Ontario School Orientation Guide: Day-to-Day Life in Ontario Schools

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This section of the website contains key information about the day-to-day life of a student at an Ontario school and what a new international student can expect in an Ontario school.

Things new international students “need to know”

Like any large educational system, Ontario schools have unique aspects.   Understanding “how things work around here” can be complex and difficult to understand; the following section provides a guide to anyone wishing to learn about the everyday life in Ontario schools, especially students, parents and educational agents from overseas.

Please note that the following information provides a general overview for the majority of schools, and individual schools may follow practices which differ from those indicated below.  Much of the following information applies to secondary students.

The School Year

In most school boards in Ontario the school year begins in early September on the Tuesday following Labour Day. There are several statutory holidays that usually fall on a Monday and create several long weekends thought the school year, usually occurring in October, February, April, and May.  There is a two week holiday in late December/early January.  In March there is a one week holiday known as the “March Break”.  In addition, there are several days designated for professional development for academic staff, and these days are known as “PA days”, and students do not attend school on these days. In most cases, the school year ends during the last week of June.

Semestered or Non-semestered School?

The majority of secondary schools in Ontario use a system of dividing the school year into two equal parts called semesters, and each student completes four credits per semester (except in Grade 12). Classes are approximately 75 minutes in length in a semestered school.  In semestered secondary schools, students complete end-of course examinations in January and June.

Some schools are non-semestered and students take an average of 8 credits throughout the entire school year; consequently, classes average about 45 minutes in length.  In non-semsetered schools students complete end-of-course examinations in June but may be required to complete exams at the end of each term.

The School Day 

Most schools have start time between 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m., Monday to Friday.  In most instances students will go directly to their first classroom.  Often the school day will start with the Canadian national anthem, O Canada, followed by a series of school announcements about school activities or special information about an upcoming school or community event. Students stand during O Canada as a sign of respect for the national anthem.

In most Ontario elementary schools, students stay much of the school day within one classroom, but as students get older, students are required to move from classroom to classroom. By secondary school, nearly all students move from classroom to classroom to attend subject classes.   The length of classes will depend on whether the school is semestered or non-semestered. There is a designated lunch period which may be from 40 minutes to 1 hour in length, and nearly all schools have a cafeteria with healthy food choices available. Note that students must pay for lunch meals.  Many students bring a lunch from home.  Lunch is usually eaten in a large cafeteria.

Extra-curricular clubs often have meetings or activities at lunch time, and many teachers offer extra help sessions during the lunch break.  After lunch, classes resume and most schools are dismissed between 3:00 p.m. and 4 p.m.  After school there are numerous extra-curricular activities such as sports, music, drama, and numerous clubs that students can participate in depending upon their interests. The word “extra-curricular” just means that these activities are “outside” of the regular school classes and usually are voluntary activities.

Teachers, Teaching and Instructional Strategies

All teachers in Ontario public schools have completed university degree(s) and specific learning in educational practices. On-going professional development is strongly supported and encouraged to keep teachers up-to-date with the latest pedagogical research.  The “traditional” role of the teacher in front of the class imparting knowledge still has its place, but increasingly the classroom teacher uses numerous other teaching strategies to increase student engagement in their learning.

Teachers in Ontario are less instructors and more guides and coaches for student learning.  Students learn collaboration skills through group work assignments; students develop communication skills through making presentations and sharing expertise about topics through research; and students use critical thinking and problem solving strategies to address challenging questions and issues. Rote learning and memorization of facts are not primary learning strategies.  Students are required to be involved, active learners with an aim of understanding how they learn as individuals. In short, the student is not viewed as a passive receiver of information sitting at a desk taking notes.

Following a unit of study, teachers will often assign a task which requires students to apply their new knowledge and skills to solve a practical problem. While “pen and paper” tests are still used extensively, students are also frequently challenged with alternative ways of demonstrating they have met curriculum expectations.

Ontario teachers are very approachable and friendly, and many teachers provide extra help sessions for students who need assistance. Teachers usually volunteer to be the advisors, coaches and organizers of the various extracurricular sports and activities and can assist international students to get involved.

Other support and assistance for students is provided through Student Support Services.


Homework will vary greatly depending upon the grade level and the course a student is enrolled in.  As a general guideline:

  • Grades 9-10:     6-10 hours per week
  • Grades 11-12:     10-20 hours per week

Getting to and from school

Students get to and from school by walking, taking public transport, or travelling on “yellow” school busses.  The means of getting to and from school is generally depends upon how far away the school is from a student’s home or Homestay; in some cases it takes considerable time to get to and from the school.   Parents will sometimes transport students to and from school by car.  In some school boards public transport is paid, and in others the student is required to pay for a monthly student pass.  There is no cost if students are eligible for “yellow” school bus transport.  Check with the school board regarding transportation policy.

Attendance (& absences)

Students are required to account for absences from school due to illness, appointments, or other legitimate reasons. Students will be required to provide a signed note or a verified phone message from a Homestay parent or guardian to the school.


In Ontario secondary schools, all students are assigned a locker to securely store textbooks and other personal items, along with coats and hats during the colder months. Students will be required to use a numbered combination lock.  While the items left in school lockers are generally safe, it is not recommended that students store valuables such as computers and phones in lockers as schools do not have a responsibility to replace valuables that may be stolen.

Textbooks, school supplies & computers

Students in Ontario are not required to purchase course textbooks, but need to provide pens, pencils, notebooks, and other consumable school supplies. Students are responsible for the textbooks they may be issued for particular course, and a replacement cost fee is charged if the textbook is lost or damaged. Computers are usually not provided by the school, but students have access to computers in classrooms and the Library, and will receive a computer email account and secure server space to save and store school assignments.

Course Fees

In general there are no course fees required for most credit courses in Ontario. There may be some fees required for some speciality courses, such as “Outdoor Education” for example.

School Activity Fee

Many schools request a small school activity fee to help provide financial support for numerous school activities.  Many schools use this fee to provide students with a school agenda.  Note that the school activity fee is an annual fee and is usually not compulsory.

Student Agenda

Many schools publish a “student agenda” which is a type of diary which contains a calendar, key information about the school and its rules, as well as ready access to commonly used information, such as a periodic table or a grammar guide.  Students are encouraged to use the student agenda to record homework tasks and note due dates in order to plan for major assignments and tests.

Code of Conduct

All Ontario schools have a “Code of Conduct” which outlines appropriate student behaviour and places an emphasis on safety, cooperation, equity, and friendliness.  Bullying or harassment by any student or staff is not tolerated in Ontario schools. The school’s Code of Conduct can be found on the school website.

Dress code

Nearly all schools have a dress code requiring appropriate clothing while at school or at school related events.  Some schools have a required uniform. Many school s require the purchase of a Gym uniform for physical education classes.  The student agenda usually contains a copy of each school’s dress code.

School Assemblies

Throughout the school year there may be occasions where the whole school gathers to attend an important presentation or participate in a special event (ex., Remembrance Day in November).

Fire Drills

Safety procedures are practiced throughout the school year, and there will usually be one fire drill per month.

Field Trips 

There is a strong emphasis on experiential learning in Ontario schools, and many courses offer opportunities for students to visit institutions or facilities off school property in order to support subject curriculum and to enhance student learning.  In all cases approval forms and signed paperwork is required prior to the excursion, and in many cases there is a fee attached to each field trip.

Extracurricular activities, clubs and sports

A huge part of the student experience is being involved in extracurricular activities; everyone is welcome to participate. Participating in extracurricular activities is one of the best ways for international students to make new friends and improve language acquisition.  It is also a great way to learn new skills or pursue an interest.  There are usually a wide variety of activities in every school, from sports teams, both competitive and intramural, to computer and chess clubs, to dramatic productions and music bands, among many others to choose from.  To learn about specific extracurricular activities in a specific school go to the District List and contact our member districts.