The Principal's Office
Leadership. Collaboration. Innovation.
I attended a virtual professional development conference on Thursday led by three tremendous educators, Tom Murray, Joe Sanfelippo and Jimmy Casas. One of the workshops that they facilitated was entitled "Current Reality vs. Desired Reality." Our current reality right now is a difficult one. Whether we are students, parents, teachers, staff members or administrators, we are living each day not sure what is going to happen. It's really hard. Unfortunately, right after the conference we had to make a decision to close the school the next day to conduct contact tracing of positive COVID-19 cases that have arisen. Our current reality is that safety needs to be our number one priority. While we want to be focused on being in school, working in person, collaborating with each other, finishing our fall sports seasons, traveling to other places to see relatives, the current reality is that we have to watch out for one another and sometimes have to make difficult decisions.
During this workshop, Joe Sanfelippo posed the question, "What brings you joy?" I have to be honest, I struggled with that answer. (Not personally, because my family brings me more joy than I can ever imagine, but professionally. What brings me joy today as a Principal?) What brings me joy professionally are things that we have been unable to do to our full capacity for the last eight months and especially the last few days and the immediate future. My current reality, at first glance, is definitely not my desire reality.
But when I think deeper, there has been a lot of joy in my current reality. The fact that we have been in school in person for two and half months in the middle of a pandemic. Up to this point our fall sports teams were able to play and have had successful seasons. Our marching band earned all kinds of accolades during their "virtual" season. Our teachers have been doing an amazing job figuring out ways to reach students inside and outside the classroom. Our students have worked through all kinds of challenges to persevere. The PTHS community has rallied around each other through this time to help those in need. My desired reality is that we do everything we can to live our excellence in a safe, positive, supportive environment. The reality is we are doing that. Although our current reality is difficult at times, it is important to find the joy that is around you. There is a lot to be desired...you just have to know where to look. #findyourjoy
My 7th grade son was at basketball training this week and his trainer was giving them advice about "Information overload" and spending time listening to what motivates and inspires you. He asked them, "Are you choosing to spend time on SnapChat over reading a book that makes you better? How often to you miss out on opportunities to be better because you weren't listening to what was happening around you because you are consumed with what is in front of you? Do you hear me?"
We are all consumed with what is going on in front of us right now as administrators, teachers, parents and students.. There is a lot coming at us all at once. That "information overload" is real. Sometimes we have to stop and listen to what is happening around us. For the past three weeks I have been meeting with teachers, students and parents to discuss how we can make the high school experience more accommodating for teachers and students. The reality is, the pace we are working at as teachers and administrators is not sustainable. Emotions were high, ideas were flowing, ears were open. I could see the passion in everyone's faces and the energy in their ideas. It was important to stop everything that was going on in front of me and listen. I could hear Ryan's coach saying "Do you hear me?"
It is a critical time to stop and listen to what others are saying. This is certainly not a normal school year and the expectations placed on teachers and students are not always realistic. We are all trying our best to make this current situation as meaningful as possible and no matter how much we want things to be "normal," it just isn't the case right now. Information is coming at us fast and furious with health updates, regulations, changes to schedules, technology needs, attendance issues....and the list goes on. The information overload is real. "Do you hear me?"
Sometimes we all need to be reminded that these are children that have their world turned upside down. This is hard enough for us as adults. Yes, as educators we still have a responsibility to our students to provide them with the content knowledge they need to be successful. However, before we take a look at that next unit in the curriculum that is in front of us, or that next test that we have to give, stop and listen to what is happening around us. Teachers, much like parents, are balancing their own personal lives with ensuring that their students are learning to the best of their ability. As administrators we must listen. Students, at all ages, are trying to figure out how to stay organized, manage their time, maintain relationships and yes, maybe even help feed their families. As teachers, we must listen. Being that listening ear is critical now, more than ever as teaching, learning and every day life is changing. Our students provide us with as much inspiration and motivation as we hopefully provide them. As we come upon the close of the end of the marking period for many schools combined with the items that are all over our news (pick your topic), it is a time that can be "information overload." Are we all listening? It's important to ask each other, "Do you hear me?"
Stay strong. We are all in this together.
The past several months have certainly got me thinking. There have been personal triumphs, professional challenges and family experiences that had me pause and reflect on the importance of the little things in life that very often get taken for granted. A hug, a handshake, a high five all were once things that happened on a daily basis that are now something that I think about. Eating indoors, large crowds at football games and crowded school hallways that were never something I thought much about now become things I long to have happen again.
The last several months have taught me some valuable lessons personally and professionally. In my Principal role people have often told me that being a Principal is a lonely profession. To be honest, from March to June (and on Wednesdays) it was (and is) lonely. Working in isolation, learning in isolation, teaching in isolation is not easy. There is strength in numbers. Having students and teachers in the building for the past five weeks has been really AWESOME. You have made me stronger. You have made me better. You have made me realize how much I miss what I sometimes took for granted. After five weeks, I think some of us do long to go back to "normal" with fast paced classrooms, not knowing what "virtual students" are and seeing the hustle and bustle in the hallway. There is no denying that the last five weeks have been hard. However, there has been something normal, for me, about them. Learning, growing and being with you and our students in this place has been what I was missing. It has taught me to appreciate what we have, while we have it. Continue to be a symbol of hope for our students, for each other.....and yes, for your Principal. We are stronger together! #pantherstrong
This Tuesday marked the first day of fall. Fall is one of my favorite times of year. Cool weather, sitting by the fire pit, comfy sweatshirts, football games, and apple picking are all things that I look forward to over the next several months. I have also noticed recently that the leaves are starting to change color and some have even begun to fall. Poet Thich Nhat Hanh once wrote:
"I asked the leaf whether it was scared because it was autumn and the other leaves were falling. The leaf told me, “During the whole spring and summer I was very alive. I worked hard and helped nourish the tree, and much of me is in the tree."
Seeing the leaves change color is beautiful. You see the uniqueness of each tree, of each leaf. You see into the heart of each tree as they paint nature's landscape. You just have to take the time to look.
Our teachers and students are working hard. I see your heart as you paint a landscape of learning for our students. I see how hard you are working. I see your heart in the concern you have for your students' success while balancing your own personal lives during this time as well. I see the uniqueness you try to put into every lesson, every activity. I see how much you are giving during the week and how by Friday, our students are leaving nourished by getting to be in classes with our teachers. Your hearts are in all the right places.
In the midst of all we are experiencing, it is important to pause and reflect. At the heart of our success is empathy. Everyone is going through something professionally and personally. This is really hard. Acknowledging the efforts of our colleagues and our students is critical. People are giving what they can to the point of exhaustion, physically and mentally. Like leaves protecting the tree, we must continue to look out for each other, protect each other and not be afraid to know that you are doing the best that you can. Your heart is with all those you love, serve and work with every day. I see your heart and I greatly appreciate it.
I was in my first year of teaching at Pequannock Township High School in 2001 when I was walking down the hallway to my next class and I happened to look into the media center and saw the television on as it was broadcasting that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I will never forget.....
After a quick glance I got to my classroom and began teaching my Business Law class. Cell phones were not a real big thing yet and we did not have 1:1 Chromebooks so my students and I had a brief conversation about what some of us had just seen but then continued with learning. That was my last class of the day. I will never forget.....
As word began to travel about what was happening, our Principal got on the loud speaker and said that school would be closing early and that everyone would be getting picked up for dismissal. People started gathering around any TV they could in the high school to figure out what was going on. I will never forget.....
I lived in Sussex County and I drove as safely and as quickly as I could and when I got home watched in disbelief at what was happening at what became ground zero. There were definitely tears in my eyes. Such great loss. Such tremendous heroism. I will never forget.....
Driving to work over the next several days, weeks and months there were so many American Flags. They were on cars, displayed on front laws, in store windows. The feelings of Patriotism could be seen everywhere you looked. People rallied around each other, supported each other and lifted each other up as a nation regrouped. I will never forget.....
We will never forget 9/11/2001. The unbelievable tragedy that will forever leave a mark on our hearts. But let us also never forget 9/11/2001 because of the sense of humanity and patriotism that brought our nation together. As we recovered as a country, everyone worked together, listened to one another, fought for one another, supported one another...cared about one another. We need that same humanity and patriotism today as we navigate our current reality. I see it in the way our community rallies around each other. I see it in the way our teachers are giving every ounce of energy they have for their students. I see it in our coaches and advisers in how they want to provide as many experiences as possible. I see it in our students....In their desire to bleed blue and gold. While our students were not born yet in 2001, they will help me never forget that day......They are our future. Let it be a future filled with promise that we will never forget. #pantherstrong
"I'm really looking forward to working with you. This is such great news." I received this email from my new secretary, Ellen Altis, in 2012 when I was appointed as Principal of Pequannock Valley School. It was my first Principal appointment and one that I was very excited, yet nervous about. That simple email put me right at ease and gave me the boost of confidence I needed to know that everything was going to be okay. For the next three years, I had the pleasure of working with Ellen until she retired in 2015.
Anyone that has ever worked in a school knows that the secretaries are the people that really keep the school running. The job of a secretary, much like that of a teacher and an administrator has certainly evolved over the years. Gone are the days where the Principal’s secretary’s main responsibilities were to answer phones, take messages, dictate notes, organize files, type correspondence and greet visitors. The job of the Principal’s secretary now involves, all those things and more. Budgeting, scheduling, organizing graduation, award ceremonies, managing our Student Information System, the school website, Google Apps for Education, organizing evaluations PDPs, SGO’s, fixing copy machines, maintaining all the purchase orders and supplies, putting in work orders, enrollment reports, registration, assisting with substitutes, handling needy parents (did I say needy), dealing with staff concerns/issues, students forgetting passwords, locker combinations, lunches, notebooks, glasses, and their own phone numbers, stopping bloody-noses, answering doorbells, scheduling meetings, assisting with attendance, writing late passes and calming down the Principal are all thing that usually happen by 9:00am. Through all these changes and these responsibilities was Ellen Altis.
I am fortunate that when I come to work each day I have many “moms” who are looking out for me. Although I may be the Principal and Ellen was my secretary, Ellen was very much a motherly figure to me. She would always make sure that I was feeling okay, I had something to eat, I got my work done, I never missed a deadline, people weren’t bothering me (to the point where she would stand in the doorway or stand on her toes and peak through the window). She always knew when I was upset about something and would give me a moment to calm down and then pop her head in the door and say, is everything okay? However, the thing that I appreciated most was that she never let me miss any of my own kid’ s events. I’m pretty intense when it comes to my work and I get caught up in what is happening at the school. Ellen would always give me countdowns. I’d hear her yell, "15 minutes"……and then "RICH, YOU HAVE TO GO!" She would then essentially escort me out of the building, handing me my coat. Whether it was Ryan’s first special day in preschool or Brooke’s Gingerbread Play, I was often able to steal a few minutes during the day to see them. As a Principal, you often work late nights so any time I can see my children is a bonus. I will be forever grateful to her for putting family first.
In my time working with Ellen, she was one of the strongest women I knew. For many reasons the last few years of her job were not easy. Aside from all the changes that have happened in education, working with a new Principal, two and a half assistant principals, getting the new teachers in line with the PV way of doing things, training new 6th graders and all the other responsibilities that come with her job, Ellen was forced to overcome a personal challenge that tested every ounce of will and determination she had. Through it all, Ellen would show up for work, put a smile on her face and push through it. More times than not, no one had any idea that she just had a doctors’ appointment, radiation, blood work, or surgery. No one knew that she might not have felt well. After surgery she would be back in a few days, at her desk, doing what she loved. Ellen and I spent many times in my office talking about nothing school related. Sometimes, when you go through what we have gone through (cancer treatments), you just need to talk. Those are going to be the conversations I remember with Ellen. The ones where I could see she knew what was coming, she would put her hands on her legs, look at me from across the desk and say, “ I know I can do this.” Right up until her retirement she battled cancer and won.
For the three and a half years we worked together, the main office had a strong sense of camaraderie. The trust that we had contributed to our overall success as a team. We laughed, we cried, we questioned, we supported each other, we cared for each other Through it all we are consistent. When push came to shove and the stress was at an all time high, we knew we are all there for each other. Even when Ellen retired, she would come back and visit, wanting to know what we were all doing and what was going on with the staff and students. Up to a month or so ago we were texting back and forth talking about the craziness of the current school situation.
Yesterday I found out that Ellen passed away. My heart hurts. Unfortunately the cancer that she had beat when we worked together had come back without her knowing. In her usual feisty self, she didn't want anyone in her "work family" to know, she just kept living life. At her retirement dinner in 2016, in my speech to her, I gave her a piece of advice... I borrowed one of the most meaningful speeches I have ever heard and that has a special meaning to me. It is from Jim Valvano, a former basketball coach and the founder of the V Foundation for Cancer Research. He said:
“To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. Number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that's a full day. That's a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you're going to have something special.”
We did a lot of laughing, a ton of thinking, and there was some crying in that main office. We had some great days as we did our best for students. Ellen certainly took that advice during her retirement, spending time traveling, volunteering and spending time with her grandchildren that she adored. Today, I am laughing, thinking and crying as I remember my secretary, my friend.....and "the behind the scenes" leader of our building.
Enjoy every moment you can with the people that you work with. Build those relationships, keep them strong and never take for granted the impact that anyone can make on your life.......personally and professionally. I'm fortunate that my former secretary made a positive impact on both parts of my life.
Ellen, I really enjoyed working with you. You were right, it was great news. Rest in Peace.
This is the speech I gave to the Pequannock Township High School Class of 2020 at their Virtual Commencement Ceremony on June 19 2020. You can watch the video of the speech here: https://youtu.be/NsGKilAnM78
Good Evening Mr. Portas, Dr. Winning, Mr Blumert, Members of the Board of Education, Mrs. McCarty, Mrs. Mildner , Mr. Silipena, Pequannock Administrators, community dignitaries, Pequannock Township High School faculty and staff, parents, family members, friends, and members of the PTHS Class of 2020.
I’ve been giving speeches now as an Assistant Principal and Principal for the last twelve years. I’ve given speeches at award ceremonies, assemblies, pep rallies, community events, parent nights and graduations. It is a humbling experience and a responsibility that I take great pride in doing, knowing that I represent our students, staff and community. However, I have a confession to make. This graduation speech, my first as the Principal of Pequannock Township High School, is the hardest one I have ever had to write.
This speech was hard to write because what do you say to a class that will go down in history as the toughest, most resilient, class that will ever walk through the doors of Pequannock Township High School. With many of you being born within a few months of September 11, 2001 and now graduating in a global pandemic, you have demonstrated that through the toughest of times, the strength of friendship, family, and community can persevere no matter what lies in your way.
It is hard to write because what do you say to a group of students that I have spent portions of the last seven years of my life with, watching you grow, watching you learn, watching you become young men and women who are ready to take on the world. I remember many of you as 10 and 11 year olds, standing on the pavement outside of PV School with wide eyes, big smiles and an anxious energy that was contagious ready to begin your middle school experience…...and now here you are…..and I have to say goodbye.
Being your Principal this year has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my professional career. I don’t know how many of you know this but in July I received a tweet from one of you, and it said, “Can you come be our Principal?” It is one of those moments that I will remember for the rest of my life. I’m telling you this because that question that was asked of me changed the course of my career…..and my life. As the Principal of PV I had a choice to make. I could stay in a place where I was comfortable….or I could step outside my comfort zone and take a chance…..seize an opportunity…...challenge myself. I took that tweet very seriously and as I thought about the decision that I would need to make I went to something that usually provides me with guidance and inspiration…..I opened up a book and started reading. The book was entitled “Culturize.” It was given to me by my friend and colleague, Jimmy Casas. In the front cover of the book he had written a message to me that finished with, “Live Your Excellence….Your Friend, Jimmy.” I didn’t really have to read much further to know what I had to do. I think you know what decision I made because seeing your smiles and giving high fives and handshakes to all of you on the first day of school this year will be something I will cherish forever. Watching you cheering for each other at games and pep rallies, seeing you win championships in your activities, seeing you shine in concerts, watching you collaborate and create in your classes, raise awareness for a cause, and most recently to unite in support of our healthcare workers has made me so proud to be your Principal and made me realize that in order to continue to learn and grow, sometimes you have to step outside your comfort zone. Those three words brought me here….to this moment.
Some of you may be saying, “I’ve seen “Live Your Excellence before.” Yes, you have. If you have been paying attention to the morning announcements for the last sixty days I end every morning announcement with the words “Live Your Excellence” flashing across the screen. It is my final piece of advice that I leave to you….to the class of 2020 as you leave behind the comfort zone of Pequannock Township High School and step out into a world filled with promise. So what does “Live Your Excellence mean?
To me Live Your Excellence means…
Now I know what you are thinking……”Wow, Mr. Hayzler, I never knew your morning announcements were so deep.”
In all seriousness, rather than saying goodbye to this wonderful class, I’d rather sign off like I’ve been doing in my morning announcements and say “Live Your Excellence.” Thank you for helping me live my excellence with you for the past seven years. I hope that when you look back on your career in the Pequannock Township School District you realize that you were surrounded by people who were helping you begin to Live Your Excellence. Your teachers, coaches, advisors, administrators, community members, parents, friends, family. Continue to surround yourself with people who will challenge you, motivate you, inspire you, support you and love you. You are part of a special family, one that bleeds blue and gold….that will always have your back…..that will celebrate your Panther Pride and are counting on you to Live Your Excellence with those wide eyes, big smiles and anxious enthusiasm that this Principal will always remember you for…...you are already on your way….. Congratulations and best wishes to the Class of 2020! Let’s Go Panthers!
Mr. Portas, as Principal of Pequannock Township High School, it gives me great pleasure to present to you, the graduating class of 2020!
Ten years ago this past Thursday the photo on the left was taken at John Theuer Cancer Center at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey when I was diagnosed with Non Hodgkins Lymphoblastic T Cell Lymphoma. Ten years later and the shirt on the right may have faded a bit, may have a few cracks in the graphic and might be a little tighter on me, but it is a symbol of all those who fought the fight with me. It sits on the top of my shirt drawer as a daily reminder of the doctors who helped save me. It is a reminder of my why....my wife, children and family. It is a reminder that you are stronger than you think when you are faced with a challenge.
We all have challenges that we face in life that can really "punch you in the gut." These challenges can cause us to doubt, cause us to question, cause us to worry, cause us to feel like giving in. It is during these times that you need to realize that there are people around you to lift you up. Family, friends, colleagues and maybe even total strangers. I remember the Superman sign being posted on every classroom door at PTHS as I battled cancer. I remember it hanging in the school offices. I remember my son wearing his Superman cape when I came home from the hospital that first week. I could feel the support and encouragement giving me strength to do what I needed to do. I was much stronger than I thought I was because of all of the love and support from everyone.
There are many of our students (and even our colleagues) that are going through challenges....some bigger than others. Some are open to sharing what is happening (like I did) while others choose to deal with their challenge differently. How do your students (and your colleagues) know that they have someone behind them no matter what? You don't need to have a Superman sign on the door in your classroom. But you can be a smiling face, a hello in the hallway, a conversation after class to a student. You can be a pat on the back in the faculty room or note in a person's mailbox that says, "Hey, I saw great things happening in your room when I walked by" to a staff member.
Our most challenging students are most often the ones that need people in their corner. They need that someone (or group of "someones") to come out of nowhere to save their day or even the class period. But it can be ANYONE that is going through something. Keep building relationships with your students. Every one of them could use a Superman or Superwoman. Don't miss out on those moments to help your students believe they are stronger than they think. In ten years, they may look back on that moment, smile, and give thanks. I know I did.
This Thursday night, my high school held the first of two "Shoot for the Cure" games to support one of our staff members whose son, Scott, was recently diagnosed with with Multiple Sclerosis. It was an emotional game for the DeBell family, the basketball players and to be honest, everyone in the crowd. The boys played with intense passion, purpose and drive. Coach DeBell was full of spirit on the sidelines and the crowd cheered with each basket made. While we were there to watch a game, we were also there to support a young man and his family experiencing a difficult situation. Throughout the process Scott has been following his treatment protocols and taking one day at a time as he regains strength and focuses on a mindset that every day, every hour, every minute matters. If you win that minute, that hour or even a moment. You win the day.
Life is like that for many of our students and quite frankly, for ourselves every day. Everyone is carrying something. Students walk through our doors with the "invisible backpack." Teachers, Administrators and support staff do too. We all need to support each other as we look to "win the day." A student pointed out to me on Friday that she loves it when a teacher says hello to her in the hallway. She feels cared for...she feels important. It makes her feel like a winner. Too often we get caught up in the "busyness and business" of life that we don't relish the small victories that happen to us on a daily basis. As we head into a long stretch run of school following this break, remember to celebrate the small victories, the "little moments," the one on one conversations, the fist bumps, the high fives, the warm "hellos" in the hallway. You never know who "wins their day" because of it. It may help them do better on a test, participate more in the classroom or just make them feel a part of something bigger.
I know that for a few hours on Thursday night the boys did more than "win the game." They helped a community "win the day" for a family that deserves it and hopefully for a young man, help him realize he's not alone in this fight. Every day is a day worth winning. What are you you doing each day to win the day? How are you helping other's win theirs? Let's continue to help those around us (and ourselves) realize that we are part of a larger team and we are in it to win it. #wintheday
I remember sitting in the back of my parent's station wagon on a trip to my grandparents' house and asking "Are we there yet?" five minutes into the ride. My dad would always tell me, "When we pass the Rockaway Mall we will be halfway there." I remember as a kid getting excited to see the mall and all the cars. It gave me something to look forward to as I did like listening to the music my parents played in the car and I knew we were getting closer to seeing my grandparents.. Sometimes though I also thought, "man, we still have 30 minutes to go? Why is this taking so long?
In schools in the Northeast, it is right about the end of the second marking period, the "unofficial" halfway point in the school year. We are actually finishing up day 86 at our school (but who is counting.) I had to look it up. I'm not one to count down days....I make days count. It is a time to reflect on the many things you have accomplished with your students but also to look forward with anticipation and excitement for what is to come. Yes, there are going to be days where you feel like asking "Are we there yet?" and there will be days when you wish that you had more time to get in what you need to with your students. Take advantage of each day. Capitalize on the bright spots and grow stronger from the difficult ones.
Remember that our students probably feel the same way. The goal is... how can we all work together to get each other to the top of the mountain? Before we know it, June will be here and we will be saying, "Wow, that was a quick trip to the top." Don't forget to enjoy the trip. You only get one opportunity with the group that sits in front of you. Don't tell them to hang in there.. Show them how to do it through your passion, energy, enthusiasm and desire to see them succeed. When your students believe that you will help them get to the top, you are never going to have to ask "Are we there yet?" You will be there.
You are already halfway. Keep going. Enjoy the trip.
Richard M. Hayzler
A life long educator and current Principal of Pequannock Township High School in NJ, Rich is excited to share his ideas and thoughts about education and how we can change the world for our students and our staff.