By Glen Herbert
Dave Krocker was appointed Head of School at Rosseau Lake College in the height of the pandemic. Partly due to the protocols, when I first met with him last fall, instead of sitting in his office, we walked a trail that circles the campus. On the way we stopped at the teepee near the entrance to the property, which was a gift from the Wasauksing First Nation, and is maintained by members of that community. Krocker noted that that morning he had hosted a staff meeting there. We ducked through the entryway and stood on either side of the firepit. After a moment he said, as much to himself as to me, “Isn’t it great?” says Krocker. It really is. “As I said when we were in here this morning, this is maybe the most unique faculty meeting that I’ve ever had.” The embers of the fire were still glowing, the smell of the woodsmoke still in the air. The fire had been lit for warmth—it had been a cold fall morning, snow seemingly not that far off—as well as all the other things we associate with a campfire: gathering, sharing a moment, looking at something other than screens.
The connections with the First Nation communities and the uniqueness of having such a range of learning spaces are things that Krocker visibly relishes. One of the things that he loves about RLC is how the campus disrupts expectations and, in turn, encourages new ways of thinking, inspires new ideas, and develops deep relationships. “We need to be building innovators, creators, thinkers, problem solvers, communicators,” he says. Just as important if not more so—actually, when he said this, it was clear that this was the more important end of the equation—“we need joyful, good people.”
All of those things—innovation, disruption, joy—have arguably been the defining aspects of Krocker’s career in education. When he started his career in Alberta, the province had just launched the Alberta initiative for school improvement. As a result, he and two colleagues found themselves in the enviable position of having a million-dollar grant with which to improve education, seemingly in any way they saw fit. “We blew it up, literally,” he said, meaning that they used the grant to redesign the school and, with it, the style of academic delivery used there. They removed walls and partitions; “we combined the entire thing into an experiential humanities program.” The smaller spaces that had been there prior—no doubt set with rows of desks facing the front of the room—were repurposed to allow for collaboration, experiential learning, and a move away from chalk and talk. After the redesign, the students would meet in groups, facing each other rather than the front of the room.
Thinking differently about learning
It wasn’t about being different just to be different, just as true innovation isn’t just doing the opposite of what’s been done before. Rather, as Krocker describes it, it was a renegotiation of the learning experience with the intention of granting the students the skills, postures, and literacies that they would need as they moved ahead in education and in life. Times were changing; this was near the advent of the digital age. These were kids, in his estimation, that would need to work together to solve problems, rather than recalling facts or rendering data. Yes, math was important, but so was delivering your thoughts and ideas effectively while being attentive to the thoughts and ideas of others. Krocker sees that experience—having the responsibility but also the freedom to think in bold ways about education—as a defining moment in his career. “I was a brand new teacher, and that really set the appetite of thinking differently about learning and the possibilities of teaching.”
From Alberta, Krocker set off to see the world, eventually filling administrative roles at the International School in Bangkok, Lakefield College School, and the Colegio Interamericano in Guatemala City. “I have a very strong sense of adventure, no question,” he says. “I’ve always loved that sense of, ‘I don’t know this, and I’ve got to really figure this out.’ That sense of actually not knowing the answer, of not being comfortable. I loved being pushed.” When I ask what he feels the hiring committee at RLC saw in him, he says “I think that experience and exposure to the world, that sense of the possibilities of what can be.”
On the face of it, RLC doesn’t look much like those schools in Bangkok or Guatemala City. They aren’t located on lakes in rural Ontario, for one. But what they share is that they attract students from around the world. Within them, success requires that students learn to work together, as uncomfortable as that can be at times. It’s a style of learning that RLC excels in, which was Krocker’s attraction to it initially. Getting kids from around the world managing a canoe trip, for example, can be a uniquely valuable learning experience in lots of unforeseen ways. Which is why he says, “I believe our major strategic advantage as a school is our diversity.” It grants a sense of the world, yes, but also “the challenges of a true multicultural environment.” Simply by living together over the school year the students naturally navigate cultural norms, become aware of their own and others’ sensitivities, and learn how to fit into a community that, at times, can present competing interests.
Leading is listening
Krocker has said that leadership is about reflection and asking the right questions, “making sure that you take the time to consider all angles.” He was brought on, in part, to bring that kind of deliberate reflection. He’s notably keen to listen, and as we talk, he comments on things that he took away from a recent parent survey. The parents had praise, but also posed some hard questions, including a pressing need for additional staff housing. He says, “I love that our parents are identifying these things.”
He listens to the students as well, stopping to talk with them as he moves about the campus, and makes a point of meeting and greeting them every morning. “The best ideas come from your users,” he says. “The kids live this—they eat the food, they sit in the classrooms, they live the schedule we create—and they come up with the most amazing ideas.” This is as much about what the school is doing right as it is about things they feel could be improved. To be sure, that kind of student agency is something he holds close to his heart. He speaks of a recent survey that was created and completed by students. He gave them the headings—campus life, academics, co-curriculars, food service—and asked them to design questions because, simply, “they know the right questions to ask.” Students were involved after the data was collected as well, gathering the feedback and using it to inform action strategies. “They have to be part of it, because they know it.”
In his time as the head of school, Krocker will oversee a major capital campaign. It will bring new facilities as well as upgrades on existing facilities. That could mean a bold departure, though Krocker’s intention is to keep things traditional and sympathetic to the school’s history and the region of the world it sits within. He anticipates growth, though he is careful with that concept, knowing that growth can mean different things. “I think the growth we’re looking for is to become even more intentional about the value of relationships.” That’s something that has defined the culture of RLC since its inception, but he knows that it shouldn’t—in fact, that it can’t—be taken for granted. He says, “the other area of absolute growth that has to happen is around sustainability and innovation, of really developing stewardship.” Environmental stewardship is part of that—it’s hard to imagine a school that lives this closely or as in tune with the natural environment—but also stewardship of the community of the school and, ultimately, all the various communities that the students will participate within as they move on in their education and their lives.
“I’ve really landed somewhere special”
Krocker feels that the campus, both through its size and location, has a unique ability to bring all of those things forward. That the place, ultimately, plays a role. At one point during our walk we pass a copse of trees where an outdoor ed class had recently slept out in hammocks. “I don’t know of another school where, you know, when it’s going down to two degrees at night, there are kids happily sleeping outside.” There are very few schools at which it would even be an option.
As we walk we spot some fresh deer tracks. Moose are here from time to time. Closer to the shoreline there are some buildings from the original estate which reflect the historic use of the property. Turning, there’s the view across the lake. After a pause, he says, “I’ve really landed somewhere special.” It’s clear that he’s not thinking of the natural beauty, or at least only of that. He feels that this leadership role, at this school, at this point in time, is one that his career to date has been preparing him for, if not overtly pointing toward. “This needs to be the best small school in the country,” he says. No doubt, if it isn’t already, it will be.
Don’t miss out on Doppler!
Sign up here to receive our email digest with links to our most recent stories.
Local news in your inbox three times per week!