Sunday, November 11, 2018

Showing Up

Two weeks ago, I received an e-mail from a teacher in the St. Johnsbury School. In twenty-two years in education, I have never received an e-mail like this.

It read: "I have a seventh grade student who has prepared all the work for Student Led Conferences but does not have a parent able to attend. We are trying to find adults to sit down with all of our students who do not have parents available for conferences, and this student seems to have really taken to you. I think this student would love to share the work with you if you are available sometime in the next couple of weeks. This would only take about 20 minutes, and we can be flexible with times. Is this something you would be interested in being a part of?"

I couldn't type my affirmative response quickly enough. I was honored to be thought of by this student and the teacher as someone who would be a part of something so personal as student led conferences. It was a proud moment for me as an educator in St. Johnsbury.

We coordinated a date and time, I arrived in the classroom, sat down and this student and I started our conversation. I tried to be supportive, but also challenging; compassionate, but also thorough; accepting, but also nudging for more growth. The conversation was marked by laughter, silence, awkward pauses, as well as times when we both tried to speak. It was a conversation that was exactly what you would expect if you sat down with any seventh grade student to discuss his or her experiences in school.

What was remarkable to me was the vulnerability that this young person chose to share with me, someone they have seen and chatted with only a handful of times this year. This young person spoke to me about their family, the challenges they face on a regular basis, and what is going well for them in school. They also spoke of deeply personal things that don't belong in this blog post, the content that is meaningful to them in classes, and how well the teachers build relationships.

I sometimes worry about the broad strokes we sometimes hear when it comes to "this generational of kids." The ones who are digital natives, who have grown up in an age where screens and social media are ever present. The ones who text, instead of call, who Snapchat, instead of talk in person, who often have their faces staring at devices.

This week, I connected purposefully with a seventh grade student at the St. Johnsbury School. A student that before September 10, 2018, I didn't even know existed. A student who has high-fived me a handful of times. A student who has seen me in the halls, and prior to this past week, has not said more than ten words to me in a single interaction. This student had really "taken to me" in those brief interactions.

Yes, these kids are into their digital devices - but as adults, we are too. Yes, these kids are using them more and more as ways to communicate with their peers - but as adults we are too. Yes, these kids are posting more and more on social media - but as adults we are too.

These kids are also looking to us for direction, as all kids do. They're looking to us to model what it means to live meaningfully in a world where there are so many claims to what is true and good. They're looking to connect with us.

We need to show up, everyday, for these kids.

Photo courtesy of Pintrest

Sunday, November 4, 2018

More Interdependence

One of the sports I participated in when I was in high school was track. I ran all three seasons, Cross Country, Indoor and Outdoor. While I didn't run competitively after high school, I was always able to pick up and run a 5K whenever I felt like I needed to get back in shape, eat a little healthier and lose a few pounds. 

Recently, I've found that I can't just pick up and run a 5K anymore. Because I have not been consistently running, I've had to make adjustments. I've downloaded an app called Couch to 5K and am working my way back up toward running the distance I'm used to. I need to rely on something other than myself to get where I want to be. 

Reflecting on this humbling reality, I thought about my early career as a teacher. During my first two years, I was a volunteer teacher on the Near West Side of Chicago. Typically, I was one of the first teachers there, unlocking and opening the building. And not surprisingly, I was one of the last to leave, often locking and closing our school. 

I really didn't think anything of it. I was able to make that commitment because there were no other demands on my time. I was young, right out of college, and my family in Chicago was the eleven other volunteer teachers I was living with. The fact was, we were all making that kind of commitment of time to our schools. We all were volunteer teachers, throwing our whole selves into the children and families we were serving. 

Twenty two years later, I am not the first in and I am not the last out. My commitment to my professional responsibilities has not wavered and I am relying on other people for the duties of opening up and closing the school building. In truth, other people in Chicago were relying on me during my early career as well. We were relying on each other, even if we didn't know it. 

I think there is something to be learned from this. One of the ways I believe that we are failing each other is that we are not relying enough on each other. We are emphasizing independence too often, rather than interdependence. While interdependence takes vulnerability and humility, and runs the risk of being let down by others, independence does not seem to be working well for us. It seems to me that we are too independent, and don't ask or expect very much of each other at all. 

I needed an app to get back to running a distance that I used to be able to run without thinking twice. We teach it to our students: asking for help is not a sign of weakness it is a sign of strength. It is something that we expect of them. 

No one rises to low expectations. 

Sunday, October 28, 2018

On Racism and Equity

Two weeks ago, I was privileged to participate in the Rowland Foundation Conference, "Beyond Buzzwords: How Do We Transform Equity Ideas Into Effective Action." The keynote speaker for the second year in a row was Dr. Ruha Benjamin (@ruha9).  One of her slides resonated with me that day and has stuck with me since:

Racism is a form of theft

Dr. Benjamin went on to explain that it is obviously a form of theft for those who are impacted by racism, namely those who suffer from the systemic inequity that is baked into our culture, the structural codes that prevent us from living in equal relationship with those who are different than we are. But she was also clear that it is a form of theft for those of us in positions of power, as we are robbed from living in equal relationship with those who are different than us. In essence, racism robs us of each other. 

And there are other forms of systemic inequity that pervade our schools. The screenshot below was an excerpt from the reading given to us during the conference. 

How do we marginalize, you may ask? 
  • We keep them in from recess, when they don't complete their homework. 
  • We limit participation to hand raising only. 
  • We force them to look the teacher in the eye. 
(Thank you to Katy Farber (@Non_Toxic_Kids) for this list, shared via Twitter at the conference)

There are other ways as well...
  • We make curricular choices that are representative of the majority, but not all. 
  • We have systems in place that make presumptions about home and family, again, not reflective of all. 
  • We have expectations that come from our own experience of schooling and education, not the experience and education of our families and current students. 
Our focus this year in the St. Johnsbury School is Teaching and Learning for All Students. Not just the ones that complete their homework. Not just the ones who see themselves in the curriculum we offer. Not just the ones who look us in the eyes. All students. 

The only way that we will be able to bend the curve on these systematically challenging issues is to do it together, in the service of our students and their families.

Photo courtesy of

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Walking In Their Shoes

When My Wife was pregnant with our oldest son, we were living in Chicago. From time to time, I would hear on the news or read in the paper stories of people who had shaken their infants to death. And I would judge them. How could you do that to a defenseless child? That is something that I would never do...

Our oldest son Patrick turned out to be a very colicky baby - and while never quite fit the medical definition of colic, he was incredibly close. One afternoon while he was still an infant, I was unable to get him to stop crying and it went on for what seemed like hours. As my frustration grew, his crying seemed to grow worse. I was holding him close to my body, trying desperately to get him to stop crying and at one point, I held him away from me at arms length. And in that moment I knew...

I put him down in his crib and walked away. In that moment, I knew how it could happen to anyone. I knew how anyone could shake an infant baby in frustration, in anger, in the desire to have the baby stop crying. I knew how anyone could do it because I was moments from doing it myself.

As I was preparing to become teacher, I promised myself that I was going to be the kind of teacher that loved his students and would not make them cry. I'd seen and heard of teachers that were too hard on their students and in some cases, brought them to tears. And I judged those teachers. Not me, I told myself. That won't be me.

In my second year teaching on the Near Westside of Chicago, I had a student who we'll call Chris. He consistently failed to complete his homework - consistently. My patience was wearing thin when on this particular day, I chose to ask him in front of the class, where his homework was. Predictably he did not have it.

In that moment, I launched into a long, public explanation of how important homework was, how he was not doing his best, and how effort mattered in my classroom. Finally at the end, I asked him why he didn't have his homework and in a timid voice he told me, "My brother ran away from home last night and we were out looking for him." And then, as if that wasn't enough, the tears began to silently run down his face. I made him cry...

It is very easy to sit in judgement of others, especially if we have not been there yet ourselves. The real challenge is in trying to better understand the actions of others. The real challenge is to find a way to connect with someone, to empathize with their situation, to show compassion. The real challenge is to see the humanity in each and every person, including ourselves.

Photo courtesy of

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Finding Hope

One of my all-time favorite movies is Love Actually, a 2003 movie about where love is in the lives of eight loosely connected people. I love the opening scene and the narration that goes along with it:

Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the Arrivals Gate at Heathrow airport. General opinion's staring makes out that we live in a world of hatred and greed but I don't see that. Seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it's not particularly dignified, or newsworthy - but it's always there - fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. Before the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate and revenge - they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I've got a sneaking suspicion you'll find that love actually is all around. 

It seems to me that we are currently living in one of the most troubling times in recent history. For me, this is the most polarized that I've felt in my forty-four years on this planet. There is no middle ground, there is very little room for compromise, for empathy, for compassion. Those three things are the life blood for relationships. We are either for something or against it. We either believe in what is happening or we are entirely opposed to it. 

When I was first considering the superintendency eight years ago, one of my greatest fears was that I would be disconnected from children. Children are the reason that I went into education and until I became a superintendent, I was able to always continue teaching, even if it was just one class. What I was delighted to discover as superintendent is that I'm able to be around children, often more than I ever anticipated. 

And children bring something to me consistently - and they have ever since I was a baby teacher in Chicago in 1996 - they bring hope. They deliver hope in their innocence, their willingness to forgive easily, and to forget. They deliver hope in how they choose to see the good in others, how they so often can find compromise, and how they choose to help. They deliver hope in their passion for whatever they're doing, their bright eyes and smiles, and their honesty. It is a gift to be surrounded by children while serving the St. Johnsbury School District.

Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the St. Johnsbury School. General opinion's starting makes out that we live in a world of hatred and greed but I don't see that. Seems to me that hope is everywhere. Often it's not particularly dignified, or newsworthy - but it's always there - teachers and students, paraprofessionals and school staff, School Board and district employees. If you look for it, I've got a sneaking suspicion you'll find that hope is actually all around. 

Don't just take my word for it. Listen to what we are hearing from the St. Johnsbury staff as we begin this new school year: 
  • Decisions are made always keeping in mind what is best for kids. 
  • Everyone in the building is smiling and greeting one another. 
  • Solutions are being found to support students and teachers. 
  • My voice matters to my principal when I needed it most. 
  • Our classes are more set up to help kids be able to learn. 

Where do you turn for hope? I find it in the children and the adults of St. Johnsbury School.  

Picture Courtesy of Chris Sneddon on Flickr

Sunday, October 7, 2018

On the Real World

In a recent discussion with a friend, we were talking about the dynamic realm of education, and how much it has changed since we were students. One of things I am most proud of as a professional educator in the state of Vermont are the statutes around proficiency and personalized learning for all students. This is a dramatic shift in how we consider, prepare for, instruct, and assess our students.

One key component to proficiency based learning is the feedback given to students about their work. The feedback needs to be specific, much more than just a grade, in order to be effective. In addition to feedback, there need to be opportunities for additional practice so that students can demonstrate their response to our feedback, with the goal being mastery.

Change typically is not easy, and in presentations about proficiency based learning, I was frequently challenged that this is going to make education "soft" and we won't be able to prepare our children for the "real world." That is a perfectly reasonable response, given that until now we have accepted that promotion should be given essentially for seat time. That is, if you have gone to school for the required number of days and have earned anything but an "F," you are promoted to the next grade. While that is painting with a very broad brush, it is not too far from the truth.

During those presentations, I also offered the following real world examples. How many of you reading this blog failed your driver's test the first time that you took it? Well, if you failed it the first time, clearly you are unable to drive now, right? Of course not! If you failed the first time, your instructor (hopefully) let you know the areas you needed to practice more. To earn your license, you practiced those areas more, and when you felt you were ready, went back to take your test again.

The other example I would often point to is taxes. If you fail to pay your taxes by April 15 each year, does the federal government give you a zero and wipe away what you owe? No. You are given a six month extension and you also have to pay a fine, in addition to your original taxes.

Our children deserve an education in which they are judged by more than just seat time and showing up. Our children deserve an education in which they receive specific feedback, in order to get better at what we are expecting them to do. Our children deserve an education in which there are few, if any, one-time high stakes assessments, that have a negative impact on their future.

As adults, we know it doesn't get more real than driving and paying your taxes. Our children should know that too.

Image courtesy of Pintrest

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Teaching and Learning for All Students

The Administrative Team of St. Johnsbury Schools established this as the focus for the 2018-2019 school year:

Teaching and Learning for All Students

It is powerful in its simplicity - in a world where there are so many mandates, unfunded initiatives, and demands on educational employees - this one sentence speaks volumes to the commitment that the faculty, staff, administration, and board are making to the students of this school district.

The key words for me in this sentence are "all students." Each and every student that arrives at St. Johnsbury School receives a focus on teaching and learning. Not test scores and attendance. Not homework completion and eye contact. Not behavior charts and grades. Teaching and learning. Teaching and learning for all students. Every single one.

This focus on all students reminded me of something beautiful I read in a book by Marian Wright Edelman, Guide My Feet. The following is adapted from Ina J. Hughes:

We embrace the children who sneak popsicles before supper, who erase holes in math worksheets, who can never find their shoes.

And we embrace those who can't bound down the street in a new pair of sneakers, who never "counted potatoes," who were born in places we wouldn't be caught dead, who never go to the circus.

We embrace the children who bring us stick kisses and fistfuls of dandelions, who hug us in a hurry and forget their lunch money.

And we embrace those who never get dessert, who have no safe blankets to drag behind them, who can't find any bread to steal, who don't have any rooms to clean up, who's pictures aren't on anybody's dresser, and whose monsters are real.

We embrace the children who spend all their allowance before Tuesday, who throw tantrums at the grocery store, who like ghost stories, who get visits from the tooth fairy, who don't like to be kissed in front of anyone, whose tears we sometimes laugh at and whose smiles can make us cry.

And we embrace those whose nightmares come in the daytime, who will eat anything, who have never seen a dentist, who aren't spoiled by anybody, who go to bed hungry and cry themselves to sleep, who live and move, but have no being.

We embrace the children who want to be carried and those who must, those we never give up on and those who don't get a second chance, those we smother and those who will grab at the hand of anyone kind enough to offer it.

These are all the children of St. Johnsbury School District, where we are focused on teaching and learning for all students. Each of them. Every. Single. One.

Teaching and Learning for All Students

Drawn by Francoise & Odrielle, Burlington High School students