As We Start the New School Year – a message to our staff from principal, Patrice Cherico

Cathy TobinIMO Blog

Welcome! This is a very exciting day as we come together to begin the 2019-2020 school year!

I always put a lot of pressure on myself for the first day of Teacher Work Week. This day feels to me now just like my students’ first day back after the summer felt when I was a teacher. There was so much I wanted to make happen on that day…. most importantly I hoped that the first day would set the stage for the year ahead. That is my goal for this little speech; that we set the stage for our year together.

When I was hired in 2014, I was given the mission of solidifying the goal of bringing an authentic Montessori instructional model to the public domain. The Montessori model connected with my beliefs around how children learned, and I became a quick convert. From my years as an educator and administrator the one thing I knew was that we had to keep our focus. I knew all too well how initiatives in public education can blow in and out and never stick. I had to be the gatekeeper and remind all our stakeholders of our shared goal. Every step of the way, our staff has embraced that precious task of staying true to Montessori. They have been the standard bearers.  Along the way there have been bumps in the road, but all in all we have been rather impressive in how closely we have kept our promise. We stand on the shoulders of those families who, in 2011, brought this charter to life. I know that those of us who have been here a while feel honored to have a part in making it happen and keeping the dream alive.

This year our school is entering its ninth year. We have a few staff and family members who’ve here been here for most, and some for all, of those years. With new staff joining us today, I thought it would be good to start with a brief look at the typical development of a charter school. In a charter school’s life the first years of the charter are called the ‘start-up’ phase which includes the writing of the charter before the school even opens. Generally, this phase is 2-3 years long. The next phase is the ‘growth’ phases which starts in year 3 or 4 and extends to year 5 or 6. Generally, by year 5 or 6 the school has been built out to capacity. Then year 5 or 6 begins ‘sustainable maturity’.  Our school’s trajectory deviated from the traditional model as we grew larger to accommodate the financing of our new building and our plans to replicate our school and, as a result, we have spent more time in the growth phase. As some know, last year was a pivotal point in our history when, with input from staff and community members, we decided that our best course was to pull back on our ambitious growth plan and instead focus on this single campus.

This is important because, as I shared with the board at our board retreat a few weeks ago, due to our path our growth phase has expanded into 9 years instead of the usual 5.  But now, with growth stabilized, I believe that we can finally begin this journey of sustainable maturity. We understand that our high school, IMHS, is new but we also know that its growing pains will benefit from the work that IMO has already done, while the unique nature of its innovation incubator will need time to develop.

What does the sustainable maturity phase look like? Generally, it is considered the time to fortify our identity and goals. Also, and just as importantly, it is a time to develop the pillars of our culture, to define the ‘how’ we do the work that we do.

Peeling this back, what will our work look like as we fortify our identity and goals?

Having the state recently recognize us again as an “A” school does provide us with a sense of ‘legitimacy’ which no doubt makes the work easier. You may have noticed I am staying true to our message around grades because we still know it is just one indicator of the great work you do, and your work has been just as powerful and important during our years as a C as it is as an A. However, I do not want to take away from any sense of ‘accomplishment’ the designation provides. Your hard work deserves recognition. We will spend time later in the year talking about this a bit more. What the A does do is allow us to dig in further and grab tighter onto our Montessori model. As Angeline Lillard’s work has shown, the closer we align to classic Montessori the greater the benefits to our children, both academically and within those elusive and important executive functioning skills. Again, part of our work during these ‘sustainable maturity’ years, will be first to stay true to our identity of providing a Montessori model within the public domain. This is our foundation, this is who we are, this is our overall arching goal.

Next, as part of these ‘sustainable maturity’ years, we want to look at the pillars of our culture. I believe what has set us apart from the beginning is ‘connection’; some might call it family. Whatever you call it, or however it is described, it is the sense that this school has always been more than an institution. It is community. It has been the ‘connection’ we have as co-workers, as colleagues, as family members. And this brings me to work of Brené Brown. For those of you who have not heard of Brené Brown, she is a research professor at the University of Houston where she holds the Huffington – Brené Brown Endowed Chair. She has spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy.

For me her work resonated because it was based on research. Everyone has their hook and for me, when someone says research, they have my attention. Because I can be a skeptic, I then try to begin poking holes in the ideas presented, but as I read her work not only did it simply resonate with me it resonated with the work we are doing at Innovation Montessori. In Scientific America, scientist, Matthew Lieberman, in sharing his work stated that, ‘we may not like the fact that we are wired such that our well-being depends on our connections with others, but the facts are the facts.’  Let me repeat that and let it sink in, “we are wired such that our well-being depends on our connections with others”.

I must tell you that this gives me a great deal of pause. What better way to describe what we do every day in a classroom – building emotional connections between the children and the adults and between the children themselves. We know that the teachers who create positive, emotionally safe classroom environments also provide for the optimal learning of their students.

So, when Brené Brown writes in research about what stops us from connecting, it gets my attention. Since we are about making connections, if research has identified things that STOP us from making connections, that means we have signposts to help us fix connections that are “broken”. I was not expecting what her research revealed. The thing that stops us from making connections is ‘shame’. She defines shames this way – “shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, belonging, and connection.” So, what does that mean for us?

I believe that no one here would ever want a child or a colleague to feel shame, but when I look at the list of ways in which shame can show up, I realize it can easily slip into our classrooms, our relationships, and our culture. Brené Brown goes so far as to provide a list of the ways that shame can manifest. It includes perfectionism, favoritism, gossiping, back channeling, comparison, self-worth tied to productivity, harassment, discrimination, power over, bullying, blaming, teasing and cover-ups. Even typing this list makes me uncomfortable and, honestly, I had to resist the urge to hit the back space button and erase it all. I don’t imagine that these are topics that anyone feels comfortable talking about, and then the importance of having those conversations hit me – this is the work!

As we build out our pillars of culture, we focus on connection, but we can’t get to connection without talking about shame, I am not even sure how many pillars we will erect this year, but we will have a place to work where everyone feels safe and free from shame. Back to that “A” – in education, all too often, our value as teachers, as administrators, as students, as a school, revolves around work product. There are so many opportunities for shame to sneak in. Our big work is to build classroom cultures where every child can feel connected and valued and where, if shame shows up, we call it out.

I want you to think about that as you begin establishing your classroom for this school year, because I am going to be thinking about it a lot this year. I pledge to work hard at building a culture where connections thrive, and shame is brought in the light.

As you plan this week, put in the work around figuring out what connection in your classroom is going to look like. When you leave to go to lunch you will pick up the two books on the table. I don’t have time to talk about Sir Ken Robinson’s book on Creative Schools just now, but I will soon. Today, begin reading Brené Brown’s book, “Daring Greatly”, even if it is half a page, and consider how Daring Greatly for your classroom and your students this year will look when connection is a central pillar of what you do.

I feel honored to be part of such a strong team, and such a vibrant community. It’s going to be a great year.