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Teachers Reflect on Their 9-11 Memories and Their Responses… Here’s Mine

September 11, 2021 Leave a comment

Today’s local paper has an article by staff writer Liz Sauchelli describing the memories of several teachers in our region regarding the terrorist attacks on 9-11. As noted in my post yesterday, it is difficult to imagine how NH teachers will navigate this potentially “divisive topic” going forward, but it strikes me that their personal sharing and personal reflections should be a means of sidestepping the question of whether their lesson is “divisive”. Here’s my recollection of 9-11, which occurred before widespread availability of cell phones, before the internet was connected in our school classrooms but on the desks of administrators and in some of the libraries, and at a time that I led a district that was within commuting range of NYC.

On September 11, 2001, I was Superintendent of the Wappingers Central School District, a 12,000 student district that included parts of 5 towns in the Hudson Valley roughly 60 miles north of NYC. I recall that day as being particularly sunny and clear, a day when a 40 mile bike ride through the upper reaches of Duchess County would have been preferable to the grievance hearing scheduled that morning with a regional Uniserv representative.

My second cup of coffee that morning was interrupted by my administrative assistant who stood in my door with the Director of Technology. They suggested that I might want to join them in our tech/AV library to watch what was going on in NYC. My administrative assistant told me of a report that a “small aircraft” had hit the World Trade Center so I assumed they had some more details on the accident. The “details” included footage of the reality that a passenger plane struck the side of the World Trade Center. I accompanied them downstairs where an oversized TV was playing in front of a small group of staff members. We all watched in stunned silence at the footage of a plane striking on of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and people pouring out onto the streets from that building. We were all horrified at what happened next: a second plane struck the other Tower.

I was especially unsettled because I knew that my younger daughter was spending her second day at work at the NYC Parks Department, a job she landed after spending a year teaching ESL in Greece and several months temping in NYC. My dilemma was that I had no idea where in the city her new office was located and, therefore, had no idea how this attack might have affected her. My older daughter was expected to return from a vacation in Spain. I quickly learned that all international flights into NYC were cancelled so I knew she was safe and secure, albeit in a foreign country.

I called a staff meeting to decide what steps we would take relative to this crisis. There were three train stations that took commuters from our region into the city and scores of parents who worked there. It was impossible to know how many staff members and students had loved ones who worked in and around the Twin Towers.

We wrestled with many questions that morning and made some decisions: we would inform the Principals of what was going on and ask that they do everything possible to shield students from getting the information in bits and pieces. We quickly crafted a statement for Principals to share with the adults in the building and a message the school administrative assistants should share with parents who called. We called divvied up the 14 schools and each of us talked personally to the Principals so that we could get a handle on how many adults and children in their buildings had a parent, spouse, or relative who worked in that area so that we could determine where we might need to provide emotional support.

I called the BOCES office that served the 13 districts in Duchess County to see if there were any directives coming from the State and to find out how other districts were dealing with this– though many of the districts were farther removed from NYC than ours.

Then I turned my attention to trying to reach my daughter when I quickly discovered that all phone lines into NYC were clogged, making any contact with anyone in the city an impossibility. I had internet connection but that, too, was effectively disabled.

The rest of the day was a blur… we decided to ask all HS teachers to make an announcement at roughly 11:00 AM about what had transpired and offered them updates throughout the afternoon. We decided to have all elementary teachers make an announcement roughly an hour before they left to help them debrief if necessary. And throughout the day we tried to dispel rumors (i.e. a low flying plane was reportedly sighted over a nuclear plant 20 miles south of us. Was it a hijacked plane?), provide factual updates on what had transpired, and solace to those employees and children who were directly and indirectly impacted.

I did determine that my younger daughter was safe and sound— though she had blisters from having to walk from her workplace to her apartment, and my older daughter DID get back to the city and her job a few days later. i also learned that we had only one person on staff whose spouse worked at the Twin Towers, but we had scores of families who had relatives and friends who were affected by the horrific events of that day. The reverberations of the crash lasted for days. I also made an effort to reach out to the local Imam to make certain that the 100+ Muslim students in our schools were not being singled out by classmates and kept in touch with principals and staff members to see how they were faring.

My only regret from that day was that I did not join members of the congregation of our church who spontaneously assembled that evening to sing hymns, pray, and hear words of comfort from our pastor. In conversations with him later that week I learned that such gatherings happened across the region in many denominations. The comfort of singing voices would have helped at that time… but the sense of community that emerged over the weeks ahead was the one memory I hold dearest.

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NY Post Hypocrisy is Boundless. How Can a Paper That Championed Bloomberg’s Chancellor With NO Classroom Experience Blast Chancellor Porter for “Barely” Teaching Before Rising Through the Ranks

March 15, 2021 Comments off

I confess that I felt a sense of de ja vu AND empathy when I read the NYPost headline and accompanying article chastising the decision to hire Meisha Ross Porter because she lacked classroom teaching experience.

The sense of de ja vu came because, like Ms. Porter, I had a series of breaks early in my career as an educator that enabled me to rise rapidly through the ranks. I won a Ford Fellowship after “barely teaching” (two years in a West Philadelphia HS) and then moving rapidly through the administrative ranks to become a Superintendent at the age of 33. I have mild regrets that I didn’t spend more time in the classroom or at the building level (where I served for 6 years), and in retrospect got OJT in my first few years as Superintendent… but when opportunities presented themselves for me— as they have for Ms. Porter— I seized them and never looked back.

BUT… the “lack of experience” criticism DID come into play early in my career whenever I assumed the leadership in increasingly large districts and whenever someone who disagreed with a decision wanted to ascribe blame. Whenever that occurred, though, I took the comment of a veteran Maine School Board member who assured one of his colleagues who expressed concern about my hiring since I had no experience as a Superintendent that I would solve that problem “one year at a time”. Sure enough, by the time I was hired for my final two jobs my “lack of experience” was no longer an issue.

I found the NYPost criticism of Ms. Porter particularly galling given their unqualified praise for the work done by Mayor Bloomberg’s appointee to the Chancellor: Joel Klein– an attorney with no experience whatsoever in public education. The fact that a white male who never set foot in a classroom was never questioned about his experience while an African American woman is “welcomed” with headline chastising her for “barely” teaching. The criticism was particularly galling given the content of the article that listed the many accomplishments Ms. Porter achieved in her years as an administrator. I wish her well… and hope that she continues to fight the good fight as she has done throughout her career. If she does well and the next mayor passes her over some district somewhere in the US will get a seasoned administrator with a good track record for turning around troubled schools.

Riding the Bus Routes to Deliver Meals to Homes is Eye Opening Experience in Rural New England

March 11, 2021 Comments off

Our local newspaper, the Valley News, invited readers to share their personal stories about the pandemic and today’s piece by veteran teacher Ted Pogacar reminded me how important it is for educators to become familiar with the homes children live in… and how impossible that is when things are “normal”.

To his credit, Mr. Pogacar does not mention the squalor I am certain he must have witnessed in some of the homes he visited but instead focuses on the work of the unsung heroes who keep track of the households that need additional food and help mete out the provisions available.

The article brought to mind my first year working as Principal in Western Maine, an assignment I took after teaching in an economically depressed section of Philadelphia and serving as Assistant Principal in a blue collar suburb whose fortunes were on the decline. My experience in rural New England was recreational: hiking and camping in the White Mountains as a child and sightseeing and hiking as an adult. When visiting rural New England I was stuck by its serene woods, stunning mountain landscapes, clear waters in the brooks that cascade out of the mountains, and separation from the bustle and problems of the city. When I started talking to the counselors, office staff, custodians, and colleagues who lived in the beautiful region where I landed I heard stories of the economic hardship children in the school experienced, stories that were much like those I encountered in West Philadelphia and the “rough and tumble” district I worked in just outside of Philadelphia. The peaceful woods hid the many ramshackle homes that children in school lived in and the clean, well cared for town centers masked the poverty that spread throughout the back country.

The impact of poverty in urban areas is clear and obvious. Boarded up buildings, poorly maintained public spaces, and treeless desolate streets all signal a neighborhoods distress. The distress in rural New England is not obvious at first glance… but the bus drivers witness it daily, the cafeteria workers know the kids who need to get seconds, and the teachers and counselors who connect with children raised in poverty all know the hardships they endure. The lone guidance counselor who served the 700 middle and high school students in the high school I led took me on a trip through the woods when I first came so that I would be aware that not every child came from the kinds of homes in town that I was familiar with or was raised in the kind of household I knew as a child. It made me appreciate that rural poverty poses the same challenges for children as poverty in the urban areas… and those challenges are far more daunting than anything I encountered growing up.