top of page

Articles written by James Watts


Skimpy clothing not most pressing issue


Montreal Gazette 

Wed Jun 11 2014 

Page: C7 

Section: West Island 


Source: The Gazette 


""Re.: "What is your opinion on short shorts in schools?" Brenda O'Farrell's blog at westislandgazette. com, June 11.


Due to our frigid, northern climate, students' clothing - or lack thereof - is only an issue during the final four or five weeks of classes. One suggestion is to install air conditioning and crank up the cold air. Winter sweaters and long pants would become a necessity! However, this is not always possible.


What is deemed "appropriate" is, of course, an age-old debate between adults who set the rules and young people whose role it is to test them. When social boundaries are not maintained there is an erosion of morals and when imposed regulations are not challenged then there is bound to be tyranny. The struggle is necessary because it is through respectful dialogue that societies (and schools) develop equilibrium and make progress.


In art class, we teach students to think creatively and to test boundaries. In science, we demonstrate the value of laws. The role of the teacher is to help students figure out when to test the limits and when to submit to immutable laws. In this case, however, if we would commit the same level of energy to solving some of our more pressing social problems as is being applied to regulating the length of students' shorts, the world would be a much better place!


James Watts


Principal Education Plus High School

Cellphones belong in the classroom


Montreal Gazette 

Tue Oct 1 2013 

Page: A18 

Section: Editorial / Op-Ed 


Source: The Gazette 


Re: "Cellphones in classes?" (Gazette, Sept. 27) Educators, stop the handwringing! When it comes to cellphone use in the classroom, the train has left the station. And it's not coming back.


This is great news because, for the first time since the beginning of formal education, we are finally forced to make our classrooms compatible with the rest of the world. First, we must overcome our fear that technology will rob us of some of our power as the "sage on the stage." Then, we must learn to unleash the awesome potential of the Internet in our classrooms.


Relevance will have a greater effect on the dropout rate than any textbook, program, classroom configuration or teaching style. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, "Come teachers and principals/Please heed the call/Don't stand in the doorway /Don't block up the hall ... for the times they are achangin'."


James Watts Principal Education Plus High School St-Laurent

Time for teachers to climb up the spout again


Montreal Gazette 

Tue Feb 12 2013 

Page: A16 

Section: Editorial / Op-Ed 

Source: The Gazette 


The Itsy Bitsy Spider went up the water spout.


Down came the rain, and washed the spider out.


Out came the sun, and dried up all the rain,


And the Itsy Bitsy Spider climbed up the spout again.


For many kindergarten students, this short poem is a fun finger play that is gleefully chanted as they march purposefully around the schoolyard. Unbeknownst to them, this four-line story is prophetic. It is the narrative of their teachers' careers!


For the spider, it begins with a colossal effort. The route up the water spout is dark and friendless. In this hostile environment, the spider encounters a series of obstacles: leaves, dirt and other debris. And just when he approaches the top of the spout, a torrent of rainwater flushes the spider and returns him back to the bottom of the spout! However, the spider is enticed by the sun and, regardless of the number of times he has tried, the intrepid arthropod begins the journey anew. How many times will he climb the spout? What is his breaking point?


According to a Gazette article ("Too many teachers are quitting, experts warn," Janet Bagnall, Feb. 4), many teachers will make fewer than five trips up the waterspout. She quotes Jon G. Bradley from the education department at McGill University: "Across North America, nearly half of all new teachers leave the field within five years." Some of the reasons given in her article include the incredibly high level of exposure teachers have to false allegations and the lack of respect and support shown to them from students, parents and their employers.


It is easy to point out how parents abdicate their responsibilities, leaving childrearing to teachers. It is true that school boards disrespect teachers and administrators by shuffling them from school to school like a deck of playing cards. And it would require a much longer article than this to address a teacher's pay scale - a reflection of their worth in society.


Having taught for the past 24 years in Canada and Ghana, I remember a time when the teaching profession was revered and the teacher was honoured. Now teachers are often isolated and occasionally maligned. Is there a correlation between the teacher burnout rate and the student dropout rate?


Teaching is one of the few jobs that must be considered "a calling." The best teachers and the ones who last longest are the ones who see the potential in each child in their classrooms and then intentionally and sacrificially give their time and energy to propel the youngsters toward excellence. It is critical that teachers be certain of their calling.


I have found that the rewards derived from teaching are many and long-lasting. We are empowering young people and opening doors of opportunity for them.


Our classrooms are the launching pads for their future careers. As Clark Mollenhoff wrote: "We are moulders of their dreams."


Teachers must not stop caring for their students. There are appropriate ways for educators to be transparent and authentic without leaving themselves vulnerable to false allegations. A great example of how to do this is Lindsay Place teacher Catherine Hogan, who posted a video on YouTube with a message for teenagers that teachers care and are ready to listen and help.


Young teachers need to know that the first years are the roughest. They must absorb the small victories - the struggling student who finally shows up on five consecutive days; the light bulb that goes on over the young person's head when he finally understands fractions; the Picas-soesque painting that the budding artist submits and says, "I drew you, sir!"


Veteran teachers should look out for the rookies. Novice teachers have energy and seasoned teachers have experience. We must mentor the young teachers and guide them through the rough spots of self-doubt.


Parents need to believe that we are on their side. If they will team up with us, together we will be a stronger force for good in their child's life. They should come into the school more often just to chat or help out. While there, they will see how hard we work and they will be a lot less likely to criticize.


Regardless of the nature of their rough day: the student who swears at them, the administrator who doesn't support their idea, and the parent who sends threatening notes, they must remember that the sun will come out and dry up all the rain.


Teachers are called to get their acts together and climb back up that darn spout again!


James Watts Principal, Education Plus High School


© 2013 Postmedia Network Inc. All rights reserved.



• PHIL CARPENTER, THE GAZETTE / Teacher Catherine Hogan posted a video on YouTube encouraging teens to talk with their teachers.

The expectation and the reality of prom night


Montreal Gazette 

Tue Jun 4 2013 

Page: A17 

Section: Editorial / Op-Ed 


Column: James Watts 

Source: The Gazette 


Once again it's prom time, when young people get dressed up like adults and spend a fortune on food, flowers and fancy cars while their parents huddle at home hoping for the best and praying for their children's physical and emotional safety.


Many movies have been made about this rite of passage. Most of them include inebriated teens, nudity and drugs - and there is the occasional murder. But what happens in real life?


High school seniors' expectations for prom night are derived from a mixture of movie images, the often-exaggerated reporting of former graduates, and a fantasy that has been building since the beginning of high school. These expectations include a series of firsts: first serious formal date, first all-nighter, and maybe first sex, first drugs, even a first arrest.


By the time their children are graduating from high school, many parents have developed selective memory loss and have conveniently filtered out their recollections of their own prom. One way or another, the parents survived their great evening intact enough to raise a child or two. But for this one event they suspend all the faith they have in their parenting skills and the solid foundations they have laid, and suspect that their darling children are going to spend prom night consorting with low-lifes and miscreants.


What actually happens at the prom generally falls far below expectations. The limo is kind of cool but the driver is uptight. The food is always left uneaten because it is inedible. The best part of the dancing is waiting to see how long it takes for the girls to abandon their shiny new stilettos and dance barefoot, and for the boys to transform their silk ties into headbands.


Regardless of how awesome or how awful the prom turns out to be, we all know that the real fun begins after the teachers decide it's time to pull the plug on the DJ. The students quickly disperse to prearranged house parties, to restaurants that serve real food, or to downtown clubs to try out their new fake IDs.


Parents, chill out. You have great kids and they have great friends. Although your daughter's date puts on a tough-guy façade, he is terrified of you. Your son will talk a big game but in the end he will hang out with his crew and be happy when the evening is over. Prom night is just another step in the journey of parenting. Ultimately it should be our goal to raise autonomous and courageous contributors to society.


Students, remember your lessons. You have had exams but the real test is now. It is time to put all your learning into real-life action.


In physics you learned about the forces of gravity. You will discover that those forces appear to accelerate proportionally to the amount you drink. Math taught you about rational numbers; you will find that if you behave irrationally you will only have a fraction of the fun the others are having. Chemistry labs demonstrated the dangers of mixing acids and bases; enough said. There will be drama at the prom; there always is. But after years of high school English classes you have learned how to read situations, how to compose yourself, and how to be uncompromising as you state your opinions.


On prom night you will be making history.


Make sure that it will be history of which you will be proud.


James Watts is the principal of Education Plus High School in St-Laurent and the author of Happy Parent: A Novel About Parenting Teens (Friesen Press).

School ethics course is an opportunity to create peacemakers


Montreal Gazette 

Mon Mar 26 2012 

Page: A27 

Section: Editorial / Op-Ed 


Column: James Watts 



In 2008, the Quebec Ministry of Education introduced an ethics and religious culture program to replace the moral and religious education curriculum that had been taught previously. The new course covers all major faiths found in Quebec culture, including the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths, and aboriginal world views.


Predictably, some people were upset. This change affects two of our most sensitive areas: our children and our beliefs. Some parents and schools took the government to court, but recently the Supreme Court of Canada pronounced that the new course "does not constitute indoctrination" and that there is no infringement on anyone's religious rights or freedoms.


Undoubtedly there are times when people and organizations need to stand up to the government and protest legislated change; this is not one of those times. Conspicuously absent from those protesting against this course are the students!


Having taught this new course for the past three years, I am confounded by those who oppose it. Have the detractors carefully scrutinized the content of the course? Belief systems from atheism to Zoroastrianism agree that all people's beliefs should be approached with respect, that open dialogue is healthy, and that understanding each other's cultures will eliminate xenophobia and move us toward peace. And what better place for this to happen than in the multicultural setting of our schools?


Fears that are held by some schools and some parents are not shared by our youth. Among my students there is a healthy intellectual hunger to understand their peers. A short stroll down the main arteries of any of our cities provides proof of our diversity. List the restaurants and categorize them ethnically. Surprise! We have food from around the world! Woven into these culinary delights are cultures and belief systems.


Parents, relax with the vituperative diatribes! Isn't it our desire that our children build their own world view and not blindly adopt ours? We have ample time to teach them about, and model to them, the valuable tenets of our own faith. Biblical Moses is an interesting example. He had very limited time with his parents, but his life was one that was characterized by his parents' beliefs. In fact, later on in life he wrote: "Teach - your children - when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up." Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young echo this: "You who are on the road must have a code that you can live by - Teach your children well - feed them on your dreams."


Teachers, we find ourselves at one of the most exciting times in the history of formal education. It is a time when what we teach will have a major impact for good in our world; when what we teach promotes peace. Gone are the days when our students could be categorized into two or three religious groups. Our classrooms are populated with intelligent young people from every tribe and nation. History has taught us the incredible cost societies have paid as a result of religious ignorance. No one expects you to be an expert on all world religions. In fact, embedded in the reform is the expectation that you will guide your students toward discovery. Do not underestimate your students' desire to learn. What an amazing opportunity we have to break cycles of ignorance and graduate classes of peacemakers!


Students, lead the way. You know that the times have changed. You have friends from many cultures. With technology you communicate with people from around the globe on a daily basis. Foods that were once only available in season or in foreign lands are now available at your local supermarket. Information that once took your parents a week in the library to collate is now a Google search away. We are counting on you to learn about each other's beliefs, to share the fundamentals of your faith and to find common ground - a place where there is dialogue, understanding and, yes, the possibility of peace. This is going to require patience with those who have ingrained prejudices and fears of the unknown. Some of these people you will have to leave behind; others you will convince to join you. One day you will be running the governments and businesses of this world. If you adopt the principle of respect and develop a desire to understand your world, you will have at your disposal the most valuable of all human resources: hope!


JAMES WATTS is a founder and the principal of Education Plus High School in St. Laurent.


Call it the dad effect; In my experience, when fathers are involved at school, their kids are less likely to be bullied or to bully


Montreal Gazette 

Mon Feb 13 2012 

Page: A27 

Section: Editorial / Op-Ed 





Much has been written on the subject of bullying. Most writers correctly differentiate between the occasional schoolyard scuffle and the persistent and pernicious harassment of an individual. Writers try profiling both the kind of child who is bullied and the kind who bullies. Scorn is generally heaped on those who stand by and fail to intervene. A plethora of "solutions" has been offered. And yet the problem persists. Worse, with social networking, it seems to be escalating.


Having taught in a variety of settings both in Canada and in Africa, and having been a high-school principal for 18 years, I'd like to offer to the discussion both my empirical research and a simple solution. (That ought to raise the hackles of those who believe that for a solution to work it must be both complex and next to impossible to implement!)


My first observation is that there is no rhyme or reason as to why one student gets bullied and the next does not. The smart student, the short student, the bespectacled student, the wallflower and the jock - each has the same chance of finding himself or herself locked in the crosshairs of a bully's aggression. I have taught classes for students with behavioural deficits (also known as the "bad kids"). At times I had only two students in my class. Invariably, when a third student was introduced to the group, one of the three became the target! I have yet to decipher the teen-code for target selection.


My second observation is that bullies come in all shapes, sizes and intellectual capacities. They are not all products of a background where they themselves have been bullied or abused. Most cannot articulate why they act the way they do. Unfortunately, many teachers and administrators react to these students like the CIA would to a highly trained terrorist operative, rather than treating them as the confused mess of hormones and neurons we call our students.


My final observation leads to the solution I propose. I have noticed that students whose fathers are involved in their schools are far less likely to be bullied or to be bullies.


Too simple? I warned you!


Many fathers leave school and all things academic (with the exception of math and science projects) to their children's mother. Maybe they see it as a logical division of labour; or it could be for strategic reasons; or because of availability or lack of it; or just plain laziness.


And the few fathers who darken the doors of their child's elementary school miraculously disappear just when they are needed the most: when the child gets to high school.


Attend a school's bake sale, Parent Participation Organization event, or home-and-school meeting, and you will think you have stepped into a women-only zone. (Thank God for these amazing, hardworking moms who offer many non-billable hours of service to cash-strapped schools.)


There are three reasons why children whose fathers are involved in their schools do not find themselves at either end of the bullying spectrum:


--I have noticed, as I have been in-volved in my children's schools - chairing school governing boards for the past 10 years - that my children's peers get to know me. As much as I would like to be known for some real or imagined successes in my life, to these young people I am Micah's or Sophie's dad. For a would-be bully, knowing that there is a dad and that he is often seen in the school is a strong deterrent.


--The second reason is the confidence it brings to a child to know that, if there is a problem, his or her dad can find the front office, and it's a place where he has influence because of his involvement in the school. (Fair or unfair, as a principal I grant more time to the complaint of a parent who has been involved in my school than I do to the parent I have never met.) This confidence shields kids, making them resistant to verbal and psychological attacks and occasionally secure enough to stand up for others.


--Finally, a father who is involved in his child's school sends an unmistakable message that he cares enough to take the time to know what is happening in his child's life. It is this father who is more likely to have a relevant conversation with his child. It is this father who will be perceived to understand the teen dynamic. (Even if he needs to fake it a bit.) It is this father who will model to his son how to be a man.


So, dads, if you really want to bully-proof your child, get involved in his or her school. Go into the school's office tomorrow and ask how you can help out. Join the home-and-school organization. Stand for election for the governing board. Attend sports events.


In doing so you will be protecting your child, and other children, from the potentially damaging effects of either side of bullying.


JAMES WATTS is the founder and principal of Education Plus High School, an alternative private school in St. Laurent, and chair of the governing board of LaurenHill Academy in St. Laurent.

bottom of page