The average tenure of a school superintendent in Massachusetts is five years. Dan Gutekanst has far exceeded that, having started as superintendent of Needham Public Schools on July 1, 2006.
Needham Observer’s Peter O’Neil sat down with Dr. G ahead of his 18th school opening day to discuss the wide range of issues that cross his desk.
PO: Where are our schools now regarding COVID?
DG: I think there continue to be distractions for some kids. Family dynamics — because of the economy, because of remote work — play into how kids are behaving. Overall, I think our schools are in good shape.
There’s no question there is a level for some families — and it’s not most — of continued anxiety about health or economic situation or just social stress.
Maybe COVID released that. It’s still out there. Helping them navigate that is our challenge. I think we have the wherewithal and the resources to be able to do that.
PO: Has there been an increase in student behaviors requiring disciplinary measures?
DG: Over the last couple of years some of the really unexpected behavior of kids — through outbursts, through language, hitting, getting frustrated, being anxious — a lot of those behaviors manifested themselves in the classroom.
That took a toll on staff, on principals and teachers to help manage that. There’s no question there was more of that behavior in the last couple of years than we had before the pandemic.
I think we’re on the other side of that because now we’ve been doing school post-COVID for a couple of years. We’ve got kids on the ball fields, we’ve got kids gearing for the robotics tournaments. Every day I see kids out on the swing sets, they’re playing with one another, they’re running around.
I don’t think everything has been upended. We’re finding that right pace for education and learning. Just as, I think, adults are finding the right pace in the workplace. The workplace is unsettled right now. We’re all navigating that.
PO: A lot of time and effort went into creating the Portrait of a Needham Graduate. What has been its impact?
DG: It’s our North Star, if you will. It’s the competencies and skills we want (students) to have before they graduate from high school.
It’s the work of the district. Making sure we hire diverse staff. Making sure we provide interdisciplinary opportunities. Making sure we get our social and emotional learning framework in place finally. Making sure we work with the town to achieve our master plan and get Pollard updated.
All of that work is embedded in the strategic framework. That’s our work. We have to put our head down and tackle it.
PO: How does the outside world influence what goes on inside the schools?
DG: The schools are not immune from what goes on out there in the world – the racial reckoning that the country had in 2020. We are still trying to manage that, making sure we have an equity-based, anti-racist culture for our schools.
But it’s imperfect. We make mistakes. There are problems. We have to acknowledge those problems and deal with them.
Kids will make mistakes. They will say things. They’ll do things that we have to help them understand are not the right thing to do. Trying to do that without demonizing a child, or through just punishment, is something that’s a challenge to do.
It’s easy to say if a student says something that’s racist or biased, punish the child and be done with it. There’s more to it than that. There are lessons to be learned. How do we try to promote understanding.
PO: How do you react to claims that schools are somehow indoctrinating students?
DG: Schools have a purpose, and it’s not to indoctrinate. It’s not to profess a political view. I’m very clear with staff about that.
And yet, in some ways, schools ARE countercultural. We bring into schools kids of different faith backgrounds, different political traditions in their families, different ethnicities, languages.
You bring them all into the schoolhouse and that teacher is responsible for bringing everybody together. Inevitably there are going to be some different perspectives and conflict. It’s gonna happen. It would be crazy if it doesn’t happen.
Our schoolhouses are not for taking or promoting a particular political position. But that does not mean we can’t talk about issues of social justice or what it means to be anti-racist. I think those ARE appropriate conversations in the schoolhouse and that they can invite everyone to participate and to see different viewpoints.
Issues about respecting human differences in my view are critical for teachers, working with parents. We need to be able to provide those experiences in our schools, to discuss all the different nuances of the human condition.
We have to be transparent in what we’re doing. We should invite as many people as possible into the discussion.