Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Blowing Up the Parthenon

In 1687, Ottoman Turks used the Parthenon as an ammunition dump.  When a Venetian mortar exploded gunpowder that was stored there, one of the most famous buildings in history suffered its worst damage.  It would too much to claim an exact parallel with a curricular decision by Michigan State University, but the difference is one more of degree than of kind.

This spring MSU graduated its last Classical Studies major.  No longer will the Spartans offer a degree that focuses on the ancient world from which their namesake came.  Ridding a major university of a core area of liberal arts study and storing gunpowder in one of the stunning works of human achievement share one thing.  Both are the consequence of blind allegiance to the immediately and narrowly pragmatic while rejecting a broader understanding of truth, goodness, and beauty, or more simply, that which makes us human.  Of course, this is nothing new.

In 335 B.C. Alexander the Great razed the great city of Thebes, killing thousands of men, women, and children, just to make a point.  Whether or not Nero burned Rome, he seemed to benefit from the widespread destruction of the city. Ancient Egyptians went a bit too far in their recycling efforts by using papyrus manuscripts in mummy cartonnage, even for crocodiles.

The article by Fritz Klug on the ending of Classical Studies at MSU does offer an apologia for the value of Classics by highlighting immediately applicable benefits, but there is an even greater benefit than can be had by looking only through the lens of the financially profitable and pragmatic.  It is the well-lived life.  While training in specific skills is important, it is a different endeavor from education, which, to borrow from a Platonic allegory and Latin etymology, is a leading out from darkness into the light.  If an educational institution wishes to claim such a widely encompassing title as a university, then it must reach as broadly as it can to embrace the universal rather than shrink its grasp to the quivering, chest-hugging parochial.

Julius Caesar wrote that the Gallic leader Vercingetorix, in order to send a clear signal of his cruel and absolute authority, cut off the ears of messengers from other tribes.  Jesus was fond of saying, "Those who have ears to hear, let them hear."  No school, rightly called, should be in the business of cutting off ears.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Things Teachers Do

What do two middle-aged high school teachers and a hair metal band from the '80s have to do with each other?  They prove that the teacher-student relationship lasts a lifetime.

In 1986 she moved from Illinois to a small city in southern Indiana to teach Latin after a local legend had retired.  She had taught previously, but was not that long out of college, and while she would teach for a number of years at this Indiana high school, she would eventually return to Illinois to teach at her alma mater for the remainder of her career.  If she were to have built any kind of relationship with her first students in Indiana, you would have thought it would have been with those in her Latin I class.  They knew no other teacher and would be completely hers.  The seniors should have been least likely to form a bond with her since the majority of their study had been under someone else.

(Marcene, me, my friend Bryan McCorkle, and my mom)

I was one of those seniors, and I can tell you none of us knew quite what to make of our new teacher who changed the arrangement of the desks and was hopelessly devoted to all things Stevie Nicks and purple.  Yet in that one year as a student with Miss Marcene Holverson, I received the finishing touches on my dream to become a Latin teacher.  She introduced us to new activities and gave leadership tips that I have shared with other teachers over the years and still follow to this day.  She stayed in touch with several of us through college, and when I finally entered the teaching world, we became colleagues.  We email frequently, I have been fortunate to speak at her Illinois high school for Latin conventions on several occasions, and she was an honored guest at my Teacher of the Year banquet this year.

So where does the rock and roll come in?  In the late spring of this year, I was on Facebook and a message popped up from Marcene (now Farley after marrying and returning to Illinois) saying that my favorite band, Stryper, would be performing in her town in June.  A few clicks later I had tickets for my son, 13, and me to attend.  We arrived early the day of the show for Marcene to load my truck with boxes of Classics books, some dating to the late 1800s.  She is not retiring, but said that there comes a point when a person has to start getting rid of things.  We had dinner with her parents, and then she said she would lead us to the venue.

(Marcene, me, my son)

Pause for a moment.  As Joan Jett sang, "I love rock and roll, so put another dime in the jukebox, baby!"  I agree with KISS, for "I want to hear it loud, right between the eyes."  I am one happy camper going from Vergil to Whitesnake, Cicero to Bon Jovi, Catullus to Deep Purple.  There are times when I just want a little Led for my head.  I think you get the picture.  So I was pumped to pull into a small parking lot in front of Goodfellas', a local Italian eatery that featured a stage that has hosted some pretty big names in music.  This was to be a small venue, where the fans crowded around the stage and despite the heat would bang there heads for four hours.  Rock as it was meant to be.

Standing in line (the tickets were general admission), I gasped when Stryper lead singer Michael Sweet came out to say hi to the crowd.  I called out to him and we exchanged some pleasantries, including his asking my son about his Lego creations.  Suddenly Marcene called out, "Michael, will you take a picture with them?"  I handed her my phone, and she snapped several pictures of Michael Sweet with my son and me.  I was on the moon!  Think screaming teens when the Beatles came to the U.S.

(My son, me, and Michael Sweet)

As the doors opened and we started to enter the venue, Marcene took her leave and told me she would stay up so I could call if I needed to on the drive home.  We would be traveling back to Indiana in the middle of the night, and she didn't want me to fall asleep at the wheel.

Teachers and students.  What happens between human beings who occupy these roles is more complex than could ever be grasped by the blunt instrument of an evaluation.  Teachers buy students food and materials that they cannot afford.  Students invite us to their weddings.  I was humbled and honored beyond measure when a former student and her mother asked me to walk the bride down the aisle since the dad was not in the picture.  Once, the social studies teacher on my 8th grade middle school team and I took off at lunch to pay respects at the funeral home for the passing of the mother of one of our students.  Teachers listen, counsel, and try to open up the world to the students who share their lives, their hearts, and their dreams with us.  It does not end when they leave our classroom.  It is not finished when we retire.  It goes on and on, and as one summer night in Pekin, Illinois, recently proved, it lasts a lifetime.

(Stryper covering "Jesus Is Just Alright" at the Pekin concert)

Monday, June 16, 2014

Why Did You Hire Me?

Why did you hire me if you don't trust me to do my job?  If you thought I was a professional with the required skills to make me worthy of hiring, then why do you not give me the required, trust-based freedom to do my job?  If I am as poor at my job as your top-down, micromanaging of my professional life indicates, what does that say about your hiring practices?

I recently read an article about technology in the classroom, which is a common topic these days.  Even more run-of-the-mill was the use of Finland as the starting point in the discussion.  Yet what made this article truly important was not its provocative title or anything on the first page, which pretty much told us what we already know.  Page two contains the gem.  The article cites a post on Finnish education author Pasi Sahlberg's blog that identifies the two basic things the United States must get right if it hopes to learn anything from Finland:  teacher trust and teacher training.

Let's acknowledge a few things up front.  I teach with an extraordinary department chair, Traci Rodgers, who works hard to help her teachers do the jobs for which they have been hired.  My school and my district have been incredibly supportive of me and mine.  We all know this is not universally the case.  Let us also admit that it is entirely possible to make a bad hire.  The person looks good on paper, has a great interview, but just does not work out.  It happens.  It is also possible for a person to get worse over time for any number of reasons.  Even those who do not get worse can and should improve.  Yet does a system built on distrust of teachers, one that proves it assumes teachers are doing a bad job with its requirement of endless reporting, observing, evaluating, and testing, really help anyone?  

Consider for a moment a famous scene from the classic film Cool Hand Luke.  In this scene the boss of a prison gang informs the men that they may have some privacy as they answer the call of nature while

working along a road, provided that they keep shaking the bush that hides them.  One of the prisoners takes advantage of this, but even as he shakes the bush, one of the prison bosses fires a rifle in his direction.  At last the bush stops shaking and the guards rush over to discover that the man has tied a string to the bush so that he could shake it at a distance as he made his escape.

Education is a most human enterprise, yet it can feel inhumane in the extreme when professional, caring, and creative adults live under the cloud of such distrust.  As the Cool Hand Luke scene illustrates, a sufficiently motivated person can get around such measures, and in what should be a humane environment like education, these measures serve mostly to discourage and drive away the best and brightest.

Sahlberg does point out that the trust and respect given to Finnish teachers derives from the high level of their preparation.  Perhaps that is what administrators and legislators do not trust.  They do not trust the institutions that have prepared their employees.  If that is the case, then let's have that conversation.  What must stop is a demeaning, punitive system of so-called accountability that seems to have but one actual effect, a hemorrhaging of educational leaders from the profession.

Monday, June 2, 2014

For Those Who Are Not Me

First of all, I know that the title of this post is grammatically incorrect.  It should read, "For Those Who Are Not I."  The reference, however, is to a Kenny Rogers song with the lyric, "I feel sorry for anyone who isn't me tonight," and it just seemed pretentious to give the correct grammar in the post title only to follow it so quickly with the song lyric.  Those of you who are not grammar nerds will not understand why I took so much space in this opening paragraph to talk about such a matter, but I am a grammar nerd and had to clear the air.

Fine.  I'm done talking about that now.

The truth remains, though, that I do feel sorry for anyone who isn't me.  No, this is not a statement of overweening pride and arrogance.  It is, in fact, a declaration of humility.  What follows are the remarks I delivered at our district's end-of-year celebration.

"Mr. Perkins, the principal needs to see you on your conference period."  The cold and clammy hand of terror reached out of Claire Campassi's email and choked me.  For the next four hours I had to teach while wondering what outrageous thing I had said in class that was finally going to get me fired.  When Mr. Branigan and Mr. Akers stopped by to tell me I would be North Central Teacher of the Year I was both relieved and surprised.  I was relieved to still have a job, but surprised by their message given where I teach.  You see, I have taught at almost every level of school in three states, and I have never seen such a body of scholarly, creative, and caring teachers as I have come to know at North Central.

Then it happened again.  "The Washington Township Teacher of the Year is Mr. Steve Perkins."  Dr. Woodson made the announcement, and the YouTube video tells me that there was a lot of cheering and clapping, but I remember very little of that moment.  I was stunned by her message given where I teach.  From Kindergarten through twelfth grade, the students of Washington Township experience award-winning scholars, artists, and scientists who just happen to be their teachers five days a week.  I was humbled and honored to be chosen to represent such a sterling group of educators.

And then came October 4, 2013.  "Mr. Perkins is the 2014 Indiana Teacher of the Year."  The words came from State Superintendent Glenda Ritz amid an invasion of television cameras and reporters interrupting our warm-up activity in Latin I.  This time I was flat out nervous.  I grabbed our son and daughter, whom Glenda was leading by the hand, not so much for their comfort as for my own.  Since that day I have had the opportunity to meet and work with extraordinary educators from all fifty states.  I have participated in policy discussions here and in Washington, D.C., have spoken to the Indiana House of Representatives, and yes, I was able to share a message from our Latin students with the President of the United States in the White House.

Yet for all the fun and exciting opportunities I have enjoyed so far and will continue to enjoy through next school year, one of the highlights has included speaking to pre-service teachers in schools of education around Indiana.  We all know that this is one of the most challenging times in which to be a teacher.  Circumstances at all levels of the great American education machine, to say nothing of negative media, make it increasingly difficult for intelligent adults to do their job, which is, quite simply, leading students on the shared journey of discovery that is education.  Yet these pre-service teachers in our schools of education give me great hope for the future.  In their eyes and in their words I see and hear the passion for children and commitment to learning that are the hallmarks of any great teacher.  They are not blind to the deck that is often stacked against them by foolish regulations, the poverty of their students, and life itself.  They are, however, prepared to do something about it because they have been shaped by amazing Hoosier educators.

How do I know this?  I know it because I see in them what I see every day in the hallways at North Central and I what I see here today, men and women who have continued their own discovery of the true, the good, and the beautiful, lifelong learners who know that one of the greatest things for a human being is to walk alongside others in that most humane of enterprises, education.  We walk with the richest and the poorest in our community, with those from loving homes and those from environments that no one could reasonably call a family.  Our students are hard working and lazy, brilliant and struggling, inquisitive and dead at an early age to the wonders of life.  Yet the dedicated professionals in this room have given their lives to guiding all of them on that shared journey of discovery.  Who are we to be entrusted with such a sacred calling?  The answer is that we are teachers.   For this reason, I could not be more proud to work with the extraordinary educators of Washington Township and to share your stories with those who, like you, are changing the world one student at a time.  Thank you.