Following are excerpts from my comments to the Needham Public Schools staff upon their return to school September 2, 2014.
This morning I wish to challenge each and every one of you with three expectations for the new school year: Collaborate Innovate Inspire It it is my expectation as your superintendent that you consider these simple yet challenging words and decide how you will act on them in your role in the Needham Schools. Fortunately, in most ways this is an easy lift for Needham’s professionals who have already established a culture of collegiality, creativity, and excitement.
The community has generously provided us with additional time to work and plan together to improve student learning. Let’s use this time to build relationships, converse with one another, problem-solve, review data, share information, learn from one another, and improve practice. Examples of collaboration abound in this district: Grade level and data teams… Critical Friends Group… Middle school clusters…Literacy Task Force…
This coming year, take this work to a new level; lean on each other and push one another to grow and learn. Use the district goals, School Improvement Plans, and your students’ learning needs to establish team goals and guide your practice and planning with one another. By the way, if you are truly collaborating, you are taking risks and making mistakes and that’s OK. Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmundson concluded that successful organizations allow professionals to work together in an atmosphere of open dialogue, trust, problem solving, disagreement, and failure. Without a culture of sincere, honest, and deliberative conversation and collaboration, learning organizations cannot flourish.
Are you asking hard questions at faculty, grade level, or department meetings? Are you willing to listen patiently to a new colleague, fresh out of grad school, who lacks experience but just might have an interesting solution to a school-wide problem? How can we encourage independent and innovative thinking within our students if we don’t allow ourselves the chance to confront long held assumptions or past practices?
In collaboration with colleagues, consider new ways to address learning needs. Ask your students to tackle authentic tasks and problems. Tap into the use of technology to enhance and extend student learning and achievement.
Innovative and imaginative teaching practices and programs are present in our classrooms. Interdisciplinary learning, such as the high school’s Greater Boston Project, African-American studies, environmental science, and the middle school’s engineering course are examples of existing opportunities complemented by strong service learning and performing arts programs.
Da Vinci’s Workshop, a new lab at Needham High will allow students and staff an opportunity to “play” with technology, robotics, design, science, and the arts.
Let’s continue to break down the artificial silos that separate academic disciplines and departments; let’s create even more experiences—like the new elementary STEAM program—to allow students to explore science, technology, and the arts.
Perhaps the use of a technology tool, like a laptop or iPad, will allow a student to personalize a learning experience in a way that a classroom teacher can’t. There is a tradeoff, by the way, when we integrate mobile technology tools into the classroom. Teachers give up some of their authority and students gain more autonomy and responsibility. That’s a little scary for the adults! Students may do some things they should not do. But they also can become empowered to research, collaborate, create, and communicate in ways never before possible.
Let’s engage our students with new approaches and fresh thinking. Do students have choice in your classroom? Do they have a voice in their learning? Can they show what they know in the form of a paper or a project? Will you encourage them to demonstrate understanding in a way that matches their learning style?
Lets embed into our practice, let’s make routine, the use of innovative planning and thinking inside and outside the classroom.
This is the most difficult thing I can expect of you. Collaboration and innovation set us on a path leading to engaged and inspired young people. Without inspired and motivated students, their chances for achievement, growth, and a purposeful and meaningful life are diminished.
The tone you bring, the relationships you establish, the connections you make, and the enthusiasm you activate will make all the difference in your students’ lives and the lives of those around them.
Think carefully about how you will inspire, engage, and excite learning. Consider how you can bring imaginative instruction and un-common assessments into your classroom and school. Think about how you will connect and develop a rapport with the shy, reluctant, and bored student. Will you change up your lesson plan? Tell a personal story to develop interest?
There can be no missed opportunities to comfort an anxious child or involve a recalcitrant student in a lively classroom debate. Make sure you establish a classroom and school environment that has high expectations and allows students to take chances and build friendships. Your actions should promote character and tolerance; curiosity and inquiry; humor and humility. Your students will remember you for it, and they will become stronger, resilient, and inspired.
And this last point brings me to my friend, James Hugh Powers. I invited Mr. Powers here because I want you to know that he is one of the people who inspires me in my work, and I am honored to know him. I wanted you to meet him as well.
Mr. Powers is 91 years old and a longtime Needham resident who grew up with two brothers, John and Pete. He is a veteran of WWII and was a dedicated public servant, working for the Massachusetts Legislature during a long career. He served as a Town Meeting member for 60 years, and a few years ago Powers Hall was dedicated in his honor at the Needham Town Hall.
Over the last nine years I have been superintendent, Mr. Powers has sent me dozens and dozens of letters, notes, and articles about education and teaching and learning. His letters are beautifully written, eloquent, and poignant. His command of education, history, politics, literature, and the economy is extraordinary. He is absolutely devoted to education and the teaching profession. He believes the work we do is critical to the success of a vibrant democracy and a fulfilled life.
I have come to look forward to the notes he sends or the occasional times we spend together. He always admonishes me to make sure I am supporting the most important ingredient in the school—the classroom teacher! I leave my conversations with him refreshed, enthused, knowing that he represents the best of Needham and all of those who support our work with young people.
This past May, Mr. Powers attended the unveiling of a new memorial in the high school lobby dedicated to Needham residents who sacrificed their lives in war. As a Marine Corps vet who fought on Okinawa and witnessed untold atrocities, Mr. Powers joined other Needham veterans for the unveiling. And he also attended to honor his older brother, Pete.
You see 70 years ago this December, Mr. Powers’s little brother, John, then a Needham High senior, came home from school and found his mother unconscious on the floor with a War Department telegram laying beside her. It turns out that Pete had been killed in the Battle of the Bulge, and a proud family of three handsome boys lost the eldest son. Mr. Powers, stationed in the Pacific at the time, only learned of his brother’s heroism and death much later in a painful letter from his father.
So this past May Mr. Powers stood at attention at the new memorial to recall those who died bravely for our freedom. And he also touched Pete’s engraved name and remembered his older brother. I’ll never forget the dignity, sacrifice, and love of that moment.
In a recent letter, Mr. Powers encouraged me to remember the essential nature of our work. He wrote:
“You have a wonderful, promising, if mischievous and at times vexing, body of students (in the schools) each one of whom is a bundle of possibilities. Motivate each one of them to his or her best effort, to settle only for his or her best effort. And do not give up on a single one of them beset by troubles. For the world out there in which they will be plunging after graduation remains a highly competitive, very challenging (and often) dangerous place, unsympathetic to sounders of uncertain trumpets.”
Mr. Powers, Jim, thank you for those salient words. Thank you for leading a life of dedicated and inspired service to our nation and this community. Thank you for your steadfast support of our teachers and schools. And thank you for your loyalty and friendship.
Folks, you are the ones who must guide our young people in their quest for self-discovery, growth, and meaning. Education is the answer needed to assist children to develop the skills, mindset, imagination, and courage to tackle the most stubborn and intractable dilemmas of today’s world. The problems all around us require sophisticated responses, intelligent discourse, and creative problem solvers who will collaborate and innovate to improve lives and brighten the world.
As you leave here today remember that we do this work with the strong support and commitment of those around us so that, together, we can Collaborate, Innovate, and Inspire.
Thank you for all you do and for letting me serve as your superintendent; it is a singular honor. I hope you have a superb year.