PULP NON-FICTION: Choosing the perfect OCPS 'Survivors' squad

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  • | 7:15 a.m. January 15, 2015
PULP NON-FICTION: Choosing the perfect OCPS ‘Survivor’ squad
PULP NON-FICTION: Choosing the perfect OCPS ‘Survivor’ squad
  • West Orange Times & Observer
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Background: The Orange County Public Schools office is home to nearly 700 of the district’s more than 22,000 employees.

Mission: Explore each of the nine floors of the Ronald Blocker Educational Leadership Center in 90 minutes.

Plan: Spend 10 minutes on each floor meeting people and hearing the stories of the unsung heroes that work there.

I find myself standing in the lobby looking around at the hustle and bustle all around me. As always, the welcoming ladies at the receptionist desk greet me with a smile. My debut as anthologist is going better than expected. I feel well prepared and believe I have all the necessary tools to ensure anthropological glory: a camera; a camcorder; an audio and voice recorder; a journal to detail dates, times and critical interactions; high socks; a fanny pack; a bottle of water; and homemade granola in a Ziploc bag. I set the timer for 10 minutes and begin my journey of exploring the first floor.

That was the intended plan.  


However, things seldom work out the way we imagine. Instead it went something like this: I am standing in the lobby with only a pad of paper and probable guess as to where I can locate the nearest water fountain. I have my iPhone — which I guess could serve all the aforementioned purposes (camera, camcorder, etc.) anyway, if I needed. But I don’t. There aren’t many people, and not much going on. No one is particularly enthused to talk to me. I am an outsider exploring this world, and I feel ill-prepared by my limited collegiate study to properly interact with seemingly agitated natives. 


I sigh, a bit disheartened, and head to my car. Nine in 90 was not going to work. Nevertheless, I believe setbacks are just another way to triumph, and so I get busy working on the infamous Plan B.  

Alas, my solution: Survivor Fantasy League.

Preface: Some people play fantasy football. I play fantasy Survivor. And not just when the season is right. I play it all the time. I play it when I first meet people. I play it when I find myself stuck in a room during meetings. And I especially play it when I am sitting in an airport terminal getting ready to board a plane.

The rules are simple. Who do I want on my team? Like, worst-case scenario: If I end up stranded on a deserted island — Castaway-style — who do I want on my side?  

My first two draft picks are pretty straight-forward: Chief Academic Officer Scott Fritz and Director of School Choice Chris Bernier. Why? They can reach the coconuts. It’s a matter of primitive survival: I am short, and although I would attempt to shimmy up a tree out of sheer necessity, I cannot imagine this endeavor ending well. Dr. Fritz and Dr. Bernier, on the other hand, are at least 7 feet tall each.

Beyond vertical prowess, however, I am a fervent believer in servant leadership. I saw this immediately when talking with Dr. Bernier. It was resounding and evident in both his words and his actions. His attention to customer service and willingness to help anyone — regardless of whether he felt it was his job — was refreshing and admirable. Plus, while we are trying to outwit, outplay and outlast the other tribe, he can be confident that his wonderful assistant, Phyllis, is handling things back on the eighth floor. They have worked together for 18 years.

To lead, one must be willing to serve. I think the loyal and mutual reverence Dr. Bernier has with his assistant, as well as the warm reception I received from every member of his entire department, are indicative of this type of leadership. 

I value Dr. Fritz’s humility. I appreciated that he even took the time to talk to me in the first place. I was in a room full of important people — and I, for all intents and purposes, was not one of them. Yet, he made it a point to have a conversation with me anyway. He took the time to invest in my story and did not give off an air of superiority. 

It was a brief interaction, but it made me reflect on my own interactions with students, athletes and peers. I like to think that I build people up when I can, but I wondered if I reached out enough. We all have an opportunity to influence. I appreciated this lesson from Dr. Fritz.

Beyond staying alive and dominating physically in Survivor, one’s social game is a must. Enter Susan Adams, executive manager to the superintendent; Gerard Saulny, senior administrator in the Office of Management & Budget; and David Lopez, program coordinator for Professional Development.

I tend to be excessively intense and generally don’t give off warm, fuzzy vibes of approachability. I recall a few years back when a former student submitted a schedule change to guidance after the first day of classes.  The reason he listed was, “Teacher scares me …”  

The student went on to have me for two straight years and became my assistant his last year at West Orange. We stay in touch to this day. Now, I make it a point to tell my students up front that I am not angry — that it’s just my normal face. 

Therefore, Susan would not only be a benefit but a necessity. She exudes that genuine kindness and enthusiasm that immediately brightens your day. What I found most endearing when talking with Susan, though, was this is a woman who has been at OCPS for 26 years. She is quite literally the right-hand (wo)man of Dr. Barbara Jenkins and has worked directly with five deputy superintendents during her tenure.

Next, I want someone on my tribe who has integrity to a fault. I walked into Gerald Saulny’s office unannounced. He had no idea who I was but talked to me anyway. His wit, sarcasm and candid observations made me laugh. Gerry is the type of guy who won’t let you be blindsided at Tribal Council. He speaks his truth without apology, and I am thankful. He’s a breath of fresh air in a world that can often flatter with insincerity.  And as Gerry says — it’s your actions, not your words, that matter, anyway. 

Gerry’s contribution actually surpasses his social game — he would also be an asset in the rationing and distributing rice. Anyone caught up on this season’s “Survivor” will realize rice rationing is apparently not common sense — but a delegated necessity.

 It’s now Day 18 or 19 on some remote, savage island. We have no soap, no plumbing and are perpetually starving. We can no longer smell the stench of our unclean, sun-crisped bodies with rotting flesh and catastrophic blisters. We are homesick, exhausted, famished and cantankerous. In some ways, we are looking forward to Tribal Council.  

A few tribe members have become particularly irksome for any number of reasons, and it’s time they are voted off the island. This, my dear reader, is where David Lopez enters the game. I have to admit I talked to him after not having the most pleasant experience attempting a conversation elsewhere at the ELC. I forebear the particulars but was ready to give up on this column. Nevertheless, David is someone I had talked to several times before — usually looking for another person, but he was always helpful and genuinely kind. Essentially, he is in charge of leadership in training, and he was a reminder about the importance of positive energy, helping others, and fostering growth. 

Perhaps you haven’t seen a single episode of “Survivor,” but consider it like “Lord of the Flies” — minus the talking pig head. In situations of survival, the people you choose to align with can absolutely determine your fate. Thus, the last necessity to longevity in this game is an alliance. You actually see this play out on a variety of reality shows — strength in (loyal) numbers prevails.

My alliance is easy. I am taking the entire auditing department. Surprised? So was I, to be honest. This was actually the first group I had the opportunity to meet after returning to the RBELC with my new mission of picking a tribe. After scrapping Nine in 90, my new expectations were not particularly stellar. I reverted back to my hermit style of introversion and stood in the back corner of the elevator burying myself into the wall. I walked quickly past people and avoided eye contact. 

And then, I found myself in front of the most welcoming group of individuals — collectively, the warmest and most hospitable department I had the opportunity to meet. We all poured into one office, and I was surrounded by sincere, friendly faces eager to assist in my random endeavor.

My biggest takeaway was the bond of misunderstanding. You have preconceived notions when entering the auditors’ offices. Just like people have preconceived notions of a wrestling coach. But these guys were fantastic and articulated something I don’t think many people realize — the multifaceted entity of their positions, and the dynamic, ever-evolving and varying aspect of their careers. I want to thank them for giving me the motivation to continue this entry when I found myself wanting to give up. Their stories, passion, attitudes and spirit resonated in such a monumental way that I needed to ensure I was able to complete my report of the RBELC — if only for them.

West Orange High School language-arts teacher Kristen Iannuzzi is the 2015 Orange County Teacher of the Year. During this school year, she is sharing stories about the employees who work for Orange County Public Schools. 





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