The Hidden Gems In Our Schools

June in New York is a magical time. Trees in full bloom, tomato plants doubling in size by the day, swimming pools opening, and long nights that make it feel as if someone forgot to turn off the lights as the sun burns bright well past dinner.  Neighborhoods come alive with noise, laughter, and friendship. With the promise of a long summer in the not too distant future, it is easy to forget that a few short weeks ago our fickle state was barren, dark, and grey as what seemed like a never-ending winter was coming to a close.

Every year I promise myself I will stop, breathe, and enjoy the pleasures of June rather than wish away the time in search of the glorious summer break that lies ahead.

Of course, like most things in life, this goal is much easier in theory than practice. Those who work in education understand that June is a rollercoaster ride, and sometimes the best you can hope to do is hang on!

Celebrations, ceremonies, parties, speeches, welcomes, and goodbyes. The nights are packed with time spent with your work family, leaving your actual brethren left to enjoy the early summer evenings without you.

As a central office administrator, I may have a few more nights than many, a fair trade-off since I haven’t spent the day in a hot classroom, working with students who may not be emotionally ready to move on to the next grade or stage of life. I can’t imagine the emotional toll this takes on teachers who pour their souls into the profession.

June is for educators what tax season is for accountants, except more exciting, and when you challenge yourself to pay attention, a rewarding tribute to what we do.

I looked at my calendar last Sunday and instantly became anxious for the week ahead.  Every night an event, some nights more than one, along with jam-packed days with so much to accomplish in the last three weeks of school.

I blinked and it was a Wednesday, then panic set in when I realized I wasn’t prepared to deliver a TEDx talk on Saturday.

This was an event I insisted go on, despite those close to me who suggested months ago that it may be a good idea to postpone to a less hectic time of year. Their doubts kicked my OCD into full gear. I would like to use the word “driven” to describe my unwillingness to adjust the plan, but if I am truly being reflective “pigheaded” is a more fitting descriptor.

The best part of being in the field of education is that when I am feeling stressed when I need a pick me up, inspiration, support, and hope always seem to appear, even when you set unreasonably high expectations on yourself and your team.

I would like to think that this happens in all schools, in all places, but I am not that naive; I know I am blessed. I know the district I work in is a special place. I know this to be true even in June, even when our patience has run thin. The fact is, after a long demanding year, we get on each other’s nerves despite the mutual respect we feel for one another.

One of my favorite parts of my job is when I find or am reminded of those hidden gems, those staff members who make our District a special place, giving to our profession not because they want accolades, not because they want or need me or anyone else’s praise. These are the people that do special things because they are passionate about kids, education, or just simply want to make a difference.

This past week I was lucky enough to discover a few hidden gems and was reminded of some others.

Running from meeting to meeting, head going in every direction, the last thing I wanted to do was go to the teacher’s classroom that appeared next on my calendar. I had so much to do and visiting his classroom to discuss the environment seemed like too much of a hassle.

Luckily I came to my senses, stopped taking myself so seriously, and decided not to cancel on him for the second time, so I made the trip. I am glad I did because I not only got to know a passionate educator a little better, have an enjoyable morning, but also put some plans in place that could help to make our school a little bit more environmentally friendly.

I found him patiently quizzing his students on sugars, proteins, and fats in his room. The first thing I  noticed was how uncomfortable it can be sitting in a room of 15-year-olds on a June day.

After the kids had a few laughs at my inability to properly answer the teacher’s questions, the class ended.

The teacher and I immediately entered into a discussion about gardening, a passion we share.

When he noticed my eye wandering towards his fish tank, he gave me a quick lesson on its self-sustaining environment and provided me with a resource that would help me get started in case I wanted to tackle a new hobby.

As the conversation flowed, we quickly outlined a plan for creating a team that would address some of the ways we can become more environmentally friendly in a practical, systematic way that involves all the key players.  We agreed that if we could make it the norm to do certain things to reduce, reuse, and recycle while influencing the generation of citizens to do better than the fossil fuel-driven one before them.

This teacher reminded me how hard kids will work when they have a cause, an audience, or a chance to make things better. They will exceed expectations academically,  and may even change the world!

He then moved to the best part of our conversation.  He described an idea for a course that would teach students the benefits of sustainable agriculture while he showed me to space on the roof of the school that had been converted into a greenhouse. It was hard to miss his excitement when our tour moved to the garden that he and other passionate teachers had built in a tucked-away corner of the school grounds.

Upon arrival, we found one of the school’s technologies teachers feverishly working on the gardening beds, some of which already had a variety of vegetables growing.

The visit, the passion, the ideas to make things a little better, a little greener stayed with me as did the thought of the birds and butterflies that flock to the gigantic butterfly bush that was more like a tree.  When I commented on it, this master gardener told me that some species of these plants are now considered invasive because of how well they are doing. I will take a butterfly bush over those pesky vine-like plants that try to choke out my trees any day!

I left wishing it wasn’t June so we could get started on some of his ideas right away! Ok, I was excited, but not that excited; it can wait until after the glorious summer break that is fast approaching.

I called my boss on my way to our middle school and she and her self-proclaimed green thumb were as intrigued as I was! It is great to have a boss who supports all of your ideas even when they add work to her plate. One such endeavor was the TEDx I was planning with some other hidden gems who happened to work in our District.

I was scheduled to meet with one such person at the Middle School to see how he was progressing on the set of the event TEDxFieldstoneDriveED.

This talented teacher who speaks softly, but carries a magical hammer had agreed to create our props for the event with his students. I wasn’t worried because I had previously witnessed him working with middle schoolers to create broadway quality sets for school plays.

When I arrived I was blown away! He had exceeded expectations!

As he described the work and his vision, this stoic man became uncharacteristically animated, moving his arms too and fro with speed and emotional that would rival that of my Aunt Anita, an Italian American who makes up for her lack of height with her energy, machine-gun style questions, and flailing arms.

You could see he was proud of his work, and rightfully so.  He and his students had put hours upon hours of blood, sweat, and love into this project.

This gem of a man solidified that status when two days before the show, I realized I had given him the wrong graphic, one with a lowercase “d” where an upper belong.  Instead of ignoring it, since it was my mistake and most likely one that no one else would notice, what did TEDZILLA do? I had the nerve to ask him if he would be able to fix it.

If I were in his shoes I may have told myself to………but he just gave a little grind of his jaw, thought for a second, and said, “I will give it a go.” And, of course, less than 24 hours later, it was done.

The day continued to move on and I was spent by around 6:00, but unfortunately pretty much every night in June has some sort of night event.  Even though I had been lucky and been assigned what was one of my favorite celebrations, our NRTA scholarship tea. While my boss was headed to the marathon sports dinner at the Elks club and my colleague to the county’s catering hall, which is remarkably consistent in their ability to serve chicken that is cooked to perfection….if you like rubber smothered in a bland yet heavy brown sauce. If given the choice I would have loved to have just gone home.  Once again, staying proved to be beneficial.

The basic setup of this informal event is simple. The president of the union introduces students who came to the podium to read an essay they wrote about a teacher who made a difference for them.  The teachers and families are in the audience and no matter how tough of a day it has been or how jaded I feel, every year I shed a tear or two.

This year I was determined to tune out until I could get home, water my plants, and hit the hay, but as soon as I sat down and heard the first speaker I couldn’t help the tears from dripping down my face doing my best to fake an allergy attack.

A former student described his uncle, a former teacher in our district who had been paralyzed in a tragic surfing incident.

He detailed how his uncle’s perseverance had changed this young man’s outlook on life.

How despite losing the use of his arms and legs, despite losing the ability to surf, to play the guitar, to just work out, he remained positive and made it back to the classroom to do what he loves to do most teach kids.

He had the audience in the palm of his hand when he spoke of how his uncle had always been there for him after the injury just as he was before.

How his uncle remains positive despite being to “hell and back.” How his uncle was his hero.

The story was powerful, it made me look at myself with disdain for any self-pity I previously felt for being obligated to work so late.

How could I not when this mountain of a man was doing more with his life after a devastating, life-changing injury than many do when they are completely healthy? The story is enough to make the biggest curmudgeon soften and shed a tear, but what tugged at my heartstrings that night was the student speaking.

To see how this young man had grown, matured, how beautifully he wrote, and how beautifully he delivered the heartfelt speech made it impossible to hold back the tears.

The speeches continued through the night as the students paid tribute to the teachers who had changed their lives.

The teacher whose classroom was a safe space when a student’s mom lost her job.

The teacher believed in a language learner and pushed him to be the well-spoken articulate senior who was taking advanced-level English courses.

The kind words, inspiration, going the extra mile, the examples set, the feelings these incredible teachers, incredible human made kids feel at a time in their lives that they needed it most.

It is not that I don’t know how inspirational our teachers are, how much they do, how much they give. But, to see it on display, to see the tears of the students, parents, to see the teachers brimming with emotion is an emotional reminder that there is no more important job in the world than being in the field of education. I am how lucky I am to work with some of the best!

It is easy to slip into jaded negativity as a central office administrator. You often deal with the problems.

Every profession, every organization has that 5% who make all the good people look bad. These are the people, if allowed to, will be the loudest voices, and the only voices you hear for days on end.

The complaints, the negativity, the fear of change, the abuse of sick time, the criticisms of those who put themselves out there or take a risk.

If you are not careful these will be the voices that will poison your culture, that will dictate how things are done. They will impede progress.

Are there times I get jaded, cynical, times I let these naysayers get me down?

Absolutely!

It is also important to stay grounded. Are there times when I get disconnected and forget how fast-paced our schools are, how draining it can be to support students, and the ever-evolving emotions and hormones

Absolutely!

That is what made opening my eyes to those hidden gems so therapeutic, so motivating, helped to keep me grounded, and remind me why I love my job, my profession, and my District so very much.

I have made a concerted effort to open my eyes to the gems in our school’s things like:

  • The Building and grounds team keeps our buildings spotless and builds professional platforms at a moment’s request.
  • The teacher is so loved by his students that his classroom is covered with positive notes and cards.
  • The administrators that dress up like a superhero to make incoming kindergarteners excited to come to school.,
  • The Superintendent takes a student and his mother out to dinner because she could not make the event that recognized him.
  • The teachers who mentor and serve as role models for their students who wish to be future teachers.
  • The coaches give up their free time to prepare their athletes to not just be formidable football players, but fine young men.
  • The teachers and administrators create “the amazing shake”, an intricate contest that has gotten students motivated to learn and demonstrate leadership.
  • The advisor brings the most out of his students and produces a school newspaper that rivals ones produced by college students.
  • The team that comes together to pull off what some thought was impossible.
  • The teacher who was so important to a former student came to a ceremony in her honor 10 plus years since he left her class.

The list goes on and on, and as I think of all these people I smile, I feel proud.

As you close out another year, I ask that you try to remember to open your eyes, look around, and search for all the amazing things that are happening in our schools every day. Finding those hidden and not so hidden gems I suspect will fill your heart with joy as they do mine.

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