An Interview with Dr. Edward Zarrow, 2016 National Language Teacher of the Year

Congratulations, Dr. Zarrow!  How does it feel to be named the ‘2016 National Language Teacher of the Year’?
I don’t think that a Latin teacher has ever received this much love since the origin of the language itself more than two millennia ago! Being the ACTFL (The American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages) National Teacher of the Year is an incredible honor and still something of a surprise, especially given the caliber of the other candidates whom I was fortunate to meet. All of the other teachers chosen to represent their state or region are truly incredible educators, as well as confident public speakers and exceptional advocates for the profession. I hope to be able to represent them and ACTFL with distinction this year, and I especially look forward to representing Latin and the classics!
How do you see your accomplishment as a platform for further change?
I want teachers of Latin, ancient Greek, and the humanities in general to see themselves as an integral part of the broader movements for language advocacy in the United States. Foreign language advocacy has never been more important, especially given how at virtually all levels, the study of languages and the humanities is often savaged by individuals who challenge its benefits or see none at all. This is why the work that the leadership in professional language organizations like ACTFL does is so critical. On the national stage, we are engaging law-makers, seeking out those willing to file legislation to promote bilingualism and multi-lingualism in America, encouraging statewide promotion for early language programs, and advocating for state supervisors for languages. And while all of this is important, I argue that the classroom teacher is the lynch pin to successful language advocacy in this country. I want all language teachers in America (including teachers of Latin and ancient Greek) to believe in what they are doing as well as to believe in their ability to bring about positive change with their craft.
Real language advocacy begins in the classroom with what we give and teach and show our students every day. And what do we show them? Every day, we show our students how to be open-minded, how to listen to people, even people with whom we might disagree so that we can find common ground; everyday, we show our students humility, that there is often more than one way to approach a situation or solve a problem; we show our students how to be inclusive and how not to see ourselves in isolation from the rest of the world; we show our students how to be critical thinkers and risk-takers, developing skills which they will be able to apply to rest of their lives. And what is the result? Our students come to be scholars and life-long learners, to lead informed lives, to respect knowledge for its own sake, to go beyond a shallow understanding of the world, and to seek the truth – for only then can we come to recognize what is good and beautiful when we see it, and even fight for it when we have to.
From your vantage point, how can we emphasize the relevance of Classics today?
As the sole Latin teacher in my district, I am somewhat of an island. Of course, this is not unusual. As the exclusive representative of the “classics” in my district, I have found that my program is only as strong as my ability to forge meaningful connections with the community at large. I recognize that it is a gift to enjoy the support of my school and central administration, without which I would not have been able to build what I would argue is an exceptional and competitive program. I attribute much of the success of the program to the fact that at the beginning of my tenure, I was given the resources, time, and encouragement to create a curriculum which balanced the traditional with the new and far-fetched. But the students themselves are my best advertisement for our program, and I always try to find ways to harness their humor and channel their Latin exhibitionism in constructive ways. Each year, students have come to embrace a series of events and projects in which they can take their knowledge of Latin to the people, so to speak, and perform for a wider audience beyond the traditional classroom setting.
Our program has become such a feature of our school community that our principal at freshman orientation frequently talks about seeing Latin students chanting through the hallways, hosting chariot, gladiator, or wedding reenactments, or killing Caesar with pop-up performances in the library. For nine years now, Latin IV and I crash other classes on the final day before December break and sing Christmas music at people (based on our talent level, I wouldn’t say “to people”) entirely in Latin. This year, Grinch and Meli Kalikimaka were crowd favorites, although last year, the theme was a Frozen sing along. Instead of the traditional set of “Jingle Bells” / “Tinniunt” and “Rudolph” / “Reno erat Rudolphus”, we concocted a medley in which we created original Latin for “Frozen Heart” / “Gelidum (cordem) Rumpe”, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” / “Faciamus simulacrum (nivale)”, “Fixer Upper” / “Meliorandus”, and, of course, “Let it Go.” My Latin IV students and I were honored to find that our caroling was included in the official list of school end-of-year events alongside performances by the Music Honor Society. Taking these risks in my first years at Westwood have paid great dividends, and now our Latin performances have become a district-wide expectation. At a recent conference, I gave a featured three hour workshop entitled “Discipuli tui programma (sive curriculum) vendant: Latin projects beyond the classroom.” I’m delighted to share what we do! Just remember, when taking your program to the community, TU POTES FACERE QUIDQUID VELIS, TANTUMMODO LATINE FACIENDUM EST.
How should we challenge our students most importantly?
Language instruction is the vehicle by which we should challenge our students to think critically, to act rationally, to argue persuasively, and so see themselves as part of a greater global community. It is my firm belief that the study of foreign languages in the U.S. should never be viewed as an elective. Students may choose the language that they wish to study, but the study of a language should not be a choice. It is the principal window through which we experience and interact with other cultures, including ancient ones, and it is essential for the future success of all students in this country. The study of Latin and ancient Greek, just like modern languages, is a part of that. To value language education is to value education itself. America’s future success is tied to language learning.
What simple message would you have go out to us, your colleagues?
I like to think that I have a good sense of humor, and while I take teaching very seriously, I do not take myself seriously at all – these are difficult things to impart to other teachers, but to my mind, they really are essential to longevity. If I am ever asked to give advice to foreign language teachers, especially new ones, I pretty much stick to the following points: We can hardly expect our students to take risks with language if we aren’t willing to do so ourselves. New teachers give themselves too hard a time. I remember feeling that my classes were mediocre at best throughout my first year in high school (I made the transition from teaching in college to high school after receiving my Ph.D.), and I was encouraged to observe the master teachers in the district. One social studies teacher put it to me best that year: “Rather than think about what went wrong, instead think about what went well – ‘What were my successes today?’” This seems simple, but the thinking behind it can really be profound. By focusing on what went well and trying to replicate it, I survived and ended up thriving during the three-year period in which new teachers often find themselves flailing about and leaving the profession entirely. My advice? Don’t sweat the small stuff, and a rule is not a rule unless you are willing to enforce it every time. Focus on what is going well, be honest and equitable with your students, build relationships of trust upon reasonable freedom and choice, and model being patient with yourself. Otherwise, how can we expect our students to be?
Dr. Edward “Ted” Zarrow lives with his family in Boston, MA. He earned his Ph.D. in Classics and ancient history from Yale in 2007, and he has been teaching Latin at Westwood High School, a public school in the greater-Boston area, for nine years.

More from the CANE blog

Latin Dictionary Game

In a day with a shortened schedule and students missing, one of my favorite games to play is a variation of the Dictionary Game or

Thursday Resource: Doodle

If you need to figure out a date among a group of people, like which day is best for Latin club to meet or when

L.A.R.P. in the Classroom

L.A.R.P. stands for “Live Action Role Playing.” It may sound odd, but chances are good that if you’ve ever run a classroom you have asked