Five summers ago, former Governor-General Michaëlle Jean paid a visit to Lawrence Heights Middle School to watch her life story played out before her eyes.
To celebrate her achievement as Canada’s first Black vice-regal in 2005, drama teacher Terrance Saunders conceived the idea for “An Ode to G.G.”, a dramatic performance presented by the school’s Grades Seven and Eight students which also captured a bit of Haiti’s history.
Then principal Janice Searles acted on the suggestion to invite Jean to the school to see the play by sending a request to her office and following up a few weeks later with former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson at Roy Thomson Hall.
“We were there to hear the Toronto Symphony Orchestra perform Handel’s Messiah and during the intermission, I introduced myself to Clarkson, told her about the play and asked about the protocol and who in Ottawa we should approach on behalf of Jean. She provided me with the details…A few weeks later, our school was invited to attend a ceremony for Jean at Queen’s Park where we met her and she assured me that she would be interested in coming to our school.”
Searles who retired at the end of June after 31 years as a Toronto District School Board (TDSB) educator, said that having Jean make her first visit to a TDSB school (Lawrence Heights) was the highlight of her teaching career.
“That was significant for our staff and students,” said Searles whose late aunt, Doris Ferguson, was a prominent member of Toronto’s Black community. “It provided us with an opportunity to showcase our school in a positive light and display our young people’s creative talent. That was a great day for our institution and our students.”
A graduate of Woburn Collegiate Institute, Searles pursued post-secondary education at York University and the University of Toronto, earning Arts and Education degrees.
She taught at several Scarborough schools, including Highland Creek, Anson Park and Macklin Public Schools and was a guidance chair for a family of five schools before being appointed vice-principal at Alexander Stirling Public School. Three years later, she was promoted to head the TDSB North Region School.
In February 2001, Searles debuted as a school principal at Dublin Heights Elementary and Middle School. She retired at J.S. Woodsworth Senior Public School as principal.
“I have enjoyed every moment of this journey and now it’s time to move on to another chapter in my life,” said Searles. “My options are now open and I have a lot to offer. The only difference now is that I have the ability to set my schedule.”
The only child of Toronto-born parents, both of whom are deceased, said she aspired to teach from a very young age.
“I knew what I wanted to do when I was in Grade One and I never deviated,” she said. “My parents always told me that education opened doors and I seized every opportunity I was given to learn and absorb.”
She also praised her husband – Right Reverend Dr. Chester Searles, a former teacher in St. Vincent & the Grenadines and certified psychotherapist and registered social worker – for supporting her educational endeavours. The former Evangelical Order of Certified Pastoral Counsellors of America chaplain was recently elected general superintendent of the British Methodist Episcopal Church of Canada.
The couple donates bursaries annually to Christ Church St. James BME and the Herb Carnegie Future Aces Foundation of which Janice Searles in a board director.
In addition to being a keynote presenter at TDSB and other educational, religious and community events, Searles was also the course director for George Brown College’s “Valuing Diversity Program” and a former board member of the Ontario Black History Society.