Good morning and welcome back to another school year. Each September affords us an opportunity to return to our classrooms, recharged and with a new outlook on the year that lies ahead. It is wonderful to see all of you today, an opportunity to reacquaint with each other after what I hope was an enjoyable summer.

Each of you has dedicated yourselves to what I believe is the most noble profession, one which keeps our students at the center of every decision. So it is most fitting to kick off each year with our students leading our Convocation ceremony. At this time, I ask that everyone please stand. Please join me in welcoming our VHS students with a round of applause.

(Pledge of Allegiance)

(National Anthem)

(Student Opening Performance)

Thank you to our students for sharing your talent with us. There are 300 adults in the audience this morning that have collectively supported you to where you are today. I speak on everyone’s behalf when I say we are proud of you and how you represent Verona. Thank you for working so hard and good luck this year. Please join me in giving our students another round of applause.

Many of you have had a busy and enjoyable summer. You spent time at the beach, hiking, and traveling. Some of you managed to sneak in a little summer teaching while others were content in catching up on some well deserved sleep. And now we are back.

I would like to welcome our new staff members to Verona. Would all of our new staff please stand? Please join me in giving them a warm welcome. To our new faculty, I encourage you to lean on the experienced staff in your new schools, as mentors and friends. They will be there to support you this year.

Many of you have already had an opportunity to return to your classrooms. And if you have done so, you know that our schools look amazing! Here are just a few photos to show you what I mean.

There is a lot of behind the scenes work that goes into getting this place ready for day one. Our entire staff has been hard at work and accomplished a great deal this summer. Please join me in thanking our custodial and maintenance staff, administrative assistants, IT staff, and our administration who have done an incredible job in making sure our schools are ready for opening day.

As we begin a new year,  what we know for sure is the work that you do, teaching and learning, is very complex. I could get up here and talk about test scores, metrics, programs, and goals. But I won’t do that.

Instead, I want to share with you some reflections I find to be far more worthy for us and for our students. Each child in front of you tomorrow will sit in your class, each with their own set of strengths, while having unique areas where growth is needed. There is no doubt that you have already set plans in motion to help each of your students to mature, develop, and learn.

But how do we, together, ensure that all of our students’ needs are being met? Teaching can be quite an isolating profession, one where you are limited to collaboration with colleagues most of the day as a result of being in your individual classrooms.

This past summer, I stumbled upon an article that highlighted research where Google (Schneider, 2017) set out to discover the most important variables that influence high performing teams. They came up with these 5 factors:

#1 – Dependability

Effective teams get things done on time and meet the high bar of expectations. Team members learn to apply what they know and do not procrastinate their work.

#2 – Structure and Clarity

High-performing teams have clear goals, and have well-defined roles and plans within the group. These teams track only a few things, stick to those goals which they have identified as most important, and then go accomplish them.

#3 – Meaning

The work you do has personal significance to each member of the team. That’s an easy one for us. What motivates your work is seeing the fruits of your labor, and positively affecting children every day.

#4 – Impact

The group believes their work is purposeful and positively impacts the greater good. Team members believe their work matters and creates change. You clearly see this in both the short and long term with your students.

So those are only four factors that contribute to high performing teams. The fifth is the one that stood out to me the most.

#5 – Psychological Safety

Team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other. They feel comfortable and trust that no one will embarrass them for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.

We all remember learning about Maslow: basic needs, psychological needs, and self-fulfillment needs. And that the basic needs must be met in people before we can expect psychological needs to be possible. In turn, psychological needs must be secured in order for self-fulfilling needs to be achieved.

Google found that teams with psychologically safe environments, where everyone is safe to take risks, voice their opinions, and ask judgment-free questions, had employees who were less likely to leave, more likely to harness the power of diversity, and ultimately, who were more successful.

So I imagine the same must be true if we not only create this sort of environment for each other, but most importantly, for all of our students. After all, our mission statement challenges us to help each child to achieve their full potential. The only way to help our students reach that goal is to support their psychological needs so they can attain self-actualization. What if all of our students felt safe, all of the time?

I happened to be watching the MTV video music awards last week. Although the majority of the VMA’s was a bit of a blur to me, there were two memorable moments that struck me. The first was by Logic, a rapper, whose top chart hit entitled 1-800-273-8255, is intentionally the same number as the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, raising awareness on this important issue and acceptance of people of all backgrounds.

The second, was a message by musical artist Alecia Beth Moore, who we all know as Pink. She was an honored award recipient and gave a moving acceptance speech to her daughter about loving yourself for yourself.

This past summer, I had the opportunity to read a new children’s book that was recommended by Dr. Bangia. The book is entitled Wishtree, a simple yet important message intended for audiences age 10-14. It was a quick and easy read and I know that the copy of this book is currently circulating with our librarians. Wishtree is a beautiful story about family and community.

The author, Katherine Applegate, spreads a message about wishes, people’s wishes. The narrator of the story is Red, a wise and optimistic oak tree. On May 1st, each year, people in the community write down their hopes and wishes and attach it to the branches on Red the oak tree.

One wish in particular comes from Samar. Samar is a young Muslim girl whose family is the target of a hateful act from one of their neighbors. Samar has a wish to have a friend. Red, the  optimistic red oak tree, wants to do everything possible to grant Samar her wish. The story is simple. It is a beautiful, touching, and real message of friendship, inclusion, and religious tolerance. This message is so apropos today, perhaps more than ever, and we are all more closely related than some may think.

“This should be compulsory. There would be no such thing as extremism in this world if people knew their heritage.” An open world begins with an open mind. That is my wish for our students.

As educators, we have an ethical responsibility, perhaps today more than ever before, to make sure our students, the future generations of our world, understand acceptance and let go of labels. We need to nurture a community where our students accept all people for their differences. Our students must get to know them before we judge them. That’s what we want all of our students to learn. And if we are successful, then they will all feel safe every day.

Last year, our students wrote down their own wishes as one of the outcomes from our district action committees on Code of Conduct & Respect and Mental Health & Suicide Prevention. These wishes could easily have been hung from Red, the oak tree. But instead, our students helped design the following poster you see on the screen, a visual representation of what we stand for in Verona.

So it is with these WISHES from our students, those which help ensure their psychological safety that Google identified, that no matter how different we are from each other, be it race, religion, sexual orientation, or anything else for that matter, that we will continue to come together as a team, and teach our students what it means to be a good person.

In the infinite wisdom of Maya Angelou. “Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of the human meaning.”

This year, we will continue to build on inclusivity, acceptance, tolerance, and make sure our students understand this simple notion. All of you represent possibilities, the possibilities for your students. How will you make this message a powerful one, every day in your classrooms this year?

Thank you for all that you do. The effect you have on others is the most valuable currency that exists. I wish you an exciting first day and an amazing school year.

*Google Spent 2 Years Studying 180 Teams. The Most Successful Ones Shared These 5 Traits

Michael Schneider (2017) –