Monday, July 2, 2018

Lessons from a Neighbor

            As I begin my career in school administration this week, I’ve been paying attention to the many mentors in my life. While there have been plenty of role models on the job and outside of work, I’ve also found inspiration from mentors whom I have never met – writers, public servants, activists and storytellers, to name a few.

            Recently, I got the chance to learn again from a childhood mentor. My wife and I saw the new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which revisits the life and work of Fred Rogers. If a theater near you is playing this film, I strongly recommend seeing it.

            It’s been a long time since I watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and this documentary illustrates the degree to which Rogers combined his training in ministry, child development and television to offer a program that was unlike any other show before or since. Rogers offered deep commentary on the world while also speaking directly to children about the most basic of human emotions and behaviors.

The core of Rogers’ message was not complicated, yet it is so difficult for many of us to adhere to with consistency. He offered complete support to the children with whom he was speaking, both on screen and in person, without any judgment. He told children that they were all special in their own way, and did not ask for their back stories in order to believe this to be true. He encouraged them to care for one another, and to use love as a guiding principle in life.

He opened each show by inviting his TV friends into a community of neighbors, and closed each show by reminding us that “it’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive.” When I observe the stress that so many students experience today, as they try to figure out how to succeed in highly competitive academic, athletic and social media environments, Rogers’ words seem almost radical in their simplicity and importance. And when I learn of children and adults struggling in so many ways both in my own neighborhood and far beyond it, Rogers’ message seems to be about the most important one I can think of.

            Rogers also dove directly into the most controversial issues of the day, and spoke with children about violence, family separation, race, intolerance and disabilities. When he dipped his feet into a children’s swimming pool along with François S. Clemmons, an African-American actor who played the role of “Officer Clemmons,” the two men did so at a time when many public swimming pools were still segregated. When Rogers’ puppet character King Friday XIII built a wall around his castle in 1968, he did so during a period in which many Americans were worried about the changing makeup of their neighborhoods (a sentiment that continues in many places to this day). The stunning sight of this puppet leader “building a wall” 50 years ago is not lost on viewers.

When Rogers’ puppet Daniel Striped Tiger asks what the word “assassination” means, he is speaking right after Robert F. Kennedy’s murder. One can imagine Daniel doing the same today with terms such as “terrorism” or “migration” or “school shootings.” And in a different episode, when Daniel asks another character if he is a “mistake,” we see Rogers going straight at the essential issue of childhood self-esteem and self-love.

            Fred Rogers was so compassionate that he lives on as a caricature to some of us. We think of the opening song, where he changes into his sweater and sneakers, with the traffic light and the trolley rolling around the bend. Some of us smile at the memory, and leave it at that. But this film reminds us just how much was going on inside that 30-minute program, and how real the Neighborhood of Make Believe really was. Throughout the film, director Morgan Neville interviews former crew and cast members, but as the film nears its end, he slices together images of each cast member crying. It’s been 15 years since Rogers died, but his work and his love left such a profound impact on these individuals that they are moved to tears in discussing the man. And that’s just the adults.

Despite the many struggles around us today, there are still a lot of great role models in this world. But it can be hard to focus on selfless giving, on true service toward others, and on the need to talk through the tough stuff. Fred Rogers did all of those things, pretty much every day of his adult life. I can’t say I’ll be able to do that as a school administrator. But if I can reach for just a sliver of the impact he had, I will at least be on the right track.

In an archival interview shown in the film, Rogers puts it this way: “Love is at the root of everything – all learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love or the lack of it.”

Here’s to the love, and not the lack. Time to get back to work.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Endings & Beginnings


            This is a story about change. It’s a story about new journeys, and about goodbyes. It’s not a sad story at all, but it’s not an easy one, either.
            In a matter of a few weeks this spring, I learned a few things: One, that a student of mine had been named high school journalist of the year for the state of New Jersey; two, that I’d been given a distinguished teaching award from my school; three, that I’d been hired as the newest assistant principal in my school; and, lastly, that this new job would preclude me from continuing to serve as the adviser of our school’s newspaper.
            It was a lot for one spring, and it definitely kept me on my toes. I joined my award-winning student and her parents in late April at the New Jersey Press Foundation’s spring banquet, and watched as journalists from across the state applauded her ambitious reporting on teen e-cigarette smoking. She had covered this topic so well that a reporter quoted her and her article in a New York Times story. In the days that followed, I shared the news of her success with anyone who would listen, and there were a lot of people excited to hear about it.
            As April leaned into May, I found myself moving through the detailed interview process for our school’s open assistant principal position. Just as that position was offered to me, then approved by the Board of Education, I also learned of the teaching award. It might have seemed strange to some that a “distinguished teacher” was leaving classroom teaching. For me, though, the goal was clear: To see if some of the cool stuff that goes on in my classroom can be passed along on a school-wide level. I can only learn if this is possible by trying it out, and this seemed like the ideal time to give it a try. So I did.
            Once I became an administrator-in-waiting, it was also time to find a replacement for me as newspaper adviser, due to the justified concerns over an administrator having any prior review over an uncensored, student-run newspaper. My students were crushed to learn that I wouldn’t be their adviser, but students and staff have worked through this together, through communication, determination and aggressive hiring. I’ve spent hours making sure all the pieces of our journalism program are detailed on paper, and will continue communicating the nuts and bolts of our program to those replacing me throughout the weeks and months ahead.
            While I will continue interacting with students every day, I’ve willingly taken on a position that removes me from classroom teaching. Earlier in my career, I vowed that as long as I remained in education, I would never leave the classroom. Now, as I prepare for my 20th year as an educator, I am willing to broaden my definition of “the classroom” to include the school as a whole. It feels bittersweet right now, of course, but that’s because goodbyes can be hard.
            When I left reporting for teaching in the summer of 1999, I moved to a different state, and worked in an entirely different venue. I missed reporting, but I was surrounded by all the stimuli of education. Now, as I embark on another career switch, I will not be moving far. In fact, I’ll walk past my classroom every day and will see all that I left behind. It will be like looking out the classroom door back in 1999 and seeing the newsroom across the hall. Change is tough, but it’s even tougher when the pieces of your goodbye remain in your line of sight. Of course, that classroom – and the newsroom that preceded it – will also serve to remind me of what I’m aspiring to do, and why my experience as a reporter and teacher might just translate into an effective school administrator.
            June is a bittersweet month for students; they draw the logos of their colleges on graduation caps, then toss those caps in the air with glee – only to retrieve the caps in tears, hugging those friends to whom they must now say goodbye. I usually stand on the periphery of that scene every June, retrieving a few stray beach balls and packing my things for the summer. This year, though, I’m right in the midst of the bittersweet. I’m ready for what’s next.
            After our seniors tossed their caps in the air this past Friday at the football stadium down the street from our school, I wasn’t sure what to do. I found some car keys that a student had left behind, and held onto those until a teacher said he could bring them to the kid. I helped the custodians fold some chairs. I smiled for some student photos, and even took a snapshot of a family. As I prepared to leave, a student with whom I’d worked throughout the past four years ran over to me. He’d been the president of our school’s Community Service Club, and I’ve been that club’s adviser for a dozen years. This young man has grown into the type of leader who can change the world, and I can’t tell you how proud I am of him. In some small way, I’ve tried to help nurture his leadership and compassion for the past four years. Wishing him the best was bittersweet, but also a reminder of the reason I’m making this transition: To try and make more of those connections, in as many ways as I can.
            Educating children is a leap of faith: You don’t necessarily get to see the end results of the impact you’re trying to make on students’ lives. They may not recognize it, and certainly may not run across a field to give you a goodbye hug. But you do the work anyway, modeling the kind of thinking, caring, leading and inquiring that you hope they’ll take with them into this crazy world. Sometimes we get a bonus, and some students tell us we made a difference in their lives. But we don’t ask for that. We just ask for the opportunity to step into the school and do our best.
            After departing the graduation, I walked back to the school and stepped into the classroom that is no longer mine. I packed up some boxes and brought them to my car. In one hand, I carried a small bag with a few gifts and cards from students. I would read the cards when I got home, and the tears would be there. But for now, I was just clocking out on my 19th year of teaching, ready for
another chance to make a difference in September.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

A Family Education


            I can’t yet remember all their names. Give me some more time and I will. But my, I am glad I met them.
            During our Spring Break this past week, my parents brought my daughters, my wife and me to Ireland for a week. Most of the trip consisted of sightseeing, from Dublin, Galway and Belfast to the Giant’s Causeway, Cliffs of Moher and Dingle Peninsula. But toward the end of our trip, we gathered in a pub in Castlewellan, just outside Newcastle in Northern Ireland’s County Down. Greeting us were some 30 members of our family – people my dad had connected with in researching his family tree.
            He’d been at this for a while, and my parents had met several of these relatives before. My dad’s cousin Arthur, who lives in the U.S., has been his partner in research. They’ve shared family information, photos and discoveries. Several years ago, my parents had visited the Hynes homestead, grave site and stained-glass window, as well as the quarry where my dad’s grandfather, John Hynes, worked before emigrating from Ireland and becoming a well-respected granite worker in Brooklyn. But now, my dad was introducing these relatives to his own son and granddaughters.
            And they taught me so much in one night. From Thomas, I learned that it now costs more to sheer a sheep than it pays to sell the wool, so the family’s farming business now focuses on raising lambs to sell for meat. From Martin, I learned that the farm is a side job for most in Ireland, as it typically doesn’t pay enough on its own. From Peadar, who teaches Irish language classes and coaches Gaelic football, I learned that his secondary school doesn’t allow any smartphones or tablets in class.
            From Kathleen and Malachy, I learned how much life has improved in Belfast over the past two decades, as years of sectarian violence have given way to a booming tourism scene. From Mary, I learned that anniversary masses play a major role in many Irish families, as a means of honoring those who have died. And from young Odhrán, I learned a new nickname for our family, as seen on the back of his Gaelic football jersey: “Hynesey.”
            My dad was two generations removed from his ancestor who left Ireland. Now, the two generations following my dad have connected with those roots, just as he has. I’m a mutt whose ancestors emigrated from various European countries. I had met a couple of relatives from Iceland 40 years ago, and that’s been it. But now my older daughter is following her Irish cousin on Instagram, and I’m in a Hynes family Facebook message group.
            There are, of course, plenty of family members here in the U.S. whom I know and love, yet have not seen nearly enough of lately. In our ever-hectic lives, extended family members often find ourselves promising to get together more often than actually doing it. Then, someone passes and we see one another, wishing it were under better circumstances. The Hynes family members in Ireland expressed similar sentiments.
            But be that as it may, it was truly a special night. They walked into the pub, shook our hands, and introduced themselves. Family. Now I’ve met them. Not a bad education for one Spring Break. Thanks, Dad.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Talkin' Baseball

            The two Syrian men smiled at me from across the table. I was their ESL teacher on this Saturday morning, and they were ready to learn.
            We began with a review of basic conversation; I’d write down the phrases, and they’d repeat them out loud.
“How are you?” / “I’m fine, thanks. How are you?”
“Can I help you with anything?” / “Yes, I need a job.”
            We moved on to verbs (to be, to have) and nouns (desk, table, chair). I am an English teacher, which is not the same thing as an ESL teacher. Many of the regular ESL teachers at this refugee-assistance program were absent on this Saturday morning, as it was also the day of the March for Our Lives. So I was doing my best, and these men were working hard.
            At one point, I decided to write another conversation question on our yellow legal pad. It was a simple query:
“How about those Yankees?”
The men said the words aloud with me, but had no idea what they meant. I wrote down the word: “Baseball.” They pronounced it together: “beis – bol.” I asked them if they enjoy football, or soccer as we call it in the U.S. They said yes, they do. Baseball, I told them, is America’s original sport. Our national pastime.
            I showed them video clips from baseball games, and they were intrigued. We didn’t have time to review all the rules and terms, but I told them to keep an eye out for baseball. And if someone asks them “How about those Yankees?” or, dare I say, “How about those Mets?” I advised them to respond, “I hope they win this year.”
            It’s spring, and this weekend brings us the start of baseball. So dare to dream. Every team is technically in the pennant race as April approaches. It’s the season of opportunity.
            These two Syrian men didn’t know a thing about baseball, but they know a lot about starting over. They’re familiar with new seasons in life. They’ve lived that, for sure.
            We finished our ESL session, and one of the men gathered up the notes we’d written together on the legal pad. He tapped his pencil to the paper. “Baseball,” he said. That’s right, I told him. Baseball.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Thirty Minutes


            It was just 30 minutes. There and gone in an instant. But in a newsroom, so much can happen in a half-hour.
            On this Friday afternoon in March, after two snow days and a delayed opening, the student-reporters for our school newspaper hadn’t met since they’d sent out this week’s paper to the printer on Tuesday night – a half-day ahead of schedule, in preparation for the snow. The paper had been printed on Thursday, and we had somehow managed to get it in our hands and deliver it during our shortened Friday homeroom. But now, at 2:15 on a Friday, we had a half-hour to focus on the stories that lay ahead of us.
            Two of my students were hard at work on an in-depth inquiry into why so many schools in New Jersey and America are still segregated by race. Another two students were planning interviews for a story about the different positions parents take with regard to substance use by their kids. Still another pair were working on a follow-up story to our coverage of teens and e-cigarettes, with plans to interview adults who profit financially from teen use of these devices.
            Another student had written a first-person essay on what this school paper means to her, to be published in a new local magazine that had asked for contributions from us. And another student was working on the latest in her podcast series on immigration.
            And, of course, there were the sports. Two of our sports editors were creating a giant NCAA Tournament bracket on the staff whiteboard to keep track of the men’s basketball tourney throughout March Madness season. And they were planning to preview the games in our paper, along with a story on how the recent NCAA basketball scandal has impacted the outlook fans have toward the annual college tournament.
            Another student was taking photos, some to accompany the magazine piece, and others to be used for publicity. Publicity was in order because one of our staff members had just been named New Jersey High School Journalist of the Year, with a nice scholarship to go along with the honor.
            Still another student was preparing to cover the event taking place this Wednesday morning at high schools across the nation. The nationwide organizing body is calling it a “walkout,” while others are using different terms: remembrance, assembly, protest. Either way, it’s been prompted by the shooting in Parkland, Fla., and is part of the powerful student dialogue on gun control taking place around America. The student covering this event will have just an hour to write her story, as it’s taking place during our Wednesday morning deadline. She’ll follow that story by traveling to Washington, D.C., 10 days later to cover the nationwide march for gun control.
             So, as I was saying, 30 minutes. There’s a lot to do. A lot to talk about. A lot to plan. But my, that newsroom was humming. You could feel it.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Unarmed Teacher

            Most schools have not had shootings, but all schools have had students with struggles. These struggles range from family crises to student stress to mental illness to harassment and bullying. As a teacher, I know that part of my job is to be available and supportive to students who need to talk about their difficulties.
            That’s why I make sure my classroom is a safe and inviting place for students. My walls are covered with inspiring artwork, I welcome everyone who walks into the room, and I make sure my room is used for school clubs and activities, so there is always a bit of a buzz in the area as students come in and out to check in with me about after-school events.
            Over the years, it has never occurred to me that my room would be safer for students were I carrying a weapon. In fact, I am certain that the presence of a gun in my room would have deterred some students from stopping by to talk. A gun would not have added to the kind of emotional and physical security that these students sought. They wanted to learn from me, teach me something, talk with me, and enjoy the learning environment that we’d created together. They needed a smile, a song played in between classes, and photos on the wall depicting Malala Yousafzai, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Kermit the Frog. Not guns.
            There are some students and adults who argue that arming teachers would help bolster school safety, but these arguments fall short on many levels. For one, they lack clarity on where the guns would be stored, and how they would be accessible in moments of crisis. In addition, they fail to address our nation’s deep struggles with racial profiling, and how that might affect students and teachers of color. And they also don’t address how guns would make a classroom more inviting for that student who is struggling and needs to talk.
            Like many teachers, I have visualized what my actions would be should an active shooter enter my school. My thoughts have always been that I would do everything in my power to keep my students physically and emotionally safe. I’ve treated every lockdown drill seriously, and have taken the time for mental preparation. I’ve established in my mind that I would take a bullet to protect any student in my care.
            But holding a gun in my classroom would be different: It would require a major shift in my own demeanor, moving me from nurturance to enforcement. This shift would turn some kids away, and it would alter my own approach to the job. I can’t see a benefit in that. In fact, it seems to undercut the purpose of an educator, as part of the teacher’s job is to help students envision a more just and peaceful world. Our job is to help them see a way to make things better; adding guns to the classroom seems more like surrendering to the darker side of human nature. Teachers don’t specialize in despair; we prefer to work with hope.
            On Friday, about an hour after school had ended, a student of mine stepped in the room to talk. A family crisis had made it impossible for her to complete a story assignment for me, and her red eyes and tears revealed how upset she was about it. We talked it over, I listened and I did my best to offer words of support. There was no easy solution, and we’ll talk again tomorrow. But in that moment, she needed to hear from someone that it would be OK. I did my best to provide that.
            Nothing about this conversation would have been enhanced by the presence of a gun. As we consider measures to improve school security, let’s remember the true purpose of the teacher – as a source of instruction, guidance and encouragement. Teachers offer safety, but it’s not the kind of safety a weapon provides. It’s the kind that comes from the heart and mind. The kind we can’t live without.
            If we change our societal view of what we want from a teacher, we will have to live with the consequences. Because once you change it, there’s no going back.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

After Parkland

            My students are in the midst of a five-day weekend, and their well-deserved break began at about the same minute that a 19-year-old began shooting ex-classmates and staff at a high school in Parkland, Fla., on Wednesday. It soon became clear that this was another school shooting with multiple fatalities, yet also a shooting in which students had used their phones and social media platforms during the event to document for the world just what a school shooting looks and sounds like.

            I’m aware that nearly every media platform has been a forum for gun-control debate over the past four days, and I’m also aware that many students at this Florida high school have been speaking out, channeling their grief toward gun-control activism. It’s a teachable moment, so what does a journalism educator do?

            First, you respond to the messages you’re sent. The first journalism student who reached out to me about the shooting sent an email at 1:30 a.m. on Friday. She had stayed up late writing a powerful opinion piece about guns in America. I responded to tell her she had done what she needed to do, which was to get her words down on paper. I followed up with emails to the editor-in-chief and business managers to see if they were interested in adding more pages to next week’s paper, in order to cover this issue. They said they were up for it, and other students began volunteering to write and lay out pages for our coverage. My advice to the writers was to do what that first student had done – write what is on their minds. We’ll have time to do more reporting on this issue in the weeks ahead, but for now the kids seemed to need an outlet for their emotions.

I have witnessed the powerful emotions this debate produces. Twenty years ago, I was a reporter for the Staten Island Advance, and I was assigned to the gun-debate beat. School shootings were on the rise, and so were protests. I traveled with a group of protesters to Springfield, Mass., the home of gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson. The protesters placed pairs of shoes belonging to individuals who had died from gun violence in a local park, then traveled to Smith & Wesson’s headquarters to march.

One of those protesters had lost her husband to a gun murder, and she had become a nationwide leader in the cause. Another had lost her son when a neighborhood child got his hands on a gun left unattended in a home, and accidentally shot the young boy. This protester told me about her commute to work, and how it took her past the cemetery in which her son was buried. She would drive into the cemetery each morning, mourning her son’s death before continuing on her way to work.

I also interviewed gun advocates at the local sportsmen’s club. As they gathered for dinner and fellowship, these avid hunters told me what I’ve heard time and again over the past two decades: Guns don’t kill people; people kill people. I listened, took notes, and thanked them for their time.

The following year, two young men shot and killed many of their classmates at Columbine High School in Colorado, and now school shootings had become part of our national parlance. I interviewed Staten Island students who had been questioned in their schools because they, like the Columbine shooters, wore trench coats. They were confused as to what a coat had to do with gun violence. So was I.

Two months after Columbine, I left full-time reporting for full-time teaching. My working life, since the summer of 1999, has been devoted to teaching first, and writing second. I have taught writing skills to many students, and over the years the classrooms and schools in which I’ve taught have become more and more protected from the outside world. The Newtown, Conn., shootings of more than five years ago led to stricter security in schools across the nation. The school shootings, however, have continued.

At no time during these two decades have federal legislators passed any laws regulating the Second Amendment rights that Americans have. When nothing happened after Newtown, it seemed as though federal gun regulations were simply an impossibility. Now we have Parkland, with Snapchat videos documenting the violence. We have students appearing on the Sunday-morning talk shows to challenge their legislators.

As an educator, my job is typically to keep my own political views out of the classroom. My role is to ask good questions, support students in their journeys of discovery, and remain present for all voices that arise. I’ve had students conduct projects on safe gun use, in which they documented the ways in which they and their parents used guns safely at shooting ranges. I’ve also had students write passionately about the need for stricter gun control. And just a few months ago, I helped a student as she wrote a news story about her peers’ views on gun control, featuring students on both sides of the issue.

When we resume school on Tuesday, I will remain dedicated to helping my students feel safe and protected in finding their own voices on this issue. But I also want my students to feel safe and protected in the literal sense, and that’s where it becomes difficult for teachers like me to remain truly objective on this issue of school shootings and guns. I have a very hard time understanding why we can’t regulate a guaranteed right more closely. Full background checks, a national gun registry and bans on semiautomatic weapons seem like common sense to me. Laws like those passed in Connecticut after Newtown seem completely reasonable, and in keeping with the Second Amendment rights that many Americans treasure.

I’m happy to share those views with students if they ask. But back in the classroom, I will encourage them to talk and listen and find their voices. I am a teacher who views gun control as a must. But I am also a teacher who must support his students. I’ll start by encouraging my student-reporters to go after it, both in their opinion pieces and in their own reporting. Their peers in Parkland have experienced a nightmare, and instead of hiding their heads these teens are inviting us all to a serious and necessary conversation. I’m going to encourage my kids to take part.