The 2017-2018 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 Superintendent Tom Moore spoke to about 900 teachers from all of the district’s schools who gathered in the auditorium at Conard High School Monday morning for the annual “Celebration of a New Year” convocation, and inspired them to lead in their classrooms, to help West Hartford be a leader for other communities, and most importantly, to ensure that all students know that “this is their land” and they have a “bright future.”
Moore, now beginning his fourth year as superintendent, continued the tradition he started the first year of giving the keynote address at convocation himself rather than hiring an outside speaker as had been the previous tradition. He quipped that this year the budget wouldn’t permit it anyway, but the standing ovation he received at the end of his passionate and extemporaneous speech is testament to Moore’s ability to engage and inspire his audience with a positive message to kick off the new school year.
Before Moore took the stage, an exceptional and lively performance by the Hall Pops ‘n Jazz ensemble, as well as several other entertaining and passionate speeches, also brought the crowd to its feet.
Each year a different school officially hosts convocation, and this year the honor belonged to Hall High School. A saxophone-playing Principal Dan Zittoun welcomed the crowd before the Pops ‘n Jazz musicians, singers, and dancers, under the direction of James Antonucci, Lorri Cetto, Emmett Drake, and Tessa Grunwald, entertained the audience with a rendition of “Sweet Home New Orleans” by Dr. John and “96,000” by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Emcee Gretchen Nelson, director of Pupil Services, told the teachers that convocation, which is the action of calling a people together, is the chance to “remind us of what makes West Hartford Public Schools exceptional.”
It’s an honor that’s earned one year at a time, she said, and returning to school “reminds us of what we do and why we’re here.”
Nelson also recognized the district’s 32 new teachers and new Wolcott Principal Scott Dunn, and the many faculty members in the audience who have more than 25 years of service.
Representing the West Hartford Board of Education was Vice Chair Cheryl Greenberg, who noted that other Board members as well as Mayor Shari Cantor, members of the Town Council, Town Manager Matt Hart, and other officials were in the audience.
Greenberg said that there are serious challenges, which are better faced directly, including the “elephant in the room” which is the state’s fiscal crisis. And although no one can make any assurances about the ultimate level of school funding the town will receive, she said that lawmakers have been “fighting furiously” on behalf of the town.
“Behind all of us are the people of West Hartford. Our town is committed to the high quality of our schools,” she said. “What I do know and what I can promise you is that we will all remain deeply committed to that fight. This is our community, these are our schools, and these schools are at the core of our lives.”
The other and even larger challenge, Greenberg said, is our civic life and democratic values. “You are the line in the sand. You are the role model for the community and the country that we want,” she told the audience. The teachers are the front line for civility, said Greenberg. “In your classroom truth matters, facts matter, evidence matters … we embrace diversity and celebrate community.”
Hall High School incoming senior Josie LaForte was chosen to deliver “Insights of a Student,” and delighted the audience with her speech filled with humorous anecdotes. Those stories, she said, had been gleaned from “eavesdropping on late night conversations” between her parents, a first grade teacher at Morley Elementary School (mom) and an earth science teacher at Hall High School (dad).
One of her mom’s students once told her that “the Illuminati killed Michael Jackson,” LaForte said.
“I learned from my dad that if your lectures on tectonic plate structure are too boring, as his apparently are, they may actually drive certain students to sprint out of the back door of your portable to go chase geese in the pouring rain.”
LaForte also had a more serious message for teachers, about what makes them unique, and it’s that teachers have a different “narrator” – that voice in your head that drives to focus their lives around others.
“I want to sincerely say thank you because you are all teachers all the time,” LaForte said.
Outgoing Teacher of the Year Steve O’Brien had the privilege of introducing his successor, Smith STEM Social Worker Luis Ramirez, a “man who not only cares about the whole child but the child’s family as well,” he said.
O’Brien said that Smith STEM Principal Teresa Giolito says of Ramirez: “Luis is the glue that holds our school together.”
Taking the stage next, was Ramirez, a first-generation American whose parents were born in Cuba. In his speech he paid homage to his mother, now 69 and in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, for the profound impact she has had on his life.
Growing up, Ramirez said, his parents put a lot of trust in teachers but school was never easy for him.
“As new students and families arrive at our doorstep it’s important to remember how intimidating starting over can be,” Ramirez said.
“In the classroom I was that child who was shy and hesitant. I was that child that took longer to build trust. I was that child that was a struggling learner. I was that child who was born first generation American. … whose family was bilingual … that experienced trauma … who doubted himself and struggled with self worth … I was that child who needed dedicated compassionate teachers who would take the time to get to know me, to see me, to see past the challenges to believe in my. I needed all of you,” Ramirez said.
His life experiences and upbringing have taught him so much about himself, and he firmly believes that the important role of educators is to “support the whole child,” Ramirez said.
“I am that educator that will advocate for students or their families when they don’t have a voice,” Ramirez said. “I believe in all of you as you help teach our students and their families so that they have a clear path and a bright future.”
The final words of the day were from Moore, who said he honestly struggled this year as he considered his message to the teachers in the shadow of budget crises and events like Charlottesville.
“How inspiring is a swirling tornado of rage?” Moore asked the audience. He said his wife doesn’t really like “angry Tom” although he does because “that guy gets things done.”
His best self is when he talks of possibilities – who we are and what we stand for, Moore said.
Moore said he kept telling himself he wasn’t going to play music at convocation this year, until he was inspired by his favorite performer, his favorite song, and his favorite performance: Bruce Springsteen’s 1985 version of Woody Guthrie’s 1940s anthem, “This Land is Your Land,” a video of which was played for the audience.
Woody Guthrie first published the song in 1944, Moore said, but he wrote it during the rise of Nazism in 1940. Springsteen’s version included a verse that’s not usually sung in the schools:
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?
“We shouldn’t have to wonder,” Moore said.
When he saw what happened in Charlottesville, Moore said that the thing that got to him the most was the neo-Nazis marching by torchlight, chanting, “‘Whose streets? Our streets’ angrily on Thomas Jefferson’s campus.”
“It’s not ‘their streets.’ This land is our land,” Moore said. “The Beatles were wrong. All you need isn’t love. Love’s nice. I’m in favor of it, but education’s it.”
Moore shared a story of a brilliant former student in one of his AP European History classes who had been “taught to hate” by his parents. Moore’s approach was to teach him, to debate him, to “battle for his soul,” an effort that included a trip to Dachau when the class went to Europe.
“I’m 99 percent sure it worked,” Moore said, and that’s the battle we have every day.
“It’s why we can’t settle. It’s why we can’t be depressed because it’s too easy to be depressed,” Moore said, quoting Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech from exactly 55 years ago: “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.”
“Our kids can’t afford for us to let a budget battle depress us,” Moore said.
This year, Moore said, is the time to focus not just on the “clear paths” and “no limits” but on the “bright futures” that all students deserve. “I, you, all of us need to be peddlers of hope, but we’ve got to walk the walk and talk the talk … kids can’t lose hope.”
Greatness makes things possible, Moore said, and the budget crisis and Charlottesville are waking people up. “Good enough simply isn’t good enough anymore.”
Moore said that when he became superintendent he thought his role would be to elevate West Hartford in the eyes of others so we would be recognized as the greatest district in the United States.
“I don’t need other people to tell us what we are. We’re going to tell them. West Hartford will lead,” Moore said. The town mimics America with people of all types, 70 languages spoken in the schools.
“And we will lead and you will lead and we will be that example for this state of how things should be done … We will be the example for this country of how people can get along.”
West Hartford teachers acknowledge and understand that all students are special, and Moore said we will make sure that “they’re never a marcher in Charlottesville or whatever takes its place, things that should be in the dustbin of history and are now in the news.”
“We can do it – bright futures, bright futures,” Moore said. Every child should believe they’re perfect no matter what their flaws.
“Make sure that everyone knows that this land is all of our land … the time is now for you to be great.”
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