Every January we are given the opportunity to begin anew, and to reflect on the previous year.
In Regional School Unit 5, we ended the year with the death of one of our best, Elizabeth Clark, who taught first grade at Pownal Elementary School. She lost her battle with cancer and died on Dec. 30, 2018.
When I received the news, I thought of Elton John’s lyrics, “Her candle burned out long before her legend ever did.” The Pownal and RSU5 communities mourn the loss of Elizabeth. Her contagious positive spirit brightened the days of all those who knew her. She believed that each of her students would grow continuously. The joy and encouragement she gave students are what we want all our students to experience, not only from their teachers, but also from their parents and communities.
The belief in the potential of Clark’s students is what Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford University refers to as the “growth mindset:” that students learn more effectively when they (and we) believe their abilities are malleable rather than fixed.
Clark was relentless in encouraging students to try new strategies to reach their goals. She lived a growth mindset, always looking for ways to model optimism and flexibility when helping students achieve. She was masterful in her use of positive redirection like “put a wiggle in it,” in coaxing a first-grader reluctant to make his way to the recess line.
Thankfully, in education, we have moved from the days of Thomas Jefferson, who believed that the purpose of public education was to sort students and to “rake the genius from the rubbish annually.” Instead, we focus on what Gov. Janet Mills said during her inauguration: “Education is the key to helping our people achieve their full potential.”
We share Gov. Mills’ belief in our children being the priority and reaching their potential. Every day fewer jobs exist for unskilled or semi-skilled laborers. Instead, more and more jobs require education beyond high school. We need problem-solvers and critical thinkers. We need empathetic individuals who give back to their communities and focus on service to others. Most importantly, we need Clark’s attitude that our students are not fixed in their potential, but that they are malleable and can continue to grow and learn throughout their lives.
Mills had many people believing in her from birth. She had a mentor in Margaret Chase Smith, who sent her money towards her education fund, rather than give her clothing, and told her, “remember you have much to live up to because your two brothers will expect a great deal of you, but I know that you can do it.” We all need a Margaret Chase Smith on our team as we go through life, believing in us, and encouraging us to reach higher.
As 2019 begins, let’s pledge to encourage one another and share in the belief that potential lies within each of us and in our students. Through our collective efficacy, our students will have the opportunities and supports needed for success from teachers like Elizabeth Clark and mentors like Margaret Chase Smith.
The ripple effect will have a long-lasting impact, felt throughout 2019 and for years to come.
Becky Foley is superintendent of schools in Regional School Unit 5 (Freeport-Durham-Pownal). She can be reached at email@example.com.