This month, Frank Corbo retires after nearly 5 decades in education. He spent 30 years as a classroom math teacher, 13 as a department chair who taught 2 classes, and the past 6 years as Westport’s full-time grades 6-12 math chair. He has helped put Westport on the world math education map.
At 70 years old, he looks back at his career — and discusses what he’s learned.
First, you have to love the subject you teach. I love math. It is much more than computation and manipulation of symbols. Math is about thinking. Math is a language that gives us an alternate window to view and understand the world. Math can can surprise and delight. It can also be a thing of beauty and elegance, in its ability to generalize and compress big ideas into symbols. One simple differential equation can express an infinity of meaning.
Second, you have to love your students. You must find something you can genuinely like in each one, no matter how challenging he or she may be. Unless you can connect with your students as human beings, as individuals, and find their strengths, you can never reach them.
After talking about trust — between students and teachers, teachers and department chairs, department chairs and building administrators — Corbo says:
The hierarchical workforce paradigm is different from the commonly accepted one. Teachers are not the workers. Instead they are leaders of the workforce, which is the students. The product is learning. Productivity is measured not by how many hours or classes a teacher teaches. but how much work the kids do. And that depends on how good a leader the teacher is — how well the teacher plans tasks that will lead students to a deeper understanding, and motivate them to complete those tasks.
My job as an administrator is to bring teachers new ideas, ask provocative questions, and push them to think about what they are doing and why. If there is trust, teachers will be open to new ideas, to trying new approaches. I have been fortunate to lead an exceptional group of teachers, arguably the best group of math teachers in the country. They are intelligent, professional, adaptable, good-humored, and passionate in their commitment to kids and to high-quality math education.
Westport is an exceptional district. My years here have been fulfilling, challenging and enjoyable. Thank you all.
Frank Corbo is not the only administrator retiring — not even in his family. His wife, Lis Comm, steps down too, after 44 years in Westport. Her current position is townwide director of secondary education. She says:
First, I love my subject area: English. Teaching students to read the word is really teaching them to read the world and to read themselves. And teaching students to write is really teaching them to think about their place in the world, to solve real world problems, and to find out who they are.
Reading and talking about literature, poetry, and non-fiction, in a classroom together, is an extraordinary opportunity to get to know the best that has been thought and written through the ages, to get to know yourself and others. I am proud to say I was a full-time English teacher for 25 years.
Second, I would go into education again because of teachers in Westport. I saw amazing teaching in every classroom. Really good teachers are my heroes. I think William Ayers got it right when he described the work of a teacher as “exhausting, complex, idiosyncratic, never twice the same—… at its heart, an intellectual and ethical enterprise…. Teaching begins in challenge and is never far from mystery.” Who would not fall in love with a job description like that?
Working with young people has kept me young in spirit and forced me to at least try to keep up with a fast changing world. The great educator Elliott Eisner said that students ensure our immortality. Our lives as teachers live on in theirs. That is quite a remarkable thought!