Sunday, September 16, 2018

On First Responders

This past week was the seventeenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on our country. Having grown up just north of New York City in Mt. Vernon, NY, this was a particularly difficult day for me. The Twin Towers were a part of the landscape of my life in lower Manhattan. When I took the subway downtown, they always oriented me once I came up above ground. 

Despite living there for my first eighteen years, I personally knew no one who lost their life that day. My grandmother had an appointment in New York City that day and my parents were bringing her there when the awful events began. We were unable to connect until much later that morning but fortunately, my dad was able to turn around and get off the island of Manhattan before it was completely shut down. 

I've often thought about all the first responders who descended upon the World Trade Center that day, without regard for themselves, but who were only interested in saving someone else's life. And as I think more and more about them, I remember a day that has the distinction of being the scariest one in my life.  

It was a warm, muggy afternoon in the summer and our oldest son Patrick was running a fever. As we got to the latter part of the day, Patrick was acting a little more lethargic and slower than usual. My Wife and I didn’t think much of it as we were also feeling that the heat was impacting us as well. 

However, as the day went on, we became more and more worried about Patrick. He was having trouble verbally answering our questions and at one point, his eyes glazed over. My Wife called 911 and I just remember holding him, begging him to answer even the simplest of questions. 

Within minutes, members of the Williston Fire Department were in our house. They were asking questions about Patrick’s day and when we told them he was running a fever, all the first responders visibly relaxed. We were told he was probably having a febrile seizure and while it was serious, it ruled out other much more serious possibilities. While I was still petrified, seeing them relax after hearing he had a fever throughout the day, allowed me to relax a little as well. 

Fortunately, Patrick only had that one febrile seizure, an indication that they would not repeat again during his life. After a few days, we went to visit the Fire Department to thank them for their prompt response. While meeting with the folks who came to our house, one of them mentioned humbly, we were “just doing our job.”  That has stuck with me, “Just doing your job,” made a substantial difference in my family’s life. 

We owe a debt of gratitude for all the people who run into danger for the sake of others. It is a level of selflessness that rises above political party, race, creed, sexual orientation, or gender identity. It is something that reminds us of our humanity, that when something truly terrible has happened, none of those things matter. 

Thank you. 

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Some Final Thoughts

This past Friday we celebrated the graduation of the Montpelier High School Class of 2018. I offered them three "bite-sized" pieces of advice in their final hour as students.

1. Go for it.

2. Listen.

3. Be kind

Go For It
In the mid 1908's, I was a very young little league umpire, excited to umpire my first every playoff game, but dulled by the lack of action at third base. A line drive woke me from my boredom as it flew past me. Without knowing if it was fair or foul, I guessed fair. With no subsequent arguments, I considered it a good call. After the game, the home plate umpire complimented me on my call. Hoping for a quick end to the conversation, I said thank you. He followed up with, "You missed it, right? You were asleep at third base?" Yes... But I went for it and still umpire today.

In 2018, this is quickly becoming a lost art. We talk past each other on social media. We snark at one another on the internet. We do not see the impact of our words when we communicate via technology.

On February 1, 2018 we became the first high school in the United States to raise a Black Lives Matter flag, something that I was, and continue to be, humbled to have been a part of. When the Racial Justice Alliance approached me about this idea last spring, I was not thrilled about the idea. We had several thoughtful face-to-face conversations between this first meeting and when the flag was actually flown on our campus. As part of our continued commitment to further discussing implicit biases and white privilege in our community after the flag was raised, the RJA spoke at a Rotary meeting. When leaving that meeting Joelyn Mensah pulled me aside.
"Can I ask you a question," she said.
"Of course," I replied.
"What made you change your mind about the flag?" she asked.
"You did," I said.
"What do you mean?" Joelyn said to me.
"I mean you changed my mind. I was not convinced in the beginning. I had concerns. But you sincerely changed my mind, one conversation at a time."

As an adult, there is nothing more powerful than learning from your students. What a privilege it has been to be a part of Joelyn Mensah's MPS education.

Be Kind
Simple in concept - but terribly difficult in 2018. Consider this: a high school baseball game video went viral this week. A high school baseball game in Minnesota. In a beautiful moment that has been viewed by people around the world, we saw that childhood friendships trump celebrating a trip to the state championship. In this video we see an at bat in which the batter takes a called third strike, followed by a celebration on the field by the winning team. Instead of celebrating with his teammates, the pitcher runs in to the home plate area, brushes aside his own catcher coming toward him, and immediately hugs the batter that just struck out to end the game. The pitcher Ty Koehn and the batter Jack Kocon were on the same little league team and have been friends since they were 13, according to Minnesota Public Radio.

This is one of the most polarizing times in our history, as far as I can remember. The political climate both nationally and locally is one where we respond first, sometimes even with violence, and ask questions later. We are in the midst of a tumultuous, ever-changing world, facing many, many challenges. All the more reason I feel compelled to encourage us to be kind.

Go for it. Listen. Be kind.

In my humble opinion, good advice for graduates of 2018. Good advice for the faculty and staff in their lives. Good advice for human beings.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

My First Cavity

I'm going to preface this by saying, that it took me a long time to get my first cavity. Longer than most people I know...

I got my first cavity when I was in my mid twenties - I'm not exactly sure how old I was and so I can only guess based on the people around me at the time. I started dating My Wife in October of 2000, so it's been at least eighteen years ago.

I was living in Chicago, going to a dentist that I had not known for a long time. It was a routine six month check up and she paused while scraping one corner of one of my teeth. I had no idea anything was amiss until the end of the appointment when she said, "You'll need to come back to get that filled." When I looked as perplexed as I felt, the dentist said, "The cavity... you'll need to come back to get that filled."

I made the appointment and headed back to my apartment, where my then-girlfriend (now wife) greeted me and asked how it went. I dejectedly admitted that I had my first cavity.

At first, she tried to tell me it was no big deal. "Everyone gets them," she told me, "and it's no big deal to have it filled." It was a big deal to me and fortunately for me, after a few minutes and no change in the expression on my face, she saw that and understood. "But it is a big deal to you..."

How often as adults do we just expect our students to "get over something"? It's nearing the end of the period, we need to move on, it's time for lunch, we need to pack up, the art teacher is waiting... The reasons are perfectly valid and still our students just don't get it.

"This is really simple," I remember saying to one of my first classes ever in Chicago. I went through the entire explanation and looked out at the room to see blank stares and listened to crickets... It was really simple - to me. 

In these last days of the school year, there will be many, many emotions, ranging from excitement and anticipation to fear and anxiety. Allow our students to feel them all and be present to them and to each other. Even if those emotions and feelings are not ours, honor them the way we would want our own emotions and feelings to be honored.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Kindness of Strangers

I was driving on State Street in Montpelier, stopping dutifully at the stoplights, stop signs, and cautiously proceeding through crosswalks. I turned onto Main Street and headed toward City Hall. At the firehouse crosswalk, I slowed down as I approached the crosswalk. There was a woman crossing the street, who waved me through the crosswalk. While continuing to drive on Main Street, I looked in the rear view mirror and saw blue flashing lights. I put on my right blinker and pulled over to the right thinking the police car would pass me on the left. Instead, the cruiser pulled in behind me and stopped.

I had a pit in my stomach - I had no idea what I did wrong and I cannot remember the last time I was pulled over when driving.

I produced my license, registration, and insurance paperwork after the officer approached my car. "I saw that you had an interaction with that woman in the crosswalk but you failed to yield to a pedestrian," he told me. I nodded slowly, unsure of what I should have done differently.

After a few moments, I saw the officer climb out of his car again. When he returned to my vehicle, he handed me all my documentation. "I'm going to save you four points on your license and $220..." (I think - I'm sure of the points) Quickly and sincerely I responded, "Thank you Officer." He went on to explain further, "We had an accident earlier this month and we are really trying to be sure that pedestrians are given the right of way."

He returned to his car, turned off his blue lights and drove away. I don't know why I only got a warning. To this day, I'm still not sure. When I returned to my office, I looked up how many points you're allowed on your license in Vermont (10), and sat back in my chair and reflected on this entire interaction.

I was the beneficiary of the kindness of a stranger. One in a position of power, one who had no reason to not give me a ticket, with the accompanying fine and points. I don't even know the Officer's name, nor his badge number. I just know that he had power he could have exerted over me in that situation and he chose not to. Just because we can do something, does not always mean that we should do it.

Pay kindness forward this week - our world could certainly use it.

Monday, May 28, 2018

We Must Have the Hard Conversations

As a part of my classroom visits this week, I walked into a high school English classroom. I had not yet visited this teacher, and was interested to see what was happening in her course.

I left humbled and inspired and determined to return to the next class meeting. Why? This class was discussing the "n" word, through the lens of To Kill a Mockingbird.

On Thursday, February 1, 2018, we became the first high school in the United States (that we know of) to fly a Black Lives Matter flag on campus. It was a day full of emotion. The weeks leading up to this event and after it were littered with hate and vitriol, both for our students and for the Leadership Team.  Yet overwhelmingly, the messages we got were ones of love and admiration.

A substantial part of the work done at the high school around this momentous occasion, was the commitment to carry the labor of equity and justice forward. We promised that this would not be a one-off, a single moment in time. We know that events, no matter how substantive and unique, are just that: events.

The real work happens when no one is looking. The real work happens in conversations. The real work happens in relationships. The real work is in being uncomfortable. The real work means being open to being wrong. The real work is in the humility that we do not have all the answers.

I saw the real work this week. I saw students and teacher grappling with hard truths, with harsh words, with the reality of fractured race relations in our world. I listened to human beings genuinely struggle with how to respond to the "n" word in literature, whether or not it should be replaced with "slave," and the implications of both replacing it and leaving it in.

I felt it. I felt the discomfort of our shameful history. I felt the pit in my stomach. I felt the guilt of my white skin.

But I was buoyed by the hope that filled me as I left the classroom both days. There is hope every time we have the courage to address this. There is hope every time one speaks up about injustice. There is hope with every hard conversation we initiate and participate in.

We must have the hard conversations.

If we don't... Who will?

Sunday, May 20, 2018

We Just Know...

While listening to a podcast this week, I heard a story about Bill Bradley. Bradley is the former New Jersey senator (1979 - 1997), who earned a Gold Medal in 1964, and prior to that was a professional basketball player. As the story is told by John McPhee in a New Yorker article, later turned into a book, Bradley was practicing shooting on a basket at a prep school. While doing so, he announced that the basket was an inch and a half lower than the regulation 10 feet. Bradley was off by three-eighths of an inch...

Just by taking some practice shots, Bill Bradley knew there was something off about that basket. He did not need to get a ladder and a tape measure. And while his assessment was not 100% accurate (although pretty darn close), nonetheless he was correct: something was not right with that basket.

Because of how deeply personal almost every element of teaching and education is, we depend on our knowledge of our students and their families in order to be even remotely successful. We can have all the content knowledge available to us (and to our students these days through the power of the internet) but if we cannot make connections to their lives, to what they're going through, to who they are, we simply will not be successful.

And as a result of these relationships, we know our students and what makes them tick. We understand them and instinctively know when something is not right. Perhaps it's a failure to make eye contact, not the typical upbeat response to the first verbal interaction, or simply a gut feeling that something is not right.

In that moment, we do not need a coordinated service plan, we do not need an assessment from a mental health practitioner, nor a note from a doctor. In that moment we just know...

And it is what we do next that matters.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Two Powerful Words

I'm sorry.

Two powerful words.

Two incredibly powerful words.

This week the phone rang in our home. It was our landline. Yes we still have a landline.

My Wife answered the phone and stepped out of the room. I heard none of the conversation. When she came back into the room, she was beaming. "I just got an unsolicited apology."

We had been dealing with a situation with some friends - from our perspective it was a misunderstanding from an e-mail we had received. Our instinct was to respond to it right away and instead, we let it sit for a couple of days. We were still not sure about how best to respond when the phone rang that night.  As it turned out, it was best that we had not responded.

It took a great deal of humility and integrity to call and say those words. No "but" accompanied the apology. An unsolicited apology heals.

I'm absolutely inspired by this and hoping to share at least one unsolicited apology this week with someone who deserves it.

Who in your life needs an unsolicited apology?

It's always about #relationships.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

This is What We Were Trained to Do

One of the things I am passionate about besides education is aviation. I remember taking my first flight when I was four or five years old, and at that time, you were able to visit the cockpit in flight. I was hooked! For awhile, I thought about being a pilot but when I realized the schedule was incredibly demanding and required days away from family, I knew it would not be for me. I even have several hours of practice on a single-engine aircraft, with some of those hours coming at the Burlington International Airport. 

I still follow aviation closely. Recently a Southwest flight needed to make an emergency landing after an engine failure damaged the fuselage of the plane. Tragically, one person lost their life during this accident. What I was struck by was how calm the pilot (Tammie Jo Shults) and co-pilot (Darren Ellisor) were during the entire event. Listen to their communication with the air traffic controllers who helped to guide the plane down safely to the Philadelphia International Airport. 

It made me think of an even more heroic event in recent aviation history, dubbed "The Miracle on the Hudson," that was even made into major motion picture Sully. In this instance, a bird strike caused both engines to fail shortly after take off. Listening to the communication between now famous Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and air traffic control, again I am awed by the incredibly calm and professional nature of the interaction, despite the even higher demands of the pilot. 

Both pilots when interviewed following the events stated: This is what we were trained to do. Having only minimal training as a pilot (with a professional on my right), I cannot even comprehend how they all were able to do what they did - and communicate as if everything that was happening was perfectly routine. I've listened to plenty of communication between air traffic controllers and pilots and those two examples above relatively normal, except for the dire circumstances that both flights were facing. 

I have often wondered why the professional nature of educations is overlooked from time to time. Is it because nearly everyone has gone to school for portions of their life? I don't think so - that logic fails when you consider that we all go to the doctor and to the dentist, and we don't presume that we can perform those skills. Is it because we are working with children? Again, I don't think so as their are plenty of specialized fields that deal with children that don't have their profession questioned.

Day after day, professional educators and leaders work to engage an increasingly diverse student body, provide them with a full range of access to materials as a part of that engagement, and design ways to assess their learning. More often than not, this happens routinely and does not receive substantial consideration. From time to time though, we do have our own moments of scrutiny and attention.

Education is what we were trained to do. 99 times out of 100 we do it well. For the times we don't, please know we are harder on ourselves than anyone else. I am in no way comparing what we do in the classrooms, to landing a crippled airplane. That said, I would not want to be in the cockpit of an airplane experiencing an emergency any more than Tammie Jo Shults would want to be in a classroom of twenty-four first graders.

This is what we were trained to do.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Say What You Need to Say

After sharing the news that the Board and I have decided it is in the best interest of the new school district to have new leadership, I have been flooded with kind words from people, both in person and via technology. I have been incredibly touched by the things that people have said to me in the past week, things I have had absolutely no idea about until now. It has been both humbling and incredibly gratifying at the same time.

A couple of weeks ago, a former colleague of mine passed away. I was able to go to his wake and found myself interacting with a number of former colleagues and former students. There I found myself saying things I had never said to people before, colleagues and students, even as I was working and interacting with them on a daily basis.

Perhaps it is human nature that transitions bring out a sense of reflection in all of us. In the interactions I've had with people in Montpelier Public Schools since the joint announcement from the Board and me, I'm sure I've said things to people in gratitude for their years of service and commitment to students and their families. Maybe it's just natural to wait to say things that we're thinking about. 

Mitch Albom, noted author (Tuesdays with Morrie), journalist, and philanthropist is quoted as saying, "Nothing haunts us like the things we don't say." Might I suggest that we think about that this week and find someone in our life, professionally or personally, that we have something to say to. Perhaps it's a student, a colleague, a spouse or a friend. Whomever it is, I am sure what you have to say will be meaningful to them. And I suspect it will be a special moment for you as well.

Education is a human endeavor. That's why we choose to make the time for our relationships.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Is It Really About Time?

I was in between dropping one of my children at school and having to return for an Open House for the other one. There was a small window of time and I was hoping to get a cup of coffee. Using the Starbucks app, I ordered my drink ahead of time and it was waiting for me when I arrived. I added cream and splenda and I was off.

It wasn't until I got back in my car that I realized I had not interacted with a single human being while I did that. From ordering the drink on my phone, to showing up to Starbucks, to getting my drink off the counter (confirming my name), to adding cream, to adding splenda, and back to my car. Not one word was spoken to anyone. Not. One. Word.

And there are times and places that works. I'm writing this blog post alone, focused, and without interruption. I often do my best writing alone, with quiet piano music playing. I like the George Winston station on Pandora to keep me company while I do my work.

So why did I choose to order that way? I wasn't entirely sure. Was it really about time? I did have a few more minutes when I got back to the school, I arrived a few minutes early. I could have stood in line (it was relatively short) and spoken to a human being when I ordered.

Was it the novelty of ordering using my phone and the Starbucks app? Maybe - I don't often drink Starbucks as I prefer Green Mountain Coffee. Honestly, it's pretty cool to tap your phone a few times and have a drink appear when you walk into a store...

I know I'm guilty of being too "into" my phone and my technology from time to time. I've caught myself not knowing what to do when I'm standing a line and don't have my phone with me. Those are not my proudest moments!

Technology has brought us many advances and certainly has opened up a world of possibilities in education that were not available even a few short years ago. But the critical nature of education comes in the relationships we build, nurture, and maintain. It's the only way that we can move our students and each other forward.

And more than anything else, relationships take time. It really is about time.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Even The Adults Sometimes Get It Wrong

I was at our elementary school a couple of weeks ago, and a student approached me.

"Dr. Ricca," he said, pulling on my pants. "Can I ask you a question?

"Of course," I responded.

"Are we going to have Community Connections today?"

You see, the day before was Wednesday, March 7. Since the previous Saturday, I had been getting weather updates from the meteorologists at the Burlington International Airport, twice a day. The updates were warning of a major Nor'easter heading our way. The timing predicted was not even remotely close to ideal, with the latest update on Tuesday night indicating a really challenging dismissal, starting with snowfall in the early afternoon.

Therefore, when the snow started to fall at 10:00 A.M. on Wednesday, March 7, three hours earlier than predicted, I immediately cancelled all after school activities, sporting events, and the Board meetings. I know an early notification for parents is incredibly helpful, as I recognize that a lack of scheduled child care is a major inconvenience for folks that depend on that.

I leaned down to my Little Friend, looked him right in the eye and said, "Wow, that was a bad decision that I made yesterday, wasn't it?"

He looked me right back in the eye and said brightly, "Yeah it sure was! I love going to Community Connections!"

When I was growing up, I had this sense that adults always had the answers, because in a sense, that's how it was presented to me. Teachers were the keepers of the content and if there wasn't a family friend or an acquaintance that was interested in something that I was passionate about, and if it wasn't in the World Book Encyclopedias in my parents' living room, I was out of luck.

These days, teachers are no longer the keepers of the content and we are working on more than just identifying when the War of 1812 took place. We emphasize transferrable skills, formative evaluations, and the importance of relationships. A huge part of being in a relationship is being able to admit when you're wrong.

Don't worry, I get a chance to do that plenty - as a Husband, as a Daddy, and as a Superintendent. I hope you do too.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

These Kids Today

They are continuing to impress and inspire me more and more.

This week my fifth grade son came home on Tuesday and shared that he volunteered to be a part of a conversation at his school about safety issues. I was awed.

I remember fifth grade at Pennington-Grimes Elementary School in Mount Vernon, NY where I grew up. I remember Mrs. Helen DelVecchio, my fifth grade teacher. I remember some of my classmates in the 1984-1985 school year. I don't remember volunteering to be a part of a conversation about school safety.

Granted, at that time, school safety was limited to fire drills. We had a set of loud bells that would ring twice, with regularity until we all exited the building entirely. I remember being so "inspired" by fire safety that I actually made my entire family practice a fire drill from our home.

What is happening today is nothing short of transformative.

Our students are continuing to teach us. They are teaching us about civic responsibility. They are teaching us about courage. They are teaching us about democracy. They are teaching us to stand up for what you believe. They are teaching us about respect. They are teaching us about discomfort. They are teaching us about growth mindset.

Yes, they are too attached to their phones and devices. But so are we as adults.

Yes, they are over scheduled and stretched too thin at times. But so are we as adults.

Yes, they are overwhelmed and struggling with how to make their way in the world. But so are we as adults.

And they are leading us by their example.

These kids today are to be lauded. These kids today are to be recognized. These kids today are to be commended.

These kids today need to know we love them. These kids today need to know we are proud of them. These kids today need to know we have their backs.

Damn kids...

Sunday, March 11, 2018

On Greatness

This past Friday afternoon was pretty special in Montpelier High School. MHS Alum and Olympic Women's Hockey Champion Amanda Pelkey returned home from what can only be described as a once-in-a-lifetime journey. The 2011 graduate was treated to a parade that began at MHS and culminated at City Hall, where she was presented with the flag that flew during her time in South Korea.

While at MHS, she was greeted in the auditorium with a long ovation from the students, faculty and staff and made some brief remarks. The first thing she said was in reference to the MHS Boys Basketball team, playing that evening in the playoffs. She spoke about her time on the Olympic Team and what it has been like since returning to the United States.

This is the closest I'll ever be to an Olympic Gold Medal

What I found most meaningful was one of the last things she said, before exiting the assembly to begin her car ride downtown. She thanked all her teachers for being patient with her, as she acknowledged that she missed a lot of school for her hockey commitments. It may have seemed like a small thing but when I connected with a couple of her teachers afterward it meant a lot.

I remember feeling upset when I got a notice letting me know that students needed to leave my class early, regardless of the reason. Part of that is accepting that so much of teaching in personal - we pour so much of ourselves into our lessons, that it feels in a way like our students are leaving us early when they miss a segment of what we are teaching. And logically, we know that is not true, but it is how we feel.

It would have been very easy for Amanda Pelkey to encourage our Boys Basketball team to victory that night, to share her journey earning an Olympic Gold Medal, tell us all about Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and Ellen DeGeneres and walk out of the auditorium to her hometown parade. And she chose to be thankful to the teachers who walked with her on her educational journey. And she chose to acknowledge the fact that she missed a lot of school, given her commitment to hockey.

We will have many, many students who will miss parts or entire classes of ours, in pursuit of their passions and honestly, only a rare few will win even participate in the Olympics, let alone win a Gold Medal. I know each and every one of them has the potential to be as great as Amanda Pelkey, in their own way.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Learning From Our Students

This past Sunday, I retrieved my copy of the Burlington Free Press and was delighted to see the following cover:

Emma Harter & Nadia Scoppettone speak at the State House

The story ran in Sunday's print edition and can be viewed by clicking here.

Nationwide, students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are making headlines as they call for stricter laws regarding guns, in the wake of the tragedy they experienced. In Burlington, students in the Social Justice Union earned the approval of their School Board and their high school is flying a Black Lives Matter flag on campus. Here in Montpelier, our students have started the Race Against Racism, raised a Black Lives Matter flag on campus, and are speaking out about the reality of their educational experience in a post-Columbine world. It is an honor to be learning from our students, as we navigate an incredibly dynamic and polarizing time in our country.

After a recent presentation at our local Rotary, I had a conversation with Joelyn Mensah, one of the leaders of the Racial Justice Alliance at Montpelier High School. "Dr. Ricca, can I ask you a question?" "Of course," I responded. "What changed your mind about the flag?" "You did," I told her. "What do you mean?" she asked me. "You changed my mind. Your conversations, your conviction, your rationale. That's what changed my mind."

It is a gift to be working in education in 2018. It is even more of a gift to be working with students who are thoughtful, have a sense of democracy, and are leading us. Their commitment and passion are inspiring. It is a privilege to be learning from them. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018


I was a baby teacher in 1999, in the inner-city of Chicago, when the first school shooting took place. A number of my friends called me and worried about me. Given where I was living, they thought my school on the Near West Side of Chicago was more at risk. The thought of a school shooting never crossed my mind. Perhaps I was naive or perhaps because every single student in that school lived at or below the poverty line, this never entered into my thinking.

On the same day that Our Son Patrick Michael Ricca was born, August 24, 2006, another school shooting happened in Essex, VT. Even though school was not in session, lives were lost. I was not living in Vermont at the time, but it registered for me since I was married to a native Vermonter.

On December 14, 2012, the tragedy of Sandy Hook occurred and twenty-six people lost their lives. That was my second year in Montpelier Public Schools as Superintendent and was off campus that day, driving with My Family. As the news reports started, my phone began to ring. I was overwhelmed with what was happening. Our Sons were 4 and 6 at the time, and I looked over my shoulder to see them comfortably strapped into their car seats in our mini-van, blissfully unaware of what was happening in Connecticut.

On January 16, 2018, Nathan Giffin lost his life on grounds of Montpelier High School. I was in the unified command center with first responders. I held my breath when I heard over the radio "shots fired" and recognized the voice was that of our School Resource Officer, Corporal Matthew Knisley. I didn't realize I was holding my breath until I exhaled when I finally heard his voice again over the radio several long moments later.

This past Wednesday, seventeen students lost their lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. I had followed the news all day, sickened again by the loss of innocent life. When putting Patrick to bed that night (Our Son born the same day as the Essex shooting) he said to me, "I know what happened today Daddy." Unsure of what he meant, I responded "What do you mean Love?" His response, "We were at McGillicuddy's watching TV and it wasn't the news. I was just reading the crawl at the bottom of the screen. (long pause) That kinda thing isn't going to happen to us, right?"

Just in this post alone I have noted five school shootings and their impact on my life. That is five too many. None of the facts of these school shootings are in dispute.

Vermont's Governor Phil Scott noted in this article on VT Digger that "it is time for 'an honest and open and fact-based discussion about access to guns by those who shouldn't have them.' " We must take action. We simply must.

There are just too many guns in our country, and essentially unfettered access to them. As someone who is legally obligated to keep Montpelier's children safe, and speaking for my colleague Elaine Pinckney, who is legally obligated to keep my own children safe, I am overwhelmed by the urgency of this.

In Vermont, children are compelled to come to school from the ages of 6 - 16. We must do more to ensure their safety. We must do more, period.

I have had enough. I hope you have too.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

What Are You Reading?

In recent weeks, Montpelier Public Schools have received a substantial amount of media attention regarding flying a Black Lives Matter flag on our campus. It was covered by many media outlets across the political spectrum. Yesterday Vermont Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman shared the graphic below:

The entire post and explanation for this graphic is fascinating and I encourage you to read it.

It is interesting to note that MPS was covered by organizations all over this graphic during the past several weeks, leading to different reactions and messages being sent to us. When we spoke to the media, we stayed on message with our talking points and if need be, pivoted back to the reason the Board directed us to fly a Black Lives Matters flag in the first place: honoring the experience of our Black students in Montpelier Public Schools. This is a response to our collective recognition that we need to be a more inclusive community.

In a handful of the conversations that I had either via e-mail or on the phone with people who disagreed with our decision, I was able to explain the rationale for flying a Black Lives Matter flag. In each of those conversations, the individuals expressed some level of disgust at what our Black students were experiencing in our school. While some still maintained that flying the flag was a mistake, none argued that what was happening in our schools was appropriate. In fact, one woman did say to me, "Well that wasn't reported in the article I read..."

It is my firm belief that we will make a difference when we discuss implicit bias and privilege, if we have real conversations with people. Rarely is that going to happen through the media. A story may spark someone to reach out and find out more. And that's where we can have an impact, one relationship at a time.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

And Now... Exhale

It has been quite a couple of weeks in Montpelier Public Schools. I'm incredibly proud to be serving in a community where student leadership is honored by publicly elected officials and in a peaceful assembly, we are able to fly a Black Lives Matter Flag on the campus of Montpelier High School.

Leonard Pitts, Jr. wrote an op-ed piece in the Miami Herald, both CNN and NBC News thought the event was newsworthy, and we even received an endorsement from Vermont's own Ben and Jerry's.

We have had press inquiries from Al Jazeera, the Associated Press, and Newsweek. Our students have been honored for their courage, our leaders have received overwhelmingly supportive messages from around the United States, and our community has been the focus of much of the news cycle for the past several days. And Friday the first day after our assembly, when our first shift custodian arrived at school, the flag was still flying and the building was covered with hearts.

It has been a whirlwind and an emotional roller coaster for sure. Patience has been tested, feelings have run hot, and capacity has been stretched. And we have made it. We are on the other side of the assembly and proud to be taking each day that comes one at a time. Each day renews our commitment to equity. Each day renews our commitment to justice. Each day renews our commitment to our Black students... and all our students.

We are very proud of what we do in Montpelier Public Schools. We were very proud before we raised a Black Lives Matter flag. We are very proud of what we did that day. We will be very proud of the work we will continue to do for all our students in Montpelier Public Schools. In MPS, we consistently work to build relationships as the foundation for making a difference in the lives of our students.

It's time to get back to work!

Sunday, January 28, 2018

On Being Uncomfortable

This past week, Montpelier High School announced that it would fly a Black Lives Matter flag on campus for the month of February. The action comes from a unanimous affirmative vote from our school board and we have received a substantial amount of support through phone calls, e-mail, blog posts, and social media messages. As expected though, we have also been contacted by a number of people who disagree with this decision, and some have expressed that through hate and threats to me personally.

Prior to this week, I had never received a message of hate, my privilege saw to this. I am a white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, Judeo-Christian man. I have a great deal of systemic power, given to me for reasons I have not earned, nor deserved. And yet, this week I was grappling with the reality of hate messages because of how I am choosing to support this student-led initiative. It was, and is, quite uncomfortable. 

In a conversation with My Wife about this, I came to a stark realization. This hate is only temporary for me. When this is behind us and we move on to continuing the work of equity, proficiency, and personalization in Montpelier Public Schools in other ways, hate will not be directed at me.

For our Black students, this is the hate they deal with regularly. They face hate and racism for reasons they have not earned, nor deserved. Our Racial Justice Alliance told us of awful things that other students say about them, that go unaddressed, that are a part of their educational experience in Montpelier Public Schools.

I am proud to be uncomfortable to stand with our Black students. I am proud to be uncomfortable to build on the Vermont legacy of being at the forefront of civil rights. I am proud to be uncomfortable so that we can have the conversations about being a more inclusive community.

Monday, January 22, 2018

On Healing

It was a tremendously difficult week in Montpelier Public Schools. A life was lost on the campus of Montpelier High School. Nate Giffin was a student in our school system and his mother and father are established members of the Montpelier and greater Vermont community. Many in our school and local community were touched personally by this tragedy.

It is natural to have questions about this sad situation and to try to make sense of this. During this process, I urge everyone to remember that before we can truly make any judgements, we must walk in the shoes of those we are judging. We will never know what caused this situation to enfold the way that it did. In addition, we will never know exactly what transpired that caused it to end so abruptly.

What we do know is that there were real human beings that were involved from the start. Nate was a student of Montpelier Public Schools, doing his best to be in the world. The employees and members of the Vermont State Employees Credit Union were just going about their day on a Tuesday morning.  Our School Resource Office Matt Knisley was leaving Montpelier High School, heading out to meet with a student. The students, faculty and staff of MHS were having a typical day, following a three- day weekend. The tremendous number of law enforcement officials who descended upon our community were in the various parts of our state when all our paths came together.

Real human beings trying to make sense of a situation that makes very little sense. Real human beings trying to move forward, while struggling to answer the question "Why?" Real human beings who have many, many questions that may never be answered.

Despite the lack of answers, the reality remains that on Tuesday, January 16, 2018, a family lost a son, a school was locked down, and a community was stunned by the second violent loss of life in as many years. It is natural to point fingers and try to assign blame; we must resist that urge. What lessons can we learn from this? How can we recommit our educational community to building, cultivating, and maintaining relationships as the foundation of the work we do?

Push beyond the instinct to blame. Instead, find the courage to begin to heal.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Shed A Little Light

This past weekend in Montpelier, the sun rose at 7:22 AM and set at 4:37 PM, a total of nine hours and fifteen minutes of sunlight and while it pales in comparison to what we see in the middle of June (and the rest of our warmer months) it is better than how little we saw in December.  Even if it is only marginally better, even if only by minutes, we are gaining more and more sunlight every day. 

One of my favorite singers, James Taylor, wrote and performed a song called "Shed A Little Light" in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Click here to listen to it.  One of the lines speaks to me very clearly, especially in the world of education, in 2018:

That we are bound together, in our desire to see the world become, 
A place in which our children can grow free and strong.

Now, perhaps more than ever, in a world that seems to be growing more and more polarized everyday, it is critical that we recognize when we are all pulling in the same direction.  By doing that, we can ensure that we honor the work that everyone is doing on behalf of all our children, and for us in Montpelier Public Schools a centerpiece to that work this year is equity.  

In the coming weeks, we will continue to focus our work with the Racial Justice Alliance, a student led organization at Montpelier High School, to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and promote more equity in 2018.  Our commitment to each and every student in Montpelier Public Schools is that they feel safe and included when they walk through our doors each and every morning.  

As the days get longer, we are committing to shed more light in Montpelier Public Schools.  We will be working to honor each and every student, regardless of skin color, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability.  And while we cannot eradicate all inequity in our world, we will take a stand in MPS and say not here!

Sunday, January 7, 2018

It Really Does Take a Village

This past week, there was an apartment fire in Montpelier.  It displaced eight families, two of them with direct connections to Montpelier Public Schools: one of our employees and one of our families was living in that building. 

At 1:40 PM, I received an e-mail from the City Manager, letting me know there was a structure fire in town.  Based on the address, we were able to determine whom was impacted by this fire, thanks to some quick work by our Data Manager, Chris Ilstrup.  Before long, I had assigned the family "homeless" status, which makes several resources available immediately.  We were able to speak directly with the impacted employee, who did not have a lot of information at that point. 

Before the end of the day, we were able to be in touch with the counselor of the family impacted by the fire.  Through that relationship, we established a means of communication to connect with the family.  Another staff member in MPS would be the main point of communication to our affected employee, ensuring we would not overwhelm anyone by reaching out. 

In my experience, those of us who are aware of situations like this immediately feel the need to "do something," and that can put pressure on those who have already been through so much.  While the urge to do something is palpable from our perspective, often it is best to wait to see what the real need is.  These situations are not about us, and our need to help and do; it is about those who may have lost everything. 

I am proud of the MPS response.  It was patient and allowed (and is allowing) those impacted by this fire to let us know what they need.  We have placed envelopes in each building to collect donations for both the family and the employee.  Friends of the family have started a GoFundMe page and while several asked to start one for the impacted employee, he kindly and respectfully declined.  We are listening to his wishes.  It is not about us. 

My sincere thanks to Bill Fraser, the City Manager of Montpelier, for sending that e-mail on Tuesday afternoon.  I don't, and cannot, serve Montpelier alone.  I'm humbled and grateful to have wonderful people around me to ensure that we care for each and everyone connected to Montpelier Public Schools.

Monday, January 1, 2018

New Year... New Resolution?

Tradition says at the new year, one makes resolutions.  Personally, I've never been good at that and try to avoid making them.  However, during the winter recess, I saw the following image on Twitter and was inspired: 

So much of what we read about in the news, on social media, so much of what permeates our world are people taking down other people.  Literally and figuratively.  We are being shown in words and in deeds, that to exercise power we must do it at the expense of others.  

I wholeheartedly disagree.  

In education, relationships are what matters.  I remember some "content" from my many years in classrooms as a student, yet can easily name my most influential teachers by name.  Their imprint on my life goes far beyond the things they taught me; their imprint is a result of the relationship we built together.  It is a result of how I felt when I was in their classrooms: safe, included, and cared for.  

So while I am still reluctant to make a resolution to begin 2018, I do promise to be more thoughtful and purposeful about lifting others.  Will you join me?