The 2022-2023 academic year officially began Monday for teachers in West Hartford Public Schools with a lively and inspiring convocation.
By Ronni Newton
The past three school years have been dominated by the pandemic, but when West Hartford Public Schools teachers kicked off the 2022-2023 academic year with convocation on Monday morning, the heartfelt messages inspired optimism for a renewed sense of normalcy.
Convocation – the “Celebration of a New Year” – is traditionally held annually, on the day teachers return to work. It’s held in the district’s largest space, the auditorium of Conard High School, which is 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 Aiken Elementary School, whose choir led off the ceremony with music.
The last time convocation was held in person was Aug. 26, 2019.
“One thousand ninety-eight. That’s the number of days since we have been together in this auditorium celebrating the start of the new year,” remarked Aiken Principal Shannon Mlodzinski, who welcomed the audience, noting how much the world has changed in the past 1,098 days, and the professional and personal challenges that all have experienced.
West Hartford teachers have taught from home, over a computer, on a computer concurrently with students in the classroom, with a mask, and with social distancing. “Every one of you is a rock star,” Mlodzinski said.
The commitment to students has not wavered, she said.
“This year I challenge you to move forward with hope and joy. Take the time to learn each child’s story and appreciate the traits that make them unique,” she advised. “If our students feel safe, seen, and valued, everything else falls into place.”
There are 1,217 hours, or 73,020 minutes in the school year, she said, to make a difference. “The clock starts Wednesday. I wish you a wonderful year ahead.”
Director of Pupil Services Melissa Caballero served as emcee, welcoming teachers – including the 70-plus new teachers – members of the Board of Education who were in attendance, several Town Council members, Mayor Shari Cantor, Town Manager Rick Ledwith, state Sen. Derek Slap, and state Reps. Tammy Exum and Kate Farrar. She also acknowledged teachers with 20, 25, 30, and 35 years or more of service.
Caballero said this is her 19th year in education, and she still remembers her first convocation and the pride she felt, and how she immediately felt swept up in the excitement and excellence. “I can tell you that I left that day feeling inspired.”
While “convocation” means a large formal assembly of people, “in education ‘convocation’ is so much more. It’s the dawn of the new year, our new start, the reset,” Caballero said. Ahead is a road of endless possibilities, “and each of you here represents the hope and optimism for our students.”
Board of Education Chair Lorna Thomas-Farquharson, using the metaphor of a boat in a storm, said the experience of COVID reminded everyone of how vulnerable they can be.
“We may not all have been in the same boat, however, we were certainly were all in the same storm,” she said. “Whether your boat is characterized as a sailboat, a tugboat, a deck boat, a dingy, a ferry, a lifeboat, a houseboat, a yacht, an inflatable boat, a utility boat, a day boat, or some other type of boat, we were all trying to keep afloat in the same storm.”
All were impacted, and while striving to keep afloat, “operating through a lens of equity has always and will continue to be of great importance to us,” Thomas-Farquharson said. And while we have come mostly through the storm, “we still must remain cautiously optimistic” about the purpose of teaching the youth.
Children may not always be good at listening to their elders, “but they have never failed to imitate them,” said Thomas-Farquharson, quoting James Baldwin. “Our youth are watching what we do … they’re learning from us,” and it’s important for the adults to properly model how to live, how to learn, and the importance of self care.
The West Hartford Public Schools’ motto is “clear paths, bright future, no limits,” she said, and “clear” is a verb that all must play a role in helping to achieve.
“The start of this school year is more than just the start of something,” Thomas-Farquharson said. “It is so significant because of all that we have been through as a community. We are here at this time and we thank you.”
Before introducing the current Teacher of the Year, Bristow language arts teacher Chelsea Smith, Teacher of the Year for 2021-2022, also shared a few thoughts. She said that during the hybrid year she created a new character, donning a colorful wig and putting on her “Staten Island accent” in order to engage students, to make them laugh.
“What I do know is that being just a little bit ridiculous got me through some pretty tough moments,” Smith said, and has started looking for the “ridiculous and silly” in her colleagues as well.
She said that Smith STEM first grade teacher Michele Haggerty, the 2022-2023 Teacher of the Year, is an “extremely magical and memorable educator” who is well known to bring a smile to students’ and colleagues’ faces, and who will often break out into song or dance.
Haggerty shared some touching anecdotes and experiences from her personal and professional life. She spoke of what she learned over the summer, including messages in the book “What Happened to You” that really resonated – “how connectedness has the power to counterbalance adversity, and the capacity to love is at the core of the success of humankind.”
When a student feels heard, she said, they feel like they matter. “You never know what someone else is dealing with.”
Haggerty was displaced from her home for months after a storm caused their oil tank to spill its contents into their basement, has seen her father battle heart problems and cancer, and has lost several good friends to cancer in recent years. When her best friend from graduate school and former roommate died of cancer at age 46 a month ago, she was grieving, and a week later, while on a run, she listened as her Peloton instructor shared an inspiring story.
A psychology professor held up a glass of water and asked how much it weighed, and after guesses ranging from 8 ounces to several pounds said the weight itself is not what’s important, it depends on how long you hold it. “Your stresses and worries in life are very much like this glass of water. Think about them for a short while and nothing happens. Think about them a little longer and an ache begins to happen. Think about them all day long and you’ll feel completely numb and paralyzed. … It’s important to remember to let go of your stresses and worries,” she said.
“When your burdens feel too heavy, remember to put the glass down,” Haggerty said, wishing the teachers an incredible school year.
Himani Namuduri, an incoming fifth grader at Aiken Elementary School who has attended the school since kindergarten, was chosen to provide the “Insights of a Student.”
She said her dad “is the coolest person on earth,” her mom is an amazing cook who should be a chef, and her brother “has the cutest smile in the world and gives the best hugs.”
Her families cherish both American and Indian cultural traditions, she said, and “the most important things my parents have taught me is to be kind, helpful, respectful, and to learn hard.” That’s how she has approached her time at Aiken, and she has even finally learned to keep her desk neat.
“I am now excited for fifth grade,” she said, and while she doesn’t know who her new friends might be, what interests she may discover, or what challenges she may face, “I know that at school I will be supported and encouraged in the same way as at home.”
She thanked the teachers for keeping her safe and helping her learn. “Thank you for doing your best for students. I know that everything you are doing is making a difference in our lives,” Himani said.
Interim Superintendent Andy Morrow closed out Monday’s convocation with his own message and a video montage of messages from students in every grade from throughout the district.
“I really do hope that this is the first step in what will be a more normal school year for all,” Morrow said.
His own children, who both graduated from Conard, are now out of the house – one a zookeeper and the other in college in Scotland. He thanked the teachers for challenging them and helping them achieve their goals.
In discussing their empty nest status over the weekend, Morrow said his wife said, “‘As a parent you’re only as happy as your saddest child,’ and if you think about it that really kind of resonates,” not only as a dad but also as an educator who needs to embrace those who are struggling.
“A long time ago, before spending the last few years sending you depressing, almost nightly, COVID updates … I was an English teacher. So for me the world makes sense in terms of stories, with both heroes and villains as a way of framing lives and framing history.”
Each student has a life to create and a story to tell, full of optimism and hope, he said. “You get the chance each day to be the hero for your students, and this is an incredible and really intimidating responsibility,” with the power to raise someone up.
“Most importantly we get to help students be the heroes of their own stories as they grow and make choices for their own lives. None of us get to choose our beginnings, but we do get to choose our path, and we can help students choose adventure, we can help them choose greatness, and we can help them toward a life filled with purpose and achievement,” Morrow said.
While this year will still involve unwinding from the pandemic, and struggles will continue with much work ahead, “but I know that we have a great team in place and I know that our brightest days are ahead of us.” He said the best tool is the relationships between teachers and students, and between fellow teachers.
“Never doubt for a minute that you matter, and that you make a difference each day in your student’s lives and their stories.”
The students only have one first day of kindergarten, of middle school, of senior year. “Our students are ready to start new adventure and they need you to help them tell their stories and be heroes,” Morrow said.
“I’m ready, are you?” … for bigger books, harder math problems, singing, addressing equity, learning who they are, helping each other, making new friends … was the message embedded in the words of students who appeared in a 5-minute video Morrow shared. The complete video can be viewed below via YouTube.
“These are our kids. They’re ready for a great year, and I know that you’re ready to meet them,” Morrow said. “It’s an amazing privilege to be a teacher, to do what we love each and every day. It’s an incredible honor to do it here in West Hartford and with these kids. Thank you and let’s have a great year.”
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