Thursday, September 8, 2011

One Superintendent's Thoughts on Opening Day: "Keep Paddling through Rough Waters"

It is a tradition in our district to bring together the entire staff--teachers, aides, bus drivers, custodians, cooks, and secretaries--for an opening day meeting. Part of that morning is an address from the superintendent, and this year I gave my first such speech. There was much to say that was specific to our district, but in closing I had some things to say about the overall state of public education. Here are those comments:

The last decade has not been kind to us, or public schooling in general. While the needs of our kids have increased, our resources have decreased. At a time when the country needs a well-educated public, our schools—you and I—are seen as something to blame for our problems rather than the solution to them. When doubt in our public institutions increases, the media focuses on the occasional cheating scandal rather than upon the thousands of schools and hundreds of thousands of teachers, custodians, secretaries, aides, cooks and bus drivers who do their job well, day in and day out, with little or no attention.

I was thinking about this while listening to my son John describe his work this year. He is, in a credit to many of you, doing quite well as an instructor for Outward Bound. He specializes in teaching whitewater canoeing and kayaking and I overheard him telling a neighbor that he felt like he spent a lot of the summer telling students to ‘keep paddling.’

I asked him what he meant by that and he said that all too often, when faced with a new situation or with failure, his students would simply stop doing what they knew they should do.

They had the expertise, but they doubted their ability.

After several days of instruction, his students faced a new challenge. They were sent down the river through a rather tricky series of rapids that was preceded by a short waterfall, something they had not seen before. My son stationed himself at the top of the rapids, lining up each canoe and cheering his students on.

With every group the same thing happened.

Some students took what they knew, executed the right paddle strokes, and flew through the rapids. But others panicked, and in almost every case, just lifted their paddles into the air and screamed. The result was always the same, a flipped canoe and two students flailing away through the rocks.

I think that it is this way for us right now. We know what to do to help kids learn. We feed them good meals and get them to and from school safely. Certainly we will make mistakes, but overall, we know what to do, despite what the media or politicians might say. The millions of young people who have gone through the public school system--one free to all comers and open to every child-- and have gone on to hold jobs, vote, and build decent communities are a testament to that.

The temptation is to quit paddling, to believe the critics, to panic in the face of the unending drumbeat of criticism.

My message to you about this year is simply this—you know what to do, you know you are making a difference in the lives of our kids, so just keep paddling, and let me know if I can make the water any smoother.

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