Exactly one month ago today the Class of 2021 threw their caps in the air culminating the end of a school year that can best be described in a word....challenging.. Teaching, leading and learning as we knew it took a dramatic shift. The effects of COVID-19 forced changes to the master schedule, led to an instructional focus on hybrid learning and required creative planning on how to provide our school communities with a little bit of "normalcy." Combined with the continued concern for our families and communities that remained at the forefront of our minds, the challenges of the school year made for a bumpy ride. For the past 16 months we navigated through uncharted territory not only in education but in just about every facet of our society. The ebbs and flows of emotion, periods of isolation, hope, strength, determination, fear, anger, sadness, empathy, compassion all were so very real and at times, overwhelming.
Looking in the rearview mirror now that we are a month removed from the craziness of the school year, how do we measure how far we came this year?
I measured it in our ability to work together to develop a plan to educate our students in a remote and hybrid environment.
I measured it in my teachers' ability to adapt to a blended learning environment, implementing new strategies and tools to reach your students.
I measured it in our creativity in celebrating our students virtually and in person.
I measured it by the efforts of our health care workers, first responders and volunteers who supported each other, their communities and their schools through this time.
I measured it in our flexibility and dedication to reopening schools with a variety of schedules and collaborating together to do what is best for our students.
I measured it in the personal sacrifice that was made by educators everywhere. The late nights, the early mornings, the long zoom days, the relentless emails, the changing schedules, and all the thousands of other things that teachers experienced on a daily basis.
I measured it in the care and compassion that teachers provided to their students, their colleagues and the community through the good times and especially the difficult ones.
I measured it in the strength, hope and determination shown by our teachers and students every day.
I measured it in the conversations I heard between colleagues and with students, smiling and laughing through masks.
I measured it it the ways we worked together to organize activities for our students where they could, even for a few moments, feel like everything was back to "normal."
I measured it in our ability to reclaim the joy in why we are educators and the positive difference we make every day in our students and our community.
I measured it in our impact we continued to make together as we reimagined education.
This journey over the sixteen months was difficult. However, knowing that we were all supporting each other made all the difference. Yes, schools are about educating students about literature, mathematics, science, art, music and social studies. However, school, more importantly, is a place where students and staff should feel safe, supported, cared for and appreciated. When the going gets tough, school needs to be a place where everyone stands together, united in a common goal, being a place where everyone has the opportunity to have success. There are positives that can be taken from this year that impacted instruction, benefited students or helped organize school a little better. No matter what may happen in the future my colleague and friend, Jimmy Casas has a quote in his book "Culturize" that rings true today. "To be an excellent educator is a gift---a gift to our students, our families, and our communities. Being an excellent educator is, in fact, a gift to our humanity. It is our time to continue to heed that call, now more than ever. As we continue to reflect on what was last school year and refresh our minds and bodies for what a new year will bring, remember that while success looks different for everyone, it will be easier to measure when we see the smiles of our students and colleagues.
The following is my Commencement Speech to the Pequannock Township High School Class of 2021. This group was a fantastic class who overcame unbelievable obstacles to graduate together on Stadium field on June 18th 2021.
How awesome is this? I have to admit as I stood at the gate to walk out onto Stadium Field, I had goosebumps. I know it was probably a combination of nervousness, anticipation and excitement but to be honest, I think most of it is feelings of joy. The joy of seeing our stands full of family, friends and community members, the joy of walking step by step with a staff that has given their all for the success of their students, the joy of a beautiful night, the joy of being together one last time with a remarkable group of students who are the Pequannock Township High School Class of 2021.
We are here tonight to celebrate your accomplishments of the past four years at PTHS. We are here tonight to recognize your academic achievements, athletic accomplishments, community service opportunities, and co-curricular involvement that make you an outstanding senior class. We are here tonight to honor your strength, your resolve, your patience, collaboration, determination, perseverance and pride in who you are as individuals and as a collective group. We are here tonight to show the world how PantherStrong we really are.
I shared with you yesterday at our graduation rehearsal that I was having a hard time writing this speech. In fact, outside of the introduction, I struggled with finding the right words to say to a class that has grown with me over the last seven years, that has overcome one of the greatest challenges our country and our world has ever faced, that will be leaving a legacy at Pequannock Township High School that will be remembered forever and that I believe will be a class that positively changes the landscape of society as we know it.
I could go could go on and on about the legacy you have left as national and state marching band champions, nationally recognized FBLA members, state sectional and conference champions, members of the first girls volleyball team, Allied Health and STEM Academy graduates, nationally commended scholars, graduates of Morris County Vocational Technical School in various areas, AP scholars, artists, musicians, actors and actresses, the first (and hopefully last) class to work through and overcome hybrid learning and the legacy you are leaving of being just really awesome people. It has been a joy watching you accomplish these amazing things. However, it is your legacy as learners and as thinkers that I am going to remember most.
The past year and a half has been filled with disruptive challenges that have caused me to pause, think, re-think, change, adapt, laugh and yes, even cry. At times all I wanted to do was go back to the status quo, the way things used to be, to return to what I was comfortable with. I was looking for all kinds of ways to become a better Principal, to make your learning experience the best it could possibly be. I read blogs, followed Twitter feeds, read books, talked and collaborated with educational experts….but the answers that I was looking for were starting me right in the face every morning. It was you. Watching and listening to you made me realize that there was no need to go back….there was only moving forward…..rethinking and refocusing what school could be and should be.
I watched you as you made videos for your peers to kick off the school year, I watched you compete at high levels despite limited practice time in sports, activities and competitions. I watched you interact with your teachers and classmates in person and remotely. I listened as you met with administrators to voice your opinions about our schedule, I listened to you advocate for yourselves about prom and how we could make it great (which I will still argue that the magician was awesome--ask David Farrell). I witnessed true learning right before my very eyes. Yes, school is about literature, mathematics, music, Social Studies, art and Science. But it is also about collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, advocacy, and stepping outside of your comfort zone knowing that we have to be willing to try something new, different, difficult or even something that has never been done before. You taught me to find comfort outside my comfort zone, embrace change and learn from struggle.
As you continue on your educational and life journeys, there will be many times when you are going to have to continue to step outside your comfort zone. The status quo is changing every day. You are going to have a different perspective than any student has had that has come before you as you enter college, the military or the workplace. Do not fear standing up for what you believe in, do not fear stretching yourselves further than you think you can go, do not fear failure, do not fear tomorrow because it is the unknown. American author and motivational speaker, Zig Ziglar explains that Fear has two meanings: “Forget Everything and Run” or “Face Everything and Rise.” You could have easily given up this year, run from what you believed this year would be like and succumb to your fear. But this class did the opposite. There is no doubt you stood tall and have risen to the challenges you have faced. Your strength, determination and spirit will have you ready for whatever may lie ahead.
It won’t be easy. Things that are worth learning about, working for, fighting for and living for never are. Despite everything we have gone through together, I am grateful that I got to do this with you, with your teachers, with your parents, with this community. I have cherished every hello in the morning, every conversation in the hallway, every interaction in my office, every game, competition, musical, concert and yes, even every zoom meeting. You should to. Because one day when you are older (like me) you will look back on your high school years and you won’t remember masks, desk shields or social distancing. You will remember those little things like a conversation with a friend, dancing to a Whitney Houston techno song at the Prom, a “yeah white” cheer as you won a game, a few words with a teacher, or maybe, just maybe, a high five from a Principal who cared about you very much and you will realize that those little things, really were the big things that made a difference.
I’m probably dating myself but in closing I’m going to paraphrase a quote from the movie, “The Matrix.” If you haven’t seen it I’m sure it’s on Netflix and I suggest you watch it…..” I don't know the future. I didn't come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it's going to begin. In a few short moments you will leave this field and there will be no bells, no student handbook, no walls and no boundaries.…..There is a world waiting for you where anything is possible. Where we go from here is a choice I leave to you.. Step outside your comfort zone...have no fear…..Face Everything and Rise. Thank you for being a part of Pequannock Township High School, for being a part of my life these past seven years and thank you for all you will do to make this world a better place for all of us. We believe in you! We love you! Let’s Go Panthers! Congratulations to the PTHS Class of 2021!
We are heading into the last week of the school year. Saying it is one thing but seeing it in writing is another. It has been a year that has put education to the test. Administrators, teachers, students and parents have been pushed to the breaking point and beyond as everyone has navigated leading, teaching and learning together. There have been challenges, successes and everything in between. There have been moments of confusion, frustration, doubt, wonder, awe and joy. There has been disappointment but there has also been celebration. Despite all we have been through, it is a year that we cannot take for granted.
In our district, we have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to be together in school for an extended period of time despite the pandemic. Technology has certainly been at the forefront of our success with chrome books and cameras that enabled us to "see" each other in various capacities, regardless of our location. It has enabled us to continue to teach, to create, to engage and to connect. We can't take it for granted that this is the reality in every school throughout the country. We can't take for granted the relationships that have been formed with students, teachers, administrators, parents and the school community. We must utilize those relationships to start off a new school year stronger than we are leaving this one. Sometimes we took what school was prior to the pandemic for granted. The cooperative groups, busy hallways, flexible seating, paper based assignments, mask-less smiles, even high fives. Whether we are a student, a teacher, an administrator, a parent or a community member, we must recognize that "school" is different now. Different doesn't mean bad. It doesn't mean it got worse. It's different. It doesn't mean that the cooperative groups, busy hallways, flexible seating and high fives won't be back. What it means is that we have an opportunity to reshape what school can be for students and teachers. It means that we have the opportunity to use some of the good things we have learned during the pandemic and create better learning experiences for our students (and staff). It means we have the unique chance to start over. Yes, this year has been hard.. We shouldn't take for granted all that has been accomplished. In the end, it may be what we look back on as the time that made all the difference in what the future of education will become.
It was nice to be back in the building with students for five days this week. Our new Wednesday schedule was the first time in more than a year that students were able to see all of their teachers in person in one day. There was a renewed sense of energy in the hallway and an excitement from the students that was palpable. While it gives us hope for the future, it is important to recognize the importance of taking one step at a time.
This year has been a year of building on successes, learning from experiences and recognizing that sometimes the steps we take to get to where we want to go don't always go according to plan or at the pace that we want them to go. Eleven years ago today was the date I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins T-Cell Lymphoma. It is a day that causes me to pause, reflect and appreciate that every step matters. The steps forward, the steps backward, the steps that sometimes go off to the side and even the steps that you don't take, all contribute to your daily success. You have to take time to stop and appreciate the views along the way.
Next week it will be a year since our school met as a staff in two delayed openings days to figure out a plan for what two weeks of remote learning would be like for teachers and students. We've taken a lot of steps since then in a variety of directions. We have gone a long way. Two weeks turned into four months which has turned into a year. Have you stopped along the way to view what you have actually accomplished in your classrooms, what you have accomplished as a school, as a collective community? Everyone wants to take the next step forward in order to get back to what "school" used to be. We have gone through a lot and have learned too much to go back. Let us take one step at a time, celebrating the little victories and recognizing that success is as much about the journey as it is about the destination. I have taken a lot of steps in the past 11 years and I am grateful for every one of them...the easy ones and the tough ones. The last year has not been easy for anyone. However, we have to be reminded that we are never on this journey alone. We are in this together. Every step of the way. We got this. #strongertogether
I was sitting in on our Marketing class this week and the class was having an intriguing discussion with their teacher, Mr. Honig, on the marketing strategies behind some of this year's Super Bowl commercials. One commercial that was being discussed was a Toyota commercial that depicted a young girl who was adopted that unfortunately was born with a condition that required her legs to be amputated (below). However, through the commercial you saw her become an accomplished swimmer, in fact at 13x Paralympic champion. I remember seeing it the night of the Super Bowl and getting goose bumps. I got that same feeling again watching it in Mr. Honig's class. The ending of the commercial says "We believe there is hope and strength in all of us."
February is always a tough time of year. It's the post holiday lull, the cold of winter, snow on snow on snow, long stretches without a break, the newness of the school year is in the past and oh yeah...we are still dealing with a pandemic. The weight that is being carried by many, (staff, students and parents), is certainly being felt. However, as I watched this commercial, I couldn't help but think I'm pretty lucky. First, I was getting to experience a really cool lesson and discussion with a teacher and his students in the middle of what has been an unbelievably difficult year for teachers and students. Secondly, I was reminded that I am reaching another milestone of 11 years of beating cancer in a few weeks. While I can't compare myself to the young lady in the commercial, if I had to wear a mask at work 11 years ago, I can do it now. Lastly, I have watched students and staff be my hope and strength for the past 11 months. You have not given up. You have not given in. You have persevered through whatever obstacles have come in your way. Education right now is a herculean effort on everyone's part. There are many days where it feels like we are swimming against the tide and it isn't easy. However, there are always different ways to look at things. We are lucky that we still have the opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of students. If we continue to believe in each other, pick each other up and watch out for each other, I have no doubt that we will be stronger for it. It isn't easy, but when this over, what we accomplished together will be much like Jessica Long's story in the commercial......AMAZING. There is hope and strength in all of us. #pantherstrong
Today we reached the official halfway point of the school year as the second marking period comes to an end. The halfway point can have people thinking, "Wow, it's already the halfway point? Time is flying!" It can also have us thinking, "We are only halfway? It feels like it is March 295th." While the challenges of this year I'm sure have many of us feeling more like its March 295th, it is hard to believe that we are halfway to the conclusion of another school year.
Whatever you may be thinking, we still have a big chunk of time to make the most out of this school year. Rather than dwelling on what we cannot do, let us all focus together on what we can do. This week at our school we had the opportunity to see our students again in person after almost two months in a virtual environment. We had the opportunity to interact with our colleagues, to have much needed conversations about teaching, but more importantly about our families and about life. Would I enjoy having more students attending school? Yes. Would I love to not have to meet with people virtually? Yes. Can I believe that it is only the halfway point of the year? No. But this week was not just a halfway point. It was a "restart" for what is capable of being a very memorable and exciting remainder of a school year. There is still time to make meaningful progress toward our professional goals, toward student achievement and overall school improvement. We have accomplished a lot since we started together in September with classrooms that were half empty. We still have a school year that is half full. It's all about perspective. #pantherstrong
A message to teachers.......
On Tuesday night I was working with my son as he wrote an essay for his Social Studies class on whether he thought the electoral college or the popular vote was a more effective method in electing a president. We researched various articles together, worked on a graphic organizer and I watched him as he gathered his thoughts about what it all meant. We talked about this year's election. It was one of those "teachable moments" as he was learning about what was happening in the moment. Then yesterday (Wednesday) happened. As I watched the events unravel on television, I was at a loss for words. Personal feelings aside, one of the first things that came to my mind was, "How do I explain this to Ryan? How do we explain this to the students tomorrow in school?" In sounding like a broken record over the last several months, today was a day like no other.
Today was a day students needed the opportunity to ask questions, to write about their feelings, to gain an understanding of the facts about what happened. There were students who were confused, concerned, angry and scared. There were some of us who may have felt that way too. Depending on who people are listening to, stories and "facts" are very different.
Regardless of our personal feelings, today was more than a "teachable moment." It was an opportunity to listen, to discuss and to unite. Over the next several days as more thoughts come to the forefront, consider these questions as discussion points (courtesy of Dr. Elizabeth Sheridan, my Supervisor of Social Studies).
Stay with the facts. Discuss and steer the conversation to what was reported by the news media and stated by people in interviews.
Reiterate - The freedom of press and the news media is imperative to a democracy. The press reports on what elected officials and people do. That’s their job. Media and attacks on the media weaken our ability to learn what wrong-doings happen.
Ask - How should one proceed when one disagrees with an outcome or a decision? What if the resolution is one that you still don’t like - what can someone do that is productive?
Ask - Why do you think people act differently in groups rather than as individuals? How can that be dangerous?
Ask - How can peaceful protests be productive?
Ask and discuss - What can we do to restore faith in our democratic processes? What might you suggest to address the concerns raised over the last several years?
Ask and discuss - How do we listen and hear each other better? How can we learn about different perspectives and experiences that shape people’s lives and beliefs?
Ask - What role do you think social media plays in creating division and distrust? How can we address that? How do we verify information? How do we sort fact from falsehood?
Do not feel that you have to discuss this in your classrooms. However, students may want to. Many of these students will be voting in the next election and the future is in their hands. Know that you don't have all the answers. I know I don't. But what we do have is the ability to listen....to allow students to express their feelings in a respectful way and to remind them that they will be the future leaders of this country who will hopefully act more respectfully than the people who decided to turn a peaceful protest into a destructive one.
I know that you will do what is best for your students. You always do. Continue to teach with courage, with heart, with respect and with the professionalism that makes our responsibility as teachers so amazingly great.
My #oneword for 2021 is hope. It will continue to drive me in my decision making, my ideals and my dreams. My hope will be with us, our students and our country tomorrow and into the future.
I miss giving high fives! I took it for granted when I high-fived a student because I saw something great. I took it for granted when I high-fived a staff member for doing something incredible in the classroom. I took it for granted giving someone a high five or a fist bump just because it was good to see them. Whether it is a high five, a fist bump or even a thumbs up, we all need signs of approval, encouragement and positive energy as we go about our day....especially during these uncertain times in education.
Right about now, since we will stick with the social distance theme, we are all needing to see a thumbs up. Whether it is to let us know you can hear us on Zoom, to let a student know they did a good job on the assignment they turned in, to give us the go ahead that we can come back in person to school, or just to give a boost needed make it through the school day, it is nice to know that we are all in this together and we are here to lift each other up.
Whether you are in school in person now or when you return to school in person after the new year, we all need to continue to be there for each other. We all need to see signs of encouragement and boosts of positive energy. This is really hard. You are doing a great job. Whether you are a teacher, a staff member, a student, or a parent, we are teaching and learning through unprecedented times. You are bringing your best selves every day, whatever that may be given the circumstances. I am excited to welcome my students and staff back after being remote for the last month. Although I would love to give everyone a high five when I see them tomorrow, I have a feeling my thumbs are going to be pretty busy!
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.
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.