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Getting to Know Stephen Day
What I Learned from Sports
In high school I was what you would consider a “jock.” I remember that I loved to play football, and even though I was not that big, I worked really hard to make sure that I had a place on the team.
At my first practice the coaches told us to run a mile to warm up. I was a Freshman at the time, and just starting my high school career. I wanted to impress the coaches with my motivation, so I ran the four laps faster than everyone else on the team, even the older players. From that time on I was always warming up by running faster than everyone else. It became my trade mark, and I liked the recognition. Believe it or not, my teammates also supported me because they knew how much I loved the game.
As a result, the coaches gave me a starting position on the kick-off team with the varsity players, and I was only a freshman, I played on the varsity for four years and received four varsity letters. I was the only person in my class to do so.
When I was a junior in high school I was a starting running back and outside lineman. We had a good team, and in the first game of the season I scored a touchdown after running 85 yards from scrimmage. I also intercepted a pass, and scored a second touchdown. I was anticipating a good year, and I was very motivated.
In the second game of the season there was an unusual pile-up of players when we all tried to tackle an opposing running back. Somehow my arm was caught up in the scramble, and when the pile was sorted out my arm was hanging at my side due to a dislocated shoulder. From that point on my life changed. This injury would affect my further participation in all the sports I liked, including football, basketball, baseball, and track- I loved the pole-vault event.
My interests changed over time, and when I attended college I became focused on teaching English, writing poetry and articles, and theater. I still loved the game of football, and I enjoyed watching the Yankees play. However, that was the closest I came to being a “jock.” I focused my life and career on education and eventually taught high school English and Drama for 10 years before becoming a High School Principal and School Superintendent.
The motivation I had learned from my days as a football player was transferred in another direction, and I realized that I could do anything as long as I gave it 100%.
A Sunday School Lesson
My father was not a religious man. In fact he hardly ever attended church, drank a little bit too much whiskey, and had some questionable outside relationships. Regardless, it was his expectation that all of his 5 children attend either Church or Sunday School each week. So invariably at 9 am each Sunday we were all dressed up in our Sunday best and headed for church. My father would never attend church, and my mother would only attend on Christmas and Easter, but me and my 2 brothers and 2 sisters were always there.
On one Sunday morning while I was sitting in class I glanced at one of the church booklets and saw a story about a young man who was looking for a job to mow a neighbor’s lawn. This caught my interest because I was also looking for a summer job, and I had no prospects. In the story the boy had to compete with another boy for the job, and each had to mow the lady’s lawn as a tryout. Both were paid, but she would choose one for the permanent job once they had shown how they worked.
The first boy did a very good job, and when he finished the lawn looked great, When the second boy did the job, he did something extra by cleaning all the garden tools and organizing the shed where the tools were kept. Obviously the second boy was offered the permanent job because he had done something extra.
I remembered that story when I was faced with the same situation. I lived in a small town, and there were not many opportunities for summer work. I was referred to a lady in town and she asked me to mow her lawn so that she could see what kind of job I would do. I mowed the lawn and trimmed the sidewalk so that everything looked really good. Then I did something extra. I trimmed all the grass between the rocks on her stone patio, and made sure that looked good as well. The lady was very pleased and I got the job plus a nice tip.
Although this is a small feat, it taught me a very valuable lesson that I employ in all of my work. I always try to do a good job for those I work for, and I always try to do something extra. This life lesson has paid off for me over and over again. Maybe this is one thing my father wanted me to learn.
Impact of the Columbine Shootings
In April of 1999 we had the terrible incident at Columbine HIgh School in Columbine, Colorado where many students were killed and injured due to a mass shooting. At this time I was the Principal of a large high school in Vestal, New York. We had over 1300 students, and a staff of over 160 teachers and teacher aides. The news of the shooting shook our school as it did all of the other schools in the country. Our students and teachers were visibly upset and many paid tribute to these Columbine students through personal and group sentiments.
Of course, in any school there are those students who want to stand out from the others in a negative way. During the Columbine shootings the students who did the shooting wore long black coats similar to the coats worn in the movie, The Matrix. On the day after the shootings, when the school was in mourning, two of our students wore long black coats to school, and acted in an unusual manner. This action quickly spread through the school and we had a major upheaval from the student body and the parents of our students. It was close to a panic situation because the emotions were raw and the fear was real.
At about 2pm in the afternoon the school phone started ringing. On the other end of the line were many parents who had heard about the students who had come to school with the long coats, and they were concerned that there might be a shooting in our school. Rumors spread very quickly when emotions are high.
I took it upon myself to talk with every parent who called the school that day. Even though I had three assistant principals, I felt that it was my obligation to assure each parent that we had everything under control and that these students had done nothing but play a very bad prank on the students and the school. I believe that each parent I talked with felt reassured that everything was all right because they had talked directly with me, the principal of the building.
As a result, the next day the panic had subsided, and we were able to mourn the deaths of the Columbine students in an atmosphere of safety and caring.
A Clear Choice
My job as principal of the Vestal High School in Vestal, New York might be similarly described as being the captain of the Space Ship Enterprise in that it was a large school with over 1300 students, 4 administrators, and over 150 staff including teachers and support staff. It always took a long time to change course.
The school itself was run with a shared-decision making model and we had a very strong and active team. The team made decisions on more than the color of the cafeteria chairs and set some important directions in terms of the use of technology and curriculum. Also within the school was a very strong and politically active teacher’s union with close leadership ties to the NEA. In fact the sitting President of the NEA was one of the teachers in the school.
In 1995, the district hired a new Superintendent and one of his directives from the Board of Education was to implement a new High School program called the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program (IB). This is a rigorous academic program for juniors and seniors, and can grant a student who completes this diploma one full year of college credit. The Building Planning Team was in favor of this move, as was the members of the Board of Education. The superintendent was also supportive, but there was weak support from the Assistant Superintendent for Instruction.
There was also another imposing block to the smooth implementation of the IB program. There existed in the school a strong Advanced Placement curriculum and the courses were taught by several influential teachers. They were not motivated to give up the Advanced Placement ( AP) courses to replace them with IB courses. Thus we had a growing educational and political conflict within the school. As principal I was under a lot of pressure to implement the IB program. However, to do so without taking into consideration all of the players could lead to long term disaster for the program.
The Building Planning Team had worked on this transition for over 4 years in an attempt to bring everyone on board, and they had set a date for a faculty vote. The day before the vote the Union President met with me and told me that because of the strong AP lobby that the teachers would be told to vote against the program. The AP teachers wanted the AP program to stay in place.
I was faced with a dilemma, and there was a lot of pressure from above to implement the program, and equal pressure from the school to leave it as status quo. It seemed like a no-win situation until we developed the concept of creating a third diploma strain that included both AP courses and IB courses. This would allow students who wanted to take either the AP Curriculum or the IB Curriculum to take a combination of the courses to earn what we called a Vestal Honors Diploma.
Unfortunately there was mixed support from the Assistant Superintendent and the Central office for this idea. They wanted only the IB Program. The Superintendent also wanted the IB and of course the Board members wanted the IB.
At my meeting with the teachers I proposed the Vestal Honors Diploma as a solution to this stalemate, and the teachers voted to accept the IB Program with a unanimous approval. The Assistant Superintendent was not pleased and the Superintendent was warm to the idea. However, we did work as a school to reach a compromise and to this day the IB Program is as strong as ever, and many of the teachers who were teaching AP courses are also teaching IB courses. I believe it was the right choice given the educational and political pressures that were at play during the negotiations.
My decision to combine the two programs was in conflict with the exact desires of my superiors, but in the long run the solution proved to be the right one. In the end the students, teachers, and the school district advanced to include a high level diploma program. The final decision was driven by the team members within the school, and that approach created a strong foundation for the program. I believe that is why it is still in place.
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This articlre was written for International Living for the January 2019 edition. It has been published.