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Peter Burrows: Beyond the pastoral

We all know the reaction that plays across the countenance of those who visit Vermont, who witness its beauty on a tour of the leaves and leave feeling grateful that places like this still exist. Like many residents that have lived outside the Green Mountains, I, too, came here because I was drawn to the pastoral and the bucolic, and craved a community-rich experience that gave real meaning to life. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t marvel at the land and the people and the seeming balance they make.
Yet this reverie must at some point end, to leave the poetic verisimilitude to move toward a settled and grounded reality that both incorporates this romantic vision and allows for a healthy dose of unfettered realism. You can only gawk for so long before you start to catch flies.
I’ve found that our identity as a state is filtered through the lens of nostalgia, and is reinforced by those outside of Vermont that revel at our traditions. It’s what we are confronting in our work to improve the economy and attract investment growth, where we look to find that perfect balance where the conflation of our experiences and values meet our need to grow the economy to improve the lives of all of our residents. It’s what we are confronting in education, in our work to find this point of balance. We are in the midst of a statewide inquiry into determining how our core values meet with our vision of educational systems that provide real equitable supports and personalized learning experiences.
If asked about what works in education, many of us go back to what we have known and lived, what worked for us as children in 1950, 1970 or 1990. We go back to what worked for us as a basis for what our schools should look like in preparing students for lives that are increasingly both local and international. Our nostalgia runs deep, and arises out of our own unique experience. Whether it be related to walking uphill both ways to school, the importance of homework, or the purpose of a public school education, we carry our own experience and understanding forward in how we envision the work of our schools today.
As we move education forward in Vermont, I believe it is imperative that we come to terms with this. We must learn to be increasingly critical, to analyze our own learned conceptions of teaching and learning and educational systems, to be able to fulfill the mission we’ve set forth to ensure each and every student in Vermont finds success, regardless of the countless challenges that many of our students face to be ready to learn and grow. This will require us, as a state, to unearth our nostalgia, to bear out what’s essential to our core beliefs while staying focused on challenging those beliefs to build stronger schools for all of our students.
If we can remain true to a singular focus on student achievement and well-being, we’ll be on the right track.
Peter Burrows, D.Ed., is superintendent of the Addison Central Supervisory Union and has more than two decades of experience in education.

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