Teaching Latin in a Public High School

It is not hard to inspire high school students with an interest in and a passion for language and literature, even ancient languages; teenagers are at the perfect age to be inspired. Sadly, it can feel nearly impossible to inspire anyone about anything while deflecting the noise and distractions in a big, American public school.

From 2006 until 2009 I taught Latin at a new school east of Denver, built for 2,000 students. I was hired on an emergency basis at the beginning of April ‘06, when the prior teacher left because of a medical emergency. I had neither a teaching license nor a Master’s degree, only a BA in Classics plus years of experience tutoring students of all ages and levels. The school’s first senior class would graduate in two months, and the Latin 4s were two-thirds of the way through Cicero’s Pro Caelio, with half of the seniors working on the International Baccalaureate (IB) program. I had not read Pro Caelio in nearly fifteen years, and I’d never heard of the IB program, but I loved Cicero, loved Latin, loved teaching and students. How hard could it be? In addition to the seniors, there were two Latin 1 classes and a combined Latin 2-3 class, a total of four levels and four classes.

The principal, a smart, capable woman who retired the next year, interviewed me for fifteen minutes and declared the job mine if I wanted it, and we shook hands. I signed a three-year contract.

I have two notebooks in my bookshelf from those years. One is labeled “Discipuli” (students) and it contains lists of students, with notes and correspondence. When I review those pages I feel a great upwelling of affection for my students. I remember Millay’s The Fledgling: “So art thou feathered, art thou flown,/ thou naked thing? And can’st alone, / Upon the unsolid summer air / Sustain thyself, and prosper there?” Some have flown to exalted places – the University of Chicago, Columbia, BU, many to the University of Colorado, et cetera. The other notebook, much fatter, is labeled, “Alternative Teaching Licensure Program – Documentation Portfolio.” When I scan its pages, I feel dread, sorrow, and bewilderment. No poem, no poetry come to mind.

The block system, classes of 90 minutes with subjects alternating from one day to the next, was a challenge, as co-ed classes of teenagers were asked to focus on a subject for 90 minutes and then retain new material for two days or more. I learned to plan three different 30-minute activities for each class, one of which should include movement; moving desks into groups, or playing team games. It took hours to produce detailed plans for four levels, with three 30-minutes segments in each, printed and available for inspection, with learning goals specified by day, week, section and semester. The class plan, in bullet points, had to be on the board at the start of class. Attendance had to be recorded on the computer within the first fifteen minutes – a deadline I often missed, because I was teaching. In fact, everything challenging about the job was a distraction from teaching. I felt that what I really needed was air cover, protection from the constant strafing of the classroom by a company of administrators, rules, coaches, and self-described “education professionals.”

The girls’ golf team will be excused from classes Tuesday and Wednesday the football team must be dismissed an hour early every Friday; Groups A and C have PSATs, Groups B and D have SAT / ACTs; Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) tests required by No Child Left Behind take one day to administer, another half-day for staff training and preparation; there is a two-hour pep rally on Monday for all students and faculty; monthly fire drills; mandatory assemblies, homecoming weekend events, proms, games, meets, art shows, theater programs. The ideal teacher would not only show up at athletic events and cheer herself hoarse, but she would also volunteer to coach something.

Meetings: Department meetings every Wednesday morning, IB meetings once a month, , all-staff meetings several times a year. Pre- and post-observation conferences, to evaluate my classroom skills; training sessions on how to enter final grades. Training sessions on a dizzying array of “essential” computer programs — Blackboard, power point, Google for educators, Chalkboard, Power School, Power Grade, CPS. Mandatory briefings by the school counselors on signs of a student who might go ballistic; faculty drills on locking down the school in the event of a shooting. And on, and on.

During my first year, the school sent me to a couple of one-day seminars, one on engaging the problem student (the presenter, a devout Christian, talked about treating them all with great love) and one on mastering the block schedule (Make it fun! Use music! Act things out! Bring it to life!) Seminars and conferences of this sort are part of the education industry; packs of eager-beaver seminar leaders tour the high school circuit. These two were of some interest and help to me, and the school paid. I returned to the classroom a little more sanguine. During my second year, a friend arranged for me to attend a weekend conference at Yale entitled “Epic Heroes Then and Now,” with talks by international scholars on Gilgamesh, Homer, and the hero figure throughout the ages. I was transfixed by the lectures, and electrified to see one of the world’s best collections of Assyrian tablets. I rubbed elbows with people whose erudition took my breath away. Even though little of this bore directly on secondary-level Latin pedagogy, I fell in love with my subject again. I returned to the classroom enthralled with the beauty of classics and the world of scholarship. Since my friend was a presenter, there was no tab, and yet my students and I benefitted much more from those two days than I had from the earlier classroom booster seminars.

When I am teaching Latin, it is impossible for me to be sad, but the instant a class was over, all the joy of the job vanished. Since math scores were low, lesson plans in all subjects had to include math – including Latin (Roman numerals, calendar, dates). I had to help “close the achievement gap” by selecting a few low-testing black or Hispanic male students and surreptitiously coaching them on writing skills; without letting on, I had to keep sequential writing samples to document their improvement. (Several of my best students were black or Hispanic; one is now at Columbia.) I had to serve on a school improvement committee. Since I taught only four classes (albeit four different levels) I was considered as a .8 FTE, and had to sign annual promises to work no less than 32 hours a week; I consistently worked over 50. I had never worked harder at any job, never felt more pressure.

In mid-April of 2009, I received a memo from the principal, setting an appointment to discuss my future, and informing me that I could bring a representative with me. My contract was about to expire. On April 20, the union rep and I stepped into a conference room, and sat facing the principal, her assistant, and several deans. I was told that my contract was not being renewed, and that the reason (I was dumbstruck to learn this was legal) was that I was “not a good fit.” End of explanation. (Had any student or parent ever complained about me? No. Had any colleague or staff member ever complained about me? No. Had any evaluator ever rated me as unsatisfactory in any category? No.)

My students and colleagues compiled a scrapbook for me, filled with glowing notes of love and appreciation from students, images of the Roman world, and photos of students and colleagues. Students circulated a petition trying to get me reinstated; although there were only ninety students enrolled in Latin at the time, they garnered well over 100 signatures. Faculty friends were shocked by my non-renewal. What was the rationale for “not a good fit”? That I had had the bad form to require expensive surgery? Or perhaps that I was about to turn sixty? In that, I was a very rare fish indeed; each year’s crop of new teachers were mostly in their 20s.

Eventually I came to understand that the principal was right; I wasn’t a good fit. High schools are under intense pressure because of NCLB (No Child Left Behind) and the economy. The strengths I brought, my inspiration, my passion for classics and love for young people, were not enough, not even of much value, at least to the administration. They couldn’t be quantified or put on a graph. They didn’t fit on anyone’s letterhead or masthead. They didn’t affect the school’s position in any athletic leagues. With another year we would have begun to win awards from the National Junior Classical League, but there were no bleachers of cheering fans for that, just a few ardent parents and their children. As far as the administration could see, I did nothing to better their standing; Latin students did well on tests, but their numbers were small and many had been pretty good test-takers to start with. Students were “inspired”? Students became better writers and readers? Students won academic awards? The sample was too small, and the effects too indirect, untestable. Untestable, under NCLB, meant untenable. The Latin root of “untenable” is “tenêre” to hold – so untenable means “can’t be held onto.”

In 2010 I began teaching through a community college outreach program in a high school. That arrangement gave me the air cover I needed. I was paid by one institution but I worked in another. While the principal of the high school was an excellent leader whom I liked and admired, I felt secure in knowing that I didn’t really answer to him. I was able to fly under the national-measurements radar, to dodge the distractions and concentrate on my two great affinities: Latin and students.