Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Three of the finest!

Karen Phillips, JPII's Dean of Studies, gave a brief talk at a recent development dinner describing the quality of teachers at JPII by focusing on three of our best. I asked her if she would allow me to post this address on my website, and she graciously agreed. Let me also take this opportunity to brag on Mrs. Phillips: at a College Board convention in Atlanta in February, she was named the 2009 A.P. Teacher of the Year for the southeastern United States! We ARE truly blessed to be surrounded by such incredible teachers at JPII!

Good evening and thank you for being here tonight.

I’ve been asked to describe for you JPII’s most valuable asset…our faculty. When I recall the educational experiences that have made a lasting impression or produced a significant impact on my life, I remember my teachers. Outside our students and the support that our parents bring to give purpose to the work that we do, it is the faculty of JPII that makes us the special community that we are.

Our students are encouraged to reach their highest potential and guided towards their goals by their teachers. We know that our students are enriched not merely by what they study in the classroom but by the teachers who inspire by their character and their example… I remember less about the math and physics that I learned under my favorite teachers, Mrs. Hutton and Coach Foster, than I do the fact that Mrs. Hutton inspired us by her constant energy and supported us with her undying faith in what we could accomplish. Coach Foster, gruff in his manner, nonetheless held us to a standard that we all wanted to reach. Gaining his praise was worth towing the line to obtain it.

Similarly, we, at JPII, are blessed to have master teachers whose character inspires emulation. You may already be aware of some of these incredibly gifted, dedicated educators, but it’s my pleasure to describe a few of them to you..

Let’s look to English first. At the helm of this ship, we have Richard Stephenson. A 35-year veteran of the classroom, there’s not an English curriculum that he hasn’t taught--from Ancient World Lit to British, American or Modern Literature as well as electives like Shakespeare, Creative Writing and Public Speaking. Richard is a workhorse who will readily volunteer to take a 4th subject preparation to spare his junior department members from shouldering it and argue that he becomes bored if he teaches the same thing all day long. He enthralls his students with anecdotes from his career and laces his discussion of literature with more historical background than students get from their history classes. We have adopted a term that means holding up a standard of serious, intellectual engagement. It’s called ‘gravitas’…Richard’s style conveys ‘gravitas’ to a degree that earns his students’ respect and admiration. They work for a mere nod or smile from him. How does he generate this veneration? I think that it’s because he delights in turning on his students to learning…thinking…finding their own voice. What motivates him to drive the twenty miles he travels to reach us each day, when he’s giving us his retirement years? I’ve discovered the key in content of his visits down to see me when he will say…”What about Mr. Smith?” (Mr. Smith being one of the typical standard level under-achievers who have yet to show the slightest sparkle toward anything in the classroom) “He’s coming on”, Richard will say, “…you should have heard what he asked in class today!” With this comment, I know that Richard’s won another convert…he’s hooked another recalcitrant teenager and generated a genuine interest in Beowulf! Richard cares. He delights in his students’ efforts and creativity, and they know it. It’s a good year if you have Richard Stephenson.

But maybe you’re lucky enough to get Betty Mayberry. Betty retired early from Sumner County to come to JPII. She had been recognized as a National Presidential Award winning teacher – honored in Washington, D.C. for her achievement in the field of math teaching. She has authored a textbook, has been a mainstay in the group of regular presenters at the national T3 (Teachers Teaching with Technology) conferences for the past fifteen years and is known across the state for the caliber of math students she presents at district and local math competitions. She could make a living as a consultant earning several times the salary that we pay her but her greatest desire is to create a departmental schedule that allows her to teach math at the basic level – Algebra 1 to freshmen…and this coming year, she will be able to do that again. Why does a teacher who can and does teach our most accomplished students BC Calculus want to work with our least sophisticated, less accomplished freshmen? She loves to see her students learn…have those ‘aha’ moments and knows how important it is to build a good foundation in math. She wants to be in on the ground level. She can be found daily in her classroom by 7:a.m. and after school until 4:30, working with her own and any other student who seeks her help with math. Her lesson plans utilize every second of the 70 minute class period that she’s allotted in each class period. Her teaching strategies utilize state of the art computerized, electronic programs as well as manipulative materials in teaching of key math concepts. And energetic…well, Betty’s a former cheerleader and you only have to spend a minute in her classroom to see that personality at work with her students. Beyond her students’ successes, Betty takes pride in building a math department second to none. Her teachers attend enriching professional development conferences each year and she has tutored them into positions of presenting at the T3 and other conferences, following in her footsteps and honing their own skills. I have often heard her remark on her pride in ‘her’ math department. The teachers are ‘her’ teachers and the students know that they are ‘her’ students. Will they remember her when they leave us? What do you think?

Move down the hall from Betty about twenty paces and you’ll encounter Jennifer Dye in the Biology Classroom. We were able to lure Jennifer to us during her maternity leave, because she was promised that at JPII, she would be given the freedom to be innovative and teach science as she believed that it should be taught. Pioneering the Physics First curriculum at JPII, our students study conceptual physics in the freshman year before taking chemistry and biology in subsequent years. Her rationale and program currently stand as a model for revamping the science curriculum that is occurring in not only in the state and but across the nation. Also a nationally acclaimed Presidential Award winner, Jennifer has also been recognized by the Tennessee Academy of Sciences as an outstanding teacher and has been involved with the development of Tennessee’s exit exams in science for more than a decade. She has recently submitted and won a 3 million dollar NSF grant in conjunction with MTSU and will involve their graduate students in teaching research in the high school classroom. Jennifer, too, finds her greatest reward in the achievement of her students. For more than a decade, she has involved her students in developing their own research and writing about it in scientific papers. Annually, our students’ papers are tagged for awards the Junior Academy of Sciences and our students have traveled to Atlanta and San Diego to present them at various levels of national competition. Can you imagine the advantage her students receive in admissions to prestigious colleges when they list on their resumes the scientific research that they’ve conducted or their work in labs at Vanderbilt? But again, outside her students’ achievements, one of Jennifer’s greatest strengths is her mentoring of young department members in her charge. She insures that they receive good professional growth opportunities annually and strives to integrate them into state level professional organizations. Her goal is to create a science department second to none. Is that ambition one that our parents support? You bet!

While I have exceeded the time that I was given and only touched on three of our excellent teachers, there are dozens of others on whom I could brag on if time permitted.

In closing, I remember one of our earliest Open Houses in 2002, before we opened our doors and were working hard to convince our first 250 students to choose JPII, Hans Broekman introduced the members of the faculty then assembled as the ‘A Team’. Then as now, our faculty couldn’t have been characterized them more appropriately. They are outstanding, exceptional…unmatched as group! Not only are they experts in their subject areas and masters of instructional technique, but most important to our students and their families, they find their greatest joy and reward in the success of their students. In spite of their national acclaim and expertise that could be applied to greater financial gain, they love their daily interaction with young people. Can there be any greater attraction to a school than the quality of the teachers in whom the education of its students is entrusted?

Monday, March 30, 2009

School pride

This is Mr. Weber's address to the JPII student body on March 30, 2009.

It would be interesting to do a study to find out which student at JPII has the most detentions over the course of his career here. I haven’t checked that statistic—are there any guesses?

Without a doubt in my old school, his name was Chris. Chris got in trouble literally the first hour of his freshman year. We had a welcome back assembly, and while I was talking, there was some knucklehead in the back of the cafeteria talking to whom-ever would listen. That was Chris, and I sent him straight to the office. Over the course of that year, Chris must have accumulated 30 or so detentions. For the first fifteen or so times, he would try to explain that the teacher was picking on him, but each time he blamed his teacher, I’d add 15 minutes onto his time for not taking ownership like a man. By midway through his freshman year, he began to simply walk into the office and announce “Hi, I was sent out of class for talking” without offering any lame excuse beyond that. Chris had good parents who always made sure he was there for Saturday school. The truth was, during his freshman year, Chris was more immature than he was a bad kid. He simply couldn’t sit still, and he couldn’t keep quiet.

When he became a sophomore and then later a junior, he lost some of that innocence. He became sneakier and hardened a bit. For the first time, he missed Saturday school and I had to suspend him from school for a few days—something he’d have never done in his freshman year. The number of detentions declined some, but when I confronted him in the office, he was more argumentative and more apathetic. At one point he told me he didn’t care about the school, didn’t care about his teachers, his grades, his friends. He just wanted out.

At the end of a rather checkered junior year, Chris skipped school. It was the last straw. “Chris, for almost three years now, you have been a constant discipline problem”, I said. “Teachers here obviously care for you, but you spurn them, and complain instead about how terrible the school is. You’re ungrateful, self-centered and immature. I’m going to give you your wish. I am asking your parents to withdraw you at the end of the junior year. You can go somewhere else and graduate. We’re done”.

He looked at me strangely. “But…” he began. “Chris, I’ve had it. Get out.”

He left my office, but came back the next day. “Mr. Weber, can we talk?” “Talk?” I said. “I’ve talked to you for three years, and you’ve never listened. We’re done talking, please leave. “ His parents called me later that day. “We’ll do anything,” they said. “I know you will,” I said. “You already have. It’s not about you. It isn’t about the school. It’s about Chris. If he wants to talk, I might be ready to listen in June.”

May passed. The first day of summer vacation, Chris called my secretary and asked to meet with me to talk. I told my secretary to tell him to call me back in two weeks and then we might talk… maybe. Two weeks went by and Chris called back. “OK”, I said. “But you’re going to do all the talking. I don’t intend to say anything. “

When I met with Chris, just he and I in the office in mid-June, he did all the talking. “I’m sorry”, he said, “You’re right—I’ve been kind of a jerk. I guess I took this place for granted all the way up until you said I was gone. I don’t want to go anywhere else. I’m proud of being a student here. Please don’t make me leave. “

“Just words, “ I said, as unfeelingly as I could. “I know”, he said. “I want to prove this place matters to me. If you let me, I’ll work all summer long for the school to pay off the debt I owe. My parents and I talked—they said, if you let me, this can be my job for the summer. Please, Mr. Weber.” I was impressed by Chris’ offer, but non-committal. “We’ll give it a try”, I said. “But no promises.”

Chris worked all summer. He painted classrooms. He scraped gum from under cafeteria tables. He weeded flower gardens. He scrubbed rugs with stains in them. He helped us move tables, boxes and books. He worked harder and did more than my custodian that summer—all with the right attitude.

At the end of the summer, still without having made a commitment to Chris, I called him into the office and said, “Chris, welcome back. I hope you have a great senior year.”

I won’t say Chris had a perfect senior year. He still had a hard time staying quiet and sitting still. But he had the right attitude. One of the proudest moments of my life as a principal was some time in November of that year, when I saw Chris, who didn’t know anyone was watching, picking up litter on the way out to his car. He wasn’t performing to impress. Somewhere along the way, Chris had become grateful. He cared about his school—so proud he wanted it to look nice.

I tell you the story about Chris to challenge you. To what extent are YOU proud of JPII? Yes, it’s a good school. Yes, it will help you when you apply to other schools in your senior year. But if that’s all there is, then JPII is merely a means to an end, a useful tool to get something you want.

Do you really appreciate your teachers? Do you realize they’ve given up more lucrative careers so that they can help you become better students and better people? Have you said thank you to them lately? Do you care what others think about us? When visitors come to the school, do they see trash laying around because you don’t care enough to walk over to the trashcan? Would you ever pick up trash when others weren’t looking, like Chris did, simply because you were proud of the place? Have you ever recruited for this school in your youth groups, in your neighborhoods, on city or club athletic teams? Have you nvited a friend to shadow with you for a day?

In six weeks, the seniors will be graduating from JPII, thus becoming alumni, and JPII their “alma mater”. “Alma mater” in Latin means "nurturing mother". The image of a high school as a “mother” suggests it is a place where you grow up, are taught discipline, are challenged to put aside childish ways to become young men and young women.

I hope you will treat JPII as you would your mother, profoundly grateful for all that she has done for you, proud of your classmates and teachers, proud enough to take ownership of the little things, proud to be a Knight.