Thanks for taking a chance on me

Good evening. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak to you, and in a way, to the Westport community. I stand before you today as a 36 year veteran, but I’d like to speak to you about who I was 36 years ago.   Any success I’ve had as a teacher, links to how my time here in Westport began

I was a risky hire, but I was nurtured.

I arrived in Westport, as green as could be.  I’d already been turned down by Trumbull, Stratford, and Fairfield, when I arrived here at Town Hall on a hot August day. Each had said, in that Catch-22 way, “We can’t hire you; you don’t have enough experience.”

That was true, but Mort Sherman, the Assistant Superintendent here in Westport in 1985, didn’t just ask me if I had experience.  Instead, he asked me to tell him something that I had enjoyed in my student teaching.  I told the group a story about how in that 5th grade class, we’d discussed current events, and we’d held a trial for the subway vigilante.  Then I told them about a fable a fifth grader had written about a rabbit who’d been magically turned into a vigilante.  The moral of the story had been clever:  Hare today; goon tomorrow.  Mort and his fellow administrators laughed…and decided that I was worth the risk.

But I was only worth the risk, because Mr. Sherman knew that he had the resources to take care of me.  He had human resources.  When I arrived at Long Lots, my first school, I met my mentor, Pat Beasley.  If you didn’t know her, you really missed out.  She remains the paragon of teaching in my mind.  She had a brilliant way with kids, but she also knew how to teach a teacher.  She didn’t just hand me material or say, “Do this on the first day.”  She modeled how she would introduce a math game or how she might begin to get to know her class.  

Pat was not my only mentor that year.  In those days, Westport had three resource teachers for the elementary schools, one for math, another for reading, and a third for writing.  Those three teachers spent a lot of time in my classroom during my first year.  Betty Honeycomb, Jane Fraser, and Donna Skolnick worked in my classroom every week.  They demonstrated lessons, showed me how to confer, watched me teach, and reflected with (or more often consoled) me after my lessons.  They always stressed that they had no connection to the administrators in my building.  They were not evaluating me, just helping to make me a better teacher.  Knowing that, I was able to take risks in front of them…and ask stupid questions.

They also pointed me toward the leading minds in their fields, the people who were shaping their own teaching. The school system brought several of those trailblazers to Westport.  During my first weeks in Westport, I heard one up-and-coming voice, Lucy Calkins, give a kick-off speech here in our Town Hall.  It was mind blowing for this inexperienced teacher.  During my first two summers, Westport hosted math institutes with Marilyn Burns.  I had never been so excited about math before. I could see it having a transformative effect on veteran teachers.  For this newbie, it was merely formative.  

I owe everything that I became to those wise and talented teachers and the resource teachers who followed them, Pat Beasley and Kaye May.  I’m saying this, not just to praise my personal heroes, but to point out that there’s much more to creating a strong staff than merely hiring good teachers.  Westport didn’t just give me a room and material resources.  It gave me the most valuable kind of resource, the human kind.

I would have loved to spend time talking about the young humans who enriched my days for 36 years, or the incredibly supportive parents  of those students, but John suggested 2 to 3 minutes, so I’ll save those stories for my next retirement.  Thank you for being a district that takes risks and grows teachers.  I hope you’ll continue to make that crucial investment.

Something I Shared at my Retirement Party

I read this last week at a retirement party for me and another colleague. I based it on George Ella Lyon’s poem “Where I’m From.” Mine lacks form or pattern, and it’s filled with inside references, but it’s one of the three things I’ve written in the last two months, so here it is.

I went to a retirement party once, and the person who retired set a record for the longest retirement reflection ever.  She’s here today, incidentally.  And I’m a fairly competitive person, so I really didn’t feel like I could just ignore that record.  I needed to beat it.  So, I’ve prepared a few words that try to capture the 36 years or 6480 days, or 45,360 hours (give or take a few, if you count wrap-around time, whatever that is).

[Pulls out one of those 3-inch binders you get at an all-day workshop]

No, but seriously, I really appreciate all of you being here.  I know that you have better things to be doing this afternoon than engaging in end-of-year superspreader activities.  So, while I have a million things to say and a million people to thank, I have decided that if you want to hear my reflections on these past three and a half decades, you’ll have to join Dawn, and Jess and my wife and the two other people who read my blog.  It’s not crowded there.  Plenty of social distancing. 

Instead of that, I’ve decided to try the kind of writing that is the hardest for me to pull off…that would be  brief writing.  Dawn has always tried to encourage me to write something short enough that she can finish it before her coffee gets cold. I never succeed.

Here’s a  poem…sort of, that tries to capture what these years have been like for me.  It’s called “Where I’m From.”  I stole the title and the basic idea.  If any of the references are obscure…or if all of the references are obscure, you can Google them later.  After I wrote this, I realized that it really didn’t explain anything.  It was essentially a poem that proved I was really old…something that probably didn’t need to be proven at all.  It’s called…

Where I’m From…School-wise and Otherwise

I’m from chalk boards and real chalk.  
Overhead projectors and transparencies
report cards filled out by hand...on carbon paper.  Look it up.

I’m from floppy discs and an Apple 2GS.
I’m from Oregon Trail and Carmen San Diego.
I’m from CD drives and VCRs on carts.
I’m from CEUs, PPTs, CMTs and F&Ps 

I’m from pocket calendars and phone messages taped to your mailbox by the school secretary
Yup, cuz we didn’t have phones in our room or terrifying blinking red message lights. 
(Yes, phones had been invented.)

I’m from when parents encouraged their kids to watch The Cosby Show,
When Michael Jackson sang “We Are the World.”
When Ronald Reagan was president.
I’m from when Donald Trump was just a real estate and casino guy.

I’m from Garbage Pail Kids and Silly Bands
Tech Decks, Neo Pets, and Slap Bracelets
I’m from when TV and MTV were the things that rotted kids’ brains
And fortnight was just a period of time.

I’m from a K-to-8 school where a cafeteria worker mistook me for an eighth grader. 
From field trips to Nature’s Classroom, the Wadsworth Atheneum,
and the Liberty Science Center
I’m from self-guided walking tours of Chinatown with 4th graders.  
Yup we did that.

I’m from the Challenger disaster in my first year,
Holly Finley in my 7th 
9-11 in my 16th, 
and Sandy Hook in my 27th.
Each one hit too close to home..

I’m from when Shrek was a book that I read to my class
From reading a “new” book about a kid with a wand, broom, and a lightning bolt scar and saying, “I think this might make a good movie.”

I’m from Whole Language vs Phonics
From no textbooks in math but textbooks in science
From resource teachers for every subject 
and a starting salary of 19 grand...the best in CT at that time.

I’m from Donald Graves, Lucy Calkins, Marilyn Burns, and Katie Wood Ray.
I’m from Saturdays at Teacher’s College and presentations at NCTE.
I’m from three Westport schools, seven superintendents, and only five principals, 
I’m from a community of teachers learning.

I’m from a mentor who whispered when she wanted to be heard.
I’m from an art teacher who taught me to sketch so I could notice.
I’m from shelves full of journals filled with those "noticings."

I’m from a group who called themselves the Diners Club
And another group of Slicers
I’m from 30 different teammates and one who was next door for 19 years.
I’m from a fellow teacher who’s twenty years younger, but manages to teach me something new almost every day.

I’m from a wife who sometimes felt like a teacher widow.
Who weathered my Back to School Night stress reactions every September,
And two or three report card seasons a year,
And 36 years of sleepless Sunday nights,
Who read every letter or speech I wrote...except this one.
I’m from a wife who insisted that our family have dinner together every night

I’m from a wise child who made patient suggestions when every year I realized on October 30th that I didn't have my Halloween costume ready.
Who fed me slideshow music every June.
Who showed me what bravery looks like in a child and a young adult.
I’m from a wise child who will now point out that this has turned into a very long poem. 

Okay, got it,  I’m getting there.

I’m from a generous staff who rescued me when my wife was on bed rest,
From friends who held me together when my life fell apart,
From friends who walked our family out of the darkness.

I’m from a mom and dad who taught me that public service is noble and satisfying.
I’m also from the parents who sent great kids to my classroom year after year.
And I’m from those kids who made me laugh, made me pause, made my jaw drop, or just made my day.

That’s where I’m from...and as usual, I have no idea where I’m heading.