This morning I have the opportunity to speak to all 1,250 employees of Worthington Schools. Who would have ever thought that a kid like me would have the privilege and honor to speak to the educators in Worthington? Those were long odds. It’s my first address as Superintendent of Schools and while I hope I’ll have this opportunity every year for the next 20 years, I approached this year as if I may only get one opportunity and decided to share what matters most to me in public education: That every child knows they have a trusted adult, or many trusted adults in our schools, who believe in their ability to learn and who are vested in their success. That we will set high expectations for student success and will partner with our students to help them achieve those high expectations through hard work and positive relationships. Here’s what I plan to share this morning: (Caution: this is long. I plan to speak for 18 minutes. I hope it’s worth your time.)
“It was the fall of 1982. I remember the day was one of those perfect, yet rare fall days. I was standing on the playground of Worthington Hills Elementary near where they had painted white lines for a time-out box. I wasn’t in the time-out box, but I was near the time-out box. Josh Ness, one of my fourth grade classmates from Worthington Hills came up to me on the playground. He told me that he was smart and I wasn’t. He knew he was smart because he was in EPP and I wasn’t. Now, I had no question that Josh was right, but I also had no idea what he was talking about. What in the heck was EPP? Was that even a word in English? (For those of you who don’t know, EPP is the acronym we have used in Worthington for many years for our elementary gifted and talented program.) So, I had no idea what Josh was even talking about, but I also assessed that he was correct. Josh was very smart and I was not.
See by the fourth grade, my first year in Worthington Schools, I had developed a fixed mindset about my abilities in school. I believed that there were many smart kids in my classes, kids like Josh Ness and then there were a few kids like me who weren’t very smart. Most people seemed to accept this thought process and they may say “school is just not Trent’s thing.” It never occurred to me that it was possible that through hard work and extra practice I could improve my cognitive ability, so…I didn’t. Instead I invested in the things that were my thing. I was a gym class champion. I could catch a football and throw a lacrosse ball. Classroom work, well that was for the smart kids.
With that mindset I muddled through fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grade before I became a freshman at Worthington High School. At that time all freshmen attended the Kilbourne Building (now Kilbourne Middle School) and only 10th – 12th graders attended this building. In 9th grade I was signed up for more challenging course work than I had been earlier in my academic career. Well, that was going to be an issue. I wasn’t smart. If I couldn’t do the coursework, why even invest the effort. Thus, I invested my efforts elsewhere. I learned how to sneak out at lunch to walk to the Home Market, buy a sandwich and eat on the roof of the store. Once I led my classmates in a shared experience. Unfortunately not a positive shared experience. When our Spanish teacher Mr. Benacazar turned his back we all threw our super balls at the wall. They bounced for a long time and Mr. Benacazar turned many shades of red. And, with that effort, or lack of effort, I finished my freshman year with a one point something grade point average and still no belief that I could actually learn.
In coming to main campus in 10th grade my mom thought it would be a good idea for me to take Etymology class. Etymology was an English elective that she was certain would help me do better on the SAT and ACT. (I took each test three times by the way.) Much like EPP, I had no idea what Etymology was but when I arrived for my first class there was an empty seat next to Nicole Van Steyn. All of the sudden Etymology was my favorite class. (Now, just to be clear, I was not confident enough to actually talk to Nicole Van Steyn, and had she spoken to me I may have passed out and needed medical attention. But, as long as that seating arrangement held I would be on time and ready to learn in Etymology.)
And, that’s when my life began to change. Nicole Van Steyn had nothing to do with that, sadly, but instead I met my Etymology teacher, Jan Fish. Mrs. Fish was new to Worthington High School and she treated me differently than any other teacher I can remember. She expected me to learn in her class. She offered to help me learn, she reviewed with me what I needed to learn, but she expected that I could and would learn. Not only that, but she took an interest in me as a person. She would meet me and others at Dalts and talk Etymology and life. She would attend my athletic contests and would discuss them with me in class. (Sometimes even in front of Nicole Van Steyn.) I knew she cared. In Etymology I succeeded. I think I earned a B-. For me that was a huge success. And, it led to more. As the semester ended Mrs. Fish pulled me aside and asked me to sign up for her advanced composition course. Really, me? Advanced Composition? But she believed in me, so I found myself the next year in the basement of this school sitting at an Apple 2E learning that writing is rewriting. More importantly I began to believe that I could really write. And that belief, that was fostered by Mrs. Fish, carried over into many of my other classes. I still graduated from Worthington High School in the bottom half of my class with a 2.6 grade point average, but because of Mrs. Fish’s high expectations and relationship building I was beginning to believe I could do class work.
From Worthington High School I went off to college at Taylor University. (Famous alumni of Taylor include Worthington Kilbourne’s Jon Sprunger.) My goal at Taylor was to not flunk out. Seriously, that was my goal. Just don’t flunk out. I was not confident I could handle college level work and I just didn’t want to flunk out.
At Taylor I played football and likely that’s how I got into school. My freshman year I began the season third string on the depth chart and as fate would have it both of the guys in front of me tore their ACL’s and thus midway through our first game I found myself as the starter. I started all year long and my position coach was Dr. Joe Romine. Dr. Romine was also the college athletic director and he was a gruff, no nonsense guy. For the first four months I knew him I did everything possible to avoid him. He would bark at me BOWERS, and he was tough. In our final game my freshman season we were playing our archrival Anderson University. I dropped an easy touchdown catch on third down (I turned to run before looking the ball into my hands) and coming off the field Coach Romine met me with a face so red I can’t believe he didn’t have a stroke. That was 24 years ago and I can picture that face like it was yesterday.
As our season ended each player had to meet with the head coach and their position coach for a season evaluation. As a freshman boy I was feeling pretty good about myself. I had started all 10 games that season and I hadn’t yet flunked out. I went into the evaluation expecting to hear really good things. Coach Romine didn’t even show-up and the head coach looked at Coach Romine’s written comments and read them to me: “Bowers has very little athletic ability, but takes coaching well.” The head coach looked up at me and I kid you not, all he said was, “keep it up.” That was it, end of my big end of season evaluation. I guess I wasn’t as important as I thought I was.
The first semester ended in December and in those days there were no computer based grades (there of course was no internet or email either…) so first semester grades would be mailed to my home over break. When my grades came my parents opened the perforated paper with care. They looked at the grades and then they danced around the family room like they had won the lottery. I had a 2.8 grade point average my first semester in college. It was the highest I had ever had. I was not going to flunk out. My parents were more surprised than even I was. Boom, a 2.8! (On a side note it’s all perspective. My wife had a 3.4 GPA her first semester and cried because she had never received below an “A” in her life.)
At Taylor January is it’s own term. So as the January term began I was heading to the Taylor weight room to get a workout in. I was wearing my all purple workout suit and my black Nike high tops when I spotted Dr. Romine working the ticket booth at the basketball game. Immediately I tried to avoid him. I thought, don’t make eye contact, walk fast, don’t look up. That’s when I heard his booming voice “BOWERS.” Stink, he saw me. I went over to Dr. Romine, “Yes, Coach.” He said, “what were your grades first semester?” I smiled, stood up straight and very proudly said, “Coach I had a 2.8 GPA.” He just looked at me… then he grabbed the back of a basketball game program and asked, “what are you taking this semester?” I told him about my class schedule, he did some math on the program and then said some simple words that changed my life forever. He said “Get an A this term and your GPA will be a 3.0. Don’t ever let it get below a 3.0.” A 3.0 GPA, really? Me?
While earning a 3.0 GPA would be nothing to many college students, I had never even considered this possible. There were smart kids like Josh Ness and there were kids like me. My mindset was totally fixed. And while Mrs. Fish began to change how I thought about learning and about my abilities it really never occurred to me until Dr. Romine said those simple words to me that I could do better. Not only that, Dr. Romine expected that I would do better and like Mrs. Fish he invested in my life on a personal level and over the next four years he showed me he cared about me, he cared about my family, and he cared about my future. The truth is I didn’t go on to earn my doctorate in education because I someday wanted to be the Superintendent of Worthington Schools, (although that is a pretty cool thing…) I earned my doctorate in Education because my senior year in college I promised myself I would because I wanted to be just like Dr. Romine.
Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck wrote the book “Mindset, the New Psychology of Success.” In her book Dr. Dweck explains that there are fixed mindsets and that there are growth mindsets. Those with fixed mindsets see intelligence as static. From an early age I operated with a fixed mindset about myself. Sadly most well intentioned adults cultivated this fixed mindset, and likely, they even bought into it. At Worthington High School whether it was a conscious decision or not Mrs. Fish believed differently. Mrs. Fish operated from a Growth Mindset. A Growth Mindset believes that intelligence can be developed. And over time I began to believe that I could learn, grow and achieve. It took Dr. Romine’s tough love approach and seeing success for a number of years before I began to think differently about my own abilities. Over time I began to believe that with the right amount of effort and support I could learn.
I share my story with you today because it’s the story I know best, but also because I believe many of you can relate to my story. Likewise I believe we have literally thousands of students in Worthington Schools who don’t believe they can learn at the level that is necessary.
Jan Fish and Joe Romine changed how I thought about myself and in so doing they literally changed the trajectory of my life. They’re very different people with different styles but they both had several important things in common. First, they had high expectations for me. They didn’t lower their expectations, instead they were very clear about what was expected but also clear that they would help me get to what was expected. I would have to work hard, but they would support me and they would not rest until I was successful. Secondly, they invested in me as a person. They took the time to learn about me and about my family. They gave of themselves and spent time talking with me. In Mrs. Fish’s case at Dalts, or in Dr. Romine’s case in the athletic office at Taylor. I knew they cared about me academically, but more importantly I knew they cared about me as a person.
It’s a simple combination really, one that can be repeated over and over again. Set high expectations for success, commit to helping every child get there, and take the time to make sure students know you believe in them and you care about them. I believe if all 1,250 of us commit to doing just that then there will be great power.
In 2015 there are many different ways students can choose to learn. They have options. They can learn online, they can go to a local charter school, or to a local private school. Students can take courses at our local universities and some of these courses are even offered on our campus. Worthington Schools has a whole lot to offer, but I think where we can, and will, differentiate ourselves from the market is with a personal approach. We will be 1,250 adults who spend time building positive relationships with our students and our families. Every child who attends Worthington Schools should know that they have a trusted adult, or many trusted adults, who believe in their ability to learn and who are vested in their success. Families will continue to choose Worthington as their educational provider because they will know that every adult who comes in contact with their child knows them personally and really cares about them.
It does not matter if you are a bus driver, a teacher, the custodian, a food service professional, or a member of the office staff. Our number one job is to engage with our students and to help them believe in themselves. Some students come to us with this belief firmly established. We need to foster that belief, nurture it and expand upon it. Some students are like I was. Those students need to know that someone believes they can and will be successful. Sometimes it takes a trusted adult believing in you before you can believe in yourself. Sometimes it may take many trusted adults before a child can begin to believe that growth is possible. Whatever it takes, that’s Worthington Schools! Every one of us plays a major role in this goal. It won’t be easy. Kids don’t always play nice in the sandbox. Sometimes they throw super balls at the wall. Sometimes they sneak off campus and eat lunch on the roof of the Home Market. Love them anyway! Believe in them anyway! Hold them to high standards, but help them achieve those high standards!
When it’s all said and done our goal is to make a positive difference in the lives of our kids and their families. It won’t always be easy, actually it will almost never be easy, but it will be worth it. It’s the reason we’re here!
Learning to have a Growth Mindset for yourself and for all of our students is important. I still have to make that choice for myself everyday. We have 9,700 or so students in Worthington Schools. My dream for this year and for every year is that each of those students knows that the adults in their school believe they can be successful and will do everything possible to help them be successful. That’s our number one goal for this school year and together we will make it happen. It will be Worth It!”