Friday, February 16, 2018

Veteran Advice from a New Teacher: Amanda Williams, Oak Knoll Middle School

As a beginning teacher, I would like to offer advice for other new teachers and for veteran teachers alike. The past year and a half has been a rollercoaster for me and I have learned quite a bit through my challenges. I have narrowed my thoughts down to five statements that I hope can help soon to be teachers and remind current teachers of what they learned in their first year.
#1 Accept the joyful moments as they arrive. The teaching profession can have many challenges, but the opportunity to laugh and smile presents itself many times throughout the day, especially while teaching 6th grade. Make sure you don’t miss those opportunities. It is very easy to become distracted by the stressors and miss an opportunity to just enjoy the moment. This has been a challenge for me. I often have to remind myself of what is truly important and try not to let challenges affect my classroom demeanor. A good laugh is often all you need to turn your own day around. Seldom do we realize that it is exactly what our students need as well. They need to see that we are happy, we are passionate about what we teach, and we are human. Do not be afraid to laugh and make your students laugh. Be receptive of your students’ jokes and joyful moments. Your students will love you for it.
#2 You are going to need help; ask for it! As a first year teacher, I knew that I would be working with a team of 6th grade teachers, a mentor, the administrators, and the support staff. What I did not expect is how much support they would provide throughout the school year. I feared that I would be "on my own" to face my challenges my first year of teaching, but that was not the case. It took time for me to become comfortable enough to seek out help, but upon doing so I learned that I work with an amazing group of people who love to help. I never expected that I would like having visitors in my classroom, but I do. Last year, I had three students with autism in one of my classes. This was something I did not feel prepared for, but our autism coordinator came into my room almost every day to check on the students and ask me if there was anything she could do to help. During my first year, I was nervous about having a collaborative partner. I feared that I was not going to be good enough or that we would not work well together. I now love my collaborative partner. I love that we have are able to co-teach and that she can help add things to lessons in order to best support our students. As a beginning teacher in Hanover County, you are assigned a mentor that helps you throughout the school year. Our math specialist was my mentor for my first year and I cannot thank her enough for the amount of support she provided and still provides. She often came in and helped me teach lessons. She understood and supported me whenever I decided to edit my lessons 30 minutes before class started. My family has also been extremely supportive. No one complained when I asked my dad and brother to help me cut out laminated cards during my brother’s birthday dinner. My husband reads out grades so I can quickly record them in my grade book and he helps me sort through the piles of papers I constantly bring home. I never expected that I would receive so much advice, reassurance, and support from my personal family and my work family. When teaching in Hanover County, you are definitely never alone. There will be a community of people supporting you whenever you need it; you just have to ask.
#3 You’ll create to-do lists and probably never finish them… and that is okay. Oddly enough, this was one of the things I frequently struggled with as a new teacher. For the first time in my life I was creating a new to-do list before completing the previous one. In teaching, you are never done with all of your work. Your lessons and materials are constantly changing because there is always room for improvement. There are always emails that need to be sent, papers that need to be graded, and lessons that need to be revised. As soon as you complete one task there will be three more added to your plate. Over the past year I have had to learn to accept that I will never be “done” and I have had to learn to prioritize items. My recommendation is to create to-do lists that include some items that you have already done, just so you can cross them off.
#4 Make time for yourself and friends. In teaching, you are never alone.   There are always students around; even when you are out in the community outside the school building. Most of our time is spent with our students, which is why it is important to remember to connect with other teachers. Being new to a school and the teaching profession is especially intimidating. Over the past year and a half, I have been fortunate to be surrounded with the best support system I could have ever asked for. The teachers I work with are some of the funniest and most real people I have ever encountered. It is often difficult to find time to connect with other teachers, but it is extremely worth it when you do. In addition to connecting with other teachers, make sure you make time for yourself. Whether it be yoga, reading, or Netflix; you must remember to do something that you love. Find something that allows your mind to escape from all your worries.
#5 Be patient with your students and yourself. Show your students how much you care by being patient with them when they are having a rough day. You never know what your students may be experiencing outside of the classroom. A seemingly trivial item to you may mean the world to them. Listen to their stories and allow for them to share their sorrows. This is vital for building a positive relationship with students. Building a good report with students will allow for other aspects of teaching, such as classroom management, to go more smoothly. Be patient with your students and they will, hopefully, be patient with you. Being patient with myself is something I have struggled with as a new teacher. Naturally, I want everything to be perfect and I am often too hard on myself when things do not go as planned. I am learning to accept the things that are out of my control and focus on the things that I can control or improve. My colleagues remind me that I am doing the best I can. We all are.
            As a new or veteran teacher you face many challenges. I have learned as much from actually teaching my students as I learned in school to be a teacher. Try to approach every obstacle with an open mind and you will continue to learn and improve as you go. Constantly improving and changing assures that we are inspired to do the best for our students.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Most Important Thing I Learned This Year: Cammie Gemmill, South Anna Elementary

Brennan ran across the playground to catch me. Breathless, he said, “Teamwork. Don’t forget about teamwork.”  Our students are functioning as engaged, confident, and empowered learners who are willing to chase me down in order to express themselves.  As I prepared to write about the changes we have implemented, I turned to the experts, my students.  I wondered what they would say about instruction this year. I simply engaged in individual conversations on the playground and offered a fill in the blank sentence.  “The most important thing I have learned this year is...”  Their answers have framed my thinking about innovation and the importance of prioritizing project based learning to teach content. I was expecting maybe to hear about multiplying fractions, organizing writing, or light and sound.  Yet, almost all of them added “to be.”  Of course, they had been learning all the facts, procedures, and tools they needed to be academically successful but when asked the most important thing they learned, they responded I have learned “to be...”  The changes we have incorporated into our instruction were increasing integration of content, engaging and motivating students, but the most important thing that they learned this year was “to be.”   

So today, I write about becoming. Our teachers seek “to be” new and better instructionally.  Our students are becoming innovators as we create relevant experiences that engage them in conversation and teamwork. Each of these short stories focus on one of the words that the students shared with me that day on the playground.

The most important thing I have learned this year is…

To Be a Team Player - We began this process as a team. The Classroom of the Future Grant was written by the STREAM Team, sixteen teachers who shared their ideas, opinions, and research. Through discussions with county specialists, local university representatives, and the invaluable feedback and inspiration from my Gifted Resource Team we were able to create a clear vision for our dream classroom. Alicia Broughton (LMES) helped us define a common language for our efforts and evaluate resources. Amy Faires (SJMS), Susan Mudd (OKMS), and Cindy Burns (CMS) shared their expertise about SCRUM through countywide professional development. SCRUM has played an integral part of our success in the Innovation Studio.  Using SCRUM in the classroom here is a result of collaboration with educators in Goochland County and their incredible work. Teachers are setting goals, sharing ideas, and helping one another as they implement innovative lessons using the resources in our new studio.  We emphasize to students how important it is to reach out and appreciate each other’s strengths as we are all learners in this process.

To Have a Growth Mindset - Aprons for every student were an important addition to the Innovation Studio.  This physical cue sets the stage for each lesson.  Every time they put on the aprons we ask, “Why are you wearing aprons today?”  Their response is, “We wear these aprons to show that we are ready to have a growth mindset as we try to tackle new challenges.”  Teachers also wear aprons to signify their commitment to innovative instruction. It is almost like a pledge and its repetition helps us emphasize the importance of a shift in our thinking.

To Be a Risk Taker - I have taken to announcing my concerns about new projects as I introduce them to the students. Our conversation usually begins with, “I have never done this before, but I want to try something new and I will need your help.” Our students feel free to share feedback throughout projects so that we can make changes and improvements as we go.  We model risk taking, reflection, and implementing immediate changes in our process when necessary.  

To Be a Servant Leader - We began discussing the concept of servant leadership when we introduced SCRUM as a framework for productivity and collaboration.  We model servant leadership by asking, “How can I help?”  Students anticipate opportunities for servant leadership during our stand up meetings that occur periodically throughout work sessions. That one simple question has changed the way that they interact when working to overcome challenges.

To Be Kind - SCRUM groups are created based on student strengths.  Recognizing and appreciating strengths in others allows for building positive relationships and interactions.  As part of our group work, students evaluate their own level of effort, flexible thinking, perseverance in problem solving, communication, and collaboration then, provide feedback to the others in their group.  Our goal is to celebrate our strengths as we support growth in our weak areas.

To Be a Communicator - The “pass it on” approach has become an invaluable tool to help introduce new technologies to as many students as possible.  In order to teach others about how to use a technology the “student instructors” were not able to touch the technology.  They were required to communicate clearly and concisely to help break down each step for the students that were learning the new technology.  It works with entire classes partnering with other classes or small groups within a classroom and sharing with each other.

To Be Respectful - Visitors have been coming frequently and sometimes in large numbers; Business Owners, Principals, Teachers, and college students.  As we prepared for these visits, we stopped to provide direct instruction about speaking to others about their learning process.  We practiced shaking hands, making eye contact, and speaking loudly and clearly, and engaging in meaningful conversation by asking and listening to questions, as well as sharing responses. The ma’ams, sirs, and thank yous have become habit.  These choices show respect to others and display respect for the learning process.

To Have Grit - Integrating new technologies presents challenges for both teachers and students.  On a recent project that required students to program Spheros to travel across varied terrains, it took many groups over 50 attempts to find success.  Students returned during recess and primetime to continue to persevere.  Tears of joy followed the eventual success and they moved to the next terrain to tackle that challenge.

To FLeRD -   (Fail Fast, Learn, Renew, Do) Epic fails have become a celebrated occurrence. Break Out Boxes have offered many opportunities for failure and resilience. Teachers and students alike are learning from failure.  Recently, one of the most effective teachers I have had the pleasure of working with decided to try a new lesson in the Innovation Studio.  I came by to check in because I knew she was excited about it.  As I walked in, chaos ensued.  Students were in the process of cleaning up and the teacher immediately approached me obviously exasperated after the lesson.  But what she said let me know that we were all on the right track.  She said, “I know what I will do differently next time.”  And less than a week later she was back with a new lesson that yielded incredible success.

The most important thing I have learned this year is to be INNOVATIVE. The Classroom of the Future Grant allowed us to dream about what instruction could look like.  Thanks to the Hanover Education Foundation that dream has become a reality.  None of this would be possible without the teachers that are taking the risks, stepping out of their comfort zones, and trying something new. Over the past few months, one particular class of fifth graders have allowed me to grow and learn. They are truly my inspiration and they exceed my very high expectations on a daily basis.  I am also blessed to work with incredible, flexible, and supportive teachers that make every lesson more meaningful with their enthusiasm and suggestions ;).   It is because of all those things that I left that day from the playground with tears of pride for the most important thing the students learned this year was “to be…”

Monday, December 4, 2017

If a Child Doesn't Know How, Guest Blogger: Paula Drumheller, Henry Clay Elementary

“If a child doesn’t know how to read, we teach.”
“If a child doesn’t know how to swim, we teach.”
“If a child doesn’t know how to multiply, we teach.”
“If a child doesn’t know how to drive, we teach.”
“If a child doesn’t know how to behave, we... teach? …punish?”
Why can’t we finish the last sentence as automatically as we
do the others?
Tom Herner, 1998.           
Like many of you, I have just gotten home after a very tiring but rewarding day at school.  I find myself reflecting on the many issues that we face each day that most of us never thought about or were taught about in our preparation as educators.  In my 21 years as a School Counselor in Hanover County, I have had the opportunity to support our students in a wide range of issues affecting their education.  Like you, I see students coming to school with heavy emotional burdens that affect their academic, emotional and behavioral progress.   As you well know, these students can also impact the learning of others and limit our ability to do what we love - teach.  Therefore, I believe that the need for social and emotional learning is one of today’s major education issues.
An estimated half of all U.S children have experienced some kind of trauma in the form of abuse, neglect, violence or other difficult household circumstances;  and many of those of children have experienced more than one type of traumatic event.  After working in all areas of Hanover County during my many years, I can assure you that trauma impacts our students in each and every one of our corridors, and its impact seems to be increasing.  Because of the effects of trauma, we simply cannot assume that our students are coming to school with the skills necessary to be able to listen, attend, regulate their emotions and problem solve. In fact, many of them are coming with a set of survival skills that are necessary in their home environments but certainly not conducive to school success.  
Furthermore, our children are also facing other types of stressors that nonetheless have the same effect as the traumatic experiences listed above.  A child who is traumatized by the stress of perfection due to high expectations and responsibility or one who is a crumbling under the pressures of peers and social media can look very similar to a child who is traumatized by a fear of going home to an abusive situation.  Therefore, our primary goal is not necessarily to identify children of trauma (unless they are currently living in an unsafe situation) but to instead teach all children the skills necessary to develop social and emotional competence to deal with these stressors. These skills contribute greatly to children’s resilience regardless of their experiences.
        I think that many of us are also beginning to understand that traditional discipline - suspensions and random consequences -  don’t seem to be successful with many of our students. We have to do something different if we want to reach and teach our students.   Ross Green, in his book Lost At School explains that kids do well when they can. Most kids know what we want them to do and they truly want to do it.  If they aren’t, it is often because we are asking them to do something beyond their abilities - beyond what they know how to do. While I understand that some days this can certainly be difficult to believe,  we have to remember that these children are very adept at building walls that are seemingly impossible to break down to keep untrusted adults at bay, lest they learn the truth.  The truth is that many times our students simply “don’t know how”.  Therefore, developing a relationship through which we can begin to understand why a child is challenging is the first and most important step in helping him or her.  THEN WE TEACH.  As educators we teach - we teach reading, we teach math, we teach science and history, we teach art, music, and physical health, we even teach driving; and, yes, we must teach behavior and social emotional skills as well. We are responsible for teaching the whole child so why would we teach all of these other things and not teach emotional health when it is essential to the well being and success of our students?  
 Social and emotional learning enables children to apply the knowledge and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, feel and show empathy to others, set and achieve goals, and develop and maintain positive interpersonal relationships. When children can consistently use these skills within the classroom they are better able to access the educational opportunities that we provide for them.  This increases their resilience and likelihood for success moving into adulthood.   It has been said that social emotional learning is not something extra to be added to a student’s plate - it is the plate. It is the foundation on which all other learning can take place and it ultimately makes our job as educators easier.
However, successful implementation of a social emotional learning curriculum requires changing the mindset of all educators with regards to its importance to academic success.  When school division leaders support this shift in mindset, it increases the opportunities for individual schools to develop this facet of learning.  Schools can then have access to the teacher training, support, and professional development necessary to integrate social and emotional skills into their school-wide curricula.  Division support also enables us to develop purposeful partnerships within our community to help support the social and emotional needs of our students.  This may include partnerships with mental health agencies to provide therapeutic interventions within the school setting, collaboration with other community organizations to support a family’s basic needs or to provide student mentors, and opportunities for both support for and engagement with families.  Schools are but one piece of the puzzle in meeting the social and emotional needs of our students, and community outreach and support is essential.
            As a society we can no longer assume that children come to school with the social and emotional skills necessary for success, but the good news is that these skills can be taught through direct instruction, modeling and practice.  Furthermore, school division support and meaningful community partnerships can provide the wrap around services necessary to meet the diverse needs of our students. I believe it is a great privilege and responsibility to be a part of an educational environment that can help create caring, empathetic and emotionally intelligent people who will be empowered to achieve career and interpersonal success.  We will also be able to finally say “If a child doesn’t know how to behave, we teach.”
Paula's bio:
Paula Drumheller has been spent her entire career as school counselor in Hanover County for 21 years.  Her first position was at Elmont Elementary and she has worked in several elementary schools as both a part-time and full-time school counselor.  She currently works at Henry Clay Elementary with an incredible staff from whom she learns everyday and with children that she loves.  When Paula is not working she enjoys spending time with her friends and family - her husband, Davis, and her two children Caroline and Kate.  Caroline is currently Freshman at Virginia Tech and her daughter, Kate is a Sophomore at Hanover High School.  She enjoys reading and going out to dinner with friends.  

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Field Trips to Taco Bell: Why Relationships Matter, Guest Blogger: Kelly Pace, Atlee High School

My family and I stepped into Taco Bell, me unwillingly, and my kids ecstatic. It is one of their favorite places for some reason. If I can be honest, I hate the establishment of cheap, unrefined Mexican food more than most fast food eateries I happen to frequent, but today's visit had a purpose. I was meeting three students ironically all named Jack who I currently taught. They were seniors, and I had promised them I would dine at the establishment--one that I despise and they love--before they graduated. I always uphold a promise, and so, last year, my family of five joined my three students for dinner.

     Twenty years ago, that never would have happened. Honestly, five years ago that never would have happened. The way I approach relationships in my classroom has changed drastically, and I am a better teacher today for making the change.

    I remember about fifteen years ago walking into a colleague's math classroom. He was joking with his students; I marveled at how much fun they were having in math class. He had a rapport with them that was unlike other teachers I had observed. I always have prided myself on knowing my students, on connecting with them in the classroom. When I was younger and had more time and no kids of my own, I constantly attended school events--games, plays, music concerts. I still try to do that now if I can. I always have felt it was important to be a part of my students' lives. In their adult lives, several have invited me to their weddings.  I've celebrated the births of their children and even had a former student who was a nurse in the delivery room when my daughter Katie was born. Yet despite these flourishing relationships I know I have always built with students, there was a wall that I put up between us. They didn't get to know too much about my life because I was scared to let them in. They didn't know I love bands like the Beatles and that I grew up on Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, Tom Petty, the Rolling Stones, and Paul Simon. They didn't know that a handwritten note is one of my favorite things in the world as is dipping my feet in the ocean no matter how cold the temperature. They didn't know that I despise things like emojis and Taco Bell and that I faithfully get up at 5:20 a.m. every day to run. Why? I was simply focused on the curriculum. I had been told early on by veteran teachers not to smile, not to really let down my guard. I had been told not to tell students what I really thought. I think about the number of students who came before last year's class, and sometimes I find it unfortunate. There are many students I still regularly communicate with and feel I had a connection with in the classroom, but they didn't know the "real" me because I was too scared to show them.

    Somehow last year was different for me. When you teach  the same thirty kids in four different classes, you start to finally feel comfortable to open up to them. I started to keep a blog ( for my students to read about the thoughts musing around in my head. I told my students who I was and  sent them individual emails. I sent the entire class emails.  I talked to  them about what I feared in life. They know the kinds of music I like and that I want to write a book. They know that I hate being in the spotlight. They know  that certain words just get under my skin when used in a modern context and that I forever will punctuate and write texts that are grammatically correct. Most importantly, they know how I feel about them. All of the sudden, there were no walls. I felt like a real person to my students as opposed to a teacher who knew the information. Because let's face it; deep down, I don't know all of the information. I am a learner in my own classroom. Every. Single. Day. I don't know how it all happened or the day it changed, but I am a different teacher because I smiled,  let down my guard and opened up to my students. The student/teacher relationship still existed in the sense that there was respect between us. This relationship was not a friendship of sorts by any means, but a mutual  understanding of who we were as human beings.

    As a result, I learned things about them that I never knew--even after teaching these students for four classes over four different years. The number of students fighting depression was astounding to me. Yet, they came to see me to tell me about their battle wounds. The number being bullied, who were sad, who were going through "something" opened my eyes to see that sometimes the students we see in front of us are not necessarily the students they truly are. They have millions of layers that sometimes need to be peeled but can't if I, as a teacher, put up a wall. It made me sad initially to know that these students were struggling; that I had no idea of their battles they were fighting. Yet, I also recognized the idea that I can continue to make a difference in the lives of my students, that maybe they finally chose to tell me what they did because I enabled them to know me.

    After twenty years my taste for Taco Bell has not changed, but my idea of how I need to relate to my students certainly has. In 1987, I remember watching Ronald Reagan's famous speech where he stated, "Tear down this wall," as he encouraged Mikhail Gorbachev to open up the barrier which divided East and West Berlin. In a similar fashion, my students last year were screaming that very same thing to me. I finally had the sense to tear down my own wall in my classroom.

    So, what kind of teacher meets her students for Taco Bell? One who recognizes the importance of relationships, who doesn't build walls but tears them down. The one who is willing to sacrifice taste just to hear what her students have to say. The one who has realized that she had been wrong all along for the past eighteen years of her teaching career. The one who is a better person, certainly not for eating tacos, but for recognizing that relationships are everything in this business--even if it does mean field trips to Taco Bell.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Productive Struggle: Jennifer Greif, Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Leadership

As a division, we have deliberately embraced the ideas of grit, growth mindset, and “soft skills.”  I have found my own thinking on these topics evolving as well, sharply focusing on the concept of productive struggle - an idea that is honestly no more complex than students working hard at their appropriate level and finding incremental success. The complexity lies in how a teacher creates a classroom and designs lessons to promote and support productive struggle.  I so clearly remember the exhilaration of writing and rewriting sentences as I tried different strategies and new vocabulary, checking in with my fifth-grade teacher as I failed and succeeded interchangeably.  I recall the student early in my teaching career who exclaimed with glee, “You are making my brain sweat!” as he grappled with a difficult rhetorical device.  I watched my daughter willingly get up an hour early three days in a row to try to collect data for a science lab that failed over and over, even after the grade was recorded in the book.  And I witnessed a teacher spending more time giving high-fives and cheering on the work of his teams of students than standing at the board modeling problem after problem.  Through all of these lenses, I clearly see the value of productive struggle in action.

Productive struggle is not readily measureable, and it will never appear on a state report card.  But its importance is easily understood within the context of our division’s focus of equity, relevance, and innovation.  We promote the idea of matching resources with student and community needs as our working definition of equity.  When introduced to new learning and unfamiliar learning environments, students react differently because their perceptions of how they will succeed may be very different, their skills are at various stages of development, and their supports outside of our schools may be uneven.  We cannot apply the same strategies and types of support and expect the same measured outcomes for each of our students.  Not every beginning swimmer needs the arm floaties for security, and not every five-year old uses training wheels for the same amount of time.  In order to keep our learners engaged in the learning with us, we must make sure that the struggle remains productive and encouraging.  While a student may be struggling with simplifying fractions or analyzing primary sources or developing a better embouchure, the more relevant lesson is how to accept failure as a part of success.  This is the lesson that will propel our students to achieve in an innovative society.

Sometimes productive struggle is the result of serendipity, an alignment of the stars.  The challenge for educators is to create that magical “sweet spot” of instruction deliberately.  We obviously need to rely on a deep toolbox of instructional strategies, which can only be enhanced when we choose to work together in grade level teams or departments or PLCs.  We need to know when to use a hammer and when a good wrench is necessary.  And we, teachers and our students, need to develop a strong feedback loop.  In order to move students from a challenge that results in crippling frustration to productive struggle, we need to look for opportunities to gauge a student’s mastery at the granular level and communicate (and celebrate) the incremental success back to the student.  And we need to reflect upon the impact of our grading practices on a student’s willingness to struggle.

More than anything, though, relationships are at the heart of productive struggle.  For every example I gave above - my time as a student, a teacher, a parent, and an administrator - relationships created the environment in which a student engaged in productive struggle with her teacher.  Students thrive in rigorous classrooms when they know that their teachers are poised to empower them to push through the challenging tasks with high-fives and scaffolded supports.  We are those teachers.

Friday, September 1, 2017

The Next New Thing

     “If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.”  Mark Twain has been credited with first using this phrase, although others have claimed it as well and applied it to numerous areas of the country, including Virginia.  Perhaps its popularity is because people everywhere can relate to both strange weather and constant change.  A similar phrase has also been used in conjunction with education initiatives: “If you don’t like what we’re doing this year, just wait, there will be something different next year.”  To be fair, there is some truth in this statement in our profession.  We are often guilty of trying the next trendy thing—a magic bullet for student achievement—that often proves elusive. 

            Some of the “latest and greatest” techniques prove to be quite useful, while others are simply timeless strategies in new wrapping paper.  And then there are strategies that are nothing more than gimmicks with no proven results.  While there is clearly a benefit to trying new ideas or approaches, we know that the most successful organizations sustain a well-articulated focus on their mission over a long period of time while simultaneously seeking to remain innovative.  As we began last school year, we concentrated on ensuring the “relevance” of our educational opportunities and “equity” in our delivery.  As the year progressed, a third theme, “innovation,” naturally emerged as a priority.

            As I visited schools around the division last school year, I quickly noted that these are neither nebulous, lofty ideas, nor the latest trends.  Rather, they represent the best of who we are and what we do.  They were being lived out tangibly in all facets of the school division.  They could be seen in everything from the formation of coding clubs at elementary schools, to equity teams examining practices at both the school and division level, to all administrators committing to read The Innovator’s Mindset.

            This year, the next new thing will be…wait for it…relevance, equity, and innovation.  Ironically, having the same focus areas as last year may not appear to be very innovative.  However, these areas of focus are not intended to be boxes to check off on an education-jargon laden to-do list.  Rather, they represent the commitment that we make to our students every day. 

Building from our momentum last year, we have already seen progress before this school year has even begun.  In the area of equity, our division was recognized this summer by the Governor for our leadership in implementing the Virginia Tiered Systems of Support to promote positive behaviors among students.  We have hired a new Coordinator for Safety and Security to ensure that the unique needs of each building are addressed, and each schools’ leadership team is examining best practices to ensure all learners’ needs are met.  In the area of innovation, work is being completed on our first two “Classrooms of the Future,” which will be ready by the first day of school.  Professional development offerings promoting relevance and innovation are being offered in every content area, and the planning of technology infused lessons will transform instruction this year in ways never previously possible. 

We are on a wonderful path and making significant progress.  Thank you for helping us to achieve success last year and recognizing that continuous improvement is essential to sustaining that success.  We will continue to focus on offering the most relevant, equitable, and innovative education possible for the students and community we serve. This year, in order to highlight the great work in our division and to assist us all in learning from our own experts, I will be inviting guest bloggers to share some of our educators’ amazing accomplishments.  I am truly excited about what this year holds for us, and I look forward to continuing this important work with you.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Class of 2017 Commencement Address

Good afternoon.  It is my privilege to welcome family members, friends, distinguished guests, and, most importantly, the Class of 2017.  Undoubtedly, this is a day that you have dreamt about for quite a long time.  I imagine the same may be true for the many parents in attendance.  Today simultaneously represents the culmination of thirteen years of hard work and the beginning of the next phase of your life’s journey.  I, along with the Hanover County School Board, am grateful for the opportunity to be with you today to celebrate your accomplishments.

Graduates, my message to you today can be summed up in three words—Relevance, Equity, and Innovation. These words have been a focal point this year among our educators and staff, and they will guide all work in the school division for many years to come to ensure we continue to provide our students with an exceptional education.

By now, I’m sure some of you are asking yourselves, “What does this have to do with me?  Why does this matter now?  I’ve completed my work.  I’m graduating.”  Perhaps you’ve asked similar questions along the way about your coursework.  “When will I ever have to use the Pythagorean Theorem?  Why do I need to learn the periodic table?  How do events from 200 years ago affect me now?”  Well, I believe these are all great questions, which leads to the first of the three words--relevance.

As you enter into the workforce, military service, or higher education, your need for relevance will change from something you crave in your academic experience to a life perspective you may come to embrace.  Soon, you will no longer be preparing for the world as much as you will be living and working in it.  Perhaps relevance in this context can be framed as a need for significance and importance.  So, I challenge you to begin asking yourselves these questions instead, “Am I adding significance?  Am I adding importance?”

True, significance, like beauty, may be in the eye of the beholder.  In my view though, significance is not about what we are able to obtain or achieve, rather it is about what we are able to give.  Perhaps Winston Churchill said it best, “We make a living by what we get.  We make a life by what we give.”  Relevance in life is not so much about the application of theory learned in a classroom as much as it is about applying knowledge in order to serve the greater good.

The second of these ideas is equity.  Like relevance, this may mean different things in different settings.  In education, equity is the recognition that a cookie-cutter approach does not best serve our students.  Each one of you has different interests, different strengths, different needs, and different dreams.  Your incredible teachers, including those present here today, as well as your elementary and middle school teachers, recognized your uniqueness, fostered it, and prepared you well for your respective paths.  Equity beyond the walls of the school though is the acknowledgment that fair does not mean equal.

Being an avid baseball fan, I was naturally drawn to a new book co-written by David Ross entitled, Teammate: My Life in Baseball.  For those unfamiliar with Ross, he was the catcher for last year’s World Champion Chicago Cubs, as well as last season’s runner-up in Dancing with the Stars.  In his book, Ross touches on this idea of fairness.  He describes the many people who positively influenced him to become the best teammate he could be.  At one point, he describes perhaps the toughest lesson he ever learned in baseball, which occurred in 2008 during his brief time with the Cincinnati Reds.  Ross played well the previous year and admittedly developed a somewhat cocky attitude.  He didn’t feel that his talents were being recognized, especially by his manager, Dusty Baker, so he voiced his displeasure in a less-than-professional manner with the expectation of getting more playing time and recognition. Instead, the Reds sent him packing and informed him that his services were no longer needed.  It was a harsh lesson, but one that helped him to change his outlook.  From then on, he focused on serving others, even if it meant helping those who could potentially take away his own playing time.

This story is a reminder that the words to an old Rolling Stones song still hold true: “You can’t always get what you want…you get what you need.”  In life, equity is the idea that you give people what they need and that giving is rarely equal.  Sometimes a hug is needed, sometimes it’s a shoulder to cry on, and occasionally it’s a hard lesson.  The important part is that you can’t make that assessment if you don’t truly take the time to get to know people.  Just as your teachers took the time to understand your unique needs, so, too, must you take the time for the various individuals in your life.

The final theme is that of innovation.  Business leaders, both in Hanover and across the nation, remind us time and again that one of the most desired qualities for prospective employees is creativity.  They recognize that to continue to survive in the marketplace, they must do much more than simply replicate or manufacture someone else’s idea—they must come up with the ideas themselves.  The realization that there are multiple pathways to success as opposed to one “right” answer is surprising to some.  In life, simply selecting “C” on a multiple choice test is not an option.  The problems you will face will be much more complex.  As Albert Einstein reminds us, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”  Relentless determination, persistence, and the attitude that failure is not real failure unless we give up produced Thomas Edison, George Washington Carver, Steve Jobs, Dorothy Vaughan, and Bill Gates.  So, do not be afraid to dream big.  Do not be afraid of making mistakes.  Do not be afraid of being labeled as “different” or even “eccentric.”  You see, these words perfectly describe some of the greatest contributors to mankind.  Not only can innovation lead to success, but it is, in fact, one of the most integral components.

Graduates, in just a very short time, you will walk across this stage.  You will receive a diploma that is representative of the hard work you have invested.  The diplomas will appear very similar, with the most distinct difference of course being the name in the center.  This difference should not be underestimated.  Each of you had a different path to arrive at this moment in time.  Embrace these differences because they are a part of what makes you, you.  Use your uniqueness to spur creativity and innovation without fear.  At the same time, remember that those with whom you come in contact are individuals as well.  Take the time to get to know them, to really know them.  Only then can you be the best teammate possible by treating them with the equity they deserve.  Finally, approach your next steps by asking yourself, “Am I adding relevance?  Am I adding significance through my actions?”

Relevance, equity, and innovation can be found in almost any profession, but they do not occur by chance.  Like the dedication that brought you here today, cultivating these ideas will take a focused approach.  I have no doubt that you are up to the challenge.  Congratulations, Class of 2017. I cannot wait to see the difference you will make.