Monday, September 30, 2019

What is Your Why?

Following are excerpts from the remarks I shared with 800 Needham faculty and staff at our annual back-to-school General Staff Meeting in August.

 This summer I’ve enjoyed many long beach runs on the Cape, coastal Maine, and even Ireland. Long solitary trail or beach runs force me to think about my life and my career; running helps we work out some of my issues. (I do a lot of running!) Actually, this past spring and summer I’ve spent a lot of personal reflection on meaning and purpose.  I don’t know, maybe once I turned 60 last fall I started to think more about my career and our work together in the schools.

Why do I do this work in schools?  What drives me? I’ve started wondering more and more about the purpose of schooling and the experiences we provide for children and their families.  It’s a question that has perplexed folks for as long as we can recall.  Eleanor Roosevelt once observed: “What is the purpose of education?  This question agitates scholars, teachers, statesmen, every group, in fact, of thoughtful men and women.”

So what’s your purpose?  Why are you here today in this space at this particular time?  What is your why?

Probably most of you—all of you?—would say we are here to support children and their families and to provide them the best education possible. That’s true but it’s insufficient; I think there is more to it. I mean, why do we provide a good education and supportive environment? What’s the larger purpose?  Why, indeed, did you come back to school?

What is your why? 

I have to confess that while I contemplated my why, my purpose, during those long summer runs in the woods and on the beach, part of me felt anxious and uneasy.  You see, screaming headlines and sobering news crowded my thoughts. Contemporary society seems steeped in myriad and complex problems, tragedies, and crises; these can be daunting and overwhelming.  It almost feels hopeless and pessimistic.  Perhaps it is not.

I have arrived at a place in my head and in my heart that offers an imperfect, incomplete, and, well, a personal response.  In many ways, my “why” has been shaped by my experiences, and it has been informed by my family and my faith.  It has been molded by the very real needs I perceive to exist in the community and the world.  It reflects my interactions with you, and the impact I observe that your work makes on our students’ lives every day.

This is my “why,” and I’d like to share it:

I believe each student possesses unique and exceptional gifts which, properly nurtured, can bring wisdom, dignity, and joy to a weary world.  Thus, we have a responsibility to empower young people to understand and develop their gifts in a way that builds character, creates opportunity, and inspires respect for others.  I believe our work is an act of hope in the power, possibility, and promise of each child.

I see our work with children as the antidote for pessimism, chaos, and negativity. My “why” considers the promise and the youthful optimism and ingenuity of the students we are so fortunate and privileged to work with every day; my “why” can’t help but lean on the positive and creative power of the human spirit, despite all of our faults and failings as adults, to create value and beauty in our world.

I believe there is an urgency in our work with young people; a responsibility to help them assume their roles as citizens of this community and become caring stewards of this amazing planet Earth we call home.

I believe our work in the Needham Public Schools, at its core, is a deep expression of belief in and love for all human beings.

That’s my why.  What’s your why?

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Happy New (School) Year!

Welcome back to school!

 As School Committee Chair Michael Greis exclaimed to teachers and staff at their August meeting:  Happy New (School) Year! 

The Needham Public Schools is open for business bright and early on Tuesday, September 3rd, and we are excited to begin a new year and welcome over 5,700 students, including over 380 Full Day Kindergarteners, to the district’s eight schools and the Preschool.  In preparation for a new year of learning a variety of activities have taken place throughout the summer:

  Teachers and administrators have been involved in over 50 curriculum and instruction development projects over the summer months.  Teachers at the elementary and secondary levels planned new programs and helped to revise existing curricular areas.  At the high school, for example, dozens of science teachers, including teachers from the U.S. and other countries, participated in a two-week science modeling program to improve and strengthen chemistry, biology, and physics instruction.  Two NPS teachers, Middle school world language teacher Laura Corkery and high school science teacher Mike Hirsh traveled to our partner school in Beijing, the Daxing School District, to provide professional development for their Chinese colleagues.

  Over 20 Kindergarten teachers worked over the summer to plan for the implementation of our new Full Day Kindergarten program.  Additionally, 20 teacher assistants, who will be assigned to each Kindergarten classroom, participated in a full day program to prepare for their new role working with our young students.  Kindergarten classrooms have been set up, programming established, and teachers and assistants readied to welcome children to a student-centered Kindergarten program in each elementary school.  Over 20 new Boston resident Kindergarteners, all participating in the METCO Program, also joined us for the annual Jumpstart Program that prepares them for a new learning experience in the Needham Public Schools.

METCO students enjoying the Jumpstart Program with friends!

  School construction and renovation projects kept all of the schools busy throughout the summer months.  New flooring, carpeting, and paint at Broadmeadow, Eliot, and Pollard; new auditorium seats at NHS; a new gym floor at Newman; two new modular classrooms installed at Mitchell; and, of course, the completion of the new Sunita L. Williams Elementary School on Central Avenue are all ready to receive students on Tuesday.  We are grateful to the Town of Needham, our maintenance crews, the taxpayers, and especially the Needham School Committee—all of whom work tirelessly to advocate for capital and building improvements to meet student and staff needs.  (Stay tuned for an invitation to an Open House at the new Sunita L. Williams Elementary Schools scheduled for Saturday, October 19th!)
Sunita L. Williams Elementary School

New Mitchell modular classrooms for music and art

  In late August over 120 new teachers, administrators, and teacher assistants gathered for our annual Staff Orientation Program at the Eliot Elementary School to learn more about the district’s programming and expectations as the new school year begins.  We on-boarded folks with training and conversations about the goals, policies, and practices of the NPS.  The new staff also enjoyed lunches and fun activities designed to build relationships and develop understanding of our district’s values and norms.

New teacher and staff orientation at Eliot

We are ready for students and excited to begin a new school year.  Please remember to drive carefully during this first week of school as buses navigate new routes in town, students traverse sidewalks and crossings, and parents drop off and pick up their children.  Traffic on Central Avenue near the new Sunita L. Williams Elementary School, for example, will be slow going and busy as we learn how to safely move cars, buses, vans, and children into and out of the school venue.  Leave early and take your time!

Happy New Year, Needham students and families!

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

A Way Forward

Recently I heard the new Massachusetts Commissioner of K-12 Education, Jeffrey Riley, share his vision for K-12 education in the Commonwealth.  Commissioner Riley has spent the better part of his first year on the job visiting schools, talking to students, teachers, and administrators, and listening to parents, legislative leaders, and education advocates offer their perspectives and hopes and dreams for Massachusetts children.

The Commissioner explained in a report to the State Board of Education how important it is to take the many successes of education reform and reset expectations moving forward.  He said the need is urgent to reconsider priorities in light of a dynamic workforce and interconnected world community:

“We are preparing students for a world that is changing at an accelerating rate.  Our graduates will switch jobs – and even careers – frequently throughout their lives, and many of those jobs have yet to be invented.  The goal of education is no longer simply to possess knowledge; instead, leveraging ever-smarter technology, students must learn to access knowledge, mine it for relevance, and apply it in new ways.  Employers are increasingly valuing skills and dispositions, which can be challenging to measure, on par with content expertise.  And with soaring tuitions and an uncertain return on investment from the traditional college experience, students need additional options for pathways and credentials that bridge K-12, higher education, and employment.” (The Commissioner’s Report to the Board: Our Way Forward for Massachusetts K-12 Public Education June 2019)

The Commissioner has identified four key themes for growth, discovery, and exploration:

i                 Deeper Learning for All
ii               Holistic Support and Enrichment
iii              Innovation and Evidenced-Based Practices
iv             The State as a Partner

Within each of these areas, the Commissioner proposes opportunities, new ways of thinking, and pathways for development.  For example, within the theme of Deeper Learning for All, the Commissioner proposes that schools consider expanded or new opportunities for innovative and hands on instruction; ensuring that expectations for all students are high and academically challenging; connecting students to learning experiences outside of the classroom and community; reconsidering policies, practices, and schedules that impede learning for all.  These ideas align perfectly with Needham’s recently adopted Portrait of a Needham Graduate, and I look forward to understanding how the Commissioner’s vision and our work here locally can help us boost learning for each student in Needham’s classrooms.  Stay tuned as the year unfolds for more information and progress updates!

You can read the Commissioner’s full report here: Our Way Forward