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."