Relationships--A February Reflection
William S. McKersie, Ph.D.
February 4, 2016
Our second grader is dutifully preparing Valentine cards this week for each and every member of her class. She carefully selected a “girl set” and a “boy set,” and has triple checked name lists to make sure all are included. The special “cross-gender” touch is to tape a heart-decorated pencil to each Valentine.
My mental school calendar calls out another message for February: Black History Month. Across the nation, schools of all types weave into their regular February programming events, assignments, presentations and tasks designed to honor African-Americans and deepen our understanding of their history. The best of our schools ensure that the contributions, talents, gifts and challenges of African-Americans are visible and studied all year--but Black History Month provides a necessary boost.
Valentine’s Day and Black History Month--the connection? In a word, relationships. On the easier side, my daughter’s joyous efforts with Valentine cards remind me that so much of our elementary years are and should be an exercise in learning how to care, get along, and watch out for one-another. On the harder side, Black History Month reminds me that our nation has been characterized all too often by what W.E.B. Du Bois called “the problem of the Color Line” (The Souls of Black Folk, 1903). Relationships within and across racial and ethnic groups too often are strained by lines of separation and perceived and real differences.
Schools are an essential venue for helping young people, and through them our whole nation, gain common ground on relationships rooted in understanding, respect, even love. Reading, Writing and Arithmetic--”Reading, Riting and Rithmatic”--are joined by a fourth “R” (relationships) in schools that are fully preparing students. Such is the argument of Tony Wagner, who some 10 years ago began advocating for education characterized by “rigor, relevance and relationships” (2006, http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2006/01/11/18wagner.h25.html).
At about the same time, economist Ron Ferguson advanced the “Tripod Project,” which drew on extensive research to theorize that the best teachers are exceptional with content, pedagogy and relationships (2008, http://www.achievementseminars.com/seminar_series_2008_2009/readings/ferguson_tripod_project.pdf). More recently, David Kirp has underscored the centrality of relationships in good schools:
...It’s impossible to improve education by doing an end-run around inherently complicated and messy human relationships. All youngsters need to believe that they have a stake in the future, a goal worth striving for, if they’re going to make it in school. They need a champion, someone who believes in them, and that’s where teachers enter the picture. The most effective [reform] approaches foster bonds of caring between teachers and their students. (“Teaching is Not a Business,” NYT, August 16, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/17/opinion/sunday/teaching-is-not-a-business.html?emc=eta)
In Greenwich, we place a priority on relationships. The budding Strategic Plan has “Interpersonal Growth” as one of its three goals (Academic and Personal Growth are the other two). Social Emotional Learning has for many years been a focal point in our curriculum, lessons, and special programs. Our elementary and middle schools are guided by five norms, a copy of which I carry in my pocket every day: “Be Here, Be Safe, Be Honest, Care for Self and Others, Let Go and Move On.” Each norm represents a building block in effective relationships. Greenwich High School has a sister-set of relationship norms, CARDS: Character, Achievement, Respect, Determination, Service.
Students, guided by staff, regularly lead programs to foster positive relationships. This month, Diversity Week will be a feature at GHS as part of Black History Month. A new student group, as part of our partnership with the national Minority Student Achievement Network, is working with Valerie Bolling and Garfield Charles to develop a peer support network to accelerate academic and social success for our African American, Latino and Asian students. The Names Day Project is in its second decade at GHS as a way to promote respectful, anti-bullying behavior. Alina Agiurgioaei Boie and her colleagues have created district-wide “Norms Days” when staff and students, often in coordination with Greenwich first-responders, take part in academic and extra-curricular activities to bring the norms to life.
Rules and regulations also are necessary to ensure we are striving for effective relationships. Board Policies, aligned to federal and state laws, are paramount. Administration Procedures enact the policies. The Connecticut Codes of Professional Responsibility for Teachers (http://www.sde.ct.gov/sde/lib/sde/pdf/cert/ethics/code_teachers.pdf) and Administrators (http://www.sde.ct.gov/sde/lib/sde/pdf/cert/ethics/code_administrators.pdf ) are required check lists for all certified staff. School, Student and Parent Handbooks spell out rules and regulations that are essential for strong communities.
Nevertheless, relationships in Greenwich, as with any diverse educational community, are “inherently complex and messy,” to quote Kirp. Each of us in Greenwich can point to times and events over just the past several months when the interactions of students, professionals, parents, community members, and elected officials have not been ideal. Differences abound and sorting through them in respectful ways is understandably difficult. Patience can be short, fatigue can dominate, personal histories can persist, forgiveness can be forgotten, and caring can be dropped.
The good news is that I most often see the fundamental trait of compassion prevail. Yes, Greenwich is a town and school system of high expectations and fast-paced action. Ultimately, I see that Greenwich is a place where relationships are paramount--where concern for the dignity and well-being of all our students and all our staff, and each for the other, carries the day.
Valentines for each child...Check. Understanding and honoring the history of all people who make up this community...Check. Relationships on a healthy path...Check. Hard work, that must continue...Check.
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
June 1, 2014, Superintendent's Message: Distinguished Ideas
2014 Distinguished Teachers Essays
April 3, 2014, Superintendent's Message: Accelerating Achivement for All: Greenwich and the Achievement Gap
March 4, 2014, Superintendent's Message: Smarter Balanced - Field Test: Facts & Interpretation
February 5, 2014, Superintendent's Message: A Word on the Common Core
January 3, 2014, Superintendent's Message: Popular Knowledge of Complex Questions
December 3, 2013, Superintendent's Message: Distinguished Reflections
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)