It was hot in New York this week. In particular, it was hot in Rockland County, New York. Those reading this who experienced the first week back to school in buildings without air conditioning must know, as I do, that it is the understatement of the year!
I was excited to start a new year and could feel a positive vibe circulating through our District and in the field in general. Conversations that focused on new ideas, new approaches, and a kids first mentality had me feeling the best I had in years about where education was heading. My feelings were validated when I walked around our District. I saw positive affirmations, not only expertly displayed in classrooms and on bulletin boards, but also in bathrooms, hallways, and main offices. I saw peace corners, reading nooks, flexible seating options, true reflection rooms, and standing desks. This wasn’t just in Elementary schools! Teachers were asking for new literature options such as The Secret, permission to explore mindfulness activities, and ideas for ways to inspire, engage, and bring out the best in our students. When September 4th arrived, I was pumped, but a bit concerned for the impending heat wave that was forecast.
I joined my Superintendent and another Assistant Superintendent early in the morning to do our yearly opening day visitation tour of the District’s nine buildings. I love these trips and my sup’s genuine enthusiasm as she wishes staff and students a “Happy New Year!” It is great to see the kids, the staff, and the sense of promise as we all try to get a little better, be a little kinder, and make a difference in the lives of our students.
The challenge for me on this day is to not get in the way. As a former building principal and teacher I know how many balls are in the air when you are opening a school and the last thing you need to do is to entertain the suits from central. My job on opening day is to portray a positive attitude, offer support in any way I can, and let those doing the monumental task of shaping the minds of our students day in and day out know that I am here for them.
We arrived at West Haverstraw Elementary School just in time to meet our Assemblymen, James Skoufis and Ken Zebrowski, as well as speaker of the Assembly, Carl Heastie. These political powerhouses were visiting our schools to observe the first day of our newly implemented full day Kindergarten program, a program they fought diligently to support. The politicians were taken to the greeting area where kindergarten students first embark on their 13 year journey into public schools. These wide eyed little people with their genuine smiles and awe lighten our mood no matter how hot it is. Parents were frantically snapping pictures and choking back tears as their babies head off into the real world. While I feel their pain, I chuckle a bit knowing that they won’t know true separation anxiety until they send their child off to college, a reality I will be facing next year when my oldest leaves the nest.
I was mesmerized as I watched the West Haverstraw principal direct a well oiled machine of smiling teachers and support staff as they comforted and greeted their new kids. It was about 9:00 AM and the thermostat was rising, but it didn’t stop these educators from being patient, kind, and efficient. It helped me to, again, understand why teachers are heroes in the eyes of their students, parents and central office staff.
It was a great relief jumping back into the frosty A/C car, albeit with genuine guilt knowing my teachers and kids would not be awarded such a reprieve. Our “tour de North Rockland” continued and by the end I was exhausted; I can only imagine how tired the heroes in the schools were after such a positive, yet sweltering first day.
The administrative team and I texted some ways to help the teachers deal with the heat on days two and three. They came up with some great ideas such as covering teachers for a quick break to cool off in the teachers’ lounge, ice pops, water delivery to classrooms, and rotating classes in and out of air conditioned spaces. It was hard for me to get any office work done because I felt it was necessary to visit the schools and experience the heat with everyone. Luckily, after day three, it broke, just in the nick of time. Everyone was spent and I couldn’t take one more sweaty kiss. In my District, it is common to kiss everyone hello, especially if you haven’t seen them in a while.
I thanked a 6th grade teacher for being so positive during the oppressively hot opening. I was shocked when he told me he was glad it was so hot. His theory being that they had survived something together building a bond, like boot camp, or two a days during football season. I am not sure I am buying his theory, but I freaking love the positive spin.
The opening was so many things: hot, inspiring, hopeful, busy, tiring, and most of all, positive.
I had my head in the sand as to what was going on in the world that week because my entire world was about my work and my family. I was so disconnected that I almost missed the opening game of the NFL season. My oldest came running in the door after a late football practice and looked at me in disgust when he realized I didn’t have the game on. Lucky for both of us the game was delayed due to a storm in Philly, so we settled in just in time for kickoff.
We chatted about fantasy football, High School football, school, and senior year. I want to drink up every second of these conversations because I don’t know how many more I will get when he heads off to college next year. I couldn’t help but smile when he read me his speech to the Freshman class and it included his promised protection.
“I am the biggest guy in the school so if anyone messes with you, let me know and I will make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
I also enjoyed hearing how well his first attempt at fulfilling his campaign promise to increase school spirit had worked out. He planned a senior’s tailgate prior to the start of day one, and most of the class of 2019 showed up at 6:00 am in the school parking lot to grill, listen to music, play kanjam, and just chill.
I talked about my day and told him about some freshmen who seemed nervous when they saw a guy who looked like he was in a position of authority eyeballing them as they loitered in the hallway. They had explained to me that they were hanging out in front of the English wing trying to get some cool air from one of the few areas in the school where the A/C hadn’t stopped working.
“What did you do?” he asked.
“I took them down the hall to an empty room and told them to cool off for a minute or two before they went to their next class.” He smiled and seemed genuinely proud of his dad, validating my small act of rule breaking.
He told me, “stuff like that” and being practical with kids would make them want to do better and be a better way to motivate them. He explained that some teachers were just “real” with the kids while others just seemed so out of touch, treating them like little kids, making them follow dumb rules “just because”. I loved getting this feedback and explained how I really want my District to be great, to stand out, to be exciting, to be special.
Timing is everything, but after a pause in the conversation we both remained silent for the next three minutes or so as a pretty powerful commercial came on the TV. The commercial asked the audience to “dream big”. It showed athletes who had exceeded expectations despite the obstacles they faced. A legless wrestler, a tennis star from the wrong side of the tracks, a 16 year old refugee turned world cup soccer star. My first thought was this is something I can use in a PD session. Then I saw the distinct look of the athlete who was narrating and I thought, “wow this is going to be controversial.”
Colin Kaepernick has been one of the most polarizing figures in our country for the past two years due to his choice to kneel during the National Anthem which is played prior to the start of every NFL football game. Kaepernick was using his platform in an effort to bring awareness to what he saw as the unfair treatment of people of color in our great country. His stance was a hot topic to say the least. Some saw it is disrespectful to those who bravely defended the flag, while others saw it as an athlete using his audience to stand up for something that had to be said. It became a powder keg as other players joined in, fans threaten boycotts and owners tiptoed around supporting their players and their internal moral compass while trying to avoid alienating fans who provided them with the almighty dollar.
The story became even bigger when the President of the United States of America felt it necessary to chime in when he stated passionately yet unpresidentially, “Get that son of a bitch off the field!” Kaepernick never backed down from his stance and found himself out of a job despite the fact that guys like Bryce Petty, Joe Callahan, and Ryan Mullett were working quarterbacks in the league. The President got his way as that “son of a bitch” is, in fact, off the field.
After gathering my thoughts, I asked Justin what he thought. “Shit, me and my friends will be talking about this one for a while, and it may get heated.” He explained that some of his friends felt strongly that this act of civil disobedience was brave while others thought it was disrespectful.
I let him know he wasn’t alone; many of my good friends and people I respect have very different views on this and other political issues. I asked him if he lost any friends over things like this and he looked at me perplexed and said “why would I?” I told him stories of social media rants and insults (and that’s just the politicians), long time friendships lost, and genuine hatred that seemed to be brewing between adults with different politics.
“That makes no sense. Just because people have different views doesn’t mean they are not good people or they can’t be friends. We argue. It gets heated, then we start talking arguing about who is better Jordan or Lebron, talk section one football. Then we head off to Cars for some food and laughs at other stuff.”
That’s when I started to realize that we have just as much, maybe more, to learn from our kids than they from us. He had one more question for me that really got me thinking. “The one thing I just don’t get is what this has to do with the military. Didn’t they fight so we can say what we think?”
Damn good question coming from anyone, let alone a 17 year old.
I let him know that sometimes it makes for a better story to simplify it. Make it about the troops and real discussion goes away. There are no greater heroes in this country than those who sacrificed life and limb to protect the rest of us, so if you take any issue and put an anti-veteran slant on it, the discussion is over. The media loves to sensationalize and polarize; it just sells more. You rarely hear about all of the veterans who support the right to free expression and vehemently feel that if we do not have that right then they fought for naught.
My discussion with my son that night certainly got me thinking: thinking about voice, about choice, about respectful disagreements. Realizing that our youth are better in many ways than we are and it left me feeling hopeful. Realizing how determined the educators who are developing this youth, despite extreme heat, despite exhaustion, despite ever increasing challenges in our divided country left me feeling certain that better days are ahead for our Nation, days where people can disagree, debate passionately, but without anger and hatred.
In the not too distant future we will be more open to see other points of view no matter where you stand politically and no matter how strongly you feel about any issue. It is not our job as educators to instill our political views on our students, yet it is up to us to instill a sense of acceptance and the skills to respectfully debate difficult topics. Only then can we get back to what truly made our country great in the first place.
On the backs of the unrelenting educators in this country we can inspire our youth to be more tolerant, more open, more civil, more intelligent, more respectful than the adults. That is why I know it is the educators who will be responsible for really and truly making America great again.