The 2016-2017 academic year officially began Monday for teachers in West Hartford Public Schools with a lively and inspiring convocation.
By Ronni Newton
West Hartford Public Schools’ mission statement of “Clear Paths, Bright Futures, No Limits” came to life Monday morning as teachers from all of the district’s schools gathered together in the Conard High School auditorium for the annual “Celebration of a New Year” convocation.
When he became superintendent of West Hartford Public Schools in 2014, Tom Moore decided to give the keynote speech rather than hiring a professional comedian or coach to inspire the teachers, a practice he has continued. Once again, his extemporaneous and passionate speech, which lasted 35 minutes, brought laughter, cheers, and applause to the room and earned Moore a standing ovation.
Before Moore took the stage, others delivered equally passionate speeches that also brought the crowd to its feet.
Smith STEM School was this year’s convocation host, and Principal Teresa Giolito had the privilege of welcoming the thousand-plus teachers, administrators, and staff to the new school year.
The audience was all smiles as Smith’s choir, under the direction of music teacher Becky Saraceno, performed “When I Grow Up” (from “Matilda – The Musical”) and “Oye.”
Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment Paul Vicinus served as emcee, and highlighted the district’s 45 new teachers, new principals, administrators and department heads, and those in the room with more than 25 years of service.
“Today is about tradition – being part of something larger than ourselves,” Vicinus said.
Board of Education Chair Mark Overmyer-Velazquez thanked the teachers. “Teachers like you are freedom fighters, border crossers,” he said.
Estelle Cohen, who graduated from Smith in June and will begin sixth grade at Bristow on Wednesday, was chosen to deliver “Insights of a Student,” and delighted the audience with her poised and humorous speech. She began by speaking about the animals that enhance the science curriculum, moved on to weather, electronics, and other topics. At the end she challenged teachers with a pop quiz, and before anyone could answer, explained that her whole speech had been “one acrostic-y word” that described Smith: AWESOME.
The former and current Teachers of the Year also have a role during convocation, and 2015-2016 Teacher of the Year Jen Lanese had the role of introducing her successor. The introduction had the crowd rolling as “Swoop” the owl, Aiken’s mascot, danced down the aisle to the tune of “We Are Family,” grabbed 2016-2017 Teacher of the Year Steve O’Brien, and spun him in circles.
Once he recovered, O’Brien relayed a story about a former student who taught him what teaching is really all about at a Special Persons Day years ago. The student asked O’Brien to be his special person. “He taught me that what I had gotten into was not so much academics but human beings,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien said he no longer says he teaches science, or math. “I teach children, and most importantly they teach me,” he said.
“This is the second best day of the year,” Moore announced as he took the stage. The first day of school is the best, he said.
As he often does, Moore used music to set the tone for his presentation. But rather than his customary Bruce Springsteen, Moore showed a video of the song “Better Man” from Pearl Jam. Despite being a brilliant poet and musician, Pearl Jam singer/songwriter Eddie Vedder dropped out of high school, Moore said. He’s an example of someone who hadn’t been reached yet.
Moore reiterated the message he discussed in an interview last week, that time is fleeting and schools should be a safe place, a place of hope and possibility. Every kid deserves a chance.
The highlight of Moore’s speech, however, began with an anecdote that had the crowd roaring with laughter as he recounted a student, early in his career, who told him to “shut up.” When Moore, at a loss for words, said “Excuse me?” to the student, she repeated her statement with an expletive added in.
“It was the only time I ever kicked a kid out of my class in my career,” Moore said. He ran into her a few years later and she gave him a hug, Moore said. For years Moore said he continued telling friends and teachers the story, because he thought everything was okay. Then he ran into the woman last summer, and she was not in good shape, had been on drugs, in rehab, in jail, had multiple children with different fathers.
“I kicked her out. I’m not proud of it at all,” said Moore. “Every child is a miracle, every year is a miracle, and every day we get is a miracle,” he said. “We can be better because our kids deserve it.”
Moore ended his presentation with a touching and humorous video, of some kindergarteners and members of the Conard and Hall classes of 2016 speaking about their career goals, what they want teachers to know about them, and what teachers realized about them that helped them grow.
Between each question, students each said a word: “Thank. You. For. Clearing. My. Path.”
Moore said that he isn’t the inspiration to teachers at convocation, the kids are.
“They need us to be great, which we’ve been. They need us to be better. They need me to be better. I will be. Great things lie ahead for the children of West Hartford, the community that mimics the United States in every way. We’re the people that can show people around the world and around the country that things work here, because we care and we’ll do the right things and we’ll bring kids up and instead of kicking someone out, we’ll pull them in. Don’t kick out, pull in,” Moore said.
“Make sure that this year they’ve got someone that’s walking in front of them, clearing a path, teaching them how to clear paths for others and showing them that they’ve got a great future.”
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