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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Vote for Reason

What do the two events outlined in the next paragraph say about our society?

The immense public outcry and media attention that followed the mistaken decision of replacement referees at a recent National Football League game obscured far more important events. If someone woke from a coma and read/listened to the news this week they would likely rate the football officiating debacle as more significant than the upcoming presidential election. Both candidates for president apparently felt they had to render comments on the issue to remind the electorate of their presence amid the headlines that otherwise swallowed up campaign news.Similarly, many people waited hours and even days in line for the release and sale of the latest version of the Apple I-phone 5, though one wonders how many people would be wiling to wait more than a few minutes in a line at the voting booth in November.

There has been an expansive amount of television time consumed by political advertisements. Both parties boast of their allegiance to the U.S. constitution, and there is no relief from people sporting signs with various proclamations supporting rights and freedoms ensured by our constitution, yet the percentage of people in America who actually vote is regularly among the lowest among industrialized nations in the world.

I am not advocating for who one should vote for. I am merely exhorting people to exercise their right and cast a vote on election day.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Ready or Not, Here They Come

Learners at all ages and stages arrived at school on our first day of the new year full of hopes and dreams. We are responsible for nurturing and sustaining those ambitions. Perhaps the best way for our staff to collectively succeed in that task is to reflect on three questions:

1. If we were a child, would we want to attend this school?
2. If we had school age children, would we want to have them attend this school?
3. Does this school have a work environment where we want to spend half our waking hours each workday?

If the answer to any of the questions is "no" then we need to determine what we can do to address the perceived deficiency and effect a positive change. It's that simple in direction, and that difficult in execution. These three prevailing question serve as a compass for our efforts and a reminder of our purpose. Yes, there are all sorts of programs and policies that comprise the structure of the organization but the infrastructure, the soul of the school, remains the relationship between and among the inhabitants of the building. The focal point must be on maintaining the conditions that promote opportunities, expand possibilities, and encourage optimism. In short, we must be committed to ensuring that the learners of Heatly are offered the same level of service that we want for ourselves and our own children. If we do that we are pursuing a standard that is destined to grow success.

That shall be a guiding principle.

Monday, September 17, 2012

What I Did During Summer Vacation

It seems that every learner is confronted by the request to report on what they experienced over the summer. It's a reflective writing exercise designed for the teacher to gain some insight on the interests of the learners new to their classroom and it enables the teacher to arrive at an understanding of the level of written expression exercised by the class members.

Here's my report:

It had been thirteen months since I saw my son. He left for his Peace Corps assignment in Mongolia on June 1st 2011. That's half way around the globe and twelve time zones away. Fortunately, technology allowed us to communicate with each other via email, facebook, and skype. Nonetheless, we were anxious to see him.

My wife and I departed from New York City late at night on July 10th. Our son met us at the Genghis Khan airport in the capital city of Ulann Bataar. He and a driver took us to the small village he has called home for the last thirteen months. Bayanchandmani has a population of roughly 2,500 which makes it about the same size of the village of Green Island. Our son is the only resident among the inhabitants of Bayanchandmani who is not Mongolian. He teaches English language classes to learners in grades 5-11 (there is no grade 12) at he local public school.

It was an eye opening cultural experience. The many different habits and traditions of the Mongolians, were confusing to us. The language is very similar to Russian, with nearly an identical alphabet. The climate was cooler, perhaps due to the higher altitude.

However, one thing was very familiar to us and that was the enthusiasm and friendliness of the people of Mongolia, particularly the teenagers who study English with our son. I was amazed at their eagerness to learn English, which is the official second language of Mongolia. We played Bananagrams with several teens and they absorbed new words like a starving person devours food. Not only did they quickly learn the new words, but they could effectively soon use them in context shortly thereafter.

American culture was evident in the phrases and clothing of these teenagers. They knew all the latest popular songs and movies and were conversant on a variety of subjects, especially involving entertainment. Technology had bridged gaps between countries.

Mongolia is a land of herders, with nearly 1/3 of the population tending livestock - sheep, camels, yaks,  goats, and horses. The unfenced open range allows horses and cows to roam freely throughout town. One night, after using the wood stove to make an American meal of fired chicken and mashed potatoes, we opened the door of the ger (yurt) in which our son lives to cool it off and a cow surprised us by sticking it's head inside the opening.

A ger is a traditional home for many Mongolians. It is a felt layered structure that has a single door and no windows. It is round, with five foot walls and a roof that is cone shaped like a Native American tee-pee. It can be assembled and disassembled in short order that suits nomadic people, The only difference in the ger is that there's only one layer of felt in the summer and three layers in the brutal winters of the steppe. There is a wood burning stove that rests in the middle of the ger with a smokestack that reaches up through the top of the roof. There is no running water. Electricity often comes from a solar panel outside the ger. A satellite dish provides access to the outside world.

So, generally speaking, Mongolia is a Third World or developing country at the cusp of significant changes originating from the discovery of large deposits of copper and gold that has attracted foreign investors. Cranes dot the landscape of the capital during a time of great construction. This tremendous growth (half of Mongolia's population of three million people live in the city of Ulaan Bataar) has crowded around gers that remain in the hustling and bustling capital. It poses a sharp contrast between the past and future.

One of the items that has accelerated the changes is the cell phone. Mongolia is a beautiful country with vast stretches of empty spaces. It is the most sparsely populated country on earth. As such, the many miles of endless empty spaces that separate villages did not make telephone lines practical or affordable. Mongolians went from not having landlines to everyone having cell phones - over night! It seemed like every teen had a cell phone, and access to the Internet. Those tools enabled Mongolians to suddenly acquire instant news and constant updates. It was an explosion of information and communication that combined to democratize knowledge and expand opportunities.

The learners that we met and spent time with (we took a three day trip to a Buddhist monastery with three of the teens) impressed us with their appetite for learning and their motivation to learn English. I was struck by their commitment and dedication. Perhaps we in America take so much for granted and under-value and under-appreciate what opportunities we have. Our schools are much, much better in terms of buildings and supplies, technology and instruction, yet we appear to lag behind in the desire to learn and the willingness to sacrifice for learning.

My belief in the power of the human spirit leads me to suspect that desire and perseverance can eventually narrow the gap that presently exists between our learners and their counterparts in Mongolia. Ultimately, it's not the factors external to a child, like buildings and technology, that makes a difference in their future, it's what's internal in the form of intrinsic motivation, determination and attitude. While the time and space available in this Blog do not allow me to articulate my opinions on the causes, I will volunteer my opinion that over my thirty-five years in school leadership I have observed diminishing amounts of drive and devotion to learning among the children in our society.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Good, the Bad - and the Future?

Three days of school have passed us by already!

We're off to a quick start. The opening days have gone well, and relatively smooth considering the large number of changes we have experienced in our staff. Although we anticipated two resignations and one retirement at the conclusion of the last school year, we ended up with several unexpected changes. Two additional teachers and a teaching assistant resigned to accept positions in other districts. Since two of those departures occurred in late August, we scrambled to fill positions prior to the opening day of school. These changes resulted in a new K-12 Art teacher; a new 7-12 French teacher; a new 9-12 English teacher; a new 9-12 Science teacher; and a new 9-12 Math teacher. We also have a substitute K-12 Guidance Counselor due to a maternity leave. Since one of the teaching assistants was hired to the Math position, we ended up with two vacant positions for teaching assistants and they were both filled by people with special education teaching certificates. The lone remaining need we have now involves addressing a large number of learners in Kindergarten that warrants staff support for the teacher.

The analysis of an object or concept as either good or bad is contingent on the perception and values held by those analyzing the issue. Such is the case relative to the search and selection process we engaged in response to the vacancies we filled this summer.

The good news about all of these personnel changes is that we were able to select candidates from a very large pool of applicants for each post. Budget cuts have ravaged many public school districts throughout our state and nation and dramatically increased the number of available teachers. These school budget reductions left far fewer districts hiring teachers than in years past. From the vantage point of our school district, the ability to exploit the saturated market was a great opportunity. We examined a rich and deep pool of candidates as we filled the open positions. As a result, we were confident in all of our choices and even hired several teachers with valuable experience and training.

The bad news is that the number of people submitting applications has swelled in recent years due to an unfortunate by-product of the continued ill health of the national, state, and regional economy. That is, the reductions in the teaching staff of many schools tightening their budgets has increased the number of unemployed certified teachers searching for jobs. Also, the decision by many schools to not fill all teaching vacancies, and instead disperse learners in other classes to simultaneously decrease staff and increase class size (or eliminate programs), has accounted for fewer openings when teachers retire or resign. On top of all that, colleges in the area (and elsewhere) continue to manufacture a steady stream of graduates bearing degrees in education.

While the supply and demand imbalance is a benefit to us here and now in Green Island, in the "bigger picture," the field of education loses overall.In the long term, increased class sizes and depleted instructional programming will eventually produce the potential for negative consequences for learners everywhere.

And finally, it what could be an ironic twist in the years ahead, we may find the situation reversed in due time. The supply of teachers will diminish once the number of aspiring teachers is reduced in colleges because the significant and growing amount of unemployed teachers will dissuade people from choosing education as a college major. If and when the economy improves in one form or another, the demand for teachers will surge to recover from the recent and continuing losses in staff and programs. Between retirements and laid off teachers who have opted to move on into other careers.

If you work long enough in virtually any career you will experience swings of the pendulum that reflect fluctuations in economic, financial, and political conditions in the state or nation. This has been true in education regarding a variety of issues such as assessments, standards, codes of conduct, instructional practices, curricula, and hiring patterns. I'll leave it for the economists who study education to more clearly and accurately forecast the future of education - but I'll wager a safe bet and claim that our present situation will likely yield negative consequences in the not so distant future.

However, at this point in time, The Heatly School of Green Island will move forward with our reconstituted staff and seek to continue our progress, and hope for improved overall conditions in public school education in the years ahead.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

55 Septembers and the Question = Why?

I will turn sixty years old during this school year.

Since I began attending school in Kindergarten at age five, progressed through college immediately after graduating from high school, and thereupon embarked on an educational career that continues to this day - it means the opening of the 2012-13 school year will mark my fifty-fifth consecutive September in a school environment.

Unlike may jobs, education, although I work year-round, offers a calendar with a certain and distinct rhythm, complete with beginnings and interludes and ending with a crescendo. Whereas most positions of employment move steadily from day one to retirement in a continuous stream of endless day without any cycle, education provides a fresh start every September. It's an opportunity to begin again. New school clothes, new school supplies, new teachers, new classrooms, new friends, new possibilities...

It's that sense of optimism that emerges from the annual renewal that lifts my spirits and fuels my hopes. I am excited about greeting children tomorrow morning as they walk up the sidewalk on their approach to school. It's my attempt to welcome them with a comforting smile and personal acknowledgement as they begin another year. That experience is perhaps more rewarding to me than the kids who are anxious to pour inside the building and get started on creating the next chapter in their lives.  

Those two thoughts: so many Septembers and the prospect of ushering learners into their future, combined to make me consider why I remain engaged in educational leadership after such a long career. In reflecting on that subject, I was able to answer a vexing question that had lingered this summer and followed me like a long shadow. Several people in the area I grew up; friends, relatives, and even some staff members of the local school district, had asked me if I was applying for the superintendent's position when it becomes vacant this winter. I'll admit it was flattering and enticing.

But, the only reason I even considered that possibility as more than a fleeting thought was based on a movie-like story line of the little boy who went from the free lunch line at elementary school and grew up to become the leader of the entire school district. That would be intriguing - for one day. However, it wasn't a compelling motive and didn't prompt me to apply for the role. Thereafter, reality would set in. It wouldn't have been a good fit. Instead, what I found reaffirming and replenishing was the chance to make a positive difference in the lives of people from an arm's length rather than a distance measured by the miles that separate schools from one another in a larger school system.

I am proud of the school district where I spent thirteen years growing as an individual and forging a future. It was a great experience and it continues to be a very good school system. Whoever accepts the position will be fortunate.

I came to Green Island because it offered the chance to influence learners across all grade levels while regularly interacting with them. Larger districts have many benefits, but I didn't want to greet many of the learners for the first time when I hand them a diploma at graduation. I enjoy knowing all of our learners and feel confident that they know me as well.

I'm looking forward to another new school year - in Green Island.