Shout or Shun?

The high school yearbook; the quintessential culmination of your high school experience. Loaded with quotes, lists, and photos, they are also laced with headaches for administrators and beyond. Why? Errors. Intentional and unintentional.

In the past few weeks, I’ve read several articles about mishaps. Some are intentional; some appear just to be legitimate mistakes that end up turning into something because… well, just because.

Let’s start with the recent yearbook debacle in Wall Township. As a resident, I can attest that this has a strong conservative base. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when people try to, it becomes a problem. The article shows the senior in a Trump t-shirt, with copies of the photos he purchased with the Trump logo. The yearbook comes out – the picture had the Trump logo removed off of his shirt.

Love or loathe our President, removing a logo from a shirt is a clear violation of rights. This is a public school, and while Boards can set dress codes, there is nothing wrong with a t-shirt. If the t-shirt had something inappropriate (drugs, sex, clearly defined inappropriate language) – you replace. But a Trump logo?

The yearbook advisor was suspended during the investigation. While I think that too is going way beyond what is necessary, I’m going to assume that this was a student who did this. I am giving the licensed educator the benefit of the doubt knowing that doing something of this nature would be wrong.

Another incident has a senior in Northern NJ showing off her shoulders with a quote asking everyone if her shoulders distracted everyone from reading her yearbook quote. Personally, I loved her quote – and I’m not the only one. Her photo and quote were picked up by almost every major media outlet and a myriad of print resources, including Seventeen magazine and The Huffington Post. Call her smug, call her sassy, call her what. I call her brilliant. She points out an archaic policy that leads to this BOE getting a negative spotlight. International spectacle over mundane dress code policies leads to failure. it appears that this is another classic example of either administration or Board out of touch with today’s times and the power of social media. I’m hoping that they will address this instead of being the laughing stock of the world because of stubborn minds.

The last NJ Yearbook debacle that gained an eye or two was where a student claimed that her name was not misspelled, but another name was in her place and the only reason that was the case if because she’s African American.  While I certainly sympathize with her for the years of getting her name incorrectly and understand the frustrations of being called the wrong name in school, I do not think this was an intentional action on behalf of the yearbook staff.

Hopefully, people will see these news stories and reflect on their current practices so that one can enjoy yearbooks instead of being the focal point of them for all the wrong reasons. I was one of those cherubs who in my 1997 senior yearbook who also put a snarky comment in my yearbook not thanking one of the teachers.  Snarky? Yep. 1st Amendment? Yep. Wrong?  Nope.  Got a conversation going about how to fix things so all students can be/feel accepted.  Yep.  Onward we go?  Naturally.


Employee Transfers: everyone wins.

One of the nastiest words in education is “transfer.” The impact of the word in education circles can be felt all the way to the core of any school. Since transfers are often punitive, sometimes rewarding, and barely non-judgmental, people become freaked-out when transfers start happening in order to prepare for the next school year.

Transfers often start being thrown around at Christmas time, when administrators begin putting together their wish lists for the next year. The best way I can put it is that it’s like playing Monopoly. “I’ll give you Mr. X if you take Ms. Y & Mrs. Z.” I know; it sounds awful, but it’s often this way in districts. I previously blogged about what or how to do it in one-building districts so that you’re getting what your kids need in order to be successful. 

The biggest fear associated with transfers is dealing with the person who is not volunteering to do it. That person is often afraid of embarrassment, exposure, or being cast as ineffective. After seeing how your buildings and disctrict operates along with identifing your school / district strengths and pitfalls, sometimes you need a powerhouse in an academic or grade level area that needs help. It’s also totally worth taking those who are in need of some help that identify themselves as wanting assistance to become more effective in their craft. Then you have those who are completely useless. They are proud of it, defiant, paranoid, and angry, fully aware that they can’t be touched because of tenure. Let’s be honest here; this is a rarity. In my entire career, I have come across only two people in that spot (one in an educational position, one not) who were only sticking around to “defy the man” and to prove a point.

Transfers also rile up board members in some districts, regardless of your district size. Some even have policies set in place allowing for direct oversight (more about that in my book coming out this summer). Those being transferred who are not asking are the first to go to a board member and stoke the fire. While most board members understand that the superintendent makes recommendations and the board votes yes or no, other board members break ethics codes and “tag team” to create a beautiful, political, theatrical stage set consisting of tears, yelling, and dramatic votes. I’ve had it both ways as a superintendent, but I’ll share with you one instance where long-range planning truly paid off. 

Knowing that no matter what I said was going to be voted against, but seeing the dire need for movement, I set up a vote to fail. Yes, I’ll type it again. I set up something we (the admin team) worked on to fail. 

Why? Try to follow me here. I initially submitted a list from the admin team knowing it would be shot down. Why would I orchestrate such a thing? Three reasons:

  • Those rallying against it would be brought together and energized about the position they are in.
  • Those that don’t like me “get a win” by shooting down something I proposed.
  • Knowing that staying in their spots would lead to a modicum or no improvement (i.e. like the last 2 minutes of the last episode in every season of the HBO classic The Wire, where nothing changes) the board would have to go along with taking action the following year, despite how they felt.

The results? Perfection. People felt all good that they achieved a win (a huge morale booster), the essential moves took place (the list went from about 1/3 being moved to a handful) and the next year even more names were submitted for transfer. Folks could not disagree anymore; change was needed.

This is the epitome of long-range planning. Besides doing what is best for kids,  nothing is more satisfying than seeing someone carrying on about how transferring can’t be done and how wrong it is, rallying everyone up to fight it, only to then approve an ever bigger list the following year. It also shows how collusion and callousness can go hand in hand. The political part of the superintendency is often a chess game; while the checkmate may be sweet at the time, it’s looking at how the game was played and the long term effects of the game itself.

Was it sneaky? Anyone who doesn’t like me will say it was, and naturally I’m going to say It wasn’t at all. You can try to make the argument that I brought forward something in bad faith, but knowing that I could convince those to not vote for something last-minute was key. Again – the superintendent needs to look at the big picture and try to plan for years out, whether they are there or not. 

 Was this strategic long-range planning? Absolutely. It was a win-win all around, and you will able to see the results in due time. Creating a great team takes time. If the same thing was left in the same spot and  the same thing was done over and over while the world progressed around them, with a teacher or principal refusing to hanger their ways and pedagogues, where does that leave our future? Screwed. Not only does it cost the student academically, but it costs the taxpayer because now I have to provide additional services to help a student who isn’t succeeding.

I am hoping we (the public) will be seeing this in the future as the state department of education continues to progress and begins to roll out public records so everyone can see how a teacher teaches and how one progresses. Then everyone can see where the problem is. And that’s Just the beginning. Great things will be coming to the department of education after this election, regardless of which candidate wins. Like other states, it appears that the public in NJ will eventually be able to see and have access to much more data, including where teachers rank when it comes to state testing. This is essential for many reasons; more about this in my book to be released later this summer.

Transfers associated with short-term fixes are exactly that– short term. It’s about the long term and what results eventually happen–sometimes months, even years from now. Knowing that your actions had a positive impact on the students is what counts. Superintendents want to make positive changes that help our future that will eventually be taking care of us. The public often only gets one version, especially if the haters want to publicize something that is seen as change, additional work, and yes, doing something new. Nobody likes starting from scratch, but sometimes, that’s the best way. 

So, those transfers that occurred this year, last year, or even next year? On behalf of every Superintendent, you’re welcome. Your kids will benefit in the long run, I promise. Believe it or not, that’s why we all do what we do. Like you, we want our future to succeed; doing the same thing every year as the world zooms right past you is a downright disservice. 


Drunk Drivers Are Stupid

Today, I had the opportunity to sit in on a final meeting before the annual Project Graduation project that I have helped run for a number of years. If you aren’t familiar with the program, Project Gradutation is a program offered by many high schools in the United States, in which organized, adult-supervised and alcohol-free activities are offered as part of a post-graduation party, as an alternative to student-run events involving alcoholic beverages or other drugs. Most run the program the night of graduation; some choose that weekend. The theme for this year was a simple one: drunk drivers are stupid. 

The program is a great and often is a final way to celebrate the entire graduating class together. There are often lots of carnival-like games, tons of food (often ending with a breakfast buffet around 6 AM) and of course a DJ. The event is typically sponsored by the parent-teacher arm of the school and local businesses. 

I can imagine what you’re thinking at this point; many of the kids are just going to go and drink another night. That very well could be the case, and truthfully, we as a school are not going to stop students from experimenting with drugs, alcohol, or other dangerous decisions that they will come across. We can, however, offer all of the resources that we have as a community to deter students from making terrible decisions that can result in the destruction of life.

In the past, I have found visual deterrents to be very impactful. I previously blogged about what Hopewell Central High School did; a full blown mock fatal car accident, with the student council president dying in the wreck. Everything from the blood and crime scene markers to the funeral home showing up. It was full of lights, sirens, and sadness. It was painful to watch. That’s the point. 

I have also arranged for a car that was involved with a DWI / DUI to be “donated” to a high school and display it prominently by the main entrance or where my seniors parked their cars. Again, the image is gruesome, but it’s suppose to be.

There are also lessons that health / PE teachers complete, but as an administrator, I tried to get as many teachers involved. At HVRSD, supervisors also taught one class to keep us in the loop (I loved it). I had second semester seniors. We did a whole unit on why driving under the influence is stupid. We talked about the process, and how everyone can see this because it’s a public record. My favorite lesson was pulling up three different articles on high school party busts; the first two with descriptions & pictures, but the third one had an article with the names of every student who was arrested. That article was the game changer for many. In a matter of hours, your life can change, and not for the better.

I recently saw one statistic that a drunk driver who gets arrested has driven as much as 430 separate times under the influence. How scary is that? 

It’s facts like that that our future needs to be aware of. Drunk driving, or driving under the influence of anything, it just downright stupid and dangerous. We see Celebrities getting busted daily and glorified in our pop culture, but we also see kids who just graduated go through the same thing. 

 Nothing is more painful that seeing someone who worked so hard only to have their lives ruined or taken away because of stupid decision making. I’ve seen it on all levels in schools, from students to administrators; on no level is it easier to deal with. As leaders, we have an onus the make sure that whomever this happens to gets the help they need. 

Here’s to hoping you or a student from your town does not have to go through this. In today’s times where we as a society seldomly agree on anything, we can all agree that drunk driving is stupid.

They Finally Retired!

For the past decade, I have been privileged to speak at retirement dinners of over a dozen teachers that I had in Union. While it’s always been nerve-racking to speak in front of former teachers, this was one of my favorite teachers, and she wasn’t even my teacher! She was a club adviser.

The party was more like a comedy roast–full of imbibing and crude humor.  The room had a special energy in it. I was home with a room full of progressive educators from an affluent district that understands, and more importantly, embrace where schools are going.  The jokes made sense, the stories couldn’t be made up if you tried, and there was real bread being served at the table (sorry, it’s a North Jersey thing).

The honoree, who had consumed quite a few beverages, took center stage.  We all know alcohol is the social lubricator, but holy cow. She did not hold back. Red faces. Awkward laughs. Truth. More laughter. Explosive laughter!

What really stood out? A couple weeks ago, the honoree started talking about the honoree’s career and other retiree’s careers in the staff lounge and overheard some younger teachers say, “they finally retired” and how hurtful that comment was. She was angry, and she had every right to be. I know that I’ve been in education for only 16 years, but with the technology revolution that has turned education upside down in terms of how to teach and what traditional pedagogy is, some have had such a hard time keeping up. Some are frustrated because they learned the latest and greatest technology, only to be replaced months later with something else. I empathize with that.

The teacher then went on with a slew of memorable quotes from the evening; I believe it was a combination of wit and inspiration from Jack Daniels. Quotes included:

“When it came to technology, I was useless in the end. Why? Because nobody came to show or help me how to use this Chromebooks thing or tablet thing or whatever other bell and whistle came was dropped off in my room. If the administration wasn’t going to take the time to invest in me, why should I?”

“____ was a master of doing nothing other than being a lapdog for ____ and rallying people up. I’d be too if I had no schedule and was allowed to roam at will for 20 years. Talk about a master of nothing!  Of course, {the teacher} looked sharp and always looked impressive. ____ was like a like a sharp pencil tip; sharp looking because it was never used!”

“___ was placed as far away from kids because they wanted to be. ____ had no class management, couldn’t teach if they tried, and was only kept around because we all know the spouse goes by  ‘Captain Lawsuit’.”

“Everyone thought ____ was bad because half the time he couldn’t even spell his name let alone sign in on a computer. Then the new gal comes along and the do-nothing’ clique finally realizes that they are going to be called out for not doing anything.”

While these were all clearly the result of a combination of some beverages and pent up frustration, this is the one that struck me to the core:

“You can’t be mad at me for not knowing what I don’t know. I’ve seen fads, I’ve seen the cool kids come and go, and I’ve seen our town for what it is. If a community is satisfied with what they have, why try to change it? I understand we have to make updates and upgrades and all of the other #%^*+ over the years, but it’s not because we don’t care or we don’t want to change. It’s because of the way it was said and how things were handled. I’m proud of what I’ve done and wouldn’t have changed a thing. And if you don’t like that, then why the hell are you here?”

After a thunderous ovation, we said our goodbyes and thank you’s.

The closing remarks were bone-shaking to me and close to home. Most of my career has been spent in large, affluent, progressive school districts. My last two weren’t even heard of by most and those that live there like it just that way. They didn’t want grandeur or spectacle, just change and upgrades to get to today’s times and meet the requirements. In some areas I tried doing that:  just meet the modicum so the boat doesn’t rock. Other things didn’t happen that way, and, when they didn’t, I was the first to scratch my head asking why people would not want recognition and higher standards like all of the other places I’ve been. I was always under the impression that I was hired for my accolades and my proof of change. I was… but…. all of the extras (social media, modern-day pedagogy, format changes, streamlining, etc) was not and instead was met with fear and strong resistance. I think many were also scared that I was looking to expose those that weren’t doing their job or show the public that certain ways and programs were not applicable to today’s times. Some translate that as weakness, and employees being seen as not what folks thought them to be over the years. I get that, too. If someone is “just okay,” but everyone thinks the individual is amazing, it can cause discomfort.

I took away many lessons from this legendary speech; honesty, reality checks, politics, frustration, and how powerful a speech can be when it’s from the heart (and booze).

Before people think this was a booze-fest, it wasn’t. It’s the culture of embracing and having a good time.  A handful had a really good time.  Some places are like that; other cultures will live it up with apple juice at a church hall so they don’t offend anyone. That’s the nature of the beast; not every school district is the same.  It never will be. It’s not a bad thing, but many have tried (including myself) to model it to something they’ve had before that worked. Things work in different areas because the culture accepts it and people want it.  If the culture does not want the change, there is nothing that you alone can do to change it.  Culture takes a ton trust and support; if you have one or none of these qualities, don’t burn yourself out trying to.

To the retirees that attended Friday, all the best in your retirement. To everyone else that is retiring this year: thank you for your service. No matter how anyone feels about you, I truly believe that you know that you were in it for the right reasons and you can recall instances where you helped a student move onward. Enjoy whatever the next chapter brings you.


Pop the Champagne!

IMG_0707There are many reasons to pop the champagne if you are an educator; you’ve either crossed the finish line or are about to! While I hope every educator will take the time to relax and recharge this summer, some will still have the 2017-18 school year on their mind. Many will be spending time exploring projects, ideas, and technology at their leisure.  If you are feeling overwhelmed already,  below is a great 2-minute-flick on how you can take charge of your own PD this summer and in the future. Now, get off my blog and enjoy the beautiful sun!

Is It Me?

These past four years have been the hardest years of my career thus far. While they have taken me places I would never have thought I would go, both academically and physically, I do admit they’ve taken a toll on me.  Yes, I’m admitting it; being a superintendent is draining.

I knew it going in, but like all jobs, you don’t really know until you live it.

Has it been rewarding?  The best job in the world.

Has it been challenging? LOL, yes.

Is it everything I thought it would be? Oh, yea. And then some! 

Would I have gone down this path knowing what has and could happen? Absolutely.

Would I have done it all the same exact way, step by step? Of course not! I’m human; I make mistakes like everyone else.

Would I have taken the same jobs in the same places knowing what I know now? No doubt. I’ve learned so much about communities, family, and life!

I came from a blue-collar family. My dad was a CNC Machinist; my mom was a secretary. I was the first in my family (on both sides) to graduate college. While I went to a very expensive university, I never forgot my roots. It’s what made me. That being said, I spent most of my educational and administrative career in very affluent school districts where money was never a problem (but don’t be fooled, as the rapper B.I.G. said, mo’ money, mo’ problems – and different kinds of problems).

When I became a superintendent, I went to South Jersey. The 856. The land of hoagies, Eagle nation,  “pork roll,” and scrapple.  Why do I say all of these things? Ladies and gentlemen, if you don’t know, there is a very, very big difference between North & South Jersey. And while I can scapegoat to the map below and blame it on this:


It’s nothing to do with that.

It’s  really this:

I’m the guy who willingly came into no-man’s-land, and I say that because people down there like it that way.  When I became a superintendent, I was hired (twice) in very small districts because they wanted someone from the outside and they wanted change.  Change they got. Do people really want change?  I have found in my career that people love to throw the word change around, but wanting to change…

The higher you move up the totem pole, the bigger your target gets. I knew that going in.  So, why even do it?

Because I can. Because I was made to do this. Because my passion is infectious. Because I don’t care about the size, money, or what you have or don’t have. Because I’m hell bent on proving that a zip code will not determine an education of a student. Because I have no problem not being everyone’s friend and don’t believe in playing politics to keep a job. Because I don’t mind having the hard conversations. Because I expose; I expose the great things going on in a school and also expose the bad stuff because no district is perfect. Because I am relentless and will never bow down to the old boys club or special interests. Because I know those who know me know that I will show everyone, everything. Because I never have anything to hide.

Is it me? Yep. Im a Superintendent. Deal with it.