One of the great privileges I have as Superintendent of Worthington Schools is the opportunity to speak to our staff at our opening convocation the day before school starts.
“I’ve titled my talk this year “Big things big, small things small.” I first heard that phrase sometime last winter when I was in conversation with Worthington Hills 6th grade teacher Greg Ross. Greg attributed the phrase to the retired senior pastor at Worthington Christian Church, Dr. Marshall Hayden.
It was the summer of 69. Me and some guys from school, we had a band and we tried real hard. Jimmy quit, Jody got married, I should have known that we’d never get far. Oh, but when I look back now, that summer seemed to last forever….wait, I’m sorry, wrong summer.
It was the summer of 1967. Worthington was in the midst of a school building boom. Colonial Hills Elementary had been open for 12 years, Evening Street and Wilson Hill had been open only four years, Brookside was open for a mere two years and the new state of the art middle school, Worthingway Middle School had just opened the year before. After the passage of a bond issue in 1966 Worthington Estates Elementary was to open in the fall of 1967.
Construction on the new 20 classroom school had been difficult, but the school district had proceeded as scheduled. They had hired the Evening Street Principal Eugene Putterbaugh to be the Principal and open the new school. Eighteen teachers had been hired or moved from their current school to the new school. I can imagine that they had endured countless meetings about redistricting students from Colonial Hills, Wilson Hill and Evening Street to attend the new school. Families were frustrated because no one wants to move from their school and redistricting had occurred several times in the last five years. By late June Superintendent Harold McCord knew they had a problem. Because of construction delays Worthington Estates would not be ready to open school in the fall.
Mr. McCord had been Superintendent of Worthington Schools since 1938. He’d seen most everything during his tenure but he hadn’t had this issue. I imagine that he called a late night meeting of his team. It was summer but in my mind he was still in his full three piece suit and wore a grey fedora. He was joined at the administrative office building which at that time was in the Old Episcopal Rectory (west of the Worthington Inn on New England Ave in the building that most of us know today as the Doll Museum. The district did not move to the 752 building on the village green until 1978) by Principal Putterbaugh and Board of Education President Dr. Robert Holsinger Jr. The room was smoky as ash trays littered the table and each meeting participant attempted to calm their nerves with their Camel cigarettes. On the table were the maps of Worthington. Push pens showed the precise location of each Worthington student. These were the very maps these men had used several months earlier in the redistricting meetings that were held in each elementary school. The very maps that caused the resident on New England Ave to get an attorney to keep his child at Colonial Hills. These maps were now held down with ash trays and as the night progressed the smoky haze increased.
It was on that early summer night when a plan was hatched. There weren’t a lot of good options. School had to open after labor day and Worthington Estates would not be ready. Mr. McCord, Mr. Putterbaugh and Dr. Holsinger determined that first through third graders would attend Evening Street. (There was no kindergarten in 1967.) The Evening Street first through third graders would attend school in the morning and then in the afternoon the Worthington Estates first through third graders and their teachers would use the very same classrooms at Evening Street. All 4th graders from Evening Street and Worthington Estates would begin the school year at Brookside Elementary. All 5th graders from those two schools would attend the Kilbourne building and all 6th graders would attend Worthingway Middle School. It would work. It wouldn’t be easy. Teachers at all five schools would have to adapt. Parents would certainly be upset.
The meeting went late into the night and sometime after midnight Superintendent McCord headed home. He was restless and so he went out to his wood shop to work. It always relaxed him. It was going to be a long summer explaining these changes to parents and teachers. But, Big Things Big, Small Things Small. Where kids go to school, that was a small thing. The kids would adapt and may be better for it. Now the parents on the other hand….Superintendent McCord went and found a drink.
Fast forward 31 years and it’s 1998. I’m in my second year of teaching at Evening Street Elementary. I’m teaching sixth grade on a team with Jo Hall and Barb Spears. Down the hall from me is a young Tami Hinz who I was certain was a better teacher than I was and I was developing a complex about that. I had been hired at Evening Street as a fifth grade teacher the year before. When the school year ended I looped with my kids to sixth grade.
Back in 1998 it was common to be RIF’d after your first year of teaching. (Reduced in Force.) I held my breath all school year and as the end came and went I hadn’t been reduced. But, I was still nervous and so I mustered up my courage (and it took significant courage) to go talk with the principal at the time Dr. Anne Heffernan. Frankly, I was scared to death of Dr. Heffernan and truth be told, I kind of still am…. But, I puffed out my chest and Mrs. Given ushered me into Dr. Heffernan’s office. I asked her if I would have a job the following school year and she just kind of looked at me confused. Eventually she said, absolutely. You’re in good shape. “Sweet” I thought. I would move up on the seniority list for the next year and I felt like I was set. I felt so good about it, that my wife and I purchased our first home. 321 E. Selby Blvd in Colonial Hills. Neighbors with Tom O’Leary Jr and Meredith and Pete Bruns on the other side.
Teaching sixth grade was great. I just did whatever Jo Hall did and the fall flew by. Sometime in March of 1999 Dr. Heffernan asked me to stop by her office after school. That stopped my heart for a few seconds. I’m thinking, do you think she’s still mad that I didn’t complete my cumulative folders in the correct way last June? Or, maybe, does she know that I’m using John Ayre’s copy code and not sending my papers to the copy center? I’m ashamed to say that many thoughts went through my mind, but none of them prepared me for what she actually needed to see me about. When I got to Anne’s office she was behind her desk and she stood up and immediately handed me a sealed letter. She said, “I was told I had to give you this.” Uh-oh….
Slowly I opened the letter. It was only a few sentences but it informed me that I was being RIF’d for the following school year for .5 of my job. .5? How would that work, I don’t teach Kindergarten? What would I do? Dr. Heffernan didn’t have any answers but she certainly registered my concern. A few days later a man appeared at the doorway of my classroom. It was Dr. Gerald Prince the Director of Human Resources. He asked if I could speak to him for a minute in the hallway. No problem, I thought, my students are just busy writing their spelling words five times each. (Good instruction this was not…) Dr. Prince talked to me about the letter and just told me to be patient. It would all work out. I was like, um, how will it all work out…? Gerald had no specifics. He just repeated in the extremely kind and patient way that is Dr. Gerald Prince, “Trent, trust me it will work out.”
Here’s the thing. I couldn’t see it. I could see not having a job. I couldn’t see how this .5 thing was going to work. Would they make me teach kindergarten. Really? I had planned to teach and coach for my career. My goal was to have the kind of impact that a Vince Trombetti or Jon Sprunger have had over their career. That’s what I wanted to do in public education. I had never considered doing anything else. Now circumstances had changed. I became the Dean at McCord Middle School in the fall of 1999 (following Dan Girard’s departure from public education for a business venture) not because of any grand plan. I became the Dean because it was a full-time job and the job I had planned to stay in was no longer available. Or at least I was not patient enough to see that it would be available.
At that point in my life this was a big thing. In the end, it really was a small thing. Sometimes change happens like it did back in 1967. Kilbourne Middle opened as a 1-8 school. Eventually it became a 1-6 school and then it became the 9th grade school. In 1992 it served as our Linworth AP campus. Now it’s a 7-8 school. Every one of those changes was big at the time for those involved. In 1986 Sutter Park opened as an Elementary School. In 2005 we closed Sutter Park as an elementary school only to reopen it as a preschool. Big changes at the time for all involved. At one point the sixth graders from Slate Hill went to McCord Middle School and an 8th grade team from McCord was housed at Worthington Kilbourne High School. When enrollment dipped we closed Perry Middle School and created Phoenix Middle School. 25 teachers were reduced out of Worthington Kilbourne High School. If you were involved in any of these moves or if you read about them in the Worthington News they were big things. Staff were upset, people ran for school board seats to show their displeasure, parents hired attorneys. Big things at the time, small things in retrospect.
My personal story of change. To me at the time. Big. Giant! Rocked my world! I look back 20 years later. Small. Best thing that ever happened to me career wise. Put me where I needed to be. It’s true Tami Hinz was a better teacher than me.
Big things big, small things small. People tell me all the time that nothing ever changes in Worthington Schools. I tell them that’s a myth. Change has been constant. And, I’m here today to remind you that it will continue to be constant. Some of that change may include you. It may include where you teach, it may include what you teach, it may include where your own children go to school. Nothing stays the same and the only constant is change. I’m not certain what changes will be occurring in Worthington Schools in the next five years, but based on our enrollment trends I am certain that change will be occurring and it’s going to affect most every one of us, some of us in multiple ways. When that change happens, Big things big, small things small.
So, if everything I’ve listed is on the small things list, and in retrospect it is, even those things that felt big at the time, what qualifies as a big thing?
James Ford was the 2015 North Carolina Teacher of the year. In the January 31, 2017 edition of Ed. Week he said this, “ The relational part of teaching may very well be its most underrated aspect. It simply does not get the respect it deserves. When teachers are good at building relationships with students, the skill is sometime seen more as cover for a lack of content knowledge or wherewithal to instruct with rigor. James said, I see it differently. I’ve learned that when students enter a classroom with so many different base-level needs, a certain foundation has to be laid before true learning can take place.
Most beginning teachers are well-schooled on Benjamin Bloom. We’ve memorized, discussed and written about all of the stages of his taxonomy of the cognitive domain, from Remembering to Creating. In classrooms of our own, we continually push our students to the highest rungs of this cognitive ladder. What we often neglect, however, is that students have needs that transcend academics that must be met for learning to happen. These needs aren’t in the standards or curriculum.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow knew this. He theorized that there is a hierarchy of needs that humans constantly strive to meet. Our most basic needs begin with the physiological—food, water, rest, safety. Only when these are met can we concern ourselves with higher needs like social skills, education, esteem and self-actualization.
With that in mind, our first job as educators is to make sure that we learn our students, that we connect with them on a real level, showing respect for their culture and affirming their worthiness to receive the best education possible. Our students’ learning and high achievement are just the fruits of this labor. But the truth is before the seed is planted, the ground must first be prepared.
In the classroom, Maslow ALWAYS comes before Bloom. In Worthington we frame this focus on relationships with our students as our first priority. Be Kind to Kids.
Big things big, small things small. Change happens. In 1967 when Worthington Estates was to open that change was massive. It’s happened in large ways every decade for the past 50 years in Worthington. It will happen again soon. Likely both on a district level and potentially on a personal level. It will be O.K. It always is. Our focus in Worthington Schools is and always has been in taking care of our kids. In making sure they have a trusted adult who they know and cares about them and who believes in them. No matter where we teach kids. No matter what our attendance lines, we’ll keep things in perspective. How we take care of our kids, how we build relationships with them, invest in their lives, and help them grow and learn to meet their potential, those are the big things! Our mission in Worthington is to empower a community of learners who will change the world. In order to do that…Big things big, small things small. Be Kind to Kids! Have a great school year!”