A Change is Gonna Come

Nothing stays the same.  All things must change. This is true in life, and it’s certainly true in the life of schools.  In a perfect world we can predict and plan for it, manage it, and negotiate the bumps in the road that change will bring.  But the world is not perfect and curveballs and side-doors and unexpected hurdles are inevitable.  

Of course, the ideal transition for a change in school leadership would look as follows: beloved leader announces a year out that she’s moving on.  Word goes forth, applications are accepted, hiring committee convenes and from a great stock of candidates a leader is selected who fits this school and its culture like a glove.  The incoming principal shadows the outgoing, with conversations that lay the groundwork for a seamless transition. One. Smooth. Turnover. Everyone’s happy.  

But again, the world is not always ideal.  And sometimes, just sometimes, a principal, for a whole host of reasons, jumps ship in the middle of the year.  I’ve seen it myself. I’ve served as an interim principal because at the time it was easier to find a replacement for me, a classroom teacher.  Given the circumstances, it may well be the best path forward. Sometimes we fish. Sometimes we cut bait.  

Such is the case I’m witnessing now: a principal who departed at the end of September.  At a time when schools should be settling in and hitting stride, this one lurched and lunged into October.  But I’m watching two seasoned educators step up and pilot this school, providing welcome stability. The first is a brand new Dean of Students, moving up this year from the classroom where her practice was exceptional.  Talk about a trial by fire. The second is the new Acting Principal, coming to this from his role as the Assistant Superintendent of Schools. These two are picking up the pieces and forging ahead, fixing the plane, as they say, while it’s in flight.

I am watching extraordinary collaboration.  Both carry constant teamwork and equitable perspectives to this journey.  In all but title, these two view themselves as equal team players, each doing all that’s necessary to heal this school, run it well, and make it a place that’s safe, loving and filled with grace.  Both are committed to doing all that it takes to create a school where everyone is welcome, a place of civility and joy.  

Several strategies are being employed to rebuild trust and improve communication.  I recently witnessed a student led assembly, where the kids welcomed the student body, teachers and parents.  Boxes for kindness comments and a newly established teacher-to-teacher recognition are helping this along too. “We want the students to see us having fun and feel the renewed joy in the building,” they said.    

Listening is proving to be an important part of this turnaround as well.  Sometimes it’s not making decisions that’s a decision unto itself. Simply allowing the educators in the building to talk, about anything, without pretense or even the promise of solutions, can be a revolutionary act in a school where this was scarce.  Listening is also crucial to regaining the trust of parents, an essential group who are justifiably skeptical about their concerns being heard. Sunday night updates prepare everyone for the week ahead, the repairs that need to be made, all informed by the voices heard.  Increased validation of the self-selected Building Leadership Team, with newfound autonomy, is another tool in this toolkit. As they said to me in our conversation about their work, both educators agree that this plane will find calm air “one conversation at a time.”  

To be sure, there are lots of books on leadership.  There is lots of inspiration out there to be gleaned from blogs and webpages.  But waking each morning and being faced with new challenges doesn’t leave a lot of time for quiet study and reflection.  Today’s challenges need to be solved now. Students need help negotiating the world now. Teachers need critical supports now.  None of this can wait while new leaders engage in quiet, pensive and intellectual conversation. As a favorite band once sang, the time to rise has been engaged.  

It’s this attitude and these actions that are worth celebrating.  Many of you have seen the same: devoted education professionals stepping up their game, jumping into the fray when so many others would not or did not.  The difficulty in this endeavour cannot be overstated. The emotional and intellectual demands placed upon those who choose these paths are large. So it’s with this message that I hope to lift my colleagues, supporting them in a critical time of transition as they work to support others, carrying burdens whose weight is, at times, difficult to bear.  Thank you. On behalf of all members of the school community, I say thank you.  

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Colin McKaig, Rowland Fellow, 2013

I was an English teacher at Black River High School for 25 amazing years.  I now serve as the first Technology Integration Coach for the Springfield School District.  Go Cosmos

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Early in my graduate program I took a class called The Neurobiology of Stress. Years now since the course, much of the learning has unfortunately escaped me. But one of our main texts, The Heartmath Solution, regularly resurfaces in my consciousness as I go through the yearly emotional peaks and valleys of teaching and turn inward for emotional fortitude. 

The Heartmath Solution provides easy to apply methods that strengthen the mind and heart. The authors make the case that simple practices, such as recording three daily gratitudes, helps cultivate heart health leading to both emotional and physical well-being. The results include lower stress levels, higher emotional clarity, and even a stronger immune system. Over time a person rewires their brain to default to optimism, hope and joy. 

As a major assignment, the instructor challenged us to record three gratitudes each morning, never repeating the same one twice for two weeks. The first few days were pretty easy (family! warm house! health!). But as time went on, the task became a bit more challenging, until I started “seeing” gratitudes everywhere, sometimes in the most unexpected places. The method was working!

Despite the simplicity of the practice, I’ll admit to having fallen in and out of it over the years. But for the last few weeks I’ve been back on the wagon, using a white board in my kitchen, the corners of loose papers in my school bag, the notes app on my phone, and even the back on my hand to jot down gratitudes as they come to me. 

In no particular order, here are a few from the list I have going:  

*My town’s librarian, Lisa. She works hard to make our little library a cozy place you just want to go hang out on a rainy Wednesday afternoon. 

*The strength I feel in my body. Activities like riding bikes and hiking mountains are where I feel most like myself, and spending time outdoors teaches me unique lessons in humility and vulnerability, which I need. My body makes those experiences possible. 

*The chance to listen. This fellowship is giving me the time to be curious with colleagues, administration, and professionals in the field, rather than having all the answers. Without such a long list of “to-do” each day, I can feel the space to be fully present, and just listen. 

*Podcasts! If I can be truly engaged and get smarter while commuting or making dinner, sign me up. Top picks from 2019 include WorkLife, Forever35, 1619, Wild Ideas Worth Living and The Cult of Pedagogy, and Missing Richard Simmons

*Live music. In October I saw the band Hiss Golden Messenger perform this song live in a tiny venue, which still gives me chills whenever I listen to it. Before he performed it he asked every teacher in the audience to raise their hand, and he thanked each one of us. 

*When a friend brings you a special treat. On a chilly bike ride last week a friend pulled a chocolate almond butter bar out of her jersey pocket for me. Needless to say her act of kindness made that day’s list!

*Freedom to fail and try again. Pushing my practice and trying new things in the classroom means that, a lot of the time, it isn’t going to go perfectly at first. I am grateful to work in a culture of second chances. 

This holiday season (or all year for that matter!), try giving yourself the gift of gratitude. It’s a quick and easy process that is truly attitude-altering. But the key is to do it for several days, so start now, and see how you can surprise yourself with the little things you’re really thankful for by the time you sit down for Thursday’s meal. 

Rachel Cohen is a 2019 Rowland Fellow and humanities teacher at Colchester High School. Her fellowship work explores how Vermont high schools can better utilize the outdoors to expand place-based learning and leadership development opportunities for students. In 2017 Rachel was a Fulbright Roving Scholar in American Studies in Norway. Follow her @Cohen_Noted 

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The Frontier of Education

“The idea of progress persists only because we have forgotten more than we have remembered.” – William J. Lines, Australian writer

One month ago, I read this quote in Terry Tempest Williams’ book, Red, while overlooking a Days Inn parking lot in Provo, Utah.  It was a sunny Sunday morning and I had a few hours to kill before boarding my flight back to Vermont.  I sat on a second floor balcony, watching the world awaken while enjoying my coffee with the inspiration of one of my favorite authors.  Most of the world was still quiet, and the sun peeked over the Wasatch front, bringing a gleam to the frost lying heavy on patches of grass and parking lot windshields.  My heart and mind were full with myriad emotions that I was, and, honestly, still am, trying to fully understand. In one line, this author, unknown to me, was able to put into words this feeling that had been circulating in my mind and pulsing through my veins with each beat of my heart. 

I had just emerged from a two-week wilderness expedition with BOSS, the Boulder Outdoor Survival School.  For over 50 years, this organization has been taking people into the deserts of southern Utah to learn primitive skills, wilderness travel, a conservation ethic, and something else… something more.  

And while the name might suggest that you would find a group of people living on the fringe of society – backwoods hermits lacking social skills or doomsday preppers readying for the zombie apocalypse – this couldn’t be further from the truth.  Well, the fringe part is true.  

What I found, instead,  was a community of people engaged in the act of remembering.

Simply put, they were remembering what it means to be human.  

You see, we live in a world in which we are becoming increasingly disconnected – from ourselves, from one another, from our communities, and from the natural world.  There are many reasons for this disconnection, some of which are in our control, and many more of which we aren’t even aware. We are influenced in ways, and by powers, that we can’t begin to imagine.  We are changed by all of this, and we call this change progress.  It seems inevitable, as we march towards a better future, as if we can do nothing to resist it.

At some level, I think most of us recognize this disconnection in our own lives.  We wish we were closer to our family and friends, more engaged in our communities, or that we were more intentional with our time.  And yet, it’s so easy to throw on Netflix or scroll through an Instagram feed, all the while feeling like something is missing in our lives.  We live in a world of constant connectivity, yet most of us, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, “lead lives of quiet desperation.” What is it we lack, with so many luxuries in this modern age?  Connection, I think.

So, the act of taking people into a vast wilderness with extremely limited gear and resources (and no technology), in order to learn “survival” skills, becomes a fringe, even revolutionary act.  When we make fire with our own hands, procure our food for the evening from the surrounding landscape, and sit around that fire together until stars fill the night sky, we remember. This is what it means to be a member of a community.  This is what it means to contribute. This is what it means to really be human.

And this level of connection – to ourselves, to others, and to the natural world – is what so many of us are missing.

I am convinced that the future of education lies not in technological gadgetry, bigger and better assessments, or finding countless new ways to put lipstick on the proverbial pig.  The frontier of education will be in “remembering” all that we have forgotten about how we can best prepare our children to be the humans that this world needs in the future. We will gain insight by looking back, not mindlessly marching onward with the blind assumption that the future must be better than the present, let alone the past.  Like any “frontier”, we will need to strike a balance between the knowledge and insight that we bring with us, and the energy and promise of the unexplored. We must adapt and be open, but we also cannot forget.  

Let’s face it, Homo sapiens, as a species, has been around for over 200,000 years; our hominid ancestors, millions of years more.  In all that time, we somehow managed to rear and raise offspring whom became the community members that were necessary for the survival of our kind.  In many cases, based upon historical records and studies of indigenous cultures throughout the world, children transitioned into adulthood, with all of its responsibilities and privileges, between the ages of 12 and 16.  This is nearly a decade earlier than it was for me and many of my friends, and even more than that 30 year old you know who still lives in their parents’ basement, playing video games and eating Doritos. 

On top of all of this, it can also be argued that our ancestors did so sustainably, that is to say, none of those previous generations of humans brought our planet to the brink of disaster quite like we moderns.  And this isn’t the fault of our youngest generations. It can be attributed to a social programming and cultural apparatus that has us believing that the mindless march forward must be progress.

So what is progress?  

I like to turn to Doug Tompkins- adventurer, former CEO of The North Face, and philanthropist- who, along with his wife, Kristine, purchased, and then gifted, millions of acres of South American wilderness to establish the first national parks in Chile.  Tompkins is quoted as saying, “What happens if you get to the cliff, and you take one step forward? Or you make a 180 degree turn and then take one step forward? Which way are you going? Which way is progress? The solution to many of the world’s problems is to turn around and take a step forward.”

Are we on the edge of a cliff?  Yes, unfortunately, I think we are.  Our cliff is social, political, economic, cultural, climactic… you name it.  And it’s clear to me that we aren’t going to find our way out of this predicament by being bull-headed and trudging onward.  Progress, in this case, means having the sense to turn around and look backward.

Progress means remembering.

Our children, our students, need not only know how to operate the latest iPhone, but how to really connect with others, in person, and especially those that are different than themselves. They can’t exist only in virtual or augmented realities, but must be grateful for the lives they lead, not envious of the ones that they don’t.  They can’t be so hypnotized by screens that they fail to notice the brilliance of nature unfolding around them, and the reality of the destruction that our lifestyles create. They can’t be so focused on their “followers” that they fail to recognize their power to become a person worth following.

There are powerful forces that aim to shape the minds and souls of our children.  To these forces, our students are consumers meant to be influenced and political pawns meant to be polarized.  They are not the independent, autonomous, thoughtful, caring human beings we aim to create… that our communities so desperately need.  We must endeavor to push back against these systems and to question what is meant by the relentless pursuit of progress.   We need to engage in the fringe and revolutionary act of “remembering.”

Luke Foley, a 2019 Rowland Fellow and the 2014 Vermont State Teacher of the Year, teaches at the STAR Program at Northfield High School.  Foley has a unique educational background, having worked as a wilderness guide, field instructor, and program director for several schools and programs in Vermont, the western United States, and around the world. Foley received his Masters in the Arts of Teaching from the University of Vermont and has a B.A. in International Political Economy from Colorado College in 2004.  He is a 2015 fellow for the Lloyd Milken Center for Unsung Heroes and a 2017 National Park Service Climate Resiliency Fellow. 

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Vermonters Who Dare to Lead

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles… 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… 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.” 

– Theodore Roosevelt, April 23, 1910

Brené Brown included this quotation early on in her book Dare to Lead. Since reading the book earlier this fall, the quotation has stuck with me.  I read the book for two reasons – it is a book we are reading as an administrative team and the book was the backbone of a weekend retreat of female Rowland fellows.  Reading the book with two different purposes and groups of people allowed me to melt into the ideas and apply them, reflect, re-read, and try them again. 

I find something magical in reading a book with complex ideas with colleagues. It is something that I do not do enough of. Reading and discussing a book with purpose with colleagues – in your school/district or with peers in the same field – brings with it a depth that I find hard to achieve on my own. I also find it a nourishing experience to read a book and talk about things that have happened and how the ideas are now shaping my thinking in a different way. 

Two years ago, I was fortunate to be at a school where the staff wanted to read The Body Keeps the Score together.  Not everyone read the book, but enough people did read it and voluntarily come to discussions that the ideas about trauma influenced the learning we continued to do as a school, the systems we built to support students, and the culture we built together the following years.  

My reading of Dare to Lead with two groups has been equally formative on my practice as a leader.  I have read each section of the book at least two times but between the first read and the second, I had a chance to consider how I was practicing the idea that “clear is kind” in my work and how I did – or didn’t – rumble with vulnerability.  Then, I was going back to the text and reading it again in the context of my new thinking and learning. It is pretty interesting to me that going back a second time I often focused on new parts of the book. The ideas that most speak to me depend on what I have experienced and the shared learning conversations with colleagues. 

The part of the book that has most influenced the way I am thinking about leadership now is around core values.  While I read the chapter on core values by myself, it was only through conversation and learning with other Rowland women that I understood how my core value of love exists in my daily practice.  After doing this learning with other women, I find myself checking my leadership moves and conversations and choices based on my core values. This conscious leading through love allows me to get out of my inbox and calendar and be much more present with students, colleagues, families – and just as importantly with my own family.   

I am grateful for being part of two groups that both chose the same book to read together. To have the chance to consider the idea of leadership as conceived and shaped by a female leaders’ work has been tremendous. To have this opportunity as part of my job and professional network has allowed me to grow in ways I could not have without out focused and purposeful conversations.  I wonder how we might create these common reads for more staff and families in our schools. If we had these opportunities, we would build more common understanding, civility, and reflective practices in our whole school community. I suspect they would foster a strong school culture, one of continued learning.

Vermont Many thanks to the Rowland Foundation for supporting the Rowland Women’s Retreat this year as a way to pull together fellows around a common text and experience. 

Jen Kravitz 2012 Rowland Fellow. Principal Mary Hogan Elementary School

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Life – Work balance

We took our daughter, Louisa, to her first day of kindergarten this morning. We took pictures as the morning sun lit up her blond hair and reflected off the damp grass. We followed the bus to school in our car. We stood in the back of the classroom with other nervous parents we didn’t know and watched her settle in. 

We watched Louisa play her first soccer game as a seventh grader this afternoon. We cheered with the other parents we now call friends. We stopped for pizza on the way home. We talked with the Louisa about her new responsibilities and independence.

We will say “goodnight” to Louisa with nervous anticipation some evening soon.  We will think about how it will be to have her spend the last night sleeping in her own bed before we take her to college in the morning. I hope we will feel like we took advantage of every opportunity to be with her – to truly be present with our daughter. I hope she will feel the same way.

I expect I’m not the only one who sometimes feels like life’s moments are slipping away while I’m working a job that is hard to contain in a regular schedule. Don’t get me wrong – I thoroughly enjoy my job. I feel like I’m good at it. I feel like I make a difference. I want to do everything I can to help my students – but sometimes that comes at a price. So the question is…how much am I willing to pay? Perhaps a harder question is “How much should I be willing to pay?” And how do I know when to say “no”?

There are plenty of reasons why maintaining appropriate boundaries with work is so challenging. Teaching is personal; teaching is a passion. Students seem to have higher needs every year. Saying “no” or doing something for ourselves can produce feelings of guilt. Our culture has an obsession with busyness – sometimes it can feel like I must not be working hard enough if I’m not working all the time. And then…aren’t teachers supposed to spend evenings and weekends planning and grading? Shouldn’t our vacations be spent working through the projects we assigned? Shouldn’t our summers be filled with classes, workshops, and professional readings? 

Just in case you’re wondering, I haven’t figured out how to contain my professional responsibilities within a clearly defined workday. It’s not possible. There are late nights and early mornings of grading and planning. There are weekends and vacation days spent reviewing student work and reading books about grading practices and implicit bias. There are summer days spent taking classes and reviewing and designing curriculum. And by the way – I don’t have any complaints about this (mostly). I find meaning in my work. I enjoy learning and growing as a professional. If I ever reach the point that I don’t enjoy it anymore, then it’s time to move on to something else. Hopefully I win the Lottery before then, but I guess I have to buy a ticket in order to have any chance at winning.

I sit writing this up against the deadline because my workday has been so full I couldn’t even find time during my lunch to write over the past two weeks. My afternoons and evenings have been filled with coaching my son Lincoln’s soccer team and cheering on Louisa from the sidelines. It’s now early in the evening and I have found a (mostly) quiet space in Louisa’s school to write as I wait for her to complete her basketball tryouts. Despite this impending deadline (and several others breathing down my neck) I didn’t stay late at work to write. I could have stayed late to work – there is plenty of it. But I didn’t. I didn’t because today was the only afternoon this week that I will have the chance to ride my mountain bike. So I rode. I did it for me. I didn’t stay late at work today because I am trying to follow the advice I wrote for Louisa upon entering middle school this year – “make yourself a priority”. 

It is essential that we take the time to take care of ourselves. So how do we do that on a regular basis? How do I do it? 

Not well, but I have a growth mindset about my life-work balance. I’m getting better, and living a life that aligns with my core values has been a boon for my wellness.

My core values drive my decisions and actions every day. When something doesn’t feel right, it is usually because I’m living a life that is incongruous with those values, some of which include “Family first” and “Work hard, play harder, play often.” Perhaps I should add a core value – “Make myself a priority”. Here is how I explained this to Louisa: 

This is a big one. We spend so much time talking about not being selfish, that sometimes we lose sight of [taking care of ourselves]. You are important. What you want is important. What you need is important. Advocate for yourself with your teachers. Don’t let others be mean to you or walk all over you. Make sure your relationships (yes, even any romantic relationships) are built on trust and respect. Don’t let anyone pressure you to do something you don’t want to do.

I’d like to leave you with the advice my department chair, Carl, offered me on my first day as a new teacher. Carl was the consummate professional. He worked hard for his students. The quality of his work was always top notch. He had high expectations for himself and the members of his department. He struggled with his life-work balance. The advice he offered was to “Take care of yourself first so you can take care of your family. Your distant third priority is this job.” 

I encourage you to find ways to take care of yourself. Take that mountain bike ride right after work every now and then. Feel the sun on your shoulders and the wind in your face. You’ll breathe deeper at work the next day. Find ways to feed the fun in your life – you’ll be glad you did.

John Painter (@802Painter) is a 2014 Rowland Fellow whose work has focused on advisory. John has partnered with the Flyin Ryan Foundation to bring the writing and sharing of core values into Vermont schools. He is currently the Curriculum Area Supervisor for the Mathematics Department at South Burlington High School.

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Improving Equity and Empathy at School

Last spring a group of students representing our Gender Sexuality Alliance asked to have a meeting with our district’s curriculum director and myself. We sat down in my office and the students began to make a calm, thoughtful, and well reasoned case for more LGBTQ+ representation in our curriculum. The students made a persuasive case that essentially asked the question, “Why not?” 

Giving students meaningful voice in our learning community has made our school more equitable and created a more empathetic place to learn and grow for all of our students. The recent case made by the students for more LGBTQ+ representation in our school ran parallel to a similar conversation that I had two years ago with a few of our students of color. They had helped us understand just how complacent we were in the dominant narrative’s deeply embedded systemic implicit biases, prejudices, and perpetuation of marginalization for those historically marginalized. On February 1st, 2018, their advocacy led to our high school being the first known public school in America to raise a Black Lives Matter flag. The flag raising sparked national and international attention, and more importantly has been a visible symbol of our local school community’s commitment to making our learning environment more equitable and empathetic. 

So how exactly does a predominantly white, middle class, rural high school like ours go about being more inclusive and equitable? Here are five strategies that we are using to improve. 

  1. Know thyself. As administrators and teachers we owe it to all of our students to examine our own biases, privilege, reflect on our practices, and pursue professional learning opportunities to deepen our knowledge and commitment to equity. Helping students understand their place in time and history means we as educators need to have a stronger understanding of our own. 
  2. Do the homework. The students from our Gender Sexuality Alliance raised such a simple and poignet question, “Why not review existing units and look for ways to be more inclusive?” As we improve our school’s clarity around targeted skill-based competencies, it ought to render more unit content choices more neutral. In other words, if reading comprehension is the goal, the selection of which materials and authors to read should be flexible to include more diverse authors, themes, and topics. One of our science teachers recently uncovered that a longstanding biology unit about DNA had vast and meaningful implications to inequitable incarceration rates, systemic judicial bias, and the use of cutting edge science to improve those problems. Holding up an equity lens to almost any of our units can yield similar connections and opportunities for inclusivity.
  3. Use data. The achievement gap is as troubling in our school as it is anywhere in the country. We have consistently lagged in literacy and math skills among students from low socioeconomic status. Use of data through an equity lens pushes us to ask who(?) more often. Who is accessing our afterschool program? Who is utilizing our social worker? Who is being referred for special education? Who can regularly access technology? Who is accessing our flexible pathways? Who is represented in faculty and leadership? Some of the answers to these questions illustrate the stark disparity in our system for the historically marginalized and those numbers can spark more targeted intervention and proactive problem solving. Recently adopted local school policy will also provide more strength and urgency to answering these questions with equity at the forefront of our work.   
  4. Interrupt microaggressions. Our students have reported hearing microaggressions, usually masked as jokes, on a regular basis. There are two ways that we have worked to improve this issue. One is to improve knowledge of history, context, and status of historically marginalized members of our society–in an effort to help raise awareness of the pain and implications “jokes” can have. The second is to simply improve our ability to interrupt. Relying on resources from Teaching Tolerance, our faculty actually practiced interrupting microaggressions and biased comments. It proved challenging, and having more practice and chances to collaborate on strategies has been useful faculty time together. 
  5. Look around. We have simply been looking around to reveal what implicit messages are in our system. What and who are on the walls? What gender normative language can we remove from our forms, class groupings, bathrooms, student management system, graduation, etc. Is special education a place in our school? Who is in leadership positions? How can our posters, art, book displays, school motto and hiring communicate inclusivity and celebration of all? When we examine our environment closely through the lens of equity for our historically marginalized it is incredible just how strongly and frequently the implicit biases reveal themselves.  

We have been fortunate to have students with voice helping to lead the way in our school. Our job is to hold up our end of the work too. That means not only listening to their voices, but also raising the expectations for ourselves. Waking up to the systemic biases in our school is difficult–even painful work at times. And recognizing our own privilege–no matter our life circumstances, is internal work not everyone is eager to do. Despite the challenges, making strides to create a more equitable learning environment is not only the right thing to do for our historically marginalized students, it is crucial for our advantaged students and all members of our community to lead deeper, more just, and more empathetic lives as well. 

Written by Mike McRaith in June of 2019. Mike is the recent Montpelier High School Principal and now serves as the Assistant Executive Director for Vermont Principals’ Association. Mike is a 2013 Rowland Fellow. 

Written by Mike McRaith in June of 2019. Mike is the recent Montpelier High School Principal and now serves as the Assistant Executive Director for Vermont Principals’ Association. Mike is a 2013 Rowland Fellow.

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So Long, Summer!

After sixteen years as a teacher, I’m well-accustomed to the internal rhythms of the school year.  August sows seeds of anticipation and excitement for a fresh start. By October, we’ve found our stride, having established a strong classroom culture and systems to fuel daily learning.  Over time, however, the accumulation of minor stresses and struggles can begin to erode that early exuberance. By February, there are days where it feels like we’re in survival mode!  

Fortunately, spring offers a renewed burst of energy for the home stretch.  And by June, students and teachers alike are beginning to embrace the promise of summer vacation and exciting opportunities on the horizon.  Sunshine, hiking, gardening, travel, backyard barbecues, fishing trips, pleasure reading, mountain biking, camping…and so much more!  Peter fishing tackle

Those outside the realm of education often point to teachers’ summer vacation as a cushy luxury unknown to others in the real working world.  In what other profession do people get so much time off simply to relax and play?  But, I would argue to be at our best, teachers need this prolonged time away from the intensity of the school year to reflect, relax and recharge. 

In truth, many of my educator-friends use the bulk of their summer break to work a second job, complete coursework for recertification, or to attend a variety of other workshops that introduce new instructional practices and strategies to better support students.  Certainly, these are all worthy endeavors that help rejuvenate us without the high-pressure backdrop of returning to school bright and early Monday morning. But this doesn’t exactly sound like summer vacation.

Is there a deeper benefit to stepping back that actually makes us better educators?  What do we gain by distancing ourselves from the world of education even more?

peter-daughterDuring the summer holiday, my family makes an annual pilgrimage to the Pacific Northwest to reconnect with family, friends, and to soak up the natural beauty of the region.  With many miles logged and memories made, a few of this year’s highlights include several days in Portland, Oregon, sampling a bounty of amazing food and reconnecting with the quirky energy of one of my favorite cities; a family trip to the Oregon Coast to play in the sand and watch migrating gray whales from the cliffs overlooking the Pacific; a three-day father-son flyfishing trip to Idaho’s wild and scenic Lochsa River to commune with massive cutthroat trout; daily mountain bike rides with my brother exploring the foothills of the North Cascades mountains; and a side trip into the Canadian Okanogan in British Columbia, a rolling landscape dominated by several large lakes and hills dotted with beautiful orchards of apricots, cherries, and peaches. (Even more, the area boasts a growing number of vineyards that produce a variety of amazing and delicious wines to enjoy while relaxing and soaking in the views).Peter son

Interestingly, for me, it is precisely these experiences where I begin to reflect on my role as a teacher and feel that sense of inspiration and renewed enthusiasm begin to blossom.  Gazing out over the Pacific, I contemplated how to enhance our recent project, Blue Planet, which explores the impact of overfishing, plastic pollution, and climate change.  Visiting parks along the coast, I took photos and gathered resources that will help improve the project during the next go-around.  I didn’t set out on the trip determined to redesign a project. The opportunity presented itself organically and I had the presence of mind to take notice.

Peter riverDuring our three-day fly fishing adventure in northern Idaho, I took the opportunity to get lost in Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn, which recounts one of the largest and most destructive wildfires that swept through the region in 1910.  The book presents an incredible history of Theodore Roosevelt’s effort to conserve broad swaths of America’s most beautiful natural places against the onslaught of industrialists and speculators.  In many ways, the conflicts and themes explored in the book are playing out again today. On the drive home, brimming with new insights and ideas, I mapped out the next iteration of our See America — National Parks project.   

Even when it’s going well, teaching is an inherently stressful profession with ever-increasing demands and few easy answers.  We become teachers because we want to make a positive impact on the lives of young people. We want to inspire, cultivate curiosity, and help students acquire knowledge and skills to solve problems and lead fulfilling lives.  This all takes a tremendous amount of energy.Peter bikes

To be at our best, we must ensure that we have the enthusiasm, patience, and emotional fuel to give to our students.  Summer adventures offer a much-needed respite from the intensity of the school year. More importantly, the extended break provides the time and space to be present in our surroundings and helps us to be open to the possibilities and connections that will inform and enrich our practice.  

Peter view


Here we stand on the precipice of a new school year, rejuvenated and ready to embrace the opportunities and challenges that await us.  So long, summer! See you again, soon. Hold onto your seats—school starts bright and early on Monday morning!



peter-headshotPeter Stratman (@peterstratman) is a teacher-leader and instructional coach at Cabot School where he helped design and implement a dynamic project-based learning program. He has extensive experience with community-based education, youth voice, and service-learning. A 2014 Rowland Fellow, Peter is the co-creator of LaunchPad, a web-app that helps students and teachers build and share awesome projects.

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