The 2023-2024 academic year officially began Monday for teachers in West Hartford Public Schools with a lively and inspiring convocation.
By Ronni Newton
Everything about Monday morning’s convocation – the official start of the new academic year for West Hartford Public Schools teachers – was imbued with energy and enthusiasm.
It started with teachers being “clapped in” by administrators as they entered the doors of Conard High School. While it’s new for convocation, “clapping in” by teachers is a tradition that started at Conard several years ago when students arrive at on the first day of school.
Convocation – the “Celebration of a New Year” – is traditionally held annually on the day teachers return to work. It’s held at Conard – which is the district’s largest space – and as usual the auditorium was filled to capacity with teachers and administrators from all of the schools. While physically at Conard, other district schools take turns hosting the event, and this year the honor fell to Bristow Middle School, with Voices of Bristow and Bristow Bows jointly kicking off the ceremony with inspiring music.
The two-hour ceremony passed by in a flash, with entertaining and meaningful messages found in the music – “For Good” from “Wicked” and “Try Everything” – and from each of the speakers.
Each received rousing applause, and a standing ovation.
Paul Vicinus – who was appointed superintendent last spring – also introduced the district’s new tagline: “Every Child. Every Day.” Building on the previous tagline of “Clear Paths. Bright Futures. No Limits,” the motto is intended not just to create new energy, but to focus efforts on the students without surrendering to the very real problems caused by and during the pandemic.
“We must be committed to every child and rededicate that commitment every day,” Vicinus said. “It’s too easy to forget that good intentions are not good enough.”
Bristow Principal Chad Ellis offered a welcome, providing a historical anecdote about a young boy’s first day of school in the 1980s, heading off on the bus with his prized brand new “He-Man” lunchbox, a note inside from mom infusing the lunch with her love.
“At the time no one would know that the child would fall in love with school,” Ellis said about what was his first day of school 41 years ago.
“That moment is happening right now,” said Ellis, for the students about to embark on their first days. “We have the greatest charge and the greatest responsibility,” he said, “to each and every child, every day.”
Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment Anne McKernan was emcee for this year’s Convocation, welcoming everyone, including the “65 new teachers who joined us as recently as yesterday.” She also welcomed the members of the Board of Education, Town Council, Mayor Shari Cantor, Town Manager Rick Ledwith, state representatives, and Office of Early Childhood Commissioner Beth Bye who were in the audience.
Reflecting on the musical performances by Bristow, McKernan said they “really hit that one out of the park” choosing songs with the message that “every relationship we have changes us” and “nobody learns without getting it wrong some of the time.”
Board of Education Chair Lorna Thomas-Farquharson said it’s so special to be among the “educators, administrators, and support staff who have once again committed to serving in the most precious position – that being working with our young people” from Generation X as well as Generation Alpha.
“Our current and future leaders – you all play instrumental roles in helping to educate and having them grow,” she said, and each will be spending at least 1,171 hours this year with the West Hartford Public Schools students.
Thomas-Farquharson also noted that the district is “grounded by a lens of equity,” and thanked the teachers for rising up to support and inspire all of the youth in the district – “regardless of what they look like, how they identify, or who they chose love” to prepare them for the world at large.
Michele Haggerty, the outgoing Teacher of the Year, introduced Emily McMurray, a Pre-K teacher at Charter Oak International Academy who was named the 2023-2024 Teacher of the Year.
Haggerty said Charter Oak Principal Georgina Rivera described McMurray by the letters of her name: E – empathetic; M – mindful; I – intelligent; L – learner-centered; and Y – young at heart. Her colleagues note that McMurray holds high expectations, fully embraces “play-based learning,” and is much more than a teacher. “She is all in, all day, every day.”
McMurray has taught at four different West Hartford schools, and is proud of the expansion of the preschool and early learning opportunities in the district.
“In the preschool classroom, we are planting seeds of learning in rich soil, and children are growing roots that will give them a strong foundation for their school experience,” McMurray said. As she went through college, she said she came to believe that teaching young children was the best way she could have the greatest impact.
“Preschool is magical, powerful, and the field of early childhood has so very much to share with other educators,” McMurray said.
“Here in West Hartford we have the vision of the graduate, the attributes we hope all students possess when they complete high school – problem solving, self-efficacy, determination, a love of learning, effective communication are just some of these skills,” she said. “One must look no further than a play-based classroom to see all of these skills being nurtured.”
Cultivating connection, a sense of belonging, is the most important role as educators, McMurray told the audience.
“Our chosen profession is not easy, and yet there is something so special about teaching … We have a new opportunity every single day to do better, create stronger connection, impact a child, a family, or even a colleague,” she said, wishing everyone a great school year before sharing a video of preschoolers that she said would definitely help them start the year “with a song in your heart.”
Each year a student from the host school is chosen to offer “Insights of a Student,” and this year the honor went to Jahniah Richards – an extremely energetic and spirited incoming seventh-grader at Bristow who moved to West Hartford from Manchester in fifth grade with a reputation for dancing at any and every opportunity.
Jahniah shared some of her life lessons, beginning with lesson No. 1: “All teachers are amazing.”
Her other lessons included: “Friendships can help change your life. … At first I didn’t want to go to Bristow, I wanted to go to Sedgwick with all my friends,” she said. “So sad … but I just shook it off and became closer to someone who was going to Bristow. I realized that I was meant to go and thank goodness because I love it here.”
Her other lessons included that she thinks she actually likes math, reading isn’t as bad as you think, and when you feel stressed or anxious “shake it off … dance!” To the tune of “Shake it Off,” Jahniah demonstrated her original choreography, which included a round-off, and had the entire auditorium clapping along.
“Whether a soldier or a school leader, Paul lives our vision of the graduate. He leads with honor and integrity. He has a deep respect for all people with whom he comes in contact, but he knows that respect has to start with yourself,” said McKernan as she introduced Vicinus – who had the difficult job of following Jahniah with his first formal remarks as superintendent.
Vicinus has spent his entire educational career in West Hartford, a place that he said has “always felt like home, always felt like family.”
He expressed his pride at representing the district, and said he is “in awe of the power and potential of this group to change lives, to inspire passion, to realize dreams, to bring hope, and to strengthen and better our world. That is our business and that is our charge – to do so for every child, every day,” he said, sharing the district’s new motto.
West Hartford is exceptionally lucky to be a high performing district, with an exceptional staff that works very hard to clear paths for students, but there are challenges, said Vicinus. “We cannot be complacent with our successes unless and until we can celebrate every child.”
Since the pandemic there has been an increase in chronic absenteeism, disregulation, and lack of focus, “but there are grave differences between recognition of these challenges and surrendering to them,” he said, calling for patience and resilience.
“It begins with all of you … it lives within our ability to create a welcoming environment that promotes belonging through deliberate and thoughtful planning,” said Vicinus. It’s important to create that environment for all students, he added, because not everyone experiences or perceives things the same way.
“Our equity vision statement speaks of demonstrating value and honor all within our community. We vow to clear paths with a relentless duty to those in traditionally marginalized groups,” to close the opportunity gaps for English language learners, those with specialized learning needs, and the socio-economically disadvantaged.
“Our mission – to prepare and inspire all students. All students. Every child. That’s what it takes. It’s no small feat, no small effort. In fact it’s Herculean, but it’s possible,” said Vicinus.
With the dedication and motivation in the room, he said, “We can get there … we will get there … they will get there … If we work together with a clear vision, a song in our heart, and love for this family, then we can make a difference for every child, every day.”
It’s been a number of years since Convocation has included a guest speaker, but Vicinus said after reading Ken Williams‘ book “Ruthless Equity: Disrupt the Status Quo and Ensure Learning for ALL Students,” he was inspired to invite Williams to address the teachers.
Williams is known for including “heart, humor, and hammer” in his presentation, Vicinus said as he introduced the former principal from Georgia and Maryland who is known for transforming challenging schools and is a paradigm-shifter and an “unapologetic identifier of elephants in the room.”
In his dynamic presentation, Williams engaged with the audience, asking teachers to share their perspectives of a video of coaches discussing how to inspire their team, and asking for input from basketball coaches about the most important initial take-aways they could give their players.
“There are factors in our national school system that work against you,” Williams told the audience. Teachers shouldn’t be pitied for the difficult jobs they do every day, and they should not make excuses.
He urged the teachers not to deny the existence of pandemic learning loss, but at the same time not to “lean in” on that as an excuse. “You cannot be a victim and an advocate at the same time,” he said.
Williams said he doesn’t believe in fearlessness. “I believe you fear, and you work through it.”
The primary message Williams shared: “You start with the crown, not with the kid.”
Equity, he said, is not a racial construct. He said the only equity he is interested in is the “one that moves the needle.”
When he was teaching and would get a folder with information about the students in his class, he said he didn’t want to focus on what had been previously identified as each kids’ “problems.” All he said needed to know was if there were allergies and any custody issues.
Williams cautioned against what he calls “selequity” – selective equity, which is full of passion and purpose “without having to do the work – and “cosmequity,” which looks good but also doesn’t focus on the crown, the goal. Coaches, he said, start with the crown.
“Coaches don’t dumb down, coaches grow up,” Williams said. There aren’t excuses made for race, or behavior, or socio-economic status. Coaches understand equity, he said, and grow kids toward the crown.
“There’s just one crown, and we’ve gotten away from that … There’s Plan A, and Plan A only, baby,” said Williams.
The equity question is how to get the students there, he said. And while there are racists and bigots, he said, “I’m more afraid of the group that has love in their hearts but lowered their standards because of heartbreak.”
Ruthless equity, Williams said, is not about denying that challenging conditions exist, but about not putting too much weight on them. “Our work is about defying the data,” he said, because otherwise expectations start off lowered.
Start with the strength of those in the building, lean into the collective knowledge of colleagues, and understand that each year is a blank state – tabula rasa.
“The standards got to be the standards,” he said. “Don’t lead with the demographics,” he urged, because that’s not doing anyone any favors.
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