The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 15, 2004

Features

Carlisle's new assistant principal settles in
He's a teacher, an educational theorist, and (don't tell!) a New York sports fan

New Assistant Principal Michael Giurlando settles into his office in the Robbins Building at the Carlisle School. (Photo by Ellen Huber)
At various points during the five years Michael Giurlando spent as an elementary school teacher, his students overturned a pile of plastic bottles on his head, threw cream pies at him, and in one particularly well-publicized event, shaved his hair. And that list includes only the things he invited them to do.

You see, Carlisle's new assistant principal believes in rewarding hard work. The plastic bottle episode occurred after the completion of a successful year-long recycling project, and the head-shaving was a reward for hard-earned high scores that the whole class earned on standardized tests. The cream pies were an incentive for other academic achievements that students earned during their time with him.

Giurlando explains that his route to the classroom was non-traditional. "I graduated from the University of Maryland in 1998 and wanted to do something like the Peace Corps, except that I wanted to stay in the U.S.," he says. "That's how I got involved with an organization called Teach for America," which sends new college graduates to underprivileged communities in an effort to improve the quality of the schools. The program sent Giurlando to Texas for a two-year stint with the Houston Independent School District, teaching in an elementary school of 300. After finishing his two-year TFA commitment in Houston, Giurlando chose to stay for a third year but moved to an elementary school with 900 students. That third year turned out to be one of his best, and it was that group who was rewarded for passing a challenging standardized writing exam by getting to shave their teacher's head.

From Texas to California

From Texas, Giurlando headed west to Palo Alto, California. "That was an equally great experience, but very different from Houston," he says. "The two are opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. In Houston, most of my students lived below the poverty line, and their parents had not graduated from high school. Many of them were Hispanic, Vietnamese or African-American. It was a very rich cultural mix. My students in Palo Alto came from families that were affluent and highly educated; many of the parents were professors at Stanford."

After two years in Palo Alto, Giurlando entered the Harvard Graduate School of Education's School Leadership Program. While earning a master's degree there, he interned in the Boston public school system.

"After finishing my degree, I decided to apply for school administration programs in Massachusetts," he says. One reason for the decision was that his twin brother, with whom he has a very close relationship, lives in southern New Hampshire. "I interviewed in a number of communities, but was particularly impressed by the conversations I had with the staff here in Carlisle." In particular, Giurlando recognized a sense of professional kinship with Superintendent Marie Doyle and Principal Steve Goodwin. "Steve is in a doctoral program, and he and I have studied a lot of the same people [educational theorists]," he explains. "With Marie being new here, she and I are at a similar level of learning about the school environment, trying to get a sense of what the community wants and what the staff's strengths are. The greatest asset here is the staff. They are all so open to new ideas and ways to move things forward. Something I hear from a lot of teachers here is that they are really excited about having new administrators on board who have an objective viewpoint and a fresh perspective on the school system."

Eager to connect with students

Upon assuming his new role in early August, Giurlando had the opportunity to participate in some late-summer hiring decisions and worked with the rest of the staff to prepare for the new school year. Of course, the pace picked up dramatically once students arrived on campus. "My first goal is to learn as many people's names as I possibly can," he says. Eager to connect with students on a personal level, he particularly enjoys visiting classrooms with his treasured photo albums of past classes in hand. "I want to show kids that I was a teacher and I still consider myself a teacher. The photo albums that my students made for me before I left Palo Alto help to convey a sense of who I am as a person." Students as well as their parents have responded favorably to his attempts at outreach, he says. "The welcome I've gotten from kids, parents and staff has been extraordinary. People have gone out of their way to show an interest in getting to know me."

At heart, Giurlando says he is a teacher and an educational theorist. "Models of school leadership and instructional practice were my primary topics of focus in graduate school," he explains. "One of my favorite parts of this job is getting into conversations about curriculum to find out what kind of learning is going on. It's an ongoing discussion: where are our strengths, what can we do better, how can we all learn from each other? We have access to so many resources within this school system. We need to make sure that we are using all those resources to ensure that we are making the best choices for kids."

Inevitably, there are times when educational theory has to take a back seat to the pragmatic day-to-day responsibilities that Giurlando calls "administrivia," such as overseeing the school's bus routes. "The hardest thing about this position is that time is always an issue. There's never enough time in the day. I always want to be in classrooms, but there's also a lot of paperwork and other detail work to take care of. I try to plan my day so that most of the paperwork can be done outside of classroom hours." As a member of the school's administrative leadership team, Giurlando works on staff and professional development, participates in grade-level team meetings, studies curriculum issues and addresses concerns related to specific students as they arise.

Being an Advisory Group leader gives him a chance to return to his classroom teaching roots, though. "Advisories" are small groups of middle school students and faculty that emphasize team-building skills, problem solving, peer interaction, social issues, and more. "The primary purpose of advisories is for the middle school kids to establish a personal relationship with an adult in the school," he says. "I meet with 10-12 students per week in my advisory. It's a great opportunity for me to get to know kids outside of the classroom, and it's an environment where kids can talk confidentially about their concerns and needs. Our hope is that it helps defuse some of the anxieties inherent in this age group."

School history

While establishing bonds with the children and adolescents that make up his daily life, Giurlando is careful not to overlook the value of older staff members, and is eager to foster strong relationships with them as well. "Bill Tate has been here for 30-plus years," he cites as an example. "It's great to hear his stories about the evolution of the school. I had the opportunity recently to talk to some of the town's older residents about what school was like here for their children in the 1960s and 1970s. There's a wealth of history here, and it's important that I as a newcomer recognize that."

Giurlando admits that there is not a lot of time in his life right now for hobbies or other nonprofessional interests. "In high school, I was in the choir and the band. I still really like to attend theater and symphony performances," he says. "I enjoy reading, especially children's literature. And I'm a huge sports fan." In fact, his interest in sports led to one of the more provocative confrontations he's had in Carlisle, which he retells with great amusement. "A student came up to me recently and said that she'd heard a rumor about me. I said, 'Okay, what was the rumor?' She said, 'That you're a Yankees fan.' I asked her who was asking and she said, 'The Red Sox Nation!' I really thought that was a very clever answer! So I had to tell her that yes, I'm a Yankees fan. And by the way, I'm not the only one in the building."

His loyalty to New York sports not withstanding, Giurlando's commitment to his new position in Carlisle is vividly evident. "It's all about a partnership, an unsaid trust, a covenant, really. Parents trust us with the thing that is most precious to them: giving their kids the best education we can, stemming from academic and social well-being. I think the entire staff and administration, from the superintendent to the teachers' aides, take ownership over this invisible trust. It's the living heartbeat of the school."


2004 The Carlisle Mosquito