Friday, December 30, 2016

Our Kids

This post is adapted from remarks I made at the Shrewsbury Youth & Family Services annual meeting in October 2016, and was also published in the Fall 2016 edition of the Shrewsbury School Journal

As I’m sure as you have, I’ve been thinking a great deal recently about how community life has been evolving in the United States, and I think it’s clear that we as a country are experiencing a time where there is a great deal of anger, divisiveness, mistrust, and coarseness.  I am not a sociologist, nor an economist, nor a political scientist, but as an educator I am very concerned about our current state of affairs nationally, and what this ultimately means for our town of Shrewsbury.  

Last spring, I had the opportunity to hear Robert Putnam, the Harvard sociologist and author who has done extensive studies of American society and who, in his recent book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, makes the case that the sharply growing gap between the wellbeing of children from wealthy families vs. poor families is, and will be, the most important issue facing our country now and in the coming decades.  His argument lays out the stark differences created by increased segregation of social classes in America, from where people live, to the quality of education, to whether parents are married.  He illustrates how family and social bonds are fraying within the lower socioeconomic classes, and how children from lower income families are living not just in a marginally different environment, but essentially in a different universe than their more affluent peers.  The contrast he draws from his own upbringing in a small Ohio town in the 1950s, compared to what currently exists in that community, is stark, and he concludes that a significant cultural change has occurred.  He says that when he grew up, in his town the phrase “our kids” referred to the entire community’s children.  He suggests that now “our kids” is more likely to mean “my own kids and my friends’ kids,” and that many Americans have a narrower and more selfish perspective when it comes to the wellbeing of the next generation.  

While Putnam’s view of a more equitable playing field in the past may be a bit narrow, as opportunities were certainly different than they are today if you were female or a minority back in the 1950s, I think his larger point is on target relative to the extreme differences between social classes in today’s America, and how this is affecting children’s chances at upward mobility during their lifetime.  Interestingly, despite his findings, Putnam is an optimist who sees parallels between where we are now and where we were as a country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where many of the problems of the so-called Gilded Age are present today: the greatest gap between rich and poor (until now); very high rates of immigration; and significant political alienation.  Putnam asserts that these issues were addressed effectively by what he calls the greatest public policy decision in the history of our country:  the implementation and widespread adoption of the American public high school.  This investment, which was significant at the time, raised productivity so much that Putnam says it was responsible for a huge amount of the economic growth in the 20th century; it helped level the playing field between social classes; and it was an engine of upward mobility that was a manifestation of local communities providing opportunities for their youth, regardless of their socioeconomic background.  He also reminded those of us in the audience that this was a bottom-up solution that played out in local communities, not a national mandate from Washington D.C.  Providing educational opportunity to all the community’s young people through access to public education turned out to be an excellent investment with long-lasting positive effects.  

Public education is what made the American dream achievable for millions, including my parents, my siblings, and me.  Now, in 2016, the expectations for what a public education should provide to students have multiplied and become more complex, and the world our students will  enter after they graduate is not only complex but changing rapidly.  Our school district is working very hard to figure out how to best prepare our students to be successful in the future, and I am optimistic that we will find ways to equip them with the skills and knowledge they will need to succeed.  Ultimately, it will take the entire community to support and sustain this effort, in the spirit of providing all of “our kids” the opportunity to achieve their American dreams.

Acting with Class

These were my remarks to the Shrewsbury High School Class of 2016 at their graduation ceremony in June 2016

Members of the School Committee; administrators, faculty, and staff; parents, family, and guests; and, most importantly, members of the Class of 2016 – it is an honor and a privilege to address you this evening.

Class, I think, is an interesting and important word.  Of course, this evening it refers to you, our graduates, who for the rest of your lives will be members of the Shrewsbury High School Class of 2016.  Educationally, class refers to a course of study over a semester or school year, and you all have earned the right to be here by successfully completing the requirements of the classes you took over the past four years.  Of course, class also means a single, daily meeting of a course, as in “I was a rock star in class today because I studied so hard last night,” or, conversely, “I didn’t have a clue in class today because I binge-watched eight episodes of Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix last night.”  

Class can also refer to one’s economic standing relative to others in society.  Most of you are fortunate to have been raised in a family that has had enough money to provide you not only with the basic necessities, but also niceties that have made your standard of living truly remarkable when compared to previous generations, and unthinkable for the hundreds of millions of young people in our nation and around the globe who live in poverty.  I hope you have a sense of gratitude for the circumstances into which you were born, which allowed you to grow up and attend school in a community that has provided you with an education that, by many measures, truly is world class.  You are clearly well prepared academically, but I also hope that the opportunity you had to attend school with classmates from different economic classes, not to mention different racial, ethnic, religious, cultural, and personal backgrounds, has given you a real-world perspective that has enabled understanding, respect, compassion, and empathy. These relate to the definition of class I want to focus on this evening -- that is, class as a personal attribute that you develop, not something that you are born with, and certainly not something that depends on how much wealth you inherit or earn.  I am referring to the class that reflects the substance of one’s character.  

This is the type of class that each of us has full control over attaining, as it is a measure of our actions:
  • How we treat our family and friends.  
  • How we act towards people we don’t know personally or who can’t do anything for us -- especially those who have less power, or less education, or fewer resources or opportunities than we do.  
  • How we serve our own community, and the larger world.  
  • How we communicate our thoughts and beliefs to others -- especially when we disagree -- and how we respond to others’ thoughts and beliefs that are different than our own.  
  • How we deal with success, and how we handle adversity.
It’s not about whether you will act, it is about how you act.

Unfortunately, at this moment in our society, it seems to be much easier to find examples of what is crass than what exemplifies class.  One simple definition of crass is “being rude and insensitive.”  I’m concerned about how rude and insensitive behavior has become more prevalent in politics and the media, especially social media, and how our culture has become more tolerant of it.  I urge you to rise above and set a higher standard for yourselves.  I want you to recognize that even if you are well educated, have great talent, or have achieved material success, these have no bearing on whether you possess class.  Class has everything to do with how you choose to act -- whether you behave in ways that demonstrate respect and kindness.  As a much wiser school leader than I, Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, once said to Harry Potter, “It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Members of the Class of 2016, I know you have the abilities, skills, and knowledge to build prosperous lives, but, more importantly, I hope that you make choices and act in ways that cause those who know you to say, “Now there’s a class act.”

On behalf of everyone in the Shrewsbury Public Schools, please accept my very best wishes for bright futures lived with true class.  Congratulations.

Stepping into Your Future

These were my remarks to the Shrewsbury High School Class of 2015 at their graduation ceremony in May 2015

Members of the School Committee; administration, faculty, and staff; parents, family, friends, and guests; and, most importantly, members of the Class of 2015: It is my honor and privilege to address you this evening.

I’m looking forward from center stage, on this graduation day, and it’s time to get the future started.  Let’s celebrate today, because there will never be another.  Now that all the hard work is done, all for one and one for all, open your heart to all the possibilities, because this could be the start of something new.  If you get your head in the game, anything can happen if you take the chance.  It’s the time of your lives, and with anticipation, it’s your last chance to share the stage before you go your separate ways. Who knows what you’ll find, it’s the great unknown -- but you’re all in this together, so if you reach, you can fly, and once you see there’s a chance that you have -- and you take it -- you’ll make your dreams come true.

Now, I’m sure that advice sounds awfully familiar to many of our graduates, because you’ve likely heard all of these phrases before, some of you many, many times.  When trying to decide what to say to you on this momentous occasion, I thought it might make sense to seek wisdom in the classics, and what better source than the masterwork that tells the tale of a group of adolescents finding their true selves and determining the paths they will follow into the future, as they navigate conflicts related to family cultures and expectations, economic and social stratification, and peer group stereotypes, with a pair of star-crossed lovers at the center of the story.  Some in the audience may be wondering whether this couple might be Romeo and Juliet, but I suspect that most of the graduates have already deduced that I am indeed referring to Troy and Gabriella, and the opening lines of my remarks are a mashup of many lyrics from Disney’s 21st century paean to the American high school experience, the epic film trilogy of High School Musical, High School Musical 2, and High School Musical 3: Senior Year.  

So, why High School Musical?  Because thanks to iTunes and Netflix and a 10-year-old daughter, I cannot escape it.  As was the case with many of your parents when you were that age, over the past few months my ears have been continuously assaulted by the peppy, perky and perniciously catchy songs that narrate the saga of the East High Wildcats.  Yes, High School Musical lives on...and on, and influence a new generation, as it influenced so many of you during your formative years.  

Now, I know your class has connections to High School Musical, as many of you actually performed in its stage version as part of the Oak Middle School spring musical in 2010, and I know your senior lip dub was performed to one of its anthems.  By all accounts you have been a class with exceptional spirit, dedication, and loyalty, and I can’t help but wonder if the lessons so many of you absorbed from these films, as saccharine or cheesy as you might perceive them now, may have shaped your own view of high school and the choices you made over the past four years.
However, while the teens in this idealized version of high school face many of the universal challenges of adolescence, we know that your lives are far more rich, complex, and real than those of stereotypical movie characters.  All of you have faced challenges along the way to this milestone of graduation, and some of you have experienced hardships or tragedies that are far more serious, some very public and some known only to a few.  The strength, resilience, and character you’ve shown, individually and as a class, are impressive.  Regardless of your path to this moment, you should know that the depth of your families’ and your educators’ pride in whom you’ve become, and the height of our hopes for whom you are yet to be, are far beyond anything a mere movie can convey.  

But, with that said, I think Troy and Gabriella and the gang at East Side High do have something to offer beyond sappy dialogue and breaking into spontaneous, yet well-choreographed, singing and dancing numbers throughout their school.  So what lessons can we derive from High School Musical?  Well, I asked that question to the expert High School Musicologist in my home, my 10-year-old daughter Allie, who, without hesitation, informed me that this is what the movies are all about:

  • Sometimes you have difficult choices, but you need to make choices for yourself

  • Don’t always stick to the status quo

  • Listen to other people, but sometimes you need to listen to yourself

  • Make time for other people

  • Keep your promises   

  • Follow your heart, and

  • Follow your dreams

You might be tempted to dismiss these as unsophisticated platitudes and clich├ęs, but sometimes the simplest advice is the best advice -- and I am quite confident that if you do these things, your lives will be the better for it.  And, just as the characters in High School Musical learned these lessons through the fictional challenges, choices, and people that made up their high school years, so too have you been influenced by the real ones you’ve experienced at Shrewsbury High School.  When the film cast sings at their graduation, “What we leave, what we take with us, no matter what, it’s something we’re part of,” they refer to a truism of every high school class:  your experiences at this school will always be a part of you, and what you have contributed to this school will always be a part of it.  I thank you for all that the Class of 2015 has contributed, which is significant, and I wish you all the very best as you take what you have learned in class, what you have learned about life, and what you have learned about yourselves, and step into your futures.  I think they’re awfully bright.

Thank you, and good luck.

Carpe Diem

These were my remarks to the Shrewsbury High School Class of 2014 at their graduation ceremony in May 2014.

Members of the School Committee; administrators, faculty, and staff; parents, family, and guests; and, most importantly, members of the Class of 2014 – it is an honor and a privilege to address you this evening.

Lately, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the value of public education and the influence teachers have upon their students and that schools have upon their community, which led me to thinking about how I got started in this profession.  In doing so, I recalled the influence of a movie I saw during the summer before my senior year of college.  The film, Dead Poets Society, starred Robin Williams as a boarding school teacher who has a profound impact upon his students.  I saw it on a rainy Saturday afternoon in a theater in Winchester, Virginia, where I was playing in a college baseball summer league.  Our game had been rained out, and my host family had invited me to see the movie, probably to try and cheer me up.  I was a bit depressed, because my performance that summer had made it very clear that my longtime dream of pitching in the major leagues was not going to come true.  

So, I was at a point where I knew I had to figure out what I might want to do with my life since it wouldn’t involve playing for the Red Sox.  I found inspiration in that fictional teacher’s ability to transfix his class of adolescent boys and instill in them a passion for learning, and it made me think that perhaps becoming a teacher would be a fulfilling pursuit.  And so I did.

A little more than a year later, I had graduated from college and found a job teaching American history at a private school, for adolescent boys no less.  I diligently prepared my lessons for the first day of school, with the intention of inspiring my students to love history the way that Robin Williams had inspired his students to love literature and poetry.  After about ten minutes, I was thrilled that these students, my students, were seemingly hanging on my every word.  After I finished my introduction, one boy raised his hand and I approached him, leaning in so I could provide a wise response to his question, and I’ll never forget what he said: “Mr. Sawyer, did you realize that you have a giant pimple on your cheek?”  (And I did.)

And so my bubble of naivete was burst. I was rudely awakened to the truth that students are both very observant and brutally honest, and I realized that real teaching wasn’t like the movies.  And, even though I quickly came to understand that I would not be able to enrapture my students each minute of each day, I came to love the hard work of education, and ultimately made it my career.  

My mother was a teacher (and an excellent one), and truth be told her influence had much more to do with my path than any movie, as evidenced by the fact that my sister and brother are also teachers.  My mom and my dad were my first and most important teachers, of course, as were your parents for you, so don’t forget to thank them - repeatedly, and for the rest of your lives.  I also thank your parents now because, as both an educator and a parent, I know how critical their support has been to your success.

Of course, beyond your families, you have benefited from the support of the Shrewsbury community.  I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to both live and serve as a school leader in Shrewsbury for almost 17 years, and because of the connections I’ve made this ceremony has extra meaning for me.  This is because many of you were my students when I was your elementary school principal at Floral Street School, and it fills me with pride to see the successful young women and men you’ve become.  It is also because I’ve come to know others of you as my neighbors, my daughters’ babysitters, their basketball and softball coaches, and their role models.  They, as I,  have loved watching you perform, on the stage and field and court, so much so that I actually had to referee a dispute at breakfast yesterday when my girls were fighting over who got to  look at your yearbook first (a yearbook that is extremely well done, by the way).

I am so very proud of you as a class, not only because of your many accomplishments in academics, the arts, and athletics but because of the remarkable commitment you’ve made to serving your community.  You have given over 12,000 hours of your time over the past three years, freely, to help others, with nothing expected in return.  While I’m sure most of those whom you helped were grateful, you may also have experienced times where your contributions were neither noticed nor acknowledged.  Unfortunately, that is part of the reality of serving others; sometimes those whom you serve are ambivalent, or even hostile, despite the fact that you are working hard to help them.  But, despite the fact that throughout life you will encounter some people who are selfish and ungrateful, I truly hope you will continue to serve others, for it not only enriches the lives of those whom you help, but it also enriches your own.    

When I was playing college baseball in Virginia that summer, I was also doing research for my senior history thesis, which was focused on a Civil War battle nearby.  I learned about a Union officer from Massachusetts, Colonel Charles Russell Lowell, who died heroically in that battle, and discovered a quote of his has that has since resonated with me.  He said, “Nothing can repay you for what you have done, except the doing of it.”  Colonel Lowell was both wise and prescient, as recent social science research confirms that people who give of themselves with no expectation of something in return are happier people who accomplish more in life.  I hope you choose to be one of those people.

How you live your life is a series of choices.  Of course, there is one outcome over which we have no choice, as we are all traveling the same path to the same ultimate destination.  But we do have a choice, as George Bernard Shaw wrote, whether to live a life of purpose or become a, quote, “feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”  In an unattributed extension of that quote, Shaw supposedly went on to say, “Life is no brief candle to me; it is a sort of splendid torch which I’ve got a hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

And that partly is what this ceremony is about.  This evening is a symbolic passing of the torch to you, when we celebrate the fact that our community has provided you with the education you need to go into the world and make your contribution -- and that you are ready to make it.   In the future, I ask that you remember that your success was due in part to your families, your teachers, and the larger community, and that you repay that debt by passing the torch and supporting those who come after you.   Our deeply held American tradition of caring for the next generation is what keeps our communities, and our country, strong.

Recently, an Apple advertisement for the iPad caught my attention, as it uses a voiceover from Dead Poets Society, that movie that was so influential for me at an important juncture of my life.  In it, the teacher quotes from the Walt Whitman poem O Me, O Life, which alludes to life as a “powerful play” to which each of us may contribute our own unique verse.  The teacher concludes by asking his students “What will your verse be?”

This is a profound question.  To attempt to answer it, I suggest a different quote from Dead Poets Society, from the scene when the teacher has his class view photographs of graduates from long ago to impress upon his students the idea that life is too short to wait to write that unique verse.  He says, of the students in the old photos:

They're not that different from you, are they?
Same haircuts.
Full of hormones, just like you.
Invincible, just like you feel.
The world is their oyster.
They believe they're destined for great things, just like many of you.
Their eyes are full of hope, just like you.
Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable?
Because you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils.
But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you.

And, at that point, with every student raptly anticipating what he would say next, their teacher shared that wisdom that we all should heed given how brief our time truly is:

Carpe diem.  Seize the day.  Make your lives extraordinary.”

Class of 2014, I wish you the very best as you write the verses that make your lives extraordinary.  Carpe diem.


These are the remarks I made to the Shrewsbury High School Class of 2013 at their graduation ceremony in May 2013.

Members of the School Committee; administrators, faculty, and staff; parents, family, and guests; and, most importantly, members of the Class of 2013:
This evening marks the end of one phase of your lives, and I know that you will soon be getting ready for the next phase, which for most of you will be college.  You’ll be going shopping, most of you with your mother, to Bed, Bath and Beyond or Target or some such store to buy a few necessities for your dorm room.  Although I grew up in Clinton, in 1986 I actually made that shopping trip with my mom to Shrewsbury, to the original Spag’s, a wonderful store that you probably don’t remember because, unfortunately, it was sold and changed when you were in second grade.  On that trip, I bought a red backpack and a very inexpensive digital alarm clock.  Twenty seven years later, the backpack is long gone, but the alarm clock still works perfectly and sits next to my third grade daughter’s bed - now that purchase was certainly what those of us who grew up in Central Massachusetts would call a “Spagtacular” value!
Many of you may be buying new backpacks for college as well, and they’ll be much bigger and better padded than the flimsy nylon one that I had, since you’ll likely be storing a laptop or an iPad inside.  However, although they may be large, they won’t seem as ridiculously big as the backpacks I watched many of you carry into Floral Street School in the fall of 2001, when you were first graders and I was in my first year as principal there.  I have to admit, you looked pretty adorable as you streamed off the buses, big grins often missing front teeth, with brightly colored backpacks featuring Barbie or Buzz Lightyear or Harry Potter.   Those backpacks were so huge in proportion to your little bodies I was worried that, if you fell over, you’d be trapped on your back like a tipped turtle on its shell, unable to get up.

I prefer that image much more than other images of backpacks in my mind’s eye that are related to three terrible events that have occurred during your senior year.  The first is of the backpacks belonging to the first graders murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School, hanging still in their cubbies, never to be worn home again.  The second is of the photographs of smirking terrorists carrying backpacks stuffed with pressure cookers full of shrapnel, just before they left them to explode next to innocent children and other bystanders at the Boston Marathon finish line.  The third is of backpacks scattered among debris in Moore, Oklahoma after a massive tornado leveled the Plaza Towers Elementary School there just last week, killing seven children.  
Two of these events were caused by cowardly, evil individuals who acted upon the sickness in their minds to kill and maim the innocent; the other was a natural disaster with no intent, but heartrending impact.  In all three, the victims had no reason to believe they were in danger and bore no responsibility for what befell them - they were truly victims of circumstance.  This, perhaps, is what is most terrifying about these calamities: They remind us that, in life, there is a constant possibility of random tragedy.
The response by those at the scene of these tragedies gives me comfort, and hope, and confidence that the goodness in people far outweighs the evil in the world.  It was amazing to see the courage displayed by the first responders and bystanders at the Marathon finish line, who saved so many lives while potentially risking theirs. It was astonishing to learn of the stories of the teachers at Sandy Hook and Plaza Towers, who bravely shepherded their students to safety or embraced them in their arms in order to protect them from harm, some dying as they did so.  Over the years, I’m sure you have sensed that your teachers, deep down, care greatly for you -- what you may not realize is that, if necessary, they would risk their lives for you.
What gave those teachers that extraordinary courage?  I believe it was the love they had for their students and the duty they felt to protect them.  But what about those bystanders in Boston who helped total strangers?  I believe it was also love and duty: Love that is expressed by helping another human in danger, as a proxy for what they would hope and expect others would do for their family or friends if they couldn’t be there when tragedy struck, and the duty to help that is a corollary to the universal truth that every life matters.
Fortunately, it is highly unlikely that you will ever be faced with responding to such dramatic circumstances.  We all still need courage, though -- the ordinary courage to forge ahead despite knowing that something bad could happen at any moment and that something inevitably will.  And what gives us this ordinary courage?  At one level, it is the simple knowledge that while something terrible might happen, the odds are that it won’t.  At a deeper level, it is because we know that the only antidote to worrying about what we can’t control is focusing on what we can control.  That is, perhaps, our greatest freedom - the freedom to choose our goals, to choose our actions, to choose our response to the circumstances that are presented in our lives. All of you face the same uncertainty that every human does, and the same challenge: What will you choose to do with the life you have been given?  Will you choose to be a mere consumer, a cluster of DNA and cells who looks to others to meet your needs and maximize your entertainment?  Or will you choose to be a producer, a sedulous soul who takes initiative and acts to make life better for others?  We know too well that any of us could be gone in an instant.  The choice is whether to use that as an excuse to live a life of selfishness and indifference, or as a motivator to live a life of caring and passion.  If you are wise, you’ll recognize that the latter may be harder work, but is vastly more fulfilling, enjoyable, and meaningful.

Over the past thirteen years, you’ve been using your backpacks to bring the tools and evidence of your learning from home to school and back again.  The knowledge and the skills you’ve gained over more than two thousand school days have prepared you well for what’s ahead.  Whether you will be starting college, joining the military, or going to work, you’ll still have a backpack.  What will you put in it?  Where will you go with it?  What will you do with it?  Whatever you choose, if you include initiative, and courage, and love, you’ll build a life that is worthy of the incredible opportunity that you have been given.

Please accept my very best wishes for a wonderful, fulfilling future. Congratulations.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Tradition of Excellence & Value

This post was also published as the "Superintendent's Corner" column in the Winter 2015 Shrewsbury School Journal.

Our town has a long history of receiving an excellent return on the money it invests in local government.  It is difficult to find a community anywhere in Massachusetts where citizens enjoy the level of high quality services that we do while also paying a tax bill that is very low by comparison.  Investing in making a home in Shrewsbury is a tremendous value.

I am proud that our public schools play a large role in generating that value by making substantial contributions to the quality of life for all of Shrewsbury’s citizens.  I am pleased to report that our students’ and educators’ accomplishments are maintaining our school district’s longstanding tradition of excellence.  Shrewsbury students continue to shine in numerous ways, and they have been recognized at the regional, state, and even national level for for achievements in academics, the visual arts, music, drama, speech and debate, robotics, science and engineering, and athletics.   The variety of ways in which our students are excelling is truly remarkable.

The excellence of the education our students receive was recently noted by Newsweek magazine in its ranking of American high schools.  Using a methodology that included a variety of academic measures, Newsweek ranked Shrewsbury High School 146th out of 14,454 high schools - the top 1% - in the U.S.  I am particularly pleased that this ranking also included a special distinction for the achievement of low-income students, as one of the most important elements of the mission of public education is to provide opportunity to all the children in a community, regardless of their economic situation.

While the Newsweek ranking is one measure that represents excellence, another recent national study demonstrated that this excellence is achieved in an extremely efficient manner.  The Center for American Progress conducted a study of over 7,000 K-12 school districts to determine “return on educational investment,” and it ranked the Shrewsbury Public Schools among only 1.8% in the entire U.S. who received the highest ratings overall and when controlling for economic and demographic factors.  This is the second time in recent years this study was conducted, and Shrewsbury had similarly strong results both times.

We should all be rightfully proud of the results our schools attain and the fact that our success is achieved in a very cost effective manner.  However, there is much more to the quality of a school district than its academic and financial statistics.  The community should know that not only are our students obtaining important skills and knowledge, but they are also learning important values such as respect, responsibility, and service to others.  Visitors to our schools often comment on the respectful behavior or our students and the professionalism of our staff.   The recent accreditation report for Shrewsbury High School, which included evidence from a multi-day site visit by educators from all over New England, commended our high school for “the safe, positive, respectful, and supportive culture that permeates the school and fosters student responsibility for learning and results in shared ownership, pride, and high expectations for all.”  

The value our schools provide goes beyond the secondary benefits that come from having strong results and a program that engages young people in constructive activities, as our students are also providing a significant amount of direct service to our community.  For example, a few years back Shrewsbury High School began its “10,000 Hour Challenge”, where the student body is challenged to complete 10,000 hours of community service that year, and with each class expected to achieve that same amount in its four years of high school (Freshmen 1,000 hours, Sophomores 2,000, Juniors 3,000, and Seniors 4,000).  Our students have been shattering this expectation, and for this school year alone SHS students had already completed over 12,000 hours of community service as of February!  I am so proud that Shrewsbury students are volunteering so much of their time to provide help where it is needed in our town, Worcester, and the surrounding area.

Our community makes a large investment in its public schools.  I think the evidence is clear that this investment is paying off by providing an excellent education for our town’s young people and by providing an exceptional value for the taxpayer.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Do Your Job

Each fall, there is an education technology conference held at Gillette Stadium, where they use the common areas for keynote speakers and the luxury boxes for breakout workshops.  Back in 2010, the first time I attended, I have to admit that I became a little distracted when the Patriots actually came out and started practicing on the main stadium field.  I don’t really recall what that particular workshop was about, given that I spent most of the 45 minutes watching the players run through their drills.

I had to leave the conference early to get back to Shrewsbury for a meeting.  As I tried to find the right parking lot, I ended up walking by the players’ and coaches’ entrance to the stadium, where I noticed the sign on the door.  It said:

When you come here:
• Do your job
• Work hard
• Be attentive
• Put the team first

I wrote down what it said and filed it away, and then I ended up using these four bullet points at our back-to-school leadership team meeting the following August, when we had a discussion about the importance of leaders articulating the organization’s values and setting clear expectations.  These past several weeks I’ve been reminded time and again of the words on that sign, as “Do your job” has become the Patriots’ and their fans’ motto during their run to the Super Bowl.  

“Do your job.”  It’s a simple imperative, but often not simple to achieve, which is why I believe the other three directives are on that sign as well.  Doing your job requires hard work.  It requires skill.  It requires being attentive to detail. If you work with others, it requires putting the team’s needs ahead of your own. To do it really well, it requires passion and commitment.  You have to go beyond “good enough.”  

As I think about the challenges our students will face in their futures, it is clear to me that “good enough” will not work for their education.  We, and they, need to do our jobs better than we ever have.  As your superintendent,  I assure you that the Shrewsbury Public Schools team is up to the challenge, because I see examples of hard work, skill, attention, and teamwork every day in our schools.

Unlike the Patriots, the work of our schools doesn’t depend on a series of singular events, leading up to a championship contest - there is no Super Bowl of public education.  There are indeed many measures of school district success where we must challenge ourselves to succeed, but it is important to recognize that excellence and learning are not zero-sum propositions, where if someone wins someone else must then lose.  If we do our jobs well, we will provide the opportunity for all of our students to win when it comes to maximizing their learning and reaching their potential.   

So, if you are a community member who supports our schools by providing needed resources; a parent who ensures your children are well prepared for school; an educator who delivers excellent instruction; a staff member who provides great support; or a student who is giving your best effort to learn: Thank you for doing your job.  You inspire me to do the best I can at mine.

Parts of this post were adapted from remarks I made at the Shrewsbury Education Foundation Awards Dinner on January 24, 2015