Monday, June 12, 2017

Bad Administrators Are Killing Education

Perhaps more than any other single factor, bad administrators are killing education.

That is a bold statement when the ability to educate our young people is under assault from poverty, poor home situations, a runaway obsession with testing, the misuse of data to malign teachers and hurt students, blind worship of technology that in some cases brings more harm than good, and insulting attempts to make educators feel like professionals instead of allowing them actually to be professionals with appropriate salaries and control over how they practice their craft.  Yet the ham-fisted, utterly misguided, and at times cruel leadership at district and building levels has produced "the most unkindest cut of all," leaving too many teachers with the choice of either crying, "Et tu, Brute?" to the those who should have had their backs instead of stabbing them, or leaving the profession.

I recently shared an article* on Facebook, one more in a seemingly endless series of its kind, about a good teacher leaving the profession.  This was not a new teacher who got in over his head or an older teacher who left because she was burned out.  I sarcastically suggested in my preface to the post that there was no problem in teachers leaving for, as some administrators say, there are plenty to take their place.  I had no idea the hornet's nest I had poked.

In the days that followed, Twitter messages, emails, and Facebook messages bombarded me with stories from around the country of teachers bearing witness to hearing what is quite possibly the stupidest line of thinking that should get any leader fired for speaking it.  Please note that the stories you are about to hear must remain anonymous.  I will give no indication of any teacher's name, subject matter, or state, and that alone is a matter worthy of concern, because the prevailing emotion in so many of our toxic school environments is fear.  Teachers are afraid, and it is not because they are emotional snowflakes who need to grow up.  It is because too many administrators, far from doing their job of fostering an environment in which teachers can do theirs, have created, whether through ignorant neglect or genuinely malevolent intent, a sweatshop mentality complete with dread of the overseer's whip.  Fear is completely incompatible with education, but that will be a topic for another time.

What follows, then, are comments shared with me from teachers across the country.  After a few responses to the article linked above, I asked whether educators had heard administrators say that there were plenty of teachers to take the places of those who leave, or a variant of that.  The results were as follows, and there is no pattern of their coming from certain geographic regions or from one type of school or district over another.

Not comfortable responding to your fb post, however, our HR Director told us in negotiations "...that there is a line of teachers waiting to take [our] place."

Teachers talk about administrators feeling that way; colleagues have throughout my career.

I've had it said to me two minutes before I was supposed to start teaching for the day.

At a new teacher hire, I heard, "With all due respect, as Beyonce says, 'Don't you ever for a second get to thinkin' you're irreplaceable.'"

I've heard it as well, multiple times and once through my own experience.

It makes me sad to say, but yes I have heard that at least once a year during my 15 years as a teacher.

Regrettably, I've heard it.  I heard it said of some of the best educators with whom I have worked or co-taught.

On more than one occasion, I've heard a district administrator...state, "If they [teachers] don't like it, there are plenty of openings at McDonald's."  Also, a district administrator...sent an email to a colleague with a link to a job opening in a neighboring district after she pointed out the potential impact of budget cuts on her department.  It has been an interesting few years to say the least.  It is one thing to deal with external perceptions of education and teachers; it's another when it is from within, especially from those in "leadership" positions.

"Everyone's replaceable" has been spoken many times in my school.

Quote at a school board meeting when a good young teacher decided to switch schools, "There is no one who can't be replaced."

Spoken by the principal to a colleague and me in his office when we told him about ill-will among the faculty, "When they leave, we will cry for three minutes and get back to work.  I have a long list of people wanting jobs."

I've heard it in [name of state].

Yep, in [name of state] I've heard it.

A former superintendent used to say that -- she used to say that teachers should be grateful for the jobs they have because there are lots of people lined up waiting to take them.

I've heard it several times in my own district and others in [name of state].  It's so disheartening.  We have so many vacancies.

One of many reasons I moved into administration.  I have heard it across the state in several districts. 

I've heard it -- especially at negotiation time.

I've sadly heard it when I taught in [name of state] and a few years ago back in [name of state].

My superintendent said a couple years ago that English teachers are a dime a dozen.

It's said regularly.

If you are a parent, talk to your children's teachers and administrators and find out for yourself the true culture of their school, making sure to encourage those leaders who are serving well.  If you are in a university school of education, visit some schools in your state and discover for yourself their culture and then set yourself to the task of crafting leadership training programs capable of producing the leaders our children and teachers need.  If you are a teacher, work well with your administrators.  Lead up by sharing good leadership materials with your department chairs, principals, and superintendents.  Encourage them when they do well.  And if the environment of your school or district is such that you cannot be the teacher you were made to be, do not leave the profession, but find another place where you can thrive.  The power of Pharaoh was broken by the exodus.

Whoever you are, as you go about the shared work of ensuring our children are well grounded in the past and present for their callings in the future, allow this extended email from a colleague of mine to motivate you.

It was via email, and regarding an extracurricular position I held. I have done this position for years, and the district has been very pleased with how I managed it, having brought it back from kind of a mess, thanks to my insane organization. However, it's a ton of work and for several years I've been feeling tired of being taken advantage of and tried to give it up. 

This year there were some particular concerns I was raising, ethical concerns about some other staff members' conduct. When I approached admin about the fact that I wanted to give up my position, I told him I was concerned about handing it over to someone not as conscientious of the potential issues, as they've had difficulty getting the position adequately filled in the past, and I wanted to make sure to leave it in good hands because the integrity of the program meant a great deal to me.

Rather than addressing my concern he said, "Do the position or don't do the position. If you don't, someone else will"  (paraphrase... i'm uncomfortable using his exact quote, but he did use the word *replaceable*).  My immediate response was that he'd just made my decision really easy, and I emailed him back and said I wouldn't be doing it anymore.

This was said via email, at 7:28AM, as my 11th graders were walking in the door. I stood up to start class and as I was going over the agenda I just broke down. I had to excuse myself and took a couple of minutes to calm down. I told them "I'm sorry, something just happened that really upset me, and it has nothing to do with you."

There are a few things to this:

1) The fact that it was said in response to me raising concerns... it felt like he was saying "we'll find someone who's not going to raise a fuss" and it discounted all the heart and soul I'd put into the program for six years and trying to do the right thing.

2) While on the surface it's a logical and true statement, it's certainly not a great way to get your people to want to pour their heart into something that has few extrinsic rewards.

3) Our school has a major "positive school culture" initiative. Our principal is a driving force behind it, and goes out of his way to do special things and make it a positive environment. In many ways, he's wonderful at that task. But when he gets stressed out in the spring, he lashes out at people... and often times he lashes out at his best people, the ones who are going above and beyond, the ones who are truly giving their all. But those day-to-day interactions mean just as much, if not more, than all of the positive murals and pep talks and recognitions and assemblies. I suspect he said it out of frustration with something that probably had nothing to do with me, but that's not an excuse, and I will never forget how worthless and unappreciated it made me feel that morning. I don't think I will ever have an interaction with him not colored by that experience.

*Here is an important and related article, whose comments are equally worth reading.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Disposition to Learn

Being willing to be told one is wrong is a necessary disposition for learning.

Docility is crucial for a learner.  In fact, it is a necessary condition for learning, which means that without it, learning cannot occur.  Unfortunately, docility, or the quality of being docile, has taken on the sense of being quiet and meek, shy and retiring, unable or unwilling to raise one's voice.  Yet, as with so many ideas and words in English, if we look at the Latin root we come to a better understanding.  The word "docility" comes from that Latin verb docere, meaning "to teach."  Docility is, therefore, quite simply the quality of being able to be taught, which is not an inherent quality or one shared by all people at all times.  In other words, not everyone is docile.  Not everyone can be taught.

Consider for a moment the obvious.  You could not be taught how to change the oil in your car if you were asleep.  Your dormant state would leave you incapable of learning.  The same would be true if you were listening to music loud enough to render people unconscious.  Unable to hear what the instructor was telling you, you could not learn.  You would likely learn little to nothing about changing your car's oil if you were being instructed while observing the bone protruding from your broken leg.  The intense pain and shock would make you less than docile.

These, of course, are circumstantial limitations to docility, and many people recognize similar limitations at work in the lives of school-aged children.  Poverty, violence, and abuse are but three.

Yet there are other behaviors, attitudes, and mindsets that can limit or entirely block or support a student's docility.  Some of these are derivative of circumstances and others are within the direct control of students themselves, but taken together they form the disposition for learning that every student brings into the classroom, and it is this disposition that determines whether a student at any given moment in any given subject is docile enough to learn.

Perhaps the most significant attitude leading to a docile disposition is the willingness to be told that one is wrong.  Consider two proverbs and the lyrics to a pop song.

Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.  (Proverbs 12:1,  ESV)

Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence.  (Proverbs 15:32, ESV)

One night, me with my big mouth,
Couple guys had to put me in my place.
When I see those guys these days,
We just laugh and say,
"Do you remember when?"  ("Cherry Bomb," John Mellencamp)

It is no insult to be told that you are wrong about something.  Admittedly, there are better and worse ways of telling someone this, but regardless of how the information is communicated, a person must be willing to accept it when it is true or he cannot learn.  It is a necessary, a without-which-not characteristic of being docile.

One the best ways parents and those entrusted with the care and nurture and education of young children can prepare them for a lifetime of learning is to help them understand what it means when they are told that they are wrong about something.  It means that they are wrong, nothing more and nothing less.  It does not mean that they are bad.  It is not a statement about their character, unless, of course, that about which they are wrong is a moral action.  It does not mean that the one stating the fact thinks ill of them or will no longer love them.  This last statement is vital to understanding this key component of docility.  My telling a student that he or she has formed a verb incorrectly in no way indicates my lack of love for that student, but rather is proof of my care and concern.  I would not want my students to make fools of themselves by writing something incorrectly.  I love them too much.

To be sure, this is a mature concept to grasp, but then education is largely an enterprise for the mature of any given age.  Those called to the shared journey of discovery that is education must help those on the way know how to accept when they have been told that they are headed down a wrong path.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

A Teacher's Jewels

When I attended the commencement for our high school's senior class, I took pictures.  I was hardly alone in this as parents and grandparents and friends of the graduates took enough photos with their phones and tablets to have exhausted Kodak's store of celluloid back in the day.  As a teacher, whose legal responsibility is to act in loco parentis, I shared their pride and beamed widely as my Latin students joined over eight hundred of their classmates to receive their diploma.

Once they have graduated, these students may join a Facebook group of my former students, which spans more than a quarter century.  There we share photos and memories.

Why do I take pictures of my graduates?  Why do I want to keep in contact with them?  Why do I take as much pleasure in their announcements of collegiate and work achievements, marriages, and births as I did when they won a ribbon in a Junior Classical League competition?  It is because of Cornelia.


In his Nine Books of Memorable Deeds and Sayings, Valerius Maximus reported this about a woman named Cornelia.

Maxima ornamenta esse matronis liberos, apud Pomponium Rufum collectorum libro * sic inuenimus: Cornelia Gracchorum mater, cum Campana matrona apud illam hospita ornamenta sua pulcherrima illius saeculi ostenderet, traxit eam sermone, <donec> e schola redirent liberi, et 'haec' inquit 'ornamenta sunt mea'.  4.4.init.

"Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi, when a matron from Campania showed her her jewels, the most beautiful of that time, plied the woman with conversation until her children returned from school and said, 'These are my jewels.'"


My wife and I have two wonderful children, and they are, of course, the crown jewels of my life.  Yet these students are jewels as well, filling the treasury of teaching.  I take pride in them much as their own parents do.

This young man spent as much time in the French teacher's (pictured here) room as in mine!

And I love sharing this pride with those parents.  I text them the pictures I have taken and tag them with the photos on Facebook.  I know how much it means to my wife and me when we hear from others about our children.  Many teachers take pictures of their students, and I would encourage all to share those pictures with the students' families.  Like Cornelia, they already see their children as jewels, but it is always nice to know that others think the same.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

A Teacher's Natural Habitat

There is a natural habitat for a teacher.  It is a "sound and sweet and wise place" that is "surrounded by beauty and sanity," a place where "the whole human being, not disembodied chunks of him, is the focus of education."

And what may teachers expect in their natural habitat?  They should expect "the joy of teaching" and perhaps even a certain "happy boyish enthusiasm" as "souls [are] born in wonder."  They can expect "cheerful faces, and plenty of them" and "happy students" who are "not eager to leave, because they [are] having too much fun."

You will likely have one of two reactions to such a description of the teacher's natural habitat.  You may sit back and sigh with a faraway look of longing as you heart yearns for such an Eden.  You may also find a certain anger rising within you, a burning, righteous indignation that someone would even dare to describe a place that is so far from your present circumstance that it could not be glimpsed with the Hubble.

I know both of those reactions, but I also know that the descriptions offered above are about what should be, what can be, and what in some places actually is.  These descriptions come from two articles, one about and one by Anthony Esolen.  Tony Esolen was a tenured professor of literature at Providence College in Rhode Island before moving, after decades at that institution, to Thomas More College in New Hampshire.  In addition to being a teacher of literature, he is also a poet, an acute critic of contemporary culture, and a translator, perhaps most notably of Dante.  I have read him for years and can say only this...if you see his name on it, read it.

From the Kindergarten teacher to the dissertation supervisor, any teacher who has spent more than one year in this calling has known the joy of teaching that he describes.  They have known it at least once, or they would not have returned.  

In one article, Esolen writes, "Then came the joy of teaching. I’m a born teacher. I don’t mean to say that I am great at it—I’m quite aware of my flaws, which I’d rather not enumerate. I mean that even when I was a little boy I wanted to show people things, just because I liked them and wanted to share them. Teaching, for me, has always retained much of that happy boyish enthusiasm; it’s why I find it hard to understand people who turn teaching into politics by other means."

This is what teaching is...raw, unbounded, childlike enthusiasm. And if something like justice should come from it because it has been about the work of the true, the good, and the beautiful, then so much the better, but teaching is not first and foremost about justice or someone's finding a job or gaining a credential. It is not, as Tony Esolen puts it, politics by other means.  It is something much grander than that, taking in far more territory, and, when it is allowed to flourish in its natural habitat, it produces a harvest of many of the best things known to man.

And then in that same article he writes of one group of his students, "They were not eager to leave, because they were having too much fun. They were having too much fun—repeat this sentence three times carefully—reading Virgil in the Latin, with a gray-haired fellow they had never met before. I drove home almost in tears."

This is a joy like no other, and I have been blessed to taste it. Teenagers in a last period class on a Friday, deeply engrossed in their Latin and asking questions and contributing meaningfully to the great friends, this, this is what education can be, and we must fight each and every effort to turn education, which, because it is a supremely human endeavor, must be characterized by life, into a zombie, the walking dead version of its true self.
So where is this blessed abode of teachers, this Elysium of education?  Some teachers find it by carving it out of the blackboard jungle in which they find themselves.  They must make bricks without straw as they guide and shape minds all while trying to turn their own schools into suitable learning environments.  This, however, is not as it should be, and while decent-minded folk rightly laud their efforts, families of students and the citizenry at large should never for one moment think that this is good.

There are also those who leave a toxic environment for one in which their teaching arts can be given full expression.  Esolen himself is in this category, and it would be pharisaical in the extreme to fault him for it.  He writes, "Sometimes a single encounter with what is healthy and ordinary—I use the word advisedly, with its suggestion that things are in the order that God by means of his handmaid Nature has ordained—is enough to shake you out of the bad dreams of disease and confusion."  By contrast he observes, "I came home recently from a day at Thomas More College, full of good cheer and energy, and for somebody who isn’t getting younger, those can take you a long way. They can add many years to your life as a teacher, whereas discouragement and disappointment lead to exhaustion."

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

To Be A Child?

And in my heart you will remain forever young. -- Rod Stewart

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. -- 1 Corinthians 13:11, ESV

Our school's chapter of the Indiana Junior Classical League offers a scholarship each year to one of our graduating seniors.  Part of the application requires that candidates pick a Latin quotation and use it as the basis for a discussion of the benefit of Classics to them and their own interest in Classics.

This year one of our seniors chose, "Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum."  This is Cicero's famous statement, "Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child," and it comes from Orator, 119.  At the end of a thoughtful essay, this student, who began as an 8th grader and thus took five years and prepared for the A.P. and I.B. tests along the way, had this to say.

 "Being able to understand and parse themes from the Classical era develops a mindset for understanding the out-of-reach parts of the world, separated by either time or by distance.  That ability turns a person from a child, trapped in a singular world of self, to a person of the world, conscientious of those they have never met and may never meet.

"So ask me why I have spent the last five years studying a dead language of a people long since passed.  Ask me why I have bothered to translate classical works from the Latin instead of just reading someone else's translation.  Ask me why it matters if Horace was able to openly attack his contemporaries in his satires like his predecessor Lucilius or not.  My answer will remain the same:  I refuse to remain a child when I can be a person of the world."

It is not news to say that ours is a youth-obsessed age.  "I don't want to grow up.  I'm a Toys R Us kid."  That is the theme song of the present day.  I do not know whether this is the cause or the consequence of our failure to expose children to the great works of literature, art, and music.  Likely as not the two are now caught in a vicious cycle.  Anthony Esolen, yet again, sounds the alarm by merely stating the facts.  Would that those who had ears to hear should do so.  In that article, he cites Henry Van Dyke from an 1893 piece in which Van Dyke will not give in to pessimism with regard to literature, but expects a recovery from poets who merely "please a degenerate race with the short-lived melodies of earthly delight and the wild chants of withering passion."  Esolen is not so sure.  Actually, he is sure...that Van Dyke was wrong.

I would tend to agree with Esolen with regard to our literary and cultural landscape.  Yet there are, as there have always been, the remnants who know and are shaped by the true, the good, and the beautiful.  They are as Aeneas described the Trojan refugees in Aeneid I.30, "reliqui[ae] Danaum et immitis Achilli," the offscourings, if not of the Danaans and savage Achilles, of a society whose systems of education no longer read to become human and to make connection with humanity, but for much duller, more ephemeral, and sadly utilitarian ends.

Aeneas in the storm
I say these remnants exist, for I am blessed to see them in my classes.  Will those who read Caesar and Cicero, Horace and Vergil in high school turn the monstrous and sinking ship of our society, barnacled as it is with grotesqueries imaginable in another age perhaps only to a Dante?  Titanic's rudder was indeed too small.  Yet small is also the mustard seed, and while I am not sure I have its quantity of faith, I do have at least that amount of hope, and that hope stems from students like this senior.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

A Heritage of Teaching

2016 saw Indiana celebrate its bicentennial, and as part of that celebration, Hoosier teachers shared stories of the educational heritage in their families.  My family’s Hoosier education heritage stretches back to the late 1800s and has continued nearly unbroken to this day.

On my mother’s father’s side of the family, our story begins with my great grandmother, Flora Carlile, who was born in 1862 and taught in a one-room school house in Washington County.  Five of her children continued as teachers, including my great uncle Edwin Carlile (b. 1886), who taught wood shop at Froebel High School in Gary; my great aunt Bessie Pearl Carlile (b. 1893), who taught in a one-room school house and then the consolidated Finley Township School in Scott County; and my great aunt Goldie Ethel Carlile (b. 1896), who taught in a one-room school house in Scott County and then for 41 years at State Street School (renamed Lillian Emery Elementary School) and Silver Street School in New Albany; and my great aunt Myra Jean Bailey (b. 1899), who taught in the 1920s in a one-room school in Scott County.  Her daughter, Phyllis Anne Thompson (b. 1927), taught English at Scottsburg High School in the 1940s and 1950s, and Anne Thompson’s son-in-law, Joe D. Smith (b. 1946), taught English and served as librarian for 37 years at Scottsburg High School and Scottsburg Middle School.

Froebel High School, Gary, Indiana
Silver Street Elementary, New Albany, Indiana, preparing for a visit by President Bush
Scottsburg High School, Scottsburg, Indiana

Flora’s youngest child was my maternal grandfather, James Hanley Carlile.  Born in 1906 and named after Indiana Governor James Franklin Hanly, he taught in a one-room school house in Scott County in the 1920s and 1930s.

On my mother’s maternal side of the family, her cousin Ottis Ivan Schreiber (b. 1921) served as professor and department chair of English at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti.

With such an educational bloodline, it was not surprising that my mother, Patricia Lee Carlile (b. 1937) would want to become a teacher.  Further inspired by her own 2nd grade teacher, who captivated her attention in the mid-1940s with the first pair of red shoes she had ever seen and then drove her when she was a senior for a visit to what was then Indiana State Teachers College, my mom earned a B.S in Education from Indiana State and later an M.S. from the University of Wisconsin.  She taught fourth grade from 1959-1968 at Mt. Tabor Elementary School in New Albany.

Mt. Tabor Elementary, New Albany, Indiana

Pat Perkins


It was at Mt. Tabor that my mother met my father, Norman Ray Perkins (b. 1930), who taught sixth grade there after teaching sixth grade in Lake Fenton, Michigan (1957-1959).  He had earned his B.S. in Education from Indiana University thanks to the G.I. Bill after returning from service in Korea and later earned his M.S. from the University of Michigan.  After they married in December of 1967, my mom left teaching at the end of that school year.  My dad started in the fall of 1968 as the principal of Galena Elementary School in Floyd County and remained there until his retirement in 1992.

Norman Perkins

Galena Elementary School, New Albany, Indiana

My wife, Melissa (Stillions) Perkins, and I have taught Latin in Missouri, Texas, and Indiana, she at elementary, middle school, and high school levels, and I at middle school, high school, and undergraduate levels.  Since 1998 I have been the Latin teacher at North Central High School in Indianapolis and in 2014 was named Indiana Teacher of the Year.

North Central High School, Indianapolis, Indiana

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Of Cabbages and Kings

I discovered something in a very roundabout way recently. Two years ago I wrote a blog post about a fantastic connection one of my AP students made between the act of translation and mathematics.

That post prompted one of my former students, Adam Washington, to write a couple of posts of his own. Adam graduated from Indiana University with his Ph.D. in physics. He is now at the University of Sheffield in England as part of the Polymer Physics Group and has published papers with such fantastic titles as "Porosity of Stöber silica observed by spin-echo small angle neutron scattering," and "Spin Echo Small Angle Neutron Scattering using a continuously pumped 3He neutron polarisation analyser."

Prompted by the post I had written, which was inspired by one of my current students at the time, Adam wrote "Linear Algebra for Linguists", which began to explore a mathematical way of looking at translation. He continued that line of thinking in "Intermediate Vectors for Linguists".

I discovered all this when he referenced his work in a comment to this article I had posted on Facebook. student inspiring a teacher who prompted a former student to combine seemingly vastly different areas of human understanding. No words. I simply have no words. This is teaching. This is education. Teachers and students and inspiration and ideas and discovery. How very sweet and wonderful it is.