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A profile of UCC's Sam McKinney

"This is a human profession, and I believe that’s what education is … relationships matter to me most."

by Glen Herbert

UCC principal since 2016, Sam McKinney was raised in St. Catharines, Ontario. His first teaching job was in the public system in Guelph. He then took a position at a private school in Australia, and there became a proponent not only of things that independent schooling can do, but also a champion of the International Baccalaureate. Twenty years later, he found himself at the head of UCC—a job that he admits is not one that he, as a young person, would have imagined moving into or perhaps even been aware of.

“When he first came in,” says Gareth Evans, assistant head of the middle division of the Prep School, “he assessed everything and I think he was interested in having the most efficient alignment of leadership possible. He took a whole year of observing and interviewing and talking to as many stakeholders as possible, and he came to the conclusion that we’re going to go back to what we used to have,” namely two heads—one for the Prep School and another for the Upper School—instead of dedicated heads of different grade level divisions within the school.

In some schools, the principal or headmaster remains somewhere apart from the student body. In others, they are known to the students and seen somewhat regularly. McKinney is the next best case: he’s known to everyone, is approachable to everyone, and indeed approaches everyone. Some might say that’s not so important, given that the job of the administration of the school is to, well, administer the school. But McKinney sees his role in larger terms, including setting the tone for the ongoing culture of the institution. “Usually you think of the principal as a really high figure in the school,” says a student in the boarding program, giddy at the story he’s about to tell. “But one day last year, he just comes into the math room and says, ‘who wants to arm wrestle?’ And so everybody lines up. And he beats everybody.” Apparently, McKinney’s a skilled arm wrestler, so he wasn’t graciously setting himself up for failure, as much as the boys might have thought (or hoped) he was. In any case, the boys loved it, and it’s a story that they are prone to repeating for no other reason than for the joy of it. (One student adds that, despite the casual interactions, “you still have to say ‘sir.’”)

His interaction with us, with the staff, and with the students in the hallways made it plain that McKinney sees his role as one of providing, among other things, a model for others to follow. He behaves this way—approachable, friendly, active—because that’s the face and the personality that he’d like to see expressed by the school. He says, “this is a human profession, and I believe that’s what education is … relationships matter to me most,” including those with students, parents, alumni, and colleagues. “I can send emails, or sit behind a closed door, but that won’t give people the confidence and trust that needs to exist for us to be able to achieve what we need to achieve as a school.”

He speaks of the school’s future more than the past, talking less about the school that he inherited, and more about the school that he and others are working to develop. Community and relationships feature highly within that. “What do [the students] take from the school? They take relationships, and they talk a lot about brotherhood, but it’s really about connection—both to each other and to the college itself, including its culture and traditions.” Parents confirm that focus, to be sure. One told us that, “at the end of the weekly assembly …, they all have their arms around each other and are swaying back and forth as they sing the song ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’ [My son] didn’t have that when he was in public school” before moving to UCC. “It’s a tradition that’s memorable for them,” she adds, her voice breaking as she does. An alumnus commented on the sheer, unbridled energy when the song is sung. “No boy in the hall holds anything back. And the singing builds to a crescendo, peaking on ‘NE-VER’ in the final stanza.”

While he may not express it in exactly these terms, McKinney sees the strength of the UCC program as a product of its ability to provide a challenging, socially aware community for the boys to participate actively within, both on campus and beyond. One of the first visible projects that he instigated on arrival was one based on truth and reconciliation with the First Nations communities, and it is telling of his approach. It culminated in a permanent art installation in the student centre. He says that “we have a responsibility to help the boys, while they’re here, develop a sense of personal responsibility to make a positive difference in their lives beyond the school.” That includes a responsibility to not shirk from the challenges of history, as well as the challenges we face today.

He continues, “I don’t think we’re better because we’re a boys’ school … I think we have a chance to specialize in educating boys—that’s what we’re specialists at, just as a doctor is a specialist in a particular area. And many things are geared around that within the school.” For him, that means giving students real opportunities to explore; to engage in a rich and robust academic program; to challenge themselves on a stage with a musical instrument, or on a playing field; and to find out things about themselves that they may not know. And, last but not least: “To find out things about their friends that they might not have expected. And to discover [those things] while they’re here.”

For the Our Kids Review of Upper Canada College, click here

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