Sunday, September 24, 2017

Proficient?

As I wrote about last year during the holiday break, I got progressive lenses - I needed to wear glasses all the time.  My eyes have needed attention for awhile - it started just as reading glasses and went downhill from there.  Over the summer, I struggled wearing my glasses all the time.  While I was running, while playing with My Children, when it was sunny (no I didn't buy the prescription sunglasses), and when I was umpiring.  And yes, I was "that guy" at the beach who had his regular sunglasses over my prescription glasses while reading.

Of course, there's a simple solution to all of this, one that My Wife was fully on board with: contact lenses.  I made an appointment at the end of the summer and it took place this past Tuesday.  I had no idea what to expect and I asked how long I should plan to be there.  About one hour was the response I got back.  Perfectly reasonable.

Once at the appointment, I went through the routine eye exam to confirm my prescription had not changed since last year.  I was offered the different options for lenses, and took the doctor's recommendation.  My doctor then showed me to an empty room and told me someone would be with me to help me learn about how to put my contact lenses in shortly.

Soon I was seated opposite the woman who would teach me how to put in my contact lenses, at a table with a mirror.  I have no problem touching my own eyes I said, and with a quick nod, the lesson began.  "Put the contact lens on your right index finger."  Done.  "Hold your eyelashes from your top eyelid with your left hand, then pull your bottom eyelashes down with your middle finger of your right hand, and place the contact lens in your eye."  Wait... what?

For the next hour or so, I struggled mightily to be proficient at this.  I could not get the contact lenses in my eyes.  The left eye was the trickiest.  As someone who is right-hand dominant, I had to position my hands in just the right way to get the contact lens even close to my left eye.  As it got closer and closer, I would speed up (recommended to go slow), blink (instead of holding my eyelashes open), or some combination of both.  I was unable to do it.

I sat there, realizing how anxious I was, how frustrated I felt, and it was only growing.  I could not do it.  I watched the minutes ticking away and grew more and more upset.  I could not do what was asked of me and I could not leave because I needed to show that I could put the lenses in, take them out, and put them in again for an eye exam.  That was my demonstration of proficiency necessary to get back to work on Tuesday.  I could not do it.

How many of our students feel this way?  How many of our students struggle to meet the proficiency standards that we set?  How patient are we while we scaffold the learning for our students to demonstrate their proficiency?  (It is noteworthy that the woman helping me was encouraging, patient, funny, and kind, during my struggle)

Finally, I was able to put the contact lenses in, both of them, take them out and put them back in.  I had the motivation to stick to the task, to persevere, and to ultimately walk out the door, for the moment proficient.  But that feeling stayed with me throughout the day, and I spoke to a number of people about it, even letting them know this would be my blog post for the week.

Yes, we have made tremendous strides moving away from content toward proficiency.  Yes, personalized learning will help engage students in areas they are passionate about.  And still, with the best of intentions, with real substantial motivation (or at times, without) our students will struggle to be proficient, to demonstrate what they have learned.  Then what?



P. S. It took me 25 minutes to put my left contact lens in on Wednesday morning (30 minutes total), about 23 minutes on Thursday, 30 again on Friday, I wore my glasses on Saturday because I was taking too long, and today only 8 minutes total.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

On Overparenting

I am a huge fan of MindShift, a project from KQED.  "MindShift explores the future of learning in all dimensions," and is a part of the public radio family in Northern California.  This summer, I discovered they put out a weekly podcast, and immediately subscribed.  This week's installment spoke to me as a Superintendent, and as a parent.

It started with a former Stanford Dean, Julie Lythcott-Haims (@DeanJulie) describing what she saw in her role as freshmen dean at one of the most prestigious schools in the United States.  It was staggering to hear some of the stories Dean Julie told - parental involvement in roommate situations, in academic situations, in decisions that should ostensibly be made by or handled by college students were full of parental involvement.  In some cases, over-involvement.

As I reflected on my professional practice, I can note a rise in parental involvement, and in come cases, over-involvement since I began teaching in 1996.  There will always be a need for parents to be in contact with teachers and leaders of schools and districts.  But the question is when is it too much?  It's a fine line and one that needs careful reflection and thought before being answered.

One of the most compelling parts of the podcast was the honesty of Dean Julie.  She noted that as she was aware of the college students at Stanford who lacked self-efficacy, she herself was struggling with over-parenting her own children.  Dean Julie remembered specifically a moment when she was cutting her own child's meat, and it made her pause.  It reminded me of a post that I wrote last year about cutting my own child's French Toast.

There was freedom in that honesty - coming from someone who was in a position of asking parents of college students to step back - and then noting that own tendency in herself.  While I am not a Dean at Stanford, I feel the tension that Dean Julie speaks of.  I feel myself wanting parents in Montpelier Public Schools to step back at times and allow their children to fail more and I do not always consistently allow for that in my own parenting.

Life is about mistakes - making them, learning from them, and doing everything we can do not to repeat them.  Just this week, we learned about a mistake made printing the professional soccer jerseys in Montpellier, France.  As a result of that misprint, we will be receiving those jerseys in Montpelier, VT, for our own soccer players.

All MPS children need the age-appropriate freedom to make mistakes, at times free from the watchful eyes of their parents.  The two Ricca children need the same age-appropriate freedom.  I'll promise to be vigilant for your children's freedom.  Will you do the same for me?




Sunday, September 10, 2017

It is Still All About #Relationships

One week ago, Frank Bruni wrote a tremendous piece in the New York Times, "The Real Campus Scourge."  I recommend it to anyone in education, whether a PK Teacher, a college President, a member of the cafeteria staff, an athletic director, or a parent.  This is a must read.  Briefly, Bruni notes the loneliness that is impacting college freshmen, particularly, and the impact that technology has on those feelings.

It made me think about my transition to college, twenty five years ago this month during the fall of 1992.  I was incredibly homesick and missed my family.  I was overwhelmed by the amount of work I was assigned, and had not found a group of friends I could connect with yet.  I was in a dorm room built for two, that had three freshmen crammed into it.

During this time, I went to the office hours of a professor with a question about an assignment for his class.  It must have shown on my face or in my body language because he asked me if I was OK.  I took a chance and shared how overwhelmed I was, feeling homesick, unsure of my ability to handle the workload, and not making many friends.

To this day, I have not forgotten what he told me.  In so many words, he offered that the Admissions Department was really good at what they do.  In his experience, they only select students who demonstrate in the admissions process somehow that they can handle the workload, have the abilities, and the determination to be successful and graduate.  Yes, he admitted, there were times when the Admissions Department missed the mark, but despite all that I had just shared with him and that we only met for class a handful of times, he didn't put me in that category.

That half hour in Professor Robert Garvey's office during September of 1992 gave me hope that what I was feeling at that time was temporary, and that I could get through it.  It reminded me that I proved to someone that I could do the work.  Finally, it gave me the confidence that I was lacking.  It wasn't like flipping a light switch, but it was a critical moment in my college experience and one that I can distinctly remember twenty five years later.

While it may be easy to blame the fact that back then there was no voicemail, the internet was confined to computer labs, I didn't have an e-mail address, let alone two, and (wait for it) there were no smartphones, that misses the point.  Do all those things (any many more) have incredible upsides and inevitable drawbacks?  Absolutely!  So we can't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Our third goal in the MPS Action Plan is "All students will take an active role in shaping their learning experiences and developing who they are as learners."  This is the work that will help bridge the gap that Bruni exposes very articulately in his article.  This is the place where we can make a difference as adults, aware of this gap, in the lives of our students.  This is a critical place for students going forward, learning to balance the technology in their hands and the human beings in front of them.

Professor Garvey is still a Physics Professor at the College of the Holy Cross, my undergraduate alma mater.  Thanks to technology, I'll be reaching out to him and sending him this blog post.  I cannot underscore how important that one conversation was in my life.  I hope that someday given a similar opportunity, I can do something like that for a student of mine.


Monday, September 4, 2017

Safe and Included

This past Wednesday, we welcomed back to school our first through twelfth graders in Montpelier Public Schools.  I spent all day Wednesday and all day Friday in our classrooms, visiting with students and teachers as they returned to learn some new routines, meet classmates for the first time, reconnect with classmates they already know, and begin setting the foundation for growth and progress this year.

When I welcomed our faculty and staff back to school one week ago, I urged them to ensure that every single student in Montpelier Public Schools felt safe and included.  Not in a token way - but instead in a foundational way that encouraged all students to be exactly who they are, regardless of skin color, whom they love, or what gender they identify as.  If we are to expect our students to learn and grow, they must feel safe and included when they come to school.

Equity is one of our primary focuses this year in Montpelier Public Schools.  In our Action Plan, our first goal is to "provide equitable learning opportunities for students in safe and inclusive learning environments."  We should not expect anything less for someone else's children, as we would not expect anything less for our own.  This means meeting children where they are, ensuring tremendous first instruction for all students, then finding ways to intervene thoughtfully that ensure growth and progress appropriate for all our learners.

Given the reality of our world in 2017, this goal is critical.  While hearing the words safe and included may cause some to think we are shielding our students too much from the world around them, for me it's preparing them to be exactly who they are to go out into our world.  In Vermont, children are compelled to attend school from six through the age of sixteen.  If they are legally bound to attend our schools, the very least we can do is embrace who they are - and ensure that their classmates will do the same.

This commitment to a safe and inclusive learning environment for all students is one that will take a consistent effort from all the adults.  At times, we may stumble along the way.  But since no one rises to low expectations, we will remain steadfast in this commitment.  Our own children would not expect anything less, and neither will someone else's children.





Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Best Seat in the House

On Friday night, the Montpelier High School Class of 2017 paid their final visit to the school they've called home for the last four years.  They entered the gymnasium as students and left as alumni.  It was a fitting tribute to a class of talented and gifted individuals, who sang, danced and orated that night the way they sang, danced, and orated while they matriculated through our high school.

I had the best seat in the house - sitting on stage, alongside Mike McRaith and Michele Braun (the high school principal and Board Chair).  I was able to see the delight and pride in the eyes of family and friends as the graduates walked in.  I was able to see their eyes shine, at time with tears of joy and at time with tears of sadness, throughout the night.  The iPhones and cameras were held aloft as people scrambled in front to capture the perfect moment: while walking in, while speaking at the podium, while mid-dance step, while singing, while receiving their diploma, while walking out.

A few weeks earlier, I was invited to a similar ceremony in a classroom at Union Elementary School.  Once again, there were parents with cameras and tears, students who entered the classroom as members of one cohort, only to leave as another, and a group of teachers reading about accomplishments and handing something to their students.  And again, I had the perfect vantage point to witness all that.  That day, we celebrated pre-kindergarten students completing their year together.

Such similar emotions for families fourteen or fifteen years away from high school graduation. This week, I will again have the opportunity to witness a moving up ceremony and a middle school graduation.  I will be in the presence of the culmination of emotions for families and teachers as they pause to honor the students who have been a part of their lives.  It is bittersweet as we recognize the people who have walked alongside and will remain behind while students move ahead to the next educational level.



Congratulations to the MHS Class of 2017, the Eighth Graders from MSMS graduating and the Fourth Graders from UES moving up this week.  Know how proud we are of all of you!

Last Friday night, I watched a mom and a dad fight back tears while their son spoke articulately and beautifully from the podium.  I cannot imagine the feelings of pride they must have had, while they replayed in their heads (I'm guessing) the first eighteen years of this young man's life.  I wondered how I will feel the nights Our Sons graduate from high school and what will be running through my head when I see them walk down the aisle, receive their diplomas, and walk out of the ceremony as alumni.

I wonder who will have the best seat in the house.  

Sunday, June 11, 2017

So What Have You Learned This Year?

As we approach the last two weeks of school, it is natural to start asking these questions of our students to assess their growth and progress.  For adults, it's equally as important to reflect on our year to see what are the lessons we can take away and grow from.

This has been one of the hardest years I've experienced in quite some time, perhaps the hardest year of my life.  My Wife had a routine surgery on February 3, and ended up with two emergency surgeries three and four weeks later.  The lack of control that I felt was something I never want to experience again and I am grateful for the amazing care that was shown to her and to me throughout this process.  To this day, people in MPS still come up to me and ask how she is doing.  I am truly touched by each and every person who reaches out.

Still I have learned a lot, through this ordeal.  However, two things stand out.

Be humble.  The turning point for My Wife was when her surgeon anonymously shared her case with her colleagues, asking for help from others.  The surgeon recognized the limitations of her medical specialty and turned to her colleagues for assistance.  We all have blind spots, we are all limited by our natural abilities, our learned skills, our humanity.  We are surrounded by amazing people on a regular basis who we have the opportunity to learn from, if we allow them to teach us.

Be kind.  It may sound trite but it is really true.  While I felt a great deal of anger and frustration from the lack of answers in My Wife's medical case, I knew nothing would be gained if I was not thoughtful in my interactions with the various medical professionals we were interacting with. Intuitively, I knew it would not help My Wife at all and it may have hindered her care.  This New York Times article was shared with me and validated my thinking.  One of the hallmarks of my time in education and educational leadership is that I would rather be kind than be right.  And while I don't get there every time, it is the standard that I strive to attain.


Please, if you are reading this blog post take a minute - literally one minute - and respond.  Post your comment below.  Share your learning from this year.  One or two words - no explanation necessary.  I would love to see what we have learned collectively as educators, as people, since August 2016.

So what have you learned this year?


Sunday, June 4, 2017

So You Still Think Twitter is Just for Celebrities?

I've been on Twitter since 2011, when I started serving Montpelier Public Schools as Superintendent.  It's been a tremendous opportunity for professional growth, for making contacts, and for continuing to learn from others.  As my MPS colleague Mike Martin (@Mike_MPS) told me a couple of years ago, Twitter is a way to connect with others based on the merit of the idea. It is not about age, job titles, or roles.  It isn't even necessary to meet in person, because the connection is about the idea!

Recently I was humbled to be a part of a panel at the VITA-Learn Dynamic Landscapes Conference about the relationship between school librarians and administrators.  One of the members of the panel was Michael Berry (@MichaelBerryEDU) Director of Curriculum, Communication & Innovation for MMMUSD-CESU Schools.  We work less than a half hour away from each other, follow each other on Twitter, live in the State of Vermont and up until that panel conversation, had never met in person.  Once we did speak after the panel, it was an easy conversation because we had mutual admiration for each other based on what we posted on Twitter.

However, the real highlight for me this year was an invitation to the First Grade Play "Wing It," and it came through Twitter.  Here is their invitation.  The invitation was from UES Teachers Susan Koch (@SusanKochVT), Linda Dostie (@LindaDostie) & Samantha Funk (@TheWiseMusician).  I have never been invited to anything via video on Twitter and was proud not only to respond via video on Twitter (my very first) as well as go to UES for the wonderful play which was an amazing culmination of the collaboration between our Music, Art, and First Grade Teachers.  A wonderful time was had by all and it was another very proud moment for me as Superintendent.


Yes, there are people who waste time on Twitter.  Yes, there are people who tweet ridiculous things.  Yes, there are people who post nonsense.  But you can choose not to follow these people and trust me, Twitter is much, much more than this.

This platform can do so much for education and educators.  It is free and allows us to connect with other people, honing our skills, learning new ones, and growing in ways that traditional professional development simply cannot approach.  Most importantly for me, it is about relationships.  That is the basis of what we do in education.  I would have never seen Wing It if not for the Twitter invitation, and I would have missed a tremendous, student-centered event in person!

So you still think Twitter is just for celebrities?



Monday, May 29, 2017

Pay it Forward

One of the joys of parenting, is learning from my children.  Much like I expect to learn from my students professionally, I expect to learn from my own children.

Our oldest son Patrick and I were washing our hands in a bathroom recently.  When we had finished and dried them, he went back to the paper towel dispenser, and gently pulled down the next paper towel.  I asked him why he did that.  His response: "So that the next person can really easily get their paper towel to dry their hands."  He was very nonchalant about it, and while I was overwhelmed that he was being so thoughtful, for Patrick, it was just his way of being in the world.


It's a small way for Patrick to pay it forward, making the road easier and lighter for someone else. Even something as simple as readying the next paper towel for someone after they wash their hands.  Such a small gesture has such a practical impact, with such a meaningful intention behind it.

This conversation prompted me to share with Patrick how early on in my superintendency, I relied on (and still do to this day) my colleagues around the state.  One of the things that the Vermont Superintendents' Association prides itself on is our responsiveness to colleagues.  When one reaches out for help, others are there to respond.  I distinctly remember talking to a colleague around a particularly thorny issue in my first year and his perspective helped me find a solution.  I was effusive in my gratitude and the only thing my colleague asked of me was to pay it forward.  He wanted to make sure that when I got the opportunity to help out a fellow educational leader, I did so in the way that he helped me.

Today is Memorial Day, a day to remember all the men and women who have served our country, especially those who died.  My life has been touched by those who chose to serve this country in the military and for that I am incredibly grateful.  And while I do not wish to glorify war, I have a deep respect for those who have served and the families that supported them while they were away.  The memories of those who served are kept alive by the hope of peace.

Perhaps peace is too much to ask or hope for right now.  Maybe it's just making the road for others a little bit easier, one paper towel at a time.  Take a minute this week to do that for someone else.  Pay it forward.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Lifelong Learning

It is, after all, the name of my blog!

Often in education we talk about the importance of a commitment to lifelong learning.  We are working diligently to ensure that our students begin to measure their success in terms of learning and progress, rather than simply a letter or a number grade.  We are helping even our youngest students begin to collect evidence of their own learning, rather than simply relying on a teacher to be the only one responsible for this documentation.

We must remember that in our educational communities, we have many people besides the professional educators, who serve students and our families.  I am proud that as I look around Montpelier Public Schools, there are many examples of lifelong learning, including from adults. One of the reasons I am so proud is that there are examples of lifelong learning from adults in our district, not just teachers.

One of those people is our School Resource Officer, Corporal Matt Knisley.  Recently Matt graduated from Roger Williams University, completing first line supervisor command training. This is a two-week program at RWU and is conducted in partnership with the New England Chiefs of Police Association.  It is noteworthy that all Montpelier Police Department sergeants and corporals are graduates of this leadership school.


Another individual demonstrating lifelong learning is the Head Custodian at Union Elementary School, Todd Keller.  Todd is completing a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Management with a Human Resources Management Certification.  When Susan Koch was named the Vermont State Teacher of the Year award, part of it includes the gift of more education.  After thoughtful reflection, Susan chose Todd who jumped at the opportunity and was effusively grateful.


The Montpelier Public Schools Board of School Commissioners put money aside in each negotiated agreement for further education and training.  It is an expectation for educators to model this commitment to lifelong learning.  It is a gift to the children and the adults in this district that there examples of lifelong learning that come from people other than teachers.  It is my expectation as Superintendent, that all employees of Montpelier Public Schools make a commitment to grow and learn in their role.

It is one thing to put money aside for lifelong learning.  It is one thing to say it you are a lifelong learner.  It is another thing altogether to have stellar exemplars for our students, and adults, to look to of lifelong learning.




Sunday, May 14, 2017

What Are We About?

The end of the year is on the horizon and summer is coming.  The days are getting longer and even in Vermont, a little bit warmer.  Students and adults are starting to get a little restless, given the calendar, the warmth and it's natural to reflect on what we've done this year.

When we take stock of what we've done in education, it's natural to try to boil it down to accomplishments, test scores, and things that are measurable.  That's a perfectly reasonable approach to assessing where we stand at the end of the year.  But there's much more to the story than just numbers.

We know this because the Vermont Agency of Education has created a Education Quality Review process that is both qualitative and quantitative.  We know this because decades of peer-reviewed educational research tells us so.  We know this because it is common sense.


Education is about children, the teachers that work tirelessly to serve them, and the other cadre of adults that work tirelessly to support the teachers on a daily basis.  So how do you measure this and assess whether you've made a difference in the life of a child?  

There's no easy answer to this and the answer is different for each individual faculty, staff, and administrator.  We each need to assess this for ourselves, reflect and find ways to improve for next year.  What is the evidence we will use to evaluate this for ourselves?

It's May.  What is the evidence can we use to answer the question: What are we about?



Sunday, May 7, 2017

The 4 Way Test

I recently joined the Montpelier Rotary.  I have been looking for more ways to be able to connect with the Montpelier community.  After a lunch where our elementary students sang, I was approached by a current member.  He's a former superintendent from New York and after a cup of coffee at Capitol Grounds, I decided to join.  It is a service organization, "where neighbors, friends, and problem-solvers share ideas, join leaders, and take action to create lasting change" (www.rotary.org). My grandfather was a Rotarian and I deeply admired and respected him.

One of the guiding principles of Rotary is the 4 Way Test:


We say it at the beginning of every meeting and it grounds the work of the Rotary, as I can observe from the limited time since I've been a member.

Seems to me there's room for the 4 Way Test in many more places than Rotary though.  Applying this in our professional and personal realms would give us room to reflect on what we think, say, and do.  Given the nature of the test, affirming each of these questions, or at the very least the majority of them, will ensure that what we think, say and do have a good, solid foundation.  For me, the 4 Way Test also goes a long way to honoring relationships, critical to our work.

One of the wonderful things about working in education and with children on a regular basis, is that we need to hold them to high standards when it comes to their relationships, both with each other and with us as adults.  We must hold ourselves to those same expectations.  We cannot, we must not, have one standard for students and another for ourselves.  Gone are the days of do as I say, not as I do - and nor were those days very effective either.

Across our district, I routinely see and hear adults ensuring that students are actively listening, honoring feelings, and being respectful of one another.  It is critical that as adults we are doing the same thing, even if we are having a conversation with someone who believes the antithesis of what we believe.  It is easy to be respectful when we agree with someone.  We establish ourselves as exemplars when we listen, honor feelings, and are respectful to someone who believes something we don't.  We all put our pants on one leg at a time...

Our world certainly feels differently than it has in recent years.  There is much more polarizing rhetoric, quick judgements, and harsh commentary.  That is not a value statement - just an observation.  When we hear that in our classrooms, hallways, and athletic fields, we as adults are quick to intervene and address it.  We need to do the same for ourselves.  It takes courage and integrity.

Perhaps we need to more consistently apply The 4 Way Test.




Sunday, April 9, 2017

Sharing Begets More Sharing

Since I've returned to work, so many people have stopped me to check in to see how My Wife is doing, and many have been thoughtful enough to ask me how I'm doing as well.  A funny thing happens when I share my story, others share theirs.

Since my first day back, since literally the first time someone stopped me in the hall, I learned about others who are also caring for a loved one.  I had absolutely no idea.  These are people that I have passed in the hallways, seen in classrooms, or had conversations with in my office. They are faculty and staff in our district and they have been able to carry out their assigned duties without a noticeable difference.  It reminded me of this sign I have seen in people's offices around campus:


When I was a baby teacher back in the late 90's, I was told to never smile before the holiday break in December.  Boy did I fall short at that.  It was so against my nature.  But a funny thing happened when I started smiling more in my class, my students smiled more too.  And as I started to share more of the story of who I was with my students, they started to share more of the stories of who they were with me.  It made me such a better teacher, because I knew my students.  Our classroom was a better place because we had a better understanding of each other.

This idea that sharing begets more sharing resonates in Marianne Williamson's book A Return to Love.  "And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give people permission to do the same." The more we allow who we are to come forth, others feel welcome to allow who they are to come forth.  The same principle holds for any relationship - sharing begets more sharing.

We are in the midst of an era of personalized learning plans, ways in which students and their families are making education more meaningful, identifying places that learning takes place outside the classroom, and building better connections to what happens away from the school building.  It seems like a natural time to be more vulnerable and open with our students, and with each other. Sharing begets more sharing.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

#Kindness Matters

This month at Union Elementary School, there has been a kindness challenge, complete with wristbands!

I was given a wristband last week and started wearing it right away.  Driving to basketball practice with My Boys last weekend, Patrick noticed it and asked me about it.  I explained that the entire elementary school was given a challenge to be kind and that completing a certain number of acts of kindness, earned a prize.  One of the prizes in the first week was lunch with the UES Head Custodian and a tour of the basement (very popular in the car at that time) and another was lunch with the UES Principal at Positive Pie (one of My Family's favorite pizza places in Montpelier). There was silence in the car.

Then Brendan spoke up, "What if we were a part of the challenge?"  He wanted do something with the students at UES.  "What if we got to eat with one of the winners?"  I started to think about that...

This past Friday was a non-student day in Chittenden South Supervisory Union, My Boys were coming to work with me.  The idea started to percolate with me a little more...

Once we got to practice, I quickly e-mailed UES Principal Chris Hennessey and Cathy Clements who gave me the wristband that started this whole conversation.  I heard back from both that it could work.

With a little legwork from the fine folks at Union Elementary School, this past Friday at Positive Pie in Montpelier, two deserving first graders from Mrs. Dostie's class and Mr. Hennessey joined Brendan and me (Patrick was home sick) for a #kindness celebration!


I am proud of the commitment to relationships that we have in MPS, starting with our youngest learning community.  I am proud that adults lead the way by developing and maintaining relationships with our students, and demonstrate in words and in deeds that this is important to being a human being on this planet.

It is incredibly important to me as well.  In my role as Superintendent, I would rather be kind than be right and while it doesn't happen every time, it is something that I consistently strive for. People and relationships are central to the work we do, so for me it is critical for all to understand that #kindness matters.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Power and the Humility of Collaboration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Letting Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, January 29, 2017

It Still Is (And Always Will Be) About Relationships

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, January 22, 2017

Everyone is Asking for More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Super Bowl 51 Referee Carl Cheffers

Monday, January 16, 2017

What Matters?

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

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

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

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


Sunday, January 8, 2017

Over the Break, I Got Progressive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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



Sunday, January 1, 2017

One Thing

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

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

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

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

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

It's 2017 - what is your one thing?