Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore was the keynote speaker at Monday’s convocation.
By Ronni Newton
There was no shortage of applause and there were several standing ovations as one speaker after another delivered “TED Talk” quality inspirational speeches at the annual convocation ceremony Monday at Conard High School, kicking off the new school year for West Hartford Public School’s teachers.
A different school hosts convocation each year and for 2015 the role was awarded to Bristow Middle School. After Bristow Principal Steven Cook welcomed the audience of teachers, administrators, Town Council and Board of Education representatives, 39 members of the Bristow Middle School Players delighted the audience with a rousing performance of “Oh the Thinks You Can Think” from the musical “Suessical Jr.” – followed by the morning’s first standing ovation.
Director for Continuing Education and Diversity Enhancement Roszena Haskins served as emcee for convocation and said that after nine years, she still gets those first-day butterflies. She warmly welcomed everyone, highlighting the district’s 40 new hires, 35 others who have transitioned from interim or long-term substitute positions into permanent roles, and those who have been teaching in West Hartford for 25 years or more.
Bruce Putterman spoke on behalf of the Board of Education, from which he will retire this fall after a 12-year tenure.
Putterman outlined his 10 predictions for West Hartford Public Schools – which he said really are his “hopes or challenges.” Fair evaluations, embracing equity, and taking inclusiveness to the next level were on the list, as were as some items that Putterman admitted would be controversial such as adopting a later start time for high school students and – one which he knew would inspire commentary from Superintendent Tom Moore: “Football, as we know it, will cease to be offered in high school … and not just in West Hartford.”
“West Hartford will continue to be the best district in which to teach in Connecticut … and that is the prediction I am most confident in making,” Putterman said to a round of applause.
“All of my teachers have impacted my life,” said student speaker Isabella Guajardo-Moore, a graduate of Bristow who will begin her freshman year of high school at Conard on Wednesday. She thanked all the teachers in the room for being role models, and urged them, if they ever question themselves, to remember what motivated them to become teachers and refer back to it.
Brittney Zieller, West Hartford’s 2014-2015 Teacher of the Year, officially turned over the reins to successor Jen Lanese, an English teacher at Hall.
Lanese explained, in a humor-filled speech that kept the audience laughing, two of the principles which guide her teaching and her life: “If we keep our minds and hearts open we can learn from the young people around us” and “If we’re not enjoying ourselves and each other we’re doing something wrong.”
Tom Moore, beginning his second year as superintendent, reprised his role as keynote speaker – speaking passionately for 45 minutes without any notes.
As expected, the former football coach could not resist ribbing Putterman about his football comment but said that truthfully he appreciates Putterman because he asks the tough questions.
“I’ve got some hard questions myself,” Moore told the audience. “Now if you could take out your cellphones – words I never said as a teacher,” said Moore as he began an interactive presentation focused on several questions about the current state of the world.
As Moore expected, the majority of the audience responded with pessimistic answers regarding population growth, literacy, and natural disasters.
When the Q&A was over, Moore gave out the correct answers, which in most cases less than 10 percent of the audience had chosen. The right answers were not all doom and gloom.
“What does this all mean? They actually asked a chimp these questions and 33 percent got them right,” Moore said. “What do chimps have that you don’t? They don’t listen to the news … they just run with it,” Moore said.
“America’s pretty great, we’re pretty successful … but we like to think things aren’t so good. Why?” Moore asked.
He brought up the “type of birth” question that appeared on a kindergarten questionnaire – an issue that created controversy and placed West Hartford in the national spotlight after it was brought to light by parent Cara Paiuk this summer.
Following the media circus that resulted, Moore said, “I got disturbing phone calls asking me about my socialist beliefs, not in the most polite way, mind you.”
Moore said it made him realize, “I’m blaming the media all the time. It’s not the media’s fault, it’s our fault. They know what we want. They know what works,” Moore said.
“Sometimes we seek the easy answers. Sometimes we don’t want to think. You’re at the vanguard of creating thinkers. That’s your job,” Moore told the audience.
“It keeps coming back to are we teaching problem solving, are we teaching thinking, are we teaching bold ideas, are we teaching questioning?” Moore asked.
“Our kids are too special for us to just let ‘okay’ be good enough … to let them accept what they hear, to let them believe how bad things are, how bad their futures are. The great thing about teaching is that you get to be an optimist because you live it,” said Moore.
“We will not be a district that is driven by test scores. We will be informed by them,” said Moore. “Great kids aren’t defined by a piece of paper.”
At the same time, Moore said, “Every child deserves a great teacher.” That includes those who are hard to teach. “Let me worry about the white noise; you worry about your child.”
“I need you to be great – those parents need you to be great,” Moore said. West Hartford is on the precipice of being “the” district nationally, he said.
Moore said that the great thing about West Hartford parents is that they won’t leave us alone – they demand the best. “In West Hartford they’ll cut me before they’ll cut music,” he said. “I literally mean cut me.”
Moore’s central theme for this speech – inspired by U2’s song “Bad” (rather than Bruce Springsteen, from whom Moore usually gets inspiration he said): “The new year’s starting, it’s time to wake up, it’s time to wake kids up … wake them up, make them think.”
“Wake up, think, don’t accept the messages, make your kids think, think about who they can be … you can clear their paths, you can make sure they have bright futures, you can get take away all those limits that people want to put on them. You are their miracle.”
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