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