About “developing”: Teacher evaluation

I’m a life-long fan of the New York football Giants.  We’ve had season tickets in my family since 1963 when my dad and my uncle bought a pair of tickets to see them play at Yankee Stadium.   My brothers and I grew up taking the subway to games with my dad to watch the Giants lose every other week to one or another NFC rival (usually the Redskins).  But I try not to let my football passion get in the way of spending time with my family on a Sunday. download Like many other fans, instead of watching games live, I DVR the game and watch it later.  Problem is, it’s hard to avoid somebody telling you the score before you’ve had a chance to watch the game.  I try to impose a media blackout on my friends and family but often the score finds you in the least likely places.  Cab drivers, priests, store clerks, dry cleaners… am I the ONLY one who taped the game!?  It’s difficult to enjoy the game when you already know the score.  In fact, when I know the final score, I rarely bother to watch it.  


This has me thinking about the latest iteration of the plan for evaluation of teachers in New York State, Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR).  Here’s an oversimplified explanation of APPR.   Each school district adopted a research-based rubric that is used as a criteria to provide teachers with feedback on their performance during formal observations.  An administrator, the observer, visits the teacher a designated number of times (usually two for tenured teachers) and highlights indicators on the rubric for teaching elements in the standard in one of four rated categories: highly effective, effective, developing and ineffective (HEDI).  The administrator notes evidence to support the ratings.   Ideally this is a supportive process, a conversation between two professionals who are knowledgeable about teaching and learning.    


A snapshot of the NYSUT Rubric

This year, a small but significant change was made to the regulations that is a potential game-changer, and not in the good way!  In past years, observations were not scored, there was no number attached to these performance levels or to the final observation. Elements were highlighted: ineffective – developing – effective – highly effective; but there was no number attached.  Commencing this year every teacher observation receives a score between 1-4.  So each of these individual elements is assigned a number (not all elements must receive a score, some may be “not observed”) and these are added up and averaged to arrive at a score for each formal observation.  Essentially, every formal observation is reduced to a number between 1-4.  So a lesson could be rated a 2.73, 3.47, 3.97, or even a 4.0.  


This is a problem for several reasons:  


  • Scores are reductive.  The complexity of learning (and teaching) cannot be reduced to a single number.  Teaching is an art, and a science.  The teaching and learning process should not be reduced to a number.  Numbers oversimplify.  Nobody wants to be reduced to a number.  When I get dressed for work, I might ask my wife how I look in my suit, but I don’t want her to rate me with a number between 1-4 (and vice versa).  


  •  Scores interfere with innovation.  Think about sports, teams play more conservatively when they are protecting a lead.   If I know I’m getting a score, I’m going to stick with my strengths and avoid taking risks, after all, “I gotta get a 4!”  


  • Scores denote competition, winning and losing.  Learning is not about competition.  I want to get better; I want everyone around me to always become better.  That’s what learning means, we acquire new knowledge and skills and we become better. Teachers shouldn’t find themselves thinking about whether or not their score is higher or lower than the score of the teacher in the room next to them.  We should all be rowing with the same set of oars in the same direction.


The challenge for school leaders in this system is to forge relationships with teachers in which there is a path that leads to everyone getting better.  I am not certain whether this will occur through the APPR process or in spite of it, but I am confident that leaders and staff who are committed to what’s best for kids will find a way.


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About professional development: EdCamp is the better way!

Here’s a confession, I’ve been responsible for some pretty horrible professional development (PD).  When I think about the faculty meetings I ran when I was a new principal, I am embarrassed.  Often, my faculty meetings were the Don Gately Show.  I like to think it’s a pretty good show (my wife’s not complaining).   I tried to sprinkle in the occasional joke or amusing anecdote, but my approach was deeply flawed.  Teachers had little choice in participating; they were required, by contract, to be there. If the topic was not meeting their needs, they had to wait until I was done to complain about me in the parking lot.  I surely was never the smartest person in the room; the smartest people in the room didn’t get a chance to share their expertise because I didn’t create a structure for them to do so.  

And, oh the PowerPoints, I ‘loved me some PowerPoints’.   I relied on this magical Microsoft tool like a crutch. As an assistant principal I was an eaedcamplirly adopter so I remember a time when I could dazzle my faculty with animations and wiggly text. The principal would sometimes ask me, “Don, can you do that PowerPoint thing for the faculty meeting?”  I’d beam with pride! But like the hack magician sawing the lady in half, it took a while for me to let go of that thrilling trick.  There are teachers out there with handouts I foisted upon them at faculty meetings, three slides to a page (so they could take notes?!), 107 slides in all.  If I am ever considered for appointment as education commissioner, some journalist will dig these handouts up and my career will come to a screeching halt.  


Fortunately, due to a combination of factors, I’ve gotten better at faculty meetings.  Through experience, research, learning from others, better principals and maybe just because I got sick of listening to MYSELF, my faculty meetings have become improved settings for learning, at least I hope so.

I’ve done some bad PD, but so have many of my colleagues, both in the administrative AND the teaching ranimages-2ks!  It’s staff development like this that has created the need for EdCamp.  Above I described a formula for “How NOT to contribute to teachers’ learning.” EdCamp upends all of these approaches.

At EdCamp, participants choose the sessions they are going to join; in fact, attendees decide the topics to facilitate on the day of the event, there are no preset subjects or scheduled workshops. At EdCamp, you’re not stuck in a room.  Governed by the law of two feet, if the session you decided to attend is not meeting your needs, feel free to get up and go someplace else. EdCamp is free.   Breakfast and lunch is provided by sponsors who care about education and want to contribute to innovative professional learning models that improve learning for kids as their teachers share and bring ideas back to the classroom.  EdCamp’s eschew the “sit and git” model of PD, relying more on conversation than presentation; ‘sorry Don, leave your Power Point and handouts at home’ (sniff sniff).  Everyone has a voice and so we get to hear from the smartest people in the room – commonly referred to as the room itself.  They take place on Saturdays so everyone who attends an EdCamp WANTS to be there.  Participants are committed to learning, sharing and connecting with others who share their passion for getting better!

So, that was a quick pitch for EdCamp!!  You’re no doubt energized to find and attend an EdCamp. As luck would have it, this Saturday, October 1,  is the third annual EdCamp Long Island. Over 700 people have already registered to attend but there’s room for 700 more.  Join us at Berner Middle School in Massapequa on Saturday morning at 8 AM, register here.


We’re re-inventing professional development… join us!!  

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About learning: It’s like riding a bike, but first you have to learn

I am trying to teach my five-year-old, Juliet, how to ride a bicycle.  I know the way to teach a kid to ride a bike, the right way to do it. You seat them on the bike, you get them going, then give them a big push and let go. I’ve done research and found this to be the best way and I’ve successfully used it to teach four of Juliet’s siblings to ride.




But with Juliet I made a mistake that many parents make when they teach their kids; I tried to push her too fast, too soon. The problem is, my daughter is different than my other kids.  Of course, they’re all different.  She took a couple of falls and now she doesn’t want to get back on that bicycle. . She has said this, “Daddy, I don’t want to do it, I’m scared.”  I try to reason with her but she just reasons right back at me, “You don’t understand, why would I do it if I’m scared?  There’s no reason to try to like things that are scary.  It doesn’t make sense.”


And we go back-and-forth… but I still haven’t gotten her back on the two wheeler. This is a problem for me because, as anyone who knows me will tell you, I have a genuine passion for bicycles and bicycle riding.  The bicycle is my favorite thing.  I’ve written about it on this blog several times.


I made the mistake that we make sometimes as teachers; I forgot how difficult it might be for someone to learn the thing that I’m most passionate about. As an English teacher I did this too. I took for granted that my students knew how to do things that for me had become second nature.  I love to read. I’ve been reading for a long time. In fact I have a Master of Arts in English literature. I’m so passionate about reading and writing that I forget how difficult it was for me to learn to do these things when I was a child myself.  I would assume that my students could do things that I hadn’t prepared them to do.


There’s an expression, it’s like learning to ride a bike, once you can do it, you never forget how. This is true about many things in our lives, not just bike riding.  Cooking an egg, sinking a lay-up, writing in cursive… are all skills that we remember how to do long after we’ve learned how.  What gets lost in this idiom however is the fact that we once didn’t know how to ride a bike, we had to learn.  Cycling involves a complex series of minute adjustments and corrections:  slight right, slight left, left, right, slight right again, turn right, turn right again, left again and again… you can’t even explain it in words.   Once we know how to do it, we don’t even notice what we’re doing while we’re pedaling forward. If we have to think about it, we’re not going to be able to ride the bike. There is a well-known experiment  in which a welder altered the geometry of a bicycle’s steering in such a way that turning right made the bike go left and vice versa, nobody was able to ride the thing.   The algorithm to riding a bike is extremely complicated.


This has implications for teachers:


  • We need to be prepared for the fact that students are not going to learn the first time out what it is they’ve been taught. For every lesson, teachers need to ask, “What are the common misconceptions in this concept?   Where are students going to encounter confusion?  What are the potential challenges?” And the teacher must prepare for these obstacles.


  • Teaching is not telling. I can talk to Juliet all I want about cycling, but if I don’t find a way to get her back on the bike to try it again, she’s not going to learn.  We learn by doing things.  The teacher’s job is to CAUSE learning by creating conditions and activities through which this will occur.


  • We need to communicate to students that they empathize with them and that they are attuned to their learning difficulties. It’s you and me against the curriculum. I’m going to do everything I can in my power to make it easier for you, to make it accessible to you.


  • All kids are different.  They all learn differently and demonstrate their learning in diverse ways.  Just as each of my own five kids is unique, each of the 25 kids in front of us in class is an individual with their own readiness levels and ways of learning.  We must constantly examine our impact and adjust our teaching according to the needs of our students.

I’m not sure how long it’ll take me to get Juliet back on that bicycle but my passion is going to feed my persistence to get her to try again.  Riding a bike is just too awesome for us to give up!




Posted in Best Practice, Reflections, Teaching/Learning | 7 Comments

About Muhammad Ali: Let your kids rebel … a little

Our most enduring memories are forged during our middle school years.  I was very saddened by the passing this year of former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali.  I feel like I grew up with Ali.    I was ten when The Fight of the Century was fought between Ali and Joe Frazier, the reigning heavyweight champ of the world.  It was the first time that two undefeated boxers fought each other for the heavyweight title.  An undefeated Ali had won the title from Sonny Liston in 1964, and defended his title successfully until he had it stripped by boxing authorities for rejecting induction into the armed forces in 1967.  Ali was protesting the Vietnam War and asserting his new-found Muslim faith.   There was civil rights significance to Ali’s stand as well.  In many of his remarks at this time, Ali clearly linked his refusal to go to Vietnam to the black civil rights movement.  


Ali defeats Liston for the title.

Most of the kids in my class were rooting for Frazier.  It was natural that you would do that in my neighborhood at this time.  All of our parents had served in the Armed Forces.  My father had been in the Army, his two brothers served in the Navy, my mother’s brothers were in the Navy and the Army.  So our parents took a dim view of Mohammed Ali’s refusal to serve his country in the armed forces.  They called him a traitor.  Joe Frazier was never in the military because he had a wife and kids but he said that he would have served if he’d been drafted.  Frazier represented a hard-hitting, working-class sort of individual from Philadelphia with whom our parents felt an affinity.  But I decided I was going to root for Mohammed Ali.  


I wish I could say I backed Ali because of civil rights ideals or opposition to the Vietnam war, but this would not be true.  At 11 years old I was not a civil rights activist.  I was however, perhaps for the first time in my life, willing to assert myself against adults and against other kids.  I even bet another kid in my class a dollar that Ali would win.


This is what middle school kids do.  They find ways to assert their independence.  It is perfectly natural for them to do so.  In fact, this is one of the defining characteristics of adolescence.  If your children don’t try to test boundaries, establish interests and relationships of their own, that is when you should worry that maybe you’re doing something wrong as a parent.  The middle school years are when kids begin to rebel in their style, their music, and their interests.  Everything is open to critique because young adolescents need to put some space between themselves and us!  


As it turns out, Ali lost that fight to Frazier.  I still owe that kid the dollar I bet but…. I felt good that I’d asserted my independence.   In fact, I think even my dad was proud of me.  One of my brothers tattled on me to him,  “He’s not for Frazier, what do you think of that?”  My dad replied, “What does it matter, Donald can root for anybody he wants.”  He understood something about adolescence.  There are perfectly acceptable ways for our children to assert their independence and as adults we should encourage this.  Most grownups can distinguish between reasonable rebellion and dangerous decision-making in their kids.  Let your kids make mistakes and choose their own paths so that they can grow up to become successful independent adults.  


Posted in adolescence, Educational Focus, Parenting, Personal Best, Reflections | 1 Comment

About a teacher: Not just a “Regular Guy”

What is your earliest memory?   I vaguely recollect riding on the monorail with my parents at the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow, Queens.  

The monorail was one of three attractions at the Fair from the Disney company (the other two were It’s a Small World and the Carousel of Progress which are now in the Disney theme parks).   


I’ve since been to Flushing Meadow Park many times because I have brought my own kids to visit the Queens Museum which houses the Panorama of the City of New York which is a scale model of the entire city, also a World’s Fair exhibit.  When I first went there I used a pair of binoculars you could borrow to locate my own house, 1530 Albany Avenue in East Flatbush, Brooklyn.


Last spring I had the opportunity to attend the world premiere of a film by a young and astounding filmmaker. Modern Ruin: A World’s Fair Pavilion is a documentary about the

Movie Poster1 (1)

Film Poster used with Permission by Matt Silva

history of the 1964 World’s Fair and especially the New York Pavilion.  The filmmaker is a teacher from our school, Matt Silva.  Matt teaches technology and also videography.  His students create professional quality videos that support numerous school initiatives.  Each year they produce a video to accompany our bully prevention kick off that is the centerpiece and a highlight of the day.  The subject of the documentary was the New York Pavilion, a structure originally built for the 1964 World’s Fair.  The Pavilion remains in the park today and is slowly deteriorating.




Matt was originally inspired to create the documentary when he took students in his middle school technology class on a trip to visit the Highline in Manhattan.   The Highline is a unique civil engineering accomplishment.  It’s designers repurposed the dilapidated Westside Highway into an elevated urban park that runs from 19th to  33rd Street on the west side of Manhattan. As a child I rode  in a car on the Westside Highway with my family on our way to my grandfather’s bungalow in Upstate New York.  Such was the state of the highway’s disrepair that my dad joked, “It’ll be a miracle if we don’t fall through this thing before we get there.”   I was scared!   


Highline NYC

Matt planned the trip to the Highline so that his students would understand how urban planning works, how architects and engineers can re-purpose a structure to make it more useful for its present environment and context.    Matt understood how important it was for his students to see firsthand the results of an urban planning initiative.  He also invited Architect Frankie Campione, the principal engineer of CREATE Architecture Planning & Design, to come to school and discuss efforts to preserve the Pavilion.  Field trips and guest speakers are among the most powerful and memorable learning experiences for middle school kids.  They allow students to grasp the relevance of concepts they learn in the classroom and they cement connections between the curriculum and the world in which we live.


On the way back from Manhattan on the day of the trip, Matt had the bus pull off the Grand Central Parkway to visit the former site of the 1964 World’s Fair and see the New York Pavilion, which sits in it’s original location next to Flushing Bay in Queens.  Inspired by the visit, Matt challenged his students to create a plan for the repurposing of this aging and dilapidated structure.  Matt kicked off the activity by reading a quote by the late activist and preservationist Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who, in the 1970’s, when she stood up to fight against demolition of one of New York’s finest architectural landmarks, Grand Central Terminal remarked:

“Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud moments, until there is nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children? If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future?”

Students used computer-assisted design tools to create the plan for their vision. They imagined and designed amusement parks, aquariums, museums, shopping malls and community swimming pools that were organic to the Pavilion structure.  It was a fantastic example of middle school project-based learning.

But Matt himself became hooked on the project.  He was intoxicated with the idea of preserving and re-purposing the Pavilion in a way similar to what was accomplished with the Highline in Manhattan. Serendipity gave way to commitment as Matt became a supporter of efforts to preserve the Pavilion.   Along with several like-minded individuals, Matt formed an organization called the People for the Pavilion whose purpose is to raise awareness and educate the world about the rapidly decaying New York Pavilion.  From Matt’s passion and his association with the organization came this superb documentary.  


At the film premiere, a member of the preservation society introduced the film by saying, “Our relationship with landmark spaces begins with a powerful story.”    Matt’s documentary created a powerful narrative about a structure that occupies an enduring space in the imaginations and memories of generations of people.   Matt interviews many of the key figures in the history and the preservation of the pavilion and tells the story of its place at the Fair and in the history of design and architecture.  I am a fan of the documentary form. I love documentaries by Ken Burns, I have enjoyed his series on baseball, the Civil War and especially Jazz.  Modern Ruin: A World’s Fair Pavilion can hold its place with any of these fine works. What is most astounding to me about these efforts is the fact that someone who I know, a regular guy, could have accomplished what he did.


But in truth… Matt’s not a “regular guy” — Matt’s an amazing teacher.


Here are a few things his story illustrates about AMAZING teachers:  


  • They find ways to involve their personal passions in their teaching.  And it’s reciprocal, their teaching ignites passions beyond the classroom!


  • They pursue their enthusiasms and realize that every single one of us can make positive changes in the world.  Their kids are inspired to do the same.


  • They aren’t afraid to pull the bus off the parkway if they think there’s powerful learning someplace.  If Matt hadn’t taken that detour on the way back from the Highline, the New York Pavilion might still be a pile of rusty steel.


  • They dream big and they aren’t afraid to pursue their ambitions.


  • They understand that enduring understanding comes from authentic experiences.  The Highline and the Pavilion are real places built by real people.  Young adolescent learners can grasp their importance and place in history and become excited about their preservation.  There is no substitute for the power of this kind of learning.  


  • They make connections with people both inside and outside their schools to benefit their learning and the learning of their students.


So… if you’re inspired by Matt’s (@SilvaB612) work, connect with him yourself, and be AMAZING! Your kids deserve no less!!

[Since doing the small scale “Ideas competition” with his students, Matt co-founded People For the Pavilion, produced the documentary and this has lead the organization to partner with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to organize and launch a full scale International Ideas Competition.  More info can be found at: www.nyspideas.org ]

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About a song: What does it “mean”?

As principal, I make it a point to do informal
walkthroughs for at least 40-60 minutes each day (well, that’s the plan anyway).  It is the best part of my job to learn alongside teachers and CZ6Kr_PWEAETayW
kids throughout the school.  I stopped by one of my teacher’s (@bess_murphy) classrooms this week.  I’m going to call her Bess, (cause that’s her name — Bess).   

Bess was teaching students about measures of central tendency.  She modeled a problem at the board and demonstrated how to find the mean, median, and mode.  She asked kids to tell what would be the best method to find the measure of central tendency for a new data set that she provided.  They were to pair with the student next to them and work it out together,

Bess then cued up this song and it played for about 40 seconds.

Get it?  Mean… the song is called “MEAN”…TAYLOR SWIFT   MEAN  Lyrics    YouTube

Like the arithmetic average… the MEAN !

As the song played, some kids got it and some kids didn’t, but it was so inventive and so much fun.  The students got right down to business.  

I only joined the class for about 10 minutes but from this snapshot I gleaned several takeaways:

  1. This little instructional moment was quite natural for Bess to pull off… she didn’t make a big deal out of the song… she  just had it queued up and it played in the background as the kids started to work.  Awesome teachers naturally integrate innovative and engaging approaches into their practices organically.  This is especially important for adolescents with their finely attuned sense of “corny”.   Don’t “over-sell” it … let it happen.

  2. There’s always room for music;  we don’t use it nearly enough in teaching.  Bess does.  It’s been written that music may help structure the intense feelings of adolescents into a beat and a pulse and hence make them primed for academic work  (Brewer, 2016).  EVERYBODY loves music, it speaks to our minds and our souls.  Music is mathematical, and this was a math lesson so —  why not?

  3. The lyrics in this song contain a great lesson for kids:

But someday I’ll be living in a big ole city

And all you’re ever gonna be is mean, yeah

Someday I’ll be big enough so you can’t hit me

And all you’re ever gonna be is mean

Why you gotta be so?…

They speak to an adolescent’s insecurity and fragile self-image, to asserting one’s identity in the face of a bully.  Developing students’ social-emotional literacy (SEL) and resiliency doesn’t mean dispensing with the stated curriculum to do a “special SEL lesson”, good teachers integrate SEL into the curriculum.  

I’d remark that I hoped the kids looked up the lyrics when they got home but I suspect I was the only one in the room who wasn’t singing this song in my head as it was playing.  And this brings me to my next takeaway….


4. Awesome teachers are “with-it”.  They are in touch with the music and the fashion and the expressions … the CULTURE of their students.  Anytime a teacher can chime in with something insightful about song choices, movies, games or a fashion statement, they gain instant credibility and build rapport (Barnes, 2015).  By playing a Taylor Swift song, Bess was communicating an important message to her kids, they are important enough for the teacher to pay attention to their interests and passions (and that she likes Taylor Swift also).  

This was only a brief snapshot of a terrific learning moment but I promised myself I would share what I observed because, at our school, we are all LEARNERS!  Thanks Bess!


Barnes, M. (2015). 5 Things Cool Teachers Do – Brilliant or Insane. Brilliant or Insane. Retrieved 30 March 2016, from http://www.brilliant-insane.com/2015/03/5-things-cool-teachers-do.html

Brewer, C. Does Teen Music (Rap, Rock & Roll) Belong in the Classroom?  (2016).Songsforteaching.com. Retrieved 31 March 2016, from http://www.songsforteaching.com/teachingtips/usingteenmusicraprockroll.php


Posted in Best Practice, Educational Focus, Inside the Middle School, Leadership, Personal Best, Reflections, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

About an ordinary life: Encyclopedia entries

Somebody recommended this idea as a cure for writers block.   Amy Krause Rosenthal wrote a neat little book titled Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life.  The book flap states that she “ingeniously adapted the centuries-old format of the encyclopedia to convey the accumulated knowledge of her lifetime in a poignant, wise, often funnyIMG_1221, fully realized memoir. Using mostly short entries organized from A to Z.” It’s the kind of book you can leave lying about and dip into any time you need a laugh.

I wouldn’t quite refer to my blog slump as a “block” but I need a jumpstart so here are a few of my contributions to an encyclopedia of an ordinary life … for some reason,  I started with the letter “B”.


Broken Glass


When a glass breaks in my house, I always wrap in it a layer of newspaper before putting it in the garbage.  So the trash collection men won’t cut their hands.  My mother taught me to do that.  It makes me feel like I’m a good person when I wrap up broken glass and throw it in the garbage.  I’m not sure I AM a good person all the time, but at least I do that.


Brain surgery

Just read a great piece about brain surgery… with accompanying lurid photographs and even video.  Surprising.  I was under the impression that the brain was an elusive thing that couldn’t be touched, even delicately, without causing great damage… BRAIN damage!  Not trpln2ue.  The doctor in the piece goes jiggering around in there like he’s scooping out ice cream and making a sundae.

I’m not saying that that we should all become amateur brain surgeons but maybe “brain surgery” should cease being the “metaphor” of choice for describing complex cerebral tasks.  Instead of saying, “Hey, it’s not brain surgery” we need to say, “Hey, it’s not
_______ (something that’s not brain surgery)”.  Hmmmm … what could that be.  Lemme see..

Lemme see..

ALGEBRA! … algebra is kinda tough, “Hey, it ain’t algebra over here.”

But what do we say if the complex task IS your son’s ALGEBRA homework… Then I’m stumped!



The magic of the BICYCLE is something I didn’t appreciate until I was well into my 30th decade (extra points to those of you who are surprised to learn that I am well past my 30th decade).  IMG_1217

When I was 11 I had a bike and I rode it places… but I didn’t recognize how fortunate I was to have a bicycle. I would get on my bike and ride all around my neighborhood. I’d ride to my friends’ houses, to the park to play,  to the stores… I rode everywhere.  When you’re 11, you’re to be forgiven for not appreciating the fact that you don’t have to make car payments; you’ve never had to make car payments.  At 11, the fact that your bicycle frees you from car insurance, buying gas, looking for a parking spot, or getting stuck in traffic somehow eludes you.  

For me, bicycling was love at first sight (sit?).  The minute I saddled up on the bike that I bought with my own money for my grown-up self, I was in love with the feeling of freedom and self-generated power it gave me.  The sublimity of observing life while walking has been described by poets from Wordsworth to Whitman, but for me, cycling offers the perfect speed at which to observe the world.  


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About my #OneWord: Nurture

My one word for 2016 is Nurture, as in relationships. For 2016 my goal is to reflect more on and devote greater energy to the relationships I have with everyone in my life…

One of the most powerful mentors in my life, my friend and former principal (now retired), Bob Kaufold, frequently reminded me, “Don, always stay in touch with people.”  And Bob consciously followed his own advice.  He was always meeting somebody for lunch, exchanging letters with friends, getting together for dinner with branches of his family.   Every year he reaches out to me on my birthday to wish me well and several times a year he reminds me we need to get together for lunch. And at least once a year, we do.  He is fantastic at cultivating relationships. I suppose I always thought this was for the good of the other persons, for the health of those relationships, but I’ve come to see how valuable this practice is for your own wellness as well.  Thanks Bob!

This is a plant of unknown variety that my daughter and I grew from seeds a few months ago.  She was excited to go to the nursery and pick out the seeds and the little pot.  plantWe grew two plants, the other one died.  But this one persists, despite our neglect.  I’d nearly forgotten about it until we put away our Christmas decorations.   It’s hanging in there but it’ll perish if we continue to disregard it, if we do not nurture it.  

It’s not that we’re abusing this plant.  You can also do THAT to a relationship of course.  When I was in high school biology we learned about the scientific method by growing two lima bean plants in paper cups.  One was the control, the other was the variable.  The control was to receive water and sunlight, the other one – -we were directed to experiment on.  Some of my classmates kept their plants in closets, others watered theirs with apple juice or put them in the refrigerator.   Ultimately, most of our experiments died a quick death or, at the very least, failed to keep pace with the plant that had been given sunlight and water regularly.  Simply put, like a plant, a relationship will wither and die if not given attention. It doesn’t take much for a plant to thrive, it just takes a little bit of care.  To use a most hackneyed metaphor, like a garden, we need to nurture relationships or they will not grow, given time, they’ll expire.  Even though Juliet and I haven’t abused our plant, it’ll die soon if we don’t stop neglecting it.  

Similarly, I don’t abuse relatioIMG_9795nships, in fact I love them.  Ask anybody who’s ever sat in a meeting with me, I prefer the energy of the conversations to actually accomplishing anything — every time — and it shows!  Nevertheless, relationships can be a challenge for me because I’m not wired to pay attention.  When people talk about attentional issues they tend to focus on forgetting to do important things or remembering where they left things. But difficulty paying attention tends to affect relationships also.  At work I get distracted by the engagement of constant interruptions that are the sine qua non of the principal’s existence.  At home the constant pull of household chores (whether or not I actually do these chores) and the interminable needs of children drown out the deeper presence of relationships.  In short busyness is the enemy of relationships for people who do not pay attention.  And boy am I BUSY… all the time!  These conditions have always posed problems for me but through the use of checklists and other accommodations I have reduced the number of occasions when I leave the house without my wallet or leave my phone in a restaurant to a few times per year.  So I’m optimistic that with the focus of my ONE WORD for 2016 I can get better.  


We can talk about initiatives and plans to achieve things… but at the end of the day, everything comes back to relationships. Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”   So I’m looking forward to the year 2016 with my one word of focus on nurturing relationships.   


Posted in Leadership, Personal Best, Random Thoughts, Reflections, Uncategorized | Tagged | 6 Comments

About violence and children: What’s a big number?

My daughter is only five years old; she’s in kindergarten.

The other day we were watching the news and there was a story about a fire that occurred in my old neighborhood in Brooklyn. Tragically, two people perished in the fire.


My daughter, overhearing the story, asked me,

“Two people — that’s a small number right?”

This blog post should end right here…

What can you say — about a comment like that — from a five-year-old?  

And she’s MY five-year-old.

I’m wondering if I should even be embarrassed to report that she said this. But, she’s five years old. Five year olds say the strangest things. The other day she asked me, “Daddy do you know what Santa’s sleigh is made of, it’s made of wood and magic.”  So before I get myself worked up over an offhand remark made by a kid in kindergarten, let me try to find some perspective on this.


Her remark has me thinking about the impacts of recent tragic events on schools and on the children in them. When the terrorist attacks occurred in Paris, our school’s response was to observe a moment of silence out of respect for the victims.  Because we share the facility,  the high school principal and I got on the public address and made a few remarks; then we played the French national anthem.  We also sent to staff an email with guidance on how to talk to students about tragic events.  

These responses made rational sense but I am left with so my questions:

Are our kids scared, or are we scared?  Don’t forget, middle school kids weren’t even alive on September 11, 2001.   When we prepare to discuss tragic event with our kids, to what extent are we making assumptions about their feelings and perspectives.  From our study of psychology we know of the existence of “mirror neurons” in the brain that respond the IMG_1194same whether we witness an event second-hand or if we experienced it ourselves (Bergin and Bergin, 2015).   Kids tend to mirror our emotional states.  Are we making our kids anxious by our discussions of these events and/or by our demeanor when we do?

How aware are our students about what’s happening?   I know in my household, when major events like this happen, my wife (@dmgately) and I will have the TV running constantly.  We’re both educators and we know we have a responsibility to stay abreast of events in the news.  We know it will be our responsibility to stay up to date on the details of these incidents. But does everybody do this? Perhaps that Monday after the Paris attacks, many of our students were first learning of it when we got on the public address system to make an announcement and observe a moment of silence.   That day I sent an email to parents letting them know that we had observed a moment of silence. We do this whenever there are discussions at school or events that parents can follow up on at home, to help them have discussions with their children.  But this had me wondering if there were parents who have been trying to shield their children from these events, parents who regretted that we had these discussions,  that announcements were made.  I didn’t have any phone calls from parents but… Are our middle school children too young to be confronted with this? What age is old enough?   In our school, kids are 10, 11, 12, 13 and maybe 14 years old. Certainly this is old enough to start grappling with complex issues and the reality of current events, but how much is the right amount to share?

IMG_1188What is the role of the school?  Of course we have a role in helping children understand current events and find academic connections.  But are there occasions when it’s just too much?  Is the tragic reality of these violent episodes too much for a typical 12-year-old to handle? No one would disagree that the school should be a safe place for kids to learn and grow.  Should school be a refuge from these anxieties?  Does bringing these discussions into the classroom undermine the sense of safety we strive mightily to preserve?

What about my Muslim students? There has been some ugly rhetoric coming from numerous sources in the media, including from those who are charged with leadership.  How does this make these youngsters feel?  Do my Muslim students still feel like they belong and they are valued at our school?  And should we give these students an opportunity to share their voices, their unique narratives? My instinct tells me yes, but might this not be the best thing to do either.  Might this make a Muslin child attract undue attention at a sensitive time?

Right now, I have more questions than answers. I’m grappling with these challenging questions constantly as an educator and school leader. I would love to hear your thoughts… and maybe some answers.  

And about my daughter… when my wife and I heard her statement, we sat her down and talked about it.   We told her that all lives are precious, it doesn’t matter how many lives are  lost … it’s always terribly sad.   


Bergin, C. C., & Bergin, D. A. (2011). Child and adolescent development in your classroom. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.


Posted in Educational Focus, Leadership, Personal Best, Random Thoughts, Reflections, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

About…The Wheels on the Bus?

all pix sept.6- sept.28 009I have been a middle school principal for 15 years. It doesn’t seem like a long time to me.  The thing about working in a school, there are certain rituals and procedures that are repeated in the same way every single year. As a teacher I never did a lesson twice the same way, but as a principal, there are a few activities that have to be done with fidelity each school year.  One of these is bus drills. Three times a year safety procedures for riding the school bus must be reviewed with students.

The drills take different forms. The one we did the other day involves a staff member (in this case, ME) jumping onto the bus when it arrives at school and reviewing a list of safety procedures (well we don’t literally jump on the bus, the bus comes to a stop, the driver opens the door and you walk up the steps.)


I have to say I’ve done this drill so many times I really wish I could depart from the script and have a little fun.

Here’s how, in my imagination, the drill might go:


Good morning kids.  You may be wondering why I came on your bus instead of taking selfies with you in the hallways like I do on most days.

I’m here because we care about you, your safety, your well-being, and because New York State says I have to do this. With any luck this will be the least interesting part of your day. I have these safety procedures down to a science, I’ve been reciting them for many years… I pretty much have them committed to memory.

we have so much fun at our school

we have so much fun at our school

Be on time.  Students should arrive at their assigned bus stop at least 5 minutes prior to pick up.  If you have ever been late and wish to ensure you do not miss the bus, some students have slept overnight at their stop. Do not attempt to do your math homework unless your stop is directly underneath a street lamp. We care about your eyesight. In the spring you will take standardized tests that will determine whether your principal may continue to work here… Please protect your vision.

Wait for the bus on the side of the road. Keep off private property. Don’t step on cracks. Please be sensitive to the backs of mothers which may be adversely affected by stepping on cracks.

Wait for the bus to come to a complete stop before entering or leaving.  This is a conventional public school, not a finishing school for Hollywood stunt doubles.

Lineup before entering the bus. Look after the safety of smaller children. Do not take any smaller children home with you unless they actually belong to you, or your parents.  In the event that a smaller child manages to come home with you, say, in your backpack, share your video games with him.

Remain seated at all times when the bus is in motion. If sitting down while the bus is in motion makes you nauseous, think about a pleasant memory from when you were in kindergarten. If you are presently IN kindergarten, think about toys.

[Point out the location of all emergency equipment, extinguisher, first aid kit and reflectors.]

There are emergency exits on the sides and the roof of the bus. In the unlikely event of an emergency, you can stack 2 sixth graders in order to reach the ceiling exits.  [Point out the location of sixth-graders.]

In the unlikely event that something should happen to the bus driver, do NOT attempt to exit the bus.  Organize your classmates in a loud rendition of “The Wheels on the Bus”; bus drivers hate that song. Your driver should revive herself before long in order to scold you.

In the unlikely event of a water landing, you can use your younger brother or sister as a flotation device. [Point out the location of all younger brothers and sisters.]

In the unlikely event that your bus ride to or from school was the highlight of your day, please let me know so that I can change your science teacher.

All of the following are prohibited on the bus: eating, drinking, littering, talking, contemplation, problem-solving, irony, fear, anxiety, 3-D glasses, pets, existential drama, sass, elective surgery, civilian dental implants and shirt labels that make your neck itchy.

Talk quietly, do not shout or make loud noises, say what you mean but don’t say it mean.  Avoid politically sensitive subjects such as bowling or the Electoral College.

IMG_1217Bus riding is a privilege, like the right to vote or buy a Mountain Dew from a vending machine.  Unlike these privileges however, your right to ride the bus can be revoked if you violate any of the above procedures or if we wish to annoy your parents by creating conditions under which they would have to drive you to school.

I know I can count on all of you to follow these procedures.  In the unlikely event that you do not, you will be called to my office for another refresher; this speech will sound very different in my office.  

Thank you for your attention, let’s make this the best Wednesday of the week!

Note, most of my blog posts consist of metaphors applicable to the field of education.  This post — not so much.






Posted in Inside the Middle School, Leadership, Personal Best, Random Thoughts, Reflections, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 4 Comments