Notes from Ed

(Open House Excerpts)

As you may remember, I always tell a couple of stories at Open House about precious things your children have said to me – and tonight will be no exception. 

A couple of weeks ago I was at a local restaurant and I saw a Merriam family at a table nearby.  A new kindergarten student saw me and shouted to his parents with great enthusiasm, “Hey, there’s that guy from our school.”  It reminded how a few years ago another young student had referred to me as the president.   This role is very humbling – one day you’re the president and the next you’re “that guy”!

My second story is also about a new kindergartener at Merriam.  As you may know, I wear ties with animal prints on them each year at Kindergarten Orientation.  And the kids try to guess what animal is on the tie.  As you’ve also probably noticed, I wear ties infrequently the rest of the year.  So it was the second day of school and I saw a kindergarten student in the hall and he said, ‘Where’s your animal tie today – because if you don’t have any more you can borrow one from me?  This kind of  adorable generosity of the kids always puts a smile on my face.

I have two topics of importance to share with you tonight – one more educational and the other one more personal.

On the educational side of things, I’d like to give you an update on our school goals related to health and wellness, with the greatest emphasis on where we are with homework.  Three of our goals relate to wellness; one is our work that we are doing in classrooms implementing the “social thinking’ curriculum.  Our school psychologist and school counselor (Carolyn and Katie) trained all of our teachers and all of our assistants in this area this summer.  Social Thinking provides all teachers with a very student-friendly language to help kids learn about their emotions and how to regulate them, and much, much more.  Please ask your teachers to share how they will be using this wonderful approach with your children.  The second goal related to wellness is around our school theme –“resilience”.  Through our work in family groups the children will learn about what resilience is, and how to help “grow” resilience in their lives.  We plan to have a PTO community conversation on this topic as well.

Our third goal related to wellness is around homework.  Last year we had parallel conversations at staff meetings and PTO meetings about the many aspects of homework.  We looked at research, shared our own experiences, and pushed ourselves to look hard at whether and when homework in elementary school serves an important purpose for all students.  While our work was happening, the School Committee also decided to revise their district policy about homework, and their work was completed this summer.  Their new policy, though stated broadly and with some room for flexibility, takes a very strong stance toward reducing homework at all levels and coming close to eliminating homework for most elementary school students.  The Merriam staff has been working hard at answering the following question:  “Within the framework of the School Committee policy, what is our view on homework at Merriam School?”  We are close to answering that question, and invite you to attend a Community Conversation on October 16 to hear where we’ve landed.   All teachers are currently adhering to the district policy, but we’ll be even more closely aligned as a staff soon and we’ll share that information with you on the 16th.

I mentioned earlier that I have personal news.  It’s with very mixed emotions that I share that I will be retiring after this school year.  I had originally planned to continue for a few more years in this role, but a couple of things – one difficult and one delightful – caused me to reconsider.  The difficult first: Last October I was diagnosed with CLL, a form of leukemia, and it was an unexpected jolt to both my family and me.  I’ve decided that I need to slow down a bit and take the best possible care of myself as I negotiate with this illness. The delight is my granddaughter Piper – who was born over a year ago – and I can’t wait to have many more hours to spend experiencing the joy of being a grandparent.

These twenty-three years of being a parent, teacher, and principal at Merriam School have been transformational for me.  I’ve been able to witness the incredible impact on children that truly dedicated teachers can make, especially when operating with an engaging and interactive philosophy within a community that holds and supports people.   I feel very fortunate.

One of the many powerful things about our school is that much of our decision-making is done collaboratively.  One person can certainly have an influence on the school, but our staff is filled with leaders, who give of their time way beyond the school day to help steer the future of our school.  That will always continue, no matter who is principal.

In coming full circle I’d like to share with you the educational philosophy that I was asked by the School Committee to write when I was hired, and that I read at our Open House ten years ago.  These words still very much inform what I do and who I am.

My philosophy of education is based upon a deep appreciation for children:  for the curiosity they exhibit in the world around them, for their resilience and persistence in the face of tough personal and academic situations, for their wonderful humor that they are so ready to share at any moment, for the ways they are able and willing to give to one another and to their community, and for countless other reasons.  My experiences teaching most of the grades from kindergarten through junior high and from working as a counselor have permitted me to develop this appreciation. 

Children are clearly at the center of my educational philosophy – for it is the children who are the focus of the work we do.  But how do we as educators make the greatest difference in the lives of these precious students?  For me the answer lies in how we develop one primary construct: the learning community.

The learning community that we create for students is at the core of a vital institution; when children are in an environment where they feel safe, comfortable, and invited to learn, amazing things happen.  It is no small task to create this sort of community.  It requires clear and open communication – which builds trust.  It requires the involvement of all members of the community – so that everyone feels a part of the process.  It requires keeping the best from the past but being open to change in the future.  It requires compassion, enthusiasm, knowledge, creativity, and patience on the part of the teachers and administrators – who model these qualities for the kids.  It requires a commitment to working effectively in groups, and demonstrating that teamwork involves working through problems when they occur.  It requires a culture where making mistakes is acceptable, so that students can learn to feel encouraged to take risks in their learning.  It requires a climate of respect, where every individual is a valued member of the school culture.  It requires a commitment to seeing all aspects of children, including the social, emotional, cognitive, physical, and creative sides of each individual.  It requires the notions of balance and rejuvenation – that children need to work hard but also must recharge and maintain balance in their lives for optimum energy.  And it also requires opportunities for shared enjoyment; when learning is fun it is contagious!

It is a lofty goal to strive to create this kind of environment for students, but why not aim high?  If we put structures, strategies, and practices into place that support this sort of environment, then we create an opportunity for the individuals and the community to flourish!

Let’s all have a wonderful year together,  filled with gratitude and compassion. Thank you.