Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Listen Deeply, Make Mistakes, Inspire a Generation

Following are excerpts from the remarks I shared with the staff at our opening day meeting on August 28th:

Before I begin, I wish to extend my appreciation to my colleagues in the central office and all of the principals, administrators, and teachers who have worked to prepare for a new school year. I especially appreciate the efforts of our clerical, custodial, transportation, nutrition services, and technical staff who have tackled various projects getting ready for our students’ arrival on Wednesday. You know, the heart of our work is in the classroom—the exchange of ideas and learning between and among the teacher and students.  But our teachers are supported by so many others who assist them in this singularly important work. All of us, regardless of our roles, are on the same team, and all of us are serving for a greater purpose—to help young people learn, grow, and achieve.

Thanks to our dedicated School Committee members who support us throughout the school year; and I again appreciate having our Town Manager, Kate Fitzpatrick, here this morning.

I also want to thank a very special guest who braved travel from Houston through Hurricane Harvey to be here with us today:  Welcome to NHS Class of ’83 alum, Retired US Navy Captain, and NASA astronaut Sunita L. Williams! More about Captain Williams in a few minutes.

Well, I hope all of you had some down time over the summer months and an opportunity to relax and recharge!  

And now that we are back from our assorted adventures and travels we anticipate a new school year.  We prepare for our students’ return with great eagerness and, well to be fair, some degree of anxiety! This work you do is daunting and not for the feint of heart!  The work you do with children, shaping and encouraging young minds is a huge responsibility and it is a gift!  In my view, nothing is more important in society than helping young people grow and develop into adults who will assume their place in the community. Accept the excitement, anxiety and butterflies as both a sign of your preparation and readiness—and as a sign of the huge responsibility and commitment we have to the children and families we serve.  

I’ll confess to you that the superintendent also gets butterflies…  I stress out about what to say, and I often worry—a lot—that I will not meet your expectations.  I go for extra long runs to drain the fear and steady the nerves. I run a lot! 

To be honest, in light of national events, particularly the recent violence in Charlottesville, I have struggled mightily with how to address you. On the one hand, it’s important to keep politics and polarization away from the schoolhouse where we have an obligation to remain evenhanded, impartial, and balanced. In our roles as educators, as public officials, we can’t take sides. 

On the other hand, it is important to be unequivocal about what we expect here in Needham and what the law demands, regardless of political persuasion or one’s position on the Right/Left continuum. 

So here is the first thing this morning I want to be abundantly clear about: There is no place for bigotry, racism, homophobia, or hate in the classrooms of the Needham Public Schools.  All students and staff, regardless of their skin color, language, ability, gender identity or orientation, ethnic background, socioeconomic status, or faith, have dignity and are valued and contributing members of this learning community. 

Or as my father put it to me in very simple terms when I was a little boy:  “Everyone matters.”

By the way, I acknowledge that some of our colleagues, students and their families may share different beliefs and perspectives on some of the issues of the day.  I respect that, and in the schoolhouse we all have an obligation to respect views that are contrary to our personal beliefs.  I happen to believe we have the capacity as a nation and the responsibility as a school community to make room for alternative views as long as we respect the individual dignity of each human being.

Now, permit me to share three challenges that will extend my statement about acceptance and tolerance, and that I hope will guide our work together in the coming year:

  Listen Deeply… and include all voices
  Make mistakes… and embrace new learning
  Inspire a generation… and improve the world

Listen Deeply… and include all voices
Let’s try and live up to the notion that if we spend more time listening to one another, we can learn more and we can develop a sense of trust, empathy, and connection with another. St. Ignatius Loyola urged people to (Speak little and listen much.”  Steve Covey Observed that, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”  It turns out that deep listening requires a conscience decision to suspend judgment even when we know the other is incorrect, foolhardy, and misguided(!)

Let’s make sure that we gather and include diverse student and staff perspectives; let’s encourage the quiet and overlooked child in our classrooms to voice her ideas and questions and not just hear from the loudest and most eager.  Let’s create safe space and opportunity in our classrooms, clusters, schools, and our community for the dissenting perspective, the marginalized voice. 

Personally, I know I must spend more time exercising my eardrums than my vocal cords!  I often find my inner voice getting in the way of listening; I find myself already coming up with the answer, solving the problem, or thinking about the next thing I need to do.  Instead of listening—deeply and patiently listening—and asking for a clarification or additional information, I frequently have moved on in my own little head figuring, “OK, I’ve heard this before.  I know what this is all about.  I don’t need to know anymore.  I have the answer.”  Listening requires patience and is an investment in the other person’s story or perspective.  Listening and including many voices can provide you insight and is an opportunity to make better decisions and take positive steps.  Listening deeply results in the development of trust, empathy, and confidence—it is an essential ingredient to a healthy and dynamic learning environment, one that values the experience of another.

Let’s demonstrate a willingness to ask and to listen—rather than to tell and be heard.  As educators we have a special responsibility to make sure we model for our students how to listen deeply.  In a world filled with the cacophony of divisive politics, hate-filled protests, and rancorous tweets, let’s model a respectful, civil, and authentic desire to listen carefully and completely to others. 

Make Mistakes… and embrace new learning
So my second challenge to you is to make mistakes and embrace new learning.  I’m encouraging you to screw up this year!

This coming year, try something new, take your work to a new level; lean on each other and push one another to grow and learn. Take new approaches and take advantage of the many resources around you.  For example, utilize the new District Curriculum Accommodation Plan, the DCAP, use School Improvement Plans, and consider your students’ learning needs to establish team goals and guide your practice and planning with one another. Give someone’s idea a chance even if the outcome is uncertain or unknown.   And don’t worry if something doesn’t work out.  It’s OK!  We have your back! 

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 collaboration and risk taking, learning organizations—our schools—cannot flourish.  We won’t move forward.

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?  Trying new approaches in the classroom or accepting a new direction in the school means we have to give up something; we have to make space for new ideas.

Sometimes new learning can leave us feeling vulnerable and exposed.  It can create stress, tension, and doubt.  It’s also exciting, provocative, mysterious and can be the source of great joy, awareness, and fulfillment. Fortunately, we are in a District that will support our learning in this way; we have the mindset, tools, and energy to take risks and try new things, make new relationships.  Our core value of personal growth promotes learning readiness and provides the cover to think differently, and to try new approaches. 

And, like listening, we have a responsibility to model our learning, risk taking, and mistake-making to our students.  Let them observe us goof up, fall down, and reboot.  Last year in a classroom I observed a talented and experienced teacher pause during a math lesson and look at his notes and the work of a questioning student.  I watched as the student suggested a different way of solving a problem—one the teacher had not considered.  With excitement and glee, the teacher erased his notes on the board and invited the young scholar up to demonstrate a new approach.  The teacher embraced the opportunity to try something new and the students saw that adults can be learners too!

This year, make mistakes and embrace new learning!

Inspire a Generation… and improve the world
And this brings me to my third challenge: Inspire a generation… and improve the world.  We have a duty and responsibility to listen deeply to those around us, embrace new learning, and use then these attributes to empower young people to grow, achieve, and improve their lives and this world—a world hungry for their scholarship, service, and leadership. 

Kindle within your students a sense of belonging, of purpose, creativity, exploration, and a hunger for social justice and innovation.

This morning we are fortunate to have with us a witness to that spirit of inspiration. Let me again welcome Sunita Williams back home to Needham.  Allow me to share with you a little bit about Sunita L. Williams and her inspirational story.

After attending elementary school in Needham, Sunita graduated from Needham High School in 1983 and went on to the US Naval Academy and Florida Institute of Technology where she earned her MS degree in engineering management in 1995.

She has enjoyed a 30-year career in the Navy beginning with her commission as an ensign in 1987.  Eventually becoming a Naval Aviator, she was assigned to Helicopter Combat support and was deployed overseas, including in the Persian Gulf War. She served as Officer in Charge on the USS Slyvania during Hurricane Andrew relief operations.

Captain Williams has logged over 3,000 flight hours in over 30 different aircraft.  In 1998, Suni was selected as an astronaut for NASA and began training in Moscow with the Russian Space Agency.  Subsequently she served on two missions aboard the International Space Station, first as a flight engineer and then as commander.  Suni spent a total of 322 days in space during which time she completed 7 spacewalks totaling over 50 hours; she held the record for the most spacewalks by a female astronaut until a few months ago! 

And during one of her stints on the Space Station, Suni decided—of course!—to run the 2007 Boston Marathon to inspire children to think about their physical fitness.  She completed it in an impressive 4 hours and 24 minutes at a speed of about 17,500 miles per hour!

Additionally, Suni has inspired children around the world with her life’s story and commitment to education and young people.  She even beamed a lesson about space and planets to hundreds of Needham’s children lessons while she was onboard the International Space Station.

In 2015 NASA announced that Suni would become one of the first astronauts for US commercial space flights, and she is currently working with Boeing and SpaceX.

Needless to say Suni has received many honors and commendations from the US and the governments of Russia, Slovenia, and India.  She also received the NHS Distinguished Career Award in 2007 because, after all, we are the Rockets!

This past May, Captain Williams retired from active service in the US Navy at a ceremony onboard the USS Constitution.  I had the honor of attending, and Suni insisted that Needham students be invited to the ceremony; she met and spent time with two Class of 2017 grads, Jack Higgins and Beth Gordon, who are respectively attending the US Merchant Marine Academy and US Air Force Academy.  Both students told me Suni eagerly filled them in on Academy life and what to expect in the military.  She took the time to connect with two young people who were in awe of her. Sunita Williams has been on the forefront of the space program for 20 years; she is an incredible role model for today’s students and she exemplifies the potential of a career in the military, science, engineering, and public service.

In June, after due consideration, research, and much conversation, the Needham School Committee, recognizing Sunita’s roots in this community, service to her country and dedication to education and personal growth, and her unwavering commitment to young people, unanimously named the new elementary school on Central Avenue the Sunita L. Williams Elementary School.

Suni, it is an extraordinary honor to have you here with us today. Later this morning we have invited Suni to visit with faculty and students at Hillside and if there is time Sunni will visit the site of the new school which is scheduled to break ground later this fall.

I think it is fair to say that while Suni’s parents and family supported her throughout her life, Needham’s teachers also inspired her along the way!  In return Suni motivates other children and adults with a life of exploration, service, and commitment.   Inspiring others, it turns out, helps change lives and improves the world!

So I know the world our students are growing into is complex and messy.  We have a huge responsibility to prepare them for a journey of self-discovery, challenge, and, sometimes, personal failure.

Let’s do this work with honor, humility and a profound sense of hope and love in our young people.  And let listening, learning from our mistakes, and inspiring students guide our work.

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