Sunday, March 27, 2016

I Sat on the Floor and Cried

This past Tuesday, our puppy Malachy who we have had for the past twelve years did not eat her breakfast.  That was not so odd - we've had to soften her food in the past few weeks, it seemed to make it easier for her to eat.  What was odd was when I put the knife that was full of peanut butter on the floor for her and she didn't try to eat that.  That was worrisome.

When My Wife came down and looked at her, she could see her jowls were swollen.  So we decided to take her to the vet, right after I dropped Our Boys off at school.  We arrived together and sat with our puppy while we waited to see the vet.  Malachy really doesn't like going to the vet - from the moment we go through the door, she spends most of the time hiding behind our legs.  This visit was no exception.

After Malachy was weighed, they brought us all into the examination room.  Malachy paced around the room until the vet came in.  The vet took Malachy's vitals, listened to her breathing, and gently felt her swollen jowls.  Once she was done, she took a deep breath and said to My Wife and me that she was worried it might be lymphoma.  It was the lymph nodes in Malachy's jowls that were swollen, probably what was causing the difficulty swallowing.  The vet wanted to aspirate her lymph nodes and see what the cells looked like as well as take some x-rays to see how the rest of her body looked.  I looked at My Wife and we nodded our consent.  The vet took Malachy into another room for the procedures.

I had been on my knees to help the vet manage Malachy's anxiety.  After Malachy left the room, I sat on the floor and cried.  Michal and I got Malachy as a wedding present from our wedding party in 2004, we have known so very few married days without her in our world.  And in the span of five minutes on a morning when she would not eat, that reality was changing.  Michal and I cried together as we tried to grasp what was changing in our world.  It was not easy.

Over the next few days, we found out that indeed it was Stage 4 lymphoma and that our little puppy of twelve years will not be with us for too much longer.  We talked to Our Boys about what was happening and we cried together.

What does all this have to do with a blog about educational leadership?  Everything.  If I wasn't present to these feelings, I could not honor my work last week and in the coming weeks as superintendent.  The people on my Leadership Team were so good to me when I shared what I was going through.  There was a lot of empathy to what my family and I were going through and it felt good to be supported by my team.  If I didn't have their support and feel safe sharing what my family was going through, I would not be able to focus on the work of MPS.

I am very sad that we will be saying goodbye to our Malachy.  She has been an indelible part of every moment Our Boys have had, since the days we brought each of them home.  I am scared about how much her leaving us is going to hurt, since I can't remember clearly our days without her.  I am privileged to serve with such a thoughtful, caring Leadership Team.  And I am incredibly grateful to be married to a woman who held me, while I sat on the floor and cried.

Malachy & Her Boys - Parson's Beach, ME 
December, 2015

Sunday, March 20, 2016

What Do You Really Do?

A few weeks ago, I was in the hallway of the high school - reveling in the fact that my office is located in a school building and not separate from our students, faculty and staff - chatting with some students after school.  One of the young women, whom I have known since she was a student at the middle school, came up to me and we started talking about her day.  A friend of hers joined us, looked at me and asked me if I was a visitor.  The student who knew me, spoke up and said, "He's the... you know, the guy who..." and then she turned to me and said, "So what is it that you do?"

It isn't often that I get asked this question at the high school.  I have an answer ready for the elementary and middle schools.  Typically, I say something like, I work with all the adults in MPS to do two things: make you feel safe and help you learn as best you can.  But this question caught me off guard and I wasn't ready for it.  So, I did what good educators do, I turned the question around.

I turned to the young lady I knew and I said, "What do you think I do?"  She laughed and admitted to her friend that she knew what I did but couldn't explain it.  She turned back to me and said, "No seriously, what do you really do?"  I smiled but didn't answer her.

At that moment, Matt McLane came out of his office and I motioned for him to come over to us.  With a smile on my face, I explained the situation and shared how we all were struggling to describe what it is that I really do.  He looked at all three of us, smiled and said, "He opens wide the doors for learning and opportunity."  I was stunned, awed and humbled.  I have known that Matt McLane had a way with words, was insightful, and came straight to the point - but it was the first time all that was directed my way.

It is easy to lose sight of what you do on a regular basis.  We all get caught up in the day-to-day.  The to-do list, the e-mail inbox, and the phone calls.  The lesson plans, the assessments, and the reflections.  Our families, our friends, and our personal lives.  Making lunches, making dinners, and making peace.  Driving to school, driving to work, and driving to practices.  The lists go on and on...

Matt McLane's comment hit me right between the eyes.  I never about what I did in that way.  I was proud to know that someone saw what I did and took a moment to tell me about it.  So this week I challenge you to find someone who knows what it is you really do, and ask them to tell you.  You deserve to know that you make a difference in the lives of your students, your colleagues, your families, your friends.

I open wide the doors for learning and opportunity in Montpelier Public Schools.  What do you really do?

Sunday, March 13, 2016

We Carry Their Stories

One of the elements of leadership that was never formally the subject of a course that I took has to do with the relationships that develop with the adults you work with.  Often, as an educational leader I am allowed into people's lives, whether because they have to (if they are asking for consideration) or because they want to or for some reason in between.

In my years in educational leadership, I have been humbled and honored to be able to walk with people on their life's journey, through the work they do.  I have been told when families are pregnant and planning a Family Leave, when professional honors are coming, and delighting with parents who bring their children's accomplishments to share at the table.  Those moments are magical and I feel privileged to share in them.

I have also been there as people have faced deep sadness and grief.  I have sat with people anticipating the death of a loved one, the actual passing of a family member, and the disclosure of a troublesome diagnosis.  In those moments, I am reminded of what My Wife has taught me about listening, and I just am present and try to say nothing.  There is nothing for me to say, no words I can offer, no way I can make it better.  In those moments, I simply try to be one human being, present to another human being in an incredibly vulnerable moment.  Those moments are gut-wrenching and stay with me, often reminding me to be very grateful.

In a conversation with Mike McRaith this week, I was mentioning this to him and noting that recently, I was made aware of some truly challenging moments in the lives of the adults in MPS.  I struggled to make sense of what they were going through and how being present doesn't always feel like enough, as if I was required to "do more."  He acknowledged that this is indeed an unspoken part of leadership and upon reflecting about this for a few moments said, "We carry their stories."  That has stayed with me this week - we carry their stories.

Teaching is such a personal profession - regardless of what role you play.  I am proud that my leadership emphasizes building relationships as the critical nature of the work.  Bringing so much of who you are to your work, in a place where relationships matter, leads to the trust (or obligation) to let people into your world.

Based on what I have learned in the past few weeks about the people I serve with, I am left in awe of the capacity of the human spirit, the dedication of people in Montpelier Public Schools to their profession and their families, and proud to be a part of their lives.  It is a gift to be let into the worlds of the people who serve MPS.  I am honored to carry your stories.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Are You Really My Friend?

One of the most favorite parts of my job as superintendent is when I get a chance to be present to the children of Montpelier Public Schools.  I never envisioned being a superintendent because I thought the role was too far away from the classroom.  Working in MPS affords me the opportunity to be a part of classrooms regularly and I cherish those moments.

This year, I've tried something new: Office Hours.  In trying to increase my presence in the buildings and availability to faculty and staff, I spend one hour per week in each of the buildings.  During that time, anyone - literally anyone - can sit down and spend some time with me.  I've had visitors share ideas, concerns, celebrations, anecdotes, personal stories, professional accomplishments, and ask questions.  From time to time even, I've had students stop by.  It makes me proud when students are walking by a room, see me there and stop in to talk to me.

I've had one student in particular come in to visit me, fairly regularly.  She pulls up a chair, sits right down and starts in on whatever is on her mind.  It is a delight to be able to spend time with her, pretty much once a week for the last several weeks leading into the February vacation.  She has a candor that many children have, is eager to speak to me and peppers me with questions.  When she leaves, I often feel like a better educator having spoken with her.  The innocence and honesty the she approaches the world with is inspiring, and it reminds me why I wanted to be a teacher in the first place.

During the final week before February vacation, I was sitting in the Main Office of the school where this child goes to school, waiting to meet with the principal.  Without knowing I was there, she stopped in to deliver something from her teacher to the office.  When she saw me, she came over and we had a spirited conversation about how I was able to call everyone at 5:51 AM (she was absolutely correct) earlier that week to close school because of the weather.  After explaining the details of the PowerSchool system (our automatic alert system), we moved on to a more important topic: when will there be another snow day?

Once I explained to this student how I decide to close schools, she sat down next to me, looked me right in the eye and asked, "Are you my friend?"  I looked right back at her and said "Yes."  Then she looked away, turned in closer and asked, "No, I mean, are you really my friend?"  "Yes," I said quietly, still looking right at her.  "OK - you're right, you are.  You come to visit us and we talk all the time!"  She hopped off the chair and before I knew it, was heading out of the office and back to class.

It is a gift to be able to serve this child and all the children of MPS.  It is a professional privilege to serve with the tremendous professionals, faculty & staff, of MPS.  It is humbling to be able to work with the leaders and community of the City of Montpelier to ensure high quality education for all students in MPS.  We do our best work by building relationships, one at a time.  I invite you each to find a time to sit with me before the end of this year, and work with me to continue to improve what we do in Montpelier Public Schools.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016


The Ricca Family enjoyed a "stay-cation" during the recent February break.  We purposely chose to be home and spend the time off intentionally together, with each of us choosing something to do together.

Since we moved into our home almost six years ago, My Bride has been hoping to repaint the Master Bedroom and Bathroom.  In true parental fashion, we took care of all the other rooms except ours.  So for the past several weeks, we have had paint samples taped to the walls of our bedroom, trying to figure out what would work best with the colors we had on the bed, the framed pictures on the wall, and with the furniture in our bedroom.

We ultimately decided on "Pewter," purchased three gallons from the Vermont Paint Company and we decided to finally paint our own room.  As I have noted in this blog previously, I am not the most handy individual although I think I can handle a paint roller.  Sort of...

We were all doing this together - all four of us.  We each had a job and I was tasked with taped the baseboards originally.  There are not a lot of them in our room and I take my straight lines very seriously.  Very seriously.  Have any of you ever tried to tape a baseboard in advance of painting?  It's not easy to do, and to be honest, I didn't have the best attitude as I wasn't doing it very well.  Unfortunately, my attitude was seeping out and My Boys were noticing and worse, were starting to balk at their work.

I was staring at a lopsided piece of tape on one of the baseboards and realized how utterly ridiculous I was behaving.  I took a deep breath and apologized out loud to My Boys.  I told them I was not being a good role model, because I challenge them to have a growth mindset about things in their worlds.  I needed to do the same.

As a teacher, there are many eyes on you in that classroom.  Do they see your growth mindset?  As a building leader, there are plenty of eyes on you in that building.  How do you model growth mindset?  As a district leader, the eyes of the community are on you.  Do you practice what you preach when it comes to growth mindset?  Finally, as a parent and family member, the eyes of your family watch and listen for your growth mindset.  This is the world we've chosen as professional educators!

So what if the tape wasn't perfect?  So what if there were little flecks of paint on the carpet, ceiling, and on the precious baseboards I was taping?  At the end of the day, it was much more important for the four of us to do something together that we could all be proud of.