by Nat Frothingham
As the new principal of Montpelier’s Union Elementary School, Ryan Heraty has only been on the job for about three weeks–a short time by any measure. But in a recent interview with The Bridge he came across as very much in charge, and very much at ease.
Heraty, who succeeded former Union School principal Chris Hennessy in July, grew up in the Chicago area. His great-aunt was a school principal in Chicago. “Many of my cousins are teachers,” he added, and noted his own youthful interest in education: “I had always wanted to be a teacher.”
But what absolutely clinched his decision to make teaching his choice of a career was his high school coach. “He was a driving force in my life,” Heraty said. “He was doing it right.” And Heraty said to himself at the time, “I could imagine myself doing that.”
For the past four years, Heraty has been a principal of an elementary school in Winthrop, Massachusetts, a coastal town of about 17,000 people a few miles north of Boston. Explaining how he and his family came to Vermont, he said, “My wife and I married in Vermont.”
As he imagined a move to Vermont, Heraty thought the timing might be right. Still he was wary. “I was reluctant to make the move unless it was a school and a community I was excited about. I wanted to make sure it was a great fit.”
During the interview process and all that happened around that process, Heraty registered a number of strong, positive impressions about Montpelier.
Did Union School enjoy strong community engagement? “Yes,” said Heraty.
Had Union forged strong school and community partnerships? Again, “Yes,” said Heraty, noting Union’s partnership with the North Branch Nature Center.
And during a visit to Montpelier, Heraty saw a group of Montpelier Main Street Middle School students walking down the street–but they were carrying bins.
“Why were they carrying bins?” he asked the students. Well, the Middle School students were on their way to Union Elementary School. Inside the bins were materials they would use for teaching science lessons to students at Union. Students teaching students–what a powerful learning and teaching idea.
As part of our conversation, Heraty expressed admiration for the work of educational thinker and writer John Hattie, a professor of education and director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne in Australia.
For the past several years Hattie has conducted research with responses from thousands of schools across the world. Over and over again Hattie has asked this question–really a question about teachers and their impact on students: what, Hattie has tried to figure out, are the most powerful interventions that could be made in our schools to strengthen student learning?
Some educational critics have called for smaller classes. Others have called for ability grouping. Still others believe that spending formidable sums of new money on education can have a powerful impact on learners.
Hattie is not dismissing these conventional interventions; they could help. But Hattie sees teachers as all-important. What’s more he sees real educational clout in teachers working together–collaborating–sharing their best information about the most powerful teaching strategies they have discovered in working with students.
“See learning through the eyes of the learner,” Hattie advises. That’s the transformative variable, or to quote Hattie directly from a 2012 essay, “Know Thy Impact.” When teachers work together–“fed by the evidence of their impact on students”–that’s when measurable gains take place in the learning lives of their students.
As our conversation continued, Heraty discussed an educational shift that is taking place in schools today. Instead of simple knowledge-based learning where the schoolchildren learn a body of knowledge and then are tested on that knowledge, schools like Union are building what Heraty describes as “empowering activities.”
We talked about student writing. What if the only person reading a student’s writing is the student himself? Or perhaps a student’s writing is read by himself and a teacher or by himself and a teacher and a parent? Now, take that further. What about opportunities for students to publish their writing so that it’s seen by a larger audience? Imagine the learning potential when a writer finds an audience of readers? Or as Heraty reported, “One of our teachers created a book, with students, on “The Native Species of Vermont.”
One of the most basic things a school can offer is a place that’s “safe and healthy,” to use Heraty’s own words. Heraty noted that 25 percent of Union Elementary School students qualify for what is called “free and reduced lunch.” That means that one out of four Union Elementary School students come from families whose income levels qualify them for financial help in paying for a school lunch.
“We have 25 percent of students on free and reduced lunch,” Heraty reiterated. “That’s an indicator of need. If kids are hungry, they aren’t going to learn.” Heraty is committed to starting a morning program for schoolchildren who are dropped off early at school.“There’s
nothing right now,” he said. “I will develop a morning program.” He sees such a program as particularly valuable in supporting working families.
Heraty’s commitment to children in a morning program, throughout the school day, and in after-school programs includes an emphasis on what he calls “social and emotional learning.”
Yes, if kids are hungry, they can’t learn. That’s basic. But it’s also important for children to learn how to get along with each other, have their needs met, and function happily as part of a group. What Heraty is aiming for is a school where all students feel safe and supported while being engaged at a high level.