Going Backwards?!?

They say that the old stuff is new again. Wood paneling on walls. Deviled eggs. One teacher for all subjects in middle school.

Just kidding…or am I?

About once every two months I’m fortunate enough to still meet at a local diner with stakeholders from a former district. Great food, wifi, and, yes, a room in the back where we can eat, drink, and be merry. Our “dinner club” consists of teachers, parents, retirees, employees, and even some current and former elected officials. We should really call ourselves the dirty dozen; our table is rather messy by the time we are done.

We do have one rule at this gathering; NO SHOP TALK. Meaning, I don’t want to get into current practices, gossip, or local politics. We’ve been good for almost a year, and then we slipped. A parent lashed out about a logistical change. A change back to something that was pretty cool to do between the inception of public school to about the 1960’s, lingered on until the late 80’s, and was all but dead when everyone realized how detrimental such a concept is given our world today.

When a parent brought it up, I choked on my food. Surely this couldn’t be. Yet it was. All I could do was shake my head and sigh. Those poor kids, being set up for failure. All of the hard work and buy-in, all of the long meetings, all of the anger, for what? All gone.

As disappointing as it was to hear and sad to see that students will go back into a pattern of remediation the following year to catch them up to where they are supposed to be, I was very quick to switch gears. “Oh, well,” I quipped.

“Oh, well?” the parent bit back. “That’s all that you can say?” She was legitimately annoyed and expressed to the table that her kid was getting screwed in the process. The parent felt this was being done not out of student benefit, but out of bitter political spite. “They are literally going through a checklist of accomplishments that were made under your watch and are undoing them. You changed this for the better and now we are going backwards in every way.”

I said, “Oh, well,” again.

She began to cry. I pulled her over to the side and said very simply that there is nothing I can do about it. The board of education sets the polices and philosophies, writes the paychecks, and has control over one person–the superintendent. If a board changes multiple times and new leadership is elected, the board goes on a different path; the board itself changes every time a person leaves or comes on. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

That being said, if the board directs the superintendent to go in a certain direction, the superintendent will most likely do it if he/she needs a job. It’s unfortunate, but it is what it is. Most people have families, mouths to feed, and bills to pay. Some superintendents can take the rogue and/or lazy route if they have other things lined up where their families are taken care of and so on. But if the Superintendent needs a job, well the Superintendent is most likely going to listen to the bosses. Thankfully, Superintendents don’t have tenure.

In the meantime, you can and are allowed to disagree.  That’s healthy and democratic, but please be supportive in a way so that your child can grow, learn, and move forward. Politicizing, witch hunts, and fishing expeditions don’t do anything but create stress amongst a myriad of stakeholders and waste money. There is no need to put you or your child through that. In all seriousness, if things were that bad, the teacher, leadership, or board member(s) wouldn’t be there; they’d be in jail.

One last point I told the mom to consider–wait until the standardized scores come out. When you look at one set of data of what was good for kids versus implementing something that isn’t, you’ll see it, clear as day, guaranteed. You’ll compare it to other state reports, and you’ll be able to make a clear path and argument that what was in place versus going backwards for future years will explode in the board’s face. Surely, they will try to spin it and place blame on something or someone (one time I was even blamed for potholes, on public record!), but the real truth will get out, and now you have a case to run for the board yourself.

I’m looking forward to our next gathering. Diner food is…well…a Jersey thing!

Onward!

Setting Meaningful Goals

When I first became a superintendent, I wrote down two goals I wanted to reach by the end of my 5th year. Those goals were:

  • To get back to the North / Central NJ area
  • To gain experience in rural, suburban, and urban districts

I’m proud to say that I’ve reached those goals–surely not the way I planned to, but I did it.

In our first NJASA Superintendents’ Academy meeting, Dr. Bozza had us take a leadership style assessment and set goals. Just as we all do when we read “set goals,” I balked and assumed it was a waste of time. What was cool, though, was that it was also the first year of Student Growth Objectives (SGOs) in New Jersey, where all teachers had to also set goals that were in alignment with their classes. Since we, as leaders, were being indoctrinated in this new practice as well, it was the perfect time to set them. SGO’s should exhibit three characteristics:

  • Be achievable
  • Be measurable
  • Be attainable

I wanted to choose my superintendent goals with the mindset of SGO goal-making. I wanted to emulate the experience that all of my teachers and principals would have to go through. I initially started with two goals that were a joke–all fluff. Then I circled back and really thought about them. Are these goals which I can share with my board? Are these goals I can actually achieve? Can these goals be measured? Can I attain these goals by doing my job and not creating a myriad of extra work?  I then rewrote my goals, and I recall rewriting them several times that day. I finally worked it down to the two goals and felt that they were achievable, measurable, and attainable.

When the offer to become a superintendent at the age of 34 was presented, I took it. My taking the position required me to move to a new home, be submerged in a new culture (that of South Jersey), and transition from working in powerhouse, wealthy, progressive districts to the complete opposite. I was way outside of my comfort zone but knew I could do it; I was made to do this.

I’m proud to say that I’ve successfully turned around two districts and am now beginning my third. I’m not saying it simply because it believe it; I’m saying it because every single state report with every single piece of data shows it. Test scores? Up. Technology integration? Accomplished. More meaningful and effective PD’s? Check. Financial stability? Done. Again, not my saying so.  The state reports show it, and that data can’t be manipulated or fabricated in any way.  The first two districts were in the land of the “856,” and now I’m back in the “908.”

My second goal was a personal one. While I feel that my background has served all walks of life, I wanted to gain experiences on all socioeconomic levels in all geographical areas. It’s my personal goal to take my skill set and apply it on a statewide or federal level. While my business experiences and aspects of my job have allowed me to meddle in some statewide initiatives and federal projects, having the data to back up my accomplishments would be paramount in ascertaining the position.

As so many school years are getting ready to commence, I hope you take some time and write down two attainable, meaningful, achievable goals that you can shoot for this year. I wish all of you a wonderful 2017-18 school year!

Onward!

Twenty Years Ago

I still can't believe that I graduated Union High School 20 years ago this year. 1997 was a fun year–a senior in high school, not a care in the world. Then again, it was a different world.

My superintendent, Dr. Jakubowski (with whom I still speak), made two prominent points at our graduation.

1. Don't get into a stranger's car.

2. Don't use the internet.

Today, I use the internet to get into a stranger's car.

Twenty years ago, I had to call Domino's Pizza and order a large pie and have cash on hand.

Today, I can tweet, use my watch, tell Alexa to order me one, text an emoji, and, yes, still call. Cash is discouraged.

Twenty years ago, I needed a travel agent to get to college and have a paper course guide in hand while being prepared to stand in line for hours to pick classes.

Today, it's all done in a matter of clicks.

Twenty years ago, most of my classes were heralded by teachers going right out of a textbook, with desks in rows and giving out so many worksheets that I probably had a tree's worth.

Today, in many classrooms, that practice still continues. Why hasn't that changed?

Many reasons. Some teachers don't know any better, some administrators refuse to budge on allowing other pedagogues besides the ones that worked for them, and some boards show defiance as well as their lack of knowledge and insight. Often, it's a combination of all three groups interchanging all three characteristics.

This is just downright sad. There are establishments and cultures in place where mediocrity is encouraged and heaven forbid someone goes rogue and tries meeting learners where they are today. There are school districts in place (from the BOE down to the staff) where the same ol' same ol' is practiced, hence producing he same ol' same ol' student. Towns and people who accept this are going to get what they've always had, but we now have students who are ready to change the world in 2017 instead of 1997. Is this fair for the future students who will eventually be taking care of us?

An education union representative once told me that "education has changed more in the past 6 years than the past 60." If everyone is cognizant of it, why fight the inevitable?

We all get it; change sucks. People love to say "change" but don't want to change, especially if it affects them. However, in today's times where today's students have had internet access and have been exposed to social media & apps for their entire scholarly lives, how can those in the educational field continually maintain past practice damn well knowing it's going to hurt our future?

Twenty years ago, I didn't know my career path, let alone knew that the path I chose has a broken system that is still frequently embraced. Today, I'm well aware of it and refuse to stop advocating for those who don't know any better.

I'm here for our future. Are you?

Onward.

You’re Not Mental

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image credit: https://media3.giphy.com/media/4Ya8UtZz4PEuk/200_s.gif

I hope everyone knows the above quote.  If not, you need to stop reading this and Netflix this movie!

I’ve done it, you’ve done it, and everyone you’ve worked with has done it.  At some point, you’ve taken a day off, but you didn’t use a vacation day, you weren’t sick, and you did things just for yourself with it. Shopped. Went out to eat. Got a massage or had a spa day. Watched a movie. Saw a baseball game. Binge-watched a series. Slept in. You get the idea. The phrase “mental-health day” has circulated in the workplace for years, yet many shy away from saying that’s what they’re taking.

NBC Nightly News recently aired a story about an employee who emailed her boss saying she was taking a mental-health day. Her boss replied, supporting her.

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image credit: http://www.boredpanda.com/woman-email-mental-health-day-ceo-response-madalyn-parker/

So…why is this important, and how does this relate to the field of education?

In our line of work, we need to be at the top of our game every single day. We need to be all-in.  We need to be cognizant that giving any less effort only hurts us. Taking time for ourselves in order to decompress and partake in wellness activities is paramount for us to succeed. We are not confined to a cubicle or in a monotonous job. We are taking care of the future who will eventually be taking care of us.

While the summer is a great time to recharge and relax, we need to be doing this during the school year as well. We need to eat right, exercise, and partake in wellness. We all need mental-health days. Don’t shy away from it; be proud of it.

To the Library!

In the world where we have scads of information at our fingertips, why are libraries still amazing? Because they evolve as we do. Well…some of them. If you’ve never come to appreciate your library, or you have a sucky one, I’m sorry. The power and resourcefulness of a quality library is priceless.

I was fortunate to have a superb library growing up. We had a wonderful children’s section, where we could even take out puppets and pop-up books. There was an ample variety of music, a great research section, and we even had an art gallery–always a quiet place to study, to jump into a great book, or even become engulfed in current events.

When deciding to move, one of the biggest factors for me was the library. As our times have evolved, so have most libraries, whether it offers videos, music, and now, in some places, even tools for our homes. Always offering community programming, the library is still the focal point of many in town. It should be the second biggest gem, schools being first.

I’ve worked in towns where there wasn’t a library and was dumbfounded. (Just for the record, when I moved to South Jersey, I had never heard of an all-volunteer fire department either). I’ve also seen libraries the size of my office, and they were amazing. Size doesn’t matter; what they’re offering does.

Recently I have been working with several districts to pair them up with local libraries to partake in cross-venture activities. In one location, the library was shut down due to poor attendance. We are going to open the school one day a week from 4 – 8, so that the community can come in for a variety of opportunities including the use of wifi, computer labs, and, yes, check out books. Another district is planning a weekly potluck dinner with each grade level taking a week over the summer to host. The coolest concept I have seen being planned is bi-weekly movie nights with “movies under the stars” featuring summer book club reads. How cool is that? I can’t wait to hear about the results.

In 2017, the library is still relevant. It’s still a place where learners of all ages can go and engage in a variety of activities. Don’t forget this as we all start going into summer mode. Check out a good book or enjoy a movie under the stars,  video game, craft night, potluck dinner, or perhaps some light banter. It’s what the library is all about!

Slut Shaming – Part II

 

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image credit: netflix.com

 

If you haven’t heard the buzz, the Netflix mini-series “13 Reasons Why” has taken over many conversations in the educational community.  Based on the book by Jay Asher,  it focuses on high schoolers (set in today’s educational environment) with the usual cliques (cool kids, preppies, honors kids, jocks, band kids, and…). A student at their school, Hannah, takes her own life, and another student, Clay, returns home from school to find that he has received a package in the mail containing seven double-sided cassette tapes from Hannah, each tape detailing an incident and a person that played into why she killed herself.  They had been sent to several others before arriving at Clay’s door.  There were 13 parts on Netflix, and, after watching each segment, I had a nasty knot in my stomach. Some knots were from my own awkward high-school experiences; others were from the blatant evil that today’s students can be subjected to or can utilize.

I don’t want to give away the entire story, but it starts with an incident that I blogged about last spring–slut shaming.  (On a side note, that post gained a bit of traction when someone became completely paranoid and thought he/she was the only one who received it. This is not sexual harassment; this is educational information.) Hannah has a picture taken of her with a boy on a “date” which is seen by the boy’s friend and taken completely out of context.  His friend grabs the phone and then sends the picture out to an entire class, which eventually makes it around the entire school.

Topics include the aforementioned slut shaming, rape, sexual assault, cover-ups, and societal acceptance–the daily grind of what high-school life is today. High school is an interesting navigation as is.  Throw in today’s technology, and you have a whole new world–a world where previous generations can’t even begin to fathom what is happening in school anymore.  It’s no longer passing notes and settling the score at the flagpole over some stolen milk money.

Teen suicide is the second largest cause of death in the US. For every teen who commits suicide, at least six others are thinking about following that same path. Despite such a terrible statistic, conversations are happening every single day about getting people the help they need. While the series has launched a multitude of proactive stances and resources, it has also caused some copy-cat incidents and some concerns from mental health experts.

Thankfully, 13RW is a fictional story. It is meant to raise awareness of suicide and is not based on any single or real person. However, while Hannah’s story is not real, students often do have similar experiences and thoughts to those of the characters and identify with those they see on TV or in movies. Therefore, it is important to remember that there are healthy ways to cope with the topics covered in this series, and acting on suicidal thoughts is not one of them.

If you have watched the show and feel that you need support or someone to talk to, reach out. Talk with a friend, family member, counselor, or therapist. There is always someone who will listen. Suicide should never be a response to life’s challenges or adversities. The vast majority of people who experience bullying, the death of a friend, or any other crisis addressed in 13RW do not die by suicide. In fact, most do reach out, talk to others, seek help, or find other productive ways of coping. They go on to lead healthy, normal lives.

Suicide is never a heroic or romantic act. Although some might watch 13RW and see Hannah in that light, there is nothing heroic at all. In fact, 13RW can be viewed as a tragedy. It is important to know that, in spite of the portrayal of a serious treatment failure in 13RW, there are many treatment options for all types of distress and mental illness.  Treatment works.

Suicide affects everyone, and we all can do something to help if we see or hear warning signs that someone is at risk.  Talking openly and honestly about emotional distress and suicide is okay.  It will not make others more suicidal or put the idea of suicide into their minds. If you are concerned about someone, ask him/her about it. Knowing how to acknowledge and respond to those who share their thoughts of emotional distress or suicide with you is important. Don’t judge them or their thoughts. Listen. Be caring and kind. Offer to stay with them. Offer to go with them to get help or to contact a crisis line.

In my opinion, how the counselor responded in this series is not appropriate and not typical of most counselors. School counselors are professionals and are a trustworthy source for help. While not everyone will know what to say or have a helpful reaction, there are people who do, so keep trying to find someone who will help you. If someone tells you that he/she is suicidal, take that information seriously and get help.

Leaving messages from beyond the grave is a dramatization produced in Hollywood and is not possible in real life. Memorializing someone who died by suicide is not a recommended practice. Decorating someone’s locker who died by suicide and/or taking selfies in front of such a memorial is not appropriate and does not honor the life of the person who died by suicide. Hannah’s suicide blames other people for her death.

Suicide is never the fault of survivors of suicide loss. There are resources and support groups for suicide-loss survivors. If you are immediately concerned about yourself or a friend, reach out for help by texting 741741 or visiting  http://www.crisistextline.org/. You can also learn about emotional health and how to support a friend by going to https://www.jedfoundation.org/help, and you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 | En Espanol: 1-888-628-9454 | Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889 or by visiting Suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

On The Mend

It’s been an interesting November & December. While I have been truly blessed with my family, my career, and my traveling, I took a rare step. I did something for myself early in November. I had gastric bypass surgery.

This surgery has been a long time in the making. For most of my life, I’ve been the fat guy.  While I just tolerated it in middle and high school, I took it all off in college. I went from 340 lbs to 208 lbs. How? I was in the gym, every day, for at least 4 hours. In about a year, I took it all off, I was in shape, and even had a social life. It was awesome.

Post college and into the real world, I certainly didn’t have time for four-hour workouts, let alone eating properly and caring about my looks. Slowly but surely, it all came back. I tried every yo-yo diet and fad exercise in between with no results. The past five years have been the worst. I wouldn’t just eat; I would graze, all day. Fast food stops when I was bored or just because. Really bad. I eventually got to 350 lbs again, and now older, other medical conditions came with it. Acid reflux. Diabetes. Fatty liver. All of that bad stuff.

I decided on the traditional ‘roux en y’ procedure versus the sleeve and other methods. My stomach is now the size of a duck egg. While that may sound heinous to some, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. I basically can eat about 1/3 to 1/2 cup of food. If I go over that, I’ll get ill. While the recovery has been a bit rocky at times, I am finally able to eat, get out of bed without being in pain, lift, take steps and all of that.

As always, “Jay, what does this have to do with education?”

I feel that the past six weeks have been a time of patience and persistence. I was under the impression that I would be up and running within 48 hours and had to constantly be reminded that this was a major surgery and it will take time to heal. It’s a whole new way of eating as well. I went from eating a 20 piece chicken McNuggets in one session to maybe finishing one.

Change is hard. Often, change is good. Eating in a healthy manner, exercising, and practicing a healthy lifestyle is going to do wonders for me. I couldn’t do it alone before, and I was allowed to get a tool (this surgery) to help me.

Teachers and administrators often go through change, and the change is hard. However, when the Superintendent is following the mission and the vision that was created to circulate around students and growth, and are provided the tools and time to adjust to the mindset, change will be good.

For those on the change roller coaster, hang in there. It will settle when all the pieces come together. Focus on what’s best for your students.  As long as you keep doing that, you’ll be AOK.

 

 

::insert insult here::

With the US election 2016 in the books, we can all agree that it was an election like no other. We have seen, heard, and were dragged along on quite an experience. I live in a TV market where there was a highly contested race, so I feel I was subjected a little more. I never thought I would admit this, but I am happy to see all of the holiday commercials instead of the campaign commericals. 

This election year, I was honored to work with NEWSELA and NBC news; both national organizations asked to come in my district to not only shoot commercials, but interview students and teachers about this election cycle and the  challenges that it brought.

One of the continual issues that arise with students and staff was the use of language. You’ve heard the sound bytes; how does a teacher teach about that? How does  a student process that? Based on the responses from both parties — very carefully. 

What was nice to hear from all of the staff interviewed is that they didn’t have to review the blatantly inappropriate; everyone stuck to the issues. Students were presented  (and voted on) the issues. 

You can watch the NBC news segment by clicking here.

You can watch the NEWSELA segment by clicking here.

All educators should be commended for remaining impartial and presenting things in a simple, calm, noncombative way. Teachers  didn’t have to use vulgarity, call people stupid idiots, or succumb to election parlor tricks. 

Civility was disregarded in this past election, but was never lost in our classrooms. Good teaching will ensure it never will.

Thankfully, Thanksgiving  is right around the corner; with the holiday season in full throttle after that, we can hopefully put all of the nastiness into memory. 

… And onward we go!

Wanna REALLY learn? Check out a TeachMeet!

Another packed room for the Dirty 30 v.4.0!

I’ll admit it – I’m an edcamp junkie. I love spending my own time on weekends or using my vacation days to go learn something new about what’s happening in schools. I’m passionate about my craft, 24/7. 

Kyle Calderwood kicks off #tmnj16

Over the years, the edcamp movement has exploded, but there is also another Un-conference that is gaining major traction: TeachMeet. Today, I attended my third TeachMeetNJ in Toms River.

73 teachers partook in BreakoutEDU

There are some differences between an edcamp and a TeachMeet. The two biggest differences are that a schedule is predetermined, and morning sessions are only 20 minutes, with participants voting at lunch for 45 minute sessions in the afternoon (based on what they saw in the AM). 

I had the chance to run a session on one of the most interesting educational tools to “break out” on the scene, BreakoutEDU. The room was packed; always a good thing. Packed rooms, on weekends or days in the summer, always show me that there are educators all over that want to learn more and more on their time. The room was very intrigued and it appeared that some would be looking into the kit for the upcoming school year.

TeachMeet scheduled food trucks for lunch!

I attended sessions on NextGen, Makerspaces, 8-bit gaming, and even gamification. And yes, I presented my annual Dirty 30 – now as version 4.0.

Three major highlights of the day –

1) Seeing one of my teachers present her knowledge and skill set to others. She had a  full crowd and lead the workshop with grace. I really have some amazing staff members. 

2) Food trucks for lunch, with a $5.00 voucher to be used towards them. Ingenious.

3) 73…… Yes, 73 teachers stayed for breakoutEDU; they broke-out in under 18 minutes. Pretty damn cool. 

In all, one of the best PD days I have attended and facilitated this year. People left charged – the excitement was palpable. Here’s to a great school year!

Second Hand News

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Summer is a time for relaxation, recharging, and for some, regrouping. I’m a big fan of just zoning out on the beach to some tunes. One of my favorite bands, Fleetwood Mac, was just on with their hit “Second Hand News”. I know the song has nothing to do with school, but the title sure does.

As a Superintendent, I am constantly addressing the rumor mill and second-hand news.  There’s not a day that does not go by where I don’t hear “well I heard that…” or “someone told me that…” or “is it true that…” To be clear almost every administrator goes through this. In no way, shape, or form is this unique to me.

Once you think you hear it all, something else comes along.  It’s constant, but almost expected.

Why would I waste time blogging about this? Simple; others folks in my position need to know it’s not just you, your district, or location. It’s everywhere. What you need to do is simply laugh it off and keep moving along. The only time I address rumors is when someone is personally being scrutinized for something.

Will rumors ever stop? Never. Will they dictate my life or my leadership. Absolutely not. Rumors are rumors, and peddling, laughing, and rolling with them is just as much a apart of school culture as snacks in the faculty room.