MERIDEN — With roughly 8,500 city students scheduled to return to classrooms or enter them for the first time as new students on Wednesday, some 1,400 Meriden Public Schools teachers and other school district staff members returned to their buildings on Monday.
Staff first gathered in the morning at Platt High School for a districtwide convocation, where they received welcoming remarks from Superintendent Mark D. Benigni, who was joined by other speakers, including Edison Middle School social studies teacher Amy Bishop along with a previously unannounced guest — U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.
Cardona described himself as a proud former educator in the city’s school system and a former pupil who was nurtured in the same school system.
Cardona noted that 42 years earlier, he entered John Barry Elementary School as a shy English language learner. Cardona would later attend Roger Sherman Elementary School and Washington Middle School, where he “made friends of all walks of life.”
“I got my foundation here as a student,” Cardona said, later noting his own professional journey from a fourth grade teacher at Israel Putnam Elementary School, to principal at Hanover Elementary School, and later assistant superintendent for teaching and learning for the school district. Cardona noted his wife is a Meriden Public Schools colleague and that one of his children is a recent graduate, while another is currently enrolled in high school.
Cardona served as the state commissioner of education before U.S. President Joe Biden named him to lead the U.S. Department of Education.
Cardona offered his own professional advice for the educators seated before him.
“On Wednesday, thousands of students, brighter and more talented than me, will be walking into your classrooms, waiting to be shaped with you beside them — waiting to find themselves. My advice to you this morning is this: don’t limit kids to their current dreams and aspirations,” Cardona said.
“Don’t limit them to their current dreams and aspirations. teach them there are no limits. And don’t let them settle, period. Never let them settle,” he said, noting that his own teachers did not let him settle.
“You have that power. Our kids need you now more than ever,” Cardona said.
He acknowledged the challenges that came with teaching during the global COVID-19 pandemic and the tasks that are forthcoming.
“No one went to school to learn how to teach, lead or be part of a school system during a pandemic,” Cardona said. “But we did sign up to help children. We signed up to make a difference. And we’re serving through the most consequential time of our lives. The decisions we make in the next 10 months will determine our country’s progress for the next 10 years.”
Bishop, the Meriden Public Schools’ teacher of the year for the 2022-2023 school year, addressed her district colleagues moments earlier.
Bishop looked ahead to the first day of school and the 179 days that would come after it. She conveyed how she uses positivity as a teaching tool to engage students and to maintain her own focus as an educator. Bishop praised her colleagues, from the educators and support staff who work with the youngest of pupils to high school teachers who are helping students prepare for their post-high school journeys.
Bishop noted that no matter the level of experience she and her colleagues have — whether they are a few years in the profession or near retirement — they are united by the fact that they have taught through a historic pandemic that dramatically transformed how they delivered instruction.
Through it all, Bishop said, she and her colleagues maintained high expectations for their students.
Bishop encouraged her colleagues to embrace the challenge: “And build rapport, and dare I say happiness, in our classrooms — not only with our colleagues but our students, families and communities,” she said.
The convocation kicked off with the rallying percussion of Platt High School’s drumline. That was followed by another student group, from Edison, who sang an a capella rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner”.
Benigni celebrated those teachers who continued their own learning throughout the summer, including several teachers who continued that learning through grant funded excursions abroad and in other regions of the United States. Benigni’s remarks were accompanied by a slideshow with photographs showing the various locales where city teachers had continued their learning.
Benigni noted that more than 100 other teachers had also enrolled in 2,000 continued learning courses.
Tom Murray, director of innovation for the national education nonprofit group All4Ed, delivered the event’s keynote address. Murray stressed the importance of educators making a positive first impression on students, referencing his own missteps early on in his educational career. In those missteps, Murray explained that he had focused too much on the organizational tasks — textbooks, syllabi, and other handouts.
Murray called the first day the “most important day of the school year by far.”
He said educators’ biggest goal for that first day “is that kids can’t wait to come back for day two.”