Guest Column

A Personal Touch for Staying Connected

by DAVID P. SKLARZ

I was in a 5th-grade class recently when the new teacher introduced me to the students with great enthusiasm. “Children,” she announced, “this is our superintendent.” A student blurted out as if insulted, “We know who he is.”

I asked for a show of hands. “How many of you know who I am?” All but three hands went up. The new teacher was taken aback, saying in her last school district the students didn’t even know there was a superintendent and, if they did, he was perceived as Oz behind a giant wall who dispensed words of wisdom and ruled from on high on snow days.

So here’s my key to success in staying connected with students and teachers. I schedule a full-day visit at every school once a year, a day that belongs to the students and teachers alone. A week prior to my visit, the principal posts a sign-up sheet for teachers to schedule time for me to visit their classroom. Each teacher is allotted 20 minutes.

The purpose is made clear to all teachers and staff. The teachers can invite me to observe a class, ask me to read aloud, be an interview subject or work with students on something particular. They can use their time to discuss something of personal importance, such as more planning time or to suggest ways to save energy. I use the day to have lunch with parents so they have my undivided attention. It doesn’t make for a relaxing meal, but the experience does yield benefits.

Unexpected Benefits
With 16 schools in the district, I hold the potential for connecting with lots of students and teachers in different ways. Chances are good that by 5th-grade students know me and what I do and that I care about them. By then, they know what my hobbies are and, most importantly, how I decide to call a snow day.

It was the unexpected benefits of these visits that were so pleasing. Teachers discovered I was good with small children. They loved to watch me sitting in the big rocker in the kindergarten class reading the Runaway Bunny, a personal favorite. In the high schools, they also discovered I was as comfortable with teenagers owing to my days long ago as a high school history teacher.

The nature of my classroom forays evolved over the years. At first, teachers clearly were skeptical of my motives. I was a new face in the solitude of their room, and the two of us were swimming in uncharted waters. Some teachers in year one were unnerved by my presence, wondering why I was there and concerned I might be evaluating them. Some teachers found it a great opportunity to vent. Some sought my advice on instructional matters. Half of my time was devoted to class visits and half to individual meetings with teachers.

In the second year, almost no teacher meetings or venting took place. Most of my school days were spent in classrooms. The word was out that the superintendent had genuinely committed to know teachers and students. I believe my visits were positive for all.

By their actions, if not their words, teachers seemed to say, “Come watch me teach.” They showed me their best lessons, and I came to know some teachers over the years. I could see them do what they do best. We had connected on another level.

My experiences during the third year surprised me even more. The visits were divided between teachers who wanted me to watch their teaching methods and those who wanted me to observe what students were learning. That was when I knew I had hit upon the right approach.

One teacher invited me to her class’s morning meeting so I could see the power of starting a 2nd grader’s day. Another wanted me to see an AP Spanish class in the language lab or watch how writing prompts worked in 5th grade. It was Maslow’s hierarchy in action — first the need to be heard, then the need to show what they do best and finally the need to show what students know and can do.

Undivided Attention
I came away with another unexpected byproduct, which was getting a chance to see in action some new programs, materials and technology. Observing a class where an interactive whiteboard was masterfully used, recognizing what a teacher can do with a small class size or watching the effective use of a newly purchased math program are all much easier to defend at budget time when you personally can testify to the merits.

So many reasons chain us to our office. Of course, the work on my desk is still there after I’ve finished a day in the schools, but the payback connecting with the classroom is worth it all.

I worried, at first, that my visits would always be guarded and unrevealing. As I look back, I can identify several important clues for making them a worthwhile investment of time.

First, the class visits were all the result of teacher initiative and ultimately their call whether to participate. If the teacher wanted me to read aloud, that was fine. If the high school students wanted to debate the elimination of french fries from the cafeteria, that was OK too — and fun.

I’ve learned to relax and be myself, more than the guy in the dark suit. I’m not afraid to sit on the floor with young students, to sing with the high school chorus or to serve as a student’s chemistry lab partner.

Most importantly, I want the instructional staff to know they have my undivided attention. The central office is not to interrupt me except for a crisis of enormity. (9/11 was one of those days.) I don’t start my visitation day at the office; I don’t want the board member phone call to divert my attention.

Teachers have come to understand the most important thing I am doing as superintendent that day is spending time with them. I live by my word.

David Sklarz is superintendent of Marlborough Public Schools in Marlborough, Conn. E-mail: dsklarz@marlborough.k12.ct.us