have a passion for the topics they teach, for the students they teach, and that they approach both with respect.

Great schools work with a model of care that all teachers understand and support. Like so many other elements of building school excellence, the model of care will be different in every school.

At Branksome Hall, one way that we care for our students is through our advisor program. Right now, I have 10 girls in my advisor group. I began working with them when they were in grade nine and this is our second year together. I will be with them until they graduate. Advisor time is one of the best parts of my week, and I marvel at how much they have changed in the two years that I have known them.

The advisor system is not rocket science; it simply works. Think about it--meeting with 10 fabulous students once a week, joining them for special community service projects, participating as a member of their intramural sports team and (as the Branksome girls who are in the audience can attest) making sure they have food at every meeting. I know a lot about my girls and about their families. I monitor their academic progress, their attendance, and their co-curricular commitment. I chat with their parents and teachers; it is a model of care that works and one that grows stronger as these girls move closer and closer to their graduating year.

Caring for students becomes even more important in situations where parents may not have the extra time to

spend with their children, or when families arrive as new immigrants to our city. During my years as a vice-principal at Victoria Park Secondary School, what I remember most is the diversity. At Vic. Park we had a population of approximately 1,200 students in grades 9 to 12. The student body was diverse (75 different nationalities) and the school offered programs to both students and adults.

What I learned at Vic. Park was that when new immigrants settle in their neighbourhood, the first place they come to is the local school. In North York, we were fortunate to have the services of the multicultural consultants who came from a variety of countries and they were able to speak the language of the family who was new to our school. These are the people who made the difference. They were the first step in a model of care that strove to help new immigrant families communicate with their new school, receive an ESL program that was best suited to their needs and adjust to life in a new country.

Great schools ensure that the teaching environment includes the ongoing education and evaluation of faculty. Great schools must put money, time, and investment into its faculty and provide teachers with the opportunity for training, growth, and learning. At Branksome Hall, we take professional learning seriously and we have framed our teacher training around curriculum. We have focused on best practices in student assessment and evaluation, infusing technology into the curriculum and developing critical thinking skills. These are just a few of the professional-development priorities for our school.

Teachers in great schools believe, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that all students can learn. They understand the notion of multiple learning styles, which, stated simply, means we all learn differently. Teachers in great schools address these various styles of learning through different approaches to instruction and through the use of creative and varied ways of testing and assessing what students have learned.

In her book, "The Right To Learn," Linda Darling-Hammond describes multiple learning styles as a complex mix of intelligences that are developed over time in cultural contexts and used in various ways. Hammond contends that traditional schools have often sought to deny or subordinate intellectual diversity to the demands of narrowly drawn standardized curricula.

Fortunately, more and more today, we see great schools where teachers are using a wide range of teaching strategies in a reciprocal process that demands intimate knowledge of students and how they think.

Great teaching does not exist without great curriculum. But the word itself may need some explanation: Curriculum, in very simple terms, is what students learn, how they learn it, and how we, as educators, determine if they have learned it.

At Branksome Hall, we are introducing the International Baccalaureate as our primary course of study. In this program, our girls receive a liberal arts education as the foundation for their learning. They participate in inquiry units of study that direct them to ask questions and to solve problems of knowledge through independent research, group work and by sharing and demonstrating what they have learned.

In grade six our students examine the topic of injustice by framing the questions that are most important to them as individuals, researching cases of injustice around the world and sharing their findings through conferences and presentations. In grade 11 biology, the inquiry unity of study on bioethics demonstrates to me that our girls are lifelong learners and informed participants in local and world affairs.

We are confident that our school is directed by a curriculum that is preparing young women to meet the challenges of an ever-changing world and that caring and knowledgeable teachers support them.

At Branksome Hall, I am the seventh principal. You may recall in my earlier remarks that this is our school's centennial year. Do the math and you will realize that for a school with a 100-year history, we have had very few women in the leadership position as school principal.

Edith M. Read, Branksome Hall's second principal led the school for 48 years. Without a doubt, Edith's leadership provided the blueprint for the five principals who have followed in her footsteps. In 1906, the school owned no land and no buildings. When Edith retired in 1958, Branksome Hall consisted of 13 acres of land and 14 buildings in the heart of Toronto, Rosedale--all thanks to the purchases and acquisitions of land by Miss Read.

In today's independent schools, we no longer see principals retiring after 48 years; however, there are some significant messages from Edith Read's leadership that I believe are still at work today in making good schools great.

In his book, "Good to Great," author Jim Collins writes about level-five leaders who "build enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will." The two key characteristics that these leaders possess are true humility and a deep commitment to the health and advancement of the total organization.

These are leaders who channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It's not that such leaders have no ego or self-interest; indeed, they are incredibly ambitious but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.

I cannot think of a better example of a principal who demonstrated ferocious ambition and directed it all toward her institution, other than Branksome's Miss Read.

Many of you may know that instead of the shady paths and rolling hills that are characteristic of many independent schools, Branksome's grounds are bisected by one of Toronto's busiest thoroughfares. This leads me to a great story about leadership.

The Clifton Road Extension (known to you as Mt. Pleasant) was built in 1950 to ease Toronto's perennial traffic problem. But it created a problem for Branksome Hall. Before the completion of the road, Miss Read saw that unless traffic lights were installed, Branksome girls would be hotfooting it between speeding cars in order to get from one class to another. She applied to the Toronto City Hall for stoplights. She was turned down. On the day the road opened, Miss Read put on a brilliant red coat and waving a hand-painted stop sign, stepped determinedly into the morning rush-hour traffic. After the traffic had screeched to a halt, she beckoned her girls across the highway. Needless to say, a few days later Miss Read gleefully watched workmen installing new traffic lights. She is reported as saying to the press °I don't know why City Hall fights me. I win nine times out of 10!" ("Canada in the Fifties"--Maclean's Magazine)

Edith knew her community. Branksome in 1910 was a lot different than it is today; however, knowing one's community has never been more important.

I first learned the importance of this aspect of school leadership when I began my career in administration. In 1992, after having taught at Havergal College, I accepted a position as vice-principal at Lawrence Heights Middle School. I reported to Liz Austin, one of North York's finest principals and she taught me the ropes of working in one of the city's poorest neighbourhoods.

It was mid-August when Liz took me out to meet the community. Our host was the supervisor of the Lawrence Heights Metro Housing Development. We visited families in their homes, spent days at the recreation centre, the health centre and met the community leaders. By the time school actually opened in September, I was a familiar face. When I had issues or problems to solve for the children at Lawrence (and there were many), I knew that I

had good people upon whom I could call for advice and guidance.

The lesson for me is one that I have never forgotten: Great school leaders know and respect their community. Recently, I received a letter from a family who had been interviewed at Branksome through our admissions process. The letter carries a lot of significance for me in terms of the culture of our school:

"From the moment we entered the building and corridors of Branksome Hall, we knew something was different. We saw a dynamic camaraderie amongst the girls. We heard laughter and we experienced from your students, a willingness to assist and answer questions in a friendly and relaxed manner. Our tour guide even told us the story about the Branksome Ghost! We saw diversity and individualism in your student body and from our observations of the girls at Branksome Hall, we are convinced that every individual has a place at your school. In short, the school was singing with life."

Comments, such as the ones expressed in this letter remind me of how important culture is when differentiating good schools from great schools. In describing school culture, consider the following statement by Kent Peterson:

"School culture is the set of norms, values and beliefs, rituals and ceremonies, symbols and stories that make up the persona of a school.

These rituals and ceremonies, symbols and stories communicate core values, reinforce the mission, and build a shared sense of commitment. Symbols are an outward sign of inward values. Stories are group representations of history and meaning. In positive cultures, these features reinforce learning, commitment, and motivation, and they are consistent with the school's vision.

While there is no one best culture, recent research and knowledge of great schools identify common features in professional learning communities. In these cultures, staff, students, and administrators value learning; they work to enhance curriculum and instruction; and there is a universal focus on students."

When I think about these components of culture and apply them to Branksome Hall, I can better understand why I often receive the kind of feedback from parents and students, such as the letter I just shared with you.

The Branksome culture is deep, personal and enduring. Our stories are not mounted just for specific projects or events. Our rituals and ceremonies are not "one shot deals" (in fact some of them date back to the 1920sD. The Branksome flags are symbolic to our students and our alumni. Our school motto, "Keep Well the Road," is central to every students' and teachers' daily work.

As I say these words, I find myself going back to the county of Dorset in England and I am thinking about afternoon tea at the home of Elspeth Fairbairn. In her own way Elspeth tells the story of a great school:

• The teachers whom she remembers as if it were


A model of care that gave her a family; An education and a home for four years; An academic program that paved the way for her university education;

A principal whose determination created a school that is now entering its second century; and

An enduring culture that will ensure Branksome's success for the next 100 years.

I suppose that I knew this would be the case from the beginning of my journey--travelling the winding roadways of Dorset looking for the right house and finally seeing the sign post on Elspeth's stone fence.

She had posted it with love and affection for her "great school." The words "Keep Well the Road" have never held a more lasting or enduring meaning for me.

Thank you.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by David A. Edmison, President, Martin Lucas & Seagram Investment Counsel, Past President, The Empire Club of Canada.

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Lessons Learned: How Good Schools Become Great

Elspeth and Agnes Fairbairn and why they are important for this speech. Good teaching. The school experience. The importance of the teachers. Student care at Branksome Hall. The advisor system. The ongoing education and evaluation of faculty. Teachers in great schools. A wide range of teaching strategies. Great curriculum. The International Baccalaureate. Principalship. The second principal of Branksome Hall. Leadership. The importance of knowing one's community. School culture. The story of a great school.