District Information > Superintendent's Message

Superintendent's Message

Live Standing Up

William S. McKersie, Ph.D.

June 1, 2016


“Some around here learned to live standing up. Some learned to live sitting down.”

 (James McBride, Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul, 2016, p. 77.)


It is best to live standing; to live taking a stand; to stand with pride and grace; to stand strong in the face of adversity and challenge; to stand so others can stand; to teach and guide, so that “standing in the light” is the legacy, the life approach and character we foster in all our students.

For the past two weeks, I have immersed myself in the teaching, writing and thinking of three Distinguished Teachers: Sarah Harris, Sarah Goldin and Ian Tiedemann.  The two Sarahs and Ian are among the six Distinguished Teachers for 2016.  They chose to pursue the CT Teacher of the Year Nomination, which entails a classroom observation, submission of a topical essay and a reflective discussion with the superintendent (Ana Chejin-Danielsen, Julie Cofone and Jeannine Madoff—the three other 2016 Distinguished Teachers—took a pass on the state-level competition.  I applaud them for their exceptional talent and dedication.).

The “Six of 2016” live standing up.  They teach, guide, coach, cajole, discipline, cheer, sweat, smile, laugh, at times despair, but always persist to stand and ensure their students succeed. I witnessed the gifted pedagogy of the two Sarahs and Ian; I know as well that I would have seen the same with Ana, Julie and Jeannine.  In a phrase, personalized teaching and learning is what I saw in the three classrooms.  I watched three teachers, prepared in great detail, facilitate students (in one class kindergartners, in the other two 9th and 10th graders) on their own and in small groups to dig deeply into challenging and engaging content.  For all ages, the absorption with the task was nearly total.  Even the side-bar conversations were about the topic, problem or question.  In each class the personal was paramount, even while working within a shared lesson plan, logically structured and guided to achieve the posted “goals and objectives.”  Brilliant!

Four years ago, when I inherited the process of reviewing the Distinguished Teacher essays as part of selecting the GPS nominee for the CT Teacher of the Year, I was immediately struck by the need to share the writing of the teachers.  The essays were too well done, too rich with thinking and reflection, too vital to extending best practice and ideas around Greenwich to be only read by me.  So, I started the sharing I continue now, providing excerpts from the submitted essays, in the hope that I entice people to read the full essays (which can be accessed through the links below).

Sarah Goldin, opening with a creative riff on a comedian’s view of the issues in public education, focuses on what she terms the “Myth of Retention” as the most pervasive problem for educators.  “By the term “Myth of Retention,” Goldin writes, “I mean the erroneous belief that if students are properly instructed in a well-designed curriculum, they will thereafter retain permanent possession of all of the content they have learned.” The Myth creates a series of “pedagogical and institutional problems:” teacher-centered classrooms; assessed outcome measures become the primary purpose; broad consumption and recitation of knowledge is considered better than deep understanding; and, separation of content knowledge and assessment from real world practices and problems.  Instead, Goldin argues, “we must create learning experiences that develop and value students’ capacity to tackle open-ended, complex real-world problems, rather than their ability to store and recall content.”  Goldin’s closing plea: “To educators everywhere, I say let’s stop asking ourselves what our students will remember about what we covered yesterday, and start asking ourselves if how they are learning will prepare them to meet challenges tomorrow.”

Click to view Sarah Goldin 2016 Distinguished Teacher Essay

“External issues bombard and impact the educational process,” writes Sarah Harris.  Testing and assessment are of greatest concern.  Harris contends that “assessment is neither intrinsically good nor bad.  Its value lies in its purpose.”  Harris continues, “There are two main functions of assessment: one is to monitor progress, with an emphasis on learning from mistakes and building upon what is already known (this is known as formative assessment); the other is to provide a judgement about what is already known and understood (this is known as summative assessment)…Both formative and summative assessment styles have their validity in the right context.”  However, Harris displays her magical Kindergarten pedagogy and vision by concluding, “The effects of formative assessment are entirely positive.  The more knowledge a teacher has about his or her students’ learning and understanding, the more he or she is able to personalize their learning, allowing each child to learn at a level suited to their own ability.”  Linking her thinking to national policy, Harris argues, “With the advent of Common Core, emphasis has shifted to nationally standardized tests, thus facilitating comparison between states as well as school districts.  Again, this from of assessment undoubtedly has its place, but it is not designed to enhance and develop individual student learning.”  In closing, Harris stresses that teachers “should be crystal clear that it is formative assessment that will move students forward in their thinking.”

Click to view Sarah Harris 2016 Distinguished Teacher Essay

Ian Tiedemann takes a stand on the role of technology in “knowledge transfer.” “Not long ago,” Tiedemann writes, “I sat on the other side of the classroom, subject to the fine tradition of knowledge transfer. Notes written on the board became flashcards for maintenance rehearsal: Tsar Alexander II the Great Reformer (assassinated), Tsar Alexander III Russification, Tsar Nicholas II WWI and Russian Revolution (also assassinated).” Tiedemann concludes, “Knowledge transfer in the way it was practiced is obsolete, but technology has not been an absolute panacea to education’s ills.”  Tiedemann reaches into new literature to ask, “Disruptive technology transforms entire industries, [but] which classroom practices do we discard as inefficient and which do we continue to value?”  The most basic functions of knowledge transfer can be handled by digital technology, such as YouTube enabled flipped classrooms, iTunes University and MOOCs.  Authentic classroom experiences, however, cannot be replaced by technology.  Tiedemann argues, “None have generated the sense of community and camaraderie that I have seen develop between teachers and students in a classroom environment…Gone are the nuances of expression, the immediate feedback of being able to ask a question in real time or the spontaneous interactions that we will remember far after the class has concluded.”  Tiedemann, nevertheless, is an advocate for digital learning; the Smart Board, Schoology and Chromebooks are put to creative use with his students.  But, he stands each day in his classroom with a warning: “Technology is a means to achieve a goal, not an end in itself. The most effective device use in the classroom is specific and limited, and it enhances our ability to grapple with real world issues.  As we continue to develop the best digital classroom practices for a one-to-one environment, we must focus on ways that our tools can foster deep discussion, create effective resolutions and shape authentic learning outcomes.”

Click to view Ian Tiedemann 2016 Distinguished Teacher Essay

Harris, Goldin and Tiedemann each take a stand in their essays.  They are not sitting back, going along intellectually or emotionally with what confronts them, and all of us, as educators.  While each essay takes a unique stand, a theme is clear: personalized learning to promote life success.  Students need to be treated and taught as individuals, with personal talents, strengths and challenges, which must be fostered to ensure they can tackle tomorrow’s unknown problems with good thinking, knowledge and character.  A clear theme, but an audacious one. In Greenwich, the audacious is achievable.  Teach on!




June 1, 2016 Superintendent's Message: Live Standing Up

May 12, 2016 Superintendent's Message: A Strategic Plan is Born

April 5, 2016 Superintendent's Message: The Water is Wide

March 8, 2016 Superintendent's Message: Serving All our Students Well

February 4, 2016 Superintendent's Message: Relationships - A February Reflection

January 4, 2016 Superintendent's Message: Personalized Learning & DLE – A Greenwich Story

December 3, 2015 Superintendent's Message: In Safe Hands

November 10, 2015 Superintendent's Message: Thankful

October 12, 2015 Superintendent's Message: The Superintendent’s Vision for 2018

September 7, 2015 Superintendent Message: Excellence and Compassion go Hand-in-Hand

June 18, 2015 Superintendent's GHS Graduation Speech

June 2015, Superintendent Message: Distinguished Ideas 2015

April 7, 2015, Superintendent Message: Winning with Character

March 5, 2015, Superintendent Message: Gauging Progress in the GPS - Take Two

February 1, 2015, Superintendent Message: Innovation Lab: Deep Learning In and For the Real World

January 12, 2015, Superintendent Message: Hot Topics for the Cold Months

December 1, 2014, Superintendent's Message: Gauging Progress in the GPS – Take One

November 3, 2014, Superintendent's Message: Lots of Industry...Lots of Product - Part II

October 7, 2014, Superintendent's Message: Lots of Industry...Lots of Product - Part I

September 2, 2014, Superintendent's Message: Our Signature: Achievement and Caring

November 27, 2013, Superintendent's Thanksgiving Day Message

November 12, 2013, The Roots of Excellence

September 26, 2013, Letter to Greenwich Public School Families on our Call to Action and Strategic Focus

September 11, 2013 Letter to Greenwich Public School Families on Safe School Climate

September 3, 2013 Letter to Greenwich Public School Families on Safe School Climate

April 25, 2012, Superintendent of Schools Appointment Announcement

Resume for William S. McKersie (April 2012)

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