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Monday, January 15, 2024

Resolutions for a New Year!

 Here are my top five New Year’s resolutions for 2024:


  • Increase parent and community awareness about district programs and academic excellence. Share additional examples of how the Portrait of a Needham Graduate competencies are coming alive in the classroom for all students; provide more opportunities for all students to access advanced coursework and participate in interdisciplinary learning, like 9IP; highlight and celebrate student excellence in the NPS.


  • Double down on efforts to ensure equity and inclusion are the foundation upon which all of our work is designed and built.  Use the REAL Coalition to: encourage more student voice; provide training around restorative practices that are an alternative to traditional discipline;  continue to recruit, hire, and retain a dynamic, talented, and diverse staff; create policies and programs that support all learners and ensure that older students from all backgrounds and faiths have thoughtful and challenging discussions around race, bias, war, and conflict without feeling ostracized or marginalized.



  • Ask Needham Town Meeting to fund a feasibility study to renovate and expand Pollard.  Using the School Master Plan for context and background, explain to the community that the Massachusetts School Building Authority has invited Needham into the pipeline to discuss a possible renovation and expansion of Pollard into a 6-8 middle school. In advance of the May ‘24 Town Meeting provide sufficient information to Town Meeting Members so they may make an informed decision to fund the feasibility study recommended by the Town Manager in the Fiscal Year 2025 Capital Improvement Plan.


  • Stay healthy! In order to tackle these resolutions and balance that important work with family and health, I have to stay true to my fitness schedule, eat right, put the phone down, and make sure my wife and I head out for weekend winter walks and hikes on local trails. Not sure who told me this, but it makes sense: “Do something that is good for you so that, in turn, you can do good for others.”


Happy 2024!


Tuesday, December 12, 2023

If you are a school leader, Facebook is awful.

I've concluded Facebook is awful.  

Despite never having a FB account or profile, I suppose it's surprising that I have jumped to that conclusion. Oh, I am sure it serves its purpose for the millions of folks who wish to stay connected, make friends, conduct business, or share family updates and photos.  I think you can even buy and sell things on something called Facebook Marketplace, and it probably has additional features I have never heard of that make FB a big part of one's lifestyle.  I suppose FB has its benefits.

Unfortunately, as a school leader, I just see the downsides.

Here's the problem:  Facebook can also be a marketplace of misinformation, innuendo, and trading in false or incomplete, even harmful, narratives. In my role as superintendent I see well meaning community members and parents believe that whatever they read on FB to be gospel and the absolute truth.  Time and again folks jump to conclusions about what they have read, and then they repost material adding their own thoughts which often takes the comments to an entirely different orbit of misleading information and falsehoods that spin out of control.  It’s like a very bad version of “telephone” with each response to a post getting further and further away from the truth and reality.

I have watched dedicated School Committee members, principals, and school staff chase down the dark FB rabbit hole because of a claim of bias, abuse, or misbehavior that was posted, sometimes secondhand, and ends up being completely false.  One parent, who recently posted about an alleged incident at a school that was later confirmed to never have taken place, told the administrator “I posted this for my friend because they are not on FB and people needed to know.”  Nope.  People do not need to know about something that never happened. Let's not amplify that comment or post which we have no idea is even accurate.

Once a partial story or alleged misbehavior about something at school is posted, it sets off a cascade of reactions (and overreactions) that cause principals to waste valuable time and resources tracking down the truth before someone is hurt.  If inappropriate student conduct is actually observed, the first place the observer should go is to the police or school principal (or my office); simply posting information about an act of bias or a student fight without notifying the appropriate staff is reckless and lengthens the time it will take to sort out what could be a genuine issue. Furthermore, staff and student reputations are on the line when untruthful, hurtful, and misleading comments are made or reposted.

The schools do not monitor FB or other social media platforms; the staff is focused each day on working directly with students and their families. Our teachers are busy, well, teaching children. Respectfully, here is my advice: If a parent or community member witnesses or even hears about a concern related to a school or student misbehavior, please contact the school’s principal and report it.  I promise you we'll take it from there and swiftly, appropriately, and fairly address the issue.

Please do use Facebook to post family reunion photos, share a business opportunity, or express an opinion.

Please don’t use Facebook to gossip, fearmonger, or spread incomplete or inaccurate information about a student, a staff member, or the schools. At a time in our country when there is fear, anxiety, mistrust and misinformation spreading with abandon, let's take this opportunity as adults to collaborate with school staff and support one another on behalf of the wonderful young people of this community.

Thanks for reading. (Feel free to post on FB😉)


Sunday, October 22, 2023

Dear Students...

 

I sent the following letter to students in grades 7-12 in the aftermath of the October 7th terrorist attack on Israel.


Sunday, October 15, 2023


Dear Students:


The horrific events in Israel and Gaza over the last week have been difficult to process, and I have talked to students and adults who are confused, unsettled, and angry about what can often be a frightening and complicated world.

I thought I’d share two very different stories that end up having a similar message - a message about listening to and connecting with people you may not understand but from whom you can learn a lot. At the end of the two stories, I’m inviting you to do something.


Long before I was a superintendent I taught English at a boys’ Catholic high school in Watts, a long neglected section of South Central Los Angeles often overrun by gang violence. Some of my students had never really traveled outside of South Central LA and rarely did they have the opportunity to go on a field trip.


But after studying literature related to the Holocaust, like Elie Wiesel’s Night, I decided to take my class to visit the Simon Wiesenthal Center near West LA. I thought a visit and tour of their Holocaust exhibit would allow them to learn more about what happened to the Jewish people during WWII.


They were excited on the bus on the way to the Center.  Of course, being sophomores, they were loud, raucous, and teased each other mercilessly. I couldn’t wait to get off the bus and away from all that noisy chatter!


Once inside the building, as soon as they saw an old and tattered prisoner uniform in a glass case with a faded yellow star sewn on the chest, the mood shifted. These smart, strong, boisterous young men became silent and quietly observed their surroundings as a petite and elderly woman, no taller than five feet, approached and welcomed us.  The woman, I recall that her name was Abigail, told us she would be our host for the visit; she explained that she was a Jewish Holocaust survivor and had been a prisoner at one of the many Nazi concentration camps. The boys were in awe of this tiny woman’s heartbreaking story, including the murder of her family and her survival in a camp. 


At the end of the tour and sitting quietly in the Center’s chapel one of my students who was next to Abigail reached out and pointed to the tattooed prisoner number on her forearm and asked her why she didn’t cover it.  She had been tattooed by the Nazis when she arrived at the camp as a child. Didn’t it bother her to see it all the time, he asked? Abigail took up both of his hands to allow him to touch the tattoo on her arm and she stared right into his eyes and said: “I look at it every day as a way to remember my family who perished in the camps.  And it also reminds me how strong I am to have survived.  It is a sign of love and hope.”  In the quiet of the chapel, other boys rose to come and touch the tattoo on her arm as if it was an ancient talisman.


The ride back to school was subdued, practically silent, as the boys looked out the bus windows thinking about what they had just experienced.  These young men, some of them from very difficult family situations, thought they had a challenging life and reason to be anxious and angry at the world.  But that day they met someone who helped them to see a new perspective; they had connected with a stranger whose powerful story helped to shape their understanding of themselves and the world around them.


Years later, and on the other side of the country when I was a high school principal in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, I can recall the morning of September 11, 2001. I had just finished making morning announcements on the PA and was settling down for a meeting when a student knocked on my door and said I needed to come to the school’s TV studio.


There in the TV class students had their faces glued to the monitors in front of them, watching the first of the Twin Towers to burn. Soon it became clear that what we were watching was an attack, and our lives were about to change.


In the hours and days after the 9/11 attacks, the nation was afraid and anxious.  My students were also fearful and wondered if even our small community and high school was a safe place. Our students and teachers were on edge and worried; it was hard to concentrate on studies. Throughout the community students and adults alike soon became suspicious and pointed out and harassed darker skinned people, including students, some wearing head scarves. 


Eventually several Muslim students, who had been afraid to speak out and mostly just dealt with the rude hallway remarks and taunts, came to see me and asked for something I was unprepared for:  They wanted to have a place in the school where they could lay down a small prayer mat and conduct their prayerful ritual at certain times during the day.  I was not expecting that, and I immediately worried this would just further inflame passions and bias.  The students pleaded with me arguing that the only way other students could begin to understand them is if they saw them as people who also pray, just like their Jewish and Christian friends who went to temple or church; they wanted their friends back, and they wanted to help them understand that their religion and their beliefs were not the same as the 9/11 terrorists.


We identified a quiet place for Muslim students to pray, and, eventually, tensions and emotions eased; friendships renewed, science lab partners chatted it up again, teammates sat together on the bench at basketball games. It took some time but students renewed connections to one another.  They were simply teenagers trying to enjoy high school - pursuing music, athletics, and studies in hopes of attending a good college.  They were just kids hanging out at lunch, making fun of the substitute teacher, telling bad jokes, goofing off at band practice.  It took an enormous tragedy inflicted upon the United States and far away from our high school, but it resulted in students learning from one another, sharing their stories, and realizing they had more in common then they ever realized. 


As you begin a new week of learning with your friends I’m going to ask you to do two things:


First, recognize that some friends and classmates are still processing what has happened in Israel and Gaza and others aren’t really sure what to think or do.  That’s OK because we all need time and space to work things out, especially things that are scary and uncertain. Be careful, too, about what you read, see, and post on social media; there is a lot of misinformation and a simple post can spin out of control and hurt someone. Be patient, caring and understanding with your classmates. 


Second, do something that might be hard for you: I want you to take a moment to reach out to a student you don't know and simply smile or say hello. Sit down next to someone new at lunch or maybe with the kid in the back of your science class. And if you have more time, ask them about what classes they take or sports they are interested in. Maybe you’ll share a story.

It’s often through listening to another’s story that we deepen our understanding of the world around us. I’ve learned that if we make human connections, especially with people we don’t know well, we can see our differences as strengths and make our school and this world a better place for everyone.

I look forward to seeing you in your classrooms, in the hallways, and on the fields in the days and weeks ahead.

Respectfully,

Dr. G.


Friday, September 29, 2023

Superpowers!



Following are excerpts from my address to faculty and staff at the first meeting of the 2023-24 school year.


Do you ever consider the energy, the power you possess?  


As an educator, regardless of the role you play in the school setting all of you have the extraordinary power - super powers, really - to change lives! And your super powers are subtle, sophisticated, and often understated but they are real nonetheless. Sometimes, it’s the very simple things you do, things that positively impact a child:  A quick glance of approval, the correct pronunciation of a child’s name, even a smile - all of these and more are the superpower moves educators make to lift young hearts and minds.


In fact, research backs up this truth about a teacher’s influence and power.  A recent RAND Corporation study concluded that the teacher in the classroom has the greatest influence on student achievement - teachers, the report concludes, matter more than the neighborhood and background of a student, more than the building in which they teach, and more than the leadership in a district.


John Hattie out of the University of Melbourne has spent his career studying the influence of teachers on the lives of children, and his research shows that teachers, especially teachers who collaborate on behalf of their students and work together on behalf of their students are the number one influence on student success. His conclusion? Teachers have the power to strengthen individual lives; and collectively, working together, educators have the power to shape a community, to build a nation.


You, as Needham educators, have the superpower to shape the young lives of the children before you: How you arrange your classroom; whether or not you invite young minds to participate in the development of class rules; how you encourage student voice and choice… learning their stories so you can both understand these young people and then use their knowledge and background to shape the instruction.


You have the superpower to create a safe and supportive environment in which all students feel valued and connected; to nurture a sense of security and build a space where students can take risks and shake off their mistakes and missteps.


You have the power to expect great things from your students; you can’t let them wallow in their insecurities or pity their circumstances. Use their existing skills and stories to build the lesson, complement the curriculum and create the conditions for learning. Use your super power to build up each child.


Here’s what superpowers look like in the Needham Public Schools:


• A preschool teacher guides a non verbal 3 year old to express herself for the first time through an app on an iPad.


• An elementary teacher curates a set of literature and books that represent the faces and diversity of the new students before him.


• An 8th grade teacher acknowledges and honors a student’s request to be referred to with the pronoun “they” and not she/her.


• A high school teacher consistently recommends underrepresented students into advanced levels of science coursework knowing two things: The work will be a challenge and her students can absolutely succeed.

Teacher superpower moves set the conditions for learning, for success.  And your superpowers are unique to you; not everyone is the same. Some of your superpowers are subtle; each one has different gifts and strengths that we can wield in the school, in the classroom.  It’s not a cookie cutter approach.


In Needham, we don’t write off kids! With a laser-like focus and a powerful belief in the possibility of each student, we lift them up. Using your superpowers you model a deep respect for human differences and the unique qualities of each child.


One of your other superpowers is recognizing that what works for one will not work for another; with x-ray vision, you must discern the right move for each student.  And it is not easy; it is complex trying to determine how you can elevate, impact, and attend to the unique needs and characteristics of so many young people. You must be vigilant and intentional about how you use the power you have to inspire students.


You are powerful.  But you are not omnipotent. It’s important to recognize that you’ll make mistakes and you can change and grow; you can improve. Don’t let failure or criticism be the kryptonite that takes you down. And remember that all of us have the responsibility to wield our superpower in service to our students and to propel and build up their learning.  


Haim Ginott, teacher and psychologist, once observed: “I am the decisive element in the classroom.  It is my personal approach that creates the climate; it is my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous.  I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.  I can humiliate, hurt, or heal.  In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or dehumanized.”


As Ginott suggests, if we are not careful, we can easily tear down and turn off a student; we can marginalize and alienate young minds. 


Now if we, as educators, possess superpowers, what about our students?  How can we help supercharge them? What do they require to grow and achieve? What do they need to change their lives and lift this world?


I will argue that we have identified the superpowers they need within the competencies outlined in the Portrait of a Needham Graduate The competencies detail the superpowers our students need to learn, grow, and achieve.  And our collective responsibility as adult learners and leaders is to ensure we use our superpowers to, in turn, help them develop the superpowers embedded in the Portrait - superpowers that we believe will further strengthen and enhance their lives.  


Beginning tomorrow, and each day of the school year, demonstrate your superpowers with energy, imagination, humility, and a profound sense of hope and love in our young people.  




Saturday, August 19, 2023

Hey, Parents, we got you!

 It’s that time of year when parents, caregivers, and families are trying to squeeze in one more precious day at the beach while also scouring deals for stylish back to school clothes and backpacks.  Oh, and don’t forget to schedule those haircuts and get the new sneakers!


It’s a time for some families and students to be anxious or concerned about the approaching school year, especially as they head into a new grade or school building. It's typical for kids to wonder and worry about who their teachers will be and whether or not they will see familiar and friendly faces in their classrooms and in the cafeteria:  Will I be at the right bus stop? Who will sit with me at lunch?  What does my high school schedule look like? Do they know I have to take my allergy medication at a specific time? Will kids hang out with me? Will I make the team?


These are natural and normal questions students (and their parents) have as they transition from the generally unscheduled, lazy, and warm days of summer to the early morning alarm clocks, structured class schedules, and homework routines of the fall.  My advice to families and students?


Relax… we’ve got your back!  All summer our principals, counselors, secretaries, and teacher leaders have been prepping for students’ arrival on August 30th.  And we are ready.  There will, of course, always be glitches and mistakes like a missed bus stop, class schedule with a missing class, or incorrect spelling on a name; but those missteps are quickly addressed, and each Needham Public School student can expect a warm welcome and a great beginning to the 23-24 academic year.


Caroline Miller and Rachel Busman of the Child Mind Institute have some good advice for adult caregivers during those first few anxious days of school, including:


  • Take your own temperature and see if you are passing on any undo stress or worries to your children.  Remember that everyone’s routines will be changing as a result of a new school year.

  • Listen to their worries and acknowledge that you understand they are anxious. Share a story about an experience you had when you were worried about school.

  • Do some test runs to the school or walk down to the bus stop.  It’s OK to visit a school and stop in at the main office and say hello and introduce your child to the staff so they can have some familiarity with it.

  • Let someone know at the school if your child has a particular concern or need before or right after school starts. For example, let the nurse know about any health needs. (By the way, NPS nurses are awesome!)


You can read their complete article here:  Back to School Anxiety


Finally, I encourage parents to review what I have previously written about the best and most courteous and professional way for parents to communicate with staff and teachers about concerns parents have.  


For sure, the beginning of the new school year can be nerve wracking for families, caregivers, students, and even superintendents(!)  However, working together, listening carefully to one another, and trusting in the good work of the teachers and staff of the Needham Public Schools will mean success for your child.  We got you!


Sunita Williams students waiting to assist arriving
Kindergartners on their first day of school,
August 2022






Monday, June 26, 2023

A Strong Finish to the 2022-23 School Year!

The 2022-23 school year concluded successfully in the Needham Public Schools, and at its last meeting of the academic year the School Committee discussed ongoing efforts to ensure the Portrait of a Needham Graduate Strategic Plan continues to move forward.  Some of the accomplishments highlighted include:

• Piloting the new elementary social studies program, Investigating History; implementing the elementary math curriculum, Illustrative Math; Piloting proficiency based grading in all World Language classrooms; Launching the 10th grade interdisciplinary program; adopting an early literacy screener

• Developing a Social & Emotional Learning and Mental Health (SELMH) framework, a tiered continuum of supports that students may need at any point in their schooling; piloting restorative practices as an additional tool to build community, increase belonging and accountability, and promote an improved school climate; align school schedules with program needs (e.g., "What I Need" or WIN block at elementary level)

• Increased parent engagement through the use of the Parent survey, development of the English Language Learners Parent Advisory Council (ELPAC), REAL Coalition; the publishing of the Let's Get REAL newsletter detailing our efforts around equity and inclusion.

• Filed a Statement of Interest with the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) as a first step towards addressing the School Facilities Master Plan; increased the level of diversity within our staff;  completed successful negotiations with teachers (Unit A), administrators (Unit B), and paraprofessional staff (Unit C); collaborated with Cornelius Minor to provide ongoing professional learning involving the instructional staff around the conditions for learning for all students.

It has been a busy and productive year for our students and the staff, and we look forward to the opportunity to recharge our batteries over the summer, even as we begin planning for the 2023-24 school year.  For additional information about the district goals and action steps for the upcoming school year, check out the June 20, 2023 School Committee presentation.


   Needham High School Class of '23 
Celebrates on Memorial Field

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

325 Years of Combined Service to the Students of the Needham Public Schools!

 


Congratulations to the 20 staff members whom we celebrated and honored on the occasion of their retirement from the Needham Public Schools!  At a recent ceremony we recognized our retirees and thanked them for their collective 325 years of service to students and their families. 


To view photos from the retirement reception, click here:  Photos 2023


I reminded our retirees of a proverb that has taken many forms over the years and goes something like this: “You will not enjoy the fruit of the tree you plant this year.” I thanked them for patiently and lovingly nurturing so many young lives - young people who will, in time, guide, support, and lead us.  Indeed, our work as educators is not for the present; it is for a hope filled future.

I also acknowledged to the retirees and their families that Needham teachers and staff members are sometimes hard on themselves, often looking to see how they could have crafted a lesson differently, returned assignments more quickly, or reached out to a student’s family in a more timely way.  Our staff members are frequently looking for opportunities to better themselves and always wishing they had more time to improve on their work with students and one another.  They are tough on themselves and are rarely satisfied with being just “good enough.”


Many educators, including Needham’s educators, are often guilty of focusing on their blemishes and downplaying their accomplishments. There are teachers who worry too much about how they have fallen short or failed others; they fret about being perfect rather than recognizing that teaching and learning is imprecise, more art than science. We are, after all, imperfect adults tasked with the huge responsibility to nurture and improve the lives of the children in our care.  Teaching is a uniquely human endeavor subject to the frailties - but also the possibilities - of the human condition.


I reassured the retirees that their service and commitment has profoundly and positively impacted the lives of our young people and their families - even if it is hard to see all of their successes at the moment. Their dedication, however incomplete and imperfect, will shape and guide our students’ lives and the lives of the entire community. 


I concluded by telling our retiring staff that the students they cared for will not recall their perceived missteps or missed opportunities; instead they will remember an encouraging word and pat on the back; a broad smile, and the high expectations they had for their students’ growth and success.  


And we, of course, will remember them for being outstanding colleagues!