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.


Dr. G.

Friday, September 29, 2023


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!

Friday, March 31, 2023

Focus on School Safety

I remind principals that ensuring student and staff safety is our number one priority in the Needham Public Schools.  Without a sense of security, safety, wellbeing, belonging and care our schools will not nurture and support learning environments that will allow students to thrive.

Sadly, schools around the nation spend an increasing amount of time, money, and human resources thinking about, planning for and addressing matters of school security and student safety and wellbeing. I have written before about school violence, and, unfortunately, it remains top of mind each day of the school year for every school leader. 

While there are no guarantees that we will never experience the kind of senseless and horrific school violence most recently experienced in Nashville or Uvalde, I believe we have implemented a balanced and thoughtful approach to school and student safety:

• The Town of Needham and the Needham Public Schools have come together in several ways to ensure public safety in our schools and community.  For example, after the Newtown tragedy Town Manager Kate Fizpatrick and I teamed up to create the Needham Schools Emergency Advisory Team (NSEAT) to provide a collaborative and community-based approach to school and student safety.  

• The Needham Police Chief and I have collaborated on a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that details the role of the police and School Resource Officers in the school setting.  We are deliberate in stating what police officers can and can't do in the school setting, and we are equally clear that school administrators and personnel must not take on law enforcement responsibilities within the school building. While some school districts locally and around the country have paused or ended their relationship with local police departments, I am proud of the partnership we have established with the Needham Police and look forward to ways we can strengthen the relationship to benefit our students, their families, and the staff.

• Two Needham School Resource Officers (SRO), one primarily assigned to the elementary level and one to the secondary level, provide a regular and daily presence in our schools and classrooms.  They consult routinely with building principals and staff and provide guidance to students and families in need. Both of our SROs also assist with safety drills and planning throughout the school year, and they have been involved in helping to lead the Needham Police and Fire Departments in active shooter drill trainings, most recently held during a school holiday period at one of our schools.

• In collaboration with public safety officials, we conduct four to five fire and active shooter drills in our schools annually. School staff receive training around these protocols, and each school and classroom is equipped with safety manuals that provide guidance for responses to emergency situations.  In addition, staff are able to access emergency protocols and tools using a phone app.  Before active shooter drills take place, principals and staff work in developmentally appropriate ways to train and alert students.  A sample elementary lesson outline can be found here: Elementary Drill Lesson  This 2016 video outlines the general plan for the school response to an active shooter: Needham Schools Spotlight: School Safety and ALICE.

Finally, and more than anything else, it's important to ensure all students feel welcome, included, and safe within the school setting and that a caring and trusting community, guided by responsible adults, exists for each child.  

Teachers, guidance counselors, nurses, teacher assistants and building administrators provide the social and emotional and mental health supports that empower students to help them experience a sense of belonging essential to their wellbeing and growth.  Ultimately, it is the human capital we have invested in and the human interactions we nurture that will keep our schools and community safe, secure, and open for learning.

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The More Things Change...

The ongoing renovation of the Needham Public Schools Administration and Operations Building, named after 19th Century School Committee member Emery Grover, has provided an opportunity to reflect both on the past and the present.  

In preparation for our move to temporary quarters and while sifting through the “EG Building” attic and long forgotten closets and store rooms, I discovered a trove of historic and academic information and documents that chronicle the story of the Needham Public Schools from the 1800s to the present. 

Early 20th and 19th Century School Committee Reports

What’s clear is that a lot has changed in Needham since the Emery Grover Building was constructed in 1893 as the town’s first high school - and a lot has remained the same.

One of the biggest changes (and challenges) has been the incredible growth of the community over the years.  For example, in 1923 School Superintendent John Davis reported that the total enrollment of 1,800 pupils that year exceeded the capacity of available classroom space. One hundred years later we now enroll over 5,500 students, and we are still short on classroom space!

We have also grown more racially and culturally diverse. In the last 20 years the Needham Public Schools has gone from enrolling a 90% white student body to enrolling about 73.0% white students with 27.0% representing students of color.  In addition, the percentage of students for whom English is a second language has increased from about 4.0% to over 11.0% of total student enrollment. Today, over 51 languages are spoken by our students and families, including Spanish, Chinese, Ukrainian, Russian, Arabic, Hebrew, Korean, and Azerbaijani among many others. In the same period of time the number of low income students has tripled from 2.7% to 8.2% of overall enrollment.  

Our families and student body look different today than they did a century or even a generation ago, and this diversity has strengthened the community, schools, and learning experience for all of our students. (Click here for more information about demographic trends in the Needham Public Schools.)

What hasn’t changed is the Needham community’s strong commitment to a quality education for every child. 

Since before the Civil War, the Needham community recognized its responsibility for providing a rigorous and excellent educational experience for all students.  In its 1859 report to the community, the Needham School Committee praised parents and families for their engagement: The purpose of a school depends very much upon the interest taken in it by the parents.  In many of our schools the parents have long since taken a deep and active interest in their children’s progress and welfare.”  

The same 1859 report revealed that providing adequate compensation for teachers must remain a priority for the community: Though some think we are now paying our teachers too much, we are constantly losing the services of the best of them, because they can obtain better pay elsewhere… The only alternative seems to be, either to increase the teachers’ pay a little, or to retard the present healthy progress of our students and schools…”

What’s really striking about this mid 19th Century report is how, even then, the community recognized the critical need to develop the social and emotional skills of children:  “The moral character of a school is of vital importance; mental cultivation at the expense of the cultivation of the heart, is a curse rather than a blessing.  Not the more knowing & the more scientific, but rather the more virtuous the child, the man, and the people - the more happy and more useful.”

Today, 164 years later, those very sentiments are echoed in the district’s current Portrait of a Needham Graduate competencies and strategic priorities which we continue to believe are critical to the growth and success of students.  

Cover of the 1861-62 Report from the Needham
School Committee and Superintendent

For sure, a lot has changed in Needham over the years, and we have become a stronger and more diverse community of learners and leaders. And a lot has remained the same. 

This wise community believed then - and continues to believe today - that “the cultivation of the heart” is essential to our students’ potential and academic growth as well as the collective success and wellbeing of a vibrant, prosperous,  and caring community.