Making Memories of a Lifetime

By David K. Pennington/School Administrator, May 2015

PrezCornWhen I learned, as AASA president, I had the opportunity to represent the association at a 10-day event in the Dominican Republic, I was thrilled. The Dominican Republic was one area of the Caribbean that I always had wanted to visit but had not had the chance. And what’s more, the event was scheduled at the end of January/beginning of February. What a great time to visit!

    However, as radio broadcaster Paul Harvey used to say, “Stand by for the rest of the story.” As it turned out, this was not an invitation to represent AASA at an international education conference. Rather, it was an invitation to be a part of the annual Lifetouch Memory Mission. Since 2000, Lifetouch employees have traveled to destinations around the world to spend a week volunteering. This particular mission was to complete the second floor of a vocational school in Constanza, a city of about 60,000 residents in the mountains in the center of the Dominican Republic.

    I was well aware of the Lifetouch Memory Mission program. Like many of you, for the past few years I have watched the Lifetouch presentation during our national conference highlighting the company’s most recent trip. While I always found the presentation heartwarming, helping build a school was not something I had a desire to do. So when I received this invitation, I hesitated. I had shoulder surgery scheduled for the middle of November and I was not sure I would be well enough to participate, but the real reason I hesitated was that I am not what you would call “handy.” In fact, the only tools that we have at our house (outside of a screwdriver and hammer) are the ones my wife has accumulated over the years.

    After a discussion with my surgeon (including my promise not to lift anything above my shoulders) and with assurances from the Lifetouch staff that construction skills were not a requirement to participate, I agreed to go.

Serving as president of AASA has afforded me several once-in-a-lifetime experiences, but I have no doubt that when I think back on my year, this event will stand out above all others. What made it so special was the people involved, beginning with the staff of Lifetouch and World Servant, the organization that partners with Lifetouch for this event. This year our group consisted of 50 individuals — superintendents, principals, teachers, PTA members and Lifetouch employees. Executive Director Dan Domenech and Noelle Ellerson, AASA’s associate executive director for policy and advocacy, joined me in representing AASA.

    Everyone who participates in an event like this takes something away from the experience. For me, there were three takeaways: (1) Being purposeful is vital to building an effective team; (2) The key to effective teaching is building relationships with students; and (3) You never can have enough time at recess.

    Of these takeaways, the most significant for me was recess. Each day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, we put down our tools, took off our gloves and joined the students for their recess. I have never seen so many adults have so much fun. It was at recess that the members of the memory mission team connected with students, where language and cultural barriers crumbled and where the strongest relationships between team members were built.

    My experience in the Dominican Republic reminded me how important play is for children and adults. We probably will not be restoring morning and afternoon recess at our elementary schools, but we must find a way to purposely provide more recess time for students. And on those days when I need a break, I plan to go to one of my elementary schools and join the students on the playground.

David Pennington is AASA president for 2014-15. E-mail: Twitter: @DavidPennid