Island teachers begin new year with opening day rally

The Tisbury School staff joined by the school mascot dressed in matching sports jerseys to show their team spirit and demonstrated that a new school year is something to cheer about. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools administrators, teachers, and staff jump-started their return to work on Tuesday morning at 8:30 am with an upbeat Island-wide pep rally at the regional high school’s Performing Arts Center.

Just as students will likely do on their first day of school, September 9, many educators gathered outside before the program began and swapped stories about summer trips and vacation activities. A group of high school strings musicians and music teacher Michael Tinus sat near the entrance and played classical tunes alfresco.

Superintendent of schools James Weiss revived the opening day program this year. Although a tradition for many years, he agreed to discontinue it in 2011 at the request of some teachers who said they wanted fewer meetings.

“I have truly missed this all-Island kick-off event, and I believe collectively that we had lost something by not having an opportunity to come together, meet new folks, of which there are quite a few, and renew old acquaintances,” Mr. Weiss said in his opening remarks.

Over the summer, school administrators spent a lot of time hiring new staff, Mr. Weiss noted. He underscored the large number of new hires, as well as personnel who took different positions this year, by asking them to stand up for a round of applause. Mr. Weiss also asked for a moment of silence in memory of West Tisbury School teacher Carol Petkus, who died on July 7.

Tisbury School administrators and staff got everyone into the spirit of the event. They arrived suitably dressed for a pep rally in matching blue and gold sports jerseys emblazoned with their school’s name, accompanied by the Tisbury School’s tiger mascot. A few of the teachers sported glittery pom poms, as well. Mr. Weiss acknowledged them with an impromptu “Spirit Award,” and thanked them for brightening everyone’s day.

In introducing Susan Mercier, All-Island School Committee chairman, Mr. Weiss noted that it took a lot of courage for her to agree to speak at the program because she suffers from “glossophobia,” a fear of public speaking.

Despite her nervousness, Ms. Mercier delivered a poignant message to Island educators, praising them for making a difference in her three daughters’ lives and helping shape them into the young women they are today.

“As an Island community we are so incredibly fortunate to have such a dedicated, wonderful, professional staff in each of our buildings, and for that, this Island is extremely grateful,” she said.

In looking ahead at the new school year, Mr. Weiss said there are many tasks that will demand educators’ and administrators’ attention. Among them are the requirements of a state-mandated educator evaluation system, results from the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams, a review of the Island elementary schools’ programs, and contract negotiations for educational support professionals and secretaries.

“While I do not have magic to make these things simply go away, I realize that in many cases, they represent a cultural shift for all of us that will require new approaches, and sometimes additional work,” Mr. Weiss said. “I want you to know that we are committed to finding ways to reduce the stresses that they cause and once again renew our focus on teaching and learning, which is really why we’re all in this business.”

As a first step, Mr. Weiss said he asked school principals to set aside a date for him to discuss the new evaluation system with their staffs.

“Where I can come to your building, discuss what occurred last year, and listen to each and every one of you to find ways to streamline what will take place this year,” Mr. Weiss said. “Working with the new [teachers’] associations’ leadership, I believe we can rekindle the passion and the teaching that everyone of you possesses, and which may have become lost in all the paperwork and evidence collected.”

Megan Farrell and Mike Joyce, representatives from the Island’s two teachers’ associations, also addressed the challenges teachers face in complying with the mandates required by new Federal and state education initiatives.

Teachers from the Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Tisbury school districts belong to the Martha’s Vineyard Educators Association (MVEA). The regional high school’s teachers and West Tisbury School and Chilmark School teachers belong to the Martha’s Vineyard Regional Teachers and Educators Association (MVRTEA).

Ms. Farrell, a Title I reading teacher at Oak Bluffs School, is co-president of the MVEA with Bridget Mello, a fourth-grade teacher at Edgartown School. Mr. Joyce, a high school science teacher, is co-president of the MVRTEA with Ena Thulin, a high school history teacher.

“These mandates have created an immense amount of pressure, stress and concern for and from all stakeholders of the disrict,” Ms. Farrell said. “The Associations are committed to work collaboratively and cooperatively with the superintendent to slowly, cautiously and knowledgeably implement these state mandates, as we support, protect, and bargain for the rights of our membership.”

Mr. Joyce reassured teachers that although there will be challenges again this year as they adjust to the second year of the state’s evaluation system, there will be resources available to help them.

“Our goal is to alleviate all the anxiety that might be surrounding that,” he said. “We know that you are all good teachers, and that’s going to come out in the evaluation system.”

Mr. Joyce said updates and information are available on the high school’s website through Edline, and that the superintendent would be available to answer teachers’ questions.

The program ended with an inspirational performance of two songs by a dozen members of the high school’s Minnesingers vocal and dance group, led by musical director Janis Wightman.