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My Vital Signs

BY MARY M. CALLAHAN

A son-in-law jokes that in my home I am the queen of posters, collecting an array of colorful signs expressing my feelings. My school district office is no different.

I have a shopping bag printed “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance” (Derek Bok); a bumper sticker that says, “No more education cuts!” (NYSUT, a teachers’ union); and a framed magazine cover with the words “Arts, Ethics, Compassion and Music “crossed out with a big X on a chalkboard, replaced by “Money, Bottom Line, Output and Layoffs” (Phi Delta Kappan).

Best of all is a reprint of a magazine cover depicting a school board member traveling on a raft down a river, trying to fight the currents. On one side, a sign says “Advancement of Education” with individuals labeled “superintendent” and “teachers” calling out, “We want higher salaries, new buildings, extension of school activities.” On the opposite bank, individuals labeled “critic” and “taxpayers” stand with fists in the air yelling. Their sign says “increase of school taxes.” The reprint is from the American School Board Journal — in January 1915!

Competing Needs

This is my 30th year as an educator. Yet as the latter cover suggests, much has remained the same over time. We talk about change — collaboration, Common Core, teamwork, communication and evaluation — but change comes slowly.

Certainly, teachers always will be on the frontline, tending to stay put for more years than many administrators who move from district to district to broaden and advance their careers. Board members come and go. They may serve as little as one three-year term, while others volunteer for two decades or longer.

There always have been and will continue to be competing needs for scarce resources for Advanced Placement classes, English as a second language and special education programs, which are constantly balanced against the taxpayers’ ability or desire to pay for public education. This is additionally hampered by the insertion of government in establishing formulas requiring super-majority voter acceptance. All of these conflicts are cast in colorful wordage as I glance at my office posters.

One major shift over time, however, has been the change in the structure of the family along with the loss of quality time between parent and child, as well as federal and state accountability measures to improve outcomes regardless of students’ socio-economic background.

A Fitting Phrase

I also have a framed poster of “Life’s Little Instructions” from H. Jackson Brown Jr.’s book of the same name. I have benefited from his reminders about such personal and professional goals as “strive for excellence, not perfection,” “say please and thank you a lot,” “stop blaming others,” “take responsibility for every area of your life,” “take care of those you love” and “leave everything a little better than you found it.”

Finally, I have a sign on my office door that says “Unless it’s fatal … it’s no big deal!” This aphorism truly is one against which I measure situations at school and in my personal life. Every issue can be addressed, regardless of the stress level. That is, all but one. The only matter that stops us in our tracks is personal health, whether it be a concern for the health of a student, a colleague, a family member or oneself.

So while I may not be original, I think I am grounded in what I think is important. I visually offer my beliefs in the form of posted quotations for everyone to appreciate, and, maybe, to see reflected in my life’s work.

Mary Callahan is the assistant superintendent for business of the Port Washington School District in Port Washington, N.Y. E-mail: Mcallahan@portnet.k12.ny.us

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