One of the ways I have tried to remain positive during this school year is to be intentional about my gratitude. I have written more handwritten thank you notes already this year than I can remember. I’ve tried to find specific ways to share meaningful words of thanks with people and honor the circumstances that our faculty, staff, and employees find themselves in this year.

I’m focusing on gratitude because this year, perhaps more than any other in which I have served in leadership, there is very, very little that I can do to solve the problems brought to my attention. The people who report directly to me are describing circumstances in which there are no solutions. I don’t mean that we can’t come up with solutions. I mean, there are no solutions.

We cannot make people magically appear and fill the open positions in our district. We cannot change the fact that the common cold symptoms are also the symptoms of COVID. We cannot make the circumstances of 2021 different. We can only alter our perspective and look through a different lens.

It’s an unenvious position to be in. Leading a school district and learning of problem after problem that no matter how much collective brainpower is put towards it, the best thinking is: “Let’s just make the best of it.” This is leadership in 2021.

So I do my best to shift my focus, share this reality, and make myself present. I still can listen, be empathetic, and compassionate. My team can be mindful of this, see what we can do to reduce the non-essential demands on our employees, and move forward together. It’s not ideal, but then again, neither are our circumstances.

This Thanksgiving, I am thankful that our employees keep showing up. Every day. Teachers who are teaching half-full classes. Nurses who bear the brunt of families’ frustrations. Paraeducators who have assignments that shift, often daily. Foodservice staff members that do the work of two, sometimes three staff members. Facilities personnel who do not have a consistent assignment or enough colleagues to get the job done. Administrative support staff that find themselves at unfamiliar desks, or in unfamiliar positions. Principals that have no time for instructional leadership but instead play a constant game of whack-a-mole.

My gratitude extends also to our families who are rolling with all of these changes. They have to contend with symptomatic children and the uncertainty of our test to stay program. They wonder if the next e-mail message from me will upend their world, with the notification of a positive case, with close contacts.

And last but certainly not least, I am abundantly thankful for our students. They smile behind their masks. They put in a hard day’s work every weekday. They bounce through our doors because we are focusing on Relationships and Learning this year and making sure every single one of them feels safe, welcome, and included. To paraphrase Hugh Grant’s line from the movie Love Actually, when I get gloomy with the state of the world, I go into a classroom. And I remember why I went into education in the first place.

Presence matters, even if you can’t solve people’s problems. I was reminded of that earlier this year when I won a raffle for contributing to the St. Johnsbury Sunshine Fund. This fund is a way the adults in our district take care of each other when personal circumstances take a crummy turn. One of the prizes I won was a homemade shirt designed by one of our teachers. The shirt is done in the lettering of the TV Show Friends; the theme song is from The Rembrandts entitled, “I’ll Be There For You.”

Presence matters, even if you can’t solve people’s problems. This year I’m thankful for that.

Dr. Brian G. Ricca is Superintendent of St. Johnsbury School District.

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