Monday, December 19, 2016

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

At least, that's what it's supposed to be, right?  The "most" wonderful time of the year?  While for many this is true, there are too many for whom this is simply not the case.

This time of year is particularly challenging for those of us who have chosen education as our profession.  The time between the Thanksgiving break and the December Holiday break is quite difficult.  It is a number of weeks, book-ended by vacations in which educators, and those dedicated individuals who work with us in schools, are dared to bring some sense of normalcy into a time of the year that is anything but.  It is the "most" wonderful time of the year, right?

This time of year is particularly challenging for those who have uncomfortable family dynamics.  Everything we see on TV and hear on the radio is about the perfect family dinner, the perfect gift, the perfect holiday celebration.  For some families, just getting in the same room together is incredibly hard given the relationships.  That would be a gift in and of itself.  It gives an alternative interpretation on what the "most" wonderful time of the year is.

This time of year is particularly challenging for those who struggle to make ends meet, or for those families who simply are overwhelmed by the poverty they face.  While some are trying to figure out the "most" unique gift to buy, many families are wondering if they will have heat, hot water, and food.  While some of the students we know are excitedly anticipating the coming vacation, many others are worried about where they will find a warm place with something to eat regularly.  That cannot be the "most" wonderful time of the year.

Might I suggest that we put our efforts toward kindness this time of year?  Toward our students, toward our colleagues, toward our families, toward each other.  During a poignant reflection I heard this weekend on the coming winter solstice, the woman delivering the reflection used a beautiful quote from Mother Teresa: "If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other."  Perhaps kindness and peace can transcend the many realities of what the "most" wonderful time of the year looks like for everyone in our lives.

Finally, I came across this image this week and it expresses my sentiments for the MPS Faculty, Staff, Students, Families, and Community.

I truly hope that you all can feel happy, safe, and loved this holiday season.  If that is the case, then it will go a long way to making it the most wonderful time of the year for me.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Faith in Children

This past weekend, our oldest son Patrick had an indoor soccer game.  He's been playing indoor for a couple of years and we found a team that shares the vales that we want as a family from sports: practice hard, play your best, and have fun.  It's been a wonderful experience for him and by extension our whole family.

At this weekend's game, we were sitting among the families from the other team.  The teams were very evenly matched and it was an excellent game.  What I struggled with were the comments from the families who were around me.  When we scored, what was said aloud was about how "cheap" and "weak" the goals were.  When they scored, it was a "tremendous" play.  When we made a play, we were "lucky", when they made a play they were "talented".

The reason I struggled so much with the comments was because while I was watching the game, our youngest son Brendan was sitting on my lap.  At one point he turned to me and said, "Why are they talking like that?"  I started to get annoyed just based on what I was hearing and that I really didn't have a good explanation for Brendan.

Patrick's team ended up winning the game and I was really proud of how he and his team played but I was also really discouraged about how the folks around me were speaking.  Brendan asked me again on the way out to explain why those people were talking like that about our team.  The truth was, I really didn't have a good explanation for what they were saying.

Since it was late, we ended up going to a pizza and pasta place right near where the game was played.  We ordered from the counter and sat down to wait until the food was ready.  At the booth next to us was the coach and his son from the other team.  Our food came and we started eating.

The next thing I know, I looked up and Patrick and the young man from the other team are having a conversation.  "Your team was really good," "No your team was really good."  "You played really well," "Yeah, so did you."  From there, the conversation quickly went to the NFL and their favorite players.  Soon Brendan got involved and before I knew it, these three boys were laughing and joking together.

Seeing these boys having such animated conversation, listening to their laughter, watching their smiling faces, made me forget what I heard during the game.  Neither the coach of the other team nor I said anything to any of the boys, this happened naturally on their own.  They saw past the game, they had no idea what was said by the fans, they were just three boys sitting in a restaurant.  It was a beautiful moment to be a part of.

I'm afraid that too often in education we forget that it is about the children we are serving, not the adults in their lives, and frankly not about us as the educators.  Seeing these boys enjoying each other's company and forgetting about the game they played just moments ago was exactly how I needed to end this confusing night.  It was not about the parents I was sitting with and it was not about me.  It was and always needs to be about the children.  That's one of the main reasons why I am in education, I have faith in children.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

On Being Thankful

We have made it to the week of Thanksgiving, and I am very grateful for so much in my life.

I am grateful for my family who support me in all that I do.  I would not be where I am today without them.  Thank you to My Bride, Our Boys and our 8 month old puppy Sadie.

I am grateful to know that Our Boys go to a school where the "Power of Yet" is a reality.  Thank you for giving My Children room to grow.

I am grateful to work in a place where I can sit and learn from children.  Thank you for allowing me to be a life long learner.

I am grateful to all the Faculty, Staff, Administration, School Board Members, and community of Montpelier Public Schools for making our district a place that is safe for all students.

What are you thankful for?

Sunday, November 13, 2016

You Will Never Regret Being Kind

This summer on our family vacation to North Carolina - and the first major road trip for the Ricca Family - we stumbled across the song "Humble and Kind" by Tim McGraw.  It resonated with us immediately with it's simplicity and quickly became a family favorite.  We stopped on it every time we were flipping through radio stations through the various states we drove through.  If you have not heard it, the video is here, courtesy of YouTube and the lyrics are here thanks to Google Play Music.

This week was one in which we needed a great deal of kindness.  There were many hurt feelings, surprised professional political pundits, and deep questions about the future of our country.  After I had the "Who Won" conversation with Our Boys on Wednesday morning, I came across this tweet from Alex Shevrin (@shevtech):

More than anything we need kindness to move forward.  Perhaps for some, it's not even time to move forward yet.  We need kindness and patience to stay put with those who are still stunned.  We need kindness to build relationships with those who disagree with our view of the election and the outcome.  We need to be kind to one another.  

"Help the next one in line, always stay humble and kind."  You will never regret being kind.  

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Courage of My Convictions

I've had a pretty tremendous ten days.  On October 27, at the Rowland Foundation (@RowFn) Conference at UVM, I was able to spend some time with Jonathan Kozol.  Kozol has written many books about the lack of equity in education, including Savage Inequalities.  I read Savage Inequalities while I was an undergraduate student and was inspired to go into education, partially because in that book he noted the per pupil spending of my hometown, Mt. Vernon, NY in comparison to the neighboring village Bronxville, NY.

Kozol writes about children with such awe and reverence that I have yet to encounter in another author.  I was privileged to spend some time with him in conversation after his workshop and just listening to him was inspiring.

Then on Monday night we went trick-or-treating in Burlington and as a result got to meet and shake hands with Bernie Sanders.  He and his wife were at home giving out candy, just like almost everyone else on October 31.  He could not have been more authentic.  His smile was exactly like the smile you saw every time on television during the debates.  His eye contact was genuine, he shook the hand of each of Our Boys and even ruffled Brendan's hair.  It was *again* inspiring to be in the presence of someone who has been such an advocate for equity.  I was moved by his humility and humanity.  

As I reflected on meeting these two tremendous advocates for equity, I realized that I am not doing enough.  Now, I am not going to write books and I am certainly not going to run for President of the United States.  I am, however, going to speak out more about the lack of equity that I see.  

I will start with an uncomfortable topic, especially in the state of Vermont and that is race.  We are a very, very white state and in Montpelier, a very, very white capital city.  According to the Census Bureau, the State of Vermont as of July 1, 2015 is 94.8% white, and the City of Montpelier is 93.7% white (that number is from the 2010 census).  

We have seen incidents in the past year demonstrating the violence and death that results from black encounters with law enforcement.  These incidents are causing black parents to have conversations with their children that sound nothing like the conversations I have with My Children.  Watch this New York Times Op-Doc called A Conversation With My Black Son.  It is compelling.  It is only five minutes - please watch it.  

I have also watched from afar the #BlackLivesMatter movement.  At times, I have bristled at that notion and even in some of my own tweets used the hashtag #AllLivesMatter.  And I was wrong.  Let me say that again: I was wrong.  If you do not believe me, I encourage you to read this article from the Huffington Post, The Real Reason White People Say 'All Lives Matter'.  It convinced me and I assure you, there won't ever again be the #AllLivesMatter hashtag beyond this blog post from me.  

We have equity issues in our state and in our city.  We have an obligation to ensure that public schools give every student what they need.  In some cases, that means more because some of our students come to us needing more, due to circumstances beyond their control.  I started my teaching career in a neighborhood in Chicago that most people came to only when there were Bulls or Blackhawks games.  I was driven by equity then and I am reminded by meeting two champions of equity that I need to still be driven by that commitment to justice.  

Rebecca Holcombe, the Vermont Secretary of Education reminded us recently that "your prosperity is tied to the most vulnerable child in your community." I stand by that quote and I intend to lead Montpelier Public Schools well into the future based on the commitment to meet the needs all students, especially the most vulnerable children in our community, equitably.  

I stand by the courage of my convictions.  Will you join me?  

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Who Cuts Your French Toast?

About a year ago, our youngest son Brendan started taking forever to eat his breakfast.  It's been a pretty consistent breakfast for all his school years during the week: cereal, fruit, and juice or milk.  One the weekends, we usually do pancakes, french toast or waffles.  For some reason, Brendan really was not liking the cereal and it was causing a bit of "morning stress."  You know, the kind of stress when you're trying to get your family out the door in the morning?

After lots of conversations with Brendan, he admitted he really did not like cereal.  So in an effort to make mornings a little more smooth, we asked what he would like to eat.  The answer was quick and simple: French Toast. I really wasn't sure if I could add this to the somewhat delicate balance of a morning routine we have set up.  All any parent wants for their children in the morning on a school day is to get them out the door happy, fed, and looking relatively presentable.

So we decided to give the French Toast a try.  On the first morning, I made enough batter for a couple of slices of toast.  I made a slice, cut it up into bite-sized pieces, poured the syrup and sprinkled the powdered sugar.  It worked!  Brendan was so happy and from day one, there was less stress in our morning.

Slowly, I started having Brendan take more responsibility for the food.  He took on the powdered sugar and then syrup.  Finally, I told him one morning to start cutting his French Toast himself.  He looked at me and said, "How?"  I responded, "With your knife and fork!"  He looked back at me and said, "But I don't know how.  You've always done it for me."

In my focus to make sure our morning routine did not contain any additional stress, I took on doing too much and not empowering my son enough.  Worse, I then expected him to then know how to do what I've been doing.  I didn't scaffold for him at all and made my expectations for him unreasonable, essentially because he'd never done it before himself.

It made me think back to all the times as a teacher, and as a parent, that I've failed to provide scaffolding.  It's so critical to risk taking in education and in life.  Scaffolding gives you a place to go back to - someplace safe - if a mistake or a misstep is made.  When we want our students (or our own children) to feel safe making mistakes, we have to support them getting there and have someplace for them to turn back to that is known.

So Brendan and I decided that I would start by cutting half of his slice into bite-sized pieces, and he would cut the second half into bite-sized pieces himself.  The next step would be for me to cut the bread in half, and finally he would cut the entire slice himself.  We figured out that part together - what felt like a big leap for him had to be honored, so that he felt empowered to take the next step.

Who cuts your French Toast?  In our house, that's Brendan.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

After All, We Live in Vermont

This weekend, we hiked the Sterling Pond trail.  It was a beautiful day and we had never done this particular trail before.  We prepared by wearing layers, since it was the middle of October and we were expecting chilly weather.

As we started on the trail, it was a little windy but relatively warm.  The trail was steep at times, required some climbing, and was really a good workout.  About a third of the way up, My Wife wanted to take off her vest but we did not have room for it in our backpack.  She didn't want to keep it on - it was too warm.  So we made a decision to leave it on the side of the trail.

This went against all my instincts.  While we have lived in Vermont since 2007, I was raised just outside New York City and have lived in Chicago and Boston.  I lock my car doors every night, whether the car is in the driveway or the garage.  Our home is locked nightly as well.  This is how I was raised, and a reflection of where I have lived most of my life.  It's just not in my psyche to leave a personal item out in public and expect that it will be there when I return.

We had a wonderful hike together.  First time trails are fun to learn about and to figure out.  Near the top, we met a kind stranger who made our hike that much better.  He directed us to the left of Sterling Pond when we got to the top.  We went up a set of stairs, and after a few more steps were at the very top of Smugg's.  What a beautiful fall view we had!

After admiring the beautiful foliage the trees had to offer us, it was time to head back down.  Going down is easier than going up but I had my doubts about whether or not the vest would be there.  As we passed people on their way up, part of me almost expected to see someone with My Wife's vest.  As we neared the final third of our trek down, I started eyeing the left side of the trail.  To my delight, there was the vest, exactly where we had left it one hour and forty-five minutes earlier.

I pride myself on being a life long learner and expect to continue learning as long as I am breathing.  I'm learning about the wonderful state we live in.  I will still lock my home and my car.  However, I definitely have more faith that if I leave something behind, it will be there when I come back.  This is not New York, Chicago, or Boston.  After all, we live in Vermont.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

#Grateful for All My Teachers

This past Wednesday, October 5 was World Teacher's Day and I had no idea until I read my colleague Chris Kennedy's (@chrkennedy) post.  I was inspired to think about the wonderful teachers whom I learned from during my own formal education.  So I took the challenge: How many of your teachers from grade school can you name?  I apologize in advance for any names that are spelled incorrectly!

K – Mrs. Truman
1 – Mrs. Hurst
2 – Mrs. Bisk/Ms. Bregman, who became Mrs. Wirchin
3 – Ms. Marghella, who became Mrs. Lundhal 
4 – Mr. Barbalato
5 – Mrs. DelVecchio
6 – Ms. Hefler

Chorus – Ms. Reid
Band – Mr. Maise
Art – Ms. Fair

7 & 8 - Mr. Wojnar, Ms. Simmons, Mr. Court, Dr. D., Mrs. Court, Mr. Corccione, Mrs. Sassy, Mr. Stamboni

9 & 12 – Ms. Morton, Mr. Mitchell, Mr. Salerno, Mr. Fogler, Ms. Fox, Br. Prendergast, Br. Staniecki, Br. Phelps, Ms. Sweeney, Mr. Pisarra, Mr. Driscoll, Mr. O’Neill, Mr. Daly, Mr. O’Meara, Mrs. Hoar

I could not remember all my 7 - 12 teachers, these are the ones that stood out in my mind.  I challenge you to do the same, to honor those teachers who were a part of your formal education as you were growing up.  

I also want to honor the tremendous teaching professionals in Montpelier Public Schools.  This past Friday, I was again humbled to serve this community as Superintendent of Schools as I spent time with each building's Faculty during our Professional Development Day.  The depth of learning that took place, the courage of the conversations, and the commitment to deliberate collaborative practice was simply stunning.  

We ended our PD Day on Friday with a Quaker Closing Ceremony

To all my past teachers, I thank you for walking with me on my path in education that led me to choose a career in education.  To all the current teachers who I serve with in Montpelier Public Schools, I celebrate you for the countless ways, many of which go unseen, you serve our students and their families.  

To all those in between - and to the "unofficial" teachers in my life, especially My Wife and My Boys - I am sincerely grateful.  Your indelible imprints on my life are reflective in my work and I am truly proud of that.  

Happy World Teacher's Day to all the teachers out there!

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Are We Listening?

At this past week's Vermont Superintendents' All Members' Meeting, Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe shared some very interesting data with us.  The Vermont Labor Market is restructuring over the next eight years.  What is noteworthy is that the second most typical education necessary for entry into our workforce is less than a high school diploma.  See the data below:

There is an almost six percent change predicted in the employment workforce over the next several years, for jobs that require less than high school education.  The only category that has a greater percentage change predicted are those that require a professional degree.  This data has implications for personalized learning, for our students, and for us as educators.

As we move toward fully embracing personalized learning plans, we must also fully embrace what engages our students, recognizing that there are many options for them.  All educators are required to have at least a Bachelor's Degree in our field, many of us have degrees beyond that as well.  We implicitly have a bias, having earned these degrees, that they are important.  However, the reality is that not all students will earn college degrees and not all students will finish high school.  Given the data above, this still means those students can participate in the workforce in the state of Vermont.

Please be clear that I am not in any way advocating that educators lower expectations for our students.  On the contrary, I am suggesting that we be aware of our own biases as we work with students to develop their personalized learning plans.  With the changes predicted in the Vermont employment landscape in the coming years, many students can find meaningful work through a non-traditional path.  As long as our students are able to find a way to contribute, whether locally, nationally, or around the world, then in Montpelier Public Schools, we have fulfilled our mission.

In the end, it really is about our students.  We must be sure that while we challenge them to grow, we're listening to them as well.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Three Most Powerful Words

We had dinner with dear friends this weekend and during the course of our time together, they shared an inspiring story about one of their children.  Their son had endured a rough ending to a play date, and while the other child wanted to apologize, our friend's son was so hurt that he left without saying good bye or acknowledging the apology.

The following morning, our friend offered to make it better by inviting his son's friend over for breakfast.  As our friend was making breakfast, he asked his son what he would say when his friend came over.  His son thought about it for a minute and said, "I'm going to tell him 'I'm sorry for being such a poopy-head yesterday.' "

Our friend was floored - they had a very hard time discussing the previous day's play date when they had returned home.  His son had gone to bed hurt and sad.  Yet he was so proud his son was planning to apologize, without a whole lot of prompting.

When the friend arrived, his son stood up, walked over to greet his friend and said, "I'm sorry I was such a horrible person yesterday."  To which, the friend apologized again and all was quickly resolved over waffles and strawberries.  What a beautiful example.

Yes, it was a little simpler when we are children.  And still "I am sorry" are arguably the three most powerful words we can say.  These words are so important, they stand alone.  Without any additional explanation there is a real vulnerability and humility we reveal when we apologize.  We admit we were wrong and look for forgiveness.

As leaders, apologies are critical to the success of our organization.  No one expects us to be perfect, yet because of our positional authority, we need to readily admit when we've made a mistake.  The apology is almost more important because of our role and it demonstrates that we are committed to nurturing and cultivating relationships.

I wonder if there's anyone in our lives who needs to hear "I am sorry" from us this week.  I wonder if there's anyone who's waiting for us to apologize.  I wonder if there's anyone seeking our humility and vulnerability so they can offer us forgiveness.

Apologizing is not an easy thing to do.  Perhaps the next time we need to apologize, we can begin by saying, "I'm sorry for being such a poopy-head."

Those really are powerful words.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

#Kindness Matters

One of the things that I love most about being Superintendent is spending time with people who I serve with.  More often than not, those people are the students and teachers in our schools.  Sometimes, I am able to carve out time with our staff, people behind the scenes who make sure the "trains run on time."  In one such conversation this week, I was reminded just how much kindness matters.

One of our staff members was visiting grandchildren, away from her home in Central Vermont.  As she was leaving, someone noted that one of her tires looked low.  It did, but the prevailing wisdom was it wasn't too low and she would be able to make it home.  As it turned out, the tire lost too much air, and soon our staff member was on the side of the road closer to where she was than where she was going.  A passing truck driver stopped and offered to follow her to a store where there was an air pump.  This staff member was grateful and took him up on the offer.

Once at the store, our staff member confessed that she didn't even know how to operate the air pump, to which the truck driver responded, "No problem because I do!"  As he started to fill the tire with air, the truck driver discovered what was wrong and showed our staff member: there was a nail in the tire.
Since our staff member had AAA, she told the truck driver to stop and she would call them.  The truck driver protested: "That would take three hours!  Do you have three hours to spend up here today?"  He then invited her to his home (within walking distance) where there was a gathering taking place and went to get his tire patch kit to repair the nail hole.  This gentleman even refused a thoughtful amount of money our kind staff member offered once the tire was fixed.

So in case you lost track, this stranger:

1.  Stopped on the side of the road.
2.  Pointed out the nearest store with an air pump.
3.  Tried to pump the tire with air.
4.  Diagnosed the problem.
5.  Offered to fix it.
6.  Invited a stranger into his home.
7.  Refused payment.

Yes, yes indeed, #kindness matters.

This week, I offer that we be especially kind to our students and to one another.  We all know that there was a death in our MPS Family last week, when Chris Hennessey's father passed away suddenly.  Yet, I personally know there are others who are struggling with things that are not so public, perhaps not so "acceptable," and perhaps who are not ready to share them with everyone.

Since we really never know, please be kind this week.

#Kindness does matter!

In deference to the staff member who was a little embarrassed about not knowing how to put air in a tire, she remains anonymous.  I told her I routinely don't know how to do common fixes in my own home and that she was in good company!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Power of #Yet

One word.

One word, three letters.

One word, three letters, powerful impact.

One word, three letters, powerful impact, for all students.

All students, all teachers, all human beings benefit from the power of yet.  We are all lifelong learners in education, regardless of the role that we play.  We model what we expect from our students, from our colleagues, and from each other.  We all benefit from the power of yet.

This is not a brand new idea, in fact Carol Dweck has a tremendous TEDx Talk on yet.  It is worthwhile to view the entire 11:19.  I highly recommend you carve out the time to view this if you haven't already.

Yet offers so much in the way of possibility, so much in the way of options, so much in the way of authentic learning.  I cannot think of a more simple, more meaningful way to embrace a growth mindset in our young people and those around us.  The science is there, the data is there, the reality is that "yet" has far-reaching impacts on the learning environment, the home environment, and in our lives.

It is clear that every human being has abilities are capable of tremendous growth.  I urge all of us in MPS to embrace the notion of yet to ensure that every single student in our district has the opportunity to experience firsthand, the power of yet.

While teaching in Chicago, I met a veteran teacher on my first day of school.  While walking into our opening in-service, I asked him what he did.  "A little of this, a little of that," he said.  I couldn't be prouder to tell him I was a department head.  Turns out he taught foreign language, and had attended the school we were working in.  His college years were the only ones since high school in which this gentleman had not been present in the school.  He had wisdom, experience, and mission more than anyone else when it came to that school.  When I asked him, how he kept coming back to teach and serve, he answered, "If I ever wake up one day and think I've figured it out, then I'm going to quit."  After all those years, he still hadn't figured it all out.

Every single child in Montpelier Public Schools, PK - 12, is entitled to a public education, grounded in the power of yet.  Every single child in Montpelier Public Schools, PK - 12, deserves the possibilities that come with the power of yet.  Every single child in Montpelier Public Schools, PK - 12, can grow with a framework guided by the power of yet.  Please commit to the power of yet.

One word, three letters, powerful impact, for all students.

One word, three letters, powerful impact.

One word, three letters.

One word.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Out of My Comfort Zone

I recognized the feeling right away.  It was low in my stomach, unsettling, and uncomfortable.  It was Sunday night before my first day of teaching.  I had the Sunday night "pit."

In the fall of 2015, I approached Dr. Judith Aiken about the possibility of teaching a college level course at the University of Vermont.  I was in my fifth year serving Montpelier Public Schools as Superintendent, and I wanted to get back to teaching.  That is why I got into education in the first place.  After a couple of meetings, I heard back from Dr. Aiken that I would be teaching a graduate school course in the summer of 2016 called Staff Development & Evaluation.  I was thrilled!

As the end of the school year approached, I started organizing my ideas, authors, and articles.  I pulled out textbooks that had a meaningful impact on my own work in leadership, reviewed papers I had written in graduate school, and began to sketch out themes.  I wrote outlines for each day of the class, selected the readings, and wrote my first ever syllabus.  And yet, I was starting to feel very, very nervous.

The class met for two consecutive weeks, Monday through Friday, from 8:00 - 1:00.  How was I going to fill five hours, with graduate students?  What would happen if got through my entire plan, looked up at the clock and it was only 10:00?  What if I didn't know the answer to one of their questions?  Very quickly, that nervousness turned into panic.

I distinctly remember feeling the same way the night before my first day teaching first grade.  I had all the same questions, all the same worries, all the same fears.  This seemed worse somehow, probably because I can look back very fondly at my experience teaching first grade as I am connected with a handful of my former students through Facebook.  So as I fell asleep that Sunday night, I tried to think about those little first grade faces and not the unknown graduate students I would meet the following morning.

What took place over those two weeks was some of the best professional learning I have ever had the privilege to be a part of.  The level of dialogue, honesty, and openness in Lafayette Hall L200 gave me even more hope about the future of educational leadership in the state of Vermont.  There was a deep dive around the professionalism of teachers, a thorough conversation around the capacity for human growth, and most importantly, a consistent thread of equity woven into our work.  We discussed best practice for evaluation, the wonderful commitment Vermont has made to proficiency and personalization, and how critical relationships are to the success of our work.

I was reminded of all this when I listened to Susan Koch, the 2016 Vermont State Teacher of the Year welcome all employees back to MPS this past Monday.  Especially this slide:

It resonated with my experience teaching graduate school this summer, it resonated with my experience teaching first grade fifteen years ago, and honestly, it resonates with my life experience.  The magic rarely happens while we are comfortable.

It is true for us as adults, it is true for our students.  It is true for human beings.  Think back to your own experience outside your comfort zone and see if any of these things happened to you:

In education, we are constantly looking for opportunities for growth.  Whether for ourselves, our students, or our colleagues.  While it is scary at times, we know that we must be uncomfortable in order to ensure the right conditions for growth.  Too much comfort can lead to complacency, which is not fundamentally inclined toward growth.  Find your sweet spot where the magic can happen for you this year, outside of your comfort zone.

Sincere thanks to my first ever class of graduate students: Jessica Allard (@JESS_EDUC), Joseph Antonioli (@JoeAntonioli), Crystal Baldwin, Janet Battaile, Tim Bilodeau, Francesca Dupuis (@fdupuella), Rebecca Haslam (@EunMi_Haslam), Scott MacNamee, Amy Magyar (@UnlimitedVT), Melissa Makay, Chris Palmer (@cpalmer0608), Todd Rohlen (@trohlen), Nichole Stevens, & Hemant Tamang-Ghising.  

Sunday, June 5, 2016

What Have You Learned?

The calendar tells us we are embarking upon the last full week of school for this year in Montpelier Public Schools.  That seems hard to believe.  I am proud of all that we have accomplished this year.

The educational landscape in Vermont is leading us toward proficiency based graduation requirements, via personalized learning plans.  The class of 2020 (next year's 9th graders) will be the first in the state to earn a high school diploma without the traditional Carnegie units.  This is an exciting, albeit challenging time to be a part of education in this state.

This kind of shift in educational thinking and practice aims to measure growth through what students have learned, both in and out of the classroom.  It opens up opportunities for students to show what they have learned on a vacation, on a walk with their best friend, while composing music for their band, while tinkering with computer code, while meeting with a teacher, or while sitting at home and talking with a family member.

The same shift in educational thinking and practice challenges us as adults in the lives of these students.  What are we learning?  How are we changing our practices?  Why does this kind of shift matter for our students?  What is our role in working with our students to measure their growth in this new way?

I am in awe of the way the faculty and staff of MPS have taken on this work.  They have done it with the customary integrity and professionalism I have come to know to expect from them over the past five years I have served in MPS.  This is not something I take lightly or for granted.  The expectations for educators in this state have increased significantly, and I see our educators rising to meet this challenge.

What have I learned this year?  I have learned that no one rises to low expectations, that relationships can make all the difference, and that what we do during the school day ripples into the lives of the families of our students.  I have learned that cancer can inspire, that words can heal, and that when someone retires it leaves a void.  I have learned that leadership means sharing your values, setting direction, and apologizing when you make a mistake.

What have you learned?

Monday, May 30, 2016

The #Gratitude Challenge

I simply cannot believe June is happening this week.  It seems like it was just yesterday that all MPS faculty and staff were gathering in the high school auditorium to be welcomed back for this school year.  In the blink of an eye, we have only ten school days left.  As I have been in each of my first four years in MPS, I am overwhelmed with gratitude and for the growth that has taken place in our district this year.

One of the many educators in my PLN whom I am grateful to connect with via Twitter is Rich Czyz(@RACzyz) and he publishes a blog post called 4 O'Clock Faculty with Trevor Bryan (@trevorabryan).  In May, one of the posts was called "The Gratitude Challenge," and it inspired me.  In turn, they were inspired by a high school English teacher, Dan Tricarico (@thezenteacher).  Tricarico wrote a book called The Zen Teacher and at the end of each chapter has a challenge.  Czyz adapted the challenge at the end of the chapter called Gratitude.

So, I too accept the Zen Teacher assignment and choose to express my gratitude.

1.  I am grateful for the support of My Wife and Children for all the work that I do.  I could not serve this community without their consistent affirmation and understanding.

2.  I am grateful for The Leadership Team, people who I truly feel humbled to serve MPS with but almost as importantly, who I would choose to be friends with if I met them in a non-professional setting.

3.  I am grateful for the teachers in MPS, who work unbelievably hard to engage a variety of students, meeting them where they are, and inspiring them to learn and grow by cultivating and maintaining safe spaces for everyone.

4.  I am grateful for the instructional assistants, who make substantive contributions to the educational process in MPS in a variety of ways that positively impact learning and relationships in our classrooms and buildings.

5.  I am grateful for the administrative support staff, who manage relationships, offices, schedules, and details in a way that is subtle but clear, keeping the trains running on time.

6.  I am grateful for the food service professionals, who balance the mandates from the federal and state governments, while at the same time striving to put food on the trays that our students will eat and want to come back for seconds.

7.  I am grateful for our facilities professionals, who have demonstrated a level of stewardship that has set the tone for a whole school approach to cleanliness and care that resonates throughout the district.

8.  I am grateful for a Board of School Commissioners who take seriously their role of financial management, their evaluation of me as superintendent, as well as their desire to see this community's values reflected in educational programming.

So what are you grateful for?  I offer the gratitude challenge to you.  Take the #Gratitude Challenge and share what you are thankful for this year.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

You Really Never Know

Teaching is an act of hope.  Rarely, as educators do we get to fully celebrate our work.  Rarely do we ever get to see the end result for our students.  Rarely, do we see the fruits of our labor.  

Yes, there are commencements and moving up ceremonies, but those don't always capture how (or if) we have made a difference in the lives of the children who have spent their year with us.  Fortunately, educators are hopeful people.  Teachers work tirelessly, planting hope in every student who they teach.  

Recently, I was honored and humbled to have one of those moments when it became crystal clear that I had indeed connected with a student.  One of my former students from Chicago reached out to me.  He found my profile on LinkedIn and sent me a message.  Within his e-mail I was awed when I read the following sentences about the course I taught: 

Urban Studies was one of the most memorable experiences of my high school career.  I learned a lot in your class; the discussions that we had in class, as well as the course materials, challenged and developed my understanding of social justice and the education system. 

He had reached out to me because he was thinking of making a change in his career from advertising to education and he wanted my opinion about that.  I was floored - I spent one year teaching this young man and almost ten years later, he sought me out so that I could share some feedback as he navigated a change in his professional world.  I was completely taken aback by how much this simple e-mail meant to me.  

As I reflected on that e-mail this week, I realized that one of the reasons this moment touched me is because teaching is such a personal endeavor.  All teachers pour all of themselves into their work, and the work of teaching is the students who we encounter.  And the work of teaching the students we encounter is building relationships with them, so they feel safe and are able to full attend to the content of the course.  Without solid relationships, the content is meaningless.  Yes, content matters, but relationships trump content every time.  Every time.  

As we embark on the last several weeks of the school year, there will be concerts and playoff games, final exams and end of the year celebrations, good byes and new beginnings.  Through this race to the finish line, might I suggest that we all maintain our hope and know that we do make a substantial difference in the lives of the children in Montpelier Public Schools.  It may not get said this year, or next, in five years or in ten.  Yet the work that we do matters - it simply may not be clear until a crossroads moment for our students, some day in the distant future.  Teachers do matter a great deal in the lives of their students.  

You just may never know how much.  

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Making a Difference

This past week, I was privileged to observe some of the 9th and 10th grade learning exhibitions at MHS.  Simply put, I was blown away.  It was humbling to watch students, their families, and their teachers speak so honestly and candidly to one another.  The word I kept coming back to was beautiful.  I was witnessing such beautiful moments.

One in particular involved a student who shared how a Science teacher at MHS allowed a cartoon to replace the traditional lab report.  This student was able to articulate the lesson through the frames of a cartoon because of his passion and skills for artistic expression.  It was compelling to listen to this young person describe how he became a better learner, by articulating how he learns best.  The fact that this was validated by his teacher, is a testament to the commitment to of the educators at our high school.

It was a wonderful conversation that included his parents and teacher.  During this conversation about how this young man learned more about himself, the parents shared how much better they are all getting along at home.  The fact that teachers at MHS were meeting this young man's passions in his classes, was changing the family dynamics at home.  It was a spontaneous moment that really captured the heart of what we are trying to do with Personalized Learning Plans.

Our teachers are making a difference - not just in the lives of our students but in the lives of their families as well.  It may be subtle but the ripples are real.  The happiness in the room was palpable.  In front of me was a young man, proud of the fact that he was able to more deeply understand a science concept because a teacher chose to honor his artistic ability.  At the table sat a teacher proud to highlight the growth this student has made.  Next to her sat two parents whose family dynamics improved.  All because a teacher chose to meet a student where his strengths are.

It would be easy to dismiss this as a one-off, something that is only happening between this student and this teacher.  It simply is not true.  We are working hard to help students understand better how they learn, identify transferable skills and document their learning.  Our teachers, PK - 12, are committed to making a difference in the lives of our students, and as I saw this week, their families as well.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Try Everything

During the April vacation, as a family we saw the Disney movie "Zootopia."  In fact, we loved it so much that we saw it twice!  It was the perfect family movie and in true Disney style, plenty of adult laughs built in to the dialogue.

The story is based around a bunny who wants to become a police officer, instead of going into the family business: carrot farming.  There are plenty of naysayers from her own parents to other animals to one of the other main characters, a sly fox.  Through it all, the bunny is determined to fully realize her dream of becoming a police officer.

At the end, the credits roll to a song by Shakira called "Try Everything."  One of the lines particularly struck me:

Birds don't just fly, they fall down and get up
Nobody learns without getting it wrong

It seems to me that too often we place too high a priority on getting it right and often go to great lengths to avoid getting it wrong.  It happens to us in all areas of our life, personal and professional.  I loved that Disney delivered such a powerful message in their movie.  

The bunny struggled to become a police officer and made plenty of mistakes once she was officially on the force.  But this fictional character truly embraced the fact that learning includes being wrong, even with people close to you.  

Life is messy and learning is messy.  I am proud that in MPS, more often than not, I see adults modeling for our students the fact that we (the adults) often get it wrong and that is just a part of learning and ultimately life.  If we embrace how wrong we are, it humanizes us to our students, and invites them to connect with us more meaningfully while also developing deeper relationships.  

The graphic below depicts the perception and the reality of success

The more that adults can articulate the fact that our path to success looks nothing like the path on the left and just as messy as the path on on the right, we help our students drown out the naysayers in their own lives.  Our students deserve the encouragement from every adult in MPS to try everything, even if it means getting things wrong.  

Author's Note: We welcomed Sadie to our family over the weekend.  We could not stand being without a dog since our Malachy passed away.  Here's a picture from this weekend of her with Our Boys: