Wednesday, May 16, 2012

"Fireside Chat"

How do you communicate?

Do your shareholders know what your vision for the future is? Do you share your beliefs on educational hot topics? How can you be sure anyone is actually listening? Recently, I was approached by my High School Principal, Kathleen Procopio, to gauge my interest in participating in a new concept she proposed entitled "Fireside Chat with the Superintendent" with her staff. Initially, I will admit I was a little skeptical, will this be a "Fireside Chat" or a "Firing Squad" of complaints designed to criticize recent decisions. I must share this honest first thought because it demonstrates an uneasiness that is sometimes felt between administration and staff members - and staff members admittedly are skeptical about administrators. My initial insecurity came as a result of previous real experiences where a staff member could not pass up an opportunity to morph into a "sniper" so they could take shots at the administrative decisions. Thankfully those experiences were in other districts earlier in my career. Pleasantly, after 2 years at my current post in Millville, NJ, I can honestly report that I have never been treated disrespectfully by the staff. Considering the positive experiences so far in my current district I agreed to participate in the "Fireside Chats" - after asking several questions about the format and purpose of the meetings. I continued to dwell on why there is often a disconnect between administrators and staff members. We all want the same thing, right?

In Millville, our teachers work in common planning periods on their professional development targets. Currently their targets include development in the Classroom Instruction that Works instructional model from McRel. The time normally dedicated to their professional development was devoted for one full day to a question and answer session. Millville's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, Dr. Pamela Moore and I began our day at the High School at 7:15am. We observed the arrival of students and staff members, enjoyed morning announcements - and the energy of the high school as it wakes up.

Our first session started around 8am and we finished our last session at 1:30pm. The professional learning lab was organized with large round tables conducive for discussion, a small round table complete with a floral table cloth and flowers in a vase, there was a looping video image of a raging fireplace presented on the whiteboard, pleasant music in the background and catered treats from our culinary arts students. It became apparent to me that this was really an exciting and unique opportunity to engage with the teaching staff members - and they went to great lengths to create a welcoming environment. Each session began with a brief introduction by each staffer - their name, their area of expertise, and their years experience. After introductions, we jumped into discussions ranging from retention to the vision for the district. Each session had a specific feel based on the dynamics of the group but in general there was humor, insight, and enthusiasm for their profession. One teacher during his introduction said it best, My name is...and I teach students (different than most who ended with the content they teach). I loved the subtlety of his point - that while all of us have a particular expertise, at the end of the day our role is to educate kids! After the sessions ended, I was left awestruck by how well my vision was received by everyone! I shared my values and beliefs while learning how these things resonated, or missed, with the staff members. I was able to add context to their work in the field which will hopefully provide them with a greater sense of purpose. Simply addressing the reasoning behind our expectations and strategic plan appeared to have great value to the staff members. It was also a great opportunity to listen to their concerns, thoughts, and vision for our district. I deeply believe we need to afford people with the chance to challenge the process along the way. If we want to achieve excellence, we need to have people challenge the status-quo. It was in this moment that I realized there was a communication gap!

Leadership depends on the leader's ability to connect with those being asked to follow. A leader who conveys a clear and convincing vision will find people doing outrageous things to support them. The converse is true, a leader who fails to do so will be met with people going out of their way to derail the process. In order to ensure you are not the later, you must find a means to communicate your vision, values, mission, and goals often. Simply saying them once at the start of the year or only in print is not enough. People crave personal contact with those entrusted to lead them.

Prior to this experience, I believed my vision was communicated clearly, that my values and expectations were clear - I now realize that I can and must do more. I will continue to express my thoughts through the many public speaking opportunities - through the written word - on our district web page, emails, letters, this Blog - with a new understanding that those methods are mostly one way communications. I plan to repeat the "Fireside Chats" in every school next year at least quarterly.  suggestion to any of the leaders out there looking to take your district or school to the next level - engage in a "Fireside Chat" or whatever you want to call it - ask your staff ahead of time, what questions or concerns about the school or district would you like to know more about - and then, sit down with them, roll up your sleeves and chat! You would be amazed by how many people will willingly follow a sound vision and plan for the future, so long as they know what that vision is and understand the plan's purpose.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

National Teacher's Appreciation Week

If you can read this, thank a teacher!

May 2012

To commemorate this year’s National Teacher Appreciation Week, I want to thank all of the teachers in our District for their commitment to excellence. I would like to share a quote that has been with mduring my career which I feel captures the essence of the teaching profession. I first stumbled upon thquote during my undergraduate course work on my roa t becomin teacher Ou professor challenge u t writ a educational philosophy to explain why we wanted to become teachersConsider the following quote written by Haim Ginott:

I have come to a frightening conclusion.
I am the decisive element in the classroom.
It is my personal approach that makes the weather.
As a teacher, I possess tremendous power to make a childs life miserable or joyous. 
I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal
In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or de-humanized.

I would like to share my experience with one Millville teacher who has exemplified the ideals expresse ithis quote Recently learnetha sh intende t retire Having  the unique experience of being the superintendent in the same district where I grew up, I could share many stories about the great teachers here. Today, I want to focus on one particular teacher who I feel demonstrated the positive elements in the Ginott quote. She consistently used her influence to make the weather positive in our classroom. Her daily approach made my life joyous and served to inspire so many students who had the privilege of being assigned to her classroom. In all situations, she remained calm but definitely knew how to be assertive when necessary. She was caring and kind while holding very high expectations for all of her students. She was quite demanding and did not accept anything less than each students personal best. I dare say no other teacher could have expressed disappointment better, or stop me in my tracks quicker, than she could with no more than a simple look this look was effective only because we knew how much she cared for us which made us desperately want to try harder next time. Although my time in her classroom was many years ago when I was just a child, I can still vividly remember how positive she made me feel about my future! That is the power of a great teacher.

Later in my life, I was fortunate to have been her colleague during my first years as a teacher. Sh carrie th sam powerfu professionalis the a sh di whe kne he a my elementary teacher. I considered it a great compliment that I was entrusted to be her childs 4th grade teacher. Fast forward several years laterto when I returned to the district in my new rolas superintendent. I was so excited to see that she had not changed instead she was even better than I remembered. She carried the same positive attitude and love for children throughout heentire career. I am hopeful that she knows just how awesome her influence was, not only on me – but  on all of he students throughou he career I can telsimila stories about  th many wonderful teachers I experienced as a student here. As a teacher, it is a great reward to know that yo posses th powe t hav dramatiimpac on  a  person lif –  i i als grearesponsibility. How will your students describe their experience in your classroom?

Finally, if this causes you to think of someone who had a positive influence on your life, pleasreacout to them today and tell them. Far too often, we wait too long to say thank you” focaring about me!

There is no greater calling, or responsibility, than to educate children You can decide to be a  tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.   Please accept my appreciation for the career path you have chosen. I am confident you will inspire our students and future generations to come - to reach for thstars!


Dr. David Gentile

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


Consider the following scenario, you are sitting at your desk late in the afternoon trying to catch up on the problems brought to you yesterday and in walks Mrs. Smith announcing "we" have a big problem! Before you have a chance to respond, she continues "we need to get a Watchamawiggler to solve this problem". You ask quite perplexed, "what's the problem again"? Mrs. Smith says, "I told you! We need a Watchamawiggler" and goes on to explain in great detail that if we just had this "Watchamawiggler" everything would be better.

If you haven't figured out, there is no such thing as a "Watchamawiggler" and I like Dr. Seuss way too much. A Watchamawiggler just sounds like a Dr. Seuss term - its not, but it should be. The underlining point that I am trying to highlight is far too often we are solving problems, or so we think, before we have even clearly defined them. This leads to a solution that does not address the root cause of the problem, so the problem itself continues and if we are lucky some ripple of the root cause is addressed. Mostly, we spend a great deal of time, energy, and money implementing the deployment of the "Watchamawiggler" only to be disappointed months later when Mrs. Smith points out "we still have that problem".

Here is an oversimplified example to highlight my point:

"A claim is made that we need a new student management software tool, specifically we need the "Solla Sollew System" - my Dr. Seuss obsession again - because it has all these cool features. If we just had this tool, I am certain our reports would all get done on time for once."

Utilizing something I have coined, "Evolution Leadership" we would engage in a root cause analysis and problem solving process to determine the root cause of why our reports are not getting completed on time. Perhaps there is not a clear process for managing student information, perhaps it is a lack of training for the people responsible for submitting the reports, perhaps it is a hundred other variables. Using a systems approach allows us to determine the root cause of any problem, we can then identify feasible solutions, and ultimately correct the root cause rather than masking it.

So, the next time Mrs. Smith states proudly "we have a problem..." pay close attention to the conversation that follows. As a leader, it is your responsibility to ask good questions to dig deep into the root cause instead of just accepting the first proposed solution to buy a "Watchamawiggler".