Episode 002 Transcript

Schools and Civil Discourse with Bob Petix (6/16/17)

[START 00:00]

GRETCHEN BRAND [bumper]: Hi everyone. Welcome to episode number two of the Point of Learning podcast. I'm Gretchen, Peter's mom. Take it away, honey! 

VOICEOVER (Peter Horn): On today's show:  

ROBERT G. PETIX: There is some special teacher that inspired you to be who you are, and that's  what teachers should aspire to become: that special teacher to each one of those students."

VOICEOVER: And a place for civil discourse in schools:

PETIX: I should be allowed to present ideas to you and you should be able to present your ideas to me.  And if I don't like your ideas I should be able to either defend my ideas and hopefully convince you that my ideas are better than yours or at least worth considering, and your ideas should be equally received by me. 

VOICEOVER:  As you know, this podcast is for anyone interested in getting to the point of learning ... For anyone curious about what and how and why we learn ...

PETIX: What's learning about? What is formal education about? Is it for ourselves? is it for society? is it, do we want to teach kids manual skills? thinking skills?: these are the questions.

VOICEOVER: And we're looking to keep it lively. Today I'll be talking with Dr. Robert Petix, a creative academic leader. At the time of his retirement from Westfield High School in 2006, he was the longest-tenured building principal in the state of New Jersey--26 years. He hired me in 1997, so for nine years he was my boss. He's taught courses in Education Leadership at major universities, as well as classes in French to college and high school students. President of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, as well as Chief Negotiator for his local administrators union. He served on the New Jersey State Board of Examiners. His Ph.D. dissertation: "The Response of Educational Administration to Student-Initiated Revolt" (a case study set in Paris, 1968). He's visited all 50 states, over four dozen countries, including work as an education consultant in Japan, Russia, and Brazil. And this one time, he made me a sweet mix tape. 

PETER HORN: I thought that a fun segue into some of the prepared questions ... I wanted to ask you if you recognize this text: 

PETIX: [Reading paper:] "Pierre, Track 1 blues jazz rock version by Billy Stewart, doo wop version by The Marcels, Lily Pons, Gershwin, Bing Crosby, Sarah Vaughan, 'Summertime.'" Oh yeah. [Singing:] "Summertime. And the livin' is easy!" 

HORN: So you may not, you may not recall the occasion.

PETIX: No I don't.

HORN: But what happened ... you were you were visiting my class. I think it was probably an AP Language and Composition class. You know, probably seniors. And it was in late September, as we were just transitioning into fall. But we had been talking about interpretation and varieties, ranges of interpretation, and so every day to start class, I was playing a different version, a different interpretation of this song [George Gershwin's] "Summertime." And I had Janis Joplin ... I had an Ella Fitzgerald version ... Then I had a more standard Gershwin version ... I don't know if was Kathleen Battle. (It was Cynthia Haymon.)  But I think you were delighted by this and you said, "Hey I've got some versions of 'Summertime'"--

PETIX: Do I have some versions for you!

HORN: "--you might want to check out, you might be interested in." So within a couple days, you had gone and burned this mix for me, which you know I still hang on to. I thought it was a cool thing--it was a way that you showed your enthusiasm for what was going on, but also shared something with me. [Musical attribution: Sarah Vaughan.]  

[ACT 1 begins 06:28]

ACT 1: Establishing and Maintaining a Culture of Learning That Takes Kids Seriously (including Preparing Students to Contend with Controversy, Hard Conversations, and Differences of Perspective. 

HORN: One of the things that attracted me to Westfield High School in the late 1990s was the culture of intellectual openness and academic freedom. I want to give a couple of examples for listeners who didn't happen to be at WHS at that time. There was certainly established curriculum in each subject, but teachers were also encouraged to include materials that they found relevant for engaging students. So, new poems that might be in The Atlantic or an op-ed from The Star-Ledger or The New York Times as a springboard for discussion. The drama department didn't shy away from controversial productions like Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, which dealt with same-sex love during the New York AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. The weekly, student-run, uncensored newspaper, which I think was one of seven in the country at the time--Hi's Eye--I remember you explaining lightheartedly to new [high school] staff that you read it each Friday to find out whether and how you had messed up during the week before. Maybe most impressive to me during my first year, which was '97-'98: soon after the killing of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, you established  a Human Relations Committee that was charged with examining the culture of WHS for kids who were not straight, who were gay and questioning ... which led to the formation of the first Gay-Straight Alliance in Union County, a group that opened the doors of the high school to kids from Summit [NJ] to Clark [NJ] and anywhere else--places that had not yet formed similar organizations for their students. Can you talk a little bit about how this culture--that would have been much more typical of a liberal arts college than most high schools--can you talk a little bit about how this culture developed at Westfield High School, and why you believed it was important? 

PETIX: Well, I think the establishment of the culture had been made prior to my arrival. I believed that if you want to have a culture in which everyone is stimulated, in which people can think, in which people can act upon their thinking--a culture in which an exchange of ideas is welcome, a culture in which people feel free to be who they are, and to let others know who they are--I think that was the culture that I wanted to not only establish in the most modern terms, but also to allow to flourish, to encourage to flourish. And I think you needed people like you, teachers who were open to progress ... I will say "progressives" actually, even though I happen to be more conservative, I think, than you!  

VOICEOVER: Bob and I began to talk about civil discourse--that is, the ability to have respectful, reasoned discussions--as an important aspect of citizenship that schools need to figure out ways to teach. Personally, I believe that developing kids' capacity to think of themselves as citizens and not just consumers is one of the most important functions of school. 

HORN: We have plenty of expectations around standardized test scores, and proficiency levels. But this core competency of citizenship--how we equip students/young people to participate in a conversation where the point is to engage people who have different viewpoints than you do. And to not--as we are right now--checking out only our own news sources our own websites that confirm our idea of the world, but actually engage. I have believed--and you supported--that high school provided a place for people to be able to have conversations, believing that this was important. So I wanted to give this other example. I happened to run into a former student on my way to a poetry reading in Brooklyn a couple of weeks ago (and she's now an assistant producer for some documentaries and news stories) and she recalled--we talked a little bit about the high school--She was that spearhead in March 2003, that was her senior year, of the Lysistrata project at the high school. 

VOICEOVER: Quick explanation: The Lysistrata Project was a global anti-war demonstration that took place on March 3rd, 2003--very memorably, 3/3/03, 2 weeks before the U.S. began its second war in Iraq. There were pop-up readings and community performances of the play in nearly 60 countries, and all 50 states. Inspired by the ancient comedy Lysistrata by Aristophanes, the project drew on the play's feminist critique of war and its heroine (whose name is Greek for "army-breaker") who convinces her female friends and neighbors to withhold sex from their husbands and male lovers so as not to produce any more children who might become victims of the Peloponnesian War or grow up to perpetrate more wars. Now despite the fact that the play was 2000 years old, and that we proposed to used an abridged, much less bawdy adaptation, the project was not something that many school principals would have had anything to do with! 

HORN: And this was something that we asked, "Could we do this at the high school?" You not only supported the idea of a student-led examination of this very important public policy issue, but you actually agreed to participate in it as one of the readers! You supported the right of students to engage in this conversation and have the discussion afterwards, wholeheartedly. That's something that this student that I ran into--alumna--certainly remembers, she said, "This is something that I realized at the time: this is a very different experience than what a lot of kids are getting in high school." 

PETIX: Peter, I'm not certain that this is supported at the universities now. I think one of my greatest concerns is what's going on at the universities. [PH:] Great point. [RGP:] I wish that people on the left, in particular, who have progressive ideas and are of the progressive philosophy would step up and say we need to have all voices heard, regardless of who they are or whether we agree. Free speech is the cornerstone of our country. And I think that in high schools and particularly in colleges, we ought to not only support it but encourage it: We want people to think. I hope that people, being exposed to ideas and having critical minds, will be able to determine whether they agree or disagree with this--but the question as to whether it should be proposed or allowed never even entered my mind. Of course it should be something that is a catalyst for discussion, thought, and hopefully better thinking afterwards. So that's that's the reason I would have encouraged that and anything else that that gets people to think, communicate, or be part of a democratic society! 

HORN: I remember that during a speech you gave in, I think it was 2001, and you asked, "Where does it say that we have the right never to be offended?" or that by saying "I'm offended" in protecting against the idea of offense, or taking offense too easily cheapens or diminishes the conversation. I think part of what happens in in in the university culture right now is that people are so concerned about perhaps upsetting some people in a place where some would say the point is to have a marketplace of ideas and to be able to put it out there and are you so scared of somebody else's idea that you won't even listen to it? Rather than put it out there in the open critique it, say, "What is it based on? What evidence is there? How do you know that this makes sense?" 

PETIX: I should be allowed to present ideas to you, and you should be able to present your ideas to me. And if I don't like your ideas, I should be able to either defend my ideas, and hopefully convince you that my ideas are better than yours, or at least worth considering, and your ideas should be equally received by me. My point is that being offended by ideas should be met with a response as to why you don't like those ideas, or why they are invalid, as opposed to just saying, "You offended me by presenting an idea that I don't either accept or like."  

HORN: Or saying, "That's offensive, and so that's the end of it." Right? You offer the examples of if somebody is intentionally being insulting or truculent, that's one thing, but if somebody is offering an idea that just presents the world in a different way from the way that I see it-- you know, a Conservative essentially looks at the world and says that maybe "Change is questionable. I prefer to preserve things the way that they are!" Whereas a Progressive would look at the world in an 'essentially contested' fashion and say, "You know what? I tend to prefer change!" Well, those things those ideas are opposed but there's a conversation that can happen there. To say, "I'm offended and that's it, so I'm not going to listen to you anymore" or "You can't speak here"--well, that gets into us that gets us into a different place as a culture. 

PETIX: It's against what we have established schools for! I think that the the discussion of ideas generates thinking, and hopefully the Progressive will understand that some of the Conservative ideas, some of the institutions, for example, are worth keeping the way they are, or moving slowly in a direction. Maybe the Conservative will say, "You know, things could be a little bit better. Let's consider this idea. And let's come up with something that we can both live with--" 

[SIDEBAR begins 19:25] 

VOICEOVER: SIDEBAR: Interpretation versus Analysis. As you're hearing, this episode provides an ample dose of George Gershwin's "Summertime," lyrics by DuBose Heyward. If you need more, I've added two playlists on the Point of Learning YouTube channel. (The link is right on the show page.) One playlist is a recreation of the mix that Bob Petix made. The other is my best guess about the sequence of "Summertime" interpretations I might have been using to start class each morning during the week that Bob visited 15 years ago. As I mentioned, I was using the different versions of this classic song with my students to illustrate that there may be as many interpretations of a piece of art as there are eyes to regard it, or read it. Or ears to listen. As a high school English teacher I always preferred the term 'interpretation' to the term 'analysis,' and I always like to explain why. Analysis is a "breaking down," as hinted by that same root "lysis" that begins the name Lysistrata, "breaker of armies," or comes at the end of hydrolysis, the chemical process that breaks water into its component elements. As applied to literature expression with kids who are just beginning to read deeply the idea of analysis can feel cold and clinical, or worse--unnecessary. Why should I do that to a poem? Analysis has its place, later on, in making sense of complex systems, or denser works of literature, or in making sense of data, but maybe not so soon! Interpretation, on the other hand, is literally "a standing between": inter- =  between. -pres = "  standing" or "presiding." And your interpretation is what stands between you and the book. Or you and the world. In contrast to analyzing, interpreting is a profoundly natural, profoundly human act--as human as breathing. You go to a movie, you think about what it means. At the very least, whether it was good or not. The same is true for dinner. Whether you're "Conservative" or "Progressive," whether you are some mix of those, whether you have no use for those terms, a term that serves citizens well is interpretation. Seniors reading Hamlet or The Stranger by Camus bump up against the idea that the universe is without obvious meaning. Which is not to say that it's meaningless; it's just that the meaning you make depends on where you're standing, and what stands between you and everything else. 

[ACT 2 begins 23:37]

ACT 2 of today's show focuses on Dr. Petix's ideas about the Role of the Principal, a title that it's easy to forget derives from the adjective principal, as in "principal teacher" or "lead teacher." Petix was much more a leader than a manager, a distinction he'll talk about in a moment. Because a major part of the job is to support teachers, he begins by discussing the role of the teacher, which he does not believe has fundamentally changed, despite the Internet and the digital revolution that is now part of the education landscape. 

PETIX: The role of the teacher today, as far as I'm concerned, remains the same. You want to be special to that student, you want to keep that student interested, you want to determine what you want the student to learn and you'll use any means. The fact that students are on YouTube so much and that they're engaged with all of the social media? You use that as a as an astute teacher to engage the student in the desire to learn and in and in and ensuring that whatever you want that student to learn he has learned or she has learned. Again there is no reason anymore for the teacher just to stand up there and to to lecture to students because students are not going to hear that as a matter of fact frankly throughout the years the dullest teachers have been those who have stood up in front of the classroom and tried to tried to indoctrinate the students by encouraging them not to think but to hear to absorb and to re regurgitate what the teacher's role is the same as it's always been to get the student to want to enjoy learning to the teacher is able to determine what is needed for each student. But frankly since you can't teach students individually what can you do to get those students to want to learn--

HORN: To kindle a fire.

PETIX: To kindle a fire--exactly, and to hopefully get that fire to become an incendiary blaze so that they'll have that desire for the rest of their lives. That's what I think the teacher can do. It takes special people to be teachers. I have so much respect for teachers and always have because I understand how important they are not only to individual people but to society and how they go into the profession for the right reason. Teachers are not confrontational. That's why you need administrators who are frankly [laughs] because what you are doing is you're protecting the teachers and you encouraging them to do what they have to do and what they should do and what they want to do for students. I always felt that the best teachers are the ones who really cared--the ones who knew their subject, but really cared about me as an individual. And I think most students would say the same thing. There is some special teacher that inspired you to be who you are and that's what teachers should should aspire to become: that special teacher to each one of those students. 

HORN: This is from a former colleague of Westfield High School who was not there when you were there but I was just interested in this idea of a point of focus. And she put it and she put it this way. She said, "How do you get people to focus on what really matters--the core work of teaching and learning, and how do you sustain it?" And she she mentioned some of the pulls on people's time. She said, "We say this every year: 'This year is worse than last year, with meeting after meeting, forms that you don't understand the value of that you might be asked to to complete, email, and I quote, 'Oh God, the email!', standardized testing procedures with the accompanying lost instructional time, data for tracking Student Growth Objectives ...'" As principal, how did you try to pursue an academic vision and not get bogged down in the details of management, or "putting out fires," as some administrators describe it? And what advice would you have for somebody in that position today?

PETIX: To fight, to fight. It's as simple as that. The bureaucracy is becoming almost irreversible at this point. And I think one of the problems that teachers and administrators have is that they don't have a union that's a professional union as opposed to, or in addition to, one that complements the union that says that we have to protect our members--which is by the way, worthy and necessary, so I'm not I'm not against that at all--but I'm saying there has to be a voice that says, "We will no longer tolerate this. We are the educators. We know what's best. You're taking up so much of our time and so much of our resources, and so much of us that you're really not keeping your eye on the prize anymore. You're not allowing us to do what you're purportedly measuring and purportedly want." So frankly we have to stop by fighting at every level. There's not one group that can do that. There's no individual teacher that can do that. It takes the teachers united to say we're not going to do this anymore, not because we're afraid, but because you're not allowing us to do what we need to do for your children. And I think that as principal what I did when I had these things is I would I would try to minimize the time that was spent, try to make it as simple as I could for the faculty to handle these things, and to remind them--that's part of what a leader has to do--what we're really there for. These are parts of the job that we don't like, but we can't let them overwhelm us or to frankly start feeling that we really don't have to do what we thought we had to do. But what we have to do now is to "teach to the test" as opposed to saying that the test is an annoyance that really is hardly worthwhile, if at all. And we have to have our teachers united, administrators united, hopefully parents united, to get to the legislators and get to others and say, "Leave us alone and let us do what we have to do!" 

VOICEOVER: Bob had one more riff on testing that I knew that I wanted to include. 

PETIX: I think we've come up with some some things to measure that are very simple to measure but not necessarily important. And I think we then become we start asking ourselves all these questions about about the tests itself rather then the reason for the test or what effect is it going to have, and what do we want it to measure. And if what we want to measure is real, is it something that really deserves to be measured? I think there's so many more profound questions that are not even brought forth, that we don't ask ourselves and that we should. 

VOICEOVER: I asked him what kinds of things he keeps in mind or he kept in mind as a principal. And if he were advising a principal today what would he advise that person to do? 

PETIX: To make certain that you kept teachers engaged in what they're doing, to understand (again) their importance and their love for students, to fight the battles that had to be fought with people in authority to stand for the right things. I know it sounds silly or maybe even trite but frankly it isn't. Again: keep your eye on the prize. That's what I would say: to keep your eye on the prize, which is to offer to students the wonderful ability to be free thinkers, to engage in what's best for society and what's best for themselves and they can complement each other: What the individual wants in life, which is happiness ultimately, and what's good for society are complementary. You can't and ultimately you can't have one without the other. To remind teachers of what they want for students is a goal that I think that the principal should and can have. I think the simple thing is to start becoming engaged with all the easy stuff which is management, and you can say, "Well what do you mean 'management'?"

HORN: "Well what do you mean, 'management'?"

PETIX: All of the things that divert your attention from the real raison d'être, the reason for the schools, the reason you're there and the position that you've you've assumed. Unfortunately, I think several leaders in schools, of schools, feel that they want to be managers and candidly what from what I'm seeing since I've left the profession on a full-time basis is that they're being encouraged to be managers and not leaders, not leaders in the traditional sense of the word. 

VOICEOVER: So then I asked how he chose the other building leaders that he worked with. 

PETIX: Well the way I picked vice principals is that I wanted them to have the same basic beliefs about education that I did, and have skills that complement mine because I know that the best administrations are those who have different kinds of people, those who appeal to different kinds of teachers, those who are effective with various kinds of students. If you remember when you were in the school I had people who were very different, very diverse, but we had one goal and that was to do the best for students and to make certain that the teachers were aware that there was someone who supported them, even if they felt that somehow they didn't like me or didn't like another vice principal that there was somebody there to support them. So I think you have to have the same values, the same desires, and have complementary skills.

VOICEOVER: At the very end of our conversation, I realized that I had not asked Bob if we could capture the catch phrase that he became famous for as he signed off of the daily announcements each morning. He was not surprised. 

HORN: I just realized while we have the tape going, I would be remiss if I didn't ask you to give us a nice "pleasant and rewarding day"

PETIX: I knew you were going to say that!

HORN: But I just thought of it! That's the thing.

PETIX: You know it's interesting when I meet students, I met someone the other day in the Shop-Rite, a young man, a man now of course, who graduated in 1984 and he said, "Are you Dr. Petix?" I said, "Yeah, I am--" He said, "Have a pleasant and rewarding day!" That's what they remember! 

VOICEOVER: It took several takes, a couple of which I'm having trouble relegating to the cutting room floor, so here you go. You may recognize off-mic the voice of audio engineer Kevin Johnson, my guest in our pilot episode. 

HORN: You've definitely said it a couple times but I don't think that the delivery is the same as if you know we were there-- 

KEVIN JOHNSON: Please rise, proudly salute our flag, and--

PETIX: And have a pleasant and rewarding day!

HORN: You got it?

JOHNSON: Get one more. Wait, hold for sound. [traffic going by]  

HORN: This is good. This is going to put us over the edge, this is gonna put iTunes subscriptions off the charts!

HORN: Have a pleasant and rewarding day.

VOICEOVER: A worthy benediction for us all. Hey there's the guy with the tambourine again, which means we've reached the end of today's show. Thanks to you for listening, to Bob Petix for joining us, to Kevin Johnson for engineering the interview audio. Please check out the many supplementary materials available on the show page as well as the Point of Learning YouTube channel. Spread the word about this show to all your friends and family interested in what and how and why we learn, and we'll be back soon with another episode of Point of Learning

PETIX: Have a pleasant and rewarding day! I don't think that was-- That wasn't how I used to say it. 

[END 37:59]

Peter Horn