Monday, August 25, 2014

The Way of An Educator

L-R:  My mom, Patricia; our daughter; my wife, Melissa; and our son

They named a road for my dad.  This is not the kind of thing to happen every day or for every person, so our family was pretty excited about it.  The road, Norman R. Perkins Way, is in Floyd County in southern Indiana.  It could, of course, have been Norman R. Perkins Street/Avenue/ name it.  I am glad they chose "way," however, for it made me think.  Just what was my dad's way, his particular way of doing things?

He was born in 1930 and grew up in Jeffersonville, Indiana, which is on the Ohio River in Clark County.  After serving in the Army in Korea, he used the G.I. Bill to earn his undergraduate degree in education from Indiana University.  From there he went to the University of Michigan for his Master's in education.  After teaching sixth grade there, he moved back home and spent the remaining thirty-three years of his career in the New Albany-Floyd County Consolidated School Corporation.  Nine of those years were as a sixth grade teacher at Mt. Tabor Elementary, and twenty-four were as the principal of Galena Elementary.

When he passed away in 2009, I listened to stories from an unending stream of people at the funeral home.  The details may have differed, but they all told the same basic tale, one I had heard from countless colleagues and students of his over the years.  Without a doubt, his work as an educator influenced many people, including me.  Here are some of his ways.

Dress professionally  My dad did wear Bermuda shorts to mow the grass, but for the five working days of the week and on Sundays for church, my dad wore a coat and tie.  When I began my teaching career, I simply never gave any thought to dressing in any other way.  It is a practice I advocate as we talk increasingly about the professionalization of education.

Have fun with students  He drew smiley faces with ketchup on the hamburgers of his students at lunch time.  He added syllables to their names to make them long and funny, drawing laughs and smiles.  To this day I do the same, at least with names.  A student named Miles became Kilometers.  Whenever I have a student whose name is in a song, that song gets sung.  It is no surprise that when he retired, the students at Galena Elementary drew pictures of Mr. Perkins with one consistent feature...a huge smile.

Work as if nothing is beneath you  It was nothing for my dad to stay late after school-wide functions to make sure everything was cleaned up.  When he had a student whose wheelchair made it difficult for her to disembark from the bus in the morning or board it in the afternoon, he was there to carry her.  He spent the lunch period in the cafeteria when many other principals swore they would never set foot in such a place.  It makes me think of the perhaps apocryphal story of Abraham Lincoln.  An aide saw him blacking his boots and admonished him, "Sir, Presidents do not black their own boots."  Without missing a beat, Lincoln replied, "Then whose boots do they black?"

Pay what you owe  My dad was responsible for making out the deposits for the milk money and the lunch money each week.  His accounts always balanced to the penny.  When other principals talked of rounding things off, my dad would have none of it.  Our family once went out to eat at Pizza Hut.  As we prepared to leave, my mom went to the restroom, and instead of paying, my dad and I began talking.  We walked out without paying and without realizing it.  Later that night, it hit my dad what had happened, and he made it a point to go back to that restaurant the next evening to pay our bill.

Support those around you  Galena Elementary was one of the first in the district to make computers a regular part of instruction.  This was in the late '70s and early '80s when the Apple II and the Apple IIe were the hot products.

Computers were not exactly his thing, but my dad recognized their value and, more importantly, the passion and the ability of his teachers for whom computers were the thing.  As one of them told me recently, he supported them in their efforts to bring this technology into the school and encouraged them to help make Galena a cutting-edge school for its time.

I said that his work influenced many educators, and another of those was present the night the Floyd County commissioners passed their resolution on Norman R. Perkins Way.  She is Donna Atwood, my dad's niece, and my cousin.  Donna has done just about everything there is in the field of education, including drive a bus.  She is currently the special needs coordinator at Pleasant Ridge Elementary School, also in southern Indiana.  That evening she told our children a bit of her story and what inspired her to become an educator.  Not surprisingly, it had to do with an early childhood memory of visiting her Uncle Norman's school.  I am sure my dad would say he had nothing to do with her becoming a teacher, but then again, that was just his way.

With my cousin, Donna Atwood


  1. What a pleasure to read. I'm left with few words but lots of awe.

  2. I agree with Brian; thank you.

    My father is a lifelong high school history teacher and, as family members, it's sometimes hard to fully understand the impact these great men have had until you hear anecdotes like these from students and peers.

    Thank you for providing some great examples of how passion and leadership can drive educational success.

  3. Thanks for stopping by, John! Are you in education as well?


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