Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Power and the Humility of Collaboration

Throughout this ordeal with My Wife's medical condition, I've experienced a range of emotions. From the utter frustration and borderline anger with the answer "I don't know," which has been said to us more often than either one of us is comfortable.  To the relief and exhilaration of each milestone that we cross.  For example, this past Friday marks three weeks since any surgery has taken place. While it may seem like a simple accomplishment, remember that for us, there were two consecutive weeks where My Wife had emergency surgeries in the middle of the night.  It is the simple things...

One of the most important steps in this entire process was being linked with hematology for possible answers to the most troubling questions in My Wife's medical case.  This did not happen by accident and in fact, it happened through a very thoughtful and deliberative moment.  That moment took place when My Wife's surgeon realized she could not come up with all the answers. We had many, many conversations with her - some were hurried, in corridors of the University of Vermont Medical Center that I never knew existed (nor do I ever want to be in again), some were in the comfort and peace of her office, and many were over the phone.

I tried as best I could to be patient - to remember that this surgeon is after all, another human being who puts her pants on one leg at a time, just like I do.  (As a side note, during my Family Medical Leave, I came across this article in the New York Times - it continues to be all about #relationships). I knew that she was doing everything she could, I knew she was frustrated, and I could feel her empathy and compassion constantly.

After the third surgery, our surgeon recognized the limits of her specialty and let us know that she was going to share My Wife's case with other surgeons and physicians (anonymously of course). She was recognizing the limits of her specialty.  What a powerful and humbling step.

She started to hear back from colleagues and there were not a lot of ideas.  I wondered if this was just another dead end.  Then a break came when one of her colleagues mentioned that she once needed to refer a patient to hematology.  We were grasping at straws and through the power of relationships (and the fact that we live in a small state) we were able to see a hematologist the following day. While we still do not have all the answers, we have been able to see progress.

In education, there are limits to our professional abilities.  Despite our best efforts, we cannot reach every student, with his/her family life dynamics, on our own.  In life, we have limits to our human capacity.  There is only so much time, so we ask others to shuttle our children and we shuttle theirs to and from rehearsals, practices, and banquets.  We trust, rely on, and look for others in our professional world and in our personal world.  It is about #relationships.

When we have those moments, professionally or personally, I hope that we have the honesty, vulnerability, and humility to admit that we are at the end of our rope.  I hope we are able to turn to someone else we trust and ask for help.  I know that but for the power and humility of collaboration, My Wife would not have made as much progress as she has thus far.  We all have those moments - please pick one this week, and allow someone in your life, professionally or personally, to benefit from the power and the humility of collaboration.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Letting Go

I am just returning to work after taking a medical leave to care for My Wife.  What was expected to be a routine surgery turned into something much scarier and much more serious.  Instead of one surgery, My Wife needed three.  Instead of recuperating from the original surgery and returning to her full time job two weeks ago, she needs to stay at home to continue to recover and is unable to drive.  There isn't much in the past six weeks I wish would never have happened, except for the fact that I've learned the value in letting go. 

There's been a great deal that I've had to let go of because it was simply out of my control.  Three times I hurriedly kissed My Wife, while she was laying on a stretcher about to be wheeled into an operating room.

I've relied on numerous friends and family members to care for Our Children - not always having the time to share details about when to take asthma medicine, what the bedtime routine looks like, and what's appropriate for them to watch on TV.

Dinners have arrived at our house two or three times a week, without any specifics about what Our Children do or don't eat.

During the February vacation, people came by and picked Our Children up and kept them for the entire day.  They returned home happy, with full bellies, and completely tired from all the fun they had.

These past weeks have been a lesson in letting go.  Aside from some truly terrifying moments, the act of letting go was liberating.  The sun rose the following morning, Our Children demonstrated a phenomenal capacity to learn and grow with this medical journey that we are on, and I felt surrounded by a work community and a personal community that embraced our struggle. 

Even though it's not something I'm used to, and I hope the reasons for it don't ever repeat themselves, I grew so much from letting go. 

This morning, some beautiful flowers arrived at my office from My Family, thanking my Work Family for all their love and support

The note reads: Thank you all for letting us borrow Dr. Ricca for so long. I know his absence was felt and your kind words meant a great deal to all of us. Love, Michal, Patrick & Brendan

Sunday, January 29, 2017

It Still Is (And Always Will Be) About Relationships

A couple of weeks ago, I read a blog post by Bobby Dodd (@bobby_dodd) about why relationships are the foundation of education.  It resonated with me for obvious reasons - this is something that is at the cornerstone of my leadership.  What I took particular note of was the quote from Robert John Meehan at the end of his post:

The only quibble I have with Meehan's quote is that it refers only to students; I would humbly change the last word to people.

I can reflect on a number of times in the past several weeks in which people have made a point to come up to me in person and share something that I have done that is meaningful to them.  The conversations usually start the same way, "This is just a little thing but..." or "This won't take long..." or "It's not a big deal, I just wanted to tell you..." and yet each time, I left the conversation feeling proud of something that I had done that someone else noticed.  I responded in kind - sharing how meaningful it was to me, not only that this person noted what I had done but that they took the time to share it with me as well.  I was humbled and touched by the kindness.  Not something I will easily forget.

There's a high school student that I've met just this past year that loves blackberries.  My typical snack mid-morning is a yogurt, granola and blackberries.  There's a small refridgerator in between the Business Office and Support Services Office across the hall from me and one time as I was returning to my office with this snack, and this young woman said as she passed me said, "I really like blackberries."  Without thinking, I stopped, turned and opened the container of blackberries and offered her some.  She said, "Really?"  "Of course," I responded.  Since then, I cannot pass her in the hall without her asking if I have any blackberries...

My final example of a "little conversation" came a week ago, as Montpelier was reeling with the shocking death of a man, who has a little boy in our Pre-Kindergarten class.  The e-mail came to me pretty late Sunday night:

It is an incredible relief to me at a time like this that our community (i have one kid in the high school and one in the middle school) has such an incredible team running things: you, Mike, Pam, and Chris, and everyone doing the teaching on the ground.  Tomorrow will be a hugely sad day, like today was, but it is a great honor to know that our kids will be loved at school as they are at home.  

When I get messages like that, they get starred and put away for a rainy day.

There are a lot of big things happening in our world, in our nation, in our state, and in Montpelier.  There are loud voices, there are large problems, and there are great debates that are taking place.  But this week, I challenge us all to make it a point to share a "little" something to make someone else's day, to bring a smile to their face, to show someone else how meaningful they are to you.  If you can do it in person, that works best.  Yet a phone call or e-mail can be just as noteworthy.  Simply taking the time to better a relationship with a "little" thing will preserve and grow that relationship.

It still is (and always will be) about relationships.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Everyone is Asking for More

I have always been drawn to officiating, even at a very young age.  When playing pick up football when I was younger, I was a referee on the field either as often or sometimes more often than I played.  I even borrowed a yellow cloth napkin from my parents' fancy napkin drawer, put pennies in one end and tied it off to try to emulate the officials I saw on TV.

During that period of time I watched the evolution of replay in the various sports, but particularly the NFL.  When I think about when the NFL first introduced replay into the game, the announcements from the on-field officials were short and sweet, something to the effect of: "After review, the call is reversed."  Then back to the game.

These days the explanations given by the on-field officials are much more detailed.  Consider the following video of an explanation during a recent NFL playoff game.  The video is only 20 seconds or so and the explanation comes at the end.

This was a much more detailed explanation than the early years of replay.  It was very descriptive of the why, the rationale, what the official saw and what ultimately led to that decision to confirm that call.

As I gave this further thought, I recognized areas in my professional realm where I have noticed that folks are looking for more.  One small way I noted was how I let folks know about school closings, delays, etc.  In my first few years as superintendent, I simply let the community know the status of the school day.  Most recently, on a day where other schools had closings/delays but no delay in Montpelier Public Schools, after a thoughtful conversation with a concerned parent, that individual suggested that I clarify my reasoning with the greater community.  And I did.

I shared the process that I use when I make those early morning decisions.  I start with the Street Superintendent in Montpelier, usually connect with the meteorologist on duty at the Burlington Airport working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and then reach out to my area superintendent colleagues to hear what information they have about the roads.  I then make a decision based on that information, and I share the rationale in my recorded message as well as my e-mail message.

Upon further review (yes, that is what the NFL officials say), I realized how important this was as we fully made the switch to proficiency based learning at Montpelier High School and are beginning substantive changes in all of MPS.  In the prior school year, we held evening community forums to describe not just the what, but the why.  We talked about how teachers are no longer the keepers of the content and we wanted (and would be mandated to provide) an educational experience for our students that relied less on seat time and more on a demonstration of what our students have actually learned.

The officiating crew for the Super Bowl has already been named and the referee will be responsible for communicating any replay reviews with an overwhelming television audience.  Last year's Super Bowl drew 114.4 million viewers.  Like school leaders understand in a very dynamic and changing educational landscape, he knows that everyone is asking for more.

Super Bowl 51 Referee Carl Cheffers

Monday, January 16, 2017

What Matters?

For a good part of the day today I've been thinking about and reflecting on the life of Martin Luther King.  I've struggled with how to articulate humbly what that life means to me, a white man in one of the whitest states in the U.S.  While reading some of Dr. King's quotes, the following one struck a chord with me: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter."

So I must ask, what matters?  What matters to you?  What is something that you're no longer willing to stay silent about?  Lately for me, the thing that matters to me is equity.  The Leadership Team prepared a budget for next school year using equity as one of the tenets.  One of the cornerstones of the work we are committing to next year is getting our students what they need, knowing that some of our students need more than others.

When I introduce myself to some of younger students and they ask me what a superintendent does, I tell them that I work with all the adults in Montpelier Public Schools to ensure that all our students feel safe and welcome, so they can learn and grow to the best of their ability.  The only way this can happen is if all students have what they need to feel safe and welcome, otherwise I don't think they will be able to learn and grow.

What matters to me is equity.  What matters to you?  Honor Dr. King's legacy by not staying silent.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Over the Break, I Got Progressive

Not the insurance company and not a change in my political views.  

Over the break, I got progressive lenses - as in another word for "bifocals."  My eyes have been the first part of my body that has "aged" on me.  Sadly, this wasn't the first time.  

When I was writing my dissertation, I noticed I was having trouble reading some of the articles from time to time but only attributed that to being tired.  Our Boys were very young and we were all functioning on very little sleep.  I really didn't pay much attention until I started noticing that it was happening more consistently and often when there was plenty of daylight, or light in general.  

I went to an eye doctor for the first time in my life.  To that point, I had only needed the eye exams that were a part of my annual physical with my pediatrician.  While this exam essentially was what I remembered from my childhood, it was clear that some of the "smaller" letters were very difficult for me to read.  During the follow-up conversation, my age came into play.  

The doctor, whom I need to point out was younger than me, when I told her my age made a face with a pained expression on it.  It was the first time my age was used against me.  She then further used her hand to make an "over the hill" reference, she rolled a cupped hand up in the air and then followed that with a downward motion...

At that visit, I was given a prescription for glasses that did help but I only needed them for reading.  While I did not return to the eye doctor until recently, I do admit that from time to time I bought new reading glasses, over the counter.  And I kept needing stronger and stronger readers...

So when I finally went to the eye doctor recently, I was fully expecting to get a stronger and more accurate pair of reading glasses.  Imagine my surprise when during the exam some of the letters and images that were farther away were not as sharp as I had hoped!  I never considered for a second that I would need glasses to see far away.  

In the post-exam discussion the doctor explained to me that I needed progressive lenses.  I had no idea what that meant and the takeaway was, it was simply a better word than bifocals!  When I asked if I needed to wear them all the time, she told me no.  But then she added, that once my brain figured out there was something there to help my eyes, it was going to stop doing all the work on its own.  I left with my shoulders slumped, once again, feeling old and sorry for myself.  

When talking about it with My Wife later that night, she was able to put it in perspective for me, literally and figuratively.  With a better sense of how grateful I was that this was something I could afford, because of the health care MPS has for my family and me, and that currently, my eyes are the only part of my body that is showing some sign of age, I was able to see things much more clearly.  

I am committed to finding a way to bring a true sense of equity to Montpelier Public Schools, in a very real and basic sense, bringing students what they need to feel safe at school and learn to the best of their ability.  How can we expect all of our students to learn, when some of their most fundamental needs are not being met?  And it is on us as educators, our students are compelled to come to school for their formative years in Vermont - there is no such legal compulsion for our partners who work hard to support us, but struggle within their own capacity.  Indeed it is on us - all of us in MPS.  We can do this is, if we work together to serve our students, and their needs.  

Over the break, I got progressive and I'm able to see things so much more clearly.  

My My Bride & me after we picked up our glasses.
     She only needs to wear hers for driving!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

One Thing

Happy 2017!  We are one day in to the new year, with all the hope and possibilities it will bring for us, for our students, for our families, and for each other.  I have never been one for new year's resolutions, regardless of how seriously I take them.  Sometimes it seems overwhelming to make a commitment for a brand new year, one that is less than twenty-four hours old.  

Yet when I put that into the context of education, it seems less like a resolution and more like a commitment or a promise.  Since I've been serving as superintendent, when someone new is hired on the Leadership Team, I ask them to set one goal for their first year.  Just one thing they want to commit to in their first year in their new position in Montpelier Public Schools.  

In my experience, this is harder for folks to do than to set a whole array of goals.  I have also found that it is incredibly inspiring to listen to the one thing new leaders want to accomplish in their new position.  It is humbling to walk with them on their journey in MPS.  

So tonight, with 2017 being less than twenty-four hours old, I ask you all the same question.  What is one thing, only one thing, you want to do better in 2017?  What is one thing that will better serve your students, their families, or each other in our work?  Can you pick just one thing?

My one goal for 2017 is to communicate better on behalf of MPS, the wonderful things we are doing on behalf of our students, the values we have as a school district, and the commitment all adults have to professional growth.  I am inspired on a regular basis by the work we do for students, and I want more people to know about it.  Whether blogging, using pictures from classroom visits, or using social media more purposefully, I want to be able to better articulate what we do in MPS.  

It's 2017 - what is your one thing?