Sunday, December 10, 2023

The Dream School

             We were holding a brief assembly for our 12th-grade class, supporting them with whatever college-related information they still need at this point in the application process. In the assembly, our counseling department included a video clip of New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, who wrote an influential book a few years ago titled Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be. The book, which I have referenced many times with parents and students, addresses the degree to which characteristics such as character and work ethic end up meaning more to success in life than the specific college we attend.

            I believe that my life has lived out that premise, and I believe most of us would say the same. But so many of our seniors and their parents have their eyes set on a specific dream school, and they often find themselves feeling as though their goals will only be met by gaining acceptance to that school.

            As Bruni was just starting to make his point in the assembly, the sound cut out on the video. I was the one working the projector, so it must have been my fault somehow. Having read the book and talked about it frequently, I figured I should try and summarize Bruni’s point. I took the microphone and did just that, then added my own personal experience.

            I shared with the students that in the spring of 1989, I was valedictorian of my high school class and applied to many elite universities. I assumed that with my grades being what they were, I’d receive many acceptances. And yet, none of my top five choices accepted me. I “settled” for my sixth choice, an outstanding state school, one that many students – including some of my friends – had tagged as their dream school.

            I shared that when I arrived at this college, it quickly became clear that this was a better fit for me than any of those top five choices. I told the students that six months into my freshman year, I would have definitely turned down an offer to attend any of those “top” choices. I recognized that this school was the place for me, and that my senior-year dreams had been grounded more in illusion than in reality.

            My college, nestled in the dreamy town of Chapel Hill, N.C., was inviting me to study really hard, but also to stroll the downtown area and shop for CDs and cool T-shirts. This campus was providing me with superb classes but also with tons of extracurricular activities. I joined the school newspaper, and journalism quickly became the focus of my undergraduate years. The school wanted me to be a student who could excel on a final exam, while also contributing to the greater good of the town and the world around me. I was expected to work into the night on a research paper, yet also wait in line all night to get Duke-UNC basketball tickets.

            I told my story, and the students heard me, I guess. One colleague told me that when she asked students later how the assembly was, one student shared that Dr. Hynes had told a really depressing story about getting rejected by all of his colleges. {Sigh.} I am sure I did the best I could in the moment, especially considering there had been no plans for me to speak at that moment. I have shared this story of my college rejections many times with students, and it usually goes over well and leads them to feel less anxious about the process. I’m sure it did on this day as well. But I reflected afterward about some ways I might tell it a bit differently.

            I think I would start with the metaphor of life as a marathon. Because, after all, some students do not find their ideal fit in the first semester of college. My story speaks to the idea that we can find that fit even when we don’t think we have it. But in reality, it might take awhile for that to happen. Some students transfer, some find a better fit in their graduate school than in their undergraduate school, some need a gap year before going anywhere, and some find that not attending college at all is the best fit for now. The larger theme here is that our lives do not typically unfold exactly as we thought they would in December of our senior year. But it may take some patience and perseverance before we find the right track for us.

            I have two daughters who are commuting to college right now. Neither would tell you that these schools are the perfect spots they were dreaming of in senior year. But they would likely tell you that these are the schools they need right now, and they are grateful that they can drive 30 minutes from their home and attend a world-class university. The words “dream school” or “best fit” would not come up in their conversation with you, but they would tell you that they’re narrowing down their interests within their majors and they are growing as learners and as citizens of the world.

            They’re still early on in the marathon, with so much more ahead of them. Like the students I spoke with last week, they’re still figuring it all out. And our Gen Z students do not need anyone to tell them that everything works out perfectly, as per plan. They’ve witnessed enough horror in their short time on this earth to debunk that myth.

            Like most of us, they’re going to respond to the opportunity to listen, learn, share and grow. They’re in search of hope for their own lives and for the greater good. They want some fun, some joy, and some intellectual challenges. They might like a cool college logo on their sweatshirts as well, but that logo represents more than cachet. It symbolizes the fulfillment they hope to gain in this life, at this stage of the marathon and in the stages to come.

            So yeah, I would go a little deeper if given another crack at speaking to the seniors. Even so, I think they got the point in my shortened version. Hang in there, and don’t fret if your perceived dream doesn’t pan out. There are more possibilities out there than any of us can count. Where we go as human beings – that’s how we figure out who we’ll be.

Friday, November 10, 2023

The Teachers of PS 39

           They were always together. Chatting in the hallways, sharing lunch in the break room, socializing outside of school. They were technically colleagues, but in essence they were more like family. It was just a small elementary school in northeast Staten Island, but they made it feel like home.

My mother was a teacher, and for most of her career she taught at Public School 39 in the South Beach section of Staten Island. She taught whatever the year required – third grade, fourth grade, music, you name it – and she did so with joy. I spent plenty of days visiting her in the school, and I witnessed the deep connections she made with students. Those visits had plenty to do with the decision I made to become a teacher myself.

But I was always fascinated with the relationships my mom built with her fellow teachers. These people weren’t all the same in terms of personality and interests. Yet they cared deeply about one another and knew all about one another’s triumphs and struggles. They all came over to my house, for my mom’s annual St. Patrick’s Day party, and for regular visits. I spent time in their houses as well, getting to know their children and becoming close with some of those kids. My mom organized Broadway trips, and the teachers would travel to Manhattan together for dinner and a show.

As I grew up, these women became some of the most important adults in my life. One of them delivered a reading at my wedding. Another became a trusted mentor. Still another gave me one of her old cars to serve as my first set of wheels. These teachers paid me to work at their houses, painting walls and raking leaves. They invited us to their Jersey Shore homes. And, when my parents retired to Cape May, they all made pilgrimages down there to spend time together. My parents returned the favor, visiting their retirement homes everywhere from Connecticut to Florida.

For most of my teaching career, I was hesitant about growing too close to my fellow educators, out of an attempt to maintain professional boundaries. It’s true that I did become an administrator in the school where I’d taught, and I found myself supervising people with whom I’d worked side by side. But that happens, and I’ve found that it is possible to supervise a friend. Over the years, my boundary-setting left me missing some of what my mom and her friends had. It’s as though I ignored the very thing they were modeling for me all along – the reality that the best friends you make in life might just be the ones teaching across the hall from you, toiling by your side in one of the toughest jobs anyone can choose. When you work in a school every day, you develop a partnership with those who care about it as much as you do, as you bond over a mutual understanding of how much compassion and dedication go into this job.

As my mom’s Alzheimer’s has progressed, these teachers have made their way to visit her in the assisted living home where she now resides. The teachers sit with my mom and talk, and she listens, sharing her wish that she could remember all the times they have spent together. They hug her tight, and tell her they love her. My mom does the same. Nothing can take away the love they have for each other. The teachers call me on the phone as well, and ask me for updates. When we finish, I tell them I love them, too. Because I do.

They will be there for my mom throughout, because that’s the only way these PS 39 teachers know how to operate. And I will be there for them as well, because that’s the least I can do to honor the friendships, the family, the inspiration, and the kindness I have received from these very special educators and humans.

Thursday, November 9, 2023

Seismic Changes

             I began my teaching career three months before the turn of the century, at a time when the baby boomers were starting to retire and bipartisanship was still a thing. We looked forward to a millennium of changes beyond our imagination, in education and in the world at large.

            Three years into my career, the 21st-century educational changes began. No Child Left Behind ushered in a seismic shift in education. Standardized testing, school accountability and educational standards became required, unquestionable aspects of every state and district’s educational landscape, and the use of data to evaluate school success became a fixed part of how we run schools. It took years for school districts to adjust to this method of evaluation, and many are still struggling to produce data that reveal a quality commensurate with the education that district leaders believe they are seeing in the classroom.

            Change can be exciting, but it also can be all-encompassing. In their classic scholarship on organizational leadership, Lee Bolman and Terrence E. Deal describe four frames of leadership – the structural frame, the human resource frame, the symbolic frame and the political frame. A seismic shift in education hits all four frames at once. No Child Left Behind, for instance, altered the very nature of what schools do (structural), the job requirements of educators (human resource), the messages we send about educational equity (symbolic) and the fixes legislators had made to that inequity (political). For institutions as complicated and bureaucratic as school districts and school buildings, a seismic shift takes a lot out of everyone. After all of the meetings, professional development, and readjusted lesson plans, we hope we’ve found a way to pivot toward improved education for the students we serve.

            Another seismic shift arrived after the Newtown, Conn., mass shooting of 2012, this one focused on much stricter school security. In the first decade of the century, yet another seismic shift began as both smartphones and social media arrived in students’ lives, bringing technology into our classrooms every minute of the day. And a fourth shift took place over the course of the first two decades of the 2000s, as many colleges maneuvered toward higher tuitions and lower acceptance rates, thereby turning the promise of higher education on its head and leading to a near-obsessive student/parent focus on the K-12 finish line.

            All of these shifts led to countless research and policy changes, as well as deep challenges to the daily lives of educators. We know that big changes are coming in our careers, and we know that rigidity will be of no use. But we do hope that these changes can be spread out a bit, so as to make the essential job of educating students more manageable. Four huge changes in 20 years was a lot. But it was actually easy to handle compared to the past several years.

            In this last 5-10 years, the frequency of seismic changes has increased at a pace few could have expected. While I identified four such changes over my first 20 years as an educator, four more have fully developed over the past half-decade or so. For one, we have a mental health epidemic affecting our children, which existed before the Covid pandemic and continues to exist after it. Two, we have ever-increasing polarization that leads to intense divisions and lines in the sand on virtually every topic you can find. Third, we have rapid increases in the development of artificial intelligence, coupled with a widening mistrust of source material. And fourth, we are expected to produce quality education in the midst of catastrophe, whether it’s from infectious disease or climate-induced crises.

            In essence, these four current shifts are challenging the very nature of wellness, the very nature of truth, the very nature of learning, and the very nature of survival. With changes this wide and deep and disturbing, it’s no wonder some are choosing not to pursue careers in education. These are tough times all over, and the classroom is no exception.

            My doctoral dissertation focused on two tough yet critical topics in education – media literacy and racial literacy. One day, while I was conducting my research in an eighth-grade classroom in New Jersey, students were discussing sources related to immigration. In a small-group conversation, two boys offered differing views on how much is too much when it comes to U.S. open-border immigration policies. When we gathered for full-group discussion, a third boy from that group quietly shared that he’d been listening to his two friends as they had disagreed over whether this country should accept more immigrants. He said he heard both points of view, he believes both classmates to be really good people, and he was having trouble determining who was more correct in their points of view, and what to do about it.

            We listened to this student, and the class quietly reflected on his point. He was addressing an issue that has no quick fixes. And yet he was listening, learning, and sharing. He was engaged in respectful conversation with his peers as they studied up on the topic. He was ready to keep learning and talking about the issue. He wasn’t shying away from it, but he also wasn’t expecting easy answers.

            Bolman and Deal’s four frames were all on display here: the structure (student-centered learning); the human resource (respectful discussion and discovery among peers); the symbolic (democratic learning with free exchange of ideas); and the political (fearless entry into the tough topics, with mutual respect). This was just one conversation, for sure. But for me, it shone a light on an educational path that can seem dark and foreboding in 2023. Just as seismic changes can hit all four frames, so can collaboration and our commitments to learning and growing together.

The changes are abundant and they are overwhelming. But I have to figure that if these kids can find a way forward, one step at a time, so can I. And so can we.   

Tuesday, July 4, 2023

Opportunity and Obstacle

             For the past two years, I have written far fewer blog posts due to the reality that I was working on my doctorate. A doctorate is by no means a requirement for educational leadership; many of our school leaders have no Ed.D. at the end of their titles. In my case, I just felt that the doctoral training could help me more fully understand the intricacies of the educational landscape. So I did it.

            And it was hard work. After two years of coursework and dissertation-writing, I have completed the journey. I don’t know that I’ll ever get used to being called “Dr. Hynes,” but the title was not the point of this. It was all about deepening the lens through which I view this incredibly challenging, yet fulfilling, profession.

            A big part of this doctoral journey is researching, writing and editing the dissertation. My dissertation addresses the intersection of media literacy and racial literacy. I spent hours visiting with middle-school students, talking with them about how media literacy tools and media sources influenced their thoughts about tough topics. I’m hopeful that I added something of value to the research on these topics. The dissertation link is here, as it was published just last week.

            When I began this doctorate, I was able to share the details of the program with my parents, who as always were supportive and very proud. They had, after all, nurtured my brother and me into strong students and lifelong learners. Three months into the doctoral program, my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Six months into the program, we lost my dad after he suffered a massive stroke. Over the past year and a half, my brother and I have tried to honor our dad’s life in appropriate ways, while also managing our mom’s care. We have had a lot of help along the way.

            As I began my dissertation defense, I shared with my committee that I was dedicating this dissertation to my parents. My dad was no longer here to read his son’s work, and my mom was not able to absorb this research and remember it. Yet they were still surely proud of me as I began the defense, and I stood on their shoulders as I successfully defended the dissertation.

            Life brings with it both opportunity and obstacle, sometimes simultaneously. At age 52, I am a doctor of education. At the same time, I am mourning the actual loss of one parent and the gradual loss of another. It’s my job to navigate all of this – to honor and care for my parents while also using their inspiration and guidance to fuel my modest attempts at making a difference in this world. It can feel like a lot sometimes, but it is life. And I can do it. That’s how my parents raised me.