July and August are often where the winds of school leadership are in a state of flux. The pandemic weather pattern has meant countless changes in school leadership across the country. There were planned and accelerated retirements, fresh starts, and even some departures for careers outside of education. I am one of the many “pandemic leaders” who is now beginning a new journey in new schools.
Deciding to move was far from easy for me and my family. Some people wondered why we would leave a district when things were going so well on most fronts. As a family, we were “all-in” and cherished established friends and routines. The kids were in activities, clubs, and sports all of which enabled our family to truly be a part of the school community.
This brings me to a viewpoint or philosophy on leadership that is rooted in the belief that each leader plays a role or serves a specific need within an organization. This role is time-sensitive and evolves during one’s tenure. If you are lucky enough, you can have the rare gift of serving your role to completion. Then, you must have the humility to realize another leadership style could better meet the needs of the organization.
While this makes logical sense in my head, it is often far more challenging for my heart to comprehend. Being a leader requires giving your whole self to do it well. In other words, you must lead with your mind and heart. My family and I strive to become interwoven into the fabric of the school community. This makes the decision to seek new challenges exceptionally difficult for my family and can leave some community members wondering why or even feeling betrayed. I am reminded of one of the scenes from Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964), where the children ask how long will their beloved nanny stay with the family. Mary Poppins lovingly responds, “I’ll stay until the wind changes.” I truly believe great leaders come into organizations and stay until they serve their purpose. Hopefully, we create lasting positive changes for the children of the community. When we leave it is often with a smile on our face, but sadness in our hearts.
But remember the rest of Bert’s introduction to Mary Poppins:
Winds in the east, mist coming in,
Like somethin’ is brewin’ and about to begin.
Can’t put me finger on what lies in store,
But I fear what’s to happen all happened before.
While change can be painful for everyone, it also signals a beginning, filled with hope, possibility, and opportunity. I can’t wait to see where the next leader takes my former school and, with the wind in my sails, I’m looking forward to the new challenges in my new schools.
I was humbled to play a small part in this publication with Battelle for Kids regarding our work on the Portrait of a Graduate. The development of a shared vision has never been more important than now.
by Stephen Fujii, in partnership with Matthew Montgomery, Ph.D., Superintendent of Revere Local Schools
Revere Local School District (Revere) boasts a strong history of academic excellence. With four schools and one preschool, Revere serves approximately 2,800 students and attributes their success to their student-centered approach and strong relationship with community members. The district leadership team is working with the community to develop a Portrait of a Graduate and articulate the competencies necessary for all students to thrive.
The Vision of a Minuteman will be the first step of Revere’s strategic planning process. This critical step called for close collaboration between the district and the broader community. As the previous strategic plan was sunsetting, the district wanted to ensure the new strategic plan would center on the 21st century learning experiences to prepare their students to become leaders in a rapidly changing and complex world. Both district and community stakeholders were poised to engage in purposeful conversations with stakeholders as they collectively designed the Vision of a Minuteman that would steer the district’s work moving forward. Throughout the process, students have provided a critical voice as they advocate for their education.
Revere’s superintendent, Dr. Matthew Montgomery, understood the importance of engaging with the community in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the social justice resurgence. The Vision of a Minuteman design process created a forum that catalyzed these critical and courageous conversations and channeled them into an exploration of the skills and competencies students needed to navigate the realities of today and tomorrow. At times of political strife, misinformation, public health crises, it was paramount to bring the community together in service of students. More importantly, the Design Team meetings centered on asking themselves: how can our schools prepare Revere students to become leaders who tackle our society’s challenges?
Community engagement done well allows for the democratization of voice and invites a diverse group of community perspectives to elevate the needs of different stakeholders. Leadership at Revere intentionally established a Design Team that represented a cross-section of their community—students, parents, educators, administrators, business leaders, and community leaders. Each Design Team meeting was formulated to ensure all stakeholder groups contributed to the Vision of a Minuteman in a meaningful way. The overall goal was to empower Design Team members—to become change agents within the education system.
“The community is important, and we should work with people from all over the school and community—students, bus drivers, and even the administration,” explained Portrait Design Team member and high school student Elisha Dennis-Brinson. “Leaders should always be willing to listen to the people around them.”
Revere students played a strong leadership role in the development of the Vision of a Minuteman. They are, after all, the central focus of the Vision of a Minuteman. Young people are positioned to lead and take action on our society’s critical challenges—they are passionate about equity, empathy, and diverse views as the pandemic has deeply impacted them.
Dr. Montgomery affirms that “it was inspirational for stakeholders to hear student leaders speak to the future of their school.” Student discussions were rich and robust because students were keenly aware of what they needed.
Middle school student Avery Stein said, “Being part of this group, I’m able to talk […] about what I think needs to be changed and what the student body as a whole wants for the future.” Students focused on the importance of finding their voice and building their confidence to become leaders in their community. As stakeholders weighed different considerations and decisions, they relied on students’ voices as a litmus test. Giving students a voice is empowering.
Mr. Dennis-Brinson shared that he felt “proud to be able to share from my perspective and see my ideas be taken into consideration by creating a discussion on how we as a school can improve.” As a result, the Vision of a Minuteman articulates that Revere students embody empathy and confidence, which students had advocated early in the process.
Student participation in the Design Team allowed them to model agency. Ms. Stein explains that “being 14, I didn’t think I would play a part in how I can change my future, but my voice is being heard. I’m able to talk to principals, teachers, and people who are working in the schools. They want to know my opinions and they want to know the pros and the cons and what I think could shape a better future.”
Outside the Design Team, students further demonstrated their investment in this vision that would guide their future and their peers’ future. Students interviewed Dr. Montgomery and collaborated with Battelle for Kids to write a story on the Vision of the Minuteman, which will be featured in the student newspaper, the Lantern. This initiative demonstrates that they want to advocate and raise awareness of this important endeavor.
The Vision of a Minuteman precedes the upcoming strategic planning process, where students and other stakeholders will continue to play a leadership role. District and community stakeholders will develop a strategic plan that sets forth bold strategies and measurable objectives that will bring the Vision of a Minuteman to life. This process will be founded on quality stakeholder engagement, unity of voice, and ensuring the broader community is invested and committed to student success.
Dr. Montgomery’s aspiration is, “all stakeholders in the community live the Vision of a Minuteman every day, spurring meaningful change, helping students find their voice, and preparing them to become the leaders of the future.
I was recently watching an episode from season six, episode two, of The Crown. Spoiler alert: stop reading if you are a loyalist to the show and haven’t watched this far. The episode focuses on the relationship between the Queen and then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Towards the end of the episode the Queen cautions Mrs. Thatcher about making enemies, whereas in response the Prime Minister recites the following poem by the Scottish poet Charles Mackay:
You have no enemies, you say? Alas! my friend, the boast is poor; He who has mingled in the fray Of duty, that the brave endure, Must have made foes! If you have none, Small is the work that you have done. You’ve hit no traitor on the hip, You’ve dashed no cup from perjured lip, You’ve never turned the wrong to right, You’ve been a coward in the fight.
After doing some research, according to a 2019 BBC documentary, Margaret Thatcher was fond of the poem and kept a copy of it on her desk.
This was the first time I heard of the poem and candidly it took me off guard. I re-watched the clip several times letting my mind marinate in the words. I thought about how this poem related to my own experience as an educational leader. Most importantly, I reflected on how Mackay’s message deeply resonated with my experience of leading during the pandemic.
Never I have experienced the level of vitriol we have seen in 2020. Much of the scornfulness, coming from a place of hopelessness and despair, rather than personal attacks. I have seen my fellow school superintendents across the country weather hurricane-level-five storms throughout this year fighting for what they believe to be the best for the students. While each definition of what is best is intricately dependent on the communities in which they serve, nevertheless the intention remains constant to protect and educate our students.
School leaders have undoubtedly created foes along 2020’s pathway, whether through in-person, hybrid, or remote learning environments. We have analyzed countless data points from our district, community, state, and nation to find a way to fulfill our purpose of teaching children.
As a new adjunct faculty member teaching future principals, I have this to say: if you want everyone to like you, don’t choose leadership. To lead, we have to be courageous in our decision making. We have to hit the traitor on the hip, dash the cup from the perjured lip, and most importantly, turn the wrong to right.
As I sit here and write this last Friday message of 2020 to staff there are countless memories of the year running through my mind. Of course, some of them are wonderful and others are not so wonderful. When I reflect on the year, it is not any different from other years in terms of the tally of good and bad, however, the pandemic does add a certain flair.
The holidays are a time of remembering the past, celebrating the present, and dreaming of the future. My sincerest hope is you take the much deserved time to be still and enjoy your families. Even though this season may look a little differently from the past, I am confident we can create memories that will last a lifetime.
As an example, last night we finished watching “A Christmas Story” together as a family, and afterward, we played model trains. For those of you who don’t know, “playing trains” consists of me running the train sets and filling the room with smoke while telling the kids “don’t touch that”. While the night was simple, the evening was filled with smiles and laughter. We made a memory that hopefully, many years from now when I am no longer around, my babies will look back fondly upon. Perhaps they will share with their families about their own crazy Dad who played with trains or merely has a quiet moment remembering a holiday when the world was different, but how we still found joy.
As some of you know, I am a bibliophile. I just finished the book Factfulness (2018) by Hans Rosling. Towards the end of the book, Rosling wrote about the importance of teaching our children critical thinking. I found that interesting because critical thinking shows up in our work with student engagement. In fact, the high school used critical thinking as the area of focus for our recent instructional rounds. Moreover, critical thinking is rising to the top of the characteristics that the Design Team is gravitating towards for the Vision of a Minuteman (Portrait of a Graduate). I think this week in our nation is a perfect example of the importance of critical thinking skills. Here are a few of the suggestions from Rosing (2018) that we should be teaching our students that I thought were timely:
We should be teaching them what life was really like in the past so that they do not mistakenly think that no progress has been made.
We should be teaching them how to hold the two ideas at the same time: that bad things are going on in the world, but that many things are getting better.
We should be teaching them how to consume the news and spot the drama without becoming stressed or hopeless.
We should be teaching them the common ways that people will try to trick them with numbers.
We should be teaching them that the world will keep changing and they will have to update their knowledge and worldview throughout their lives.
As educators, we have a rare gift and opportunity to shape the future. As Rosling (2018) explains, teaching the above, “would protect the next generation from a lot of ignorance” ( p. 248). I want to congratulate you on your work and to challenge you to continue to focus on critical thinking skills for our students and for our nation.
Rosling, H., Rosling, O., & Rönnlund, A. R. (2018). Factfulness: Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think. First edition. New York: Flatiron Books.
The partnership between community, parents, and school has never needed to be stronger than in present times. Our children and students are faced with many challenges that are unique from what today’s adults were faced with in their own time of adolescence. As a district leader and parent of four, I often wonder what proactive steps we should take to ensure our youth are properly equipped to face today’s challenges. One of the greatest concerns I have had recently is around social media. The most frightening aspect is I worry for not only children but also adults and wonder about the psychological and emotional effects of this technology. As a leader, I see firsthand the number of students and adults who are benefiting from social-emotional support.
The above is true, all while perhaps paradoxically, I am a fierce proponent and advocate of technology integration in the modern classroom. I believe the key is to strike a balance between education around the technology tools and both the benefits and potential risks.
I recently watched the 2020 Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma. The documentary attempts to lift the veil of the social media giants i.e. Facebook, Twitter, etc. and their use of our data for profit and to shape our viewpoints again resulting in enterprise. The documentary notes that according to the American Journal of Epidemiology (2017), “A 5,000-person study found that higher social media use correlated with self-reported declines in metal and physical health and life satisfaction”. I imagine people are not surprised by this statistic; however, I am curious how many of those same individuals reflect on how their social media use is impacting themselves and their children. I am often surprised when district leaders and teachers have to remind parents that their children do not HAVE to have a phone with social media capabilities. Moreover, I am left wondering as some parents do not feel as if they can search/monitor their student’s devices.
As an educational leader and parent, I think social media use should be at the forefront of our minds for both our children and ourselves. With the risk of sounding “old”, perhaps we could benefit from putting down the phone/device and interacting with each other.
Revere began our journey to create a Portrait of a Graduate (Vision of a Minuteman). Some people may wonder why we would dedicate the resources and time to invest in creating a vision instead of merely proceeding with everyday work.
I have had the pleasure and honor of being a district superintendent for over seven years and I have seen firsthand the power of vision in uniting and coalescing a group. When considering vision I am drawn to the work of Margaret Wheatley (1999) who described vision as an energy field and encouraged individuals to use it as a formative influence. She wrote, “We would start by recognizing that in creating a vision, we are creating a power, not a place, an influence, not a destination” (Wheatley, 1999, p. 55).
Oftentimes vision statements are not inculcated into an organization, but rather written in seclusion and shared to the masses by a few individuals expecting all stakeholders to embrace the direction decided by a select few in a position of power. Wheatley suggested vision statements should move off the walls “and into the corridors, seeking out every employee, every recess in the organization” (p. 57).
I have never been more passionate about the importance of vision given the pandemic and how it has shaken nearly every aspect of our world. This is especially true in education, which up until the pandemic has been an institution largely resistant to societal changes. As an educational leader, I look forward to having meaningful conversations around what school can be and how it can truly support our students to find success in their lives regardless of their chosen pathway. The time is now to reimagine and reinvent.
Wheatley, M. J. (1999). Leadership and the new science : Discovering order in a chaoticworld. San Francisco, CA :Berrett-Koehler.
I don’t know about you, but the stress and anxiety I have experienced since March have been monumental. Too often we can be hardest on ourselves.
This week I was listening to the podcast, Let’s Talk Soon, and Tricia Williford Lott said, “You can either look healthy or be healthy.” She continued by explaining you can work hard to look or appear healthy when you actually are covering up a lot of mess in your life. On the flip side, you can be healthy, which requires vulnerability and acknowledgment that others can see you aren’t perfect and that you are working to improve.
This message resonated with me as we all have been thrust into a new world that exposes our fears and anxieties. Let’s take a moment to acknowledge we are trying our best and that is okay to not be perfect all of the time. Each day we show up to school, regardless of our role and in spite of our imperfections, we are striving to meet the needs of our students and colleagues. I would welcome you to take it easy on yourself and just breathe. We are in this together!
Today marks the 19th Anniversary of the September 11th attacks on America. It is a day of reflection and mourning for one of our darkest days in modern history. On September 12th we awoke as a country that was more unified than ever, where you could see American flags flying almost everywhere as a sign of our patriotism.
As our country continues to face the COVID pandemic, I worry we have forgotten how we are stronger together than apart.
Public schools serve as the bedrock of this country and are a symbol of prosperity and unity for our youth. This week for the first time in six months, we saw yellow buses rumble down the road, heard hallways full of chatter, and this morning saw kindergartners walk into school for the first time.
As we finish up our first week of in-person schooling, I want to thank you for being a part of something extraordinarily special for our community and ultimately our country. You have faced fears and worry with grace and we have persevered for our students and families. Thank you for your dedication, it does not go unnoticed.
I have been searching during this pandemic for the words to share with the Class of 2020. A class who has arguably been through more than any in recent history. I was looking for ways to look at this time perhaps through a different lens.
In my search, I stumbled onto a story that Eckert Tolle (2005), the famous spiritual teacher, told in his book A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. Below is a slight modification from the original text:
The story was about an ancient king in some Middle Eastern land who was constantly torn between happiness and despondency. The slightest thing would provoke an intense reaction and his happiness would quickly dissolve into despair.
The king eventually became tired of himself and his life and sought out help from a wise man who lived in his kingdom who was reputed to be enlightened. He said to the wise man, I want to be like you. Can you give me something that will bring balance, serenity, and wisdom into my life? I will pay any price you ask.”
The wise man said, “I may be able to help you. But the price is so great that your entire kingdom would not be sufficient to pay for it. Therefore it will be a gift to you if you honor it.” The king gave his assurances and the wise man left.
A few weeks later, he returned and handed the king an ornate box carved in jade. The king opened the box and found a simple gold ring inside. Some letters were inscribed on the ring. The inscription read. This too will pass. “What is the meaning of this?” asked the king. The wise man said, “Wear this ring always. Whatever happens, before you call it good or bad, touch this ring and read the inscription. That way you will always be at peace.”
Tolle goes on to explain the words on the ring are not telling you that you should not enjoy the good in your life, nor are they meant to provide comfort in times of suffering. Rather, they have a deeper purpose to make you aware of the fleetingness of every situation. The saying allows one to create space or stillness around a situation in other words peace.
Class of 2020, there are countless reasons to be downhearted with the things that you missed out in your senior year. On the other side of the coin though there is plenty of good that came out of the pandemic as well. A prime example is the precious time you were afforded. Time to slow down and be with your families. The time that would not have been available in normal times. The time that hopefully shed the importance of the gift of being with our loved ones.
The message from the wise man in the story takes on a relevant meaning during this time in history. It is not as important to classify life as good or as bad, as it is to acknowledge the impermanence of our lives. A wave of inner peace in knowing that regardless of the situation, this too will pass. The words allow us to lean into the good times and truly appreciate that and lean out of the bad times, knowing they will not last forever.
My hope for you is to lean into the good times and graciously endure the tough times, realizing all along the journey this too will pass. Today is a good day and unlike any graduation, we have ever done complete with a drive-in theatre, parades, and even fireworks. Enjoy the good, class of 2020, you will always have a place in my heart!
Tolle, E. (2005). A new earth: Awakening to your life’s purpose. New York, NY: Penguin Books.