From 2001-2006, Jeff Aronson served in interim or temporary positions as a public school principal throughout eastern and northern Maine. At the same time, he took graduate school courses at the University of Maine which enabled him to examine the national issues in public education.
Here are some articles about his experiences and commentaries on the essential nature of education on our economy and society.
A Rural School Experience
[From Maine Humanities Council Newsletter, 2003]
Having lunch at the A-1 Diner in Gardiner on my way to this interview, I mentioned I was headed for Somerville, Maine. A woman in the next booth leaned over and said,"Iíve lived in this area all my life. Iíve never heard of the place."
Most people havenít. Somerville is in fact only 20 miles east of Augusta. Itís north of Jefferson, west of Washington, south of Palermo, and just east of Windsor. It has about 500 residents, a school serving about 50 pupils K-8, and two paved roads. It is, as its admirers like to say,"the last true Maine town in this part of Maine."
It also has a brand-new school principal, Jeff Aronson. I found him in the cafeteria gym, playing a guitar and trying to coordinate a dozen pair of 9-year-old arms and legs while rehearsing "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?" I had heard school administration described as an intricate form of choreography but had never seen it in action before. Later in the day, I would watch Jeff conduct the schoolís annual Modern Woodmen of America Civic Oration contest, teach a 7th grade "Aspirations" class, resolve a major discipline problem on the school bus, and interrupt our conversation about every five minutes to console a student, cheer on a colleague, speak sternly to a troublemaker, and otherwise keep the school on track.
The 5th graders, by the way, seemed endearing and talented. The 7th graders had a touch of attitude. But some major changes have taken place over the past year, and Jeff Aronson is at the center of them.
ó Charles Calhoun
Energizing A Community
Q: Although you donít have a title, you probably represent the Maine Humanities Council to more people around the state than anyone who actually works for the organization. How many book discussions have you lead?
A: Since 1991, Iíve probably been to several hundred individual sites for the Maine Humanities Council. I think Iíve led almost 2,000 programs around New England Ė I stopped counting at 1,000! The historian Jere Daniell at Darmouth may have done more.We both love local history. And I enjoy the travel enormously.
Q:And how did that lead you into becoming a rural school principal?
A:Through my fascination with the idea of community. When I moved to Maine in 1987 after living in Vermont, I lived for a time in two southern Maine towns that looked at first like traditional New England villages but really werenít. They werenít communities, but places made to look like communities. I realized I wasnít getting the feeling I wanted. Then Julia Walkling of the Maine Humanities Council needed someone to go to Vinalhaven to lead the Letís Talk About It "Yankees and Strangers" book discussion series on New England community. They couldnít find anyone to go there in winter, or stay overnight. Iíd never heard of the place, but in my "Iíll go anywhere" mode, I said yes.
It was a cold, wet, bitter day in January. I stood on the dock in the rain. I suddenly realized I had stepped off into a Vermont town again, only it was surrounded by water. The session went so well, Angie Olson, the librarian, asked me to do the rest of the series.
As a discussion leader, I examined Vinalhaven through the prism of the selected readings and I ended up living there.What keeps me on Vinalhaven is its very strong sense of community. There are elements of Lura Beamís A Maine Hamlet still in front of us there. Thereís no choice but to work together. You canít run away to escape someone, particularly in the winter.
In 2001, I ended up being Vinalhavenís interim principal for a year. Like a library, a school can be a very special place, a place to make things happen. Since I wasnít certified, I knew Iíd have to look elsewhere for a similar job, and I saw Somervilleís advertisement on the Internet. Iím working now on state certification.
Q:And have you found that sense of community here? A:What you have to appreciate is how much Somervilleís identity, its survival, is tied to this school. The town has no other public buildings, no store, no rec center. The school library serves as the unfunded town library. Local organizations meet here. The town office is at one end of our building. One big challenge, though, is making it possible for parents to participate. People have to commute to the coast or Augusta to find work.
Q:You wear a tie and call your students, even the youngest, "ladies and gentlemen," and your colleagues "Mr." and "Mrs." That doesnít always happen anymore. A:Our students donít need their teachers to be their "pals." What they need are mentors, people who play a solid, substantial role in their lives, people they will look up to and respect. They deserve a touch of formality.
Q:For someone who started out as an academic historian, what do you find satisfying in this work? A:I love the thought that great things can happen if you can energize a small community. If youíre respectful of whatís here, and work with whatís here, you can persuade people you can have excellence here, even with the little money you have to spend. For example, despite its modest resources, the town voted not to bus middle school students elsewhere, but to keep the school K-8 and make it work.
My experience in the humanities has influenced many decisions in my life. I love to read and write, but Iím not a traditional scholar. I put the humanities to work in other ways in my life. Running this school is an example of that.
Q:But don't you miss Vinalhaven? A:I still live there; I'm renting a garret for when I need a room on the mainland.
Let Your Kids Play
Daily time spent on recess duty and on negotiating with upset students demonstrated the need for improved social capacity within our children.
Free Range Kids is a superb site with ideas, discussion and articles about the impact of play in kids. Read it and enjoy!
"The Land Rover is not a vehicle, it's a way of life."