Sunday, December 20, 2015

It Is About Gratitude

This past Friday afternoon, I was in my office when Mike Martin invited me to join him in the MHS auditorium.  It was unexpected - he came to my doorway and with a little bit of a smile on his face, asked me to come down to the auditorium.  When I asked what this was all about, he couldn't exactly answer my question.  Instead, he just insisted that I join him.

There was an assembly going on in the auditorium and by the time we got there, all of MHS was already there, students, faculty and staff.  There were a handful of students from the Student Council on the stage and they began speaking shortly after we arrived.  The students started speaking about gratitude and recognizing the work of people who serve MHS but are regularly overlooked for the work they do.

While sitting in the audience, I wondered who the students had in mind.  They spoke meaningfully about upgrades to the wireless network, the capacity expansion that allows more devices to be connected, and the efforts that are consistently made to serve the students, faculty and staff of MHS.  A few moments later, Russell Leete and Lucas Johnson were standing on the stage, to thunderous applause.  Russell and Lucas are our Technology Support Specialists.  Shortly after that, Mike Martin and Sue Monmaney were also called to the stage and the result was a standing ovation.  Both Sue and Mike have worked, along with the entire Technology Team in MPS, to grow our network to meet the demands of curriculum and technology.

Shortly after the assembly was over, I approached Myles Chater, the advisor of the Student Council at MHS and expressed how impressed I was with the choice and the assembly.  I was even more impressed with what he said next: "It all came from the students.  I didn't do anything except buy a couple of gift cards and set up the assembly."  It all came from the students...

It really is all about gratitude and our students are teaching us again.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Walk with My Son

It's been unseasonably warm in Vermont these past several weeks.  Candidly, I would expect to have already seen snow by this time of the year.  That said, since it's been so nice, our family has spent more time outside, going on hikes.  This past weekend, we went to Five Tree Hill and hiked to the overlook together.  On the way back, our youngest son Brendan and I ended up at the back and as we took our time getting back to the car, I had a chance to talk to him by myself.  

I let him lead the conversation and he immediately started talking about next year when he will be a third grader.  We talked about what was important to him in a third grade teacher and a third grade class.  As I listened, Brendan told me he'd like a class with third and fourth graders.  Why?  "Daddy, I can make more friends if there are fourth graders in the class!"

For the rest of our walk Saturday afternoon, I asked Brendan questions and just listened to his thoughts.  I learned that he would rather have a male third grade teacher than have a class full of third and fourth graders.  He told me about the friends that meant a lot to him, the ones he hopes to have in his class next year, and the ones that he wants to have on his basketball team this season.  

I learned so much during the 45 minute walk back to our car, as the last two together on our hike.  I make time for our children almost every day and still I learned so much about our youngest child on Saturday afternoon.  The freedom of the walk, with no time constraints, gave me a window into the world of Brendan Watson Ricca.  And I am a better daddy because of it.  

I don't expect that we will always have this opportunity as parents or educators.  I do know however, that if we get even the slightest hint of a chance of something like this, we need to jump to these moments and savor every second.  I almost missed my chance on Saturday by looking ahead to see where we were going on the trail and trying to be in front.  What a loss that would have been for me.  

Whether they are in your classrooms or in your homes, take their hand, ask questions and listen.  Go for a walk and celebrate the little things that make the children in your life special.  I promise you won't forget it... ever.  

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Gift of Time

On November 1, I my post was entitled "How Are We Doing So Far?" and it was an attempt to collect some feedback about how things are going in Montpelier Public Schools.  I was grateful to receive a number of responses from this post about what we are doing.  In that post, I promised that I would share the feedback I received.

There were a variety of responses to the first question about one thing that has gone well.  From PLP conferences, to a smooth transition for Mike McRaith into MHS, from the addition of a special educator for each grade at UES to the pride of the teams people are serving on, the diversity of answers made me very proud.  There was no theme that emerged from the feedback on this question.

For the one thing that needs improvement, there was a clear theme: more time!  For the one thing that people hoped to see before the end of the year, the same theme emerged: more time!  More on the theme of time in the latter part of this blog post.

The final question also received a variety of responses.  From feedback too specific to share to finalizing the teachers' contract in MPS, from more leadership to the desire to see PD like Breathe, this question also elicited a variety of responses from which no theme emerged.

So it is clear that folks in MPS need the gift of time.  It is true, the expectations are high for educators in the State of Vermont, and specifically for us in Montpelier Public Schools.  There are several initiatives that we are working on and it demands a great deal of professional attention from everyone.  Plus, students continue to show up on a daily basis and they require love and instruction based on their needs.

One of the items that I added this fall was voluntary participation in the Integrated Field Review with the Agency of Education.  I chose to volunteer us for this experience to receive feedback about the work we do in MPS and ways that we can improve.  I know it was a tremendous amount of work, in addition to what we are already required to do.  I am grateful for how well it went and I look forward to receiving the final report from the Agency of Education.

Given the feedback that I received from this blog post, as well as during conversations I have had during Office Hours, I want to reassure MPS that I will not be volunteering us for any additional initiatives.  We have much to do and I want us to do it well.

I want to continue to think with everyone in MPS about how we can be creative about our time with our students and with our colleagues.  Time is such a gift, it is fleeting and firm, never fully within our grasp.  We have only so much time to be present to our families and friends, and only so much time to serve our students and colleagues.  That balance is critical to doing right in both our personal and professional lives.

As it is the week of Thanksgiving, I am giving myself the gift of time.  I will not be writing a blog post.  I am giving myself the gift of time and will share more of it with my family this week.  Be good to yourselves this week - give yourselves the gift of time and share more of it with people who want or need a little more of you.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving break!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

It's All About Relationships

Over the past couple of weeks, I have had several moments that reminded me how much our work depends on relationships.

At the end of October, the Rowland Foundation offered their one-day conference at the University of Vermont.  It is a tremendous event where students and adults meet to learn from others, be inspired together, and grow our commitment to Vermont education.  One of the highlights for me each year is to meet people in person who I follow on Twitter.  Twitter (and any social media) is a way to connect with people based on the merit of the idea (Mike Martin).  Even in such a small state, there are plenty of people who I follow that I have never met.  For the first time this year, I was able to introduce other people who follow each other on Twitter - and it was wonderful.  Seeing the look on people's faces as they make the connection between a Twitter handle and the person standing in front of them.  It's about relationships.

In my work, I spend a great deal of time being present.  I spend a great deal of time listening.  I spend a great deal of time caring about the people I work with in Montpelier Public Schools.  As part of this, I often learn a great deal about people and their lives.  Occasionally, people share things with me that are deeply personal and meaningful to them.  There was one such moment this week when I found myself listening to someone share a part of their life that I was unaware of.  As it was happening, I found myself humbled that I was being let in to this person's life.  Later that day, I got a note from this person saying, "Thanks for having my back."  It's all about relationships.

Another moment took place in my office.  Someone came to speak to me as a follow-up to a question that I had asked.  We ended up speaking for a bit and at the end of the conversation, this person stood up, extended their hand, looked me in the eye and said, "I'm sorry."  It's all about relationships.

Finally, all this reminded me of a Twitter conversation I had a couple of weeks ago during #satchat.  For those of you new to Twitter, read up from the bottom, that's where the conversation starts.

Technology is a great way to be introduced to people and learn about who they are.  Then we need to be present, to listen, to learn and to take care of the people who are around us.  We need to do that in person, face to face.  The holiday season is almost upon us and what makes (or breaks) this time of year are the people around us.  Take good care of those people and be sure they take good care of you.

There will be a new sign on my door this week: It's all about relationships.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

On Being Grateful

Last week in Montpelier Pubic Schools was in a word: hectic.  There were only three days with students, with a half-day Professional Development Day and then a day and a half of parent teacher conferences.  In addition, Vertical Teams met after school on Monday and on Wednesday we hosted colleagues from Lamoille South Supervisory Union, Addison Northwest Supervisory Union and the Agency of Education for an Integrated Field Review.  To top it all off, there was a water main break that impacted Main Street Middle School on Thursday, so parent-teacher conferences needed to be rescheduled.  Just a couple of things on our plate...

It would be easy to say that's too much, and truth be told, it was an incredibly busy week.  And still, I came away feeling so tremendously proud of all the students, faculty, and staff in MPS.  Our week was wonderful and the credit goes to all the adults and students who come to MPS on a daily basis.  Everyone, every single person rose to meet the high expectations of our week.

I am grateful for our students - first and foremost.  They bring a candor and honesty that children are known for.  Yet, our students impressed our visitors by how thoughtful and articulate they were about their own learning, from UES to MSMS to MHS.  We know this is who they regularly are.  It was validating to hear it from a group of visitors.

I am grateful for our staff.  From instructional assistants supporting the work of classroom teachers to support staff ensuring that critical work is accurate and complete to our food service professionals ensuring we eat a healthy meal, to our facilities crew showing pride in our places.  Stewardship of the people and stewardship of our buildings, ensures that relationships are preserved and maintained while learning happens.

I am grateful for our teachers.  The consummate professionals who serve our students day in and day out.  They ensure that each and every learner that comes into the classrooms in our district, PK - 12 has the opportunity to grow and learn given their individual potentials.  They are dedicated to their craft, they are dedicated to their students, they are dedicated to their professional development.

I am grateful for our Leadership Team.  I am humbled by the educational leaders that serve the children and families of Montpelier.  Their openness to growth, their desire to grow in their work, and their humor sustains me as we lead the work of MPS.

While I know that Thanksgiving is still a few weeks away, out of the hectic nature of the first full week of November, I find myself fully basking in the gratitude for those who serve Montpelier with me.  It continues to be a professional privilege to do this meaningful work.  Thank you!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

How Are We Doing So Far?

By now, you have all (hopefully) turned your clocks back and enjoyed an extra hour of something this weekend.  If you have little children, it's possible that you didn't quite enjoy that hour.  I do hope that whatever the extra hour brought you this weekend, it was enjoyable because let's face it, time is a gift.

As I reflected on this idea this weekend, I am aware that we are entering into a particularly busy time of the school year.  Over the next several weeks, we have an ambitious schedule for education our students and taking good care of ourselves.  Both are critical if we are going to serve our students, ourselves, and our families.

In an effort to be a part of the cycle of continuous improvement in Montpelier Public Schools, I offer this post as the opportunity for feedback.  If you are an employee of MPS, please click on this link to share your feedback.  If you are not an employee of MPS, please feel welcome to copy and paste the following questions below and share your responses in the comment section.  I will keep the link active and will take comments for the next two weeks.  I will compile and share responses for my blog post on November 22.

  • What is one thing that has gone well this school year?
  • What is one thing that needs improvement?
  • What is one thing you hope to see happen before the end of this school year?
  • What can I do better to serve Montpelier Public Schools?

The last idea that went through my head as I was reflecting on our work thus far in MPS, was gratitude.  I am grateful for the opportunity to serve this community, with a professionally dedicated faculty, a staff with an endless amount of energy, a Leadership Team with a student-driven vision and a School Board committed to their own professional growth in governance.  It continues to be a privilege to serve this community of students and families!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

It's Always About Collaboration

This past Tuesday, Susan Koch was formally named the Vermont Teacher of the Year at the State Board of Education meeting at Hartford High School, in Hartford, VT.  What an honor and so well-deserved.  Susan is an exceptional professional, advocating thoughtfully for her students regularly, and differentiating instruction.  I'm delighted for Susan, for her family, for her colleagues and for the UES Community!

On Tuesday, Susan, UES Principal Chris Hennessey and I carpooled down to the State Board meeting.  Having not grown up in Vermont, there are many, many places I have yet to visit and Hartford is one of them.  Riding in the back, I assured Susan and Chris I would use Google Maps to get us there and settled in for the hour ride from Montpelier.

As we got closer to the intersection of Interstate 89 and 91, I looked at my phone and saw that it was indicating we needed to take Interstate 91 south.  I told Chris to head for 91 south.  He asked me if I was sure.  I checked the phone again and indeed, I saw 91 south.  Chris moved into the right lane and headed for the off ramp for 91 south.  I looked at my phone one final time and it changed from south to north!  It was too late, we were heading south on 91.

Those of you familiar with driving on the interstates in Vermont, you may recall that once you are heading south on 91 from 89, there is a cut out on the left.  The cut out connects to 91 north and would be the quickest way to correct our mistake.  Chris saw it immediately, announced he was heading for it and moved into the left lane.  I looked over my shoulder quickly and saw a vehicle several hundred feet behind us.  It appeared to be a pick up truck and had little lights on the front grill.  I couldn't see the driver very well and I saw what I thought was a rather large antenna sticking up as well.  I was pretty sure a police officer was behind us.

"Chris, don't do it," I said quickly.  I told him I thought I police officer was behind us and not to use the cut out.  He turned off his blinker and accelerated.  I should add that it is illegal to use one of these cut outs, except in case of an emergency.  While I thought we were a little bit late, it legitimately was not an emergency.  As we passed the cut out, there was a vehicle at the other end about to enter 91 north.  It was a police vehicle with the blue lights on!

As we continued down 91 south, to the next exit to make a legal u-turn, I apologized to Susan for making her late for her announcement.  She told me we had plenty of time and we didn't need to be there until 11:45 (I thought we had to be there at 11:30).

Despite my failure in co-piloting, an almost certain ticket for using an interstate u-turn illegally, we made it in plenty of time for Susan to be honored by the State Board.  We did it together.  While honoring the Teacher of the Year for her collaboration, it happened for us on the way there.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

How Much Does it Really Matter?

This past week, the students at Montpelier High School took the PSAT during the day.  It was the first time, as normally this practice test is administered on a Saturday.  Seeing our students huddled over their score sheets, filling in bubbles and squares with their number 2 pencils brought me back to my own experience with this standardized test.  

Growing up I was a good student, earning mostly Bs with the occasional A.  I had to work hard to earn these grades, school did not come easily to me.  I needed to study substantially more than my classmates, at least more than they reported they did.  

Then it came time to take the PSAT and the SAT during high school.  I figured because I worked hard, studied regularly, I would do "well" on these tests.  Boy, was I wrong.  

Back when I took the SAT (yes, it was a few years ago) there were only two parts.  They were each worth 800 points each for a possible score of 1,600.  The first time I took the SAT, I didn't break 1,000.  I took them again and still failed to break 1,000.  It took me three times - with a SAT prep course in between - to break the 1,000 point mark.  

What was most troubling to me was the classmates I had who regularly reported they didn't study, who didn't typically turn in homework earning scores of 1,200, 1,300, even 1,400 or more.  What was I doing wrong?  Worse, what did this mean for my future?

As it turned out, my SAT scores had very little to do with my future.  I had an excellent guidance counselor during my sophomore and junior year who helped me thoughtfully apply to six colleges (2 safety, 2 in the ballpark and 2 "reach" schools) based on my overall body of work (his words, not mine).  When I pointed out that I barely broke 1,000 on my SATs, my counselor let me know that those scores were just one aspect for an admissions counselor to review.  

I earned acceptance to each college I applied to, despite my SAT scores.  Turns out, the SATs were just one point on my educational journey and for the admissions counselors at the schools I applied to, they were not a deterrent based on the rest of my application.  Yet at that time, I felt an enormous amount of pressure to perform on this one test.  So much was riding on those scores, or so I thought.  

I've been privileged to work in three high schools, including Montpelier High School during my almost 20 years in education.  Each school I've worked in has administered the PSAT and the SAT exams to students.  When the inevitable conversation has come up with either students or adults, I'm proud to share that it took me three times to break 1,000, back when there were only two parts on the SAT.  While it was important to me then, I had a great counselor who helped me keep it in perspective.  

Today, I'm able to look back at that time in my life and chuckle at the high school version of me, worried about one score on one test.  I'm able to chuckle knowing that I'm happily married for more than 11 years, the proud daddy of two growing boys, and serving in educational leadership with some of the finest individuals in the state of Vermont.  My SATs scores had so very little to do with all of that.  So how much does it really matter?

I hope we're able to help our students today and those in the coming years keep these single assessments in perspective.  Our responsibility in education is to make sure our students feel safe and included when they come to school so that they can learn to their fullest potential.  As long as we do that, no one score on any assessment will dictate their future.  

Monday, October 12, 2015

How Do You Recharge Your Batteries?

Today was not a student day in Montpelier Public Schools - admittedly, Columbus did not discover America and so I have mixed feelings about having a day in celebration of him.  While I have been superintendent in Montpelier, this has been a day students came to school.  That said, in the past few years, we have received feedback that it is a long stretch through September, October and November until the Thanksgiving break.  So this year we are tried something new, an opportunity for everyone to recharge their batteries.

Make no mistake about it, students and adults in Montpelier Public Schools work hard.  I am proud of how student centered we are, how diligently the adults prepare each day for our students, and how much I see our students engaged in the work they take part in.  Mental health and well-being of students and adults is important to me and without giving attention and time to both of these, our work and learning will suffer.

Recently, our dog Malachy had an aural hematoma that needed to be removed.  Malachy was a gift from our wedding party 11 years ago and is an incredibly special part of our family.  She is a yellow lab, is named after the school where My Bride and I met in Chicago and sadly is starting to show signs of her age.  Fortunately, she did not need surgery for the hematoma thanks to the wonderful care from our vets.  They lanced and drained the spot, exhibiting tremendous care and concern for her.

Part of the post-visit treatment was a course of prednisone, a steroid.  While Malachy was on this steroid, she reverted back to her puppy stage.  She was running, jumping, and playing constantly.  It was clear that this medicine was having a positive effect on her and for a few weeks, we had our little puppy back in our world.  As she was weaned off it, she slowed down a little, returning to what you would expect of an 11-year old dog.  Malachy is now fully off the medicine and loves spending time with Our Boys in the yard when she can.  She doesn't run nearly as much as she did when she was a puppy, nor when she was recently on prednisone, but she does keep up with a 9 and 7 year old.

What helps you recharge?  What gives you energy and strength when you need it?  How will you sustain your mental health and well-being?  Share ideas and comments below - all our students are counting on you!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

That's Nice, but Does it Really Work?

I joined Twitter in August of 2011, one month after being appointed Superintendent of Montpelier Public Schools.  I thought it would be a nice way to communicate some of the wonderful things happening in MPS and "brag" a little bit about what I saw when I visited our buildings.  It has turned out to be so much more.

Twitter is a place where I can share ideas, be challenged and validated at the same time.  It is a place of inspiration, where I see what other educational leaders are doing and try to envision a way to bring that (or some version of that) to our work in MPS.  It is a place of reflection, where I stop and think about what we are doing in MPS and wonder (sometimes aloud) if we are on the right path.  It is a place of collaboration, where I share ideas and interact with others who have some wisdom or expertise, or who share the same ideas for their schools and districts.  

I've participated in and moderated Twitter chats.  One of my favorite is #satchat, a once weekly opportunity that takes place on Saturday mornings from 7:30 to 8:30.  Moderators post the questions a day in advance and we answer the questions together.  It is a tremendous opportunity for professional growth.  It is a chance to see what other educators and those committed to improving education are thinking all at once.  It is fun, it is fast-paced, and it is thought-provoking.  And it all happens in the comfort of my home, while having a cup of coffee on a Saturday morning.

In the five years I have been on Twitter, I have connected with people who live both in United States and internationally.  I have also connected with people who live locally in Vermont, that I have not yet physically crossed paths with, even in our small state.  Twitter is a place where I have developed professional admiration for people, based on the work they are doing.  People have challenged me to grow as an educational leader, inspired me by the strides they are making on behalf of children, and caused me to reflect on what I do and what we do in MPS.  

Often when talking to people unfamiliar to Twitter about it, undoubtedly I will be asked if it "works." I am quick to answer it does, and usually cite some of the examples I've written about already.  But this week, I had a Twitter first that really demonstrates again the power of social media.  I got an e-mail in my inbox from someone I follow.  

I follow Annie Murphy Paul (@anniemurphypaul) for her writing about learning.  She writes about how we learn and how we can do it better.  Professionally, I believe in what she writes about and know that her work contributes to what forward thinking educators are doing to better serve their students.  This week her name appeared in my inbox.  It was a personal invitation to participate in an e-course that she has developed to show educators how to implement affirmative testing.  Like me, Ms. Paul sees tests as an "occasion for student learning and growth" (her words) and just one point on their educational journey. 

A personal invitation to participate in a course from someone who I connected with on Twitter.  Someone who considers testing to be an opportunity for students to demonstrate how they've learned and grown.  Yes, please!  This is yet another opportunity for my own learning and growth, made possible by Twitter.  If I had not joined Twitter, I would not have made this connection, and not had the opportunity for this course.  Yes indeed, Twitter "works."

Sunday, September 27, 2015

It Really is All About our Students

It's a buzz word that nearly every educator says, and I would argue, almost every single one believes. I have yet to meet a teacher that does not believe in the power each student has within him or her, and who works tirelessly throughout the year (yes, during the summer as well) to ensure that each student is growing to his or her potential.  We are student centered, learner focused, and driven by differentiation.  It all goes to say that we are about our students.

This past week I had a chance to see these words in action, with three students from Montpelier Public Schools - in a group where they were "outnumbered" by adults from Montpelier Public Schools.  Let me explain...

MPS, along with Addison Northwest Supervisory Union and Lamoille South Supervisory Union will take part in the first Integrated Field Review pilot, as part of the assessment of Vermont's Education Quality Standards.  All three school systems took part in a two day training with the Agency of Education this past week in Burlington.  Each school system brought a number of adults - but critical to the work were the students.  

We spent the days in groups, sometimes mixed with other adults and students from the other supervisory unions and that was important to hear their perspectives on the work we were all about to undertake.  Still for me, the time that was the most valuable was when were were in our MPS Team, listening to our students.  

We spent the majority of our time as a team discussing climate, academics and high quality staffing in MPS, how we were proud of ourselves and the areas we want feedback.  The adults in our team were the consummate professionals, shared their expertise and were open to the diversity of ideas.  And the most powerful voices were those of our students.  Their thoughtful and candid nature became the rudder for our work.  Ideas they brought to the table were unique, insightful, and relevant.  
More importantly, the students input shaped our work.  It is a credit to the entire team - adults & students - that we were all open to the ideas that were shared.  It would have been easy to simply invite adults to participate in this work.  However, if we are going to say that we are student centered and learner focused, then we do need to have students at the table in a substantially meaningful way.  Not as lip service, window dressing, or worst, to just "say" we have student feedback.  The students are the consumers of our educational delivery - it is imperative that we walk with them, ask them questions, and make course corrections based on what they say.  

Whether as a part of the Integrated Field Review pilot, the development of Proficiency Based Graduation Requirements, implementation of Personalized Learning Plans, or simply checking in to find out how a lesson went, we need our students.  This is how we maintain the statements that we are student centered and learner focused.  By asking the hard questions and having the courage to make changes based on what they tell us.  How can we create safe places for our students to tell us what we need to hear?  This week, MPS took a big step in that direction.  

My sincere thanks to our three students: Faith Bolques (MSMS), Delaney Goodman and Anders Heyerdahl (MHS) for leading our work on the Integrated Field Review this week.

I am also grateful to the adults in MPS who came along on this journey, leaving their usual workloads behind for two days, and were open to listening and responding to our students ideas: Rachel Aldrich-Whalen (UES), Pam Arnold (MSMS), Cathy Clements (UES & MSMS), Carrie Cook (MHS), Chris Hennessey (UES), Elisabeth Kahn (MSMS), Mary Lundeen (CO), Mike Martin (CO), and Dan Miller-Arsenault (MHS).  

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Have a Conversation

In an effort to be more present this year, I am trying a new concept in MPS.  Each week I make myself available in each building for an hour.  Anyone - faculty, staff, facilities, food service, leadership - can stop in and sit down with me.  The goal is for me to be present and to listen.  I'm calling it office hours. 

I started this two weeks ago and thus far I have seen a nice variety of people coming by.  Some come in to say hi, some have questions about things that are going on in MPS, some have ideas about ways to move our district forward.  What is so important about this for me, is that this is happening in person.  We are having a conversation, reading each other's body language, able to hear intonation in each other's voices, making eye contact.

In one case, a teacher came to speak to me about a decision that was made that s/he needed clarification on.  First, I thanked this teacher emphatically and sincerely - I had been copied on some e-mail messages on this issue - and then I explained my thinking on this issue.  I was better able to understand this teacher's perspective and this teacher was able to understand the "why," so then was better able to understand the "what" and the "how" of this decision.  We both came away better people for having this conversation because we both left with a better understanding of the other. 

E-mail is a wonderful tool to communicate with - but it pales in comparison to a real, in-person conversation.  Even a phone call is better than relying on e-mail to convey a message, especially if it is important or involves something that someone feels strongly about.  We are all busy - make the effort if it is that important to you. 

Relationships are critical in our families, in education, and in life.  Maintaining relationships means making the time to ensure that our we understand each other.  We won't always agree, and honestly that is not critical.  What is important is hearing the other person, listening to the other person, understanding the other person.  I am committed to doing just this in person.

It is 2015 and we will continue to rely on e-mail.  So when it comes to something important, I encourage you to use e-mail; use it to set up a time to speak in person and have a conversation. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

What Did you Learn on YouTube Today?

This past weekend, I replaced the door handle on our back door.  No problem, right?  I went to the hardware store and got another one, came home all set to replace it.  I grabbed a screwdriver and headed to the door thinking this would be as easy as all the other ones I have replaced in the past.

As I knelt down in front of the door, screwdriver in hand, I stopped.  There were no screws visible on the door handle itself.  I had no idea where to start because on every other door handle that I've replaced, there were screws on the outside of the handle.

I opened the replacement package and tried to see where the screws would go eventually.  Even though it was clear from the instructions where the screws were supposed to go, I also saw there was a cover.  The question was, how do I remove that cover?

At first, I tried just jamming the screwdriver between the cover and the handle and creating some leverage.  The cover moved slightly, but nothing even remotely close to giving me access to the screws.  I took a closer look at the handle and saw a very small opening but didn't think it was anything important.  More on that later.

After several failed attempts at "leveraging" the cover off, and growing frustration, I took a step back.  I tried to think about who I could call to help me.  Many of my friends are very handy and would know how to do this.  As I was thinking about who to call, I saw our laptop sitting open across the kitchen.

I walked over, went to Google, and typed in "How to remove a door handle when the screws are not visible?"  Much to my delight, several "how to" YouTube videos were on the first page and after scanning a couple of them, I found my answer: an allen wrench!

That small opening I referenced earlier was just the right size for the second smallest allen wrench I owned.  With a couple of counter-clockwise turns, the cover came off and there were the screws!  I was able to replace the handle pretty quickly.

Previous to this situation, I had not thought of YouTube as a resource.  Don Taylor (@dtaylor60 & @msms_teamsummit) has consistently encouraged us in #MPSVT to create our own YouTube channel.  It is easy to think of YouTube as only for music videos and celebrities.  However, there is so much more.  If you don't believe me, I challenge you to use it the next time you run into a dead end in a do-it-yourself project at home.  Share your stories in the comments below!

Monday, September 7, 2015

He Looked Me in the Eye

Sue Abrams has been teaching at Montpelier High School since 1996.  She is in her 34th year teaching and has taught in France, Arizona, Oregon and Vermont.  This past July, she was honored as one of two Vermont recipients of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math & Science Teaching.  This is her story.

After an anonymous nomination, letters of reference from colleagues, administrators, and colleagues, Sue completed a 20 page portfolio, comprising her different dimensions of teaching.  A committee of former award winners, leaders in the country in math and science, nominates finalists.  Sue found out in the summer of 2013 - that is not a typo - that she was a finalist.

The portfolio then goes to the National Science Foundation and with the use of a rubric, three people evaluate the submission.  That committee sends an ordered list of recommendations to the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy.  The presidential committee in that office chooses the top two teaching professionals (not necessarily one Math and one Science).

A year ago Sue was notified that she was under consideration, when the Federal Bureau of Investigation initiated a background check.  She was under strict orders to tell no one but her immediate family.  This past March, Sue submitted to another background check by the FBI and was asked for district contact information.

I can tell you that Sue did not tell anyone - including me - about this notification.  I received an e-mail from her, asking for press and media release information for MPS.  When I asked Sue who was requesting this, she declined to tell me.  "Integrity is doing the right thing when no one else is looking."  (M. Krzyzewski, Duke University Mens' Basketball Coach)

On July 1 of this year, while studying Spanish in Spain (yes, Sue has earned dual certification in Math & Spanish), Sue was notified that she was one of the two Vermont teachers to earn this award.  The other winner is Stewart Williamson, from Peoples Academy.  So on July 28, she and the other winners went to the White House and after enduring a substantial amount of protocol review, they were ushered into a room to wait for President Obama.

When I asked her about our President, she remarked, "He's a really funny guy.  He led off by asking us; 'How're y'all doing?' "  His remarks emphasized the importance of strong teachers and noted that the lack of a strong teacher has long-term ramifications for a student.

When it came time to shake hands, Sue noted "He looks you right in the eye when he shakes your hand.  It's really something to meet the sitting president, have him look you in the eye and say 'Congratulations!' "

With all due respect to President Obama, he took the words right out of my mouth.  Congratulations Sue - we could not be prouder of you, your accomplishment, your humility, and your commitment to the profession of teaching.  Montpelier Public Schools is a better place because of you!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

They Asked for My Autograph

On Wednesday, August 26, we welcomed almost all students back to school.  Our kindergartners will join us for the first time on Monday, August 31 and then our MPS family will be complete.

Our Faculty & Staff officially returned on Monday, August 24.  Many were trickling in earlier than that, and I know many more were working hard over the summer.  I'm sure there were hours spent reflecting on, preparing for, and excited about the 2015 - 2016 school year.

At the Opening of School Assembly, I shared our areas of focus with the MPS Faculty & Staff.  They are:
  • A safe and inclusive learning environment for all students
  • Proficiency-based learning
  • Personalized learning
As a Leadership Team, we reviewed our Continuous Improvement Plan, our Action Plan, North Star work, and our Consolidated Federal Program strategies.  We then filtered all those through the lens of our first Community Forum that took place in April of 2015.  As a result of that thoughtful process, we were able establish areas of focus that reflect the values of our community and the educational work we have committed to.

As I visited our buildings this past week, I was excited by the smiles on the faces of students, faculty, staff, and parents.  When I visit classrooms, my goal is to be a fly on the wall, interacting with the students without interrupting the lesson.  Many teachers were kind enough to introduce me.   When they did I shared that as superintendent, I have two jobs:
  1. Work with all the adults in MPS to ensure students feel safe and included.  
  2. Work with all the adults in MPS to ensure students learn.  
I was leaving one classroom at the elementary school, when a young man came up to me and asked for my autograph.  He had a piece of paper and a pencil.  I leaned down and signed my name.  When I looked up, the rest of the class was waiting with pencils and papers.  It was the first time in my career - in my life - that anyone had asked for my autograph.  I have to admit, I felt a little bit like a rock star. 

We will start our first full week together tomorrow, with our student family complete, as we welcome our kindergartners to school for the first time in their lives.  It continues to be a professional privilege to serve the Montpelier community with the tremendous faculty and staff in our buildings.  I am hopeful for another excellent year for our students, faculty, staff, and families!

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Phone Didn't Ring Even Once

A week ago, my family and I were coming to the end of a glorious week in Maine.  Just the four of us, on vacation together.  Long days at the beach, no schedules, lots of conversations, laughter, games, and food!  As I thought back longingly to that time this week as I returned to work, one thing stood out: the phone didn't ring once.

We rented a condo from a wonderful family.  They were generous and kind: each of Our Boys had a Lego waiting for them when they arrived and My Bride and I were treated to a bottle of wine.  There were plenty of windows, a beautiful sun room, comfortable beds... and no phones.

During the week, My Bride purposely turned her iPhone off.  Completely off.  If you're not aware, this function takes place by holding down the small button at the top of the phone and then sliding your finger across the words "slide to power off."  I recommend you try it some time when you need to disconnect.

I left my phone on - only to connect with our house sitter (who only messaged me once) and to take pictures (see below).  It was, in a word, freeing.

We spend our professional days connected using technology: e-mail, social media, Feedly, Flipboard, to name a few.  We are reachable by any number of devices.  Just this week, returning to the office, the little red light on top of my phone was lit, indicating the voicemail messages waiting for me.

My family's week in Maine was blissfully free of all of that.  We didn't get one phone call and while I left my phone on, I disabled the automatic e-mail notifications.  No red number on my mail icon letting me know what my inbox was looking like.  I have left it set like that this week and am considering leaving it like that going forward.  Then I am choosing to look at my e-mail - not reacting to a number.

Work/Life balance is something that I spoke to the MPS Leadership Team about this week as we all returned to work.  The truth is, we must attend to both thoughtfully and intentionally in order to do well in those realms.  During the times when the balance is tipped, we need to find a way to restore order.  For me, a family vacation, just the four of us, is how I can restore balance in my life and prepare for the upcoming school year.  It is a gift and precious time that will be forever remembered by me, My Bride, and hopefully Our Boys.

And the phone didn't ring even once. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

On Being Vulnerable

I am not a native Vermonter - I was born in New York City and grew up just a half hour north of it in Mt. Vernon, NY.  We did not have a lawn.  Well, we had a lawn just not by Vermont standards.

Looking back, it is interesting to reflect on the fact that my siblings and I argued over who was going to mow the front and who was going to mow the back of the postage stamps that were our lawns.  We had a push mower (it was gas powered) and I think it maybe took us a total of a half hour, including using the hand clippers to trip the edges.  You remember these hand clippers:

Then My Wife and I bought our dream house in 2010, and it included a lawn; a real lawn.  Our lot is listed at 0.87 acres, which I know is still small by Vermont standards.  However, we still only had a gas powered push mower and after a couple years, it was clear I needed something bigger (or I was going to be spending a greater part of my weekend mowing our lawn).

So I went in search of a riding lawn mower.  On a visit to Harvest Equipment in Williston, I learned much about being vulnerable.

I literally had no idea what I was doing.  Literally.

When I walked in, I was approached by a gentleman who asked if I needed help.  I told him I did.  Then I took a deep breath, and told him I had no idea what I was doing.  I knew nothing about riding lawn mowers - except that I needed one so that I did not lose precious time with my family.  I explained that and then reminded him that I had no idea what I was doing.  He pushed his hat back on his head and asked me what I did for work.  When I told him I was a Superintendent, he told me that he had no idea how to do that himself.  But since he knew his way around a riding lawnmower, he could share some insight with me.

I was in good hands and we bought our riding mower there, because I chose to be vulnerable.

How many times do we choose to be vulnerable?  If you're like me, not that often and yet those are the opportunities for growth.  Growth comes from the uncomfortable places, from the areas where we feel weird, not confident, potentially alone, and exposed.  Yet if we are to commit to growing, and let's face it as educators that is our work, we need to be vulnerable with each other.  We also need to model this for our students.

If we are not comfortable being uncomfortable, and inviting growth, then how can we expect this of our students?  If we don't find ways to model a growth mindset, then how can we expect this of our students?  Moreover, how can we expect this of each other?

I know this - if I was not vulnerable with the salesman, I would not have ended up with the riding lawnmower that allows me to mow our lawn in about half the time it used to take me when I only used the push mower.

What are the conditions that would make you take the risk of being vulnerable?  How can you create those conditions for your students?  Your colleagues?

Find those uncomfortable places, be vulnerable, and grow!  Who knows, you might even find some extra moments to spend with the people who are dear to you.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Presume the Best

I recently finished Dr. Richard DuFour's latest book, In Praise of American Educators: And How they Can Become Even Better.  To say that I was inspired is an understatement.  The book is a masterful blend of research and encouragement for everyone in education to do better on behalf of students; on behalf of all students.

One of the portions that has stuck with me while reflecting on this work and how I can bring it to Montpelier Public Schools, was the following:

"There is no evidence that teachers are withholding their best instructional strategies.  I am unaware of any teacher who is thinking 'I know how to teach this concept really well, but I'm not getting paid enough to use my good instructional strategies.  I'll just use my mediocre ones instead.' "

As educational leaders, when we think about ways to improve outcomes for all students, we must start from that place.  We must start from the notion that everyone who serves students in any way is doing absolutely the best they can.  Teachers are professionals, educating and serving students in ways that were not envisioned hundreds of years ago when public schools were created.

If we begin our thinking coming from the place of everyone is doing their very best, then envisioning ways to improve professional practice for better student outcomes for all students seems reasonable and manageable.  Presuming the best builds trust and provides the foundation to makes changes possible.  And let's face it, presuming the best is a way to maintain and improve relationships with the people who choose to educate and serve our students.

Wouldn't we want the same presumption made of us?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Today I Got a Flower From My Son

Today I got a flower from my son.

The flower didn't look like these - it felt like these.  

No reason, I was just getting ready to go to work and he came in from gardening with My Bride and said, "Here Daddy, this is for you."  In that beautiful, simple gesture, my son Brendan made my day.  It's the simple things really that make a difference in our lives.

When I logged into this blog this morning, it reminded me that I have not posted since January 2014 and that feels like a long time.  It is a long time.

I want to get better at blogging and make a commitment to post more regularly.  I am sometimes overwhelmed and feel as though I need to have something "big" to say, in order to blog.  Then I read someone like Pernille Ripp (@pernilleripp) or George Couros (@gcouros) and realize that it doesn't always have to be big.  Don't get me wrong - I think that both Pernille and George are some of the biggest thinkers in education today and I am inspired by the work on a daily basis.  And often, when I am inspired by them, or by others, it is not because of the size of the idea - it is because of the simplicity of the idea.

So I am making a commitment to blogging.  I am making a commitment to sharing my ideas on a more regular basis not matter how big or how small they feel.  Because when I got a flower from my son, this is how I felt:

Coincidentally, this is Our Brendan who gave me the flower.

I may need a nudge, reminder, or shove to keep doing it.  I will rely on all of you to help me.  

Today, I got a flower from my son.