Welcome to the Starting LineI thought the rush of professional motorcycle drag racing was one-of-a-kind until I started seeing the parallels to working with students at BVT. I get the same feeling of pride watching our students discover their passions, work through adversity, and succeed in their endeavors that I get when I cross the finish line. It’s watching your hard work pay off in a very big way, and in short — it’s exhilarating!
The strategies and values featured in this blog are derived from my observations and experiences in competition, leadership roles, and life. They’re the same ones we instill in our students to help them understand commitment, overcome adversity, embrace healthy competition, and find happiness in life. We teach our students to be fearless in their pursuits and foster a desire to pursue lifelong learning. We’re also sure to teach them about balance — there is time for fun in everyone’s world. Here at BVT, we want our students to work hard, but also enjoy the ride.
The amber lights just flashed — you’ve got the green light to read on!
Chew on ThisPosted by Anthony E. Steele II on 11/17/2021
The changing of the seasons, celestial orbits, and the rhythmic exchange of night to day and back again are so overt, we rarely give them much thought. Why would we? Fairly consistent cycles are predictable, maybe even taken for granted. It is fascinating, however, when we recognize cycles in unsuspecting areas like human behavior, history, philosophy, and ideology. We perk up and take note of those, and sometimes it becomes apparent that we haven’t lived long enough to realize that we have come full circle. Here’s some FOOD FOR THOUGHT:
The ouroboros symbolizes these cycles, and in most cultures throughout history, it represents eternal renewal and the lifecycle more so than cannibalistic destruction. But, an unbiased observer may see these as one and the same.
What is an ouroboros? Carl Jung pioneered the concept of Collective Unconscious in modern psychology. In essence, Jung’s theory recognizes that throughout human history, civilizations and cultures around the world have shared common instincts, symbols, and archetypes. One of these Jungian archetypes I think about often is the ouroboros which dates as far back as 1600 BC. It translates roughly from the Greek words, “oura,” which means tail, and “bora,” which means food, and is frequently depicted as a snake or serpent eating its tail.
Our approach to public education in the United States, like everything else in the world, also ebbs and flows in fairly rhythmic cycles. It has done so since its inception in the 1830s when Horace Mann, a local gent from Franklin, Massachusetts, spearheaded the Common School Movement. Graduate schools of education profess that education vacillates between four basic philosophies: Perennialism, Essentialism, Progressivism, and Reconstructionism. In layperson terms, our innovative ideas in education grow stale, and “new” ideas become popular again. In my relatively short 25-year career in education, legislation like the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, No Child Left Behind (2001), and the Every Student Succeeds Act (2015) all highlight some of these aforementioned shifts in educational priorities and philosophies. You may recall changes in educational methods such as Common Core Math that emerged in 2009, and perhaps you caught wind that it is teetering on the verge of returning to the “old way” of teaching math. Educational philosophies and methods come and go to suit the times, and like bell-bottom pants, each will run its course and most likely be back in fashion someday.
One of my proudest moments as an educator is each year’s commencement. By its literal meaning, commencement is a new beginning, not an end. Just as the snake nourishes itself with its tail and grows stronger, our graduates draw upon their K-12 school experience to start the next chapter in their lives. As their senior year concludes, 8th graders are accepting their offers to become the next wave of freshmen at BVT, and this beautiful cycle repeats. We miss the outgoing seniors and their unique contributions to our school as we eagerly await a new class of freshmen — such an interesting mix of happiness, sadness, and excitement all wrapped into one.
Opinions on the evolution of career-technical education has been another interesting cycle to observe. BVT opened in 1964 with the same basic mission it has today — to prepare students for success in the workplace and excellent citizenry. It goes without saying that the skillsets to be life-ready and work-ready have changed dramatically since 1964, and approaches to achieve that mission evolved along with it. From the inception of vocational education in Massachusetts, it was never intended to be terminal — but in the early years, a high school diploma backed with strong trade skills was a proven recipe for high earning potential and success in life.
The need for a strong academic foundation and post-secondary education (even technical training) grew over the decades primarily due to ever-advancing technology. By the early to mid 1990s, state and federal education reform required that all students graduating from high school be college-ready, including vocational students. BVT, and schools like ours across the country, transitioned from the trade school model to today’s career-technical education (CTE) model. In the wake of the national movement that all students should pursue education beyond high school, two out of five Americans report that they are not utilizing their degree, yet bear the cost of paying for it, according to a recent survey by finder.com.
Popular opinion on the matter has certainly come full circle, especially if one compares the lifetime earnings of a licensed plumber without college loan debt to those paying for a degree they aren’t using. As the old joke goes, you need to be a physician to afford a plumber these days… if you can find one! Regardless how you feel about the evolution of CTE, I assure you that today’s career-technical graduates have a solid academic foundation and the versatility to choose how to build upon it.
There are so many of these cycles in action these days, particularly in education, and unfortunately many are quite controversial. Is MCAS an accountability mechanism to perform gap analysis and ensure all students in the Commonwealth receive a high-quality education, or should we do away with it because it unfairly and unequally exposes said gaps? Are dress codes inherently sexist and therefore should not exist at all, or should we go to the other extreme and return to school uniforms? Should competitive school admissions policies consider the merit of student applicants, or should lotteries be utilized as a fairer method to accept students? On any particular topic, some will welcome the change as much-needed progress, while others see a well-intended snake cannibalizing itself — it’s in the eye of the beholder.
Everything evolves. Here’s what I know: change is the only constant, the sun will rise (I think), and the universe will continue to cycle all things. This is humbling, and should be. To suggest that your view is the best one, or only one, is a particularly arrogant aspect of human nature. Be open to new ideas, be diplomatic in how you express your own, and be reminded there are very few “new” ideas. Nick Carroway’s closing line in The Great Gatsby says it all, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Advice to My Younger SelfPosted by Anthony E. Steele II on 8/11/2021
Without a doubt, everyone shares my hope and enthusiasm to start a new school year without pandemic complications. There is extra excitement in the air to move on from Covid and begin a whole new chapter at BVT. Our incoming freshmen will experience vocational-technical training for the first time, and we all look forward to putting our full focus on our mission to bring our students closer to career, college, and life readiness. One challenging aspect of accomplishing this mission is giving cogent advice to our children, as we might have given to OUR YOUNGER SELVES.
Why does it always seem so challenging for adults to convey advice to kids? As adults, we have several decades of accumulated wisdom and experience to draw upon. A youngster would be a fool not to listen to our sage-like advice, right? After all, we adults have been there-done that, and we’re only trying to help. But we all know that it is rarely so simple. It may be relatively easy to know what to advise, but it is far more difficult, and at times very frustrating, to convince our kids to buy-in and utilize good advice. Why is that? Let’s dive in and analyze.
First, let’s have some fun and remove one variable — credibility. Hypothetically, if you could go back in time to your high school years and meet with yourself for thirty minutes, what advice would you give to the younger you? Do you think the high-school-you would have listened? Do you think you would have embraced this advice and done anything differently? As farfetched as this hypothetical scenario is, it provides us with a valuable thought exercise in the challenges of advising our students and children. Why is it exactly that you might not listen to future you? If we can excavate a few of these reasons, we will be much better prepared as advice-givers.
Time: Perhaps the most significant schism between the young and old is our perspective of time. As a 15- to 18-year old, we don’t have a developed concept of how finite time is. However, the 40-year-old-you is far more aware of how quickly those decades slip by. We are also more aware that goals often take longer to realize than we imagined, which creates a dynamic where adults see urgency and kids feel like they have “forever” to get around to a task. Although we elders may be correct, our urgency doesn’t resonate the same with youth, and I am sure we sound like excessively worried nags at times.
Curiosity: Young or old, trailblazing is always thrilling, and some say it’s the spice of life. The very heart of innovation and exploration is going down paths never traveled before. Making mistakes is part of the experience, and sometimes we learn from failure. It is so ingrained in our nature that we absolutely have to try things. A classic example of this basic human trait is touching the stove to believe it’s hot. No doubt you were told it would burn you, but you just had to see for yourself. Why? We have to experience life. We have to learn for ourselves. Sometimes we have to fail to truly learn.
Determination: Part of a healthy mind, body, and soul includes some degree of defiance and determination. As youths, we often wish to prove our elders wrong when they say we can’t do something. When we are young, we think we know better — we don’t know what we don’t know, and we have a high degree of confidence that we know plenty. As elders, we have a 30,000-foot view of that attitude and want nothing more than to spare our youngsters from tough experiences and hard-learned lessons. Again we hit a dynamic where our perspectives couldn’t be any further apart.
For all these reasons and many more, we can start to see why it is challenging to have youngsters follow our advice. Even the opportunity to meet with our future self, an amazing hypothetical scenario, may not have the profound difference in our path through life that I first imagined. However, the more I think about it, this hypothetical scenario has impacted how I might present advice to youngsters differently. Understanding your audience always makes one a more effective speaker. Approach advice-giving from the young recipient’s perspective and avoid being perceived as the all-knowing, finger-wagging adult.
As we tear into this new school year with gusto and enthusiasm, let us hone our skills at being more effective at guiding our kids. It’s a very worthy goal, even if you’re a seasoned pro at parenting and educating, but hey, that’s just my advice!
Think It OverPosted by Anthony E. Steele II on 2/24/2021
The human mind is an amazing thing. We have the ability to focus very intensely on the tiniest details while simultaneously handling most of our daily tasks without thought. By design, we can choose where to expend our mental abilities and when to relax them. Young or old, there is never a bad time to pause and — THINK IT OVER.
Some people are more inquisitive than others by nature. Critical thinking is a learned skill, but we need to be aware that choosing to be a critical thinker is a personality trait. If we so choose, there are techniques to develop the habits of mind to be more inquisitive, engaged, and analytical.
It is all too easy these days to slog through life without much critical thought. We are busy, tired, and sometimes completely consumed by the daily routine. In that sense, not thinking comes as a welcome form of relaxation for an otherwise overworked mind. Technology has responded to this modern reality in a remarkably interesting way. Like no other time in history, social and mainstream media have elected to do much of our critical thinking for us, and it is very easy to accept that offer - we hardly perceive it is happening.
Sophisticated software, keywords overheard by our phones, “like” buttons, and the amount of time we pause on a particular headline or picture while scrolling makes it possible for our technology to “know us.” All of this algorithmic synthesis generates agreeable and satisfying content for our walls and feeds, ensuring that we see things we like, and in a calculated fashion, things we don’t like. The personalized content comes in the form of ads for appealing products, videos of interest, known and suggested music, attractive places to visit, and news stories chosen according to our biases. In many cases, our devices show us things we didn’t know we liked, but discover that we do! In totality, we are now able, if not encouraged, to do a whole lot less critical thinking.
It is more important than ever to embrace critical thinking. One could argue that it was never a bad idea to intentionally be more inquisitive and analytical. But these days, it provides a necessary counter-balance to the plethora of automated decisions and suggestions that are being made for us.
Let’s get down to basics and examine some of the habits of mind and techniques to become better critical thinkers. It doesn’t matter if you are forming an opinion on an argument, shopping for the best product to fit your needs, or anything in between; the same basic principles apply:
Be Proactive. Seek out information beyond what is conveniently available. It is your personal responsibility to be actively inquisitive; otherwise, someone or something will provide you with a filtered array of information.
Stay Open-Minded. We can usually sense our own bias, and we should always question it. In the end, we may return to our original position, but at least we engaged in a validation process and affirmed that we held that opinion for a good reason. The only real danger in bias and opinion is when we blindly follow it without scrutiny.
Flip It. One of my favorite techniques is looking at an argument from both sides, looking at the other person’s point of view, walk in their shoes, so to speak. Employ good listening, not to pounce on a counterargument, rather to understand and internalize opposing viewpoints. Try to disprove your conclusions, argue against yourself, and make the case that your original premise is wrong. It can be very revealing and enlightening to challenge your original standpoint in this way. When you return to your original point of view, it will be thoroughly analyzed and you will be prepared for counterarguments.
Proof Your Work. When you reach an analytical conclusion but it doesn’t completely make sense, then it probably doesn’t. If the line of reasoning doesn’t add up, then most likely you haven’t solved the full equation yet. Perhaps you need more data, some facts are missing or false, or you don’t have the whole story. Don’t settle for a conclusion built on doubt. There’s a good chance you haven’t solved the problem or completed your reasoning if you can’t proof your work. This concept works in analytical thinking just as well as it works in math.
Be Unique. It is human nature to go with the flow, join the hive-mind, get on the bandwagon and adopt popular thought. It takes guts, fortitude, and effort to stand alone in your opinions. Find that confidence and strength that allows you to forge your own beliefs, philosophies, and conclusions. Get comfortable standing alone. Eventually, you will find others who agree with you and validate your thinking – that always feels great – but never start there.
Stay Awake! Do not allow yourself to be lulled to sleep by the conveniences of modern technology. You have an incredible mind – use it! And if you catch yourself sleepwalking, let the memory of this article serve as your alarm clock.
Today’s parents and educators are the last generations to grow up without the influence of technology and the unfettered ability to think for ourselves. It is vitally important for us to embrace individual thought and emphasize its value to our children. We have a choice to be inquisitive and analytical. Please encourage others to habitually stop – and Think It Over!
All Things in ModerationPosted by Anthony E. Steele II on 11/25/2020
In the pursuit of producing well-rounded and prepared graduates, we must go beyond the world of academia and career studies. It is also our mission to teach our students important life skills and traits such as good citizenship, character, leadership, and organization just to name a few. Let us focus on one such life skill: BALANCE.
No doubt we have all heard the phrase, “all things in moderation” or some variant of it. My earliest recollection of this sage-like advice was from my grandmother. She was a fountain of proverbs and life lessons, and a younger me credited her as the original source. Later in life, I learned that the origin of the phrase traces back to ancient Greeks like Hesiod, Plautus, and Aristotle. I would also learn that the phrase, “all things in moderation” is more of an idiom than a proverb as it is not to be taken literally. Nonetheless, there is something metaphorically valuable in that phrase as it has endured for thousands of years. In short, it reminds us of the importance of balance in our lives.
There are some interesting observations about the human condition, and more pointedly, about our cultural values. We seem to be ever adrift toward the temptation of gluttony and extremism. If a large soda is appealing, then the Super Size or Big Gulp is even more appealing. Who doesn’t need a half-gallon of Mountain Dew with their triple bacon burger? If we are shopping for Aspirin, I don’t know why I would buy regular strength when there is extra strength, or better yet, double strength, right next to it on the shelf. Who has time to be fooling around with regular strength anything? We are in love with the concept of superlatives — if one is good, two is better. We have a similar affinity for the smallest, the lightest, and the most compact, particularly as it applies to things like electronics and items we wear and carry. Our affinity for the extreme is a concept that marketing and advertising industries know all too well. We also have the incredible ability to have things practically on-demand with the advent of services like Amazon, fast food chains, drive-up windows, and e-commerce.
Interestingly, the phrase “all things in moderation” is commonly heard in the context of one’s diet, but metaphorically it applies to all things for which we have an appetite — goods, services, entitlements, and expectations. The concept of gluttony, one of the seven deadly sins in Christianity, refers to more than just an overindulgence of food — it applies to all that is desirable. In humankind’s earliest writings, there is evidence that the temptation of gluttony has always been part of the human experience. Fortunately, we have an awareness of this, but we also need to be reminded to practice restraint. Said awareness is not uniquely human, but a delay of gratification is a rare higher order skill among living creatures. For example, any equestrian will tell you that we must protect our four-legged friends from finding an unattended apple bin lest they may snack themselves to death — the delay of gratification is an unknown concept to a horse.
I mentioned earlier that “all things in moderation” should be considered an idiom because one should not take the phrase literally. There are certainly times when we want nothing in moderation; for example, no one wants a moderate amount of COVID. Likewise, there are times when excess, even obsession, is healthy and necessary. This is where passion, dedication, and excellence intersect with the concept of moderation. Imagine if Mozart’s parents nagged that he was overindulging in his music, or Nikola Tesla was admonished for reading too much as a child. Sometimes obsession and excess are good things, which brings us back to the concept of balance, and more to the point of this article: How do we help our youngsters conceptualize and achieve balance? We need to guide and teach them to approach decisions as a thought process — an internal analysis and negotiation. Furthermore, like any successful negotiation, a compromise must be reached between desire, indulgence, sound reasoning, and practicality.
I fear that the penalty for not learning and practicing moderation is a recipe for unhappiness and lost potential. Without “all things in moderation,” will we not spiral toward an insatiable appetite for something perceived to be bigger and better? Do we start to lose our ability to moderate in general? Looking at the political landscape in 2020, I never remember a time of such staunch polarization and political encampment. Perhaps this is a coincidence, perhaps not, but the middle — the moderate — seems to have all but disappeared in American politics. Extremism is in vogue. Does anyone still buy regular Aspirin? I hope so.
I also hope that we can teach our students what the adults in my life taught me as a kid. I have a renewed appreciation for those silly idioms and phrases preaching moderation and those adult oversights such as not allowing me to eat the entire pillowcase full of candy on Halloween night. Young or old, I think it’s never a bad time to be reminded, “all things in moderation!” Please take a moment to celebrate the middle, or at least appreciate its existence.”
Risk!Posted by Anthony E. Steele II on 8/13/2020
It is with great pleasure that I welcome everyone back for the start of the 2020–2021 school year. Although it has been quite an unusual summer for us all, I hope that you are well-rested and enthusiastically ready to commence another exciting year at BVT. Our school community consists of a strong partnership between our staff, parents, and students. Our shared vision and approach to learning continues to produce the best possible learning environment for our students. As schools across the nation prepare for the new school year, apprehension abounds concerning the safety and health of in-person versus distance learning. Let’s take a moment to look at a particular aspect of that apprehension and synchronize our expectations with the expression: RISK!
Assuming risk is an inherent part of life. The art of risk assessment is a skillset we start learning in our earliest years and practice throughout our lives. As adults, we protect our children from getting themselves into harm’s way and hope they rapidly develop the sense to do this more independently as they mature.
Anyone who has installed baby gates knows that the clock is ticking the moment a baby first learns to roll and crawl — in the blink of an eye their sense of exploration without the knowledge of danger can get them into trouble very quickly. Throughout childhood, we begin learning to weigh risk versus reward, but this takes time. When we are young, we are notoriously fearless — practically immortal — at least in our minds. I’m sure you can recall climbing a tree, jumping a bike off a rickety ramp, or taking a flying leap off of a rope swing all for the thrill of it and with utter disregard for the potential consequences. We look back fondly at the stunts we pulled and the chances we took. Perhaps getting away with it was all part of the thrill.
Grownups cringe at the sight of children and young adults embracing their perceived immortality, and for good reason; we know that we’re not invincible and have the scars to prove it. Author/Screenwriter Jean Shepherd had some fun with this concept in his classic movie, A Christmas Story. The only gift Ralphie Parker wanted that year was a Red Rider-200 Shot-Carbine Action-Range Model-Air Rifle, or as he put it, the Holy Grail of Christmas gifts! Instantly and instinctively, Ralphie’s mother (and even the Mall Santa) retorted, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid,” and, well…we know the rest of the story. In archetypal moments like this, we are reminded why ‘mom really does know best,’ even if we don’t like what she is saying.
The inescapable, underlying fact is that risk is pervasive through every life decision we make. Hollarmikekan, a well-known blogger, aptly states, “Life is a series of calculated risks, nothing more. Everything that you choose to do has an edge of risk. We risk everything, each day of our lives without knowing it.” Consider some of these subtleties in terms of health: we choose the foods we eat, how much we exercise, as well as life choices of whether or not to smoke, wear sunscreen, and make our routine checkups with the doctor. In the financial realm, we calculate investment opportunities, make business decisions, change careers, and carefully manage retirement accounts — all with risk-reward in mind. We constantly make minute-by-minute decisions ranging from how fast we drive to how securely we plant the legs of a ladder before ascending. Even in leisure, we must consider the inherent danger of the hobbies and activities we pursue. It all involves the basic calculation of the perceived risk taken for the potential reward gained. It is largely a very personal decision — literally how one lives life.
One fascinating thing about risk is that the calculation can be both an art and a science. Most of the examples I’ve given thus far are very organic. I’ve described one’s experiences and perceptions leading to a common sense conclusion; that is why I see it as an art form — it does not require a foundation in science or math per se. Conversely, insurance actuaries use incredibly sophisticated predictive software and modeling to calculate risk with extreme scientific precision. The likelihood that a particular driver will create an accident claim, the health insurance premium for a given group of policyholders, or the chance that a rare flood will wash away a home, are all prime examples. Casinos and the gaming industry are quite precise with predicting outcomes of a different sort. I’m not sure if I should say casinos leave everything to chance, or nothing to chance — but over time, we all know that the house always wins.
2020 introduced the world to a whole new challenge in the realm of risk calculation with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In retrospect, it has been a remarkable case-study in risk management at the global, national, state, and regional level that combines all the elements of scientific, economic, political, and personal aspects of risk management. The pandemic also casts a spotlight on the personal process (and art) of an individual’s risk calculation. Not surprisingly, the strategies and responses to COVID-19 have varied greatly at every aforementioned level. It is also not surprising that individual attitudes toward COVID-19 are equally as diverse. The inherent problem for anyone in a leadership position is that decisions are made for, and on behalf of, others. It is one thing to make your own risk-reward calculations, but entirely another matter when making decisions that impact others. What is even more troubling for leaders making decisions around COVID-19 is that the stakes are incredibly high. When assessing the risk, it is in terms of great numbers of people suffering from life-threatening consequences. When assessing the rewards, we contemplate our economy, children’s education, ability to worship and conduct vital business just to name a few. I empathize with anyone in a leadership position who has to bear the weight of these decisions — and consequences — that affect so many others.
BVT is not exempt from the challenge of starting the school year while the threat of COVID-19 still looms. The time has come for us to make a collective decision, as a state, a 13-town community, and as a school. Surveys confirm that both staff and the families we serve would love nothing more than a return to the classroom and the resumption of pre-COVID normalcy. I ask that everyone appreciate and respect that our school community is comprised of the sum of each individual’s risk-reward calculation. No matter what mode we choose to deliver instruction, it must reasonably assure everyone’s safety and minimize risk while rewarding us with the best possible education we can provide our students, sons, and daughters.
In this sense, the school is the bridge between a very wide divide in personal feelings about the risk of COVID-19 and the sacrifices we must make to keep everyone safe and healthy. We know that schools cannot stay in a purely distance-learning model forever. This is particularly true for career-technical schools like BVT where the hands-on experience we provide is paramount to student learning. At some point, we need to inch our way out on that proverbial tree limb and return to the schoolhouse. With our collective wisdom, science, and judgement, we will need to determine how much or how little in-person learning can occur given the circumstances. Although safety is always our first priority, I am reminded of the words of Neil Armstrong, who said, “There can be no great accomplishment without risk.”
Win Some, Lose SomePosted by Anthony E. Steele II on 2/20/2020
One of the hallmarks of BVT is encouraging our students to take pride in their work—to compete even when no one is looking. Our students encounter success in life because they have experienced competition and deeply understand the value society places on merit. They also learn to be resilient in failure. Let’s face it, you can’t win all the time. Our students are strong and have the fortitude to try and try again (and again...). We WIN SOME; we LOSE SOME, but we never give up the fight.
I’ve always enjoyed the spirit of competition. I might even say that competition is what makes life worth living…or at least enjoyable. Charles Darwin would argue that all life on our planet owes its existence to competition, but let’s take a less scientific focus on the sociological aspect of human fulfillment.
I posit that the human need for competition is so innate that we are hardwired to engage in it even as a solitary endeavor. Have you ever toiled at something seemingly unimportant to others for your own satisfaction? Sure, you have—that beautiful house plant, that greener lawn, that clean car, that elaborate recipe you cooked for yourself. You took pride in it, and you did it for yourself, but subconsciously competition was at play. Striving to be better, to do our best work, is innate. And, when others take notice—it scratches that primal itch to engage in competition. If this were not true, we simply wouldn’t try—we didn’t really need a house plant at all, and a brown lawn will still hold the dirt down, just as the dirty car still gets us there. And, as long as we have sustenance, is the elaborate recipe and thoughtful presentation really that important?
Consider how excited we get about competition when it involves others. Examine our culture around individual and team sports—the determination of the athletes, the intense rivalries, and the screaming fans decked out in team gear to signify they are part of it. Sports are obvious examples, but our whole existence revolves around competition in one form or another. Perhaps Darwin was correct on an evolutionary and biological level, but humans have cultivated the spirit of competition on every level imaginable. We adore excellence in every form and will gather like moths to a nightlight to experience (and hire) the best musicians, orators, writers, barbers, carpenters, designers, chefs, manufacturers, doctors, and so on and so forth. We strive to earn our way into the best schools, and ultimately to be hired by the best companies in our chosen vocations. Some of us start our own businesses and strive to build the best mousetrap, so the world beats a path to our door to buy one. It goes without saying that we seek the best service we can afford, whether it’s the doctor standing over our hospital bed or the plumber fixing our water leaks.
Recently, the Massachusetts Department of Education (DESE) took issue with the state-regulated admissions process for all vocational-technical schools. Six vocational schools were engaged in the initial discussions to amend the statewide regulations, and BVT had the distinction of being among those chosen to participate. Some who clearly don’t understand career-technical education have suggested DESE abolish the state approved and regulated competitive application process to vocational schools in favor of lottery admissions. The primary rationale is that 8th grade is too early for students to experience meritocracy. In other words, a student’s effort to have great attendance, discipline, character, and grades (his or her merit) should yield to the luck of the draw because it is presumably fairer. I stand with virtually every career-technical educator in the state to say that I am vehemently opposed. Here’s why:
First, let’s rule out a few things. If eliminating our waitlist would solve the concerns, we would gladly admit every student who applies. But, in our case at BVT that would be roughly 3200 students, which is an unrealistic solution for many reasons. Another option is to create more career-technical programs throughout the state, and that effort is well underway. Nonetheless, demand for career-technical education far exceeds capacity and will for the foreseeable future. That brings us back to pondering the lottery.
I disagree that 8th grade is too early for students to experience meritocracy. As an 8th grader, I pursued military and maritime options for high school. I didn’t get into my top choices and accepted that other applicants exhibited more merit than I. I made the next best choice, you know, Plan B. I wasn’t sunk for life, and it was very indicative of what to expect four years later in college admissions. I learned from it. I’m afraid that lottery-style admissions not only lack that inherent lesson that our society rewards merit, but also creates an inexplicable blip in meritocracy for a moment in time. Let me explain.
Immediately after students enter BVT via the lottery, they would begin on day one competing with classmates for shop placement through the Exploratory process. One-quarter of a student’s career GPA would be in the books, and class rank is already a reality by the end of freshman year. By sophomore year, the bulk of the state MCAS exams are administered, and ironically the state will award John and Abigail Adams Scholarships to the top 25% of performers in the class—not the bottom 25% and not a random 25%. By junior year, students will be filling out college applications, none of which are based on a lottery. Juniors and seniors are also setting their sights on Co-op employment, and once again competing for the best opportunities. SkillsUSA will roar into town in March, and by summer, we will know who the best regional, state, and national champions are in every trade conceivable. And finally, in June, graduation will be upon us, and we will declare that we have prepared our seniors “for the real world.” We will also proudly proclaim that they graduate ready for “the world of work.” I’m curious—were you hired for your current job because you showed up on time every day, took your training seriously, gained valuable skills and experience, and worked hard—or were you hired by a lottery?
Lottery admissions defy every notion of our mission to make our students college, career, and life-ready. It is not “the real world” and certainly has nothing to do with “the world of work.” Furthermore, lottery admissions do not solve the severe supply and demand issue for quality career-technical education. Even in the lottery, there are winners and losers. All that lottery admissions will accomplish is the fantasy that for a split second, merit doesn’t matter.
The Value of Plan BPosted by Anthony E. Steele II on 11/13/2019
Life often meanders between the predictable and the unlikely. It is precisely the unpredictability of life that makes it challenging to navigate, but also makes it exciting to be alive. John Steinbeck captured one aspect of the human condition in the classic novel, Of Mice and Men, with the famous quote, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” We are free to dream and pursue accordingly, but we are constantly reminded that dreams don’t always come true. The fatalist may accept downturns as bad luck, Murphy’s Law, or perhaps it’s just the way the cookie crumbles; however, the resilient and determined confront misfortune with an alternate plan and come to learn THE VALUE OF PLAN B.
Our students are taught the importance of strategic planning throughout their experience at BVT. Planning is one of the most important habits we instill in our students, and it ranges from planning one’s work for an upcoming class to a full post-graduate career plan in a student’s portfolio.
At the micro-level, some form of planning is taking place prior to the sawing of a board in Construction Technology shop or the recording of one’s due dates for upcoming assignments and projects in academics. Of course we also train our students how to plan for the long haul and caution them that it is harder to reach your destination if you have no idea where you were headed in the first place. Before delving into the value of contingency planning, I’m going to make the assumption that one has already embraced the value of Plan A.
I’ve come to view Plan A as an ideal — it is the perfect scenario. Therefore, the true value of Plan B is that it affords us the ability to have an ideal in the first place. More so, it allows us to reach, maybe even dream about what is possible. It is no wonder then that if Plan A is the dream, Plan B is often our reality — hopefully a close reality. Therefore, it’s worth teaching our kids about contingency planning to make them life-ready, and prepared mentally and practically when things don’t go exactly as designed, and we know they often don’t.
One of the obvious areas where strategic planning is of utmost importance for youth is in career and college planning, and I believe the earlier the better. Deciding what to do after graduating is ideally an activity that should start prior to admission to our school. Again, long-term planning is embedded in the student experience from start to finish at BVT. In our Career Enrichment courses, students plan goals and strategies for their next steps toward college, career, and life readiness.
For example, freshmen work on their inventory of interests as they go through the Exploratory process. Exploratory also includes an examination of career choices in terms of earning potentials and labor demands within various industries. Hopefully this enables them to choose wisely at the end of Exploratory, and also includes contingency plans if they don’t get placed in their first choice shops.
Another example of extensive planning is demonstrated by the methodical course selection process each year. Students and parents not only examine appropriate courses to take the following year, but also where that progression leads in four years. This is particularly important if there is prerequisite knowledge for a given post-graduate career opportunity or college program. I don’t think I have to make much of a case to support the value of having a plan, but what if things don’t unfold exactly as hoped? What if you didn’t get that shop you wanted, or AP Calculus was harder than you imagined, or you didn’t get into Harvard…now what? One always needs to be on the ready to implement Plan B, or C, D, E, or F. Being on the ready with a contingency plan delves into adaptability and resiliency — an important topic I have written emphatically about in prior newsletters.
I find it fascinating that the achievement of Plan A can be so elusive that adults are conditioned to have a backup plan or two, but our children, not so much. Let’s dive into that. Even in the world of precision CNC machining, where the steps and moves to produce a part have been mapped with G-Code down to the 10 thousandths of an inch in specific space and time, we still see the need for adaptability. The tool-path that looked ideal and efficient to the engineer who drew the print may go beyond the capability of the machine, or the properties of material may pose an unanticipated challenge, or perhaps the method to hold the part during the machining process is unachievable. A great machinist will adapt and overcome these hiccups multiple times throughout her day. If this level of uncertainty can enter such a defined process, just imagine the twists and turns that can enter into life’s bigger events. Be ready!
As parents and educators, we must teach our kids to be great strategic planners and to have a lifelong commitment to contingency planning. Contingency plans are the lifeblood of adaptability and resiliency. Our paths to fulfillment are most often winding; rarely do we find linear paths to success, and we need to be comfortable with that aspect of life. If you’ve ever used WD-40 around the house, understand that it took the Rocket Chemical Company 39 prior attempts to get the formula correct. Help your son or daughter understand the value of Plan B, and remind them that great things can come of it!
“Because I said so!”Posted by Anthony E. Steele II on 7/17/2019
It is with great pleasure that I welcome everyone back for the start of the 2019–2020 school year; hopefully the summer months have provided you the relaxation to commence with excitement and enthusiasm! We’ve always valued and relied upon the partnership between our school, parents, and our students. It’s important to not only have great communication, but also to share a common vision and approach to learning. As we prepare to hit the ground running in August, let’s take a moment to look at a particular aspect of communication and synchronize our expectations with the expression: BECAUSE I SAID SO!
Why don’t teenagers listen to us as much as we would like them to? After all, as adults we’ve ‘been there and done that’ and we’re just trying to show them the way. It is illogical that teens don’t always heed our advice, and it can be extremely frustrating when the stakes are high.
They don’t get much higher than when the topic turns to education, career preparation, and readying for responsible adulthood. Unfortunately, in these situations we’re likely to turn more authoritarian rather than collaborative…in a moment of frustration we may even utter the phrase, “Because I said so!”
If we’re going to be effective educators and parents of teenagers with emerging minds of their own, then we need to pop the hood and really understand how this relationship works…or doesn’t work. The stakes are indeed high. And, as adults we will always appreciate this better than youth possibly can because we have hindsight and life experience behind us. Conversely, they have the spirit of youth — a sense of invincibility, endless time to get around to things, and a voracious appetite to explore the world and draw their own conclusions; and trust me, they would rather do that than simply take our word for it.
As adults, we get a bad rap…since birth, we’ve been telling them to eat their green beans, brush their teeth, and let the nice doctor poke you with that big needle. When they’re little they have that propensity to retort with an endless succession of, “Why?, Why?, Why?” And it isn’t uncommon in those early years to reply, “Because I said so!” But there comes an age when authoritarian phrases rapidly become ineffective because they assume the recipient is either incapable or not worthy of an explanation. As teenagers, respect, decorum — and to some degree — fear, allow for some efficacy with an authoritarian approach; however, I have found that collaboration to achieve ‘buy-in’ is by far the most powerful way to influence positive decision making in teenagers. Not surprisingly, most experts in adolescent psychology agree, and we utilize this approach with our students.
Whether you’re a new parent to BVT or a veteran, it is imperative that we keep the triad of parent, school, and student on the same page to achieve our goals and complete our mission. At the very least, it is helpful to know how we will treat your child at BVT, and what we will expect of them from their first to their last day with us.
To start, let’s examine expectations: Our students and parents expect BVT to prepare students to be career, college, and life-ready upon graduation. To get there, all students need to set aggressive but achievable goals each year. It also requires students to take ownership of their futures. There needs to be a well thought out plan, and a commitment to execute it. They need to own it. Everyone knows that schools like ours feature ‘hands-on’ learning, but I venture to guess that few realize that this applies to a student’s career plan as well as wrenches and oscilloscopes. Students need to decide what shops to explore, courses to take, certifications to pursue, right down to when it’s time to stay for extra help and with whom. There will be plenty of guidance along the way, but students are expected to make their choices wisely to accomplish their goals. Part of the process inevitably involves experiencing accountability; in adult life personal accountability is reality, and if one is to be life-ready, one needs to practice it. Students will stumble from time to time, but also learn how to pick themselves up and recover gracefully.
Effectively Coaching Students — The first day students enter BVT as freshmen, I welcome them as a class and declare that we will treat them as adults. They are empowered and simultaneously forewarned that with empowerment comes great expectations and responsibility. This approach sets a tone, and inherently builds a relationship between staff and students of trust, respect, and equality. A partnership is formed. I tell them, “We will show you the path and teach you the skills, but it is completely up to you to do something with it.”
This is likely a great departure from 8th grade life as students knew it. They are reassured that we will guide and support them, but you rarely hear us say, “Because I said so.” It is incumbent on every student to ask good questions, make a solid effort for their own betterment, and do impressive things with the skills they attain. In a nutshell — they are expected to practice personal accountability. The track record shows that they not only embrace this challenge, but also surprise us with their rapid transformation and commitment to their education. Our students have ownership in the process; in fact, they are the major shareholder which puts them in control of their destiny.
To maximize your child’s experience at BVT, consider how you will approach coaching them on the home front. I wish I could say that we won’t have to be authoritarian at times, but that’s not realistic. Nonetheless, I encourage everyone to embrace any opportunity to engage and empower our students to make great decisions for themselves. Try this at home because you know that’s how you would respond best as an adult, not because I said so!
Passion, meet SkillPosted by Anthony E. Steele II on 2/27/2019
Let’s examine the intricacies of passion — there is much to ponder on how it’s born, its value in our careers, and its role in the fulfillment of our lives. In this article, I will illustrate the tremendous achievement that precipitates when PASSION MERGES WITH UNCOMMON SKILL.
Let’s face it, you can be very passionate about something, but that is no guarantee that you will be good at it. There is nothing wrong with that, in fact, it’s the perfect recipe for a great hobby. I applaud anyone who can simply identify a passion, regardless of talent or aptitude within it.
Just consider the millions of mediocre golfers who absolutely love duffing their way through the game, karaoke singers who enthusiastically grip the mic to achieve local fame (or notoriety), and the hordes of shade tree mechanics that love the satisfaction of fixing something themselves even at the cost of a skinned knuckle or two. These folks enjoy their craft. It fulfills them and enhances their lives in incalculable ways even though it’s not likely to yield a pay day, trophy, nor podium finish. To the contrary, the world takes notice on those occasions when passion and skill merge. Excellence is born, and it’s awe inspiring.
Meet Advanced Manufacturing & Fabrication senior, Logan Quinn. He grew up in a family that enjoys recreational shooting and began learning gun safety from his earliest memories with his father. At a young age, Logan became proficient in long gun target shooting. His natural ability was evident as he shot rifle competitively — the first in his family to do so — until age 13.
From there, he moved on to test his skills at trap shooting. His shotgun skills appeared to be even stronger than rifle, and brought him all the way to the State Championships. Just ten months ago, Logan opted to take a pause from long gun competition to try his hand at competitive pistol shooting. At the onset, his coach with some 30 years of experience projected that it would take Logan three years to perfect the techniques required to be competitive in the ultra-precise pistol categories. In a matter of months, Logan’s abilities surpassed that of his coach, and he began a meteoric ascension in the sport. He attended the Winter Air Gun National Championship and will humbly tell you that he placed in the “middle of the pack.” At the esteemed 2018 Ohio Camp Perry Nationals, Logan placed 2nd for Juniors and 6th overall. This January he won the State Jr. Olympics held at MIT and qualified for the Jr. Olympic Nationals being held in Colorado this April.
Logan provides us with an interesting case study on the topic of passion. What started as a basic enjoyment of marksmanship revealed his natural ability. In turn this encouraged him to compete — he joined local leagues, did well, drove harder at his training and practice, and discovered traits and skills he did not know he had. He is one of very few shooters who shoots with both eyes open, and he is ambidextrous although his pistols are gripped for right hand. Many are taking notice, Ohio State University, North Dakota State University, and the Coast Guard Academy are but a few eyeing Logan (and potentially offering scholarships) to be part of their shooting teams. Personally, I can’t wait to see how Logan’s knowledge of precision machining ultimately plays into his budding career as one of the Nation’s upcoming marksman. He has the ingredients to become one of the greatest competition gunsmiths if he so chooses, but at the very least, I know he appreciates the technical precision of his Pardini pistols that most don’t comprehend.
I cannot have an article on the topic of passion meeting skill without mention of a senior from our Business & Entrepreneurship program, Payton Linnehan. Payton is pure fire on the football pitch! She started playing soccer when she was four years old. During those early years, she played for the Douglas Town Soccer program and then moved on to play for the Fuller Hamlets club teams. Her natural ability and love of the game fueled a passion that motivated her to work ever harder on her skills and condition- ing. Clearly this payed huge dividends as she moved on to play for the FC Stars U-13 team. Her talents were evident and she was recruited to be part of the US National Olympic program playing for their U-15 team and now on their U-17 team. Payton was also a member of our Varsity Girls Soccer team for two years. She has played the forward position most of her time on the field and you most recently would have seen her playing for the USA team in the U-17 World Cup in Uruguay.
During her more than 13 years of playing soccer, Payton has distinguished herself with many recognitions and honors, including BVT Rookie of the Year, BVT Most Valuable Player – two years in a row, 2 year Colonial Athletic League All-Star, Central Mass All-star, All-state and All American recognitions, and in the U-15 Concacaf Championship she was awarded the “Golden Boot,” the top recognition at this international tournament. If you’re as interested as I am in following this incredibly talented young lady, Payton has signed on with Penn State to play in the Big Ten Conference next year.
Both Logan and Payton are not only bright examples of excellence at BVT, but also the larger concept of passion merging with skill. Perhaps we are all drawn to watch these young stars because they exemplify something we all strive to do — to find our passion, work hard at it, and savor the fruit of our labor. No matter where we are in that personal quest, we vicariously enjoy their success on many levels. Logan and Payton are truly inspirational ambassadors of passion.
Fit for LifePosted by Anthony E. Steele II on 11/14/2018
Serving as the Assistant Superintendent-Director/Principal of BVT is never a dull job, in part, because the educational landscape is always changing. I need to keep a keen eye and ear out for arising challenges to our mission, and as a school we must stay nimble in our responses. Ensuring that our students are career and college ready also means that they are fit — FIT FOR LIFE.
Over the past few months I have been paying particular attention to one such challenge to our mission. It stems from an observed paradox in our culture, and I’ve concluded that it is not isolated to BVT, but more accurately to raising Generation Z across America. Invariably, adults pride themselves on their particular struggles growing up. Said struggles forged them into who they are. Yet, we seem determined as parents and educators to deny our youngsters those very experiences.
We’ve all heard the cliché from an elder, “When I was a kid, I walked to school, uphill… both ways… in the snow.” You’ve probably heard yourself proclaim some form of this sentiment to the young people in your life to bring about an awareness of just how good they have it. I remember hearing it as a kid, and I have countlessly echoed these sentiments, proudly, as an adult. It is universal. But why? Is it partly because we cherish the wisdom we gained from the proverbial school of hard knocks? Or are we proud of the fact that we go above and beyond to ensure that our kids have the best opportunities to be happy and successful? Regardless, the school of hard knocks provided us with resiliency, grit, determination, adaptability, independence, self-reliance, and the strength to overcome obstacles. Yet, we are becoming increasingly efficient at eliminating anything of the sort for our youngsters. Our determination to shelter, protect, and provide for them—our fundamental duty as adults—is paradoxically shortchanging our youth.
The evidence of this is falling like snow, as are the unintended consequences. Speaking of snow, many school districts across the country, including BVT, are examining the use of technology and distance learning so that students and staff can work from home in inclement weather. That could be a great alternative to an inherently risky commute; however, when I began working at BVT 22 years ago, the District prided itself on almost never closing for weather because it was authentic to the practices of business and industry. Over time, schools, including BVT, shifted the philosophy on snow day cancellations to stay in alignment with cultural norms and parent expectations. I can say without doubt that schools have a safer standard today regarding cancellations than they did 20 years ago, but whether it be closing school or working from one’s home computer, no one will be walking to school both ways, uphill, in the snow! I, like you, will always advocate for, and err on the side of safety. Nonetheless, an old adage comes to mind: “The safest place for a ship is in dry dock, and the safest place for an airplane is in the hangar; however, neither will fulfill its purpose in their safe places.” Grist for the mill.
Technology has provided some unintended consequences and a paradox of its own. It is commonplace that students have cell phones and use them to text their parents throughout the day. Some students enable GPS tracking so parents can keep a watchful, protective eye on them. Why not? The technology exists. After all, good parenting includes doing everything possible to ensure your son or daughter’s safety. My parents did everything possible, but my experience as a latchkey kid in the early 1980’s yielded me a vastly different experience than kids today. From the 4th grade on, I had to lock up the house and get myself to the bus stop in the morning, and I was usually the first one home at the end of the day. No cell phones, texting, GPS. Just grandma’s phone number if I really got myself into a fix…and guess what, I liked it!
At the beginning of the new school year, we had a freshman come into the Main Office in a complete panic. He couldn’t access the wi-fi, and for the first time in his life, he was out of constant text and voice communication with his parents. We remedied the problem quickly, but it was eye-opening when I contrasted his current level of independence against the notion of getting him career and life ready in four short years. Likewise, our servers deliver hundreds of e-mails between parents and teachers daily ensuring that students are staying on task and doing their assignments. That is a wonderful capability we have at our fingertips, so we use it, but inherently the adults are shouldering a valuable responsibility that used to rest solely on the student. Examples are plentiful around parental involvement with their child’s social lives as well, especially when it involves conflict. Right or wrong, I can factually say that it didn’t used to be this way. There is a new norm. As a trend, Generation Z is exhibiting weakness in some areas that used to be the exception, not the norm. There is a definitive cultural shift with this generation, and we all need to respond.
USA Today recently published an article, “Meet the ‘lawnmower parent,’ the new helicopter parents of 2018” covering a viral internet op-ed piece coining the new phrase. The author asserts that, “…lawnmower parents mow down all of children’s challenges, discomforts and struggles.” Similar to my observations and concerns prior to the article, the author states, “In raising children who have experienced minimal struggle, we are not creating a happier generation of kids. We are creating a generation that has no idea what to do when they actually encounter struggle.” Clearly, this is an observable cultural shift in our country, and we have all been guilty at one time or another as educators and parents of perhaps going too far to help our youth. There is much to gain from simple awareness that a balance must be achieved between assistance and the value of struggle. Students across the country are critically lacking in: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. That is not my opinion, rather those are the five cornerstones of Social Emotional Learning (SEL). SEL started as a conceptual response to student needs several years ago. Today it is a national priority in education that has become an important core component of one of the MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s five strategic priorities. Schools are actively teaching these skills because a lack of them is a barrier to all other learning and subsequently a hindrance to the pursuit of a successful and happy life. Again, awareness and focus on these educational priorities goes a long way to remedy the problem.
Ironically, the focus on SEL and the emergence of terms like “lawnmower parent” are born out of the dedication and care to do the best we can for our children. The thematic weaknesses of Generation Z, was never out of neglect or lack of effort, rather an unintended consequence from the contrary—salted by a heavy dose of technology. We want our children to be strong, resilient, responsible, self-reliant, respectful, and someday be good parents themselves. If that is true, we as parents and educators must shift our efforts and allow our children to experience life’s challenges, give them opportunities and guidance to self-advocate and resolve conflicts on their own.
In terms of fitness, no one would hire a personal trainer to demonstrate how to lift weights and never touch them himself. A good personal trainer wouldn’t allow it. We need to be great personal trainers and teach our children to lift properly during evey struggle— to feel the burn and gradually build their strength. We need to help them become fit for life. Feed your child a healthy balance of struggle and personal responsibility, and I promise you, not only will they be stronger and happier, but also proudly say, “When I was a kid, I…and I liked it!”
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