Category: Today Matters

To DO or To BE? — Now, THAT is the Question!

To DO or To BE? — Now, THAT is the Question!

We all have so many things to get done in a day. We utilize terms like “multitasking” to define the experience of just how busy we are. Running to the grocery store, returning a call, dropping a child off at a practice, and more turn into a long list of items that need to get done in order to remain efficient and to keep from forgetting something important. In schools, these lists can get very, very long. Jotting down the hundreds of conversations, and necessary follow-up steps from these conversations, calling parents, helping students, pushing out an extra copy of important assignments, and more become a series of never ending Post-it notes adhered to our desks and weekly/monthly planners. Sure, it keeps all of the balls in the air and helps us stay organized, but only until the next series of tasks emerge.

What if, rather than “To-Do” lists we created “To-Be” lists? I thought about what could be on such a list. Would there be items such as, “I would like to be…”

> more patient,
> more creative,
> kinder,
> more generous.

How might our lives and mindsets change if we kept track of our To-Be lists as carefully as we keep track of our To-Do lists. As we stretch ourselves to be better people, ever-improving, the idea that we’re trying to become something more lends itself to transformation. It pushes us to be a better version of ourselves and impacts the way we do our work, the way we interact with others, and the way we think of ourselves.

In a world that oftentimes dwells in the negative, it might be refreshing to think of all the things we are doing right. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to do the things we’re already doing well. Not to mention the tremendous amount of energy spent on organizing our busy lives. Often we overlook the fact, that to continue to do the things we’re already doing well, it takes focused commitment, energy, and thought. Perhaps, we should spend the same equivalent amount of time celebrating this work and its overall effect on our “being” in the world.  Approaching life with a “To-Be” mindset may be just what is needed to balance all the “To-Do’s” in our lives. I suggest that this would lead to increased levels of happiness and enjoyment for everyone involved.

As we continually work on both lists, the “To-Do” and “To-Be”, giving equal attention to both will help us continually evolve into happy, productive humans. For my Forest Ridge School District 142 readers, you are receiving your first glimpse of our overarching theme for the 2020-2021 school year. Ponder these thoughts and I look forward to expanding on ideas with you, related to the power of “being” in our daily lives.  

Our Children… Our Future

Our Children… Our Future

I came across a quote the other day that really caught my attention. I did not see a citation, so I can’t include the author’s name, but the message resonated with me.  It goes:

“If you violate your conscious consistently, it’s like a gauge that no longer gauges. People of conscious are change agents.”

As I reflected on this, the thought of how it applies to education and serving the youth of our community. There are so many things that need to be changed with how we learn, interact, treat one another, and work together to solve problems for the betterment of all. We often talk about life-long learning for both children and adults. At District 142 we strive to instill this love of learning and growing over a lifetime in our students. But the above quote caused me to wonder if we could clarify and expand upon the love of learning. What I would argue is that it’s useless to learn a whole lot of things if you don’t put them to use. What would be the benefit of being a life-long learner if you never put what you learn into practice? And, further, we desperately need our youth to build on what they’ve learned so when they grow up, they are better prepared to solve real-world problems and affect change.

It’s often said that the same minds that created the problems are not usually the minds that solve them. If this notion is true, our young people have a plethora of challenges ahead of them. As they become adults they will need to use their knowledge to be a part of local and global improvements and solutions that will benefit all. I think we should enlist our young people now. I don’t think it’s too early to ask them what they want to do about the problems they perceive in society. Likewise, it’s important to empower children now with critical thinking to also discern the good that they see in the world. By role modeling “conscious” and encouraging our young people to get involved, a whole lot of good could happen a whole lot sooner… and continue for a whole lot longer.

In walking through our District, and speaking to the young people who attend school here, I see our students are bright, thoughtful, and ready for action. What they need from us is unbridled enthusiasm to expose them to knowledge and the critical tools of educated evaluation. We need to lead them, support them, and let them flourish as their personal critical thinking skills are developing.  This kind of support results initially in good decision-making and a growing awareness of their place in the world. As I look at my own six children, three of whom are heading off to college next year, my sincere hope is that they are people of conscious, that they find enjoyment in their life’s calling, and that they help make positive change for the world. 

It all starts with the idea that we have to be aware of our conscious, and that we are willing to adhere to that in the good times and the bad. A little more togetherness, cooperation, and serving of others will help address many of today’s largest problems. Paired with a solid educational foundation and the tools of discernment in information-seeking, we have the ingredients for life-long learning and growing.

Here in District 142, this is our charge… to equip the next generation with everything they need to be the leaders of tomorrow.

Thanks Kids, We’re Listening!

Thanks Kids, We’re Listening!

While walking through Foster School the other day, I stopped in my tracks as I viewed a recently-posted student bulletin board display. It struck me, that with a little guidance and ample opportunity to think through complex issues, our students can actually teach the adults around them a whole lot about life. As a part of our Social Emotional Learning program, Second Step, being taught in Kindergarten through 8th Grade here in Forest Ridge School District 142, we discuss character, making good decisions, leading a healthy balanced life, and more. The display at Foster was a summary of our students’ reflections on some of the subjects discussed in Second Step. I hope you come away from our students’ thoughts and feelings as moved as I was.

Students were offered relevant prompts; just a sampling of their amazing responses are below.

To become a more ethical person, my goal is:
> “To be nice, respect, and listen”
> “To help people that are sad”
> “Be sad if my friends are sad”

To become an effective learner, my goal is to:
> “Listen, be organized.”
> “Listen to my teacher when she is talking”
> “Work together with people”

To help create a better school, my goal is to:
> “Give kindness and help kindness grow”
> “I have to be safe”
> “Face fear or danger”

I don’t know about you, but any workplace, any home, really anywhere where people gather could be improved by following the advice of a few 10-year-old students. Their list included being nice, demonstrating empathy, working hard, gathering knowledge from others, and stepping outside of their comfort zone to ensure that they, their learning environment, and their school community moves towards being a better place. The question that surfaced in my mind was, for us as adults to answer, when was the last time we approached our jobs, or family life, while thinking of the concepts of being better as a person and a better member of that group?

As an exercise, and showing that our students can really help us evolve in our thinking, I offer the following challenge. Please take a moment to consider your own response to the prompts below.

  • To become a more ethical person, a goal for myself is_________________________.
  • To advance my learning/growth for myself or my job, one goal is ______________________________.
  • To help create a better work place/home life for myself and those around me, one goal is _____________________________.

By putting these simple reflective exercise into regular action, we, collectively, can help create a better environment for all. Thanks kids, we are listening J

Dr. Paul McDermott

The Power of Positive Thinking

The Power of Positive Thinking

I recently stumbled upon a subject that I found fitting for the commencement of a New Year. It revolves around positive psychology and the fact that having a hopeful outlook can actually improve outcomes. Much of this topic can be seen in the work of Shawn Achor, a former Harvard student and teacher, who had one of the most popular and sought after classes at Harvard University relating to the topic. Mr. Achor has authored several books including Big Potential, The Happiness Advantage, and most recently, The Orange Frog.

In reading through The Orange Frog, a metaphor for breaking from the status quo and seeing things through the lens of a positive outlook, two main lessons can be learned:

> Being positive is contagious (so is being negative).

>Being positive is adaptive, meaning it allows for us to innovate and be more effective in our current environment and adapt more readily to new environments.

As a school leader, I look for practical applications for the knowledge gleaned through reading books, articles, watching TED Talks, etc. The biggest principle for me as a learner is to apply the information to be better at my work and to help those around me do the same. We live in a world fascinated with the negative, which may make positive psychology that much more important. I think in District 142 we do a good job of promoting the positive, but there is always room for growth. It’s how we engage with our students, our parents, and with one another. Do we have a growth mindset, where we’re always looking to take steps forward, or do we resort to the way we’ve always done things because it’s safe and known? This question will inform us as to whether we truly subscribe to seeing things positively or not.

If our goal is to live a healthy, happy, productive life, the manner in which we interact with others, our attitude about our chosen work, the things we decide to spend our time on will be greatly enhanced through the use of a positive lens. It doesn’t mean ignoring reality, but it does mean that by making the choice to be positive, we end up outperforming those as equally as skilled who have a less than positive outlook.

As we, here in District 142 continue to innovate, grow, connect, and prepare our learners for high school and beyond, the environment in which this process takes place is of paramount importance. We are keenly aware that we make a lifelong impression on our students, so we chose to do it positively for their benefit and ours.

As we begin a New Year and the second half of the school year, I wish everyone in the District 142 a positive, warm, and welcoming new beginning.

Dr. Paul McDermott

What’s Your “Why?”

What’s Your “Why?”

I was recently asked why I write these blogs. As I started my superintendency six years ago, I felt there was so much to say about the way that education for children should look. I also felt there was a lot to say about the urgency by which we should approach creating an amazing experience for students at school.

School and learning should be synonymous… but often children look at school and say things like “I’m not good at school,” “I don’t like school,” or “school’s not for me.” As a lifelong educator, these statements are crushing, we need to reinvent the school experience so every student feels that school is a place for them. The title of my blog is “Today Matters.” I don’t think we have a day to waste. I think our students need every single day we can offer them… to learn, to grow, and to become.

As I pull back for a larger perspective, there has to be something that drives people to do this kind of work. It’s got to invoke passion, concern, care, and a dedication to excellence. So, for me, children and their education is my “Why?” Why do we get up in the morning? Why do we approach our work with an undying positivity? Why do we work the long hours, research the best practices, and infuse lessons with creativity, technology, and relevant, interesting topics to discuss? It’s because children in District 142 are our “Why?”

As we approach the holiday season, I implore you to pause, reflect, and think about your own “Why?” What’s out there in this world, that does good for self and others, that contributes to who we are as a community of people that excites and motivates you? I argue, that people who can actively search out, and then live out, their “Why?” are people who experience life to the fullest. It may bring about additional challenges, but living out your “Why?” also can bring immeasurable satisfaction and joy.

During this season, I hope you discover your “Why?” as well.

Have a wonderful Winter Break!

Dr. McDermott


A Recipe for Joy

A Recipe for Joy

Some reports will suggest that children laugh 300-400 times per day, while adults laugh only 17-18 times per day. Wow, that is a sad number for us adults. What is the difference? Sure, children don’t have to pay the mortgage, worry about being places on time, with the right stuff, or deal with the stresses and struggles of adulthood. But, they do navigate a complex world without the help of adult-developed tools to help make their way. The key, I believe, is that children find joy. They gravitate to activities, people, work, and situations that help them feel good about themselves, thus laughing, thus bringing joy. Adults can take a lesson from this behavior, especially with the upcoming holidays, which bring as much stress and anxiety as they do joy. Unless we approach them differently.

So, what brings you joy? A surprising way to feel more joy is to share; share of yourself, your things, and your time. The old adage is that it is better to give than to receive and there is some truth to this. For example:

My six children will at times challenge me to one of their favorite games. Enter their world of thought and answer the gross and grotesque questions of “Would You Rather?” Would you rather eat an ounce of ants or an ounce of ladybugs? Really? Who comes up with these questions?? For the sake of our conversation regarding joy, would you rather have, say $25 or the undivided attention and time of someone you love for one hour? What if this was expanded to someone you’ve lost. I think of my grandfather who recently passed. Heck, I’d rather sit and exchange stories with him for an hour than receive $250, $2,500, or $25,000. I just can’t get that time back. He brought me joy, so there is value associated with things other than the tangible.

I think a lot of this has to do with mindset. Can you, as a human being, separate yourself from the unavoidable bad things that happen in a day? Can you let them go? Can you think more about the positive happenings, the smiles, interactions, laughter that occurred? Both the good and the bad will occur in life; it’s what we focus on that will help determine our outlook, our persona, and indirectly, how much joy we feel.

In our classrooms, I see so much giving. Our staff offers knowledge, instruction, and most importantly… themselves to our students. I think what makes the difference in our schools is that we take such great joy in the relationships we have built with our students. Our learners come to school in a place where they are known. It’s an exchange in that they also give, sometimes in overtly, sometimes subtle ways; but our people and the students we serve have found a recipe for an increased amount of joy. It comes through the gift of service.

Happy Thanksgiving to our families. It’s an honor to serve you and we hope your family time is cherished.


Dr. Paul McDermott,

The Power of Yes

The Power of Yes

Why do we say “No?” Sometimes it is for safety reasons, sometimes because the idea presented simply isn’t appropriate, but what the next few paragraphs will unpack, is why do we say “No,” when the answer could be “Yes.”

Let’s be honest, we all like to hear “Yes” a whole lot more than we care to hear “No.” So, why do we do that? Why do we say “No?” Is it because it’s easier, or more comfortable, or that it allows our minds to stay static in the environment we’ve created for ourselves to exist? “No” typically ends things; it allows for us to leave them right where they are, just how we found them.

So, what happens when we say “Yes” and what can the impact on the educational environment be? “Yes” certainly opens us up to more work. But, the work that it suggests, can be wildly creative, can push boundaries, and help us to improve self and others. Remember when you were a child and, with enlarged eyes, you approached Mom or Dad and asked if you could have a friend over, or go to the movies, or have that extra piece of dessert? And they said “Yes.” Wow! It was so exciting.

Carry that over into the workplace, school, classrooms, personal decisions. If the answer could be “Yes,” why not do it. YES, I will use more technology in my class. YES, I will participate in a book study. YES, I will come to your game to watch you play. YES, YES, YES… imagine the worlds we could unlock if we explored what “Yes” could do for us as adults. And then, the modeling we could pass along to our students and to our children. “Sure thing, I’ll shoot hoops with you in the driveway.” YES, I’ll camp with you in the backyard. YES, I’ll take a walk with you. YES I will  help you with your homework rather than look at my device. YES, I will set up a Google classroom for those struggling with this concept, etc. Saying “Yes” opens up possibilities and expands our lives beyond the act of saying “Yes.” In the examples above, each helps create a memory, promotes change, and is overwhelmingly positive.

I think we need a whole lot more of YES in schools, especially when working and considering our young people. We need our students to navigate a pretty complex world. A “Yes” attitude could help address climate change, bring sustainable safe water to those in dire need, could bring peace to warring countries, end violence in schools and address a myriad of other challenges that desperately need solutions.

The question is, “Will you give it a try?” (Hint, the answer should be YES!)

Dr. Paul McDermott

Learning Takes Time… If it’s Going to Last

Learning Takes Time… If it’s Going to Last

I recently decided to try my hand at learning another language. 30+ years ago, I took French in high school, and I do have two adopted children from Haiti whose first language is a French Creole, so learning, or relearning French was the obvious choice. I looked at several options and decided that using a free app on my phone would be a good fit for me. And then it happened, I started. And… I discovered that learning can be difficult. Learning takes time. Sometimes I have questions and need some guidance (luckily one of my oldest daughters has the seal of biliteracy in French). And, as a lifelong educator, this got me thinking about the work we’re doing in Forest Ridge 142. Let me explain.

There are a lot of ways to judge a school or a school district. Is it affluent or not, do they have good programming, good technology, good extracurriculars, relatable people, and more? Because the work of schools has changed so much over the years, it’s hard to truly gauge  a school based on one measure. Schools need to be what their communities need them to be, at any given time and historical circumstance, always with an eye to the future, continuously-changing world. However, frequently, schools are judged based solely on test scores. The achievement scores, more specifically, the Illinois Assessment of Readiness (IAR) scores, will be released to the public at the end of the month. What will this tell us about schools in Illinois, and more specifically, what will this tell us about our schools in Forest Ridge?

The data is embargoed for two more weeks, but the story that will be told when looking at our IAR scores comparing last year to this year, growth has occurred. We have some of the finest schools in the State of Illinois, not just because our scores on these assessments look good and the ratings assigned by the state deem us as good, but because we actually understand how to educate children. We understand it takes time to grow students.

Regardless of the singular nature of test scores, we understand that each child has individual needs, learning styles, and topics that excite them. We understand that learning can sometimes be hard… but we also understand that by thinking of the learner first, we can create the optimum conditions for student growth and achievement. Assessing and supporting the whole child is crucial to true student growth.

There is a common thread here. Whether it be my slow acquisition of another language, or an elementary school student in one of our schools who may be struggling, if we approach learning with a little relentlessness, working hard at it every day, and if we approach learning from the perspective of the learner… the results will be/are amazing. Forest Ridge School District 142 is proud to serve the students of our community — meeting them where they are and setting appropriate goals, based on the “whole” of who they are —fighting for each child’s continued growth and development. In our District, our children will always come first, starting with appreciating the time they are with us and understanding the time they need to reach their potential!

Dr. Paul McDermott

Genuinely Known

Genuinely Known

Authenticity is so vitally important. As people, we are all curious as to the intentions of others. Are they really like this when no one is looking? Are they this nice, this mean, this genuine in all areas of their lives? This is equally important within our schools, when working with our community and parents, and when developing relationships with students.

Have you ever wondered, “I wonder what the teachers, principals, and other administrators talk about when no one else is listening?” “What do they say about their profession, their schools, their students, and us, the parents?”

Recently I put out an offer to every District 142 employee: “Who would like to join me in an online, Google Classroom book study?” This was open to teachers, secretaries, our maintenance team, administrators, paraprofessionals, Board of Education members and more. In order to participate, you would volunteer to read the chosen book, donate your time to participate in the online book chats, and reflect on your practice and position in the District. Nearly 70 employees jumped on board for a discussion on Creating Magic by Lee Cockerell. This leadership book examines the Disney Corporation through the eyes of one of their executives.

To answer the question above, “What do our school people talk about?,” the following thoughts and comments were derived from our recent District-wide book talk. The participants did not realize at the time that their words would be shared publicly — the epitome of being “genuinely known.” These words are shared by the people working with the students and parents in District 142! Enjoy getting to know us better!

  • “Good customer service in a school setting means working as a team with, parents/guardians, and telling them you want to work with them. Being willing to have an ‘open line of communication’ so that parents know you are always willing to give your best for their student.”

  • “I want our parents to feel welcome in our buildings and comfortable sending their kids to us every day. I want my staff to feel appreciated and supported. I want our students to feel loved and safe. I want it to be such a great experience for all of the people we serve that they let everyone know what a great place D142 is and we are doing great things for our students.”

  • “First impressions are huge in customer service – so this leads me to be very intentional about how I start my day with my students…  making them feel encouraged and excited for what’s ahead.”

  • “When students/parents/co-workers enter my room I want them to feel welcomed. I want them to feel warmth, love, support, important, included, and safe.”

  • “The ‘customer service’ part of our job as educators goes back to asking, ‘Who are we here for and what is our goal?’ If students and their families are at the center of our work, then making sure they feel heard, valued, and part of the team should be as important a priority as anything else.”

  • “I love when students ask questions I don’t know the answer to and we can research and find out together! Engaging in that learning process alongside them also adds to building relationships with them.”

  • I tell my students often that my job is to prepare them to be exceptional in the future. We like to discuss and dream about the amazing careers and titles they may hold in the future, and then we talk about how we get there! The answer is hard work and a desire for lifelong learning.”

These thoughts and words are but a small reflection of the heart and soul of District 142. But, they are rooted in District 142’s motto of “always putting children first.” Thank you for the opportunity to serve and to genuinely know the wonder and potential of your children.

Dr. Paul McDermott


How was school today?

How was school today?

So many times children will come home and are asked, “How was school today?” For those of you who are parents, you’ve probably heard responses like “fine,” “boring,” or “we didn’t do anything.” This led me to ponder whether we were asking our students the right questions. I tried my theory out the other day in the 6th grade hallway at Hille Middle School. Could I, the adult, gather pertinent information from a middle school student by asking a different set of questions? Further, would this middle schooler engage?

My modified “How was school today? Conversation” went as follows:

  1. Who’s your favorite teacher?
  2. Really, I like her too, why do you like that teacher so much?
  3. Interesting, she makes class fun…how does she do that?
  4. I agree, when I was a student, I liked teachers who loved what they taught, but didn’t stand in front of the room and just talked at us too.
  5. When you were in class, and after you received your instructions, what fun activity did you do today?

With this more directed/personal form of communication I found the student was much more open with her responses and we chatted for several minutes. I learned much more about her teacher, the class, the activities, and what she learned by asking more specific questions and responding in kind to how I could relate.

Needless to say, I was also her pass to get into class a bit late, as we talked well after the bell had rung for the next class to begin. That’s how engaged this student was.

James Bryant Conant, former President of Harvard University and American Chemist, is quoted to have said, “Education is what is left after all that has been learnt is forgotten.” Most of us cannot simply remember the lectures we had in classes when we were in school. But we most certainly can remember the activities we do and the way that a teacher made us feel as a human being.

To tap into what students are thinking, the better our questions and responses are, the more thoughtful and engaging our students’ responses will be. I honestly believe that our students, our children, are longing to engage with us, if they think we want to hear what they have to say. Part of the success of the conversation in the middle school hallway was that I intentionally gave every indication that the conversation was important to me, and that I was going to take the time to hear everything that my student wanted to say. Sometimes we get so busy that we give the impression that we just want to hear that school was great, and then move on.

I think if we give our students the space, the time, and the voice to express themselves… and then ask them the right questions, we will engage them far differently and far deeper than we had ever expected. Lesson learned.