A good teacher is improving their craft, much like an artist
Exclusive interview with Fouli Tsimikalis, Co-Owner and Vice President of Toronto Prep School.
Have you ever noticed how nostalgic visiting a school makes you feel? Does it bring to your mind the smell of a freshly sharpened pencil or the inevitable thought you were asking yourself as a child "Why do I have to go to school everyday?" Does it remind you of the difficulty you had getting out of a warm bed early in the morning when the rain was getting stronger outside? Or perhaps the sweet taste of success in Math that you were struggling with for months?
All these memories came back a couple of weeks ago when I had the chance to visit the Toronto Prep School and interview Fouli Tsimikalis.
“Fouli and Steve Tsimikalis own and operate a true gem in Education, the Toronto Prep School. Her warm smile, positive aura and soothing voice got me thinking where would I have been if I was her student.”
Toronto Prep School is a private, co educational and university preparatory day school, teaching grades 7,8,9,10,11 and 12. Course offerings span from Drama, English Literature and Social Studies to History, Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics and many more. Specialized courses such as Marketing, Media Arts, Philosophy, Visual Arts, and Studies in Journalism etc. are offered to higher grades as students get closer to deciding their career path. Course electives include fashion design, art, drama, communication technology, media arts, computer science and many other interesting subjects. Limited number of students in a classroom and late morning classes ensure better learning experiences and remarkable improvements in academic performance and attitude. Toronto Prep School's mission is to infuse excellent study habits to its students and develop their character through various ways. That is the reason why Toronto Prep School does charity events, excursions and has many clubs of various abilities and interests that students engage in. Students' participation in teams and athletic activities will build their leadership and sportsmanship skills and help them maintain a healthy and active lifestyle. Charity work and volunteer programs help students assume personal and social responsibility. Toronto Prep School’s core value is respect to all that spans from self respect to the whole community !
When did Toronto Prep School open its doors for first time?
Toronto Prep School started in September 2009. It was a project we were working for two years prior to the opening. This establishment used to be a private elementary school that, unfortunately for them, went out of business. Everything here was small sized: cupboards, sinks, doors. In March 2009 we renovated the 8000 sq.m. ex-elementary school and installed everything you see today. Back then we were 7 teachers including my husband and I and we started with 71 students. We now have 385 students, 30 classrooms and we teach in 40,000 square metres!
What were you teaching back then?
I taught Canadian History 10, Civilizations 11 (which includes Ancient Greek history) and English Literature 8. Others were teaching Mathematics, Chemistry, Biology, Physics and French. My husband, Steve, Toronto Prep School's Principal, was teaching Economics and Geography.
You reach your 10 year anniversary soon! How do you plan to celebrate it?
We will celebrate our 10 Year anniversary hosting a golf tournament and throwing a big party, with a lot of kefi (fun in Greek)! We know how to have good time as each year we throw an appreciation dinner party for our graduating class and their parents at Sassafraz in Yorkville. Everyone enjoys the evening! We eat, we drink and we have a good laugh bringing back memories, being a family!
What is the procedure of admissions to the Toronto Prep School?
Firstly, parents and prospective students come to see Toronto Prep School and in the meantime they fill an application form. I, then personally, meet the parents and the children. I have a look at the student’s courses and grades from previous schools. We pick our students, making sure they are able to keep up with our demanding academic program. Admission is a long process that leads to me interviewing 150 prospective students per year!
Which are some of your best students?
Hailey Vaux was our best student last year with 99.7% average! She is currently studying Mathematics at the University of Waterloo. Christiane Konstantopoulos choose to attend Princeton University after having been accepted to a number of Ivy League Universities. We have alumni graduate from Richard Ivey School of Business. Others are now working in big companies on Bay Street, like Richardson GMP. Some of my "children" graduated from Parsons, and are now working as Fashion Designers. Others are entrepreneurs and businessmen with the support of their families. Some are now teachers; one of them is teaching here! Some of my ex students are now working on their Master's Degrees, others are studying to be lawyers, doctors, engineers. One former student of mine is now an Air Canada pilot!
Are there students at Toronto Prep School who wish to follow other paths rather than the Academic Studies?
Certainly, we have students who wish to excel in other careers and their parents are very supportive. As an example we had a student who wanted to become a chef, and to eventually open a restaurant. He attended George Brown College and his parents are planning on sending him to Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
What are the cultural backgrounds of your students?
We have a diverse demographic at TPS. The majority of our students are Canadian born with a variety of backgrounds such as British, Chinese, Greek, Italian, Portuguese and Jewish. We, also have a few international students which come from various countries around the world such the United States, Spain, Mexico, Japan, China, Sweden and Germany.
What are the criteria for hiring teachers in Toronto Prep School?
I pay special attention to the personality of the teacher who applies to work with us. I pose such questions as: Do they like to work with children? Are they patient? Do they want to become better teachers? Do they like learning?
Many of our teachers were our colleagues at some point in our careers. They were a proven entity in the classroom and we trusted their expertise as educators. We also like to hire teachers who have just graduated from University because they are eager to start their career in education! We usually place them as resource teachers to start and then they gradually become permanent teachers in the classroom. Steve and I try to mentor our teachers. They are important when carrying out our vision and mission for our school. Our teachers are the ones who work tirelessly with our students everyday.
What are the benefits of Private Schools versus Public Schools?
The benefits are huge! For me, as a teacher and as a parent of two adult children, the main differences are quality of education, quality of teachers, class size and supervision. Basically, the Principal's philosophy of education, and his vision is reflected in the classroom. Unfortunately, It is upsetting to hear that there are 30 and 40 students in public school classrooms. Consequently, the majority of students do not receive the attention needed for them to do well. That is why in Toronto Prep School's classrooms we accommodate a maximum 16 children. We prefer to expand the School in size, building more classrooms rather than adding more children in classes. In this way teachers get to meet the student needs.
What would you change if you were Minister of Education?
If I was Minister of Education, I would hire more teachers and set a limit on the number of children per classroom. Being a teacher is a big responsibility, equal to bringing up a child. A teacher's mission is to educate children. A good teacher comes up with solutions and ways to reach each and everyone of his/her students.
Then what about a teacher's humanitarian function?
I believe it depends on the individuals and the educational system. If I was to teach today, either in public or in private schools, I would treat my students as my children.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in Toronto Prep School's 10 years operation?
Owning a building is the biggest challenge! Academically, both Steve and I are very clear on what we believe constitutes a good education. Our experience as teachers, and as parents have contributed to our success. Since Toronto Prep School's first year, many parents have told us that they felt as if our School existed for 30 years! This derives from the fact that our academic program was solid and secure. We had proposals for business partnerships and several parents who wanted to sponsor us in order to own a building, but we politely refused.
What is the formula of Toronto Prep School's big success?
Steve Tsimikalis’s integrity and his reputation for academic excellence. Without Steve, Toronto Prep School would not exist. Our former students bring their children to our school and this is our biggest validation! I remember a student I taught years ago who wanted to be an entrepreneur, he thought school was a hindrance to his plans, but we got him through. We knew he would be a fantastic business man.
Today he is a millionaire having succeed in the internet business! He brought us his daughter and son who have both now graduated from Toronto Prep School and currently we have his third child with us. His children would ask me, "Was my father a good student? Did he always complete his homework?" and I answered, " Always! He was the best student!"
How hard is it working with your husband, Steve?
I do not know what is it like to not work with him as we have worked together for 30 years! We don't see each other often though the day, we don't eat lunch together and he works 3 floors away from me. However, we strategize together, we complement each other in running our school. The fact that we agree on so many issues makes it easy to work together. Trust is very important, and we support each other in all our endeavours. I am very lucky to work with such a talented man.
How did you decide to start a School?
First of all, I wouldn't be able to have this School if Steve was not my partner. He was born to be a teacher and he has the impeccable reputation of an educator. He is the best teacher I have ever met in my life! He is strict and endearing at the same time, and he is gifted with a talent to transmit his knowledge to his students in a very effective and interesting way. His students adore him! Ii was my idea to open a school, but he was always hesitant as he didn't appreciated the risk in businesses. On the other hand, I was always in businesses because of my father’s influence. When he finally agreed to start our School, we made it a success!
Is teaching an ability one is born with or is accredited?
The ability to teach is something that one is born with and can learn to polish it through experience.
Teaching is not one size fits all because all children are different; some learn visually, some through listening and others through doing. A teacher should get to know his/her students. Some students may have lost their parents, while others have disabilities. When the student feels that the teacher knows him/her in depth, for example what sports he/she likes to play, what he/she likes to draw or read, then the student is eager to perform better and impress the teacher.
Are you a teacher or a business woman?
I taught for 20 years so I think of myself as a little bit of both! I believe I was a good teacher because I taught children studying techniques, for example, how to prepare for exams, how to keep proper notes, how to use an agenda, and of course how to keep up with their homework. However, I do have a merchant's mind because I often think, "How can I create a business in this area?”.
As an example, I interviewed a mature man, who had great experience in helping visa students with TOEFL tests. He had applied as an English teacher to my School. I asked him, “Why don’t you open your own business? You have so many years of experience in teaching English. With your credentials you may help many children rather than only one at time with your tutoring? Why don't you advertise in Korean and Chinese newspapers, organize the students you already know, hire a tutors and give him a share of your profits.” He stared at me and said, "Oh my goodness, how enlightening! I have got to talk to my wife!"
Is this a talent you acquired from your father?
Yes, I learned all my social and entrepreneurial skills from my father. My dad was a people person, like all sales people. Selling a product or service takes time, patience, meeting and talking to many people. Same thing applies for parents at our school, but the fit has to be right. Sometimes, I have to reject applicants because their children may not be able to handle our rigorous academic program. These people want only the best for their children no matter what their background is and they just need to know that someone will help them. I explain the timing may not be right, but we may work together in the future. Parents will call me afterwards, just wanting to know that the door is still open for them and I tell them that, “the door is always open and we will meet again". They end up sending a friend, a relative or a neighbour's child. Reputation is important to us!
I want to give you credits for speaking excellent Greek!
I preserve as much as I can of the Greek language. I speak Greek to my husband, my son, my daughter and now my grandchildren! My son, actually, studied Ancient Greek and Hebrew in order to earn his MPhil from Oxford University. He can read and write it!
250 Davisville Avenue, Suite 200, Toronto, Ontario M4S 1H2
Phone: 416 545 1020