On Aug 25, I met with my old high school principal, Mr. Tony Pavia. Mr. Pavia has been in education for over 30 years. He has been a principal at three schools: Stamford High, New Canaan High, and now Trinity Catholic, where he once went to school. I wanted to meet with Mr. Pavia because I found my high school experience to be very valuable. I felt like I was known and cared for as Erika Dunn-Weiss, the individual, and that I had the chance to explore how I learned and what I loved. I’m learning that that is somewhat rare in public schools. I wanted to know the mindset behind my experience, and the keys to creating it.
Mr. Pavia’s philosophy was simple, classical and timeless: school is about students. He felt that, nationally, the conversation was about student achievement, quantified in scores, data, and statistics— not about students. We are at risk of losing the human being with that kind of discussion, he said.
He felt that school was a space where students needed to feel accepted, safe, and looked after as a whole person: physically, intellectually, emotionally, and socially. He felt that this is especially important since many students can’t find this sense of safety and security at home. Mr. Pavia said that many students, years after leaving school, will talk about one class or one aspect of school that provided a life raft for them, even if no one knew what was going on at home at the time. Moreover, Mr. Pavia felt that students needed to feel like they had some ownership over their school experience. It’s these intangibles that form the basis of a strong school, he said.
The means of creating this atmosphere were surprisingly simple. As principal, Mr. Pavia greets every student outside the entry way of the school every single morning of the year, and is always in the cafeteria at lunch. This way they start to build relationships, and Mr. Pavia says that many students have written to him years later about how much this simple gesture meant to them, and how it set the tone of the day. Mr. Pavia also said that it’s very important for faculty to get to know each and every kid in some way–something that Mr. Pavia took upon himself. He said that you never know what you prevent just by talking to a kid who is lost in the crowd or a corner.
This also let Mr. Pavia seem accessible to the students. He commented that people tell him all the time he doesn’t need to worry about things like ketchup, but that letting a kid come up to him and complain to him about ketchup lets that kid feel like he is being respected and has a say in his school. Much of the time, all students want is someone who will listen. Even if you have to turn down their ideas, if you are honest and respectful towards them, they will treat you the same way. Plus, if you have a hundred interactions with a student and you have to turn down their ideas 6 times, you’re fine. You just have to make sure you have 100 interactions.
But importantly, this job of getting to know the students is supposed to be fun. I remember that Mr. Pavia had cameos in many of our school plays, cooked an Italian meal for my foods and nutrition class, let a gang of my friends into my teacher’s room to prank him, and dressed up as Santa Claus for Best Buddies every year (a program for mentally disabled students and peer friends). He helped create a sense of fun about school–something that he says is especially important for high schoolers. High schoolers love to rebel, he said, so you solve a lot of problems by giving them nothing to rebel against and having fun along side them.
Mr. Pavia also reminded me that a school is only as strong as its teachers. A good teacher will be people-smart and have a passion for kids and their subject area. It’s important for kids to like the teachers and to believe in them, even if they have shortcomings. As for the administrative roles, like principal, it was your responsibility to help the teachers access their toolkit, and create varied experiences in the classroom–experiences that will find the typical and atypical learner. That’s why it’s important for administrative figures to have had experience in teaching–they can relate to teachers and share from experience.
I found my conversation with Mr. Pavia to be deeply inspiring. Sometimes, when talking about the school project, I can get caught up in the vast financial/administrative/philosophical undertaking we have on our hands, and lose sight of the student that started this whole dream. The students that we were, once.