Tuesday, June 23, 2009

You Live Where?

Italy . . . Sicily . . . Italia . . . Sicilia. I had been to Italy many times and loved it, but like many Americans, I had preconceived ideas about Sicily. And they weren’t good. It wasn’t until I paid a couple of visits there in my AVID job with DoDDS-Europe that I discovered Sicily was a well-kept secret. I decided that if I ever had the chance, I would like to live there. Lo and behold, my chance came in 2004 when Bad Aibling closed and I got a transfer there. I was thrilled to move to Sicily and to go to work with my friend Marj Lewallen as my principal.

I have a whole blog dedicated just to living in Sicily: Sicilian Odyssey. I knew it would be a special experience, and I wanted to share that with as many friends as possible. Blogs were something I had only heard of, but I decided to try it out. As of today, that blog about Sicily has had over 40,000 visitors!

Sigonella has been a wonderful place to live, to work, and to end my career in teaching. I feel like I’ve done my best teaching, learned the most, had the greatest impact, and made many friends for life.

How was my teaching experience here different from any other? The two major factors that made it so unique were (1) the Navy and (2) Sicily. All of my other DoDDS locations had been with the Army, and, while I love Navy kids and families, I have to say the Navy itself nowhere near as supportive or responsive as the Army. They mainly seem annoyed if they have to deal with you at all. And they just aren’t efficient or available. The community commander put up a wall, a fence, and a gate between his house and the school which just about started World War III. He didn’t even want teachers and kids walking on “his” street.

Sicily is what I call a “Two-and-a-half World Country,” not quite Third World, but close. Things never run smoothly and that affects our school. While we have, by far, the most beautiful new school in DoDDS-Europe, it is near impossible to get things running right or fixed. The fire alarm sounds in one building but not the other. But, you can have expresso or cappuccino with fresh Italian pastries at any time in the cafeteria (even some of the kids go for this stuff), palm trees and flowers surround the school, we have an original Sicilian cart in the foyer, sunshine three hundred days a year, and a view of Mount Etna to die for. The entire base is brand-new and looks more like a southern California college campus than a military base.

Because Sicily is at the southernmost tip of Europe, and our kids still compete in all the DoDDS sports, and it’s a very small high school (about 200), I fondly refer to it as Sigonella Part-time High School. More than half of our sporting events are away, which means at least one day of school missed for travel every week of every season. During tournament time, that equates to multiple days missed. During the recent spring sports tournaments, I actually had only twenty-six kids present and thirty-six absent over a two-day period. They bus them on 12-20 hours bus trips and sometimes fly the teams to Germany to compete. And this is a little-bitty high school, so they compete in the Championship for Little-Bitty Schools!

Navy kids and families, as I said, are great. There is a large Filipino population, which I had never experienced before, and the families are super-supportive of their kids’ success. They were great to work with.

Because Sicily is so ancient and so diverse in its historical populations, we have wonderful destinations for field trips. Kids typically go to Roman and Greek archaeological sites like Taormina, Siracusa, Agrigento, Catania, and Piazza Armerina to see theaters, temples, castles, mosaics, villas, forums, and more. They hike up on Mount Etna in the lava fields and learn first-hand about volcanoes. I took a group to see an original Greek play (2,400 years old) in an original Greek theater, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Every year, we take the Honors 10th graders to see the World War II German and British cemeteries and then to the Museum of the Invasion in Catania. It is a truly moving experience for them each time.
Chaos often reigns at Sigonella, for a variety of reasons, but, in the end, it’s always the teachers who pull things together and make them happen. At the beginning of the 2007-08 school year, we started the year with two new administrators (both with little to no experience), no secretary/personnelist, no supply clerk, and no registrar. But did we let that stop us? No! We opened on time just like everything was hunky-dory. We have some highly-dedicated, hard-working teachers and staff that go above and beyond (often) for the kids and the school. You have to be pro-active to get the things you need, to get things fixed, and to make things happen. Luckily, I have quite a few colleagues here who do just that: the ed tech who gerry-rigs the SMART board to make it work, the teacher who petitions the State Department to increase our Living Quarters Allowance, and school nurse who sponsors student council are just a few examples. Virtually everyone goes above and beyond to ensure a quality educational experience for these kids. (Below, Tina, Kendra, Pat and I lunching with The Standards)

I have had the best social life of my teaching career here in Sigonella. Maybe it’s because we are isolated and remote, but colleagues become friends become “family.” They are generally an inclusive group, and one never feels uninvited or left out. There are some “characters” here. I think that is the type of DoDDS teacher who thrives in Sicily. Outings, get-togethers, and support are abundant. We really care about each other. That is the magic of Sigonella.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Return to the Old Country

When I decided to return to DoDDS and Europe in 2002, I was at the mercy of human resources at headquarters. But I didn't leave it totally up to them. I contacted all the principals I knew for whom I would like to work and I ended up in the smallest school in the best location in all of Europe: Bad Aibling, Germany. The principal there, Bob Bennett, created a position and convinced the superintendent that he had to have me there. It worked!

Picture the Bavarian Alps, between Munich and Salzburg . . . beer gardens, lederhosen, edelweiss, and Sound of Music . . . that's Bad Aibling! It was the most beautiful, enchanting, healthful place I ever lived, and I would have stayed there forever if I could have. Sadly, they were on the chopping block to close, which they did, just two years after I arrived. Sigh.

But, while I was there, I thoroughly enjoyed the unique experience of working and living in a special place. Bad Aibling is a lovely German spa town. Bad Aibling Station was a "listening station" for Army military intelligence and National Security. Top secret stuff. Bad Aibling School was a kindergarten through twelfth grade school all in one building, with a total of about 185 students. Of those, about eighty were in grades 5-12 and only forty-some in 9-12. We graduated four kids our last year. The school was so big and the population so small, we kind of got lost in it. The superintendent joked that, upon one visit, he thought they had closed Bad Aibling and forgot to tell him because he didn't see any kids in the hall.

The school itself was in one of the typical German military buildings from World War II, and the classrooms were like bowling alleys. It was two stories high and you could walk half a mile from end to end without going outside. We were well-equipped. I think at one point we had at least two computers per kid. There was no need for locks on lockers, and many kids just left their stuff hanging on hooks or on the benches in the halls. It was too small to have any sports but basketball, cross-country, and co-ed soccer. The whole school, grades 1-12 used to enjoy a week of instruction in skiing in the Alps every year (till the last, when the principal, not Bob, nixed it). We also did a whole-school Volksmarch in the snow and took the entire 6-12 grades to see the latest Harry Potter movie in English in Munich (that was two buses).

I had the coolest colleagues and made some lifelong friends there. We were so remote . . . I believe that (like Sicily) is what draws people together. When we went out for Christmas dinner as a faculty, everyone wore Bavarian clothing, which was very popular there with all of us. One person joked that no matter where we ended up next, we could probably each outfit an entire cast of Sound of Music at our next school! We enjoyed Munich and the Alps and Salzburg and Chiemsee Lake and Berchtesgaden to the fullest. The entire faculty rafted on the Isar River and drank beer and schnapps all day while the band played on. I ran, biked, or hiked the mountains nearly every day. Life was good.

Teaching in this tiny school was an adventure and a challenge. I started the AVID program, and by the second year, forty percent of the students in 6-12 were enrolled in it! Today, nearly every one of them is in college and one is going to Harvard. My second and last year there, I seriously taught kindergarten through college. How's that? I taught elementary art K-5, AVID 6-12, and AP English Literature. This was the first time I'd taught little kids, and, although I was nervous as heck, I ended up loving it and they loved it, too! Kindergarteners totally frightened me, but I got used to them, too. There's something special about teaching all those ages at the same time. It definitely gives you the bigger picture of child development and what education is all about.

The base got smaller and smaller as closing drew near. The commissary was only open a few days a week. The post exchange, already quite small, got smaller and everything was randomly on sale. I used to joke that AAFES would send all the weird stuff in their warehouse to Bad Aibling ("They'll buy anything there because they don't have anything!"). I owned more CDs than they stocked. Luckily, though, we could buy whatever we need in the German towns. Another benefit--my German finally got good!

Our last year was only marred by an insecure principal who turned vicious and vindictive. People still talk about her to this day. However, it also had the effect of drawing some of us closer together and, to this day, we are fast friends. DoDDS took care of us. We were transferred all over the place--Germany, the Azores, the Netherlands, England, Japan, and ITALY!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Life at the Top

In 2001, I secured a year's leave of absence from DoDDS to take a position with the AVID Center as the Director of Professional Development at their Eastern Division office in Atlanta, Georgia. It was an exciting year professionally as I was in charge of all the professional development for AVID in states east of the Mississippi.

It's all a little fuzzy now, but, according to my VITA, "In this capacity, I designed and delivered staff development models and support, including AVID Summer Institute strands, staff developer selection and training, provision of professional development and ongoing support for AVID Regional Directors, development of online resources including a weekly e-newsletter and an online discussion group, development and updating of program and training materials; assumed responsibility for quality AVID implementation efforts by assisting directors with ongoing program and local professional development, developing and assigning technical support to meet local needs, oversight for certification processes and outcomes, dispensing program development advice, working with school boards and district and state administrators, assisting with alignment of state standards and AVID; overall coordination and leadership of the Eastern Division AVID Summer Institutes (over 1000 participants), including facilities coordination, strand content standards, staff developer materials and training guidelines, special events and ceremonies, and evaluation; communicated AVID's mission and unique capabilities to various external constituencies via media, direct personal communications, publication, proposals, and Awareness Sessions; and worked effectively with AVID Center personnel to provide positive motivation and inspiration at local, regional, state, national and international levels. Additionally, I worked closely with the College Board Florida Partnership program to bring the AVID program into Florida under their auspices in order to increase enrollment and success in Advanced Placement courses."

Wow! I did all that? It was a very busy year, and I learned so, so much. Some of the things that aren't on the VITA were more memorable. I traveled to Worcester, MA for AVID and found The College of the Holy Cross for my daughter Alison. I paid my first visit to New York City on an AVID trip and then walked the entire perimeter of the still-smouldering World Trade Center (see bottom of page). I represented AVID as a Distinguished Speaker at the Military Child Education Coalition conference in Tampa. I used my first walkie-talkie at the Atlanta Hilton and also got to stay in an executive suite. I met the granddaughter of George Washington Carver at the AVID banquet at Lithonia High School outside of Atlanta. I had the privilege to meet and work with three incredible and inspirational AVID students who were immigrants from Poland, the Ivory Coast, and Mexico. And I got to work all year long with Mary Catherine Swanson and the fantastic staff of the AVID Centers.

In the end, though, I missed Europe, DoDDS, the classroom, and teaching. I had to go back.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Principals I Have Known

This week, my principal at Sigonella, Sonny Bertschinger (at left), told the staff that he is being transferred to another school in Germany next year. Of course, the school was abuzz with who might be his replacement. In DoDDS, principals come and go quickly. I've already had three in just five years here. In the States, it doesn't happen as often, but even there, I had quite a few. Let's crunch the numbers.

37.5 = years in education
28.5 = years in the classroom
5 = number of schools where I've taught
14 = number of principals (10 male, 4 female)

My very first principal was A. E. Heck at Galva High School. We never knew what A.E. stood for, but everyone, even the teachers called him "Mr. Heck," anyway, which we all thought was hilarious at the time. He a a serious guy. I don't ever remember him laughing, or even smiling. Galva was a very small, rural, conservative town in the 1970s, and he seriously told me, "We don't care if you drink. That's your business. But just don't do it in town." We all went to a private club one town over every weekend. One time my mother came to visit and we went to a basketball game. My mother mistook my principal for the janitor, because he went out at halftime and swept the court with the big dustmop. In the meanwhile, the real janitor stood on the sideline in a sport coat and watched.

The very best principal I ever worked with Sherwood "Woody" Dees, at Hall High School in Spring Valley. Why was he the best? He was respectful, efficient, caring, smart, supportive, and available. We didn't always agree, but he always listened and made sure I knew he understood my point. He, like my other mentors, empowered me to become better and better, as a teacher, a coach, and a staff developer. He was strict with kids. He once told a kid whom I had caugh doing something, "We don't need a Polaroid print of you doing it. If Ms. Pienta said you did it, THAT is proof!" If coaches had to miss a faculty meeting, he held a special "make-up" for them the next morning in his office. He rewarded two or three teachers at every faculty meeting for something he had witnessed them doing and pinned a big paper medal on them. Corny, but we loved it and coveted the medals. He made the whole community shape up and behave appropriately at graduations. He saw me through two babies and came to my mother's wake. He was the best, hands-down.

Marj Lewallen (left) was my friend as well as my principal. I knew her when she was an assistant at Bitburg, when she became a principal there, and eventually had the good fortune to work for her for one year at Sigonella--her last as a principal. Marj had the best sense of humor, sense of fun, and personality of all my principals. And, as I said at her retirement, she was once of the best, in my opinion, because she had kids at the center of her focus, she listened to parents, and she took care of her teachers. This is a hard balance to achieve, but she did a pretty good job of it. Marj was another one who empowered me, and I always do my best for those kinds of people. I was empowered to take the AVID program and grow it, strengthen it, and all for the benefit of the entire school.

In my job as AVID Program Monitor for DoDDS-Europe and then with the AVID Center, I got to visit many school and meet dozens of principals. There are some really great ones out there and I was honored to meet and work with them. It really is true that the principal is the single most important influence on the climate of the school. What they don't always understand is that teachers make them look good, and that it's the people under you, not above you, that make you successful.

And they can be really bad. At one school I worked at, people would sneak in and out of school, or go up a flight of stairs and over just to not see or be seen by the principal. We dreaded getting an email from her saying she wanted to see us. In just one year, she demoralized, alienated, and mentally and emotionally abused 80% of the staff. One teacher, who was being "scolded" for the twentieth time or so, said she might as well go home and shoot herself. The principal didn't even pause, but just kept deriding her. The superintendent said, "You think she's bad? I've three more worse than her in this district!"

There was the wishy-washy principal whose decisions were based on whom he talked to last, the one who couldn't or wouldn't make any decisions, the one who locks himself up in his office, the one who can never see you because she's "in a meeting," the insecure micro-manager, the one who couldn't organize a kindergarten picnic if he had to, and the one who ran hot and cold (and you never knew which it might be). In spite of them or because of them, teachers always come through, especially in DoDDS, and rise to do their best for the kids.

Exciting Mystery Solved at Sigonella This Week

From: Spadaro, Patricia
Sent: Tuesday, April 28, 2009 9:57 AM
To: Ali, Amber Cc: #Sigonella HS All Staff

Thanks Amber! that's exactly where it is...

Have a nice day!

From: Ali, Amber Sent: Tuesday, April 28, 2009 9:20 AM
To: Spadaro, Patricia Cc:#Sigonella HS All Staff

Hi Pat, it was behind the garage door on the stage last time I saw it.

From: Spadaro, Patricia
Sent: Tuesday, April 28, 2009 9:19 AM
To: #Sigonella HS All Staff

Good morning, anyone have any idea where the school's "red carpet" is at? We will be needing it for an event on Friday. I looked in several places I thought it would be at but no luck.

Very Respectfully,
Patricia Spadaro
School Assistant
Stephen Decatur Elementary MS-HS

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Seniors in Black

Here's a photo of my AP Literature class recently. They all happened to be wearing black (this happens often in high school), so I got their photo. Yes, this is the whole class but one who was absent. DoDDS teachers are spoiled, but, boy, can we get a lot done with them!

During a review of the novels we have read, I asked if the main character, Elizabeth Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice was a kind of "Cinderella" looking for her prince. One female student replied, "No, Elizabeth had her issues." Kids love that word (so do adults). After a pause, one of the male students, who had obviously been really thinking about that, said, in all seriousness, "Cinderella had issues, too!" I deftly avoided any further discussion on that topic. :-)

A Step Outside the Classroom

As the AVID program took hold in DoDDS-Europe in 1992-93, it quickly became apparent that leaders, called "directors" by AVID, were needed to nurture, guide, and grow the program. As more teachers and schools heard about, more wanted it, most of them right now! I let the powers-that-be know that, if a position became available, I was interested in applying for it. It did, they did, and I did! And it all fell together in a wonderful way.

Me, Dr. Sweeney, and Gloria at our DoDDS Summer Institute: "AVID: The Next Generation"

I was selected by DoDDS-Europe Director Dr. Arlyn Sweeney and her committee to join Gloria Ollhoff as the second AVID Program Monitor for Europe in 1993. I was to serve the Nuernberg District AVID programs while Gloria had the Wuerzburg District. We each had a handful of schools. Superintendent Larry Philpot insisted that I move to the district office in Nuernberg and be supported and mentored by him and his staff. I resisted this idea at first, but, when Larry explained it to me, I understood his reasons. So, for the first time in my teaching career, I was out of the classroom, out of a school, and into an office with a whole new set of colleagues, protocols, and benefits.

I remember the very first thing Larry had me do: "Write a letter for my signature on (something on AVID)." "You want me to do what?" He explained it again. I had no idea this kind of thing existed, but I did it and apparently successfully.

Gloria and I were the luckiest teachers in Europe. We were told by Dr. Sweeney and our respective superintendents to "Go forth and spread AVID." We had no limits on money or travel or freedom. We were trusted and empowered explicitly. Therefore, we worked our butts off to do a good job! We could call meetings, provide orders, visit schools, give workshops, and create materials. And we pretty much had to do those things to grow AVID. There was no sitting around, twiddling our thumbs.

I found out soon that, in order to be in this position, I "had to" go to San Diego for something like six weeks out of the year for Regional Directors training. And for this, DoDDS was paying a whopping amount (like $20,000/year for two years) to have me take this training. So, off I went for one or two weeks at a time, several times a year plus once in the summer, to learn all about AVID. And it was there that I met my great AVID teachers and future friends, Kathy Deering and Cyndy Bishop, who were the cornerstones for Mary Catherine's program at that time. We spent a lot of time together, both there and in Europe, over the following years as we learned and grew together.

So, for the next eight years, I worked solely with AVID in DoDDS, and it was the best job I ever had. Instead of trying to get kids to do what I wanted, I spent my time trying to get teachers, counselors, and admin to do AVID better. It was the best job in the world to go to all the middle and high schools and meet the teachers, tutors, and students in AVID.

Lilia Pellicano (Pacific Monitor), me, and Gloria

When Nuernberg District closed in 1994, I was asked to move to Heidelberg, where Larry Philpot was to be the new superintendent. Of course, I went, a wonderful move for my family as well. When Larry was promoted to European Director, he took me under his wing to that level. When he left, I was fortunate to have a series of wonderful supervisors such as John Davis, Martha Brown, and Diana Ohman.

Gloria and I did everything. We did training of all kinds, from tutors to staff developers We built our own cadre of trainers in AVID and produced several Summer Institutes of our own. We connected AVID with the Outdoor Ed program and had several AVID student experiences at Hinterbrand Lodge in Berchtesgaden. We had a Summer Bridge Program with the University of Maryland at their Mannheim campus. We had Site Team Conferences, Student Conferences, and made appearances to make AVID connections with all the college prep subject areas. We fought the battles with the algebra teachers (first in 9th, then 8th grade), the Honors and AP teachers, we collected and shared data (the first I'd seen in DoDDS), and logged thousands of car and air miles. One year, I performed $25,000 of travel on the job. I kept track of every travel voucher. In those days, we had "open travel orders" for the whole year or semester, to go wherever we needed to go to perform our job. Ah, those were the years. We were the first to have cellphones for our job and digital cameras (thanks to Gloria). Money was not tight then.

One time, we came up short $40,000 for our Summer Institute in Garmisch. Dr. Sweeney just picked up the phone and called downstairs, "Gene, do we have an extra $40,000 for this?" We did.

We learned. We learned we had to make connections with the "decision makers," the principals and supes. We formed important relationships with them and AVID improved. We grew from seven schools in two districts to forty schools in eight districts, from Iceland to Bahrain! We soon had over one thousand students in AVID in Europe. Things happened in those days and people got lots of training opportunities, schools got frequent visits, and ideas and energy flowed.

None of this would have happened without the support of one key person at DoDDS headquarters in Arlington, VA--Anne Muse (at left with me, Mary Catherine, and Gloria). Anne was the AVID "godmother" at HQ and the person who made sure we were included in all the training, initiatives, and budgets that we needed. She kept it alive through changes in administration that were difficult. Without Anne, AVID would have gone the way of all the other "dead" programs we have seen come and go over the last twenty years. Anne spoke directly with the AVID Center. She included Gloria and me in professional staff developers training, paid all the bills, and even helped change the way DoDDS pays tutors by working with DFAS (Finance and Accounting for the federal gov't)! She was our AVID Angel from the beginning to her retirement from DoDEA this year.