Friday, June 14, 2019

In the Arena

These were my remarks at the graduation ceremony for the Shrewsbury High School Class of 2019.

Members of the School Committee; administrators, faculty, and staff; parents, family, and guests; and, most importantly, members of the Class of 2019 – it is an honor and a privilege to address you this evening.

You are making SHS history tonight, as the first class to hold its graduation ceremony here, in the DCU Center arena.  I was personally excited when this decision was made, as now I will be able to say that I, too, was onstage here, just like the following partial list of superstars:

Frank Sinatra (who gave the first performance in this arena, originally called the Worcester Centrum, when it opened in September 1982), Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Madonna, Prince, Elton John, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Journey, U2, Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, Kiss, Foo Fighters, Kenny Chesney, Snoop Dogg, Britney Spears, New Kids on the Block, Guns N’ Roses, Garth Brooks – and, in case you students haven’t heard of any of those people, also: Ariana Grande, Maroon 5, Carrie Underwood, and, Panic! At the Disco

That’s a pretty talented group to be part of, and Graduates, after tonight, you, too, will be able to count yourselves among the greats who have graced the stage at the DCU Center!  So, at least we’ve got that going for us...

Having grown up locally in my hometown of Clinton, I actually attended my first ever concert right here: Phil Collins during his “No Jacket Required” tour on May 12, 1985, 34 years ago when I was a junior in high school.   Of course, now that I’ve publicly revealed that fact, I guess I should no longer use it for one of the security questions to protect my online accounts – such as the snow day announcement codes.  I also can’t say that my fondness for Phil Collins’s music has entirely stood the test of time, nor do I still listen much to the two other bands I saw here during that period of my life: Foreigner and Van Halen (and that was the Sammy Hagar version, in case the people my age are wondering).  

Over time, the kinds of concerts that I have attended here have evolved. For example, a decade or so ago I was able to score tickets to see...The Wiggles! I saw them with my oldest daughter, who’s now a junior and who is here tonight somewhere – and I bet some of you were here at that concert with your parents, too (I can say there was a bit of a different vibe in the Wiggles crowd than with Van Halen).  Because I married a Texan who loves country music, I’ve seen the Dixie Chicks and Sugarland here.  And, in a little more than a week, I’ll be back here to see Pentatonix, as my daughters and wife love a cappella singing. Not a musical evolution that I would have predicted for myself during my high school years, for sure.  Of course, I also never thought I would actually be “on stage” here, but here I am – and, given my lack of musical aptitude, it is a good thing for all that I’m not singing.

But, as Shakespeare reminds us, “All the world’s a stage,” and all of you will someday be “on stage,” in all types of actual or metaphorical arenas:
  • performing an artistic part – or surgery;
  • carrying out a military mission – or a business plan;
  • making a political speech – or a critical repair;
  • writing a book – or computer code;
  • creating art – or a meal;
  • teaching a class – or a lesson to your own children.  

It does not matter how small or large your arena may be, but it will matter whether you choose to take the risk to be vulnerable and get onto your stage so that you may share your talents.  You need to be vulnerable to do this, because there is always the risk of failure. But there is more risk if you don’t take those chances.  The researcher and author BrenĂ© Brown asserts, “When we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that may not be recoverable, we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on our gifts, those unique contributions that only we can make.”  

Brown uses the metaphor of the “arena” because she was inspired by Theodore Roosevelt’s speech, known as The Man in the Arena, in which he declared that it is not those who sit on the sidelines and criticize others – but only those who take the risks and make the efforts to use their talents for important reasons – who are true successes.  Roosevelt famously said:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming;

but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause;

who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

So, tonight in this arena, as you not only cross this physical stage, but also into a new stage of your lives, I ask that you consider Brown’s and Roosevelt’s challenge:  that you dare to live lives where you strive to be your best selves in your own arenas, whatever they may be – and to share your talents, however imperfectly, in service to a greater good.

On behalf of everyone in the Shrewsbury Public Schools, congratulations and best wishes.  Thank you.

We Have Work to Do

This post was originally published as the "Superintendent's Corner" column in the Winter 2019 edition of the Shrewsbury School Journal.

At the start of each calendar year, I provide my perspective regarding the strengths our schools possess and the challenges that we face in my “State of the District” report, from which this column is adapted.  This year’s overarching theme: While we have much to celebrate, we have work to do to achieve our collective aspirations for our students.

The work ahead will build on a sturdy foundation, as the current state of our schools is very strong.   Our students continue to demonstrate very high levels of success in traditional measures of academics, including strong performance on state and national assessments, including our district again being named to the national AP Honor Roll for increasing access to rigorous coursework while maintaining very strong outcomes. Student creations and performances in the visual and performing arts continue to earn accolades, while academic competition teams and athletic teams continue to achieve impressive results. Further, we have educators, support staff, and administrators who continue to do extraordinary work every day, and our School Committee provides leadership that creates the conditions for students and educators to thrive. Our parent community provides outstanding support, as does the entire community-at-large, as evidenced by the overwhelmingly positive vote to build a new K-4 elementary school (for which we are extremely grateful!)  

We should continue to celebrate the continued excellence of our schools, and utilize these strengths as we take the necessary steps to provide an even better education for our students, one that will adapt to the changing needs and demands that today’s world places upon our students and us.  As with any successful organization, we have work to do in order to improve our ability to achieve our mission, and so we must focus our time and resources on our strategic priorities.  

Under our strategic priority of “Learning environments where everyone’s success matters,” we have work to do if we are to become a district where we can truly say that “all means all” when it comes to ensuring that all students are getting what they need to succeed.  This means being intentional about applying best practices to educate diverse learners, and to ensure that our approach is inclusive where it comes to our students’ and families’ cultural backgrounds, so that all students and families feel welcome and unconditionally accepted as members of our school communities.

To achieve our strategic priority of “Enhanced well-being of all,” we have work to do to address the social, emotional, and behavioral health issues that have become more prevalent in recent times in our society – and in our community.  This is especially true where it comes to the specific topics of depression and suicide, substance abuse and addiction (including new challenges related to the legalization of marijuana and an epidemic of vaping, in addition to the opioid crisis), and the societal phenomena of smartphones and screen time changing the social dynamic.  To address these issues, we will need to focus time, attention, and resources on developing a comprehensive approach to social and emotional learning for all, as well as expanded counseling and clinical supports for students with significant needs. 

To move forward with our strategic priority of “Connected learning for a complex world,” we have work to do if we are to become a district where we can truly say that all of our students are learning the skills they will need to be successful citizens.  There are many innovative ways in which our students are learning the 21st century skills of communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking, and it becomes more clear each year why building these competencies is crucial for our students’ future success.  What we see in society and the media today also makes it apparent that our students must become savvy consumers of news and information who can also see the moral and ethical dimensions of issues, so that they become informed, empathetic citizens who serve the community and seek the common good.

The approval of building a new Beal School significantly advanced our strategic priority of “Space and resources to support effective learning,” and we not only have work to do to successfully complete this critical project, but as our district continues to grow we also will need to address other physical space needs, ensure adequate staffing, and provide appropriate learning materials and technology, all in order to achieve what the community has made it clear that it expects of us.  

We are fortunate in our district, as we have substantial resources, both capital and human, to do the important work of educating our students.  These resources continue to be modest when viewed in the context of other school districts across the state, and the value that our community receives regarding the return on its investment is superb.    

Our students and educators have and will continue to learn much and learn well, but we have work to do so that we may reach the ambitious goals that have been set for improving the lives of the children in our care.  I am confident that, with the support of the community, we will continue to seek and find innovative ways to teach our students both the academic and life skills they will need to lead successful lives.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Playing to Win

This post was published as the "Superintendent's Corner" column for the Fall 2018 edition of the Shrewsbury School Journal.

The Red Sox are World Series champs, again!  It was very satisfying to witness the defeat of the Yankees, Astros, and Dodgers by a Sox team that maintained their poise and played with confidence, especially after each single loss to those opponents (especially the 18-inning marathon against LA!).  In this age of sophisticated statistics, Red Sox manager, Alex Cora, and his coaches used various analytics to make decisions that put players and the team in a better position to succeed.  However, it was clear that some choices regarding whom to put in the batting lineup and when to bring in certain pitchers were also made based on the manager’s intuition regarding what he felt was psychologically needed at the time, in order to create a climate that signaled that the Sox were playing to win.

Every sports fan knows that there is a distinctive difference between “playing to win” and “playing not to lose,” especially when the pressure is high.  When watching a game, you can sense the level of confidence displayed by teams and athletes as the game ebbs and flows.  Success is usually achieved by those who play with conviction as they strive for victory, and it eludes those who play tentatively in an effort not to make mistakes.  Successful coaches motivate their players by empowering them in ways that signal trust in their abilities, while coaches whose teams fail often create an atmosphere where players are mainly worried about messing up.  After all, it’s hard to hit a home run if you are afraid of striking out!  

These concepts also apply to how we educate our students.  If they receive signals from educators and parents – either intentionally or unintentionally – that the most important thing is not to make mistakes, anxiety and fear of looking bad or falling short is the result, and that is not conducive to learning.  On the other hand, when educators and parents emphasize learning as growth and view mistakes as a natural part of improvement, students are more likely to feel empowered and motivated to achieve goals – and they’re more likely to be resilient when the inevitable mistakes happen.  

Similarly, if educators receive signals, either intentionally or unintentionally, that what matters most for our students’ success is making the fewest mistakes on standardized tests and other traditional measures of learning, this can lead to overemphasizing a narrow range of skills and knowledge.  Focusing too much on what is convenient to measure creates the danger of having “our kids study what’s easy to test, not what’s important to learn,” as education advocate and venture capitalist Ted Dintersmith suggests.  We don’t want to create an atmosphere where teachers are intent on minimizing student errors, which is the schoolhouse equivalent of “playing not to lose,” as it stifles innovation.  Instead, we want our educators to engage our students in ways that ignite their curiosity and motivate them to apply skills and knowledge in order to develop the essential capacities of critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration.

We have successful schools, and it would be easy to play it safe, keep doing what we’ve been doing, and try not to make mistakes.  I think our children deserve better than that.  Our bold vision for every Shrewsbury graduate requires us to empower our educators, students, and families to play to win – where winning means, to paraphrase Thoreau, that our students will have the confidence to pursue their dreams, the motivation to work toward the life they imagine, and, in doing so, achieve the success known by those who strive to become their best selves.