Following are excerpts from the remarks I shared with teachers and staff upon our return to school in August:
We have a lot of hard work ahead of us, and I am excited to dig in. Let me outline some of our key school and district plans:
First, safety. A healthy and safe school environment for all of our students and staff remains the priority. Ensuring that we have the policies, programs, and protocols in place to provide for a healthy and safe learning experience is our shared responsibility and critical to keeping schools open for learning.
Our 2021-22 School Opening Plan details how we will respond to the academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs of our students, particularly those disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. So many of you have already invested significant time and energy developing lessons, resources, and plans to help accelerate our students’ learning, and the School Committee and community have stepped up to provide the resources we need to make it a reality. Additional math and literacy support at the elementary and middle school levels will strengthen our efforts to assist students; additional staff within the high school’s transition program will assist vulnerable students. Extra elementary teacher assistants will facilitate learning and help at lunch time. A revised elementary schedule will require time and patience to work out all of the kinks; but it will be worth it for our younger students who will have more consistent and structured time with their classroom teachers.
This is the third year of implementation of the district’s strategic plan, the Portrait of a Needham Graduate. I have previously sent out to staff the action steps for this coming year, so I won’t review them now. I guess the most important thing for each and every staff member to keep in mind is our shared responsibility to assist in the work necessary to make the action steps a reality and to assist each student develop the skills and competencies that are at the core of our plan. Our collective action toward this plan is not optional; it is integral to our work as individuals, as professionals, and as a district.
One of the other tasks we are busy with is figuring out a path forward to renovating and replacing Mitchell, Pollard, and the School Administration Building. All three facilities require attention, but the costs, timing, and resources necessary to address these needs requires focused energy, planning, and, critically, community support. Fortunately, we work in a town that values education and has clearly demonstrated financial support for its schools over time, and I suspect this will be the case with these three projects.
Finally, underlying all of our work in the district is a belief in equity and inclusion for all students, their families, and staff. Whether you are gay, straight, or gender non-conforming; whether you are in special education or an English Language Learner; whether you are homeless or socio-economically disadvantaged - we will support and be a champion for you!
In particular, this district is committed to racial equity and we are committed to being actively anti-racist; we believe in the inherent value and dignity of every human being, and we are reviewing programs, polices, and practices that marginalize or diminish any person. We are hard at work creating opportunities for all children, especially those students of color who have been disproportionately impacted by well-meaning but hurtful instructional practices and curriculum that does not always represent them. I am proud that we have implemented a racial literacy curriculum at the elementary level; that we have prioritized the recruitment and retention of a talented and diverse staff; that we are considering restorative practices that help tp manage conflict and tensions by repairing harm and building relationships and community.
As you instruct and counsel your students throughout the year, work with colleagues, and collaborate with families and caregivers, consider how your efforts, action, conversations, and intentions can be based on a foundation of racial and social justice - a foundation of equity. This work is fundamental to our mission as educators and human beings.
We will have to pace ourselves and take a deep breath and recognize that it will all be OK to be imprecise and imperfect - to give ourselves permission to do the best we can.
I’m reminded of Olympic gymnast Suni Lee, who we all watched win the gold medal for the women’s gymnastics all-around competition in Tokyo. After she won the medal, she was asked by a journalist why she was rubbing her stomach just before her gold medal winning performance. She responded: “I was just telling myself to do nothing more and nothing less, and just telling myself to breathe because in that moment I literally felt like I was going to puke, I was so nervous." She looked at the reporter and added: "My normal is good enough, so I don't do anything more or anything less, I just have to do what I normally do."
“I don’t need to do anything more or anything less.” This is the wisdom of an Olympian - she did not tell the reporter she was thinking about how she had to be perfect; she told the reporter that she knew herself, and she knew that she had practiced and prepared for this moment and now it was time to breathe, relax and enjoy. She was ready.
I know all of you put pressure on yourselves to be the best teacher, ideal coach, rockstar administrator, exemplary secretary or selfless teacher assistant. I know how hard you work to create the circumstances for our children to thrive - And it can be exhausting and depleting. It can make you want to puke!
As we work together to help our students develop the competencies embedded in the Portrait or understand their role in an equitable and socially and racially just community, trust yourself, lean on each other, and keep moving forward even if your pace and efforts are uneven or imperfect. The important thing is to know you have a responsibility to join in the work of your grade level, school and district. The important thing is to understand that what you are already doing is meaningful and masterful - it is already golden. Remember the words of Suni Lee: “Nothing more. Nothing less.” It is a mantra - a standard - for all of us to live, learn, and lead by.
There is no greater responsibility or greater joy than helping young people grow, learn, and achieve. We have both an enormous burden and incredible opportunity to assist in the development and shaping of young minds, bodies, and hearts. Regardless of your role in the NPS, you can empower a young scholar with an encouraging comment; you can boost a child each day with optimism, a kind smile, a pat on the shoulder, or acknowledging a child’s identity. Our service is a gift to the community and our future lives. Our service to young people is powerful, uplifting, and joyful. It is a sign of hope and humanity and is necessary to create the conditions of innovation, justice, humility, and love in our world.
Colleagues, I wish you a wonderful new school year! Thank you for your joyful service to our students.