I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Ice Cream…Back to School is Sweet

The Sweet Stuff

There are few things that I get more excited about than ice cream.  I particularly love gourmet ice cream where the flavors might be a little more exotic like Mexican Chocolate, Nutella Chip, Vienna Finger Cookie, Green Monster, and it goes on and on (I know you may be asking yourself,  “why no strawberry or black raspberry?” You see I have a whole theory about how fruit is not dessert, but that is a rant for another day).  However, this excitement for ice cream is similar to the feelings at the beginning of the school year where faculty members, students, and staff are filled with a sense of hope, possibility, and wonder.

To us, starting school is as exciting as that scoop of exotic ice cream and as comforting and compatible as that scoop of vanilla.  The possibilities seem endless as we review our options for rainbow sprinkles, chocolate chips, or whipped cream or in the case of school, the endless possibilities for all of our students.  As experienced back-to-schoolers, we hope to capture that back to school excitement for you through the lenses of our particular districts.

The Delivery Mechanism

How we start the year is as important and satisfying as how we deliver our ice cream treats.  If you are an ice-cream fan, you may prefer yours with a certain cone or served with a certain sauce.  Starting the year has several key delivery ingredients to it as well, which you will find represented across all four of our districts.  

The After Effects

Like enjoying your favorite ice cream treat, there is joy in the eating and there is the joyous rush of having eaten it.  In this issue, we not only provide an overview of how we started the year, but also some examples of  how we intend to sustain it.

ice cream 3Milford Public Schools #MPSGreatThings #MPSLearns

We are in the second year of a three year strategic plan that focuses on Social Emotional Learning, Equity and Access, Growth Focused Instruction, and Continuous Learning. Instead of sharing data, targets, progress toward goals, and other similar topics on the first day opening presentation, we invited three retired teachers, a retired administrator, and two of our current administrators who had just beaten cancer to share their perspectives on education, the importance of the teaching profession, and why they love the Milford Public Schools. The educators did an amazing job that led to laughter, tears, and inspiration for our faculty.

One thing has become abundantly clear, as I start my sixth year in Milford, is that there is an incredible pride in the faculty for the critically important work that they do and this pride is paralleled in the community. I also believe that the more brief my remarks are, the better the whole program goes!  On opening day we also honor the outstanding teacher of the year and nominated winners from each of our buildings. This nomination process and program has reminded me of what talented educators we have across all of our schools in Milford.


Our educators work tirelessly to provide a welcoming and predictable opening few days of school.  We understand that many students walk through the door who are nervous and anxious about how the new school year will go.  We provide a number of orientations, welcome events, open houses, and opportunities, so both parents and students can feel comfortable, whether they are starting kindergarten or entering Milford High School for the first time.  This is a team effort and I always appreciate the support of our PTO parent volunteers and student ambassadors who work tirelessly to ensure the first days and weeks are both positive and a smooth transition for students.

Milford2The energy of the first days and weeks of the school year are a rare professional experience that I wish professionals in other fields could experience.  I like to try to maintain the energy, enthusiasm, and positivity throughout the year because it make an immense difference for the climate and culture for the school year.  When we are hiring faculty members we explore their mindset, outlook, demeanor, and personality.  We want enthusiastic, flexible, and creative problem solvers who are focused on learning and growth and making the classroom experience positive for all of the students.


ice cream 4Mendon-Upton Regional School District #MURSDInspires

Prior to the return of our students, our district faculty and staff spend two days together as a district and in the schools in collaborative professional learning.  This year’s opening of school was as exciting as opening day of our local ice cream shops, as our teachers gathered in the lobby, greeting each other with eagerness to begin a new year.  mursd1

There was added excitement because the focus of our two days was the introduction of our new strategic plan Inspire.  While in some districts, the launch of a new strategic plan might be met with skepticism or might be viewed as a document that comes out only once a year, this is not how it works in Mendon-Upton.  Our strategic plan drives everything we do, every day, in every classroom, and our new plan Inspire is a result of a year’s worth of capacity building, visioning, and input from all stakeholders.

Our mission:  We empower all students to thrive.  

When we asked our teachers to describe what they need to do in order to create an environment where students thrive they shared the following:mursd3

Additionally, we laid out our vision for our students.

Our vision:  In order to bring our mission to life, we will:mursd2

  • Create programs, practices, and partnerships that value the whole child
  • Lead innovation
  • Inspire meaningful learning that ignites individual passions
  • Reimagine education to align with our beliefs about learning
  • Leverage technology to communicate, collaborate, and innovate
  • Expand our definition of success beyond traditional metrics to celebrate the diverse talents, interests, accomplishments, and growth of the learner
  • Engage students, parents, educators, and the community in an ongoing partnership focused on learning.

mursd4In keeping with our practice of introducing fun and engaging themes for our professional development days, we had a theme of movie premiere as we premiered our new plan.  As our educators entered their opening day professional development, they were greeted with movie theme music (Indiana Jones, Mission Impossible, and Wonder Woman). They were assigned to vertical teams such as The Ghostbusters or The Terminators as they set out to complete many team challenges that engaged them with the elements of the strategic plan.  For a full breakdown of the full PD Day, check out our PD Summary Webpage.  In Mendon-Upton we work hard, but we play hard as well.  The positive culture of camaraderie, laughter, and collaboration led to fantastic videos, reflections, and inspired artwork capturing the elements of our strategic plan.


The main highlight of our PD Day was hearing directly from our students.  In our Portraitmursd7 of a Graduate session, we had a student panel made up of students who volunteered to come in on their last day of summer to share their experiences in school with faculty and staff.  They gave advice on how best to set up group projects. They answered questions from elementary teachers on what they found to be the most beneficial skills they learned in elementary school. They talked about their most meaningful learning experiences they have had in our district.  It was the perfect combination of advice, reflection, and inspiration. If we want to empower our students to thrive, the first step is to ask them what they need.

Despite the heat, we ended the day with a district photo and a cooler filled with fudgsicles and creamsicles for our hardworking staff.  It was literally a sweet ending to a positive day.


mursd9So how do sustain the enthusiasm past the opening day of school, especially when your classrooms lack air conditioning and the heat index is skyrocketing?  Our educators and administrators greeted our students with open arms and smiles. Our teachers spent opening days establishing communities, building relationships, and providing engaging learning activities.  The first three days weren’t about sign-offs and teacher-directed rules, but rather teachers embraced the new strategic plan and the enthusiasm of opening day and created environments where students came running back to school the next day.  From exploding cans to magic carpet challenges, our students were engaged. 

As we captured learning in action in our tours of the school with our #MURSDInspires Selfie Prop, the smiles on the students’ faces said it all:  This year is going to be sweet!

ice cream 5Ashland Public Schools #APSLEARNS, #Connections, #Relationships, #Community

Our school year started back the week of August 13 when we had 30 teachers take a 4 days course on Responsive Classroom. Our District has made a commitment to have all K-5 teachers trained over the next three years. Prior to implementing the program I contacted several schools and all the feedback I received was that it was a fabulous program that has transformed and changed schools and cultures. Nevertheless, I was nervous to roll out such a comprehensive program, but after the first day, the feedback was incredibly positive. Teachers declared that it was the best PD they have ever attended. This message was repeated over and over throughout the next week.

For example, I met with a few teachers last week and they said that the training had transformed their classrooms, but the best thiashland1ng I heard was when one teacher said that she knows more about her kids after 1 week than she did after 1 month because of the program. Additionally, this past week during I visited classrooms and watched morning meeting in action. It was great to see our teachers learning, making connections with students, building relationships, and establishing a sense of community in their classrooms. 

On August 21 and 22 we welcomed our new teachers to the District. The message to ashland2each of them from everyone they interacted with was that they needed to make connections with students, build relationships, and establish a sense of community in their classrooms. It was an unscripted plan, but the message was the same from everyone, this needed to be done in order to have a productive and successful year.


Then our Superintendent gave the opening day address. He told the staff about his time growing up in Vermont and how if it was not for teachers who took the time to make connections, build relationships, and establish a sense of community with him he would not be where he is today. Those three pillars were important to him as a student and drive his actions as a superintendent.

To sustain the opening momentum, we spent the first few days of school walking the halls and checking in on classrooms. Yes, it was hot. But we both saw something that we have not seen in years; all teachers (every single one) was taking that extra time to make connections with students, build relationships, and establish a sense of community in their classrooms. It just happened and it was awesome to see that it was a common theme reflected across all classrooms PreK-12.  ashland5 As the two of us reflected it was nothing that we had planned, but all the work we had done in the summer and to start the school year all focused on those three themes and it all came together the first few weeks of school.

Dr. James Comer said, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” This is so true. All of us in Ashland are filled with optimism and hope for an amazing school year. We have a solid foundation set and are ready to build on it. Our waffle cone is our staff that holds everything together. We have added three flavors of connections, relationships, and community. And we are ready for the year!

ice cream 6Natick Public Schools #relationshipsmatter

In the wake of the district’s year of immense change in 2017-18, we (my school committee and I)  held a series of community meetings (70) all summer long. These meetings and our constant reflection on our core values as a system helped us to decide to celebrate our greatest district asset:  community relationships.


A summer of visits with community members reaffirmed our commitment to working natick11together and building relationships in service to learning.  Even in this age of technology and digital connections–around which Natick leads the way–it’s important to become recentered and reconnected with our students in service to personalizing their learning.

Our meetings made it clear that the district needed to refresh this commitment; our opening day meetings and trainings that teachers in particular appreciated being given the time and license to focus on building relationships with their students.  In a digital district, personal relationships are even more important, prioritized and focused upon, since we use the technology to efficiently make more space for interaction time within the learning space.

As we started the school year, we sought to inspire teachers by acting as mentors in relationship building and did so in all of our opening day meetings–modeling the activities and ideas we hoped they would leverage to connect with their students.


Our cabinet team (central office division heads)  spent all of our opening days visiting schools and reacquainting ourselves, or meeting new staffers in their classes.  We also headed to all the buildings and to all the training meetings–from crossing guards, to librarians to nurses!

Finally, we met with all of our new and transfer students at NHS who were soon to meet with future trusted adults and student mentors within the school community, as part of our new peer mentorship program.


While the idea of building relationships in service to learning is not a new idea, it is one that needs refreshing and rebranding for the current era.

natick2To that end, we invited Sam Lenson, NHS Alum, class of 2013, to share his story of learning in the Natick Schools.  Sam, a student with learning disabilities struggled to find his way through middle school, but the connection of educators and administrators and their personal relationships with him pushed him along, helped him grow, graduate and eventually go on to University of Maine where he played kicker, but more importantly, he obtained degrees in sports management and education and a minor in special education.  He recently passed him MTEL tests and has become a MA certified teacher. He also invented a play-based after-school program that has blossomed in use through the state of Maine.

Following Sam’s discussion, 6 mothers from the Natick community spoke to our staff about the big and small ways their work has changed the lives of their children and our community.  These moving stories ranged from simply caring enough to get their children the “just right books” to intervening when children were failing or at risk, to kind word and coaching to the parents themselves.

The start of a school year sets the tone for excitement and core values and we hope we have set the expectation for living and working in a community that prioritizes connection and relationships in service to our academic learning outcomes.

We share these overview of how we start the year because, to us, framing the year with excitement and sweetness creates a positive momentum that can carry us through to the new year–it’s the common vocabulary, shared vision and experiences that allow us to work well as a district team.  Like that sweet cone of ice cream, the start of the school year is pure joy and excitement.


The Natick Leadership Team

Wishing you a sweet start to your school year. May you sustain it through relationships, community building, and a little bit of fun.

The Power of Relationships

 “No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.” — James Comer

Coffee and Relationships:  Why Both Matter!

coffeeThere was an idea over morning coffee, maybe not a great one, but an idea; what if I was to get a group of colleagues to collaborate on a monthly blog. Would it work? Would people read it? Would there be value in it? Hey, at the very least it would be a reason to get together over dinner and exchange some ideas and catch up on the month. I had written a few blog posts throughout the summer and have read hundreds throughout the years. I have always found them to be insightful and thought-provoking and I always chuckle when someone would retweet or like one of my posts. It was an acknowledgement of what I said mattered or resonated with someone. So I floated the idea, and it was met with a resounding YES! We met over dinner, came up with a group name (very important), a catch phrase (Collaborative Reflections from Passionate Leaders), and decided on our first topic. What follows are our collective reflections on the importance of relationships as we start the school year.

The Power of What You Value

One of my tasks each year is to meet with new teachers at the start of the school year. Each of us in our roles as leaders has the chance to spend time with new teachers to kick off the school year. I truly enjoy this part of my job. It is an opportunity to welcome them to my district and community. They are eager to get to their classrooms and get started, but it is important for us to spend time as a group sharing our vision, team building, and getting them ready to start the school year off correctly. This introductory meeting is step one in building relationships with teachers and having them see the power of relationships.

How do you introduce your teachers to your district and school?  How do you share your values and beliefs with them?
'Worth' highlighted, under 'Value'Last week we had our new teacher induction program for almost 20 new teachers. As I spent time over the summer preparing for this introductory meeting, I made sure the focus of the time we spent together was centered around the importance of building relationships; this was critical to me. We did various team building activities to help staff get to know each other and also to help them begin thinking about what matters to them as teachers and educators. These activities helped people to get to know each other, think about their own core values and beliefs, provided them with some practical examples to implement with their students, but also focused on the importance of building relationships with kids. As we all know without those relationships being built and formed limited learning can occur. As Rita Pierson so bluntly put it, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”

How do you build relationships with you students on day 1…day 2…throughout the year?
importantAt the end of the first day,  I did an exit ticket with teachers and asked them for their takeaways. When I asked for a volunteer to share out, one hand went right up and said, “The Ashland Public Schools places significant value on building relationships with kids.” My mission was accomplished; they got it! As we start the school year, get to know kids, share something about yourself with them, show them you are human, make those connections, and build those relationships. The time you spend the first 3 days doing that will positively impact the other 177.

The Power of Your Name

Remember when you were in your own middle school years?  I can remember it like it was yesterday.  I was incredibly nervous upon entering my junior high school for the first time.  However, one person stood out, whose priority was making his students feel warm, safe, and welcomed, and that was our principal, Mr. Joseph Bishop.  He knew that the foundation of building a safe and welcoming environment for students was to connect with each student with intentionality, beginning with their name.

“Good morning, Mo!” he declared with a big smile as I entered school.

bishopYou see, Mr. Bishop used to stand outside my school entrance and every day as we entered the school as shy, slightly uncomfortable, awkward pre-teens, he would greet us with a big smile, give us a hello, and use our name.  I remember the first time he called me by my name,  and thought “How does he know who I am?”  When I realized he knew every student’s name…I was in awe.  Completely in awe. Thirty years later….I’m still talking about Mr. Bishop, a celebrated Gardner, MA  principal for over 25 years, because he took the time to learn my name.  

Many years later, at the age of 23, I started my own teaching career in an urban Massachusetts high school.  At this school, I had a morning duty in a hallway and was overwhelmed by the hundreds of students who passed me by and a veteran teacher provided me with some sage advice, which echoed the practice of Mr. Bishop years ago:

 “You have to learn their names, use their names, every time you see them, without fail.  It makes all the difference that you are noticing them and showing you are caring about them.  Even when they look away, or try to avoid you. Use their names. It shows that they matter.”

These stories came up in our new teacher orientation this week in Mendon-Upton, where we discussed the significance and impact of learning students’ names on the first day of school to build connections.  I asked our new teachers to picture in their mind someone who is really charismatic, warm, endearing, and fills the room with joy.  The kind of person you just want to be around.  Everyone closed their eyes and could quickly pinpoint THAT person in their mind.  

storyWhat qualities do these people exhibit?

  1.  They use your name, frequently.
  2.  They ask you questions about your life and they want to hear YOUR story
  3.  They listen with intentionality
  4. They provide positive feedback

What if we were THAT person for all of our staff and students?  What if we are Mr. Bishop standing at the doorway everyday greeting every student by name?  What if we are the teacher truly getting to know their students and take time to learn their stories? What if we are the building leader who listens with intentionality?  How far will a little positive feedback take our students?  

This year, the challenge is to be THAT person, for every child, on every day.

The Power of Community Learning

If you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together.

 –African Proverb

communityIn my role as assistant superintendent for teaching, learning and innovation, I am often asked what I do in my school system to help educators “innovate.”  The answer is not a sexy, shiny, high tech idea.  It’s a rather old-school one, but most important in a day and age when society defaults toward division, specialization and over-reliance on technology to do what people should still be doing.  Cultivate an authentic community of learning and you’ll find the ideal conditions to brew innovation–which I define to mean making adaptations in our profession that yield higher results for students in a more creative and satisfying manner than before.

There is no substitute for the learning relationship that exists between teachers and students and that relationship is enhanced when the teacher is part of a professional learning community (PLC) that moves beyond calling itself a PLC in name only.  The conditions for the highest quality teaching and the most innovative teaching are simple to recreate as noted in the graphic above.  A sense of community is established when, as Hill, Brandeau, Truelove and Lineback (2014) indicate, there is a clear sense of purpose within the learning organization, there is agreement on the what and why of shared values and the norms for engaging as professionals are defined.  These are simple ways to ensure that staffers can collaborate with each other in meaningful ways and in doing so create the most innovative learning environments for kids.  Innovation, therefore, rests on relationships.

Relationships Really Really Matter:  Treat People Well, Be Kind, and Listen

Relationships matter almost more than anything else.  Education at its core is a people business, and at the core of human interactions are relationships.  I once read somewhere that people do not really remember what you say (which in my case is often a very positive thing); they remember how you treat them.  It can be very powerful to purposefully treat everyone well.  This sounds easy, but when you are faced with competing priorities and multiple deadlines it can be challenging.  In education, particularly in larger schools or school districts, it can be very easy to forget that every student is the most important person in someone else’s life.  In the age of big data and data driven instruction the recent push for social emotional learning is a positive and important movement that is essential to teaching and developing the whole student. Every teacher is potentially a partner, parent, brother, sister, best friend, aunt, uncle, or grandparent.  This makes every teacher also the most important person in someone else’s life.  So the conclusion is clear, everybody is important and we need to treat them like they are important and treat them well.  If we all focused on this simple premise a little more our schools would be better places where positive interactions with others and customer service were an expected norm.  

The Dalai Lama said, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”  

Every interaction can be driven by kindness.  There are simple things we all can do to build relationships, make those connections, or show some kindness.  Sometimes we all forget a simple hello in passing, asking about someone else’s day or about some key aspect of their work can have an impact.  It does take a little effort, but the payoff is well worth it.  That being said, kindness should not be seen as transactional and a calculated game of quid pro quo.  This becomes quickly apparent if there is a lack of sincerity.  If you are kind to others the benefits will come back to you in building and supporting a positive climate and culture.    


In my role as superintendent I do a great deal of listening.  I regularly attend large, small, and individual meetings and listen to proposals, issues and problems, conflicts, new ideas, and for many other purposes.  It is very easy to become inattentive and drift to emails, texts, or social media.  It is much more effective and often more difficult to focus and listen attentively; but this is also when the best outcomes occur and the most positive relationships develop.  Active listening is becoming more challenging in the age of digital distractions.  As a leadership team we are all making an effort to be present and engaged during our meetings, and I am hoping this carries over into all meetings.  There are also times when the problem is not really solvable but just hearing someone can have a positive impact.  Sometimes just listening is enough and that is all a person needs.    

So to summarize, treat people well, be kind, and listen.  These three things can provide support and build positive relationships with others.  These are also things that are being taught in preschools and kindergartens across the country; the more we internalize those early lessons, the better off we will be.

Never Underestimate the Power of a Positive Relationship

I was lucky enough to spend the majority of my summer weekends on the Cape. Labor Day is always the symbolic end to summer. The air is different, days get shorter, nights get cooler, kids and teachers are back to school. This weekend was my “last weekend” on the Cape. Sitting with friends by the fire on Sunday night, they asked how the start of the school year had gone. I told them fantastic and gave them some highlights of the first week. As the conversation shifted, I had the moment to reflect on the start of the school year. Fresh starts, hope, optimism are just some themes that came to mind. But seeing the kids faces as they came off the bus, greeted by friendly and familiar faces of principals, assistant principals, teachers, staff, and faculty, I was reminded of the importance of relationships.

Good luck to everyone as we begin the 2017-2018 school year and remember to never underestimate the power of a positive relationship.