Sunday, February 17, 2019

Kindness Really Does Matter

This past Wednesday, I was flying to the National Conference on Education, and there was a snow day for most of the schools in Chittenden County. I wondered a good portion of the day if I would be able to leave or if I would be stuck in Vermont.

As an aviation geek, I love to get to the airport early, get checked in and have time to watch the planes. On Wednesday, I was at my gate in plenty of time to see my departure time change from 2:45 to 5:00. I quickly went up to one of the gate agents to ask what my options would be.

That notice at our gate caused others to get up from their seats, and soon most of the people on our flight were in line to make a change. One of the customers behind me started complaining loudly about the delay to the other gate agent. It seemed to be making her feel uncomfortable. The reality was it was not her fault. We were told the delays were caused by air traffic control in the New York area.

While the gate agent in front of me went about working on my situation, I briefly made eye contact with the other gate agent. I looked at the expression on her face and said in a relatively loud voice, "Why did you make our plane delayed? I mean really, did you have to mess with the instruments in the cockpit?" Her face broke out into a huge smile. "Yes, I did, I was trying to ruin your afternoon." That broke the ice, and soon most people in the line were laughing, or at the very least, smiling.

The agents that day made the best out of a crummy situation. Honestly, they had done nothing wrong, delays are usually no one's fault. The two women working our flight were indeed wonderful. They communicated often throughout the afternoon, they were cheerful and made small talk while trying to accommodate the delays, and the people in line with me responded to their positive nature.

I was so inspired by their great work, I tweeted about it and got a response from United Airlines.

Regardless of the situation, we always have a choice about how we treat other people. We will never go wrong when we choose kindness. As educators, we literally have hundreds of interactions with our students, their families, our colleagues, the community, as well as each other. When we choose kindness, we put our emphasis on the relationships in front of us, even if those relationships are as fleeting as a gate agent and a flying customer.

Those singular kind moments genuinely make a difference.

Photo courtesy of

Sunday, February 10, 2019

You Can't Do That!

My Wife and I were married on June 19, 2004. It was a wonderful day full of family, friends, dinner, and dancing. It is one of my favorite days, and just hearing a particular song can bring me back to that day. We were fortunate to be able to spend two weeks on our honeymoon and we began our married life when we returned to Chicago.

Now that we were married, one of the things My Wife wanted to do was to discuss her last name. We had talked about this a couple of times prior to our wedding. My perspective was simple, I didn't care. It was kind of her to ask my thoughts about this but the reality for me was that she was marrying me, and it didn't matter to me what she did with her last name.

The two of us met teaching next door to each other on the Near West Side of Chicago. When we first met, we called each other by our last names, and to this day, I still call her Gendron (her maiden name) and she still calls me Ricca. Those names are so much a part of who we are as a couple, so when My Wife chose to change her last name to mine, she made Gendron her middle name, and I did as well.

After several dead ends, we learned that the first step in changing your name is at the Social Security Office. My Wife went first, provided the proper documentation, turned in the appropriate paperwork,  and told the woman behind the counter that she wanted to change her name. The woman nodded her head and looked at me. I told her I wanted to change my middle name. I provided all the same documentation, turned in the same appropriate paperwork, and the woman said to me, "You can't do that."

I didn't know how to respond. I was over 18, had all the documentation to prove my identity, as well as the documentation necessary to change my middle name, and wasn't sure what to say. After a moment, the woman behind the counter said again, "You can't do that." When I asked why not, she told us, "Men don't change their names after they get married, only the woman does." We tried briefly to reason with her before asking her to check with her supervisor. She did and when she returned begrudgingly told us that she was wrong, apologized and started the process of changing our names.

How often do our students come to us with questions that we've never had to answer before? What do we say when they ask us to do something that we've never done in our past practice?

The relationships we form with our students are created to, among other things, invite questions, especially the hard ones. We want our students to challenge us. We want our students to push our thinking. We want to grow and learn along with our students.

The day I got married, my name was Brian Edward Ricca. Today, my name is Brian Gendron Ricca.

I did that.

Photo courtesy of

Sunday, February 3, 2019

How Do You Cook Your Roast?

A newly married couple was sitting down to enjoy a meal together. The wife had prepared a roast, with all the trimmings. There were vegetables, bread, and a nice bottle of wine. The husband looked at the roast and noticed there was a portion of the end cut off. He asked his wife, "Why did you cut off the last two inches of the roast?" "That's how my mom cooked it," she said.

The wife called her mom the next day and asked why the last two inches of the roast was always cut off. Her mom responded, "That's how grandma always cooked it." When the wife called her grandma and asked why the last two inches of the roast was always cut off, her grandma told her, "That's how great-grandma always cooked it."

The wife called her great grandma about the roast. When she asked her why the last two inches of the roast was always cut off, her great grandma told her, "When I was first married, I wanted to cook my husband a nice meal. I went down to the butcher and got a roast. When I got back to the house, I realized the roast was too big for the pan. So I cut off the last two inches to make sure it fit in the pan."

I heard this story recently at a meeting, and it made me laugh. It also made me think about our work in education.

I'm proud that we work in a state that has mandated proficiency-based graduation requirements and personalized learning plans. We know that there is so much more than just content when it comes to a high-quality education. These initiatives require a substantial shift in our thinking about how we teach our students, how we assess their progress, and how we plan our instruction as educators. This work pushes our thinking away from how we've always done it.

In the St. Johnsbury School District we have started to have conversations and training around new safety protocols. When children are compelled to come to school by state law, it is incumbent upon us as the adults in their lives to do everything we can to make them feel safe and welcome when they come to school. This too requires a change in our thinking and challenges past practices.

What I hope will never go away, what I hope will never change is the focus on the relationships that we form with our students. I can still remember some of my favorite teachers by name to this day, and while I can usually place them with the grade I was in when they taught me, there is very little else that I can clearly recall. I remember how those teachers made me feel, how I always felt welcome in their classrooms, and the ways in which they cared deeply not just about my education, but about me as a person.

We need to challenge old assumptions and past practices in education. We need to ensure that we are doing everything we can to make our schools safe and welcoming for every single child that arrives at our doors. We need to push the boundaries of our own comfort zones for the benefit of all our learners.

And the one thing we must never let go of is the focus on relationships. Let's always do it that way.

Photo courtesy of

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Real Men Cry

I have been a fan of the New York Yankees for as long as I can remember. When I was living at home in New York during the eighties, they were not very good. They had stellar players (Don Mattingly, Willie Randolph, Ron Guidry) but were never serious contenders. All of that changed in the mid-nineties when they had their historic run and won four World Series in five years.

Mariano Rivera was a vital member of that team. As the closer, he was the final pitcher brought in late in games with the Yankees ahead to prevent the other team from scoring, and earn the win. He finished his career with 652 saves, the most ever in Major League Baseball. This past week, he became the first player ever to be unanimously voted into the Hall of Fame.

One of my favorite memories of Rivera was on the night of September 26, 2013, his final game in Yankee Stadium. When it was time for him to be removed from the game, instead of the manager of the Yankees coming out to get him, it was two of his teammates and closest friends, Derek Jeter and Andy Pettite. When the duo reached the mound and took the ball from Rivera, he was overcome with emotion and broke down in tears.

Photo courtesy of YouTube

Here was one of the toughest pitchers in Major League Baseball, sobbing in the arms of another man, in front of a sell out crowd, and ultimately, since the moment was captured by video, seen by millions of people around the world. To me, that is the definition of healthy masculinity. 

Our world has been saturated by the stories of men who have taken advantage of women and in some cases children. As the father of two young boys, and the superintendent of a school district full of young men and young women, I feel a personal and a professional obligation to model what it means to be a man in 2019. 

I have cried many, many times in my life. The first time I can remember crying was in third grade. My grandfather passed away in 1983 after a brief battle with cancer, and that was a devastating loss to me. I cried when I first saw my family following my graduation from Holy Cross. I cried on my wedding day, as well as on the day both of our children were born. I've cried because of TV shows, movies, and yes, because of commercials. 

We repeatedly hear "Boys will be boys," "Toughen up, it's OK," and sometimes quite explicitly, "Don't cry" when it comes to boys and their behavior. Those phrases harm the emotional growth of both boys and girls and set up unrealistic expectations for how our culture views the feelings boys (and men) have. Those phrases contribute to toxic masculinity, and they create a distorted power dynamic for our relationships. 

I'm proud of the work of groups like The Good Men Project, an organization whose founders hoped to spark a national conversation around the question of "What does it mean to be a good man?" I'm proud that my own children have seen me cry. I'm proud that I'm comfortable crying in front of them. I'm proud that a baseball player that I've admired for his athletic ability felt comfortable crying in front of millions of people. 

A Hall-of-Famer on and off the field. 

Photo courtesy of

Monday, January 21, 2019

Walking Away

I grew up in Mt. Vernon, New York about thirty minutes north of New York City. When I lived at home, we would get three newspapers every day. We got the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the local Gannet paper. With the physical papers in our home, doing the crossword puzzle became a habit from a young age, along with the jumble. When sudoku was introduced, I added that to my routine.

Truth be told, I still subscribe to a physical newspaper. I know, I know roll your eyes. We get the Burlington Free Press for four days as a part of our digital subscription. But for me, there is something about having the physical paper in front of me, with a pencil, trying to fill in all the blank squares from the three puzzles in print.

The reality of our life means that I rarely have the time to sit down and complete all three puzzles in one sitting. Often, I leave puzzles half done but near a couch, by my bedside, or in a comfortable corner of our home. Sometimes I can complete one of the puzzles (I usually do the jumble first) and then I work on the others. And sometimes I find myself sitting there stumped by one of the puzzles, unable to make any headway.

When I come back to a puzzle that I'm part way through, I often see patterns I didn't before. Clues that have stumped me make more sense. A blank square looks different and I'm able to fill in more spaces the second or even the third time around. While I'm happy to see things differently based on my change in perspective, I often don't seek it out. It's necessitated by our family schedule.

I think we need to seek it out more often. I think we need to find a different perspective sometimes. I think it's more than OK to walk away.

As educators, we care very deeply about the students we serve, the families they come from, and the community we are surrounded by. We have lives outside of our professional world, we have our own families, we have our own pressures to contend with. And when problems arise, as they always will, the instinct is to respond as quickly as we can.

Our world is full of devices, often within reach, that can give us a one-way microphone with which to respond to a problem. It would be easy to send something out, to react to the issue, and provide an answer. Unfortunately, when we choose to react so promptly using our technology, we don't get the benefit of seeing how the response lands with the person who is reading our words.

Might it be better to pause before hitting send? Take a deep breath? Use our technology to set up a time to speak on the phone or, even better yet, meet in person?

Perhaps it would be better if we first walked away. Then we would have a chance to fill in some of the blanks.

Photo courtesy of

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Writing It Down

I have always been one to embrace new technology. Growing up, we did not have a computer in our home until I was in high school. When I needed to write papers for upper elementary and in middle school, I used a typewriter. In college, I was a part of the committee of resident students that tested out the school's first voicemail system. The first year we were married, My Wife gave me a BlackBerry for Christmas, and I now often have an iPhone in my pocket or nearby.

I also have started to carry something else around with me.

In the April 2018 edition of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development's (ASCD) Educational Leadership magazine, the Bryan Goodwin notes that the very act of handwriting has important cognitive benefits. Honestly, I didn't choose to start writing things down again because I had read that article. But this has been a deliberate choice for me this year.

At times, working with technology seems mindless. I have to do lists that sync between my laptop and my phone and can be accessed everywhere. I have reminders that pop up before my next appointment. I have followed up messages e-mailed to me when I need to get back in touch with someone. Some of that is very valuable and very helpful. My Wife and I have a set amount of money that is deducted from our checking account every month for our retirement. Our financial advisor calls it, "Set it and forget it." That works.

It doesn't work for everything though, and that's why my old school, pen, and paper notepad is making a comeback in my life. As educators, it's critical that we teach and model for our students that we need to be thoughtful about the way that we use technology. We need to be reflecting and assessing how we prioritize what is important to us in our lives.

I'm happy to get a pop up to let me know that my next meeting is in less than thirty minutes. I enjoy getting a reminder in my inbox that I need to reconnect with someone. I'm glad that I can access our weekly shopping list from my laptop, my iPhone, or anywhere that I have an internet connection. And for things that are more important, I'm choosing to write it down.

It too fits in my back pocket.

Photo courtesy of

Sunday, January 6, 2019

On Being Too Busy

In a recent text message exchange between My Wife and a young woman who was taking care of our dog while we were out of town, instead of writing a response, I "liked" one of the messages in the chain. See below:

I've tried to recreate that moment in my mind when that text chain was happening. What was going on that made me feel like I couldn't take a couple of seconds to write "thank you" as well? For the life of me I can't remember it.

That moment also made me think of the week before the Winter Holiday Break, when I was running around trying to get several different errands done. I wanted to grab a cup of coffee from our local Starbucks to have with me while I was out. I pre-ordered it using the app, and it was ready and waiting for me when I walked in. I added my usual cream and two Splenda and I was out of there in less than thirty seconds.

Finally, all of this reminded me of a time when My Wife was teaching first grade in Chicago. She got a phone call from a parent, who needed to relay a message to her child. The message was the regular after school plans were cancelled, so the child should go home on the bus. When My Wife relayed the message, the child exclaimed, "YES! A free day!"

Is it possible that we are too busy? Is it possible that we are trying to cram too much into our days? Is it possible that we have too much going on and that we might miss some of the small things along the way? I think it's more than possible - I have just shared two examples from my own life in which I was too busy to type and another when too busy to stand in line...

I have no doubt that one of our most precious gifts is time, and that what we do with this very limited resource makes a substantial difference in how we choose to live our lives, and how we impact the lives of others. As educators, we have a responsibility to be both thoughtful and judicious about our use of time with our students. On the one hand it must be full of learning opportunities and room for growth, while on the other hand, we must allow for play and give time for moments of reflection.

I don't make resolutions for a new calendar year. I set a goal for myself. My goal this year is to listen more, and to talk less. I hope those of you that read this blog will help keep me honest about my goal. I hope that if I am able to slow down more and stand in line from time to time, and listen, I will grow new relationships and enhance the ones I already have. Even if it means typing a little more.

Image courtesy of Pintrest