Doug Perry chose an important date to announce he would be retiring at the end of the school year: April 1, April Fool’s Day.
But after 37 years in the Peninsula School District, retirement was no joke for Perry.
The first class of students he told at Gig Harbor High School let out a gasp. Perry, 71, is an institution.
Including his years in district, he’s been a teacher for 44 years total. It’s a passion he’s always had.
“When I finished high school I wanted to be a high school teacher. I wanted to be a Jesuit, too,” Perry said. “I ended up being both.”
He has a doctorate in English from Carnegie-Mellon; a master’s of theology and a master’s of divinity from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley; a master’s in English from Gonzaga and a double-major BA in English and Philosophy — also from Gonzaga.
He grew up in Spokane near the school, with parents who put every penny toward the education of their two children.
Perry worked as an ordained Jesuit priest from 1972 to 1976. He also taught at his alma mater, Gonzaga Preparatory School.
He began at Peninsula High School in 1977. His background is in literature, but there was a need for a history teacher. Perry was apprehensive, he hadn’t learned to teach history. Now, the walls of his classroom are lined with final projects for AP U.S. History presentations. He’s researched the Detroit riots, he’s taken students to Washington D.C.
“The great gift for me in teaching history — and I think that it rubbed off on the students — is that I learned along with them,” he said. “And it was a great lesson as a teacher that you are not just there, the stereotype of someone dispensing pearls before swine and they’re gobbling it up.”
LEARNING ALONGSIDE STUDENTS
Perry may not have started his career aiming to be a history teacher, but the position fits him well — and he’s recognized for it.
For some students, that voyage has led them to be educators themselves. In 2010, Perry won the Washington State American History Teacher of the Year by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and Preserve America.
Perry has a photo on his whiteboard with the award. When pointing to it, it’s clear from his face it’s a big honor for him to go to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
It’s a big honor because the award was presented by a former student, Greg Williamson, who is now the director of student support for the OSPI. At the time of the speech, he was director of learning and support for the OSPI. Williamson has worked in education and public policy for more than two decades.
“Dr. Perry teaches American History ... in a way that makes it vital for students today, in their present and potentially tumultuous lives; they feel the effects (of his teaching) for years,” Williamson said, in 2010.
Shannon Miller, a former student and now a technology teacher at Voyager Elementary, graduated from Peninsula in 1997. She said something similar.
“He believed in us and therefore we began to believe in ourselves,” she said.
Perry wants to work with his students on more than literature and history. High school is a prime age, one where the future is ahead, but is still murky.
“My question to them is: Where do you see yourselves going? What’s your next voyage in life?” Perry said. “These kids, all of them are very driven to go to college and usually right after high school — but still they’ve got to figure that out.”
Some students who figured things out have ended up working in the district with Perry. One works in the same building.
Kirsten Swan has taught science for eight years at Gig Harbor High School. A 1984 graduate of Peninsula, she was in Perry’s class in her junior and senior year. Being both a former student and a colleague, Swan is able to ask Perry advice and give advice to students.
She tells students that, although his classes are tough, they will come out of it better writers and thinkers. After all, she did.
One influence on his teaching style is a story included in Thomas Merton’s “The Seven Storey Mountain.” Merton, a trappist monk who wrote extensively, recounts the story of Mark Van Doren, a professor of English at Columbia University, who always came into the room with a series of questions. Midway through his teaching career, Perry adopted the style, too.
“From then on, my mode of teaching was to help kids think. I want to be inquiring along with my students,” he said.
And they did think. For Swan, she uses the same Socratic method: “Asking students ‘why?’ Not just accepting a blanket answer: ‘Oh, because,’ ” she said.
Over the years, Perry has seen the landscape of education change, while still holding fast to Van Doren’s approach. Over the last decade or so, two big shifts have really changed the life of schools: Standardized testing and the Internet.
“I think that our mania for testing is suffocating students’ ability to think for themselves and to engage as freely as they did years previous,” he said.
But it’s Internet research that has been a blessing and curse to students, Perry said. The Internet meant a whole new world of information available, but it also robs students of the depth and originality of inquiry.
“If you give (a poem) to students, they go on the Internet and — first of all — they get a paraphrase of the whole blasted thing and then they’ll get an analysis of it that is, you know, pretty darn good, but they don’t do any of the figuring out themselves. They end up parroting (the information).”
It’s been a long run for Perry. Countless students have come and gone from his classroom. He keeps pictures around his desk of previous classes; it’s impossible for him to chose a favorite student.
“If there is a favorite student, it’s the students that buy into what I call the 50-50 of education. You reach out to them, but education’s a 50-50 deal,” he said. “They have to reach out and grab your hand and then together they learn and the teacher learns, too, along the way.”
An ice cream social for Perry is set for 1 to 5 p.m. June 21 at the Gig Harbor High School commons.Karen Miller: 253-358-4155 Karen.firstname.lastname@example.org